Setting: 14th Century Cymru (“Wales” in the Saxon Conquest), Post-Anglo-Norman Conquest

The Mari Lwyd (/mæriˈlɔɪd/) is a wassailing folk custom found in South Wales. The tradition entails the use of an eponymous hobby horse which is made from a horse’s skull mounted on a pole and carried by an individual hidden under a sackcloth. It represents a regional variation of a “hooded animal” tradition that appears in various forms throughout Britain.

I. Winter Solstice

Christendom was in the clutches of a volcanic winter. “The devil’s breath” cast the realm into punishing cold. Long had the stars been obscured by the ashen clouds, casting the land in seemingly perpetual winter. The winter befell the land like a cold sacrificial blade, leaving few unscathed. Crops failed and beasts died, yet the Norman lords were unmoved by the sunken cheeks of the subjugated and serfs. While the dispossessed froze and starved, the nobles drew closer to their roaring hearths and feasted on venison, boar, and plundered harvest.  Their rapacity knew no bounds.

To ever vigilant eyes in the forest, the solitary figure leading his horse through the snow-shrouded forest might be taken for a wayward pilgrim, yet some fell purpose drove him abroad this eve. A bow was slung at his back and an arrow-loaded quiver and sword bounced at his side as he strode…he was clad in a forester or tattered pilgrim’s robe to shield him against the elements or suspicious eyes of Norman knights that may cross his path. No outlaw sentinel of the rebel’s bastions of woodland moved to hinder him.

He strummed absent-mindedly at a harp as if caressing an old hound, his voice haunted and distant. He had the bardic gift and its curse. The songs that could rally hearts to war, or lull them to some measure of elusive fleeting peace.

Though deemed unmanly and unchivalrous as a weapon by his Templar brethren, it felt electrifying to have a Welsh longbow in his hand again. And what was chivalry anyway to the Normans but a vain cosmetic applied by flattering troubadours and fawning minstrels to their lordly patrons while they were naught more than hired thugs to tyrannical overlords?

Before he was christened Frater Davidius, Dafydd Ap Gruffyd was an exile from his native Cymru who took up holy orders of the Templar Knights to escape the execution of his noble house by Edward of England’s minions. He always held one last arrow apart in his quiver, never using it in battle, one he vowed to strike down the Norman baron that usurped his ancestral lands if he returned to his homeland.

He was one of the “Five Curses,” select band of Templar assassins sworn to avenge their order. They were trained to be flawless in the art of hunting men before being unleashed to the lands of Philip the Fair and his heirs.

Yet before he would exact retribution on the enemies of his order, he had more personal vendettas to attend to. It had brought him hither to these remote wilds between the towering Norman keeps. He had been following the banners of two Norman lords, those who laid low his kin and hall in the name of King Edward of England.

Unencumbered by armour for the chase, he closed in on his quarry. The iron-shod hoofprints were easy to decipher. He knelt like a wolf scenting a herd. The Norman entourage drew reign aghast before figures frozen like glacial statuary…they had been fleeing someone or something…

The winter-denuded branches of the trees seemed to beckon to him with skeletal hands as the wind stirred his robes in an icy caress, like a disembodied lament over the peluccid lunarscape. Beneath the sickly wan apparition of the sun filtering through the ashen cloud, the saplings shimmering with snow swayed in a danse macabre.

The moonbeams lent their spectral pallor over the dreamscape of snow, disorientating in its featureless amorphous path, visions of the war he left far in the crimson wake of his ship returning from the killing fields of the East, and he seemed once again to stagger the cascade of oasisiless dunes.

Huntsman’s and archer’s eyes swept searchingly, quarry’s trail imprinted in the snow, blemishingly. Knowing the way like a song known by heart. He closed his eyes and pressed a talisman to his forehead, envisioning her, bard’s muse as ever envisioned like a mirage that vexed the nomads of the desert. On such nights, the Chieftain of this vale held court for this warriors, and they laughed, feasted and drank, toasting their Prince Lywellyn in the days before the Normans usurped the rightful throne. The way her smile caressed his heart like a bardsong on such eves when an expectant hush befell the esteemed company of a Chieftain’s hall.

The spellbound company as the aged bard’s hands rose to the harp and verse became incantation. And he would close his eyes to envision the warriors, High Kings and lovers immortalised and seanced in song.

And he remembered when his muse made her entrance; she seemed to have strayed from bardic legend to grace his sight. A vision of beauty behind green eyes that cast their spell of silence set to music. Caressing his heart like the harpsong. Heady with the intoxication of the green eyes before him. Thaw to his winter…in a heart-caressing, melting smile. The legend-haunted land had not seen such like her since the beauties of Celtic song passed into legend. And he rose to approach her as if up-lifted by the songs, like a somnambulist. Laughter became a duet of lips.

He plucked at the harp, itinerant bard’s harp, his sigh steaming in the chill air. He knelt reflexively, his senses hearkening. Lips like reopened wounds as he envisioned her smiling, beckoning, silhouetted against a midsummer’s bonfire and engarlanded by Welsh heather and the light of the summer stars in her eyes…yet the vision faded before eyes haunted with Orphean valediction.

No embrace in homecoming…only the night…

He fiercely wiped aside his tears that stung his eyes like reopened wounds. He needed to keep his archer’s eyes sharp.

His breath brought him back to the present, visible before him in a battle cry and his enemy’s last breath…

He knew the sigil that the nobleman’s surcoat bore. It had borne on the banners raised above the battlements of his usurped castle after the walls were breached and his kin put to the sword.

Yet there was one yet of his massacred people that drew breath and bowstring.

He had unslung his bow and flattened himself against a tree, as he at last beheld his quarry. The heavily-encumbered company of horsemen forded the snow; the portly Norman nobleman cursed his burdened steed and fussing squires.

He was escorted by a retinue, crossbowmen casting wary eyes to the array of trees.

The troubadour plucked at the lute and, wassailing with abandon, blundered astray into bow range.

His raptor-like archer’s eyes swept the procession calculatingly. He drew into an archer’s stance.

The Crusades had taught him well. The snow was crimson where his slain enemies lay.

The Templars had disbanded, but not before he had learned mastery of swordplay. The warrior brotherhood was trained to confront their enemies without hope of reinforcement and vanquish them.

The Norman lord looked up as a shadow befell him. Ravens were gathering like bubonic clusters on the snow-shimmering trees. They eyed him intently, expectantly in the same way that the carrion birds would knights marching to battle awaiting the carnage of battle’s aftermath. The same way that guests at a dark banquet would inspect dishes being paraded past them before feasting. They sensed death rode with him. And the raven’s hungry eye never lies. A trick of the light, surely, but their sharp beaks and talons already dripped crimson. He gripped the hilt of his sword, sheathed in the heavy folds of his lordly robe.

He felt the sickening sensation that the stag knew before the huntsman’s horn sounded and hounds were unleashed. He opened his mouth to tell the troubadour that he was betraying their presence to an assassin. That’s when the first arrow struck.

He was wrong. They were not targeted by an assassin. They were being hunted for sport.

The twang of a bowstring, the sickening thud of the arrows puncturing armour and flesh. The serpentine hiss of arrows from an unseen assailant. Black-fletched, venom-tipped arrows. Even a scratch was a mortal wound. Those struck and not slain outright writhed, flailed, and frothed at the mouth as the venom took hold.

Pressing home the attack, he lunged to a closer array of trees, throwing a clasp of arrows point-first into the snow. The arrows hissed like striking cobras, yet his supply of arrows was dwindling. He grasped the hilt of his sword as one of his enemies slammed his visor down and made ready to charge. The sword had not been drawn since he left their last Templar bastion in a crimson wake and it fell to the hordes of the enemy in a fiery and blood-soaked end. His enemy unsheathed his blade for a duel, his brandished blade gleamed in reply

“Hold!” a gauntleted fist was upheld for the crossbowman to cease and stand down.

A man at arms in their number drew a sword mechanically and red-spurred his horse to seek the elusive archer.

The warhorse tore explosively through the snow drifts…sighting his enemy, he roared a battle cry…yet the sword swept over the head of their assailant, who evaded the blade so narrowly he felt the whisper and wind of its passing.

Thwarted, the horseman wheeled his horse for another pass.

His enemy was running and his pursuer gave a triumphant shout only for the archer to pivot suddenly, raising his bow.

The thus far surviving men in the Norman retinue awaiting in breathless anticipation for their companion to return.

“Make way!”

Suddenly, his horse bolted past them as it threw its rider, who lay slain impaled by multiple arrows.

The crossbowmen were felled in quick succession as they strayed into bow range.

The Norman lord spurred the lumbering destrier, trampling a wounded crossbowmen as he staggered into his path. The horse reared, throwing off its rider, before the eerie sight of an eldritch forest shrine; the banner of a horse skull mounted on a lance seemed to rear before them like a serpent.

Snow fell in spectral, ethereal iridescence.

The arrow struck like a rapier foil thrusting home. Its target shuddered spasmodically as he fell.

He locked eyes on his quarry like a hovering raptor, pivoting from tree to tree, mingling with the shifting shadows, evading the crossbows. The longbow, the weapon that humbled the supremacy of the armoured knight over the red fields of Christendom.

Identifying and selecting arrows by touch, fitted with specific arrow heads.

Answering crossbow bolts struck trees quivering from impact as he pivoted from tree to tree, felling enemies in midstride.

The ghostly imprint of men and horses and a red trail where they were dragged away.

The skeletal remains of knight and warhorse had been picked clean by ravens in the battle’s aftermath. He picked his way through the snow and ice…unearthing. He lifted the warhorse’s skull and raised it like an offering to ancient gods of Albion, for it seemed his own had forsaken him. He mounted it atop a lance. Found by his squires in the snow like a ritualistic sacrifice. He saw himself mirrored in the varnished glacial sheen of the falchion.

“I yield!” he whimpered.

“We don’t, Sassenach.”

He wrenched off his cowl and face cover. His face was his father’s and his mother’s angry eyes…though they were ash mingled with their burnt hall. The cold where wounds pulsed in the cold.

The jangle proved to be the ringing of armour-clad corpses hung on the oaken branches like trophies…grisly ornaments, swaying in the chill wind. Trophies of a dark huntsman, a bounty hunter of damned souls. Swaying from the creaking trees…upside down like prize stags to bleed out onto the forest floor.

The blood had formed into crimson icicles and crimson fangs bared. And beneath the new additions, an ominous figure stood as if showering in their blood or being hailed in crimson and the dark of feathers of ravens as they pecked at the armour.

They seemed ritualistically sacrificed.

He held a horse skull mounted like a nightmarish banner. Forming an eerie shrine, it seemed. Wolves restlessly paced in the labyrinthine glade like a dark elvish hall waiting for the presence to depart. And he did, mounting his horse and raising a war horn that brayed shrill and sonorously, and choired by the wolves like dark hounds rallied by a huntsman.


“Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams…” — Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

One matter remained unredressed in the archer’s quest.

The Inn of the White Hart creaked in the chill wind that stirred the snow-laden trees, like ghostly banners.

In the dimming light, a misshapen shadow was cast over the faded image of a pale stag pursued by a huntsman and hounds. As if restless shadows were granted form and face, a mysterious stranger appeared at the door, wavering at the threshold like an unhallowed spirit before stepping in to curious eyes.

He unburdened himself of his knightly trappings, yet remained aloof to the other patrons. He was a soldier by his bearing; that much was evident. And there many landless knights of scattered armies and fallen banners traveling the windswept roads.

“Some ale, sir?” a tavern lass asked.

He doffed his cowl at last and he produced exotic Eastern gold coins. “For your pain,” he answered laconically.

His was the sun-bronzed face and haunted eyes of a warrior of the cross returned. She blushed and curtseyed, gesturing him to the fire: “the warmth of the hearth, my lord…”

“Nothing so high…merely a wayfarer of the road.”

He left his cup untouched…many another would have drowned the ghosts that shadowed his steps and horizons, yet his mind had to be as sharp as the blade and arrows he wielded.

His eyes betrayed a flash of desire before averting his eyes and he unslung his harp…he strummed at the harp with distant eyes…before the strokes became a caress and the chords and words a rare bewitchment.

The mullioned windows and door ajar beamed with light seeping invitingly into the night. The marcher lord, traveling with only his squire, arrived at the remote inn.

“Take my horse,” he grunted as he dismounted and stable it.

“We will take refreshment here. Hardly lodging worthy of a marcher lord, but alas, it will have to suffice.”

He cast a lingering glance behind, shaking himself of the unnerving feeling he was being trailed here, before turning to the inn door. An inn frequented by foresters, highwaymen, and shepherds.

He eyed the mutton and mead disdainfully, but hunger told. His journey had been long, his warhorse lumbering stoically through the snow. He was greeted with guarded, sullen looks from the patrons.

“The inn’s best!” he demanded, his fist slammed on the table.

The patrons had been spellbound by the man playing the harp and singing by the hearth, immersed in his stories of quests and battles and love lost…his hands had ceased at the harp and he had vanished almost mysteriously as the Norman lord blustered jarringly. The innkeep moved to accommodate him with strained hospitality.

His face-was heavy-jowled…mastiff-like…pouting, haughty-expressioned. A man accustomed to privilege of his feudal station, his grizzled, groomed beard flecked with meat as he dined.

“Where is that squire!” he thundered after being aware of his absence.

He blundered off to the stables, growling. As he burst into the cold pen, he recoiled aghast. His warhorse lay headless over the bloodied hay, its severed head taken.

Then he saw it…the Mari Lwyd.

The horse skull was lit from within like a jack-o’-lantern, floating malevolently in the dark. He reeled back from whatever fell beast pursued him and ran into the snow-shimmering forest…he knew of a remote hunting lodge in the depths of the forest, hastening as fire arrows sizzled in the snow, driving him towards the depths of the wood, into an abattoir.

He barred the strong oaken door of the lodge with his sword and sank to the brocaded covers of a bed. His chest heaved. Surely the cross and king’s seal would keep vengeful rebels and fell spirits at bay.

He sank into nightmare-haunted sleep. He was walking, it seemed, across a mist-enshrouded or cauldron-vapoured dreamscape. The sickening sensation of walking on something familiar yet strange.

Suddenly, the mist faded to behold the red visions intruded of battle’s aftermath, the carcasses of warhorses and corpses of men. He walked among them like a detached presence. Gorging ravens suddenly rose like dark spirits conjured, and there, confronting him, was an eerie figure of a horse-skulled man, arms spread like a stage illusionist.

At the apparition’s feet were a throng of children. He recognised the faces as those he and his retainers had put to the sword when castle walls were breached, or villages massacred. They beckoned for him hungrily, singing in choir, as the spectre pointed an accusing skeletal finger.

He awoke with sword drawn beside him, yet the singing seemed to echo and linger, haunting the night air like witches’ cauldron’s fumes.

The disembodied voices merged with the nocturne of the night wind, ventriloquised in the Cymry tongue, yet not melodious, but raspy, like the voice of a mad jester. He rose, teeth bared, clutching his sword. He cast open the door to the dark winter. Naught there, only a maddening, keening lament, like a litter of wolf pups whining for killed meat…urgent, almost dulcet…took on a dark sinister tone like venomed honey on the first Christmas after bereavement.

The trickster knocked thrice.

“What witchery? Show yourself!”

And there, as if suspended in midair, hovered a leering horse skull, bobbing insolently in the air in danse macabre and singing, the raspy voice chanting, ventriloquising its song in a dark Yule carol. Ashen-pallored face mirrored in crimson orb-like eyes leering madly and smoldering in the moonlight from a horse skull against an eerie, silvery background of falling snow.

As the assassin drew back the arrow, a ghostly harp song seemed to play in the background as he envisioned his native land’s mist-enshrouded vales and his family’s keep, the bard playing softly as the fires dwindled to embers in the hearth and his clan and court were assembled under banner-adorned rafters listening spellbound…he shook off the memory, as if banishing ghosts back to the hollow hills for tears would affect his aim.

The inscriptions of a prayer to Saint David shimmered in the torchlight along its shaft as his archer’s eye sighted his shot, like a raptor’s hovering over its quarry. The point flared as he loosed it. Then the Norman, raising his blade, shuddered convulsively and fell back, a great dark arrow sizzling in his spine and protruding from his back.

In the depths of the remote oaken glade so ancient that it had once echoed with the chanting of the druids…none heard him scream…except the wolves he was left to…baring their fangs in a ghostly choir to the night.