Just in time for the holidays, here's an excerpt from The Ways of Winter (due for release in January).
For those of you who haven't read the first adventure in the Hounds of Annwn series (To Carry the Horn), our hero George has moved to the fae otherworld overlaid on his human home in the Virginia Piedmont. Newly married, he wants to start a Xmas tree tradition for his new family. There's just one problem: the fae aren't Christians and they have no idea what he's doing. Nor do the smaller folk, the lutins and korrigans.
No matter. It's a nice snowy day and everyone's delighted to go have a good time.
George mounted the sledge behind the manor and picked up the long reins looped around the pole on the front boards, waist high, standing with his legs braced. There were three or four inches of snow under the runners even here in front of the stables, and he gave an experimental cluck to the two heavy draft horses to see what they made of the weight and the whole contraption. They leaned forward into the harness and easily moved it a few feet before George stopped them again.
The head groom who’d found the old stone boat for him nodded with satisfaction. “I think this’ll do fine, sir. With the snow under it, they should have no difficulty bringing that a couple of miles, even if you carry a person or two. Folk don’t weigh like stones, after all.”
He’d spent much of the morning after the hound walking trying to arrange a means of transport for getting to the nearby woods for his tree. This sledge, a bit larger than a single bed, would carry his tools and the small barrel end he would use for the tree itself, with the tree in it on the way back. In the deep snow, the runners reduced the friction and made it easier to draw.
The word had spread at lunch, and he’d found a couple dozen people mounted and loitering when he’d emerged, asking to come along for a break from staying indoors. It wasn’t a complete surprise since he’d invited several of them himself, but at the sight of so many, he ducked back into the manor and begged a large sack of apples from one of the cooks. He’d carry that out in the barrel end.
After his experiment with the full harness, he looped the reins around the pole and stepped down to face the gathering.
“Glad to see you all. I’m just headed to the woods to bring back a tree for the winter solstice, but I thought we could make a party of it since the snow has eased off again. We’ll be going down to the manor gates, then up the nearby slope to the edge of the woods, maybe a total of a mile and a half each way.
“The snow’s too deep for walking, but the distance is short enough that you could ride double with some of the kids, maybe. I can take a couple of the small folk, but it could be dangerous without side rails. I don’t want to try it with children. And coming back, with a tree, it’ll get crowded.
“So, sort yourselves out. Who wants to come with me?”
The local folk, all mounted, stood off to the side. Eurig and Brynach were joking with each other, their cheeks already red in the cold, and Rhian joined them. Ceridwen had introduced him to her colleague Eluned at lunch, and the two women were sitting together astride their horses, well-wrapped against the chill.
Benitoe had persuaded Maëlys to come, mounted. George overheard him explaining that her pony could hardly run away in such deep snow. Kennel-man Tanguy had fetched Armelle, his betrothed, and now the two lutins came forward to join George on the sledge, neither one having learned to ride.
Only Broch and Tiernoc among the korrigans came along, on their ponies, but Cydifor and many of the other traveling fae had decided that this promised some fun, especially for the kids. The older children were mounted, and a few younger ones sat in front of a parent, wide-eyed.
George looked over the group and nodded. Before he turned to step up to the stone boat again, he caught sight of Cadugan walking by with Ifor, headed to a meeting with Gwyn. Cadugan was shaking his head at the spectacle, but smiling, too.
George asked the head groom for a short leather strap to buckle around his waist so that the two lutins would have something to hang onto, without a side rail to steady themselves. He knew it would be difficult to keep their footing standing up all the way.
He picked up the reins and clucked to the horses. They moved out at a slow walking pace, and his dogs bounded through the snow ahead of them.
It was tricky keeping his balance, but with a lutin on each side of him, holding to the front boards with one hand and his impromptu belt with the other, they worked out a method of swaying with the motion, knees bent, that kept them all upright. The horses pulling the sledge seemed to take its weight as inconsequential and were enjoying being outside. George held a light mental touch on them and felt their pleasure.
If he only had a red suit and a white beard, maybe a few jingle bells, the scene would be complete, he thought, smiling to himself.
The voices of the children behind him rose with excitement as they approached their destination.
He pulled the stone boat up in front of the small balsam fir he had in mind. Good, he thought, as he looked it over. It’s still in fine shape. Before unhooking the horses, he looped the reins on the pole and hopped out to check its size, pulling a cord out of his pocket. He’d measured the ceiling height in the hall, and the width available, and knotted the cord appropriately. Now he stretched it against the actual tree. Seven feet tall, plus the root ball — should be fine.
“Alright, we’re here. Let’s bring the horses under the shelter of the trees so they don’t have to stand in such deep snow.”
He pocketed a couple of the apples, then unhooked the doubletree from the stone boat and led his team into the woods several yards, tethering it to a sturdy tree. They each took an apple delicately from his hands and munched appreciatively. When he returned, he found everyone dismounted. One of the fae borrowed his spade as a shovel and cleared a spot for a fire, in the open away from the woods, while a few others gathered fallen branches to use for fuel.
Eurig and Ceridwen took charge as hosts for the group, and George decided to get the tree done right away before joining in. He reclaimed the spade, brought the pick and ax over to the tree, and untied the barrel end and rolled it over up close, leaving the sack of apples on the stone boat for now.
Probing the ground with the pick, he was relieved to find it not as frozen as he’d feared — the winter so far was snowy but not very cold. He marked a circle around the trunk about the width of the barrel and began to drive the spade down.
He angled the spade inward as he approached the maximum depth the barrel end would hold but encountered a few tough deep roots that resisted his tool.
The snow squeaked as the two korrigans walked up. “Stand aside and let me show you how we deal with this,” Broch said, picking up the ax. Tiernoc tilted the loosened tree to supply tension, and Broch applied two precise cuts with the ax that broke the first root free. They made short work of the remainder, George standing by in admiration at their expertise.
Now that the tree was completely liberated, he squatted down to grasp the trunk near its base and lift it. The root ball added significant weight but he got his back into it and hoisted it out of the ground. He dropped it next to the hole, still upright. The two korrigans leaned down to inspect the evenness of the bottom part of the cut and added some loose dirt to the empty barrel with the spade to give the root ball something to expand into. Then George picked it up one more time and set it in the barrel end, holding it upright while the korrigans filled around the edges with dirt and the occasional rock, tamping everything down solidly.
“I’ll need some help lifting this to the sledge and tying it down,” George said, eying the ten feet of distance. A snowball took him fair on the cheek, and he spun around to find himself under sneak attack by Rhian and Brynach.
“Oh, yeah?” he said, mock ferociously, and set off after them, stooping to gather and pack snowballs as he ran. They lured him straight into the middle of a group snowball fight where this presentation of a new, large target, barely whitened at all, proved irresistible, and he was pounded on all sides until he fled down the slope to recoup.
He found some of the younger children playing there. He smiled at one of them, a little girl maybe seven years old. “Have you ever made a snow angel?” he asked. She looked at him blankly, and he rephrased, “I mean, a snow lady?” She shook her head solemnly. “Here, I’ll show you.”
He took her by the hand and led her a few feet to an untouched stretch of snow. “Lie down on your back, like you’re going to bed. Now put your arms out sideways and move them back and forth.” He demonstrated for her. “Do the same thing with your legs.” He reached down and gave her a careful hand up. “Now look at the picture you just made in the snow.”
It was a perfect snow angel, and she squealed with pleasure. At once some of the other youngsters surrounded them and started their own experiments. He glanced up at one of the parents who was keeping an eye on them and winked, before walking back up the slope to the fire.
Eurig and Ceridwen greeted him. “What do you think?” George said. “Shall we give them a few more minutes before heading back?”
Ceridwen beamed at him. “It’s been so long since most of us were children, you can’t imagine how a scene like this feels to us. I hate to stop.”
“Well, alright then, I have a family game you might like,” He walked a few feet from the fire and called out. “We’re going to have a couple of rounds of “Statues” before we return. Everyone can play. Kids, too.”
Most of the people came over to find out what this was.
“Here’s how it works. Someone is ‘it’ and stands over there facing the woods.” He pointed to the top of a small open space before the trees. “Everyone else lines up at the foot of the hill. The goal is to tag the person who’s ‘it.’ When he turns his back, you can move. When he turns around, without warning, you have to freeze, like a statue. If you move and he sees it, you have to go back to the start of the hill and start again. He can try and make you move, too, as long as he doesn’t touch you. The person who tags him while his back is turned becomes the new ‘it.’” He glanced around. “Clear?” Heads nodded.
George walked up the slope and looked down at the crowd about twenty yards away. “Alright, here we go.” He faced the trees for about five seconds then spun around.
“Benitoe, Rhian, Tiernoc — I saw you. And you, there — sorry I don’t know your name.” He pointed at five more who went sheepishly back to the start. Broch and Eurig had covered a surprising amount of ground, and where was Ceridwen?
He faced the tree again, pretended to turn, then turned for real. As he’d hoped, some of the bolder ones had restarted and been caught. “You again, Rhian?” This time he saw Ceridwen, flanking him where it was hard to keep an eye on her. Eurig gave him a grin but didn’t move any other muscle. Some of the teenagers were getting fairly close, and Brynach was right next to Eurig.
He turned away then spun back. Eurig and Brynach were three yards closer, but when he looked away from them for some of the others, he heard a noise and glanced back. Brynach had somehow tripped and was glaring at Eurig who kept a serene expression. Tanguy and Armelle in with the spectators were laughing, and those of the players who couldn’t keep a straight face joined Brynach as he trudged back to the start.
Once again, he faced the woods but before he could turn he was tackled by Eurig who laughed down at him. “Reminds me of my warrior games when I was a lad.” Brynach and Rhian charged up the hill and piled on. They rolled him down the slope and his dogs barked and chased after them.
Eurig took the new ‘it’ position and George retired to the sidelines to watch.
This is a kids’ game where I come from, he thought, but look at how the adults are treating it as an opportunity to practice battle tactics. Ceridwen moved fluidly and surefootedly up the slope, along one side. As she got closer, Eurig concentrated on her more as a threat, but then Eluned, on the opposite side presented herself as a target and made enough of a distraction for Ceridwen to sneak in from the side and tap Eurig as he turned back. Teamwork, George thought.
While they played a couple more rounds, he went and fetched the sack of apples for everyone and their horses, keeping back a couple for his own team.
As they munched, they untied their horses and mounted up. Eurig helped George lift the upright tree in its barrel end onto the back of the stone boat where they tied it down with ropes.
The branches reached out and tickled George from behind as he took up the reins again and it was a crowded ride for them all, but the whole party hummed with jokes and laughter as they headed home.