Telling Tales 132
Even if he were at his full strength with only his breath to worry about, the soldier would have had a hard time fending off a pack of dogs, lying on his back and without any weapons save for an old branch. As it was, his muscles weak from his time being dead, he was little challenge for them and in short order lay bloody and motionless.
It was thus that the cursed rider found his hounds, defensive, abashed, and covered with the soldier’s blood. “Worthless!” he bellowed at them.
“He wouldn’t run,” said one.
“He was weak,” said another.
“He struck me,” explained a third.
“He taunted us.”
“He would not have served your needs.”
“Excuses!” howled Arnau, and his very voice blasted the dogs as surely as if he’d hit them with sticks. They did not cry out, but they shrank before his rage to make themselves smaller targets, wincing in pain.
“There was something wrong with him in any case,” swore one dog.
“He had no scent!”
“He came toward us!”
“We only meant to scare him!”
“We tried not strike him when we jumped!”
“We dodged as best we could!”
For all his history and for all his impatience, Arnau was not a stupid man. His pack might make excuses, but they would not lie to him. “What is left of him?”
“His body is whole.”
“Yet full of holes.”
“He has lost blood.”
“He never had breath.”
“He never had scent.”
The Storm behind him grew in volume. Arnau made his decision. “We do not have time for the mystery just now. Carry him between you, that will be punishment enough. Follow. We alone will take care of the rest of this hunt.” His horse, a bulky, thick stallion with milky, blind eyes, reared back in anticipation. The dogs groveled and begged not to have the hunt taken from them, but Arnau paid them no heed and urged his steed forward and beyond.
“Now look what you’ve done,” accused a dog.
“Why does he even need the body for the mystery?”
“Aye, he could consider it without and we could hunt unburdened.”
“We could deny him,” suggested the last.
For all of their bravado and anger, however, they were not about to disobey. One dog turned the body over and grabbed it by the neck as though it were a puppy, inconsiderate of the damage its teeth did to the dead flesh. It threw the corpse over the back of another dog and together, they sped forward on the heels of their master. When it seemed as though the body of their prey might fall from the back of one, a second dog slipped next to the first one, sharing part of the same space as the first, as though the two creatures overlapped, and picked up the burden more securely for the next part of the journey.
The dogs slipped in and out of one another the whole run, so that sometimes there were only four of them, or three, or two. They did not gain in size when they joined, or become darker. There were simply more or fewer dogs.
“It wanes,” said one as their den came into view outside the bounds of the forest and the storm-ridden sky opened up before them.
“You can feel it in the tides.”
“The blood,” answered another.
“It makes me hungry.”
They ran on ever closer, and finally, the moment before they disappeared into the crack in the stone that was their entrance, the last one said, its voice aching with desire, “Freedom.”