9. Her Pack is Pursued
Before anyone could ask, ‘what was that?’ A tree slammed down in the way of their path, as if someone had pushed it over on purpose. The leading dog-brothers had to leap out of the way to escape its branches. All the dogs and the one wolverine had their hackles up as they went on the defiance, surrounding the two girls.
A massive creature broke through the brush. It was a giant blur, as Nimble and Eyelag lurched into a run, their fear preceding their riders. They were pinned on one side by the fallen tree, although that did not hinder Nimble who found a way to climb over the branches with cowardly speed. Eyelag did not try to crawl over the log. Instead he tried to circumvent it. Before he could, the great grey beast caught them. Bryn cried out as she felt a sharp grip at her leather sleeve yank ferociously hard. The toothy-pull was strong enough to drag her off of Eyelag, lugging her away from danger, as the thing pounced on them. Eyelag was thrown over the log by the beast’s powerful forearms and flung to the ground, ripping up dirt and grass in his wake.
Bryn rose from the ground and saw that Kai, as a wolverine, was at her side. He had the strength, the dogs did not, to pull her from her seat in one tug. They heard the terrifying roar again.
The monster was twice the size of a mattath and fatter, with giant like shoulders that jutted out of his back. His rounded eyes burned red as he roared with his powerful jaw. He pawed at the ground with his sharp, heavy claws. His matted, spiked fur was the colour of dusty grey. He was a maath. They were related to the mattath, only far more aggressive and unpredictable. To train one would mean missing limbs or most often a missing life. This one, like all the others when annoyed or in general unhappy, was thirsting to rip the living apart.
The dogs sprang to action, surrounding the maath, barking uncontrollably as they darted around, confusing the beast. He tried to claw at them, missing every time. Even Burnt had joined the pack, he could not spring about as nimbly as the brothers.
Kai tugged at Bryn’s arm, she followed him slowly and quietly towards Lidia. She was calling Burnt to her, afraid for his safety. Burnt dutifully obeyed and stood at Nimble’s side, still eyeing the fight.
The brothers continued to keep the maath at bay. Every time the maath would try and step forward to get at the mattath and the girls, a brother would attack, before slipping away from the maath’s retaliation.
“We have to get out of its territory,” Bryn said to Lidia as she approached Eyelag, “Or else it will keep stalking and attacking us.”
Bryn bent by Eyelag’s head, to encourage him to stand. In her haste and distraction she did not even think that the thrust had killed her stead. There he was laying and he did not rise or even move. He was far too old to have survived such a shock. Eyelag closed his eyes, his life flickering to nothing before anyone knew he was gone.
Bryn spared a moment to rest a hand on the stead’s head and thank him for his hard work. Lidia, after realizing what was taking her sister so long, sprang from her saddle and helped her unstrap the bags. They had to leave the saddle and straps in their haste. They tossed the few packs full of food they could wrench from Eyelag’s body onto Nimble and both girls bounded onto his back.
As the girls worked, one of the brother’s was struck by the maath. He was sent flying in the sisters direction.
Lidia refused to budge until the dog-brother rose and shook it off. Assured he could still run, she directed Nimble and kicked the mattath into a full run down the beaten path, with Burnt following close behind. The brothers broke off from their attacks when Nimble was a fair distance away.
The maath was distracted by the fallen for only a few moments. He sniffed at Eyelag, to make sure he was dead. He mentally fought over the want to devour its free meal or pursue those that got away.
The pack did not slow or look behind them. Nimble huffed and puffed at the extra weight, but even he knew not to slow or try and shake it off.
As an answered prayer to their plight they abruptly broke from the trees, coming upon a great clearing. In that clearing was a large lake. Bryn knew by description, and by the maps she had studied, that this was The Lake of Rest. It was connected with a stream to the Rove Passage.
Bryn only had to point at the river to have Lidia to lead Nimble directly towards the water. Nimble caused splash as he broke the lake’s surface. Bryn and Lidia felt the water rise from their legs up to their thighs. They could not help but gasp from the shock of the chill.
The dog-brothers, Kai and Burnt followed close behind as they leapt into the cool lake. They dog paddled smoothly, escaping land as fast as their paws could take them.
Bryn and Lidia dropped from Nimble’s back, to take weight off of him, he swam much easier when they did. The girls made sure to stay clear of his powerful strokes.
The maath broke from the forest like an explotion, causing a shower of twigs and leaves to shatter around him. He tossed his head back and forth until he spotted his meal making their way to the middle of the lake. He charged forward at full speed until he touched the waters bank with his front paws, sliding to a stop, getting his front paws wet. The beast hesitated, wanting to go forward, but knowing the danger. Maath were too heavy to swim.
The maath set off a frustrated roar that bounced off the lake’s surface. A shiver went up the girls spines as they were forced to listen. He began to pace back and forth on the bank.
“Do you think it’s going to wait until we grow tired and chase us around the lake,” Lidia asked.
“It appears so,” Bryn spat out water that had reached her mouth.
As Bryn was speaking she noticed one of the brothers was having troubles keeping his head above water. It was the same brother that had been struck. His brothers did their best to hold his head above water using their own bodies to support him. Bryn grabbed at the wounded dog, by the gruff of his neck. With great effort, and getting scratches on her arms, she hoisted him onto Nimble’s back. He rested on the mattath’s back.
The maath took a run at the water. Waves erupting all around and flooding over him. He disappeared under the lake’s surface, leaving only rippling waves that drifted across the clear surface.
“What is it doing,” Bryn asked with a bit of a shiver in her voice.
There was silence as they watched the ripples disappear. Lidia swam around Nimble and a few of the brothers who had drifted in her way, to reach her sister and float beside her.
“Drowning,” Lidia suggested, “Perhaps we made it go—” A gut wrenching bellow escaped Lidia’s wide opened mouth, just to be cut off when her head disappeared under the water. The next moment she sprang up almost completely out of the water before falling back in. Her arms flailed as she reached out to cling onto Nimble’s scruff, holding on as if she would die if she did not. Before anyone could react she cried out in pain, “Swim, swim! It is under us! Swim hard!”
All of them pushed forward as fast as they could, even Burnt and Nimble sensed the danger in Lidia’s cry. The red that floated around the poor girl was frightening the animals and her sister.
Kai was the strongest swimmer they had. He easily slipped around Nimble to reach Lidia’s side. She could only cling on in her pain, dangling at the mattath’s side. Kai brushed her head and back with his shoulder as he kept pace. He nudged under her elbow with this nose, encouraging Lidia to grab him. At first Lidia ignored him, when he insisted she shook her head, unwilling to even try and speak. He continued to paddle beside her until, Lidia did as he bid. With great effort not to move her lower body too much, Lidia reached out to attach herself to Kai’s furry wet shoulders. The wolverine pushed even harder now. He paddled faster than Nimble and the others, making his way to the opposite shore line.
“Lidia,” Bryn called unable to contain her worry, as Kai pushed passed her.
Lidia did not respond, she tried to turn her head and look at her sister, but she was too busy biting back the tearing pain.
Bryn glanced over her shoulder, the maath was nowhere in sight. Perhaps he did drown in his last attempt to catch them.
Lidia let go of Kai and slid to his side, when he was able to stand in the water. Kai grabbed the collar of Lidia’s jacket and dragged her closer to shore, where she could sit. She gasped when her legs brushed the muddy and grassy ground under the water. Kai stood on his two legs as a human, his clothes soaking wet and dripping, as he bent to his knees at Lidia’s side. Blood mixed with the water that lapped around the two of them.
The brothers reached shore, shaking themselves dry first, they stood as men again. Titen, Nudd and Tory surrounded Lidia in a moment. While Lorn hurried to Nimble who was still carrying the injured Muir in dog form.
Bryn was the last to reach land. She rushed to her sister as quickly as she was able, her breathing heavy and unsteadily.
“Don’t touch it,” Lidia was saying between gritted teeth.
“Need to see whats the matt’r,” Tory replied patiently.
“My legs are bleeding,” Lidia hissed.
“We must carefully get her out of the water and onto dry land,” Bryn said, her hand on Nudd’s shoulder. “I need two of you on either side of her. You all need to act as a brace and gently lift her.”
Bryn explained what she meant and the brothers followed her lead. Kai, Tory on one side of Lidia and Titen and Nudd on her other side. They locked arms with the one opposite them under Lidia’s legs and bottom. They had Lidia lifted into the air, water pouring from her, mixed with the thinned veil of her blood. With their arms acting as boards, the brothers held her steady. Lidia gasped with pain, squeezing her eyes shut, as she held onto Tory and Titen’s necks so as not to tip over. They set her on the greenest patch of grass where they all could see the extent of the wound. Both her legs were still there, but on her right leg the flesh was torn like a piece of fabric. Her left leg had two gashes as well, they were not as serious. Lidia was shaking as she looked at her own gored flesh. Burnt approached her to sniff at the leg and was swatted away by Bryn. Lidia beckoned him to her head where she hugged and rubbed her dog to sooth her own nerves.
As Bryn was thinking of the best way to bind the wounds, so the bleeding would stop, they heard a distant splash and everyone looked back to see the maath emerge from the depth. He exited the same spot he had entered. He shook himself and tossed back around to see where his prey had gone. As soon as the brothers saw him, they were on their feet and scowled so deeply that it appeared they were turning into dogs again.
“Come,” Titen ordered, vengeance on his mind.
“No,” Lidia called, louder than she intended, as she swallowed the pain, “Papa told me; don’t go looking for a fight, we don’t need more wounded. Wait to see if it will advance first.”
The brothers obeyed, although the way they leaned forward, daring the maath to circle around and attack, one would think Lidia had placed invisible chains around each of the brothers necks to hold them back.
The maath shook himself again before he huffed and puffed, pacing beside the bank. The way the brothers defied him, dared him to try again, might have made the maath decide they were not worth it. With one last huff the maath strolled back into the woods at a tauntingly slow pace.
Titen kept his eye on the spot for a long time, as vigilant as any watchdog.
Muir who was also wounded, most likely had bruised or cracked ribs, at least his skin was not pierced. He took slow and shallow breaths as he sat on the ground willing himself to heal. He did not utter a word of complaint or ask for help in any way.
Bryn set to work on her sister. It was tedious and to be honest she was not exactly sure what she was doing. The brothers started a fire and helped dry out some of her bandages. Bryn had to cut away at Lidia’s pants, they were ruined anyway. The pants were turned into very short trousers, short enough to make a decent girl blush, if she was not tormented with pain. Bryn had needles and thread for fixing tears in clothing. With Kai and Tory’s help, she sewed Lidia’s torn skin.
Lidia passed out almost as soon as Bryn had started the stitching. Bryn had to fight back a rage of worry that was gathering in her chest when she saw her sister’s head slump back. Tory Kai supported Lidia’s head and would hover his hand over her mouth to feel for breath every once in a while.
The stitching had to be done quickly so Lidia did not bleed out. Bryn did not know how long it took her to finish, all she could consintrate on was her work, and block every emotion or irrelivent thought out. It was not until the worst of the bleeding had stopped that Bryn let herself breath regularly. Lidia’s blood coated Bryn’s fingers, and her entire body was stiff and sore from all that worry and work. She let Nudd clean the blood off of Lidia and wrap her wounds with the clothes he had dried.
It was almost high-noon by the time Bryn forced herself away from her sister’s side. She stood on her weak legs to clean her hands in the lake and then collapse by the fire Lorn had made. She did not let herself sleep, she was still filled with apprehension for her sister. Instead she snatched at a water skin, all their supplies had been dropped by the fire, relieving Nimble’s burden so he could dry himself and rest. With a bit of a search, Bryn found the herbs she had recently bought. She had nothing strong enough to ease her sister’s pain, but perhaps soothing tea would assist. Tossing the dried leaves in the water skin, Bryn placed the skin on the fire to heat up.
Nudd had finished his work and was cleaning himself off in the water. Muir had slunk over to Lidia’s side. The two wounded held each other as they slept side by side, being a comfort to one another. Kai was sitting cross legged with Burnt’s head on his lap as he watched over the sleepers. Lorn was sitting next to Bryn by the fire, keeping a lookout. Titen and Tory were off on patrol, making sure no other large beasts were going to disturb their much needed rest.
Lorn was silent for a long time, Bryn was curled up on her side as she waited for the water to boil. She was on the verge of slipping into unconscious until Lorn spoke softly.
“Don’t smell right.”
Bryn grunted, “I don’t smell right?” She asked without looking at him.
“Smell of fear and stress.”
Bryn made herself sit up before her body shut down. She hunched over like an old woman when she did.
“Stress has a smell?” She did not wait for an answer, “My sister was severely hurt and we all almost died from a maath. Of course I am scared and on edge. We have been attacked by animals more times than should ever happen in one lifetime. All because a selest thinks we are getting closer to solving her riddle.”
Lorn was silent a moment, “Where’s the song?”
“What was that,” Bryn asked. His voice was muffled by the crackling of the fire.
“Where’s ya’r sis’s notes? Ya should be working on the riddles.”
“I don’t know,” She tried to keep herself calm. She was not pleased he would ask that at a time like this, “I don’t care at the moment.”
Un-phased Lorn said, “Only way to make the attack stop is to solve it. El the selest would leave ya ’lone.”
Bryn had not thought of that and so was silent. Before she could come up with a reply Kai called her over.
Lidia was awake and whimpering from the pain. It broke Bryn’s heart that she could not ease the suffering for her little sister. She offered the tea as the best solution. Lidia accepted willingly. Kai fetched it for her and assisted her in drinking. Even Muir was roused for a taste of the bitter, soothing tea.
“You need a real healer,” Bryn softly said to her sister, “I wouldn’t know what to do if your wounds get infected.”
Lidia took a gulp of air before she whispered, “We should reach the Rove Passage by tomorrow afternoon, the brothers said so. I should be fine until then.” By fine she meant she was willing to suffer.
“Do you think you could ride in this condition,” Bryn asked with concern.
“I have to don’t I,” Lidia said more optimistic, “Even if I have to ride side saddle.”
“Lidia, you don’t know how to ride side saddle,” Bryn reminded her.
“This is a good time to learn,” Lidia smiled. The smile dissolved as she was wracked with pain.
Almost as soon as she stopped talking she fell back to blissful sleep, leaning her head against Muir’s shoulder.
With that settled Bryn allowed herself to rest. She returned to the fire. Her clothes were still damp and she was shivering. She fell into an exhausted heap by the fire and drifted into a much needed nap.
The rest of the day was spent tending to the injured, and drying out their provisions. All of them wished they could continue on that afternoon, only Lidia was far too weak and in too much pain to do so.
Besides Muir, the brothers hardy closed their eyes when night settled in. They took turns patrolling the area and kept vigilant watch all night, even keeping an eye on the lake.
The next morning they talked about how they were on the wrong side of the lake. None of them felt like trying to circle around, not when that maath might be prowling nearby. They decided to follow the river until they could cross farther down. It would take them a few more hours, but they would still arrive that day or night, if Lidia could withstand the pace.
When Bryn gently awoke her sister, Lidia moaned and groaned. She said her legs were sore, not just the wounds but her entire body was aching from the stress. Bryn was still skeptical about letting her ride, but they did not have much of a choice. It was either that or leave Lidia behind, and no one was going to allow that to happen. Bryn had suggested they build a travois to pull behind Nimble. The idea was tossed since they had little time. They needed to find safety before the pack was attacked again. It was no longer about finding the girls family, it was about survival.
With great difficulty, they hoisted Lidia onto Nimble. She sat comfortably enough sitting side saddle and partly sitting on Bryn’s lap. Lidia tried not to complain, except to grunt when Nimble jostled under them too much.
Muir had recovered well after a night’s rest. The only reason anyone knew he had been injured was because of the black bruise that showed under his shirt. He did not show any signs of pain or feebleness, the only precautions he took were to make sure no one touched his stomach.
Once the sisters were ready, the brothers bent as dogs and a wolverine. Kai went ahead to scout for trouble.
In this part of the forest the trees were farther apart and thicker around. They could still see the clear sky above.
Lidia had asked Tory to find her journal in one of her bags and had it in her hand as they began their trek. The book was a bit damp from the little bit of water that made it into the leather bags. One corner of the book had been soaked and had smeared her ink, it was still readable and that appeased her.
She was contemplating the riddles again. It was a way for her to take her mind off her pain and discomfort. Bryn helped a great deal and gave her opinions freely. She had even solved two more of the riddles to fill in the blanks. Lidia had read the poem in several different ways trying to make it work, nothing ever happened.
That afternoon they had hardly stopped for a short respite, when they spotted Kai running towards them, flying over the rocky bank of the river. As soon as he reached the pack, he stood on two feet to be a human.
When Kai spoke his words were as frantic as could be expected from a toneless voice, “Can’t go that way. Every beast are gather’n. Stop’n us to kill.”
“Can’t go back,” Tory said. He had turned human while Kai was speaking, “Maath stalk’n us.”
Bryn muttered something unpleasant under her breath, while Lidia groaned.
“We should cross the river here and get as far away as we can,” Bryn suggested.
The others agreed and they all set to it.
The stream had turned into a river at this point. It was still not that far across and the depth was perhaps only four feet deep. The only difficulty would be the current that pushed steadily. Nimble had no troubles, since he was so sturdy and heavy, his large paws gave him sure-footing. The brothers on the other hand had to take their time. Muir had turned into a human while he crossed to save his stomach the risk of hitting any rocks under the water. They made it across without incident and hurriedly began their trek again. They pushed faster than before, hoping their scent had been washed away with the river.
Nimble’s sharp movements had Lidia gritting her teeth, to hold back the gasps. She knew their need to be swift, so she forced herself not to let out any complaints.
As they went on all the dogs grew more and more agitated. Before the girls could fully understand what the matter was, they heard the sounds of a company of mattath in front of them. In the woods it was easy to suddenly come upon someone without knowing, since noises were dampened and the trees provided cover. They were suddenly overtaking the troop of gentlemen.
“That is exactly what we do not need, more grief,” Bryn muttered under her breath.
Kai broke from the pack to slip behind the trees, out of sight.
“Miss Bryn!” Arion called excitedly when he glanced behind. He slowly brought his mattath to a stop, his companions following suit.
Lidia brought her goggles down over her eyes to get a better look at the gentlemen. She made a snub sort of motion with her chin and nose, as she scrutinized them with outright bias thoughts.
“Are they your stalkers?” She boldly asked, not caring if the gentlemen heard.
“Yes,” Bryn sighed.
All the dogs were growling noticeably by Nimble’s legs, making a barrier around the girls.
Before Arion could say something along the lines of; ’please, I need to talk to you.’ Bryn spoke first, “All of you must run.”
“Is that a threat,” Nestor demanded.
“It’s a warning,” Bryn said, “We are being pursued.”
“Pursued by whom?” Arion asked.
“Not by whom, by what.” Bryn corrected him, “A maath is chasing us.”
“Why—” Semon started.
“We have no time for questions,” Lidia growled, only partly because of the pain, “It’s going to eat us. So move!”