The fog came down suddenly: sleek and white and thick and cold. It felt like being draped in a clammy cobweb, and it became impossible to hear one’s own footsteps on the grassy pathway. If it wasn’t for the feel of the warm fur of the great dog who paced majestically at her side Amal would perhaps have been afraid. But she had walked worse than this with Chin-Cha as companion and protector. She wove her fingers into his great ruff of grey and silver hair, leaning on his strong presence as she had been able to do for so many years. Chin-Cha, she thought, the love of my life and my biggest single regret. She knew that the great dog now pacing at her side was a shape changer trapped in his present form by a powerful bear witch, who had then ensorcelled him to the service of a six-year-old girl. That child had grown up to be Amal the healer and witch-woman. A woman who loved her protector with every fibre of her being but would rather die than burden him with the knowledge of that love.
As the fog grew even denser, a voice spoke in her ear, it was woody and breathy, and sounded like a poorly tuned wind instrument.
“People ahead. Hiding. Ill intentioned. Those who have been hunting you since harvest moon Yuri thinks.”
Yuri was a frost imp and trusted friend. Amal put up a hand as if to touch him, and he blew on her fingers. Surprising warmth.
“I will see” and the sense of his presence was gone.
Chin-Cha pressed himself against her leg, silently urging her off the path. She allowed herself to be guided to the rough trunk of a big tree. He pushed her thigh with his nose, indicating that she should climb. Doing as she was bid Amal soon found herself on a wide branch beside a sheltering hole in the trunk. Wrapping herself in the blanket from her pack she crept into the very heart of the tree. She could no longer see her companion, but had the reassurance of his spirit as he hunkered down in the brownish bracken. Then he was coming towards her. Fast. She felt him bunch his muscles and erupted out onto her branch. He made a prodigious leap and she grasped his harness to steady him. They both crawled into the tree cave and huddled together for warmth and comfort.
It was not long before Amal got the sense of Yuri’s presence. She was about to speak when a small icy hand was placed on her lips.
“They are here” the woody windy little voice whispered, seeming to come from right inside her head. “Be still and silent and listen.”
At first Amal heard nothing, then she made out the sound of laboured breathing. There was a noise as if a heavy boot hit flesh.
“Where is the woman, tracker?” a harsh voice demanded.
“She came this way. She can’t be far. But I can no longer feel her presence. It must be the fog.”
“You had better not be lying to me. Gopal get the hounds. They will track her dog, and the old woman said that once we kill it the witch woman will lose her magic.”