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Short story – The Call

Posted in Fantasy, Short Story, The Call, and The Hounds of Annwn

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

A very young Rhian discovers her beast-sense and rushes to the rescue of an errant hound.

This short story takes place before the events in To Carry the Horn.


THE CALL

The Call

In all of her eight years, Rhian had never had a better time out hunting. Her pony Dreinog had kept up with the bigger horses on this gorgeous fall day, and she’d jumped every obstacle that came her way. It was always fun, she thought, but somehow today seemed different, more exciting. It’s like I could feel what a good time Dreinog was having, following the hounds.

She hastened to untack him and groom him in the stables behind her foster-father’s court. Gwyn insisted that she see to the care of each of her animals, and she enjoyed doing it. Normally she liked these quiet moments after the hunt with her pony, lingering to talk to him all about the adventures they had just had. But this time there was something wrong, something nagging at her. She wanted to find Isolda and talk to her instead. Isolda would know what to do. After all, she was three years older.

She hurried out of the stables and ran to the kennels to look for her friend. Isolda was usually there, helping her father Ives and the other lutins who were responsible for the well-being of the hounds. She found the usual stir of the pack recently returned, the lucky hounds who had been out telling their left-behind packmates all about it, in their own way.

Rhian ignored the noisy hounds, but she was surprised not to see any of the hunt staff. They hadn’t come to the stable, either. She ducked her head into the kennel-master’s office, and found Isolda there instead of her father.

“What’s happened?” she asked.

“Gwennol’s missing,” Isolda told her. “Iolo brought the rest of the pack home, but he’s gone back out with the hunt staff to find her.”

Rhian was shocked. She liked Gwennol about best of all the bitch hounds. The young hound had a habit in the field of swooping after the quarry, like the swallow she was named for. Was that what was wrong, what had been bothering her in the stables?

“Where are they looking for her?”

“Over at Eagle’s Nest, where you were hunting,” Isolda said. “Where the hounds were last all on together, Iolo said.”

“But that’s wrong,” Rhian blurted out. Something stabbed at her and she cried out. “She’s over there,” pointing to the southwest, “not back where we were.”

“What’s the matter with you?” Isolda asked. “Are you hurt?”

“I don’t know.” Rhian felt a pain in her leg. “I don’t think it’s me. Maybe it’s Gwennol.” As she said it, she thought that seemed right.

“How can you know that?” Isolda said.

“I just do,” Rhian said, frustrated. “I can’t explain it. I’m going to go find her. Come with me.”

She didn’t think Isolda would do it. She knew this wasn’t something the adults would approve of but she couldn’t wait. Gwennol was hurt, she was sure of it.

She saw Isolda weighing her choices. The older girl sometimes made her be more careful and she was afraid she’d have to go alone. Despite her years Isolda was no taller than Rhian, the lutins being a short people, and she looked her in the eyes to see if she was telling the truth.

Isolda bit her lip, clearly torn between wanting to help and her informal duty of trying to keep Rhian out of trouble. Rhian tried to obey the rules, most of the time, but this was different. Her foster-father wouldn’t want her to abandon one of his hounds.

“Come on,” Rhian said. “I’m going.”

“Not by yourself,” her friend replied, giving in. “Wait for me.”

They tried to walk briskly without attracting notice. They presented themselves to the two guards posted at the postern gate that led to the wooded slope of the Blue Ridge mountain to the west.

Rhian looked at one of the guards and said the first thing that popped into her mind. “I lost a riding crop in the woods this morning, and we’re going to go look for it.” She could hear Isolda’s sharp intake of breath at the lie, but Gwennol’s distress made her shift from foot to foot in urgency, and the guard took pity on her. It wasn’t the first time the girls had used this gate to leave Greenway Court.

As they exited the other side, shivering along the stone walkway through the nasty living hedge that surrounded the court, Isolda said, “We should tell someone where we’re going.”

Rhian said, “They’ll just try to stop us, and Gwennol needs us. They won’t believe me if I tell them.”

To her surprise, Isolda agreed.

“You believe me, don’t you?” Rhian asked.

“I don’t understand it,” her friend said slowly, “but I don’t think you’re lying about it.”

Rhian was warmed down to her toes by Isolda’s trust.

Rhian found the uphill trail to the overlook ledge a trial after a morning of riding. Her legs were wobbly and her feet in their boots were sore, but she could feel Gwennol’s pain more clearly as she got closer. Isolda was better shod for the woods path. Rhian looked down at her friend’s sturdy shoes in envy.

There was a new note to the hound’s distress—not just pain, but fear, too. Rhian was sure something else was there with Gwennol, another animal. She couldn’t tell what it was, but she felt hunger and intent. It was after her hound!

“Hurry up, Isolda,” she said, and she scrambled as quickly as she could up the trail and paused for breath right on the overlook ledge, with its view of the court. Normally she lingered here, but she hastened on south out the other side.

The hound was close, she knew it. “Gwennol,” she called, and the hound began barking in response. The two girls left the trail to cut directly to the sound. The leaves were partially off the trees, and they could see a large animal prowling around a pile of rocks. It lifted its feline head and snarled at them.

Rhian picked up a big stick and so did Isolda. They yelled at the cougar and it withdrew to the far side of the depression between the rocks, a pit that held the trapped hound, her right foreleg bloody and broken.

Rhian tried to throw a rock at the big cat but it barely noticed. She could hear it, it wasn’t afraid at all. She felt the hunger and interest in the beast when she looked at Gwennol, and it felt the same when she looked at the two girls. This is dangerous, Rhian realized—we all look like meals to her.

Isolda stood her ground with Rhian. “What do we do now?” she asked. “We can’t run away, it can catch us.”

Rhian nodded. “She can follow us up a tree, too.” She looked down at the hound. “We can’t get her out. We’ll have to get help.”

Isolda said, “Let’s start backing away, then.”

Rhian looked at her in surprise. “I can’t do that. She’ll kill Gwennol.”

“She’ll kill us,” Isolda protested.

“No, she won’t,” Rhian insisted. “I won’t let her.”

The cougar snarled and started to circle around to their side of the pit.

“Stop that,” Rhian said. The big cat stopped. What would happen, Rhian wondered… “Lie down,” she told her, sternly. The cougar curled her lip but she lay down along the edge at the top of the pit.

Isolda said, “Send it away, if you can.”

“No,” Rhian said, thinking about it. “If I do that, she’ll come back, and you’ll be going for help while I stay here. I can hold her here.” I think I can, she said to herself. “Otherwise she might go after you.”

Isolda looked very unhappy, but couldn’t think of anything safer.

“Tell them to bring rope,” Rhian said, “and something to bind Gwennol’s leg.”

“Don’t you dare get hurt, Rhian,” Isolda told her insistently. “I’ll be as fast as I can.”

Rhian listened to the noise of Isolda crashing back through the woods to the trail and settled down to wait. It could take a long time, she knew, an hour or more, before people arrived.

I can’t go down into the pit, she thought, because I’m not sure I can get out. She tried to calm Gwennol, partly by speaking to her, and partly with her mind, but the smell of the cougar frightened the hound, and she whined in fear and pain. Rhian felt sorry for her but there was nothing else she could do.

She sat down with her back against a tree to rest her sore feet and talked to the cougar. “Sorry to take your meal away, my lady, but she’s a friend of mine. I can’t let you have her. Or me, either,” she added nervously. “Go find a deer instead.”

The cat kept her eyes on her whenever she spoke. The snarl came and went, worse when Gwennol whimpered.

After a little while the big cat seemed to become resigned to her situation and relaxed. Rhian wondered if there were other animals she could hear in the woods around them. She tried to listen in this new special way.

There weren’t any deer, of course, not after all the noise they’d made. But gray squirrels above them, safe in their trees, watched, and she felt the field mice in the leaves close to their shelters who weren’t paying attention at all. She could feel the sass in the squirrels, taunting the cougar who ignored them.

The whole situation seemed stable, but she thought, it can’t last. The cougar will only get hungrier. I just have to hold her off for a few more minutes. I can do that.

The brisk autumn air wasn’t waking her up, like she’d hoped. Instead all the exercise she’d had today was making her sleepy. The weight of her head suddenly drooping woke her up in alarm. She mustn’t doze off.

It happened a second time, and this time Rhian was startled to find the cougar creeping up on her. She scrambled to her feet.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” she said. “Lie down and stay there.”

The beast snarled and obeyed. It was closer to her now, only a few yards away.

It’s taking Isolda a long time, she thought. What if she forgets or something. I’ve never felt animals like this before. What will happen if it goes away again and the cougar won’t obey me anymore?

She forced herself to stand in place and concentrate on staying awake, using the pain of the blisters on her feet to keep her eyes open.

She felt their hounds before she heard them coming, and the two horses, too. They were calling her name, she could hear Isolda’s voice.

“Here I am,” she cried, “over here.”

The cougar looked unhappy at all the noise, and she released her. “Off with you, my lady, and stay out of trouble.”

The big cat regarded her steadily, then turned and vanished up the slope. Rhian brushed herself off, and prepared to be scolded.

“We’re here,” she called again. “The cougar’s gone.”

She could finally see them as they cut through the woods. Her foster-father Gwyn ap Nudd, Prince of Annwn, was in the lead, on foot, with her older brother Rhys. Behind them were Isolda and her father Ives. Ives had two hounds on leads. Weapons-master Hadyn brought up the rear with two of his guards, mounted.

Isolda ran up to her and hugged her. “I ran to the gate and told the guards. One went to fetch help but the other one refused to leave his post, so I brought my father.”

She looked at her father proudly, and Rhian pictured the small lutin with his two hounds holding off a cougar. He must be really brave, she thought.

Ives shrugged. “It’s not hard to tree a cougar with a couple of hounds,” he said. Her foster-father gave him a look she couldn’t interpret.

Isolda said, “By the time we were halfway here, the rest had caught up to us, so I guess maybe the guard was right.”

“He followed his orders,” Gwyn said, “but if I’d known my foster-daughter would be this reckless I’d have released him to find her.”

He turned his gaze on Rhian, and she quavered as she stood there. He never yelled at her, but she hated to have him disapprove. It was so hard to follow the rules all the time. He asked her, mildly, “Where’s your cougar, young lady?”

She answered him forthrightly. “I sent her away when I heard you coming.”

Rhys called over from the pit. “Here are her tracks.”

Gwyn looked hard at her, and she stamped her foot in exasperation. “Nothing happened. Punish me later. Get Gwennol out, she’s hurt.”

Gwyn raised his eyebrow, but to her surprise, he turned from her and sent Ives and one of Hadyn’s men into the pit. They bound the hound’s leg to a stick as an impromptu splint, and hauled her out to safety.

There was more noise downslope from them, and she saw Iolo ride up through the trees from the south, with Thomas Kethin and the hunt staff. Isolda told her, “They sent Thomas Kethin to find Iolo, too.”

Iolo took in the scene and bowed formally to Rhian. “Thank you, my lady, for your care of my hound.”

She didn’t know what to do in response to the unexpectedly serious words from the huntsman, so she bowed in her breeches and boots, and hoped that would be alright.

Gwennol’s relief in the care of her familiar kennel-master and the easing of some of the pain echoed in Rhian’s head. “Oh, she feels so much better,” she cried. Her lower lip quivered and she tried not to burst into tears. She was so tired.

Her foster-father walked up to her and wrapped one arm around her, his open jacket like a cloak. “Hush, now,” he said. “You did a very brave and a very foolish thing. I’m glad you weren’t hurt. We all are.”

She stood enveloped in his warmth and sheltered from the world. He didn’t do this often, he was so formal. She must have really worried him, she thought, and hiccuped.

She stopped sniffling and spoke into his chest. “I didn’t think you’d believe me, sir, when I said I could hear Gwennol calling.”

“We’d have been surprised, but we’d have believed you. You heard the cougar, too, and stopped her from chasing Isolda?”

She nodded. “I didn’t want you to hurt her, she wasn’t doing anything wrong. That’s why I sent her away when I heard you coming and I knew she wouldn’t want to stay.”

Gwyn released her, and she saw Rhys listening, too.

She asked her brother, “Can’t everyone hear the animals, once they’re old enough?”

“It’s called the beast-sense,” Gwyn said. “Not many of the fae have it, and not many show it this young.”

He looked down at her sternly. “Next time, tell someone. Don’t go off like this on your own.”

“I wasn’t on my own,” she protested. “I had Isolda with me.”

“And what if any harm had come to her?” Gwyn asked.

Her mouth opened but she was speechless. She hadn’t thought of anyone else, and hung her head.

Ives said, “Be glad the hound was found and no one was hurt. Isolda should have known better than to let you do that.”

Isolda protested, “But who can stop her?”

Rhys laughed, and even Gwyn chuckled. Rhian was indignant. They’re making fun of me, she thought. Still, she was glad it was over and she didn’t really seem to be in trouble.

Iolo sat on his big horse, with the bandaged hound cradled before him, and someone gave her a toss up to one of the guard’s horses.

She listened to Gwennol’s relieved mind and then marveled at how high up from the ground she was sitting. She couldn’t reach the stirrups, but the guard was leading the horse anyway so it hardly mattered. She’d never come off a horse for a little thing like no stirrups, anyway, and besides, she could listen to him as he walked, now. I bet I can hear Dreinog, too, she thought.

Something struck her before they started off. “Does this mean I can do what Iolo does. Hunt the hounds?” she asked Gwyn.

Iolo stared at her, and Rhys rolled his eyes.

There was a pause. “We’ll see,” her foster-father said.

She hung her head again. That means no, she thought.

Ives said something to Gwyn.

“But you can help in the kennels, if you like, for a start,” Gwyn said.

“Yes, please. Thank you.” The whole day seemed brighter, as if the sun had broken out of the clouds.

She beamed at them all as they headed back to the postern gates.

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