Auric woke in the cold half-light of early morning, flecks of dried blood under his fingernails, his forehead and eyelids lined with fresh scratches. He had dreamt of fire-peeled skin and the bubbling, sour stench of human fat rendered on still-living bones. He had dreamt of burning alive. Just as he had the night before, and every night before that for as long as he could remember.
He pulled himself upright. His little cabin lurched like a boat in a storm. He swallowed the urge to vomit and reached for the bottle beside the bed, thumbed open the stopper with practiced precision, relishing that satisfying *pop,* and threw back the day's first swig. Burning, acidic, all too similar to fire, and yet it was a pleasant burn, one that seemed to right the world again, made the ground more stable and hushed the agonised screams of melting children, still echoing in his mind.
He put the bottle back down, not bothering to recap it, and reached out for Mouse. There, at the foot of the bed, the grey dog had startled awake. His floppy ears fell flat against his long neck. He gave Auric those concerned eyes of his, shining wet even in the waxing light of dawn.
Auric scratched Mouse at the back of his skull with one scarred hand. 'It's alright, boy. Just a dream. Best get to work, eh?'
By the time he had dressed, given himself a bite to eat—chased down with more swallows of the acrid liquor—and fed Mouse proper, the sun had crested the densely wooded hill to the east and was filtering through the trees in long golden rays. Auric grabbed his axe, slipped the bottle of booze into his shirt pocket and headed out of his cabin with Mouse padding closely behind.
The forest smelled sweet, scented with decaying pine needles and orange maple leaves, still wet from the morning dew. He grabbed his barrow from the little woodshed beside the cabin, threw his axe into it and pushed it off into the woods, that damn squeaky wheel screeching over the roots and bumps of the forest floor. It was time he gave it some attention, gave it some love. Nobody else was getting any in these forsaken woods, that was for sure.
It wasn't far to the big oak. It had fallen the day before. Auric had heard it come down when he was out resetting game traps. It was a good thing, too, with autumn stepping aside for winter. When Auric navigated the barrow up to it and stopped to gather his breath his thin shirt was drenched through with sweat, the white linen turned to grey, soon to be yellow, no doubt. And that had been the easy part.
He bent, picked up a twig the length of his forearm and held it out for Mouse to sniff. The dog's ears quivered. His nose twitched.
'You want this, don't ya, boy?'
Mouse rocked onto his front legs in that fake pounce that he did, his jaw wiggling with excitement. The dog stared at Auric for a moment, then yapped.
'Then go get it.'
Auric tossed the stick and Mouse scrambled off, scattering pine needles and bits of dirt. The twig whistled through the air, bounced off a tree and landed with a clatter, somewhere in the underbrush. Auric gave the barest hint of a smile as he watched the mutt bound off. Not for the first time, he realised he was jealous of the animal, jealous of the simple joys, jealous of a life well-lived. It was something, anyway, just a little thing, but it was perhaps the best thing he had ever done, caring for that mutt.
Auric wiped sweat from his brow and picked up his axe. He had only swung it a few times before Mouse returned and dropped himself down at the base of a nearby tree to gnaw away at his prize for the day.
Wood chips flew and the steady *thwack* of the axe head against the tree trunk reverberated through the forest as Auric fell into a rhythm. He worked until his shoulders and forearms ached, until the calluses at the bases of his fingers had torn, until his stomach groaned with hunger. It took him hours, but the dead tree slowly changed from one fallen log to manageable pieces for the fire, piled high in his barrow.
He set his axe on top of the pile of firewood and regained his breath once more. 'Mouse. Where's that stick?'
Mouse looked back at him, tilted his head in confusion.
Auric clapped at his thighs. 'Bring it here. Bring it here, boy.'
Mouse grabbed the now-heavily-chewed stick in his jaws and ran over to Auric. Auric reached down, but the mutt growled at him.
'Hey. None of that now. Drop it.'
If it were possible for a dog to show reluctance, Auric thought he saw it then on Mouse's face. Nonetheless, Mouse opened his mouth and the stick fell with a *plop* onto the ground, slathered in the dog's wet drool. Auric threw it again, and once more the dog disappeared behind trees and brush.
He had earned himself another pull from the bottle of dark booze, and now, with the work done and nothing to distract his mind, Auric was starting to think that he needed it. He seethed as a good mouthful burned its way down his throat, landing heavy and fuming in his stomach.
Somewhere Mouse barked. Not the excited bark of play. No, it was a bark of warning, dripping with fear. It was followed by several more, rising in intensity.
'Mouse?' Auric called out, tucking the bottle safely back into its pocket.
He grabbed his axe and ran towards the sound, leaping over the rutted ground and undergrowth, near turning his ankle as he came down on a hard root. He twisted around trees, dashed over the fallen leaves and, in a moment, had come upon the dog. Mouse had his haunches up, his teeth bared. Saliva flew from the animal's muzzle as he barked and growled at something Auric couldn't see behind a stand of thick pines and gnarled brush.
He skidded to a halt beside Mouse, turning to face the same direction as the dog, and his heart almost stopped. The source of Mouse's fear stood some eight feet tall on its short, powerful hind legs. Black claws jutted from the bear's front paws as it opened its own muzzle and roared back, great globs of spittle spraying into the air, some even flying the few strides between them to land on Auric's cheek.
Auric knelt down slowly, ever so slowly, put a hand on Mouse's shoulder in an attempt to soothe him and hold him back at the same time. He held up his other hand, axe still in it—he wasn't about to let that go any time soon—in an attempt to show the bear he meant it no harm.
The bear swiped at the air between them, testing these intruders, showing them it was a force to be reckoned with. Auric knew alright. There was no doubt there.
'Mouse, hush,' Auric said. He pulled at Mouse's collar, inching back the way he had come from, his heart beating like a hammer in his chest. It was an awkward motion, Auric down in a half-squat, Mouse trying to pull away.
Something behind them fell out of a tree. It may have simply been an acorn, Auric wasn't sure, but it was enough to spook the creature standing in front of him. The bear wobbled forward and raised a paw big as an anvil, ready to slice a chunk out of Auric with its claws. Mouse lunged forward, slipping out of Auric's grip, leaving only a smattering of dog hair between his fingers.
'Mouse, no,' Auric shouted, but it was too late.
The dog bounded for the bear's hind legs and clamped its teeth around an ankle with a growl. The bear roared again, this time with pain, dropped its front paws to the ground and tried to spin around, tried to bite at the thing that had bitten it. Mouse held on, spinning in circles while the bear twisted its head, snapping its teeth together.
It felt like only a heartbeat, felt like Auric was watching it all happen through foggy glass, distant and slow. In the instant where the bear had its back to him, he saw that it had already been injured. Three lines, deep, jagged wounds ran down the animal's wide back, the brown fur matted and stained with dried blood.
'Mouse,' Auric called once more, his voice quickly breaking with panic. 'Leave it. Come here.'
But Mouse had a task in mind, and Auric doubted whether the dog could even hear his commands.
The bear shook Mouse free of his ankle. He flew through the air a few feet, then skidded to a halt in a great flurry of orange leaves.
'Mouse,' Auric tried once more. 'Go home.'
This time it was the bear that pounced. It leapt towards Mouse, bringing its meaty paw around in a wide swipe. The paw hit Mouse in his flank. The dog let out a choked whimper as it was lifted off the ground and flung through the air. Mouse collided with the trunk of a tree and fell to the ground, motionless, as already the bear was rushing towards him, its jaws wide, teeth gleaming.
Auric gripped the axe in both hands, ran forward and swung, letting out his own roar. The steel bit deep into the bear's hip, slid off bone with a *thud* not too dissimilar to the sound the tree had made, only moments ago. The bear stumbled, rolled over in the dirt and the leaves. It righted itself and turned back to Auric. It came at him, now clumsy, its leg wobbling, almost collapsing under its own weight.
The bear lunged, swiping once again with its forepaws, and Auric leapt back, narrowly escaping the blow. Black claws sliced through the air, close enough he could see the sun shining off them. He raised his axe overhead and stepped forward, bringing it down into the bear's shoulder. His timing was off, and the blade only grazed the big animal, but it carved off a slice of hair and skin, leaving another gaping patch, oozing with dark blood.
The bear let out a scream this time, at least the closest thing to a scream it could make, as it finished its swing. Its body followed the momentum of the arc, and it retreated away before turning once more to face Auric, a few paces distance between them again. Auric glanced over to where Mouse had fallen. The dog was still breathing, but apart from that, he was still.
The bear stood on its four feet. Its great shoulders heaved with its panting breath. Auric stared back at it, his face screwed up in a wild grimace. Adrenaline coursed through him. Sweat stung his eyes. His lungs burned in his chest, but he barely felt any of that. He lifted the axe high with one hand and beat at his chest with the other.
'Come on,' he screamed. 'I'm ready. Come and get me.' He was mad, for sure. It had finally happened. He had finally lost the last shreds of his waning sanity.
Again the bear roared, its dark eyes full of hate. Another sound came from behind Auric, from somewhere deep in the forest, an animalistic screech that echoed through the trees and sent birds scattering to the air. It was unlike anything Auric had heard before. He shivered despite the heat radiating from his skin. The bear's head lifted, turned towards the origin of the sound. It gave a weak growl, chomped its teeth, then turned and stumbled away, moving in the opposite direction from where the sound had come.
Auric lowered his axe, wiped the sweat out of his eyes, then ran over to Mouse. He threw the axe to the forest floor, knelt down beside his companion and put a hand on his chest, feeling it rise and fall slowly. Mouse flinched at the touch, let out a weak whimper.
'You bloody, stubborn fool.' Auric's throat felt dry. He found himself blinking hard. 'Why did you do that?'
Auric took his hand away, now sticky with blood. The bear's claws had ripped lines through Mouse's flank, from his ribs up to his spine. Blood seeped out, but the cuts didn't seem too deep, didn't seem as if they'd penetrated into Mouse's organs. Lucky that. Still, Auric suspected some of his ribs might've been broken, and the blow could have ruptured something inside the dog. Auric had seen it happen to soldiers before. They looked fine on the outside, perhaps a bad bruise, but inside they were bleeding, filling up with the stuff until it came pouring out the only holes it could find. Auric blinked hard again at the thought, gave Mouse a quick scratch. Mouse looked up at him, his brows low, eyes wet with pain. The damned thing wasn't making it any easier.
'It's gonna have to hurt some more, boy. I'm sorry.'
Auric slipped an arm under Mouse and heaved to his feet. But the dog didn't cry out, just licked Auric on the cheek with that worried look still all over his face.
Auric made his way back to the fallen oak where he had left the barrow. He put Mouse down, tipped out the firewood then picked the dog up again, as gentle as he could, and settled him back down into the barrow. All the while, Mouse licked at Auric's hands, licked at his face, at any piece of skin he could reach, really.
'We're gonna get you some help, boy. Just hold on. It's gonna be a while before we get to town.'
The sun was high as Auric turned the barrow. Sweat trickled down his brow and into his eyes, down his spine and into that annoying spot just above his ass crack.
He set off, trying to find some middle ground between haste and safety. With the sun beating down on him, he was soon panting heavy, his tongue and mouth dry as a desert. He reached to his pocket for the bottle, feeling like he was owed a drink, needing a drink more than he had needed one in a long time. But there was nothing there. The bottle was gone. It must've fallen out some time during the fight with the bear. He had not felt anything, had not heard the shattering of glass. Perhaps it was still there, sitting on the ground somewhere.
He looked down at Mouse. The dog whimpered once more.
With a life spent in the King's royal army, Auric the Blackhand has seen all there is of war. Now, he wants nothing more than to spend his twilight years in quiet seclusion. But when a mysterious young girl comes to Brunholm, pursued by unsettling forces, Auric has no choice but to step onto the battlefield once more.
Blackhand is a horror-fantasy tale of a kingdom under the heel of a distant imperialist and the people whose lives collide when a monstrous power is unleashed upon an already volatile land.