Part 1 – A Tale Of the Black Fox

It was the third afternoon past Midwinter’s Day.   The sun was still silvery, not yet taking on the late stirring spring hue of warm gold.  Long shadows of oak, birch and spruce reached out to crosshatch the drifts of snow.   And it was against this stark landscape that a sleek shape – so black and moving with such alacrity as to be nearly a blur – intently dashed.

Olgrim glared into the distance, squinting and shielding his eyes with his hand.  The figure that ran from behind a stunted pine was too small and fleet to be a dog or a wolf.

“Huh…”  The man pulled his blue wool cap down over the tips of his numb ears and held shut the bronze trimmed edge of his holly-colored cloak.   He momentarily wondered about the vaporous quality of the animal but was then distracted by a slight draft that carried the sweet-sour smell of his quarry.  Olgrim began plucking plump blue-grey juniper blossoms from a nearby branch.

He filled his hide belt pouch with meticulous layers of needle and berry until it sagged with pulpy clusters.  The sun vanished behind a thick, bank of clouds.  The patchwork of light and dark blended into a solid sheen atop the snow that resonated a brighter hue of juniper blue.   Even though Olgrim knew every ice-coated limb and peeling stump that marked the way back to his long house, he carefully retraced the deep trail of his own footprints to avoid wandering too far into the timberland at the onset of this long, devouring twilight.

The forest became dense violet as the evening settled.  He quickened his pace and it was not long before he smelled the sweet woodsy familiarity of his hearth fire.  Smoke languidly billowed from the house’s centered chimney hole and the guttering flicker from a single shuttered window bade Olgrim a warm return.

Olgrim cast open his door and passed into the dim interior.  He leaned down and poked the embers that guttered below a large black iron pot.  In addition to the hanging haze of the fire a flowery perfume filled the mead maker’s home.  He shook lingering snow from his boots and pulled away his cap to let a mop of salt and pepper hair hang loose.  With a deep inhale he hummed in approval, wafting the sweet steam towards his nose.  Olgrim poked the coals with a char-tipped branch until the flames rose and licked the bottom of the pot that was suspended from the house’s crossbeam.  When cloudy bubbles broke the skim of the honey-water’s surface, the juniper berries were dropped into the hazy brew.

“Where is that boy?”

There were only scant slivers of bark and a few small branches in the corner of the longhouse where the firewood was normally set.  He had sent Aldi – his sister’s son – out to retrieve more firewood when he had himself gone out into the snow to forage for Juniper.   Olgrim huffed and took up a woven basket; his exhale became a billow of mist.

“So far an unworthy apprentice,” he muttered as he set back out towards the woods.  In less than forty paces from his door he heard footfalls and loud, boyish talking.  Both voices were familiar; the brewer remained just outside the house, arms crossed upon his chest.

His nephew Aldi – a short, wiry youth with a hooked freckled nose and a ragged shock of sunset colored hair – was walking with Randverr, another village boy of his age.  They were laughing and speaking loud gossip of a puerile kind and barely noticed Olgrim lurking at the wood’s edge with a grimace upon his wooly beard and moustache.

“Well, who decides to return!”

The boys started, froze in silence and then began to laugh.

“Sorry, Uncle,” said Aldi.  “I found Rand here also looking for wood.  We got a little lost.”

Olgrim raised a bushy eyebrow at Aldi and his stumpy, jet haired associate.  “Agh…  Good thing I didn’t freeze to death in there waiting for you lovers.  At least you have some firewood.  Get in here and stoke it back up.  There’s mead to be made.”

The boys laughed and fell into Olgrim’s shadow as he walked back towards the door.  Aldi turned his head to speak to Randverr and slammed solidly into Olgrim’s back.   An armful of wood thumped into the snow.

“What? What!”  The mead maker had frozen in stride.  “Get out of there!  Get!”

Olgrim stood in disbelief, staring at his cauldron.  He was waving his arms frantically.  The boys leaned and stretched: trying to peer over his wide shoulders to see inside.

Hunched over his mead kettle, much larger than he had earlier perceived it in the distance, was the black fox.  The lanky form was perched on two legs and bent over the pot.  It lapped the cup of its padded paw that dipped down into the steaming golden stew.

The fox looked up and met Olgrim’s gaze as the mead-maker pushed forward and reached for the hatchet on his belt.  A deep fear suddenly struck the forester, similar to the shock he had once felt when rounding a tree and finding his face within a breath’s range of a brown bear.  The black fox’s eyes glittered keen and appraising from the triangle of a coal colored face.  Their vulpine shape seemed to shift and for just a fragmentary moment the fox appeared to stare with human pupils.  Before Olgrim could raise his hatchet the prowler became an inky streak through the murk of the longhouse.  It snaked over the open window’s edge and vanished.

Olgrim and the two boys charged across the room and squashed together to peer out the window.  The snowy evergreen wood was desolate and cast in pale gold as the sun eased below the far hills.

“Did you see that?”  Olgrim looked back and forth between the two youths.

Randverr spoke first.  “I saw something!  A rat?  A weasel?”

Aldi added, “No, a cat.  A fox?

“It was a fox!  At the pot!”

“Left your window open, Uncle?”

“No,” snarled Olgrim.  “I didn’t.”   He slammed shut the knotted old wood shutters.  “They were closed when I got home and I left them that way when I went back out!  I saw that creature earlier.  Now it was here, in my house!  Drinking my mead!”

The two boys began laughing.  Though Aldi caught his uncle absently scratching his side, as the elder always did when slightly unmanned by boast or jest.

“Quiet, pips!  It is no joke.  That is the last thing I need.  A beast cursing my mead.”  Olgrim stared at the shuttered window and then looked back at the pot.  “But how did it get in here…”

“Uncle, they steal chicks.   Some say they steal silver and gems.  They are smart enough to smell your brew.”

“Ahhh certainly!”  Randverr had moved to the kettle and was wafting the aromatic steam that rose up as he stirred the must with the long-handled ladle.   “I smelled it from far off even over the smoke. “ He began to lift a cup of the steamy honey up to his lips.

“Hey – take your hands off that, Whelp!  You have done me no good with gathering.  I don’t need you dipping in too.“

“Aw.”  Randverr let the wood spoon slosh back down into the kettle and crossed his arms in a sulk.

“It was just a beast.  Don’t worry about it, Uncle.  I am sure he didn’t drink much.”

“Just watch out for hairs.”  Randverr forced his lips to remain straight, but eventually cracked a smirk.

Aldi let out a rowdy laugh.  “Maybe you should name this mead Black Hair, or Fox Hair?”

“Enough!  Both of you!  Get out there and bring that wood in.  And if you are lucky I’ll roast some bacon before I make you walk home in the dark.”

Still laughing and casting glances to each other the youths began to carry in the bundles of sticks and stout logs that they had collected.  The fire was soon stoked up and lean strips of smoky meat were wound onto skewers and set to sizzle and char over licking flames.

Comments are closed.