A re-telling drawn from the Mabinogion

It was back in the time in Britain when there were many rulers. One of them was Math son of Mathonwy who held numerous cantrefs in the old lands of Gwynedd. He was a fierce king and a powerful sorcerer. He had a wand so ancient that the wood was nameless to the race of men.

His shoulders were broader than the widest horn-span of a bull. His voice was like the bellow of a bull and his auburn hair grew thick into his great beard. This was the way they made the kings in Wales long ago.

Math son of Mathonwy was a restless man and could only bear the peacetime life at his court in Arfon if he had a lap-virgin always on hand who would hold his feet at all times and comfort him to tranquillity. In battle he was ruthless and mighty. However, when in his fortress Math spent his time feasting and dispensing hard, fair justice, with his feet up.

Now of the raid to which he was called to leave Arfon I will not tell, since I have to cut the cloth of the story to fit the pages. Save to say that Math son of Mathonwy was lured away by his two nephews to plunder some pigs from another king. He left his beloved lap-virgin Goewin alone with her ladies. Each day she looked out across the stone bordered fields and uncleared forests, awaiting his return.

These two nephews were called Gilfaethwy and Gwydion. Young and rangy, like two unbroken moorland colts they were, with a kind of jumpy wildness in their eyes. They took their uncle off on a bloody rampage across the little stone bridges, down the hidden trackways and over the moody mountains to the kingdom of Dyfed.

It was the return that showed the stark and wicked natures of these two lordlings. For Gilfaethwy’s thoughts had long been blowing on the embers of a kindled lust for his uncle’s lap-virgin Goewin. Together they had contrived the whole campaign, which ended in nothing more than futile slaughter. Such is the way of youth. Nevertheless, the nephews arrived back at Arfon unwashed, the day before their uncle Math son of Mathonwy. The stink of blood was on their furs, on their faces and on the poles of their spears.

Gilfaethwy dismounted in the muddy courtyard and ran to the chamber where Goewin was keeping lookout. Bursting in, Gilfaethwy and Gwydion beat the screaming women out of the room with the flat tangs of their stained swords. All except for Goewin. Gilfaethwy shrove the robes of the lap-virgin with a single tear of his hands. He threw her naked on the bed and together both nephews raped Goewin, whose screams were joined by the women locked outside. We will turn our faces away from the terror of this scene until the next morning…

…When Math son of Mathonwy rode into his fortress tired from his journey.

He tethered his horse. Then he washed and he oiled his auburn beard. He was so weary that he did not notice the women standing by in the shadows, slowly wringing their hands. At last, his ablutions done, he called for Goewin, so that he could rest his feet.

She approached him as pale and cold as melt-water in March. She could not meet his gaze and her shoulders shivered. She spoke in coughing sighs and told him she could not lay her lap open for his comfort. ‘Lord, you must look for another virgin. I am now a woman.’

The eyes of Math son of Mathonwy were amber and his fury glowed in them steady and clear. With one great fist he drew her close to him and demanded why she had betrayed his trust. Goewin’s anguish broke before him like a dropped clay vessel. ‘It was your sister’s son’s lord. They dishonoured both you and me for they raped me on your bed. I was not silent. The women and the guards heard everything.’

Math threw his arms wide and bellowed like a bull for the two youths. They came to him from the where they had been skulking in far corners of the fortress. Halting, furtive and cringing they confessed their crime, as Math stood over them, dark as the peak of Mynnydd Mawr when it blocks sunlight from the pastures. At last he took Goewin’s small hand in his own and told the whole court that he would marry her to restore her honour and give her power across all his cantrefs.

If Gilfaethwy and Gwydion thought there was an end to it all they were mistaken. For next Math son of Mythonwy drew forth the wand of ancient nameless wood. When he spoke it was like rocks rolling down the face of Mynnydd Mawr. ‘You have been as beasts and beasts you shall become.’

He struck his dark wand on Gilfaethwy’s head. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘You shall go into a stag.’ And there, an antlered red stag stood in front of him in the place of the first nephew.

He then seized Gwydion and clouted him with the wand. ‘And you,’ he said. ‘You shall go into a hind.’ At once a meek, light stepping, red hind stood next to the stag.

‘Since you have been a pair in this crime I will send you off as a pair. You shall run into the wild forest and you shall breed as beasts.’ Math’s anger was slow but sure. ‘Go now and return in a year.’

The stag and the hind went off and ate the young leaves and rutted in the glades far from men.

When the next spring came there was a morning when the guards set up a great clamour on the walls of the fortress. The dogs all sprang up barking and howling. Math son of Mathonwy was distressed. For a year he had had no lap-virgin to soothe him. ‘What is it?’ He cried.

A young man ran outside and then returned breathless. ‘My lord there is a stag and a hind coming to the gates, with a young fawn stepping behind the two.’

Math rose and threw on his cloak. His beard was wild. He stood in the gateway, like a tree blocking the way. ‘Bring me that fawn,’ he said, with a voice like logs rolled across cobbles. He raised his black wand. The young fawn became a boy with auburn hair. ‘I will call him Hyddwn and I will foster him to a wealthy man. You will never see your son again.’

Math walked out from under the arch of his gates. ‘You who have been a hind and has known the thrusting of your stag mate – you will go into a wild boar. And you who have been a stag and thrust against your hind – you will go into a wild sow.’ Sure enough, when Math son of Mathonwy lowered his wand there stood a black-coated and tusked boar next to a chestnut coloured sow.

‘Away now’ he said, ‘Into the far places and breed together. Come back in a year.’

The boar and the sow ran off into the trees. They snouted for worms and coupled in muddy wallows.

On a morning the next spring Math son of Mythonwy was pacing in his chamber. He was pulling at his hair and fretting for he still had no lap-virgin to caress his feet and calm the fires in his blood. He paused when he heard all the dogs in the fortress suddenly breaking into a howling, barking chorus. Then he heard his men all rattling their shields and spears. Math went outside wearing only his shirt. His beard was wild. ‘What now?’ he asked.

‘A large boar and a sow are trotting towards the walls lord,’ replied one of his soldiers. ‘And behind them is one striped piglet.’

Math ordered his gates to be opened. He stood under the lintel and his voice was like a tree falling across bracken. ‘Fetch me that piglet.’ It squealed and struggled but when Math laid his dark wand on its brow it became a sturdy boy with auburn hair. ‘Well, I will take this boy and see that he is fostered to a generous man.’ He turned to the boar and the sow. ‘I will call him Hychdwn and you will never see him again.’ There was a look almost of anguish in the eyes of the two animals. But if they thought their trial was at an end they were mistaken. ‘As for you,’ roared Math son of Mathonwy, ‘Stand still.’ He walked out into the pasture and held his wand between them. ‘Let me see…you who are a boar will go into a silver she-wolf. You who were a sow will go into a grey wolf.’ In an instant they were transformed.

‘Off now up into the mountains and breed with each other. Return to my walls in a year.’ The two wolves loped quickly away to the heights where the forest does not climb.

In the crags and coombs the wolves hunted for hares. Under the full moon they yipped and trembled against each other in manner of mating dogs.

The next spring there came one bright morning when the fortress was quiet. All except for Math who was raging as if with a fever, for he still had no lap-virgin to be tender to his feet. However, he was distracted by the cries of his men on the battlements. Then all the dogs awoke and joined in, gnashing and leaping. The men rang their swords on their shields.

‘What’s up?’ asked Math son of Mythonwy.

‘I’ll go and see,’ replied the old man who was washing the floor. In a while he returned wheezing. ‘Two wolves are waiting in the shadow of your walls lord. And with them is a grey wolf pup, running between their legs.’

Math son of Mathonwy took up his dark wand of nameless wood and hurried outside. He threw the open gates and stood in archway, tearing at his thick hair. His voice was like the crashing of a ship on sharp rocks. His beard was wild. ‘So you have returned again. Guards fetch me that cub.’ He touched the little wolf with his wand and it became a fair-faced boy with auburn hair. ‘I have the name Bleiddwn ready for him. I will foster him to a wise man and you will never see him again.’

Math walked up and down in front of the slinking wolves. Then he raised his black wand again. ‘The pair of you have wronged me and also Goewin who is dear to me, but you have served your sentence.’ He struck each of them so that Gilfaethwy and Gwidion returned to their rightful bodies. Then he fixed them with his amber stare. ‘It is a terrible disgrace that each of you has had children by the other and you will carry that forever.’ Math son of Mathonwy then called for the women to draw a bath. ‘Wash their heads and dress them,’ he said.

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