Book 1 of The Hounds of Annwn, Chapters 1-3
I did it! He’s finally gone, dead, finished. A few snicks and snecks, and there he was on the ground, wasn’t he, throat twitching. And they just stood around, didn’t they, deluded like fools by the spell, that wonderful spell he gave me, he was right about it, all those hounds and nothing they could do.
The mighty prince. Ha. One less for you. I remember how he helped you hold him down before you cut him open…
Hush, hush, no, don’t think about that.
He won’t be holding anyone down anymore, will he, no, not him. Not with those hands. I’ve got them now. I have my own plans for you, don’t I.
Time to run all the way home now. They’ll never catch me, I’m too clever, I’m too slick.
Such a long time to wait but we’re all ready now.
Misplacing a pack of hounds was not on George’s “to do” list this morning.
“Come on, Mosby, get moving,” he said. “I don’t know how they got way over there either, but you can hear ’em. Let’s roll.”
He leaned forward, using his legs to urge the horse into a canter on the narrow trail. The damp grass muffled the rhythmic pounding and filled the air with a tangy mid-autumn scent. Most of the leaves were still clinging to the trees, and the wild grape vines, draped wherever the sunlight penetrated, obscured his view, but he could clearly hear hounds giving tongue off in the distance. Sounded like the whole pack was on. One voice would lift, then several in chorus, then single voices again. As always, the hairs on the back of his neck rose. They were somewhere on the far side of the woods, and the trail looked like it was headed in that direction.
He turned his head at a flash of white and the sound of twigs breaking to watch a big whitetail bound across the path before him. He sailed over a fallen branch, then spun around to stare at him boldly.
A magnificent buck—what a rack, twelve points at least, George thought, turning to admire him as he rode by. Why’s he just standing there looking at me, with his great brown eyes and his flared nostrils? What’s he waiting for?
As he cantered past he swung his attention back to the front, startled to find two small trees lying fallen together across the trail just a couple of strides away. He hastily settled himself for the jump, his gaze fixed on the topmost part that his horse would need to clear, and beyond. Not until Mosby rose to spring easily over the barrier did it occur to him that he might better have spared a glance upward, as a high branch materialized from the side and swept him out of the saddle.
The fall knocked the wind out of him when he hit the ground, with a thump to his head. He paused before trying to move, taking stock. Nothing felt broken. He rolled to the side and pushed himself up, his snug knee-high boots making it awkward to bend his legs fully as the calf muscles swelled. This wasn’t the first time he’d come off a horse and he felt it in the usual places. The woods had pulled back into a little opening after the fallen trees, and the glare from the sunlight made him blink. Odd. He’d had the impression that the trees were still enclosing the trail after the jump when he looked ahead as Mosby rose.
He tried to clear his head and focused on the sound of a horse grazing. Good, at least Mosby had stayed with him instead of running off in a panic after losing his rider. The reins trailed on the ground and he heard the bit clattering as the horse munched around it.
He limped stiffly over, picked up the reins, and led Mosby forward a few steps, looking for injuries or any evidence of impeded movement, but the horse seemed sound. Well, that’s a blessing. Better me sore than him.
He couldn’t hear the hounds anymore, nor John’s horn. Couldn’t hear the foxhunt at all. Maybe catching up wasn’t going to be so simple. He could already imagine the lecture he’d be getting from the huntsman for letting this happen.
John needed to know about his delay. He pulled his cellphone out of his hunt coat’s inner pocket. No signal, as usual.
Off came the leather riding gloves, and he used his thumbs to type a brief text message describing what had happened and where he was headed. The cellphone would look for a signal every few minutes and would forward the text if it found one. Out of habit he pulled out the pocket watch chained through his vest’s buttonhole to check its time against the cellphone. He stood a moment, running his thumb across the engraving of St. George and the dragon on the back of the watch before returning it to his vest. As he shuffled the cellphone to his left hand to put it away, it dropped from his fingers—his old injury kicking in again. He bent stiffly to pick it up.
Standing there with the leather reins in his hand, he put his gloves back on, turning around to see where he’d fallen. He wasn’t going to take that jump again, but maybe there was a way past it that rejoined the trail.
The tangle of tall pokeberry bushes on the edge of this little clearing were thick and unbroken. No trail was visible, much less any downed trees.
That can’t be right.
He continued turning in a full circle and scanned the woods all around, methodically. There were two openings for paths, but both were on the far side from him and no fallen trees were visible from here. Still holding the reins and bringing Mosby with him, he walked all along the margin, peering past the thickets whose leaves were just starting to turn color.
When he stood at the openings of the two paths, he found he could see some distance along them. They were true rides, larger and better defined than deer trails, but without droppings or hoof prints to show that any horses had traveled them recently.
A shiver went through him and his stomach tightened. There was no way into this spot, other than the rides he hadn’t used.
Well, George, pick a path and worry about it later. You have to get to the hounds.
He’d been headed west when he last had a clear sense of direction. His hand reached back into his other inner pocket for his GPS tracker. Power, no signal. That’s strange, he thought, as he put it back. All it has to do is line-of-sight up to a satellite, not find some cell tower on the ground. It’s usually reliable.
Good thing I brought backup, he thought. He hauled out a small, well-worn brass compass from his left vest pocket, attached where a fob would have been on his watch chain.
Using his compass he confirmed that the right-hand path started in a westerly direction, toward where he’d last heard the hounds. Alright, he thought, the sensible plan is to just try and get out of the woods directly so that I can orient myself and make contact with the hunt as quickly as possible.
He led his horse back away from the margin a few feet into the clearing. He checked the saddle girth, then tossed the reins over his horse’s head. At six foot four George was used to looking over a horse’s back from the ground but gray Mosby, a Percheron/Thoroughbred cross, stood 17.2 hands high at the withers, or just two inches short of six feet.
You’d think someone my size would have less trouble mounting but I had to fall for a horse too tall for me, just like everyone else, he thought. He’d been unable to resist the dark smoky dappled gray gelding with his silvery mane. As Mosby aged he would gradually lighten until he became white. Always going to be a problem keeping a white horse clean, but he’s worth it. “Aren’t you, boy?” The horse cocked his near ear back at the sound of his voice.
George lifted his left foot into the stirrup, careful to keep the toe of his boot away from Mosby’s ribs. With his hands on the front and back of the saddle, he bounced on his right toes twice for momentum and hoisted himself up, swinging his right leg over and settling into the saddle with a comforting creak of leather.
He adjusted the fit of his hard hunt cap. Time to get back to where I belong.
George roughly remembered the layout of this property from his years of adolescent trespass, but it was a big place, several thousand acres, and many of the details had dimmed over time. This wooded covert was new to him, but no private woodland in this part of Virginia was very large. Can’t cost me but a few hundred yards to get clear of all this, he thought.
His current trail was clearly intended for horseback, with no tight spots. Even so, he held Mosby to a walk, trotting where he could, since the path was unfamiliar. Too late cautious, but I’m not going to be surprised a second time. He watched for the thinning of the trees ahead, eager to get out and see the Blue Ridge to the west.
The woods seemed to extend into dimness indefinitely in this direction, and the mid-October day was turning cooler.
He checked his compass again. Still going west, not in a circle, so how’s it possible I’m not out by now? These woods weren’t here twenty years ago, but these trees are older than that. He thought about retracing his steps and trying the other path from the clearing, but he knew it went in the wrong direction, or at least started that way.
Alright, then, when in doubt, double down. Let’s pick up the pace. He sent Mosby forward at a stronger trot, using his horse’s momentum to rise in the saddle on every other stride to smooth the movement as he’d been doing all his life.
The ground began to fall away to the south, the trees finally opened up a bit, and the path entered another small clearing which was not, he noted with some relief, the one he’d started from.
As he brought Mosby to a halt to recheck his bearings, a nearby rustle on the right caught his attention. George saw two hounds just inside the woods, all by themselves. They ran silently into the clearing, looking for scent.
His years as a whipper-in took hold and he lifted his hand with the furled whip in a warding-off gesture, saying, “Get back to ’im,” in an authoritative tone, to send them back to the pack and its huntsman. The hounds glanced up at him in acknowledgment and turned back in the direction they came from, but he hardly noticed, stunned.
Those aren’t our hounds, not white hounds with red ears. I thought those were mythical. He chuckled uncertainly, remembering the Welsh tales his father had told him when he was a child. He looked around at the trees, the sunlight flickering on the autumn leaves as the breeze caught them. It all seemed very ordinary. Well, I suppose it can hardly be the Wild Hunt, in broad daylight. Maybe someone’s lost dogs? They looked like working hounds, though.
He glanced down at the hounds on the buttons of his coat. Maybe they’re Talbot hounds, he grinned. If I’m wandering dreaming in an endless woods, might as well have the legendary beasts of grandfather’s ancient family to keep me company.
Wouldn’t he be pleased at my invoking the old lineage, back to the Norman Conquest. He smiled wryly. Better never tell him I think a man should do his own deeds, not lean on those of his ancestors.
Still, he sat up straight like a Talbot of old, and headed after the errant hounds, seeking enlightenment.
The couple of hounds led George to the edge of the trees at last. He picked his way after them with care and paused to take in the view, a welcome relief after the enclosed woods.
He gazed southwest down a gradual slope of upland meadow. Glancing right automatically, he was relieved to see the smoky wall of the Blue Ridge, running north-south like a compass line laid out on the earth. From this angle the ridge line seemed quite high and completely wooded. The air was crisp and clean, with a chill rising despite the cloudless sky.
His eyes followed the two hounds, obediently loping down the slope ahead of him. Before him was a familiar scene of hounds and riders, but this wasn’t the Rowanton Hunt. Several hunters were dismounted, gathered around someone on the ground while others held their horses.
He examined the riders more carefully. What’s with the clothing, he wondered. They look like reenacters for a Revolutionary War event—tricorns, long coats, and bright colors.
A small group of mounted men near the hounds wore something that seemed to be hunt livery, green frock coats, longer than any he had ever seen in use, with prominent turned-back cuffs, and brown boots that rose over the knee.
The nearest hunt servant glanced up as the two hounds rejoined the pack and looked along their back trail, spotting George sitting his horse at the edge of the woods above him. He called out to one of the men standing over the fallen figure and pointed. The standing man followed his gesture and then dispatched two of the riders next to him up the slope.
George quelled his momentary panic at the strangeness of the scene and stood his ground. That must be the master of this hunt, he thought, by the way he gives orders. Who are these people, and what are they doing on Bellemore land?
As the riders cantered up the slope, he got a closer view of their gear. Swords and long hunting knives? That’s eccentric even for a private pack. These clothes look genuine, worn and comfortable, not stiff and unused like costumes.
The hair rose on the back of his neck and for a moment he had to resist the urge to turn and flee. His pride stiffened him, that, and the knowledge that Mosby wasn’t built for speed. Whatever this is, it’s real, he told himself. Deal with it.
He decided to take them at face value, kicked his rational disbelief firmly into the back of his mind to await a better moment, and rode forward slowly to meet them.
He stopped just before the first rider reached him and looked him over as he approached. The man was tall and dark, wearing a blue frock coat with a long buff inner vest. Must be what they call a weskit, George thought. He nodded to him, and they waited a moment for the second horseman, a brown-haired man on a bay gelding. They eyed his own gear in some puzzlement, though they said nothing about it.
The first rider bowed his head before speaking. “I’m Idris Powell, and this Ifor Moel. My lord Gwyn would speak with you, sir, if you please.”
My lord Gwyn? Conscious of the revolver holstered at the small of his back under his coat, George briefly considered resisting, but what would be the point? Instead, he let his well-schooled Virginia manners take charge.
“My name’s George Talbot Traherne, whipper-in for the Rowanton Hunt, and I seem to have gotten lost on Bellemore land.”
“What’s happened here?” he said, pointing with his chin at the fallen man. “I’d be glad to help, if I can.”
The three of them cantered down to the group of standing men and the man in charge came forward to meet them. George dismounted to speak with him, not wanting to loom over him on horseback.
He saw a tall man accustomed to authority, lean and fit, with gray eyes in a dark weathered face and black hair starting to silver. He was dressed with dignity and quiet richness, his thigh-length coat of green wool cut away in front, partially covering a long matching waistcoat. The color matched the livery of the hunt staff, but the details were more elaborate and the cloth of higher quality. His cream breeches were cut full for ease of movement. White sleeve ruffles extended beyond the coat sleeves with their broad turned up cuffs. He wore no stock around his neck, but his shirt collar was closed by a green silk scarf. His high boots were brown and well worn.
He held himself rigid in some strong emotion as George approached, and said stiffly, “I’m Gwyn Annan, and this is my land. What’s your business here? What do you know of this?” He pointed behind him.
George was startled to recognize the name but it was impossible to make sense of it—perhaps this was a cousin? He opened his mouth to tell him about the hunt meet today at this fixture, but before he could speak his eyes followed the gesture and he looked down at the fallen rider on the ground.
One motionless outstretched arm ended in an oozing stump. A reek of blood rose in the clear autumn air, more blood than he could see through the tangle of men standing around the body. Why, that fellow’s been killed, he thought, shocked. This isn’t from a fall.
Where are his hands?
George was speechless for a moment. Into the silence Idris Powell announced from horseback, “My lord, this is George Talbot Traherne. He declares himself a huntsman.”
At the name, Gwyn’s face froze, and he turned back to George.
“Who is your mother?” he asked, staring at him intensely.
George tore his attention from the dead man to the man before him, puzzled by the question and the focus of his attention. “Léonie Annan Talbot.” He stressed the “Annan.”
“Georgia Rice Annan. I was named for them both.”
Gwyn Annan closed his eyes briefly, and bowed. “Welcome, kinsman.”
George had no trouble recognizing the name. There was a Gwyn Annan who was the father of his grandmother Georgia, but he had gone to France with his son in the 1950s, soon after her marriage, and vanished. George didn’t know much about her family. This must be a descendant from that line.
Bellemore had been vacant since then, kept in good repair by a farm manager, and supervised by a lawyer from Culpeper for annual repairs and cleaning from an apparently inexhaustible budget. It had been part of the Rowanton Hunt territory long ago but closed as a fixture for decades. Rumors of the current heir returning had been confirmed when the senior Master of Foxhounds, his grandfather Gilbert Talbot, received an invitation to hunt there today, mailed from the lawyer’s office under instruction. Could this be the heir? He called it “his land.”
That made some sense of who he was, but couldn’t explain the clothing, or the dead man lying bloody on the ground.
Gwyn recalled himself first. “We’ll discuss this later. I must see to this outrage now.”
He looked up at Idris. “Take everyone who will go back to the manor and see that they’re well provisioned, with apologies for the abrupt ending of their sport today. Make sure you listen to their complaints. I want to hear their speculations about this affair afterward.”
Idris nodded, turned his horse, and headed over to the main body of riders to begin organizing a general withdrawal.
Turning to one of the men beside him, Gwyn said, “Thomas, take some of these standing here to clean poor Iolo’s body as best you can. We’ll tie him onto his horse for the trip back.”
The appointed man, weatherbeaten and competent, gathered two to help him and they began a quiet discussion about what to do.
Gwyn turned back to George. “Idris named you huntsman. Is it so?”
“Not quite. I’ve been whipper-in for many years, both to my grandfather and then to his successors, but it’s not how I make my living. I’ve hunted hounds, on occasion, filling in for our huntsman.”
“Did you send those two hounds down to the pack?”
What was he getting at, George wondered.
“Yes. I’m sorry if I’ve interfered but it seemed clear that they weren’t on a trail and not with the pack where they belonged. I’m afraid I just reacted as I would for my own hunt.”
“And they obeyed?”
“Well, of course.” The question surprised him. The hounds always obeyed him—they knew him well after all, he thought. Maybe these hounds didn’t know him, he reconsidered, but it was a common enough command he gave them.
“Then I put you in charge of the pack for now to bring them home, if you would. As you can see, someone has killed Iolo ap Huw, my huntsman and foster-son.” He couldn’t keep the affection and grief from his voice.
Taken aback, George thought, what have I walked into? And then he mulled it over, just how would I take a strange pack home, I wonder?
He looked over at the hounds, both bitch and dog hounds milling about silently, a mixed gender pack. They were white with small reddish-orange markings, especially on the ears, and most were broken-haired rather than smooth.
Obviously someone needed to bring this pack back, and this Master, grieving and facing an emergency, asked me for the respect due his office. Hunting etiquette required George to make himself useful and he resolved to put all other speculation aside until the hounds were back safely. “Alright, then, I’ll give it a try. Who’s the senior man among the hunt staff?”
Gwyn pointed to the one who had first seen George at the edge of the woods. “That would be Owen the Leash.” Owen had been watching their conversation since he arrived, sitting his white horse at some distance from the pack.
George remounted and rode over to Owen, introducing himself and explaining his assignment. “How are you organized?”
Owen pointed out the other three mounted staff. George could see that they surrounded the pack but not closely, keeping them together like cowboys driving cattle. Only one, rather younger than the others, got close to the hounds. “Iolo it is who leads them and throws them into covert after their quarry. We three follow behind to keep them from turning.” His gesture excluded the younger man, and his expression made it clear he thought of the hounds as threats, not partners.
That was odd, George thought. Whippers-in usually operated from the side, to keep hounds together and stop them hunting separate trails on their own, or from the front, to turn them away from hazards like roads. They didn’t drive them forward or prevent them from turning back altogether—hounds were only too eager to hunt.
“And what about that one?” he said, indicating the younger man.
“Oh, that’s Rhys Vachan. Of the blood he is.”
An odd expression. What did that mean?
“Where are the kennels, and how far?”
Owen said, “We’ve come about five miles, hunting across the high ground. It would be three miles back, without detour.” He pointed west toward the mountains.
“We stopped to water horses and hounds, and Iolo brought them up to the woods here. A whirling cloud, twice the size of a man it was, sped over the ground from the west and aimed directly at him. With a howl, and blood, the cloud passed over the slope. There’s outraged some of the hounds were, and a few trailed it and gave tongue, but they lost it and returned.”
The tale was fantastic, but he seemed to be sincere enough. “Have you ever seen anything like that before?”
“No, never. It’s cursed Gwyn is.”
George let that pass. He didn’t like the way Owen described the hounds, as if they were enemy troops to fend off. Maybe the other fellow would be more in tune with the pack. He raised an arm to the young Rhys and waved him over. Rhys was fair-haired and beardless, looking to be in his early twenties.
“I’ve been tasked with bringing the hounds home. What do you suggest?”
Rhys replied straightforwardly enough, but George could hear the doubt in his voice. “If you’re not afraid, then walk among them for a few minutes and let them smell you.” George could see Owen’s eyes widen at the idea. “Then if you mount and ride forward, they should follow when you call them.”
“Sounds like a plan. I don’t know the way, so please stay close to the pack when we head off and let me know if I go astray.”
“As you wish.” Rhys rode off to what would be the point of departure at the head of the pack.
George looked down at the pack and saw about fourteen couple of hounds, assuming they counted their hounds in pairs for speed like everyone else. “How many should there be?” he asked Owen.
“We left with thirteen and a half couple.” That would be twenty-seven hounds. George half-smiled at the old hunting joke that you should always have an odd number of hounds out, since it was the odd hound that found the fox.
“Are they all here?”
“Yes, my lord.”
George walked Mosby past Owen and around to the far side of the pack. Before dismounting he glanced back and saw the bulk of the field moving off west at a slow canter. Three men were tending to the body on the ground, but the remaining dozen or so, and all the hunt staff, were watching him attentively. No doubt they expect to see a stranger’s discomfiture, he thought. Alright, then. Let’s disappoint them. He stood in the stirrups, swung his right leg over behind him, and dropped down. He drew the reins over Mosby’s head and looped them over his left arm, giving him a solid pat on the shoulder. Then he walked into the pack.
The first of the hounds came to him, and he could feel the undivided attention of the remaining men and dead silence outside the rustle of the pack. Ignore them. Concentrate on these hounds. The dog hound sniffed his boots daintily, then raised himself on his hind legs prepared to brace his front paws on George’s chest to inspect his face. He was enormous, and shaggy, more like an otter hound than a foxhound. George took a step back and let the hound drop lightly down to all four legs where he stood almost at waist level. George put a hand on his head and crooned to him, “Hey, puppy. Good old puppy.”
The dog hound stepped away and was succeeded by two dancing white bitches, whose interest was kept at ground level with a knee and some adroit dodging. One by one he made the acquaintance of each hound as he walked through the pack. He marked a few boisterous youngsters as likely young entry, hounds getting their first experiences of hunting with the pack, but otherwise they came to him in an orderly fashion, calm and courteous.
These are lovely hounds, he thought. I’ll bet they’ll come along just fine, especially if they’ve already had a run.
Then Owen edged a bit closer to watch his progress. Immediately, the hounds nearest to him raised their hackles and set up a low, almost subliminal, growl. They turned to face him with a sinister sort of focused alertness. The deep noise increased in intensity and threat, like the wavering hum of a hornet’s nest. The bystanders, who had begun moving normally, once again froze to watch, and Owen backed hastily away, the hounds quieting when he did. George had never seen this behavior in hounds before. Maybe they’re right to be cautious of this pack, but it doesn’t make any sense.
He resumed his progress through the interested hounds. As he led his horse forward, George saw that the hounds sniffed him casually but kept out from underfoot, while Mosby placed his feet carefully and came along behind him without any fuss. George made his way through the pack trying to make sure that he touched and was smelled by every individual hound. He was overwhelmed with first impressions, but there were a few hounds that he particularly liked the look of.
He called over to Rhys, as he approached the front of the pack. “Who are the leaders?” Rhys pointed out several hounds, including one dog hound named Dando, the first hound that had come to greet him.
“They’ll follow Dando anywhere,” Rhys said.
“Let’s put that to the test,” George said, as he mounted up.
He sat easily on Mosby and looked over to the rest of the hunt. The departing field was no longer in sight. The dead man’s body had been wrapped in someone’s cloak and tied across his horse’s saddle. George caught Gwyn’s eye and raised his eyebrow as a question. Gwyn nodded, and George stepped out.
He put himself at the head of the procession since the hounds usually led the field with their huntsman. He turned in the saddle and summoned Dando with a “Come along, Dando, puppy,” and the white hound cooperated as if they had hunted together for years. The pack paced tranquilly behind him, then Owen’s men, and then Gwyn and a man leading Iolo’s horse with the grim few who had stayed to help. Rhys rode nearby but behind and off to the left, calling out general directions. They headed west, toward the Blue Ridge.
Gwyn took his place at the head of the remnant of the field, behind Owen the Leash. Glancing back at the dismal procession behind him, his stomach tightened and he could feel his shock and horror begin to give way to a boiling rage.
Iolo, his foster-son and companion of hundreds of years, slain in his prime like an animal, in the midst of his work. Reluctantly he admitted his own sense of guilt in the matter; Iolo wasn’t murdered because of any crime he’d committed. Killing him two weeks before the great hunt was a master stroke aimed at Iolo’s lord instead.
For twenty years Gwyn had felt his enemies picking at his control of the hunt, but he never thought they would move so directly against the huntsman. He knew one of them had to be his sister Creiddylad, but he wasn’t sure what part she played. He felt the old familiar heartache at the thought, but Owen the Leash was hers, and he could no longer think of her as innocently involved. There were certainly others, though. He detected the hand of at least one other and thought he could name him: Gwythyr. Surely his sister wasn’t working together with her ex-husband—that he wouldn’t believe.
He’d have to invite his brother Edern, he thought, without delay. No more standing in isolation pretending he was strong enough to fend off any attack on his sovereignty.
What would he do for a huntsman? He didn’t think Rhys could do it, and he couldn’t imagine what would happen to him if he tried it and failed.
What about this unexpected apparition, Georgia’s grandson, pulling the hounds somewhat raggedly along in front? Too convenient, just dropping in like that. Was he planted there?
Should I believe the implied lineage? The man was in his early thirties. Standing on the ground, our eyes were level, so he’s about my height, but so much broader. That’s those Norman Talbots, I wouldn’t be surprised. He didn’t recall Georgia’s mother very well, she had died so young, but he had stayed twenty-one years to raise his daughter and see her wed, and it was to her he looked for comparison. The hair looks like mine, but he has her mouth and her green eyes. I suppose it must be true. To think that little Léonie had such a son. When I saw her last, she was trying to push that horrid pony over a jump of her own devising, and winning.
It must be almost sixty years since I last wore clothing like his, the red coat with the collar in Talbot colors of dark gold and red piping, those uncomfortably tight breeches, and the knee-high black boots. I’m surprised so little has changed.
What’s this fellow like? He reached out to him with his mind and recoiled. He tastes rather… odd. Human and fae, clearly, but there’s something else, something dark and alive. Is it part of his blood? Georgia’s Gilbert Talbot was normal enough, but who was this man’s father?
Gwyn watched his performance with the pack as they followed the side of the slope westward along open ground at a walk. The hounds were staying together, for the most part, and Rhys helped keep them from breaking left.
Maybe he’ll do, Gwyn thought, better than risking Rhys for the purpose. Let’s keep him around for a couple of days and look him over. Perhaps I can persuade him to stay for the great hunt.
George kept the pace to a walk to accommodate the dead man on the led horse. Ahead the open ground widened as it began to descend to the west as well as the south, and he saw from above a village surrounded by fields in an enclosed upland dell that extended to his left down the slope. A stream of some size descended from the north end and ran through the village, and he spotted an arched stone bridge and the first roads he had seen here, dirt trails wide enough for vehicles.
Lifting his eyes, he made out a large stone building with a wall around its grounds about two miles away across the vale and north on the far side, partway up the slope, backed against the woods that continued uninterrupted up to the ridge line. The building was well-sited, with good views in three directions, and pennants in green and gold blew from each of the square fort-like front corners.
He looked a question back over his shoulder at Rhys who nodded. “We follow that road across and up to the manor,” pointing at a minor road between fields that began a short distance below them.
Just one problem: the hounds weren’t ready to stop for the day.
By ones and twos they were slipping away to check out nearby coverts as they passed. Rhys intercepted the ones on his side, but George couldn’t stop the others effectively, and Owen and his men were useless, trailing behind them and avoiding his gaze. It was like trying to control a handful of water with a mind of its own, and getting worse by the minute.
He could feel the eyes of the silent riders behind him and his stomach clenched in embarrassment. You’d think I’d never done this before, he thought, but then he’d never tried with strange hounds.
Finally, in exasperation, he called loudly, “Pack up,” and echoed it with some swallowed curses. To his astonishment, the hounds on the edges lifted their heads and moved closer together, like so many lambs.
Really? The next hound that started to drift away got a “Pack up, get back here” with some backbone, and it worked. A shiver went through him. They shouldn’t obey a stranger so easily. Something unnatural about this, he thought.
People in the fields stood and watched. He saw that the bridge met a larger road that paralleled the stream on the eastern side, and that his current path led directly to the crossing. The stream was large and a bit rough—would the hounds cross at the bridge or through the water? It would be easier to control them if they stayed together.
He called over to Rhys, “Will they cross at the bridge or try to swim?”
“Over the bridge.”
Houses and other buildings stood along the main road, but he saw few people as he approached with the pack. Most of the buildings were made of stone, with a few wooden dwellings. He looked for the typical old Virginia houses, in wood, or stucco, or even logs, but these were very different, though porches were common enough. The bridge was stone with timber flooring and rose smoothly to a high point in the middle.
As he passed the first building on his right before the crossroad, he could see well into its interior main room from his elevation on horseback. Two faces pressed against a window, a man and a woman. Glancing at the other buildings, he saw more faces at the windows. Almost all the people he could see were indoors. There was little noise other than the moving hounds and horses, and he cleared his throat uneasily.
He paused deliberately at the bridge, expecting that the hounds would break to drink anyway. They loped to the edge of the stream and lapped eagerly, but made no attempt to cross. After a few moments, conscious of the waiting procession behind him, he called the dripping Dando back to him and headed across the bridge, Mosby’s feet clopping hollowly on the wood. To his relief, the hounds fell in behind him, or more likely behind Dando, and the whole pack crossed up and over.
He turned right, up another, smaller, road that kept pace with the stream on this side, clearly just for local use. He noted one woman who looked about his age, dressed in gray, standing on a porch in front of a baker’s shop. She alone remained outside to watch the hunt go by. Nice that someone else trusts me with these hounds, he thought. Good thing she doesn’t know how little control I actually have.
He touched his cap to her.
As George approached the manor he’d seen from across the river, he discovered that what he had taken for a wall was really a sort of impenetrable living palisade enclosing the grounds. The opened gates were solid wood set in a stone wall that extended for ten feet on either side before joining the palisade. The passage between the walls smelt of damp stone as he rode through, passing under a manned stone archway.
He came out into a sunlit park and gardens that surrounded the manor house, though the grounds behind the house were hidden by interior walls extending from the sides of the house out to the palisade.
George picked up the pace to clear the path behind him for the main procession. At Rhys’s direction, he circled along a path to the left that avoided the front grounds and brought the pack in behind him with their sterns waving, in good order. Owen the Leash and his companions maintained a discreet and constant distance and followed him. Behind him the procession moved across the grounds at a solemn pace to his right, along a wide path bordered with low bushes, now in autumn foliage.
As George came alongside the main building with the pack the full extent of it became clearer. Standing three stories high, its extended square corner towers in front gave it the impression of a fortification. The tower corners were connected by the three levels of a stone portico across the front of the building. The first level had a recessed grand entrance. The building was rough-hewn stone, and overall the manor seemed like a cross between a small castle and an English country house of the more rustic variety, both defensible and comfortable.
The back lacked the fortified corners of the front. About halfway down the manor house’s side a two-story stone wall extended in a curve out sideways and back to the palisade, matched by another wall on the other side. It was large enough to stand on, crenelated for defense, and protected by a pair of large solid wooden gates, now standing open.
As he crossed through the gateway in this curtain wall he discovered many extensive outbuildings arranged neatly with straight lanes between them, like a Roman outpost. Far more space was enclosed behind the curtain walls than in front of the manor. From his position he could see several stables and a variety of workshops which must include a blacksmith, since he could hear an anvil ring. There seemed to be small dwellings, mixed in with the rest. It reminded him of the interior of a castle yard, but much larger and laid out more elaborately. The builders had left a space open between the back of the manor house and the first of the outbuildings that flowed up the slope, and more space was left open along the palisade that surrounded it.
It was also noisy—an establishment this size required many people—and the sudden silence that spread as he came into view with the pack was striking. Rhys cantered ahead of him toward an isolated area not far from the palisade on the left that was clearly the kennels, and he followed at a walk with the hounds.
Rhys bent over his horse to issue orders to a couple of boys in red. They turned and opened the kennel gates, disappearing inside. He straightened up and beckoned him in.
George brought the hounds into the kennel yard, followed by Rhys, and the gates closed behind them. Owen and the other hunt servants remained outside and turned away.
The kennels were large and elaborate, with the resident hounds raising a racket as their packmates returned. Working with Rhys who knew the hounds, and helped by the kennel-boys who held the gates and pointed out where the hounds belonged, George directed first the dog hounds, and then the more biddable bitches into their respective pens. The younger hounds had their own quarters separate from the older ones. Finally the yard was empty and each hound was where he belonged.
The boys in red came up for more orders, and George realized with a start that they weren’t boys at all, but small folk, one bearded, dressed in red jackets and wearing leather breeches with low boots. All were comfortable with the hounds and clearly functioned as kennel-men. He tried not to stare rudely at them. Time for some answers, George thought.
George turned to Rhys. “What now?”
“The lutins will see to the hounds. Come with me and we’ll find a place for your horse.” George swung Mosby toward the gate and followed him, wondering what on earth a lutin was.
One of the small men opened the yard gate for them and shut it behind as they left, with a clang. The noise of the busy establishment had resumed.
George pulled up beyond the closed gate. “I should be headed home,” he said. “I’ll be missed.” He didn’t bother asking for a phone—he doubted he’d find one here, wherever “here” was.
Rhys apologized with his eyes. “Gwyn will want to speak with you, please. We might as well make your horse comfortable in the meantime.”
No arguing with that, even if it was a delaying tactic, as it seemed. Surely he wasn’t suspected of being involved in that death. There were now two gates, a village, and several miles between him and the woods where he met the buck. He felt more like a guest than a prisoner, but if he was wrong he might as well let Mosby rest up while he tried to get answers from Gwyn. No point in putting Rhys on the spot if he’s just obeying orders. Besides, he suspected he would need their willing assistance to get home.
Rhys and George ambled to the nearest stable where two more of the small men in red came out to greet them and take their horses. George dismounted and followed the one who was leading Mosby inside, wanting to be sure of his horse’s comfort.
As Mosby was led into a loose box, George asked, “What shall I do with my gear?” Rhys pointed to a room at the end of the stable aisle, clearly a tack room. “You’ll be assigned a chest during your stay. Come see.”
The lutin silently handed him a basket that had been hanging on the stall door. George unclipped his sandwich box and wire cutters from the saddle and added them to the basket. Then he unbuckled the girth and removed the bridle. Mosby bent his head to some fresh hay and oats in a manger and a welcome wooden bucket of cool water, while one of the grooms began rubbing him down, standing on a stool to reach high enough.
George used the advantage of his height to pull off the saddle and pad, and another groom took them from him, along with the bridle. With the basket in his hand, George gave Mosby a pat on his hindquarters and followed Rhys to the tack room to claim an unoccupied chest. Several were stacked up in the sunlight streaming through the window, and more in the dimmer corners.
Wouldn’t hurt to have a bit more light in here, he thought. He stood in the doorway looking for a light switch. No power? He looked up to confirm his suspicions—no lights. But what’s that next to the window? He walked over and stared at an ordinary oil lamp hanging from a hook on the wall, like a sconce. It seemed so normal, in this place, but where did it come from? It was the first thing he’d seen that didn’t look like it was manufactured here. A shiver went up his spine at the incongruity.
I’m not the only thing in the wrong place.
Meanwhile Rhys and one of the lutins had pulled out an empty chest and opened it.
“How shall they mark the chest and stall for your stay, my lord?” Rhys asked.
George looked around and saw no names or even letters or numbers on the chests, only a variety of what seemed to be symbols drawn in charcoal on small wooden shingles hung on hooks. They were largely simple geometric shapes or drawings of an animal, reminiscent of heraldic signs. He recalled seeing similar charcoal drawings on some of the stall doors.
He thought of the old Talbot arms that hung in his grandfather’s dining room, gold on red. “A lion rampant,” he said whimsically, without thinking, but Rhys nodded and it was clear he understood the heraldic term’s meaning: “standing to strike.”
“Very well. I would judge that your task is done. Allow me to return you to my lord Gwyn.”
Rhys preceded him to the front of the dim stable. As George paused on the threshold behind him, he heard light running footsteps and a bright form leaped at Rhys, causing him to stagger lightly. George’s eyes adjusted and he saw a young teenage girl dancing about his guide. Her blond braid bounced along her back over her simple rose-colored dress.
“Did you see it? What did it look like? Is he really dead? They won’t let me in there. What about the stranger? Did he do it?”
Rhys grabbed her shoulders, smiling, and forcibly held her in place to slow her down. “What courtesies are these to our guest?” he said.
George emerged from the dimness of the stable entrance and she stopped, abashed, staring at him.
Rhys said to him. “Please excuse this ill-mannered display.” He looked at her sternly, if fondly. “Allow me to present Rhian, my sister. Rhian, this gentleman is George Talbot Traherne. He’s brought the pack safely home for us.”
She brushed the loose wisps of hair off her face and dropped into a courtesy, glancing up at her brother to see if this was acceptable. George smiled down at her. “No, I didn’t do it.” Her cheeks reddened.
She rose and said forthrightly, “Thank you, sir, for your deed and please excuse my unbridled words.”
She took her brother’s arm and accompanied them to the house.
How could she have said anything so embarrassing, Rhian thought. Would she never learn to hold her tongue?
As they walked to the manor house, she pulled back on Rhys so that they were walking more abreast of each other. That way she could get a better look at their guest. My, he was big, taller than Rhys, a bit, and broader. Are all humans this large? There was something about him that reminded her of her foster-father, but it was hard to say what, since his face was so expressive, constantly changing, while Gwyn’s was always so careful.
She glimpsed him smiling, not broadly, but quietly, to himself, as if he found everything amusing. Including her clumsy manners, probably.
She sighed silently. Well, at least he looked too kind to hold it against her. She decided he couldn’t have been part of Iolo’s murder. The news had traveled very quickly with the first hunters back from the disaster, some of whom saw it happen and were pleased to tell anyone all about it. The one day she has to miss hunting and look what happens. She was determined to get a look at the body herself, but so far they’d turned her away. Never mind, I know how to get in there after hours when everyone’s asleep.
Who would be huntsman, now? It seemed like it must be Rhys, but she worried about that. He didn’t want it, might not be any good at it. It was so unfair. She was the one who wanted it, not him. She could do it, she knew she could. She’d been practicing, in the kennels, with Isolda’s help. She’d almost had Iolo persuaded to take her with him. Almost. Would it have made any difference? Or would she be dead, too? She shivered.
She looked over at George again as they approached the nearest of the three rear entrances. How had he managed it? Could Gwyn hire him, maybe?
As they entered the hunting room, she sneezed at the smoke from the fire that took some of the chill off the stone walls. She checked to see if anyone else was there, in the comfortable chairs by the fireplace or at the small tables that marched along the right side, but the room was empty. She glanced at the pegs on the outer wall and saw the usual mix of gear, both military and hunting, with several bows, a few swords, and a couple of lances with cross bars. Many of the pegs were empty.
So, nothing out of the ordinary was going on, just everyone busy with something else.
Rhys turned to her and unbuckled his belt with sword and hunting knife attached. He put the two blades together, and wrapped the belt around them to make a neat package. “Would you do me the favor of returning this to my room and bringing me my normal belt while I attend to our guest?”
She looked at him, surprised. He didn’t often ask for casual favors like this, the way he would a friend, much less appeal to her duties to help him as host.
Pleased not to be treated as a child, she nodded at him with appropriate dignity. “Certainly, brother.”
She took the weighty bundle in both arms and ran off through the doorway on the left.
George and Rhys followed her more sedately, entering a large hall with open double doors to the outside on the left wall. It was flagstone paved and the walls were rough stone, like the exterior walls. An archway at each end pierced the long wall opposite the outer doors, and George could see an immense great hall within. Along the outer wall on the far side of the outer doors a staircase led both up and down into cellars. He could smell something roasting through a door at the far side of the hall across from him.
Nearest to him on the left was an enclosed area with doors, like a large set of cloakrooms. Rhys nodded at it. “For your convenience.” George opened a door and discovered tidy if basic indoor plumbing.
After the emptiness of the first room, this hall was busy. Servants and attendants bustled through the open doors and archways, and from the kitchen opposite came a boisterous and continuous noise. Rhys snagged an older man with an air of management about him. “Do you know where my foster-father is?”
“In council, I believe.”
Rhys strode off with George, calling back over his shoulder, “Send us some refreshment there.” Without waiting for a reply, he led George into the great hall in the interior of the manor house.
The very image of a medieval banqueting hall, this cavernous space rose three stories. George noted a raised stone platform with steps all around against the left wall, bearing one row of long tables and chairs. The main floor was flagstoned, wide and empty. Against the right wall, beneath a minstrels’ gallery, stood an orderly pile of long trestle table platforms and supports, with low benches in stacks beside them.
The hall was well-lit and George turned his head to see why. Behind him was a great central hearth along the wall shared with the back hall he’d just left. The chimney rose up internally along the center of that long wall and, at the level of the third floor, was surrounded on both sides by a series of tall windows. The afternoon sunlight poured through and illuminated the space. No windows were cut through any other wall. Tapestries and banners clung to the stone surfaces of the upper walls, their colors faded and hard to discern. The ceiling receded into dimness with a hint of carved beams.
On the wall opposite the hearth was a large archway. George glimpsed the entrance hall at the front of the manor house through it, but Rhys didn’t head that way. Instead, he drew George after him to a closed door in the left wall on the other side of the raised dais.
The sound of steps from behind halted them, and they turned to find Rhian running up with Rhys’s belt and a simple hanging knife. “Can’t I come in with you?” she pleaded.
“You know he won’t allow it. I’ll come find you after and tell you everything. Well, almost. Will that satisfy you?”
She hung on his arm anyway, and when he tapped on the door and then opened it, she came through with them, lingering in the doorway.
George saw a large comfortable room, plastered along the inner walls. The one outer wall across from the open door was wood-paneled and filled with bookcases and papers. In the half of the room near the entrance stood a great table, half-occupied now with several people. Gwyn was seated at the narrow end furthest from the door, listening to an earnest discussion. Behind him, in the back half of the room, were desks and tables, and more stacks of papers. A fire had been laid in the hearth behind the desks, but it hadn’t been lit.
Paintings, mostly portraits, hung on the plastered walls, along with several oil lamps. A number of small tables and chairs were scattered beyond the council table. On the right, another closed door led to the front of the building.
Gwyn looked up as they entered. He caught Rhian’s eye and raised an eyebrow. She sighed melodramatically and turned away, shutting the door behind her.
George remained standing near the door while Rhys walked the length of the table and approached Gwyn. Gwyn raised a hand to halt the conversation around the table.
Rhys came to a halt. “My lord, the hounds are safely back in kennels and all’s well. Our guest’s horse has been seen to, and I’ve brought him back to you.”
“My thanks, foster-son. Please be seated while we finish our business.”
Raising his eyes to George, he continued, “Please wait a few minutes, kinsman. I would speak with you privately.”
Answers at last, I hope, George thought. Who are these people? Will they let me leave wherever this is?
Rhys and George removed themselves to some comfortable chairs beyond the great table. A quiet tap on the door they had used was followed by a servant bringing in a tray with food and drink. Rhys waved him over and he set up on a small table between them. A fresh round crusty loaf, butter, ham, cheese, and several apples, with flagons of cider and water, tempted their appetite. George’s pocket knife was short for the purpose, so Rhys used his belt knife to cut for them both. He poured out some cider into glasses where it bubbled quietly along the sides.
George’s stomach overruled his growing concern about how he was going to get back home. They ate in pleasant silence for a few minutes, concentrating on the food. The cider was sparkling and mildly alcoholic.
Rhys raised an eyebrow at him. “My foster-father called you kinsman?” he asked.
“I don’t understand it myself. I know of someone with that name, but this can’t be him, he’d be dead,” George said.
A quiet scratch on a nearby closed door leading to the front rooms of the manor house caused Rhys to shake his head and rise, opening the door to let in two small white terriers, long haired and wiry-coated. The noise in the front rooms beyond them vanished again once he closed the door.
The terriers promptly parked themselves in front of the food and waited, quivering. “Nothing wrong with those noses,” George said quietly, trying not to disturb the discussion around the table.
“They are scamps and rogues, and my lord is excessively fond of them.” Rhys smiled. “Allow me to introduce Taffy and Myfanwy.” He patted the seat of the chair he occupied and Taffy hopped up into place, rewarded with a tidbit of ham. Myfanwy looked up imploringly at George, so he obliged her with the same invitation and welcomed the bit of warmth along one leg, kept contented by small but frequently solicited bribes.
The conversation at the other end of the great table was intense but quiet, and George couldn’t make out much of it.
Gwyn rose. “Let me know what you find immediately. We’ll continue this in the morning. If you’ll excuse me…”
They pushed their chairs back, nodded, and left through the door to the great hall.
Gwyn came over to Rhys and George in the corner. “Any left for me?”
He pulled another comfortable chair over and sat down. Rhys handed him his own glass and refilled it with cider, cutting him some bread and ham. Gwyn looked over at Taffy in Rhys’s lap. “Well?” The terrier jumped down and hopped up to Gwyn’s seat. Myfanwy studiously ignored him to keep George’s nice warm leg. Gwyn chuckled. “Traitor,” he told her.
Silence persisted while Gwyn took a few bites. Then he sighed, put his glass down, and looked directly at George. “We have much to discuss.”
George cleared his throat. He could finally ask the most important question.
“Where am I?”
“There’s no simple answer to that. This is still Virginia, after a fashion, and yet really more a reflection of Virginia in another place.”
George nodded to himself. Well, you knew it was something like that already, didn’t you, he thought. He took a deep breath.
“If you’re about to say that I’ve been carried off by the Fair Folk to Elf-land, I’m not sure I can well dispute you. There’s too much concrete reality in all of this.” He could hardly believe that he’d actually said this, but he truly had no good rational explanation to hand.
Gwyn smiled. “We would call it the otherworld.”
Maybe this will make more sense from another direction, George thought.
“You’ve called me ‘kinsman.’ What are we to each other?”
Gwyn approached the topic indirectly. “My kind are very long-lived and we’ve been in this new world for centuries. From time to time, some of us are accustomed to visit your human world, and sometimes we stay for a while, as a change.”
Suddenly George rethought the brief introduction in the field. Not a cousin in the Bellemore family, perhaps. “You’re the father of my grandmother Georgia Annan, aren’t you?”
Gwyn nodded. “And thus your great-grandfather.”
Rhys had been silent so far but at this he grinned. “That would make me some sort of cousin, wouldn’t it?” He sounded pleased.
George recalled the Bellemore estate history. It was often empty for a generation or two, and then re-occupied by an heir in the male line. Gwyn returning periodically under a new guise each time?
“Does my grandfather Talbot know?”
“I’m not sure what he believes. I departed soon after their marriage. It was time; I’d remained long enough that my unchanging appearance was beginning to cause remark. I claimed a son in Europe from a first wife to create an appropriate heir, as I’ve done before, and left my daughter an inheritance of all but the actual estate and its furnishings.”
“How could you leave your family?”
“It must always be so. Her mother was gone, and I’d seen her into adulthood with a husband. I’ve looked in from time to time. Does she live still?”
George was horrified. Doesn’t he keep track of his own daughter? With an effort he held his face expressionless.
“She’s becoming frail. Does she know what you are? She inherits none of your… traits?”
“I never told her—it wouldn’t be kind. We have few children and, when we have children outside the blood, they mostly gain little of us except our affection.”
If that, George thought.
“Did you ever meet your granddaughter Léonie, my mother, before she died?”
“I didn’t know she’d died.” He was silent for a moment. “I often saw her in the woods of Bellemore, on her pony. We had many pleasant, if anonymous, chats.”
Rhys laughed. “You named your estate ‘Bellemore?’ Did you tell your grandfather?”
George gave him a bewildered look and Rhys turned to him with a flourish. “Cousin,” chuckling at the salutation, “you see before you the great Prince of Annwn, Gwyn ap Nudd. His father is the great lord Nudd of the Silver Hand, called these days Lludd Llaw Eraint, ruler in Britain, and his father is the mighty Beli Mawr, our highest present power. Hence ‘Bellemore.’”
Gwyn said smoothly, with an unruffled expression, “Word play’s not uncommon in Virginia estate names. I didn’t ask him for permission, nor yet you, pup.”
“Wait a minute,” George said. “It may be taking me a while to catch up, but I remember some of the old Welsh stories from my father. If you, sir,” nodding to Gwyn, “are the Prince of Annwn, then those hounds would be the Cwn Annwn, the Hounds of Hell.”
George was taken aback at his calm agreement, then laughed uncertainly into the silence—no wonder everyone was afraid of them. “How did I survive that?”
Gwyn looked at him. “Sometimes our blood does come out, after all. Those of my blood are in sympathy with our beasts, and so, it would seem, are you.”
George wondered. It was true that hounds and horses were biddable for him but he had never tried teaching them anything out of the ordinary. He looked at Myfanwy in his lap. “Would you sit up for me, my lady?” She glanced up at him and rose to waggle two paws in the air, eyes agleam. “Thank you,” he said faintly, popping another bit of ham in her mouth.
Before he could explore the dozens of questions that came to him, he pulled his mind back to the basics.
“Can I return? Or have I already lost years, as the stories say?”
“Yes, you can return. The stories are wrong; time passes the same in all worlds. Do you wish to return? Can you not stay the night, at least?”
George thought about it. He wanted to find out more about this place and his new relatives, but he felt the tug of his home and his responsibilities. “I will be missed and I don’t want to cause distress, nor should they send searchers on a fool’s errand.”
He remembered the text message he’d sent a few hours ago. He pulled out his cellphone and saw that the message was still unsent; there had never been a usable signal since the disastrous jump in the woods. No GPS signal either. A chill went up his spine at this confirmation that he was in a place without cell towers or satellites, or even, presumably, electricity.
As he fumbled with his gadgets, Gwyn said, “We have agents in your world. We could get a message to one that would be delivered this evening to, say, your grandfather.”
George was tempted. He wanted to explore this unexpected heritage, at least briefly. “If I return, can I come back?”
“Perhaps, but I don’t know for certain if you can do it on your own.”
Ah, there’s the subtle prod to reinforce the offer. I’m being played, George thought. He’s got something in mind, and he’s being very smooth about it.
Alright, George decided. “If I can get a note delivered to my grandfather, I’d like to stay a little while. Thank you.”
Gwyn smiled at him. “Excellent. You’ll find paper and pen on my desk. Rhys, please arrange a room for our kinsman.” Rhys departed on the errand.
With apologies, George lifted Myfanwy off his lap and walked to the desk on the far side of the room where he found an ink well with a dip pen and smooth rag paper. What could he possibly write? He settled for truthful and obscure.
I can’t explain right now, but something completely unexpected has come up and I may be away for a few days. Mosby and I are fine, and I’m very sorry to have caused any worry. Could you please ask Bud to look after the place and the animals for me? Please tell Sam Littleton at my office that it’s a family emergency; Bud has the number.
His farm manager, Bud, could look after things for a few days. He’d have to defer a proper explanation until he understood more about what was happening. Perhaps his Talbot grandfather comprehended more about his wife’s family than he let on.
He gave the sheet to Gwyn who folded and sealed it. He stepped into the great hall and stopped a passing servant. “Send Idris Powell to me.”
After a few moments, Idris entered. Gwyn handed him the sealed sheet. “Get this to Mrs. Catlett as soon as possible, this afternoon, for immediate delivery to Gilbert Talbot. She knows who he is.” Idris nodded and left.
George was startled. He knew Mariah Catlett slightly, a middle-aged woman who rode quietly but competently in the first field of the hunt.
Rhys re-entered the room. “Good. Rhys, take charge of your kinsman until dinner, if you would.” He turned to George, “I’ll speak with you again later this evening.”
Dismissed, George and Rhys returned to the great hall. Rhian was sitting on the steps of the dais, waiting for them.
Rhys informed his sister, “Rhian, allow me to introduce your kinsman. He’s Gwyn’s great-grandson.”
Rhian brightened at the news. She sprang up and then curtsied formally.
He continued, “He’ll be spending the night so at least some of your questions will be answered.”
Rhian looked George over critically. “What will he wear tonight? Everyone’s staying, too curious to leave.” George frowned; he hadn’t considered the matter of evening dress here. Rhian was right—it would be poor manners to be improperly attired at what promised to be a formal event.
“What’s it matter?” Rhys said.
With a great look of scorn, Rhian ignored him, “We had better sort that out now; there won’t be time later after kennels. Let’s see what’s in his room.”
Looking tolerantly over her head at George, Rhys shrugged and the three of them passed through the great archway to the front hall and the main stairs.
Gwyn moved to his desk and straightened up after George, wiping the pen and capping the inkwell. He took advantage of the rare solitude to consider his options.
This was the first time a human descendant had ever come to him. On those few occasions when he thought it appropriate, he had brought one with him, usually permanently. They had adapted well and lived out their lives, as humans do.
This one, however, seemed to have been thrust upon him. It wasn’t surprising that he’d been unaware of his existence; there was little point in tracking his ever more diluted blood in the human world indefinitely, especially with their short lifetimes. But how did George get here? And why was it so timely? He discarded the notion of coincidence with barely a moment’s consideration.
Who was interfering in his affairs? Was it the work of a secret ally or an enemy? Enemy seemed more likely—why would an ally be hidden?
The prudent thing would be to have nothing to do with him and to refuse the bait. Unless, he reconsidered, it would be better to keep him close and forestall any damage by controlling him, letting whomever was behind him think him deceived.
And yet, all that he could see of George so far persuaded him that he was not only who he said he was, but that he was also an independent player, unaware of Gwyn or the otherworld. What to believe?
Surely if he intended to deceive he would feign great family affection and desire to stay. Instead, he’s taking it slowly and a bit reservedly, as if he distrusts me and would truly return to his home in a day or two.
If he’s genuine, then he’s taking it well, better than some of his predecessors.
Well, what choices do I have? I must have a huntsman or risk losing everything. Remember how Arawn was weakened until finally he failed the great hunt. That was cleverly done, too, using Pwyll as a distraction and a test. I helped bring him down, and I remember the methods. He glanced at Angharad’s painting of his investiture as Prince of Annwn at the hands of his father.
I had help then, in the moment of crisis when it counted. It shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose, to find help again. And if I’m wrong, at least I’ll have a chance to control it.
I’ll take George at face value for now and try him as huntsman. If he can do the job, and if I can persuade him to stay long enough, then I may survive this for now. If not, I must fall back on Rhys, and that’s not likely to succeed. Better to gamble on the possible unknown over the known impossible.
Let’s see how he performs in company this evening.
As they entered the front hall, George discovered grand stone stairs ascending on either side of him to a common mid-story landing above the archway from the great hall, then rising in a single course to the next floor. The pattern repeated itself again as he peered upward. The wide double doors in front, a match to those in the back hall, were closed, but windows on each side showed a view through a square-columned porch and down the extensive front grounds.
On either side were smaller archways and formal rooms, crowded with people and movement. A few were still in riding costume, but most had changed clothes. George took them for the members of the field that had been sent home early. Servants passed through with refreshments and had been doing so for some time, to judge by the noise level.
Rhian ignored them and bounded up the stairs, Rhys and George following at a more dignified pace. She waited for them at the top of the stairs. “Where did you put him, Rhys?” she called down.
“In grandfather’s room. It has a view of the kennels.” Turning to George as they climbed the stairs, he said, “The second floor’s for guests and the third for family, but many of our family are only occasional visitors, so they have permanent rooms on the second floor which we use also as guest rooms when they’re not present. On crowded occasions, we have additional quarters in the yard.” He pointed in the direction of the grounds behind the house.
The top of the stairs opened up into a formal sitting area, with a double-door that led to the second story of the porch. They turned right along a corridor that George realized surrounded the interior shell of the great hall downstairs. There wasn’t time to examine the paintings and colorful objects hung everywhere, but he got a good look at some of the weaponry from many periods and various cultures. As he passed one battle ax scarred from use, he thought, these may be decorative, but I notice they’re not bolted to the wall. Handy for an impromptu brawl.
After passing two doors on the left, Rhys opened a third and led the way into a good-sized chamber. “This is the room that my grandfather Edern ap Nudd uses when he’s here. He hasn’t visited for several years.”
George saw a high canopied bed, a wardrobe and chest, and some chairs and low tables in front of the unlit fire in the hearth on the right hand wall. Colorful rugs lightened the floor. He walked over to the narrow, tall windows on the opposite wall, stepping around the desk below them.
To the left, his view was blocked by the fortified corner tower and the curtain wall that he’d ridden through, but to the right he had a good view of the left interior of the yard, with the nearest stables and, through a gap in the buildings, the kennel pens beyond. They covered much more ground than he’d realized; he’d only seen a small part of them before.
Rhian meanwhile had opened the wardrobe and was looking through clothing which he assumed belonged to her grandfather. It held several coats of antique cut and breeches. “Oh, Rhys,” she cried, in tones of despair, “This won’t do—Grandfather’s too thin for him.”
Rhys looked over at George by the windows. “I’m afraid you’re rather broader about the shoulders than she expected.” To Rhian, he said, “I have an idea. What about Rhodri’s robes?”
“Oh. Yes, that might work.” George widened his eyes in alarm—he was conservative in matters of dress and “robes” had alarming connotations of gaudiness and vulgarity.
This was going to be a problem, he realized. Staying in a family bedroom, wearing someone else’s exotic clothes, dropping in on a dinner where they all know each other, except for me. Am I the only human around?
Rhys caught some of his expression and reassured him. “Don’t worry. Rhodri wasn’t the first to travel to the east. Many of us follow those fashions. You’ll fit in fine.” He headed for the doorway. “Come with us.”
They left the chamber door open behind them and continued down the corridor, turning right after passing another door. Rhys ticked off the left-hand rooms along the back wall as they passed them. “Baths, and the rooms for servants brought by our guests.”
After turning right again and passing another door, Rhys opened the next door on the left. George realized this was the matching room to his own on the opposite side of the manor house.
What a difference, he thought, as he stood on the threshold. Where George’s room was quietly comfortable, this was a riot of colors and textures. He paused in the doorway and tried to make sense of it. The ceiling was draped with yellow flowered silks giving the impression that the entire room was inside a Persian tent. Overlapping layers of colorful eastern carpets covered the floor, leaving little bare wood visible. Instead of sturdy chairs, large cushions were scattered before the hearth, and the bed crouched low to the ground. As George walked over the deep carpets to the windows, he saw chests along the wall and a low desk, to be used while sitting on the ground.
The view from here gave him his first look at the extensive kitchen gardens. Orchards, gardens, and animal pens ran most of the way to the palisade, inside another curtain wall.
Beside him, Rhian was busily opening chests and poking through the bright fabrics within. “What sort of colors do you like, cousin?”
“Dark and sober ones,” he said, repressively.
Nothing daunted, she pulled out a long-sleeved kaftan. It was a midnight-blue satin, almost black, with a damasked dark gray allover figure of tree leaves. Quiet lines of embroidery in burnt orange, pewter gray, and gold in a similar tree-leaf pattern ornamented the cuffs, collar, and divided front. To match it she found loose breeches and a long-sleeved tunic top of the same color. A little more probing unearthed a very long dark orange and gold sash for the tunic, clearly intended to wrap around more than once. The breeches were designed to blouse over at the knee and tuck into boots. “This will go well with your boots and save us one difficulty, at least,” she said.
She laid these clothes out on the bed. “Jewelry?” she asked.
“No,” he replied, absently, looking at these garments. If he were attending a costume party, he might actually wear such things. Despite the richness of the materials they seemed neither flimsy nor feminine to him. The tunic and breeches had a good weight and the kaftan was thicker than it looked. He held it up against himself and it seemed large enough.
Alright, he’d have to take their word that this sort of clothing was acceptable, and try not to look out of place. He’d show them a human could handle anything, even uncomfortable social situations. He smiled crookedly.
Rhys had his back to him, on his knees going through another trunk. “You’ll need a belt knife, at least.” He pulled out a knife with a sheath that curved at the tip. The blade was about five inches long. “You stick that in the sash,” handing it backward to George without looking.
And that would help, George thought whimsically, as he took it, pulled out the blade, and flourished it in the air. Anyone messes with the human, I’ll teach him better manners at knife point. Too bad I can’t do that back home.
Home. What would his grandfather think of all this? What does he know?
Rhys stood up. Opening the door, he snagged a passing servant. “Please take these things to Edern’s room and have someone prepare them for our guest for dinner.”
Turning to George he said, “We have more than an hour before we must appear. This is when I usually do my kennel duties. Would you care to accompany me?” Addressing his eager sister behind him, “And you can come, too, properly dressed.” Rhian dashed up the back stairs to change.
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