Part I: Caerllion
Gwernin Kyuarwyd am I, Gwernin Story-Teller, and I come originally from the kingdom of Powys, in the land which men are now beginning to call Cymru, the land of comrades. The Saxons call it "Wales" from their word for "foreigner" - as if they were not the foreigners themselves here in Britain, and we the true-born owners of the land! But I digress...
From Powys, then, am I come, from Pengwern the beautiful, where Cynan Garwyn has his court on the banks of Severn River. But far and wide have I traveled in pursuit of bardic wisdom, and many wonders have I seen, and of one of these I propose to tell you now.
In your days, I know, many of you think of "medieval" buildings as historical ruins, haunts of legend and romance dotting the British countryside. But earlier ages had their ruins, too, with just as many legends clustering about them, thick as the ivy on their crumbling walls. And one such place lies in the city called Caerllion, the City of the Legions, in the south of Cymru on the River Wysg.
Even when I first came there it was ruinous. Nearly two hundred years had passed already, since the Romans who built it flew south from Britain and left us on our own, to sink or swim as we could against the Saxon tide. And not bad work did we make of it, for a while. But you might as well think to turn back the sea itself with a birch broom, as stem that swelling flood forever. Arthur held them for a while, checked their advance and forced them back into their beachheads of the south and east, and gave us time to breathe. But Arthur died at Camlann three years before I was born, and how long now we can hold the sea wall he built is anyone's guess. I wonder if I shall not, before I die, see fair Pengwern herself laid waste, and Cynan's halls home to the wolf and the raven. Aye, and the eagle...
But I was talking of Caerllion, and the wonder that lies there. I saw it first on a grey evening toward the end of April. I and the friend with whom I was then traveling were heading for Caer Dydd on the coast, where a great May-Eve festival was to be held a few days hence. Christian though those parts were then, yet most of us also held by the old festivals as well, which are the rhythm of the land and the seasons. It is not good to ignore the pulse of the land. And Beltane has always been one of the Great Festivals, the spring festival that follows the first plowing. There would be days and days of celebration, and meat and drink in plenty; plenty of employment, too, for story-tellers and minstrels such as we.
Late in the day it was, then, when we came down the last green hill from the east, and saw the village nestled in the grey stone ruins at the west end of the Romans' bridge that spanned the broad brown tidal Wysg. Time had not treated Caerllion kindly. The villagers' huts were for the most part reed-thatched lids on the shells of houses that had once been crowned in red tile, with wattle and daub filling gaps in the walls here and there, or crude patch-work stone stolen from other buildings. Only a few structures near the river gate were still in use. The rest of that great stone-walled enclosure was full of broken rubble half grown up in alder and oak scrub., a tangled wilderness where once were only the straight lines and angles that the Romans so loved. The fortress walls themselves were crumbling in spots, and overgrown with grass and bramble-thickets, and the arena outside them where once the crowds had cheered was sinking into slumberous green mounds, surrounded on all sides by the new-plowed field-strips of the village.
But the inn at the east end of the bridge was still sound and doing business, and thither we made our way. After we had struck our bargain with the landlord, and had a first sup of ale to clear the dust of the road from our throats, I, being young and curious, left my friend chatting amiably in the tap-room and wandered out again, heading for the great ruinous hulk that had caught my eye beyond the patched-up huts of the villagers. Baths, the landlord had called them, built like everything else here by the Romans. Palaces, I thought, might have been a better term, as I stood at the edge of a patch of waste ground staring up at them. Fully two-score paces in length and perhaps half as wide, and tall as the lordliest ash tree that graces the slopes of Powys, the Baths dwarfed any king's palace I had yet seen. Their towering walls gazed back at me out of the twilight, pieced with dark window-openings that gaped like empty eyes.
Crossing the waste ground where the soldiers had raced and wrestled, I picked my way forward over broken stone, clogged with blown dirt and white with bird droppings, until I stood within the gloomy vault itself. Around me the great red-brick walls rose up, towering into owl-haunted cliffs and caverns, while beneath them the scummy pools of the baths themselves lay gleaming here and there like tarnished mirrors. There was a strong smell of must and decay, and a sense of ghosts watching from behind one's shoulder. Almost it might have been the mouth of a fairy mound, a gateway to Annwn herself. The silence was eerie, with a faint echo in it as of the wind, or the sea in a shell, or unseelie music, so that when a bit of stone dislodged by who-knows-what dropped from somewhere above and plopped into one of the pools near me, I jumped, and stumbled on the uneven footing, and found myself almost over the edge before I knew it. As I tottered on the brink, I dimly saw a leering face with snakes for hair peering out at me from among the broken tiles at my feet, and in the roof above me I heard a rustle of wings. I backed off hurriedly, and came away; I had seen enough to slake my curiosity for that night. Behind me I could feel the ghosts of the soldiers still watching as I went. Outside the twilight seemed bright as day by comparison, the air incredibly fresh and sweet - heavy though it was with the evening scent of wood-smoke and cow byres! I looked back once from the bridge at the towering ruin, its roof overgrown with grass and saplings like a young hill. Already those who should know better are beginning to say that the Baths are really the ruins of Arthur's Palace, built for him in the space of a night by magic. Built, so they say, by the enchanter Myrddin himself, using nothing but harp-song and moonlight, and a strong spider's-web of spells to bind it all in place... Traveler's tales, or stories for children, but still... On that quiet evening it almost seemed possible. And who should know better than I what feats music may encompass...
But that is a story for another day.