They slipped out of Viroconium soon after dawn, through the tangle of bushes around the South Gate. Two thin quiet figures, one carrying a hen in a green willow basket, the other with a bundle on his back and a sword at his belt.
They waded across the Sabrina river, cautious not to slip on the wet stones at the ford. The water was shallow, but cold already, with the promise of winter coming. Looking back, Owain noticed that you could no longer see the white walls of the old city. The lime-wash had begun to fade, anyway, but from here beside the river, young hazel trees springing up hid the walls entirely.
Only in the distance, standing tall against the blush of the morning sky, the long dark wave-lift of the Virocon showed that this place had once been the city of Kyndylan the Fair.
They followed the old double-track Roman road cautiously across the wide lowlands, walking warily and speaking softly, ready to duck into the trees. There might, officially, be peace on the border now, but neither Owain nor Regina knew how real that peace would be, here in this land that had been Kyndylan’s. Twice they came to places where thin grey trails of hearth-smoke announced the presence of living farms, and turned aside, finding a way along deer-trails through the hazel-woods. The farms might be Saxon, or they might be British, here on the Western shore of the Sabrina river, and there was no knowing if either would be friendly to wandering strangers. It was safest not to take the risk.
At first they took turns to carry the little brown hen, until they realised that it was easier to walk with her slung between them, one hand each on the handle of the green willow basket that Owain had woven from thin slips of willow.
The sun slipped down into the West and the shadows of trees were long. The warmth was gone from the autumn sun and a small cold wind stirred the yellow leaves of the hazel trees.
Owain was just thinking that it was time to find a sheltered spot to stop for the night when Regina started, her grey eyes suddenly wide.
“What was that?” she said in a low voice.
Owain lifted his head, listening as they walked, “I can’t hear anything. Could it have been a deer running?”
“No, it’s something else. Almost like... music. Isn’t it?”
“It’s only the wind in the trees,” Owain said, narrowing his eyes against the setting sun.
“Perhaps...” she sounded unsure.
A few steps more and there was no doubt. The clear rippling notes of a harp sounded through the rustling sound of wind in the bushes, and there by the road ahead, sitting on one of the old wayside milestones, was the harper, a short man bent over a small travelling harp. The low sun, streaming bright through a gap in the trees, was behind him, and it caught in his pale hair, but it was impossible to see his face. The harp music spread around him like a net of shimmering gold. Behind him a fine grey horse cropped the grass.
Regina froze. “It is one of the Fair People. Let us not go any closer.”
Owain squinted against the golden light. “It is not. “ he said, with more confidence than he felt. “It’s only a man. The sun is not setting yet.”
The man turned and saw them, and he stood up, still holding the harp. Owain put his hand on the hilt of his sword. He was sure - almost sure - that this was just a man, but that did not mean he was a friend. In any case, the Fair People were none too fond of cold steel, from all he had heard.
“Well met, my friends! And who are you, walking along this ghost of a road, like a pair of ghosts yourselves?” He spoke in the British tongue, and his voice was rich and strong. As he stepped towards them, Owain could see that his clothes that had been rich were now well-worn, but gold glinted in the warm evening light upon the neck of the harp, and on the hilt of the sword at the man’s side.
“God’s greeting to you,” he said, cautiously. Regina said nothing, but he could see the tension running through her like a bowstring pulled tight. She was poised to run. “Should the challenger not first name himself?”
The man laughed, loud and long. “And God’s greeting to you, cautious one!
Thou hast naught to fear;
Remembering the names of the Trinity,
None shall be able to harm thee,” he sang, drawing two fingers across the harp so that it sang with him, and stepping closer.
Now they could see his face, and Owain could see he did not have the pale golden hair of the Fair People. He was just an old man with a blunt worn face, surrounded by waving white hair. But his voice when he sang was like polished bronze.
“I dare swear, you look more like two of the Tylwyth Teg than I do myself, so thin and wan you are. You could both blow on the wind like thistledown... And still the thin man has his hand to his sword, and the thin woman looks at me with eyes like starlight on the sea on a still night...”
He stepped back and deliberately held the hand that was not holding the harp out and open, a disarming gesture.
“I am not one of the Fair Folk,” he said “But it is most important for a bard to seem a little touched by mystery, so I thank you for your doubts! I will take the gamble and entrust to you my name. It is Taliesin. I am here seeking Cynan Garwyn, king of Powys. Have you seen him?”
“Owain,” said Owain, abruptly deciding that despite the fine words this was just an ordinary man of the daylight world after all, “And this is Regina. No, we’ve not seen any Cynon Garwyn.”
The older man looked disheartened. He picked up a leather bag that had been lying on the ground by the milestone, and began to wrap the harp in it, carefully but absently, as if from long practice. “I went to Cynan’s capital at Pengwern,” he said, “But they told me there that he had ridden South. So here I am, riding after him, and very elusive he is proving, unfortunately.”
“What do you want him for?” Regina asked.
“I’m seeking a new lord,” Taliesin told her. “Somewhat old for it at my age, but it’s that or a monastery, and I am no monk.”
“What do you need a lord for?”
Taliesin’s bristling eyebrows went up. “What an interesting question. To protect me from enemies, to give me gifts generously, I hope. To shelter me and be the subject of my songs until I fail in old age, of course!”
“The Lord of Viroconium did nothing for me, and then he died. I’d rather be without any of them,” Regina told him in her clear, light voice.
“You would fly free like the nightingale, is that it? But what does the nightingale do when winter bites?”
“She makes a burrow of her own and sleeps there warm and safe till the spring comes, with no need for any lord or master.”
Owain found a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Regina had taken to this stranger, he could tell. That was why she was going to the trouble of arguing with him.
It came to him then, that he had never seen Regina speak to any other person. They had lived together for months in Viriconium, had travelled alone, had talked of so many things, just the two of them. But here she was, talking to this chance-met traveller, and here he was watching her, and it was a new thing and wonderful.
“I met Gerontius, prince of Powys once, before the battle at Wodensbeorg,” he said, when a pause came. “But I never saw him again after that.”
Taliesin looked interested “That would be Cynon’s... nephew, I think. You fought at Wodensbeorg? We heard a little of that fight, in the North... though we’ve been busy enough with our own battles for the most part.”
Taliesin squinted West at the hills, just visible over the yellowing oak-leaves which still clung to the trees near the road. The sun had dipped, colouring the hilltops golden with the last light, and the long blue shadows reached out . “It seems I shall be spending another night on the road, for lack of more congenial accommodation. Would you care to share my fire? The light is going already. I’d be glad of the company.”
Owain hesitated. “We’ve little food to share,” he said cautiously.
“But I do: I got plentiful supplies in Pengwern. I can spare some cheese and barley-bannock in return for your company.”
“Thank you,” Regina said and smiled at him, before Owain could think to refuse, a smile surrounded by prickles, like a bramble flower.
They found a place to camp not much further on, in a sheep-nibbled clearing in the trees near the road. Owain lit a fire, then he went off to set a couple of snares before the light went, hoping for a hare in the morning. While Regina watched over the little brown hen pecking in the grass, Taliesin saw to his horse.
“She’s a very fine old mare,” Owain said, as he came back to the fire, because she was. Taller than most of the shaggy ponies you saw, with a wise and gentle face. Regina had collected a handful of the long grass that grew along the roadside and was offering it to the mare one stem at a time. The mare nibbled at her palm delicately, without snatching.
Taliesin smiled, giving the mare’s long neck a final pat, then rummaging in his saddle-bag for bannocks and cheese. “So she should be,” he said over his shoulder “She’s descended from the horses that the Emperor Artos bred for his Companions, when the world was young, they say. That’s why she’s so tall.”
“Tall enough to carry a man in armour. That’s what they were bred for,” Owain went on, almost without thinking. “I remember my father telling me. They brought them by ship across from Gaul to Dumnonia, and bred and trained them up on the horse-runs in the hills near Deva.”
And somehow, after all this time, it was possible to say again casually, to this chance-met stranger ‘my father told me’.
“Really? I never heard that. Bringing horses all the way from Gaul? It seems incredible.”
“My great great grandfather was one of the Companions of Artos,” Owain said. It was a long time since he had said that to anyone, and yet, he had been so proud of it once, long ago, when Kyndylan the Fair himself had greeted his father by name, before they rode south to Aquae Sulis and defeat.
“Truly? Which one?”
“Flavian. My father was named after him.”
“You never told me that!” Regina said, eating bannock and cheese hungrily. “Is he famous?”
“Artos’s Flavian? I suppose so. Not like Cei or Bedwyr or Gwalchmai, but still, my father was very proud of it. But afterwards... it didn’t seem important. They’re all dead, after all, and all their victories were for nothing, in the end.”
Taliesin made a sudden intake of breath. “Not for nothing, surely? Is it nothing to be the inspiration for songs and to be remembered across the four quarters of the Isle of Britain?”
“I don’t know,” Owain said wryly. “Maybe the old battles were different. But I think they wanted victory more than songs.”
“But how if it is the songs that will one day inspire men to achieve the victory?” Taliesin asked him, and Owain had no answer to that.
Regina said, practically, “We have a bag of hazel-nuts here, from the trees that grow around Viroconium. Would you like some?”
Taliesin took some and they sat cracking nuts and throwing the shells into the fire for a while. Then he brought out his harp again, and now he ran his fingers delicately along the strings, which shone in the firelight.
“I and the horse have grown old together. And now here we are, on one last adventure... Urien of Rheged gave her to me, years ago.”
“King Urien of Rheged? I’ve heard of him. There’s some song...” Owain tried to remember where he had heard it. In Kent, perhaps, it had been.
“I’m glad to hear it, for I’ve written more than enough songs for Urien. It’s good to know they are heard even in the South,” He ran his fingers down the harp strings, making a fine ripple of sound, as if at the start of a song in a lord’s hall. But he let the sound fade into the autumn night without going on. “But now he’s gone. Urien is gone, slain by treachery, Urien’s son Owain, the hope of his people, has fallen in battle - and the great kingdom of Rheged is no more. And so I seek Cynon Garwyn in Powys. A bard must have a lord. But I’ll miss Urien. He was a good friend, as well as a generous lord.”
“I’m sorry,” Regina said, seriously.
“I thought you had no time for lords?” Taliesin said, looking sideways at her in the firelight.
“I don’t. But I know how hard it is to lose a friend.”
“Hard it is indeed. But his memory will live on. I’ve made sure of that, at least. That’s why a lord must have a bard, so his honour will be celebrated, and his renown won in battle will endure through the years.”
Owain prodded the fire with a stick. “I don’t remember much honour or renown at Wodensbeorg. Or at the battle outside Aquae Sulis, for that matter. That was my first battle: I was a boy with a knife. My older brother Ossian, he had a sword, but he was only a boy too, really... I got a blow to the head, and when I woke up, everyone I knew was dead. Having ancestors who were heroes might sound fine in a song, but it doesn’t help much, when you are wearing a Saxon thrall-ring.”
“I suppose not.” Taliesin gave him a sharp sideways look across the fire “But you escaped?”
Owain shook his head. “No. I had sold myself, you see. They did not take me prisoner." He saw Taliesin's face change, and added hastily, "Regina got ill. It was the only way that I could find to get help for her; It was the only thing that I could do. So it was my bargain to make, and I could not run away from it, you see.”
Regina, sitting next to him with her feet curled under her against the evening chill, made a small, exasperated noise. Regina, Owain thought, would most certainly have run away. Regina would never understand why Owain had taken so many years to come back and find her, but she had forgiven him for it, and that was enough.
“Beornwulf freed me in the end. I saved his life -- a shipwreck-- so he gave me back my life in return.”
“And the sword?” Taliesin asked.
Owain looked down at it on the grass next to him, and traced the shape of the small four-petalled flowers embossed on the linden-wood hilt with a fingertip.
“I worked an extra winter to get this. When Beornwulf offered my my freedom, the word was out that a hosting would be called the next spring, against Ceawlin of Wessex. It was Ceawlin we fought outside Aquae Sulis, and Ceawlin’s army who came raiding up this road to Viroconium, burning and stealing as they went. I asked Beornwulf for a sword, and said that in return I would work for him through that extra winter. And then I went to Wodensbeorg for revenge.”
“And did you get it?” Taliesin asked lightly.
Owain shook his head, with half a laugh. “No. Not really. I was with the attack on the main gate, but I never saw Ceawlin or his sons at all. It was Gerontius and the men of the Cymru who took the rear gate by surprise, and opened the way into the fortress. But it was good to know that Ceawlin was a hunted fox through the furze -- and better than good to know that there is a frontier now, and both British and Saxon fought to put it there.”
“For a while,” Taliesin said.
“For a while,” Owain agreed. “But perhaps a while is enough. There’s a Saxon family on the South Coast now, that I count my friends. I’ve sworn the oath of brotherhood with a mob of pagan Saxon warriors, and they did not hate me, or me them. I’ve said a prayer in a Christian church in the very heart of Jutish Cantiisburg - and there’s a true frontier at last along the Sabrina river. There’s a dawn wind stirring at last in Britain.”
Taliesin looked at him, a long measuring look. “I hope you’re right,” he said. “But I can’t feel it. Urien was killed by an assassin, a man sent by his own fellow countryman, who owed him allegiance. Then the pagan Firestealer’s Angles seized the chance to rise against his son, and now there are Angles all over Rheged, burning and thieving and taking the land for their own. I wish I could feel your dawn wind, Owain, but all I can see in Britain yet is smoke and screaming and the memory of a bright past.”
“I’m sorry for that,” Owain said, and he wished that he had the fine words of Einon Hen, to explain what he meant to Taliesin, whose world had ended in Rheged, as Owain’s had by Aquae Sulis.
“The only hope lies in a strong king who can hold our people together against the dark,” Taliesin said, and he stroked the harpstrings and called out a handful of clear notes that reminded Owain of a distant horn calling. They hurt the heart, the sound of them, and he remembered the Red Dragon of Artos, flying over the battle at Wodensbeorg.
But Owain remembered Beornwulf’s eyes as he was dying, and his voice asking Owain to stand as a kinsman by his son’s side. He remembered Athelis’s pale face, hearing that Beornwulf was dead, and saw Lilla, wishing him the Sun and Moon on his path. Saxon faces, but that was not the only important thing about them.
“It’s not all darkness,” he said, certain. “We’ve lost so much, but... you can look backwards, or you can look forwards. And the gap between us, it might not be so wide, one day.”
And Regina said, “She was kind to me, Aldgyth, the old mistress. Kinder than anyone in Viroconium ever was,” and with a rush of thanks, Owain knew that Regina at least understood.
They woke early, to a cold grey dawn filtering through high clouds and the sound of birdsong. Regina let the hen out of her basket again, to forage for worms and beetles before they set off.
Taliesin flung his saddle over his horse’s back with an effort, and began to adjust the girth, but he turned when Owain came back with the snares, carrying a fat hare.
“Are you still set on going to this farm you spoke of, that belongs to the potter of Glevum?”
“If I can find it, yes,” Owain replied. “It was a long time ago, but they were kind people. I know they will welcome us.”
“And if not, you will build a hut on a hillside for yourself and Regina, and live as a peasant? It would be a lonely life, and hard. Your father was summoned to war by his lord. He must have had land and people of his own to farm it.”
“Yes,” Owain said. He put the hare down on a stone, and began to gut it, it would be lighter to carry that way. “But we were never rich. And the Saxons came that way, eleven years ago. I doubt there would be anything left there now.”
“You did not go and look?”
“Would you go back to Rheged to see what was left among the ruins?”
“Well, perhaps not,” Taliesin admitted. “But Rheged is still burning. Here, there is peace for a little while. I imagine everything this side of the Sabrina river will fall under the rule of Powys now, including your father’s land. And Powys has never been defeated by the Saxons.
“Will you not come with me to Cynon Garwyn, and offer him your sword? The Saxons may have agreed a frontier, for a little while, but they will break their word: they always do. Cynon will surely be short of men. He’d welcome you for your name, too. The families of the Companions of Artos should not simply vanish into the hills and be forgotten.”
Owain hesitated, looking at Regina, who was trying to coax the hen back into her basket. She looked back at him with those wide grey eyes, and he thought how thin she was, even though winter had not yet come.
“Maybe,” he said at last. “Powys has never been defeated by the Saxons? Perhaps. But Powys has never fought the Saxons. If the men of Powys had come to our aid by Aquae Sulis, eleven years ago... But there’s no point in what-ifs.”
“Yes,” said Taliesin eagerly. “That was just what was the trouble in Rheged. Our countrymen, hanging onto grudges, when they should stand together.”
“No,” Owain decided. “I won’t come - at least, not now. If we cannot find Priscus and Priscilla, perhaps then. Or if the Saxons do attack again, across the Sabrina. Then, maybe, I’ll bring my sword to Cynon. But not now. Regina and I have waited long enough for peace.”
“Very well then,” Taliesin swung himself up into the saddle and looked down at them. “I wish you luck, Owain. But keep that sword sharp. You may need it yet.”