Chapter 8 - The Fool of the Fields
Notail saw the horizon. To the east the world was bathed in the waking dawn. That was the world he had known his whole life. Now he saw it anew. The stoneforest was laid out for him. All of it. Man’s world half-bathed in new morning light. It shone. The lights within mandens, the reflection of the sun on shinestone, the crisp whiteness that shrouded all and yet now in the morning seemed as bright and clean as any summer day. The stoneforest stretched from north to south, his stoneforest, yet he recognised no part of it now. It was so far away. It was like he was looking at a place he no longer knew. Had never truly known. It was distant. Light and stone. Somewhere lost within that light and stone was his den. He could not be sure where. He breathed in the icy air and turned away.
In the west was the world he had never known. That world still slumbered, lightless and strange. The land there was without the heavy weight of a stoneforest. Just rolling hills and fields, snow-trapped and everywhere. It was nothing like the stoneforest. The stoneforest was a world of edges and endings. He did not feel afraid of its vastness. Here and there he could see small clusters of mandens, grey, lit only by man’s false light. The world of the west seemed to go on forever. His paws were ready to carry him back, back to the stoneforest, to its familiar and enclosed world. But he did not turn away from the west. He knew he had to go on, to keep his paws moving until all man’s world faded and there was only that land of foxes, that land they long ago left and were fools to forget. Their Manless Land in the west.
He moved over the snowy fields. He saw sheep, dotted here and there, almost merging with the snow until they raised their black heads to stare at him. As Notail approached he saw one stand, a black head looking to him. He wondered if he could hunt the sheep but as he wondered more of the sheep stood and watched him. He moved on away from the sheep and up into the hills into the west. Always west.
“There is more to this world than the mandens of this stoneforest,” his father had once told him.
Notail had never truly believed his father. Their stoneforest seemed unending when he was a cub. Until now. Now, looking out over a land he did not know, he realised it was the world that was unending.
He padded down the hill and, avoiding more of the black headed sheep, he moved on. Occasionally he would stop and listen for a lone animal to hunt, for the heavy footfall of man, for anything. There was only a soft wind and a distant bird call. No roar of mancarrier. No slamming opening. No hard man voice.
And with the absence of man’s sounds came an absence of man’s scents. This land was full of true scents. The damp coats of the sheep. Their dung. The new scent of their young. The concealed grass, the hidden mud. Moss and lichen. The air was peaty and deep with old scents. Bracken heavy. Even the cold air seemed different, cleaner. He breathed it in. It was icy and strange. He breathed it in again. It was good.
At a low stone edge he rested. His paws were not sore. He looked at them. They were hard and calloused from all the years of mantrack padding. They had never known such true ground. He looked at the snow clinging to his paw. Good snow. Clean snow. He was tired and wanted to sleep there, his body pushed close into the stones. Sleep did not come. If I sleep, he thought, I will dream and if I dream I will only dream of them. Instead he closed his eyes and listened to the world, to its silence.
The chatter of fox-voices roused him. He could make out the voice of a vixen and for a moment he thought it was his mate, that she had come to find him. His heart pounded in his chest but as he climbed over the low edge he saw no cubs, just four foxes.
He knew they were foxes of the stoneforest. They looked lost, as small in the strangeness of the open world as he was.
They saw him and came to a stop.
“Hello,” said the vixen.
She was nothing like his mate. She was older, her fur flecked with the white of age. Her left eye was blue and her right was green. She smiled warmly at him though he found he could not bring himself to smile back.
A male padded in front of her. He was stocky and had a roughness to him.
“Are you alone?” asked the male sharply. He looked to Notail’s tail stump, lingering upon it for too long.
“Yes,” answered Notail. He looked to the other two, they were younger. They might well have been the grown cubs of the vixen and male.
“Have you come from the stoneforest?” asked the vixen.
Notail nodded. He looked past them. The vixen followed his gaze back to his home.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “There are no dogs following us.”
There is one following me, he thought to himself. He did not tell them. He looked to the young one, they were already scared enough.
“There are many dogs in the stoneforest now,” said the male. His voice was gruff and deep. “They are hunting. The birds say a cub of man was ended. I am taking my family south to find a new home. They say there are lakes in the south and woodland too. Good hunting.”
The male glanced back too. He’s unsure, thought Notail, unsure what might be following me, what I might bring to them.
“Where are you going?” asked the vixen.
The words came unbidden from Notail’s mouth. They came with certainty. With utter certainty.
“I am going west,” he said. “I am going to find the Pale Fox.”
The younger foxes looked to their father. The male laughed. The vixen said nothing.
“You’re a fool,” said the male and he walked on past Notail. “You’d be better off finding yourself a place to hunt and live instead of sniffing for the scent of a myth.”
“We would be happy for you to join us,” said the vixen, her voice calm beside her mate’s snapping words. Her mate glared at her.
Notail shook his head.
He could not join them. Alone, it was better to be alone. Alone was what he had to be. There was no need for paws to pad along with him, for foxes to be hunted as he was. He looked to the young foxes. Two of them with perfect tails. They had a den once. They would have played together. They would have played with their gruff father. No, he had to find the west for himself. The south was not his path; it was their path, their choice. His choice was west. Always west.
The younger ones followed their father but the vixen stayed. She was looking at him with wonder.
“Are you really trying to find him?” she asked.
The male barked for her to follow but still she did not move.
“Yes,” Notail told her. “I am going west. I mean to find the Manless Land.”
She smiled. He had never seen a fox with such eyes.
“You will,” she said.The male barked again and this time the vixen followed her mate. Notail stayed beside the low stone edge watching the four foxes fade into the distance. They moved slowly south. Notail wondered if the male was right, if there was good hunting and good woodland that way. He doubted it. Man, he said to himself, there is only man’s world that way, it is not the west.