“I tell’ee! Have nothin’ to do wi’it!”
Culhwch could hear the voice still, echoing down through the long tree-bound ride but he would not listen to it. The old one stood in the doorway shaking his staff, willing his young charge to stop but knowing, all the while, it was to no avail.
His horse’s hooves thudded into the green turf, his mind still on the dream, ducking the low branches which threatened to sweep him off the horse on autopilot. Every night now since the feast he’d had the same dream of the gold-bronze hair tied back with a velvet band which matched the blue of her eyes. Now he saw her everywhere he looked.
His mind went back to the night of the feast. His father’s wife had leaned towards him so that the dark crystal swung lose from between the white mounds of her breasts. It swung to and fro, to and fro, mesmerising.
“Will ye not marry my daughter, Culhwch?” she said.
“No!” his voice was thick as he answered her. “No, I will not.”
After the third asking she had sat back in the high chair. Her fingers danced softly over the mellow wood and along the edge of the pewter plate. His eyes followed. She sang softly in her throat but the words made no sense to him.
He felt lost here in the wide hall. The soft light shone through the windows, the smell of food was sweetly overpowering and the people, he had never been among so many people in his life. His heart turned longingly back to the old white sow with her brood of piglings snuffling amongst the beechmast in the clearing. Sometimes she would turn up truffles for him, at others lead him to a hazel grove where the forest floor was carpeted with nuts. He would collect them and bring them home to the Old One of an evening. They would sit together beside the fire while the great pig suckled her little ones in the sty next door. Quiet it had been, not like this great hall.
The man he now called father he could hardly remember. There was an image there, a sense of the movement of a horse beneath him, a strong brown arm about him and then “Take care of him!” the voice had said. And he was alone with the bent old man and his pig, the sound of thudding hooves receding into the distance.
“Your mother ran mad, boy, had you heard tell?” The honey-voice called him back into the great hall. His father’s wife was leaning towards him again, the heavy scent of apricots cloyed his mind. Her teeth were very white.
“She ran mad, boy, just as her time came on her. Ran into a pig-sty and birthed you out into the mire. Did you know that, boy?”
“Culhwch! The pig-sty prince!” His father’s wife’s daughter laughed, a tinkling sound, like icicles cracking in the morning sun. Her cold white hand touched his. “Never worry it, mother dear. I find I do not like the smell of pigs in my bed!”
That night the dream had come the first time. A slender woman, red-gold hair falling like a sheet of water down her back, tied back from her brow with a sapphire coloured band. Her coral lips smiled to him and she held out her hand. Then something caught her eye and she looked back over her shoulder in fear. Something huge and dark approached them out of the cold night and he awoke. On the third night he heard her name called upon the wind, “Olwen! Olwen!” He woke with the name on his own lips.
“There’s none hereabouts knows aught of her,” his father told him as they walked together through the dim mews. “Go to the great court, my son. Arthur and his men will know if any do. And they will help you.”
It wasn’t really on his way but he had gone back again to his foster-home, the pig-sty, and to his foster-father, the old one, to tell his tale again.
“Don’t go! Have nothing to do with it!” the old one insisted but Culhwch didn’t listen.
The trees thinned. The country all about became more open and, gradually, like a cloud resting upon the hilltop, he began to make it out. The towers and spires grew out of the very rock like the ridges on a dragon’s back, seeming to float and change their shape like clouds in a gentle wind. He watched the light move round and down until it lit the towers from below so they loomed blue-black against the rose-coloured sky. The last red flash of sun lit his horse’s silver coat as he walked wearily up to the gate.
“What want ye here?!”
He didn’t see the gnarled shape of the door-keeper at first. A twisted hand took the bridle rein and stopped the horse in his tracks.
“What want ye here?!” came the challenge again. “Say your business for I like not the look of ye. What want ye here?”
“I seek the maiden, Olwen” Culhwch managed at last, squinting down through the last rays of sun into the dark face.
“Faugh! Get ye gone, stupid boy! We want none of ye here!”
Culhwch took a grip on himself, gentling back the reins he made the horse stand up and paw the air with sharp hooves. The door-keeper dropped back a pace.
“I have the silver tongue!” Culhwch sang out. “I will cry satire on the king else you stand back and let me in.”
The door-keeper stood aside. As he passed, Culhwch thought he saw a smile creasing the leathery skin but it could have been a trick of the light.
In the hall of the great king Culhwch went straight to Arthur’s feet.
“Sire, trim my hair for me, for I am of thy kin.”
Arthur looked and saw that Culhwch was indeed of the kindred and he said to him, “Anything canst though have save only my horse, my hound, my fighting gear and my wife. What will’st thou of me, kindred son?”
“Grant me the boon to find the lady Olwen for my bride. I ask it in the names of all the knights and all the ladies at this court.”
And Arthur granted it. He sent out all the knights to search valiantly for a year and a day but nothing could they find and Culhwch was angry. He came to Arthur saying
“Th’art a promise breaker, King of kings. I am a bard and I will rhyme thee and cry satire on thy house and all within it.”
“Nay, lad, go out now with my men, I give thee Cynddilyd for thy guide to whom all lands are known, and Gwrthyr for interpreter to whom all tongues are as his own, and Gwalchmai who accomplishes every quest he undertakes, and Menw who is master of every kind of magic, and Bedwyr who never shies from any exploit. And I give you Cei, for the powers of Cei are such that he can hold one breath within his lungs for nine days and nights, any wound he gives is beyond all healers’ arts and herbs, he can be shadow or light or seem as tall as a tree an’ so he wills.”
So Culhwch travelled with this company until one day they came upon a great mound where sat a giant herdsman. He was taller than the hills and broader than the rivers and deeper than the crystal caves. And beside him sat his dog who was himself greater than an elephant, while down below them were a great herd of sheep more numerous than the white hawthorn blossom in May.
“Go speak to him.” said Culhwch to Gwrthyr.
“Nay! he is too large for me and what about the dog?!”
“I’ve a magic greater than a leash for Arrwn’s hounds, I’ll spell him w’it” said Menw.
“And I stand in the shadow behind thee,” said Cei.
And so, cautiously, Gwrthyr, approached the hill.
“Greetings herdsman! Who art thou and whose sheep are these that you guard so vigilantly?” cried Gwrthyr of the many tongues.
The giant herdsman leaned way down from the top of his hill and sent forth a breath of flame which singed Gwrthyr’s beard and set his horse to running. The others backed off a bit but didn’t leave the field.
“Why these are the sheep of my brother Yspaddaden and I am Custennin who guards these sheep, and these lands, from all comers. And whose sheep are ye?” called down the herdsman from the top of his hill, eyeing them closely for he was used to people leaving him alone once he had breathed fire upon them.
“We come from Arthur’s court upon great quest” shouted Gwrthyr. “Know’st aught of the maiden Olwen?” they cried.
“Aye!” and the giant herdsman laughed, the sound was like the wind in the forest, and leaned down again towards them. All the seven knights backed up their horses quickly. “Aye, I knows of Olwen. And where she steps the four white clovers spring up in her path for so she is called, the Maiden of the White Track. What want’st thee with her?”
“She is my promised bride.” Culhwch shouted back, pushing his way through the others. And the giant laughed and laughed and laughed.
“Aye! Happen so? Then ’tis Yspaddaden ye’ll be dealin’ with.” said the herdsman when he could catch his breath. “Yspaddaden! Aye, I know him all too well, my brother. It is because of my wife that he has taken my lands and eaten all my children save for Goreu who we hide within a chest. It is because of my lovely wife he forces me to serve him in this place!” The herdsman’s brow beetled.
“Why how is this?” Gwrthyr asked.
“A long story” he replied. “Enough that he has taken my place and my lands and my children. What pledge have ye to give me that I may know thee?”
And Culhwch handed him an arm ring. Straightway the herdsman came down from his mound and scooped Culhwch off his horse and into his beard, saying “Th’art my nephew boy, my wife’s sister’s son. Come I will help thee.” And they went back with him to his house and were feasted there.
“Tomorrow night” the herdsman’s wife said. “For tomorrow is Saturday and every Saturday Olwen comes to me to wash her hair and so you shall see her.” And so it came about that he stood at last before the golden-bronze-haired maiden, looking into her deep blue eyes.
“I cannot marry you” she said, “For I have promised my father. And if I marry then he will die.”
“But what am I to do?” cried Culhwch. “For now I have found you I will never part from you again.”
“You must come with me and ask him for my hand.” She replied. “He cannot refuse you but he will set you tasks. Whatever tasks he sets you, you must agree to accomplish, no matter how impossible they seem.”
So they came with Olwen into her father’s hall, where they found the nine gates guarded by the nine porters and the nine great hounds. Culhwch and his friends called the porters and then killed them as they stood at their gates and the hounds along with them. And so they entered into the giant’s castle. Yspaddaden was a giant even larger than Custennin the herdsman and he sat at his table half asleep.
“I come to ask for the hand of Olwen, your daughter, in marriage” cried Culhwch as bravely as he could.
Lifting himself from the board Yspaddaden called his servant. “Ho there! Come to me you whining snivelling wretch! Bring a pitchfork and lift my eyelid so that I may see these invaders of my hall.” And so it was done. And when he saw Culhwch he thought to himself what a pesky little man he was. So, reaching out one hand, he took a poisoned spear and flung it at his guests. But Bedwyr caught it and flung it back at the giant, wounding him in the knee.
“I will have your daughter’s hand!” cried Culhwch again, angry now.
“By damn!” said Yspaddaden, “that smarts! I’ll not walk easy now for the rest of my life. I’ll teach the uncivil boy-child a lesson!” And he cast a second spear. But this time Menw caught it and cast it back again, catching the giant in the hollow under his ribs.
“Give me Olwen for my bride!” shouted Culhwch.
“Ouch!” cried Yspaddaden. “The wretched man has knocked me sideways! Now I’ll be short of breath every day for the rest of my life!” And he caught a third poisoned spear and cast it straight at Culhwch.
But this time Culhwch caught the spear and threw it back, piercing the giant’s eyeball.
Yspaddaden blinked, and blinked, and blinked, and then the spear fell out his eye. The giant wiped his eye again, and wiped it again, and yet again, each time with a rag the size of one of the Prydwen’s sails, but he could not stop it watering.
“A cur to have as a son-in-law!” he spluttered. “I’ll not see the sun rise easy of a morning for the rest of my life and the wind will always be having my eye to watering. What a curse to live with to the end of my days!” But then he turned to Culhwch and said …
“Aye! Aye! Aye! Olwen shall indeed be thy bride. But first thou must perform the anoethu, the impossible tasks.” And his yellow teeth peered out from round the blackened gums as he smiled to himself, for he knew no man could do the things that he would ask and so he would have Culhwch for his breakfast.
“The stake of my play is this, and I lay it as crosses and spells that thy head and thy neck are forfeit an thou does’t not fulfil these tasks. And only when you have accomplished them will you marry my daughter. And I tell you now that you will not accomplish them, for they are tasks that no man may accomplish!” And Yspaddaden chuckled long and hard for he knew that there was no way that Culhwch would be able to do these things.
“Tell on, then, father-in-law” said Culhwch, corssing his arms. “Tell me the tale of these anoethu.”
So Yspaddaden began to sing.
“Thou must root up all the hill yonder and plough it and sow it all in one day. And in one day the wheat must ripen for only from that wheat will the bread for my daughter’s wedding be baked.”
“Not hard, not hard to do, at all!” Cried Culhwch, remembering what Olwen had said to him.
“So it may be!” Sang Yspaddaden, “But there are only two men in the whole world who can till the land and rid it of its stones and they will not work for you! And the man who has the only oxen who can draw the plough to till it will not give these oxen to you and you will not be able to get them. And when I did marry Olwen’s mother nine bushels of flax were sown yet not a blade came up. You must recover that flax and sow it again in the wild land tilled by the men who will not work for you, ploughed by the oxen you cannot get. For it is only from this flax that the linen for my daughter’s head-dress can be made.”
“Not hard, not hard to do at all” Said Culhwch, far more bravely than he felt.
“So you may say!” sang Yspaddaden. “But there are other things that must be done as part of the anoethu and you cannot do them. I must have the honey that is nine times sweeter than ordinary honey to make the marriage drink. And I must have the Grail cup of which all the stories are told to hold this sweet wedding draught. And I must have the Cauldron of Plenty into which any man may dip his hand and draw out what he loves best of all. And you must bring me the fairy horn to pour the wine for the guests, and the fairy harp which plays without a bard to strum it to make music for the feast. And the fairy pot which boils meat without a fire to make the food for the guests.”
“And all these things are not hard, not hard at all for me to do” said Culhwch in a strong voice but with his heart in his boots.
“Aye! So I’ve heard you say before!” The giant almost spat at Culhwch in his rage. “But I must wash my head and shave my beard and these things I cannot do without I have the blood of the jet-black witch and the razor which hangs between the tusks of the great boar, Twrch Trwyth. and him you will never capture.”
“Not hard, not hard at all” shouted Culhwch, angry at last with the rigmarole the giant was giving him.
“And then” Yspaddaden shouted back at him ” and then, I will need the fairy comb and the fairy scissors which hang between the ears of Twrch Trwyth and these you will never, ever get!”
“It will be perfectly easy for me to do all of these things!” Cried Culhwch in a towering rage.
“To do them” sang Yspaddaden “you will need the fairy hounds and the fairy leash and the greatest huntsman in the world. And that is Mabon, son of Modron, who was stolen from his mother when he was only three days old and has never been seen since! And him you cannot find!” Yspaddaden sat back in his chair and waited, having come to the end of the anoethu.
“Not hard at all!” growled Culhwch. “Not hard at all! It will be very easy, very easy, for me to find Mabon and do all of these things!” and he snarled up at the giant towering above him.
“And then,” the giant snarled back. “And then, you must get me the Glaive of Light, the sword which belongs to the King of the Oak Windows and this can only be done by killing the King with the Glaive. No other way will you get the sword from him. And this I know you cannot do.”
“I will get the Glaive of Light! And I will kill the King of the Oak Windows! And when I have done this, then I will then take your own life with the Glaive itself.” Now Culhwch was cold in his anger and his eyes burned like ice- blue fire under his dark brow.
That evening Culhwch came to Olwen with his head and his heart hanging low, his anger gone a-running away like water in a river, for he knew not how he was to get the Glaive of Light away from the King of the Oak Windows, let alone any of the other deeds he had promised himself to do.
“You have no cause to mind that” she told him. “You have the best wife who has the best horse in the whole wide world and if you will heed me you will come well out of this.” And next morning she saddled up her own dun filly for him and kissed him saying, “I need tell thee nothing for the horse knows all and she will help thee.”
And so Culhwch rode off leaving Olwen and his companions behind to complete all the rest of the tasks. The filly ran so fast that she left the March wind behind her and outstripped the winds in front of her. It seemed no time at all before they arrived at the Castle of the King of the Oak Windows.
The dun filly slid to a halt and said, “Now then, we are here. And if you listen to my words, and follow them, you will carry away the Sword of Light. Come now to yon window and there you’ll see the Sword with a knob at its end. Lean in now and draw it gently through the window.”
And Culhwch did as he was bid and the sword came to him in his hand but as its point passed the window frame so it whispered out loud, “I am stolen! I am stolen!”
“’Tis no stoppin’ here for us now” said the dun filly. “For I know the King of the Oak Windows has heard and felt the sword a-leaving of him.” Culhwch flung himself upon her back and she turned about, as fast as fast, and sped off for home.
After a little while the filly paused and said to Culhwch. “Look behind us and tell me what you do see.”
“I see a host of brown horses coming madly,” he answered.
“No worry then, we’re faster far than they,” and she sped on for home.
After a little while more the filly paused again. “What see ye now?” she asked.
And Culhwch turned and looked again. “It is a crowd of black horses coming madly,” he tole her.
And the filly turned about saying again, “Not time to worry yet for we are faster than they.” And she flew on for home.
A little while again and the filly paused. “Look again, Culhwch, what d’ye see?”
Culhwch screwed up his eyes “I see a black horse with a white face” he said “and he comes on madly and madly.”
“Tis my brother!” said the dun filly. “And he is the fastest horse in all the land. He will come past us like a flash of light. As he passes, try if you can cut off the head of the rider for it is the King of the Oak Windows and only the sword in your hand can cut off his head.”
And Culhwch did as the dun filly told him, leaning out to full stretch, and so he sliced off the head of the King of the Oak Windows.
At last, they reached the giant herdsman’s home and carefully set aside the Glaive of Light where none could reach it. And Culhwch found that the men had come, and the oxen been loaned, and the fields had been tilled, the wheat and flax grown, the bread baked and the head-dress woven, all with the aid of his friends.
Next morning early the band of seven set out to find Mabon. They went first to the Blackbird of Cilgwri who told them that he knew nothing of their quest but directed them to the Stag of Redynfr who was far older than him. The Stag said he too knew nothing of Mabon but told them to visit the Owl of Cawlwyd, who was older still than he and might be able to help them. The Owl again knew not of their quest but directed them to the Eagle Gwern Abwy, who was even older than he. The Eagle had heard of Mabon and he, at last, directed them on to find the Salmon of Llyn Llyw where they would find good help. The Salmon knew Mabon and he took Cai and Gwrhyr on his shoulders to the castle where Mabon lay in his prison. Cai fought the guards and freed Mabon and brought him back with them.
Mabon led them on the Faerie hunt with the faerie hound after jet-black witch and the great boar. And Twrch Trwyth led them a long chase across Ireland and Cornwall until eventually they overcame him. They took the razor and the comb and the scissors from Twrch Trwyth and drove him into the sea, since when none has heard of him again, or anyroad not for certain.
The band of friends returned at last to Yspaddaden’s castle, bearing the Hallows. The giant watched as they brought up each one to show him and finally he smiled the smile of satisfaction and said
“Now then, my heroes bold. Bring forth the blood of the jet black witch and wash my hair. Comb me with the fairy comb and trim my hair for me, son-in-law. Then I will be shaved as I commanded with the razor from between the tusks of Twrch Trwyth.”
And so it was done. Yspaddaden was bathed and combed, trimmed and shaved according to his wishes, ready for the wedding. Then out from the chest where he had hidden away came Goreu, Yspaddaden’s nephew and the son of the giant herdsman, Custennin. And Culhwch gave into his hand the Glaive of Light whereupon Yspaddaden bowed down his head and Goreu cut it off.
They feasted then, long after Culhwch bedded Olwen, and Summer followed Spring as it has done since the sun first rose into the sky.
copyright Elen Sentier: all rights reserved