Read The Book Of Three Online

Authors: Lloyd Alexander

Tags: #Adventure, #Children, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Young Adult, #Classic, #Mythology

The Book Of Three (2 page)

BOOK: The Book Of Three
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Hen Wen usually slept until noon. Then, trotting daintily, despite her size, she would move to a shady comer of her enclosure and settle comfortably for the rest of the day. The white pig was continually grunting and chuckling to herself, and whenever she saw Taran, she would raise her wide, cheeky face so that he could scratch under her chin. But this time, she paid no attention to him. Wheezing and whistling, Hen Wen was digging furiously in the soft earth at the far side of the pen, burrowing so rapidly she would soon be out.

Taran shouted at her, but the clods continued flying at a great rate. He swung himself over the fence. The oracular pig stopped and glanced around. As Taran approached the hole, already sizable, Hen Wen hurried to the opposite side of the pen and started a new excavation.

Taran was strong and long-legged, but, to his dismay, he saw that Hen Wen moved faster than he. As soon as he chased her from the second hole, she turned quickly on her short legs and made for the first. Both, by now, were big enough for her head and shoulders.

Taran frantically began scraping earth back into the burrow. Hen Wen dug faster than a badger, her hind legs planted firmly, her front legs plowing ahead. Taran despaired of stopping her. He scrambled back over the rails and jumped to the spot where Hen Wen was about to emerge, planning to seize her and hang on until Dallben and Coll arrived. He underestimated Hen Wen's speed and strength.

In an explosion of dirt and pebbles, the pig burst from under the fence, heaving Taran into the air. He landed with the wind knocked out of him. Hen Wen raced across the field and into the woods.

Taran followed. Ahead, the forest rose up dark and threatening. He took a breath and plunged after her.





Chapter 2


The Mask of the King



had vanished. Ahead, Taran heard a thrashing among the leaves. The pig, he was sure, was keeping out of sight in the bushes. Following the sound, he ran forward. After a time the ground rose sharply, forcing him to clamber on hands and knees up a wooded slope. At the crest the forest broke off before a meadow. Taran caught a glimpse of Hen Wen dashing into the waving grass. Once across the meadow, she disappeared beyond a stand of trees. Taran hurried after her. This was farther than he had ever dared venture, but he struggled on through the heavy undergrowth. Soon, a fairly wide trail opened, allowing him to quicken his pace. Hen Wen had either stopped running or had outdistanced him. He heard nothing but his own footsteps.

He followed the trail for some while, intending to use it as a landmark on the way back, although it twisted and branched off so frequently he was not at all certain in which direction Caer Dallben lay.

In the meadow Taran had been flushed and perspiring. Now he shivered in the silence of oaks and elms. The woods here were not thick, but shadows drenched the high tree trunks and the sun broke through only in jagged streaks. A damp green scent filled the air. No bird called; no squirrel chattered. The forest seemed to be holding its breath.

Yet there was, beneath the silence, a groaning restlessness and a trembling among the leaves. The branches twisted and grated against each other like broken teeth. The path wavered under Taran's feet, and he felt desperately cold. He flung his arms around himself and moved more quickly to shake off the chill. He was, he realized, running aimlessly; he could not keep his mind on the forks and turns of the path.

He halted suddenly. Hoofbeats thudded in front of him. The forest shook as they grew louder. In another moment a black horse burst into view.

Taran fell back, terrified. Astride the foam-spattered animal rode a monstrous figure. A crimson cloak flamed from his naked shoulders. Crimson stained his gigantic arms. Horror stricken, Taran saw not the head of a man but the antlered head of a stag.

The Horned King! Taran flung himself against an oak to escape the flying hoofs and the heaving, glistening flanks. Horse and rider swept by. The mask was a human skull; from it, the great antlers rose in cruel curves. The Horned King's eyes blazed behind the gaping sockets of whitened bone.

Many horsemen galloped in his train. The Horned King uttered the long cry of a wild beast, and his riders took it up as they streamed after him. One of them, an ugly, grinning warrior, caught sight of Taran. He turned his mount and drew a sword. Taran sprang from the tree and plunged into the underbrush. The blade followed, hissing like an adder. Taran felt it sting across his back.

He ran blindly, while saplings whipped his face and hidden rocks jutted out to pitch him forward and stab at his knees. Where the woods thinned, Taran clattered along a dry stream bed until, exhausted, he stumbled and held out his hands against the whirling ground.



already dipped westward when Taran opened his eyes. He was lying on a stretch of turf with a cloak thrown over him. One shoulder smarted painfully. A man knelt beside him. Nearby, a white horse cropped the grass. Still dazed, fearful the riders had overtaken him, Taran started up. The man held out a flask. “Drink,” he said. “Your strength will return in a moment.”

The stranger had the shaggy, gray-streaked hair of a wolf. His eyes were deep-set, flecked with green. Sun and wind had leathered his broad face, burnt it dark and grained it with fine lines. His cloak was coarse and travel-stained. A wide belt with an intricately wrought buckle circled his waist.

“Drink,” the stranger said again, while Taran took the flask dubiously. “You look as though I were trying to poison you.” He smiled. “It is not thus that Gwydion Son of Don deals with a wounded...”

“Gwydion!” Taran choked on the liquid and stumbled to his feet. “You are not Gwydion!” he cried. “I know of him. He is a great war leader, a hero! He is not...” His eyes fell on the long sword at the stranger's belt. The golden pommel was smooth and rounded, its color deliberately muted; ash leaves of pale gold entwined at the hilt, and a pattern of leaves covered the scabbard. It was truly the weapon of a prince.

Taran dropped to one knee and bowed his head. “Lord Gwydion,” he said, "I did not intend insolence.'' As Gwydion helped him rise, Taran still stared in disbelief at the simple attire and the worn, lined face. From all Dallben had told him of this glorious hero, from all he had pictured to himself--- Taran bit his lips.

Gwydion caught Taran's look of disappointment. “It is not the trappings that make the prince,” he said gently, “nor, indeed, the sword that makes the warrior. Come,” he ordered, “tell me your name and what happened to you. And do not ask me to believe you got a sword wound picking gooseberries or poaching hares.”

“I saw the Horned King!” Taran burst out. “His men ride the forest; one of them tried to kill me. I saw the Horned King himself! It was horrible, worse than Dallben told me!”

Gwydion's eyes narrowed. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Who are you to speak of Dallben?”

“I am Taran of Caer Dallben,” Taran answered, trying to appear bold but succeeding only in turning paler than a mushroom.

“Of Caer Dallben?” Gwydion paused an instant and gave Taran a strange glance. “What are you doing so far from there? Does Dallben know you are in the forest? Is Coll with you?”

Taran's jaw dropped and he looked so thunderstruck that Gwydion threw back his head and burst into laughter.

“You need not be so surprised,” Gwydion said. “I know Coll and Dallben well. And they are too wise to let you wander here alone. Have you run off, then? I warn you; Dallben is not one to be disobeyed.”

“It was Hen Wen,” Taran protested. “I should have known I couldn't hold on to her. Now she's gone, and it's my fault. I'm Assistant Pig-Keeper...”

“Gone?” Gwydion's face tightened. “Where? What has happened to her?”

“I don't know,” Taran cried. “She's somewhere in the forest.” As he poured out an account of the morning's events, Gwydion listened intently.

“I had not foreseen this,” Gwydion murmured, when Taran had finished. “My mission fails if she is not found quickly.” He turned abruptly to Taran. “Yes,”' he said, “I, too, seek Hen Wen.”

“You?” cried Taran. “You came this far...”

“I need information she alone possesses,” Gwydion said quickly. “I have journeyed a month from Caer Dathyl to get it. I have been followed, spied on, hunted. And now,” he added with a bitter laugh, “she has run off. Very well. She will be found. I must discover all she knows of the Horned King.” Gwydion hesitated. "I fear he himself searches for her even now.

“It must be so,” he continued. “Hen Wen sensed him near Caer Dallben and fled in terror...”

“Then we should stop him,” Taran declared. “Attack him, strike him down! Give me a sword and I will stand with you!”

“Gently, gently,” chided Gwydion. “I do not say my life is worth more than another man's, but I prize it highly. Do you think a lone warrior and one Assistant Pig-Keeper dare attack the Horned King and his war band?”

Taran drew himself up. “I would not fear him.”

“No?” said Gwydion. “Then you are a fool. He is the man most to be dreaded in all Prydain. Will you hear something I learned during my journey, something even Dallben may not yet realize?”

Gwydion knelt on the turf. “Do you know the craft of weaving? Thread by thread, the pattern forms.” As he spoke, he plucked at the long blades of grass, knotting them to form a mesh.

“That is cleverly done,” said Taran, watching Gwydion's rapidly moving fingers. “May I look at it?”

“There is a more serious weaving,” said Gwydion, slipping the net into his own jacket. "You have seen one thread of a pattern loomed in Annuvin.

“Arawn does not long abandon Annuvin,” Gwydion continued, “but his hand reaches everywhere. There are chieftains whose lust for power goads them like a sword point. To certain of them, Arawn promises wealth and dominion, playing on their greed as a bard plays on a harp. Arawn's corruption burns every human feeling from their hearts and they become his liegemen, serving him beyond the borders of Annuvin and bound to him forever.”

“And the Horned King...?”

Gwydion nodded. “Yes. I know beyond question that he has sworn his allegiance to Arawn. He is Arawn's avowed champion. Once again, the power of Annuvin threatens Prydain.”

Taran could only stare, speechless.

Gwydion turned to him. “When the time is ripe, the Horned King and I will meet. And one of us will die. That is my oath. But his purpose is dark and unknown, and I must learn it from Hen Wen.”

“She can't be far,” Taran cried. “I'll show you where she disappeared. I think I can find the place. It was just before the Horned King...”

Gwydion gave him a hard smile. “Do you have the eyes of an owl, to find a trail at nightfall? We sleep here and I shall be off at first light. With good luck, I may have her back before...”

“What of me?” Taran interrupted. “Hen Wen is in my charge. I let her escape and it is I who must find her.”

“The task counts more than the one who does it,” said Gwydion. “I will not be hindered by an Assistant Pig-Keeper, who seems eager to bring himself to grief.” He stopped short and looked wryly at Taran. “On second thought, it appears I will. If the Horned King rides toward Caer Dallben, I cannot send you back alone and I dare not go with you and lose a day's tracking. You cannot stay in this forest by yourself. Unless I find some way...”

“I swear I will not hinder you,” cried Taran. “Let me go with you. Dallben and Coll will see I can do what I set out to do!”

“Have I another choice?” asked Gwydion. “It would seem, Taran of Caer Dallben, we follow the same path. For a little while at least.”

The white horse trotted up and nuzzled Gwydion's hand. “Melyngar reminds me it is time for food,” Gwydion said. He unpacked provisions from the saddlebags. “Make no fire tonight,” he warned. “The Horned King's outriders may be close at hand.”

Taran swallowed a hurried meal. Excitement robbed him of appetite and he was impatient for dawn. His wound had stiffened so that he could not settle himself on the roots and pebbles. It had never occurred to him until now that a hero would sleep on the ground.

Gwydion, watchful, sat with his knees drawn up, his back against an enormous elm. In the lowering dusk Taran could barely distinguish the man from the tree; and could have walked within a pace of him before realizing he was any more than a splotch of shadow. Gwydion had sunk into the forest itself; only his green-flecked eyes shone in the reflection of the newly risen moon.

Gwydion was silent and thoughtful for a long while. “So you are Taran of Caer Dallben,” he said at last. His voice from the shadows was quiet but urgent. “How long have you been with Dallben? Who are your kinsmen?”

Taran, hunched against a tree root, pulled his cloak closer about his shoulders. “I have always lived at Caer Dallben,” he said. “I don't think I have any kinsmen. I don't know who my parents were. Dallben has never told me. I suppose,” he added, turning his face away, “I don't even know who I am.”

“In a way,” answered Gwydion, “that is something we must all discover for ourselves. Our meeting was fortunate,” he went on. “Thanks to you, I know a little more than I did, and you have spared me a wasted journey to Caer Dallben. It makes me wonder,” Gwydion went on, with a laugh that was not unkind, “is there a destiny laid on me that an Assistant Pig-Keeper should help me in my quest?” He hesitated. “Or,” he mused, “is it perhaps the other way around?”

“What do you mean?” Taran asked.

“I am not sure,” said Gwydion. “It makes no difference. Sleep now, for we rise early tomorrow.”





Chapter 3





Taran woke, Gwydion had already saddled Melyngar. The cloak Taran had slept in was damp with dew. Every joint ached from his night on the hard ground. With Gwydion's urging, Taran stumbled toward the horse, a white blur in the gray-pink dawn. Gwydion hauled Taran into the saddle behind him, spoke a quiet command, and the white steed moved quickly into the rising mist. Gwydion was seeking the spot where Taran had last seen Hen Wen. But long before they had reached it, he reined up Melyngar and dismounted. As Taran watched, Gwydion knelt and sighted along the turf.

“Luck is with us,” he said. “I think we have struck her trail.” Gwydion pointed to a faint circle of trampled grass. “Here she slept, and not too long ago.” He strode a few paces forward, scanning every broken twig and blade of grass.

Despite Taran's disappointment at finding the Lord Gwydion dressed in a coarse jacket and mud-spattered boots, he followed the man with growing admiration. Nothing, Taran saw, escaped Gwydion's eyes. Like a lean, gray wolf, he moved silently and easily. A little way on, Gwydion stopped, raised his shaggy head and narrowed his eyes toward a distant ridge.

“The trail is not clear,” he said, frowning. “I can only guess she might have gone down the slope.”

“With all the forest to run in,” Taran queried, “how can we begin to search? She might have gone anywhere in Prydain.”

“Not quite,” answered Gwydion. “I may not know where she went, but I can be sure where she did not go.” He pulled a hunting knife from his belt. “Here, I will show you.”

Gwydion knelt and quickly traced lines in the earth. “These are the Eagle Mountains,” he said, with a touch of longing in his voice, "in my own land of the north. Here, Great Avren flows. See how it turns west before it reaches the sea. We may have to cross it before our search ends. And this is the River Ystrad. Its valley leads north to Caer Dathyl.

“But see here,” Gwydion went on, pointing to the left of the line he had drawn for the River Ystrad, “here is Mount Dragon and the domain of Arawn. Hen Wen would shun this above all. She was too long a captive in Annuvin; she would never venture near it.”

“Was Hen in Annuvin?” Taran asked with surprise. “But how...”

“Long ago,” Gwydion said, “Hen Wen lived among the race of men. She belonged to a farmer who had no idea at all of her powers. And so she might have spent her days as any ordinary pig. But Arawn knew her to be far from ordinary, and of such value that he himself rode out of Annuvin and seized her. What dire things happened while she was prisoner of Arawn--- it is better not to speak of them.”

“Poor Hen,” Taran said, “it must have been terrible for her. But how did she escape?”

“She did not escape,” said Gwydion. “She was rescued. A warrior went alone into the depths of Annuvin and brought her back safely.”

“That was a brave deed!” Taran cried. “I wish that I...”

“The bards of the north still sing of it,” Gwydion said. “His name shall never be forgotten.”

“Who was it?” Taran demanded.

Gwydion looked closely at him. “Do you not know?” he asked. “Dallben has neglected your education. It was Coll,” he said. “Coll Son of Collfrewr.”

“Coll!” Taran cried. “Not the same...”

“The same,” said Gwydion.

“But... but...” Taran stammered. “Coll? A hero? But... he's so bald!”

Gwydion laughed and shook his head. “Assistant Pig-Keeper,” he said, “you have curious notions about heroes. I have never known courage to be judged by the length of a man's hair. Or, for the matter of that, whether he has any hair at all.”

Crestfallen, Taran peered at Gwydion's map and said no more.

“Here,” continued Gwydion, "not far from Annuvin, lies Spiral Castle. This, too, Hen Wen would avoid at all cost. It is the abode of Queen Achren, She is as dangerous as Arawn himself; as evil as she is beautiful. But there are secrets concerning Achren which are better left untold.

“I am sure,” Gwydion went on, “Hen Wen will not go toward Annuvin or Spiral Castle. From what little I can see, she has run straight ahead. Quickly now, we shall try to pick up her trail.”

Gwydion turned Melyngar toward the ridge. As they reached the bottom of the slope, Taran heard the waters of Great Avren rushing like wind in a summer storm.

“We must go again on foot,” Gwydion said. “Her tracks may show somewhere along here, so we had best move slowly and carefully. Stay close behind me,” he ordered. “If you start dashing ahead--- and you seem to have that tendency--- you will trample out any signs she might have left.”

Taran obediently walked a few paces behind. Gwydion made no more sound than the shadow of a bird. Melyngar herself stepped quietly; hardly a twig snapped under her hoofs. Try as he would, Taran could not go as silently. The more careful he attempted to be, the louder the leaves rattled and crackled. Wherever he put his foot, there seemed to be a hole or spiteful branch to trip him up. Even Melyngar turned and gave him a reproachful look.

Taran grew so absorbed in not making noise that he soon lagged far behind Gwydion. On the slope, Taran believed he could make out something round and white. He yearned to be the first to find Hen Wen and he turned aside, clambered through the weeds--- to discover nothing more than a boulder.

Disappointed, Taran hastened to catch up with Gwydion. Overhead, the branches rustled. As he stopped and looked up, something fell heavily to the ground behind him. Two hairy and powerful hands locked around his throat.

Whatever had seized him made barking and snorting noises. Taran forced out a cry for help. He struggled with his unseen opponent, twisting, flailing his legs, and throwing himself from one side to the other.

Suddenly he could breathe again. A shape sailed over his head and crashed against a tree trunk. Taran dropped to the ground and began rubbing his neck. Gwydion stood beside him. Sprawled under the tree was the strangest creature Taran had ever seen. He could not be sure whether it was animal or human. He decided it was both. Its hair was so matted and covered with leaves that it looked like an owl's nest in need of housecleaning. It had long, skinny, woolly arms, and a pair of feet as flexible and grimy as its hands.

Gwydion was watching the creature with a look of severity and annoyance. “So it is you,” he said. “I ordered you not to hinder me or anyone under my protection.”

At this, the creature set up a loud and piteous whining, rolled his eyes, and beat the ground with his palms.

“It is only Gurgi,” Gwydion said. “He is always lurking about one place or another. He is not half as ferocious as he looks, not a quarter as fierce as he should like to be, and more a nuisance than anything else. Somehow, he manages to see most of what happens, and he might be able to help us.”

Taran had just begun to catch his breath. He was covered with Gurgi's shedding hair, in addition to the distressing odor of a wet wolfhound.

“O mighty prince,” the creature wailed, “Gurgi is sorry; and now he will be smacked on his poor, tender head by the strong hands of this great lord, with fearsome smackings. Yes, yes, that is always the way of it with poor Gurgi. But what honor to be smacked by the greatest of warriors!”

“I have no intention of smacking your poor, tender head,” said Gwydion. “But I may change my mind if you do not leave off that whining and sniveling.”

“Yes, powerful lord!” Gurgi cried. “See how he obeys rapidly and instantly!” He began crawling about on hands and knees with great agility. Had Gurgi owned a tail, Taran was sure he would have wagged it frantically.

“Then,” Gurgi pleaded, “the two strengthful heroes will give Gurgi something to eat? Oh, joyous crunchings and munchings!”

“Afterward,” said Gwydion. “When you have answered our questions.”

“Oh, afterward!” cried Gurgi. “Poor Gurgi can wait, long, long for his crunchings and munchings. Many years from now, when the great princes revel in their halls--- what feastings--- they will remember hungry, wretched Gurgi waiting for them.”

“How long you wait for your crunchings and munchings,” Gwydion said, “depends on how quickly you tell us what we want to know. Have you seen a white pig this morning?”

A crafty look gleamed in Gurgi's close-set little eyes. “For the seeking of a piggy, there are many great lords in the forest, riding with frightening shouts. They would not be cruel to starving Gurgi--- oh, no--- they would feed him...”

“They would have your head off your shoulders before you could think twice about it,” Gwydion said. “Did one of them wear an antlered mask?”

“Yes, yes!” Gurgi cried. “The great horns! You will save miserable Gurgi from hurtful choppings!” He set up a long and dreadful howling.

“I am losing patience with you,” warned Gwydion. “Where is the pig?”

“Gurgi hears these mighty riders,” the creature went on. “Oh, yes, with careful listenings from the trees. Gurgi is so quiet and clever, and no one cares about him. But he listens! These great warriors say they have gone to a certain place, but great fire turns them away. They are not pleased, and they still seek a piggy with outcries and horses.”

“Gurgi,” said Gwydion firmly, “where is the pig?”

“The piggy? Oh, terrible hunger pinches! Gurgi cannot remember. Was there a piggy? Gurgi is fainting and falling into the bushes, his poor, tender head is full of air from his empty belly.”

Taran could no longer control his impatience “Where is Hen Wen, you silly, hairy thing?” he burst out. “Tell us straight off! After the way you jumped on me, you deserve to have your head smacked.”

With a moan, Gurgi rolled over on his back and covered his face with his arms.

Gwydion turned severely to Taran. “Had you followed my orders, you would not have been jumped on. Leave him to me. Do not make him any more frightened than he is.” Gwydion looked down at Gurgi. “Very well,” he asked calmly, “where is she?”

“Oh, fearful wrath!” Gurgi snuffled, "a piggy has gone across the water with swimmings and splashings.'' He sat upright and waved a woolly arm toward Great Avren.

“If you are lying to me,” said Gwydion, “I shall soon find out. Then I will surely come back with wrath.”

“Crunchings and munchings now, mighty prince?” asked Gurgi in a high, tiny whimper.

“As I promised you,” said Gwydion.

“Gurgi wants the smaller one for munchings,” said the creature, with a beady glance at Taran.

“No, you do not,” Gwydion said. “He is an Assistant Pig Keeper and he would disagree with you violently.” He unbuckled a saddlebag and pulled out a few strips of dried meat, which he tossed to Gurgi. “Be off now. Remember, I want no mischief from you.”

Gurgi snatched the food, thrust it between his teeth, and scuttled up a tree trunk, leaping from tree to tree until he was out of sight.

“What a disgusting beast,” said Taran. “What a nasty, vicious...”

“Oh, he is not bad at heart,” Gwydion answered. “He would love to be wicked and terrifying, though he cannot quite manage it. He feels so sorry for himself that it is hard not to be angry with him. But there is no use in doing so.”

“Was he telling the truth about Hen Wen?” asked Taran.

“I think he was,” Gwydion said. “It is as I feared. The Horned King has ridden to Caer Dallben.”

“He burned it!” Taran cried. Until now, he had paid little mind to his home. The thought of the white cottage in flames, his memory of Dallben's beard, and the heroic Coll's bald head touched him all at once. “Dallben and Coll are in peril!”

“Surely not,” said Gwydion. "Dallben is an old fox. A beetle could not creep into Caer Dallben without his knowledge. No, I am certain the fire was something Dallben arranged for unexpected visitors.

“Hen Wen is the one in greatest peril. Our quest grows ever more urgent,” Gwydion hastily continued. “The Horned King knows she is missing. He will pursue her.”

“Then,” Taran cried, “we must find her before he does!”

“Assistant Pig-Keeper,” said Gwydion, “that has been, so far, your only sensible suggestion.”





BOOK: The Book Of Three
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