Chapter four: Culhwch's Quest
It as early afternoon, when all of Arthur's warriors had gathered under the great dome of the Round table feasting hall. Seated in the rebuilt wooden bleachers of the former amphitheater. Both the Centurions- the foot soldiers- and the Cataphracts- mounted Calvary- were seated, side-by-side with the archery maidens and shield maidens of the Pendragon warriors. There proud men and women feasted and drank the food and ale set on the raised tables before them, the rich reward for serving both Britannia, and their great lord. On the amphitheater floor sat Arthur and Gwen upon their wooden thrones, gazing at the uncertain Prince Culhwch as he entered the feasting hall.
Looking around at the assembled warriors, Culhwch was thrown off by the sense of... egalitarianism that seemed to pervade Duke Ambrosius's court. While he was refreshing himself in the Roman baths, one of the Cataphracts had told him he had started his career as a pig-slopper, but had worked his way up to a mounted soldier through his own talent and merit. The prince had heard Ambrosius didn't have a proper sense of the distinction between master and servant, and now he could see this first hand.
Staring ahead at the masked and armored figure of Arthur, Culhwch was impressed with the aura of mystery that surrounded the mysterious battle lord. He was said to be Duke Ambrosius's greatest general, and commander of his military forces, but nobody knew who he was, or where he had come from. There were many rumors surrounding the legendary hero. The prince had hoped to stand before Ambrosius himself when he arrived here, but the Great Lord was nowhere to be found. Still, talking to Arthur and Lady Gwen, his second-in-command, gave Culwhich the chance to present his plea to Arthur and his warriors. Taking a breath, he raised his head to address the assemblage.
"Honorable Pendragon warriors... noble cousin... " The prince spoke, addressing Arthur as a kinsman to emphasize his point, even though they weren't related. "... I have come to all of you, to ask for your aid, in a most dire situation. I need your help in a most perilous quest."
"Honorable Prince Culhwch, you are most welcome here to Caerleon." Arthur inclined his head, greeting their guest. "Please, let us know what it is we can do to assist you."
"Noble warriors, I... Culhwch of Rehged, seek your aid in rescuing the maiden I love from a dire fate." The prince began, looking around at the assembly. "Some time ago, my father remarried a widowed queen from a neighboring kingdom. My new stepmother had a daughter, who is a beautiful maiden, and tried to arrange a marriage between her daughter and myself." Culhwch shook his head. "I protested that I was unworthy of her daughter, but she was so angered by my refusal, that she cursed me to marry a giant's daughter."
"Och, cursed by his stepmam!" Edyrful, who was sitting the bleachers, whispered to her brother. "So sad... stepmothers can be that way. I feel sorry the lad."
"After my stepmother had cursed me, her words made me curious. So, wanting to see the daughter of a giant, I sought out one of the ancient stone circles in our kingdom. After much searching, I discovered a portal to the otherworld in the very heart of the circle."
"Not surprising." Menw chimed in, standing next to Ambrosius's Throne. "Most of the ancient stone tombs, temples and monuments on this island were built over the stone circles."
"Yes, and so I traveled through that portal... and found myself in a world beyond description." Culhwch's eyes went wide in wonderment, as he recalled what he had seen. "The otherworld is a magical place... the colors, the beauty, creatures, and plants beyond description. I don't know how long I wandered around in a daze, eating what fruit I could find, and sleeping under the giant trees. But then I came upon a small pond... and it was there, I first saw... her..."
"This woman you are so in love with," Gwen spoke when he paused, trying to get the prince to continue. "You met her by this pond in the otherworld."
"Her name was Olwen... half mortal, half fay- and as lovely as the first day of spring." Culhwch continued dreamily. "She was startled by my appearance at first, but then she started to talk to me. That first conversation was so wonderful, and she agreed to meet me again. Every week, I would sneak away from my father's court to meet her in the otherworld, and we would spend our days together in the forest. As time passed, our friendship turned to love, and we secretly planned to marry."
"And let me guess... yer auld yin discovered yer relationship, an' put a stop ta it." Gwalchmei added, leaning back in his seat. "That's how these things usually go."
"He grew angry at our love, and told me, as a mortal, I was not worthy of her." The prince replied sadly. "He forbade us ever to see each other again, and locked her in a tower. He said we would never allow us to wed, unless I complete a series of impossible challenges!" Culhwch began to sob. "This is the source of my sorrow! This is why I have come to you!"
There were several minutes of silence, before Cai stood up from his seat in the Amphitheater, and exclaimed;
"Well, I don't know about the rest of you," The warrior stated boldly. "but I think we should go the otherworld, and free the lady Olwen, from her imprisonment! And if her father stands in our way, he shall face our iron blades!"
"Aye, I agree with Cai!" Gwalchmei agreed. "The fay of the otherworld, including the giants, are weak ta iron weapons! We can take on the big beastie!"
"Cai, Gwal... wait a moment." Bedwyr cautioned the others. "All creatures of the otherworld have great magics. We should know what we are getting into."
"Your warrior is correct, cousin Arthur." The prince replied. "You should be cautious when dealing with Olwen's father, for he possesses a mighty army, and extraordinary powers. No mortal man should underestimate the danger of the mighty Ysbaddaden."
"Wait a minute... " Nimue blurted out in shock, from her seat in the front row of the amphitheater. "... are you telling me, that Lady Olwen's father is Ysbaddaden Chief-giant!?" Nimue turned towards Arthur and Gwen's thrones. "My lord and lady, Ysbaddaden is a dangerous foe. He is the lord of all giants, and one of the most powerful monarchs of the otherworld. If you both are determined to aid the prince, it is best to go in prepared."
Everyone in the stands whispered among themselves, until Lady Gwen finally spoke up.
"Lord Arthur, perhaps fulfilling the giant's tasks would be a better decision, rather than attacking the giant directly." Gwen pointed out. "That would win Culhwch his bride, and impress the inhabitants of the otherworld with the might of the Pendragon Warriors."
"Hmmm... perhaps that would be the more prudent course of action." Arthur agreed, considering his second in command's words. "Culhwch, what are the tasks the giant requires of you?"
"There are three tasks Ysbadden has placed upon me." The prince explained. "First, he demands that I rescue his grandson Mabon, from his rival giant, Wrnach. Second, he wished me to bring him the blood of the shadow hag in the Valley of Grief. Second, he commands me to slay the great otherworld boar Twrch Trwyth, and it's hellish offspring. And finally, he demands I bring the Cauldron of Bran, which has the power to revive the dead. Only with his grandson, the cauldron, and the head of the great boar before him, and then he will allow Olwen and I to wed."
The warriors in the stands began to mutter among themselves again, until Arthur motioned all of them to silence.
"Prince Culwhch, we have heard your plea, and we shall consider it." Arthur waved a dismissive hand towards the prince. "Now, leave us, so that the Pendragon warriors may debate what we shall do."
"My lords...I await your decision." The prince bowed, and walked out of the round table. As soon as he had left the hall, a debate erupted among the warriors.
"The poor lad, we have to help him." Drudwas spoke up. "No one should have the love of their life kept away from them by some cruel fatach."
"Aye, but can we risk our own lives takin' on these tasks?" Bedwyr replied calmly. "I really feel sorry for the prince, but how can we be helpin' him out, without sacrificing our own lives."
"I wonder if we could solve this diplomatically with Ysbaddaden." Gwyanfadar contemplated aloud. "That way, we do not have to enter into conflict with the giant."
"Hah, so says the daughter of a giant!" Edyrful scoffed. "Lady Gwen, we canna just let that oversized tyrant get away with this!"
"Och, don't talk ta Lady Gwen like that!" Gwalchmei yelled at the Irish maiden. "She is our leader, behind me cousin Arthur, and I'll not let ye slander her honor!"
"Don't you dare yell at the Lady Edyrful!" Cai exploded, shouting back at Gwalachmei. "Keep your temper with a lady, you pathetic Pict!"
Everyone started arguing with one another, before Arthur finally raised his voice over all of the chaotic tumult.
"All of you, ENOUGH!" The room fell silent at his words, as he turned towards Menw. "You have been mostly silent during this whole debate, my druid friend. What advice do you have about this matter?"
Menw thought for a moment, leaning on his staff, before he finally replied to Arthur;
"My lord and friend, while I do understand the caution of many of our companions here." The druid replied. "But I believe it is in our best interest to help Culhwch in his tasks. Helping him against the chief-giant, will only help us."
"What do you mean, Druid?" Bedwyr asked curiously. "Why would standing against Ysbaddaden help us and our cause?"
"Ysbaddaden chief-giant is an enemy to the people of the mortal world, one who happily hunts and kills any human who stumbles into the otherworld." Menw responded. "If we assist the prince in winning his bride, it could mean the destruction of a giant, who has turned hundreds of men, women, and children into a meal."
"Och, I agree that taking down the chief-giant would be good for the Pendragon warriors." Edyrful responded. "But how can assisting Culwhch, aid in destroying the monster?"
"There is a prophecy, that when one of Ysbaddaden's daughters marries a mortal man, his life will end the moment their vows are spoken." The druid raised an eyebrow. "And unlike prophecies in the mortal world, the ones made for the otherworld are certain to always come true."
"Very well, then... we shall aid the young prince in saving the lady Olwen." Arthur looked up at his warriors. "Cai, Edyrful, and Drudwas... you three will go to rescue Ysbaddaden's grandson."
"Och, that is great." Drudwas smiled. "Don't worry, we'll bring that lad home safely!"
"Gwalachmei, Nimue, and Bedwyr... I want the three of you to hunt down that boar." Arthur commanded.
"Taking down Twrch Trwyth will be difficult, the fairy boar is as powerful as a thunderstorm." Nimue nodded. "But I am certain the three of us can handle the monster."
"And Gwen, Menw, and I will go to retrieve the cauldron." Arthur finished, rising from his throne. "And we will send Culhwch back to the chief-giant, to inform him his demands are on their way."
"This will not be an easy quest, my companions... but fear not!" Menw walked out to the center of the round table. "When you enter the otherworld, your strength, speed, and stamina will be greatly enhanced by the magic that permeates the fairy world. You will also find the otherworld will give all of you many strange powers, which will aid you in your challenges." Menw then stamped his staff on the ground, and a grey wolf and a golden hawk appeared as if from nowhere. "These two are creatures of the otherworld, who will aid in our quest."
"My these are fearsome beasts." Gwen replied, looking at the large wolf at Menw's side, and the massive eagle on his shoulder. "But what can your two friends do, druid?"
"This eagle is Gwrhyr, who can speak the langue of any beast. He will aid Cai's party in their rescue mission." The druid them motioned down to his side. "And this wolf is Cynddylig, a master tracker who will sniff out that boar in the otherworld, no matter where he is. He will aid Bedwyr's party in the hunt."
"They will make excellent allies, Menw." Arthur replied gratefully. "Olsa big-knife, I leave you and Efrawg in charge of Caerleon in our absence." He looked at all of the warriors present. "Then, let us go and prepare for our journey, and may the blessed virgin go with us all."