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Spirits from the Vasty Deep

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There was a door here once, thinks Owain, but now there is only a gap in the wall. He is not a superstitious man, but all the same, the sight of that empty place fills him with dread. Despite himself, he crosses his breast before he wades through the long grass that chokes the doorway.

His mother has always warned him to be wary of thresholds.

The last lords of Dinas Bran fled almost a hundred years ago with the English at their heels, taking with them the pride of Wales and leaving behind nothing more than a few heaps of stones that might once have been a fortress. In the half-light of sunrise, while the sun is still creeping over the shattered eastern wall, every window and every doorway opens onto darkness. The wind here is colder than he could have imagined.

Do you plan to sit vigil for a night in the castle, like Payn Peveril? his mother had asked. Will you fight a giant and take his treasure?--or is it a different demon you mean to face there?

He pauses at a south-facing window. Below the high hill of Dinas Bran, the valleys and villages slowly flood with light. A few threads of smoke rise from the hearths, catching sun and wind and spinning out into skeins of gold.

Dinas Bran is my birthright, he had told her. It's the legacy of my fathers. I want to see it, at least, before I go to London.

For the space of nine breaths, with his hand braced against the windowframe and one foot raised to surmount the sill, he feels a leavetaking ache that nearly swallows him up.

On the tenth breath, he thinks that surely someone will speak. Surely there will be someone there to speak.

Their defeat is your legacy, too, and that's demon enough for any man.

The hall is emptier than a grave.

*

In the Inns, they call him Owen Glendower and laugh at his precise handwriting. It takes him three times as long to copy down a set text as it takes anyone else, but even so, he can't let himself mar a single letter. He is writing of the laws, and his father and his foster-father have always taught him to honor the laws.

When his father spoke of legacies, he never spoke of Dinas Bran. That loss did not grieve him. Instead, he spoke in hushed tones of Hywel Dda the lawgiver, whose code did not survive the fortress's fall. The English cut down that ancient tree a hundred years ago, and in its place they planted the thicket of English common law.

Sometimes, when his fingers ache from holding the pen and his palms are nicked all over from sharpening it, he wishes he could cut through those foreign laws like so much bracken.

Owain's writing table cants at an angle even when he wedges a piece of wadded paper under one of the legs. He sits there until well after the last drinkers have gone to their beds, until the candlewax has flowed downhill in a wash and his eyes are beginning to fall shut, and still he holds the pen as though he means to write his salvation with it.

"You should sleep," says one of the fellow-students who share his rooms, raising his head from the mattress.

"The light's keeping us up," another agrees. "Go on, you fussy Welsh bugger. Sleep. You can finish in the morning."

"And you'll have to pay for the candles."

"There was never any question he was going to pay for the candles."

"Go on, Glendower, go to sleep."

"Or at least take your scratching outside."

"I will, then." With slow dignity, Owain shuffles pen and ink and paper into one hand and raises the candle with the other. The hot wax splashes over his hand, but he won't give the others the satisfaction of hearing him hiss.

He brings his work down to the common room, where a fat young man is snoring softly under a table. The room smells of drink, but more of drink and less of piss than the cheaper inns; the brethren of the Courts, at least, have some notion of respectability. He puts down his inkwell first on a sack-stained table, and then paper and pen.

Only when he sets his candle down does he see that the ink from his last lines has smeared. The entire page has been ruined. It will take an hour to recopy it, if he doesn't make another mistake, if he doesn't fall asleep at the table.

He breathes in deeply through his nose. The candleflame flickers on the exhalation, shuddering with his shaking breath. "I was born for better than this," he tells himself, like a plea, while the fat man snores on.

The stars wept fire when I bore you, his mother would often tell him, when he was a boy. She would stroke his hair and whisper, The earth shook, and black cats bore white litters; the sky was all aflame. You were born for great things, my Owain--you must trust the stars.

He cannot bear it.

He pinches out his candle and pushes himself to his feet. He leaves the pen and inkwell behind and steps out into the cool night air, turning his eyes up toward the sky.

He cannot find the constellations through the thick clouds. His mother would know where they hide, if he could ask her. She would have studied them until she could track their giddy wheeling in any season, so that she could always tell her children under which star they were born.

Owain wishes, suddenly, that he could remember which is his star.

All of London seems to hold its breath. Overhead, the sickle moon tips the lowering clouds with silver light, until even the moon has been smothered. "Please, give me something to set my course by," he asks, and he is too exhausted know whom he's begging. He knows only that it isn't God.

Through a break in the clouds, he sees a star strike fire and then fade.

It's almost an answer.

*

He does not go back to Dinas Bran again, although the ravens call to him from the broken towers. There are ravens picking at corpses' eyes all along the Tweed, and he is called to that far land to serve the English king.

"We shall make of this Tweed a wall against the Scots, as impregnable as the bitter seas!" proclaims John of Gaunt, but hard-eyed Henry of Northumberland is not moved by his proclamation.

The seas, too, can be crossed--Owain knows it as well as Northumberland--and not all that crosses them is mortal. It is said that St. Collen came by coracle to the feet of Dinas Bran, but whence he came or who he was, no one knows.

At times Owain Glyndwr goes down to where the river meets the shore. This, too, is a threshold, although John of Gaunt marks it not. This, too, is a passage between worlds.

He draws a circle in the silt and fills it with letters carefully scribed. He does not know the names of demons, and so he calls those names he knows.

He calls for Hywel the Good, for Bran the Blessed, and for Gruffydd his father.

He calls for Arawn to open a passage for the dead.