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A Fox's Touch
She’d been at it for hours. When was he going to realize it was never going to happen? When was he going to give up?
“Try, just one more time.”
“Thou hath said such nigh on half a hundred times!”
“Try.” His voice was hard, commanding, as unyielding as the coarse granite rocks she ran her fingers over as she tried hard not to dwell on the lingering pain that was slowly strangling her heart at the memory that this had once been something she had been able to do without a moment’s hesitation.
“Carrick, thou hath told me afore—my magic is lost. My shape shall never shift again.” Forcing her mouth to form those words, to admit the truth, was like stabbing a dagger into her chest and gouging out her heart.
“Nothing is lost forever. We find everything in the end. Now try again.”
She closed her eyes, but that didn’t stop her from feeling Carrick’s sudden relief at being released from the utterly inhuman gaze of her brilliant golden eyes, flecked with the tiniest specks of chestnut brown and cleft by slitted ebony pupils. She could tell when her eyes unsettled people by that faint fear-scent that wafted through the air. She had grown accustomed to it though, because in truth they unsettled everyone, even herself on that rare occasion she bothered to look at her reflection in a pool and find that the eyes staring back at her were a fox’s eyes.
There was nothing. No burst of magic. No shifted form.
Try, try again, try harder… His voice rattled around her skull, persistently telling her to try, try, try. She had already tried, and failed. There were forty-seven scratches on the granite to mark those failures, and she hadn’t even started keeping track until an hour ago. This was pointless! She wasn’t a witch anymore! Why bother to sit here and keep trying?
She sprang to her feet, and without a second thought she raced off into the forest.
“Eira! Eira, come back here!” the man bellowed after her, but she was already gone. The wild was her territory, her realm, and not even the queen’s own black-hearted scenthounds could track her when she didn’t want to be found. She was the only person in memory, living or dead, to have escaped that notorious pack when it was loosed on her trail, so it was not overconfidence that led her to believe that her mentor wouldn’t find her unless she wanted him to.
And Eira didn’t want to be found. Her bare feet ghosted over the carpet of last autumn’s fallen leaves, but they made no sound. Not a leaf rustled, not a twig snapped, not a single woodland denizen stirred at her silent passing.
All but one. It sensed something passing its den, something as wild as itself. As silently as the girl, it stretched its lanky russet form, bared its pristine white fangs, curled its pink tongue in a yawn, and followed.
But Eira didn’t notice her little red shadow. She had other things to worry about. Before she had run thirty paces into the woodlands, the coughing started. Hacking, strangling coughs that wracked her thin body and made her double over as she ran, gasping for air.
So much for silence, she thought ruefully, cursing the fire that had stolen her ability to move any faster than a brisk walk without violent protests from her smoke-seared lungs. But no, she couldn’t think about that. Thinking about that would mean thinking about— No. She wasn’t supposed to remember that. Too painful. Too painful to remember what was lost.
Not looking where she was going, her foot snagged under an arching trip-root and she tumbled to the ground. She managed to twist around so that her shoulder hit the dirt first instead of her face, but she still ended up with a mouthful of soil as she rolled onto her stomach.
She lay there for a few minutes, spitting out the dirt and slowly trying to coax the breath back into her wasted lungs.
Her red shadow lifted one paw in indecision as it lingered behind a shrub whose white buds were just beginning to open with the coming spring. Should it help this creature? This strange creature, so like itself and yet so different? If she didn’t stand and continue on her way by the time the sun moved a mouselength through the sky, it would go to her.
The sun moved, and the familiar stranger did not move with it.
It would help her.
Eira lifted her head to see a lithe red fox stalking warily over the forest floor towards her. Its brilliant crimson coat caught the afternoon sunlight filtering in through the leafy canopy, the delicate black paws hardly stirring a twig, its white-tipped tail flicking slowly back and forth, its delicate black ears perked forwards, and its cunning amber gaze locked with hers.
Wild animals weren’t supposed to look at you like that.
Wild animals weren’t supposed to meet your gaze, especially if humans couldn’t.
Wild animals weren’t supposed to cock their head to the side as if they were studying you.
Wild animals weren’t supposed to stay anywhere near people if they had the opportunity to run the other way.
But this one didn’t seem to follow the rules.
Fleetingly she wondered if it was rabid, but dismissed the thought when she saw not madness but intelligence in its steady gaze. She noticed that there was no foam around its mouth either, and if anything its lips were curled up in what could have passed for a snarl among beasts—or a smile among humans. She had raised her head to observe the fox better, so it could definitely tell she was awake now. She expected it to turn tail and flee at any moment.
She wanted it to run. She didn’t want it to remind her of what the fire had taken.
“Go to,” she growled, curling her lips back in a feral growl. “Get thee hence!”
It understood her words. The human noises formed images in its mind, images of fear and flight. She wanted it to leave. But it had no desire to leave this curiosity that had stumbled into its woodland realm. It could tell that she was injured, somewhere deep inside, and there was some instinct that compelled it to help her. The breeze shifted, and it caught a whiff of her scent—half human, half fox. She was one of its kind, the laws of the forest demanded it help her.
The fox took a step closer.
“I have warned thee!” She attempted to push herself off the ground, but she could feel her lungs beginning to protest and she knew there would be a price to pay for running away again, so she settled for one last warning. “Thou art not welcome here!”
The fox took a step closer.
“Foolish vulpine! Come no nearer!”
The fox stood right in front of her.
“Begone! Remind me not of those things lost unto me!”
Tentatively the fox licked her cheek. The pink tongue was rough and icy cold on her scarred face. Ice… Ice… Something in her heart stirred, something she thought the fire had burned to ashes. The fox’s touch brought healing to her wounded soul, a soul decimated by the fire that had melted away her magic even as it had scorched her lungs and left her a mere husk of her former self.
It was magic and it was healing and it was memory, unleashed by the red fox rasping its tongue over her cheek. The memories she had locked away came flooding back, memories of four padded paws carrying her over the frozen ground as a bushy tail streamed out like a banner behind her, and memories of the north wind in her thick scarlet fur. Her determination renewed, she silently vowed that she would try and try again, she would try for years if she had to, but one day she would see the world through a fox’s eyes again.
“Thank you,” she whispered as she felt the faint promise of magic renewed, but the red fox had already fled.