Hywel Morgan crouched as still as a stone on the dew soaked turf. All around him smoky tendrils of mist swirled and flickered as the spring morning was born. Inside his head as always, he could hear the sound of the sun as it crept over the horizon. An ethereal unearthly choir filled his mind coaxing tears from his spellbound eyes as he watched the colours spill over the Tegfa hills.
He had always possessed the gift even as a small child. Countless times he would struggle to explain to his mystified mother how birds, cats and dogs spoke to him; of how the breeze would paint pictures in the sky for him and how the strong steady heartbeat of the earth itself would pulse through his young body whenever he threw himself, exhausted and laughing from play, onto her soft yielding surface.
At first Aoifie Morgan would smile and ruffle his sun bright hair with casual affection and tell her mother not to fill the boy’s head with such nonsense but later, when they had made the bad bargain of exchanging the wild green hills for the dirty living coffin of the city, she would shush him and tell him to keep such madness to himself.
Hywel would be dragged protesting to the dark unsmiling crow of a man who presided over the cold mausoleum of a church at the end of the road. He would be forced to kneel before the twisted weeping man nailed high up on the colourless wall and instructed to beg for forgiveness and salvation. When those tactics failed Aoifie Morgan had resorted to stinging slaps which she had hoped would beat the sin out of the boy but such things could not be beaten out, Hywel knew, they could only be driven deeper under the skin.
His first clear memory had been the day his grandmother had found them. There had been a knock at the door of the box-like house which stood amongst the endless regiments of other sad little boxes on the sprawling estate. Aoifie’s thin weary lips had tightened and she had eventually given in to her mother’s shouts and demands for entry.
Fay Morgan had shouldered her way past Aoifie’s ineffectual protests and her wise old eyes had seen at once the way of things. Throwing his meagre belongings in a backpack the same colour as his bruises she had hustled Hywel away from the house. Aoifie Morgan’s eyes held nothing but relief as they left and Hywel thought that perhaps her twelve years of punishment were at an end. Certainly he had felt no more than a momentary pang of loss as the scabbed brown door had shut behind them.
He had come home to the wild green hills of Tegfa and slowly the bruises had begun to fade. Far from denying his gift, his grandmother actively encouraged him to use it. She nurtured him and listened carefully to everything he told her and never once did she tell him that he was strange or crazy. Under her love he had blossomed, gaining strength and confidence as time went by. He became his grandmother’s chief protector defending her as fiercely as any knight whenever the local people cast slurs or aspersions because he knew that she would do the same for him should the need arise but also because he realised very quickly that she possessed none of his natural abilities.
Her vast knowledge of Tegfa and its flora and fauna was unrivalled however and she passed all of it on to Hywel without restraint except for one thing; she refused to reveal to him the location of her strongest ally-the root necessary to walk in the place between the worlds. The gap in his knowledge frustrated Hywel almost beyond endurance. His fascination with Terfyl Rock dominated his life and without ever being told, he somehow knew that it was the keystone to his existence.
On nights when the moon hung like a pearl in the sky he would take himself out onto the charcoal hills with only his hound for company. He would settle himself beneath the small wind blasted crab apple tree and stare at the dark silhouette of the towering rock.
After a while its outline would begin to curl and smoke smudging the edges of reality. The sinuous spirals on its surface would begin to glow and dance like flame lit silver and soon images would begin to appear beneath its pitted surface. Faces and forms would plead and beg with him to open the gate and set them free. They would call to Hywel with voices of every colour, a rainbow of sound which seduced him almost beyond endurance. But without his grandmother’s vital piece of the puzzle he could not answer their call.
He had understood quickly that others did not hear or see things as he did much of the time and he had become a solitary being with ease. He did not pine for the shallow games and posturing of his peers in the noisy claustrophobic school in the next town nor did he miss the clamouring noise of their minds assaulting his. He spent his days alone on the hills with his hound and tolerated formal education until the day he was old enough to flee its gates forever and, if he was not entirely happy then he was at least, content.
The pup had been his grandmother’s first gift upon his arrival in Tegfa. She had presented him with the small wriggling bundle and shed tears of joy as the two small creatures recognised each other’s souls and bonded completely. They were inseparable and despite its advancing years the dog appeared as young and vital as when it had first reached maturity. Hywel regarded the animal as his only true friend not just because of their uncomplicated love for each other but also because, unlike people, its mind could be still.
When Hywel held the hound close he could borrow the animal’s perceptions glorying in the multi-coloured trails of scent which made up the hound’s world. He could smell the heady richness of the nearby woodland; see the zigzag paths of perfume that danced over the sheep cropped turf and he could smell the slightly menacing salt of the roaring sea. Sometimes he heard the whispered warnings of the trees in Draenog Wood whenever his thoughts took him too close to their dark perimeter.
His grandmother loved the wood; she spent hours there gathering various herbs and fungi necessary to her visions and cures but Hywel rarely ventured within its boundaries unless she was with him. His power lay out on the hills in the sun warmed rocks which hummed with latent power. She and Hywel were of different elements she had told him once and it was not wise to mix the powers of one with another. Only a few could ever hope to achieve such a thing and neither she nor Hywel were amongst them.
But he hungered for the last absent piece of the puzzle which he felt would make him complete and he had taken to spying on the old woman, watching and waiting as she went about her business hoping against hope that she might unwittingly reveal the whereabouts of her most powerful root.
All his life Hywel had felt the sleeping power inside him. His grandmother called it Old Blood as if such mysteries could be explained by science; blood types and breeding and DNA. He knew better. He still tingled at the memory of what had surged through his body during that Winter Solstice rut. He had watched the hazel eyed woman intently as she clung to him and had seen himself mirrored in her eyes as he had spilled into her. The time was coming; he could feel his fey blood stirring in his veins.
Before she had fallen under the spell of the cold hearted god in the city Aoifie Morgan had shared with Hywel the story of his conception. After her sister Mabh had run away she had stepped into the breach and taken her place in the Beltane rite. She had lain, maiden pure, on the hillside between two raging roaring fires and she had taken to her the tall broad shouldered god who had fathered her son.
“He had horns my lovely boy,” she would croon in a breathless bright eyed whisper. “Like the antlers of a stag.” Then later when her diamond bright love for him had burned itself to cinders she would scream at him instead and tell him that the horns had not been those of a stag but of a devil which had been sent to tempt her and punished her for her weakness by sending her a demon son.
A quiet whine brought Hywel’s mind back to the present and he looked with disoriented eyes at his hound. The animal’s gaze shone bright with love and he gathered it close to him. The hills were clear now and Tegfa’s toy bright buildings were visible scattered below at the edge of the water.
A detached part of Hywel’s mind wondered whether to go down there and breathe in the throat catching saltiness of the sea. He would be certain of female company if he did but somehow the pale ordinary girls of the town did not seem to be the answer to his needs today. Rising unhurriedly he scanned the hills all around him then with a cluck of his tongue he called the hound to heel and struck out determinedly towards the dark crouching bulk of Draenog Wood.
He could hear the trees whispering long before he reached the tree line and the normally fearless hound cowered behind his legs and laid his brindled ears flat to his skull. Eyes bright with danger Hywel knelt at the foot of a half grown beech and pulling the keen bladed knife from his hip he began to dig in the rich dark soil. In his head he could hear the furious protests of the object he sought. As his questing fingers scrabbled closer its chattering babble grew louder and more piercing until with a final unearthly shriek the root was torn from its resting place.
Holding it before him the young man studied his prize. It seemed to twitch and wriggle in his grasp as clouds came scudding across the cold sun behind him. An odd slightly bitter smell began to fill his nostrils and Hywel Morgan felt his heart begin to race as the understanding of what he had truly done began to wash over him like a wave.
A high pitched yelp from the hound broke his spell making Hywel jump. Getting clumsily to his feet he began to run the hound loping easily by his side and he did not stop until they were once more out on the open hills well away from the simmering fury of the King Oak and his court.
Flopping into the sheltered lee of Terfyl Rock the young man stretched his legs out and drew in gulp after gulp of air until his pulse slowed and he was able to block out the pounding thump in his head. His grandmother would be angry when she found out what he had done. The mandrake was one of her treasures and she had been nurturing it for a long time but, for once, even the old woman’s feelings were not enough to sway him. His patience had been exhausted and now, with the assistance of the root, he would be able to realise his destiny and take his proper place in the great plan of things. In his lap the mandrake was already beginning to shrivel. It looked inconsequential now; ordinary. Hywel wondered if he had diminished its power by omitting to follow the necessary rituals of its gathering.
An uncomfortable mixture of anticipation and fear tumbled in his gut. Hywel called the hound to him and clutched the animal to his chest allowing his mind to be soothed by its presence. He must not let his grandmother know his intentions. She would stop him; or at least she would try and he was afraid of what that might do to her increasingly frail spirit.
Some evenings when it was quiet in the cottage he would hear the faltering rhythm inside her pigeon frail ribs and he had noticed that the previously bright rainbow of colours around her had begun to dim. Her body was wearing thin like a blanket put too many times through a wringer. One day soon the fabric would tear and Hywel would be left alone. It was the only thought in the world that frightened him.
A wet nose pressed against his cheek followed by the abrasive warmth of the hound’s tongue. With a yip of exuberance the animal leaped up with a scrabble of claws to plunge after the bobbing flash of puffball white which had flushed from the undergrowth and was running across the moor.
Hywel did not bother to go after them. With a smile he banished the shadowy spectres of his mind and pulled himself slowly to his feet. He stowed the mandrake root safely at the base of Terfyl Rock covering it with some stones and clods of turf before heading home. He was less than halfway there when the hound caught up with him and laid the still warm corpse at his feet. Gathering up the rabbit tenderly Hywel gave a caress to both creatures, the living and the dead. He made a silent offering of thanks before continuing on his way.
Fay Morgan was delighted and set about skinning and gutting the rabbit for their evening meal. Leaning against the heavy stone edge of the sink she bore down on the fragile bones of the creature’s legs steeling herself for the sickening snap which would allow her to finish dressing the meat for the pot. After she had peeled off the glove of its fur she put the rabbit to soak and settled herself beside the fire with her tobacco and some sewing.
Driven partly by duty but more so by guilt Hywel left his grandmother and wandered out to spend the remaining hours of daylight splitting and stacking logs. He took comfort in the unthinking rhythm of the task and allowed the heady pungent scent of the unseasoned logs to fill his mind. The smell transported him back to a day when he had been taken with the rest of his class, to an art exhibition in the big national gallery.
As his comrades had stumbled herd-like behind the droning teacher, Hywel had felt himself drawn to another part of the great hall. The tired dusty paintings on display held no interest for his young mind and following the invisible thread which drew him on, the boy had found himself before an ornately painted sign bearing the legend ‘Sacred Wood’.
Pushing open the heavy door he had discovered the true meaning of natural artistry. Open mouthed he had wandered amongst ‘Green Men’ peering through leaves of holly and oak; past ‘Sheila-na-Gigs’ with open yawning caves of dark smooth wood and dryads and nymphs crouching malevolent and barely seen amongst the rich foliage of painted woodland until finally, he come to the central piece.
Carved form oak to follow the natural contours of the wood lay a woman, on her back her hips raised to the sky as if reaching for some unimaginable ecstasy. Around the curves of her body twined a pale sinuous twist of an ash wood snake. Without quite understanding why, Hywel had found himself staring open mouthed at the passion and grace of the piece. His mind buzzed with the vibration of the wood itself and the artist’s intent. He had been on the point of stretching out one trembling hand to touch the sleek inviting surfaces when the staccato scream of his teacher had shattered the spell and left him reeling with the pain of his re-entry to reality. He had cried out as the jolt in his stomach left him gasping for breath.
With thinly veiled anger the teacher had gripped his arm hard enough to bruise the skin and dragged him away uttering threats of retribution once they were safely out of the public eye. The memory splintered and fled once more as his axe crashed down on a knot of log and stuck fast jarring his arms and shoulders. Straightening Hywel surveyed the now respectable wood pile and flung the axe, log and all, down next to it. His shirt was fragrant with sweat and he made his way down to the stream so that he could wash before dinner.
The icy bite of the water made him gasp as he sluiced away the labour from his body and the bitter thoughts from his mind. The sing song chatter of the water echoed his own shivering teeth and as soon as he felt cleansed he scrambled back up onto the bank, pulling on his jeans and using his discarded shirt to dry himself. Lips blue with cold he tolerated his grandmother’s fussing with good humour back inside the cottage as she hustled him into a dry shirt and ladled a generous portion of steaming rabbit stew into his dish on the table.
They spoke little as they ate and Hywel saw again how transparent his grandmother was becoming. Despite the brightness of her eyes there was heaviness about her which he did not recall ever being aware of before. He started when she laid her thin twisted fingers on his and asked gravely,
“Is something troubling you Hywel?”
“No!” He answered too quickly and could tell by her eyes she knew he was lying. He looked out of the small heavy paned window and said,” The moon is high already; I have to go.”
He did not let himself look back as he pulled the door closed behind him. At his feet looking up the brindle hound stared at him with eyes which perfectly reflected the full moon above them. It seemed almost as if the animal were grinning at him, slyly questioning his courage for the coming night. Looking away Hywel suppressed the shiver running down his spine and clicked his fingers to call the animal to heel. Without looking down at it he strode out determinedly for Terfyl Rock, the dog trotting at his heels.
The silence, when he got there, was profound. His ears sang with the absence of sound as it washed over him. Hywel Morgan rarely experienced complete peace and when he did, it was Terfyl Rock which provided the sanctuary. Retrieving the mandrake from its hiding place he settled himself back against the tall dark bulk unmindful of the red smudges he had made on his clean shirt. Pushing his legs straight out before him Hywel pressed his shoulders as hard as he could against the unyielding surface. A gentle vibration thrummed through his body and the young man’s lips curved into a lazy half smile.
In his lap he felt a twitch as if the mandrake was stirring. Lifting his fingers to his mouth he tasted the rich iron tang of gritty soil, sticky and bitter with the blood of the mandrake, as it rolled across his tongue. The hum at his back intensified and a an almost magnetic force clamped him to the monolith. Hywel relaxed his body and allowed his eyes to flutter closed.
For seconds of eternity the world around him seemed to pause. The sharp contours of reality began to slide and his mind’s eye he watched the curling smoke like tendrils of mist begin to rise around him. Whispering voices began to insinuate themselves into his mind; tantalising sounds skipping through his brain just a little too quickly for him grasp. Slowing his breathing even more he waited to see if this would be the night he achieved his potential and succeeded in his quest to draw aside the veil. With barely controlled impatience he waited for his senses to offer themselves up to the greater force. Slowly, slowly, he began to feel himself slip free of the fleshy sheath which held him to the everyday world. His lungs expanded with a newfound freedom and a dizzying wave of colour and sound swamped his senses making his mind reel.
Beneath his shadowy fingers the mandrake began to move again; a fretful dance that tried to break free of his hold. Small cries of anguish began to emanate from it, angry bleats of a child held against its will. Glancing down Hywel saw that the mandrake had formed a crude little mouth and two bead black eyes on its surface. With a start he held the thing at arm’s length and studied it like some poisonous snake or spider. In the moon’s quivering light it appeared ore alive than ever and began writhing and pushing against his fingers. He squeezed the root tighter wringing from it a cry of pain sharp enough to pierce the heart of any guardian.
A shadow fell across Hywel from the side and he jumped in surprise. Looking up he felt his blood grow cold in his veins and his heart began to race as he took in the sight before him. Eyes of startling green stared from beneath the heavily ridged brow of King Oak. Leaves and tendrils of ivy fell across the razor sharp gaze and were shaken angrily aside as the lumbering figure advanced. Great branch arms were held open before it as if to embrace and he trod slowly but surely across the undulating turf, each footfall shaking the ground like thunder.
Hywel scrambled to his feet grazing his hand on the surface of Terfyl Rock as he did so. With a reflex too quick to stop he hissed with pain and raised his bloodied knuckles to his mouth, sucking at the sharp metallic taste of himself.
A shriek that almost split his skull tore open the night and the young man fell to his knees clutching his head in agony. The mandrake leapt away and landed at the earth caked feet of the Oak King. Paralysed with fear Hywel could only stare with bulging eyes as the apparition leaned towards him and wrapped sharp spiked fingers of twig around his throat. As they tightened he fought to pull air into his lungs but found himself raised aloft and studied just as he had held the mandrake moments earlier.
Uselessly he tried to pry apart his attackers grip but he could not. Hovering clouds of darkness began to form at the edges of his vision and from somewhere inside his mind a low throbbing hum began to build in volume. He heard his own heart begin to falter as his oxygen starved blood grew sluggish in his veins and as his eyes began to slide closed Hywel wished he had told his grandmother one last time how much he loved her.
He was dropped suddenly, the impact of the earth like the blow of an axe against his body. Dimly he was aware of voices; a female cold and commanding and the low growling of a dog holding its quarry at bay. Struggling he shifted and made out the tiny blurred figure of Fay Morgan as she spat commands to the hound which was feinting and nipping at the great arboreal king’s legs.
The Oak King delt the dog a sickening blow lifting it clear off its feet and flinging it so that it hit Terfyl Rock with a force too great to be reckoned with. The broken brindle body slithered to the ground and Hywel felt a pain so sharp cut through him that he could no longer hold back the tears which left dirk caked streaks on his face.
Fay Morgan spoke again, her voice unfamiliar and harsh. For the first time Hywel saw the figure fighting under her command; tall and gracile he moved as easily as the days of time. His long limbs were clad in curious dusty grey armour and in his hands flashed a blade which hacked and cut at the Oak King too quickly for the older slower god to avoid.
“You will not have him!” fay Morgan roared. “For all he has wronged you, the fault was mine. I will pay.”
“No,” the word was torn from Hywel’s bruised throat as no more than a whisper yet all three of the figures stopped and turned as one to stare at him. The eyes of the knight were the same dusty grey of his armour and Hywel realised with astonishment, that the man was blind. His finely sculpted features were those of a manikin and without fay Morgan’s commands he was helpless. Her face was soft with love and sorrow. Not trusting herself to speak the old woman raised one arm in a gesture of affection and it was echoed eerily by the tall clay knight next to her. The great tree god who towered over both of them let out a roar of fury and took a step towards Hywel.
“No!” This time the voice came from Terfyl Rock itself. A woman too lovely for this world stood beside its night black bulk. Her gown was as soft and delicate as moonlight and it moved around her form in an unfelt breeze. Her long midnight hair reflected every star in the clear sky and Hywel felt his heart twist within his chest as he stared spellbound.
Directly behind her stood the baleful figure of her consort, his antlers an eerie echo of the Oak King’s form. He watched impassively as his queen knelt slowly and tenderly fondled the head of the broken hound. An expression of overwhelming grief took her features for a moment but when she looked up again it had been banished and fury twisted every line of her face.
“Go,” She told the Oak King. “You have taken your price.”
“Is not equal.” The Oak King’s voice was the desiccated whisper of age and his limbs shook their leaves rustling with outrage.
“All of my creatures are equal to yours!” her voice was ferocious with quiet anger and for a moment it seemed the entire Vale of Cerridwen trembled beneath her fury. For long moments nobody moved then Fay Morgan knelt as if to pick up the fallen mandrake but it was the knight mimicking her movements who scooped up the now still root and laid it in the hands of the Oak King.
“Is not equal,” He said again his voice as bereft as the wind through the treetops. Turning slowly the figure began to retrace its steps to Draenog Wood, its head bent in mourning for the broken little figure it cradled.
Hywel felt himself being lifted from the ground although his body seemed separated from him somehow. The knight’s eyes of clay stared at him unseeing through fronds of snow white hair. Bewildered the young man looked from his grandmother to the beautiful woman beside Terfyl rock and back again.
“Who is she?” He asked in a shaky voice. “What have I done?”
“You have achieved that which you hungered for.” The woman’s voice was full and seductive, the silky sweetness of ripe summer plums.
“But my grandmother should not be held accountable for my actions.”
“We must all pay for what we do,” she replied. The horned man stepped forward into the moon’s light and Hywel saw, with a shock of recognition, his own eyes staring back at him. “To some the price of their action may seem too high, but it must still be paid.”
“Who are you?” The words were like rocks in his throat but Hywel could not have stopped himself from asking any more than he could have held back time.
She drew in a long slow breath before speaking again and when she did so her voice had become an echoing whisper which penetrated the very bones of those who listened.
“I am everything to all things. To the Gypsies I am Ana, spirit of these hills; to the people of this valley I am Cerridwen, Morrigan, Rhiannon and Mab.” Her eyes glittered like ice and she took a step towards Hywel stopping when the knight shifted the young man in his arms. “To you I am mother, daughter, sister and lover. All the things you have ever ached for; all the yearnings your soul has ever known or ever will know. You are mine young stag and one, had the fates been kinder, I would have been yours.”
Misery swelled in Hywel’s chest like a boulder and his tears flowed again.
“Don’t deny me,” he sobbed. The woman’s only reply was a kiss blown across the space between them which landed as soft as a spider web on Hywel’s cheek. Stepping back she allowed the horned man to rest a n arm across her shoulders, then both of them seemed to melt away into the darkness of Terfyl Rock until all that was left was the cold bare light of the sinking full moon on the barren turf of the Tegfa hills.
Weakness washed over Hywel and he slumped as the knight carried him following his grandmother back to Piodden Ty. Once there he was laid on his bed where he stared unseeing at the mosaic cracks in the ceiling. A strange lethargy was creeping into his bones and he could find no strength to fight it.
As if in a dream he watched Fay Morgan gently bathe and tend him as the smoke blackened hands of the old mantle clock ticked inexorably around. He saw, without seeing, how she kept vigil over him as his body began to slowly shut itself down. He heard, without hearing, how she wept softly and gripped his fingers within her own as if to fight what they both knew could not be fought. And he saw, with perfect clarity, the winking out of the old woman’s aura just as his own eyes slid closed and gave him up to a greater force.
Piodden Ty slumbered, its ancient stones settling as the flames in the grate grew sluggish and died for the first time in many centuries. The water in the blackened kettle grew cool and stilled. Only the relentless ticking of the mantle clock moved on as the moon gave way to the sun and another day was born. A shaft of brilliant sunlight fell in through the small paned window and as it struck the form of the knight seated stiffly at the kitchen table the clay from which he was formed began to dry and crumble until there was no trace of him save for the dancing motes that rode the glittering sunbeam.
In a still dark corner of the room Fay Morgan’s form sat slumped and cold in her chair which had proved to be her last resting place. On her face lay an expression of love and grief combined. Her long wispy hair fell loose about het shoulders and her shawl fell cold and unheeded around her slender arms. Clasped in her fingers lay the cold stiff hand of her grandson who lay stretched out and unmoving beside her.
The sunbeam crept across the silent room and climbed playfully over the frozen tableau. The old woman held little interest; her cold was too deep and dark for it to warm but the young man on the bed was a different matter. The glimmering reflections of the copper pans on the wall bounced bolt after bolt of dancing light across Hywel Morgan’s features and the motes of dust and clay whirled and swept around him as if searching for a place to settle. At last when the fiery ball of the sun stood at its peak the sunbeam was rewarded with a flicker from the young man’s eyelids.
Slowly, stiffly as if unaccustomed to such movement, he pulled himself upright shaking his hand free of Fay Morgan’s grip. Without a glance at her he set his feet cautiously on the floor. Standing he swayed drunkenly for a moment or two then stepped hesitantly to the cloudy mirror above the mantle. Grey eyes stared back from its surface through a tangle of snow white hair. A face almost sculpted in its beauty looked around with emotion at the cluttered room. When they reached the old woman they faltered for a moment. A frown creased Kai Starke’s forehead as he struggled to recall some long buried memory. She had bargained with him, he recalled, but her grandson had paid. Lifting a hand before him he studied the fingers of flash and bone as a slow smile of understanding spread across his face.
Flinging open the door he breathed in the warm softness of the summer day and opened his arms to embrace the torrent of colour and sound that washed over him. Somewhere down below he knew Zillah was waiting for him with their child; a child he had never seen, never met.
He gave one final backward glance to the cottage and said quietly,
“Thank you. I served my sentence and now it’s done but I promise you I will keep my word.”
Leaving the door ajar he stepped out onto the turf and began to walk down the narrow track. By the time he had reached the open moor he was jogging and by the time his feet found the tarmac of the run he was running flat out savouring the feel of the wind against his body and whooping for joy as birds and rabbits scattered before him.
By the time the sun sank again for the night he was less than a memory for the cottage and the hills of Tegfa. All endings were beginnings and the moon smiled down as she peeped through the dusk and waited for night to fall.