The old black dog examined the newcomers with caution. The one her own size, young and beautiful and stupid with ostentatious flecks of gold woven throughout her fur and the white socks that turned humans into mewling puppies, smelled her sickness and barked a challenge. The old black dog was infirm but not stupid, and as the young one lunged she backed against a pillar, set her front paws and snarled. Her haunches were atrophied but her teeth were strong and white in her grizzled muzzle, and her forepaws did not fail her. She permitted herself a small, relieved exhale when the young dog threw herself on the ground. The house still belonged to her.
The other one was a puzzle. Small but deliberate of motion, long-bodied with the bark of a hunter, he did not contend for a place but climbed – with some difficulty, for his haunches also served him badly – onto a sheepskin pad the Adam-daughter set down for him. Rather than rest upon the wine-red towel the Adam-son unfolded he threw it across his body, peering out from its dark recesses like a hooded monk. So much so that a suspicion grew in her mind and, the young interloper cowed for now, she drew near to him.
Even more than she, he smelled of illness and old age. A scent of cancer on his belly and in his brain, the bones of his face so brittle that his long black nose had broken and reset at a jagged angle. His furless ears hung leathery past the angles of an emaciated jaw. Their scars and tears – a quarter of one was entirely missing – spoke of an honorable life of battle, but like hers no longer tracked the sounds of command or threat. Clouds gathered in his gaze but she thought perhaps he could still see and so she made a sign. Odin-son.
A flicker of recognition sparked in his rheumy eyes and he curled his lips back in a toothless smile. Odin–daughter.
What brings you here in the days of my waning?
Chance, he replied. The grey weather had cleared for a moment and the brindle-coated youth stretched out in a weak warmth shining through the skylights. Let us lie in the sun and talk.
The old black dog bared her fangs and the young brindle scrabbled away. Odin-son dragged the towel with him into a corner of the small square of light and lay atop it, leaving ample room for her head and paws. The sulking brindle ran to Adam-daughter for succor but she refused to intervene and the Adam-son laughed and patted the dog’s head. “You’re a member of the household in full standing,” he said. “But the old girl is the boss.”
Perhaps it is not a bad place to be. Odin-son’s sign-tone was too condescending for the old black dog. She growled softly and he bowed his head in submission. Forgiveness. I meant no insult to your kin. But my journey was interrupted and now I must begin it again.
She did not need to ask what he meant. The instinct lay deep within every son and daughter of Odin. After a lifetime spent guarding the Adam-children against the Wild Hunt the time came to join it and become the thing the humans no longer had the sense to fear. How far did you go?
The birdsong ceased. I heard two barks, one far, one near.
She eyed him with sympathy, but also a new respect. To come close enough to the Hunt to hear Odin’s hounds only to be drawn back to duty was a wrenching experience, but an experience conferring certain benefits. Then you have gained the sight.
He rose, panting from even the skylight’s pale heat, and began tugging his towel back to the sheepskin pad. His refusal to answer told her that she spoke true. She struggled to her feet and followed, waiting as he tossed the towel over himself again. Your every exhalation smells of death. His nose twitched at the sulfurous fumes. Embarrassed, she turned her muzzle aside. You wonder who will keep the Hunt at bay after you are gone.
She glanced over at the brindle stretched out dozing and comfortable at the feet of the Adam-daughter. Freya-daughter, she said in a gesture of disdain. All beauty and no war at that. She will offer no protection from the Hunt.
Freya brings other blessings, he chided gently. Blessings they will need after you and I are gone. He burrowed more deeply into the towel. To answer the question you will not ask: yes, the rite will work for you. If you still possess the strength to perform it.
If it will work, I will find the strength. The old black dog drew in a painful breath. It should be winter for the rite. But it is never winter here.
Winter is coming, he assured her. It comes tomorrow. To honor you.
The sight can tell you even this? she asked. Was your coming really chance? But he tucked his nose beneath the wine-red towel and did not reply.
(to be continued)