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King of the May (excerpt) – Chapter 1

Posted in King of the May, and The Hounds of Annwn

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CHAPTER 1

Prologue
Creiddylad knelt at her father’s feet and waited for his response. She surreptitiously watched from her humbly lowered eyes, the subtle smile that was normally on her face hidden from his sight.

Lludd, King of Britain, stiffened in his great seat in his private audience chamber. “Can this possibly be true? The wizards were right that rock-wights made the ways we use, and my son Gwyn knows this and keeps it from me?”

“He’s found a method of controlling the elementals, father,” she said, rubbing salt into the wound. “I fear my friend Madog paid with his life when he challenged Gwyn’s authority.” The fact that Madog had been experimenting with them, had even kidnapped a young one, was carefully omitted.

Lludd ruminated on this treacherous and independent son. Prince of Annwn, indeed. Only by my will, he reminded himself. It was time he took that back and made something more useful out of him. Annwn would be better served by an ambitious deputy who owed everything to him, one who had proven his loyalty.

It would be a shame to hurt him too badly, but he could always breed other children. That’s what they were there for, after all—the glory of his line.


“Thank you, my dear.”

George lifted his eyes from the hunt log on his desk to smile at his wife, standing in the doorway of the huntsman’s office in the kennels. “You’re welcome,” he said. “But what for?”

“For the present you left me, of course, in the workroom. I thought you’d want to watch while I opened it, before you have to go meet with the rock-wights this afternoon.” Angharad’s teasing tone turned to puzzlement as George rose hastily.

“What present? Where?” The first thing he thought of was an explosive, wholly unlikely here in the fae otherworld where gunpowder didn’t work. But whatever it was, it wasn’t from him. And who would leave it in her workroom instead of bringing it to the house? “You haven’t opened it?”

She looked at him soberly now, taking his alarm. “It’s in the studio, on the main worktable. About so big.” She outlined with her hands a medium-sized box. “Very tidy.”

Angharad had set up a temporary work studio in an unused storage room of the infirmary at Greenway Court, to use while the winter weather intermittently made travel difficult to her home in the town below. George’s huntsman’s house wasn’t large enough to hold it, and it was just across the lane in the grid of buildings that stretched out within the palisade behind the manor house.

It was a convenient solution to the not-yet-completed merger of their households, one that George had approved gratefully, but now it occurred to him that anyone could get in there.

He tried to calm his expression. “Let’s go take a look and find out who’s been sending packages to my wife.” He smiled to make it a joke, but he could see she wasn’t fooled.

As they walked down the huntsman’s alley, the private entrance to the kennels across from the back door of his own home, she said, “You don’t suppose Maelgwn…?”

“Not his style,” George said. Their foster-son would have given anything to her directly. At twelve, his interests were more focused on hunting and other outdoor work, and a package like this, at her studio, rang false to him.

They crossed the lane and opened the gate leading into the small yard of the huntsman’s house, the two tall hollies on either side of the wide back veranda the only color in the winter-bound garden. The female holly still carried its red berries in early January.

Going directly through the huntsman’s house rather than walking around the lanes was a natural shortcut, the infirmary being just a few steps down from the front door. Something savory scented the air when they opened the back door of the house, and Alun stuck his head out of the kitchen as they passed, a question on his face.

“Never mind,” George said. “Angharad just wants to show me something.”

They opened the wide door that fronted onto the next lane and crossed over to the infirmary. Ceridwen’s house was further down on the same side, but all was quiet there. Everything seemed normal to George. The tall fae in the lane passed by, intent on their own morning errands, and one short korrigan whom he recognized as the silversmith’s wife waved a hand at Angharad as she passed.

The storage room at the infirmary that was now Angharad’s studio was down a short interior corridor. George walked in first, and there it was, in a cleared space on the crowded worktable, an ordinary wooden box with a separate lid, tied shut with twine but not wrapped, about a foot and a half long. The box was meant for display or storage, and was decoratively carved at the corners with five-petaled roses.

“Not mine,” he said. Something about it raised his hackles. “A delivery from the town, maybe?”

“I haven’t ordered anything,” she said. “Shall I open it?”

“No,” he said, uneasily. “Don’t. Something’s wrong.” He laughed nervously. “I don’t know why I think so, probably just overreacting.”

She looked at him and shook her head. “Trust your instincts,” she said. “I’ll fetch Ceridwen. You stay here.” She turned and left, leaving the door open.

He felt foolish, dragging Ceridwen into this, but Angharad was right. Ceridwen would know if there was anything actually wrong before they opened it.

He was reluctant to get any closer to the box and looked around the studio instead. He dropped in every couple of days for one reason or another since Angharad spent so much of her time here.

Something was different in the room from last time. What was it? Ah, he thought—the new painting had made it off the easel and onto the wall. He grinned when he saw it.

Angharad had finished her scene of the oak tree from the end of the wild hunt a couple of months ago. When he’d met her, he’d told her about the vision of the oak that he’d carried all his life, spreading its strong branches and providing shelter. They’d seen it in reality, together, at the end of the great hunt where justice was served on Iolo’s killer, and she’d promised to paint it for him.

It’s wonderful, he thought, admiring the autumn colors in the moonlit scene, the oak prominent at the top of its upland meadow. All the chaos of the actual wild hunt, the hounds and hunt field, the criminal at bay, had been removed. Just the oak remained, serene and permanent in the landscape, caught in the moonlight in the upper right, and the fading light pooled down to bosky darkness on the lower left, leaving the oak with its promise of protection glowing, drawing the eye.

How did she make the leaves match her hair, he wondered. They were just the color of her long auburn braid.

Footsteps coming down the hall caught his attention. He nodded at Ceridwen as she came in with Angharad.

“What’s this about mysterious packages?” she said.

“Probably nothing,” he said, embarrassed, pointing at it. “But I don’t like it. We don’t know who it came from or how it got in here.”

Angharad stayed by his side just inside the doorway and he put an arm around her, by habit shielding her and the new life she carried, too early to see yet in her form.

Ceridwen strode over to the table, and focused on the box without touching it. After a few moments, she moved her hands in the air around it, even stooping to pass one underneath the table to feel it remotely from the bottom.

“You were right, there’s magic involved,” she said. “Well-shielded, which is probably why Angharad didn’t sense anything.”

Like all the fae, Angharad had some skill in minor magics, but her primary talents were artistic.

“Let’s see what happens when we open it,” Ceridwen said.

“In here?” George said, alarmed.

Ceridwen gave him a repressive glance. She gestured smoothly with both hands over the box, and a dome appeared to enclose it, faintly visible in the morning light streaming in from the studio windows. Another gesture, and the twine parted and fell away.

“Ready?” she said, not bothering to look back at them for their consent.

She raised the lid remotely and let it slide off so that she could look inside. Angharad walked over to join her, and George went with her.

“Why, it’s just supplies,” she told George. “Pigments, brushes.”

George rolled his eyes. “Sorry, I’m just being overprotective,” he said to Ceridwen.

“Hmm?” she replied, not attending either of them. “Oh. No, I don’t believe so.”

Without touching them through the dome, she lifted each small item out onto the table, still within the shield. “These have each been… enhanced.”

She pointed at the brushes. “Those wooden handles are bespelled. Something slow, I think.”

Angharad drew back and George shuddered.

“The pigments, now, they feel adulterated to me. Poisons?” Ceridwen spoke almost to herself, going through her analysis.

Angharad said quietly, “Some pigments are toxic and require precautions, but not those. Not usually.”

Ceridwen nodded, concentrating. “Let’s see what happens when we empty it.”

She lifted the last small item remotely and as soon as it moved out of the box, while it was still in the air, the box imploded and a fine gray powder sprayed out, contained by the dome. Even Ceridwen backed up a few steps in surprise.

“One of my colleagues,” she said, her voice certain. “The objects could have been purchased, perhaps, but the trap within the trap, the misdirection, that’s what gives it away.”

“Get packed,” George told Angharad, his stomach in knots. “I’m taking you back to my world. My grandparents will be glad to have you.”

She put a hand on his arm to restrain him. “This isn’t aimed at me,” she said. “It’s aimed at you. I can’t hide in the human world for half a year or more. And when the child is born, what then?”

He shook his head in refusal, but she was right. It would solve nothing.

“You asked me to come meet with you at your father’s court, and I am here.”

The familiar voice caught Creiddylad by surprise. She rose from her comfortable seat in the receiving room of her private suite in the east wing of Lludd’s castle. The casements were closed against the chill air and two fireplaces at either end kept it warm.

She hadn’t expected him for another day or two, but she kept all trace of that from her face as she made the obeisance of a king’s daughter to one of his highest subject lords—Gwythyr ap Greidawl, her one-time husband.

He’d weathered well, she thought. She hadn’t seen him much for a few hundred years, since they carefully avoided each other on those rare occasions where their paths might cross. He still looked middle-aged, for all that he was considerably older than Gwyn. Her own father was beginning to show his age and it was clear to everyone, even him, that he would not live as long as he had hoped. But Gwythyr, now, he showed every sign of agelessness that she could hope for.

Allied to him, her life would have been very different. She’d been a fool to destroy that, out of youthful pique.

He had heirs now, from subsequent marriages, but none of those alliances had long endured and she knew he had no current consort.

“Please come sit down by me, my lord,” she said, indicating a matching chair set at an intimate distance. “I’ll call for some refreshment.”

She sent her maid out and watched Gwythyr seat himself, stiff and upright. He still dislikes me, she thought, but I can use that. Any passion is better than indifference. Besides, it was never my body that he coveted, it was the power I could bring him and the pride of possession. That’s the betrayal he resents, and the annual public reminder of it at Nos Galan Mai. I can fix this, she thought suddenly, excited.

She peeked out of downcast eyes and spoke, modestly and soberly. “I have a proposal by which I hope to make amends between us.”

Her maid returned and directed the servant following her to lay out cold meats and breads, and both mulled wine and cold water, then she dismissed him. Creiddylad took a cup of the hot spiced wine and urged one on Gwythyr. “I acquired a taste for this some time ago. Very suitable for a winter’s day.”

She waved her maid out of the room and they were alone again.

Gwythyr held his cup and took a token sip from it, waiting in silence for her to continue.

“My brother Gwyn is out of favor with our father who has been made to see the undesirability of his continued rule in the new world.” She looked sideways at him and saw him notice. He smiled faintly at her inspection and relaxed a bit in his chair, taking another sip of wine.

Good, she thought, he’s becoming more comfortable with the notion of me as a political ally. I need him to think of me as useful.

“Others have tried to bring Gwyn down,” he said. “Most recently, Madog.”

She carefully kept her face from reacting to the jab. He knew that Madog and she had been allies, even lovers before the end. It wasn’t the loss of Madog as a consort that pulled at her, but the defeat of his plans to overthrow Gwyn.

“Each attempt was made in isolation,” she said, reasonably. “That was a mistake.”

She looked at him coolly, careful not to overplay her hand. “I have a better plan.”

“I am listening, my lady.”

Good, she thought. He’s interested. Still the political, scheming, ambitious lord he ever was, but she’d been too young to make proper use of it during their marriage.

“My father has been brought to consider the advantages of a new power in Gwyn’s place and is inclined to support such an ally, as viceroy.” There, she thought, that’s certainly a big enough prize to hook him.

He leaned forward for the first time. “Of the new world? Or of Annwn? Can they be separated? And what of Cernunnos?”

“Lludd has people in place in Gwyn’s court, and plans for more. In Gwyn’s absence, they could make it impossible to hold the great hunt. No hunt, no favors from Cernunnos for Gwyn.”

He considered that.

She continued to make her point. “My father will summon Gwyn soon, to answer for Madog and for… other things. While he is here we have an opportunity, if we should choose to pursue it.”

She could tell that he noticed the use of “we” but he didn’t reject it. Progress.

“How would you like to win this year at Nos Galan Mai, and every year thereafter, until the pack is aged and no new whelps are forthcoming to Gwyn, loser of the contest? It can be done. That alone would be the end of Gwyn, without the other plan.”

“Might even be the end of Annwn,” he said. “It wasn’t always here, before Arawn. I don’t see why we can’t return to that. But what then?” he asked. “Say I take the new world at Lludd’s hands as viceroy. Lludd and Llefelys would still be kings.”

“Even that is not impossible to change. Have you seen my father recently?”

He nodded.

“So you know. A mighty noble allied into his family will be a powerful contender for the succession, once it comes.”

He looked at her, his eyes narrowing. “Not you, not even for that. You’ll need to think of a different payment.”

She took the blow expressionlessly. She would change his mind, later. “There are others you could consider,” she said, evenly.

He sat back, the mulled wine cupped in his hand, and watched her.

“Here’s what I want,” he said. “I want the ways. Is it true that Gwyn’s huntsman can destroy them?”

“That’s what they say and, indeed, I saw him kill one behind me after I used it. Just as importantly, the rock-wights Gwyn is cultivating can create them. And way-finders can control the rock-wights. That’s what Madog did. You have way-finders.” So does my father, she thought.

She could tell by the involuntary flicker of his eyes that this was new information for him. She smiled pleasantly and nodded. Yes, I am valuable, she thought. Listen to me.

“That’s the real power,” he told her. “If we can control the ways, Lludd and Llefelys can’t stand. We can force them out.” He looked at her. “Maybe you’re right about a marriage alliance. It can all be mine.”

She noticed the unconscious “we” he was starting to use now.

“You will find me grateful,” he said, inviting her response.

Time to make some conditions. “I will need your help with the huntsman,” she said, “to bring him under control as a weapon. And you’ll need mine for the rest of it.”

He waved a hand for her to elaborate.

“I want a place that’s not in the public eye and far from any of the ways,” she said.

“Easy enough,” he said. “My fortress of Calubriga will do fine. No one will disturb us in Gaul. Llefelys will never interfere, it’s not his way.”

He looked at her a bit abstractly, like a general planning a war with his aides. “Gwyn won’t travel here alone.”

Creiddylad leaned back in her chair, satisfied. “They can all be neutralized if we plan it right, my lord.”

George fidgeted impatiently in his seat as Ceridwen summarized her findings for Gwyn ap Nudd.

“I can think of a dozen people who could’ve assembled this pleasant surprise,” she told him. “None of them your friends.”

George’s great-grandfather, the Prince of Annwn, had allowed her to barge into his council room at Greenway Court with the two of them in tow, and now he looked over at Angharad. “No one was hurt?”

“We’re fine, my lord,” she said, clearly not wanting to make much of it.

“We were lucky,” George objected. “It’s not the same thing. What about next time? How do we stop it?” He wanted a name, someone to go after immediately.

Gwyn looked at him reprovingly as if he were a child. “You can’t stop it without knowing who did it, or even which faction they belong to. There are spies in every court, though they don’t usually act. You were wise to be cautious.”

Ceridwen said, “Angharad was right—this wasn’t about her. I don’t think that anything in that mix was immediately fatal. It was intended to injure.”

“To tie down my huntsman and keep him from traveling,” Gwyn said.

Ceridwen nodded. “Just so.”

That was too cold-blooded for George. “And why shouldn’t I just take her away out of danger?” he said.

“Because it could be Maelgwn next, or Rhian,” Angharad told him. “You can’t just send us all away.”

Gwyn frowned at the mention of his foster-daughter, his brother’s grandchild.

George’s blood boiled and he leaned forward. “I can’t just wait for the next strike—it might work. There has to be something we can do.”

Gwyn held up his hand to silence him as someone knocked on the door and then opened it.

An elderly man stood hesitantly in the doorway, a stranger to George.

Gwyn rose abruptly. “Geraint, what are you doing here?”

Angharad leaned over to whisper into George’s ear, “That’s Gwyn’s steward from Bryntirion, his original domain under his father Lludd, in western Britain.”

“My lord, I’ve just been sent by Gorwel, the commander of your father’s forces.” At Gwyn’s blank look, he continued. “The ones that are holding the end of the Travelers’ Way and barring passage.”

 


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