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The Second Turtledove
I do not know where I am.
I remember the farrier coming, my caretaker discussing my condition with him... I remember the drool running down the outside corners of my mouth and sticking in my fur in little ringlets.
I stared hard at the farrier, that I remember, and then...
Then I snapped at the kennelman, when he held me for examination. My joints and chest _hurt_ so... I didn't know how to tell him... The farrier said I looked mad, but it didn't make sense, and indeed my caretaker as he held me struggling in his arms said there was no _way_ I could be mad, there were no mad creatures about of late at all.
What then? What did I do then, or where did they put me?
I rise up halfway on one elbow and look around. The drool has dried on my coat and the neck-ring has caught in some of my hairs, as if I have been running. Yes, I _have_ been running. There are spheres of dirt ground into my paws as if I have galloped down the mountainsides on a chase-- only what was I chasing? And where are the men to come and retrieve it?
I see nothing but rough ground. Stones rise up to either side of me, and ahead I see rubble of the type where marmots live. Perhaps I was pursuing marmots? Why, then, do I not remember leaving the kennels with men looking for marmots? I try to rise, and must do so slowly. I am sensitive all over, far more so than usual. I find that one of my claws is broken. Well, that will just have to be clipped by my caretaker when I get home. If there was something I was chasing, surely I either caught it or there are others of my pack nearby...
Unless-- no, I do not hunt yet with a hawk. I do not know how to handle myself yet. Or do I not recall the rest of the procedures?
Either way, I look up at the sky, scanning it for the shapes of the master's hawks.
There are none.
I am alone. The sky shows it to be afternoon, but of a day which could be the day I left or was taken from the kennel, or another day. Where are the other dogs? I make up my mind that if there are none, I will simply trot home. If there are others, I will stay with them until the men arrive.
This having been decided, I climb a rock to get a better view of the surrounding terrain. It's not easy, though. I am used to jumping up with a good push from my hindquarters, but the muscles complain, and give way when I ignore the discomfort. I try to clamber up with my claws, and after a time of scrabbling and panting I get to the vantage point I desire.
I cling to the rock and survey the area. Nothing. No dogs from my kennel, no dogs or horses of any kind, at all. A hare stirs, wondering whether or not to flee, and I briefly consider chasing him. I command myself to hold steady, and the hare creeps down into a crevice in the stones in that lopsided way of hares. No use in chasing him; there is better food to be had at home, and this is not hare country for the men and horses. Surely we came here for marmots. But there are none.
Silly me, I must have let myself get lost. Well, nothing for it but to go back, and quickly, before I forget any more... It doesn't make any sense. My joints are worse... Did I fall? That would explain the aches wrapping around me so late in the day. Would it explain my lost visions? That I do not remember the rest of the morning?
I shake my head cautiously. It's no use trying to understand such things on an empty stomach and sore paws.
I leap off the rock and crumple in a heap at its foot.
For a moment I lay, curled and stunned. Then I stretch my limbs experimentally... Good. I pull myself into some semblance of a dignified stance and gain my bearings. If there were anyone to see, I would be embarrassed. There is no excuse for taking such missteps, unless one is sick, and I am most certainly _not_ sick. I think I need my daily groom. My caretaker had better be waiting for me when I get back.
I start off painfully over the sharpened ground. It gets difficult to bend, lift and rework the curves of my limbs, so I step on all the pebbles and try to correct for the unsteadiness every time a toe rolls sideways off a stray one. My unbrushed fur rubs against the insides of my flanks and forelegs. I do not stop to chew at any of the various sources of discomfort. My kind are above pain, we are above weather, we are above our own weakness.
Whenever I reach a stretch of dirt I put on a little more speed and gait properly for a time, yet still my hips feel swollen and creaky, not as they should be in one of the animals of my master; we twist and fly on mountains and in desert, nothing fells us; if anybody visiting my master saw me now I would be an embarrassment.
I almost give a little cry before I realize what I am doing and snatch it back from the roof of my mouth.
By the time the sky is sandy with evening textures and the wind is slightly chill, I am hobbling rather than trotting. My light neck decoration feels heavy, my head hurts as though my temples are being pressed upon, and trickles of that salty fluid from my nose are seeping in between my lips and touching the curves of my tounge. I pant, and the liquids dry and cool, but still the trickling goes on and this dries sticky and thick.
It is something like the flavor of a prey animal, only nothing has been killed. I feel hot and chilled at the same time.
Still, I know this direction is home. Whether I am in trouble or not is of little concern; I am a great dog, a good dog at least, and they will be worried, frantic if I do not--
Worried. Frantic. Shouting. Yes. Was it _I_ who ran away? And came here... And collapsed. Exhausted. Yes. But I would _never_... There was never a wolf, either. And there was no deer with hollow eyes, the one I was chasing when I leapt from the kennelman's arms and tore down the tiled hall of the building.
They were _never_ _there_. The other dog said so, but I would not listen. If there had been a deer, the men would have seen it. They are smart men, with good sight. And the other dogs would have snarled at the wolf that came to my box.
Oh... Oh-- I _am_ sick.
Can I not go back? The other dogs will keep me away. The master will grieve.
I was just dreaming, like at night, only when I was awake.
But in dreams we do not really run. We wake up where we slept, and feel rested, not... Aching and cold and... I _am_ sick. They will turn me away.
She can't be _mad_...
I suddenly feel it, from all around. I feel as though I am floating, yet my feet still carry me over the ground. My back is too stiff and heavy, my skull is too light. And from all around comes the pressing sense of wolves, masked and scrawny, wiry, ravenous. I panic. I try to run, but when I force my legs into a rapid stride I double up on myself and roll into a crashing stop at the side of a jagged boulder that suddenly looms in my path. The wolves, impossible as the one in the kennel, approach and fade, approach and fade, even as I close my eyes. I seem to see the pointed hooves of a stag driving at my forehead, then with a stabbing pain they disappear. I hear voices of men I do not know. I try to raise my head to see them, but something-- my own weakness?-- holds me down.
If there were ever men there, they do not come for me. I try to snarl, to warn away any strange men who would come near, but only the slightest whistle of wind touches my ears. I suppose darkness falls, as it does every night. I whimper, for once not holding it back. It's not supposed to _be_ this way. If my box would only close around me now... If only a hawk from my master's house would find me, and land to show the spot... As I lie here like the corpse of a meager catch.
How far did I run? It is my responsibility. I ran, I must go back.
I cannot even move my legs.
My bedraggled hair tosses in the swirls of wind that reach in amongst the rocks. I try not to think about being hungry. Soon my mind empties completely.
Someone touches me.
My bones are so stiff and my eyelids so heavy that at first all I can make out is a whiff of strong human scent through the film of discharge on my nose.
I shudder. I must have been unconscious. I did not hear the individual approach, but I hear him now as he pulls back swiftly, startled by the shaking of my muscles under my skin.
I try to blink, and it does take several tries. Finally, though, I clear my eyes and force my neck to twist so I can look at the man.
Instantly I mistrust him, but quickly realize that is because I cannot see his face. I am always being reprimanded at home for balking when the hunters pull cloths over their faces. I try to pull to my feet, to put on a better face for whoever this is. It will do no good at this point to drive him away... This is not my master's land, I have never seen it before. This man stands over me and may well be in command of this land. As soon as I can stand and walk, I will head home...
It all comes back to me. Again. I cannot go home. I am ill, a threat to the others, useless. My place in the line of hounds has been emptied. I will not be a part of the future of my-- of course I will.
I grip the earth with my claws and scrabble quickly, gaining my legs and standing so I can shake out the sleep and dust from the night.
"Heh," says the man.
I whirl and gaze at him. The quick motion causes me to weave slightly, and a scent of question and concern wafts over from the man, who has propped himself against a boulder. I do not recognize the words he uses, but I know from the intonation that it is different from any patterns my master and the huntsmen and caretakers use. Others have visited my master's kennels and spoken strange words, so this man must be from a strange place as they are. He smells only of dust and windblown clothes and himself and-- something else. Sickness. He, too is ill. I hang back and listen to the connected sounds coming from his covered mouth.
"What are _you_ doing out here? An old dog who ate one too many rotten mice, eh? Too bad you're so scrawny."
What does that tone of voice mean? I cock my head, and at the natural expression my temples feel again as though a stone has rolled to one side in my head.
"Heh, no matter, I couldn't eat you anyway."
The man offers a hand, and I wriggle my nose slightly to try to smell it without seeming overly social. I keep my eyes fixed on the flaking rock surface behind the man, until he chirps to me and moves his fingers just a bit. I reconsider. This man is the only one here, and I am the only dog. Perhaps it would be all right to just return the greeting. If he does anything the master would not like, I will run.
A shiver runs through my head, from nose to ears and on down the sides of my neck, as I carefully reach and give the upheld hand a proper sniff.
"What kind of a dog are you? Like those mongrels that hang around the camp, only shaggier and skinnier. What are you, some kind of rat-dog?"
I sniff the palm of his hand, picking up no humans other than himself, and a few traces of goat and lamb. Is he a goatherd? If so, where are the spotted, bleating goats? There is nothing here but us and the wind. I stare directly at his face until I catch his eye.
"What?" The sound is questioning, but it is I who need answers. What land is this? May I be on my way? Is there food to be had for the journey?
"What, what are you looking at me that way for?"
One of the man's eyes is clear and penetrating. The other seems to be lined with veins, and tends to list to one side. I keep mine locked on them, and as I do so I sense the close approach of the hand that reaches from within the folds of his kid leather coverings. I wait, motionless, and very gradually the man connects with the fine fur on my neck and brushes it with a fingertip.
I can feel the cold of his fingers through my thin coat. It feels familiar, somehow, and frightening, but the touch is friendly. I make one step towards the man, placing my foot carefully for as much comfort as possible.
He looks down, still stroking my neck. "Are you hurt? Got a thorn in your foot? Then you can't be chasing livestock, eh, gonna have to slink off to wherever mutts go to hide when they're beat."
I nose the man's arm, taking in breaths of the scent off his clothing and getting no closer to an answer as to why he is out here, horseless, dogless... He has been outcast, perhaps, useless to the pack? If I am as sick as he, and he is alone, then there is no hope for me, anymore than for him. Yet surely I could still guard the perimeters, from a distance, if I can just gain the strength to get back on my path and climb the mountain.
He has found the chain that my caretaker placed on my neck, the one that smells of my master. It is streaked with saliva that dried during my run, but still it glitters when drawn out from my body.
"Where did you get _that_?"
I nudge his wrinkled clothing and wait for him to admire the pendant.
He holds the small weight, turns it over, his muffled face surely open-mouthed, for a circle of air puffs out the covering cloth. Only his eyes show, and they are fixed to the neck-ring.
He stares for some time, then again his strained voice sounds: "Can't be. Where would such a thing come from?"
Regarding my head and ears critically, the man gives me a little prod. I lean into him, but he pokes me again until I move to the side. "Stand here, so I can get a look at you. Never seen the like. So. A... heh."
I wait patiently while the voice runs into disbelief. "A _valuable_ dog.
"A _valuable_... Well, I never have. No, I never have. Who gave that thing to you? Where are they now? Did you run away? Were you taken from him?"
From where I stand as he looks at me, I can see that the man does not straighten his shoulders and neck, as if he is old or the motion hurts him.
The wind picks up and ruffles my fur, but cannot reach and refresh the oily, clumped areas close to my skin. Time to be getting home for that groom. I turn towards the man, nodding my head in his direction as an acknowledgment before carefully picking my way over the ground in the general direction of home.
"You really _are_ hurt, aren't you." I hear the foreign voice again, and my ears unfold a little to listen, but no words seem identifiable in his language and I have already taken my leave.
"Are you going home?"
I pick my way painfully, wavering a little, but sure of the direction, if not my gait.
"Where is your home? Dog, where is your home?"
Dust swirls obscure, then reveal tiny patches of grass growing dryly amongst the rocks. This must be good territory for birds, hares and perhaps even deer. Although the thought of deer makes me cringe; I remember the awful not-deer that came at me in my vision.
"You can't make it. You're too weak."
I keep walking, trying to limp, but finding it impossible since all my joints have the same grating pains in them.
"Someone will come for you, unless you're _really_ lost. You'd better rest here."
My tongue lolls out, trying to cool an alternately chilled and hot body.
I am only getting worse. But perhaps I can make it to the outskirts of my master's territory before I rest.
The man slowly gets to his feet behind me. I hear the dirt pressed under his shuffling feet as he overtakes me, moving barely faster than I as he picks his way... The man comes up alongside me. I cannot outpace him, although he moves more slowly by far than even a tired or injured huntsman. I, one of the fastest young dogs ever seen in my master's pack, am lifted from the ground and carried back in the direction the man must have come from. I do not protest.
The arms wrapped carefully around my barrel hold me like a kid or a lamb. I feel the man's step falter frequently, but there is nothing I can do to improve his balance or make myself lighter, except to hang submissively and let my head rock slightly with each misstep. The relief to my feet and shoulders is so great that I almost, almost but not quite, lean my head back and lick this strange man in the same way I might kiss my caretaker at home. But this _is_ a stranger.
I ride quietly as he continues to hobble towards whatever goal he has in mind. I let my head fall into a rhythm of the man's steps, jerking only slightly, and slowly my eyes close.
"Good girl, good girl," the man speaks to me very quietly. "That's it, be still and we can both get some rest soon. Good girl."
I do not want to sleep, but much of the rest of the walk is unclear to me.
At last, I smell ashes and the sleeping place of the man who carries me. I open my eyes and look. There is a skin blowing, rippling in the wind, secured between two boulders as a shelter. The fire-pit has a lining of ashes, and there is a bucket for fetching water; I glance about and sniff the air for the sight or scent of a spring, but it does not seem to be near.
The man bends his knees and leans precariously as he lowers me to the ground. I find that he has placed me out of the wind, and suddenly I feel that I can sleep; there will be time later for motion and all I need right now is more rest. Immediately I let sleep spin and consume me, and as I do so I know the man is crawling under his skin shelter and relaxing as well.
In the morning I will surely be better.