All Tash wanted was something to eat and a rest. But, but, but...
| All Tash wanted to do was to have a sit-down and a cup of tea. But there was no dry, sheltered spot up here on the moor where he could plonk down his weary bones and have a crust to gnaw on. But the rain persisted down with determination. But the wind dashed the water into the heather, filling ruts with brown run off. But it was getting late and if he did not get a wiggle on he would be benighted. But...
'But. But. But.' He told himself sternly. 'But me no buts and find a place to park your butt.' It was time to stop and refuel. He had one of Sundeep's best giant samosas in his backpack and a flask of tea. There was even a Kendal Mint Cake in his pocket, the traditional rocket fuel for a hillwalker, a tooth-breaking lump of solid sugars laced with oil of mint. Pulling out his walker's sat-nav he studied the built in map. 'Too damn small.' He was muttered. 'Out with the map and get sorted.' When on the wander, he always carried a map and compass, electronics failing on a Welsh hillside could be lethal. The weather could be atrocious. Not a place to lose your way.
The path ascended for about another half mile, crested a ridge and then dropped down into a valley. A name, Aberllwyn, promised some sort of shelter. At worst, he could hunker down in the lee of a wall and let the spices of his samosa fill his veins. At best there might be a pub, even if the locals refused to speak English when a stranger dripped his way in. As he stowed the map in his pocket, he felt a forgotten lump. A choccy bar! Perfect.
The chocolate was just a faint memory as he hiked along the road into Aberllwyn. A terrace of grey miner's cottages clung grimly to the hillside with the blank stare of abandonment. What had been a pub was a glistening shell with blackened roof timbers supporting a few slates. The rest lay in shattered heaps on the path.
'There ain't nothing so sad as a pub wiv no beer.' He paused to wonder if he actually wanted a beer. His family, although not strict Muslims, had disapproved of his pub visits. His grandparents were from Pakistan but he was second generation English. Scratch that. Second generation Welsh. Another line formed in his mind: 'And nothing so creepy as a cot with no cheer.' Especially when it was getting dark and the rain was still lancing down. Would one of those doors be unlocked?
Oddly, the first miner's house did have an open door. He pushed it open and swing his headtorch around the interior. He expected damp plaster, graffiti, the detritus of kids partying, empty cans, stub ends of spliffs, maybe abandoned bedding. Wrong. It was clean and spotless. Empty. Abandoned. Waiting for someone. He stepped over the threshold. Into silence.
An alert from his phone made him jump.
'Where r u?'
'Aberllwyn sleeping over c u 2moro' Tash hit the send button.
The rest of the house was in the same, spotless state. The kitchen was old fashioned, a stone sink with a single tap over it. Out the back, a tiny yard with a closet and a coal shed. With coal and a scuttle. Gleefully, he carried several loads through into the parlour. All he needed now was a bit of kindling. There was nothing upstairs, one room and that was it. It was going to be a chilly night after all. Maybe he should push on? One glance out of the window into drenching night out put that thought to bed.
Tash, as always, had his ultralight sleeping kit, pad, bag and bivvy. He removed his boots and slid, still in waterproofs, into his nest. Tea, garlicky samosa, mint cake and a good snooze and he would be as right as the rain slashing down outside. He was woken by the feel of heat on his face, a flicker behind his eyelids and the pungent smell of coal smoke.
There was a fire in the grate. Who could slink in and light a fire? One scan confirmed he was alone in the room. It was silent. The rain had stopped. A lonely silence. No footsteps. No creak of floorboards. No soft breathing. The only noise was a whisper of cloth as he slid out of his sleeping bag. Where had his boots gone? And his backpack?
'Hello?' His voice echoed. 'Are you there?' Where was his headtorch? He crept to the kitchen door and peered into a silver-laced darkness. Moonlight. A full disc glared through a window. Confusing. The moon had been gibbous, riding the morning clouds. It was too early for moonrise. His mouth went dry as his heart thumped. He backed into the parlour. He had never seen a coal fire blaze like that. By its gyrating light he saw that his bed had gone. 'Oi!' He spun on his heel. 'Pack it in.'
The fire blazed high. Bright. Orange. Yellow. White. Blinding. Tash staggered back, forearm shielding his clenched shut eyes. His back bashed into the front door. He grasped the door knob and twisted. Slippery with sweat, his fingers slid. Gripping tighter, he tried again. The door rattled in its frame. It refused to open. Jammed? Locked! He edged towards the window.
With a soft pop the fire went out. No heat. No light. No embers. No tarry odour of coal smoke. Rigid, Tash was spread-eagled between door and window. He was blind. A faint glow outlined the hearth. On the floor, a distorted, shadow version of the window became clearer as his eyes adjusted. As if made of filmy fabric, it peeled itself off of the floor and wavered upright.
Floating in a swirl of shadow and moonbeams, it became a cylinder. A pair of glowing tentacles exuded from near the top, swaying in an ethereal breeze. Above them, the cylinder pinched in, forming a neck for an ovoid, blank of face, devoid of features. Even so, it watched Tash as his knees buckled and his back slid down the wall. He wanted to scream. It came out as a breathy moan. The -thing- wavered closer and away.
From the depths of his memory, he heard an echo of old Owen Thomas telling takes of the Gwyll, the Old Woman of the Mountain, a harbinger of death. Tash was going to die. But not slumped on the floor. But not as a shivering worm. But not as a gibbering wreck.
'But me no buts. Get your butt up.' It started as a croak, it ended as a shout. He forced his knees to straighten, to stand upright. The Gwyll drifted closer, hollows darkening where a pair of shadow eyes formed. Below them a void opened, a mouth, readying to let out a keening death wail. If only he had a weapon.
A penknife. In his trouser pocket. He fumbled past his waterproof overtrousers, scrabbling for the opening in his trousers. Where? It was empty. No. Noo. Noooo. The Gwyll's eyes were as black as coal, the maw beneath them the entrance to a pit. Panting, Tash felt around for his knife in the other side of his trousers. With each of Tash's exhalations, the Gwyll's ectoplasm wafted backwards, then recovered and drew closer.
He nearly dropped the knife as he picked at the stiff blade, sliding sideways to the window. Unnatural moonlight glinted on the open weopan as he waved it at the wraith. It stopped. For a dozen rapid beats of his pounding heart, he stared into its swirling eyes. There were red sparks in their depths.
'I ain't afraid of you!' Tash spat it out with as much venom as he could muster, more to convince himself as that thing. The Gwyll bent backwards as if his breath were foul. Tash slashed with his penknife. It touched an arm tentacle. The appendage shrivelled as if poisoned. That mouth issued a weak, discordant wail. 'Yeah!' Tash yelled and stepped forwards, forcing a retreat. He slashed again as if he held a machete. 'I am the maaaaann!' A howl of triumph.
Blasted by his breath, cut to shreds by a Swiss Army knife, the Gwyll suffered her first, and only defeat. Ever.
Sundeep found his cousin lurching down a back road to nowhere, bootless, his jacket ripped to shreds and soaked to the skin. He bundled Tash into his car's passenger seat and turned the heating up to fill blast. Then snorted and had to open his window a crack, the reek of garlic was overpowering.
'What happened to you?' Sundeep was too aghast to throw in the usual expletives.
'I ate a garlic samosa,' as Tash turned to Sundeep, he added, 'and a Gwyll.' His eyes were deep, swirling black pits. But it was the red sparks that immobilized Sundeep.