Chapter 2 - A Promise of Plenty
She came to him and nuzzled at him.
He dropped the rabbit for her.
His cubs were playing, tumbling over each other, biting at tails. When they saw him they ran to him and before he could say a word one was on his back and the other was nipping toothlessly at his leg.
“They’re tired,” said his mate, “don’t get them excited.”
Notail crouched low as the cub jumped from his back.
“I feel like hunting,” he said, “maybe I could catch a tasty cub or two.”
The cubs crouched low, mimicking him.
Notail edged closer. The cubs came forward too.
“They might eat you before you eat them,” his mate said.
“I am the greatest hunter in the stoneforest,” he said. “How could two little cubs best me.”
The cubs barked and leapt forward.
“Ouch,” he cried and falling to the ground he rolled over and over, the cubs rolling with him. “They hunted me, they hunted me!”
His mate laughed. The cubs growled and bit at him. They would make good hunters one day, he thought.
He lay on his side and put his paws in the air.
“I give in,” he said. “You win.”
His mate brought chewed bits of rabbit flesh and the cubs ate the mulched pieces. When they were done they laid their heads against his. He could feel their soft tails swishing against his fur. There were foxes, even his brothers, who had told him that because he had been born without a tail he would never find a mate and he would sire no cubs. But he had found a mate, even before all of his brothers, and he had fathered two healthy cubs with perfect tails. He looked to them, his perfect cubs.
In time the cubs fell asleep. Notail ate some rabbit and then he too closed his eyes.
He dreamed of his den before his cubs. Before his mate. It was a bad dream. A dream of emptiness. Of loneliness.
He was woken by his mate nuzzling her nose against his. He had hardly slept. Morning had still not chased night away.
“They’ll be hungry again soon,” she said.
He rose carefully and she took his place beside the cubs.
He looked outside. The stoneforest was waking and snow was falling.
“It is heavy,” he said.
“It’s falling early too,” she said.
He saw the fear in her eyes. He knew what she was thinking. Winter was no time to bring cubs into the world. Hard hunting meant hungry cubs. Not for Notail though. He knew he could find them food even if the world was trapped in winter forever.
“I will find plenty for us all,” he said and nuzzled at her. “I found us a fat rabbit. I will find us a rabbit every night and when there are no more rabbits we will have firechanged chickens.”
“I know you will,” she said and closed her eyes. “But it’s going to be so cold soon, I can feel it.”
“I will find us food,” he said and she smiled.
Notail watched his cubs and mate. They were sleeping. They slept so much now the world was giving in to winter. Beyond them he could see the veil of white draped over the world. A chill air swept into the den. He settled down beside them and closed his eyes. He was a fox. He would never let them go hungry.
But the days passed and the snows fell and the world was cold beyond cold.
It had been five days since the cubs had eaten.
Winter was squeezing the life from the world. A shroud of snow covered the stoneforest. It suffocated any chance of scavenging and chased the rabbits and rats into deep sleep.
He was a fool. Winter was a bad time to hunt and a worse time for a fox to bring cubs into the world.
“If you’re lucky and you find yourself a mate,” his father had told him once so that his brothers laughed, “make sure your cubs come in summer. It’s a good time for cubs, summer. Plenty to eat.”
He should have listened but his mate never had a family. She had been alone for too much of her life. He wanted nothing more than for her to never be alone again.
“We should have two cubs,” she said to him long ago. “Two would be a good number, two little Notails.”
“They will have tails,” he said and she laughed.
“What’s wrong with not having a tail? You don’t have one and look how happy we are,” she said, smiling. She always teased him about the shame he felt for not having a tail. She had even promised once to make him a new one from branches and leaves. She told him she would entwine flowers in it, fresh ones every day.
“They will have tails,” he said again and she laughed.
“As long as they have us they will be the happiest foxes in the world,” she said.
And when the cubs came they were happy. Until now. Until winter followed them into the world. Until winter came and made their stomachs empty.
His mate sobbed the first night he came home without food.
“I can’t lose them,” she said.
He tried to calm her but she would not stop crying as they suckled on her, drinking her last drops of milk.
“You don’t understand what it is to not have a family,” she said.
She was right. He did not. He had always had his father and mother, even his brothers. She was a lone fox and always had been. Fatherless, motherless, without a family. When he first saw her hiding in the wildflowers beside the lake he could not believe a fox could be so thin. And yet she was beautiful.
On that first day she would not come out of the wildflowers but every day after he would come back and so would she. When they supped at the lake together he knew they would never be apart.
He could not fail her, not now. He would not.
He looked to his cubs. They were sleeping. It was the hunger that made them sleep. Hunger like that could make a cub sleep forever.
“If you could just find us something, anything,” she said, “maybe we could sleep until the snow melts. One good hunt is all we need, one real feed. Promise me you’ll find something.”
He remembered another promise he had made to his mate long ago.
“I will always keep you safe,” he had told her. It was a silly promise to make but he was young when he made it
His heart ached at the memory. Every night he had been out and found nothing. Every night he had gone to the place of firechanged chickens and even that was no use. The shadowtracks were empty of thrown-away manfood. The world was frozen.
But tonight he would hunt and he would find them something. He would find his own prey. He would kill and bring that fresh kill to his cubs. They were weak. They needed food. Any food. They needed something to make them strong. And if the truefood was hard to find he would scavenge. He would find food, that was all that mattered.
He nuzzled his mate again but she said nothing. She was as weak as the cubs. Her eyes were closed but she was not sleeping. She was only closing off the world. She was only hoping.
He nuzzled her.
“I promise,” he said.
He padded out of his den into the chill night. He brushed past a snow heavy branch. Icy flakes fell to his fur.