Yelena looked up suddenly as an alarm erupted into life a few streets away, screeching panic into the dark sky. The piece of fried chicken between the vixen’s teeth slipped, forgotten, from her mouth, down to the ground and the chip paper she had wrestled it from. Dark shadows rushed down the street she was in, animals fleeing the sound, she supposed; but could not ask. The irritating thing about the form she was in was that, despite the folk tales, she was unable to speak with the other animals she encountered; there was no understanding that reached across species outside of the vagaries of tone and pitch that could suggest intention but not meaning.
A cat, a heavy set tom with scars and puckered ears from dozens of fights, if not more, dashed past her, down to a garden gate and leapt up onto the wall and from there into the tree next door. Once ensconced in safety it stared down at her with gold green eyes so round they could have been marbles.
“What’s going on?” Yelena asked, knowing it was hopeless but feeling that she had to try. Perhaps luck would be on her side. The animal just stared down at her, content with his high perch to keep him safe. She recognised him, one of the big cats, as close to a king as you could find amongst the fractious species. He had fucked and fought his way to the top of the pile locally and protected his territory against all comers; even against dogs like Rottweilers. Most of the kittens in the area bore some of his markings, the distinctive white flash running up his nose or odd humbug like paw pad that decorated his right forepaw.
She cursed, wishing her family had gained the ability to speak with beasts as well as resemble them back in the days when the Holly King had gifted them with their unique ability; a time when Spring ruled Faerie and, if legend was to be believed, the forest covered most of the land. Perhaps if she had been an abler student of sorcery she might have managed but even then, the magic usually required a humanoid shape and, when casting hexes or cantrips, thumbs were surprisingly important.
At the end of the street a blur of motion drew her attention as two figures ran past, and Yelena heard something else, something the siren had hidden, a deep panting of a huge beast. An immense dog paced into view at the end of the road and stopped, looking around. There was nothing light about the dog; it was a hideous, twisted thing, pushed to the limits of biology by something. Brilliant green eyes shone in its face and its head moved in a slow arc, sweeping from side to side taking in the street furniture, the cars that crowded into driveways or clung to the side of the road like limpets. The nose twitched, the head turned again, and the beast’s eyes fixed upon Yelena.
She cringed back, retreated down the street, praying that the creature had not seen her, or that the night would swallow her the way it had swallowed the cats. Perhaps she could escape, break into the back gardens; the monster’s bulk made it unlikely that it could scramble over gates or fences with anything resembling ease.
Something flapped upon its back, raising inky tendrils that seemed attached to the dog’s back. A shudder ran through it and there was a shift in its mass, almost imperceptible but there. It grew larger, more ferocious looking. Its head suddenly seemed thinner but as its mouth lolled open, she saw its teeth as yellowing daggers that grew until the canines were so long that they jutted over the sides of its mouth.
A shudder ran through her, magic then, not just a big savage dog but something fae-touched. She knew it would be a spell from the Crimson School; they were Oberon’s pet magicians, his first port of call for anything that needed magic to put down or raise up, if the crueller court gossip was to be believed. She wondered, somewhere in the back of her brain, how the enchantment had come through into the mortal world; the gate was closed, there was no way for anything to make its way through was there?
Before she could think on it more the dog took a step forward and a low growl rippled in its throat. Its mouth gaped and it barked in a deep, almost feral frenzy. She fell back before it, risking turning and trotting away at a brisk pace, her mind turning towards escape, head weaving back and forth as she spied out for places to run. No point even trying to fight it, she was trapped as she was and there was no chance of her even adapting the form to fight.
“Stand,” the beast said suddenly, a distant voice hidden inside the dog’s bark. “Yelena of the Emerald Manor, outcast and exile of the courts of Faerie, I command you hold.”
She turned, staring back towards the monster. There was something familiar about the voice. In the faerie tongue, carried in the same way as the courtier's voice, she asked. “Darian, is that you?”
Beside the smoking pool, the courtier flushed. His hand was clenched around a rag, the twin of the one that the dog bore; he could feel it writhing in his grip. His gaze bored into the water; the three Fae in the tower could see the fox turning to face their catspaw, her eyes full of incredulity. His skin, blanched pale from focussing on the link with the dog, flushed suddenly with embarrassment. The three could understand her, even though she yipped and barked, thanks to an enchantment laid upon the scrying pool
“Who I am is unimportant,” he snapped angrily. “By the power invested in me by King Oberon,” he paused, letting the dog’s vocal chords catch up. It was strange to communicate within the natural sounds the animal made. He continued, “I am bound to command you to return that which you stole!”
“That I stole?” the fox shot back. “Your king had no right to it in the first place, the filthy usurper.” She retreated a little as the dog advanced.
“You treasonous bitch,” Darian snapped. “How dare you question our lord?” As if sensing his ire Mungo gathered itself and sprang forward, barking ferociously.
There was a sound behind the dog; Darian cursed as the beast turned its head, suddenly distracted. Behind, lights were switching on in the houses, which Darian thought looked like anonymous faces, like the stone heads in the Valley of Omens. At one door a face peered out and at the end of the street a crowd had gathered. An old man, vaguely recognisable as the dog's owner, stood next to a woman on a two wheeled machine, who was clad in a bright, reflective vest.
Vaguely the words “The boy came this way and my Mungo was chasing him,” filtered into the dog's ears and from there to the trio by the pool.
There was a lull as more of the mortals congregated, running across to the woman with the strange machine and talking, gesticulating wildly towards the hound.
“What are they doing?” Darian asked, twisting to look at Feydo.
The magician frowned, “Mortal foolishness, their world is so starved of power that they act like this at every act of sorcery.”
Alastair frowned, “Master, we must be careful, the vessel cannot hold much more power. I don't know that it can cope with this much stress. We created the poppet to hunt the fugitive, not fight a mob.”
The old man began to walk closer to the hound, “Mungo, is that you?” The woman in the vest tried to intercede but he shook her off.
“Can't you get rid of him?” Darian asked.
“No, the poppet might be able to do something but from the changes its reaped, most of the power we put into it has been expended. Shaping the tool will have used most of it up.”
“Come here, Mungo,” the old man shouted, slapping his thigh. He bent, slightly, and held out a hand. “Come here.”
“What's the old fool doing? Doesn't he see the changes?” Darian twisted the rag, tearing at it a little with his fingertips.”
“Of course, but you can't expect sense from them. They're fools, down to the last one of them,” Feydo sniffed.
“Master,” Alastair said again. “What about our pawn?”
“Yes, it would be foolish for it to remain.” Feydo agreed. “Tell it to withdraw, courtier”.
“But if we lose Yelena,” Darian protested hotly.
“Better that we do that than we lose our servant.” Alastair told him, “If the poppet is destroyed we lose our only link to the mortal world.”
There was a sudden, low pitched growling and the three, turned in unison to look into the pool. The old man was still approaching but something in the way they saw him suggested that the broad dog had shifted stance. Suddenly the beast lunged forward, knocking the man to the ground. There was a frenzy of biting, clawing and the sound of running feet. Something struck the animal on the side of the face, a stone that shook the animal, its gaze pitched to one side. When the dog looked up again there was a press of mortals running towards it, faces scared and angry. The woman at the back of the crowd was talking urgently into a small black box, whilst some of the crowd had snatched fallen sticks to use a makeshift cudgels. The trio's servant looked down again, showing the bleeding figure of the old man, his arm torn into bloody ribbons by the hound's claws. His shoulder was bleeding profusely; it looked like the beast's jaws may have mashed the bone into a pulp as they closed on it.
“Turn, you fool, get away from there,” Darian hissed, suddenly realising that the old sorcerer was correct, that allowing the mob to vent their fury would spell disaster, most especially for him.
Slowly the beast turned and began to run.
Yelena rested. She had taken the opportunity of the distraction to run, run like hell as if the tithe ship were after her and her name was on the Infernal Manifest. She glanced behind her, but there was no sign of her pursuer. She breathed a deep sigh of relief and crept forward. She was on the edge of the town's park, an anaemic green space that served to give children somewhere to play over the summer and seemed to have little purpose beyond that.
Somewhere ahead she could hear panting, paused to check the kind it was, and pressed on, satisfied that she was not going to disturb a tryst. She gently nosed her way through the undergrowth, the encouraged plants that had been placed so deliberately by the town's gardeners and pushed out to stand beside a long pond, its sides festooned with warning notices, to prevent children from trying to swim in the murky waters. In the centre of the pond there was a small island and on it, firmly sealed away by an iron fence and several more notices, there were the ruins of a tower.
On a park bench two figures sat, bent double and breathing hard. “So you've been running away from that thing all night?” One of them, Aiden, asked between gasps. “In all that time it didn't occur to you to dump the bag?” He poked at a fat rucksack that lay on the ground. It wobbled and threatened to roll down to the pond.
“Hey, don't do that.” Brendan protested, making a grab for it, sliding from the bench to the ground. He pulled the bag to him and wrapped his arms about it protectively.
“What's in there that's so important? It's just clothes and you have enough of those at home, remember?”
Brendan glanced up at him, “You mean you didn't notice?”
“Didn't notice what?” Aiden asked. “Please don't make me play twenty questions, Bren, I've spent half the night looking for you and the other half running away from that thing.”
“Barghest,” his brother said, reflexively and frowned. “It's just that thing was so weird and it was just,” he paused. “Nobody else acted as if they could see it you know? It was as if I was the only one to notice it. I think that rattled it, a bit. It's probably why the dog came after me.”
Aiden laughed suddenly, “I have no idea what you're talking about, you know?”
Brendan sighed and started to explain about the rag, and its strange activities, about the way it had settled onto Mungo's back and forced some sort of union between them. Finally he stopped, looked up at Aiden with questioning eyes.
“Are you serious?” His brother asked quietly.
“Yeah, why would I lie about something like that?” Brendan asked in puzzlement.
Aiden pointed over the water to the tower, “Do you remember when we were kids and we saw the knight in the ruins?”
“Not really, sorry.”
“We came to feed the ducks with Mum, it was just before she ran off. She pointed him out to us and we saw him standing on the ramparts.” He stood up and walked to the water's edge, looking up at the pile of bleached white stones. “The next day we went to school and you denied it, said it was my imagination. I was the ghost boy all that term.” He had never really shaken the label off, it was the start of his own peculiar way of surviving school, sticking to the fringes of things, only noticed when it was the wrong time. He crossed his arms about his torso.
“Sorry, but bro, that was years ago, why are you dragging it up now?” Brendan asked, obviously confused by the turn in the conversation.”
“Look,” Aiden pointed up. On the parapet of the old tower in the moonlight there was an armoured figure, standing watch over the town, facing towards the woods. In his hands he clutched a kite shaped shield and a long spear. The wall fell away just enough to reveal a horn hanging at his waist.
Brendan frowned, “But, he's never been there before, I swear it. I was here last month with Jess and there was nothing.”
“I haven't seen him since Mum ...” Aiden's voice trailed away.“Your bag.”
“What?” Brendan asked, peevishly. “Damn it, Aiden, stop it. I'm tired, can't we just go home?”
“No, you said something about not missing something, what did you mean?” Aiden asked. He suddenly seemed to be full of energy, looking about him excitedly. “Give me your bag,” he reached out a hand and took it.
“Hey careful,” Brendan protested. “Don't break it.”
“Then show me, stop mucking about.”
“Okay,” Brendan whined but started to unbuckle the bag's straps. He pulled out an armful of clothes, carefully depositing them on the park bench and then took something else out, something that was wrapped in a bundle of shirts. He began to unwrap it, layer by layer. Finally he pulled the last shirt free, revealing a small mirror, that caught the moonlight.
Yelena felt her eyes go wide and, despite herself, she trotted forward, eyes fixed upon the boy's hands. A little growl of excitement rumbled in her throat and she yipped.
“Jesus, where did you spring from?” Aiden asked in surprise, “You weren't around earlier.”
She favoured him with a grin and deliberately pushed her head against Brendan's leg.
“What is it?” He bent down, showing her the mirror, a half moon of polished glass sat in a carved ivory frame that was definitely not human workmanship. It was too delicate, the scrimshaw carving showing curling ivy through which sun, moon and stars peeped. More importantly from the vixen's point of view the scent of faerie magic rose from the object, tinged with the smell of damp earth and flowers; this was a Spring artefact, the likes of which had been banished from the twilight realm an age ago when the old Spring capital fell during one Faerie's interminable wars. As he held it she saw a halo surround Brendan's head, as if his hair caught the reflected moonlight.
“I always take it to auditions,” he explained. “Dad had buried it in a drawer in the study and I just found it one day and took it. It seemed stupid not to.” He held it out to his brother, “Here look.”
Aiden took it reluctantly, holding it delicately. His skin grew paler as he raised it to see his reflection, he covered his mouth with his free hand. “It smells like Mum,” he said sadly.
Somewhere, out in the town there was the deep barking of dogs and all three of them froze. The Vixen leapt to her feet and stared about with wild eyes.
Carefully Aiden returned his brother's treasure. “Perhaps we should get home.”
“Yes, that sounds like a good plan,” Brendan agreed. He yawned suddenly, “God, I'm so tired. I could kill for a cup of coffee.”
Hours later, at the edge of the woods, the hound stopped running. It had left its pursuers far behind, though it knew, somehow, that they would not stop hunting for it. The part of it that was still Mungo did not understand. It did not comprehend what had happened, why it had threatened its pack leader in the first place, or what would happen now that it had. The cool intelligence of the magic that had possessed it so completely knew but it was a dominating force that swallowed the animal's voice and pushed it down, keeping it quiet and at bay. It had guided the beast's paws and path, leading it back in a wide arc.
Now, as the sun rose the hound found itself heading into the tree line, towards the place that its passenger felt safest. It quested onwards, trotting briskly until, finally, it saw somewhere it could rest. It splashed into the old ford and up stream, under the railway bridge. Climbing out onto the bank it curled into the dirt and laid its head upon its paws staring out at the ever brightening world soulfully.
Tomorrow night it would be stronger, tomorrow night it would find its prey again and there would be no stopping it. Somewhere in the cold intelligence of the poppet, a plan began to form.