Battle of the Trees

Apple Tree Man © Andy Paciorek
Apple Tree Man © Andy Paciorek

Amatheon woke again with the pictures in his mind. He shook his head and went to call his brother, oldest brother. He stood outside the cave mouth and opened his arms wide to the sky. He stood with his legs broad to the ground. A tap on the shoulder brought him back to earth.

“Yes?” said Gwydion, a cup of tea still in one hand.

“Oh! There you are!” Amatheon let his arms fall and turned round.

“Shall we go in? It’s a mite chilly on a Gwynedd hillside at 6 ack emma.” Gwydion headed back into the cave. Amatheon followed. He found his brother rootling through the jars on the shelf above the stone basin.

“No Earl Grey!” he muttered. “I do wish you’d consent to live in more than one age at a time,” he admonished his younger brother. “Ho hum!” and he produced a brown paper bag out of his left hand, opened it and sniffed.

“Ahhh!” he waved the bag under Amatheon’s nose. “Don’t that just set you up of a morning? Now, how do you boil water … Oh! No! I don’t think we can wait that long!”

Gwydion snapped his fingers and a surprised-looking kettle stood precariously on the uneven rock shelf which served Amatheon as a kitchen counter. It began to boil.

In two shakes of a cat’s flea Gwydion had a large, brown, chuffy teapot (Denbigh ware, of course), a Wedgwood milk jug and a pair of cups on a bamboo tray. He quickly converted a couple of uncomfortable boulders into rocking chairs, gave a swift kick to a semi-flat rock between them to provide a table and plonked the tea tray on it.

“Now,” he said, planting himself in one of the rockers, “tell me about it!”

Amatheon had to grin. There had never been any holding Gwydion once he had prised the secrets of time-travel out of old Math. He, himself, preferred to live simple in whatever century he planted himself. But Gwydion’s visits were a treat, he invariably set the place on its ears. Amatheon sipped the scented tea and let its warmth flow through him.

“It’s like this …” he said, and began the tale of his dreams.

“Well, we’d better be off then” said Gwydion as his brother finished his story. “More tea? No ? OK.” He swept the whole tea service up in a minor vortex and consigned it to a dishwasher somewhere between the worlds, ignoring the machine’s grumbles.

Amatheon led the way into the back of the cave. It went on much further than the sneaky shadows told but they were only cast by candles. Gwydion felt in his pocket for his Mag-Lite.

The way led down. And down and down and down. Finally, Gwydion ran into Amatheon’s back when he stopped and found himself standing in a puddle.

“Tsk! Tsk!” he said. “I only just got these boots!”

“Shhh!” hissed Amatheon.

There was a glimmer of light threading its way before them, lighting only the ground ahead. It picked up its nose and sniggered to them from behind a bush.

“There!” Gwydion’s chin was on Amatheon’s shoulder. He pointed down the track.

They followed the glow-worm out into a wider track, going very stealthy, trying not to wake any souls.

There! There in a clearing she curtseyed, one wing down as though broken. She tripped carefully across the grass, trailing her wing and uttering mournful “Pee-wit! Pee-wit!” cries. But all the time she watched them out of a shiny black eye.

Carefully, they followed her until she stood by a hollow in the grass. It shone out at them, an egg of bright crystal.

Amatheon crouched beside the Lapwing.

“May I?” he asked her. Gently she pecked at his hand. He picked up the crystal egg.

“Peeeeeeee-wit!” she cried, looking up at him.

“I’ll carry her” said Gwydion and he lifted the bird gently, cradling her at his breast. He stroked her long crest and her soft pied feathers.

“Which way?” he asked and then he saw the yellow-grey muddy path.

They followed the path, slipping now and then on the wet clay, and found themselves beside a stream. Seven stones stood out of the water. Amatheon led the way across.

They heard a soft whining, looked about and saw a black bitch-hound lying beside a boulder. Her fore-paws were bloody and her claws ragged from trying to dig beneath it. Gwydion tucked the lapwing inside his jacket and set his hands to the rock. It moved aside, revealing a mass of red and yellow and grey clay. Water oozed from around it.

“How do we carry this?” began Amatheon. Then “No!” as Gwydion nearly began a spell. “You’ll make too much noise!” he said clapping his brother’s hands together.

Amatheon took off his leather jerkin and cut away the hood. “There!” he said “That’ll do.” And he piled the ball of clay into the hood and pulled the draw-strings tight. He tied it to his belt.

Gwydion was on his knees beside the bitch-hound, stroking her paws and singing a little, tuneless song. The skin grew back, and the fur, and her claws. She jumped up and licked his face.

“Now where?” said Gwydion.

The dog led them. Deeper into the forest they went, deeper and deeper. A rustling sound ahead caught their eye. A roebuck stood, his horns caught in the thicket. He stamped a hoof and tried again to pull himself free.

“Wait!” said Gwydion and he touched the tangled hazel branches. They came apart under his hands and the roebuck was free. He stamped his hoof again and, looking down, they saw the bone half buried in the earth. Amatheon dug it out.

“Now!” said Gwydion. And they turned for home. Gwydion still carried the lapwing inside his jacket, her pied head poking out of his collar. The dog led them back up the path and the roebuck followed after them.

They arrived back in the shadows of the cave and, as the roebuck’s delicate hooves crossed the threshold, a great bell tolled in the darkness behind them.

“That’s torn it!” said Gwydion.

“Yes,” replied Amatheon. “He knows”

Later, they watched as the trees gathered below. The battle lines were set. The Old Gods waited to take back the treasures that were stolen from them. Gwydion stood beside Amatheon as the woods grew where, this morning, there had been an open plain.

A rustling of leaves made them turn. A figure came towards them, silver and green. A tree? A woman? A dryad? She came beside Gwydion and whispered in his ear.

“This is Achren,” he told Amatheon.

Then leaving his brother to guard the treasures, Gwydion went down the hill with Achren. There were sprigs of Ash in his hair. He made his way through beech, holly and birch, willow and rowan, through the door of oak, until he stood before the Old God. He looked carefully and saw the glittering branches, Alder sprigs, standing out around the ancient face. And then Gwydion began to sing.
“Sure footed is my steed impelled by the spur;
the high sprigs of alder are on they shield;
Bran art thou called, of the glittering branches.
Sure footed is my steed in the day of battle:
The high sprigs of Alder are in thy hand:
Bran thou art, by the branch thou bearest –
Amatheon the Good has prevailed.”

“I know you!” he cried at last.

And with that came a great wind which blew all the leaves off all the trees. And the elder gods were gone.

“Now” said Amatheon when they were back in the cave. “Now I can give the treasures to the people.”

And so Amatheon gave the secrets of agriculture which he had wrested from the elder gods to the people of the land. And they grew crops and nourished the Land. And the Land was pleased.

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