Sing the Midwinter. Sing the longest night. Sing the darkness bright. Don’t forget the melody. Don’t falter the verse. Don’t listen to the footsteps. The Barrow Men are here. This is the night the earth opens. This is the night they walk. Sing, or they will take you. Sing, or they will carry you beneath the hills. Sing, or they will make you dance in stone shoes until you wear them to nothing.
If you journey through the valleys on Christmas morn, wait, let the carols come to you, let the music warm you. And after, turn East to the hills. The halls in the hills are silent now. But if you could enter, you would see the Barrow Men frozen at their feast. And you would find a pair of stone shoes. These were Efa’s shoes. And she danced without rest, without sleep, without music. For music is poison to the Barrow Men.
Walk the white hills, and if you could hear long ago, you would hear Anwen’s song. And if you could see long ago, you would see Anwen and Efa chasing the May morn. Laughter in their steps. Bluebells in their hair. Secrets in their chatter. Sisters. Sisters closer than petals on a rose. Anwen, the elder, always a rhyme, always a story, always a song for Efa. And Efa, buttercup bright, fists full of gifts for Anwen. Gifts of wildflowers and wren feathers. Gifts of river pebbles washed smooth and lichen grown ferny. Together they wandered the woods, the valleys, and the hills. And on the hills, they found her.
A grey figure. Bones under skin. Eyes bleak. Hair straggled. Face ancient. Feet wrapped in leaves. And voice? She had none. And she mimed at the sisters, her withered mouth begging. Efa gave her the pie crust she’d saved for the sparrows. Anwen helped lift her from the moss.
“Our Mam will give you a warm bed,” she said. And they walked her slowly to the village. Slow as the tides turn, slow as the oaks become brown, slow between stones and slipping places. And still, she said nothing. A stream tugged the leaves from her feet.
“Anwen,” Efa whispered. “Look.” Her feet were white bone. “She’s Gladys.” And at the name, the lady gripped Efa’s hands and nodded and nodded, no voice, only tears. And when they reached the village, they went straight to the blacksmith’s cottage. The door opened. The blacksmith’s wife was bonny and broad, hair dark as a raven’s shadow.
“Gladys,” she cried. She clutched her ancient daughter and wept until Gladys’s straggle hair stuck to her cheeks. She led her inside and wrapped her bone feet in wool. “What have they done to you, my laughing girl?” She kissed her withered forehead. She clutched Efa and Anwen’s hands. “But five years, my girl’s been gone.” And she said no more, for sobs gripped her.
Anwen and Efa sang their way home, sang as if it were Midwinter Eve, sang as if the hills were opening. And when they were huddled in their bed, bellies full of supper, limbs full of sleep, they listened past the village walls to the hills.
“What of Gladys’s red hair?” Efa whispered.
“She danced it away,” Anwen said. Efa sniveled. Anwen put her arms around her. “But you won’t dance your golden curls away. If they ever took you, I’d come.”
Gladys was gone in the Autumn. The valley was fog and weeping.
“How many more of our own will we lose?” the blacksmith cried. And he looked to the hills, to the halls. The halls where the Barrow Men were feasting. The halls where folk, stolen and silent, were dancing in stone shoes.
Winter came. Snow and candles and frost and berries. Anwen and Efa tiptoed over icy streams in the bare woods. Efa let snowflakes melt on her fingertips.
“Would they take us all?” she said, looking towards the white hills. Her breath puffed pale. “Even Mamgu? She’s old as the valley.”
“But her ears are sharp. Bet she heard you.” Anwen shook snow off her wool hat. “Mamgu says – under the hills, the halls go on far as forever. And you could never walk them, even if you lived to be old as the Barrow Men,” Anwen said, rubbing her arms.
“Our valley could fit in the halls and not be squeezed?” Efa licked the melted snow off her fingers.
“In the halls, it’d be small.” Anwen shivered.
“How big the echoes would be.”
“Not so big. Whoever they touch loses their voice. Mamgu says it’s because music hurts them. Come, let’s practice till our voices are strong as falcons.” She took Efa’s hand and, singing, they trod the frozen ways home.
Midwinter. The church bells rang the dawn. Mamgu sat by the hearth, humming the heart song of her childhood, her wrinkled brown face in a sad smile. Anwen and her mother spread warm griddle cakes with yellow butter. The day smelled of spice and frosted windows. Anwen offered the plate. Mamgu took the largest cakes.
“Mamgu!” Efa said.
“Gives me strength for the singing,” she winked.
Later, the dusk came, and they lit candles in the corners and held hands, Mamgu in a deep chair.
“Won’t matter if I drift off and miss a verse or two,” she said, straightening the blanket over her lap. “One look at me would tell them they won’t get much dancing out of these feet.”
“This isn’t the time for making light,” the sisters’ mother said, her rosy face all frowns. “When the sunset touches the hills, we sing.” She looked harsh at her daughters. “And if you hear claws on the flagstones, keep singing. The Barrow Men will be here. No door can keep them out.” Efa gripped Anwen’s hand harder. They watched the sky gild and lower. Then they sang.
A tremble was in the hills, in the snow, in the stones. Crows circled the moon. And the skin of the hills began to crackle, began to split. A long grey hand, half talons, reached through the hill’s thinning skin into the snow. There was a sound like laughter if laughter was bat wings. Then the hill split open. And the Barrow Men came. Grey and clawed and faces long and drooping down their chests, and mouths with too many teeth, and some had legs short as axe heads, and some had legs tall as stairways, and some had shoulders with curling horns, and some had arms with many joints. But all laughed like bat wings. And all smelled of bones. And they didn’t leave footprints behind them – black prints went ahead of them across the valley, through the village, and into folks’ homes.
Efa sang. Sang until even her toes ached. And Anwen’s voice was in hers and her mother’s and Mamgu’s. There were scrapings in the kitchen. Claws on flagstones. She mustn’t look. She mustn’t look. A shape, long-legged. A crackle. Then breath. Breath like bones. Her spine prickled. She squeezed Anwen’s hand tighter. She sang harder. Harder until her ribs hurt. Breath on the back of her neck. She gasped.
“Anwen.” But all Anwen felt was Efa’s hand snatched from hers.
Fast and crackling and many hands holding her up and talons digging into her and the village flashing past and night flying over her: stars and moon and trees. Efa screamed. But nothing came out. And the Barrow Men laughed like bats wings. Her voice was gone. She saw her village growing smaller. And then she saw the hills split down the middle as if by an axe and darkness thicker than night. Then she was carried inside. Down and down and down.
A glow half smudge, half smoke tickled the dark. Efa blinked her sore eyes. She was in the halls. Halls so huge her village and her valley could be dropped inside and never found. Barrow Men sat at tables feasting on strange meat – the meat of the mammoths of the great deep. Grey faces pressed against hers. Bone breath huffed chill on her. Then hands tugged her slippers off, pushed her feet into stone shoes, prodded her to walk. Cold shook up through her. Her feet stung with it. Her heart thumped with it. Talons gripped her shoulders, her knees, her ankles. The Barrow Men moved her like a doll, moved her in a dance. And as she screamed her silent scream, they laughed.
Dawn came and Anwen was still weeping in Mamgu’s arms. Her mother slumped in a chair, her gaze faraway, her face pale as the hills.
“I told her I’d never let them take her,” Anwen said. “And now they’ve got her, and her voice is gone and she’s in the dark. And she’ll dance her golden curls away. She’ll dance until her feet are bone. And if I ever see her again, she’ll be old. And she’ll die. She’ll die.”
“Hush, now,” Mamgu said. She stroked Anwen’s hair, but her hand trembled. And she said nothing more, but hummed the heart song of her childhood, her cheeks wet with tears.
A knock on the door.
“Anwen, please. I can’t,” her mother said. Anwen lifted her face. Mamgu wrapped her in her shawl, rubbed her arms. Anwen opened the door. The blacksmith and his wife. Warm hands seized her own.
“Just like our Gladys,” the blacksmith’s wife said.
“Efa won’t be like Gladys. She won’t. I told her if they ever took her, I’d come.” And with that, Anwen pressed her feet into her boots and ran out into the winter winds. The Barrow Men’s black footprints stretched from her door, across the village to the valley. Anwen followed them. Winds bit her ears. Cold smacked through her dress. Her shawl slipped and she scooped it up. Her hem became thick with snow. She went over ice and rock, under oak and willow. But where the footprints went, she could not go. And she flung herself at the hills, but they did not let her in. And she called her sister’s name, but Efa did not hear. And she wept until her mother found her and the blacksmith carried her home. Her days became blankets and firesides and silence.
Spring came – larks and daffodils and cloudbursts. When Anwen saw the blackbird’s beak turn orange, she threw off her silence, ran to the church and rang the bell. She rang and rang. Folk gathered.
“Have you forgotten my sister?” she said to them. “Efa’s in the hills. The Barrow Men have her. But the earth has thawed now. We can dig her out. There are many of us.” Murmurs. Then shouts. And then a crowd and Anwen swept up and along, over stream and meadow. And where the black footprints had vanished into the hills, they dug. Spades in hands. Soil on metal. Sweat and digging and chatter. A hole in the earth: widening and widening. Soon, Anwen was standing in it. Others joined her and earth was piled higher than her head. Then the sun was passing over and dusk was in the horizon.
“We’ll come back tomorrow,” David, the miller’s son, said as he climbed out. Hands helped Anwen up. She stood on the edge and peered in.
“It’s a decent start. Could fit my shire horse in there,” Farmer Alder said, wiping his brow. Anwen gripped hands in thanks. Her sister was so close, her heart felt like daisies. Then a crackle. Soft, at first, like a magpie wing underfoot. Then again, louder. The ground quivered into a shake. The sides of the pit moved and closed. Anwen fell backwards into someone’s arms. The ground sealed shut.
“It can’t,” Anwen gasped, pulling up handfuls of grass. She called her sister, called into the earth, but in the halls, all Efa heard was laughter like bat wings, mammoth bones clattering on tables, and her own steps: stone on stone. Efa danced her feet bloody, danced her heart blank, and danced a grey streak in her golden hair.
“I won’t give up,” Anwen said to Mamgu. The bluebells winds were in her voice. She held a river pebble in her palm – a gift from Efa. “I’ll get into the hills and I’ll sing, and the Barrow Men will die.”
“There’s only one way into the halls, if they carry you there with their own hands, and if they touch you, well, you’ll lose your voice, and you won’t get much singing done then, will you?” Mamgu said.
“Then I won’t sing to them. I’ll play. Music is poison to them, you told me so. My hair is long now. If I plait it, I can hide my old whistle in it.” She took the whistle to the woods and played her song. And the winds lifted it through the swaying bluebells and the willows that dipped into the pools and the starlings that swirled across the valley. But under the hills, all Efa heard was her own steps: stone on stone.
Autumn came – acorns and gloamings and toadstools and lanterns. Anwen played her song into the fogs and the sunsets, under the woodsmoke and the rain. It rang through her sleep and carried through her days. The year waned slowly, slow as the moon sleeps. Until one morning, she woke to frost on her window, silver and ferny. Then snow and snow.
Midwinter. Anwen plaited her whistle into her long, thick hair. She couldn’t turn her head. She held her mother’s and Mamgu’s hands. Twilight hinted beyond the hills.
“Anwen, please, I can’t lose you, too. Not both of my girls,” her mother said.
“You won’t lose me. And Efa won’t be lost any longer. I’ll bring her home. And we’ll sit by the fire and eat griddle cakes dripping with butter. Everything will be as it always was, but we won’t have our voices. That won’t matter, not if we have each other.”
The day shrank into stars. They sang. Sang until it echoed into the village, blended into the other songs, and travelled on the night winds to the hills. The hills cracked open. The hills poured the Barrow Men into the dark.
Black prints stamped towards the village, and the Barrow Men followed: bone breath puffing white, bat laughter echoing wide. Anwen held Mamgu’s and her mother’s hands tighter. Talons on the door. Hinges creaking. Claws on flagstones. Shadows. She stopped singing.
The dark sped, gripping her, breathing on her. And in it, there were grey faces and talons and horns. Anwen screamed, but nothing came out. Night was all around her in bare trees and stinging stars. Her hands flailed to her plait: it was still tight. She saw the hills split open. She saw the Barrow Men piling inside. Then she saw nothing more.
There was a glow that smelled of leaf rot and carrion. And in it were shadows, tables, bones. The Barrow Men were feasting. She couldn’t turn her head. Talons carried her through the halls. She called for her sister, but nothing came out. Then she saw her: golden head bowed, legs weighted by stone shoes, dancing and dancing and dancing.
The Barrow Men put Anwen down, and Efa looked up. Her face scrunched. Then they were clutching each other in tears and heartbeats and silence. Then talons had Anwen again, were pulling off her boots, forcing her feet into stone shoes, moving her limbs into a dance. Round and round and round. The stone rang cold. Then the hands let go. The Barrow Men were sitting at tables, were gnawing mammoth bones, were not looking at Anwen. And as their laughter echoed, she reached for her hair and pulled her plait apart. Her heart was all through her, all through the hall. She lifted the whistle to her mouth and played. Her song was buttercups and willows and wrens, but also firesides and soup hot from the stove and griddle cakes dripping butter. The Barrow Men dropped the mammoth bones. They stood and juddered, gasped and froze. A great crack rang out, and moonlight bent down into the halls, flooding silver and bright. The hill had split open. Anwen and Efa pulled off their stone shoes, and gripping hands, they ran.
Anwen didn’t know how they got home, how they ran the winter valley in bare feet. She only knew her mother’s and Mamgu’s arms thrown around her, their tears and smiles. She only knew holding her sister’s hand so tightly it hurt. When the dawn came, red sky over gleaming snow, the hill had sealed shut. The village folk celebrated until sunset, and then through the night until the sunrise. And only then did they sleep, deeper than dreams. And Anwen and Efa ate griddle cakes dripping with butter until their bellies strained.
And the years went by. The Summers brimmed more golden, and the Winters sparkled more silver. And there was no fear on the longest night because of Anwen’s song. And she played her tin whistle until she was old. And then the villagers passed her song down the ages. For so long, that folk forgot Anwen’s and Efa’s names and called them the Silent Sisters. And then longer still, until they forgot them and forgot the Barrow Men. But, still, they remember to sing the Midwinter.