The Ravens of the Rhondda

The Ravens of the Rhondda May 18, 2020

Photo by Tyler Quiring on Unsplash

There is a legend in the Rhondda Valley of Wales about a young shepherd named Gafan, whose flaming red hair matched his fiery pride. He was quick with the sling and keen with his knife blade, eager to defend his flocks or his name if either came under attack. Yet more importantly still, he had the clarity of soul and presence of mind to encounter beings of the higher realms who recognized his warrior’s heart and sought to test him, sometimes for the love of him, and sometimes for the death of him.

One day as he was tending his sheep, Gafan noticed that some of them had strayed beneath the slope of a hill. As he went down the slope after them, he came face to face with a towering warrior, unearthly in his build, with eyes hard in his head, like dark, bitter glass. The warrior pulled out his sword, hammered out of black steel, and made a feint stroke. The tremendous “whoosh” of the weapon slicing through the air stirred up such a wind across the valley, the petals from every wildflower were blown away. It seemed to whisper things to Gafan’s very soul, things that no man could utter.

“Get back, young chattel,” the great man growled. “Go back from whence you came, between the thatched roof and the thatched roof of your sorry dwelling, and leave this hill of the enchanted to those worthy of it.”

“I will leave, and with pleasure, since you spurn all rightly form of hospitality,” the youth conceded, “but only with my sheep in tow.” He looked past the warrior and saw that his flock was entering a shadowy tunnel beneath the hill, one by one with heads held aloft, as if under a spell.

“They are your sheep no longer,” the warrior declared. “My mistress, the Lady Mara of the Underworld, has claimed them for her festival meal.”

“But they are mine by right, and I will not surrender them to anyone without their still meeting mine. This is my valley as much as it is hers.”

“What foolishness is this?” the dark-eyed one cackled. “Would you challenge this enchantment greater than yourself, brazen mortal?”

“I fear it not,” Gafan scoffed, “for I believe in the fitness of things, and that each of us, mortal or immortal, have our own due in this world and in all others. The Ancient Magic that determines such things is written within us all, and it shows the right to be on my side.”

“Then if you wish to fight, cur, go prepare yourself, and we will meet again in three days.” And so it was agreed by both parties.

Gafan had spoken bravely, but he knew that in reality he was out-matched and in need of counsel. So he traveled to the sacred spring where there dwelt a water nymph named Blodyn, for her spirit was formed of the flowers that floated there. She was fine of feature and fair of face, with wide blue eyes that reflected the stream and golden-white hair, blinding in its brilliance, even as the rays of the sun.

Yet the strength of her magic was failing her, and her face was growing more deathly pale with each passing day. But her told her of his troubles anyway, knowing that even if she might not be able to lend him aid she would at least be there to listen.

“You know I can do little to help you, Gafan, Son of Gwili,” she replied. “Mara’s jealousy will claim my life in a short while. She has laid a curse on me for daring to speak with a mortal. I am fading from this world. The darkness she brings to this valley will soon bring all creatures under its sway…and the first to be destroyed will be those who oppose her.”

“Surely there must be some way of defeating her,” Gafan insisted. “When this is done, you will be free from the curse.”

She shook her head. “Nothing can free me, but I will give what little I have left to bring about Mara’s end. But you must hear me, Gafan, for what this requires is a sacrifice from you, from me. You are bold, dear boy, and believe victory can be snatched from defeat by the stroke of a sword, as long as your arm swings true. But that are some battles that can only be won through defeat.”

“Give me what you have, sweet sister of the water, so that I might at least save my people and avenge your passing,” he pleaded.

Blodyn bent and plucked a radiant floating flower from the water’s surface. It was the last bright bloom of the fading spring, with bright red petals that reflected her once bright lips, now white and withered. She extended the flower to the shepherd and instructed, “When the battle is nigh and all seems hopeless, crush the flower. The fragrance will be too pure for evil to withstand.”

“I will do as you say,” the shepherd agreed, taking the bloom and placing it delicately in his pouch.

She looked up at him with sorrowful eyes. “But know this fight may be your last. You have taken your life in your hands and must crush it with your hands.”

Her words gave Gafan momentary pause as he came to understand the depths of the quest. No more would be fighting for what he was owed, no more would he be fighting for the pride of his name, or race, or rank, but instead he would offer himself up, as she was offering herself, empty, bled dry, an offering for the greater good.

“I am willing”, he affirmed at last. “Though I know the fear of it, for the first time, I am willing.”

“Fear is what makes heroes,” she told him. “It is the portal through which we all must pass.”

“I must ask one more favor of you.”

“Ask it,” she replied breathlessly.

“I have known you since I was very young, a little boy who sailed small wooden boats down this sacred stream. I whispered secrets to you and heard you laugh among the cattails. You showed me the water creatures and taught me there ways. You never changed.” He leaned forward towards the water and murmured, “But I have changed; I am a man now. Let me kiss you before our parting.”

“But I am not one with you,” she sighed. “I am a faerie’s child.”

“Love knows no such boundary,” he retorted. “And I will love you as I live, as I die, and after I am dead.”

Blodyn slowly emerged from the spring, her long blue gown cascading from her like a water fall. She knelt beside him, rested her weary head against his strong shoulder, and kissed him softly on the lips. She seemed real and yet unreal to him, a wisp of a dream, or pristine water about to slip through his fingers forever. “You are my heart”, he confessed. “I cannot let you go!” He kissed her again, passionately, drinking deeply of the purest water, yearning to take away her fear and protect her from all evil.

She pulled away from, and it seemed for a moment that her face had regained its old color, her eyes their old luster. But this was short-lived. The shadow of death returned with even more power, and her bones pressed against her skin, letting Gafan see for a moment what she would look like as a skeleton.

“You must let me go,” she whispered, slipping back into the water, “for I shall never see you more in these, our present forms. Go now, go…” A crystal tear slid down her cheek and fell into the stream, creating a streak of icy silver on the surface. She seemed translucent against the water, and gradually become one with it, and the last tear of sorrow that had pierced the depths.

Upon the third day, Gafan returned to the slope of the enchanted hill and Mara’s warriors, not one but three, were waiting for him. Gafan was quick on his feet, and managed to kill one of them with his knife, another with his sling. But the third took his great sword and buried it in the brave young man’s heart. Yet, as the sun had descended beneath the hills, Gafan, in his moment of death, crushed the flower he’d held it his hand. A scream went up from the hill, as Mara and her Dark Warrior were set aflame by the energy of their own darkness, and slowly, painfully burned alive.

Blodyn, meanwhile, had enacted her own sacrifice. She had felt the life draining from her as the flower was destroyed, and sensed the air growing thin. She lay upon the bank, gasping for the breath she could never regain. Then she felt her skin tearing and her bones splitting. Her ribs pierced through her body, and slivers of flesh and splinters of bone lay scattered, blood spurted from her mouth like a fountain, staining her fair face and stinging her dimming eyes.

She put her hand through the great, gaping wound in her heaving breast, reaching in past the ribs and lunges to where the heart was beating. She touched it, fingered it, grasped it. As if giving birth to her own death, she breathed in rhythm to that fluttering heart. Then with a great final effort, she tore it from her breast and cast it into the water, and her last breath turned to hanging fog and her eyes hardened like stones.

Blodyn’s soul flew off as a cream-colored seagull, screeching exultant in the sky. Gafan’s soul went off as a fox, into the woodlands with the right to rule through his wit. Mara and the dark-warrior’s souls flew away as ravens, evil-eyed and eager for revenge. During the first night, they devoured Blodyn’s flesh, and the sacred spring ran crimson with her blood. For days afterwards children of the valley played with her shattered bones as if they were shells and her torn hair as if it was water-weed.

The ravens would also go on to torment the fox, attacking him in the forests, turning the other animals against him, for they knew that it was fitting that the fox should destroy their race one day, once and for all. But he was too wily for them, and he prospered, and battled, and ruled.

And so it is that the ravens were born to vengeance, and the foxes born to boldness, and the seagulls born to the pain of lost love, as their cries echo along the shoreline with every setting sun.

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