Chapter 1 - White Foxes, Full Moon
We lay on our bellies and watched the nine white foxes in the bottom of the hollow. They were lined up side by side to form a circle around a small round pool. We waited, lying close beside one another for warmth. The shrubs and plants beneath us were comfortable to lie on and smelled sharp where our weight had crushed them. I recognized the peppery smell of ternberry and the crisp green scent of deerleaf, which seemed somehow too mundane for the scene just below.
It was dark and the stars filled the sky like the seeds of ice on a peat-bottomed lake. The moon was just beginning to be visible over the horizon. I felt its presence awakening a tingling in my bones. It called to the magic in me, but I resisted.
The foxes were as unmoving as we were. I wanted so much to give in to the call of the moon and take reindeer shape, but that would have attracted the attention of the Folk, if those foxes were Folk.
The rising moon touched the edge of the pool, slid across it, and seemed to hold still, reflected in the centre of the water. As the moon appeared to cease its slow movement across the sky, all nine foxes rose to their hind legs and lifted their front paws to push back the fur of their heads—like their foxy heads were the hoods of coats—and underneath were the faces of women. Nine women of the Folk with cloud-puff hair, greyed now because it was spring. They had big dark eyes and ears that tapered to a point. They pulled off their fox-skins like Herder children might wriggle out of snowsuits and out of each fox stepped a tiny, perfect woman.
“Folk!” said Seri, and for all that it was an exclamation, it was barely loud enough for me to hear.
“Magic,” I said, just as quietly.
The fox-Folk women began to dance sunwise around the moon-reflecting pool. As they danced they laughed and sang and yipped like foxes. Around and around they went, as the night seemed unable to press on towards morning. And with each turn around the pond, the magic in the air grew stronger. I could feel their magic building up as they danced and it pulled at me the way the full moon did, until I thought I would have to change shape or go mad. But I knew the danger, so I clenched my teeth and lay still. It was hard enough for me to resist taking reindeer shape even with only the moon, let alone this other magic. I think it was because it was just the first day of the full moon by Herder reckoning, which is the day before full by other standards, that I could resist at all. Seri must also be in agony with the Folk’s magic singing with the shapechanger magic in his own bones, but at least he didn’t have the moon to contend with, too.
But somehow it was too strong for him anyway, and he stood up. I suppressed the urge to grab him and pull him back to the ground. It was too late.
Seri stood above me, looking down at the Folk. They had stopped dancing when he stood up and they all stared at him. Then the one nearest grinned and raised one arm towards Seri, palm up, inviting. Seri echoed the movement, but palm down, as though to take her hand despite the distance between them. The fox woman smiled and Seri stepped over the edge of the hollow and went to her. When he got to the bottom, he joined the ring of women—the tops of their heads were not much higher than his waist—and they all began to dance.
When the moon had passed far enough overhead that it was no longer reflected in the pool, the Folk began to pull on their fox-suits again. They paused with the hoods still down and looked at Seri. Then they barked like foxes, all at once, and from behind us came an answering bark. A tenth fox ran over the barrens and down into the hollow. It was a red fox, with fur the colour of fireberries, but tipped in black so that in the moonlight it looked like the dying embers of a fire.
The fox-Folk women pulled up their hoods then, and dropped to all fours. They circled the red fox, around and around, becoming a blur of silver-grey-brown. There was a flesh-tearing sound and a terrible yelping from the circle of foxes, but Seri, so much closer to it than I, didn’t react at all. When the white foxes stopped, one of them held something limp and ember-red in its mouth and there was a small, dark form on the ground. The fox pressed the limp thing into Seri’s hand and he began to put it on like a snowsuit. It was the skin of the red fox. It shouldn’t have fit Seri, but Grandmother says there’s no telling what might happen with Folk magic, and he was soon in it, running on four legs and no bigger than any ordinary fox.
All nine white foxes lolled out their tongues and one by one turned to trot over the far side of the hollow. One by one they disappeared over the edge and into darkness: nine white foxes that were really Folk, and one red fox that had been my brother.
I lay where I was until morning. Every joint in my body ached from resisting the need to take on reindeer shape. I climbed to my feet and looked down into the hollow. The little pool of water looked black, even in the light of early morning. Lying next to it was the naked form of the red fox. I turned away, remembering the nine white foxes and one red. Remembering my brother Seri putting on the skin while it was still bloody and trotting away in fox form, following the Folk.
But then the magic I’d been holding off all night overwhelmed me. Unlike Seri, I can’t change shape whenever I want. I can only change during the full moon, and sometimes the magic doesn’t give me a choice. This was one of those times. Usually I can resist during the day, but I didn’t have enough strength left for that. I began frantically to pull off my clothes. I don’t need to undress to change shape, but my clothes don’t always come back when I take human form again. It doesn’t make much sense, but Grandmother says magic doesn’t make sense anyway, for all it has it’s own laws.
I struggled out of my garments and surrendered to the magic. It’s hard to describe what changing shape is like. The moon’s magic seems to fill up my bones and then turn them to liquid. There’s a dizzy feeling, and a feeling like everything’s gone all wrong. Then it passes and I’m on four legs and looking out of a different kind of eyes, smelling different smells, hearing different sounds. And at first all I want to do is run. That’s how it is for me. From what Seri has said, it’s the same for him, but without the dizziness and the wrong feeling. But then he can change whenever he wants, and he never seems to lose his clothes when he changes back.
I wasn’t expecting the change to be painful; usually it’s just uncomfortable. This time it hurt. I ground my teeth together to keep from screaming. Not only were my bones full of magic, but that magic burned like deep-winter metal. It felt more like my bones were breaking than dissolving. I promised myself I’d never resist changing so long again, as if it would make it hurt less this time.
When I could see again, I ran. Watching a reindeer running, you think they can’t possibly be going very fast, but they can outrun a swift dog. Being a reindeer running . . . . There’s no way to explain it to someone who’s never had four legs. Compared to running as a human, it’s like being the wind.
I ran the ache out of my joints. I ran until every muscle burned exquisitely and then I walked. I came to the Asker River, far upstream from camp, and waded in. There was a still, deep pool against the bank, and the pads of huge lilies floated there, flower buds still tightly closed. In this shape I could feel the barrens spring building up. The does had begun to give birth and any day now the grey land would explode with the colour and scent of summer.
There are times when I hate being tied to the cycle of the moon, when I wish I was ordinary and nonmagical, so I couldn’t be forced to change shape. But when I actually do change, and live a while as a reindeer, I wouldn’t alter my life at all. The best part is getting home tired, becoming human again, and falling asleep full of wild memories.
I swam into the lilies and grabbed one in my mouth. It was cold and juicy and tasted like snowmelt. I ate a few more then turned to swim downstream. A river is sometimes better than open barrens for a reindeer to travel. Father told me that the settled folk on the coast build wide, flat paths for their wagons to travel along. Roads. Rivers are roads for reindeer. I followed this one back in the general direction of my clothes.
Blood and magic often associate, Grandmother says. And so I was in the women’s tent with my first bleeding when I discovered I was a shapechanger.
It was lucky that puberty wasn’t a traumatic experience for me, like it is for many girls. I don’t think I could have handled two traumatic experiences at once. Grandmother was there, telling me women’s stories and preparing me for the change in status I would face when I emerged from the tent. For a Herder, the difference between little girl and young woman isn’t huge. Even children can own reindeer. Still, it would mean I had become eligible for marriage, and the attitudes of others would be different towards me.
One of our oldest stories is about how we became Herders. It was an important story for me to hear, because it was the founding mother of my lineage, the Darkberry clan, who first tamed a reindeer. This was what Grandmother was telling when I felt the first magic.
“The man of the Folk saw Darkberry’s long, long hair and her bright eyes, and knew he must have her for a wife. So he took on the shape of a reindeer and approached her tent at night.” The women’s version of this story is different from the storysingers’ version. It has different details and is more to do with how Darkberry married and founded our oldest lineage. I’ve always liked the storysingers’ version better.
As Grandmother talked, I picked out the designs in my clothes that meant I was a girl, and embroidered on new ones to show I was a woman. I have never been good at needlecrafts, and I had to work slowly and with great concentration to make my stitches even. I paused often, to listen better, and Grandmother had to keep reminding me to get back to my work.
“Maring, child,” she said. “The designs don’t have to be perfect.”
“Mother says they do, to show I will be a good wife,” I said.
Grandmother snorted. She must have heard the disgust I tried to keep from my voice. Even I wasn’t sure if it was disgust at the needlework, or at the idea of being a good wife. “Well, back to work then,” she said, and I think her voice was sympathetic, but I don’t know if I really heard sympathy or not, because it was then I felt magic creeping into my bones.
“Grandmother?” I intended to ask her if this strange feeling was some part of becoming a woman that nobody had warned me of, but after that one word I couldn’t speak any more. I saw her look of surprise; then I was too dizzy to see anything. When my eyes focussed again, the world looked entirely different. Grandmother was on her feet, speaking slowly and quietly to me.
I still panicked.
Del was waiting when I got back to the village. She’s loved Seri since she first came here from the coast, and she always seems to sense when something’s wrong.
“Tell me,” she said.
So I told her about the night before, the foxes and the magic and Seri being stolen away.
“But why did he go with them?” she asked.
I sighed. “It would take days to tell it properly,” she said.
“I don’t care how long it takes to tell,” Del said. Her voice was strained, like she was trying very hard not to scream the words in my face. “At least give me the frame of it.” She paused and when I didn’t answer, Del said, “You’re a shapechanger.”
“Yes.” I fiddled with my belt. It was easier to stare downwards than face Del.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You don’t trust me?”
“Of course I trust you, Del. Seri does, too. It’s just something we don’t talk about. Not to anybody. We hardly even say anything to each other.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“Yes,” I said. “I meant to. It’s just—we don’t talk about things. Uncomfortable things.” I stopped and studied the sky, as if I might find pictures of the things I should say formed in the clouds.
I began to speak again, and heard my voice take on the rhythmic cadence of a Herder storysinger, as if I was listening from outside myself. “I was eight when Seri was born, and didn’t know yet about changing shape. He slept a lot, as babies do, and Mother used to leave him sleeping in our tent, carefully barricaded in by pillows and watched over by one of the dogs. Mother never went far, but one day Seri got hungry and woke, but there was no one there to feed him. We suppose now that he must have changed shape and gone to the deer pens to find a doe who would suckle him. When mother went to check on him she found a contented reindeer fawn instead of her baby boy. It was Grandmother who calmed her, and kept her from throwing the fawn onto the fire.”
Del gasped. “She wouldn’t have!”
“Mother was convinced that the Folk had stolen Seri and left a reindeer fawn as a changeling. It’s said by some that burning a changeling will force the Folk to take back their own and return the stolen child.
“But Grandmother took the fawn and cradled it and sang to it, and in a short while we all saw it change back into my baby brother. And so we learned Seri was a shapechanger. It would be a few years before I learned the same thing about myself. I was angry and envious as only a child can be. I don’t think I would have hurt Seri; he was my little brother, after all. But Mother and Father still thought it best if I didn’t take care of him the way other little girls cared for their younger siblings. So Seri was raised directly by Mother, just as if he had been an oldest child, and I was even more envious.”
“But you found out. That you were a shapechanger.” Del grasped my arm.
“I found out I had a lesser magic than my little brother. Grandmother had to do a lot of talking to convince me not to be angry at him forever.”
“How could you stand it?”
I laughed, but I didn’t feel much gaiety. “It helped that I was of the Darkberry lineage, and Seri was only a Sharphoof. But it didn’t help much. Grandmother taught me to control my magic as much as I could. And she showed me other magic. Wise woman magic. I learned patience. And anyway, no one who has met Seri can dislike him for long. He was so sweet and loving that he won me over all on his own.”
“I wondered when someone would admit it,” she said. “But what does shapechanging have to do with last night?”
“Seri could feel the magic of the Folk. It was strong. I guess he couldn’t resist it anymore, and they took him. But he should be okay. Grandmother told us iron’s a protection, and he’s got his knife.”
“He doesn’t though.”
I stared at Del, wondering if she had really said what she seemed to have said, and if the words meant what they were supposed to.
“Of course he does,” I said finally. “We both had our knives with us. Mine’s here. And Seri’s—”
“Is right here,” said Del, holding up the large dagger. It was an old one, from my father’s father, and had designs traced on the blade that I had always been sure were protective talismans.
I pulled my own knife from my belt, as if to make sure that it really was mine. I don’t know what difference I thought it would make. The knife in Del’s hand could be no other but Seri’s. My brother was unprotected among the Folk.
“Why didn’t you go with them?” Del asked.
“Seri has the magic stronger,” I said, still staring at the knife in Del’s hand.
“But you felt it?”
“I resisted it. Maybe trying so hard not to change shape helped me somehow.”
“We should go talk to Grandmother,” said Del.
“He hasn’t got his knife.” I felt like a child, trying to wade though the meaning of things by repeating them.
“Grandmother will know what to do.”
I rubbed my forehead. “I hope Grandmother will know what to do,” I said. “Without the protection of iron, Seri might not be able to do anything to help himself.”
Del reached for my hand. “We’d better go talk to Grandmother right now,” she said.
I think Grandmother knew what was wrong as soon as we burst into her tent. She merely looked at us, pointed to cushions and set about making tea. Del and I took turns with the story, but Grandmother ignored us until the tea was ready. Then she handed us each a full cup and said, “Drink.” So we did. When we’d finished one cup and she had poured us another, Grandmother looked at me. I couldn’t face her green, green eyes and I looked away.
“So you’ve lost your brother to the Folk,” she said, but it was a simple statement, not an accusation.
“He left his knife at home,” I said. “He was supposed to bring it, so the iron would protect him.”
“And he went to them,” Del said.
Grandmother nodded. “So he has no protection among them. But there is still much we can do,” she said. “It needs waiting, but you can save him, you who lost him.”
“How?” Del spoke almost rudely, but I knew, and Grandmother must know too, that it was only a sign of her worry. Saving Seri might be mine to do, but I didn’t think Del would let me do it alone.
“Tonight the moon is full again. Maring will take reindeer shape and go to watch the Folk. If they bring Seri to dance, we can help him. If they do not, we must think of some way to get them to bring him out.”
“What will I do if they bring him?” I asked.
“Tonight, you only watch, but you must see everything. Tomorrow night is the last night of full moon, and that is when you must act. Tomorrow night before the foxes have begun to dance, you must close their circle off with salt and iron. When they cannot enter their place of magic, they will stop to bargain with you. Then Del, you grab that red fox and pull the skin off to let Seri out. Once he’s free of it, get him into the circle where the Folk can’t enter. There won’t be night enough left for them to work any more mischief and no more full moon this month.”
I think that was the first and only time I ever heard Grandmother give anyone information so easily.
“But what if I change shape that night, too?” I asked.
Grandmother took a necklace from around her neck and handed it to me. It was a plain enough stone, bound with copper and strung on a piece of thong, but it tingled in my hand. “You wear that tomorrow night,” she said. “It will help you keep from changing. But tonight, leave it at home.”
I took reindeer shape early in the evening, as Grandmother had instructed. It felt good to change shape by choice, to feel my bare skin goosepimple from the cool edge in the air, to surrender to the magic that fills me so I think some other part of me must run out like water to make room for it. Maybe something does run out of me—my human shape, flowing into the earth and the moon moulding me into a reindeer doe instead.
At first I ran, like I always do after I change. But I made sure to head in the direction of the hollow. I thought the gods must be on my side that night, because when I got near the hollow there was a herd of wild reindeer scattered about and grazing nearby. I put my own head down to nibble the deerleaf and reindeer lichen, and wandered to the lip of the hollow. I didn’t alarm the other reindeer, and it looked normal for one doe to drift a little away as I was. I let myself fall into reindeer thought, where cropping at plants to fill my belly was all I needed. The presence of Folk magic would bring my mind back from wandering when it was time to pay attention.
Soon enough the moon was up and the foxes in the hollow: nine white foxes and one red in a circle around the pool. Moonlight hit the water and all ten stood up and took off their fox-suits. Seri grew bigger as he took off the red fox skin, and the Folk had to cluster around to help him get it off. He’d had clothes on when he put the skin on the night before, but when he took it off, he was naked. They began to dance.
I watched until the Folk and Seri put the fox coats back on and slipped away into the dark. Then I used all the speed I had as a reindeer to head for home.
I wondered how it must feel for Seri to take on the shape of a fox. It was so different from his proper human form and from his reindeer shape. But he’d know now, as I did, what it was like to change shape without a choice in it.
Del was pacing back and forth by the riding-deer pen when I got back. She didn’t say anything when I walked up, just waited for me to speak. I thought she was becoming like Grandmother.
“He was there,” I said.
“How did he look?” Del’s voice was strained. She had said she would try to sleep while I was gone, but if I had to say, I’d guess she’d spent the time worrying.
“He looked empty,” I said. “Like the real Seri was shut away somewhere; but his eyes were haunted.” I looked at Del as we walked back to my family’s tent. She didn’t look so different than Seri had, except along with the worry there was hope and determination. “He looked tired,” I added. Del only nodded.
Father was in the tent and awake, despite it being not yet morning. He was eating an early snack of cold griddlecakes. We hadn’t told him anything, not about the Folk, nor about Seri being gone. But Toli Sharphoof is a smart man, and having two shapechanger children has made him aware of magical things. He merely greeted us and looked concerned, but magic is for magic folk to do, we Herders say. Even if he knew the whole story, there was nothing he would do, nothing he could do, to help his son. He didn’t even ask where Seri was, but I knew he’d expect the whole story from start to finish once we got to its end.
Neither Del nor I slept much during the remainder of the night, but we both fell asleep sometime in the morning and stayed asleep until late afternoon. It was Mother who roused us. She had a pot of tea and a plate of hot panbread with butter.
“Grandmother said to wake you,” she told us when we crawled out of the blankets. Like Father, she didn’t ask any questions, but watched us curiously. She smiled a little when she saw me put on Grandmother’s necklace.
“Thank you, Tallis,” Del said, and took a huge bite of bread. The bread they have in Cobbleshore where she’s from, she told me, is light and fluffy, baked in big blocks. But she likes our bread much better. She likes our tea better, too.
“Tomorrow you’ll go herding, Maring,” Mother said. “You too, Del. You can ride Seri’s Smolla.” Then she left the tent to attend to her own tasks. Not even magic and strange happenings will get in front of the Herders’ round of days. No matter what else happened, daily life would go on as always. All the better that we rescue Seri quickly, then.
When we’d eaten, Del and I went to see Grandmother, but she merely handed us a pack and asked why we weren’t on our way to the hollow. So we left, walking as quickly as we could over the barrens shrubbery. We even cut straight across the boggy places, hopping from clump to clump of bushes. We wanted to get the circle of salt and iron laid out while the light was still enough to see details.
Blood makes magic, and salt kills it. How that works when blood is salty, I don’t know. Maybe blood only seems salty.
I don’t think Grandmother was entirely surprised the first time I took reindeer shape. I don’t think very much surprises Grandmother. All I really remember of those first few moments after I changed was fear and confusion. In reindeer shape, the heavy felt dome of the women’s tent was frightfully confining. In human shape, I’ve never been bothered by small spaces, but as a deer I had a deer’s fear of being enclosed. That and the shock of being in a shape not my own, not to mention the anxiety a girl feels during her first bleeding-time . . . . It’s probably no wonder I panicked. Later I felt only embarrassment. Seri had been a baby when he first changed, and for him it was all entirely natural. I was older; I should have handled it expertly.
It was autumn, and I had antlers. Not so grand as a buck’s antlers, but just as prone to being tangled in tent fabric as I tore my way out. It’s a wonder Grandmother wasn’t trampled. I must have created quite a scene; a reindeer doe bursting out of the women’s tent trailing heavy lengths of felt and bolting though the village. I headed for the open barrens and ran until I was exhausted. By then the panic had worn off, and another kind of fear took its place. What if I was unable to change back into my own shape? I didn’t know how shapechanging actually worked. Did I need to do some ritual to get magic for changing back?
After running mindlessly in panic, I was then immobile in this new fear. I don’t know how long I stood staring into nothing before the herd found me. It was a wild reindeer herd, not one of our semi-domesticated bunches. There were no dogs guarding this herd, and no mounted Herders to oversee the sparring bucks. It was autumn, and the rut was underway. This herd was small, only a dozen or so does with their half-grown fawns. The biggest buck I’ve ever seen kept watch over his family, and a couple of smaller bucks trailed the herd at a distance. They knew they had no chance of getting near the females, but they weren’t giving up either. I didn’t realize my danger until the herd was all around me, and the enormous buck approached, his upper lip lifted to smell me better.
Deer have a way of smelling that is also tasting that gives them a stronger sense of what is there. Not being a real reindeer, I don’t think I was in season like the other does, but it was rutting season and I was female. That was enough for the buck. If it weren’t for Grandmother’s arrival with several dogs and a sack of salt, things would have gone much worse for me.
Del and I reached the hollow and stood on the lip of it, looking down. It wasn’t remarkable at first glance; it looked much the same as any dip in the barrens landscape. But after looking at it carefully, I began to see subtle differences that marked this place off as special. Most dips and hollows are irregular in shape; I suspected that if we tested this one with a rope tied to a stake in the middle we’d find it perfectly circular. And the little dark pool in the bottom was a perfect circle as well, positioned in the exact centre of the hollow. The ground sloped smoothly down from rim to pool. This was perhaps an effect of the thick layer of brush and lichen, but there wasn’t even a rock jutting up anywhere to spoil it. And the brush grew thicker and greener around the edge of the hollow than anywhere else nearby. It had been that, in part, that had allowed Seri and me to stay hidden as we spied on the foxes.
“Where do we make the circle?” Del asked. The corpse of the red fox that had provided the skin for Seri’s forced shapechange was gone, but I stared at where it had been.
I tore my own thoughts away from nights past, and looked around. “Maybe just inside the bushes,” I said, “Where the plants aren’t so thick.”
Del nodded and upended the sack Grandmother had given us. There was a bag of salt—even that small amount represented great wealth to a Herder—and numerous bits and scraps of iron, from broken cutlery that came from some distant coastal town, to splinters from Herder-forged daggers, to unworked bog iron that could be found between the root mat and the peat on some parts of the barrens. We set to work making these oddments into a circle around the hollow.
It didn’t need to be entirely without gaps—that would have been impossible anyway—so long as there were no spaces big enough for a fox or a Folk woman to pass through.
We finished just as the last daylight bled away. We stood inside the circle, on the side where the foxes had approached the past two nights. I heard the distant howl of a wolf and shivered. The wolf is a symbol of luck and power to the Herders, but we don’t like for them to get too close.
The foxes came. They stopped short on seeing us, then continued as if we weren’t even there until they came to the circle we had made around their hollow. The first fox yelped and leaped back as if singed. The others didn’t get so close. Without even looking at us, the foxes began to circle the hollow, leaving the red fox to sit and wait. I nudged Del, but I needn’t have; she was already edging towards Seri.
When the white foxes were at the farthest point from us, off on the other side of the hollow, Del sprang and grabbed for the red fox. She tumbled to the ground with it in her arms, and began to pull at the pelt, trying to get Seri free before the Folk could stop her.
“Del!” The white foxes were racing back around the hollow.
Del managed to pull back the fox-hood to reveal Seri’s face, but she was having trouble getting the skin over his shoulders.
“Maring, I can’t,” she cried. “It’s stuck.”
The foxes were almost on her and Del still couldn’t get Seri free. Neither would she abandon him. She leapt back across the circle with Seri in her arms. He was still fox-sized despite having his head free of the skin. The foxes sat in an arc, side by side, looking at us. Then the one in the middle rose on its hide legs and pushed back the hood of its suit. The large dark eyes of the Folk woman regarded us.
“You failed,” she said. “You cannot have him.”
I didn’t reply. I was too terrified, though Grandmother had assured us we’d be safe inside the circle. Del was still struggling with the fox skin, and almost had Seri out of it. He was doing nothing to help her efforts.
The fox woman frowned. “Perhaps you haven’t yet failed,” she said, and looked at Del. Her mouth parted in a sharp-toothed smile that didn’t look even a small part friendly. Some folk say wolves have the most terrifying teeth of any animal, but the teeth of foxes are longer and slenderer for their size. In a face almost human, I think fox teeth are the most frightening sight I’ve ever seen.
The other foxes began to drift off the way they’d come, as if there was nothing more to interest them here. The Folk woman who had spoken to us lingered a moment longer.
“It was not wise to try to thwart us this way,” she said. “There are other ways to bargain with the Folk; ways that would not bring our enmity.”
“We wanted back one of our own,” Del said hotly. “You stole him!”
“He was spying on us,” the woman said. “And he came to us on his own, through the magic in his blood.”
“He isn’t one of you,” Del insisted. I wanted her to shut up. Arguing with the Folk was not a good idea, and something the woman said worried me. But I was still too cautious, too fearful to speak.
“It will be a long time before this dancing circle is returned to us, now that you have closed it with salt and iron,” the woman said. “This is not a thing we will forgive lightly.”
Enmity, she had said. And they would not easily forgive what we had done. I knew Grandmother knew far more than I did about magical things, but she wasn’t a magical being herself. What if there had been some better way to get Seri back; some way that Grandmother didn’t know about, that would not have angered the Folk?
“We have what we came for,” Del said insolently.
“Del,” I said, but couldn’t add more. The Folk woman looked directly at me now, and considered me. She cocked her head to one said as a fox might do. I interested her. It was not a comforting thought.
Del managed to pull the fox skin the rest of the way off Seri and stood up to face the woman. “There,” Del said, and threw the skin out of the circle. It landed by the fox woman’s feet. The woman stared down at it, and I saw a smile slowly grow on her face.
“Del . . . ,” I said again. An unpleasant feeling was creeping up my back. I watched as the other eight foxes appeared again behind the Folk woman, one by one. Their mouths were open and their tongues hanging out.
“Oh, you stupid child,” said the woman. “You had your boy, you did. But now he is ours again.” She freed one arm from her fox-suit and picked up the red pelt. She held it out towards Seri, who stood up and walked to the edge of the circle.
Del grabbed his arm. “Seri, don’t.” I could only watch.
“Come reindeer-boy,” said the Folk woman. Seri stepped away from Del as though she weren’t even there. Over the circle of iron and salt he went, because he was human and it couldn’t affect him.
“Seri,” I whispered, as he pulled on the fox skin again and followed the Folk away over the barrens.