The vixen ran. Trees with heavy moss beards flashed past; she squeezed through loops of thorn studded bramble, ducking under ever fruitful vines, heavy with berries, and did not slow. Behind her was the crash of footsteps, the blare of horns. Occasionally there were rough, barely understandable calls as the pack members communicated with each other.
Her pursuers made no effort to hide their presence, even though they knew that to trespass so far into the woods was foolhardy. It had a reputation for danger, even malice; there were traps for the unwary and lures to draw you into the trees. Farther in, there were blood oaks, nourished by the obvious, and swarms of gossamers, tiny insects that hung upon the air, awaiting victims to latch onto and feast upon. The forest was truly wild, and formed an ever shifting maze that was impossible to navigate. Even now only the fringes had been mapped, set in a solid shape by landmarks and ink on seers’ parchment. Most of the realm's denizens had scarcely even passed the forest outskirts to forage for fallen branches, nuts and fruit. Even then they kept the path in sight and offered thanks for what they took. Failure to do so would only invite ruin, a curse on their farms, or worse. It did not do to provoke the old things that lived in the forest's heart. The vixen knew she was taking a gamble even coming here, but she had not counted on the goblin troopers fearing their master more than they feared the woods.
She stopped suddenly, sinking down onto her belly in the foliage; ahead there were pinpricks of light, something sniffed incessantly. Low voices growled to each other in a gruff wordless way that seemed to carry some sort of meaning.
“Can't smell nothing,” a thick voice announced suddenly. “What are we looking for anyway?”
“She'll look like some sort of woodland creature,” a smooth voice replied. The vixen's hackles rose; that was Darian's voice; she wondered what he was doing all the way out here. Surely the king did not think he could be useful?
“She comes from a family of shape changers, a most unsound group of people, if one could refer to them as that; a low and duplicitous family at the best of times.” He sounded almost authoritative as he said this, as if his was the last word on the matter, which perhaps it was. Darian had shagged and back stabbed his way from page to courtier in a matter of years rather than decades. She wondered how he had ended up in the middle of the forest and, with that thought in her head, she crept forward, keeping low and with her head turned slightly to the side to keep her eyes from reflecting the lantern light.
Closer she saw Darian, still clad in his court clothes, a foppish doublet and hose, shifting from foot to foot as if he feared his long toed shoes getting dirty. He clutched a long staff with a crystal set at its head tightly, as if he feared to release his hold on it.
A group of goblin soldiers surrounded him, as rough and crude looking as he was smooth and dandyish. She recognised them; they hailed from the Winter Mountains, a place where even the king’s sway, that had cast the rest of Faerie into the balmy grip of late summer, had not melted the ice. They were hardy hunters and good fighters but not noted for their intelligence, hence the king's favour. Beside the courtier a strange figure hovered, sitting on a storm cloud; an old woman whose immense nose jutted, beak-like, from her face. Under a broad brimmed hat, her gimlet eyes tracked the clearing's perimeter; the vixen prayed that they were not as sharp as they appeared to be.
“Of course not all the family's skilled enough to completely change their form,” Darian said, a little uncertainly. “Some can change but their scent stays the same. So she may not smell like an animal at all.”
“And she'll smell like what?” The woman asked, thickly. Her accent was strange, her speech almost stilted.
The vixen, who only days before had dwelt in the king’s court as Lady Yelena, backed away, wriggling through the undergrowth. Once the group had receded back into being a simple collection of lights she risked standing and heard a huge intake of breath through the jutting nose. “There!” the woman on the cloud barked and without waiting Yelena turned and ran in a long, curving arc deeper, always deeper, into the woods.
She heard the goblins give chase, heard them loose arrows, bowstrings twanging, the ground vibrating from the impact as they, thankfully, missed. She dared not look back; she kept her eyes fixed ahead and she fled, as if she truly were a beast.
Aiden woke early, stirred by the insistent tones of his mobile's alarm. He muffled it, dragging it under the bedclothes; the light from the screen was just enough to operate it in the darkness under the covers. It was early and the sun was not due up for half an hour or so. That meant he had not missed sunrise, he thought with a half smile. He scrambled out of bed, pulled on yesterday's clothes, which he had discarded only hours before, and picked his way to the door. Out on the landing he paused by his father's room, listening, there was only the ragged snore Dad had cultivated over the last couple of years; though there was no danger of him waking up this early in any case. Aiden crept past to the far door and pushed it open.
Brendon lay half out of his covers, curled into a foetal ball. His shaggy blonde hair contrived to look even more tousled than usual. As Aiden shut the door behind him he shifted, sprawling out across the bed.
Shielding his eyes Aiden reached out and shook his brother's shoulder. “Wake up,” he hissed. “Are you coming?”
Brendan grunted and woke, “What is it, we don't have school,” he protested sleepily.
“It's time, remember?” Aiden whispered.
“You really want to go? Aren't we getting a bit old for this stuff?” Brendan asked groggily, only half awake. Both boys could move from sleep to wakefulness quickly; Dad said they got it from their mother.
“We've been doing it half our lives,” Aiden pointed out. Years ago, when they really were boys, they had acquired a habit of rising before the sun on the Summer Solstice and sneaking out to watch the sun rise. Neither of them now remembered why they had started to do it, only that it had suddenly felt important to do so. “And it might be the last time, if you're serious about going away.”
Brendan sighed, “Okay then, one last time.” He pulled himself up unselfconsciously and drew jeans and tee shirt over his tanned skin. He wanted to be an actor, and had talked their father, a professor at a nearby university, into allowing him to go to stage school next year. He was handsome and talented enough to have a shot at it, and now that the boys' summer exams were done he was making plans to leave home and live away. He pulled on his battered trainers, “Come on then.”
The boys quietly made their way downstairs and out of the house, pausing only to make a thermos of coffee and so that Aiden could pull on his boots, big knee high ones from a catalogue. He was the only person to have them in Kingsford and, even a year after he had got them, there were mutters from the older townsfolk. Apparently they made him look like a thug, hilarious given that he had only been in two fights in his life, and started neither of them.
Outside, the two boys made their way down towards the woods, though that was hardly the right word for the poor, stunted collection of trees that grew beside the river. Years ago the twins had found a copse out there and found it perfect for viewing the rising sun or the stars on clear nights. As dawn's pink fingers started to muscle over the horizon they leant against a central tree and began to watch.
Yelena found the road suddenly, stumbling onto it with a shocking force as she burst from the undergrowth. She skidded to a halt, staring up and down the long bare eddy in the forest floor. It was a road, one untouched for a long time but with an aura of peace that the surrounding forest lacked. How long it had been here was she could not begin to imagine, but it was old and fragile. Yelena sensed that within a century it would be utterly swallowed, overrun by the forest, its protective magic sundered by encroaching roots and branches. In the meantime, it would serve to escape the King’s wee bastards.
She began to trot along it briskly; heading towards what she hoped was the forest edge, on the far side of the woods, away from the place where the goblins and other creatures would be searching for her. Hopefully the road would offer some respite, the older roads were often protected against the more bestial faeries, or so her grandmother had told her. They had been made centuries ago when the old king reigned. When the new monarch, this self-styled Oberon, had swept to power on the backs of an army of the brutes the old strictures and protocols had been overthrown, the price of the Horde's support.
The vixen slowed; she was tired from running and the scents along the road confused her. The normal forest aromas and the smell of the road mixed together unpleasantly, and there was something else, a scent that seemed to gather up ahead; that made her hackles rise. She skulked forward, hearing the sound of water up ahead, gurgling and babbling.
As she drew nearer she saw a river and a deserted ford. The smell was stronger here, it was an ugly scent, acrid and burning in her nose. As she made her way down to the ford it grew stronger. The sound of the water grew louder and thirst nagged at her. She bent her head to drink and as she did so, saw a sliver in the air where the forest on the other side rippled with an alien quality.
Before she could investigate, there was a flash of light, the eternal twilight of the realm. Just off the road, on the other side of the ford figures, shadows against the brightness of the light emerged, stabilising into the silhouettes of Darian's group.
“There, I find her for you,” the witch boomed, pointing out at the water.
“You're sure?” Darian asked, squinting a little.
“Of course, why do you wait?”
He glanced up at her, “She's on a road, did you not notice? The hunters can't reach her.” The goblins, as if to prove his point ran along the edge, splashing down into the water. They snarled angrily but to no avail, the magic of the old road kept them at bay.
Yelena lifted her head, watching. She crossed to the far side of the road, the one free of goblins and started forward, keeping to the edge as best she could. She could pass the troopers and the witch easily enough, especially as the woman seemed uninterested in doing anything more to capture her, instead sitting on the storm cloud watching the others’ efforts with mild interest. Only Darian posed any danger to her as long as she kept to the road.
“Do something you clods,” he shouted at the soldiers. “The days of the ban are long gone; surely an old track like this is no match to you?”
One of the goblins glanced up at him angrily, growling. The seal of office he wore on his collar spat sparks from the strain of trying to overcome the old, but powerful, enchantment.
“Fine then,” the courtier spat in frustration, thrusting the travel staff to the witch. “I'll do it myself.”
He jumped down onto the road, the spell parting for him as it sensed his sidhe blood. A sigh escaped his lips as he settled onto the old flagstones. “How curious it feels, so much more peaceful than outside,” he commented as if to himself. The goblins growled angrily at that, but he ignored them. Instead he descended to the ford splashing into the water. As he did so he drew his sword, making an experimental cut in the air. “Not what I'd use for fox hunting myself, but I suppose I must make an exception.”
She made no move; if she had more strength she could shift to another form, but that would be impractical now. The chase had taken so much that attempting to shape change would spell disaster. Instead she stared back, trying to work out if she could dash past him and away up the road. Leaving the road on the other side was an option, but the travel staff would have drawn the attention of local predators and she was no more equipped to deal with them than she was to take a new form. Without speech her other abilities were lost to her, spells required speech and fingers, unfortunately. She found herself staring at the gap, situated just behind Darian. It suddenly had an air of inevitability about it.
“What are you staring at, vixen? Don't tell me that you're going to your death with the memory of the night I tumbled you first and foremost in your mind?” The courtier smirked and dropped into a fighting pose. From the other side of the road there was a splitting sound and an approving growl. One of the goblins shouldered its way through the ailing enchantment and began towards her, hefting a heavy club resplendent with spikes.
Yelena moved. Using the last of her strength she pushed herself through the water straight at the courtier. A look of surprise crossed his face, he hastily swung his blade in a clumsy blow; his power had been made in beds and baileys, not battlefields, and whilst he could fight after a fashion, it was not his greatest skill. She dashed between his legs and beyond, letting the gap take her, feeling something change as she passed through.
There was darkness, billowing up about her. Somewhere there was a thundering, a cacophony of noise as if an immense smith pounded on his anvil in the darkness. She tried to turn back but as she turned a force picked her up and carried her forward, through the shadows until in a glare of brilliant, bright white light the world came back and she found water about her legs and stones under her paws again.
Suddenly it was no longer dusk but dawn, the sun coming up to her left. The air stank of chemicals and the feeling of enchantment was gone, leaving only a sense of emptiness. The road and the great forest were gone. Instead she was standing in a woodland of small, sad trees in the middle of a shallow river, a pale imitation of the ford back on the other side of the gap. There was an old bridge, much carved and covered in graffiti, as she stood there a great, long metal thing rushed past with a deafening rattle. She turned back, to see if there was pursuit and found herself staring at empty air. The gap, the gate, she supposed it was, had gone.
She yipped softly, a noise that unmistakably sounded like, “Shit.”
The boys watched as the sun rose. “How come Jessica didn't come?” Jessica was Brendan’s girlfriend, another Drama fiend. They were going to the same university, determined to be leading man and woman to the course by Christmas break from the sound of it.
Brendan stirred, “She thinks its stupid hippy shit.”
“She's right,” Aiden told him, grinning.
“This was your idea,” his brother reminded him dryly.
“Yeah,” Aiden did not remind his brother that once, not so long ago, he had been the first up on solstice morning, dragging Aiden out of bed to watch the rising sun, his hair shining in the dawn light. Age had dulled it just a little, mixing brown in with the shining gold.
Growing up had changed Aiden too, shifting the pallor that had earned him mockery as a child, when the two boys had been inseparable. As teenagers school had taken them in different directions, Brendan to Drama Club and under the spotlight; Aiden had become a ghost boy, spending his lunchtimes in the library, nose in book.
“What are you going to do after summer?” Brendan asked suddenly as he poured a cup of coffee from flask.
“No idea, I guess I'll go to college and study something.” Aiden replied, not sounding as if he really cared. He slid down to sit at the base of the tree, “You know what you want to do, right?”
“Of course.” His brother looked across at him, “How about you?”
“Not really,” Aiden sighed. “I don't seem to be good at much, unless it's reading.”
“You could be a librarian, like Humble;” Brendan teased, referring to the school librarian.
“Thanks, just want I want, Fair Isle cardigans and a beard like a hedge.”
“They'd suit you,” Brendan teased and stopped suddenly, looked back into the trees. “What's that?”
There was a rustling, a flash of russet and a hint of white fur; a fox trotted slowly into view. The creature paused, as if it was surprised at their presence. It rushed off in a suddenly dash. The boys heard it fall seconds later.
“What's wrong with it?” Aiden asked, as Brendan hurried back across the clearing. He passed the trees, saw the fox lying next to an oak tree; he ran down to crouch beside her. She growled at him, staring up with golden eyes, wild and tired. Her flanks heaved up and down with exhaustion; Aiden sensed the animal was too tired to run.
“Easy now, I don't mean you any harm.” Brendan kept his voice soft, level. The fox quieted as if she understood, letting him run his hands over her flank.
“Is it alright?” Aiden asked from the tree line. The fox started briefly but flopped back down again, not resisting as he drew close. She sniffed rapidly, turning her head to track Brendan's hand.
“She's fine, I think anyway.” Brendan assured him. “But I don't think she's going to get far in this condition.” He paused. “Do you think she'd come back with us?”
“What? You want to bring a fox back home? Do you know what Dad will say if he sees her?” Aiden protested.
“Dad won't notice her,” Brendan assured him. “He won't even know she's there unless he trips over her. We'll keep her in the garden for a few days, just until she's got more energy.”
“I don't like it,” Aiden said, pulling a face. “What do we feed her? If it is a her.”
The fox yipped, as if she were confirming that she was indeed female.
“You can blame me if you like, I think Dad's given up on me anyway.” He reached out and scooped the fox up in his arms. She thrashed in his arms for a moment before growing still, letting him carry her. All the while though she sniffed at the air, looking worried.
They made their way back home as gently as they could, staying off the road in case a car came past and frightened the animal. Aiden opened the back gate with a stick, teasing the latch open and they went into the wild overgrown back yard. Tending the garden was one of their responsibilities, one that was routinely neglected by both boys. Consequently the grass grew long and ragged, transforming the garden into the haunt of cats and other local creatures. If asked by their father either boy would shrug and say something about a wild life garden, and Dad, who really was not that interested to begin with, would let the matter drop.
Brendan settled the fox on a bed of grass and stepped back. She scrambled up, investigating her new surroundings before settling down in a tight curled ball as if in approval. She laid her tail over her nose and stared up at the two young men.
Aiden looked towards the horizon, “Looks like we missed most of the sunrise.”
“There's always next year,” Brendan said absently, not looking away from the fox. “I'll go and see if I can find something for her to eat, are you coming?”
“Sure,” the pale youth said uncertainly. They moved off, wading through the grass towards the back door.
Yelena watched the boys go into the house and lowered her head, draping her tail back over her nose. She felt confused and exhausted, but grateful for the unexpected act of charity. The boys, men really though neither of them knew it yet, smelt strange but under the unnatural scent of the world there was a hint of faerie, something that was a comfort and a puzzle. She wondered how that could have happened, it was not as if there was much traffic between Faerie and the world of men, not any more.
The rising sun warmed her fur and she found herself relaxing. Her limbs felt heavy, she decided sleepily that the mystery of the boys could wait until she had rested and knew more about where she was. She heard the house's door open again and the boys re-emerged, walking back towards her. She watched them as they set a pair of dishes down near her and then, hesitantly, started back to the house.
With a sigh she laid her head back on her paws and let herself drift off to sleep.