There was a someone at his bedside–Loops in the Knot could feel it even before he opened his eyes and stared up at the deformed, waxen mask that was the face of Fire in the Field. Knowing someone was there didn’t help the shock of waking up to that, but it helped him stifle his reaction. It helped him fight the scream. He stared at the cords of melted flesh that veiled the man’s left eye, but he always did that. There was no helping it, it was less rude than he could have been, and he could hope it would be interpreted as an attempt at eye contact.
“Get the dogs.”
“We have a beast to hunt.”
“Mercury’s job. Sir,” he added.
“Not anymore. From now on, it’s your job.”
“It’s my job to hunt with his dogs?”
The big man grabbed the edge of the rough-carved cot in both claws and flipped it. The inferno that had ruined his flesh had spared his frame, and even now he could make up in raw strength what he lacked in flexibility. Loops managed to get a hand to the back of his head in time to protect it, but the frame left his knuckles bleeding and his knees hit the floor hard. He lay still, hiding. “Still alive?” Fire asked, panting.
“Yes, sir. ”
“Go get your dogs.”
“Yes, sir.” His dogs, then, he thought as he waited for the door to close. He pushed the bed off himself, glad he’d too lazy to carve anything heavier or more ornate, and found clothes. If they were his dogs it meant the apprentice had replaced the master. What that meant he couldn’t fathom; he would swear he’d seen Mercury as they were riding home. Lately life for the old man had been bad enough to worry him, and Loops hurried out of his hut and into the dawn more eager to find out what had happened than to avoid another encounter with Fire.
He didn’t confront him, though. He’d ask what was going on only if he couldn’t figure it out himself. Mercury’s hut was on the far side of the village, past the crowd gathering near the edge of the woods, and he went there first. At least one person in the hunting party called his name; he ignored him. First-hand information would be worthless at this point, and he was in the unusual position of being one of two members of the Men of March with access to secondary information.
Once inside he shut the door. The bed was unmade. That wasn’t good. The old man’s cloak was still hanging on the back of the door. That was worse. He reached up to feel the top of the lintel, found nothing, and then checked under the mattress. The base of the lamp. The woven cushion of the chair. No note. Nothing for him personally and nothing for him to deliver. He checked the lintel again. That was the odd thing–nothing for him to deliver, and he knew nothing had come from the Rilikan in weeks. No communication.
No information. He’d have to do things the hard way. He went to fetch the dogs.
The animals in question–a pack of coonhounds–technically belonged to the clan, not to Mercury. The were kenneled near Fire’s hut, a fact which both Loops and his master had found irritating. Regardless of any official claim they were Mercury’s hounds. He had found and saved their ancestors after the bond; he had bred them, fed them, and taught them to hunt. They would listen to Loops if he tried, but he had never dared think of them as his dogs, even in the sense of possessing them as a member of the clan. He hoped he wouldn’t have to start doing so now.
When he called them now they came easily enough, but he could sense a wariness in them, a mild confusion. “I don’t know,” he said, feeling their question. “Let’s go find out, shall we?”
He led them toward the gang at the edge of the village, who parted to allow Fire in the Field to meet him. “What are we after?” he asked. The others around him kept talking.
Fire’s face twisted into a lopsided sneer, the closest he could come to a grin. “A black stag.”
“The same one as before?”
“You listened to your master, then.” Fire’s smile wilted. “I suppose you’re not the only one. No. The first taunted your father and escaped him; I’ll catch him eventually. He did far worse to me, and I’ll have revenge. Not today, though. Today we’ll hunt a lesser prize. How well do those dogs know you?”
“Well enough. They’ll learn.”
“Will they come back to you?”
“Since Mercury isn’t here, yeah.”
“But they’d prefer to run to him?” Loops nodded. “Return them, then.”
“Tell them to go to their master.”
“Where is he?” Fire swept one arm to indicate the woods in front of them. Loops shut his eyes for a moment, trying to process. “You’re going to hunt him with his own dogs. You want me to hunt him with his own dogs.”
“Yes. And you will.” The others had fallen silent. He opened his eyes to a revolver barrel. “Because I’ve had just about enough back-talk out of this goddamn clan, and I don’t intend to take any more.”