There’d never been such a cold. Not here, nor away, by day or by night. It had glazed the farmyard in a skin of black ice and silenced even the restless crows up the mountain.
Private Owen Thomas filled the empty wooden pail from the sheltered well, but by the time he reached the ponies' field, its contents had frozen over. He cracked the ice with the heel of his army boot, then cursed his own stupidity, because any sudden noise might reveal his whereabouts to the wrong person. Make him a target. Even out here in the middle of nowhere.
Did he want to live or bloody die? He asked himself, easing open the old gate and setting the pail down by the hawthorn hedge. Live of course. Why he was here. Why he'd sneaked out of the hospital tent while those far more wounded then he, twisted in pain, their moans disguising his fleeing footsteps.
Easy now to forget the miles of mud he'd waded through The burnt-out forests whose remains had speared his feet through the soles of his boots. But not so easy to forget his CO 'Cawr' Harris's threat to anyone considering desertion, or the way that glass eye had seemed to fix on him alone; its black iris boring into his already made-up mind.
And now, when the young soldier looked up towards the Mynydd Ddu, it wasn't merely the moon casting its pale sour light on everything, but that same eye, like God himself. All seeing. From whom nothing is hid.
But he'd had Mam's letter, hadn't he? Telling him Da had drowned on his own vomit from too much ale and how was she to get by with no man around the place? How could she raise pit ponies - her only source of income - single-handed with her own body falling apart?
Now, Owen felt these creatures' warm breath on his face, in his hair, as he checked each of their legs in turn for splints or spavins, then sunk his numb fingers into their coats to gauge if they'd grown thick enough to withstand a second winter. He'd been away from the smallholding too long since June, and in the next New Year, depending on their condition, the grey, four bays and three chestnuts would be sold on to the Risca collieries for a good price.
All that is, except the brown mare, Cerddor. Too tall at fifteen hands to go underground or breed any foals for that purpose, she wasn’t tall enough for the hunting gentry either. Another reason he'd come home, because Mam had threatened to sell her to Dai Meat in the village so there’d be coal in the hearth and a full pantry for the winter.
But he had other plans. One dream in particular, which no Flanders nightmare had ever destroyed.
He pulled a halter from his Da's old coat pocket which still smelt of drink, slipped it over the mare's head and fastened the cheek buckle. Then, by gripping its single length of rope and
ignoring the aching legacy of shrapnel still embedded in his left thigh, heaved himself on to her frosty back.
The others were soon left behind as he steered her in the moonlight through a further gate and on to the mountain where pregnant ewes clustered by nearby clumps of fern, suddenly took off out of sight. She wanted to run, he could tell.
"Not yet, eh?" he whispered to her. "You'll get your turn," and the moment came when he knew the ground ahead was smooth and free from stones. Where he'd ridden as a boy so many times he could do it blindfold. She snorted, threw up her plain lop-eared head then, with just the slightest squeeze of his knees, leapt into a canter then a gallop which snatched the air straight from his lungs.
Her drumming hooves seemed to drive away every shred of his past life and, as they reached a wide level gulley, it was easy to imagine her holding on to win the bareback two miler, always Pantglas Farm's featured race the first Saturday in November. It was also where Rhian Jones lived. A girl who, despite the distance between them, and her lack of letters in reply to his, he'd never stopped loving.
"You can't keep yourself hid away like this," Mrs Thomas suddenly entered the front parlour where he was signing a false name on the entry form saved from last year. He quickly covered the piece of paper with his arm and looked up at her.
"It was your letter that did it, Mam. What would anyone else have done, getting something like that?"
"I didn't mean for this to happen." She shook her grey head and pulled the woollen shawl tighter around her skinny shoulders. "They'll be coming for you. And then what?"
"Not if you don't say nothing. If you keep your mouth shut down the village."
"Don't you speak to your old mother like that. God hears everything."
Owen waited for her to go, but she stayed to prod the fire which being mostly culm, gave off more acrid vapour than any heat.
"Anyway, that leg of yours needs a doctor. Haven't you heard of gangrene? It'll drop off. otherwise."
"Mam," he sighed. "I can't risk seeing no-one. I'll live. I've promised myself."
She straightened, cast him a doubtful glance with her reddened eyes, then added, "I wish I'd learned writing."
"Now I'm home, I can teach you."
That was true. He'd learnt to spell, add up divide and multiply during long hours of waiting for orders to march.
Again, she shook her head.
"Use it to save your life, son. Explain to them. They'll understand."
"Mam... " he protested, but she'd gone. He hid the form deep in the overcoat pocket, then went outside to the coal store where he rubbed two anthracite lumps onto his fair hair to make it unrecognisably dark.
Race day dawned sullen, overcast, promising yet more rain. At this rate, thought Owen as he brushed Cerddor down in the hay barn, the Ten Acre Field track would be little more than a bog. He had a job to stop the mare nibbling at the bales which his Da had piled right up to the old tin roof.. That way lay the colic. He also had a job to stop thinking about Rhian Jones. What she looked like now. Whether or not she'd even be there, and if she was, would she recognise him? Part of him hoped so, but the other more fearful part, which wanted to live, hoped not. It was a risk he had to take and surely no greater than what he'd risked so far.
He'd almost finished plaiting the mare's tail into a neat knot, when he noticed the chilly air around him suddenly seem warmer, as if another's breath was behind him. He spun round, letting
the black string's ends hang loose.
"Well, well well, Owen bach," came a familiar voice. "Home already, eh?"
The bearded, middle-aged man held him close, stroked his hair then pulled away to examine his blackened fingers. "What's this muck in aid of, boyo? Hoping to do the music halls are we?"
"I fancied a change of colour. Just for a laugh. Any crime in that?" Nevertheless, his favourite uncle, Da's only brother, had unnerved him. And then, like a bolt of lightning he realised that it was Llew who'd encouraged him to join up with the South Wales Borderers, where he himself had once served. Not for the glory of king and country but for this country. Wales. "Anyhow, the rain'll wash it out soon enough," Owen added as he re-tied the tail's string with a shaking hand, praying his unexpected companion wouldn't notice his nerves.
"Let's be hoping so.”
Mercifully, before any more questions could be asked, his Mam called out from the house.
"Breakfast's ready, you two. Can't keep it hot for ever."
"Sounds good." Llew Thomas patted the mare's rump. "You coming?"
"Just got to pick out her feet." When in fact, he had to turn her black with the coal as well.
"Hunting, then, is it?"
"Yes. Vale of Glamorgan." He watched his uncle leave. No, he wouldn't be joining him for breakfast, even though the smell of bacon was making his stomach leap with hunger. And he prayed again his Mam wou;d remember what to say. That because of heavy losses at Rejet de Beaulieu, those few remaining from his particular company had been given compassionate leave.
"God forgive me," he murmured, watching the mare take a drink before bridling her up and leading her out onto the drizzly grass where the sound of her hooves would be muffled. "Please understand."
Pantglas was one mile by road and three across country, and Owen whose old hat was well down over his head, chose the hidden ways through the old drovers' route above Hirwaun and met only one old traveller relieving himself by a ford.
"Right ugly hoss you got there," he observed, shaking his cock free of drops. "You off racin' then?"
Owen merely waved, and then suddenly spotted the first notice of the event, nailed to the last pine in the Penmoelallt Forest. So, it was happening after all.
As if sensing his excitement, the mare too lengthened her stride and within ten minutes he'd reached the farm's western boundary. Too early, but safer here than hanging around the roads. Safe at least until it was time to hand in his entry. And time enough to see her.
He found a stale biscuit in his breeches pocket and stuffed it hungrily in his mouth, all the while listening to the increasing sounds of activity. But it wasn't until Wyn Jones began practising his announcements on the loudspeaker, that the full thrill of what he was about to attempt, hit home.
Dizzily, he dismounted to spare Cerddor his weight, and whispered in her nearest ear that this was the most important thing she would ever do in her life. If she won, someone would be sure to buy her and treat her well until old age. If not... Tears stung his eyes at that worst-imagined scenario, and he knew she could tell what he was thinking. He steered her towards the field entrance and despite the many curious stares, dropped his entry form into the waiting box. So far, no-one seemed to recognise either him or the mare. Not even Rhian, the farmer’s daughter sitting under an umbrella at a table near the finishing post. The curve of her belly quite obvious under her coat. Her flushed cheeks when Ben Morris from Penybryn went over and kissed her.
"Five to one the donkey." Someone shouted. Then another, and another as the odds shortened.
Donkey? What donkey? Owen asked himself as grief and anger buffeted his mind. He then realised hard-earned money was going on his mount. Fancying her chances, because although the opposition looked well enough bred, he was the only youngster on board. The rest were his uncle's age and more. All old. All past it...
Owen gulped in surprise at the sight of him. What in God's name was he doing here?
At exactly thirteen minutes past two, Cerddor passed the finishing line first. Both nostrils blowing out blood, her hooves clotted with mud. But the exhilaration of that moment soon faded when just before the presentation of the cup and the ten guineas prize money, Owen saw Uncle Llew and the local Constable enter the winner's tent to join him; their eyes, blacker than any lead shot, fixed on his mud-spattered body, and most particularly, his heart.
cawr = giant
cerddor = minstrel
updated by @sally-spedding: 01/28/16 10:31:33PM