A howl rose through the woods behind him, bringing Brendan up short against the damp, moss-covered tree trunk. Silence followed. He couldn't hear the drone of an insect or the chirp of a frog. Even the owl he had heard in the trees a moment before had gone silent and still. Nothing moved through the underbrush to draw the attention of the predators, awake now and hunting.
Brendan held his breath, standing as still as everything else in the night. Then, he heard the baying -- two of them this time, and much closer. He felt a tingle along his spine and up his neck, like the touch of a cold winter breeze in the midst of summer. The wild dogs of the woods had caught his scent after all. They would be coming quickly now.
He had understood the risk he took when he chose to travel the Julis Woods by night. Brendan knew the tales about the wild dogs -- he probably knew them better than anyone else, that being his usual work. But he had still chanced the journey, since he had little choice if he wanted to enter Esse unobserved. Even with his unusual powers, he would not have dared to try the gate, even in disguise. Too much depended on his ability to reach Lady Shafara without being seen.
The howl came again, and he sensed a different note in the wild cry. Confusion? Brendan rested against the moss and calmed the wild thumping of his heart. Yes, the dogs had scented him and were wary of coming nearer. The wild creatures always knew what men only vaguely sensed -- that he was not quite human.
They held back for the moment, whining rather than howling. A distant sound -- he still had a chance to reach the city before they caught up with him.
No time for subtlety. Brendan stepped away from the tree and darted into the shadows. He moved easily past the dark forms of the trees and bushes, even with one hand protecting the hard leather case at his side. All in all, he still considered the harp more important to him than the gold or the sealed parchment in his pack. She had served Brendan well from the day he took her from the wall of a crumbling ruin. He hated to risk her in a place like this, even for so great a need.
Even now, he could feel the warmth of her magic, a slight fluttering in his mind at the realization of the danger they faced. A single, plaintive note, dulled by the case, sounded in the night.
Three nightingales sprang panicked from the bush to his left. Behind him, he heard a howl and the quicker rush of paws, closer now. He dared to look up through the trees, wondering if he could climb to shelter. Perhaps the sudden flash of blue from his eyes disturbed what rested in the boughs. The branches scraped and rattled in its haste to get away.
He could sense the city -- closer, just beyond the narrowing band of trees. Hiding in the trees would not get him to the lady with the message he carried. And how long could he stay there, anyway? All night? Tomorrow? The next night? He remembered one tale of a wayfarer who attempted it. The story didn't end well.
One dog bayed, confusion replaced with challenge. Predators often sensed when something wild and dangerous walked through their territory.
Brendan looked up again, but he could barely see the sky beyond the trees and caught no glimpse of the moon. He wouldn't gain help there tonight. Just as well. A use of magic would draw Lady Shafara's attention; and though he traveled to see her, he didn't wish to be so blatant in his arrival. Shafara knew powerful magic, and might not take the time to listen to his message if she sensed a danger to her charge.
No. He'd try his best to get into the city quietly tonight; and if that didn't work, he would go through the gate in the morning, playing the part of a minstrel again. He would find a way to reach Shafara afterwards. Lord Falrick had even given him leave to be blatant if nothing else worked.
The dogs drew nearer. A sudden sprint carried him lightly through the underbrush, though without any chance for silence. The dogs knew his location. If he could outrun them, he might yet make the city wall and safety for a few hours.
When Brendan started to slow, he finally gave in to the inevitable. Lifting his head and taking a deeper breath, he allowed the part of him that moved with ease through the forest to take over. The ability came as a gift from his mother, she who had been born of the dark and the wilds and the night.
Vision changed and senses became more acute as he opened up to the world around him. He didn't dare do this in the human world. Though he did not change in body, they could still see it in his eyes. And, besides, he had learned young that being wild in a crowd of humans only led to madness. He confined his wild runs to the night....
Yes, the night, though rarely ones as dark as this, where the clouds, fog and trees obscured the power of the great moon. His left arm held the harp's case closer while his right hand fell to his dagger. While he didn't have claw or fang to take on the wild enemies, he did have a weapon that helped even the odds.
Unfortunately, he didn't know the woods; and that played against him. He reached the edge of a ravine. For a moment he considered leaping, and then decided that a broken leg would not help matters. He backtracked, even though he couldn't afford the loss of too much time.
Brendan knew he must get the message he carried through. Lady Shafara hadn't sensed the danger in the capital; and besides, Lord Falrick sent answers that even Shafara might not find with her magic.
Most people would have been surprised at how hard he worked to help the Lady and the prince she protected. After all, as a famous bard he could survive well under any regime. It seemed only wise to Brendan that he work to make life better if he could. Happy people were never chary of their coins.
And, he thought, the world might not be quite so bad with a few less wild dogs. He had run as far as he could without growing dangerously winded and weak. He slowed, and as they closed in he stopped in a circle of trees that offered some cover.
Brendan spun and pulled his dagger, slashing as the first animal leapt. A great huge beast fell backward, howling with more surprise than pain. He didn't have time to distinguish the dogs one from another. He suspected there eight or nine, all of them eager for the kill. Large dogs, lean and hungry. They doubtless found little fresh meat of his size wandering around in the woods these days, having already killed everything they could catch.
Two lunged, and he stabbed with his dagger and then slashed as he drew it back. One fell away, whimpering, and would die quickly. The other caught hold of his jacket sleeve and nearly shook the dagger free. He put his back to a tree and kicked, surprise knocking the animal away.
Eyes flashed as they watched him, barely visible in the faint, diffused light of the night. Two of the beasts growled over the no longer whimpering body of their fallen companion while the other five sulked about Brendan, the circle growing smaller.
One snapped at his leg. He kicked, doing little damage; but she yipped and looked wary now. The others held their place for a moment, muttering low growls that he knew to be the prelude to a joint attack. Brendan moved first, swinging his blade so that it cut through the neck of the nearest dog. The awkward move nearly cost him his left arm as one leapt forward and bit hard. He swung back with the knife, cutting at her exposed underbelly; but even mortally wounded, she held tight, teeth grinding against bone. He could only shake her off after she had died.
Fiery pain surged through his left arm. He held the dagger tightly in his right hand, the palm perspiring as shock began to overcome even his strongest instincts. He put down two more of the animals while adrenaline still overcame pain and growing weakness. But the others closed in, even more intent on the kill now. Brendan put his back hard against the tree and let his bleeding arm hang free. They dared to come nearer; but when he bared his teeth and snarled, they backed away again. Not human, and not one of their own. They knew it.
It didn't hold them back for long. Two lunged; and he swung wide, but ineffectively, as one finally got past his guard and leapt at his throat. Teeth dug deep slashes even as he stabbed and killed. The animal fell away.
Still too numb to feel the wound, Brendan only sensed that he half-choked for air that wouldn't entirely come. His legs began to buckle, and he knelt rather than fall before the enemy. The last two dogs kept their distance, wary at last.
His dagger became too heavy, and the bloodied tip rested against the ground. The dogs still didn't near. He watched them as warily as they watched him. They'd wait now. When he grew too weak, they'd be quick to move in.
Well, he had a trick or two left, and dared not worry about Shafara's response now. Survival depended on what he did, and he couldn't deliver the message if he didn't stay alive.
His left arm hung useless, the fingers brushing at the ground, sending waves of agony that made his head spin. He forced the right arm up, the dagger still in hand. His fingers touched his neck and felt dampness there as well as an ache that made breathing difficult. He tried to ignore it as he sought past the jacket and embroidered shirt. His fingers found the golden chain with the familiar and heavy weight at the end. He pulled it up; and his fingers brushed against the edge of the disk, feeling it throb with the power of his own life, a part of him and his magic.
When he pulled it free, the crystal caught the faintest reflection of the obscured moon and flashed with a sudden brightness that seemed like lightning in the dark woods. The dogs scattered, yowling. He had seen men do the same. For a moment, he watched them go, willing himself to keep to consciousness.
Shafara would have sensed that flash of magic, so near her city. She might very well think the magic meant danger, and if so... But he lived through a half-dozen gasping breaths. Neither the sorceress nor anyone else attacked.
Brendan dropped the dagger, unable to wave a ward of protection with it in hand. He hadn't much strength left. He could not cling to the world much longer as the blankness of a dreamless sleep edged closer. He couldn't be certain that he would awaken again.
He leaned against the nearest tree, as comfortable as he could manage, and turned the crystal to catch the little bit of moonlight. The words of the ward, when they came, were a harsh whisper that tormented his throat. His eyes swam with tears that were half pain and half fear for the injury done to his voice. He was Brendan, the old king's bard; and his voice had been likened to the sound of silver bells on the wind. Now, he heard the sound of toads in the night.
An injury. It would heal; it would pass.
As the glimmering dance of blue lights came up around him, his hand left the disk and fell to the harp case. It felt intact. With that reassurance, he let the darkness come to him.
He was the keeper of the song; and if his voice was gone, at least he could still play the tune.
Copyright © 2003 by Lazette Gifford