The King Oak was the heart of Draenog Wood. It stood serene, older than the town of Tegfa but younger by far than the hills that formed Cerridwens Vale. It dreamed away season after season, year after year and deep within the crenelated folds and whirls of its trunk were stored the tales and secrets of the centuries passed. To the King Oak, all things changed yet all things remained the same and always, through the passing of time, it had provided shelter and protection for those in need of it. Today beneath its budding canopy, sat Sally Winslow, her plump figure curled into the seat-like depression of King Oak’s mighty body.
She was lost in the words on the pages before her, legs curled tight beneath her as she sucked on the ends of her bottle black braids. Behind the heavy lenses of her spectacles, her eyes raced along the lines of print, her breath quickening and slowing as if she had never read the tales before and did not know the fate of the characters before her. The book itself was worn, its spine cracked, its cover creased but to Sally it was still a magical thing. A gateway to adventure to be devoured and enjoyed until dull reality once again stormed the castle walls of her imagination to claim her, inevitably, for its own. Sighing and straightening at last she allowed the book to fall limp onto her knees. She would have to go back soon. The Oyster Shell would be opening its heavy doors for the evening and she would have to change out of the stained jeans and top she had worn to clean the place earlier and into fresh clothes that would transform her from scullion to barmaid.
A scowl settled on her face. Her features where considered by some to be too severe for true prettiness, yet there was a softness, a longing which could transform her anger to passion at times and throw a glamour over her features that would grow in power as the years passed. She wished as always, that she did not have to go back. The smoke and the noise made her head reel and her clothes stink and the very smell of beer could now turn her stomach. She wished as always, she had been permitted to continue her education, to attend the nearby college with her former schoolmates, but her father had been adamant in his refusal.
“Why waste your time and that of the college?” He had asked rhetorically. “You’ll only marry and have children as soon as you can.” He had taken it upon himself instead to find his daughter employment. With work being scarce and limited in such a small town this had taken the course of calling in a favour from his brother-in-law who happened to be the owner, and landlord, of The Oyster Shell pub.
Her father’s mind was in the Dark Ages, Sally thought furiously, and her mother was no better: All she ever did was agree with the man as if she had no thoughts of her own in her addled blonde head. Neither of them ever gave a thought to what she, Sally, might actually want! With a final martyred sigh she stretched and slid stiffly to her feet. There was still a real nip to the air especially now that the sun was going down. She hugged her voluminous cardigan tighter around herself, stowed King Arthur and His Noble Knights safely in the sagging depths of a pocket, and began her journey back to town. As usual she made for the perimeter of the Wood rather than the more direct route, following its edge around to the road; this, as she had hoped, bought her a glimpse of the man who lived in the old lighthouse across the common.
Michael Kernow appeared to spend a great deal of time simply wandering around the grassy area between the wood and the lighthouse. She could see him clearly whilst remaining hidden herself by the trees and dappling shadows. He was an odd man, she thought, prone to talking to himself. He was too old to be of interest romantically although several of the girls in school had swooned and giggled whenever they passed him in the street and said he was fascinating.
No; he was too angry looking for her romantic tastes but she did find him fascinating in other ways. Often when she spied on him, he would be sitting strumming his guitar by a crackling camp fire on the open turf, even in the coldest weather. And sometimes, when she could decipher his mumblings, it would sound as though he was answering someone that no-one else could see. Sally’s mind conjured scenarios of doomed romance and broken hearts somewhere in the past which had obviously robbed the poor man of his sanity leaving him crazy with grief. She had been careless enough to mention the idea once over dinner with her parents, only to have her idealistic notions dashed on the concrete severity of her father’s thinking.
“More likely it’s all those bloody drugs he took back in the days have addled his mind,” George Winslow had barked contemptuously. “Bloody hippy! Don’t know what the council were thinking when they gave planning permission for that place?”
“They were probably thinking how much they enjoyed the holidays they bought with the money he gave them,” Sally’s mother had said vaguely. She had been picking around in the remains of her meal, so completely engrossed in her search for a final edible morsel that she had been oblivious of the furious glare from her husband. For Sally’s part she had wondered, for the thousandth time, how anyone so utterly unfiltered could survive the everyday world. It compounded the anger she felt when they treated her like a child; she knew as well as anyone how the world worked. She certainly knew how business in Tegfa was conducted for the most part – she worked in the pub for heaven’s sake – yet they persisted in treating her as if she was still a child!
In an absolute fury now, she stamped across the narrow curving road to cut across the car park above the beach. Already there were a handful of vehicles scattered on the cracked tarmac; early birds too poor or too desperate to care about the unpredictability of early spring weather.
John Keane had mentioned earlier that the first of The Oyster’s rooms had been booked for the following week. It would add to her workload Sally thought sourly, but it would also mean a boost to her meagre wages.
“I shouldn’t have to work!” She thought, tears of self-pity springing to her eyes. Her father was wealthy, richer than those of many of her former friends and not one of them had been forced to get jobs. She had reached the front door of the rambling Edwardian villa that was home and in the flawlessly polished glass panels of the front door Sally saw herself reflected; pale faced, shapeless in the oversized clothes which gave her the dimensions of a cube, her hair too dark for the lightness of her eyes.
Because of George Winslow’s profession as the town butcher, the family ate a good deal of farm reared meat; his mother had been widowed, left to raise her son alone like so many others after the war. Always a reserved taciturn woman she had shown her love in the only tangible way she knew how; through food and lots of it. The end result had been a great slab of a boy as solid and florid as the lumps of flesh on the marble slabs of the family shop. Marion, her mother, also came from a line of hearty eaters; a farmer’s daughter who believed in good honest butter and full rich milk to nourish the body as opposed to artificial coloured muck that masqueraded as food. It was even their fault she was fat, thought Sally furiously! In a gesture of pettiness she placed her grubby palms flat on the mirror like glass leaving two perfect oily prints on the surface.
“There,” she thought meanly. “That will spoil your nice shiny house for five minutes.” But it was a hollow gesture for it would not be her mother who had to clean the smudges away, but Zillah Lovell the fox-eyed woman who came down from the council estate twice a week to scrub and polish the Winslow home.
Sally ignored her mother’s shouted query from the living room and barged noisily up the stairs making as much noise as possible. After slamming her bedroom door pointedly she shrugged off her cardigan and studied herself critically in the full length mirror of the wardrobe.
What she wanted, more than anything, was to look like Morgan le Fay in the Waterhouse painting above her bed; instead she looked like a witch in some child’s fairy tale. Her hair did not cascade gently down her shoulders in glistening waves; it lay lank and damaged from the harsh chemicals of the dye she used to darken it. She looked ruefully at its central parting; it was pale and sandy coloured, getting wider by the day. Since she could not always afford to buy black dye she wondered if perhaps she should consider a lighter colour that wouldn’t show so much between treatments. She hadn’t been able to help admiring the honey dark hair of the woman who had stayed at the pub over Christmas. A wicked smile transformed her face. John Keane had been very taken with her too; he had hardly left the woman’s side and had hung on every crumb of attention she had dropped for him. Linda Keane had been angry, like a bear with a sore head until the woman had left. Sally’s musings were cut short by her mother calling plaintively from the landing.
“What?” She shouted back irritably.
“I was just saying hello cariad.”
Tutting Sally turned back to the mirror ignoring the interruption. She began to pull on the clothes she had laid out the night before. She had no patience left anymore for her mother; even now she could picture the trembling lower lip and heavily made-up eyes brimming with tears as the woman lolled on the banister begging like a dog for attention. Her clothes would be too bright and too tight and she would almost certainly be plastered.
Screwing up her face in concentration Sally manoeuvred her contact lenses into her eyes and began her make-up for the evening. Her fingers trembled involuntarily as she considered her mother’s condition. They actually believed that she didn’t know; as if there could be any doubt. They actually believed the old wives tale about vodka having no smell.
Pulling on her jacket Sally pushed past her mother as she made her way downstairs.
“Are you going out again?” Marion Winslow murmured pathetically. “I thought we might have a girls evening – your father is at a meeting.”
“I’m late for work,” Sally replied shortly. “The job you and father were so keen to set up for me; remember?” She knew her tone was cruel but she could not stop herself. She wanted her mother to show some pride, to pull herself together for god’s sake. It wasn’t as if she had any excuse after all; they were one of the most affluent families in the vale and as far as she could tell her father kept Marion short of nothing. She slammed the door behind her and hurried across The Green to the pub.
Business was already brisk as she sauntered through the bar to the staff door. Linda made a caustic remark about her tardiness and Sally pulled a face at her broad back as she hung up her coat and took up her place behind the bar. She hated her job, the leering looks and comments that always greeted her arrival. The men were her father’s contemporaries and she did not try too hard to hide her revulsion at their clumsy entendres. Up until her eighteenth birthday she had been able to hide in the kitchen emerging only to wipe down tables or deliver meals but now she spent almost all of her time in the bar hating every minute. Her complaints at home fell on deaf ears, her mother had apparently once filled the same position and what had been good enough for her was considered good enough for Sally.
A sudden silence descended over the pub and Sally paused in her pretence of polishing glasses to look up. The heavy wooden door of The Oyster had swung open and framed within it stood two men, one slightly taller than the other, but both lean yet well built. Curiously she glanced around, expressions of dismay sat on most of the faces around her. Jaws hung loose and glasses were frozen halfway in their journey to eager lips. Even the normally unshakeable John Keane stood withth a frozen expression on his face.
The strangers both wore dark clothes; charcoal jackets from what must once have been good quality suits and jeans scuffed and worn but clean. The taller and older of the two stopped at the bar and laid his hands flat on the polished wood. Up close Sally could see that his shoulder length tangled brown hair was shot through with random streaks of grey. His hard eyes reflected the golden colour of the earring in his left ear and his narrow high bridged nose gave him an almost predatory look.
The youth beside him was staring openly at her she realised. Suddenly self-conscious sally rested an arm across her chest and blushed deeply.
“What the hell are you doing here?” John Keane had found his tingue and broke the weighty silence.
“Long time,” the man replied softly ignoring the question. “I was Jake’s age when I last saw this place.” He gestured to the young man standing beside him and Sally did not miss the fleeting glimmer of pride it awoke in him.
“We were all young then,” Keane replied. “Now, I’ll ask again; what do you want here?”
“A pint.” The stranger paused to light up a skinny home rolled cigarette then seeing that the publican had not moved, stared hard at the man and added, “A half for him.”
Foe one long second it seemed as if John Keane might send the two packing. Sally felt her heart begin to hammer in the hollow of the throat then, her employer pressed his lips into a tight hard line, picked up a glass and began to pull the drinks.
A quiet ripple of conversation began to spread slowly around the bar Sally picked up another glass to polish and felt the stranger’s eyes on her. Not the younger one this time but the older one who was obviously his father. He studied her openly without embarrassment until her skin began to prickle. Finally he said in a voice so soft she could barely make out the words,
“You’re Marion Davies’s girl aren’t you?”
“Winslow,” John Keane slammed down the glasses between them. “Her name is Winslow not Davies.” This appeared to amuse the man.
“So he took on then; kept his word.” He gave the younger man, Jake, a glance but he was standing with his back against the bar so that he could watch the crowd. “Just goes to show every man has his price I suppose.” Jake gave a grunt and lifted his chin in vague acknowledgement of the remark.
“Old Mother Holt is gone Jem; been gone a while. Things are different around here now.” There was a challenge in the landlord’s voice but the stranger simply picked up his glass and swallowed half of his beer in one gulp.
“I know about Kitty, the crows told me when it happened but you’re wrong about things being different.” He put down his glass and fixed John Keane with a strare. “Nothing ever really changes in this place does it?”
“Who are you?” Sally blurted out suddenly. The man’s brows arched with surprise and he smiled briefly at his companion.
“I’m Jem Starke,” He said abruptly. “Give my regards to your Ma.” He set down his empty glass and gestured with his chin to Jake. Both men nodded curtly to their host then walked unhurriedly to the door. Sally could almost hear the sigh of relief as it closed behind them.
“Who are they?” She repeated her earlier question.
“Gypsies.” Linda was standing behind them her hands gripping the posts of the door so tightly that her knuckles were white. Her face looked drawn as sally said,
“How come I’ve never seen them before?”
“Because they’ve not been here in nigh on twenty year!” She snapped.
“Call George,” her husband said brusquely. “Tell him they’re here.”
“You mean Marion don’t you?”
Keane turned and gave his wife a look that made her shrink back. “Tell George,” he repeated slowly then turning to Sally finished, “And you get in the kitchen. You can work out back for the rest of the night.”
“But there’s nothing to do out there…”
For two mind-numbing hours Sally wiped already clean plates and pans until eventually Linda Keane came through and told her she could go. She looked as if she had been crying, her eyes red and swollen.
“Go home,” she told Sally without looking at her. “There’s no point in keeping you here.” She watched as Sally tidied everything away and pulled on her coat. As she was headed for the door Linda said,” Don’t tell your Mam what happened here tonight.”
Sally turned and gave a sneering half smile. “I didn’t know anything had happened but then no-one ever tells me anything anyway. I’m just the hired help.”
The woman breathed in slowly and deeply wrestling with her temper. Finally she said, “Just go and if you’re late again tomorrow I’ll take it your of your wages.”
“In that case I’d be paying you,” Sally said rudely. She let the door swing back behind her with a satisfying crash. She did not feel like going straight home so she cut through the narrow alley and headed for The Promenade. She drew in a great breath of fresh salty air coughing slightly as she expelled the stale beer and second hand smoke from her lungs. It was a beautiful night, crisp and clear with the makings of a new moon and she was reluctant to go back. She allowed her thoughts to drift to the gypsy boy, Jake. He had been so handsome in an ethereal new romantic way, she thought dreamily, like Parsifal or Galahad. His hazel eyes were haunting her, hypnotising her from afar. As if it were the most unplanned of moves Sally began to stroll up the hill out of Tegfa towards the road that led to Draenog Wood.
At the edge of the tree line she stopped and stared out over the common. Right in the centre crouched a shadowy group of vans and vehicles. At the heart of the rough circle flickered a fire above which hung a pot black with charring but releasing a heady fragrance of herbs and game into the night. Snatches of song and fiddle music could be heard now and then over the shushing of the sea. Closing her eyes Sally leaned back against the nearest tree and tried to imagine being held by Jake’s strong arms. A rush of longing flooded through her and Sally’s eyes popped back open her cheeks scarlet with embarrassment. Hurrying away from the camp she began to follow the narrow path that would lead her towards the centre of the wood.
The pungent scents of the night washed over her as her feet crushed the forest floor; humus rich as fruit cake melded with early blossoms and the smell of the rich red earth itself. She could almost taste it on her tongue and the more she tried to control the urges growing inside her the stronger they became. She found herself beneath the canopy of the mighty King Oak and with a sob of confusion flung her arms around the gnarled trunk of the great tree. Opening her eyes she allowed them to adjust to the dark and as they did so Sally made out a figure on the far side of the clearing. Silently whoever it was uncoiled their body like a rope until she could see who was standing before her.
“What are you doing out here gaujo girl; why aren’t you locked up safe in your big brick house?”
Sally let her arms drop and turned to face him. “I prefer out here.”
The remark seemed to amuse him. “Blood will out,” he said at last.
“What does that mean?”
Ask your Ma.” There was a flash of white as he smiled then his body tensed listening. It took several seconds for Sally to hear the approaching footsteps. Heart pounding she waited to see who or what might appear through the trees and let loose a sigh of relief as Fay Morgan made her way into the clearing followed by her grandson Hywel.
His hair looks silver in the darkness and his eyes lit up like those of a fox. He and Jake eyed each other warily; young bucks sizing up their opposition. They did not break eye contact until the old woman stepped between them.
“Jake Starke, where is your father?” She said to the gypsy boy.
“Back at camp where he belongs,” Came the insolent treply.
“Don’t you speak to Old Mother Morgan like that!” Hywel made to step forward but was held back by Fay’s arm across his chest.
“Hush!” Both men moved back. The old woman looked at Sally her eyes sharp with interest. “Talking with your old friend King Oak?”
Sally did not reply, she shrugged and moved her arms so that she was half embracing the tree again.
“She’s one of the goat god’s chosen ones.” Fay was speaking to Jake Starke. “You be sure and tell him that.”
“He already knows.” The boy seemed scornful, dismissive of anything Fay Morgan had to say. “He could tell as soon as he saw her. Blood will out.”
Hywel stepped deliberately between Jake Starke and his grandmother to reach Sally. A half smile turned the edges of his mouth up and standing too close to her he ran his fingers softly down Sally’s face. Her heart began to race again as her body betrayed her common sense. There wasn’t a girl in Tegfa who didn’t lust after Fay Morgan’s golden haired grandson but he had never afforded Sally so much as a glance before tonight.
He was overwhelming close to; almost frightening. Sally’s legs began to tremble and she shrank away from his touch pushing herself hrd against the oak tree. Unbelievably Hywel leaned forward and brushed his lips across her own so lightly that it caused a sensation more irritating than pleasant. She understood in that instant that he was doing it to anger Jake Starke rather anything to do with her.
“Leave her,” the gypsy boy growled warningly.
“Boy come away,” Fay Morgan barked and Hywel stepped aside with a grin. “You should go home now maid,” she said directly to Sally. “These hills aren’t safe right now.”
“Because of the gypsies?” The words blurted before she could stop them and Sally flushed with shame as Jake Starke glared at her.
“No, not the Rom,” fay chuckled. “They are solid enough. What brought you here tonight wasn’t though. The goat god may not have harmed you this time but he’s a trickster; he can’t always be trusted.”
“Don’t fill her head with stuff like that old woman; she don’t need it!”
“Show some respect,” Hywel Morgan’s lips drew back in a snarl and his fists clenched.
“Hist!” Fay Morgan hissed at them both like a cat. “You will both have your time; no need to go looking for it.”
“And when will that be?” Jake demanded petulantly.
“When it’s right.” Jem Starke’s deep voice cut through the darkness making Sally jump. She had not heard him approach.
“Sarshin Sherrengo,” Fay’s face lit with a beaming smile of genuine affection and she dipped her head in a respectful nod. “It’s been too long since our paths crossed.”
Jem chuckled humourlessly then responded,
“Sarshin Puri Dai but I think around here you may be the only one who feels that way.”
Fay made an impatient gesture. “Try and forgive them Jem, their memories are short, they forget like children.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” The gypsy said quietly. “It’s us; me who paid the price to keep them safe. My happiness and a man’s life: Too high a cost.”
“It’s not for them,” Fay said her eyes filling. “It’s for this place; this valley. It’s for Cerridwen.”
Sally who had watching wide eyed saw Jem’s gaze come to rest on her.
“You look like your Ma,” he said finally.
“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”
Jem shrugged and turned away to stare at Hywel. The young man took a step back but did not look away, in fact he lifted his jaw slightly in mute challenge. With a sigh Jem told Jake,
“See her home safe.”
“I don’t want…”
Go!” Something in the man’s voice told her not to argue. Without another word Sally huffed away from the group leaving her escort to catch up with her as she reached the road. She turned to tell him he could go to hell but could not get the words out. He was the most stunning man she had ever been close to; not scary like Hywel but perfect, almost beautiful. She heard herself ask instead,
“What was that name Fay Morgan called your Da?”
Jake glanced at her his face unreadable then he said begrudgingly,” It’s a Rom word. Sherrengo, it means chieftain.”
“And Puri Dai?”
“You got a good ear on you don’t you?” he seemed surprised and Sally felt herself begin to glow. “It means Old Mother.”
“Wish I could talk Rom,” Sally sighed. “It sounds romantic. Will you teach me?”
“You want to learn your own tongue first.”
Sally stopped stung. Jake walked a few steps before turning back to see what was keeping her.
“For your information,” she said haughtily, “No-one round here talks welsh. We’re part of little England beyond wales.”
“And you’re proud of that are you?” Jake began to walk again and Sally, seeing that he was not going to wait, began to trail behind. She did not catch him until the lights of Tegfa were shining down on them as they made their way through the winding streets.
“Will you be staying here long?” She asked to break the silence between them. Jake shrugged without answering. They walked a little further then just as they were in sight of The Terrace he said,
“Do you go up onto the hills?”
“Sometimes,” Sally replied.
“You shouldn’t. There’s a rakerimasko bara up there.”
“A what?” Sally laughed.
“It’s a spirit, a stone,” jake seemed to be searching for the right words. “A talking stone.”
“Do you mean Terfyl Rock?”
“Hush!” Jake looked around wild eyed as if expecting something to leap from the shadows and attack them. “Don’t say names out loud,” he scolded. “There’s a power in names like you wouldn’t believe.” He gripped Sally’s arms as he spoke and she felt a tingle of excitement race through her. “Promise me you will stay away from it.”
Before she could answer they heard her father calling her name as he came hurrying across The Green. She turned back to Jake but the boy was gone, melted into the night like a shadow.
“Where have you been?” he was angry. “Keane phoned to say you left the pub two hours ago.
“I went for a walk,” Sally said sullenly shaking off her father’s hand.
“At this hour? There are gypsies on that common!”
She shrugged and began to walk away from him. “So? They seem OK to me. One of them walked me home.”
George Winslow’s face paled. For a second or two he swayed and looked as if he might pass out then he regained his self-control.
“You don’t know what you’re playing with cariad.”
Startled by his change of tone and the unfamiliar endearment Sally stopped and stared back at her father. She did not resist as he reached for her again and began to gently steer her towards the house. At the doorway she said in a voice choked with frustration,
“Why did everyone act that way when Jake and Jem came to the pub? Why won’t anyone tell me what’s happening?”
“You saw Jem?” her mother’s voice made them both start.
“Marion,” George Winslow’s voice took on a warning tone.
“Is he still handsome?” Marion Davies was crying, her make up sliding down her face. She was also very drunk. “Did he remember me; did he ask after me?”
“Marion go back to bed to now, Sally is home safe.”
But it was very obvious to Sally that her Mother was barely aware of her presence. She looked on with a mixture of revulsion and pity as her the woman collapsed in a heap in the hallway, her skirt rucking awkwardly across her heavy thighs. She was sobbing as if her heart was broken keening Jem Starke’s name over and over in a broken voice.
Shocked Sally watched as her father gathered Marion up with unusual tenderness and half led, half carried her up to their bedroom. When she followed a few minutes later she paused to listen to the crooning endearments through the door which had been pulled tightly closed. She could scarcely believe her own ears; George Winslow was a hard man; a shouter and a bully both in business and his home life. He had no time for sentimental notions, as he put it, and public displays of affection. Tentatively she raised one hand intending to tap on the smooth polished surface but let it fall again without doing so before going into her own room.
Through the large picture which framed the shore she gazed out over clustered rooftops to where the horizon glittered in the weak moonlight. She listened to the ceaseless push and pull of the ocean and imagined running down to the shoreline to wiggle her toes in the sand amongst the playful baby waves. She could picture herself wading deeper, out towards Lookout Point where she could scream her questions to the sky.
In the pocket of her coat her fingers found the papery remains of a small twig it’s leaves desiccated and frail. As she tore the dry material between her fingers she found her thoughts taking a darker turn. Instead of warm welcoming wavelets she imagined roaring angry breakers; cold angry waves that sucked her very soul to the depths of the raging hungry currents. She felt the air being sucked from her lungs by deadly frozen kiss and her body being tossed and broken in the rocks then being left to float restless and broken for the hungry nibbling lips of the fish to feed on.
A shuddering breath as her body reclaimed its natural defences broke the black trance and she stood gasping, her fingers tightening around the sharp points of the twigs in her pocket, the pain anchoring her and holding her safely in the sanctuary of the room. Her eyes fell back into focus and she saw herself staring back into her own eyes of amber and the high thin bridge of her nose.
“Go to bed Sally.”
An actual squeal of alarm tore from her chest as her father looked around the bedroom door.
“Don’t worry about your Mam; she’s…”
“Not well,” he finished coolly. He pulled the door closed as he left and Sally listened to his footsteps retreating along the landing. She pulled off her clothes and fell, suddenly exhausted, into bed where to her surprise, she slept.
It was gone noon when she awoke and a sullen drizzle was coating everything giving Tegfa a grey washed out look. But Sally would not be put off; pulling on a sweater and jeans she raced out of the house and up the hill towards The Lighthouse and the gypsy encampment. At the fork in the road however she hesitated and took a moment to look around and catch her breath.
In the distance, over Porth Carreg, brighter weather was already heading in. It was typical of the unpredictable conditions of the area and at the top of the highest hill swathes of cloud-like mist were already burning away to reveal Terfyl Rock standing like a great tusk against the skyline.
A sudden curiosity came over her as she remembered Jake Starke’s warning of the night before. He had given Terfyl some outlandish name that was practically unpronounceable. Sally rarely ventured up onto the open moorland, she preferred the closeness of the trees but she was suddenly overcome with a burning curiosity. She had grown up hearing the half whispered tales of Terfyl Rock and what went on in the hills at certain times of the year but she had always dismissed them as idle gossip; entertainment for the grockles who came to stay each summer and line the pockets of Tegfa’s permanent inhabitants.
One of the tales had said that Terfyl could grant your dearest desire if asked properly. An embarrassed half smile played on her lips. Her dearest desire right now concerned the very person she was hoping to bump into. Glancing over at Draenog Wood she saw the tree canopy still topped with wreaths of fog and drizzle. Changing direction she headed towards the hills and the burgeoning sunshine.
She was sweating heavily by the time she had negotiated the winding path and panted heavily as a cooler breeze finally found her but its relief was short-lived; as she began to pick her way across the turf her shoes sank and squelched in the rust coloured juices of the hills. Twice she turned her ankle painfully and had almost decided to turn back and go to the wood after all when a figure appeared from behind the rock.
Shading her eyes Sally tried to identify the person. She cursed the haste that had caused her to leave her spectacles behind but whoever it was appeared to be dressed in black. She decided that it was more than likely to be Jake and covered the remaining distance quickly. But when she got to Terfyl Rock there was nobody there. Puzzled Sally walked around the monolith trailing her fingers across its weather worn surface. She had not realised that there were spiral carvings on it. Peering closely she picked out serpentine coils beneath the lichen.
Curiosity piqued Sally made a second circuit of the rock all the while humming to herslf and scratching gently at it’s surface. She was about to go around a third time when she heard her name being screamed across the oddly dead still air of the hills.
“Sally no!” Jake Starke was running swift as a deer across the uneven turf jumping with goat-like agility over the hummocks and rabbit holes. “What are you doing?” He gasped angrily as he stopped in front of her. “Didn’t you listen to what I told you?”
Looking down Sally felt an angry flush stain her cheeks. “Of course I listened.” Resentment flared inside her but when she looked back up she saw that his eyes were full of concern. A crease of worry marred his forehead beneath a tangle of dark hair and he looked so handsome that Sally felt she could barely breathe. They were, she realised, almost close enough to kiss. One step allowed her to press her mouth firmly to Jake Starke’s lips. She was horrified when he not only pushed roughly away but spat on the ground and scrubbed his mouth for good measure.
“What do you think you are doing?” he shouted.
Appalled Sally pressed the back of her hand to her mouth and struggled to stem her tears. “It was just a kiss.”
“But it isn’t right; not between us.” Jake sounded revolted and a flood of shame filled Sally’s throat. Her stomach heaved and she turned away fearing she might be sick.
“I’m not some kind of monster you know,” she managed to sob.
“Of course you aren’t.” Jake’s anger was now becoming discomfort. The gypsy boy looked around him anxiously as if he might draw salvation from the rocks and heather of the moor.
“Then why did you spit like that?” She was crying openly now.
“Because it was mochardi; unclean,” he said awkwardly.
Scrubbing at her eyes sally turned back to face him. “Why because I’m a, what did you call me last night, a gaujo?”
“No, not that.” Jake looked agonised and as he struggled silently Hywel Morgan’s voice said,
“He can’t tell you.” There was a mocking note to the statement and as they turned around in surprise Sally saw his eyes taunting them. “You’ve been forbidden to tell her haven’t you chavvie?”
“I’m no child,” Jake said coldly. “Don’t pretend you speak Rom because I know you don’t.”
“Maybe not,” the blonde man admitted. “But I know your laws and if your Sherrengo says you can’t speak about something then I know you have to obey no matter what.”
“Alright then,” Sally spoke up anger and humiliation making her voice shake. “You tell me then.”
Hywel smiled without warmth. He came closer and leaned into Sally breathing in the scent of her hair and skin. “Should I tell her chavvie?” he said softly.
Knocking Sally aside Jake put his hands around Hywel’s throat and drove him back hard against the upright rock. A spurt of scarlet burst from the blonde mans lips as his teeth snapped together and the impact of his skull against the stone made his eyes glaze dizzily for a second or two.
“Jake no!” Sally pulled at the gypsy boy’s sleeve but succeeded only in distracting sufficiently for Hywel to break free and deliver a punch that sent him sprawling to the ground. Both young bucks now wore trails of red on their chins and Sally could do nothing but watch helplessly as they began to fight and tear at each other like animals. She tried to step forward to part them but was driven back by Hywel’s brindle hound which feinted at her with drawn lips and a menacing snarl. It wasn’t until Jem Starke was heard shouting furiously as he raced across the hill that either of them looked up.
A glare from the gypsy chieftain was enough to send the hound scuttling away and grabbed the collars of the two young men dragging them apart. Sally saw a flicker of apprehension on both faces.
A torrent of Romane spilled from Jem’s lips and with a final cuff Jake was sent on his way. The boy began to run and did not look back. Jem turned back to Hywel and pulled him close by grabbing the front of his shirt.
“Get yourself back to Old Mother Morgan and tell her what you done here today.”
“I did nothing!” Hywel wrestled himself free and spat at Jem’s feet. “Ask her; she’ll tell you your boy struck the first blow.”
Sally had never seem rage like that which filled Jem Starke’s eyes. She feared he might actually kill Hywel or do him harm but eventually the older man unclenched his fists and breathed heavily for several moments. When he finally spoke it was in a voice that sent shivers of dread down Sally’s spine.
“I curse you. I gift you to the Kashali; may you get exactly what you want.” He made a sign in the air with his fingers and Hywel staggered back a few steps, his face pale. The air was still as if in shock at what had just been done until Hywel called weakly to his hound which came warily back to join him. With the barest trace of a contemptuous smile the young man left them picking his way carefully along the path that would take him back to hid grandmother’s cottage.
Alone with Jem sally could only stare bug eyed at the man who was still trembling with barely restrained fury. When she spoke, trying to make a garbled defence for Jake he simply put one finger against his thin lips and shook his head. Then he pointed to Terfyl Rock and shook his head again.
“You shouldn’t come up here,” he said at last. “Jake was trying to warn you.”
“I know, please don’t punish him. It’s all my fault.”
Jem’s lips loosened. He rested his hands on his hip and looked around him. An expression of weariness and deep pain had etched itself onto his features and as he turned his face up to gaze at the once more sullen sky Sally thought she saw a glint of moisture at the corner of his eye. For several ong moments he fought silently with himself then, glancing across at Draenog Wood, he gestured for Sally to follow him.
Once safe in its forested embrace Sally began to tremble with delayed shock. A dreadful cold seemed to have seeped into her bones and she bit her lip hard so as not to cry again. They were standing beneath King Oak and between chattering teeth Sally asked,
“Can I ask a question?”
“There’s not a man born who can stop a maid asking questions,” Jem replied dryly.
“Why is everyone in this town afraid of you?”
He stared at her until she felt herself begin to burn under the force of him but she did not blink or look away.
“A lot of the story isn’t mine to tell,” he said at last with a sigh. “But what I will tell again is stay away from there.” He nodded in the direction of the hills. “There’s power in that place that would finish us all if the gate were to be opened and the Kashali were to come through.”
“Kashali? Is that like in the legends and fairy tales; like The Twyleth Teg?”
Jem clucked his tongue crossly and shushed her. “Legends are fact put into a form we can remember, don’t you forget that and names are some of the most powerful magic there is.”
“Magic,” Sally could not stop the grin.
“Aye, magic: Just because folk forget don’t mean something isn’t still there.”
“Did you really curse him?”
Tenderness softened the tall Rom’s face. “Yes but I can protect them too if I know their name.”
“It’s easy to find out someone’s name. There’s no power in that.”
“Not your ordinary name,” he said softly. “Your real name that only you and your mother know. The name she whispered as you fell asleep each night.”
“My mother names me Sally, will you protect me?”
“Always,” he told her with a smile. “But not with magic.” Taking one hand from his pocket he gently traced the line of Sally’s jaw and a flash of vulnerability raced across his face. “Take your head out of those books of yours and talk to your Ma. Real magic is all around you, not on paper.”
Sally looked doubtful. “We don’t have much in common.”
Jem put his hand back into his pocket and stared up at the canopy of budding leaves above them.
“I never used to think much of George Winslow’s views on life,” he said quietly, “But he’s proved himself a man of his word. He made me a promise and he kept it. That makes him an honourable man in my book.”
Sally spluttered. “You obviously don’t know him very well! My father; honourable?”
“Where it counts.” Jem looked back down at Sally. “Go home,” he said gently. “Talk to them both.” He began to walk away and Sally felt a wave of desolation sweep over her.
“Don’t leave me behind,” she said piteously. “I want to be with you and Jake.”
“Me and Jake are always with you; blood can never be parted by distance.” He did stop, he did not even turn around and then he gone; lost in the weaving trunks of the wood.
It was getting dark and Sally realised she should have been at work an hour ago. A flash of spirit leaped into heart as she thought about Jem’s words. Sod the pub! She would not be going in there again. It was time to take a stand and fight for what she wanted to be.
As she made her way back to town Sally rehearsed how she would explain to her parents that she wanted to go back to college. There was more to life than Tegfa and The Oyster Shell and by god, she wanted to experience some of it!
As she pushed open the gate the front door of the house flew open and her Mother ran sobbing down the path. She enveloped Sally in a hug that almost squashed the breath from her ribs. Instinctively Sally made to push her away then heard Jem’s words echoing in her head. She looked hard at Marion and saw. To her astonishment, that her Mother must have been quite beautiful once. Beneath the ruined make up and alcohol bloated features still lurked the laughing fresh faced beauty who must have been able to have her pick of the young men of Tegfa; perhaps even a wild eyed young gypsy.
Understanding dawned like a spring morning and as sally pulled her sobbing Mother towards her she looked at the man who had chosen to bring her up as his own so many years ago.
He looked suddenly old; broken and she thought for the first time how much he must love them both. How frightened he must have been at the prospect of her finding the truth.
“You came back cariad, you came back.”
“Of course I did,” she whispered in her Mother’s ear. “You’re my Mam and Da; who else would put up with me?”
Her mother’s voice creased with uncertain joy and her Father stepped forward uncertainly.
“Things will be different cariad I swear,” he whispered as she grasped his hand.
“They will,” Sally nodded. “Things need to change, you have to understand I’m not a your little girl anymore. I’m a grown up; a person.”
George Winslow’s voice was hoarse with unshed tears. “You will always be my little girl,” he told her. She squeezed his fingers tightly.
“And you will always be my Da.”