Well, that was a horribly tiring two weeks. A fortnight makes for serious writing withdrawal, apparently. Onwards!

 

The beasts! The beasts in the beyond. They’re coming, get away – they’re coming for me!

Unknown

 

 

The sun set long before they got to the pit. Sarea watched the moon rise. Only Old Jimny is this far out, she thought, and it didn’t much surprise her. He laid traps for the boys that stole fruit from his orchard, too. He said to her, once, that if they could get out without being strung up from a branch by the foot or caught in some net or another, they’d earned their loot.

The cart finally stopped in one of the outer fields, bordered on three sides by open woodland. There were two bonfires, burning hard and bright, on either side of a black void. On the left a group of people huddled together. Jimny’s farmhands, she guessed. On the other two men waited, gesturing at each other.

“I’m late,” Mistress Junker said, jumping down. She looked back at Sarea. “You’ll stay out of the way, dear, won’t you? Let us calm Treeback first.”

Sarea nodded. “I’ll do my best.”

Mistress Junker hurried towards the fire.

“What’s going on?” Ionas said to her, voice low.

“The village has a council to deal with big issues,” she said. “Mistress Junker, Farmer Jimny, and Master Treeback. Tineke used to have a say, too, but I don’t.”

He huffed. “So you sit down and wait like a good little dog.”

She frowned at him. In the moonlight, his face seemed to be set like a rumbling storm, eyes in shadow, jaw set. “What would you have me do?”

“Meet the hound,” he said, and slid off the cart. He spun around, coat whirling. “Unless you’d rather sit and hide?”

“Actually go up to it?” she said, clutching at her basket. “But – you said – it’s trapped, isn’t it?”

“Trapped like a fox in a hen house. Come on.” He held his hands out. “I’ll keep you safe.”

I can trust him, she decided, and let him help her off the cart.

“You’re freezing,” Ionas said. He pulled his coat off, draping it around her. “And you told me off for not having a coat.”

She frowned at him. He got to tell her off when they were swept away before she could reach her cottage?

“Lesson one,” he said, linking the fingers of his right hand with her left. “Know your demon. Let’s go have that look.”

They squelched across the field in the mud, struggling towards the pit up a shallow sloping hill. As they rose, the ground grew drier. On the edge of the pit, a gaping darkness of muddy ground baked hard by the bonfires. Sarea glanced around, but no one seemed to see them. Mistress Junker was stood with her arms on her hips; Master Treeback, a sturdy, tall man, had his hands curled into fists. She shivered in the fire-warm air.

“Hello, you old beauty,” Ionas said, leaning over the edge. She stayed back a step, but she could still see the black lump in the depths, sat by the torn and bloody remains of the cow. It smelled like it had been cooked, and when the hound stood, she could see why. It did have fire for claws. They glowed a dull red, and dug into the ground.

The hound had bright yellow eyes and it was looking at her.

Her legs refused to move. She just stood there and admired its triangular face and viciously sharp muzzle. Its body was whip-thin, starvation thin, but no ribs showed. The fur wasn’t black but a dull grey, sparks of red showing through when it moved. And it moved. It prowled forwards, snarling, and she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t do a thing –

Hands yanked her around.

She inhaled, tasting cooked meat, ashes, a snap of autumn breeze. It might as well have been a summer breeze, full of flowers and spices. Her whole body shook, but Ionas, hands around her elbows, didn’t so much as tremble. He stared at her, into her, until her shaking stopped.

“Lesson two,” he said. “They can be fought.”

“How can you fight that?” she snapped back at him. “If they make you just stop, how can you fight them?”

He smiled. She didn’t know anything could look so beautifully dark. “Anything can be fought, Sarea Sahar.”

“Sarea, my dear, are you all right?” Mistress Junker appeared to Ionas’ side, hands worrying at each other. “It’s a bit of a shock, seeing one of them -”

“Good mistress,” Ionas said, letting go of Sarea, “If you’ve seen more of them, I’m stunned you’re alive. That is no wolf.”

“If it isn’t a wolf, what is it?” Mistress Junker said, just as old Farmer Jimny said, “Can’t be a wolf. Too damn calm,” behind Sarea.

She tried to step back, out of the way, but Ionas caught her again and tugged her towards him, sliding and arm around her waist. It was odd but, she thought, comforting. He radiated confidence, every inch of him, face softened from its hardness, the thumb of his other hand tucked into his belt.

“I saw a wolf, last time,” Jimny said. “Threw itself around and howled like anything. Tried to jump out, even. That’s why this pit is dug so deep.”

And well as he might have, Sarea thought. He had a short white beard and no hair on his head. He still stood tall, though, with only a stick to show his true age.

Ionas nodded. “They’re magical constructs,” he said. “Made to act like fiend hounds. Can’t jump worth a -”

“Do me a favour and don’t lie to me, sonny boy,” Jimny said, gripping his stick handle with both hands. “Tell the truth or leave.”

“And take that damned girl with you,” Master Treeback snapped, stomping up to them.

“Keep your head on, lad,” Jimny said. Treeback snapped his mouth shut, glaring at him.

Ionas sighed. “They’re demon dogs,” he said. “Fire for claws, too smart for anyone’s good, and they tear through anything in sight. There’s usually nine in a pack, and they don’t trigger a trap they don’t want to be in.”

“Well, then.” Jimny smiled pleasantly. “Now, who are you, sonny boy?”

 

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