OLD MOTHER TAN

A long time ago, before human beings had invented the wheel and the world had gone to the devil, there was a village in a little valley that kept itself to itself. There were plenty of berries and leaves to eat and occasionally a deer or some such creature would come within range of the spears the men carried to protect themselves from other men and there would be raw meat to be shared around.

Morwyn was the daughter of one of the elders of the tribe. She was just coming to the age when her mother would have to go and visit one of the tribes in another valley and see if there was a young man there who would take her on. But Morwyn did not want to think of such things. All she wanted to do was dance.

After she had finished her chores she would wander off to a clearing away from the village and dance. Often she rushed her work and was told off by her mother, but she did not care because she knew that, when she got to the clearing, she would be able to dance off the anger that her mother had thrown at her.

Best of all she liked the nights of the full moon when she could dance in its light and forget the future in conjuring up all kinds of presents. One night her brother Yntyn followed her to the clearing. Brothers do not like sisters to have secrets, especially ones that seem to make them happy.

Yntyn watched Morwyn start to dance. He had not seen anything like it and he did what boys do when they see something that they do not understand. He laughed. Morwyn stopped dancing immediately and stared at the sound. Yntyn came out of his hiding place.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“Never you mind.”

“I’m going to tell father. He’ll stop you.”

“You won’t.” Morwyn was an easy going girl but, seeing her only source of happiness about to be taken away from her, she reached down, picked up a stone and threw it at her brother. The stone hit Yntyn on the head and he fell down onto the ground and remained still.

Now, even in these easy going times, killing your brother was frowned upon. Morwyn took to her heels and ran. She ran into the forest where her mother had told her not to go. She ran fast, not caring about the brambles that tripped her up and scratched her or the nettles that stung her. She ran until there was no air left in her body and she bent down, her hands on her knees, and tried to take in as much air as she could.

As her breathing became easier she started to listen to the night sounds all around her and to look around at the dark trees and the darker spaces between them. She was old enough to know it was not the wolves, bears or boars you had to worry about in a situation like this. It was the things that dwelt in those dark spaces between the trees.

For a moment she thought of going back but she did not. For one reason she could not face her mother after what she had done, for another she had no idea where back was. So she had no choice but to carry on through the forest. She went slowly now, her hands out in front of her, trying to find passages that large animals had made, but mostly finding stumps and slippery vegetation to fall over.

At last she came to a place where she could feel nothing in front of her. Some sixth sense told her it was a clearing. She stood still, unsure of what to do. Then she heard movement ahead of her. Remaining still, her eyes could make out in the darkness the figure of an old woman shuffling around. She was grumbling as she lifted a heavy basket and poured water into a pan that was suspended above some twigs. Then, still grumbling, she bent down and started cutting up some roots that she had gathered and dropping the pieces into the water. Morwyn smiled. She knew those roots, they were hard and tasteless. If the old woman thought she could soften them by leaving them in water she was going to have to wait a long time for her supper. But then she remembered how hungry she was.

It was what the old woman did next that shocked Morwyn. She kneeled down, grumbling even more and started scrabbling about by the twigs. Morwyn heard stones being struck together. In horror she saw sparks come from the stones and fall on some dry straw. Instead of jumping back the silly old woman was blowing at them to try to blow them out, but instead the flames just got higher and angrier. Of course Morwyn had seen fire before and she knew what it could do to a forest. This old woman was no kin of hers but still she could not let her be burnt up by the fire like a dried branch. She rushed out of the clearing, took hold of the pot of water and poured it over the fire.

It was killed but, it being a heavy pot, a good half of the water had gone over the old woman as well. She stood there dripping, a look of utter amazement on her face. Clearly the poor old thing was too shocked to know what was going on.

“I saved you from the fire.” Morwyn explained. The old woman seemed to pull herself together.

“I suppose you have never seen anyone preparing soup before.”

She sighed. “The fire was going to eat you.”

“How many years have I lived and still strange things come out of the forest.”

“I’m not strange. I saved your life.”

“Fire isn’t an enemy my girl, it is a friend. Don’t you have fire in your village?”

Morwyn shook her head. “What would we want it in the village for? That would be madness.”

“And what are you doing out on a dark night like this?”

“I killed my brother.”

But she did not say it with any pride, so the old woman decided there was no malice in her. “Well, you can stay in my hut tonight and we can decide what to do with you in the morning. You’ve spoiled the soup but there’s some rabbit left from morning. We can share that.”

Although Morwyn was hungry, the last thing she really wanted was some hard, stringy rabbit, but the rabbit the old lady gave her was like nothing she had ever tasted before. Instead of being tough and with sinews that stuck in your teeth, this was soft and almost melted in Morwyn’s mouth.

“There is some use for fire after all.” laughed the old woman. There was another pile of twigs and dried grass in front of the hut. With a warning look at Morwyn the old lady fetched the stones out of her clothing, knelt down and started striking them. As the sparks flew Morwyn cringed back against the side of the hut. Soon there was smoke and then there was flame and the old woman, without a care in the world, kept dropping more and more twigs onto the fire until she was dropping whole branches onto it.

Morwyn pushed against the wall of the hut but then she started feeling the warmth of the fire and it was very pleasant after the cold of the night. She started to feel tired.

When she awoke the next morning she was covered with a very comforting bear fur. The fire was black and smoking slightly, apparently quite content. The old woman, who had introduced herself as being called Tan, was cleaning out the hut. She looked older in the daylight than she had in the night, but she heard Morwyn stir and turned around and gave her a warm, toothless smile.

In the end Morwyn stayed with Tan for several days, by which time she had proved herself a brave girl and had almost mastered the art of making fire.

“Don’t think you have out-stayed your welcome, but I think your mother will be worrying about you.”

“I can’t go back after what I have done.”

“Sometimes things aren’t as bad as they seem. It sounds as if your village would benefit from fire. If you take them back that skill they may not be so angry with you.”

Morwyn was surprised to find that Tan knew where the village could be found and wondered why she had not made herself known before, but the old woman left her at the clearing where she had danced and let her make her own way back to the village.

The first person that she saw was Yntyn. They both looked as if they had seen ghosts and then Yntyn turned and ran screaming back to the village. Morwyn got a good cuffing from her mother for running off like that but Yntyn had already received a good cuffing from his father for driving her off, so it was only fair.

When the recriminations had died down Morwyn got the women together and showed them how to make fire. They were so impressed they burnt a hut down in their determination to copy her.

Only the men were not so impressed. Not only did they have to build a new hut but the women kept insisting they go off into the forest and bring back a wide selection of animals that they could cook. Although they enjoyed the meat, their time of being able to sit around and improve the state of the world with their talk was much eaten into.

Morwyn, now she knew where Tan lived, went back to visit her on a regular basis. She was walking towards the village without a care. The first body she saw was Yntyn’s. He was lying face down on the track with an arrow in his back. She stood looking at it for ages, not making any sense of it. Then shouts voices from the village brought her back to reality. A woman screamed and men were shouting, using words that she could not recognise.

Reluctantly leaving her brother she walked cautiously towards the encampment. There were a few other bodies around the huts which she recognised as some of the elders and young men of the village. Other people she knew were being forced to pick up the bodies by men she did not know, but who carried spears. Of the woman she could see nothing.

She backed away into the forest, almost tripping over the body of her brother, but before she could do anything for him she heard footsteps approaching. Through the trees she saw a couple of the tribe followed by one of the strangers, prodding at them with a spear. She turned and fled.

This time her run through the forest with a purpose. She headed back towards Tan’s hut. When she got there she ran straight into the hut.

“Tan! Tan! My village has been taken over by bandits!”

Instead of jumping with shock as Morwyn had been expecting, Tan carried on with sweeping the floor. It is not the reaction to world shattering news that a messenger appreciates. She drew back.

“It’s your fault. If I had not taken fire to the village the bandits would have left us in peace.”

At last Tan stopped her sweeping. “You might be right at that.”

Expecting an argument, Morwyn stopped dead. Then she burst into tears. Then Tan dropped her broom and came and cuddled her.

“Sometimes things are not as bad as they seem.” Morwyn stayed with Tan for a couple of nights. They talked about how crooked things can be brought straight and the mysteries of fire. After that Morwyn walked back to her village.

At night she crept up to her mother’s hut without being seen and forced herself in through the thatch. The hut was crowded with women, seeking comfort in company.

“Morwyn, where have you been!” whispered her mother, for now she could not shout.

“With Tan. She has a way to help.”

“What can be done to help now, after all that has happened?”

They hugged, remembering lost times.

At dawn Morwyn went out to work with the women. The bandits did not notice that she was anything strange.

They worked hard all day, much harder than they would have worked of their own choice. But, at the end of the day, when the other women collapsed in a heap and looked forward to going back to the hut, Morwyn started dancing. Her mother stood up and tried to stop her but Morwyn gave her such a look that she sat down again.

Morwyn danced and the guards watched her. More of the bandits came over to see what the commotion was. Then a man pushed his way to the front of the crowd. The other men gave way to him.

As she danced, Morwyn watched him. He was younger than she had expected, rather good looking. She felt something stirring inside her, but she danced faster to get away from it. At last she could dance no more. The crowd drifted off and the women were taken back to their hut. As dusk fell some guards came to the hut and grabbed hold of Morwyn. Her mother tried to stop her but Morwyn gave her another look.

“Sometimes things are not as bad as they seem.” she said. She was taken to what used to be her father’s hut. The bandit chief was sitting on the bed. When the guards had gone he indicated a clear space at the centre of the hut. “Dance.” He said. So she did.

After a few minutes she stopped. The chief was smiling. He indicated she should come over to him. “Just one request.” she said. “In my tribe, on the chief’s daughter’s wedding night, the man covers himself in oil made from the fruits of the earth when he comes to her.”

The man shrugged and shouted for the guards. Oil was brought and, without embarrassment, the chief stripped off his clothes and tipped the oil over his head. He stood there, grinning at her, the oil dripping down his body. She had to admit he had a rather fine body.

“Now come to me through the fire.” she said, indicating the central hearth. He shrugged and walked over to the fire. He did not know the effects of oil and fire, why should he? He lifted his leg over the fire. Immediately he must have known it was a mistake, because he winced and drew back. But it was too late. The oil caught fire, there was a whoosh and the chief fell back in a mass of flames.

She had not intended to, but Morwyn screamed. That and the cries of their chief brought the guards running. They were no more used to fire than their chief and could only stare at the blackened creature writhing on the floor. Then they turned to her. “It was the will of the Goddess. He tried to violate me. That is his punishment. Be gone or it will be your punishment also.”

The guards turned and ran. Other bandits came in and looked at the figure on the floor and they too left quickly. She could hear the preparations for a hasty departure all over the camp. Morwyn was a merciful girl. She took the chief’s knife and stuck it into his chest to quieten the whimpers that were coming from it. After that it was the feeling of the village that she should be made chief, even though something like that had not happened before. But after a few years she became tired of having all the trivial problems of the village brought to her for a decision, so she went to live with Tan, where they lived quietly enough.

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