Lord of Misrule by Gareth Jones
Gruffydd stood on the great rock Grogwynion and stared at his homeland.
Nothing changed, he thought, amazed. He scooped up a handful of earth and rubbed it over his face and arms. Then he lifted his ragged cloak and pissed over the edge, whooping with laughter as the torrent formed a perfect arc and plummeted hundreds of feet to the River Ystwyth. “We used to have competitions,” he shouted to his son, “to see who could reach farthest upstream.”
Iolo didn’t give a tinker’s cuss about pissing competitions. He was plaiting some stray wool into string to tie up what remained of his boots. The leftovers he stuffed into a corner that had pinched his little toe since Welshpool.
“I found this stone here, the day we left,” said Gruffydd, sitting down beside him. A long narrow pebble with a hole in one end hung on a leather thong around his neck. Iolo remembered playing with it as a baby, riding cross-country in his father’s arms. “My father told me that if I wore it, I wouldn’t die until I stood here again.”
“You said you found it in a castle.”
“This was a castle,” Gruffydd answered. “Once.”
Iolo didn’t think much of it. Just a pile of earth with a ditch round it.
“Look!” Gruffydd waved at the wooded hills and valleys hidden in the mist below them. “All this land, as far as you can see and farther, belonged to the Lord Rhys.” He unfurled the yellowing parchment strapped round his shoulder under his cloak. “Here at the top”—he pointed with a grimy, calloused forefinger—” is the Lord Rhys, written in his own fair hand. And this cross at the bottom is you— Cadwaladr.” This was Iolo’s real name. Cadwaladr, Gruffydd had told him, was a Welsh king destined to return one day. But the English could not pronounce it, so he had always been called Iolo. “All this country should be ours,” Gruffydd concluded, carefully rolling up the parchment. “And it will be, soon.”
Iolo pulled his boots back on. “How much farther now?”
“Just past that bend in the valley.” Gruffydd was already half-way down the hill. “But I want to show you something first.”
“Miles away still!” Iolo cursed and hobbled after his father, curling his toes to hold up the soles of his boots. He couldn’t see why they had come here at all. Gruffydd had been doing very nicely with the travelling circus. At last someone was paying them to be vagrant and they had a roof to sleep under, the first in Iolo’s twelve years. The circus people were friendly. The fat man and the bearded lady looked so odd that nobody bothered to bait Iolo because his ears stuck out and his face was skew-whiff where his father had dropped him, aged three, off a horse outside of York. Besides, Iolo liked the circus animals. Then three days ago, in Derby, people ran around shouting that the Scottish were coming. Prince Charles Edward had beaten George II, there was a new King in London and the Highlanders were eating anyone under twenty. Iolo didn’t know who this prince was but he wished the man had stayed in Scotland, where he obviously belonged, because Gruffydd had no sooner heard the news than he jumped on Black Jane, who was a performer, not a racehorse—and didn’t belong to them anyway—and whipped her as far as Shrewsbury, where she died. From there, Gruffydd had done the same to Iolo on foot. No one had given them food, shelter or a kind word since England and everyone talked Welsh here, which Iolo had only picked up from his father. He didn’t believe half of what Gruffydd said about the place. They’d be spending Christmas under God’s roof, as usual.
Gruffydd pushed his way through the knotted undergrowth to a deep gully where a stream fell out of the hillside, white as churned milk, into a bowl hollowed out of the rock. “I used to sit for hours here,” he said, pulling Iolo down beside him into a shell-shaped cave. “Sit still and listen.”
Iolo heard only the water and the trees.
“Can you hear her?”
“Hear what?” Iolo squinted at him, whispering without knowing why.
“The lady singing behind the waterfall. She came out and spoke to me once, when I was very young.” Gruffydd closed his eyes tight. “I think she wants to talk to you now .”
Holy God! Iolo was suddenly scared. He’s not going to leave me to talk to her alone? His back was sticking to the clammy wall of the cave. Beside him, Gruffydd was in a trance. She’s turned him to stone with her song, Iolo thought, in a panic. Already Iolo’s legs felt icy. With a great lurch, he pulled himself away and plunged into the thicket. At once he was hopelessly entangled. He stumbled over dead wood, carried branches and brambles along with him. The forest was closing in. He turned to fight it off, both fists flying, but a huge old oak stretched out its roots and grabbed him by the ankles. Iolo screamed and fell headlong. He was still flailing when Gruffydd emerged from nowhere, grinning and relaxed, to rescue him. He hoisted Iolo up into his arms.
“Did you hear her? She said we’d find a good fortune here. The new King is going to give all our lands back.”
Gruffydd had once met Bonnie Prince Charlie riding out with a hunting party on a road outside of Paris. “When Charles Edward runs with the hounds,” Gruffydd had shouted, waving them on with his staff as they cantered past, “the German fox will fear for his crown.” The Young Pretender had wheeled about at once and leapt from the saddle—encouraged perhaps to hear a friendly word in his own language—seized Gruffydd by the arm and, suddenly dwarfed by this rugged giant of a man, replied: “With such friends, how can we still have enemies?” Then he pulled the silver brooch from his tartan cape, pinned it through the only solid patch on Gruffydd’s threadbare cloak and galloped off as fast as he had stopped. Gruffydd had worn the brooch on his shirt—out of sight—ever since.
With the boy on his massive shoulders he strode along an open heath above the valley. The coarse moorland grass streamed in the wind.
“What’s that down there?” Iolo steered Gruffydd’s head by his long, knotted hair.
“A hunting lodge—Hafod it’s called. It was stolen from my great-great-grandfather, who came back to haunt it. They called in a conjurer once, who chased him from a cat into a goat into a hare and finally trapped him, as a spider, in a bottle. Then he threw the bottle into the pool below that bridge”—Gruffydd pointed to the river where a crumbling arch joined the two rocky banks—”and said he’d banished the ghost to the Red Sea. But I dived in the same night and set him free. He must be there now.” Iolo wished the ghost were safely at the bottom of the river.
“Look,” said Gruffydd, as they turned the bend in the valley. “There’s Cwmystwyth.”
Ahead of them, grey stone cottages and farms were scattered over a couple of barren hills which toppled towards each other, smothering the river.
“It’s not very big,” said the boy, disappointed.
Gruffydd was lost in thoughts of his own. They had chased him as far as here, that day. Him and his father. Friends and neighbours had chased them as far as this very spot, throwing stones and sheep’s dung.
“What’s that grey patch on the hill there?” Iolo asked.
“Lead mines. You can pick it off the hillside. Sometimes silver too.”
Iolo tugged at his father’s rampant beard, which grew so long and thick that it sometimes got tangled with his head hair. Gruffydd had sworn to shave it off as soon as he quit his circus act. “You can get rid of this now, can’t you? Or else no one’ll recognize you here.”
“Perhaps that’s just as well, for the time being,” Gruffydd muttered and took the boy off his shoulders. He didn’t want to be known until he chose to be. He refused to be remembered as the shy, gangling boy who had fled from all company and had been ignored in turn. Let them be dazzled, first, by the new man he had become, before he revealed how they all had misjudged him. They would never recognize him—not with his vaulted chest and rolling voice, and his weather-beaten forehead lined with half a lifetime of travel. Let them wait.
Iolo trotted on ahead. He walked over the first cottage in Cwmystwyth without knowing it was there. It was burrowed into the hill like a rabbit warren, the most pitiful hovel he’d set eyes on. “Anyone there?” he shouted. No answer. He dived inside to take a look.
“Want a bite?” he asked, catching up with Gruffydd. “Weasel. I think. Just left by the fire.”
Gruffydd accepted. It was their first taste of meat since leaving England, and he was starving.
“Down through the birch copse there,” he said, picking at a tiny bone, “lives Dan Rowlands. He was my only friend. He pulled me out of the Ystwyth, when I was five.”
“How did you fall in?”
“He dared me to jump, and I couldn’t stop myself.”
Iolo admired his father, even though he was daft sometimes.
“One Midsummer’s Eve when I was fourteen, Dan carried an old cousin of his out from the farm, so drunk she couldn’t stand, and put her down under that birch there. Then he threw back her skirts and showed me exactly how you do it. She didn’t remember a thing the next day.”
“Same as with that nun in Brittany?” asked Iolo, counting all the bushes and walls he’d been made to wait behind.
“No,” answered Gruffydd solemnly. “That was holy communion. This was profane.”
Ahead was a low farmhouse.
“Dan, Dan Rowlands!” Gruffydd shouted, running to the door. It swung open. Hens scuttled away, squawking. The room was empty and the fire had gone out. A couple of blankets were thrown over a low trestle. The only furniture was a three-legged stool and an upturned pig-trough. “He’s fallen on hard times. His parents used to have a bed. Over there it stood, by the hearth.”
Iolo went straight for the corner where the hens were roosting. Five, six eggs! He pulled from his sleeve one of his few possessions—a pin he had stolen from a tinker in Crewe—and pierced them in the crown. Then he threw back his snub-nosed head and sucked hard, tossing the empty shells back in the corner together with a full one that had got mixed up with the others as he guzzled.
“They must have gone out in a hurry,” said Gruffydd, opening the door to the cattle shed at the other end of the room. A dead cow stared up at him from the floor, its eye sockets empty. The whole carcass was pitifully shrunken, and around the tail was tied a bright red ribbon, such as girls wear in their hair on Sundays.
“Murrain,” Gruffydd muttered to Iolo, who was wiping egg-yolk off his chin onto his elbow. “Cattle plague. Like those herds we saw in Carnac.”
“Why is that ribbon there?”
“It keeps away witches. This too.” A branch of mountain ash was nailed above the stable door. “We had a murrain here before, when I was a boy. They tried all sorts of cures. Nothing worked until they caught the witch who’d done it. Drowned her in the Ystwyth and the cows recovered.”
“Who was she?” asked Iolo, feeling uneasy. They were passing more cottages. Still no sign of life.
“Marged was her name. She lived near us, a mile from here, up on the commons. She kept herself to herself, like us, and no one gave her a thought, until the murrain came. Everyone’s cows died except hers, so she had to be a witch.” Gruffydd hadn’t had much sympathy for the old crone until he and his father were accused of souring the milk, a few years later. He stopped abruptly. “We’ve come the wrong way. There’s an old shack I want to have a look at.”
“No. Wait here.” He hared up the hill before Iolo could argue. At the top he waved and disappeared. Iolo sat down under a red-berried holly tree and waited.
Could he still make the top in one go? Gruffydd had been eighteen then, and in love. Almost every night he had run this way. Cae Glas Farm sped by on the right, where dogs used to bark at him. Today it was silent. Up through the woods of Penlan, past the turf hut, now deserted, where Luke the Hermit had watched him race by. always with the same quiet smile. To his right the lead mines loomed and fell away. Two more hills, one by the fishpond with the cabin, the other just under the lake. Gruffydd’s mind flew ahead of his aching legs. Sure enough. Fishpond with another hill. Straight stretch, and a steep, short sprint to the top of the bank which stopped Llyn Isaf from emptying into the valley.
“Thank God, they’ve not gone!”
A small wooden shack was propped up against a slab of grey rock at the other end of the lake. Gruffydd sauntered towards it, suddenly shy. How well he knew this water. White pebbles. Waves rippling eastward with the wind. Trees hanging overhead. A rich pasture by the water’s edge.
“I’m back!” Grufiydd knocked at the door, then pushed. Inside, the room was just as he’d remembered it. A kettle hung from a hook above the fireplace. On a slate table, pewter vessels were laid out in a row and the cradle that Gruffydd had woven out of rushes from the lakeside dangled beside the hearth. And the box-bed. Always too narrow for the two of them, a hopeless squeeze to fit in it let alone make love as they used to. Gruffydd smiled at the patchwork blanket she had knitted, and pulled it back. Maggots were squirming in the sodden mattress. He stepped back, sickened, and knocked over a milk pail. A rat fled, squeaking. Everything had been left untouched, as in a house struck by plague.
“Halloo!” he called across the lake. Not even an echo answered. He ran behind the shack. In the ground stood two wooden crosses made from slats off the pigsty hammered together with bent nails. Gruffydd stared at them without moving, then turned away, tears streaming down his face and the long ache of guilt in his heart.
Iolo waited under the holly bush. Two ravens flew by and settled on a dead cow. Still no Gruffydd. Iolo was tired and scared. He got up and walked to the ridge where his father had disappeared. Towards the valley stood a small hut on a hillock. Gruffydd must be down there. Iolo set off. But before he reached it, he stopped short.
In the evening mist which hung low over the Ystwyth meadows, a huge gathering, men and women, old and young, stood in silence around a circle. Behind them, cattle without number grazed along the river, a black smudge on the grey landscape. Iolo had never seen such herds. In the middle of the circle stood a man with a long white beard. He wore a skull-cap and a pleated gown. In his hand was a silver staff; beside him, a burning brazier. He lifted his staff, dashed it to the ground and fell howling on his knees, beating the earth with his fists. Suddenly he lay still, his forehead fiat on the ground, then slowly and deliberately he raised his head and looked straight at Iolo. The whole crowd swung round and stared at the boy. A path to the centre of the circle opened up in front of him and the old man, smiling, beckoned gently. His gown was billowing in the wind and his body swayed inside it. Iolo felt the crowd close behind him. Two yards from the old man he stopped. A white circle was painted on the ground.
“Where is my father?” Iolo asked in halting Welsh.
“Come to me, child,” whispered the old man, his eyes fixed on Iolo’s. “Do not be afraid of them.” His voice was low and soothing, offering safety. The others all stared at him as though his face had sprouted horns. “Come here, child,” the old man crooned again. Iolo stepped inside the circle.
The crowd roared. Iolo tripped and landed on his face. “Have I caught you, Achitobel?” The conjurer dug his knee into Iolo’s back and his fingers closed around the boy’s throat. Iolo shrieked. He kicked and bit and scratched like a wild-cat, but the nails dug deeper into his neck until the blood flowed. Finally he lay mute, half throttled.
“See how the demon hides his ugly face! Now you will do my will. Upon your belly you will swallow up your curse. Say after me. God bless . . .” Iolo writhed and screamed again. “Behold! He is harrowed by God’s name,” cried the conjurer, his mouth frothing. The crowd bayed for more blood. “Say after me: God bless these herds and mend the evil I have wrought. Say it!” Iolo could not have uttered a word, even if his wits had been intact. His mouth was too full of earth. “Witness it! He will not call upon the Lord!” The old man thrust the sharp end of his staff into the brazier.
The red-hot stake was poised above Achitobel’s palpitating heart when Lucifer himself descended on the crowd to rescue his lieutenant. His face was black as sin, holly and mistletoe sprouted from his limbs, upon his head were two monstrous horns and in his hands two firebrands from hell. Some saw flames leap from his mouth as he flew down the hillside, scattering all before him.
“Keep away, Satan!” The conjurer quailed inside his charmed circle, waving his staff, like a cross, at the Evil One. One torch set his gown ablaze and the other scorched his beard. He screamed and tried to tear off the gown, and then plunged like a comet into the Ystwyth.
Gruffydd quickly threw off the horns, borrowed from the bleached skeleton of a cow. Impersonating Beelzebub was a dangerous affair and he was a little shaken by his own success. Immediately the frightened crowd took new courage and surged forward, twice as savage for having been tricked. Gruffydd looked for an escape. Pitchforks, dung-rakes, hay-scythes closed in from all sides. In desperation he picked up Iolo who was cowering, half dead, by the brazier and held the boy out at the advancing horde. “Scream. Make as much noise as you can. And throw your arms about.” Iolo hissed and spat and bared his teeth, like the circus monkey when it was baited. The front row wavered and ground to a halt outside the white circle.
“Kill him,” bellowed people at the back, and one man lunged at Gruffydd with his pitchfork. But nobody put a foot inside the circle. Then a bull-necked, red-haired labourer pushed his way to the front.
“I’m not afraid of that puny goblin!” He raised his scythe and aimed at Gruffydd’s neck. It was the red hair that saved Gruffydd’s life.
“Stay where you are, Siôn Edmunds!” A name jumped off the man’s face.
Siôn Edmunds nearly dropped where he stood. To be named by a total stranger augured certain death. “Or shall I set Rolo Blacksmith onto you?” Rolo had knocked out Siôn’s front teeth in a fist fight fifteen years ago. Some said the Devil had helped him. Siôn Edmunds turned tail and stumbled back through the crowd.
“He must be a demon! How else would he know Siôn’s name?’’ cried a violent old hag with pouches under her bulging eves.
“And you are a witch, Mali Fishpond. Do you still change into an owl at night?” The woman went pale. A gap opened up around her. “Where’s your boss-eyed wife, Thomas Jenkins? Is she catching toads for her potions?” Thomas Jenkins’ neighbours squinted at him and shifted to one side. “And what about your hunchback sister, Dewi Gobbler? Perhaps it’s she who has bewitched the cattle?” The whole crowd was backing away. Their rage had vanished; only fear remained.
“The conjurer is dead.” came a cry from the river. “Drowned in the rapids.” A terrible groan swelled through the valley. The womenfolk fell to the ground, weeping. Men knelt round the dead body and tried to coax life back into it.
“Who will help us now?” wailed Mali Fishpond.
“Friends!” A bald elder with hairless, glassy cheeks raised his arms. The crowd fell silent. Morgan the Brewer was known for his wisdom. “If this man here has the power to slay a conjurer, he must be one himself.”
No sooner said than believed.
“He can cure them! Let him try and cure the cattle.”
“I am no conjurer,” protested Gruffydd, but nobody listened or cared. The skull-cap and charred gown were stripped off the corpse and thrust at him.
It’s either the Devil, Gruffydd thought, or the deep blue sea. He lifted the skull-cap above his head and solemnly crowned himself. Then he held out his arms for the gown. It was soaking wet and several stitches too small and he looked more like a scarecrow than a shaman, but the mob fell back in awe and waited.
“You will fetch me,” he said at last, remembering a cure his grandmother had used for sheep’s colic, “a quart of old strong wine and a bucket of hen’s dung.” Immediately a boy was sent running to the nearest farm for the manure and a posse of men set out for the flour-mill, where there was thought to be some wine under the floorboards. Simeon the Miller followed them, swearing to God he had no wine anywhere. They soon returned with several gallons, still pursued by Simeon, who was covered from head to foot in flour.
Gruffydd muttered a few words of English, which might pass for an incantation. He measured the hen’s dung in the palm of his hand and stirred it into the wine. For each handful, a new prayer. Then he poured the solution down the gullet of the nearest cow. The beast shook convulsively; a thin yellowish fluid gushed from its mouth.
“The demon is leaving her,” cried Gruffydd, but the cow rolled over on its side, snorted and was dead.
“He has murdered my Lisbeth!” bawled a black-haired, swarthy cottager, brandishing a meat-cleaver at Iolo.
“The devil in them is strong, but I will wrestle with him.” Gruffydd searched frantically for another idea. He had once seen a drunken gipsy in Ireland dancing to bring bad luck on the local innkeeper. He laid aside the gown and skull-cap and strutted about like a prizefighter. Then, with a great war-cry, he stamped, beat his chest and plunged to the ground in mortal combat with the demon.
“Strong magic, Isaac,” mumbled a grizzled old man.
“Ay, power, great power he has.”
Gruffydd was in a sweat. All eyes were riveted on him, and there was not a soul who didn’t see the fiend incarnate yielding before his onslaught. With a great leap he seized the conjurer’s staff and stabbed. The demon snarled in pain, belched fire and flailed with its hideous claws and then breathed its last.
“We cannot rest yet.” Gruffydd shouted, not daring to pause for breath. “I need firewood that has never been inside a house.” Gathering parties left in all directions. In Brittany he had once seen a ceremony that they called the Need Fire.
“Where can I find herbs here?” he asked a boy with very black eyes who was following him.
“I have some dried rosemary, sir.” Gruffydd held out his hand. The boy hesitated. “Well?”
“May I be your apprentice, sir?”
“By all means,” Gruffydd said gravely. “We can teach each other.”
Bonfires were built up and down the valley. Gruffydd threw herbs onto the flames, muttering gibberish. Smoke rose in dense canopies and soon the valley was drowning in it.
“Drive your herds through the thickest smoke, then carry a torch up to the other farms.”
Pandemonium broke loose as each farmer goaded his bellowing cows into the fumes. They kicked and bolted. One herd stampeded another; their owners cursed and stumbled. Fights broke out as friends and enemies stole one another’s cattle in the chaos.
“Iolo!” The boy might be anywhere in that babel. Someone was pulling at Gruffydd’s cloak. It was his black-eyed apprentice, glued to his side.
“He’s by the river, sir.”
Iolo was curled up under a bush, terrified. Gruffydd scooped him up and waded through the river. His disciple stared at them in dismay as they fled up the hillside.
They cut their way through deep forest. Night was falling. A conjurer jumped out at Iolo from behind each tree. Every shadow was a black gown, every patch of light a burning brazier. Soon it was so dark that Gruffydd couldn’t see the end of his nose. “No point in going any farther. We’ll move on as soon as it’s light.” So he wrapped Iolo up inside his cloak and hugged the boy flat against his chest, whispering one of his oldest stories. Iolo fell asleep to his father’s heartbeat.
They haven’t changed, Gruffydd thought, as he dozed off. In twelve years, no change.