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The last rays of the setting sun came slanting over the autumn fields, firing the inn's bullseye-glass windows. Alice's long hair glowed russet as she lined up the heavy glassware ready for the evening's custom. Though she was twenty, and wed to Geoffrey Reynolds, old Squire Reynolds' son, still once in awhile she helped her father at the inn. The night before the hunt was always a busy one.
"A fair night, Papa," she said.
Her father, Matt, grunted. "Fair enough. There'll be a few of them wets their tongues and whets their courage for the morrow. Them as recalls the prophecy, that is."
She looked over at him as he busied himself with the kegs. "You mean my father-in-law."
"Aye, and your husband too. You know they both blame Marcel for Bastienne's death."
"Marcel had naught to do with his mother's death," said Alice. "Geoffrey knows that, no matter if he won't admit it. And so do you, Papa."
The old man sighed and lighted candles. Mingled voices rose and fell outside in the falling dusk, and the inn's door swung wide with the evening's first thirsty customers.
Alice looked at Matt fiercely.
"Aye, lass," he said, quietly. "Just like Squire's lady knew right enough. And t'isn't as if the legend hasn't been in these hills for a hundred years! But some'll never believe what they haven't seen. And some not even then."
He saw the tears in Alice's eyes, and let it go.
Squire Reynolds and his son pushed up to the bar, nodding affably at the greetings of the inn's other patrons.
"You will still hunt in the morning, then?" asked Alice of her husband. "Aye, " said Geoffrey softly. "It needs no argument from you, wife. Let it be." More loudly he said, "'T'will be a fine day tomorrow, if this weather holds."
"It will," said old codger Silas by the window. "See that red sky? That means clear weather and a fair wind."
"What do we need the wind for, then?" asked another. "We aren't sailing, we're riding to hounds." Everybody chuckled at this, including Silas, who had sailed in his youth and had never lost his weather eye.
"Well," said Geoffrey Reynolds, "it'll be a fine day then, except for the fox."
"Mind you catches the fox," volunteered Big Tom, who was a little peculiar, "and not the other way round, like that half-brother of yours."
Alice carefully set down a pitcher of beer.
Geoffrey rounded on the old man. "Don' t you go bringing that up after all this time, you old troublemaker. Every autumn you bring out the same old lament! Why can't you let the past alone? If Marcel hasn't come back in all these years, why should he come back at all?"
Matt too stood listening.
Tom glowered and looked down at his hands. "He said he'd come back were one of you to kill a fox. He said he'd know, no matter how far away he was."
Geoffrey looked at the mug of ale in his hand, and put it down on the nearest table. Suddenly he turned on his heel and strode out of the inn.
"You shouldn't have mentioned Marcel," remarked Squire Reynolds.
"I'm sorry, Squire," said Tom.
"'T'is yet a sore point with Geoffrey," went on Reynolds. "In the first place, he doesn't hold with any prophecy, and in the second place, Marcel was always their mother's favorite, such a good-for-nothing boy as he was, no talent for anything but foolish daubing and making of music, and then to disappear without a word. Nothing Geoffrey could do would make her see him the way she saw Marcel. Bad enough it is that the loss of the boy broke my dear Bastienne's heart--there's no call to be telling tall tales and starting trouble!"
Draining his mug, he followed his heir out into the evening.
"Tall tales, indeed," muttered Big Tom, undaunted. "If there's trouble, it isn't old Tom as started it, no indeed."
* * *
The day came bright and clear, autumnal sky a blue that amazed the eye with its depth. It was a day meant for laughter, but over their morning meal, Alice pleaded with Geoffrey, and there was no joy in it.
"Please don't go hunting today, love. I've asked it before, and you know there's very little I do ask of you."
He looked at her from under his brow. "Ah, is't the old prophecy still worries you? Wife, we've not seen Marcel these five years; why think you he will come today? Or is it that you still miss him, and think you'd prefer him to me?"
He chuckled, mussed up her hair, and strode off to get ready. Alice sat staring at the wall, but she did not see it.
The hunt gathered from all round the neighborhood, horses, hounds and men bunching and coiling in the cool morning until the horn's call flung them out across the meadows in search of their traditional quarry. Among them rode Squire Reynolds and Geoffrey.
From her window, Alice heard the strange music of the hounds riding on the wind. In her mind she saw the lithe catlike fox as it slipped through the underbrush, and Alice clenched her fists unknowing.
"Run, fox," she whispered to the air. "Don't let them catch you."
She had never liked hunting and would never have gone with them had they invited her. Not even Geoffrey could change her mind on it, though in most things they agreed well enough. It was one thing to kill for the pot, but she would never condone hunting the fox. Not since she had known Marcel de Reynardine, whose mother Bastienne had married Squire Reynolds, after losing her husband and all but one of her family to the guillotine...
Marcel had been only a boy when he and his mother came home with Squire Reynolds. He spoke no English at first, and seemed disinclined toward the pursuits his stepfather encouraged in him. He could ride, and shoot, and handle a sword well enough by the time he turned twelve, but he was not particularly interested in sport. He preferred the library, which neither his father nor his half-brother entered once a month. He liked to ramble on the hills and make drawings of what he saw there, though certainly some of it must have come out of his imagination, like the wild tales the boy told, of creatures met on the heath and the things they told him.
But Bastienne did not agree. She would hear no word against her strange first-born and loved to have him near her. He would sing to her sometimes, strange minor-key melodies of his own making. And she told him of the de Reynardines, their legends and stories and songs.
Alice had met Marcel on one of his wandering rambles. He had helped her gather blackberries, and had walked with her all the way back to the inn, both of them talking at once. Matt had shaken his head after the boy went his way.
"Don't you lose your heart to him."
"He's my friend, Papa. There's no harm in it, truly there isn't. "
"I've to watch out for you with no mother to help me. He's a good enough boy, but, Alice, he's not steady, for all the Squire stands behind him as much as can be."
But Alice loved Marcel de Reynardine from that day on, though she said no word of their friendship to anyone.
At the inn, Matt heard the distant belling of the hounds. His thoughts followed them as he went about his work, following their voices into memory...
The hounds had flushed a vixen that day five years ago, and off they'd gone, horses, hounds, and hunters. They'd lost the fox in a rocky corrie, but Squire Reynolds, turning in his saddle to reconnoiter, had suddenly seen Marcel watching from the dell's high lip-- Marcel who had flatly refused to hunt with his family. At his feet knelt a strange woman, dressed in the colors of the autumn countryside and her hair red-brown as fallen leaves.
For perhaps five seconds they had watched each other. Then the squire turned to Geoffrey, but when he gestured for his son to look, there was nothing to be seen.
"Are you well, Father?" Geoffrey asked. "I don't see anyone up there."
"I'm telling you I saw him, and a strange woman too."
"Then where did they go? Shall we ride up there and see? We seem to have lost our fox."
Scowling, the Squire had led the hunt back up onto the hillside. There was little cover up here among the rocks and heather; enough to hide a rabbit or a fox, perhaps--damned fox anyway--but not for a couple of human beings.
"I don't know where they hid themselves, wife, but there's no question that it was Marcel. Don't know who the girl was. But he'd damn well better watch his step or we'll have her on our doorstep swearing the child is his!"
Bastienne had received this news seriously enough, though her mouth had quirked at one corner. "I think he fancies Alice over at the inn."
Squire snorted. "It wasn't Alice I saw up on the heath, Bastienne. This girl was little, and trim, and wearing all brownish red stuff, and her hair was redder than Alice's. Thought it a bit odd, unless they'd been sitting together--when I saw her, she was-- well, kneeling, at his feet. And he was standing there as if he owned the hill and we were trespassing. But when we rode up to the top, not a soul was to be seen, until all of a sudden the fox came rushing out of the glen, right past us. I can't understand how the dogs missed her."
"You didn't catch her, then?"
"Oh, aye, though she led us a pretty chase. Ginny was off like a shot, and no mistake about her. Fine bitch! Oddest thing, though. At every turn, we glimpsed another fox, aye, bigger than the first, and not so shy, just dancing in front of the dogs as if it wanted to taunt them or lead them astray! But Ginny stuck to the first scent and wouldn't be budged. When we caught her, the dogs went after the other one. They caught him, but he was a fighter, and we lost him among the rocks. Damn strange thing! Has Marcel been home this evening?"
Now Bastienne was serious indeed, and her lovely mouth unsmiling. Her face was paler than he had ever seen it. "No. He has not come back here, husband. And if I read this story right, I do not think he ever will."
"What are you talking of, woman? Where else should he go?"
His wife rose to her feet. He noticed, with a queer shock, as though he were seeing her for the first time, how small she was, and how in candlelight her brown hair glinted red.
"Do you not know," she asked, "the legends that walk upon your own hills?"
Alice had stolen up to her room that day after her work was done, and had knelt half-drowsing by the window where the sun came beating strongly in. She felt as if she might slip away into a dream. Only a late bee seeking escape from the warm room disturbed the quiet. It buzzed and complained, its voice rising and falling. Almost it seemed to Alice the sound of many distant clamoring calls, and mixed up in it the yelps of hounds...
Then footsteps came rushing beneath the open window, and rousing herself, Alice looked down to see Marcel. His hair was tangled and wild, and his eyes did not quite seem to see her. There was blood on his homespun shirt, bright crimson against the cream. Her heart thudded like a drum at the thought that he was hurt.
"What is the matter? What has happened?" she asked.
"Father...Squire...caught the fox. I thought she had escaped. But the dogs caught her, damn them all!"
"'T'is but one fox," she said gently, not understanding his passion. "There are others in the hills."
"Not like her," replied Marcel, looking up at her. "Let me come in, Alice; I must not be seen just now."
Up close he looked terrible. Blood was caked upon multiple wounds on his neck and arms. He was deathly pale and breathing heavily, but he would not let her touch him. He ignored her repeated questions about what had befallen him.
"I must go, Alice," he muttered. "It's come to this, sooner than ever I thought. I must go, and never return. My blood has found me out."
"What do you mean?" whispered Alice.
He turned and looked down at her, suddenly more man than boy, with a locked and driven passion in his eyes that shook her composure. "Alice, I am a de Reynardine, no matter what Squire has tried to make of me, and since time before counting the de Reynardine blood has been the protector of the fox. In return...she confers upon us certain...favors..."
"And today she came to me...because I had refused, finally and for all, to be part of the hunt...and she taught me in truth what my mother had only taught me in legend...and it is dreadful."
They stared at each other, the disheveled dark boy and the russet girl.
She brought him a basin of water and a rough towel. He swiftly washed the blood from his face and arms, and shoved back into his jacket. For a moment he stood gazing down at her with the ghost of tenderness in his eyes.
"You'll be happier without me, Alice," he said. "Just promise me..."
"Don't ever hunt the fox. Don't ever let the man you'll marry kill one. Don't let anyone you love harm the fox. Otherwise I shall come back, and it will be the worst thing in the world if I do."
In the doorway behind him, old Matt coughed.
Marcel rounded on him fiercely, though Matt had always befriended him.
"You heard me, didn't you?"
Matt nodded. "Aye, Marcel, that I did. And I'll not forget your words, though there's few here to believe in the old tales. But I know. Once, when I was a boy...I saw her on the hills. She smiled at me. I've never hunted her since. You know that."
Marcel nodded once, but that was enough. He looked again at Alice, and then he was simply gone, seeming to slip away past them faster than the sound of his footsteps.
Bastienne had sent for her that night, and asked if she had seen Marcel. To her Alice told the entire truth, whereupon Bastienne half-fainting on her bed had risen up and cried Marcel's words aloud so that they seemed to echo through the village.
"Let none of you kill the fox... for if you do he will return...and it will be the worst thing in the world if he does..."
Later that night, while the wind shrilled down the lanes, she died.
Now Alice was wed to Geoffrey, but she remembered what Marcel had said, and what Bastienne had cried out, and cold fear was upon her. For old Squire and Geoffrey, each autumn, had laughed at her words, dismissed them, as they went out to hunt. But it was true that since the day of Marcel's disappearance, neither of them had taken the fox. Yet now both of them were out in the fields, riding to hounds, hoping to be the one to catch the elusive quarry.
Geoffrey spurred his hunter ahead of the rest, his hair blown back by the horse's speed and the fresh wind that seemed to add its strength to his own. He raised his voice in song, exulting in the day, in the hunt, in his life. No thought of the long- vanished Marcel crossed his mind; all was sunshine, wind, and the joy of the chase. He sang that song which many a hunter has sung:
"...'twas the sound of his horn called me from my bed,|
And the cry of his hounds has me oft-times led,
For Peel's view-halloo would waken the dead,
Or a fox from his lair in the morning.
"D'ye ken that bitch whose tongue is death?
D'ye ken her sons of peerless faith?
D'ye ken that a fox with his last breath
Cursed them all as he died in the morning?"
As Geoffrey sang, his dogs gave out with the cry that said they had sensed their quarry, and together they flew out across the field in pursuit of that flashing russet shadow. It wove and darted, ran and twisted upon itself, swam the small stream that bordered Squire's land, but nothing slowed Ginny or Bekka or the other hounds. Nothing halted Geoffrey as he raised in his stirrups to sound his horn. The entire hunt was after him then, and he was first after her, the little red vixen who ran and ran with her fierce female heart wild in her breast and her beautiful tail down to the ground.
Perhaps her long-dead dam whispered in her simple beast's mind now; perhaps some racial memory awoke in her at that moment, for up the hill she turned, toward the wild places, where huge rocks and steep glens waited to trap and confuse the hounds and horses, where a fox might escape the murderous pursuit. Unerringly the image in her mind led her to the deep glen where treacherous rocks hid beneath tossing wildflowers, where, five years before, her mother had sought shelter with that rare humankind whose blood was sworn to protect her.
Geoffrey saw her leap into the underbrush and nose down among the rocks, but he had seen a fox do that before, hadn't he? It was only a matter of letting Ginny and the other hounds find the place. He encouraged his horse up into the rocks, talking to her as delicately she picked her way. He focused on the place where he'd seen the fox. The dogs went before him, whining anxiously and thrusting their noses into crevices.
"Don't do it," came a voice out of the wind-filled air.
Geoffrey looked up, and his horse reared high, startled by a figure that materialized before it.
A man stood there, fierce-eyed and furious. Or was it a man? Geoffrey wasn't sure of anything in that moment, as his horse stumbled, nearly unseating him. He saw the fox again, slipping out to stand beside that strangely shining figure.
"Damn you, whoever you are, get away from there!" he growled, raising his whip. He lashed it down, but it caught only the back of one of his own dogs, who howled piteously and scurried out of reach. The horse stumbled again, dancing gingerly on the rocks. Geoffrey gripped his knees tighter.
"I said, don't do it."
Geoffrey peered past his horse's tossing mane, trying to focus on that stern, immobile figure. The sun above the dell blinded him and made of his foe only a silhouette without a face. From the stranger's feet, the fox looked up at him. He thought it was smiling, and this infuriated him. He urged his horse forward, intending to trample both fox and interloper.
But his horse shrank back as if in terror from the stranger and reared high. Under its flailing hooves the dogs cowered. As the horse danced, lashing out in madness, the stranger moved forward, and the vixen moved forward with him. Screaming in fear, the horse sidestepped and fell. There was a clatter and rumble of tumbling stones, a shrill cry of pain, and as he came loose from his seat, Geoffrey caught a momentary glimpse of a fragile female form, no fox at all but a little woman clad in an autumn-colored dress, with long fox- colored hair, falling in a cloud of bright blood beside him. Then she was only fox again, and her tawny-furred body lay broken beside him.
Painfully he turned his head to stare up at the figure looming over him. The wind pushed thick black hair back from dark eyes in a white face, and as he lay crushed beneath his horse on the cruel stones, Geoffrey at last recognized his half-brother Marcel who had vanished five years ago.
He watched Marcel's form waver and shift, as if the wildland mists had crept out of the glens to hide him. Then- -doubtless he dreamed it in the delirium of his pain--he saw, not Marcel, but a second fox, torn and wounded, slowly making its way back into the impenetrable rocks.
As he lay there, Geoffrey heard distant voices chanting the song that would be his dirge, but as he listened, "John Peel" became another song, one he had never heard, but which would be remembered far down the years. He died hearing the words and wondering at them. His last thought was that he should have listened to Alice.
"And if you're looking for me|
Perhaps you'll not me find
For I'll be in my cold castle
Inquire for Reynardine...
"Night and day she followed him,
his teeth so bright did shine.
And he led her over the mountain,
that sly bold Reynardine..."
The dogs dove in, surrounding the vixen, Squire Reynolds with them. As was customary, he took the fox's paw as a luck-charm, and the dogs were given their due.
Squire Reynolds had seen only the horse stumbling and falling among the treacherous rocks, and Geoffrey losing his seat, falling beneath the horse. True, he'd heard Geoffrey cursing at someone, but hadn't he been speaking to the dogs? Best not to think anything else. Had Geoffrey seen anything untoward, alone in the corrie with the dogs and the vixen? Please God, no.
The hunt bore Geoffrey's body home to the hall. That night, Squire Reynolds came to his daughter-in-law Alice and stood before her where she kept vigil beside her husband's body.
"Alice," he whispered. "Why did you bid us spare this fox?"
Pale and grim she looked up at him.
"You know why," she said. "Because of what Bastienne said before she died."
"Bah! That for a prophecy! I saw the fox in the corrie. Geoffrey was ahead of me, but I saw nothing out of the ordinary. His horse fell and he fell."
"You saw nothing--no-one else?"
"I saw my son as he died," said Squire Reynolds. "What else think you I should have seen?" He turned away and left her there in the shadowy candle-lit chamber.
In his hall he called for wine, and sat before the hearth, staring at the vixen's paw which he had laid upon the table. He could not offer thanks for the hunt which had taken his son's life, but perhaps the old accustomed toast would speed Geoffrey's soul upon its way. When the wine came, his steward poured some into the traditional post-hunt silver cup and offered it to his master.
Squire Reynolds stared into the depths of the dark-red wine. Geoffrey, my son, he thought, did you see something hidden from me, that affrighted your good horse and killed you?
He took up the vixen's severed paw, and raised it high, tears streaking his lined face. "I cannot praise this hunt," he said heavily. "Better that this fox should have lived to run another day than bring my only remaining son to an early death. May he go softly on his way..."
Solemnly he dipped the paw into the wine--and then screamed, dashing both paw and cup to the floor.
"I am doomed, I am lost--I have brought disaster upon my blood!" He fell moaning, senseless to the floor. His steward leapt to his side and stopped, staring at what lay there.
The silver cup, dented where it had struck the flags, lay on its side in a pool of wine. But the vixen's little soft- furred paw was no more. In its place, pale, mangled, and bloody in the firelight, lay a small and delicate human foot.
That night, the village gathered in the inn, to talk in hushed tones of Squire's collapse and Geoffrey's death. Big Tom sat silently listening. He wanted to say "Didn't I tell you so?" but he said nothing. Folks wouldn't believe, no matter what. Young Geoffrey's horse shied, some insisted, it stumbled on the rocks, oh aye. Squire, overcome with grief for his son, had imagined something that wasn't there, said the steward. But his voice trembled as he spoke, and no-one believed him.
Big Tom was sorry for Squire who'd lost his wife and both of his boys, and now lay grievously ill at the big house. But he was sorrier for Alice, and for Marcel, and for the fox. But what good would it do to say so?
He got up to go. His wife wouldn't thank him for staying and drinking half the night at the inn. As he pulled his coat from the pegged shelf by the hearth, a quiet voice startled him.
"Don't worry yourself about the fox--most times she can take care of herself. This was very bad. But she'd thank you for your compassion."
Tom peered at the speaker. Firelight carved planes in that strong face, lit tiny flames in black mustache and long thick black hair. Familiar, somehow? No, but...
"Do I know you, sir?"
Those dark eyes gleamed out at him, but the man said only "That you don't, unless you come from Cornwall, Tintagel way."
"Ah, no, I haven't ever been there. Old Silas has."
"He wanted to say something more, but the stranger's black eyes shone so in his face that Tom somehow forgot whatever it was.
"Bless you, sir, I won't worry about the fox," he said at length.
The stranger smiled, showing white teeth. He lifted a hand in farewell.
Big Tom went out into the night. From the old sign that swung above the door, the fox and the hounds watched him go.