Storyteller: Chapter 1 - Ghosts

Blood and fire, gold and steel and poetry, a river’s voice in the silence of the night, and the shining strings of a harp—all these and more I have known in my time. Steep mountains, dark forests, and the endless song of the rain; music and laughter and feasting in the fire-bright halls of kings; a dusty road, and a fast horse, and a good friend beside me; and the sweet taste of the mead of Dun Eidyn, with its bitter after-math: a dragon’s hoard of memories I have gathered, bright-colored as a long summer’s day. Now they are all gone, the men and women I knew when I was young, gone like words on the wind, and I am left here in the twilight to tell you their tale. Sit, then, and listen if you will to the words of Gwernin Kyuarwyd, called Storyteller.

The place which men name Caerllion, the City of the Legions, lies on the low banks of the river Wysg not far from the sea in south Wales. Even when I first came there it was ruinous, and that was a long lifetime ago. But many men’s lifetimes had already passed since the Eagles who built it flew south from Britain and left us on our own, to sink or swim as we could against the Saxon tide. Arthur held them for a while, checked their advance and forced them back into their beachheads of the south and east, and gave us time to breathe. But Arthur died at Camlann three years before I was born, and how long now we can hold the crumbling sea wall he built is anyone’s guess. Many a kingdom has gone under already; many a fair fortress lies now beneath that wave. I wonder if I shall not, before I die, see my fair Pengwern herself laid waste, and Cynan’s halls home to the wolf and the raven…

But I was speaking of Caerllion, and the wonder that lies there. I saw it first on a mild evening in late spring, when my friend Ieuan and I came humping our packs over the last hill-crest to the east, and saw the hearth-smoke rising from amongst the gray stone ruins at either end of the bridge. Time had not treated Caerllion kindly; the villagers’ huts for the most part were reed-thatched shells of houses that had once been crowned in red tile, with wattle and daub filling gaps here and there in their crumbling walls. Only a few buildings near the river gate were still in use; the rest of that stone-walled enclosure was full of broken rubble half grown up in alder and oak scrub, a tangled wilderness where once were only the straight lines that the Romans so loved. In the midst of it all crouched a great brown block like a small hill, its top green with grasses and willow-herb, a silent presence brooding over all the rest. Tumble-down walls and fortresses I had seen before—indeed, I was born in one, though I remember little enough of it, before the Black Year came to sweep away that life and send me to my aunt’s house in Pengwern—but this was something new, beyond my previous experience, and as always I hungered to know more.

First, however, there was the question of lodgings for the night. The inn at the east end of the bridge was still open and doing business, and there Ieuan and I made our way. It seemed strange to me, new to the road as I was, to be paying for the food and lodging which my people would have given freely to any passing traveler, but as Ieuan had explained to me, such a small place, home to no great lord, and yet located on one of the main trackways used by the merchant-kind, could not be affording unpaid hospitality to all comers. Besides, the excellence of the landlord’s ale was legendary, and well worth the small coins we exchanged for it and our supper, with the promise of more to come if my tales pleased an audience that night.

After we had struck our bargain, and eaten our supper of stew and barley bread, washed down by some of that famous ale, I left my friend chatting amiably in the tap-room and wandered out again, heading for the great ruinous hulk that had earlier caught my eye. Baths, the landlord had called them, built like everything else here by the Romans. Palaces, I thought, as I stood staring up at them from the edge of a patch of waste ground, might have been a better term. Fully two-score paces in length and perhaps half as wide, and tall as the lordliest ash tree that graces the slopes of Powys, the Baths dwarfed any king’s house that I had yet seen. Their towering walls gazed back at me out of the twilight, pieced with dark window-openings that gaped like empty eyes. I returned their stare thoughtfully, but curiosity still won out.

Crossing the waste ground where the soldiers had raced and wrestled, I picked my way forward over broken stone, clogged with blown dirt and white with bird droppings, until I stood within the gloomy vault itself. Around me the red-brick walls rose up, towering into owl-haunted cliffs and caverns, while beneath them the scummy pools of the baths themselves lay gleaming here and there like tarnished mirrors. There was a strong smell of must and decay, and a sense of ghosts watching from behind one’s shoulder. Almost it might have been the mouth of a fairy mound, a gateway to Annwn itself, and the wonders that lay there—or so I thought at the time.

The silence was eerie, with a faint echo in it as of the wind, or the sea in a shell, or distant music, so that when a bit of stone dislodged by who-knows-what dropped from somewhere above and plopped into one of the pools near me, I jumped, and stumbling on the uneven footing, found myself almost over the edge before I knew it. As I teetered on the brink, I dimly saw a leering face with snakes for hair peering out at me from among the broken tiles at my feet, and in the roof above me I heard a rustle of wings.

Then the owl came gliding down, silent as a ghost. Like a pale shadow she came, and passed so close I could feel the chill breath of her wings as they stroked the air, and see her golden eyes, bright in the white mask of her face. She sailed through one of the empty window-vaults and was gone, and the huge cold room seemed the darker and more threatening for her leaving. Yet I stood my ground for a moment more, waiting for I knew not what. And at last it came, one white feather floating slowly down to land at my feet. I bent and picked it up. It lay light in my hand, soft and weightless as a scrap of silk, real as a memory. I put it in my belt-pouch for safety, and came away; I had seen enough to slake my curios-ity for that night. Behind me in the darkness I could feel the ghosts of the soldiers still watching as I went, but they were silent.

Outside the twilight seemed bright as day by compari-son, the air incredibly fresh and sweet—heavy though it was with the evening scents of wood-smoke and cow byres. I looked back once from the bridge at the towering ruin, looming against the last of the sunset like a young hill. Already those who should know better are beginning to say that the Baths are really the ruins of Arthur’s Palace, built for him in the space of a night by magic. Built, so they say, by the King’s Bard himself, using nothing but harp-song and moonlight, and a strong spider’s-web of spells to bind it all in place. Traveler’s tales, or stories for children, but still… On that quiet evening it almost seemed possible. And who should know better than I what feats music may encompass? That night I earned my ale in the tap-room with the tale of Gwydion the Magician and Blodeuwedd, the woman—if she was a woman—who became an owl. And later, in my sleep, I could swear I heard the beat of ghostly wings.

All of this seems a small story to relate, a small thing to remember after so many years. And yet it sticks in my mind for many reasons, not least because of what came after, when I came to know in truth, in bone and blood and spirit, the real cost and meaning of the Gates of Annwn.

But that, O my children, is a story for another day.

(Chapter 1 from Storyteller, Copyright 2007 by G. R. Grove.)

Continue with Chapter Two.