aylo whistled for his dogs. Plucking a wad of chewing curd from his belt pouch, he made himself comfortable for the watch. The stars were out, some of them, and a halfmoon was shining through thinning clouds. Vaylo sat and did not think for a while.
The dogs came to him in their own good time. At first he didn’t realize the wolf dog hadn’t homed. It could be willful at times and reluctant to obey a summons if it was closing on a kill. Vaylo whistled again, waited. Oddly enough, it had been Gullitt who had given him his first pup. It was a sight hound, the runt of the litter. With irregular vertebrae in its tail and an infection in its right eye Gullitt had judged it unworthy to be reared for the hunt. “Take it,” his father had said to him, “but you’ll to have to wean it yourself as I won’t waste a teat.” Vaylo had done just that, dipping a shammy in pig’s milk so the pup could suckle on the hour. After a week he’d taken her to the field surgeon Broody Salt. Broody had been the one who’d tended Vaylo after the worst of his father’s beatings; the dislocated arm, the broken collar bone, the punctured spleen. Broody had given him drops for the pup’s eye and advised him to grind bonemeal into her milk to make her strong.
“She’ll never run straight with that crooked tail,” Broody had said, “but she’ll sure sprint a fast curve”.
Moya, Vaylo had called her, after the legendary chief’s wife who defended the Bluddhouse from Dhoone’s armies while her husband was away.
Moya, the dog, turned out to be a brawler. Vaylo grinned thinking about her. Fierce and scrappy, she would lunge at anyone who looked at him the wrong way. She was troubled though, and there were times when Vaylo woke in the middle of the night to find her chewing, blank-eyed and relentless, on her right hind leg. He had only loved her more for it.
He’d never been without a dog since. They had made him who he was. A boy with a dog at his heels was no longer alone. He had someone to back him up in a fight, an extra set of eyes and ears to keep watch, and something warm--and smelly--to sleep next to through the long winter nights. Vaylo had lost count of all the dogs he had owned. Hundreds certainly. At some point he had stopped giving them names. It didn’t seem necessary. They were part of him like an arm or a leg. Might as well have called them Vaylo.
The wolf dog had been different though. Separate, yet more vital to his wholeness. Its dam had gone missing five summers back and Vaylo thought he’d never see her again. Forty-one days later she’d turned up, fat and pleased with herself, trotting in from the north. When she’d given birth a month later it became apparent she had mated with a wolf. Right from the start, the wolf dog held itself apart from its siblings. More wolf than dog, it was the largest of the litter and suckled the hardest. It sucked its dam dry, depriving its brothers of milk. Its sisters lived, but there was never any doubt over who was top dog. Vaylo had taken the wolf dog in hand, but he realized early on that it could not be wholly tamed. Part of its soul lived in the north beyond the clanholds. On icy nights lit by stars no latch or tether could hold it . . . but it had always returned.
The old pain in Vaylo’s chest knifed him. Ignoring it, he stood and headed south. He had a watch to keep. Three dogs ghosted at his side, serious and alert. To the north, Cluff Drybannock would be mounting his own watch, looking not to the south but to the Rift. Vaylo wondered how long it would take the wolf dog to reach him.
The dog had chosen a new master. It would not be coming back.