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The Second Turtledove
When morning comes I know that I am not well enough to travel.
There is nothing for it but to stay at this man's dwelling until I have regained my strength and recovered from whatever illness it is that has overtaken me. If I could go back, I would, but now there is no question of my usefulness no matter how the men and hounds might receive me. When I try to rise I cannot keep the whimpers in the back of my throat. I feel swollen and tender where my lower jaw meets my neck, and my paws are numb. Numb and cold, I discover when I lick them in an attempt to get them tingling and working.
As I chew at my knuckles and foot-webbing I try to work out all the dirt without causing myself even more pain in my jaw. Bits of dirt and wind-scoured rubble wash away under my drying tongue, and I find that some of my skin is dry and flaking off as well. Ridges of bumpy skin have arisen at the dry sites between my toes, and licking only makes the spots raw.
I can hear the man shifting around in his tent, then a strong scent of his sweat and breath as he slowly rolls over and sits up. He comes outside in that halting walk and leans on a rock to look at me.
"How are you, Dog? Can I help you with that dirt?"
My new acquaintance shuffles over to me, holding out one pale hand as a request for acceptance. His other arm supports him against a stone as he walks. I agree by simply continuing my grooming and my thoughts. He bends down close to me.
"Show me your paw."
I let him run a hand over my paw, and this time I barely feel his own skin. I touch my nose to the back of his fingers and find them as cold as the day before. Little flakes of skin attach themselves to my moist nose and leave rings of white spots on the man's hand. I look up at his face.
He returns the look for a moment, then suddenly his eyes narrow and he leans closer to my lean, long head. He hesitates with both hands hovering over me, then drops his palms to the sides of my skull and inspects the short coat over my muzzle. I wait, wondering at this action. I have never had a human approach me in this way before. "Good girl..." The cloaked man rubs the short hairs gently, then sits back with a sigh denoting some emotion, though I am not sure what. He smells only like a just-awakened person.
"The sores... On your paws, and-- and on your face. And how do you feel when you walk? I can _see_ how you feel."
The man leans close to me again, sad-smelling. I reach to him with my nose and almost lick him, but again refrain. "I was valuable once too, you know."
I know it is polite to listen to the man, even if I do not understand his people's words. I move to relieve the pressure on some of my bones and keep my gaze fixed on his face. He continues speaking: "They didn't-- I mean, your master didn't _send_ you away, did he? Are there camps where the dogs are treated as human? What sort of home could have given you this--" he raises the pendant from my neck "-- to wear?"
He pauses, and thinks for a moment. Then he looks at me, with an expression I have seen in the huntsmens' eyes. He is trying to ascertain whether I understand a command or a word. Only he has not given a command. I stiffen, waiting, showing that I am receptive. He is silent. Then, he removes the cloths from his head and face. I get the distinct feeling that I should do something in response to this, but I do not know what. I regard him searchingly. What do you want? What?
My companion's face is pale and weathered at the same time. Over the upper halves of his cheeks and the bridge of his nose spreads a mask of oddly-textured skin. It looks as though he were masked like a wolf. His hair is thin, interspersed with more of the strange, almost raw surfaces.
"Look," he says. "Do you see?"
I stare at him, wondering.
"Your body... Is the same as mine. It is the same. Because I am unclean--" he points to the rings of skin on his balding head "--I stay out here, making my home away from all who used to value me. Were you sent away too? Or do those who mourn you pray each day that you will be found? Prayer has done nothing for me. And the spirits come on one night or another, never the same, always proving me as a vessel for anger and... I am weakening."
The quiet desperation in his voice pulls at me, and I wish to do what he desires, but I cannot understand. If only he would use a word I know! I wriggle closer to him and listen for more.
He sighs. "I don't know where you go when you go home. But you cannot go like this. You may as well stay here. Dogs are no filthier than I am."
I sigh in my turn. There is nothing I can do unless I get a clearer message from him.
"Hungry?" The man stands laboriously, muffling his face again as he does so.
"It's a walk for me," he says. "You stay here and-- guard the camp or something."
I sense some tone of humor in the words, and I don't quite know whether to wag or act ashamed. I watch the man move away and reach for the bucket, and realize suddenly that he is leaving the small camp. I force myself to rise quickly and follow him. He must take me if he is going hunting!
"No. Stay here."
I approach on my creaky legs.
"Stay here." The man holds up a hand in my face and I halt. I see. Stay here.
I watch from the lowest, smoothest rock I can find as the human shuffles off. I gauge the sun and find that although it is not time for wolves to be about, neither dawn nor dusk, it would be well to run the perimeter. There seem to be no other dogs here assigned to this task.
I clamber slowly off the rock and map out what I suppose to be the general dwelling area of the man. I begin to trot, but soon find that this will be impossible before long; I try a far-reaching walk, but my steps must be held back or my limbs complain distractingly.
I have made a circuit of half of the camp when the man comes back.
I smell water long before he gets to me, and drool in anticipation. The next thing I smell is meat, mutton, probably wrapped in something to contain the scent. The man and I approach each other at even speeds and meet by the fire pit.
"There is that," he says, setting down the water that weights his arm and shoulder, "And there is that." He lays the meat to one side and goes about the task of building a fire. In his illness he is slow, and I wait, salivating, for the time when he will offer some food and water to me.
At last we sit facing each other over a small flicker of heat surrounded by the cold ashes of other flames. He dips his fingers in the water and looks to me; "Drink. Go ahead."
I watch the fingers lift and reach towards me with trickles of clear water on them, and immediately plunge my face into the bucket and lap until I feel full of liquid. The sudden, cool sensation makes me dizzy and a little nauseated, and I sit back to try and let my head clear.
"Here you go." My benefactor divides the cooked meat and tosses a piece to me.
I snap it up and swallow it eagerly, and instantly am so nauseous that I barely make it several feet away before my innards contract, sending the undigested food in a wet pile on the dust, water trickling away almost as clear as when I first drank it. I lick half-heartedly at the trickles, but I feel almost too weak to swallow anything once more. Instead, I return apologetically to the fire and lie down before it. It warms my joints... I take comfort as if I were an elderly dog.
I smell something odd, and flutter my eyelids until my sight is clear enough to make out the shimmer of liquid on the man's masked cheeks. From the opposite side of the flame he looks like the wolf that came from nowhere, back at home in the secure kennel. The shimmer moves to his chin and disappears, just as he covers his mouth with that cloth.
"You will starve," he speaks through the cloth, "Just as I am starving."
I feel too weak to move closer and try to understand his speech.
"What else happens? Do they come to you, too?"
I let the words waft into my ears and over my head and do what they will do.
"I hit my wife. Now only those who never cared for me, even when I was clean, bring the food outside the camp. To all others I am dead... To them I always was dead..."
I hear a sound as though the wind has roughened, somewhere in the rocks into the sun. I know what that means. A flock of birds, somewhere nearby. Hawks may be set upon birds! The master's hawks! I struggle rapidly to my feet and search the sky. There. Doves. The little ground-shaded ones, picking among the rocks such a short way away!
I eagerly raise my eyes higher, hoping for the silhouette of a hawk. There are none.
"Birds, yes. If it ever came to that, I could not catch one.
"In my nightmares, for I have no dreams but nightmares anymore, the priest comes out to examine me, and I draw back my cloak and have nothing but a smooth, healthy head to show him. He sends me out, every night in my dark dream, to catch the doves for my sacrifice, so that I can come back to my family in the camp. But it seems that my legs, and arms, and insides are as destroyed as ever they were, and I can catch only one dove. Always just the one dove. And then there is no other animal to choose from, no sacrifice. So there is nothing for it but to let the dove go. And then my hands are tied behind my back as though I will never be able to move them again, and the priest's mouth turns to silent stone. And that's that. Everything stands still and that's the end of the dream."
I hunger after the image of hawks, but there is no such image. The skies remain open and the doves peck among the rocks, heedless of myself watching them.
"I would _never_ strike my wife. It is the evil spirits, _evil_. But they are in you, too, already. What will carry them away?"
I pull myself upright, as stealthily as possible. The flocking birds show no fear. I will move slowly, then run and capture one. If the master has not sent his men, and this man who is here with me now has no dogs, I will be the proper hound here until I am well enough to reach my home. I can catch a little dove without a hawk. I have done it before.
The man whispers. "What are you doing?"
I turn my head in response to the question, but as he does not make me hold steady I straighten again, towards the birds.
The fire crackles faintly, wind whistles intermittently over the edges of the rocks. The doves eat busily. I can hear them scratching, and see which ones make likely targets. I pick one. I leap, and run.
Everything about me feels as though it is ripping. The breath I take in a gasp of need drives pain into the curves of my ribs. I tear into the flock of doves, but even as I reach for the one right under my nose, I know I will not be able to snap it up; the prey fear-chuckles and flaps frantically out of my reach as I struggle merely to widen my jaws far enough to enclose it.
Aches and the inflamed weakness of my mouth and chest overtake me; after that briefest of sprints I am heaving and panting. I droop, swaying, and just as I must collapse the man once again catches me.
"You can't catch it, it's flown for good now," he murmurs, setting me inside the shelter of stretched skin. "Now stop doing that to yourself, or where will I find the strength to keep lifting you?"
I begin to relax, welcoming the touch of the man. My nose runs with that salty fluid and I lick it, dazed with weariness. I focus on the man, who stands above me.
He smells of blood. Peering further, I see the smudge of fluid that his muffler must have soaked from his nose.
For the first time I realize that I am capable of bleeding. Both of us are bleeding. Both of us are sick.
Well, we must be made well. The packs will not take us back otherwise. I slide further over from him on the packed dirt, inviting a close sleeping arrangement so that we will stay warm.
The man sits down next to me.
"It's the same. I am no better than you, you are no better than me. Except..."
He fingers again the smudged metal decoration on my neck.
"Tell me something."
I sigh, leaning my head on the seated man's knee.
"Tell me something." The voice is desperate.
I look up to see the penetrating eyes fixed pleadingly on my face. "Is it good, your home? Do they care for you well? Are you _happy_?"
I _wish_ to tell you what you want to know. Ask again. Ask again. I do not recognize your words.
Water scented with skin and blood runs from the corners of the man's eyes. For a fleeting moment I see the wolf, hungrily gaping, but I force the sight away. There is a wolf-- there is not a wolf...
"Don't-- I saw your eyes go blank, go dark. They're there. Aren't they. The-- men with knives and gibbering things. Demons. Things. They're there."
I listen to the running voice. The man sounds frightened-- of the wolf? Was it there? I raise my head and growl at the space around us, in case of wolves...
The mask of the ill man is all that I see of any desperate animal.
"When you go..."
Again the man takes my head in his hands. He strokes me through the caked-on saliva and dust and snarled hairs.
He surrounds my skull with his cold fingers and rocks it gently, drawing me into his gaze whenever, in my weakness, I slip from him.
"Take me with you.
"When you go, take me with you."
With that, the man lets me go.
We sink to the dirt floor beside each other, tired and floating. The skin ripples and catches and ripples over and over above our heads. The wind whistles. He sleeps, and I sleep.
In the night I regain a little of my strength, enough at least to stagger out into the sunshine the next morning. We slept more than I have been used to. I thirst terribly, but the thought of what happened yesterday keeps me away from the water bucket.
I can still walk. Best do the perimeter.
"Are you up?" A quiet voice scrapes from beneath the tent covering. I see the man's face, low down, peer into the harsh daylight at me.
"Ah, yes... Go. Go on."
I watch until he withdraws into the shelter, then pick up the perimeter where I left it last time. I make myself take step after step, watching all the time for any threats, although I doubt my own sight.
I take a trail mostly lined by grasses, as within that are the trod-upon areas that mean the man occupies them, and without are the creatures not part of the pack. I blink frequently, forcing out the dry dust and light and attempting to let in anything that might be a real shape other than a stone or a clump of grasses. If something moves, or is hunched in an odd posture, it must be investigated. But today all the stones seem foreign, all the grasses fast and stormlike in the curls of wind.
The sun rises, traverses the middle of the sky and begins its descent. It was harsh when I left the camp; it is cold and harsher still now. I continue my walk.
The light runs off the sides of stones in confusing and distracting patterns. I see things, then do not see them. Wings, without a bird to cast their shadow. Legs, without deer.
Suddenly I see a hare.
It is truly there, its wind-ruffled coat shining over the back, chewing some sort of plant and watching nothing with its huge eyes. Its ears let light through, and I see them twitch.
I leap. There is nothing to wait for, no hounds nor men nor horses near, and back at the camp is a man who will come for this prize. I must catch it and wait for his claim upon it.
As I leap, and feel the short burst from my hindquarters, I recall the weakness that caused me to fail before. I know I will fail this time, as well. Before I hit the ground in my running stride, before the hare realizes I have given chase, I allow the darkness to come over me in a solid sheet.
I am unconscious, yet I am-- I awake.
I awake as my feet hit the ground.
The hare starts, kicks and streaks away between the jagged rocks.
I keep my haunches well in line, my legs beneath me in powerful form, and twist after him, making every turn right on top of him. I move as the dove who escaped me, flitting among the rocks until the hare, heart beating rapidly as rippling cloth, turns back to escape me and jumps dead into my jaws.
I clamp down once and snap the life from it. One shake for good measure, then I drop it and wait for the man.
I feel fine. I cock my head at the limp hare, but it is only a perfectly normal dead hare. I scan the horizon. Nothing.
I dance, circling exuberantly in my impatience in waiting for the man to come and take his prize. My polished jewelry sparkles in the glaring sun, my coat dances with me, and I almost bark as I wait.
Finally I run out of patience. I am, after all, only a puppy. I scoop up the hare in my lean jaws and begin trotting easily in the direction of my--
The voice in my head is clear, and in words I understand. I begin to look around for the source, but the voice reproves: There is no source.
Go home. There is little to be seen at camp.
A single, passing image of a wolf, pulled down on a hunt, crumpled on the ground, disturbs my thinking, but the voice dismisses it immediately. There is nothing to be seen at the man's camp. Nothing.
Home is that way.
So I run for home.