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The Ways of Winter (excerpt) – Chapter 1

Posted in The Hounds of Annwn, The Ways of Winter, and Works

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CHAPTER 1

Prologue
*I’m sorry I ran away, Mother. I want to come home now.*

Seething Magma raised her mantle in the dark underground cavity and interrupted her meal of crushed rock. At last, she thought, relief flooding her limbs. It had been almost a thousand years since she’d heard from her youngest child.

*Where have you been?* she scolded, then emended, *Never mind, just come home.*

*I can’t! He won’t let me go.* Granite Cloud’s wail roused her mother’s alarm. Nothing could hold an elemental.

*I’m coming to fetch you,* Seething Magma projected decisively. She shook herself and prepared for travel, pinpointing her daughter’s location from her thoughts.

*No, you can’t. He’ll get you, too.*

Seething Magma settled back down thoughtfully. *Maybe you better tell me all about it. I’m sure we can find a way.*

George kept Angharad company at her kitchen table as she prepared the crust for an apple pie. Almost a month of marriage hadn’t diminished her charm for him in the least, but he couldn’t spend the whole afternoon just watching her. Too bad.

It was the inactivity, he thought. The second of the early winter storms had ended this morning, after two days of snow. Hunting had been stopped since the first days of December. At least that allowed him to be more flexible in his domestic commuting schedule. His young junior huntsman Rhian had been handling hounds on Thursday mornings for hunting, and Sunday and Monday mornings for the hound walking, allowing him to come from Gwyn’s court into Greenhollow and spend time with his wife (I can’t believe it, my wife!) three nights a week. He was grateful Rhian was gaining confidence with handling the pack.

Now, with hunting stopped from the snow and hound walking restricted to the front grounds of the manor house, his hunt staff had conspired to give him a full week off. He’d just arrived yesterday, anticipating at least a week of delayed honeymoon. His own dogs, coonhound Hugo and Sergeant, the yellow feist, were settled near the kitchen woodstove, but he knew Angharad’s terriers Cabal and Ermengarde would roust them if it looked like the people were going to play in the snow.

Angharad broke the silence. “Did I tell you how well I liked your grandparents? I’m glad I had the chance to meet them.”

“What about your family? You’ve been promising to tell me more about them.”

“You’ll have to wait for a visit to Gwyn’s father in Britain. They’re all in the old world, around the court, even the children.”

George had a hard time getting used to the notion of her having several children, all of them older than him. At thirty-three, he was a well-grown human, but she was a fae, more than 1500 years old, and had lived many lives by his lights. He had blood ties to the fae himself, but no one yet knew if he had their gift of longevity, if he would be more than a brief interval in her life. It was an unstated worry that brought a note of urgency into their relationship.

He still thought it a miracle that she wanted to be with him anyway, given their relative ages. She’d settled into a solitary life as an artist when he met her, a self-sufficient existence, but he seemed to have jolted her out of that. He didn’t quite understand why, lacking her perspective on extended life, but he was grateful and disinclined to question his good luck.

“Have you found a new apprentice yet? I know you asked your mentor Bleddyn about it,” he said.

“These things take time, often many years. I’ve just let it be known I was available if anyone was seeking.”

She’d been painting up a storm since they’d met, revitalized, and was offering to share that with someone, as masters did.

She filled the pie dish with sliced apples and sealed the upper crust in place. Having popped it into the oven, she washed her hands and walked over to join him at the kitchen table, patting him on the shoulder as she went by. He grabbed her with one arm around the hip and held her there, tight to his side, breathing in her scent and the overlay of apples, cinnamon, and dough. She melted against him and looked down at him suggestively.

The pounding on the door was very unwelcome, just then.

Angharad sighed and opened it, letting in Thomas Kethin, Gwyn’s head ranger. He stamped the snow off his boots on the doorstep and unwrapped the wool muffler from his dark and weathered face.

“I’m sorry to disturb you two, I am, but we have a situation and I need George’s help.”

She offered to take his coat, but he refused. “The latest batch of Rhys’s invitees has just arrived at the Travelers’ Way, and the inn is full up and can’t accommodate them. We’ve got to get them up to the manor.”

“I feel for you, in all this snow, but what can I do about it?” George said.

“They’re not exactly a cooperative group,” Thomas said, wryly. “We have fae masters of several crafts, each prouder than the next, and quite a few korrigans. They’re not getting along with each other, and the fae in particular aren’t inclined to recognize my authority. I don’t fit their old world ideas of a proper welcome.”

“But I’m just the huntsman,” George said.

“You can use Gwyn’s authority as part of the family, and I think that would do the trick.”

George was reluctant to leave his warm nest but he recognized that Thomas had a point. He pushed back his chair and stood up. “Sorry, sweetheart, but I think I must.

“Of course you should,” she said. “There’ll be other times.” Ignoring Thomas standing by, trying to look anywhere else, she gave him a hug and a long, long kiss.

“There. Something to remember me by.”

And if I can make my legs work again, I’ll just walk on out of here, George thought, dazed.

In a few moments he’d assembled what he needed for a couple of miles of riding through the snow. He spoke to Thomas as he gathered up his gloves. “Do they all have horses?”

“There are seven wagons, carrying equipment and a few passengers. The rest are mounted, even the korrigans. I think we might as well sweep up all the other folk from the inn while we’re at it, in case the snow gets deeper.”

George whistled up his dogs and plunged out into the dark afternoon, plowing through the path to the stable to saddle his horse.

George looked up at the dark sky with its threatening clouds. The snow may have stopped but more was clearly on the way.

The two of them had the street to themselves at the moment and were able to ride side-by-side down the shallower snow in the middle, where the villagers had organized a log drag, a pole pulled behind a pair of horses that swept the top layer of snow to the side. They’d been sending a team out for the village streets every few hours for the last several days, and already the difference between the dragged and packed path and the untouched snow was a few inches. The full depth was approaching eight inches. Householders had cleared their own paths but were having a hard time keeping up with the persistent snowfall.

George had seen heavy snow occasionally in Virginia near the Blue Ridge, but even here in this otherworld version of the landscape, this much snow this early was considered unusual.

He stopped briefly at the Horned Man inn on the corner by the bridge to speak with Huw Bongam, the innkeeper. He gave his reins to Thomas to hold and stamped the snow from his feet before going in.

The main room was packed and noisy. The more fastidious fae were off in a group along one side, but the noisiest part of the crowd were korrigans. George had never seen so many of the dwarf-like folk all in one place. He’d only met the smith and his family at Greenway Court and a few traders as they came through.

Not many of the fae were as tall as George, at six foot four, and none were as broad. Huw Bongam had no difficulty spotting him as he came in, and made his way through the crowd. “Go back out on the porch, huntsman, or we’ll never be able to hear ourselves.” He pulled a cloak around himself and both stepped outside, where Thomas was waiting with the horses.

“I’m on my way to help Thomas with a new group at the Travelers’ Way,” George said. “Thought we might bundle up some of your guests and bring them with us, the ones who’re headed for Edgewood.”

“Well, you’d be doing me a favor, and that’s no lie. I’ve got more than I can handle. I’m used to housing folks who are snowbound for a day or two, but this call of Rhys’s for skilled craftsmen at Edgewood has brought out all the ambitious folks from Gwyn’s domain, and a few from the old world, too. Do you know, I’ve even got lutins, looking to expand their opportunities?”

“Where are you putting them all?”

“It’ll be the hayloft soon, if you don’t take some of them with you.”

“Alright, I’ll go on and see what’s come in at the Travelers’ Way and get them ready to move out immediately, without stopping here. If you could sort out your ‘keepers’ from the ones that want to get one step closer to Edgewood, tell them I’ll be back in about an hour with Thomas to lead them to Greenway Court.”

“I’ll do that,” Huw replied.

Thomas spoke up. “Not all of the newly arrived people are prepared for this much early winter. Can you spare the loan of any blankets for the trip to the manor house?”

George added, “What about horses or wagons for the folks here? They’ll have trouble walking in the snow, even if we help break more trail.”

“I’ll sort out some transportation and wraps for the journey, as much as I can spare, if you can get it back to me as soon as you can,” Huw said.

“Much appreciated,” George said. “If you can provide your own drivers, we’ll house them and they can bring back the empty wagons with your gear, weather permitting, plus any villagers who might be feeling trapped at court.”

With a nod, Huw went back inside and George remounted.

He rode with Thomas past the crossroads with the stone bridge on the right and turned into the cul-de-sac on the far left that led to the Travelers’ Way. All the peace and quiet of the snowy streets fled as they heard the raised voices and clangor of the expedition, fresh from the more civilized old world of Gwyn’s origins.

George hung back for a moment as Thomas rejoined the party. He saw seven wagons with goods and people, now shivering in the cold. There were a few fae on foot, and a couple of korrigans, but most of the travelers had heeded the instructions to come on horseback or with transport, and even the korrigans were mostly mounted on sturdy ponies, though they didn’t all look like seasoned horsemen. To his dismay, he saw what must be wives and families for a few of the travelers, so there were several children to think of.

Thomas’s reappearance drew the loudest speaker like a lodestone draws iron.

“A fine welcome this is, no one from the court and a foot of snow. How are we supposed to proceed?” This was from a tall fae, on the older side of middle-aged.

He put himself in front of the other fae as if he had taken charge of them, and they seemed to permit it, though George thought he detected hidden smiles as he continued to make a fuss. “We require some shelter in this wilderness. This is not what we were led to expect.”

Thomas said, with great self-control, “My lord Cadugan, allow me to present George Talbot Traherne, the great-grandson of our prince Gwyn ap Nudd.” He bowed from the saddle, and beckoned George forward.

“At last,” Cadugan said, gratified. “His brother Edern ap Nudd summoned me as steward for the Edgewood lands, on behalf of his grandson Rhys. I’m eager to see that all of us get there as quickly as possible.”

“I am pleased to meet you, sir, and all of you here,” George said in his best political voice. “I apologize for our unseasonable weather, but we have yet to find a way to keep the snow from falling.” This mild quip broke some of the tension, and the fractious crowd started to relax now that someone had appeared to take charge of them, someone acceptable to their leader.

One of the korrigan elders, a bearded man in practical woolens over a blue silk waistcoat came up to join Cadugan. He bowed. “I’m Tiernoc, elected leader for the journey for my folk.” He offered his hand up to George.

George didn’t dismount because he wanted the height to help direct the crowd, so he bowed low over his saddle to shake hands with the korrigan—very low, since Tiernoc was less than five feet tall.

“Are the two of you the leaders of everyone here, for now?” George asked.

“That’s right,” Tiernoc said, and Cadugan nodded.

“How many are you, including everyone?”

“Twenty-two fae,” Cadugan said.

“And seventeen of my folk,” Tiernoc added.

“Alright, here’s the situation. We can’t put you up at the inn because it’s full with other snowbound travelers, and you’re too many to just try to house in Greenhollow’s homes. We’re going to take your group and a party from the inn which is also headed to Edgewood and bring all of you up to Gwyn at Greenway Court. From there you’ll be able to get to Edgewood via the Guests’ Way and a brief overland road to the Edgewood Way.”

“How far is Gwyn’s court?” Cadugan said. “We’re not prepared for this weather.”

“It’s two miles, and the snow is deep. We have more wagons and horses coming from the inn, and as many blankets as they can spare. We’ll organize trail-breakers in front. Everyone who can’t ride will need to be in wagons so that no one’s on foot.”

Cadugan looked unhappy at this. “Can’t we stop and warm up first?”

“I’m sorry, but the snow could restart at any time—look at the sky. Better to do one last push and be under sure shelter no matter what the weather brings next,” George said.

He walked his horse back to Thomas who was issuing instructions to the four rangers with him. “You were right,” he said privately, “like oil on troubled waters. Here you have two centuries of experience, and they wanted a member of the family instead.” He shook his head.

“I’m headed over to the inn to get that batch organized. If you’ll give me two of your men and keep two for yourself we can each arrange our groups into a trail-breaking order and then shuffle them together as they cross the bridge. What do you think?”

“That’ll work,” Thomas said. “Heavy horses in front to break trail, then light horses, wagons, and ponies at the rear. Don’t forget blankets for this group, I don’t like the looks of some of them in the wagons. And don’t delay, that snow won’t hold off forever.”

Before entering the inn, George set Thomas’s two men to sending on one of Huw Bongam’s wagons to the other group, then coordinating the wagons of the inn’s party. They’d line those up in the road and free up some space in the stable yard to maneuver the horses. George had a private word with one of the grooms to hold his horse tacked up but under shelter to spare him as much of the cold as possible.

He walked into the inn’s main room, bringing his dogs with him, and beckoned Huw over. “Do you think we could send some hot tea and maybe something stronger down to the Travelers’ Way? There are about forty people in the snow and some of them are shivering with the cold.”

“I’ve already taken that in hand. The wagon they’re getting carries fifteen blankets, three gallons of tea, and a nice hot toddy for any who wants it. Let me go see about the rest of the preparations in the stable yard.”

“Good work.”

Many of the crowd had turned to watch him standing in the entrance. George knocked loudly on the door frame for silence and addressed them. “In one hour we’ll lead a party from here with a group from the Travelers’ Way up to Greenway Court. If you’re trying to go on to Edgewood, I strongly advise you to join us, since the snow could start again at any time. We can house you at the court until the weather allows you to continue your journey.”

“Be warned,” he continued, “The snow is deep and it’s about two miles. We’ll break trail for the vehicles as we go and there should be a place in the wagons for anyone who isn’t mounted, but I urge you to ride if you can to leave room for others. Can I see a show of hands for anyone who plans to join us?”

A rising hubbub filled the room at the news, though George didn’t doubt that Huw Bongam had already warned them this was coming. About a dozen fae raised their hands, and many more korrigans. Five lutins made their way through the crowd to the front, too, all dressed in red and a bit shorter even than the korrigans.

George called again for silence. “If you don’t have a mount and need a place in the wagons, come up to me now for a moment. I’d also like to see a leader for each group, someone who can keep track of its members before and during the ride so that we don’t leave anyone behind. Everyone else, start packing. And be quick about it.”

Two fae and a korrigan joined the lutins in front as most of the rest of the crowd dispersed to pack their belongings.

The elder fae spoke first. “I’m Meilyr. All of us are from elsewhere in Gwyn’s domains and came at his call. We have four in our party who are traveling to Edgewood as masters in their crafts. One of those is a colleague of Ceridwen. There are seven others who are seeking family long lost to them. I’m one of those.”

“Will you hold yourself responsible for their names and making sure of their whereabouts for our journey to the court?” George asked.

“I will.”

“Do any need wagons?”

“The craft masters brought equipment but we have our own wagons to haul it. All are mounted.”

“Thank you. Please assemble your wagons on the party already out front and take your instructions from the rangers there.”

The lutins came forward, led by one middle-aged lutine. She said, “I’m Rozenn. Some of us are looking for lost family, and others are seeking employment. I’ll be responsible for our names and well-being, but we’ll all need places in the wagons, with our goods.”

“Thanks, Mistress Rozenn. Please bring your people and your goods to me here. I’ll hold all the wagon loads in one place until we’re sure how many will be required.”

As she left, Huw Bongam returned. “How about it, huntsman? Do you know how many wagons you’ll need from here yet?”

“So far, it looks like there are five lutins and their gear who will need transport, but the rest are accounted for. So, just the one wagon. What’s the news from Thomas?”

“He thinks he only needs the one wagon I sent him for his group, so it’s not as bad as I feared. I’ll send out two drivers who can bring them back when the weather permits.” He sighed. “It makes me think of Isolda, your party of lutins needing a driver. I can’t get used to her being gone. She’d have loved the adventure.”

George frowned and gripped his shoulder. He turned back to the senior korrigan who was waiting patiently to speak.

“I’m Broch, and I’ll take charge of the fifteen of us from Gwyn’s domains. We, too, are craft masters and traders, hoping to re-open the route to Edgewood. We’ve brought our own wagons, and a few of us are riding as well. I’ve already sent our folks to assemble in the road with the others.”

One person was left waiting near the door, a fae who looked a bit younger than George. Unlike almost all the dark-haired fae George had met, he was redheaded and freckled.

“Not part of Meilyr’s group?” George said.

“No,” he said, smiling sardonically. “I’m just a lowly provincial musician—Cydifor. But I have hopes. No one said anything about Rhys Vachan having any musicians at Edgewood.”

“I’ve been there and I don’t remember any. But, you know, his cousin Rhodri is one, himself?”

Cydifor’s face fell, and George laughed.

“Don’t worry. Rhodri’s not there to stay for the long-term, and in the meantime he’s likely to prove a friend. I imagine he’s tired of playing by himself for his own amusement. Do you need transport?”

“I have a horse, but I’d appreciate space in a wagon for my gear, to ease the burden on her.”

“No problem,” George said. “Bring it here with the lutins’ bundles and then go mount up.”

Cydifor looked at George with unapologetic curiosity. “Did I hear Huw Bongam call you huntsman? Are you Gwyn’s new huntsman? I came through Danderi just after the great hunt and heard all about it.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce myself properly. I’m George Talbot Traherne, Gwyn ap Nudd’s great-grandson and, yes, his new huntsman.”

“I heard that someone died at the start,” Cydifor said, tentatively.

“That was Isolda of whom we were speaking. She had just started working as a driver. She was only eighteen and newly-betrothed, and she gave her life to save Gwyn’s foster-daughter from death at the hands of Cyledr Wyllt.”

“Who became the quarry of the great hunt.”

“Yes. He’s gone now.” There was satisfaction in George’s voice.

“Excuse me, but someone said you were human.”

“It’s true, more or less. I was brought here when the old huntsman was murdered. It’s a long story, for another time.”

Cydifor persisted. “They also said you hunted as the horned man.”

“As I said, a long story. We can speak at the manor house later.”

Cydifor took the dismissal in good humor and went off to gather his possessions.

George took a look around as he hurried off. He waved a hand at the locals who were left in the inn’s main room and went off to check on the assembly in the road.

George and his men finished loading the borrowed wagon and helping the smaller lutins scramble in. Their driver hastened out to join them, still munching the end of his meal and fastening his coat.

As he mounted up to ride the length of the group standing in front of the inn, George considered how long it would take to get the two groups together and then up two miles of snowy road before dark or the next storm. Probably about two hours, if nothing breaks down. He pulled out his pocket watch on its chain and confirmed that he had about that much daylight left. It was going to be close.

He spoke to Meilyr and Broch as he passed and got their assurance that everyone in their groups was accounted for, waved at Cydifor, and checked with Mistress Rozenn that all the lutins were set, with blankets piled around them, Cydifor’s instruments, and George’s dogs at their feet, to keep them out of the way.

“Alright,” he called to Thomas’s men. “Let’s move ’em out.”

The horses at front of the line, including his own heavy Mosby, started out first, packing the snow down more tightly for the wagons that followed them. The korrigans, on their smaller horses and ponies, followed behind the heavier horses. The squeak of the dry snow combined with the rumble of the wagons and the creak of the horses’ saddles and harnesses to make it a noisy departure. Some of the drinkers at the inn waved from the doorway as they pulled out, the light behind them shining out onto the road under the darkened sky.

They didn’t have far to go. George held them short of the bridge and saw Thomas leading his group out of the gloom from the left. All the riders were as well-bundled as possible, and the people on the wagons had made good use of Huw Bongam’s blankets.

George walked Mosby over to confer with Thomas. “How do you want to do this?”

Thomas said, “Two of my men at the back, two along the sides moving up and down to keep them moving, and the two of us in front. I’ll have one of them do a count as they go by, so we know how many wagons and riders. Let me start out ahead to make sure there’s no special problem with the road. You come along on your horse at the head of the line to reassure them as we go.” He gave some last instructions to one of his men, then wheeled his horse around and crossed the bridge.

George turned back to the foot of the bridge, a grin tugging at one side of his mouth. He was going to be the master of a wagon train, if only for a couple of hours. Too bad he didn’t have a cattle herd to go with it and a good Stetson hat.

He faced the two lines of riders and wagons and raised his hand for attention. The groups quieted.

“Listen up. We have about two hours of daylight and it should be enough. We’re going to cross this bridge and go up the road on the far side of the stream, to the right. It’s a gentle slope, but uphill all the way. At the end is the lower gate of the manor house and one more brief climb up to where we’ll unload and get under shelter.

“Keep track of your neighbors. Don’t leave the line under any circumstances. If anything happens, a child falls overboard, anything, call for help from one of Thomas Kethin’s riders. Make sure your group leaders know where you are and, leaders, keep track of your people. It’s not that cold, but you don’t want to be outside overnight, wandering in the dark.

“We’re going to line up in sections. All riders on larger horses first, beginning with the group from the inn, then those from the way. Stick together with your group. The riders on shorter animals next, both groups. Then the wagons, starting with the lutins from the inn and then the rest of the inn party, and last the other wagons,” gesturing at the group from the Travelers’ Way. “Try to spread out on the road several abreast with your horses so the wagons behind you have better traction for their wheels. We’ll swap the leaders as we go so your horses can get a break.”

He paused. “Any questions?” No one replied.

Thomas trotted back over the bridge and joined him. “There are footprints, someone small, headed up the road since we came through earlier. Keep an eye out for him.”

 


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