The Nevern Yew – a tale from Pembrokeshire.


Myfanwy’s Magic Runes.

An exaltation of larks soared in the blue nothingness far overhead and Myfanwy’s joyful heart flew as she fleet-footed her way down from the mountain. She’d received a letter from Dafydd. He was safe, he was on leave and she would see him soon, possibly the very next evening. Meanwhile, she had much to keep her busy – the evening milking, the dairy to scrub clean before the morrow’s cheese-making and her grandmother to attend to – before she would have any leisure in which to consult her magic. For Myfanwy had a trace of gypsy in her, hinted at in her dark, almond-shaped eyes, her russet skin and midnight hair, but most fully expressed in her love of country lore, her deep knowledge of medicinal plants, a certain kinship with the beasts, both wild and tamed, and her more secretive affinity with the old witching ways. Well she knew that the fear of women with such skills still ran deep in these parts, and there was ever a watching eye – the parson, the squire and his servants – which she took great care to hide her wise ways from.

As the sun sank redly towards the cushioning hill she was finally free to discard her apron and make her way to her customary seat on a field bank lit up and purpled with foxgloves, above the village, and well screened from it by a fringe of woodland. After settling the grandmother down for the night she had extracted her runes from their hiding place in the mighty oak beyond the churchyard wall. As she played the pieces through her hands, strangely cool and heavy today but familiar in their fluted shapes, she thought with a thrill of Dafydd, her beloved; his strong arms and ruddy cheeks. How would it have changed him, being out in the world, a soldier, constantly in danger? And him such a sweet young lad, still soft to the ways of the world, let alone the battlefield.

It was Dafydd who had brought her the delicate bough of yew from which she had cut the fretted pieces. Old Morgan had been pruning a venerable churchyard tree to keep the foliage from beating against the graves. Dafydd had joked about making a bow and arrows for his younger brothers, now that there was no need of archers in the army, but had given it instead to Myfanwy, knowing she would value it far more highly. And indeed she did, for she knew that ancient yew, probably older than the church itself, a link back to a pagan past, would create runes with great powers of divination, and she ever loved to study the delicate pinkish figuring of their rings of years.

She lay back and felt for a moment deeply content. The cows in the great meadow below grazed gently as a thin mist seeping from the river flooded their feet. The warm aroma of hay arose from the far field and mingled with the drifting sweet scent of honeysuckle. The church clock struck a stentorian 10 bells. Midsummer evening, and still light. Such a lovely pastoral time.


She wondered if Dafydd would want to hasten their wedding date, as he had written in his letter. They were both so young, it had felt premature before, but now he wanted the security of knowing he had her hand. She sought an answer in the runes, reaching into the bag and bringing out a single piece. But something was very wrong. Something had changed. The piece she held was no longer dry but was sticky and dripping. A lurid reddish sap oozed from the heart-shaped ring at the centre of the piece, almost obscuring the etched sign, which was Kaunan, warning of loss, pain and the end of things.

Myfanwy was shocked to the very core. Her blood froze. She turned ghostly pale, shivered and dropped trembling to the floor, holding herself, rolling her agony against the field grasses. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible, she cried to herself. It was many hours before she was able to calm herself sufficiently to stand and walk back to her cottage home, where she threw herself into bed and wrapped the blankets closely around her wretched cold body.

When morning came she arose mechanically and went about her duties, milking the cows, bringing them the last of the old hay and putting the milk to cool before awakening the grandmother and settling her in her chair near the open doorway. But her heart was heavy and her eyes were red-rimmed and like to overflow. She succeeded in hiding her ruined face from her grandmother, but the cows knew something was amiss; they rolled their eyes at her chilled hands, and refused to let down their milk.

It was many hours later that the grandmother trilled out as she saw the telegram delivery boy scoot past on his bike. ‘Oh Myfanwy, that’ll be sad news for some poor soul, just as well our Dafydd is safe out on leave’. Myfanwy said nothing, but her heart was heavy with foreboding. Sure enough, soon afterwards Dafydd’s sister was seen approaching the cottage, bent over with grief, holding out a telegram. Myfanwy ran out to grasp the paper, and immediately the two women embraced in wordless agony.

Myfanwy could never bear to touch the runes again, but left them to moulder and decay in their hiding place. She avoided the church and the people more assiduously than ever before, but when she finally and reluctantly entered the churchyard to attend a memorial service for the lost youth of the village, she alone noticed that the yew with the lowest branches was mourning along with the villagers, seeping trails of reddish sap which glistened brightly against the dark trunk. And still today, many years later, that yew at Nevern continues to weep for Myfanwy’s lost love and for all innocent boys everywhere sent to war.

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