The silence in the shallow valley but for the breath of wind through pines was total. Weary and weighted by age, Vera did nothing to disturb that quiet, even as coughs clawed to escape her withered lungs. She hid in a tangle of scrub just beyond a little shack. Micah squatted beside her. Their view of the dwelling uninterrupted, Micah’s black eyes were fixed on its crude door.
The shack stood—slumped, rather—at the base of a little valley. There was a glade there dotted with flowers; the patches of heather and clover brought to mind a classic cottage garden, though otherwise the clearing appeared natural. There was evidence that trees had been felled for fuel: a cluster of wood and a small axe rested by the shack wall. Vera was pleased to note, however, that those trees chopped down had been replaced. Most were still saplings, but several fine young firs stretched their branches into the air alongside their senior perennials.
There was little sign of the outside world here, only a lead pipe stuffed through the thatched roof to funnel out smoke. The shack’s walls were stone at their base, the remainder of interwoven twigs and branches given strength by clay, fair insulation against the wind. There was only one window. It was shuttered; they couldn’t see inside.
But there was no one inside. Not yet.
The shack was primitive, probably constructed by its inhabitant—apparently they were determined, though lacked any notable building skill. But Vera gave admiration where it was due: the dwelling blended so well with the undergrowth it was invisible from all but a few perfect angles. Vera and Micah had traipsed the taiga for weeks before they happened upon it, about to sit down for lunch. Vera’s grasp of the forest’s spoils and the rabbits and scrub fowls Micah shot kept them well fed through their search.
From a glider pilot’s skybound eye, the taiga was a stretch of velvet, embroidered in green, grey, black and glimmering night blue. Such fabric spun the gowns of countesses of old, donned to welcome the most esteemed of guests and dazzle at the most important parties. Streams and rivers twined flashing silver chains, and sparkles of white—evening frost on twigs and stone—were tiny precious gems. The great lake was the crowning piece: a glistening sapphire so large it would topple any silly old countess who pinned it to her breast.
Vera was a countess of the new age. She wore no such finery. No circlets, not one jeweled ring. In fact, the only jewellery she wore at all was a small pendant on a fine chain. This was as precious to Vera as life. She never took it off; the pendant forever nestled against her bony chest.
The fresh scent of pine on the cold air seemed auspicious, and filled Vera with expectation. As late afternoon eased toward twilight, this rising hope stalled any surrender to the ache of her stiff old body. The old woman’s information promised the shack’s inhabitant would return by dark. It couldn’t spend the night exposed. Even in late summer, the air grew bitterly cold in the dark so far south.
Light waned. Vera reached beneath her collar and gripped her pendant. Beside her, Micah was a statue. Though Vera was no less intent, her eyes were touched by age, and Micah’s gaze was razor sharp. It was he who first spotted their quarry.
With a scatter of needles and pine cones, a silver vixen ambled into the clearing. Still fleet, her gait was clumsy, as though she was unbearably tired, or her limbs were slightly crooked. The creature padded toward the shack; the clearing was her home, and she was unafraid of danger there. Vera’s gnarled grip on her pendant tightened. The glass capsule within seemed to pulse, the rare syrup inside rippling as Vera’s hand trembled.
The last rays of sunlight filtering from heaven vanished. The vixen gave a shudder, pointed nose to the tip of her limp tail aquiver.
Vera almost groaned, and clutched her pendant all the more tightly. Any other capsule might have shattered under the pressure, but this was a Moore heirloom. What it protected was too precious; it would take more than an old woman’s excitement to damage.
The vixen began to change. Her limbs lengthened. Fine silver hair retracted, leaving human skin behind. Her tail withdrew, body lengthening and bending upright so she stood on her hind legs. Soon nothing remained of the vixen. A naked woman stood in her place.
She was bent and crooked, thin silver curls sweeping to her wrinkled waist. She was old. Older even than Vera. Micah uttered a soft sound of satisfaction, no more than a sigh of wind. But Vera’s heart dipped, crestfallen.
The very old shapechanger stepped into a pair of worn boots and took a faded bluebell dress from a nail stuck in her door. It was a young woman’s dress, smart attire for ducking out to the market, taking tea with friends or visiting relatives. At least, it would have been fifty years ago. Vera had owned several like it, buttoned down the bodice on an eye-pleasing curve and tied with pretty sashes.
‘Countess, what’s wrong?’ Micah asked, barely moving his lips as the shapechanger wriggled into her dress. It was very loose—she was as string held up by some miracle. ‘She’s just what we need. I’ll set the traps once she sleeps, and we’ll have her at first light.’
‘She is too old,’ Vera sighed, deflated. Despite deep regret, she couldn’t tear her eyes from the magnificent creature. The aged shapechanger took a stout cane, muttering about disobedient kits and quarrels over mates. Her voice was the scratch of sand on stone, the rustle of dried leaves. It was a voice of the earth and forest. Leaning heavily on her cane, she tottered about patches of vegetables at the edge of her clearing, gardens disordered so they appeared wild. The shapechanger filled a small sack with a few potatoes, onions, carrots and a sprig of thyme.
‘What do you mean, too old?’ Micah asked, eyes narrowing.
‘She is too old,’ Vera repeated, initial devastation fizzling to sad resignation. She was used to disappointment, but the loss of her precious shapechanger hit hard. ‘She is beautiful, but how would she look alongside our other pieces? The shapechanger will be our very last creature. I want perfection.’
Micah wasn’t impressed. Their contact, a tanner from the far south, had written of a folktale cum rumour widespread in his town, that silver foxes became human with the setting sun and threw great parties filled with food, wine, and dance. Scornful of the tanner’s reliability, Micah had only reluctantly accompanied his eager mistress; the countess had pursued shapechangers for over half a century and lived for such tip-offs. His fervour on the hunt had kindled when they found faint boot prints where no sensible villager would roam. Discovering the dwelling had sparked terrific excitement. At last seeing the shapechanger, all recent hardships were now worth the great effort Micah had spent.
That it had been pointless was not what he wanted to hear.
‘We’ve spent the last month slogging through this damn cursed forest. Now you forsake possibly your last opportunity to complete the Moores’ collection for mere cosmetic concerns?’
‘It is not only that,’ Vera insisted, eyes locked to the shapechanger as she opened her door with a creak. As though a signal to charge, a quintet of kits bounded from a nearby bush and skittered through her legs, barrelling into the shack. She sighed, but chuckled with two vixens and a fox that followed more sedately. They gazed up at her, noses twitching.
‘Yes, you can come in. At least you’ve got manners to ask. Those kits…’
She shook her head as though nothing could be done with them.
‘Let’s get in, then. Hope the kits’ bellies’re full, else they’ll be disappointed. Getting my fill of roots tonight—bowels’ve been letting me know I’m not getting enough.’
She chuckled again. The foxes seemed to join in.
‘Might have a bit of old fowl lying around. They can fight over it, if they’re diresome hungry.’
Impatient as his mistress listened, entranced by the one-sided conversation, Micah reclaimed Vera’s attention.
‘Tell me then, Countess Veradine: why would you forsake your life’s work?’
‘Do not be so dramatic,’ Vera chided as Micah scowled. ‘I am hardly giving it up. But she cannot be collected. She just cannot. She is…’
‘Too old,’ Micah grumbled.
‘We need something younger: a young, firm shapechanger that will heal well. Our traps might kill a creature as old as her.’
‘If that’s the problem, we may not need traps,’ Micah said, again eyeing the door, lids so narrowed he might squint through solid wood at his target. ‘We can ambush her inside. I can overcome a small skulk easily,’ he declared, hand at the revolver on his hip. ‘I can’t imagine she’ll put up much of a fight, old as she is. I would be gentle, Countess.’
‘I know you would handle her with utmost care,’ Vera said. Micah behaved gentlemanly towards all women. Perhaps it was due to his time in the army, but he considered women rather delicate, as well. The few times Vera grew annoyed with Micah was when he hinted that, as a woman, Vera was in any way incapable. ‘But such an old body may not take well to the mounting process.’
‘What of the kits?’ Micah wondered, unwilling to give up their prize. ‘Or the younger vixens and fox? They are the perfect age.’
‘But they are not shapechangers,’ Vera said sadly.
‘If she’s lived her life with the foxes, no doubt she’s bred. They could be hers. They may simply change on a different schedule. This is such a rare opportunity, Countess,’ Micah pressed. ‘We must be sure.’
‘I am sure. Shapechangers do not pass on their abilities,’ Vera reminded. ‘If they could, no doubt enough of the creatures would remain that I would not be so desperate to find one.’
‘Of course,’ Micah replied with the barest grimace. He didn’t often overlook a fact so simple.
‘And if the tanner’s story is true, and her schedule renders her vixen in all daylight, how could she have carried any offspring? They would not have survived her changing.’
‘You are right, of course,’ Micah relented grudgingly, but gave a short bow from where he crouched. ‘Sorry to complain, Countess. Disappointment is a brute of a thing.’
‘That it is,’ she smiled sadly. The two waited until they heard the scamper of kits at play inside the forest home and a crackle as dry kindling was set alight. Then Micah helped his mistress to her feet. Together, starting slow to stretch cramped muscles, they began the long trek from the taiga.
From midnight, Vera slept on a bed of pine needles, wrapped in a blanket from her assistant’s pack. Micah kept watch for danger; bears and wolves were the dominant predators stalking Morgandy’s snow forests. At sunrise, the pair set out again. By mid-afternoon they found the path, and by seven that evening they broke free of the pines. From there it was a few hours’ easy journey to the nearest town.
Micah collapsed into bed once their inn room was paid for. He was a hardy man, tall and lithe. But for years Micah had had rigid limitations on his body. The last month had chipped away at his strength, and he’d just gone two days without a wink of sleep, much of that spent travelling. Not only travelling, but helping Vera to travel, ensuring his mistress didn’t stumble, and carrying her if passage grew too rough.
Smiling gently as he snored, Vera unlaced Micah’s boots and with two grunts of effort pulled the heavy things from his feet. Throwing a blanket over him, she looked fondly on her assistant, his features blank with sleep. Vera dampened a cloth, wiping sweat and dirt from his dark face before opening the window. Leaning on the sill, she lit a cigarette, puffing outside so the smoke wouldn’t disturb Micah.
Micah was the son of her housekeeper, her dearest friend; had Vera any children of her own, they would be around his age. His father dead before he even toddled, the boy had grown up in and around Vera’s home, the manor and museum. A nephew to her, she’d been devastated when Micah, like so many of Sorrel’s young men, was recruited and sent west to war. He’d lasted many years and battles, and was promoted quickly, entering a unit Micah said specialised in stealth missions.
But two bullets, one in the side and another below the right knee, had ended his military career. Micah had been whisked from the frontline to a hospital in Hickory, a major city just beyond the war zone, but it was clear he’d never make a full recovery.
Honourably discharged and back in his hometown, Micah had had nothing to do. The active life he’d led and would never regain weighted his mind. He’d grown listless, moody. All he would do was play solitary games with the battered dice he kept in his pocket. Fearing he’d turn to drink as she’d heard some veterans did, Alice had asked Vera if she might hire him.
‘He loved the museum as a boy,’ she’d said as Vera pursed her lips—she’d never had an assistant before. ‘He’s always had interest in your work. Please, Vera,’ Alice had appealed. ‘He’ll work hard, I’m sure.’
‘I do not doubt that,’ Vera had replied, unsure despite her great affection for Micah. ‘But if he is willing, we can give it a try.’
Now Vera didn’t know how she’d lasted without him.
Being injured as badly as he was and witnessing such violence in war, a few townsfolk said, had turned Micah a little strange. Though he was abrupt and honest to the point of rudeness, Vera didn’t see that. He was usually polite, and apologised when he wasn’t. Micah was diligent in his work, and altogether a decent man.
But poor Alice. She worried for him. And now he progressed through his early forties, she lamented that her living to love her grandchildren was one wish her son could not or would not grant.
There is still time, Vera thought as she smothered a cough. Stubbing out her cigarette, she pulled on a nightgown. Plenty of young things seek older men to look after them. Micah has strong looks and a good heart. And good money. He might afford a small house when he meets the right someone.
If he ever meets someone, Vera had to stress, a rueful smile at that little hiccup as she climbed into bed.
Micah was quite introverted. He didn’t like going into town; he said it was too noisy and too crowded. Vera supposed he’d developed dislike of both at war. He only left the manor to shop for his mistress and visit his mother, who was at the manor most days anyway, cooking, cleaning, and chatting with Vera. Though Micah seemed content, sometimes Vera wished her assistant would visit the Scarlet Harper or another pub in town, just now and then. The sum total of Micah’s human interaction, apart from letters he sent his army comrades, was two old women, shopkeepers and, occasionally, guests at the museum.
There might be a winner among them, Vera supposed sleepily, pulling a fleece blanket close about her. He just has to stay on his toes … or I will stay on mine for him and poor Alice. He says he has no interest in marriage, but as soon as the right person comes along I am sure he will change his mind.
Exhausted, Vera fell heavily asleep, her last clear thought of Micah and the life she and Alice so wanted him to have. One he’d surely want, too, if he just gave the idea a chance.
The next morning, they took a carriage as far as Morel to catch the night train to Yewton, where they would hire a carriage home. Vera didn’t particularly like trains; the fumes their coal-burning engines belched out poisoned the atmosphere. But a journey by carriage could take up to a week, and Alice was alone with the museum. Guests were few and far between in the summer, but there was still the occasional tourist or interested local to welcome. Highly strung all her life, Alice feared making some terrible mistake with the museum in her care; it wasn’t kind to leave her in charge for long.
Vera and Micah passed the afternoon in Morel’s town square, Micah visiting the blacksmith to browse boxes of bullets and replace the few alloy arrows he’d lost; his military-issued compound bow was far quieter on the hunt than his revolver. Vera did a little shopping of her own, searching for a gift to thank Alice. She found a delicate pin in the shape of a blossoming rose she thought would do nicely.
They ate lunch at the only café in town, sitting outside to enjoy the last summer sunshine they’d get that year. Micah ordered slices of steak and kidney pie, while Vera sipped creamy pumpkin soup; she had to moisten her garlic toast before chewing, teeth a little loose in their soft gums. Afterwards, they waited on the platform until the steam engine puffed laboriously alongside and braked with a great squeal. Vera coughed heavily, one hand batting the drifting soot away and the other at her aching lungs.
After supper (salad sandwiches, crumpets slathered with raspberry jam and scrambled eggs), Micah slept most of the journey, not yet caught up on the rest he’d missed. Vera slept for a few hours, rocked by the train like a baby in their cradle. But she woke when they paused to couple on a line of freight cars. Try as she might, after that she couldn’t even doze. Not now she’d thought of the shapechanger.
She’d thought the silver vixen was hers, the one she’d searched so long and hard for. But it wasn’t to be. Dead ends her entire life and the first shapechanger Vera saw was ill-suited to her purposes.
But she was so beautiful. Vera’s creased face shone, remembering.
Sitting up in her bunk, she leaned a cheek to the cool windowpane. The scenery rushing by flashed in the moonlight. But the crops, paddocks, and hills took second place as Vera reconstructed the creature in her mind’s eye.
Silver curls that thinned down her back. Big old eyes, still bright. Gait unsteady, but quick. Fur sleek, tail hanging like a wilted bulrush. The matriarch of her skulk. How smoothly she’d changed, how elegantly. Whichever form she wore, it was perfectly plain: she remained fox and human both. That one sighting was worth all the uncomfortable nights and long, weary days it had taken to glimpse.
But would there be another? The silver vixen had taken so long to find.
Of course there’d be another! Vera couldn’t afford to think negatively. There had to be another. Though they’d grown rarer than a drop of rain from a cloudless sky, shapechangers wouldn’t vanish. Not while spirits existed.
Even if there was only one left. Even if that one hadn’t yet been changed. Vera was patient. She’d waited decades upon decades. She could wait longer.
Countess Veradine Rose Moore would have her shapechanger.