Black Dog(7)

By: Rachel Neumeier

Alejandro stiffened at this provocation, delivered so indifferently it was almost an insult. Natividad shook off Miguel’s restraining hand and went forward to touch Alejandro’s shoulder, trying to calm him. She knew – they all knew – that no Dimilioc wolf would attack her. If Ezekiel Korte attacked anyone, it would certainly be Alejandro.

Ezekiel’s pale eyes remained steady on Alejandro’s face. He said softly, “You think you can fight me? Give your brother and sister time to run?”

“She’s Pure,” Alejandro said sharply. Too sharply, despite Natividad’s touch. He obviously knew it, because he took a breath, then, and lowered his head. “I don’t want to fight you, but why should she have to run? She is Pure.”

“I see she is. But she’s with you. And you’re trespassing. Aren’t you?” The young executioner’s gaze shifted to Natividad, then to Miguel and finally back to Alejandro. “You think she can run in this cold? The Pure are just as susceptible to cold as ordinary humans. You got your car stuck at the bottom of some hill, I suppose. It’s a long way back to Lewis from here. Too far for children on foot – especially children who don’t cast real shadows.”

“I’m fast,” Natividad said sharply. It was dangerous to show a black dog fear. She was sharp instead, so she might seem less like prey. “We’re not children, and I’m fast, and strong. You might be surprised.”

Ezekiel’s pale eyebrows rose. He laughed, briefly, but with real humor.

Alejandro’s muscles tightened under Natividad’s hand, but he kept a tight leash on his rising anger. “Fighting you is not my first choice. Usted eliges – it is your choice. What we want is to speak to Grayson Lanning. Not a challenge – not a challenge, or would we have walked openly into Dimilioc territory?”

“Perhaps not,” murmured Ezekiel. “No, perhaps not. And you’re not up to my weight – though perhaps you’re just old enough to think you are. You’re what – sixteen?”

“Eighteen,” Alejandro snapped, then visibly caught himself. Natividad tried not to wince. She could see Ezekiel had been deliberately insulting, and her brother had let his temper slip. Just a little, but enough to show that no, he was not up to Ezekiel’s weight. Which, of course, they had all already known.

Ezekiel’s cold gaze rested on Alejandro for a moment longer. Then he looked at Natividad. “You’re younger than he is, aren’t you? You are pretty. But can you run?” He shifted his weight, stepped forward, focused on her with clearly predatory intent.

Just that fast, Alejandro was on his feet, flinging Natividad back, his knife in his hand, his shadow rising behind him and around him in response to his sudden blaze of fear and anger. The cold air smelled of ash and burning.

Her brother couldn’t win a fight with the Dimilioc executioner. Natividad knew that. But if he could injure him with silver, there was a better chance she and Miguel could get away. They had all agreed to that, but she hadn’t thought they would have to actually fight – Miguel had been so sure they would not have to fight. Though her heart raced with sudden fear, she still thought Ezekiel didn’t mean it. But Alejandro was ready to fight, even if he knew he couldn’t win. The silver in the blade sparked against his fingers, but it did not burn him. If he cut Ezekiel, though, that cut would burn, and resist ordinary black dog healing.

“You would fight,” Ezekiel said, easing back. He was smiling again: a thin, dangerous smile. “I thought you would. But with a knife?”

“It is your choice,” Alejandro repeated. “If I must fight you, I will use a knife, yes. Because I would need the advantage. But I do not want to fight you.”

“Don’t you? Down, then. Down – and drop that knife.”

Alejandro did not move.

“Do it,” muttered Miguel, his voice low. The executioner had frightened him, too, Natividad could hear it in his voice. But he whispered to their brother, urgently, “It’s a test, I’m sure it’s a test. Do what he says.”

Alejandro’s mouth tightened. But after a moment, he turned and threw the knife, a sharp motion that left the slender blade buried in the smooth bark of a tree twenty feet away, chest high. Natividad understood: if he had to fight the Dimilioc executioner now, maybe he could recover it, use it. Ezekiel couldn’t: it wasn’t blooded for him.

Then Alejandro turned back to face Ezekiel and dropped again to one knee.

Ezekiel smiled, a mocking expression. His own shadow had gathered around him, heavy and dense, clinging to his pale skin, almost as obvious to her as it would be to another black dog. It smelled of ozone and bitter ash and burnt clay. But he did not go into the cambio de cuerpo, and after a lingering moment, his shadow ebbed back down to lie again on the white snow.

Ezekiel took a step forward. Another step, wary. That was a compliment, sort of: that Dimilioc’s executioner approached Alejandro with caution. The American eased forward a third step. Alejandro shuddered. Natividad knew her brother was on the edge of leaping up, backing away, letting his shadow bring the cambio de cuerpo. Miguel caught Natividad’s arm, pulling her back, leaving Alejandro alone. She yielded, reluctantly, and only because she knew that their presence would only make Ezekiel’s close approach harder for Alejandro to bear.

He did not move. Natividad was so proud of him. Her brother stayed still, even when Ezekiel reached out slowly and set one hand on his shoulder, close to his throat. Black-shadow claws tipped the young man’s fingers. It was naked aggression, that touch. It was a threat, and an arrogant show of control over his own shadow.

“I could tear out your throat right now,” Ezekiel said softly. “Could you stop me?”

Alejandro said, harshly, “No.”

“You’re in a bad position. Why did you let me put you in such a bad position?”

“Because the only choice I saw was fighting you, now. We didn’t come here to fight.”

“No. Of course not. You want to talk to Grayson.” Ezekiel stood for a moment, staring down at him, and then lifted his hand and eased back a step. “You have something resembling control, it seems. Maybe he’ll want to talk to you.” He backed another step, glanced past Alejandro toward Natividad, and added, “It’s another few miles to the house. Can your sister walk so far?”

“Of course I can!” snapped Natividad, insulted. She strode forward again, laying her own hand on Alejandro’s shoulder, exactly where Ezekiel had touched him. His black dog shadow did not take her touch as a threat. Their mother had worked the Aplacando on her black dog son as soon as he was born. To him, the touch of the Pure, especially Natividad’s touch, was strengthening, reassuring... calming.

Alejandro took a long breath, glanced up warily, and got to his feet.

There was no sign that Ezekiel took that movement as a challenge. The young American only raked his wintery gaze across them all. Then he turned his back and walked away, leaving the road to walk directly into the stark forest. He did not turn his head to see Natividad detour briefly to recover the knife, but she thought he must know she had. Probably he didn’t mind if she had it. She kept it – that was probably best, because Ezekiel would no doubt care a lot more if Alejandro took it again.

The countryside was rugged. The snow, mostly knee high, was in places up to Natividad’s hips. It was hard to wade through. Natividad had discovered long since that snow was not as light and fluffy as she had always imagined: it was brittle and hard on the top, so one broke through with every step; and it was heavy to push aside. A black dog like Alejandro or Ezekiel could wrap himself in his shadow and walk, weightless, along the top of the snow. But they didn’t. Alejandro walked in front, and then Miguel, breaking a trail for Natividad. They had done that all along, but she was surprised to find that Ezekiel Korte also, without comment, walked heavily through the snow, helping make a trail.