Kitsune-Hime: The Lady of Foxes
Author's Note: This story is based on an old Japanese folktale. Whilst not exactly a retelling, it features well-known characters in Japanese folklore. Any similarities to any other stories based on the same material is completely unintentional. For those interested, I will include some background information on the original tale at the end of the story.
Please enjoy ~ W.J.
Chapter 1 – Brush-Tip Hill
Deep within the heart of the Shinoda Forest, more than three ri from the closest rural village, there stood a hill all covered with grasses. Though not a high hill, its sides were quite steep, and almost the exact shape of the large domed bells which are rung to mark the hours in most temples. The forest encroached upon all sides of it, yet could not climb it; it rose like an island within the sea of foliage. Only one tree grew upon it, directly at its summit - a tall conifer of significant height, and spectacular appearance. It appeared to have at some point during its long lifespan been struck by lightning, and it was indeed questionable whether it was scarcely alive at all. All its bark was an ashen grey colour, truly black in some places like a piece of charcoal pulled from a brazier; and it was bare of any branches save at its very pinnacle, where a sparse tuft of stiff green needles waved somewhat forlornly. Despite its irregularity, it was a rather splendid-looking tree. Due, perhaps, to its shape and colour, which made it look rather like a calligraphy brush that had been carelessly dropped into an inkwell, it had been given the name Hake-saki-oka: 'Brush-Tip Hill'. The humans who knew of this place revered it, and shimenara paper strips had been hung around the tree's slender trunk to indicate its exalted status. However, no pilgrims came to pay tribute to it, no monks or priests came to seek enlightenment in its shade. It was revered not so much because it was significant to humans, but rather because they feared just what the tree itself signified. This tree marked the boundary between the world of humans, and that of the mysterious beings that they believed haunted the forest. Hake-saki-oka had long been reputed as a gathering place for yokai and obake, ayakashi and mononoke – it was rumoured to be a meeting place for demons.
One night late in summer, when the wind, already starting to taste of autumn, whined pensively through the tree-tops and the tip of the great tree seemed to be painting dark ink-blot clouds upon a full moon in the sky, a great deal of activity took place upon the hill. If a man had stood in the nearby undergrowth and watched, unless he had been blessed with both the night vision of an owl and the quick sight of an eagle, he would've been blind to the sudden smudge of shadow that hurried up the hill, scampering hither on nimble paws. A man with swift senses might have seen a flash of white upon the slope, and assumed he had merely seen a moonbeam alighting upon a blade of grass. He would not suspect that what he had seen, darting up the hill swift as a minnow riding a river current, was actually the white tuft of fur that tipped the tail of a fox.
Many of them came, not arriving all at once, but one or two at a time, as if by prior agreement, so as not to raise the suspicions of any watchers who chanced to be nearby. Such precautions were observed, though they were not strictly necessary, for no mortal man dared linger here when the sun had departed the sky, and the beasts of the forest gave them privacy, regarding these creatures as their overlords. For they were not mere animals, these foxes, but kami - beings of great spiritual power who were well-versed in the ways of gods and men alike, and could like-as-not outwit both if the occasion called for it. These were the tricksters and shape-shifters, the knowers of magic and ancient wisdom. They were able to wear the form of any creature, man or beast, as easily as one would don a mantle; they were able to speak the tongues of all creatures, able to weave spells that could befuddle the senses of the wisest of men. These were the kitsune, creatures with sharp yellow eyes, and steely silver whiskers like the strings of the shamisen; swift feet tipped with sharp claws, needle-like teeth within strong jaws; sleek fur that made them as smooth and slippery as eels as they slid through the hunter's hand; and magnificent tails of plush hairs, soft as thistle-down. These were creatures to distrust, creatures to be extremely wary of, and above all - particularly at this time and this place - creatures to be avoided.
As they mounted the hill, moving swiftly and ascending with ease over the slippery grass, they darted within the shadow of the great tree and dashed into a hidden opening between thick grey roots that were gnarled and twisted by time. At least three-score-ten of them entered this portal, for within was a great space, lofty as the grand halls of a human palace. Its walls and ceiling were one, a great dome the same shape as the hill, for this room was indeed inside the hill itself. As each fox entered this room, he suddenly rose up from all fours to stand on his hind legs, and suddenly he was attired in the costume of the humans, and walked upright as they did. A few kitsune wore the simple tunics and leggings of country farmers; however, most wore the sumptuous robes and voluminous hakama that denoted a person of high rank in the human world, and seemed to serve the same purpose here. As has been said, at least thirty of them appeared through the door in the hill - foxes of all descriptions, ones with sandy brown fur or russet red or creamy white; foxes with long bushy whiskers greyed with age upon their snouts, or smooth, youthful jowls, barely older than kits. None of them were required to remove their sandals at the door, as was custom in human establishments; for all were shod in his natural footwear, pads on the soles of their feet which were as soft, yet also as tough, as leather; and claws which left four tiny toe-marks where they scratched into the dirt floor.
The great room-within-the-hill was quite bare, its only features to speak of being a great twisting mass of tree roots set in the direct centre of the roof, from which numerous lanterns had been hung; and there was straw, loose strands instead of the tightly-woven mats the humans made, spread out on the floor, on which the foxes seated themselves quite comfortably. It was apparent that they arranged themselves in some sort of order of rank, for the most richly-dressed foxy individuals gathered at what was decidedly the 'front' of the round room. A sort of raised platform made of mounded dirt and carpeted with fresh green, pungent-smelling pine needles seemed to be its focal point. The foxes seated themselves in an orderly fashion before this dais, and they talked civilly amongst themselves, just like men would do if they were gathered together in such a fashion.
But truly, no human eyes could ever have caught glimpse of such a fantastic scene, no heart of man could have viewed it without quaking at the terrible splendor of it all. Enchanted beasts, behaving as though they were men-! It was frightening, to think that creatures of magic and mayhem, like these who had gathered, could act thusly, with such guile and propensity. Surely such a crowd could only congregate to serve some nefarious purpose.
Kuichi-san, a sandy fox with long, drooping whiskers, bowed his head and moved the low table before him back a little, allowing the venerable fox who had spoken to him to seat himself in front of him, upon the very farthermost edge of the straw-strewn floor. Kuichi-san had on the table before him an ink-stone, already wet with ink in preparation, and a brush which was made from a single slender joint of bamboo, tipped with what appeared to be his own downy white tail-fur. Such a rustic, yet extraordinary, writing kit had surely never been held by human hands. Kuichi-san was a scribe, well-versed in the written language used by man, and he had been commissioned to record a written account of this meeting beneath the hill.
Though he obligingly made way for the other, he could not help but think his fellow fox to be somehow peculiar, and eyed him discreetly once he had seated himself with his back towards him. He was a rather large fox, tall, and of unusual colouring. Instead of the typical fox-fur colours, this gentleman was an ashen black all over with only a hint of scarlet; the same colour as a burning ember with fire still glowing at its centre. It was a colour better suited to a red-tinged wolf than a dark-furred fox. Yet this foxy personage wore a rich robe of blue watered silk trimmed with red stitching and embroidered with gold thread in a chrysanthemum design; and wide white hakama of the purest linen, which reached well past the level of the ground, dragging behind him and hiding his paws from view. He wore the black pointed hat of an imperial official, and from the full sleeves that hid his fore-paws protruded a fan with a red tassel adorning its handle. For a moment he turned to his left to acknowledge his neighbour, and Kuichi saw that his eye was brown – not the mud-coloured brown of a dull-witted beast, but a brown that was vibrant and sparkled with energy, like a river stone worn smooth and clear, dazzling in the light. Kuichi thought to himself that it was odd that such a kitsune of obvious high rank would seat himself at the back of the room with the commoner foxes, when the nobility of their kind were gathered at the front near the dais. However, he presently dismissed such thoughts from his mind - though he did not voice them, to even so much as think them was impolite, and the matters of a superior were of no concern to one such as himself. He hence turned his attention elsewhere.
After a time, when it seemed the foxes who were present had settled themselves and newcomers had ceased to arrive, the strange gathering of creatures became suddenly silent, as though at the sight of some hidden omen; like a forest holding its breath before a storm arrives.
And then, out of nowhere, a fox suddenly appeared upon the dais.
Edit: I changed the name of the hill; I realized that I got the Japanese wrong. Oops!