Friday 8 December 2017

Diamond Tales: A Soul Above Diamonds by Elizabeth Jane Corbett

She fancied herself part of a timeless chain, without beginning or end, linked only by the silver strong words of its tellers.
In the year 1841, on the eve of her departure from London, Bridie Stewart’s mother demands she forget her dead father and prepare for a sensible, adult life in Port Phillip, Australia. Desperate to save her precious childhood memories, fifteen-year-old Bridie is determined to smuggle a notebook filled with her father's fairy-tales to the far side of the world. 
When Rhys Bevan, a soft-voiced young storyteller and fellow traveller realises Bridie is hiding something, a magical friendship is born. As they inch towards their destination, the pair take refuge in fairy tales... 

A Soul Above Diamonds 
Elizabeth Jane Corbett

 Rhys turned pleading eyes on Siân. Help get me out of this?
She shook her head. ‘Gelli di wneud e, Rhys.’
Do it? No! He couldn’t.             
She leaned close, breath warm on his cheek. ‘Dig deep, find the words within, the words we acted out as children. The stories you told that company of drovers on the way to London. They are inside you. Only be still, let them come.’
Silence. All around him, his mess mates’ curious stares.         
 ‘Not long.’ He heard Siân say. ‘Only searching for inspiration, he is.’
Rhys emptied his mind, softened his shoulders. Tried to hear words above the wing-beat in his head. Wisdom, Siân’s great aunt, Rhonwen, had called the ancient tales. A torch. But could he find that wisdom here?
 ‘You are not the wisdom. The stories will speak for themselves.’
He nodded, held Siân’s gaze, thought of wind, fresh, bracing, like on the mountains, Rhonwen’s words filling him with wisdom and courage. He felt a familiar stirring - like sparks falling on tinder and producing a warm glow within.
Slowly, as if pulling a cart laden with coal, he rose and shrugged out of his jacket. Head bowed, he waited, trembling, as Siân made her way to their bunk. Her fingers were firm as she placed the fiddle in his hands, her presence a balm, soothing.
She began to hum.
Rhys closed his eyes, focussed on the sound of her voice - soft, gentle, like a voice from another realm. Never mind, that his knees were quivering beneath his trousers. The words were forming, still, small like a wisp of smoke at his core yet there, unmistakably, even in steerage.
He looked up into the hushed expectation of his messmates’ faces.
‘Tom has asked for a story that will help Alf and Bridie understand their lives. I do not have such tale. At least, not one made to measure. But I can give you an ancient tale of a prince with a cruel father who raised a child other than his own. A good prince, an honest prince, Elffin ap Gwyddno.
‘Elffin yr Anffodus, the bards liked to call him. A hapless young man not overly burdened by intelligence who lived his days under the lordship of Maelgwn Gwynedd.’
‘Elffin ap Gwyddno! Elffin yr Anffodus!’ Tom Griggs spoke aloud, to no one in particular. ‘Why don’t he stick to plain English?’
‘Wait!’ Pam whispered. ‘If you’re patient, he’ll explain.’
Rhys smiled. Arms folded, the lines of Tom’s face had fallen into a sceptical heap. But beyond him, Rhys saw heads lifting, fathers hoisting children onto their shoulders, as all along the deck, people jostled for a space on the bunks and benches. As he raised his bow and let the violin speak, he felt the heaviness that had been on him since boarding the ship roll back like canvas.
Felt courage returning.
‘Stand on the bench.’ Someone yelled out. ‘We can’t see back here.’
Rhys bowed, holding out a hand to Siân. She smiled, stepping up onto the bench, the small triumphant smile he knew so well. Rhys leaped up beside her and lent music to her song.

‘Misty May morning,
‘Elffin’s misfortune,
‘Take this tale as your own,
‘Wisdom and wonder,
‘Wealth for the taking,
‘Find yourself in this story.’

‘Elffin the Unfortunate was a plain, honest man,’ Rhys continued, ‘and therein lay his problem. For having lost his prime lands through neglect, his father, Gwyddno, expected Elffin to recover his fortune. To this end, he was sent to squire for King Maelgwn Gwynedd. Alas, poor Elffin was neither a warrior nor a hunter. He certainly wasn’t cut out to be a courtier. His prime quality being an honesty that did not allow him to speak with a double tongue. He served Maelgwn without distinction, married a woman without wealth or position, and settled happily on his father’s diminished estates.’
‘Fool!’ His father shouted. ‘How can we expect to prosper, if you will not exert yourself?’
‘I am content with my lot, Father, and to earn my bread in peace.’

‘Now Elffin was a kindly soul and it grieved him to disappoint his father. He tended his hives, herds and flocks always hoping to win a measure of approval. But Gwyddno was a hard, exacting, and no matter how plump Elffin’s cattle, nor how fine his fleeces, he took no pride in his son’s achievements.
Tonight is May Eve,’ Gwyddno announced. ‘The door to the otherworld will swing open. If you cannot make a fortune in my weir tonight, I’ll wash my hands of you.’

‘The salmon weir was Gwyddno’s pride and joy. All day, Elffin toiled in preparation, re-setting the weir poles and ensuring the wattle fences were in working order. But his efforts were doomed from the outset. For that night, a vengeful witch cast her ill-born child into the sea. When Elffin and his father rode down to inspect the weir the following morning, they found nothing but a bulging leather bag hanging from its poles.’
‘You’ve broken the luck of the weir!’ Gwyddno turned away in disgust. ‘Was a son ever so unfortunate?’
‘Elffin’s eyes stung as he pulled the bag from the water. Why must it always be like this? Could not fortune once favour him? To his surprise, the bag squirmed in his hands. Opening it, he found a baby nestled in its folds, a babe so beautiful Elffin’s heart filled with love for him. Imagine his wonder when the child began to prophecy.’

‘Elffin of steadfast heart.’
Be not dismayed.
‘For I bring blessing.’

A shiver worked its way up Rhys’ spine, as Siân took on the otherworldly voice of the child. She may not have been cast upon the water by a vengeful witch but she’d been abandoned as a babe and raised by a wise woman and her birth was rumoured to have been cursed.

Small and weak, as I am
‘Washed up by foaming waves,
‘In your day of trouble,
‘I will prosper you,
‘More than three hundred salmon.

‘Diawl!’ Gwyddno lurched backwards. ‘The child is bewitched! Throw it in the water!’
‘Elffin turned, ready to fling the bag back into the weir. But as he looked down into the child’s face, his breath caught. Such beauty, his eyes so deep, soulful. A poet’s eyes. How could they abandon him?
‘He may not be what you expected father. As I am not what you expected. But I will not destroy him. Look, how he smiles! His brow so radiant! I shall call him Taliesin.’

‘Misty May morning,
‘Elffin’s misfortune,
‘Take this tale as your own,
‘Wisdom and wonder,
‘Wealth for the taking,
‘Find yourself in this story.’

‘As the child grew, it became apparent that he and Elffin were unalike as earthenware and crystal. For although Taliesin possessed an honest heart, he showed no great talent for husbandry. He spun tales of flower maidens, and bubbling cauldrons, and otherworldly swine, and wrote verse that none could ever rival. But although Elffin listened to these fantasies with pride, he doubted Taliesin would ever aid him in his day of trouble, let alone, prosper him more than three hundred salmon.
‘It was not until thirteen years hence that the original prophecy was put to the test.
‘Having been summoned to Maelgwn’s Christmas court, Elffin took no pleasure in the invitation, remembering his awkward years as a squire in which he’d failed to distinguish himself. But he set out determined to make the best of the situation. This he might have done, if not for the straightness of his tongue. For when others complimented Maelgwn’s beautiful wife, Elffin pointed out that his wife, though not of noble birth, was every bit as pure and lovely.
‘Furthermore,’ the hapless Elffin ventured, ‘I have poet at my hearth who outshines your learned bards in wisdom and eloquence.’
‘On hearing Elffin’s boasts, Maelgwn flew into a rage. Summoning his guards, he had Elffin thrown into a dungeon. He sent his son, Rhun, in search of evidence.
‘Go! Find this upstart poet, seduce this man’s wife. If Elffin cannot support these claims, his life will be forfeit.’
‘But Maelgwn hadn’t accounted for the poet being a thirteen-year-old lad. Or that the wily Taliesin would hide his mother’s virtue behind the pots and pans of the scullery. He certainly didn’t expect that same lad to slip into Deganwy Castle and make his bards start babbling like fools.’
‘What’s this?’ Maelgwn demanded. “Why do you utter such drivel?’
‘We are bewitched.” The chief bard swung round, pointing at Taliesin. ‘Every time that lad plays blerwm, blerwm on his lips, our speech is confounded.’
‘Who are you?’ Maelgwn demanded as Taliesin walked towards the dais. ‘From whence do you hail?’
‘I am chief bard, to Elffin.’ Siân replied, in the boy’s clear unbroken voice. ‘My home country is in the region of the summer stars.”’
‘I see you have some powers and there is no denying your eloquence. But tell me, what is your purpose here?’

Elffin ap Gwyddno,
‘Lays in dark imprisonment,
‘Secured by thirteen locks,
‘For praising his bard,
‘I, Taliesin,
‘Chief bard of the West,
‘Have come to release him,
‘From his fetters.’

‘Chief Bard of the West, a bold claim indeed. How do you expect to release him, small one? With the strength of your song?’ 
‘Words, will indeed prove the key. But where is my father? Fetch him, if you dare?’
‘Here was sorcery. Maelgwn’s thumbs pricked. But he daren’t refuse the challenge. Elffin was brought shackled from his prison.
‘So Elffin, it seems your poet is more boastful than you are. I confess, to some curiosity. If he can release you from your fetters, you will be allowed to return home unpunished. If not, your precious poet will join you in the dungeon.’
‘Elffin trembled. What a fool he’d been to speak out. Taliesin would be imprisoned. There could be no other outcome. For no matter how profound his son’s words, nor how powerful his imagination, they could not unlock his fetters.
‘Taliesin was not so easily discouraged. He turned, raising his arms and directed his voice above the roof trusses.’

Come strong creature,
‘Without flesh, or bone,
‘Without vein, or blood,
‘Who is strong, and bold,
‘Who is dumb, and sonorous,
‘Come! From the earth’s four corners,
‘Mighty wind! Come!

‘As Taliesin spoke a wind swept through the hall. The fortress shook on its foundations. Taliesin touched a finger to Elffin’s wrists and ankles. The fetters sprang open. His chains tinkled to the ground. Elffin rose, shaking his head in amazement.’
‘My son, my clever son. You have won us our freedom.’
‘A son is worth more than three hundred salmon. A poet’s soul is to be prized above diamonds. For knowing this, Elffin ap Gwyddno, you will now be rewarded. Go! Dig a hole in the place I command. A cauldron of gold will be the recompense for your misfortune.'
‘Elffin returned to his father’s estates a wealthy man.’ Rhys continued softly. ‘Though, he cared less about his new found prosperity than the son riding at his side. And, although they were as unalike as earthenware and crystal, and although Taliesin showed not great talent for husbandry, they lived out their days in great prosperity. So that, Gwyddno, never again doubted his son’s luck at the weir, that misty May morning, or cursed his misfortune ever again.

© Elizabeth Jane Corbett

Author’s Note: I’ve pared back this scene from my novel, The Tides Between, and added the word ‘diamond’ to fit the theme. There were no diamonds in Taliesin’s Wales. But as this tale is a legend that is being told by a nineteenth century storyteller, I felt free to insert the stone.

About Elizabeth:

When Elizabeth Jane Corbett isn’t writing, she works as a librarian, teaches Welsh at the Melbourne Welsh Church, writes articles for the Historical Novel Review and blogs at In 2009, her short-story, Beyond the Blackout Curtain, won the Bristol Short Story Prize. Another, Silent Night, was short listed for the Allan Marshall Short Story Award. Her historical coming-of-age novel, The Tides Between, was published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. Elizabeth lives with her husband, in a renovated timber cottage in Australia, Melbourne's inner-north. She likes red shoes, dark chocolate, commuter cycling, and reading quirky, character driven novels set once-upon-a-time in lands far away.

Like the story? Buy copy of The Tides Between for 99cents/99p - 8-10th December
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Follow the Tales…and Discover some Diamonds

3rd December     Richard Tearle Diamonds

4th December     Helen Hollick  When ex-lovers have their uses

5th December    Antoine Vanner  Britannia’s Diamonds

6th December    Nicky Galliers  Diamond Windows

7th December    Denise Barnes  The Lost Diamond

8th December    Elizabeth Jane Corbett A Soul Above Diamonds

9th December    Lucienne Boyce Murder In Silks

10th December    Julia Brannan The Curious Case of the Disappearing Diamond

11th December    Pauline Barclay Sometimes It Happens

12th December    Annie Whitehead Hearts, Home and a Precious Stone

13th December    Inge H. Borg  Edward, Con Extraordinaire

14th December    J.G. Harlond The Empress Emerald

15th December    Charlene Newcomb Diamonds in the Desert

16th December     Susan Grossey A Suitable Gift

17th December     Alison  Morton Three Thousand Years to Saturnalia

18th December      Nancy Jardine   Illicit Familial Diamonds

19th December      Elizabeth St John The Stolen Diamonds

20th December      Barbara Gaskell Denvil Discovering the Diamond

21st December       Anna Belfrage   Diamonds in the Mud

22nd December       Cryssa Bazos    The Diamonds of Sint-Nicholaas

23rd December        Diamonds … In Sound & Song 


  1. Thanks so much for this opportunity Helen

  2. Wonderful story - with even more interest for me - Dw i'n dysgu Cymraeg!

    1. O helo! Dw i’n dysgu Cymraeg hefyd. Pa mor hir wyt ti wedi bod yn dysgu?

  3. Beautiful and beautifully written.

    1. Thanks Pauline. I feel pretty awed and self conscious among this salubrious line up - and clearly, from my slowness to check comments, i’m new to this game. ☹️

  4. Replies
    1. They are my heritage. But I lived forty years without knowing they existed.

  5. Such a beautiful and imaginative tale and so well told - I ws in two worlds at the same time

  6. Diolch yn fawr everyone (thank you very much)

    1. Thanks Helen. I checked once but didn’t think to check again. Duh! I am learning so many new things at the moment.

  7. These tales are wonderful, with different rhythms, tones and places. I enjoyed this one greatly. Do go to Elzabeth's blog for another look into Diamond Tales.

    1. Thanks Inge. Rhys tells a number of stories enroute. Each one is designed to work on three levels. To be a good story in its own right, to reveal something of the character’s Inner journey, and to serve as a metaphor to what was happening on the ship. Though, of course, I had to par back this one for Diamond Tales.

  8. Most enjoyable! I came to this a day or so late as my computer kept playing up yesterday. Well worth the wait :)

    1. Thanks Anna! I have been a bit slow on the uptake myself due to plain inexperience. Duh!

  9. Smashing! I love a good Welsh tale.


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