Weekend Wind Down – The Archdruid

Gwion Yfans was an imposing figure but not really what Dai had imagined an Archdruid to be like. He realised he was probably over-influenced by too many viewings of ‘The Conquest of Ynys Mon’ where white-robed figures with beards growing to their naked toes, stood waving staves, bellowing curses and sending wave after wave of zombified Britons against the brave and gallant Roman legionaries who opposed them. 
By contrast, Yfans surprised by his air of normality. He welcomed them into his comfortable villa on the outskirts of the village of Llanwddyn, nestled deep in the lovely valley of the River Vyrnwy. 
“Call me Gwion please, Submagistratus – I would be honoured if you did so. Delighted you have come by. Please, please come in. I do apologise for the mud on the driveway, I have been having a new swimming pool and pavilion style garden house built out the back.” He held an arm out like a signpost towards a door at the back of the entrance hall. “I have honey and cinnamon cakes fresh baked and will have some brought through to my winter room.”
The man was indeed tall and bearded, but his beard far from being long and tangled, had been trimmed to a discreet length that still allowed the shape of his jawline and chin to be seen. His clothing was perfectly normal, even erring slightly on the side of fashion. He was also younger than Dai expected – perhaps in his early forties at most.
“I regret we are not here for a social visit,” Dai explained trying not to think about food. It suddenly seemed much too long since breakfast. “This is part of a vigiles investigation.”
Yfans put his head on one side looking for all the world like a curious bird.
“Oh? Official? Then perhaps my study instead. Come this way. Oh sorry, I should have warned you about that step. Are you alright?”
Dai rubbed his head where he had stumbled off the invisible step and hit his head on the low lintel of the doorway beyond.
“Just fine,” he lied.
If Gwion Arfan was a disappointment for an Archdruid in appearance, his study more than made up for it. There were shelves of old books and two beautifully carved harps. The air carried the scent of old leather and paper with a slight undercurrent of dried ink. The chairs were wood carved and the huge desk looked as if it had grown up out of the floorboards. The sole concession Dai could see to the modern world, was a case on one wall containing some particularly ancient looking books and scrolls. It was sealed shut and had humidity and temperature readings on a small panel to one side.
Afran gestured politely to the two chairs which were closest to the hearth, where a few logs burned and settled himself into the large chair by the desk, swivelling it around first to face his guests, who remained standing.
“So what can I do to assist you two gentleman? Oh, my manners, Saturnalia Optima to you both.” His smile boarded on the patronising. Dai felt his jaw tighten.
“We have reason to believe you were celebrating the solstice on the night before last, in the company of Cariad Llewellyn.”
Afran laughed.
“Well, of course I was celebrating the solstice. It goes with my job description – giving spiritual counsel to those of my faith, maintaining and honouring the traditions of Druidism and celebrating major Druidic festivals. But I was not in the company of your sister – is she of the faith? I would have assumed since she has married Rome she professes Roman creeds – as you do, Submagistratus.” He lifted his voice in a very slight interrogation.
Dai ignored the question – or dig.
“So where were you and what were you doing?”
“I don’t think I need to speak of my religious practices to satisfy the curiosity of the Roman authorities. It is enough for you to know that my religion is not one on the prohibited list and I am, thus, free to practice it as, when and where I choose.”
“No one is challenging your right to practice your faith. But I do need to know where you were practicing it the night before last.”
“I don’t see what busi-”
This time it was Bryn who stirred.
“Archdruid, it would grieve us to have to take such an august and respected member of the community to the vigiles house for further questioning. But if you will not co-operate…” Bryn added his most sinister smile.
Arfan looked between them as if weighing up his options. Then he sighed.
“It is not secret. You will find it on my webpage in fact. I was at Bryn Cader Faner. I arrived there in the late afternoon – before sunset – and remained there until dawn. If you doubt my word I can offer you the names of at least fifty people who will be willing to testify to the fact.”
Dai did not doubt that he could do so, whether he had been there or not being moot.
“And you were not in company with Cariad Llewellyn?” Bryn asked.
The Archdruid shook his head and looked slightly non-plussed.
“I already told you, I was not even aware she was of the faith. But you must recall there are other – less organised – groupings which also profess to follow my path.”
Gritting his teeth, Dai pressed on.
“Cariad herself has been heard to-”
“To what? Mention me by name?” The expressive face adopted a look of disbelief. “I don’t think that is possible since we have never met. But why all these questions?”
“Cariad Llewellyn went missing the night of the solstice and the two men with her for her protection were murdered.” Dai watched the other man closely as he spoke. The expected shock and horror came.
“But – but that is dreadful. Terrible. I am so sorry for your loss.”
For a moment Dai felt chilled despite the warmth from the logs in the hearth beside him.
“My loss? My sister is missing. We have no grounds to believe her dead also. Unless you know different?”
For a moment the careful mask of the Archdruid slipped and something of anger seeped out, serpent like, before it could be snapped back in place.
“Are you accusing me?” he hissed.
“No one is accusing you, dominus,” Bryn said soothingly. “We merely want to know any information you might have which could help us trace Domina Llewellyn or uncover the killer of her guard.”
“Then I regret your journey here has been wasted. I know nothing about either matter.” He got to his feet and  crossed to open the door of the study, holding it open to make his meaning clear. “I will not delay you from your enquiries any longer.”
The air outside tasted clean to Dai and he did not regret leaving the warmth of the villa.
“Nice place,” Bryn observed, “and all paid for by his loyal congregation, according to my Gwen.”
“Generous of them.”
“Very. Some are that poor the tithe he demands can cost them an empty table.”
Dai stopped still and grabbed Bryn’s arm.
“You are serious?”
Bryn nodded.
“Of course I am. It’s just they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t pay. They might be cursed for neglecting their duty to the old ways. My Gwen says the last Archdruid was a very different man. Had a humble house where everyone was welcome and did not trouble anyone but the most wealthy for their tithing.”
Dai released Bryn’s arm and carried onto the all-wheel, feeling profoundly troubled. It was as Bryn was firing the engine to drive them home another thought occurred.
“So does your Gwen pay-?
Faex no!” Bryn jarred the gears and shot Dai a disbelieving look. “You can’t think Gwen would fall for that kind of daft superstition?”
Dai said nothing. It was all superstition in his book.

From Dying as a Druid, one of the Dai and Julia Mystery stories also found in The First Dai and Julia Omnibus by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook

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