Book 3 of The Hounds of Annwn, Chapters 1-3
Creiddylad knelt at her father’s feet and waited for his response. She surreptitiously watched from her humbly lowered eyes, the subtle smile that was normally on her face hidden from his sight.
Lludd, King of Britain, stiffened in his great seat in his private audience chamber. “Can this possibly be true? The wizards were right that rock-wights made the ways we use, and my son Gwyn knows this and keeps it from me?”
“He’s found a method of controlling the elementals, father,” she said, rubbing salt into the wound. “I fear my friend Madog paid with his life when he challenged Gwyn’s authority.” The fact that Madog had been experimenting with them, had even kidnapped a young one, was carefully omitted.
Lludd ruminated on this treacherous and independent son. Prince of Annwn, indeed. Only by my will, he reminded himself. It was time he took that back and made something more useful out of him. Annwn would be better served by an ambitious deputy who owed everything to him, one who had proven his loyalty.
It would be a shame to hurt him too badly, but he could always breed other children. That’s what they were there for, after all—the glory of his line.
“Thank you, my dear.”
George lifted his eyes from the hunt log on his desk to smile at his wife, standing in the doorway of the huntsman’s office in the kennels. “You’re welcome,” he said. “But what for?”
“For the present you left me, of course, in the workroom. I thought you’d want to watch while I opened it, before you have to go meet with the rock-wights this afternoon.” Angharad’s teasing tone turned to puzzlement as George rose hastily.
“What present? Where?” The first thing he thought of was an explosive, wholly unlikely here in the fae otherworld where gunpowder didn’t work. But whatever it was, it wasn’t from him. And who would leave it in her workroom instead of bringing it to the house? “You haven’t opened it?”
She looked at him soberly now, taking his alarm. “It’s in the studio, on the main worktable. About so big.” She outlined with her hands a medium-sized box. “Very tidy.”
Angharad had set up a temporary work studio in an unused storage room of the infirmary at Greenway Court, to use while the winter weather intermittently made travel difficult to her home in the town below. George’s huntsman’s house wasn’t large enough to hold it, and it was just across the lane in the grid of buildings that stretched out within the palisade behind the manor house.
It was a convenient solution to the not-yet-completed merger of their households, one that George had approved gratefully, but now it occurred to him that anyone could get in there.
He tried to calm his expression. “Let’s go take a look and find out who’s been sending packages to my wife.” He smiled to make it a joke, but he could see she wasn’t fooled.
As they walked down the huntsman’s alley, the private entrance to the kennels across from the back door of his own home, she said, “You don’t suppose Maelgwn…?”
“Not his style,” George said. Their foster-son would have given anything to her directly. At twelve, his interests were more focused on hunting and other outdoor work, and a package like this, at her studio, rang false to him.
They crossed the lane and opened the gate leading into the small yard of the huntsman’s house, the two tall hollies on either side of the wide back veranda the only color in the winter-bound garden. The female holly still carried its red berries in early January.
Going directly through the huntsman’s house rather than walking around the lanes was a natural shortcut, the infirmary being just a few steps down from the front door. Something savory scented the air when they opened the back door of the house, and Alun stuck his head out of the kitchen as they passed, a question on his face.
“Never mind,” George said. “Angharad just wants to show me something.”
They opened the wide door that fronted onto the next lane and crossed over to the infirmary. Ceridwen’s house was further down on the same side, but all was quiet there. Everything seemed normal to George. The tall fae in the lane passed by, intent on their own morning errands, and one short korrigan whom he recognized as the silversmith’s wife waved a hand at Angharad as she passed.
The storage room at the infirmary that was now Angharad’s studio was down a short interior corridor. George walked in first, and there it was, in a cleared space on the crowded worktable, an ordinary wooden box with a separate lid, tied shut with twine but not wrapped, about a foot and a half long. The box was meant for display or storage, and was decoratively carved at the corners with five-petaled roses.
“Not mine,” he said. Something about it raised his hackles. “A delivery from the town, maybe?”
“I haven’t ordered anything,” she said. “Shall I open it?”
“No,” he said, uneasily. “Don’t. Something’s wrong.” He laughed nervously. “I don’t know why I think so, probably just overreacting.”
She looked at him and shook her head. “Trust your instincts,” she said. “I’ll fetch Ceridwen. You stay here.” She turned and left, leaving the door open.
He felt foolish, dragging Ceridwen into this, but Angharad was right. Ceridwen would know if there was anything actually wrong before they opened it.
He was reluctant to get any closer to the box and looked around the studio instead. He dropped in every couple of days for one reason or another since Angharad spent so much of her time here.
Something was different in the room from last time. What was it? Ah, he thought—the new painting had made it off the easel and onto the wall. He grinned when he saw it.
Angharad had finished her scene of the oak tree from the end of the wild hunt a couple of months ago. When he’d met her, he’d told her about the vision of the oak that he’d carried all his life, spreading its strong branches and providing shelter. They’d seen it in reality, together, at the end of the great hunt where justice was served on Iolo’s killer, and she’d promised to paint it for him.
It’s wonderful, he thought, admiring the autumn colors in the moonlit scene, the oak prominent at the top of its upland meadow. All the chaos of the actual wild hunt, the hounds and hunt field, the criminal at bay, had been removed. Just the oak remained, serene and permanent in the landscape, caught in the moonlight in the upper right, and the fading light pooled down to bosky darkness on the lower left, leaving the oak with its promise of protection glowing, drawing the eye.
How did she make the leaves match her hair, he wondered. They were just the color of her long auburn braid.
Footsteps coming down the hall caught his attention. He nodded at Ceridwen as she came in with Angharad.
“What’s this about mysterious packages?” she said.
“Probably nothing,” he said, embarrassed, pointing at it. “But I don’t like it. We don’t know who it came from or how it got in here.”
Angharad stayed by his side just inside the doorway and he put an arm around her, by habit shielding her and the new life she carried, too early to see yet in her form.
Ceridwen strode over to the table, and focused on the box without touching it. After a few moments, she moved her hands in the air around it, even stooping to pass one underneath the table to feel it remotely from the bottom.
“You were right, there’s magic involved,” she said. “Well-shielded, which is probably why Angharad didn’t sense anything.”
Like all the fae, Angharad had some skill in minor magics, but her primary talents were artistic.
“Let’s see what happens when we open it,” Ceridwen said.
“In here?” George said, alarmed.
Ceridwen gave him a repressive glance. She gestured smoothly with both hands over the box, and a dome appeared to enclose it, faintly visible in the morning light streaming in from the studio windows. Another gesture, and the twine parted and fell away.
“Ready?” she said, not bothering to look back at them for their consent.
She raised the lid remotely and let it slide off so that she could look inside. Angharad walked over to join her, and George went with her.
“Why, it’s just supplies,” she told George. “Pigments, brushes.”
George rolled his eyes. “Sorry, I’m just being overprotective,” he said to Ceridwen.
“Hmm?” she replied, not attending either of them. “Oh. No, I don’t believe so.”
Without touching them through the dome, she lifted each small item out onto the table, still within the shield. “These have each been… enhanced.”
She pointed at the brushes. “Those wooden handles are bespelled. Something slow, I think.”
Angharad drew back and George shuddered.
“The pigments, now, they feel adulterated to me. Poisons?” Ceridwen spoke almost to herself, going through her analysis.
Angharad said quietly, “Some pigments are toxic and require precautions, but not those. Not usually.”
Ceridwen nodded, concentrating. “Let’s see what happens when we empty it.”
She lifted the last small item remotely and as soon as it moved out of the box, while it was still in the air, the box imploded and a fine gray powder sprayed out, contained by the dome. Even Ceridwen backed up a few steps in surprise.
“One of my colleagues,” she said, her voice certain. “The objects could have been purchased, perhaps, but the trap within the trap, the misdirection, that’s what gives it away.”
“Get packed,” George told Angharad, his stomach in knots. “I’m taking you back to my world. My grandparents will be glad to have you.”
She put a hand on his arm to restrain him. “This isn’t aimed at me,” she said. “It’s aimed at you. I can’t hide in the human world for half a year or more. And when the child is born, what then?”
He shook his head in refusal, but she was right. It would solve nothing.
“You asked me to come meet with you at your father’s court, and I am here.”
The familiar voice caught Creiddylad by surprise. She rose from her comfortable seat in the receiving room of her private suite in the east wing of Lludd’s castle. The casements were closed against the chill air and two fireplaces at either end kept it warm.
She hadn’t expected him for another day or two, but she kept all trace of that from her face as she made the obeisance of a king’s daughter to one of his highest subject lords—Gwythyr ap Greidawl, her one-time husband.
He’d weathered well, she thought. She hadn’t seen him much for a few hundred years, since they carefully avoided each other on those rare occasions where their paths might cross. He still looked middle-aged, for all that he was considerably older than Gwyn. Her own father was beginning to show his age and it was clear to everyone, even him, that he would not live as long as he had hoped. But Gwythyr, now, he showed every sign of agelessness that she could hope for.
Allied to him, her life would have been very different. She’d been a fool to destroy that, out of youthful pique.
He had heirs now, from subsequent marriages, but none of those alliances had long endured and she knew he had no current consort.
“Please come sit down by me, my lord,” she said, indicating a matching chair set at an intimate distance. “I’ll call for some refreshment.”
She sent her maid out and watched Gwythyr seat himself, stiff and upright. He still dislikes me, she thought, but I can use that. Any passion is better than indifference. Besides, it was never my body that he coveted, it was the power I could bring him and the pride of possession. That’s the betrayal he resents, and the annual public reminder of it at Nos Galan Mai. I can fix this, she thought suddenly, excited.
She peeked out of downcast eyes and spoke, modestly and soberly. “I have a proposal by which I hope to make amends between us.”
Her maid returned and directed the servant following her to lay out cold meats and breads, and both mulled wine and cold water, then she dismissed him. Creiddylad took a cup of the hot spiced wine and urged one on Gwythyr. “I acquired a taste for this some time ago. Very suitable for a winter’s day.”
She waved her maid out of the room and they were alone again.
Gwythyr held his cup and took a token sip from it, waiting in silence for her to continue.
“My brother Gwyn is out of favor with our father who has been made to see the undesirability of his continued rule in the new world.” She looked sideways at him and saw him notice. He smiled faintly at her inspection and relaxed a bit in his chair, taking another sip of wine.
Good, she thought, he’s becoming more comfortable with the notion of me as a political ally. I need him to think of me as useful.
“Others have tried to bring Gwyn down,” he said. “Most recently, Madog.”
She carefully kept her face from reacting to the jab. He knew that Madog and she had been allies, even lovers before the end. It wasn’t the loss of Madog as a consort that pulled at her, but the defeat of his plans to overthrow Gwyn.
“Each attempt was made in isolation,” she said, reasonably. “That was a mistake.”
She looked at him coolly, careful not to overplay her hand. “I have a better plan.”
“I am listening, my lady.”
Good, she thought. He’s interested. Still the political, scheming, ambitious lord he ever was, but she’d been too young to make proper use of it during their marriage.
“My father has been brought to consider the advantages of a new power in Gwyn’s place and is inclined to support such an ally, as viceroy.” There, she thought, that’s certainly a big enough prize to hook him.
He leaned forward for the first time. “Of the new world? Or of Annwn? Can they be separated? And what of Cernunnos?”
“Lludd has people in place in Gwyn’s court, and plans for more. In Gwyn’s absence, they could make it impossible to hold the great hunt. No hunt, no favors from Cernunnos for Gwyn.”
He considered that.
She continued to make her point. “My father will summon Gwyn soon, to answer for Madog and for… other things. While he is here we have an opportunity, if we should choose to pursue it.”
She could tell that he noticed the use of “we” but he didn’t reject it. Progress.
“How would you like to win this year at Nos Galan Mai, and every year thereafter, until the pack is aged and no new whelps are forthcoming to Gwyn, loser of the contest? It can be done. That alone would be the end of Gwyn, without the other plan.”
“Might even be the end of Annwn,” he said. “It wasn’t always here, before Arawn. I don’t see why we can’t return to that. But what then?” he asked. “Say I take the new world at Lludd’s hands as viceroy. Lludd and Llefelys would still be kings.”
“Even that is not impossible to change. Have you seen my father recently?”
“So you know. A mighty noble allied into his family will be a powerful contender for the succession, once it comes.”
He looked at her, his eyes narrowing. “Not you, not even for that. You’ll need to think of a different payment.”
She took the blow expressionlessly. She would change his mind, later. “There are others you could consider,” she said, evenly.
He sat back, the mulled wine cupped in his hand, and watched her.
“Here’s what I want,” he said. “I want the ways. Is it true that Gwyn’s huntsman can destroy them?”
“That’s what they say and, indeed, I saw him kill one behind me after I used it. Just as importantly, the rock-wights Gwyn is cultivating can create them. And way-finders can control the rock-wights. That’s what Madog did. You have way-finders.” So does my father, she thought.
She could tell by the involuntary flicker of his eyes that this was new information for him. She smiled pleasantly and nodded. Yes, I am valuable, she thought. Listen to me.
“That’s the real power,” he told her. “If we can control the ways, Lludd and Llefelys can’t stand. We can force them out.” He looked at her. “Maybe you’re right about a marriage alliance. It can all be mine.”
She noticed the unconscious “we” he was starting to use now.
“You will find me grateful,” he said, inviting her response.
Time to make some conditions. “I will need your help with the huntsman,” she said, “to bring him under control as a weapon. And you’ll need mine for the rest of it.”
He waved a hand for her to elaborate.
“I want a place that’s not in the public eye and far from any of the ways,” she said.
“Easy enough,” he said. “My fortress of Calubriga will do fine. No one will disturb us in Gaul. Llefelys will never interfere, it’s not his way.”
He looked at her a bit abstractly, like a general planning a war with his aides. “Gwyn won’t travel here alone.”
Creiddylad leaned back in her chair, satisfied. “They can all be neutralized if we plan it right, my lord.”
George fidgeted impatiently in his seat as Ceridwen summarized her findings for Gwyn ap Nudd.
“I can think of a dozen people who could’ve assembled this pleasant surprise,” she told him. “None of them your friends.”
George’s great-grandfather, the Prince of Annwn, had allowed her to barge into his council room at Greenway Court with the two of them in tow, and now he looked over at Angharad. “No one was hurt?”
“We’re fine, my lord,” she said, clearly not wanting to make much of it.
“We were lucky,” George objected. “It’s not the same thing. What about next time? How do we stop it?” He wanted a name, someone to go after immediately.
Gwyn looked at him reprovingly as if he were a child. “You can’t stop it without knowing who did it, or even which faction they belong to. There are spies in every court, though they don’t usually act. You were wise to be cautious.”
Ceridwen said, “Angharad was right—this wasn’t about her. I don’t think that anything in that mix was immediately fatal. It was intended to injure.”
“To tie down my huntsman and keep him from traveling,” Gwyn said.
Ceridwen nodded. “Just so.”
That was too cold-blooded for George. “And why shouldn’t I just take her away out of danger?” he said.
“Because it could be Maelgwn next, or Rhian,” Angharad told him. “You can’t just send us all away.”
Gwyn frowned at the mention of his foster-daughter, his brother’s grandchild.
George’s blood boiled and he leaned forward. “I can’t just wait for the next strike—it might work. There has to be something we can do.”
Gwyn held up his hand to silence him as someone knocked on the door and then opened it.
An elderly man stood hesitantly in the doorway, a stranger to George.
Gwyn rose abruptly. “Geraint, what are you doing here?”
Angharad leaned over to whisper into George’s ear, “That’s Gwyn’s steward from Bryntirion, his original domain under his father Lludd, in western Britain.”
“My lord, I’ve just been sent by Gorwel, the commander of your father’s forces.” At Gwyn’s blank look, he continued. “The ones that are holding the end of the Travelers’ Way and barring passage.”
George was the last one that afternoon to reach the rock outcrop in the orchard just within the palisade. Both his alarm about Angharad’s unidentified enemy and Gwyn’s flurry of activity about the blocked way had to give way to the diplomatic meeting scheduled days in advance.
When he reached the spot where they had decided to anchor the way Seething Magma would be creating, he found Gwyn and his brother Edern deep in conversation with Ceridwen. Rhodri waved him over.
“You’re here in a dual capacity today?” George teased his friend as he joined the group.
“Just call me Ambassador,” Rhodri said with a straight face. “I doubt we’ll have that much use for way-adepts in this crowd.”
Ceridwen looked up at the sun. “It’s time, everyone. George, why don’t you take your spot? The rest of us will give you room.”
George stood in front of the rock outcrop and watched them all back off a good distance. The winter-bare apple trees nearby loomed like scarecrows. This part of the arrangement made him more than a little nervous. Seething Magma was going to home in on him like a beacon, since she knew his feel best, and make the exit of the way come out upslope in front of him. If she miscalculated he’d probably never feel it. Wouldn’t be his problem any longer.
Can you hear me, Mag, he thought. I’m in place.
*Greetings. I’m coming.*
He faced the outcrop to watch. Until a month ago, no one had ever seen a way made before. Of the group there today, only Rhodri and he, and to a lesser degree Gwyn, would be able to see it happen.
A glow appeared on the ground between him and the rock face and widened to about twenty feet, marking a semi-circular opening, a passage slanting into the earth at a gradual angle. Most way entrances were above ground like invisible tunnels, but since they had a choice Gwyn had suggested this underground approach for greater ease of defense.
Rhodri’s face lit up as it completed, and George backed away to give Seething Magma room to emerge. She was the size of a large pickup truck, a featureless flexible slab something like an animated boulder, propelled by short pseudopods on her lower surface.
“Perfect,” George said. He walked up and patted her upper body in greeting.
Gwyn and the others joined them and bowed, keeping a careful distance away from her. “We are very glad to see you again, my lady,” Gwyn said. “Please lead on, and we will follow.”
Seething Magma led them out of the way onto a broad rock terrace high on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge.
*Map of surrounding land, ways marked.*
George translated the mental picture for everyone. “Mag says this is in between Greenway Court and Edgewood to the north. Must be near the southern boundary of Edgewood, I think.”
Edern and Rhodri looked at the crest of the slope not far above them with unease. The ways worked by the rock-wights deep within the ridge focused at the top of the ridge line as painful and impassable barriers to creatures with a bit of magic in them. Only completely natural animals, or those closer to full magic, seemed immune. The rock-wights themselves had the same effect.
*Cut-away view of interior of ridge.*
“She’s showing me the ways underneath us. We’re just south of a gap in the ridge, and there are no ways directly under it.” He ran his way senses along the top of the ridge at the gap. “Is this a natural break in the barrier above it, Mag?”
She tapped once on the bare rock for the benefit of the others. They’d worked out a quick shorthand for her a few weeks ago while rescuing her daughter—one knock for “yes,” two for “no,” three for “I don’t know.”
Seething Magma moved off to one side as they approached the creatures waiting for them and George stepped aside as well to let Gwyn take the lead.
George’s initial thought was, they’re enormous. Mag had shown him her mother Gravel in a mental image so he had some idea of what to expect, but it hadn’t prepared him sufficiently. He felt them first, as presences just like the huge way that exited at the rock face behind them. Then they shifted position, and his eyes rebelled at estimating the size of anything that large that could move on its own. There were two of the giants, one noticeably larger than the other, and a third one, smaller than Mag.
The largest of the three moved forward a few feet to meet Gwyn. She stopped and Gwyn nodded his head. George fell into his role as translator and facilitator. He faced the formidable elemental, as large as a log cabin, and bowed. “Please let me introduce my lord Gwyn ap Nudd, Prince of Annwn.”
*This is Gravel, my mother, she who speaks for our people.*
“My lord, may I present my lady Gravel, speaker for the elementals in this land.”
This dual role wasn’t strictly necessary. While only George could hear the rock-wights, the elementals had no trouble tapping the minds of the smaller beings directly. George wondered what that was like for Gwyn, someone with many plans and secrets.
*Greetings, Prince of Annwn.* A deep mental voice, like a cathedral bell talking, resonated in George’s head. He murmured a quiet translation as Gravel continued.
*These behind me are Cavern Wind and Ash Tremor.*
Seething Magma provided private commentary for George. *My daughter, my older sister.*
Gwyn spoke in his turn. “With me are my brother Edern ap Nudd, my scholar Ceridwen, and Rhodri, my way-adept.” He gestured at each. “My great-grandson George Talbot Traherne is translating for us.”
Gravel spoke, for George’s translation. *We thank you for the return of my granddaughter Granite Cloud.*
“And we thank you for the destruction of Madog, her kidnapper,” Gwyn said, confirming the foundation of their relationship.
*We have noticed your kind using our leftover ways in the past few thousand years, but it has not been a matter of concern to us. My daughter has told me this should change, and I wish to see for myself.*
“We did not fully understand who made the ways until now. They are important to us, and we want to learn more and possibly agree on some arrangement with mutual benefits.” This was more direct than Gwyn usually was, but George thought it a smart accommodation, since they could read his underlying thoughts anyway.
*We also want to learn more about how it was that one of yours was able to seize one of ours.*
“We are afraid for your safety from evil ones among us, both for your own sake and for ours.” Well, thought George, that was stating it baldly.
Seething Magma flowed forward again. *George, I thought a demonstration would be easiest. Will you help me with that?*
He hesitated. If I scare them badly, why wouldn’t they just eliminate the threat, he thought to her.
*No harm will come to you by this.*
Out loud, he said, “Mag wants me to help show the others what we can do.”
Gwyn looked at him. “And if they’re afraid of you? What then?”
Gravel extruded a pseudopod toward George. *Come.*
He walked over.
*Seething Magma says it damages your folk to touch us, but that you are different. May I touch you?*
Go ahead, he thought, bracing himself.
She lay the end of the pseudopod lightly on his head. He could feel her delicate tasting of his mind, like a light breeze on a spring day.
*Strange. Someone else is there.*
He explained about the form of Cernunnos that he carried, both as the horned man and the deer-headed man. He’s not always there, he thought to her, sometimes it’s just the empty forms. He showed her what Cernunnos did in the annual great hunt, creating ways for the quarry and hounds, and destroying them again when it was done. His ways were like doors, direct and without passages.
*I must think about this. But you have nothing to fear from me, for I do not fear you.*
“You should, my lady,” he said aloud. “We can be dangerous to you.”
He walked back over to Seething Magma. “If you’ll make a little stationary way, I’ll kill it for you.” Some ways moved across space through an internal transition point, and those were the ones that the fae used for long-distance travel. Others simply penetrated space, like an underground tunnel. This was how the elementals made their way through rock.
Rhodri took over the role of commentator for the rest of the fae, since he could see the ways directly.
Mag created a way twice her length there on the terrace between them, her body vanishing from view and reappearing as if transitioning an invisible tunnel in the air. The leading edge glowed as she created it.
Rock-wights made open unclaimed ways and had no need for anything else. George showed the elementals how he and Rhodri could claim the way, close it, and prevent even Mag from using it again. Then he took the claim back from Rhodri and moved the way as a whole a few feet closer, putting it on metaphorically like a garment, picking it up and then casting it off in a different place. That created a stir in both groups. Neither Rhodri nor the rock-wights could do that.
Finally, George said, “I’m going to destroy it.” He reached out with his mind and let the surrounding air rush into the unnatural void, and the way was gone.
In the silence, Seething Magma flowed back to him. *Claim me.*
No, he thought.
*They need to know the worst.*
That’s not the worst, he thought.
*I know you won’t unmake me, George. Please, we must show them.*
He sighed. “Seething Magma has asked me to show you what Madog did to Granite Cloud.”
Ash Tremor moved closer. *May I watch through you?* Her voice was crisp and firm in his mind.
He walked over and let her touch him with a pseudopod. She didn’t intrude, but he could feel her intense curiosity.
He reached out with his mind and claimed Seething Magma, as if she were a way. He sent her away from him and summoned her back and then he released the claim. It left him feeling dirty, and Ash Tremor removed her contact.
“Let me be clear,” George said to Gravel. “There are other way-adepts among the fae, like Rhodri. Whatever they can do with a way, they can do with one of you. And now that they know about you, you aren’t safe. I’m something else, something worse. I can destroy a way.” He let them work out the implications on their own.
Gwyn took back control of the meeting. “We know you are not without defenses, as the death of Madog demonstrated.” Seething Magma had opened a way through him. “We want to help you find a better defense against a new threat.”
Ceridwen spoke for the first time, to Gravel. “What do you know of your relatives in the old world?”
*We have had no communication for eons. I am the eldest here, the matriarch.*
George returned to his translator role.
“I know my grandfather met one thousands of years ago,” Gwyn said, “but they’re very rare and I don’t know if they are thriving anywhere.”
*What exactly is it that you want, Prince of Annwn?*
Gwyn said, “I want to see you well-defended and independent. I want to trade with you for practical way-building. I want agreements with you as friends, allies, and neighbors, so that our relationship will thrive. My scholars want to talk about history with you.”
“In turn,” he continued, “there must be things we can offer you. George tells me you are interested in the knowledge of the earth and how it has changed over time. We can share that with you. There may be many things like that which you would find worthwhile.”
He looked at Gravel directly. “Is this something that you also wish to pursue?”
*We are the bones of the earth, but surface creatures like you are its flavor. We are grateful for your candor in alerting us to danger from your own kind. We have never envisioned an alliance such as you describe, but nothing stays the same, not even the land, and we are inclined in its favor. My daughter Seething Magma has hinted at the knowledge your kind has accumulated, and we would welcome an opportunity for learning.*
George translated quietly.
Gwyn bowed and said, “I propose we part now and prepare something for formal discussion, on each side. Would you be willing to resume this meeting tomorrow morning?”
*Agreed. Seething Magma will come for you.*
Gravel and Ash Tremor turned and entered the way in the rock face behind them while Cavern Wind stayed behind and approached George.
*Music? Can you teach us more about music?*
George laughed. “Rhodri,” he called, “We need to add music to the list.”
Rhodri walked over. Cavern Wind extended a pseudopod toward him, but George stepped between them. “My lady, it will hurt him if you touch him.” They had discovered that the touch of a rock-wight was like trying to penetrate through a way from the side, or cross the way-focus barrier at the top of the ridge line—something very painful to creatures with some magic in them. George’s relationship with Cernunnos seemed to be the reason he was largely immune. It made him magical enough himself not to be harmed by the effect, like the outsider hounds that came from Cernunnos each year at Nos Galan Mai.
*I want to talk to him and he can’t hear me. If I touch you and you touch him, maybe?*
Now that was an interesting notion, George thought. “Rhodri, time for another experiment. She really wants to talk to you. She’ll touch me and I’ll touch you. I don’t think you’ll feel anything, but I also don’t think it’ll work. What do you say?”
“I’ll give it a try.”
George put out his right hand and touched Cavern Wind. Greetings, he thought. Then he lightly tapped the back of Rhodri’s hand with his left fingers, just in case there was any danger to him. Nothing happened so he clasped Rhodri’s hand and waited.
Instead of the sense of someone riffling through his own mind, he felt the attention go by and he could faintly overhear a conversation, as though he were tuning in to a very distant radio station. Only a few words penetrated.
Rhodri stood still, wide-eyed and grinning. “I have lots of ideas for you, Windy.”
Cavern Wind backed away from George. *Thank you. That was very interesting.*
Seething Magma and Cavern Wind turned to go back into the way at the rock face. *Until tomorrow, mid-morning,* Seething Magma said, as she vanished into the darkness.
Lludd spoke to Gwythyr alone late that evening, in his private rooms. He was pleased with the report from Gorwel—Bryntirion entered without resistance, and the Travelers’ Way exit held.
“I told her, my way was better,” he said. “My daughter’s vision has always been too limited in her ambitions for me.”
He looked over at Gwythyr’s composed face and tried to read it.
He continued, “Think what could be accomplished with the rock-wights. Access into any keep, support for my armies abroad, even an improvement on the expense of road and bridge building. No one could stand against me. My son has no business denying them to me.” What a waste—I will make proper use of them, he thought.
“I can understand your wrath at the refusal,” Gwythyr murmured. “How can I assist you, my lord king?”
Smooth and dignified as always, Lludd thought. He’s clever, he is, clever enough to know he can only get this gift at my hand. Annwn will be a realm like any other, and he will hold it for me. Maybe Creiddylad can be induced to resume the old alliance, if he’ll have her back.
“I’ve laid the foundations for this over the last month,” he told Gwythyr, leaning back in his comfortably cushioned broad chair and watching him carefully, motionless and effortlessly erect on his own hard wooden seat. “My agents in Gwyn’s domain have new orders.” And I have new agents in place, too. No need to share that with Gwythyr. He agreed with his adviser Derlwyn about the virtue of secrecy. He was impatient to hear about his latest experiment—had it worked?
Still, it would do no harm to let Gwythyr know this was no small or secret endeavor he was undertaking. “As you can see, I now control his passage from the new world.”
Gwythyr replied, “There is one other, as you know, my lord king.”
Lludd waved that aside. “Yes, yes, the one they think no one knows about. But it’s small and private. The Travelers’ Way, now, that’s their main route for trade. They will pass through my blockade, or not, at my pleasure.”
He drew himself upright. “Will you take Annwn from me, at my hands?” he asked Gwythyr.
“Gladly, my lord king,” Gwythyr said. “But Gwyn’s hold is on more than the land. What about Cernunnos?”
“What of him? I remember a time when there was no great hunt each year, no antlered master of beasts to impose his notions of justice on us all. His fastening on this human to serve as his huntsman and give him a way to manifest may impress the rabble, but I hold to Camulos and the other, older gods. Camulos has never disappointed me.”
Gwythyr said, “I have often wondered how you came to take him as your sponsor.”
Lludd smiled broadly and thumped the arm of his chair. “He promised me power, raw power, whenever I required it. All that I needed to take and hold my position.” And damn my father Beli for an interfering fool, with his notions of morality. That’s not for kings, he tried to tell him. When he finally received the long overdue weapon of his line from Taranis, he’d explain it to him more forcefully.
“While you are exploring the military option and an economic blockade,” Gwythyr said, “it would be well to consider how to undermine Gwyn’s obligations for the great hunt. Better to cause Cernunnos to abandon his protégé than to have to fight with him directly.”
He tented his fingers before his chin and spoke calmly and analytically. “To win the annual contest in a few months at Nos Galan Mai, as your father Beli Mawr has required, Gwyn must be present. If he wins, his huntsman must also be in attendance to retrieve new whelps for the pack from Cernunnos. If you can prevent any of this, the pack is weakened. Do it for six or eight years, and the pack will be worthless—no hounds able to do Cernunnos’s bidding for the great hunt. No more great hunt, no more Cernunnos as sponsor for Gwyn. A bloodless victory.”
Lludd nodded. “Yes.” Derlwyn had been thinking along these lines, too—stop the huntsman, control him. What he’d actually said was ‘control the wife, control the huntsman.’ A nice, simple, traditional lever. “It takes too long for my taste, though. I could just press through the Travelers’ Way now, after all. Gwyn doesn’t have enough men to stop me.”
“But he can close the way,” Gwythyr said, unmoved. “You can block the way but you can’t invade without way-token control. And what will your barons say, as you assault your son’s domains, both here and in the new world? They will fear receiving similar attention.”
“Let that be my problem,” Lludd said.
George watched as Gwyn’s impatient gesture silenced the side conversations in his council room. He’d called for a meeting of all his senior staff. Even Idris would be attending, having brought Madog’s old domain in Dyffryn Camarch far enough along toward normality to leave it briefly in the hands of his delegates. Rhys had sent Edern in his place, since his grandfather’s frequent visits had kept him up-to-date on the situation in Edgewood.
Gwyn looked around the table as they quieted and attended to him.
“Nothing has changed since yesterday.” George caught fleeting expressions of relief on some of the faces. “Before we discuss the Travelers’ Way, I want to bring us all up to date on our different tasks. We need to know where we are, before we can plan our next steps.”
Gwyn pursed his lips. “Our alliance with the rock-wights was formalized this morning. We plan an initial round of gifts, a taste of what they can learn from us, well, really from the humans, through George. We explained the notion of an ambassador to them, and they’ve appointed Seething Magma to that role.”
Surveying the smiles around the table, he added, “So, now we have access to new ways, beyond their first contributions. We must take measure of how this changes everything for us, how best we should proceed.”
“We will begin with a summary of the situation in the outlying districts. Idris, please tell us all how things are going, over the mountain.”
Idris leaned forward to speak. “I know some of you are more current than others, so forgive me if you’ve heard this before. After the death of Madog more than a month ago,” he tipped his head to George, “neutralizing his officers was surprisingly straightforward. The destruction of the internal ways hampered their ability to communicate and, without the fear and threat of Madog or any heir to defend, their heart wasn’t really in it. It took about two weeks for the last pockets of resistance to yield.
“I am minded to reinstate some of them, the ones that seem least corrupted, but I’m waiting until we can organize more information from the populace they controlled, lest we unknowingly include any that have serious accusations against them. My senior officers are sitting in summary courts, listening to the complaints of the people, and have been for a while.
“As we expected, we’ve experienced a version of the awakening at Edgewood, now that the external barrier way is gone. The effect was never as severe because the distances were greater, but the population is also much larger, so I’ve been working with Rhys to copy his basic methods of cleaning up and moving forward to make as much progress as fast as possible. Edgewood was collapsing when we got to it, but Dyffryn Camarch was more self-sufficient and is recovering much more quickly. I think we can slow down some of the emergency supplies.”
“A good thing, too,” Ifor Moel commented. “It’s been a strain on our resources supporting both of them at once. The real answer is to get the traders involved. There never were korrigans in Dyffryn Camarch, but they’re certainly welcome now. There were no outside traders at all, near as we can tell. The korrigans have been a big help at Edgewood, getting the mills going and setting up shop again. And they’re eager to work with the rock-wights.”
Gwyn asked, “Do you think we should let it be known that we seek settlers for Dyffryn Camarch, as we did for Edgewood?”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Idris said. “The folks at Edgewood were our own, and so are many of the adventurers that have poured in for resettlement. Madog’s people are different. We don’t have blood ties with them. They have their own way of doing things, and we will need to be careful how we integrate their folk and ours.”
Gwyn shook his head. “They’re all our folk now,” he said. “As soon as you can be confident that you’ve located most of the threats hiding in the general population, I want you to draw up a plan whereby they can operate on the same basis as the rest of the people in this domain, with the same resettlement options.”
“As you wish, my lord,” Idris said.
Gwyn looked at his notes. “How are the new ways working out for you?”
“They’re a great help, my lord. We used one to join Tan-y-bryn, the village at the base of the keel mountain Y Farteg to Madog’s old court, which we’ve renamed Tagell, the Snare. That one allows us to supply the keep three thousand feet up, and it makes a superb base of operations. The Rescue Way from the old garden at Tagell to Edgewood gives us direct communication with Rhys so that we can support each other militarily at need, or simply exchange goods. And there’s the Dyffryn Way, of course, from the keep back to Daear Llosg, so all three are well connected.
“The other four ways connect the most important of the market towns, but we’ll need to start building roads soon. Dyffryn Camarch was rich in ways, many more than we’ve just added, so the roads are ill-tended.”
George winced privately, but it couldn’t have been helped. He’d had to kill all the ways in Madog’s domain, with Cernunnos’s help, in order to trap him there and destroy him. It was like burning all the bridges over a wide area—it would take time to restore the routes that people relied on for everyday use.
“Edern,” Gwyn asked his brother, “How goes Edgewood?”
“Much improved. All the survivors have been accounted for and, where possible, reunited with their families. The good news is that none of the damage from the barrier way that imprisoned them seems to be permanent, though many people lost family members while under its influence. They’re rebuilding as quickly as they can, and each of the villages is a hive of activity. They’re determined to move forward and put it behind them.”
“As Ifor said,” he continued, “the korrigans and the outside settlers have had a great influence on the strength of the recovery. I only wish we had more of them. Between that and the improvement in the local people, I think Edgewood’s out of danger.”
He glanced at Idris. “I understand Idris’s concerns, but Dyffryn Camarch is very large and could easily digest many hundreds of settlers and several branches of external traders, now that it’s possible. If you want to hasten both the recovery and the integration, I recommend doing that.”
“Thank you, brother,” Gwyn said. “We have been gifted with six more ways by the rock-wights, and we have an agreement in place for acquiring more. For now, I’d like recommendations from everyone in the next two days about the locations of these first six ways, and the beginnings of a strategic plan for ways, overall. Bring all your issues to Ceridwen—she’ll present an initial plan to us in a few days.”
He paused and surveyed the listeners, and George thought, now he’ll get into it.
“You’ve all heard that my father has invaded Bryntirion and seized the end of the Travelers’ Way. He allowed Geraint to come and deliver his message, and I sent him back to keep watch. So far we have offered no resistance there and the situation is bloodless, if dangerous.”
Idris said, “You allowed your men to withdraw before Lludd’s advance?”
“That was done without my direction,” Gwyn said, “but I approve it. There are not enough defenders there to stand against a tyrannical king, with most of my strength here. Better they watch and wait, and husband their resources.”
“What are Lludd’s terms?” Edern asked.
George could see Gwyn’s jaw stiffen. “My father has graciously permitted limited trade to continue, but of course that is little more than a taunt—he can shut it off at any time.”
Rhodri commented, “But you can close the way yourself and keep Lludd and his men from entering.”
Gwyn nodded. “True. But if I want trade I have to keep it open.”
George wondered how many of the traders were spies, infiltrating Greenway Court, leaving surprises like yesterday’s box for Angharad. How many had already passed through before the seizure? Lludd had turned up the pressure—would more covert attacks be the result? He shifted uneasily in his chair.
“Idris,” Gwyn said. “I want to see plans for a military defense of our end of the Traveler’s Way. I don’t wish to rely solely on way-tokens, and it would be as well if Lludd’s covert agents could see a show of force on our side.”
“A show, my lord?” Idris asked. “Don’t you expect it to be used?”
“That not where the battle will be,” Gwyn said. “I expect to meet with Lludd Llaw Eraint, my father, soon. He wants what we have, and I intend to keep it out of his hands.”
After dinner that night in the great hall, Gwyn summoned his brother Edern for a private conversation. The night was mild for winter, and they walked about well-wrapped on the terrace in front of the manor house, working off the meal.
“I have formally protested to our father,” Gwyn said.
Edern looked at him. “And?”
“His pretense is to limit emigration while Madog’s domain is under dispute. His brothers are protesting, Lludd says.”
“All seventeen of them?” Edern said, sarcastically.
Gwyn smiled briefly. “He offers to make up for it by sending us two new huntsman trainees, after the old usage.”
Privately, Gwyn wondered where that idea had come from. George had mentioned being short-staffed, but Lludd wouldn’t know that. Lludd had no interest in the continuation of the annual great hunt—that could only solidify Gwyn’s relationship with Cernunnos.
“Did he now?” Edern commented. “What does your great-grandson say to that?”
“I haven’t told him yet.” Gwyn knew his great-grandson was chafing under limited information. He’d hoped he could keep it that way a while longer, but George was pushing at the restrictions and the thwarted attack on Angharad with no response had exhausted his patience.
Edern walked to the edge of the terrace steps and looked east into the night. The constellation of the Hunter blazed in the clear winter sky.
“You have to tell your huntsman, and you have to take him with you when you go. He’s part of your arsenal now, and you can’t leave him behind.”
“I have every intention of using him,” Gwyn said, “and he’s got to be a willing participant, just as Cernunnos has to agree.”
He joined Edern on the top of the steps. “I must get Cernunnos’s acceptance in this or it goes nowhere. Everything hinges on that.”
Edern grunted in assent and they stood together silently for a few moments.
“Is our father trying to keep you from the contest on Nos Galan Mai?”
“How can he? He must know of the existence of the Family Way, even if he’s not sure where it comes out.” He looked sideways at Edern. “I can’t avoid it. I’ve lost the contest, sometimes, but never forfeited. I must attend. I know it’s awkward—I’ll have to come through to your domain instead of mine, and our father will no doubt find out more than we want him to.”
Edern turned and faced his brother. “You know, I’ll have to join you if you break away from our father. What will happen to all of us if you fail? Even if you succeed, how can I keep my domain there, or you yours?”
Gwyn silently acknowledged the justice of the complaint. “I know, and I’m sorry,” he said. “You’ll be first here, after me, and well-rewarded, but change is never easy.” He reached out with both hands and gripped his brother’s arms. “I value your support.”
Edern nodded in acknowledgment. “This quiet time before the fray won’t last much longer, and then events will carry us along with little care how we try to steer them.”
He looked at his brother. “What support do you hope to get?”
“I thought to involve some of Lludd’s hunting lords,” Gwyn said. “A gift of whelps, from George’s breeding in a few days, would be well-received.”
“And some of the others will want to curb our father’s ambition and greed for power,” Edern said. “Enough of them?”
Gwyn shrugged. “The wizards have their own ambitions, especially the unaligned ones. Let’s compare lists tomorrow, if you will advise me.”
Gwyn said, “I’ve been told that Lludd knows far too much already about the elementals and the death of Madog, especially the destruction of the ways and George’s part in that. It’s only a matter of days, I believe, before there will be a summons to court.”
“Are you going to wait for that?” Edern said.
“No. I thought I’d make my own excuse for coming, with my full entourage. A mark of my own royal line, a show of strength.”
Edern raised an eyebrow.
“How can you forget? Your granddaughter Rhian has just turned fifteen,” Gwyn said, grinning.
Edern laughed. “That’s why you haven’t scheduled the coming-of-age ceremony for her yet. You’re planning a full court presentation.”
Be careful what you wish for, George said to himself as he walked away from Gwyn’s council room after lunch the next day. I wanted more hunt staff as backup and, lo, they appear. It didn’t occur to me that they could be spies, too.
Gwyn was less than forthcoming about their allegiances or, rather, the allegiances of their sponsors who were releasing them from other duties for a year or more. This Gwion fellow came from the staff of a woman named Glesni. George thought he detected a certain note in Gwyn’s voice when he spoke of her. An old flame? In any case, he clearly counted her as a friend.
The other one, Dyfnallt, was sent by some lord named Cuhelyn. Again, Gwyn was reserved about the background, but there was no warmth in his expression when he mentioned Cuhelyn’s name.
There’s a history there, he thought, for both of the noble sponsors. But if Gwyn won’t tell me about it, I’ll have to go into it blind. He did admit they were both being sent by Lludd, so I better assume the worst. Damn. I don’t want to be suspicious of new members on my hunt staff but I’d be a fool not to be.
Surely Gwyn wouldn’t expose his foster-daughter Rhian to real danger without a more explicit warning. Would he? His back between his shoulder blades felt suddenly exposed.
At the conclusion of the next morning’s hunt, George led the pack back through the manor gates with his hunt staff, and the tired field chatted contentedly behind them.
It had been good sport for the middle of January, the ground mostly free of snow but not frozen hard. Brynach and Rhian each sported a white-tailed buck tied on behind the saddle. The fixture included a mix of pasture for dairy cattle and surrounding coverts, good open land for pursuit once the quarry was dislodged from the woods.
As they came up the slope and through the protective curtain wall abutting the manor itself, George bore left toward the kennels while most of the field made its way to the main stables on the right. Before he reached the kennel gates, he found his way blocked by Ifor Moel, the steward, and two strangers on horseback, each leading a spare horse with bundles attached. One of them was smiling openly at the spectacle bearing down upon them.
These must be the new men, George thought. “Rhian,” he called, “Would you please bring the pack in and get Ives started on the deer?”
“Yes, huntsman,” she said, and swung around him on her horse, leading the pack on to the kennel gates which Ives had already opened for them. She glanced sideways at the newcomers but kept on with her duties. Brynach and Benitoe following on either side of the pack, trying not to stare. Maelgwn on his pony looked as if he wanted to linger but at a glance from George, he brought up the rear of the pack and vanished inside the gates.
George sat his heavy gray horse, half-Percheron, the one he’d been riding when he left his human world. Mosby was comfortable with his weight, if not the speediest possible mount. The horses of these two men were rather different.
The smiling one had brought two showy animals, a chestnut and a blood bay, beautiful horses with expressive heads. They looked well-bred, though too delicate for someone of George’s size.
The other man, tall, lean, and sober-faced, was mounted on a sturdier black that reminded George of an Irish hunter, and the dark bay he was leading was of a similar conformation.
Ifor had waited for the commotion of the pack going by to die down before performing introductions. “Huntsman,” he said, “allow me to present Gwion,” gesturing to the smiling man, “and Dyfnallt. They arrived just before you returned and I thought it best for them to wait for you here. Gentlemen,” he turned to them, “this is George Talbot Traherne, our lord Gwyn’s huntsman, and his great-grandson.”
Funny, they don’t look much like spies, George thought. “You’re welcome here, gentlemen. Was your journey long?”
Gwion said, “We met together for the first time last night and took the Travelers’ Way this morning. It was just a few miles and the weather was pleasant enough.”
Dyfnallt nodded in silent agreement.
“Ifor, what are your plans for housing?” George said.
“Since your place can’t take them both, I thought it better to give them guest housing further out on your lane.”
“Alright, then, let’s get them settled there and their horses stabled. We’ll have to send them to town to visit Mostyn for livery, too, in the next few days.” All the hunt staff wore simple dark green frock coats, long weskits, and knee breeches as part of their professional attire. And tricorns—George still chuckled every time he noticed the tricorns, but he had to admit they were effective in the rain.
“Will you gentlemen join me in the great hall for the mid-day meal in an hour or so? Ifor or one of his men can show you the way.” He bowed to them from his saddle, and they nodded back in turn.
George went on through the kennel gates, where Ives was standing by to admit him, a question on his face. “Later,” George said to him, “I’ll bring them by, later.”
George checked his pocket watch as he waited for the new trainees to appear in the great hall. He ran his thumb over the engraving of St. George and the Dragon on the case before returning it to his vest pocket. About an hour had passed.
He caught sight of the tall one first, Dyfnallt, and saw that the other man was with him, logically enough, fellow strangers banding together. George left his seat with his family on the raised dais and joined them down on the main floor.
“Let’s take this table, away from everyone else,” he said, leading them to the far end of one of the long line of tables radiating the length of the three-story hall, its fireplace roaring on the January day. They looked around them curiously but George saw no great surprise on their faces. I imagine their own courts are more ornate—it’s always that way in the old world, isn’t it, he thought.
“How are your quarters?” he asked, as the servants laid platters before them and they began filling their plates.
“Oh, they’re quite comfortable, they are,” Gwion volunteered. There seemed to be a constant smile on his face, as if everything he saw was a subject of amusement. It was hard not to just smile back automatically.
George looked at Dyfnallt, who said, “Handy to the kennels and the stable, and quiet enough.”
A practical man, George thought, but not very forthcoming.
“What’s it like where you’re from?” he asked Dyfnallt.
To his surprise, Dyfnallt gave a small smile. “It’s the high fells and tarns of the northwest, the lakes and moors. We have the broad views and the long valleys. It’s glorious, it is, when the clouds scud across the sky and break the sunlight. Everything’s made of rock, we have so much of it. A hard land for horses in the hunt, though, too steep. Some of the farmer folk follow on foot, they do, and quite a scramble they have of it.”
He seemed surprised at his own display of enthusiasm and came to an abrupt stop.
George realized this had to be the Lake District he was describing. “I’ve seen your country, and it is indeed beautiful. A man must have strong legs to carry him across it.” Dyfnallt looked pleased at the friendly words.
“And your home?” George asked Gwion, as they made short work of their meal, cold ham and hot cabbage. There was a perceptible pause, as if Gwion was deciding what to say.
“Forested land in the west, most of it is. Ancient trees and still ponds, and a line of low hills always toward the sunset. The farmers keep their sheep, and the woods harbor red deer.”
“It sounds very fine indeed,” George said. “I hope you’ll both enjoy the country here, the wall of the Blue Ridge to the west, the well-watered fields and woods. The game is different, of course.”
“What sort of deer were those that you brought in today?” Dyfnallt asked.
“White-tailed deer. Medium-sized. The uplifted tail flashes white when they’re alarmed. Good quarry, and tasty.” He paused to finish the beer in his mug. “We’ll go to the kennels after our meal and have a long talk.”
“You know, we’ve heard about you at our court,” Gwion said, a bit slyly.
“Have you, now?”
“There’s a song been going around the last couple of weeks. I think the korrigans have been spreading it from town to town.”
Oh, no, George thought. Not Cydifor’s praise ballad about the defeat of Madog. With an effort he held his expression still. “Don’t believe everything you hear,” he said, dryly. “You know how things get exaggerated.”
Gwion dropped the subject but George took note of the speculative look he sent his way.
George shut the kennel gates behind them and explained the setup of the building with its two wings and stone-flagged courtyard to Gwion and Dyfnallt. “On the left of the yard we start with the pen for the dog hounds and then for the bitches, with an empty draw pen between them.”
Each of the large pens had an open front with stone flooring that sloped slightly to aid in drainage, and an enclosed back room with wide elevated wooden benches and a door that could be shut in bad weather. An inside corridor ran down the back of the wing and provided access to the hound exercise yards on each side of the building.
“On the right it’s a similar setup for the young entry, the hounds that aren’t part of the pack yet, but we use the pen between them for hounds that need isolation for injuries, and there’s a small pen at the end for whelping dams.”
At this point in the season, the young entry pens were empty, all their former dwellers having graduated to their appropriate places in the pack. George planned to convert all four pens on that side temporarily to whelping pens to fill Gwyn’s request for four litters this year, two for gifts, from lines furthest from Cernunnos’s outsider hounds, and two to keep, for the pack.
“On the right beyond the pens we have the huntsman’s office and on the left the kennel-master’s rooms. Let me introduce you.”
George led them past the pens and into the building on the left, stopping at the empty first room, usually busy with the kennel-men cooking down meat and mush in great cauldrons for the hounds. In the adjacent fleshing room, the two deer carcasses were dressed and hanging so that they could finish draining and cooling.
He went on through to Ives’s office, and found him there with both the kennel-men, Tanguy and Huon.
“Sorry to intrude, kennel-master,” George said. “Do you all have a moment?”
Rather than meet the three lutins in the main part of the building. George was pleased to have things work out this way, hoping it might keep the men off balance so that he could learn more about them. The ceilings were high enough to be comfortable even for him, but almost all the furniture was suited to the much smaller lutins, folk about four and a half feet tall, typically dressed in outer garments of red. He wasn’t sure whether lutins were common in other kennels, and he wanted to see the reaction of his new recruits.
Gwion had stiffened up a bit, though he was still smiling. Dyfnallt looked around, curious.
“This is our kennel-master, Ives,” George said, introducing the older man behind his desk. Ives stood and bowed. “And these are Tanguy and Huon, our kennel-men.” Both the young lutins bowed politely.
“Please make our visitors welcome. They’ll be with us for one or more seasons and I’ll be showing them how we do things here.” He introduced Dyfnallt and Gwion, and each nodded to the lutins.
Let’s see how they do with the hounds, he thought.
“I know you two aren’t dressed for it, but if you don’t mind borrowed kennel coats for now, would you like to meet the hounds?”
Dyfnallt gave his rare smile again. “That would be grand.”
He ushered the two of them back into the main corridor of the building wing and snatched his usual kennel coat and a spare for Dyfnallt, then grabbed one of Brynach’s for the shorter Gwion. They buttoned the long light coats over their clothing and headed down the corridor.
“Dog hounds first,” George said, and he opened the door to the back of the dog hound pen. The hounds hopped off their benches to greet the visitors. George forgot his duties for a moment in the pleasure of the pack welcome. He bespoke the hounds silently with his private greeting before dismissing them to investigate the newcomers.
When he finished, he found Dyfnallt looking at him oddly. “Fond of you, they are,” he said.
“The feeling’s mutual,” George said, sheepishly. “We have some lovely hounds.” He fondled the one closest to him. “This one here is Dando, one of my favorites. The captain of the team, for now. We’re breeding from him this season.”
Gwion asked about one of the restless hounds circling around him. “And this one?”
“That’s Cythraul. He’s a handful, and then some. Good strike hound, though.”
George tried to look at them with a stranger’s eye. White hounds, all of them, with red ear-tips and some red-ticking in a few spots. Most were shaggy, like the large Welsh hounds George remembered from several of the foxhunts in his human world.
“Let’s take a quick look in at the bitches, and then sit down in my office for a long talk,” he suggested.
He watched them with the bitch hounds and tried to get a sense of how the hounds saw them, but came to no conclusions. They hung up their borrowed kennel coats and walked with him across the back end of the courtyard to the entry beyond the empty pens in the right wing, and he ushered them into the huntsman’s office.
The day was bright but he lit the lamps for more light and let them find comfortable seats in front of his desk and look around. The bookcases held hunt logs that went back, as he knew, more than 1700 years and predated Gwyn’s relocation of his realm of Annwn to the new world. The earliest were not even in codex form, like books, but scrolls. Breeding records went back just as far. A locked cupboard held the oliphant, the carved ivory horn used in the great hunt. That was said to be as old as the pack itself, and preserved with some sort of spell that kept the ivory from cracking.
Gwion commented, after surveying the bookcases, “The setting may be rustic but the history is impressive.”
“Fine hounds,” Dyfnallt offered, and George flashed him an involuntary look of fellow feeling. The hounds were more important to him, too, though he appreciated the records. He’d started going through them, but he knew the language of the older ones would require help.
“Maybe now would be a good time to talk about experience and goals.” George said. “Why have you come, and what do you hope to gain?”
Gwion deferred to Dyfnallt as the elder. “I’ve been huntsman for my lord Cuhelyn for twenty years now, but we mostly hunt on foot, and the sport is not for the infirm or the elderly. The fells are too steep for horses and the choice of quarry is limited.” He waited for their nods of understanding.
“Cuhelyn’s thought is to set my junior in my place and add a new hunt to his lowland territories, green country like this that can support mounted hunts. He’ll need a kennel, a pack, and an entire establishment, and has given me this year at least to present him with recommendations and a plan.”
He looked directly at George. “I’ll be frank. My hope is that my parting gift might include some of these hounds as part of our foundation. I intend to earn them.”
Should I believe this is the whole tale, George thought.
“Did you choose this hunt, or did your lord make the pick?” he asked.
“My choice,” Dyfnallt said. “I know our lords are not friends, but I wanted to see the great hunt and the hounds that do it. Hounds that are good enough for Cernunnos.”
“And you, huntsman?” Gwion asked with a smile. “No one knows much about you, aside from that amusing ballad, and some wild stories from the most recent great hunt.”
George knew a question like this would come but he hadn’t counted on Cydifor’s praise ballad to reveal more than he wanted known.
“Well, as you’ve no doubt heard, I’m mostly human. Gwyn fathered my grandmother in the human world and I found my way here a few months ago just as Gwyn’s huntsman, Iolo ap Huw, was murdered. I was a whipper-in to a foxhunt in the human world and, in the absence of any other candidate, I took on the task of huntsman for the great hunt here.”
“And all went well, I gather,” Gwion said. “I even heard that Cernunnos himself put in an appearance. It must have been great sport.”
Dyfnallt gave Gwion an unreadable look.
“We judged a murderer,” George said shortly, “the killer of Iolo and of Isolda, the daughter of Ives, our kennel-master.”
“And Cernunnos was there?” Gwion persisted.
“After a fashion.” They could get the story from someone else, he wasn’t going to give them too many details.
“So you’ve been huntsman but a short time, then?” Gwion asked.
“Yes. And you?” George said, turning the conversation..
“I’ve been huntsman to my lady Glesni for thirty years or more,” he said. “We hunt mainly the red deer in the forest and meadows, and keep the lady’s guests and following amused.”
“And what brings you here?”
Gwion said, “Why, my lady is an old friend of your lord. I think she believed I could make myself useful, perhaps share some of our methods with his new huntsman, in case his practices were somewhat… different.”
Well, that’s a pretty bold statement, George thought. Fancies himself in my job, does he?
“I’m sure we all have a lot to learn from each other,” he said blandly.
“I, myself,” Gwion said, “hope to find out more about Cernunnos and his relationship with the great hunt.”
George thought he heard the unstated “and you” at the end of that declaration. Damn that ballad of Cydifor’s, there was no way to keep that quiet in the long run.
Still, he wanted genuine trainees for his own hunt, since his staff was too thin. He’d swallow what he had to if it would improve the situation.
He leaned back in his chair. “Here’s how we’re staffed. We have two whippers-in at present—Brynach and Benitoe. Both are rather young but coming along nicely. You saw them today.”
“Benitoe is the lutin you had with you?” Gwion asked.
“I didn’t know any of them hunted. Or even rode, for that matter. You must have been truly short-staffed.”
“On the contrary,” George said, “he’s very able indeed. Since you’ll be pairing up with the whippers-in as you learn the territory and the hounds, I think he’s just the partner for you, to show you the ropes.” Out of the corner of his eye he caught Dyfnallt covering a smile with his hand.
“Dyfnallt, I’ll pair you with Brynach. He would benefit from hearing about other practices to round out his own knowledge.”
“As you wish, huntsman,” Dyfnallt nodded.
“We’ll hunt doubled up like this for the first several hunts, and for the hound walking, too.”
Dyfnallt asked, “And who were the other two youngsters you had with you this morning?”
“Rhian is Gwyn’s foster-daughter. She’s the junior huntsman.” Both his guests were taken aback by that.
“She’s young, but committed. This is what she wants to do and she has the skills needed. The hounds obey her as they do me. You’ll find her quite competent if inexperienced.”
“But surely her foster-father has other uses for her?” Gwion said.
“He has granted her leave to do this. I can’t speak for it as she gets older.”
He smiled as that sank in. No one would easily displace Gwyn’s foster-daughter on the hunt staff. “The boy is Maelgwn, my foster-son. He’s not part of the hunt staff though he often rides out with us.”
“I think that’s enough for one afternoon,” he concluded. “You’ve added several hours to your day today, coming west from Britain, so I don’t expect you to start any duties until tomorrow. We hunt Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, so tomorrow we’ll only be hound walking. Please be here by dawn for that, tacked up and ready to go.”
He pushed away from the desk and stood up. “I recommend you seek out the tailor Mostyn in Greenhollow, a couple of houses north of the Horned Man inn. You’ll have seen the inn as you went by this morning from the Travelers’ Way. If you see him this afternoon, he should have livery for you in just a few days. Be sure to mention my name for the colors and basic design, and Ifor Moel’s for the bill. Officially, you’re now part of my staff, so if you find yourself with any needs—horses, housing, anything at all—please let me know. I’ll look for you at dinner and introduce you to Gwyn and his staff.”
He deliberately made himself suppress his suspicions and gave them a sincere hand clasp, one at a time. “You’re both welcome here. I’m sure we can work well together and learn a great deal from each other.” Gwion smiled and shook his hand with great affability, while Dyfnallt added a dignified nod.
He walked them out the main kennel gates. They don’t have much to say to each other, he noticed. They may have been thrown together by the timing, but they don’t seem like chums.
George wondered if his mischievous impulse to put Gwion with Benitoe was doing the lutin any favors. He turned and went back to the feed room inside the other entryway to give Ives the background he needed.
He found Tanguy and Huon just starting up the cooking for the evening’s hound feeding. “How’s married life treating you, Tanguy?” he teased, one recent husband to another.
Tanguy blushed as he replied, “It’s a fine thing, isn’t it?” Huon the bachelor rolled his eyes skeptically.
Ives came in from his back room and they returned to their work. “Well?” he said, sitting down at his worktable.
“Well, indeed,” George replied. “They’ve been sent to train here. Both are huntsmen by their own right at home.” He told Ives what he’d learned so far.
“Some huntsmen there are who can learn like this, but others are proud and unwilling,” Ives said.
“True enough, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt at the start.” George rubbed his face. “I’ll confess I was irritated with Gwion and assigned him to Benitoe, but I should warn him about that. Do you know where he is?”
“I’ll send him to you before dinner,” Ives said. “You should tell the others, too.”
George agreed. He wanted his young hunt staff prepared for, well, he didn’t know what. He expected there was an element of danger in these trainees, though he couldn’t see what exactly they could do. Still, better to put his folks on their guard, just in case.
“What did George tell you about these huntsmen?” Eurig asked Brynach for the second time at dinner in the great hall. His great-nephew sighed patiently and repeated the news George had told him, when he found him with Rhian a couple of hours ago.
“So he’s got you keeping tabs on a fellow that’s, what, several times your age and an experienced huntsman?”
“That’s not how he put it, sir. He said I could learn a lot from him, and I’m sure that’s true. We’re to partner up for a while as whippers-in.”
Two of them from the old world, at the same time. Lludd’s hand was obvious in this, and Eurig knew Gwyn would see it, too. A blind man could see it, and Gwyn was far from blind.
What’s he plotting, he wondered. Would he let Lludd come at him first, after the rock-wights? Or would he bring the fight to him? That wouldn’t be like him—Gwyn always favored the oblique approach.
And then there’s the problem of George, the fellow who can kill the ways. Gwyn would either have to use him, lose him, or protect him, and none of that was yet apparent. The huntsman was going along as if nothing had changed since he returned from Edgewood. Why? That wasn’t sensible on Gwyn’s part. Ah, but then there’s Cernunnos, isn’t there. That’s it—Gwyn hasn’t settled with Cernunnos yet, so George is unresolved until then. I’ll bet that’s what’s happening.
How will this play out, he wondered. Change is coming, and that tends to be bloody.
“See here, nephew. I’m not saying anything against this huntsman you’re shepherding around, I don’t know him. But I want you to promise me to be careful with them. One or both may not be what they seem.” Brynach listened to him attentively. “Watch what they do, especially around the rest of the hunt staff.”
“I will, sir. I’ve already spoken to Rhian and Benitoe about it.”
“Good lad. Treat the fellow honestly, but be cautious about him.”
Eurig could practically see the wheels turning in Gwyn’s head, up on the dais. This was going to be fun. He rubbed his hands together. It had been too long since he’d last seen action, not since the night they’d moved Annwn to the new world.
He dismissed Brynach’s look of puzzlement. “Never mind.” He pointed over at George who’d risen from his seat to greet two strangers at the entrance to the great hall. “Let’s watch.”
George brought the men up to the high table to introduce them to Gwyn, and then to Rhian, Ceridwen, and his own family seated there.
What’s he going to do with them now, Eurig wondered. Oh, the sly dog, here he comes with both of them in tow and a twinkle in his eye.
“Eurig,” George said, “I’ve brought our new guests over to meet you two. Brynach, this is Gwion and Dyfnallt. I’ve asked Dyfnallt to ride with you for a while.”
Brynach nodded to Dyfnallt politely.
“Gentlemen,” George continued, “Please let me introduce Eurig ap Gruffydd and his great-nephew Brynach. Eurig’s estate Taironnen is just north of here and he’s a frequent visitor. Brynach can help you find anything you need. I thought to leave you all seated together this evening to get acquainted. Don’t keep them up too late now, Eurig, hound walking comes early.”
And as neatly as that, he left them there and handed Eurig the job of finding out more about them. I’ve underestimated the man, he thought, and turned to his task.
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