Roby James

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A Song of Awakening

Book One: Briana

"The English fight for power, the Welsh for liberty."

—Giraldus Cambrensis

Chapter One

Flint, Clwydd, Wales - 1269 A.D.


The breeze from the sea ruffled his hair. Ine, Bard of Dubhain, paused on the crest of the hill to admire the sweeping flatlands between him and the Dee estuary below. He glanced behind him to see how far ahead of the other two bards he was, picked them out of the trees more than half a mile back, and observed that they were moving well, if slowly. He slid from his shoulder the bag that held his harp, set it down beside the track, and sat cross-legged in the gently waving grass to wait for them.

He would not enter Flint proper without them.

Ine was twenty-two years old and just past his apprenticeship to the two old men with whom he was making this journey. The habit of respect for their gifts was deeply ingrained in him, and the love of music all three of them shared forged a bond among them breakable only by death. "And perhaps not even then," Myrrdin, Bard of Bangor, had said only the night before, by their small fire, for there were no inns or taverns this far to the north. "The dead constantly reach out to us. Why should we, in our turn, not reach out to you?"

Bertran, Bard of Poitou, nodded in agreement.

"All you've taught me is part of me," Ine said to them. "We none of us truly die while our songs live." Such sentiments worked best, Ine thought, in firelight, with the mysteries of night hovering about them.

Now, in the bright sunlight of a clear, crisp summer day, he looked down at the quiet seaward plain, the village, the unobtrusive manor house just beyond it. Unlike many men of his time, Ine's talent was not weapons; it was wonder, and now he wondered about the babe they had travelled here to see. That the other bards had come was not a surprise to him; they had spoken of the necessity to be at Flint at this time for many months past. So, despite their age, they had taken to the roads again—a place bards and minstrels, music-makers, spent much of their lives. These two were the best of their time. Ine was a different kind. He was, he knew, a small, unprepossessing man in an age that valued mystics or knights, where if the masculine ideal was not to be magic, then it would be large-muscled and wielding a sword. He had neither. All he had was the wonder.

"If you have great wonder in you at the world," Myrrdin had said a dozen years before to the ten-year-old child he was training, "then you can be a bard. If you can see small wonder in the things about you and still wish to play and sing, then you may make a minstrel. If you have none of wonder about you at all—" He had paused.

"Then what, master?" the boy Ine had asked. "A soldier? A farmer?"

Myrrdin shook his head. "Nay, there is wonder in the souls of even the simplest man. If you have none of wonder, then you can be an English king."

Seabirds wheeled inland from the estuary, crying mournfully. Ine shaded his eyes and looked up at them. He loved the natural music of their calls, but then that was the Celt in him.

For more than fifteen years Ine had studied to become a bard, learning the mastery and mystery of the twenty-stringed harp, and then the more difficult thirty-two-stringed harp without which he now felt incomplete. All nascent bards, minstrels, troubadours, and poets began with the same studies, but in one way Ine was unlike any other bard of his generation. He had been apprenticed to two masters.

His work had begun when he was six, and Myrrdin had come to Dubhain, in Ireland, to find him and bring him to Bangor, in Northeast Wales. By the time he was twelve, Ine had completed the preliminary studies and mastered both the English and Ogham alphabets, the rules of grammar, the rudimentary philosophy of singing, and fifty of the stories of his people. Then, instead of continuing his education in Bangor, Myrrdin had sent him to Poitiers, in France, to Bertran.

Bertran, Bard of Poitou, was the fourth of that name, descended directly from the first Bertran, who had learned and practiced his craft in the Courts of Love created by Eleanor of Aquitaine when she was Queen of France more than a hundred years earlier. Ine did not at first understand why he had to leave Bangor for France. There were so many more stories to learn, and he was beginning to feel the tug of inspiration that would lead him to create a song of his own, though he had never touched the will of the gods, as Myrrdin seemed to do daily. But Myrrdin was unmoved by his student's pleas. "I have seen the path your study must take you next," he said. "It leads to Poitou."

For the first year of his apprenticeship with Bertran, Ine still did not understand. True, the jongleur tradition was not one of stories of gods, heroes, and magic; the Courts of Love celebrated the much more human aspects of life, and the ways in which those humans aspired to be more than their ordinary limitations. Their stories were romances, sometimes narrative, sometimes seductive, sometimes metaphorical, but always celebrating love between man and woman above all else. Ine absorbed them quickly, curious about the importance of songs which did not arise from the very bones of the land.

Then, in Ine's fifteenth year, Bertran set out from Poitou to travel the roads of France, and Ine rapidly discovered two things: First, that the songs he sang of love were by far the ones these people wanted to hear, and second, that there was a great deal to be learned by playing in ensemble with other musicians.

The Celtic way was to play and sing the important songs alone. If more than one musician was present, they played in turn, sometimes even competing for purses and praise. If they played together, it was so that everyone could sing, and the songs were the easy ones, those which would not be insulted by many voices of dubious skill. In France, they played the important songs together—a lute, a viele, and an oliphant might combine to lay the foundation for the singing. More than one player often meant more than one talented singer, and Ine learned to appreciate the intricacies of polyphony, how music could simultaneously separate and combine, soar and sink, support as well as shine.

Clouds scudded over the sun and moved on eastward, momentarily dimming the afternoon. Ine glanced behind him again. The two old men had closed about half the distance toward him, still moving slowly, but without notable hesitations. The roads were hard when youth withdrew even the memory of its tendrils from a man's body. Bertran was more than sixty now, and Myrrdin older, perhaps by twenty years or more. It was as if his regular communing with the mysteries of Wales's own youth—of Arthur and Merlin before the church coopted their legend—kept him young, but not young enough for him to bring his harp with him. Ine was the only one who carried an instrument on this journey; the old men walked burdened solely by their individual infirmities.

Yet Ine never questioned their insistence on making the trip to Clwydd. "Forces gather at this place at this time," Myrrdin had said. "We will be at Flint when they touch it."

Ine looked at the quiet village again, the lazy flocks in the fields, the calm that the past four years of peace had brought to Northern Wales. Before that, there had been only the destruction that accompanied war, but since Prince Llewelyn coaxed King Henry of England to sign the Treaty of Montgomery, serenity had laid its gentle hand on the land, which welcomed it in beauty.

Ine let his mind drift again to the long journey of his training. He remembered his five years in France with affection, for he had learned there some of the music of the human body, as well as the music of the songs. Love was highly regarded in France, and there were artists of the flesh to rival the artistry of words and melody wrought by the poets. When Myrrdin sent for him, he prepared to leave Bertran with regret. He was astonished when Bertran said, "Please tell my friend I will join you by Michaelmas, so I will see you again, my young harper."

Ine was fully as surprised that Bertran would come to Wales as he had been that Myrrdin would send him to France. He accepted that there was a reason for it, and whatever the reason—and for the two years the three of them had spent together in Bangor, he never came near to discerning what that reason was—he was sure it was a good one.

The years were personally rich for him. He was surrounded by, immersed in, the best music of his age. Slowly, the last year or so, he had begun composing. He didn't think he was particularly good at it yet, but he did enjoy it. And at odd moments, sitting quietly like this in the sun and the breeze, he felt that someday he might be better at it than he was now. He didn't feel he could ever create the magic that Myrrdin did or work the enchantment of the ensemble that Bertran knew so intimately, but he might find a niche into which he could fit his composing. Sometimes, idly, he wondered what it would be. He wondered if it might be the life of Wales itself.

To a bard, Wales was the dream of an earthly beauty that the Courts of Love found in the joining of man and woman. Neither as green as Ireland across the water, nor as tamed as the England which joined it on the east, Wales was a land that the old gods had cherished; it entered the souls of its people and filled them with mystical longing, even as the world struggled to free itself from the mysteries of the gods. The Welsh people lived in partnership with their land, loving it, travelling over and through it, a part of its misty mornings and long, sunny afternoons, accepting of the hardships it often visited on them as the price of its richness.

In the West, the Isle of Anglesey rose like a fortress from the seas, rocky-edged and isolated, yet part of the mainland itself in a way no unimaginative person could have understood. In the Northeast, in places like Flint, the tidal flats gave views across land and water which drew the eye into infinity.

The cultivated lands of the East and South rolled gently westward, pocked by vales and forests, rivers and moorlands, until the land ran up against something obstructive and rose into the sky, creating the peaks around the hard place, the central height called Snowdon. This mountain reared high above the others, watchful, often cloud-shrouded, gathering into itself and its surrounds of forest, cliff, and narrow valley the guardianship of the Welsh dream.

The bards said the root of Snowdon was the taproot of the world's rocks, sunk down into the heart of the world. The songs of Snowdon were the most ancient songs, speaking of the guardian spirit, the wellspring of hope, the generator of courage, the sentinel of freedom. It was the center, the first child of the gods. No matter where he lived, in Wales or in exile—for any time away from Wales was considered that—a Welshman drew his strength from the heights of the mountain. A bard of the Celts, of which Myrrdin was the greatest and Ine currently the least, knew that all the old mysteries drew together in the land where Snowdon lay.

The European bards sang of love and adventure, Myrrdin had taught his apprentice, because they were too far from the skirts of the mountain, an area called Snowdonia, to breathe in the spirit. Even the Irish singers sang the newer tales with more truth than they did the older ones.

Ine was humbled by having been taken from Dubhain and made a part of the Welsh tradition. He was honored to learn the songs and stories, and more honored to sing them. While once he had thought he would never find a place he loved as much as the warm green of Dubhain he'd known in his earliest memories, Wales had invaded his being as he became the caretaker of her stories. Now there was nothing else in the world he could imagine doing.

Except that he could not, somehow, touch the currents of prophecy that Myrrdin bathed in whenever he chose. Ine never understood why his own lack of ability did not disturb Myrrdin in the slightest, why the older bard did not find it a disqualification from the work.

"There is seeing and seeing," Myrrdin said, unperturbed, when Ine reluctantly raised the question one day just before Bertran's arrival.

"Will I eventually be able to see?" Ine half-wanted to let the subject drop, but the answer was too important to him.

"Of course," Myrrdin said casually, as if the question were too inconsequential to merit much attention. "But what you come to see may be very different from what I have seen. Be patient."

Ine had waited two years longer now, and the need to remain patient was growing heavier and heavier. Still, while he waited, he sang and played and composed, and grew more confident in his craft. And all the while he wondered what nexus of forces Myrrdin could see, but Ine could not, especially now, especially here, on this particular day.

The older bards caught up to him and Ine got to his feet, picked up his harp. They stood for a few minutes on the hilltop in companionable silence, broken only by the far-off cries of the seabirds. Then they started down the hill toward Flint.

Coming in March 2011 from Norilana Books
Copyright © 2011 by Roby James

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Updated Friday February 25 2011