By Peadar Ó Guilín
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Peadar Ó Guilín and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
Fiachra led her through the wizard’s garden and laid her down where the moonlight illuminated the perfection of her skin. She had made eyes at him all day as he stood at his canvass. He had despaired at ever finding a pigment to match her glory.
Now, he sketched out the line of her throat with kisses, his heart beating wildly from desire and fear. He placed a hand on her left breast.
“Impudent wretch,” she said breathlessly, “You have all but neglected the other!”
He leaned down further to cover those soft lips with his, but she pushed him away, eyes widening.
“Father!” she said.
Fiachra woke on a bed of straw surrounded by snuffling animals and a melange of stenches that made his eyes water. A boy of maybe eight crouched at a safe distance under a flickering rush light.
“My eyes,” thought Fiachra. He tried to rub them, but could not. Colour had leached from his vision, as though he were still under moonlight in the wizard’s garden. The boy, the straw, even the rush light seemed grey to him.
He tried to speak, to ask where he was. Only a whine emerged.
The boy approached and gingerly extended a hand. “Good doggy,” he said, “nice doggy.”
It was then Fiachra realised the awful truth. The garden! What had he done? How had he been so stupid? He howled and howled until a man came to whip him. After, he spent the night whimpering with only the boy’s arms around him for comfort.
The next day, Fiachra limped upwards over slippery steps to the master’s chambers.
“At last,” said the man, pausing to cough blood into a handkerchief. The master looked down upon Fiachra with distaste from a high chair of carved oak. He had a pointed chin, his grey features lightened by a tracework of scars. The master looked hale enough, but the stench of death clung to him.
“If the wizards think to bribe me with magical trifles like yourself, they are mistaken. I will never forget what they have done to my king. Nor will they forget that I am next in line to the throne.” He coughed again for a long time. Fiachra noticed a guardsman behind the chair making a sign against disease.
The master sputtered himself into a sweat, but took up the conversation again exactly where he had left it. “However, now that you have come to Hero’s Fort, I will make use of you. You won’t kill yourself, will you? My last falcon was a criminal too. Paid a fortune for the bloody useless thing. You won’t kill yourself? Nod your head, mutt!”
Fiachra obeyed if only to avoid another whipping. Of course he would kill himself, of course he would. Only a noble could be so arrogant to think any man would want to live like this.
“I believe you met my son, Conor. The boy is a weakling, but has best claim to be king when we put a final end to these wizards. He does not know what you are. You will look to his safety as only a hound can. Nod, mutt, nod if you understand! Good. Now go. Dogs make me cough.”
The taint of the master’s illness followed Fiachra down the corridor and into the night.
The smell of excrement on the breeze brought Fiachra a thousand pieces of information he didn’t need: who had done it; when; having eaten what and how soon before. He didn’t care, didn’t care. His nose brought news of sausages, rumbling his dog-belly. It told of visitors to the castle, of animals and other dogs. A bitch in heat had passed this way not so long before. He longed to follow the scent and this horrified him.
“I have to end this,” he thought. “Got to find a way to end it.”
The falcon that came before him had managed it — the master had said as much. Easy for a bird, though. No doubt the creature had simply plunged into the earth from a great height. That gave Fiachra an idea.
“Good doggy,” said a voice behind him.
It was the boy again, Conor, his scent already familiar from the night before. The smell seemed to sooth all the lash marks on Fiachra’s hide. And there was something else too, something sweet hidden in that small hand.
“My last biscuit, doggy!”
Fiachra had robbed and swallowed it before he even knew what he was doing. So little control, all instinct. A filthy animal.
“I’m not a dog!” he tried to say. “I’m an artist! An artist!” He fled, more determined than ever to do what must be done.
He circled the walls, avoiding other mongrels who lunged at him; scaring an old donkey and attracting the kick of at least one servant until he found what he wanted: a set of steps climbing the inner side of the wall. He tired quickly on the stairs and his nose informed him of reopened cuts on his back.
It didn’t matter, it would all be over soon.
He found himself on the parapet, a bone-breaking drop to the courtyard just one step away. He’d been an artist and longed to look out over the battlements at the world for the last time. Even with these eyes, the bog cotton would have stood out like little stars and the still, deadly pools would have flashed back at the sky.
He walked carefully to the edge of the drop, panting from exhaustion and fear now too.
In a far corner of the bailey, little Conor watched some of the servant children at play, the whole shape of his body an expression of longing and fear.
Fiachra never had problems with his peers growing up. That was back in the days of the Kings, when the strongest magic might be a halo of floating apples around the queen’s head. No threat there!
The wizards had made some kind of break-through after that and grown stronger quickly. Many had become rich enough to employ Fiachra. Religious frescoes became the rage. And portraits, portraits of pretty daughters…
“Now,” he thought. “Now, I’ll do it.” He crouched his body. A strong leap would be necessary to clear the hay directly beneath the wall.
“Wait, hound! Wait!” He smelled a man. The servant who’d beaten him the night before. A growl came all by itself to rattle his throat.
“I have a better idea for you, dog. Wait now.”
The servant was halfway up the steps and Fiachra backed away a little to allow him to approach, heart pounding at the memory of the whipping he’d received.
The man wore a cook’s apron and carried a leather strap at his belt, used, no doubt, to keep discipline among his apprentices. And among the dogs.
Fiachra smelled urine on the man’s fingers and baking flour.
“I know what you plan to do, dog. And you can do it too for all that I care. But listen first, just listen.” He paused, scratching his big cook’s belly as if he could be sure Fiachra would await his pleasure.
“My master… my real master — not the dying fool in there… is fond of his daughter. Sometimes it clouds his judgement. Are you getting me, dog? You know who I mean? Just nod. Good.
“This girl is in a state that only marriage will cure, and scum though you are… Well, the idiot girl wants you and my master, gods bless his innocent heart, has gone to some trouble to please her by keeping your handsome body alive. Can you believe that? Can you, dog?”
Fiachra couldn’t. He’d watched the king’s execution with his drunken, laughing friends. The wizards had flung the monarch’s spirit into the body of a pig to be feasted on by the grateful poor. The human flesh, emptied of its guiding spirit, hadn’t known how to breathe and had quickly died.
Fiachra backed away growling. He would throw himself into the courtyard and this lying bully wouldn’t stop him.
“Go on then,” said the cook. “I’d like to watch you do it.”
Fiachra turned back towards the edge, uncaring what the man saw.
“But you’re a fool, dog. If you stayed alive only three more days, you’d see the proof for yourself. My master guarantees it.”
The man crept up beside him and pretended to pet his coat as an old sentry limped past on his rounds. The cook’s clammy hands were on Fiachra’s hide, the stench of his failing teeth wafting between them as he whispered, “If you are not convinced with what you see by the fourth day… well, do then what you want.
“We require a service of you. A small thing uniquely suited to your present form.”
Down in the courtyard the servant children had caught Conor spying on their play and they were chasing him off in gales of laughter. How did they dare such a thing? Perhaps the Master felt it would toughen the boy up. Perhaps he was too ill to care and everybody knew it now.
“A body is buried under the castle walls somewhere,” said the cook. “Can you understand that? A mouldy corpse wearing some trinket that keeps magic out of this place altogether. That’s the only reason Hero’s Fort has never been attacked. Find the trinket and when the castle falls you will paint again. You will marry above your station.”
One of the stroking hands clamped tight about Fiachra’s neck. The nails of the other raked along last night’s wounds, causing him to yelp and struggle.
“I know you can write,” said the cook. “Don’t try any tricks like that, any scuff marks in the dirt to reveal our plans. You do that, and we’ll destroy your old body in front of you, you hear me? In front of everybody.”
The pressure eased suddenly and Fiachra lay panting in agony by the parapet. Below him, the servant children had trapped Conor in a corner. With whoops, they closed in.
Fiachra’s new body needed time and food to heal itself, but no one came to look after him. He spent hours lying in hay, unable to stop the whimpering sounds that bubbled up out of his throat. He wished the boy would bring him another biscuit and share warmth with him. He wasn’t sure if it was the dog’s body that wanted that or himself.
His muscles trembled with hunger as the sky darkened towards evening. Delicious scents wafted in from somewhere: roast fowl, he was sure of it.
And music floated on the air: strange against ears that seemed to hear extra notes in otherwise familiar tunes.
The meat drew him through a maze of other smells all the way to a great hall where the last of Rosaveel’s nobles feasted in the company of the few retainers who dared to stay with them. No sign of the boy, though.
Musicians played from a balcony, sweating and merry. Servants wrapped in delicious aromas wandered along the length of the main tables with platters of food. But it was the dogs that dominated the room as far as Fiachra was concerned. Deerhounds, wolfhounds and mongrels. Bitches and pups. What kind of dog am I? he wondered. Something powerful, he thought, for his eyes came right up to the edge of the table and the boy had had to stretch his arms far last night to reach around him.
One old majestic greyhound fed from the hand of a similar master. Most of the dogs however, provided amusement for the guards’ table by snapping and fighting over scraps.
Fiachra felt his spirits sink. The reason no one had come to feed him was that he was supposed to feed himself. He wouldn’t do it, he decided. He’d die of hunger before he lowered himself so far. The greatest young artist of Rosaveel! He wouldn’t do it.
The master stood up and coughed the room into silence.
“I’ll want you all to be on your guard.” Cough, cough. “Iarloch himself is paying us a visit.” The master smiled. “And it’s not for treachery he’s coming.” The room shifted uncomfortably. “Oh no! The wizards are incapable of that!” A polite snigger came from the nobles’ table. “But to avoid accidents such as the one our true king and all his family suffered… we must take care.”
One of the guards called out, “When will the monster’s party be here?”
“No monsters, Captain,” cough, cough, “our new friends arrive in three days. Show them every courtesy. Feign it if you have to.”
Three days. That’s when Fiachra’s proof had been promised. That’s when the man whose daughter’s portrait he’d painted would be here. Perhaps he would get his body back. Or perhaps a chance would arise for this dog to rip out the throat of his enemy. He growled, sensing for the first time the strength in this new flesh.
He’d known fear and terror over the last day. Now, as the musicians struck up another discordant tune, he plunged into the pack of hounds at the guards’ table. He fought with a hunter that was taller than he was, but built more for speed than strength. They snapped and growled while the men cheered. He faced it down, drove it off and tasted the blood of its rump as it fled. Then he ran with his prize to the corner.
“You see?” Cough, cough. “This criminal will not kill himself. I told you. An excellent animal.”
The artist’s shame didn’t stop him gulping down his food or gnawing the bones that were left after.
The next day, Fiachra set to work scouring the walls for the traces of the body the cook had said was buried there. The smell of death covered everything in the castle. Animal bones lay in the yard and entire sides of mutton and pork hung in storerooms in preparation for the wizards’ visit. Other scents conspired to distract him: fear, for example. The humans all bore traces of it and the animals reacted to their masters’ distress.
Hero’s Fort was the last of its kind. All nobles beyond the master’s clan were either dead or subservient to the wizards they supposedly employed. Many had suffered publicly; most had simply disappeared, their retainers scattered and hunted over the bay to the rival city of Kinvara.
Sometimes, Fiachra would awake, as if from a daze to find he’d been following the fascinating scents of other dogs: entire histories written in a single spray of urine. He had to shake his head and turn back to what he was doing.
A shout rang out. “Get him!”
The dog pulled back behind a set of steps as a gang of children ran past after a weeping Conor. He felt a great pity for the boy, not just over the bullying, but because of what must soon happen to him. I can’t get involved. My time is almost up.
He waited and went back to his task. Night had come again and still, he’d found nothing. He wasn’t even sure he’d recognise it if he did. Exhaustion and hunger soon drove him back to the hay.
Fiachra was already out again before the cocks had crowed their last. He watched bleary eyed clansmen stumble through the gate with supplies for the master. He watched them enter the storerooms that abutted the base of the wall knowing he’d need to check all of them out if he wasn’t to miss something.
He had dreamed of the garden again last night, but this time he owned it and walked there with the wizard’s daughter as man and wife. Yes, he had sunk far, but perhaps if he found the dead body in the walls, if he had just that one piece of luck, he’d float back into the light so fast his body would burst free of the waves and take flight!
“Come here, dog! Over here!” A group of soldiers clicked their tongues and whistled to him. One large fellow waved a piece of bacon, so fresh smelling, so full of rich fat that Fiachra thought he might faint.
They must know the master owned him. Many would have seen him fight for his supper two nights before and been impressed. They’d be delighted to feed him. Of course they would.
He bounded towards them, his lolling tongue scattering droplets of drool with every step. He went straight for the bacon.
“Good boy,” he felt hands on his coat as he gulped the food down. “Good little criminal.” He barely even noticed the rope go over his head until it tightened.
“Careful of the teeth, lads!” said one who smelled of oil and metal. “He might resist that other treat we got for him!”
He tried to pull away, but the noose tightened when he did. Soon, a rowdy bunch of soldiers were dragging him past cursing servants and laughing children to the far side of the courtyard, next to the kitchen entrance. He smelled her before he saw her. A bitch. In heat.
The men laughed and yelled. For once they didn’t smell afraid. They pulled at his rope and beat him. He never stopped his struggles.
“Oh, just do it, you criminal scum!”
“Look!” shouted one of the soldiers, “He wants to! Look at the size of him!”
It was true. For all the disgust it brought him and may all the gods have mercy. He wanted to weep. The howl emerged as it had the first night in the stables. The noose had grown even tighter on his neck. They pulled him closer, his paws sliding, his voice choked off, his vision dimming.
“Let him go! I order you!”
Everything stopped at once. The largest of the soldiers, the one who smelled so strongly of metal, loosened the rope a little and turned. “Oh, the young master orders us, does he? As if he’d ever live long enough to pay our wages.”
The boy pushed his way into the crowd. Fiachra could smell his terror and for the first time, he noticed something else: one of the his hands was paler than the other and hanging like the dead branch of a tree. Why had the dog never seen it before? And like a tree, every part of Conor was shaking.
“My father gave orders.”
“Aye,” said the big soldier, “the dog was to protect you and not the other way at all!” The others laughed, but the grip didn’t loosen.
Fiachra smelled flour and grease before the cook emerged from the kitchen door and barged in amongst them with a large knife. He came face to face with metal man.
“All right lads, enough of this. The hound belongs to the master for now. But let’s not forget who made him and who might be wanting him back!” He and the soldier glared at each other, but when the cook bent down to slice the rope free, nobody stopped him. Fiachra and the boy escaped with no further indignities. The men would find some other sport.
“Here, doggy,” said Conor, “this way.” Fiachra should have kept looking, but the scent of the bitch was still strong on the air, trailing after him like the promise of more humiliation. So, he followed his master’s son into an old storeroom, down a few steps and along a dark corridor where only rats had lived for years. A little hole led into a sealed off room of forgotten, rotted cloth. Everything smelled of decay, but the old rags gave them somewhere to lie comfortably.
“Good doggy,” whispered the boy. “They never find me here. They can’t come in the hole with us.”
The boy’s good hand stroked the tension out of his back. Treats followed from various pockets, each one sweeter than the others. Fiachra heard a thumping sound, felt a twitch in his back. He started, but only until he realised it was just his tail wagging. His tail! He would have laughed if only he could. He relaxed again, almost forgetting that today was his last chance to win back his life.
A crowd applauded the artist’s latest work: a garden in the moonlight; a silver skinned goddess who so resembled the painter’s wife that people laughed in delight.
“So beautiful,” they said. “So beautiful.”
He woke on his bed of straw in the stables, trying to remember how he’d gotten there. He smelled traces of honey from his fur and remembered the treats again. He got up off his haunches. It was still dark, the castle slept.
Something was bothering him, almost like a bell ringing in his skull. The hole he’d hidden in with the boy, the hole…
He ran out into the night, ignoring the calls of his fellow hounds. Luckily, somebody had left the door of the storeroom ajar and he padded inside and down the steps amongst the scurrying rats. The boy’s sealed off room adjoined the wall and extended into it.
He dug down through layers of cloth and soon the quality of rot in his nostrils changed. There, he found the bones of a large human, along with what must have been rusted weapons. A light chain hung about the corpse’s neck and Fiachra removed this easily with his teeth. The Trinket.
Then he went to fetch the cook.
The man brought a torch to examine the prize. “It’s gold,” he muttered. “A hero’s medal, just like they said.”
He reached a hand out to touch it, then thought better of it. “You dog,” he said, “you’ve carried it in your teeth this far. Bring it now up onto the wall and drop it through one of the privies. Once it’s outside the fort he defended, its power will be gone. Go now, you’ve done well. You’ll see that for yourself in the morning.”
Heart pounding, Fiachra climbed the steps until he found a hole where residents of the castle dropped night soil into a midden just beyond the walls.
He laid the medal down at the edge where the light of a torch picked out the five rings of victory, worn thin by age. He pushed it over with his paws. The medal slid down the slope of the privy and dragged the chain after it into the night.
He wasn’t quite sure what he’d done, but he suspected he’d just condemned everybody in Hero’s Fort to death.
They were dead anyway, he thought, and so was I, until now.
The next morning, the castle rose to sounds of dripping and gurgling from the direction of the main gate. A smell of rot wafted into the stables and Fiachra followed it into the courtyard.
Water was pouring down the walls and over the wood of the gate. Many had come to stare at this strange sight, even the master with his bloody handkerchief.
“You,” he cried pointing up at a guard. “What’s going on?” Cough, cough. “What can you see?”
The soldier didn’t look well. He was sweating heavily. “I,” he opened his mouth. “I…” Then water began pouring from between his lips. First in dribbles, then a gush of black liquid that drove him to his knees to cries of horror from below. More of the stuff flooded from his eyes and ears.
“He’s getting smaller!” somebody shouted. And so he was. Even Fiachra’s dog eyes could tell that much. The walls and the gates were shrinking too.
All of a sudden, the crowd broke, running every which way. Stinking water continued to pour from the gate and splashed into the yard. Its touch was cold against Fiachra’s paws.
The wizards were finally coming. They’d promised peace with the last of the nobles just like they’d promised to give the artist back his own flesh — even though no body before his had ever survived the loss of its driving spirit. Finally, he realized what a fool he’d been to ever believe them. The people running all around him now were going to die. The boy would die. Especially the boy.
The walls curled and rotted as the liquid continued to pour from them. Fiachra turned and ran. He had to find Conor.
In the castle, men were fighting to defend the master from colleagues who wanted to surrender as quickly as possible. Coughs and curses punctuated the ringing of steel in the main hall. Fiachra ignored them all and ran up the stairs. This was his fault, all his fault. How could he have believed them? How? Some spell? Some glamour? But none of that had ever been necessary. He had simply wanted to believe he could be a man again. He had needed it.
The cook was waiting for him in the boy’s room.
“I can’t find him,” said the man. “Here!” he rubbed a sheet against Fiachra’s nose. “This is his scent. Find him if you want your reward. Find him!”
Fiachra took the fat hand between his teeth and closed his jaws until he heard bones crunch. He bit harder, deaf to the man’s screams, immune to the beating of his other fist.
Then he ran back down the stairs. He knew where the boy must be. If he could get him out the postern gate before Hero’s Fort was over-run, his dog’s nose might give them a chance of crossing the bog alive.
He found Conor in amongst the rags, not far from where the bones of the hero still lay. Fiachra smelled the tears and licked them away, surprised at how good it felt to do so. He realised he loved the boy. Really loved him as only a dog can.
He took the withered hand in his teeth and pulled ever so gently. “OK,” said Conor. “I know, boy, I’m not stupid. I even brought some food. What did you bring?”
They ran together outside, Conor ankle deep in foul water. The walls had gone completely. Strangers rounded up stray soldiers while others drove fattened pigs before them into the castle. Fiachra shuddered, wondering if local peasants would be feasting on the master tonight.
He had expected a crowd to be waiting at the postern gate, but only one man stood there, almost as though he were waiting for them.
He was handsome, with the face of a champion and long thin fingers. Rich clothing looked natural on him and his voice, when he spoke, brought a shiver to Fiachra’s muscles.
“You have no idea, Fiachra,” he said, “how hard it has been keeping this body alive for you. My own has been sleeping for three days and is probably rotten with bed sores by now.” He smiled. “But a deal is a deal, no?”
He crouched awkwardly. “We can do it here. The swap, I mean. It would be a relief for me, no? To get back to my own flesh. And my daughter too, I can tell you! She’s given me no peace with asking about you…” He laughed and shook his head, while boy and dog simply stared.
“You could say this body is your Dowry. But I have one last service to ask of you, my son.” He nodded towards Conor. “Do this one thing for me. And for your future bride.”
Fiachra looked at the shivering boy and inhaled the whiff of honey that still clung to the fingers of his good hand. A difficult decision. But not for a dog.
He flung himself at the man’s throat — his own throat — and ripped into it. “I’ve gone mad!” he thought, “mad!” He whined and growled and whimpered, but didn’t open his jaws again until the thing beneath him had stopped twitching.
Then they ran through the postern gate and out onto the bog, a boy and his loyal hound, inseparable for life and all the world before them.
Peadar is the author of two published novels, The Inferior and its sequel, The Deserter, with more on the way. His short stories have appeared in a wide variety of markets, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Weird Tales, Pseudopod, Dragon Moon Press and, of course, Black Gate.