In this tale Herla was the King of the Britons in ancient times. The tale seems to date from the medieval period but may have had earlier origins.
One afternoon after a hard days riding, Herla, the wise King of the Britons took leave from his men, and rested for a while among the ancients trees, part of the great forest that had stood in his kingdom for millennia.
As he was dozing he was awoken by the rustling of something passing through the trees. He clasped his hand on his sword in readiness, and was greeted by a strange sight indeed. Into the glade came a large well-groomed goat, upon which sat a tiny man no bigger than a child, but with a strong and stocky upper body and cloven feet. He was ruddy faced and ancient, sporting a huge shaggy beard. He sat smiling at the King and addressed him such: “I have heard of your wisdom and prowess as King, I am King of my own realm and I would to strike a bargain with you. If you give me the pleasure of attending your wedding day you can attend mine.” With that he proffered the king a bronze horn of intricate workmanship and bade him drink. The king hesitated for a moment wondering whether to accept such an obvious otherworld bargain, but he grasped the horn and drank deep of its contents, with that the dwarf nodded to him, and promptly disappeared.
Within a year the king had taken a wife, on the wedding day all the guests were assembled in the king’s great hall, ready for the feast, when there was a knock at the great oak doors. In came a host of dwarfs bearing precious gifts; golden cups and horns of exquisite workmanship; carved wooden chairs with intricate patterns, and many more valuable offerings. The feast was tremendous, and the food and wine the dwarf host brought never seemed to run dry, so that the castle’s food stores were hardly touched. At the end of the night the dwarves left and the dwarf king reminded Herla of his bargain.
Within a year of his wedding night, the king received a summons from his otherworldly friend. He gathered around him his best men, and an abundance of wedding gifts, and set of into the wild country where few men ventured. They travelled for a days around twisting forest paths in the far reaches of the Kingdom, and finally came to a solid sandstone cliff. They stood wondering what to do at such a barrier when there came a sound like the peal of a bell, and a doorway opened in the cliff face, gingerly the company rode through the opening and found themselves in a large cavern, lit by flaming brands hung at intervals on the sandy walls. There was a passage, which led from the cavern into the depths of the earth.
They followed this for some time guided by the torchlight, until they could hear the sound of laughter and merrymaking. At the end of the tunnel they found themselves in a gigantic cavern lit by thousands of torches, that seemed to burn without fuel. In the centre of this cavern stood a huge oak table, and a great gathering of dwarfs. The king proffered his gifts to the dwarf king and the feast commenced.
Time seemed to pass in an instant and they partied for 3 earth days. At last the company made to depart, and the dwarf king gave many precious gifts. One of these was a small blood hound. He took King Herla aside and explained that he was no longer safe in his world above ground, and begged him to stay. He explained that neither he nor his men should dismount until the gifted bloodhound jumps to the ground.
The king thanked him for his advice and continued on his way. When the company rode out of the cleft in the cliff they were greeted by an unfamiliar sight. Fields had replaced the great forests and small villages stood in the valleys, where before there had only been trees. Eventually they came upon an old man who stood watching over his flock of sheep. King Herla addressed him and asked if they knew where the Kingdom of Herla lay. There was a long pause as the ancient farmer stared at them.
Eventually he addressed them in a broken form of their tongue, he explained that the kingdom of which he spoke was only now mentioned in legend, for it was 300 years ago, and the Saxons had now taken over the lands. He explained how local tales told how a king had disappeared, and how his wife had pined away and died from her lost love. At this some of the king’s men tried to dismount, but on touching the earth they crumbled to dust. Thus King Herla ordered his men to stay in the saddle until the bloodhound jumped onto the ground. It is said that the king and his men still ride the countryside in limbo to this day, awaiting the time when the bloodhound will jump to the floor and restore them to their lands.
The tale has been associated with the wild hunt, and the differing passage of time in the otherworld compared to this world is a common motif.