Ok, to be frank, I think this is totally uninspired and shallow. It started out as the beginning to Immortal Hope and I realized it wasn't needed, but I feel like there is enough here to work with; I just am out of ideas. I would welcome any suggestions and feedback on what to do with it, because I can't seem to make it MEAN anything or really have much point besides, oooh, let's see Gwydion run around being the great warrior and talking to animals. Which may be all right, but I'd like to push it beyond that.
Prydain and its characters are the creation of the marvelous Lloyd Alexander, who I hope never suffered from the writer's block I am currently experiencing. Bleh.
The Hunter Rides
The fortress of Caer Dathyl stood mighty, its towers bright against the storm clouds gathered behind it, golden banners snapping in the growing wind. Gwydion, gazing upon it, felt a rush of pride, a warm sense of homecoming that was cut short as he scaled a last hill. Spread beneath him, in the valley that still separated him from the castle, was a roiling black sea of armed men.
His keen eyes wandered over the besieging forces and studied the castle walls. They had clearly not been breached; he did not see that battle had even officially begun. His gaze fell upon an enemy banner as it swung before the gates; blood-red it was, with a black antlered skull emblazoned upon it. He had expected nothing else, and the sight made him bare his teeth in a silent feral snarl.
There would be scouting parties on both sides, and he must be cautious now, so close to the impending fray, for he had neither weapon nor armor. If he could but locate one of his own scouts, he could rendezvous with his men and perhaps reach the castle safely, but it was a long chance.
While he considered, a dark speck against the clouds caught his eye. Instantly he melted into the shadow of the trees blanketing the hillside, praying that the speck would not grow larger.
It did, however, forming itself into the ugly shape of a twisted black bird and diving earthward. It raced toward him with the speed of a fell wind and Gwydion cast about him for a branch or stone – anything to use as defense. He set his back against a stout oak tree with low-hanging branches and crouched like a cornered predator, ready to spring.
But the gwythaint, swooping low over his hiding place, did not attack, nor did it shriek out the all-too-familiar ear-splitting screeches he had come to expect of the beasts. It dove once, twice, three times, each time uttering what would, in any other creature, have been a gentle coo. From a gwythaint it was more of a croak, but the intent was clear to Gwydion, and with long-honed experience he cornered his amazement and bundled it away to be dealt with later. Emerging from the cover of the oak, he called softly up to the bird, and it landed next to him with a clumsy flapping of batlike wings.
It was young and female, clearly not in the best of health, a scraggly and discolored specimen of a breed not particularly attractive in the first place. This one, however, did not share the malignant glare of its kind; its gaze was wary and uncertain, but mild. It took a few cautious steps toward him and croaked inquisitively.
The prince had quickly found after his time in Oeth-Anoeth that he could understand the speech of all creatures, but the actual experience was still a novelty. It was decidedly odd to hear sounds that were not words, yet formed themselves into coherent thought in his head, and he wondered if he would ever get used to it.
You are Gwydion, the gwythaint stated matter-of-factly.
He nodded, tried to ask how she knew this, and heard strange sounds issue from his mouth.
We are shown your image, she answered, that we might slay you on sight.
He didn't want to know what manner of dark magic Arawn used to show the beasts what he looked like. Yet you do not slay me, he observed.
No, the creature agreed, mild amusement in its demeanor. Much has been made clear to me of late.
I bring tidings of interest to you, I think, she continued. The Horned King has scouting parties nearby – two over the ridge to the south, and another in the woods to the north. The Sons of Don, as well, scout the area, and there is one party a few furlongs away, beneath yonder cliff. It swung its black head on a snaky neck in the direction indicated. I dare not lead you to them lest they shoot at me, for there are bowmen among them.
Gwydion hesitated, unsure, then put out a hand to rest gently on the creature's head. I thank you…he paused…friend.
The gwythaint rasped out a choking cry that he interpreted as laughter.That word comes oddly to your lips when you look at me, she said, but for that I cannot fault you.
There is more, she continued, with a jerk of her head to the hills behind him. A league hence there travels a party, not of warriors. I know them not; but they were kind to me. For a moment it was silent, and Gwydion wondered much. With them travels a white pig, one that we have been ordered to capture. You, I think, have sought her as well.
"Hen Wen!" Gwydion said aloud in joy.
Yes,the bird affirmed. That is what they called her.
In moments the prince made up his mind. Hen Wen was a treasure too crucial to be left vulnerable, and moreover she had knowledge that he needed. A party of his scouts so near, however, was a defense he might need also. The gwythaint, watching him intently, saw his eyes dart toward the cliffs.
I will watch the travelers and pig, she suggested, while you alert your men.
He thanked her and she leapt, spreading her leathery wings. Gwydion was loping toward his scouts before the dust of her takeoff settled.
They had not been idle, and he came upon them long before he reached the base of the rocky outcropping the gwythaint had indicated. Twelve men on horseback, armed to the teeth, picked lightly through the edge of the trees. The prince, hidden in the shadows, recognized their leader and hailed him, "Aled, son of Alun!"
As one the men reigned up their horses, two bowmen instinctively knocking arrows and training their bows toward him. Aled searched the trees, startled. "Who goes there?"
Stepping into the light, Gwydion raised his hands toward the party, and the bowmen lowered their weapons hastily. "Lord Gwydion!" Aled saluted his leader in evident relief. "Belin be praised. We have been watching for your return for over a sennight."
"It seems I return almost too late," Gwydion said, with a rueful smile. "But all may still be set right, if fate smiles upon us."
Aled, with the direct efficiency of a trained warrior, informed him briefly of the situation at hand. The enemy, he gathered, was still gathering and organizing. The Horned King, arrogant in his power, paraded among the front lines. The attack did not seem imminent. There was time, then, to find Hen Wen if he moved swiftly, Gwydion thought, hope stirring warmly within him.
Quickly he explained his own errand, pressing his need for urgency. Three of the men instantly offered their mounts and he chose the swiftest, ordering the men to return to the valley's edge and keep watch over the enemy's every move.
Gwydion swung into the saddle, a welcome relief after so many days on foot, and turned the horse east into the hills. He searched the sky for the black speck and finally found it hovering not far ahead. With a glad sense of purpose he bent low over the horse's neck and urged it to greater speed.
A few furlongs into the woods, movement in the underbrush to his right caught his eye. Ever mindful of enemy scouts, he reigned in his mount sharply; the horse danced on its hind legs for a moment and wheeled toward a hickory thicket, then backed up and nearly sat down on its haunches as a large white pig burst from the brush and rushed at them. Gwydion heard the horse snort an expression of indignation, and dismounted with a bark of laughter as the pig launched herself at his knees.
Hen Wen was squealing with joy, her welcome so frenzied that even his new wisdom found her incoherent. Gwydion spoke soothingly, trying in vain to lay hands on her head; she was wriggling and prancing like a fawning puppy. Finally she sat as though exhausted, and her squeals gave way to a series of mutterings and grunts that formed themselves into words in his mind.
Forgive me, the pig said, giving him an adoring look from under her long white lashes. I sensed it was you, but I could not believe it until I saw.
I could not be offended by such a welcome, Gwydion told her, smiling. But indeed I have not the time for celebrations as yet. My need is great. The enemy is already upon us.
The pig shuddered, fear ringing her dark eyes with white. He searches for me.
Why? Gwydion stroked her gently under her bristled chin. What does he want with you?
She was silent, brooding anxiously, and Gwydion waited, impatience warring with compassion. The poor creature had never asked to bear the burden she did. Oracles had driven more than one human mad; that a simple animal should have to be subject to their whimsies was a baffling and, he thought, unfeeling trick of the gods.
Silence,the pig answered finally. He would silence me.
Why?Gwydion asked again. What do you know? - then remembered abruptly that the pig knew a great deal, and was liable to begin listing it all in an innocently literal fashion. What do you know that threatens him? he amended hastily.
She shuddered again, drooping her long head so that her snout pushed into the leaf mould underfoot. His name.
His name. Gwydion straightened, comprehension dawning. The Horned King had ever been the Horned King only, his identity shrouded in mystery behind the skull mask.
Hen Wen still drooped dejectedly, and made no sound, but her voice…was it her voice?... still spoke in his mind, clearer than before and strangely like a woman's, throaty and ethereal. See evil for what it is. Name it by its true name.
He closed his eyes, listening inward. Give me the name.
Silence. The pig shuddered as though in revulsion, then was still, and the ugly word broke upon his mind like a wave of nausea; he wanted to retch at the sound. Hen Wen lay down in the leaves, exhausted. I will wait here, she said decidedly. All speed to you, Gwydion.
He bowed to her and she nodded her head at him wearily, then laid it upon her forelegs.
On horseback once more, Gwydion started back toward the castle and the enemy, wondering in the back of his mind who the travelers were that Hen had left to come to him and whether they had any idea of her abilities. He scanned the sky for the gwythaint and saw it wheeling overhead; it cried to him wildly from the treetops.
The Horned King rides! Haste, make haste!
Somewhere in the hills, a hunting horn sounded amid the baying of hounds – a sound he had heard many times in his life, yet one that always raised the hair on the back of his neck. Gwynn also rode the hills, and someone's blood would be spilt ere long.
Spurring his steed to a gallop, he followed the black bird in a wild path, careening over bramble and brook. His heart raced; the smoldering fury of battle rage sparking within him and fanning into flame, surging through his veins like strong wine.
The gwythaint shrieked and dived sharply just ahead, and the screams of horses and what sounded like children rent the air. Through the trees Gwydion made out confused shapes; figures running, horses plunging, and then the thing he sought – the hulking silhouette of an antlered man. Its back was to him, its sword raised as though to strike.
The prince flung himself from his horse's back and landed running toward his enemy, leaping through the thick brush. Just as he broke through the tangle of trees between them there was a brilliant flash of light from somewhere beyond the Horned King.
The great figure staggered backwards.
The prince of Don gathered his breath, as the horn of Gwynn blared a deafening blast through the trees.