She sensed him the instant he’d scurried over the fence bisecting her terrain from that of the hounds. Matilda was impressed, he’d survived. His friend was not as fortunate. The hounds’ snarls and snapping jaws gradually faded, no doubt to haul the corpse back to their den and pick the bones clean. She could hear the man’s – Morgan’s – blood pounding through his veins. -He was young and he was strong. He would make a feast.
Matilda sensed his guilt immediately too. It was potent. Intoxicating. She had to practice caution, or else she could get as muddled by his remorse as he was. Taking small sips from his shame, fear, and rage, the crone encased herself in a glamor he would not be able to resist. Her hands were no longer gnarled and haggard, but smooth and dainty. A shadow of a laugh escaped Matilda’s non-existent lips. She had been beautiful once too.
She summoned a thick veil of fog for her approach, wearing the billowing and swirling air like a cloak. If it wasn’t for creatures like her, the hounds, the giant, the scenery would be breathtaking rather than ominous.
A change of the wind revealed Matilda to her prey. Morgan stopped in his tracks. After the hounds, he knew better than to approach her blindly. Morgan squinted to get a better look at the shrouded figure.
She, however, saw him perfectly. The cut of his jaw, the broadness of his shoulders, the boyish charm that refused to leave his features, even when wrought with turmoil as they were now. Before, he would have reduced her to a blushing fool.
“Katie?” Morgan took the smallest of steps toward her.
The less she said the better. “Morgan?”
She sounded like Katie. It paralyzed Morgan in place.
“This can’t be happening.” Morgan scuttled back when she advanced toward him, “NO! Hey! Don’t!”
But the closer she got, the harder she was to deny. All Morgan wanted was to see Katie again.
Morgan strode up to her building with a bouquet of lilies. Katie’s favorite. While he waited for her to answer his knock, Morgan tried to convince himself that this would work as much as he was about to try to convince Katie. The seconds felt longer than hours. Another knock, still no answer.
“So either you’re not home and I look like a twat, or you’re still refusing to speak with me. And if that’s the case, I want—“
Morgan was startled into silence when a latch opened. One of Katie’s neighbors. He bristled, it was difficult enough for Morgan to say this without a stranger overhearing.
“Christ, do I really have to do this through the door?” He glanced toward his car. Perhaps it wasn’t–
“Yes. You do. Because you’re supposed to be giving me space.”
Morgan’s heart leapt. “I know…but I’m going to fight for you, Katie. So if that means camping out on your doorstep until you’re ready, or camping on haunted, bloody Cader Idris with you, so be it. Car’s all packed by the way for the latter. ”
At last, she opened the door. “I have plans this weekend.”
“I’m not packed.”
“You’re not forgiven.”
“We’ve been here before, Morgan.”
“I want to be better this time. Please. I love you. Come this weekend and then if you don’t want to try again, I won’t bother you anymore. Promise.”
Katie scrutinized him for another hour-long moment, then reached for the lilies.
The ersatz Katie smiled.
“How did you find me?”
That was information Matilda didn’t have. “Why are you here?”
“Because you wanted to come, remember?”
Matilda turned away from him. He followed.
“I…I don’t know where to begin. Other than sorry. But it’s not enough. It won’t ever be enough. And now Gareth…”
The name gave Morgan pause, but Matilda kept walking.
“You’re still angry,” Morgan slipped on a loose rock as he hustled to keep up with her, one of the innumerable scree blanketing the mountain. He pressed on, “You have every right to be.”
Matilda’s gaze remained straight ahead. Not much farther now.
“Please.” Her lack of acknowledgement was maddening. “I said I was sorry, alright?”
Matilda didn’t give him so much as a nod.
“LOOK AT ME!”
She turned. Where the hounds were immaculately white, Matilda’s entire form was different shades of gray. A long mop of matted locks covered her eyes. A hooked nose protruded from her face. The seam of her mouth spanned the width of her jaw. Once an alluring noblewoman and formidable huntress, time and the curse had reduced her to a decrepit hag.
Morgan was none the wiser, however. He still saw Katie, the woman he loved, and the more he stared directly at Matilda, the more he fell under her spell. She extended a mangled hand to Morgan. He took it, heedlessly following her further down the mountain.
“Where are we going?”
Not so heedlessly then. Matilda put a bony finger to her mouth while steering him into the brush. The toe of Morgan’s boot knocked against a decayed human bone. This area was strewn with them – the corroded evidence of Matilda’s past victims. But Morgan was too lost in his memories to notice.
London was long in the rearview mirror of Morgan’s posh and ill-equipped SUV that he navigated around the winding, narrow Welsh country road. He chanced a look where Katie sat in the passenger seat, her head propped up against the window. He opened his mouth to speak, but promptly closed it a moment later.
Instead, Morgan clicked on the radio, with the hope that the music could crowd out the lingering awkwardness and animosity between them.
The song playing was a catchy one. Katie sang along softly, though she stopped as soon as she spotted Morgan grinning.
So he turned up the volume and began singing himself. Loudly. Badly. It coaxed Katie to join back in, belting out the melody even more unabashedly than he was.
Morgan’s SUV had drifted from its lane and a sedan was headed straight toward them.
He righted his car before they sideswiped the other one, horn blaring as it passed.
Morgan refocused on the road and silence reigned once more. Katie figured it was her turn to break it. Her gaze found the camping gear loaded into the car’s boot. “You really going to brave the mountain with me?”
“I kept the B&B reservation just in case,” Morgan chuckled.
Katie’s tone turned reproachful. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
“It’s a B&B in Dolgellau, not the Savoy.”
“But you said that your shifts at the pub—“
“I know how to manage my money, Katie. I used to work at a hedge fund for Christ’s sake. I wanted to do this for you.”
“I appreciate that but –“
“But what?” Morgan glared at her, inadvertently pressing his foot down harder on the gas pedal. “There’s no winning with you.”
“Don’t try to win, try to have one conversation with me that doesn’t become a row!” Katie scoffed, “This is why I didn’t want to come.”
“And yet here you are!”
“Well, I shouldn’t be! Take me back to London please.”
Morgan pivoted in his seat to face her full-on, so gobsmacked by the demand that he missed the lorry barreling around a bend up ahead.
“Oh sure, I’ll take you right back! How am I supposed to–”
The lorry’s driver had taken the turn too fast, and Morgan didn’t see him until it was too late.
Matilda had no qualms with Morgan’s retreating into a reverie, it made her hunt easier. Yet, an errant thought slithered into Matilda’s head. Before – how long must it have been now, centuries? – centuries ago her desire to devour him would have been of a wholly different sort. Matilda suppressed the pang of yearning as swiftly as it had come. She was no longer a pretty forwyn and he was no knight in search of a bride. Nevertheless, she drank in the heady, undeniably masculine musk of his flesh as she lured Morgan to his death.
“I was going to take you back. I was. You know that, right?” His emotions were bubbling to the surface, but Morgan opted to burrow his face into his arms in an effort to shove them back down rather than to feel them. He fell to the ground.
His head snapped up, still enthralled by Matilda’s glamor. Morgan crawled to her, his voice small when he asked, “Can you ever forgive me?”
Matilda didn’t answer him. They had reached the altar.
“She’s going to be okay, right?” A bandaged Morgan limped alongside the team of first responders and the doctor as they wheeled Katie’s stretcher into the ER.
“Sir, you need to step back.”
“Say she’ll be okay and I will.”
“She has a collapsed lung.”
Morgan’s heart clenched in his chest. “You can fix that,right? You have to fix it.”
“I’ll know once we get her into surgery. You’re slowing us down.”
“But I–” he stopped himself. This wasn’t about him. Morgan stepped back to allow them to wheel Katie into the operating room without restriction.
Morgan had never felt more helpless than when he watched her disappear beyond those metallic, sterile doors.
Curled up against the altar, Morgan rocked back and forth. “I don’t deserve to be forgiven…I don’t deserve to be forgiven…”
Matilda crossed to him, and under the belief that she was Katie, her proximity was a comfort to Morgan. She knelt over him and pulled him to her bosom. Morgan nuzzled into her touch when she stroked his temple.
He’d been smoking on his patio when he missed Katie’s call. He’d hesitated before playing the message – she blamed him, didn’t she? He did.
His phone rang with another incoming call before he could listen to her voicemail: University College Hospital.
Morgan couldn’t remember what the woman on the other line said to him exactly, but somehow he’d understood her. The phrases jumbled together in his memory, “terribly sorry” , “did all they could”, “family will make arrangements”.
It was miraculous that he’d managed to stay so composed on the phone. The second the line went dead however, he chucked the offensive device across his flat, then shoved the contents of his breakfast bar to the floor.
Morgan returned to the present gasping for breath. His hand flew to his throat, only to discover Matilda’s ashen one already there. She tightened her grip. He could see her now, the monster that Arawn had made her into. Her eyes glowed red from behind her matted tresses.
Morgan would’ve screamed, heaved, and cursed if he’d the lung capacity. He tried to pry her hand off of his neck, yet Matilda’s strength outmatched his. She may have appeared to be a frail old crone, but looks were deceiving. Morgan thrashed and flailed, anything to get out of her hold and breathe.
Matilda slammed the crown of his head back onto the stone altar and unhinged her jaw. The time for games had passed. As her sour breath washed over him, Morgan blindly groped for something to defend himself with. All he could see was the black void beyond her gaping maw.
Or maybe that was his vision going.
Just before she could taste him, Morgan’s fingers hooked into a rotted skull that he used to smash against Matilda’s. She recoiled with a hiss. Men never changed.
His blow was nowhere near enough to defeat her, but it was enough to distract her. Morgan summoned every fiber of his strength to throw Matilda off of him. He slid off of the altar, swaying as he stood, then bolted from the scene.
Matilda was not one to give up easily. Jaw still distended, she let out a piercing shriek and chased after Morgan with the dexterity and determination of a black widow.
If Morgan thought he was hauling ass from the hounds earlier, this was something else. He couldn’t get off this godforsaken mountain soon enough.
Now he knew that she was using Katie’s voice to manipulate him, but it didn’t make it any easier to resist.
His legs burned. Eyes wild, he searched for a route back to the main trail, but the darkness, his terror, and the unfamiliarity of the terrain slowed Morgan. Matilda caught up to him, so close that she clutched onto the sleeve of his coat.
Morgan rounded on her, his fingers closed into a fist. Before he could land the punch, Matilda shapeshifted into Katie. Morgan dropped his hand. Real or not, he wouldn’t harm her.
She’d banked on that, and in the blink of an eye, Matilda switched back and lunged at him.
“GET AWAY FROM ME!” He broke into a sprint once more.
The trail appeared on the horizon, but Morgan didn’t get very far before Matilda clawed at him again, her talon-like nails grazing the bottom hem of his jacket. She seized him, but this time, Morgan didn’t think twice about twisting to deliver a swift kick to her midsection. The surprise knocked her back more than the impact.
Splayed on the ground, Matilda morphed back into Katie. She sniveled, feigning agony and feebleness to halt Morgan again. She succeeded for a split-second. Then, “Don’t do that!”
Morgan continued his beeline for the path, undaunted by the piercing cry she unleashed when he absconded. He’d almost made it to the trail when another dense curtain of fog dropped over him. It made maintaining his breakneck pace across the uneven topography more of a struggle.
“No,” he raced through the fog with abandon. He’d nearly made it when Matilda closed in. “Stop it…”
Her talons were posed to rip into his flesh, mere millimeters away. Finally.
Morgan hurled himself down the mountain. Gravity and rapidly gaining momentum propelled Morgan across the rugged earth and out of Matilda’s reach in the knick of time. His limbs akimbo, he desperately sought purchase on anything that could anchor him. Scree scraped his skin. Morgan managed to grasp onto a small rock, teeth gritting against the pain as he labored to pull himself out of the scrum.
An ear-splitting screech tore from Matilda’s throat as she flew after the man. They were nearing the boundary of her realm on Cader Idris: a boulder carved with runes that she could not pass. More frenzied than ever, Matilda rolled a hefty stone with devastatingly precise aim to trample over Morgan’s fingers. It worked beautifully, the weight of the rock across Morgan’s bloodied knuckles forced him to loosen his grip involuntarily. He was thrust back into the fray, but Morgan tucked himself into a ball to channel the velocity rather than fight it, which gave him the speed he needed to tumble past the boundary out of the crone’s domain.
Morgan didn’t dare lift his head, not even during Matilda’s blood-curdling lament that he’d escaped. He might not get off the mountain alive, but he wouldn’t let himself die at her hand.
His manufactured landslide deposited Morgan at the edge of Llyn Cau, the bottomless lake that lay at the mountain’s base. Matilda skittered to the blasted boulder that kept her trapped to her few acres of this purgatory, curious if he’d perished in the fall. It took him several minutes, but Morgan dragged himself to the water’s edge. He dipped his hand in the water to scrub the dirt from his skin, then cupped the other to drink from the lake. He caught his reflection on its surface. He looked just as weary and tormented as he felt, but Morgan was grateful that Matilda seemingly wasn’t pursuing him anymore.
He dug into his pocket and a newly familiar voice echoed across the ancient rock shears moments later. Whereas Matilda had conjured a perfect impression, this version was tinny, and ever-so-slightly distorted.
“Hiya. They’re about to put the tube in, but I don’t like how we left things. I don’t want to blame you for the crash, Morgan, but I have to be honest…there’s an ugly, angry part of me that does. But there’s the bigger part of me that still loves you. Even after everything we’ve been through. People will say that’s foolish but I don’t care. I forgive you, but on one condition. You have to confront your demons. To stop running and face them. Release them, and release me. So that when you love again, whether or not it’s me, you can give it freely. There’s nothing like being loved by you, Morgan. It’s why I fought so hard for it. Bollocks, they’re saying I need to go. I wish you were here. I’m telling myself this isn’t the last time we’ll talk but Morgan, I’m scared. Call me when you get this – just want to hear your voice.”
The voicemail ended. It was silent on the mountain until Morgan’s grief, the anguish he’d stifled for the past month, finally poured out of him like a dragon’s fire from its snout, as searing as it was cleansing. Matilda was fascinated by his catharsis, by the sobs that wracked his body, by the guttural noises of agony that left his trembling lips. He was a portrait of raw sorrow, and it was just as beguiling to Matilda as the visage of Katie was to Morgan.
Pale blue had begun to paint the horizon line when Morgan’s weeping subsided. Matilda had loomed the entire scene, fashioning herself a strange sentinel to his grief. No longer encumbered by his despair, Morgan looked to the summit. There was something up there he needed. Matilda could sense it. There was something of the woman’s – Kaite’s – that remained on Cader Idris, and Morgan would not leave without it. He resolved to finish what he came here to do: to give Katie a proper goodbye.
The wide line of Matilda’s mouth split into an impossibly wider grin as Morgan staggered to his feet. She would get a second chance with her knight after all.
VICTORIA MALE (she/her) has worked in creative development at Ivan Reitman´s The Montecito Picture Company as well as with the American division of the fast-growing South Asian media company Graphic India. Her screenplays have garnered attention from major agencies, A-list talent, and accolades. Victoria is a shrewd adaptor of biography, history, and mythology, and seeks to celebrate the complexity and the breadth of the female gaze in her written work and on screen.
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