Caradoc of the North Wind - By Allan Frewin Jones


Branwen ap Griffith narrowed her eyes against the glare of the sunlit snow. Through the brittle black branches of a sheltering rowan, she could see that the sky had been swept clean of clouds; for once, winter had loosened its grip on the land and offered some brief respite from its insatiable malice.

It was a winter the like of which Branwen had never known. Relentless. Unendurable. And yet she and her small band of warriors had to endure it, live through it – fight through it.

Fain, Branwen’s falcon, was circling low in the crystalline air. ‘It seems Fain has led us a true course. That’s the place we sought, there can be no doubt of it.’ Branwen turned her head at Iwan’s words. He was at her side now, swathed in a white ermine cloak, the hood drawn down to his eyes, the blade of his sword flaring in the slanting light.

‘I see no Saxons,’ added Dera, wading up the tree-thick hillside through the deep, powdery snow. ‘Have we come too late? Have we failed in our mission?’

Branwen peered up through the branches again at the tall stone tower that lifted its blunt head among the higher ridges. ‘No, I don’t think so,’ she said. She had reason to be hopeful. Blodwedd had translated the falcon’s cries: The doorways and lower windows of the old Roman watchtower are blocked with rubble – the Saxons will be hard-pressed to clear a way through without bringing arrow-fire down upon them.

‘More likely they’ll have camped outside the walls,’ Branwen said. ‘They’ll seek to starve their quarry out rather than risk a full-on assault.’

‘And so we take them unawares from behind, and bathe the snow red with their blood,’ murmured Blodwedd, her inhuman eyes glowing like molten gold. ‘A fine plan, and good sport to warm the bones on such a day as this!’

Branwen nodded. While she did not share the owl-girl’s joy in slaughter, she understood well enough the necessities that drove this war: kill, or be killed.

The rest of her band had arrived now, plodding up the forested hillside through the pitiless snow. They gathered around her, their faces pinched and pale from the fearsome winter. Aberfa, tall and heavyset, powerful as a bear. Banon with her pale, freckled face and gangling limbs. Little Linette, bright-eyed and delicate, but a fine fighter for all that. And Rhodri, friend of friends, warm-hearted and wise as the hills. White as ghosts they were, wrapped in their heavy hooded cloaks of ermine, their feet clad in tough leather boots lined with the white fur of mountain hares.

Six months fighting a war on two fronts had changed them all. It had worn them down, hardening them like iron blades forged in fire and tempered in ice water. But it had not broken them – rather it had strengthened them, moulding a ragged band into a deadly fighting force.

The Gwyn Braw, King Cynon called them: the White Death. And it was always upon the most dangerous missions that he sent them, missions no one else would be allowed to attempt. Far from hearth and home, and always into the very deepest peril. It was a joy and astonishment to Branwen that in all these long months of warfare, she had not lost a single one of her followers.

Branwen turned from surveying the stone tower, a plan of attack already formed in her mind. Now it was time to put it in motion.

‘Iwan, Dera, Banon – you three take the left flank,’ she told them. ‘Rhodri, you, Aberfa and Linette go to the right. Blodwedd and I will take them from the front.’ As always she recited to her followers the litany taught her long ago by her murdered brother, Geraint. ‘Be calm, be silent, be swift, be still.’

Rhodri touched hands briefly with Blodwedd before they parted. This was always their ritual when death threatened – one last touch, one final moment of bonding. Just in case.

Branwen drew her sword and tightened her grip on the leather thongs of her shield. Blodwedd stood at her side, as slender as a sapling, but hiding in her slim body a fighting spirit that outmatched even Dera’s ferocity and Aberfa’s overwhelming strength.

A good companion to have at your side when danger bore down, the messenger of Govannon of the Wood – an owl in human shape, wild and ferocious and merciless to her enemies. Branwen had once thought she could never befriend such a creature – but now she could not