I WOULD LOVE TO BE ABLE TO tell you when this dragon’s tale was first whispered from mouth to ear. However, its tail was lost long, long ago in a landscape that was submerged under the dunes of the sands of time. We do divine, though, from the embroidery silks threaded through its weave, that it was spun in an age when the same moon we look up to today was shining down, silvering our seas, and that it was also the ancient days of yore when both treasure and pleasure were measured by meaning and a man’s dreams were valued more than gold.
Thus, while there are some who may argue that this story never existed in recorded history, there are others who perceive that there is far more to human existence than can be perceived by the naked eye. Those far-sighted seers know that the only difference between history and mythology is that myths, like this one, are true…and so, if you are sitting comfortably, we can begin.
We join our hero and heroine, Gwyddion and Arianrhod, just as the sun, in its spiralling course, is reaching the dark centre of the womb of the galaxy, intent on casting its warmth and beneficence on this seed bed of the celestial creatrix before setting out to return to us on Earth once more.
They are travelling in a party of four that has been riding since dawn to reach White Lake and the castle of Gwyddion’s uncle, the great sage Math.
The few local folks who had been lucky enough to see the Children of Don passing between the snowy banks of Cinnamon Lane, up the steep and darkly-canopied Wellhouse Lane and then along Paradise Lane just below Glastonbury Tor, were awed by the sheer beauty and opulence of the rich, colourful silks that the riders wore and the shining gold of their ornaments and headdresses.
Their eyes widened at the sight of the damask gold cloths draping the girths of the horses, not to mention their manes and tails plaited with red ribbons and threaded with beads and crystals, and their golden bridles, jingling like sleigh bells, and their golden face guards engraved with magical symbols.
Overhead, they were being followed by a black, chevron-shaped aerial escort of a murmuration of chattering starlings.
But now, as we meet the party, it is later and the purpled shadows of evening are already drawing their curtains for the day.
Glistening haloes of mist are steaming from the horses’ nostrils, as their hooves crunch and crack on the freshly-driven snow along a pathway meandering through a refreshingly aromatic, evergreen pine forest.
The stars are rising, one by one, and circling like silver sequined dancers in a vast, cavernous, domed ballroom. Millions of fire-flies, like tiny lamp-lighters, are illuminating the glistening tree boughs that look as if they have been dusted with icing sugar.
And so it was, just as they were nearing the end of their journey, that Gwyddion looked over, not for the first time, at his lovely companion. His heart – as ever – was surging to see how she always sat so high and proud in the saddle; how her long, snowy neck was the envy of swans; how her elegantly shaped arms held the reins so gracefully; and how her tresses were spun up into spiralling piles of glossy golden curls that created a natural crown on her head.
“You should marry me, Arianrhod,” he said, a little more gruffly than he meant to.
The emotion welling up from the depths of his heart felt like a hand squeezing his throat.
But Arianrhod just tossed her head and laughed, and Gwyddion thought, as his heart sank: “It’s extraordinary how what sounds just like a tinkle of tiny bells can cut a person to the quick.”
“Don’t be silly, Gwyddion,” she replied, turning her sparkling coppery cats’ eyes towards him and wrinkling her small button nose.
“Sisters don’t marry brothers. And virgins don’t marry or love men,” she said.
There was a barely audible gasp behind them.
It was from Mairwen. The teenager turned her knowing face towards Arianrhod’s cousin Tegwen, who was riding alongside her, and she twisted it into a contorted grimace which expressed far more than she ever could in words.
Tegwen just smiled knowingly. She was older than both Arianrhod and Mairwen, and so they often treated her like an aunt. Nobody was quite sure of her age, but she was certainly old enough and wise enough to know not to dispense advice before it was asked for.
As her godmother, Tegwen had been acting as Mairwen’s guardian ever since her parents had been swept out to sea one wild winter’s night 12 years ago, never to be seen or heard of again.
Gwyddion heard Mairwen’s barely-stifled utterance and he turned in his saddle to wink at her, whereupon she instantly forgot all her manners and stuck out her tongue, making him grin.
But when he turned back, his expression fell back again into the deep, hollowed shadows that had been darkened by the stain of Arianrhod’s words.
It was not just the casual style of her rejection that pained him, he realised. It was the misunderstanding that was causing it. It was such a tangled knot that was based on a lie. But the lie had been holding sway in all their lives for so long now that there was no-one alive who knew how to untangle its threads without causing even more pain to all con-cerned.
However, he was not going to give up.
“I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want the love of a good man?” he asked her. “Why would you not want any children?”
“Because I prefer being a virgin,” she replied crisply. “I am quite famous, don’t you know, for my virginity? All the girls in the village look up to me for my purity, for my innocence of the touch of a man, and some even have pictures of me on their walls.”
Gwyddion was painfully aware of this new fashion that had come into being, ever since men had discovered their role in the making of babies.
He inwardly bemoaned this change in societal mores; it had not been the ways of the Old Tribes. Then, a woman had complete dominion over her own body, as much as a queen has total sovereignty over her own land. She could choose to lie with whomever she pleased without it being considered anyone’s business but her own. But ever since he found out his contribution to the whole affair, the male of the species now insisted on marrying only brides who had never been tainted with another man’s seed, so that he could ensure that any offspring from the match were positively his own.
With his advanced knowledge in the esoteric Mysteries, Gwyddion was only too aware of how the word ‘virgin’ had been misunderstood and was now being flung around and misused and abused as much as a woman who has been taken against her will. What had started off quite innocently, with all the very best of intentions, had led to the rape of the Divine Feminine. However, to appraise Arianrhod of such would entail giving her a teaching for which she was not yet sufficiently evolved and ready, and that would mean breaking the rules of his craft.
Adding to his discomfort was the knowledge that he and Arianrhod were twin souls that incarnated again and again to share each other’s paths through life. He had seen their entwined destinies written in the stars. He just wished – and not for the first time – that it wasn’t such a tortuous business.
“Anyway,” Arianrhod went on, blithely insensitive to how she had managed to both wound him personally and challenge his integrity as a magician at the same time, “it’s too late now. It was actually you who suggested that I offer my services to Math because he needs a virgin to replace his footholder.”
Gwyddion’s face instantly fell as darkly as the blackening skies. Arianrhod had touched a nerve. In those days, it was the custom for a ruler to sit with his feet in the lap of a virgin whenever he held court. Gwyddion’s discomfort stemmed from the knowledge that he had not been entirely innocent in the matter of why Math needed a replacement for his former footholder.
“Yes, quite right,” he muttered, almost under his breath, as they rounded a corner.
The tall pine trees were no longer blocking their view of the splendid Milky Way; they called it the Way of the Heavenly Cow and now one could see why. It was as though waterfalls of creamy rich milk were streaming from the cow’s udders in the stars and splashing down into the huge, near-frozen lake.
“White Lake!” Mairwen exclaimed excitedly. “We’re nearly there.”
Sure enough, the pointed roofs of Math’s abode soon appeared, silhouetted black against the stars, and a pregnant full moon was rising high above them.
So, it wasn’t much longer before their horses’ hooves came clattering into the castle’s courtyard and they could smell delicious aromas of roasting chestnuts, spiced mulling wine and baking bread emanating from the thatch-roofed kitchen.
Red and white mushrooms and snow-sprinkled pine cones hung down from the branches of the red-berried holly trees dotted around the castle’s crimson walls, which were hugged by dark green ivy.
A couple of stable boys ran forward to help them dismount.
Then, Gwyddion’s two brothers appeared under the boughs of white-berried mistletoe which adorned the oak frame of the arched doorway, waving their welcome.
Gwyddion’s heart rose to see Govannon and Gilvaethwy there, although he couldn’t help thinking that they each, in their different ways, could give him as much trouble as Arianrhod, on occasion.
The only physical characteristics that the three brothers shared were a pair of bright, almond-shaped, peat-black eyes and a pair of elfin-like horns that were barely visible through their thick, dark brown, shoulder-length hair. Otherwise, they were very different.
Gwyddion was classically handsome, slim and agile, and his fiercely intelligent eyes sparkled with the mercurial quicksilver of merriment and play.
Govannon, on the other hand, was a thick-set giant of a man with strong, muscly arms who, in his stolid and stoic nature, was as firmly earthbound as the iron he hammered into shape at his forge in Cinnamon Lane.
The third brother, Gilvaethwy, was a frailer-looking creature whose weak, dissolute face betrayed the fact that he had no firm course in life other than the satisfaction of his own desires. He might have been considered handsome if his nose had not been just that tiny bit too narrow and elongated, and his hard, brown eyes had not been set a smidgen too closely together.
Gilvaethwy stepped forward with a bow and offered Mairwen his arm. She accepted with a giggle and a flounce of her auburn curls and then, with Tegwen’s arm comfortably threaded through Govannon’s, the four entered the castle.
Gwyddion, though, turned and started to wander off.
Arianrhod called out to him: “Where are you going, brother?”
He swung round instantly at the sound of her voice. She could always make him turn on a sixpence, he thought, as if she had a leash around his neck.
“I thought I’d just take a walk down to the lake,” he replied, “give my legs a bit of a stretch after the long ride.”
Arianrhod’s nose twitched. She sensed, as she so often had during her long relationship with this wily wizard, that magic was afoot and that something might be conjured up that would be to her benefit.
“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll come with you.”
She ran to catch up with him and then the two walked, hand in hand, down to the near-frozen White Lake.
Upon reaching the shore, they instinctively headed, like a pair of homing pigeons, to a secret place where they would often play as children. There, the clay-packed soil had sunk so low as to form a small hollow between the banks of the pine forest. The roots of the ancient trees were visible, poking through the earth and twisting together in extraordinary contortions. Under the illusory glow of moonlight, they would often appear as the white contorted faces and tangled limbs of creatures long departed from this realm.
They stopped there, then looked up to admire the full moon.
Gwyddion turned her to face him and he placed his hands on either side of her tiny waist, almost spanning it entirely, and pulled her gently towards him.
“I’ve known you all your life, Arianrhod,” he said gently.
She could feel his hot breath on her cheeks.
“I am the best husband for you,” he said. “You know that I love you through and through. You would always be able to trust me.”
Those words were like a love song from long, long ago. They were causing every cell in her body to yearn to surrender and fall into his arms. But their seductive force was in stark conflict with the warning signals that were coming from her mind, and she fell into confusion.
She needed space to think because, as ever, she was finding it difficult to get her words to join up in a straight line when she was in such close proximity to Gwyddion.
Truth be told, she felt that she had never been more content since becoming a virgin. She thought it was quite the best role she’d ever had. She was respected and admired by so many for her forebearance and her chastity. Her quasi-divine froideur put her at one remove from regular folk and so they were in awe of her, thus placing a convenient wall between herself and those she considered to be the hoi-polloi, the riff-raff.
“Those girls in the village will eventually marry some thick-headed clout,” she thought, “and they will no doubt tolerate their clumsy fumblings under the blankets at nights. But I will always be their first love.”
Gwyddion, however, was not going to give up easily.
“You deserve someone who will love you for who you really are, not who you appear to be,” he said. “You warrant a husband who will stay with you forever, through thick and thin, warts and all.”
“Warts!” Arianrhod exclaimed, jumping back, as startled as a roe caught in a thicket that such an ugly idea had been introduced into such an idyllic setting.
“What warts? I don’t have any warts.”
“It’s just an expression,” Gywddion tried to reassure her. “It just means faults.”
“But I don’t have faults either!” she replied crossly. “What do you mean by that? Which faults?”
“Everyone has faults,” Gwyddion replied gently. “It’s a natural part of the human condition. It is why we are here on Earth, to learn from our faults and mistakes. Otherwise, we cannot evolve.”
Arianrhod stared at him in horror at the very thought. His words made her flesh creep. It occurred to her that there was something quite insanitary about such people in intimate congress with one another and examining and even loving each other’s faults. She was rendered absolutely dumbstruck.
Suddenly, Gwyddion reached up to the Way of the White Cow and appeared to grab a handful of stars. Then he placed them in a dancing circle around her swan-white, velvet throat.
It broke the mood, and she laughed with joy at such an extraordinary necklace, glittering with all the colours of the rainbow, just like real stars. Each one was sounding its own melodic tone and creating an enchanting harmony of the spheres.
Arianrhod clutched at the gift on her throat in utter delight. However, at the same time, she was more than familiar with the nature of the illusions of her magician brother – enough to know that the sparkling, singing, orbiting orbs would soon have to return to the stardust from whence they came.
So she quickly said: “That’s so wonderful! Thank you! But we must go back to the castle now! I can’t wait to show the others!”
And with that she turned and went to run back the way they had come.
“I’ll see you there later,” Gwyddion called after her fast-retreating form, the disappointment weighing down his voice like lead.
He slowly wandered back to the edge of the lake. There, he sank down on a fallen pine trunk. He needed time to gather himself together again and to re-examine the nub of the problem between them.
He realised that Arianrhod needed to see pure innocence beaming back at her whenever she gazed into the looking glass, and he had found that pure innocence strangely attractive, at times – so much so that he had gone along with it, so as to win her favours. He also knew that the childlike visage she saw in her mirror was a mirage – a sort of ghost from a Never-Never Land that she was lost in – and that to take advantage of it would be extremely remiss. However, he wasn’t perfect. After all, he was only human.
“What good was all that training in magic,” he was thinking to himself, “if my ethics preclude me from making the woman I love return the favour? I can command the stars from the skies to decorate her throat but I cannot command her love for me.”
It was then that he sensed he was at some kind of crossroads in his life. He was always intent on being eternally faithful to the one he knew was his twin soul; he could hardly countenance the thought of giving up on her. Yet at the same time, he was uncertain how long he could continue trying to rescue such a scorpion when, at each attempt, it appeared to be intent on stinging him to death.
Suddenly, he sensed a movement from the oak tree behind him. He turned to see a flash of white antler. He gasped and almost jumped in delight. But he managed to restrain himself and stood up very slowly, not wanting to startle away such great good fortune.
It was the White Hart – such a magnificent beast, standing tall and proud. Its head was crowned with a wreath of oak leaves and red-berried holly, and the full moon was framed between its huge, white, branching antlers. It opened its mouth, and said:
“Solstice greetings and blessings to you, Dragon Whisperer.”
Gwyddion looked away, so as to avoid his gaze directly piercing its eyes. He longed for a conversation – no, he corrected himself, an audience – with the White Hart. But he also knew it was the height of bad manners to stare directly at it.
So he sat down again on the log and closed his eyes, and it wasn’t long before he began to slip into a liminal space between the worlds; one where he knew it would be easier to communicate with the stag away from any prying ears.
Eventually, he was satisfied that he made the connection and he said:
“Lord of the Animals, I am most grateful to you for your blessings of the Winter Solstice, and for gracing me with your presence.”
The White Hart just nodded.
Gwyddion went on:
“I know Herne the Hunter has sent you to prevent me from breaking a taboo and so please give him my utmost thanks.”
The antlered emissary snorted its agreement.
“But I need your help,” he continued. “We are moving into the times of the New Ways. The taboos of the Old Ways are being smashed to pieces and Arianrhod is an unwitting victim of all that, as is our relationship. So please, would you kindly give my message to the great Herne? I will happily respect and honor the taboo that prevents me from giving too much sunlight to a seed before it has had enough time to germinate in the dark. But at the same time, I don’t believe that I am subject to another taboo which has only come about through a misunderstanding and a lie.”
Suddenly, all his words and thoughts ceased … the whirrings of his normally quicksilver mind were as frozen as the lake before him.
Then the White Hart cleared its throat to reply.
“You are quite correct,” it said, “although you have not always been so. There have been occasions, in the past, when your clever, lawyerly mind has interpreted the rules to suit yourself, and this has caused chaos and heartache to others. And yet you seem now to be learning from your mistakes. This is good progress and Herne will be pleased when he hears of it.”
Gwyddion sighed, as much with relief as heartache.
But the White Hart had more to say: “However, for you to unravel the knots created by the unjust taboo Arianrhod is suffering under, and right the wrongs it has caused, would be a huge, heroic challenge. It would be such a tortuous, serpentine path in which you would risk losing everything that no-one would think any the less of you if you just decided to by-pass it for another road. You could just take a regular good woman for yourself, who will placidly go along with giving you the family and the happy life you desire. There are plenty of such women who would consider themselves the most fortunate of brides to have you waiting for them at the altar.”
Gwyddion instantly shook his head.
“No,” he said firmly, under his breath.
“In that case,” the White Hart replied, “I will issue you the challenge now on behalf of Herne the Hunter, and his blessings will be on the whole enterprise.”
And with that, the stag stepped back behind the oak, and was gone.
Gwyddion sat for a good long while after that, lost in deep thought about all that had just transpired.
Then he stood up and began to make his way slowly back to the castle.
ARIANRHOD WAS WAY AHEAD of him, so determined had she been to reach the rest of the company and bask in their widespread admiration of her magical necklace before it vanished into thin air. And so, she was quite breathless when she arrived in the blazing warmth of the holly and ivy-bedecked hall. At its centre, a huge wrought-iron brazier of burning pine logs were slowly disgorging their aromatic gum straight into the fire, like slow-moving lava, and sending up a blue, intoxicating haze of impenetrable smoke.
She pushed her way through the crowds of local folk before, eventually, she saw Math ensconced on his enormous, oaken-carved throne and supported on one side by the High Druid, Pen Draco and his white-robed monks, and on the other by Govannon, Gilvaethwy, Tegwen and Mairwen.
Math was a colossal mountain bear of a man, so much so that the old wives would mutter that it must have been from where his nephew Govannon inherited his huge stature, and that they were both throw backs to a race of giants they believed used to live on the Earth.
But it was not just his great stature that made Math such an overarching and impressive figure. He was one of the wisest sages in all the land and had been so for as long as anyone could remember – and even before that. He was the Keeper of the Sovereignty and the Dominion through The Three Great Enchantments of the Isles of Britain, and the only person he ever shared those secret teachings with was his nephew, Gwyddion.
The great sage was clad in a thickly-woven crimson robe that was lined and trimmed around the cuffs with the fur of a white polar bear. His white, wavy hair had reached his waist many decades ago and his glossy white plaited beard almost touched his knees. His eyes, which had once been glittering sapphires, were now faded to pale duck egg blue and yet they twinkled with a compassion that had developed from all that this most ancient of ancients had witnessed and passed through.
“Welcome, Arianrhod,” he said, smiling and beckoning her forward. “It’s a pleasure to see you again and, my, what a beautiful necklace you’re wearing!”
Arianrhod’s hand flew coyly to her delicate white swan velvet throat as she stepped closer to him.
Math continued: “You haven’t been here for many years. I hear you’re a virgin now?”
“Indeed, uncle,” she replied. “And I hear that you’re in need of a foot holder.”
His wizened eyes slowly scanned her, from head to foot.
He then picked up his ash wand and stood up.
“So, you can promise that you’re a virgin, my dear?” he asked.
Arianrhod drew herself up as tall as she could reach.
“I am as pure as the freshly-driven snow,” she retorted. “I am innocent of the touch of a man, a true virgin and a quite famous one at that.”
The blazing pine log fire suddenly began whistling and hissing and spitting. Math walked towards it and then he threw his ash wand up towards the oak rafters while muttering strange-sounding incantations. It turned into twin wriggling serpents in midair. By the time the pair of snakes had fallen to the meadowsweet-strewn floor, they had formed into two interlocking circles.
“My dear,” Math instructed Arianrhod. “Step over the snakes and if you are a virgin, I shall know it instantly.”
Arianrhod thought she heard something in his tone and she hesitated. She wondered briefly about “standing on ceremony”. She could insist that her fame was so widespread that it would be an insult to put her through such a public audition. But then, when she looked around at all the curious faces now encircling her, she realised she had no choice.
So, she walked forwards, and stepped over the wand … and lo and behold! It was barely perceptible in the dim light but a tiny babe suddenly dropped down from somewhere within her skirts. The infant instantly grew into a flaxen-haired toddler who began gleefully running round the hall.
Arianrhod recoiled in horror. Her pale face suffused with red blushes and her eyes filled with tears.
She realised that she was panicking, but not knowing what else to do, she decided to make a dash for the door. Just as she reached it, Gwyddion was coming in from the other direction. The two collided and, just as they did, a further small, swaddled bundle popped out from beneath her gown.
Gwyddion bent down and picked up the new arrival.
When he stood up again, cradling the baby in his arms, his sister had already flown out of the door and was gone.
Soon, all that could be seen of her were the clouds of freshly-driven snow that her horse was kicking up along the path that ran past the near-frozen White Lake as she rode hard for the safety of the high walls of her own castle at Burrow Mump.
I hope you enjoyed that first chapter of The Dragon Whisperer’s Son. If you’d like to carry on with it, you can buy it as a paperback or get it for your Kindle or Ipad from Amazon all over the world.