Although she could no longer hear the Adam-daughter’s movements, the old black dog knew by instinct and subtle vibrations that she had risen in the early morning light. The Adam-daughter looked puzzled and tilted her head in the manner humans adopted for their ineffectual ears as she walked down the hallway toward the living room muttering something about the weather.
The old dog lay gathering her strength for a moment before standing, a matter complicated by the unexpected presence of Odin-son in her bed. The beginnings of a growl had rumbled in her throat and then subsided as he left his nest of towels and climbed in beside her in the waning hours of the night. The illness that chewed at his brain ravaged his fur as well, exposing patches of pink, fragile skin; the stove fire had died hours before and the house was cold. It would require effort to evict him and in truth he brought some small warmth of his own, so she let him remain.
Now he proved an additional obstacle as she struggled up from the bed to follow the Adam-daughter. It had rained much of the night; she smelled it in her fitful sleep. But just after dawn the scent had grown strange, icy like hail while still wet like rain. She did not recognize it. It is snow, Odin-son said as if he knew her thoughts. The silence roused the Adam-daughter, a silence deeper than no-rain. Winter has come.
His words gave her a last burst of energy. Winter had come, as he foretold. She could perform the rite and protect her Adam-children from the Hunt even after her spirit was flown. Keep the bed, she said as she left the room. I have no need of it anymore.
I know. She took no offense at his words. He spoke nothing but the truth. And his own time was coming, soon enough.
The Adam-daughter had curled up on the sofa to watch the snow fall. She half-rose when the old black dog paused at the step leading to the door but the Adam-son emerged from the hall and helped her down. Even such small exertion left her panting and fatigued but step by difficult step, her front paws taking the bulk of her weight, she forced herself to the door.
“We’ve lived here for twelve years and it’s snowed – once?” the Adam-daughter said. “For about five minutes, and it didn’t stick to the ground.”
“Looks like this might, for a little while anyway,” the Adam-son replied. They looked at her where she waited by the door. “Do you think she’d enjoy it?”
“Let’s find out.”
At last. They opened the door and, to her dismay, followed her into the yard. She hoped the cold might dissuade them. Or she hoped to use the featherbrained brindle to distract them, but once the Freya-daughter determined no one was leaving in their cars she threw her paw over her nose and went back to sleep.
She stepped off the patio and into the garden, the snow cold between her paws and on her muzzle. She threaded her way around shrubs and small trees, heading for a break in the fence. They would probably stop her. Still, she had to try.
Sure enough the Adam-daughter spoke. “Where is she going?”
Let me go north, the old black dog signed though she knew they did not understand. Let me go north and draw them away.
To her frustration but not surprise the Adam-son herded her back. In the days of her youth he could not have caught her, but now her trembling muscles and aching bones propelled her no faster than a walk and hardly that. She hadn’t kept food down for two days. She tried to shift around him, to make him understand, but with a gentle, foolish relentlessness he nudged her back toward the house, the last place he should want her to be. She had very little time left.
She had, in fact, none. For the birdsong ceased and she heard two barks, one far, one near. She stood as far from the house as she thought the Adam-children would permit, on a patch of open ground now lightly dusted with snow. She watched. She waited.
He wasn’t there and then he was, the pack leader of the Hunt. He stood nearly twice her height and by his bulk almost four times her weight. His rough, thick coat was the color of ash, stained with soot around his eyes and his ears and at the tip of his tail. He smelled of sulfur and of slag. I am Cu Fail, he said. You are dying, Odin-daughter, and you have not walked away. I claim your spirit and declare this place a Hunting Ground.
The Adam-children watched her from the patio. They did not see Cu Fail. They did not hear his words. They did not know the ties that bound the Odin-children to the Hunt, or understand that if she did not walk north, abandoning her home before she died, she ceded that home to It. They would never see the Hunt, only wonder why misfortune now always seemed to haunt their steps.
Only a single resort remained to her, the rite of which the Odin-son spoke. I challenge you.
You would fight me? His titian eyes glinted like burning coals in his pale face. You can barely stand. The second bark sounded nearer, a baying cry of triumph. I will burn you to cinders before your haunches leave the dirt.
She knew he spoke the truth. The image of Cu Fail streaming fire from his fur with forests burning in his wake was seared upon the dog-mind of every Odin-child. He spoke the truth but she had no other recourse. She could fight or she could bow to defeat without a struggle, and she had never done that once throughout her life. It is my right.
So be it. He settled his paws firm against the ground and drew back his lips to reveal just the tips of his incisors, signaling that he did not consider her a worthy enough opponent to show his fangs. He twitched an ear in the direction of the Adam-children. But know that in this foolish challenge you have earned them misery in double measure.
She met his gaze and bared incisors to show she was not afraid. The snow fell hard around them, harder than this patch of earth had ever seen. Legends among the Odin-children told that winter gave them strength against the Hunt. It did not tell them how. But as the old black dog met his gaze she saw – surely his glowing eyes had dimmed a little? And his ash-colored coat – it was ash, she realized now. The snow hissed against his body and clung, smothering his fire. You lie, she said. Winter has come. You will not burn. Prepare to fight, Cu Fail.
Now he bared his fangs and though he did not speak she knew that she was right, and the strength of that knowledge coursed throughout her clouded mind and failing limbs. He thought his great height an asset but in fact it was a weakness. She could easily fit beneath him. A single lunge, a tug of an opposed leg beneath his belly and his own mass would pull him down. The humiliation of defeat against such an overmatched opponent would drive him from the place.
She urinated where she stood to communicate her contempt. When she finished she took a step toward him.
And could not rise again.
At the crucial moment her body betrayed her. Time slowed as Cu Fail howled in triumph. The Adam-son ran toward her though she tried to warn him away. She heard two barks, both near but muffled. While the Adam-son knelt scant inches from Cu Fail’s mighty jaws the Adam-daughter turned toward the door. The barking grew clear and then Odin-son was out, upon Cu Fail and past him, running for the fence line. The old black dog did not know that he could still run. With a growl of frustration Cu Fail spun and trotted after him. The laws of the Hunt bound even the pack leader: if a prey fled he was compelled to give chase.
It does not matter, he snarled as he followed. I can smell your death upon you, Odin-son. You delay the inevitable for a month, perhaps two. And I will be waiting.
She did not hear the Odin-son’s reply. The Freya-daughter also escaped the confines of the house but she ignored Cu Fail completely. Perhaps she did not see him. Instead she leapt into the air, jumping in circles and snapping joyously at snowflakes. The old black dog despised her for a fool, but in a last moment before she could no longer keep her head upraised she saw the snow swirl into a column. At the column’s center stood a tall, pale woman who smiled at the brindle and at her. I will meet you in the vines, the woman signed and then was gone.
(to be continued)