What fun the schoolyard fight had been! He hopped around the room reenacting the right hook the girl popped on her teacher. He giggled, remembering the man’s surprised, scrunched face, and found a reflective pot in which to mimic the teacher’s look of anger, then burst into fake, theatrical tears of pain.
He laughed at his own silliness, and spun around to see if the girl heard him. She sat on the couch with a book. Flitting over to her, he fluttered his arms in front of her face. She did not look up. Satisfied, he examined the room and snapped pictures: a chair, a pile of books, a desk covered in an old map of the Isle of Scealta.
Strange, he thought, why would she have a map of the Isle? It was invisible to humans.
He rubbed his elbows where the landlady had crushed him in the narrow stair well. She had tried to follow Penny up the stairs, bellowing after her that she was not allowed in her rooms that early in the day. He had turned to mimic the red-faced woman.
She advanced more quickly than he thought possible for such a large woman and flattened him against the wall before lodging herself in a particularly tight joint of the stair well.
He inspected his bruises, poking at them for a few moments. He marveled at the swollen pain, and held his arms up in the noon-day light.
They shimmered purple and yellow underneath his skin. The more he pressed the colorful spots the more they hurt. This was something new! He had never bruised before at home. Maybe the Realm of Men had no magic in it. No matter, he had enough of his own. He waved his hand over the bruises. They lightened slowly before disappearing completely.
He swung his legs from the top of a shelf and watched Penny read. She peered up at the shelf every few minutes, as if she felt his presence, but he knew she could not see him.
Boredom prickled at his neck. Oh, it was so hard to resist his nature! His fingers twitched, yearning to tangle her hair, or ignite a fabulous fire on top of her bed.
He sighed; he had developed a liking for the sad little girl, especially after she punched her teacher in the schoolyard. He fidgeted with his camera for a few more moments before an impish grin spread across his face. He did not harbor the same feelings of goodwill for the square-shaped landlady. That old bird had it coming.
Twilight spread its rosy glow across the living room when her father finally entered their flat. His shoulders sagged, and he stood in the doorway, disheveled and forlorn.
“You attacked Mr. Brubacher?” he asked her. She looked down at her bare feet, and nodded. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Despite his stressed appearance, Penny knew her father looked younger than her classmates’ dads. He still had thick brown hair and eyes that crinkled when he smiled, but tonight he did not smile.
“I’ve been sacked.” He dropped his hat on his desk and picked up his map. She ran to him and grabbed his hands.
“Oh, Da. It’s all my fault. I told Mr. Brubacher about the stories!” She looked up in quiet hope, wishing her father would look angry or worried, but he turned away from her and stood intently over his desk looking at his map.
Not hearing me. Again. Every night he pulled down his map and studied it with fervor before tucking it under his arm and bringing it with him to the river with a compass and a small rowboat. He would row out to the sea rowing up and down the shore and making notes on a pad of paper.
Penny knew not to ask him about his map. If she did, he would shuffle it away with his notes and pretend not to hear her. Once, she did pull an answer out of him. With his head bent low over his map, she asked him what he was looking at.
He mumbled, “Just trying to get back. Looking for an entrance.” But today he stared at it, entranced, not registering that she still stood before him.
“I’m going down to the bay,” he murmured. “Be back before midnight.” He gathered his map, papers, and a tweed jacket.
“I’m sorry Da.” Tears sprang to her eyes. “It’s all my fault.”
“No Pen.” His sad eyes met hers. “It’s my fault for not getting us back sooner.” Stunned, Penny fell silent as he left the room. Back Where? She wondered.
He raced through the fog-shrouded streets inhaling the strange scents of the city. He didn’t remember Edinburgh as a quiet city. When he had visited that night twelve long years ago, the streets were busy. People entering and leaving pubs, singing songs that only they enjoyed; night workers smoking on their breaks, telling stories of their day; people yelling, fighting in the streets.
Now, shadow-filled doorways peered at him, the unseeing watchers in the walls. He could sense the men, women, and children behind the bricks, but no one roamed the streets. He was alone. He pressed ahead searching for the familiar red-bricked tenement. He opened his mouth to taste the scents that wafted through poorly insulated windows and under warped doors.
Roasted lamb, seasoned potatoes, boiled soups, all filled his pallet. He licked his lips, careful not to bite his tongue as he ran, but the saliva still dripped down the side of his face. He chuckled to himself; moments like these made it difficult to act with decorum when one was a fox. The servants would be serving dinner at the fortress, he thought with sadness. Game bird too; he could cry at the thought of missing such a fine dinner. He tried to think of something else, something besides food.
He remembered the night he first ran through these streets. The night he brought the man and his infant daughter to safety. He was supposed to kidnap the baby that night, to bring her to his king, and to kill her father. He could never stomach violence though, so he chose to sneak the father and the baby girl to safety in the Realm of Men.
He pushed himself to run faster. He recognized the street now, and the building in front of him remained unchanged. He howled in delight; he hoped the girl still lived there, and he wanted to get her alone.
Something woke her from restless sleep. She lay curled on the tattered sofa, her book on the floor. Silver moonlight filtered through the grime on the window and filled the old room with shadows. She peered through the doorway to her father’s bedroom. His bed sat empty. Something had woken her, but she couldn’t quite remember what it was.
She clasped her blanket around her as she tiptoed towards the window. Outside, the moon reflected off the thick mist covering the street, and the mysterious sound that woke her earlier erupted again. A howl echoed off the stone buildings and sent a chill up her back; she peeked through the pane of glass, trying to see what creature caused the eerie wail.
The fog below parted and a large, silver beast strode through the darkness and stepped into the dim light of a nearby streetlamp. She withdrew into the room, hoping to hide, but stopped short when she realized the creature was a silver fox the size of a pony. He looked up towards her window, his dark eyes meeting her own. A look of knowing flashed across his face, as if he wanted to say something, and an amused smile played about his lips. He sunk back on his hind legs and cocked his head to one side.
“Hello Penelope.” He spoke with a warm, deep tone. He did not move his lips, or open his mouth at all, but Penny heard his voice in her thoughts. She knew she should be startled, scared even, but he seemed familiar, comforting almost. Drawn in by his piercing eyes, she pressed her palm against the glass, lowering the blanket to the floor.
“Who are you?” she asked the stranger.
He bowed. “I am a traveler, an adventurer, a messenger, and a trickster, but tonight I am here to bring you home.” Penny gulped in surprise. Home? Home? What could he mean? Maybe he isn’t real. She closed her eyes. He will disappear when I open them again. This is a dream. She opened one scrunched eye, and then the other. He still sat before her on the street.
“My dear,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve come a long way to retrieve you. You are the only being in our joint worlds who has the power to fix them both.”
She gaped at the fox, stunned by his words. “Joint worlds? But… but I have no power.” Her stomach twisted inside her. Whatever power that there was in the world, it had steered clear of her. She had the opposite of power: Plain. Ordinary. Quiet. Echoed through her mind. The fox looked at her, and his bright, deep eyes reflected her pain.
“You are the daughter of the Story Weaver, you do have a bit of power my dear, unless you’ve inherited nothing of your mother’s bloodline.”
Her heart beat a little faster. She knew she had a mother; everyone had a mother. When she was very young her father told her stories of her mother, but stopped when she started to ask questions. She remembered fragments of her father’s stories, and bits of her own memory surfaced in her dreams.
She dreamed of a beautiful woman under a golden tree. She saw herself as a baby in the woman’s arms. She saw the woman’s face, round and dark with long, black hair, and soft eyes full of love for her. She kept this memory close to her heart and never told her father. She wasn’t even sure it was a real memory until now, until the very words, ‘your mother’ filled her mind. She thought that maybe her absent mother had something to do with her father’s map, but of course, since both topics silenced him, she learned not to bring them up.
She pressed harder on the glass and the window dissolved before her. Cold air gusted onto her face, through her hair, and through her clothes. She floated to the street below, and shivered as her toes touched the cold, wet street. The fox stood magnificent beside her. His silver coat gleamed in the moonlight. He blinked coyly back at her.
“Did my mother send you? Why are you here?” She searched his eyes for clues.
“Your mother needs you to come to her. She lives across the sea on an isle invisible to mankind” he replied. She bit her lip. Was this a story? Her head ached. For a moment she didn’t believe, but how could she not believe him? A fox the size of a pony telling her the truth that she most longed for: that her mother was alive and just across the sea! It seemed impossible! But aren’t all good stories impossible?
She bit her bottom lip. The fox did not seem sinister, but she knew that her father would not want her to leave their rooms in the middle of the night. She peered down the street. He should be back by now. She turned to the beautiful creature before her. His eyes held a question. “Would she go with him?” The temptation of meeting her mother grew too great to question.
She ignored the impossibility of the situation and her father’s distress at finding her not in their rooms and nodded. He abandons me every night, maybe now it’s my turn to make him wonder…And, she had punched her teacher that morning, maybe now was a good time to leave Edinburgh.
“I’ll go with you.” She stretched her hand out as if waiting for a handshake, she blushed at her presumption, but the fox smirked and raised his paw, placing it in her outstretched hand.
“You will be glad you did. Climb on Penelope, we have a long journey, and I have a warm bed waiting for me that I want to get back to.” She grabbed a handful of his fur and pulled herself onto his back, nuzzling her face in the thick fur around his neck. He smelled of earth and air, and of the sea. He leapt into the night, his tail sticking straight out, and his fur bristling in the cold. She sunk down into his coat and stayed hidden and warm there.