Written for the prompt(s): "Gwynn ap Nudd."
|Word count: Approx. 1,600
He caught my eye because he didn’t ride into town . . . he walked in, an eagle owl on his shoulder and a white hound at his heel.
The hound was as white as the man, himself, was black—his skin was darker than any I’d ever seen, even darker than old Jaime Juarez at the general store. Where Jaime was the color of rich, dark chocolate, this man, this stranger, was the color of four a.m. Wherever he was from, I knew, it was about as far from Delver’s Gulch as a body could get.
But he came dressed like any local outrider, in dusty jeans, broken boots, a plain brown vest, and a chambray work-shirt that might once have been blue, but was now a soft, faded gun-metal from repeated washings and long hours in the sun. On his head was a dark felt Stetson Revenger with a short crown.
Slung low on his narrow hips were crisscrossed gun belts—each bearing a large, old-style revolver—cartridges winking and flashing like sparks in the last of the sunset.
The last reputable shops were closing up for the day, and Madam Maeve’s Hurdy-Gurdy Saloon was just getting going for the evening. I was sweeping up outside when I looked down the street and saw him enter the town proper: a tall, slim, backlit figure, striding evenly down Main Street—the only street—as if unrushed and unworried. As if the horrors that routinely roam the Wilderness beyond the Settlements wouldn’t and couldn’t possibly frighten him into scurrying as quickly into the light and relative safety of the first Settlement one would encounter fresh out of the Wilderness.
(Well, it’s the first if, like him, one is coming in from the Wildnerness. If one is coming from the Settled Lands, then our town is the last one butting the Wild Places where only the mad, the desperate, and the foolhardy venture alone.)
He ambled past the startled folk who were either in a rush to roll up their bit of sidewalk or on their way to the place they’d be from in the morning, seeming not to notice the surprised, fearing eyes on him. Several of the more superstitious—Bertina Goodlot, the preacher’s sister—among them forked the evil eye at him as he went by. He paid them no mind, and continued up the middle of the wide street, rolling a cigarette with graceful, unhurried fluidity as he went.
By the time he reached the saloon, where I was doing less sweeping and more leaning on my broom and watching him approach, he had the cigarette rolled and lit. He stopped and the dog stopped with him, sitting as soberly and ponderously as a judge. Its dark eyes rested on me far too intelligently for any dog I’d ever come across, and for a moment I had to fight the urge to send the evil-eye its way.
I focused, instead, on the stranger, who looked up at the sign above the door, then down at me. Then up at the sign then back down at me. Finally, he smiled, smoke curling from his full mouth like that of a lazing dragon. On his shoulder, the owl stared inscrutably past me and into the Hurdy-Gurdy.
“Good evening,” the stranger said in a low, musical lilt that rolled through me like distant thunder. I merely gaped at him for so long that his brow furrowed and his smile changed to one that was gentle and patient. “Are you slow, then, lad?”
“What?” I blushed and laughed nervously. “Er, no. At least, I don’t think so.”
The smile lost its condescending gentleness and became that lazy dragon’s grin once more, this time with a flash of white, white teeth. He looked me over, down then up, taking his own time in doing it, before meeting my eyes again. By this point, I was so flushed I no doubt looked like an overgrown beet.
“My apologies,” he said, taking another drag off his cigarette. The smoke he exhaled was sweet and faintly musky—different from the harsh, green-dank scent of tobacco grown around here. In fact, I was certain it wasn’t tobacco . . . not exactly . . . but what it was, I couldn’t have said, then. “Are you the proprietor of this establishment?”
I blinked. “Me?” I squeaked, laughing again. The stranger’s dark brows rose fractionally and I cleared my throat, looking away—at the hound, which still sat patiently, watching me, then at the owl, which had closed its eyes. “No, I just, ah, clean up and do the scut-work, around here. The owner’s Madam Maeve.”
“Hmm.” The stranger sighed smoke and gave me another once over, this one considering. “Perhaps you might be able to help me, anyway.”
I sketched an only slightly ironic half-bow. “Your servant, sir.”
The stranger laughed. “Such pretty manners! Certainly prettier than those of your countrymen,” he murmured, glancing back the way he’d come. It seemed like half the town had stopped what they were doing or come out to watch us talk. I rolled my eyes.
“Yeah, well, we don’t get a lot of folks coming in from the Wilderness. At least not sane ones.”
“Who says I’m sane?” The stranger snorted and I gave him a once over. His face was saturnine and strong—stubborn and stark. He was clean-shaven, square of jaw, and bore the highest, sharpest bone-structure I’d ever seen. Overall, there was a keenness about him. He was built like a blade, lean and vaguely deadly-looking. The only thing about him that didn’t speak of this dangerous keenness was the calm, clear eyes that regarded me with such naked curiosity. I flushed again under their directness.
“Sane-seeming,” I corrected myself. “Not to mention clean and unmarked. And still able to make it past the town-Wards.”
“I’m no wight,” the stranger said softly, his dark, dark eyes scanning my face and narrowing. “Nor am I a spirit to be repelled by Carlin mischief or hedge-witch juju . . . but tell me: What’s your name, lad?”
“Edric,” I replied immediately, bowing again for some reason, this time with no irony in sight. “Edric Forester. And you are—?”
“Ap Nuada, I’m called . . . for my father,” he said, searching my eyes. “Gwynn is the name my mother gave me.”
What a strange way to tell someone your name, I thought, smiling nonetheless. Gwynn ap Nuada returned it with a half-lidded gaze before speaking.
“And tell me further, Edric ap Forester, is the Hurdy-Gurdy a place where a man might wet his whistle, rest his bones, and seek . . . companionship for the night?”
“That, it is, Mr. ap Nuada.” I stood aside so he could see past me and through the batwing doors of the saloon. Inside, card games were starting up, drinks were being poured, Tully was wailing some old standard on the old piano with Miss Katherine belting out the lyrics in her brash voice, and Madam Maeve’s ladies were already making the rounds of the working men and visitors, like living, painted dolls.
“Hmm,” ap Nuada said again, squinting a little as he looked into the Hurdy-Gurdy’s lively atmosphere.
“The rooms and companionship are clean and friendly, and the regulars are even-tempered,” I added, and ap Nuada glanced at me, seeming amused.
“Not a lot of fights, then? Even when everyone’s in their cups?”
“Not even then. Madam Maeve runs a tight ship. No fighting allowed, unless the one who started it wants to be banned for six months.” I chuckled, thinking of Orlind Howe, banned for life for having the audacity to call Madam Maeve a “spavined, old whore” to her face. This was after she’d already banned him for the aforementioned six months for trying to pick a fight with Amel Reeve over Miss Winifred, one of the most popular of Madam Maeve’s ladies.
In the near two years since, Orlind Howe had become one of Reverend Goodlot’s most . . . zealous followers, missing no opportunity to start petitions or speak out against the Hurdy-Gurdy, calling it a blight on the town. He’d even started keeping company with the Reverend’s sister, Bertina (who, despite being pretty and well-mannered, was as mean as cat-dirt and just as batshit insane when it came to religion as her brother).
“Well,” ap Nuada said, startling me out of my thoughts. “Sounds like as good a place as any to wait out the long hours of the night. Take y’self elsewhere,” he said, shrugging the shoulder with the owl on it. And the owl, neither large nor small, but still quite solid-looking, opened its eyes and launched itself off ap Nuada’s shoulder easily. At ap Nuada’s heel, the hound stood and barked once, looking up at his master, who was watching their winged friend fly off in the direction of the Wilderness with an emotion on his face I’d not expected to see: wistful envy.
Then he was turning that calm, dark gaze back to me.
“Much obliged, Edric,” he said, tipping his hat politely. This time I nodded, refraining from bowing again as ap Nuada stepped past me and into the Hurdy-Gurdy, his white hound at his heels.