Dorothy tossed in her bed as thunder rolled. She had awoken heart pounding, restless and agitated. This had happened every night since receiving notification her husband had been killed in action. Her sadness was still raw and there remained a part of her that refused to believe he was dead. Apprehension growing, like the gathering storm, she threw off her sheets, paced to the window and threw it open as rain began to pour.
The baying of hounds rose from the kennels. As lightning flashed she saw the dark outlines of horses on the hill, heads raised, tails high, before they wheeled and galloped out of sight. The scent of fresh rain rose from the grass. Suddenly she craved being outdoors.
Heedless of what her maid might say, she descended the stairs in her pale nightdress, crossed the hall and flung open the doors. Rain ricocheted off the yard. The smell of drenched petals in hanging baskets mixed with the sweetness of straw in empty looseboxes.
She heard a scraping of hooves; her husband’s black getting up from his bed and putting his fine head over the stable door. Dorothy had been forced to keep him in since the day the letter arrived due to bouts of a near fatal colic. There was a wildness in his eyes she had never seen before. When he whinnied its high pitch sent a chill down her spine. She was shocked to see him throw his chest against the door, which groaned but withstood the barrage.
Shivering now she made her way to the kennels. Muddy water from the hills washed down through the yard over her bare feet. Never before had she heard such a commotion from the hounds, even when they were closing in for the kill. When she entered she was assailed by their hot, pungent scent. As they paced and leapt against their cages, the mad note in their voices made her tremble.
Get a grip, she told herself. You’ve never been afraid of horse or hound before.
She could not resist looking at the empty cage, the home of the brown-eared hound. White all over, his only colouring had been the russet tips of his velvet ears. After her husband went to war he had pined away to skin and bone. The day she received the letter, Dorothy had found the cage door open, the brown-eared hound gone.
The howling reached a new crescendo, and was met by a familiar bark from the yard. Every hair on Dorothy’s neck rose in turn. It seemed her limbs moved of their own volition as she left the kennels and closed the door.
Thunder roared and a flash of lightning lit the yard. She saw the outline of the brown-eared hound and beside him her husband, wearing a peaked cap and khaki uniform. His right hand clutched his left side and he leant on his rifle. His face was pallid and drawn.
Dorothy froze. “Malcolm?” Her heart leapt with fear and elation.
Malcolm stared at her, as if not only through rain and vacant space, but from another world. Eventually his weak smile flickered, “Dorothy.”
Tears leapt to Dorothy’s eyes. She longed to run to him, embrace him, but… looking at the gaping wound, the surrounding blood, there was no way he could have travelled back from France… Choking, “I don’t understand. What happened?”
“I was hit by a shell on the way across no-man’s land. I died quickly, unlike many others.”
“So the letter was right,” Dorothy managed a faint whisper. “There was a traitorous part of me that refused to believe…”
“That part was right,” said Malcolm. “The dead do not truly die, but ride on the otherside. The brown-eared hound brought me back. I’ve come to say my final farewell. Then I must take the black for the hunt will be here soon.”
“How can you take the black, when he’s not…?”
Her voice was eclipsed by that unworldy whinny.
The baying of another pack filled the air. The brown-eared hound joined their furore. The clatter of hooves echoed from the road. The black banged his foreleg against the door.
“We must part now until we meet again in the afterlife,” said Malcolm. “The hunt is here.”
“How?” Dorothy strained her eyes in the darkness. There had been no hunt since the men went to war.
The first thing she saw was the coal red eyes of the hounds, their pale shapes wreathing out of the rain. Each one shared those russety ears.
Her knees went weak and buckled.
When the horses and riders came into view her heart seized. Many were hunting horses she had ridden out with, the young men acquaintances sent to war, still in uniform, bearing gristly wounds. They rode with cavalrymen from bygone eras, armoured warriors on thickset war horses and stranger outriders, male and female, clad in primeval furs. The huntsman at their head with his dark face and antlered headdress barely looked human at all.
Time seemed to stop and the blood in Dorothy’s veins stilled.
The black broke through the door.
Two of the outriders dismounted to aid Malcolm onto his back. Dorothy noticed many of them rode without a saddle or bridle.
“Farewell for now,” said Malcolm. “When your time arrives you can join us. Until then keep the brown-eared hound. He knows the ways of the hunt.”
The huntsman blew his horn, a sound that threatened to bring down the looseboxes, to rend the very world apart. Already dizzy and on her knees, Dorothy lost consciousness.
She awoke on the break of dawn, cold and soaked to the skin, with the brown-eared hound licking her face. Stroking his russet tipped ears she pressed her cheek against his damp white coat.
Malcolm’s final words spoke again through her mind.
Dorothy wasn’t waiting. Stumbling to her feet she went to the field gate and whistled for her chestnut mare, who came eagerly. Led by the brown-eared hound they galloped away over fields to wilder moors, through lonely valleys and deeper ravines, pausing only to look out from hilltop crags in pursuit of the hunt.
They were never seen again, and whether they found the hunt nobody knows.