Mari on the Mountain
A Tale of Mari Ann Cabbage
Hywel Bugail shivered in spite of his thick woollen cloak and the small fire he had lit. The night was chill and damp; a rising mist saturating his woollen stockings, making his skin clammy and uncomfortable. He shifted position, rising from his hard seat atop the low dry-stone wall. As he stood, he swapped his crook into his left hand, tentatively bending and flexing the fingers of his right. They had become so stiff and numb with cold and inaction that movement now was almost painful. Gingerly, he held his aching digits above the fire, frowning as the small heat did what it could to thaw them. The patch of ground where the circle of fire sat was mist free, the air around it clear; a beacon in the gloom. Well used to the dark and the sounds it held, Hywel felt an unusual foreboding this night. The fire offered some reassurance: after all, if the mist itself could not breach the space around it, nothing else could, either.
A loud yet dismal bleat reached his ears, telling him that the small flock of sheep he was guarding were still close by. Hard though it was to see them in the poor light, now and then one or two of them would pass by like shabby ghosts, looming in and out of his vision unexpectedly. They would not come too close to the fire, but appeared just at the edge of the light’s outer reaches. If he did not know better, he would suspect that the sheep were keeping an eye on him rather than the other way around.
The thought made him smile. That would be something to tell Branwen in the morning; the night he spent on the Garth Mountain when the sheep guarded the shepherd. He pictured how she would call him twp and daft, a foolish fellow. Yet she would laugh, and he loved nothing more than making Branwen laugh. Those deep brown eyes would sparkle, her cheeks would blush prettily, she would dip her gaze coyly and look away, making him want to reach and tilt her face back to him, so that he could look into those laughing brown eyes a while longer.
The fire sank suddenly low, its flames crouched and blue, their previous golden tones gone. All thoughts of Branwen’s smile vanished as Hywel instinctively crouched with them. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise, his skin prickling. With his free hand, he reached behind him to grab the torch he had left leaning against the wall. It was well made, with a long, sturdy wooden handle like that of a club, its head wrapped in layer upon layer of cloth soaked in lamb’s fat. All he needed to do was hold it in the flames and it would ignite. Fire was enough to frighten off most beasts, he had found, especially when waved around vigorously on the end of a blunt instrument.
Except such a thing was impossible now. The fire had sunk so low that if he held the torch over it, it would likely extinguish it altogether.
He gripped the cold torch anyway, its solid weight comforting. His crook was a handy weapon too, and he knew how to put it to good use. Heart pounding, his eyes widened as he stared out into the blackness, the sense of impending attack growing ever stronger.
The mist had begun to encroach, gaining courage at the loss of the flames. It swirled and eddied, daring now to draw near. To Hywel’s dismay, the flames dimmed still further as the mist began to thicken and settle, like cloud. Then all at once it fell away and the flames were back, taller and stronger than before, leaping and licking at the skies above.
Hywel shuddered, still crouched and tense, skin raised like gooseflesh. His brow creased in puzzlement; no earthly creature could have dulled the fire so. No wolf, bear or wild cat could have done such a thing, nor any foraging thief from a rival village.
For the first time, it crossed Hywel’s mind that the cause of the recent attacks upon the flock might be something other than animal. The thought filled him with dread. He lifted the rabbit’s foot that hung around his neck, pulling it free from his clothing and holding it to his lips to press a small, fervent kiss against the soft fur.
A noise came from somewhere to his left. A harsh, grating sound unlike any a sheep might make. Standing up abruptly, he dropped the rabbit’s foot, letting it bump against his chest as it dangled from the cord around his neck. He turned to face the sound, brandishing his tools like weapons.
It came again; a dry rasp, a sharply caught breath at its end, like someone was struggling to take a full breath. Hywel began to sweat, his hands growing slick, loosening his grip on the weapons. He could hear his own breathing, heavy and ragged.
He almost dropped his crook in fright when three sheep emerged from the darkness, running wild-eyed, silent and frantic. Hywel cried out loud; half-laugh, half-sob. Damned sheep! He cursed inwardly, gazing after them as they fled, to be once again swallowed by darkness.
Something about the way they ran disturbed him. Their utter silence, the look of panic in their eyes. Remembering the torch in his hand, Hywel dipped it into the newly risen fire. The flames lapped at it greedily. Soon he held a brightly burning torch, hissing and spitting as the fat was consumed and the strips of cloth set alight.
Behind him, a twig snapped. Not so strange a sound, except that the tread that broke it was deliberate and steady, not the random placement of a cloven foot. A sound like a sigh feathered the night, so low Hywel felt more than heard it, setting his nerves thrumming. He was overcome with a sudden and all-encompassing dread. It took all his will power not to drop his tools and run, as mindless and heedless as the sheep.
Limbs heavy with dread, Hywel slowly turned, hellish images flitting through his mind. Pictures of monsters from stories he had heard since he was a small child crept into his head; the ancient, elemental beast of Devil’s Drop, the long-horned figure of Nightshade Jack, the slack-jawed spectre of a crossroads hanging, condemned never to escape its earthly bonds even in the face of death…
He let out a stuttered breath at the sight waiting for him, becoming weak at the knees with relief. A girl of around fifteen years, barefoot and shabbily dressed, stood before him. He almost laughed again, calling himself a fool for being so terrified of a mere girl.
Then he looked at her more closely, and his dread began to build again.
The girl’s straw-coloured hair was long, wild and matted, knotted with leaves and twigs. Her face, possibly once pretty, was hidden beneath a mass of scratches, scars and bruises, caked dirt and greying smudges. Her black eyes were intent upon him, yet showed no flicker of awareness or of life. Dark circles ringed beneath them, adding to her deathly pallor. Involuntarily, Hywel shivered.
She was small; shorter than him by a good way and petite with it, her frame thin and bony. A long smock hung from her angular shoulders in a dirty shade of grey. Small, rust-coloured stains speckled its front. It was torn, worn so bare in places that it had holed, showing pale skin beneath. Its hem, ragged and soiled, brushed the top of her equally filthy feet.
Just a girl, yet there was something in her demeanour that unnerved him. She stood there, still and silent, simply staring at him. Her arms hung limp at her sides, pale hands protruding from the long sleeves of the smock to show long, bony fingers extending into jagged, uncut nails. He had a feeling those hands were not as helpless as they appeared.
He cleared his throat, trying to find the courage to speak. He knew it should be ridiculous, a well-armed, muscular young man such as himself afraid of this scrap. Except in his heart he knew that it wasn’t ridiculous at all.
His first attempt at speech failed, his voice barely a whisper that sunk into the night without trace. He tried again, watching her for any reaction.
“It’s not safe to be out alone, wandering so late at night,”
He had a feeling that she was not the one in danger of harm, but it was all he could think of to say. She did not respond in the slightest. Hywel, unsure of his ground, spoke again,
“You look like you might be a long way from home,” he ventured, once more taking in her neglected appearance.
“Home,” the girl echoed, her words sending small clouds of breath to join the swirling mists around them. At the sound of her voice his heart sank, his stomach turned somersaults.
“Home,” she said again. This time, he thought he saw something more in her gaze; something pitiful and beseeching. Her expression never changed though, and it was gone in an instant, leaving him wondering if he had imagined it.
He wanted the encounter to end, the strange girl to go away and leave him to his sheep. He had no idea how to be rid of her and she showed no sign of leaving. Choosing his words carefully, unwilling to anger or antagonise her, Hywel said,
“Well, I’ll be getting back to the flock.”
Even to his own ears his words sounded feeble and unconvincing, but now that he had said them, he had to act upon them. He did not dare to turn his back upon the girl. Not taking his eyes from her, he took a backward step, as if to make good upon his words.
The world plunged into darkness, the fire and the flaming torch extinguishing as one. Hywel’s heart near stopped with fright. It was the girl’s doing, he knew.
Still stupidly holding the smouldering torch aloft, Hywel fought to control a rising panic. He floundered, uncertain of his next move, when the girl spoke again. In the murky light, he could make out her shabby form. He watched as she raised a hand and pointed, her head never turning, her gaze never shifting from him:
Despite himself, Hywel turned to see where she pointed. Along the ridge of the mountain top a fire blossomed into life. It made no sense; there was no fire there to burn and no one to light it.
He turned to face the girl again, and jumped with fright when she was not there. She had been so close it was not possible she could have moved without him knowing.
Something pale flickered upon the ridge, drawing his eye. He squinted, once more making out the form of the girl mid-way between himself and the new fire. She was beckoning to him, those wicked fingernails curving inwards, calling him on. His legs leaden, his heart heavy, Hywel set out to follow her like a man wading through a mire.
The girl moved on ahead of him, not once looking back to see if he had obeyed her summons. She waited at the fire until he drew level. They were plunged into darkness as this fire too, went out. A third fire burned bright only a moment later, this time at the foot of the rounded outcrop upon which they stood; a grassy slope, slippery enough by day, treacherous by night with an insistent fog adding moisture to the already wet grass.
“I can’t follow…” Hywel began to protest, but knew it was useless. The girl had already moved on, effortlessly rounding the slope and disappearing below it. Hywel sighed, using his staff to steady himself as he cautiously descended the slope.
Once again, no sooner did he reach the girl and the fire than it went out, its flames dousing as quickly and completely as if water had been thrown upon it. This time though, the torch he was still gripping burst into life, burning brighter and more intently than it had before.
Hywel once more held the torch aloft. He was mightily glad he had broached the slope successfully. At its base sat a large rock, which would easily have cracked his skull open had he lost his footing and fallen. The girl was pointing at it now, her gaze at last removed from Hywel to focus intently upon the rock.
Hywel dared to take a step closer. She didn’t flinch as he held the torch over it, to better make out what looked like an inscription in its side.
Indeed, wording had been roughly hewn into the rock. There was a date, and what of it was readable appeared to be recent. Below it there appeared to be a name. Hywel ran his hands over the carving, spelling out the words as his fingers felt them.
“Mari Ann Cabbage?” he read aloud, his voice quizzical.
There came a sudden movement behind him. He turned, spinning around to face the girl. She was doubled over, clutching her hands to her breast as if in anguish. Her dark eyes spilled with tears, her passionless face at last wracked with signs of feeling; that of despair. Hywel felt an unexpected surge of pity for her.
Her voice was a painful screech. A hiss of malevolence, ire and agony all in one. Hywel dropped both the torch and the crook as he sought to defend his ears against the sound. All trace of sympathy left him as he watched her features change from that of yearning to a face full of vengeance and spite.
“Home!” She shrieked again, spittle flying from her mouth as she spoke. It was picked up on the wind that had come from nowhere and had begun to blow hard and cold across the mountain top, to spin away madly across the open blackness. Once more, Hywel found himself crouching, this time against the elements as well as the shrill, deafening voice of what he now knew to be Mari Ann Cabbage.
He wished he knew how to help her get home, or even where her home had been. He wished she would stop her dreadful wailing long enough for him to tell her so. Yet the noise was endless and unbearable. The wind itself took up the cry as it screamed and shrieked its way across the mountain in mimicry of Mari Ann’s harsh and grating tones.
Looking down, Hywel was amazed to find his torch still burning, despite the raging wind and the blanket of damp moss upon which it had fallen. He lifted it gingerly, dreading it blowing out and leaving him alone in the dark once more with this entity. For he believed in his heart that was what he was faced with; the spirit of a young girl somehow wronged and buried here upon the mountain, alone with no one to mourn her nor tend to her grave. If only she would quieten for a moment, perhaps he could find a way to help lay her tormented soul to rest; a way to keep his precious sheep safe from harm for ever more. For he was also certain now that it was she who had been ravaging the flock.
He kneeled, bracing himself with one hand upon the stone. The flames flickered wildly, but they burned bright enough for him to catch sight of a word that had escaped him before. A word that turned his blood cold and filled his mind with terror.
Beneath the inscription that bore the date and the girl’s name was another word: ‘wrach.’
Hywel froze in fear, too terrified to make even the slightest movement. She would know now, that he understood the truth of her. He knew beyond all doubt that she would never allow him to leave, now that he knew.
She was not buried and contained beneath that stone, as she ought to be. She was loose; wild and unfettered upon the mountain top.
He needed to get back to the village, to tell them what he knew. He needed, ironically, to go home.
He dared to risk a glance over his shoulder. The wind still raged; moans and shrieks still sallied back and forth across the mountain, but Mari Ann was once again unmoving in the centre of it all; not a fold in her dress riffling in the wind, not a strand of hair blown across her once more lifeless features. She was placid, peaceful even. A mere girl, lost and alone on the harsh mountain top.
Her cruel black eyes looked down upon Hywel. He thought sadly of Branwen’s sparkling brown eyes; of her gentle, stirring smile.
The torch blew out.
All was darkness.