I suppose it would be a bit much to expect a celebration here to go off without a hitch, or attracting unexpected visitors. There are always going to be problems, but sometimes, it seems history insists on repeating itself. Old problems present themselves again. Or perhaps they are new ones. It’s getting hard to tell.
The Huntsman is back. Or, perhaps I should say, A Huntsman. This is a question that has yet to be resolved. On the plus side, his arrival did at least distract us from the other old/new problem; Aoibheann’s fabled cooking skills when it comes to tarts.
It started out as a pleasant afternoon of socialising. Not many of the villagers came forward for the match-making, but I was sure that there would be some pairing up later. Aoibheann had been running around like mad, no doubt driving the servants crazy, but, by the time the party started, we had food, tables and everything we needed, including a large selection of tarts that Aoibheann had apparently made for the pie-eating contest.
We had a good turn-out. Dorina & Helene were there. I noticed that Davor was being most attentive to Helene, perhaps trying to make up for the incident with the tail. Dorina had a present for Aoibheann, which looked to be a very nice dress. Vedis was there in a dress that Aoibheann seemed to regard as incomplete. If only she had seen some of Vedis’ outfits back in the day. I wonder what she would have made of them. Wren joined us, seeming very interested in the tarts. I recalled that she was fond of cakes and pastries. There was even a surprise visit from Dyisi, who I thought had vanished entirely. She was her usual enigmatic self, claiming she kept in touch with events while she was away. Even more pleasantly, Gwyn made an appearance, which pleased me greatly, as we had not had much time together of late.
I would have joined her immediately, but I had concerns about the pie-eating contest, or rather, the tart-eating contest. Aoibheann had made the tarts, and despite her assertion that they were raspberry, they didn’t look quite the right colour. Maric clearly noticed my concern and communicated as such through the mental link. I explained about Aoibheann’s previous adventures with making tarts and he suggested that he could guide me through using the blood-magic to determine if they were safe. Meanwhile, Vedis was approaching and seemed to be organising some of the ladies to be judges of the contest. I just had to contend with Wren, who looked far too eager to get started. But then, she always did have a great love of baked goods.
I dipped a couple of fingers in the tart filling while nobody was looking and tasted it, applying my fae senses and the blood sense that Maric was teaching me through the link. I wasn’t sure at first, so tried again with the second finger. It was not good. If it wasn’t belladonna, it was something very much like it, a fae relative thereof perhaps. Whatever it was, it was not safe to eat. I told Maric this, suggesting that maybe we needed some sort of distraction, like the dancing or some other games to distract the guests from eating the tarts while we got them out of the way.
We got it!
A howling arose somewhere outside the village. I felt it as much as heard it, as did Maric, and his anger and protectiveness flared through the link. He practically hissed the word cŵn through the link and told me to rally the men, as if that instruction were needed.
The guards were already taking up defensive positions as I directed Vedis to protect Wren and Davor to take care of the ladies. I ran out onto the clearing to confront the threat. It was the biggest cŵn I had seen, a huge beast that went upright on its hind legs. Behind him was a pack of regular cŵn, howling and slavering. I had not seen the like since the Huntsman’s assault on the hill. Mindful of Aoibheann’s sensitivities, I did not draw my weapon, instead, challenging it to state who it was and what business it had here. Behind me, Maric made sure that Aoibheann and Dorina were safe before joining me. He stated his name and position and likewise asked the beast what it wanted.
It snarled and roared at us, its massive claws coming up, and I almost drew my sword. However, it did not attack. The claws went to its own jaw, seemingly grabbing it and pulling it away, stretching its mouth and pulling it back, as though trying to peel its own hide from itself. A more familiar, and more alarming shape emerged, shrugging the fur back as though it were a cloak. The face black as ebony, the antlers standing proud, the eyes red and ominous. “Is it not Lughnasadh,” it asked, “I am the guest of honour.” It was the Huntsman.
At least, that was the aspect it showed. Yet, somehow, it was different. The antlers were different, the shape was different, the shades of its skin were different, and yet, it was still the Huntsman. I felt Gwyneth step up beside me, taking my hand, and I did not need to look to see that she had assumed her full regal glory and presence. She greeted him formally and with social pleasantries, but said that she could not welcome him as this was not her land. She likewise introduced himself and asked his business, pointing out that she had thought his time later in the year.
I felt the Wyld within me connecting with Gwyn’s and welcomed that connection. I had felt Maric’s hunger earlier, when she had arrived, so drew her aside slightly, to give him more space and reduce the distraction. I looked around and saw that the guards were doing their jobs, taking up defensive positions in accordance with the emergency procedures we had devised. I signalled to a couple of them to start herding the villagers inside, or, if they could, to the castle. Now that Maric had arrived, I let him deal with the visitor, as my primary duty was to the villagers now. Glancing around, I could see that all was well, so stood prepared, pending further developments. I felt a brief thought from Maric, a mild irritation that what to him was a fae matter, had intruded on his territory.
He greeted the Huntsman and told him that he was welcome to join us, provided he offered no threat or harm to the village or its people. Then, came another howling, a different one, that we both recognised as the cŵn we thought might be Gwrgi, lurking on the edge of the village. That raised another complication, which Maric acknowledged, pointing out that the other was not his to control and suggested that whatever business there was should be conducted quickly, and taken out of the village. The other cŵn, he said was not his to control, he told the Huntsman, warning him not fight here in the village.
The Huntsman addressed Gwyn, saying that he sought knowledge of what had happened to the Mallorn Tree, and demanded angrily to know why he had not been summoned. He reigned in the anger and told Maric that he did not care about the castle or its inhabitants, and depending on what answers he got, would not harm anyone. He had not harmed anybody so far, and that, he offered, was a sign of his benevolent nature.
Maric acknowledged that and said he would take the Huntsman’s word, saying that he would hold them to it. He knew as well as I did, by now, the importance of a fae’s word. But before he could get into any further discussions, or before Gwyn could answer the Huntsman’s questions, Gwrgi came barrelling in at high speed, all anger and rage, intent upon our visitor until the pack fell upon him. Gwrgi was in the centre of the pack, which was now a mass of snapping claws and lunging paws and an almost unbelievable cacophony of howls and snarls. The fight roiled around in grey savagery, sending all our livestock skittering towards us in fear. The guards formed up into a defensive ring, ready to protect the village, but fortunately, the fight tumbled away, out of the village and into the fae lands. The Huntsman turned, remarking that he would have to deal with the ‘stray’ first and strode off, any discussions with us forgotten.
Maric and I silently agreed that this was no longer our fight, provided it stayed outside the village. It was not for us to intervene between the cŵn and the Huntsman. We could only hope that Aoibheann had not seen who was involved in the fight; else we might have had to restrain her to stop her running off after them. Maric quietly directed everybody to retreat to the castle, leaving the guards on high alert. He had to carry Aoibheann, who had fallen down, possibly in a faint, but it turned out later that she had consumed some of the berries that she had put in the tarts.
It was a more sober evening after that. Dyisi left during the confrontation and clearly the return of the Huntsman had been too much for Vedis, who retreated to the cellars. The rest of us took food and drink and passed the evening quietly, and a little nervously, jumping at any sound from outside, but we were fortunate that neither beast returned to bother us.
On the plus side, at least nobody had to eat the tarts.