Sunday, 30 November 2008
The Shadow Dogs
In the wild old long dead days it was said that Gwyn ap Nudd, leader of the Wild Hunt, rode through the clouds raising human shades, along with the red-eared hounds of Annwn. But this is an ancient tale and none believe in such things any more. Certainly not Conrad Fitznicely who was a civil servant in a small office in the City and who besides not believing such things had not heard of them either.
Now Conrad was one of those civil servants who love his work however boring it is. It becomes their own special field after a while and they become the expert in it. Still, like death and taxes, even holidays must come to us all, his head of section remarked. Conrad tried desperately to wriggle off the hook, but his head of section insisted and so it was that Conrad was sent down to the seaside to rest and relax. Somewhat ironically considering that for such as he, work was his relaxation.
Conrad did not like the seaside, though it went out of it's way to like him. He did not like the hordes of wild, unruly children who seemed to him like vikings on a raid. He did not like the huge hairy men around him with their families and their sweaty machismo. He most of all disliked the dogs that seemed to roam freely around the people pushing their inquisitive noses into everything.
He retired to his hotel room grumbling much to the amusement of a woman who told him to, "Cheer up duckie, it may never happen."
"It already has," Conrad grumbled quietly as he strode into the hotel and was met by a friendly and beautiful Welsh collie, who had clearly been eating something she ought not to have.
Conrad wrinkled his nose in disgust and strode past the friendly dog and up the stairs to his room. He instantly phoned his head of section and remarked that he'd had a wonderful holiday and was ready to return to work.
"But you just left!" his head of section remarked and chuckled.
"Come now Conrad, this is an excellent chance to mix with those we serve," head of section continued.
Bah! Humbug! Conrad thought and argued for a return, again to no avail. He sat in his room sulking until a knock on his door beckoned him. A young woman stood there and asked if he was having a good time.
"Only you looked awfully upset and I wondered if you were alright," she said.
Conrad who had made up his mind to dislike everybody was taken aback by her kindness. He started to tell her that he was not a holiday person when he suddenly told her everything. To his surprise, she burst out laughing.
"I am sorry," she said, "But really did you have to come to the seaside? Further along the coast there are much quieter places with lots of lovely landscapes. You could stay there instead and you might enjoy it more."
Conrad thanked her and later that day he was on his way to a recommended inn, the Faithful Hound. It was not a promising name for any place he might stay. Conrad felt uneasy around animals. He felt they were watching him, waiting to pounce and devour him. Still, the inn was pleasantly quiet, there were books in the snug and a painting of an old dog resting its head on its paws was the only dog there. Conrad had a light lunch and the woman who served him remarked that he looked awfully pale.
"We'll warm you up love, don't you worry," she said cheerfully, filling Conrad's heart with dread.
"There aren't any dogs around here, are there?" Conrad asked her.
"Oh the farms usually have a dog or three, but you can avoid them if you're scared of them. There are cats too, but they only go for a walk with the artist lady and they won't bother you," she said gently.
"There are the Shadow Dogs," an old man said, overhearing them.
"Now don't you go scaring the gentleman with that nonsense Pete. Drink your drink and eat your sandwich and behave," the woman told him.
"Shadow dogs?" Conrad asked nervously.
"An old wives tale love and as an old wife, take it from me, it's a lot of old nonsense," the woman reassured him.
But Conrad couldn't get the idea from his head. He went to bed that night dreaming that a pack of dogs were sleeping on him and woke up to find himself under the sofa by the window where he had fallen and rolled. Harrumph! he thought and getting up he found a tiny spark of defiance in him. He would go for a walk today and he would not be put off by a lot of old nonsense. Shadows were nothing to fear.
He was out on the cliffside path when a thick fog began to fall. He strode inland for a while and then found he could see nothing. He sat down in the bracken and ate a sandwich, wondering what to do. That was when he heard the sound of a horn. A clear note that pierced through the fog and seemed fit to rouse the dead. A little later he heard a rushing sound as if thousands and millions of trailed robes were coming through the bracken. A sense of dread rose up in him and took him by the throat. He tried to cry out, but could not. He stood suddenly and turned around a few times, looking for the source of the sound. Then, through the soft, ominous sound he heard the sharp sound of a barking dog followed by the yelping bark of another. Now he began to panic and suddenly he saw a host of wraiths dashing through the fog as if Hell itself were after them. The horn blew again, a louder and clearer note and the wraiths fled before it. The sound of a pack of dogs followed and now Conrad also fled wildly, his terror driving him on. His heart thumped rapidly in him, his lungs seemed ready to burst as he ran. I don't belong here and now I'm going to die horribly, he thought before he tripped and fell.
When he raised himself up out of the grass he saw four shadowy dogs watching him. They did not advance on him, they just sat and seemed to reassure him with their presence. He seemed to recognise one of them. Surely it was the same dog in the painting at the Faithful Hound inn?
The wraiths dashed upon him, fleeing past and vanishing into the fog. Then came the dogs and the rider with the hunting horn. Conrad ducked his head down and whimpered, waiting for the first bite that never came. Instead he felt four warm solid bodies against his own and the wild dogs and the rider passed him and continued on. His terror had so exhausted him that he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. In his last waking moments, he was aware only of the four dogs around him, protecting him and keeping him safe. When he awoke much later the fog had lifted and stretching his arms and legs he sat up. He was only a little way from the edge of the cliffs. Had the dogs not stopped him, he would have followed the wraiths and the rider over the edge.
Conrad returned to the Faithful Hound slowly for he was stiff-jointed after a sleep out on the cliff edge. He was much relieved to be there and when he had recovered and eaten a hearty meal, he reflected on his life. He did not speak of what he had seen, not even to old Pete. Instead he reassured the landlady that he was well and had simply stayed where he was in the fog. It was very wise, his landlady remarked or he might have wandered over the cliff edge. He agreed and paid a little extra when he left out of gratitude for her kindness.
As a civil servant, he had a low wage and a safe small pension, but he was an expert in his field. He resigned from his job and signed up as a consultant instead. He earned enough to buy a small house out in the West Country and got a Welsh collie dog who he became very, very fond of. He never saw the Shadow Dogs again, but he never forgot them either.