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The Deed of Rue, ©2022 Elli Miles

The Deed of Rue, ©2022 Elli Miles

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Foxglove was called Foxglove not because of the flower, but because she could slip into the skin of a fox like a hand into a glove. Dancing along ahead of her friend, already nimble on two feet, she drew her fur cloak over her head and burst forward on four little paws, skittering under grass pale as seafoam in the sun, so Rue couldn’t see her at all and was obliged to call after her, hustling to catch up, bunching up her skirts with grumbles of annoyance.

“Slow down! Slow down! I couldn’t run like you, even before my injury!”

At the reminder, Foxglove came bounding back, because she wasn’t cruel. Clapping teeth at dragonflies, swishing her great tail like a fire-eater with a baton, she plunged ahead, straying little by little from Rue’s side, tugging herself guiltily back whenever she realized her mistake. She’ll get tired, going on like that, thought Rue, but said nothing, only reaching a hand over to scratch her friend’s head, finding comfort in the warm fur.

“I’m glad you find it exciting, going out like this. I just wish I’d had this problem a year ago, before they pulled up all the flyroot in the kingdom. Could have stayed at home then, taken my cure in a nice warm tea …”

“You’ll have your tea,” yipped Foxglove.

“I hope,” said Rue. “I hope.”

“You don’t have to go out searching. You could petition for an exception.”

“You’re joking,” said Rue.

“Yes, I am,” said Foxglove with a toothy smile. If that were possible, they wouldn’t be risking a trip into the Greenwood. Use of the miracle cure flyroot—called that not because of the insect, but because of the lifted-burden feeling after taking it—was illegal except for those who could prove themselves virtuous enough to deserve it. To Rue’s knowledge, nobody had ever made it through the petition process, which demanded the affected person appear before the court of the king in a cart with four square wheels,

“Pulled by a horse without any legs,

While a hunting dog nips at its heels!

The dog should be fed on the smoke and the dew,

and never taste bone, blood, nor hide!

And be fitted with bells that sing like the birds,

without any clappers inside!”

Foxglove, uninterested in the difference between thinking a thing and expressing it, had recalled the song and was singing it now, giddying herself into a twirling rush of jewel-bright cloak swinging around and around her shoulders—now she was a fox, now a girl, fox, girl, fox, girl—sliding effortlessly between bi- and quadrupedal dance steps. Rue laughed when she took her hands and spun her around, trees and sky and distant mountains blurring in the haze of spontaneous joy, but after a moment whispered, “Enough, now. We’ll be seen. Only one reason a young woman would be heading for the forest with a fox.”

Sighing as the last of her great belly-laughs wound down, Foxglove tucked the fur under her arm, settling into an upright walk at Rue’s side. “More than one reason!” she said. “We’re good for more than just sniffing out herbs. Maybe the young woman and the fox just happen to be best of friends, such as we are.”

“Of course,” Rue said. “But nobody in the employ of the crown would see it that way.”

They crept in near-silence, the only sound the susurrus of brush underfoot like a conspiratorial reminder from the land, shh, shh, shh. In her mind, Rue spoke in return. Thank you for the gift of flyroot, she thought, imagining the soil could hear her words through her feet. At the edge of the wood she hesitated, taking a moment to watch the day ripen into plum twilight. She’d pictured a catastrophe at this point in their journey, the gamekeeper patrolling the boundary between the open and the cover of trees. But nothing like that happened, and they ducked between black trunks.

“Who did you your injury, Rue?” Foxglove asked when they were almost in shadow, her eyes glowing somber in the light of what little sky peered through the canopy. They’d stopped to rest and light their lanterns, and Foxglove leaned heavily against a beech while Rue fiddled with the strike-a-light. Though they were alone, Foxglove still used their code-word for Rue’s condition, one chosen to protect her from nosy family and neighbors. It was a more comfortable word for Rue, one that felt true. “Will you tell me here, with all these leaves to guard us? At least tell me whether it was done in fun or in force—”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Rue. “I want it cured and gone. Isn’t that enough?” Strike, strike, striking of steel against flint in her patient fingers until at last both oil candles burned in their little cages. That’s why it’s called catching fire, she thought with satisfaction.

“Yes, that’s enough,” said Foxglove. “I’d be your guide no matter what. All the same, though, I’d like to know if someone’s troubled you.” A shifting under ivy rambles, the pawbeat of a rodent, and though she was in her woman-form, Foxglove turned her head to listen, pin-precise.

Rue ran her tongue along the backs of her teeth, thinking of her companion’s sharp bite. “You’re a dear good friend, Foxglove. No, it was honest sport. A tumble in the grass. I’d let you know if I needed revenge.”

So on they walked until the forest was black around them and then a while longer. Stopping in a patch relatively dry and undisturbed, they built a small fire on parched leaves. On it Rue set the little pan from her pack; she poured barley gruel from the crock she carried and began slivering apples into it with the knife she took from her pocket. At first she watched the mixture silently, but soon grew nauseated with the smell and left Foxglove to tend it while she retched. When she returned, she tried to eat, but couldn’t bring herself to swallow, grains and apple mash working their way back up her throat like so many bugs, so she gave up her portion to Foxglove in defeat. Foxglove looked on her companion with worry, but didn’t turn down the meal, even licking the pan clean when she was finished. Rue watched her absently, too ill to make good conversation. It was many days yet to the Greenwood, the densest part of the forest on the edges of the kingdom, where patrols were sparser for the distance and the appetites of beasts, where secrets wrapped themselves in roots. The further out one looked, the less control the king held over what transpired in his wood, and the more he craved it. Though he couldn’t stop the growth of flyroot way out there, he compensated with steeper penalties, great long edicts that for all their grave consequence were composed chiefly, if you listened well, of vague gesticulating emotion in the face of the insolence of the land. Though he sent his agents out to intimidate the forest into behaving, they were rarely seen to return. Some things the wood wasn’t ready to give up. Foxglove had been there before, generous and foolhardy—some part of her soul probably lived there always. Rue didn’t doubt her knowledge of the way. Still, the thought of all that walking only worsened her nausea.

They took turns watching the fire and sleeping on the splayed blanket of Foxglove’s fur. When Rue had seen her spread it out, she’d asked if it wouldn’t get dirty like that. Foxglove had grinned and said that between her body and the dirt was exactly where her fur was supposed to be.

Over the following day they kept to subtle paths, not trusting the well-worn ones, ducking behind trees when they heard human noises. Rue ate nothing, put off by the thought of apple, of barley meal, of dried plum, of anything she could pull from her pack. She told herself she could make it like that, not eating, until she got her cure, which would surely immediately return her appetite to its usual state. Foxglove was not so easily convinced. As they made their plans, warming themselves around their fire that second night, she told Rue of a path another day’s walk away which would bring them near a town called Birdbinde. There, perhaps, they could find something Rue could keep down.

Rue hesitated. She reminded Foxglove that she had only a little money and few possessions with her. A bit of food, her fire starter, her cooking pot, and the clothes on her body: dress, shift, woolen socks.

“True,” said Foxglove. “But I know folk in Birdbinde. Someone there will make us a deal. Bar all else, we can beg.”

“What if we’re caught? What if they can tell where we’re going?”

“Trust your guide,” said Foxglove. “And go to sleep.”

 


 

At the center of Birdbinde was a massive ribcage, sticking out of the dirt in pearly arches, large enough for a person to walk through. That was what you did, said Foxglove, if you had a wish to make in this town. You walked between the ribs of the whale.

“I can’t even imagine a whale,” said Rue, swaying on her feet, half-sure she was hallucinating from hunger. “There’s no sea for miles and miles. More miles than I’ll walk in my life. How did it get here?”

Foxglove shrugged. “That’s why people tell it their wishes, I guess. Must be a little magic to it.” Then she stood for a while and stared at the great arcs, clutching her fur against her chest. “You might not believe me,” she said finally, “but I’ve seen the ocean. I met a woman who wore the skin of a whale. She was the wisest woman I ever knew, and I learned more from her than anybody. Someday I want to tell you some of what she told me.”

“Of course I believe you,” said Rue. “I’m not sure I’m worth her wisdom, though. I’ve got no use for the sea.”

“Everyone’s got a use for the sea,” said Foxglove. “That was the easiest thing she taught me.”

Instead of replying, Rue strode beneath the macabre archways, thinking a wish to herself. She crouched when she got to the narrow end of the creature’s barrel-chest, hunching her shoulders to avoid touching the worn smoothness of its inner edges. When she emerged, she spun and smiled at Foxglove, and Foxglove smiled back. That was more like her. She’d grown too sober for a moment, and it unnerved Rue. Foxglove wasn’t herself without a grin on.

There was an inn in Birdbinde, and a few people inside it. Rue almost cried at the smell of warm cooking, half from hunger and half from revulsion. Taking a seat in a corner, she caught her breath and clutched her stomach, and slowly a smell started to rise over all the others, a warm and savory something, decadent, promising. It was meat, and she knew suddenly that meat was all that would sate her craving, all the demanding mass swelling inside her would accept. Foxglove flagged down the bustling landlady, inquired how much a meat pie would cost, or even a morsel, whatever she could part with. The price was more than Rue had brought, and the landlady would hear no trade offer. Flushed with embarrassment, Rue shivered while Foxglove argued, rained curses on the innkeeper, which only made her threaten to throw the pair out.

They left rather than submit to that indignity. Foxglove was mumbling that someone else would help them, they would find somebody, don’t you worry—she’d been a guide to a man from the area, though some neighbors might still know him by his girlish birthname, and if they could find him, surely—or someone else, anyone else, don’t worry, she kept saying, maybe to herself as much as to Rue. It took several moments of this muttering for both women to realize a stranger had followed them out of the inn.

She was old, with a round, serious face, and reached out from under a knit shawl the color of pond water to tug on Rue’s sleeve, motion for them to follow her around the corner of the inn where they couldn’t be seen. “I know your cravings, girl,” she said. “I had the same ones with my first. It’s a shame some people won’t bend for a poor young mother. Can’t blame them with the price of the king’s game, but still …” she shook her head. Rue nodded, wanted to interrupt and correct the woman, tell her she would be no mother, but held her tongue. You couldn’t always tell how a person would react, and Foxglove made no indication that she had seen this woman before. “I’ve got some salt venison. If it will help you, I’ll trade you for it.”

They offered their shoes, socks, dried plums. Offered a day of labor in the woman’s house, a promise of wool when Rue returned home, all these things rejected. What the woman needed, she said, was a tooth. In her old age she had lost hers, and was crafting a set of dentures to replace them. She needed a nice, sharp canine. And you, red-haired girl, you have some fine ones. Could you spare one, for an old crone in need? From somewhere under her shawl, she produced a slim set of iron pliers, turned them over as if to show the young women they weren’t as scary as all that.

Foxglove considered the proposal, glancing back and forth along the road. There was nobody around to watch the transaction take place, concealed as they were. She nodded, first to herself and then to the woman, and opened her mouth.

“Oh, Foxglove,” Rue burst out then, real tears in her eyes. “I know I’ll faint when I see that blood. Before you give your tooth away, could you run back inside and ask the landlady for water? Surely she’ll spare some water. Would you do that for me?”

Foxglove did. While she was gone, Rue whispered her own offer in the woman’s ear, and before her guide’s return, her sharpest tooth had been yanked from her gums in one swift, cracking tug. She washed the blood away with water, nursed the pain on dried meat from an oilpaper bag. Foxglove protested when she saw, but there was nobody to protest to. The thing was done, and the woman gone.

That night, back in the forest, Foxglove thanked Rue with a song, for taking her place. She said it was one she’d learned from the whale, and it didn’t sound right in human language or even fox language, but the words meant something like,

Time came over my mother,

Cold, cold and slow.

Time came over my father,

Cold, cold and slow.

Time will come over me,

And I’ll be snow.

 


 

Rue nibbled the salt venison at all times, keeping a hunk of it in her hand as she walked and in the night while she sat watch or when she woke to piss or be sick in a shrub. She rationed it carefully, allotting herself exactly enough each day for them to make it to their destination, by Foxglove’s estimate. But Foxglove’s estimate was only that, and her nose carried her farther than she anticipated, looping odd paths under crooked trees, turning up dead ends where patches of the herb had been pulled. And Rue was so grateful and glad for the meat that perhaps she chewed it away more quickly than she meant. In any case, it was gone, and they still had found nothing. They were too deep in the wood, too alone to make another bargain. Rue wept. She wept for her tooth and the time she’d wasted, the shame of needing, again and again.

Foxglove found no shame in needing. Perhaps she’d lost it in her travels, blown out of her fur by the wind as she ran on four legs over field and through valley. She was hungry too, and she would see both their hungers sated, she assured Rue. Rue warned her not to do what she knew she was thinking of doing. But when night fell and they built their fire again, she was so tired and weak that she drowsed away on her watch as she stared at Foxglove’s long hair, which flashed the same amber-ruby-garnet as her pelt. When she awoke, it was to the tang of rabbit-blood in the air, Foxglove panting around the gore, eyes full of triumph, of the golden rush of catching and keeping. The rabbit, pulled from so deep in the forest, so close to the king’s precious unyielding Greenwood, was nothing like the skittish brown things that bothered the gardens of Rue’s family, but hung ripe from Foxglove’s jaws with six powerful jumping-legs, fur threaded through with silver tinsel, dead eyes open and still sharp with intelligence.

“You shouldn’t have done it,” said Rue, but she was already eating, feeling vitality return with every bite of sweet strange animal. “You’ve heard the stories of the king and his Greenwood-game. That he can feel the beating of each of their hearts, and when one is poached, he knows who slew it, and sends men to follow them the rest of their days.”

“Not all stories are true,” said Foxglove. “If he didn’t want his game poached, he could have let you take your cure at home. He can’t blame us for what he makes us do.”

That was true enough, and despite herself, when they’d eaten their fill of the rabbit, Rue looked down at its pelt and found it so beautiful that she kept it, folding it into her pack with the rest of her things. Feeling strong enough to resume her watch, she gazed at her friend as she curled up in her fox-shape, tail tucked over her nose. Would Foxglove have gone so far out of her way for anyone? she wondered. Taking a detour through Birdbinde, risking hunting in the king’s wood? Perhaps, if they needed it. But perhaps, too, this journey was special for her, because it was Rue’s. She ran a hand along the fox’s back and the muscles there tensed in reaction. “I didn’t know you were awake,” she whispered. Foxglove rolled over and admitted she was too invigorated by the hunt to sleep. They spent the rest of the night imagining the songs that might be sung about them, if they ever did a deed famous enough for a song.

In the waning of the next day, they came to a patch of flyroot. Rue hadn’t noticed any clear demarcation between Greenwood and not-Greenwood, only a gradual darkening, deepening, until she stood in a clearing that closed around her soft as a curtained bed, promising aid. The respite it offered seemed a crescendo to the whispers they’d heard from the soil when they’d set out. Foxglove in her four-legged form trotted twice around the splotch of deep blue-green ground cover, then left to guard the clearing and allow Rue time to take her cure alone. “Leave some blood behind, if you can,” she warned before she left, and when Rue asked why, if this was part of some magic bargain she was expected to make, Foxglove said no, nothing like that, it was only that flyroot thrived on iron, and it might help replenish the supply for the next one who needed it.

In that sacred privacy Rue started the most important little fire of her journey, bringing some water to a boil in her pot, brewing up her tea. First it warmed her chest and belly, then a calmness and a numbness of body overtook her. Stripping her upper layers so that she sat in just her hiked-up shift, she shuddered through the expulsion of a small mass of tissue, followed by another mass—the placenta, she supposed. The pain was minimal, muted by the tea, and when it was over she hovered an inch above the ground for several seconds, then lay down and dozed for an amount of time she couldn’t reckon.

This time when she awoke, it was to a snarl. Not Foxglove, whose snarls she knew like a second language, who had no use for warning growls, whose killing bite was swift and sharp. This was a lower sound, and came from above. Slowly, Rue opened her eyes to a looming figure, almost man-shaped but warped in ways that marked it as a product of the Greenwood. Its skin ran green and purple like ivy, leafy veins crisscrossing its face. It wore tatters of what must have once been fine clothing, stolen perhaps from one of the king’s vanished men. Branches grew from its limbs and torso, piercing the fabric—one burst from its brow at an angle that looked painful, and one sprouted from its chest, dangling a medal of royal honor. Foxglove struggled in the bend of its elbow, her red fur stark against its body like a bloodstain. “What’s this,” it was saying, in a voice like the crunch of pine needles underfoot, and Foxglove was telling Rue to run, to forget about her, though Rue didn’t know whether her captor could understand her with her fur on. Either way, she didn’t run, but stood to look the thing better in the eye. At this vantage, there was something familiar in its features, grown-over as they were, and it must have known her too, holding her gaze for a space of several breaths. At last she recognized him as Captain Anstey, a gamekeeper who had sometimes stayed in their village, whose mistress Foxglove had led on her own journey to find flyroot many months ago. He was sent to patrol the Greenwood shortly after, and it was rumored this was a sign that his mistress had been found out, a punishment from the crown.

“What’s this?” he said again. “Some little thieves, like in the songs?” He taunted them with a verse, and though his human voice had been unlovely, in his new form it took on the haunting timbre of wind through branches.

“Then slowly, slowly woke she up

And bade the fox to hide her

For she had drunk her poison tea

And killed the babe inside her.

Oh, ru-rum-ra and lack-a-day, there’s murder in a woman.

La-fa-la and lack-a-day, there’s murder in a girl!”

Rue took a step back in fear, wondering how long they’d truly been gone, how their journey had so fast become a ballad, how Anstey could have heard it all the way out here. But Foxglove’s words the night before came back to her, and she understood. Not all stories are true, and some are true over and over again. This was not a new song, but an old one, older than any of them. Perhaps the lyrics had been changed and made to fit the time, but if you cut that song and counted the rings, you’d count for ages.

“Do you know,” Captain Anstey said, “how that story ends? The girl is hanged for her crime, and the fox is skinned.”

“Please,” said Rue. “We mean nobody harm.”

“You break the king’s law, which is harm enough.”

“But surely the king’s law has done its own harm—I mean,” she stammered, flushing red with the boldness of her own words, Foxglove shaking her head vigorously no, but she saw no other choice. “He sent you out here, not caring if you’d live or die. And now look at yourself. You’ll never return to the village like this. Captain Anstey, look what he’s done to you!”

There was a flash of grief in his face. It took up a space of time as slender as a fingernail, but in that space, Rue had time to imagine his trek to this place, the loneliness of the months he’d spent. Had he travelled through Birdbinde on his way too, passed through the whale’s ribs like Rue? She looked in his eyes and almost knew him. But then the murder returned to his expression, the hunger for skinning. Foxglove, he must have known from his mistress, was easily skinned. With a cry of rage he took her by the fur of the head and pulled her cloak off in one motion, so that now he held her girl-form against his chest. With his other hand he threw the fur into the wood, so Rue couldn’t see where it landed. Satisfied with that, he relaxed his grip just barely.

But that was silly of him—to think a girl any less likely to tear his throat out than a fox. Foxglove’s long legs pushed against the ground and she wrenched her head backward, coming away with a mouthful of skin and beard. He stumbled back and Rue, still light with the flyroot, sprung forward into his chest, toppling him to the ground, where his head landed heavily against the gnarled foot of an old tree. They ran together, out the way they came, then zigzagging in directions unpredictable, leaving Captain Anstey and his blood to the beasts and flowers of the wood. Out and out they ran, until Foxglove said she wasn’t sure she could find the path without her fur. Rue pulled the pelt of the Greenwood rabbit from her pack and passed it to her, but when Foxglove tried it on she burst into tears. It wasn’t her own skin, didn’t fit right, cramped her into a space too small, and unable to bear it, she threw it off.

Desperate, looking in all directions for fear of Captain Anstey or another warden of the forest, Rue pulled it over her own head. She’d never been any animal besides a human, but if change was possible anywhere, it was here, and Foxglove had been her guide all this way—wasn’t it her turn? Opening her eyes into the crisp, trembling mind of a rabbit, she found her senses sharper, her nose keen and ears keener. Though small, the skin didn’t feel tight, and somehow contained the whole of her inside. She scented predators all around her, near and far in every direction, stretching out for miles, and she knew that she would be back to this place, because in this body she could find Foxglove’s cloak again.

Before that, though, she would lead Foxglove and herself back home. Stretching the soft, strong paws of her six legs, she started forth.



Katy Bond is a writer of poetry and fiction from Missouri. She gets emotional about folk music and her very supportive friends. Her poetry can be found in Strange Horizons, Epic, petrichor, and elsewhere. This is her first professional fiction sale.
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