Blog | Free Fiction | Published 8 October 2022
The arctic fox tilted her head this way and that, staring intently at a patch of pristine snow a few yards from her.
She wouldn’t move until she was absolutely certain she knew where her prey was.
The fox suddenly crouched, stilled, then pounced.
She leapt several feet up into a perfect graceful arc through the air, then came down like a thrown javelin, plunging nose first into the snow, her mouth gaping wide. There was a quiet crunch as the fox broke through the hardened snow crust, only her hindquarters and fluffy white tail sticking straight up comically.
I stifled a giggle so as not to give myself away behind my hunter’s blind.
I was several feet up, perched on a platform of bare wooden planks spanning three beams nailed to a small clump of fir trees. I’d stretched an oiled canvas over a rope to create a tented roof that kept rain and snowmelt off my head. The blind wasn’t exactly warm, but it was dry and well hidden from prying eyes by the trees’ branches.
The fragrant evergreen needles helped to mask my scent, but I’d gone the extra measure of carving runes into the wooden boards I crouched on to dampen my smell and any noise I made even further. Still, the runes worked best if I stayed as quiet and still as possible, so I waited motionlessly to see if the fox had been successful and caught her lemming.
The fox wriggled and twisted her way out of the hole she was in and came up empty. Again. This had been her fifteenth attempt today and the field she was hunting was pock-marked with her efforts. Which meant this was probably as good an opportunity as possible to make my introductions.
With as little movement as possible, I flicked a slice of rabbit out over the edge of my platform onto the ground just under the trees’ branches. The raw meat was very red and obvious against the glittering snow.
Instantly, the fox was alert and staring in the direction of the small splatting sound. She froze there for several long moments and I waited to see if she would come investigate further. I thought she would. I’d been observing this fox for several months now and knew her to be highly inquisitive. Positively brazen compared to most of her shy and furtive brethren.
The fox’s nose twitched, then sniffed at the soft puff of breeze that swept my red hair forward into my eyes and wafted the scent of meat her direction. Her ears pricked with interest and she began stalking my way.
When she came to the meat, she sniffed it over carefully. It must have passed muster because she snapped it up and gulped it down in two eager swallows.
I leaned over towards the hole in the center of the platform where the log poles of my ladder poked up and dropped another small slice of meat to the ground.
Soft sounds of paws padding over snow, then silence. I didn’t dare stick my head over the hole to see what was happening, but I imagined the fox’s nose twitching and her head tilting up to see the strips of meat I’d laid over each rung of the ladder leading up to the platform. The silence went on for so long I started to think the fox had snuck away, but just when I was about to check the ladder after all, I heard scratching noises, as of claws on wood.
Moments later, the white fox poked her head up through the hole and stared at me.
“Hello, there,” I said in a calm quiet voice, sitting still and trying not to scare her. This was the closest she’d ever gotten to me. Over the months I’d been watching her, there were a few times I’d caught her observing me right back, but she’d always kept her distance. I guessed two days of poor hunting luck was enough to break down anyone’s guard.
The fox flicked her small rounded ears at me but didn’t bolt. I took that as a good sign.
Moving very, very slowly, I reached into the satchel slung across my torso and pulled out a leather drawstring pouch. Still, the fox didn’t run, so I carefully loosened the cord closing the top and jiggled some of the contents into my cupped hand.
“I’ve got something special for you,” I told the fox and tipped my hand towards her.
Tiny smooth berries the size of my pinky nail and the color of frosted rubies rolled across the rough wood of the platform. “Frost Berries,” I said settling back and popping one in my mouth. “I know you like them. I’ve seen you climb to the top of the great Frost Trees for them. Thought I’d save you a little work and make a peace offering of them.”
The fox looked from me to the berries, then back. Without looking away from me, she ate a berry. She chewed, swallowed, and I could have sworn that when she licked her chops and closed her eyes it was in sheer enjoyment. A theory borne out by how fast she ate the rest then hopped up out of the hole so she could sit and stare at my pouch expectantly.
I ate a few more and savored them too. If you’ve never had Frost berries, then I cannot tell you what they taste like because there’s nothing else like them. It wouldn’t be enough to say they were tart and sweet. If the cold clear North Wind had a flavor, I’d say the berries tasted like that.
Maybe that was why Southerners spent obscene amounts of money in trade to buy them from us.
“You know you’re eating a month’s wages for a decently paid housecarl, right?” I asked the fox as I rolled several more her way.
She flicked an ear with apparent indifference as she ate them up as fast as I dolled them out.
“I was thinking,” I said around another berry. “I know this is the first time we’ve spoken, but I can’t just keep calling you ‘the fox.’ I’d like to suggest a name I can call you by. Would that be alright?”
The white fox glanced at me as she swallowed and licked her chops, then she flicked an ear as though to say ‘sure’ and lapped up another three Frost berries.
“Wonderful! So how does Hikko sound?” I asked. “It’s the name of one of our chieftains. We never talk about her much. She wasn’t huge and loud, full of bluster and packed with muscle like most of our leaders. She didn’t singlehandedly defeat a hundred enemy warriors with her battle-axe and mighty thews, so of course no skalds have composed any heroic sagas in her honor.”
The arctic fox snorted and shook her whole body as though ridding herself of a fly. I couldn’t tell if she was so far unimpressed with my choice of name for her or if she was expressing her opinion of mere physical prowess. Foxes, after all, didn’t survive on their ability to outmuscle their rivels or prey. I decided to carry on under the latter interpretation.
“But what she did do, was unite the twelve feuding clans into what is now the great Isabrot Tribe and established our first age of exploration and trade with the wider world. By the end of her eighty-year reign, Isabrot had grown its lands and holdings five-fold and our people gained the reputation for not only being fierce battle-tested warriors, but also shrewd wealthy merchants. No other period in our history enjoyed so much prosperity. Now how do you feel about the name?”
The fox gave a firm yip and the tip of her tail wagged.
I grinned. “Hikko it is!”
Hikko looked pointedly at the pouch of berries in my hand and I laughed.
“Clearly, the key to your heart is food,” I said and poured out the remaining Frost Berries in front of her.
As Hikko munched, I leaned back against the trunk of one of the fir trees acting as support pillars for my hunter’s blind. “I’m glad we’ve finally formalized our relationship. It’ll be nice to have a friend my mother cannot order off whenever she feels like it. She thinks spending time with friends is inexcusable laziness and a distraction from my training.”
Hikko flashed me a glance and the light caught them so that they glinted gold. I imagined I saw a question there, so I tried to explain.
“My mother, Kharma, is our current chieftainess and she already has several epic poems written in honor of her many great deeds. She’s the epitome of everything my people value most. She is unbelievably strong and she uses that strength to lead our war bands against the dark forces of Jaralem in the east. She’s never met a foe she couldn’t cut down or a battle that she would run from and our people love her for it.”
I snorted and shook my head, looking off into the middle distance. “They practically worship her like a god. It’s convinced her – and everyone else – that obstinate brute strength is all that matters. Anything less is weakness and to be weak is a sin worse than murder.”
I cast a look at Hikko with a half-grin. “I’ll give you three guesses who needs to be strongest of all. Yep! You nailed it; the chieftainess’s daughter, Isabrot’s princess. So, you can imagine her disappointment in me,” I said with a sardonic wave that took in all of my lacking brawny might.
My mother was a towering figure that could look down on most of the men in our tribe; I barely came up to her armpit. Her biceps were thicker than my thighs and she could crush a troll’s skull with one blow of her sword, whereas any hit from me would bounce from its thick skull like hail off stone.
Hikko sat up and ran a pink tongue over her whiskers. Her bushy tail swished right to left, then wrapped around her front toes. It gave the impression of a shrug, as though to say ‘Who cares?’
“My mother, that’s who. And do you know how she tackles my ‘deficiencies’? Training and conditioning. Lots and lots of training and conditioning. As she sees it, I have to work three times harder, run faster, swim further, and outlast everyone else to prove that I’m worthy.
“Do you know, she once dropped me in one of our prison cells and kept me awake for four days by pouring ice-cold water on me? Supposedly, this was to condition me so that I can remain “combat ready” in the face of sleep deprivation.
“Another time, when I was nine, she strapped a full-sized shield to my arm and made me run a gauntlet of my peers – my friends – all lined up with wooden practice swords waiting to pummel me. I had to make it all the way through without being driven to my knees if I wanted to eat again.”
Hikko growled, her lip curling up off one sharp white fang. I swear, I really thought the fox understood me.
“Right?” I asked shaking my head. “I’m sure it’ll be no wonder to you that I’ve made it my mission in life to keep as busy as I can so I’m at home as little as possible. I can’t remember the last time I’ve actually slept in my room. I figure, if Mother cannot find me, she cannot force her style of training on me. Not that she doesn’t try. She orders her soldiers to hunt me down and drag me back to her.”
I smirked at Hikko. “Well, they try anyway.”
Hikko didn’t react to what I said but instead jerked her head to the side to look past me. Her ears swiveled forward and she froze in place, listening to something I couldn’t hear.
“What is it?” I asked spinning around to stare out over the snow-covered field into the tree line on the other side. A dark gap in the dense evergreens showed indicated the road back to Hovgarden, Isabrot’s capital and my home.
Minutes passed before I finally picked up what Hikko heard.
Hounds and horses.
“Well, call me a soothsayer and I’ll cast the bones. There they are now,” I sighed rolling over so that I lay on my belly and propped my head up on my hands.
Hikko came to crouch next to me, watching motionlessly as a small band of lightly armed men and women rode into the open field, their dogs barking and baying as they ran before the horses.
I leaned over a bit and whispered to Hikko, “You want to play the game with me? If we keep nice and still, we can see how long it takes them to discover us. I’ve redesigned my runes and I think I’ve worked out a way to fully mask our scent, so they probably won’t find us at all.”
Hikko’s jaws dropped open and her tongue lolled out in what I might have called a grin.
I smiled back.
Then, without any warning whatsoever, Hikko lunged at my face and mauled me with tooth and claw.
I gave a shout as shock and pain blinded me and I twisted away from the sudden attack. A normal response might have been to throw my hands up to defend myself, but I was my mother’s daughter and as much as I might disagree with her methods, her lessons had sunk in bone deep.
I whipped out the combat knife I had sheathed on my belt and stabbed at the fox on pure instinct, but hit only air.
Hikko was gone, and below me, my mother’s soldiers shouted in excitement. They’d heard my cry of pain and now they were coming for me.