Of Hawks and Falcons

A month at sea, a narrow-keeled sloop built for smuggling and evasion. Cabins for the crew and salt-leather tarpaulin shelters for steerage passengers. Soft-singing at night off darkened coastlines, light squalls in the daytime, sudden summer fog and parched days of cerulean hue. The days blurred into one long moment of anticipation and fear-mingled dread at disappointment and lonely revelation. Just a song … remember, it might be no more than just a song.
The eagle circles crying to the spirits of the air

And the brindled wolves stand howling for the loss and pain they bear

The winter wind sings sorrow to the leaves it carries past

But who will cry the coronach for the women of Caer Glas?

Gwalchmai had paid for a cabin and thought the price well spent. Privacy, of a sort, time for personal thoughts and dreams and hopes and expectations to merge. The singer named Alaine of Gray had brought the song to Estragales in the springtime; Gwalchmai had listened, unbelieving, moved and spellbound by the name and hope that rose like summer-dawn against a backdrop of night.

It could be true … well couldn’t it? He had no way of knowing the fate of the remainder of the fleet from Caer Glas. No way to know if the maelstrom had spared others where his own ship had perished in the brutal storm-tide ocean.

And hope, what else? Just hope, hope that separates the living from the dead, the towers of heaven from the pits of hell, the valorous from the craven, the true from those who are false. And feeds lovers, yes, that perhaps most of all.

A song sung in memory of a dead land. Commissioned by a woman killed years ago at the hand of an assassin, composed by the Chief Bard of Albion, the Lady Ceridwen, (herself slain in Avalon, within the domains of the Lions). Three deaths, the old tales warn, three deaths foretold and the circle is complete. Could life exist beyond the boundary of this one?

The skies weep for the fallen, but the answer never comes

And memories of slaughter rise in sword and fire and drums

And children wake from nightmares though remembrances fade fast

But who will cry the coronach for the children of Caer Glas?

Hard awake, from a violent dream of violent times; Gwalchmai feels the sweat cooling upon his breast and brow and ponders the memories dissolving with the wan light of distant stars…

… Caer Glas, the rebellion, a skirmish – one of many, Meudwy’s light infantry and the Sherburn Volunteers against Morghun irregulars. Storm-clouds in the sky, angry men rushing like maddened wolves in the press of battle. Cut with the edge – feel the blunt impact of mail in a dull shock beyond the guise of pain. Thrust with the point, flesh-parting, soft agony your gift to the life of a foeman. Push, push forwards, an impact of a heavy body neither alive nor dead – you spin around, and the bloody surf parts beyond your stumbling progress. Shield up (splintered) sword forward (buckled and dull), you trip again, lunge thoughtlessly, another widow made, another long life consigned to the worms. A moment’s grace – a long moment to survey the pattern of destruction and the dark beauty of slaughter. Step back to safety part of your mind orders, calmly, the tactician. Out on the left a man lies half prone, shield broken and legs unsteady, a corpse already but he doesn’t know it – the dragon troops are advancing, their line is strong and their black hearts know resolve. His hair is long and red, knotted for battle, his eyes aren’t afraid though, his gaze is a lurid taunt, a mirror to the blood-soaked tabard and triple-spear device upon his chest. The tactician is shamed, the heart is pumping liquid fire, shield up and forward, sword swinging (no lunge! you fool! Meudwy shouts) and suddenly betwixt friend and foe confusion reigns. A sharp-blunt impact to the shoulder, a froth of spittle from a foeman? A curse and a groan as sword’s buckled-edge breaks the jawbone and nose of a Morghun spearman. The red-haired man is up and fighting, but now the dragon wave breaks close around and blows without end fall close and quick and deadly. Panic, fear, isolation, stark horror, a press of hated foes so close to pin the broken shield down painfully across a jagged forearm cut. Die well, a voice murmurs (not your own you swear it) turn away (to run?) a blade descending from a dragon arm, too late to block, too fast and too well aimed. Then deliverance, the red-haired man (recovered now) returns the favour, his sword cutting the muscles driving the biting blade downwards – a weak impact, your mail turns the cut with naught but another blackening bruise and unseen battlefield contusion. For moments you fight side by side (fear-slipping away with loneliness) admiring the rise and fall of two swords in a deadly dance, then, a dozen more swords and men besides are there, the dragon line is falling back, your relief is replaced by bravado, a shout comes unbidden and taunts of victory go crashing like levin bolts to the backs of the retreating foemen.

In his cabin Gwalchmai can sleep no more, his mind dipping in wild circles, the dream so vivid, the details once-forgotten, now remembered, a favour for a favour, a life for a life, no name exchanged, no recognition, how many small miracles are conceived in war and strife? How many bargains without coin or barter? How many heroes made and lost in the passing of scant moments of blood and fleeting impulse?

A week on, and now the coast of Albion looms close and glorious, emerald-green and clear like the vision of the holiest of days. A country of verdant hillsides and shady groves, of clear golden sand and rocky inlets – is it a place of refuge?

And inland now, away from the ship and the port and the taverns. Of the songsmith and her distant fate Gwalchmai learns only that Ceridwen died poorly and uselessly during the fall of Avalon with other non-combatants seemingly sacrificed to cover the escape of nobleborn Lions and their courtiers. Of the lament itself; the tale was told that it was paid for with the gold of a vampyre-maid risen to avenge her own slaughter. That it was sung thrice by Ceridwen; once for one already dead, once for a condemned lord about to die, and last, for prophesy, and the foretelling of a death to come. A foretelling made in Ely, an ancient settlement on the shores of an ancient body of water at the fork in a mighty river.

Gwalchmai smiled despite himself, thinking back to the words of the Gweneddyn druids at his seventh name day; a threefold gift is the inheritance of the people under the eyes of the old gods of Caer Glas – his own had been simple,
… a curse for the day the moon rides the mist, a blessing for the day when the river forks upstream, mixed are the favours of the unseen host and the house of little faith …
And here was a fork in the river to dwarf the brooks and murmuring sleepy streams of Caer Glas – words of comfort but alas, just words …

The warriors prepare themselves to fight, for fight they surely must

Though words are now their weaponry and swords are left to rust

While Dragons shout their innocence to all that chance to pass

But who will cry the coronach for the eldest of Caer Glas?

And words availed the kindly druids of Gweneddyn very little when the Morghun irregulars came, dying with soundless dignity, the knife and sickle carving flesh still living to placate the hungry Danuite goddess, scarlet blood stains the rocks again, the land is unsurprised …

“Hold there!”
A voice rings out from the road ahead, startling Gwalchmai from his sorrowful reverie. In counterpoint to the echo; a flock of birds rises abruptly from the treetops to the sky, their dark wings beating fast towards the sun, a portentous sight worthy of deeper poetic contemplation were it not for the more immediate matter of a troop of armoured men marching with earnest discipline from the surrounding treeline.

From the centre of the military line rises a battle standard of a Lion and Falcon; blue and black entwined, the Lion proud and rampant, the Falcon’s wingtips spread and beak twisted in abeyance.

Gwalchmai waits and stands, uncertain of who these men serve, watchful of their bearing and their purpose. His curiosity is soon answered, as the commander raises a hand aloft (and without making eye contact) speaks boldly to a point somewhere to the left and behind of Gwalchmai’s puzzled attention.

“We seek the lives of those traitors denied execution by mischance and strange adventure.”

Gwalchmai continues to stand motionless, still waiting.

The commander now looks abruptly into his captive’s eyes,
“I can see their tracks are fresh and the signs are clear, tell me what I wish to know or I will have you hung in compensation for my disappointment!”

A release of tension, Gwalchmai, smoothly draws steel and advances a step towards the nameless officer. His progress is blocked by a dozen blades and quickly he is disarmed, beaten to the back of the legs with the butt of a pike, and dazed into half-conscious nausea by a subsequent blow to the side of the head.

Overseeing a pair of soldiers preparing the promised noose, the commander looks back to Gwalchmai with an expressionless face of leathery malice,
“Tell me where the bastard and his illegitimate whore are hiding and I will spare your life!”

Amusement at the ridiculous nature of the officer’s demands threatens to undermine the gravity of the situation for Gwalchmai; coughing and stumbling, he is dragged closer to the waiting noose and try as he might he cannot frame an appropriate reply for the presence of the last verse of Ceridwen’s song running insanely through his mind;

And now we live on foreign soil; our home across the sea

With nothing to take comfort in but this small victory:

That still we stand, and still we strive and still again we ask:

Who will cry the coronach for the forgotten of Caer Glas?

A touch of the noose, but Gwalchmai has seen something his captors have not: A line of new shields, rising from the forest verge, a formation of men moving silently into position.

“Not a difficult question to answer”,
a voice rings loudly from behind the would-be executioner,
“at least, not when one has the advantage of a certain … encompassing perspective.”

The newcomers move swiftly to approach the lynching party, and from the trees appears a man in mail and cloth dyed dark-blue and sable with the device of a falcon.

“I am Lord Robert Falcon, I suggest you leave this innocent be, at least while we settle our dispute between ourselves.”

“By no means Sir, perhaps a hostage will turn the odds further in my favour?”

Gwalchmai, now clearer of head, takes the opportunity to relieve a hangman of his dagger with a swift grab, (and returns it to him with a punch-thrust to the throat). Backing clear from the slain man and surrounding force of lion-falcons, he moves to stand close to those men-at-arms surcoated with simple falcon heraldry.

“If you had wished me as an ally gallows-lord, you would have done well to court me first with kinder words than you thought to speak!”

The fight which follows is swift, brutal, but ultimately, indecisive. Lord Robert Falcon’s men are outnumbered but highly motivated and well trained, they also make the best of the element of surprise, striking hard and deep to confuse and disrupt the lion-falcon line, pressing hard to prevent a rally or progressive reformation. In the press of skirmish Gwalchmai is careful to avoid exposing himself to unguarded attack, his coat of mail is packed for travelling, his body lightly-armoured and vulnerable to the least unseen blow. Moving quickly, he darts in and out of the clashing lines, striking fast here, tipping the odds, there, enjoying the violence of the moment and the clarity of life and death struggle. And then in the fray, a familiar face, care-lined by years, the red-haired warrior from the dream – a momentary flash of recognition and a sense of unseen movement and the laughter of fate. A wave, half-salute, the man has seen him, Gwalchmai smiles and kills as he smiles. Lord Robert Falcon’s men are getting by far the best of the skirmish and it seems the Lord himself is not afraid to risk his skin beside the rest. The same can hardly be said of the Gallow’s Lord, for seeing the way the wind has changed he cries out the order to retreat and flee.

As suddenly as it began the violence is ended; a half-dozen foemen are on the ground, some dead, some still breathing, and of the falcon knights – wounds aplenty but none slain outright by first glance … a fortunate day. Gwalchmai breathes thanks to Lyr and Cartimandua, and to gods once revered by the ancestors of his people.

A hand extended and a welcoming smile from a familiar face, Gwalchmai returns the gesture and clasps hand to forearm in the manner of his people.

“You seem a lucky talisman to me red-hair, twice now it is that my life be preserved in your presence, you have my thanks, and gratitude also to your Lord.”

“Marcus, Marcus de Bracey, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance formally master … ?”

“Gwalchmai … ah, Gwalchmai de Beomarise, a pleasure to breath fine air in the sun with fortunate company Sir Marcus.”

Relaxed, Gwalchmai stands easy now, Marcus de Bracey is a reassuring sight, the Sherburn company was many things, but knew no false warriors in its midst. And dreams, after all, reveal far more than the waking mind of unseen matters and subtle influence.

Lord Robert Falcon finishes checking his wounded followers, and satisfied that none are in close danger, now approaches the man he rescued.

“My apologies Sir, it appears you have been caught unwittingly in a private conflict.”

“No need, Lord Falcon, my thanks for your intervention, a fortunate appearance indeed.”

“My Lord”,
Sir Marcus interjects,
“This man is known to me by past association and the virtue of common-cause, I vouch for his name and for his honour.”

Lord Falcon looks from his sworn man to Gwalchmai, noting the cloak of chequered plaid, the ornate belt, the harness and blade in the Cymrijian style.

“Then it seems Sir, I would be remiss indeed, should I not offer our hospitality and welcome.”

“I accept with thanks and pleasure Lord Falcon, it is a time since I broke my bread and fast in the company of noble fighting men. I pledge myself to honour your hospitality and the safety of your hearth.”

“Indeed, then be a welcome guest of honour”,
Lord Falcon concludes with a smile and a wave of command for his men to prepare for departure, the worse-wounded supported by their able-bodied comrades-at-arms.

In the hours that follow Sir Marcus speaks of Gwalchmai and Caer Glas and of the Sherburn Volunteers to those who would listen, while Lord Falcon speaks to Gwalchmai of matters pertaining to House Falcon, of it’s own circumstances of exile and mischance, of its hopes for the future and faith in the kindness of ancestors and the reward of faith.

Gwalchmai listens and through listening comes a little understanding and a sense of fair consequence;
… a blessing for the day when the river forks upstream …
He smiles to himself, remembering the golden days of youth, the laughter and twinkling eyes of a beloved companion. Called by a song of the thrice dead, to a land of coincidence and favourable meeting – a future holds promise again – Sir red-hair, no, Sir Marcus now, a man who preserved life is a strong and powerful omen of fortune.

Gwalchmai walks a while in silence, gazing at the land of Albion in summer, feeling energy and promise and hope united. And yearning, but not the hiraeth a dros, the ennui for the fallen land, but the more human desire for a love long denied, a cherished memory seeking birth anew in the present.

“Tell me, Lord Falcon, have you these past weeks heard aught of a Bard named Ceridwen, a queen named Mair, or of a place where exiles dwell and a golden fawn reflects the sunlight in her laughing eyes?”

Lord Robert looks confused, but Gwalchmai quickly smiles.

“No matter, Lord, I believe our meeting was well-omened and that by aiding your people my questions will be answered in kind. My sword is yours to command if the cause be just. Tonight I will sing for your court and ask if might the origin of the song from those who hear the words – who knows, perhaps both our questions will be answered…”