Zedri’s feet slid over the pebbles as he picked his way past the shallows. His clothes, day pack, and spear were set neatly back on the rocks, far enough to keep them from accidentally slipping into the cloudy spring. It was good to be back.
The place was quieter now without the crash and boast of his then adolescent friends. The trees seemed thicker with long shadows filling the spaces between them. That might have been his imagination though, it’d only been a couple years since they’d stopped coming to the hot springs and graduated to the bathhouses in town. Not enough time for the trees to grow terribly much. And shadows always seemed darker when you were alone.
He kept his eyes on the dense tree line that ringed the spot. There were no flashes of red fur in the deep green. Zedri sighed and let his feet fall out from under him, submerging his head beneath the sulfurous water. The little currents of the springs tugged against his ankles. He let them pull him gently along the bottom for a bit, Zedri was a strong swimmer and had done this before.
Zedri surfaced, feeling the warmth of the water give way to the chill in the air. He opened his eyes and scanned the shore again. The mud and rock was still empty. That was years ago, you’re being foolish, Zedri thought and flipped on his back to float and stare up at the graying sky.
It was the sound of metal upon rock that roused him. Zedri righted himself in the water, whipping his head towards the noise. Across the white foam of the spring, on the shore, his spear had rolled from the perch he’d set it on. Next to the fallen weapon a young fox stared unabashed at him, her nose twitching in the steam from the spring.
After the moment passed, the creature went back to rooting through his pack with its delicate black paws. Zedri smiled wide. “I knew it.”
His voice interrupted the fox. It lowered its head, appraising the young man in the water with narrowed eyes.
Zedri didn’t approach, but continued to tread water and watch the creature that’d given the name to their secret spot. The foxes here had always been fearless towards visitors, but never friendly. Once younger and spurred by his friends’ dare, he’d tried to touch one. It’d darted away easily, taunting him with a flashes of red fur in the surrounding green. “Are there more of you?”
The fox of course did not answer him, but it did stop going through his now mussed clothing. Instead it sat, as if content to watch Zedri’s upper chest bob in the water. Whether there were lots of foxes, or simply one seen often, had been a matter of debate among his friends. Zedri thought the former more likely, they’d never seen two at the same time.
It meant, Zedri thought watching the fox as it watched him, that this could be the same sly-eyed animal.
“Just you then.” He said conversationally, starting to swim lazily again. The fox stretched. “You know, the bathhouses aren’t bad, but there are not any foxes there. It was odd at first, because I’d gotten used to seeing you here. We all did.”
They’d all suspected there was something strange about the wildlife here. Not only was the fox bold, but it seem to exhibit a fascination with the secret spring that rivaled their own. Years ago, one of the boys had made to throw a rock at their mascot. Zedri had plucked the stone from his friend’s hand before it flew. No one wanted to disturb what they’d had here.
Zedri watched the fox out of the corner of his eye as he swam. The fox completed its round about the spring, settling back next to his things with a small yawn. Zedri had never thought himself very clever. Some boys were smart, some were handsome, and others were strong. Zedri was content with the last two, but even he guessed there was something notable about the creature.
Not sure if he was simply being overly nostalgic, Zedri shrugged and let himself sink beneath the water again. He should get back, lest he incite a need for supervision. Zedri’s head broke the surface a minute later, catching sight of the fox immediately.
Her russet head was deep in the pile of his clothes again. “Hey!” Zedri forgot himself and called out. The fox jumped to attention, the loops of his belt and breeches held between her sharp teeth. They stared at each other for one long moment.
Then on a blur of swift black feet, the fox bolted, dragging Zedri’s breeches with her into the verdant underbrush. “Hey!” Zedri cried out again, suddenly slipping against the spring’s bottom in and attempt to rush the shore. His arms scrambled against the bank, pushing himself into a lurching run.
Zedri ignored the rest of the clothes and his pack as he lept into the forest after the thief.
Thieves come in all shapes and sizes, just like the ones who stole the fact that there are no foxes in the bathhouse for their own pieces. Check out the other foxes, or the lack thereof, at the Legal Theft Project.