The Fox Queen
Once, there was a girl who found that if she folded herself up just right, she could grow small, and red, and bright-eyed, and a tail would sprout from her hindquarters, big and bushy. Her brain would become quick and sharp as a needle, and her nose would see the world in layers, scent laid upon scent like silk scarves floating in a breeze. She would grow four small paws – pop, pop, pop, pop, just like that – tipped with white fur and sharp black claws, and she would be fast. Her ears would become keener than a blade newly forged.
And there was a tiny catch inside her, like a button straining on a loop, and all she had to do to go back to being a girl was unfasten it, as easy as you’d undo your shoelaces. A simple flip, swish, and she was back, but just because it was simple didn’t mean it was easy.
She practised when she could and, with time, she grew bold.
One day as she ran, quick-quick, in her fox shape, she came upon a pair of finely dressed men out walking near the river.
‘Now that I am married,’ one man was saying, his beard black and bold, ‘we may begin.’
‘How shall it be managed?’ asked the other, a man with no beard and a tall bare forehead, which went all the way back to his neck. It shone with sweat.
‘Poison, I think,’ replied Black-Beard. ‘A secret blend of my own devising, untraceable.’
‘Only the gods know that,’ smiled Black-Beard.
The fox-girl held her breath as they walked away, their steps wending towards the palace where the Princess lived, a young woman of youth and beauty and uncommon kindness, recently wed. She unfolded herself and stretched a bit, and ran towards the palace kitchens by another road.
‘Cook,’ she said. ‘Let me in.’
‘Can you turn a spit? Can you scrape potatoes?’ asked the cook, barely looking up from her work.
‘Yes, yes,’ said the girl, and the cook nodded, handing her an apron without missing a stroke of her stirring. All day the girl worked, peeling and pounding and tasting and seasoning and chopping and basting and cutting, until dinner was ready and it was time to serve. She lined up behind Cook and all the other kitchen maids, last of the lot, and her eyes were keen as they trooped into the dining hall, laden.
The Princess sat at the top table, Black-Beard smiling beside her, and the girl watched. They poured the soup, and the Princess ate. They carved the meat and the Princess licked her fingers, Black-Beard’s smile growing wider. Then, Cook brought forth the blancmange, shaped in the shape of a wedding cake, and Black-Beard smiled as widely as he could.
‘My dear,’ he said, taking up the Princess’ hand to kiss it, and as soon as she closed her demure eyes to receive him, the girl saw a white powder sliding from his sleeve, soundless and unnoticed, trickling into the Princess’ dish.
She turned to a corner and folded herself as quick as quick, and leapt like a stroke of red lightning, running straight at the blancmange with her claws out, grasping. She knocked it right over and it quivered on the floor, unserved. Her tail brushed the Princess’ dish from the table and it flew to the tiles, where it shivered into a million pieces.
‘A piece of gold for that creature’s pelt!’ roared Black-Beard, but the Princess laid a hand on his arm.
‘Surely not, my dear,’ she said. ‘It is only a beast, who knows no better.’
The fox-girl ran back to the kitchen and unfolded herself, steadying her cap on her head and her apron on her waist just in time for the giggling kitchen maids to pour back in, full of gossip and excitement, and nobody noticed anything amiss.
Next day, the stink of Black-Beard filled her head as soon as she folded herself up. She followed him like a careful shadow, testing the wind as she drew near, for this day he and Long-Head had dogs with them, stupid and slow but with mouthfuls of teeth.
‘This time we will try to unhorse her,’ growled Black-Beard. ‘At my mark, the dogs will frighten her mount, and it will be suitably tragic.’
‘An excellent plan, my lord,’ smiled Long-Head.
The fox-girl unfolded herself, stretched her tired muscles, and ran to the palace stables. She hid in a corner until the Princess entered, smiling, to be helped onto her horse. With fanfare, Black-Beard joined her and the party rode out.
The girl took a deep breath and transformed herself into the shiniest, plumpest fox that had ever been seen, and instantly the dogs took her scent. The Princess had barely ridden out of her palace before the beasts were lured away, howling and bawling, saliva running, eyes maddened and hearts aflame. The fox-girl heard Black-Beard roaring as she ran, and the Princess, cheering her on.
On the third day, the fox-girl waited for Black-Beard and Long-Head, and by the by they came, frowns glowering and eyes overcast.
‘This time, it shall be in her chamber,’ said Black-Beard. ‘I shall take a blade and drive it home myself, in privacy.’
‘A wonderful plan, my lord,’ sneered Long-Head.
The fox-girl ran to the palace, climbing walls and ivy until the Princess’ window was reached. It was open, and she stole in, hiding in a dark corner. Her folded-up muscles ached, and her eyes stung with tiredness, and her belly yowled with hunger, but she waited still and patient for darkness to fall. In time, it did.
The Princess entered, and was undressed and bathed and garbed in her nightgown, her hair brushed out one hundred times and her prayers whispered. Still, the fox-girl waited, eyes shining in the shadows.
A knock came at the door.
‘My dear,’ wheedled Black-Beard. ‘May I enter?’
‘Lord husband,’ replied the Princess. ‘Of course.’ She crossed to let him in, and the fox-girl tensed every pained muscle, straining to see.
‘You are lovely, wife,’ said Black-Beard, holding the Princess at arm’s length. ‘Come, let me embrace you.’ She raised her arms to welcome him, and the fox-girl saw his hand slide to his belt.
She leapt from the corner and bounded for his head, her teeth bared, and Black-Beard fell back with a yell. Quicker than a thought, he drew forth his blade and threw it. The dagger struck the fox-girl’s foot, slicing through it and removing two tiny toes, and her red blood on the floor matched the red of her coat. She ran for the window as the Princess shrieked for her guards.
Talk was, next day, that the Princess’ husband and his liege-man had been called home on urgent business. They vanished, at any rate, and were never seen again in the Princess’ realm or any other, and the fox-girl went home and her hand was bandaged, and life went on.
One day the fox-girl passed the Princess on the road. She curtsied and stood aside, and the Princess’ horse had almost trotted past when her voice was heard, calling.
‘Girl,’ she said. ‘How did you injure your hand?’
‘An accident, your Highness,’ replied the fox-girl.
‘Strange,’ said the Princess. ‘I once saw a fox injured in just the same way, two of its toes sliced away by a traitorous blade. When my maid came to clean the blood, she found the fox-toes had turned into fingers, thick and calloused from hard work, strong and short of nail.’ The fox-girl said nothing. ‘Hold out your hands to me, girl,’ said the Princess.
The fox-girl did as she was told, and the Princess saw the truth of things.
‘I will reward you with anything it is in my power to give,’ she said.
‘A small bag of gold for my parents, your Highness,’ replied the fox-girl.
‘And for you?’
‘I have had my reward,’ she replied, curtsying.
From that day forth, however, the Princess – later the Queen – made no decision without consulting the fox-girl. In time, the girl and her family took rooms in the palace, and the fox-girl sat by the Queen’s side in a red throne of her own. Finally, the Queen died, and the fox-girl ruled in her place, until she too passed from this world.
Now they lie together in a single tomb, two days’ ride from here, on the far side of the mountain. And if you don’t believe me, you can go and look for yourself, and that’s the end of it.