The morning sun shone down over Kingsford's woods, illuminating the undergrowth. Marion Jeffries and John Turner met at the edge of the little forest, as they always did, with Jasper and Daisy, again as they always did. The latter, a pair of dogs, one a Collie and the other a Golden Retriever, greeted each other exuberantly whilst Marion and John smiled at each other warmly. They had bonded over their dogs and the shared route they walked through the woods every morning for the past few years. Originally they had simply met up along the trail, nodding to each other as they passed. That might have been the whole of it, if Daisy hadn't hurt her paw one day.
The Golden Retriever had found something in the dirt last year, and dug at it insistently, ignoring John's attempts to drag her away. She had been on the lead at the time but something had possessed her that day, and she had stubbornly resisted her master, the man she normally considered to be akin to a god. It had only been Marion's intervention that had allowed them to get get Daisy away and to the vet.
Marion and John had talked properly for the first time in the taxi to the surgery, even if John had been busy trying to keep his suddenly skittish pet under control, her blood soaking through his handkerchief. He had been distracted; if she had asked him what they had talked about afterwards, he probably wouldn't have recalled. His attention was directed towards Daisy the whole time and there was something about that which made Marion admire him. Once Daisy was well enough to resume her early morning walks Marion and Jasper joined them, rushing to catch up with them in the early morning light.
Since then they had made their early morning walk together, meeting at the entrance to the woodland and wandering through it. Daisy, despite the earlier incident, usually bumbled along beside John, solid and stolid, content just to walk. Jasper was a different story, he usually wanted to run and would rush ahead to investigate everything, his feathery Collie tail waving like a flag as he sniffed everything he possibly could. Marion only let him off the lead once they were well into the woods, away from the roads; where the only danger was other dogs.
Kingsford's woods were quiet, of the anaemically English variety. There were no wild boar or deer here. They were quiet, well ordered, and the greatest problem were the teens that occasionally trooped into the trees, found a clearing and got drunk on cheap cider and smoke cigarettes. A few years ago one of them had managed to start a small brush fire, but that was as much trouble as they usually caused. It was not the kind of place where either dog owner felt they had to keep their pet on the leash.
“Morning John,” Marion said as they met. Jasper strained forward, barking excitedly, to greet Daisy. “How are you today? How's Janet?”
“Oh she's fine; she asked after you two this morning.” John replied. His wife suffered from Fibromyalgia and rarely left the house. He had taken it hard, and in some ways Marion suspected that he was so keen on walking Daisy because it let him get out of the house and away; let him immerse himself in his thoughts.
“Really,” Marion blushed slightly. “I am sorry about Jasper, he's can be so boisterous.” The little Collie had spent most of the pair's brief visit busily exploring the Turners' garden and trying to coax Daisy into another game. The older dog had simply lain on the patio, watching as if she was his mother and he a truculent puppy, resisting any cajoling on his part.
They turned and set off into the woods, crunching dry sticks under their feet. They always followed the same route, walking in a wide loop around the forest, heading away from the ford initially, up over the uneven ground, and then down into the dell. Eventually they would cross under the railway line and circle back around to the gate they had entered by. Whilst the woods were not fenced off they had a very clearly defined set of entrances and exits; it was hard not to know what their boundaries lay.
They reached the bottom of the rise, and Marion stopped and unhooked Jasper's lead. “Go on boy, work out some of that energy,” she told him, with a rub behind his ears. It was better to let himself wear himself out now;t hat way he would sleep the rest of the day away.
He sprang forward without further prompting, running off to investigate the various scents and trails that he would inevitably find. He ran at the edges of the path, tail wagging high, whilst his head dipped and sniffed at the ground. As the party approached the top of the rise, to the place where a natural clearing afforded a nice view of the eastern horizon, he stiffened and ran on ahead. A moment later his excited barks drew Daisy into a trot and she quested up the rise, arriving just ahead of John and Marion.
John crossed the tree line, “Daisy, here girl.”
She ignored him, nosing at something on the ground. Jasper was fascinated with it too, he barely even looked up as Marion entered the clearing.
John walked towards the dogs, bending to select a stick from the ground when the smell and the sound hit him. He raised his head, nose wrinkling. He frowned at the persistent buzzing of flies that suddenly filled the air.
In the centre of the clearing, there was a corpse; the body of a fox stretched out in a scene of devastation. Only the head was in any way intact, and even then there was a look of fear etched in the animal's eyes. The rest of the body was a mass of bloody damage, torn fur, ripped flesh; splintered bone. It was as if something huge had picked the fox up and ground it between rippling jaws, grinding it into pulp.
The two dogs were sniffing at the body excitedly, Jasper's muzzle was flecked with blood. Daisy was less so, but she still showed a deep interest in the mangled corpse. Her long tongue lapped out and John saw her lick up some of the blood.
He grabbed her collar and tried to pull her back but she resisted him, struggling against his efforts.
Jasper, faced with a similar situation as Marion advanced on him, suddenly growled and burst into a flurry of barking, not the kind that indicated joy but a sound more aggressive and threatening than either human had heard from him before. As Marion approached he suddenly dodged around her and ran, heading pell-mell into the trees.
“Jasper, come back!” Marion shouted, taking off after him.
“Marion,” John called, struggling to keep his grip on Daisy. Suddenly the Retriever pulled free of him and she too headed towards the trees, moving with more energy than she had displayed for many years. “Daisy, heel!” John shouted after her, but like Jasper, she was running, heedless of the rest of the world. In an instant she was gone, lost amongst the trees.
John and Marion pursued them for as long as they could but the dogs were gone, lost in the woods. Neither of the owners noticed the scraps of cloth, each a tiny white spider-like sigil, that had attached to their pets, just under their throats, and if they had they would not have known what to make of them anyway.
The doorbell rang. It took a moment for Aiden to answer it, partly because he was at the back of the house, in the kitchen looking through the family's recipe books. It was only on the third shrill buzzing that he roused himself enough to wander through to the porch. He squinted through the spy hole; two figures in blue stood outside.
Aiden swung the door open, revealing a pair of police officers. He took a deep breath, “What do you want?”
“Good morning, is this the Fletcher residence?” One of the police officers asked. She was a thin, small breasted woman with short blonde hair that poked out from under her hat. Her companion was large and looked to be as bald as a coot.
“Yes,” Aiden allowed, leaning against the door frame, his arms crossed across his chest. “What do you want?”
“I'm WPC Carter and this is PC Adams; we'd like to talk with Mr Brendan Fletcher, is he here?” She stepped closer to the house. “We believe he can help with our enquiries.”
“Right,” Aiden drawled, but turned and called back into the house, “Bren, are you in?”
Upstairs there was a clatter and a moment later his brother peered down from the top of the stairs. He looked half asleep, his hair tousled and his clothes unkempt. “What is it?”
“Just come down,” Aiden told him before turning back to the officer. “I guess you'd better come in.”
“Thank you, Mr Fletcher.” She stepped over the threshold and pressed past him.
The other police officer followed, glancing at Aiden from the corner of his eye. A smile tugged at his lips a little. “How are you, Aiden, keeping out of trouble these days I hope?”
“I thought they'd put you on traffic,” Aiden replied coolly. “So you didn't have to worry about kids who hang around in graveyards any more.”
“Very droll, is your dad around?”
“He's back, I think he went for a walk though.”
They settled in the front room, Brendan curling up in an armchair whilst the two officers sat, a touch uncomfortably, on the sofa.
Aiden perched on the arm of the armchair, “Will you tell us what this is about now?”
The WPC glanced at him, before switching her attention to Brendan. “Mr Fletcher, I'm PC Carter, we want to ask you about the events of a few nights ago, in the beer garden of the Green Man pub.”
Brendan shifted, “What about them?”
“We'd like to have your version of what happened.” PC Carter told him.
“Honestly, there's not much to tell.”
“Could you tell us why you went to the Green Man in the first place?” Carter asked. “I don't imagine it's somewhere you go regularly.”
Brendan glanced up at Aiden, “I know it sounds silly but I was reading a play I've got a part in and got sort of sucked into the role I'm playing. I wasn't myself when I got off at the station, well in some ways anyway.” He yawned and rubbed at his eyes. “Sorry, I haven't been sleeping well.”
Aiden stiffened; he had been plagued by nightmares for the past few nights. All his dreams seemed to lead to a single point, to the tower in the middle of the lake with its ghostly champion. In the dreams the knight stared down at him with cold, judgemental eyes. He found himself forced to cross the lake, walking down into the water until he had no choice but to swim. Once he had woken, cold and shivering, convinced that he was about to drown. Had Brendan had similar dreams?
“So you were in some sort of a daze then?” Adams asked, leaning forward, his eyes fastened on the two brothers.
“Yes, something like that. I didn't realise where I was where until I got to the Man, and I only know the place because Dad drinks there.”
“And you ended up in the beer garden?”
“Yes, I don't know how really, I was just scrambling over the wall all of a sudden,” Brendan told him steadily.
“The landlady says you didn't even enter the pub, is that correct?” Adams pressed.
“I think so,” Brendan looked apologetic. “When I get like that I really don't know if I'm coming or going.”
“Evidently so, perhaps you should see a doctor about it,” The big man said.
“I'm sorry but can I ask a question?” Aiden piped up. Without waiting for a response he ploughed on, “I'm just curious why, if its an investigation they've sent a couple of normal officers instead of someone from CID?”
“Aiden, leave it will you,” Brendan muttered, poking his brother in the leg. “Sorry, he doesn't mean anything by it.”
“That's alright, Mr Fletcher, Aiden's never been what you might call cooperative have you lad?” Adams said with a chuckle. “I think that he likes being contrary at times.”
Carter shot her companion a hard look. “We're not here to make accusations. We're just gathering information. Mr Cooper said that you were with his dog just before he ran off. Is that right?”
“It is, but I didn't do anything to Mungo. He just went strange, when I was trying to be friendly.”
“Was that another part of your acting?” Adams asked.
“Sorry? I'm not sure I follow.”
“It's just that you're old enough to know better than to go around petting dogs like that, so I'm just wondering what prompted you to do such a thing.”
There was a sudden scrape of a key in the lock and the front door opened. “Hello, is anyone home?”
“In here, Dad,” Brendan called, uncurling from the chair.
A grizzled, bearded face poked around the door, “You're up then, son? I thought you were going to spend the whole day in bed.” Professor Fletcher blinked through his glasses, taking in the scene. “What have you done now, Aiden?”
“Dad!” Aiden protested in a scandalised tone of voice.
“Professor, it's good to see you again.” Adams rose from his seat. “I'm pleased to say that Aiden hasn't done anything that we know of, so please don't worry about that.”
A smile split the older man's face. “That's a relief. In that case I can only guess that this is something to do with the business at the Green Man?”
“That's correct sir, we were just trying to find out if there was any truth to Mr Cooper's statement that young Brendan here had anything with his dog apparently going feral.”
“Yes, poor Fred, it must have come as a shock to him, his dog turning on him like that.” The Professor said. “I hear Mungo's running around town somewhere, are you any closer to finding him?”
“Not yet, the animal seems to have gone to ground. Don't worry, we'll find him.”
“I'm sure you will, has my son told you everything you need him to?” Professor Fletcher asked.
“We're not sure to be honest, we're still a little confused as to how Mungo got loose to chase him.”
“Fred's an old man, he probably only though he'd tied the dog up properly. We can be a bit dotty at times you know. And Brendan, well who knows, but it looks to me like it was an accident waiting to happen. It's probably for the best in the long run.” The older man patted Adams on the shoulder, “If we hear anything else we'll let you know.” With that he ushered the police officers out of the house and then returned to join the boys.
“Dad, why did you do that?” Aiden asked as the Professor shut the front room door.
“I've never liked that man, ever since he decided to make it his business to cause problems when you so much as walked down the street. He's not the kind of man I would invite into my house.” Professor Fletcher deposited his jacket and hat on a chair and wandered over to the window that looked into the back garden. “I know you two have been working hard at keeping your noses clean.”
“Dad, I didn't mean to cause any trouble,” Brendan told him.
“I know, neither of you ever does, but you have managed to get into some scrapes. Can you tell me what happened?”
“It's a bit weird to be honest, I'm not sure you'd believe me.”
Over his shoulder their father asked, “As weird as us suddenly having a fox living in the garden? Its a good thing you boys haven't done the gardening, I guess or he'd be upset.”
The boys exchanged a look. “You don't mind do you?” Aiden asked.
“No, it's fine. Your mother would have liked seeing him, she always loved the woods.” Professor Fletcher shook himself, “I think I'll make some tea, do you boys want one?”
Out in the woods the dogs ran until they reached the stream. Plunging in they waded along through the water to the railway bridge.
A deep barking drew them close and as they approached a huge hound shifted in the gloom in the arch. Other dogs lay about the area, or lapped at the water as it gurgled through the ford. They were not many in number but all of them looked strong, fit; as if they had been on the best diet possible.
Jasper and Daisy approached cautiously, shying away a little as one of the other dogs, a guard, rose and splashed into the water, intercepting them. The sentry dog, sniffed at the pair of them gingerly, focusing particularly upon their necks. Eventually it stepped away, wagging its tail, barking up to towards the bridge.
Mungo's gruff bark echoed back to them and the pack began to converge upon the clearing about the ford and the railway arch under which the immense hound squatted. Each of them lowered their heads in submission, exposing their throats to the leader.
The hound stared at them, and knew joy. His pack was assembled, he lifted his head and howled in triumph to the watching sky.