Winter of Man: Part 3 of 6 [Realms of Pugmire]

Pugmire

Pugmire illustration by Pat Loboyko

The dogs walked until night. The trees of the forest grew wider apart, broken up by large rocks and hills. Yosha and Pan shivered, their thin fur scant protection against the brisk frigid air as they climbed yet another hill. “We need a place to rest,” Pan said. “Somewhere we can light a fire without attracting any more of those…” He waved his paws in the air in a vague motion.

“Demons,” Rex said.

“I was going to say ‘diseased dogs,’ because I’m not a superstitious idiot.”

“What about that cave over there?” Yosha said, pointing at a small flickering light in the night.

“It could be more of the possessed,” Picassa said.

“Did those diseased dogs look like they had enough brainpower to start a fire?” Pan snapped back.

Yosha rubbed her paws over her arms, shivering. “I don’t sense anything. Besides, we won’t know until we look. And I’m cold.”

“I’ll go ahead,” Rex said.

Pan snorted. “I think we could do with a little less sword swinging and a little more tail wagging. Let me talk to them first.”

“You don’t…”

“It’s a good idea,” Picassa said, putting a paw on Rex’s shoulder. “You go ahead, Pan, and we’ll follow along in a hundred wags.”

The hunter nodded and walked down the hill toward the light. The three dogs watched him disappear into the darkness.

“I don’t trust him,” Rex muttered.

Yosha looked up at him with an innocent expression. “But the stories talk about how noble and brave he is.”

Picassa patted the pug’s head. “I’m sorry, milady, but not all stories are true. The songs you’ve heard about the hunter might be…”

“Outright fabrications,” Rex said.

“… mild exaggerations,” Picassa said, ignoring him. “But I am sure that, despite all the time he has spent with the pariahs, he is still a Good Dog in his heart.”

Rex uncrossed his arms. “It’s been a hundred wags. We should go.”

“Oh, I’m already up to two hundred wags,” Yosha said with a grin. “I guess I got excited.”

By the time the three dogs made it down the hill, the light became a fire near the entrance of a cave. They could hear Pan’s laughter as he sat with four other dogs. Two were older puppies descended from the Bulldogs, with black and brindle coats, respectively. One of the larger dogs had some Terrier blood in her, with thick, rust-colored fur and a bandage on her shoulder. The largest did not come from a discernible family, but his coat was mottled white and black. His eyes were friendly, with one colored green and the other brown. He was using a large knife to cut up some meat, handing pieces to the dogs around him.

As they approached, Pan turned and waved them over. “Spot, these are my travel companions,” he said to the dog with green and brown eyes. “We’re traveling to the Weather Tower.”

“While telling the entire world our plans,” Rex grumbled.

Yosha stepped forward, tail wagging. “I am Yosha Pug, daughter of Prince Murra Pug of Pugmire. I am pleased to meet you, and your food smells…weird.” She wrinkled her nose for a moment, but she held out a paw, and shook with everyone around the fire.

Introductions were made, and the travelers were invited to share in the food. Spot’s wife was Rusty, and the puppies were Boros and Sunny, two brothers. Picassa offered to help with Rusty’s wound, but she declined, saying it was the result of a disagreement. Instead, the shepherd tore into her meat with gusto—she said incanting the prayers of Man made her hungry—while the others picked at theirs.

“You don’t have family names?” Yosha asked.

Spot laughed while Rusty scratched behind her ear. Yosha got the impression he laughed a lot. “No, my princess. We are all free dogs, and have no need for such names.”

“And other free dogs can bite us if they don’t like us, like they did to Rusty!” Sunny said, his tongue lolling. Boros barked at Sunny in frustration, and the two brothers began rolling around on the floor of the cave.

Picassa licked her paws and arranged her robes as she sat in the vacated space. “We thank you for letting us use your fire, but we were hoping you’ve heard something about the Weather Tower.”

“And those weird-smelling pariahs we saw in the forest,” Yosha added.

Pan gave her a withering look. “Don’t call them that.”

“Weird?” Yosha asked, confused.

Spot waved a paw at Pan. “It’s fine, Pan. Young lady, the term ‘pariah’ is something that dogs trapped in cities use. We prefer the term ‘free dogs,’ those that have abandoned the leash of urban life and live under the open sky.”

Rusty began cleaning her dinner knife and added, “We choose not to be shackled by an ancient code of a deified dead race.”

“Because you are fools,” Rex said.

Picassa put her paws in the air. “We are not here to debate the nature of Man in your home. However, we have run into some dogs who were not as friendly as you and looked… ill.”

Spot frowned. “We’ve seen some of them too. They’ve been coming from the southeast, just on the other side of the forest. They don’t seem friendly.”

Yosha looked distracted, sniffing around the food, but she nodded. “They tried to kill us,” she said.

Boros and Sunny looked up from their play. “Whoa,” Sunny said. “That’s cool.”

“It’s not cool,” Boros said, swatting Sunny’s floppy ear with a paw. “I bet they work for whoever lives in the tower.”

“Let me guess,” Pan said. “A cat.”

“Whoa,” Boros said, exactly the same way as his brother. “You read my mind.”

“More like there aren’t a lot of cats in this part of the forest,” Pan countered. “Or Man-tech towers, for that matter.”

“You will not speak of the cat,” Rusty said, toying with the knife she was cleaning.

Everyone stopped and looked at her. “What did you say, my love?” Spot asked, confusion on his face.

“That smell!” Yosha yipped, as Rusty scratched her ear again. “Oh no, it’s you!”

With blinding speed Rusty turned and stabbed her husband in the chest. He fell from the assault and she leapt on top of him, stabbing him again while repeating “you will not speak of the cat.” Rex moved after the second stab, shoving Rusty away from Spot and standing between them. He drew his sword, but the Terrier snarled at him, brandishing her gore-coated knife. Picassa scampered around the fire to check on Spot’s wounds. Boros and Sunny screamed and ran out of the cave.

Pan drew an arrow and pointed it at the woman. “Put it down, Rusty. I don’t know what’s going on, but we can’t help you unless you drop the knife.”

Rex answered, not taking his eyes off the pariah. “Still want to claim it’s just a disease?”

“Kick your scat at me some other time. Sister, how is he?”

Picassa put her paws on his chest and prayed to Man. After a moment, she took a rag from inside her sleeve and wiped away some of the blood on his chest. “He’ll live,” she said.

Yosha sat near Rusty, her trembling paws raised. “Please don’t kill us, Rusty. You smell wrong, and there might be a…a demon inside of you. Please let us help you, so you can be with Spot again.”

Rusty turned to Yosha and snarled. “You will never understand the cat,” she said, her voice thick with fury. “You will never understand.” She raised the knife to stab the young Pug.

Rex put his sword through Rusty’s chest before she had the chance.

“No!” Pan screamed, as Rusty’s eyes rolled back and she slid off Rex’s sword. “What have you done, you cur?”

Rex pulled his sword out and pushed a button on the hilt, burning off the blood before sliding it back in its sheath. “Bite Only Those Who Endanger You,” he quoted. “She was a danger to us all.”

“She was a wife,” Pan screamed. “A woman with a husband.”

“Do you think I don’t know what it’s like to lose a wife?” Rex bellowed, stepping up to the short hunter. “Do you judge me? Do you…”

Yosha whimpered a little, and Rex cut off what he was about to say. He rubbed at the scar on his muzzle, and noticed there were tears in his eyes. “I should go find the pups,” he muttered, and left.