Authors: Leigh Bardugo
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The first trap the fox escaped was his mother’s jaws.
When she had recovered from the trial of birthing her litter, the mother fox looked around at her kits and sighed. It would be hard to feed so many children, and truth be told, she was hungry after her ordeal. So she snatched up two of her smallest young and made a quick meal of them. But beneath those pups, she found a tiny, squirming runt of a fox with a patchy coat and yellow eyes.
“I should have eaten you first,” she said. “You are doomed to a miserable life.”
To her surprise, the runt answered. “Do not eat me, Mother. Better to be hungry now than to be sorry later.”
“Better to swallow you than to have to look upon you. What will everyone say when they see such a face?”
A lesser creature might have despaired at such cruelty, but the fox saw vanity in his mother’s carefully tended coat and snowy paws.
“I will tell you,” he replied. “When we walk in the wood, the animals will say, ‘Look at that ugly kit with his handsome mother!’ And even when you are old and gray, they will not talk of how you’ve aged, but of how such a beautiful mother gave birth to such an ugly, scrawny son.”
She thought on this and discovered she was not so hungry after all.
* * *
Because the fox’s mother believed the runt would die before the year was out, she didn’t bother to name him. But when her little son survived one winter and then the next, the animals needed something to call him. They dubbed him
—handsome—as a kind of joke, and soon he gained a reputation.
When he was barely grown, a group of hounds cornered him in a blind of branches outside his den. Crouching in the damp earth, listening to their terrible snarls, a lesser creature might have panicked, chased himself in circles, and simply waited for the hounds’ master to come take his hide.
Instead Koja cried, “I am a magic fox!”
The biggest of the hounds barked his laughter. “We may sleep by the master’s fire and feed on his scraps, but we have not gone so soft as that. You think that we will let you live on foolish promises?”
“No,” said Koja in his meekest, most downtrodden voice. “You have bested me. That much is clear. But I am cursed to grant one wish before I die. You only need name it.”
“Wealth!” yapped one.
“Health!” barked another.
“Meat from the table!” said the third.
“I have only one wish to grant,” said the ugly little fox, “and you must make your choice quickly, or when your master arrives, I will be obliged to bestow the wish on him instead.”
The hounds took to arguing, growling and snapping at one another, and as they bared their fangs and leapt and wrestled, Koja slipped away.
That night, in the safety of the wood, Koja and the other animals drank and toasted the fox’s quick thinking. In the distance, they heard the hounds howling at their master’s door, cold and disgraced, bellies empty of supper.
* * *
Though Koja was clever, he was not always lucky. One day, as he raced back from Tupolev’s farm with a hen’s plump body in his mouth, he stepped into a trap.
When those metal teeth slammed shut, a lesser creature might have let his fear get the best of him. He might have yelped and whined, drawing the smug farmer to him, or he might have tried gnawing off his own leg.
Instead Koja lay there, panting, until he heard the black bear, Ivan Gostov, rumbling through the woods. Now, Gostov was a bloodthirsty animal, loud and rude, unwelcome at feasts. His fur was always matted and filthy, and he was just as likely to eat his hosts as the food they served. But a killer might be reasoned with—not so a metal trap.
Koja called out to him. “Brother, will you not free me?”
When Ivan Gostov saw Koja bleeding, he boomed his laughter. “Gladly!” he roared. “I will liberate you from that trap and tonight I’ll dine on free fox stew.”
The bear snapped the chain and threw Koja over his back. Dangling from the trap’s steel teeth by his wounded leg, a lesser creature might have closed his eyes and prayed for nothing more than a quick death. But if Koja had words, then he had hope.
He whispered to the fleas that milled about in the bear’s filthy pelt. “If you bite Ivan Gostov, I will let you come live in my coat for one year’s time. You may dine on me all you like and I promise not to bathe or scratch or douse myself in kerosene. You will have a fine time of it, I tell you.”
The fleas whispered amongst themselves. Ivan Gostov was a foul-tasting bear, and he was constantly tromping through streams or rolling on his back to try to be rid of them.
“We will help you,” they chorused at last.
At Koja’s signal, they attacked poor Ivan Gostov, biting him in just the spot between his shoulders where his big claws couldn’t reach.
The bear scratched and flailed and bellowed his misery. He threw down the chain attached to Koja’s trap and wriggled and writhed on the ground.
“Now, little brothers!” shouted Koja. The fleas leapt onto the fox’s coat, and despite the pain in his leg, Koja ran all the way back to his den, trailing the bloody chain behind him.
* * *
It was an unpleasant year for the fox, but he kept his promise. Though the itching drove him mad, he did not scratch, and even bandaged his paws to better avoid temptation. Because he smelled so terrible, no one wanted to be near him, yet still he did not bathe. Whenever Koja got the urge to run to the river, he would look at the chain he kept coiled in the corner of his den. With Red Badger’s help, he’d pried himself free of the trap, but he’d kept the chain as a reminder that he owed his freedom to the fleas and his wits.
Only Lula the nightingale came to see him. Perched in the branches of the birch tree, she twittered her laughter. “Not so clever, are you, Koja? No one will have you to visit and you are covered in scabs. You are even uglier than before.”
Koja was untroubled. “I can bear ugliness,” he said. “I find the one thing I cannot live with is death.”
* * *
When the year was up, Koja picked his way carefully through the woods near Tupolev’s farm, making sure to avoid the teeth of any traps that might be lurking beneath the brush. He snuck through the hen yard, and when one of the servants opened the kitchen door to take out the slops, he slipped right into Tupolev’s house. He used his teeth to pull back the covers on the farmer’s bed and let the fleas slip in.
“Have a fine time of it, friends,” he said. “I hope you will forgive me if I do not ask you to visit again.”
The fleas called their goodbyes and dove beneath the blankets, looking forward to a meal of the farmer and his wife.
On his way out, Koja snatched a bottle of
from the pantry and a chicken from the yard, and he left them at the entrance to Ivan Gostov’s cave. When the bear appeared, he sniffed at Koja’s offerings.
“Show yourself, fox,” he roared. “Do you seek to make a fool of me again?”
“You freed me, Ivan Gostov. If you like, you may have me as supper. I warn you, though, I am stringy and tough. Only my tongue holds savor. I make a bitter meal, but excellent company.”
The bear laughed so loudly that he shook the nightingale from her branch in the valley below. He and Koja shared the chicken and the
, and spent the night exchanging stories
From then on, they were friends, and it was known that to cross the fox was to risk Ivan Gostov’s wrath.
* * *
Then winter came and the black bear went missing. The animals had noticed their numbers thinning for some time. Deer were scarcer, and the small creatures too—rabbits and squirrels, grouse and voles. It was nothing to remark upon. Hard times came and went. But Ivan Gostov was no timid deer or skittering vole. When Koja realized it had been weeks since he had seen the bear or heard his bellow, he grew concerned.
“Lula,” he said, “fly into town and see what you can learn.”
The nightingale put her little beak in the air. “You will ask me, Koja, and do it nicely, or I will fly someplace warm and leave you to your worrying.”
Koja bowed and made his compliments to Lula’s shiny feathers, the purity of her song, the pleasing way she kept her nest, and on and on, until finally the nightingale stopped him with a shrill chirp.
“Next time, you may stop at ‘please.’ If you will only cease your talking, I will gladly go.”
Lula flapped her wings and disappeared into the blue sky, but when she returned an hour later, her tiny jet eyes were bright with fear. She hopped and fluttered, and it took her long minutes to settle on a branch.
“Death has arrived,” she said. “Lev Jurek has come to Polvost.”
The animals fell silent. Lev Jurek was no ordinary hunter. It was said he left no tracks and his rifle made no sound. He traveled from village to village throughout Ravka, and where he went, he bled the woods dry.
“He has just come from Balakirev.” The nightingale’s pretty voice trembled. “He left the town’s stores bloated with deer meat and overflowing with furs. The sparrows say he stripped the forest bare.”
“Did you see the man himself?” asked Red Badger.
Lula nodded. “He is the tallest man I’ve ever seen, broad in the shoulders, handsome as a prince.”
“And what of the girl?”
Jurek was said to travel with his half sister, Sofiya. The hides he did not sell, Jurek forced her to sew into a gruesome cloak that trailed behind her on the ground.
“I saw her,” said the nightingale, “and I saw the cloak too. Koja … its collar is made of seven white fox tails.”
Koja frowned. His sister lived near Balakirev. She’d had seven kits, all of them with white tails.
“I will investigate,” he decided, and the animals breathed a bit easier, for Koja was the cleverest of them all.
Koja waited for the sun to set, then snuck into Polvost with Lula at his shoulder. They kept to the shadows, slinking down alleys and making their way to the center of town.
Jurek and his sister had rented a grand house close to the taverns that lined the Barshai Prospekt. Koja went up on his hind legs and pressed his nose to the window glass.
The hunter sat with his friends at a table heaped with rich foods—wine-soaked cabbage and calf stuffed with quail eggs, greasy sausages and pickled sage. All the lamps burned bright with oil. The hunter had grown wealthy indeed.
Jurek was a big man, younger than expected, but just as handsome as Lula had said. He wore a fine linen shirt and a fur-lined vest with a gold watch tucked into his pocket. His inky blue eyes darted frequently to his sister, who sat reading by the fire. Koja could not make out her face, but Sofiya had a pretty enough profile, and her dainty, slippered feet rested on the skin of a large black bear.
Koja’s blood chilled at the sight of his fallen friend’s hide, spread so casually over the polished slats of the floor. Ivan Gostov’s fur shone clean and glossy as it never had in life and for some reason, this struck Koja as a very sad thing. A lesser creature might have let his grief get the best of him. He might have taken to the hills and high places, thinking it wise to outrun death rather than try to outsmart it. But Koja sensed a question here, one his clever mind could not resist: For all his loud ways, Ivan Gostov had been the closest thing the forest had to a king, a deadly match for any man or beast. So how had Jurek bested him with no one the wiser?
For the next three nights, Koja watched the hunter, but he learned nothing.
Every evening, Jurek ate a big dinner. He went out to one of the taverns and did not return until the early hours. He liked to drink and brag, and frequently spilled wine on his clothes. He slept late each morning, then rose and headed out to the tanning shed or into the forest. Jurek set traps, swam in the river, oiled his gun, but Koja never saw him catch or kill anything.
And yet, on the fourth day, Jurek emerged from the tanning shed with something massive in his muscled arms. He walked to the wooden frames, and there he stretched the hide of the great gray wolf. No one knew the gray wolf’s name and no one had ever dared ask it. He lived on a steep rock ridge and kept to himself, and it was said he’d been cast out of his pack for some terrible crime. When he descended to the valley, it was only to hunt, and then he moved silent as smoke through the trees. Yet somehow, Jurek had taken his skin.
That night, the hunter brought musicians to his house. The townspeople came to marvel at the wolf’s hide and Jurek bid his sister rise from her place by the fire so that he could lay the horrible patchwork cloak over her shoulders. The villagers pointed to one fur after another and Jurek obliged them with the story of how he’d brought down Illarion the white bear of the north, then of his capture of the two golden lynxes who made up the sleeves. He even described catching the seven little kits who had given up their tails for the cloak’s grand collar. With every word Jurek spoke, his sister’s chin sank lower, until she was staring at the floor.