[Banner image: Two men are leading an ox up a hill. Above them, a giant hound races along the sky.]
Esca woke in the space between one breath and the next and stared into the darkness in front of him, unsure of why he'd awoken. The night was only half gone, the quarter moon low on the eastern horizon, and the room was shadowed and still.
"Did you hear that?" Marcus asked quietly.
Esca shrugged. "I don't know. Something woke me, but I'm not sure what it was."
"I'm going to go talk to the slaves," Marcus said, and then Esca felt the shift in the blankets, the retreat of Marcus's calf that had been pressed against his, as Marcus climbed out of bed.
"Just stay here," Marcus said. "It's probably nothing."
This was likely true. It wouldn't be the first time that Marcus or Esca had startled out of sleep in response to an unremembered dream or an innocuous nighttime sound. Admittedly, most of those times had been years ago, when they'd recently returned from Caledonia, but that didn't mean the past was entirely forgotten: only that it had less of a hold on them now than it had had before.
Nevertheless, Esca found himself unable to fall back to sleep. He lay with ears attuned to every sound, eyes blinking near-sightlessly in the darkness. At last, there was the quiet shuffle of Marcus's sandal-clad feet in the hallway and then, moments later, in their room.
"Is there anything the matter?" Esca asked, fully expecting the answer to be 'no.'
"Yes," Marcus said instead, his voice troubled yet somehow uncertain.
Esca sat up quickly, ready for action, but in the next moment Marcus sat beside him, followed by the sound of him stripping off his sandals. Esca settled his back against the wall, unable to relax fully, but no longer poised to leap from their bed.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I talked to the slaves, as I'd said I would," Marcus said slowly. "Most of them were sleeping soundly, but Sedullos thought he'd heard a dog bark. So I went outside to check on the animals, and I found our dogs dead."
Esca's eyes widened uselessly in the dark room. "Dead? Of what?"
"Of nothing, as far as I could tell. They were all whole and apparently unharmed, just...dead."
Esca shook his head as though that would clear it of the confusion clouding his thoughts. "What of the other animals?"
"And none of the slaves knew anything?"
"I asked them. The dogs were all healthy and well when Sencha fed them their supper earlier this evening. There's no illness I know of that could strike them down this quickly."
"Poison," Esca suggested.
Marcus let out a heavy sigh. "That's what I fear, as well. I thought we were accepted and even liked here, but if someone hates us enough to poison our animals..."
The layers of tiredness and pain in his voice prompted Esca to scramble for another explanation, though ordinarily it was Marcus's job to try to place a positive spin on everything.
"It might not have been deliberate," he said. "Perhaps one of our neighbors is trying to rid himself of a wolf or a fox, and our dogs merely got into something they shouldn't."
"Perhaps," Marcus acknowledged, though he didn't sound entirely persuaded. Esca didn't blame him for that; the scenario he'd suggested was an unlikely one.
"We'll see what answers we can find tomorrow," Esca said firmly. "For now, let's rest."
Marcus didn't respond, but he lay down beside Esca without argument, and Esca drew him close and put his arms around him, as though that could make everything all right.
Marcus arrived home just as Esca was beginning his midday meal; he beckoned Esca towards him, and Esca picked up his plate and joined Marcus in the doorway. Marcus would no doubt be hungry after his ride.
He held his plate out invitingly and watched in satisfaction as Marcus took a piece of cheese and popped it in his mouth. "What news?" Esca asked, though he was loath to interrupt Marcus's eating.
Marcus cast a quick look behind Esca, where the slaves were ringed about the kitchen table and intent on their own meals, then led the way to the room they shared. As soon as they'd reached it and were nominally out of earshot, he said, "Epaticcu's dogs are dead, and Quintus Didius's, too."
"Does either of them know the cause?" Esca asked. He sat at the table in the corner and Marcus joined him, easing himself into a sitting position with care; Esca reminded himself not to neglect Marcus's leg that evening.
"Maybe," Marcus said, sounding frustrated at his lack of certainty. "It seemed to me that Epaticcu knew more than he was saying. But I don't think him a poisoner--especially not of his own dogs--and I can't believe that he would protect a poisoner either. I can't imagine what it was that he was keeping from me."
He might not believe Epaticcu had anything to do with their dogs' deaths, but he feared it nonetheless; Esca could see it in the unhappy lines around his mouth and the painfully rigid set of his shoulders, as though he were bracing himself against a blow. "Did you talk to any of our other neighbors?" he asked.
Marcus nodded. "Gaius Valerius and Nera. Their dogs are fine."
"And neither of them knew anything?"
"So they said."
"It's a strange situation," Esca said as partial cover for his thoughts. Of the four men Marcus had talked to, Epaticcu was the only man of the Regini and hence the only native to Noviomagus Reginorum. It wouldn't be surprising if he knew something that the others didn't. And, if Esca were lucky, it could also mean that Epaticcu would be more willing to tell Esca what he knew than he'd been to talk to a Roman centurion, no matter how neighborly and likeable Marcus might be.
"Worse than strange," Marcus said. He gave Esca a guilty look. "Though I have to confess, I'm almost relieved that it's not only our farm that's suffering. Not that I would wish misfortune on anyone, of course, and especially not our neighbors, but at least we don't have to fear that someone's targeting us in particular."
"True enough," Esca said. It was an understandable reaction, especially for Marcus, who cared more about the goodwill of the people of Noviomagus Reginorum than Esca ever would; Esca wasn't about to shame him for it. He took a hunk of bread and shoved his half-full plate across the table towards Marcus with a reassuring smile. "Finish eating. I should get back to work."
A thought occurred to him when he was almost out the door, and he turned back momentarily. "Are you planning to get new dogs for the farm? The slaves will want to know." The loss of the dogs had been almost immediately felt. Their flock of sheep was too large for one man to herd; three slaves had taken the flock out to graze that morning, leaving only one man to help Esca with the remaining farmwork.
On the other hand, he knew that the men--and particularly Sencha, who'd had the training of the dogs--had to be grieving their loss. The slaves had been careful to show no sign of it to Esca, of course, but that wouldn't make their hurts any less.
Marcus shook his head. "It would be cruel to do so when we're still so much in the dark. I won't bring more dogs into our household until I've some assurance that it won't mean their deaths."
"All right," Esca agreed readily. "In that case, we should perhaps hire a boy to help with the sheep, if not now then in the spring. Assuming we still don't have an explanation for what's happened by then, of course."
"It's a good thought," Marcus said, a firm, determined note joining the underlying frustration in his voice. "I'll see that it's done."
Epaticcu gave Esca a resigned look when he saw him approaching, but he invited him into his home and shooed his two little daughters outside to work on their spinning in the sunshine.
"But it's cold, Da," one of them protested.
"It's warmed up since last you stepped outside, as you'd know if you'd helped with the milking as you're supposed to, lazybones," he said, not unfondly. A guiltily embarrassed expression crossed her face--the flick of her eyes towards Esca suggesting that she was more upset at having an audience for her scolding than at her own wrongdoing. She ducked outside without further argument, leaving Esca, Epaticcu, and Epaticcu's wife Derdriu alone in the house.
Epaticcu offered Esca cider, which he accepted gladly, and he and his wife both joined Esca for a cup.
"You're here to ask after the dogs," Epaticcu said when they'd all taken sips.
Esca nodded. "Marcus thinks you might know more than you told him, and it occurred to me as well that a man who grew up in these parts and whose family has lived here generations back is the likeliest person to know who or what would kill three households' dogs in a single night."
"Well, and maybe I do know something, but not anything that a man--and especially a Roman--would want to hear." He gave Esca a challenging look, which Esca returned as mildly as he could.
"I'd still hear it. I can't promise not to tell Marcus, but I do swear that he won't know where I came by the information." There was a good chance Marcus would guess anyway--he'd given Esca an overly shrewd look when Esca had announced his intention to go into town that morning--but Marcus wouldn't be certain, and he wasn't the type of man to accuse anyone of something without solid proof.
Epaticcu exchanged a look with Derdriu, and then he nodded. "Good enough," he said. He took a drink, then continued, "People around here say that there's a hound made of mist and shadows that walks the countryside. They call it the heath hound. It's an omen of death for any who see it or hear its howl, and a single one of its barks is enough to kill any dog that hears it." He made the sign of horns to avert evil, and Esca and Derdriu followed his example.
"My grandda says he saw it once when he was a boy," Derdriu put in. "He was coming home from pasture with the family's goats when a wolf ran out of the woods towards them, hungry and mean. Grandda took out his knife and prayed for the best, but before the wolf could attack, a giant hound, bigger even than the wolf, appeared out of nowhere and ran the wolf off. If it was the heath hound, then it was no omen of death for my grandda. But he was only a boy of seven or eight years when this happened, and could have been mistaken in what he saw."
"No one's seen the heath hound in all the years since then," Epaticcu said. "Or heard one either. Until two nights ago."
"Is there anything that people can do to protect against it or hasten it on its way?" Esca asked, though he felt certain he knew the answer.
Epaticcu shook his head, while Derdriu shrugged. "No one knows how to send away a heath hound in particular," she clarified. She nodded towards the doorway, and Esca looked to see the spirals carefully painted on the doorposts. "But protection and good luck for the household never hurt."
"They can't be relied upon, either," Epaticcu said dourly.
"Not much can, in this world," Esca said, "though I'll take possible protection over nothing at all," to which even Epaticcu agreed.
The deep, hollow bark sounded as though it were just outside. It jolted Esca out of sleep, and he lay with his heart pounding for long moments, ears pricking for any further noise. There was a shuff of sound that could be nothing more than the wind or that could be an animal pacing outside on huge paws.
Epaticcu had said it was the heath hound's howl or the sight of it that foretold a man's death, not its bark, though of course there was no guarantee that the stories were right on that point. Still, Esca half-wished that he could stopper his ears as easily and thoroughly as he could shut his eyes. He waited with breathless anticipation.
But nothing happened...and nothing happened...and nothing happened, and slowly Esca felt himself relax. He blinked his eyes open and glanced up at the sprig of heather he'd tied over the window, a protection against evil spirits. He'd put them up above every window and doorway in the house, not offering any explanation for his actions. (Epaticcu had been right; it would be no kindness to tell Marcus about the supernatural threat that could not be fought, but only endured.) Marcus had watched him do it without comment, though the heather's flowers were brown and ugly in winter.
Marcus was sound asleep now beside him--his leg had been hurting him earlier, so that he'd had to take the Roman medicine that eased his pain but left him muzzy-headed and overly drowsy. Esca curled protectively around him and tried to match his breathing to the rhythm of Marcus's long, sleep-heavy breaths, even as his thoughts followed a very unsoothing path: "If the heath hound is drawn to our home as an omen of death, let it be for me and not him. Let it be for me."
Esca held his lamp higher and cursed under his breath when it only seemed to reflect the light back at him off the souplike mist. If they'd lost any of their animals other than their ox, he'd have been half-tempted not to even go after it on a night like this. But it was plowing season, and without an ox, their farm wouldn't survive. They'd be hard pressed to afford another if the one they had broke its leg or drowned in a mire or got its stupid self eaten.
A dark shadow loomed out of the mist a handful of yards in front of him. Esca rushed forward, being just mindful enough of where he placed his feet that he didn't break his own leg, and then froze suddenly.
It wasn't their ox before him, as he'd thought and hoped. It was a huge gray hound, staring at Esca with dark, terrible eyes.
Esca stared back at it, feeling cold with more than the chill night air. Are you here for my death? was the only thought running through his mind, but he didn't ask the question. Nothing indicated that the hound could be bargained with.
He braced himself to turn away and continue his search for the ox, though the idea of presenting the hound with his back made his skin crawl. It wouldn't do any good to stand here staring at it until Esca died of old age, however. If the hound's presence foretold Esca's death, then no amount of worrying and wittering would prevent it. All that was left to Esca was to act as though he would live out the night in the hopes that it was true.
Before he could move, though, the hound let out a soft whine. Esca blinked at the noise, more pathetic than threatening. When the hound came closer to him, he held still; curiosity aside, it almost certainly wouldn't do him any good to run. When the hound was almost close enough to touch, it danced back several steps, then bowed low over its front legs, hind end up in the air like a puppy wanting to play. It whined again, a low, mournful sound entirely at odds with its stance, and suddenly Esca realized: it wasn't inviting him to play, but to chase it. Or, more precisely, to follow.
"If you're leading me to my death, I won't be happy," he muttered to himself even as he began to trail the hound across the countryside.
The hound didn't respond to Esca's warning, not even with a look. It just loped forward with a long, easy stride that Esca had to struggle to keep: not so much due to the pace itself as to the difficulty of keeping it without spilling hot lamp oil down his arm.
They'd run several miles when Esca saw a light in the distance, and every additional step made it clearer that the hound was leading him to the source of that light. At last, Esca found himself by a hollow. In its bowl were the missing ox and, leaning against its side, a muddy and visibly shivering Marcus.
"Esca," Marcus called to him in a relieved tone. "I'd begun to fear we'd be stuck here until morning."
The problem was self-evident. The ox had tumbled down the slope, only to find the sides too steep and too slippery with the recent rain for it to get out again; Esca could see the mud tracks where it had tried. And Marcus was strong, but trying to shove at the ox from behind would put pressure on his bad leg in all the wrong ways.
"Hand me your lamp," Esca said, crouching down to reach for it. "Then you come up here and pull, while I go down in the hollow and push."
He set both lamps on the ground so that he could give Marcus a hand as he clawed his way up the slope. Then he slid down to the bottom, tossed the rope Marcus had tied around the ox's neck up to Marcus, and braced himself behind the ox's rump.
"Get ye up," he said, and the ox started forward obediently at the command despite the lack of a plow at its back, its hooves churning at the slick ground. Esca could hear Marcus's grunt of exertion as he strained at the rope, but didn't even think of looking up at him. His energy and concentration had to go towards shoving at the ox's rump with all of the strength in his arms and chest.
For long moments, it felt as though the ox wasn't moving, and Esca had to exhort himself to keep pushing harder, to not let himself falter. And then he felt a judder as the ox got first one foreleg and then the other over the lip of the hollow, and he shoved forwards and upwards with his remaining strength until the ox scrambled onto level ground.
Momentum dropped Esca to his hands and knees. He knelt in the mud for the space of several long, belabored breaths before he pushed himself to his feet and wearily followed the ox's path.
Marcus looked no less exhausted than Esca felt; he was leaning heavily against the ox and panting for breath. "All right?" he asked.
Esca nodded. "You?"
"I'm fine. Let's get this monster home." He slapped the ox's flank with affectionate exasperation.
The rope around the ox's neck was trailing its end on the ground; Marcus lifted it and began to lead the ox home. Esca picked up their two lamps and took his place by Marcus's side, lighting their way.
When they'd trudged along in silence for a while, Marcus said, "How did you come to find me, anyway? You were searching to the east."
Esca startled. It must have been some magic of the heath hound's that had made him forget it as soon as he'd found Marcus. Even now that he was purposefully thinking on it, the earlier events of that night seemed strange and unreal, like a fading dream. At least the experience hadn't proven to be the nightmare he'd feared these past weeks. Supernatural beings often wore fair faces to help them trap their prey, but leading Esca to Marcus and the ox hadn't been a trap; it had been a great kindness.
He cast a quick look about to be certain that the heath hound truly was gone, but saw no sign of it. "It's interesting you should ask that," he said. "Now, listen to my story."