Telling Tales 131
Everyone Is Hunting Everyone Else (Unless They’re Prey)
The soldier wondered if the cat could have shown him how it borrowed breath, if there were other ways to get more air besides simply inhaling. But then he’d be taking air from other creatures, and that didn’t seem quite right either. He gathered himself up and began his walk into the forest, toward the sounds of dogs, horses, and storms. The trees reached past him to the darkening sky. When he came across a stick to use for a cane, he bent over to pick it, rested with the exertion, and started up again, his chest moving in short, fast bursts.
“I wonder if they’re the same dogs I saw before I stepped into the alder tree, if it’s the same storm,” he mused to himself. “After all, how many such hunting parties can there actually be?” His answer was swift in coming – no, they were not the same dogs – and he saw it before he heard it, a silent, slavering brute with eyes as big as saucers, flying through the air toward him. He had time to think and to say, “Whoops,” before the twisting hound caught his shoulder with one paw and he, too, found himself flying. “This isn’t the part that hurts,” he thought just before the part that hurt arrived. He tumbled through the underbrush that tore at his clothes and skin and when he came to a stop he lay still and let all of the sensations sink in before he attempted to move.
The dogs hurried him along. Their hot, fetid breath came at him from all sides. All of their paws were on the ground. “Oh, I see,” said the soldier to himself. “It only looked like you were flying because you’d already jumped.” He winced at the pain in his shoulder and back and to his surprise, found the stick he was using as a cane close by. The dogs – there were five of them – pulled their lips back and drew their heads back, ready to strike. They did not growl. They were not the source of the barking and baying and hooves and thunder.
They ranged around him in not-quite-a-circle, leaving a possible escape route if he were quick about it. Not that he had any intention of fleeing. That would be going the wrong way. “You don’t speak, by any chance?” The dogs made no answer. One of them inched forward, the muscles under its skin clear and bunching, ready to pounce. The soldier smacked it on the snoot. The dog snapped back, tearing off a part of the soldier’s sleeve. “It’s not so much to ask. There are a lot of talking animals around here,” said the soldier, who was beginning to wonder if his plan was all that sound. “The first time I ran into a talking animal was surprising, I’ll grant you, but now I simply assume it’s a reasonable possibility. I bet you feel the same way about quarry that doesn’t run. Not behaving according to the rules, am I?” The dogs crept closer, still silent, still pushing him toward the opening that they’d left. “You want me to run, is that it? I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t run. I’m all out of breath, you see.” He heard his own voice getting faster, his nerves affecting his speech even as he tried to maintain his composure. “You haven’t run across a skunk of any sort, have you? Even its smell?”
The soldier didn’t even see the dog jump.