This is an excerpt from a new project I’m working on–a reworking of the Welsh Mabinogion. It’s just a bit–just because I’m swamped this week and need to use something here that already exists. I hope you enjoy it; I’m having a blast.
Chapter 1: The Hunt Gone Wrong
Sometimes a hunt is nothing but sweat and dirt and waiting. Not this time. Pwyll’s heart beat in time with his horses’ pounding hooves, and the trail was hot. He was chasing a stag, fast and sleek, and instinctively elusive. But this one wouldn’t get away. This one was white, and stood out in the dark leaves like a beacon, luring his dogs on in to the woods. When something leads you like that, you follow, and you ask questions later.
In and out of trees, the stag seemed to flow like a river, without stumbling or snagging a single branch. Later he might reflect on that and find it odd, but not in the moment.
Adrenaline pumping, he charged recklessly after the dogs. Five dogs: there were generally four together and then Finn swerving around, herding them, faster than the others and capable of switching back and steering the whole pack.
The barking was steady for several minutes, and Pwyll’s energy was flagging. He couldn’t keep up this breakneck pace forever. His horse was tired, and so was he. They had to end it soon, or there would be nothing but sweat and dirt to take home. A dog yelped shrilly, and the barking stopped. Finn bayed like they must have cornered the deer, but when the horses caught up with the dogs, what Pwyll saw made his breath catch. The dogs were circling a small mound in a clearing that backed up against a sheer wall of stone. Pwyll quietly said a prayer of thanks that he hadn’t run his horses headlong in to the clearing—they surely wouldn’t have been able to stop in time and would have smashed in to the stone. The stranger thing still, was the deer had vanished.
Finn looked miserable. He ran the opposite way around the circling dogs, howling, his eyes sweeping the clearing for any trace of his quarry. The dogs sniffed furiously, noses to the ground, one after another around the mound.
“Where’d it go, Finn?” Pwyll asked cautiously. “It didn’t leap up that wall, surely.” Of course not, the dogs’ noses were saying, as they rounded the hillock again.
Pwyll hopped down from his horse and joined the procession of dogs. Finn stopped baying and looked up at him quizzically. “What now?” he seemed to ask. “I don’t know, buddy.”
Pwyll sat down hard on the mound, exasperated, and a puff of dust rose up around him.
Finn sniffed the dust and sneezed. Then he backed up, growling.
“What’s up, Finn?” The words were just out of his mouth when the dog blurred and shimmered, and the sound of running animals startled Pwyll off the mound. As he scrambled to his feet, the stag streaked past him, and the dogs took off back in to the woods. “Where did he come from?” he yelled to no one, and headed back to his horse. He began to swing on to the horse, and a pack of snow white dogs barreled by him, knocking him to the ground.
“There must be twenty of them! Whose are they?” This time he was asking the horse, Llewellen, who snorted indignantly. As they resumed the chase, Pwyll heard the barking, steady and loud and cacophonous, and then it thinned, like fewer dogs were barking. In a few seconds, he understood why—his dogs had been passed up and then left behind. The white dogs were faster, and they had led the quarry away.
“No!” Pwyll shouted, drawing up Llewellen in to a slow trot and letting everyone catch their breath. “And we were so close! Where did those dogs come from?” he hounds whined sympathetically, and panted prodigiously. They were worn out. “Let’s go get a drink,” said Pwyll, and he led them over toward the river.
Sweat and dirt again. He sighed. As he walked his horse and his tired dogs through the trees, he thought of excuses he could give for coming up short today. They wouldn’t believe his story about crazy white dogs that appeared out of nowhere. He could already hear Gwyn mocking him.
As he dipped his hands in to the river for a drink, he heard the barking start up again, distantly. They were coming back. He splashed the water on his face instead of drinking it and hopped back on Llewellen. “We might have another chance!” he called, and off they drove in to the trees.
They found the dogs back at the mound, in a pack around the deer, who lay on its side on the earth. “Hah! Off! Off!” He ran his horse in a circle, hooves pounding and breaking up the dogs. Two of the white hounds left the deer and attacked Llewellen. Pwyll stabbed his spear down in to the fray, skimming one on the shoulder and piercing one through the leg. He swung the dog around by that leg—the dog’s ears were bright red—and tossed him off to the side. He chased the other dogs away from the deer, back in to the woods where he came from.
When he returned, his own dogs were harrying the deer. They knew not to eat the body, but the deer was dead, and they were chewing on its legs and antlers. “That’s enough, guys. Let’s get this beauty home,” he called. He leaped to the ground and knelt to inspect the stag. “It’s amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it.” The whole pelt was white, except the ears, which were blood red. The eyes, too, open in that awful, frozen stare, were red. He closed them gently and shook his head. “I’ve really never seen….”
“Of course you haven’t,” came a stern voice from behind him. “It’s not from around here.” A tall, black-clad man on an enormous, heaving stallion stood so close to him, Pwyll jumped. How had he not heard his approach? The horse snorted, and the man leaned down, pulling his hood back off his face, enough to reveal intricately tattooed skin and sunken, fiery eyes.
“Neither am I.”
(That’s a map of Medieval Wales, by the way.)