I dreamed of a stag again last night, and woke up exhausted. In the manner of dreams I can never work out whether I’m riding him, or whether I am him. It’s great fun at the time, especially the rutting, but the bruises can be irksome. I think I prefer the birds. You get to see more, as long as the moon’s out, and there isn’t the worry of crashing into trees in the dark. Admittedly, the feathers can be a mess, and the bright colours do stand out a bit in the Caledonian Forest, especially in winter, which can be a liability if there are hunters around.
It’s cold here this morning. The fire’s out and the sun is clearly tired. You’d think that, what with this being one of the centres of the world, the sun would try a bit harder, show some respect. But no – the same old mist , mildew and waterlogged ground. I remember one of my first clients, Lleu Goch, complete old woman for a tribal chief. “What a lovely spot”, he said. “I can see how this helps with the visions”. Well of course it bloody does – you try living on the edge of a miasmic swamp with no decent clothing and see what visions come to you. Mind you, the mushrooms definitely help, and a perpetual state of near starvation really seals the knot.
The clients have gone now, since the bother over at Arderyth. I say bother, more of a massacre, actually. I’ll tell you one thing that’s always really annoyed me, for a seer, and that’s the sheer impossibility of seeing my own future. So unfair. Everyone else, no problem. It might need a bit of interpreting sometimes, but I always see something there – and if it’s a bit obscure even for me, well, I am a poet as well. Nothing wrong with a bit of creative licence to arrive at a deeper truth than the one sitting like a frog in front of you. But me, nothing. So I didn’t even know that I’d be at Arderyth.
I’d warned Gwentholow. It’s a shameful thing for an elderly male prophet to admit, but I had a crush on him - always felt a bit girlish when he was around, even developed an embarrassing giggle. Was it his powerful aura – being able to have people executed on a whim makes for a very powerful aura – or his looks? Don’t get me wrong, beards and balls leave me cold, but hair the colour of a new flame, eyes like broken icicles, voice like a lullaby?
Very strong willed, Gwentholow, with selective hearing, especially about my prophecies. Admittedly, sometimes my interpretations fell a bit short of reality. His first child, that was a bad one. It wasn’t one of my better days, and I’d been over enthusiastic in my description. Like Lugh of the Long Arm, I said. A powerful archer, I said. Shoot anything at a thousand paces – never miss – a god among men. When the poor wee mite was born he did, indeed, have one long arm. Just the one. Sometimes I think that the gods have a very perverse sense of humour.
It was after the birth that I found this place. I didn’t need second sight to prophesy that staying around the Great Hall would introduce unneeded challenges to my life. I’d been here before, of course. Very sacred, Hart Fell, chalybeate streams, dank forest at its foot, always smells of mould until you get above the tree line, out into the open with views across to the mountains in Wales. The air is sharp, the sky is endless. The only trouble is, so’s the peat bog. I prefer the forest, myself.
I can’t say that Hart Fell was a change for the better. Living with a tribal chief you get used to home comforts - food, for a start. Clothes, that’s another, with shelter from the elements coming a close third. Not so romantic of course. You can’t be a real prophet living in a tribal compound near the pigs. Listening to the little chaps snorting and snuffling always reminded me of Cadwallader. He was my best friend when I was a lad, south of here in the Black Mountains. Lovely little fellow, black and whites splotches, endearingly mobile snout and remarkably soft bristles, for a pig. We had some good conversations. It’s amazing what a pig can tell you, if you know how to ask. I wanted to bring him with me when I came north but Maelgwyn - he’s the one that found me in the rushes as a baby – said that he’d take good care of Cadwallader. He forgot that I could see the future. My only regret is that I never tasted my little friend – eating someone is, after all, the highest honour you can pay them.
I get the timelines all mixed up if I’m not careful; the past, the future, the present, if there is such a thing. Like a dragonfly, the present. One minute it’s not there, the next it’s glittered past with a tantalizing iridescence that you can’t ever catch.
The present for me is the Caledonian Forest, and this misbegotten ruin of a hut. When I first came here, after the child was born (and quickly buried – Gwentholow was never one for damaged goods) I didn’t mean to stay. Would you? All very in keeping with my vocation, but difficult for the clients. First, find your prophet. Not so easy in a forest where the paths move around each night out of spite. The poor souls that did make it had usually been lost for days and eaten the food they’d brought for me. Still, I did the business for them – wouldn’t have seemed fair otherwise.
Sometimes, the temptation for fun was a bit overwhelming. There was one chap, very plump and moist. As soon as I saw him I knew he was a christian priest or monk – they all look the same to me. Must have been one of Rhytherch’s – he was always one for new fashions, no sense of continuity. Of course, my panting friend was in disguise, by which I mean that he’d left his habit at home. It’s simply not done for a christian to ask someone like me for help. Seemed he had developed an obsession for one of his flock (very sheep oriented, christians), and wanted to ensure an unopposed consummation. Now you or I would see nothing wrong in that – perfectly normal human response – but christians have very strange notions about sex. To add to his trouble, the nymph in his dreams was a young boy in Rhytherch’s household. I gave him two small tinctures of my own devising, one for him, one for the boy. The second was harmless coloured water, but the first ….. Let’s just say that flocks became even more important.
I knew that Gwentholow would want me back before too long. Every lord needs his counsellor, and I’m one of the best. Like many strong people he had clouded days when he wouldn’t leave his room without my assurance that he was safe. It was his wife who sent for me in the end. “Don’t worry, he won’t harm you” she said. True – she’d borne his half finished child, and survived. I’d just lost some credibility.
Living here is quiet, if you discount the moaning wind, the incessant gurgling of the stream, the creaking of the trees all night long and the birds who act like roosters, crowing at the sunrise. No people. Deer, though, plenty of deer. Some of them have really lovely eyes, soft and submissive. My Gwendolyn, she has eyes like that. She came here yesterday, the first time I’ve seen her since Arderyth. It seems that things aren’t easy, back at Caer Wendolow. The hall’s burnt, of course, as well as half the villages in the valley; Rhytherch always knows how to make a point. From what little I know it seems very unchristian, but these oriental religions have always been a bit heavy on the vengeance side of things.
As I said, I get the timelines mixed up sometimes. Gwendolyn said I hadn’t been looking after myself, that I looked terrible after living in hut in a forest for a year. A year? I thought Arderyth had been just a couple of weeks ago, but then I was a bit upset when I saw Rhytherch’s spear pinning Gwentholow to the ash tree at the edge of the field, and I remember getting hysterical and running off down the valley. You might think that’s not very suitable behaviour for a seer, but I can assure you that an antic disposition is a pre-requisite in my line of work.
It seemed such a shame, just when things were getting back to normal. Gwentholow’s wife was pregnant again, I was back at the hall, the Romans had gone and we were pretty much left to our own devices. Spring was early, lambing had gone well, the few prophecies I was asked to make turned out as predicted. And then they started arguing over a lark’s nest.
Rhytherch and Gwentholow – they never did get on. I blame the christians, of course. Always muttering at Rhytherch, telling him that I was an abomination - born of the devil, one of them said. If only he knew the truth, his blood would have turned to stone on the spot and whatever they say I’m not cruel by nature, so I kept my counsel. Still, they were always looking at ways to get at me through my lord, and the lark’s nest was as good an excuse as any.
There’s not a lot of intrinsic value in a few birds’ eggs – tasty, I admit, but they don’t go far. Better to let them hatch and then net the birds later. Skylark pie – delicate, completely hedonistic and one of my favourites. That wasn’t the point though. The nest was in an ash tree on the edge of the field of Arderyth, a few miles south of Caer Wendolow and in completely the wrong direction for Din Eidyn, where Rhytherch has his hall. One day a messenger arrived, a nervous young man, spindle thin and with a tic that skewed his mouth every time he started to speak.
“Rhytherch”, he said eventually, after giving us quite a bit of sport, “is unhappy, very unhappy”.
Someone from our household was taking the eggs from a lark’s nest which clearly belonged to Rhytherch. This counted as trespass, theft and assault on property. A full apology and restitution of the stolen eggs plus ten sheep would obviate the need to go to war.
Watching Gwentholow laugh is a mixed blessing. Generally, if he looks at you when he’s doing it then fear is a permitted emotion. After he heard the messenger’s stuttered demands he roared loud enough for the gods to hear. The poor boy wet himself, standing alone and encircled by a baying crowd in his enemy’s great hall.
“You can tell that whore’s vomit of a lord that if I get any reports of him coming within a hundred yards of my lark’s nest then I’ll personally come around and roast him with the pigs”. Gwentholow leaned towards the sweating creature and smiled, showing all the teeth he had left, the incisors filed to black points. “You know boy, men taste just as sweet as pork, and I’m feeling very hungry right now”.
That did it. The messenger seemed to sit back on air as his legs stopped supporting him, not that they had much work to do. The poor soul crawled on all fours out of the hall, pelted as he went with old crusts, sheep bones and thoughtful reflections on his mother.
It was just as he got to the doors that I had the vision. I always try to do the scrying in private – there tends to be a lot of falling to the ground, foaming around the mouth, incoherent babbling and a touch of incontinence. I’m used to it, but the sight can be taxing for those who haven’t seen it before. But this time I had no choice, and the crowd was in just the right mood for more entertainment. At least there would be someone around to help me up when I was finished. It’s part of the trouble with getting old – arthritis and shamanistic trances don’t complement each other that well.
When my body’s down there, wriggling around in the rushes, I’m somewhere else entirely. This time I was up in a tree – very high, looking down on the rest of the wood and the fields surrounding it.. I think I’d flown there – I could feel feathers. In one of the fields two dragons were fighting – one red, the other white. Now, I’ve had visions like this many times – the trick is in the interpretation, working out who or what the dragons represent. The clue was in the nest next to my right leg, a few white eggs speckled with dull green spots. Entirely the wrong place for a skylark’s nest, but visions have an internal frame of reference that is subtly shifted from that of the real world (how many dragons have you seen?)
So. Dragons represent power, and juxtaposed with the nest it wasn’t hard to name the two fighters – Gwentholow and Rhytherch. The colours were easy too – my lord had a habit of dying his standards in the blood of his enemies, just to make a point. And white – entirely appropriate for the milk sop Rhytherch and his whimpering priests. The trouble was, as I watched the dragons writhing around each other, dodging the blasts of fire and generally churning up the field into a bog of mud and turf, that the white was winning. Again and again it would catch the red with a gout of flame, and hold it down while tearing chunks of flesh from its neck. Not a good sign.
The tree evaporated along with my feathers, and after a rather unpleasant falling sensation I found myself being helped to a stool by two of the serving women in the press around me.
Gwentholow had left – he likes the results of my visions but not the means of attaining them. I knew that he’d call for me later, and so it was. I can’t say I was looking forward to the meeting. Telling my lord that he should change his mind, especially about a battle, was never a positive experience for me. This was no different.
“Well, Merlin, what have you got for me this time? Bad news, if your gloom ridden bloodhound face is anything to go by”.
“My lord”. I thought it best to go down on one knee at this point – he likes overt submissiveness, and the arthritis was the least of my worries. “I have seen a vision of your future and received a warning. Do not join battle with Rhytherch at Arderyth – he is destined to prevail if you do”. Predictions always sound better if couched in pompous cadences, especially when the content is, well, contentious.
“Rubbish man – you’ve just had one of those fits again. Too much mead – you should take things in moderation at your age”. A bit of a cheek that – Gwentholow was at least five years older than me. “You should get out more, spend a week or so in that lovely hut of yours in the forest, get your spirits back. Tell you what, you can come with us to the battle. It’ll cheer you up no end. Fresh air, bit of exercise. That’s settled then”.
I started to protest but more for the form than in any expectation of changing his mind. He waved me to silence.
“Do I have to remind you yet again of that debacle over my first child?” The teeth were showing, and I took this as a sign that I was dismissed.
Gwentholow was never one to waste time when his mind was made up. A believer in actions rather than words, he’d sent men to catch up with Rhytherch’s messenger. They’d carved a cross on his chest and suffocated him by stuffing his severed ears into his mouth, a sign that Gwentholow was not prepared to accept the message. The body was delivered to the nearest of our enemy’s villages.
The rules were quite clear about what would happen next. We rode off the next day – well, most of them marched but I was given the doubtful benefit of a recalcitrant donkey. I hate riding. My buttocks develop new bones with every yard of the journey, my teeth grind unstoppably and my hands go numb. And I get a headache.
We arrived at Arderyth just before lunchtime, and sure enough there were Rhytherch and his clans just across the stream. The muddy fields were carved out from thick woodland, giving the whole scene an enclosed and brooding sense. I began to regret the porridge I’d had for breakfast. Battles like this were always quite informal – no rallying speeches or courteous declarations. Just a headlong dash at each other with a lot of hoarse shouting and then the dull thunk of iron meeting leather or wood. From where I stood, on a small rise a few hundred yards back from the stream, you couldn’t hear the sound of flesh being sliced. The women standing with me began to cheer encouragement to our fighters. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, like a day at the circus. As for me, even a donkey ride seemed pleasurable by comparison if it meant heading away from the battle and back toward the hall. But I was under strict instructions to stay – a penance for my unwelcome prediction.
The fight lasted about half an hour – average for the little skirmish it was meant to be. As I watched, just as in my vision, it was clear that Rhytherch and his men were killing and wounding more of us than we were of them. Even from this distance I could hear Gwentholow bellowing and cursing. I could make him out, standing near the edge of the wood, cut off by a group of Rhytherch’s men. As I watched Rhytherch fought his way over to them, took a short spear from one of his fighters, and charging through the crowd pinned my lord to an ash tree, the spear passing up through his chest and shoulder.
Gwentholow was silent at last, and his body collapsed around the shaft.
It was then that I lost my reason. Gwendolyn told me later that I tore at my cloak and my hair, rolled around in the mud for a while and then ran off down the valley away from the bloody field. I remember nothing until I was back at my hut, this damp dark hut, here in the heart of the Caledonian Forest at the foot of Hart Fell.
We spent some hours yesterday, me and Gwendolyn, talking about the old days. She and her husband (she was never mine, except in imaginings) are heading south and west, to the mountains of Wales and then over to Ireland. They still respect the old gods there, and what with Saxons from the east and Picts from the north, this just isn’t the place it once was. Time to move on.
As for me, who knows. I’ve never been able to see my own future, but on three nights recently I’ve had a dream, a different one each night. In the first I was a fox running away from shepherds, and felt blows around my head as they threw stones to scare me away from their flocks. In the second I was back at Arderyth, but it was me by the ash tree and I felt the spear enter my body and blood draining away into the mud at my feet. In the third I was a stag standing by the banks of the stream outside my hut, lapping the clear water after outrunning my pursuers. As I leant forward the waters seemed to part and I fell through into an endless blackness.
Still, as Gwendolyn pointed out, I have been known to be wrong before, and it doesn’t do to dwell on morbid subjects. I ‘m feeling a bit better now, so I think I’ll go for a walk while the rain holds off. Before it gets dark.