The two foxes trotted through the moonlit undergrowth, occasionally nipping playfully at each other. Their actions seemed quite ordinary at first, but as they approached a certain hollow tree the vixen's movements became oddly purposeful. She went to the tree, stopping with forepaws partway up the trunk, sniffing at something, then looked back expectantly at the male. He gave a foxy grin.
The vixen shifted form, body enlarging and re-shaping, into an unusually tall and muscular teenage girl. She suddenly shivered, stood up to her full height and reached into the hollow, pulling out clothes.
"Yow!" Tina gasped in a subdued voice, as she shook out her underwear. "I hadn't realized it had gotten so cold."
How just stared at her, a silly grin on his still-fox face, as he marveled at the way the cold was affecting certain parts of Tina's anatomy. He came back to himself as she finished pulling on her clothing.
"Well?" she asked, looking back at her one, true love.
How sighed a bit, and shifted to his trueform, completely dressed. Tina immediately put her arms around him and bent her head to give How a passionate kiss.
"Thanks. That was wonderful!"
"I'm just glad I'm finally good enough at this stuff to change someone else into a fox," said How, feeling a bit dizzy from that kiss.
"I just hope you can change my clothes permanently, soon," muttered Tina, pulling at her waistband. "I think I've got some bark in my pants."
"Wait 'till we get back to our room and I'll find something else to put in them," How replied, leering at her.
"Again?" said Tina, astounded. She shook her head. "Sometimes I think you're the real athlete of the two of us."
"Hey, we came here for a vacation," said How, grinning. "Some time off, just the two of us, no worries, no troubles..."
"I wish you hadn't said that," muttered Tina. "Now we're bound to have something happen."
* * *
They could have stayed in the campground at the Daniel Boone National Forest, but for once Tina decided to let How use his abilities for their financial benefit. He had produced some gold bullion coins and sold them at a Louisville pawnshop. The duo then had the money to splurge, staying in the lodge during their vacation. Tina felt they deserved a bit of a reward for their recent good deeds, and now that school was out for the Summer she figured a little innocent hedonism would do them both good. Their parents were a bit upset that their children hadn't immediately come home, but this was only for four days.
The break was needed for several reasons, one of them being the worry about who had figured out what How was. The mysterious gifts had continued to arrive, and now included pouches of deep-fried tofu stuffed with rice. With a bit of research How learned these were called inari zushi, after Inari, the goddess of the harvest and patron of kitsune. The person responsible obviously knew a lot about Japanese folklore, though that didn't necessarily mean that the mysterious donor was Japanese. So, even if they hadn't been planning to visit their parents later it was good to get away from the campus for a while, to rebuild their peace of mind and perhaps gain some perspective on this situation.
After their night of vulpine romping the pair slept late. Their brunch was therefore a glut, Tina breaking training to join How in a raid on the breakfast bar. Finally sated, they staggered out of the restaurant, cuddled blissfully together. So contented and enraptured with each other were they that they didn't notice the tall, fair young man until How bumped into him.
"Oh, sorry," said How, absently, blinking himself back to reality.
"You should watch where you're going," the man hissed angrily, giving them a look that would have cowed most people.
He drew himself up and walked huffily away.
"Some people just don't know how to gracefully accept an apology," said How, deliberately loud enough for the stranger to hear. There was no reaction.
They went back to their room, occupied themselves for a while, then dressed for hiking. One reason for picking this area for their trip was that How had heard that an ancient fairy circle had recently been discovered somewhere in the park. Like many other fae who had heard about this he wanted to look for it, and Tina knew they could both use the exercise, what with all the rich food they had been eating the past two days. Tina wore a practical outfit of long pants, t-shirt and running shoes. How, on the other hand, had outdone himself. He wore a powder-blue Panama hat, a Spanish kerchief around his neck, a Hawaiian shirt, bright yellow Bermuda shorts, and Mexican sandals.
"How, why don't you ever dress normal?" asked Tina, exasperated.
"You don't complain that the way I dress is boring."
"Hey, you look good in anything," said How, grinning as he gave her a hug.
"Forget about winning an argument with you, I can't even start one," laughed Tina, returning the hug.
The day was a very pleasant one for a walk in the woods. The air was cool and dry, but recent heavy rains had left the forest green. At first they kept to the more formal trails, encountering a number of other walkers, mostly city folk deceiving themselves by thinking that they were either getting back to nature or seeing real wildlife.
Soon, though, they were on a much less traveled path, with a surface of gravel instead of asphalt. Then that became bare, trampled earth, apparently a game trail. Tina didn't worry much about where they were going or how they would get back; How had a usually infallible sense of direction. It wasn't just that How always knew which way was north; he was good at finding things. Even Lisa Dawnwind has once swallowed her pride and asked him to help her locate a missing document.
There were far fewer people now. In fact, it was nearly twenty minutes after starting along the game trail before they met another person, a middle-aged, somewhat overweight and flushed woman named Ethel. The pair had seen her around the lodge many times the past two days. She was an outgoing, friendly type, who had volunteered that she was recently widowed, that all three of her children were married off so she was living alone, and that recently she had felt a yearning to get back into hiking and camping, which she had greatly enjoyed when younger.
"Well, look who's here!" Ethel exclaimed joyously. "Didn't expect to see you two lovebirds out and about so early."
"It's nearly one o'clock," Tina pointed out. Ethel ignored her.
"Are you out here looking for the fairy circle, too?" the older woman asked, startling them. Without waiting for a reply, she went on. "I've already tried that branch of the trail over there; that leaves three. I'm going to try this one. Why don't you two go that way? If none of us find anything, we can try the last one together!"
"That would be... fine..." said Tina, her voice trailing off as Ethel spun around and hurried away.
"She's preoccupied with something," mused How.
"No kidding," muttered Tina.
They ambled down the branch Ethel had recommended, and within minutes encountered the rude man from the lodge, coming from where they were headed. He glared briefly at them, started to squeeze past, then stopped, and stared at How.
"What do you want here, Pooka?" he demanded, his manner and words startling Tina.
"Same thing as you, obviously," said How, his tone mild.
"You mean he's..." Tina began.
"He's a sidhe," said How.
"Huh?" countered Tina, startled. "You mean he's really a girl? Oh, right. Not she; sidhe."
"If you can't keep your pet quiet, you shouldn't let it out in public," snapped the stranger, addressing How.
"I think you owe her an apology," said How, quietly.
"I owe her nothing!" the sidhe snapped. "You, however, I owe disciplining, for speaking out of turn."
"And just who is it that I should collect that debt from?" How queried, his hackles rising, literally, as he assumed his trueform.
"I am Alanterin, of the Clan Pellantine," he proclaimed, drawing himself up, until he was nearly as tall as Tina.
"Hi," said How, extending his hand. "Howaya Metu."
The stranger stared at How in complete bafflement. Then, with a muttered imprecation about Pookas, he pushed past them and hurried down the trail.
"What was that all about?" muttered Tina, after the sidhe had disappeared around a bend.
"A lot of sidhe think that because they have noble or royal ancestors that they are more important than anyone or anything else," said How. "The fact that reality keeps proving them wrong irritates them, so they're always surly."
"Well, he must not have found the circle down this trail. Why don't we go try that other one?"
"Two reasons," said How. "First, he might have missed something. A lot of magical places don't respond well to bullying, which is how most sidhe try to get what they want from them. You get much better results if you approach them with respect. So it may have simply concealed itself from him.
"Second, he may have gone down that last trail next, so if we go on out this way we are more likely to avoid another encounter."
That suited Tina. They continued down the game trail until it petered out. How thought for a while, then shook his head.
"This doesn't feel like the right direction, but we're close," he decided. "It's over that way. Feel up to a little trail-breaking?"
Tina nodded, and How, still in his trueform, turned and started off through the undergrowth. It occurred to Tina that they were heading roughly in a direction that would intercept the trail Ethel had taken, but she stayed quiet. How was quick at changing back when he unexpectedly encountered someone who wasn't supposed to see him with foxy ears and two tails. So quick that most people simply blinked, then assumed they were imagining things.
They were still in the heavy bush when How suddenly turned right.
"It's close; I can feel it."
They came out on the north side of a large clearing. A circular clearing, filled with tall grasses but no heavy growth. Vaguely, through the brush around the edge of the circle, Tina could make out stones marking the boundary. In the middle of the circle stood Alanterin, arms spread, quietly chanting in a strange language. His face and frame had become much leaner and finer, the former now nearly triangular. His hair was longer and his ears pointed. And on the far side of the circle, Tina and How could see Ethel, staring entranced.
"Can you feel it?" whispered How.
Tina nodded; her skin was all prickly, a sensation which made her shiver. She said nothing, however; How had warned her about interrupting rites and spells.
The blond sidhe's chanting raised to a shout, there was a moment of tension... and then Ethel let out a wail that trailed into a short scream.
Tina looked over at the woman and gasped. She had gone from tall and heavy to tall, delicate and elfin, swallowed by her clothes. She had also fainted, and was falling.
While Alanterin stood staring in surprise, Tina and How ran across the circle to the woman. She wasn't really unconscious, but she was severely dazed. They each took an arm and helped her sit up.
"What... what happened?" she asked. Here eyes focused on How and she gasped. "You're a fox!"
"Why, thank you," said How, grinning. Tina punched him on the arm.
"Interesting," said Alanterin, as he moved closer. "I was attempting to stir the spirit guardian of this place, but seem to have roused a sleeping sidhe, instead. No small achievement, even if it wasn't my goal."
"What have you done to me?!" Ethel demanded from Alanterin.
"Why, I have brought your true nature to the surface," said the sidhe. "You are one of us. This is your true form."
"What do you mean this is my true form?" she demanded, looking down at her shrunken frame. "Put me back!"
"Alas, that is not possible, nor is it desirable," said Alanterin. "Once you have overcome your shock, you will understand that you have been brought to your true..."
"Oh, will you shut up!" snapped Tina. "What she needs is an explanation, not speeches."
"Human, I have had enough of your insolence," snapped Alanterin. He turned to How. "Either you silence her, or I will!"
"I don't think you're going to do anything to her," said How, rising. As he spoke he stepped forward, into the ring. "In the first place, if you try anything physical she'll break you over her knee. In the second, if you try anything magical, in the time it takes you to get halfway through your spell, I'll have turned you into a frog with a bad case of foot fungus."
Foxes are normally percieved as timid, but corner one, or threaten its mate... the sidhe stepped back, retreating from How's unexpected ferocity. He was so taken aback that recovering his anger took a moment.
"You dare..." hissed Alanterin, covering his yielding before How with bluster. He abruptly drew back his hand and swung it at How's face. How backstepped, and the slap went past, pulling the sidhe off balance.
"Challenge accepted," said How, reaching to his side and making a drawing motion. A long, lean sword appeared in his hand.
Alanterin stepped back again, obviously startled. Tina wanted to say something, but both fae were now within the circle, and she knew better than to interfere with a formal duel. She felt a pang of fear, but remembered that these conflicts were rarely fatal. Also, one of the few talents for fighting How had displayed was with fencing. She mentally crossed her fingers.
The sidhe again recovered quickly. He turned his back defiantly on How, stepped over to his backpack, and drew out a heavy sword too long to have fit in the pack. He turned, flipped the sword up in a mock salute, then came at How.
Alanterin moved in with an almost contemptuous casualness, obviously intending to settle this matter quickly so he could get on with more important things. He withdrew much more quickly, bleeding from a cut on his right cheek, eyes wide with surprise. How wasn't very experienced at dueling and his opponent was larger and stronger, but the kitsune had been taught well and was fox quick. He also had an advantage in mobility. Tina noticed that whereas Alanterin crashed through the tall grass, ripping it apart, How slipped through it with hardly any noise or disturbance.
From what Tina understood, after first blood was drawn it was customary to offer the wounded party a chance to surrender. How said nothing, but declined to press his attack, obviously giving Alanterin that chance. Instead of taking it, the sidhe charged back in, more aggressively, but also more warily. After a few seconds of furious dodging and parrying, he again withdrew, this time bleeding from the other cheek.
How's style of defense had the larger fae at a disadvantage. In addition to his training from Lord Teleomier, lately How had been practicing karate, kendo and judo with Tina. That, plus his emulation of Douglas Fairbanks and other famous movie swordsmen made him nearly impossible to hit.
Unfortunately, due to his nature he also found it nearly impossible to deal a truly harmful blow. Alanterin seemed to realize this, and changed tactics. He concentrated on forcing How back, allowing the smaller man to avoid his attacks but cutting him off when he tried to dodge around the sidhe. Tina began to worry; if Alanterin forced How out of the circle, the kitsune lost.
Of course, How realized this, too. He began standing his ground more forcefully, slowing his retreat. However, he couldn't stop it. He was only a pace or so from the edge of the circle when Alanterin, feeling victory in his grasp, made an over-eager thrust, obviously intending to force How backwards and out of the faery ring.
Instead, How pivoted away from the thrust, slapping the attacking blade aside with his own. Alanterin suddenly found himself overextended, leaning forward, again off balance. How did a quick sidestep, and booted the sidhe in the rump. Alanterin staggered out of the circle and landed face-down in the heavy undergrowth.
How stepped back, grinning, as he made several playful swipes with his sword. Tina whistled and applauded. Then Alanterin rose, blood in his eyes, and charged back in, sword raised.
Before How could react, something slammed Alanterin down flat on his face and held him pinned, like a cat with a mouse. Gradually, a misty form took shape and semi-solidified. It was a great, humanoid cat, looking quite displeased.
"Release me!" cried Alanterin.
"He cheated! Release me, so I can end this!"
*It is ended. You left the circle. You lost.* It looked over at Tina... only she realized that it was actually looking at Ethel. *Welcome back, Ethynyl, my daughter.*
"I... I don't understand..."
*You have slept long. You will soon waken, and then you will understand.*The figure looked at How. *You have aided one of mine, little fox. Thank you.*
How started to say something appropriately formal and hyperbolic, but instead jumped, gave a startled yelp, and jerked around to look at the third tail which had sprouted from his behind. When he and Tina looked back up, the giant figure was gone.
Alanterin laboriously pushed himself up with his arms, red faced and panting.
"This... is not... over..."
He then collapsed back onto the grass, out cold.
"I think you just made an enemy," said Tina.
"We were enemies before we ever met," sighed How.
* * *
"So let me get this straight," said Ethel. "I'm some sort of fairy."
The defeated elf had regained consciousness after a few minutes and left without saying anything, but the glare he gave them promised trouble. Meanwhile, there had been no further manifestations from the circle, so How and Tina had set about explaining the facts of her new life to the rather dazed Ethel.
"No," said Tina. "Fairies are little critters with wings. I've met a few."
"So I'm an elf."
"A type of elf," said How. "You're a sidhe, a high elf. Your kind is better with formulaic magic than mine - spells, potions, rituals and the like - but you don't have our talent for doing things through natural ability."
"And we're all lumped together as fae."
"Right!" said How, grinning.
The woman fingered her now-pointed ears, gazed at her reflection in the mirror How had produced, sighed and shook her head.
"This is going to take some getting used to."
"I'm still getting used to it," muttered Tina, though she smiled after she said it.
"But how am I going to avoid attention!?" Ethel demanded. "I look like... like... an elf!"
"One of the few natural abilities sidhe have - something nearly all the fae can do - is shifting between their mortal seeming and their fae selves," How told her. "We'll practice this until you can do it. Shouldn't take long."
This work is Copyright 1998 by Rodford Edmiston Smith, who can be reached at: email@example.com. Please contact the author for permission before reposting or reprinting. Thank you.