Gwydion and Taran find Hen Wen’s tracks on the banks of the Great Avren river, and Gwydion gives Gurgi props for having given them good info. They start to cross the river, but Taran nearly drowns as Melyngar pulls him forward and then collides with him. Gwydion rescues Taran, then scolds him. We learn that Taran can’t swim, but didn’t say so because he felt sure he could learn. They then have a close call with three gwythaints, birds of prey who have been trained to be spies for Arawn. Gwydion exposits that the gwythaints aren’t the worst servants Arawn commands – they are flesh and blood and can be killed, whereas the Cauldron-Born are deathless. The Cauldron-Born were men whose bodies Arawn stole from the barrows – though I have to wonder why he doesn’t just kill them himself instead of going to all the trouble of grave-robbing – and steeped in a cauldron to reanimate them as silent warriors with no memory of their human lives. Gwydion mentions that their power wanes the farther from Annuvin they are, which seems like an important video-game weakness we will return to later on.
They pick up Hen Wen’s trail again, but then it suddenly vanishes. Gwydion says they may need the help of Medwyn, who understands the ways of animals and is rarely, if ever, seen by men. They hear baying hounds and a poignant hunting horn, which Gwydion attributes to Gwyn the Hunter, who is not himself aligned with evil but whose appearance is a harbinger of death and destruction. I don’t recall if Gwyn (who is apparently a “real” figure in Welsh mythology) ever comes into the series again, but he feels a little shoehorned into this chapter, which already has a lot of explaining going on.
Next, there is a mysterious rustling in the bushes behind Gwydion’s back. Taran bravely dives in and pulls out… Gurgi! Gurgi’s back, hooray! But Taran is not as happy as I am to see Gurgi. He shakes him angrily, and when Gwydion admonishes him, shouts “Save your own life next time!” Which is awesome, because it makes Gwydion realize that Taran was trying to rescue him from danger, and he actually bows and offer his thanks. It’s the nicest he’s been so far.
Gurgi wants crunchings and munchings in return for “helping find a piggy,” but Taran snaps, “We didn’t find any piggy” (which is also awesome). Neither did the Horned King, Gurgi says. And I know it’s just his translation, but I’m cracking up thinking about the Horned King and his warriors in their ranks, referring to Hen Wen as “the piggy.”
Gwydion asks if Gurgi can lead them to where the Horned King is now, and he does. They halt on a ridge and witness a terrible scene on the plain below: sacrificial drumming accompanies a battle dance of warriors on stilts and wicker baskets on posts. The Horned King sets the baskets on fire and “the agonized screams of men” arise from them. Pretty nightmarish for books aimed at children, I always thought, but then I guess it’s nothing compared to the carnage in “The Hunger Games.”
Our heroes retreat hurriedly and silently, and at dawn Gwydion halts and says he must return to Caer Dathyl immediately, to alert the Sons of Don that the Horned King has raised an armed force representing all the “cantrevs of the south.” But just then, five armed horsemen arrive on the scene and draw their swords! Cliffhanger ending to the chapter!