Honestly, it’s not as though there’s a narrow window of opportunity, either. But I’ve got a decent excuse this week in that I’m full of cold and, an unrelated problem, am seeing double with my right eye. There’s something VERY unpleasant about not being able to see properly. Very unpleasant and very scary when one relies on ones eyes as a reader, writer, reviewer, artist and general admin dogsbody at work. Yuk. I hope it sorts itself out soon.
Meanwhile, if you’ve come here for a bit of fiction I don’t want you to feel let down so here’s rather more than six sentences of A Fierce Reaping.
It’s deep winter and the men of the warband are restive. A few weeks ago Gwion punched Moried in the mouth, now Moried is looking for some payback.
Cynfal was rocking in time to the music of Gwion’s harp and singing along lustily trying to drown out Aeddan’s equally loud but more random efforts. It was a short while before they realised that the music had stopped and that the singing in one part of the hall had turned into shocked shouts.
Cynfal didn’t need to ask the question. It was running from lip to lip around the hall. Men were on their feet, craning their necks. As usual of their party it was Aeddan who had to know. He stood, his hand on Cynfal’s shoulder to steady himself, and stretched to see.
“Damn,” he said. “Moried’s squaring up to that harper of yours.” He was still having problems saying Gwion’s name.
Another phrase was running about the hall, hissed this time in tones of derision, shock and horror depending on the man who repeated it.
Aeddan sat down abruptly. “Why would he do that?” he asked, lips twisted with distaste.
“What?” Cynfal demanded.
“Moried cut the harpstrings. Said that since he had nothing sensible to say Gwion might as well be truely voiceless for the night. Even Hyfaidd looked a bit shocked until Gwion invited Moried outside to discuss it. Now he’s grinning and laying bets.”
Cynfal got up and craned his neck but it was hard to see over the heads and round the shoulders. From further up the hall he heard the rumble of voices, a shout of laughter, Moried’s clear voice, though he could not make out the words.
Then men stilled and silenced and Cynfal heard the King.
“This is most distressing,” he said, his calm old voice carrying clearly in the hush. “Moried – returning insult for insult is of no benefit to anyone, even though, as I heard it, Gwion merely replied to your chafing with one ill-considered if well aimed blow. To cut his strings while he was playing has caused injury as well as insult. I see no reason why you should not be allowed to settle your differences but not in the hall, if you please. There is no room. Take your fight outside. Hyfaidd, a word, please. Cynon, Ceredig – I trust you will see that there are no fatalities and that the conflict does not spread. Hear me all. This is a personal matter between Gwion and Moried. Nobody else is to get involved.”
Well fed and half full of mead, it wasn’t to be expected that the men of Gododdin would forgo the entertainment of a fight, especially if it was between two men that they generally considered to be less warriors than – truth to tell – lapdogs.
Cynfal had heard nothing but praise for Llif, and Gwion had been part of that legend – his devoted and loving sheild bearer, singing praises to his lover. Alone, Gwion was a discarded plaything. Moried, though having the reputation of a soldier, fulfilled some of the same function for Hyfaidd, only with the edge of his sharp tongue instead of the beauty of his verses.
“I wonder which,” Gwenabwy demanded as they piled out of the hall, “will burst into tears and cry for his mother first?”
“Moried hates Gwion,” someone whispered. “You watch – he’ll be aiming for his hands.”
“My money’s on the harper,” another shouted. “These half men can be vicious creatures.”
Cynfal forced his way through them trying to find a place from which he could see. Butting his shoulders into gaps he made a path for Aeddan and the rest of his bothy to follow until they reached the edge of a space and were halted by Tudfwlch who was standing with his arms spread.
“Stand,” he called. “Leave them space.”
Cynfal defeated the efforts of someone to pull him back with a well placed elbow and dug in his heels to push back against the men who were pressing forward. The crowd spilled out sideways from the doors, spreading along the side of the hall at the direction of Tudfwlch, Cynon and Ceredig. Hyfaidd and his friends stepped past them into a space of their own and a boy set down a stool for Hyfaidd before being sent to fetch mead. Cynfal was aware of this while craning his neck to try and find Gwion.
Moried stepped out arms raised as his supporters cheered and those who, like Cynfal, thought he was a shit jeered. Gwion’s reception was quieter. He took no notice of the heaving press of men around him but strode into the centre of the space that had been left for them and turned to Moried. There was blood on his face, probably the injury Marro had mentioned, most probably caused by the lash of a broken harpstring. A thin trickle ran down from his hairline and widened across the cheekbone where he had wiped at it. There was a murmur at that. At one time drawing the blood of a bard had been punishable by death and it was still ill-omened. Gwion had shed his cloak and stood looking thin and cold with the icy wind plastering his shirt to his chest. His face was white under the smear of blood, but Cynfal felt that was more from cold than fear. Obviously some kind of arrangement had been reached because Moried reached for and was passed two staves. He weighed them in his hands and made his selection, tossing the other to Gwion who fumbled the catch. Moried smirked.
As Gwion stooped to pick it up, Hyfaidd shouted “Begin!” and Moried brought the staff down with a thwack across Gwion’s shoulders, driving him to one knee. Gwion grunted, blocked the next blow with his forearm and brought his own staff up in a vicious swipe that caught Moried across the knee.
Both hurt, both scowling they moved a little apart, Gwion light on his feet, Moried limping on the left.
“No killing blows,” Ceredig bellowed. “And I for one would prefer it if there could be only minor injuries too.”
Moried nodded but Gwion didn’t acknowledge Ceredig. His eyes were fixed on Moried who began to move crabwise, circling, waiting for an opportunity.
Cynfal bit his lip. He knew what he would do to upset a harper like Gwion and sure enough after a moment, Moried rapped sharply at Gwion’s knuckles with the end of his staff. Such a blow could break fingers and if it had struck Cynfal was sure it would have. Gwion jerked his hand aside. He made a wild sweep at Moried’s legs then jerked back from a jab to his face.
“Get on with it,” Hyfaidd bellowed, annoyed at the cautious exchange of attacks.
“I don’t want it to be over too fast,” Moried replied, pitching his voice so it would carry. “I want everyone to see this. I want everyone to admire Gwion’s grace, his fine footwork, that nice tight little arse. Maybe then he’ll be able to find someone else to fill it.”
Cynfal groaned as Gwion snarled and stepped forward again, right into a cracking blow across his ribs. He gasped and Moried laughed as he stumbled back out of range.
“That’s it,” Hyfaidd said. “Now Gwion. Come on. You’ve just been called a heifer in front of the whole of the company. Are you going to fight back or just snivel about it?”
Gwion ducked his head and took a couple of paces back. For a moment Cynfal thought he was retreating, giving ground, surrendering, but he was buying space to give himself time to look to Cynon.
Cynon was glaring at Moried but when Gwion caught his eye he gave a sharp nod.
Permission, then. Cynfal took a deep breath and let out the hound yelp used by troop three. Other men took it up and Cynfal shouted Gwion’s name. Gwion’s head came up and he altered his grip on the stave.
Moried snorted and stepped forward, staff beginning a sweep. Gwion parried, the two lengths of wood coming together with a crack. The butt whistled round to thud into Moried’s knee again. Moried stumbled, using the end of the stave to steady himself, then struck back. A vicious thrust to the groin. But Gwion was already in the air, bounding high over Moried’s staff, his own lodged against the stone. Long legs extended to thud into Moried’s chest. Moried staggered back dropping his staff, and Gwion followed him down. He landed on Moried’s chest with one knee against his belly and the staff across his throat grinding down to stifle and crush.
“Yield.” His lips formed the word, but Cynfal had no doubt that Moried heard them. Purpling as he gasped for breath, he could not reply but held up both hands in surrender.