Part V: Aber Dyfi
When Brān looked out from Harddlech, he had quite a view.
So I was thinking, one fine summer evening as I leaned against the turf ramparts of Harddlech and looked out west over the sea. The Beautiful Rock has been inhabited time out of mind, though seldom by very many folk at one time. The fort itself is nothing much for most of its circumference - a turf rampart designed as much to keep sheep and babies from falling into the sea as to keep out raiders - but it doesn't need to be. The Rock herself drops almost sheer for two-score paces to the water, which laps around her feet at high tide. And the view is stupendous.
To the north you can see right across Morfa Harddlech and the Afon Dwyryd to where the mountains of Eryri climb toward the sky - to Yr Wyddfa herself on a clear day. To the north-west and west and south-west, the whole great length of the Lleyn Peninsula runs out toward Ireland, as if Gwenydd was stretching out an arm toward her in friendship. Though in Brān's day, of course, it was the other way round - or so it started.
You've heard the story, I expect - how Brān the Blessed, King of Britain, looked out from Harddlech and saw the fleet of Matholwch, King of Ireland, coming toward him over the sea, coming to ask for the hand of Bran's sister Branwen in marriage. How Brān gave her to him, and the heartbreak that followed. How Efnisien her half-brother took offense at the match and gave great insult to the Irishmen, so that even though Brān patched things up and made reparations, the memory lingered with them and turned to hatred of Branwen, and abuse of her. How this led to war in its turn, Brān coming with an army to lay waste to Ireland; and the further ill-doing of Efnisien, when he killed Branwen's little son Gwern, to whom Matholwch would have resigned his kingship, by thrusting him into the fire; and the great slaughter that followed on both sides. How Efnisien in remorse sacrificed himself to overcome the Irish by bursting apart their cauldron of regeneration, and burst his own heart in the process; and how Brān got his death-wound from a poisoned spear, and commanded his followers to strike off his head, and bear it back to Britain with them. How Branwen herself died finally of grief that those two great countries had been laid waste because of her, and was buried on the banks of Afon Alaw by the pitiful remnant of Brān's forces who returned... "Yes, when we went with Brān, sad journey, save seven, none came back from Iwerddon."
The words were so much in tune with my own thoughts that it was a moment before I realized someone else has spoken. Then I turned to look at the person beside me.
Not a large man, he was, and yet not small. Not young, somehow, and yet certainly not old. His shoulder-length dark hair was untouched with grey, but his face was mature, and not that of a youth. An ordinary-looking man, and yet not ordinary; hard to describe, but also hard to forget. Even so, I thought, might Bran's brother, Manawydan mab Llyr himself, have looked after the Irish expedition. So quietly had he come that I had heard nothing until he spoke. But certainly he was here now, leaning on the rampart beside me as if he had grown there and gazing out over the sea.
I nodded slowly. "Such words were also in my mind."
"Back with us bore we Brān's head, as he himself had bade us." My companion spoke softly and musingly, as if talking to himself alone. "Eight years were we at Harddlech, and four-score more at Gwales, and in all that time his head was to us as pleasant a companion as ever when he was alive. So feasting and forgetting stayed we there, till at last one amongst us opened the door that looks toward Cornwall, and with that opening memory rushed in, and we knew our loss, and felt the heavy burden of our grief fall upon us. On the White Mount, then, we buried Brān's head, as he himself had bade us, and it kept the coasts of Britain clear, until Arthur dug it up. And that was an evil day."
I stared at him, feeling the short hairs creep on the back of my neck, and a shiver go up my spine. It was not just the resonant story-teller's voice, or the finely-phrased delivery. He spoke as one who had himself truly been there, and seen all that he described. "Sir..."
The stranger gave himself a little shake, as one coming out of a dream, and smiled. "Forgive me, I am a poet, and we speak ever in riddles." He looked at me intently, his eyes very blue and piercing, so that I felt suddenly naked to his gaze. "And you, I think, are also a bard."
I shook my head. "No, I'm afraid I am not - or at any rate, not yet. Only a wandering storyteller am I."
"No very bad thing to be." He was still smiling slightly. "From your speech I think you come from eastern Powys."
"I do indeed. From Pengwern the beautiful come I, where Cynan Garwyn has his court on the banks of Severn River."
"I know it well." His gaze softened; he turned back toward the sea. "Be patient, Gwernin. All things will come in their time."
Something about him stirred a chord in my memory. And he knew my name. Abruptly I asked, "Sir... Forgive me, but have we met before?"
"Met? Not - exactly." He shook his head slowly. "No, not exactly. But I think that we will meet again." He was still looking away, and my gaze followed his, far, far out over the water toward the west, where the sun was now sinking, dropping slowly through the clouds toward the edge of the world, bright sun-dazzle dancing on blue water, blazing, blinding...
I blinked and shook myself, my eyes watering from the light into which I had been staring. I turned to my companion to make some comment, but he was gone, disappeared as quietly as he had come, leaving only the empty air behind him. Nor did I see him that evening in the headman's house, where I and my friend Ieuan alone provided the entertainment. He seemed to have vanished away with the wind, as if he had never been there and I had imagined the whole.
I did meet him again, of course - he was right about that, as he is about most such things. But that is a story for another day.