When, on the morrow, the dragon snatched the best of Gwyn’s flock, the act struck the lowly shepherd as premeditated or, perhaps, preordained, except by mutual consent of both parties. As the dragon crossed the September sky, Gwyn knew he was witnessing his future in the talons of the fiery feathered beast. So with the weight of having nothing left to lose, aside from his father’s flock, he abandoned the sheep’s welfare to the dogs and followed the shadow of the dragon as it coasted toward the forest.
At the edge of the trees, Gwyn nearly stumbled into an old woman whose body bent itself in an unnatural, humpbacked way toward the mossy ground, where she was digging up mushrooms. Gwyn recognized her as the old witch who lived in a small hut in the woods. He started as she suddenly sprang up to her full height and steadied her jittery, marble blue eyes on his face.
“I….I,” he stuttered, and his fingers found the cross pendant round in his neck, one of the only objects he had to remind him of his mother who had passed in his youth.
“You’re following after the gwiber,” the old witch said.
“He’s stolen my lamb.”
“And he’ll steal more than that before he’s done with his stealing. No, no, I’ll content myself with Penny Buns for stew.”
Gwyn, who wanted only to be on his way, but who dreaded the witch’s stews and Penny Buns and curses, absently bent down and plucked a large toadstool. He handed it to her as an oblation.
In a flash, she hid it in her basket. “Who do you want me to kill with this, my little Destroying Angel, eh? Would that be the beast himself, or the nobleman who holds your desired maiden in his arms night after night?”
Alarmed, Gwyn shook his head and reached out to the witch’s basket. “I want nothing to do with killing. I meant it as a token of, of….”
“Gratitude?” She handed the toadstool back to him. “Do with it what you will, but think twice, three times before trading your soul for the world. Rescue your lamb, and then ask yourself if the children might already live in freedom before rescuing them to bondage.”
His hands trembling, Gwyn dropped the toadstool and wandered away from the old woman, not knowing what direction to take; he’d long lost the shadow of the beast.
He heard her faint voice on the wind, “He cannot survive without water. His cave is at the river’s mouth, behind the veil.”
The day darkened as he hiked by the side of the river, and he thought about what the witch had told him: the dragon’s cave is behind the veil. As the foliage at the riverside became unnavigable, he slipped into the water and walked upstream. The waterway narrowed and slipped between slabs of rock outcroppings draped in vines. His heart thudded. There it was—a waterfall, a veil of water streaming over the rocks, and behind it, a dark space. He sensed the dragon, and he knew, as he crossed the veil of water, that he would have no possibility of retreat.
From nowhere, the shouts of boys echoed around the hollow of murky rock. Three small boys shot past him, through the veil, whooping and splashing in the water. The children were playing—smiles wreathing their rosy faces. Then he heard the bleating of his sheep, and the sound wasn’t joyous, but a choked, frightened noise. Gywn moved forward into the darkness, attracted to the glow of a lamp lost in the blackness. It was a lamp that cast no shadows and refused to flicker in the draft.
“Boys!” he heard a female voice. He couldn’t be certain and, yet, the smooth tones were familiar to his ear–pleasing. “Boys!”
He halted as her figure materialized beside the glowing orb she held aloft. “Elen?”
“Oh, dear Gwyn, I’ve been waiting for you a very long time. He’s been waiting for you, too.”
“Our Gwiber Yago.”
“Why are you here?”
“Yago is with us, my love. We’re either with him, or against him, although he’s never against us. We either make an ally of him, or of the King. Yago will protect us either way.”
The chill of the cave crept up his back. “No, I will not be under the protection of a beast.”
“He’s not a beast. He’s the minister of our future. He promised us fertility, many blessings, many children.”
“Our fertility, Elen? Between you and me? Or the fertility of the land?”
“Ours, Gwyn. He’s waiting for you in the inner cave. Go.”
Gwyn went, his feet stepping forward willingly, and his heart, too, though his mind couldn’t make sense of the offering. At the opening of the inner cave, the passage was so narrow he could touch the walls on either side of him, and he could smell a faint waft of smoke. He ducked his head and entered into a room with a fire pit that lit up piles of shadowy treasure with one flicker and then another. At the fore of the treasure, the gwiber waited, stamping its birdlike feet as though impatient. The stolen lamb ran pellmell, skittering over the piles of gold. The lamb’s bleats should have torn Gwyn’s heart, but there was too much at stake to worry over a lost animal.
“I’m here to fetch the son of the High Sheriff,” Gwyn said, though he wasn’t altogether certain that was his purpose here.
“The reward you will receive is paltry compared to the one I offer.”
The gwiber’s surprisingly gentle voice didn’t reassure Gwyn. The shepherd kept his distance. “What are you offering?”
“The world, my friend. I’m offering you a portion of my treasure, and political power in your realm.”
“And what do I have to give in exchange?”
“What you have to give is nothing. You will do my bidding and live by my standard, you and your male children, up to the fourteenth generation.”
“And what if I or my offspring choose not to do your bidding?”
“What I ask of you will never be onerous; it will always benefit your village. But in the case you decide to turn from me, you will die young. And, yet, you will die young and wealthy, leaving your family with riches.”
“She will be yours. She is already yours; she and the son of the High Sheriff in her womb. I’ve taken no son but the one in Elen’s womb.”
At those words, Gwyn’s heart broke, and the gravity of the situation fell on his shoulders. He had walked into a trap–a trap devised by a man who already possessed all the wealth he needed.
“I’m taking on another man’s contract,” Gwyn said. “That is something I can’t do.”
“If he refuses my bidding, he will die young, and you will still win the treasure and the bride. More fool that he was, he believed he could worm his way out of my contract and still keep his wealth and power.”
Gwyn thought about it–the rent in his heart growing. How could he respect his wife-to-be, or the lord who resided over his land?
“And if I don’t sign, all I lose is one lamb?” Gwyn smiled at the simplicity. He would return a shepherd, with no wealth and no love–just as before. And the lamb was surely taken by a rabid beast–his father would believe the lie.
“I will have to keep Elen. She will be my bride, if not the bride of you foolish men who reject my offers.”
Despite the damp, Gwyn broke into a sweat. He wanted to run from the cave, and he turned around, swallowing air into his dry throat. There Elen stood, in the glow of her orb, at the entrance to the inner cave. Her eyes pleaded with him, and he detected that her body shook with fright.
“Elen,” he said. He swallowed back air again, and the bile that rose from his stomach. “I’ll sign your contract, gwiber. But I’ll do so for Elen, and not for the treasure.”
Elen bowed her head, as though in shame. “Don’t be a fool, Gwyn. Take the treasure. What does it matter now?”
He nodded, and the gwiber handed him a plume and parchment, which he quickly signed to be done with it.
“Take only what you can carry away in one purse,” the gwiber said. “You won’t be allowed to return, and this is the richest sort of treasure that can never be fully spent.”
Because Gwyn wouldn’t move–because his young body felt suddenly stiff and old and frozen–Elen scooped a handful of gold into her own purse. She held out her hand to him.
As he took it, tears sprang to his eyes. She guided him and the little lamb that followed them both out of the cave and back through the waterfall, back upstream and through the tangled density of forest, out into the clearing.
The wedding feast occurred on the following Sunday and, although Gwyn found happiness with his lot in life, his treasure and his bride–although he lived to a ripe old age, long past the High Sheriff’s early death, he wore sadness in his heart that could never be shaken. And he watched his firstborn son die young, and then watched with trepidation as his first grandson grew to be a fine, young man whose heart tended only toward evil.