Science Fiction & Fantasy

Transcendent Annual Series

Advertisement

Fiction

A Leash of Foxes, Their Stories Like Barter

“Tell us a story, Papa.”

“Which one would you like, my loves?”

“Tell us the story of Mr. Fox!”

“I suppose I could. But not the one those vagabonds in the inn like to recite. I will tell you the true story of Mr. Fox, and it’ll be better than any other you’d hear.”

• • • •

Lady Mary was young and Lady Mary was fair, and she had brothers who loved her and lovers who adored her. But she was savvy, sly as a vixen, with hair like the color of the butchered sun. And of all the people she knew, of all the people who’d pledged their heart to her pleasure, she cared for only one:

Mr. Fox.

Mr. Fox, of course, had ginger locks and sharp white teeth, freckles like a map across his fair face and when he smiled sometimes, it wasn’t hard to see why they called him Mr. Fox and not Edgar, or Edward, or Egan. No one knew where he’d come from, of course. No clue had been given as to whether he was a count, or a lord, or some merchant’s second-born bastard. But it did not matter. Mr. Fox was brave and Mr. Fox was clever, and surely, said Lady Mary’s brothers, he was rich as well. How else could he bring her diamonds? What else could explain how he garlanded their pantries with sausages, ingots of black pudding, slabs of fresh venison and golden-gray foie gras so tender it made one weep at its flavor?

Lady Mary did not care about these things.

What she cared about was Mr. Fox.

So at last, one day, it was decided that Lady Mary and Mr. Fox would wed. In glee, the latter told his new bride of what she was to expect: glades and small gods in the cold black pines, rolling lands teethed with ruins, springtimes that dripped marigolds like honey onto a lover’s lips, winters like wedding wreaths fit for a fae queen.

“And your castle?” said Lady Mary’s brothers, eager to know.

Mr. Fox smiled coyly. “There is no castle.”

“Your manor, then. Your palace,” snapped the men who Lady Mary had forsaken, their wealth like sheaves of dry leaves beside the gold of Mr. Fox’s regard. “How many servants does it cradle? How many rooms do you possess?”

“I have none of those either.” Mr. Fox cocked his head and in the wolf-light, his teeth looked very long. Lady Mary fitted her fingers through his, and their hands, so tangled, were a contract superior to any vow you could pin to paper. “But if it makes you feel better, there is a castle on my lands. It is not mine, but it is quite old and I suppose it may still have a treasure or two.”

Lady Mary laughed at his description and the crowd ceased its pursuit, placated by the certainty that Lady Mary would not be housed in a manor of oaks, by a river full of silver, in a place with no roof, no rules save for the whims of those quiet, inhuman woods. None of them asked what Lady Mary herself would have fancied. But that was all right.

Mr. Fox knew what she wanted, and Lady Mary knew this as well.

• • • •

They married in the foyer of Lady Mary’s childhood home, the autumnal owl-light a bacchanal of rare colors. He wore black and she wore white, and though Lady Mary’s parents had no end of questions, the two knew no end of knowing silences. When they smiled, it was for each other, only each other, and you’d be forgiven if you believed they were one soul halved and homed in a matching set, so gorgeous those two were, so perfect. At the altar, under ropes of dried lilac, Mr. Fox kissed Lady Mary, just a peck and a flash of white teeth, and the world shivered like it bore witness to the birth of something sacred.

“We are now,” whispered Lady Mary, “Mr. and Mrs. Fox.”

And Mr. Fox, he laughed at the truth of this.

• • • •

“Did they have a party afterwards?”

“Yes.”

“Was everyone happy?”

“As much as they would allow themselves to be.”

• • • •

As was traditional of all married couples, Mr. and Mrs. Fox soon absconded to the groom’s new home. But unlike what was traditional, they made no mention of where they were going, no ceremony of her departure. Like thieves, like foxes racing the dying sun, they fled into the woods while the sleeping world was still filigreed with dew.

If it weren’t for Lord Petty, who’d loved Lady Mary dearest but also poorest, if it weren’t for him, that knave, that heart-stung wretch, no one would have known where to find the two. But a man brined in his own envy is one abhorrent to sleep, and Lord Petty could only drowse during Lady Mary’s long wedding night. Thus, he was easily awoken when the two darted from the doors, no neither bags nor finery, just the gleam of Lady Mary’s wedding ring and the glare of Mr. Fox’s smile.

How dare they, thought Lord Petty, rousing himself from his bed. How dare they leave just like that? He followed them, a hound full of hate.

Lord Petty was many things, but he was not an incompetent hunter, and of all the men who had loved Lady Mary, he was the hungriest for her favor. He stalked them across the valleys, down into the black pines, down through where the birch and the aspen murmured like new lovers, down where the past had grooved itself in the stones, down, down into places where men should not go.

And the woods said to Mr. Fox and Mrs. Fox: ’ware.

And Mr. Fox and Mrs. Fox, they laughed as if that sound was a secret to share.

• • • •

“Why don’t our woods say anything?”

“Because it is winter and even the trees need to sleep. Ask again in the summer, when they’re dizzy with love and aching with flowers.”

• • • •

Lord Petty followed them to the grounds of a fine castle indeed, one with strong walls and a deep moat, and a gateway inscribed with the words:

Be bold, be bold.

He regarded the evocation with some care, the half-moon of his grimace as bright as a predator’s grin. They were here. He was sure. Two pairs of footprints tangled in the dirt leading through the gate; he could see too a twist of Mrs. Fox’s red hair in the brambles of a rose bush growing tall beside the path. Here, sang his heart. Here, snarled that broken-backed need at the root of his lungs, the gasping, miserable whine of his want.

Lord Petty looked about. There was no one here. The gate was open, so under its lilac-laced trellises he went up to the front doors, where he stood as he read aloud a second inscription:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.

Through those doors he slipped too, bow on his shoulder, a full quiver on his back, ambition jouncing against the glide of his hip. He went down a hall of black marble, gold chandeliers and rose-colored marquetry lending shape to the bowered hush. He went up broad stairs until he came to a door in the gallery, over which was written:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold,

Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.

But Lord Petty was nothing if not brave, nothing if not starving to skin Mr. Fox of Lady Mary’s love, nothing if not desperate. So, he, despite the cold that had burrowed to his belly, despite the way it crooned to him of warnings, opened the door and what do you think he saw? Why, bodies like cat’s cradles of chewed-down cartilage, blooms of sinew worn in the bones like flowers in a fair maid’s hair. Bodies upon bodies, gnawed to the pith.

Lord Petty thought it was high time to get out of that horrid place and he closed the door, went through the gallery, haunted by the half-smiles of so very many corpses, dangling from the ceiling and trailing from the walls like marionettes at leisure. He was just going down the stairs and out of the hall, when who should he see but Mr. Fox and Mrs. Fox dragging a beautiful young man down the gateway to the door.

• • • •

“Why did they hurt the man, Papa? Why did they hurt those people?”

“Because not even monsters are safe from predators, my loves.”

• • • •

Lord Petty rushed downstairs, concealed himself behind a cask cauled with webs, the smell of old wine so prohibitively expensive they’d bill you for a sniff. Just as Mr. Fox and Mrs. Fox came near Lord Petty’s hiding place, Mrs. Fox, her mouth so richly rouged it might as well have been bloodied with kisses, exclaimed, “Such a precious ring, this one wears. Look at that sapphire: that color, deeper even than the heart of a lake. And look, my feral darling, my fine-tailed love, look at the gorget of diamonds that frames it. Does it not make you think of the baby’s breaths in my wedding bouquet?”

Lord Petty looked down the line of Mrs. Fox’s white arm, down to where her finger led the eye. At his end, he saw a ring without compare, its knotwork as fine as lace, too fine for the slackly hanging hand on which it had been enshrined. Better, Lord Petty thought, that it be freed and fitted upon Mrs. Fox’s finger. Better still if it was Lord Petty who set that beautiful ring there.

But that was not to be. Not with the memory of those bodies in the gallery at the top of the stairs, not with Mrs. Fox’s red lips upon her husband’s red hair, not with the knowledge of what might happen if they found Lord Petty hiding there, hunched behind a barrel, no better than a common rogue. He remained still instead, tongue between his teeth, breath held like a fox beneath the hunter’s heel.

“Do you want the ring then?” said Mr. Fox.

“I suppose I would not object if you were to liberate that splendid thing. But it is not necessary, Mr. Fox, not with you in my bed, not with your heart in my armoire, not with your love, so wild and true, to wear like a queen’s trousseau.” She stroked that beautiful corpse’s still hand and jealousy did clench Lord Petty’s heart tight. If only she’d permit him, he’d lay his cheek upon her lap, a hound faithful to the grave, and there’d be nothing he would not bring her, no prey too ferocious, no antlered prize too fearsome. Everything and anything, so long as she’d let him be hers.

Mr. Fox, hair matted to the sleek frame of his face, looked to where Lord Petty squatted, safe from the eye, but not nose or black-tipped ear. He said : “Let’s not trouble ourselves then. If it will not disappoint you too much, we’ll just leave that ring here, so you won’t worry at want the way a dog might worry at his mites.”

Mrs. Fox laughed and Lord Petty did not. Without preamble, Mr. Fox freed his sword, which was as slim and sharp as he, and sawed through corpse’s bony wrist. The hand tumbled free, and rolled to where Lord Petty lurked, the ring gleaming like the hope of a star, cold and blue and helpless as love.

“To the boudoir, my love?” said Mr. Fox.

“To the boudoir,” said Mrs. Fox, dragging their prize up those broad stairs.

Lord Petty stayed in his place, listening to every thump, every crunch of small cartilage, every laugh to flit from between Mrs. Fox’s teeth, every kiss the couple thought to share on the way, a leg in each hand, a corpse between them, their matrimony made sacrosanct by the marrow and meat of that poor murdered man. Only when he was certain that those two would not emerge from the gallery again did Lord Petty flee that dread place, a dead boy’s hand clutched to his breast.

• • • •

Walled by both peasantry and a pageantry of nobles, scullery maids, and jilted suitors all come to bear witness, Lord Petty, a bowl of warm pumpkin soup in his cold hands, sat whispering of what he’d seen. The journey had been long, longer than he’d remembered, longer than his provisions could survive, the way made byzantine by the woods he’d walked, by the aspen and the birch, by the black pines and its gods. At the end of his exodus, Lord Petty was so starved, so weakened, he could only crawl to the stoop of Mrs. Fox’s childhood home, his ribs like rings worn on the finger of his spine.

“He’s a monster,” he said, thinking again of how Mrs. Fox had laid her brow against her husband’s fair cheek. “They’re monsters.”

His audience nodded and murmured themselves, wise to witches, wise to the world, wise to the wolves in women’s clothing. They did not ask if Lord Petty had misspoken, or question the authenticity of his accusation. Lords, they’ve been told, never have cause to lie.

• • • •

They sent a messenger to the castle in which Mr. Fox and Mrs. Fox lived, a callow girl with colorations like the summer: gold hair, blue eyes, sun-freckled cheeks. Unlike Lord Petty, she was not beggared by the journey. The woods were kind, the way they are always kind to those who make space for the squirrel and the sparrow, the wildflowers blooming reckless in autumn’s last, long, gold-burnished days.

“They want you to join ’em for breakfast,” said the girl, who’d meet her Death one winter’s dusk with no knowledge of how anyone could mistake this man and his lean-limbed wife for monsters, what with their kindly manners, their insistence she do them no favours, only sit down and eat what they offered her: a fortune in good bread and cold butter, more ham and rare cheeses than she’d seen in her life.

Mr. Fox poured the girl a draught of plum cider and looked to his wife, who said quietly then: “Tell them we will come.”

• • • •

The date they had elected was the eve of Lady Mary’s own mother’s birthday and it was hotter than anyone could remember. Yet despite the dripping heat, Mr. Fox and Mrs. Fox both arrived in Lord Petty’s manor wearing rose-and-gold brocade, their coats brilliantly embroidered, the hems heavy with seed pearls and stitchings of warm amber. They wore their finery like they’d been born sleeved in those rich materials, like they were pelts only slightly too thick for the season.

“We have come,” said Mrs. Fox, striding through the doors like she owned every life in its walls and every generation that would come after. “As you have asked.”

Lord Petty stood with the men that Mrs. Fox had spurned, dukes and dour-faced barons and merchants made noble by the money they ferried to the vaults of their king, their chests gleaming with medals and cunning satin paneling. But none of them were as splendid as Mr. Fox. None of them had his easy grace, his sly fashion of smiling, his aptitude for entreating the light to love his face best. None of them had Mrs. Fox, who stood with her arm threaded around her husband’s own. They smiled, a matching set, far more beautiful than that bitter crowd deserved.

“We are pleased to see you well,” said Lord Petty.

Mrs. Fox nodded. “And I am pleased you look well, Lord Petty. I had a dream recently that distressed me to no end. In this dream, I saw you racing through glade and glens, down to the black pines, down to where the water is so cold and pure it’d burn your tongue to ash. I saw you kneel by a lake, Lord Petty, and I saw you get down on your knees, and I saw you cut the heart from your chest.”

And Lord Petty swallowed then. “Why would I do such a thing?”

“For a ring,” said Mrs. Fox, glib as anything. “A silver ring with a sapphire as perfect and lifeless as a heart that cannot imagine happiness for anything but itself.”

Lord Petty said nothing in riposte, only stared at Mrs. Fox, the hairs that fronded the back of his neck prickling and for a moment, he was returned to those woods and he was, without question, afraid.

The doors to the dining hall opened.

“Breakfast is ready,” said a thin serving girl with the high, bright voice of an aria and bowed.

Mr. Fox and Mrs. Fox bowed in answer, slinking past her to find their seats. Lord Petty, his brothers-in-discard, followed after in a neat queue, looking for all the world like the guilty marching themselves to the gallows.

• • • •

“I had a dream too,” said Lord Petty without even a scratch of warning, his voice booming through the steepled halls. He lowered his cutlery and the clatter of their descent was as loud as musket shots. “I dreamed that I went yestermorn to your castle, and I found it in the woods, with high walls, and a deep moat, and over the gateway was written:

“Be bold, be bold.”

If Lord Petty had thought to entice apprehension from Mrs. Fox’s expression, or tease fear from Mr. Fox’s lidded regard, he would go to his rest unslaked. Their countenances remained serene. Sighing, Mrs. Fox pushed aside her plate of roast lamb, the polished blue ceramic heaped high with charred broccoli florets and reams of gravy.

“It is not so, nor was it so.”

But Lord Petty would not be dissuaded from his keening declamation, his grief lettered in its delivery. “And when I came to the doorway, over it was written:

“Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.”

“It is not so,” said Mr. Fox and then together with his wife, they spoke as one, the words intoned with all the weight of prophecy: “Nor it was so.”

“And then I went upstairs, and came to a gallery, at the end of which was a door, on which was written:

“Be bold, be bold, but not too bold,

Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.”

“It is not so, nor it was not so,” said the Foxes, now with pity in the lilt of their faces. Outside the lancet windows, the light grew bruised, as though the sun was suddenly curtained by an encroaching storm. But the color was wrong, as was the quality of that glow, its texture, and the smell of air, damp earth and still water, menaced with its eldritch promise.

“And then,” Lord Petty launched himself from his seat, roaring as he did, no more guile to be seen, no more subtlety. “And then I opened the door, and the room was filled with bodies and skeletons of poor dead souls, all stained with their blood!”

“It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” chorused the foxes, their shadows limbering like animals.

“I then dreamed that I rushed down the gallery, and just as I was going down the stairs I saw you, Mr. and Mrs. Fox, coming up to the hall door, dragging after you a poor young man, rich and beautiful!”

“It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so.” In that strange, wild, drowning light, no one looked as they did before, least of all the two foxes so regally enthroned in the hall.

“I rushed downstairs, just in time to hide myself behind a cask, when you two came in dragging the young man by the arm. And, as you passed me,” Lord Petty shrieked, “I thought I saw you try and free his sapphire ring, and when you could not, it seemed to me in my dream, that you out with your sword and hacked off the poor man’s hand.”

And as Lord Petty drew a rattling breath, his diatribe chaptered by deep inhalations, Mrs. Fox said in a voice so calm, so certain, that the world stilled at its conviction. “And then you stole the dead man’s hand so you could barter it for my own. Though you watched me be wedded to my husband, though you drank to our happiness, though you claim yourself an honorable man. You stole a dead man’s ring and then bade the wolves to come devour us.”

Mrs. Fox rose and something ancient stood in her place. “No, Lord Petty. That is not how the story ends.”

• • • •

“How did the story end, Papa?”

“Bloody, of course.” Mr. Fox said primly. “Now go to bed, my loves. Tomorrow, a hunt waits.”

Cassandra Khaw

Cassandra Khaw is a scriptwriter in Ubisoft Montreal. Her work can be found in F&SF, Lightspeed, Tor.com, and Strange Horizons. She has also contributed to titles like Sunless Skies, Fallen London, Wasteland 3, and She Remembered Caterpillars, which won the German Game Award for Best Children’s Game. Hammers on Bone, her first novella, was nominated for the Locus Award and the British Fantasy Award. Food of the Gods was nominated for the Locus Awards.