Chapter One: Dewin Mawr
‘How much for the boy?’ Myddrin asked my father giving me a calculating look.
So I was sold.
Within a year I would have learnt how to lie and cheat, have been blown up, taken a man’s life and stood struggling at midnight with a stinking corpse in a midden.
“Or you could have stayed in that miserable cott and starved to death!”
“Ahhhh, my apologies sweet reader, my former owner intrudes without waiting for an introduction.”
’Then stop this snivelling, enough of the downtrodden slave rubbish I saved your life, educated you and never beat you anywhere near enough.”
“As my master commands!”
“Master! When did you ever obey me!”
Myddrin always-regarded names like clothes, to be worn, or discarded, as circumstances dictated. Myddrin, a name he adopted when he thought to suggest a connection to the greatest magician of all, Merlin. The great magician - was after all - his greatest part!
“A part I was born to!”
That night we were all huddled around the hissing crackling fire in our damp dripping shelter in the copse.
“A great jumble of branches, hardly a shelter, it merely redirected the rain mostly down my neck.”
Our family’s fortunes had plunged precipitately since the “Old Lord,” who had valued my father’s skills with wood, had been struck down and become bedridden. In the corner the great Rood screen with it’s beautiful intricate carvings stood discarded never to be completed, or paid for. A commission of the ‘Old Lord’ to beautify his church now the carved heads flickered moving, writhing in the firelight. A testament to my father’s skill yet now the faces sneered at his hubris. The piece that would make our fortune had instead ruined us. Our old cottage had been a palace with a sturdy timber frame….
“Your new home looked more like a Beavers lodge! A haphazard jumble of wood ….
Which sheltered an ungrateful storm crow, harbinger of ill fortune, eager enough for shelter. His cloak soaked by the rain fell like sodden wings. Later stripped to his braies, his habit and cloak drying out in front of the fire we sat and listened while he spun his tales of the great abbeys and libraries of Europe. Ever adaptable and sensitive to his audience that night he was the great scholar. Mother cooked us a meal the like of which we had not seen in weeks. It was a little before sunset as the days grew longer but the sky was dark with cloud. She bustled with the pots cooking in the gloom by touch and instinct extending Christian charity despite their despair.
“I do not come back from the dead to continue old arguments. Your mother and father were kind to a stranger, but it was not despair. I know that very well, that is a smell of mould and cold ashes. Your mother and father were desperate. That is a different smell! It has a heat, a smell of sweat and fear like the animal that approaches the shambles.”
“You always had a good sense of smell, particularly for silver!”
“Quite true, Boy quite true. (Laughter)
“Even as I sit here writing my confession in this cold damp cell it is good to hear your voice…. you pompous old windbag.”
“Hmmph, I am listening but do not expect me to be silent you always were a most unreliable storyteller.”
’I defer to your judgment coming as it does from the most skilled liar I know. …Now may I continue?”
“Thank you I will take that as a compliment. You may continue.”
The fire our only source of light flickered and sputtered in the draughts, spitting and crackling as the drips found their way through the hastily erected roof. In the thick choking gloom the firelight cast sudden and dramatic shadows as Myddrin told us the story of Gawain and the Green Knight. We children gasped with delight hugging our knees. We crowded close to the fire turning ourselves slowly like pigs on a spit as the fire burnt first one side then the other while our backs froze. But tonight we didn’t mind as the cott filled with unaccustomed laughter. Our poor lost bedraggled guest burst upon our lives like a thunderbolt.”
‘Lost, I was not lost I tell you! It was ordained; I was guided to find you. I merely indicated to your father that I wanted an apprentice.’
“Dear Myddrin you will always haunt me whether your voice is a construct of memory or from Caer Arianrhod or some other place beyond the gulf of death. You saved my life so do not be so squeamish – you bought a child – a common enough event.”
Children are often sold to pay a debt, they are the most valuable commodity the poor possess. Every noble who bought, sold, or inherited a manor includes the people who live there along with the land. People are much less important than land. My father was proud to be a freedman, free to starve, my mother would say, but there was no talk of apprenticeship…. I was sold.
Myddrin had arrived on St. Wulstan’s eve, a propitious day as St Wulstan was a bishop of Worcester and his feast day was celebrated locally with much pride. I may have been young but as St. Wulstan’s day approached that year our anticipation was muted. I remember the brilliant early summer followed by the constant falling rain and the faces of my parents. The desperation and the shadow of ruin haunted us. They forced smiles and prayed for the recovery of the ‘Old Lord’. The ‘Old Lord’ was for us a source of constant fickle, tantalising gossip. “He was talking once more,” “he was dying,” “he had eaten a hearty breakfast” every other day a different story and unable to resist my father swallowed every titbit that came from the manor house. At first the mood of our household had risen and fallen with the rumours. Then there was the New Reeve standing grim faced evicting us from our old home on some whim of the “Young Lord.” Not only would the Rood screen not be paid for but the back rent which my father had spent on wood and tools to complete the commission was now demanded.
There would be no justice in the manorial court with the “Young Lord” as prosecutor and judge. The carved face of the ’Old Lord” leered from the Rood Screen which now reinforced a wall. If only my father had included the face of the “young lord” as prominently! Our neighbours little better off trying to help as best they could. Nor were we the only desperate family. The crops bent, battered by the constant rain the corn nearly as green as the barley. Would there be famine this year?
“Yes and I never saw them again. No comment, old man?”
“This old worn song, sing me another. Your family moved where your father could find work - that was not my fault. The coins I gave your father would have, used carefully, fed your brothers and sisters through half the winter. Your father was a brave man; he did the arithmetic of life, death and food. He chose to trust me, to give you a chance and I gave him more than I needed to. It gave your brothers and sisters a chance as well. But enough of this, we have rehearsed this argument too many times, I am dead let it rest….
But do you know why I chose you?”
“The unforgiving arithmetic of survival! When food is scarce it is reserved for those who can work and produce more food. The eyes of your younger brothers and sisters were already empty. Their eyes were half dazed but your eyes still darted hither and thither drinking in the novelty of a guest, you even poked fun at me. Your father rebuked your rudeness to a guest but our eyes met and you grinned at me and I decided to save you. I apologise - if saving you from starving to death - which is a prolonged and exceedingly boring way to die, meant you mislaid your family!”
“As always you have the last word. Forgive me if I was unkind, you did me a great service but I still try to remember them.”
“Curled up on a bed of bracken, four of you.”
“Yes, yes five of you lying in a pile of heads, arms and legs all mixed together. You reminded me of a litter of puppies. But enough! I bought you for much more than you were worth …. if only I had known what I was getting! Now get on with my story.”
“Your story? I thought this was my confession,” and I hear again that great braying laugh that I miss so much. Yes of course it is his story.
“But do you know why my father agreed to sell me? No? It was because of the magic…“
“Magic I never tried to gull them with any trickery!”
“You interrupted, as usual, the magic of words I was going to say! He told me that you would teach me to read.”
“Aaah, so that is why he let you go.”
“Did you not see his eyes wide and eager when you pulled that parchment from your bag. You brought the word of God into his home. Holy Scripture but you spoke not in Latin, or French but in English. English! English the language of the common people. We all watched awed and humbled, as scratches upon paper became the word of God. God speaking to us in our humble home, through you, in a language, we could understand. The air seemed charged we feared that a thunderbolt might strike us as we trespassed on that which is sacred, holy and secret. My mother twisted her hands in holy terror but my father craned forward a look of eager exultation on his face. They gripped hands and I saw his elation mixing with her suppressed terror in a moment of religious ecstasy the like of which I have rarely witnessed. With unusual modesty you told my father that you had merely been a copyist and not the translator.
“Ah yes I remember and I promised to teach you to read and make your letters.”
“Yes, that was your magic. You brought the words of the gospel into our home. My father thought you were a messenger from God, an angel.”
“Me an Angel?” (Laughter)
“Yes, my dear Myddrin if only he had known!”
My mother had quite different ideas about you! That night as we tried to sleep he twitched, tossing and turning all night long as if in a fever while my mother lay rigid. I knew even then that it was the most important night of my life and that everything was going to change.”
My father was a man cast down by the ”Young Lord,” but you exalted him it was his own personal Pentecost. You graced the meanest hovel in the shire with the word of God. Not some mangled Latin from some ill-educated priest, but in words he understood. English words not heard in the greatest Abbey or church in the land. He could not resist you: he gave you his first born because you said you would teach me to read.
“Reading, that was worth far more than money to him. Do you remember what you read that night? What it was that built the fire in his eyes and the hunger in his soul.”
In the bigynng was the word, and the word was at God, and God was the word.
This was in the bigynning at God.
Alle thingis weren maad bu hym, and withouten hym was maad no thing, that thing was maad. In hym was lijf, and the lijf was the liyt of men: and the liyt schyenth in derknesses, and the derknessis comprehendiden not it.
“Yes, yes you have the gift to move men with words. Why did you ….”
“Waste it? Not become a great scholar or leader in the church? Foolish boy I wasn’t that big a rogue! Now get on with it.”
The following day we left our camp and my father’s workshop. The rain had eased to a gentle drizzle. As I looked back I saw my father trying to stand tall in front of his depleted stock of chairs and stools that few could afford to buy. He waved and smiled but I could hear my mother weeping in the cott.
“Enough of you and this miserable melodrama – tell them about me!”
“Then don’t interrupt me old man.”
The First Morning
‘I am Myddrin the Great, magician, scholar, interpreter of the heavens, physician, wizard, and purveyor of charms and holy relics,’ Myddrin announced with grand gestures. He could have added liar, trickster, weaver of outrageous stories, and thief, if he wanted to be accurate but for a young child the world was suddenly filled with wonder. The trees dripped from last evenings rain but it seemed to me that it was magic that soaked the landscape. Above a rainbow arced as the sunlight bathed us between the intermittent showers. Two Buzzards seemed to keep pace with us wheeling in great circles above. Perhaps it was the effect of a full stomach but more likely it was just the intoxication of being with Myddrin. Like a fledge poking its head from the egg for the first time a whole strange new unimagined world awaited me.
He did not look an impressive man. He was but of an average height about five feet tall, balding with a few grey hairs starting to mix amongst the brown. He had a natural tonsure and his face was round as was his stomach, which spoke of his love of food. He wore a large brown cloak over a plain brown habit tied with a piece of rope. In his hand he carried a stout piece of wood its head polished smooth by constant handling. Round his neck was a wooden crucifix that he had also purchased from my father. The palms of his hands were softer than any man I had known, but with calluses on his fingers that spoke of time in the scriptorium. The face and eyes were soft, thoughtful, ready to smile, but missing little that was of use to him. His nose was threaded with red and his face darkened by exposure to wind though exposure to ale may have played a part as well. The only clear sign of past affluence, other than the coins he had given my father, were his boots. Not the sandals we saw sometimes on passing friars but sturdy well-made boots. At his belt he carried a purse carefully half filled with pennies and fractions of pennies.
‘Always make sure a thief feels it was worth the effort of robbing you,’ he once told me. There were plenty of robbers infesting the roads. The wars in France had produced a bumper harvest of rootless men well trained in the arts of pillage, plunder and rape. There was a small hoard of silver coins secreted in the hem of his habit for emergencies. The crucifix also served us well as even the most hardened outlaws thought twice as they robbed us under the gaze of the suffering Christ. Myddrin would teach me to accept being robbed as an inevitable consequence of being on the road; the trick he argued was to limit the damage to a few lost pennies and a cuff or two. With Myddrin there was always, a “trick.’
“Boy the greatest trick is surviving.”
At his hip he carried a big brown leather bag, with various pockets of different sizes, which could be converted into a backpack. The bag initially was a source of magic and wonder to me. From it would appear charms, herbs and a myriad of strange things. We had not been walking long when we approached the hamlet where we had lived before our eviction. Here I had my first lesson and expected spells, great enchantments and wonders. What I learned was more prosaic. Wizarding I was to learn required sharp eyes, sharper ears and more cunning than a skulk of foxes.
“What do you see boy,” he asked?
‘The village’ I said puzzled at his apparent fascination with something so familiar to me. He laughed.
“No boy , every village, every hamlet each town is different. They all have something to offer if …. approached correctly. Each can offer dangers to the foolish and unwary. First lesson, always look and think about what you see, second lesson - always have a few stones in your pocket!” Puzzled but intrigued I picked a few stones from the cart ruts.
“Is there a church,” he continued?’ I shook my head. “A church means the possibility of a priest; most churches in small villages have no permanent priest. A priest in residence has authority and may have an unpleasant attitude to those who sell charms or relics. See also that three of the cottages have smoke coming through their roofs, which means the possibility of warmth, shelter and food. None of them have a branch or some such sign, fixed above the door to indicate an alehouse. An alehouse will provide food, drink and a place to sleep to strangers at a price. The cottages are built of cob there is no stone, stone means money, money means,’ he smiled wickedly, ’opportunities. The poor are generous and will usually feed you but in this hamlet I see few signs of livestock. Times are hard, there is little food to spare for strangers or animals and we have little money. We must move on and find richer pickings.”
He set off before I could ask about the stones. I guessed at some secret magic rite but a little further up the lane two dogs came rushing towards us teeth bared. A small shower of stones and they fled. Dogs could be an even greater danger to travellers than outlaws. Many have died as the result of a festering dog bite.
’The old lore says that if you throw a stick made of holly at a dog it will lie down quietly and not harm you.” Myddrin smiled at me, “but I am unconvinced and so was the dog I first tried it on.” He picked up a few more stones, “these I find work most times.”
“But what if they don’t?” I asked. Myddrin looked at me and paused.
“….then find a tree boy,” and we both laughed. Magic, Myddrin taught me, was fickle and unreliable and sometimes needed assistance from a little sleight of hand. Some might have thought of this as cheating ….
“My boy, the proof of magic is in the intention and the accomplishment, the how is unimportant.”
“I can remember some we met who disagreed with you on that point! We had a few bruises.”
“Tsk tsk are we going to dwell on the odd setback or my many triumphs!”
“I will tell the truth old man.”
“The truth and what pray is that? Your truth, my truth or something else….”
“You once told me that if you told a lie you always had the truth to fall back on but that if you began with the truth there was nothing else. But my mother would have disagreed she raised a God fearing son!”
“As you never tired of telling me! There are only stories boy! Stories we weave to explain ourselves to others and to our self. Sometimes the skilfully woven story even if it contains a few lies is far superior to the bald truth.”
“I bow respectfully as always to the superior knowledge of my mentor and teacher.”
“That would be a first.”
As we tramped along the cart track heading west Myddrin kept up a stream of stories of Kings, heroes, monsters, magic cauldrons and fairies. I was captivated and I remember many of them still.
“You made me repeat them enough times!”
Many I would later find in the White Book of Rhydderch.
“Which you were able to read ….
“Because you taught me ….
“Yes, Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch. Written in the language of heaven long before that failed courtier Chaucer began writing anything in English!”
Myddrin had no curriculum but was a natural born teacher for each day and every landscape would bring some lesson to mind. The gibbet outside a town festooned with worm eaten, rotting, stinking bodies was reduced to a simple instruction. I stood aghast looking at something that would soon be very familiar. I remember Myddrin spoke coolly but with an unmistakeable edge of warning. “If they ever ask how old you are boy, say you are six.”
“Why? No one will believe I am six.” He smiled at me and paused to emphasise the import of what he was telling me.
“Because Boy,” he paused “they cannot hang you until you are seven.” But I get ahead of myself let me return to that innocent first day.
I had gathered kindling and at midday we paused for a hot drink. That was another important lesson dry kindling means a fire. Fire means warmth and hot food, which if you are upon the road can be the difference between misery and some degree of comfort.
“Hot food and dry feet!”
Myddrin placed some dried herbs in a small metal pot and added a dollop of honey. Myddrin swore by honey, quoting the example of John the Baptist who had lived on nothing but locusts and honey. He believed that it enlivened the body and that the regular eating of honey protected us from disease and ill health. He used it to treat burns, to dress wounds and for sore throats. There was no illness, circumstance or mood that Myddrin believed could not be improved by a large dollop of honey. I remember that first afternoon as we sat by the small fire warming our hands and drinking one of his concoctions thick with honey. The taste was divine; the cold drizzle was suddenly a minor inconvenience and leaving home a strange adventure.
“Honey soothes the heart and the soul as well as the throat”.
“It might have been a great adventure but there was still a feeling of emptiness inside which when I dwelt on it led to slow silent tears.”
“That was starvation, not home sickness. Honey a sovereign remedy …. Each day you could walk a little farther.”
“Yes, until I was strong enough to carry that damm bag of yours!” Once again I hear that great-unrestrained laugh.
Walking on sodden cart tracks is exhausting. You must constantly vary your stride to avoid the deepest of the mud, which clings and sucks at your feet. We passed the odd solitary cott but all day long we spoke only to one old, mad hermit. He stood mumbling at a wayside shrine a simple cross with a crude figure carved on the base. Such figures haunt our land. Some think their madness is holy and that they hear God’s word directly …. great and awful …. overwhelming their senses. To my child’s eyes he just seemed lost, broken by some sorrow, in this blighted land.
Myddrin tried talking to him but the hermit flailed his arms about speaking with a passion that was compelling. We listened but whatever he wished to tell us so urgently was completely incomprehensible. The words were oddly familiar but they joined in sentences that led nowhere. Myddrin quietened him by offering him some cheese, which he ate slowly and thoughtfully. The hermit was skin and bone yet his hair was clean and freshly cut and from the way he savoured the cheese he was not starving. His habit was old and plain but carefully patched. We nodded to him as we finished our meal, smiled and walked away. He smiled back at us waving his cheese and making the sign of the cross and mumbling strange words that were clearly intended to be a blessing.
“We were fortunate, the freely given blessing of such men are powerful.”
I looked back to see him still sitting contentedly beneath the wooden cross with its garland of forest flowers. We saw no habitation not even a cave. Disturbed, and a little puzzled, we moved on and within a few minutes the religious scarecrow was lost to sight and mind.
In the late afternoon as the sun descended I was exhausted. We walked through a hamlet long deserted with hardly a wall standing let alone a roof. The valuable roof timbers had been scavenged but the cob walls were slowly dissolving into muddy mounds. We often stayed in abandoned cotts if there was a bit off roof to provide shelter. But not these homes long abandoned they were stained by mould, dank and dripping with desolation. A common enough sight after the “Great Pestilence.” We saw no ghosts but felt their sad presence.
The cart track was now badly overgrown and we puffed up a short hill. We entered a Beech hanger probably planted by the hamlet to provide forage for their animals. A few yards into the hanger just off the path there was a bank, which had begun to crumble away. An animal had excavated further into the sandy soil beneath the roots of a Holly tree. It was the most likely shelter we had seen for the night. We looked around carefully before gathering firewood and building a small fire. Gathering firewood on a Lords land without permission can lead to severe penalties in the manorial or Forest courts. Or could do if the notoriously grasping woodwards and foresters were not so easy to bribe. We probed the scraping and found whatever animal had used it was long departed. This was no cave large enough for us to climb inside. Yet combined with the overhanging holly tree it offered reasonable protection.
“A sign it was fated, Holly would play a powerful part in your life.”
“As you say so old man but of that later.”
After a meal of bread and cheese we settled down and my lessons in magical lore began. It was this lore, Myddrin’s never ending stories and a little begging that would keep us fed. People bought our charms but they really bought because of the stories. Stories of saints, gods, goddesses, miracles, magical wells, shrines, wizards and witches. As the embers of the fire died to a red glow the sky above shone with thousands of stars.
Sitting under the holly tree Myddrin held me spellbound as he wove a story as only he could. His voice rose and fell, his hands carved shapes in the air and his eyes fixed on some unseen vision compelling me to see it to. He mixed in deep scholarship telling me of Democritus who believed that the Milky Way above our head was not Hera’s milk, as his fellow Greeks believed, but distant worlds. That amongst those distant stars there might be many worlds like ours. That somewhere above there was perhaps another me listening to another Myddrin telling a slightly different story. Yet as he shared his knowledge gained in the great libraries of Christendom he also told me stories learnt as a child in the wet, misty valleys of Wales.
“Cymru! Have you forgotten everything I taught you Boy! You Saxons call us Welsh, meaning strangers, foreigners when it is you who are the strangers in our land!”
“Yes and England is LIoeg, the lost land, I have heard it all before.”
“Then it is time you learnt you ignorant Saxon all the time I spent teaching you the language of heaven ….
“I am sorry, Sori, Myddrin, I do not forget but sometimes as I sit alone in this cold cell…. I wish ….”
“Hush now. Go on Boy, do not fret, tell our story, I am with you. Do you not feel my arms.”
“Thank you Old man, I wish I could, I need a cutch….”
“Dduw benedithia chi. God bless and preserve you from the dangers of this night.”
That night Myddrin told me how the Druids from his native Wales, Sori Cymru, regard the Holly. He told me of the Holly King and his twin the Oak King and how each reigns for half the year. At Midwinter the Holly King is slain and the season begins to change.
The Holly King boards Rhwyfrod the ship that sails along that great wheel of stars, the Milky Way, carrying the dead to their rest. The beautiful goddess Arianrhod daughter-in-law of the sky god Nwyfre, waits for him in Caer Arainrhod her home in the sky. “There!” Myddrin stretched out an urgent finger and breathless I almost saw the goddess smiling down on us. There was Caer Arianrhod lying in a group of seven stars shaped like a cauldron in the midst of that great river of stars. The Holly King spends six months there but with the help of Arianrhod’s powers he is resurrected at Midsummer to defeat the Oak king and reign until midwinter.
Whilst I have heard many churchmen preach against these pagan beliefs most were just as quick to credit magic as the most superstitious serf. We all bow to the altar and get down upon our knees in church. But this is a land full of witches, faeries, demons, goblins and those things that lurk in the shadows and we all wear some protective charm.
Myddrin told me how Holly this special tree could protect you from Witches, all manner of magic as well as lightning. We did good business selling charms carved from holly wood to protect the wearer against a witch. This and much more he taught me that night as we pushed as far as we could under the protection of the Holly tree. The rain fell steadily but the tree kept us tolerably dry. Ever since that night I have had a special affection for the Holly tree.
“Affinity you mean, the holly is your tree, it protected you then as it has protected you ever since. It has an important part in our story.”
“Our story? I am honoured.”
“I’ll honour you in a minute cheeky pup.”
Myddrin had wrapped us both in his cloak as we settled to sleep amongst the dripping Beach trees. He also placed two rocks hot from the fire by our feet to ward off the cold. It was a long night. You will think me innocent and naïve but I wriggled as close as I could to Myddrin so that I should not feel alone. I missed the pile of arms and legs that were my brothers and sisters.
“You wriggled like a hooked fish all night. I got very little sleep!”
“Funny how you could snore so loudly whilst still awake!”
In the morning we woke and baked ourselves next to a fierce fire. We sat steaming trying to warm ourselves and dry our clothes as we had a frugal breakfast.
“There were Secrets, some small, some more important such as why someone wanted to kill us! But of course an explanation, or a warning, would have been too much to ask. Wouldn’t it?”
Myddrin by his art usually kept us well fed but we travelled light. We could live well off the land in the right season but if we could not buy, beg or steal food ….
“Steal, steal! We didn’t steal, not very often! What impression do you intend they should have of me! I thought you were confessing your sins not mine! I have heard enough of these calumnies. I will depart disappointed that my apprentice after all of my training still does not appreciate me!”
He always was cranky first thing in the morning and there were always secrets. My first clue should have been the man we met that second morning. As we approached Myddrin was chatting casually warming up the mark. The man gave us a quick smile. He paused putting down a bundle of wood clearly eager for some excuse to pause in his labours.
“Gods’s blessing upon you, you are Welsh then?” he essayed.
“Nay, Welsh,” Myddrin replied his face smiling yet stiff, affecting some disdain that his accent should be so mistaken. “Yorkshire!” I found my elbow squeezed hard and thus warned said nothing. The cod Yorkshire was one of the few dialects he never mastered and spoke appallingly badly. For once he seemed almost tongue-tied and the lies came less fluently or believable than usual. Myddrin and the puzzled man spoke briefly, exchanged blessings and we moved on. Myddrin was silent but when I judged we were out of earshot I asked Myddrin why he had lied.
“There may be people looking for me,” was all he had replied as if this explained everything. He refused to elaborate and for a long time we walked in silence but I noticed that Myddrin looked over his shoulder.