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“So, did that priest really not know where your parents had gone?” Glorfindel asked as Gwyn paused in relating his and Gareth’s story, draining his goblet and refilling it.
“And is there really a dragon under Radnor Forest?” Alex asked.
“I do not understand how these four churches are supposed to contain the dragon if one exists,” Finrod said almost at the same time. “How can they do that? What spells were wrought to make it so?” Several of the Elves nodded their heads at that and Valandur was heard speaking to Laurendil about possible Songs of Power that could be used in such cases with Laurendil saying it would’ve been nice to have had that power when Glaurung was sacking Nargothrond.
Gwyn and Gareth exchanged amused looks. “Hey! I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine, and you’ll find out if you let us continue our tale,” Gwyn said, pointing first to Alex, then Finrod and finally Glorfindel, answering their questions. Several people chuckled at that.
“Okay, okay,” Glorfindel said with a sniff. “So you got to this village and were being stonewalled by the priest. Did you ever learn why your parents ended up there if only for a while?”
“Mam was always seeking out evidence of the Elder Days,” Gareth answered. “She and Da were treasure hunters of a sort, seeking out artefacts that might have belonged to the Elves that somehow survived the ages.”
“Did they find anything, though?” Finrod asked. “I thought all traces of our existence were destroyed by the ice?” He turned to Glorfindel with an enquiring look.
Glorfindel shrugged. “We assumed so because we never saw any evidence, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t. We just never looked.”
“You never did,” Barahir interjected, “but I did. Why do you think I became an archeologist even before that term was coined? Granted, I never found anything conclusive, just legends and snippets of tales that might have been dim echoes of our past, but I always thought I would find some trace, some object that somehow survived through the ages, ending up in some Mortal’s tomb or in a temple as an object of worship. Never did, and then I just forgot about it and concentrated on helping my fellow archeologists rediscover their own past.”
“Same with Mam and Da,” Gwyn said. “They started out looking for evidence that some memory of the Elder Days had survived among the Mortals, but, as you say, Barry, the evidence was inconclusive and finally Da just gave up and became more interested in the sciences, especially as the Mortals began to make discoveries about the universe that had been unknown to any before. Mam ended up taking all the knowledge she had accumulated of legends and myths and began sharing it with those who were interested in such lore, eventually teaching it at university when women were allowed to do so.”
“Well, so what happened next?” Derek asked. “That priest, Malwis or whatever his name is, sounds like an oily bastard. And I didn’t think a priest would be able to get away with having a wife and kiddies like that. Weren’t they supposed to be celibate?”
“In the Celtic church, that wasn’t necessarily so, though, over time, celibacy eventually became the rule,” Gareth explained with a shrug. “Maelwys probably did not marry Elen. She most likely started out as his housekeeper and then later became his lover. The Welsh were more tolerant of such matters than the English and in that remote part of the country the bishop was likely to ignore irregularities unless they were blatant.”
“Did you really pray to St. Michael or were you just pretending to because that’s what people did back then?” Alex asked.
“They still do,” Gwyn said with a smile. “And yes, I did honestly pray to St. Michael. While Gareth and I didn’t necessarily believe in the Mortal religions of our acquaintance, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, we did follow the religious practices of the day wherever we happened to be. In Palestine, while we were with Saladin, we prayed toward Mecca five times a day along with everyone else in his entourage, but when we joined the Templars, we followed the canonical hours of the Order. Ultimately, we figured all our prayers would eventually make their way to Eru however convoluted the route.”
“Yet, it does seem odd that you would pray at all,” Cennanion said. “It isn’t something that we Elves do.”
“Yet we often sing hymns to Varda,” Barahir pointed out.
“Yes, but we don’t necessarily pray to her in the same way as Mortals do to Eru,” Cennanion countered. “I was just surprised that Gwyn and Gareth would do so.”
“Mortal born,” Finrod offered and both Gwyn and Gareth began to bristle.
“So, anyway…” Glorfindel intervened before either brother could comment, giving them a significant look.
Gwyn nodded and glanced up at the sky to gauge the hour. “This is a long story and we can’t really shorten it, otherwise it won’t make any sense to you. Are you sure you want to hear it? It’ll take hours, I think, to tell it all and it’s already after midnight.”
“Well, if you think Derek and I are going to leave before we hear the end, you can think again,” Alex said firmly. “We’ll sleep later. Carry on.”
“Very well,” Gwyn said, “but if you fall asleep in the middle of our recitation, I have no intention of repeating it all for you later.”
“We’ll get the Reader’s Digest version out of Darren or Val,” Derek said. “They’re trained loremasters. I bet they could repeat your words verbatim if they needed to.”
Both Daeron and Valandur nodded, but neither commented and Gwyn left it at that. “Okay, so we ended up staying in the village rather than going on simply because we had no idea where we should go. Even if we had a direction, if not an actual destination, that would’ve been something. At any rate, we decided to see if we could find one of the villagers who would remember our parents. If what Maelwys said was true, that he arrived in the village after they had already left, then there was no point badgering him about it, but Elen… Now that was another matter. We guessed that she was a local girl rather than coming with Maelwys from Bleddfa. She would’ve been in her teens when our parents arrived in Llanfihangel, old enough to remember two strangers settling there. Gareth suggested that we concentrate on her….”
The brothers exited the church with Maelwys, who stopped long enough to lock the door again. The three made their way back to the house where the brothers retrieved their now dry cloaks. Both Maelwys and Elen eyed them warily.
“Thank you for the meal,” Gwyn said graciously to the Woman, giving her a slight bow. “It is pleasant to have someone else doing the cooking for a change since my brother seems incapable of boiling water.” He cast a fond look at Gareth who grinned unrepentantly but did not otherwise make a comment.
“You are leaving then?” the priest asked, giving them a dubious look.
Gwyn shook his head. “Not until we learn what happened to our parents. Fear not! We will sleep in the barn with our horses and we will not bother you for meals. I am assuming the Forest is a free hunting ground for all who live in these parts?”
Maelwys nodded. “Though no one goes near Rhos Fawr. To do so is to chance waking the dragon.”
“And we don’t want that, do we?” Gwyn said with a nod of understanding. “Very well. We will stay away from Rhos Fawr. Thank you for the warning.” With that, he turned and strode out the door with Gareth behind him and headed for the barn. Entering it Gwyn saw that it only had a couple of stalls. Their horses occupied both stalls while a mule, apparently belonging to the priest, was tied up to a post looking… well, mulish at having been ousted from its own stall. Above them was a hayloft where they heard the children playing. At their entrance, all three peered down from above, their eyes wide with wonder.
“Are you angels?” the youngest girl asked.
“Don’t be daft, Annest,” Twm said with brotherly arrogance. “Anyone can see they are Fair Folk. If they were angels they would have wings.”
Gwyn and Gareth exchanged amused looks, then Gwyn gestured to the children. “Come down now, my little ones, and return to your Mam.”
“Sioned, help Annest down,” Twm ordered the older sister and the two girls went first. Only when they were safely on the ground with Gareth lifting them off the ladder and setting them before them did Twm follow.
“Off you go now,” Gareth started to say, giving them a kind smile.
“Wait, though,” Gwyn said, holding up his hand. “Tell me, boy, who is your blacksmith if this village boasts of one?”
“That would be Rhisiart,” the boy said promptly, “but he lives halfway to Llandegley. I can show you the track you must take to reach him.”
“Yes, I would like that,” Gwyn said, then he turned to Gareth, speaking French. “While I go speak to the blacksmith, do a bit of hunting while we still have daylight.”
“Do you think the blacksmith will have the answers we seek? Should we not ask the Woman? She knows something. I could see it in her eyes.”
Gwyn nodded. “Yes, but let me speak with the smith first. I do not want to confront the Woman unless we have to.”
Gareth started to say something but Twm interjected just then, speaking with some impatience. “What are you babbling about? Do you want me to show you where Rhisiart lives or not?”
Gwyn smiled at the child. “Patience, boy. How far does this smith live?”
The boy shrugged. “Mayhap a mile or so on the road to Llandegley.”
“Then show me,” Gwyn ordered, giving his brother a knowing look as he allowed the three children to lead him away. Gareth spent a couple of minutes visiting with the horses, making sure they were well, double-checking to see that the knife was well hidden in a secret pocket of one of the saddlebags where thieves were unlikely to find it. Then, with a soft word to the mule, he grabbed his hunting bow and quiver and set out for the Forest, well aware of the Mortals that watched him from doorways as he flitted by.
Gwyn followed the three children through the village, the two lasses skipping merrily ahead while Twm strode beside him.
“You and your sisters were born here?” he asked.
The boy nodded but did not otherwise speak and Gwyn did not press. They came to the last of the houses and Twm stopped and pointed toward a track that ran southeast. “There,” he said somewhat unnecessarily. “Rhisiart lives yonder. Annest, Sioned, come back. You know Mam does not like you leaving the village.”
The two girls turned back and without another word to Gwyn, Twm grabbed their hands and led them back to the village. Gwyn watched them go for a moment and then glanced at the sky. He had perhaps an hour or two before the sun would set. More than enough time, he thought, to find the smith and then return to the village. He set off at a brisk pace following the track. To the east rose Rhos Fawr and Gwyn wondered idly if there were indeed a dragon sleeping under the dome. He recalled the tales his parents had told him and Gareth of the Elder Days and the dragons against which Elves and Men had fought. Smaug had been the last dragon slain as far as he or anyone else knew, but perhaps one or two had survived somehow. He suspected that the legends surrounding Rhos Fawr had been what had drawn his parents here, but they did not stay long. So where did they go?
He heard the smith working before he saw the smithy itself, coming around a bend of the track to find himself facing a rough-hewn stone house with a smithy attached to it. He could see a Man working over the bellows, heating something before returning to the anvil and picking up a hammer. The ringing of metal on metal echoed in the air. The Man looked up as Gwyn approached, his expression one of mild curiosity as he continued to hammer away at what appeared to be a horseshoe.
“God’s greeting to you,” Gwyn called out cheerfully.
“And to you, stranger,” the Man answered dutifully enough. He paused in his work, expertly examining the piece before laying down the hammer and tongs, placing the horseshoe to one side along with some others. He was brawny as befitted a smith, his dark hair and beard brindled with grey, his blue eyes bright and knowing.
“I am Gwyn ap Tristan ap Hywel,” Gwyn introduced himself.
“Are you now?” the Man said, raising an eyebrow.
“And you are Rhisiart, or so I was told by Twm ap Maelwys.”
“Aye, I be he. And what do you be needing me for, Gwyn ap Tristan ap Hywel? Has your horse thrown a shoe? Do you need the sword you carry repaired?”
“I need information,” Gwyn said. “You are the smith for this area. I believe you will know what I seek if anyone does.”
“And what do you seek?” the Man asked, eyeing him suspiciously.
“Not what, who. My father and mother actually. Tristan ap Hywel and his wife Iseult. I have a letter from them dated about twelve years ago saying that they had come here to Llanfihangel, but they are obviously not here now. I wish to know where they went.”
“Twelve years,” the smith said musingly. “A long time. And where were you all this time if I may ask? For you seem rather young and twelve years ago you couldn’t have been but a child.”
“I am older than I look and until recently I was in the East, in the Holy Land,” Gwyn answered readily enough. “My brother and I fought in the Crusades there but we have returned to our homeland and seek out our kin.” He forbore to ask the Man directly if he knew of his parents. It would be better if Rhisiart supplied the information voluntarily.
The smith gave him a searching look and Gwyn refused to look away. He allowed a small part of his native power to peek through and saw with no little satisfaction when the Man’s eyes widened and he hastily crossed himself.
“How can one of the Fair Folk handle iron?” Rhisiart asked, looking pointedly at Gwyn’s sword.
“Some myths are only that,” Gwyn replied and the smith gave him a considering look. “Do you remember my parents? Do you know where they went?”
The Man shook his head. “Remember them, aye, that I do, but they never confided in me as to their plans. One day they were here, the next they were gone.”
“How long did they abide here?”
Rhisiart furrowed his brow. “Let me see, they arrived on the Eve of St. John and were here through the winter and into the next summer, but they were gone again before the Feast of St. Michael.”
“When did the priest arrive?”
“Maelwys?!” Rhisiart exclaimed, apparently surprised by the question. “Well, now that I think on it, he came a week before your parents left.”
“So, he lied then.” Gwyn nodded in grim satisfaction.
The smith gave him a searching look. “Lied about what?”
“He claims not to know my parents.”
“And that may not be a lie exactly. Father Dewi went to his reward a couple of months before. I and one or two others traveled to speak to the bishop to inform him of the death and the need for a new priest. The bishop said he would send someone and we returned home. Several weeks later, Maelwys showed up claiming to have been sent by the bishop. As far as I know, neither he nor your parents actually came face to face and then inside the week they were gone.”
“Where did they live, though? What I saw of the village leads me to suspect that no new houses have been built in some time and there is no inn.”
“They lived with Old Dewi far as I know,” Rhisiart said with a shrug as he worked the bellows for a bit before picking up the tongs and grabbing a bit of iron to thrust into the fire. Gwyn watched him for a moment, reviewing all that the smith had told him, coming to certain conclusions.
“Elen. Was she Father Dewi’s housekeeper by any chance?”
“Elen?” Rhisiart gave him a puzzled look. “Elen is Dewi’s daughter. Her Mam died aborning her.”
Gwyn blinked at that revelation and several pieces of the puzzle fell into place for him. He suspected that his parents had moved out of the priest’s house before Maelwys arrived, perhaps staying with Elen’s mother’s kin. Yet, if his parents had been living in the priest’s house, they would’ve been well acquainted with his daughter. It was quite possible, as Gareth suggested, that their parents had confided in her as to their next destination. They might have to question her after all.
Rhisiart ignored him as he set about returning to his work. As the smith began hammering on the heated metal, Gwyn thanked him and bade him a farewell which Rhisiart barely acknowledged. Gwyn shrugged to himself and set off for the village. When he returned to the barn he found Gareth skinning a brace of coneys. A small fire had been started and water was heating in the pot that they used for cooking. Gareth looked up as Gwyn approached.
“What did you find out?”
Gwyn crouched down before his brother, looking pensive. “He knew our parents but they did not confide in him when they left. They were living in the priest’s house with the previous priest who died a couple of months before they left the village. Elen is the old priest’s daughter.”
Gareth stopped what he was doing to give his brother a searching look. “And now she’s Maelwys’ wife or at least his… paramour.”
“Which is neither here nor there, but certainly she had to know our parents quite well while they lived under the same roof for over a year. I think you’re right that we will have to speak to her, but we should do it when Maelwys is not around to interfere. I do not like him.”
“Nor I,” Gareth allowed. “Well, I’m sure the opportunity to speak with Elen alone will arise if we are patient. In the meantime, these are all yours.” He picked up the skinned rabbits and handed them to Gwyn. “I’m going to go wash.” He stood and strode away toward a small brook that passed along the east side of the village while Gwyn set about cooking their meal.
As it was, Elen came to them the next morning bearing a gift of a loaf of dark bread, a few eggs and some cheese, which the brothers accepted gratefully. “These will make for a cheerful breaking of fast, mistress,” Gwyn said politely.
“I did not want you to leave here thinking we are inhospitable, my lord,” the Woman said.
“Oh, no lord am I, nor is my brother, I assure you,” Gwyn said with a laugh. “We grew up outside Caerdyf, on a farm, until we went crusading.”
“You are Fair Folk, though,” Elen insisted.
“And you recognized us as such because of our parents, did you not?” Gareth enquired. “You were just a lass at the time they came here. Rhisiart the Blacksmith claims they lived with you in the house with your father.”
Elen scowled. “Rhisiart talks too much.”
“Yet, what he says is true, is it not?” Gwyn pressed. “You are the old priest’s daughter. Our parents lived in your house for over a year. Did they say naught of their next destination, even if it was only that they were heading, say west, instead of north. Any information you might have for us, mistress would be gratefully received.”
“I should go,” Elen said. “My man would not like it if he found me talking to you.” She turned to go.
“Elen,” Gwyn said and she stopped but did not turn around.
“St. Mihangel,” she said softly. “He knows. They told him, so your mam said. They told St. Mihangel where they were going.” She hurried off refusing to stay longer. Gareth looked to go after her but Gwyn stayed him.
“No, let her go, Brother. I think she told us all she could or dared,” he said. He resumed his seat at the fire and Gareth joined him.
“They told St. Mihangel?” Gareth exclaimed. “What does that mean? Tell some mute statue but not a living soul?”
“Living souls who could die at any time,” Gwyn pointed out. “Living souls who could fail to pass on the message to another just in case.”
“Then it’s hopeless.”
“Not necessarily,” Gwyn countered, his expression pensive. “What if they left a message of some sort in the church itself, hidden perhaps in or around the statue where none would think to look if any thought they should?”
“We will need to get inside the church. Do we break in?” He raised an eyebrow at Gwyn in a suggestive manner but Gwyn shook his head.
“No. We will not break in. I would not chance it. We will wait until we can legitimately enter and then you and I will kneel before St. Mihangel and wait for everyone to leave.”
“That won’t work though because Maelwys will insist on staying until we’re ready to leave. He’ll want to be locking up the church, though why any priest would do so is beyond me.”
“Rhisiart said that Maelwys showed up claiming to have been sent by the bishop,” Gwyn said. “What if he wasn’t?”
“How do you mean?” Gareth demanded in surprise. “Surely he is a priest, even if a poor one. Would the villagers put up with someone who was not?”
Gwyn shrugged. “That I don’t know, but it strikes me that Maelwys may not be who he claims to be. Not that it matters to you or me. If he is here under false pretenses, then let the villagers look to it if they will.”
“At any rate, we’ll need to come up with some reason for Maelwys not to hang about so we can examine the statue in peace.”
“A way will be found,” Gwyn said with more confidence then he felt. “If we must, we will confide in Maelwys. I think once he understands what we seek, he will cooperate. He wants us gone and as quickly as possible. He will do anything to see it done.”
“Well, speaking of the devil,” Gareth muttered as he noticed Maelwys approaching. The brothers rose and gave the Man their greeting. Maelwys scowled at them.
“How long will you remain here?” he demanded.
The brothers gave him disbelieving looks. “The hospitality to guests has deteriorated since last we were here, I fear,” Gwyn said.
“You are unwanted here,” the Man said, ignoring Gwyn’s implied censure.
“Then the sooner we learn the truth about our parents, the sooner we are gone,” Gwyn shot back. “But mistake me not, sir. My brother and I will not leave until we do learn the truth. Rhisiart states that they were here the week you arrived from Bleddfa. It is possible, though unlikely, that you and they never came face-to-face, but you must have known of them, for how else did you recognize us for what we are?”
Maelwys’ expression became crafty. “Do you think you are the only Fair Folk I have come upon? I never met your parents, this I swear before God, but your kind… yes, I have met your kind before.” He scowled then, a look of disgust crossing his face. “Soulless creatures. They are an abomination before God.” He spat on the ground in contempt.
Gwyn felt his blood turn cold and before the Man could blink, he was upon him, ramming him into the side of the barn, his knife at the priest’s throat. “What do you mean? You have met others of our kind? Where? When? Speak, sirrah, or I shall turn you over to my brother to torture. He has had plenty of practice with Saracens.”
It was a lie, of course, but he knew Gareth would play along, and indeed, his brother actually smiled an evil smile. “I’ve rather missed hearing a Mortal screaming as I… played with him.”
Maelwys was trembling, fear in his eyes, as he looked between the two Elves. “You would not dare!” he shouted. “I am a priest—”
“And I wonder how true that is,” Gwyn said softly, pressing the knife a little more against the Man’s throat. “At any rate, if we’re the soulless creatures you claim us to be, then killing you would not damn us any more than we already are. Now speak! These others. Who were they? Where did you meet them?”
“I do not know who they were, nor do I care,” Maelwys answered, scowling at them, though they could still see the fear in his eyes. “I came upon them on the road by chance years ago when I was newly ordained and going to my first parish in Rhos-y-meirch, to the east near Tref-y-Clawdd. They offered me their hospitality.”
“And?” Gwyn urged when the Man hesitated, looking nervous more than frightened.
“And I did what any God-fearing man would do,” Maelwys replied, glaring at him. “I ran from them lest I be tainted by their evil. They did not follow or attempt to stay me and I never saw them again, but I did not forget, I did not forget their unearthly beauty.”
Gwyn stepped back, his expression pained. Others of his kind, other Elves, still abided here. That revelation unnerved him as almost nothing could and he dropped the knife as he stared at the priest who was rubbing his throat where the knife had been.
“Get you gone, soulless creatures who mock us with your false piety,” Maelwys hissed.
Gwyn shook his head. “No. Not until we get what we came here for. You want us gone, then open the church to us, for we think we know where our parents hid a message for us.”
“And why would I do that?” Maelwys demanded.
“Because if you don’t, Mortal, my brother and I will make sure that none of your villagers see the next dawn, starting with your woman and your children,” Gwyn said coldly, letting his true nature show forth, “and in the end we will just take the key from your cooling corpse and enter the church anyway.”
For a long moment, the Man stared at them, and then he licked his lips and nodded. “Come then, and may God strike you down for your sins.”
“You cannot have it both ways, priest,” Gareth said. “Only those with souls can sin, and if my brother and I are soulless as you claim, then God does not care what we do and keeps no accounting. That is for those with souls.”
“Come. Let us not waste any more time,” Gwyn said, bending to pick up his knife and gesturing for Maelwys to precede them. “The sooner we find what message our parents left for us the sooner we are gone from this wretched place.” Then on an impulse he said, speaking French, “Bring the knife. It may prove useful.”
Gareth did not argue but went into the barn while Gwyn herded the Man toward the church.
1. St. John’s Eve would be 23 June. Traditionally, midsummer was celebrated on 24 June, the Feast of St. John the Baptizer. The Feast of St. Michael is on 29 September.
2. Caerdyf: Present-day Cardiff. The present-day Welsh form of the name is now Caerdydd.
3. Tref-y-Clawdd: The Welsh name for Knighton, a market town that lies just to the east of the English-Welsh border today. Rhos-y-meirch lies just to the west of the border.
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