The Old One was struggling to stand and failing. Help me.
The other two did what they could, offering him a shoulder, a head, and nudging his feet into place.
I have one last thing to do.
The Hound whined It will be dawn soon.
This won’t take long. I know the way this time.
He staggered and stumbled and dragged his reluctant failing body out of the room, across the house, falling often, and out the back door. And he didn’t so much go down the stairs as tumble there.
The cat was waiting for him. I am coming with you. She wasn’t asking.
Silently, he made his way across the back yard and into the woods with the tortoise shell at his side. Together they made their way past the boundaries, through the trees, through the suffocating hopelessness, and followed their noses to the place of darkness, where the stench of evil was greatest. And finally entered the clearing.
The Old One could hear the hum of the frightened and lost Creepers and he followed it to its source where he found an entrance.Stay here, he ordered the cat.
She followed him anyway.
He couldn’t see them, but on either side, Creepers hissed at him, a few shrieked, but none of them touched him. They seemed oddly afraid of the Cat whose eyes glowed, for cats bring their own light wherever they go.
By the glow of her eyes, the Old One found what he was looking for. A nest bearing a wiggling, twisted mass of flesh bound in a cocoon.
The Creepers howled as he picked it up in his jaws and shook it as though it was a rag doll and continued to shake it until stopped moving. He then placed it on the ground, held it with one paw, and ripped it into pieces. The shrieks around him rose, but none of the Creepers attempted to stop him. Without the will of the Queen to direct them, they were little more than shadows.
After he’d finished, the Old One slowly turned and limped toward the entrance with the Cat just ahead.
That was the next Queen. The Cat exited and waited for him to join her.
Will they leave now?
For a while. A long while.
Then what? She led the way through the forest.
He was moving more slowly now. Then they’ll come back with a new Queen. But by then, the Boy should be old enough to protect them all.
The Cat did not say anything else for the rest of the trip. The Old One fell down more often on the way back, often having to sit and rest for several minutes before resuming the journey.
When they finally arrived at the edge of the yard, he stopped and looked toward the house. He was panting, his sides heaving and his legs barely holding him erect.
Then the Cat made a very un-catlike offer. Would you like me to wake the Woman?
And he responded in a very un-doglike way. I would like that very much.
She turned and scanned his eyes for a moment, then stood on her hind legs to nuzzle him under the chin, pressing her entire face, both sides of it, seeming to inhale him and leaving her scent with him as well. Then trotted toward the house, tail held high.
The Old Dog got as far as the tree in the center of the front yard where he had so often laid watching the Woman work in her flowerbeds, and lowered himself to the ground.
The porch light came on and the door was open. The Woman’s voice floating out into the early morning air. “Just a minute you idiot cat, just a minute.”
Meowing loudly, the cat ran out the door, jumped onto the porch railing and looked toward the dog lying in the shadow of the tree.
“Solomon? Is that you?”
It was his favorite voice. He wagged his tail weakly.
Her voice changed. “Oh Solomon. No.” She emerged from the house, half running across the yard, and fell down beside him. “What have you done?”
The Woman sobbed softly, raising his head and placing it in her lap. This was what he’d hoped for. He could see her face now, which was all he wanted. They won’t hurt you anymore.
Each breath that left his body now was taking his last minutes with it.
She leaned in close to his ear and whispered, “I love you.”
And I you.
He gently licked her cheek.
To the left he could see the Brown Dog waiting, her tail wagging. Behind her it was a terrain filled with light, a window into a forest without shadow.
He took one last look at his favorite human's face and heard her voice in his ear. “It’s okay. You can go now.”
And his last breath carried his life with it.
A moment later, he joined the Brown Dog at the brink, his coat glowing, his step light. He stopped and looked back, his tail wagging.
The woman sat unmoving in the shade of the tree, still stroking the old head, staring off in the direction the two dogs had gone, as though she could see them. Though her face was still wet, she had stopped crying.
“I dreamed about you,” she said out loud and to no one in particular. “I dreamed that you saved us."
She paused, her brow furrowed weighing dream against reality, then shook her head. “Thank you.”
The Old One barked joyfully and charged into the forest of light.