Late one afternoon, just as spring deepened into summer and the air began to hold the warmth of the sun, the princess realized she knew the road beneath her feet; knew the trees, the slant of sunlight through the leaves, the remnants of some stone structure long abandoned; knew the castle that sat just out of sight of where she was. The certainty of this hit her like a blow to the back of her knees, so that she almost fell from it and had to stop, swaying, until she could find her balance again.
"Fox," she called, her voice like a raven or a crow's, harsh and strange, so that she could scarcely recognize the sound of it. "Fox, I know where we are." It frightened her, but it also made her want to laugh or sing or shout.
The fox darted back to her from where he'd been investigating the possibility of a mouse nest, ears pricked, tail held high like a banner. "And where might that be?"
"Home," the princess said, bowing her head a little against the heavy glare of the setting sun. "This is home." And perhaps she wept a little, for her journey had been very long; the road had bruised her bare feet and she was weary beyond measure.
"Are there any here who might champion you?" the fox asked, calculating but gentle, careful.
"Perhaps," the princess said, and would say no more until they stood at the walls of the castle, hidden in the twilight shadows. The gates were shut and barred for the night, but she led the fox to a small door, well-buried in brambles, through which they managed to enter, although the princess had to send her clothes through first and herself along after, so that she was badly scratched in the process.
When she had dressed again, ignoring her injuries as something that couldn't be helped, the fox nudged her ankle with his nose, as he did when about to ask a question he thought she wouldn't want to answer. "You call this home, princess, but it is only a small place, scarcely more than an outpost or guard station. Surely this is not where your father reigns as king."
"No," she told him, not looking down to meet his gaze. "This is where my foster-father rules as baron, with his wife, who served as my mother's lady-in-waiting and loved her as a sister. And I call her sons my brothers, and without them I would not yet live, for they taught me how to open locked doors and when it is wisest to hide and best to run."
"Might one of them champion you?" the fox asked, still gentle and careful, so that the princess felt that she was made of glass--as she had not through all their long journey to this place.
"Perhaps," the princess said, as before, and would say no more until they had crept secretly into the castle and made their way to the room where she remembered her brothers slept. Once there, she stood with her hand on the latch for a very long while, until the fox scratched at her skirts in worry that someone would come and they be found.
In the moonlight that spilled through the room's window, she could see that all was much as it had been before the king her father had called her back to his court, and that her brothers still slept as they had when children: the older one curled tight into himself and the younger spread as if to shield him. And for a moment the princess felt as if she were small again, seeking solace from a nightmare. But the fox stood close against her bruised and battered feet, and she wore a dress stolen from some poor peasant, and a ring sat on her finger against her will--though not, alas, against her word. Her nightmare now was a waking one, and she sought not comfort but aid in ending it.
She went across to the bed, so quietly that none of the dogs near the fire awoke, and placed a hand over each brother's mouth, so that they might not speak her name too soon. "Brothers, wake," she whispered, "for I have returned and am in need of aid."
When they woke, they thought at first that she must be a ghost, for the moonlight shone through her hair and across her face so that she looked like some creature from another world: beautiful but fell. It was only when she reminded them of the games they had played as children and begged for news of their parents that they embraced her as if they were children still.
"They grieve for you," her older brother said, pulling her up onto the bed beside him, and wrapped his arm around her so that they were pressed close together, shoulder and hip and thigh. "And they do not speak to the king your father if they can help it--nor he to them--but in all things else they are well."
"But how are you here?" her younger brother asked, leaning against her other shoulder, touching her arm, her hair, back and knee and cheek and hand, as if to be certain she was real and not mere seeming. "After a year with no word, we thought you were dead--everyone thinks you dead. The whole country's in mourning. Should we tell them you're back?"
"No. Not yet," she said, half in sudden fear and half in unexpected sorrow. "It's not quite safe yet. Tell your cousin, who I was to have married, that you have a secret, a surprise, and that he must come at once and with all full strength. Tell him, but don't tell Father."
"Your father, or ours?" he asked, as though she had requested a mere trifle, as though she had never left and they were still children plotting to steal pies from the kitchens. As though it didn't matter that her father was king.
"Mine," she answered, and wept for it. "Your father may know--and mother too."
"Our father and mother," her older foster brother corrected, warming her cold hands in his warm, calloused ones. "We still call you 'sister' as well as 'princess'." She wept more at that, but in relief, not regret or sorrow. She wept, and her brothers dried her tears, and the three of them curled up together as they had when very young, a bundle of arms and legs and deepest love--deeper, perhaps, for all the divisions birth and blood could place between them.
Perhaps they would have stayed like that until the moon finished creeping across the sky and the sun rose, but after a little while the fox leapt onto the bed and sneezed twice in the nearest ear (which belonged to the princess). "This is all very touching, I am sure, but perhaps one of you should fetch the lord and lady of the place?"
And the princess felt too heart-sick at having forgotten entirely her companion from the long, long road to be surprised at his sudden appearance--but her older brother leapt for his knife on the table beside the bed, while her younger brother caught her to him and flung the both of them together to the floor. The fox perhaps thought it was all very amusing, but the princess mostly noticed how much her ribs and hip hurt from the landing (which at least stopped her self-recrimination). One or two of the dogs by the fireplace looked up at the commotion, but did no more than huff and groan at their masters' antics.
"What is this?" her younger brother asked, as he drew himself and her up, keeping her behind him, away from the bed and the unexpected voice.
"Or perhaps rather 'who'," her older brother corrected, although he did not put down his knife.
"I'm a fox," the fox said, very nearly haughty and more than a little sarcastic. He tucked his tail around his feet and looked down his nose at the older brother. "And I've come with your sister, so it would be poor manners to skin me, if that's what you were intending."
The princess's older brother laughed and lowered his guard. "No, master fox. I should rather thank you, for being my sister's companion where I could not." Knife put away, he bowed to the fox as subject to king, and the princess was struck with the memory of him doing the same to her father, at her mother's funeral, before she knew what he would be to her.
"Oh, how I have missed you," she said, the words falling unbidden from her like tears.
"And we you," her older brother replied. "But your friend is right--we should fetch our parents, to let them know of your arrival. Or perhaps--" He stopped there with a started look and studied her for a moment. "My sister--for I know you are such--I cannot think of your name, that I might tell them you are well and here. And I would guess our brother cannot either," in answer to which their brother shook his head, even as he clutched more tightly at the princess's wrist.
"It has been hidden to keep her safe," the fox said. "Until she can reclaim it in strength, there are those who would use it as a weapon against her." He glanced over to where the princess stood, mute, still shielded by her younger brother. "But that will change soon, I expect. Go, get your parents, but tell them to hold their tongues until they are bidden to loose them, lest they harm one they love."
"I will," her older brother said, and was gone from the room, one hound following sleepily on his heels.
In his absence, the princess and her remaining brother resumed their tangle on the bed, her brother still wary of the fox. "We should have been with you," he said to her shoulder, his forehead against her cheek, his breath warm and friendly upon her neck.
"I know you would have kept me safe from him, if you'd had the chance," she told him, twisting her fingers around his as if she could press an understanding of her love and joy through her skin and into his. "You did not have that chance, but you gave me the skills I needed to escape on my own: taught me how to open locks without keys and made me learn not to panic when trapped somewhere I did not wish to be. If not for you, I would be dead. There is no doubt of that."
"Oh?" he said, voice still bitter. "And that forgives my failure to guard you?"
"Does it not? I am alive and returned to you. Forgive yourself, for I hold no fault against you."
"Well," he said, and kissed her ear. "I will follow the advice of my elders." And they lay together in comfortable silence until their brother returned and in behind him came her foster parents, hands pressed to their mouths to keep them from speaking her name, should it be hidden with them. When they saw her, her foster-father laughed and her foster-mother wept with joy, but their sons remained silent in their lingering anger at the necessity of such a reunion.
"What shall we do for you?" her foster-father asked, once their greetings were complete and the fox introduced. "You cannot live forever in hiding, nameless and fearful of being found."
"No, I cannot and will not," the princess agreed. "Raise me an army, and send to your cousin, the Lord of the North Ridings, who I was to have married, to do the same and to meet us out on the plain south of there and north of here—but do not tell him that I have returned. Tell him it is to free me, which is true enough."
"I will do so," her foster-father said. "But it will take a little while. What of you, in the meantime?"
"I will hide here in my brothers' room, that no word might escape to inform my father the king. For he must know nothing until the matter is settled. He has played his part in this and it is done; should he wish to complain afterwards, I will answer it," the princess said, and, unknowingly, spoke like a queen.
"It is difficult to keep an army silent, let alone two," her foster-father said, but laughed again. "But surely it is as nothing in the face of what you have done. Your father shall not hear of it."
A week later he and his sons rode away north with the army, with the princess following in secret with the fox; her foster-mother stayed behind only in case of all going wrong, and her family was hard-pressed to convince her, for she loved the princess as a daughter and had been in deep mourning ever since receiving word of the marriage.
As she followed the army, still bare-foot but no longer bone-weary, the princess thought of the man she was to have married and the man she actually had; she thought about names and titles and the difference between the two; she remembered the several hundred days she had spent walking thus and tried not to imagine what it would be like to stop. When she crept into the tent of the Lord of the North Ridings, it was without thought beyond the need to see him, to be seen and known by him.
He slept uneasily, face furrowed as in deep thought or old pain, body braced as against a blow; it hurt her to see him thus, so that she woke him out of pity as much as need. "My love, my own heart," she said, laying her cold hand against his warm cheek, and as he woke he spoke her name.
The ring around her finger seemed to tighten, almost to the point of pain. Found! Found! echoed silently in her ears, and though it was her own plan that laid her bare to the one who had married her, her whole body seemed turned to ice by fear.
And so she did not see the corresponding fear in her love's eyes, nor the way it turned to anger and then pity and finally to hope, until he touched her cheek in turn and spoke her name again.
"My cousins told me we gathered to free you," he said to her. "Do they know you have already done so yourself?"
"I have not," she said, holding his hand to her as if it might thaw the chill clutching at her lungs and brain. "I have escaped, but I am not free." And then she told him all she had seen and done, and of the fox who had kept her from failing.
And the Lord of the North Ridings saw that though the face of his love remained young, her eyes were old and tired, and her hair shot through with white, so that it shone silver instead of gold in the scattered moonlight.
"What must be done to free you?" he asked. "I will cut out my heart if you need it."
"No! No--" it was half laugh, half cry. "You have already begun it by naming me truly. Now you must get me back from the one who married me in your place. He is coming for me, now that my name is found again, and will be here with the dawn, and when he comes you must challenge him, for you had the prior claim and have it still and he has not yet lain with me as wife."
His heart leapt at that news so that it seemed the world must turn bright and joyous around him, though night still hung heavy and the stars high overhead. "Then I will do as you say, though he bring all the world against me."
But her husband did not; a mere ten thousand rode at his back, only twice what the Lord of the North Ridings and his kin had gathered between them. And the princess, still in her rags and unshod, went out before their army to meet him.
"Husband," she said, and her voice rang clear and cutting across the all the field, "I want a divorce."
"Wife," he said, and smiled so that she could see all his teeth, "I don't care."
At the princess's feet, the fox sneezed twice, almost apologetically. "Strictly speaking, she doesn't need one. The marriage wasn't ever consummated, and her consent was coerced, to boot."
"Give me an hour and I can fix the former--I don't care about the latter." His teeth shone very sharp in the morning sun, but the princess only raised a summoning hand in response.
"I'll give you a day, dear husband, should you be able to win it." And she looked to see the Lord of the North Ridings come as she had called. "Your claim on me is not the only one, but it is the only one unrequited." The Lord of the North Ridings came in bright armor and carried a naked sword and his mind was full of battle--and love.
They fought from dawn until noon and from noon until the sun touched the horizon and hid behind the mountains, casting the plains into long shadow. Their horses died beneath them, hearts having given out; their fine armor became battered and smeared with blood and earth; the ground they fought on churned into mud--and still they fought. Neither gave quarter or asked it, for one was driven by love and the other by fierce avarice and pride. Around them their armies stood in silence; the Lord of the North Ridings' kin clutched the hilts of their swords and wished they could defend him; the princess knelt in the grass beside the fox, who told her of the battle, for she could not bear to watch.
But as the sun finally set in truth and the stars began to show themselves overhead, the Lord of the North Ridings disarmed his opponant, placing his blade against the other's throat.
"Ask the princess, no longer your wife, for mercy," he said. "If she grants it, I will let you live. But you must swear to leave these lands and never return."
The other said nothing, but pressed against the sharp edge so that he cut off his own head.
The Lord of the North Ridings gave a great shout of dismay and stepped back, flinging his sword away as if it had betrayed him--but a moment later he wished he hadn't, for instead of a dead man's body there stood before him a wolf the size of a boar, with teeth like knives. He fell before it as it came, strength worn to nothing in the long day's fight, and did not think to stand ever again.
But as the wolf sprang on him, the army at its back following suit so that the sky seemed to tremble with the sound of sword on shield, the fox ran from the princess's side. He seemed to grow with each stride, until he seemed no longer a fox, but some great beast that shone dimly golden in the darkening twilight. The two met over the fallen Lord of the North Ridings, biting and tearing and snarling in a tumble of teeth and claws and bloodied fur.
The wolf shredded the fox's throat, but the fox, in a move more suited to an eel, snapped the wolf's neck--and collapsed, a small fox once again, across the body.
"Quick, quick--" he rasped, voice almost lost in the noise of combat all around them. "His tail and feet must be cut off. Princess! Lord! Cut them off before it is too late."
The Lord of the North Ridings lay still on the ground, unable to rise without aid, so the princess crept to where her dead--or soon-to-be-so--husband's sword had fallen. It seemed very cold and heavy to her hands, but she did as the fox commanded. And at the fifth stroke the wolf's army transformed into a dismayed crowd of mice and stoats and such, and the wolf became old and frail and almost pitiable--but the princess had eyes only for the fox, who was dying.
"Fox," she said, trying not to weep. "Fox, is there nothing I can do to save you?"
"No," the fox said. "I cannot be saved as you have been. But if you would keep me from dying, take your husband's sword again and cut off my head."
Then she did weep, but took the sword again, for what else could she do? He had said it would keep him from dying, and she would have walked to the house of the moon and back, had that been required instead.
So she struck off the fox's head, and in his place crouched a naked man; only the color of his hair remained the same, and his voice. Even the way he held himself was different, for he pressed his face against her skirts and shivered and would not look up at her--like some hound that's been disobedient and fears being sent away.
"Fox," she said, placing a hand on his hair and wondering at its softness, "please don't say anything foolish about being my hound now." He laughed a little, or perhaps sobbed, but reached up to catch ahold of her wrist. "Hounds are servants and you are my dear friend, and I have promised you chicken coops if you wish them, and whatever else. Your shape does not matter."
"No?" he said, and rocked back on his heels to finally meet her gaze, not letting go even as he pulled away from her touch. "What if what I wish is to be your dog, to sit at your feet and sleep at your door and guard you from any who would do you harm?"
"If that is your wish, I will grant it." She felt like crying again, but couldn't understand why her heart ached so. "But I would rather you were a man."
"Ah, well," the fox sighed, and shivered. "Well. For you, I will try. But I would rather I still had fur, for it is very cold."
The princess's brothers and foster-father came then, providing a tattered cloak for the fox and a strong hand or two to get the Lord of the North Ridings standing again. Swaying a little from weariness and uncertain of his footing in the dark, he went up to the princess and knelt carefully before her, as a petitioner would before a queen.
"You are free now," he said, voice full of hope and long love. "And I have waited for you a year and more, and have fought from sun-up to sundown, until the hearts of our horses gave way and the ground ran wet and red with the blood of our battle. Once, dear princess, you were to be mine. Can you be so again?"
And now the princess laughed a little from joy, though she still sorrowed for the fox. "I can and will be and am now yours," she said to the Lord of the North Ridings, gladly now repeating the words she had spoken unwillingly a year before. "My self, and all that is mine, until the world ends or death takes one of us."
"And so, then, I belong to you," he said in return. "My all, and whatever is mine, for as long as life and time shall last."
So they were married there, in the field, with the dead wolf beside them and the fox crouched shivering, still mostly naked, at the princess's feet. And perhaps they were happy and perhaps they weren't, but that's more than I know on the subject.
("But that's not so," the princess protested sleepily. "I thought you said you'd end it properly this time."
"If you don't like my version of things, tell the story yourself," the fox said, sounding somewhat miffed.
"Fine," the princess said, and fell silent for a long while, so that the fox thought she'd gone to sleep. "They were happy," she said at last. "Whatever else happened--and many things did--they were happy, even the man who had once been a fox." It wasn't quite a question.
"All right," the fox said grudgingly, after a pause of his own. "Yes. Even him.")