A few years ago, Ariel wanted me to tell her a new story for bedtime. She wanted it to have foxes, and wolves. It should have dragons, one black and one red. A wise old cheetah who knew magic and spirit things. Oh, and a serpent. And a knight would be good.
So this, with her help, is the tale I told.
Once upon a time, there was a family of foxes. There was the father fox, whose name was Quick; and the mother fox, whose name was Fire. And they had four kittens: three boys and a girl.
The three boys were named Red, for his fur; Rover, for his love of exploring; and Runner, who was almost as fast as his father (and would someday be even faster). But Fire had insisted on naming the little girl kit Ariel. ‘She’s a thing of the air’, Fire had said, ‘There’s something faerie about her, you’ll see.’
This family lived together quite happily in the wild wood, with Fire teaching the boys her cunning and Quick teaching Ariel his, according to fox tradition. And the kits would romp and pounce and wrestle together, with Ariel tickling her way through the roughhousing as she went. Then she would wander off to chase butterflies, bouncing as she went and teasing her brothers into chasing her, flicking her tail playfully just so.
One day, when Fire had taken her three sons out to learn the fox arts of walking unseen, they did not come back. Quick and Ariel waited and waited, until the night sky grew light again with the coming day, but still no trace or scent of them returned.
Quick said to Ariel, “I must go and find out where the rest of our family is.”
Her ears perked up at once. “I’ll go with you!”
But her father shook his head. “No, dear. If something happens to me, I want you to be safe, and to finish your studies. Here, come with me.” And he took her to the wise old cheetah that lived in a cave near their section of the wild wood.
This cheetah’s name was Listens. And after Ariel’s father had explained the situation, Listens said she would be more than happy to look after the little fox kitten for however long, and teach whatever she would learn: of lore and of hunting, and of the old spirit ways. And so Ariel became a student of Listens, and her father went off to track down the rest of his family.
Time passed, and Ariel was a quick learner. Listens taught her many things, until the time came when Listens finally said, “I can teach you no more. You must finish your training from your own family now.”
Ariel’s tail got thick and bushy; it often did when she was upset. “But, Listens, I don’t know where they are, or what happened to them!”
Listens’ eyes narrowed as she smiled. “Then, child, you should find out.” She went to the back of her cave and pulled out a small bundle, such as a fox kit might be able to carry on her back. “There are three things here that may help you. The first is a piece of cheese.”
Ariel made a noise like a sneeze, though it really wasn’t.
“The second,” the cheetah went on, “is a piece of flint.”
One of Ariel’s ears went flat; the other stayed standing.
“The third,” Listens finished, “is a human dress.”
That did it. “What! Wait! Listen, uh . . . Listens,” said Ariel, “How are any of these things supposed to help me get to my family? I don’t understand!”
The old cheetah shrugged, unperturbed. “Neither do I. I don’t have all the answers, little kitten-of-my-heart, only little pieces of answers that come to me on the wind, and I do the best I can with them. You know this. And now, you must do your best.”
So, Ariel took the little bundle and thanked her teacher (for they had come to love each other very much, even with all the trouble she had sitting still for her lessons) and set off to the west as her father had, so very long before.
She walked and she walked and she walked and she walked . . . but even though she was sad she could not stay sad all the time, and so she also pounced at butterflies, and chased her shadow, flicking her tail just so as she played. Still, though, no sign of her family could she find.
And after a time, the wild wood gave way to a great plain, full of yellow grass and huge stones. And before she knew it, she was surrounded by the biggest pack of huge grey wolves she had ever heard of.
“Well, well,” said their Alpha Male, whose name was Lowstar. “Just look at dinner.”
“Oh, no, sir,” said Ariel, “I’m much too tiny to feed a big pack like yours. But I do know a way you can all eat, and eat well.”
The big Alpha sat back on his haunches, amused. “Oh, really? And how will you do that? For we are the biggest wolf pack in all the land.”
“Why, with this!” she said innocently, and took the piece of cheese out of her pack with a flourish.
Lowstar laughed, and the pack laughed with him. “Why, that’s even a smaller morsel than you are! Poor little fox kitten! It can’t be done!” And the wolves rolled on the ground with laughter.
“Well, I think it can,” she said slyly, “And I’ll make you a bet. If I can feed your whole pack with this little piece of cheese, will you and your pack come with me, and help me find my family’s track?”
At that, Lowstar stood up and looked at her very carefully, for he had heard how foxes could be tricksy. “All right,” he said at last, “but if you cannot, then you get eaten.”
“Agreed,” she said, and started to bite the piece of cheese.
She bit the cheese very carefully, trying to pretend the whole time that she wasn’t surrounded by a huge pack of hungry wolves, though her tail did get very bushy. And when she had it bitten into lots of tiny, tiny pieces, she carefully places the pieces in different places all over that part of the plain.
The wolves watched, silently, waiting to see what would happen. And at first, nothing did. But then mice started coming, very slowly, out from the grass and between the stones, sniffing the cheese!
They were very good hunters, these wolves, and as soon as a mouse had gotten out from his cover, pounce! went a wolf and the mouse was eaten. Soon, all the wolves were quietly pouncing on the prairie mice coming out, and by the end of the day all the pack was full.
“Mmmmph,” said a wolf who had eaten too much, “That was... very good.”
“I’m glad you liked it,” said Ariel, “Can we start tracking my family now?”
“Um, not... right away,” said Lowstar, who was also too full. “Errrf... tomorrow. We’ll be able to track tomorrow.”
Ariel said, “Okay,” and tried very hard to be patient. But she was very worried about her family, and her tail stayed bushy as she slept.
The next day was long in coming. But come it did, and soon enough the wolf pack found her family’s trail and were leading her across the rocky plains as both her guide and her escort.
The wolf pack led her through the plains and over and across great stretches of land until they came to a small river, and on the other side of the river was a great forest full of strange, giant trees.
These trees had leaves of crimson, even though it was summer, and had strange, twisting branches. Many of those branches bore pumpkins for fruit, with strange, terrible faces on them.
The little fox looked at the strange forest and trembled. “Where are we?” She asked.
Lowstar answered her, saying, “This is the Forest of the Killing Trees. These trees hate all animals, and feed on us when they can. Their leaves are red with the blood of their victims, and those strange shapes on their pumpkins are the faces of the lives they’ve taken.”
Ariel looked at the trees carefully (but from a safe distance), and said, “I don’t see my family’s faces anywhere. Could they have made it through?”
Lowstar considered this. “No. Not unless they were taken.”
“What do you mean?”
Lowstar shook his head. “Beyond the Forest of the Killing Trees there is a dead place where nothing grows. That is the lair of a pair of dragons, one red and one black, who take slaves and poison the land with their mingled breath. If they have been taken there, then you will never see them again. Even if we could go through the forest – which we cannot – there are a pair of dragons to contend with, in a place where the very air can kill. There is nothing to be done.”
But Ariel held her head high and said, “I will make it through, and the rest of you will come with me.”
Lowstar growled, “I will not lead my pack to death.”
“Ah, but if I can make the way safe for you and all your pack, what then?”
At that, Lowstar laughed and said, “Little fox, if you can defeat the very Forest of the Killing Trees, we will follow you onward, even to the dragons’ lair. But this is folly; it cannot be done.”
But Ariel just flicked her tail and said, “Watch.”
She went to the edge of the forest, and she could hear the Killing Trees stirring, though there was no wind. They were trying to hold very still, so she would come close enough to grab and eat. But they were very hungry, and wanted her very badly, so they still made noise despite themselves.
Ariel carefully sat down on the dry leaves out of their reach and said, “I want safe passage through the Forest of the Killing Trees for myself and all my friends. If you will grant me this, I will spare you, but if not I will destroy you.”
At first only one voice answered her, but then more joined in until it was a huge chorus, all whispering, “Why, sure! Safe passage! No problem! Come on in, everybody, we promise, you’ll be completely safe . . .” Pumpkins bobbing and branches waving in their eagerness to satisfy the fox and the whole wolf pack that, why sure, it was completely safe, trust us, c’mon in!
Ariel took a few steps into the forest, and whop! Sure enough, a tree had tried to grab her. But she was so small and fast that, since she was expecting it, she jumped back easily.
“Well, I warned you,” she said, and she took out the flint.
She went forward again, and among the remains that had fallen just out of the trees’ reach there were some steel things humans made. One of these, half-buried in the leaves, was a dagger. Carefully taking her flint in her teeth, she struck it against the dagger until sparks came, and with the sparks on the dry leaves came fire.
She hopped back across the water to the green grass and watched the fire spread. “Mercy!” whispered the trees as they writhed, “Have mercy!” But even if she had wanted to save them, she had no way of stopping a forest fire. So she watched along with her wolf companions through the night, until the Forest of the Killing trees was cleansed by fire down to its bare, black bones.
“Well,” she said when the way was clear at last, “Ready for the dragons?”
Lowstar growled but said nothing as he and his pack followed her through the charred remains to the place where the dragons dwelt.
Forest of the Killing Trees, it turned out, was only part of a much larger forest. Fortunately, the rest of the forest was not nearly so dry, and had another small river running through it as well, so the fire had burned itself out without doing too much damage. Ariel was grateful for that, since it was a very nice forest. But she also felt very lonely as they traveled through, because it reminded her of her own wild wood, and the days when she had been with her family there.
At length, they crossed a human road and came to a place where nothing grew. The trees were all dead, and the ground was bare rock. The wind carried a terrible odor like poison, and they knew it would be dangerous to go on.
Lowstar lay down and looked at Ariel expectantly. “Well?”
“Send some of your scouts to the human road.” She said. “Have them tell me when a human is coming.” Lowstar shrugged and did as she said, and Ariel curled up to rest, covering her nose with the tip of her tail.
A few days later, the scouts finally came to her saying, “A man is coming. He rides a horse, and is covered with steel. There is a serpent with him.” She yawned, nodded her thanks and ran to the human road.
When she got there, she listened. Sure enough, there was the sound of a horse carrying something loud and clangy coming from down the road. She had plenty of time, but wasted none of it. She closed her eyes, and remembered the ancient lore and magic that Listens had taught her. She concentrated, and concentrated . . . and then there was a stretching and a shimmering, and she was very, very cold!
She opened her eyes and looked down and her human form, at her hands, her feet, her long hair and almost no fur at all. She jumped and gave a yip of triumph. It had worked – she was a kitsune! Quickly she put on the dress from her bundle – to cover the fox tail she still had – put some flowers in her hair to hide her ears, and waited for the human to come down the road.
Now, the human was a young knight named Mirthicus. His shield device was rather plain, having only a few heraldic devices from his family. One of these was a serpent rampant in the upper part. This was in honour of his family’s alliance with a family of magical snakes. Which was why one of their number, Silent-Tongue by name, was riding on the front of his saddle so contentedly.
When Sir Mirthicus saw a young girl at the side of the road, barefoot in an old but very fine blue dress with flowers in her hair, he didn’t know what to think. So he stopped, doffed his helm, and said, “My lady.”
“Sir,” said the young girl, “My name is Ariel. My family has been captured and enslaved by the dragons who live to the west of here. My friends and I are going to try to rescue them. Will you help?”
The knight blinked. “You, a maid, are ready to face dragons to save your family?” He quickly dismounted, saying, “Lady, my sword is yours! Please, let me take this burden from you!”
Ariel smiled and turned to the serpent. “And you, sir? Will you help as well?”
Silent-Tongue sighed. “Sssure.”
When Sir Mirthicus had seen the maiden, obviously a lady but barefoot and unashamed by the side of the road, he had been confused. When she had spoken of dragons, he was amazed. Then, she spoke to his snake-companion, as if already knowing he could answer, and he was stunned.
Then, she led him to the midst of nearly a hundred enormous grey wolves, lazing about and sniffing him casually as he approached. Mirthicus’ horse took one look, gave a terrified whinny, and bolted away, running as fast as it could back home.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Ariel told the knight. “These are the friends I told you about.”
Sir Mirthicus was flabbergasted. Speechless. He had never heard of anything like this.
Soon, they were completely surrounded by wolves.
Silent-Tongue turned to the knight and said, “This is your fault.”
It was a very unusual council of war. Ariel and Silent-Tongue alternated translating between the wolves and Sir Mirthicus, and all of them pondered their next move.
The first thing Ariel did was have Silent-Tongue scout ahead to see what the dragons’ lair was like. His magic made him immune to all poisons. And, grumble though he might, he was a first-rate scout. He was able to identify almost fifty villagers of different ages from different villages working as slaves for the dragons, as well as a small family of foxes they kept as pets. The disappearing villagers, it seemed, were why he and Mirthicus were in the area in the first place . . . though he still solidly blamed Mirthicus for allying him to a bunch of ravenous wolves.
The second thing that Ariel did was have the entire wolf pack start hunting much harder than before, to feed Silent-Tongue. He liked that enough, at first. But then he found out what Ariel wanted him to do. She and Lowstar’s mate, it seemed, knew enough between them to use his magical poison to make an antidote. They would need enough for the wolves, Mirthicus, and herself. Which meant lots of poison. Lots and lots and lots of poison.
So Silent-Tongue stuffed himself daily, and gave poison daily, and stuffed himself some more. Soon his poison glands were so swollen that he complained he was starting to look more like an iguana than a proper serpent.
Silent-Tongue turned to the knight and said, “This is still your fault.”
Two weeks later the antidote was finally ready, and they all drank it (which tasted like the very worst-possible tasting medicine in the entire world). They made nasty faces despite their best intentions, and when Silent-Tongue gave the signal they crept carefully towards the huge cave where the dragons lived.
The air was indeed very poisonous, and it was obvious that the dragons brewed their own antidote for their slaves to keep them alive, as well as dependent upon the dragons’ good will. The dragons were a mated pair, and something of the breath of the red male somehow mixed with the female’s breath to create the poison that had killed everything around their home but themselves and their slaves. If a slave was disobedient, he could be eaten, or just denied antidote until the air killed him.
The slaves were sickly, weak, and without joy. The foxes’ coats were matted with the fumes in the air, and their eyes were dull. Everything was quiet.
When Ariel and her friends arrived, Silent-Tongue was waiting for them.
“They are asleep,” he hissed softly, “But their armour is thick. I do not know how we can do this.”
Ariel winked at him. “Neither do I. But he does.” And she nodded to Mirthicus.
Mirthicus frowned. “Their underbellies should be vulnerable, if any part of them is. But we’d need to get them to roll over.” He considered the problem, and said, “Wolves often take down prey much larger than themselves, do they not?”
Ariel translated for Lowstar, and then replied, “Yes, he says a pack can take down any foe when they are united. They harry and bite until there is an opening, and then seize it.”
Mirthicus nodded. “Then that’s what we’ll do.”
First, Mirthicus and Ariel quietly and carefully freed the slaves and got them outside the cave. They must not be in the way. The cave was huge, to be sure, but the dragons were huge as well and were bound to thrash. Then, the pack divided into two halves, one half to each dragon. Silent-Tongue clung to the ceiling over the red, which was slightly larger. Mirthicus readied himself near the black, just in case its acid breath gave it resistance to poisons. Then, when all was ready, the wolves all attacked.
The dragons were each startled out of their sleep by the attacks of fifty or so tiny, relentless sets of fangs and mouths. They didn’t use their breaths, for in the small space they could easily kill each other, or bring down the ceiling and kill themselves. The simplest way to deal with the wolves seemed, at that instant, to roll, and that’s exactly what they did!
They rolled over, hoping to crush the wolves, but the wolves leapt out of the way. And as they rolled, the dragons exposed their underbellies, and even as they heard Mirthicus shout “Now!” their eyes opened all the way and they realized their mistake . . .
Too late. Mirthicus sank his blade to its hilt into the black dragon’s chest and jumped clear of the sizzling spray of dragon blood, even as Silent-Tongue gave a deep bite into the belly of the red, emptying his swollen poison glands into the beast. The dragons thrashed, they clawed, they roared, they shuddered, and they finally died; the cave filling with smoke and fumes from their passing.
Outside, the villagers cheered as the heroes emerged. Lowstar nodded to Ariel and led his pack into the deep forest nearby, their debt fulfilled. Silent-Tongue was coiled contented on Mirthicus’ shoulders. At last, Sir Mirthicus turned to the maiden next to him.
“Fair lady Ariel,” he said, “Truly, you are a very unusual young woman. Please, who among these villagers are your family? For, after all the wonders I have seen you perform, I would very much like to meet them.”
But Ariel only smiled and said, “My family is none of these, sir. They are the family of foxes we rescued. And I should join them.” And she winked, and suddenly there was only an empty blue dress with a fox standing on it.
She turned, flicked her tail just so, and vanished into the forest.
She turned, flicked her tail just so, and vanished into the forest.