The sight of the orchard almost made Jami weep. The branches were heavy with fruit, and even in the moonlight he thought he could see a ripe red gleam. It was more food in one place than he’d seen in days – far more than he’d been able to gather in his mad flight across the grasslands. He was just a city boy, a silversmith’s apprentice. He’d never needed to gather food from farther than the market until now; he knew just enough about it to know he’d been very lucky indeed to not have eaten something dreadful while he was scrounging.

And now he came face to face with this bounty – on the other side of a fence, the sort of thing he’d been well-taught never to cross without permission.

Despite all that had happened, he couldn’t just abandon the good boy he’d been – but desperation did give him pause, enough to consider making an exception. Some of the fruit had fallen anyway, it’d do no harm to take a few…

Then a hound started baying – close. Right by the farmhouse, in fact.

Hunger vanished in a flood of fear, and Jami started running down the muddy lane.

The shouts behind him, the baying drawing ever nearer – would it ever end? He was so tired, so hungry, so weak – yet running was all he could do, and so he ran. The mud sucked at his travel-worn boots, pulling one of them right off his foot, and still he ran.

So urgently was he running that he didn’t notice the itching in his skin until it was far too late to keep it at bay.

The change was faster and more painful than ever before. His body strained at his clothes, and he tore at them with new-grown claws as he ran, desperate to ease the pressure of them digging into his flesh, until his clothes hung on him in rags, new-grown fur – white with black stripes – visible all over.

And then his boot, already pushed halfway off his foot, caught in the mud – and this time he went sprawling.

He tried to keep going, to crawl forward when he was too weak to rise, but after a few more steps he stumbled, and the weight of the last few weeks bore him down into the mud.

Why bother? What did he have to save? His apprenticeship was over and wasted. All the friends he’d known had raised hands against him. His own mother had called him a monster, and his father had disowned him. He hadn’t a coin to his name. He’d escaped with only the clothes on his back, and now they were ruined.

“Please,” he croaked, his altered voice cracked and hoarse, as booted feet strode nearer. “Just… just make it quick.”

“Easy there, lad. Ye’ve naught ta fear from me,” said a strong, accented feminine voice. “Oof – under the mud, rags, an’ fur, ye’re but skin an’ bone.” A gloved hand lit on his shoulder, while form the other side the hound, silent now, sniffed at him. “Come on with me, lad. Ye’ll have food, warmth, an’ a cot by me own hearth.”

“Why?” Jami whispered, struggling to lift his head.

Brown eyes gazed back at him. “Because ye need it, lad,” their owner said, as though it was the simplest truth in the world.

She hoisted him to his feet, and half-led, half-bore him, stumbling and shaking, towards the farmhouse.