He squinted to see anything at all, but the darkness defeated his attempts. The weak firelight revealed the stone pavement under his feet, but only inky blackness lay beyond. The moon had sunk beneath the horizon while they slept and a cloud cover had thrown a curtain over the stars. No artificial illumination shone anywhere, so no glow reflected from above to light the grounds. They peered out into a night deeper than he’d experienced since Army survival training, decades in the past.
Rogan faced the other direction, guarding the opposite side of the fire. The two held their weapons ready and listened to the distant baying.
“What do you think it was?” Jack probed quietly.
Rogan’s voice was low and steady. “The sound that woke us was Mord’s voice, and we heard her bay again, just now. I’ve not heard nor sensed aught else, save Nam twice or so. She went out there after her dog.”
Jack could almost hear the smile in his dry humor as he added, “Please try not to shoot her when she comes in. I doubt you could hurt her, but you would certainly annoy her.”
A flock of birds roused, far in the distance, scolding some trespasser for a minute before settling in again. Hushed animal sounds drifted in occasionally after that, but nothing threatened from out of the darkness. Mord gave voice a few more times as the minutes extended but otherwise, a quarter-hour passed in near dead silence. As Jack’s eyes scanned back and forth, the loudest sounds he heard came from the campfire behind him.
A series of whistles piped from beyond a fallen spot in the castle wall, long, short, then long again. “That will be Nam, Jack,” Rogan warned quietly.
“Coast is clear, boys,” came her voice. “Perhaps Mord scared it off.”
Nam strolled back into the firelight as she put her dagger away. She clearly had been exercising, and she was still taking deep breaths. With the firelight reflecting off the moisture on her skin, she reminded Jack of his daughter coming off the soccer field.
“Bear or something?” he wondered.
She flashed a brief smile as if he had made a joke, and held her left hand high into the air, letting out another whistle. As she waited, she explained, “Mord would not trouble so much over a bear. She could handle such as that without waking us. This was something dangerous enough to rattle her, and now she will not stop patrolling for it. Hopefully she can tell me what it was when she gets back.”
The dove she had sent into the sky before he slept fluttered into her hand and folded its wings, preening. She whispered something, and it vanished into a single feather, which settled into her hand.
Jack wasn’t sure how to interpret that last statement. “She can tell you?”
Nam didn’t answer, busying herself instead with reinserting the feather into her hair.
Rogan chuckled behind him. “Think of Nam as Dr. Doolittle.”
After a short pause, he added. “Sunrise is barely more than an hour away. We may as well stay awake and get ready for the journey.”
His partner knelt down near the fire, stirring it with a stick to improve the flame, as she replied, “There us storm weather in the wind, Rogan. I suspect we will not be going anywhere today.”
Rogan prepared a breakfast and they ate it in silence as the first hints of twilight began to arrive. Although the situation felt dire to Jack, his two companions remained completely at ease. Their lack of discussion suggested they might still be on edge, but if so, they did a remarkable job of covering it. As they sat around the fire, eating something Rogan called ‘porridge’ and Jack considered oatmeal, then sipping an herbal tea which they clearly enjoyed but he found hideously bitter, he wondered repeatedly what would constitute a normal morning for these two. They seemed too comfortable for the setting.
Back on Earth, he would have finished with his shift by now. If the hours and days truly were the same here as on Earth, like Rogan claimed, then they had only slept for two hours or so, which meant the day shift he would now pull would be hell. They had to walk to a place where they could ‘spin’ to the world called Trin, the world that held a place called Parha. From there, the hunters would escort him by other routes back to Earth and then get back to sniffing out their quarry’s scent.
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