Telling Tales 133
Fates Worse Than Death
The shadow of a man that had once been Count Arnau was not all he had been before. Even in the permanent twilight of the crevice, he seemed less substantial, smaller. There was no sign of the horse, but whereas before the count’s eyes had been sharp and piercing, they were now blind, milky white. The hounds found him waiting, impatient as always, standing behind a pile of four men. The dogs dropped their burden and ranged themselves around the captives, once again leaving a slight hole – only this time, it was filled by the count.
“Get up,” shouted Arnau. Once again, his words were like a blow, smashing the men into consciousness. They separated from one another, terrified. They saw no escape. In the thin light of the cave, the dogs had an otherworldly quality about them, slightly insubstantial save for their white, hard teeth. The count was the same, except it was his eyes that caught what little light there was. Nearly as one they began to speak, to beg for mercy, or forgiveness, or to plead innocence or misunderstanding. “Silence!” His command was as physical as it was vocal, and their words choked in their throats.
The rock shivered as thunder crashed against the opening of the cave and the lightning briefly illuminated Arnau’s thin frame. He extended a hand, pointing toward the raging storm. “Do you hear that? That is what I have saved you from.” He leaned close in and the four men curled their bodies away. “You don’t seem grateful.”
“I know you who are,” one man whispered in a hoarse voice. “You’re Count Arnau. You are cursed – ”
Arnau laughed. He seemed to find the remark genuinely funny. “That’s why you’re scared? That I’m cursed? Is that true for all of you?”
The men glanced at one another. This was not how the stories about Count Arnau went. If he caught you on his hunt, you’d be speared, or torn apart by dogs. He would not talk to you. He would not save you. He would kill you in the worst way imaginable. You would never see your family again. Everything precious would be taken from you.
“You’re not going to kill us?” asked one of the men at long last.
He shook his head. “If I were going to kill you, I would have done so when I ran you down. Why would I bring you back here to do that? On the other hand, while I have saved you from a fate worse than death,” and here the sounds of the storm outside were like living creatures tearing at the stone, “you are right to fear.” His blind eyes turned to each man in turn. “You were scared while I pursued you because you knew – you know – that you deserve to be caught. You deserve to be punished.” He pointed at each man in turn. “Bandit. Thief. Adulterer. Murderer.”
“But you did so much worse…” whispered one of the four.
“No one judges like a condemned criminal,” his voice came back. “Welcome. I am you and you are me,” he intoned.
His words had the power of a spell and where there had been five hounds and four men before now stood nine dogs, the four in the middle looking plaintive and sorrowful. Then, the larger dogs herding the smaller, they slipped in and out of one another, leaping toward Arnau and disappearing into his palm.
Outside the storm raged on.
“Always room for more dogs?” rasped a new voice.