The rainstorm had passed barely an hour before, sweeping downriver and fading out over the choppy waves of Lyme Bay. Otterton glowed gold under the hazy street lamps, and silver puddles jewelled the deserted streets. Along the riverbank moonlight glittered on the wet shrubs, and an owl’s mournful cry echoed over the shivering reeds.
Vennik ignored it. The young fox hunkered down at the mouth of his den, for a vixen had screeched among the trees and set his hackles quivering. Lust corkscrewed through his belly and sank its claws deep. Then the shrill scream rose from the shadows again and he barked in reply.
Bushes rustled as she emerged, trotting under the kissing gate along the towpath and sniffing the air. Vennik’s heart sang; her coat was the lustrous reddish-brown of autumn beech leaves, her eyes two green leaves under the moonlight. The recent shower had lent her fur a pale sheen of silver, and her musky aroma soaked his senses. She was beautiful.
He uncurled and crept out from his refuge beneath gnarled oak roots. The vixen gazed evenly back. ‘And who’re you, young gent?’
Vennik swaggered before the vixen. ‘I’m your best suitor, milady.’ He twitched his brush. ‘You’ve a beautiful voice.’
Green eyes twinkled. ‘You’re that tod who hangs around the sports house downriver, aren’t you?’
Vennik preened his chest. ‘I am. You’re a smart girl, sweetheart. What gave me away?’
‘Those black tufts on your ears,’ she grinned, flashing teeth as white as hazelnut kernels. ‘That white star on your chest. And,’ she wrinkled her nose, ‘the stink from their rubbish bins. Real memorable.’ She padded into the shadow of the red sandstone cliffside and curled up.
Vennik blinked, his confidence wavering as he approached her. Don’t let her knock your game. Turn up the charm! ‘I’ll give you anything you desire.’ He flashed his most alluring smile, the kind that always made the local vixens giggle and flutter their eyelashes. ‘You name it, I’ll provide it.’
The vixen smiled and shook her head. ‘No need – I mean, thanks and everything – but it’s fine. I’m good.’
Down the towpath both foxes courted under the weeping willow. The vixen smirked as Vennik circled her. ‘Sweetheart.’ He stretched leisurely before her. ‘Honeydew. I’m the best suitor you’ll have. Anything you want. You ever dreamed of a mountain of scraps? There’s overflowing skips up by the three-topped oak. I can show you more food than you’ve ever seen!’ He sauntered back and forth, fully confident now. ‘You want to be safe and cosy? Come visit my den! It’s always warm and dry there. Fancy running under the stars with nobody to catch you? Come run with me! We’ll go anywhere you want!’ He sprang up onto a tree root. ‘All the humans are cooped up inside like chickens now. We’re kings of the roost here!’
The vixen just smiled. ‘Or queens.’
Vennik winced. ‘Or queens, yeah. Sorry.’ He cocked his head expectantly. ‘Well? How about it?’
She laughed. ‘Nah. Thanks again, but I’m fine. This here’s my liddle patch. Nowhere else I’d rather be.’
‘Oh.’ Think, you idiot, improvise! Vennik hopped down and pawed the earth. ‘Perhaps a mate to warm your lonely nights, then? You name it. Whatever you want.’
She shrugged. ‘Like I said, thanks. But I’m fine.’
Vennik frowned. ‘I don’t understand. All the other foxes I’ve met over the seasons, they’re all missing something. A fancy den. Plenty of food. A gorgeous vixen to share their bed – not that you’d want that, of course …’
She smiled. ‘I might. You shouldn’t just assume what others want. Oh, and don’t call me honeydew, or sweetheart, or any more silly lovey-dovey things. My name’s Fernsmoke.’
‘Oh.’ Vennik hung his head shamefaced, ears drooped. ‘You wanted a beautiful vixen, then? I’m so awfully sorry. I didn’t realise.’ He turned to leave.
‘Stop,’ she said. ‘Just … just wait. Please.’
He looked up as Fernsmoke trotted to his side, her green eyes gentle. ‘You always feel the need to impress the ladies, huh?’
‘I …’ he hung his head. What in seven seasons is wrong with you, idiot? Where’s that charming confident fox the vixens all swoon over? ‘… I don’t know.’
Fernsmoke turned her head, nose twitching. ‘Hey, you hungry? Must be famished after all that sweet-talk. Fancy hunting some water rats?’
‘Uh …’ Actually, now she mentioned it, he was rather hungry. ‘Do you, er … know where they hide?’
‘Sure!’ She darted away with a flick of her brush. ‘Race you there!’
They scampered down the muddy towpath, Fernsmoke bounding ahead as she weaved through tree roots like a tongue of fire. Both foxes padded across the unmown meadow beside the slumbering street, moonlight silvering the wet grass as they passed. Soon they emerged onto the gravel footpath, a pale coil of stream stretched below them. A muddy streambank choked with broken reeds. Anxious squeaks echoed from the darkness.
Fernsmoke peered into the gloom. ‘C’mon, then!’
Vennik hesitated. ‘I don’t know …’
She turned to grin back at him. ‘Aww, you scared of the dark?’
‘No, I …’ Paws thrashing helplessly. Endless icy water. Choking. Sinking. Drowning. Not going near that – can’t make me –
‘Hey.’ Fernsmoke trotted back alongside him, nuzzling beneath his chin. ‘We don’t have to. Not if you don’t want. It’s okay.’
Focus, you idiot. It’s just a little bit of water. It ends. Eventually.
He stared at his paws, forcing the words out through gritted teeth. ‘I want to. I mean …’ Why is this so hard?
He looked up.
‘Help me. Please.’
They pressed on, squelching through the muck. The hiss of swaying reeds echoed all around them, a dull ceaseless rattle that prickled Vennik’s hackles. A frog croaked somewhere up ahead.
Cold – dark – wet – trapped –
‘I’m right here,’ Fernsmoke assured him. ‘I ain’t going nowhere.’
Ahead of them came the crackling whisper of many paws, the shrill squeaks of timid rodents. Dozens of yellow eyes leered from the shadows. Vennik’s narrowed his eyes and began to prowl. Big greasy rats sat up on their haunches then scattered. More and more scuttled away, squeaking with fright. Flushed full of bravado Vennik chased after them, snapping and driving his prey before him. This’ll show her! I’m the bravest fox there is!
‘Vennik, wait!’ Fernsmoke called after him. ‘It’s too risky! Stay together!’
‘Rubbish!’ he scoffed, bristling with triumph. ‘C’mon! Easy pickings here. Let’s have some fun!’
Suddenly a rat bumped into his foreleg, scrabbling past him. Another. Then another. All running towards him. Their eyes white with terror as they fled heedlessly past him. Icy dread crawled up his spine.
It’s not me they’re running from …
A low guttural snarl ahead. A brown stubby-eared head rose out of the reeds ahead, a limp rat hanging from its jaws. It dropped its prize and bared bloody fangs.
It hunkered low and hissed back at him, back arched, a scabby dark-furred brute with a scarred nose. Vennik stared, unease prickling his guts. This wasn’t right. Most vermin he faced fled from him immediately, screaming as they desperately sought to escape in vain. Always far smaller than him, and dumber, and frozen with blind terror anyway. He shook himself and launched forwards, jaws agape …
… and crunched only empty air.
Vennik blinked. His prey wasn’t there. He turned. The weasel had darted close beneath his paws. It nipped Vennik under the chin and vanished. He spun around. The weasel still wasn’t there. Vennik shook his head, lips peeled back in a snarl. Needle-sharp teeth sank into his brush. He twisted in confusion. He’d spent his life crunching prey that tried fleeing. But this prey stayed really close, far too close for him to get a good killing bite in. It didn’t run off like normal prey. This wasn’t fair! Pain lanced through his forepaw. He yelped and whirled around, snapping only darkness.
The weasel bared its fangs and chakkered with rage.
More weasels poured in – three, four, five, six! – clawing up Vennik’s legs and hanging off his back. He shook them off and tried to bite but they swarmed over him again, sharp-toothed, sinuous and bloodthirsty. Vennik trampled on weasels; he was pricked all over by sharp wicked fangs; he crunched one through the spine but still it clung on hissing angrily. He pushed through them down the streambank but the gang rippled after him, squealing with bloodlust. He was surrounded, tangled in wriggling sinewy bodies that scratched and bit and clawed; he sucked in a desperate lungful of air as the writhing flood overwhelmed him.
‘Help!’ he yelped.
And Fernsmoke’s screech shattered the darkness.
Something leapt over Vennik and suddenly the streambank was alive with weasels, nothing more than terrified squeaking weasels desperately fleeing a furious, snarling, spitting vixen. Fernsmoke clawed and ripped and snapped; weasels were bowled over as the russet shadow streaked after the scar-nosed leader. It screamed as Fernsmoke leapt upon it. Pain crashed through a blur of water, darkness and slime. Claws pinned it in the mud; again it squealed but Fernsmoke’s fangs crunched shut, and its squeal was instantly silenced.
Vennik untwisted with a snarl. He was free. His ears flattened. His eyes flashed blue fire.
He couldn’t think. He didn’t think. No more talk, no more flattery. Just feral savage instinct moved him now, right down deep in his roaring blood. He bared his teeth, for he was a fox and here were twitching squeaking things all around and so he did what he was born to do, what foxes always do best: he pounced …
In a few furious minutes it was all over. The reeds echoed with the weasels’ distant wails. Fernsmoke padded close to nose-nuzzle. ‘You okay?’
Vennik tottered forwards, wincing from a dozen wounds. ‘Agh. I’ve had worse.’ He licked her cheek. ‘Thanks for rescuing me.’ He sank to the floor, groaning with relief as Fernsmoke began licking his wounds clean. ‘Reckon that’s enough showing off, eh?’
She sniggered and nibbled his ear. ‘All right, crazy cub. Now I’m impressed.’ She nudged a rat’s limp corpse towards him. ‘Dig in!’
Hunger sated, they trotted back down the moonlit towpath, squelching through the mud as the marshes hissed alongside them. Distant gulls wailed over the river, and above them lay a velvet sky jewelled with stars. Fernsmoke padded through the trees across the tarmac road deeper into Pynes Wood, flitting through the shadows as she quickened her pace. ‘C’mon. Got something to show you!’ Her white-tagged brush swished through the gloom ahead as Vennik followed. A family of frightened coots huddled in their nests, and among the reeds below White Bridge Shragg the heron tucked his beak beneath a grey wing and slept, dining on dream eels.
Fernsmoke halted before a gnarled oak, blushing back at Vennik. ‘Well … this is me.’
Gazing about him, Vennik marvelled at the vixen’s simple life. Her cosy den safe beneath the tangled roots. The rabbit runs across the ploughed field, all within easy distance. The delicious scent of prey made his mouth water.
‘Your life’s good,’ he admitted, ‘but you’ve nobody to share it with. Don’t you ever get lonely?’
Fernsmoke shrugged. ‘No. Why would I?’
Vennik frowned at his paws. ‘This ain’t right,’ he muttered. ‘Animals always want things. Everyone’s hungry for something more. A mate. Food. A warm shelter for cold winter nights.’
‘Not me. I’ve already got everything I need, right here.’
‘Then what do I do?’
Fernsmoke thought for a moment, then brightened. ‘Can you clear away those leaves outside? They’re a real nuisance whenever it gets windy.’
Vennik gawped at her. ‘Am I just your den cleaner, then?’
‘Nope. Just something useful you could do while I fetch us dinner.’ She turned and vanished into the bushes.
Biting back his grumblings, Vennik swept the damp leaves behind the oak with his brush. Eventually Fernsmoke reappeared, dragging a sodden plastic bag in her jaws. Dumping it before her den entrance, she slumped to the ground with a huff.
Vennik nuzzled her ear. ‘Tired, milady?’
Fernsmoke licked his cheek. ‘Nah, just sore. Fancy giving an old fleabag a rub-down?’
He smiled and crouched over her, kneading her shoulders with his paws as she sighed contentedly. Then she opened her eyes and gazed up at him.
‘Sorry I never asked … what about you? What do you want?’
Vennik curled his brush tenderly around her, and she snuggled her head against his chest with a purr of relief.
‘It’s okay,’ he murmured, ‘I’m good.’
© 2021 | Tom Burton