by Allison Thai
For the first time in her life, Hvita stokked for no vaeli in her dreams. She didn’t dream at all. Instead something jumped at her—little paws that batted her fur.
“Aunt Hvita, Aunt Hvita,” her sister’s kits called. “Wake up, wake up.”
Hvita flattened her ears, but she could still hear the yapping chorus. “Let this poor fox have her sleep,” she groaned. “If Ylirr is not up yet, I won’t be either.”
The kits slouched on her belly and tail. “We can’t wait,” they whined. “We want to learn the stokk now.”
Hvita shook off the kits as she rose. “Very well, all right. I heard you the first time.”
The kits untangled themselves from her and scrambled out of the den. Somehow all their yapping hadn’t disturbed their mother from her slumber. Deeper in the den, against the wall of scored dirt, Elin remained curled around her newest litter. Hvita crept out to let her sister sleep. The smallest kits, born just days ago, needed milk and warmth of their mother. Their older siblings, the first litter, needed somebeast to teach them the stokk. That somebeast had to be Hvita.
Fresh snow crunched under her paws as she poked her head from the lip of the den. Ylirr’s sole bright eye had not opened fully in the sky. Pale, grey clouds hooded his vision, so that he appeared as sleepy as Hvita. She parted her jaws to yawn, and the morning chill made her fangs ache. Ahead of her, the kits seemed to pay no heed to the cold as they rolled around in the snow and wrestled each other.
“That’s enough, now,” Hvita said. “Any more and all that ruckus will send the vaeli deeper into their burrows.” A hush quickly set into the kits. Hvita flicked her tail upward. “Come. I know a good spot from here.”
Winter still kept a firm grip on the plains. Hvita could not yet feel shoots of grass beneath her paws, let alone see them. Elin had her second litter before the welcome of spring. She could not afford to leave the den to stokk or make merrk. Those duties rested upon Hvita’s back, and she would bear them until winter relaxed its icy hold. Hvita turned away from the kits and lifted her tail to make merrk. Some of the kits followed her example as they aimed their scent and spray at the snow. No fox could question who owned this space now. Hvita led the kits away from where snow clumped in hills, feeling with her paws for flat yet soft patches.
“Use your ears,” she told her nieces and nephews. “Do you hear the vaeli shuffling around beneath us?”
The kits cocked their ears forward and scrunched up their snouts. Finally the oldest one, Njall, shook his head. “I might have heard something. I’m not sure.”
“Use your noses now. Can you smell them?”
The kits lowered their snouts over the snow, then straightened up in dismay. “No smell of vaeli.” A few pawed at noses gone numb.
“You are right not to sense much of the vaeli, if at all, with your ears and nose. Of course, we can’t see them from up here, as well.”
The youngest kit plopped her rump down. “How are we supposed to stokk if we can’t see, smell, or hear the vaeli?”
Hvita had to chuckle at the befuddled little faces. “How much had your mother told you about Kaila?” She would be away to stokk or make merrk when Elin told stories to the kits, who now took turns answering.
“She’s the mother of all foxes.”
“She mated with Ylirr.”
“She’s among us, in the ice and in the snow.”
Hvita nodded. “You’re all right. Because Kaila is the ice and snow, because she is so cold, only she didn’t mind the heat and flames from Ylirr. Kaila bore countless litters for him. As their children, we were given her face, legs, tail, and white coats for the winter, and we were given the warmth of Ylirr.”
“What does this have to do with stokk?” a kit asked.
“We can stokk because Kaila and Ylirr made us that way,” Hvita replied. “Outside we can be white as winter, but inside our hearts beat with warmth like the eye of Ylirr. Think of the cold snow hiding the flesh and blood of vaeli within. Aren’t they the same? Even the most quiet vaeli with no scent and out of our sight can’t help but be warm with life.” Hvita swept her tongue over her lips. “Until we catch them, that is.”
The kits twitched the ends of their bushy tails in anticipation. “So, we have to find the vaeli by feeling their heat?”
“Yes. That’s what it means to stokk.” Hvita crouched until the fur on her chest brushed on tiny crystals of ice. She had hunted for her large family enough times to feel for the small pulses of warmth amid the cold. She trained her gaze on where she could best dive in to snag those bundles of warmth between her teeth. Somewhere soft, not too packed and hard, so she wouldn’t break her snout. “Watch my tail when I’m in the air,” she murmured to the kits. “I let it guide me.”
The kits sat very still, ogling at her. A push of her hind legs sent Hvita up in a graceful arc, then a little twist of her tail angled her course over the vaeli trying to scurry off. She thrust her face and front paws into the snow, her claws digging into short brown fur. Hvita squirmed out of the hole she had made from her stokk, wrenching her head up to crush the vaeli’s small body and life between her teeth. She tossed the caught vaeli to the kits, who dug eagerly into their breakfast, then they lifted their bloodied snouts at Hvita.
“Can we try the stokk now?”
“Not yet,” the vixen replied. “I’ll show you one more time.” She turned back to the hunting grounds, only to find the stretch of ice and snow in flames. She yelped in terror. Waves of heat seared into the back of her eyes and the roots of her fur. Clouds above growled, roiled, and gathered into an angry black mass over the great hill half a moon’s journey from the den. Smoke spewed from the top of the hill, and Hvita’s nose stung from its stench.
“Aunt Hvita? What’s wrong?”
She could barely hear the kits over the rumbling earth and roaring fire. Something else spewed from the hill, something bright and orange like man’s fire, but spraying and flowing down like water. How could that be? This fire-water carved a scorching river through the land, melting any rock and ice in its way. It came straight for Hvita. She turned tail and bolted down snow untouched by the flames.
“Run,” she cried to the kits. “Run as fast as you can.” She dared not look back. She could feel the fire-water just below her tail. Whining between pants, she skidded on the snow and flung herself into the den.
“Great Ylirr,” Elin exclaimed. “What are you—“
“Elin, get back! We need to hide. The fire-water’s coming.”
“Fire-water? There’s just ice and snow outside, Hvita.”
“I-It can’t be.”
“Take a look. Don’t you feel the cold? The kits and I are shaking in our fur as we speak.”
At Elin’s insistence, Hvita cracked her eyes open and peeked over her paws. Ylirr shone his sole eye through a pale grey sky. The chill, not heat, ruffled Hvita’s coat. No smoke, no flames, most of all, no fire-water in sight. Just ice and snow beyond the den, as Elin had said. The second litter, short-haired and blind, huddled around their mother’s legs. Hvita’s shouts had rudely roused them, and now they squeaked and whined piteously. The older kits dashed into the den.
“Aunt Hvita, why did we have to run? What are we running from?”
“There was smoke and fire everywhere. The great hill came alive and it was angry.”
The kits exchanged quick, puzzled looks among each other, making Hvita feel foolish. “We didn’t see anything like that.”
Elin lashed her tail. “What game are you playing at, Hvita? You’re not a kit anymore.”
“I’m not playing.” Hvita hunched her shoulders. “I know what I saw. I swear by Ylirr above and Dautha below.”
Elin uttered something between a growl and a groan. “You’re supposed to be out there teaching the kits to stokk, not running back in here playing pretend.”
“I showed them once,” Hvita said in her own defense. “I was going to show it to them again when, well…”
Elin flattened her ears. “I don’t want to hear any more of it. There is no smoke and there is no fire-water.”
Hvita saw no use in changing her sister’s mind. She had no proof.
Elin’s sharp tone softened into a plea. “I need your help, Hvita. The kits no longer have a father. They have to learn from you now. I can’t teach them the stokk while the newest litter still needs me by their side.”
Hvita lowered her snout. “I know. I’m sorry.”
When Elin was heavy with kits, her mate Atli was trapped by men and taken away to be worn on their shoulders. Hvita stepped in to help Elin care for the growing family.
Elin brushed her nose against Hvita’s neck. “I’m grateful for what you’ve done already. I thank Ylirr and Kaila every day that you stayed. You could have gone away to find a mate and raise kits. You could have been like most vixens.”
Hvita nosed at the spot below her sister’s ear. “You and I know that I am not like most vixens.” Hvita never nurtured a desire to start her own family. It was never there in the first place. Atli’s disappearance gave her even less reason to leave now. Besides, she had come to treat Elin’s kits as her own. Kaila may have brought enough kits to fill the land, but two litters were plenty enough for Hvita to keep track of and look after. The first needed to master the stokk before spring. A fox who could not stokk was no fox at all. Kits who could properly do the stokk were deemed good enough to hunt on their own, and more importantly, bring back vaeli for their smaller yet growing siblings.
Hvita safely assumed she was forgiven. She ruffled her coat from nape to tail and ventured back outside. No wonder she did not dream last night. The fire she had felt and seen had to be part of a walking dream. Yes, that had to be the reason. How else could she explain it? Hvita spent the day until Ylirr-down watching the kits’ attempts to stokk and making suggestions to improve their technique. This went by without further incident, to her relief. Nothing burst form the top of the great hill. Maybe there was no such thing as fire-water, after all.
When darkness closed over Ylirr’s eye, Hvita ushered the kits back into the den and laid down to sleep. Satisfied with a full belly and kits learning quickly, Hvita expected pleasant dreams. Instead she felt something cold prod her flank, and heard her name whispered in the dark.
“Elin?” Hvita asked.
“I am not Elin,” came the whispered reply.
“Who’s there?” Hvita opened her eyes, and a shiver ran down her back. Standing over her, peering at her through wide, unblinking black orbs for eyes, was a gaunt blue vixen. Not the blue of a cloudless sky, but the blue of deep water with no bottom or telling of what lurked underneath. Bones defined this vixen’s silhouette more than fur. Knobs of spine ran down her back. A cage of ribs took the place of a belly filled with vaeli. Hvita had never seen this vixen before, but like all foxes who were told stories, she knew about the mother of death.
“Dautha.” Hvita shuddered. “Am I dead?”
“No. Ylirr’s warmth is still inside you.”
“Then why have you come for me?”
“To warn you.”
“Warn me of what?”
“Of smoke and fire that flows like water. Of death and destruction.” Dautha’s voice crept into the den like a breeze whistling over dry bones, yet Hvita flattened her ears as if the blue vixen roared into her face.
“That’s what I saw earlier today. It’s real, then?”
“Yes, but not yet. I had shown you what is yet to come.”
Hvita dug her claws into the earth. “It will come, no matter what?”
“Kaila cannot protect anybeast from such overwhelming heat. Even Ylirr can do nothing to stop it from happening. Fire cannot stop fire.”
“Then all we can do is wait and die.” Hvita shut her eyes at the terrible thought. “Why warn me of this? Isn’t this what you want?”
Dautha tilted her head. “You have heard wrongly of me. I do not want living beasts to die. I especially do not want foxes to die. I only come for you when it is time for you to give up Ylirr’s warmth, and I dug out a den where the dead can stay.”
Deep, deep into the earth, beyond even the bottom of the sea, Dautha kept the largest den any fox could only dream of. The den had to be very big, because the dead couldn’t come back to the land of the living. Atli must be somewhere down there. Hvita’s mother and father, too.
“The coming disaster will lead to many lives being lost,” Dautha went on. “So many that my den would not have enough room for them all.”
Hvita couldn’t believe her ears. “Impossible,” she breathed. “How can your den be too small now?”
“I am only one fox, Hvita. Digging out a den to the size it is now took me many, many moons since the dawn of time. Two moons will not be enough time for me to make more room for all who will perish when the land goes bjarr.”
The land itself, consumed in rage, in only two moons? Even with the glimpse she was given, Hvita couldn’t imagine such a thing.
“You have been warned,” Dautha said, “so you must warn others. Tell as many foxes as you can about the land-bjarr.” She turned away. “Leave at Ylirr-rise.”
Hvita’s mind spun from so many questions that it struggled to process commands. “Leave that soon? But Dautha—“
“I must go. There are foxes who’ve lost their warmth and need an escort down to my den.” The blue vixen stalked toward the snow, then returned her starless gaze to Hvita. “The land-bjarr in two moons. Do not forget.” The mother of death melted into the dark before Hvita could make any promises.
Dread creeped into the young vixen in spasms and shivers, because she had to tell Elin.
When Ylirr’s eye peeked over the horizon, the kits didn’t have to ambush Hvita. She had already been wide awake all night.
“Teach us some more,” they yapped.
She hated to step on their wagging tails. “I’m sorry, little ones, but I have to speak with your mother.”
Some of the kits bounded past her to tug on Elin’s tail and ears. “Wake up, wake up, Mother. Aunt Hvita needs to tell you something.”
Hope flickered in Hvita like a tiny flame. Surely Dautha had visited Elin as well, and showed her the coming land-bjarr, too.
Elin stirred and sniffed at her second litter, then murmured, “What is it, Hvita?”
“Listen. Dautha came to me in my dreams. She said that in two moons, the land will go bjarr. She showed me how it would happen.” Eagle’s talons squeezed Hvita’s chest. “The fire-water is coming.”
Elin bristled. “Again with the fire-water?”
“Dautha herself left me with a warning, so it must be real.”
“If it’s true, what should we do about it?” Elin retorted.
“She said that I should leave. We should all leave.”
“And go where?”
“I-I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.” Elin’s mingled scorn and incredulity made Hvita’s ears pull back and her nape prickle.
“I’ll admit that I don’t have all the answers, but I know enough to say that we can’t stay in the den.”
“By Ylirr, do you actually have any idea of what you’re saying?” Elin slapped her tail against the dirt. “It’s like telling baby birds to fly before they can flap their wings, and not tell them where to fly next. My newest litter can’t even see or walk yet. We can’t just leave this den to make a new one. Danger is everywhere outside. There are eagles, the cold, men and their traps, and teeth they can hold and throw at us. Think of the kits, Hvita. Don’t be so strange and selfish.”
“I’m worried about us all,” Hvita cried. “How can that be strange, or selfish?”
Elin narrowed her eyes. “I shouldn’t expect you to understand. You’re a vixen with no kits.”
Hvita should’ve ducked that stab. Still, it struck and she flinched. “Please, Elin, we’ll die if we stay.” Worse, they would have nowhere to go after that.
By her hindlegs, the older kits whimpered and shied away.
“We’re going to die?”
“Do we really have to leave?”
“Enough,” Elin barked. “Nobeast is going to die, and nobeast is leaving.” She rasped her tongue over the squirming, crying second litter. “Thank you, Hvita. It’s only Ylirr-rise, and already you’ve managed to frighten all of my kits.”
“I’m sorry, Elin,” Hvita murmured. “I really am.” She wished that Dautha picked another fox to warn, but wishing got nobeast nowhere. Wishing couldn’t catch vaeli or dig out dens. Hvita would have to make things happen with her own four paws. She gritted her teeth and looked away from any faces. “I’m leaving.”
“You can’t be serious,” Elin growled. “You want to abandon us?”
So many protests at that ridiculous accusation filled Hvita’s throat that she couldn’t say anything at all. She took off, stopped at a mound of snow three stokks away and tore it apart with her claws. She snarled at the cold, unfeeling ground. “Bloody merrk!”
“Mother told us that’s not a nice thing to say, Aunt Hvita.”
The little voices behind her, so innocent rather than scolding, smoothed the furrow along the top of her snout. Hvita laid down on the snow to cool her churning hot blood. “I’m sorry. All I want is your mother to believe me.”
“We believe you.”
Hvita’s ears perked. “Do you, now?”
The kits curled their tails. “We know you can’t be joking, Aunt Hvita. We’ve never seen you look so scared before.”
“That fire-water…I don’t wish for you all to see something so terrible.”
“Will you still leave us?”
Her gut twisted. “I must, even if I don’t want to. If Dautha showed the land-bjarr only to me, then I have to let the others know.”
The kits brushed their faces against Hvita’s chest and shoulders. “We understand. We’ll work hard to stokk while you’re gone.” Njall stood as tall and straight as he could, and the solemnity he exuded didn’t match his small, round face. “We’ll look after our mother, and our little brothers and sisters.”
Hvita licked the tops of their heads and nipped at their ears. “I’m so proud of you all. Your father would be, too. I’ll come back here, I promise. Tell your mother for me.” She knew that Elin would be too furious to listen. Hvita went alone to where she had marked the land between her family’s and the unknown. She had lived all her life in a den passed down by foxes before her. Her father’s father, his father’s father, and so on. Never before had she ventured beyond its borders. The plains seemed to stretch on, with no end in sight, as vast as she felt small. Still, she put one paw forward, then another, until she stepped past her merrk. She would be a roaming fox, but not for long. She promised that she would be back. Returning soon meant that she had to move quickly. Hvita broke into a headlong run, going for as long as she could until she had to rest and hunt for vaeli. Once she finished her meal, Hvita wiped her bloody muzzle on snow and lifted it to sniff for merrk made by other foxes. After several deep breaths, she caught wind of a den she could reach by next Ylirr-high. Encouraged by the scent of foxes nearby, she resumed running, and stopped just before the merrk sprayed on the ground. Still, the tod who had left it ran up to her snarling. He was closely flanked by three kits.
“I’m not here to fight,” Hvita said. “I just want to talk.”
“That’s what all roaming foxes say,” the tod sneered. “Once we turn our backs, you’d slink in to steal our vaeli, or try to claim our land.” By his strut and the swell of his chest, it was clear that he was the leith, the leader.
“I’m not here to steal or claim anything. If I wanted to, I would’ve put in effort to hide from you.” Hvita tried to keep calm and patient. “Please, listen to me. I have an important message from—“ She darted back from a swipe of the leith’s claws.
“You must be up to something,” he said. “My sons and I don’t want trouble around here. Get out.”
The kits curled their lips and flashed their teeth at her. The kits themselves were almost tods, growing into tods too soon, with shredded ears and old claw marks across their faces and bellies.
Hvita saw no use in reasoning with foxes who spent their whole lives picking fights. Without another word, she retreated.
They didn’t give chase, and the leith said to his kits, “There’s no honor or gain in fighting a fleeing vixen.”
Hvita ran until she was out of breath and shivering. How many other foxes would treat her that way? Those four hadn’t even let her finish. She glanced at the sky. She would have to dig out her own den before Ylirr-down. Winding ridges, like raised scars in the land, made for good shelter from the ice and wind. Hvita dug out enough dirt to fit herself through, and she sank in, nursing her sore, throbbing paws.
Had she been wrong all along to leave Elin’s den? Back there, she could be much warmer, safer, and closer to her family. Hvita sank into a troubled sleep, and though she had run farther away from the great hill, it loomed over her as if she had never left home. A burst of fire-water from its top drowned out her scream. Her white fur turned black from a rain of ashes, and her burned flesh gave off a gagging stench. Suddenly, silence. No more fire and smoke. Only darkness. From the dark, like a fog, Dautha appeared between the slits of Hvita’s eyelids.
“Do not forget,” the blue vixen snapped.
That startled Hvita. Before, Dautha never rose her voice above the ruffle of a breeze. Hvita’s surprise quickly gave way to anger. “Why am I the only one who can see the land go bjarr? Why can’t you just show and tell everybeast so they would all know?”
“Everybeast is born with two eyes, and usually dies with two,” Dautha replied. “Very few are born with a third eye.”
Hvita blinked many times, blinking with just two eyes, as far as she could tell. “Am I one of the very few? I have this third eye?”
“That is why you can see what is yet to come. I could show you what will happen, because you have that rare gift.”
“You showed me how we will die in two moons. Can you show me how we can be saved?”
“I deal with all matters concerning death. I can only see and show what will kill you, not what will save you.” Dautha closed her eyes. “That path is closed to me.”
Hvita gritted her teeth. “Load of good that does for us.”
“You must find the answer for yourself.”
“Not even my own family cared to hear the news. Why bother with warning others?” Hvita thought of that tod and his kits, all covered in old wounds. “Of course I want my family to be safe, but why should I care if the rest die?”
Dautha pulled her ears back, silent for some time. Finally she murmured, “You have not seen the walking dead.”
“The dead never walk. We’ve never passed down such stories.” Hvita was unsure of herself, despite what she said.
“That tale is lost among your kind. A long time ago, before you were born and before men set paw on this land, Vaeleith sought to steal Ylirr’s remaining eye. After stealing the first, that glutton could not resist another prize. Vaeleith tried to sneak up on Ylirr under the cover of clouds, and leapt up high in the sky to grab it. Ylirr knew that Vaeleith would come. He was quick enough to pull back from Vaeleith’s paws, but not quick enough to pull back from the claws. Ylirr suffered a wound to his remaining eye, a wound that left him unable to see and warm the land. Darkness fell and Ylirr flew into a terrible fury. He sent down solvirrk to slay Vaeleith, but because he could not see, the solvirrk ran through innocent foxes instead. He thought he was aiming for Vaeleith, who was weaving this way and that to flee, but he sent many foxes to their deaths.”
Hvita shuddered. Like all foxes, she feared the sight and sound of solvirrk: Ylirr’s teeth that snapped down from sky to earth faster and harder than the teeth of any beast. Solvirrk was a sign of Ylirr’s wrath, and often came with rain. Whenever she heard it crack or saw it flash, she offered up an apology to Ylirr in case she had done something to displease him. As frightening as solvirrk could be, it would come down on nothing in particular. The ground, usually, maybe a tree, but never any one beast. To hear Dautha testifying otherwise terrified Hvita.
Dautha went on: “Ylirr had killed so many foxes in so short of a time that I could not escort all of them to my den at once. I could only take in some and refuse the others. Those who could not join me wandered without a resting place. They tried to return to their bodies, which had been burned black by solvirrk. So the dead walked, aimlessly and mindlessly, on decayed legs that fell apart and with heads bent like their necks had snapped. They did not know friend from foe, nor eat vaeli for sustenance, but they tore at each other and littered the land with needlessly slaughtered vaeli.” The blue vixen squeezed her eyes shut, as if in pain. “To this day I regret turning away the foxes who had to suffer like that. As soon as I widened my den, I brought them in to rest. Ylirr recovered from his wound and could see once more, green things grew again, the survivors mated among each other and multiplied, but few remembered seeing the dead walk. That became forgotten.”
Vaeleith was already a hated figure among the foxes, but hearing that made Hvita despise that prince of chaos and mischief even more.
“You want me to save as many as I can, so the dead won’t walk again.”
“It won’t be Vaeleith’s fault this time. The land-bjarr will do more harm than Ylirr’s solvirrk. More lives are in danger, so more will need to be saved.”
A wave of dread heaved in Hvita’s belly. Couldn’t Dautha offer more than omens and bad news?
“I won’t go back home, and I won’t forget.”
Dautha stepped back. “Very well. I trust that you can help me. Help your kind.”
Hvita woke up with tight-jawed determination to carry on. She may have never seen the dead walk, but she was certain that she never wanted to see bjarr again. The only time she had seen it was in her father, whose mouth frothed, eyes filmed red with blood, and claws gouged out the flesh of men that attacked her family. Her father fought bravely and ferociously, but bjarr didn’t last forever. When it left him, he was weak and helpless as a kit when the wounded men still managed to haul him, his mate, and litter away. The men hadn’t seen Hvita and Elin, who hid and shivered under mounds of snow. Kits who watched their family being snatched away to get skinned made for close sisters. Hvita and Elin had sworn to protect each other since that day.
“I’m still keeping my oath, Elin,” Hvita muttered to herself. “This is how I’m going to protect you.”
Since roaming from one makeshift den to another, Hvita buried any merrk she had to pass. She didn’t want to give other foxes any impression that she was interested in challenges or claims for territory. Fortunately, more often than not, others were curious about news she had to share when she did her best to look and sound harmless.
“Come with me, and we can find new homes far away from the great hill, where the fire-water can’t reach us,” she would tell them. “I’m not saying that I should be your new leith. I only ask that we travel together.” That was the best solution she could offer.
Unfortunately, nobeast was interested in following her. Nobeast could imagine this land covered in ice and snow to be engulfed in flames in merely two moons. Rejection after rejection fatigued her. Every day her strides became slower and her paws heavier. Her ears drooped and her tail dragged on the ground. On one Ylirr-high, she was sure that a couple of new mates burdened with no kits would want to come along, but they declined. As Hvita bit back a growl of frustration and turned away, the vixen said, “Strange, just this Ylirr-rise a roaming tod came up to us saying the same thing.”
That made Hvita whirl around. “The same thing? You mean the land-bjarr?”
“Yes,” the tod said. “His eyes were wide and rolling about, and he struck up a tune and rhymed words while he skipped. A bit mad, I think.”
“Never mind that. Where did he go? Where can I find him?” Hvita pressed.
The vixen flicked her tail to the east. “He headed for that hill over there, where the dandelions would grow when spring comes.”
Hvita took off down the direction the vixen had indicated. Soon singing reached her ears, and as she neared the hill, she noticed a tod wandering around with his eyes fixed to the sky. He didn’t seem to care where he treaded, and he sang to nobeast in particular. He sang to himself, apparently. She had to call out for him to notice.
“Hello there,” he called back. “Would you like to be part of my song?”
Hvita didn’t give the tod a chance to sing. “The land-bjarr, I heard that you know about it.”
“More than know. I’ve seen it.”
“Me too,” Hvita exclaimed. Another third eye. Finally, a fox who understood the grave danger to come. Or did he? This tod seemed much too happy.
“I am Orrn, the storyteller,” he sang, “with no mate, kits, or den to call my own, but that doesn’t matter.” Then he said, “And you are?”
“Hvita. My family and I live in a den close to the great hill.”
“Ah, close to the site of calamity. Where, then, is your family?”
“My sister still has to care for her kits, who are too small and helpless to move out.”
“Hmm, yes, good enough reason for her to stay. No wonder you’ve gone astray.”
“I’ll come back for them,” Hvita insisted. “After I do what Dautha has asked of me, that is.” She lashed her tail. “None of that is going well, I’m afraid.”
“Nothing good for my troubles, too. At least there’s you.”
“Well, I’m the only fox to believe you so far, because Dautha had also warned me about the land-bjarr.” The unintentional rhyming of her words perked Orrn’s ears, but she was in no mood to be merry. “Why don’t we travel together?” she asked. “If we’re together, maybe our warning can sound more believable. Maybe we can find more with the third eye like us.”
Orrn’s gaze drifted back to the sky, then his eyes twinkled at her. “A sound suggestion. In greater numbers, our warning will be harder to question.” Next to her, he kept pace with a light trot. He rolled and turned over words and phrases on his tongue, like chewing on meat too good to swallow. He was like a babbling brook, and only kept quiet to stokk for vaeli. Even in his sleep, he mumbled and twitched his paws. Besides talking too much, and talking more to himself than to her, Orrn made good company. With him, hunting and digging out dens took only half of the work. He might be chatty, but he wasn’t lazy. Since meeting Orrn, she would see him in her dreams, perhaps because they both had the third eye.
“Surely you haven’t always been alone,” she said to him. “You must’ve had a family before.”
“I was only a few moons old when my mother and father got sick,” he replied. “The sickness spread to my brother and sisters, so I ran away. I had been taught just enough about the stokk to hunt for myself. I thought it would be for a bit, until the sickness left. After a few days I came back to the den, only to find that Dautha had come for them first.”
Hvita brushed her tail over his flank. “I’m sorry.”
“I only feel sorry that I should feel sad when I’m not,” he murmured. “It was so long ago. Since my family left for Dautha’s den, I’ve become a wanderer.”
Sharing a den with her sister for almost her entire life, Hvita couldn’t imagine walking in his paws. “Do you ever get lonely?”
“Not anymore. Stories keep me company.”
“What stories do you like to tell?”
“Ones filled with fun and adventure. The ones about Vaeleith.”
“Vaeleith?” Hvita wrinkled her snout. “He’s a scoundrel and a nuisance. I think you may be the only fox to ever like him.”
That made Orrn’s chest swell. “I can take pride in that, I suppose. Well, I think he’s clever and interesting. Ylirr, Kaila, Dautha…may they forgive me, but they are always doing the same old thing—protecting the land, watching over the foxes, keeping order, and all that—so their stories are not very entertaining.”
“Stories are not supposed to entertain,” Hvita said. “They teach. We tell stories to kits so they can learn to be good tods and vixens.” Honestly, she wasn’t too fond of stories about Kaila. Apparently Hvita failed to be a proper vixen if she wasn’t churning out litter after litter for the rest of her life. She didn’t admit this to Orrn, but maybe he could sense that she didn’t really believe what she was telling him.
“Not all stories can be like that.” Then Orrn snorted. “Besides, who do I have to teach when I’m wandering about? I have no kits. I tell myself stories so I don’t get bored. Anyway, as for Vaeleith, he does whatever he wants. He’s not like the others, shouldered with some weighty, solemn duty to fulfill. He just likes to stir up trouble without a care in the world. He did at least one good thing, you know. He gave us the moon.”
“Stole Ylirr’s eye, more like,” Hvita quipped.
“Not good for Ylirr, I’ll admit, but with the moon, our nights are bit less cold and our days a bit less hot.”
From her makeshift den, Hvita peered up at the moon, Ylirr’s dimmed, pale eye that blinked ever so slowly in the darkness. At its widest, she could see tooth marks puckering the globe of that eye, evidence of Vaeleith’s successful theft.
Despite traveling together, Hvita and Orrn continued to have no luck with convincing others to heed the warning. A young tod joined them at first, but only to get away from his family. Within mere days he grew homesick, scared of unfamiliar land, and he slunk back to his den.
“He left for the wrong reason,” Hvita said. “I should’ve known he wouldn’t last with us.”
“We’ll keep trying. Let’s visit dens along the coast,” Orrn suggested.
The foxes tread with care down steep banks that made their pads prick or slip under gravel. Salt from the sea made Hvita’s nose ache and tongue heavy. Gulls and puffins wheeled high above them, diving down only to snatch fish from the sea. Birds had their own stokk, it seemed. Much more difficult. At least there was ground beneath the snow. Hvita looked at the waves beating on the shore, and shuddered. Foxes who lived near the sea offered the same denial as the ones who lived inland. They cared even less since their dens were farther away from the great hill.
As Hvita dragged her pads along the sand behind Orrn, her ears shot up. “Do you hear that?”
“Yes, by the cliffs.”
She should mind her own business, but the strange cries got the best of her curiosity. Hvita kept low to the ground as she made her way to the source of the cries. This time Orrn trailed behind her. A flock of crows brewed like a tiny storm cloud ahead. Either something below them was dead, or nearly dead. Hvita crept closer, and could better hear the cries that put any ambiguity to flight.
A puffin waddled on the sand and screamed at the crows above it. “Auk! Not dead! Go away!” It beat one wing furiously as it screamed, while the other wing hung limply. “Not dead! Go away!” The crows cawed in defiance. The puffin waddled in place to turn where it stood, uttering a great deal of “auks.”
“Look at its beak, Hvita,” Orrn hissed. “Half of it’s broken.”
“Its wing, too.”
“It won’t keep the crows off its tail forever, poor fellow.”
The puffin talked strangely. Its color and scent were different from the other puffins. Maybe it flew in from far away. Hvita wanted to speak with the injured puffin, but she couldn’t do that with the crows harassing it. She leapt out of hiding and snarled at the flock, startling them. Orrn joined her and bared his teeth. Crows weren’t going to pick a fight with a pair of healthy, angry foxes.
The puffin puffed up its white breast, squawking at Hvita and Orrn. “You want eat me too? I fight you too. I put holes in fox heads, auk!”
Hvita took care not to get close to the jagged beak. “We don’t want to eat you. We just want to talk.”
“Auk! I not believe you. Foxes always sneaky.”
Orrn lowered his voice close to Hvita’s ear. “I know just the thing to earn that bird’s trust. I bet it can’t catch fish with that broken beak. It must be hungry.”
“How can we catch fish? We can’t fly and stokk like the birds.”
Fish strayed into the shore with every beat of the waves. Orrn showed Hvita how to grab them. She didn’t like how the cold water splashed and lapped at her belly. Worse, the fish felt slimy and scaly, and she tried not to gag. She and Orrn brought back mouthfuls of slim, silver fish, which the puffin gulped down. Half of its large grey and orange bill had chipped off, so that its tongue showed like a worm without dirt to hide in. The puffin tipped its face to the sky to slide fish down its throat.
“There, do you trust us now?” Hvita asked.
The puffin’s feathers, once ruffled, laid flat now. With amusement and surprise, it said, “Foxes speak true. Not always sneaky.”
“That’s right. Who are you, and where are you from?”
“My name Bris, like soft wind. I hatch in Long-Land.”
“Long-Land? Is that what you call this place?” Orrn asked.
“No, no, auk!” Bris gestured with its unbroken wing. “Across sea, east. Many days from here. Most time live on sea. Sometime come to this land, or Long-Land. Rocks good for nests and eggs.”
Hvita thought of how much more birds like Bris could see with wings than beasts with only paws. “If you’ve flown here before, you must know how big the land is from up there.”
“Yes. This land not so big, auk.”
“It’s not?” Orrn was puzzled.
“Water all around this land, so land small and round like nest,” Bris said. “That why my kind call this land Nest-Land, auk.”
“Is it really that small? How can foxes leave the land, if there’s the sea all around?”
“Why foxes want leave?”
Hvita tried to tell Bris about the land-bjarr.
The puffin bobbed its head. “I know great hill. Very big. If fire-water come from great hill, it cover all Nest-Land. Foxes not fly, not swim. Foxes stay and die in Nest-Land when fire-water come.”
“That can’t be it.” Hvita squeezed her eyes shut. “There has to be a way out of here.” Foxes had given names to many things, but the land wasn’t one of them. It was simply called the land, because most foxes didn’t know much else beyond their own dens. Even Orrn, a wandering fox for most of his life, couldn’t claim to explore every edge of the land, and certainly didn’t have wings to know that the land wasn’t so big, after all.
“No way off Nest-Land for foxes,” Bris said matter-of-factly. Then, mournfully, “No way off for me too, if wing not get better in two moons, auk!”
Hvita turned her back to Bris, walked away to sink her rump, then her belly, into the sand, and covered her snout with both paws. “We’re doomed. We’re all just stuck here. It’s no use trying to stop our fate.”
Orrn padded up to her, keeping his chin raised. “Don’t make such a big merrk all over things, Hvita. We’ll find a way.”
“If you have any brilliant ideas, I’d like to hear them,” she snapped. “I don’t know how you can be skipping and singing when we’re all going to die in two moons.”
Orrn’s voice dipped to a whisper. “Because if we survive, I know that will make the greatest story that foxes would ever hear.”
“Nobeast will be around to hear it.”
“Yes, there will.”
“You say these things, yet you have no proof for any of it.”
“You’re talking like the foxes who don’t believe us. I believe that all is not lost. I don’t have anything to show for it, but you just have to believe in me, Hvita.”
Orrn didn’t rhyme his words when he was being adamant and serious. Hvita was too weary to argue further. She only remarked under her breath, “If only we could be smart like men…” Her gaze wandered to the sea as she said this, then she sat up. “Dautha said that long ago, no men lived here. They don’t have wings or fins, but they must have come over somehow.”
“They came on knapa,” Orrn said.
“What? Impossible.” Knapa were deathly afraid of water. They would not set a hoof in, even without carrying men on their backs.
“You’ve only lived inland. You’re thinking of the knapa that men use to run on land. I’m thinking of the knapa that carry them across the sea.”
That stirred up Hvita’s curiosity, like a paw thrust into a stagnant pool. “I want to see this other knapa. I want to know how men use it.”
Orrn hunched his shoulders. “That would be too dangerous. I’ve only seen it once from a cliff, but this kind of knapa can carry many, many men on its back, and all the men on it carry sharp things in their paws. This knapa has no hooves to trample you, but you can’t just walk right up to it. Men will kill you as soon as they see you.”
“I won’t be that stupid,” Hvita retorted. “Of course I’d watch from a distance. Let’s go to where you last watched men on this sea-knapa, Orrn.”
“That place isn’t safe anymore. Men dug a new den there.”
“Then Bris might know a safer place.” Hvita padded back to where the puffin still sat gulping down the remains of her and Orrn’s catch. “Bris, you must know these cliffs better than we do. Could you show us the best place to safely watch the men come on their sea-knapa?”
Bris tilted its head this way and that. “I not know what sea-knapa mean, auk, but I know good place. Men no see or hurt you from there.”
“Good. We’ll head for their nearest den at Ylirr-rise.”
Tired from their journey along the coast, and needing the puffin’s guidance the next day, Hvita and Orrn decided to spend the night with Bris by the cliffs. They took shelter under jutting ridges to escape the buffeting wind. Bris waddled around trying to gather twigs, but when its broken beak hampered its attempts, the foxes helped; then the puffin awkwardly settled into its crude nest.
“I say, Bris, whatever happened to that beak of yours?” Orrn asked.
“Storm last night,” Bris replied. “Boom, boom, lots of boom.”
“Solvirrk,” Hvita said. “We heard it too.”
“I not get hurt from booms. I fly in much rain, much wind, that I not see well. I fly into cliff. Hit beak hard on rock, auk! I fall down. Left wing break when I hit ground.”
“That sounds awfully painful,” Orrn said.
“Hurt lots, auk! After that I no fly, no eat, almost die. But you save me. I follow good foxes now.”
Not that the puffin had much choice with that broken beak and wing. Hvita would prefer to sleep now, but Orrn was more interested in striking up conversation with their new acquaintance. “I’ve always wondered: what gods do you puffins follow?”
“Gods? I not understand.”
“You don’t know what gods are? Well, they rule and watch over us. Most of them, anyway. We foxes follow the god of light, the goddess of ice and snow, and the goddess of death. There’s a god of mischief, but we’re not supposed to follow his example.”
“Oh. My kind not have gods.”
The foxes exchanged a perplexed look. “What do you believe, then?” Orrn asked.
“World like big egg. World hatch in big boom.” Bris emphasized the phenomenon with a sweep of its right wing. “All things spill out: light, water, wind, land, birds, beasts, and men. All things part of egg and hatch from egg. No gods.”
“I…I see,” Orrn said, though it was clear to Hvita that he couldn’t see much sense in that. “Well, if you don’t have stories about gods, you must have lots of stories about the lands you’ve seen.”
Sleepiness fled Hvita’s thoughts as talk of many lands beyond this one perked her ears. Bris had flown to places where trees grew high and plenty, foxes were red rather than white, brown, or blue, and menleith ruled from vast dens made of stone.
Then Bris said, “Tell me about fox gods. You have funny stories? I like funny, auk!”
Orrn’s ears perked, and he sang, “Just the thing for this gloomy weather. I’ll tell you a tale that’ll tickle your feathers.” The storytelling fox flicked a stern gaze between Bris and Hvita, to make sure they would listen closely and not interrupt. “This is how Vaeleith earned his name: as the prince of mischief, even as a kit being born, he had given his mother so much trouble that she would not name him. He was the smallest in his litter, easily overlooked by his bigger, stronger brothers and sisters. He always tried hard to get attention, and found that the only times anybeast would notice him were when he caused trouble. He often disobeyed his mother, or picked a fight with his siblings, then said that they started it. His family could no longer stand his antics, so they kicked him out of the den. That only made him want to stir up bigger trouble. While he wandered about the land, he picked up many tricks, like walking on water without falling through, and making beasts see or smell something that isn’t really there. He wanted to make a name for himself, and do something so ridiculous and nefarious that all foxes would curse him and remember him for it. He thought about pulling the ultimate trick: to make all vaeli disappear.”
“What vaeli mean?” Bris squawked, and Orrn’s ears pulled back.
“Don’t break a story’s rhythm, Bris. I suppose a puffin’s not expected to know that, so it’s all right for now. Vaeli are little brown beasts that burrow underground, what foxes like to eat. Anyway…Vaeleith, before he was named Vaeleith of course, knew that vaeli weren’t too smart. He knew that they loved chewing on grass. He walked on the sea, beneath tall cliffs, and wherever his paws touched, the sea of water seemed to turn into a sea of grass. To the vaeli, it looked and smelled an awful lot like the real thing. That made all the vaeli in the land jump out of their burrows, and jump right off the cliffs! Foxes who were hunting, and even foxes staying in their dens, wondered what on Kaila was happening. All the vaeli they could have caught and eaten—throwing themselves straight into the sea! There, under the sight of every fox in the land, the troublemaker pronounced himself the vaelileith: the ‘leader of vaeli,’ the one who misled the vaeli with a trick. Even now, since that day, that prince of mischief is forever remembered as Vaeleith.”
Bris uttered a string of “auks” and flapped its uninjured wing. “Very funny,” it finally said. “Vaeli drop like me, but into sea, plop plop plop. Vaeleith most sneaky fox!”
“He certainly is. He’d be happy to hear that.” Then Orrn yawned. “One story is enough for the night. I suppose we need lots of rest for the journey at Ylirr-rise.”
Bris bobbed its head. “Lots climb on cliff.”
Once Ylirr peeked his eye over the edge of the sea, Hvita, Orrn, and Bris stirred awake. Orrn used his snout to lift Bris onto Hvita’s back. She would have to carry the flightless puffin while it showed the way. Bris’s directions led them along crags and ridges carved into the cliffs. The foxes had narrow footholds, and as they climbed higher, Hvita tried not to look down. They pressed themselves against the flat rock, and the occasional flurry of salty, chilly wind threatened to blow them off. The foxes clung on to their difficult path, because Bris insisted that walking this way would steer them out of sight from men that roamed on the flat snow. Despite the puffin’s assurance that they were safe, Hvita felt vulnerable. Her and Orrn’s fluffy white coats did not blend well at all with the rocks.
“Nesting grounds have not much birds and eggs now,” Bris added. “No mothers attack foxes.”
“That’s a relief,” Orrn remarked. “I’m not climbing all the way up here just to get pushed off by birds that think we want their eggs.” He didn’t sing a word as soon as they started the climb. His legs trembled with every step. Foxes found comfort and homes in the ground. They didn’t envy the birds and their wings at all. Foxes were up in the air only to stokk. Anything longer and higher than that was not natural.
Hvita, however, didn’t share Orrn’s nervousness. Every pawstep along the cliff sent thrills up her legs. When they could climb no farther and higher, she fell under the illusion of being set free from earth, which would soon go bjarr beneath her paws. Still perched between her shoulders, Bris gestured with its wing.
“Look down there. Lots men, lots sea-knapa.”
Orrn wasn’t so keen on peering over the rocky edge, especially after claiming to see the sea-knapa once, but Hvita craned her neck forward. Just as she seemed to regain her breath, the sight below stole it.
From this high, men teemed, swarmed, and crawled like insects around their dens. Hvita couldn’t understand why men liked to build dens so close to each other. No fox would be happy with that little space. Her interest, however, wasn’t in their dens. Her gaze was fixed on where land and sea met, where knapa carried men to and from the water. Like Orrn had said, these knapa didn’t sink. Their backs were curved, hollow, and long, so many men rather than one could fit in at once. The heads of these knapa almost looked like the heads of knapa that ate and ran on grass: long-necked, long-faced, but with sharp teeth. Hvita couldn’t make sense of the thing on its back. The thing always moved, ruffling under the wind, either bloating or sagging. This knapa might not have hooves, but it had what seemed to be many legs that the men pushed and pulled on. That made the knapa walk on water, Hvita realized. Some knapa slowed to a stop on the shore, but didn’t follow the men that jumped off. Other knapa glided away toward the horizon. These knapa must be used only for the sea, not for land. That was why men needed another kind of knapa to move fast on snow and grass.
“By Ylirr above and Dautha below” was all Hvita could say.
“You got your view.” Orrn shivered. “Can we get off this cliff now?”
“There is a way off this land, after all,” Hvita muttered. She turned to Orrn. “As kits, we were always taught not to be a bad fox like Vaeleith, but this time we have to think and act like him.”
“What do you mean, Hvita?”
“I see only one way to escape death by fire-water. We must get as many foxes as we can into the sea. Into the knapa.” Orrn’s ears shot up and his eyes widened, but before he could comment, Hvita went on: “We can’t make our own knapa. There’s not enough time, and we’re not smart like men to know how. We need to steal one of theirs.”
“A trick to surpass even Vaeleith’s,” Orrn said.
“Steal knapa?” Bris cried. “How only two foxes do that? Many men move just one knapa. Two foxes not enough.”
The puffin had a point, but Hvita held onto the idea.
Again with Bris’s help, Hvita and Orrn turned to climb back the way they came. The way down proved much harder. Hvita had no choice but to see how high they had climbed. She wanted to shut her eyes, but she needed to know where to put her paws, or she would plummet to her death like the tricked vaeli. Vaeleith must have made up very convincing grass for vaeli to toss themselves off of cliffs like this. Though the waves lapping on the shore masked most sounds, Hvita could feel her belly rumbling. She and Orrn needed to hunt soon. They had to catch fish for Bris as well. The foxes quieted the growls from their bellies as soon as they reached firm ground. Hvita was sure that she’d never get used to the taste and feel of fish. Still, she forced herself to swallow them down.
As she hunched over to cough up fish bones lodged in her throat, a call from above made her freeze. Not a cry from an injured puffin this time, but a call very much like a fox’s.
The call sounded and echoed past the banks, which seemed much easier to climb over after the cliffs.
Orrn cocked his head. “Who could that be?”
Hvita rose to her paws. “I’m going to see who that is. Wait here.” She followed the call to a thicket of birch. Odd…vaeli liked to burrow in the snowy plains, where tree roots wouldn’t get in their way. Why would somebeast say that vaeli were here? Still, Hvita pressed on. She passed by felled trees, then ducked behind one. Just beyond her hiding spot, a young man attacked a tree with a strange sort of tooth. The teeth she had seen were long and straight. This one was short and curved, like a sliver of the moon, biting into the wood with every swing of the young man’s paws. Suddenly he stopped, put down his curved tooth, and bent over the snow panting. After he caught his breath, he tipped his head back and called out “Vaeli! Vaeli!”
A man sounding like a fox. How could that be? Hvita was so startled that she yipped. The young man whirled around. Most of his naked skin and sparse yellow fur was wrapped under the furs of other beasts. Her eyes met his, both wide and unblinking. Her breath plumed out light and shallow on her nose. The young man, never breaking his gaze away, sank to his knees and softly said, “What snow vaeli. Where Ylirr kit den.”
Hvita couldn’t make sense of that jumble of words. She had never been by a man this close. Not since men had taken away most of her family. She didn’t know what to do, or whether he would attack her instead of the tree. Did he lay traps in the woods? Could what he was saying be a trap itself, to lure her in, because she thought she had heard another fox? If that was true, he had succeeded.
At that, she bolted from him. She weaved through the birch and hurtled down the bank.
“Hvita, what happened?” Orrn cried. “Were you attacked?”
“No, but I might’ve been, if I hadn’t been quick.”
Next to Orrn, Bris flapped its wing. “What almost attack you?”
Once Hvita calmed her panting, she said, “A man. In the woods, there’s a man who can call out like a fox.”
“By Ylirr,” Orrn breathed. “That’s impossible. Men and foxes have always never understood each other.”
“That might be changing.” The thought sent a chill down Hvita’s spine. “I was so sure that I heard another fox, until I saw the man right in front of me.”
Bris stamped down a webbed foot. “All men dangerous, but that man very dangerous. Stay by cliffs. More safe here than woods.”
Part of Hvita wanted to agree. They should stay out of sight until they were sure that men would no longer be nearby. Another part of her wanted to look more into how the knapa on water could be moved and used, but that would have to wait. The foxes and puffin returned to their prior resting spot. Merely hiding behind cracks in the cliffs did not feel like enough protection for Hvita, but this was the best they could manage. From Ylirr-high to Ylirr-down, Hvita thought hard about what to do next. Then, despite the weight of salt in the air, a terrible scent burst through to make her fur stand on end. It was the scent of many dead things, stifling the cramped space. Only one beast carried that kind of smell. Men.
Orrn stiffened beside Hvita, and even Bris puffed up its feathers. Hvita cursed her negligence and stupidity. They should’ve covered their tracks. Men stood too tall to use their noses for the ground, but they came up with other ways to hunt. An unspoken rule coursed among the three: don’t make a sound. Heavy footfalls crunched on the sand and gravel. At the cracks in the cliff, a man’s feet swung into view. Hvita uttered a silent prayer to Ylirr and Kaila. If she, Orrn, and Bris sat very still, especially since it sounded like the man didn’t bring a rowf to sniff them out, they had hope of fooling the man into thinking that they weren’t there.
But men weren’t so easily fooled. The man bent down, with paws and knees on the ground. Three pairs of eyes from inside met the one outside. The same young man from the woods. Hvita split the air with an explosive bark. Orrn flashed his teeth and Bris let out bursts of “auks!” The man flinched but didn’t leave. He crawled on his hands and knees now, and squeezed through the cracks. Hvita’s fur tingled and bristled all over, and instincts howled at her to run, but she had nowhere to go. The man blocked their only way of escape. Once he squeezed his whole long body through, he held up his paws. Hvita, Orrn, and Bris edged back into the farthest wall. The man was so tall that he had to stay on his knees.
“Vaeli,” he said.
“Go away,” Hvita snarled. “You’re a liar.”
“Liar?” He perfectly imitated the last word she uttered.
“Yes. Liar. There’s no vaeli here.”
Or did he mean them as vaeli? His food? The man pawed at his side and drew out a tooth as long and straight as his arm. Cold fear washed over Hvita’s hot anger. She couldn’t die here. She hadn’t finished doing what Dautha told her to do. Her snarl ended in a strangled whine. The young man didn’t swing down his tooth at them. Instead he turned to the side, exposing the crack, and threw out his tooth. It hit with a faint clatter on the gravel. Confusion slackened the knots and tension in Hvita’s legs. Orrn mirrored her reaction. Why wouldn’t the man use his tooth? That was like Bris breaking its own beak on purpose. It didn’t make sense.
Once more the man raised his paws. Sat on his tailless bottom and crossed his legs. Like Hvita, Orrn, and Bris, he was defenseless. Rummaging through his coat again, he held out a pawful of fish. “Vaeli.” He wasn’t lying, after all. Hvita didn’t know that he had fish. The stench of those dead furs he wore overwhelmed everything else. No fish were claimed from his hand, so he tossed them at the feet of the two foxes and the puffin.
Bris, who enjoyed fish the most, couldn’t resist. The fish was gone in a blink of the eye.
“Don’t take bait from the enemy,” Hvita hissed at the gleeful puffin. “That’s what he wants. Weren’t you saying just earlier today that this man was very dangerous?”
“Very dangerous with tooth,” Bris replied. “No more tooth, not dangerous now.”
“He could always go out to retrieve it.” Orrn’s eyes darted nervously between the young man and the fish at his paws.
Hvita didn’t even look at her fish. She watched for what the man would do. Nothing was stopping him, but he made no move to grab his tooth. Without it, he had nothing else worth noting to be harmful. The teeth in his mouth were small and flat, like the nails on his paws. Perhaps he wasn’t interested in hurting them. Hvita couldn’t understand the man’s mangled fox-speech, let alone his own speech. Perhaps he tried to talk in another way.
“No harm?” Hvita asked.
“No harm,” the man replied. He held up his paws, and for a moment Hvita wondered why he kept doing that, then she thought that perhaps this was his way of saying that he didn’t carry any long, sharp teeth. “No harm,” he said, firmly this time.
Hvita wouldn’t believe him in a heartbeat. She still didn’t know what he wanted with her, Orrn, and Bris. Her fur flattened somewhat and she pulled down her lips to hide her teeth. The young man tossed them some more fish, which Bris alone ended up eating. When he ran out, he rested his back on the rock wall across from the foxes and the puffin. His shoulders sagged and his eyes drooped shut.
Orrn cocked his head. “He wants to sleep here?”
“We should take turns to watch him,” Hvita said. “If we all let our guard down, that would be the best time for him to attack us.” Under her vigilant gaze, the man didn’t stir or budge. When weariness crept over her, she asked Orrn to take over. She curled in her tail, but not quite over her face, and kept her eyes on the man for as long as she could before succumbing to sleep.
Hvita found herself back on the snowy plains. No more sand that got stuck in her fur, or gravel that stabbed at her pads. She was home. Hvita called for the kits, but none of them ran out to meet her. Instead the great hill rumbled, sending quakes through the snow and her paws. No, no, not again. Hvita ran and pulled back her ears, but the great hill still terrified her with its heated roar. Fire-water spewed from the top and seared down into the snow with an angry hiss. Hvita skidded to a stop at the edge of a cliff. Far below her, a lone knapa drifted on the sea, carrying one man. Behind her, fire and smoke engulfed all signs of home and life as she knew it. Just one word crossed her mind.
Like the tricked vaeli, Hvita hurtled off the cliff, just before hot rocks crashed where she once stood. She fell and fell, straight for the sea-knapa, bracing for the bone-breaking impact, but the man had seen her fall and reached out to catch her with his paws.
Hvita jolted awake. So did the young man. Her fur stood on end, while his furless skin was wet and clammy. What she had seen in her dream…had he seen that, too? He crawled out of the crack, but didn’t pick up his tooth.
“What just happened?” Orrn asked.
“I’m not sure.” Hvita rose and shook herself, then padded out to dunk her face into cold seawater. The man was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he went back to his den, wherever that was. Hvita gave the tooth on the ground a wide berth on her way back to Orrn and Bris, and tried to explain the events of last night.
Of course the puffin didn’t know what to make of it, but Orrn said, “That man must have the third eye like you and me, Hvita.”
She didn’t question his musing. He had stayed awake to watch the man, so he hadn’t followed her into the dream. The young man returned to the cliffs at Ylirr-down, this time on a small sea-knapa. The top of his body tipped back and forth as he pulled the knapa’s legs through the water. Hvita blinked hard to make sure she wasn’t still dreaming.
“That’s the same knapa I saw in my dream,” she told Orrn. Instinct barked at her to hide behind the crack in the cliff, but curiosity compelled her to watch how the man moved the knapa under his control. One end of the knapa slid onto the shore. The man didn’t try to do the same for the other end. Instead he jumped out, waded from the shallows, and tied the knapa to the shore with long brown whiskers. Hvita’s nape prickled. This knapa wasn’t so big. Maybe she and Orrn could steal it when the man was away. To her dismay, after Ylirr-down the man climbed back on the knapa to sleep in it. Under the cover of darkness, Hvita crept closer to the knapa. It smelled of both the woods and the sea, more of the latter. Her nose almost brushed over whorls and rings on the knapa. It was made of dead trees, she realized. She had seen how men cut trees with their curved teeth, but she didn’t understand how they smoothed it down and put it together. Facing such a large, dead thing made her shy away in disgust and slink back to the cliffs.
“Why man bring sea-knapa here?” Bris asked.
“Why do men do anything?” Hvita slumped onto the sand. “We can only guess.” It seemed tempting, with the knapa right here, but the more she thought about her plan to steal the knapa, the more foolish it sounded. She looked down at her paws. Even if she and Orrn could bite off the brown whiskers to free the knapa, they didn’t have paws like men to hold the legs.
“Keep taking turns to watch the entrance,” she told Orrn and Bris. “He may try to come in again.” That was all she knew what to do at the moment. She tried to think, but as weariness stole over her, she sent down another prayer to Dautha to be spared of seeing the fire-water again. Hvita’s eyes drooped shut, then she opened them again to find Bris gone and Orrn beside her. The puffin was keeping watch. The two foxes emerged from the crack in the cliff and blinked under Ylirr’s light. Breathing deeply only drew in sea salt, not smoke, into Hvita’s chest. That would change within a moon. She wasn’t fooled, and she didn’t forget. The knapa was still at rest on the shore, its legs tucked away and waves lapping at its sides made of dead, smooth trees. Hvita and Orrn crept up to it on soundless paws. Despite her disgust, Hvita couldn’t help admiring this proof of men’s ingenuity and power. Because of these knapa, no stretch of sea or land could stop men from going wherever they pleased. Hvita wished that her kind could have the same freedom.
“Do you like it?”
The voice behind the foxes made them jump. It was the young man, who held up his paws.
“Don’t run away. I’m not going to hurt you. No sword, see?”
Hvita could understand him perfectly.
Orrn couldn’t help but ask, “What is a sword?”
“That long, sharp thing I tossed into the sand, that’s a sword. I knew you wouldn’t like it.”
Hvita stumbled back. “You understand us, too.” While that frightened her, the man made little upward jerks of his paws as his speech picked up pace.
“I don’t know how this is happening, but thank the gods for it! Since I was a boy, I liked to imitate the calls of other animals. I would cry like the gulls and bark like you. I think I’m getting better at it. What do you think, fox?”
“My name is not fox,” she said mildly. “It’s Hvita, and this is Orrn.”
“My apologies. I’m Ivar.”
“Well, Ivar, I think you talk like a day-old kit.”
His broad shoulders sagged. “Oh. I thought I might’ve sounded like a real fox.”
“You sound convincing with one word at a time, I’ll give you that. But as soon as you string words together, you make no sense at all.”
“Is that so?” Ivar clapped his paws together and uttered strange barks. “I babble like a baby, huh?” Then the corners of his lips sank back into a grim straight line, and he said softly, “You saw it too, didn’t you? All that smoke and fire?”
“The land-bjarr, we call it,” Orrn said.
“That’s why I’m sailing away on this boat I built.” Ivar jabbed part of his paw at the knapa. “It can sail fine along the shore, but it’s not done yet. Not ready for open water. I practically live in the woods to chop and gather wood so I can finish building.”
“Why is your knapa—your boat—so small?” Hvita asked. “I’ve seen how many men can fit in at once.”
Ivar shook his head. “No one else believes me. No one wants to move out of their nice, new homes and pastures after sailing all the way here. Everyone in my village thinks I’m mad, even when I tell them that I was warned by a god.”
Hvita stiffened and bit back a yip. The terrible vision, the struggle to convince others…she and Orrn shared them with Ivar. “A god also visited us,” she said. “That’s how I know that you’re not spouting nonsense.”
Ivar made that strange bark, a short, wry-sounding one this time. “I never thought that the first and only ones to believe me would be a pair of foxes.”
Bitterness welled within Hvita’s throat like rotten meat. “At least you have a way out. My kind are doomed to die here because we can’t think like men, or fly like birds, or swim like fish.”
Ivar’s eyes twinkled. “You can come with me. There’s room.”
Hvita was so startled by the notion that she snapped out of the shared dream. Orrn must have felt the same, as he jerked from his sleep and exchanged wide-eyed worry with her.
“What should we do about that, Hvita?”
“Not trust him, of course.”
Hvita curled her tail tighter around her legs. Nothing good came out of company with men. Either beasts died at men’s paws to be eaten, or were tamed to obey and submit. Hvita refused to be lured into another trap.
Ivar climbed out of his little, unfinished knapa, and Hvita slunk out of the crack before he could think to trap her inside. Orrn and Bris followed her instinct, though the puffin waddled out squawking in pain from its useless left wing. Ivar took no more steps forward and stayed by the head of his knapa. Under his riveted gaze, Hvita flattened her ears and curled her lip at him. If the man was going back and forth from the shore to the woods, while he was away, she and Orrn could steal the knapa then. They didn’t need help from a man.
Ivar tried to talk to them, but could only utter the word he imitated best: vaeli. Hvita and Orrn kept their distance, then flinched when Ivar pulled out his curved tooth. He talked some more, frantically this time, jabbing with his free paw between the curved tooth and the woods, but Hvita’s fur continued to prickle. Finally Ivar’s paw fell to the side and he let out a huff. He stalked away from them, to cut more wood for the knapa, Hvita realized.
“This is our chance,” she whispered to Orrn. “As soon as he’s out of our sight, let’s make away with the knapa.”
When Ivar disappeared over the bank, the foxes jumped to gnawing at the brown whiskers holding the knapa still. Hvita’s jaws ached, but with enough bites she and Orrn were able to snap off the whiskers. They planted their paws into the gravel and sand and strained their backs as they pushed the knapa farther into the water. They hopped onto it, and when the knapa rocked under their weight, a wave of weak-legged sickness hit Hvita and made her stumble. Bris fell off her shoulders and hit the back of the knapa with an indignant “auk!” Orrn yelped and dug his claws into the wood.
“Riding on water feels awful. How do men put up with this?”
Hvita gritted her teeth and swallowed back the fear and nausea. “We’ll have to bear it, too. See the legs? You take one and I’ll take the other.” Even as she remembered how men tugged on the legs to move the knapa, she and Orrn could not even grip the legs properly to lower them into the water. Neither their jaws nor paws found purchase on the long, heavy limbs.
“It’s no use,” Orrn panted.
“Knapa move,” Bris cried. “Move with waves.”
The puffin was right—even without the legs, the sea ebbed and flowed beneath them so that the knapa bucked and swayed with it. They were moving, all right, but not where they chose to go. They were at the sea’s mercy. Suddenly Hvita yearned for firm ground beneath her paws.
Panic soared from her chest and lodged into her throat. “We’re too far from the shore. We’re stuck on here.”
Orrn’s groan was cut off by dry heaves. Bris tried to get off the knapa by flying. Instead, only its webbed feet stuck up in the air as the puffin fell backwards. Hvita shut her eyes, overwhelmed by the awful swaying sickness. This knapa that they could ride but not control held them captive. Ivar didn’t lead them into a trap. She did.
A man’s shout made Hvita look up. Ivar, who came down the bank, dropped the wood he was holding and ran to the shore. The freezing water made him gasp, but he plodded on as fast as he could until the water reached his chest. He grabbed on to the neck of the knapa and pulled to bring it, as well as the two foxes and one puffin on it, back to shore. Hvita, Orrn, and Bris had nowhere to run, and the man had every reason to kill the beasts that dared to steal his knapa. She braced for the swing and fatal bite of his curved tooth. Instead she felt his paws around her. She stiffened, too shocked to fight back, as Ivar lifted her from the knapa and lowered her onto the ground. He did the same for Orrn and Bris. Violent shivers racked Ivar’s body as he struggled to tie down the knapa with new brown whiskers. His lips turned blue and his naked skin took on the color of dead fish. He curled up against the knapa the way foxes curled up against the cold, his jaws clenched and arms wrapped tight about him in a useless attempt to fight the shivering.
Pity surprised and compelled Hvita to pad up to the young man and bump her nose against the hard coat for his feet.
“What are you doing?” Orrn asked.
“He needs shelter from the wind, or he’ll die here,” she replied. “He’ll be warmer behind the cliffs. We need him to follow us in there.”
Orrn joined Hvita in tugging at the fur lining Ivar’s feet-coat. It took them several tries to rouse him and for him to understand. He staggered after them as they headed for the crack in the rocks. Once inside, Ivar collapsed into the sand. His coat came in many parts. With as much strength as he could muster, he wrenched off the soaked coat covering his legs and tossed them outside with the long tooth. The water must have made him quite numb, since he didn’t grimace at the gravel and sand against his bare bottom. Hvita pressed herself against his exposed left leg, while Orrn did the same for the right. Bris waddled over to settle on Ivar’s feet. The young man still shivered, though not as much. Fatigue and sleep dropped like a great stone on beasts and man alike.
When Hvita cracked open her eyes again, she was back on the knapa. So was Orrn. This time, Ivar was with them. He sat across from the foxes on one end, holding a knapa leg in each paw. Hvita expected the wave of sickness to return, but as Ivar pulled on the legs in a slow, sweeping way that dipped his paws up and down, the knapa glided on the water with barely a sway.
“What were you doing on the boat?” Ivar asked. “I thought you wanted nothing to do with it, then I came back and found a pair of foxes and a puffin trying to sail a boat on their own.” That made the corners of his lips curl up, but Hvita lowered her head.
“We tried to steal your knapa. We were fools to try.”
“Well, I’m just glad you three didn’t tip over and drown.”
“Why do you care about what happens to us?” Orrn asked.
“Without you, I’d be alone again.” Ivar stopped moving the legs. He stared beyond the foxes with a pained look on his face. “I would’ve been the only one to get out of that.”
Hvita and Orrn looked over their shoulders, and Hvita’s heart wrenched. The land behind them was burnt and mangled beyond recognition, reeking with death and the wake of destruction. No green thing grew or river flowed. The only whiteness on that colossal pile of ash were the bones of foxes, the remains of Elin, Njall, and the kits who were robbed of the chance at full lives.
Hvita shuddered and whimpered. “Has it happened already? Are we too late?”
“No,” Ivar said, “we’re only seeing what will come.”
Orrn curled his tail around his legs, and his hushed voice barely rose above the waves. “I don’t mind being alone, but not like this.”
“I can’t leave my family to that.” Hvita looked back at Ivar—more precisely, saw no more options other than to rely on the man’s control of his knapa. “Does your offer still stand? Can we trust you to take us to safety?”
“I swear by Odin Allfather, who bestowed his wisdom to me with the warning, that you can trust me and I won’t hurt you.”
Hvita didn’t know the value of an oath to this Odin. “Swear by our gods, too, by Ylirr above and Dautha below.”
Ivar repeated his promise, this time by the gods Hvita and Orrn knew, then said, “I will stay here by the cliffs to finish the boat while you get your family.”
“I don’t doubt that you’ll finish the knapa.” Hvita clenched her jaw. “The challenge will be convincing my sister to come. Our parents and siblings were taken away by men.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Ivar murmured, though it was no fault of his.
“She would rather die than climb on something made by a man, but she has kits to worry about. I have to make her see that this is the only way to save them.”
Ivar’s eyes widened. “Please do. I wouldn’t want any poor kits to die.”
His reaction puzzled Hvita. She had thought that men only relished in and excelled at killing things. It comforted her somewhat that Ivar was the odd exception, and the only hope from a fate worse than death.
Ivar’s shivering subsided by Ylirr-rise, and Hvita streaked out of the cliffs to return home. Worry brewed within her like the dark clouds wafting from the great hill. The air began to taste bitter, which made her eat and sleep little. Instincts screamed at her to head the other way, but thoughts of her sister, nieces, and nephews waiting pushed her on. Hvita panicked when she couldn’t find the den entrance, but after much sniffing and digging, found that it had been caved in with snow. Hvita pushed and squeezed through the narrowed entrance. Startled yips greeted her, and she squinted at the dark.
“Elin, are you there?”
“Hvita, is that you?” Her sister edged forward, much leaner than before, with kits no longer attached to her teats. “Have you really come back?”
Hvita nipped at Elin’s ear. “I promised that I would.”
The first litter, now older and bigger, streamed past their mother to brush against Hvita’s shoulders and sides. The second litter remained behind Elin, shy and uncertain, because they had been too small to see and know their aunt.
“How you’ve all grown,” Hvita exclaimed. “You look more like tods and vixens than kits now. Where’s Njall? I don’t see him.”
Elin’s ears and tail drooped. “He’s with Dautha now.”
“No,” Hvita breathed.
“When the great hill began to smoke, we could not walk outside without coughing and struggling to breathe. I covered up most of the den and made the kits stay inside. Njall insisted on going out to stokk vaeli for us. He kept us fed, but too much of the bad air killed him.”
Hvita lowered her snout to the earth, praying that Dautha had room in her den for the firstborn kit who bravely strived to take his father’s place by looking after the family.
Elin trembled from head to tail. “I keep us in here, as far away from the bad air as much as possible. That’s all I can do.”
“You can’t stay here. Something worse is coming.”
“The fire-water, I know. I didn’t believe you before, but I do now.”
“I know a way out of this, Elin. You and the kits follow me to the shore, and there will be a man that can take us away from here on a sea-knapa.”
Elin flattened her ears. “The fire-water I can finally believe, but now you’re asking too much of me, Hvita. How can a man help us? You know as much as I do that they only kill and control—“
“I used to believe that too, but I was wrong.” Hvita dug her claws into the dirt. “We don’t have time to argue. Soon the land will go bjarr, destroying more than what men could possibly achieve. You told me to think of the kits, Elin. I ask that you do the same. Think of them now. Will you let them die in here, or let them get on the only thing that can save them?”
Elin hunched her shoulders and bared her teeth, but did not spring at Hvita. Instead she turned to the kits and said, “Follow Aunt Hvita. Run hard and don’t look back. First litter helps carry the second if they get tired or too slow.”
The foxes burst out of the den, with Hvita ahead as the leith. The second litter was now old enough to run, and they did their best to keep up with their older siblings. Hvita kept her gaze ahead, but could smell more smoke pluming out of the great hill now. She coughed and gagged, but fear and urgency spurred her on. A surge of heat forced her to look back.
“Great Ylirr,” she choked out.
Amid the billowing pillars of smoke, fire-water burst from the great hill and draped its fiery claws down the peak. No more dreams, now. The land-bjarr had truly begun. Hvita didn’t think she could run any faster, but terror surprised her. Older kits used their teeth to sweep up the younger kits by their necks. Collective chaos ensued. Vaeli burst out of the snow and birds formed a raucous swarm in the sky. Some foxes fled their dens, while others stayed inside in a futile effort to shut out the noise and fumes.
“Follow us,” Hvita cried out to foxes who could hear. “The fire-water can’t follow where we’re going.”
A few heeded her call, including the scarred tod and his kits, and the vixen who had told Hvita about Orrn. Wide-eyed and frothing at the mouth, they did not stop to raise any questions or objections. Hvita sighted Orrn at the crest of the bank, and as her tiring family scrabbled up the slope, he slid down to push the kits along.
“Not much farther now,” he told them. “The knapa’s just by the water.”
Ivar perched at the far end of his knapa, holding onto legs partly dipped into the water, and ready to pull off the shore. Hvita couldn’t understand his shouts, but it was obvious by his pale skin and wide eyes that he urged them to hurry. Next to him, Bris lost many a black feather while jumping in place and waving its uninjured wing.
“Lots foxes, auk!”
“Orrn and I will make sure they won’t hurt you,” Hvita said around a mouthful of kit’s neck fur. “Really, Bris, you should be worrying more about the fire-water.”
Elin, upon seeing Ivar this close, curled up her lip and growled at him. Hvita brushed her tail over her sister’s flank. “You need to trust him.”
Tension bulged under Elin’s taut legs. “I haven’t seen a man this close since we were kits.”
“He swore by Ylirr and Dautha that he won’t hurt us. If you can’t trust that, then trust me.”
Elin looked back at the great hill, then at Hvita, and the fur on her nape laid flat. “I can do that.”
Hvita, Elin, and Orrn stood on their hind paws and hauled the kits one by one over the edge of the knapa. They were the last to jump in. Ivar jerked the sea-knapa to life with a great heave of its legs. Foxes yelped and clung to the belly of the knapa. The kits clustered around Elin and buried their snouts into her fur. It was as if Ylirr’s eye was snapped up in the jaws of an angry, dying land. More fire-water burst open with such force that the top of the great hill came apart and rained down fiery chunks. Some of them sailed as far as the shore, striking the water and sinking through it with a hiss. Ivar swept the legs harder and faster, then set them aside to tug on brown whiskers tied to the ruffling thing sticking straight out of the knapa. He tugged them in such a way that the thing puffed out from the wind, driving the knapa farther into the sea. As he did this he had to stand, and the knapa tipped this way and that under his shifting weight. Foxes shied away from his feet and huddled at the edges. One of Elin’s kits clung too far over the edge. Before Elin could pull him down with her teeth, a tip of the knapa sent the kit into the sea.
Hvita and Elin’s cries startled Ivar from busying over the ruffling thing. He knelt down, reached over the knapa’s edge, and with one paw grabbed the kit by his neck. Elin snatched him from the young man and rasped her tongue over her soaked, whimpering kit.
“Huddle at the middle,” Hvita called out to the foxes. “Get away from the edge. Hold on to each other.”
The land itself trembled, sending spasms through the sea, which slapped bigger waves against the knapa. Foxes laid flat on their bellies and curled up against each other so tightly that Hvita could feel Elin and Orrn’s blood pulse against her sides. She didn’t have to look up to feel the heat and smell the ashes. She flattened her ears in a vain attempt to shut out the roaring and rumbling of the great hill. Hvita thought of her father, how he had raged and fought, and had Ylirr’s light burning in his very eyes. Bjarr was a terrible sight to behold, but it couldn’t last forever. The light would have to fade. Hvita kept her eyes shut for what seemed like moons, and finally, the painful rending of the earth subsided. A great cloud of ash plumed far beyond the confines of land, unfurling over the waves, and descended upon Ivar’s sea-knapa. The foxes coughed and shut their eyes.
“I’m scared,” one of Elin’s kits squeaked.
More kits raised up whimpers of assent. Orrn brushed his tail over their heads. “Fear not, little ones. Dautha will not come for you today. You are part of the greatest story you will grow up to tell your children, and for their children to tell their children.” He kept his voice low and level, and all around Hvita, she felt the foxes’ shivering and whines quiet down as the storytelling fox carried on. “We are like the vaeli who jumped into the sea, only we weren’t tricked by Vaeleith. No, we are saved, led not to our deaths, but on to a knapa that carried us to safety, all thanks to the heroic fox Hvita and the kind man Ivar. They are our leaders on knapa. The knapaleith.”
Hvita kept her eyes shut, so ashes wouldn’t sting them, though she heard the kits stir with excitement now.
“Knapaleith,” they murmured among themselves. “Our aunt Hvita, the knapaleith.”
The young vixen nudged Orrn’s ribs. “You give me too much credit. You love that Vaeleith story and tell it so much that I couldn’t help borrowing the idea. I couldn’t have done this without you, Orrn. Consider yourself a knapaleith, too.”
Orrn curled his tail. “Well, if you insist.”
The knapa glided without aim through the thick ashes. Orrn continued to tell stories to keep the kits calm and occupied. After he went through legends of the gods, he delved into detail of all the adventures that he and Hvita had. After a stretch of enraptured silence, Elin broke it by saying, “If I hadn’t known any better, I thought you had made all that up.”
“I never make up stories,” Orrn said. “They’re meant to tell the truth.”
There came a loud flutter as Bris attempted to fly. Hvita heard no clumsy thud. Instead she heard a triumphant “auk” as the puffin rose above the knapa.
“Open eyes safe now,” Bris squawked. “Look at Nest-Land, auk!”
Hvita dared to blink open red eyes.
Foxes lifted their heads from the flat, hard belly of the knapa, and amid the fading ash, the charred remains of the land slowly blinked into view. The fire-water had swept over all the ice and snow from Kaila, turning winter into something much harsher than summer. None of the men had believed Ivar and went with him, so they must have burned and perished with their dens. Then she thought of the foxes who stayed behind, the ones she and Orrn couldn’t save. Were they down with Dautha now? Was there room for them? Just as the questions crossed her mind, Hvita spotted the shadow of a vixen that walked on water like Vaeleith.
“Dautha,” Orrn murmured. He could see her, too. None of the other foxes heard or saw the goddess of death climb onto the knapa on weightless, silent paws.
Under those unblinking dark eyes, Hvita shrank back. “We couldn’t save all the foxes. We’ve failed you.”
“It is impossible to save everybeast,” Dautha said. “That would be an impossible thing to ask of you both. You would rather not think of these things, but there is a time when everybeast must die. That time comes for some sooner than others.” She padded up to Hvita and touched noses with hers. “Do not worry about the lives lost. There is room for them in my den.” She flicked her blue tail at Elin and the kits. “As for those who made the choice to leave…well, their time to be with me has not yet come. For now, they will be with you.”
Hvita looked back at the surviving foxes, at the lone surviving man who held the knapa’s legs still over the edges and slumped over his knees. All of them sharing the space of a small sea-knapa, with no room for foxes to flee, and the man having no desire to use or hurt them in any way…it made the most unusual sight that she or even any of the gods would see in moons. Would the land that Bris called Nest-Land ever heal from its burns? Would they have to move elsewhere, to the land in the east that Bris called Long-Land, perhaps? Either way, how long would they have to eat and sleep at sea? How long did foxes and a man have to live like this, until they had to part ways and return to their roles as the hunted and the hunters? Hvita’s gaze met Orrn’s, then Ivar’s, and all these questions melted down into a single one that she asked aloud, “What’s going to happen to us?”
Dautha did not answer. Not in words. Instead, she turned her muzzle toward the destroyed land, prompting Hvita, Orrn, and Ivar to see what she showed them through their third eye.
Before their third eyes, Ylirr’s eye roved all along the sky, rising and dipping to show the great leap forward into time. The great hill faded into a dull, quiet stillness, while the land blossomed into all shades of green, plains of moss, grass, and growth broken only by the majestic prow of rocks. Men drew back into the land in droves, on bigger and faster sea-knapa. Some knapa even came in from the sky, like giant birds, carrying more men than Hvita could think possible. There was so much to take in that she did not know where to focus.
“Look there,” Dautha murmured.
Hvita followed her gaze to the shore, where the passage of time grinded to a pause. A young woman knelt on the sand and held something with a long, black nose in her paws. With one paw she held the thing over her face, and with the other twisted the nose. She aimed the thing at the cliffs, then at the sea, where she lowered the long black nose in astonishment. Her wide blue eyes mirrored Ivar’s. And like Ivar’s, her long yellow fur peeked from the tiny coat covering her head. Ivar sat on the sea-knapa as the only surviving man from the bjarr-stricken land, but in the glimpse of what was yet to come, perhaps he wouldn’t be alone forever. Men came back to the land after it went bjarr, and Ivar would find a mate among them, and his blood would someday course through this woman staring back at him.
A fox skittered down the steep bank, catching the attention of everyone and everybeast present in the third eye moment. Even from here, Hvita could catch a trace of Elin’s scent on that fox. Her blood would keep running, as well, through this young tod. The woman sucked in a sharp breath and aimed the long, black nose at the fox. Hvita bristled, but the fox trotted up showing no signs of fear at all. Somehow this tod knew that he would not be harmed by the strange nose or the woman. He even nibbled at the hard, smooth end of the nose, making the woman bark and her eyes crinkle.
Elin’s descendent and Ivar’s descendent were playing.
The sight, the splendid truth of what would come after everybeast on the sea-knapa was long dead, was more than enough to answer Hvita’s question.
Men and foxes would do more than survive. They would thrive.
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About the Author
A Catholic Vietnamese-American hailing from Houston, Texas, Allison Thai got her first taste in stories from true accounts of how her parents fled from communism as Vietnam War refugees. She attended the SFF writing workshops Viable Paradise in 2017 and Taos Toolbox in 2019. You can find her huddled in the Twitter den she dug out for herself: @ThaiSibir.