Adref, adref, am y cyntaf’,
Hwch ddu gwta a gipio’r ola’.
(Home, home, at once, The tail-less black sow shall snatch the last.)
Despite how fiercely the sun shone in the sky, the chill air cut at Morven and she pulled her coat closer against the chill. They stood on the cusp of winter.
That realisation came as a shudder creeping down her spine. Her thoughts dwelled not on the weather but on what was to come that night. She had done well to keep it out of her mind all day, not least given how the images of it had intruded upon her dreams over the past week. Roaring flames, and rocks being fed to the fire, followed by the sight of her name fading away. Twice she had managed to awake before she caught a glimpse of the rider, but even then the sow’s snorts had followed her into the waking world.
A hand on her shoulder, shaking her, and a voice calling her name made her jump and yelp, only to be greeted by Rhiannon’s giggling as she came back to the present. As her face flushed red, she quickly gathered up the fire wood that had scattered from her arms.
“Daytime isn’t the place for dreams,” Rhiannon said. Despite being only seven there was authority and certainty in her voice. She was quoting their Mother. “You open the door for tylwyth teg to come and leave a crimbil in your place.”
In response, Morven could only click her tongue. As the older sister, she ought to be the one imparting wisdom.
“What were you thinking about?”
Morven’s blush deepened. Was it worse to answer, or to not? “The coelcerth.” She confessed, finally. But she didn’t say any more than that.
Not that she needed to. “You mean the coming of Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta, after.” It wasn’t a question. Despite herself, Morven nodded. “You shouldn’t worry. She only takes those who deserve to be taken.”
Rhiannon had a child’s surety, Morven thought, before reminding herself that whilst she may now have bled, she was herself closer in age to a child than to a village elder.
“But what if I deserve to be taken?” She asked.
Rhiannon paled, seeming to shrink when faced with this possibility.
That was the end of the conversation. The sun was getting lower in the sky and they needed to be home with the wood. As used to the hills of the valley as they may have been, it was still difficult to maintain a conversation whilst climbing such a steep incline. Especially whilst concentrating on keeping hold of their burdens with numb hands.
The crispness of the air sharpened with the sunset. The bonfire raged in front of them, yet even as the heat licked at her outstretched hands Morven could just about see the cloud of her breath escaping her lungs.
The whole village was there, nearly fifty people. Their voices were raised in song and prayer as a tune was plucked from string and beaten from tin. Many voices as one, calling to the forest and the ancestors to see them through the darkness and into the light of spring. They moved, their bodies shaking and waving, in a circle around the fire. As they went, they would pick up one of the stones that surrounded the blaze, and write their name on it before surrendering it to the fire.
Morven recalled her dream. The blaze consuming the stone, her name fading and the rider approaching. This night, and her death in sacrifice to a bountiful harvest.
Perhaps she could simply not take part? No, if her name wasn’t on a stone then she definitely would disappear. Worse, it would be to the benefit of nobody and somebody else maybe would get taken too. She couldn’t let that happen, and risk Rhiannon taking her place.
What she would have given then for the wisdom of their mother. She would always know what to say, whether the guidance of an old rhyme or just sheer common sense. She could make this all better.
As could their father. No words from ancient tales, maybe. But strong arms and a fierce warmth that was more captivating than your bed at the dawn of the coldest morning. If she was with him, she was safe and nothing else would matter.
But of course neither could help. Their father had never returned from the chieftain’s call to war. In his absence, their mother had tried to live on for a time, but the goddess had called her back so they could be together again. Put that way, it sounded beautiful and peaceful, but it was a horror for Morven to watch their mother supplanted by a skeleton whose hunger could not be met in the mortal realm. She was glad Rhiannon was too young to understand, and would not put her sister through the ordeal of grieving for her, if she could help it.
The first thing she had to do was face fate proudly, with her head held high. She took a stone and began to carve out her name.
It was colder within the old stone walls than without, and the candles cast long shadows. The longer Morven stared at them, the more they played tricks on her eyes.
No. She wouldn’t let fear take a grip of her. For Rhiannon’s sake, she had to be brave. They were huddled by the hearth, the dying embers still casting heat, and where that heat couldn’t reach they had great, thick blankets wrapped about them. Her younger sister was already fast asleep, and there was nothing for it but to join her.
Will alone was finally beginning to take her into slumber. Her mind withdrew from the cold corners of the room and the warmth became so pleasantly heavy that it dragged her eyelids shut. The real world spun away and shapes began to form at the periphery of her vision, the promise of dreams not yet fully realised.
Morven gave herself over to it entirely, the warmth and darkness finally drawing her from the waking world.
Then, so distant that she wasn’t sure if she had really heard it, a snort. Real or not, it was enough to haul her out of sleep, leaving her without a hope of dropping back into it.
The candles had burned down to almost nothing and the embers in the fire were gone. Her sight had adjusted to make the world grey rather than black, but the shadows appeared longer and less in touch with the physical world. The building creaked and sighed, promising that things lurked around corners and beyond doors.
Beside her, Rhiannon sighed and wiggled in her sleep, oblivious to it all.
Grow up! Morven scolded herself. She was an adult, responsible for her younger sister. In their absence she was mother and father, and neither would stand for the tricks she was letting her mind play on her. She puffed her chest out.
It deflated when the second snort came, closer now. Coming this way.
Her heart thundered in her chest and her head raced. What should she do? It was irresponsible to wake Rhiannon, much less to drag her from the house to escape. It might have been worse to let her lay there, for fate to burst into the house and snatch them away. Keeping still was making Morven tense up, her whole body trembled, but would it be any better to stand and pace in the cold?
The hog had to be getting closer. Was it running? How far away was it now? She could only guess.
Tears threatened at the edges of her eyes. Her throat burned with the cries she was holding in. Her heart was bound at any moment to burst in her chest. This wasn’t fair. It couldn’t be real. She had to get up and run. To pull the covers tighter around her and hide. To do something.
Finally, she shifted and grabbed Rhiannon’s shoulders. Her voice was a frantic whisper as she said “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” Over and over.
Rhiannon’s eyes fluttered open.
Daylight, a cold and faded grey-blue that held little warmth, bled into the house and fell across the area beside the fire where Morven slept. With a groan, she winced and rubbed her eyes.
She felt like she had hardly slept. What with having to stay awake longer than usual to see in the winter, then the struggle to get to sleep with her mind so busy. Finally, those horrendous dreams.
Remembering, she opened her eyes and jerked her head to cast about the room. She let herself exhale with relief when she saw that it was empty.
No. Something wasn’t right.
She sat there, her mind straining for something just out of reach as she might use her tongue to pick at a scab on the roof of her mouth. What was wrong? What had happened? The memories of her nightmares now fled before her attempts to remember. She shook her head.
When she stood up, there was a clatter. She looked down to see that a stone had fallen out of the blanket. There was a name carved on it.