If she closed her eyes and stopped her ears and held her breath, the princess could almost remember how it had felt to be warm and safe and home. But her feet complained bitterly despite the rags she’d wrapped them in and the road was hard and the wind fierce, and she would have surrendered to them all long ago if not for the flicker of red dancing along in front of her.
“Fox,” she called to it now, as she stumbled on a loose stone. “Fox, it will be dark soon, and the air smells of snow.”
The fox paused mid-step, glancing back at her. “Is that your not-so-subtle way of saying you’d like to stop for the night?” The princess nodded mutely, like a bell with rusted clapper. “Well and well,” the fox said. “There is a hollow in the rock a little ways from here that you may crouch in for the night and perhaps not freeze.” He added, as close to apologetic as she’d heard him come, “I’m not clever enough to steal you fire where there is none, nor to produce a full henhouse out of empty woodlands.”
“I do not ask you to be,” the princess told him, voice so full of gratitude she all but felt it–like a small hot coal, burning against the back of her throat.
“No?” the fox asked. “But perhaps I would wish it anyway.” His tailed flicked twice, three times, as if in signal of something. “Come along, princess, before your toes turn to ice and your nose as well.”
The hollow, as promised, scarcely fit the two of them, but that meant there was no room for cold or wind, and it smelled only of clean rock and softly rotting leaves. The princess curled herself around the fox and began to remember what it was like to be almost warm.
“Fox,” she said, after coat and tail and leaves had all been arranged so as best to prevent unwelcome drafts, “tell me a story. Otherwise I shall remember how hungry I am and never be able to get any rest.”
The fox, who had wound himself into a tight little ball, unwound enough to poke her in the stomach with his nose. “You have bread and cheese still. Eat that and let me sleep.” He’d spent the day catching mice and the occasional unwary squirrel, which had been offered and declined with equal courtesy.
“I have enough for only one more meal,” she told him, voice too carefully controlled to show her worry, although her hand trembled slightly as she stroked his back. “I had best save it for tomorrow.”
“Ah,” the fox said, and was silent for a long while. “Well and well. I will tell you a tale if you will tell me one in turn, as is fair.”
“Just so,” the princess agreed, and hoped she could think of one when it came time; her childhood seemed very far away, and her memory as empty as her stomach.
In preparation, the fox sneezed twice and flexed his hard claws against the princess’s knee. “Once,” he said, “there was a . . . cat, let us say, although he was really something else entirely. But we may as well call him that for the sake of the story.”
“A cat?” the princess teased. “With charming red coat and a beautifully bushy tail, perhaps?”
“Perhaps,” the fox allowed. “In any case, this cat had a sister, who was beautiful and kind and almost wise, but also very young and entirely too trusting. From time to time the cat would leave their forest home to attend to business elsewhere, and when he returned, his sister would tell him everything that had happened while he was gone. Except— Except one day she didn’t.”
“Ah,” the princess said, because she’d known this was coming. “She was missing, then?”
“Yes.” The fox nipped at the hand with which she’d been scratching behind his ears. “But this is my story, princess. Let me tell it.” His sharp teeth caught her thumb and squeezed slightly, just enough for a warning. “I will not interrupt when it is your turn.”
She pulled her hand away and curled it against her chest. “Very well, then. I’ll keep quiet.”
“Now, as you might expect, the cat’s sister had many suitors: some poor and handsome, others rich and ugly. A few were poor and ugly. She would have none of them, and why should she? The entire forest was hers to wander as she pleased, and its inhabitants all loved her. Why should she give that up by choosing the bear or the stoat or the porcupine?”
“Why indeed,” the princess commented dryly, but said no more and so escaped a second scolding.
“But winter came,” the fox continued, “and with it a new suitor, a wolf from outside the forest. Where the others allowed themselves to be sent away with a song and a smile, he did not. Even as the fall shifted to winter and the fallen leaves to snow and ice, he remained, and when the cat’s sister, awaiting her brother’s return, crouched shivering at the foot of an old tree, too cold and miserable to remain beautiful, the wolf made his offer.”
The princess hugged the fox closer, heedless of his squirm of protest. “Ah,” she said, and then, “I think I might guess the rest of it, though I won’t if you wish to continue. But you need not tell this story to amuse me, for it won’t.”
“I am not telling it for your amusement,” the fox said, mild, implacable. “Nor for mine. Edification, perhaps. Distraction at the very least. If it keeps your mind from your own uncomfortable situation, that will be enough to justify it.” He sounded very little like himself and very much like someone she’d once known, someone she wouldn’t be able to remember if she tried.