Morg was cross. She was more than cross, she was furious. She had been chosen to mind her little brother, again. Normally she quite liked him, as he stumbled after her on his short legs, babbling in a way that made her laugh, but today there was something much more exciting happening. The men were preparing to go on a hunt. There hadn’t been a hunt for months. First there was too much rain and then there was too much work with the harvest. But now the wheat was in and the grain was all stored in pits. The Druid was here, bringing blessings from the gods and medicines for the villagers. So the chief had decided that it was time. Outside the men were gathering and the Druid was chanting. Morg longed to be there.
But Morg was not allowed to go. She wasn’t even allowed to watch. Her brother was unwell. He had an evil spirit in his chest which was making him cough and cough. He had to stay warm, and to do that, he had to be in the hut. Therefore, while her mother was fetching water, Morg had to stay in the hut too.
It was dark in the hut. A warm, rich, thick darkness, lit only by the glow from the fire which burnt in the middle of the room. Later, the fire would be built up so that flames would lick the round black cauldron and heat the stew for the evening meal, but for now turf had been laid on the logs. The fire would stay hot and alive, but would not need to be fed. Morg knew that fires were as ravenous as the wolves she heard howling in the woods at night.
Morg could smell the fire and the smell was as familiar to her as the smell of her mother. She could sniff and tell in a moment whether the family were burning ash branches or hazel, hawthorn or coppiced elm. To Morg, it was the smell of home.
The glow from the fire lit the face of the boy who lay next to it asleep on the blanket. Morg swept the floor around him savagely. Any crumbs or discarded meat would make food for the rats, and her mother hated rats. Morg decided that today she hated her mother. She knew her mother was anxious about the cough because her sister had coughed in the same way before she had died. That didn’t stop Morg from muttering a curse against the unkindness that kept her inside the hut. As she said it, she wished she could swallow the words back, but it was too late. She looked around worriedly. Maybe nobody had heard. She chanted a good will incantation, and crossed her fingers.
Outside, she heard a hunting horn, loud and sharp across the village. Morg sidled towards the doorway. She could see light through a gap in the planks, but that was not enough. She opened the door a crack. Maybe she could watch them from here? She might just be able to catch a glimpse of what was going on. But she couldn’t see anything. The fence that kept in the pigs was blocking her view. She opened the door wider, and an icy blast of wind whipped it out of her hands. It banged crash against the side of the hut. Behind her the fire crackled into life and the baby opened his eyes. Morg did not notice. She fought for control of the door. She wedged it with a stone, so that it still looked closed at first glance. She slid out and across to the corner of the pig fence.
Morg threw herself into the grass that lined the fence. It was crackly with the first frost of the season and Morg shivered. It was always cold and windy up here. The village was built on the flat top of a hill, a hill that looked as though someone had sliced the tip off with a sword. Morg knew that in a sense they had. One of her father’s stories told of his grandfather’s grandfather, who had come to this hill as a small child. He had been there when they had dug and burrowed and carved away the top, stone by stone, until it was flat and smooth and ready. The hill had been chosen because it was high and from it you could see for many miles across the forests and the river valleys. No-one could creep up to this hill without being seen. It was a good hill.
From where she lay, Morg could see ten or twelve round huts with their pointy thatched roofs scattered roughly around a circular space of grass. Splodgy brown goats, tethered to thick posts, were grazing. A couple of fowl scratched beside her friend Olwig’s hut. She could see the tall earth ramparts around the edge of the village which kept them all safe. Near the gate in the ramparts, the men were standing in a group. They were still and listening. Their long blond hair was blowing so hard in the wind Morg could hardly see their faces. Then a gust revealed her father, on the far side, standing between the horse and Arlen the hound, who he was holding by the scruff of his neck. Arlen’s teeth were bared and he fought against her father’s grasp. Arlen liked hunting, but he did not like waiting. There, beside her father, was Col, her brother. Morg gritted her teeth. This was the second time he had gone on the hunt, and he was only seven, one winter younger than her. He was shuffling his feet, bored by the Druid and his incantations, impatient to be off. She would not have been so insolent.
Behind her was a shriek, and a high howling. Morg leapt to her feet and was in the hut and beside the child in a moment. His face was screwed up and tears were spurting down his cheeks. He was waving his arms and arching his back. He hit Morg hard in the face but she managed to pick him up. She tried to soothe him, but he would not quiet. Then Morg smelt burning. A log lay smouldering on the blanket. Quickly thrusting it back into the fire, she stamped out the embers and guessed what had happened. The fire had flared. The child had seen the pretty flames and crawled towards them. He’d grabbed at a log. She looked – one of his hands was tightly clenched. Hurriedly, she grabbed the leather water bottle and sloshed water into a bowl. She thrust his hand into it. The palm was red and blistered. She had caused this, she realised, with her curse. Slowly, slowly his howling gentled. She smoothed his face and hummed gently to him, rocking him backwards and forwards on her lap.
Morg heard the door creak open. It was her mother. She had carried the heavy clay water pot all the way up the hill on her head. The youngest baby was strapped on to her back – the god of fertility had looked kindly on the family. Morg’s mother looked exhausted. Morg stared at the floor.
“Burnt,” Morg muttered, as the howls started up again. Her mother strode across the hut.
“Tell,” said her mother as she picked up the child. Morg explained. Her mother aimed a swipe at her head. Morg ducked out of the way, but her mother was more weary than angry as she comforted the child.
“Oh, useless Morg,” she said. “Go. Spend the day with the sheep. I do not want to see your face.”
Morg turned away and left. It was the freedom she had wanted. But somehow she didn’t want it any more.
Morg slouched out of the hut. She heard the horn blast again – the hunt was away. She saw the men leap astride their shaggy horses, controlling them with hands laced through long manes. All except for Col. His horse, Branrin, was wheeling, refusing to let Col mount. Morg clenched her fists. There is a knack to mounting Branrin, she thought. Even Col should know that. At last he was up, face burning red with shame.
The horses stamped and tossed their heads, their breath like smoke in the cold air. The dogs barked impatiently. Her father, as the leader of the hunt, led the throng through the high walled passage that linked the village with the outer gate. The watchman waved as they passed. Morg stared as the long line disappeared. She scowled.
“Morg!” She heard a shout. It was her friend Olwig. “We’re late taking the sheep down to the lower field. Will you come?”
Morg could not decide. To refuse to look after the sheep would make her mother angrier. On the other hand, she wanted to follow the hunt. However, the hunt was gone. Even the Druid had gone back into his hut.
“All right,” she said sulkily. “Where are they?” Olwig pointed and Morg saw Olwig’s tiny brother Pridoc chasing three of the sheep with a hazel switch. For a moment, he had them cornered, until they turned as one and each jumped straight back over his head. He was so surprised he sat down in the midden. Morg was forced to laugh.
“Come,” she said to Olwig. They were the experts. They set off to round up the flock.
This was a winter job. All the villagers’ sheep stayed out in summer, but now the nights were darker and longer, and the sheep were easy prey. So each night the children took turns to drive them all in, and out again each morning to the fields for food. Today, the sheep were skittish and jumpy, perhaps sensing the excitement of the huntsmen and the dogs. It took all of Morg and Olwig’s skill to calm and herd them through the narrow passage to the gate. As the final ram passed, Morg patted its thick, dense wool. In the spring, as the sheep started to moult, the wool hung off them in lank, brown strands. The children had to pluck the wool to be made into cloth – if they could catch the sheep first. Only the very fleet of foot could race the sheep and corner them. Morg remembered that she had cornered the most sheep, and plucked the largest bundle of wool. Her mother and father had been so proud of her.
They will be proud again, she thought fiercely, and she aimed a kick at the ram, who jumped nimbly out of the way with a swift flick of his heels.
“May the goddess Alos bless the hunt, eh?” shouted Olwig back to Morg.
As Olwig said this, as she had said a hundred times, Morg had an idea. The goddess might bless the hunt. She might bless Morg too. She might lift the ill wishes Morg had so foolishly let loose. Morg herded the sheep through the heavy gate to the fort. She was deep in thought.
The ground sloped steeply down from the gate and the way was treacherous. She had to watch where she stepped to avoid losing her footing. The tribe kept the path rough to deter any unwelcome visitors. The sheep skipped down lightly. They knew their way to the recently harvested field. They would find food for themselves, and fertilise the field for next season’s planting at the same time.
“Olwig?” wheedled Morg, when the sheep were grazing and settled. Olwig knew this voice and she was not happy.
“I am your friend, am I not?”
Olwig was wary, but she nodded.
“Would you do something for me? For me, your friend. I would be forever in your debt.” Morg bowed humbly to her. Olwig sighed.
“I need to go. I need you to look after the sheep.”
“Alone?” Olwig was surprised.
“I will come back soon.”
“Where are you going?”
“I need to go to the grove.” Olwig’s eyes widened. To go to the sacred grove alone was a fearsome prospect.
“What will you offer to the goddess?” she asked, at last.
“This,” Morg said simply and she fingered the brooch at her throat which was holding her thick brown cloak around her neck. It was a twist of beaten bronze, with curling patterns dancing on it. Her father had bought it for her when he had travelled away some moons ago. She remembered him leaning down from his horse, his hair tickling her face. “And this is for my little Morg,” he’d laughed and he’d pinned the brooch on her tunic. She loved the brooch more than the world.
Olwig gasped. She knew Morg was serious.
“Go now,” she said. “The gods be with you.”
Morg turned and walked away into the forest. Olwig stared into the trees long after she had disappeared.
Morg loved the forest, and she was afraid of it. Her people needed it to survive, but sometimes it swallowed them up. Morg knew the edges of the forest well. She was often sent out with Olwig to collect hazel or beech nuts in the autumn. The tribe would store them in pits, like the squirrels, and make them last through the barren winter months. Morg loved picking the blackberries that appeared in late summer. Her tunic was still stained purple with their juice. Her father had laughed and asked how many of the blackberries they’d picked had actually reached the village. Morg knew where to pick the leaves of the green melde the family liked to eat with meat, and where to find gold of pleasure, the plant they crushed to make oil.
Indeed it was Morg who had once found mistletoe, the sacred all-healing plant. She had shown the Druid where it hung and he had been pleased with her. He had placed his pale hand on her head and looked deep into her eyes and told her that she had done well and that she would be blessed by the gods. Morg was so proud she thought she’d faint. The mistletoe had been gathered on the sixth day of the moon, and the Druid had sacrificed three fowl to the Mother Goddess to bring good fortune. He had taken the mistletoe into his hut, and Morg imagined that there he would make healing potions for the tribe.
That was three seasons ago, in the spring. Now Morg did not feel blessed by the gods. Ever since the new baby had been born, in her mother’s eyes she could do nothing right. Her mother was always tired and angry. She walked with a heavy step and Morg had twice seen her doubled up, clutching her stomach, weeping with pain. Morg wondered whether the mistletoe could drive out whatever possessed her.
Morg thought about her mother as she tramped into the forest. It was a long way, and she would have to go into parts that she did not know. As she walked, the path became narrower, and less well used. The trees were closer together, and Morg could hardly see the grey sky through their bare, interlaced branches. She knew that as long as she kept to this path, she should get to the grove, but she was nervous. She reminded herself that the last time someone saw a wolf was when neighbour Daroc’s near-grown lambs had been stolen and that was a full three moons ago. Wolves would not attack in daylight, she thought. A twig snapped behind her and she broke into a run. She ran and ran, until her breath was ragged and she felt as though a dagger was pressed into her side and she had to stop. She looked fearfully behind her. There was nothing there. Keep calm, she said to herself, keep calm and you will be safe. Still, she tried to walk soundlessly and kept her fingers crossed against the evil eye.
The path started to climb upwards. Soon it was very steep. Even the trees leant into the hill to stop themselves sliding down. The path was treacherous, covered in loose rocks. Morg had to scrabble to keep her footing and used her hands to pull herself up. Then she heard tumbling water and she knew she was nearly there. A few minutes later she clambered over the last rocky ledge and came out of the trees. She had arrived. The grass in the clearing was fresh and green, greener than she had seen for moons. Facing her were two enormous rocks, crushed against each other. From the crack between them flowed a steady stream of cool, clear water. Where it ran, the grey rocks shone red and black. Overhanging the spring was an oak tree, so huge that even if Olwig and Morg had held hands and stretched as wide as they could, their arms would not have reached around its trunk. This was the sacred grove of Alos, the goddess of the forest.
Morg hesitated. She was suddenly afraid. What if the goddess decided she had been insolent? That she, alone and a child, should dare to approach her without a priest or priestess? Morg sank to her knees, and then bowed her head to the ground, reaching her arms out to the spring.
“O Goddess, protect me and bless me,” she mumbled. “I’m sorry it is just me here. I mean, that I have not brought a Druid or anyone. There was no time you see.” She looked up. She hoped that Alos would understand.
“I’ve brought you this,” she said and she unpinned her brooch. Her cloak slipped off her shoulders. She held the brooch tightly in her fist.
“It is my favourite thing. I want to give it to you.” She held the fist out under the spring water and slowly opened it. The water ran through the twists of bronze. It looked so beautiful, and her fingers clasped over it. Perhaps she could offer something else. A shiver of wind passed through the oak leaves. It was the answer. It had to be the brooch.
“I’m sorry for my curse. Please, make my mother better. Drive out the spirits that inhabit her. Make her proud of me. Make her love me again.”
Then, she couldn’t help it, it just slipped out, “I want to go on a hunt. Col can go, why can’t I?”
Morg let the brooch slide out of her hands and into the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.
“Is that too many things to ask?” she said. She stepped back. As she did so, the grey clouds lightened, and a pale sun came out. It made the brooch glitter under the water and lights dance on the surface. The goddess had accepted her offering.
Morg took a step back from the stream and looked around. The grove was silent and still. Morg felt cold. She didn’t know what to do. Perhaps she should just go home now.
As she tried to decide she heard a fearful crashing and clattering. Out of the trees on the other side of the stream burst a full grown boar. It squealed with surprise and skidded to a halt. It stood facing her, its tusks so sharp they could gore a man to death. Its mean little eyes stared at her.
Morg stared back.
The boar was as tall as she was, but wider, heavier. The eyes were level but its snout was long and covered with short black bristles. Its ears were pricked in her direction. She could see the wetness of its nose, and how it could hardly close its mouth over the long sharp teeth. She could see its tusks, jutting out past its jaw. She could hear it taking short, ragged breaths and she could smell the rank smell of its sweat and its fear.
The goddess had not protected her. She had put her in mortal danger.
Morg’s scalp prickled as the hairs on her head stood up. Her mouth was dry. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. She wanted to run, but she heard her father’s voice in her head, “Never run. Never show you are frightened.”
The boar lowered its head. It snorted. Morg realised that it was about to charge. She thought back to her father’s words. “Pretend you are a boar.” She screamed, a high-pitched, resonant scream. Morg raised her arms and flapped them threateningly at the boar. She screamed again. It was not a scream of fear, but of threat. The boar was startled. It hesitated, then turned and crashed back into the forest.
Morg took a deep shuddering breath. She started to tremble and clasped her arms to stop them shaking. She felt cold, and turned to grab the cloak that had fallen off when she was praying to the goddess. When she turned back, Arlen the hound emerged from between the trees, nose to the ground, following the trail of the boar. He caught Morg’s scent and barked with joy. He leapt up at her and licked her face all over. Morg laughed and pushed him away.
“Off, Arlen. Get off me,” she said.
One moment there was just Arlen, then the grove was full of hounds as the rest caught up. They sniffed the ground, tracing the boar’s movement. Then one of the dogs howled. He had caught the scent. He plunged back into the forest and on to the trail of the boar. The rest of the hounds followed. Arlen, with a backward look at Morg, went too.
The grove was empty. Morg could hear the hunting horn in the distance, and the yells of the huntsmen as the hounds picked up the scent. But they did not come into the grove. No-one saw her victory over the boar.
Morg sat flat down. She thought for a moment of finding the hunt, of telling her father what had happened. But she’d never catch them, and anyway they would not believe her. When the boar had turned and gone back into the forest she’d thought that the goddess had answered her prayer, that the boar was a test. The boar was, after all, a sacred animal. Maybe the goddess had taken on its form. She had hoped it was a sign that she would be allowed to go on the hunt. But now the hunt had moved on and she knew that no-one had heard. Her voice was too small, too unimportant. Probably the goddess was angry with her.
Morg was hungry. She had forgotten to bring any food with her. She did not even have the chunk of flat bread her mother would usually send with her into the fields. She cupped her hands and drank some of the water from the goddess’ stream. Perhaps it would bring her fortune. She needed it, she thought.
Suddenly she shivered. It was getting colder. All the warmth had gone from the sun and it would not be long in the sky. The nights were squeezing the days hard at this time of year. Morg slung her cloak around her shoulders, and started to scramble back down the bank.
Morg heard the rustling again. Curiosity overcame her. She had to know what was in the bushes. The noise was coming from a group of low thorns. Walking round she saw a space that she could slither through. As she slid along on her front, she heard thin squeals. Something knew she was coming.
The thorns opened out and she came upon a clearing in the centre of the bushes. A shallow bowl had been scraped away and lined with leaves. On the leaves were four little wild boar piglets. They were each the size of three of her hands, and they were squealing and tumbling over each other to get to her. They can only be days old, thought Morg. Pale brown and cream stripes ran from the tips of their snouts to their tails, which were twitching with excitement. They’re just like bumble bees, she smiled. But it was late for a boar litter. She knew that they usually had babies in the sowing season, that was when boars were most dangerous. Perhaps this was a second litter.
Then she frowned. Where was the piglets’ mother? Female boars stayed close to their babies, to protect them. Which meant it was not far away. Which meant that Morg needed to get out of the bush quickly. She hesitated. She’d had an idea. Everyone was going to be cross with her when she got back to the village. But if she came with some boar piglets….
She reached out for the nearest one. It slipped through her fingers. She crawled slowly towards another and tried to grab its tail, but it twisted away from her, then looked back over its shoulder. This is a good game, it seemed to say. She ground her teeth. She threw herself on to the third, but somehow it squeezed from under her. It was like trying to catch water. Then her cloak hooked on one of the thorns and she had a thought. Holding the cloak on both edges, she threw it over the nearest piglet, and then threw herself on top of it. The piglet wriggled and squiggled under the brown wool cloth. Standing on two of the corners with her feet, Morg scooped the other edges under the piglet and grabbed all four corners into her hands. She had a brown wool bundle with a piglet squirming in it. Triumph!
She looked around. The other three were nowhere to be seen, hiding in the undergrowth. She felt the weight of the piglet. It might be young, but it was heavy. One was quite enough. She’d better get moving before the boar came to find her offspring. She started to crawl along another tunnel out of the thorns when she bumped into something soft.
It was a dead boar. She must have been the piglets’ mother. Morg realised that was why she’d been able to catch the piglet – it was exhausted and hungry. Morg crouched over the boar. She’d been killed a couple of days ago, Morg reckoned. She looked harder and a chill ran down her spine. She saw that the boar had been killed by a wolf.
Morg scuttled out of the bushes as fast as she could. It was only when she was back on the path and walking a walk that was nearly a run, that she realised she did not know where she was. The path started to drop down through a steep sided gorge she had not seen before. Her throat tightened. She was lost.
For a moment Morg panicked. It was almost dark and she was lost in a forest full of wolves and no-one knew she was there. Then she took a deep breath. Then another. She decided she had two choices. She could go back, and hope to join the old path. Or she could go on and hope to recognise something.
She thought hard. Perhaps the sun could help her. She couldn’t see it, but she could tell the sky was lighter ahead of her than behind. If it was lighter, that must be where the sun would set. She’d walked towards the sun when she left the village, in the morning. The sun had crossed the sky since then and was now going down. Head towards the setting sun, she thought. She hoped that she was right. As she was deciding she heard a noise, not very loud, far, far away. She was not sure, but it sounded a little like the howl of a wolf.
Morg set off at a brisk trot. She started to chant a prayer to Cerunnos, the god of wild beasts, but then changed her mind. She should stay loyal to Alos, who had helped her so far. The boar had been a test, and the piglets, somehow, an answer to her prayer. Alos had chosen her own way. Would the goddess now help her safely home?
She did not hear the wolves again. She decided that she had imagined the sound. Or that they were hunting in another part of the forest. But she kept her ears pricked, and the hairs on the back of her neck refused to lie flat.
The path became muddy. Morg squelched on, trying to keep to the firm grass hillocks, jumping from tussock to tussock. Her shoes were made of thin leather, and they were soon soaked. The path had disappeared into a bog. Morg hesitated and looked around. The trees were thinning. She could see the beginnings of a stream, and maybe a clearing. She took a step, and went in up to her knee. She nearly lost hold of the piglet. She pulled out her leg. It was coated in thick, stinking mud.
I mustn’t lose courage now, thought Morg. If I do, I’ll never get home. Clutching the piglet with renewed determination, she took a leap onto a patch of grass. Soon, she was through the trees and she was right. There was a clearing. Best of all, from the clearing she could see her hill, rising tall and black above the forest. Morg nearly sobbed with relief.
As she did so she heard a howl, the long wailing howl of a hungry wolf. Goose pimples rose on Morg’s arms. The howl came again, rising high over the dusk of the forest. It’s nearer, she thought, I’m sure it’s nearer. Morg started to run. She could see the hill, but she was still a long way away from safety. She reached the edge of the fields where she had put the sheep just that morning. They were empty now, the sheep all safe in the fort. The howl came again, and then a second and a third. Of course there are more than one, she thought, as she stumbled on. A whole pack. They are following me, they are definitely following me.
Then she realised. Of course they were following her. She smelt like a boar, carrying the piglet in her cloak. What an idiot I am, she thought. She was about to drop the cloak and let the piglet free, when she paused. No, I’ve got this far, she thought. I can’t just leave it now. Not after all this. She started to scramble up the rocky path to the gate. I’m nearly there, I’m nearly there, she thought. The howls were so close Morg thought she could hear the snapping of the wolves’ jaws and feel the warmth of their breath on her heels.
The gates of the fort were closed. Morg summoned all her energy.
“Open! Quickly!” she screamed.
A pale round head appeared over the ramparts and looked down.
“Who goes there?” called the watchman.
“It is me. Morg. The wolves -”
The watchman disappeared and Morg heard him shout out a warning inside. She heard footsteps running down the passage to the gate. He opened it.
“Let me in!” gasped Morg. She turned to look behind her. She was sure she could see yellow eyes glowing in the darkness. The guard slammed the gate tight shut behind her.
The guard tried to take her bundle but Morg’s fingers were frozen to it, so he led her along the twisting passage through the walls. By the time she came out her father was there swooping her into his arms. “Morg, Morg,” he whispered into her hair. “My dearest girl. My brave girl.” Something squirmed against his arm.
“What is that?” he said, nearly dropping Morg.
“It’s a piglet. A boar,” she told him. “I thought it would please you. And mother.”
Then her father threw back his great head and roared with laughter, his whole body shaking.
“Morg, have you been out this late hunting piglets? This prize indeed.” And he laughed again.
“Father,” murmured Morg. “I’m cold.” She started to sway. He stopped laughing abruptly. He took off his thick red cloak and wrapped her and the piglet together in it, scooped the bundle into his arms and strode across the enclosure to the hut. He kicked open the door.
“Brigd. Morg is back,” he said and to Morg’s astonishment her mother dropped the pot of water that she had been holding and ran towards her.
“Morg! My beautiful Morg,” and her mother hugged her tightly, kissing her face. “I thought I had lost you.”
“She is cold. She used her cloak for the piglet,” said her father, and as he did so Morg’s fingers, warmed by his cloak, unclasped. The piglet wriggled from its bundle and ran squealing into the hut. Morg’s father beat it to the door, which he kicked closed, and then he tried to catch it. But the piglet was fast, and furious at its captivity. Round and round the fire they raced. Col joined in, trying to head the piglet into a corner. Two bowls of water were smashed. The loom was knocked over. The piglet squealed. Morg’s mother grabbed the baby. Morg’s father flung himself at the piglet, but only managed to land face forward on the blankets. Col grabbed at the straw to make a wall, and Morg’s father pushed some wood and the edge of the loom to form a pen, and the piglet was trapped. Morg’s father and Col were exhausted and Morg and her mother were weak from laughter.
“What a demon you have brought us, daughter,” gasped Morg’s father. Morg smiled.
“But now it is caught it is good. It can breed with our pigs to strengthen them. The boar will bring us luck. You have done well.” He turned and left the hut.
“Come near to the fire, child,” said her mother. “Drink some of this,” and she offered Morg a cup of something hot and delicious.
“It is mead,” said her mother. “It will warm you.” Morg sipped the honey drink and felt the ice melt inside her.
“Mother,” she hesitated. “How is my brother?”
“The Druid treated the burn with herbs, and bound it. He has coughed less today. See, here he is sleeping.”
Morg looked at her mother. Did she look different?
“Mother? Are you better?” she said.
“Perhaps. The Druid gave me an infusion. He burnt some mistletoe to drive out the foul spirit inside me. I feel more myself now.”
Morg smiled to herself. She knew that it was Alos that had cured her mother. She was glad.
The door burst open.
“Are you warm now, child?” said her father. “Because it is time for the feasting.”
Morg’s mother took the lid off the wooden chest that stood at the head of her straw pallet. Inside were the best cloaks, that the family wore for feast days. She carefully took them out, one by one. Col’s cloak was the yellow of buttercups. Her own was the green of new oak leaves and Morg’s was the colour of the sky at twilight, a misty grey-blue. Morg stroked it and remembered choosing the colour and dying the wool. They had found the weld in the forest, and soaked the plant in hot water. Then they had taken the wool that they had spun and laid it in the dye. She giggled to herself when she thought of her mother telling her to squat and wee into it.
They had left the wool in the dye for days, just stirring it occasionally, until the colour had taken. Then she had helped her mother set up the loom and watched as the threads went back and forth and built up the cloth that would form her cloak. She loved this cloak. It was soft and delicate and the blue matched her eyes.
She put it over her shoulders.
“Pin it child,” said her father and Morg hung her head.
“I gave the brooch to the goddess,” she mumbled. Her father crouched down and looked into her eyes. Was he angry? she wondered.
“What did you ask for?” he said quietly.
“For mother to be well. And to love me again.”
“Your mother loves you very much,” he said. “And I think she will be well now. Here.” He unpinned the brooch that held his cloak in place. “Just for tonight,” and he used it to pin her cloak closed.
Then Morg dared.
“I also asked if I could go on a hunt,” she said and she looked at him, her eyes full of mischief. There was a moment, before her father laughed.
“The goddess cannot do everything,” he said.
When they went outside the fire was already burning huge and bright in the centre of the ring of huts. Turning on a spit was one of the boars that the hunters had caught earlier in the day. It crackled and splattered as the fat fell into the flames. The smell of roasting meat filled Morg’s nostrils and her mouth watered. She realised she had not eaten since the morning. The villagers were gathered around the fire and Olwig’s father was slicing great hunks of meat off the beast. Morg elbowed her way to the front.
“Little Morg, some for you,” said Olwig’s father and she grabbed it and tore at the flesh with her teeth, burning her tongue and her lips with the scalding fat. It was delicious. Morg’s stomach was still hollow with hunger. It took barely a minute before she had swallowed the last morsel, and was back for more. She grabbed at another slab. She saw Olwig and Pridoc on the other side of the spit, surrounded by neighbours tearing at the meat, fingers and mouths glistening with fat, laughing in the firelight. Although the villagers occasionally slaughtered their pigs and sheep, it was moons since they had had meat in such abundance. There was more than enough for everyone, with some left over. The bones would be picked clean, then boiled for their goodness before they were carved into spoons and combs. Not one piece of this prize would be wasted.
Gradually, stomachs were filled. Blankets and straw bundles surrounded the fire and the tribe lay back on them, happy. Now was the time for fun. The mead was flowing. The drums were brought out, and the drummers started their rhythmic beat. Dancers began to sway. Then Morg’s father called for silence.
“I want to tell you a story of the goddess Alos, our goddess of the forest.” People hushed. He was a good storyteller. He told a new story, of Alos and Morg, of a small girl who had dared to ask the goddess and whose wishes were granted. The crowd cheered and Morg smiled. She didn’t mind, she thought, that not all the wishes had come true. Not really. But she had to squeeze her lips together very tightly to stop herself crying.
When the drums had started up again, her father sat down next to her on the straw. He didn’t look at her.
“I’ll need to take Arlen into the forest soon,” he said. “He needs practice with some of his hunting skills.” Morg was very still.
“But I can’t manage on my own.” He looked at Morg. Her eyes were full of hope.
“Me?” she said.
“You,” he said, and he smiled. Morg flung her arms around his neck.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“I’m sure, my little huntress.”