THE FOX'S FAVOR
Ellis lived alone in the forest for a long time. The only communication he had with anyone was on the rare occasion a lost traveler knocked on his door or if he crossed paths with the couple on the other side of the river on washing day. His usual company were birds and foxes, mice and dragonflies--no one who could speak to him in his own words. If it weren't for the couple across the river occasionally chatting with him, he might forget human language completely. It was already beginning to slip away from him.
On one of his usual walks, he met with a stranger in the rain. With pure white fur, a four-legged creature stood underneath the dark clouds and shadows cast by swaying branches. A vixen with golden eyes stared straight at him. She made no noises, but he felt in her gaze she was calling to him. He could not move, afraid to scare her away.
Suddenly, she turned away and ran a little further ahead. She stopped and looked back at him, as if waiting for him to follow. Ellis questioned if the vixen might be another creature in disguise. He hadn't seen a pure white fox before. His curiosity got the better of him and he followed her.
The vixen kept her distance, stopping every so often to check Ellis was still behind her. She brought him down to the entrance of a den. Kits yelped inside out of sight. Ellis looked around, wondering where the dog fox might be. To his left, under a bed of leaves and dirt, he saw something large and white.
He stepped closer to it slowly, checking the vixen's reactions as he approached. She stood still nearby, her eyes focused on him. Upon closer look, the large white lump was made of cloth. Dark brown splotches were scattered across it from all sides. At the edge of the left side, he saw something else in white--long strands of hair.
Without hesitation, he brushed back the leaves. The white cloth was a small cloak, one fit for a child. He pulled the hood back. He met with the face of a young girl with light brown and white hair. Dried blood stained many of the strands and her face. At the sides of her head were a pair of large, dark antlers that curled forward toward the front of her head like a crown.
Ellis dare not touch her further. The young girl stirred, opening her eyes. In a hue of piercing, pale blue, her eyes reminded him of the biting frost of winter. When she noticed him, she scurried away from him to the vixen. Her body now in full view, Ellis took note of her form. Outside of the antlers atop her head, she looked completely ordinary. If he ignored that little detail, he saw nothing more than a human girl who had just begun making the transition into adulthood. Her feet were bare and bloodied, and her body was covered in a short, ragged dress that matched her cloak in color and stains. Scratches and bruises painted her skin. Several possibilities of what may have happened to the girl entered his mind, but he dare not ask.
He managed a few words. "I won't hurt you."
She held onto the vixen. The vixen nudged her forward. Both Ellis and the girl stared at the vixen, then back at each other.
The girl approached Ellis with caution, ready to run. "Who are you?"
"My name is Ellis. I live nearby." He said.
The girl did not move any closer. "You live out here? Why?"
"I've always lived here, since I was a child. I suppose I could leave, but I'm content with being here. Who are you, little one?"
"My name is Esyllt." As she spoke in a tiny voice, the vixen rubbed up against her.
Before Ellis could say anything more, the tod, as pure white as the vixen, appeared behind him and nudged him forward. He did not question the skulk's demands of him and the girl. He sensed something otherworldly about them, but nothing evil. He offered his hand to Esyllt and gave her a warm smile. "I think they want you to come with me. Are you lost?"
Esyllt sunk down and glanced away. "I have nowhere to go."
"You can come to my home for a while. It's a little on the dusty side, but it's better than sleeping outside. Where is your family?" He asked.
The girl turned away from him. He suspected as much when he saw her.
"It's alright. I'll help you find a place for you to go to." He kept his hand extended and his voice calm. He prayed in his heart that the melody of the rain would aid him in soothing the poor girl. "Come with me. You can warm yourself by the fire at my home. You must be cold."
The girl turned away from him further, but the vixen would not let her run away.
He stared at her bruises and rethought his approach. He pulled his hand away. "Ah, you don't have to hold my hand if you don't want to. Follow me."
Esyllt looked back at the vixen for approval. The vixen nudged her again. Esyllt dusted off her legs and walked beside Ellis. Ellis smiled and walked her back to his home. Neither said a word along the way. The tod followed behind them, keeping an eye on Ellis's every move.
He bowed to the tod before leading Esyllt inside. The fox only watched from the distance, not moving a few feet before the door. Ellis showed Esyllt over to the fireplace. She sat down and warmed her hands. Ellis wasn't sure what to do after that. He couldn't care for her himself. He knew nothing about raising children, and he had no one to help him do so. There was the couple across the river, but they were a bit odd like himself and the husband didn't seem to be completely there at times. Her antlers were also an issue. They may see a demon before a child.
"There is a town nearby, but...I don't think they'd take you in. Where would be best to take you?" He asked. The girl didn't say anything. He asked another question in hopes of getting her to talk more. "Are you hungry? I have some dried meat over there."
"I don't eat meat." She said with deep disgust.
He didn't expect such a negative reaction. He quickly looked around for something else to offer her. "Oh, ah...hmm...there are some berries and mushrooms in that bowl on the table. Can you eat those?"
Esyllt ran over to the table and grabbed the bowl. She brought it back to where she was sitting by the fireplace and ate. Her hands grabbed as much as would fit in her tiny palms. Ellis presumed she hadn't eaten much in a while.
"Eat as much as you want." Ellis prepared a meal for himself while she ate. "Tomorrow is the day I usually bathe and wash my clothes. Would you like to come with me? I don't know if I can do anything for your clothes at this point, but if we're lucky, perhaps we can get some of these stains out."
Esyllt put the bowl down for a moment. "I don't know if I want to."
"Ah, well, you could borrow my other shirt or a towel in the meantime and I'll wash your dress while I'm down there." He noticed a sudden shift in her mood. "Is something wrong?"
Esyllt pulled her cloak in around herself. "Are you going to touch me?"
"Excuse me?" He took a deep breath. This was far from the situation he thought he would be in when he woke that morning. Briefly, he was insulted at her insinuation, but he cast that aside. Judging from her appearance, she likely had a very good reason to be worried. "I understand why you might be afraid of me, but I don't have intentions like that. I would never touch a child in that way."
"I'm not a child. I'm a woman now."
"Oh? And what makes you a woman?"
The fireplace lit up how brightly Esyllt's cheeks had turned. "I bleed now."
"You've still got growing to do." He said, slightly amused by her childishness.
"Those men said I was a woman."
Ellis's heart sunk. He prepared himself for where their conversation may go. "What men?"
Esyllt turned away from him.
"Where are your parents? What happened to your mother?" Ellis asked.
The girl went silent and pulled her hood up.
"Is it hard to talk about?" He could tell Esyllt wanted to tell him her story, but she couldn't get herself to say the details. He tried to help her by telling her of his own loss. "My parents are gone now too. Bandits killed them and my sisters. I was out of the house when it happened. When I got back, they were all gone, and most of our food supply, among other things. I had to bury them all myself."
Esyllt pulled her knees in under her cloak. "I couldn't bury Mama. I had to run."
"Who were you running from?" He wanted to get closer to her to comfort her, but he kept his distance. Moving in close now may make her more afraid.
"People from the village. They said I bring bad things to their village. That's why I have to die."
There was one person unaccounted for. Ellis asked, "Where is your father?"
"I don't know my father."
"I see." Given that her mother seemed to be able to live as part of a village, he wagered the mother was human and the father was some other kind of creature who seduced the mother and left her behind. He didn't ask any further questions about him. "Where do you want to go?"
"I don't know." Esyllt turned to him, tears welling. The light of the fire illuminated something he didn't notice before, a large cut across the lower part of her neck.
He pointed to it. "Your neck, that's a pretty deep cut. Would you allow me to clean it?"
Esyllt touched the wound. She pulled her hood back down. "Yes."
Ellis poured some water into a bowl and got a hand towel. He slowly approached her and sat down beside her. She pulled back her hair near the wound. He wet the towel, then washed off the wound. "What happened there? Will you tell me?"
"I dropped my water. Then one of them ripped off my necklace after they knocked me to the ground."
"Water?" He didn't understand the relevance of that detail. It seemed a trivial thing to mention. He checked the wound again to see if he missed any dirt. "This must have hurt. You should wash the rest of your wounds clean. I can leave the house until you're done."
"I'll be fine until tomorrow." Esyllt said.
"So, does that mean you are going with me to the river tomorrow?"
She pulled her hood back up. "I might."
"Alright, but if you choose to stay behind, please wash your wounds here."
"I killed one of them." Esyllt whispered. "The man who tried to get between my legs. He killed Mama. I don't know how I killed him."
Ellis put the bowl down. He looked underneath the hood at Esyllt. She was crying. "What do you mean you don't know how?"
"I can't remember. I saw a bright light. From the tips, here." Esyllt touched the tips of her antlers. "Then he was on the ground dead. I'm sinful now."
"No, you're not. It's not a sin to take a life when protecting life." Ellis reassured her.
"His blood is all over me, and Mama's blood." Esyllt covered her face with her hands and wept.
Ellis thought again of giving her a hug or patting her head to comfort her, but chose again to keep his comfort exclusively in his words. "I'll wash it all tomorrow. If I can't get it out, I'll find you something else to wear, alright?"
He stayed with her until her tears dried up.
When it was time to turn in, he showed her over to a bed. "You can sleep here tonight. This used to be one of my sister's beds. I had to throw out my other sister's and my parent's. They were...too soiled to use anymore."
Esyllt climbed into the bed, but did not go to sleep. She watched him. He understood what she was waiting for. He hurried along and got into his own bed across the room.
The rain went on through the night until shortly after sunrise. At first, Ellis was surprised to see the girl sleeping across the room, then he remembered the events of the previous day. He prepared a bowl of food for her.
Ellis woke her. "Morning. Did you sleep well?"
Esyllt pulled the covers up higher until she saw the bowl of food. She sat up. "Yes."
"Hungry?" He asked.
Esyllt took the bowl and finished it quickly, not saying a single word. She held it up to him to ask for more. He laughed under his breath and got her another bowl of food. He took her hunger and demands as a good sign.
While she ate, Ellis gathered up the blankets and towels to be washed. He ate breakfast on the other side of the room to allow her plenty of space. He absentmindedly looked out the window. At the top of the hill, he saw the pair of white foxes. Ellis moved closer to the window to watch them. The dog fox was carrying something in his mouth.
"Look, they've come to visit us." He said to Esyllt. "Let's go outside and meet them."
Esyllt followed him out the door. The vixen immediately ran over to Esyllt and sniffed her over while the tod kept his distance. Esyllt sat on the ground and hugged the vixen. She stayed in Esyllt's lap for a while, allowing Esyllt to pet her. When Esyllt had become very calm and relaxed, the vixen nuzzled against her face and then returned to her mate. The dog fox dropped the item in his mouth on the ground before the two of them hurried back over the hill.
Ellis went up the hill to retrieve it.
Esyllt ran up behind him. She asked, "What is it?"
"A map." Ellis looked it over. He couldn't read the names of the locations on it, as he didn't know how to read, but the placement of the mountains and streams looked somewhat familiar to him. "Perhaps this will help us in some way? But where are we meant to go?"
"I don't know. I can't read maps." Esyllt took a peek at it.
Ellis folded the map back up and tucked it into his shirt. "How did you meet those foxes?"
"The tod came to me when I was running. He showed me a path away from everyone and the vixen hid me until the forest was quiet again." Esyllt said. "I saw them before. Mama found the vixen caught in a trap once and nursed her back to health. The tod would watch her by the window and come inside the house sometimes to check on her."
"So, they were returning the favor." Ellis thought about the map. The foxes, he was sure now, must be something otherworldly. They knew there was someone she could go to for help. He wondered if the mother revealed the daughter's true nature to someone who would not care about such thing. He asked Esyllt, "Do you know of anyone else who may help? Was there anyone who knew what you were?"
Esyllt searched through her memories. Her eyes lit up when she recalled a particular memory. "Of course! There was a man we met with before. Mama went to him for protection, but it didn't end up working. Mama made some mistakes and we weren't protected anymore."
"Do you know where this man lives?" Ellis asked.
"Yes, but I don't know how to get there."
"Let's go ahead and go to the river. We'll talk more about it there." He led her down a path with a big basket in hand.
Ellis wondered why the skulk gave him a map he couldn't read. Surely, such creatures could find another way to communicate the information to him. At the very least, he could try going to each location marked on the map. Esyllt told him more about where she remembered the man living, but Ellis doubted such a location would be marked on the map.
At the river, Ellis went to washing the blankets. Esyllt helped by washing some hand towels. He glanced over at her occasionally to keep watch on her. Her mood seemed to have greatly improved from the previous day, but she kept a wide distance between them. He let her stay there.
A noise caught his attention. He looked for the source. The couple from the other side of the river was walking towards them. He quickly said to Esyllt, "Cover your head."
Esyllt did as she was told. For the first time, she moved close to him on her own. The couple walked over to the spot they were at. The man and woman were roughly around the same age. The woman was beautiful and spoke with a casual bluntness that reminded him of his oldest sister. She was very visibly pregnant. The man was also quite attractive, though his body was covered in scars from past injuries. He wore an eye patch and had a wooden leg hidden by his pants and shoes. Given how well made and realistic-looking the leg was, he presumed the man had to have once been a nobleman. Why the couple was out here in the middle of nowhere, he didn't know.
The woman greeted them. "Hello, Ellis. Who's this you've brought with you?"
"Ah, she is an orphan. I'm helping her for now." He explained as vaguely as possible.
"What is your name, girl?" The woman asked.
"Esyllt." Esyllt kept her head down.
"It's hot out for a cloak, don't you think?" The woman sat down by the river's edge.
"She gets cold very easily, and she's a bit sensitive to the sun." Ellis said the first lies he could think up.
The man walked across large stones in the river to the other side. He went up to Esyllt and pulled her hood off. "Antlers? What sort of creature are you?"
Ellis grabbed Esyllt and put her hood back on. He carried her several feet away from the man.
"I don't intend to harm her. I was only curious." The man shrugged. He walked back across the river and went straight to washing clothes.
His wife sighed. "Don't mind him. You know he's a bit..."
Ellis let Esyllt go.
She pulled her hood back down. She looked at the woman. "Are you not afraid of me?"
"No, I sense no evil about you." She turned to her husband. "Do you, Ceri?"
"None at all." The man accidentally dropped a shirt in the river. He was focused more on retrieving it than Esyllt's appearance. When he got hold of it again, he returned his attention to the girl. "Haven't seen many creatures like that. You're half-human, definitely. Being half-human may have made you lose some other bits. Do you have a tail?"
"A little one." Esyllt said.
The woman asked, "Can I see it?"
Esyllt looked to Ellis to asked if it was safe or not for her to show them.
"It's alright. I'll wash your dress for you while you wash. I'm a bit curious about this tail too." He said.
Esyllt took off her dress and placed it in the basket with the other dirty laundry. Unclothed, the full extend of the scrapes, cuts, and bruises on her could be seen. She cautiously stepped down into the water to bathe. To show them her tail, she turned around. Her half-human nature was more obvious from her back than her front. She had a little tail like a deer's. Along her back, her skin was a medium shade of brown with white spots. At her sides, the brown faded into a lighter brown that seemed to be darkening the rest of her skin gradually to match her back. The spots themselves were varying degrees of faded as well.
The woman put her hand to her mouth. "How pretty...like a little fawn!"
"But she's got antlers too, like an adult. They don't look like the antlers of a stag...And she's a girl at that. Isn't that usually only in male creatures? How bizarre." Ceri rubbed his chin.
"Esyllt, how long have you had antlers and a tail?" The woman asked.
"I was born with a tail and the spots, but the spots used to be brighter. I didn't have the antlers until last year. They started growing when..." Her cheeks turned red. "When I started to bleed."
Ellis was starting to get a clearer picture of what must have happened. "Is that why they attacked you and your mother then? She could hide your tail and spots, but not the antlers?"
"Well, no one will care up here. It's only us." The woman laughed.
"Hmm...I wonder if her form is a bit off because she's only half whatever she is. I think the spots will likely fade away completely soon." Ceri spoke more than Ellis was used to him saying. His words suggested he was quite familiar with otherwordly things. "Her skin tone seems to be changing too. Or has it always looked like this?"
"No, it was a little lighter before." Esyllt lowered her head to show them her hair. Near the roots, her hair was a deep brown. "My hair's changing too. See, at the top."
"Oh, look, it's turning brown!" The woman gently moved the strands around to get a better look.
"Huh. I didn't notice that before." Ellis said.
"Here, let me help you wash." The woman removed her clothes and got in the river. "You two get to cleaning those clothes."
"Ordering me around. I'm not your husband, Enfys." Ellis sneered. "Ceri, can't you tell her to stop bossing me around?"
Ceri was already distracted by something else. He watched a butterfly fluttering from flower to flower nearby. When it left, he returned to washing clothes. Ellis sighed. He tried not to hold it against the man. The injury that took his eye, he wagered, may have also done some damage to his concentration as well. With all the injuries on Ceri's body, Ellis thought he must have been a warrior once. Ellis wondered if his mental state and loss of physical prowess may have caused his family to abandon him and his wife out here from shame. It was a sad thought, and he hoped it was not true, but he recalled hearing from his father that many were not so kind to those with ailments that could not be cured.
Ellis worked on trying to clean Esyllt's dress. The best he could manage was to dull the stains slightly. He scrubbed harder.
"The stains aren't coming out." Ceri said.
"I can see that." Ellis said in frustration. He kept trying, but nothing more would come out.
"Does she have other dresses?" He asked.
"No." Ellis said.
"Don't think Enfys has anything that'll fit. Wonder if some of your clothes are big enough for her to wear as a dress."
"Maybe so. I have an extra shirt for winter." Ellis put the dress aside and removed his own clothes. He washed them, then got in the water to bathe.
"I've finished washing clothes." Ceri said to his wife.
"No, you haven't. You've still got the ones you're wearing." She replied back while washing Esyllt's hair.
"Oh, right." Ceri took his clothes off. He washed them. Afterwards, he went to get in the water.
"Take it off, Ceri." Enfys said.
"Right...I keep forgetting." Ceri looked somewhat frustrated at himself. He removed the wooden leg.
Ellis moved across the river to him. "Do you need help getting in?"
Ceri dropped his shoulders. He smiled at Ellis, but Ellis could tell Ceri didn't like having to agree. "A little help would be nice."
Ellis helped him into the water. This was common for them on the times they encountered each other at the river. If he didn't, Enfys would help him instead. As Enfys helped Esyllt wash, Ellis assisted Ceri. Ceri still forgot an item. Ellis removed Ceri's eye patch and places it on the banks of the river to help him wash his face off. A long, deep scar cut straight down the center of Ceri's eye, and an inch above and below. The rest of his body was covered in other deep scars. Each one, Ellis thought, must have a story to it, but Ceri never spoke about any of that. Out of respect, Ellis in turn never asked.
After a bath, the four of them lounged in the sun in clean towels they had brought with them while their laundry dried.
"So, what are you planning on doing with Esyllt? Are you taking her in as your ward or a future wife?" Ceri asked Ellis.
"I was thinking of finding her a home. She says there is someone she remembers who helped her before. We're going to try to find him to start with." Ellis said.
"Do you know where this man lives?"
"Not exactly, but I have this map...The problem is I don't know precisely where he lives and, well, I don't know much about map reading..." Ellis showed him the map the foxes left behind.
"Let me see." Ceri opened up the map. "Where did she say he lives?"
"At the border of this realm and the next, to the east in a forest that casts illusions." Ellis said.
"I met a pair of blacksmiths once in that place. I can mark the general area for you. Men generally avoid placing it on maps. What kind of man was this?" Ceri said.
Ellis was curious about that detail. Ceri never mentioned anything about his past. He didn't know Ceri could read maps either. He wanted to ask more, but didn't feel like he could. Ellis kept the conversation strictly on topic. "He wasn't a blacksmith. He was a sorcerer. A handsome sorcerer with golden hair and eyes the color of the earth who could make rain and light."
"Do you know his name?" Ceri asked Esyllt directly.
Esyllt shook her head. "Mama knew, I think, but neither of them ever said his name in front of me."
"Perhaps he's her father? The man's form may be an illusion." Enfys suggested.
The girl's eyes lit up. "Father?"
"We don't know, but he could be. We must find him. At the very least, he's bound to know something." Ellis struck a balance between not letting her get her hopes up too high nor completely taking that hope from her.
Esyllt understood very well what he was doing. She showed no emotion on her face. She turned away from him to talk to Enfys. She asked, "Is it a boy or a girl?"
"I think it's going to be a girl." Enfys put her hand on her stomach.
"Can I touch?" Esyllt asked. Enfys nodded. Esyllt put her hand on Enfys's belly. "When's she coming out?"
"Soon. Should be any time now. We're going to head into a nearby town soon so I can have midwives with me when she's born." Enfys said.
"Is he the father? Or is it someone else?" Esyllt asked.
"Of course I am." Ceri took offense to her comment. Instead of scolding the girl, he took his annoyance out on Ellis instead. "Your child is pretty rude."
"She's not mine." Ellis balked at his words as well.
"If you're looking after her, she's your ward for now, isn't she?"
Ellis didn't give it much thought before. He thought of her more as a guest in his house than anything. If he was keeping watch over her until someone suitable was found, he was indeed acting as her guardian. "I suppose so."
"Then correct your child's behavior." Ceri said.
Ellis wasn't sure what to say. He stumbled through his attempt at reprimanding her. "Esyllt, please don't speak to people like that. It's not nice to make such accusations."
Esyllt ignored him. She was busy braiding Enfys's hair. Esyllt noticed something on Enfys's back. A small mark on her upper back was in what looked like the shape of a fox. She touched it. "You have a pretty mark on your back too. It's a fox."
"Oh, yes. It's a birthmark. Isn't it beautiful?" Enfys smiled at the mark.
"A fox?" Ellis asked. He'd seen Enfys naked many times when they shared the river to bathe, but he never bathed close enough to her to see anything like that.
Ceri abruptly said, "She's really a fox, you know."
"What do you mean?" Ellis asked.
Ceri didn't respond. He was distracted by a pair of butterflies flying around each other.
Ellis cleared his throat. "Ceri, I'm talking to you."
"Leave him be. He doesn't have good concentration anymore." Enfys said. "Come, little one. Let me dress you. The clothes should be dry by now."
Ellis told Enfys to use the long sleeve shirt he brought with him to dress her in. Enfys rolled the sleeves up and tied them with ribbon. She lent Esyllt one of her sashes to wear around her waist to make the shirt appear more like a dress and a little more colorful. Once they were all dressed and the clean laundry packed away, they said their goodbyes.
"Good luck to both of you. I would offer my assistance, but if you're planning on traveling immediately, I cannot. Enfys will be giving birth soon, and I must stay with her." Ceri said.
"With her like that, I wouldn't ask for such a favor. You need to be with your family right now. We'll be alright. Thank you for your consideration, and for helping me with the map. I would have never known where to go on my own." Ellis bowed to him.
"You are my neighbor. It's only right I do what I can to help."
Enfys patted Esyllt on the head. "You'll have a home soon enough. Don't worry."
"Your sash...if I don't come back here, I can't return it." Esyllt started to untie it.
"Never mind that. You can keep it. I have another."
They waved goodbye to the couple and returned to the house. Ellis immediately started packing everything he could think of being useful into a large sack.
He prepared a meal for Esyllt afterwards. "We'll go find this man together. We'll leave in the morning. Get some rest."
"Do you think he'll be able to help us?" Esyllt asked.
"I don't know, but we have to try at least." He made himself some food while they talked. "If you get tired, I can carry you on my back."
In the morning, the foxes greeted them by the door. The vixen let Esyllt pet her for a while before the pair ran up the hill and out of sight. Ellis checked over everything they were carrying one last time. Esyllt covered her antlers with her hood. With a deep breath, Ellis took the first step and headed towards the area Ceri marked on the map.
He ran possibilities in his mind as they journeyed. If this place was at the border of the two realms, anything could be waiting for them there. It stood to reason the person they were going to meet may not be human. Or worse, they may not be able to find him at all and end up wandering aimlessly in a dangerous place. Something could snatch Esyllt away while they slept, or even right in front of him. He could be killed. The farther they walked, the more terrified he became.
The first night, he didn't sleep. They were barely far from his home, but his fear got the better of him. Esyllt stayed closer to him than before. She slept only a foot away from him. On the second night, she curled up beside him for safety. During the day, she frequently held his hand. The only weapons Ellis brought with him were a dagger, which he had Esyllt carry, and the axe he used to chop wood with at home. The axe gave him little comfort.
As they traversed the land farther and farther from what he knew well, he marked off their progress on the map and recorded the number of days that passed. After a week of travel, another fear entered his mind. He marked off things he recognized on the map, but he was starting to worry he was going the wrong way. Ellis knew he was being irrational. He shook it off.
The bigger issue was how were they to find the man once they were near the border. He hoped Esyllt would recognize something once they were in the area.
After two weeks, they were running low on food. The journey was taking much longer than he anticipated, and Esyllt tired much faster than he did. He often carried her on his back towards the latter parts of the day, which in turn exhausted him as well. Neither slept well, and they were both growing weary. Ellis didn't know where the girl's mother traveled from or how far she went when she met with this man, but he was impressed with her strength. That, or she had enough resources to get a horse or steal one. He greatly wished he owned one or had asked the couple if they owned any.
Now that he thought about it, he'd never actually seen the house of the couple across the river, nor had he ever invited them to his home.
A strange thought slipped into his mind. 'Have I isolated myself?'
Three weeks in, and they had no food left. They foraged for anything to sustain them.
Esyllt was completely exhausted by then. She rested wearily on a bed of moss and ate the berries she picked. Ellis gave her the food he gathered as well while he checked the map beside her.
"I'm sleepy." She said.
"It's only midday."
"Can we stay here for a while?" Heavy bags were forming under her eyes.
Ellis was nearing his limits too. "I suppose we could rest today. It looks like we're in the place Ceri marked."
Esyllt fell asleep quickly. Tired himself, Ellis lay back on the moss. Before he realized it, he too fell asleep.
In his dream, he was young again, a small child. He walked through the woods to the river where he sat down to fish. He thought he heard something strange coming from the woods behind him. His heart rate momentarily rose, as if knowing something his eyes could not see. He returned his thoughts to the fish in the river.
The place he chose to fish at wasn't ideal, but he went there because he didn't want to walk farther. His childish laziness prevented him from catching anything, but he didn't care. He only went out to fish to avoid chores in the first place.
Another sound caught his attention. He couldn't tell if it was the call of an animal or the scream of a human. After the next one, he had his answer. He dropped his fishing pole in the river and hide in a thicket. The screaming went on for a while, then talking and the sound of horses passing through. When the forest was quiet again, he waited a little while longer and then walked towards home.
Night had fallen in the time he spent hiding. He didn't bring a lantern with him, as he thought he would have been home long before now. The way home seemed longer than before. He rarely traveled at night. Everything looked strange and unfamiliar.
Gradually, his eyes somewhat adjusted to the darkness. He could make out the shape of his home, but nothing else. He ran towards the door in a fit of terror, hoping that when he crossed through the doorway, he would be safe. His bare feet slipped in something wet just outside the door. He caught himself and went inside.
Something was wrong. The sun hadn't set that long ago. His family would still be awake, but no lantern or candles were lit. He stumbled around in the dark, feeling for the lantern his father kept near the front of the house. While he searched, he tripped over something heavy and cold. He landed on something else big and cold. His hands felt over the large mass. Woven threads and something sticky. His heart pounded again, then calmed back down as he stood up.
Finally, he found the lantern. He turned around to illuminate the room.
Red against wood, red against white, red against black. All he saw was a world of red.
The lantern slipped from his hand and cast him back into darkness.
His eyes opened wide. Staring down at him was a monstrous creature grinning and pressing down hard against his chest. The demon ran a clammy, long finger down Ellis's face. Its long nail cut into his skin.
The creature said with a raspy whisper, "Sleep. Go back to sleep."
From his side, a bright light glowed. The light burst forward into the demon, knocking it off of Ellis.
Esyllt's antlers were glowing. She held the dagger tightly in her hand. The monster leaped at Esyllt and grabbed hold of her antlers. Esyllt tried to stab the demon, but she kept missing. The demon pushed her head back so that the light shooting from her antlers couldn't aim at it.
Ellis charged the monster with his axe. As he swung down at it, the creature jumped out of the way. In full motion with the blade in hand, he desperately tried to fling himself backwards to not hit Esyllt instead. He landed hard against the ground and the axe slipped from him upon impact. Esyllt rushed over to him.
The demon ran at the two of them before it was suddenly struck with a flaming arrow from above them. A second arrow flew threw the air and hit the monster in the head, then another in the heart. It fell down dead.
The two stared at it in shock. Coming to his senses, Ellis looked for the source of the arrows. He looked up at the clifftop near them.
High above them, a man dressed in red stood with a bow in hand. His black hair was long, twisted in a complex set of braids that were wrapped around into a ponytail. Magpie and raven feathers and stone beads hung from the ends of some of the braids. His long cloak fluttered in the wind.
The man jumped down from the cliff and landed before them. Ellis pulled Esyllt near, as no ordinary man could jump from such a height. Up close, Ellis noted the man had unusually shaped eyes as dark as night and his skin had a different hue than his own. Upon his cloak were embroidered robins. 'Is he some sort of fairy?'
The man in red spoke. "What are you doing in my forest?"
Ellis bowed and put himself between the man and Esyllt. "I am sorry. Please forgive us. We are searching for someone and I think we may be lost."
"Have you stolen this child?" He asked.
"No, she is...my ward." Ellis said.
"Oh, is that so?" The man in red narrowed his eyes. He knelt forward slightly, addressing Esyllt now. "Young one, is that true or has this man kidnapped you?"
She nodded her head. "It is true. The foxes told me to stay with him after my mother died."
The man seemed satisfied with that response. He glanced up at Ellis. "And what brings you here? Who are you searching for?"
Ellis couldn't help but notice how handsome the man was. That only furthered his suspicions that the man was not human. An ordinary human wouldn't be blessed with both great beauty and such great strength. More than that, he suspected the man may have used magic rather than regular fire when he shot those arrows. He got between the man and Esyllt again. "We are looking for a man her mother met with before. We hope he may be able to help us."
"Do you know this man's name?" The man in red asked.
"No, I don't, but she knows what he looks like." Ellis pointed to Esyllt.
Esyllt wasn't frightened or worried in the least. Ellis noticed that if anything, she was a little too pleased to be in the company of the stranger. Her cheeks were burning red and she had a silly look on her face. "He's a sorcerer with hair like sunshine and eyes like earth. He lived near here."
The man chuckled. "I know who you're looking for. You're in luck. I'm headed that way now. I can lead you to him."
"Thank you. We would greatly appreciate it." Ellis took hold of Esyllt's hand to be safe. He wasn't going to let the stranger snatch her from him. His previous act of saving them could have been a means to lure them in as his prey. His mother once told him of beautiful fairies that hid their true, less beautiful forms to lure and seduce the vulnerable, then fed on their bodies or brought them to horrible ends.
Esyllt touched the leather bag the man carried with him. She asked, "What's in the bag?"
"Rabbits," He said.
"You didn't kill them, did you?" Her flushed face went pale.
"I did." The man in red replied.
"That's so cruel!" She cried out at him.
He shrugged. "Girl, I must eat. You can eat something else."
"How much farther is this place?" Ellis asked.
"Not far, actually. You're in luck. A little more walking around and you likely would have found it on your own." The man in red said.
He took them into a deeper part of the woods. Soon, a small cabin with a large garden came into view. Ellis's worries did not dissipate. This could be a part of the trap. He stayed alert and cautious of everything around them.
The man in red led them inside the little house. At a small table, a man in a long blue robe with shoulder length blond hair was writing something down in a book.
"I'm home," said the man in red as he hung the large bag over the chair on the other side of the table.
The man in blue grabbed it and opened it. "That's more than usual. Hungry?"
"We have guests tonight. Or rather, you have guests."
"Guests?" The man in blue finally turned around to see Ellis and Esyllt.
"Excuse me, sir, my name is Ellis and this is Esyllt. We have traveled a long way, and we were hoping you might be able to help us." Ellis introduced them.
"How did you find this place?" The man in blue asked.
"This is going to sound absurd, but...I was given a map by a pair of white foxes." Ellis showed them the map.
The man in blue smiled at them. "Oh, you live on the other side of the mountain. Have they had a new litter yet?"
"That's wonderful. I'll have to go see them soon." He said with a cheery tone.
Ellis looked over the man. His eyes were brown, as Esyllt said and she was not doing anything to suggest this was not the person they were seeking. A blue cloak hung on the back of the chair the man was sitting in. Rowan flowers were embroidered into it. Both the man in red and the man in blue wore symbols on their cloaks. He pondered if those may represent their names or familial connections. He thought to himself, 'Perhaps an affinity? Or some symbol only meaningful to those who are magical?'
Before he could think to ask anything about that, Esyllt interrupted the conversation. "Are you my father?"
The man in red burst into laughter.
"Most certainly not." The man in blue almost sounded offended.
Esyllt's shoulders dropped. She asked, "Then, do you know who my father is?"
The man in blue rose from the chair. "I knew him briefly. I'm afraid, young one, your father has passed on. He was killed by a hunter while he was under the guise of a stag."
"What was my father?" Esyllt asked.
"A shapeshifter of sorts, one who had an affinity for deer. Not a human, if that's what you mean." He tapped her antlers. "I should think you will be able to hide these in time. The magic will come to you. In the mean time, I could saw them off for you."
"W-will that hurt?" Esyllt backed away from him.
"Not sure, but they'll be out of your way for a while at least. By the time your spots are gone, you should be able to do it, but your antlers will be much bigger by then, bigger than you can hide under a cloak. They'll change shape more as they grow until your spots are gone." The man in blue explained.
"How will I know how to do the magic?" She asked.
"It will come to you naturally. It's in your blood. Soon, you'll be able to shift and take the form of a deer at will." He reassured her.
"Why do I have antlers? I'm a girl."
He answered all her questions without fail. "It's a trait unique to your kind. Don't think much of it. I've heard there are deer to the far north where both male and female have antlers. Perhaps, whatever reason they both have them is the same reason your kind both have them."
"I don't mean to interrupt you two, but I must ask. Do you, by any chance, happen to know anyone else connected to her or her mother who could take care of her?" Ellis asked.
The man thought it over. "Mm...I'm afraid I don't. Her mother herself was an orphan and her father is not of a kind that typically keep family connections."
"I see." Ellis feared that was what the man would tell him. A dead end.
"Perhaps, we can arrange something for the girl. Esyllt, why don't you help him in the garden while I speak with your guardian?" The man in blue patted her on the head.
Esyllt went over to the man in red. He led her to the door. He said, "You have very pretty hair. Would you let me braid it for you?"
She nodded and left the house with him.
"You needn't worry." The man in blue said. "He is safe. I trust him with my life. He won't harm her. I merely sent her away so we may talk in private."
"What is he? Your familiar? Is he a fairy or an...incubus under your command? I've never seen a man so handsome before. Does he feed on mortal women?" Ellis kept his voice low, afraid the man in red might overhear him.
"He might be an incubus. He keeps sucking me dry every night. If it happens again, I think I'll die." As he said this, Ellis's body went cold. The sorcerer laughed. "I jest. You looked so frightened when I said that! He's an ordinary human. Well, mostly."
"We left our mortality behind." The man in blue closed the door of the house.
"How?" Ellis asked.
"That is not something you need to know about."
'Who is this man?'
Ellis wondered. His mind was full of questions. "If he is an ordinary man, why does he look so different from you and me?"
"Ah, that. His mother came from a land very far from here. People there look a bit different from people around here." He sat back down at the table. "Please, sit with me."
Ellis took the seat across from him. "I see. Forgive me if I have caused any offense."
"Oh, I doubt he will be offended to hear you thought he was too handsome to be human." The man in blue put away the book he was writing in. "When we walked among humans, he spent his days having to hear others tell him how hideous he was."
"I would think you'd already know exactly why."
"Because he's different looking."
"That's enough to make many afraid. Most don't care to look deeper than that before drawing their swords and casting judgment." The man in blue rested his chin on his hands. "He stole me a while ago, and we've been living out here since. I've quite liked the change of scenery."
"What do you mean he stole you?" Ellis didn't understand.
"What indeed." The mysterious man grinned. "I've told you all I can about the girl. What will you do now?"
"I don't know. What do you think I should do?" He couldn't leave without coming up with a new plan. They traveled for so long and so far. He put them both to their limits to make the trip here. He had to come up with something.
"Do you not want her? I can raise her until I find a more suitable person." The man in blue offered.
"I don't know anything about raising children. I was the youngest in my family."
"There isn't much to it. Most humans make things too complicated. Keep her clothed well, give her a warm place to stay and sleep, always feed her, and never stop answering her questions." The man's response was simple, but Ellis didn't believe it to be the truth.
"I don't know...What if living with me doesn't bring her happiness?" He watched Esyllt through the window.
"If you're even asking that, you're good enough." The sorcerer said. "You protected her all this way and cared for her, did you not? You underestimate yourself."
He couldn't see it. He was someone who was always alone. That's how it was. Sharing his space again with someone new, having a new family--that wasn't a life for him. He couldn't give her that life, he was sure of it. He turned his questions back to her. "She is half-human and half-not. What will her lifespan be?"
"She will retain all her father's magic, but she will have the lifespan of a human. That is usually how it works. She may be a bit more resilient than an ordinary human girl, but she is mortal nonetheless. You must protect her well." The man in blue led the conversation right back around. He never stopped grinning.
"I am not strong. What protection can I offer her?"
"There are things I can give you to help." The man in blue got up from the table. He went over to a small chest and opened it. He took out two small stones and handed them to Ellis. "These are protection charms. They protect the wearer if they are in contact with water in any way. Carry a bit of water on you at all times, and you will be safe. As for your home..."
The sorcerer went over to the stack of wood by the fire. He placed his hands on it and hummed a strange melody. Briefly, the top piece of wood glowed white. He carried the wood back to the table to give to Ellis. "Place this in your home. Do not burn it, ever. It will ward away intruders and disasters alike."
Ellis took all the items and put them in the nearly empty sack he carried. Without Ellis realizing it, the sorcerer had manipulated the flow of the conversation so that Ellis unintentionally agreed he would take care of the girl. "Thank you. I don't know how I can repay you."
"Take good care of the girl. That will be payment enough." The man sat back down. "She needn't know this, but her father abandoned them. Her mother lived a very hard and lonely life. She was so frightened when she came to me. I gave her these same items. I don't know what happened. Something went wrong. You must absolutely do what I said with them. Do you understand?"
"A few more things you might want to know. Given that she is half-human, I can't say which it will be, but she will either shed her antlers yearly once she reaches full maturity or she will shed them once every ten years. I've heard of both happening. They will grow back." He leaned back in his chair, as if trying to recall anything else useful to say. He continued. "If she has a child with a human, that child won't grow antlers, but the child may still have a tail and spots. The spots won't fade like hers. The child will likely have the same aversion to meat as she has. Also, do not feed her meat. It will make her physically ill. Her body cannot consume it properly."
"So, it's not just a preference of hers." Ellis said.
"No. She can't stomach it. You should keep meat in your house, of course. You still need the nourishment. When you search for food for her, never let yourself go hungry either. You are her shield and sword now. You cannot allow yourself to become weak."
"I won't." Ellis didn't notice his change in position.
The sorcerer's grin widened.
Just then, Esyllt came back inside. She twirled around in front of the table to show off her braided hair. "Ellis, look! Isn't it pretty?"
"Your hair looks very beautiful." He said.
"Tonight, you will stay with us. It's not safe to be out at night here. You may leave when you are ready. I know you are both very tired." The man in blue got up from the table again. He walked to the door.
The man in red came back inside. Once he was in, the man in blue locked the door. He touched the lock with his hand. A white light encompassed it.
"We have a spare bed if you want to sleep in separate ones. I don't mind taking the floor." The man in red opened up a closet full of blankets.
"I couldn't possibly impose in such a way..." Ellis shook his head.
"Nonsense. We're all equal here, and you are our guests. You may use the beds. I've slept on dirt and rock before. A wooden floor isn't going to bother me." The man in blue helped the man in red get the blankets down.
Ellis sighed. There was no use arguing with these two. Somehow, he knew they would get their way. The duo were safe enough, as far as he could tell, and he was very, very tired. He agreed to stay and slept in a bed for the first time in weeks.
Ellis and Esyllt rested at the little cabin at the border for two weeks. To his surprise, the sorcerer and his companion owned a large tub for bathing. He heard wealthy people owned such things and would sometimes have them carried from place to place when they traveled. He was jealous. Like this, the water could be heated and he didn't need to worry about getting knocked around by the flow of the river. For the first time in his life, he took a hot bath. Esyllt bathed with him as the two men left the house to get food. The sorcerer put several herbs into the water, giving the water a very pleasant aroma. He felt like a prince. Esyllt was equally pleased with the water. Whenever the sorcerer offered them a bath from then on, they accepted the invitation.
Food was well prepared as well. The sorcerer and his companion in red took turns preparing meals for them. Both were quite skilled at it, far more so than Ellis was. The sorcerer gave him tips on how to prepared meals suitable for Esyllt. His companion gave him advice for self-defense. Esyllt played in the garden most days.
At the start of the third week, Ellis was ready to go. He thanked the two men for their help. The sorcerer kindly repacked the sack Ellis brought with him with food to last the trip home.
"Your names, you never told them to me." Ellis said.
"I don't like people using my name, especially around here. It can be dangerous." The sorcerer helped him get the sack out of the house.
"Then what may I call you?" Ellis asked. He wanted something to call them. He wanted some kind of name to attach to the kind faces he met.
"Hmm...you can call me Rin. An old friend gave me that nickname." The man in blue smiled.
"Wren?" Ellis repeated what he thought he heard.
"No, Rin." He corrected Ellis.
"Rin. I don't think I've heard that name before." Ellis then turned to the man in red. "And what about you? Is your name a secret too?"
The man in red gave him the same answer. "Yes."
"What should I call you?"
He took longer to think up a response. "You may call me Nanakamado. That was the name my mother was originally going to give me."
Ellis tried to say the name in his head, but he got lost halfway. It didn't flow in the same way as words he knew. He presumed the name must mean something in a language he'd never heard before. "I'm...not sure I can pronounce that."
"You didn't even try." The man in red was less than pleased. He got a piece of parchment out. "I'll write it down for you."
"Ah...I can't read. Could you shorten your name a little?" Ellis tried a different approach.
"Nanakamado...did I say it right?" Esyllt tried saying it.
"Look, the child can do it. You're just lazy."
"I'll try my best, next time. Thank you for your help." He gave a slight bow to them both.
"I wish you well on your travels." The sorcerer put his hand on Ellis's shoulder.
"I also have a gift for each of you." His companion brought out two cloaks. He gave the smaller one, a snow white cloak, to Esyllt, and the larger one, a dark brown cloak, to Ellis. "For you, little one. And one for you."
"When did you...?" Ellis was amazed by the quality. He'd never owned anything so nice before.
"We had a friend make them for you while you stayed here." The sorcerer explained.
"Safe travels." The man in red waved them goodbye.
"Thank you, for everything." Ellis waved back and walked away with Esyllt into the woods.
The journey back was less strenuous than the way they came. The sorcerer gave him advice on places to avoid and paths to take that would make their trip less time consuming. He couldn't tell from the map itself, but Ellis had taken the longest way to get there despite it appearing that they were traveling in a straight path.
On the way back, Esyllt asked for her hair to be fixed up every morning to keep it looking mostly like how the sorcerer's companion fixed it for her. Food was no issue, and they ran into no more dangerous creatures.
Finally, they saw the old house again.
Ellis opened the door. "We're home. I'm sorry. We've traveled so long and we're back where we started."
"This house is nice, and the river is close. Do you think Enfys will like my hair?" Esyllt ran her hands over the braids in her hair.
"Certainly. We should visit them after a good rest." Ellis quickly placed the piece of wood in the house and checked that Esyllt was carrying the protection stone and a small vial of water on her still. Once he was sure of that, he sat down to rest.
The next morning, a pair of familiar visitors came to their door. The white foxes ran inside as soon as Ellis opened the door to play with Esyllt. The vixen was most interested in Esyllt.
For the first time, one of the foxes approached Ellis as well. The dog fox came up to him and allowed Ellis to pet him. He smiled and said to the beast, "Have I done well?"
The foxes brought a surprise with them. Their young kits scurried into the house and played with them. After the skulk left, Ellis took Enfys down to the river. Enfys and Ceri were already there washing clothes. In a basket, there was one more person with them.
Ceri noticed them first. "You've returned. So, you stayed, little one?"
"Yes." Esyllt said.
"Enfys will be happy. She grows bored of me easily." He said.
"Oh, quit with your nonsense, Ceri. You know that isn't true." Enfys walked across the stones and hugged Esyllt. "I am happy you stayed. I'm glad to have someone other than a man to talk to, and now we outnumber them."
"Outnumber?" Esyllt asked.
"Come see." Enfys led her across the rocks to the little basket. She picked up the small infant out of it. "She was born the day you left. We named her Elena."
"May I hold her?" Esyllt held out her arms.
"Here. Be careful with her." Enfys carefully handed the child over to her.
Esyllt rocked the baby in her arms. "Are you sure she's his? He doesn't look capable."
"Watch your tongue, girl." Ceri reprimanded her. He turned to Ellis. "You look tired. Have you gotten enough to eat?"
"It's more lack of sleep than lack of food. I've been worrying the whole trip back." Ellis laughed at himself. There was nothing to worry about at all, but he couldn't stop himself.
Ceri laughed with him. "That's how it is, isn't it?"
It was as natural as rain and the changing of the seasons. In no time at all, Ellis had not only accepted his new role in life, he accepted it so deeply he thought nothing of it. From time to time, the skulk left them presents, of cloth and berries. Esyllt's spots faded away and her hair turned a deep, rich brown. In time, her antlers changed and grew. She learned to hide them, but found no need to.
He decorated her antlers with wild flowers and dyed cloths in every color he could to make her as many different dresses as possibly. When he met the couple across the river, who now were a family of three, he waved and asked, "What do you think of my daughter's new dress?"