SHORT STORIES: A Hound Named Quill
"Francis Forray had long lived with the assumption that a black hound appeared to every person on their tenth birthday. "
Francis Forray had long lived with the assumption that a black hound appeared to every person on their tenth birthday. His had appeared at the foot of his bed upon the stroke of midnight as a pup, swathed in dark smoke and howling for its mother.
It wasn’t until the age of eighteen when he left England to travel to Paris that he learnt of the mystery of his own particular hound, which had grown as Francis did, and had also gained the peculiar and vexatious trait of leaving black-blue ink pawprints wherever she tread. For this, he had named her Quill.
As Francis familiarised himself with La Ville Lumière, he learnt that not one Parisian had ever had an animal appear before them, let alone one which left such a distinctive trail. No rum-soaked sailor or powdered aristocrat believed the tale of the hound’s birth, and all laughed at Francis’ insistence that Quill had come from anywhere but a breeding bitch. Francis had thought that in such a grand city, at least one person might have found themselves with an unexplained Familiar, but the only animals he discovered were stray tabby cats and plump coach-horses, none of which had found themselves born under any peculiar circumstances.
Francis always carried with him a handkerchief to aid with cleaning up after his hound in taverns and shops, and he walked her on the city streets so that her markings would be lost among the layers of mud and manure. Whilst he was anxious to find an answer to the question of the circumstances of her birth, Francis feared the greedy hands of Ringmasters and Carnival Curators. He didn’t want his poor Quill to fall victim to a kidnapping, and tried his best to disguise her as a regular black hound. She was an enigma, yes, but she was also his pet hound, and he was devoted to her as she was to him.
One day after returning from a bookstore along Rue De Turenne, having had no luck finding any texts on the subject of Familiars or magical canines, Quill–startled by a snarling guard-dog who was chained up in front of a butcher’s–yelped and ran into a small crowd of street-traders, stepping over the bare feet of an elderly traveller as she went. Francis dived after her, grabbing the looped leather lead which had been pulled from his hand, and which was dragging in the street filth as Quill cowered by a stack of crates.
“My apologies!” Francis said, before repeating the phrase in French. The traveller looked down at her feet and her eyes widened.
“Has your hound stepped in something?” she asked in English, but her words were accented with a rough inflection that Francis could not quite place.
“Uh, no, well, I mean…no, yes? No,” he said, fumbling in his pocket for a handkerchief, “I-I really do apologise, it’s–”
“Never mind,” she said, waving away the offered handkerchief, “May I see the feet?”
“If you do not mind.”
Francis shook his head slowly–quite bemused–and the stranger crouched down to gently lift Quill’s front right paw, examining the dark, iridescent stains upon her cracked black paw pads. The traveller lifted each paw in turn and Quill stood patient, looking to Francis for guidance. He gave her head a quick pat, to let her know that she would come to no harm by his count. Eventually, the traveller stood up straight and nodded.
“Where did you get her?” she asked him.
“Well…” Francis said, narrowing his eyes, “she rather…found me.”
“She is very rare. I have seen only one other like her in my time.”
“You’ve seen another?!” Francis blurted out, destroying all sense of coyness and cautiousness in his excitement.
“Yes,” the stranger said, “not a hound though. A hare. One which was born to smoke and left black prints wherever it tread.”
“I will show you, if you have time?”
Francis knew that following a stranger based on her recollection of a magical hare was not the safest or most sensible of ideas, but he was so desperate for any information on the subject that he consented immediately. Quill let out a low whine.
Francis sipped at a china cup filled with fragrant tea and watched as the stranger rummaged in a large wooden chest. He guessed she was about sixty, the lines by her eyes and streaks of grey in her long dark hair told him as much. She was dressed in wonderfully colourful skirts–they looked to Francis as if they had been dyed by hand–and she wore a large amount of beaded bracelets and necklaces which clicked together as she rummaged. Her caravan–which they had travelled to the frayed edges of the city to reach–was packed full of trinkets and ornaments, each one coated with a thin layer of dust. Francis put his teacup down as the stranger turned to him, brown leather book in hand. Quill yawned from her place at his feet.
“Here,” she said, taking a seat opposite him, and beginning to thumb the yellowed pages of the thick book, “I have something in here which may help you.”
“Mm,” she said, turning the book on an open page which depicted several ink illustrations of a selection of animals–a horse, a stag, a boar, a cat. Each had been drawn leaving a trail of dark footprints across the page, just like Quill’s. She handed the book to Francis, and he began to quickly read the dark ink scribblings. His eyes widened in wonder as his notion of Quill being a kind of Familiar was confirmed, though the book gave no information on where she had come from, or why he had been gifted with her. It only said that these dark-coloured, mystical creatures were fiercely loyal to their human companions, and that the creatures’ deaths would warn the humans of their own. Francis turned the page, desperate for something more, but there was nothing. The next page only showed illustrations of the phases of the moon, waxing and waning across the yellowed paper.
“Is this all you know?” Francis asked, handing the book back to her.
“I’m afraid so. I have written down all I know.”
“You wrote this? I see…and what of the hare?”
“The hare I found dead, by the side of a country road. It had left small, dark footprints all down the path. A little way ahead, I found the body of a highwayman, his chest shot to pieces. I tried to bring the hare home with me, to draw it for evidence, or to study it, but…it vanished by the time I returned to collect it.”
“That’s all you know, then?”
“Yes, that is all.”
Francis inhaled deeply, and forced a smile. It was the closest he had ever come to finding something of an explanation, and yet, there was still no explanation for Quill’s coming into being, or her inked pawprints, or her bright yellow eyes.
“I thank you for your help,” he said, even if he didn’t quite mean it, “and for allowing us into your home.”
“You are welcome. The hound is little trouble. Does she have a name?”
“Her name is Quill,” Francis said, giving her a quick scratch behind the ears. She closed her yellow eyes and thumped her tail against the floor.
“It is funny. She doesn’t look like too much like anything from another world,” the woman spoke, running a hand down Quill’s spine, “no more than I or you.”
She referred, of course, to Francis’ skin: his mother had been of Caribbean descent and had gifted Francis with dark skin, complete with a smattering of brown freckles across the bridge of his nose and beneath his hazel eyes. His hair, too, was black and tight-curled like his mother’s had been.
The stranger stood up straight then, her necklaces clinking together as she did.
“Let me give you directions on finding your way back home,” she said.
Francis was asleep when they set the first manors alight. He knew of the unrest of the city–everyone did, each city-goer knew the whispers of the Guards and the supposed cowardice of the monarchy–but he had never thought the chaos would have spread to the quiet Quarter in which he was residing. The orange glow from his window and the yellow smoke rising in the distance warned him of the impeding chaos, and he knew he could not stay sleeping. He began to undress and decided it best to go out onto the streets and see what was going on–he could hear shouting, and the smell of smoke was growing more trenchant.
“You stay here, Quill,” he said, tugging on an overcoat, but turned to her when she did not make any noise, did not rush to his side as she always did. She was at her usual spot by the foot of Francis’ single bed, but she wasn’t curled up, asleep. Instead, she was laid on her side, limbs hanging limp against the hard wooden floorboards.
“Quill?” Francis said, dashing to her side. Her eyes were closed, and her stomach was not rising as it should have been. She was not breathing. He reached his hand out to her soft, velveteen ears and they were cold to the touch. Her whole body was sagging. She had gone.
Tears fell from Francis’ eyes as he realised he had lost his only companion, the only being in the world who had ever been dependant on him entirely, the only creature who had ever prioritised him over all others. He let out a sob as he realised he would never see her tail thumping happily against the ground as he snuck her a piece of chicken, he would never again hear her claws clacking across the floor as she rushed to greet him.
Outside, the sounds of the revolt grew louder. Smashing glass, parents screaming for their children, the cracking of wood as it splintered beneath the heat of flame…it was growing closer, and Francis was running out of time.
He lent forward to wrap his arms around his hound, sobbing against her cold fur, his hands gently holding onto the fur of her neck, chaffed and thinned from rubbing against her leather collar during the day. As Francis wept against the side of her head, Quill faded into smoke beneath his arms.
He lifted his hands, and saw that they were stained with ink.