He had been bred for war and trained for it, but nothing had prepared him for the reality of his first battle. A snarling and a worrying and the taste of man-blood, among shouts and the ringing of steel on steel and the cuffs and kicks that rained in on him, some meant and some mere accidents in the press of bodies.
Yet he fought on almost as long as the men around him did, biting and snapping and giving ground as they gave ground, until he was trembling with weariness and too many blows. Another set of blood-slathered jaws loomed before him, a deep growl rising from the throat behind, and he broke at last, turning tail and making for the shelter of a knot of hawthorn. He pressed himself low to the ground, slinking forward under the spiny branches as far as he could before his legs gave way.
Beyond the hawthorn, the battle raged on a little longer, while his trembling eased. Yet still he lay there, as the sound of fighting fell away and men's voices—harsh with unfamiliar words—faded into the distance. The land grew quiet, but the stink of blood and death was everywhere, overwhelming his senses.
Finally, darkness fell and he staggered to his feet. Making his way out of the bushes, he nosed slowly from one cooling body to the next, seeking out his master's scent among the reek. Finding it, he pushed his nose under his master's arm, nudging it and nudging it, urging the caress of a gentle hand—but there was no response.
He would have lain down then and howled, calling on all the servants of the Great Hound Cabal to come and make an end of him, but he heard a noise from further down the slope. Fearful, he slunk back into the shadow of the hawthorn.
It was a man, a youngling like himself, searching among the slain even as he had searched. The young one paused after a while among the bodies, as he had done, touching one who must have been special to him, as his own master had been special. Then the young one rose and began to turn away.
Not meaning to, yet drawn—life calling to life—he moved forward. The young man checked, the scent of his fear and his pain strong in the air. His own fear was as great: would he meet with a kind hand or a cruel one? Yet he needed a new master now, a new voice to follow, a new body to warm in the night.
After a moment, the young man called to him, his voice shaking yet gentle. So he slunk on, step by slow step, until he was just beyond reach. He halted then, still poised between the wilderness and the world of men—and then he flung himself at the young man's legs. He pressed his muzzle into the uncertain hand that reached for him, taking his new master's scent.
The young man spoke to him again. Dog did not catch all that he said, but the meaning was clear enough: Come with me, and we will keep each other, you and I.