Stealing Souls Chapter Nine; Merlin

This is the final chapter of my ongoing novel, before I take a break. Plans on further posting to be announced. See full archives here.

Most of the Metropiads who kept dogs liked to specialize. If they wanted to trade fur to the spinners, they bred long-haired dogs with solid coats. If they wanted to hunt, they bred terriers or greyhounds who could take down an animal on their own (hunting was a loophole around the injunction against killing, but only if the hound did the killing personally). A few took molossers to patrol the edges of the Potomac river that marked Metropiad territory.

Then there were packs like Merlin’s. He was a fixer. When a puppy was proving particularly difficult to train, or a stray had been found by someone who wanted to incorporate it into their pack, its keeper came to him for help. When their dogs were sick or injured, he kept them safe while they healed. His permanent pack consisted of the bad dogs; the useless mutts everyone else needed to discard, the ones too unruly for anyone else to handle and the ones too old to keep up with their own packs.

Despite the bleached, elderly feel of his name, he was a lithe, fresh-faced man. Some Asian ancestors had gifted him with glossy black hair and the ability to pass for twenty even though he was a closer to forty. He was tall, with most of his length in his arms and legs. When he rose from sitting, usually with one knee drawn easily toward his chest or both legs crossed, he seemed to unfold, in a smooth yet complex motion, like an umbrella opening.

He liked people, but spent much of his time alone by choice. His style of loving was an easy, detached one, but no less warm for it. He would treat a dog as his own for as long as he had it, but there would be no hesitation when it was time to give it back. He missed every dog he had surrendered, and greeted them gladly if he ever saw them again, but he knew the farewells were for the best. Besides, their passing made space and time for new troublesome puppies.

Currently, he was sitting on a large rock, fishing with Fifty-Seven. It was forbidden to give dogs human names, so some keepers, like Fifty-Seven’s former master, simply numbered them. Merlin didn’t like this practice, but he also felt guilty any time he renamed a dog. Names should stick once they were given, so Fifty-Seven stayed Fifty-Seven. He was a blind orange and cream bulldog. Ordinarily he stuck close to Merlin, so it was worth taking notice when Fifty-Seven stood up and waddled, as quickly as his cautious feet ever did, into a field of green ferns.

Merlin watched as the dog stopped in the middle, and a little brown hand reached up and patted his snout. A child’s head poked up, just long enough for Merlin to see the big black eyes and leaves stuck in her hair before she popped back down under the leaves.

“Interesting,” Merlin muttered.

He watched the rustling ferns for a moment, then called Fifty-Seven to him. He saw the trail of shaking ferns, signaling the dog’s approach. The dog emerged alone, trotting to Merlin’s arms for a rub on the head. Merlin lay down to see under the broad leaves. The girl had followed the dog partway through the foliage, but had frozen in place before where the shadows of the ferns were interrupted by sunlit dirt path. She crouched, staring back at him; a dark shadow surrounded by the green light that filtered through the foliage. She did not shrink away from his stare, but he could see that didn’t mean she was not afraid. It was paralyzed stillness, with focused, calculating eyes.

His heart stopped, then came to life again, in a rapid pounding. Thudthudthudthudthud. The desire to help her was so strong, it did not even feel generous. It felt like selfishness, because if that hungry, miserable thing disappeared into the underbrush part of him would die.

This feeling, powerful though it was, did not disorient him. He felt it every time someone brought a new dog to him. The only novelty was that he was feeling it for his own kind. He did what he always did; waited quietly until it settled, formed it in to a tight, silent little ball inside of him, and began to strategize.

Merlin rummaged through his rucksack until he found his packet of dried apple rings. He put one on his hand and held it out to her. He remained like that, waiting, but unfortunately his arm began to ache from being outstretched before she budged. The apple was returned to the packet, and he rubbed Fifty-Seven’s head while he thought. One option was to put the packet on the ground and walk away. Surely she would sneak out and steal it. However, as he considered that from her perspective, it seemed unsatisfying. She might not be able to distinguish between a gift he was offering and a forgotten thing she had stolen from him. She would be fed for today, and that would be good, but then she might run away, and that would be worse.

Fifty-Seven rolled over on his side, and Merlin scratched his belly. For a moment he saw her smile. She feared him, but liked his dog. That gave him an idea. He took the strings off the packet, but wrapped the waxed paper around it securely. He put the packet in Fifty-Seven’s mouth and sent it to her. She greeted the dog with happy, tickling fingers and giggled out loud when he dropped the present in front of her. Soon her cheeks were bulging with the fruit.

Casually, Merlin rolled onto his back, laced his hands behind his heads, and watched the pattern of leaves against the sky for a while. After a few moments, he glanced back at the child, smiled at her, then looked back up again. Everything about his body language said, “I see you, but I don’t really care what you’re doing. The sky is much more interesting.”

Fifty-Seven returned and sniffed around his face. Merlin patted his flanks and scratched under his jaw. Another glance back at the ferns, and he failed to find the girl. There was a moment of panic, and he wriggled slowly on his belly to get a closer look without startling her. A few feet and he saw her curled up, breathing softly. A full belly and an adventurous afternoon had made for a sleeping girl. This was good.

Merlin remained in that area, making a campfire as the day went on and calling his dogs back to him. Cloud, alpha of the pack when Merlin was not present, brought them in. He was small, with white tufted fur. He had been the runt from a litter of spinner’s dogs; too small to be of much use to them. The same was true of Sorrel, a lazy, yippy ball of perpetually burr-ridden orange fluff. Winter, a blue eyed merle, had a similar origin. Her body was larger, but her fur was too short and varigated. His two most recent acquisitions were Twigs and Buttercup. Twigs was like a greyhound shrunk to the size of a shoe. His keeper had hoped that if his temperament improved, he would be a good one to chase small, quick creatures like squirrels; Merlin intended to advise him to leave the dog alone. Twigs’ attitude had improved significantly, but his nervousness came from an intuitive understanding that his little bones were fragile, and he did not belong in the world of working dogs. His mutation was a practical dead end, but Merlin would be happy to keep him. Buttercup had been a yellow retriever who had turned skittish after an injury that took one of her ears. She was doing well, and he suspected that she had returned late because she had been running around for the sheer joy of it. He would return her to her keeper soon. Last came Saturday and Sunday, elderly former guardians who had been retired now that their gaits were slow and they slept most of the day. They were brother and sister, and resembled a mix of Great Dane and wolfhound.

Merlin’s plans to fish for dinner, as he usually did, had been disrupted by the little girl’s appearance. This was no worry of his. No doubt many of them had hunted a bit, and he broke into a few jars of preserved scraps for any who were hungry. They knew to wait until he distributed it among old clay bowls, and he praised them for their patience. For himself, there were walnuts and another packet of dried apples.

When he was finished, he looked below the ferns once again. The girl was still asleep. Could he pick her up, carry her to his camp, where there were blankets and a fire to keep her warm?

As soon as he began to crawl into the bed of ferns, she stirred. Her eyes slowly half opened, then snapped open all the way. She rolled onto her stomach and scrambled on all fours deep into the bed. Merlin rose to his feet and tried to chase after her, then stopped himself. His heart pounded and begged him to catch the girl, but experience reminded him that anyone being chased was likely to keep running.

He dropped back down, sat cross-legged, and began picking at the ferns. It was an old trick with skittish puppies. Chasing created fear, which drove humans and animals alike away, but minding one’s own business while doing something odd created curiosity, the best lure for any intelligent creature.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her. She reached the edge of the ferns, and he worried that his change had come too late. If she did not look back until she was deep into the forest, he might lose her completely. Luckily, a few feet into the forest was a young pine tree. She ducked under its branches and began to climb. When she ran out of branches that would support her, she stopped to watched him.

Another standoff. But he couldn’t afford to slowly bring her down this time. The sun was already setting.

While he plucked the ferns, he imagined the world from where she was perched.

The pine needles were pricking her skin from one side, the evening air from the other. The breeze was swaying her, gently like a cradle. He could see that from here. The air smelled cool and quiet and lovely, but there was no safety in it. She clung to the branches and stayed as still as possible to keep her perch. She was small. She needed to sleep, but not enough to come down.

He felt the answer without thinking it. He rose to his feet and returned to his camp, where he retrieved his blanket. It was soft, woven in stripes of black, white, and brown fur. He took it to her pine tree, spread it underneath the branches, and walked away. It would be a cold night, but not too cold, and he would have smelled rain if it was coming. The dogs would keep him warm enough.

With them for company, he watched the sunset, and tried not to watch the tree. When he looked, he looked out of the corner of his eyes. The thick southern branches obscured her, but he felt he could keep track of the right tree. He did not let the fact that she was hard to see tempt him into turning his head. It would be so much easier for her to see him through the needles than vice versa. After a while, when he had not seen her climb down in his glances, he began to doubt his ability to keep track of the correct tree. Maybe he should have been eyeing the tree just behind it. She couldn’t have climbed all the way down without him noticing. Or had she climbed down too stealthfully? Or maybe she had shimmied down while his back was turned, when he was returning to his own camp.

He did not sleep well. Every few hours, he woke up, wondering if the girl was still in her tree, or curled in the blanket, or had run away to some other hiding place where he would never find her. The urge to go check pulled at him, but he resisted. The worst thing he could do now was frighten her again.

Then, when the stars were high in the sky, he turned over and nearly jumped. Right across from him was the little girl, her cheek pressed against Fifty-Seven’s flank. She was so close that even in the moonlight, he could see the individual ringlets of her hair, dark and pussywillow soft. The blanket had been dragged along. It had dried leaves stuck to its surface, especially at the edges, where they clung like a bedraggled fringe. With one fist, she had it clutched under her chin, one corner drawn into a knot while the rest spread over her shoulders and back. Her nose twitched, and she sneezed, opening her eyes briefly. Their eyes met, and she blinked slowly at him. He expected to see her gather the blanket up again and run away, but instead she gave him a nonchalant, lazy look, as if she was seeing his surprise and thinking, “what? Isn’t this what you were hoping for? Silly man.”

Then she tucked her head back down and fell asleep again.

Merlin watched her for a while before returning to sleep himself. Inside the core of his chest, he felt that little knot of caring open up again. It had been latent all day, like a rosebud hiding in his core. Now it spilled out and unfolded, becoming bigger and more complex the more it opened. Like petal upon petal spilling out, each one somehow making space for still more to come out, like there was an abundant supply of love inside himself and each bit of love just made room for more.

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