The Snow Fox (New Horizons, 2008)

Probably the first thing I ever finished that was worth reading, this started life as an exercise in descriptive prose and ended up surprising me. With thanks to Lord Byron.

The Snow Fox

“Lady Katharine!” Nikolai exclaimed, jumping to his feet as she swept into the room, almost tripping in his haste to pull back her chair. “I am honoured, as always, that you accept my invitation.” Lord Brasil’s steward clapped his hands, and servants swarmed into the room, weighting the small elegant dining table with exotic and wondrous foods, the names of which Nikolai could only guess. He waited patiently until they were done.

“Please, allow me.” He poured Lady Katharine some tea. She glanced at him, sipped, then sat patiently, her arms in her lap, smiling faintly. Nikolai beamed happily and helped himself to a plateful of sandwiches.

“Lord Brasil has found yet another exquisite setting for us, don’t you think?” He looked across the room, through the far wall, to where a sickly green moon glimmered over a dark and golden sea. Sleek black shapes, indistinct of form, slid silently through the sky, extinguishing the stars as they went. Here and there, dim meandering patterns burned through the ocean as though spasms of lightning racked the murky depths. Countless delicate ripples crossed the surface, writing nameless symbols where they crossed, and far off on the horizon, a black column, darker than the night, raked the sky.

“It is strange. I wonder where he finds these visions.” Lady Katharine sipped her tea again and did not reply.

“I shall tell you of my journey here,” said Nikolai, tearing his eyes away at last. “I have come alone, with only the Snow Fox for company. I know you have not seen her, but she is beautiful beyond compare, a pale quicksilver phantom, shifting through the seas as though she could fly if I would but let her. One day you shall sail her, and when you stand at her prow, the waters will bow before you and summon forth a great wave to carry you to the land of your desire. Her timbers are clothed with silver bark that shines at night with a light of its own to guide me to you; her silken sails are gossamer white, woven through with gold, and shimmer in the sunlight. Her figurehead is a fox, slender and graceful, carved silver and white of ice that does not melt.

“For a week I sailed her day and night, not thinking or caring to search for land, for such is her speed that not even the fastest storm could catch her. When at last I sighted shore once more, I found I was in a desolate place, the reek of fire stifling the air. By day the sky was dark as night, by night as black as death; the obsidian cliffs were rent and seared, and the sea churned its discontent. I tarried there awhile to wonder, ’til bloody flames lit up the sky and thunder tore the land, and a great wind blew down from the shore and cast me back to the ocean. For days I rode that wind, and when it died I found myself in a frozen land, where vast shards of ice reached up like great towers of glass to shake free the shackles of the earth. Gliding high above me, great white birds hooted, their mournful cries echoing through the frosty crags. Here I put to shore, at last a safe harbour for the Snow Fox, and wandered through the snow, staring at these frozen spires, wondering what they dreamed with their heads so pillowed among the clouds, until at last I could resist them no more. For a day and a night I climbed, one hand one foot, the ice wall always in my face, until I thought I could climb no further, but by then the ground was a mile below and I had little choice but to go on. I climbed another day, my limbs burning like fire and my face dead with cold, yet when I reached the summit, Oh what reward! Below me clouds arrayed themselves like island mountains in a milky sea, while above, wispy strands of grey scarred the darkening sky. As I sat and stretched my aching muscles, I watched the setting sun, never so bright, colour the sky with fiery bronze. Entranced, I could not bring myself to move until dark was full upon me.” Nikolai sighed. “Alas, I fell asleep before the dawn, and shall never know what majesty I missed there. When at last I awoke, the phantom islands and their ghostly sea were gone, and in their place a pale desert, flat save for the rippling of its dunes. And in the distance sat an implacable grey anvil of thunder, driving like a chariot towards me, whipping a white flurry at its heels. If it had not been for that, I would have stayed on my airy perch for another day and perhaps watched the dawn, but though the storm was many leagues away, I feared for my life and for my ship if I did not descend.” On the horizon through the wall, a brilliant light flared between the flickering moon and the black tower. One by one, the shadows that moved across the sky fluttered and fell silently into the golden sea. Nikolai stared until the light faded, and poured himself another cup of tea. Lady Katharine’s, he noticed, had been left to go cold.

“I left those spires behind me, and sailed the frozen seas yet a month before once more I entered the realms of men. Ah! I will not tire you with my adventures there, though I did not stay long. Suffice to say the sight of my fellows was a welcome one, as was the warmth of their fires and their hearths. I left replete with good cheer, yet barely were the harbour lights extinguished from my sight when I was beset by the raiders of the Taiytakei. By night I heard them on my track, their distant hooting and jeering taunting me across the still waves, their fleet hard upon my back. Wherever I flew they followed on, and though none may outspeed the fox, yet when the morning sun rose, ever they remained at my heels. By day I watched their crimson clippers, by night I heard the rattle of their sail, and still I could not vanish them from my sight, until at last, sat in squat menace upon the horizon I spied another storm. Straight and true, headlong as a wintry stream I sailed for its bleak heart, until the ocean gave way around me and the skies spun like a drunkards reel.

“He who dies can die no more, but he who lives may face death a thousand times. Tossed and torn by the storm, I felt my senses come and go as the maelstrom boiled and the endless waves heaved and hurled my tiny ship across the sky, her sails rent and cast away. For a week or maybe two the mighty winds raged; I saw one of the hounds that dogged me fail, its mast split asunder, and of the others? I can only guess their fate, for when the sea fell silent and life reassured its lingering hold, there was no sight to be had of them.

“I shook down the torn sails and made on with what remained, looking for a friendly shore where I might beach and make more extensive repair. It was not long before I came upon an island, awash with verdant green, and in its centre the tallest of mountains, capped in white, its jagged summit tearing wispy threads from passing clouds. The sea was calm and clear, the sky brilliant and blue, and when I had finished stitching my sails, I swam naked with the fishes, and ran mile upon mile over the creamy sands of the shore, intoxicated by the heady freedom to roam as I wished. Yet as I wandered through the trees, or sat in serenity and watched the gentle waves, ever did I turn my eyes towards that mountain. Hour on hour I stared its dizzy heights, until I knew I could not leave without a part of it in my heart.

“I climbed through wild forests, strewn with great boulders from high upon its jagged face, passed gushing falls plunging through ravines so deep I could not see their end through mist and spray. I drew higher, the slopes grew sharper, until naught but rocks and ravens remained. When I turned back to look from where I had come, I saw only a green ocean of leaves, rolling gently away to the sea. The climb grew steeper still, yet I could not stop, until at last I reached the mighty summit, the sun blazing warm and bright in a field of deepest blue, so high that even the ravens had long since given up their chase. Can you but imagine the feeling, to skate upon the sky, the clouds coiling at your feet? Such freedom! Such Joy!” Nikolai turned, his face radiant with the memory. “Oh Katharine, one day I shall take you there, and we shall fly together.” She returned his gaze, half sad, half wistful. Then she folded her napkin, stood up and walked to the door.

She turned for a moment, a longing smile on her face, but he was gone. She saw only the cobwebs of a house she would never leave, only dust in the space where he was supposed to be, her lover, lost these last ten years at sea.

“Thank you,” she said.