Elluin swished her great tail, and the snow behind her scattered in obedience.
The tail came down in rhythm with the steps of the human beside Elluin. The girl’s steps rang strong and swift across the snowy clearing until they came across the tracks. Those of snow boots and fox paws.
The girl placed her foot over the one of the human tracks.
“They’re ours. We’ve—” The girl whirled to look around the clearing, her hood falling down.
“We’ve been here before.”
The girl pulled her hood back up, shoving her red curls inside it. Elluin felt the shift in the girl’s breathing, adopted it. It was the way of foxes and their handlers in those days—sharing feelings.
The fox pushed forward a clump of snow with her forepaws. The girl nodded and took it in her hands to eat. Their thermoses of water and stew in the girl’s pack were now mostly empty.
Elluin had seen the girl pack an empty jar alongside them.
“For the water from the Ipsine spring,” the girl had explained. “Enough to give each of the sick one dose.”
The sick. The four people of the village whose smell had changed, whose skin was somehow thinner. Elluin wondered if her veins would show through too if she had no white coat of fur and she grew sick in this new way of the girl’s village.
That day they had set out for the east, for this Ipsine. Elluin’s paw hesitated above the packed snow, above the sweet grasses Elluin knew to be below that. As a kit, a step too far east had meant a scolding. It was the territory of the Cialwan and their fleet hawks.
But Elluin had lifted her muzzle to the wind and strode lightly when she sensed the girl’s gaze on her. The girl smiled then.
Roe ran his beak over the top of his wing. Lifted it just because he could now.
The boy was still holding the branch and wrappings that had splinted the wing since a stray arrow had pierced Roe’s golden-brown feathers. The boy beamed.
“I missed you, you scoundrel,” he whispered. The boy always spoke low that way when the other hawk handlers were around.
“They’re giving us one of the rounds tonight,” the boy went on.
Roe didn’t care much for circling in the dark, following the boy to look for outsiders on the land. But he knew the boy breathed easier in the moonlight, away from the other Cialwan people.
The fell winds swirled the girl’s cloak before her as if trying to trip her. The girl held her hand below her eyes to shield her face from the chill.
Elluin knew the story of these clouds, what they foretold—only more of this freeze. She stopped.
The girl tramped on a few steps before looking back. Elluin looked toward the forest, its maze of branches the darkest black against the winter sky.
“Yes, we’d have less wind there, but the old forest path … It must be overrun with more than just trees.”
Elluin waited, the girl shivering in something like pain.
The night waited to hear the clouds’ tale—that of the earth people and their battle after battle with winter. As if night hadn’t been there every time. It could not but fill the empty hours that grew longer with the year itself.
Yet it yielded to the faraway lights that the people looked past the dark to see. The night opened itself to the steps of the sleepless wanderer, to the lone Cialwan hawk rising to meet it.
The girl sang like she were one of them, another forest dweller. Elluin loved the strange connections of sound. Though the noise held no meaning for the fox, Elluin knew that any song could have a different spirit. There was the death song, the song of courtship. You could tell by watching how the people held themselves, how their foreheads creased or their lips turned up as they listened.
Then Elluin’s ear twitched to the brush of another’s paw. The white fox put her nose to the snow.
Elluin sensed only the one; it must be a scout of the pack.
The girl froze and crouched to see beneath the overhang. Elluin circled around her, unsure—the snow was an enemy, muffling the movements Elluin fought to hear.
Slowly, smooth for a human, the girl reached for the quiver at her back. Her strong hands closed around the fine arrow.
Elluin knew the girl had seen it now too, the mange of a wolf skulking from trunk to trunk.
The fox’s eyes flashed as the girl reached down with her free hand. She stroke Elluin’s tail, then curled the end around her fingers. It was their sign; Elluin’s power kindled.
The brush beside them weaved as the wolf threw off his caution. It was in mid-spring by the time the girl pivoted, arms raised to strike at its tender nose.
The bow she held had not been there a moment before. It was snow white, glistening with the power the girl had trained her whole life to steward.
The wolf, stunned by the blow, took a second to look for the fox he was sure he had seen.
The girl darted for the tree she’d been eyeing. It took all her breath to heave her upper body over the lowest branch. As she struggled to lift herself on top of it, the wolf lunged, the blood from his crushed nose dripping down his maw.
Roe had let his path cross with the wolf’s for the past hour, the beast’s flash of silver breaking up the faux stillness of the night woods. This had become a race for the proud bird—still-sore wing aside.
The change in the shadows told Roe it was time to return to the boy.
But then the silver flow halted like a current against a hidden stone. Roe circled to keep his momentum as the wolf looked all about it. It had found whom Roe and the boy had missed, careful as the girl was to skirt Cialwan territory.
The hawk descended to witness the hunt.
Snow rained down from the upper branches as the girl grasped at the tree, sending a smatter of white into the wolf’s eyes as it jumped. There were no higher branches within the girl’s reach. She stretched both arms around the trunk and held one end of her bow in each hand. With the quickness of prey, she dug each foot into the bark, pulling herself up with the bow step by step. The girl would climb until she was on level with the hawk in the nearby tree, she decided.
The wolf’s howl was cut short when he followed the girl’s gaze to the hawk. She watched him pounce now on that tree, as if it were any more likely to heed his frenzied barks.
The first arrow she chose did not have the white feathers of the keepers of foxes. It was plain but with small knife markings. She had carved them as a child: Elluin’s name and her own.
Her eyes closed for an instant as her thoughts centered. She hoped to only have to do this once—fire on a creature so similar in form to her Elluin.
Thrum. The wolf looked up at her as the arrow sang from its string. It must have seemed the flash of a sparrow to him.
The snow at his feet rushed up like the spray of wave on the shore. He danced backwards.
The girl’s hand darted to take advantage of his confusion. The white feather drew the eyes of hawk and wolf as it dove from sky, headed—destined—for the wolf’s neck.
Roe watched the girl struggle down the tree. She paused every few movements and pressed her forehead against the wood, her body shaking.
Movement down the path caught Roe’s eye, and he saw his boy’s attempt at creeping down it, Roe supposed. He must have come when he saw the hawk’s circling.
The wolf was down, two more arrows down at that, but Roe knew the fox was here somewhere. Cialwan hawks were trained to aid their handlers against the changelings, swooping from a shadow to break the foxes’ deadly focus. Roe turned high, high in the sky for a downward arc all the more violent.
Elluin was falling, her fox form returning as the air swept past and the ground rose higher.
Her cry made the boy look back at her. The boy was looking high in the trees, frantic as he loaded his gun.
Elluin looked up to see the girl drop her pack, which fell with a shatter. The jar. Next came the girl. She managed to at least lower herself down, hanging down two handed from the branch before falling into a heap.
The fox crept over to the girl. Elluin believed she knew what she’d find. The face that had been covered with cloak and a gloved hand now lay pale against the snow, almost transparent. She was going in the way of the weakening wolf beside them, the way of the sick in her village.
Roe’s heart thrilled to tilt in his wings as he angled downward. He was the sky that was falling around the fox, still standing over its fallen handler. It had turned now to growl at the boy. Roe angled ever more steeply, even when the muscle in his left wing began to throb.
The boy knew by the glint in the fox’s eyes that it would become sword, bow, spear if it only a handle to wield the weapon. It began flashing forward to snap at the rifle before hopping back toward the girl.
He had heard talk that not all the trespassers on the Cialwan land were poachers or spies of enemy villages. Some were the desperate, searching for the one part of the land worth protecting, the spring.
Those were never the people he imagined defeating when he pictured finally proving himself as a hawk handler.
Roe swooped in once, sending the fox twisting out of the flight path. The boy fired off a couple shots, painting a red bloom on the white fox. A flesh wound, he thought.
But the boy knew the second swoop would go wrong even before Roe had started his downward motion, the pause at the beginning just a second too long, robbing the powerful wings of momentum.
Part of the way down the curve, the bird seemed to stutter, fly straight forward. He dropped between the boy and the fox.
The fox leaped forward, then to the side, scrambling its path to throw off the boy’s aim.
“Roe!” the boy heard himself screaming. He couldn’t shoot when the fox was so close to the bird. He held the grip with both hands, the weight of the long stock awkward as he tried to strike the spry animal.
The boy and fox paused. The girl was reaching toward them.
Elluin’s chest heaved as she stood over the failed hawk, her paw resting on its useless wing. She could feel her own blood staining her coat from the boy’s shot.
“Elly,” the girl cried. It was the name she’d used for the fox when they were young.
The fox lifted its paw and turned with the flourish of a great tail.
When Roe fluttered with his crooked wing to the nearest branch, the boy set the stock back on his shoulder as the fox turned away from him.
He met the girl’s eyes. But it seemed that she was looking through him, her only thought for the spring beyond.
Or maybe she was seeing him. He glanced around as if Roe or the dying wolf or even the ancient trees would instruct him. He found only the feathers left behind from when the hawk had fallen. And the fox that had let it free.
The girl whispered something to the fox, and his finger drifted toward the rifle trigger.
The sight of the fox blurred, shined as the snow under noon sun. He flinched to see a glass vial where the beast had sat.
“The spring,” the girl told him.
The boy had no way to seal the vial; they would have to move carefully. He set down his gun to take it from the stranger’s hand.