Firefoot

When Onyx Path released their Pugmire fantasy RPG system, I had the unique opportunity to be invited to submit a story for the anthology that accompanied the debut. Alas, my tale was not a fit for the larger collection, and it is so tightly tied to the Pugmire RPG system, it seemed wrong to publish it elsewhere, so I am sharing it where. Hopefully Pugmire fans will find it a worthy addition to their lore.


Etaine Beauce burst through the tavern door.

“Travelers, Ned!!” she panted.

“How many?”

“Two or three.”

“Six months of training, and you can’t tell the difference between two travelers and three?”

Etaine’s ears drooped briefly, then perked up as she raised her muzzle and reported briskly: “Two dogs. Three horses. They’re leading one, but it’s not a pack horse – it has a riding saddle. They rode in the open, along the riverbank, but I never saw the third rider. They’re at the edge of town.”

“We’ll make a hunter of you yet.” The old wolfhound ruffled the fur between the younger dog’s ears.

The tavern’s only customer sat drinking cool water at the bar. Ned bustled past him and began the business of preparing for new guests.

“Morning Uncle Eloi!” The tip of Etaine’s tongue stuck out cheerily from between her front teeth as she greeted the Architect of Eastbank.

“Man’s blessing on you, niece.” Eloi spoke in the gentle, soothing voice of a shepherd, but his scent was pure disapproval. “Practicing your hunter skills again, I see…”

Ned set two bowls of food on a table, pausing to fling an irritated hurf in Eloi’s direction. Etaine pretended not to notice.

“That’s right uncle!” The younger dog kissed the tip of the Architect’s nose. “So I can become a Pioneer, discover an artifact, and make you the noblest shepherd in the Kingdom!”

“As if I need to stick my snout into Kingdom politics in order to be noble!” Eloi harrumphed.

Ned leaned between the two black dogs to retrieve a pitcher of water.

“She’s a sharp pup, Eloi. Only thirteen, and some already defer to her as an adult. She’s not chasing her tail – she’ll do what she sets out to do, and do it well. Do you want her to come back to Eastbank once she’s done it? Or does she have to go stray to chase her dreams?”

They stood that way for a moment, the Architect and his niece staring at one another while the innkeeper looked on. Two sets of identical brown eyes stared out from two identical black muzzles. Small spots of flame-colored fur above the Beauces’ eyes and on their cheeks seemed to hover in the murky air. The late-morning sun creeping through the high windows blazed their ruddy paws into a fiery glow.

Eloi’s eyes softened, and he wrapped one of his niece’s mahogany paws in his rust-colored ones. As he opened his mouth to speak, the front door opened, admitting a tall, spotted guardian and his tiny companion, a tufted-eared ratter.

Ned insisted that visitors be allowed to eat in peace. Etaine waited with her uncle at the bar, tail twitching with impatience. The young hunter-in-training observed keenly: the travelers wolfed down breakfast like starving strays, but their gear and fur were pristine. Etaine tried to assess how far they had travelled and how long they had been on the road.

“They look weary,” Eloi observed in a murmur.

“It’s kind of you to notice, shepherd.” The ratter had a sweet, high-pitched voice and, apparently, excellent hearing. “We are here on a matter of great importance. We’re looking for a famous hunter.”

“There are only two hunters in this village,” Ned declared. “One isn’t famous yet, and the other hasn’t been famous in a very long time.”

“You were famous?!” Etaine yipped, gawking at her mentor.

The travelers looked at one another, then gaped at Ned. After a stunned pause, the little ratter cried, “You’re Ned?” She turned back to her companion. “But he’s so…old!”

Hurf

Etaine wasn’t certain whether Ned was preparing to eject the travelers – or trying not to laugh. She thought, perhaps, that Ned wasn’t quite sure himself. Before either of them could decide, the guardian bounded out of his chair, extending his paw. Ned took it, examining the pattern of black spots on the dog’s white fur before releasing it.

“Sorry about that, Ned. You’re Ned right? I’m Jasper. Lea’s a good-hearted Mutt – can’t help that she inherited that Papillon mouth. She didn’t mean anything by calling you old. It’s just… We have a problem, and every dog in Mutt Town knows you’re one of the greatest hunters who ever ran free. But we didn’t realize that you were… uh… retired.”

Ned stifled a chuckle. “Tell us your problem. We’ll see if we can help.”

“Thank you.” Lea rose from her chair and strode gracefully over to shake Ned’s paw. She dipped her head elegantly toward Eloi and Etaine as she spoke. “We’re travelling to Pugmire to join the Pioneers…”

“To Pugmire?” Ned interrupted. “What are you doing in Eastbank? Most dogs cross the river from Mutt Town and travel the South Road.”

“If we’re gonna be Pioneers,” Jasper answered, “we gotta be prepared to walk the paths that ordinary dogs dare not. We came north along the River’s edge, to cross from Eastbank to the Pugmire docks.”

Etaine found that explanation ridiculous. They’re from Mutt Town – the center of the river trade. There are no ferries here for the horses. And travelling the fringes of the Fearful Forest is dangerous, even if you stay to the riverbank.

Etaine was too well-bred to speak her thoughts aloud, though she saw them reflected in her uncle’s eyes.

“Seems to me you need a sailor, not a hunter,” Ned retorted.

Jasper rushed to clarify.

“Last night, a filthy badger-pack laid into us while we slept. They took Karl and disappeared back into the forest. We didn’t even know he was gone until we woke. I wanted to go after him, but…”

“Karl,” Lea explained, “is our hunter. We can’t possibly find our way in the wilds without him.” She shot the guardian an irritated look, then turned back to Ned. “So we need someone who can help us retrieve him.”

“Badgers…kidnapped your companion, but left you alive, and didn’t take your horses or your gear?” Ned inquired skeptically.

“I know, weird, right?” Jasper agreed quickly. “Since when do they do that?! Just grab someone and disappear! They obviously wanted him for something special…”

Etaine stepped forward to address the travelers. “I will help you, friends.”

“Etaine!” Eloi and Ned cried out in unison.

“Uncle,” Etaine spoke briskly. “It’s clear they need someone to guide and guard them. As you have often reminded me, that is what Beauces do. Ned, these gentledogs need a hunter and, as you have already explained, the famous hunter is retired. So the not-yet-famous hunter is the only one available.”

Etaine turned back to her uncle, softening her voice and placing an affectionate paw on the Architect’s forearm. “They’ve only been travelling since daybreak. If there are badgers that close to Eastbank we need to know, in order to Defend Our Home. There are guardians in the watchtowers; I can signal to them for help if it’s needed. But,” she gave her uncle a pointed look, “we certainly can’t let them go into the forest alone to search for their friend.”

After a long moment, the shepherd addressed the younger dog in a tone both resigned and proud. “You’re right, of course. And this is surely an opportunity for you to determine whether the life of a hunter is your true path. Man watch over you, Etaine.”

###

By mid-afternoon, they had reached the campsite. Etaine inspected it carefully.

“Wolverines,” she observed, examining the tracks. “No struggle. It looks like they just walked out of the woods and carried him off.”

Perhaps their friend hadn’t just run off, after all.

“Why didn’t he cry out, or fight back?”

“We told you,” Lea said cheerily. “We were asleep.”

“They couldn’t have crossed that open stretch without being seen by whomever was on watch.”

Lea examined her toenails. Jasper gazed at the treetops. Etaine gaped at them.

Nobody was on watch?!” she sputtered, muttering something about dogs who think with their tails.

“We were so close to Eastbank,” Lea defended. “We didn’t think there was any danger! Neither of us heard anything, and when we woke up, Karl was g-g-gone!” Her nose-whiskers trembled, and her head hung low.

The little dog looked miserable; Etaine hadn’t meant to pull her tail quite that hard. She placed a gentle paw on the smaller dog’s shoulder and tried to emulate her uncle’s comforting tone.

“Now you know better. Always set a watch in the wilds.”

Lea didn’t speak, but she nodded acknowledgement and her nose was back in the wind. Etaine nodded back, then turned her attention to tracing the patterns of clawed prints from the muddy riverbank to the tree line.

“This way.”

Lea was on Etaine’s tail, while Jasper kept a watchful eye on their rear. They pressed through the dense brush until thick branches filtered the sunlight to a gloomy haze. Etaine’s nose twitched with the stench well before they reached the wolverine encampment. She held up a warning paw, rotating her ears slowly in all directions. There was no sound but the wind whispering in the trees. The russet spots above her eyes drew together in a scowl.

This whole thing smells wrong. First wolverines kidnap a dog, leaving the rest of the party and all their goods. Now – no noise. No scurrying. No breathing, even.

Hackles raised, she padded slowly through the murk, emerging into a canopied clearing. The scene was chaos. Gear, leaves, fur, toppled saplings and bits of wolverine lay in scattered tumult. Above shoulder height, the forest was undamaged

“D-do you smell that?” Lea whispered.

“How could you miss it?” Jasper asked. “There must have been a dozen of them. Foul beasts.”

“N-not that…..”

“I smell it.” Etaine reassured her. Beneath the odor of wolverine and charred flesh, a dark aroma made her nose twitch and her pads tingle. The wrongness made her fur stand on end.

“I think,” she began, “that we should alert my uncle, and form a party to search this area.” As Etaine turned to leave, Jasper’s paw landed hard on her shoulder.

“Wait a wag. What’s that?” He was staring at a piece of fabric strewn over the edge of a rock. “Karl!” he barked, then bounded off toward the tattered shreds of pale blue cloth. “It’s Karl’s cloak!”

Lea yipped, then scurried to his side.

Etaine approached, sniffing carefully. The vile stench was strongest here, so intense that she couldn’t isolate Karl’s scent. But she could clearly see the signs of a struggle. Blood-spattered paw prints overlapped with large, peculiar hoof prints in the singed underbrush and furrowed soil.

“I can’t tell what Karl was fighting, but it wasn’t a wolverine. It was bigger, and hooved. We should signal the guardians…” But Jasper had already disappeared into the darkness, with Lea on his heels.

Etaine paused. Chasing an unknown evil into the forest with two careless and unthinking pups was not a good idea. But leaving them on their own was worse. She raised her head, pointed her nose toward the river, and howled as loudly as she could: one short howl, one long, and another short – the signal for a dog in distress. Hoping one of the guardians was near enough to hear, she repeated the call, then set out after her companions.

She couldn’t see a trail, but the vile spoor was an unerring beacon. Her fur stood on end, crackling with electricity. She thought she heard Lea sniffle. She might have heard Jasper mutter. But the only thing that registered was the reek of the unseen and a reverberating voice that seemed to echo within itself even as it bounced off the trunks of the trees.

If they had brought all three of you in sacrifice, I might have let them live…” The sentence trailed off into a malevolent chuckle.

Etaine discovered them in a tiny glade: Lea, Jasper, the torn and broken remains of what must have been Karl – and the dark, nebulous figure which seemed to flicker out of existence when she looked directly at it. The fiend loomed over Lea; one of Jasper’s paws was stained red.

When Etaine entered the clearing, the laughter ceased abruptly.

I know you, Firefoot.” The thing’s glowing eyes were focused on her paws. “Are you here to treat with me, as your grandfather did?” The voice carried an unmistakable undertone of malicious glee.

Etaine’s lip curled, a low growl accentuating her words. “My family is dedicated to Protecting All from the Unseen. They would not treat with the likes of you.”

“And yet – look at you. You bear my mark, as plain as day. Your ancestors were drab, ugly dogs. To seal their contract with me, they were marked in my colors – colors that you still bear.”

Etaine looked from her raven-furred arms to the shadowy menace before her. She stared at the demon, and at the sundered body of a dog she would never know. She gazed at the burnished flame that wreathed the demon’s hooves and the russet fur that bathed her paws.

And she Doubted.

In the moment that her confidence flickered, the demon reached for her. Faster than the twitch of a nose, the Emissary of the Unseen slammed into her.

Etaine felt pain. Felt her teeth gnash at the insubstantial thing whose scent enveloped her. Felt the bite as Jasper’s blade bit into her haunch, and the force of his curse as he realized the only one his sword could touch was his ally. Heard Lea’s squeaking prayer without understanding the words, and briefly hoped that it would help.

The pain and confusion might have lasted a wag. Or an hour. Or an eternity. Etaine would never be certain. As long as she lived, she would be sure of only three things: the moment the demon hit her, the boundless and unending pain, and the moment that it stopped.

Protect all from the unseen!!!

Eloi’s voice boomed in her ears. It seemed appropriate that the sound was accompanied by a great flash of blue light. The air around her whooshed away in a sudden vacuum. The interminable darkness and odious scent retreated in a deafening thunderclap, leaving only a sapphire haze and tendrils of abominable perfume.

Cool water trickled across her tongue and fell to the ground. Her eyes flickered open and she looked sideways at the world. She found “down” by following a wisp of flame to its source. Two dwindling rings of fire in the underbrush marked the hoof prints of the banished fiend.

Etaine looked up into Eloi’s worried eyes. A moment later she realized that the Architect was kneeling, holding her head up and pouring water over her tongue while murmuring healing prayers in a hoarse and exhausted whisper.

Etaine gazed steadily at the russet paw that held the waterskin. She raised herself to all fours and shook her head, then her body. She turned in a circle, confirming that her senses were working normally again, then walked over to where Karl’s broken body lay in the mangled brush.

The demon-taint was fading; for the first time, she acquired Karl’s scent. His front paws were missing, the fur singed and gory. Etaine touched each bloody stump gently with the tip of her nose, memorizing the smell respectfully as an apology to the hunter she had never known and had not arrived in time to save. She lifted his body onto her shoulders, then walked silently past Lea and Jasper, past her uncle and the two guardians who accompanied him, through the remains of the wolverine camp, and back to the horses.

The others followed.

The guardians watched over them while they rested, then returned to the watchtowers. The rest turned their horses toward Mutt Town. Eloi and the travelers rode in front with Etaine behind, holding the reins of Karl’s horse and steadying the battered body draped over its saddle.

Lea whimpered now and then. Jasper sighed. Etaine spoke not a word.

Late in the afternoon, the Town appeared on the horizon.

“A-Architect…?” Lea’s voice hovered between a whisper and a whine.

“Yes, pup…?” Eloi replied in the immensely soothing voice he reserved for those in the maw of grief.

“Th-the demon said…..”

Etaine’s grip on Karl’s reins tightened.

“He said the Beauces got their colors from him…”

“And so they did.”

Etaine growled low in the back of her throat. Eloi pretended not to hear, but his ear flicked in her direction.

“He said your family treated with him, and that he marked you with his colors as a sign of your contract.”

“Did he then?” the Architect asked in a light tone that made Etaine’s hackles rise. “And what else did he say?”

“N-nothing….”

“Nothing?” Eloi stared at the little ratter for a long moment. “Of course, nothing.”

Eloi pointed his nose over his shoulder, staring hard until Etaine’s brown eyes turned to glare directly, defiantly into his own.

“And is this why you are silent, Etaine Beauce? Because you have listened to the words of a demon?”

Etaine’s heart wavered; she knew better than to believe the words of evil. But the fiend was not the only one who had spoken them. Etaine laid her ears back, displaying more teeth than were strictly necessary as she spoke. “The words you have just corroborated, uncle.”

“Indeed,” Eloi acknowledged, turning forward in his saddle. “I suppose,” the elder dog sighed, “that I would feel much the same. Allow me to tell you the part of the tale that the demon omitted.”

Lea and Jasper sat up a little straighter. Etaine glared fire into her uncle’s shoulder blades and waited. Eloi spoke in the resonant voice he used for sermons:

Generations ago, before we were uplifted, the Beauces were dull, grey dogs who herded livestock and guarded the homes of Men. We do not know the name of our Ancestor, but his Man was called Anthelme.

Anthelme had no pack – just two pups and a mate who was preparing to whelp again. Hunting was poor, plastic was scarce, and his new litter would arrive in the heart of winter. He despaired of how to feed them

As he walked homeward in the rain one evening, Anthelme came to a branch in the road. Our Ancestor attempted to warn him away, but his Man did not understand. Rather than fleeing, he approached to inspect the tiny hillock that lay between the paths.

The demon that stood upon the little rise chose to make himself visible, and the poor dog was forced to stand helplessly by while the foul creature made conversation with his Man, offering to mend his misfortunes in exchange for the soul of a Child of Man. So desperate was Anthelme, he agreed to consider it despite the Beauce’s cautionary howl.

“How is this done?” the Man asked. “Must we sign a document of some kind?”

“Such fragile proofs are meaningless!” the demon declared. “When you agree to my conditions, I will emblazon you with my mark, which will remain upon on you until your contract has been fulfilled.”

The vile malevolence gave Anthelme two days to consider his decision. In those days, the Man observed his mate’s hard work and, the hunger of his whelps. He considered how the new litter would affect them all. His Beauce encouraged him, but the Man’s faith had faltered. He resolved to accept the tainted bargain.

To the crossroads they returned. Our Ancestor despaired of the Man’s decision, but was determined to be a Good Dog, Stay Loyal, and find a way to Protect his Man.

The crossroads was reached. The contract was struck. Anthelme, believing it would be easier for his mate to lose a pup to which she was not yet attached, promised to bring the demon the new whelp when it entered the world. The demon hurled a bolt of blue lightning at the Man to mark him, then disappeared into abyssal darkness.

The demon met his obligation – the Man prospered. Meat and plastic were abundant, and the family shared great joy. But in time, the price came due. The tiny, helpless male breathed his first breath and yipped his first yip in the pale grey light of a winter sun.

That night, the Man journeyed to the crossroads. He stood wrapped loosely in his cloak, and waited for the demon to appear. He did not wait long.

Where is the child you owe me?”

“I owe you no child,” the Man stated confidently.

“How dare you come alone!” the demon raged. “I demand payment! You bear my mark, which will remain upon you until your commitment has been honored!!”

“I can understand your confusion, but of course you are incorrect. First, you can see quite clearly that I bear no mark.”

Indeed, Anthelme’s face looked as it always had, as did the arms which reached out from under his cloak to accent his words as he spoke.

“And second, I am never alone.”

With this, the faithful Beauce stepped out from beneath his Master’s cloak. He was no longer ugly. His fur had been burnt ebony, with paws of flaming red.

When the bargain was struck, the Beauce, having persuaded his Master to shelter him from the cold and rain, had been huddled beneath Anthelme’s cloak. The demon’s spell had struck not the Man, but the dog.

“As for his soul,” Anthelme continued, “this you may never have. As you can see, he long ago dedicated it to me, and no power could force this faithful creature from my side.”

“And so it is,” Eloi concluded, “that through faith and loyalty, our Ancestor succeeded in Protecting his Man from the Unseen.” He turned his brown eyes over his shoulder. “We wear the colors of a demon not because we have Disobeyed, but as proof that we have been shepherds and guardians – Good Dogs! – since before the uplifting. Since the very Age of Man.”

Etaine did not speak, but her eyes no longer threatened to light her uncle’s fur on fire. They looked inward, and none dared interrupt her thoughts. The travelers continued in silence.

###

When they reached Mutt Town they proceeded directly to the Church of Man. The travelers were offered a place to rest, while Eloi and the local Mother conducted rituals to ensure that Karl’s body was not tainted.

Lea and Jasper departed at first light. Before the sun could change in the sky, they returned with Karl’s brother. They left him, with comforting words, to his grief.

Still, Etaine spoke not a word.

As they ate their breakfast, Eloi asked the would-be Pioneers what they would do next.

“Carry on.” Jasper replied solidly. Lea nodded in agreement. “Karl wouldn’t want us to give up. We will become Pioneers, and discover an artifact, just as we planned. When we are noble, we will see that the name of Karl August Weimaraner is written into the history of Pugmire.”

The russet spots above Eloi’s eyes rose, then quickly lowered themselves, returning his features to their customary serene neutrality. “This time” he suggested, “you may wish to consider taking the South Road. As Pioneers, you must indeed be willing to face danger, but there is no need to seek it out unnecessarily.”

Both dogs lowered their heads in acknowledgement as Lea thanked the shepherd for his guidance.

“Etaine…?” Lea opened, flashing puppy dog eyes at her silent friend. “You could come with us…”

“I think,” Etaine answered, “that I will return to Eastbank. Perhaps,” she turned her gaze to the Architect, “my uncle will teach me how he banished that demon.”

Etaine walked around the table and touched her nose to Lea’s. “Be A Good Dog. Stay to the road, and Stay Loyal to Jasper.”

“I will,” Lea murmured, eyes glistening.

Etaine turned and touched her nose to Jasper’s. “When you are noble, invite me to your great house in Pugmire, guardian. Tell me tales of your heroism until your voice fails.”

“Count on it!” Jasper replied with a quick wag of his tail.

Etaine placed a paw on her uncle’s shoulder, and they walked out the door together.

###

Etaine and Eloi left Mutt Town behind them, and again Etaine was mute. This silence, however, was thoughtful rather than hostile.

The Architect waited.

When they reached the travelers’ campsite, Etaine slowed. She stared as they rode past, as though memorizing each pebble and blade of grass. As her gaze turned back toward Eastbank, Eloi spoke a single word.

“Why?”

Etaine’s muzzle continued around to face him. Her head was cocked, eyespots dancing asymmetrically above quizzical eyes.

“Why did you not go with them? Why return with me instead of seeking artifacts and adventure?”

When Etaine spoke, her words came slowly.

“Our Ancestor – just a dog, not even uplifted! – stood in the path of a demon to protect his Man. I think… Maybe, the nobility that comes from kings and artifacts isn’t what Man meant for us to aspire to. We were uplifted because…we were Good Dogs. We Defended Man’s Home, Protected him from the Unseen. Shepherding, being guardians – maybe this is our nobility.”

“I think, niece – I have always thought – that you will make an excellent shepherd.”

Etaine offered Eloi an affectionate smile. “It is a family tradition.”

“I will send word to Saint Anna’s to request a place for you among the Acolytes. What name should I tell them?”

“Name?”

“To enter the service of the Church of Man is to begin a new life. It is customary to adopt a new name – usually the name of a historical shepherd whom you hope to emulate, though that’s not required. It distinguishes the dog you were from the Shepherd you will become. Take your time – there’s no need to rush.”

“There’s no need for time. I know the answer.”

“Do you then, Acolyte?” Eloi asked with an indulgent chuckle.

“Indeed, Architect,” Etaine replied with calm assurance.

“And how shall you be known in the Family of Man, niece?”

“Tell them to call me…Firefoot.”

 

Firefoot


Historical Notes:

The Legend of how the beauceron got his markings is from the French breed club, “Club des Amis du Beauceron.” You can find a translation here.

In the early days of beaucerons in the United States, Eloi de Mavourneen was a well-known dog, and 20 years later, those who met him still often recall him as the biggest beauceron they ever saw.  I was sitting in a dining room chair when he walked up and looked me in the eye.

When I got my first beauceron, my breed mentor had a beauce named J’Ned Mes Yeux Vigilants, whom we all called. Ned.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Font Resize
Contrast
%d bloggers like this: