Lady Kathryn de Réméré understood where her duty lay. She did—truly. The hitch, though, the tricky part, the really twisty trouble was . . . . Well, she was actually having a difficult time convincing herself that her duty was to do her duty.
The royal court had not taken part in a hunt since the marriage of the Princess Aliénor to their king a month previous. Kathryn had only been one of the queen's ladies since Aliénor's marriage, but in one short month Kathryn had grown very fond of her queen. She would do almost anything for her, but . . . did it have to be hunting?
Riding had never been one of Kathryn's favorite pastimes either, and when her father had gambled away the funds necessary to keep their horses, the loss of her late mother's bay mare had caused Kathryn only a small touch of regret.
Kathryn certainly liked horses, and riding could be pleasant, but this—this neck-or-nothing tear through the woods, the bouncing and jostling and branches hitting her in the face, and all the while the great brute below her ignoring all her most urgent instructions.
The horse recognized who was master, and it certainly was not the featherweight astride his back pulling ineffectually, and rather irritatingly, at his reins. He had his head now and would not have slowed for a rider twice as skillful as Kathryn.
Her horse broke from the group of hunters and went careening wildly off into the brush. A bare moment later, Kathryn heaved forward off her horse's neck, the ground rising up to meet her. She lay stunned in the damp leaves, the musty smell of the dirt thick in her nostrils, while the careless beast gleefully galloped his way back to his home stable for some oats and a good brushing down.
The chase was on, though, and Kathryn would not be missed by her companions for some time yet.
Only slightly dazed, when her wits recovered sufficiently and the world stopped spinning, she stood with the aid of an obliging tree trunk to take in her surroundings. The lush forest possessed a heavy covering of brush on the ground, clustering around the roots of the tall trees. Kathryn put a hand to her chest, trying to calm her still-hammering heart. "Help. Anyone? Hello?" The forest swallowed her cries, and the only sounds around her now were the gentle rustlings of the trees. She swallowed sudden fear, stifling it, and started walking, hoping someone had noticed her difficulties and come looking.
She would be having a long day if they had not.
Kathryn gulped in a deep breath, then tilted her head to listen as a strange noise caught her attention. She froze and held her breath.
Barking, horses and—the high-pitched howl of a wolf?
I thought we hunted the hart this day. This thought was swiftly chased away by another and rather more alarming one: They're coming this way. The crashing of hooves through the underbrush filled her ears, along with the bloodthirsty cries of the hunting dogs and the triumphant shouts of the men.
She stood at the edge of a small clearing. A hoyden in her youth, Kathryn had little difficulty maneuvering even with her hampering skirts. Quickly, she swung herself up onto the first branch of the nearest tree. Just in time too. The king and his entourage, having trapped their quarry at last, came thundering into the clearing, trampling over the place where she had been standing.
The wolf smelled the dogs before he heard the sounds of the hunt echoing in his forest. The hounds scented him before they gave chase, howling and baying while they tracked his progress through the woods. The werewolf's scent would drive the dogs mad, as the stench of magic always did the trick on poor beasts.
Ah, well. The wolf believed himself to be rather smarter than even the wiliest hunting dog and had tricks enough to bring himself safely home. He stretched his muscles and broke into a run, shoulders flexing, muscles singing at the exercise.
He caught a hint of smell then—the merest breath to fill his nostrils. But this was enough. A spasm of grief choked him, and a whine broke from his throat. The wolf stopped. He could not have moved if he'd wanted to—and he did not want to.
My king, he thought, just before the hounds caught up to him. He ran then, cursing himself as he darted between the trees and slogged through the tangles of underbrush. Idiot. You let one smell on the air distract you long enough for the bloody dogs to get your smell. And now what's to do?
Befuddled and at war with himself, he fumbled through his escape, stumbling and taking wrong turns. His baser instincts pulled with every fiber of muscle for him to slip away and lose himself in the forest, foiling this hunt as he had so many others. His human heart and what parts of his head it still had sway over urged him in the other direction—back to the humans. Back to the king.
The wolf's hesitation, his dreadful indecision, gave the hunting dogs the edge, and the wolf wore himself out running from them and from himself. As he tried to speed ahead of the hunting pack, his mind was betraying him, thinking of his king when he should be strategizing a way out for his wolf's body. If he didn't focus—and soon—the dogs would get him.
The werewolf found he didn't care much.
* * * * *
The swift greyhounds chased him for hours, wearing the wolf down, tiring him out so he would be too weak to give more than a token fight at the end.
He remembered this tactic well from when he had been the hunter on the horse. He winced in memory now at the number of poor beasts his prized hounds had chased down for him, of the terrified, fatigued creatures he had put to death, then ceremoniously carved up and fed to his hunting dogs.
At least I know what happens next.
The largest of the greyhounds finally caught up with the werewolf, pacing along beside him, the hound's rasping breaths loud in the wolf's ears. They were of similar height, though the wolf's body had more weight to it, larger muscles. The greyhound, a whipcord of wiry strength with jaws of iron, pounced on the wolf. The werewolf dodged expertly, and the deathblow meant for his neck fell instead to his shoulder. The greyhound thrashed and bit down with bruising strength. With true remorse as the wolf remembered how fond he had been of his own sport hounds, he savagely locked on to the hound's neck. With a bone-shattering crunch, the wolf snapped the dog's neck and ripped its throat open. Gurgling, eyes rolling back, the dog fell dead to the soft turf of the forest.
Even as the wolf mourned the hound, he reveled in the metallic stench of the dog's blood and swallowed with savor the hot broth. He did not linger long over his kill, though. He could not afford to, as the other dogs caught up to the leader, with their masters not far behind. He could still taste the hound's blood in his mouth, however, mingling with some of his own. The wolf's stomach still rumbled from hunger; his body ached from fatigue. So tired . . . .
His wounded shoulder betrayed him, and he stumbled. His body rolled across the spongy earth, kicking up the wet scent of mud and the sharp tang of broken greenery.
Wet and sticky with blood, the wolf rolled to his feet with a snarl of pain and fury. He blinked bleary eyes to focus on his surroundings. The hounds had pressed his back to a tight knot of trees, and he faced a pack of snarling hounds with their masters within shouting distance. He tried to stagger out of the clearing, to shelter, to safety, but a hound snapped at him and, growling low, forced the wolf back.
Ground vibrating from the force of so many horses, the hunt thundered into the clearing. The riders circled the wolf around on all sides, cornering him as the hounds closed in. Slowly the dogs slunk nearer to tear him limb from limb for the delectation of their keepers.
Let them come. I can no longer lay claim to any of the honor I once possessed, and I am not a knight, but I can still fight.
This I will do to the end.
To the death.
Through his haze of fatigue, he wondered idly why the dogs had not finished him yet, and his human memory cheerfully supplied the answer to the wolf's addled wits. In a hunt like this, the actual kill was saved for the highest-ranking member.
The king was going to kill him; then the nobles and other worthies would hack him to bits. Very ceremoniously and reverently, of course, but all the same there would not be much left of the wolf. Then, of course, in reward for a job well done, the dogs might get to eat some of his mangled carcass.
As far as an ugly death went, it was hard to top that.
But oh, his body ached and his heart hurt, and if he got to see his king again . . . .
God, that might almost be worth it.