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THAT DAY Pwyll, Prince of Dyved, who thought he was going out to hunt, was in reality going out to be hunted, and by no beast or man of earth.
The night before he had slept at Llyn Diarwya, that lay halfway between royal Arberth, his chief seat, and the deep woods of Glen Cuch. And at moonset, in the last thick darkness before dawn, he woke there.
He woke suddenly, as if a bell had been rung in his ear. Startled, he peered round him, but saw only sight-swallowing blackness that soon thinned to a darkness full of things yet darker. Of half-shaped, constantly reshaping somethings such as always haunt the lightless depths of night, and make it seem mysterious and terrible. He saw nothing that meant anything, and if he had heard anything he did not hear it again.
Then, sharp as an order, came memory: "You have come to hunt in Glen Cuch, so why not get to it?"
"By the God my people swear by, I will do that!" said Pwyll, and he jumped out of bed.
He rousted out men, dogs, and horses, he drove them forth with their breakfast only half eaten.
"I wish he would get married," grumbled one man, looking sorrowfully back at hisfood as he made for the door. "Then he would get up later in the morning."
"He would have here if our host's wife had been young and pretty," mumbled a second man, still chewing. "Then he might have stayed in bed till noon." Which was true, for Pwyll was of the New Tribes, among whom hospitality included the use of one's wife as well as of one's best food and bed. It was different with the Old Tribes, who did not know marriage and whose women slept with men only when it pleased them, although they often pleased.
But that morning Pwyll would not have stayed in bed if the loveliest woman in the world had been there with him. The Mabinogi says that it pleased him to go hunting, but the fact is that it pleased somebody else. The idea had been planted in his brain by another, one far older, more subtle, and mightier. Pwyll, who liked to do as he pleased, whose wont it was to give orders, not to take them, never dreamed that he was being as obedient as one of his own hounds.
Out into the first feeble grey of dawn he rode, his hungry, sulky men with him. Soon the forest of Glen Cuch loomed before them, still black as night, mighty with the mystery and darkness that fill all deep forests. At its edge the men dismounted, for horses, like the sun, never could have pierced far into those depths.
Pwyll's horn sounded, and the dogs were loosed. For a space the huge beasts stood sniffing, red eyed, the hair on their backs rising. Then, with a great wild bellowing they were off. The black woods closed over them like gigantic jaws.
One man, looking after them, said uneasily: "I never saw them act quite like that before."
Pwyll laughed. "They have scented something. Let us go find out what!" And he charged into that darkness after the dogs.
For a little while he could not see anything. He pushed and broke his way through dense undergrowth, snapping off branches, and getting switched by branches that he had not snapped off. He knew that his men were all around him, for he heard them lumbering as clumsily as he through the undergrowth, and swearing when they too got switched. But ahead of them all still rang the wild being of the hounds.
This wood has always been thick, Pwyll thought, puzzled. But the last time I was here it was not nearly this thick.
Yet the belling of the hounds drew him irresistibly, that being which is wilder and more eerily sweet than any other sound on earth. He pressed on, heedless of torn clothes, and of the skin that was going with them. He listened so hard to the dogs that for some time he did not notice he had ceased to hear any sound from his men. Well, he thought, when he did realize his aloneness, sooner or later we will all catch up with the dogs.
But the way grew no easier and the belling no nearer, and presently it came to Pwyll that he had been fighting that slashing underbrush for far too long a time. Long ago sunlight should have begun to fall in bright patches through the green leaves above his head; daylight of some kind, at least. He began to wish that he could hear some of his men, no matter how far off, and to be ashamed of how much he wished it.
This forest must be thicker than any other forest in the world. It is certainly too thick. But She cast much rain last winter; that must be why.
The Welsh say, "She is casting rain," not "it is raining," and in Pwyll's day men still knew why. Rain and sun, crops and the wombs of beasts and women, all were ruled by that old, mysterious Goddess from whose own womb all things had come in the beginning. The wild places were Hers, and the wild things were Her children. Men of the New Tribes, Pwyll's proud golden warrior-kind, left Her worship to women, made offerings only to their Man-Gods, who brought them battle and loot. But now Pwyll began to wonder if those hunters were right who said that all who went into the woods to slay Her horned and furry children should first make offerings to Her, and promise not to kill too many. So folk of the Old Tribes had always done.
I do not know what You like, Lady, but whatever it is, You shall have it. Only get me out of here.
When he got home he would ask several women what She liked, all young ones. This plan cheered him, evoking pleasant images, but in that gloomy wood they soon faded.
Of a sudden the belling rang out fiercely, with the savage joy of dogs who are almost upon their quarry. But it was coming from the west, and the belling of Pwyll's dogs had always come from the east. Also it was not their cry. But swiftly the excited baying of Pwyll's hounds followed it; they too had turned west. The quarry must have changed its course; soon the two packs would meet! And that meeting could be bloody.
Pwyll could not run through those lashing brambles, but he crashed through them, losing more skin. His leaping feet flew above stones and roots that tried to trip him.
Ahead of him the forest seemed to open like a door. He saw a green glade, flat and open beneath a leaden sky. He stopped.
This place never has been here before. It cannot be a right place. Ought a man to go into it?
But then his own dogs came running into the far end of that glade, and his heart leapt. His mouth opened to call to them, but before any noise could come out of it a huge stag leapt out of the forest just ahead of him. Its tongue was hanging out, its eyes were mad with fear, and the strange hounds ran just behind it!
Their baying filled earth and heaven; it seemed to split Pwyll's eardrums. Before his swimming eyes flashed whiteness, whiteness that blazed like flame and shone like snow. Many bodies struck him; swifter than the wind, colder than snow, they knocked him down and leapt over him, they rushed on after the stag. In the middle of the glade they caught it, and they pulled if down.
As he stumbled to his feet Pwyll heard its tortured death cry. He stood dazed, watching those white shapes tear at the brown body that still twitched upon the ground, the long legs that a moment before had been so swift and powerful jerking feebly as the fierce fangs gnawed its flesh.
The eyes and ears and the blood-dripping teeth of those strange dogs glowed red, red as fire, but their white bodies glittered more savagely, with an unnatural, deathlike brilliance of paleness. Blackness terrifies; it is sightlessness, it blinds a man and hides his enemies; yet the darkness within the earth is warm and life giving, the womb of the Mother, the source of all growth. But in snow or in white-hot flame nothing can grow. Whiteness means annihilation, that end from which can come no beginning.
How long he might have watched that dreadful feeding Pwyll never knew. Silence roused him; deep silence that was broken only by the joyous, yet still savage growling of the victors.
His own dogs were not making any noise at all.
They were still there; at the far end of the clearing they crouched shivering. Every hair on their bodies stood up as still and straight as grass.
They were picked fighters; never before had they been known to turn tail before any foe. Always before they would have leapt light-swift, an ecstasy of rending fangs and claws, upon any other pack caught daring to hunt in any forest where Pwyll hunted. But now they cowered and shivered, afraid to tackle those unnatural, death-white dogs.
Pwyll saw that, and he could not bear it. He was young-not quite three winters had he been Lord in Dyved-and pride was still stronger in him than discretion. Also he was a little afraid himself, and what afflicts ourselves is often what we most despise in others.
He looked sternly at his dogs. "Take that stag!"
They looked at him beseechingly; they wagged their tails, begging him to change his mind. Their eyes said pitifully: "Lord, we have always done your bidding. Anything we can do for you we will always do. But this ... Do not ask it of us, Lord; do not ..."
And because he himself was afraid that they could not do it Pwyll was miserable; also their misery hurt him. And because he felt guilty he glared at them harder than ever.
"I said: take that stag!"
They cowered yet lower; they whined.
He never had struck any of them. They were his darlings and his heart's pride. Yet now he stooped and picked up a stick.
They could not bear that; death was less dreadful to them than his wrath. They moved, they advanced, tails down, bodies trembling.
Pwyll dropped the stick and drew his sword. He would not let them fight alone.
But when the stranger dogs saw them coming they backed away. With their nostrils full of the scent of blood, with their terrible, fanged mouths full of the meat and its good taste, they backed away from the hot, steaming flesh of their kill. Silently they went, their eyes gleaming redder than their bloodstained fangs, and to the watching man it seemed that those red eyes were mocking.
Pwyll did not like that retreat. No right dogs would have behaved like that. They should have fought; even if they knew that they were trespassing and were afraid, they should have shown disappointment.
Gingerly his own dogs approached the stag, but once they tasted its blood they began to tear it joyfully, growling deep in their throats. Though from time to time they stole wary glances at those pale, shining strangers, who stood off and watched, silent at the trees.
Pwyll never took his eyes off the strange dogs. Their red eyes stared back at him with a most undoggish straightness, with a glowing fierceness, an almost intolerable brightness; it took all his will not to look away.
"They are waiting for something," thought Pwyll. He glanced over his shoulder toward the west from which they had come. But there was nothing there; only trees.
His heart leapt, then sank; there was Something!
A namelessness, a far-off greyness, not solid enough to be a beast, too thin to be fog ...
It was moving! It was coming, neither swiftly nor slowly, but with an awful, steady sureness. What shape was on it, man, beast or cloud, Pwyll could not tell; he knew only that, whatever it was, when it got there he would wish it was something else.
The bole of one enormous old tree hid it; for a breath's space Pwyll could not see it, and then a Grey Man on a Grey Horse rode out into the glade. And Pwyll's hand, that had leapt to his sword-hilt, froze there, and his eyes stared as if frozen in his head.
Both horse and rider were solid now. They looked bigger than they should have, and every part of them, hair and hide, hoof, clothing, and skin, was of precisely the same color. The same terrible, corpselike grey.
All but the Man's eyes.
Pwyll did not want to meet those eyes, but he could not escape them. Through their shining blackness cold seemed to stream through his blood and bones. Knowledge streamed with it, knowledge that he could neither understand nor keep. His brain reeled away from that awful wisdom, that poured into it as into a cup, and overturned it, and was spilled again.
He could not close his eyes; he shuddered and covered them with his hands, to shut out those other eyes. He was glad, blessedly glad, that he could still move his hands.
The Horseman spoke then, and his voice had a note of the wind in it, of a wind blowing through great space; in that it was like the baying of his dogs. But his words were ordinary enough.
"Prince," he said; "I know who you are, and it is not a good day I give you."
Nothing seems likelier, thought Pwyll, than that you will give me a bad one. But I am a man, and I will not shame my manhood. He threw back his head and looked at the stranger, and was delighted to find that now he could do it. Words or blows, these he could trade with any foe.
"Well, Lord," he said dryly, "perhaps your dignity is so great that it is beneath it to greet me." That was irony; these were his lands, and he was Lord of them, and the stranger had entered them unbidden.
But the other was unabashed. "By the Gods, it is not my dignity that stops me!"
"Then what is it?"
"By all the Gods,"-and Pwyll wondered if he were one of them and were swearing by himself-"it is your own ignorance and bad manners!"
Pwyll stiffened. His grey eyes had the glint of ice. "What bad manners have you seen in me, stranger?"
"Never have I seen worse manners than to drive away the dogs that had made the kill, and to set your own pack on the carcass!" Thunder rolled in the deep voice.
"If I have done you wrong," said Pwyll quietly, "I will pay you whatever face-price is due your rank. I do not know what this is for I do not know you."
Suddenly all became very still. No leaf moved, no wind stirred, the birds of the air hung motionless, and the snakes ceased to slither in the deep grasses. Even the dogs stopped chewing, though their mouths were full of meat.
"I am a crowned King in the land whence I come." The stranger's voice was low, yet the wild vastness of the wind was in it, and something within Pwyll shrank.
"Good day to you then, Lord King." He kept his voice and eyes steady. "What land is that?"
"Annwn. Arawn, a King in Annwn, I am named."
Then indeed did great cold pour through Pwyll again, freezing him, blood and bone. For he understood.
Our world is one of many. The uninstructed group them all together in the lovely, capricious, ever-perilous realm of Faery, but Pwyll, being of kingly blood, had had some druidic instruction forced upon him.
Excerpted from Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton Copyright © 2004 by Evangeline Walton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted May 28, 2010
Walton (a writer whose biography is almost as fascinating as her novel) takes Welch mythology, works it into a novel format, and makes an academic subject accessible to anyone. The book is a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in Arthurian legend. Because the legend is based in Welch mythology, the reader will gain background knowledge for stories which will enhance his understanding of plot, motivation, references to such items as the caldron and people such as Branwen and Bran the Blessed. With an outlandish plot reminiscent of Beowulf, this book will be popular with any British literature fan.
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Posted January 3, 2014
Posted January 13, 2003
These stories hold mass amounts of truth and fiction. Fiction to the mind, and truth to the heart. The imagination and the gods and goddesses of this time are buried deep with in each one of us.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 17, 2002
Evangeline Walton's works on the Mabinogion are written in beautiful language. Her images are vivid and memorable. A knowledge of Welsh history would probably aid in understanding the stories, but the tales themselves are a fascinating, enjoyable read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 22, 2002
A CLASSIC PIECE OF LITERARY ART NEARLY RUINED BY FAILING TO PROOF READ THE FINAL WORK; PROBABLY NOT WORTH BUYING EXCEPT AS A COLLECTORS PIECE.
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Posted March 6, 2009
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