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The People of the Brackon

The People of the Bracken

North of the Beacons the land grows wild, the bare uplands plunging with no warning into deep valleys where in winter there might be a foaming torrent, or in summer no water at all beyond a trickle. Whole steep hill sides are given over in summer to the close growing bracken, the giant ferns as high as a man's head where man or beast wander at their peril. It's a land for sheep, or for the wild Moorland ponies of Wales, and what farms there are lie lonely at the base of the hills, the light from their windows the only signpost there is to a traveler benighted, him having missed the one paved road that there is in the wilderness.

It is also a land for the Tylwyth Teg, the Fair Folk of Welsh legend, who perhaps have been hounded out of more settled lands to hide in the wild and desolate places .

Of course, if you were so bold as to approach one of the taciturn valley farmers at a stock market, say, and ask him straight out if he had any dealings with y bobl fach, the little people, he is likely to look at you as if you were cracked, though he would be too polite to say so, and suddenly remember he had business to do elsewhere. He would be very unlikely to tell you that his wife puts out a pannikin of the first milking every morning of her life, or that his children are schooled from the time that they can walk never to wander alone from the farm steading.

Thus it was that my brother and I were hiking together along the outside of the fencing that enclosed our hundred or so acres, nominally checking for breaks in the wire before lambing time should be upon us, but actually both chafing to be off on our own without the company of an older or younger brother.

Huw, fourteen and reckoning himself to be a man already, was wishing he might be alone and so have the chance of meeting Megan Jones who lived two valleys over and might have been out looking for a strayed ewe. Myself who was nine was just as fervently wishing I was alone, with no such romantic thoughts in my mind but only that I might have the chance to be off into the woodland looking for stone arrow points or the like.

Huw had his shotgun along because Rhys Jones, who was Megan's older brother, swore he had seen one of the rare red deer crossing his family's valley Sunday last, and old Doli the brindled retriever loped along behind, glancing hopefully up at the shotgun from time to time.

The trail we were walking ran along the extreme western edge of the upland pasture, and to our right the land fell away in a nearly vertical sweep to the neighboring valley where a winding line of trees bordered a stream far below. In between was the waving mass of bracken, the feathery green fronds of which stood head high for my brother Huw, while the tough stalks that supported them grew so closely together as to form an almost impenetrable barrier . Even the well trodden path alongside the wire was invaded by the tall ferns in places, and Huw swore crossly as he pushed blindly through a patch thrusting the fronds aside while myself and old Doli slipped like eels between the stalks.

'What's the use of this stuff anyway, I'd like to know, ' Huw complained, tugging the shotgun free as they emerged from a particularly dense patch, ' The beasts can't eat it and all it does is get in the way.'

I in turn said nothing, thinking of early spring when the whole hillside would be a mass of the brown fallen ferns with a carpet of bluebells pushing up between, all for a few glorious weeks. Following old Doli along what remained of the path I made my way forward, until suddenly I collided with Huw's jacket and looked up to find my brother standing stock still, staring down slope.

'What...'I started to say, only to be hissed into silence.

'Watch!' commanded Huw, then, ' Look! There it goes again!' and with no more explanation he brought up the shotgun and fired. The shrill scream that followed struck us both silent for a moment with that awe that follows a child's first encounter with having caused pain or violent death to another living creature, and we both stood stock still while the echoes chased themselves across the valley and back.

Huw was the first to recover, with all the bravado of his newfound manhood. ' It's a fox! Got her, the wicked thief! ' Fresh in both our memories was finding the henhouse door forced one morning and the prize layer gone, while seven of her mates lay strewn about in a welter of bloody feathers. Huw pointed down slope. ' Fetch, girl!'

The old hound looked back at him uncertainly, but the instincts of her breed were strong, and long ears trailing she plunged into the mass of bracken and disappeared. For long moments her progress could be traced by the movement of the disturbed fronds and then there was a sudden flurry, a sharp bark followed by a yelp of surprise or pain and then the sound of growling. I said reproachfully, 'You've only wounded it, a dwl. Da will have your hide if anything happens to Doli !'

Huw was staring in an agony of indecision at the solid mass of greenery and now a solution presented itself in the person of his annoying younger brother. ' Well, go and see, brawd bach, if you think you're so clever. '

I looked dubiously at the precipitous slope. ' Down there? '

' Surely, ' coaxed Huw, ' you're small enough to fit between, isn't it?'

Gingerly I entered the sea of ferns, bracing the side of my foot against the steep downward slope. The interlocked fronds high over head filtered the bright June sunshine to a dappled shadow and it was only by clinging to the tough stalks that I could keep from plunging precipitously downward. Behind me I could hear my brother shouting directions and encouragement -- A bit more to the right, then! Not far to go now! – and I grimaced resentfully. Right and left had ceased to have any meaning; there was only continuously thrusting the stalks aside in a swimming motion while the force of gravity drew me inexorably downward. I could hear Doli growling on a long sustained note somewhere ahead and prayed that the hound would have enough sense not to rush the wounded animal. It was as I was distracted by these concerns that it happened.

The dead foliage of last years growth formed a yielding brown carpet underfoot, and once long ago a big tree had fallen on the slope to be swallowed by the triumphant bracken, forming a deep hollow screened by the interlocking ferns. One moment my questing foot found a solid footing underneath and the next I was tumbling downward , as the thick green stalks treacherously bent under my weight or split into a handful of tough fibers which threatened to slice into my clutching fingers.

After a few moments of tumbling confusion where I was too shocked to cry out, I found myself at the bottom of a wide circular space where the roots of the long vanished tree had been. High overhead the bracken shut out the sky and at first I was too taken up with removing the sharp spines of a looping briar from under one arm to take much note of my surroundings.

The first thing I heard was Doli's low growl nearby. The big hound was crouched at the outer edge of the depression, blood dripping from a deep slice in her muzzle, staring fixedly at something behind me, her lips drawn away from her teeth. I said 'Down!' automatically and craned my neck around to see. The rear of the depression was in shadow, and at first I could not make out what the hound was growling at. Then one of the shadows moved and I saw her.

She was backed up against the overhang, a girl who looked to be about my own age. My first thought was that one of our neighbours' children had gotten herself lost but immediately I saw that this could not be. For one thing she was barely dressed and her one garment appeared to be a tattered scrap of leather thrown over her with her head and bare shoulders poking through and tied with a thong at her waist. She was very dirty unless that was her natural color and when I moved a hand in reassurance her eyes flashed their whites and she hissed like a cat, revealing oddly sharp little teeth. Behind me Doli snarled in response and I said sharply ' Leave it!' to the old hound as I had heard Da say, whereupon Doli lowered her head and subsided.

Far away from above I heard Huw calling the dog and with a queerly apologetic look Doli rose from her crouch, turned and forced her way back up the slope while I and the strange girl stared at each other. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I could make out her features more distinctly and there could be no possible doubt that she was not one of the local children. Her eyes were slanted slits and her face was gaunt with high cheekbones, and her hair, which was the same color as the rest of her, appeared to be tightly curled and plastered to her scalp with some greasy substance. She held one fist protectively across her chest and her bony knees rose level with her ears as she crouched there. On one of her exposed thighs was a long bloody groove which looked as though it had been made by my brother's chance shot.

At the sight there was a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was not so young as not to know that a gunshot wound was a serious thing, involving doctors and hospitals, and police too, like as not. I dug in my pocket and came out with the more or less clean handkerchief Mam insisted that I carry at all times, and held it out in a conciliatory fashion. At the motion the strange girl hissed again, baring teeth a startling white against the brown of her features and made a defensive gesture with her right hand. My eyes widened as I saw that clutched tight in her fist was a piece of crescent shaped stone the facets of which glinted in the half light. It looked fearfully sharp and I realized with a start that it was a piece of worked flint like the tiny triangles I occasionally found on my rambles and imagined to be old arrowheads, although Mr. Lewis at the Primary said that I was letting my imagination run away with me.

' You want to put something on that, look,' I said, gesturing with the bit of fabric. The girl stared at me as if I was mad and muttered something incomprehensible under her breath. I pointed to her leg and mimed tying the handkerchief around it, repeating what I had said in my best Welsh. The girl frowned and delved into a pouch tied to her waist, coming up with a lump of something which she thrust into her mouth and began to chew. I watched fascinated as dark spittle formed at the corners of her mouth, and after a few minutes she grinned horribly with her teeth all stained then craned her head and spat accurately into the wound on her leg, wincing slightly, then twice more until the stuff ran down her thigh.

As she seemed absorbed in examining the results of her handiwork I extended my arm again with the bit of handkerchief. Immediately her head snapped up, slanted eyes narrowed in suspicion, and I froze. She glared at me, then looked at the limply drooping offering, then at my face, frowning in puzzlement before hesitantly accepting it. She held the handkerchief to her nose then examined it minutely before putting down her bit of flint, her eyes flicking back and forth between myself and the cloth while tying it tightly around the wound on her leg.

I nodded encouragingly, and the strange girl regarded me, head on one side, before extending one skinny arm and gesturing slightly. Thinking she wished to shake hands I complied only to have my wrist seized and held tightly while she snatched up her flint crescent and made three small incisions on the back of my hand. Too shocked to resist, I stared dumbly as she spat more dark colored spittle on the site and put a grimy thumb over it, pressing hard. I pulled my hand back with a cry of protest, and at the same time I heard Huw calling from above.

'Ian! You OK, boyo?'

The girl looked up and snarled, there was no other word for it, then in a flash of movement she had vanished from sight. I applied my mouth to my injured hand , wincing at the bitter taste, and stared dumbly at the spot where she had been, at the high wall of the declivity packed with the dry brown stalks of the last year's bracken and gradually I discerned an area of deeper shadow. I shouted an acknowledgement to my brother and scrambled closer. It was a hole in the hillside, looking like a larger version of the badger's burrows I had found occasionally , except that the sides were of rough layered rock. A chill wind seemed to blow from the opening and I shivered suddenly in spite of the oppressive heat, my heart beating faster in excitement. A cave! It must be! I put my face right up to the opening and called softly, but there was no answer except the hollow sound that told me that a large open place lay behind.

Fresh in my mind was the American book, Tom Sawyer's Adventures, which we had been reading in class, and the part where Tom and his girl friend explored a cave in the hills. I hesitated, not having anything like a candle or any way to make a light, but then I thought that there could be no harm in it if I just took a look. Crouching on all fours I craned my neck inside, which was when the lip of the opening crumbled under my hands and I fell into the darkness.​

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