A short story told by the Bard Instio to the young heroes of Aelwen Jones and the Svarttrol Army - my latest, yet-to-be-released fantasy.
(An audio version of the story is at the bottom of the page)
Once, on a plain by the shore of the mighty ocean, lived a scraggly old fox with his tatty old wife, and his three hungry pups. Wily was he, and rotten in the tooth, for the plain was scant of food, and he needed his cunning to feed his clan. Ten years and five he had lived on the plain, and ten years and five had his father lived there before him. He knew every rock, every bush, every dune, and every hole, did that red and brown fox. He knew where the gulls laid their eggs up on the rocks, hoping to foil his hungry hunting. He knew where the rats dug their holes, pulling their tales in quickly if they heard his silent approach. He knew where to hide on the trail and wait for the peddlers with their hoary old donkeys, hoping they dropped a morsel for him to carry to his lair.
One fallow day, as he was hopping from thorn bush to thorn bush, he spied a nest atop a small, leafless tree. He looked up and gazed at the unusual affair, built in such an exposed spot. As he did, he spied a short white tail flicker over the edge. The fox smiled. He knew that tail for it belonged to the white dove, a bird of exquisite beauty, and, thought the fox, possessing the most delicious eggs!
“I shall have me one of those,” he said to himself. “And I shall bring it to my wife and my three hungry babies so they may feast!”
Foxes are not known to be climbers of trees, not like the squirrel or the long-tailed weasels that snake along branches like the very bark itself. But our wily friend was nimbler than most of his kind, and bit by bit, he scaled the barren tree.
“Get thee away,” screamed the dove, spying his approach. “For you shall not steal my own!” And she dived down at him, pecking at his nose, till he slid and slipped all the way to the ground.
The fox growled and once again set upon the task of climbing to the nest. Once again, the bird chased him to the ground, and then farther still, diving at him till he scampered away across the plain.
The next day, the fox, not one to be beaten, again slipped quietly through the brush to the tree. Silently, he started his assent, his sharp claws biting into the thin bark.
“Take that!” shouted the bird, and she threw a twig at him! “Begone,” she shrilled, and followed with a nut, the hard fruit bouncing from his nose.
The fox wrapped his legs around the tree and hung on tightly as the dove pelted his eyes, trying to blind him. At last he gave up, and slid to the ground, bouncing back from the tree.
“I will have your egg!” he shouted, pacing around the trunk.
“You shall not, old fox,” cried the dove. “For I beat back your father, and your father’s father. And old I may be, but I will beat you back too!”
“Nay, you shall not,” cried the fox. “For I have a right to your egg! I am the fox, and you are just a dove!”
The dove, waving her white wings, called back. “Does the wolf have the right to your children? Does the bear have a right to the wolf’s cubs? Does the ogre have the right to the bear’s dear child?”
The fox growled in anger. “And do you have the right to take food from my children?”
The next morn, the fox woke before the sun, and he crept quietly to the tree and waited. Before long, he saw the dove rise from her nest, and, lifting her wings, fly off to find her breakfast. The fox took his chance and climbed slowly up to the nest. But the storms had come early that year, and as he climbed, he was buffeted by the winds, and the rains made the branches slippery. The fox hung on, and, digging in with his claws, dragged himself to the highest branch and pulled himself into the unusual nest.
There he found three white eggs. He licked his lips. The climb had been hard, and the wind was howling. He could only take one of the delicious morsels in his teeth, but which?
“Choose carefully, fox,” said the dove, alighting on the edge of the nest. “For with the icy winds, two of mine have already died in the shell. Only one still lives.
The fox blinked in surprise. Which one should he choose? Two may be rotten, and he must not feed his children rotten eggs lest they were poisoned. He sniffed the eggs, first one, then another, and then the third.
“Tell me,” demanded the fox. “Which one still lives so I may feed my hungry children?”
The dove raised her wings and screamed, her beak flashing just past his nose. The fox jumped back and slipped off the edge of the nest only at the last second grabbing the twigs with his teeth.
“You shall not know which one lives until the day its shell cracks,” cried the bird. “Be gone!” And she flew at his face, her claws scratching at his nose and mouth. The fox howled in pain, and fell crashing to the ground, breaking his leg. He wailed and growled at the bird up in her nest, and he dragged himself to his lair.
For the next two whole weeks, he limped around the plain, his leg dragging after him, finding what food he could. He could no longer climb the rocks. The rats could hear him coming as he whimpered in pain. And with the storms, the peddlers abandoned the trail. He found what scraps he could, and he took them to his wife. But it was not enough, and he carried his youngest from the lair and buried it in the sands. Filled with grief and his leg crying out in pain, he once again patrolled the ground around the barren tree. And one day, he heard a chirrup.
The fox looked up, but there was no sign of the dove. Again, he heard a small plaintive chirrup, the sound of a chick waiting for its mother. But still, no dove. By this time the fox was so hungry that he attempted to climb to the nest, his useless leg hanging behind him. Bit by bit he inched up the tree, biting his lips every time his leg snagged on the branches. Slowly and slower still he climbed, and after two long hours, he pulled himself wearily into the nest.
And there, laid before him, were two dead eggs and one bright white chick. The fox licked his lips, almost tasting the young bird before he even got close.
“Are you going to feed me?” asked the chick. The fox shut his mouth in surprise.
“Have you not been fed?” asked the fox.
“I have not,” said the chick.
“Where is your mother?” asked the fox.
“I know not,” said the chick. “I awoke from my shell three days since, but I have yet to meet my mother. I am so hungry and have no food. Will you feed me?”
“I have no food to give you,” said the fox.
“Are you going to eat me?” asked the bird, looking up at the fox with pale, tired eyes.
The fox hesitated. “I do not know.”
“Then will you wait with me till my mother returns?” asked the chick. “Will you keep me warm? For my brother and sister cannot.”
For two days the fox sat with the bird snuggled under him and waited for the dove who did not return, and they both grew weaker. Where was she, wondered the fox. Had she flown away? Had she fallen? Had she been taken from the sky by the hawks that flew over the hills? He did not know. On the third day, the fox, his stomach churning, turned to the small bird, and he opened his mouth.
The fox’s wife heard her husband crawl into the lair, his leg making him hiss in pain.
“Have you food, husband, for our children, for we are all starving!”
The fox opened his mouth wide, and from his tongue stepped the small chick.
“Is this our food, husband?” asked the wife, looking at the very small, thin bird.
“No, wife, it isn’t,” replied the fox. “For sometimes the ogre will not chase the child of the bear, and sometimes the bear will not eat the wolf cub. And sometimes the wolves leave us in peace. I will go to the rocks and I will beg food from the gulls, for this child has lost its mother, and is now in my care.