Hyddwen by Heather Rose Jones

Morvyth verch Rys na vynnei wr, o achaws y serch, a’r caryat a dodassei hi ar Elin, Arglwyddes Madrunion. A guedy daruot a dywedyssam ni uchot—anvon y gwylan yn llatai attei, a’r chwarae a’r got yn y wled, a gyrru’r Gwyddel i ymdeith yn waclaw—dyvod a wnaeth Morvyth hyt yn Llyswen. Ac yno y trulyssant teir blyned trwy digrivwch a llywenyd.

Morvyth, the daughter of Rys, had no desire for a husband because of the passion and the love she had for Elin, the Lady of Madrunion. And after what we spoke of above—sending the gull as love-messenger to her, and the trick with the sack at the wedding feast, and sending the Irishman away empty-handed—Morvyth came to live at Llyswen. And there they spent three years in happiness and joy.

***

At the end of the year—when the harvest has been taken in and all the land looks toward the long, dark winter—doors can open between the worlds and we, as well as other things, may come and go between them. Indeed, it was at the changing of the year four years past that my Elin first took me from Caer Alarch, and again at the next year’s changing when she returned to my father’s hall to win my freedom. And though Llyswen lay in as mortal a realm as the one I had left, it was a fitting time for such a journey.

But the turning of the year is also the season for hunting. We were a company of two score that day—noble men and women of the court—and thought to hunt the wood of Coetmor, where the deer were said to be plump and the deep branch-vaulted shadows left running space for horse and hound.

The wind was sharp and chill, with a threat of rain to it, but the clouds stayed off to the north. Elin was dressed in a short gray tunic, and rough hunting boots on her feet. Her only concession to rank was a scarlet cloak with golden borders and the gold fillet on her brow. For the rest, she put me in mind of the wild, bare-legged girl I had loved—more than I knew then—and had followed over the hills near Caer Alarch.

When my horse stood ready, Elin came to help me into the saddle and I said, “You make me cold just to look at you!”

She laughed and kissed my fingers. “So, Morvyth, it isn’t only modesty that keeps you in long skirts?”

I laughed in return as I arranged my blue gown about my limbs where the leggings showed above my boots. Not modesty entirely, no, but she ruled here and I was her woman. That was enough to ask her people to accept. I had not yet found my own place so I had to be careful.

The hounds yelped, eager to be off, and the huntsmen strained to keep them in check. I took my bow from the hand that held it up and fastened the quiver of arrows to my saddle. Like a flock of birds we were off. We followed the ridge up along the valley, past the fallow fields and into the scattered oak and hazel at the forest’s edge. The hounds were slipped and soon we could hear their belling through the trees.

Elin would always be at the front, while I was content to ride in the crowd, so I rarely saw her during that morning. But as the day drew on toward afternoon and still we had seen no quarry, she fell back to my side and we rode easily together as if we had come for pleasure and not for sport.

“It will be mutton again tonight,” I teased her. “Not even a hare for the pot if we’ve raised no chase by now.”

“I’ll wager we bring something home,” Elin replied. “And what will be your forfeit if I’m right?”

I looked into her dancing eyes. “Why, the same thing you will forfeit if you fail,” I said.

“Then I will claim it now, and be done with it,” she laughed, and leaned over to steal a kiss. But at that moment, the voice of the hounds changed to an eager cry, and our horses pricked up their ears and pranced, and we were pulled apart. We spurred our steeds to follow and soon had the quarry in sight.

It was a fleet-footed hind, running easily before the dogs. She was sleek and young; a trace of spots still lay along her flanks. We saw her once, and again, and then she outpaced us in the dappled shadows. The hounds still had her scent and we followed, little noticing that the rest of the court had fallen behind. We ran for some time, and then it seemed that the hind tired, for she fell back into view. I pulled an arrow from my quiver and set it to my bow. The shot was long and scarcely worth making, but I loosed it when the trees thinned enough to aim. She stumbled, as if it had brushed her in passing, but ran as fleetly as ever.

Now the horses, too, were tiring, and some of the dogs fell to a walk and were left behind. We came out into a glade where the late sun slanted through the branches, and there she turned at bay. The hounds milled around her and Elin tried to shout them off for a clear shot. In the next moment, the hounds melted back, whining and fawning. And where the hind had been, there crouched a young maiden, her light brown hair making a cloak about her shoulders. Beyond that she was as naked as if she had just risen from a bath.

My first thought was that some unlucky peasant girl had stumbled into the path of our hunt, and that the dogs, in their eagerness, had torn her clothes from her. But there was no sign or scrap of a rag, and there was no fear in her wide brown eyes—no fear nor anything else I could easily read. Elin was off her horse in a moment and at the girl’s side, raising her up and asking, “Are you hurt?”

The girl looked down at her shoulder, where a thin scratch of red showed against her frost-white skin, and then turned those liquid eyes up into Elin’s face. They seemed frozen for a moment, with Elin holding her, and she looking at Elin, and the both of them leaning forward, and for an absurd moment I thought that Elin was going to kiss her.

I slipped from my horse, calling sharply, “Elin!”

They both started, and then the girl looked Elin up and down in surprise before her face became unreadable once more. Elin released her and I pushed between them, taking a part of my headdress off to bind the girl’s arm. “It looks like the graze of an arrow,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, as if the fact of it didn’t touch her.

“Then you must come back to my court with us,” Elin offered. “If our hunting has been so careless, I must make amends.”

I saw deeper than she had. “Careless?” I asked. “That was my arrow, I think, and I hit my mark. Are you blind?” And to the girl I said, “I will redeem my offense, if you allow, but have you never considered the danger you risk, running before the hounds?”

She laughed like the sound of bells and stretched her bare arms up toward the sky and said, “When the year changes and I hear the dogs singing to me, my feet start itching and I must run or die.” From the corner of my eye I could see Elin staring at her, entranced. “But I will let you redeem your luck,” she said. And to Elin, “I will come to your court.”

We could hear the sounds of the rest of the hunt closing in. Elin came back from her trance in time to wrap her cloak around the girl and lift her onto her horse. I followed behind as we returned to Llyswen, scowling as she leaned into Elin’s arms and whispered in her ear. She told us her name was Hyddwen.

***

I lent her my blue gown, and also my place beside Elin at the table, and I was secretly pleased to see that she turned her dark eyes on everyone who passed, and that half the men of the court were stumbling over each other to fall under that gaze.

When the evening had gone late enough, I leaned over Elin’s shoulder and whispered in her ear, “Have you forgotten? You did bring something home from the hunt; I have a forfeit to pay.”

She turned her head to look at me, as if waking from a dream, and leaned her brow against my cheek. “I’ve not forgotten,” she whispered back and rose from the table.

Later, when we lay close and still in each other’s arms, my mind turned back to the day’s adventure. “I hope Hyddwen will not tarry long,” I said. “I fear what may come of it.”

“And why is that?” Elin asked with a hint of sharpness.

I tried to choose my words carefully. “She is a soulless creature…”

“And is she to blame for it?”

“No,” I countered. “But if you forget it, then you are to blame for that.”

I rose early in the morning, before the court was much astir. It was a habit that I could not seem to shake even for the pleasure of Elin’s arms. So it was that I saw Hyddwen ask the porter to open the gates and slip through. The mist still lay on the fields and she looked out over them with a fierce eagerness. She looked back to see me watching and smiled a strange smile. Then she slipped her borrowed gown over her head and hid it in the hollow oak that stood before the gates. She stood there for a moment in her nakedness, then took on the shape of the deer again and bounded out across the fields.

Elin was too good a host to ask after her guest’s comings and goings, but when Hyddwen returned to the hall that evening, I could not resist betraying her and asked, “How was the running today?”

She turned her eyes to me, but it was not the same gaze that entranced the men of the court. I shivered where I sat. “The running was good,” she said, “but the dogs were not so good today as they were yesterday.”

Elin started from her chair in concern and hung over Hyddwen like a doting mother. “But it’s perilous; you shouldn’t risk being caught up in a hunt. If anything happened…”

I saw Hyddwen’s face change as she turned to answer. She seemed again a wild, innocent creature. “It is my nature to race the wind. How can I deny it?”

Elin was held in that gaze for a long moment, but then she turned to her steward. “Madyn, send the word throughout my lands: no one is to hunt or let their dogs loose while Hyddwen is my guest.”

And because Elin had turned away, she did not see the anger the swept over Hyddwen’s face, only to vanish again as quickly as it had come.

For the rest of the evening, Hyddwen seemed to woo my lady, catching her in conversation, laughing with her softly, and granting her a smile now and again. I could only watch, and then I could watch no more. I went to our chamber alone and left the hall to Hyddwen.

It seemed hours before Elin joined me. I had not dared to think what I would do if she did not. And though I had sworn to myself that I would not speak of the matter, when she slipped beneath the covers next to me, I begged, “Send her away!”

I felt Elin draw away from me. “You know I cannot do that,” she said coldly. “I have offered her the hospitality of my hall.”

“She means no good to you or to your folk,” I pleaded. “She is here on some strange errand of her own, and it will only mean trouble for us.”

“You say that because you are in her debt,” she answered. “It eats at your conscience, and so you hate her.”

“Did she tell you that?” I asked.

The silence answered me. I turned away and tried not to weep while I waited for sleep to come.

Hyddwen did not go running in the hills as a deer the next day. She stayed in the hall, and the courtiers all gathered around her like love-struck youths while the business of the court went undone. And that evening, and that night, were no different from the one before.

***

On the third morning I rose early and once again followed Hyddwen outside the gates. This time she made no move to change her form, but only stood looking out over the hills.

“You have come to Llyswen for some purpose,” I said. “What do you want from us?”

Her gaze betrayed nothing of her thoughts today.

“I will pay for the injury I did you,” I continued, “but Elin is too high a price.”

She laughed in a way that did not put me at ease. “I do not ask that! How could she be your price? She is no more yours to give than she is yours to keep. But you may rest easy; I care no more for her than for any other. If she comes with me, it will be her choice, not mine.”

“Comes with you?” I echoed. “What do you want from her—from us?”

“Did you think you were the only folk who hunt?” she answered softly. “I am besieged and I require a champion of this world to defeat my enemy.”

She had shed the illusion of youthful innocence. It was a haughty queen who stood before me now and I knew this was her true nature.

“You run before the hounds,” I said, “hoping to trap some hunter into your debt.”

She smiled in response.

“But you did trap someone,” I countered.

“You?” she said mockingly. “I need a warrior! You were a mistake.”

I was a mistake, and so she had turned her charms on Elin and on the men of the court. I remembered that first moment when she had thought Elin was a man, and then when she realized her mistake. And then later when she realized who Elin was in this land and had returned to stalking her. And I? I was of no use to her. But she was wrong to think I could not be a warrior for Elin’s sake and for the sake of her people. Mine had been the hand on the bow that wounded Hyddwen. Mine had been the deed that gave her guest-right in Llyswen. But that also made me a shield against her wiles. The one who offends has the right to make recompense.

I considered—perhaps not long enough—what sort of enemy a creature like Hyddwen might make, and what sort of battle only a champion of my world could undertake. And then I thought again of Elin and her court, wandering dream-lost after the fairy-woman, with her waiting for one of them to fall into her power. I knew what I must do.

“You don’t have the choice to refuse me,” I said quietly. “I have wronged you and so the debt is mine to pay. It is my right to be your champion. Give me this one day to make ready, and I will go with you in the morning. But I swear this fate on you: refuse me and you will find no other champion in this realm.”

Hyddwen grew angry and I saw her twist the offer in her mind to see how to escape it, but I had left her little choice. At length, she nodded.

***

I am no warrior—she had the truth of that. I could not guess what weapons might give me a hope of victory and so I took none. When I slipped from my bed before the dawn, the only victory I needed was a victory over Hyddwen’s plans.

There is an immense stillness in the court in that hour before the servants rise to stir the fires to life. There was no light except for the faint reflection of the moon through the shutters. I leaned over the pale glow of Elin’s face and left a kiss on her brow, then drew on her hunting tunic and trews and gathered up boots and a cloak.

Hyddwen met me before the gate. The porter should not have been sleeping and I guessed her enchantments were at work. We passed by him unnoticed and I opened the gate far enough to slip through, then followed Hyddwen into the mist.

The air closed in about us until I could see nothing but the blue shape of her gown before me. My gown. The mist grew lighter as we went on, lit by the unseen dawn, but there was no east, no sunrise. And though we had left the court in the direction of the hills and the woods, the land did not rise or fall beneath my feet, nor did a trunk or branch break through the grayness after we left the hollow oak by the gates of Llyswen.

The first thing I saw before us in the mist was a tall stone gate. When it grew solid above and around me, I thought we must be descending into a hill-tomb, but the gray light remained the same on the other side. Indeed, the mist lifted so that I could see buildings and people around me.

The crowd greeted Hyddwen with the courtesy one gives a lord, but me they ignored, save for sidelong looks. I stiffened my back and returned their gazes boldly. If they needed me to fight their battle, I had no reason to be ill at ease.

At last, Hyddwen led me to another gateway and down through a field to a river bank. A white-plastered cottage stood there beside a broad shallow ford.

“Wait here,” she said to me. “You may take shelter in the house. He will come at dawn.”

I had not counted the passing of time. Surely it couldn’t be dusk already? There was no sun that I could see through the haze, but the light was dimming and there was a chill like that of dew settling.

“And then what?” I asked.

“Then you defeat him,” she said arching her brow. “Is that not why you have come?”

“Who do I face?” I demanded. “What is his grievance against you? If you need my victory, give me tools to fight with.”

“It would have been better for you to ask those questions before naming yourself my champion,” she said.

I heard anger in her words, but I thought I heard fear as well. I had forced her hand as much as she had forced mine. What would my failure mean to her?

“Your opponent is Llwydyn Mawr,” she said at last. “He is my neighbor who rules the lands beyond this river. He makes claim against me for injury to his foster-brother.”

Her gaze grew distant as she looked across the ford, and her voice took on the rhythms of a storyteller.

“It is a peculiarity of his that he may leave no pattern incomplete, and he took it into his mind to hunt in all the woods that border on his lands. He had hunted in every place except Iscoed, which lies in my realm, for Iscoed is the home of the Black Boar. It is perilous to hunt there; the Black Boar’s tusks are poisoned and it is not easy for a hunter to live if he is wounded by them. But Llwydyn could not let the matter be. It gnawed at him that there was one place forbidden to him. It was as if a fate had been sworn on him and he could neither eat nor sleep until he had hunted there.”

I knew how such stories must end, but I listened in silence while Hyddwen continued.

“Llwydyn Mawr gathered up his huntsmen and his hounds and rode out to Iscoed with his foster-brother at his side. When the Black Boar charged at them, it was his brother who fell. He lies still on his sickbed, neither living nor dying. Llwydyn has demanded compensation of me: the life of my first-born child. Is that a price you would pay gladly? But he allowed me a challenge instead. My champion is to meet him at this ford and face him from dawn to dusk for three days. If Llwydyn prevails, then I pay his price; if I prevail I am quit of him.”

She turned to me once more. “No man of my people could face Llwydyn and live, and so I turned to mortal lands. And you are what I could find.”

And she thought I would fail—that much was clear from her scorn. But I saluted her as if I were a warrior and said, “I will pay my debt to you, as I am able. And if I fail—” My voice faltered for the first time. “If I fail, I beg you to send word to Elin of my fate.”

***

When Hyddwen left me, I tried the door of the cottage and found it open. The inhabitants might have left it only moments before, though I doubted they would return until the battle was finished. There was a low fire burning on the hearth where a small cauldron and a bakestone stood ready. A cut cheese sat on the table beside a pitcher of water. On the other side of the hearth was a low bed spread with a speckled blanket. A flax-dressed distaff and spindle completed the furnishings. A woman’s home, neat and tidy. The flagged floor was swept clean and the white-plastered walls were bright enough to reflect the candlelight into a warm glow.

When I looked back through the doorway, the sky had grown dark. And so I began the chores of the day’s end, banking the fire for the night and snuffing the candles, before I tried the bed, doubtful I would sleep.

Yet sleep I did, for a few hours at least. When I woke and looked out at the ford, there was the faintest hint of light. I couldn’t tell how long it might be until dawn and had no care to be caught unaware, so I poked the fire up once more. Hunger had abandoned me, but my hands needed occupation and there was a chest of flour beside the hearth. I found a bowl and set the bakestone on the fire and began to make oatcakes.

The rhythm of the work was calming: mix the dough, pinch off a knob, pat it out thinly between my hands, set it on the stone to cook, turn it, and begin again. Every time I set another cake aside in the stack, I looked out through the door to where the river laughed quietly over the ford. Each time I looked, the light was brighter.

When he came at last, I had no warning. A shadow fell across the door. My hands continued patting the dough to thinness as I looked up. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a close-clipped black beard and a blue cloak pinned at his shoulder with a thick gold brooch. He wore a sword at his side but had not yet drawn it. His face was drawn into a fierce scowl.

“Are you Hyddwen’s champion?” he asked doubtfully.

“I am,” I answered.

I would have set the unbaked bread aside, but he said, “Complete your task. Then we will do battle.”

I picked the finished cake off the stone and replaced it with the one I had prepared. My hands had grown accustomed to the work and I pinched off a new bit of dough without thought.

“Forgive me, my lord,” I said and returned the ball of dough to the bowl. “I will not make you wait.”

“Complete your task,” he repeated with an edge in his voice.

It is a peculiarity of his that he may leave no pattern incomplete.

I returned to patting the dough as thin as leather and reached over to flip the cake on the bakestone. An idea began to grow. I would have caught at any chance to live for another hour.

“My lord,” I said, “Hyddwen has left me with this chest of flour. It would be good to finish the baking before I meet your challenge.”

I could feel his anger and impatience like the heat of the cookfire, but he said only, “Complete your task.”

As the dough in the bowl grew small, I scooped in more flour and mixed it with the water in the jug. Llwydyn still stood in the doorway waiting.

I gestured toward the table. “I would offer you hospitality if it did not break my duty to Hyddwen. If you please, you may have bread and cheese while you wait. I’m sure it will not be much longer.” The chest of flour was not so large, but perhaps it was larger than his patience.

Llwydyn Mawr nodded at me without a word and went to sit at the table. He drew out a knife and carefully cut two slices from the cheese, each alike to the other.

“If it does not break your duty to Hyddwen,” he said, “will you eat with me?”

I accepted one of the slices of cheese and folded it within an oatcake, fresh and hot from the fire, as I laid the next thin loaf onto the stone.

For a long time the only sound was the slap slap slap of my hands patting out the cakes and sometimes the crack of the wood in the fire when I put another log among the coals. Hours passed but the light out over the ford showed no change at all. Could I draw out the baking until dusk? How would I know in this land of twilight? Only the stiffness in my back told the passage of time.

And then, when I reached for another handful of flour from the chest, Llwydyn said, “I can see the bottom.”

My fingers touched smooth wood beneath the oats and fear ran through me. I mixed the dough again and pinched off a smaller piece than I had before, no larger than my thumb. Slap slap slap. It took longer to press the dough out to the size of my spread hand and now it was the thinness of parchment. It cooked more quickly and the bakestone stood empty for a time as I patted out the next cake. Llwydyn shifted in his chair and I held my breath, expecting him to call an end, but he said nothing.

Each time I pinched a smaller piece of dough. Now the cakes were the thinness of fine linen and I could see my hands through them as I worked. Slap slap slap. I picked up the flour chest and tipped the last of it into the bowl.

When the remaining dough was no larger than a walnut, Llwydyn stood suddenly. I expected to hear the sound of a sword leaving its sheath, but he only said, “I will come again tomorrow.”

As he strode out through the door I could see that the light had dimmed to twilight. The first day was past and I had survived. Though my hands were shaking, I finished baking the last of the dough then banked the fire for the night, too tired to do more than chew on the last warm oatcake as I pulled the bedclothes over me.

***

When I woke, the sky was so bright I feared that I’d missed the dawn and I rose hurriedly to make myself ready. But as I stirred up the fire and snatched a few bites of bread and cheese, my eyes fell on the distaff and spindle. The trick with the oatcakes had been by chance, but perhaps I had another weapon at hand for the new day. The distaff was full and there were two more stricks of flax in a basket beside it. I seated myself beside the table where the light was best, filled a cup with water to wet my fingers, and began to spin.

I had barely wound on as much thread as could cover the spindle shaft from view when the light changed and I looked up to see Llwydyn in the doorway. “Good day to you,” I said. “There is bread and cheese on the table, if you feel able to accept my hospitality. I cannot bear to have idle hands, as you see, but I will meet your challenge as soon as you have refreshed yourself.”

I laid the spindle aside and made as if to rise. He fixed me with a sharp glance that told me he knew what I was about. But he said only, “Complete your task,” and settled himself at the other side of the table.

There was an easy rhythm to the work as there had been to the baking: drawing the flax, wetting the thread, winding the spindle. I was not accustomed to spinning in silence and after a time I asked, “Does the sun never break through the mist here in your lands?”

I saw Llwydyn move as if startled, but his answer was even. “These are Hyddwen’s lands, not mine.”

“But yours lie beside hers on the far side of the river, is it not the same there?”

“It is the same and not the same.” He was maddeningly stingy with his answers.

I spun in silence again for a time then said, “I was saddened to hear of your foster-brother’s wound. Does it mend?”

I thought perhaps he would not answer me, so long he sat silently. When at last he spoke his voice was hollow. “It does not mend.”

My fingers spun the spindle, drew the flax, wetted the thread, and wound it up again. I said more lightly, “I am accustomed to have a storyteller at hand when we spin. Would you care to hear a story?”

“Is it a story that has an end?” he asked.

I almost thought I heard humor in his voice. “It has an end, though I do not know it yet,” I replied.

“Then tell it,” he said.

And I told him the story of how I had been betrothed against my will to an Irish prince. And how Elin had come to my wedding feast and asked for my company for a year and a day before I wed. And then I told of her trick with the sacks of gold to win me free of Garvin’s claim, and how I had returned with her to Llyswen to live in her hall and share her bed. And I told him of the hunt, and how I had wounded Hyddwen and so put myself in her debt. And how I had claimed the right to be her champion to keep her from ensnaring Elin or the men of Madrunion.

“So far the story runs,” I finished. “Perhaps someday you will tell the end.”

The distaff was not quite emptied, but I took up the second strick of flax and dressed it over what remained. Llwydyn peered into the basket and saw the one strick remaining. I could not tell the time, but I thought the light had not yet brightened to its fullest.

“Is there more flax in the house?” Llwydyn asked.

I shook my head. “None that I could find.”

“Then complete your task,” he said.

I have always been proud of the fineness of my thread, but I drew it finer still. Draw the flax, wet the thread, wind the spindle. I could not abide the silence and filled it by singing verses I had learned from the bards in my father’s court: intricate webs of rhyme and image, knotted together, one word chained to the next. Songs of praise and songs of sorrow. Songs of love and songs of longing. Each time I began a new song I could feel Llwydyn stiffen where he sat, as if he were a drawn bow. And each time the final stanza fell into place, I heard him sigh.

It is a peculiarity of his that he may leave no pattern incomplete.

Each poem passed over him like a wave on the shore, dragging at him until the fabric of words was completed and the tension washed away again.

I dressed the distaff a second time. The light out over the ford had brightened and waned again. “There is cheese,” I said. “And oatcakes from yesterday’s baking, if you are permitted to accept my hospitality.”

Llwydyn cut two slices from the cheese, as perfectly alike as two leaves, and passed me one laid atop an oatcake. I nibbled at the edge, but it was like eating dust.

I could spin the thread no thinner than it was: finer than a horse’s hair, than a cat’s whisker. Almost as fine as a spider’s web. The spindle was full and Llwydyn held it for me as I wound off the thread around my arm and tied the skein so it would not tangle. Was the light dimming? I tied a starting thread to the spindle and began again: draw the flax, wet the thread, wind the spindle.

The thread was so fine it cut my fingers. There was blood in the water as I wetted the thread. Still I spun until there was nothing left on the distaff but drifts and wisps of tow.

Llwydyn rose from his seat and I could hear the soft hiss of his sword leaving its scabbard as the last of the tow slipped through my fingers and the spindle clattered on the floor.

But then I heard him say, “Ah,” in a sigh, just as he had sighed at the end of each poem. “It is dusk.”

I looked up as he slid the sword back home. “Will you come again tomorrow?” I asked.

He nodded. “I will come.” It might have been a lover’s promise. He left and I heard splashing as he strode across the ford.

***

I could not sleep that night from the pain in my hands and the fear of the dawn. How could it be that I was more afraid now than that first morning when I’d had no hope of victory? I rose in the night and searched every corner of the cottage for some tool, some weapon, some task I could prolong. When nothing came to hand I began to weep, knowing that I would die on the morrow. Would Hyddwen take my message back to Llyswen? Or would Elin think I had abandoned her out of jealousy or spite? I could not bear the thought of that.

I left the cottage to walk by the ford and stare up into the slowly-brightening mist. Somewhere above, where I could not see them, I heard the sound of gulls. The gulls of Caer Alarch had summoned Elin to my side when I most needed her. Perhaps they would serve again as my llatai, my messenger to take her word of my fate and of my love.

A verse formed itself on my lips:

Full of sorrow, like an arrow,

From the bent bow now fallen short,

Show returning words on swift wing,

White gull bring to Llyswen’s court.

Cry to Elin all that has been

Left unspoken from loving heart.

The sky above grew slowly brighter. My mind tripped from one stanza to another, catching the chain from the last and seeking the next. I could not hold it all on my tongue and went inside to take up a charred brand from the fire. I began to trace the words on the white plaster of the walls. If I were to die here facing Llwydan Mawr, I would leave a record for all to see of my love for Elin and how it pained me to be parted from her forever.

I had filled the first wall from the doorway to the corner behind the bed when a shadow fell across the room and Llwydyn’s bulk blocked the doorway once more.

“What task are you about today,” he asked angrily. His hand clutched at the hilt of his sword.

“No task,” I answered. “Only a message for my Elin, to say goodbye and take my love to her.” I found the rhyme I needed and bent to write it, muttering over the words that might chain it to the next verse.

Behind me I could hear Llwydyn reading through the lines. I heard the catch in his voice at the end of each verse as the rhyme leapt and reached for the next line.

“There is bread and cheese on the table,” I said as I reached for another burnt stick from the fire. “I will not be long.”

There was so much in my heart to tell, but the words seemed to slip from my grasp. I wrote a line, a second, then found myself empty of rhyme for the third and stood staring at the empty plaster.

Llwydyn’s deep voice behind me said, “Ask.”

I turned, a question on my lips, but it had not been an instruction. It was my rhyme. I turned back to the wall and as I wrote the word, the remainder of my line fell into place.

Each time the words abandoned me, or led me off the path, Llwydyn was there, impatiently speaking the next link in the chain.

It is a peculiarity of his that he may leave no pattern incomplete.

He saw the patterns where I had only the flood of my sorrow and longing. When I stumbled, he caught me up. Between us we shaped a lament so keen it should have split the world in two.

A second wall was covered. I had no thought of food or rest, only that Elin must know I had not abandoned her. A third wall. Llwydan paced and muttered, reading over my verses and drawing his sword halfway then sheathing it again each time one stanza gave birth to the next.

But the soft gray light had waxed and waned. I had begun the work in despair; now hope began to stir once more. I had never meant the poem to fill the entire space of the day. There was no end to what I held in my heart but there was an end to the plaster. I turned the corner to the left of the door. Only half a wall remained.

How long until dusk? The past two days there had been no change that I could see when Llwydyn called an end to the day’s challenge. I tried to slow my writing, but at every turn came Llwydyn’s insistent voice providing the next word. Would he let me step through the door and continue on the outer walls or would he demand an end?

I began a new stanza.

My guiding star you ever are,

I’ve come so far at last to…

I stopped, hearing Llwydyn sigh behind me like the last breath of a dying man. I looked to the right of the door where my poem had begun. Full of sorrow. The chain had linked head to tail. At last to fail. No other word would fit. There was no escape. The pattern was complete. I accepted my doom and reached out with the charred stick to write the final word.

“No,” Llwydyn said and stayed my hand. He reached out and smeared the last three words then wrote, And now prevail.

“It doesn’t fit,” I said quietly. “The chain is broken.”

Llwydyn stepped to the other side of the doorway and added a few small strokes then smeared one word. No longer full of sorrow but of all sorrow. The chain was bound once more.

I bowed my head and whispered, “As Hyddwen’s champion, I stand ready to meet your challenge.” And I waited to hear the hiss of his sword being drawn.

And I waited.

When at last I dared to raise my head, Llwydyn was staring out through the doorway and across the ford, like a quivering hound tensed and listening for a distant horn.

His face twisted as if in a spasm and then he sighed. “It is done,” he said. “The third day is past. The challenge is met.”

He looked back at me for one brief moment.

“I, too, have loved,” he said. Then he turned and walked out into the waters of the ford. The mist hid him before he reached the other side.

***

I had no mind to spend another night in the cottage by the river. I made my way up across the darkening meadow and pounded on the gate to Hyddwen’s court. A porter opened to me without a word and led me silently to the hall. Hyddwen stood there in a gown of silk and gold, looking like a queen.

“Did you prevail?” she asked me sharply.

There was no need to pretend to weariness when I answered. “I met with Llwydyn Mawr from dawn to dusk for three days and I am still alive. If you will call that victory, then I prevailed. And now I would go home.”

“But is he dead?” she asked insistently.

“He is alive, but he has declared the challenge met.”

Hyddwen was angry, but she welcomed me into the hall and called for meat and drink and would have offered me rich gifts of gold and jewels.

I refused, fearing what obligations her gifts might lay on me. “I have paid my debt to you,” I said. “Let us be quit of each other. But—” I looked down at my borrowed tunic, now dirty with charcoal, and stained where I had wiped my bleeding fingers on it. “But since you have no further need of my blue gown, perhaps you could return it to me.”

Hyddwen waited as I washed and dressed myself and then led me back through the stone gateway. The mist rose in a wall before me. I waited for her to lead the way but she stepped back into the arch and said, “Your debt to me is paid, but you have paid it in poor coin. I can never rest, knowing that Llwydan Mawr still lives and hates me. Find your own way home, if you can.” And when she passed through the archway, even the stones disappeared.

They say that time passes strangely in the otherworld. Three days I had spent in the cottage by the ford and I know not how many I wandered in that mist without even the waxing and waning of the light to count them.

But as I came to despair, far above me I heard the crying of gulls. As their calls grew louder, I imagined I heard Elin’s voice calling to me. I shouted for her, staring into the whiteness until the dark shape of a horse rose before me.

Elin cried my name and dismounted to throw her arms about my neck and cover my face with kisses.

“I woke to find you gone and the gate open, and I thought I had lost you!” she cried. “I thought you had left me because of Hyddwen.”

When I could speak again, I told her the story of Hyddwen’s errand, and the cottage by the ford, and the three days with Llwydyn Mawr, and the time spent wandering in the mist.

“And I could have borne anything,” I said, “except to think that I would never see you again and you would not know that I had done it all for love of you. How did you find me here in the otherworld?”

Elin listened and wondered at the story. “Though it seemed an eternity,” she said, “I have been searching no more than this one day. When I found the gate open, I called for my horse to follow you, thinking you were returning to Caer Alarch. Then I heard the gulls and they led me to you.”

I looked around and saw that the mist was lifting and we were in the forest of Coetmor under the trees.

“But never doubt,” Elin said, “I would have besieged the otherworld and challenged Llwydyn Mawr himself to bring you back.”

I stopped her mouth with more kisses, but not for love alone. At the changing of the year, doors are open between the worlds, and I feared who else might hear and answer.

 

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