Conwy, near Llandudno
“This is it?” Anne asked.
Derek could see she had expected something else. Someplace newer and on the water. “It’s been modernized inside.”
Anne’s expression didn’t change. “It looks like that cottage in—”
“My grandmother’s favorite movie we watch with her on St. Patrick’s Day. When I saw it on VRBO, I had to book it.”
“Why here and not,” she hesitated at the double Ls, “why not in Llandudno?”
“My bamps believed those that know anything of the region’s history—believers in the legend—would always protect their town. They would not do anything to stir up what had died down or let him make anyone—any thing—angry. He took their threats seriously, so I thought it best to stay outside of the town.”
Anne walked to the door of the whitewashed-stone home, the overhang of the thatched roof not far over her head. The darkness of the door lightened to forest green as clouds shifted, and a slanting ray of late afternoon sunshine revealed its color. Glancing over her shoulder, her expression changed with the sun on her face, and she smiled at Derek. “Okay… let’s check it out.”
He kissed her cheek and bent to enter the code on a keypad that looked odd on the old heavy wooden door.
* * *
Anne held the photo the newspaper’s archivist had given them, a second—different—one of Derek’s grandfather not used in the article 69 years ago. “Nice of them to give you this,” she studied the squinting young man in the glossy 5×8 then Derek’s profile in the morning sun. “You really look like your grandfather.” Other than to thank the newspaper’s archivist, Derek had been quiet as they stepped out onto the sidewalk. “What’s next?” she had seen his expression as he read the reporter’s margin notes that questioned his grandfather’s honesty and sanity. Then the archivist had laughed when he asked about any local legends that corroborated his grandfather’s story, and the look on Derek’s face had hardened, become dour. It made him look years older, even more like his grandfather.
“I begin searching….”
* * *
Conwy, near Llandudno
Anne saw him studying her as she left the single bathroom, but knew he couldn’t have heard her retching over his music while cooking breakfast in the tiny kitchen. She took some toast and juice as he turned it down to a soft background.
“No eggs, no sausage?”
She shook her head. “What’s today’s plan? We’ve spent a week along the coast and not found anything your grandfather described.”
“He told me of an old man who was the only one who would talk to him.” Derek set his plate across from hers on the small table. “After the other locals went from laughing at his story to ignoring him, they spread talk he was daft… crazed and should be locked up. The old man was the only person to treat him kindly toward the end, just before he left to work on a cargo ship for his passage to America. The old man told him the story of Gwyndud.”
A thousand years ago or more, she was the daughter of Helig, who ruled a modest kingdom here. Years passed, and she wanted to keep her youth and beauty. She sought dark knowledge and witches who could teach her what she wanted to learn. One—cast out of Llanddona in western Wales by her own coven when her attempts to unchain the devil frightened even them—brought her what she wanted. A Faustian bargain with the devil to remain young and beautiful. But there were some limits. It worked only as long as she remained in her father’s kingdom. She could never step beyond its borders, or she would age. But she tried to cheat the devil… and as punishment, he sank her father’s kingdom and banned her to remain on its shore. A soulless spirit, an aged crone always agonizing over what she lost but never to die. Until the necromancer, I told you about summoned her. Mistakenly thinking, he could control and use her to get into Helig’s sunken kingdom and take its treasure and books from Helig’s library that held even more lost knowledge. Instead, the warlock broke the part of the spell that kept her harmless. She must have killed him….”
“And your grandfather believed all that? That some cursed ghost haunts this area…” Anne felt another twinge of nausea and shifted her chair away from the plates on the table.
Derek bit into the southern Wales Glamorgan sausage he’d bought at the market the day before. “He believed that was who took and held him.”
Anne stood and opened the window over the sink, turned toward him, and leaned against the counter. “Why?”
“Because the story goes, though she could now physically exist, she was still bound geographically to somewhere around here. And she could only continue to exist through taking life from those she could catch… like a spider in its web. With enough lives taken, she became young again.”
“What, she drinks blood like a vampire?” Anne laughed, feeling better.
Derek shrugged, “I don’t know….”
“Did your grandfather give you the man’s name who was kind to him?”
“No, just that he was old when bamps was young… he must be dead now. But he owned the oldest pub in northern Wales. I searched and found it’s still in business.”
* * *
Anne and Derek stood on the sidewalk facing the harbor. An uneven crimson-orange corona outlined the bulk of the Great Orme to the west, with the sky shading to cobalt rising into black above. Derek was so angry he was shaking.
“I heard you mention, y ddynes felltigedig… the cursed lady.”
The voice had a similar cadence as his grandfather’s, and Derek turned toward it. The man stood outside the pub they had exited. “What’s that?” Derek studied the white-haired man and recognized him as the only person inside the pub who had not laughed or bristled when he started asking questions. And that had led to explaining who he was. The oldest men at the bar remembered his grandfather, and not fondly.
“Who are you?” Derek asked, gesturing at Anne to move closer and behind him. Some men and women in the pub had grown angry and threatened him to stop stirring up the past or there would be consequences.
“Folks don’t want to hear anything to shake the bit of world they live upon. Most—the oldest—know the stories you speak of and treat them as old wives’ tales. Some worry or believe they’re true—or were long ago—and wish not to awake something that’s been sleeping for years. When you walk in with that story, tell them you’re Derek Meredith’s grandson… and are looking for ffang y diafol, the Devil’s Fang… they’ll not welcome it, boyo. And I heard you asking if it,” he cocked a thumb over his shoulder at the pub, “was the oldest here on the northern coast.”
“They said it was.”
The man nodded, “Now,” then contradicted himself with a shake of his head, “but not when you spoke of. Before 1959 my dad owned the oldest pub,” he pointed at a pay-parking lot used for the beach access and overflow from the street. “Sat there for more’n three centuries, in my family, it did.”
“The fathers and grandfathers of some of those gits in there,” the gnarled thumb shot up and back at the pub again, “burned it down.”
The man hawked a wad and spat to the side, “That’s a thirsty tale, and my throat’s dry.” The old man moved closer under the arc of the streetlamp to display a seamed face of shadowed creases. “Don’t go in there often,” he flicked a hand over his shoulder, “and listening to them taunt you… spoiled my drink.” He studied Derek then smiled, “But I’ve a bottle at my place if you’d like to hear it. It’s a bit of a walk, or if you’ve a car,” he was close enough now to hold his hand out, then remembered that once familiar gesture had faded and lowered it. “My name is Iwan Pryce… my father knew your grandfather.”
* * *
In the shadow of the Great Orme
Iwan offered the bottle again to Anne, who shook her head. “Water’s fine for me….”
Derek glanced at her, a little surprised. In the lantern light—Iwan’s small cottage built into the shoulder of a hulking mount had no electricity—her face seemed pale, the eyes a deeper emerald in the glow. He held his glass out, and the man topped it off. Derek had seen the label and was surprised. His grandfather had taught him about Welsh whiskeys, and the Penderyn 10-year-old Madeira Finish Single Cask was moderately expensive. That didn’t fit with the man’s worn clothing and rough dwelling. Along the wall behind the table where they sat was a wide hearth and smoke-stained fireplace. Above it, on the long mantle, was a row of hardback books. They, too, seemed out of place. Their titles a shifting gleam—stamped in gold—lost in shadows where the low-flickering fire and lantern shed little light.
“So, your father’s pub was burned down because he talked with my grandfather?”
“It wasn’t the talking boyo… it was the topic. Just like now. Well… maybe not so much now. But back afore things like that…” Iwan tapped a finger near Derek’s cell phone sitting on the table. “Afore all the things that take away a reason to talk in person with people. Folks, when in their cups too deep, sometimes not far in at all… would tell their stories to barkeeps that served the drink that loosened their tongues. And my father’s father’s father, on and on, would listen and wrote many of ‘em down. My family became wardens of the stories. Not the scandal and gossip… but the old tales, the lore and oral histories of our land.”
Iwan smiled at Derek’s use of what many Welsh called their country. “Mostly this part of it,” he nodded and knocked back his glass. “Nowadays we speak of countries and nations… but long ago the land was made up of clans and communities… and petty kingdoms. By that, I don’t mean poor… just small and what you’d call insular. One such—Helig’s—included where we are now. Right under the haunches of the Great Orme and all along this coast. Legend has it King Helig’s daughter, Gwyndud, was beautiful… the most in all the kingdom. But vain, spoiled. A right wrathful bitch when wronged or not attended to. The stories go, she wanted her father to use his riches to grow the kingdom she would rule when he died. Then she would have more to preen over and to worship her. But long-lived Helig was content, and at relative peace with his neighbors. So, Gwyndud, as she grew older and the luster of eyes and hair faded, and figure thickened, found a witch to help her and bartered with the devil to become young and beautiful again. And forever. The devil agreed, but only within the borders of the kingdom. But as soon as Helig died… she broke her bargain by trying to expand the kingdom by taking from others. The devil likes his collateral, where they can be bound. He sank Helig’s kingdom, much of it’s out there under the sea just beyond the Orme,” Iwan pointed out the window. “And expelled Gwyndud, and took away what he had granted her. So as centuries passed, she became a story told—about conceit and avarice—to frighten not just children. The legend grew of the cursed Gwyndud, and some began calling her the White Lady. Some thought she could possess others, including Gwenhwyfar, the beguiler of Arthur misrepresented over centuries as his fair lady love. A tormented soul trapped in a place—a pocket of reality—outside the world we know. Her only means of existence, to steal life… to feed on fear and pain.”
“My grandfather,” Derek sipped from his glass, “wrote of her—the woman who took him—and he had scars that still hurt him even up to his death, where she slashed his arm six times….”
Iwan got up and walked into the only other room and came back with a small chest. “This is what’s left of my dad’s letters and such. He saw it once… one thing you mentioned in the pub,” he slid a stained page from the stack inside. “Here’s the sketch of the Devil’s Fang he drew from memory. My father told your grandfather he wouldn’t—and you won’t—find it by searching.”
From beneath more sheets of yellowed paper, some with singed, brown-blackened edges or partly burned away, he pulled a stained green bank ledger. Opening, he leafed through to find a page to turn so Derek and Anne could both see. He tapped a block of text sandwiched between rows of inventory notes and the cost and number of barrels of whiskey received.
Derek shifted it more into the light and read aloud:
“Talked with young Derek today… his arm was afire and swollen. He said doctors gave him medicine that wasn’t working, and I had to tell him nothing would. It’s the cursed lady’s work. The marks—those six slashes he’ll feel all his life—were to open a channel for her to draw from him. The seventh and final would have opened it fully for his life to pour into her, leaving only a husk behind. There’s a heavy fog from the Orme tonight… she’s casting it to find him… or to find someone new.”
Derek looked at Anne, “There was a woman, just like bamps said.”
“There’s the legend of a woman,” she replied, putting a hard on his arm and staring at the old man who had moved to look out the window. “You don’t believe it, do you?”
“The moon’s gone dark….” Iwan turned to them, shaking his head, “I don’t know. My father believed… and tried to help young Derek.” But the townsfolk—you see at the time the fog and storms were stronger than they had ever been—grew scared and wanted your grandfather gone. Some even talked of taking him back out to sea to leave him where he’d been found. Then your grandfather did the smart thing and left. It angered my father that they would do that to a good Welsh lad, run him from his homeland, and he said as much. Not afraid to believe in the boy and the wrongness of what they’d done, he said too much and too often. So they burned him out.
Derek picked up the sketch of the Devil’s Fang, and the rose-gold of the ring glinted in the lantern light.
“Did your grandfather give you that?” Iwan pointed at the ring.
“Do you know about it?”
“Only something I heard my father tell your grandfather… that sigil on it… the twining that wraps around the band, is the serch bythol. Two Celtic knots—triskeles—that represent the binding of two people in spirit, mind, and body. A symbol of everlasting love. There was more my father wrote about it, but lost in the fire.”
Derek rotated the ring on his finger and studied Anne’s pallid face in the lantern light. “Grandfather wrote he found it his last morning held captive by the lady. On the remnant of a skeleton, the forearm and hand that crumbled to dust as he touched it. Then he fell through an opening into a vertical shaft with steps that led down and away to come out on a debris-strewn beach. The mist disappeared, and he cobbled together a raft. This time the tide carried him out to sea.”
“He was lucky then. My father told Derek he had never heard or read in the lore of anyone escaping her.”
“But something he said puzzled me, Bamps told me once he never wore the ring because it was safe only in Wales. What did he mean?”
Iwan shrugged thick shoulders, “I don’t know, lad. Some people and things are deeply connected to the land where they’re born. And where that first stirring of life or purpose occurs has a meaning, we rarely understand… until we do.” He shook his head, “Sometimes that never happens,” he looked out once more, but the darkness had swallowed the view beyond the glass, “it’s late, and I’m old… if you like, we can talk more tomorrow.”
Anne stood, her hand smoothing the shirt over her stomach, “I’m tired too, Derek.”
Iwan went with them to the door, stepped outside, looked up at the sky, and reached in to take a flashlight from a hook just inside. The faint glow of the moon was buried behind a dense bank of unmoving clouds, and the sea wind had stilled. Past the small pool of illumination cast from the window, all was shades of black and gray that deepened further from the light. “I’ll walk you to your car,” he flicked the flashlight on, and its beam fought that darkness. He shook it, “Thought I put in fresh batteries.”
In an eerie silence, shining a waning shaft of light ahead of them, Iwan led them up the narrow, winding path to where they had parked their rental SUV on a shoulder off the main road. “Take what I’ve told you and shown as the proof you want, Derek—your grandfather told the truth—and leave it at that.” The flashlight flickered and weakened more. He turned his face up to the shrinking moon, trying to free itself from the clouds. It seemed smaller… backing away from tendrils of clouds, reaching for it as others—almost rootlike—twisted toward the earth and the Great Orme looming above his cottage behind them.
“Derek, Peidiwch â deffro’r ddynes felltigedig…” Iwan didn’t take his eyes from the frightened orb, “don’t wake the cursed lady. It’s been years since any reports of unexplained missing people. If she exists, she’s weak now and can do no harm. Unless you find her,” he looked from the sky to Derek and Anne as they got in their Vauxhall, “or she finds you….”
Part 6 | The Storm (watch for it late July)
NOTE FROM DENNIS
What you just read is a draft–not edited beyond my self-edit–so bear in mind it’s not had that final polish. But please do share your thoughts about this piece. Comments and feedback are always welcome.