A Welsh drover was accustomed to attending Barnett fair. He had set out from Wales on what was to be his droving last journey. He would marry on his return. He had already carved the spoon and given it to the girl he loved.
Though he had benefited from his travels, he wouldn’t say he was going to miss the droving life. His Mari was sweet of temper and fair of face with hair the colour of spring daffodils and it was a long hard walk from Wales to London with wide rivers and many streams to cross, herding cattle and horses, not to mention the sheep and geese. No he wouldn’t miss it but he had it in mind to see the sights of London, once more, before he ceased his roaming. He would see the White Tower built on the very mound where here the head of Bendigeidfran once lay buried. He would see Llud’s great gate and the mighty Thames with its upper and lower pools for shipping. Grand, it would be and what a tale to tell Mari on his return.
So it was, after having seen the great city with its merchants and traders and its elegant concourses and courtly men and women dressed in their finery, and having supped in style at the Anchor and having tasted it’s fine ale, he found himself, at last, on London Bridge with gold jiggling in his right pocket and a stout Hazel staff in his left hand (for everyone knows a stout stick is as necessary to a drover as teeth are to his dog). It is by reason of this same stick, the stranger who greeted him would have known him to be a traveller from among Cymru.
He was a queer looking fellow, the stranger. A good deal shorter than the average person and wizened as an old oak. The very sight of him made the drover’s thumbs prick. That and the soft mossy cut of his cloth, the green of his linen and hose, marked him as one of the fair family.
Now the drover was a wily fellow and knew himself to be safe. Didn’t he have a cross in his pocket made from the sapling branches of a rowan and, besides, what possible harm could come to him on old London Bridge?
‘Do not take it amiss, good sir,’ the fair one bowed low, ‘If I ask you where your staff is from.’
Well, it wasn’t what the drover expected. He looked down at his stick. It was indeed fine. It had served him many a year. Never cracking or wearing, only mellowing. He had never once been tempted to replace it.
‘Why do you ask me, good sir?’ It was wise to be circumspect when dealing with fairies.
The stranger dimpled his green eyes winking. Here was magic, the drover could feel its glaucous mist gathering around him.
‘There is treasure hidden beneath the ground from which you cut that stick. Lead me to it and I will put you in possession of a great wealth.’
Now the drover knew he was on dangerous ground and found himself greatly troubled. On the one hand, he was tempted by the prospect of riches but he was, alas, mortally afraid to have dealings with the fairies. He stood, one hand on his staff, the other curled around the cross in his pocket. ‘I have wealth enough’ he said, finally.
‘I see you are in fear of me,’ the man of the woods nodded, approvingly, ‘and it pleases me that you are not greedy. I will meet you some months from now on the slopes of Craig y Dinas and you can show me the hazel from whence you had your fine stick.
After which, the drover could only agree for he did, indeed, come from Vale of Neath.
The drover returned to his home and married, settling happily with his wife’s family. Many months passed in which the drover saw no sign of the little man. He began to think he had imagined their meeting on the bridge. He was most attentive in prayer, mind, and went nowhere without a bit of iron about him, but as the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, he congratulated himself on having made such a narrow escape from the fair ones.
The long dark winter drew a heavy cloak about them that first year of marriage and the mountain winds were cruel. The frost on the water bucket was thick of a morning and, as his Mari grew round and ripe, the drover knew they would soon have another mouth to feed. He found himself thinking about the treasure, now and then, and wishing he had opportunity to spend it. So it was, one evening at dusk, a dangerous time for all kinds of sorcery, the drover was walking near Pont Nedd Fechan, at the head of the Neath Valley, near the mighty stone fortress of Craig y Dinas, when the little man stepped out in front of him.
‘I have come for my hazel staff,’ he said, twinkling.
There was no help for it the drover was trapped. He pointed to the root of a fine hazel and said, ‘yonder is where I cut my stick.’
As if by magic, for that was what it was, the stranger produced a spade and pick and proceeded to dig around the roots of the hazel. By and by the drover, having not been given permission to leave, decided to join him. They worked together, side by side, until they came to a very broad, flat stone. The stranger was strong and, downing his spade, he prised the stone out of its bed in the earth revealing a flight of ancient stone steps leading down into the ground beneath of Craig y Dinas. The drover’s heart fluttered like a caged bird when the stranger turned to him with his winking gooseberry eyes, and said: ‘Have you the courage to enter with me?’
Now the drover was no coward but he found, nonetheless, that his knees were shaking. On top of which, his feet were bewitched. How else could he explain his reasons for stepping onto those ancient stairs? They walked, the stranger in front, the drover behind, for what seemed like a thousand years and came, at last, to a vast cavern. Duw! Such riches. The sight of it took the air from his chest. There was gold in the cave and silver, too, great mounds of it, and mountain after mountain of precious stones. There were rubies as big as a man’s fist, and emeralds and sapphire, diamonds, amethyst, onyx, malachite, jasper and cornelian. Indeed, it seemed that every valuable stone that ever existed was hidden beneath Craig y Dinas.
It was then the drover noticed the sleeping men. Goodness, there must be more than a thousand of them. A host. There was no other word for it. Each one clad in plate armour with a helm on his head and a shield on his arm with sharp sword in a jewelled scabbard by his side. They were a king’s warriors, a mighty king. The drover could tell by their raiment.
In the middle of the cave was a great bronze bell.
‘Beware lest you touch it,’ the stranger warned, ‘you will wake the army of the King.’
‘Which King?’ The drover asked, turning puzzled eyes upon him. For the Welsh have no King of their own and their last great Prince was Llewellyn.’
‘The King,’ the stranger turned his impassive gaze and pointed towards the end of the cavern.
‘Arthur of Legend.’
Suddenly all was illuminated. The driver saw a man mighty in stature and awesome in presence, armed, ornamented and majestic, he was also in repose.
‘How long have they been thus,’ the drover asked, in hushed, solemn tones.
‘You do well to ask, the fair one replied. ‘It is over a thousand years.’
‘Who are they?’ He asked, but deep down he already knew. For here were Arthur’s warriors, indeed.
‘They wait for a time when all our enemies will be defeated,’ the stranger said, nodding. You may share in their treasure, drover, but you must never speak of it.’
The drover gathered as much of the gold and as many of the precious stones as he could carry but as he worked his eye kept turning, time and time again, to the bell. How he would love to see them wake. How he longed, just this once, to march with Arthur’s mighty army and to defeat the enemies of his country. He was enchanted, there was no other explanation for it, suddenly he knew he must ring that bell. He worked slowly, circling the great dome, waiting for his opportunity and when it presented itself, he seized its clanger and pulled. Duw! How it rang. A great peel echoing from here to the top of Craig y Dinas and out beyond over the whole land of the Cymru, as many thousand warriors rose up before him, the steel of their arms a flame and the ground beneath their feet trembling. They stood to attention as a great voice spoke from their midst. ‘Is it time?
The stranger was so frightened his eyes were pinpoints of fear as he cried out, ‘The day has not yet come, sleep on.’
‘Arthur awake!’ The voice rang out, again. ‘The bell has rung, dawn is breaking.’
‘No!’ The stranger called out more urgently. ‘Sleep on Great Bear the time is not yet, here.
At this, a great roar came from the throne as Arthur, himself, stood before them. The jewels in his crown were brighter and more numerous than the stars in the sky. His voice was strong and powerful, mightier than the ocean itself, as he called out: ‘Sleep on my warriors, the morn of Wales has not yet dawned.’
After which the drover found himself in a great whirlwind, tumbling and turning, swirling in a confetti of leaves and twigs until at last he landed with a thud on what could only be dewy grass. He lay for what seemed like an age gathering courage before opening his eyes. Oh, what joy! To find himself upon his own dear mountain, above his small cottage and there, in the garden, hanging out the wash, was his own beloved Mari. Here was wealth, indeed. Except, where his hands had once held riches, they were now empty. He walked slowly down the mountain at once heavy for his loss and also rejoicing. He did not speak of his adventures to anyone lest the stranger return again one evening.
Alas for the drover he never did. Over the years the drover tried, many a times, to find his way into the treasure house beneath the rocky fortress. Wandering the solitary hills with his Hazel staff he covered the length and breadth of the Neath Valley but, even though he dug over every inch of Craig y Dinas, he never found Arthur or his cave with its concealed entrance of sticks and stone.