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Extract from The Silver Hand


We carried the body of Meldryn Mawr down from high Findargad to be buried in the Hill of Kings. Three horses pulled the wagon: a red and a white to draw the bier, and a black to lead them. I walked at the head of the dark horse, guiding the great king’s body to its rest.

Six warriors walked on either side of the bier. The horses’ hooves and the wagon’s wheels were wrapped with rags, likewise the spears and shields of the warriors. The Llwyddi followed, each man, woman, and child carrying an unlit torch.

Burial of a king has been observed in this way from time past remembering. The wheels and hooves are muffled, so that the bier may pass silently through the land; the weapons are covered and the torches unlit so that no eye will mark the passing procession. Secrecy and silence are maintained so that the grave mound will never be discovered and desecrated by an enemy.

As night drew its cloak of stars across the sky, we arrived at Glyn Du, a narrow valley tributary to the Vale of Modornn. The funeral procession entered the black glen, moving beside the still, dark water. The deep-folded valley was darker even than the sky above, which still glimmered in blue twilight. The grave mound loomed on its hill as a mass of thick-gathered shadow.

At the foot of Cnoc Righ, the Hill of Kings, I kindled a small fire to light the torches. As the people took their places, forming two long lines on either side of the path leading up the hill to the entrance of the cairn, the flame was passed from torch to torch. This is the Aryant Ol, the radiant way along which a king is carried to the tomb. When the people had assembled, I began the funeral rite, saying: “The sword I bear on my thigh was a wall, high and strong—the bane of marauding enemies! Now it is broken.

“The torc I bear in my hand was a light of keen judgment—the beacon of right-wise favor shining from the far-off hill. Now it is extinguished.

“The shield I bear on my shoulders was a platter of plenty in the hall of honor—the sustenance of heroes. Now it is riven, and the hand that upheld it is cold.

“The pale white corpse will soon be covered, under earth and blue stones: Woe my heart, the king is dead.

“The pale white corpse will soon be covered, amidst earth and oak: Woe my heart, the Ruler of Clans is slain.

“The pale white corpse will soon be covered, under the greensward in the tumulus:Woe my heart, Prydain’s chieftain will join his fathers in the Hero Mound.

“Men of Prydain! Fall on your faces. Grief has overtaken you. The Day of Strife has dawned! Great the grief, sharp the sorrow. No glad songs will be sung in the land, only songs of mourning. Let all men make bitter lament. The Pillar of Prydain is shattered. The Hall of Tribes has no roof. The Eagle of Findargad is gone. The Boar of Sycharth is no more. The Great King, the Golden King, Meldryn Mawr is murdered. The Day of Strife has dawned!

“Bitter the day of birth, for death is its companion. Yet, though life be cold and cruel, we are not without a last consolation. For to die in one world is to be born into another. Let all men hear and remember!”

So saying, I turned to the warriors at the bier and commanded them. The horses were unhitched; the wagon was raised and its wheel removed. The warriors then lifted the bier shoulder high and began to walk slowly toward the cairn, passing between the double line of torches, moving slowly up the radiant way to the grave mound.

As the bier passed, I took my place behind it and began the “Lament for a Fallen Champion,” singing softly, slowly, allowing the words to fall like tears into the silence of the glen. Unlike other laments, this one is sung without the harp. It is sung by the Chief Bard and, although I had never sung it, I knew it well.

It is a strong song, full of bitterness and wrath at the way in which the champion’s life has been cut short and his people deprived of his valor and the shelter of his shield. I sang the lament, my voice rising full and free, filling the night with harsh and barren sorrow. There is no comfort in this song; it sings the coldness of the tomb, the obscenity of corruption, and the emptiness, waste, and futility of death. I sang the bitterness of loss and the aching loneliness of grief. I sang it all, driving my words hard and biting them between my teeth.

The people wept. And I wept, too, as up and up the Aryant Ol and slowly, slowly we approached the burial cairn. The song moved to its end: a single rising note becoming a sharp, savage scream. This represents the rage of the life cruelly cut short.

My voice rose to the final note, growing, expanding, filling the night with its accusation. My lungs burned, my throat ached; I thought my heart would burst with the effort. The ragged scream burst and faltered in the air, dying at its height. A truncated echo resounded along the sides of Glyn Du and flew up into the starry void—a spear hurled into the eye pit of night.

The warriors bearing the king’s body halted at the sound. Strength left their hands, and the bier pitched and swayed. For an instant I thought they would drop the body, but they staggered, steadied themselves, and slowly raised the bier once more. It was a dreadful, pitiful moment, speaking more forcefully than the words of my lament the anguish and heartbreak of our loss.

The bearers moved to the entrance of the cairn, where they paused while two men with torches went ahead of them into the tomb. The bier entered the grave mound next, and I followed. The interior was lined with stone niches, small chambers containing the bones of Prydain kings whose shields covered the openings.

Meldryn’s body was laid in the center of the cairn, on its bier, and the warriors saluted their king, each man touching the back of his hand to his forehead, honoring Meldryn Mawr for the last time. Then they began filing out one by one. I lingered long, looking upon the face of the lord I had loved and served. Ashen white, sunken-cheeked, and hollow-eyed, pale his brow, pale like bone, but high and fair. Even in death it was a noble countenance.

I considered the shields of other kings on the walls of the cairn: other kings of other times, each a lord of renown who had ruled Prydain in his turn. Now Meldryn Mawr, the Great Golden King, had relinquished the seat of power. Who was worthy to take his place?

I was the last to leave, consigning the king’s body to its long sleep. One day, when death’s handmaidens had finished their work, I would return to gather the bones and place them in one of the empty niches. For now, however, I bade Meldryn Mawr a final farewell and stepped from the cairn. Passing slowly down the shimmering pathway of the Aryant Ol, I raised my voice in the “Queen’s Lament.”

As I sang, the women joined in, blending their willowy voices with mine. There is a measure of solace in the song, and as I sang I became the Chief Bard in more than name only. For I sang and saw the life of the song born in my people; I saw them take strength and sustenance from its beauty. I saw them live in the song, and I thought: Tonight I grasp Ollathir’s staff, and I am worthy. I am worthy to be the bard of a great people. But who is worthy to be our king?

Gazing upon the faces of all those gathered on the slopes of the Cnoc Righ, I wondered who among them could wear the torc Meldryn Mawr had left behind.Who could wear the oak-leaf crown? There were good men among us, fine and strong, chieftains who could lead in battle—but a king is more than a war leader.

Who is worthy to be king? I thought. Ollathir, my teacher and my guide, what would you have me do? Speak to me, old friend, as you did in former times. Give your filidh benefit of your sage wisdom. I wait on your word, Wise Counselor. Instruct me in the way that I should go . . .

But Ollathir was dead, like so many of Prydain’s proud sons, his voice but an echo fading in the memory. Alas, his awen had passed out of this worlds-realm, and I must find my way alone. Very well, I thought, turning to my task at last. I am a bard, and I can do all that a true bard can do.

I placed a fold of my cloak over my head and raised my staff high. “Son of Tegvan, son of Teithi, son of Talaryant, a bard and the son of bards, I am Tegid Tathal. Listen to me!”

I spoke boldly, knowing there were some who would rather I remained silent. “Most mournful of men am I, for the lord who upheld me has been wickedly killed. Meldryn Mawr is dead. And I see nothing before me but death and darkness. Our shining son is stolen from us. Our king lies stiff and cold in his turf house, and treachery sits in the place of honor.

“It is the Day of Strife! Let all men look to the edge of the sword for their protection. The Paradise War is begun; the sound of warfare will be heard in the land as Ludd and Nudd battle one another for the kingship of Albion.”

“Doomsayer!” Meldron shouted, thrusting his way through the crowd. He had dressed himself in his father’s clothing—siarc, breecs, and buskins of crimson edged in gold. He wore Meldryn Mawr’s gold knife and belt of gold discs fine as fish scales. And, as if this were not enough, he had bound back his tawny hair that everyone might see the king’s golden torc around his throat.

My words had found their mark. Meldron was angry. His jaw bulged and his eyes glinted like chips of flint in the torchlight. Siawn Hy, Meldron’s champion, sleekly dark and smooth-faced, followed at his lord’s right hand.

“Tegid is confused. Pay him no heed,” Meldron cried. “He does not know what he is saying.”

The Llwyddi murmured uncertainly, and Meldron rounded on me. “Why are you doing this, bard? Why must you persist in frightening everyone? We have enough to do without listening to all this careless talk of yours.”

“I see that you are busy indeed,” I replied, facing him squarely. “Busy stealing Meldryn Mawr’s belt and torc. But do not think that by wearing your father’s clothing you will take his place.”

“No one talks to the king this way, bard!” snapped Siawn Hy, thrusting himself closer. “Watch your tongue, or lose it.”

“He is no bard,” Meldron said. “He is nothing but a doomsayer!”

The prince laughed abruptly and loudly, waving me aside with a flick of his hand. “Go your way, Tegid Tathal. I have had a bellyful of your meddling. Neither you nor your spiteful tongue are wanted here. We do not need you anymore.”

Siawn Hy smiled thinly. “It seems you are no longer useful to the king, bard. Perhaps your service would receive greater esteem elsewhere.”

Anger leapt like a flame within me. “Meldron is not the king,” I reminded them. “I alone hold the kingship; it is mine to give as I choose.”

“And I hold the Singing Stones!” Meldron bawled. “No man can stand against me now.”

His boast brought a murmur of approval from many standing near. It became clear to me how he had managed to gull his followers and to work Llew’s inspired achievement to his own advantage. He had claimed the gathered fragments of the song-bearing stones and had made of them a talisman of power.

“Your courage is misplaced,” I told them. “The Song of Albion is not a weapon.”

Siawn’s sword flicked out, the blade a streak in the shimmering torchlight. He leaned close and pressed the point against my throat. “We have other weapons,” he hissed, his breath hot in my face. His threat was rash and reckless. The people surged around us, uncertain which way to go. Attacking a bard before his people could only bring disaster. But Meldron, with his heavy-handed authority— backed by Siawn Hy and the Wolf Pack—had them cowed. They did not know whom to believe anymore, or whom to trust.

I regarded Siawn Hy with icy contempt. “Kill me now,” I taunted. “For Meldron will never be king.”

Siawn forced the sword point deeper. I could feel his strength gathering behind the point. The blade bit into my flesh. I gripped my staff and made ready to strike.

A voice cried out from the crowd. “Look!” Another shouted. “The cairn!”

Siawn’s eyes shifted to the grave mound. Surprise replaced malice and the blade faltered.

I glanced toward the hilltop. In the torchlight I saw something move inside the cairn. A trick of fickle light, I thought; a flicker of flame, the smoke swirl from the upraised torches. I made to turn away but saw it again . . . something up there . . . moving in the darkness . . .

As we strained forward, all saw the form of a man emerging from the cairn.

A woman cried: “It is the king!”

“The king!” the people gasped. “The king lives!”

A tremor of fear and wonder shivered through the host.

In truth, I thought it was the king returned to life. But the thought vanished at once. It was not Meldryn Mawr struggling back to life. The man stepped from the grave mound, straightened, and began striding down the Hill of Kings toward us. I caught the golden glint of the champion’s ring on his finger.

“Llew!” I shouted. “It is Llew! Llew has returned!”

The name of Llew rippled through the gathered throng. “Llew . . . it is Llew . . . Do you see him? Llew!”

Truly, the Otherworld traveler had returned. The Llwyddi melted before him, forming a shining path as he passed among them. He looked neither right nor left, but advanced with resolute steps down the hillside.

I watched him and saw how the sight of him both astonished and heartened the people: they hailed him; hands stretched to touch him; torches were lofted before him. “Llew! Llew!” they shouted; how easily his name leapt to the tongue.

I watched him striding down from the Kings’ Hill on the radiant way, and I thought to myself: On this frame the Swift Sure Hand may yet stitch a king.