Imagine a crow flying at good height from Shropshire to the mid-Welsh county of Powys. It passes over the familiar raised earthwork of Offa's Dyke, which splits the landscape north and south like the wake of some giant subterranean worm. Far ahead and to the right it sees the high, glaciated spine of the Cambrian mountains, dark and sombre in the hazy distance, blotting out the rim of the pale blue sky. That is a forbidding place, unlike the gentle rural countryside unrolling before it. Here fields share the valleys with heath moorland and clear rocky streams. Higher up rise clean uniform rows of conifers like a well-trained battalion on parade, and, here and there, wilder groves of hazel and oak, a misty dark-blue in the distance. The green vales and rounded hills are dusted with a fine powder of grazing sheep; an occasional lone farmer is spied on the meadows, the sound of his whistle high and thin in the distance as he calls his dog around. But this tranquillity is, to some extent, illusory - witness the bleached bones of medieval outposts and the overgrown remains of iron-age forts and Norman mottes on the windswept hilltops and hillsides - broken remnants of bitter struggle and bloody war. And this is a landscape of invisible dimensions, whose boundaries and proportions have been forgotten over the ages, the map-makers long returned to the earth, but whose landmarks survive in isolated dolmens and lonely hermit cells. The past lies heavily on this country, impregnating the cold, clear air, soaking into the soil like spilt blood, and anybody who lingers feels its presence like a whisper of loss.
It was here, among these ancient monuments and earthworks, that I found the town of Mathrafal and the ruined castle that looms above it like a dark idol.
Although I know it all too well now, I was unaware of Mathrafal's existence until quite recently. It happened quite by chance, though sometimes I wonder if there wasn't a guiding hand - "everything comes gradually and at its own appointed hour," as the poet says.
A few months ago I was in Southampton for a conference, a somewhat tedious example of the species, alliteratively themed "Property, Politics and People in Later Medieval England". On the second morning I managed to escape the session on the Role of Bastard Feudalism in the Wars of the Roses and fled into town. The Town Hall boasts a fairly complete series of fifteenth century accounts, and I spent a couple of useful hours there, transcribing some interesting entries for the Agincourt year. It was when I was trudging reluctantly back to the university that a sudden downpour forced me into a second-hand bookshop, a narrow rectangle pressed between an Indian Restaurant and a launderette. There was little of interest - paperbacks with faded covers which had been bestsellers a couple of decades ago, self-help books, biographies of ancient movie stars, dry-as-dust academic textbooks on economics and accounting. The owner, a shrivelled old man with a face like a scrap of aged leather, indicated with a jerk of his head that I might find something of interest out back. I walked through to a dimly lit room with shelves of different sizes all around the walls and a large wooden table in the middle covered in plastic sheets. I deduced a leaky ceiling, and, as if on cue, a massive drop exploded onto one of the sheets and ran down onto the floor. Beneath the plastic were hundreds of books, dusty old hardcovers sans dustjackets that stared up at me like drowned swimmers, and although at a glance they looked promising, most turned out to be obscure Victorian romances or battered, mass market editions of Scott and Walpole and Trollope. There was one gem, however. Hidden on the bottom shelf of a rickety cabinet I discovered a copy of Aylmore's History and Antiquities of Powys - a bargain for twenty quid.
It was only when I got home and was leafing through the volume in the salubrious confines of my rooms at Lancaster College (having first stoked up the fire and made myself a drink) that I noticed someone had left a sheaf of papers in the book - two foolscap pages folded in half and joined by a rusty paper clip. I unfolded the paper and glanced at the first page. The heading read:
This looked interesting. I've always had a special fondness for the Welsh Marches. For me it is a land of romance and magic - of the great Marcher Lords, of the de Broases and de Bohuns, of Fulk Fitzwarine and Geoffrey of Monmouth, and perhaps even of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar - the mythical heart of Britain itself. This ancient landscape remains largely untouched by the excesses of modern life, it has not been scarred by black motorways, encroaching suburbia, and smoke-belching factories, and the lineaments of its ancient culture have not been entirely swept away. I daresay its isolation has protected it to some extent - wild moorlands of precipice and bog where mists descend without warning, uninhabited river valleys, hidden hamlets and villages with unpronounceable names - Bettws Disserdd, Llanwrthwl, Llanddewi Ystradenni. It's hard to believe, but only a generation ago Powys folk placed charms in the cradle to prevent the child being taken by the Tylwyth Teg, the Welsh fairies, and replaced with a changeling. And only a century ago Antiquity hinted at pagan worship in the Barriew caves where images of the horned god Cernunnos can still be seen by torchlight.
I also had a professional interest in the papers. For twenty years now I've taken an annual study tour of the castles of south-west England, culminating in an evening tour of Tintagel. This year I had been toying with the idea of taking my students to the great castles of Wales instead - Caernarfon, Harlech, Beaumaris; Mathrafal might be a possibility, a slight detour from Montgomery through country which had once been a haunt of Owain Glyndwr.
I sipped my whisky sour and read the closely typed pages:
The twelfth season of excavation showed that the castle can still produce new features and artefacts of interest: namely the vaulted cellar and its forecourt, the curving inner face of the North Tower, and, most spectacularly, the figurine of St Gwynllym.
The North Tower and the area between it and the north ditch provided the greatest interest. The back (south) wall of the Tower was exposed and was still standing to at least 2m high. There was a splayed window opening, centrally placed in this wall, and it was in a cavity in the window base that the figurine was excavated by Richard Thomas. The artefact, in iron and bronze, was a discovery of the first significance.
The main supervisors, Adam Hiscutt and Stewart Elliot, continued to assist in their usual professional manner, and their help following the tragic death of Richard Thomas was especially appreciated. Ethan Neadleman kept all surveying up to date, June Ellis did a cheerful job on finds and drinks, and Emily was an efficient minibus driver.
As in previous seasons, our stay near Mathrafal has been greatly facilitated by the assistance of local residents: Simon Peake (Fron Heulog Cottage), Mr and Mrs Michael Evans (Betws-y-Coed Campsite), Mr Ivor Griffiths (Mathrafal Campsite at Llowes), Dr Andrew Lloyd (Mathrafal). There has been a steady stream of visitors including four study visits from Mathrafal High School. The site foreman, Mr Colin Richmond, and all his colleagues were always ready to help.
Mathrafal excavations in 1992 will probably be July 4th - August 1st. This should complete the North-East Room, the lowest levels of the cellar and the remainder of the North Tower. The castle should then be opened to the discerning public in 1994 after 15 years of excavation.
Dr George Fraser
Director of Excavations
I put the report down on the table beside me and took another sip of my drink. An important find and a death seemed like inordinate excitement in a single season of a dig, but the castle itself wasn't especially exciting; an unspectacular example of a native Welsh fortress. I knew of at least two others in the vicinity - Montgomery and Dolforwyn - which were probably in better condition. Certainly it was worth a look though, if only to satisfy my curiosity - Mathrafal must have been an obscure place indeed if it had escaped my attention for all these years. Aylmore's book was still open on my lap and I flicked idly through it hoping to find something more on the ruins. There was something, a short passage relating a curious legend which I will recite here:
Mathrafal castle, now a ruin occupying a solitary point on the summit of a rocky outcrop high above the surrounding plain, was built in the fourteenth century by the feudal lord and mystic poet Iolo Goch. According to legend, he made a pact with the Devil. It was arranged that his soul was safe as long as he kept an image of St Gwynllym near him. Many times Satan tried to snare him and failed. As it happened, because he was too evil to go to heaven but too clever to be trapped by the Devil, he became a wraith, haunting the castle ruins forever after. Such is the hold of the legend over the popular imagination that when I visited the town in the summer of 1821 I could not find a local man willing to take me to the ruins, which are in a sad state of decay.
The story appealed to me. I've always had a passionate interest in romance, in old legends and tales: I first became a student of the Middle Ages as a young boy reading Malory and Beowulf. And this one offered something more - the link with the figurine mentioned in the report was intriguing and could form the basis of a short article in Notes and Queries or Folklore.
I suppose that is what ultimately swayed me to visit Mathrafal: the prospect of a publication. I hadn't published anything for almost two years, not since I edited a collection of conference papers for Alan Sutton, and I was beginning to experience some pressure from within the faculty, tiny rumblings of discontent which I knew could develop into something more serious if I wasn't careful. A couple of thousand words, quickly knocked up over a weekend, might keep the wolves at bay for a while. Don't get me wrong. It's not that I'm lazy or apathetic, but these days research appeals to me less and less - I feel out of place in the Public Record Office now that it has moved to Kew, and I find the new British Library incomprehensible. Most of my energy is devoted to teaching, and, God knows, these days undergraduates need more help than ever before: Latin is non-existent, and one would be excused for thinking that English has been erased from the school syllabus.
An opportunity to travel to Wales didn't arise for some weeks, not until a Saturday morning seminar at Cardiff presented itself. It was organised by an old student of mine, Patrick Ryan, a gifted historian who had gone on to an academic career. I decided to visit Mathrafal after the seminar, spend the afternoon at the castle, and perhaps stay there overnight if the place appealed to me.
Saturday was overcast, the sky low and heavy and grey as pewter. It rained intermittently, but the drive was smooth and incident-free, and I made Cardiff in quick time - I like fast cars and I drive a late model Alfa Romeo, one of the few luxuries I allow to intrude on an otherwise Spartan bachelor existence.
The seminar was tolerable, a couple of graduate students waxing lyrical about their thesis topics, and there was some lively discussion afterwards. Later Pat and I enjoyed a pint together in the senior common room, chatting about university politics - who was on the rise, who was out of favour, the perennial funding crisis. Pat was his usual self, blustering angrily about the state of higher education in this country, how it was in terminal decline thanks to decades of government neglect. He was still the same fiery-tempered Irishman I'd supervised at Lancaster (his PhD examiners had written in their otherwise glowing report that he was "unnecessarily belligerent"), but his heart was in the right place.
After a while I mentioned that I was planning to visit Mathrafal on the way home and showed him a copy of the excavation report I'd found. I knew Pat had done some research on the Welsh Marches and its relations with the English crown, and I thought he might be able to tell me something more about the castle. He read the report carefully, elbows propped on the table with his head in his hands. When he'd finished I saw a glint of excitement in his eyes. I'd piqued his interest.
"I've heard some odd stories about that excavation," he said. "I know for a fact that work didn't resume at the site the following year."
That was odd. It had been a major excavation, an expensive and time-consuming operation, and from the evidence of the report, it was yielding good results. Why cut it short?
"What happened?" I asked.
"It was an unlucky dig, to put it mildly, beset by a succession of unfortunate accidents."
I arched an eyebrow. "Sounds like a case for Inspector Poirot."
"Or Carnacki the Ghost-Finder." Pat took a draught of pale ale and looked at me levelly. "There were only small things at first - equipment going missing, members of the excavation team falling sick, bad weather delaying work - but it culminated in a death."
"Ah yes," I said. "That was mentioned in the report. A chap named Richard Thomas."
"He was found dead in his tent at a local campsite. Apparently he died of a massive heart attack. He was thirty-two years old. The incident so affected the Director, George Fraser, that he abandoned the excavation."
I'd been pushing my pint glass around, making moist circles on the table, but now I looked up in surprise. "Abandoned? Surely not! He'd been working on the project for ten years - all that work down the drain!"
"It gets worse. He actually wanted to return the figurine to the site - re-inter it."
I shook my head in astonishment. "What on earth for?"
"Nobody knows for certain. One explanation was that Fraser turned heretic, that he began to question the right of his team to dig up and carry off the antiquities of Wales; apparently some of the locals were pretty angry at their heritage being ripped up and sent off to museums in England." He drained the rest of his pint. "I did, however, hear another explanation. A colleague of Fraser's at York told me that the pressures of the dig had begun to affect his mind. Apparently Fraser developed an elaborate fantasy that removing the figurine had released something from the ruins, a demon or devil of some kind."
"Ah," I said, "it appears he had heard the legend of Iolo Goch."
Pat looked at me blankly and I recounted the legend I had read in the Aylmore volume. When I finished he leaned eagerly over the table. "You know, that sheds some light on an incident that had puzzled me. Evidently, the charm or whatever it was disappeared from the Archaeology Department at York. It still hasn't been found."
"Incredible. But surely Fraser was the main suspect?"
"Naturally. There was even talk that he was involved in Thomas's death. His flat was searched and a thorough inspection was made of the excavation site - the police thought he may have returned it - but the object was never recovered."
I shook my head in amazement. From time to time bizarre things happen in academia, but this was a little extreme.
"And what happened to Fraser?" I inquired.
"He was committed to an asylum, poor chap. Killed himself not long afterwards; hanged himself with a bedsheet."
We were both silent for a while. Pat was absorbed in the excavation report while I finished off my pint and meditated gloomily on Fraser's tragic end. Finally Pat looked up from the papers.
"I wonder if you would mind particularly if I joined you?" he said. "I might find something of use for my own research. I could stay overnight with you and catch a bus home tomorrow morning."
"Of course," I said. I welcomed the idea; certainly I would appreciate the company - dining alone in an unfamiliar town can be dispiriting for an elderly man, and Pat was an engaging, and potentially useful, companion. I checked my watch.
"We had better get going," I said. "I'd like to have a look around the castle this afternoon before it gets dark."
We stopped by Pat's flat for his overnight bag and then we set off. I made good time down the A470 before turning off at Dolfor, down a narrow secondary road, little more than a lane really. I was unfamiliar with this part of the border country; it seemed wild, untamed - a land of heath and bog and boulder, unmarked by human cultivation. The clouds swept low over the land, flotillas of unearthly galleons, and before long the rain came, driving down relentlessly, transforming the landscape into a vague, insubstantial smear. Finally, after an hour or so, a dark smudge on the windscreen slowly grew and solidified into a rocky wooded hill crowned with broken walls and battlements. On either side of it, dark heathland stretched away to distant hills. Down below us, in the lee of the outcrop, like a muddy drop of Autumn snow, was a tiny cluster of buildings.
Not too long ago Mathrafal was a bustling market centre, boasting two annual fairs and an MP at Westminster; now it is a tiny hamlet, little more than a wide cobblestoned street bordered by stone cottages with slate roofs and high chimneys. Only the solid Georgian Town Hall recalls the glory days of the place. Built of pale red brick, with large sash windows and a clock-tower poking out of its middle, it stands defiant in the centre of the broad town square. I parked in front of it and we trudged the short distance to the Dragon Inn.
I was half expecting the sort of small country pub you see in films, where every face turns to stare at you when you walk through the door, but nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact the lounge bar was large and cheerful, comfortably full, with a fire blazing in a big Inglenook fireplace. Antique farming tools hung from the walls - an old scythe, a horse's bridle, part of a plough - all carefully polished. The proprietor, Mr Rowlands, was a red-faced, jovial man with a pot-belly that trembled like a water bed when he laughed.
We trooped out to the hallway and signed the guest book, then he led us up to our rooms on the first floor. Though the inn was a little ragged around the edges - threadbare carpet, faded curtains, high corners hung with spider webs - the rooms were cosy and comfortable, the hard edges of the solid oak furniture softened with pastels and floral prints, doubtless the salutary influence of Mrs Rowlands. Pat and I had adjoining rooms with an excellent view over the town, with the broken battlements, like jagged teeth, hard against the overcast sky. I walked over to the window and looked out. The rain had stopped for the moment and the ancient stones of the ruins seemed to glow with a pale light of their own. It looked like a huge, grey beast, a dragon perhaps, perched up there on the hill, its bones showing. And there was something else. I squinted through the rain-streaked window and blinked. High up on the battlements was what appeared to be a scarecrow, a painfully thin, gaunt figure clothed in grey rags which billowed around its emaciated body. Whatever it was - a scarecrow, a guy, an effigy of some kind - I was convinced it was not a living thing; you can tell something like that, even from a distance.
I glanced quickly towards Rowlands who was still settling me into my room, with the intention of calling him over to have a look, but when I turned back to the window the figure was gone. I frowned, searching the battlements, but there was no one there. Evidently I was mistaken, my 'scarecrow' must have been flesh and blood, a tramp or vagrant perhaps, though God only knew what someone would be doing up there in this weather.
"Is the castle open to the public?" I had assumed that because the excavation was never completed, the castle had never been prepared for general public access, but if someone was up there...
"The castle, sir?" he said, checking the supply of sugar cubes and English Breakfast tea bags next to the electric kettle. "No. Hasn't been in my lifetime, nor my father's lifetime for that matter. It's dangerous, see; falling masonry an' all. More than one person's been killed up there over the years."
I was relieved. The fewer people tramping up there the better. Tourists and hikers, though invariably well intentioned, were a nuisance I could do without - they could alter the entire 'feel' of a site. In my opinion, the great castles of Wales have been ruined by being turned into gaudy tourist attractions - they've lost their soul. And for that reason unspoilt Mathrafal offered something special: a window into the past.
A movement on the battlements caught my attention. I squinted through the pane, streaked with tiny tributaries of rain. A pale head bobbed between the gaps in the battlements and my heart missed a beat Then the head became a white cat, a big tom, walking along the ledge behind the jutting stones. I let out a thin whistle of breath.
"There's signs, sir."
"What?" I said quickly. The cat had suddenly disappeared as if something had grabbed it from behind.
"You know, signs - 'No trespassing', 'Walk here at your own risk' - that sort of thing."
"Ah, I see. But people do go up there. I thought I just saw someone on the battlements."
"On the battlements..." he repeated uncomprehendingly.
"Yes, someone standing on the battlements just a few moments ago - a tramp I suspect; he looked like a tramp."
Rowlands uttered something under his breath, a Welsh prayer perhaps, or a curse, then he excused himself, explaining that he was needed downstairs.
I was still looking out the window a few minutes later when Pat knocked on the door. He was wearing a thick winter jacket, old denims and a pair of sturdy hiking boots. I cursed myself for not bringing my own outdoors gear; it looked like we would find the castle, as Aylmore did early last century, in a 'sad state of decay'.
"You had better keep to the path," Pat advised lightly when I was ready to go a few minutes later, decked out in brogues, cream trousers and a woollen jumper. "I'll do the dirty work."
I looked at him, perplexed. "What dirty work?"
"Never you mind," he said vaguely.
We didn't run into Rowlands on the way out, which I was grateful for; I rather felt that he wouldn't have approved of our expedition. Outside, the rain was still holding off and everywhere there was the plink-plunk of dripping water and the wet hiss of passing cars. We crossed the square, passed the Town Hall and entered a narrow cobblestoned street lined with tiny stone and timber-framed cottages. Ahead I could see a church spire visible above the pale, skeletal limbs of oak and elm trees. The street opened out into a shaded churchyard scattered with broken, moss-covered tombstones. A rutted turf path bisected the cemetery and we followed it through drifts of dead leaves. Soon the path rose steeply through a thick fringe of hawthorn scrub and woodland. Far above, when I craned my neck forward and looked up beyond the line of the trees, I could see the grey broken walls and turrets of the castle. Against the heaving black sky the sheer face of the wall beetled and throbbed like a live thing. I looked away, following the path with my eyes - it snaked and trembled before us, leading us in towards the summit.
The beginning of the climb wasn't particularly difficult, but soon the path became quite treacherous, strewn with rocks and pitted with potholes and bumps. On either side, elm and birch shed copious tears which became a torrent when a gust of wind shook their shoulders. Trembling spider webs, silver gossamer threads, were strung between branch and bough, glistening enticingly. Always above us the black clouds fumed and billowed, promising a fresh deluge.
We had to stop twice before we reached the castle so that I could catch my breath - middle age and a sedentary lifestyle had taken their toll on me. I sat on a rock at the side the road, ignoring the dampness soaking into my trousers, regaining my breath. Finally the path emerged at the southern end of the castle; the wall on this side was broken and fragmentary, the stones carted away by the townsfolk over the centuries. A rather decrepit looking entrance ramp provided access into the ruins. Doubtless it had been set up by Fraser's team to facilitate excavation, but now weeds were growing up through the cracks in the wood and the beams were warped and splitting. Carefully we made our way into the enclosure.
The castle was just a shell, old bones laid bare. Over the centuries the carcass had been picked clean. The plan was simple - the rectangular curtain wall enclosed, at the western end, a large rectangular keep, and, at the northern end, the remains of a circular tower; the latrine shafts were situated by the eastern wall. The main entrance was in the western wall and opened out into a small courtyard below the keep. It was obvious that the castle had few visitors. The ground was boggy and thick with wild grass and weeds that in places came up to my waist; here and there stunted oak trees rose out of the earth hung with dark draperies of ivy, which also covered much of the walls. Signs of the old excavation were still visible - a scribble of shallow trenches half full of muddy water, and mounds of earth and rubble sprouting lank vegetation. It was getting cold; the wind was becoming gustier, sending ripples through the high grass and rattling the trees. High above, a crow cried, the loneliest sound in the world, and I shivered.
At various times in my life I have experienced first-hand that curious feeling of being watched - the hair on the nape of my neck stands on end and I can sense someone's gaze on my back. I must stress that this is by no means a frequent occurrence: presumably, as a reasonably well-known figure at Lancaster College, I am surreptitiously scrutinised dozens of times during the day with varying degrees of affection and malevolence, but certainly I do not experience a recurring 'creeping of the flesh' as I go about my business. However, sometimes I do become aware that something is taking a special interest in me. I use the word 'something' deliberately, because the scrutiniser doesn't necessarily have to be human - once with my niece at London Zoo I had the feeling I was being watched, but when I turned there was nobody there... nobody, that is, except a sleek black panther observing me hungrily from the confines of its cage.
Now, as I stood on the ramp gazing down at the tangled jungle before me, I had that feeling again. I knew deep within me that I was under scrutiny. I remembered the tramp on the castle wall and wondered if he was still here somewhere. Perhaps these ruins were his home - a vagrant with nowhere else to live, or a local eccentric who, like a medieval hermit, preferred to lead a solitary existence far from civilisation. That was probably the explanation; after all he must know the place pretty well if he made it up to the battlements without mishap. As far as I could see there was no easy way up there, no hand rails or access ramps; even for a seasoned rock-climber it would be a foolhardy exercise fraught with danger, especially in this weather - a person could so easily be swept off by a gust of wind. I looked carefully around, expecting to spot a grim face glaring stonily out from behind a wall or a tree, but I didn't see him. In fact, I was suddenly struck by the realisation that there wasn't a living creature to be seen at all - not a bird amongst the trees, or a hare or vole in the undergrowth.
I had seen enough. It was clear at a glance that Mathrafal wasn't suitable for my castle tour; I didn't want to go tramping around in the boggy ground, and with the weather threatening I was keen to get back to the warmth of the inn. I told Pat that I wanted to head back. He was looking intently at the ruined tower in the north wall and, without turning to me, he said: "There are a few things here I'd like to have a closer look at first. You go on. I'll catch up with you on the way."
I shrugged and wished him luck. It was no use arguing with him; when something snagged his interest, nothing could drag him away from it until he'd satisfied his curiosity. Many were the times at Lancaster when I'd left him poring over a medieval document or manuscript at the university library late at night. I knew he would remain here regardless of the weather until he had finished his business, whatever that was. I almost told him about my 'phantom' tramp, but I knew he would just laugh at me; instead I told him not to dally.
The rain came when I was half-way down the hill and it quickly became very dark. I found it difficult to see even a few feet in front of me; I tripped up on the uneven ground a couple of times, once sliding a few feet down the slope. By the time I reached the inn I was in a sorry state - drenched to the bone and streaked with mud - but I was glad to have made it in one piece. The storm was intensifying - thunder rolled across the heavens and lightning splintered the sky like glass; and all the time the rain fell in a furious impenetrable curtain. I looked back for a moment, hoping to see Pat emerge out of the darkness, but there was no one.
The lobby was deserted and I trudged up the stairs to my room. I had a quick shower, steaming hot, and changed into dry clothes, then I went out to the landing and knocked on Pat's door, certain that he would be back by now.
There was no answer.
A small knot of anxiety formed in the pit of my stomach and, like a drop of ink on a blotter, began to spread.
Slowly I walked back to my room and closed the door. The sound of the storm was stronger now and the window rattled and shook with the force of the wind. I recalled that in the Middle Ages storms weren't taken lightly, but were charged with a vital significance, a wealth of possible meanings. They augured great and terrible events: the fall of Constantinople to the infidel, the death of popes and emperors, great victories and defeats. Or they could be instruments of the Devil and his legions: in the Harrowing of Hell didn't Christ encounter fiends which "reared tempysts and wynds that destroyed houses and stepuls and trees"? Didn't Owain Glyndwr, the great Welsh rebel, enlist demons and witches to bring down "rockes, mystes, wyndes and stormes" to hamper Henry IV's campaign against him?
I wondered what this storm augured; was it an instrument of God or the Devil? I peered out. Night had fallen early. Leaves and scraps of paper danced and swirled on the turbulent air. The top of a tree thrashed and struggled as if trying to escape an invisible attacker. There was no one on the street, only the empty shells of cars, and the liquid orange glow of sodium streetlights. The castle was a black ominous shape in the distance.
I wondered if Pat had slipped somewhere and broken his leg, or had knocked his head and slid into one of the water-filled trenches...
Suddenly there was a massive clap of thunder and the sky lit up silver-blue. The castle battlements stood out starkly against the black sky.
The scarecrow was there again.
Involuntarily I took a step back and my heart leapt into my throat.
It stood on the battlements in the lashing wind and rain, staring down at the town like an emaciated figurehead on the prow of a ghost-ship. It was there for the briefest of moments before blackness settled over the castle once more.
At that instant the door to my room swung open and Pat stuck his head around it. He looked like a drowned rat - his clothes drenched, his face smeared with mud like war paint, his hair hanging in lank knots - but he was grinning triumphantly as if he had just walked off Cardiff Arms Park having single-handedly demolished the Welsh.
"Made it!" he said breathlessly. I opened my mouth, but before I could say anything he was gone.
I turned back to the window. In a few moments lightning flashed again. The battlements were deserted, the figure had disappeared.
Suddenly I felt that I didn't want to be alone. I walked back out to the landing and knocked on Pat's door. There was no response, but I could hear that the shower was on. I tried the door and found it unlocked. Steam billowed into the room through the bathroom doorway. The room was a replica of mine, though he had added his own personal touches - the floor was littered with wet clothes, his wallet, keys and some loose coins scattered on the bed. And there was something else. At first I thought it was a twisted knot of metal, or a rusty tin can bent out of shape. It was only when I approached it that I saw it was, in fact, a statuette or figurine. I picked it up and hefted it in my hand; it was quite heavy, though only eight or nine inches tall. Clay and earth still adhered to it, obscuring much of the detail, but it was clearly a figure seated on a high-backed chair or throne. It was wearing a crown of some kind; in one hand it held a cross, in the other a crosier or staff. I felt some marks or scratches on the base of the figurine and I turned it over. Words had been carved onto it, but all I could make out were the letters SCTUS, the usual abbreviation for the Latin "sanctus" or saint.
"Remarkable, isn't it?"
I looked up in guilty surprise. Pat was standing at the bathroom door rubbing his hair with a towel. I'd been so engrossed in the figurine that I hadn't noticed when he turned the water off, or maybe the sound of the storm had drowned it out.
"It's the missing figurine," I said.
He nodded, buttoning up his shirt. "Fraser put it back after all; he returned it to the precise spot where it was discovered."
"But how did you know... Ah, of course - the excavation report!"
Pat grinned, obviously pleased with himself. "Exactly. The report says where it was found - in a cavity in the north tower. It was just a matter of sloshing through the mud and digging it out of the wall. Easy pickings. Though I must say, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being watched; I kept looking around expecting to be confronted by a mob of angry locals carrying fire-brands."
A noise from the window drew me. The storm was pressing against the pane, hunting for a way inside. Pat went on, oblivious. "Amazing coincidence you stumbling across the report like that. I don't think anyone knew of its existence, apart from Fraser himself, of course. The copy you found is probably unique, an unfinished draft."
He placed the figure on the bedside table. Its eyes were tiny points of blackness, sightless wells; its mouth a wide gash. The nose was missing and the face curiously ridged. It certainly didn't look like any saint I'd seen, unless it was a martyr who had suffered a particularly appalling death.
"Who was St Gwynllym?" Pat asked. "I've never heard of him."
I shrugged. "My hagiography is very rusty these days," I said, gazing at the figurine. "I've a vague recollection that he was a Celtic chieftain who was converted by his son after a lifetime of pagan worship." Under the glare of the bedside lamp I could make out more detail - the emaciated, almost skeletal, body reminiscent of medieval images of the suffering Christ, and the strange ribbed head-dress the like of which I hadn't seen before.
Pat said: "Seems odd that such an obscure saint would be so closely identified with Iolo Goch."
I looked more closely at the figurine, squinting my eyes at the light.
"St Gwynllym might be unknown now," I said absently, "but that doesn't mean he was unfamiliar to folk in medieval Wales; there are dozens of Welsh saints, but the only one people remember these days is St David."
What I had thought was a staff was in fact an ear of corn, and the cross suddenly looked very much like a snake sprouting three heads. And the hands! They were like long, curling talons...
Pat screamed then, or, rather, tried too - all that came out of his fear-constricted throat was a dry, rasping sound. When I looked across at him, the blood had gone from his face and his eyes bulged like blood-flecked marbles. His hand was raised towards the window, as if blocking it from his sight. I could hear the pane rattling and heaving, the noise of the storm I told myself, but when I looked I realised it wasn't the storm at all.
There was a face pressed against the window, a dead face - grey skin like dry parchment stretched tight over jutting bone; bloodless lips peeled back over a rotting maw which foamed with black muck; lank clumps of hair twisted in the wind like snakes; thin, fleshless hands clung to the cold sill. But if the body was dead, the eyes were alive, needle points of red flame, radiating a terrible malevolence. The thing was watching us intently, and - I swear - it recognised us; if it saw us again at some future time it would know us.
I can't remember if I cried out - my mind went blank for a time, and when I regained my senses the face was gone. I don't recall how long we sat there in silence while the wind whistled around the eaves and rain clattered against the pane like handfuls of gravel.
Finally I said, "Of course, we have to return the figurine."
Pat nodded, unwilling or unable to speak.
I don't remember much of that journey through the night, with the storm all about us, jeering our folly. Thinking about it now, I am amazed that I made it in one piece. We returned the figurine without incident, though on more than one occasion I caught a glimpse of a ragged shape out of the corner of my eye. We got back to the inn before closing time, but we didn't stop to enjoy a last pint. I don't think either of us slept that night; I certainly did not, and I left at dawn, hoping to put as many miles as I could between myself and Mathrafal. That evening I rang Pat. He'd made it back to Cardiff okay, but he wasn't feeling well at all; he couldn't shake the disturbing feeling that he was being watched...
The last two months I've tried to forget the events of that day and night, throwing myself into teaching with renewed vigour, and most weekends I'm away at a conference or seminar, the inevitable graduate student in tow, these days as a distraction from my own thoughts. I've even started a new book, tentatively titled Sign and Cause - the Supernatural in Medieval Thought. I have largely succeeded in banishing Mathrafal from my mind, though at certain times, late at night when I am trying to sleep, that dead face conjures itself on the back of my eyelids.
Last week things took a turn for the worse. Pat was found dead in his office. For some weeks he had been working late at the university, surrounded by countless volumes on Welsh hagiography and folklore. He appeared quite strained to his colleagues - "hunted" one of them told the police - but no one suspected he was in such a fragile state of mind that he would consider hanging himself.
This morning I noticed an advertisement in the classified section of the latest History Today:
If I'm lucky, this latest incursion on Iolo Goch's territory might buy me some time. That is, if I can make it to summer.
You see, although I've been taking extra precautions - carefully locking all the doors and windows (not an onerous task in my small flat) and pulling the curtains tight - last night while I was relaxing with a whisky sour in the comfortable confines of my study I felt the hackles stir on the back of my neck.
Copyright (c) 1999 James Doig
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