Moss cushioned Caligo’s cheek, enveloped his arms, caressed his body and feet. Green, the moss was, and feather-soft, a more heavenly bed than any human hands could make. Deep, sweet smelling.
Blood. The moss wanted blood.
He would die here.
Happier circumstances would have held Caligo to the moss in bliss, lost in an embrace almost as sweet as the arms of his wife—the gentle folds of rest after triumph in battle. Today it was his wounds which kept him on the ground. Gashes on his left and right side, taken by swords he had traveled beside hours before in brotherhood. It was the betrayal that stung him the most, but it was the wounds that would claim his life. Moss was meant for dressing such ailments, but in its thickness it sucked out his blood faster.
He lay still and struggled to conceive of a plan. His mind was thick with pain and misery, and even as he fought against heavy eyelids, a shadow of pink and white came out of the green of the forest—beautiful as a rose, tender and loving as the moment he had departed from her. Here she came, out of his mind, against his will. What plan could he devise to go and see her again? There was none! He trembled to imagine her face broken with tears and sorrow at the news of his disappearance—worse yet if a baby was there now, to taste tragedy at birth! But if he shouted, the traitors would return with their overlords to finish in malice the work they had begun out of fear.
A shiver raced through his whole body as the leaves in the forest shifted and jumped. He saw them first moving of their own accord, splashing at the feet of a shadow that drifted from the back of the woods to the front of his gaze.
It stopped halfway across the clearing. Not a shadow, but a black dog, raggedy and splattered with mud and dirt on her sides, fleabitten at the muzzle. She unfurled her tongue with a haphazard sigh, then, she approached, snuffling, exploring Caligo’s head with a cold, wet nose. After a moment, she licked him—long and warm—across the forehead.
Caligo’s mind groaned as the illusion of his precious Rose wilted, replaced by the dog’s presence—helpless though he was, unable even to thrash his fists now that the wild beasts had come to feast on him!
The dog made her way around him slowly, as her belly was heavy with milk, and found Caligo’s wounds. He waited for her fangs to widen the tear in his flesh and end his life, but all he felt was something soft and warm running slowly over his side.
In his muddled, fevered thoughts, he heard the moss shrieking. It wanted the blood, but the blood was slowing, and the moss was taken from his wound. The dog took her tongue to his other side and worked some more, so tenderly that Caligo could no longer fight the weight of his eyelids.
Hope. Restored hope. This was no mere dog, but Rose’s hand on him. It was her sweet breath over his pain. It was her healing.
Full of sudden strength, Caligo rallied his muscles, filled his chest with air, and tapped his hand against the moss.
“Come…here,” he whispered.
After a moment, the dog appeared before him, bringing her face down close to his. Her muzzle dripped with his blood, but her breath smelled sweet.
Caligo lifted his hand up, shaking so violently he could hardly tell if he had reached her neck or not.
“Go…” He petted her in the direction of a miracle—of camp, the one that awaited the return of its three scouts. “Bring those men to me…”
The dog panted and sniffed unblinkingly.
“Go…go…” He scratched harder. The line he traced on her neck told the way. “Go…”
Moss against his hand told him his arm had fallen, and spots swam in his vision.
But the dog went.
She disappeared behind him, south, in a direction that spelled hope. The vision of Rose reappeared then, more vivid than before, with nothing but happiness on her face. She held a baby in her arms, clothed in blue. The baby laughed, and Rose paraded him for his father to see.
A sudden rush of leaves pattering and crashing around Caligo brightened the vision. The dog appeared in his mind too. Of course, he would take her back home; the dog, the restorer of his life, would join their family—
A bark shattered the scene. There before him was the dog.
She stood not with his family, but with hers. Flop-eared and gaunt, they pushed against her for a taste of milk, but she snarled at them. They were not to taste her milk! Did they not see?
She barked at Caligo and lifted her tail high. The blood on her muzzle told a new story now—and her pups descended upon Caligo with wild yelps, plunging their fangs deep into his wounds, ripping and snarling over every inch of his flesh. Caligo would not see his wife again. He would not meet his son.
Their teeth hurt—
But the betrayal stung more than anything.