He chided himself for pestering Mrs. Kendrick so long. He barely snapped a photo of Penelope before she went through the window. “If I had waited a half a second longer, I’m sure I’d have the only photo of a human passing through a closed window!” He said and gnashed his teeth in exasperation.
Oh, but he did love razzing the stodgy Mrs. Kendrick and her colorless sister! He reveled in tipping over her cup of milk when she brought it to her lips, splashing it down her chins and onto her heavy bosom. When she went to grab another, he turned the milk into butter. It slid out of her mug and hit her on her nose.
He tied the apron strings of the two sisters together, so that they stood back to back for a large portion of an hour trying to reach at the knot between them.
When the skinnier Kendrick slid out from the loosened strings, and the heavier Kendrick went to sit on a chair for a rest, Harrier pulled the chair out from under her and giggled as she tumbled off. He almost laughed himself into visibility when she broke wind as she splayed across her kitchen floor. He barrel-rolled in delight thinking of the two sisters squabbling in the kitchen late into the night.
Below him, Fox ran through the dark, tight streets. The girl clung to the fur on his back. He wasn’t sure if Fox saw him or not. He flew a bit behind them, but every so often Fox would turn over his shoulder (to look at him or to make sure the girl was still safe he did not know.)
Why was Fox even here? He had never met him on the Isle, but he knew of him. The main advisor and sole friend to the King of the Hobs, and mistrusted by Harrier’s father, his heart began to beat a little bit faster as he realized that his news story had just become a lot bigger than he originally thought.
They leapt through the narrow streets quickly leaving her tenement behind them. They ran through deserted docks and quiet banks along the river. The fox paused at the edge of the bay. The tide met their toes and then receded.
“The North Sea,” the fox told her, “The only way to the Isle of Scealta is to swim across.” She swallowed back her nervousness and nodded, letting him know she was ready. He splashed into the sea. The freezing water smacked onto her skin. Her veins felt as if they had turned to ice, and they swam further and further into the freezing water.
The shoreline shrunk far behind them as they swam towards the black horizon. She shivered and cursed at herself for following a strange creature into the night. So many questions reeled through her mind. Why has he come for me now? How does he know my mother? Why does she need me? She had to ask him.
“Why did you come for me today and not before?” She chattered through stiff lips.
The fox kept swimming, but after a few moments gasped between breaths. “I am wondering the same thing. It’s been my duty for the last several years to test the waters to fetch you back to the Isle, but the barrier between our two worlds has always been closed to me. Except today, something happened today that opened the barrier between the Realm of Men and my world.”
Penny smiled to herself, “Well I did punch my teacher today… but he deserved it.” She hastened to add.
The fox chuckled underneath her. “That might be enough to open a barrier.”
The labored breathing of the fox silenced her questions for the moment. She didn’t want to distract him from his paddling, so she slunk deeper into his fur. They swam for what seemed hours, his rhythmic kicks nearly rocking her to sleep. Soon the black horizon turned blue and the sun pushed its way to dawn. She longed for its warmth.
“Why is the isle invisible?” She asked.
“The gods created it as a haven for the ancient races.”
Penny smiled. This sounded like a story to her. “What ancient races?” She nestled down in his fur, and brought her legs up higher, trying to pull them out of the water.
“Oh, the faeries, the folk, the giants, the goblins, and the sprites, all mythical creatures, and of course the hobs, who are descended from folk, goblins, and sprites.” Penny smiled to herself. There was a reason her father gathered the stories thrown out by others. He knew they were real, and now she did too.
“How did my father meet my mother?” She asked, but the fox did not seem to hear her. For at that moment, the sun burst over the horizon, scattering golden light across the sea. She smiled in giddy joy and sat straight up, stretching her arms out and breathing in the brisk salt air. She felt free: free from Marjorie, free from Mr. Brubacher, free from Mrs. Kendrick, even free from her father and his mysteries. She smiled with happiness until a slithering movement brushed past her leg.
“What was that?” she cried out, and grabbed the fox tighter.
“We have to cross quickly.” He kicked harder through the water. “But not too quickly to disturb the snake that protects the Isle.”
“Snake?” Penny gasped.
“Well, more like a sea dragon,” the fox whispered. He pushed his legs harder through the sea; the closer they drew to the other side, the thicker the water grew. This must be part of the magic. Penelope marveled.
She had never seen water the consistency of gravy. It bubbled in places where creatures expelled oxygen. She closed her eyes, listening to the constant paddling of the fox, willing away her fears of what creatures lay beneath the surface. The taste of sea salt on her lips made her thirsty.
The sound of mud separating from water, like the sound of her shoes stepping from one muddy puddle to another, grew louder and louder. The fox heard it too, and fought against the heavy stew of the sea to reach the other side. The sound grew closer until the thick head of a gigantic snake emerged from the brine in front of Penny and the fox. His tongue flicked between his lips. His eyes gleamed with fire as he rose to his full height, towering over them.
“Who comesss thissss way?” the snake sputtered. Gold flecks of fire flew from his tongue. Penny shrunk into the fox’s fur, biting at her fists to keep her breath calm. It’s just a snake. The fox will protect me. The fox knows what he’s doing. I will be fine. Her heart fluttered behind her ribs like a bird in a cage despite her attempts to console it.
“Let us pass, Methuselah,” the fox barked up at him. “I am a messenger to the Realm of Men, and you must stand aside.”
The snake paused, seeming to reflect on what the fox said. His bright red and gold scales flickered in the light, and Penny noticed as he drew nearer that he smoldered from the inside out. His eyes burned a deep orange. He stared into her soul.
“You can passss…” the snake slithered around them. “But you mussst take the girl back to the Realm of Men.”
The fox laughed. “Old age has made you deaf; the girl is welcome to the Isle.”
The snake sneered, “Who has allowed her to cross the barrier? Not your king I hope!”
Penny tightened her grip on the fox’s fur. His king? He didn’t say anything about a king…
Fox seemed at a loss for words. The glint in the snake’s eye flashed. “I ssssee what’s happening…” He opened his mouth wider and released boiling, liquid flames into the water between them. “You will never reachhh the shhhore. No one from the Realm of Men can pass into the Isle of Shhhealta,” he sunk into the depths of the sea behind his wall of boiling fire.
The fox peddled backward. They watched as the flames grew higher and higher, making an insurmountable barricade.
“What do we do now?” Penny asked. The now warm water soaked her up to her shoulders. Trapped, far from home, and with a strange creature, she shuddered at her foolishness. Her throat closed and her heart shook in her body with pulsating fear. What was she thinking by riding a fox into the sea?
“The snake doesn’t realize who you are Penelope. You are capable of commanding great forces of nature. Ask and you shall receive,” he said. He threw back his head and howled a long, high note. As the howl faded away, the wind picked up behind her.
A playful breeze wafted strands of her hair and tickled her face. Penny giggled. The fox howled again, and with a loud, powerful gust the west wind picked up and pushed the fire away from them. A light voice filled the air.
“You called for me Master Fox?”
“Yes, I did. I need you to take the girl to the Isle.”
“I will take her to Pan’s Cathedral.” The voice danced around them, impossible for Penny to pinpoint. The fox paused, still treading water.
“No, take her to the shoreline, I can meet her there,” he said. The wind roared, and the voice filled the air again, this time growing deeper and angrier.
“I will take her to Pan. She will be safe with him.” The fox snapped at the air but relented. He turned to Penny.
“Jump into the wind Penelope, before the snake resurfaces,” he yelled. The wind roared in seeming delight. Penny looked into the thick sludge around them. The fox swam through it strong enough, but she feared falling in and sinking to the bottom in her wet, heavy clothes.
“I will not allow harm to come to you,” the wind whispered around her. The water rolled thick and blue under the strength of the wind. The fire moved towards the shore as the water swelled around it. She inhaled a steadying breath and pushed herself up, crouching low to maintain her balance as the fox kicked in the water.
“Now Penelope!” the fox yelled over the wind. She unclenched her grasp on his fur and leapt into the air. She fell towards the water, but the wind grabbed her in its sway, and she soared into its arms. It cradled her above the fox.
“Where are you going?” She yelled down to him.
“I have a pest to eradicate.” His smile curved up, and he dived below the surface.
He pushed below the water’s thin shell. His muscles cramped, but he kicked harder through the sludge knowing that Methuselah must be close. Bubbles floated past him from the snake’s movements around him. UGH. What an inconvenience, he thought.
The underwater entrance to the Hob King’s fortress was a few meters away; he pushed through the water like it was bread dough. It grew thicker the closer he got to the Isle. Blue light streamed from the entrance.
A dark silhouette darted in front of the underwater entrance. Methuselah shimmered in the darkness below him. Fire escaped from his close-knit scales before the water snuffed it out.
Fox kept pressing down, intent on making it into the cave before the snake could stop him. One paw pushed through the cave entrance.
Hehe old boy, you’ve made it. He smiled and reached forward with his other paw. A blow from the side knocked him off center, and he tumbled sideways. The snake rammed his massive head into Fox’s ribs.
Thrown off course, Fox kicked back up to the mouth of the cave. The snake attacked again, hitting him with his tail and jabbing at him with his fangs.
Fox darted out of the way, but he began to feel light-headed. His lungs burned from holding his breath. He pushed between two stones standing sentinel in front of the cave. The snake followed.
He dove beneath the snake’s head then doubled back and bit hard into the soft skin underneath his mouth for an instant paralyzing Methuselah into submission. He clamped harder, but the enraged snake dove into the deep sea bringing Fox down with him.
Breath left his lungs and his jaws loosened. He kicked back towards the cave. The water simmered as the snake burst towards him, his heat boiling the water around them. Fox swam straight above him and then dove towards his eye, letting out all the air from his lungs. His teeth sunk around the eye; he tightened his bite and yanked his head back pulling the snake’s eye out of its socket.
Methuselah thrashed and tossed his head back in pain. Fox released one last powerful kick and swam into the cave before darkness fell around him.
He woke up cold and wet on stone steps. Seawater pooled below him as his eyesight adjusted to the dimness of the cave. Methuselah’s eye lay before him, watching Fox menacingly. He wished he had bitten off more than the bare, twitching eyeball that glared up at him. He grabbed the eye by a vein and pushed himself onto all four paws and limped down the corridor.
Tall candles sputtered along the walls, illuminating his path enough to see only a short distance in front of him. Every muscle ached from swimming through the sea and fighting the snake, but he had to tell King Michal where the girl was now.
He despised this underground cave. This was where the king would take his breakfasts with Captain Gillitrut. The two would scheme, and the captain would spurt his twisted lies. Fox grew tense thinking of the captain whispering his deceits in the king’s ear, and he hastened his steps. As long as the curse weighed down the king’s mind, he would never see past Captain Gillitrut’s lies.
A pinprick of orange light grew wider before him as he limped along the floor. Wet and cold, he continued down the hallway, staring straight ahead and hoping not to drop Methuselah’s eye. The long, dark halls opened into a drafty room blazing with hundreds of candles and gold dishes full of burning oil.
“Come in brother,” a deep, raspy voice beckoned him inside.
Fox looked with caution around the room hoping to find King Michal alone. A giant, jagged shadow crept around the table. Michal walked on all fours; a curse from an ancient goddess caused the once handsome, young prince to take the shape of a crippled beast.
His sloped, wolf-like head tottered on thick, muscled shoulders. Spikes growing from each vertebra along his spine poked through the matted fur on his back. Claws like an eagle drummed along the floor. He still bore the common, deformed wings of the hobs, but no other feature identified him as a hob. A broken, grotesque sight, he stood a little taller than fox but seemed much larger because of the the fearful figure he imposed. He sniffed the air.
“Where have you been?” King Michal rasped. Fox spit out Methuselah’s eye.
“The barrier between worlds,” Fox smiled and gasped for breath. “It’s been opened.” He enjoyed seeing the look of shock, and then a smile creep across the king’s face.
“So you have the girl then?” King Michal peered around him as if searching for her.
“Well, Ummm…” Fox paused. “She’s above ground with Pan.”
“That goat footed buffoon!” sneered the king. He padded across the room, pacing back and forth. The eye of the sea dragon followed his every movement. “Why did you let her go to Pan?” he growled.
“I had no choice.” Fox bowed and kicked the eyeball to the feet of the king. “Methuselah barred her entrance, and I had to send her to the most neutral place I knew of.”
“Methuselah has awoken?” the king eyed him with interest, “He must have been alerted the last time you crossed the sea with a human.” He rolled the eye to a corner of the room where a hand protruded through the shadows and caught it with care.
“Ah, a sea dragon’s eye, more valuable than any treasure mined from the earth,” a thin, articulate voice spoke from the shadows, and Captain Gillitrut stepped out of the darkness swinging the eye by the vein.
“Captain Gillitrut.” The king leapt onto a thick, carved chair and tore into a plate of food. “I thought you left for the morning drills.”
The Captain smirked. “I chose to stay, and I’m glad I did. I got to hear firsthand the good word from our friend Master Fox, but I see he’s failed the king again.” Bitter hatred clawed at Fox’s throat. He swallowed it down to his belly, but he wanted to bite the face off the smug little man. He shot a look of contempt at the captain.
“We’ve been trying for years to find an opening. All your little enchantments did nothing. The girl opened it herself. I think I served the king well by fetching her right away. Who knows how long the opening would have lasted? You imagine yourself to be a great wizard, but you’re no better than a little girl with a feisty temper.” Fox said and smiled placidly back at him. The king laughed from above them slicing through a roasted lamb leg with his teeth.
Captain Gillitrut sneered. “My enchantments softened the barrier. The girl is nothing, and how very like you to lose her along the way.” He cracked his bony knuckles, as if daring him to respond. The captain was setting him up for treason. He did not want Captain Gillitrut cornering him into accusations of disloyalty. He stepped towards the king.
“My King, I will go to Pan’s Cathedral and bring her back to you.” Fox smiled at the idea of a visit to his old friend Pan, but the king shook his head.
“You’ve had too many missteps involving that girl. Captain Gillitrut will do it.” King Michal licked the juices of the lamb’s leg as they dribbled down his furry arm.
“Then we can torture her. If her mother still refuses to weave for us then we’ll kill them both, eh Gilly?” The king threw a fish’s skull at the captain. Captain Gillitrut jumped away from the skull, and the king roared in laughter.
“Send a squad to Pan’s Cathedral and bring her here to me. We’ll bring the Story Weaver down from her tower and have her waiting in my throne room when her daughter arrives.” The king snapped up a fresh fish bobbing in a bowl of wine, tossed it in the air, and caught it in his massive jaws. Fox noticed the captain wince before he bowed low.
“Yes, my King.” He spun on his heel and walked away more quickly than usual. Fox smiled, knowing that the captain still feared the king.
“What an insufferable idiot.” He glared at the captain’s back, and the king’s laughter echoed against the vaulted ceiling. Fox smiled. In his absence Captain Gillitrut molded the king’s will like clay, but he, the Fox, still held king Michal’s love.
He turned to the king. “Torture her? There’s no need for that. Surely the Weaver will be so thankful to see her daughter that we won’t need to do her harm.” At least that’s what you told me. Fox disliked being lied to.
King Michal gulped down the bowl of wine before speaking. “You’ve grown soft my friend! How can I trust one who holds the interest of a human child over your king’s? I’m keeping an eye on you.” Fox swallowed. Raw grief gripped his heart at his king’s mistrust. He bowed low and turned to leave. “Where do you go without my leave?” King Michal leapt down from the throne and cornered him.
“To wash off the grime of the sea,” he snorted, surprised at the king’s cruelness towards him.
“You plan your baths too far ahead of time my friend. You’re coming with me.” The king loped up the corridor. Fox’s stomach cringed at the idea of not soaking in a warm, lavish bath and smoking his pipe at the end of a horrible, exhausting day.