Katerina dreamed of Wilf that night, and awoke sometime before dawn, certain that he was dead. But he wasn’t. Wilf was asleep himself, chasing rabbits in his own dream, chained to the basement wall of a house at the outskirts of the village. He had been captured a week ago by a villager named Hugo Prummler.
Prummler had often seen the dog running beside the Princess, the whole town had come to know the glittering spectacle of the frail young woman on the massive horse with the swift dog at their side. When he came upon the animal asleep in the shade of his bushes he took it as the answer to his prayers. The dog was valuable. The princess would be distraught at his absence, and after enough time, a week or two, perhaps as much as a month, when a reward had been posted, he would return the mutt to the grateful royal family.
And never work another day in his life.
For Wilf the days in Prummler’s cellar, broken by brief walks at dusk and before sunrise, were an unbearable torment. He had tried barking to gain attention, but the massive villager had beaten him until he stopped. He was afraid for his life; he could sense that this human was more brutal even than the bears he had glimpsed in the deep woods. They would kill him if they caught him, he knew that – but only for food. This man took a gloating pleasure in Wilf’s captivity that had nothing to do with any ultimate outcome. Even the beating was beside the point – the muffling effect of the earthen walls made barking completely inaudible to anyone not standing directly above the basement entrance. It was an unfortunate accident that Prummler had heard him at all. But he had kicked and punched the hapless dog anyway. To dominate another creature was Prummler’s true pleasure; it was an end in itself, and Wilf couldn’t understand it. There was no comparable emotion in the animal kingdom.
Still, all of that was almost beside the point. The worst part of the whole situation was that Wilf’s mission might fail.
He hadn’t just run away as an ordinary dog might do, lured by a strange scent or the temptation of a pack. There were gangs of wild dogs, abandoned by their owners, but they scared Wilf. He wanted nothing to do with them. Besides, as Princess Katerina’s favorite he had too much pride to roam the streets, eating garbage and chasing vermin for sport.
No, he had run away for a reason.
He had understood when Anders and the Princess talked about the Gryphillaria leaf – how no one but the dead herbalist could tell the difference between it and the poison plant, pormelusia. No one human, that is; he knew he could tell the musty, astringent smell of those leaves from ten feet away. It was possible that the pormelusia smelled exactly the same, but he doubted it. Perhaps it would to a human …or a horse.
But dogs knew better.
He didn’t want to argue or give anyone false hope so he just left, running for the woods, hoping he could return with the gryphillaria before more bad things happened and the Princess went away with the thick man who smelled like cold bacon fat. The King wanted her to mate with this creature. He couldn’t see the truth, but humans rarely did. Katerina sensed the man’s anger and cruelty. She needed to defy her father, and she could do it if she had the medicine she needed. But he was the only one who could find it for her.
No one else could help.
He had been too eager, though. He had run too far and fallen asleep in the wrong place and now he was trapped and the Princess might be married already. He wasn’t even sure how many days he had been here. His sense of time was no match for his sense of smell. The only thing he was sure of was that he had to escape.
He studied Prummler’s routine as best as he could. There was no chance of escaping from off the sturdy rope leash during the short walks in the walled garden, and the cellar itself had no windows or stairs to the main part of the house. The access to the outside was through a hatch beside the north wall. There was a latch that locked the bay doors and it made a distinctive double click as it closed. After some uncountable number of days, it became to clear to Wilf what he had to do. There were only two moments of opportunity each day – those few seconds when the hatch doors were open, and Wilf was off the leash but not yet chained to the wall. Prummler kept a firm grip on Wilf’s collar, but he had only one hand free. Long ago, he had seen one of the horses pull the bridle out of a stable boy’s hand with a twist of his neck. The image had stayed in his mind. A shadowy choreography began to move through Wilf’s mind, over and over as he lay curled at the furthest extent of the chain. He saw his actions and Prummler’s ever more clearly. And he began to think it could work. There was a lot he had to do, very little time to do it …and only once chance. If he failed Prummler would not allow himself to be so careless again.
For two dusks and two dawns he hesitated, waiting and watching, trying to be sure. Then, on the third day, he made his move. It was an uneventful ten-minute walk and Prummler had been drinking. Wilf knew the smell. And he knew it didn’t make humans faster or more quick-witted.
As Prummler was preparing to secure his collar to the chain, Wilf twisted his head as he had seen the horse do. It bent Prummler’s wrist in the wrong direction and he let go with a shout of pain.
This was it.
He bounded up the stairs and pushed the doors closed with a bang. He shot the bolt with a paw, pushing until he heard the double click, and then ran at the garden wall. He leapt, but it was too high and he almost tumbled over on his back when he landed. He jogged around the house. The front gate was lower. It meant jumping out into the dirt road that ran in front of the building. He might be seen. He might be trampled by horses. But the risk of Prummler’s wife or children seeing him was worse. He took a breath, ran hard at the fence and caught the top rail with his front paws. He pushed hard, snagged it again with his back paws and then he was flying through the air. He landed running in the empty road, and in another moment he was through an alley across the street, into she shadows and gone.
Half an hour later he was hitting his stride, panting as he ran – the loping, steady sprint that had kept him even with horses and left other dogs in the dust since he was barely more than a pup.
He might have reached the forest by midnight, if not for the rabbit trap.
Wilf didn’t know he was caught a trap; all he knew was that his right front paw exploded into a ragged red pain and he was brought up short, falling forward so that his head crashed into the ground and his back legs flipped him over. He tried to get up and the pain sheared through his leg again. He heard a hideous high-pitched screeching whimper and realized in a moment of utter terror that it was coming from him. He couldn’t stop the howl of agony and it kept pulsing out of him like blood from a torn artery, until oblivion flooded over him like black water and he lay unconscious, shaking and shivering on the packed dirt of the empty clearing.
Tomas Gunderson had wanted a dog all his life. He was only twelve years old, but it seemed like a long time to him. His parents had often explained why it was impossible, and by the time he was ten he could see that their explanations made sense. They weren’t farmers, they had no sheep to herd, no sleds to pull, to fowl to retrieve from the water. They had nothing worth stealing and thus no need for a watchdog. A pet was an extravagance they couldn’t afford. “Just another mouth to feed,” was the way his father put it. Tomas was uncomfortably aware of how much he was eating these days; he could see his parents wince slightly every time he asked for a second helping. He didn’t want to make his parents feel worse than they already did, so he let the subject drop. He hadn’t mentioned it since the previous winter when the neighborhood mid-wife, who often took in stray animals and knew how to care for them, had offered his family a handsome retriever whose sores she had healed with herbal poultices. His coat was glossy now, he was well-behaved, energetic and happy. She called him her ‘miracle dog’.
But Tomas’ parents had no interest in old lady Braden’s ‘miracle’. Tomas’ father made some remark about the cur’s appetite being restored also, and that was that. So Tomas had given up on the idea of a dog, and it was the last thing on his mind this cool, damp August morning, as he played Knights and dragons with his friends in the fields beyond his house.
He was tacking in a wide circle around the makeshift dragon castle they had built the week before out of deadfall and twigs when he heard the whimpering. He knew instantly what had happened – some large animal had been caught by one of the ugly rabbit traps that the Schmidt family set out. They harvested dozens of the little animals a week and made the most of them. Royalty purchased the coats and mufflers Mrs. Schmidt stitched together, and of course the meat had gotten them through many a long winter. But Tomas had come upon the mangled creatures before and it was so horrible to him that he actually refused a rabbit fur cap he had been given on his last birthday. His family was one of the poorest in the village; the gift was wildly extravagant. His father was furious – the hat was too small for anyone else to wear and could not be returned. But Tom held his ground. He wanted no part of the rabbit slaughter.
The animal caught in Schmidt’s trap today was a black and white speckled hunting dog, lying on its side with its right leg cocked at a strange angle to reduce the pressure of the trap’s teeth. The dog was barely conscious. He had lost a lot of blood.
“Hey, boy,” Tomas said. “Hey boy, you okay?”
The dog lifted its head a little and despite the pain it must be feeling, managed somehow to wag his tail. It slapped the ground a couple of times.
“Good boy,” said Tomas. “You wouldn’t bite me now, would you?”
He walked slowly toward the dog, getting down on his knees as he got closer and shuffling forward that way. He extended his hand for the dog to smell as Mrs. Braden had shown him how to do. The dog licked his hand with great effort, and though Tom never took his eyes from the dog’s face, he could hear his tail beating the ground more strongly, now.
“All right,” he said, “We’re going to get you out of that trap right now. It’s going to take a few seconds and I have to go real slow, okay? I don’t want these teeth closing again.”
He worked his fingers under the latch of trap, and caught the curve of metal, his fingers laced between the jagged sections. He eased the metal bolt out of the hasp and felt the pressure of the spring on his hand. He was going to cut himself if he wasn’t careful. He pulled it back slowly, feeling sick to his stomach at the strength of the snare, and the force with which it must have come down on this poor creature’s paw.
Finally he had it open. With his other hand he eased the dog’s paw onto the ground. Then with both hands he bore down on the jaw of the trap. He was on the verge of resetting it. Shutting his eyes, he let go. The trap clanged shut again. The noise jolted him and obviously scared the dog. But no more rabbits would be caught here – at least for the next few days.
He bent to pick up the dog. “I think you’re going to be okay,” he said softly as he gathered the little hound in his arms. “I know a lady who knows how to take care of hurt animals. She’s fixed up ones that looked a lot worse than you. And she’s really nice. Come on, don’t be scared, it’s a just a little way.”
Wilf wasn’t scared. He knew the boy and the lady would help him. He licked the boy’s face happily -- if he healed quickly enough, if he was brave and swift enough, he might still save the princess.
He still had a chance.
And that was enough for him.