The Ordeal of Mynydd y Drum
A retelling of a traditional Welsh folk tale.
Towards the top of the Swansea Valley, Mynydd y Drum rises out of the mist. Legend has it that a vast treasure hoard was hidden deep within a mountain cave, but the secret of where it was, and how to recover it, had been lost.
A wizard from Ystradgynlais, who had lost his hand many years ago and now had an iron replacement in its place, had discovered the secret of the treasure’s location through secret magic rites. He was determined to get the treasure for himself, but the treasure could only be released in one way; a mortal human would have to survive the night on the mountain and the enchantments that defended the treasure.
The wizard had spent many years trying to convince local villagers to spend a night on the hill, promising a share of the treasure for the man or women who helped him. However, the local villagers were well aware of the curses that hung around the mountain at night and were all too scared, even with the promise of treasure to steel their hearts. They reasoned that, if it was possible to survive a night, then it would have been done. No one wanted to face an ordeal that was clearly fatal for those who attempted it!
News of the treasure, and the wizard ’s failed attempts to find an accomplice, reached the ears of a young man named Johnny Gethin. He was a strong young man who had fallen in love with, and had been rejected, by the daughter of a local landowner because he was “only a labourer.”
Torn by his love for the landowner’s daughter and his need to better himself, he decided to face the ordeal of a night on Mynydd y Drum. The wizard had almost given up hope of finding someone who was brave enough to attempt the ordeal and was delighted when Johnny arrived at the entrance to his mountain cave.
“I am brave, strong and have nothing to lose”, said Johnny. “Let us go and wrest the treasure from the grip of the mountain.”
The wizard gathered up his staff and the tools of his trade and the two men made their way to the mountain.
They climbed the mountain until they reached the place where the wizard had divined the ordeal must take place. Then the wizard pulled a bag of sand out from his knapsack and sprinkled it out in a large circle on the close-cropped grass. He positioned Johnny in the centre.
“The spirits have told me that this circle will protect you as long as you do not step outside the boundary,” warned the wizard as he traced the outline of the circle with his metal finger. “As long as you stay within the circle, the warding magic I will weave will protect you from anything the spirits of the mountain can do. However, if you step from the circle, you will be beyond my help. The treasure will be lost, and your life will be forfeit. Once you accept the ordeal, there is nothing I can do to help you; you must survive on your own bravery and fortitude.”
Johnny nodded and, as night fell on the mountain side, he stood alone inside the circle to await the trial ahead. The wizard’s final words repeated over and over in his head, and he resolved to stay rooted to the spot.
“Remember, no matter what you see or hear, even if I instruct you to, you must not step out of the circle until daybreak.”
The wizard moved a short distance away and lit a small fire, which burned with a purple intensity. Sprinkling secret ingredients into the fire, he summoned the spirits of the mountain to tell him the location of the treasure and the means to recover it.
A little before midnight, Johnny became aware of a black shape approaching from one side of the circle. He peered into the darkness and made out the shape of a huge black bull. Its eyes shone with an eery redness and it snorted steam from its nostrils and mouth.
The bullock circled Johnny once.
Suddenly, it charged at him. Johnny tensed every muscle in his body, ready to spring away at the last moment. But, just as he was ready to throw himself out of the circle, he remembered the wizard’s warning.
Johnny stood his ground and the bull veered away from the circle at the last moment, thundering away into the night. Johnny sat heavily on the damp earth, a cold sweat prickling over his body. There had been no doubting the presence of the bull; he had felt the ground shudder as the bullock had passed and had smelt its foul breath as it snorted by.
A little later, Johnny became aware of a goat sniffing the air near to the circle. “I’m not scared of a goat” he thought, “the spirits will have to do better than that!”
The goat moved closer and closer to the circle, until it was as close to the sand circle as it could get without touching it. Johnny looked at the goat closely. It seemed like a normal goat, apart from glowing red eyes set deep into its skull.
Suddenly the goat reared up onto its hind legs. Its mouth opened to reveal a row of fangs and its hooves grew into deadly talons. Johnny gasped and took an involuntary step backwards. Then he steeled himself and stood still. The goat let out a long ear-splitting wail that made Johnny’s blood run cold and waved its talons at Johnny, but still he stood firm. The goat stepped this way and that, rearing up as if to strike Johnny, backing off then charging forward. After a few minutes, it slunk off into the night and Johnny once again slumped to the earth, shaking with fear.
Johnny had barely recovered his breath, when he heard a crashing noise coming from further up the mountain. He stared up into the darkness and strained his hearing as best he could. He could hear something crashing through the undergrowth towards him. Without warning, a huge wild boar, with a gaping mouth, huge, yellowed tusks and shining red and yellow eyes, charged out of the bracken towards the sand circle. In two huge leaps, the boar launched itself towards Johnny, its huge hooves arching in to crush his skull. Johnny would have turned and run but he was so scared that he was frozen to the spot. Instead, the boar turned, almost in mid-flight and crashed off into the undergrowth.
Johnny sank to his knees, sobbing and crying out to the wizard .
“Make it stop, I’m so scared,” he cried. “So very scared!”
The wizard heard his cries but knew that the spirits would not let him end the ordeal now. With daybreak so close, he knew he had no choice but to hope that Johnny could complete the ordeal and force the spirits to reveal the treasure.
Johnny sat within the sand circle with his knees pulled up underneath his chin and his arms wrapped around his legs. He wished he had never agreed to help the wizard and knew that his bravery was nearly spent.
Moments later, a huge lion emerged, walking resolutely up the hill. Its cruel yellow and red eyes shone out from a huge, bedraggled mane and its powerful muscles rippled as it moved. As it approached, it broke into a loping run, circling Johnny, its eyes intent on his shaking body.
“It will rip me apart,” thought Johnny. “Just look at the size of its fangs and its claws.”
Johnny could smell rotting flesh on the lion’s breath as it circled him. Somehow, he knew the flesh had been human.
Without warning the lion stopped and looked directly at Johnny. From deep within its hate-filled eyes, he could see and hear the spirit commanding him to leave the mountain or be ripped limb from limb.
Johnny was transfixed by the unwavering glare of those demon-eyes and stepped backwards; one step, two steps. Then, the wizard’s voice came back to him
“Remember, no matter what you see or hear, even if I instruct you to, you must not step out of the circle until daybreak.”
Johnny stood still at the back of the circle as the lion moved in for the kill. Gathering itself up onto its haunches, it pounced, covering the remaining ground in a single leap. Johnny teetered on the edge of the circle but just managed to stay inside. The lion crossed the edge of the circle and disappeared in a blinding flash and an ear-splitting wail.
Johnny collapsed to the ground, lying on his stomach, and covered his head within his hands. He prayed for daylight harder than he had ever prayed for anything in his entire life. He prayed that he would never see anything magical again and promised never to have anything to do with wizards ever again, he promised everything he owned in exchange for one simple ray of dawn’s morning light.
Everything fell silent, apart from the sound of a gentle breeze. In the eastern sky, Johnny could see the very first strands of lighter sky heralding the beginning of the dawn. He shivered in the cold and stood within the circle.
He heard a crackling sound some way off. Peering into the dusk light, he saw that a small fire had broken out and was crackling its way down the mountain towards him. Catching on the dry bracken and grass, the flames leapt higher and higher, wider and wider, sweeping down the hillside towards Johnny.
He watched as the flames grew closer and closer.
“Is this real?” he thought to himself, “or is this another spirit trick?”
He called out to the wizard, but there was no reply. The wizard heard him cry out, but the rules of the ordeal did not allow him to intervene.
The fire spread further and further across the hillside, the flames leaping higher and higher and a dense cloud of smoke billowed up. The flames grew closer and closer, and Johnny felt the heat of the fire against his face and hands. He felt the acrid smoke burn his lungs.
Suddenly, Johnny became away of a deep rumbling noise from the top of the mountain. He strained his eyesight through the smoke and sparks, feeling the heat on his eyeballs. The smoke stung his eyes and he coughed on a lungful of smoke. His eyes watered as he peered into the fire, looking for the source of the rumbling noise.
Far above him, gathering pace as it travelled down the mountain, a huge fiery wheel bounced and rolled towards Johnny. He coughed and flinched from the flames that now surrounded the circle and stared, transfixed by the sight of the wheel as it tumbled towards him. Sparks flew from its rim and the flames leapt higher wherever it passed. The rumbling grew louder as it drew nearer. As the wheel approached, it gathered speed. Johnny could see its iron rim and its wooden spokes as it crashed towards him. Flames leapt in all directions, and he felt like the smoke was engulfing him, blinding his eyes, and choking his lungs, stealing his breath away.
The wheel crashed towards him, crushing everything in its wake. Johnny cowered in his circle, surrounded by flames, and screamed for the wizard to save him.
Suddenly, just as the wheel was about to strike him, an opening in the flames appeared and he could see the wizard at the end of a strip of earth that had not been scorched. Just as the wheel crashed into him, Johnny threw himself out of the circle and ran towards the wizard.
In a flash, the flames and the wizard disappeared, and Johnny knew he had been tricked. He heard tinkling laughter on the air and then felt himself being picked up by an invisible hand and spun into the air. He felt like he was being pulled apart as he spun through the air. Below he heard a mighty battle and saw the wizard fighting the spirits for Johnny’s soul.
The battle raged on as the spirits in their animal forms tried to kill the wizard. Suddenly, the sun’s first ray of light stretched out across the sky and all sounds of battle ceased. Johnny fell from the sky and landed with a thump on the hillside.
The wizard, bruised and battered from his battle with the spirits, strode towards Johnny, his face contorted with pain and anger.
“I told you that you must not step out of the circle until daybreak,” he repeated, angrily. “I had to fight for your mortal soul, a fight which I would have lost if it hadn’t been for daybreak. The spirits will spare your life on one condition; you will survive for only as long as this candle lasts.
The wizard produced a church candle and handed it to Johnny. Immediately Johnny touched the candle, the wick started to burn with a steel-blue flame that gave no heat. The wizard tried to snuff it out, but it continued to burn.
“Take the candle,” said the wizard “and put it in the coldest place you can find. Your very life depends on stopping in from disappearing completely.”
Johnny returned to his home a shadow of his former self. Over the next few days, he tried everything he could to stop the candle from burning, but it burned with an enchanted flame that could not be stopped. It was never lit and was stored in the coldest room of Johnny’s cottage. Then in desperation he moved it into the coal store and finally down the deep well in his courtyard. Despite Johnny’s efforts, when Johnny checked it each day, it had always shrunk in size.
As Johnny watched the candle shrink, his life seemed to shrink with it. His family buried him just one month after he attempted the ordeal of Mynydd y Drum.