The Fox & The Boy

Ok,  here it is.  This is the result of the previous post where I decided to write a short story. I managed to knock this out in about half a day in the end. All things considered, I don’t think it’s too bad, but I still had an internal freakout about posting.  Let me know what you think.

 

 

The Fox & The Boy

It was dark in the forest. The trees loomed overhead, knitting their branches together so it was impossible to tell what was sky.  Not that it would have mattered. The day had been damp and rainy, clouds still sat low adding to the depth of the blackness.  Where there was enough light to reach the ground, shadows danced and flowed through the tangled undergrowth as the wind rocked the boughs above, creating faces, bodies, creatures lurking just beyond sight.  An unnamed beast screeched, its voice magnified and mirrored by the creaking trees and rustling brambles.  Against the trunk of a gnarled old oak, down between the roots, almost entirely submerged under swirling, dead leaves, with her arms around her head and her tear streaked face buried in her knees, there huddled a girl, no more than six years old. The creature shrieked again and she whimpered, shrinking into an even smaller ball, desperately wishing she could be anywhere but here. Alone in the mud and detritus, in the dark, bitter weather, she sobbed into her sodden skirt, wedged in the nook at the foot of the tree; and that is where, hours later after the dawn had finally broken and the wind had died down and the rain was only a drizzle, the boy found her.

He was tall for his age, only nine years old but already broad at the shoulder and strong in the arm.  Both were down to his father; that he should be tall was no surprise but his strength could only have come from rigorous practice under a watchful eye with a sword, shield, club, and lance.  It was not the burly brawn of a farm hand or labourer, but the honed physique of a soldier in training. He was in a foul mood, as he often was lately, so he kicked his way through the twigs and leaves, stomping heavy-booted, swinging a broken branch into the bushes and muttering to himself.  At first he did not see her there, tucked away under the debris of the storm. He would have walked by, but she sighed in her sleep and stirred a little.  He jumped back, expecting a fox but raising his stick in case it was something bigger.  Gradually, the form resolved itself as leaves fell away and she sat up, slowly, stretching her aching limbs and looking about with bleak confusion.  For a few moments they looked at each other.  Then, she screamed.

“Stop that!” he commanded, using a tone borrowed from his father.  To his surprise and relief she did, but her eyes were wide and her tiny body trembled. He dropped to his knees on the damp ground and placed the stick beside him.  “You can come out now.”

She did not move, just stared at him with round, dark eyes.

“Come on,” he said, matter-of-factly, as if he spent every day coaxing small children from hollowed trees. “It’s no good you sitting in there.  There might be snakes. Or spiders.”

In a second she was up, frantically swiping at her clothes with her hands and whimpering.  In her haste to be far from the threatened spiders she caught her boot in a loop of root and tumbled over with a cry, landing heavily on her face and hand. Slowly, she clambered up enough to sit facing him, clutching her bruised wrist to her chest and crying quietly.  He studied her.  She looked awful; her dark red hair was matted and tangled with leaves and twigs and plastered across her head in all directions. Her face was coated with mud and grime and laced with scratches and her hands the same, with black fingernails. Her dress was torn and filthy and the sole was coming away from one of her boots.  She was a pitiful sight.  He shuffled over to her.

“Show me your arm.”  Obligingly, she held it out for his inspection, flinching as he prodded the swelling and gave a gentle turn.  “It’s just a sprain,” he declared, confidently.  He’d had enough to recognise one.  She pulled the injured limb back as soon as he released it. “Where are you from?”

She looked about her and her little forehead creased in worry. She didn’t know. “Where do you live?” he continued, “What’s your name? Where are your parents?”  The forehead crease became a lip wobble which became a low wail. He huffed. “Don’t start crying again!” Girls were difficult enough, without crying.  He offered a silent thanks for the fact he was an only child. “Well, you can’t stay here.” He stood up and offered her a hand, which she took, a little reluctantly.  He pulled her to her feet. She was so light, he almost stumbled backwards. Skinnier than any six year-old had any right being. The sense of duty he’d been acting from faded, replaced with concern; an emotion he was not familiar with. He studied her again. Her face, under the mud and scrapes was pale and gaunt, her eyes red-rimmed, dark circled and sunken, with little light behind them.  The hand in his was slight and bony.  She had not eaten in a long time.

“How long have you been out here?” he asked, more to himself than to her. She simply met his eyes with that same worried confusion.  “You can come with me. I’ll find your family.”  He gave her a gentle tug to encourage her to walk and, picking up his stick, turned back the way he had come.  She trailed along behind him as they went and he made sure to crush down the tougher brambles and nettles for her.  As they walked, he talked.  He had never been very good with silence.

“My name is Sebastian. Sebastian Penhaligon. My father is the Captain of the Watch in Kelvar. That’s the Capital City.” He said this with a great deal of pride; although he and his father did not often see eye to eye, the prestige and fortune of his situation did not escape his notice, young as he was. “We’re here because of the war. You probably don’t know much about it.” He had that condescending tone of children who are aware of their own importance. “There’s a war because there was a murder. My father is here with the King.” He could not help the swelling of pride in his chest as he went on. “My father is an advisor to the Guard and he fights with their army.” Sebastian’s knowledge of this area was not firm, but he was more than willing to piece together things he knew with things he believed to create a likely truth.  “I came with him because it’s good for me to see war.”  His face set into a grimace as he remembered what he had seen of war. It was hard to understand what was good about it.  “My father says the more I know about the world the better equipped I shall be to master it.  That’s how men become great.”  He fell silent for a while as he thought over the conversation he’d had with the Captain that morning.  It was probably less of a conversation and more of an argument.  They were happening with increasing frequency these days.  Sebastian was not inclined to follow his father’s serious instruction; he preferred a free-spirited existence where he did not have to be in the training yard soon after dawn, before breakfast, mimicking the training of the Watchmen. Learning discipline.  His heart longed for his own space, the chance to discover for himself what the world could offer him and where he wanted to go.  He did not fully comprehend the whys and wherefores, but he was beginning to feel the pull of rebellion and the more he saw of this war, the more he knew he did not want to be his father.

The girl was limping. Sebastian had not noticed at first because the ground was uneven anyway, but the rhythm of her uneven gait attracted his attention and he stopped her.  “Do your feet hurt?”  She was resting her right foot — the foot with the broken boot — on its toes.  “Show me.”  As with his father, it never occurred to him to ask permission.  She hobbled backwards a half step.  “Sit down,” he glared.  She sank to the ground and sheepishly stretched her leg out in front.  The sole of the boot was half gone and she had no sock.  There was a deep gash in the heel of her foot.  It was red and angry, swollen and seeping.  It looked like there was something imbedded in there.  She gasped when he touched it.  “That’s no good,” he said. “It’s still really far to where we’re staying.”  He turned and crouched. “Get on then.”  She didn’t move.  He looked back over his shoulder. “Climb on, come on! You can’t walk all the way and if I’m not back by breakfast father will know I wandered away.” The Captain thought Sebastian was in his room, thinking about his attitude. “I won’t drop you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”  Reluctantly, and with some difficulty, the girl clambered onto his back.  She barely weighed anything, no more than the pack his father had him wear for morning runs at least.  With a few adjustments she was secure and comfortable, though she clung to him for dear life as he began to walk again.  For over an hour they continued like this, with Sebastian telling her about his home in Kelvar; his friends and teachers, his room, the things he owned, the horse he’d been riding here who he didn’t like so much as his own horse in the city because it wouldn’t keep his head out of the grass.  He told her how he’d learned to do a backflip and climb the stable building so he could get into the tree beside it and climb up high enough to see right out to the plains and how a lady in the hamlet made bread with plums in that was almost like cake but you could put butter on it.  The whole time she listened, nestled against his back with her head on his shoulder until they finally emerged from the cover of the trees to the edge of the battlefield and she slid down to the grass.

This battle was long over.  Broken weapons remained and some corpses too, but they were mostly being picked over by carrion and scavengers. There was nothing for the living here. The wind ruffled the long grass and carried the scent of the fires smouldering in the distance, out towards the mountains.  Faint plumes of smoke made the horizon hazy.  The girl sniffed back her tears.  Sebastian did not know it but somewhere in this field lay the girl’s father and beyond, in the burnt out remains of a village, her mother.  She had fled before the soldiers to follow her father, but had not found him and, through the horrors of the fray, had somehow survived to the forest at this edge of the plain where she had remained since.

Pulling his eyes from the scene, Sebastian found the girl a stout branch blown down from a tree in the night, as tall as her shoulder, and instructed her to use it as a walking stick for a way as the going was easier here and he would carry her again soon.  Their progress was slow but steady.  He wished he’d had the forethought to bring a water pouch with him, but then he’d stormed away so quickly he had not considered it.  Skirting the space between grass and trees they rounded the forest and could see, nestled by a narrow stream at the bottom of the hill they’d been on top of, a small cluster of buildings, surrounded by fruit gardens, fenced paddocks of pigs and goats and small plots of land given over to farming.

“That’s where we live for now,” Sebastian told her. “Some of the people left when the army came but because it was our army some people stayed. My father is in charge of this position. There are positions all along here,” he gestured out into the countryside as he recalled a map the Captain had shown him, “but most of the soldiers have gone that way as the enemy retreated.  There’s still a few left, just in case.” He pointed a short way beyond the hamlet’s fields to a collection of tents, starkly grey and ordered against the greenery, where banners fluttered in the breeze.  The smell of flowers and food, warmth and welcome wafted up, mingling with the grim scents behind them and drawing them on.  The girl climbed back into her place on Sebastian’s back and he followed a worn track that wove it’s way gradually down to the houses. Some were wooden, some were stone, most were thatched.  There were flowers and berry bushes, trees that yielded apples and plums.  If she did not know her own village was gone forever the girl would have sworn she was home.  Sebastian made his way directly to a large stone house.  It was long and low and had a stable and trees, carts and wagons. The King’s banner flew from a pole beside the door.

“This is my house,” Sebastian said as he lowered the girl to the ground.  “I suppose it’s not really my house. Our real house is in the city but we were allowed to live here while father is working.  “It’s a full week to my real house from here, if you have to walk.”  He pointed to the stable block.  “Go in there and I’ll be back.” He trotted away through the door. The girl’s heart pounded in her chest as she hobbled to the stable. Inside there were three separate compartments, two of which contained horses.  The warm air smelled of hay and animals; sweet and comforting.  She flopped into the straw of the empty stall and waited.  After a short while, Sebastian returned with mugs of water and some bread.  It did not have plums in, but it did have a thick smear of butter.  The girl nibbled it gingerly, as if afraid of what food would do to her empty stomach.  While she was occupied with the bread, Sebastian gently pulled off her boot and examined her foot.  It looked bad and as he touched it she cried out in pain and began to cry again.

“Wait here,” he said, somewhat unnecessarily as she had nowhere else to go.  This time he was gone longer, but when he came back he had a small parcel and a pot of steaming water.  Settling himself on a low bundle of straw, with her foot up on his lap, he proceeded to unwrap the package. “This is chickweed,” he began, holding out a handful of small, white flowers on thin, green stems.  She took one. “We use this on the horses when they cut their feet.  You crush it in your hand,” he did so “and then let it steep a while,” he dropped it into the hot water “and then we’ll strap it to your foot and it pulls out the poisons.”  He swirled the pot.  It smelt odd, but not unpleasant.  While he waited for the herb to brew, Sebastian dipped a piece of cloth into the liquid and began to dab it delicately on the girl’s tiny foot.  She winced.  “It’ll be better soon,” he said, “I promise.” He didn’t know why, but he suddenly felt incredibly protective of this scrawny creature with those huge, dark eyes as if, if he could only keep her safe, everything in the world would be better.  He continued to clean her foot until the herbs were ready, then bundled them into a poultice inside a clean piece of cloth and pressed it to the sore. “It’ll feel better soon.  You should go to sleep, you look tired.”  She lay back into the straw and closed her eyes.  “Please don’t die,” he whispered.

She drifted in and out of sleep for the rest of the day, sometimes woken by the throbbing in her foot, sometimes by noises in the yard, so she pulled more straw over herself in hopes she would not be discovered. Sebastian came to the stall several times to check on her and bring food but could not stay as he had errands for his father.  By the time the light outside was dimming she felt much better than she had for a long while.  Sebastian brought left over soup from dinner, still lukewarm, and some of the bread with plums in.  It was as delicious as he had described and she ate it greedily.  A movement at the door made them both jump.

“Sebastian!” It was the Captain.  The boy jumped to his feet and faced his father. The Captain looked beyond him to the small girl huddled in the straw, clutching the bread, then back to his son. “Don’t feed the vermin, Sebastian. It only encourages them. Get rid of it.”  He turned and left.  The girl was shaking as Sebastian knelt beside her.

“Don’t worry, you can stay. I’ll hide you. Then we can find where you live.” He brushed her matted hair out of her eyes and gave her a strong hug.  “I wish I knew what to call you.”

“Imogen.”

He drew back and met her eyes.  It seemed a little light danced in them now, faint, but there. “Imogen. That’s nice. I’m going to call you Fox, because that’s what I thought you were when I first saw you. Imogen Fox.”  He stood up. “I have to go in, now, Fox, but I’ll be back. We’re friends now.”  He tossed her an old horse blanket.  “Goodnight.”

Imogen Fox watched him go with a smile, then lay back in the straw, snuggling under the mouldering cover and closed her eyes against the last of the light, determined to forget everything except this boy; the boy who saved her.

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2 thoughts on “The Fox & The Boy

  1. Ahhhh, this is really good Sarah! I love how quickly you establish the characters and setting, and the fantasy world is beautifully realised. You have a really lovely writing style, Sarah. Also I am a sucker for ambiguity in short stories, so I loved the ending. I hope writing this helped you to unblock yourself; as a one off writing exercise, this is pretty amazing. And predictably, if somewhat perversely for someone who claims to enjoy ambiguity, I want to know what happened next, damn it!

  2. So what happened!! Did he take her away and hide her, did his Dad kill her, did she have to run away again?…….WHAT!! You can’t leave it like that!!!! Mark of a good story, I want to know what happens next. Very well written, love it so far, just waiting for the next installment. No, it is NOT finished!

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