Though Laurelyn was still tired from the events in Brendan’s forest she gathered her traveling companions together early the next morning. Her sleep the night before had been restless, filled with dreams of darkling ships and battles; they had left her with the urge to cover many miles that day.
So it was in the chill hour, after a murky sunrise, that she again thanked their hosts in the village and prepared Beast for the ride.
The rest, and more importantly the food, made Keir less than anxious to set out again but at least he was on his own two furry feet. Parts remained sore but a brisk walk would cure that in short order. Tapping his recently recovered staff impatiently while he waited for the others to ready themselves, he silently wished for a more tranquil journey than their first had been. He was still indignantly chagrined from learning that his staff had served as a pole for a clothesline in its absence.
Not long after rising, Thomis checked on Rudolpho but decided to let the boy steal whatever rest he could from the morning. His own preparations for continuing where quickly done – checking his packs and saddle, feeding his horse, and carefully stretching to make sure the events of the preceding day and night had left nothing more than a momentary stiffness that was quickly worked from his muscles.
Two nights of truly restless sleep were beginning to take their toll on Daron. She rubbed sleep from her tired green eyes. While she quietly packed up her belongings, she nibbled on a piece of bread from one of her saddlebags. Other matters weighted heavily on her conscience as well: Rudolpho, for one…
Rudolpho woke from a deep sleep and tried to stretch as he quietly surveyed his surroundings. He found that only one arm was able to move before he realized that the other was still bound. Noting that the others will still in various stages of waking, he set about undoing the binding on his arm. He missed the free range of movement he normally enjoyed. Luckily his arm was just a bit sore. Nothing that spending some time in an animal form wouldn’t cure. As he worked he remembered his dream. They were still almost tangible to him. I can’t think that way. I have to go on. He quickly decided that a quick look around and ahead was in order. Now if he could just slip away before anyone noticed…
A flicker of movement caught the artist’s eye. Daron saw Rudolpho trying to sneak away from the group. She quietly caught up with the boy. “Please don’t go,” she whispered, pitched for his ears alone. “Not alone. At least let me join you…”
Rudolpho froze briefly then relaxed as Daron spoke to him. He turned casually around to face her. “I wasn’t really going anywhere. I just thought I’d take a look around. You can join me if you want. I don’t think I’m much for conversation right now.”
Daron looked at Rudolpho. One dark brow went up. She kept her voice pitched so that only Rudolpho could hear her. “I know what you mean. I feel like I made a fool of myself yesterday…” She rubbed her eyes again, supposedly to clear the sleep from them… ”...and I sure could use a hug…” Her green eyes shone like polished emeralds.
Now it was Rudolpho’s turn to arch an eyebrow. “You seem to need these hugs at pretty oportune times.” He smilled and gave her a quick one. “I don’t think you made that much of a fool of yourself. You probably think it’s worse than it is. I think you miss Brendan.”
Three days’ riding began to lead them into the rolling and dipping territory of low hills, which Laurelyn had identified as the start of the low mountain range her father’s kin came from. She had spoken calmly about this, but in private she had confided to Thomis that while she wasn’t worried yet, that in day they’d be coming into hostile clan territory. But until they neared it she wasn’t going to alarm their traveling companions, though again they would have a decision to make. If they traveled on through alone they would only be at risk from random fighting, but if they traveled with her they would be considered her allies.
The need to look for a place to sleep outweighed Laurelyn’s discussion with Thomis, but no likely place showed itself in the deepening twilight. The land itself gradually shifted from the pleasant rolling green landscape, with a few bald granite outcroppings, to a land washed in hues of purple and indigo, with black rock sentinels. And still the open expanse of land, and the rising wind, discouraged them from setting up camp. The road began to follow the slopes upward, and as they continued on they found themselves back amongst a short expanse of densly-packed trees.
Laurelyn muttered something about there might be a shepherd’s hut past the trees – if the wind and weather had left the shack standing. She hoped they found shelter soon – her bones ached and even Beast’s steps were beginning to lag. Nor did she want to enter clan territory after riding through the night.
Which led to her back to the knowledge that she needed to talk to Thomis about the one thing that had not seemed pressing until now – that she was the daughter of the Hillrover’s chief. When she had decided to seek the Star Dreamer she had thought she would have plenty of time to talk to Thomis, but with the collection of traveling companions that had hope had died. And that wasn’t counting such things as the battle with Grumhog and his men.
The rhythmic sound of slowly-moving horses, with their soft snuffles, were the music of their journey. But Laurelyn was trying to keep it from lulling her into dozing as she studied the darkling trees. Beast’s sudden jerk of the bit awakened Laurelyn further and as she looked around for what had startled the horse she saw that walking beside her was a massive black hound. That looked up at her with gleaming red eyes.
“Don’t run,” she quickly admonished the group, fighting the desire to flee the beast herself. Here – walking with them – was another legend. Tales told of a various black dogs – and said if they had to pursue you dire fortune would fall on your shoulders. She made herself look back down into the gleaming eyes and saw only old wisdom and passing curiousity in their depths. While she looked she kept a tight grip on Beast’s reins, since the big hunter kept trying to shy or bolt.
Even the halfling’s endurance was beginning to flag after three long days of travel with infrequent, very infrequent to him, opportunities to eat. At the village, he’d restocked his supply of nuts, dried fruit and small bits of hard candy and munched as he trotted along behind Laurelyn and Beast.
As the day worn on and the slope grew steeper he found himself looking down at where he was placing his feet in order not to stumble so when he glanced up and spied the black hound he took it to be Rudolpho practicing his talents, perhaps to tempt him into riding. While the animal was certainly more to his size it didn’t appear anymore inviting than Beast, less so as Keir suspected his head could easily fit inside the toothy maw. It was only at Laurelyn’s warning that he noticed Rudolpho was still riding with Thomis and gripped his staff with renewed vigor.
The dog had appeared without warning, as if woven together from the dusk itself, the air of the darkening sky giving form to its broad shoulders and deep chest, fire settling into its eyes. Laurelyn had given him some hint of the strange things that could be seen in the highlands. Old spirits, and dangerous ones, and both things he saw in the way the dog moved alongside them with a soft padding of feet that did not disturb the ground under them.
Don’t run, Laurelyn had warned them, and continued riding, pretending – despite the worried shadows around her eyes – that their new traveling companion was a welcome one. And do not strike, Thomis could guess for himself. The hound turned its head, and for a moment, Thomis imagined he could hear the keening howl of a pack coursing through the trees. But there was only this one dog, and the Oath-bound forced himself to turn his eyes forward. As the beast moved among them, and past him, its breath on his thigh might have been searing hot, or icy cold.
Muttering something under his breath, Jacques scratched lightly at the point where his newly recovered hat met his head. His shaggy pony shuffled along after the others until its bleary eyes caught sight of an enormous wolf in their midst. At least, as far as it was concerned it looked damn like a wolf.
It stopped. Abruptly.
Jacques swore as he slumped forward over the animal’s neck, bells ringing furiously.
Fiend let out a yip, and bounded off the pony to the ground, then scampered over towards the enormous black hound in a galloping chattering run. He skidded to a stop a couple of feet from the interloper and set up a resounding growl.
“Dumb as a post,” muttered Jacques. He shook his head lightly, and the bells jangled softly. “You looking to become a snack, boy?” he called over to the pup. He had no doubt that the creature could swallow Fiend without even feeling the pup brush the sides. “Fiesty animal, but dumber than a sack of bricks.”
Fiend stopped growling, and cocked his head to one side, tongue lolling out happily. He let out a bright and cheery “yip!”.
With that, he bounded the remaining few feet and began, tail wagging furiously, snuffling curiously at the huge animal that he obviously considered rather less that a threat.
The great beast bowed its massive head to sniff at the small pup that sat in front of it.
Then the black dog gave a low bark, breathing out a breath as dense as fog, before turning to resume walking. Something in its attitude seemed to indicate that Fiend had been invited to stroll with it.
Rudolpho had been riding an awful long time. There had been little he could do to help Thomis except allow him easy access to the reins and keep an eye out. He had begun to nod off in a light sleep he had learned from traveling with the clan. He snapped awake when he heard Laurelyn’s warning. There was what looked to be a wolf traveling with them. As he was trying to get a better look at the beast and wondering how he might get a hair off its hide, and cursed as he saw the puppy run over to the wolf. Luckily, the creature did not mind him. Rudolpho leaned back in the saddle and whispered to Thomis, “I could change into a wolf and try to talk to it. Maybe we can see what it wants?”
Thomis glanced sideways at the strange sight of pup prancing after the deliberate steps of the hound, and blinked when, just for a moment, the glossy surface of the beast’s black fur shimmered, like a field of stars seen through a silken veil. “Whatever it is,” Thomis said lowly, “it is not a wolf, nor a hound of a sort that ever walked as a pup.” Not that Fiend seemed inclined to hold the creature’s questionable pedigree against it.
Was it just his imagination, or had every sound made by their party suddenly become muffled, voices and hoofbeats hitting his ears dully. And at the same time, the padding of the hound, and the whisper of its breath, becoming …. not louder, but more certain.
Daron still felt unsettled as she rode down the path. Though she was relieved that Rudolpho hadn’t teased her about Brendan – and her feelings for him – she knew with keen certainty that, had Jacques overheard, the jester would have taken great delight in tormenting her for the rest of the trip.
Lost in her thoughts, a sharp whinny from Falcon brought her to full attention. Daron caught sight of a large black dog. :::Steady, girl::: she “sent”, gently patting her mahogany-colored mare’s neck. :::Nothing to fear…:::
Tales by candlelight rushed forward from Daron’s memories. She remembered her fascination of the legend of the black dog, could hear her Pa’s deep voice as he spoke, though many of the details escaped her now. A sad smile crossed her lips at the memory that Dillon, for all his bravado, was spooked enough by the story to have nightmares three nights in a row.
The black hound turned his head to study each of the travelers, as if reading what lay within their souls.
Then he gave Fiend – who had bounded even closer – a quick swipe with a massive tongue, which nearly washed the pup’s entire head.
With deliberate, silent steps the black dog walked ahead of the group, letting the night merge with its black body. Until there was nothing there but the dark road ahead of them and a starlight sky.
Despite the cold shivers that tingled along her spine Laurelyn urged a restive Beast forward – to follow the road that the Black Dog had disappeared on. She squinted to make out other dark shapes – of rock and tree that now lined the road, and she thought she saw the rough outline of a building amongst the trees.
“I think we’ve found the shepherd’s hut,” she said; her voice sounding faint, lost in the vast night.