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The eagle of Eli, loud his cry:
He has swallowed fresh drink,
Heart-blood of Cynddylan fair!
I dreamed of the eagles long before they came swooping down from their cloudy crags. They blackened the sky, the wind from their wings lifting my hair as they circled, talons extended, before settling on the field of death to feast upon the corpses of my brothers.
Too torn for tears, I waded through my slaughtered kin while pain ripped my heart like a dagger and then I saw Cynddylan’s fallen standard and my step faltered. As the smoke cleared I saw him staring blindly into the blemished sky, his torso twisted, his neck broke, his mouth gaping. And when I saw him there the world turned dark around me.
I knelt in his blood and tried to close the yawning wound upon his chest but I was too late, he was gone and I was to blame. All of my kindred were lost and the Kingdom of Pengwern was shattered. Only I was left, alone. I threw back my head, unprotected beneath the vast and empty sky and screamed a protest to the vengeful gods.
When I woke in the morning and found myself safe in my furs, I flung back the covers to run outside. My playmates tumbled as usual beneath a kindly summer sky while the women spun yarn in the shade of the alder trees. Putting up a hand, I shielded my eyes from the sun and saw my brother’s hounds come bounding to meet me. They leapt up, trying to lick my face but I pushed them away and looked around for my brother.
The King of Pengwern was striding across the enclosure with an arm about his companion. ‘Cynddylan,’ I called and ran to tell him of my terrible dream but he was intent on the affairs of men and, waved me away. He would not listen.
I was just nine summers old then and, as I grew to womanhood, the dream faded and I forgot all about it. It was many years later, on the cusp of a great battle, when I heard again the far off cry of the wheeling eagles, that I remembered my dream and knew what was to come.
October 644 AD
It all began on the day that my sister Ffreur and I first saw the singer of songs. He came in after supper and filled my brother’s hall with his sweet music. The company were entranced, King and commoner alike, and even the dogs ceased worrying their fleas to listen as his voice flowed smooth, like nectar, drowning us all in his honeyed lies.
He was a golden man, his hair burnished by the leaping torches and a beard, the colour of bees wax, curled thick upon his chin. He stood by the hearth, the flames of the fire licking his Midas hair and he bewitched us all. I was just a girl, my heart as yet untouched by the beauty of men, but the words of his song filtered deep into my soul and kindled something warm and dangerous in the depths of my belly.
When his song ceased we were all so lost in his art that it took a little time for the murmur of applause to grow. We sat up and looked at eachother, blinking in surprise at finding ourselves back in the familiar hall. And then my brother, Cynwraith, the first to recover from the player’s spell, rose from his seat and clapped him on the back before leading him to the high table. The handsome poet sat among the men of my kin, flushed and laughing while his platter was piled with food and his mead cup filled to the brim. The singer of songs had found favour with the great King of Pengwern and his future was secured.
Beside me Ffreur clasped her hands across her stomach, her eyes as bright as the torches, missing nothing. She nudged me sharply in the ribs and laughed at me but I tossed back my hair and ignored her.
‘Heledd,’ she hissed, ‘stop it; your mouth is open. You are almost drooling.’
I closed my lips and wriggled in my seat, the heat of the fire suddenly too great. I wanted to know his name and longed for him to notice me and, as I picked up a piece of mutton, I glanced at him through my lashes and pondered how to get closer to him.
When his appetite was sated Cynddylan requested another song and the stranger took his place before the top table again. Every inch of me tingled with anticipation and I sat up straighter, with my chin on my hands and prepared to be enchanted again. The hall fell silent and even the children ceased their noisy games to sit cross legged on the floor to listen.
He picked up his harp and ran long, white fingers across the strings before his voice engulfed us, ebbing and flowing like clear water over pebbles, turning my skin to gooseflesh.
It was The Song of Urien Rheged. I had heard it a thousand times but never before had it sounded so good. This singer put his soul into his singing so that the lyrics made my heart pump long and slow and my blood run thick in my veins. It was agonising to listen to him, as if he knew my deepest, darkest secrets and was about to spill them over the floor. Invisible ties connected us, almost as if he had strung his harp with my heartstrings. It was not something I was strong enough to fight and so I sank my chin in my palm and closed my eyes, blocking the tears as I let his voice caress me and take me where it pleased.
By the time he noticed me I was familiar with every contour of his face and knew intimately how his hair curled into his neck, the strength of his jaw, the sensuous curve of his mouth and the softness of his smile. Then, quite astonishingly, his eyes fell upon me and I felt my heart leap like a deer in the forest. For a moment, he stilled, held fast in my gaze before he continued his song. His fine features mesmerised me, the crowd in the hall seemed to drift away leaving the singer and I alone in the firelight, his words and his music exclusively mine. And when the magic ended again and he bowed his head ever so slightly in my direction, I bent my own head in return and I was sure that I saw him close one eye.
I had been prepared since birth for a political marriage and, as the eldest Princess of Pengwern, I had always known that my heart was not my own to give. But on that night, while the autumn winds howled about the hall and blew small yellow leaves in beneath the lofty door, I forgot who I was. Without a second’s thought I dismissed my family and my royal obligation and gave my heart to a singer of songs.
About the Book
The Song of Heledd is based on a collection of 9th century Welsh poetry entitled Canu Heledd. The poem, although written in the 9th century is set in the 7th and tells the story of the downfall of Pengwern, a region in ancient Powys that once stretched into Shropshire.
The poem is a lament for a lost dynasty, the Dogfeiling, King Cynddylan in particular and the thing that marks the poem as unusual is that it is narrated by a woman, Heledd. Heledd not only mourns the deaths of her brothers and her people but feels responsible for the fate that befell them. The fragmentary state of the poem means that we will never know whether that guilt is justified and, as usual, history does not adequately record the actions of women. The poem however shows that Heledd may have been instrumental in the downfall of her brother's kingdom, she is a devoted sister whose grief is great, she is forced to wander unprotected through the countryside in search of sanctuary and legend has it that Heledd ended her days in Gwent where a small church, St Illytyd's was once dedicated to her memory. Why this church should have been dedicated to her or how she came to be regarded as a saint is a mystery but a good mystery is something novelists love.
In the novel I have filled in the gaps left by the 9th century poet to resurrect Heledd's family and rebuild her world. The Song of Heledd is a love story, an adventure and a tragedy. Below is a translation of a snippet of the poem; i have only put a short excerpt as it is quite extensive and repetitive. Beneath the poem is a teaser from my novel The Song of Heledd, I hope you enjoy it.
The Hall of Cyndylan is dark
To-night, without fire, without bed!
I’ll weep a while, afterwards I shall be silent.
The Hall of Cyndylan is dark
To-night, without fire, without candle!
Except God, who will give me patience?
The Hall of Cyndylan is dark
To-night, without fire, without light,
Let there come spreading silence around thee!
The Hall of Cyndylan! dark
Its roof, after the fair assemblage!
Alas! it makes not well its end!