The story of Kylhuk and Olwen

(As told by Kylhuk himself)

When the child of a great man is born, and Kylhuk’s father was a king in his land, there is usually a portent: a star falls from the sky, perhaps; or a great storm washes away a fortress on a high cliff; a cow gives birth to a lamb; a poem cannot be made to rhyme.

There were no portents when Kylhuk fought his way to life, though a storm that had been building in the west suddenly vanished, and if this seems remarkable, bear in mind that Kylhuk, even when in the womb, could affect the world around him.

Kylhuk was born with the portents when Kylhuk fought his way to life, though a storm that had been building in the west suddenly vanished, and if this seems remarkable, bear in mind that Kylhuk, even when in the womb, could affect the world around him.

Kylhuk was born with the portents inside him; he had swallowed them by using his mother’s mouth, and they would be useful later.

As the unnamed child lay in its applewood crib, one of the sons of the giant boar Trwch Trwyth burst through the palisade wall and attacked the dogs in the stronghold, killing six on its tusks. Badly wounded by a spear thrust from the child’s father himself, the boar rampaged into the round-house and shook the child from its crib, screeching angrily as it did so, trying to impale the infant but succeeding only in wedging the tiny boy between its tusks.

The boy clung to the tusks as the boar ran from the stronghold and into the forest, pursued by hunters and hounds. The chase lasted for an hour, and though the boar tried to shake the child from its tusks to see where it was going, the boy held on. Eventually the boar ran blindly into an oak and stuck there fast, to be quickly caught and slaughtered.

Seven days later it was roasted, and Eisyllt Cleverthreads, the king’s favourite daughter, cut the hide so skilfully that she made four cloaks and two masks from the skin of the pig.

‘The valiant child was named Kylhuk, which means ‘running with the pig’, a very great name, greater than CuCullain, which means ‘running with the hound’; though these two heroes would meet one day and become great friends.

When Kylhuk’s beard had begun to itch but not to sprout his father married another woman, his first wife having died.

At the games to celebrate the marriage, Kei Longthrow challenged Kylhuk to a spear-throwing contest. Kei cast the first spear and after several hours it was seen to strike the side of a distant mountain, seven days ride to the east. Then Kylhuk threw and after several hours his spear was seen to glance off the summit of that same mountain. But Kei cast again and the spear sailed over the summit. It killed an ox that was peacefully grazing on the other side, though this wasn’t known until the complaint arrived, some time later.

‘You will not do better than that,’ said Kei in triumph.

‘I will,’ said Kylhuk, ‘though you think otherwise.’

And Kylhuk circled four times where he stood, summoned the storm he had swallowed as a child, and cast his spear. The spear disappeared into the distance, flying over the summit of the hill.

‘It is a tie,’ said Kei Longthrow, ‘since we have no way of seeing which spear has gone the furthest over those hills.’

‘Be patient,’ Kylhuk said. ‘The throw is not finished.’

The sun set, and the host slept, and in the morning Kylhuk and Kei were still in their places.

‘You are a bad loser if you do not accept the draw,’ said Kei.

‘Be patient. The throw is not finished.’

At dusk, Kylhuk turned his back to the hills. In front of him a flight of geese was suddenly disturbed as a javelin came flying out of the setting sun. He snatched it from the air and tossed it to his challenger.

‘There. I win. Keep the spear, Kei. It is my gift to you. It will come in useful.’

‘I am impressed by that throw!’

But the contest had consequences.

Kylhuk’s stepmother was also impressed by the throw. She was still a young woman herself and fell quickly in love with her stepson. Kylhuk, being the man he was, rejected her interest, but out of kindness to his father kept the betrayal to himself. Angrily, that night his stepmother cursed him.

‘By my head, you will wed no one until you have first won Olwen, the daughter of Uspathadyn, and you will not win her because Uspathadyn is a champion in his country, and a giant besides, and twenry-three severed heads, all brothers, all of them still singing of Olwen’s charms, make up his table decoration! When Olwen is won, he must kill her lover, or be killed, as part of a geisa that he carries, but he is keen to live and has no intention of letting his daughter go. So there. That’s that.’

‘I will win her,’ said Kylhuk coldly, ‘though you think otherwise.’

Kylhuk had accepted his first challenge, but to Kei he confided, ‘I could have wished for a better start to my life of adventure. Olwen’s father is a giant of a man, and will be hard to kill, though I can do it, I’m in no doubt about that. But Olwen herself is half again as tall as me, and though she is certainly shapely, I have heard that her thighs are like Greek columns and can easily crush an ox; when her teeth chatter it might be rocks falling from a mountain. And she makes oak logs into kindling by twisting them into knots! Kei – as a man, and with a man’s passions, I fear those hands more than I fear her father.’

‘By my head, Kylhuk, I’m glad it’s you and not me that must sleep with this woman.’

‘What shall I do?’

‘If it were me, I would chain her hands to the bed-posts!’

‘I mean, what shall I do now?’

Kei scratched his chin. ‘Go to Pwyll. His fort is only ten days’ ride away. Ask for help there. That is my advice.’

‘I shall take that advice, though I’m sure I am wrong to do so.’

So Kylhuk went to Pwyll’s fort, but hesitated at the gates, again reflecting that to ask for help in his first task was a cowardly thing, and might have consequences. But he was too young to think it through clearly, and too eager to win and then dispense with Olwen, so that he could continue his life of adventure.

He begged his way through the gates, then rode to Pwyll’s hall. He was so nervous that he forgot his manners and rode straight into the hall where the meal was being taken.

When he had stepped down and been seated and fed, and had told Pwyll of his quest, the king stood.

‘Kylhuk, you are the son of Kylid, who once took a blow that was intended for me, but that is neither here nor there. There are a hundred men in this fort, and a hundred women, and every one of them is a great man or a great woman.’

And he proceeded to name them all, which took some time.

Then he said, ‘Kylhuk, you are welcome to take one or all of them to help you in your task, since I am bound to grant the wish of any beardless man who rides his horse into this hall without his weapon drawn, which you have done. But if you take more than two I shall know that you are younger in heart than you are in body, and that will not be good for you.’

‘I will take two men only,’ Kylhuk said, but in his heart he knew this was also a grave mistake. He should have taken no men at all, accepting only the good advice he would have been offered and Pwyll’s hospitality.

He picked one of the older men, and one of the younger, Manandoun and Bedivyr, and some days later Manandoun used his wiles to gain them entrance to the fort on the white hill where Olwen was the favoured daughter of Uspathadyn.

Uspathadyn gave them hospitality and a chance to abandon the quest and keep their heads. When he spoke, the whole of the hall shook from floor to rafter. Olwen looked longingly at Kylhuk, and Kylhuk looked nervously at her hands. But he smiled at her and she smiled back, blushing and lowering her gaze.

Manandoun and Bedivyr teased Kylhuk until he silenced them. On the table, twenty-three oiled heads, their beards trimmed, sang mournfully of their love for Olwen.

Olwen’s father stared at Kylhuk for a long time along the length of the table. Then he said, ‘Of all the men who have come here to ask for my favourite daughter, you have the fairest face and the best manners. Why, you have not even drawn your sword, which is quite unusual for visitors to this household.’

‘Give your consent to my marriage to Olwen and my sword will never reflect the flames of your fire, that great fire over there, where the ox is roasting.’

‘Well said indeed,’ said Olwen’s father, slapping a hand on the table so that all the heads jumped and lost the rhythm of their song. ‘The more you say to me the more I like you. It is a shame, then, that I must ask you for three wedding gifts. And since you will fail to get them, it is a greater disappointment that I must kill you and put your head here, on this table. But I will place you at the top of the table, where I can talk to you like a father to his battle-slaughtered son. Yes! That is how much I have come to admire you.’

‘I will get your wedding gifts, whatever they are, and at the wedding it will be your own head that is at the top of the table and singing, and I will talk to you – as a son to his battle-slaughtered father.’

Uspathadyn roared with laughter. ‘By Olwen’s Hands! The more you speak the greater is my admiration for you, Kylhuk son of Kylid. I have never had so nice a man here. Your manners are impeccable. Your spirit is everything a proud father could wish for. And so it grieves me even more that you will never get the wedding presents that I insist upon, but there we are, that is that, your head will still be a comfort and joy to me and to Olwen.’

‘I will get the gifts, though you think otherwise, just as soon as you tell me what they are.’

Olwen’s father sighed. He was enjoying this company, but now business had to be done, and necks made ready. ‘The first gift is that you will plough and sow the great field that lies to the west of this stronghold. It is bordered by four tall stones, and there are other stones inside it. And a few mounds of earth, as well as trees in groves, and pits with swords and shields and pots . . . a few bones, some trinkets, other bits and pieces . . . nothing to concern you. The wheat that you will then grow there will make the bread for Olwen’s wedding, since as her father I must supply the bread for the feast.’

‘Ploughing a field is a task for lesser men than me,’ Kylhuk said. ‘I will find it no hardship at all.’

Olwen’s father stared at his nails, each the size of a dagger. ‘To be done by morning. I forgot to tell you that it must be ploughed and sown by morning.’

‘It will be easy to do that,’ said Kylhuk.

‘I don’t think you will find it easy,’ said the other man.

‘What else do you want me to fetch? Quickly, I must get on with the ploughing.’

Olwen’s father thought hard for a moment, then said, ‘If this marriage is to take place, there will be so many guests that I could not possibly afford to feed them all without Cerithon’s hamper.’

‘Cerithon’s hamper?’

‘Yes. A small thing, made of briar and willow. Four men can carry it easily and, once opened, it can feed everyone with their particular delights.’

‘I have never heard of it. But I will get it for you easily.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Oh, but I do . . .’

‘And the horn and silver cup of Votadinos, which will supply strong, sweet drink endlessly, and therefore save me a great deal of money. Yes, you must get that too. Neither man will part with his treasure, though.’

‘They will be easy to get.’

‘Don’t be so sure. Others have tried it.’

‘It will be easy to get them,’ Kylhuk declared. ‘But you must tell me where they are.’

‘That’s a good question. They are hard to find. You must ask the houndsman, Mabonos son of Modron, who was stolen from his mother when a boy.’

‘And where is he?’

‘I’m not sure. You should ask his cousin, Yssvyl, who lives with the oldest animals.’

‘And where are they?’

‘I’m not sure, but if you can find the boar called White Tusk, you will find the hunter Othgar in close pursuit, and he will help.’

‘And where shall I find him?’

‘I’m not sure, but the houndsman Gordub, son of Eyra, will certainly know.’

‘And where is he?’

‘Again, I’m not sure, but if you can find the Long Person, she may answer your question.’

‘Enough!’ said Kylhuk. ‘We could stand here all night only to grow older by ten years. I must get to the field and plough and sow it.’

‘I forgot to tell you. You’ll need the spotted oxen of Amathaon, son of Don for that.’

‘I’1l get them easily. Where are they to be found?’

‘I’m not sure, though Caratacos the Wanderer will know.’

‘And where is he?’

‘I’m not sure, but if you find . . .’

‘Enough!’ shouted Kylhuk.

‘Remember your manners,’ Olwen’s father said angrily, and Kylhuk apologized. He glanced at Olwen who rose to her feet, her cheeks blushing, her eyes filled with love. Kylhuk stared up at her and felt the muscles in his neck straining. He tried to think of an endearment, something romantic to say to the Tall Woman, a love token.

‘I’ll be back,’ he said in his strongest voice.

‘Hurry,’ said Olwen. ‘And be careful of tricks.’

‘Tricks? What tricks?’

‘I’m not sure,’ she replied. ‘But the brother of Dillus the Bearded will know . . .’

‘Goodbye!’ said Kylhuk in exasperation, and with Manandoun and Bedivyr he hastened from the hall and set about his task.

He had ploughed one strip of the field when Manandoun rode up to him from the west, his face whitened with chalk, a white pennant tied to the blade of his spear. ‘Kylhuk! This is not a field, this is a burial ground.’

‘I know,’ said Kylhuk as he hauled on Amathaon’s spotted oxen, keeping the second furrow straight. ‘Those are not piles of earth, they are mounds covering the tombs of kings.’

‘I know,’ said Kylhuk. ‘And they are harder to flatten than I’d thought.’

Now Bedivyr charged at him from the east, wheeling round nervously, white pennants of protection on shoulders, elbows, knees, ankles and around his neck and waist.

‘Kylhuk, these are not pots and bones and bits and pieces. You are disturbing the dead!’

‘I know. I can hear them shouting as the iron shares cut through them and tum them over.’

‘Those are not rocks at the edges of the field, they are carved stones, older than time.’

‘I know, Bedivyr. I have seen them. I will haul them down later.’ He turned the oxen to begin the third furrow.

‘You must leave this place alone. As you plough the field the dead are being called back from their islands!’

‘I know! Do you think I can’t hear them riding towards me?’

‘You are bringing terrible consequences upon yourself !’ shouted Manandoun as his horse reared with sudden fright.

‘I will confront those consequences later. First, I must plough this field.’

‘Olwen’s father has tricked you!’ pleaded Bedivyr.

‘I know! And when I have finished ploughing the field I will think what to do about it!’

They left him alone and he got on with the job. When he returned to the gates of the fort on the white hill, Kylhuk found them closed. Manandoun and Bedivyr were there. Inside, there was music, a great feast, and the sound of Olwen’s grief and her father’s triumphant laughter.

‘You were tricked,’ said Manandoun.

‘I know. But knowing that I was tricked is less of a burden than knowing how I was tricked.’

‘You should not have ploughed over the tombs in the field.’

‘There’s more to this trick than just that,’ said Kylhuk, trying to think through everything that had been said in the hall earlier.

‘Nevertheless, you should have stopped the ploughing.’

‘When I start something I have to finish it.’

Bedivyr slapped him on the shoulder. ‘Well spoken! Such a quality in a man is both a good thing and a bad thing!’

‘Thank you,’ said Kylhuk.

‘And on this occasion it was a bad thing,’ Manandoun muttered pointedly as they rode away, the angry dead in slow pursuit.

Unable to find hospitality that night, they camped in the forest.

‘I have learned one thing at least from this difficult encounter,’ Kylhuk said as he drank from his cup.

‘That you are a fool and easily deceived?’ Manandoun suggested.

Kylhuk finished the cup, then wiped his lips.

‘I have learned two things at least from this difficult encounter,’ he amended. ‘Manandoun has referred to one of them, and I have learned that lesson and no one will deceive me again.’

‘Ho ho,’ said Manandoun.

‘Indeed. Ho ho. But we’ll see about that. The other thing ‘ is that something has been passed on to me, some burden, and Uspathadyn is celebrating because he is a free man. He has tricked me into calling down the anger of the dead. But he has also set me the task of finding this hamper and the silver horn.’

Bedivyr muttered darkly, ‘There is more to those gifts than meets the eye.’

‘There is more to the pursuit of those gifts than meets the eye,’ Kylhuk said, and Manandoun added:

‘By the head on my shoulders, you are right to say that. The danger is in the pursuit of the beast, not in the beast itself ! I am game for this, Kylhuk. I was born for this hunt. And may my arm fail me if I ever call you a fool again.’

The two of them embraced, while Bedivyr shuffled uneasily by the fire, saying, ‘I have come this far and God Knows, it is not a long way back to the place where I started …’

‘Which particular god are you referring to?’ asked Manandoun.

‘Whichever one follows me noting my deeds in combat.’

‘I’d noticed a certain absence of gods,’ Manandoun said dryly, looking round at the night as he stoked the fire.

‘I will ignore that discourtesy. My point is, I will not return to Pwyll until this man Kylhuk is free of the burden.’

‘Thank you!’ Kylhuk said. ‘Manandoun … Bedivyr … My good friends! This is just the beginning of something!’ ‘Indeed!’ said Manandoun.

‘I have no idea what that something is,’ Kylhuk went on, ‘except that it involves a hamper of food and a silver horn filled with drink. When it is ended, we will all three of us look back and celebrate its ending. We will rejoice in its ending. Whatever it might be that has ended. I cannot say fairer than that. Shall we stay together?’

‘I will not leave your company by my own will,’ said Manandoun.

‘Neither oxen nor the wain-ropes they pull will drag me away from this small band,’ agreed Bedivyr, ‘terrible though this situation is.’

‘Well spoken,’ Kylhuk said. ‘And my head on this: I will not abandon either of you until Olwen’s father’s own head is on the end of my spear.’

‘That’s that, then,’ said Manandoun. ‘We are all agreed. And you will certainly need a big spear for the head you propose to sever. But now we must think about what to do next. I would suggest that the three of us are not enough to take on everything that is behind us, and everything that is ahead of us.’

Manandoun’s counsel was wise. And besides, on the hill behind them a line of men had risen and stood watching their fire, but try how he might, Kylhuk could see no features on them, only shadow, and he knew that they were ghost-born.

He, Manandoun and Bedivyr fell to thinking.

Robert Holdstock
Extract from Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn, 1997