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Short story – The Empty Hills

Posted in Fantasy, Short Story, The Empty Hills, and The Hounds of Annwn

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

George Talbot Traherne shows a bit of the human world to family and friends, hoping to share some of the sense of wonder he discovered when he encountered the fae otherworld.

This short story takes place during the events in King of the May.


The Empty Hills - Full Front Cover - 297x459

George Talbot Traherne turned in his saddle and checked to make sure everyone had followed him through the way without difficulty. The last time he’d brought them to the grounds of Bellemore a week ago, he’d had to cut the visit short, but this time he was determined to show them a bit more of his human world. His discovery of the fae otherworld a few months ago had changed his life and brought him a family, and he wanted to give them the opportunity to discover adventure in his world in return.

Angharad rode by his side, the new life within her not yet showing. He was nervous about her being on horseback but she’d assured him there was nothing to fear, this early. She’d had other children in her long life and he knew she was a better judge of it, but he would be a father for the first time and he couldn’t help worrying.

She looked at him now, rightly judging his concern. “I’m fine,” she said. “Is the weather the same in both places? It seems to me it was cloudier on the other side.”

She peered up at the sky, her auburn braid touching the saddle behind her as her head leaned back. It shone against the rich blue of her riding habit.

“I don’t know,” George replied. “I haven’t gone back and forth enough to tell. The snow cover looks the same.”

Only bits of snow remained in the shady spots, most of the heavy snow of a month ago having melted in a January thaw. There would likely be more snow in February, in Virginia, but for now the ground was bare and the vegetation was locked into its winter sereness. The stands of tall pines that served as windbreaks on the estate, blocking part of the view of the main house from their location, were the only touch of green in the landscape.

George glanced back at his foster-son Maelgwn, silent on his black pony, carefully looking around at the fields and woods of Bellemore that were visible from the caretaker’s house. So much self-possession for a twelve-year old, George thought. That hard life after his family’s death has left its mark on him.

Benitoe brought up his own pony to join George. Unlike Maelgwn, he’d been riding most of his twenty-eight years. The small lutins tended animals but riding was very uncommon for them, and Benitoe had set a new trend going.

“Thanks for bringing me along, huntsman,” Benitoe said. “I was sorry we didn’t have a chance at a car ride the last time.”

“Well, I wanted you all to get a chance to see a bit of my world, as I saw yours.”

Benitoe nodded, his eyes bright with anticipation.

Up ahead George spotted his grandparents talking with Mariah Catlett as they waited for their guests. His grandfather Gilbert stood tall and straight, watching them approach, and Georgia smiled in welcome. She’d grown up at Bellemore. It was shut up now, but she still had a personal interest in the estate.

They pulled up at the caretaker’s stable. “You know the drill,” Mariah said, and they spent the next few minutes putting their horses up in the stalls she’d prepared for them and removing the tack. They expected to be here for a couple of hours, at least.

George peered out of the stable door as he waited for the others to finish. His grandfather’s Suburban sat in the driveway, plenty large enough for the six of them, without Mariah. George had been planning this little excursion with his grandfather for some time and was amused to recognize that his nerves were a form of stagefright, as though he were presenting an entertainment and wasn’t sure what the reception would be.

Gilbert surveyed the group as they left the stable. “All ready for a trip? We’ve got lots to show you.”

“Not too much at first, dear,” Georgia demurred at his side.

George looked his little party over. Clothing—he hadn’t thought of that. He’d donned some of his old human clothes from before so he would pass inspection, but Angharad in her long split skirt, deep-blue, or Benitoe in the white breeches and dark green coat and weskit of his livery as a whipper-in would attract attention. “What about their clothes?” he asked, uncertainly.

“We can give them coats,” Mariah suggested, “and if they stay in the car, no one will notice.” She ducked into the house to fetch suitable overgarments.

“You’ll have to stick to the car, too,” Gilbert told him. “You’re not supposed to be here, remember.”

His grandparents had helped him concoct a tale about selling his company and traveling abroad to mask his move to the fae otherworld. As a result he couldn’t show his face here without raising unwelcome questions.

Mariah returned and gave Angharad one of her winter coats and provided two of her son’s old jackets for Maelgwn and Benitoe.

They shrugged on the outer garments. The incongruity of the styles struck George, as though they’d wrapped themselves in dowdy clothes to dim their own brighter, more exotic ones. He’d gotten so used to the fae clothing with its faint flavor of the 18th century that it seemed normal to him and this rough masquerade in modern rags was subtly distressing.

He wouldn’t let these little obstacles spoil the fun. It was a fine day for a drive.

“So how does this work?” Benitoe asked.

He finished walking all the way around the dark red car and ended up in front. As he went, he’d looked it over carefully, reaching out to touch anything that caught his eyes—the rubber of the tires, the headlights. “It’s just some kind of carriage, isn’t it, all made of metal. But what makes it move?”

Gilbert reached around him to open the hood, and George was amused to see the consternation on Benitoe’s face when he got his first look at the myriad of parts in an internal combustion engine.

“Start it up for me, will you?” Gilbert said to George as he tossed him the keys, and George obliged, easing his bulk into the driver’s seat. After putting the car in neutral with the brake set and leaving it running, he joined his grandfather just in time to hear the start of a lecture on how the engine worked.

Benitoe followed along with his eyes where the old man pointed and seemed to comprehend the basics as they were explained. “Like a clock or a mill, sort of, isn’t it?” he said. “But I wouldn’t know how to make even one small part of it, much less the whole thing.”

On their last visit George had introduced Benitoe to electricity, and now he elaborated on the role it played in the starting of the engine, and how the engine repaid the favor by charging the battery.

“It might as well be magic,” Benitoe said, shaking his head. “Think of all the things we’d need to be able to do to get to this point. Where would we start?”

“It’s not that bad,” George said. “We’ve only used electricity for the last couple of centuries, and this sort of engine for about a hundred years. That’s just a few lifetimes for us.”

“But that’s such a short time,” Benitoe said, astonished. “One person could do it all.” He paused, embarrassed, “I mean, not a human.”

George let it pass. “Yes, but the difference is, this wasn’t the work of one man, or even a few. This comes from the tinkering of hundreds or thousands of men, over time,” George said. “That’s what keeps it from being easy for the fae—not enough people.”

Benitoe nodded slowly, muting his initial excitement as he thought through the implications. “Not like stirrups, is it?” he said.

At George’s puzzled expression he explained. “That came to the fae in the east from the human world, oh, more than a thousand years ago. Such a simple thing—it spread everywhere—but it changed all the mounted soldiers, all the ways of war.”

He was suddenly abashed by his attentive audience. “At least, that’s what I was taught when I learned to ride.”

“No,” George said, slowly, “You’re right. It’s not like that. Stirrups are an idea, really, that any man can implement. Cars are a whole… infrastructure. Roads, fuel—everything. I’m not sure you’d want that, or need it.”

Maelgwn joined them, wrinkling his nose. “Smells strange,” he said, leaning over the engine to sample some of the odors as it warmed up.

“Don’t get too close and burn yourself, young man,” Gilbert warned him.

Maelgwn straightened up. “It’s very complicated, sir. Can it go as fast as a horse?”

Gilbert laughed out loud. “That’s how we measure engines, son—in horsepower, what they can pull. I don’t remember the specs offhand, but this would be a two or three hundred horsepower engine.”

Maelgwn stared at him in patent disbelief, and Benitoe joined him.

“No, really,” Gilbert said. “And it’s not particularly powerful.”

George hid a smile and left his grandfather patiently answering questions. Angharad waited with his grandmother a little distance away where they could look at the car from the side. They were chatting quietly together as he approached.

They stopped when he reached them and George raised an eyebrow.

“Just talking about family,” his grandmother told him. “And names.”

Angharad said, “I was telling her about the old customs, where the sons and daughters are named for their grandparents, one after another.”

She smiled at Georgia. “We’re slow to change, sometimes, set in our ways.”

Georgia told her, “We often do the same. I was named for my mother’s father, George Rice. Her name was Mary. My father told me it was her request, though we had to change it a little, me being a girl.”

She turned to George. “You’re named for me, you know, not for my grandfather. I was so pleased when Léonie decided to do that.”

“Not Gilbert?” he teased her, gently.

“She said she’d save that one for later, that you roared just like a George when you were born.” Her eyes misted up at the memory of her daughter, gone now these past twenty-four years. The other names never got used—George was an only child.

Roared, is it, he thought. He looked back at Benitoe and Maelgwn talking with his grandfather. Everyone’s finding a different thing to focus on, and not the things I would have expected. Why did I think I could control that?

Better get them into the car and on the road, he thought. That’ll make things simpler for everyone.

George’s grandmother assigned the seats by habit. Gilbert and she took the front seats, George and Angharad the middle row, and Benitoe was consigned to the rear with Maelgwn.

A good thing Benitoe won’t realized he’s been classed as one of the kids, by size, George thought. He’s only about five years younger than me. Still, he was amused by the pseudo-parental seating. Nothing had changed since he was a child in a succession of his grandfather’s cars.

Except, of course, that he had gotten bigger. Much bigger. Headroom was always a problem. His grandfather was equally tall, but there were more options for the driver than the passengers. Out of old habit, he took the seat behind his grandmother so that he could stretch his legs out a bit better.

He made sure Angharad was comfortable. In this very ordinary human context, with the dull brown coat obscuring her colorful clothes, he found himself struck by how still she was, how sparing of her movements. It was something he’d noticed in all the older fae and had become accustomed to. Now, here, it seemed out of place, made her seem… not human, despite the ordinary outer garment. He blinked and tried to tune out the human world, the artifacts all around him, and the familiar sense of his wife returned to him, complete with a puzzled quirk to her eyebrows as she watched his face.

When he glanced back, Maelgwn behind him seemed close enough to a human boy, a youth with curly black hair, but Benitoe gave off an air of strangeness, too, with his borrowed olive drab waxed cotton coat over his well-tailored hunt livery, dark green and frogged. What was it that gave him away as not human? His face looked like a man’s, not a boy’s, but then we have human midgets, or even just small men, and he didn’t seem quite like that. It was the proportions, George thought. The lutin’s head was just a little larger, a little deeper back to front, with the barest hint of a prognathous muzzle. His skin tones had more orange in them, less pink. If you squinted, you could imagine him turning into a fox, say, or a badger. Why hadn’t he noticed that before?

Well, he thought, I’m sure everyone will look normal to me again when we get back home. People here won’t think anything odd, I imagine. He reflected soberly just how disastrous it might be if he were wrong. No car accidents, he thought, please. No hospitals. I didn’t think about that.

Gilbert took the driveway from the caretaker’s home down to the Bellemore gates slowly, but even at twenty miles an hour it was as fast as a cantering horse and Angharad gripped the back of Gilbert’s seat until she realized just how smooth the ride was.

“Everything alright, dear?” Georgia said, looking back at her.

“I’m fine,” she managed, embarrassed, and George reached over and took her hand.

A glance at Maelgwn revealed the universal teenager’s love of speed, and Benitoe echoed that exhilaration right back.

After Gilbert reached the gate of the estate, and turned right onto the tree-lined country road, he brought the speed up to forty-five and, for the first time, an approaching car at the same speed swooshed by. There were stifled exclamations of alarm, and all three of George’s guests braced themselves for possible collision.

“We keep to one side of the road,” Georgia hurriedly said. “See the line down the middle? That way we don’t hit each other.”

I should have warned everyone about that, George thought.

More cars passed in the opposite direction, and they quickly got used to it. George caught his grandfather’s eye in the rearview mirror and gave him a half-smile of chagrin. They seemed to be thinking the same thing—maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all. Too late now, he thought.

The woods and fields began to give way to farms and small old homes as they approached the outskirts of Rowanton.

The passengers were quiet, taking it all in, until Angharad spoke up. “The houses are mostly made of wood, aren’t they? Not stone. I like those porches.”

George hadn’t thought about how many of these older houses had porches on two stories, sometimes on both the front and the back of the building, to catch whatever breezes were available in the hot Virginia summers. Sleeping porches, they were, for staying cool at night.

Maelgwn said, wonderingly, “Every house has a car or two. Is that instead of horses? They must be very rich.”

Benitoe’s face echoed the same question, and George said, “Most horses are used for pleasure now, not necessity. Everyone has cars. It’s not because they’re rich, it’s because cars aren’t very expensive. An old, used car might cost, oh, say two month’s wages for a poor man. They last for years, and maintaining them is cheaper than keeping a horse, by and large.”

He saw the surprise in Benitoe’s face and added, “We make cars with machines and we make a great many of them. That makes them cheaper. If we had to build each one by hand, as you do for a carriage, they would be much more expensive. And fancy ones cost more, naturally.”

“Sad,” Benitoe said, “a world with few horses.”

George hoped for more enthusiasm when they finally reached the town.

They bumped over the railroad tracks and rolled down the main street of the little village. Rowanton wasn’t much larger than Greenhollow, just enough for three long streets, several cross streets, and a few stores. The Southern States feed store was prominent, right after the tracks, and then a drugstore, two small restaurants for pizza and burgers, and the post office. A convenience store at the gas station stood in for a grocery—the next town was large enough that most folks did their serious shopping there.

George thought of it as quaint and sleepy, but now his unease made him look at it as his guests might. There were lights everywhere, he realized, even in the daytime. Georgia described what a stoplight was and what the colors meant as his grandfather came to a halt at the one light in town.

Angharad cleared her throat and asked, “How do they make those signs?”

What signs, he wondered. She pointed at the branding on the commercial buildings, the business names in colorful plastic, the bits of elderly neon signage still visible in some of the storefronts.

“Um, different materials, plastic or metal. The lit signs, well, there’s a gas that glows colorfully when you run electricity through it…” He wound down in the face of her bafflement. “I’ll explain later.”

Over her shoulder George’s grandmother said to him, “Maybe we’d better turn around, dear. Enough for one day, don’t you think?”

He nodded, wordlessly, and Gilbert drove around the block to leave town the way he came in. As they approached the railroad tracks, the crossing barriers began to drop and the train warning lights and dongs went off.

Oh, no, I haven’t told them about trains yet, he thought. Hastily, he said, “Don’t be alarmed. There’s a metal rail on the ground and huge machines, like giant cars, run on that track and pull, um, wagons behind them. Very big, very noisy.”

And, he forgot to tell them in time, very fast. A typical long distance freight train rumbled through at a good clip, three diesel engines in front pulling an endless string of freight cars.

The ground shook under the car which trembled in place only fifteen feet from the grade crossing, and Angharad’s face froze. Maelgwn had the car door open before George’s warning penetrated and he paused, half out of the car, looking to escape. “It’s alright,” George insisted, kicking himself as he tried to calm them. This was such a bad idea, he thought.

He watched them take hold of their alarm and settle back down. It took several minutes for the hundred or so cars to pass, and Benitoe recovered enough to try and make a joke about it. “Is that what you have instead of ways, huntsman? How does it stop?”

George silently blessed him for being more interested than scared, or at least acting like it, but he feared Angharad didn’t feel the same.

“I’m sorry, dear,” he said. “I didn’t expect we’d see a train or I’d have warned you.”

She smiled shakily. “Oh, it’s just a bit startling,” she said. “What would that be like, I wonder, running down the middle of Greenhollow?”

“Noisy,” Benitoe said, promptly.

“Smelly,” Maelgwn added.

“And dirt everywhere,” Angharad capped, the three of them united in a moment that excluded George.

There must be some way to salvage this, he thought, make them see the wonder of a different world without scaring them half to death.

The strangeness of their surroundings was much reduced as they retraced their journey over now-familiar ground, and the mood inside the car gradually recovered after the shock of the train. The visitors stared at a distant view of hay being cut by a sickle-bar mower and Benitoe commented, thoughtfully, “How very much work that does, but how very hard it would be to make one.”

“Only if you make them one at a time, from scratch,” George said. “A farmer can rent the machine, or buy it, or share it with his neighbors. It’s part of the cost of producing his crop, just like draft horses would be. Not far from here, there are farmers who don’t approve of machinery who use horses instead.” He thought of the Amish and Mennonite farmers in the remoter parts of the county, then shook his head at the notion of trying to explain religious dissenters and anti-modernism. Though perhaps his guests would sympathize, he reflected, with a quirk of his lips.

Angharad seemed to be mesmerized by the forms of the houses. When he tilted his head and looked at her, she elaborated, “Your people fit their dwellings into the landscape differently, don’t they.”

It was true, he thought. Even the best sited of the older houses lacked that sense of being part of the land that was so common to the fae dwellings, the ones not in towns. “Remember, we’ve only been settled here for a few hundred years ourselves. It takes time…”

A shadow flitted over her face, and he knew she was thinking of the difference in their lifespans, the likelihood that he would have an ordinary human life and be soon gone from her, by fae standards. He patted her hand and smiled reassuringly. He was reconciled to it, if she was not.

It struck him then—what would the landscape look like if Greenhollow and Greenway Court weren’t there, the way it was before the fae settled. “Grandmother, could you hand me the maps in the glove compartment?”

Gilbert glanced back at him. “What did you have in mind?”

He selected the one he was looking for from the handful she gave him. “I wanted to see…” He spread out the local one on his lap, located Bellemore, and then searched west from there, along the Blue Ridge. “Yes, this must be it. Grandfather, do you think we could take a little detour?”

“Why not? Where to?”

“I searching for a place that overlooks the Pocosin State Forest,” he said, staring at the map. “If you’ll go out towards Harvey Bennett’s place, and then onto the West Kirtle Mountain Road, I think there’s a spot.”

He turned towards his guests and gestured enthusiastically. “I want to show you one last thing, something you’ll all recognize.” He could give them a glimpse of their home from the other side, something he’d wished for himself when he’d first crossed over.

Angharad smiled gamely.

The view from the steep drop-off up on Kirtle Mountain that looked west to the Blue Ridge was everything George had hoped for, and the state had created a small pull-out alongside the gravel road to honor it. Since no one else was around to see them, they all took the opportunity to get out of the car and stretch.

“Why did you bring us here, huntsman?” Benitoe asked.

“Can’t you tell? Look, you see that notch on the ridgeline? The way the little stream drops down and joins the larger one running along the base of the ridge? What does that remind you of?”

The uninterrupted winter forest along the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge marched for miles north and south, with no obvious roads through it visible from this spot. It must be like traveling back in time for Angharad. She’d been in the first wave of fae settlers almost 1500 years ago. He waited eagerly for them to realize what they were looking at.

I wanted adventure, he thought, and I found it, over there, with the fae in their version of my world. The least I can do is return the favor and show them my side.

Maelgwn spoke up. “That’s the notch above Daear Llosg, isn’t it? It’s not cleared over here, it’s still forest. See, if you trace the stream down,” pointing, “that’s where the bridge at Greenhollow would be.” His voice trailed off.

Benitoe said, “And Greenway Court would be there, I suppose,” looking at the unbroken woods across from him on the upslope.

George looked over at Angharad in the silence. Her hands were shoved deep into the pockets of her borrowed coat. She glanced up at him and pointed with her chin. “My house in the village would be right there, wouldn’t it? There’s nothing there, over here, nothing at all.” There was desolation in her voice.

He looked in dismay at his grandmother and the unspoken reprimand in her face struck him full force. This isn’t what he’d meant to happen at all.

“Such empty hills,” Angharad murmured, and shivered. “As if we had to start all over again.”

He laid his hand on her arm and cleared his throat. “I’m so sorry, my dear. I thought you would enjoy this.” Selfish, he chided himself. They weren’t looking for adventure, for an escape from the mundane. That was my wish, not theirs. I should never have subjected her to this—she’s not Benitoe, younger even than I am. Her whole long life is there, and all her work. It’s where she’s rooted herself. I’ve shaken those foundations, showing her this.

She leaned against him, rallying. “Never mind. I’ve learned some very interesting things today. This isn’t a perspective I could ever have anticipated, and I’m glad to have seen it.”

“So clumsy of me,” George said, ruefully. “This wasn’t what I wanted to do.” He put his arm around her and turned her toward the car. “Let’s go home,” he said, “all of us.”



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