The life of a pheasant lord is a short one. I hunt the Fox because I must. For in this forest I rule one is either the hunter or the prey.
Mean Jump snorts and paws the air. My dread-hare’s sharpened nails extend. His tufted black ears bend against his head. Has he smelled the Fox? Or has all the compassion bestowed on him in the morning leaked out already? Is it that late?
I tighten my talons around the saddle’s front arch and pull the reins with my beak. Mean Jump gnaws at his bit but halts. We wait as our shadow stills against the ferns and rocks. It’s a long one, the outline jagged with the shape of my mount’s bramble armour. I cannot smell the musk and decay that ever follow the Fox.
Mean Jump stomps the ground. We should return to my castle of lichen and logs. But having failed to track down the monster who has claimed so many lives already pains me as a lance stuck through my heart. My dread-hare grows impatient and tries to bite me.
“Don’t.” I pat Mean Jump’s short neck. But I’m no compassion-leaker. My touch doesn’t calm him.
Mean Jump hisses from between his imposing front teeth, and then several things happen at once. A shape shifts behind a rock directly before us. Mean Jump rears. I fumble to follow the movement and poise my lance for attack.
“Stop.” The voice like pebbles rattling in a stream comes from a moss-skinned creature unfolding from amongst the rocks. A she-troll. “Me no fox.”
Mean Jump instantly stamps down to four paws. The she-troll waddles toward us. Though trolls are usually impossible to tell apart, I recognize this one. Kopeik.
I spit the reins and words out of my beak. “What in the name of the wicked Fox are you doing here, she-troll?”
Kopeik halts before Mean Jump, hands resting palms up against her willow-bark skirt. The dread-hare lowers his head on her lap, gently as to not tear her with his spiked bridle. “Follow you. Take care of dread-hare.”
I laugh. What a foolish she-troll she is! A compassion-leaker grown too attached to her ward. I puff my feathers, relying on my imposing figure to emphasize the message. “It’s too dangerous here. Get back to the castle.”
But right at that moment, a wail slithers through the evening. My feathers shift on their own accord. Mean Jump’s nostrils flare.
“Dark.” Kopeik wraps her arms around the dread-hare’s head. She stares into his black eyes, and he stays still as a statue. “Alone?”
Mean Jump turns his head, slowly so that Kopeik has the time to step aside. His gaze blazes as he bares his teeth. The threat isn’t idle—his kind can sever a bird’s leg with one bite.
I maintain eye contact with Mean Jump, for one must never let dread-hares sense one’s hesitation, lest they stop obeying orders. For me to let Kopeik stay would be a small defeat. But to send her against the night alone, to doom her as the Fox’s fodder, would be unforgivable.
Better to let her camp with me tonight.
“In the morning it is.” I stick my lance into the ground. I dismount swiftly and thrust the reins at Kopeik. “Meanwhile you can care for the dread-hare.”
When I wake up to the soft, pink light, Kopeik is already leaking compassion. Mean Jump lies on his side, paws stretched out, his head on the she-troll’s lap. His eyes are closed, revealing the pine brown circles around them, and his curiously delicate lashes rest against his round cheeks. He purrs.
The bond between Mean Jump and Kopeik is deep and strong, for the she-troll has cared for him ever since I found her, huddling under shattered rocks and torn moss, the remnants of her parents. Even creatures made of stone aren’t safe from the Fox’s teeth.
I stroll some way off to preen my feathers. It’s a ritual that calms me. I brush my green neck until it gleams. I polish my chest feathers, until gold and copper regain their precious sheen. For one such as me, it’s important to keep up appearances. Both trolls and dread-hares are unpredictable by nature. If I’m to protect my subjects, I must look the part.
I strut back to the camp, a shining feathered creature on a righteous quest. It pleases me greatly that Kopeik has put the bramble bridle on Mean Jump already. As I peck seeds and blueberries for my morning fare, the she-troll saddles the dread-hare. Though I’ve sheltered many compassion-leakers, I’ve never seen anyone perform these tasks with such ease. My dread-hare doesn’t even try to bite her head off as she tightens the lichen-weave saddle belt!
An idea occurs to me. It’s a dangerous one, but worth considering. Mean Jump, the only dread-hare with a temper vicious enough to fight the Fox, burns compassion so fast that I must regularly return to my castle to feed him, lest he turn impossible to ride. But if Kopeik were to join me on my quest, she could feed Mean Jump daily. I could hunt the Fox farther than ever before.
But can I ask her to risk her life? And what would it be like to travel with her, a compassion-leaker out of compassion?
“My Lord.” Kopeik faces me with unwavering boldness. She’s so short that her head barely reaches my chest. Her jagged stone face seems somehow fragile. But as she stares at me, her beady green eyes remain cold and uncaring.
It wouldn’t be fair to take one such as her with me, not when all she can care for now is my dread-hare. “Go home, she-troll.”
I ride deeper into the forest, following a trail of paw prints and tufts of red fur caught in pine bark. The morning grows into a cloudy day that smells of crushed needles and uprooted shrubs. The hours stretch dreary before me. But I cannot return as long as the Fox preys on my subjects.
I’ve glimpsed this fox only once, but I’ve slayed many of his kind before. Fiery red beasts, twice the size of a dread-hare. Teeth sharp enough to lash through leather, strong enough to shatter stone. They’re cunning by nature, but also cruel. When they laugh, their chiming squeals send all creatures fleeing. They kill on a whim and leave carcasses rotting in the sun.
A fortnight ago, I swore a solemn oath before my frightened subjects. My voice filled the castle yard. Torches burned bright. I will not rest. I will not give up until either the Fox or I meet a bloody end.
Mean Jump snorts. I pat his neck. The bramble armour weighs heavy on him, and though woven to fit him, sometimes it chafes. He tosses his head. No, turns his head.
And there behind us, in the shadow of a fallen fir, stands Kopeik, her knobby arms crossed under her chest, her gaze burning with determination.
Still holding the reins in my beak, I coo a sound of surprise mixed with annoyance. She should have stayed behind when I told her to. But it’s no more up to her to obey.
“Care for dread-hare,” Kopeik says. She’s bled too much compassion. She can no longer be apart from Mean Jump.
Night falls over the thinning forest. Here pine bark bears claw marks and darkness breathes upon us bleak and oppressing. The moistness in the air chills the insides of my hollow bones. Even Mean Jump is nervous. He stares suspiciously at every shadow, and his nails remain extended.
The wind bears slivers of white mist, and I fear that, come night, we’ll get company. When we happen on a clearing sheltered by a steep hill, I pull Mean Jump to a halt. It isn’t an optimum campsite, but it will have to do. “We camp here.”
Kopeik smiles at Mean Jump, her love-struck grin revealing two rows of smooth pebbles. She takes the reins, already leaking compassion. She might feed him too much, but I cannot bring myself to tell her to stop. I need Mean Jump to remain manageable in case the Fox shows up. If I have to tie up the she-troll later, then be that the price.
While Kopeik tends to Mean Jump, I wander off to collect twigs. The mist grows thicker. It wraps around the trees and branches and sways slowly like shredded sheets. The pines rustle and creak, and this makes me twitchier than I care to admit. Yet I refuse to give in to my fears and return to the camp empty-winged. We need a fire to keep us safe for the night, though it will put us at a risk come morning. The Fox doesn’t like fire, but will inevitably smell the smoke and pinpoint our location.
The mist is almost too thick for me to find the path back to the others. The trees confer in murmurs. I don’t know their language, but I can sense that they’re restless.
Back at the camp, I drop the twigs onto the ground. I say, more confident than I feel, “A fire will keep us safe.”
As the white wisps curl around the campsite, I’m happy for the flames. The wisps are somehow heavier now, more substantial. The way they drift isn’t right: no more with the wind, but as if each wisp had a mind of its own and its own agenda.
Mean Jump senses this too. He hops to me, teeth bared. I freeze and don’t dare to move a muscle for he might bite off my head. But he merely licks my talons. He wants to be comforted.
“Good boy.” I scratch him behind the left ear, just as I have seen Kopeik doing. Kopeik…
A sharp hiss comes from the other side of the fire. Instinctively, I pick up a twig. Mean Jump merely lifts his head and grunts.
“Kopeik?” I stare at the she-troll through the flames. “Is everything all right?”
The she-troll’s eyes are as black as onyx, shoulders hunched and arms wrapped tight under her chest. She shudders, though creatures of stone cannot feel cold. But they can feel fear.
“Come here,” I coo at her. The she-troll has given her compassion away so freely that she has none left for herself. It’s my fault. “I will protect you.”
She lurches around the fire. After a moment of hesitation, she drops on her knees next to Mean Jump. He nibbles at her stubby fingers, no doubt hoping to find insects or berries.
The wind picks up then. The white wisps hold their shape. And I can make it out now, they aren’t mist at all, but trolls and bears and hares and elks. Even pheasants. They toil under a burden ghastlier than I could have ever imagined.
“Ghosts.” Kopeik hugs Mean Jump’s head. “Fox victims.”
The Fox’s victims drag bones with them. Small ones, long ones, mangled skulls. It isn’t an easy task for one who has lost one’s body.
“Scared.” Kopeik pulls her head against her chest, her arms against her torso, her legs under herself.
“They cannot hurt us.” I cannot afford to let her lose control of herself. Not for her sake. Not for ours.
As the ghosts drift past us, I rummage through my saddlebags. The ghosts are but mist, but the bones are real. Their own. I don’t want to think of the creature that has forced them into this cruel task.
When I find the coil of rope, Kopeik is already beyond hearing or noticing me. Mean Jump isn’t. He meets my gaze, then glances at the rope.
“We must protect her.” To join the ghosts, to follow them, would lead the she-troll only to certain death. “We cannot let her wander off on her own.”
Mean Jump nods at me. Full of compassion, he understands.
The next day we come to a large body of water fringed by steep dunes. In the distance to our left gleams a white structure that I cannot name. Mean Jump halts and lets out a gentle snort. For once, he’s happy to do as I wish. Unlike the still-bound Kopeik, who hisses in my direction.
“Wait,” I tell them and dismount.
I hop down the dune, hoping to better determine our location. The waves crawl up the slope, cradling greyed driftwood. But no matter how I peer into the distance, I cannot see the opposite shore.
A wave licks my talons. It’s cold, and the current is strong. I kneel nevertheless. I cup my wing and sip the water. It’s salty. I have never tasted such a thing before. What is this place where the Fox has lured me?
My thoughts weigh me down as I totter up the dune. I wave my wings to regain my balance, but the sand slips under my talons. When I finally reach the top, I’m thirsty and tired.
Mean Jump tosses his head in question. Strange now, how he has become my true companion. For a moment at least.
“Let’s see where we are.” I spread my map on the dune. Kopeik kicks sand in my direction, a willful child. I can take no offence at her behaviour. She’s in no condition to tend to herself or others. Mean Jump, on the other hand, peers over my shoulder as I study the ancient markings, the lines of blueberry ink and smudges of ash. There, my home, the fine castle of my ancestors. Surrounding it, the lush pine and fir forests. Scarcer lands border my kingdom. They end in a jagged line.
“We have come farther than I thought,” I whisper, though I still cannot find any mention of the white structure.
Kopeik shuffles closer, her movements hindered by the rope. I hold the map out for her and nod toward the bottom of the page. “This body of water is the sea.”
“Sea?” Kopeik’s voice bears a hint of curiosity. Then her frown returns and her eyes light up with suspicion, though she must know I would never put her in harm’s way. “Stone sinks.”
Mean Jump bounces to hover protectively behind her. It’s then that I notice the marks my rope has left, deep dents in her soft, mossy skin.
“The sea,” I repeat, making my voice even. My care has already scarred her.
I ride toward the white structure, for what else could it be but the Fox’s lair? It’s becoming increasingly easy to follow the beast in any case. At first I thought the sand littered with driftwood. But I was mistaken.
Bones of all shapes and sizes stick out of the sloping dunes like gnarly trees stripped of leaves and turned white by the gasps of cruel winter. Cracked deer ribcages lie next to hollow-eyed bird skulls. Fractured beaks rest under elk femurs, thick and long, but useless now. Tibias of some creature larger than even an elk protrude toward the sky, as if still hoping to flee. I think of the ghosts of the night before. How many there must be, bound to the task most desolate!
Mean Jump, the dread-hare born from the meanest buck and the wildest doe, treads around the bones, his head high, ears perched. But Kopeik merely hisses as she stomps over them. In her compassionless state, she doesn’t care about the living. Why would she care about the dead?
We continue toward the Fox’s lair, though the sun glares down on us. One cannot drink salty water, and soon we’re parched. There’s nothing for us to forage. The thorny grass clinging to the dunes is too hard and bitter for even a dread-hare to gnaw. Kopeik refuses to touch seaweed. I’m out of seeds and dried berries.
I don’t fight off the delirium, for another battle awaits me. And so, as we trudge toward the Fox’s lair, I dream of my castle of lichen and logs, of the well with the sweetest water, of the golden fire in the great hall, of a feast of lingonberries and apples. I don’t know what my companions dream of. Perhaps of turning back?
I stir to a stench so vicious that it clenches my stomach. We’re already past the halfway mark, and the white structure looms before us tall and foreboding. Here, the sand bears red and brown patches. Mean Jump brays as he notices a white-bellied deer torn asunder. As I blink to banish the last shreds of the delirium, I find us in the middle of a scene of horror, amongst rotting carcasses, body parts, wings without feathers, great patches of moss ripped from troll skin.
Amidst this destruction run the pawmarks, each showing clearly the five deep depressions, four curling nails. These marks, they’re made by the Fox. His is the trail of broken corpses.
We reach the Fox’s lair just as the sun plummets into the sea. The white castle of boulders and bone sprawls on a cliff extending over the grey foam-capped waves. It’s curiously shaped, three stories tall in some places, half a story tall in others. Pieces of ramparts crisscross the front, never quite connecting with each other. Turrets frame the entrance, but no stairs seem to lead to them. Two boulders form an entrance, foreboding in its narrowness.
I don’t want to enter. Here, the stench of decay runs so rancid that I hold my breath to avoid inhaling it. Even Mean Jump is unnerved, every muscle tense, every tendon taut. And Kopeik the she-troll whimpers, afraid to leave us, but even more so to follow.
Though darkness already gathers around us, I jump down from the saddle. It was Kopeik’s own choice to follow me. But I shouldn’t have let her come with us in the first place. Was it my vanity, my yearning for glory that drove me to accept her offer? Or did I just choose the easier path?
None of that matters now.
“Don’t fear, little she-troll.” I wipe away the tears moistening her hard cheeks. “You don’t have to follow us in. You can wait for us here. You will be perfectly safe.”
She blinks, and there it is again, suspicion in her eyes. Perhaps I inadvertently lied. What if I lose the fight to come? What will then happen to a little she-troll with a rope hindering her movements?
“Let me untie you first.” I reach out for the knot, the one I pulled so tight mere hours earlier. Her dry skin flakes under my trembling beak. I’ve caused her much pain, and yet she doesn’t complain. “But you must promise to wait for us here. And you must remain very silent, so that the Fox doesn’t learn of your presence.”
The she-troll nods. I don’t know whether it’s just a reflex or if she’s still capable of understanding words.
I ride into the Fox’s lair. The evening gasps white mist upon us, and out of the corner of my eye, I see the ghosts arrive. There are many, but every single one of them hauls bones. As I ride the narrow, curling way toward the castle’s main hall, I realize it’s the ghosts that have built this place, from the bodies they inhabited before the Fox claimed their lives and forced their spirits into servitude.
When we enter the great hall, a voice like a scythe’s edge cuts through the dark. “Welcome, weary travellers.”
I tighten my grip on my stone-tipped lance. There’s no turning back now. I flick the reins, urge Mean Jump onward.
Crooked, wind-carved boulders separate the hall from the sea. Wind comes from between them in great, cold waves that smell of salt and seaweed. Above us rises a trellis of bones. Skulls stare down on us, though the sockets are empty. And everywhere, everywhere the ghosts scuttle, doomed to build the beast’s vision.
“You must be tired.” The Fox lounges on a white throne of stone, head dangling over one side, hind legs over the other. Even lying down, he’s taller than Mean Jump. His red coat is glossy and lustrous. His golden gaze is sharp. “And hungry. Please say you stay for dinner.”
Mean Jump wagers another short step. I cling to the reins, beak grating the leather. It’s more terrifying to find my adversary embarking upon a polite conversation than feasting on his poor victims. For this makes attacking him straightaway seem…rude.
“I was actually counting on that. You see—” The Fox swings himself up from the throne. He strolls toward me, slowly as if to give me time to admire the thick fur that frames his triangular face, the exquisite shape of his wet, black nose. “I’m already very hungry.”
My lance slips in my feathered hold, though I cannot afford weakness or fear. I rode across my kingdom to slay this beast, and slay him I shall indeed. I spit out the reins. “Not a step more, Fox.”
The Fox halts, one front paw coquettishly lifted. “Or what?”
“I will slay you,” I say, as sure of myself as I have ever been. Mean Jump stomps. Snorts. He’s ready to launch into attack as soon as I so command. “I will not have a cruel beast like you tormenting my subjects a day more. Not in life. Not in death.”
“Me? Cruel?” The Fox’s tongue, the colour of a ripe cherry cut open, lolls out from between his teeth. “I’m only, as you might put it, as cruel as my nature calls me to be. And you are just as vain and foolishly proud as yours demands. My dear, dear Pheasant Lord, we cannot change what we are.”
“Enough! You have harassed my people long enough. You have killed those who sought my protection. That’s a deed punishable by death.”
“Is that so?” The Fox brushes his whiskers with his paw. His white snout bears dried, red stains. “But they were all so tasty. And even those who weren’t made such funny noises when I tore them apart.”
My pulse quickens and my feathers puff. I curl my talons around the saddle’s front arch. I pose my lance for imminent attack. Mean Jump’s powerful hind legs tense.
“Help! Don’t!” The Fox giggles, brushing his snout against his side. Then he stares right at me and shrieks one last high-pitched insult. “I don’t want to die!”
Without needing to be urged, Mean Jump bounces forward. The lance wavers in my hold. I steady it, aiming at the Fox’s white chest. The time has come for me to prove my worth, to put an end to the evil of this fox.
Five jumps. The Fox stands very still. The sea wind tousles his luscious fur. Three jumps. I adjust my aim, and it has never been truer. Two jumps.
But at the very last moment, the Fox swirls aside in a flurry of red and white. Mean Jump trips over his own paws. How? How can that be?
As my lance-tip hits the floor, I catch a glimpse of a rope of entrails strung across the hall. Then the impact slams through my body, and before I can let go of the lance and flap my wings, I’m ricocheting through the air, over Mean Jump’s neck.
“Oh my!” The Fox laughs, delighted by his own cleverness.
I slam against a boulder, breaking bones big and small. And as I watch, Mean Jump falls toward me. With the weight of the armour on him, he cannot stop himself. He topples over me.
The brambles sink through my feathers, through my skin, into my flesh. I cry out despite myself as a particularly sharp thorn mars my chest, as my left wing tears, as my talons go numb.
“What did you stumble into? My trap? Oh, did you happen to run right into my trap?”
I gasp for air. It tastes of blood. With Mean Jump lying atop of me, I cannot see a thing. He breathes still, but otherwise he’s limp. Is he as badly hurt as I am?
I push Mean Jump as gently as the circumstances allow. At first, he won’t respond. He, too, is stunned by his fall. Suddenly, he scampers up, mighty paws treading the air. The brambles tear free from my chest, my wings, my haunches. The pain is indescribable. My vision goes bright, dark, then bright again.
“Why, little bunny, what’s the hurry?”
I stir to the Fox’s question and the sight of Mean Jump fleeing. He’s running away as fast as his injuries allow. I don’t blame him for that.
“It looks like it’s going to be just you and me staying for dinner.” The Fox strolls to me, curled nails scraping against the white stones. His nostrils flare. He licks his lips. Can he smell and taste my spilled blood already? “Do you reckon I should eat you raw or if you’d taste better salted?”
I crawl to sit with my back against the boulder, though doing so hurts me immensely. The sea roars just behind me. The Fox’s stomach rumbles before me. The lance, it’s too far away for me to reach, and even if it were closer, I couldn’t hold it with so many shattered wing bones.
The Fox tosses me a grin that reveals his wicked teeth. I know then what awaits me. The life of a pheasant lord is a short one. Mine is about to come to an end.
When the Fox is but a few feet away from me, he sits down on his haunches and lifts one paw up. “This isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.”
“How…come?” I ask between laboured breaths.
The Fox blows at his black nails, wipes them in his coat. A drop of saliva buds at the corner of his mouth. “It wasn’t much of a fight you put up, now, was it?”
I catch a glimpse of movement behind the Fox, at the far side of the hall. A waddle, to be more precise. It cannot be… It could be just wishful thinking. But be that as it may, my best course of action is to delay the inevitable. “I…did…my best.”
The Fox sighs, his breath foul. “I suppose you did. Now, let’s agree that you’ll at least shriek and cry as I dismember you. Do you think you could manage that?”
I hate how reasonable the insane Fox sounds. I cringe as I try to speak, to form some final words of defiance. “I…”
It’s then that the waddler launches herself at the Fox. She grabs hold of his tail and nimbly scrambles up his back. Once she reaches the Fox’s shoulders, she sits down, legs wrapped tight around his neck. “Evil. Fox.”
I cry out in pure bewilderment the name of the brave she-troll. “Kopeik!”
The Fox’s eyes bloom with anguish. He growls as he spins around, attempting to nip Kopeik. But the she-troll has spent her whole life with dread-hares. She’s used to avoiding teeth and nails. She’s used to riding the wildest beasts.
The Fox snarls as he whirls around faster. Faster. His nails scrape sparks against the stone floor. Flakes of dry moss and tufts of red fur scatter around the adversaries.
The ghosts, I notice, have stopped their gruelling labour and drifted over to form an arch around their master. As I lay helpless against the boulder, I hope they don’t blame me for their grim fate. For I failed them just as I failed in my duty. This was supposed to be my fight to win.
“You. Stop,” Kopeik growls, and the Fox slows his spinning. I realize the she-troll has been leaking compassion into the beast. Her green eyes, they gleam so wild that there cannot be any left in her. “You. Obey.”
It’s the most curious thing. To see the Fox tamed. His eyes glaze over as the cruelty behind them is un-kindled.
For a moment, the Fox stands still, waiting for his breathing to calm. The wind from the sea tugs at the white of his chest, the red of his coat. He stares past me, past the ghosts, into the dark night and darker waves.
Kopeik snaps her heels against the Fox’s neck, and the beast lurches forward. One hesitant leap, then another through the gap between the boulders, and they go over the edge together. Slowed by my injuries, I crawl to the cliff’s edge, just in time to see them disappear into the waves. It might be the Fox’s white tail-tip that I see go under, or just foam left behind.
The ghosts gather around me to stare after them. They confer in whispers I cannot quite interpret, and then…they slowly disperse, one after another. From this, I know the Fox is dead and that he will never haunt my subjects again.
As I embrace the darkness that beckons to me, I think of what the Fox said. Perhaps we cannot escape that which is in our nature. Stone is heavy. It’s not in its nature to obey but sink. Feathers are light. It’s not in their nature to last forever, but float in the wind and, come dawn, disperse like spirits set free.
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Story copyright © 2016 by Leena Likitalo
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Kat Weaver
Leena Likitalo hails from Finland, the land of thousands of lakes and at least as many untold tales. She’s a Writers of the Future 2014 winner and Clarion San Diego graduate. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Galaxy’s Edge, and Weird Tales, among others. Tor.com will be publishing her debut novel, The Five Daughters of the Moon, in summer 2017.
Kat Weaver is an illustrator and writer whose work has previously been published in Apex Magazine and The Toast. She lives in Minneapolis with her girlfriend and two birds.