I nudged Ginger's belly with my nose, trying to get her to get up and play with me. She opened one eye and raised her head from the ground to look at me. Ginger spoke quietly, with fond exasperation in her tone.
“You are not as cute as you think you are puppy. Go annoy someone else.”
I whined, trying the cute and pathetic route. She huffed and lay back down, her ears flopping with the movement. I crawled backwards out of her den, knocking my head on the edge of the doorway when I tried to stand up just a little too soon.
The other hounds were all napping too as I looked around the exercise yard. I growled a little as I wandered around the line of the fence, looking though the wooden slats at the world outside. My godmother had been right; being a hound was fun, most of the time. Easier too. I ran, I played, I chased things that smelled interesting. I learned from the rest of the pack how to actually hunt. I rarely remembered Justin or Elaine. They were gone, and things that were gone were unimportant. And it sure as hell had thrown the creepy guys in the cloaks off of my trail. But the others in the pack were all fully grown and not as enthusiastic about having to entertain a puppy as Lea and Glenmael were.
With both of them off doing sidhe things, I was left to my own limited devices. Chasing a ball was less fun when you had to roll it yourself, and the giant butterflies had gotten wise and were avoiding flying through the yard. I found the wide spot in the fence, the one facing the path through Lea's demesne in the Nevernever and dropped to my belly, my nose sticking out through the gap. The wind looked stronger out there, rustling the branches of the apple trees that filled the yard and lined the road against one another, making a soft kind of music.
I lay there and let the breeze ruffle my fur, the longer hairs that had just started growing in tugged gently against my skin. The coolness of the dirt beneath my belly felt good. I yawned, baring my teeth to the empty road and let my eyes start to close. Maybe the others had the right idea. A nap would be nice.
Something woke me up a few minutes later. Less than an hour, though time was a fuzzy concept now. The breeze was still coming from the same direction and the sun had only moved a little. So it hadn't been long. I didn't move except for my ears pricking up, opening up so that I could hear better. The something turned out to be a sound; a fast, steady badumbadumbadum in two slightly varied tones, accompanied by the whooshcreak of wooden wheels. Horses drawing a carriage. Not Lea's. The horses were wrong, and her wheels had an extra groan, a little whump on the back right wheel from where it had been patched, to them that these didn't have. And Glenmael drove a lot faster. Strangers.
My muscles tensed and I got my legs under me, ready to jump up and start sounding the alarm if I needed to. Strangers didn't come to Lea's. None of the others stirred. Did that mean that this was someone who came by all the time? I shoved my head into the gap farther, the wood creaking around me. I got my head far enough out that I could see the path without anything blocking my sight.
The horses appeared first, both variations of pale done in the shades of gray my vision had become. One looked healthy, the other looked dead. They ran together in spite of that, strong and steady. I inhaled, taking in their scents. The healthy looking one smelled great; fresh grass under a hot sun, something moist and growing. Something I wanted to roll in so I could carry that interesting scent around with me. The other one smelled great too; rotting slowly in the cold air. I itched to roll around in that one too. Scents were great, better than sight for identifying things.
They pulled a black carriage, driverless, behind them. It was black and smelled like a combination of the two horses, only stronger. Maybe the sunny, dirt warm scent was a little stronger. It was hard to tell from this far away. As I watched, waiting for the carriage or the horses to do something threatening, an arm reached out from the window in the door and plucked one of Lea's apples from the branch as the carriage rushed by.
I forgot to howl as my jaw dropped open in shock. The carriage was gone, dust still settling in its wake by the time I got to my feet. Someone had stolen one of Lea's apples. Someone had stolen from the Leanansidhe. That was- no one did that! Even Queen Mab, when she'd come over to meet me had asked if she could have one. Not that Lea would have told her no, but it was the way things were done.
And these yahoos had just taken one! I growled at them, my paws digging into the dirt. That could not be allowed! They had just insulted my godmother! I inhaled deeply, making sure to get their scent and really fix it in my mind, then I rushed back to Ginger's burrow. I didn't bother crawling in this time, just stood outside and yelled for her, my nose down into the entrance to make sure she couldn't ignore me.
“Ginger! Ginger! Giiingeeeerrrrr!”
“Shut! Up!” A vise clamped down on the end of my nose and I yelped, freezing. I could feel Ginger's growl in my bones. She shook her head, her teeth scraping over my muzzle and drawing a burning line of pain along the top and the bottom. I whined and tucked my tail, backing away as fast as I could when Ginger released me. “Go to sleep, pup! It's too hot out for your silliness.”
Okay. Okay. I sat outside of Ginger's burrow and touched my front paws to my nose in turn. They came away a little wet but nothing to cry about. I whined anyway. It stung and it was embarrassing to be treated like an unruly little kid. I was a puppy, sure, but there really was something going on. Someone had stolen from Lea! It was our job to protect her things.
Fine. If Ginger wouldn't help, none of the others would. She was head of the pack. So that left me. I ran back over to the gap and started digging, the earth hard packed and tough to get through at first, then looser as I got deeper. It took me no time at all to make a hole big enough for me to crawl under the fence.
I dropped to the ground and crawled, the dirt collapsing a little on me as my back legs kicked. The hole on the other side of the fence wasn't quite big enough and I had to dig at it a little more, sneezing dirt out of my nose as I went.
On the other side of the fence I stood and shook myself off, felt the dirt scattering around me. I panted, happy and a little excited. I was outside. I hadn't been outside without Lea since I'd arrived, before she'd turned me into a hound. It was so big, bigger than I remembered. Sharper, too. Everything came to me loud and clear, the sounds and scents touching my brain and telling me all about themselves. I gave a quiet little yip of excitement and lunged to my right and then to my left, chasing invisible enemies.
A crow cried out from the trees by the road and I forced myself to get back to what I was supposed to be doing. The carriage person had stolen from Lea. I was going to make them regret it. If I didn't get moving soon, I might lose the trail. I hadn't paid enough attention when Ginger and Fred were giving the tracking lessons to track a really old scent.
With one last look back at the yard, none of the others had come out, I kicked some dirt back at them and took off. The road was rough and gravelly beneath my paws as I stepped onto it and I stopped, the fur on the back of my neck rising. This might be a bad idea. It was the Nevernever, not Iowa. How would I find my way back after I'd gotten the apple from the thief? The crow screamed again and I jumped, crouching low and growling up at it. It flapped its wings and cackled, a strange bird laugh. I barked at it, once. The crow hopped to a lower branch and pooped, cackling some more. Oh, hey. Good idea.
I lifted my leg along the side of the road, right beside the tree that marked the entrance to Lea's lands. Once I was done I turned to sniff it. Yep. It was strong enough I shouldn't miss it when I came back. All I had to do was leave a trail, like breadcrumbs, only better.
With my nose right above the dirt of the road I could pick up the combined scents that made up the horses and the carriage easily. I growled, planted my feet and kicked up a little more dirt. Then I started running along the road, following the apple thief.
I stopped every so often, when it felt right, to make another mark. The snow along either side of the road held scents really well. At some point the snow started to thin out, with chunks of grass and little flowers starting to break through. I was leaving Winter, or maybe on the border between Winter and Summer. If I wandered into Summer I could be in real trouble. It made me slow down and move more cautiously. The snow never melted entirely away though, so I kept on going. The crow, the one who had mocked me back at Lea's, followed. Sometimes it flew ahead, calling back and egging me on. If it would just fly a little lower, I'd teach it not to make fun of me.
Eventually I came to a wood. Not like the one around Lea's place. That one was filled with all sorts of interesting animals and the homes of Glenmael's people, the ones who owed fealty to Lea. This was darker. Mist hung thick on the ground, dragging the light down around me and holding in a heavy, wet scent. And there were no sounds except for my own heavy breathing and the flap of the crow's wings.
I marked a tree that wasn't too far off the road and then scrambled back up onto the safety of the gravel. For all that the forest sounded like it was empty, it didn't feel that way. I dropped down onto my haunches and caught my breath. My legs were shaking and my heart was hammering. Not scary fast but I had been running for a really long time.
The crow landed on the road a few feet in front of me and cawed, tilting its head one way and then the other, looking at me with those beady black eyes. I growled and lunged. It wasn't a good lunge and the bird just hopped out of my reach, cackling. A second later it flapped off into the mist, still following the path of the road. I followed it, pacing along the edge of the road at a slow trot.
A little bit later light appeared through the mist. I slowed down even more but kept moving steadily forward. The light turned out to be coming from the open door of a small cabin sitting in a clearing. The road curved around the clearing and went on. I sniffed at the ground of the clearing, making sure to keep all my feet on the road itself. It smelled wet, a mix of swamp and really early spring thaw, where the earth was still mostly frozen. And it smelled like the carriage. That same mix of warm and cold things.
I put one paw on the ground and rested a little weight on it. The ground was spongy, but solid enough. I barked, quietly, and dove into the clearing, heading for that cabin and the thief. I charged over the open ground and through the doorway, skidding to a stop just inside, my teeth bared, legs braced to meet any attack.
“Oh my. Hello there.” My vision was filled with a long skirt. I looked up to see a little old lady bending over me, smiling. I backed up a step and growled. Laughter filled the cottage, though the lady leaning over me wasn't the one laughing.
“Listen to that! He's got spirit, doesn't he?”
“Hush. Look at the poor boy, he's terrified! How did you get here young man?”
“I'm not scared! I'm mad! You stole from my godmother. Give it back and I won't bite you!” I was shaking, but it wasn't fear. It was anger. Adrenaline. All that stuff. Not fear. It was just a little old lady. There wasn't anything to be afraid of.
“Stole-” The old woman sighed and stood straight. She was still tiny and stooped over. Her long hair whispered over the back of her dress as she turned. “That's why you insisted on taking the path through Winter.” A loud sniff filled the air. The little woman moved away from me, her body language unafraid and I could see more of the cottage. There was another person in the cabin, this one covered with a huge cloak and sitting in a rocking chair. Another loud, cackling laugh came from the hood.
“It's mine by right. The Leanansidhe does not begrudge an old woman her pleasures.”
“It's not polite to just take things, Winter.”
“It's mine.” One wrinkled hand and arm appeared from the depths of the cloak and pointed at me. “Speaking of polite, we have a guest. Are you just going to leave him like that?”
The woman threw up her hands and said something to the ceiling in a low voice. I shivered as the words reached my ear. They didn't make any sense, but they hurt going in. A low whine rattled in my chest and I found myself lying on the floor, my paws up over my nose. I felt bad all of a sudden.
“See what you've done?” The creaking voice was closer now. I opened my eyes to see the person in the cloak kneeling beside me. That gnarled hand came down on the top of my head and a trickle of cold energy shot through me. Light, the reflection of a bright sun through a snowstorm blinded me. When my vision cleared, the world was in color again, all the smells gone. “There. Mmm. Handsome. The Leanansidhe always has had good taste.” A wrinkled finger touched my nose and came away with a little bit of blood, bright red. She raised her hand to the hood of the cloak and it vanished into the blackness. There was a wet sound and the hand emerged, clean. “Plenty of potential. I approve.”
“I'm certain the Leanansidhe will be thrilled.”
“She will be! It's so hard to find wizards of such potential nowdays. A definite coup.”
“Power is not everything.” The little woman knelt in front of me, beside her companion. I could see that her eyes were bright green now. “Hello there. I am Mother Summer, and this is Mother Winter.” The Mothers. I went cold. Hells bells. I'd just tried to attack the oldest, strongest sidhe in both courts. I was going to die.
“H-hello. I'm-” I had to cough and clear my throat. Talking as a hound was different from talking as a human. Everything was all moved around. “Harry Dresden, ma'am. Pleased to meet you. Both of you.” Summer smiled and Winter laughed some more. Well, they hadn't killed me yet. Maybe if I apologized? “I'm very sorry for just barging in here. I didn't realize who you were.”
“Youth. So sure of itself, rushing here and there.” Winter's voice was like glaciers crackling. Not unpleasant, but terrifying on a very deep level. Nature moving.
“Yes, yes. But he should not have been able to find us here. It doesn't work that way. How did you come to this cabin?”
“I followed the road, ma'am.” I thought. “And the crow.” I pushed myself up and sat, my legs folded in front of me. The cabin was warm enough that I didn't feel any chill against my naked skin. “There was a crow that kept egging me on.”
“A crow.” Summer turned to Winter. Winter shrugged, her cloak rising and falling. “Really.”
“There are plenty of crows in the Nevernever.”
“Crows that can lead one here? Winter.”
“Bah. I wanted to see the boy. You know why. Don't deny you wanted to get a look at him too.” Winter rose and walked slowly back over to her chair. “I did what was needful. As always. While you get to reap the benefits and look oh so sweet and charming.”
“The Leanansidhe will be worried. Send him out again to bring her here.” Summer turned her attention back to me. “While we wait, would you like some tea? Cookies?” My stomach growled and I blushed. “I'll take that as a yes. Come along. Your godmother will be here soon and soon enough.”
I got to my feet and stood as a human for the first time in...I didn't know how long it had been. It was strange, seeing everything from this angle now. I was taller than either of the Mothers, which felt wrong. Summer rested her hands on her hips and frowned.
“I don't know if we have any pants quite your size. We'll make do though!”
“Don't you dare put any pants on the boy!” Winter cackled under her hood. “He's comfortable. Aren't you Harry-boy?”
“Um. Yes, ma'am. It's not- I don't need any pants. Lea'll change me back as soon as she can, so I don't really need them.”
“You, stop encouraging him.” Summer wagged a finger at Winter. “And you. If you're going to be sitting around on my furniture, you're going to be wearing pants. There's something to be said for a little decorum you know. Putting everything on display is not always the best part of the evening.”
“As you like, ma'am.” I gave Mother Summer a small bow, and directed another at Mother Winter. Summer smiled, and Winter laughed.
“So polite. Perhaps we should keep him?”
“No. He belongs with Lea, for now.” Summer took my arm, her hands warm and started to lead me back to one corner of the cabin. “Now, let's see what we have for you.”
Lea appeared outside the door of the cabin in a rush of wind and rain a few hours later. Her green eyes were wide, almost glowing and the stupid crow flew in over her shoulder to land beside Mother Winter. I narrowed my eyes at the beast and bared my teeth at him. He cawed and flapped his wings at me once.
“Mother Winter. Mother Summer.” Lea dropped a deep curtsy to the Mothers, then rose, her boots never crossing the threshold of the cabin itself. “Harry.” I waved at her and stuffed the last bite of scone into my mouth.
“Lady Leanansidhe. We seem to have found something that belongs to you.” Summer patted my shoulder. I got up and brushed my hands down the front of the kilt-like thing Summer had found to fit me. It was surprisingly comfortable.
“So your servitor informed me. You have my thanks, Mothers, for taking my wayward charge in. If it pleases you, I will take him off of your hands. It will not happen again.”
“Oh, no. No. Little muse. We have found his company most invigorating. In fact, we insist that you bring our little Harry to visit at least once a moon.” Winter tapped one long fingernail against the wood of her armrest. Summer was already fussing at the table behind me, cleaning. It was like a tick with her. A crumb fell and she cleaned half the cottage. I was beginning to think she did it just to annoy Winter.
Lea hesitated, blinking. Then she smiled and dropped another curtsy. “As you like, Mothers. I am pleased that the boy did not embarrass me.” She made a beckoning gesture and I walked over to her side. Lea slid her arm around my waist and I looked at her. It was another shock. I was taller than Lea now. Not by a whole lot, but I could see the top of her head when I looked down. “If we may?”
“Yes, yes. Be gone. Do not forget. Once a moon, bring the boy here.”
I bowed to the Mothers again as Lea started to tug me out into the clearing. Winter's laughter followed us to the road.
“What were you thinking?” Lea stopped as soon as our feet were on the gravel and turned me around, examining me. I let her do it, the feeling of her soft hands on my skin wonderful. I remembered lying at her feet inside her house with her petting my fur. It was so peaceful when we sat like that. I closed my eyes and leaned into the touch.
“I thought they'd stolen from you. I didn't know who they were.”
“Silly boy. Everyone knows the Mothers' carriage.” She kissed the corner of my mouth. “Come along then.” Lea ran her fingers through my hair and the magic tingled through me, starting at my scalp and moving down. When it was done, I was back on all fours, my tail trying to wag and getting caught up in the fabric of the kilt thing. I wriggled out of it and yipped, running around Lea's legs happily as we started back for home.