I'm also posting it without even glancing at the text (if I didn't, I'd be revising it for a week). If you like the story, check out my newest publication in Black Gate #10., which should be in book stores by the end of the week. If you don't like it, well, I like to think I've improved some in the seven years since I wrote it. :)
HOUNDS AND MOONLIGHT
Harry James Connolly
They came over the hill without a sound, mere silhouettes in the slanting rays of the fading day. Kama was digging a new toilet behind the house when she saw them: A lone man, tall and lean, and his hunting dogs.
They walked toward the village, unhurried and unconcerned with their welcome. Kama set her foot against the spade. Let the others rush out of doors to examine the stranger. She had work.
One of the village dogs began to bark, and soon others joined the chorus. Folks began poking their heads out of their houses. Ameez stepped out of the kitchen, wiping his bloody hands on his apron.
"What's that?" he said.
"Don't know," Kama replied.
"You got eyes, don't you?" Ameez said. "What do you see?" Kama flinched as he approached her.
"One man, many dogs," Kama said.
Ameez grunted. "The only dogs I hear are Wilkutt's ratting hounds."
Kama shrugged. Let him call her a liar. It didn't matter. The stranger would soon be close enough for him to see for himself, watery eyes and all.
It was strange that the hunting dogs would offer no response to the howling of the village mutts. Dogs are territorial, and challenge each other as a matter of course. Why didn't these new dogs answer?
People filed out of their homes to get a look at the stranger. Ameez scowled, as though Kama herself had caused all this trouble. He, too, started walking toward the road. Kama followed at a suitable distance.
Touru, Wilkutt's wife, slapped his rat-hunting dogs with a paddle to quiet them, and Kama could hear the frightened whinnies of the horses in the village stable. Two men went to look after them. Kama couldn't tell who they were in the gathering darkness.
"We heard you were somewhere along the coast," Wilkutt was saying. "We've been sending word with the caravans." three of the stranger's hounds sat by his legs while several more stood behind him. Wilkutt bent to stroke one of them.
"Don't touch the dogs," the stranger said. Wilkutt straightened and stepped back. "They're dangerous. You have a werewolf?"
"We think so," Wilkutt said.
Ameez snorted. He didn't think anything of the sort, but would never admit it in front of a stranger. He didn't trust anyone outside the village, and few inside as well.
Wilkutt pretended she wasn’t there. "Have you hunted his kind before?"
Suddenly Kama understood who he was. This man was the center of many tales told by the trading caravans. He traveled alone with his pack and hunted a dangerous sort of prey: creatures of shadow, of magic, of deviltry.
The twilight sky grew darker, and Kama strained to see his face. It was no use; there was too little light.
"Anyway," Wilkutt said, "we can make up a bed for you in our home, if you like. We have plenty of space, now that the werewolf has taken our Willub."
"No," the stranger answered, "I'll sleep in the field with my pack. If you have any bread, cheese or milk, I'd welcome it. I've eaten nothing but meat and roots for a tenday."
He walked away without waiting for a response, his dogs trotting silently before and behind him. The starlight on their backs made them look like serpents gliding through the dark.
Wilkutt shrugged before retreating to his house. Ameez turned to Kama, and the young woman knew the expression on his face without need of any light at all. He clutched her arm and dragged her into the house.
"How dare you!" Ameez hissed. "How dare you stare at him like a starving beast! You won't run away with some man and shame me the way your sister did, you ugly brute. You wretched animal! Why did I ever take you in!" Ameez grabbed his leather strap off the chopping block and struck Kama across the legs.
Kama screamed and ducked behind the fireplace chair. Ameez followed, but Kama held the chair back between them.
"How dare you threaten me with my own furniture!"
A few tactics could end one of Ameez's whippings: screaming was one, since he was sometimes ashamed to let the neighbors know how often he beat her. Running and dodging was another. But usually nothing stopped a beating except the weariness of his right arm.
"You'd like to hit me with that chair, wouldn't you? You'd kill me to get what's mine! My house!" Ameez shoved the chair aside and began to swing the strap. Kama curled up on the floor, and waited for it to end.
Ameez tired quickly, and threw the strap angrily onto the block. "See what you made me do?" he said, gasping for air. "You're my wife! You should know better than throw yourself at a strange man!"
Kama scrambled out of the house on all fours. Ameez didn't chase her, but she could hear his labored breathing. If only Ameez’s heart would seize and kill him, Kama could finally be happy. She knew she was ugly, knew she was a brute, knew she was trapped with the only man who would have her, but he didn't have to keep saying it.
Kama walked toward the fields where the hunter camped. She had nowhere else to go and she was curious about him. She had heard so many contradictory tales that she couldn't even be sure of his name, let alone his habits. Some men said he charged a fistful of gold and a trio of virgins for his services, while others said he asked for nothing. Some tales described him as an old man, while some said he was an ageless, unchanging boy. Some said he was a wizard that called to dogs the way spring calls to flowers, and some said there were no true dogs or men in this pack, that they were all shapechangers who took turns playing human.
Maybe she would learn the truth. Maybe he would sic his hounds on her and take her life away.
She heard scuffling footsteps approaching along the road. Touru, barely visible in the starlight, topped the hill and walked past without a sideways glance. Had Wilkutt sent his wife alone to deliver bread and cheese to a strange man, or had it been her idea?
Kama saw a campfire burning a little ways off the road. She walked toward it, and she could feel things moving in the darkness near her. The dogs, she assumed. She heard nothing but the hush of the wind and the crackle of the fire. Her body still burned from her last beating.
The stranger looked up at her. "I said I don't want a woman."
She calmly strolled up to the man and kicked him.
He grunted and rolled onto his side. The loaf of pan bread he was eating fell into the grass. Immediately, half a dozen hounds appeared out of the darkness, surrounding her. They were sleek and powerful, with eyes as black as grave dirt. None of the animals showed their teeth, but they didn't have to. Kama closed her eyes and waited for the end to come.
It didn’t. Instead, the man leapt to his feet and bowed. "Forgive me, madam. I have lived so long among animals that I have forgotten my manners."
"No need for that ‘Madam’ stuff," Kama said, secretly pleased. "Just offer me a seat and introduce yourself."
"My name is Jebul." An ordinary enough name, for such an unusual man. He insisted she sit where he had been sitting. It was only a rock, but it was more courtesy than anyone had shown her in years. They shared Touru's pan bread. Kama had lived across the road from Touru and Wilkutt for most of her life, but had never tasted their food until it was offered by a stranger.
They said nothing more until the moon had risen. She spent many quiet minutes studying the man's face by the firelight. He was ugly, just as she was. His face was crooked and his nose long and pointed. Hope unaccountably blossomed in Kama's heart.
The moon was high when Jebul spoke next. "This boy Willub," he said, "can you show me his grave?"
"Yes." Kama stood and led him across the field. The dogs followed, ranging around them as a kind of honor guard. There couldn't have been more than 15 of the beasts. Could 15 dogs kill a werewolf? Or was there something special about this ugly man with the common name?
It was a clear night, and the moon was full. She found Willub's cairn easily. "Here."
Three of the hounds circled the grave, sniffing at the stones. They lost interest almost immediately, wandering around the cemetery, searching for more interesting scents.
"Did you see the body?" Jebul asked.
"I did. He was torn open from his shoulder blades to his buttocks."
"From behind? No werewolf killed this boy. A rock tiger, more likely. Werewolves attack from the front, so they can see their victim's eyes. They eat the fear."
Kama shrugged. It was Wilkutt's idea that there was something unusual about his son's death, and he should spread word through the caravans. Ordinary tragedy wasn't good enough for him.
One of the hounds walked to Jebul and huffed twice. It was a strange sound, as though it was speaking to him.
"I'm sorry," she said, watching the dog as it walked away. "To drag you out here to this wide spot in the road…"
"… Come with me," he said and followed the dog.
They walked through the graveyard, circling the cairns and emerging into a flat, unplanted meadow. Half a dozen hounds circled a lonely grave at the edge of the forest. They sniffed excitedly at the stones.
"Who is buried here?" Jebul asked. The dogs began rolling back the river rocks with their paws.
"A young boy," Kama replied. "The last caravan paused here a while, and one of their children caught a wasting disease and died. Wilkutt and the others made them bury him way out here, to keep the disease far from the bodies of their relatives."
“He was fine before he came here? When he died, was he pale? Bloodless?”
“Do you think something drank his blood?”
“There are a dozen creatures that suckle human blood. Did the boy have any cuts on his body when he died?”
“All boys have cuts. His teeth did turn black, though.”
Jebul nodded. “I know what that is.” He knelt beside one of the dogs and patted the grave, then stood and walked back toward the camp. “The world is full of strange things, but most people don’t recognize their handiwork. They blame the deaths on wasting disease or bear attack.”
The dogs swirled around them, stepping into Jebul’s path, then bolting toward the grave. Kama thought they were irritated that Jebul didn’t take up the hunt immediately. “So then,” she said, “what killed the boy?”
The stranger looked at her. “After I’ve slept, I’ll be leaving. Tell the mother and father whatever you like.”
He walked back to the fire, and Kama watched him go. She knew when she was being dismissed. One of the dogs loitered near her as the others trotted across the field. It stared at her, with its head straight and its body tense. Kama knew it was studying her, but it didn’t tilt its head as most dogs did when they were curious, and it didn’t step close enough to smell her. In fact, none of Jebul’s hunting dogs had tried to smell her.
She walked back to the village, thinking about the evening she’d just spent. Jebul and his pack traveled the world. They were famous from mountain to coast. And if it was dangerous life, so what? There were worse deaths than having the blood drained from your body or being mauled from the front and having your fear eaten. There was the slow whipping of insults and the leather strap.
Kama could see into Ameez’s house as she approached; he had not closed the door. He sat by the fireplace, drinking ditch whiskey from a jug. Kama stared into the house, suddenly unable to imagine going in there again. So what if she was too old and too ugly to find a better husband? She didn’t have to spend her years caring for that old beggar. She’d rather disappear onto the road and never be seen again.
Kama stood in the darkness for most of the night. Ameez slowly emptied the jug and slumped in his chair. Finally, he was snoring and slobbering onto his chin.
Kama entered the house and went to her cot. She packed a few keepsakes and a good knife, and threw her mother’s otter-skin cloak over her shoulders. Ameez snored like a rooting hog, and Kama went to the kitchen and stole a skillet, hatchet and another knife. She went to the door, expecting to never see the place again.
She couldn’t leave. Running away would do nothing for her anger, or her hatred. It wasn’t enough.
She slammed the skillet against the side of Ameez’s head, then dragged him outside and bled him like a pig into the latrine. He died without a sound.
Kama walked into the night, calmly, slowly, her bag stuffed with loaves of Ameez’s pan bread and sticks of dried sausage. She would have burned down the house if she had thought it would not rouse the rest of the village. As it was, eastern sky was glowing with the imminent sunrise.
She found Jebul rolling up his blanket. His dogs sat in a circle, watching him impatiently. Kama began kicking dirt on the dying embers of the campfire.
“Don’t try to follow, madam, if that’s what you have in mind. The dogs won’t allow it.” In the daylight she could see that he was even uglier than she’d thought. His cheeks were pockmarked and his teeth were crooked. He was at least twice Kama’s age.
“Who is master here,” Kama replied, “you or them?”
Jebul did not answer, and Kama followed his cue. She was silent when he was. She walked where he did.
The hounds led, following their noses into the forest. There were a baker’s dozen of them, all with oily black fur and flinty, intelligent eyes.
A pair of them blocked her path as she was about to follow them into the trees. They bared their teeth and growled.
“They won’t warn you twice,” Jebul said. But even as he spoke, a third hound, slightly larger than the rest, approached. It huffed at them, and they, with a reluctant backward glance, went into the forest. Jebul followed them.
The larger dog regarded Kama. She saw a long scar on one side of its face, and one of its eyes was milky white. It stood and stared just as the dog had stared the previous night. Perhaps they were the same. It turned and went into the forest, moving slowly enough for her to follow.
She walked beside Jebul all day, although he pretended she was not there. The dogs swarmed around them like a school of fish. They had a strange beauty about them, and seemed to have a knowingness that Kama found disconcerting. At midday, they laid fruits and edible roots at Jebul’s feet, and at sunset they gathered at a likely campsite and waited while he opened his pack.
Sitting in the darkness beside the fire, Kama offered Jebul a loaf of pan bread, which he eagerly accepted. “So,” she said, “what killed that boy?” He gave no answer. “Damn you, sir, you will not eat my food and then ignore me. What killed that boy?”
Jebul stared at the bread, then shrugged and tore off another piece. “When elves become ill or injured, they cure themselves by drinking human blood. And they have an aura which will turn a man’s bones and teeth black.”
“The boy’s been dead more than a month and his killer long fled. How long do you think this hunt will last?”
“Hard to say. This river valley is not widely settled, is it?”
“No. There are two bridges across the river, and two roads that lead to them. The caravans stick to the roads, and there is much dark forest and swamp between.”
“The elf will stay close to the road. They take much blood for their curing.” He picked at the bread crust thoughtfully. “I wonder…” Kama waited for him to continue. “Have you heard of an elf city in the valley? For years I’ve heard tales of a hidden elf city somewhere west of the desert.” Kama shook her head.
That night she slept beneath the stars for the first time in her life. Several times she woke up to hear the hounds moving about in the darkness, and in the morning she woke with the realization that she was a fugitive killer, and she felt utterly calm and free.
Kama shared another loaf with Jebul and she offered pieces of sausage to the dogs. They were surprised by this, and when they smelled the meat they jerked their heads away. But the scarred hound stared at her while she rolled up her blanket and kicked dirt over the embers.
They set out on the trail again. The summer fires had burned away the underbrush only a tenday before, but the dogs moved as if they were confident of the scent.
She watched them throughout the day. When the sun was high, the animals left roots for them at the edge of a clearing.
“They’re good at this,” she said.
“They’ve had a lot a practice.”
The dogs appeared around them. They were silent, still, and captivating. Scar blocked Jebul’s path and stared until the hunter sighed and dropped his pack.
“The elf is near, and hunting.” He reached into the bag and drew out a scarlet cloak. The hounds melted into the forest. “My father started these hunts when I was just a boy. There were 21 hounds then, a good number. One night they tracked down a merman who’d been raiding the town’s silos. The dogs killed it and tore it apart, and after they’d eaten, they were different. Powerful.
“The townspeople began to hire him to hunt down other things. Vampires, wights, even a lamia or two. Soon my older brothers were running the farm, and my father spent all his time in the wilderness with the hounds. Until the day they came back without him.
“My eldest brother went with them next, and he disappeared. Then the last brother, besides me. By then I was old enough to understand. I sold the farm and waited until the pack returned for me.”
“Which they did.”
“They are unlike other dogs. They have taken power from the flesh of the creatures they kill. Some of that power they retain and some slips away over time. They keep hunting to replace the magic they lose.”
One of the dogs gripped Kama’s sleeve in its teeth and pulled. She ducked behind a fallen tree and peeked toward the clearing. Jebul looked back at her, his face full of helpless fear, and Kama suddenly understood that he was not the master of this pack; he was its human face, and the bait in its trap.
Jebul stepped into the clearing. He looked from side to side and scanned the tree tops. He walked forward reluctantly. In his red cloak, he looked like an archery target. Kama couldn’t see the dogs anywhere.
Jebul looked over his shoulder again, and suddenly the elf was beside him. Jebul stepped back, but the creature grabbed his wrist so quickly Kama didn’t see it move.
The elf was a marvel. It was at least a head taller than Jebul, and as slender as a praying mantis. It wore nothing more than a knife, and Kama was shocked to see its tiny genitals dangling in the sunlight. Its ears stretched up and back like the horns of a goat and its skin was tinged with blue. It grabbed Jebul by the jaw and bared his neck. Its teeth looked like a fistful of needles.
It bent forward, and the air was suddenly full of streaking shadows. In the time it took Kama to blink, the elf lay on the ground with two hounds gripping each of its limbs and others tearing at its throat and genitals.
Kama ran into the clearing. It had all happened so fast. She had almost seen something amazing, something magical… The elf’s head was tilted back, and its mouthful of spiked teeth gave Kama a chill.
One of the dogs looked up at her and growled, gore dripping from its mouth.
“They won’t let you near it,” Jebul said. He knelt beside a tree, hurriedly rolling his cloak into a ball. “It’s their kill.” The cloak slipped from his fingers, and Jebul held up his hands. They trembled.
A dog whined, and Kama turned back to the kill. One of the hounds lay on its side, breathing heavily. Kama edged toward it and saw the silver knife sticking out of its belly and its milky white eye. It was Scar.
Two of the dogs dropped chunks of elf meat in front of Scar, which the wounded hound gulped down whole. Another dog gripped the knife in its teeth and gingerly slid it free. Blood splashed onto the grass.
Scar was dying. Despite its power and its elvish food, it was going to die.
Kama drew her knife and approached the hound. The other dogs growled and flattened their ears, but she ignored them. Ameez should not have called her an animal; animals were beautiful. Kama laid the blade against her forearm.
“What are you doing?” Jebul asked. She drew the knife across her skin and let it fall into the dirt. The cut didn’t hurt nearly as much as one of Ameez’s whippings.
“What are you doing?” Jebul shouted, his voice becoming shrill. Kama held her bloody cut before Scar’s nose, and the dog laid its burning hot tongue against it.
“Stop!” Jebul said, “You don’t understand what I’ve been doing here, what I’ve been doing for most of my life. These animals… they aren’t natural anymore. They’re monstrous. For years I’ve been searching for something too powerful for them to kill.”
Scar rolled onto his feet. The blood only trickled from its wounded gut. It lapped at Kama’s arm, drinking down her blood, and its flint black eye stared up at her.
“Please,” Jebul said. “Please don’t save its life. Not when I’ve been trying to kill them for so lo--”
Kama heard a sudden rushing sound behind her, and Jebul was cut off in mid-breath. She heard something tear, and Jebul was silent. She didn’t care. She had killed her master, too. Scar lapped at her arm, drinking her blood, scorching her with his hot tongue.
Finally, the hound stood, and backed away from her under his own power. The pack backed away from their kill. Kama could see the pale, torn flesh and pink elvish blood a few feet away.
The dogs were watching her. They were beautiful, every one, and she loved them from the bottom of her soul. Could she become the thing Ameez had called her? Could she dare hope for so much?
She crawled to the elf’s body on her hands and knees, bent her head to its flesh, and began to feed.