Spindle's End

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Spindle's End Page 6

by Robin McKinley

  Wife had pups, fifteen days ago, said the dog-fox.

  Katriona managed not to say, Well how nice for you both, but she thought the fox could guess what she hadn’t said, and if foxes laughed, he would have laughed louder. She had picked the princess up, and was trying to cradle her, but the princess wasn’t having any of it: she wanted breakfast—she wanted yesterday’s tea and supper—and she wanted them now. Tiny fists can hurt quite a lot when they hit you in the face. Katriona lowered her to her lap, and hung on. Maybe she would wear out soon.

  Wife has milk, said the fox.

  Katriona’s head shot up and she stared at him. He was crouched on the bank above her, his red coat perfectly camouflaged by the last winter’s leaves still caught in the hedgerow, below this year’s green. She was so startled she forgot to be polite. Why do you want to help us? she said.

  Not foxy, to help human? said the fox, smiling a fox smile. No. Like babies. Even human babies. Yours makes too much noise.

  Katriona knew what he was saying; noise in the wild was dangerous—and he didn’t know the half of it. I don’t know how to make her quiet. She’s angry because she’s hungry.

  The fox jumped down from the bank and put his nose to the princess’ screwed-up, beetroot-coloured, shrieking face, and stoically withstood two bashes from those heavy little fists before she registered the arrival of another presence. Katriona held her breath. The princess opened her eyes, and her shrieks fell off into more hesitant wails. She grasped one of the fox’s ears and pulled. He flinched, but put his tongue out and licked her, and she laughed. It was rather a hoarse laugh, but it was a laugh.

  Quickly now, he said, withdrew his head (giving it a shake, as if to resettle his ears, and his nose, where the princess had struck him), and trotted off, upstream. The princess gave another cry at her new toy being so abruptly withdrawn, but her tantrum had worn her out, and on a too-long empty stomach she didn’t have the strength to start in again. Almost as suddenly as blowing out a candle she fell asleep again, although she grizzled in her sleep, and her little face was frowning, her mouth set and the corners turned emphatically down, in the unequivocal way of unhappy babies.

  Katriona snatched up the nappies from the water, and held them at arm’s length while they streamed—at least the running water had cleaned them fairly well—supporting the baby sling with the other arm. She ached all over, and was herself dizzy with hunger, and her held-out arm kept dropping involuntarily to her side, wetting her skirt and that ankle and foot. The foot began to squelch in its shoe.

  Katriona expected an argument from the fox’s wife, but she followed him out of their den almost as soon as the fox had gone in, with motherliness radiating off her like heat from a fire. She licked the princess’ face, and the princess woke, and obligingly pulled her ears, but she was weeping before she was properly awake, a thin, despairing wail, and it hurt Katriona’s heart to hear her.

  Put her down beside me, said the vixen. Lay her as if she were—a puppy. She’s too big for me to move. I’ll do the rest.

  And she did. Katriona wondered if the fox cubs whimpered for their breakfast that day, for the princess emptied the contents of several nipples before she fell asleep again, this time smiling and rosy. Thank you, said Katriona. Thank you, thank you. Can I . . . she hesitated. Is there anything at all I can do for you? I—I’m not a real fairy. I can’t do much. I’m sorry.

  What’s your name? said the dog-fox.

  Katriona, Katriona said in surprise.

  Well, Katriona, said the dog-fox, if a fox ever calls you Katriona, you must come to its rescue. Will you do that?

  Yes, said Katriona, and felt the fox’s sense of humour again, although it had a bitter edge. Yes, said the dog-fox. I believe you. I had been watching you some time before I spoke, this morning, and I might not have let you know I was there.

  Sleep here now, said the vixen, as Katriona wearily began shrugging herself back into the sling. We’ll keep watch. I can give her one more meal before you set out again. But only one. Or my babies will howl. Fox cubs didn’t howl, but Katriona acknowledged the joke. She fell asleep so quickly she cracked her head against the ground lying down.

  She opened her eyes to the sound of delighted infant laughter: the princess was playing catch with the dog-fox’s tail. The rest of him was lying just out of her reach—she couldn’t quite roll over yet, although she was trying—and he tickled her face with his brush, and then flicked it away as she grabbed for it. She thought this was a delicious game, and waved and kicked, and sneezed. Katriona couldn’t see any obvious tufts of fur gone, and she rather thought the old fox was having a good time. Fleas, she thought. Never mind. I will find some wild garlic for the fleas.

  The thought of wild garlic made her stomach give a sudden shriek of its own, almost as loud as the princess’ as she once again missed her grab, and equally suddenly Katriona realised she was smelling food. Fox dens do tend to be a bit redolent of past fox dinners, but this was . . . she sat up and turned round and saw a meat pie lying on a bit of bare earth near her. It looked as if it had had a rather hard journey, but it was indubitably a meat pie.

  The dog-fox said, It’s for you. Sorry about the teethmarks. I was in a bit of a hurry.

  Katriona had eaten it all almost before the fox finished speaking. She sighed. I can only thank you again, she said. And again and again.

  I could grow accustomed to being thanked, said the fox, half joking and half serious; thanks as humans understood them were not usual in animal cultures. (Nor were apologies. The fox’s pride had evidently been offended by an insufficiently clever snatch at the stolen meat pie. Pride was very important. It was one of the things that kept you alive.) I feel you are hiding from your own kind for a good reason, said the fox after a pause. It was the princess’ name-day yesterday, and at midday the sky darkened, and the wind smelled wrong, and later on the king’s horsemen galloped down the roads with angry, frightened faces. And then you came.

  Yes, said Katriona, and the fox asked no more; secrets were another of the things that kept you alive. Katriona could hear muffled squeaks and rustles from inside the den; presumably the vixen was feeding her own children.

  I thank you for your thanks, the dog-fox said at last, almost primly, and she had impulsively half reached out to touch him, a caress or a hug, before she remembered what brutal bad manners that would be, and flinched back. The fox was looking at her thoughtfully. Like this, he said, rolled to his feet, walked over to her, and laid his long narrow furry cheek briefly against her wide smooth round one.


  There were fleas, but the wild garlic helped, and the reek of it kept certain other inevitable odours a little at bay. And she began to think that one or two of the fairy godmothers’ gifts that she had missed while her hands were over her ears must have been about good nature, because the princess was astonishingly good-natured during their long difficult journey; the tantrum she had their first morning was the only tantrum she ever had. Maybe it’s something in the milk, Katriona thought a little wildly, for the princess drank not only fox’s milk, and goat’s, and cow’s and ewe’s and mare’s and a variety of domestic cats’ and dogs’ (mostly sheepdogs’ and collies’), but also doe’s, badger’s, otter’s, polecat’s, pine marten’s, wolf’s, lynx’s, wildcat’s, and bear’s (some of these more tactically difficult to achieve than others). She knew, although she had not been told, that some kind of word had gone out among the animals that there was a baby walking west and north in the arms of a fairy woman not her mother, who couldn’t do much fairy work but could talk to animals—she hoped they said she was polite—and she often found when she huddled down by a farmyard at evening or very early morning (one of the extraordinary adaptations the princess had made without fuss was to the necessary regime of only two meals a day) and asked, Goat, goat, can you spare me any milk? the goat—or whatever milking mother was on offer—was half expecting her, and could often tell her where to look for the princess’ next me
al as well.

  Katriona preferred the bigger farms, when she was lucky enough to find a farm she thought she could risk approaching (hedgerow or haystack near the field with the animals she wanted in it; farmhouse far from the farmyard) because the princess, especially since she only had the chance to slake it twice a day, had a mighty appetite, and a small householder would miss what she took. A few times Katriona left one of her last ha’pennies on a doorstep, or tied up in the farmer’s kerchief hung over his pitchfork, or by the sink in the dairy for the farmwife to find. This was the sort of thing that happened in this country, but then the ha’pennies left were usually silver, or sometimes, if someone was very lucky, something called fairy metal, though no one (including fairies) knew where it came from, iridescent in sunlight, and strangely warm in the hand even in winter. Katriona’s ha’pennies were just the ordinary copper ones struck by the king’s mint; but then you never got to spend the iridescent ones. They became family heirlooms. Which was all very well after the day you had to go hungry because someone had pinched your milk. (The story that went with the fairy-metal coins was that the animals milked better and the crops grew better and the human farmer and farm family were healthier for the whole season after. She couldn’t do anything about that, either. All she could do was leave a plain dull ha’penny.)

  But often enough there was no farm, or there was a too-populous village too near even a good large spread-out farm, or something else was wrong, often nothing Katriona could even describe, only a prickle between her shoulder blades that made her clutch the princess more closely and keep on.

  And then she had to listen for the sound of wild animals talking among themselves, which was as difficult as picking out a fox’s red coat among last year’s beech leaves, and for similar reasons. And then, having managed to orient herself to a sound not made by wind or water or will-o’-the-wisp (wills-o’-the-wisp in that country could be quite noisy, if dancing lights and minor visions weren’t alluring enough and the wisps were beginning to feel frustrated), she had to try to move in that direction, till she could say, Pardon me, gentle persons, I have a favour to ask, before they disappeared because a human was approaching them. Not always, even then, would they wait for her, but usually they did: the word had gone out.

  She wished she could ask why there had been that word: there weren’t any stories that weren’t obviously nursery tales about animals organising to feed an orphaned baby. Did the animals know that this baby was the princess? Was that part of the word that was passed among them? No one had ever asked who the baby was, but then animals wouldn’t. The baby was the baby and the mother was the mother, even when she wasn’t. (The dog-fox had been rude in suggesting the princess was not Katriona’s baby, but foxes are brash creatures, and gratuitously inquisitive. Katriona couldn’t imagine any animal but a fox—except, possibly, a few of the cheekier birds—remarking as he had remarked on the princess’ name-day.) Animals always wanted to know—their lives too often depended on it—but they rarely asked questions. You weren’t supposed to have to ask questions; language was a weak and unreliable means of taking in information, and many wild animals dispensed with it; your ears and nose and eyes were much preferable.

  And because the animals did not question her, she could not ask them: Why are you doing this for us?

  There were stories that didn’t sound like nursery tales, about companies of leopards and lynxes and dragons and wolves that had fought at the sides of various kings and queens many years ago; but maybe those were merely nursery tales for grown-ups. History was as unreliable as almost everything else that was influenced by magic in this country—which was nearly everything—and those stories could have been true or they could have not been true. Did the animals know about Pernicia?

  But Katriona did have to go in search of animals to help her; they might expect her, they might wait for her, but they rarely came to meet her. She had had no warning, one evening, and was beginning to feel some anxiety that she had gone so far into a plausible-looking wood without hearing any animal speech, when a hummock of darkness had risen in front of her in the twilight and shadows, and become a bear. She had gripped the princess so tightly she gave a little squeak and then began to cry, and even after the bear had addressed them in a voice as kind and loving as Katriona’s aunt’s, saying, I have milk for your baby, Katriona had not been able to make any reply for at least a minute. The steady yellow eyes of wolves appearing out of the darkness between blink and blink was nothing compared to the revelation of the bear.

  The bear sat down, quietly, and crossed her immense, dagger-clawed paws over her broad breast, and waited for Katriona to recover herself. Not wishing to appear rude, but still struck dumb, Katriona took a wavering step forward; and then the princess, who had stopped crying, gave one of her delicious, crowing chirrups, and held out her arms—to the bear.

  There was this also to say about the bear: She was big enough, presumably, to spare milk for a human baby without much shortage to her own. It had taken most of a riverbank of otters to feed the princess, another evening, though the otters had seemed to think it all a great joke. The nursing mothers had hung round talking among themselves about the adventure of feeding a human baby while one after another had her turn with the princess, and before each had slid silently back into the river to return to her own territory and her own children. That had been a long night, because many of the otters were coming from a considerable distance, and the princess’ dinner had a number of hiatuses, or perhaps merely courses—with which she put up with her usual good humour.

  The princess was undoubtedly thriving. She wasn’t very clean, but she was bright-eyed—and alarmingly cheerful—and apparently robustly healthy. And energetically putting on weight. Katriona’s mind and eye noted this with satisfaction; her back and shoulders were less pleased.

  It took them three and a half months to return to Foggy Bottom. Katriona had decided that she had best travel mostly at night, and off the main road; and with the (increasing) burden of the princess as well, she did not move very quickly. She began to feel as if the journey were her entire life, and that she would never come to the end of it; she felt that way particularly at the end of every night’s walk, because she was always tired and hungry, and worried whether this would be the night that their luck ran out, and she would find no milk for the princess. There was always a slightly dreamlike quality to talking to animals, both because it happened in your head, like you might make up imaginary conversations with people, and because the way animals’ minds worked was so different from the way human minds worked. The disorienting quality of beast-talking was that much more bewildering when you were tired.

  Katriona was also always short on sleep because she woke often every day, thinking she heard the sound of Pernicia’s creatures creeping near them (and what would they be? Dark and scaly, with poisoned spines? Slithery and slimy, with too many legs? Or more beautiful than anything kind and good, with eyes that killed you quicker than basilisks? Would it be worse if Katriona could talk to them, too? Or maybe she didn’t use creatures at all; maybe Katriona would wake up drowning in a swamp or having been turned into a giant hog-weed or a troll. Or—worst thought of all—possibly Pernicia would come herself, in person; Katriona often saw her, tall, deadly, stooping down to seize them both . . .). Or at least the king’s hunters.

  Why hadn’t the royal magicians found them? A really good magician could find anything that was lost by looking into the palm of the hand he usually carried his wand in; even a not very good magician ought to be able to find something large and important and specific, like a baby princess, with a few drops of farseeing and a bowl of water. If the small person, the fairy who had given Katriona both the princess and a poem, was powerful enough to keep them invisible to the best searchers in the realm, why wasn’t she powerful enough to protect the princess at home where she belonged?

  Or could the sabre-bearer’s amulet be hiding them?

  Katriona couldn’t bear to think
about any of it too closely.

  She often thought of trying to find a robin who could get a message to her aunt—robins always seemed to have family in areas you wanted to get a message to or from—but she couldn’t think of anything to say that wasn’t more dangerous than remaining silent and continuing to trust to luck. It was bad enough she was leaving a trail of stolen milk between the royal city and the Gig. Perhaps their luck was merely that magicians scorned talking to animals; animal thoughts weren’t nearly orderly enough to suit magicians, and were always full of large untidy preoccupations, like sex and death and the next meal.

  She had seen no one in the royal livery in weeks. She often had to follow the main road for a little while, because it was the only way through; and sometimes they had to sleep near it because she was too tired to look for better shelter, and then she would be awakened by the sounds that travellers made, and peer through leaves or shrubbery to see them, half hoping she would overhear some conversation about the missing princess, about the ten-foot giant who had snatched her out of her cradle at the name-day and been seen striding south with her, which was where the king’s trackers were concentrating their efforts. She hoped it was a good thing, to see no one in the king’s livery.

  She was always hungry. She was often too tired to forage for herself properly after she’d found milk for the princess, and she was desperately weary of the sort of things you could scrounge in wild land in summer, and eat raw; only a few times, when it had been raining and they were both wet and cold, did she risk a fire (one of her aunt’s charms persuaded wet wood to burn, although the wetter the wood, the sooner the charm wore out. Her aunt sold many of these charms in the fenny Gig) and then only if she could find a place far enough from the road and with the wind in the right direction. Once or twice the ha’pennies she left in dairies were for cheeses she’d stolen; but the only milk she was willing to drink was goats’ and cows’ and ewes’, although it was sometimes offered elsewhere (including by the bear). She was tired of sitting on the ground; and even with a no-rocks charm, there was an infinity of difference between sleeping on the ground and on the oldest, roughest, lumpiest, and most-in-need-of-restuffing mattress, made by human hands, and sheltered by four walls and a roof—and furnished with blankets and pillows. (They never slept in trees. Katriona didn’t want to find out the hard way that that particular charm would not include a baby she carried.)


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