When Edward's men arrive in the village of Boston Haven in the English fens, recruiting peasants as ditch-diggers, ten-year-old Will accompanies his sixteen-year-old brother Ned when he is conscripted into the makeshift army. Their journey over water and land, a long and exhausting march, will end at Flint, in the sandy marshes of the eastern border of Wales. Here they will do what they do best, "make land out of sea," creating banks and wide trenches to keep Edward's new fortress safe from attack.
The story is narrated by Will, both as a youth and in old age, with an occasional third-person perspective. Small icons denote the alternating sections.
Will has always watched over his older brother, whose garbled speech makes him seem simple-minded to others, although Ned has uncanny abilities to calm restless animals and communicate with music. Ned has further talents besides, some of which Will doesn't yet know. As they make their way westward with their 300-man company, Ned quietly follows his private, more complicated mission: to reunite with his former teacher and friend, the Welsh bard Ieuan ap y Gof.
The landscape along their route becomes a character in itself: the red stone and earth of Chester, the thick mud of the camp at Flint, the damp odor of the marshy riverbanks. The haunting imagery is beautifully rendered, with the sky, sea, and native birds and other animals changing constantly along the way. Redfern writes in the lilting language of myth. In this land where children believe in marsh-devils and elf-lights, and musicians whittle pipes out of the bones of swans' wings, the dark medieval atmosphere becomes infused with its own magic.
As the brothers' personal tale plays out in the wake of the English and Welsh monarchs' actions, Will gradually learns that one's path in life hinges on seemingly minor choices, and that ties of love matter more than politics. Emotionally resonant, and considerably deeper than its short length might suggest, Flint celebrates the power of song and story to help us remember people and places that might otherwise be forgotten. Highly recommended.
Flint was published this June by Honno, an independent cooperative press focused on Welsh women writers (£6.99, 195pp, 1-906-78404-3, free postage to UK addresses). It can also be ordered from Book Depository at $9.95.