Once, the fox told the princess, he walked up a mountain, even though he didn't want to.
("What mountain?" the princess asked, voice rough with exhaustion.
"Doesn't matter," the fox said because it did. "This is my story; let me tell it as I will."
"As you will," the princess echoed, and was silent.)
It began with-- Well, let us say it began with an innocent stroll through a very fine forest, as how exactly the fox came to be in the forest is its own tale, and has already been told.
So the fox was strolling through the forest, admiring the insults from the birds and nibbling on the occasional berry or mouse, thinking that the world was at that moment as well as it could be. At one particularly impressive bit of invective from a blue jay he stopped to give response, and was well into expounding on the unfortunate family history of said jay when he heard what sounded like a human voice.
"Excuse me," the voice said. Or perhaps merely, 'help'. In either case the effect was the same: the jay fled with a squawk, the other birds hunkered down in sudden silence, and the fox tucked himself under a convenient gorse bush so he could survey the area in safety.
"Help," the voice said again, and then, "Please."
It sounded human, but when the fox looked, the only thing there was a nightingale, huddled on the ground in the middle of a clearing, like something long forgotten.
("I love nightingales," the princess said, almost inaudibly, as though only to herself. "There was one singing outside my bedchamber when I arrived at the castle. That's how I was able to run, I think: the reminder that there was still a world outside and that it was good. Or at least better than what waited for me."
"I am glad for that," the fox said, nosing her ear, "but hush. This is my story."
The princess hushed.)
He thought it dead, at first, for blood and feathers surrounded it, and he had never seen a live bird so twisted and splayed. But a wing twitched and its head turned, and he decided that it was alive after all, somehow.
"I could eat you," the fox said. "Would that help? It would stop the hurting."
The nightingale laughed--or choked. "No, thank you," it said. "Not yet, at any rate. I am being chased by a woman with hounds and had hoped you would draw them away from me. But if I must choose only between being eaten by them or by you, I suppose I would prefer it be you."
Intrigued, the fox crept out of the bush to get a better look at the nightingale. "And why should I draw off the hounds for you? They're just as likely to eat me as you, if they catch me."
"Ah," the nightingale said. "But we both know they'll catch you only if you let them."
"Perhaps," the fox admitted, and thrust his nose against the nightingale's bleeding breast, purely to see what the bird would do. And then he sneezed and leapt away, for the nightingale smelled nothing of feathers and everything of earth and sunlight and hard-forged will. "Is not the same true of you, lord?" he asked, once he'd scrubbed his nose clear again.
"No," the nightingale said, sounding angry and a little frightened. "But the dogs draw very near. Lead them away from me and I will tell you why I cannot do so myself."
And the fox, because he was and is forever curious as well as clever, said, "Well, for a story--" and dashed away to dispose of the hounds.
Early afternoon had crept near to night when the fox returned, coat full of mud and prickles but his tail held very high. "Nightingale," he called as he sauntered into the clearing, doubting whether there would be any response but not willing to admit it.
But the nightingale said "Fox," and he found that in his absence it had crept underneath the gorse bush. It held itself stiffly, but with wings properly folded and feathers carefully tucked together, and no longer looked about to die. "You seem pleased with yourself."
The fox laughed and lay down next to the nightingale. "So I am. Pick the mud and brambles out of my coat and I'll tell you why. And then you can tell me your story."
"Fair enough," the nightingale said, and did so while the fox described the very merry chase he'd led the hounds on before their mistress called them away, and how very unhappy she'd sounded. "Ah," the nightingale said and picked out the last bramble. "Better even than I hoped. I thank you now in earnest."
"Do your thanks include your story?" the fox asked,
[One thing more, the nightingale says, each time the fox brings up their bargain. Do one thing more and then I'll tell you. Take me to the well at the top of the mountain.]
[The nightingale plucked three feathers from his breast for the fox to take in token; would they not strengthen her power over him? He was so weak that it would make no difference.]
("Was she pretty?" the princess asked, voice almost lost in sleep.
The fox considered the question. "She was young," he said at last, "and very pregnant, and smelled quite strongly of elk. Beyond that I cannot say—prettiness means nothing to a fox."
"Oh," the princess sighed, and tucked herself more tightly around him.)