Ronan by Riley Onyx

1

Talia

Three of the dogs walk nicely, but one—and there’s always one—pulls like it wants to walk ten times faster and get home sooner. The others are all happy to trot along and smell the fallen leaves, the grass by the path, and enjoy being out.

I wander these trails with the dogs I walk for a living. Every day I take a slightly different route, in part for variety, but also because there are long stretches of trail where I don’t see a soul. The shepherd tugs toward the left-hand fork. I almost let the dog have its way but at the last second, I change my mind and we go to the right.

Most of the time I feel safe with the dogs. Dog walking means I have all the fun parts of having a dog, with none of the expense of feeding and vet appointments. Eventually I’ll move out of the share house and find my own place and get a dog. Ideally, I’d like a farm with lots of animals, but I know that’s just a dream. One I’ll never be able to afford on dog walking pay.

The little one that’s been pulling, yips and tugs harder as though there’s something exciting ahead. Last time he did this, it was a dead squirrel that he wanted to roll in. This time the other dogs prick up their ears like they can hear something.

I keep walking, but I’m no longer enjoying the sun and sounds of nature. I’m on alert. My heartbeat is loud in my ears and my breathing quickens as my steps slow. I should have let the shepherd lead. Maybe it had sensed the danger.

Even the birds go quiet.

I stop. My ears straining for the slightest out-of-place noise. Wind rustles the leaves, a dog whimpers, but there’s nothing untoward except in my imagination. One dog gets restless, dancing and tugging on the lead.

There're no bears here, and I’m sure there're no wolves.

It’s not animals that I fear when I’m out walking, but humans. I glance behind me, but the path is empty. I’m almost halfway along the trail. If I turn back, it will take me as long as if I press on. I should get moving, hustle until the trails cross and I run into people. I’m not the only one out here today. People are making the most of the crisp fall weather before it turns to soggy winter. Yet I remain frozen, unable to move.

Something large crashes through the trees, heading in my direction.

I quickly unclip the dogs, so they’ll have a better chance to escape without being tied to me. And I’ll have a better chance at running if I’m not risking breaking my neck tripping over stressed dogs.

But the dogs don’t flee, they stay with me, milling about, sniffing, and growling or hiding behind my legs.

Whatever it is, is getting closer. What if it is a bear?

What if it’s a knife wielding killer?

We can’t stay here and wait for it to arrive

I turn and run. The dogs keep pace, thinking it’s a game that they are off the leash and that we are sprinting instead of walking.

I keep count of them as they run ahead. I don’t want to be that dog walker who freaks and loses all their charges. We’ll flee, then I’ll round them up. They like me and I have treats in my pocket.

I’m panting already, but the thing in the trees is keeping pace. Breaking branches and making noise. If it’s kids…my steps falter. I glance over, but I can’t see anything. The trees and shrubs aren’t that dense. If there’s something or someone there, I should be able to see them.

Am I imagining it? Did a squirrel freak me out?

The big shepherd’s hackles rise, and he stops.

I stop too. My heart hammers. The trees shake like there’s something big only yards away from where I’m standing, suddenly frozen.

“Calm down.” I don’t know if I’m speaking to the dogs or me. I take a few steps back. I don’t know what I’m running from or where I should run too.

I keep murmuring supposedly soothing nothings, but all the dogs have their hackles up like they’re ready to defend me from the danger.

“Duck!” A man shouts.

I spin at the sound of his voice.

Something crashes out of the trees; I sense size more than see it. Only then do I duck. I crouch amongst the dogs, sure I’m about to be eaten. Hoping that they’ll protect me, yet not wanting them to be hurt.

A howl tears through my body and something wet hits my skin. I keep my eyes closed, bite my lip, and try to disappear.

Everything is silent until the man laughs.

I open my eyes and look up. The sunlight catches in his hair and glances off his cheekbones. He is without doubt the prettiest man I’ve ever seen.

Then I notice the sword and the way he’s splattered in indigo.

The dogs have run off and I’m alone with a mad man.