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By Beth Madden All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Fantasy

The Silver Vixen

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. He had chosen their cover; its view of the dwelling was uninterrupted. Micah’s black eyes were fixed on its crude door.

The shack stood—slumped, rather—at the base of the valley. There was a little glade there dotted with flowers. The patches of heather and clover brought to mind a classic cottage garden, though the clearing appeared natural. There were signs a few trees had been felled for fuel—a cluster of wood and a small axe rested by the wall nearest. Vera was pleased to note those trees chopped down had been replaced. Most were saplings, but several fine, strong young fellows stretched their branches into the air alongside seniors.

There was little evidence of the outside world, only a lead pipe stuffed through the thatched roof to pump out smoke. The shack’s walls were stone to Vera’s thigh, then interwoven twigs given strength by clay, insulation against the wind. The only window was shuttered; they couldn't see inside.

But there was no one inside. Not yet.

Though the shack was primitive, probably constructed by its inhabitant—apparently they were determined, though lacked notable building skill— it blended so well with the undergrowth it was near invisible from all but a few perfect angles. Vera and Micah had traipsed the taiga for three 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.

From above, the taiga was a stretch of embroidered velvet; 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 brooch so large it would topple any silly old countess who pinned it to her breast.

Vera was a present-day countess. She wore no such finery, not now—not even when she was young, some sixty years ago. The only jewellery she wore was a small pendant on a fine chain. It was as precious to Vera as life. She never took it off, the pendant forever nestled to her bony chest.

The fresh scent of pine on cold air seemed auspicious and filled Vera with expectation, stalling surrender to the ache of her stiff old body as late afternoon eased toward twilight. Her information promised the shack’s inhabitant would return by then. It couldn’t spend the night exposed. Even in late summer, it 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 intent as he, his eyes were sharp, her own touched by age. It was Micah who first spotted their quarry.

A silver vixen ambled into the clearing with a scatter of needles and pine cones. Though fleet, her gait was clumsy, as though the vixen was unbearably tired or her limbs slightly crooked. The creature padded toward the shack; the clearing her home and she was unafraid of danger there. Vera’s gnarled grip tightened. The glass capsule of her pendant, around which gold and gems were fashioned, seemed to pulse, the rare syrup within rippling green-black as Vera’s hand trembled.

The last rays of sunlight filtering from heaven vanished.

The vixen gave a shudder, nose right 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, but this was a Moore heirloom. It would take more than pressure to damage Vera’s pendant; what it protected was too precious.

The vixen began to change. Her limbs lengthened and fine silver hair retracted, leaving human skin. Her tail vanished, 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: practical, 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, tied with pretty white 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. 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.

‘Too old, Countess? What do you mean?’ 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 by our other pieces? The shapechanger is our very last creature to collect. I want perfection.’

Micah wasn’t impressed. Their contact, a tanner from the south, had written of a story 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 reluctantly accompanied his eager mistress south; the countess had hunted 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, and discovering the dwelling had sparked terrific excitement. At last seeing the shapechanger, all recent hardships were now worth the great effort he’d spent.

That it had been pointless was not what Micah wanted to hear.

‘We have spent the last month slogging through this damn forest, tailing every silver fox we’ve come across. Now you forsake possibly your very 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 ambled to her door and opened it 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 abandon your life’s work? Why would you forsake your dream?’

‘Do not be so dramatic,’ Vera chided, but Micah scowled. ‘I am hardly giving it up. It is only 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, I don’t think we need to use 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. ‘And she can’t 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 women whether toddler or school girl, maiden, married or crone. Perhaps due to his time in the army, he considered women rather delicate, as well. The few times Vera had been 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 on 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 might just change on different schedules. 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. Micah grimaced. Vera had taught him that. He’d read it many times in the museum. ‘If they could, no doubt enough of the creatures would remain that I wouldn’t be so desperate to find one.’

‘Of course,’ Micah replied.

‘And if the tanner’s story is true, and her schedule renders her vixen in daylight, how could she have carried any offspring? They would not have survived.’

‘You are right, of course,’ Micah relented grudgingly, but gave a short bow where he crouched. ‘I’m 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 within the shack 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 in woods south of his hometown. 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 an easy journey of a few hours 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, carrying her if passage grew too rough.

Smiling as he snored, Vera unlaced Micah’s boots and with two grunts of effort pulled the heavy things from his feet. Throwing a light blanket over him, she looked fondly on her assistant, face 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 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, manor and museum. A nephew to her, she had been devastated when Micah, like so many of Sorrel’s young men, had been 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 a shot in the side and another to his calf, just below the right knee, had ended his military career. He’d been whisked from the front to a hospital in Hickory, a big city just outside the war zone, but it was clear he’d never make a full recovery.

Honourably discharged, back in his hometown Micah had had nothing to do. The active life he’d led and would never regain weighted his mind, and he’d grown listless, moody. All he would do was play lone games with 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 always had great interest in your work,’ she’d insisted as Vera pursed her lips. She’d never had an assistant before. ‘He loved the museum as a boy. Please, Vera,’ she’d appealed. ‘He’ll work hard, I’m sure of it.’

‘I do not doubt that,’ Vera had replied, unsure despite 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 had and witnessing such violence, a few townsfolk said, had turned Micah a little strange. He was abrupt and often honest to the point of rudeness, but Vera didn’t see that. He was usually polite and apologised when he wasn’t. Micah was obedient (if argumentative when they didn’t see eye to eye), diligent in his work and altogether a decent man.

Poor Alice, though. She worried for him. And now he was in his early forties, she lamented that living to love her grandchildren was one dream her son could not or would not make come true.

There is still time, Vera thought as she smothered a cough, stubbed out her cigarette and 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, smiling 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 or children, 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 for 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 were poison to the air. But a journey by carriage could take 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. Always highly strung, 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 for arrows and browsing boxes of bullets. Though he opted for the quiet bow when hunting, Micah’s shot was truer with handgun and rifle; military service had ensured that. 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 a late lunch at the café, sitting outside to enjoy the last summer sunshine they’d get that year, Micah with slices of steak and kidney pie while Vera sipped creamy soup. She had to moisten her garlic toast to chew, teeth a little loose in their soft gums. Afterwards, they waited on the platform until the steam engine puffed and stopped with a great squeal of brakes. Vera coughed heavily, one hand batting drifting soot away, 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 coupled on a line of freight cars. Try as she might, she couldn’t even doze. Vera thought of the shapechanger.

Her shapechanger.

She’d thought the silver vixen was hers. The one she’d searched so hard for, so long. 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 face shone, remembering.

Sitting up in her bunk, she leaned one creased cheek to the cold windowpane. The scenery rushing by flashed in moonlight, but the farms, paddocks and hills took second place as Vera reconstructed the creature in her mind’s eye.

Silver curls that thinned down her back. Big eyes, still bright. Gait unsteady, but quick. Fur sleek, tail hanging like a wilted bulrush. Matriarch of her skulk. How smoothly she’d changed, how elegantly. Human and fox, whichever form she wore. 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 think negatively. There had to be another. Though they’d grown rarer than a drop of rain from cloudless sky, shapechangers wouldn’t vanish 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.

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