Being the Wanderings of Gwernin Kyuarwyd
(c)1996 by G. R. Grove

Part IV: Dolaucothi

GOLD. It's a word that catches everyone's attention, isn't it? Certainly it caught mine that morning at Aberteifi, near the end of the feast which Ieuan and I had hastened so hard to attend, and which had proved so unprofitable to us after all.
Not because the lord of Aberteifi had been niggardly in his rewards, mind you, but because of Ieuan's weakness for gaming. I woke on the last morning of the feast to find myself a beggar, who had been feeling rich enough the night before. And all because Ieuan - who had been holding my purse while I performed, and kept it while I slept - was unable to resist the lure of a game of dice. It was no comfort that he had beggared himself along with me. All I had left was the clothes I stood up in, and my red-enameled brooch from Caer Dydd. It was little enough profit for two months' wandering.
So there I was, rather disconsolately eating bread and cheese in the lord's hall, while Ieuan babbled on beside me, trying to excuse himself, when the word gold caught my attention. "What's that you say?" I asked. "Gold? We could certainly use some!"
"Haven't I been telling you, then?" Ieuan sounded sullen, for which, in my opinion, there was no excuse. "It's a place where the old Romans used to mine, up in the hills to the east of here somewhere. Caradog knows where, he told me about it last night. He'll let us go in with him for shares."
"Was that before or after he won all our money at dice?" I asked sourly.
Ieuan brushed it off. "Never mind that, that was small stuff. This is our big chance. It'll make our fortunes for sure."
"Something had better." I crammed the last of the bread in my mouth and stood up, wiping my hands on my tunic. "All right, let's go talk to Caradog."
Caradog turned out to be a foxy-looking fellow with a thin beard and a lot of pointed yellow teeth, which he exposed frequently in what was supposed to be a smile. I took an instant dislike to him which further acquaintance did nothing to amend, but beggars, as they say, can't be choosers. After a certain amount of secretive behavior, casting suspicious glances at all about us in a manner calculated, I would have thought, to arouse curiosity where none existed, he was persuaded to part with the details of his plan - or should I say, his generous offer?
We would all contribute equally, he said, to the venture. His contribution would be the specialized knowledge necessary to find the gold and recover it, using techniques he had learnt while mining tin in Cornwall. Ours would be enough money or other valuables to feed us all for a month. We would all do equal amounts of the work, and share out the proceeds equally among us.
At this point I interrupted him to point out the obvious. "We haven't got any money or other valuables. You won them all from Ieuan here last night." With that I cast a look at Ieuan that should have withered him where he sat, but he remained defiantly unwithered. His mind was on gold.
"Ah!" said Caradog, scratching his scraggly beard. "Well, and it's because of that, don't you see, that I'm giving you this chance. Don't worry about your stake, I'll loan it to you, and you can pay me back out of your share of the gold."
"Thereby wiping out all our profits. I don't see the point."
"Gwernin!" said Ieuan in distress, and at the same time Caradog said, "No, no! Nowhere near that. I tell you, as rich as this thing is, you'll get back ten times your stake, easy."
"If it's a good as that," I said, kicking Ieuan under the table before he could interrupt again, "why should you want to share it with us?"
"Ah!" said Caradog again, and paused, looking around suspiciously. No one, so far as I could see, was paying us any attention; they were all going about their morning business in the hall. Nevertheless, Caradog bent forward and continued in a hoarse whisper. "It's because I need someone I can trust, see, and I like the look of you two. But if you don't fancy it, young master, why, just say so, and no hard feelings. There's plenty more would jump at the chance."
"Gwernin!" said Ieuan in smothered anguish. I sighed and kicked him again. "All right," I said. "We'll join you. Why not?"
"Ah!" said Caradog. "You won't regret this, youngster." Reaching for a pitcher of left-over breakfast ale, he filled our cups and raised his in a toast. "To success!" Ieuan drank eagerly, and I reluctantly. I would have been happier if I could have been sure to whose success I was drinking.
Shortly after that the feasting party broke up, and we shouldered our severely lightened packs and started off with Caradog. The Romans, as he explained while we walked, when they first came into Britain, had cast about for the source of British gold, in order to take it over and mine it themselves for their own treasury. Some of it they had found in the North, and some in Gwynedd and Meirionydd, but the best gold mine in all of Britain, it seemed, had proved to be right here in the mountains of Ceredigion, at Dolaucothi.
The Romans, said Caradog, had conquered the Silures of south Cymru just to get Dolaucothi, and once they got it, had set themselves up in business there with all their slaves and overseers and so forth, with a little fort stuffed full of soldiers as well, just to protect the mine. They had kept on mining for years and years, and then for some reason the soldiers had to leave - it might have been when Macsen Wledig marched on Rome. And then all the overseers and slaves and such had felt uneasy, and left as well, and never came back, leaving a great heap of ore behind them, rich as rich, and all ready to process, which nobody but himself knew anything about... That, at any rate, was Caradog's story, or at least the gist of it. I found myself talking like him sometimes, after a while. It's catching.
So off we went, as I said, to Dolaucothi, and gods! If I thought I had seen hard marching before, I knew nothing about it! Two days up the Afon Teifi[11], falling in and out of swamps and fords and thickets, until even I was sick of the sight of alder[12], which is saying a lot! Then east, on stretches of road that were sometimes straight enough to suggest the Romans' handiwork, but naked of any suggestion of paving. These led us for three more days over what seemed the backbone of the world, seeing few people, living on cheese and stale oakcakes and cold spring water, and sleeping rough. I wondered more than once why Caradog hadn't recruited his workforce closer to the mine, but something held me back from asking. By the time we came dropping down into the valley of the little Afon Cothi on the evening of the fifth day, I was ready for a rest. I didn't get it.
Under Caradog's direction, we took up residence in the ruins of one of the Romans' old buildings - a stable, I think it may have been - and started to work. Our first task was cleaning out the remains of one of the old aqueducts in order to get a trickle of water down to the mine. Then there were the water tanks to clean out and repair, and a sort of bedrock trench to muck out as well, with only the three of us to shift two hundred years' accumulation of sand and silt and mud. I say three, but I noticed after a while that when the hardest work was being done, Caradog was nowhere around. He was always off organizing more materials, or down buying our food at the inn which had sprouted up like a grey stone mushroom in the ruins of the old fortress buildings, or up the hill checking the ditch for leaks or blockages - anywhere but on the end of a shovel.
Ieuan and I stuck it out, though, with hardly a grumble. We had the gold fever bad by then. Our clothes went to rags, and our hands to blisters and broken nails and calluses, until we looked like a couple of wild hairy savages from the back of the north wind, rather than two civilized strolling entertainers, but we made nothing of it. We were going to be rich.
The big day arrived when we were ready to run the sluice - that was the bedrock trench, you understand. After mucking it out, we had refilled it with load after weary load of broken ore from the Romans' stockpile. Then we opened the gate to the tanks, and let all our hoarded water out in a rush. It plunged down the sluice in fine style, washing away all the lighter rock and leaving behind - we hoped! - the gold. At least, that was the theory.
It wasn't quite so neat in practice, partly because we didn't have as much water as we'd have liked. Still, it reduced the material in the bottom of the trench considerably. The next step, said Caradog enthusiastically, was hand-cobbing. This, I found, meant hand-sorting all the bigger rocks and pebbles out of the trench into buckets, and carting them away, leaving us finally with a few dozen bucket-loads of sandy mud in the bottom of the trench, which Caradog assured us contained the gold. This precious material we carried to the nearest water tank, where it had to be washed - by hand! - in flat wooden platters until only the gold was left, a back-breaking task in the hot afternoon sun. Of course, we only had two platters, but it didn't matter, because Caradog disappeared again before we were through - I suspect to the inn.
That afternoon, though, I finally saw some gold. Only a couple of tiny flakes at the bottom of my first pan, but I told myself there'd be more in the next one, or the next one after that. Sometimes there was, a whole clump of little gold spangles, or maybe a angular little golden blob. Sometimes there was nothing at all. Still, by the time the shadows of the mountains to the west came creeping over us and made it too dark to work, we each had a palm-full of gold dust for our trouble, with maybe three quarters of our clean-up still to go. Caradog, strolling back from the inn in the twilight, seemed discretely pleased. Tomorrow, he said, carefully scooping our gold into a little deerskin bag, would be even better.
And it was. We worked from when the sun first peeked over the ridge to the east, until the western mountains swallowed it up again. And what work it was! I could see why the Romans used slaves. It's had to imagine anyone in their right mind working that hard for a few flakes of metal. But then, we were mad - gold-mad! - not to mention bankrupt. We really had no choice. Or so I told myself, as the gold slowly - how slowly! - piled up.
One more day, said Caradog, scooping up our harvest that evening, and that would be the best day yet. Then we could go our separate ways, with a fat poke for each of us as reward for our month's work. New clothes, horses to make our traveling easier - and for me, I thought secretly, a harp, and a chance of finally becoming a real bard. Though looking at my laborer's hands, I knew it would be a while before I could start learning to play it.
The last day's clean-up, scraped from the very bottom of the trench, surpassed all expectations. As the weary hours passed and the gold mounted up, I began to believe it was all true. Caradog was the best of good fellows, a worthy bearer of his noble name, and Ieuan's passion for gambling became in retrospect a virtue. When Caradog poured all our gold together that evening into one of the wooden trays, and divided it into three carefully equal piles before transferring it to more of his deerskin bags, I felt an excitement that I had previously found only in performance. Tired as I was, I doubted I would be able to sleep that night.
"Well, lads," said Caradog, hefting our spoils, "we've done ourselves proud! Let's drink to our good fortune!" And with that he bent and hauled out from under his bench an actual skin of wine, real wine such as princes and nobles drink. "Brought up here special for us," he said, breaking the wax on the end with his knife and twisting out the leather-wrapped stopper. "Nothing's too good for us now, lads. Drink up!" And he filled our wooden cups to the brim with the pungent blood-red stuff.
I choked on the first swallow, but the rest went down easier, and the next cup easier still. A sovereign remedy, I thought - my eyes crossing slightly - against all discomfort. Under its influence all my aches and pains melted away, until I'd never felt so good in my life. Or, suddenly, so sleepy. I felt I could sleep for a week. But overnight, as it turned out, was long enough.
When we woke up, of course, Caradog was gone, and all the gold with him. Bleary-eyed as we were, it took a little while for the awful truth to sink in, but there was really no room for denial.
"Leave it," I said after a while, breaking in on Ieuan's colorful description of what he'd do to Caradog when he found him. "We won't catch him. He's had all night to be gone in, and the wherewithal to buy the best horse in the valley to go on. If we find him somewhere else, it's our word against his. Come on, let's see if the inn-folk will let us work for our breakfast - and hope it doesn't involve a shovel!"
Later that morning, while I was mucking out the stable at the inn, I heard the sound of trotting horses. Into the yard rode half a dozen mounted men, light-armed with swords and daggers, and in their midst, with his hands tied before him and his horse on a leading rein, was our old friend Caradog.
"Good day to you, Lord," called the inn-keeper from his doorway. "I see you got him."
"We did indeed, just as you said, with the gold from my land in his saddlebags." Sitting at ease on his big bay horse, the red-cloaked leader of the troop was smiling. "We're looking now for his two companions, who he says are still here."
"Ah, and there's one of them now, my lord," cried Caradog, gesturing at me with his bound hands. "It was them as led me into it, they did, almost forced me to join them!"
"So much so that you were escaping from them in the dawn?" But the leader was looking at me with interest nevertheless. "And who might you be, young fellow?"
"Only a wandering storyteller, Lord," I said. "Down on my luck, and forced to work for my breakfast."
"Indeed, Lord, and I think that's true," said the inn-keeper, with a wink at me. "Certainly, I never saw this lad nor his friend up at the mine" - and that was true enough, for he'd never come up there! - "and they do seem to be poor, harmless folk. I doubt they'd be mucking out my stable if they had gold in their purses."
"Gold, is it you're seeking?" I said. "And stolen? Lord, if you can find aught of gold in my gear or my friend's, then by Pryderi's pigs! May I drop down dead before you from pure astonishment!"
"I believe you," said the young lord, casting a smiling glance at Caradog, who sat fuming in red-faced silence - for to accuse us further was to brand himself doubly a thief! "And your words convince me you are a reciter as well. Come, then, to my court at Lampeter, and tell your stories for our Midsummer feast there in three days time, and perhaps I can amend your poverty." Then, gathering his reins and speaking to his followers, "Ride on, lads. It seems we still have two thieves to catch, who" - and he glanced again in amusement at Caradog - "would certainly not be earning their breakfasts by useful labor, being far too well provided with their share of stolen gold!"
Later that morning I walked away from Dolaucothi without a backward glance, through a fine summer's day bright with bird-song and more beautiful than any gold. And the next time I went looking for treasure in the earth, it was in a different form, and did not involve a shovel.
But that is a story for another day.

To reference footnotes [11-12]

To Part V

To Teithiau Prydeineg, Guernen's "Wanderings" page.

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