They crouched midst broad tuffets of musty earth. Grassy-topped knolls, like turrets of root and dirt carved by floodwater. No water flowed among them now, however. Only a thick and swirling morass of fog and acrid smoke.
Soldiers crouched there, black jackboots and woolen knees sopped through with mud and trampled grubs. Men and women in dirt-caked burgundy jackets, eyes nervous and wide neath battered, black helms topped with rusted spikes. They held close to the tuffets, service gunsprings and tasseled partizans couched close and ready. They kept smoke-reddened eyes fixed south, on the deep swirl of vapor; the high, diffuse sun above, and the pillars of graphite smoke in the distance.
From the grey wash came a pattering splash of bootsteps. The soldiers twitched collectively, kept steel points and ironsights searching for a prospective charge.
A young scout was all that emerged. Panting, helmetless, and smeared head to toe in mud. He staggered in a wild and stooping run, clutching his side. At the sight of him, his fellows murmured in interest, looked on with anticipation as he stopped, weakly saluted, addressed the nearest officer.
"Captain, I, I…" At this, he staggered. Two enlisted men rush to support him, found his uniform soiled not just with mud, but with a copious red stain let from a broad slice under one arm. He was blanched, blue in the face.
The Captain, a green-eyed woman with a muddy helmet plume, startled. "Beren," she lifted his head, found his eyes glassy. "Beren. Come on, you must speak. What has befallen you? Does the cavalry still hunt us? What of the 302th?"
Beren lolled, looked her in the eye. A dribble of red rolled from his lip. "They are coming."
"Who are coming, man? The cavalry? The grenadiers?"
"Cobbehunden." His head lolled forward. A line of red mucous dripped to the wormy soil.
The Captain likewise lost her color, for at that moment, a scream broke through the mist.
Eyes and gunspring muzzles turned on a single tuffet, for around its earthen side had come a spider, large and hairy as a mastiff. Eight furry, three-clawed paws kneaded like an eager cat's, gouged the rooty soil. Long, serrated mandibles worked, drooling slime, in sharp anticipation.
There was a moment of horrid silence. The soldiers stared, matched the unmoving gaze of massed bubbles of eyes.
There was a crack. Somebody had loosed a shot, missed. The spider twitched, leapt in reaction. It cleared ten meters to set upon a nearby soldier, bore her down into the wet soil. Sickle-jaws snipped through wool and flesh with soft, slick resistance; like shears through ripe fruit.
A crackling barrage of gunspring flechettes crunched through the thing's carapace, ripped trails of cornflower-blue ichor through the sour air. It seized, rolled belly-up to twitch, dying, beside the fallen soldier. The shots echoed, receded into the fog. Soldiers' eyes held, wide and horrified, on that inward-curling carcass; and on the spreading stain from their ruined comrade.
Breath shallow, they listened, for in the dying ring of shots, there gained a charge. Not hoofbeats, but the pattering hiss of uncounted seething claws.
"Prepare to receive charge!" The Captain leveled her pistol, gloved hand shaking. Partizans and gun muzzles hastily redirected, pointed to meet too late the burst of dog-sized spiders from the vaporous morass.
They washed like a scuttling flood through the tuffets, leaping and scampering; clicking and chattering like pebbles dropped down a washboard. Shots rang out, intercepted many in-air, then died as a score of snapping jaws bore soldier after soldier to the earth, mingled mud with spilled gore. The Captain fell soon after the rest, snipped through the eyes, squeezing off random shots in the nervous spasms of her dying hand.
By the time horsemen arrived a half minute behind, all grey denim and chain coats, the soldiers in burgundy were undone. Each lay, a resected mess, neath a hunched war spider, its jaws clamped and sucking for freshly running fluids. They dismounted, calmly clipped chain leashes to the war spiders' collared waists. When they'd finished feeding, the handlers clicked their tongues, led the cobhounds quietly away.
"Come on, Basc. Tell me where the money is."
Basc, bloodied and tied to a rickety chair, smirked. "Nah," he said. A bit of gummy scab stretched at the corner of his lip. "Don't fancy I should."
His interrogator cracked her knuckles, turned a lip. She stood before him on the hay-strewn floor of a shed, neath the shine of a hanging lamp, burning low. It cast her broad face with heavy shadow, twisted that expression into a displeased caricature.
"Basc," she drawled. "I'll give you another lick, lest you comply right soon."
"Do it, hag. I know you'd love to get your fat hands on m–."
She did. A spray of sweat and mingled red pattered the wooden floor and mildewed straw. The flat thump of the blow knocked Basc's head askew. He righted himself, giggled wetly.
"Me boys'll be here soon, Hele," he said, jaw slack. "N' you'll be sorry. They know where to go."
"Ye? Where are we, then?"
"We're in the shed behind the Wesket. Barman rents it to you. Takes pity on account of you not affording proper rooms."
"Hah," said Hele. "Bloody wrong." She stomped 'cross the shed, pushed the door open. Pale moonlight and a dusty scent of dry corn washed into the little room. Outside, there was naught but blue-black sky and waving fields. "See? Them's Fenton's fields."
"Ye, you're in it. Now, tell me where the money is, ye down dirty cutter."
She hit him again. In the gut. Basc groaned, bent, spat up bile down his already-stained front. "I'll show ye to the hounds, Basc. Fenton's not fed'm for a week."
"Do it. I'm no' afraid of some mutts."
Hele grinned. Broad teeth shone in the moonlight. "You asked for it." She seized the back of the chair, spun Basc around, dragged him scraping out of the shed and over the clover lawn. Hele puffed, yanked him along through the night air, scraped two furrows of soil behind.
Basc wiggled his feet. "Be mighty ironic if your fat heart gave out right now, eh?"
"We'd both be canned," he pattered. "I don't fancy you all gruesome. Big-boned, n' all. Can ye afford yer salt, Master 'Lives-in-a-She–" At that, he yelped. Hele had jerked him along so hard his head cracked 'gainst the chair back.
"I'll feed yer bones to the swine, Basc," smirked the woman.
They drew near a low kennel. A squat, long, peak-roofed hut. The door complained as Hele wrenched it open, yanked the chair onto the floor inside, shut it again. It was quite dark within and smelt of dirt and spoiling meat.
"Last chance," said Hele, in the dark.
"I said," he sneered, voice sticky. "I ain't afraid of no dogs."
Hele chuckled, and a match fizzed, flared. She lit a lantern. The bars of the kennel illuminated, just before Basc's face. Cast iron bars, rusty, coated in thick, tangled webs. Something scratched in the dark, moved just outside the light. Basc's expression abruptly turned to panic.
"Oh, shit. Those hounds," he gabbled.
"What about those hounds, Basc? They look usual to me. N' hungry."
"Come on, Hele. You won't."
"There's three, in there," said the woman. She leaned close behind Basc; one hand on his bound shoulder, the other pointed towards the dark. There, two dozen beads of bunched eyes shone, swam, like soap bubbles grouped on black water.
"Come on, it's not my money to give. They'll kill me!"
"Yeh?" Hele scooted his chair against the bars, so the man's shaking knees poked through. Deep in the kennel, the eyes crept forward, slow, revealed dripping, sickle-like pincers gnawing below. They parted, emitted a high, excited clicking. Hair rose on Basc's neck. Hele grinned, pointed again. "They will."
One cobhound crept forward, eight legs rippling, propelling the leathery, hardened body forward. It stopped. The hair of its limbs twitched. Its pincers lifted, as if sniffing, inches from Basc's knee. He screamed, softly.
"Alright!" Rope creaked as he strained. Sweat rolled down his brow. "I'll tell." He gulped, squirming. "I'll tell. U-under the stile in Broughton's Drive."
Hele leaned close. So did the hound; an inch nearer, pincers waving. "You sure?" said the woman, threat resonant in her tone.
"Hmph." Hele pulled him back. She drew a knife, bent. There was a ripping sound.
"The shite are you doing?" said Basc.
"Takin' a sample." She held up a thready, stained scrap of shirt.
"For what?" Basc wriggled. Sweat dripped from his nose. "Let me go! I told you where the money is."
Hele smiled, took a knife to his ropes, sawing. They split, dropped from wrist and ankle. She backed away; knife pointed at the bloodied man. "Ge' up. Ye can go."
Basc bolted aright, staggered away. He backed towards the kennel door, insisted: "For what?"
"Scent for the hounds, Basc, and insurance for me. In case you're a liar." She grinned even wider, held up the scrap, chuckled. "Ye best be going."
Basc gulped. The kennel door banged open as he flew into the blue moonlight, took off flailing over the fields. Behind him trailed Hele's raucous laughter
Laughter, mingled with the clicking bay of the hounds.
A cobhound doesn't like you.
Although you walk it, and feed it, and pet its wiry fur, it is not loving. Though it stands guard, and never bites, and obeys your commands, it is not loyal. Though it is yours, and protects you, and never runs away, it is not your friend. It is not a dog, and it doesn't like you at all.
A cobhound likes one thing: Meat. It eats plentifully, but not often. A pile of butcher's scraps will do. Skins, and organs, and rotten meats. It takes the lot into its cobwebbed kennel and nibbles and slurps away, satisfied. That is one of the few things it can feel: Satisfaction. Not pleasure, but simply the rote fulfillment of a requirement.
Because you have provided for its satisfaction since its puppyhood, it has attached itself to you. It does not like you; you are merely a provider. The tasks you ask of it are merely the customary cost of easy meat. So long as you continue to provide for it, it will stand beside you. It will accept your home, and your petting, and your commands, and it will do so until it shrivels up and dies of old age.
You will find the cobhound is not a dog. Rather, it is a cobbe. ** A wolf spider made domestic.
The wolf spider was not hard to domesticate. By a simple offering of meat, maintained over generations, Littoran pioneers quickly attained the spider's alliance, rather than its predation. Since, they have kept multifarious breeds of the beast for hunting, companionship, and war for over two hundred years.
If you wish for a hunting hound, the cobhound is without match- with exceptions. In killing, it excels. In retrieving, it fails completely. A cobhound will not happily ferry downed birds to you, because it cannot understand the concept: To a cobhound, there is no hunting unless it is personally involved in the killing.
It will, however, readily take a scent and run down any prey imaginable. It will do so at great distance, over terrain of any dimensionality, and it will rarely fail. Unavoidably, it will attempt to kill its target; for again, it knows no purpose in hunting but killing. Game animals, convicts, and bounty targets alike, no matter how they run, will nigh-unerringly find themselves the unfortunate recipient of a sicced cobhound's bite.
If you wish for a companion, there are surely more personable options than a cobbe. However, this doesn't stop many folks at all, for they keep the creatures anyway. Cobhound fancy has produced a range of breeds, varied in appearance, but not in temperament. Orange cobbes; brown cobbes; cobbes with fur black and thick as smoke off an oil fire. Small cobbes; large cobbes; cobbs with tiny bodies and long legs. Some with red eyes, some with green. All interesting, but none too friendly. For in spider behavior, there are merely to permutations: Aggressive, and docile. The docile ones are loved for pets. The aggressive ones are kept for war.
If you dearly desire someone hurt, and hurt very badly, at that, you set a cobhound on them. A broad, scythe-fanged war cobbe, all thick, leathery-hard flesh, textured like the pad of a dog's paw, and wiry, sharp hairs. It'll do, and it'll do very well.
Cobbes meant for war and guard duty are vicious indeed, when hungry. They are starved a little, then unleashed to fulfill their purpose. This practice, when used in war, typically as an augment to cavalry charges, it a topic of some concern. Many national bodies, stating crimes born of the Lothrheim/Belvirine conflict, have cried for a ban on cobhounds used in war.
They demand a ban on humanitarian grounds. Not for the humane nature of how a cobbe kills, however. That is not an issue at all, for a cobhound trained for war is very adept at killing quickly. No.
Rather, they declaim the inhumanity of the very concept; of giant spiders unleashed on human troops and let to feed on human flesh. Of a battle tactic not modern, but ancient. The selfsame tactic used millennia ago by sorcerer-kings of old to rout and scour the countryside with a monstrous horde.
But yet, you will still see the cobhound used in war, unleashed evermore frequently as a scuttling vanguard before cavalry, or as a flush sent down enemy trenches. Commanders know the utility of a creature so committed to killing. They know all a cobhound wants is one thing, one way or another, and it is very apt at getting it from Humanity.
A very simple thing:
I realized the irony of including the word tuffet, used in this case for a small landform, in adjacency to spiders only after I'd written the whole scene.
I'll add cobhound rules to the Incunabuli Playtest, sooner or later.
* "Littoran" describes any individual hailing from the Coast, be they human or otherwise.
** As in cobweb. Cobbe is the old Awnish word for spider.