“Wassail of the Mari Lwyd”
A Dr. Cushing Chamber’s of Horrors Prequel
by Stephen D. Sullivan
Before the first Great War…
“If I’d brought my full furs on this trip, we wouldn’t be in this fix!” Miranda Cushing scowled and pulled her double-breasted Edwardian princess coat tight around her as the winter squall threatened to tear off her buttons and freeze her.
Leigh Cushing turned up the collar of his woolen frock coat and brushed the building flakes off of his cap as they trudged through the snowy Welsh countryside. “I’m sorry if your fox collar and cuffs aren’t enough for this unexpected weather, Miranda my dear. We shouldn’t have lingered at the megalith so long. Here, take my hat.”
He held it out to her, but she shook her strawberry-blond head stubbornly. Leigh thought that her pale skin and the snowflakes clinging to her long mane of wavy locks made his wife look like a pagan goddess in the building storm: a frosty vixen sent to tempt mortal men to their doom.
Her icy stare quickly disabused him of such romantic notions. “I know we agreed we didn’t have room, and a steamer trunk would have been too much with our agenda and all our train stops, but I still want my fur,” she maintained.
“Well, your precious heirloom is safely stored away in our London flat, so wishing for it is pointless.” Leigh tried not to scold, but as much as he loved her, it was hard to keep his temper when she blamed him for things they’d previously settled. “Besides, if you hadn’t insisted on trekking out to Carreg Bleddyn Llwyd, on Christmas Eve—of all nights—we’d be safely back at the inn quaffing some of their excellent ale and enjoying their quaint Yuletide customs.”
Miranda barked a laugh. “Ha! Listening to some woman named Mary Lloyd singing carols to a bunch of drunken Welshmen may be your idea of fun, my love, but… The sooner we can escape this Godforsaken hamlet and go someplace more lively—”
The blizzard swallowed the last of her words, and she shivered.
A pang of guilt twisted in Leigh’s breast. He gently turned up her fox-fur collar, put his arm around her shoulder, and pulled her close, feeling the chill in her slender body. “I’m sorry, my dear. This is no time for recriminations.”
She gazed at him in the deepening twilight, her green eyes filled with sadness. For a moment, they paused amid the mounting snowfall. “I’m sorry, too. It’s just… You know how impatient I get… and we both wanted to see the stone… and the weather was so clear and perfect…”
He hugged her, trying to put some warmth into her. “I know. I thought viewing the menhir by starlight would be fun, too—romantic, even—and it was, but obviously neither of us counted upon the North Wales coastal weather this time of year. We need to keep moving.”
“Yes,” she replied, slogging forward once more. She still looked cold, but at least they’d dressed for an early winter hike, with good boots and hardy wool overcoats. If the unexpected storm hadn’t whipped up…
The Carreg Bleddyn Llwyd, a rough-hewn upright stone nearly eleven feet tall, supposedly marked the grave of a local warrior-king. That ancient ruler had usurped the monument, though. Just at the edge of recorded memory, the immense rock had been called Carreg March Llwyd—the Grey Horse Stone, probably due to pagan sacrificial rites performed there. That supernatural use intrigued Leigh, while the more recent history attracted Miranda.
The granite monolith stood on a rocky bluff overlooking Cardigan Bay, and it had been a lovely sight with the stars peeking out overhead… Until the blizzard appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
Miranda put her arm around Leigh’s waist, and he supported her as they staggered into a grove of Scots pine that looked like snow-dappled Christmas trees.
Usually, Leigh’s wife was so strong, but the wind and cold seemed to be rapidly sapping her energy. He worried for her; despite her youthful vigor, she seemed very frail at the moment, and he’d never forgive himself if anything happened to her. If he hadn’t been so stricken with love for this woman, he’d never have agreed to leave the inn tonight.
“Would you really have been happy to sit in that crowded common room listening to Mary Lloyd sing tonight?” Miranda asked, as if reading his mind—a type of seemingly psychic moment that happened often with her, even before they’d married.
He pulled her closer—would have pulled her inside his own coat, if he could have—and they tramped through the frosted pines together, as awkward as if they were in a three legged race. “It’s a local tradition, my dear, and you know how much I love such ephemera. And its Mari Lwyd, a Welsh phrase, though it sounds like ‘Mary Lloyd.’”
“Bloody Welsh,” she muttered. “What’s a Mari Lwyd?” She put her face down, leaned into him, and shuddered again.
He doffed his cap, shook the snow from it, and settled it atop her sodden locks.
“Well, as in the name of the carreg, lwyd is ‘grey,’ though they spell it with one fewer ‘l’ for some reason that escapes me.”
“I should have noticed that. I’m an idiot.”
She seemed to be growing weaker, leaning on him more heavily, but he kept them going, even as the snow rose above their ankles.
“Not at all, my love. As to Mari, some believe it to be a reference to the blessed virgin…”
Miranda shook her head wanly. “Always with the religion this time of year.”
“Others think it may simply mean ‘merry,’ while still others insist that it’s a version of the English word ‘mare’—which makes sense, since the Mari Lwyd appears to be a type of horse.”
“Wait… Are you saying Mari Lwyd is a singing horse?” She gazed up at him, puzzled, and he noticed the pallor of her face. They needed to find their way back to the inn, or she might catch her death of cold.
“In a sense,” he replied, ignoring the chill wheedling into his own bones. “The Mari Lwyd is a type of pantomime horse—men in sheets carrying a horse’s skull on a pole—which parades through the village singing songs…”
“So, it’s an undead singing horse.”
Leigh laughed, despite the dire circumstances. “Yes, it sings, asking to be let into people’s houses and places of business.”
“Like the Grey Horse Inn, where we’re staying.”
“Yes, the Tafarn y Ceffyl Llwyd.”
“There’s that llwyd—grey—again. And the horse thing would tie into the menhir’s pre-historic uses that you’re interested in. I’ve really been dense this expedition.” She staggered to a halt and grinned at him.
Her smile looked sweet, even amid the snow, but Leigh’s worry grew; if they stopped too long, they might not get going again. “I’m sure your mind has been on other things.”
“Right now, it’s on getting back to the Tafarn y Ceffyl Llwyd. Do you have any idea which way we should be going?”
He peered through the swirling snow. The forest looked like a winter fairyland; the heady aroma of pines filled the blustery air. They could have been in pagan times, for all he knew. The thought stabbed an icicle down his spine; his heart pounded.
“No idea at all, I’m afraid, my love.”
“Too bad you don’t have an ax to chop wood for a fire.”
“Or that mangy fur wrap of yours, to keep us both warm.”
She nodded and collapsed into his arms. She felt cold as the snow.
“Thanks for the history lesson,” she said, her whispered voice nearly lost in the wind. “It kept my mind off… things.”
“And mine, too,” he replied softly.
“You really deserve that doctorate…”
“At the moment, I wish I’d studied woodsmanship.”
She turned her face up, seemingly not caring as snow fell onto her skin. The flakes barely melted. “That’s lovely…”
“Th-the snow…?” He was losing her, and he couldn’t do anything about it. How had he been so foolish as to let what was supposed to be an evening stroll deteriorate this far?
“No… Can’t you hear?”
The only thing Leigh heard clearly was the murmur of her voice, the wail of the wind, and the soft patter of snowflakes scudding against their bodies. “Hear what?”
He listened harder, straining. “Yes… Yes, by God, you’re right!”
She shook off the snow and stood beside him, revitalized, green eyes questing in the flurried darkness.
Dim white light suffused their surroundings, silhouetting the Scots pines against the blizzard sky.
She pointed. “There…!”
Leigh followed her gaze.
Warm light moved between the frosty trees. Candles, or…?
“It’s the horse!” Miranda cried. “The Mari Lwyd!”
“Yes! Yes, I see it, too!”
Perhaps fifty yards away—the snowfall made distance hard to tell—a warm grey shape topped by an equine skull with glowing blue eyes glided through the semi-darkness, appearing and disappearing behind the branches. Eerie voices drifted through the pines:
“Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green…”
“And people, too…!” She gasped, relieved.
A dark-clad man in a top hat seemed to be leading the ghostly Mari Lwyd, and alongside it came women in flowing white gowns, their glistening hair topped with crowns of burning candles: the light Leigh and his wife had spotted.
The women—barely more than girls, really—looked like to catch their death in their scanty raiment, but none seemed to mind the cold as they walked serenely through the snowbanks.
“Here we come a wand’ring, so rare to be seen…”
“Haloo!” Leigh called, jumping up and down. “Over here! Help!”
The carolers didn’t seem to notice; they traipsed through the snowy forests like insubstantial spirits.
“We must catch them,” Leigh declared, grabbing Miranda by the hand and pulling her along as he ran.
They stumbled during their flight, multiple times, as the snow piled up around their knees. Frustratingly, no matter how fast they ran, the eerie procession stayed ahead of them.
“We’re not daily beggars that beg from door to door… We are but your neighbors, whom you have seen before…”
“Why don’t they stop?” Miranda complained, her anger seeming to restore some of her strength. “Why don’t they hear us?”
Leigh shook his head, fighting to keep them both on their feet amid the mire.
“And why are they singing in bloody English if we’re in Wales?!”
He couldn’t help but laugh. “For the tourists, I suppose.”
“Well, we’re bleedin’ tourists and we need their help!”
As if to punctuate the sentiment, she tripped and sprawled headfirst into the snow, taking him down with her.
“Love and joy come to you, and with you your wassail too, and God bless you and send you a Happy New Year…”
Miranda pounded her fist into the snow; tears streamed down her pale face. “Stop! Goddammit!”
Leigh managed to right himself. He offered her his hand. “We have to keep going.”
“What’s the use? It’s pointless!”
“We have to keep trying.”
The strange parade had begun a new tune now, but it faded as they vanished amid the trees…
“Wassail, wassail, all over the town… the cup it is white and the ale it is brown…”
Miranda’s brow furrowed angrily as Leigh pulled her to her feet once more.
“I’ll beat that ale out of them when we catch up!” she vowed, balling her bone-white fists.
Glad to see a spark of her usual fire rekindled, he pulled her along once more. No matter how fast they ran or how loudly they called, even though they closed the distance to thirty yards—so close they could smell the candle wax of the ladies’ headdresses—the weird caroling troupe remained elusive.
“Oh, master and mistress, if you are within, pray open the door and let us come in… Oh, master and mistress, who sit by the fire, pray think of the travelers who walk through the mire…”
An image of that blaze kindled within Leigh’s mind: a warm hearth at the inn and the fire they’d be sitting by right now, had they not gone on their little misadventure.
The reverie broke his concentration, and this time it was Leigh who thudded hard into the snow.
Miranda skidded to a stop, barely keeping her balance. Stooping, she scooped some snow into her bare hands and hurled it at the retreating carolers.
“Are you the Mari Lwyd,” she screamed, “or some poxy kelpie leading a pack of sodding fairies?!” Her snowball thudded harmlessly into a pine, precipitating a tiny avalanche. Miranda slumped to her knees beside her husband.
He propped himself on all fours and gazed at her, love and concern filling his heart. They both gasped for breath.
“God, Leigh… I can’t go on.”
“We need to try. They must be headed for the inn. It can’t be much farther.”
“Unless they’re bloody Christmas ghosts.”
He couldn’t tell whether she was joking or not.
Perhaps it was the cold working on him, but he began to consider her notion plausible. Were spirits leading them to their doom in this strange landscape? Would the supernatural powers he’d spent his young life investigating bring his death… and Miranda’s?
Again, the song changed… Seductive, siren-like…
“Here we come, dear friends, asking your leave to sing…”
“No! No, we can’t give in.” He fought to his knees, and Miranda leaned heavily against him, her face an ashen mask of forlorn weariness.
“But I can’t… I’m frozen… What… What can we do?”
Leigh shook his head, the cold making it increasingly hard to think.
Still, the wassail of the Mari Lwyd continued, as the pageant’s light vanished into the snowfall between the trees:
“If we must pass you by, then sing us away… Telling how we should leave you tonight…”
“Come back, you pagan nag!” Miranda screamed into the storm.
Then, her last ounce of strength seemingly exhausted, she sagged into her husband’s arms.
“Don’t give up,” Leigh implored, trying to rub some warmth into her shoulders, though his own hands had already gone numb.
Weakly, her eyes locked on his, she shook her head.
“I know…” he suggested, forcing some hope into his cracking voice. “We’ll sing… sing to keep our spirits up.” He began: “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay…”
She almost smiled. “…’Cause Mari Lwyd will rescue us before the break of day…”
He laughed, his breath bursting into small clouds above them as she continued.
“…And if she won’t, then you and I will tarry while we may…”
He looked into her chill-clouded eyes, leaned down, and kissed her. “I love you.”
“Oh, tidings of freezing and cold… freezing and cold… I love you, too…”
He hugged her close, and the blizzard closed in around them.
The darkness dimmed to grey, the cold to fiery tingling ants crawling all over Leigh, and the hiss of falling snow into song:
“The boar’s head in hand bear I, bedecked with bays and rosemary…”
Warm air and enticing scents filled his nostrils. Not bay leaves and rosemary, but beer and roasted meat, over-arched by the fragrance of fresh-cut greenery.
Puzzled, he decided to open his eyes, but the lids rose very slowly.
“He’s comin’ around,” announced a gruff voice he didn’t recognize.
“Daft tourist, lucky to be alive,” another grumbled.
Leigh blinked, and his world came into focus. He was lying on a rough-hewn couch in the common room of Tafarn y Ceffyl Llwyd, the Grey Horse Inn, surrounded by large Welshmen—like bears in human form—quaffing pints of dark ale. A barmaid spared Cushing a concerned look as she passed by with a tray of full mugs.
His chest felt heavy, and only when he looked down did he realize Miranda’s strawberry-blond head lay upon his breast. She smiled at him, her green eyes gleaming in the inn’s holiday lighting, and cuddled closer.
“You two are Yuletide lucky,” said the barmaid, returning with two steaming bowls of what smelled like chicken soup. “If Celyn hadn’t found you, you’d have frozen to death! Drink this… But sip it slowly.”
Leigh sat up, and he and Miranda took the bowls. The warmth of the ceramic felt good in his hands. His wife leaned over the soup and inhaled the steam, as though the aroma itself might revive her.
“Thank Celyn for finding us in the woods,” Leigh told the barmaid.
“You’re welcome,” said the gruff voiced man. “But I didn’t find you in no woods. I stumbled across you a scant pair of yards from the front steps. Foolish place to give up the ghost, if you ask me.”
Leigh glanced at his young bride, but she shook her head. “It must have been the horse, then,” he mused, “the Mari Lwyd. I guess we followed the procession most of the way here.”
Celyn laughed. “What horse? What procession? Jac and his bleedin’ mummers rolled in just after dusk.” He hooked a beefy thumb toward a soused gentleman, draped in a white sheet and cradling a horse’s skull, snoring gently in a corner. “His lot had enough sense to come in out of the cold before the blizzard hit, unlike the pair of you.”
Leigh peered at Miranda, but she merely shrugged, and purred in his ear:
“Tidings of comfort… and joy.”
Nadolig Llawen! ~ Merry Christmas!
About the Story
The notion for “Wassail of the Mari Lwyd” came to me less than ten days before Christmas, 2022, with the deadline for my annual Cushing “Ghost Story” looming.
People have heard me talk before about the commonplace books I keep my notes in. Complementary to that, I also keep longer notes and series bibles in various files on GoogleDocs.
One of the things I stick in those documents is research—not only for the ongoing stories, but also for things I might use later… Like in an annual Christmas Story.
Last year, I ran across a couple of articles about Christmas “monsters,” so naturally those went into the notes. This year, I stumbled onto a “new” YouTube video on the same subject, only to discover that it was pretty much a repeat of what I’d found last year. (There are only so many Yuletide beasties, I guess.)
Among those repeat visitors was the Mari Lwyd (pronounced fairly close to Mary Lloyd, as noted in the story), a pantomime horse with a skeletal head that sings to be let into your house during Christmastime. Once inside, it will cause chaos and then leave you with a blessing that will last for the whole next year.
How can anyone not love that? This felt like my best Christmas “discovery” since Krampus (who I tumbled to about the same time as Hollywood).
I had other ideas for Christmas 2022 in my notes, but my mind kept coming back to the Grey Horse—even though I’d done a “horse story” for my annual Frost Harrow Halloween offering this October, “Lost River Horse.” A week before Christmas, as my wife and I got ready for bed, I asked her if she thought it’d be okay if I did another horse tale this year.
She asked me about the story, and I sketched out the mythology on Mari Lwyd. “Oh, you have to do that,” she said.
I still didn’t have a story to go with the myth, but—as I told Kiff—I had a feeling the tale was nearby, just waiting for me to reach out and grab it.
So later that night (I’m an owl), I put a stream of Christmas tunes on YouTube and started jotting down every notion I had about the Christmas Zombie Horse that might fit in with my Dr. Cushing setting.
By the time I was done, it seemed clear that this tale had to be about the young Dr. Cushing and his heretofore unseen wife, Miranda. Checking, I discovered that she’d never even been named in Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors (which you should read if you haven’t, by the way).
Though I had info about Miranda in my series bible, I still ended up filling in a lot more of her background for the story. At the same time, I did plenty of research for the setting—I’ve never written a story set in Wales before—and though all that backstory stuff took up most of a workday, I still dove in near sunset and began writing.
And I kept writing until dinner and the Monday Night Football game with the Green Bay Packers beckoned. And after I ate, I kept writing the story—while watching football—until I finished the first draft.
Then the game ended, and I started in on this About section.
So, I’m writing the first draft of this at the end of all that, a little after midnight on the 20th of December 2022. And just now, I remember that I still need to tell you about the songs in the story.
Wassailing is the tradition of door-to-door caroling, often while asking for/demanding food, drink, or other goodies. The wassails in this story are all real. The first in the tale, Here We Come a Wassailing (sometimes …a Caroling) is probably the best-known wassailing song, but I’ve known the second, The Somerset Gloucestershire Wassail, literally as long as I can remember. There’s an excellent version of this personal favorite by The Kingston Trio (from their fabulous Last Month of the Year album—possibly the best Christmas album of all time) that features prominently in all my Christmas memories. The Wassail of the Mari Lwyd I adapted from the traditional verse, which sounds great in Welsh but is a little drab in English. I hope I’ve done it justice.
Finally, we have the carol improvised by Miranda, which is based on one my friend Lisa used to sing to me in high school. I couldn’t find any reference to it online, so maybe she made it up. Here it is:
God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you display…
Remember keep your clothes on, on every Christmas Day…
Or else the cops will come along – and take you away…
Oh, tidings of freezing and cold, freezing and cold – Oh, tidings of freezing cold!
Thanks also to Sharon for fast feedback and David for that and extra author kibitzing.
And with that, I’ll call it a night.
Tomorrow, I’ll rewrite the story—more than once, if I need to—and then I’ll make sure it gets onto my site in time for Christmas Eve, 2022.
And with any luck, that’s where you’ve just finished reading it, and this afterword, too.
Hope you liked it! (Drop me a line, and let me know.)