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

Part V: Aber Dyfi

Our golden weather had gone at last, squandered at Dolaucothi in our search for lesser gold. It had seen us as far as Lampeter and the Midsummer Festival there, and two days farther, up the straight white Roman road that led north through Tregaron and the green hills of Ceredigion. Then, when we were nearing Aberystwyth, the heavens opened and the rain poured down in torrents. Five days latter, it was still pouring.
Leaning on the door-post of the hut where we were staying, I watched the grey veils of rain marching eastward up the Aber Dyfi, blotting out the hills beyond as they went. In Cymraeg[13] the word glas can mean green, or blue, or grey; that afternoon, it described the whole landscape. The innumerable music of the rain was everywhere, drumming softly on the thatched roof, dripping from the eves, and splashing in the puddles that covered most of the farmyard. The dust of the summer roads had turned to rivers of mud, and I knew without being told that the Afon Dyfi[14]would be roaring over her ford at Machynlleth, too deep by far for our crossing. We might yet wear out our welcome in this friendly countryside.
With a sigh, I turned away from the rain, back to the room within, and the company assembled there. It was time for another story.
Morag, the farmer's comely wife, looked up smiling from her loom as my shadow crossed her web. "Would you be for telling us another tale, then, Gwernin, dear, to pass the afternoon?"
"I would." Mentally I totted up my resources. The two nights and days Ieuan and I had already spent at Tre Pencae[15] since arriving soaked and weary on their doorstep at twilight had used up most of my usual stock of tales. Still, I had one or two left...
I looked around the room assessingly as I thought. The place was all one big thatched roundhouse in the old British style, not like the squared-off Roman villas I had seen here and there on my travels. In the middle of the room was a central hearth on which the fire never went out from one Beltane to the next, and over it hung a big bronze cauldron with our supper stew cooking in it. All the other activities of the household were arranged around the room as space permitted, with Morag's loom nearest the door to catch the available light. A bed-place in the back, separated off by wicker-work and hanging rugs, gave her and her husband some privacy at night; everyone else, children and farm-hands and guests alike, slept wherever they could find space, on the benches around the walls, or on the hard-packed earth near the fire, or in the smoky gloom of the half-loft above. The farmer and his men were out somewhere about the steading now, rain or no rain, but the rest of the household - four women, seven children, and a dog or two - were all watching me expectantly. Even my friend Ieuan, mending a boot in the far corner, who had by now heard most of my stories more often than he liked, looked faintly interested at the prospect of entertainment. It was better than watching the rain.
The sight of Ieuan reminded me of our recent attempt at gold mining, brought on by an acute lack of money. And that in turn reminded me of a story... I took a deep breath and smiled at my audience. "Did you ever hear the Tale of Arthur the Soldier and the Three Truths?"
"No, never," said Morag happily. "So sit you down and tell it to us, do. We've time aplenty to fill before supper's done." There was a chorus of agreement from the household, and as usual seven-year-old Gwion, the oldest boy of the brood, sat himself solemnly down at my feet, fixing his black eyes on my face as if prepared to memorize my every word. Behind him his grandmother added wool to her distaff, and Morag's sister Heledd, who had been turning the last of the oatcakes baking beside the fire, took up her spindle again and settled down to listen.
"Everyone knows the adventures of Arthur the High King," I began, "Arthur of the Twelve Battles who freed us from the Saxon threat for a generation. But this is a story of Arthur before he became king, when he was still only Arthur the Soldier, War Leader of Britain." I looked around the room. Except for three-year-old Dafydd, busy trying to pull the ears off a big black hound lying by the hearthstone, everyone was listening intently, so I went on.
"Now the trouble with being a War Leader is that soldiers expect to be rewarded for their efforts. And even when someone else pays them - when all the different kings and princes and chieftains raise their own war-bands and bring them on campaign - there is still the question of supplies, of food and drink for the army and all their camp-followers and servants, and pack-horses, and wagons, and tents, and so forth. So the one thing a War Leader can never get enough of is treasure, and Arthur was no exception. At the time of my story, he and some of his friends - just Bedwyr and Cai and a few others - had come into western Britain to try and talk the local kings and princes out of more gold for the next year's campaigning. And he was having hard going at it.
"They had gathered at Dinas Emrys, one of Cadwallon Lawhir's seats close up under the shoulder of Yr Wyddfa[16], and after a few days of this, Arthur was ready for a break. So when someone reported that a white stag had been seen on the mountain, and suggested a day's hunting, he was all for it.
Early the next morning, then, they mounted their horses and started for the slopes of Yr Wyddfa. It was a cold, quiet morning, with the scent lying high, such as comes sometimes in late October. Presently the huntmen found traces of the stag, and the hounds were off baying on its tracks, with all the hunters following close behind them. Higher and higher up the mountain they went, until the ground was too steep for riding, and they had to leave their horses behind them. But they kept on regardless.
"It had been fair enough weather when they started, but before long the clouds came drifting in from the west and gathered around the peaks, dropping lower as the hunters climbed. So it came to pass that sometime in the late afternoon, Arthur and his party, still intent on their hunt, suddenly found themselves overtaken by a drifting bank of mist, that came creeping around a crag and engulfed them before they knew what they were about.
"It was a good thick mountain mist, cold and grey and damp. Strung out across the hillside as they were, Arthur and his men lost sight of each other between one stride and the next. They called out, of course, trying to regroup, but it was no use. The more they yelled and searched for each other, the more they drifted apart. Arthur called and searched as hard as any, but after a while he realized that he could no longer hear any voice but his own. He was alone in the mist, high up on the slopes of Yr Wyddfa, and the light was fading. Soon it would be dark.
"Now if ever there was anyone good at grasping a situation, it was Arthur. So he set himself to work to find some sort of shelter, where he could pass the night in reasonable comfort. Picking his way carefully along the hillside in the drifting mist, he found a sort of overhanging cliff, with a hollow bit at the back, like a cave. As he made his way into it, he found that it was a cave, and a good sized one at that. He was just blessing his good fortune, when somewhere towards the back of the cave, he saw a blink of light in the gloom, and at the same time, he smelled wood-smoke.
"Now this gave him pause, for Arthur knew as well as you do what sort of unchancy things can live in mountain caves." My audience nodded back, big-eyed. They'd heard the stories, too. "Still, what with the wet and gloomy weather outside - did I mention that the mist was changing into rain? - he decided to chance it. There was no point in lingering in the front porch, so to speak, waiting for whatever was in there to come out and surprise him. So Arthur summoned up his courage and started deeper into the cave.
"As he picked his way down the passage, the lighter got stronger and stronger, until at last he could see it was a fire burning on a hearth in the middle of the cavern ahead of him. Over the fire there was a tripod, and beside it stood an immense black cauldron. And on the far side of the cauldron was a pile of treasure, gold and gems, cups and arm-rings and brooches, and every kind of precious thing you ever saw or heard of, all sparkling in the light of the fire.
"Now Arthur, as I've told you, had just been spending his days trying of squeeze the smallest amount of valuables out of the lords of Gwynedd. So this heap of treasure drew him as a feast would a starving man. There were other strange and wonderful things in the cavern, but he had eyes for none of them. He looked at the treasure, and he looked back down the passage, and he stood still and listened. There was no sound but the crackling of the fire on the hearth and his own hasty breathing. He was alone.
"Surely, he thought, the possessor of so great a mound of treasure would never miss one or two small bits of it. And after all, it was for the best of causes, the defense of Britain against her enemies. So he picked up a couple of gold coins, and put them in his pouch. And then a brooch. And an arm-ring. And a few more coins. Before he knew it, his pouch was full, and he was dropping valuables down the front of his tunic above his belt, and taking off his cloak to make a bag of it. There was still plenty of treasure remaining. Indeed, it seemed that the more he took, the more there was left.
At last, when he had as much as he could stagger with - and that was a lot, for Arthur was a strong warrior - he turned to leave, for it seemed to him now that a night spent on the hillside in the rain might well be a better choice than waiting in the cave for its owner to come home. And as he turned, what do you suppose he heard?"
"Footsteps," breathed ten-year-old Gwen from beside the fire, where she had been separating her youngest brother from the impatient hound.
"That's right. He heard the sound of footsteps, coming down the passage toward him." I paused and looked around the room at my audience. Everyone was waiting in varying degrees of suspense. Even Ieuan sat frozen, boot in one hand and leather thong in the other, his task forgotten. I smiled and went on.
"Down the passage toward Arthur was coming a very large man. He was so big that he walked stooped over, with his hairy shoulders brushing the roof above him and his huge hands hanging down by his knees. As he came into the light of the fire, Arthur thought that he had never seen such an ill-favored person in his life. Then he caught a glimpse of the old woman who was following the giant, and changed his mind.
"'And what might you be doing here, man?' asked the giant in a deep voice.
"'Ah - I was just sheltering from the rain,' replied Arthur. 'But I don't want to disturb you. I'll be going now.' And he took a step toward the passage.
"'Not so fast,' said the giant, and with a huge hand he grabbed Arthur by the shoulder. 'I think you have something there of mine.'
"Now the grip of the giant's hand was stronger than the grip of ten men, so that sweat sprang to Arthur's forehead for the very pain of it. But he stood quietly and smiled. 'Why, what do you mean?' he asked.
"'Just this,' said the giant, and lifting Arthur suddenly off the ground, he shook him as a dog shakes a rat. "Gold went flying everywhere. Jewels and coins bounced ringing off the cauldron, and drew sparks from the fire. Bracelets and torcs and arm-rings rolled across the floor, and one gold-mounted, ruby-studded drinking horn sailed clear across the room and struck a great harp standing there with a clang and a clatter and a ringing of strings. When at last the shower of gold ended, the giant set Arthur back on his feet, but kept a grip on his shoulder. 'Well, Mum,' he said to the hag grimly, 'what shall I do with this thief?'
"The hag looked Arthur over from his head down to his heels and back again. 'Ah,' she said at last, 'do you tie a bit of string around him and throw him in the corner there. Happen we'll be glad of him come breakfast time, for it's empty the pot is now.' And she nodded at the great cauldron standing waiting beside the fire.
"'I will,' said the giant, and he whipped out a hairy length of rope, and before Arthur could so much as lift a finger, he was tied up tighter than a bundle of twigs, and cast into the far corner of the room, with a verminous old sheepskin thrown over him 'to keep him warm', as his hosts put it.
"Well, of all the uncomfortable nights that poor Arthur ever spent, this one was one of the worst. The rope around him was rough and strong and very tightly tied, so that after a while he could hardly feel his hands and feet. The ground under him was jagged stone, and however much he squirmed around, some bits of it were always sticking into him - and it was cold as ice as well! And the sheepskin, which was supposed to keep him warm, was so well populated that he would most certainly have been very much happier without it. But worse than any of these discomforts was the thought of the cauldron, and what might happen to him in the morning. That fear alone would have kept him sleepless though the night.
"As he lay there, squirming and itching and aching, he was aware of music, the most beautiful music he had ever heard. Craning his head out from under the sheepskin, Arthur saw that the source of the music was the giant, playing his harp beside the fire. Now Arthur thought he had heard great harping before in his life. Only a few days since, he had listened to Talhaearn Tad Awen[17], greatest of all the bards, playing at Cadwallon's court, and the spell of that music had been such as to call the birds down from the trees, and the stags out of the forest, and the salmon up from the depths of the sea. But the harping of the giant was to all other music as the flowing ocean is to a little brook. The beauty and majesty and wonder of it wrapped Arthur so around, that he forgot all his troubles and wept for pure joy. And at last, worn out, he fell asleep.
"The next thing he knew, it was morning. The sheepskin was lifted off him abruptly, and while he was still blinking, the giant plucked him out of his corner and set him, still bound, on his feet. Arthur saw that the fire had been built up and the great cauldron set in place above it, with a little steam rising from its maw. The giant drew a knife from his belt and set to sharpening it, wheet, wheet, wheet, on a whetstone. 'Well, Mam,' he said to the hag, 'what do you think?'
"The hag looked Arthur over from his head down to his heels and back again, her eyes very bright and knowing under the rook's-nest of her grey hair. 'Ah,' she said after a bit, 'it's a bonny lad he is, and right enough, though there's not overmuch honesty in him. It seems a pity to waste him, when a sheep would serve as well.' And she gave a cackle of mirth. 'I'll tell you what, my lad,' she said, addressing herself to Arthur, 'if you can speak me three undoubted truths before the kettle boils, I'll let you go.'
Arthur looked at the cauldron, and saw the steam was thickening above it. After the night he had spent, his head felt solid as a block of wood, and his tongue like a strip of old boot-leather in his mouth. Gazing around desperately for inspiration, he saw the harp sitting silent to one side, and remembered last night's wonderful music. Looking at the giant, Arthur said without thinking, 'You are the best harper I have ever heard!'
"'Aye,' said the hag, holding up a boney finger. 'That's one!" And looking around at her, Arthur realized he had spoken his first truth.
"From the corner of his eye, he could see the steam over the kettle was thickening fast. Nevertheless, he couldn't help staring at the hag. To say that she was unattractive is like saying that the weather outside today is a trifle damp." There were grins from the household at this; the rain was currently roaring on the roof like a waterfall. "The longer Arthur looked at her, the more she amazed him, and without thinking, he said, 'You are the ugliest woman I have ever seen!'"
There was a collective gasp from my audience, mixed with nervous giggles, but I ignored them and went on. "'Aye,' said the hag," I said, "'and that's two!' And she held up another finger." And I held up a second finger as well.
"Arthur cudgeled his brains in search of inspiration, but his wits seemed to have gone right out of him. He looked around the room again, but nothing came to him. The cauldron was starting to make the sort of muttering noise that comes just before it boils, and the giant had begun sharpening his knife again, wheet, wheet, wheet, in a sort of counterpoint to the sound. Arthur looked at the knife, and he looked at the heap of golden treasure which had seemed so valuable to him the night before, and he looked along the passage to where the first sweet grey light of morning was just beginning to bloom. And without thinking, he said, 'If I once get out of here, I will never come back again!' "'Aye,' said the hag, 'and that's three!' And the cauldron boiled.
"Quick as a wink, the giant grabbed Arthur by the hair, and with his knife cut the ropes that bound him. 'Go on, then,' he said, turning him loose, 'and keep your word while you can!'
"Arthur took to his heels without a backward glance, and what he had said, he made good. As long as he lived, he remembered that some things are more valuable than gold, and he never came near that part of Yr Wyddfa again. And neither, I can tell you, have I!" And I leaned back in my chair with a sigh, as if I were the one released.
"Ah!" said Morag, when the murmurs of appreciation had died away. "That was a good story, my dear, almost as good as one of our master's. And now, unless I'm wrong, it's time we all had a bite and a sup. Cynan, Rhys, Bleiddig, get you out of those wet clothes and into something dry first, you're all soaked to the skin!" And I saw that the men had come in quietly from the farmyard while I talked, and were standing grinning inside the doorway behind me, having listened to the end of the story. So in the ensuing bustle, I never found out the meaning of Morag's remark.
Sometime in the night the weather changed, and we woke the next morning to a new world, still damp from its birth and steaming in the sunlight. Our hosts saw us on our way after breakfast with many kind wishes, and a packet of oat-cakes and cheese for our nooning, and the children waved after us from the gateway for as long as we could see them.
Three days later, looking back south to the green hills across the Aber Dyfi - we had had to wait at the ford as I had expected - I thought again of Tre Pencae, and the strange feeling of belonging I had felt now and again during my stay there. And just for a moment, walking in bright sunlight, I felt cold rain on my face, and tears blurred my vision so that I stumbled on a smooth path.
"What is it?" asked Ieuan from behind me. "Walking in your sleep again?"
"Something like that," I said frowning. It was long and long before I found out the meaning of my moment's vision. I know it now, of course, know it all too well...
But that is truly a story for another day.

To reference footnotes [13-17]

To Part VI

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

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