The party moved on around me, the conversation rising and falling as steadily as the wind outside Lea's home. I flattened out more beneath the table and crawled forward another inch, freezing when the tiny fae in the corner froze and looked around. I shut my eyes and hoped that he thought I was still asleep. If he caught on to my ruse I would never catch Toot and I'd owe him a favor. I already owed Toot way too many favors and the little pixie was getting a swollen head about it all.
“Oh no, Lord Talos. I really must stop you there.”
“Truly, Lady Leanansidhe? You think that one of your hounds can catch my fleet footed Ella?” I recognized the sound of Lea's steps coming closer, followed by one of the sidhe from Summer. Hounds and doe. A hunt? I snorted in Toot's direction and turned myself around under the table, giving up that hunt. If I didn't make the attempt there was no harm no foul. Those were the rules, when I could get Toot to remember them. If there was a hunt, I was going to fight to get Lea to let me join. I was faster than any of the other pups and a better tracker than anyone except for Ginger. I deserved the chance to make her proud.
“Most definitely. Harry?” Lea rapped on the top of the table with one knuckle and I jumped. I shouldn't have been surprised that she knew where I was. Godmother always kept track of me since that thing with the Mothers. I got my feet under me and padded out into the light, sitting by her feet without whining or wagging my tail. Well behaved, that was me. The perfect hound. So let me hunt! “My Harry can catch your precious Ella.”
“That sounds like a challenge, Lady.”
“Between us? It is always a challenge. Will you rise to it? Or has your Lady Queen forbidden you all forms of amusement?” Lea's scent changed a little, giving the truth to the hint in her voice that she and Talos had been involved at some point. I felt the familiar bubbling burn of jealousy; the same jealousy I'd felt every time some jock flirted with Elaine in high school and set my paw very gently on top of one of Lea's embroidered slippers. Whatever they might have had in the past, Lea was mine now.
“My Lady Queen is kind, Leanansidhe. Far kinder than any I have found in Winter.” Acid in the air. Bitterness. Mother Summer had been offering to teach me a charm to let me keep colored vision in my hound form. I kept turning her down because of the cost. The acuity of my sense of smell would be dulled and there was just so much more that I could learn with my nose than with my eyes.
People could lie with their faces and their bodies. Even the sidhe had a hard time lying with their scent.
“Then we have an accord. We shall have a test of our pets. My Harry against your Ella.”
Lea leaned into Talos, her hand caressing the smooth skin of his cheek above the beard he wore. I didn't growl, though I wanted to. Lea could touch him if she wanted and I didn't want to ruin my chances at this hunt.
I moved as quietly as I could through the woods, taking my time. She was in here, the doe I'd been set to hunt. Step one of the hunt was the sneaky portion; find her and flush her out. Step two was a lot more simple; run her down and pin her until Lea came to deliver the killing blow. That sounded a whole lot more fun than this creeping around part too.
The leaves beneath my paws were fresh fallen, new enough that they didn't make a sound as I walked over them. I avoided the small branches that had fallen down, things that would crackle and snap under my weight. Her scent was delicious even as just the trace that I was following.
Hot house flowers. Something thick and spicy; cinnamon, peppermint. A million other things I didn't have words for. And the heavy, heady musk of a large prey animal. Trembling and afraid. Aware that there was a predator out there, looking for her. It made the scent trail sharper. Easier to follow. The preys body turned into its own worst enemy.
A breeze blew through the trees, shaking them over head. The movement allowed a thick shaft of sunlight through and it shone off of something a dozen feet ahead of me. Fur, trying to blend into the low lying brush. Ella the doe. I laughed in my head and slid around to the right, circling her.
I could have taken her then and there but that wasn't the game. The sidhe lords and ladies were expecting a chase. I needed to put on a good show for them. Once I was in position I stepped heavily and deliberately on a thick branch. It cracked, loud as a shot and the deer in front of me let out a noise like a scream.
It jumped up and was gone in a flash, faster than I'd thought it could be. I caught a good look at the white fur on its rump, the small tail up and panicked; then it was gone. My heart zinged, blood thundering through my body. I threw back my head and howled, joyful.
I didn't have to think about it. My body took over, every instinct telling me to run, to chase. Ella had a little bit of a lead on me, but that was okay. It was a contest, a battle of speed and skill. And I was better than the little doe. I was a trained predator and she was prey. There was no question who would win.
The trees parted on either side of me, my senses finding openings somehow before my eyes registered them. I broke out of the small wooded area right behind my prey, her hooves flashing in the sunlight. I could hear the sidhe calling out and laughing from their picnic on the hill. They were enjoying it. Good.
Ella was a good sized doe, lean and beautiful. As she turned, bounding to one side to rise over a small dip in the earth I caught sight of a pattern on her side. White against the slightly darker grey shading of her coat. It looked like a leaf, I thought. A strange thing to see on a deer, but then she was a sidhe deer. Maybe that was Lord Talos' mark?
As I leapt over a fallen tree I hoped that Lea wouldn't notice the mark on Ella and get ideas. I didn't think I'd look good running around with a flower design in my fur.
The ground was good beneath us; uneven, natural dips and rises, but solid. No boggy spots, no sprays of rock for us to lose our footing on. I let her pull ahead for a while, let her think that she was free. It was a show. I knew what Lea wanted, what they all wanted. The sidhe, at heart, were all predators and nothing made the take down sweeter than the tinge of hope just as it turned to a despairing realization that all was lost. That in spite of all your effort, all your cleverness, you were mortal. Frail and flawed in the face of their immortal strength.
I ran her down as slowly as I could, letting the joy and freedom of it carry me over the ground. It was what I imagined flying would feel like; weightless and terribly exciting. As she crested the last hill I could feel her hope rising; see it in the way she kicked in an extra burst of speed. I howled, the sound carrying over the open ground and echoing back in my own ears.
She was mine.
I stopped holding back. My heart pounded so hard and fast in my chest that it was dizzying. Euphoria and a base need to take down the deer burning in my veins. I wanted to feel her weight beneath me. I wanted to set my teeth into the soft skin over her throat and dig in. Feel the blood spurt up and out, spattering over my chest and muzzle. It would be hot and delicious. Life. It would pour over my tongue and down my throat with every beat of her heart until it sputtered out.
I flew over the ground, my paws hitting the earth silently even as her hooves tore up the ground in desperate furrows. There was a long beat, time slowed down as I ran almost side by side with her and then I was leaping. I hit her in the flank, my teeth sinking into the tender flesh just behind below her knee. I ripped out a chunk of flesh as she staggered and screamed a high, helpless scream.
We went down in a tangle of flesh and kicking legs. I couldn't hear anything but my own panting breath and the terrified sounds she was making. Her blood was just as wonderful as I'd imagined it would be; thick and delightful. I snarled in pleasure and slid carefully around her thrashing limbs, going for her throat.
My teeth were already denting the tender flesh of Ella's throat when Lea's voice came to me. I froze, blood dripping down my muzzle to stain the fur beneath my mouth. The sidhe arrived and Lea's hand came to rest on the back of my neck, fingers tracing the edge of the wide leather collar I'd worn just for the hunt.
“Good boy.” She snapped her fingers. “Release.”
I obeyed, though every part of me wanted to finish it. I'd run my prey down. I'd won. I was better and it was my prize! But Lea was Lea, and I had to obey her.
“You are certain we cannot kill the little thing? She did lose, after all.” Lea sounded as disappointed as I felt. I sat down and leaned against Lea's legs, panting happily.
“She belongs to my Lady.”
“Mmm. Perhaps you should think more carefully in the future, then, before betting something you do not own.” She ran her fingers over the top of my head, scratching right behind my ears. I whined happily. “Next time I will not be so generous.”
The night sky in Lea's section of the Nevernever was beautiful. The constellations kept changing, almost from one minute to the next.
I lay back on the soft grass, my head in her lap as she ran her fingers through my hair. It was soothing in human form or in hound form; a gentle, loving touch. The air was cool against my naked skin, cold where it blew over the half-dried blood that had remained covering my face and chest when Lea shifted me back to human. I turned my head so my sticky cheek rested against her soft, perfect skin.
“Lovely.” She purred, her nails scratching idly over my scalp. “You gave us a very good hunt today Harry. I'm proud of you.”
I smiled at that, moving my lips against her skin. My hand wrapped around one slender ankle, thumb dragging gently over the curve of it.
“I think you deserve a reward, godson.”
“Wasn't that- didn't I just get my reward?” I squeezed her ankle and licked my lips. They were clean, Lea had licked all the blood off of them earlier with tiny, teasing flicks of her tongue.
“No, darling. That was just fun.” A long moment of silence passed between us. “I know! How would you like to start your transfiguration lessons?”
I grinned. If I could master that, I could shift between hound and human form without Lea or Mother Winter.
“I'd like that a lot, godmother.”