Chapter 22 - Four Fox Lengths and No Closer
They climbed the dunes as the tide began to wash in. Tall grass fought to break free of the whitened sand. There was a sand covered mantrack that wound its way through the dunes and in a dip in the land there sat the grey fox.
She was very thin and her fur was bare in places revealing red skin. She scratched a paw at her ear. Notail stayed back. He had had seen the mangy before. His father had always told him to stay four fox lengths from the mangy. No closer. And to never trust them.
“Are you Wanderer?” asked Notail.
The grey fox nodded.
“I’m called that,” she said, her voice soft. “Though not by my mother.”
Her eyes fell on Notail’s tail stub. She smiled at him.
“I think I could make a fair guess at your name,” she said.
Notail bared his teeth. Her smile faded.
“You do not need to know my name,” he said. He looked at her ragged fur. The red of it. The deathliness that clung to her. “The godwit told me you know this land, I only need to know if it was right.”
The grey fox hung her head. For a moment she closed her eyes. She is thinking of what she can get from this, thought Notail, his jaw still set, his teeth still showing.
“I do know this land,” she answered, opening her eyes. They were moist and red. She was so heavy with sickness.
She rose and stretched her body. Her ribs poked at her sore flesh.
“I am looking for the Pale Fox and the Manless Land,” Notail told her.
Bone made to move closer to her but Notail stepped in front of him.
“Stay your distance,” he whispered to Bone.
Wanderer narrowed her eyes.
“Yes,” she said. “Stay your distance, dog, I might be hiding man in my tail.”
She looked from Notail to Bone. Her eyes lingered on Bone and she sighed. She has made a choice, thought Notail, but looking into her eyes he could not say what choice that was.
“I can take you to meet the Pale Fox,” she said. Her voice had changed. Any softness it had held was replaced with venom. She would not meet Notail’s eyes.
She looked back at Bone, who had retreated to where Notail stood.
“Though you’ll have to follow me. At a distance, of course.”
She ran into the dunes. Bone looked expectantly at Notail and Notail nodded. They followed her until the dunes gave way to marshy land. The sea was never far. They could always hear the waves washing against the shore, the gulls crying. They passed a field where they saw a man digging at the snow and pulling a bleating lamb out. Gulls circled above and called words down at them that Notail could not make out. The grey fox did not stop running or say a word.
Eventually they came to a stream and followed it west, always west, until they reached a great wooden manden standing alone far away from any other mandens.
“What is this place?” asked Notail as they rested outside the manden. “Is the Pale Fox here?”
The grey fox looked down.
“This is where you asked me to bring you,” she said. “This is where the Pale Fox will find you.”
The manden was open at one end. Inside, Notail could see it was strewn with brittle strands of ended grass. It was nothing like the mandens of the stoneforest.
Wanderer padded inside but Notail hesitated. He looked about at the fast thawing world. He could see green beneath the constant white. He knew he was close to his journey’s end. He had come west. The Manless Land had to be near. And yet something felt wrong. This place was made by man. All the legends spoke of the Pale Fox dwelling in a land beyond man’s reach. This place stank of man and all that man loved.
Yet he had come west.
“What now?” Bone asked, his tail wagging.
Notail looked at the manden. The scents of man flooded out of it.
“We follow her,” he said and so they followed the grey fox inside.