5. Her New Dogs
Bryn aimed the revolver. The gun exploded with noise as she tugged the trigger. One of the wolves was struck and fell at her feet. The other was still in the air careening towards her. Instinctually Bryn blocked her neck with her forearm. The wolf latched onto the arm, biting down viciously as they she was knocked to the ground. It shook her as it pulled her down to the ground. Her leather jacket protected her from the worst of the biting and her skin did not tear but throbbed none the less. While she was trying to wrench her arm free, something rammed the wolf, making it tumble around to its side, releasing her.
Bryn crawled backwards cradling the inflicted arm. A round eared dog was sinking his teeth into the wolf’s neck and clawing at him with his front paws.
It was then that Bryn heard the mattath’s rumbling snarl, and she twirled around to see the source. Several wolves were surrounding Eyelag, he battered a heavy paw at any wolf that got too close, but otherwise did not rise.
“Stand,” Bryn commanded Eyelag, “Defend.” She did not know if he knew that command. Whether he understood or not, he received the message. Eyelag rose on all fours with a great snarl and then bounced on his two back paws, displaying his massive body and might. He gave off a shivering roar, frightening away many coyotes. If Bryn had not known how tame mattath really were, she would have been terrified as she watched Eyelag swat and stomp on any four legged creature that came too close.
The black mattath was not so fortunate. He was easily taken down since he was too small to defend himself for long. He had been surrounded and pounced on. Two of the brothers had tried to come to the animal’s aid, but there were too many on top of him.
In the meantime Bryn had retrieved her revolver and the light she had dropped during the struggle. She loosely held the orb in her hand where she had been bit, she was finding it difficult to hold upright. She shot at any wolf or coyote that tried to get too close to her, and had to reload the cylinder once in the process. She was careful not to harm anything that looked remotely like a dog, but it was hard to tell in the dark where shadows covered everything. Every time she fired a bullet her heart would leap in her chest. For a fraction of a second she feared she had struck one of the brothers.
Even with all of this going on all at once, it was over within a few minutes. The attacking pack realized it was facing overpowering opponents. Coyotes and wolves alike retreated into the dark with their tails between their legs. The brothers pursued them until sure the wolves and coyotes were far enough away.
Bryn swayed where she stood. She also felt like retching, the lack of sleep and every surprise that could be thrown at the girl had her feeling sick. Before she could even attempt to lie down or tend to her wounds, she heard a deep rumbling groan. It was the kind of noise only a mattath could make. It was not Eyelag, he was sitting peacefully, licking his bloodied paws. It was coming from the black mattath. He was still hanging on to life. Bryn, filled with a great pity that blocked out everything else inside her, approached the poor creature very slowly, to kneel by his neck. The beast tried to lift his head, but did not have the strength or will. Bryn stroked his fur affectionately, scratching behind his ears to sooth him. She did not hear the brothers approaching from behind. Lorn and Muir were human again when they stood over Bryn, while the other brothers were still dogs, sniffing around, making sure there were no more threats.
Without a word Lorn knelt beside Bryn as he produced a knife from his pocket. With a quick and easy thrust he slid the knife into the mattath’s neck. As soon as Lorn had finished he rose and walked away to do the same to any other animal that was still whimpering. Bryn, stayed in her spot, watching the life leave the mattath’s eyes. She stroked his head until there was no more breath in him.
At the end Bryn rose and let the moment pass. She eyed Lorn walking around the dying coyotes and wolves. With all those dead it looked like a small battle field full of corpses and blood. Bryn mistakenly imagined all the dead turning into humans, just like the brothers could. It made her sway and lose any sense of balance on her feet. Before she knew it there were two sets of hands holding her steady by her arms and shoulders. Kai and Titen had materialized on either side of her. They set her down beside the fire that Tory had raised back to life.
“Bryn’s hurt,” Titen announced with concern.
“I’ve got it,” Muir was saying as he sat down close beside her. Bryn winced more than once as she allowed him to pull up the sleeve and examine the arm. The marked skin was a perfect black and blue half circle where the wolf had clamped down, but nothing bled out.
Muir stared at it uncertainly, “Mayhaps need boil’n water.”
Nudd was watching over Muir’s shoulder, “Why?”
“I hear that’s what they do,” Muir shrugged.
That conveyed Bryn back to full awareness. She was not going to let dog-men that did not know how to handle injuries, care for her.
“Bring me my bag,” She had a hoarse whisper.
Kai promptly fetched it for her. Those not occupied with clearing up the mess and keeping watch, kept an eye on Bryn. She did not have anything to ease the pain. All she could do was wrap it with strips of clean cloth she had for emergancies. So as to protect the area.
As she dug through her bag, she had so many things in there, Bryn glanced up at Muir and Nudd who were the closest to her at the time. “After I tend to this and rest for a long while, you are all going to tell me a very interesting story about how you can all turn into wolves.”
The brothers glanced at each other, not knowing what to think of her cold tone.
Tory strolled up, not having heard anything and offered his assistance in binding the injured area. Bryn accepted as she could not tie the bandage.
Once Bryn was sufficiently taken care of, she let herself relax. Just to find she was unable to keep awake any longer. Without even rising to return to her matt, she curled into a ball to fall instantly asleep, with the warmth of the fire at her side. She was sure it was more of a faint than an actual drift to sleep, it was all so sudden.
During the night, to keep Bryn warm, two of the brothers would take turns in dog forms to lie beside the sleeper and rest for a few hours at a time, while the others spent their watch hours piling and burning the corpses at a distance away from the sleepers.
The next morning after the sun had risen far enough over the land, the brothers waited not very patiently for Bryn to arise. They would pace nearby her. Even though they whispered when near her, they whispered loudly hoping it would rouse her.
Bryn awoke perhaps an hour after sunrise, calmer than the brothers suspected she would. She did not immediately demand answers. She did not even speak, but dealt with her morning with a shroud of weary discomposure.
The brothers did not know it, of course it was hard to tell with Bryn being so unapproachable all morning, but their actions the night before, defending her and taking care of her the best way they knew how when she was most vulnerable, had caused them all to gain Bryn’s needed trust. She had gained the dog-brothers respect, the way she handled herself and kept her courage and strength up when it was most needed.
The first thing Bryn did when she sat upright that morning was check her arm. It was throbbing, but not terribly. She ate very little that morning and instead spent her time tending to Eyelag, making sure he was not injured or sore anywhere. Satisfied that he was well, she struggled to strap the harness, saddle and packs back onto him. In the end she had to request Nudd to assist her, which he did gladly.
While she was preparing, the brothers were watching her, they did not say a word to her, unsure if it was safe to do so. They would try to busy themselves by keeping watch or dousing the fire and making sure nothing would catch after they left. If they had nothing else to do they would just observe Bryn, soaking in everything she was doing, as a toddler does when they are learning something new.
Once ready, Bryn addressed the group, “We should take it slow at first. I want to make sure Eyelag is not to weary or injured anywhere.” It was then that she realized that they would have to go on foot anyway, because the brothers means of transportation was dead, “Should we hook Eyelag to your cart instead?”
“We can go ’n as dogs,” Nudd suggested instead, “It’ll be far faster.”
“Don’t do so yet, I need you as men to talk,” Bryn said. Her voice was hollow, as it had been all morning, she could not shake it.
“To talk,” Muir asked.
“To talk, so you can explain how it came about that all of you can shapeshift into dogs.”
“That’s a long tale,” Lorn replied.
“I’ve got all day,” Bryn stubbornly said.
“Started as pups—no, boys,” Nudd began.
“Hush, Nudd,” Lorn ordered, “Tory has a better tongue for talk’n.”
Tory stepped closer to Bryn. He did not say a word at first. He was gathering his thoughts, remembering things he had not thought of in years.
He began slowly, “We—we’re born in Dirt Covered.” Bryn nodded, she knew that much. “On the boarder betwixt Gazon and Untouchable Forest. Ne’r one of the watcher towers. Don’t recall which. Attacked our people were. Fire burnt everyth’n. It be’n alive fire. Just babes to the world were we. Could barely lift a ’ammer. Coward in shadows to hide. They killed every’ding that swayed.”
“What was it? I mean, what creatures attacked your people,” Bryn asked. She had not meant to interrupt. It looked physically tiring for Tory to remember his past.
Tory looked directly at her. “Creatures,” Was all he could think of to name them, “Big, ugly beasts. Like the story’ they tell. Monsters that come out o’ that forest.”
Bryn nodded, she had heard the stories. The Untouchable Forest was centuries old, ever since man could remember, anyone who ventured inside those old woods, rarely emerged again. Those few that did make it out alive, told ghastly stories and warned others never to go in, they were not supposed to go in, not yet. So, the western borders of Gazon built high up watch towers to protect themselves and the two other provinces from random attacks the forest sometimes thrust at them. The attacks were from creatures that had never been seen before on that continent. Bryn shuddered at the thought of the stories she had heard and the images that had been made of those horrifying monsters.
Tory would not describe them anymore than that and Bryn did not press him.
“We hid. People fled. They died. We lived,” Tory shrugged as if it was as simple as that, “We were cower’n a corner. Flames start’n to chase us. That’s where the scar came from.” He pointed to his cheek, where the burn smudges marked him. “Were saved we were. He found us hid’n, ’n kept the creatures away. Gave us the strength to be dogs, for us babes to fight, ’n flee fast. Said he don’t recon we could ’ave our lives and let us keep the strength to watch over each and one of us.”
“Who was it that helped you?”
“Kae,” Tory replied matter-of-fact like.
Fortunately for Tory and Bryn, saving them both the bother of trying to understand, Bryn knew that name well enough.
“The Kind Kae? Kae the selest? A very powerful selest with magic as blood, saved all of you and turned you into shapeshifting dogs?”
“Exact one,” Tory beamed. Bryn had seen that smile before, she had made that smile before; when she was particularly happy or admiring her own mama or papa. It was genuine pride and love all wrapped into one smile. Tory and his brothers loved and respected Kae the selest, like he was their father. It was all over their faces. It left no room for Bryn to doubt their story. She could not doubt it was true. After all they were terrible liars.
From there the brothers told her the wildest stories about their adventures. They soon had her laughing and feeling at ease again. That weight that was on her chest since the night before was lifted without her knowing. Her easy self was back.
“Wait,” Bryn abruptly spoke up, interrupting a story that involved the wolverine, “Where is your friend? You still have to explain how you have a wolverine as a pet.” She looked around as if she could have missed seeing him all that morning.
“’Bout that…” Muir began, scratching the back of his head.
“Ya hear that,” Titen cut Muir off.
If the brothers had their dog ears in human form, Bryn was sure they would have all perked up as every head turned back, as if they could see what they heard. Bryn glanced over her shoulder as well, she did not see anything.
“What do you hear,” She asked.
“Ya’r friend-stalkers,” Nudd replied.
Bryn groaned. She looked back again, not knowing why since she knew she would still see nothing.
“Let’s get mov’n,” Lorn suggested. Bryn and the brothers were happy to comply.
As he spoke the other brothers bent over and were dogs in a few moments. Bryn tried to remember which brother turned into which dog, but since the dog forms were of the same wild breed, with spotted fur, big ears and lean bodies, she could not tell any of them apart. All except one.
“You’re fooling me…” Her words trailed off into nothing as she stared.
Kai did not turn into a dog when he knelt. He shifted into a wolverine. He looked directly at Bryn in his animal form, watching her unamused and unemotional expression as she gazed back. A scent immediately wrenched Kai’s attention away and he began to sniff at the ground.
“Kai wasn’t with us when we’re boys,” Lorn explained, “Found ’im apart from us Kae did, so made ’im differ.”
“He made him a solitary creature,” Bryn murmured, still eyeing the wolverine.
“He ain’t that lonely,” Lorn furrowed his brow. He did not completely understand what she meant, but was sure it was an insult, “Still got us.”
She only nodded at the comment, not feeling inclined to explain what she meant. Satisfied, Lorn bent over as well.
As he did so, Bryn hopped on Eyelag and wasted no time in kicking him into a run. She did not push too hard, unsure how the brothers would fair in keeping pace. The canter pace she maintained did not daunt the brother dogs in the least, they stayed by her side without slowing or faltering.
The brothers ran as an organized pack around Eyelag. She was on an adventure with the oddest men in the world. They lived by their own standards and had the most trusting faces. After all they were dogs, and if any animal could be trusted to keep you safe it would be a dog.
They found that Kai’s pace was much faster than the pack’s. He was soon far ahead of the rest. The brothers did not seem to worry about it or chase after him, so neither did Bryn. Even when Kai had gone so far ahead that Bryn could not see him anymore.
The group, or pack, traveled steadily on all day. They passed through the next town, hardly stopping for a meal. The brothers had remained as dogs when they rested in the town. Bryn had to pretend to take charge of the wild dogs as they made the villagers nervous. Not only that, but she had to feed them as well. While buying the meat she was suspicious that the brothers had stayed as dogs on purpose, so they did not have to hunt or bother with feeding themselves.
Once all of them had their fill of cheap meat, they were on their way again. Although the name of the village was never remembered by the pack, the villagers certainly remembered them. Seeing a girl on her mattath, with five wild dogs as pets was a story to be told to everyone, including to a troop of young gentlemen that arrived in the town only a few hours after the girl had left.
The pack pushed on until after dark. Bryn was determined to reach the next town before halting. Actually she wished to push on all night until she found her family, but that was not possible, so she set her goal on a possible target. Twilight was ending by the time the pack could spot the town engulfed in the wall of trees they had spotted hours ago.
The town was submerged by the woods. The forest itself never had a name. In maps it is simply called The Woods. Following the name, the town labeled itself The Woods Town. The town had not cut down the trees in the area. They had built around them, so that they were in the cover of the forest.
As they saw the lights of the town, still at a distance, an idea occurred to Bryn. She veered Eyelag off the path. The dogs did not notice her at first, they were tired from running most of the day and could smell the aromas the houses and shops wafted out, luring them to it.
The brothers corrected themselves, giving off barks to one another and were soon on her heels again. Where Bryn felt safe enough to stop, was almost a mile away from the town, but still in the woods where they could take cover. She pulled Eyelag to a halt and looked down at her escorts. One of them was standing on two feet again, it looked like Lorn, but it was hard to tell in the dark, he was looking puzzled and drained.
“Ya said ya were want’n to supply at that town,” Lorn said.
Bryn slipped off of Eyelag, to land softly on her two feet. “We can go over in the morning. But, if what you say is true that those men are following us, I don’t want to be caught by them in the dark.”
“Ya that scared of ’em,” Titen asked, having turned human as well.
Bryn did not answer at first while she stretched her stiff legs and arms to think about it. She was not so much scared, she was being cautious. After a moments consideration she supposed she did not have to be so careful, after all she had her very own personal body guards.
When she dropped her arms she remembered she was supposed to answer a question. “Uh, I’m not sure I am scared of them, but I don’t know what they will do when they see me again,” As she spoke another reason occurred to her that was more plausible, “Also, lodging all of you would be a chore at the inn. As wild dogs you would not be allowed in. As men it would cost me more than I care to pay.”
With that settled Bryn unlatched Eyelag’s burden and retrieved her orb again shining some light on their surroundings. While she was doing that, Muir, Titen and Nudd disappeared into the dark of the woods for some time while Lorn and Tory kept watch.
Nudd and Titen returned first, carrying large arms full of twigs and branches. They soon had a fire heating and lighting the area. Muir appeared after the fire had started flickering. He reported that nothing suspicious was creeping around and nothing had followed them.
The brothers were more at ease that night. It must have been a very safe area, because they began talking about going on a quick hunt, excited to find what was hidden in the woods. Even as they spoke, all of them faltered. They did not wish to leave Bryn alone.
“You want to hunt at this hour? Aren’t any of you tired? You have been running all day,” Bryn asked them, when she had taken the time to understand what they had been conspiring about.
“We’re hungry,” Tory simply replied.
“I have some rations I can share. It is not much, but should abate your hunger,” Bryn suggested.
Every brother grew silent. It was as if their mother had just told them they were not allowed to go out and play. It amused Bryn greatly, especially since she was younger than them and yet she had so much influence.
“If you truly want to hunt, I am not stopping you. I can manage an hour or so on my own,” She insisted they go so much that they felt obligated to leave her.
The brothers were dogs and sniffing around the ground in no time. The one Bryn thought was Lorn made a gruff half bark and charged into the woods. His brothers were at his side and they were out of the lights touch before Bryn could blink.
Bryn was finally left alone. She did appreciate companionship, however she appreciated her own company as well. She ate her own dinner, of beef jerky and part of that loaf the kind couple had given her the day before. She sat in front of the fire, nibbling on her jerky as she unwrapped her bandage to examine the bruise again, she left the cloth off, she did not need it anymore.
Bryn let her thoughts roam as she sat in complete silence, staring at the flickering fire as she was curled in a ball.
Without a sound a sudden blinding light flashed in Bryn’s eyes. She squealed as she jumped to her feet, her knife in her hand, since her gun was lying on the ground beside her bags. Someone had found her. They were staring right at her through that blinding light.