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Like Ghost Cat and a Dragon’s Dog

by Dave Freer


“Arf.”

That means “hello, get lost, I have a flea, there’s a werewolf getting quite close”, and at least a hundred other things. Dog is an expressive language. That’s one of the problems with human speech. So confusing to have different barks for every single thing—except where you have the same bark for the same thing and no different inflexion. And then different barks mean different things in different places. Can’t you humans settle on a common language? I have no trouble understanding foreign dogs.

I’m getting it, slowly. Meb wants me to, and she has the power.

In this case the “arf” meant something nastier than “werewolf” but my dragon didn’t get it. He has, however, been getting better at understanding me since Brocéliande. Look, I admit sometimes up on Fionn’s back I. . .just bark. Just to give the beggars out there a bit of cheek. I’m not afraid of werewolves. I’m not afraid of afancs, trolls, big bulls, or even angry cats... When I’m nice and high on the dragon’s back. I keep hoping one of them will try something, and the dragon will give them a good singe. It would do some cats good.

Cats were something of a surprise to me. I instinctively knew that I chased them, and that they ran away, until one didn’t. It stopped on a window sill and stuck its claws into my nose and hissed at me. So I learned: bark first, and chase only if they run. Avoid chasing them through windows. And they turn much faster than dogs—or at least to climb up trees. I nearly knocked my nose back through my ears running after one that ran up a tree. It ran up and I couldn’t stop.

But this time I did have a reason for barking. Fionn was tired and didn’t pay too much attention to me. He was looking for the odd things he looks for, which don’t mean a lot to me. He says the bark "balance" a lot. If I understand it right it has to do with being able to stand on three legs and lift the fourth. I’ve been practicing it lately myself, unlike Fionn, who just talks about it. Perhaps because he can change shape and stand on two legs, he doesn’t need to do the lifting a leg thing. It’s important to dogs, though. It also lets others know this is our range and they can stay off it or find trouble.

Smells are complex things, a whole language of its own. Humans are good companions, as we dogs have found, and can be truly useful at scratching that spot just above the tail that I always have trouble getting to, but humans also throw off an awful lot of smells. Some of the smells, the humans don’t seem to notice. They’re not very keen of nose, let alone aware of subtleties. In smell-language they have a baby’s vocabulary. It’s why we dogs have to sniff really closely at the smelly bits, and they don’t do so. Even dragons, who have a better sense of smell than humans (although to me they smell worse) just don’t get the level of bouquet that we do. I’m a smell expert: Scent markers are important.

My scent-marks didn’t seem to work too well at putting a fright into others, though—especially not into the cats or on whatever it was that followed us through the forest.

We had been walking through the tall trees of Sylvan. It was the quietest, deadest forest we’d ever been in. Oh, the trees were alive. But animal life... we just didn’t see any. No squirrels. No birdsong. No animal sounds and no animal smells… except insects.

The Dragon seemed to accept this was possible. I didn’t think about it much. We dogs spend a lot of time thinking. But mostly we think about dinner, or about our pack. Meb is mine. I think about her all the time. It doesn’t leave much space for thinking about philosophy and that dragonish-human-dvergar sort of stuff. I go where Meb goes. And now, when she had been taken away, I went towards where she was.

I thought there was something out there in the gloaming, among the tall trees or hidden in the dark mottled shade under them. It was a something with meat on its breath. It didn’t come any closer. Fionn didn’t seem to smell it, and wasn’t aware of it.

I didn’t think about it until later that night when I got up from my bed of leaves next to the dragon to have a good scratch. I had worked out quite fast that waking Fionn by scratching against his chest had all sorts of unpleasant consequences. The first was that he wakes fast and dangerous, and he is a dragon. The second was that he reckons the need to scratch is caused by vermin and that means a bath.

"Bath" was one of the first human barks that I learned. And learned to avoid. I don’t only scratch when I have a flea. I’m a dog. I scratch. I have gas that has to come out. And I lick places humans can’t. I’m also brighter than most dogs and a fair number of humans, and even all dragons besides Fionn, who is much cleverer than other dragons. That means I don’t behave like a proper dog, and just take care of these dog matters in a regular fashion, but actually do them at such a time and place that Meb or Fionn will not make complaining barks, or bath me. I’m a bit like life-mated male humans in that way.

This time it was a flea. The fleabane had helped me. The stuff stinks, and makes me faintly queasy and wanting to eat grass, but the fleas like it less than I do. Thanks to Fionn I had fleabane. Thanks to him I had fleas, too.

They weren’t dragon-fleas. Shudder. The canine mind boggles at the idea of being bitten by a dragon-flea. I was bitten by a dragon-fly once (admittedly, I had caught it in my mouth, just because it was so big, fluttery and coming past, and might possibly be edible. I was a puppy then, months ago, and always hungry. Actually, I am usually hungry, and it was worse here in Sylvan, seeing as Fionn was eking out the food, and there wasn’t much to start with. One of the things about being a dog is, as you have no hands and you need your mouth, the place to carry food is in your stomach. The burying bones thing I never really got the hang of, as I’ve always been a dog of no fixed abode, moving with my pack. My pack is human and dragon, and they sometimes carry packs, with food in them. See what I mean about their confusing barks. Pack only means one thing to a dog: us.)

Anyway, the flea was bothering me, so I got up to see if I could scratch the bloodsucker loose and then bite it with my front teeth. As I was doing so, something occurred to me: If there were no animals on Sylvan... just what did these fleas and the mosquitoes eat, besides me?

We’d arrived in Sylvan through a gate into the place of rest. Rest is a wonderful, healing thing, provided you wake up, eventually. The dark trees there had decided it would be better, for them anyway, if waking up didn’t happen. Fionn had fiddled with the magic of the place, and made it the place of peaceful drowsiness... disturbed by insects which drank blood.

Fionn’s magic made the place attractive to mosquitos and fleas. Unfortunately, we’d been there when he did this. Fortunately, it kept us awake.

There had to be some source of blood, besides occasional travellers who fell into this world by accident. I was thinking about this, and wondering just how I could get the idea across to Fionn while I sniffed about for a suitable spot. . .

And then I gave a bark, but a very, very small one. The kind of bark a young sheepdog might make if a cat the size of a bear silently landed next to him. I can’t land on leaf-litter soundlessly, but it could.

This was not the kind of cat I barked at to see if it ran away. This was the kind of cat where I put my tail between my legs and ran as fast as I could back to my dragon. Maybe barking over my shoulder if I had the breath. Only... there were two of them. The second one was just about as much in my run-path as possible.

And they had real teeth. Not kitty teeth. Blades coming out their faces like yellow ivory daggers in the moonlight. Teeth nearly as long as my nose. And there was another of the big, stripy, nasty-looking cats dropping, as silent as mist, to the forest floor.

I had always understood that, besides everything else, we dogs are superior to cats because they don’t have packs. Or so I had thought. I wondered how they felt about dogs who rolled over into a suitably submissive pose. On the other hand they weren’t dogs. I was not too sure they’d understand, and one of those teeth would make a terrible mess of my undercarriage. So I tried the nervous growl that means “you’re bigger and uglier than me, but I am going to bite you if you try anything.”

Whatever they usually ate, did not growl at them like that.

Actually, it probably didn’t growl at all, but ran away if they hadn’t landed on it. And it probably was bigger than a mouse. . .or even a sheepdog. The cat made a low "Mwrrrrrllll" growl back at me. The sound throbbed. It was terrifying as noises go, but what was more scary. . .was that I understood it. Meb, my goddess, wanted me to understand, and she was working strong magics with her dvergar necklace of many powers. It helped with something as complicated as human. It worked just fine on something relatively simple like big-cat-that-run-in-packs language. I’ll put it to you as it came to me, without something of a speech impediment because of the teeth. I so do not intend to mock that unless I’m on top of a very wide-awake dragon.

It said something like: “What kind of food is this?” and it wasn’t addressed at me at all, but at the other big pussy-wussys. I’d guess this was a young one, just by the tone.

There is nothing like big teeth and a paw about the size of my head, and razor-sharp claws sliding out of that velvet paw that is reaching towards you to aid in learning a new language, really, really fast. “Not food!” I growl-mwrred back. It was hell on the throat, but not as bad as a claw through the neck. The language wasn’t that different. More about intonation than separate growls for everything.

“It talks.” The claw pulled back.

“Not some strange kind of water-deer then. It smells wrong. I do not like it,” said one of the big cats.

The feeling, trust me on this, was mutual. I was about to take my chances on running and barking, to see if these big pussies would like to be the mat in front of the fire (because the dragon was still bigger than them, and it set things on fire), when one of the three casually swiped something out of the air.

It was a bat. I’ve never seen any animal move so fast. I thought over my barking and running chances, as it ate the bat with a single crunch, and then sat down and scratched itself.

At least part of what the fleas around here fed on was explained, even if the water-deer weren’t. “Take it with us back to the pride,” said the one who hadn’t patted at me with a paw, and who hadn’t just crunched a bat. I’ve met a fair number of humans by now. We dogs have a sensible arrangement with litters and packs. Humans sometimes have something called ‘older sisters’. This was one of those, or as close as you can get to it in cats that move like ghosts. Older sisters are something to be treated with caution, who usually suggest unpleasant things, from what I have learned from watching young humans.

“Meb and my dragon will not like that,” I said with as much confidence as I could manage.

“What kind of creatures are they?” asked the young one who had frightened me out of a year’s growth by appearing in front of me.

“Dragons breathe fire. And Meb, she is great and terrible. She turns enemies to stone and can cause baths. They are my pack and they’re going to be very upset about my being missing. They can follow me anywhere.” That was not strictly true. I can follow them anywhere. I always know just exactly where Meb is. And I have got good at smelling out the dragon, and knowing one dragon from the next. What they smell like does partly depend on what they eat. Fionn has a fondness for mushrooms.

“Baths. What are those?”

“They involve water, and being dropped into it. They are to be avoided.” Not that I didn’t get wet sometimes for good reason, like going for a swim. But cats, if I recalled correctly, didn’t like water.

The idea didn’t appeal to this one, obviously. “Maybe we should leave it and go and look for water-deer. I’m hungry.”

I liked that idea.

“I thought it was maybe a dobhar‑chú but its too far from the lake,” said the other big cat.

“Dobhar‑chú! That’s just a story.”

“They’ll get you if you go in the water.”

The littlest of the big cats shuddered. I was winning...

The older sister one said: “Move, thing. It can’t be a dobhar‑chú. They can pull one of the pride underwater. It couldn’t. It’s too small and it hardly has any teeth.”

I moved, seeing as I had to... sort of sideways looking for a gap that would take me the hundred dog-lengths back to the dragon. I worked on clever too, like standing on branches and leaves as hard as I could to make a noise. Unfortunately the older sister one was between me and Fionn. And the other two were very close. I was being pushed towards the bole of one of the huge trees.

“Clumsy thing. I don’t think it can climb,” said the littlest cat.

“Must be a kind of water-deer then,” said the bat-catcher, in a growl that was a death sentence.

The big sister one picked me up in her jaws. I tried to bark then, but I was a great deal too choked, and a great deal too swung about and afraid to make much sound, really I suppose. Being a brave dog is all very well, but it’s not something that came to me, bounding from branch to branch, many many times my own height up in those tall trees.

And they leaped a long way from tree to tree. I swung around like a rat in those jaws. I didn’t think I was ever going to see Meb or the dragon again.

After a while even terror gets numb. And I was increasingly sure that if I didn’t do something soon, I would definitely never get to see Meb again, and my cragon would wander around Sylvan lost. Eventually he might find his way out, but he could search for Meb forever before he found her. My heart-magnet knew where she was. I was a dog with work to do. I could not fail her.

I couldn’t really use my teeth, or my paws. The big cat was just too big. All I had left was my brains and my nose. And my nose caught a smell on the breeze, high up here. It was animal. Herbivore. And wet.

The cats stopped in the tree top, and I did my best cat-growl: “Prey. I smell food.”

“What did it say?”

“It said it smelled like food. It doesn’t, it smells like those weeds.”

“I can smell food. Wet animals that eat grass,” I said, doing my best to growl it in cat fashion.

The big cats all sniffed.

“Which way?” asked the bat-catcher.

I did my best imitation -- as good as a dog hanging in a cat’s mouth can do -- of one of those hunting dogs that point game. “There.”

“Lake Glissmearrrrr!”

And they took off again, through the trees.

They stopped and I pointed to their prey for them again.

There was a glade ahead, my nose said. A grassy glade. We’d seen almost no grass in the forests. Too many big trees, too thick a canopy...

The trees were a bit lower here and as I swung around, I saw moonlight gleam off the water. The big cats came to grass, and went on skirting the long glade, tree-to-tree. They didn’t ask again. Maybe they could also smell it now.

And then they stopped. The big tail in front of my face waved a sort of snaky bend and then quivered. I could smell what the cat had seen, although I struggled to spot them at first. They were almost perfectly camouflaged, their hides seeming to shimmer slightly and take on the patterns of the grass as they moved. There were a herd of them, grazing... baring the biggest, with a head of antlers that I’d taken for a dead branch, as near to middle of the glade as possible.

Ghost cats plainly fed on ghost deer, and mosquitos and fleas probably fed on both of them. They were welcome to them, if only I could leave them all to it.

“Put it down, Mwarrr. They’re right in the open. We’re going to need you as well junior, if we’re to make a kill,” said the bat-killer, the excitement of the hunt thick in his growl.

She spat me out like a hairball into a big fork in the tree. “Tastes terrible. Thing. Stay here. Don’t frighten the prey.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. Good hunting.”

“You know, it could be a useful thing that you have found, little one, if it can smell prey that far off,” said the bat-catcher.

I thought of offering to help herd the beasts... but firstly I was still shaking from being far too high up in trees and jumping from swaying branch-to-branch. And secondly, being cats, I hoped they would be so intent on hunting as to let me alone to get away. And yes, they did. They were totally focused on the water-deer. I could have tied ribbons in their tails—if I’d had hands for tying ribbons—and they wouldn’t have noticed.

I watched as they stalked. Another dog might have started running, but I have some advantages on other dogs. Also I was trying to work out how I could get down from the tree without disturbing their hunt and making them really mad. I was still far too high for any self-respecting dog. I was not too high for a dog that wasn’t that worried about self-respect, but wanted his dragon.

I waited until they were busy with the kill itself, yowling and performing. And then I jumped.

It was further than I like jumping. Fortunately, I had picked on a nice thick patch of bracken. It was less fortunate that it was full of brambles too, but they are springy and forgiving, if thorny. I left some black and white fur there for the big kitties.

And then I ran as fast as I could through the trees. I wanted to put a long distance between the cats and me, before they got around to thinking about me.

The downside about this, of course, was that I knew my needed direction for Meb, and I had some idea about which direction the cat had swung me along through the tree-tops. But some idea was not precise. And my head only had room for knowing just where Meb was, always, not where Fionn the dragon was, although I was getting quite fond of him.

Still: We dogs are brave creatures of the wild. We can follow the moon, stars, and of course the smell of someone’s roast dinner over long distances. Or the smell of our own scent marks, when we’re nervous enough. I was.

I was never so glad as to smell where I’d been before. Humans just don’t get the value of it. It’s obvious they don’t need to find their way back after being dog-napped by catnappers (and yes it did seem like a dream, a bad one. I prefer the dreams where I chase rabbits).

I spotted the silver birches that were Lyr at last. I don’t trust tree people, so I gave them a bit of a wide berth, but after that I could pick up our trail.

And there, sleeping peacefully in the darkness under the trees, was a spiky nasty looking black dragon. It was just what this dog needed most right then.

I snuggled in as close as I could to my dragon, with my back against him. Dogs are quite right to chase cats. If they get as big as that, they’ll chase us. And as a parting thought before I went to sleep, I thought that the law of unintended consequences could just catch up on the next person to come over devil’s leap to this place. They wouldn’t expire peacefully in their sleep. And if they took to fishing for food... it was likely they’d meet the other denizens of the water, and what fed on them. Sometimes we exchange bad for worse. . .

Fionn had trouble getting me to get up the next day. “Hmph. You’d swear you’d had a night on the tiles last night, instead of snoring next to me, Díleas,” he said, prodding me with a spiky tail-tip. “Well, there’s no breakfast, and we’ll just have to keep going until we find some.”

Humans often say they wish we dogs could talk. I only wish they could listen, and dragons too. Then Fionn would have known what those barks meant, and it wasn’t as he assumed: “I’m hungry and let’s get going.” Those ideas are true too, but he’s putting barks into my mouth that I didn’t utter. And, although I know the water-deer are hiding in those lakes and he could catch them, I’m not pointing this out to him. Too many kitties are watching for them, and maybe there is even this dobhar‑chú in the water. Anything that eats ghost-cats I do not want to meet, not even with a dragon. My heart-magnet draws me to my Meb, and the way is not that far, and I will know when it is open.

I’ll put up with being hungry, until we’re in places where the cat sits on the mat and has a bowl of milk.



Copyright © 2012 by Dave Freer




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