Every night the fox told the princess a story, and every night the princess promised him one in return, and every night she fell asleep before she could do so.
“You owe me one hundred and forty-seven,” the fox told her one evening, as she picked the last bits of meat off the pheasant the fox had killed and she had burned instead of cooked. “And that’s without interest. I expect a down-payment before I’ll tell you any more.”
“Fair enough,” the princess said, and didn’t admit to him that she couldn’t remember any, had lost them all with her name and frippery and the skin off the bottom of her feet. Instead she gave the pheasant carcass to the fox and watched him strip it so clean it might have been scrubbed and held her tongue.
The fox told her no story that night, nor the next, nor for a week or more. Those nights were long and cold and bone-dragging weary, and the princess found each morning a steeper hill to climb, until she could hardly bear to open her eyes when the sun appeared. Her feet lost what dexterity they had, until her life seemed to be nothing more than a string of narrowly-avoided turned ankles, punctuated by endless nights. She spoke when the fox did, and not before, and she began to forget why she’d run in the first place, why she continued on at all.
At last, she gave up.
The few birds woke, the late sun rose, and the princess lay still with her arm across her eyes, winter chill strengthening its grip on her spine. If she’d sought to, she could have smelled the first stirring of spring, tasted hope in the air, but she didn’t. She lay and listened to the fox as he went about his business and wished this was the end.
“Princess,” the fox said, brushing his small, cold nose against her ear, “are you ill?” He asked it as though he knew the answer wouldn’t be yes.
The princess gave no reply, because she had none.
“Ah,” the fox said, and sat down against her shoulder, his tail tickling her neck as he twitched it into position. “I am sorry, princess.”
Almost, almost the princess asked “why?”, but she seemed by now to have lost more words than merely those to be used on storytelling. Instead, she lay and felt the earth against her back and almost remembered that she’d once felt satin there instead, fine carved bone and wood and tapestry. That she’d been called something other than ‘princess’ by someone other than a fox.
But weariness clogged her brain and choked her bones and she could do nothing except breathe and wonder why she did so.
She began to forget even the fox, but as the memory of him slipped away from her, he sneezed twice and pressed himself into the space between her head and shoulder. “Once,” he whispered in her ear, “there was a fox.”
And there was, if she paid attention, but she didn’t know what to do with that fact. “I—I have no story to tell in recompense,” she told the empty air, because she could not bear to turn her head and look at him as she said it, could not admit how little of herself was left her.
The fox was silent for a moment. “A gift,” he said at last. “All you need do is listen.”
That much she could manage, so she made a sound in her throat that might have been assent.
“Once, there was a fox,” he began again, “a very stupid fox, for all that he considered himself clever. And because he considered himself clever when he was only stupid, someone he loved died.” The princess shifted a little so that she could rub her numbed fingers through his fur. You were young, not stupid, she didn’t say; this story wasn’t quite the one he’d told her before. “In penance and sorrow and blunted rage he wandered the countryside, wishing only for some way to pay the debt he now so unwilling owed. He wandered for years, until he met a desperate princess.”
“Desperate,” she repeated to herself, scarcely more than mouthing it into the worn fabric of her sleeve. The word seemed too sharp, her memories of how she’d felt then blunted by her present bleak despair.
“Desperate but courageous,” the fox corrected. “Too full of heart to allow herself to be turned into a plaything, a toy to be broken and discarded. And the fox saw this, saw a way to redeem the mistake he’d made. So he stole her from the man pursuing her—a man who had become an animal, or an animal become a man—and ran with her and kept her as one would a prize.”
The princess made a small sound of protest at this; had she not walked on raw and blistered feet? Eaten wriggly, unidentifiable creatures when nothing else could be had? Slept on stones and under trees and in places that stank of fox and badger and bear? And had she not done all this of her own will and direction, with the fox as aide and friend only?
Something small and hot seemed to unfold itself beneath her breast, like anger or determination.
A prize. No. That wasn’t right.
“That’s not right,” she repeated aloud, and shifted her arm so that she could squint at the sky. “I stole myself. You just helped me avoid having to do it a second time.” Because she would have. The certainty of that suddenly flooded her, tangible enough to set her fingers and toes tingling.
“Ah,” the fox said, sounding pleased and sly and fox-like. “Perhaps so.” The princess made another sound of protest, opened her mouth to turn it into words, and the fox laughed. “Very well: the fox merely led her pursuers off her trail, and the princess would have managed without him. Is that more to your liking?”
“It’s more true,” she told him, finally turning her head to look at him, eyes almost shut against the growing glare of the morning sun, the heat of a beginning thaw. “Although I must admit I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t appeared.”
“Something clever and successful, I’m sure.” He licked her nose, a delicate flick of his tongue. “I’m glad to see you haven’t lost yourself. I’d begun to worry.” So had I, she didn’t say, because it still loomed too great a danger. Instead, she ran her fingers through his fur again in comfort or confirmation, and wondered if perhaps winter was coming to an end after all. Wondered—it felt odd to do so, like a muscle or machine that hadn’t been used in almost too long, and creaked and groaned and twanged as it went.
And she wondered, too, a few moments later, slowly, as one stumbling over rough terrain, if there could be more than this; she’d stolen herself. Surely there was a way for her to keep herself, a way that didn’t depend solely on the fox’s generosity?
It hurt, that thought, because she knew where it would lead, and she had spent long cold months avoiding it. But she had stolen herself and now she wanted to own herself, to lay claim to what she was, what she’d done, and she couldn’t pretend any longer that there was another way to do it.
“There might have been a war, once, when the year was young and beautiful and all the fields were green.” She tested the words against her tongue as though for taste and truth, half-surprised they didn’t tear apart her mouth as she formed them. “A war, and a king who could not fight it, although he tried. Said he tried,” she amended when her first attempt curdled as she spoke it. “Just as he said the terms were generous to the point of disbelief.”
“A war?” the fox prompted when she fell silent. “On what cause?”
“No cause—” the words almost spoke themselves. “No cause but jealousy and greed and an imagined slight. Those things and an army with which to indulge them.” Almost, the words spoke themselves; almost, she could see the events played out on the backs of her eyelids. She clutched a little at the fox’s fur with her one hand, pressing her head more closely against his warm body, until she could hear the hollow rush of his breath. “And the terms were generous to the point of disbelief, at least as far as the king and his country were concerned. A bit of gold, a few jewels, a goblet carved out of a cow’s horn so cunningly that it seemed to be something else.”
The princess opened her eyes again and stared across the curve of the fox’s back, into the still-drowsing forest. Just beyond her reach, a single green spear pierced the earth, marker of some flower to come, a flag signalling what waited below.
“But they also included the king’s daughter, although she was already promised to another, and the king did not refuse.” The princess swallowed a few times, mouth and throat dry and beginning to ache; she’d had nothing to drink since the previous day. No reason for it besides that. “Can you tell if there’s any water nearby?”
The fox snorted in her ear. “That is a very odd way for the story to turn, but yes, I can tell, and no, there isn’t. Continue.” He sounded so much like one of her long-ago tutors (face and name forgotten) that she resumed without meaning to.
“The king did not refuse, and so his daughter was given away without dowery or trousseau or even wedding, like a concubine for some barbaric warchief. Her husband-to-be gave her no time to pack, no chance to do any more than say ‘goodbye’ before she was handed into a carriage along with the rest of the appeasement. Alone, the king’s daughter wept until she had no more tears, and then she slept, for what else could she do? And when she woke, they were in strange lands, and the fields she saw from the carriage window were no longer green with promise, but the faded gold and brown of deep and mournful autumn.”
The princess stopped and licked her dry lips, unwilling to remember what came after, once the carriage arrived at its destination and the door was opened. Unwilling, but the story would not let itself be left unfinished, now that she’d begun.
“After a day and a night and a day of travel, the carriage stopped and the king’s daughter was let out, like a mouse from a cage, if a cruel cat were the one doing the catching and letting go; no claws yet, but the heavy, warning press of a velvet paw. Her husband-to-be handed her down with all exquisite courtesy, but she could see his eyes when he smiled, and the promise held there was not a friendly one.
“Eventually, after being led through palace passages as tangled as any knot in sewing thread, and up and down stairways until her legs were all but water, she was put in a room containing crown, wedding dress, and bed. Her husband-to-be told her that their wedding would be in the morning, bowed his way out the door, and locked it behind him, leaving the princess once again a small, trapped, unarmed creature. And if she wept some more, who could blame her?
“Dawn came, and with it servants to dress her, primp her, put up her hair in ribbons and curls and crown. The king’s daughter didn’t speak to the servants and the servants didn’t speak to her, but they whispered to each other as they worked. ‘Another one,’ they whispered, and ‘How long do you think he’ll keep her?’ and ‘It’s a shame, really’. And the king’s daughter listened and said nothing and thought that she’d heard tales like this when she was young and had no desire to see how this one would end.
“But there were locks and guards and a wedding to get through, and she could see no way out of it.”
The princess’s voice broke on the word ‘out’, and she had to spend a little while just swallowing, remembering not her story, but the first one the fox had told her. That had ended far worse than hers would, if she could get through it. Far worse, but its teller had never faltered.
“Don’t think me a coward,” she finally blurted, voice still cracked and breaking. “I couldn’t bear it if you did.”
For the first time since she’d met him, the fox growled at her, digging his back claws into her elbow. “A fool for thinking I might think so, and a ninny for not saying anything about it sooner, but not a coward.” His voice softened a little, and he pressed his head against her jaw. “Never a coward. That’s one thing you could never be, not really.”
She didn’t cry, but desperately wanted to. Instead, she clutched his words to her like a blanket, and began the story again.
“The dress the servants put on her looked like snow and air and ice, all delicate impossibility, but she only cared that the skirts were loose enough to run in, just as the elaborate gold crown could be hurled at someone’s head, should she have occasion.”
The fox huffed a tickling laugh into the side of her neck, causing her to smile for the first time in what felt like an eternity, although she knew she’d laughed herself at the last-story-but-one that the fox had told her.
“Her husband-to-be greeted her outside the room, all furs and silks and the finest, basket-hilt rapier at his hip and sheathed dagger at his back. And with him was such a great train of people that it took the king’s daughter nearly four corridors to realize that at least half of them weren’t people but strange creatures: animals, and things that were half-animal, half-man, and things that looked like men but weren’t. It might have been that her husband-to-be was one of that latter, but she daren’t ask or even comment on it: the answer would be worse if it were ‘no’. If he were human, she would have no way of shaking loose, no loophole or bit of enchantment to exploit. If he were human, he did all this out of mere fancy and not nature.
“But she was a king’s daughter and had long since learned how to hide her thoughts and doubts unless she wanted them to be known, and that was very nearly the last thing she wanted just then.”
“The first thing being an army led by her previous husband-to-be,” the fox interjected. “And the very last being what actually did happen.”
Sometimes the princess suspected that the fox could read minds–or hers, at any rate. “Yes and yes,” she said, shading her eyes from the sun that had crept slowly up her body during the storytelling. “Because the wedding was what happened, with no interruptions. It took place in what must have been the throne room, the king’s daughter walking down the middle of it on carpet the color of old blood, flanked by seven attendants wearing thick veils and dress of a soot-like grey. They never spoke or stood near enough for her to touch them or be touched, and she would rather have stood up all alone than with them.
“The wedding happened, and the king’s daughter wished for an invading army, a fire, a flood, a collapsing floor or ceiling, but nothing prevented the ceremony’s slow grinding path to the point where she heard herself say, ‘I do take this man of my own free will.’ A lie, of course, as everyone there knew and some took great pleasure in.
“At the end of it, when she had done quite numb inside from despair and disbelief, her now-husband claimed her by name as his lawful wedded wife and kissed her. And even as she froze inside at his words, her lips seemed to burn against his as though with fire or liquid iron.
“The court all cheered at this, mockery and spite and derision, and shouted suggestions as to what he might do with her, now she was inescapably his. He shouted back that there was time enough for that, and he wanted to eat first, so as not to be hungry later, at which they all cheered again. The king’s daughter stood still as ice until her now-husband took her and her attendants to a room that held nothing but a bed with old, stained sheets and a flickering chandelier. ‘They’ll get you ready for me,’ he told her, and locked them all in.”
The princess wanted desperately to stop here, to lick her lips or clear her throat, but if she did, that would be the end of it, and she couldn’t do this a second time. Spring happened every year, to the great relief of all, but she knew inextricably that this was her only chance at a personal thaw.
“When the closest attendant reached for her, the king’s daughter, with the last fragment left her of determination and hope, seized the thick veil and tore it from the other’s face. Perhaps she meant to blind the woman, perhaps she thought to throw it on the chandelier and cause a fire. Perhaps and perhaps. But when she saw what lay hidden beneath the veil, her intent flew out of her head, quite, quite gone: the woman wearing the veil was dead.”
Was quite, quite dead: throat cut, the wound stained with old blood. Even now, the memory of it made the princess queasy.
“In the shock of that discovery, the king’s daughter might have easily been caught and trapped by the other attendants, but none of them tried in that moment, and the one that had been unveiled froze, as though clutched again by death. And the next moment the king’s daughter began pulling the veils off the other attendants, rendering them all immobile before they could so much as lay a finger on her.”
The fox, nose tucked a trifle uncomfortably against her collarbone, made a noise that might have been hah. The princess ignored him and continued. “And then she pulled all her hairpins out and went to peer out under the door. Once certain that the hallway was free of guards or passersby, she picked the lock.”
“Picked the lock,” the fox repeated, putting his ears and head up. The princess felt somewhat offended by the surprise in his tone.
“Yes, she picked the lock. Spend ten years fostered with a family of boys who think it’s funny to lock people in unused storerooms and you’d learn how, too. She picked the lock, and then she traded shoes with one of the dead attendants, which was awkward and horrid and I won’t describe it, particularly as she would have traded dresses as well if she’d seen any way to do it, and then she ran, while everyone in the palace was still at the feast, getting drunk. And she locked the door behind her, too.”
“And she locked the door behind her!” The fox jumped up, almost wagging his tail like a dog. “Oh, princess, princess, if you were a fox I’d kiss you.”
“Kiss me anyway,” the princess said, because she’d done all that and she deserved to be kissed by someone she actually liked. Even if that someone was a fox and stank more than a little.
She had to scrub her cheek dry afterwards, but that was all right.
After, the fox lay down again, although he kept his head up so he could look down his nose at her. “No wonder you managed to actually get away–you traded shoes, you locked the door again–though perhaps it’s just as well you couldn’t trade dresses, as that would made it a bit more obvious what you were up to. If your dead attendant had been wearing better shoes, you wouldn’t have needed my help at all.”
“Maybe,” the princess allowed, because (to be honest) she had been at the end of her strength when the fox found her, and running in a straight line. “Who do you think she was? Or they were, rather.”
“Hm,” the fox said, and was quiet for a minute. “Did they have rings on?”
The princess closed her eyes and tried to remember. Now that she wasn’t keeping it all dammed up in the back of her head, details seemed to be popping up all over the place. “Yes. Very large, very ugly.”
“Like the ring you’re still wearing?” The fox nosed the hand she was using to shade her eyes.
“Oh,” the princess said, and actually saw it for the first time since it had been put on her finger. “Why didn’t he find me, when I was—am—still wearing this?” She made a motion towards taking it off, but stopped; something told her she couldn’t be rid of it so easily.
“You did run very fast,” the fox told her. “And I was almost as clever as you when I wove him that path through the forest, past you, and back to his palace and finally shook him off. And—I wonder—” He broke off and studied her for a long moment. “You’ve never told me your name, princess,” he said at last.
“I lost it,” she said immediately, without thought, and then corrected herself. “No, I hid it, and don’t know where.”
“It’s probably safest that way. You said he claimed you as wife, by name, correct? I bet he did that with all the other princesses, and none of them—being less clever than yourself—thought to rid themselves of their names while still wearing his marker.” He stood up and shook himself. “So if you want your name back, we’d better see about getting that ring off, and I think we both know there’s only one way to make that happen.”
“Yes,” the princess said, and stood up as well, now pleasantly-warm from the sun and feeling more whole than she had all winter, as though she were some plant that had laid quiescent and was now ready to bloom. “We have to kill him. Or find someone to do it for us.”