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January 15

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             Spent the morning indulging in one of my favorite pastimes, running in the woods. The day's slight warming after many weeks of hard freeze has triggered a sleepy stirring in the forest and released a banquet of rich smells. I had to pause often to investigate the comings and goings of various creatures. 

            Found two dens tucked away on the slopes of the big hill to the west. Sniffed for a long time at the entrance to the fox den but no one came out. Spent less time at the groundhog den as they were hibernating and the ground is too frozen to dig. 

            The smell of smoke and food caught my attention as I traveled in the far north woods. No one lives out that far so naturally I felt compelled to investigate. I was surprised to discover that some human had moved into the abandoned hut near the old sluice boxes on the upper stream. The human smell was everywhere and the person had spent time repairing the weather damaged portion of roof not protected by the overhanging hill. As I circled the hut from the safety of the trees I picked up the scent of magic and noted a repeating and somewhat hypnotic pattern of lines scratched in the dirt, each line carefully overlaid with dark ash. Watching where I stepped, I surveyed the extent of the spell drawn in the earth. The lines surrounded the cabin and extended into the woods beyond. It appeared to be a Summoning. The question is, for what?

            Normally I give spells and their casters a wide berth but this one captured my curiosity. Avoiding the spell lines on the ground, I moved closer to peer in the windows. The cabin looked cozy and warm and a woman was stirring a wonderful smelling meaty stew over the fire. A teapot warmed on the hearth by her feet and she was singing a haunting song in some strange language. The rest of the room was tidy and inviting. I noticed there were two wide bowls on the table ready to receive food. Apparently the lady was expecting a guest. 

            I left the window and began sniffing around the cabin. I could only detect her scent, my scent and the overall scent of magic. It would seem her mysterious visitor had not visited the cabin recently.   I was surprised to see that the cabin's inhabitant had left the front door slightly ajar. Certainly an injudicious oversight this far into the wild realms.  While I don't hunt man, there are those of my kind who do.

            Thinking to alert her, I let out a quiet "woof" and nudged the door open. Not wanting to frighten the poor creature, I immediately adopted a friendly, non-threatening demeanor, panting happily and wagging my tail like an idiot. To my surprise, she merely looked up, smiled and continued to sing. She seemed pleased to see me. She didn't seem inclined to close the door and I was reluctant to leave her vulnerable to predators so I moved a bit closer to the fire, relaxing and gazing into the flickering flames as the music spun through my head. 

            I startled awake when the music stopped. When had I dozed off? I stood and looked pointedly at the door. She didn't seem particularly concerned and made no move to leave the fire. Instead, she smiled at me with obvious delight and began ladling the stew into the bowls. 

            Ah, time to go. The guest is due to arrive, I thought. To my surprise, she placed one of the bowls next to the fire and gestured for me to help myself. Now I'm not one to generally take food from strangers - aw, who am I kidding, I'll take food from just about anyone. I didn't need a second invitation. The stew smelled fantastic and in no time, I was wolfing it down and hoping there would be seconds. 

            When I came up for air, she was nibbling daintily at her own bowl of food and smiling at me like I had just done something wonderful. I felt strangely proud, inordinately delighted that I had pleased her.  

            There were lines on the floor in the cabin. They seemed to be a continuation of the spell lines etched in the ground outside. These were delicately scratched into the soft wood of the floor and they radiated out from the woman's seat by the fire. I could feel the gentle pulse of magic in the air. Unknown magic is generally dangerous, but this felt oddly soothing. I couldn't help but like this woman with her delicious food, beautiful song and welcoming smile. 

            She patted a soft rug by her feet, clearly inviting me to lie down. I wanted to, but it was well past noon and it would soon be feeding time for the cows down at the farm. This was always a great occasion to ride in the truck. Besides, something about the spell lines on the floor was bothering me.  

            Moving to the door, I woofed and stared pointedly at it, hoping she'd get the message that she needed to close the darn thing after I was gone. I knew she probably wouldn't and that I should stay to keep her safe, but - hey, TRUCK. Duh. 

            As I turned away, she spoke for the first time; her voice was soft and sad. "Please stay. I need you."

            I looked back at her. She seemed calm, but there was a nervous tension behind her eyes and her hands were clasped too tightly in her lap. I wanted to stay, to protect her, to see her beautiful eyes light up as she smiled at me, but there was something more to this and I needed some time to think. I stared at her for a long moment.

            "Please," she whispered.

            I woofed a quiet apology and left the spellbound cabin behind, carefully picking my way through the ashy lines until I was clear of them. 

            I headed east into hill country for several miles. Once I was certain I wasn't being followed, I turned south toward the farm. Hard earned lessons have taught me that one can't be too careful when dealing with witches.

            I had to run hard the last few miles to make it to the farm before the truck left for the fields. The hay was loaded and the truck's engine was running, but the tailgate still down as I burst from the woods. Hurtling the fence, I bolted across the yard and vaulted into the back of the truck skidding to a stop in the mound of fragrant, dusty, wonderful hay. I rolled in the hay for several minutes because it smelled great and made me happy.

            I spent the rest of the day making my rounds. I barked down the rabbit burrow near the dormant, winterlocked garden. Waded into the stream and drank until I felt like I would burst.   I visited each animal on the farm, sniffing them carefully and, when all seemed well, trading gossip with them. The chickens and horses are always experiencing all kinds of drama. Maybe if they got off the farm more, they'd be less prone to angst. Of course, the chickens probably wouldn't last more than a few hours in the real world. 

            I stayed up as late as I possibly could, telling myself that I wasn't tired. I stared at the stars in the frozen night sky for hours; watched Mars creep over the horizon to gleam pinkly against the black. Finally, too exhausted to stay awake, I curled up in the barn and failed to not dream about the little cabin in the woods.


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