The Assistant Pig-Beeper
Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long. Taran's arms ached, soot blackened his face. At last he dropped the hammer and turned to Coll, who was watching him critically.
"Why?" Taran cried. "Why must it be horseshoes? As if we had any horses!"
Coll was stout and round and his great bald head glowed bright pink. "Lucky for the horses," was all he said, glancing at Taran's handiwork.
"I could do better at making a sword," Taran protested. "I know I could." And before Coll could answer, he snatched the tongs, flung a strip of red-hot iron to the anvil, and began hammering away as fast as he could.
"Wait, wait!" cried Coll, "that is not the way to go after it!"
Heedless of Coll, unable even to hear him above the din, Taran pounded harder than ever. Sparks sprayed the air. But the more he pounded, the more the metal twisted and buckled, until, finally, the iron sprang from the tongs and fell to the ground. Taran staredin dismay. With the tongs, he picked up the bent iron and examined it.
"Not quite the blade for a hero," Coll remarked.
"It's ruined," Taran glumly agreed. "It looks like a sick snake," he added ruefully.
"As I tried telling you," said Coll, "you had it all wrong. You must hold the tongs--so. When you strike, the strength must flow from your shoulder and your wrist be loose. You can hear it when you do it right. There is a kind of music in it. Besides," he added, "this is not the metal for weapons."
Coll returned the crooked, half-formed blade to the furnace, where it lost its shape entirely.
"I wish I might have my own sword," Taran sighed, "and you would teach me sword-fighting."
"Wisht!" cried Coll. "Why should you want to know that? We have no battles at Caer Dallben."
"We have no horses, either," objected Taran, "but we're making horseshoes."
"Get on with you," said Coll, unmoved. "That is for practice."
"And so would this be," Taran urged. "Come, teach me the sword-fighting. You must know the art."
Coll's shining head glowed even brighter. A trace of a smile appeared on his face, as though he were savoring something pleasant. "True," he said quietly, "I have held a sword once or twice in my day."
"Teach me now," pleaded Taran. He seized a poker and brandished it, slashing at the air and dancing back and forth over the hard-packed earthen floor. "See," he called, "I know most of it already."
"Hold your hand," chuckled Coll. "If you were to come against me like that, with all your posing and bouncing, I should have you chopped into bits by this time." He hesitated a moment. "Look you," he said quickly, "at least you should know there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it."
He picked up another poker. "Here now," he ordered, with a sooty wink, "stand like a man."
Taran brought up his poker. While Coll shouted instructions, they set to parrying and thrusting, with much banging, clanking, and commotion. For a moment Taran was sure he had the better of Coll, but the old man spun away with amazing lightness of foot. Now it was Taran who strove desperately to ward off Coll's blows.
Abruptly, Coll stopped. So did Taran, his poker poised in mid-air. In the doorway of the forge stood the tall, bent figure of Dallben.
Dallben, master of Caer Dallben, was three hundred and seventy-nine years old. His beard covered so much of his face he seemed always to be peering over a gray cloud. On the little farm, while Taran and Coll saw to the plowing, sowing, weeding, reaping, and all the other tasks of husbandry, Dallben undertook the meditating, an occupation so exhausting he could accomplish it only by lying down and closing his eyes. He meditated an hour and a half following breakfast and again later in the day. The clatter from the forge had roused him from his morning meditation; his robe hung askew over his bony knees.
"Stop that nonsense directly," said Dallben. "I am surprised at you," he added, frowning at Coll. "There is serious work to be done."
"It wasn't Coll," Taran interrupted. "It was I who asked to learn swordplay."
"I did not say I was surprised at you," remarked Dallben. "But perhaps I am, after all. I think you had best come with me."
Taran followed the ancient man out of the forge, across the chicken run, and into the white, thatched cottage. There, in Dallben's chamber, moldering tomes overflowed the sagging shelves and spilled onto the floor amid heaps of iron cook-pots, studded belts, harps with or without strings, and other oddments.
Taran took his place on the wooden bench, as he always did when Dallben was in a mood for giving lessons or reprimands.
"I fully understand," said Dallben, settling himself behind his table, "in the use of weapons, as in everything else, there is a certain skill. But wiser heads than yours will determine when you should learn it."
"I'm sorry," Taran began, "I should not have ..."
"I am not angry," Dallben said, raising a hand. "Only a little sad. Time flies quickly; things always happen sooner than one expects. And yet," he murmured, almost to himself, "it troubles me. I fear the Horned King may have some part in this."
"The Horned King?" asked Taran.
"We shall speak of him later," said Dallben. He drew a ponderous, leather-bound volume toward him, The Book of Three, from which he occasionally read to Taran and which, the boy believed, held in its pages everything anyone could possibly want to know.
"As I have explained to you before," Dallben went on, "--and you have very likely forgotten--Prydain is a land of many cantrevs--of small kingdoms--and many kings. And, of course, their war-leaders who command the warriors."
"But there is the High King above them all," said Taran, "Math Son of Mathonwy. His war-leader is the mightiest hero in Prydain.You told me of him. Prince Gwydion! Yes," Taran went on eagerly, "I know ..."
"There are other things you do not know," Dallben said, "for the obvious reason that I have not told you. For the moment I am less concerned with the realms of the living than with the Land of the Dead, with Annuvin."
Taran shuddered at the word. Even Dallben had spoken it in a whisper.
"And with King Arawn, Lord of Annuvin," Dallben said. "Know this," he continued quickly, "Annuvin is more than a land of death. It is a treasure-house, not only of gold and jewels but of all things of advantage to men. Long ago, the race of men owned these treasures. By craft and deceit, Arawn stole them, one by one, for his own evil uses. Some few of the treasures have been wrested from him though most lie hidden deep in Annuvin, where Arawn guards them jealously."
"But Arawn did not become ruler of Prydain," Taran said.
"You may be thankful he did not," said Dallben. "He would have ruled had it not been for the Children of Don, the sons of the Lady Don and her consort Belin, King of the Sun. Long ago they voyaged to Prydain from the Summer Country and found the land rich and fair, though the race of men had little for themselves. The Sons of Don built their stronghold at Caer Dathyl, far north in the Eagle Mountains. From there, they helped regain at least a portion of what Arawn had stolen, and stood as guardians against the lurking threat of Annuvin."
"I hate to think what would have happened if the Sons of Don hadn't come," Taran said. "It was a good destiny that brought them."
"I am not always sure," said Dallben, with a wry smile. "The menof Prydain came to rely on the strength of the House of Don as a child clings to its mother. They do so even today. Math, the High King, is descended from the House of Don. So is Prince Gwydion. But that is all by the way. Prydain has been at peace--as much as men can be peaceful--until now.
"What you do not know," Dallben said, "is this: it has reached my ears that a new and mighty war lord has risen, as powerful as Gwydion; some say more powerful. But he is a man of evil for whom death is a black joy. He sports with death as you might sport with a dog."
"Who is he?" cried Taran.
Dallben shook his head. "No man knows his name, nor has any man seen his face. He wears an antlered mask, and for this reason he is called the Horned King. His purposes I do not know. I suspect the hand of Arawn, but in what manner I cannot tell. I tell you now for your own protection," Dallben added. "From what I saw this morning, your head is full of nonsense about feats of arms. Whatever notions you may have, I advise you to forget them immediately. There is unknown danger abroad. You are barely on the threshold of manhood, and I have a certain responsibility to see that you reach it, preferably with a whole skin. So, you are not to leave Caer Dallben under any circumstances, not even past the orchard, and certainly not into the forest--not for the time being."
"For the time being!" Taran burst out. "I think it will always be for the time being, and it will be vegetables and horseshoes all my life!"
"Tut," said Dallben, "there are worse things. Do you set yourself to be a glorious hero? Do you believe it is all flashing swords and galloping about on horses? As for being glorious ..."
"What of Prince Gwydion?" cried Taran. "Yes! I wish I might be like him!"
"I fear," Dallben said, "that is entirely out of the question."
"But why?" Taran sprang to his feet. "I know if I had the chance ..."
"Why?" Dallben interrupted. "In some cases," he said, "we learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. This is one of those cases. I could tell you why, but at the moment it would only be more confusing. If you grow up with any kind of sense--which you sometimes make me doubt--you will very likely reach your own conclusions.
"They will probably be wrong," he added. "However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them."
Taran sank back and sat, gloomy and silent, on the bench. Dallben had already begun meditating again. His chin gradually came to rest on his collarbone; his beard floated around his ears like a fog bank; and he began snoring peacefully.
The spring scent of apple blossom drifted through the open window. Beyond Dallben's chamber, Taran glimpsed the pale green fringe of forest. The fields, ready to cultivate, would soon turn golden with summer. The Book of Three lay closed on the table. Taran had never been allowed to read the volume for himself; now he was sure it held more than Dallben chose to tell him. In the sun-filled room, with Dallben still meditating and showing no sign of stopping, Taran rose and moved through the shimmering beams. From the forest came the monotonous tick of a beetle.
His hands reached for the cover. Taran gasped in pain and snatched them away. They smarted as if each of his fingers hadbeen stung by hornets. He jumped back, stumbled against the bench, and dropped to the floor, where he put his fingers woefully into his mouth.
Dallben's eyes blinked open. He peered at Taran and yawned slowly. "You had better see Coll about a lotion for those hands," he advised. "Otherwise, I shouldn't be surprised if they blistered."
Fingers smarting, the shamefaced Taran hurried from the cottage and found Coll near the vegetable garden.
"You have been at The Book of Three," Coll said. "That is not hard to guess. Now you know better. Well, that is one of the three foundations of learning: see much, study much, suffer much." He led Taran to the stable where medicines for the livestock were kept, and poured a concoction over Taran's fingers.
"What is the use of studying much when I'm to see nothing at all?" Taran retorted. "I think there is a destiny laid on me that I am not to know anything interesting, or do anything interesting. I'm certainly not to be anything. I'm not anything even at Caer Dallben!"
"Very well," said Coll, "if that is all that troubles you, I shall make you something. From this moment, you are Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper. You shall help me take care of Hen Wen: see her trough is full, carry her water, and give her a good scrubbing every other day."
"That's what I do now," Taran said bitterly.
"All the better," said Coll, "for it makes things that much easier. If you want to be something with a name attached to it, I can't think of anything closer to hand. And it is not every lad who can be assistant keeper to an oracular pig. Indeed, she is the only oracular pig in Prydain, and the most valuable."
"Valuable to Dallben," Taran said. "She never tells me anything."
"Did you think she would?" replied Coll. "With Hen Wen, you must know how to ask--here, what was that?" Coll shaded his eyes with his hand. A black, buzzing cloud streaked from the orchard, and bore on so rapidly and passed so close to Coll's head that he had to leap out of the way.
"The bees!" Taran shouted. "They're swarming."
"It is not their time," cried Coll. "There is something amiss." The cloud rose high toward the sun. An instant later Taran heard a loud clucking and squawking from the chicken run. He turned to see the five hens and the rooster beating their wings. Before it occurred to him they were attempting to fly, they, too, were aloft.
Taran and Coll raced to the chicken run, too late to catch the fowls. With the rooster leading, the chickens flapped awkwardly through the air and disappeared over the brow of a hill.
From the stable the pair of oxen bellowed and rolled their eyes in terror.
Dallben's head poked out of the window. He looked irritated. "It has become absolutely impossible for any kind of meditation whatsoever," he said, with a severe glance at Taran. "I have warned you once ..."
"Something frightened the animals," Taran protested. "First the bees, then the chickens flew off ..."
Dallben's face turned grave. "I have been given no knowledge of this," he said to Coll. "We must ask Hen Wen about it immediately, and we shall need the letter sticks. Quickly, help me find them."
Coll moved hastily to the cottage door. "Watch Hen Wen closely," he ordered Taran. "Do not let her out of your sight."
Coll disappeared inside the cottage to search for Hen Wen's letter sticks, the long rods of ash wood carved with spells. Taran was both frightened and excited. Dallben, he knew, would consult Hen Wen only on a matter of greatest urgency. Within Taran's memory, it had never happened before. He hurried to the pen.
Hen Wen usually slept until noon. Then, trotting daintily, despite her size, she would move to a shady corner 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. Hescrambled 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.
Copyright © 1964 by Lloyd Alexander. Renewed 1992.Map copyright © 1964 by Evaline Ness Pronunciation Guide copyright © 1999 by Henry Holt and Company