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Short story – Under the Bough

Posted in Fantasy, Short Story, The Hounds of Annwn, and Under the Bough

Another short story from the world of The Hounds of Annwn.

Angharad hasn’t lived with anyone for hundreds of years, but now she is ready to tie the knot with George Talbot Traherne, the human who has entered the fae otherworld to serve as huntsman for the wild hunt. As soon as she can make up her mind, anyway.

This short story takes place between the events in To Carry the Horn and The Ways of Winter.


UNDER THE BOUGH

UnderTheBough - Full Front Cover - 297x459“I haven’t lived with anyone for hundreds of years,” Angharad said. “I’m much too set in my ways, too used to living alone.”

Her old friend Tegwen looked at her pointedly in recognition of the feebleness of these excuses.

“You’ll adapt,” she said.

But do I really want to, Angharad wondered.

“What do you think of George? Truly?” Tegwen prodded.

She couldn’t help it. Her face warmed and she smiled affectionately. She glanced around the morning room to see if Tegwen’s husband Eurig was in sight, but he must be outside seeing to the running of his estate. They were her oldest friends. They had come to the new world in exile together, when Gwyn ap Nudd, Prince of Annwn, had transferred his domain.

She owed her honesty. “He’s kind, bold, even… ardent.” She looked at the floor. “He makes my knees melt.”

And makes me laugh, too. But was that enough?

She voiced her deepest fear. “He must think me a dried out old lady,” she whispered. “He’s so young.”

“And his age bothers you?”

“Not by itself, no, but we hardly know each other.”

Tegwen asked directly, “Do you have any doubts of him?”

“No.” It was true, that wasn’t the issue.

“But what about the short life?” she continued. “You know his background and there’s hardly any fae in him at all. And Cernunnos, the god he carries, who’s to say that will lengthen his life? In fifty or sixty years, he’ll be gone.”

“Cai only lasted fifteen years after you married, and he was as much of a fae as anyone,” Tegwen said, bluntly.

“The life of a paladin,” Angharad agreed.

She would be taking him up and giving him a place in her heart only to lose him again. It hurts too much, afterward. And then Cai, Cai was gone all the time at the end. George is nothing like Cai. He’s human, mostly, not some sort of champion. Cai had become hard and grim before he was killed. At least George will be spared that.

Deep down, she admitted it—he already had a place in her heart. It was too late to avoid that.

“What about Cernunnos?” she said. It embarrassed her to talk about it. “It’s one thing to sketch him in his manifestations. It’s another to… trip over him in the morning. It’s George I’m marrying, not the beast-master god. I won’t have it. No privacy.”

Tegwen half-smiled in sympathy. “Did you speak to George about it?”

Angharad looked away in remembrance. “He said the strangest thing. He said, ‘he’ll have to answer to me.’ As though he could stand up to the god.”

“Maybe he can,” Tegwen said, noncommitally.

Angharad stared at her.

Reluctantly she revealed her deepest fear. “I’m the only wife he’s likely to have. Is it fair to be one who can’t provide many children? Maybe none. We have so few, we fae, compared to what he may expect.”

“But Gwyn fathered George’s grandmother,” Tegwen was relentless. “You’ll have children with him. And they’ll be raised here, not in Lludd’s cursed domain like your others.” She leaned forward. “There will be children in your life again, I’m sure of it.”

“Our separate houses?” Angharad said, desperately.

“You’ll figure it out,” Tegwen said.

This was unworthy of her, Angharad thought, this grasping at straws. Enough. She straightened in her chair, and nodded to herself.

Then she flashed a smile at Tegwen. “You’ll stand for me, on Saturday?”

“Of course,” Tegwen said. “Who will stand for George?”

Someone cleared his throat on the other side of the doorway, and Eurig walked in, not in the least embarrassed by his obvious eavesdropping. “I will, you fool of a girl.” He waggled his drooping gray mustaches at her. “I’ve been standing about waiting for you to talk yourself into it. Took you long enough.”
Angharad stood on Daear Llosg, the ritual burning grounds north of Greenway Court, and waited at the back of the assembly with George for the ceremony to begin. She glanced nervously at Rhian in front of them. Rhian bore a silver cord and a ring, and tried not to shift from foot to foot as though she were a child instead of Gwyn’s fourteen-year-old foster-daughter.

That was the ring George had returned to the human world for. His grandmother had kept it, a keepsake from her own mother, Gwyn’s consort. “Wife,” George had corrected her, not consort. They were married by the human ceremony, and Gwyn stayed in the human world long enough to see their daughter wed after his wife’s death.

She smoothed her woolen gown over her waist. It was russet, to match her loose auburn hair, enlivened with small silver and green embroidered details. She touched the thin circlet of silver oak leaves entwined in her hair.

Quit fussing, she told herself, and stole a look at George standing by her right side.

His brow was wrinkled in concentration, but he caught her glance and smiled at her. She could feel her face light up. He made a play of running his eyes down her and and widening them appreciatively, and she rolled her eyes in response. His lips quirked and he shifted his shoulders to let her critique his own clothing, his best huntsman’s livery, with the wide silver groom’s sash running down from his right shoulder to his left hip.

She had to admit, he did look well, broad and tall, his black hair neatly trimmed.

The weather was crisp and bright, a beautiful late autumn day. Their friends had made an aisle for them leading to Ceridwen, but she couldn’t focus on their faces.

Ceridwen lifted her hand, and at that signal, the people lining the aisle raised thin oak branches, cut from living trees, over their heads so that Angharad and George followed Rhian beneath a canopy of leafless boughs.

All their friends and family were there. Weddings were simple events for the fae, outside the alliances of royalty—an excuse for festivities and a blessing, and not much more. Still, the colors on display were bright in the afternoon sunlight, as they walked slowly under the bare branches.

When they reached the front and stood before Ceridwen, Tegwen and Eurig stepped up behind them and lifted up their own boughs, a few tan leaves still clinging to the ends of the twigs.

Ceridwen looked at them solemnly. “George and Angharad, are you free to wed and do you wish to do so?”

“Yes,” George said immediately.

It was uncomplicated for him, Angharad thought. He’d never been married before and had no children.

She recalled the three previous occasions she had stood in a similar place. All of those men were lost to her now, and her children from the first marriage, though living, might as well be. Still, she would do this again.

“Yes,” she avowed, quietly.

“Do you swear to honor each other’s children, heirs, and obligations? To share in the joys and sorrows of life, to be each other’s support and delight, to live as one as long as life lasts?”

George glanced at her, with his heart in his eyes, and timed his “I do” to coincide with hers.

Ceridwen bound their hands with the silver cord she took from Rhian, her right hand to George’s left. George’s hand was slick with sweat, despite the cool air, and she smiled at that. You’re no more used to this than I am, she thought, with your façade of confidence.

The fae ceremony was simply finished, but George turned to her with a human addition of his own. He’d told her he wanted to add something from his home. He took the ring from Rhian with his free right hand and placed it on the fourth finger of her left hand.

“With this ring, I thee wed,” he intoned, and his voice thickened. “With my body, I thee worship. With all my worldly goods I thee endow.”

The emotion in his voice riveted her attention. He’s giving me everything, she thought. How can I do less?

He looked at her and his hand shook as he lifted his fingers from the ring on hers. He’s as nervous as I am, she thought, and she laughed out loud.

To her relief, he joined her, and pulled her into a warm embrace, and a long kiss.

Ceridwen enchanted the branches along the aisles and in their sponsors’ hands, and the green wood forced out new young leaves, pushing the old ones off to flutter to the ground. Angharad smelled the strong scent of spring verdure in the autumn air, and they turned to face the crowd and receive the congratulations of their friends.

Eurig and Tegwen were the first to embrace them. Whatever Eurig whispered into George’s ear made him blush. Interesting. She’d have to ask him what he said.

George endured the good wishes of the attendees as patiently as he could. He learned not to look over at Angharad doing the same while he was talking with someone, because the sight choked him every time and made him fumble his words.

Looking at her auburn hair and russet dress, he felt like the world’s luckiest foxhunter, to have run this one to ground.

He watched the last of the guests start their walk back to Greenway Court. Those not on foot had returned to their wagons or mounted up. There was to be a gathering there at the huntsman’s house, and he didn’t look forward to it, a rowdy hurly-burly of jokes and pranks intended to disturb their wedding night. It wouldn’t just be a party, it would be a trial to be endured, and there was no way to escape it.

He hung back with Angharad until only the bridal wagon remained, the one that had brought her there in her fine dress. Benitoe waited up top to drive them both back, with their sponsors and Ceridwen. Before they left, everyone who had held a newly-leafed branch had affixed it upright to the side of the wagon in prepared holders, and Eurig and Tegwen had just finished adding their own on either side of the driver’s bench seat, with a few pointed and ribald remarks from each of them.

Angharad seemed to be as reluctant to leave as he was. He couldn’t stop smiling, just looking at her, he’d never get his fill of that. He put his right arm around her and held her close to his side, as though never to let her go.

“Do you really want to go through with the ambush at the house?” he asked her.

“Rhodri has made arrangements…,” Ceridwen said. “You’ll get no peace tonight.”

George winced. “I can just imagine.”

Angharad looked up at him uncertainly. “Could it be avoided?”

Eurig said, “Well of course it can. Many a couple before you have dodged away, refusing to be entrapped, and they’ll respect you if you can pull it off. But they’ll have set watchers along your trail to ensure you don’t stray and spoil their fun. They’ll try to fetch you back.”

Tegwen said, “Rhodri’s too young to deserve success every time. It would do them all good to party without you. That way it can last until morning, with no one protesting.”

George glanced over at Angharad for support, and she nodded, her eyes shining.

“Those watchers will all be south of us, between here and Greenway Court,” he said. “I have a plan. Will you all help?”

George and Angharad sat on either side of Benitoe on the wide seat of the wagon. The small lutin was dressed in his best red coat and breeches, and George’s heart went out to him. The death of his betrothed a few weeks ago had dealt him a major blow, and today’s ceremony must have been bittersweet.

Eurig saluted from the ground. The three of them would walk back, south along the road, as slowly as possible, to give the couple as much time as they could for a headstart. Eurig proposed a song, and the last thing they heard as they pulled away was his deep, jolly voice echoing down the road along the stream, seconded by two strong trebles.

What did she see in him?
Who could explain?
Another full glass,
And we’ll not mind the pain.
Pain, no pain,
Again and again,
Another full glass,
And we’ll not mind the pain.

Over and under him,
Country or town,
Give us one more
And we’ll drink it right down.
Down, down,
Away with her gown.
Give us one more
And we’ll drink it right down.

Lift up your glasses,
And do what is right.
Wish them the best,
Of both day and of night.
Night, night,
An inspiring sight,
Wish them the best,
Of both day and of night.

The dignified Ceridwen belting out a drinking song—imagine that, George thought, blushing at the words.

Benitoe turned north on the road away from Greenway Court and took them to the upper ford of the river, and then south down along the road on the other side, heading to Angharad’s house in the village. They traveled in silence, for the most part, and Angharad once leaned over to Benitoe and gave him a wordless hug. The sound of the singing died away, and there were just the evening sounds and the light of the fading sun.

There was nothing to disturb them after they crossed the river, no other travelers on the village road, and George felt as if he moved through the twilight alone with Angharad. He glanced over Benitoe’s head at her and caught her doing the same to him.

No smiles this time, it was too deep a feeling for that. He could sense the pull of the years to come, as though he were being rooted to this world and stitched into place. He knew he would be just an episode in Angharad’s long life, he had come to terms with that, but she would be all of his. At the end of his life, she would still be there, hardly changed. He didn’t understand how she could possibly consent to it, but he was beyond questioning it now. He just accepted it, with a private vow to live up to whatever she saw in him.

They turned off the road at the north end of Greenhollow and took the lane alongside her house and workshops. Benitoe drove the wagon to her back door, and George lifted out the things Angharad had brought with her for their planned night at his huntsman’s house behind the court.

Benitoe said, when George had finished, “I’ll go back up and cross over the ford again so that I can come down from Daear Llosg. When I drive down past the watchers, empty, that may puzzle them enough to throw them off the scent. Especially since they’ll have had a few drinks by now. I think you’ll get away with it.”

“Tell them we’re not available. I’ll take the hunt on Tuesday,” he said. “Maybe.”

Angharad walked into Benitoe’s path after he turned the wagon and stopped him. “Grab my arm,” she told him, lifting it up to him. “Pretend like you’ve caught me.”

He looked at her puzzled, but did as she asked.

“Good,” she said. “Thank you for everything.” She beckoned him to lean down, and she gave him a soft kiss on the cheek. He looked back as she returned to George, then drove off quietly, leaving them alone. Even her pets were up at the huntsman’s house.

“What was that about?” George said.

She told him, “The bride is supposed to flee before the groom and his party. The man who catches her will marry within the year.”

“Benitoe? After Isolda?” He shuddered at the memory of her death and vowed to take his own happiness while he could and not waste any time.

“It’s just one of our customs,” she said, “and he was the only one here.”

“Ah.” Like throwing the bridal bouquet, he thought. “A custom, is it? Well,” he said, looking down at her, “this is one of mine.”

He scooped her up in his arms and walked up the steps of the back porch to the kitchen door with her, while she laughed in surprise. His senses were full with the weight of her, the smell of her hair. He fumbled at the latch and carried her over the threshold, kicking the door shut behind him.

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