By Neil Beynon
The room was dark. Thick acrid smoke clung to Caerwen’s nose and mouth; she coughed as she stepped over a sleeping body. Rhys, if she wasn’t mistaken. Lurking beneath the smoke was the sticky sweet smell of spilt mead.
“You’re Da is over there,” said a voice.
Caerwen forced her heart back into her chest. “I thought you’d gone home Brampt,” she said.
“I was just leaving when you came in,” said Brampt, emerging from the smoke. He was more like a creation of the pervasive mist with his lunatic wiry white hair and filthy grey clothing. But the pipe in his mouth uncloaked the lie. “Time was when my storytelling would have had them on the edge of their seats rather than sprawled on tables,” he continued, his eyes never leaving Caerwen, nor blinking in the smoke.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “I’d give anything to be a bard like you, to be able to tell stories like you.”
“Oh you would…”
“Don’t be disgusting you old lech,” she replied. “Your stories are good is all.”
“No girls allowed,” he answered. “Oh I’m sure yours would be good. I’m not what I once was and I miss it. You should have seen me in my prime: no fools fell asleep then.”
“Go on then, tell me one from the old days,” said Caerwen sitting.
“No, their time has passed,” he said. “I’ve grown inept.”
Caerwen watched him shamble his way towards the door, she rolled her eyes.
“Must you always put on this performance,” she said but he did not stop. “Very well: Please Brampt; tell me one of the stories from your prime.” Brampt looked back at her from over his shoulder.
“Never more so.”
“Ok,” he said turning properly back to her.
“You’re good for an old man,” he said taking her hand in his tobacco stained paw. “Such fine hands.” She withdrew her digits from his grasp, clearly the mead had flowed his way as well. Caerwen made to leave.
“He was your age.”
“What?” she asked.
“He was your age,” he replied. “Our protagonist. He was your age with skin as milky smooth as your own and as fine an appreciation for the spoken word.”
His name was Dafydd. He lived in Powys with his father, a farmer who had little time for anything that would neither feed, water nor shelter his cattle. His son’s chosen profession did not sit well with the farmer.
In anycase he needn’t have worried, for Dafydd’s problems went further than his father’s wishes: Dafydd was terrible. He was not blessed with language as you or I are. Oh he loved to listen to the wandering bards, could pick the ones who would be successful and judge the tales best suited to a crowd.
Yet when Dafydd started to speak his words fell apart, if he tried to make the tale up his mind would become as empty as the sky. If he learned the lines his tongue would trip and stumble over the sounds until the audience withdrew in defeat.
Then one day a great man came to the village, a bard so renowned he’d spun his yarns in front of the three kings of the island.
“Owain,” said Caerwen.
“Owain,” agreed Brampt. “Dafydd was agog with excitement as you might imagine. All day he went round with his head in the clouds. The cows were left on the hills too long, the milking forgotten and the barn not repaired.”
Dafydd’s father was not by nature a malicious man but he grew tired of his son’s daydream induced ineptitude and so he forbade him from attending the evening’s storytelling. And to make sure the farmer locked Dafydd in the barn.
When Dafydd’s friends came to walk with him to the Inn where Owain would speak the farmer told them he was sick. They shook their heads in sadness; Dafydd must have been near death to miss his idol’s stories.
Dafydd sat in the barn and watched his friends disappear into the valley. They swallowed his Da’s tall tales more readily than his own. Then, because there was nothing else to do, he rolled onto his side to go to sleep.
Hope stared back at him through the broken slat he’d forgotten to repair or tell his father about. Quickly he pulled the slat from the wall using it to break another panel. Grabbing an old cloak from the inside of the barn, he squeezed through the hole before running as fast he could down the valley.
The inn was full to burst. The mead flowed slowly, so packed was the bar. Dafydd had to climb onto a barrel outside a window in order to hear Owain’s tale.
I cannot repeat that tale, I would tarnish it with my clumsy wordplay but I can tell you that Owain took them to a different world. He painted picture in the smoke filled air: terrible creatures that made the more timid listeners jump at their own shadows, brave warriors whose shining honour gave them hope and best of all a true hero that was not a swordsman but a simple creature that put them in mind of themselves.
There was a moment of stunned silence when he finished. Then claps so loud you’d have thought your ears were bleeding. Only one person did not clap. One person was not joyous they’d head the tale.
Dafydd dropped, unsmiling, down from his barrel. He climbed onto the roof of the inn; the farmhand needed to think away from the noise, to contemplate the dark and oily beast that had crawled onto his back as he sat listening. At first he thought it was despair come to finish him – for he would never, ever, in a million years possess the skill Owain had shown.
Then, as he kicked a tile from the roof in anger, he realised it was the unfairness of it all. Why should Owain have the gift and not he? He practiced as hard as anyone, he listened to as many other tellers as he could, he knew what made a tale bad and what made a tale good. Why then was his tongue wooden whilst Owain’s silver?
Whether it was something he thought up himself or an ancient tale he recalled sitting on the roof doesn’t really matter. The point is Dafydd had an idea and the thing about ideas is they’re neither good nor bad, they just are.
The drinking went on late into the night but it was still dark when Owain retired to his room.
“Hello Owain,” said Dafydd from his perch on the windowsill
“Who are you?” asked Owain. “And what are you doing on my window sill?”
“I am Dafydd, the bard that never was,” said Dafydd dropping off the window sill.
“Oh,” said Owain. “Are you after some tips?”
“Oh please don’t ask me where I get my ideas,” said Owain, smiling tiredly.
“Nope,” he said. “I know that trick.”
And then Owain saw the knife. “No don’t…”
Dafydd’s years of farm work had left him strong but still his work took until dawn. The stitches took the longest – it was hard with blood flowing all over his hand.
The sun dried the sweat on his shoulders as he left the village by the low road. Dafydd was not a foolish man; he knew he now had to leave his home. He was not sad. He had a new life now and he was eager to try out his new tongue.
“Oh Brampt that’s awful!” said Caerwen.
“Well I never said it was a nice story,” said Brampt.
“And what happened next?”
“That’s the end, he became a wandering bard.”
“You can’t end there. He’s got to have his just desserts, the villain shouldn’t win.”
“They just shouldn’t!”
“Ah,” replied Brampt. “Powerful reason that.”
“So did it work?” asked Caerwen.
“Oh yes,” said Brampt. “For a time.”
“So he became famous?” asked Caerwen turning to look at her Da snoring in the corner.
“Yes, he became famous and he made coin.”
“So how come I haven’t heard of him,” said Caerwen trying to lift her dad.
“His tongue fell off,” said Brampt.
“Nope,” he answered. Placing his pipe on the table. “Fell clean off, ‘course it went black first.”
“You’ve lost me, I nearly believed you up to that point,” said Caerwen smiling. “That’s just silly – what did he do then?”
Then she saw the knife. There were no screams; he’d had lots of practice.