Last time battle raged, and Efnissiyen sacrificed himself…
Manawyddan looked round the battlefield. Nothing could be heard but the sighing of the wind and the cawing of vultures above the dead.
He blinked. Across the field strewn with a sea of corpses, only seven men were up! Surely not!
But yes, only seven men moved.
Grief coursed through him like the tide, carving a channel in his heart. A grief so deep that he just watched the other men converge on him. Who was left? Dimly he could make out the young lord of Dyfed, Pryderi. Thank goodness for that. The South could not lose its leader.
“Lord,” cried one of the men, Heilyn, stopping dead. Manawyddan turned, a dead weight fixing him to the ground. Sure enough, he knew what he would see.
Bran. Sprawled out like a large hillock on the floor, a great black and yellow arrow sprouting from his leg. As the men watched, his eyelids flickered open and fixed on Manawyddan with a twisted smile.
Manawyddan found his feet and rushed over to his brother, sinking down by his side. “Bran!” He fussed around the arrow. “Hold still, brother!”
“Don’t bother, Manawyddan,” Bran whispered hoarsely.
Manawyddan turned, “Why? I will save my king, at any rate.”
“It’s poisoned. I’m a dead man.”
“Manawyddan, listen to me. I’m going to die a slow, agonising death. Better to go quickly and with no pain.”
Manawyddan could barely see, “What do you want us to do?”
“You need to cut off my head. Now. I won’t be gone from you, I will still be alive, just without my body. I want you to take it to London, and bury it on the White Hill. But first, you must go back to Harlech, and feast there. Then you must go to Grassholm in the Irish sea, and feast there as well. As long as you are there you will forget all your troubles, and I will be with you. You must not leave there until one of you opens the door facing Cornwall.”
“He is on the border of the Otherworld, lord,” Ynawg said gravely.
Peace. Rest. The image of that little island in the Irish sea flickered before Manawyddan, beckoning him, blue and green in still water. “And so are we, I think,” he added softly.
“Do it now!” Bran’s face contorted in pain.
Manawyddan turned and stumbled away. No-one would expect him to cut off his own brother’s head. He returned to Branwen, and gave her the sad news. They sat there, silent and dry-eyed, until the other men returned. Manawyddan stood and reached a hand to Branwen. “Come, sister, let us go home.”
They landed in Wales at the mouth of the Alaw river in Anglesey. Manawyddan picked Branwen up and carried her over the cold water to land. Ireland was just visible on the horizon, a blurry smudge, and Branwen’s eyes never left it.
They walked inland a little way, until they came to a circle of deserted huts, and took shelter for the night. It was a cold place, and a stale, decaying smell hung in the air.
“What happened here?” Ynawg ventured to put the question, as they sat huddled round a fire.
“I would assume that the men are all lying dead in Ireland, and the women and children died of starvation.” announced Gruddieu, the blunt, sharp one.
Branwen fainted onto Manawyddan’s shoulder and without another word he carried her away, leaving the others to scold Gruddieu.
He carried her out into the starlight where she soon recovered conciousness. “Manawyddan?”
“Don’t try to think, Branwen,” he whispered to her. “I’ll never leave you. I swear I will always look after you.”
“Thank you, but don’t worry.” Her voice trailed away on the breeze, making Manawyddan look sharply at her. She gazed upwards absentmindedly. “What does life hold for me now? A lonely widow with no place in the world. Everyone I love is gone.” She looked Manawyddan right in the eyes. “I can see them, you know. They are all so happy in the Otherworld. They are calling to me.”
In desperation, Manawyddan hugged his last sibling tightly. “Branwen, don’t leave me!”
“I’m sorry, Manawyddan, but you will be fine. You have friends. I can’t live with this burden of guilt. It’s all my fault.”
He could tell she was already half in the next world. She touched his cheek. “You have to let me go.”
Manawyddan barely managed to nod through his tears. At that Branwen smiled. “I love you,” she vowed, before her eyes closed and her breath drifted upwards on the night breeze.