The ground was dry beneath Yelena’s paws as she slipped along the back ways of the town in the early morning light. Most of the town still slumbered, unwilling to face the sudden summer heat. Kingsford had been rain clogged for weeks, water soaking everything and the lack of clouds in the sky was welcome, as was the break from the little earth she had dug at the rear of the boys’ garden. During the wet weather she had only ventured out to find food, on most nights returning with her fur all risen in spikes, as if she went out a fox and came back a hedgehog.
For the rest of the time she had watched the house and its occupants. The boys’ words had proven correct; their father did not notice her lurking in the tall grass even when he stared out of the window, seemingly looking straight at her. He was a short, round man, with more salt than pepper in his hair though he did not seem unkindly, but bookish and detached from the world. He spent little time at home and the boys, which increasingly only meant Aiden; Brendan was bouncing back and forth between his family home and the flat he had moved to in order to study Drama, were left alone in the house to fend for themselves. When that was the case, she was far more open, lying out and soaking the sun’s rays up, so that they could see her.
When Brendan was home he would inevitably place a gratefully received bowl of water and a few table scraps out on the weed choked patio. He would sit near her whilst she ate, making idle conversation, mostly telling her about the flat and the friends he was living with and the preparation he was making for the course’s start in September.
Aiden was a different matter; he kept his distance, offered no such treats. Often he would simply appear after a day’s work at whatever he did, check she was still there and slip into the house without a word. It was not that he was unfriendly; he smiled and waved but he clearly did not feel the attachment to her that his brother did.
Although she did not wish to admit it, the young men were the chief reason she had not just disappeared once she had recovered from her flight from Faerie. Both of them carried something about them, a hint of something more than the muck and mire of the world she found herself in; a hint of Faerie that she had smelt the day that Brendan had carried her home. She was still unused to the scents and sounds that filled the town, the cough of car engines, and the hum of electricity. The boys unwittingly gave her hope that there was something more to the world than what the eye saw.
During the brief dry patches she had picked her way about the town, exploring it's layout, negotiating the streets and alleys that inevitably sprang up between buildings. She had learnt too, what belonged to whom. Not in terms of human buildings, that was obvious, but in a more primal sense, where the local animals had established their territories, where the more dangerous of them dwelt. She had learnt the hard way that the big dog on Shakespeare Avenue was not to be trifled with. Now, she could cross from one side of the town to the other without incident, skirting her neighbours’ complex boundaries.
This morning she headed back towards the woodland, partly to hunt but also to attend to something else that nagged at the back of her mind. In the weak morning light, she paused every so often to let the sun warm her coat as she made her way back to the river and the bridge. She moved cautiously, keeping her senses keen for things other than rival foxes or other animals; keeping them sharp for Faerie magic.
She slowed as she approached the riverbank, stopping at the water’s edge before tentatively she stepped into the water and lowered her nose. There was no sign that the gate had reopened, but she could not discount the possibility; Oberon had enough pet sorcerers and witches under his sway that if he chose to the gate could be reopened easily. Still there was the scent, light and clinging. It hung in the air still as if the door was not shut but ajar and stuck fast. She smiled in the manner of foxes, it might just be enough.
Gently Yelena took a deep breath and cleared her mind. Standing stock still in the shallow water she smelt Faerie, breathed Faerie and called the image of her other form into her mind’s eye. Willowy limbs, fine features, long red hair that swept down her back. She recalled her face, her long fingers and slowly began to will herself to change form. Her knees shook as she gathered herself. She shut her eyes as a tingling feeling swept over her, making her fur stand on end. She focused, trying to hold the image in her mind but it swam away, becoming the image of a fox. A frown crossed her face, nothing was happening. Her limbs remained stubbornly vulpine, ending in paws rather than hands and feet. Her brush remained where it was, refusing to transform into part of her long mane of hair.
She tried again, banishing the image of the fox and making the image of herself as a woman sharper, realer with more details. She breathed deep picturing herself, catching the green of her eyes, the curve of her lips; the pertness of her breasts. She saw her fingernails, in her mind long and delicate, though weeks of living as an animal doubtless would have left them ragged and misshapen, pictured her clothes, the long green robe she had worn the night that the king had turned upon her family. Again her body filled with tingling, shaking energy, again her fur rose. Her brow furrowed as she focused, a thin whine escaped her black lips.
A forepaw rose, pain shooting through as toes lengthened, gained new joints. Her bone structure changed, as the vestigial thumb travelled south to her hand, which was growing wider, longer. She risked peeking at the limb, opening her eyes just a crack and at that moment the feeling fled. She just had time to see the long delicate fingers shrink back into fur covered toes. A frustrated whimper burst from her throat as her thumb returned to its position on her leg.
She tried again, and again. Each time she was almost successful, she felt her body change but every time something drew her back into the form of the fox and every time the pain of the transformation grew worse. Eventually she had no choice but to admit that today, she was defeated. There would be no pale lady to greet the people of the town, only the vixen sneaking through the back ways.
Behind her there came the tread of feet, she ran to through the ford and into the bushes on the other side; stopping to look back once she had gained cover. It was only when she moved that she realised how tired she was, and how she ached from her failed cantrips.
Aiden came down to the ford’s edge, paused and looked up and down the river. A puzzled look crossed his face as he peered about. “Not here either, where the hell has she gone?” He asked the air.
Yelena glanced up and suddenly realised that the sun was directly overhead; she had spent the entire morning trying to shift form. No wonder she was sore and tired. She stumbled out and yipped quietly at the boy, making her way to him.
Aiden did not speak, but crouched beside her, pulling a slice of cheese and some bread from one of his coat’s big pockets. He laid them on the ground and watched her eat. When she had finished he straightened again, “Are you coming home now? Brendan’s home this evening, he wouldn’t want to miss you.”
He moved off, walking slowly, and she fell into step beside him.
Unseen, across the border three men stood at the edge an almost identical ford. They were clad in dark clothes, so that in the shade of the forest they were almost invisible save for the cold white of their skin. Their faces seemed to hang, disembodied in the air.
They stared across the water, to the gap between worlds. Only a sliver showed barely wide enough for a rat to scurry through let alone anything larger. It was only through dint of their sorcery that they could see anything at all, with Feydo of the Crimson School, oldest of the Faerie enchanters, holding images from the far side before them whilst his apprentice Alastair and the courtier Darian looked on.
They watched the vixen’s attempts to alter her form, one with cool detachment, the others with a morbid curiousity that in the Darian’s case bordered on amusement and he had to stifle his chuckles at her plight behind his gloved hand.
They watched too as the pale boy came into view and escorted the fox away. “Who is that youth?” Alastair asked softly.
“How should I know?” Darian retorted, “A human from the look of him, nothing for us to concern ourselves with. The bitch is our target.”
“Vixen,” Feydo corrected absently, not lifting his eyes from the panorama before them.
Darian’s brow furrowed, “What?”
Feydo ignored the question, “You are sure that the beast is the rebel?”
“Of course I am! I saw her flee through the gate with my own eyes.” Darian paused, “I just wish I knew how she’d done it; her family never had that sort of magic before.”
Feydo grimaced at him from the corner of his eye and shook his head at the courtier’s stupidity. “Whatever world she resides in she must be captured or destroyed, is that the case?”
“Yes, but what should we do? Gate magic is the rarest of all isn’t it?” Darian asked a touch wildly. “Can you widen it and let us go through?”
“I cannot,” Feydo replied in a wintry voice before lapsing into thought. Minutes passed, and he lifted his head again, “Alastair, hand me the black cloth.”
“Of course Master,” the younger wizard pulled forth a black silk rag from one of the pouches that mired his belt. He handed it to Feydo, who held it up examining it closely.
It was long and tattered, with pieces that hung off it in tapering slices, wending to points. White runes were stitched into its surface, seemingly twisting and turning as if they did not want to be read, but there was a large blank patch in the very centre of the scrap.
“Yes, this will do,” Feydo pronounced. “There is but one more mark to make, to give it life.” He made a strangled noise in his throat and spat something out onto the silk. When he lowered the rag the others saw a final rune, stitched in spidery white thread in its centre. Feydo released the edges, letting the cloth float before him. Then, it tipped until it was horizontal and flew unerringly towards the sliver and disappeared from sight.
With a sigh Feydo let the clairvoyance spell end, the mild panorama of the English woodland fading away until there was only the deep Faerie forest in view. “It is done,” the sage announced. “Let the vixen defeat it if she can.” He turned to Alastair, “Take us home, I weary of this place.”
A moment later, a flash of light lit up the woodland shadows. When the light faded the men were gone.