“I tell you, there’s good eating on these beasts.” Badl raised his voice.
“And I tell you these horses are not for eating.” Wlkn sounded just as determined and he looked up when Wlvn rejoined them. “Lord, you have to straighten out this little person.”
“Little person? I am not a short human, I’m a dwarf, a gnome if you want to get technical, and anyway, I am sure you have never tasted horse bacon and sausage the way I can make them.”
“Badl.” Wlvn spoke the dwarf’s name and Badl thought about things again and whipped off his hat.
“And Wlkn. You said Lord.”
“Well, I was listening to this gnome person,” he pointed. “Anyway, maybe that’s a fair word for the god of the horses, or anyway, someone who seems to be friends with the real gods.”
“Loki is not my friend,” Wlvn mumbled.
“The god with the Lord of All.” Wlkn smiled. “I figured that one out all by myself.”
“God of horses? I never heard anything so lame in my life. He’s my god, god of all the elves, light and dark, and the dwarfs in between, too. The gods decided that some fifty years ago, in the days of Kartesh.” Badl built up a good head of steam before he remembered himself once again. He turned back to face Wlvn. “Counted among the gods, he is, even when he is no more than a grubby boy. That’s a fact.”
“See? That hardly makes you a normal, human mortal, does it?”
“Counted among the gods, he is.” Badl nodded.
“Stuff it,” Wlvn responded. “We have to decide what we are going to do here.” They paused as the wailing in the distance came again and this time it abruptly turned into a scream, like the scream of a mountain lion.
“They’ve got the scent.” Badl looked worried. “Let’s hope it is the horses they are after because they never give up, and they never quit until they are dead, or they got what they are hunting.”
“What can we do?” Wlkn looked as worried as the dwarf, but it seemed hard to tell because worried was Wlkn’s natural expression. Wlvn heard a different sound, looked up, and saw that beautiful bird. For some reason, the bird had come back and circled over their heads. Even as Wlvn looked up, it took off across the river. Wlvn had to run to the hole he made in the back of the shack to see, and the others followed. The bird landed in the water again, just like before, and it climbed the bank and took off again to the southwest, paralleling the river on the far side.
“Maybe she wants us to follow her,” Badl suggested.
“She?” Wlvn wondered.
“What is it?” Wlkn asked and stared off in the distance, though the bird flew out of sight.
“Called a swan, she is. Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Yes.” Wlvn and Wlkn spoke together as they heard the screaming again, but not quite as far away, and with perhaps a bit of a roar mixed in.
“It’s got the scent,” Badl said once again, and worried his hat almost to the point of tearing it.
“We cross the river.” Wlvn made the decision. He knew that horses were good swimmers, and while the river appeared fairly wide and deep at that point, the current looked gentle enough. “The trick is going to be getting Badl up on a horse.” He laughed, but it turned out not a difficult thing to do. Wlvn had to order the dwarf to get up on Strn’s mount, and even then Badl only felt prompted by the fact that the night creatures were clearly getting closer. He sat well despite the short legs, and the horse looked very comfortable with the gnome on his back.
Wlvn guided Thred slowly into the water. It felt very cold, and he remembered that it was November, but the horses went without argument. Even Badl’s horse followed the crowd, though to be sure, Badl looked more like Brmr’s size on the beast’s back and hardly looked in a position to guide, much less control the horse. Then again, the gnome, like all true gnomes, had a natural affinity for animals beyond anything a normal, human mortal might imagine. If Badl could not exactly speak to the horse, he could make himself understood, and now that the horse knew that it would not be eaten, it responded willingly to Badl’s verbal directions.
As the horses got to the depths and began to swim, Wlvn lost Number Two’s reigns. He looked back to make sure the horse still followed and saw in the last of the sunset, three beasts looking like gray terrors, standing in the shadows on the bank of the river, smack in the hole in the shack—the very place they just vacated. One of the creatures lifted its head and let out a wail such as they had not heard before. It sounded like a lost soul in torment. The other two beasts growled and roared at them like something between a bear and a lion’s roar, frightening to hear. The horses picked up their pace, and Wlvn saw one of the beasts enter the water to follow. The other two waited on the shore and watched. Wlvn raised an eyebrow at that behavior and wondered how intelligent these creatures might be. At first, the beast in the water did fine since it started in the shallows and it could wade without problem, but once it hit the deep water, where the footing fell away, it stopped, and it might have stood there for a time if a wave had not come and pushed the beast into the deep.
“Incoming,” Wlvn said. He expected the night creature to begin to swim after them, but instead he heard the beast whelp and squeal in despair as it sank into the deep to drown. “Halleluiah!” Wlvn changed his tune. “They can’t swim. We should be safe as long as we can keep the river between us.”
Wlkn looked up as if thanking the Alfader himself. Badl stayed too busy trying to hang on to the horse’s mane to do much more than make a simple comment. “Water sprites,” he said, and Wlvn heard and swallowed hard. The water sprites were his, too, just like the earth sprites—the elves and the dwarfs—and the fire sprites, and sprites of the air, too. It was too much, he thought, as Thred found his footing again and came up out of the water. Fortunately, at that moment, he hardly had time to contemplate it all.
“Lord.” Badl spoke as soon as he could speak again. “They will find a place to ford the river and be on us again before you know it, but I know some spirit paths that can take us out of range in short order.”
“Dwarf paths, where you can cover many miles in a few short hours?” Wlvn asked.
“I guess,” Badl said, not knowing what a mile or an hour was.
“You can find these ways in the dark?” Wlkn asked, aware of the conversation while his eyes still looked back. He lost his mattress in the water, but that was not what he looked at.
“This way.” Badl did not answer directly.
“Wait.” Wlvn got off of Thred’s back and mounted Number Two. Thred puffed, badly from all the exercise he had that day. Then again, he was not going to be pulled along like just any horse, so about all Wlvn could do was shake his finger in Thred’s face and tell the horse to keep up. With that, Badl started out and the others followed, though Wlkn at least wondered how the dwarf could see anything in the dark. He did not know the virtue of the dwarf nose or the fact that dwarfs in general were underground creatures and well suited to dim light.
It took only a couple of hours before Badl said they would be safe. The river still sat on their left, and indeed, having abandoned it almost at the start, they came upon it suddenly again just before stopping. Apart from a few small clumps of trees, neither Wlvn nor Wlkn saw anything but grassland that whole time. How a dwarf could find a short-cut through that was beyond them, but Wlvn at least remembered one old adage and decided not to look this gift horse in the mouth.
“Even if they find a way across right away, they won’t get here before morning, fast as they are,” Badl said. “Of course, in the morning they will have to find shelter from the sun where they can lay low for the day. You say night creatures can’t swim and that may be, but I know for certain that sunlight is like a bane to them, and they can’t move in it at all.”
Wlvn nodded, but he kept watching Wlkn make a fire. “I wish we had something to eat,” he said.
Wlkn looked up briefly and went back to work. “I wish I had that mattress,” he said. “Lord, that was comfortable.” And with that, and the fire burning, the three travelers lay down in the grass by the river and slept, not altogether successfully.