I did it! He’s finally gone, dead, finished. A few snicks and snecks, and there he was on the ground, wasn’t he, throat twitching. And they just stood around, didn’t they, deluded like fools by the spell, that wonderful spell he gave me, he was right about it, all those hounds and nothing they could do.
The mighty prince. Ha. One less for you. I remember how he helped you hold him down before you cut him open…
Hush, hush, no, don’t think about that.
He won’t be holding anyone down anymore, will he, no, not him. Not with those hands. I’ve got them now. I have my own plans for you, don’t I.
Time to run all the way home now. They’ll never catch me, I’m too clever, I’m too slick.
Misplacing a pack of hounds was not on George’s “to do” list this morning.
“Come on, Mosby, get moving,” he said. “I don’t know how they got way over there either, but you can hear ’em. Let’s roll.”
He leaned forward, using his legs to urge the horse into a canter on the narrow trail. The damp grass muffled the rhythmic pounding and filled the air with a tangy mid-autumn scent. Most of the leaves were still clinging to the trees, and the wild grape vines, draped wherever the sunlight penetrated, obscured his view, but he could clearly hear hounds giving tongue off in the distance. Sounded like the whole pack was on. One voice would lift, then several in chorus, then single voices again. As always, the hairs on the back of his neck rose. They were somewhere on the far side of the woods, and the trail looked like it was headed in that direction.
He turned his head at a flash of white and the sound of twigs breaking to watch a big whitetail bound across the path before him. He sailed over a fallen branch, then spun around to stare at him boldly.
A magnificent buck — what a rack, twelve points at least, George thought, turning to admire him as he rode by. Why’s he just standing there looking at me, with his great brown eyes and his flared nostrils? What’s he waiting for?
As he cantered past he swung his attention back to the front, startled to find two small trees lying fallen together across the trail just a couple of strides away. He hastily settled himself for the jump, his gaze fixed on the topmost part that his horse would need to clear, and beyond. Not until Mosby rose to spring easily over the barrier did it occur to him that he might better’ve spared a glance upward, as a high branch materialized from the side and swept him out of the saddle.
The fall knocked the wind out of him when he hit the ground, with a thump to his head. He paused before trying to move, taking stock. Nothing felt broken. He rolled to the side and pushed himself up, his snug knee-high boots making it awkward to bend his legs fully as the calf muscles swelled. This wasn’t the first time he’d come off a horse and he was sore in the usual places. The woods had pulled back into a little opening after the fallen trees, and the glare from the sunlight made him blink. Odd. He’d had the impression that the trees were still enclosing the trail after the jump when he looked ahead as Mosby rose.
He tried to clear his head and focused on the sound of a horse grazing. Good, at least Mosby had stayed with him instead of running off in a panic after losing his rider. The reins trailed on the ground and he heard the bit clattering as the horse munched around it.
He limped stiffly over, picked up the reins, and led Mosby forward a few steps, looking for injuries or any evidence of impeded movement, but the horse seemed sound. Well, that’s a blessing. Better me sore than him.
He couldn’t hear the hounds anymore, nor John’s horn. Couldn’t hear the foxhunt at all. Maybe catching up wasn’t going to be so simple. He could already imagine the lecture he’d be getting from the huntsman for letting this happen.
John needed to know about his delay. He pulled his cellphone out of his hunt coat’s inner pocket. No signal, as usual.
Off came the leather riding gloves, and he used his thumbs to type a brief text message describing what had happened and where he was headed. The cellphone would look for a signal every few minutes and would forward the text if it found one. Out of habit he pulled out the pocket watch chained through his vest’s buttonhole to check its time against the cellphone. He stood a moment, running his thumb across the engraving of St. George and the dragon on the back of the watch before returning it to his vest. As he shuffled the cellphone to his left hand to put it away, it dropped from his fingers. He bent stiffly to pick it up.
Standing there with the leather reins in his hand, he put his gloves back on, turning around to see where he’d fallen. He wasn’t going to take that jump again, but maybe there was a way past it that rejoined the trail.
The tangle of tall pokeberry bushes on the edge of this little clearing were thick and unbroken. No trail was visible, much less any downed trees.
That can’t be right.
He continued turning in a full circle and scanned the woods all around, methodically. There were two openings for paths, but both were on the far side from him and no fallen trees were visible from here. Still holding the reins and bringing Mosby with him, he walked all along the margin, peering past the thickets whose leaves were just starting to turn color.
When he stood at the openings of the two paths, he found he could see some distance along them. They were true rides, larger and better defined than deer trails, but without droppings or hoof prints to show that any horses had traveled them recently.
A shiver went through him and his stomach tightened. There was no way into this spot, other than the rides he hadn’t used.
Well, George, pick a path and worry about it later. You have to get to the hounds.
He’d been headed west when he last had a clear sense of direction. His hand reached back into his other inner pocket for his GPS tracker. Power, no signal. That’s strange, he thought, as he put it back. All it has to do is line-of-sight up to a satellite, not find some cell tower on the ground. It’s usually reliable.
Good thing I brought backup, he thought. He hauled out a small, well-worn brass compass from his left vest pocket, attached where a fob would’ve been on his watch chain.
Using his compass he confirmed that the right-hand path started in a westerly direction, toward where he’d last heard the hounds. Alright, he thought, the sensible plan is to just try and get out of the woods directly so that I can orient myself and make contact with the hunt as quickly as possible.
He led his horse back away from the margin a few feet into the clearing. He checked the saddle girth, then tossed the reins over his head. At six foot four George was used to looking over a horse’s back from the ground but gray Mosby, a Percheron/Thoroughbred cross, stood 17.2 hands high at the withers, or just two inches short of six feet.
You’d think someone my size would have less trouble mounting but I had to fall for a horse too tall for me, just like everyone else, he thought. He’d been unable to resist the dark smoky dappled gray gelding with his silvery mane. As Mosby aged he would gradually lighten until he became white. Always going to be a problem keeping a white horse clean, but he’s worth it. “Aren’t you, boy?” The horse cocked his near ear back at the sound of his voice.
George lifted his left foot into the stirrup, careful to keep the toe of his boot away from Mosby’s ribs. With his hands on the front and back of the saddle, he bounced on his right toes twice for momentum and hoisted himself up, swinging his right leg over and settling into the saddle with a comforting creak of leather.
He adjusted the fit of his hard hunt cap. Time to get back to where I belong.
George roughly remembered the layout of this property from his years of adolescent trespass, but it was a big place, several thousand acres, and many of the details had dimmed over time. This wooded covert was new to him, but no private woodland in this part of Virginia was very large. Can’t cost me but a few hundred yards to get clear of all this, he thought.
His current trail was clearly intended for horseback, with no tight spots. Even so, he held Mosby to a walk, trotting where he could, since the path was unfamiliar. Too late cautious, but I’m not going to be surprised a second time. He watched for the thinning of the trees ahead, eager to get out and see the Blue Ridge to the west.
The woods seemed to extend into dimness indefinitely in this direction, and the mid-October day was turning cooler.
He checked his compass again. Still going west, not in a circle, so how’s it possible I’m not out by now? These woods weren’t here twenty years ago, but these trees are older than that. He thought about retracing his steps and trying the other path from the clearing, but he knew it went in the wrong direction, or at least started that way.
Alright, then, when in doubt, double down. Let’s pick up the pace. He sent Mosby forward at a stronger trot, using his horse’s momentum to rise in the saddle on every other stride to smooth the movement as he been doing all his life.
The ground began to fall away to the south, the trees finally opened up a bit, and the path entered another small clearing which was not, he noted with some relief, the one he’d started from.
As he brought Mosby to a halt to recheck his bearings, a nearby rustle on the right caught his attention. George saw two hounds just inside the woods, all by themselves. They ran silently into the clearing, looking for scent.
His years as a whipper-in took hold and he lifted his hand with the furled whip in a warding-off gesture, saying, “Get back to ’im,” in an authoritative tone, to send them back to the pack and its huntsman. The hounds glanced up at him in acknowledgment and turned back in the direction they came from, but he hardly noticed, stunned.
Those aren’t our hounds, not white hounds with red ears. I thought those were mythical. He chuckled uncertainly, remembering the Welsh tales his father had told him when he was a child. He looked around at the trees, the sunlight flickering on the autumn leaves as the breeze caught them. It all seemed very ordinary. Well, I suppose it can hardly be the Wild Hunt, in broad daylight. Maybe someone’s lost dogs? They looked like working hounds, though.
He glanced down at the hounds on the buttons of his coat. Maybe they’re Talbot hounds, he grinned. If I’m wandering dreaming in an endless woods, might as well have the legendary beasts of grandfather’s ancient family to keep me company.
Wouldn’t he be pleased at my invoking the old lineage, back to the Norman Conquest. He smiled wryly. Better never tell him I think a man should do his own deeds, not lean on those of his ancestors.
Still, he straightened his back like a Talbot of old, and headed after the errant hounds, seeking enlightenment.
The couple of hounds led George to the edge of the trees at last. He picked his way after them with care and paused to take in the view, a welcome relief after the enclosed woods.
He gazed southwest down a gradual slope of upland meadow. Glancing right automatically, he was relieved to see the smoky wall of the Blue Ridge, running north-south like a compass line laid out on the earth. From this angle the ridge line seemed quite high and completely wooded. The air was crisp and clean, with a chill rising despite the cloudless sky.
His eyes followed the two hounds, obediently loping down the slope ahead of him. Before him was a familiar scene of hounds and riders, but this wasn’t the Rowanton Hunt. Several hunters were dismounted, gathered around someone on the ground while others held their horses.
He examined the riders more carefully. What’s with the clothing, he wondered. They look like reenacters for a Revolutionary War event — tricorns, long coats, and bright colors.
A small group of mounted men near the hounds wore something that seemed to be hunt livery, green frock coats, longer than any he had ever seen in use, with prominent turned-back cuffs, and brown boots that rose over the knee.
The nearest hunt servant glanced up as the two hounds rejoined the pack and looked along their back trail, spotting George sitting his horse at the edge of the woods above him. He called out to one of the men standing over the fallen figure and pointed. The standing man followed his gesture and then dispatched two of the riders next to him up the slope.
George quelled his momentary panic at the strangeness of the scene and stood his ground. That must be the master of this hunt, he thought, by the way he gives orders. Who are these people, and what are they doing on Bellemore land?
As the riders cantered up the slope, he got a closer view of their gear. Swords and long hunting knives? That’s eccentric even for a private pack. These clothes look genuine, worn and comfortable, not stiff and unused like costumes.
The hair rose on the back of his neck and for a moment he had to resist the urge to turn and flee. His pride stiffened his spine; that, and the knowledge that Mosby wasn’t built for speed. Whatever this is, it’s real, he told himself. Deal with it.
He decided to take them at face value, kicked his rational disbelief firmly into the back of his mind to await a better moment, and rode forward slowly to meet them.
He stopped just before the first rider reached him and looked him over as he approached. The man was tall and dark, wearing a blue frock coat with a long buff inner vest. Must be what they call a weskit, George thought. He nodded to him, and they waited a moment for the second horseman, a brown-haired man on a bay gelding. They eyed his own gear in some puzzlement, though they said nothing about it.
The first rider bowed his head before speaking. “I’m Idris Powell, and this Robert Jenkins. My lord Gwyn would speak with you, sir, if you please.”
My lord Gwyn? Conscious of the revolver holstered at the small of his back under his coat, George briefly considered resisting, but what would be the point? Instead, he let his well-schooled Virginia manners take charge.
“My name’s George Talbot Traherne, whipper-in for the Rowanton Hunt, and I seem to have gotten lost on Bellemore land.”
“What’s happened here?” he said, pointing with his chin at the fallen man. “I’d be glad to help, if I can.”
They nodded at him, and the three of them cantered down to the group of standing men. The man in charge came forward to meet them. George dismounted to speak with him, not wanting to loom over him on horseback.
He saw a tall man accustomed to authority, lean and fit, with gray eyes in a dark weathered face and black hair starting to silver. He was dressed with dignity and quiet richness, his thigh-length coat, of green wool, cut away in front, partially covering a long matching waistcoat. The color matched the livery of the hunt staff, but the details were more elaborate and the cloth of higher quality. His cream breeches were cut full for ease of movement. White sleeve ruffles extended beyond the coat sleeves with their broad turned up cuffs. He wore no stock around his neck, but his shirt collar was closed by a green silk scarf. His high boots were brown and well worn.
He held himself rigid in some strong emotion as George approached and said stiffly, “I’m Gwyn Annan, and this is my land. What’s your business here? What do you know of this?” He pointed behind him.
George was startled to recognize the name but it was impossible to make sense of it — perhaps this was a cousin? He opened his mouth to tell him about the hunt meet today at this fixture, but before he could speak his eyes followed the gesture and he looked down at the fallen rider on the ground.
One motionless outstretched arm ended in an oozing stump. A reek of blood rose in the clear autumn air, more blood than he could see through the tangle of men standing around the body. Why, that fellow’s been killed, he thought, shocked. This isn’t from a fall.
Where are his hands?
George was speechless for a moment. Into the silence Idris Powell announced from horseback, “My lord, this is George Talbot Traherne. He declares himself a huntsman.”
At the name, Gwyn’s face froze, and he turned back to George.
“Who is your mother?” he asked, staring at him intensely.
George tore his attention from the dead man to the man before him, puzzled by the question and the focus of his attention. “Léonie Annan Talbot.” He stressed the “Annan.”
“Georgia Rice Annan. I was named for them both.”
Gwyn Annan closed his eyes briefly, and bowed. “Welcome, kinsman.”
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