Devon weather is not for everyone, I admit. Today sea, hill and sky are all the same churning grey and the rains jagged like a lively slash from Zoros blade. A day for a woodpile and pots of tea and maybe a visit from a friend or two as darkness falls. I’ve been on the road; first Sweden and then Canada: grateful for the experience and grateful to be home to catch the moment when Devon curves from autumn into winter. This weather will take the last leaves from the trees and then a drop in temperature and – boom – we’re in. In honour of my absence from writing here, this is something brand new; the first section of my telling of Pwyll and Rhiannon – to long to lay out in one heave.
Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed,
had it in his mind to hunt.
And not just in his mind, but his heart, his whole constitution, to plunge deer tracks deep into the precinct of his kingdom they call Glyn Cuch. Compelled that day to push further, to loosen himself. Over the crunch of hazel nut and dying bracken he galloped, each green gully a station further from his everyday life. Each acre a doorway into the dreaming.
Supported by entourage, with hounds padding his hooves, when he blew his horn he became suddenly separated from his men. It was if he banished them with the note. What arose in their place was the Wyrd – the thrumming hurl of chase, the crash of stag, the yap chatter of mutts elevated suddenly to the power of a choir, but sung by beasts that were not his own. And it was those dogs that caught him, halted him, it was their ghost shape. White as milk, almost glowing, ears scarlet, like jugs of blood.
But still he pushed on, making passage for his own hounds to take the prize. Rallying his horse in circles to scatter the other dogs. Greed overrode occult knowing. As he squatted in the gutting river of blood, feeding his hounds, it was also some dying part of himself he was beholding. From the trees, a Grey Rider cantered to him: austere, otherly, clearly a noble. A visitor from the Other Place.
‘I know you but I will not greet you.’ He spoke. ‘That you would take another ones hunt. That you would drive away such hounds. Tsch. I will not take revenge, but know this: I will bring shame upon you to the value of a hundred stags.’
To avoid such horror, Pwyll took a strange penance. The grey rider was Arawn, King of Annwfn, and he swiftly reported a way of culling the debt, though not without labour. You must know that Annwfn carries more than the scent of faerie. It is the nearest Otherworld to ours.
Arawn laid out terms: ‘A chiefs territory crashes against mine, crashes like storm waves on Anglesey, he’s like a gull that break the necks of chicks. A bully. I can’t endure it, but I can’t quite win either. But you: I note your hero shape, how the woods bend towards you. With my magics I will give you my form, and no one, not even my wife or warriors will know it is not me. For a year you will share her goodly bed, taste clear wine in cup, enjoy chops on your plate – and then you will go to the ford and meet him in single combat. His name? Hafgan.
You will defeat him with one death-blow. Just one. Resist the heat of a killers arm. Because he will bound gladly up again, prick-stiff and laughing if you rain the blows down. They will revive him. I know this through sour experience.
I will go to your land and preside, I will take your posture. No one will know’.
And from then on, the strange twinning began.
And it was just as Arawn said it would be.
Arawns wife was a magnificence; it was hard to look at her. But at night, when she lay, warm and attentive in the dark next to Pwyll, he lay not one finger on her body. All year it would be the same. During the day he would be more than civil; engaging, friendly, a wit – but at night he would turn his face to the wall and that would be that. And all around the court the forest would breathe with the Queen in her loneliness.
The day came for the
meeting at the grey ford
Pwyll no longer
in the jaunty silks of court
no longer heartened
by harp and keg
but leathered, trained, terrible
no weakness anywhere
as it must be
when you meet
at the grey ford
Each day in Arawns shape had given one drop of luck and strength to Pwyll, so his road in the fight was of fire and swiftness, an absolutely unconquerable thing. His blow split the boss of Hafgans shield, there was a wrench-grind-and-shatter of armour, and he flew the length of his nag and spear-shaft till he thumped vicious ground. From the tree line, Death the mid-wife tilted her head.
Hafgan bartered: ‘there is no way back to life for me after such a blow. No more spring bloom, no wine-maidens, no wintering tales. Please. Finish it.’
Pwyll countered: ‘the surety of your death is for you to negotiate. I will not bless your lustre with a second blow, sorcerer.’
With that, Hafgans nobles, encouraged by their lord, swore allegiance to Pwyll, and in doing so saved their lives. Hafgans closest officers removed him from the ford for his dying time.
All shame lifted, Pywll as lion shook obligation from his shoulders and made his way back to Glyn Cuch; lighter, confirmed in some way. The Grey Rider was waiting. In old, sing-song magic, the two man shifted shape and shot back into their true frames, blinking and laughing at their bodies right feeling.
Arawn was happy to meet his warriors, to ruff the head of his hounds, to settle in his chair by the fire, but happiest of all was he to meet his wife. None, of course, any the wiser that they had not truly seen him for one year. He looked from the corner of his eye: there was no largeness of the Queens belly, no sickness at the feast. And when later he reached for her in bed she came to him like a powerful, long rumoured but rarely glimpsed river meets an ocean.
When the Grey Rider realised the quietness of his marital bed that last year, he confessed the strange arrangement, and absorbed the depth of his new friends surety. His wife was never more luminous to him than that night.
On Pwyll’s return, he found he had never ruled so well by not actually being there: never so generous, even-handed, like a high kestrel in his far ranging perceptions. The land, the animals, the people flourished. From that day, a rare thing leapt between the two chiefs: genuine friendship. They would send each other favoured hounds, horses, hawks, jewels. Goblets are still raised to their fellowship. Dyfed itself was twinned with Annwfn, the Otherworld, a braided knot. A pressure-point in the ancient body of Britain.
copyright Martin Shaw 2015