Aneirin, son of Llewellyn, stood a respectful two paces behind his prince. Prince Owain looked out eastward over the fort’s ramparts, tracing the sinuous silver of the river as it meandered through the marshes and finally entered the great estuary. Aneirin, followed his glance and spoke:
‘No ships today, Prince.’
Both men knew that merchant ships no longer sailed up the river: pirates had destroyed all trade along the coast. The only ships that now appeared were the ships of the barbarians, ships bent on pillage or conquest. Another day without ships meant another day, not of peace, but of respite in the last fortress of the Manaw Gododdin, the last fortress of the tribe.
A distant clamour could be heard, growing steadily in intensity, a clamour that signalled the departure of the wild geese. The two men turned their eyes to the north. Already on the northern horizon, the geese were a creeping dark cloud, spreading southward till they overhung the fortress like a flung cloak. The noise grew in intensity till it drowned out all but shouted speech. Innumerable geese smeared the entire sky. The two men watched in silence as the cloud of geese slowly dwindled to a scatter of fluid skeins and, across the meres and marshes below them, the clamour shrank to a murmur.
‘An ill omen, Aneirin. Even the geese are deserting us.’
Aneirin weighed the young prince in the balance and found him wanting: the sunken shoulders, the bitten nails, the wispy beard. Too many already had read defeat in Owain’s face and frame. Even Owain’s young queen had departed to her father’s stronghold of Alt Clut in Strathclyde. In the three years since Owain’s predecessor, his uncle, had been slain in the siege and massacre at Din Eidyn, Owain’s warriors and war chest had dwindled to a tithe of that previously held by his uncle. The Gododdin were slipping away in twos and threes and fours, slipping away to a vagabond life in the West.
The grizzled old warrior, almost as a reflex, sought to bolster the confidence of his lord: ‘I see no ill omen, sire. I see a supplement to our meagre meat. A skein of birds broke away and flew down to the summer meadow. I shall send Meurig and Math down there at dusk with full quivers.’
But even as he spoke, he was silently reflecting on the fluctuating fortunes of fighting men. As a mere boy, Aneirin was War-Duke Arthur’s standard-bearer when the barbarians were routed at the fords of the River Glen, a victory that brought twenty years of peace and feasting. As a warrior in his pomp, he rode with the three hundred heroes from Din Eidyn to confront the barbarian army at Catraeth, and rode back to Din Eidyn almost alone. Almost alone, he had lived to tell the tale of the three hundred, but as the years passed and the defeats multiplied, he sometimes regretted that he too had not ended his life at Catraeth.
Aneirin’s reflections were cut short. He caught sight of a horseman approaching the East Gate. No, not a horseman after all, but a boy on a farm nag. Without waiting for Owain’s dismissal, Aneirin clattered briskly down to the ladder to the gate and was the first man to catch the nag’s bridle.
The boy seemed to recognise Aneirin and addressed him rather Owain, now descending the ladder:
‘Aneirin, son of Llewellyn, I have a message from my father, Howell of Clach na Manaw. He told me to tell you that five pirate vessels could be seen from the shore at Clach na Manaw, heading up the estuary. My father says our people will scatter the cattle on the hills then hide themselves in the wood.’
As Aneirin turned away, the boy blurted out: ‘There is more Aneirin: just after I left the village, I looked back and I saw that the pirate ships had changed tack and were now heading straight for Clach na Manaw.’
Aneirin nodded: ‘Well done, boy. Take your horse to stables and get yourself some food from the kitchens.’
Owain came up and spoke quietly to Aneirin: ‘So that smoke we spotted on the eastern horizon awhile since…?’
‘Yes, sire. Not charcoal burners in the wood of Clach na Manaw, but the village itself.’
Owain chewed his lip: ‘Five pirate ships adds up to a force of over a hundred men. Too strong a force for us to defeat in the open field. What will the pirates do, Aneirin? Will they march westward and invest the fort, marauding as they go?’
‘Perhaps, my Lord. They may drive our people before them, knowing that the extra mouths will soon exhaust our cellars.’
‘What should we do, Aneirin?’
‘Better a warrior’s death on the battlefield, than a slow death in a siege, my Lord. And a small cavalry force, with the element of surprise, could scatter a large force of foot-soldiers, as Arthur scattered them at the fords of the Gleni River.’
Owain sneered: ‘No more of your Arthur stories, I beg you, Aneirin. I cannot leave the fort unmanned. Take twenty men and horses and scatter the barbarians, if you can, before they scatter us.’
Aneirin paused and stared: was Owain aware that to take forty men might secure a victory, but that to pit a mere twenty men against a hundred was to condemn the twenty to death? Owain turned and walked away. Aneirin watched him go: the last prince of the Manaw Gododdin.
Three hours later, at twilight, Aneirin and his small troop rode into the village of Clach na Manaw. The pirates had already departed to their ships with their spoils – household goods, some domestic geese, the priest’s vestments and a gold cross. The smouldering ruins of the huts encircled the great Clach itself, the ancient Gathering Stone of the Manaw Gododdin – the symbol of the tribe. Aneirin dragged the decapitated goose from off the top of the stone, but did not wipe away the blood and shit with which the pirates had besmirched the stone.
Howell, the leading man of the village, stood beside the ruins of his own hut, watching Aneirin. Aneirin rode slowly over to him: ‘I am sorry for your trouble, Howell, son of Madoc. I’m afraid, the Prince does not have men enough to protect the whole coastline of Manaw.’
Howell ignored this gentle apology. He nodded towards the stone: ‘We shall not clean the stone. Let it remain bloodied to show the world that the story of the Manaw Gododdin is ended. When the boy returns with the horse, we shall follow the others into Strathclyde. The charity of strangers must serve us better than the protection of Prince Owain. What of you, Aneirin, son of Llewellyn?’
Aneirin had not made up his mind until that moment: ‘I too shall go into the West, once I have taken a last leave of my Lord.’
‘Will you join the warriors at Alt Clut? Your fame will surely win you admittance.’
‘No, Howell. The head still sees the stroke, but the limbs creak with age. And you are wrong that the story of the Manaw Gododdin is ended. Rather, the story has not yet been told. I shall go into the West to tell the story of our greatest battle, the battle of the three hundred heroes at Catraeth.’
‘Our greatest battle? You were there, Aneirin. Surely, Catraeth was our greatest defeat?’
‘All tribes, in the final end, must face defeat, Howell, even the tribe of the Romans. The story of the ride to Catraeth is the story of the manner of a defeat. That is a story worth the telling.