It's going to be a while before the next full-length book is available. It's going well, but the story will be large and a bit complicated.
In the meantime, I thought I'd start writing a few of the short stories from the world of The Hounds of Annwn that are kicking around in my head. I'll try to produce one more or less monthly. They'll only be available as ebooks initially, but I'll collect them into bundles as paperbacks every so often.
So, in time for Valentine's Day, please enjoy this brief story about a man who loses confidence that he's the man his wife needs.
Benitoe busied himself with rechecking the girth on Halwyn, off to the side of the inn yard, and kept his eye on the side door of the main building. Two of the tall fae rode in and dismounted, chatting together. A groom came out of the stable to take their horses, a lutin in red like many of the staff at the inn, a foot shorter than the fae, or more, like Benitoe himself, though Benitoe wore his dark green hunt livery instead of the traditional red. The groom looked over and gave Benitoe a wave. “We’ve got his pony tacked up. Are you still planning to return tonight?”
“Shouldn’t be any problem with that, it’s just a few miles on horseback, through the ways, and the weather’s clear. Do you have enough space ready?”
“Luhedoc told us to expect eight, and we can just manage it.”
Benitoe took in all the construction that was still underway as the Golden Cockerel was being hurriedly restored to use. He’d seen the newest interior repairs last night after he rode in, but now, in daylight, the extent of the work was much more obvious. The stables had been in complete collapse when he’d last seen them, a few weeks ago. Maëlys had latched onto the first stone masons and carpenters to become available as the barriers dropped around Edgewood and set them to work, rightly anticipating that the reviving town would need a working inn as its dwellers came back to life, reviving from the curse that had buried them in a sort of half-life for so long.
The side door to the inn opened, and Luhedoc came out, dressed for a ride on a cold day. He walked down a couple of steps and Maëlys stopped him, pressing a leather bag into his hands. She spotted Benitoe, and smiled at him over Luhedoc’s head. “Food for the ride,” she called.
“Thanks, auntie.” It had only been a few weeks since she had adopted him into her clan, reviving a very old custom. It warmed him still, whenever he thought of it, and he lost no opportunity to call her by the title that relationship conferred.
Luhedoc looked away into the yard as the groom brought his brown pony out of the stable aisle. “Sorry to leave while there’s still so much to do, but it’s as good a day as any to start bringing the horses, while they’re in demand. Do you think they’ll finish the laundry boilers for you today?”
“Oh, I imagine they’ll come close,” she said, absently. She was watching Benitoe as she spoke, and her expression made an appeal to him, as if to ask for help. She looked back at Luhedoc, but he avoided her glance.
“I’ll bring back as many as I can.” He turned away to check his pony, and she stood on the top step for a moment, irresolute, then walked back in and shut the door.
Luhedoc finished his inspection and fastened their lunch behind his saddle, then mounted up. “What’s the name of that white gelding of yours?” he asked Benitoe as he joined him.
“Halwyn,” Benitoe said.
“Of course,” Luhedoc smiled. “‘Salt.’ Iona’s stock?”
“That’s right. You’ll see more like him when we get there.”
They left the inn yard and rode at a walk through the busy streets. “What a change,” Benitoe said, as they made way for two wagons in a row and paused for a fae child, dodging around them with small regard for the hooves of their ponies.
“Is it?” Luhedoc said. “It’s been so gradual, you hardly notice when you’re in the middle of it every day.”
Benitoe waited until they reached the edge of the small village and started up the road to the manor house. Then he drew his pony back alongside of Luhedoc and said, “What is it? What’s up with you two, uncle? Is anything wrong with Maëlys?”
“Oh, she’s fine. She’s got that inn spinning like a top. Every day more of it comes back. She’s found something that suits her talents, whatever her initial misgivings might have been.”
Benitoe could hear the pride in his voice, but also a dullness. “Well, then? What’s the matter?”
For a few moments, he didn’t think Luhedoc would reply. Then, as they entered the manor grounds, he said, “She shouldn’t have waited for me.”
Benitoe was indignant. “It was very brave of her to come seek you, to find out if you were here, trapped in Edgewood.”
“That’s not it, of course not. I was thrilled to see her,” he protested. “But eighteen years is too long. She should have married again. She deserves children and here, she’s wasted all this time, waiting for me. What sort of bargain is that?”
Benitoe led the way up to the main building. The entrance to the way, opened in haste a few weeks ago, was awkwardly placed right on the terrace of the manor house itself. Benitoe saw that an earthen ramp had been hastily constructed since his last visit, so that horses and wagons could avoid the steps. The entry itself, invisible to his eyes, was marked out clearly on the stones of the terrace, and a low wall had been built on each side and behind to keep people from blundering into it from the side or rear. For the first few yards, before the transition, the start of the way occupied space like an above-ground tunnel and had to be avoided.
He had stopped talking to avoid being overheard by the guards posted at the way entrance. They knew him and waved him through, and he made sure Luhedoc was close behind him so that the way token in his vest pocket would work for them both. They rode through the dimly lit featureless passage for a few yards and felt the transition. The atmosphere changed and light from the far end illuminated the remaining yards of the way. Benitoe nodded at the guards at this end as they emerged into an open meadow by Edgewood’s southern river, twenty miles south of the manor house. The entrance to the next way was about a hundred yards off, and Benitoe paused for a moment, when they were in-between the two sets of guards and out of earshot.
“You know, none of this is your fault,” he said. “Be grateful you survived at all. I know she is. She talked of nothing else, the whole time we were looking for you.”
“And since then?” Luhedoc muttered, in a low tone.
The whole topic made Benitoe feel queasy. The two of them had taken the place of his absent parents after years of living alone and it disturbed him greatly to see his new uncle’s loss of confidence.
Benitoe took them on through the second way which cut fifty miles off their trip, leaving them just north of Greenway Court, the base of Gwyn ap Nudd, Prince of Annwn. Benitoe was a whipper-in for his hounds, the ones that ran the great hunt every year to serve justice.
Luhedoc looked up as the green living palisade that surrounded Greenway Court came into view west of the main road. Another few miles south would see them to their destination. “I think she stays with me now out of pity and I can’t have that. Bad for me, and worse for her. She should have taken Brittou up on his offer years ago and forgotten about me. She’d have a family by now.”
So this is what has auntie so worried, Benitoe thought. He didn’t know how to convince him he was wrong. Words wouldn’t do it, not between men. He wanted to say, you can’t talk about giving up like that. You have to fight for what’s yours. She’d want you to.
They turned in off the main road and halted at the first of the large stables where the news of their arrival was carried inside by a stablehand. A middle-aged lutin strode out to greet them, wearing his red coat and weskit comfortably, here in his own place.
“Good to see you, Benitoe,” he said, “and you, too, Luhedoc, at long last.”
He sent one of his hands up to the main house. “Go tell my lady Iona that our guests are here.”
The two travelers dismounted and stretched after their long ride, and Brittou had two grooms run their horses in out of the cold for a bit of hay.
He came up to them, then, looking Luhedoc over carefully, and Luhedoc bristled in turn. Like a pair of gamecocks they are, Benitoe thought. Fools, the two of them—the hen already made her choice.
“So how is Maëlys faring, then?” Brittou asked.
Luhedoc did not respond right away, so Benitoe said, “My auntie’s doing very well, thank you, and quite happy.”
Brittou nodded carefully but kept his eyes on Luhedoc for a moment.
“Iona said to sort out six horses and two ponies for you, the horses from the herds you left behind when you went away. She said to tell you that she kept the bloodlines going after she bought them from Maëlys.”
Luhedoc didn’t respond to the jabs about leaving, but Benitoe was silently indignant. No one could have anticipated being trapped that way.
“I chose one of the smaller herds,” Brittou said, “and put them all into a paddock for you to look over. You can take your pick from among them.”
When Luhedoc finally spoke, it was to say, evenly, “Thank you for your care of what was mine, Brittou. If you don’t mind, I’ll ask my nephew here to choose the ponies while I start on the horses.” He glanced at Benitoe to see if this met with his approval.
Benitoe let a stablehand lead him to a separate paddock area where he made quick work of selecting two exuberantly healthy young geldings, both bays, one much darker than the other. They would make fine riding stock for the fae children, or for the short korrigans who needed a temporary mount, or even the occasional lutin who liked to ride the animals as well as care for them.
His work done, he walked over to one of the main paddocks and joined Iona who was leaning on the fence. She was a small fae, small enough to ride her own pony stock. She’d taken in Maëlys as a companion when she bought Luhedoc’s stock after he vanished.
“I heard about your new family connections, Benitoe,” she said, smiling at him. “You’ve become famous.”
“I’m sure auntie didn’t mean for such a fuss to be raised about it,” he said.
“When you revive old customs like a clan adoption, you have to expect people to take notice,” she said. “It’s my fault. We did a lot of reading in old books on the long winter nights.”
They watched Luhedoc going over the horses on offer. The intact herd was in the main paddock on the left. One at a time, Luhedoc would call out an individual horse, and Brittou and his helpers would cut it from the herd into the small paddock alongside and hold it for Luhedoc to go over. In the next paddock over, three horses were milling around together, watching with interest.
“Those the ones he’s already chosen?” Benitoe asked.
“That’s right. He wants breeding stock. I imagine he’s planning to rebuild his herd over in Edgewood. What do you think of them?”
“They’re native bloodlines, aren’t they?” One of the young stallions was a rich bay, pale underneath, with a black streak down his back and a roached mane, while the other was a dark gray with distinctive spots on his rump. The mare with them was white with dark spots, patterned all over. They had the full-bellied sturdy form of the local horses that could run or work all day. Easy keepers, but you needed your wits about you to handle them.
“That’s right. They won’t stand any nonsense. Lots of opinions they have, and you must earn their respect.”
The mare that Luhedoc was checking out at the moment was almost light enough to be a buckskin, with the common dark stripe and roached mane, and paler shading under her belly. He made his decision and opened the gate where she joined the other three, glad to be part of a herd again, however small.
A whinny rose from the main paddock on the left. The herd’s boss mare, another all-over spotted horse with a black tail and mane, was distressed at the diminution of her herd. She neighed to the four horses in their enclosure, and they answered her. She trotted back and forth along the fence that separated her from the empty paddock and her charges on the other side.
Luhedoc came over to speak with them at the fence, his eye on the herd in the main paddock to make his next selection.
“Lovely, aren’t they?” he said to Benitoe. “That boss mare, she reminds me of one from my original herd, the foundation of my bloodlines. I worked with her from before I was married, and she never failed me.”
Iona said, “She’s from that line, Luhedoc. That was her grand-dam.”
Brittou called over from his place further down the fence, along the main paddock. “She’s not part of the deal. Too hard to handle, that one, and far too useful where she is, keeping her herd in order.”
Benitoe held his breath, but Luhedoc let it pass as if he hadn’t heard him. Iona made no comment.
He selected two more mares, one part-spotted and one solid bay, and sent them to the holding pen.
“We’re done, right?” Brittou said. He climbed the fence into the main paddock and the boss mare trotted up to challenge him. He retreated and she followed. When he stamped the ground and leaned toward her aggressively, she snorted and laid her ears back, reaching out with her teeth. The horses behind her moved uneasily, watching her.
Brittou backed up to the fence and climbed back. “I better let them calm down for a while,” he said, looking steadily at Luhedoc.
Benitoe saw Luhedoc’s lip curl at this maneuver. He stood for a few moments, admiring her pacing watchfulness, then without words he took his coiled rope and opened the gate to the main paddock from the one he was in, walked through, and shut it behind him.
Without waiting for the mare to make the first move, he walked toward her purposefully. She charged him and the other horses scattered out of the way, but he threw his arms out to each side and called her bluff. She backed off and watched him, fascinated. She dodged in front of him, but he intercepted her movements, and she made a game of avoiding him.
Benitoe waited for him to pause and let her approach, but he didn’t do that. Instead, he came at her steadily and confidently, constantly invading her space. He walked her in this way all over the paddock, she backing up before him, and the other horses clustering at the far end as they moved along. When another mare came up, curious, he backed her off, too, but kept his eye on the herd boss the whole time.
Finally, he stopped. The mare was backed into a corner, but calm about it, and the other horses had calmed down with her. Benitoe had thought she’d be distressed but, no, out she came to be fussed over, nickering, and Luhedoc gave her what she wanted. He ran his hands all over her and murmured in her ear, when she leaned down far enough for him to reach. Then he made a quick halter out of his rope end and climbed the fence next to her to mount her, bareback, full-sized though she was.
Iona, never taking her eyes off the scene, leaned over to Benitoe. “That’s how you do it,” she said, quietly.
Benitoe nodded, absorbing the moment.
Luhedoc rode her over to the corner nearest the gate and one of the hands opened it for him. He rode her through to the gate on the other side and let her in to join the other six before sliding off and removing the halter.
He called to Benitoe as he approached the fence with a spring in his step. “See, nephew? Can’t let them intimidate you. They’re just telling you someone has to be in charge of the herd, that’s all.”
He told Iona, “I’ll take her, too, if you don’t mind. She’s very fine. I’m going to call her Cariad.”
‘Darling,’ Benitoe muttered to himself, choking down a laugh. Brittou’s inarticulate protest was ignored.
“She’s for Maëlys,” Luhedoc told Iona with a grin, and she nodded her approval. He went off with the stablehands to arrange lead lines and harness for the string of nine they’d be taking back to Edgewood.
Iona said to Benitoe, “She won’t ride her, you know. She’s not like you two.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “He will.” He smiled at the thought.
Iona stood away from the fence to look at Benitoe directly. “It’s good to see him back again, and none the worse for it. I was worried. He hasn’t lost his touch with the horses at all.”
She looked at him closely. “With Maëlys running that inn, how are they doing, will you tell me?”
“Oh, I think they’ll be fine, now,” he said.
More information about Cariad, including how to buy the story.