There were four behind him, racing after him on swift feet.
Harl’s own feet pounded against the rough road. Even as hs boots slipped and slid on the coarse stones, they kept time with his speeding heartbeat. The beasts were gaining, and any moment their claws would rake his back as they punished him for his thievery!
Just a few sausages, and a hamhock. All that he had been able to grab from the dusk covered farmstead as he’d come across it, weary feet plodding him back up the king’s road to Bara. He hadn’t even seen the dogs until it’d been much too late.
A large woman had been framed by orange light in the main door of the thatched building, dark glee no doubt on her bloody soft face as her four great dogs had barrelled straight after the woods-voln lad. In height they were almost to his ribs. And each one was a mess of burred long grey fur; knotted and thick with trapped wheat heads and thistle down. But for all the soft jumble of their fur, their teeth had been clear white points of light in the darkening hours. And they did not give up on their quarry easily, sure as blood was blood!
Harl was fast. He’d learnt to outrun guard dogs before these beasts were even puppies. But most the time he preferred to wheedle his way about them. Most of the dogs Harl had encountered in Bara were sad beasts surprisingly happy to be spoken to with the voice of a soft friend rather than a hard master. But these were farm-voln dogs and the only security for lonely farming women. They’d been well-treated, spoilt even, and obviously resented anyone making off with the treats that they would normally have been sharing with their human masters.
Sweat dripped into his eyes, his breath rasped. They had been running for a hundred years. They had been running for moments. The sun was just down, and stars were beginning to come out to see the woods-voln boy get eaten by the great shaggy beasts. He spat, pumping his arms and spurring his burning legs on, and on, and on.
He’d thrown down the sausages at first. Then the ham hock. No difference.
“You want me, don’tcha?” He wasted his breath on the words. “You want me, don’tcha?” The chase had overridden the dogs normally salivating desire for the meat. Or some other flesh was more tempting. He felt an itch between his shoulder blades, just where the leader of the pack would soon likely score lines down his back with mud encrusted claws, before baring teeth to rip into his neck. Any second now, any moment. Soon.
He stumbled, regathered himself, and sprinted on, his heart in his mouth. For a second he’d seen them behind him as he’d outsplayed his hands, pushing against air in one blurred and sickening moment. The lead dog was a mess of froth and spit spreading back from a wide open muzzle. Behind him were three dark shadows, ripping up the road to get at Harl. But they should have got him already, and a small voice whispered in Harl, sharing the growing fear that the dogs had been letting him get ahead, that their true speed was being held back for a moment of their choosing. Then they’d bunch together muscles to leap upon him and bring him down like lions were said to bring down their prey in the gathered lands about Liosinium.
“Fuck you. Fuck you.” He muttered under his breath, wasting more of his air in words, but using that anger and that rhythm of words to pull out more reserves of energy, his two left boots hammering down onto the king’s road in an otherwise eerie silence. “Fuck you. Fuck you.” Above him were high hedgerows, the occasional cat’s twin eyes watching him as he sprinted past him. But no sanctuary was there even if he could find the moments to pull himself up off the road and through to fields. More farm-voln lands, tilled and worked over into more stumbling places, more hovels full of women who would cut him for his theft, or manically try to marry him off! “Fuck you. Fuck you!”.
And then there was, ahead, the growing lights of Bara. A sputtering lake of torches and lamps beyond the dark farmlands, the trees even further beyond it illuminated by its sly growing boundaries even as the tops of them leered towards and over the top of its great walls. Fuck you the different lands were also saying as they butted against each other. If he could just keep running, he could make it there… and then let the bloody great gates there could trap him for the dogs! Fuck you!
Then he was flying, a misstep taking him into the air before dumping him down onto the rough stones of the king’s road. Instinctively he rolled and brought up his arms to protect his face, his neck, just as the lead dog snapped its jaws at him, catching his forearm in its maw and grinding down on it!
“Argh!” Harl screamed, feeling its teeth going down to the bone, its hind-claws tearing into the rest of him as it scrabbled about on top of him. The other dogs came and butted against the lead runner as Harl’s body swam in pain, but the leader growled at them, that terrifying sound muffled by Harl’s red drenched arm. Harl screamed again, battering against its face with his free hand, avoiding the dog to the left trying to snap its jaws shut on that arm too. “Arrgh!” He roared into the pack leader’s face, almost pulling his torn arm towards himself to bring his mouth right into the dog’s face. “Arrrrrgh!”
The beast’s jubilant growl changed tone then, something like uncertainty merging with its deep throated joy. And then it was shaking free of him, releasing his arm and backing away, its red tongue lolling out of it mouth as its muzzle creased in greater confusion. A great huffing followed, with a whine, just stopping the three stalking dogs who were moving closer for their turn on the ash white boy. Then it was spitting and hacking, retching out the blood its tongue was washed with. Harl’s blood.
“Yeah, fuck you.” His voice was weak, his sight dimming as he lay on the jagged stones and pebbles, his arm a torn and shredded mess. “Choke on me.”
More whining, the dog’s tail hiding away before it turned and ran, loping oddly with its body still shuddering. The other three came sniffing around him, cautious suddenly. The dog kisses he’d had in Bara from the guard dogs he’d charmed on different jobs for Jerekyn had not prepared him for the jabs of dog’s nose and claws as they dug into his side, his face, trying to understand. But then they were gone too, heading back towards the pig farm where this nightmare had started.
Harl groaned, holding his arm to him as he tried to at least get to sitting up on the cold road, adrenaline still shaking him like the dog had shaken as it had run away. He looked down at the bloody mess of his arm, seeing flaps of skin through his shredded tunic where the dog’s teeth had cut away triangles of flesh and left him gushing red blood turned black in the night. “Fuck me.” He said, this time more half-heartedly as he cursed himself. He threw in a couple of choice curses for the bastard gods, following up quickly with a couple of swift begging prayers. “I’m going to bleed out, could you do anything?” He asked of them, “Shadowed One, help out a dying boy won’t you? Hide me from the light. Crowned One, please bring your mercy. Mama always liked you.”
He curled himself around his arm and rocked away the sobs bubbling up through him. “I’m sorry Fysiwon, I’m sorry.”
Closing his eyes tight, he saw the long road South to Liosinium as a long strip of light running ahead of him, surrounded by dark trees full of woods-voln, each sharply shaped face watching him as he walked there with a bloody short sword in his one hand and a shield in his other hand. Each face was mocking the toy soldier walking slowly in his two left shoes, whispering to their nearest to share harsh jokes and cruel asides. Harl looked ahead, and the road became a curling lion’s tail flicking with contempt, now trying to shake him off. But he could not be shaken off because Eris Atta-Sutith walked beside him, glaring up at him through her bird’s nest of tangled dark hair, Harl’s mother’s green eyes shining in her face. And Cole was on his other side, his long dark coat and wide brimmed hat shrouding him in darkness, a roarer in one hand and his compact crossbow in the other. His words came bubbling through the air, as though spoken through sea water, Prophecies are mother’s milk stories for the feeble minded… This one will be here when I get back
Harl found himself falling, expecting dogs on him again, instead finding his hands on the sharp stones of the road, blood dripping down and staining them. “Ungh!” He groaned, forcing his boneless legs to bring him to his feet, staggering to the side of the road where a briar tangle of gorse hedgerow made a boundary for rolling fields of cabbages or some other small round vegetable growing just above the ground. Their shapes were just visible through the bushes, seeming to Harl to be rows and rows of heads of men, Lios’ armies of voln, marching through the earth. Always marching for the god-king, even when buried to their necks in the dirt, even in their death. He found his way to the sharp points of the hedgerow, his good arm scratched and pricked as he walked its edge, teetering on the steep bank as his feet eventually brought him to a burrow back there in the soil. A fox had made its way into these farm-voln lands, hunting chickens maybe, and in an insane moment had tried to make its home right here on the edge of the king’s road. Harl felt the rounded edges of it, pushing past the barrier of the briar. It was small, too small for him to get into, but if he pushed past the branches he would at least be hidden from the road as he curled up on himself in its entrance. He found his way through, gaining more scratched to his face as he did, nursing his arm as he walked on his knees to the small dark space.
Bara. Tomorrow he would make it to Bara, he thought, fire and ice in his veins and running across his skin as he sweat. Hush, said his mother, brushing his hair from his forehead and placing a soft kiss there, hush sweetling. Bleed and live. Sure as blood is blood, you will bleed and live.
Then he fell into darkness, hidden from the light by the Shadowed One.