Jessie and Kalina sat in a cafe overlooking Morecambe Bay where the tide was rolling in swiftly as a black water horse; huge black waves bearing flotsam and jetsam, seaweed and seagrass, vomiting the bones of the dead up from the Deep.
The teapot was nearly empty. Jessie poured the last dregs. As she stirred in her milk and half a sachet of sugar the rattling teaspoon betrayed her tremor. She placed it down and drew a deep breath, “I’ve got something I need to tell you.”
“You’re pregnant,” guessed Kalina.
Jessie shook her head and grimaced. Kalina was so grounded, so sensible, so settled in her psychology studies. She’s never going to believe me.
“You’ve split up with Ben?”
“No, but that might happen,” admitted Jessie.
“A few weeks ago when I went sailing out on the bay …”
“I thought you’d been acting strangely. I bet it’s that sailing instructor. He wasn’t half alright!”
“It’s got nothing to do with him,” snapped Jessie. “I saw something. And it wasn’t what you’re thinking of.”
Kalina narrowed her eyes, pursed her lips, and cupped her tea in her hands, now intrigued.
“I saw … well actually I heard it first … like a volley of oars … the oars of some Dark Age ship crashing across the ocean. Then I saw it with a chest as wide as a hull, oar-like legs pounding, with a black arched neck with a crest like a wave, mane and tail knotted with seaweed and barnacles, swimming faster than our sailing boat: the most handsome horse I’ve ever seen!
“And on its back were the jolliest people: a regal couple wearing golden crowns and gold-chased armour, two smiling white-haired men distributing flagons of foamy-white ale from a barrel, an intelligent-looking fellow in a blue cloak, a man holding a silver cup (that he was not drinking out of), a sandy-haired chap handing out plates of cockles, a thin lad with a silver staff. Hanging onto the horse’s crupper with two hands was a fat man with pots and pans tied to his backpack clattering on ropes behind him.”
Kalina spluttered her tea and wiped it up hastily with a napkin. “You’ve got to be joking! A water horse I might have believed. I know about the dobbie legend, the Black Horse of Bush Howe. But a horse as big as a ship carrying seven-and-a-half people having a drinking party? Do you think I’m stupid or is this your idea of a joke?” She giggled uncomfortably.
She thinks I’m losing it. This could be the last straw in our friendship. I guess it’s possible I won’t see her again anyway. “It’s no joke. I’ve found evidence.” Leaning down, Jessie scrummaged through books and crumpled papers in her rucksack. Finally she found the scribbled note. “When I Googled ‘black water-horse’ and ‘seven-and-a-half people’ I found this quote from The Triads of the Island of Britain which Wikipedia says dates to the 13th century:
44. Three Horses who carried the Horse Burdens: Du y Moroedd (‘the Black of the Seas’), horse of Elidir Mwynfawr, who carried on his back seven and a half people from Benllech in the north to Benllech (Elidir) in Mon. These were the seven people: Elidyr Mwynfawr and Eurgain his wife, daughter of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and Gwyn Good Companion and Gwyn Good Distributor, and Mynach Naoman his counsellor, and Prydelaw the Cupbearer, his butler, and Silver Staff his servant, and Gelbeinifen, his cook who swam with two hands and on the horse’s crupper – and he was the half person.
“The only difference is that when I saw them they were heading North, maybe to Barrow, Whitehaven, Port Patrick, or somewhere even further away…”
“Hmmm,” Kalina picked up her phone and thumbed quickly. “Well The Triads exist and so does 44. The Triad of the Horse Burdens featuring Du. You made this up from material online didn’t you?” she spoke disapprovingly. Tapping on (she’d clearly got her detective head on), “this is interesting. There’s a reference to The Black Book of Chirk, a 12th century text. It says:
Here Elidyr Muhenvaur, a man from the north was slain and, after his death, the men of the north, came here to avenge him. The chiefs, their leaders, were Clyddno Eiddin; Nudd Hael, son of Senyllt; and Mordaf Hael, son of Seruari, and Rydderch Hael, son of Tudwal Tudglyd; and they came to Arvon, and because Elidyr was slain at Aber Mewydus in Arvon, they burned Arvon as a further revenge. And then Run, son of Maelgwn, and the men of Gwynedd, assembled in arms, and proceeded to the banks of the [River] Gweryd in the north, and there they were long disputing who should take the lead.
“It sounds like Elidir died at Arfon. If that’s the case he and his courtiers certainly couldn’t have been on their way back to the North. Unless…” Kalina tapped furiously. “It says on this webpage Du y Moroedd is the horse of Gwyn ap Nudd, a pagan god of the dead and the Otherworld. Did you know that?” she looked upset. “Why are you making up stories about this stuff?”
Jessie felt faint, as if all the blood was draining from her limbs, as she considered the implications of Kalina’s words. Elidir and his party were dead when I saw them… She clutched the edges of the table tightly, feeling like she was on a swaying ship, bile rising in her throat.
“Are you ok?” Kalina touched her hand, fingernails perfectly manicured and painted berry-red.
Jessie’s nails were bitten to the quick. She put her thumb in her mouth and gnawed.
“You really did see something, didn’t you?” Kalina’s kohl-lined eyes were dark with concern. “Here, drink this,” she passed Jessie her last mouthful of tea, stirring in the other half sachet of sugar.
Jessie gulped its sweetness down. The granules stuck to her throat. Her thumbnail was bleeding.
“Come on, let’s get you home,” Kalina took Jessie’s hands. “My dad has the phone number for a good counsellor who’ll be able to sort you out.”
“I’m not going home,” admitted Jessie, “that’s what I wanted to tell you.” She glanced toward the tides pounding against the sea wall.
“What do you mean?” Kalina looked frightened.
“Last night I had a dream. I was looking out across the bay from the promenade right outside this cafe. As the waves rode in taller and taller I saw Du with his great arched neck swimming toward me carrying Elidir and his drinking party who were having a wonderful time.
“One of the white-haired men was playing a fiddle whilst the other handed out ale. The cook had managed to make a meal with one hand whilst hanging onto Du’s tail; the butler was passing out plates of mussels in wine sauce, cod fillets with butter and herbs, and pan-seared trout.
“Du smiled at me with his big long teeth. He asked if I’d like to ride with him. I said ‘yes’ and he told me to meet him here at high tide.”
The waves were rising over the promenade.
Kalina gripped Jessie’s hands tightly. “You’re coming back to mine. You’re not going anywhere near that sea.”
“There’s no escape.”
The other customers were standing from their seats with exclamations of surprise and fear. Some were reaching for their cameras.
“There must be a fire exit,” said Kalina.
A wave of seaweed, jetsam, and old bones crashed against the window. A cavalcade of cameras smashed to the floor.
“It’s too late,” said Jessie. “He’s here.”
[Lorna Smithers is a poet, author, awenydd, and Brythonic polytheist. She is currently exploring how the ancient British myths relate to our environmental and political crises and dreaming new stories. As a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn, she seeks to reweave the ways between the worlds. She has published three books: Enchanting the Shadowlands, The Broken Cauldron, and Gatherer of Souls, and edited A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist — https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com%5D