The fox appeared after she had run the soles off her dancing shoes and the skin off her feet and had crumpled at the side of the road like a discarded flower, all lace and fine silk and utter despair.
"You will need new shoes, princess," the fox said, and she had seen too many strange things that day to wonder at a mere talking fox. "And new clothes, if you don't want to wind up back where you just come from."
"Are you offering help?" the princess croaked, throat thick with dust and ferociously suppressed tears.
The fox curled its tail around its legs and cocked its head to one side, like the terrier she'd had as a small child. "Perhaps."
"Why?" She had been taught to speak exquisitely, to charm the birds from trees and confidences from even the most chary of men, but pain and grief now blunted her fine words like knives jammed into bone. She hurt, and all her thoughts were bound by that.
"You are not the first princess to flee the palace," the fox told her, black eyes unblinking. "But you are the first that's come so far."
She shivered then, despite the late summer heat. "How many?" Images of blank eyes and broken bodies marched across the inside of her head.
But the fox did not answer, only nudged her poor feet with his cold nose. "We must clean these, princess, and wrap them in cloth, and get you away from here. You are not the only one on this road today, and not all who walk it are as friendly as I." They both knew what he was not saying; the princess wordlessly removed the useless remains of her shoes and extended her feet toward the fox.
His tongue hurt more than the road had, but she remained silent throughout, tearing the ribbons and fripperies off her dress, pearls flying away with each snapped thread, like missiles flung by tiny siege engines. I am besieged, she thought as she wrapped first one foot and then the other; a town beleaguered, as she stood and did not falter, despite each step seeming to drive shards of ice further into her feet.
"Where should I go?" she asked the fox, and did not think about how utterly lost she was.
"Just to those trees," the fox said. "If you can get that far."
"I will crawl if I must." And she did, the final dozen yards, when each step seemed to fill her body with fire.
At last she collapsed at the base of a tree, positioned so that she could see the road but not be seen in turn. "This will do," the fox said grudgingly. "We have perhaps an hour before you'll be found here."
"An hour?" she asked, surprised, for she had thought her pursuer would be treading on her heels by now.
"You ran very fast, princess. If you'd been wearing better shoes, you wouldn't need my help now." The fox stretched. "Rest a little while here, and I will fetch you safer clothes to wear." He was gone before she could protest, a red ghost flitting across sunburnt fields and down the road and out of sight.
He returned just as she began to believe him gone and herself lost, dragging a dress still damp from someone's laundry line and coated with dust. She put it on with some reluctance, fingering each careful repair and wondering who would be dismayed by its disappearance. "You should have left a pearl in recompense," she told the fox.
"What, and post a sign saying where you'd been?" the fox replied. "No, a dress going missing might be you, might be some tinker's daughter deciding she wants new clothes. A dress going missing and pearls left behind — well, we are many miles from the sea, princess, and those who live here are poor."
"I see," the princess said, because she did, although she didn't want to, and watched in silence as the fox took great delight in destroying the clothes she was to have been married in.
"Now climb on my back," he said when he was satisfied with the destruction. "For we must run very fast indeed."
"You are too small," the princess told him, and told herself she would not cry.
"Then put your arms around my neck and close your eyes," the fox answered impatiently. "And don't let go." And she did so, burying her face in his coarse fur, eyes screwed shut even as the fox seemed to grow beneath her until nearly the size of a cart-horse. He leapt across the countryside like his legs were springs, until any doubts she might have had were shaken all to pieces.
At last he stopped beneath a tree as large around as she was tall, somehow tossing her high into the branches, without the least word of warning. "Stay here," he told her, ignoring her yelp of surprise, something like delight in his tone. "I shall go muddy your trail until no one can find you but me. It may look like you've been found, but trust me, princess, and don't move until I say you can."
"I understand," she said, deliberately not imagining all the ways she might be discovered, fingers digging into the tree's bark until they were jammed full with splinters.
"You don't," the fox contradicted, "but that doesn't matter. Just keep quiet."
And she did, even when an owl tried to roost on her and a couple of deer ran crashing through the brush nearby. Even as she began to wonder how long she would need to stay where she was — how long she could stay without falling asleep and tumbling down — she remained silent and still and ready for whatever it was the fox expected would happen. This was the only reason she didn't speak when the fox finally dashed by below her, which in turn kept her from being discovered by the seething mass of hounds that burst out of the brush, hot on the fox's trail and closely followed by men on horseback, who laughed as though the chase was merely a game — and one man in particular.
If you could call him such.
The princess clutched at the tree until the splinters drew blood and didn't breathe and told herself that the fox had warned her of this. And when the hunters were gone, she did not cry, although she wanted to. Crying would have to wait until she was home again and safe.
The fox sauntered back at the grey hour before dawn, when sun and moon fight for jurisdiction, an insouciant red curl against the deep black of the forest floor.
"Princess, you can come down now," he called up to her. "I have led that fine fellow and his hounds on such a chase that the only way they could ever find you again would be to trip over you in the market place. And even then they likely wouldn't realize it was you."
"Thank you," she said, and set about trying to get out of the tree without removing all the skin from her hands. She mostly succeeded, although the pain of standing again was enough to make her wish she'd stayed. "I owe you a great debt."
"No debt," the fox denied. "I did what I did for the pleasure of it, not because of you."
"Ah," the princess said, for the fox's words cut like a knife, although she could not have said why. "What are you, then, that you cross such a powerful lord for mere sport?" The fox regarded her in silence for a long moment, eyes unblinking.
"Nothing that would harm you or yours," he said at last. "Or would wish you harm. And I will not abandon you just yet, if that's your fear." He sneezed twice, and then added, sounding perhaps embarrassed, "Unless you'd rather I didn't go with you."
"No," the princess said. "Not at all."