“Come here, kid,” Angus tossed over his shoulder, “sit closer to the fire!” The girl sat on a log, some distance away. A slight creature, she was swathed in a shroud of cloth: a heavy cloak that obscured her features. A slight motion from the hood suggested a shaking of her head. She didn’t move otherwise.
“Suit yourself,” Angus muttered dismissively, and he turned back to the fire. He looked at his companions. On his left sat Edmund, a disgusting, watery mound of a man. He was preoccupied with a stale hunk of chicken, sprays of spittle dancing in the firelight as he scraped at it with what few teeth he had. On his right, Armond Cragwater eyed their obese companion, a glow of contempt framing his lean, rotted face. The trees leaned in, uniform shadows against the night sky. The fire spat at them, warding them off.
“Say, Gus!” Edmund gurgled, displaying the contents of his mouth as he spoke, “right queer ‘bout them stupid mutts, eh?”
Angus grunted an agreement, averting his eyes. The ‘mutts’ that Edmund were referring to were the hunting dogs that the three kept. They were vicious, unlikable animals, but they were good at their job. They were heavily built, with excess skin melting off their faces. Their hind legs were too short for the rest of their bodies, lending their stride a ridiculous swing. But they were fast, and what they lacked in finesse they made up for in sheer stupid strength: enough to easily topple a man, if they were ever clever enough to realize it, which made it all the more strange that they were cowering underneath the cart. They whined and shuffled nervously.
Edmund laughed, a moist growl, and threw the chicken bone at the dogs. “Stupid mutts,” he repeated, his sparkling wit shining through. The bone skittered across the ground, the dogs’ eyes swiveling after it. They did not move, however: a strangely subdued reaction considering the promise of food.
Cragwater leaned back, gazing down at the dogs. There was an interested look in his eye, one that only the morbid seemed to inspire.
“You know”, he began at length, “they say that animals are more sensitive than humans.” He let the sentence hang for a moment, waiting for Edmund to take the bait.
“…Ter what?”, Edmund wheezed, his fleshy finger circling his tin plate and making a horrible squealing sound.
“To magics. To faeries,” Cragwater leered, pleased to have an audience.
Angus slumped a little. This was all he needed tonight: one of Cragwater’s stories. An astonishing number of them ended with someone being maimed or killed by horrific magic. A fair number of them began that way as well.
“Armond,” he began.
“Cragwater”, came the snappy response.
“Cragwater,” he sighed, “not in front of the kid, eh?” He motioned behind him at the hooded figure. His companions looked over at her, evidently having forgotten about her until now. She shifted slightly under their gaze.
“Pah!” Cragwater spat into the fire, causing it to sizzle defensively. “She doesn’t have to listen.” He swiveled around on his stump. “Besides which,” he added, “she’s only here because you felt guilty about leaving a poor waif in the woods alone!”
Angus leaned back. He’d decided not to argue. Cragwater, sensing that he’d won, added the coup de grâce: “It’s my campfire, Angus, and you are both free to leave at your leisure.”
Edmund chortled, a lumbering, clumsy sound. He lifted a bottle between thumb and forefinger, and levered the lid open with his teeth. “When did yer start being such a bleedin’ ‘eart, Gus?” He took a swig from the bottle, forgot to stop laughing, choked. As he spluttered, beetroot, Cragwater began to set the scene. Angus leaned back on his stump. At least he could get some shut-eye while Cragwater rattled on. Behind him, the girl had turned her backs on the group. She appeared to be gazing at the moon, but it was impossible to see through the canopy above them.
Cragwater began his tale. “I used to live in a village called Gart, some years ago. And I knew one fellow who had a dog, and the blasted creature just would not stop barking. All day and night, it would not stop barking! I said to him one day, I said, ‘my dear fellow, you simply must shut that brute up!’ He didn’t know how, of course, and so he put the damnable creature out of my misery.”
“Anyway, a few months later, it transpired that their child had been replaced by a Changeling. So that was what the dog was barking at.”
The hair stood up on the back of Angus’ neck. He clapped his hand over it instinctively: there was no wind, and a bug hadn’t stung him. He looked over at his companions. Cragwater was too engrossed in his own (probably mendacious) storytelling, but Edmund’s small, watery eyes shifted a little nervously. Of course, he was probably spooked by the story – Angus hadn’t met anyone who hadn’t heard of the stolen children, but he would put good money on Edmund being the first.
“So, of course, they killed the child and bought another dog,” Cragwater concluded. Edmund clapped in delight, two slabs of meat crashing together.
“That’s good, Craggy! Love a happy ending.”
Cragwater made a visible effort not to rise to the nickname. “Quite,” he managed. “Filthy creatures, those faeries.” His tone dripped with a palpable loathing.
“So what d’you reckon’s spooked our dogs, then?” Edmund queried, blankly.
Angus sat bolt upright. He looked over at Cragwater, who returned the gaze, terrified. Edmund, who hadn’t caught on yet, peered into his bottle to see if there were any dregs left. Angus wheeled around.
The girl was gone.