The brindle had been living alone with the Adam-children for six months when the fox hunters came. The Odin-daughter had passed on five seasons before and the Odin-son, lasting far longer than Cu Fail prophesied, three full seasons after that. He had warned the brindle of the Wild Hunt’s coming, but she had seen no sign of a dog matching the Odin-son’s description of Cu Fail nor a change in the Adam-children’s fortunes. Being a dog who prided herself on living in the present, she went about her daily routine of snoozing and eating, taking nice walks and chasing small animals, and thought no more about the Hunt.
That changed the day the Adam-daughter found the fox hunters outside the door. Though the brindle was more proficient at the various communication media of the Adam children, her command of sign was passable enough that she recognized the newcomers desired to speak with her urgently. So after the Adam-son – whom she often thought of as the Headmaster – finished tying them to the hot tub lid’s lift bar she barked until he let her outside.
Alert! they cried aloud as she jumped down the steps. Danger! Warning! Alert!
She reared back in astonishment and quickly scanned the yard and the street beyond. Sensing no threats anywhere within sight or sound or smell she regarded them with a more skeptical eye. Who are you?
We are the messengers Hermod-daughter and son! We bear tidings from the goddess!
Which one? the brindle asked. There are so many.
Hermod-son rolled his eyes in agitation. Yours, Freya-daughter! The one who intervened to keep the Hunt at bay!
The pretty white woman? I didn’t know her.
How can you not know your own goddess?! Hermod-daughter yipped aloud in frustration.
I didn’t choose the name for myself. She lay down and rested her head on her paws. Do you think you could calm down a little? You make me tired just listening to you.
The Adam-daughter emerged, talking on the phone. “If you could call the owners and tell them their dogs are loose, I’d appreciate it. We’ll keep them here for now.” She recited her address. “Thank you very much.”
The Hermod-son tested the strength of his binding with his teeth. It would have taken only a little effort to chew through, but the Mistress disengaged his jaws from the rope and gave him a gentle warning tap on his head. We do not want to be here –
When Cu Fail comes. The Hermod-daughter finished his sentence for him.
The brindle yawned and stretched out on her side in the sun. Cu Fail, Cu Fail. Everyone talks about him, but no one sees him.
We have seen him. The fox hunters raised their stiff, short hackles. Nearly every day for the past eight seasons. Until yesterday.
It was a sight to watch, Freya-daughter. The Hermod-daughter danced around her larger sibling. Tell her how it happened.
* * *
We live across your field but during the day our Adam-daughter takes us with her to one of the many vine temples a long run north of here, where she pours libations to her worshipping brothers and sisters.
(The brindle yawned again. Could you skip all the religious mumbo-jumbo? The small fox hunter bit at her and the brindle batted her beneath a bush with a leisurely paw.)
It is our habit to patrol the temple and its courtyard, but we had never seen the goddess there until a day eight seasons ago – the day that winter came. Tall and white, she waited still as a statue in the vines. We ran to do her bidding but our Adam-daughter – she could not see the goddess, of course – was angry at us for running off and the goddess sent us back to soothe her. “I require nothing of you for now,” she said in her melodious voice. “But I will, I hope, have a message for you later, Hermod-children.”
We reassured the Adam-daughter and crept back more discreetly. We hid from the goddess as well, since it is not seemly to attend when one has been dismissed.
(Then why would you do it? Disobedience always brings trouble. The brindle nibbled in turn at the ropes that bound them in illustration, but the fox hunters ignored her and the Hermod-son continued his story.)
Soon a car, too nice for a grape-gatherer, not nice enough for a worshipper, pulled up not at the temple but beside the vines. A thin-framed Adam-daughter also straddling the line between grape-gatherer and worshipper emerged from the car carrying a small box. She walked into the vines, not far from where the goddess stood. After standing silent and sad for a moment she opened the lid and walked slowly down the narrow aisle between two rows of plants, scattering the box’s dusty grey contents as she went. She did not see the goddess and, her duty discharged, she returned to her car and drove away.
As soon as the Adam-daughter was out of sight the goddess raised her pale arms and began a deep-throated, half-whispered chant. The last few shriveled leaves rustled on the wires that held their branches splayed before ripping loose in a strengthening, circling wind. The wind drove everything before it except the soft grey dust, which it gathered into a spiral and brought as if by command to the goddess.
She wove her hands in intricate patterns and the dust took on a form, like to one of us. (We realized then that the dust was ash, the other fox hunter interjected). The goddess bent down and breathed upon it, and its dull grey eyes flickered with fire like to a hound of the Hunt.
The ash-dog lifted a slow paw, staring down at it in surprise and disbelief. Then she raised her gaze to the goddess’ face, not in humility but in challenge. Why have you called me forth?
The goddess made a sign of warding that would cause pain to a hound of the Hunt but the ash-dog did not flinch. State your allegiance, Freya said. What are you?
The ash-dog drew herself up proudly. I am Odin-daughter.
Even unto death and beyond? The goddess studied her with cold, assessing eyes. (And no wonder, Hermod-daughter said. It is not often an Odin-child resists the call of the Hunt when passing on).
Freya walked down the row of vines with long quick strides, putting still more distance between herself and the road. She motioned to the ash-dog to follow, but did not look back to see if she complied. What is your heart’s desire? she signed with an outstretched hand.
The Odin-daughter watched the goddess’ swiftly retreating form. Long moments passed before she took a single step forward, then another: the slow steps of a weak or infirm sister who does not expect her haunches to bear her weight. When she realized that they did so, she walked at first with purpose and then with joy, drawing aside of the goddess and matching her pace with ease. Vengeance upon Cu Fail.
That destiny is neither yours nor any Odin-child’s, living or passed on. Cu Fail and the Hunt were, are and will be: Odin’s test of his children’s resolve, and the paws of vengeance against any Adam-child who abuses their trust.
The ash-dog curled back her lip in a snarl, a shocking display of contempt for the goddess. Then why have you called me back?
But rather than smiting her where she stood, the goddess turned and bent on one knee before her. Did you love your Adam-children?
In my way.
Freya nodded. It is well. My daughter needs time to understand the Hunt. Will you grant it to her?
I am not surprised. Odin-daughter bared her fangs in assent. Tell me what I must do.
* * *
The Hermod-son stopped signing as his sister sniffed anxiously at the air. What is it?
I’m not – she sniffed again. Perhaps nothing.
The brindle cuffed Hermod-son. What happened next?
The goddess summoned Cu Fail. He flew into a rage when he saw the Odin-daughter, called both she and the goddess dreadful names. The goddess told the Odin-daughter to run. She ran, nearly as fast as the wind which formed her.
Hermod-daughter danced in delight at the memory. Cu Fail and the Hunt were compelled to give chase. His anger gave terrible speed to himself and his hounds, but the Odin-daughter was swifter still, and clever. She ran them through the vines as if they were a maze.
Every day for eight seasons we saw them, Hermod-son said. Every day until yesterday, when the goddess came to us and sent us here. To tell you that you are ready. Cu Fail is coming.
So your preparations must be finished? Hermod-daughter asked.
The brindle arched an inquisitive eyebrow. Preparations?
Of the defenses! Hermod-daughter ran in an agitated circle around the hot tub, choking as she caught the cord in a garden chair.
The Adam-daughter, who had been sitting on the bedroom steps reading, sighed as she rose to untangle her. “I hope the vet gets a hold of their owners soon. It’s getting late. I’m hungry.”
The brindle wrapped her forepaws around the Adam-daughter’s arms and licked her face. Taking me?
The Adam-son laughed. “Yes, we’re taking you.”
Stop that! Hermod-son snapped. How many times have you paced the perimeter?
Paced the perimeter? Never.
Hermod-daughter jumped up and down in nervous excitement. How many defensive holes have you dug?
Here? None. I dig in the field to the south. The Headmaster doesn’t like me digging here.
Then what do you do?
Chase cats. Kill squirrels. She licked her chops in happy memory; the feel of a neck snapping between jaws was one of the few pleasures worth getting in trouble for. Curl up on the sofa and watch Harry Potter. Only the sofa upstairs. And only after the popcorn is done. Well, his popcorn. She wagged her tail at the Adam-son. He grinned and patted her head. She eats too slow.
Curl up where? Hermod-son yapped aloud in disbelief. Watch what? What good does any of that do?
The brindle yawned and headed for the bedroom door. I think I’m bored with you. I’m going in.
But the Hunt! The fox hunters cried aloud in dismay and redoubled their efforts to chew through the ropes that bound them.
“What is their problem?” the Adam-daughter said in exasperation as she opened the door for the brindle.
She had two paws in the bedroom when the birdsong ceased. She heard two barks, one far, one near. The day the old black dog died she had seen nothing other than the pretty pale woman, though Odin-son insisted that this Cu Fail had come. She only half-listened when he told her the signs of the Hunt’s return, and less than half believed him. But she liked the Headmaster and the Mistress; she supposed it couldn’t hurt to check things out, so she turned around and went back outside.
He wasn’t there and then he was, a dog with a rough, thick coat the color of ash, stained with soot around his eyes and his ears and at the tip of his tail. He smelled of fires in the wood-burning stove and the burning sticks the Headmaster put down gopher holes. I am Cu Fail, he said. Your predecessor succumbed at last. I have come for what is mine.
“What is she looking at?” the Adam-son asked. The Adam-daughter shook her head, but rather than advancing they stood and watched.
The brindle raised her hackles and snarled. She did not like this creature, so quick to demand what was not his. The fox hunters hid between the hot tub and the side of the garage, making themselves very small. This is my home. You are not welcome.
Cu Fail took two steps forward, looming nearly twice her height and four times her mass. Beneath his fur smoldered embers poised to ignite. Will you challenge me with tooth and claw?
Of course I won’t. The brindle backed up. You’re on fire. You’ll burn me.
Then you concede. Cu Fail laughed. It amuses me that the goddess and the Odin-daughter’s strident efforts were in vain. It almost makes the wait worthwhile. Offer your Adam-children what comfort you can; it’s all the comfort they’ll have. He raised his muzzle and howled. A dozen chilling bays answered him from the river across the fields. I declare this place a Hunting Ground, and –
The brindle thought hard and fast. She didn’t understand much about the Hunt, but she didn’t like this beast’s arrogance and she’d watched enough movies to know a threat when she heard one. She wanted him gone, but how did one do that? An image came to her mind, bright light and a shield against evil. Before he could finish whatever silly but no doubt binding ritual he’d begun she raised a paw in sign and barked. Expecto patronum!
Cu Fail had only a moment to curl his lip in an expression of disdain and another to widen his eyes in astonishment before a spectral raccoon leapt from the ground before her, knocked him off his feet and then disappeared. Growling, he advanced again.
A ghostly cat jumped forward, claws extended, and raked at his eyes. Cu Fail howled in rage and agony, dropped to the ground and rolled. The cat vanished.
The brindle wagged her tail. Her ears pricked high in laughter. I can do this all day.
Cu Fail rose and shook himself off. You will run out of animals eventually.
That was just to amuse myself. Do you want to see them all at once? Expecto patronum! To her own surprise neither cat nor raccoon, neither squirrel nor possum arose from the ground. Instead the translucent outlines of Odin-son and Odin-daughter appeared, young and strong as she had never seen them.
The old black dog leapt at Cu Fail. He burst into flame and though the brindle had to back away from its heat the fire did not burn the Odin-daughter. He opened his mighty jaws but she slipped beneath him, closed her teeth around his left rear leg and with a quick jerk threw him on his back. Before he could regain his footing Odin-son was upon him, the teeth of his long muzzle clamped around the pack leader’s throat. Three times challenged, three times lost, Odin-daughter signed.
Cu Fail howled in rage. That was no challenge!
The baying of the Hunt faltered and ceased. The sound of birdsong returned. Cu Fail’s flames dimmed and his massive body began collapsing in on itself like spent wood in a fire. It is not the old way, Odin-son signed, but the challenge has been met. You are thrice defeated and will withdraw, not merely for the Freya-daughter’s lifetime but for the lifetimes of our Adam-children. You will trouble them no more, neither here nor any place they should choose to abide. As the last words left the Odin-son’s paws, Cu Fail vanished in a swirl of ash with a final whimper of complaint.
Odin-son and daughter turned and bowed their heads to the brindle, sparing a scant glance for the cowering fox hunters but a longer, lingering one for the Adam-children, who still stood near the hot tub looking puzzled. We are at peace, Odin-son signed.
We go now to the halls of our father, Odin-daughter said. We will not join the Hunt. The contempt in her gaze faded somewhat as she looked upon the brindle. Your way is not mine. But it appears that it suffices.
Unsure how to respond the younger dog bowed. It seemed to be enough. Without another word the old black dog and the low-bodied brown badger hunter walked side by side to the north. To the brindle’s relief a car pulled into the driveway and a worried woman emerged. She would be glad to see the fox hunters gone. It was well past time for lunch.