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Fog Hounds, Wind Cat, Sea Mice

Joan Aiken





  Fog Hounds, Wind Cat, Sea Mice

  Three Stories

  Joan Aiken

  Illustrated by Peter Bailey


  Fog Hounds

  Wind Cat

  Sea Mice

  A Biography of Joan Aiken

  Fog Hounds

  A BOY CALLED TAD WAS painting the front door of the house where he and his sister lived, one mild September evening. Using fast-drying paint, he was painting the door a beautiful honeysuckle yellow, and he had nearly finished the job, which was just as well, for dusk was beginning to wrap the village in shadows. Very few people were about, and lights were twinkling out, one by one, in the cottage windows.

  The boy’s sister, Ermina, rattled the curtains apart and put her head out of the front window.

  “Tad? Haven’t you finished yet?” she called. “Make haste, it’s nearly Hound Time.”

  In the country where Tad and Ermina lived, it was dangerous to be out of doors after sunset. The reason for this was the tribe of huge misty creatures, known as the Fog Hounds, which roamed all over the land from dusk to dawn; they went ranging and loping through towns and villages, past factories and farms, through fields and forests. Their feet made no noise on the ground, they were pale gray and half transparent, like smoke, so that you could see lampposts and mailboxes through them and beyond them. Most of the time they ran along silently, with their noses down close to the ground, but every now and then one of them would lift his head and howl, and when he did, what a bloodcurdling sound that was! It almost made the blood run backwards in your veins.

  Nobody who had been chased by the Fog Hounds ever came back alive to tell the tale of what had happened to him. The hounds belonged to the King, and were supposed to chase only criminals and wrongdoers. But the King was old, very old and sick, and had lost most of his wits; it was said that he didn’t care what the hounds did any more.

  So Ermina called anxiously: “Tad! Come along! Leave the door if you haven’t finished, it must wait till the morning. Come inside!”

  Ermina was fifteen years older than her brother; and she was a Wise Woman, which is halfway to being a witch. She possessed a pack of cards which could fly, like a flight of swallows, from one of her hands to the other; and she could read people’s futures in tea leaves or apple peelings or duck feathers.

  She made a living by advising people, and telling them what to do if they were unable to make up their minds. The only future she could not read was that of Tad, her own younger brother. When she looked at the cards or the tea leaves they told her nothing about him; and that was why she worried whenever she thought he might be taking a risk.

  “It’s all right, Minnie,” Tad called back now. “I’m just putting on the last lick of paint.”

  He did so, admired his work, and was about to open the door and step inside the house, when he heard hasty, running footsteps, and a voice that called frantically, “Stop, stop! Wait! Help me, please help me!”

  Tad waited, with the paint pot in one hand, and the brush in the other, and he saw a man running at full speed along the village street. A very queer looking man he was—Tad had never seen anything like him before. On one side of his head the hair was black; on the other side it was white. One of his eyes was blue, the other was brown. One of his hands was black, the other was white; and his jacket and pants were divided down the middle, red on the left, black on the right.

  He was dusty and muddy and his clothes were ragged, and he ran with a stumble and a limp. Sweat poured down his cheeks and he seemed ready to fall to the ground from weariness yet he was running at a desperate speed and kept looking back over his shoulder in terror.

  “They’re after me!” he panted.

  “Who are?” said Tad, though he guessed.

  “The King’s soldiers. The Fog Hounds. Save me, oh, save me!”

  Then Tad noticed that in the man’s left hand—which was the black one—he clutched a golden sprig—it had a flower, and leaves, and roots, it seemed to be alive, yet it seemed to be made of pure gold.

  At this moment, in the distance Tad thought he could hear a sound of sirens wailing, horns blowing, hounds giving tongue, and the clatter of hoofs.

  The front window flew open again and Ermina put her head out a second time.

  “Tad! Hurry up and come inside!”

  Then she saw the stranger on the footway and said sharply, “Why are you keeping my brother out of the house? Don’t you know it is dangerous? It is almost Hound Time. Who are you?”

  “My name is Doubleman,” said the stranger. “The King’s soldiers are after me. I beg you to save me!”

  “Why are they after you? What did you do wrong? Why should we save you? If we take you in, we shall be in danger too,” argued Ermina.

  Now the sound of galloping hoofs and wailing sirens could be heard much closer; and also the dreadful throaty pealing bay of the Fog Hounds.

  “I helped myself to a golden sprig from the Royal Mint,” said the stranger. “The hounds have scented it; that is why they are after me.”

  “Throw it away, then,” said Ermina. “What right had you to take it?”

  “Throw it away?” panted the man. “After I had gone to so much trouble to steal it? Never!”

  His breath streamed out of his mouth in a white cloud, like the smoke from acid. Tad noticed that a rose growing by their gate began to wither, where the stranger had breathed on its leaves and flowers; they turned black, and shrank together, and fell from their stalks. The man coughed several times and drew in deep, hacking breaths. Then he pulled a cigarette from his pocket, blew on the tip until it glowed scarlet, put it into his mouth, and sucked heavily on it.

  “Tad! Come inside!” Ermina cried shrilly. “It’s mad to stay out there. We can’t help you at all,” she told the stranger. “If you robbed the Royal Mint, then you must look out for yourself.”

  “Could you keep the golden sprig for me? If it’s not on me, perhaps the hounds won’t catch me—”

  “And have them catch us instead? Not likely!” said Ermina, and she flung open the front door, dragged Tad inside, and then slammed the door and bolted it.

  The stranger called Doubleman glanced hastily up and down the street, dragging hard on his cigarette as he did so, until the tip glowed gold.

  Then he ran on a few yards, and tossed the golden sprig into a builders’ rubbish skip which stood a short way along the road, outside an empty house. Leaving the sprig there, Doubleman ran on, going faster and more easily after his short rest; soon he had vanished into the dusk.

  Tad, who had looked out through the open window, saw what Doubleman did, but he did not tell Ermina, who was angrily bustling about, slapping plates and mugs on the table for their evening meal.

  Tad hoped very much that Doubleman would escape from the King’s soldiers, for he could imagine how dreadful it must be to be hunted.

  Ermina, however, felt differently.

  “Did you see what happened to our white rose when he breathed on it?” she said. “Did you see how he lit his cigarette by blowing on the tip? That man belongs to darkness, let darkness take him! He is a bad soul. I am sorry that he even stood outside our gate. And if he stole that sprig from the Royal Mint, he certainly deserves to be caught and punished.”

  Very soon the King’s soldiers came thundering along the village street, astride their gray horses, with muskets cocked, and blue lights burning on the horses�
�� browbands, and sirens wailing and warbling, and horns blaring. Ahead of the horses ran the Fog Hounds, paler than vapor and silent as smoke. They flowed over the cobbles of the street as smoothly as mist; but their eyes now and then glittered like red pennies. And from time to time one of them, catching the scent of the man they were after, would raise his muzzle and let out a long howl.

  When they reached the cottage of Tad and Ermina, the hounds paused for a moment, sniffing a patch of ground where Doubleman had stood, snuffling at the blackened rose petals which had fallen to the ground when he breathed on them.

  Trembling, watching through the crack between the curtains, Tad could see their gray, smoky heads weave this way and that, questing low down over the scent. They pawed, with their big soundless transparent feet, at the cigarette ash that lay by the gatepost; then, noses close to the fresh trail, they went drifting on down the street until they came to the builders’ rubbish skip into which Doubleman had thrown his golden sprig. There they checked again, whimpering and snarling, chopping to and fro in the road like a pulse of gray cloud that divides round a crag.

  Tad could not help a shudder as he watched the snakelike motion of their necks and shadowy muzzles. And yet there was something beautiful about them too; he loved the careless way in which they flowed over the ground, smoothly as the wind itself. If only they were not in pursuit of that wretched man! If only they were not used to hunt down criminals!

  If I were King, thought Tad, I would use my fog hounds in a different way, so that people need not be afraid of them.

  Soon the Fog Hounds left the builders’ container, and drifted on along the street, seeming to go quite slowly, yet the soldiers on their swift gray horses had to gallop to keep up with them. They vanished much too soon for Tad, who hung out of the window to see the last of them, blue lights gleaming and sirens screaming as they careered out of sight.

  “Shut the window, Tad, and draw the curtains,” urged Ermina.

  “I wonder if the man will get away?” he said.

  “If that man robbed the King’s Mint, he deserves to be caught. Here, put this teapot on the table, and the dish of apples.”

  “I’d love to have a Fog Hound of my own,” said Tad, taking the teapot, which was red and gold, shaped and glazed like a crown.

  “Are you mad? The Fog Hounds belong to the King,” said Ermina, taking a big brown loaf from the oven. “Cut the bread and stop talking nonsense.”

  Tad cut the loaf of bread, and took an apple from the dish. But as he munched his crisp crust, and crunched his juicy apple, he remembered that one of the Fog Hounds, smaller than the rest, no more than a puppy, had run behind the pack, with its smoky tail blowing out behind it like a tail of cirrus cloud. I wish that puppy belonged to me, he thought longingly. And when they had finished supper and were sitting with elbows on the tablecloth among crumbs and empty teacups and plates covered with apple peel, Tad said, “Tell my fortune, Min!”

  “What’s the use?” said she crossly. “You know it never works. The cards won’t answer. They turn their faces away and sulk.”

  She picked up the pack of cards and tossed them, so that they flew like swallows from her left hand to her right, and then rippled out on to the table in a semi-circle. Sure enough, although she had tossed them with faces upturned, they fell face down; but Tad thought he had caught a glimpse of the King of Diamonds, and he thought the King had given him a wink as he fell.

  “Try the tea leaves then, Min,” said Tad.

  Ermina took his empty cup, turned it over, and tapped it three times. Then she turned it right way up again. Inside the cup, the tea leaves had formed a perfect ring, around the rim.

  “They never did that before,” said she, staring. “What can it mean?”

  She gave her brother a worried look.

  “You’re the Wise Woman, Min, you should know.”

  “Well I don’t know,” she snapped. “There’s only one thing—but no, that’s impossible. It must be an accident.” And she frowned, biting her lip.

  “Try it again.”

  “You must never try more than once. You know that.”

  “Try the apple peel, then.”

  “Throw it up.”

  Tad tossed up the unbroken rind of the apple he had been eating (which was a Ribstone Pippin). His elbow caught against the arm of his chair, the peel flew into the fire, and nothing came out but a long curl of hissing smoke, like a tail of cirrus cloud.

  “It’s no use,” said Ermina. “Nothing answers. And it’s time for bed.”

  Tad lit his candle, and prepared to go up to his attic room.

  “Min,” he asked, standing on the bottom stair, “who do you really think that Doubleman was?”

  “He was a wrong one,” said Ermina. “Remember how he lit that cigarette by blowing on it? And he wasn’t a bit ashamed of having robbed the King’s Mint. I expect the soldiers will have caught him by now.”

  But Tad, as he lay in bed, thought: Perhaps Doubleman was not all bad. And he did leave the golden sprig behind. Perhaps he will manage to escape. I hope so. If he can run as far as the Black Mire, he may get away.

  The Black Mire was a wide and deep marsh which lay three miles westward of the village. There was no path across it.

  Later that night Tad woke, and heard the King’s soldiers returning slowly, at a walking pace. Slipping out of bed, Tad put his eye to a crack between two roof tiles, and so was able to look down into the street. By bright moonlight he could see the soldiers, riding slowly on tired horses, and the hounds following slowly behind like the plume of smoke that follows a steamship. But he could see no prisoner.

  Next day it was whispered in the village that the man had escaped the soldiers and run into the Black Mire; he must have sunk into the bog and drowned there.

  Tad took his paint pots and went to paint the doors and windows of a house at the end of the village. On his way past, he glanced into the builders’ skip. There lay the golden sprig, among dust and broken bricks and rusty nails and splintered wood.

  What should I do about it? wondered Tad. It belongs to the King’s Mint. I suppose I ought to tell somebody about it, and then it would be taken back.

  But, as he stood looking at the golden sprig, a swallow swooped down, snatched up the sprig in its beak, flew to the village green, where there was a round pond, and dropped the sprig into the water. Tad, running after the swallow, was just in time to see the golden leaves gleam as they settled under the clear water, down on the muddy bottom of the pond.

  Swallows are wise birds, Ermina told her brother once. They know the secrets of summer and winter. Always believe them, always follow them.

  I’ll leave the golden sprig where it is, thought Tad. He remembered another thing his sister had once told him: If you ever meet a demon, or a spirit from another world, take great care not to touch or hold any object that the demon has touched, for it may do you terrible harm. Wait forty days before you touch it, even if it is a rock that blocks your path.

  Perhaps, thought Tad, Doubleman was such a spirit. I’ll wait. The swallow is a wise bird. Lying in the pond, below the clean water, that golden sprig can harm nobody. Let it stay there forty days.

  And so Tad went off about his business, painting doors and windows and fences. But every day he walked past the pond on the green. And when he did so, he noticed that the golden sprig was growing. It had sent roots down into the mud, and it was putting out new leaves, sprouting long stalks and thrusting up tendrils towards the surface of the water.

  On the fortieth day, one little sprout thick with flower buds broke the surface of the water, and Tad, walking home in the evening sun, saw the buds, and thought: Now, surely it would be safe to pick off just that one stalk. Forty days have passed, and the sprig is ten times the size that it was when Doubleman stole it from the King’s Mint. I shall not be robbing the King if I take one little
stalk covered with buds.

  He leaned out over the surface of the water, where swallows were swooping and catching flies. He carefully reached out his hand, and he picked the little golden sprig. As soon as he picked it, all the buds opened into round golden flowers like tiny cups. Oh, how beautiful it is! thought Tad, gazing in delight at the golden thing that lay cupped in his hand. The flowers were like six little golden suns in his palm.

  He stood there so long, bewitched, gazing at the beautiful thing he held, that the real sun slipped down out of sight, dropping into the west beyond the Black Mire, and long evening shadows slid across the green and turned to gray twilight.

  “Best get indoors, Tad, boy!” called one or two villagers, making for their houses. “Fog Hound Time coming! Don’t loiter about, now!”

  “Thank you,” called Tad, without paying heed to what they said. And still he stood, with his eyes on the golden sprig in his hand, while the light grew dimmer and dimmer, and the mist began to rise in white wreaths from the water of the pool, and from the Black Mire in the distance.

  Tad’s left hand, the hand that did not hold the sprig, hung down by his side, and now, all of a sudden, he felt something touch that hand—something that felt cool, soft, and a little damp. He gave a gasp of surprise and fright, glancing behind him. What thing could have touched his hand so coldly and softly, feeling like a snowflake?

  Then he gasped again, but this time with pure astonishment. For just behind him stood a transparent Fog Hound puppy, wagging its misty feathery tail. And what he had felt must have been the touch of its tongue. It must have licked his hand. It looked up at him, wagging its tail again, and he saw that its eyes were not red, but pure and burning gold.

  “You licked my hand!” whispered Tad. “Oh, you beautiful Fog Hound—you licked my hand!”

  Ranged behind the puppy, as he looked across the darkening green, Tad saw the whole pack of ghostly Fog Hounds. Their heads were raised, ears pricked, tails mistily waving in the dusk; he could see their eyes glisten like luminous glowworms; he could see their breath rise like the vapor from the pond water. Without the least fear, Tad walked among the Fog Hounds, and felt them softly brush against him. They felt cold and soft and airy, as a bubble does when it bursts. They licked his hands. He felt them press against him, cool and feathery as clouds.