Prologue

Illiah was born a poor farmer's daughter, in the same house her father's grandfather had built. Life wasn't easy, but she grew up happy and loved. For her twelfth birthday, her father gave her a large egg he had found in the grass down by the stream. She kept it warm and safe, and in due time it hatched out a gangly gray gosling. Illiah loved her little goose and fed it from her hand, and as it grew, it would follow her around the farm and sleep in a box beside her bed at night.

Seasons passed and Illiah grew into a fine young woman. The goose grew, too, into the sleekest, most beautiful blue goose in the kingdom, and even won first prize at the fair. So it wasn't any wonder that the bird drew the attention of a fox prince.

Larger than other foxes, the fox prince was handsome and sly, his pewter coat glossy and gleaming from whiskers to tail. He would sit beneath the quince bushes at the edge of the farm and watch the goose, his amber eyes bright and unblinking, for there was nothing in the world that the fox prince loved more than the taste of blue goose. The only thing that kept him beneath the quince was the farmer and his gun.

One day, when the farmer was not to be seen, the fox prince crept out from under the quince and called to Illiah.

"Sweet, beautiful girl," he said in his most flattering voice, "I was wondering if you might have an extra dish of cream? Just a few drops to ease my hunger?" Well, Illiah was too kind for her own good, but she wasn't stupid. She took her goose inside and locked it in her room while she took a saucer of cream over to the fox prince. He lapped it up and licked his lips. "My thanks," he said, then disappeared back under the quince.

The next day, he tried again. "Sweet, beautiful girl," he called, "I seem to have a burr in my ear and I cannot get it out. It's causing me such pain!" Again, Illiah locked the goose away before removing the burr from the fox prince's ear. "My deepest thanks," he said, and disappeared again.

The next day, the fox prince returned, this time dragging a hunter's steel-jawed trap on his left hind foot. "My sweet girl," he cried, collapsing in front of the quince bushes, "please, take pity and remove this awful trap! I'm so weak I can barely move"

Illiah was horrified and ran right over, and of course, her goose followed right behind her. No sooner had she released the trap than the fox prince leaped up, grabbed the goose by the neck, and dragged it under the quince. Illiah wept and pleaded, begging him not to harm her goose, and the fox prince realized that he had fallen in love with the kind girl. The sound of her tears broke his heart and he let the goose go, its feathers a little ruffled, but otherwise unharmed.

Thinking the goose had escaped, Illiah grabbed it and ran inside the house, where she begged her father to find and kill the wicked fox. Her father searched everywhere, but he did not find the fox prince.

That night, the fox prince crept out from under the quince, his broken heart barely beating, and crawled to Illiah's window where he began to sing a song so beautiful and sad that Illiah woke with tears on her pillow.

"That is the song of a fox with a broken heart," the goose said. Illiah, though, wasn't so sure.

"He just wants another chance to eat you," she said, getting out of bed to go wake her father.

"Why?" asked the goose. "If he wanted to eat me, he wouldn't have let me go." This was news to Illiah.

"What do I do?" she asked. "How does one heal a broken heart"

"You must give him a new heart," said the goose as it tucked its head beneath its wing and went back to sleep. In her nightdress, Illiah crept out of the farmhouse and over to the henhouse. She killed one of the laying hens and cut out its heart, and carried it, still warm and twitching, to the dying fox.

"Here," she whispered, "a new heart to replace your broken one." The fox prince took the heart and swallowed it in one gulp.

"My eternal thanks," he said, and then rose up on his hind feet and gave his coat a hard shake. The glossy pewter pelt fell away and the fox prince stepped forward, a tall, handsome man with dark hair and amber eyes. He took Illiah's hands, still warm with fresh blood, and drew her to her feet. "My sweet, beautiful girl," he said, "you have healed my broken heart and saved my life. Will you do me one more favor and please agree to be my wife"

They were married and in due time she bore him a fine son, human, save for a pair of silky gray ears and a soft, bushy gray tail, with his father's bright amber eyes and his mother's soft, delicate features. They named him Kaedes, which means "son of the silver fox" and the three of them lived happily ever after.

Well, until she got cancer and died, anyway.

I was only eight, so nobody told me that I was going to lose my mother, but I knew. Somehow, I just knew. On the night that she died, I crept into her room and climbed up into the bed beside her and begged her to tell me the story of how she'd met dad, just one last time. She tried, but she was so tired, so I told her the story, and when I got to the end, to the happily ever after, I looked over and she was gone, but she was smiling.

We buried her on the hill beneath the rowans. After that, dad spent a lot of nights in the fields around the manor, crying up at the stars. I remember waking up in the dark and hearing him, so sad, so lost without her. I was just a kid, but I remember trying to be strong for him, because he needed me to be.

A couple of years later he married again, not because he loved her, but because he said I needed a mother. She was not, and never will be, my mother. She was a widow and had a daughter from her first husband, and while Arice was a witch, they were both nice enough. At least, they were when dad was alive.

A few months ago I found him in the field down by the forest, a large fox with his pelt cut off, ravens pecking out his eyes, a single arrow piercing his heart. We buried him beside mom, up on the hill under the rowans. That was the first night I saw his spirit, sitting in the corner of my room, a translucent silver fox watching me with glowing amber eyes. He told me he couldn't return to the land of the foxes until his pelt was laid to rest. I asked him who did it, but he never saw them. All he heard was hounds baying and the thunder of horse's hooves, and then the whistle of an arrow in flight.

I didn't know how, but I swore to him that I would do whatever it took to get his pelt back and let him rest in peace. Easier said than done.

Author's Note: This is probably the peskiest bit of writing I've done in a long time. It's supposed to sound like a fairytale, right up until Illiah dies, and I'm not sure if I have it right. Any comments would be greatly appreciated.