Gareth knelt, unpacking his gear in the guest loft. In all, less than thirty people shared this chieftain’s hearth—kin, guests, and servants—but the roundhouse, only two-dozen strides across, seemed more crowded than Father’s at Castell Henllys. He had ridden with Father to this modest holding to sell its chieftain a widely coveted horse, a mare Gareth wished to keep. He’d named her Llun because, body and spirit, she shone like the moon wrapped in a mist of stars.
Father might have found richer buyers further west in settlements that traded in ship stores and fresh water, but, impressed by this chieftain’s noble lineage, he sought a valuable alliance with the sale of the elegant mare. Gareth treasured Llun as much as his own horse, Sul, and would never give her up, had he a choice in the matter.
Three girls below worked around the hearth serving the evening meal. One spooned kale from the cauldron into wooden bowls, which children carried to those seated on benches around the fire. Another offered thick rounds of bread to all present from a tray balanced on her hip. A third served oysters that had been steamed open over the flames in flat baskets of green wicker. His stomach rumbled, but he hated to climb down to eat while Father’s presence dominated the room. Maybe he’d take his food outside. If asked, he’d claim he was checking on the horses.
“Gareth? You up there?”
He clenched his jaw at the familiar shout.
“Come down and eat with the men.” Father’s volume dropped only slightly, “Out eating with the horses, I guess.” Then, he snorted. “I wish the lad showed more enthusiasm for buying and selling, or even for warrior training like his little brother—now there’s a game one—but he prefers the company of the horses.”
Gareth punched the straw mattress. “My work with our horses brings you wealth and status,” he muttered under his breath, “And you crave prestige more than anything.” But he climbed down from the loft and made an effort not to look sullen while picking up an unclaimed bowl of food. He sat on a bench among the group of men surrounding his father and ate silently, looking at the floor.
“Power’s all according to size, innit?” one of the men asked Father, revealing how little the man knew about horses. “Do you have any same as the big black you ride, Hearn?”
“The same? I’ve horses from the Highlands of Alba that be the same breed, but there’s none to equal my horse, Cythral.” Father turned to Gareth, his expression smug. “These men have an interest in our Highland Ponies. When can they come north to see my two year olds?”
“Next month, first quarter of the Hazel Moon.”
“Surely, you can have them ready before that?” scoffed Father. “Planning to sleep in every morning?” He looked around at faces of the men to see the affect of his jest. The others nodded knowingly. Lazy youths.
Gareth’s neck flushed. He said nothing. It took him less than an hour with a completely untrained horse to make a connection and have it willing to let him ride. But conditioning one for others to ride took longer. The horses had to be trained to obey insensitive and ignorant handlers. Not all riders understood the language of horses, including Father. If he worked with the animals more, he’d appreciate how long it took. Gareth cupped his right fist in his left hand and began popping his knuckles, one by one.
“Gareth, pay attention,” Father chided. “I am told the chieftain here will pay well to have two of his mares covered by Cythral. I expect you to be on hand to help.”
“Aye.” Gareth said, getting to his feet. I am always on hand to help, he thought. That’s why I haven’t any friends.
Father turned to his audience. “Raise your sons the way you coppice oaks. Cut them down every so often. Makes them straight and easy to manage.” He winked. “And they grow faster.”
“Aye,” someone said, “That’s the truth of it, Hearn.”
Gareth doubted Father even noticed that he got up and walked away.
~ from Chapter 17 The Glaistig ~
A girl Gareth not seen before stood with her back to him, peeking into the entrance of the main building. A thick braid of dark hair crowned her head. The embroidery on her red dress looked foreign, but spoke of wealth and status. Her scuffed boots spoke of hard use in hard places. Interesting.
“Good-morning,” he said. Though he’d spoken quietly, the girl startled and spun to face him. Her mouth formed a firm line and clear amber eyes met his with such a swift look of appraisal, he almost took a step backward.
She’s afraid, he guessed, and responded the way he did with a nervous horse, looking down and angling his shoulders away slightly.
“Good-morning, yourself,” she said in his language, though with a Kernow accent. There was an awkward pause and she spoke again. “I wonder if I could get information and a warm meal here. I have traveled a distance from . . . Red Oak Grove, and . . . and I have lost my way.”
Gareth had ridden in the region all his life and knew no place within reasonable walking
distance by that name, or within unreasonable walking distance, for that matter. His confusion must have shown, for she lifted her chin higher, as if to escape the slight blush that was climbing from her throat into the fine freckles on her cheekbones. Not accustomed to lying, this one.
“These are friendly folk and generous with hospitality,” he said. “I am a guest here, myself. My father and I brought a horse to sell, but I am sure any traveler is welcome.” “I am looking for a horse,” the girl said quickly. Her blush deepened. “Actually, my oldfather promised to buy me one. Should I find one I like, that is. That’s why I was traveling around,” her voice trailed off, “And got so lost.”
“Well, you aren’t lost now. You are near the main track north, west across the bay from Freshwater. Come inside,” Gareth said, “I’ll introduce you to the chieftain’s wife. She will make you, and your oldfather, welcome.” He glanced around for the maker of the long footprint. The girl stared at him as if he had just used magic to draw an acorn out of the air.
“I don’t have an . . . I am traveling alone.”
“Sorry.” It was Gareth’s turn to blush. “I just thought you mightn’t be.” He cleared his throat to fill the silence. “Oat porridge and honey can be found at the hearth. If you want to talk about horses later, I will try to help. The mare we brought to sell is spoken for, but my father, Hearn, has others at home, twenty-seven miles north of here.” He tried an amiable smile. “My name is Gareth.”
“My name is . . .” She stood very still, as if listening to a voice he could not hear, then nodded. “I’m Wynn.”
~ from Chapter 17 The Glaistig ~