Chapter One: The Hound
The smell of the forest hit her first. Pine and moss and sweat-touched fur.
It was right again.
And so was she.
Her paws were on the ground. She could stretch her back and scratch herself as needed and she had a tail again to keep her balance.
She felt how strong and wide her jaw was now, and she tested her teeth by gnawing at a branch on a tree at her side. It snapped instantly, cleanly, just as prey would when she was ready to chase it.
She could hear the distant call of a bird, and the splash of a fish in the water, not far away.
She tried out her strong legs, and discovered she could run as fast as ever, leap over fallen trees, then turn around in a flick of movement and be racing back the same way again.
That was when she nearly careened into the bear.
And remembered why he was here.
The bear who had been a man, whose story she had heard when she was a princess.
The one Prince George had brought her to, the one who had challenged her, then watched her change from woman to hound.
Where was Prince George? And the princess?
The hound had not seen them leave. She had been too busy rediscovering herself.
Now the bear sniffed in her direction.
She sniffed back, and approached him slowly, head down to show that she would not attack. Her lips twitched and she caught a snarl in her throat. The bear made a wordless sound like a groan, then gestured with one large paw toward the rocky part of the forest.
He took a step in that direction, stopped a moment. Waiting, but without threat.
She thought briefly of the year she had spent as human, when she had never been allowed to choose anything for herself. The boots she had had to wear, pinching at her feet, the gowns that were “suitable,” the words she was expected to say, the curtseying, and smiling.
But that was gone.
She was a hound again. And the bear was an animal, like she was.
So she lumbered cautiously alongside him as they crossed twice over a cold stream and approached a cave.
The bear entered it.
She moved across the rocks and peered inside.
The bear settled at one end of the cave, stretched out on the floor near the back, with his side to rock. She could smell water in the air, and then heard a drip of it. It was falling on the bear, but he did not complain.
He waited once more.
She moved forward, then tucked herself in closer to him, letting her legs curl up underneath her. She could feel the brush of his fur against hers.
She shivered. Then moved closer to the bear, until she could feel the hurried breathing of his chest against her.
Gradually, it slowed. And she slept.
The next morning, as the two drank by the stream, a group of rabbits crossed their path.
The hound held back, allowing the bear the first kill. But his attack was so loud and wide that by the time he had the first rabbit in his mouth, all the others had scattered.
The hound spent long minutes chasing them, but they were gone, and so was any other hope of game that morning. The woods were silent with animals warned by the great noise of the bear and the lingering scent of death.
Angry, she returned to the stream, expecting the bear to have eaten his kill.
Yet the bear held out the rabbit, freshly cleaned in the stream and an hour dead.
She took half of the rabbit meat, and left the other half for him. He had killed it, and must be offering half as recompense for ruining her chance to get her own.
But the bear would not eat his half of the rabbit. He pushed it towards her.
She pushed it back to him and whined.
He turned away from it.
She growled at him. How could he be so stubborn? She knew he must be as hungry as she.
But he would not take it.
So she turned her back on the meat.
They went back to the cave, her stomach only half full and his entirely empty.
What was wrong?
She could speak the language of the hounds, but he could not. She could understand the language of humans, but he could not speak it. And he could understand the language of humans, which she also could not speak.
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