Shadows swirled overhead, as the light of the morning sun rose unsteadily to his feet, and eventually at full height, looked down upon the landscape and with his face turned downwards, beamed. He blushed in embarrassment at his ungainly rise, and tore at the shadows, allowing a sultry glow to illuminate the landscape.
A clammy breeze drifted along, but as it moved over the rolling hills and up towards the highest peak, the air cooled and almost gained a chilling bite. Just below the icy winds, and near a Hill Fort was one of the three enclosures that dominated the hilltops of the peninsular. The breeze was cool but not of a bitterness that dominated the upper echelons of the hills. The air drifted along a wooden palisade, caressing the timbers until it was able to rush through the entrance with determination, and which can be likened to the hare escaping the clutches of an eager fox.
As the zephyr rushed through the entrance it swirled in every direction, filing through the roundhouses that criss-crossed the enclosure. Wrapping and warping around the structures the air finally dwindled to stillness. Only the tiniest of breezes drifted in and out of the structures, like a sparrow darting around foliage to eventually gain the dizzying heights of the sky.
Outside the palisade were the fields of wheat and barley blowing in the wind, like a sea lapping at the shoreline. The vista was festooned with trinkets made of copper and tin, to bring good fortune to the harvests to come. For the time being the waves of barley and wheat were empty of labour, or of men plying their vigour to keep their family from hunger. This was day of celebration. A time to drink, eat and enjoy the company of the kin.
Acrid and cloying scents of wood smoke mixed with the sweet, and mouth-watering aroma of mutton turning upon a spit, this wafted throughout the settlement, heightening the anticipation of the food, which had yet to be eaten. The firedog that held the sheep’s carcass in place was adorned with bronze decorations, of horse and boar, intricately depicted.
The sounds of the quern stones grinding and grating against wheat created rough flour. Cauldrons over flickering flames, if listened carful, were heard to bubble away, like a base note in the melody of the settlement. The blaze of the cooking hearth danced and licked at the heated metal of the cauldrons, until a cherry glow could be observed. The smell of brine wafted from a number of cauldrons, as salted sides of pig were boiled. While a perfume of parsnips, cabbage and barley simmered away, giving the hearty promise of stew, and sliced through the unpleasant salty concoction.
Laughter could be heard, as men lazed around the roundhouses, joking, conversing, drinking beer and playing Artek Rhiau, a game of strategy consisting of stone counters, and commonly known as Stone Lords. The men were attired in brown or green warn woollen close fitting trousers, and upon their torsos lay long tunics of a variety of colours, from blues, greens and reds. Cloaks of sheepskin adorned their shoulders. All had cloak clasps of varying quality, most wore ones of Bronze, and the exceptions were decorated in either gold or silver. They were the settlements elders. The married men were garlanded in armbands of Bronze and at there belts a Iron single bladed knife hung sheathed in sheepskin, while those yet to be wedded wore armbands of Tin, and a knife of bronze.
Away from the impracticalness of the men, as the females of the settlement consistently observed, women went about their business and continued to prepare the feast that would celebrate the new union of man and woman that was soon to be. All their efforts were focused, and as such, idle gossip was rife. Their endless chattering becoming a counter point to the raucous laughter of the men. Creating a pleasant din of vitality and community spirit. The women were clothed in long ankle length tunics, which hid close fitting trousers, and of the same colour to the men’s garments. They also wore cloaks of sheepskin fixed in place by bronze clasps, and those who were married wore necklaces of Bronze, while the women yet to be wedded had ones of Copper. With the laughter of the men and the chatter of the women, an atmosphere of gladness and good cheer engulfed the settlement, as the ceremony was drawing near.
Outside one of the roadhouses sat a tall young man, his ruddy brown long hair being given a single braid by his Tadogi in readiness for the ceremony. He wore a blue long tunic over green trousers; a cloak of sheepskin fell from his shoulders, and was kept in place by decorated Bronze clasps. He had upon his belt a bronze bladed knife hafted in antler and sheathed in sheepskin. Upon his forearm was a band of Tin, which would soon be changed to Bronze. Around him was his Tras, his kin, and included the Tadogi, the brothers and uncles of his wife to be.
‘A single braid, or two, Lugus?’ asked Emyr, the Tadogi of the bride.
‘Just the one,’ Lugus replied, and moved away from his handiwork. He smiled at his son, ‘you will do, Llew. I’m proud of you on this day,’ and clasped the palm of his hand upon the young mans shoulders, and squeezed.
‘I am proud also,’ said Emyr, ‘I will welcome you with open hands to my Tras…’ and Emyr laughed with contentment, slapping Llew’s on the back, ‘…when you have beaten me at a game of Artek Rhiau.’
‘That shouldn’t be too hard, my son – anybody can beat Emyr, as he’s known to be the worst player in the whole settlement.’
Emyr’s sons got to their feet in mock anger, while Emyr bowed his head in self-ridiculing shame.
‘You are correct, Lugus, and it shames my Tras that I have such woeful skills in Artek Rhiau.’
Laughter echoed around the group, as a tall broad shouldered man garbed in a blue robe over brown trousers walked to stand beside Lugus.
‘You never change, Emyr, self-deprecating as you always was.’
Lugus and Emyr gave a short bow to the man, while the rest of the Tras went to their knees.
‘Welcome, Metal Magician Gofannon,’ Lugus and Emyr chorused.
‘Rise,’ commanded Gofannon, ‘and relax.’
Gofannon looked around and saw Llew, who was now standing in awe of him, and gave an inward smile.
‘Emyr and Lugus, I will give your son Llew a game of Artek Rhiau and test the lad in strategy and clear thought,’
The two Tadogi bowed again, while Llew gazed at the Metal Magician, startled at the attention. Llew couldn’t believe what was happening. It was enough that he was to marry Roisin, the Merch of Emyr, who was beautiful, as she was quick with her wit. It was astonishing. But something nagged at his mind. A foreboding. And now he was to play Artek Rhiau with a Metal Magician. There must be a catch? I can’t be this lucky in one day. He gawped at the man, who was broad and gave an aura of authority. Llew noticed, as he drank in the apparel of the man in his slack jawed gaze that on the magician’s left arm was a selection of metal bangles, of each metal that the magician was able to mould and smelt. There was Copper, Tin, Bronze, Iron, Silver and Gold. He wasn’t a beginner. The man was fully-fledged Metal Magician – A man of importance – and he felt even more nervous.
Gofannon gave an incline of the head to Llew and spread his hands towards the flat rock, which the wooden game board of Artek Rhiau and its circular stone pieces languished, bereft of leaders.
‘Shall we, young Llew?’
Llew blinked and looked again at the Metal Magician.
‘Of course, Metal Magician Gofannon,’ said Llew respectively and sat opposite the man to take command of his pieces. Frightening…exciting. It was both of these emotions, however he couldn’t yet reconcile them, as that worry still nagged at him – You should feel honoured you silly boy…be a man and fight this battle with a clear mind…Get on with it! Make your soon to be wife proud of you! It was time to dual.
Not far away from the celebrating men, and just behind the contest of Artek Rhiau, which Llew began to play, was Emyr’s roundhouse. The structure had many phases of use, rebuilt successively in timber and now in stone. A thick stone-faced wall with an earthen core created the present construction and the old timbers of an older phase could be seen to be poking out at odd angles from the stone facing.
Inside the construct was a large stone lined pit covered with pelts of sheepskin. Away from this and close to the inner walls of the roundhouse were more stone creations. There were a number of slate grey pot boilers, which dominated the left of the building and beside this was a pelt of sheepskin with a number of small objects, a number of whittle-tang hafted knives of iron, as well as, a couple of polishing stones. Beside these were a collection of stone hammers, pounders and grinders. Blue veined they sat upon the sheepskin with imperialist haughtiness at the speckled iron knives next to them. Away from the proud stones were two spindlewhorls, one half finished. The second was worn with use, and a length of newly created woollen fabric was attached to the abject. The fully formed but dilapidated spindlewhorl glowed with a fervent smugness at the unfinished object besides him, laughing at the items disability of service. All these games of pettiness subsided by the glare of a single hammerstone, which lay upon his own pelt of sheepskin, like a high king disciplining his subject, the golden hued rock took the silent stares and murderous whispers of the fellow objects without a commotion or fear.
The interior of the roundhouse was divided into segments, which each had their own function, however the largest space by far was the centre circle, which was the communal heart of the structure. The space of the roundhouse was full of wood smoke and herbs. The hearth at the centre of the structure burned with vigorous intent. Small tendrils of flame licked the cherry wood that gave the scent that swirled a sweet undertone. Bouquets of aromatic plants that were thrown upon the fire wilted with wilful wonder and let loose a harmless narcotic that soothed the mind, and cleared the head, thus the cleansing vapour created a slightly bitter overtone to the roundhouse’s aroma. Amidst this cocktail was a tall slim, almost willowy girl, she was young, but her beauty was blossoming and prophesied that she would grow into a stunning woman. She was a beauty of abnormality, as most of the women of the settlement considered of good looks were of a larger stock, seemingly to be built for the rigors of child bearing. Her name completed the image of her splendour, Roisin, meaning little rose and to the Tras around her, she was their little rose, who was becoming in the eyes of the settlement, a woman. This meant, unfortunately from Roisin’s point of view that this was the last opportunity for her Tras to fuss over her and treat her like the child that they would always see her in their hearts. Roisin was not pleased with this predicament, nor was she particularly elated with the fact that she was in the nude.
Roisin looked nervously around her, as she stood unclothed. Her betrotheds and her own Mamau were both attending her. They had ushered her into the roundhouse, accompanied by the rest of her Tras and, as they had started the fire, chucked bundles of aromatic plants into the flames, while her Mamau’s striped her of her green tunic and brown trousers. They had taken all items upon her person, except the copper beaded necklace, which will soon to be replaced by bronze beads and she couldn’t help feeling excited to the prospect of matrimony between her and Llew. It has been a long time coming. Soon I will be a woman. She just wished she were dressed. She smiled despite this. No longer, the flighty girl that Llew had grown up with. Now I will be his wife. They had known each other since childhood; both helped to prepare food for the community, like all the other youngsters of the settlement did. He was a happy, handsome and honourable man, she was lucky to have him and as her thoughts trundled on, she could feel the caressing touch of the wood smoke and felt the vapours pierce her bare skin and begin to clear her mind. A humming came from her Mamau’s beside her, which was soon followed by the rest of the Tras. The song continued, as both Almedha and Shea, her Mamau’s – started to sing. The melody of the woman engulfed the roundhouse and their hypnotic sounds seeped into the walls of the structure.
Outside the roundhouse the melody of the female Tras leaked from the walls of the structure, like water seeping through earth, as the vegetation suckled upon the soil, and the sounds drifted over the settlement. Llew swayed in time with tune, as he looked down at the oak playing board of Artek Rhiau. The board had three squares inside each other, linked together by a cross. Each square was made up of three spaces, which each stone piece could move upon and the players had nine pieces apiece to place. The aim of the game was to take your opponents stone counters. Simple in concept, complicated in actuality – and I properly don’t have a chance. He pushed the negative mindset away – I can do this!
Llew’s emerald eyes gazed at the game board, unsure how to proceed. He had six pieces left, and his opponent had not lost a single one. His counters were staring annihilation in the face. There must be something I can do? He looked up at the smiling Metal Magician, and back to the board. What to do? And Gofannon’s smile drifted over his green eyes, a spark of irritation came and with this, another spark ignited, one of inspiration. Got it! Llew smiled at moved one of his lonely pieces in the inner square, setting up a trap for his opponent.
The interior of the roundhouse continued to be infused with the mix of the Tras’s melody and the cleansing haze from the central hearth. Roisin closed her eyes, letting everything filter through her. The song changed, as it rose in pitch, now there was dichotomy between Almedha, Shea and the rest of Tras. Suddenly all went silent, and she opened her eyes to see her Mamau, move towards her, a long tunic of wool, bleached to create an almost cream hue. The tunic was robe like, with designs of horses in green wool embroidered with a skilful hand. Almedha’s own.
‘For nakedness you stand,’ said Almedha, as he now stood beside Roisin.
‘We witness,’ chorused the rest of the Tras.
Roisin gazed at everyone her eyes taking everything in, not wanting to forget the event. It was surreal, and had no clue of the ritual, until now. No one had ever told her what the preparations entailed.
‘For you were born to life,’ said Shea, as she picked up a number of items beside her.
‘We witness,’ chorused the rest of the Tras.
‘To womanhood we condemn you to,’ said Almedha, a small quaver in her normally composed voice.
Roisin tried to blink away tears, as she heard the emotion in her Mamau’s voice. She tried to tell herself to be brave, she wanted to marry Llew – he was the only man I will love – but she was scared, it was like diving into a ice cold falls, which she had never visited before, unsure where the best footing is, and where not to swim.
‘Smoke and vapour cleanse you of you past life,’ said Shea, as Almedha placed the cream tunic over her Roisin’s head, and let it fall.
Outside the roundhouse, Llew’s noticed that the melody, which he had swayed to had dissipated and abruptly cessed. Damn! I was listening to that. It calmed his already frayed nerves. He creased his face in concentration, as he continued to play out his ambitious gambit. The Metal Magician moved one of his pieces carefully, trying to trap one of Llew’s. The aim was clear. He had to avoid being pinned, at the same time continuing to get ever closer to his plan. A plan, which he wasn’t sure he could pull off. He couldn’t afford to lose another piece and that was the honest truth. Around him he heard his Tras cheering, drinking slapping each other on the back, at how long he was able to survive in the game. He was proud at that at least. But was it enough. I want to win! The realisation of this came suddenly and without conceit. I will not just be content to give a good show! He would go for it and make Roisin proud.
Despite the din that the men made, he heard Emyr voice and his own Tadogi, Lugus, in the background.
‘He’s doing well, would of thrashed me and no mistake,’ said Emyr and he looked again at the board, ‘ it only matter of time now.’
‘He might surprise us, Emyr,’ said Lugus in a low hum, ‘I not sure what he is trying to do, but there is some plan to it,’ and he shock his head, ‘it not random, that’s for sure.’
Llew sighed. If his Tadogi could recognise that there was such a pattern. What hope did he have against Metal Magician Gofannon? He moved another of his stone soldiers. A cheer sounded, and Llew blinked in surprise, as the Metal Magician removed one of his counters. Cheers and hoots of laughter resonated in his ears. Had he just taken one of Gofannon’s game pieces? That can’t be right? And he looked down at the board again, and for a third time. He had taken one. He had actually managed to do so. Llew’s smiled. He might actually be able to pull the stunt off.
Roisin felt better that she now had some clothes on. And better late than never! She still could feel the raw emotion from her Mamau’s voice, as she continued to speak and the haze from the hearth sustained its caress of her skin through the material. She had the feeling that the ritual was nearly over, but the most important part had started.
‘Circlet of petals to show your womanly bloom to the world,’ said Almedha, as Shea moved to place a circle of crimson and white petals around her crown, and at the same time as her Mamau with a decorated bone comb, brushed down her long golden hair, which reached the curve of her spine.
Roisin felt a tingle down her spin. That felt nice.
‘We witness,’ chorused the rest of the Tras.
Llew felt sweat upon his brow, as he continued to stare at the board of Artek Rhiau. I’m hanging in there. He had managed to take two more of the Metal magicians pieces and lost only one. That left him with five to Gofannon’s six. Still better odds than it was earlier. But doubt creped into his mind, trying to collapse the hard won bravado, which he had cultivated and used to so far in the battle. The worry of before started to nag at his mind – something is not right – and he just couldn’t put his finger on it. Everything was going too well.
The cheers and laughter had disappeared. Now a silence of three parts persisted. The first was of concentration, as most were trying to figure out what each player would do next. This was the least important. The second was of respect to an epic battle of Artek Rhiau, not seen for a long time. This was to be expected. The third, and the most important was a silence of nervousness. It could almost be tasted upon the lips. Llew’s Tras was almost absorbing the feeling that he now felt. Confidence was not always his strongest attribute – I never had the swagger of my brothers – with a touch of black humour he recalled the last time he had showed bravado, his brother had given a black eye and some lovely bruises. It was Roisin who had doctored him, as he refused to go to his Mamau in shame. He couldn’t help smiling as he recalled that at each and every time he winced in pain at her touch, she squealed in concern and mothered him.
Llew’s watched, as Gofannon moved a stone counter and he automatically moved one of his own to escape a trap. The Metal Mage smiled charmingly, as he moved again. Llew drew in a breath. He was fooled and Gofannon had taken another of his pieces. He was now down to four. The end was coming. Might as well accept it.
Roisin continued to stand in the roundhouse, now clothed and nearing the end of the preparation rite, which was a relief. Thank all that is divine! All of a sudden, she heard the humming of the Tras, which had started earlier. It rekindled like a fire that had just died, but had air blown in-between its debris and as they sang, her Mamau and Shea moved in time to the melody towards the hearth, and only now, did Roisin see a small cauldron hanging over the flames. Shea and Almedha before pouring the boiling liquid into a communal cup sprinkled spices into the water. Roisin had no idea what they were, or how they would affect her, if there were even an effect.
Roisin watched as Shea and Almedha both took a sip from the cup and it was then handed to the rest of the Tras to sample. Finally, the communal cup came to Almedha’s hands, as she moved to her Merch.
‘We sip this liquid to signify our belonging to each other, and the start of a new day,’ said Shea with a smile on her face.
‘Sip this liquid dearest child, and become a woman in the eyes of all,’ said Almedha, handing the cup to Roisin, who took it and drank.
Roisin almost panicked, as she nearly dropped the cup – oops! But thankfully, it didn’t leave her hands. As she sipped the boiling liquid, she could taste a mix of flavours, of nettles, rosehip and something she couldn’t quite identify. Her long fingers shook, as she handed the communal cup back to her Mamau. She the felt Shea’s arms around her and then Almedha’s, who whispered in her ear.
‘It is complete. I am proud, and its now time to become one with your betrothed,’ and after she said this, all the Tras in the Roundhouse embraced Roisin.
Llew was starting to get irritated by the pleasant smile that Metal Magician Gofannon continued to ware. Damn him! That smile both irritated him and scared him – it has as prophetic cast to them – and the nagging worry resurfaced. His emerald eyes glanced down at the board and back at the Metal Magicians amber counterpart, trying to read his opponent. Gofannon’s smile became wider, as he moved one of his stone counters and Llew could see his down fall, the trap that the Metal Magician was creating was unavoidable, as he had two stone pieces to escape from it. Llew gave half a smile in return, he couldn’t be bitter about it all, and he rolled his eyes to the sky, as he moved his condemned stone soldier. He had taken four of Gofannon’s stone counters. That was an achievement in itself. Llew watched as the Metal Magician moved one piece and took his counter. Ending the battle. Llew’s Tras bellowed in appreciation and broke the three-part silence.
The Metal Magician got to his feet, leaving Llew seated. Llew looked at the smiling face of Gofannon, who gave short bow. The Tras around him cheered, his friends Hirael and Ken slapping him on the back, jarring his body. Llew chocked and by the time he recovered, Emyr and Lugus pulled him up to his feet.
‘Proud of you, son.’
Llew looked slightly confused at the attention.
‘I lost, why is everyone so happy?’ Why was every one happy, it not like I won?
‘To last that long against a Metal Magician, took nerve,’ said Emyr, ‘I’m proud that you are to join our Tras.’
Metal Magician Gofannon moved towards Llew and spread his hands into the air, calling for everyone to come to silence.
‘You have done well, Llew, son of Lugus,’ Gofannon spoke, quietly but with authority, ‘and I am impressed by your clear thought and your nerve,’ he looked at Llew and then waved his hand towards Emyr’s roundhouse, where Roisin stepped out to the open sky.
‘It is now time for your union to Roisin and for you to be the son of Emyr,’ Gofannon smiled and moved to embrace Llew.
Llew couldn’t quite believe what was happening, he had given a good account of himself, against a real Metal Magician, who even bowed to him, let alone embraced him. Something was not right? There was something in that look that spoke of destiny. Thing can’t be a good as they seem. Can they? He was just able to keep his composure and joined Roisin outside Emyr’s roundhouse upon shaking legs. The two betrothed took each other’s hand and looked at each other. Llew smiled, if a little ungainly, while Roisin smiled shyly. There hands squeezed each other’s, as they watched the people of the settlement to form around them. On Llew’s right was his Tadogi and Mamau, while on Roisin had hers on her left. The elders came to stand in front of them, and leading them was the Head Tras, Idnerth. Next to him was Metal Magician Gofannon, holding a number of metal objects in his hands.
Llew saw Idnerth smile at him and Roisin and then speak.
‘We are gathered here to complete the union between Llew son of Lugus, and Roisin Merch of Emyr,’ Idnerth paused and moved towards the couple. He wrapped a piece of cloth around their hands. Llew tried not to move his hand, as the material made his skin itch. He saw that Roisin was having the same difficulty.
‘Do you both swear to be true to each other,’ continued Idnerth.
In unison, Llew and Roisin answered yes.
‘Now I leave it for Metal Magician Gofannon to complete the ceremony,’ said Idnerth, as he stepped aside to join the elders.
The Metal magician gazed at the crowed and the back to the couple.
‘From Tyn and Copr you sprang, innocent to each other,’ and as he said this Lugus moved to remove his sons Tin armband and Almedha also moved to remove her daughters Copper necklace.
‘ These two in union form Efydd, the signifier of union, marking your mutually in purpose,’ Gofannon continued and he walked towards the couple, placing a bronze armband on Llew’s forearm and a bronze necklace over Roisin’s slim neck.
‘Together you keep each other and protect each other, thus Haearn shows your promise to do so.
The Metal Magician’s amber eyes gazed at Llew.
‘Will you son of Lugus protect your bride?’
‘Yes,’ answered Llew without thought. Always!
‘Then Haearn protect you both,’ called Gofannon, as he handed to Llew a decretive Iron knife, sheathed in sheepskin.
‘In any union, one must have knowledge of each other, to better understand each other, thus Arian will show you both the way,’ said the Metal Magician, as he placed silver bangles upon the couple.
‘Together you will be today, but for how long will that last with the frailties of age. With Aur you may grow old together and so your union will never fade,’ said Gofannon, as he gave bangles of gold upon the couple.
Metal Magician Gofannon finished the ceremony looking at the Tras of the settlement. He moved his hands to the heavens and shouted out for all to hear.
‘From Tyn and Copr, together in Efydd, protected with Haearn, understanding and life together, with Arian and Aur. Bless these two, Llew and Roisin, as they start their great journey together.’
The cheer that erupted from the crowed and reverberated over the settlement, drowning anything else that Metal Magician Gofannon may have said. Gofannon turned to look at Llew and was proud of his Nephew.