“The Fox” is a short story set about two years after the end of Huntress. You may read “The Fox” without reading Huntress if you like, but it will make more sense if you’ve read the novel first.
The world of Huntress is inspired, in many aspects, by Chinese and Japanese traditions. The magic that Taisin practices is based on Taoism and qigong; the archery that Kaede learns is based on kyudo. I also intended to include magical creatures from Asian cultures in the novel, but during the writing process I realized there simply wasn’t room to go into detail about them. One chapter that I wrote but ultimately discarded involved Kaede encountering a fox spirit, which is a supernatural being known in Chinese folktales as huli jing, and in Japanese stories as kitsune. The fox spirit is a shapeshifter, and in many tales it transforms into a beautiful woman who can trick or seduce a human victim.
After I finished Huntress, I found that I missed the characters terribly—something that I think a lot of authors experience when they connect deeply with their fictional creations! And I kept remembering the abandoned chapter about the fox spirit. When I was invited to submit a story to the online edition of Subterranean magazine for their special young adult issue, I knew instantly that I wanted to turn that chapter into a short story about Kaede. “The Fox” is that story, and it was originally published online in April 2011. The story was published in print by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in the paperback edition of Huntress in 2012. I commissioned the art below in 2014; it is by Claudia Aguirre. I hope you enjoy “The Fox.”
The way the wind blew, Kaede knew it was going to rain soon. The grasses were laid flat to the hillside; the trees shook in the gusting air.
She was five days northeast of the village of Anshu, forty-six days into her first circuit as King’s Huntress of the northernmost province in the Kingdom. Forty-eight days since she had last seen her: the person she had traveled so far to forget. Now she was scarcely a week’s ride from the mountains marking the Kingdom’s border, but she was no closer to forgetting.
For several days, she had been following a dry streambed through the foothills, but today she urged her horse uphill. If the storm was bad, the stream would flood. She headed for a rocky outcropping partially hidden behind two giant oak trees. As she approached, she saw the skeleton of a fallen oak on the ground, its bark encrusted with white lichen. A narrow but well-worn trail led around the tree, where the rocky hillside opened up in a narrow, dark crack just wide enough for a horse to pass through. She dismounted, looping her horse’s reins over one of the branches jutting from the oak, and went inside.
The light from the entrance did not shine far; darkness pooled only a few feet from where she stood. But in the distance, she saw the faint glow of daylight. “Is anyone there?” she called out. Her voice echoed slightly.
There was no answer; the cave felt empty.
She went back outside as thunder rumbled. Her horse stamped, and Kaede put her hand briefly on the mare’s neck. “We’ll be under cover soon,” she said. She untied the bedroll from her saddle and unhooked the lantern, then unbuckled the saddlebags, carrying everything into the cave. She knelt down in the entrance and lit the lantern, and when she shone the light into the cave, she saw a wide open space with a hard-packed dirt floor. The rock walls arched overhead in a ceiling two or three times her height, then sloped down to a lower opening, shaped like a narrow little door, about twenty feet away. This was the source of that dim light.
Holding the lantern, she crossed to the opening and crouched down to peer through. On the other side was a roughly oval space, and on the far side the ceiling went up and up until it abruptly narrowed into a tunnel that ended in a small opening. She saw the sky there like a blue-grey eye. A breath of cool air twisted down from the opening, and below were the ashes of a fire pit.
Someone had stayed here before.
Of course, she should have expected it. She recalled the trail leading around the fallen oak to the entrance of the cave. She shook off the whisper of apprehension that slid down her spine and ducked through the opening into the interior chamber. As she straightened, lifting the lantern in her left hand, black shapes shivered over the walls.
She started, and the hand that held the lantern jerked. The light jumped, and the shapes seemed to jump as well. Her right hand moved automatically to the dagger on her belt, and just as her fingers closed over the hilt she realized what she was seeing. Pictures were painted on the walls: dozens, perhaps hundreds, of sinuous, curving animals, some moving among trees, others running together in packs. She recognized some of the shapes: a deer with branching antlers, a hawk, a wolf, many foxes. As she shone the light over the paintings, the lines seemed to move. She could have sworn that the foxes twisted their ink-black heads to look at her. But when she blinked and looked back, they were only dark strokes on the stone.
She took a step closer to the wall and reached out to touch the nearest image: a fox with its brushlike tail held high as it ran on elegant, delicately rendered paws. It looked like it might leap off the wall straight at her, but the black ink was dry and cool beneath her fingers. She wondered who had known these creatures well enough to paint them with such liveliness.
Thunder cracked again, so loud this time that it felt as though the earth itself had rumbled in response. A gust of wind sang over the chimney hole, sounding a deep, ringing note, as if the hill itself were an instrument. She looked up to see purple clouds scudding over the opening. The rain was coming.
* * *
It took some coaxing to convince the mare to enter the outer cave, but once inside, she settled down fairly quickly. Kaede unpacked her hatchet and went back out to the dead tree, hacking off firewood as fast as she could, racing against the coming storm. Just as she carried the last armful of wood into the cave, the first raindrops fell, heavy and cold.
She built a fire over the ashes in the interior chamber. She boiled water for tea. She cooked rice and ate it with some dried pork. She could hear the rain pounding on the hill above, and from time to time, drops hissed into the fire from the chimney hole, but mostly the cave was warm and dry, and she was glad she had found it.
The firelight sent leaping shadows over the painted walls, making the foxes seem to dance, nose to tail, in one long, sweeping motion across the stone. Leaning against her bedroll, Kaede watched the movement of the light, her eyelids growing heavy, her stomach full. Sometimes, in the evenings, after too many days of riding alone, she allowed herself to remember her: the one she could not forget. The one she tried to leave behind. The one she loved.
Tonight, she drifted on threads of memory until one drew tight: midnight in the palace in Cathair, two days before she was due to depart on her northern circuit. She stood before the moon-shaped gates to the little courtyard guesthouse, her hand on the polished iron knocker.
When the door opened, Kaede saw a woman holding an oil lamp in one hand, her eyes cast into shadow as the light illuminated the tense line of her jaw, her lips parting to say, “Kaede.”
“I am leaving,” Kaede said, her voice so low it was almost a whisper. “I will be gone for several months.”
A pause. “I know.”
Kaede looked at her, hoping to find some trace of regret, some shred of sadness. But her face was obscured, and the only sign Kaede saw was the slightest quiver of her mouth. If this had been a dream, perhaps what happened would be different—if Kaede could change it, she would—but it was a memory, and in her memory, she stepped back from the door, turning her face away to hide her own sorrow.
“I only came to say good-bye,” Kaede said.
A log crashed in the fire, and Kaede blinked her eyes open. The shapes on the walls twisted as the flames flared, and she rubbed a hand over her face, drawing in a shaking breath.
She wanted to blot out this memory and forget it forever, but it rose up again and again until all she heard was the word good-bye, echoing like a curse inside her.
She hated the word. She hated the way it made her feel: desolate, lost.
Angry with herself for sliding into those feelings again, she sat up and yanked at one of the saddlebags, jerking it open and pulling out a battered, leather-bound book. Her pen and ink rolled out, the little black bottle spinning across the ground until she lunged after it and clapped her hand down, striking the dirt with a sound like a slap. She set the bottle upright and uncorked it, her hand shaking only slightly as she dipped the quill into the black ink.
She had begun to keep a record of her journey because she realized soon after she left Cathair that she would never be able to remember everything she encountered, and the King would want a report upon her return. It had become a nightly ritual that soothed her: an accounting of the day’s events, carefully trimmed to the barest facts, devoid of emotion.
Day 46: No settlement. The foothills continue, and I can see the red mountains coming. A storm, the first I have encountered in a fortnight, has broken. I am sheltering in a cave behind a stand of oak trees, uphill from the dry streambed. The walls are painted with numerous animals, and the cave has clearly been occupied before. The Kingdom’s border is approximately one week distant from here. Then I will enter the Fairy Queen’s lands.
Kaede’s official title, now, was King’s Huntress, but she felt less loyalty to the human King than to the Fairy Queen. She still wore the ring the Queen had given her on her left hand: a moonstone, simple and round, set flat in a band of hammered silver. In the light of the fire, the stone looked almost pink. Like a sweet spring bud. While she wore the ring, she was under the Queen’s protection, but she had never had to call on that privilege. Wherever she went, the fay knew her. There was only one human who went where she did with impunity. But she tried to respect fairy lands and to leave the fay to their own business. Her duties, if not her loyalties, were clear: survey the border and its inhabitants; return to Cathair; report to the King.
By then, two entire seasons would have passed. After so long in the wilderness, the city would be a new thing to her. And her memories, she told herself, would be like dust—easily swept away.
She finished her notes for the day and unrolled her blankets. She was tired, and the cave was as warm and secure as a womb. She fell asleep moments after she lay down.
* * *
When she opened her eyes, she knew she must be dreaming, for she saw a woman leaning over her. She had russet-colored hair and a pale face with angular green eyes and a thin nose. Foxlike and lithe, she bent down, and when her lips parted Kaede saw the pointed teeth of a predator.
A sliver of fear ran through her, but she reminded herself that this was a dream—this was not real.
The woman’s breath was warm on Kaede’s face, and it smelled of something she could not quite place. She had smelled it before. What was it? This little mystery consumed her; it was all she could think of as the woman came closer. It reminded her of an afternoon in the Wood in early winter. A memory of autumn leaves packed on the damp ground, the air carrying the threat of snow—
The woman kissed her, and Kaede felt the prick of sharp teeth on her lips. Her skin parted; blood seeped up to the surface. And like a fist stuffed down her throat, the kiss reached deep into her and pulled at the knot of longing buried there. Her back arched; her mouth opened in a gasp as all those tightly wound emotions came loose. Anguish, dragging roughly through her; suffocating heartache; absence, deep and vast. Yet beneath it all was a thin but strong hum of pleasure, as if she had been born to nurture this grief, and now she was finally free to drink from this bittersweet well until she was intoxicated by it.
She wanted to stop. She was desperate to stop—but she was afraid of what would happen if she did. Would she be hollow afterward? Like a shell discarded on the sand, filled only briefly by the restless lick of the salty sea, and then emptied again.
Kaede felt weighted down by despair, as if someone or something was pinning her down, pressing against her lungs so that she could barely breathe. Hot tears blurred her eyes, and they felt so real running down her cheeks that she began to wonder if she was still dreaming or if in fact she was awake. She blinked slowly, heavily, and as her vision cleared, she did not see the same woman above her. She saw a girl. A girl she knew.
She knew those eyes, the brown irises flecked with shards of black. She knew the smooth curve of those cheekbones. She knew the shape of that mouth and the way it smiled. The way it was smiling now. Kaede could not quite believe it. She thought the face above her must be a mirage. She reached up to touch the girl’s long black hair and whispered, “Is that you?”
The girl did not answer, but she tilted her head slightly and shifted her body until she was pressed close to Kaede. She was naked. Kaede could feel the heat emanating from her pale skin, and her own body flushed in response. Her disbelief melted into desire. She wanted to believe it was her.
Kaede ran her fingers along the girl’s cheek, traced the line of her jaw. She caressed the girl’s throat, her thumb resting on the pulse that beat there. Everything about her was just as Kaede remembered. Her warm skin, the muscles of her back, the weight of her breasts. When Kaede kissed her, she tasted her own longing: a memory of sunlight shining through glass, the fall of her hair in a black fan across the pillow. She wanted to fold all of her into her arms and never let her go again.
But the scent that clung to her was unusual. It was not the same scent of flushed skin and sweat, just slightly metallic—the scent that made Kaede’s heart leap. This was different. She remembered, again, that early winter afternoon in the Wood, the scent of fallen leaves crushed underfoot as she ran after the buck. She remembered him stumbling, the arrow lodged in his chest, his antlers dripping with velvet as his head sank to the ground. The smell of blood as she slit his throat. The smell of blood.
This girl smelled, subtly but surely, of blood.
This girl was not who she seemed.
The instant that Kaede realized this, she tasted her own blood on her tongue, hot and bitter. The girl’s face wavered; her hair was red again, and then black. Kaede reached up with her left hand and clutched at the girl’s bare arm. The moonstone ring glowed white with fairy light when it touched her skin, bright as a beacon. As it spread over them both, the girl let out a sharp, inhuman cry. Kaede stared, transfixed, as the girl’s body changed in the light, morphing before her eyes. Her shining black hair thickened into a coarse red; her brown eyes narrowed into sharp emeralds; her face lengthened, developing a pointed chin. She opened her mouth in a snarl, and blood stained the tips of her pointed teeth.
The woman tried to twist out of Kaede’s grasp, and the startling quickness of her movements finally shook Kaede fully awake. She realized she was pinned on the ground beneath a woman whose skin was covered with a fine, ruddy down, whose body was taut with muscle. The face she had been wearing was nothing more than a glamour. Kaede had heard stories about this woman—this creature—in many of the northern villages she had visited during her circuit. None of the tales were clear on whether the woman came first, or the fox did, but they all agreed that she could take on the face of any woman, and anyone who succumbed to her charms was sure to die, for she drank all of a person’s spirit, leaving only a shattered husk behind.
Now, feeling the lithe weight of this woman-who-was-not-a-woman pressing down upon her, Kaede had no doubt she was real. Her sharp green eyes were heavy with hunger, giving her a kind of rough, bloodthirsty beauty.
Kaede braced herself, sliding her feet up so that her knees were bent, and in one swift motion she flipped her onto her back. Kaede yanked the woman’s wrists up with her left hand, pinning her arms on the ground above her head, and with one knee on the woman’s belly, she unsheathed her iron dagger with her right hand and pressed it to the woman’s throat. She was strong but light, and without her glamour to dull Kaede’s senses, she was easily overpowered.
“You are not her,” Kaede said in a harsh voice. A droplet of blood fell from her own mouth, striking the woman’s cheek.
The woman opened her bloodstained lips and said, “I could be her.” She had the accent of the fay—a kind of lilting tone, as if she were singing.
“No,” Kaede said. “You could never be her.”
The woman gave her a frightening smile and said, “If you desire it, I could be.”
“No,” Kaede said again. She pushed away the weakness in her that made her yearn to give in. “No.” She pressed her dagger against the woman’s throat until the skin broke, and the scent of burning rippled up from the cut: iron against fay skin.
Pain lit the woman’s green eyes. Pain and fury. Her whole body rippled, stretched, as lithe as a snake, as quick as a fox. The downy red hairs on her skin became fur; the joints of her limbs turned. Her nose and mouth became a snout that snapped at Kaede’s arm. Kaede recoiled, stunned. A heartbeat later the woman was gone, and the fox she had become had fled from the cave.
The air seemed to reverberate in her wake.
Driven by something she did not understand, Kaede scrambled to her feet. She stumbled through the outer cave and plunged outside into the storm. The rain pounded like a drum on the hollow hill behind her, soaking through her clothes. Rain slid down length of her black braid, pouring like tears over her face. She could barely see five feet in front of her, but she thought she saw a shape rising up just beyond the remains of the fallen tree.
“Stop,” she gasped.
The shape lengthened, became a female form again, and looked back.
“Stop,” Kaede cried. She could not resist. She wanted to see her again.
The woman stayed where she was, drawing back when Kaede approached so that she remained shrouded by the dark, just out of reach of the glow from the Fairy Queen’s ring. But Kaede knew the woman had put on the other face again. The one that Kaede wanted more than anything else in the world to see.
“If you want to see her again,” the woman said, “then you must take off your ring.”
“If I take it off, you’ll kill me. I won’t give up my life so easily,” Kaede said, though her hand twitched. Would it be worth it? The thought chilled her more than the rain.
“You are already giving up your life, with every day that you long for her.”
Kaede flinched at the easy condemnation in the woman’s words—and at the uncomfortable truth of them. “You’re wrong,” she said, but even she heard the lack of conviction in her voice.
The woman came one step closer. The light of the ring, which had faded somewhat, flared up again and exposed the delicate, sharp points of her nails. “Why do you deny yourself?”
“You could have me,” the woman said simply.
The rain slid in cold rivulets down Kaede’s back. She said, “But I would still not have her.”
The woman asked, “Will you ever have her?”
Without waiting for Kaede to answer, she turned away, her body shifting again, and in the blink of an eye the fox was gone and Kaede was standing alone in the dark, in the rain, with the Fairy Queen’s ring cold on her hand.
* * *
She was packed up and ready to go well before dawn. When the first light brightened the sky, she smothered the fire and pulled on her oil-slicked cloak, preparing to go out into the dull grey drizzle. She had changed into dry clothes and tied her wet ones into a knot, which she hung from her saddle. She had not slept at all.
At first she had been afraid that the fox-woman would return, but as the night slowly passed with no sign of her, that fear subsided and was replaced by a persistent, familiar ache. All she could see, in her mind’s eye, was that face looming over her. She had thought she was long finished with crying over this, but as she sat slumped by the fire, tears coursed down her cheeks until her body began to shake, and then she was rocking back and forth, clutching her knees to her chest like a little girl. When no more tears came, she sat in silence, drained of her sorrow. A peace seemed to steal over her, quiet and unassuming.
When she went outside, the morning light was soft on her face, and the rain was gentle, too, like a fine mist that cloaked the world in an ethereal tracery of tiny droplets. She inhaled the damp, late summer air, and she was suddenly buoyed by it. All the earth around her was drinking it in—a wash of water, slicking down the blades of grass, clinging to the oak leaves and softening the bark. The ground was wet, too, but she saw no footprints from the night before. There were only the marks she made this morning as she led her mare down the hill toward the newly swollen stream to drink. When she reached the bank and her horse lowered her head to the rushing water, Kaede looked back toward the oak grove and the black crease in the hillside where she had spent the night.
Sitting there on the ground beside the fallen tree was a fox. Its red tail waved briefly, then wrapped around its delicate paws.
Startled, Kaede let go of her horse’s reins. She took a step, two steps, back up the hill before she stopped, her eyes fixed on the fox looking back at her.
“Good-bye,” she said, tasting the misty air on her tongue, delicate and new.
“The Fox” © 2011 by Malinda Lo. Originally published at Subterranean Online in 2011, then reprinted by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in the paperback edition of Huntress in 2012.