If you get the chance, please visit April Duncan’s website foxesandpoems — she’s a fabulous poet with a wonderful gift for compelling visceral imagery and immersive magical prose, and a huge inspiration in crafting these fox fables! 🦊
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The Kola Peninsula lay sheathed in ice. Below the jagged cliffs churning black waves smashed asunder, freezing seaspray drenching the terns that wheeled and screamed over the shit-stained rocks. But further inland the roar of the ocean soon faded, feeble sunlight dribbling through leaden clouds onto a silent shrouded world. A frozen sea of thick snowfall drowned the earth, and glittering frost silvered the wilting cloudberries. Skeins of greylag geese unravelled over the frozen tundra, heading southwards for warmer climes as their faint cries faded away. The silence clamped down; now only a faint brittle scraping echoed through the forest, hollow crackles and groans from icy pine limbs.
Teska dug her claws into the frozen earth. Waiting.
A faint ripple through her paws, a whisper-echo through the thick sea of snow. Scuffle, scuffle. Scrape, scrape. Teska gulped the rank stink of wet muddy fur, spiced with the rich sweet scent of meat. The Arctic vixen laid her head on the snow, whiskers twitching at distant tremors. Watching. Waiting.
A dark snuffling shape crept into view. Scuffle, scuffle. Scrape, scrape. It paused, scrubbed its face and trundled closer, whiskers tickling the crumbs of snow.
Teska flexed her claws and sank lower. Hunger pricked her guts like thorns.
Scuffle, scuffle. Scrape, scrape. Closer. Closer.
Teska tensed her hind legs.
Scuffle, scuffle. Scrape, scrape.
The creature froze. Lifted its head. Sniffed the air.
And Teska pounced.
A flash of silky-white fur. A jagged snarl. A piercing shriek.
Teska crunched the life out of the lemming, jaws cracking the small bones, gulping down meat and hot blood and icy slush. Sated, she yawned and stretched before trotting away through the towering pines, her paws barely dimpling the snow.
A distant yelp made her heart pulse with longing. Cubs! She shivered with eagerness to return soon to her cosy den, and the warm nuzzling comfort of Kosha and Chalek as they nose-nuzzled close to suckle.
Teska zig-zagged through the slushy undergrowth to the ridge ahead. A muddy clearing stretched below her, churned up by countless pawprints and gnawed bones scattered everywhere. A gigantic boulder lay at the foot of the hillside, muffled squeaks echoing from behind it. Teska crept closer, sifting through the dozen scents flavouring the air.
A harsh growl shattered the silence. A hulking fox slunk around the boulder, his muzzle wrinkled in a snarl as he prowled towards her. His russet pelt was patched with mange, but his fur still bristled with menace and his green eyes were narrow slits. Teska glimpsed a yawning black tunnel behind his raised hackles, and understood: the skulk had left someone to guard the cubs while the adults hunted for food. She whined and cringed back, grovelling in the frozen mud. ‘Sorry! Please don’t attack!’
The guardian advanced on her, yellow fangs bared. ‘Clear off!’ he snarled, ‘you ain’t welcome here!’ Teska backed away, keeping her eyes averted and ears flattened. The fox glared after her as she turned tail and retreated into the woods.
The nighttime chill gnawed at her face as she padded through the towering pines. Ice rimmed the surface of the lake, and frogs twitched feebly amid their torpid slumber as Teska’s paws squelched through the sodden moss. Her ears twitched as the snowy owl dropped off the lakeside crag with a tremulous wail. It sailed over the ice, spiralled down into the reeds and pinched the vole’s scream into silence, its talons slashing crimson into the whiteness. Teska shook herself and hurried on; she could already taste the musty tang of her den, savour the mewling welcome as her cubs clambered over her with joyful squeaks. ‘I’ll be home soon!’ she barked eagerly, and sprang over the gnarled root.
The noose clenched around her throat and smashed her down into the frozen earth. Snare! She writhed and gasped, paws scrabbling for desperate purchase as the noose tightened. Rasping for air she crawled backward, her scat staining the snow with the acrid stink of terror. She twisted and jerked, but each frenzied effort only bought another savage tug from the noose. Sucking in a desperate breath she wailed with grief. My dear snowdrops, Kosha and Chalek. I’ve failed you. I couldn’t keep you safe.
‘Keep still.’ Bushes shivered, and a tawny fox slunk out of the undergrowth. Teska whined: the cub guardian!
But no! This one was leaner and younger, his auburn pelt unmarred by silver battle scars. Teska shrank back, baring her teeth. ‘Gonna kill me, moss-muncher? Just try it! Come any closer an’ I’ll rip yer ear off!’
The fox sat back on his haunches and rolled his eyes. ‘Don’t think you’re in a position to make threats, missie.’ He padded closer to sniff at her, then began gnawing the rope. Teska twisted and writhed, whimpering as cruel cords cut into her throat. Blunt fangs clenched into her neck-fur and pressed her down into the frozen mud.
‘Stay still,’ he growled sternly through a mouthful of scruff. ‘Can’t help you if you keep squirming around like a damn cub. All right?’ Releasing her, he resumed chewing the rope; finally the noose jolted loose. Teska slumped onto her belly with a groan of relief, gulping ragged lungfuls of air. She shivered as the fox gently pulled the noose over her head and began licking her throat wound clean, his rough warm tongue soothing her aching hurts.
‘Thank you.’ She nuzzled against his flank. ‘My name’s Teska. Yours?’
‘Jaken.’ He circled around to face her and sank onto his belly. ‘I’ll spread word to the clan — we won’t trouble you again.’
Teska snorted. ‘Tell that to your cub-watcher!’
Jaken grinned. ‘Who, Shanik? Just ignore him — he’s all bark and no bite.’
Teska slumped her head into the frozen mud. ‘Sure didn’t look that way,’ she grumbled.
Jaken chuckled. ‘That fleabag’s always over-eager. It’s his first time watching the cubs — he thinks acting tough’s the whole show.’ He raised his muzzle, nose twitching. ‘There’s a lemming swarm under the clitter at Split Pine. Take whatever you need. There’s plenty to spare and our cubs need better meat now they’re weaned.’
Teska bowed her head in thanks. ‘I’ll remember this kindness.’
He brushed noses with her. ‘Run with your head high, snow sister. Safe travels.’ Then he turned and trotted into the trees.
A crescent moon bathed the frozen pines in silver as Teska returned from the hunt. Her throat still ached from that awful twilight struggle, but the three lemmings were a pleasant ache that warmed her belly.
A wild yelp sliced through the night, cut off by a savage snarl. Her ears twitched: beyond the ridge. She padded over the frozen earth as softly as her laboured breathing would permit. Below her was a birch tree badly scratched on one side. Too low for deer antlers, too high for fox claws.
Her neck-fur prickled, for a fox lay dead at the foot of the boulder.
The cub-watcher. Shanik’s throat had been torn to pulp, his belly ripped open and steaming in the frosty air. In the blood-spattered mud she found pawprints: rounder than a wolf, as broad as a caribou hoof, their four-clawed outline blurred by shaggy fur.
Teska’s breath froze: ravenous monsters of fur and fang who devoured all prey they found — foxes, weasels, even mighty caribou with their crowns of fearsome antlers were no match for these bloodthirsty predators. She peered into the darkness. Nothing.
A whine echoed from behind the boulder. Fear prickled her guts. The cubs!
Of course — the wolverine had smelled out the cubs, and Shanik had leapt to their defence. He had waged a desperate battle to protect his charges. And paid with his life.
Teska crept down into a wide earthy hollow. Four pairs of yellow eyes shrank back. A fluffy huddle cringed away from her, whimpering.
She whined to reassure them, wagging her tail and licking their shivering brows. But they were terrified. She was a stranger, and now they had lost their uncle.
She emerged from the den — to glimpse a monstrous shadow feasting on Shanik’s carcass. She bounded after it, bristling with rage. Startled by the snow-white vixen’s ferocity, the wolverine lumbered away up a treetrunk and hissed.
Teska tried barking for the clan, but only managed a feeble croak that ended in a rasping cough. The slaughtered fox lay before her, his sickly-sweet stench choking her throat like pond slime. Perhaps if she dragged him away, let the wolverine feed undisturbed …
No! Too heavy. Too much time. While she was busy with the carcass, the hunter might return for the cubs.
A twig cracked behind her. She whirled around, hackles raised. Nothing. Only icy treetrunks. But wolverines are expert climbers, stalking from up high and leaping upon their prey from above …
There! The wolverine crouched in the fork of a frozen pine, cruel eyes glittering. It bared its fangs and snarled, then dropped from its perch in a spray of snow. The ground shook.
Teska shrank back, wide-eyed. Five times her size, this monster was a towering mass of shaggy fur and rippling muscle. Wicked fangs gleamed as it growled. Began circling. Teska raised her muzzle and shrieked a warning that clawed at her burning throat: Help! Another spasm of coughing racked her body. Her breath rattled like dry leaves crackling.
Then horrid realisation sank icy claws into her heart. The wolverine knew she was injured. It had heard her croaky voice and smelled her rank fur stench. It bided its time and leisurely toyed with her, for she was no threat. Like the cubs, she was merely meat.
Two stubby muzzles emerged from the mouth of the den. She yipped a warning: Uff! Danger!
The muzzles shrank back inside.
A distant howl quivered on the wind, echoing from many throats. Jaken! The clan! Teska’s heart leapt.
The wolverine snarled and prowled closer. Teska snapped at it, backing away into the mouth of the tunnel. She would guard the cubs until the clan returned. Or die trying. One good bite, she thought, planting her paws like the roots of a mighty oak. I should get one good crunch in before it tears my throat out.
The wolverine crept closer, eyes glittering. Teska reared up, jaws bared in a final defiant scream —
A tawny shadow exploded out of the frozen pines; before the wolverine could turn Jaken lunged for its throat, four of his clan brothers snapping and tearing at its flanks. Half-buried under snarling foxes the wolverine roared and clawed, but Jaken’s jaws sank deep, ripped upwards …
. . . and the wolverine’s life came away in his teeth.
The wolverine slumped into the mud with a bubbling death-gurgle. The other panting foxes stared at Teska. She gazed back, swaying with exhaustion as the blood-rage drained from her bones. The leader — a large chestnut-brown fox with a white blaze on his chest — watched her with stern golden eyes. His mate nosed at Shanik’s limp body, and whined in sorrow.
A whimper broke the hushed stillness. The four cubs appeared at the mouth of the tunnel. The chieftain’s hackles lowered, and he bounded forward to greet the cubs, showering them with affectionate licks. His mate joined him, then another and another, adults and cubs romping together in a warm nuzzling scrum. Teska sank into the icy mud, groaning with exhaustion.
A cold wet nose snuffled into her ear. Thick tawny fur curled around her, shielding her weary bones from the night’s chill. Rough-warm-damp brushed over her brow.
‘Took you long enough, slowworm,’ she rasped in relief.
Jaken licked her cheek. ‘Good to see you too, snow sister.’
© 2021 | Tom Burton