The Ancient Breed
Deborah wheeled the bins out to the kerb just after 5:00. There was a fine rain sifting down, dampening the brickwork on the drive. That was hopeful, she thought; a drizzle was an improvement over torrents. She clutched her hood around her head and peered up. In the sky layers of cloud slid by, heavy, drizzling and dark near the ground, growing progressively fluffier and brighter, until at last there were glimpses, far off, of what resembled rose-golden tufts of carded wool. These drifted, stately and serene in the sunlight heights, while on the ground Deborah had to brace herself against a violent gust of wind. She turned back to the house smiling. At last, the system that had been relentlessly dumping rain over the Wye Valley was breaking apart.
She was glad of the change. It was tending toward late March—it was, in fact, the day of the equinox—and late March always found her seized by a disquiet that left her aching to be off and away; for something, somewhere, to happen. Having spent the better part of a week indoors had only sharpened the edge of this mood. She would risk a walk, even if this wild wind kept blowing. Alan would have warned her off. He would have looked up from whatever he was writing or gilding and warned her: “Mind you don’t get carried off on the hills. It’s a wind to raise the Wild Hunt.”
Deborah burst into the garage stamping and blowing against the raw chill. She pulled off Alan’s battered duffle coat and loafers and returned them to their usual places just inside the garage door. She went to the closet, reflecting on her late-March disquietude as she dug for her wellies and the little spindle of plastic baggies. It would begin as an aimless, petulant restlessness—the spiritual equivalent of a bored child moaning. Then it would curdle into something darker, something which sought not to complain but to destroy. She had felt a species of this destructive urge the first time she slid behind the wheel of a car for a solitary drive: all this metal at her disposal, all this speed.
Deborah did not consider herself superstitious. She told herself she merely noticed patterns. And the patterns that had emerged over nearly seventy years taught her that if she failed to scratch the seasonal itch, disasters followed. In her girlhood, her brother Harry had fallen out of a tree and fractured his pelvis. At university her then-boyfriend James was knocked off his bike by a distracted motorist, shattering his left arm and shoulder. In these latter years there had been her mother’s heart attacks, Alan’s first go with cancer, her daughter’s miscarriages. Last year, there was the final re-emergence of Alan’s cancer, which went about strangling him at a leisured pace until September. Equinox to equinox.
It did not escape Deborah that all these disasters happened to others—that they were, for her, disasters in the second degree. In addition to the shock, distress and loss she experienced at what befell her loved ones, she felt vaguely culpable for their pain. She felt strongly that there would be a reckoning; that someday, at the balancing-point of the season, the blow would at last fall on her.
She accepted that this was mostly in her mind. It was a series of coincidences she had decided to take as connected or meaningful, in the way one reads about “financial matters” in one’s horoscope, and then reads significance into a coin found on the pavement. Still, even if the disasters were unconnected to the time of year, the feeling was real, and really distressing. Burning it off through exertion always brought relief. And anyway, she had Conrad to think of. A long walk would be of even greater benefit to him. She took the retractable lead from its hook and went inside.
Conrad was already awake and waiting in the kitchen. Not waiting for Deborah; just waiting by the French doors with a dejected expression, as if every day he expected a visitor and every day was disappointed. It was not until Deborah’s boots squeaked on the lino that Conrad finally turned to look at her. She wondered if he were going deaf.
“Hruff?” he said.
“Very well, thank you,” said Deborah, cupping Conrad’s muzzle in one palm. “And how did you sleep?”
The dog looked at up at her, eyes solemn under scraggly eyebrows. He was an Irish wolfhound, three feet tall at the shoulder, seven if he reared up onto his hind legs. Like Deborah, Conrad had turned the corner into late middle age, having reached five years old against an expected lifespan of seven or eight. She could remember the first time Alan had brought him home and set him between them on the sofa: a gangly, awkward animal, already an alarming size at ten weeks old.
Deborah had burst out laughing. “He’s stolen Denis Healey’s eyebrows,” she had crowed, scratching the bewildered, wobbly animal between the ears. “He’s a reincarnation.”
“He is a sighthound of a most noble lineage,” Alan had said grandly. “The ancient breed, known for savageness in the chase and gentleness in the home.”
“Don’t listen to him, Lord Healey. Tell us if Labour will ever get in again.”
“His name is Conrad,” Alan had replied. “And he’s not a reincarnation. He’s my little pal. Aren’t you, little man? Aren’t you?”
Conrad had never been Deborah’s pal. He was never destructive or violent; just an awkward lodger: always in one’s way in the garden or the kitchen or staring at one unnervingly from the end of the bed in the early hours of the morning. As he grew older, Conrad developed a lanky, dishevelled dignity that reminded her irresistibly of Abraham Lincoln: the long, angular face, the weary eyes which gazed through and beyond whatever stood in front of them, contemplating some unfathomable sorrow. In spite of his lack of companionability, Deborah had always tried to treat him as though he were a normal dog. It was what Alan did, after all, and Deborah followed Alan’s example.
And with the dog’s long jaw resting heavily in her palm, Deborah suddenly wondered: why had she always followed Alan’s example? Especially in these last years, as cancer and retirement upended their lives. It was his choice to live in Ross-on-Wye, his choice to buy this overlarge house, his choice to bring home this strange, enormous dog. Alan had provided the vision for their lives, and Deborah had contented herself to fill in the details: kitchen cabinets, council tax, mulch for the garden, a veterinarian experienced with giant breeds. But now that Alan had been gone for a year, how much of this vision actually applied?
If the roles had been reversed—if she had died, and Alan was left alive—he would be wounded, listing like a ship with a breached hull, taking on water. But he would still be fundamentally and recognisably himself to himself. Alan would not wake up in the morning feeling the way Deborah did, as though she had dissipated into a mist. As though she were made of those high, cold clouds she had seen just now by the bins: glorious, but with a reflected glory; shaped, but a of shape that would hold only as long as the wind lasted. So much of what she had thought of as “ours” – Alan’s and Deborah’s – was actually his.
She had whittled herself down to the size of an accessory, shaving off little pieces of herself, trusting he would eventually notice and reward her for the sacrifices she had made. But there would be no reward. Now there was only the tidying-up. Now there was only an empty house full of his things—the lounge crowded with books upon books about the obscure Marcher lords who had been the meat of Alan’s career, the novelty chess sets, the calligraphic pens and deckle-edged paper on which he had practised his secretary hand or humanist miniscule; the garage heaving with laser-guided power tools, jars full of screws and nails and washers and the odd cuts of lumber in which Alan had claimed to see hidden potential. He had left this all for her to deal with in her own final days, and it suddenly made her feel hot and heavy with rage: how could you, Alan; how dare you?
Conrad slipped his face out of Deborah’s hand. He nosed at the plastic handle of the lead, which poked out of the pocket of her weatherproof coat. Deborah started, wiped water from her eyes. I really must get out, she thought.
“What do you say, Con?” she asked the dog. “Big walk today? Let’s push the boat out a bit, eh? Let’s head to the castle.”
“Hruff,” he said. His big tail began to sweep from side to side in an approximation of doggish happiness.
Goodrich Castle was either four or six miles away by foot, depending on how one approached it. The shorter route took one west on Archenfield Road, joined the Wye Valley Way footpath and meandered south along the river. The longer one struck out east through Tudorville, crossing hilly ground in Purland Chase before sneaking along country lanes to meet the footpath further south. This route was more taxing on the legs but offered more gratifying views from the modest hill on the Chase. One could stand up there, scoured by the wind, and look down upon the castle as it grinned over the Welsh border like a cracked skull.
Deborah decided to take the short route out and the long route home. That would get her to the castle just as the tearoom opened. She could fortify herself for the hilly walk with a warm cheese scone while Conrad crunched up his two dog biscuits—spare rations, but as Alan had endlessly impressed upon her, Irish wolfhounds have an unfortunate susceptibility to fatal bloating if exercised too soon after large meals. They would march home over the hills in the teeth of the wind. At journey’s end the big, empty house would seem snug and dear, and the poison of restlessness might be drained from Deborah’s spirit.
Archenfield Road was on the southwestern edge of Ross-on-Wye and mostly full of well-appointed detached houses like the big Victorian Alan and Deborah had shared; houses which in turn were full of greying middle-class couples like themselves. The retired QC and his wife, the retired company director and his wife, the retired historian (Alan) and his wife (Deborah). They had introduced themselves to Barry over the road (retired engineer) on the day they moved in, and Barry had called out to his wife: “It’s that historian off the television—you remember him, he presented that documentary series on the Welsh rebellion?”
“Which one?” the wife had called.
“Oh, Alan something.”
“No, which Welsh rebellion?”
Alan and Deborah had laughed.
It was about quarter to six when Deborah emerged onto the quiet street with Conrad. The wind swept along it, driving white petals from too-early blackthorn blossom south to the river. Deborah squinted at the car parked over the road, outside what used to be Barry’s house. It was, as usual, an unfamiliar car – after Barry’s death, his children had been letting the place out on Airbnb, so a steady stream of holidaymakers or businessmen from the continent came and went. Deborah could not shake the misgiving that someday one of these transients must be up to something criminal, so she made it a point to record the model, make and number plate of each car.
As she stood there fumbling for her phone, simultaneously trying to fix the car in her memory—red Nissan Micra, registration BC57 RTD—the door of the house opened. There came a man and a woman dressed in bright waterproof parkas, packs strapped on their backs and gaiters fixed over their heavy boots. The woman, spotted Deborah and waved. Deborah waved back. Deborah wanted desperately to leave, but the woman was making right for Deborah as her partner fumbled with the unfamiliar lock on the front door.
The woman was maybe thirty. She was small and wiry with dark eyebrows, dark eyes, and an olive complexion. “Hello,” she stage-whispered to Conrad, patting him with a hand gloved in close-fitting fabric. The dog stood as still as a lawn ornament, eyes averted, giving the woman nothing. Deborah felt pleased. She was always reluctant to speak before setting out on an early walk—it disrupted the atmosphere of the morning—but today she felt something several orders of magnitude beyond reluctance. She had to restrain herself from slapping this girl, this tourist.
“Hi,” the woman said to Deborah. “We’re staying at number 413 for the week. We’re from Seattle.”
“How lovely,” Deborah said, letting the acid bubble through her voice.
“This wind is something else,” the woman said.
“It’s a wind to raise the Wild Hunt,” Deborah replied.
Confusion spread over the woman’s bright, warm face like a stain.
“Local folklore,” Deborah went on. “A cursed king. Comes out to hunt on windy days. Steals people, takes them away into the sky.”
The man had come to join them. He had an extravagant beard, the way so many young men did nowadays, and a puffy hungover face with dark circles under the eyes.
“Do you know the fastest way to get to Goodrich Castle from here?” asked the young woman, a new formality in her voice.
“Yes,” said Deborah. “It’s a right, a right, and then a left. So, turn right from where we are now. Then a right on Cleeve Lane. That will turn into a public footpath you can follow. When you come to a fork in the public footpath, turn left along the river. The castle is signposted from there.”
“Signposted. There are signs, labelled signs, pointing in the direction of the castle.”
“Oh, of course.”
“It is a very good castle,” Deborah said. “A lot of Civil War history. English Civil War history,” she added, when they both looked at her blankly.
“I didn’t know you had one,” the man said.
“Technically three of them,” Deborah said. “Enjoy your walk.”
She turned to the left, letting the Americans’ thanks bounce off her shoulder. She had decided she and Conrad would take the long route after all.
The long road took them through some dull housing estates and past some grubby, pebble-dashed farm buildings, but the feeling of moving through the wild, broadening morning freshened even the least appealing views. As she strode along Deborah could half-convince herself that she was in a myth, an ageless demigoddess moving with purpose through an untamed country rather than a retired widow stepping over broken bottles of Sainsburys own-brand rum in a layby on the B4234.
By the time they came into the open sky and land of Purland Chase, Deborah felt an easing of the uncomfortable knot at the base of her sternum—the place where her late-March restlessness always seemed to snarl into a tangle. When she was not minding the dog or admiring the view, she was forming her own vision of the house, of the days ahead, of how she would spend what remained of her life. She pictured bare shelves in the garage, empty drawers in the desk, a single pack of fresh, modern ballpoint pens in the calligraphy cabinet. She would downsize, perhaps even become completely mobile in a well-appointed RV or houseboat. Concentrated to her essence, she would explore this country which spread out before her, a country Alan had always spoken of in terms of great events—Royalists versus Parliamentarians, Edward I, the Saxons versus the Celts. She would endeavour to find its secret heart. She imagined the heart of the border would be something tangible, something lying upon a particular hillside on a particular day or resting in a particular streambed. She imagined one might hold it, but not possess it. She imagined it was eternal, unconcerned with the dry records of human struggling.
The only thing she could not imagine was what she would do with the dog.
She turned off the B-road onto the public footpath which led up Purland Hill. It rose up the slope by means of easy switchbacks through a pleasant little wood. Deborah often liked to allow Conrad some time on the loose along this path. But just as she was fumbling to unclip the dog from his lead, a pheasant burst out of brush a few yards to her right. She yelped in alarm at the sudden clatter, then again as Conrad lunged after the plump bird.
Without thinking, Deborah reached out and grabbed the lead cable with her free hand instead of locking it with the switch on the handle. Strong, plastic-coated wire zipped along her palm, biting deep into the flesh. When she cried out, Conrad left the pheasant and ran back to her. Deborah released the lead and hissed at the sight of the cut on her palm. It bled freely; it burned terribly.
She looked about her. She and the dog were four miles out from home, halfway up the wooded hill on Purland Chase. Ahead of her was the hill’s bare summit, where she knew there were only rabbit holes, a trig pillar, and a lone, wind-worried oak. Down the slope behind her stood a cottage, just visible through the trees. She hesitated, trying to gauge whether she should seek help there or soldier on to the castle. Conrad, with a little whine, gave her arm a nudge with his head.
“You ridiculous animal!” she said. “Ridiculous!” Awkwardly, she undid the zip on her coat with her good hand and groped in the shoulder bag she had strapped underneath it. She produced her spare pair of socks and the spindle of plastic dog poo baggies. She tied the sock hard around the cut hand, then pulled a bag over it as a makeshift mitten. They had come this far; they may as well carry on to the castle, where Deborah could avail herself of the tearoom first aid kit, and perhaps cadge a sympathy discount on her scone. And hand or no hand, if she cut the walk short, she would fail to completely purge herself of the restlessness. She turned back toward the summit, and Conrad loped along nearby, a shadow on stilts.
Some moments later, as they approached the edge of the treeline, the forest was suddenly flooded with light. Deborah looked up smiling toward the summit of the hill where the sun had broken through at last. She was startled to see someone there. A man on horseback was silhouetted against the rushing masses of grey and white cloud. He appeared to be muffled in an immense coat—possibly even a robe. He was looking away to the west while his horse danced impatiently from foot to foot, its mane tossing in the wind.
Conrad was looking at the rider, too. He had gone rigid and alert. “Hruff,” he said.
The man very slowly turned his head to look down at Deborah and the dog. All at once she was gripped by terror. The figure, still an utterly featureless blackness, suddenly seemed to be a void, a stain upon the glory of the morning—something alien and against nature. She felt a wild desire to go down on hands and knees and creep away into the forest. Instead she could not move.
Conrad, however, began to sweep his tail from side to side. “Hruff!” he said. The man on the horse raised his arms—a grand, beckoning gesture. The dog bounded forward.
“Conrad, no!” Deborah cried. She locked the lead, but it was useless: he was excited, he was determined, and he outweighed her by nearly two stone. She dug in her heels, hauling backward with all her might. She looked about wildly for a fence, a stile, a stump, anything she could anchor herself with to have a chance of reining him in. But there was nothing, and what was more, Conrad was actually barking now, baying, even, as he ploughed onward toward the summit. He had gone mad, and what made Deborah so frightened was that he was clearly mad with joy. His tail whipped about, his tongue lolled from his grinning, wolfish jaws, and he would not stop barking.
It was when the figure turned his horse inward to the summit that Deborah realised Conrad was not the only dog making noise: an entire host of dogs began to bark and gibber and howl. It was a brain-hammering, incomprehensible sound, and by the time she stumbled onto the flat grass at the top of the hill, Deborah seemed to feel it was originating from within her own skull. She was spent. She released her clutch on the handle of the lead; she sank forward onto her good hand and her knees. She was light-headed; she must have air. She knelt there, eyes closed, trying to steady her breathing against the triple assault of pain, fright and noise. She had a sense of multiple presences, and then suddenly the din of the dogs stopped all at once.
Deborah looked up. She was surrounded by men and horses and dogs. They all looked down at her in silence, making no offer of help—but, she supposed, also making no threat to hurt her, either. There was a man in a long leather coat with one hand raised to his shoulder. Virtually all of the gathered dogs—greyhounds and wolfhounds, whippets and terriers and curs were sat obediently on their back haunches, looking up at the man, whose face was nearly as weathered as his coat. And as before, Deborah was suddenly flooded with a horror of the unnatural. She finally understood it when the crowd of mounted riders parted and the king—that must be what he was, for his horse and robe and boots were richer by far than those of the men around him, and he wore a fine fillet of gold around his forehead—walked his fine hunter toward her.
Not a blade of grass bent beneath the animal’s hoofs. The boots of the attendants on foot skimmed the ground, but did not touch it. Nor did the feet of the hounds—except for one. Conrad sat quite concretely on the turf, tail still sweeping from side. He looked about him in canine delight, drunk on smells and sensations.
Deborah looked at the king. She could not have named the colour in his eyes; only the feeling: a great and aching weariness. He held out his hand and bobbed it lightly upward: you may rise. Deborah did, stealing glances at the other riders, whose features seemed to slide in and out of focus depending on whether or not she were looking directly at them.
The king had seen Deborah’s cut hand. It was still in the plastic bag, but the sock-bandage had slipped, and a smear of blood showed. “Oh,” said Deborah. With her good hand she began to work at undoing the bag, but then the huntsman in the leather coat stepped briskly to her side, waving his hands to stop her. She did, even though she did not understand why. Then she group of boys work their way through to the dogs until each boy had a good grip on two of the dogs’ collars. One of the boys held a lurcher in a fawn-coloured leather collar with his right hand, and Conrad with his left.
The huntsman nodded to Deborah. She removed the bag from her bloodied hand, and at the smell of her blood, several of the dogs tensed and whimpered. But none of them moved. Satisfied the dogs would not riot, the huntsman leaned closely over Deborah’s hand. He did not touch her, but she felt his presence as a cold swirling of air over her stinging palm—it was the feeling of the draught along the floor, late at night, which tells you an intruder has come.
The huntsman looked from Deborah’s hand to the king. The king made a slight movement of his head.
“Nomen?” the huntsman asked Deborah, pointing to her dog.
“C—conrad,” Deborah said.
“Conrad,” the huntsman repeated. “Bonum. Conrad, tredecim.” And he pointed to each of the boys in turn as if counting them for her. Thirteen boys; thirteen couple of hounds for this hunt, this otherworldly hunt. Conrad would fill the missing place.
“I—” began Deborah, but then the huntsman actually did touch her, and the profound cold and shock which surged through her made her sink again to her knees. She could not feel his grip, but she was in his power. When he let go, the skin on her hand was pink and whole and clean again, as though she had just washed away the wound by plunging her hand into frigid water.
The huntsman lifted the horn to his lips. The blast rang out as a weird longing cry over the valley of the Wye, and the hunt was on, racing off around Deborah in an explosion of halloas and baying and the cries of horses. She knelt on the unstirring turf amid the pandemonium, healed hand pressed to her heart, and watched as the old undying king led his men and his hounds off the summit into the air, where within a few bounds they boiled away like mist, the tumult fading until the air was silent as stone.