Another short story from the world of The Hounds of Annwn.
George Talbot Traherne thinks about the choice he made to leave the human world behind.
His eyes popped open in the dim light cast by the banked fire. For a moment the bed felt strange and then he remembered—Angharad’s house—and there she slept, turned away from him, breathing slowly. He was wide awake and on the alert.
What woke me? The snow was deep on the ground, muffling any outside noises. No cars were here to disturb him, no engines in the fae otherworld, and he was still getting used to the absence of the sounds of human civilization. He cataloged what he could hear—the tick of the embers in the fireplace, the occasional creak of the floorboards as they adjusted to temperature changes, Angharad’s soft breaths.
Then it came again. Muffled barks of excitement. He looked over at his dogs by the fire. Sargent, the yellow feist, was motionless except for his chest rising and falling, but the bluetick hound was quivering in his sleep, his paws twitching as he ran. He panted and yipped, his eyes closed. No wonder it woke me, he thought.
George had no trouble providing the real sound behind Hugo’s dream, the loud, deep bays as he followed a hot scent. That cry would ring off a hillside, but here it was, indoors, just a remnant to wake him in the night.
Nothing to worry about, he thought, as he relaxed back down into the warm bed by his wife’s side. He wasn’t sleepy, but if he stayed quiet, sleep would return.
Inevitably his mind turned to the tumult of his recent weeks. I made a choice, he thought, the most important of my life. I’ll never face a bigger one. I chose to turn my back on the human world and stay here, with these new-found kinsmen.
He touched Angharad’s back softly, verifying her presence. My new wife. He smiled.
It’s impossible to regret the choice I made, but there are costs.
Those old-timers I used to hunt with, they knew about costs, what it was to make choices. He thought of them as old-timers but they weren’t, not really. Sure, some of them were classic “ridgies,” mountain types, or their fathers were, or their grandfathers. They had small houses and cabins tucked into the hollows and blue collar jobs, fixing machinery, cutting wood, clearing brush—whatever they could do to make a living and still leave time for other pleasures, especially hunting and fishing. Most were in their fifties or much older. It was hard to tell sometimes—the life they led could be hard on a man. They were lean men, by and large, though here and there one ran to fat and was teased for it by the others.
Their wives and families lived quietly, and their children mostly moved away.
They weren’t all like that, of course. Sometimes a more solid citizen in the community felt the urge to join them, an atavistic need to be a part of something else, something not modern and civilized. There were always a few like that, welcomed by the night hunters because they appreciated the fellow-feeling, and because these outsiders helped them keep things afloat when times turned tough, even got them work sometimes. Their fathers and their grandfathers had known each other for as long as they could remember.
He remembered the first time he’d met the night hunters. He’d wanted to see what it was like, chasing coon and fox in the dark with hounds. He’d read what he could about it, but there wasn’t much—the people who did it and the people who wrote about it had very little overlap. He’d heard more, hints from friends who always seemed to have a couple of jars of moonshine on hand. He pestered one of them, Gabriel Scott, and one moonlit October night he was invited along. Gabe warned him, “Wear clothing you don’t mind losing if it gets ripped to shreds.”
The two of them drove deep back into a hollow around ten o’clock. Gabe took his pickup truck up the side of the Blue Ridge along a dirt road George had never traveled before. They pulled up at an old hunting cabin where half a dozen trucks were already settled, and ten or twelve men stood around an open fire. Some had one or two dogs on leashes by their side, and he saw others in kennels in the backs of the trucks.
He knew it was a sort of audition, and he conducted himself modestly, younger at twenty-seven than everyone there. He recognized a few of them by sight. Gabe introduced him as “that young fellow, George Traherne, who whips-in for the Rowanton Hunt. Gilbert Talbot’s grandson. He knows foxhounds.”
“Does he, now?” Lucius Conyngham drawled. His was a quiet, sardonic sort of voice, matched to a spare body that made no unnecessary movements. His battered old fedora hat looked well-accustomed to a life out of doors. George pegged him as the leader of the group.
“I want to know what it’s like, sir, how you hunt,” George said. “I’m here to learn.”
That sparked a jeer from some, but a nod from Luke. “Alright, then.” He walked among the men and passed their names to him. Most were friendly enough, preoccupied with catching up on the news and keeping their hounds out from underfoot. They bragged on their hounds to each other, boasting about how well they’d do this time.
Most of the men had one or another type of foxhound. George thought he recognized a couple of Walkers, and there were hounds that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in any Virginia pack. Not all were foxhounds, however. One scowling fellow with black hair and scraggly eyebrows held a young lanky bluetick coonhound on a lead and was being joshed by his friends. “You brought him along again? Cain’t you learn?”
Gabe told George, “Hank hasn’t had much luck with his hound. Too slow to keep up with the others, and we hunt fox more than we do coon.”
George knew it was a point of pride which hound ran the game best, who came closest, who treed the critter first, and how their voices sang in the night.
“We all here tonight?” Luke asked. The men stopped talking and looked around.
“Looks like,” one of those by the fire said.
“Let’s do ’er then.” Luke walked over to his truck and released two redbones from their kennels, clipping leads onto their collars. More coonhounds, George thought in surprise. They whined with excitement, and all the hounds joined in.
He counted them in couples automatically, as if they were a pack of foxhounds. There were nine couple, eighteen hounds. A mixed pack, of course, both dogs and bitches. That young bluetick was one of the tallest.
Once they all had their hounds in hand, straining at their leads, Luke looked them over. “Let ’em loose,” he said, and unclipped his two. They must have hunted with each other before, George thought, for they hung together like a pack and ghosted up the slope into the dark woods out of the firelight, seeking a scent trail.
The men settled down in a semicircle on the upwind side of the fire. There were plenty of log sections set upright for seats, and they sat quietly, listening for the first cry. Most of the leaves were already off the trees, up here on the ridge, so sound would carry well.
A quart jar of clear moonshine made the rounds. When it reached George he saw a piece of fruit inside, and he could taste the faint flavoring of the peach over the kick of the raw alcohol. He sipped and handed it along, listening to the men.
They spoke quietly. One had a son in the Marines and passed along the latest news. Another had a daughter who’d presented him with his first grandchildren, twin girls. There were chuckles at that, and congratulations raised to “grandpa” as the jar went by.
A great horned owl in the woods called out with its low hoots and they hushed to listen. It repeated itself once, then stopped. Just as they started to speak again, they heard the unearthly death shriek of a rabbit, probably the owl’s victim. George shuddered, and the men around the fire were quick to resume talking, to shake off the gruesome sound.
One old fellow started a tale about his son who was pestering him to come live with him down on the flats, now that his wife had been gone for some time. “I told him I just wouldn’t do it. I’m fine up here, I said, I ain’t leaving. Not to no goddam suburb.”
They shed their children to the modern world, but chose to stay themselves. He didn’t know the man, but he could picture him ten years on, dying alone in his cabin. It wasn’t a sad thought, exactly—he wanted the hard life for its joys and was willing to pay the cost. He could respect that.
Except for the trucks, you could almost believe this was another century, George thought. It’s a world away from my job, shiny computers and corporate customers. He shook his daytime thoughts away and focused on the men around them, how well they fit together. He didn’t romanticize it, even he could see they had factions among themselves, friends and cliques, but they were united in this love of hunting and that gave them a common bond that overrode their differences. He envied them.
A clear cry rang out, upslope and some distance away. All conversation ceased, and then the sound came again, with other voices supporting it. The hounds had struck on a hot scent. They listened for a few moments and Luke said, judiciously, “T’ain’t no deer. I do believe that’s gray fox. My Katie don’t sound like that for coon. She’s partial to fox.”
A deep voice joined in. “Ain’t that your hound, Hank?” one of the men asked.
“Yeah, but it’s coon, not fox. You wait and see.”
They don’t agree, George thought, watching them hide their smiles. This is an old dispute between them.
Gabe told George, “Hank bought himself a coonhound and that’s what he wants it to hunt. No use telling him different.”
“I love his voice,” George said. It was true. The deep baying set a foundation for the chorus of higher-pitched voices.
The sounds broke off, and the men hushed, waiting. In a few moments, they picked up again, coming toward them.
“Listen to that hound of Hank’s bawl.” The speaker shook his head in admiration.
“My Katie’s in the lead, though.” Luke said with quiet pride.
George sat, surrounded by dark woods and blinded by the fire, and tried to construct a picture to go with what he was hearing. The hounds were strung out, he could tell, the deep-voiced one trailing at the end and the clear voice of the first hound to sound off still in front. That must be Luke’s Katie, he thought. The voices of eighteen hounds raised in joy and eagerness resounding down through the woods was uncanny. He remembered that Washington had received a gift of bluetick hounds from Lafayette and declared they sounded “like the bells of Moscow.” Now he understood what that meant, here in the dark primeval forest of his imagination.
The pack swung away from them again and went quiet. One voice raised falteringly. “That’s Rebel,” one man said. They listened to the hounds working out the scent, each man identifying the voice of his own hounds and supplying commentary.
“I don’t know what fouled the scent,” a big, testy man said impatiently to his neighbor. “If that little Hazel of yours had any sense she’d stop working tail line and point the right way for a change.”
“Quiet,” Luke said, and they subsided. The hounds picked up the line again and raised the full cry once more.
“That’s more like it,” Gabe said, and George nodded.
The baying changed its note, growing louder and more eager, and then it stopped moving, lighting up the mountainside with joyous noise.
“Alright, boys, on your feet,” Luke said. “They’ve treed it.”
They took out flashlights, all except for a couple of the men who picked up lanterns. Luke took the lead as they picked their way up the slope, moving as quickly as they could and cursing the bushes and branches that scratched at their clothing and the rocks that turned their ankles. George was larger than most and had a harder time pushing his way through, but he was young enough to make up for it and was determined not to be a fool and get left behind to wander lost for the rest of the night.
The lights weaving up ahead of him stopped and when he reached them he saw the hounds leaping at a beech tree that still clung to its tan leaves. The trunk leaned at an angle, and several of the hounds scrambled up a few feet, only to drop off defeated. The tall bluetick was among them, George saw, baying at the top of his lungs.
The men stood by their hounds and leashed them.
“Told you it was a coon,” Hank crowed, as the flashlights probed through the leaves looking for the quarry.
The beams coalesced into a single spot, and George saw the pointed nose and grizzled muzzle of a gray fox, a dog fox, he thought, not a vixen. Secure in his perch, he looked down with unconcern at the hounds below. The hounds waited for the men to take a shot and deliver him.
“Goddam you, hound,” Hank hollered. “That ain’t no coon.” He hauled the hound to him on its lead and gave it a good kick, then picked up the lead end and started to lash him with it. The frightened hound howled and pulled himself free. He fled, trailing his lead behind him, into the dark. The rest of the hounds quieted for a moment, startled.
The men froze at the unseemly outburst. No one said a word as Hank whined, to cover his action, “I paid four hundred dollars for that hound, and I’m done with him.”
George spoke up for the first time that evening. “I’ll give you four hundred for him. Right now.” He reached into his wallet and pulled out everything he had on him, about three hundred and twenty dollars. He waved Gabe over. Gabe handed him his wallet without a word and he helped himself to another eighty. He walked over and threw the bills at Hank’s feet. “There. He’s mine now. You all heard him?” he asked, looking around the ring of silent men. They nodded, and he thought he saw approval on some of their faces.
Hank leaned over and picked up the money. “I ain’t helping you catch him,” he said. He laughed uneasily, not liking the mood of his companions, and started back down through the woods by himself.
Luke looked up at the fox and then back at the men whose celebration had soured. “I think we’ll let this one off this time, boys, what do you say?”
They agreed and headed back with their leashed hounds, moving more slowly and carefully going down than they had scrambling up. George and Gabe lingered behind.
Gabe raised an eyebrow at him.
“I couldn’t let him do that, and besides, I like that hound,” George said.
“You’re going to have to wait for him to find his way back once he gets over it,” Gabe said. “Might as well go back to the fire. That’s where he’ll return. If he returns.”
“I know, and it might take all night. You can go on, if you want, pick me up in the morning, maybe.”
“Ah, hell, I haven’t got anything better to do myself,” Gabe said, and they pushed their way back down to the fire in companionable silence.
When they got there, they found Hank was gone. “What’re you fixing to do with that hound, if he comes back?” Lucius Conyngham asked.
“There’s more to life than night hunting,” George said, “though maybe this isn’t the crowd to say that to. And more than coming in first.”
Luke let a small smile escape him.
“Well, you could be right, at that. Someone’s got to be tail hound. And he surely did enjoy himself, bawling at that fox.”
“Yes, sir, he surely did,” George replied.
A different moonshine jar was pressed into his hand. This one had an apple inside. He took a sip and waited a moment to catch his breath, then passed it along to Luke.
“I think we’re done for the night,” Luke said. “You’re welcome to join us another time, son. Gabe’ll let you know.” He touched the brim of his hat.
“Thank you, sir. I had a fine time in your company.”
“Bring that hound, or not, as you like.”
They bundled their hounds into their trucks and drove off, one at a time, leaving only Gabe’s truck behind. The noise of the engines and the tires on the dirt road carried for a while in the still night, but gradually died away.
“He left us a gift,” Gabe said, pointing to a half-filled jar. “Something to pass the time with.”
They sat next to each other by the fire, sipping away, and pausing every now and then to throw another log on to keep it alive. “You won’t see that Hank again,” Gabe said. “No one treats a dog like that when he’s just doing his job. They won’t tolerate it.”
They chatted about inconsequential things in the night and watched the moon drift slowly across the sky. After an hour or so had passed, Gabe said, “Think that fool hound has enough sense to work the back trail to find his way here?”
“Probably.” Hounds mostly did make their way back to where they started from when they got lost. That’s why hunters left a coat behind if they had to leave. Like as not, they’d find their hound sleeping on it in the morning.
“What’re you going to name him?”
“Hugo, I think. Don’t know why, just seems right.”
Gabe grunted and reached for the jar.
George looked up and thought he saw movement. “Hssht. Don’t move.”
The bluetick stepped tentatively out of the woods and stood beyond the firelight, watching them, whining softly.
“It’s alright, boy,” George said in a calm voice. “He’s gone. Come on in.”
He kept talking, soothing the hound and patting the side of his leg. The hound circled around the fire, taking a long sniff of the log where Hank had been sitting.
“Don’t you think about him anymore,” George said. “You come on over and get a fuss made over you. Such a fine hound, finding that fox with the others, staying on the trail and helping them tree it. You’re a good hound, you are.”
The sound of the low sweet-talking voice enticed the hound all the way in, and George rubbed him all over, getting him used to the feel of his hands. He’d treated dozens of foxhounds this way, over the years, and he knew how to make a hound feel at home. “Your name is Hugo, now, and you’re going to live with me.”
“You do have a way with them,” Gabe had said.
George smiled, in the darkness of Angharad’s bedroom, as he remembered that. If he only knew, Gabe, how he could bespeak the animals now. Was that part of the same talent, then, and he didn’t know it, or did that only come upon him after he crossed from the human world into this one, years later?
No way to know.
Once he’d come here, he could never have gone back. Oh, he could have walked away, it would have been allowed, but he couldn’t unlearn what he’d seen. He chose to leave his old world behind, the land of night hunts and pickup trucks and moonshine. He had earned a place with those old-timers, listened to their tall tales, their stories of humor, of bravery, of fine hounds, of luck, good and bad. Most of all, of perseverance in the face of hardship, of choices made without counting the cost.
He saw them a few more times over the years, and Hugo gloried in the hunts, baying at the back of the pack like a great bell. As Gabe had predicted, he never saw Hank again.
For the last couple of years, he hadn’t made the time to take Hugo night hunting, too busy with his software company. That sort of success was more facile, more about conformity and hard work than anything else. I’d had it with that, he thought. That wasn’t something I needed to return to. It was his elective tribe of night hunters that he missed, and his human family, his grandparents.
But I’m back with the old-timers again, here, aren’t I? Except these aren’t the remnants of a proud backwater tribe, standing independent while the modern world passes them by. These are the powers in their own land. His great-grandfather Gwyn, Prince of Annwn. All the mighty fae, hundred or thousands of years old.
Hugo’s dream revved up again, and he gave little eager yips.
Go get ’im, boy. Bring him down or let him run but don’t give up, don’t stop.
He nodded in the darkness. My hound will learn to hunt something else, and so will I. I’ll learn to build my life here.
He smiled. My children will fit here seamlessly.
He rolled over and drew his arm around his wife, holding her close, nestled up against her back. Maybe he could dream up a hunt for himself.
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