He sighed and tilted his head back, watery eyes fixed to the jagged horizon. He sat outside the local hostel, a squatted pile of architecture, fashioned from mud cement and baked brick, that nested an unpleasant scent in his sensitive nose from the damp atmosphere. Across the road, which was churned and sloshed with ice and mud from merchant carts and caravan marches, was a one-story building built from redwood lumber. Icicles hung from the eaves of the gray tiled roof. Through the open shutter windows, the rough guffaws of drunken men made his lip curl. It was not their humor that put him on edge–it was the slim degree between fun and danger that caused the friction to his nerves. She had said to wait, so he’d wait–even though he’d told her that it would be better if he had gone in with her. But she was insistent.
“No, Argos. You’ll put everyone on edge! I’m just across the way, so don’t worry about me, okay? I’ll be back within the hour.”
The dog’s eyes shifted and he let out a great long exhale. The three suns had crawled along the sky, but not quite far. An hour had not passed yet, though he felt it near. He shifted on his haunch, lifting his large paws one at a time to gnaw away the frost that formed between his toes. His thick fur kept him warm, and he was used to the cold–but he couldn’t run as well if his paws were frozen.
Satisfied that both paws were freed of their frigid adornments, Argos’s dark gaze shifted once more to the building across the way. It had no sign. Many of the places here didn’t. They tended to get destroyed within a night. Dolmensk was little more than a cultivated camp filled with rough adventurers and shady brigands seeking respite from their “work”.
He thought about trumbling in, unannounced. But Lethia had said to wait…
So Argos waited.
She was seated at a planked wooden table, so poorly slapped together that she lost a fritter through one of the great gaps. Her lip pouted at this loss as she eyed its descent to the sticky floor. She sighed and sat back in her squeaky chair. She adjusted the spectacles on her nose and gave the older man across from her as confident an expression as she could manage. Adults tended to respond better to someone who sounded like they knew what they were talking about.
“So, as I was saying, sir…there’ll be a sizable payment for your help. I can offer some of my possessions as collateral, and you would later receive your money in whatever fashion you wish.” The girl smiled after saying this, feeling pleased with herself. For a moment, she thought she sounded like–
“What can you offer as collateral, little one?” The man asked, scratching at the blister on the corner of his mouth. He had a swarthy face and red eyes with funny yellow blossoms on the whites. His shirt was possibly white once, but sweat and dirt had stained it a foul sort of tan.
At the man’s question, Lethia faltered.
“Umm…I have a number of alchemical items, as well as valuable casting tools that, in the right market, are quite–”
“You haven’t got anything.” The man said, bored. He stood, taking up his tricorn hat from the table.
Lethia stood, stammering. “N-No! Wait! Please, I’m sure we can work something out!”
The man paused, his hat hovering near his head. He turned, his gaze now a leer. “Well, miss…there’s always your natural assets to consider.”
The girl moved back, her face turning repulsed. “I’m just a girl!”
The man crossed his arm, looking her up and down as he licked his purple lips. “I know, miss…but just to be sure, you’ve never been with no one, eh?”
A young man came between them, his head tilted back so that he looked down the length of the his nose at the other man. He had dark wavy hair that was swept back, and bronze skin. This appeared somewhat comical as the youth was at least five inches shorter than the brute. But his hand gripped the handle of a rapier, and Lethia blushed at the strength that tightened his back.
The thug reared back, his horrible eyes turning to circles. “Oh…Paulo…hey…sorry. Sh-She with you? I-I didn’t know.” He put on his hat and backed away, both hands up. “Sorry. It won’t happen again. You tell your brothers I said ‘lo.” He leaned over to the side and bowed awkwardly at Lethia. “My deepest apologies, miss.” Then he turned and fled out the door, knocking a drunkard over in his haste.
Laughter followed him. The young man turned around, an amused smile on his face. The girl’s heart skipped a beat. “Ha! Did you see that snake run?”
Lethia smiled at him nervously. “Yes…You had such an affect on him! Are you well known around here?”
“Yeah, you could say that. Me and my brothers have a bit of a reputation. People know not to mess with us.”
“And you came to my rescue! Goodness, I’m lucky!” Lethia giggled, and tucked a strand behind her ear.
The young man tutted, his eyes squinted in mirth. “No. I wouldn’t say this is luck…” He gave a low bow. “My name is Paulo, as you might have heard.”
“Lethia,” the girl said, giggling again. The girl offered for the young man to sit, and he did so, his smile broadening. “I’ve…been asking around. I really could use with some help–only…well, I keep running into men like the one you just scared off!”
“You need help?” Paulo quirked an eyebrow and leaned forward. His hand concealed some of his mouth as he rubbed at his chin with his ring and pinky finger. “…With what, lia?”
Argos yawned, bored at having to watch the unwashed denizens tumble back and forth through the icy road. He licked away the icicles that clung to his muzzle and was about to shift again to pass some gas, when his ears perked to two male voices down the way. They were low murmurs, and he would have otherwise ignored them, but certain key words caught his attention.
“…he comes out with Syria’s apprentice, we’ll head out right away, alright? You make sure to keep your hands to yourself and your mouth shut. Understand?”
Argos turned his head, dark eyes blinking. He saw two men not far off, a set of crates separating him from them. He couldn’t smell them, they were downwind. Both were armed with rapiers, the younger looking one also equipped with a pistol, which he kept one hand on at all times. The young one kicked at the ice on the ground, though the action held little conviction.
“Dist’agea, ya!” He said with mild exasperation. But there was laughter in his voice. “Me teshié! I am not some idi’ute, y’know! This isn’t the first quarry I’ve snatched!”
The older one, the one with meaner eyes and his hair pulled into a short tail in the back, smirked at him. “Oh? Last time, that girl with the jablongos certainly did a number on you.”
At this, his brother scratched at his jaw and shrugged. “Ah well…what can I say? I love my lias…”
“Tch…just make sure this lia has eyes only for Paulo. Between the two of you, the world’s women would be doomed.”
The younger man turned and looked directly at Argos. His large smile lessened, and he turned back to his brother, thumbing over his shoulder. “Ey…it was good we found that mongrel, ya? I would’ve hate picking through this pit of a village town.”
“Certainly hard to miss, isn’t he? Even with the white fur?”
“What do you think happened to him?”
“Who knows? Not even the marshal had an answer.”
“Think we can make some coin off of him, after the lia is locked up? Maybe we can pawn him off to some research guild.” Argos tensed up, but tried to keep the growl from slipping his lips. They didn’t know he understood what they were saying.
The older one shook his head, waving the thought away. “One thing at a time, brother.” He slapped lightly at the young one’s shoulder with the back of his hand, his eyes alighting on the bar doorway. “Eh. Look. Here they come.”
Argos smelled them before the man saw them, thanks to a breeze that lifted up from the East. Lethia was on Paulo’s arm, giggling, her cheeks pink. The boy looked close to her age, perhaps older, with her large pack on his other shoulder and a large smile on his face. He reared back at their scent, then pushed forward into a trot, a woof coming up his throat as his nose flared. The girl smiled at him and knelt to say hello properly, but the young man took a large step back, his smile wiping away. Argos stared at him, then looked back at Lethia. He could smell it between them…
The girl held him at either side of his head, lightly scratching behind his ears. “Argos,” she breathed. “I’ve found some people to help us!”
The dog bumped his nose against her chin, whining. When their eyes locked, he felt something tickle at the base of his neck and around his sinus. He spoke to her, in the only way he knew how. Images, feelings, simple thoughts that echoed and skipped between them.
That pistol aimed at…
[you like him?]
…the both of US!
They know, they know,
[you LIKE him?]
they know about
Just down the way.
Look, look, look–
down the road,
they look just like
[why do you like him?]
Lethia’s hands stilled in his fur, their touch sliding down to lightly rest against his chest. The dog sighed and tilted his head to the side. When crouched, the girl actually came a little shorter than he did, but she seemed to sink in on herself, losing an inch as her eyes misted and her lips bunched and quivered.
No. No. No.
They can’t know!
They think I’m a normal dog.
Lethia nodded and turned to look at Paulo’s knees. “Can I see my pack for a moment? I want to put on some cream. The cold, it’s horrible.”
“Oh. Sure.” Paulo shrugged off her bag and set it down next to her. “Um…is…is your dog friendly?”
Argos growled pointedly.
Lethia laughed, though the sound grated on the ears. “He’s just…y’know. Protective.” She opened the flap, her green eyes shifting to Argos from the side as she reached in with trembling hands and rifled through her belongings. There was the clink and chink of some of her alchemy tools and dining pieces. She soon pulled out a small, circular tin case. Next she took up her waterskin which hung at the side of her bag by a leather tie, and dashed water over her hands.
“What’re you doing?” Paulo asked over her.
Lethia glanced up at his chest, her glasses having slid down her nose to leave her eyes exposed. “The cream I have is actually a thick paste–an odd elven mix. I have to use water to activate it. Keeps from spilling in my bag.” She opened the tin case and scooped out a small amount of what looked like soft white clay into her right palm. The girl then closed the tin, gingerly, trying to keep the paste in her hand from smearing, then put the little item away. When her hand came back out of the bag, it looked as though it were still holding something.
The boy didn’t notice. Argos guessed from the quizzical look on Paulo’s face that the boy knew nothing of feminine toiletries. The young man just gave a confused smile and looked to where his brothers were, waving them over. “My brothers were waiting for me outside. They’re just down there. Let me introduce you.”
Lethia looked Argos in the eyes, her breathing quiet, but fast and shallow. “Now?” she breathed.
The dog gave a jerk of a nod.
Lethia took the match she had concealed and struck it against the rough of her bag strap. The match lit with a spit of fire. She then rose to her feet, twisting her body to face Paulo in full, her hand which held the incendia–a white clay used in starting controlled fires–offered up, open palm, as she brought the match to it–all of this done in one fluid movement. The clay ignited into gray and white flames, just a fireball held in her hand, which was kept safe by the water she had doused over her skin. Lethia was careful to make sure her long wheat locks were no where near her hand when she inhaled, and with all the force her lungs could manage, she blew at the flames.
Paulo’s face drew blank, and he reached for his rapier reflexively, but his countenance was lost behind the curtain of white fire. He screamed and jerked back. Lethia’s heart hammered against her chest, but she didn’t stop to see if he was okay. Taking up her bag, she pushed into a run.
As this went on, the girl saw her dog out of the corner of her eye–saw him barrel into two men, who had been approaching them. They shouted and she heard metal ringing. As she fled down the road, feet sloshing through the dirty ice, past the new onlookers who stood in her way, she heard screaming, and she faltered in her run to look back over her shoulder. Argos was on top of one man, young, whose arm seemed pinned between himself and the dog. The dog also had the other man, the older looking one who had tried to crawl away to his lost sword, by his boot. He was pulling and tugging, white fur ruffled as he worried his catch now and again.
Lethia stumbled to a stop, even as she saw Paulo, eyes unfocused, bits of his hair and one eyebrow smoldering, turn and begin to tumble in her direction. He looked dazed, but livid, and the ring of his rapier made the girl take a large step back. But she couldn’t let Argos get hurt. She couldn’t leave him behind. “Argos!” She screamed, hands clasped to her chest, body doubling as she put everything she had into her call. “Argos, stop it! Come on!”
The dog let go, his head popping up as he looked her way. Then with a booming bark, the dog reared back and pounded his paws into the back of the young man beneath him. The unfortunate fellow let out a great “Oof!” before his head fell against the icy ground, still. The dog bounded off of him, and next trounced on the older man, who had once again sought to retrieve his lost weapon.
Then the dog turned and with great reaching bounds came running to Lethia, whose attention had returned to Paulo. When the boy was close enough, he brandished his rapier and snarled. “You could’ve killed me!”
Lethia’s face grew hot. She screeched at Paulo, her hands clenched to tight fists. “How dare you! After the way you tried to betray me, losing an eyebrow was the least that–”
But her words were cut short when Argos rammed into Paulo from behind, his head dipped low to better scoop his body up when his legs flew out from underneath him. The young man shouted as he tumbled over the dog, and Argos slowed to bark at Lethia.
The girl quickly obliged, but not without one last glance over her shoulder.
Bursting through the little crowd that had gathered to watch, the pair veered off the main road to take to the alleys–through dripping pathways, iron gates, and garbage. Away from the buildings of timber and brick, with black smokestacks and churned roads of ice where chickens roamed, and the destitute slept against crates and barrels.
Evening came and the village town of Dolmensk was well behind them.
Lethia gazed back at it, her lenses held delicately in her hands as her green eyes traced the outlines of the shadowed buildings with mixed feelings. “Where are we going now, Argos? Who will help us? We have less than three weeks before…” she stopped, her voice made into a ghost of fog that drifted off with the wind. The dog woofed, and Lethia knelt by him, startled out of whatever reverie she’d slipped into. Her eyes fixed to his.
By Witch’s Alley.
Dangerous, but fast.
Bad if we take the merchant road.
Worse if we stay.
The girl nodded, shivering as the flashes of thoughts flew through her brain. “Okay.” She stood and buttoned up her winter coat. She adjusted her collar to better conceal her face from the wind, fingers numb and clumsy. Then she scratched Argos behind the ear and smiled as she put her glasses in her pocket. “It’s a good thing I have incendia.” She started to walk, toward the almost snow-covered road that dipped down into a narrow pass between two great bluffs. “I haven’t used any of it yet–so we should be good for a long while. Right, Argos?”
The dog remained quiet. Lethia looked back at him, confused. “Argos?”
Argos sighed and trotted to catch up with her, then bumped the girl in the side. He looked up at her, and she smiled at him again.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, Argos.”
His mind flashed to Paulo, smiling. To Lethia, smiling back.
The dog grumbled.