Part III: Arberth
Whoever sits down on the mound at Arberth, or so the story runs, may not leave it until he has either suffered blows or wounds, or has seen a wonder. Well, I sat myself down there one spring day like Pwyll, out of pure mischief, and though I presently left - as I thought - untouched by either fate, yet in a manner of speaking I afterwards suffered both, as you shall shortly hear.
The occasion was some days after my parting at Caer Myrddin with the stranger called Emrys, of whom I told you in my last story. From Caer Myrddin, Ieuan and I had wandered on westward, intending to follow the coast more or less closely, thus continuing our sunwise circuit around Cymru. As luck would have it, however, while entertaining at Arberth we heard rumor of a great feast to be held in a few days' time at Aberteifi, to the north of us. Following the coast as we had planned, we would come there far too late, but by cutting across the peninsula through the Preseli Mountains we reckoned to arrive within two days, three at the most. It seemed an opportunity not to be missed.
So there I sat on Pwyll's mound, looking down at the little village of Arberth, basking like me in the warm spring sunshine as it straggled up the hill from its ford. The mound rises on the bluff above the village, overlooking the spot where the story says Pwyll's palace stood, though no sign of that now remains. Wood rots, stone crumbles, and all our works decay: only poetry stands immortal, so long as memory lasts. But the mound itself, Gorsedd Arbert as it is called, seemed solid and permanent enough that day, crowned with green grasses and pale yellow primroses and little blue violets whose scent hung heavy on the cool morning air. It was also still wet with dew, as I had found to my cost, so that when I saw Ieuan humping his pack up the winding track after me I was pleased, and more than ready to stand up and set off with him, brushing the clinging damp from my clothes as I went. I never gave a second thought to the geas imposed by the mound. Why should I? In truth, I thought such a fair spring morning wonder enough!
The way we went that day was no stone-paved Roman road, such as had sped some of our earlier journeying, but a rough country track barely better than a sheep path. Clearly, though, it knew its way across country, being one of the old ridgeways that men have followed time out of mind. One ford it dropped to, some three miles north of Arberth, and thereafter kept to the high ground, running straight and clear - if sometimes rather muddy! - toward the eastern end of Mynydd Preseli, which lay long and blue and peaceful ahead of us in the morning sun. The day was fair and warm, the warmest we had had yet that spring. Larks rose singing from the grass ahead of us, mounting into a cloudless blue sky, and cuckoos answered them from the green valleys on either side. We soon saw we would have no trouble reaching our first destination by nightfall, a small village on the eastern shoulder of Mynydd Preseli which would give us shelter, and from which the land drops clear to Aberteifi and the sea beyond. So after we had paused for our nooning, eating the food given us by our host of the night before, we stretched out in the lee of a clump of gorse bushes to rest for a bit. We had had some hard traveling lately, and I for one was glad of the pause. The sun was warm, and the air drowsy with the buzzing of bees busy pillaging the golden blossoms of the gorse, and sweet with the honey scent of the flowers themselves. I stretched myself out lazily in the soft new grass and closed my eyes, seeing the sunlight blood-red through my eyelids and feeling it warm on my face. I smiled, and slept, and woke to disaster.
Disaster, that is, in the shape of fog, a cold wet clinging mist that cut off vision a pace or two away, so that the very gorse bushes that had sheltered us seemed dissolving at their edges into shapeless masses of darkness. It was impossible to tell how long we had slept, for the sun was invisible, and the light so grey and dim that direction was likewise uncertain. I started up abruptly, stretching out an arm to shake Ieuan awake where he lay peacefully snoring beside me. "Ieuan," I said, "We're in trouble."
He opened his eyes slowly and lay blinking up at the greyness for a moment, then sat up, reaching for his pack. "Aye," he said, "happen we are. Best we be moving. We'll have to go slow in this."
And slow indeed we went. What had been a clear track before us, if not an overly well marked one, had become while we slept a maze of sheep-trods and branching side-paths through marsh and heather and gorse. Again and again we stopped, sweating despite the cold, to consult on the way forward. More than once we lost our straight line, and only knew it when the path we were following disappeared in a bog, or dropped suddenly at our feet into a brushy coomb, leaving us to retrace our steps as best we could and start again. At last, with the light fading, we lost our way, as it seemed, finally and forever, when what we had been sure was the main track led us to a sheep-trampled ford instead of a village.
Ieuan stood for a moment staring at the latest ruin of our hopes, then scratched his head. "What now?"
"I don't know, " I said wearily, feeling muddy water seeping yet again into my boots. As I spoke my breath steamed into more mist before my face. Somewhere in the distance I could hear sheep bleating. "Find the shepherd?"
Ieuan nodded, easing his bulky pack on his shoulders, and splashed wordlessly into the stream.
We stumbled about in the heather until it was almost too dark to see which bog we were falling into next. We could hear the sheep, and once or twice we saw them, pale patches in the gloom which trotted briskly away at our lumbering approach. The loom of some larger mass ahead of us gave us hope for a moment, especially when it resolved itself into the sort of dry-stone hut that the shepherds often build for shelter on the moors, but we knew before we reached it that it was cold and empty. And so by that time were we.
I dropped my pack by the door-post of the hut. "Let's stop here. At least it's shelter, and a dry place to lie down. I'm done."
Ieuan pursed his lips and spat deliberately, then nodded. Wordlessly he doffed his own pack and bent under the low lintel. The hut was dirty and cramped, and dark enough inside to make the fog without look bright, but it was shelter of a sort, and the dried piles of last year's bracken that my groping hands discovered by the wall would make for better sleeping than the bare ground. With flint and steel Ieuan kindled a stub of candle and by its light dug through his pack, emerging at last with a couple of strips of dried meat and a crumbling oat-cake that had lived there gods knew how long. Pinching out the candle to save it for later, we split the find between us and settled back on the bracken to eat. The meat smelled odd and tasted worse, but I was young and hungry, and choked it down regardless, then wrapped my cloak around me and curled up to sleep.
It was some time in the night when I became aware that my supper was not agreeing with me. I fought the urge for as long as I could, but at last staggered up and out into the fog, leaving my friend snoring peacefully behind me. Stumbling clumsily over the rough ground in the dark, I went some way apart for privacy, and then gave way to nature.
I will draw a veil over the next hour or so. No doubt you can supply the details from your own experience. I will only say that it was a long time before I could face smoked meat again, and longer still before I trusted any food out of Ieuan's pack.
By the time I could once again take an interest in my surroundings, the fog above me was growing perceptibly lighter. Not, as I first thought, with dawn, but with the rising of the moon, a waning crescent faintly visible through the murk, whose appearance meant that day could not be far behind. I lay for a while watching her as she climbed above the shoulder of the hill, then, feeling the cold begin to bite deep, hauled myself wearily to my feet and turned toward the hut. It wasn't there.
I think now that in my quest for privacy, I had merely gone a little farther afield than I intended, but at the time it seemed a supernatural vanishing. Still, shivering and light-headed as I was, I pushed off in the direction where I thought the hut should be. A few minutes' stumble through the fog proved me wrong, but as I paused again, wondering what to do next, I saw a tall figure standing silent in the moon-silvered mist ahead of me. A few more steps, and I knew it for a standing stone, a massive dark-grey block like many another we had seen the afternoon before. In my confused state, it was a familiar friend, and I staggered forward to greet it, flinging an arm around it for support and gradually sliding down its moonward side to end sitting on the turf with my back against the stone. Wrapping my arms around myself for warmth, I sighed and closed my eyes, hoping that day would come soon.
Somewhere a hunting horn was blowing, and dogs were chasing a stag. I could hear them coming closer though the darkness, hear the horn and the hoofbeats and the baying of the hounds, shining white hounds with red ears, chasing a pure white deer. I knew what the huntsman would look like following such a pack, knew his dapple-grey horse and his grey hunting garb, grey as the mist around him; and I knew, too, his name. His name was Arawn.
Not many miles from where I sat was Glyn Cuch, the Frowning Glen where Pwyll Prince of Dyfed (of Gorsedd Arberth fame) had once while hunting seen another pack of dogs, chasing and killing a stag on his lands. He had driven off that pack, unearthly though they were, their bodies all shining white and their ears all shining red, and fed his own dogs on their kill, only to be interrupted by the hunter himself, who proved to be none other than Arawn, King of Annwn. Arawn threatened to punish Pwyll for his discourtesy by satirizing him to the value of a hundred stags, unless Pwyll first won his friendship by performing a task for him - and that was a fearful threat, for satire is the weapon of the bards, and in the hands of a master it can kill. And if a human bard's words can have such effect, how much more power might a verse composed by Arawn have over a mortal man?
Such, then, was the Hunter in the night, and such were my thoughts as I crouched at the base of the standing stone, and strained my eyes into the swirling mist around me. Distantly I saw the hunt come and pass, the wraith-like deer and the white hounds gleaming in the darkness. Dimly I saw the rider, grey-cloaked and grey-mounted, pass by, with his followers streaming behind him and the moon striking sparks of silver from their fittings and their horns. They came, and passed like thunder, and dwindled into silence, and I was alone with the moon, and the mist, and the coming dawn.
Or not quite alone. Out of the mist before me came the sound of footsteps, moving steadily over the turf toward me. Through the brightening mist a grey-cloaked figure was approaching, with the white shape of a hound trotting at his side. I stood up slowly, my back to the stone, to meet what was coming to me, my throat dry with more than the rigors of the night. My movement caught the dog's attention, and he started in my direction. I could almost see the Huntsman's face...
Then I was sitting at the foot of the standing stone, blinking up through the first light of morning at a puzzled shepherd who stood staring down at me while his dog licked my nose. "Man," he said, "don't you know you can catch your death, sittin' out like this o'night, in the fog and all?"
I grinned, and forced myself stiffly to my feet, feeling as if I had been beaten. Blows or wounds, or a wonder, was it? I had had full measure. "Never mind," I said, "it was a good dawn, and I seem to have survived it. Do you help me find my friend, who I think is still sleeping soundly in your hut, and set us on our road, and I'll bless you thrice over."
With the mist thinning fast before the rising sun, it took little enough time for him to do so, and before long Ieuan and I were dropping down over the shoulder of a hill to the village where we should have spent the night. We got a warm welcome there, and warmer sympathy from the shepherd's wife, who took us in and fed us. And of all the wonders I had seen that morning, the hot oat-cakes she baked for us on the hearth-stone were the most wonderful of all!
Afterwards as we walked I looked back often and often over my left shoulder at the slopes of Mynydd Preseli, as smooth and blue and serene as they had been the day before. They do say that stones from that peak were dragged by the men of old to Salisbury Plain, to build the Giant's Dance. Dragged, or it might be, floated there by magic...
But that is a story for another day.