"A song of Arthur," says the Gwynedd bard. I watch the monk who sits at Mynyddawg's right knee lean just slightly forward. He is waiting for one of the old songs--- a song of gods, and magic, and the otherworld. He wants to whisper to Mynyddawg and have him stop it, so the Gwynedd men can see who rules in this hall. Not the chief who gifts them with bracelets, not the lady who pours out their mead, but cowl, and book, and rosary beads.
If he'd paid any attention to the last three songs, he wouldn't hope so much. I doubt the Gwynedd bard knows such songs even exist. His verse is bland, except for the phrases he's stolen from better poets and wedged in edgewise where they don't fit. Our own bard, Aneirin, sits in courteous silence. I watch him sidelong; he holds his cup to his lips every few lines, to hide a grin or a wince.
I know a song that would redden the monk's pale face with fury. But I am a girl, and a servant, and if I sang it, who would listen? Though the hall is built on the hill of Arthur's Seat, Mynyddawg is no Arthur to sit there.
He has feasted the lords of Gwynedd, and decked the warriors of Traprain with red gold till they jingle as they walk. Yet still, only three hundred mounted men will go with him. The people of Lloegyr are uncultured, but they can count higher than three hundred, and they are not scared of horses. I look across the hall, and the faces look distant to me, legends already and not living men. I think of how I will remember them to their loved ones, once they do not come back. Ceredig smiling at his neighbor's jest, Marchleu feeding his hound beneath the table. Three fillings of Prydwen, and but seven men to return.
Bradwen sits at the bottom of one of the tables, paired by cup and platter with a swordsman of Gwynedd who looks to have just turned thirteen. They've seated the least of them beside her. She is far from the least of us, but she is a woman, and I suspect the Gwynedd men intend the place as an insult. At least the boy won't mind being left alone for a while. I catch her eye and smile at her; she smiles back. A minute later, she slides up against the wall next to me.
"That is one of the Three Bad Singers of Britain," she says, and shakes her head ruefully. "Now name me the other two."
It's a game we have, but it takes me a minute to shake the fey mood from my head and summon up a witty answer.
"One is Morfran Ceridwen's son, who would have drunk the brew of poetry but did not. And the other is Cafall the hound of Arthur, when he bayed the Twrch Trwyth. I'd rather hear the dog, myself."
"Hah! Tell me a better story, and I'll help you wipe the cook pots in the morning."
I have the tale in my head already. Wanted or not, it's been pacing through my mind all evening. So I begin.
"On the last fair day of autumn, Arthur went hunting in the hills, and his war-band with him. And they started a great hart that fled through the forest, so quickly that they were all separated, and only Bedwyr could follow it. And Bedwyr pursued it till they came to the River Forth, and there it turned to bay and threw him from his horse and killed him.
And when Arthur came up to him, he wept bitterly, and said, "He was the best of my men, and it is a great misfortune to me that he is dead."
Now Cei said to him, "I have heard the Lord of Annwyfn keeps a cauldron, and the virtue of it is, that it can bring a slain man to life."
When he heard this, Arthur swore he would not sleep indoors until he had fared off to Annwyfn to fetch it. So though the autumn was fast fading, they made ready his ship Prydwen. And a hundred oarsmen sat at the benches, and a hundred archers stood at the gunwales, and a hundred spearmen lay in the ballast, and so they set sail.
And the next day came a fall of snow, and they struggled into it until the oarsmens' hands bled, and at last they came to a low island covered all in a rime of ice, so that it glittered under the weak winter sun like crystal.
Bradwen's face is rapt with attention. She is looking past me, into the flickering fire, and in her eyes I see the island, and the slick black stone at its center, fanged with a spiral of towers, and the oarsmen staggering ashore to be slaughtered.
"Don't go," I tell her.
She looks up. "Don't go where?"
"Catraeth. We're going to lose. There are too few of us."
She puts her hands on my shoulders. "I have to go. You know that."
"But I've seen---"
She nods, slowly. "I had feared so."
There's no expression on her face. The scar on her cheek lies smooth and flat. "I drank Mynyddawg's mead. I have no other choice."
"Of course you do," I say, shaking her arms from me. "Mead, gold, honor--- they're not real, Bradwen. They're just words."
"You're right, of course. I do have a choice. I choose this," she says, looking across the hall. The firelight shines in her red hair. She waves her hand at the piled spears, the men leant back drunkenly on the benches, the Worst Poet of Britain.
"I worked hard for this. It's mine."
"You could---" I begin, and stop short of a suggestion she'd resent.
She narrows her eyes at the monk in his robe. "He wants me in a nunnery, you know."
"I didn't." It makes a horrible kind of sense to me. I hate him.
"He asked Mynyddawg, last Christmastide, as a gift for the Saviour's birthday."
"How did you---?"
She touches her cheek. "I nearly died for him. He has to honor that."
"He's not worth dying for."
"We can't all have an Arthur."
In the story, of course, the men force their way up the icy slope to the fortress, and with every step they take, a ghostly watchman appears on the rampart, to hurl a spear and cut another one down. Finally the last few come to the locked door of the fort and call for the chamberlain to let them in. The Queen of Annwyfn throws them in prison, and then there are a series of labors and riddles and poetry contests... You're not supposed to think of the rest of the men, the ones who died on the way. They don't have names. They're not who the story is about.
I tell the rest of it, and I weep as I tell it. Midway through Bradwen reaches for my cold hands and warms them between hers, but she doesn't interrupt me. I'm supposed to sleep in the stables, but we curl up together in front of the dying fire. I watch it fade slowly, wood to ember, ember to ash.
In the morning, we scrub pots. The cauldron of the chief of Din Eidyn, what is its fashion? Black cast iron, with an old Roman maker's mark at the bottom. It boils food for most of us, cowards and warriors and that sniveling monk all together. It's a good, big pot and that's all it is.
When the dead die, they don't live again.
We scrub pots and feed horses and pack bags. Then Bradwen goes off to sit with a throng of hungover men and crack tired jokes and sharpen her sword. The next day they walk down the hill and take the road south. We stand on the hilltop watching them weave through the bright gold of the gorse and the dim gold of the barley. We turn back to our chores. It will be a month before they fight. It will be nearly three before we have news of them. The day the fight begins will be like any other day for us, until we hear.
Who can track the wind's course? Who can tell the speed of its onrush, whom it strikes and whom it spares? Who can count the heroes lost, the graves forgotten?
Bradwen is right, of course. She'd have made one of the Three Worst Nuns of Britain. It hurts to lose her, but that is for me to bear, not for her. When Aneirin comes back, six years later, starving and threadbare and blind, I'll sit beside him and hand up his harp. I'll whisper the names of the fallen to him: three fillings of Prydwen, and one more.