Prologue of The Princess and the Hound
The Tale of King Richon and the Wild Man
A hundred years ago and more, before our current line of kings was founded, long before King Davit or his grandfather or his, the animal magic was thought of as no more or less than a gift of growing corn higher than others, or having a way with a needle to make a fine dress. Those who had animal magic spoke to animals and learned from them—where water was polluted, or which caves were filled with blood-sucking worms. They were good at training horses, in particular. And they were prized for their use in a hunt, for they knew how to kill animals swiftly and kindly.
But there was one hunter who would have none of those with the animal magic with him. He was proud, young King Richon, who hunted on horseback or on foot, in the great forest in the south or in the smaller, quieter woods around the castle and to the north, by Sarrey. But best of all he loved to hunt on the plains where a wild animal could be set loose to the sounds of horns and chased to exhaustion in plain view, with no place to hide or find respite. The terror of the animal’s screams was part of King Richon’s pleasure, and for all his skill with a spear, axe, or knife, he would let a beast go again if the chase had not been sporting—or long—enough.
Yet when the beast was dead, King Richon did not even bring the meat back to the cook for dinner that evening, for wild animal flesh was always tougher and less flavorful than the animals kept soft and quiet in the pens in the castle yards. Now and again, if the head was large and impressive enough, he would cut it off and have it stuffed and mounted, to impress visitors to his hall. But that was all the use he made of his hunts.
Those with animal magic kept away from King Richon naturally, and so in time King Richon was surrounded only by men and women who encouraged his penchant for cruelty. They had discovered that the king was generous at the end of a particularly long and exciting hunt. To those who had hunted with him, King Richon offered fewer taxes and other favors, such as a gentler sentence on judgment day or the promise of an advantageous marriage.
Even those who had no animal magic, but who disliked the king’s hunting, found themselves cut off from his attention. Some complained loudly of this. Others kept their dissatisfaction quiet. Still others began to save a certain amount each month and pool it together, in search of a hero to offer it to, someone who might have the power to change the king.
But the man, when he came, was not at all what they had expected. He was small and thin, and he smelled of animals and forest, and walked as if he had learned natural grace from the animals themselves. His hair was unkempt, he wore a long, dirty beard, and nothing for clothing at all but the dirt painted on his skin. Yet even those with their own animal magic stepped back when they saw him, for his power was far beyond anything they had ever wielded themselves. It was boundless, uncontrolled, wild. A raging river in comparison to a trickling mountain stream.
As he made his way from the south of the kingdom, the wild man did not ask for assistance but accepted a bit of food or drink that was offered, and listened to the tales of King Richon as if he could recite them from memory himself. He had heard them all, it seemed, and more. And he was not pleased. When he finished, he was on his way and those who watched him shivered as he passed, and felt a little sorry for their king, despite all.
When the wild man reached the castle gates at last, he called out in a loud voice and demanded an audience with King Richon. King Richon was busy preparing for a hunt and refused this request. He told his guards to send the man to the kitchen for a good meal of fresh bread and soup, and to send him on his way.
But the wild man would not take the soup, nor would he leave the castle willingly. The guards set him out at sword point.
By evening he was back, with his own guard: a hawk whose claws were closed about the wild man’s bare arm, though he showed no signs of pain. And this time when the wild man was stopped, the hawk flew from his arm and attacked. Four of King Richon’s guards were blinded by the time one of them made it to the throne and begged for assistance.
“It is a trick of the animal magic, no more than that,” said King Richon. But he did agree to see the wild man—if the hawk remained in the open air, where it belonged.
The wild man sent the hawk away, and went into the palace. He did not bow before the king or speak politely when he made his request. With or without the hawk on his arm, he spoke as if he commanded an army at his back. And he demanded from King Richon the promise to cease hunting forever.
King Richon laughed at the boldness of the wild man. Why should he make such a promise? Why should he not hunt? The animals belonged to him, after all, as did the woods they lived in, the grass they fed on, even the air they breathed.
And at that, the wild man walked out of the gates without a backward glance. King Richon thought that it would be the last of him, but he was wrong.
Soon there was a royal parade through the town of Wilbey which surrounded the castle. King Richon dressed spectacularly in the green and black of the kingdom, and mounted his favorite horse, a gelding named Crown who was large and strong, and well-trained enough that the king trusted he could stand on his head in his saddle and Crown would not move an inch.
But suddenly this same Crown took off on a wild canter through the streets, and nothing King Richon did could stop its course. It galloped past the more familiar woods, towards the dark southern forest. It did not quite enter the forest itself, however. It stopped short, leaned forward, and threw King Richon overhead. Then it galloped away, back to the castle stables.
King Richon wandered in that strange forest a week before he was found at last by his fearful guards. They brought back a much thinner and quieter king. Those with the animal magic thought that the king must have learned his lesson. But when the wild man returned that evening, a wolf striding at his side, King Richon would still not make the promise.
Instead, he offered a bag full of ten thousand golden talers. “If you leave here today and never return, it is yours.”
The wild man spat on the ground, and warned, “Your third lesson will not be so painless,” as he strode out of the court.
For a few weeks, King Richon was cautious and remained inside the castle, in case the wild man dared to appear again and make a new threat. But then it was summer, and so fair that a hunt had to be made—and besides, what could such a small man do against a king and all his court? So he sent out his call, and his greedy nobles came to him for the hunt, fearing the result as little as he did.
This time King Richon went in search of a bear he had caught a glimpse of in the dark southern forest itself. It was larger than any he had seen before, and worthy of his talent and effort. He intended to make a rug of it, and to keep the head as a trophy above his throne, in case the wild man dared to come again. His confidence great, he slew the bear in one motion, with a spear through the head. He was jubilant over the kill, and returned to the castle to celebrate.
A bear dance was presented for his amusement, and minstrels sang new songs of his hunting prowess. But the celebration was cut short by the cries of sentries stationed atop the castle walls. As the dawn light rose, they saw in the distance signs of a great army approaching. King Richon came out with his men, as drunken and swaying as they were, and saw the army for what it was. An army of animals.
Bears, wolves, stags, bobcats, foxes, wild horses and hounds, eagles, hawks, and smaller creatures of every kind: raccoons, possums, mice, sparrows and robins, deer, and bees. Together they stood at the top of the hill overlooking the castle. And slowly, out of their midst, came the wild man himself.
King Richon felt a chill in his heart, yet he was still too stubborn to offer the promise he knew the wild man wanted. And what, after all, could animals do to his well-trained men?
So he shouted the call to them, “Attack!”
They did their best. Footmen loped forward with swords and spears. Archers in the back let loose their arrows. There were dead animals everywhere in a few minutes’ time, but it seemed there was an unending supply of other animals to take their place. Meanwhile, the king’s soldiers lost ears, eyes and limbs. They stumbled, or became confused. They threw spears at their own kind, or ran away in terror.
By the end of the day, the battle was lost. King Richon, defeated, stepped forward in the dying light and held up his hands in surrender to the wild man. Then he knelt, and bowed his head.
“I will make the promise now, if you will take it,” he offered.
But it was no use now. The wild man laid his hands on the King’s shoulders and a few of the wounded then saw the plain and terrible workings of the most powerful animal magic of all. They saw King Richon transformed from a man to a beast, a huge, towering black bear like the one he had killed that very morning.
“You will live as a bear until the end of time, so that you may understand what it is to be hunted,” the wild man proclaimed. “But there is hope. I promise that much. If only you will ask.”
And so it was. King Richon was never seen again as a man, but there are those who claim to have seen a certain bear on the outskirts of the dark southern forest, taller than others, with very black fur and a human look to his eyes. A bear that will stand if you speak to it, and cock its head to one side, as if it is asking a question and listening for an answer.
As for the wild man, he has never been seen again. His army disappeared that day, melting back into the uncanny forest from which they came.
Some say that his magic was an evil perversion, that it has nothing to do with the other, smaller animal magic. But there are few who believe this. And so now all those with animal magic are burned when they are discovered, no matter what their age. It is a kindness, perhaps. For what man or woman would choose to live stretched between those two worlds? A kindness indeed.
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