Kaye pressed her back against the tree, attempting to hide from the beast but something in his snarl told her she wasn't hidden. She'd tracked the creature through the forest, opposite the king's hunting party who insisted a pack of hounds could find him. If her theory was correct, he avoided the pack on sound alone.
She held her crossbow tight, her finger near the trigger. The king had promised a reward for anyone who could bring down the monster who terrorized the King's Forest and Kaye needed to feed her family. Her father had passed away and left her mother and her six siblings with nothing. It was either bring the beast in and collect the reward or marry the prince, who was missing and presumed dead anyway.
Her crossbow was rigged to shoot a net. In order to win the prize she had to capture the beast alive. The king wanted the honor of killing the thing, even if he didn't catch it himself. Although the creature was larger than she thought, her net would hold. She only had to hope she was strong enough to drag it to the king.
Peering around the tree, her stomach dropped. It was gone. She'd been lost in her thoughts and he slipped away. The forest was eerily silent and the fading light of the setting sun made it hard to see. She could easily mistake a shadow for a monster or be blindsided.
A howl from a hound sounded in the distance and a rustle of leaves to her left made her jump. She loosed the net in a heartbeat and the creature was tangled and fell to forest floor. Kaye dove for the lead and cinched it closed, staying far away from it's claws and snapping jaws. Studying the thing, it looked like a wolf but twice the size and twice the fur. It stared at her with an intelligence she didn't expect.
Another howl and she knew the king's hunting party wasn't far off and headed her way. She tied the line to the closest tree, and waited. The creature lay still, like a cat ready to pounce. When the horses crashed through the brush, she sighed with relief but the monster growled. As if it knew the fate the king had planned for it.
"I've caught the beast, my king," she said. Kaye stood between the hunting party and the creature, ever conscious of the danger at her back.
"Good," the king said as he dismounted and drew his sword. "I shall slay the monster then you will have your reward."
Kaye turned toward the beast. One of the king's men stepped forward with a lamp as full dark had set in. The creatures coat was black and gray but as she watched, it's form shifted and churned. She thought it was trying to slip out of the net but then the creature shed it's fur, leaving smooth creamy flesh beneath.
"What magic is this?" the king gasped. "Bastien?"
A man stared out at them, his gaze fixed on Kaye. The same cunning that shone in the beast's eyes shone in the mans. No wonder no one could find Prince Bastien, he'd been the monster in the forest the whole time.
"A witch cursed me," the prince said. "Only someone pure of heart could tame the monster I'd become. Only someone worthy could catch me."
All eyes turned to Kaye and she took a deep breath. She'd snagged the monster and the prince? Could her fortune change so drastically? By the look of adoration on the princes face, it could.