Edited by Deborah J. Ross and Phyllis Irene Radford
Sample story: “To Ride Beyond the Wide World’s End”
by Judith Tarr
Madog was a bard of Gwynedd, back in the days when the Romans were still a clear and all but present memory. He had a fine voice and a fine harp, and a fine eye for a horse, too, which ran in the family, it was said. There was blood of old gods there; and maybe Rhiannon herself had taken a fancy to one of his ancestors, riding past his steading on a bright spring morning, mounted on a white mare who might be Epona, and then again might not. But are not all mares incarnations of the goddess?
By Madog’s time the memory had faded but the leaning toward horses was as strong as ever. Which made Madog a most unhappy man, because he had lost his horse to a colic over the winter, and come spring he was reduced to the service of his own two feet, trudging the hills of Wales and singing for his supper.
That particular night of spring–which, it being Wales, meant icy rain, cutting wind, and the Wild Hunt howling over the hilltops–Madog happened to be in considerable comfort. The hill fort was old but had been got at by Romans, which meant working plumbing, a hypocaust that still heated the tiled floors, and walls that kept out the wind better than any he had been in since he made satires for the old duke of battles in Caerleon.
With good ale to wet his throat and dry warmth to make his fingers supple, he was in fine form that night, and the chieftain and his band of followers were generous with their praise and their rewards. He found himself the owner of a new wool cloak, a copper brooch enameled in blue and green, a lightly used pair of leather shoes, and the chieftain’s glowing admiration.
“Those verses of yours,” old Coel said as the fire died and the hall subsided into a sort of rollicking quiet, “they’re clever. Especially your description of that son of a swine down the valley–how did you know he’s wall-eyed and has a distinct left hook to his private member?”
“Well,” said Madog, “the eye’s easy to see when you’re singing in front of him. As to the other…let’s say it’s a trade secret.”
Old Coel’s bushy white brow arched; he laughed. “Caught him in the jakes, did you?”
Madog shrugged and smiled. Sometimes it was safer to let the patron decide how the story went.
Coel thumped him on the shoulder, and grinned when he barely swayed. Madog was light and wiry as horsemen often are, but he was strong as they often are, too. “Gofannwy won’t thank you for the things you sang of him, but I’ll be warming my evil old heart for days with the thought of them. I owe you a debt for that; I’d like to pay it, for my honor and your pleasure. You’re a horseman, you say? And yet you walked through my gate.”
Madog nodded. His throat still tightened when he thought of his beautiful mare down and gasping in the snow, so far gone with pain that she could not even will to move. He had cut her throat for mercy, and wept for hours after.
Old Coel saw the tears that brimmed in his eyes, and nodded. He was a horseman, too. “In the morning,” he said, “we’ll go out to the fields and see what’s minded to follow you on your travels.”
That was a gift worthy of a king. And yet Madog said, “I don’t know–I still–”
“Have a look at least,” said Coel, “and see what you can see.”
Madog could hardly refuse that; he had been ungracious enough as it was. He bowed and held his peace.
Coel’s horses were famous in that district, and with good reason. He bred the sturdy stock of the hills for the most part, on the larger side for riding, though they could still pull a cart or a war-car if they had the need. Romans had meddled with the lines and given them a bit of fineness from the east, a larger eye or a more refined throat, and a turn of speed that served Coel well in war or in the races.
Most of the stock in residence were mares either nursing young foals or big-bellied and ready to drop, and the stallion in his royal enclosure, shaking his heavy neck and shrilling at the ladies. Coel led Madog past these to a pasture out by the river, where geldings and a few unbred mares grazed the spring grass.
“These we keep to ride,” Coel said. “I’ll give you your pick of them, save only the blaze-faced roan yonder–that’s my darling, and she stays with me.”
Madog had to smile at that. He was still in a dark mood, grieving for his lost mare, but the sun was shining and the wind was blowing, and there were horses all around him, come away from their grazing to investigate the stranger. Some were very fine indeed, and taller than the usual; they had old Roman blood, he could see.
He did not mean or want to look at any of them with a thought for taking it with him. He appreciated a good horse, that was all, and there were a dozen of those here, sniffing his hair and nuzzling his hands and blowing sweet breath in his face.
One in particular kept insisting he pay attention to her. She was far from the tallest and far from the most elegant: a sturdy, stocky, bright-eyed hill pony, with big solid feet and a fast set of heels. But she had the dappled grey coat that came from the Romans’ blood, and her head was finer than one might expect, though still substantial, with a straight nose and a deep jaw.
“That one,” Madog heard himself say. “That’s the one.”
“Is she now?” said Coel. “That’s my great disappointment. I bred my darling to a stallion from Spain, hoping to get a war charger to make my neighbors sit up and take notice, and this is what came of it. She takes after her mother as you can see. There’s hardly anything of her father in her at all.”
Madog could indeed see. The dam was a sturdy hill pony, and a fine example of her tribe she was; except for the moon-colored coat and the chiseled head, the daughter was the living image of her.
Madog had no objection at all to hill ponies. His lost beloved had been one. They made more sense here than the ram-nosed chargers of Spain or the slender deerlike creatures of Arabia.
While he pondered the vagaries of horse breeding, the grey mare had chased all the others away and planted herself in front of him. In his head, as clear as a reflection in a motionless pool, was a picture of himself on her back.
Coel’s stableman had a saddle ready, and a bridle: good solid stuff like the horse who would wear them, with quality that showed itself to the discerning eye.
“She’s green,” Coel said as Madog discovered that fact for himself, “but she’s had enough of a start on her to go on with. You can ride her out today if it suits you, though I’d be glad of another night’s singing.”
Madog stayed for another night and then two, to be gracious and because the weather turned foul again. When on the third day he left, he was richer by a purse of Roman silver, a new change of clothes, and all that he had won before, with the mare being the greatest prize of the lot.
How much of a prize she was, even Madog barely suspected as he took the westward road. He had a thought to wander on down to Aber and try his luck at the gathering of the bards, but there was time and to spare for that. He could use it to polish his new songs, explore some new country, and smooth the rough edges off his new mare.
She had opinions, did Ceinwen. She expressed them with teeth and heels, and if he was on her back, she made him work for it.
She had none of the sweetness of his dear lost beauty. He was glad of it. If they had been too much alike, he would have hated her.
As it was, he cursed her often enough. He had a fair opinion of himself as a horseman. Ceinwen showed him exactly where, and what, his failings were.
Madog was a horseman. He lived for the challenge. “But sometimes,” he said to her as he extricated himself from a thornbush under her scornful eye, “I could stand for a little less educating and a little more cooperating.”
She would not let him mount again immediately. He had to trudge beside her up the long steep hill.
At the top he paused to breathe. The valley in front of him was familiar: he had been aiming toward it. The town there had a good tavern or two, and a fondness for the kind of music he made.
That was well and he was glad, but he should have had another day’s worth of riding before he came this far. He had not lost a day. He was not that kind of man. He always knew where he was and where he had been, and what end of the day it was.
Yet here it was, and here he was. He had been arguing precedence with Ceinwen, and she had pitched him into a bramble. He had the scratches to prove it, and one splendid bruise on his behind.
He looked back. The road he had been on was perfectly straight. The one ahead of him twisted and wound down the hill, as roads did in this untidy world.
He rolled an eye at Ceinwen. She tugged hard at the rein, aiming for a patch of grass.
Madog knew about straight tracks. Who in Wales did not? One traveled them at one’s peril. Mostly however they simply made the skin shiver or the feet tingle, and at dawn or dusk one might see travelers who were not of the common or human sort.
He tried to think how long he had been on this one, and when he had first stepped on it. There was that village with the shrine and the well. He had reckoned to take the road that ran on past it, a straight road, but that was because it was Roman, not because it was magic.
Unless of course the Romans had built their road on a track that had been there before it. Romans conquered magic as they did everything else, and made it their own.
Madog had walked and ridden on Roman roads and straight tracks all his life. He was a bard; he traveled. He knew every sensible way to get from here to there. This was not a sensible way.
He seemed to have taken no harm from it, which was more than he could say for Ceinwen and his backside. She let him mount finally, with only a half-hearted attempt to bite his foot as he settled into the saddle. It was late and she had hopes of hay and barley and maybe a little sweetness, down in the town that she had brought him to.
“You brought me?” Madog inquired. “Did I have nothing to do with it, then?”
Ceinwen wanted a bowl of barley and a night under a roof, out of the rain. Madog considered the sky, which was clear blue, scarce a cloud to be seen, and reckoned that the barley might be the truer temptation.
He would be happy enough to lie in a bed tonight, whether it rained or no. He shrugged and let her carry him down off the hill.
The rain rolled in soon after dark, with wind and lightning. Ceinwen was safe and content under the stable roof, with hay and barley in front of her. She savored both while Madog sang for their supper.
He could think while he sang, and he could not stop thinking about Ceinwen. That she was a horse of remarkable intelligence, he had known from the moment he saw her. Since he came to know her, he had begun to understand just how remarkable that intelligence was.
Every horse has much to say to anyone who has the will or the capacity to listen. Horses talk constantly: a language of expression, movement, and feeling. Humans to them are poor stunted things, all but deaf and nearly blind; a horse has to shout at them to be heard at all, and even then, their understanding is sadly limited.
Ceinwen was very, very good at making herself clear to the humans around her. Most, and Madog included himself, had no inkling that she was doing it until after it was done. Whatever she wanted, they did, as if it had been their intention all along.
That was humiliating enough, but Madog had met horses like that before. What he had not met was a horse who decided she was going somewhere, and went there by the most direct of all possible–and impossible–ways.
He could be imagining it. He might have miscalculated the distance after all.
There was only one way to be sure. He had to test it.
In the clear and rain-washed morning, Ceinwen was fresh and eager to go, and Madog had a crashing headache. He had drunk too much of the innkeeper’s ale. His voice was in fine condition as a result, but the rest of him left much to be desired.
Once he was in the saddle with the wind in his face, his spirits improved. He took the winding way out of the valley, but as he reached the hilltop, the rising sun at his back made a track ahead of him, a shaft of clear light, wide and perfectly straight.
He had not seen the sun do such a thing on land before, only on water. Ceinwen trotted forward with perfect aplomb, as if a road made of light was as ordinary as one made of paving stones.
He should think about where he wanted to go, she let him know. She would be happy with anywhere that had good grass and clean water. He might, being human, want something slightly different.
He knew a place, but it was on the far side of Gwynedd. He had made a song about it, which wound through his head while he rode.
The track clove through green hills and a wood bright green with spring. The light on them was clearer than Madog had known light could be. It made him think of music, of the harp’s note that rings long after the plucking of the string, and the singer’s voice winding through the infinite variations of a single phrase.
He knew where he had to be. There was a world beyond the one he lived in, a world of immortal magic, of perilous beauty and deadly sweetness. Some said the dead lived out new lives here; others that nothing mortal could long survive among beings so old and so powerful that they beggared human understanding.
Madog drew rein. Ceinwen consented to halt.
They had come beneath the boughs of the wood. In the dappled green light, he saw shapes that owed nothing to earthly logic. Things flitted through the branches and danced in the air. Voices whispered, murmured, sang.
It was a simple melody, too faint and distant to catch the words. Its beauty tugged at his heart. He shortened rein, meaning to turn Ceinwen toward it, but she clamped the bit in her teeth. She would not go.
The road was safe, she let him know. But if he left it, even she might be hard put to protect him.
“What are you?” he demanded of her. “Are you a horse at all?”
She laid her ears back. Of course she was a horse. What else would she be?
“Horses don’t do this,” he said.
She did. She shook from head to tail, rattling his teeth in his skull, and trotted forward. Her trot when she took the trouble was smooth to ride. She was not, just then, in a mood to spare him.
His first inclination was to wrestle her down to a walk, but some vestige of sense warned him not to try. He jolted out words instead. “All right! Stop! I believe you. You’re a horse. Who can walk the roads through Faerie.”
Straight tracks, Ceinwen informed him as she finally deigned to slow to a walk. She knew where they all were, where they led and how to make them go where she wanted them to go. It was born in her the way running was born in some of her idiot cousins. She just naturally knew.
“Is your mother like you?” Madog asked. “Or your father?”
Ceinwen’s ear-flick was a shrug. She was growing bored with this line of conversation. She was what she was. She neither knew nor cared if anyone else was like her.
That was not useful, but it was all the answer he was going to get from her.
She had to keep the road in her head in order to follow it, and he should do that, too, because it was his song that was leading her. For a hideous instant it went clean out of his head, and the road changed. The light darkened. The things in the branches lost their benign aspect; their fangs were sharp and long, and their eyes measured the tracks of his veins, lusting for blood.
He wrenched himself back into focus. The song was where he had left it, floating in his head. He tethered it tightly to his consciousness.
The wood opened into plain and simple earthly light. It was the most beautiful thing in any world, and the most blessed. Ceinwen cantered into the green meadow, toward the well and the ruined shrine.
Maybe he had not chosen so well after all. There was old magic here, where a web of straight tracks met and then parted.
Ceinwen snatched the reins from his hands and dropped her head to graze. He knew he should object to that, but he had too much to think of.
He was sitting on a wonder of the world. It could make him rich; it could give him power, if he learned how to use it. He need never wander earthly roads again, or sing for his supper.
A general could move his army from one end of the kingdom to the other in a night, and win the war before his enemy even knew he was there. A merchant could trade earthly gold for gems of Faerie, and bring back marvels that would awe the courts of kings. A bard…a bard might learn songs such as folk of earth had never heard, and master modes of music that he had only dimly dreamed of.
Madog was a bard. That was all he had ever wanted to be, and he was good at it. Good enough, patrons in plenty had told him, to match any in Gwynedd or in Dyfed, and as for the rest of the island, what did they know of music at all?
What would they think in Faerie, if he came and asked to sing for them, and then to learn the songs they sang?
That was a ridiculous thought. Madog was going to the gathering of the bards in Aber, where the prize this year was a silver torque and a white heifer. He had no use for a heifer, but he might sell her for silver that he could well use.
He would win her, too. He knew how good he was.
Good enough to sing in Faerie?
“Tell me I’m mad,” he said to Ceinwen.
Ceinwen was deep in the bliss of sweet green grass. The only thought she had to spare for him had to do with a bowl of barley come evening, and a good rubbing down. She was hot under the saddle, and she itched.
“Do they have barley in Faerie?” he asked.
That got her attention, and an answer, too. They had better than barley there. They had oats as sweet as cream, and clover, and honey cakes that the Fair Folk loved to feed to one who could walk between worlds.
Madog shook his head. He was dizzy with the craziness of it all. To ride from world to world. To sing in the courts of Faerie.
Well, he thought. Why not? It was a month yet until the gathering of the bards. What better way or place to hone his craft?
That supposed of course that the old songs were false, or exaggerated. A single night on the other side surely would not last a hundred years on this one. He had shortened his journey by a day before he even knew what Ceinwen was doing. He had come here to the far side of Gwynedd in half a morning, by the angle of the sun. The same morning, he was sure, as the one on which he had begun.
A bard went where the best songs were. Madog had heard one in Faerie that he wanted to hear again, and then to learn, and spin his own songs upon it. That was magic, he knew, and it might be the death of him. But he was a bard. He had to try.
He coaxed Ceinwen’s head up and ran his hand down the moon-colored silk of her neck. “Very well then. Oats as sweet as cream it is, and honey cakes. Tonight we’ll try our luck in Faerie.”
A Story for Book View Cafe’s 1000th Member Celebration.
It is a prequel to House of the Star (Tor, November 2010).
Copyright © 2010 Judith Tarr
Tales Newly Twisted
Edited by Deborah J. Ross and Phyllis Irene Radford
$4.99 (Anthology) ISBN 978-1-61138-155-9