Natha veered to the side of a tree, sniffing at the ground.
He drew closer to her, seeing the source of her urgency. U-shaped prints, left a trail along the ground.
What could have left such a trail? Natha asked.
Engrossed for the moment, Tonunda peered along the ground, tracing the tracks’ route upward.
It is a horse he said simply.
He could understand Natha’s concern. This horse had shoes, metal things adhered to the hooves by more slivers of metal. Only men did this; he knew as Zarnog had informed him. Natha wouldn’t have recognised the tracks of a tamed horse as he forbade the pack from crossing the plain to the lair of the dog pack.
It is heavy said Natha.
Because a man rides on its back.
I have never seen one come so close to the mountain before.
Nor have I.
He imagined the rider might pass through their territory, but what if the stranger made camp on the mountain?
Let us follow the trail he said, breaking into a run.
A horse could outrun the pack, even if it carried a rider. Brumbies always eluded the dogs. The tracks became lighter as they reched a long, but narrow level area on the mountain’s edge. Both Tonunda and Natha knew the area well. It came to a dead end several hundred paces on. For this reason, the pack always bypassed the path on their route up the main slope. Tracks went in, but as yet, none came back out.
The horse is still in there said Natha.
Stay hidden. Once the rider realises his mistake he might return the way he came, so we will let him pass.
They split, finding hiding places among the undergrowth. Watching the trail, Tonunda shifted on his haunches to make himself comfortable. His toe nudged an indentation in the ground. Carefully, peeling back blades of trodden over grass, he saw a dog paw print. It looked bigger and unfamiliar to him. Bringing his nose close to the ground, he sniffed once, confirming the fact the imprint belonged to a strange dog. He peered hard along the ground, making out another broken paw print further on, leading in the direction of the path.
Waiting, he expected the horse to come galloping out of the entrance with the dog chasing. Instead, he could hear human cries from afar. He broke from cover and sprinted along the trail. Semi stony earth burned the soles of his feet as he ran with Natha in tow, asking a succession of rapid questions. He stopped in the centre of the trail, then continued on, walking at a cautious pace.
A man sat straddled on a horse as he predicted, except the horse lay dead on the ground. Its position and awkward posture suggested that it tried to turn where the trail came to an end, tripped and broke its neck. Its rider sat pinned beneath its bulk, giving off the most shrill sounds, which Tonunda assumed amounted to panic.
The source of the human’s fear had its back to Tonunda. Before now, he had only thought of beasts such as theses as legends spoke of by Corbran. A huge male striped dog walked unhurried with all confidence toward his prey. Ears flattened close to the skull as the beast gave a soft almost uninterrupted growl.