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Posted on April 5, 2013

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I don’t remember what inspired me, but I decided to play a bit lose with the topic and went for a trio of atmospheric, dog-themed folk stories, complete with a touch of over-the-top, ye olde writing. I can’t really explain my fascination with Black Shuck, but this isn’t the last time you’ll be seeing him.

Dog Stories

It was mid-winter in the old country, when the short, silvery days are swallowed head and tail by the greedy night. Darkness reigned in the mountains and forest, planting its fingers in men’s hearts, not to be shifted until the coming of spring. There is a darkness in the folk of those lands too, one that lives behind the eyes and cannot be dispelled even by the golden days of summer.

A log popped in the fire on the inn’s hearth, sending the shadows cartwheeling madly around the corners of the room before they steadied themselves. The wind whistled, sounding very close beyond the old stone walls. The three men each fancied that they heard a distant cry carried on the storm like the baying of a hound on the hunt.

Erik raised his face from his tankard, the thick black beer of winter clinging to dark whiskers that were beginning to show the salt of age. “Y’here that?” he asked his younger companions, knowing that they did. Thomas and Christian nodded wordlessly. A mood to talk was on him, to fill the silence with a story, so he continued. “The hunt. Time was it ranged far – across the kingdom and beyond – but for years gone by it’s these lands, and these lands alone, that the Huntsman and his pack have haunted. Their master leads them out on nights when the storms dance in the hills hereabouts. Y’know why that might be?”

On cue, the other two men shook their heads, Christian shooting a nervous glance towards the door. Thomas gestured to the innkeeper for a fresh drink. “It’s a foul night for such stories, Erik,” he said. “But if you’re feeling the urge, I won’t be the one to stop you.”

Erik nodded, taking his words for assent.

“In my grandfather’s grandfather’s time, so the story goes, old Count Wolrad made a deal with the Huntsman for power and long life. Now deals with Old Hob always go the same: you get your temporal gifts in return for your spiritual immortality,” Erik paused to scratch his beard before continuing. “Now the count made the most of the gifts he had bought with his precious soul – drinkin’ and huntin’ and terrorisin’ the folk of his lands to his black heart’s content – but he began to feel the cold breath of death on his cheek. Hale and hearty he still was, living out the long years he had been promised, but winter fell upon his locks, turning them from black through salt-and-pepper to purest white.

“At this first sign of the passing years, the count began to truly feel his mortality for the first time. And sensing an end, no matter how far off, he began, as he should have long before, to think about the price he may have paid for his fun and games. He began to worry, more and more, until every waking hour he fancied he could feel the Reaper moving closer.

“The count may have been vain and greedy, but you wouldn’t dare call ‘im a fool. So it was that he hatched a plan to postpone the day that his bargain need be fulfilled; put it off forever if he had his way. Long years he searched for a solution, turning all his riches and waking hours to its solution. His library swelled as he gathered to him a thousand scrolls and books of secret knowledge, filling ‘is head with more dark wisdom than any man before or since good King Solomon has commanded. Still, he had no joy, not until the day he laid ‘is hand on The Book of the Hunt.

“You never saw a bigger book in all your life, bound up in red leather like dried blood. My granddaddy himself saw it as a young lad, sent on an errand for his pappy, back when the town still had dealings with the castle up on the heights. It was set on a stand, being too heavy for a man to hold before himself, and my granddaddy had barely glimpsed it when the old count shut the door in his face, so jealously did he guard the book.

“The book held within all the secrets of hounds and the hunt. The voices to speak to a mutt so that it will always obey. Potions that will make a dog run for a day and a night without rest. The habits of the Hounds of Heaven, who hunt the sky for stars and the missing feathers of angels. Dogs that range the sea’s dark depths and puppies so small you could fit a litter in the palm of a babe’s hand. But the count wanted none o’ this; the knowledge he sought was of the Hounds of Hell, his own master’s favourite pets, who ride with the Huntsman’s in the storm haunted mountains.

“So it was that with much care – for he would only get the one chance – he prepared a charm to catch a hound. The haunch of a mighty stag he needed, the king of its kind, slaughtered when the winds began to rise. Ever so carefully he removed the leg bone and replaced it with a mixture of rosemary and salt as proof against evil, and valerian for restfulness. He left it, still steaming in the cold air, at a crossroads where a wandering hound was sure to pass as the pack ranged the forests. Setting upon the tempting treat, the creature was soothed and stricken by the charm and spirited away by the watching count.

“He keeps it hidden to this day, bound in chains of silver to hide it from the sight and touch of its master, a hostage for the Huntsman’s favour. So he has bargained for greater power and immunity from his dark master’s claims, and the Huntsman ranges the hills and valleys vainly searching for ‘is lost pet, while the count shuns the company of man, living in fear of the day that his devices fail and the hunt rides to claim him for the waiting arms of hell.”

A rumble of thunder unfolded across the sky, carrying with it a howl that it seemed had never issued from the jaws of an earthly beast. Christian started suddenly, sinking back to his seat wearing a flush on his cheeks that showed darkly in the dim light.

“A grim tale for a grim night,” he said, forcing steadiness into his voice. “But hounds can aid as well as harm, and there’s few powers in this world greater than the loyalty of a mutt for his loving master.

“Not all masters are loving. Even the Huntsman cares for his beasts, but some men trade a hound’s affection for cruelty. Perhaps they are worse than Old Hob, who is evil as he was made to be where these men simply choose wickedness over kindness.

“One such man lived not far from here, a farmer with a plot of land that gave in abundance for him and his wife. He wanted for little, although the same could not be said for his lady. Now this man owned a dog, a shaggy briard like a spirit of goodness wrapped in soft golden fur. For a pastime he would beat the creature, loving the way its gentle heart would bring it slinking back to its master’s heel. How he treated his wife, I care not to say, although you might guess at the behaviour of such a man behind closed doors. On the darkest nights she would cling to the hound, the pair sharing in each other’s pain while the brute snored, and she would wonder if the man she loved had been spirited away on their wedding night to be replaced by this hateful changeling.

“It was a autumn day like any other, one of the last before winter sets in, and the woman’s husband had been out putting the finishing touches to the harvest, making sure that everything was prepared for winter. She spent the short day indoors, making sure that everything was as clean and perfect as ever, for one flaw in the keeping of the house was enough excuse to set the bad man raging.

“Like I said, the days were shortening, and when night came rushing in, so would her husband, who never tarried longer that he had cause to. But tonight was different. The woman lit her candles and stoked the fire to scare off the chill and the shadows, but still he did not return. ‘He must be out making sure there is no extra work for tomorrow,’ she told herself, thinking it strange, in so much as she thought of it at all. He had been late before, though it was not his habit.

“The evening lengthened, and she set her husband’s meal by the fire to keep it warm, but still there was no sign of him nor his faithful hound. Perhaps he had taken himself straight to the inn, though he had never done so before dinner in his life. The woman waited for him, tired buy not ready to brave being found abed when her not-so-better-half came rattling in. And so it was that eventually she slept where she sat.

“There was no sign of her man that morning, nor all the rest of the next day, and the woman began to worry, for though she feared and hated what he had become, she knew she could not keep the farm on her own. So it was that, when she heard a knock on the door after a second, restless night alone, she hurried to answer it with sick anticipation.

“The man who stood on the doorstep was unfamiliar to her, a golden-haired giant, features strong and even beneath the great beard and single, bristling eyebrow. He stared at her stupidly for a moment, before saying in a shy voice that he had come to look after her. She asked if he was a friend of her husbands, and if she was not entirely convinced when he told her ‘yes’, she had learned how to judge a man the hard way, and sensing a good soul, she invited him in.

“The man proved a great help, and clearly knew his way around a farm. At first he slept in the kitchen, curled up in on a pallet by the stove, but as winter wore on and her husband showed no sign of returning, the woman eventually invited him into her bed. They worked hard to keep things in order through the winter and the farm fared well.

“Spring may feel that it will never arrive, but eventually the thaw came, softening the ground and making it ready for the year ahead. The demands on the pair become greater, with the newcomer proving himself hardworking and competent and the woman feeling for the first time a partner, rather than a servant on the farm, and sharing in the hard day-to-day duties with new happiness.

“On the first day of the thaw, the woman took herself along to her vegetable patch to weed and plant for the coming year. Somewhere between the carrots and the cabbage, she struck something hard and alien buried beneath the soil. Thinking it a stone or broken tool she dug around it, only to uncover a hand that was hard and blue, still full of the icy heart of winter, reaching forth from its unmarked grave. She recognised it by a distinctive scar on its index finger, but it was not welcome in its familiarity. Shrugging, she covered it over again and marked it with a rude piece of board, so that she would not mistakenly plant her vegetables too near.

“Rising, she went to find her new man. And if he was particularly hairy, and his kisses were a little slobbery, he was faithful and kind and would never dream of raising a hand against her. The two of them were happy and prosperous for the rest of their lives.”

Christian fell silent. His companions’ smiles might have been broader but for the wind, which chose that moment to double in strength against their meagre shelter.

“A good tale,” said Erik with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. “A sweeter tale than mine, that’s certain. I’ll be sure to pet my dog and kiss my wife tonight and mean it more’n ever.”

They turned their eyes to Thomas, who shifted uneasily beneath their gaze.

“Your turn, Thom,” said Erik. “I’m sure you’ll make it a good one.”

Thomas smiled nervously. “Mine’s a true story. Not that I’m saying yours were not. But mine happened to me, so I know without doubt that every detail is the truth.

“I don’t know how I managed to lose myself so completely. I was still a boy, and had joined my father in the woods to hunt and set traps. I hadn’t long been old enough to join him; certainly it was recent enough to still be an exciting outing rather than a chore. I think I had paused to look at a fungus in the bole of an ancient spruce, like bubbles of blood oozing from the tree’s heart. I did not touch it – having been warned countless times of the dangers of unknown spores – but I got as close as I could. Winter was closing in, and the red seemed the only true colour in the dim forest.

“When I looked back, my father was gone. I called for him as loudly as I could, but heard no response but my own echo. To this day I don’t know how I lost him so thoroughly, for I swear to you now that I had not wandered far. Perhaps I had angered the spirits of the forest, or maybe they were just feeling needlessly cruel on that cold day. Whatever the case, I was alone and too far from home for comfort.

“Losing myself may not have been my fault, but for what happened next the blame fell squarely on me. I panicked, letting everything I knew of woodcraft and wisdom out of my head. The sun was hidden by branch and cloud and I did not think to inspect moss on the trees to set myself straight. Even if I had, I could not have said whether home was north, south, west or east. Not knowing where I was going, of course I should have stayed where I was in a place where my father might find me again. But frightened young bodies are hard pressed to keep still. I began to walk, guessing at the vague direction in which I thought he might have gone, calling his name. My fear grew, and I began to fancy that something followed in my footsteps, something that was not my father, not even human. Walking became a wild flight, my cries replaced by ragged breaths as I fled.

“It will come as little surprise to you that in my desperate and heedless flight through the dark woods, I eventually caught my foot in a root or fallen branch and tumbled head over heels. It took me a moment to understand that I was lying on my back, looking up at the slate sky though the trees. I don’t think I could have moved even had I not been exhausted and knocked senseless – either way, I just lay there in terror waiting to be swallowed up. The wait lengthened, and when my breathing and hammering heart had quietened down, I realised that there was no sound of pursuit. There never had been, I decided, feeling foolish and sensible for the first time in too long.

“I struggled into a sitting position and nearly fell down again. Across from me, but well out of reach, sat the greatest hound you ever saw, barely smaller than a horse, I swear it. So black you could barely make out his features, he was, with eyes the colour of bright rust – a creature of ill-omen and the promise of death. I froze, unsure what to do. The beast had certainly seen me, but it looked with placid eyes, and I prayed I was right in thinking that they did not look hungry. As if sensing my apprehension, the creature backed up several steps, which reassured me. At least it was an intelligent monster.

“A calm fell over the scene, and after some time had passed without death falling upon me, the hound began to approach me, slowly and with head lowered, much as the puppy I kept at home would do when it was uncertain. I was still afraid, but not knowing what else to do, I let him walk up to me and sniff my palm. He smelled of freshly turned earth and ivy. I petted him carefully and he seemed to like it.

“The winter light was dying, and I was reminded that, even if the great dog posed no danger, I was still hopelessly lost. The hound looked over his huge shoulder then, and I peered around him, seeing nothing there. He looked at me and turned away again. I thought he was trying to tell me something, but what it was I did not understand. He turned again, this time poking me with his cold, wet nose before twisting to view his back.

“Understanding dawned on me. ‘You want me to get on your back, boy?’ I asked. It was certainly big enough to support my scrawny body. The beast nodded, and I rose shakily and clambered aboard as he knelt before me. He stood, and I felt surprisingly secure. Before I could muster another thought, we were off.

“How can I describe that journey? Like riding midnight, it was, black and smooth and faster than you could ever dream. The forest swept past in a blur, the hound moving easily so that I was never touched by a branch or falling leaf. I laughed, leaving the sound far behind before it could reach my ears. We moved faster, if that was possible, and the world became a river about us, colours separating and flowing in shades and patterns that I never imagined and know I shall never see again. I forgot everything, where I was and how I had come to be here. All I knew was the beautiful, impossible moment.

“The familiar world crept back in around us, and it was almost with a sense of loss that I recognised that I was nearing home, the trees rising about us like old friends. The black hound slowed further, until it was at a walking pace that we emerged from the forest and saw the familiar four walls of family’s house. The beast stopped there, sitting down on his hindquarters, and I knew that it was time to get back to earth.

“I petted him once, feeling affection for the huge creation of story, and moved towards the house. I looked back once, and he let out a great howl that couldn’t have chilled my bones any more than it did had I not known him as my rescuer. There was death in that cry, but it was to life that the creature had delivered me. And so I turned and ran for home, and my mother’s tears and the sting of my father’s belt felt sweet to me as never before or since.”

Thomas ended his tale and drained his tankard. “My family never believed the story, but that’s how it was, I swear.”

His companions were silent for a moment before Erik spoke. “I believe you. On this night, such a tale is easy to believe.” Christian nodded his agreement.

“I remember that night,” said a voice behind Thomas, and he jumped in his seat. It was the barman, Markus by name. Standing with the fire to his back, he appeared like a creature of shadow and light called forth by their stories. “I remember your father in a panic, returning from the forest alone and afraid for you. The news on the morrow that you had been found was received with muted joy, as the Andersen’s farm had burned down that very night, killing the couple and their newborn daughter. The hound may have saved you, Thomas, but its appearance always heralds death.”

The three friends shivered. “Damn you, Markus,” said Erik. “We’ve told those tales to hold back the terrors of the night.”

On queue, the storm howled and the windows shivered in their frames. Markus smiled. “How did that work out for you, my friends?” They said nothing. “Anyhow, it’s time you were off. I’ve lingered later than I should, and my wife will have some choice words for me.”

The trio reluctantly rose and readied themselves to go. Markus stood at the door and watched them vanish into the stormy night, walking in a knot to fortify themselves against the unseen terrors that haunted the dark. Then he shut his door on the same terrors and mounted the stairs on the way to his wife, bed and the uncertain comfort of sleep.

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