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Llanfihangel Rhyditon, Wales, 1291:
Gwyn and Gareth crossed the border from England into Wales on a blustery September afternoon at Y Gelli, known to the English as Haya or La Haye, in what had been the Kingdom of Powys, having left Dover nearly six weeks earlier. They had avoided London altogether, making their slow way past Winchester, the ancient seat of kings, to Southampton and then northwestward past Salisbury and the Hanging Stones that they looked upon with awe. Eventually they came to Gloucester and then westward to Hereford. Their goal was Fforest Faesyfed, known by the English as Radnor Forest, for their last missive from their parents, now nearly a dozen years old, informed them that they had settled in some small hamlet on the western border of the Forest with the unlikely name of Llanfihangel Rhydithon, where a church dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel apparently stood. Neither of them was confident that they would find their parents there, but it was a start.
From La Haye, which lay about twenty-two miles west of Hereford, they followed the road south to Talgarth before heading northwest again to Llanfair-ym-Muallt. From there they were but a day from their goal. With their destination in sight, the brothers decided to stay at Llanfair for a couple of days and rest. They both knew that it was unlikely that they would find their parents at Llanfihangel and they might well be moving on just as soon as they ascertained where their parents might have gone. They knew that someone in the village would have been told their next destination.
Armed with that belief, they rested themselves and their horses, horses which they had bought upon reaching England, though they cost them nearly all that they had in terms of gold. Still, they made out better than they had hoped and they managed to hoard the rest of their coin, stopping at monasteries and abbey houses where the good monks were duty-bound to shelter them and feed them, at least for a night, before they moved on. Along the way, they occasionally stopped long enough to earn a copper or two by helping the local blacksmith of some nameless village or town for a few days. Thus, by the time they reached Llanfair, they were, if not wealthy, at least not destitute and were able to pay for a small room in an inn. They had slept in worse in their time so they had no complaints and at least the food was excellent.
The brothers had arrived on a Friday and dutifully attended the service at the church dedicated to Our Lady on Sunday, speaking the responses in flawless Latin, much to the surprise of the parishioners. The next morning, after breaking their fast, they obtained directions to Llanfihangel and settled their bill, off for the last leg of this part of their journey, setting out in midmorning, for they only had fifteen or so miles to go. They made their way north to Y Groes, or Crossgates, where four roads intersected. It was about eleven miles from Llanfair. Westward lay the coast, and north would take them to Y Drenewydd, a recently built town by order of Edward I to be the new administrative center for the cantref and called Newtown by the English. Even further north was Y Trallwng, called Pool by the English. However, their road lay east to Penybont, two miles along, where they took the left fork along a track leading to Llanfihangel, which lay another two miles or so further on. On their right lay Radnor Forest, though there were no trees. It was, in fact, a broad, featureless plateau rising above the land around it.
The day was wet and the rain fell in a dreary drizzle that did nothing for their moods. Gareth was withdrawn, wondering how much further they would have to go before they caught up with their parents, wishing they had received more current news of their whereabouts, but they had been lucky enough to have received even as much news as they had over the century or so they were away.
Gwyn was simply weary: weary of traveling, weary of the rain, weary of his life. Looking back upon it he could not have said that it had been a good one. Certainly it had been exciting at times, but he knew now that such excitement was not for him, not anymore. He longed to settle somewhere and put down roots. He was not sure that would ever happen, not when his family was forced to uproot themselves every few decades to avoid suspicion from their neighbors as they grew old and died while he and his brother and parents remained the same. It had been different in Acre, but he never wanted to see that wretched place again.
It was nearing noon by the time they came to Llanfihangel, a sorry looking hamlet of a score or so hovels centered around an even sorrier looking church, its stonework cracked in places, looking rather dilapidated and uncared for. It was obvious to the brothers that this was a poor community. The gray skies and soggy ground did not help endear the place to them.
“Why did they come here?” Gareth whispered to his brother. “There’s nothing to commend itself to anyone.”
“Perhaps that is why,” Gwyn replied with a shrug. “Here. Let us find the priest. He is more likely to know where Da and Mam have gone.”
They headed for the church and discovered what they assumed was the priest’s residence, for it too was made of fieldstone, though the roof was thatched. It boasted two rooms and was better kept than the other houses made of wattle and mud. They dismounted and Gareth held the reins while Gwyn went to the door and pounded on it. After a moment, it opened to reveal a Man in a stained robe glaring at them suspiciously. He was portly with greasy black hair and pale eyes that held no warmth. His suspicious look changed to one of awe, almost of fear, when he spied them and he tried to slam the door in Gwyn’s face. Gwyn, however, held it open with negligent ease.
“Good day, priest,” he said conversationally in Welsh. “My brother and I mean you no harm. We are travelers and we seek information. Is there a barn where we may put our horses? We will pay you, of course.” Privately he doubted this particular Mortal lacked coin. Certainly he did not go without if the state of his belly was any indication.
“What information do you seek, good sir?” the Man asked, licking his lips and stealing nervous looks between Gwyn and Gareth.
“Let us see to our horses and then you may feed us and we will tell you,” Gwyn said firmly. He had seen the look of near terror in the Man’s eyes and wondered. Did their parents warn him of their coming, knowing that someday he and Gareth might come looking for them? Why had they stopped here in the first place? Would they not have fared better in a large town where they could remain anonymous to some extent? What had drawn them to this place?
He mentally shook his head and stared at the Mortal. “Well?”
The Man gulped and pointed to his right. “There is a barn just there. Put your horses there.”
“Thank you,” Gwyn said politely, then without removing his hand from the door, turned and nodded to Gareth who nodded back and with a soft snick, led the two horses away while Gwyn returned his attention to the Man. “While my brother sees to the horses, why don’t we go inside and wait for him?”
Even as he spoke, he pushed his way past the priest to enter the house where he discovered a Woman and three young children, the oldest, a boy, about ten or eleven, while the other two were girls, perhaps five and seven by his guess. Neither the Woman nor the children looked particularly well-fed or clothed. The Woman, in fact, looked worn and beaten by life and though he did not think she was above twenty-five, she looked a good ten or fifteen years older. She and the children stared at him with similar expressions of awe and fear as the priest.
He looked about him. It was a typical, low-ceilinged house with a large fireplace at one end and a rude table with benches in front of it. He could see more than one sleeping pallet rolled up in a corner and assumed they were for the children, while their parents slept in the other room, though he doubted that the Woman was the priest’s wife in the true matrimonial sense of the word. Celibacy had long been in place among the priesthood, but Gwyn was neither naïve nor blind and knew that in these small hamlets away from the prying eyes of bishops, the priests were likely to find comfort in the arms of a local woman, or more rarely, another man. That the children were the priest’s he had no doubt.
“God’s greetings to you all,” he said, giving the Woman a short bow and smiling upon the children. “I am Gwyn ap Tristan ap Hywel. My brother, who is looking after our horses, is Gareth.” He turned to the priest standing by the still open door and gave him a significant look.
“Bring us food, Elen,” the priest growled. “You three, out. Go play in the barn, but leave the horses alone. Twm, see to it your sisters behave.”
“Yes, Da,” the boy said meekly and without another word, took his sisters’ hands and led them outside.
Gwyn, meanwhile, divested himself of his wet cloak, placing it near the fireplace so it would dry and sat on one of the benches before the table. He ignored the looks between the priest and Elen as he waited for Gareth to come in.
“Your name, priest?” Gwyn asked imperiously.
The Man scowled slightly at his tone as he sat heavily in the only chair the house could boast. “Maelwys ab Anwas. Father Maelwys.” He stressed his title.
Gwyn gave him a cold smile. “Yes, I can see that.”
Elen, meanwhile, huddled over the fireplace, ladling up some soup into bowls while the Man stared at him in silence. A moment or two later the door opened and Gareth walked in, took in the surroundings and nodded to Gwyn, speaking in French.
“The horses are taken care of.”
Gwyn nodded and gestured to the bench. “Sit then,” he said, speaking French as well.
“What are you saying?” Maelwys demanded. “What heathenish language do you speak?”
Gwyn and Gareth stared at him in surprise. “Odd,” Gwyn said rather laconically, reverting back to Welsh. “I was unaware that the French were heathens, were you, Gareth?”
Gareth shook his head. “News to me, but then we’ve only fought beside their warriors in the Holy Land so who knows?”
“You… you are come from the wars?” the priest asked, giving them an uncertain look.
Elen plopped bowls of soup in front of the three men. Small hunks of meat floated in the thin broth — deer perhaps, though Gwyn had his doubts — along with some parsnips. She went to a cupboard and retrieved a hunk of dark bread for them. Gwyn, ever the spokesman for the two brothers, nodded as he picked up a wooden spoon and started to sip the broth. “We returned recently and now we are in search of our parents. Our last letter from them said they were living here. Tristan and Iseult ap Hywel.” He glanced up at Elen coming over with the bread. “You wouldn’t happen to know where they are now, do you?”
The Woman’s reaction to the names was telling, for she froze for just an instant before she forced herself to move and place the trencher of bread on the table. Gwyn saw from the corner of his eye the priest grimacing.
“Can’t say the names are familiar to me,” the Man said smoothly. “We’re a small community, you see. Everyone knows everyone else and strangers are few and rarely welcomed. I do not recall anyone moving here in all my years. Some have left, yes, but none have come from elsewhere to live here. The families that do live here have been here for time out of mind. I grew up not far from here myself, in Bleddfa.”
“And yet, our last letter from them clearly states that they came here to Llanfihangel Rhydithon hard by Radnor Forest. They would not lie about that. What reason would they have to do so?”
“Yet, if they were here even for a time and then moved on, why did they not send you a letter letting you know?” Maelwys enquired, his expression sly.
Gwyn shrugged. “I am sure they did, but it will not be the first time letters have gone astray. These are unsettled times and the road between here and Acre is long and full of dangers.”
The priest gave them startled looks. “You were in Acre, you say? You were there at its fall?”
Both brothers nodded but neither was inclined to speak. They concentrated on their meal instead. After a few minutes, Gareth looked up at the Man. “I find it rather odd that there would be a church here. Why would anyone bother to build one here, for it is a rather desolate place and there is little here to commend itself to any, in my opinion.”
Maelwys’ expression actually brightened. “Ah, you do not know the legend then.”
“And what legend is that?” Gwyn asked as he tore off a hunk of the bread, carefully dunking it into the broth to soften it enough to eat without breaking his teeth.
“You saw Rhos Fawr,” the Man said, making it more a statement than a question.
“The dome of rock that dominates the landscape,” Gwyn said with a nod.
Maelwys nodded. “Legend has it that one of the last dragons of Wales lies sleeping beneath Rhos Fawr.”
“A dragon!” Gareth exclaimed. “Truly?” Gwyn was equally impressed.
The priest nodded again more vigorously. “Aye, and four churches were constructed in a circle to contain it. Each of them is dedicated to St. Mihangel the Archangel whom, it is said, defeated the dragon.”
“And this church is one of them,” Gwyn stated.
“Aye, it is, along with Llanfihangel Cefnllys, Llanfihangel Cascob and Llanfihangel Nant Melan.” Even as he named the other three churches he pointed in various directions, ending with the south. “It is believed by many that the dragon will awaken again if any of these churches are destroyed.”
The three men fell silent as they continued eating. Elen sat by the fire watching them. Gwyn glanced at Gareth. “Such a legend would draw them here, I deem,” he said in French. “Sûrment, Maman.”
Gareth nodded. “Then where did they go? Why does this priest insist he remembers them not? The Woman. She knows something. I saw it in her eyes when you told them our parents’ names.”
“So, should we beat it out of the Man or corner the Woman?” Gwyn asked conversationally.
Gareth gave him a Gallic shrug that spoke volumes and Gwyn hid a smile, finishing the last of the soup and pushing the bowl away. All the while, the priest eyed them with suspicion and fear. Suspicion, Gwyn could understand, for strangers could prove dangerous, though Christian hospitality and guest-rights would curtail most violence done to either host or visitor. The fear, however, he did not understand, unless it was the sight of two men in chain and wearing swords. It was unlikely the Man had occasion to meet with soldiers returning from the wars to the East, not in this remote corner of Powys, so perhaps it was that, but Gwyn was unsure. The Man was definitely lying about knowing their parents. The question remained: why?
“Do we speak to the villagers then?” Gareth asked, still speaking French.
“They would not give us who are strangers any answers,” Gwyn said with a shake of his head. “No, the answers lie here inside this house.” On an impulse he said to the priest, “I would like to see your church and light a candle to St. Mihangel in thanksgiving for delivering us from the hands of the Saracens.”
Gareth nodded. “As would I.”
“The church is closed,” Maelwys said shortly.
Both Gwyn and Gareth evinced shock. “Closed?” Gareth echoed. “When is a House of God ever closed? Surely you sing the Angelus, though now that I think on it, I do not recall hearing the Ave bell being rung and it should have been ringing even as we came upon this village.”
“At any rate, we still would like to see the church so that my brother and I may pray to St. Mihangel,” Gwyn stated, deciding he did not wish to hear the Man’s excuses for not fulfilling his ecclesiastical duties. Neither he nor Gareth held to the beliefs of the Mortals, but they had lived among them all their lives and had followed the religious practices of the times as a matter of course. And as putative members of a monastic order for the last hundred years, they had fallen into the habit of following the liturgical rote of prayers and devotions throughout the day.
“Shall we?” Gwyn rose from the table, giving Maelwys a stern look.
The priest hesitated a moment longer and then sighed, rising from his chair. “Come with me, then,” he said ungraciously as he lifted an iron ring on which was a single key off a hook by the door. The brothers followed.
Outside, the rain had finally stopped and there were rents in the clouds showing blue, but it was still cold with the hint of frost in the air. Maelwys marched over to the church and unlocked it, then flung open the heavy oak door, gesturing for the brothers to enter. “Please,” Gwyn said politely, indicating that the Man should lead them. He gave them a sour look but did not argue. Upon entering they saw a large stone baptistry situated before the nave, intricately carved with angels and what appeared to be a biblical scene of Jesus being baptized by John at the River Jordan. It stood almost chest high and was a couple of feet wide. It was partially filled with water and the brothers automatically dipped the fingers of their right hands into it and crossed themselves, genuflecting toward the altar. Then, before they entered the sanctuary proper, they removed their swords, leaning them against the baptistry.
Gwyn looked at Maelwys and gestured for him to continue further into the church. The priest scowled but did as he was bid and the brothers followed.
The sanctuary, they saw, was divided by a wooden rood screen intricately carved with images of saints and angels, separating the altar from the rest of the church. In a niche to the left of the altar stood a crudely carved statue of Mary and on the opposite side, a statue of St. Michael in full armor and holding his sword. Before the statues were fat votive candles stuck in sand. A few before the Mary statue were lit; none of those before St. Michael were. Gwyn and Gareth exchanged grimaces and without a word, Gareth went over to the Mary statue and returned with one of the lit candles, handing it to Gwyn who then proceeded to light two of the candles before St. Michael, sticking the other candle into the sand when he was done. Then the two brothers knelt and Gwyn began praying aloud the Angelus with Gareth joining in while Maelwys stood by and watched.
“Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ,” Gwyn intoned.
“Et concepit de Spiritu Sanctu,” Gareth responded.
“Ave Maria, gratia plena…” they both prayed.
They continued with the rest of the prayer with Gwyn reciting the versicle and Gareth following with the response.
“… Per eundem Christum Dominum nostrum,” Gwyn prayed the final part of the prayer.
“Amen,” Gareth said.
They remained kneeling and Gwyn spoke now in Welsh. “O, most holy St. Mihangel, slayer of dragons, prince of the Host of Heaven and God’s most puissant warrior, we thank thee for bringing us out of the hands of the infidels and protecting us as we traveled home. Protect us now and lead us safely unto our parents who await our coming. Guide us home, O most noble warrior, we humbly beseech thee. Amen.”
“Amen,” Gareth echoed and then they both piously crossed themselves again as they stood and faced the priest who gave them a sour look.
“You do not fool me with your piety, sirrah. I know what you are, what you both are.”
“Indeed,” Gwyn evinced a skeptical air. “And what, pray tell, are we?”
“You are not of mortal kind, and you mock God with your impious piety.”
Both brothers raised eyebrows at that. “Perhaps we are angels in disguise come to test you, Maelwys ab Anwas, for I sense a certain lack of… devotion on your part,” Gwyn offered.
Maelwys hesitated for a moment, his expression becoming unsure but then he shook his head. “No, I do not think that is what you are. Angels would… hide themselves better. You are both inhumanly fair to look upon, too beautiful for any mortal and there is a… a glow about you. Angels in disguise would not glow.”
“Then what are we, if not angels?” Gwyn asked.
“I deem you are of the Tylwyth Teg,” the priest said accusingly. “I deem you to be Gwyn ap Nudd himself!”
Both brothers blinked at that and exchanged bemused looks.
“It is true, as you have guessed, that we are not mortals, that we are of the Tylwyth Teg,” Gwyn said carefully, “but I am not Gwyn ap Nudd, though I was named for him. My brother and I are duly baptized Christians who fought for the Cross in the Holy Land. Indeed, we have been to Jerusalem. We have walked the Via Dolorosa and have seen the tomb of Christ.” He gave the priest a cold smile. “We are far more devout than you appear to be, Maelwys ab Anwas, for all that you are supposedly a priest.”
“You are soulless creatures sent to mock me!” Maelwys shouted.
Almost more quickly than human eyes could follow, Gwyn was upon the Man, pushing him up against the wall. Maelwys was white and trembling as Gwyn held a knife at the Mortal’s throat. “If we were truly soulless, priest, we would have no compunction in spilling your blood on holy ground or torturing you for the information we seek.”
“If you know that we are not mortal,” Gareth interjected before Maelwys could respond, “then you know of our parents. How else would you recognize us for what we are?”
Maelwys shook his head, fear in his eyes. “I know nothing of your parents.”
“So you say,” Gwyn retorted coldly, “but we know they came here if only for a short while. It would have been ten or twelve years ago. I am sure you’ve been living here for at least that long.”
“I came here eleven years ago when the old priest died,” Maelwys said. “If your parents had been here they left before I came.”
“This is getting us nowhere, Gwyn,” Gareth complained, speaking again in French.
“I know, little brother,” Gwyn replied in the same language, “but we cannot leave until we learn where they were headed. Someone in the village must know. They would have told someone, left some message behind, just in case.”
“So what do we do?” Gareth asked.
Gwyn cast his brother a grim-looking smile. “We make ourselves at home.” With that, he stepped away from the Man and returned his knife to its scabbard. When he spoke again it was in Welsh. “Well, I think we will spend a little time here and see if we cannot find answers to our questions. You say you never knew our parents. Fair enough, but others in the village do, of that I have no doubt. Until we find what we are looking for, I’m afraid you’re stuck with us, Maelwys ab Anwas and God and St. Mihangel help any who stand in our way.” He gave the Man a cold smile that boded no one well.
Sûrment, Maman: (French) ‘Certainly, Mam’.
Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ, Et concepit de Spiritu Sanctu, Ave Maria, gratia plena…: (Latin) ‘The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary, And she conceived of the Holy Spirit, Hail Mary, full of grace…’.
Per eundem Christum Dominum nostrum: (Latin) ‘Through the same Christ our Lord’.
Tylwyth Teg: (Welsh) ‘the Fair Folk’, the Welsh name for the Elves. Gwyn ap Nudd is the name of the Lord of Annwn, the Welsh Underworld, and King of Faerie.
1. Fforest Faesyfed: Radnor Forest. It is only a forest in the medieval sense of an unenclosed area used for hunting. The legend surrounding it is a real-life legend and not invented for the sake of this story.
2. Llanfihangel Rhydithon: Church of St. Michael the Archangel at Rhydithon. Mihangel is the Welsh form of Michael. The other three churches mentioned still stand as well.
3. Y Gelli/Haya/La Haye: Present-day Hay-on-Wye, on the very border between England and Wales, a mecca for booklovers with its nearly two dozen bookshops.
4. Llanfair-ym-Muallt: Church of St. Mary at Buallt; present-day Builith Wells. The town has been in existence since post-Roman times.
5. Y Trallwng: Present-day Welshpool. It was originally just called Pool but the name was changed to differentiate from Poole in England.
6. Angelus: A Catholic devotional prayer commemorating the Incarnation. The name is taken from the first word of the prayer in Latin: Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ ‘The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary’. It is generally recited at dawn, noon and dusk with the ringing of the Angelus or Ave bell. While the history of its development is not entirely clear, the Angelus has been recited as a distinct prayer for over 700 years. The full Latin text and English translation can be found on Wikipedia under ‘Angelus’.
7. While the Church of St. Michael in Llanfihangel Rhydithon actually exists, its description is based on the various medieval churches I have visited and not on actuality.
8. Via Dolorosa: ‘The Way of Sorrow’; the route through Jerusalem taken by Christ to Calvary where he was executed.
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