1. The Oldest Hills THE OLDEST HILLS
HE REMEMBERED MARY HAD SAID, “They all speak Welsh, most of the time. Even Aunt Jen.”
“Oh, dear,” said Will.
“Don’t worry,” his sister said. “Sooner or later they switch to English, if they see you’re there. Just remember to be patient. And they’ll be extra kind because of your having been ill. At least they were to me, after my mumps.”
So now Will stood patiently alone on the windy grey platform of the small station of Tywyn, in a thin drizzle of October rain, waiting while two men in the navy-blue railway uniform argued earnestly in Welsh. One of them was small and wizened, gnome-like; the other had a soft, squashy look, like a man made of dough.
The gnome caught sight of Will. “Beth sy’n bod?” he said.
“Er—excuse me,” Will said. “My uncle said he’d meet me off the train, in the station yard, but there’s no one outside. Could you tell me if there’s anywhere else he might have meant?”
The gnome shook his head.
“Who’s your uncle, then?” enquired the soft-faced man.
“Mr. Evans, from Bryn-Crug. Clwyd Farm,” Will said.
The gnome chuckled gently. “David Evans will be a bit late, boy bach. You have a nice dreamer for an uncle. David Evans will be late when the Last Trump sounds. You just wait a while. On holiday, is it?” Bright dark eyes peered inquisitively into his face.
“Sort of. I’ve had hepatitis. The doctor said I had to come away to convalesce.”
“Ah.” The man nodded his head sagely. “You look a bit peaky, yes. Come to the right place, though. The air on this coast is very relaxing, they say, very relaxing. Even at this time of year.”
A clattering roar came suddenly from beyond the ticket office, and through the barrier Will saw a mud-streaked Land-Rover drive into the yard. But the figure that came bounding out of it was not that of the small neat farmer he vaguely remembered; it was a wiry, gangling young man, jerkily thrusting out his hand.
“Will, is it? Hallo. Da sent me to meet you. I’m Rhys.”
“How do you do.” Will knew he had two grown-up Welsh cousins, old as his oldest brothers, but he had never set eyes on either of them.
Rhys scooped up his suitcase as if it had been a matchbox. “This all you have? Let’s be off, then.” He nodded to the railwaymen. “Sut ’dach chi?”
“Iawn, diolch,” said the gnome. “Caradog Prichard was asking for you or your father, round about, this morning. Something about dogs.”
“A pity you haven’t seen me at all, today,” Rhys said.
The gnome grinned. He took Will’s ticket. “Get yourself healthy now, young man.”
“Thank you,” Will said.
Perched up in the front of the Land-Rover, he peered out at the little grey town as the windscreen wipers tried in vain, twitch-creak, twitch-creak, to banish the fine misty rain from the glass. Deserted shops lined the little street, and a few bent figures in raincoats scurried by; he saw a church, a small hotel, more neat houses. Then the road was widening and they were out between trim hedges, with open fields beyond, and green hills rising against the sky: a grey sky, featureless with mist. Rhys seemed shy; he drove with no attempt at talking—though the engine made so much noise that conversation would have been hard in any case. Past gaggles of silent cottages they drove, the boards that announced VACANCY or BED AND BREAKFAST swinging forlornly now that most of the holiday visitors were gone.
Rhys turned the car inland, towards the mountains, and almost at once Will had a strange new feeling of enclosure, almost of menace. The little road was narrow here, like a tunnel, with its high grass banks and looming hedges like green walls on either side. Whenever they passed the gap where a hedge opened to a field through a gate, he could see the green-brown bulk of hillsides rearing up at the grey sky. And ahead, as bends in the road showed open sky briefly through the trees, a higher fold of grey hills loomed in the distance, disappearing into ragged cloud. Will felt he was in a part of Britain like none he had ever known before: a secret, enclosed place, with powers hidden in its shrouded centuries at which he could not begin to guess. He shivered.
In the same moment, as Rhys swung round a tight corner towards a narrow bridge, the Land-Rover gave a strange jerking leap and lurched down to one side, towards the hedge. Braking hard, Rhys hauled at the wheel and managed to stop at an angle that seemed to indicate one wheel was in the ditch.
“Damn!” he said with force, opening the door.
Will scrambled after him. “What happened?”
“There is what happened.” Rhys pointed a long finger at the nearside front wheel, its tyre pressed hopelessly flat against a rock jutting from the hedge. “Just look at that. Ripped it right open, and so thick those tyres are, you would never think—” His light, rather husky voice was high with astonishment.
“Was the rock lying in the road?”
Rhys shook his curly head. “Goes under the hedge. Huge, it is, that’s just one end…. I used to sit on that rock when I was half your size….” Wonder had banished his shyness. “What made the car jump, then? That’s the funny thing, seemed to jump, she did, right on to it, sideways. It wasn’t the tyre blowing, that feels quite different….” He straightened, brushing away the rain that spangled his eyebrows. “Well, well. A wheel change, now.”
Will said hopefully, “Can I help?”
Rhys looked down at him: at the shadowed eyes and the pale face beneath the thick, straight brown hair. He grinned suddenly, directly at Will for the first time since they had met; it made his face look quite different, untroubled and young. “Here you come down after being so ill, to be put together again, and I am to have you out in the rain changing an old wheel? Mam would have fifty fits. Back in the warm with you, go on.” He moved round to the rear door of the square little car, and began pulling out tools.
Will clambered obediently up into the front of the Land-Rover again; it seemed a warm, cosy little box, after the chill wind blowing the drizzle into his face out on the road. There was no sound, there among the open fields under the looming hills, but the soft whine of the wind in telephone wires, and an occasional deep baaa from a distant sheep. And the rattle of a spanner; Rhys was undoing the bolts that secured the spare wheel to the back door.
Will leaned his head back against the seat, closing his eyes. His illness had kept him in bed for a long time, in a long blur of ache and distress and fleeting anxious faces, and although he had been back on his feet for more than a week, he still grew tired very easily. It was frightening sometimes to catch himself breathless and exhausted, after something as ordinary as climbing a flight of stairs.
He sat relaxed, letting the soft sounds of the wind and the calling sheep drift through his mind. Then another sound came. Opening his eyes, he saw in the side mirror another car slowing to a stop behind them.
A man climbed out, thickset, chunky, wearing a flat cap, and a raincoat flapping over rubber boots; he was grinning. For no good reason, Will instantly disliked the grin. Rhys opened the back of the Land-Rover again, to reach for the jack, and Will heard the newcomer greet him in Welsh; the words were unintelligible, but they had an unmistakable jeering tone. All this short conversation, indeed, lay as open in meaning as if Will had understood every word.
The man was clearly mocking Rhys for having to change a wheel in the rain. Rhys answered, curtly but without crossness. The man looked deliberately into the car, walking forward to peer in at the window; he stared at Will, unsmiling, with strange small light-lashed eyes, and asked Rhys something. When Rhys answered, one of the words was “Will.” The man in the raincoat said something else, with a sneer in it this time directed at both of them, and then without warning he broke into an astonishing tirade of rapid, bitter speech, the words pouring out flurried and guttural like a churning river in flood. Rhys appeared to pay no attention at all. At last the man paused, angry. He swung round and marched back to his car; then he drove slowly on past them, still staring at Will as he went by. A black-and-white dog was looking out over the man’s shoulder, and Will saw that the car was in fact a van, grey and windowless at the back.
He slipped across into the driver’s seat and pulled open the window; the Land-Rover lurched gently up into the air beneath him as Rhys heaved on the jack.
“Who was that?” Will said.
“Fellow called Caradog Prichard, from up the valley.” Rhys spat enigmatically on his hands, and heaved again. “A farmer.”
“He could have stayed and helped you.”
“Ha!” Rhys said. “Caradog Prichard is not well known for helping.”
“What did he say?”
“He let me know how amusing it was to see me stuck. And some things about a disagreement we have. Of no importance. And asked who you were.” Rhys spun his spanner, loosing the wheel-bolts, and glanced up with a shy conspiratorial grin. “A good job our mothers were not listening, I was not polite. I said you were my cousin and none of his bloody business.”
“Was he cross?”
Rhys paused reflectively. “He said—We shall see about that.”
Will looked up the valley road where the van had disappeared. “That’s a funny thing to say.”
“Oh,” Rhys said, “that is Caradog. His hobby is to make people feel uncomfortable. Nobody likes him, except his dogs, and he doesn’t even like them.” He tugged at the injured wheel. “Sit still up there now. We shan’t be long.”
By the time he climbed back into the driving seat, rubbing his hands on an oily rag, the fine drizzle had turned to real rain; the dark hair was curling wet over his head. “Well,” Rhys said. “This is nice old weather to greet you, I must say. But it won’t last. We shall have a good bit of sun yet, off and on, before the winter bites down on us.”
Will gazed out at the mountains, dark and distant, swinging into view as they drove along the road crossing the valley. Grey-white cloud hung ragged round the highest hills, their tops invisible behind the mist. He said, “The cloud’s all tattered round the tops of the mountains. Perhaps it’s breaking up.”
Rhys looked out casually. “The breath of the Grey King? No, I’m sorry to tell you, Will, that’s supposed to be a bad sign.”
Will sat very still, a great rushing sound in his ears; he gripped the edge of his seat until the metal bit at his fingers. “What did you call it?”
“The cloud? Oh, when it hangs ragged like that we call it the breath of the Brenin Llwyd. The Grey King. He is supposed to live up there on the high land. It’s just one of the old stories.” Rhys glanced sideways at him and then braked suddenly; the Land-Rover slowed almost to a halt. “Will! Are you all right? White as a ghost, you look. Are you feeling bad?”
“No. No. It was just—” Will was staring out at the grey mass of the hills. “It was just… the Grey King, the Grey King… it’s part of something I used to know, something I was supposed to remember, for always…. I thought I’d lost it. Perhaps—perhaps it’s going to come back….”
Rhys clashed the car back into gear. “Oh,” he called cheerfully through the noise, “we’ll get you better, you just wait. Anything can happen in these old hills.”