The Song of Mr Rattle-Chains and the Fox

And so one day, with the autumn leaves falling like hands in applause from the tree tops, the Fawn Queen called all the forest animals to attend her. High above them, she perched in her throne of spun spider’s silk and dandelion seeds. Her gleaming auburn curls framed her human face, with its sweet, deceptive smile and large, moist brown eyes. As the animals gathered, she smiled the smile they had come to love, and to fear, and announced her grand plan.

There would a contest, she had decided. A contest to celebrate the warm times, and to remind all that winter was not so very long. All the great bards of the court would have a turn of the moon to travel to every corner of their forest. They would be tasked with only one mission- to bring back a story. The songs from the stories would warm the hearth through all the long winter- and, most importantly, the winner might have any favour from the Fawn Queen that they might desire.

Now, although a wild and savage brood, the animal court were no more free than you or I. Caught by the Fawn Queen’s rule, they had only the edges of the great forest to call home- and every move watched by the Fawn Queen’s little spiders, who rode their sparrow steeds through the trees, and sat perched above every trail, and whispered their sly spider secrets back to the Queen- a Queen whose smile was ever more sharp and fanged in her sweet little face. A favour from the Queen, with a promise and a magic seal that forced her to honour it, was worth more than gold to mankind.

The Queen called them up, one by one, and lay the mark of their office about their throats. The great Bards she called first- the wolves with their mournful choir, the nightingale with her sweet melody, the cicadas with their haunting dirge, and the crickets with their string instrument legs- even a lone satyr with his pipes took the acorn pendant the Queen bestowed. At last, the Queen looked up from her bequeathing and out across the hall.

Come forth, she cried to her assembly, any one among you who will take the challenge. She was confident that her Bards were all picked, but nevertheless waited.

A disturbance in the crowd surprised her. With a twitch of an ear, and hop of the leg, a very small hare approached the Queen.

I would take your favor, your Grace, said he. The court fell at once into a pile of laughter.

You? She asked. A shivery little ground digger like you has no great voice. What could you hope to sing? The Fawn Queen lifted herself up and tottered forward on her thin deer legs to look down at the hare. She raised a cool brow and pursed her soft lips.

Mayhaps, said the hare, but I should like to try. Shaking her tumbled locks back from her face, the Queen tossed an acorn at the hare.

Do what you will, little shivery, but do try not to get eaten. She laughed, and with a clap dismissed the court. With a thunder of hooves and sweeping of wings, the great forest court abandoned the great oak that the Queen held as castle, and went forth to hunt for stories.

The hare was last to flee, and his humble legs were very short. Although he had the ease of a born runner on his side and was fast out into the dim autumn byways far off from the Queen’s hall, he was no faster than any other animal, and slower than some. Although steadfast, he ran and ran under logs and over mossy stones, past fairy rings and splashing across puddles and streams – but soon he fell behind.

And shortly after the hare lost sight of all other contestants. Alone in the dusky twilight beneath the rustling canopy, the hare stopped to take stock. He had about his throat a kerchief of red and little grey spots, and carried the acorn in his little fist. These were all his possessions in the world. But soon, he knew, a favour would be his- and this was all he would ever need.

On the hare travelled, through the day and the night and the day that followed. He searched on and on, thinking that the forest was vast beyond measure, and surely soon he would find a story before he found the borders.

One evening he dipped his little white nose into a puddle to drink- and as sudden as daybreak, he was tipped forward and splashing. He spluttered and cried and tried to rise- but a soft black paw pinned him in place. A bright red fox had caught him unawares, her teeth and nose looming above him. She was about to eat him up right there, when the sight of the acorn by his throat gave her pause.

What are you doing in my forest? Said the fox, her tail lush and her sharp white teeth gleaming. Silhouetted in the moonlight, she cut a terrible figure for a shivery little rabbit. Clutching the acorn to his breast, however, the hare thought how good a song the fox may make and drew upon his tiny courage.

This is the forest of the Fawn Queen, cried he.

That spider’s whore? Phaw! I will bow to no insect! Cried the fox. Are you one of her little maggots? She asked, and shook the hare.

Oh no, cried the hare, I am but a humble bard in search of a muse for which to compose a song.

You? Asked the Fox, and sat on her haunches. Well, mayhaps you are. Let us have a song, then.

But the hare, knowing he had but no voice, begged off. He would need a song first, he explained, and without a muse no song could be sung. The fox considered the hare for a thundering heart beat (or a fair few, to be honest), and at last raised her paw.

Well, I grant you leave to follow me, she said. I will be a fine figure for any great song- and as it happens, I am on a quest. But should you try to run, little rabbit-man, I will pounce on you and tear you to bits! Raising her tail on high, the fox sauntered away into the dusk.

Now, the hare was in two minds. To stay with the lovely fox was to court death- but to flee would let the chance to compose a truly great song slip by! It was not every evening a hare may befriend a savage queen on a quest, after all! With a twitch of an ear, he hop-ran to catch her red tail in the brush.

As they bounded through the dark of the forest that night, the fox told the hare of her life’s journey. Once, when she was but a cub, the fox had had many brothers and sisters, and they lived in a precious, low little den with their mother, the Queen of Foxes. And how they loved to scamper and run wild in the forest, she mused as she led them over stony bluffs that broke the forest canopy, and into a raised plateau of the forest above the hare’s known reaches. She could still taste the air of her cub years. It was sweet with the happiness of immortality, for all young know only of life and do not fear death.

The foxes are tricksters, one and all. They play at night, when the moon chases them across fields and under fences. They are thieves and villains, but- as the fox said with a twinkle in her eye- even the humble vixen and her small cubs must eat. And what is a chicken to mankind, who grow more as soon as a rooster is let loose?

Here she paused, lowering her gleaming black eyes to look at the hare. A sad and wistful look came upon her, and the hare became aware of the closeness of the night.

But then, Mr Rattle-Chains had a visit from the Queen of Foxes. Of all the men on the edge of the forest, Mr Rattle-Chains was the most loathsome. A giant, 8-ft tall, he was a man without a face. He came in the night, draped in the dread touch of cold iron, and he led five huge hounds on five long, fat chains, and he brought with him the cold of winter, and he let loose his hounds to feast upon the foxes- her mother, her brothers and her sisters, and nearly upon her. But for a small cleft in the stone of her mother’s den, just big enough for a tiny fox pup, she too would be gone.

And then, the fox was no longer a pup. Once you have looked upon death, you learn to fear it – and fear does not belong to the young.

The fox looked past the hare, her face draped in shadow. We will sleep now, she declared. With a thump, she turned away from her audience and lay in the lee of a great tree. She closed her eyes and would talk no more that night.

On the morrow, the two continued on their journey. The fox led them through the valleys and peaks in the forest- she stalked around open fields and, when possible, kept to the deepest shadows. Trickster creatures learned to fear the brighter fingers of sunlight beneath the great forest of the Fawn Queen, she explained to her shivery little shadow. The hare, curiousity piqued, listened raptly to every word from the fox, and hopped doggedly after her.

Eventually, the fox demanded the hare’s own story. Breathless, the hare began in turn. Long ago, he said, there was only the moon in the great sky above the forest. It was a huge, round mother high in the heavens, even greater than it is now. This was before the Fawn Queen reigned, he said, before most animals were born in the space beneath the trees. Certainly, it was before the hares. The moon was indeed huge and round, and the night was a very lonely place. She grew tired of being forever alone, so one evening she taunted the sun, way over the other side of the earth. She sang him a song to rise in his blood, a ribald song of fertility and challenge. And so the sun chased her across the skies, ever closer, until one day they were joined in the miracle of the eclipse. For a very brief moment, the moon allowed herself to be caught and impregnated with the sun’s seed. And, over the next turning, she grew greater and greater in size, until she eventually birthed the first hare in the shape of a comet. The first hare blazed across the sky, coming to land upon the earth. The moon could gaze upon her children and no longer feel alone. But, her punishment for taunting the sun was revealed- being born of both the sun and the moon, hares were destined to linger only in the between-times. At dusk and dawn, the hares would have their fill, and flee from the sky whenever the slightest sign of danger threatened. However, said the hare as it hopped along by the fox, when we die we become the stars. And so our mother the moon might never be alone.

The fox looked at the hare doubtfully. There are an awful lot of stars, said she.

Oh yes, said the hare, looking bashful. But hares and rabbits are famed for having an awful lot of –ahem- children as well. The fox yipped her laughter and urged the hare on in his story. One day, said he, I will show you the proof. The moon blesses us with the speed of the shooting star when we dance beneath her at her fullness. I may even race you, then. And the hare winked up at her.

For many a day, the fox and the hare travelled. The forest had become low and dark, and soon a huge, terrible castle loomed up out of the gloom.

Your mother stole from there? Cried the hare in fear.

My mother was the Queen of Foxes, said the fox quietly. No walls could hold her out, nor did she fear the men inside them. This was her great folly. The fox was sombre, gazing at the black and grey bulk ahead of them. As the two crept closer, the baying of the hell hounds could be heard.

The hare trembled in fear. How does he tame them? He asked the fox.

He has caged a beautiful bird, said the fox, a creature of gold and crystal plumage. It sings sweeter than any creature on earth, taming those beasts into a stupor- and with the song lulling them, Mr Rattle-Chains can take the iron links that grow like parasites from his dead, gray flesh, and lash the hounds about the throat. With the freezing bite of the chains upon them, they obey him. The fox looked grim. I suspect the hounds may hate Mr Rattle-Chains more than I do, she said.

Looking up, the fox eyed the gray, pitted walls of the castle. She had come all this way, she confessed, but had not truly had a plan. Uncertainly, she looked at the hare. Her revenge was so near, saw the hare, but not yet in her grasp. Looking up as well, the hare sought a solution- the walls were high, to be sure, but old and it was easy enough to find a gap. The true fear was the dogs, and the dogs were controlled by the chains and the bird- spying the shape of the moon in the sky, the hare had an idea.

I will lead the man in a merry chase, said he, while you steal away the bird. When Mr Rattle-Chains goes to fetch his dogs, he will not find them so sedate. The hare winked at the red fox. But you will owe me a favour, my lady fox, he said.

Alight with hope, the fox agreed to the plan. She did not truly expect the hare to succeed- but he may provide distraction enough before his capture for her to steal the bird. Afterwards, she would have all, and with the hare gone she need not owe him a thing- or, she thought, if she did not like the request, she could do away with her captive bard before she must pay. She agreed to his plan.

The two set off, investigating the perimeter. The walls were beaten down by weather and time, and they soon found a gap wide enough for the two of them to fit. In the yard, they found the castle quite barren. Somewhere, the gentle cluck of chickens could be heard, and the howls of the hounds behind the keep, but out in the night only the two of them breathed. High above, the hare spied a light in a window.

Separating, the hare and the fox went after their tasks. Finding a staircase, the hare hopped up and up, in search of the light. A great rattling echoed through the keep, bouncing off walls and down stair wells. It was this the hare followed, his timid feet drawn on by his determination. At last, well above the yard, the hare poked his nose past a door and eyed the man inside.

Mr Rattle-Chains sat hunched in a chair. A great old giant was he, bigger than a man. Covered all over his back in hairs, bristling grey and barbed like a spider’s, he looked as though he was under a thick cloak- but his front and his face were hairless skin, grey as a corpse. From his breast, five thick metal studs protruded. The skin around them glistened with gore, but the giant ignored both them and the long, fat chains that swung from them to the slate floor. The giant’s breath pooled in the air as it stared into a dead hearth, and its long, thin hands clawed around the arms of the great chair he sat in.

The hare screwed together his courage and screamed into the dead stillness of the room. Bit by bit, the giant turned its face to the door. Eight great eyes, the eyes of a spider, looked at the hare. There was no mouth, no nose, just the staring, staring eyes. The hare looked death in the face and shivered in fear. With a menacing clatter of the chains, the giant rose and came on. The hare, utterly tiny in comparison, bolted from the room.

Meanwhile, the fox had circled about the keep and found the hounds in their cages. High above them, hanging from the limbs of a great apple tree, the golden bird slept. The fox grinned her sly grin.

The hounds growled low at the sigh of the fox, her prancing red shape teasing them in their cages. I have come to steal the bird above, said she as she danced. And not a dog among you will stop me.

We care not for the bird, little vixen, said one hound. One eye was dead and blind, but the other glowed red in his black and ghastly face. But you look a treat for a hungry brother.

What say you to a greater feast this evening? Asked the fox. She grinned again, coming ever closer to the bars. What say you to never being starved for His sport again?

The hell hound considered the thought while the vixen climbed the apple tree. Her thin black socks scrabbled at the bark, but before long she had claimed the bird, and the cage swung from her teeth.

We agree, cried the dogs, their howls echoing in the yard. The bird stirred in its sleep, its thin, molting plumage waving sadly in the breeze of the fox’s descent. Shut it, you fools, she hissed in the dark. Do you wish to wake the bird? Or worse, give the game away? She tossed he head and glared at the hounds. Remember, he will look only for your compliance. When he comes with the chains, you best play dead.

With that, the fox turned to go. Only then did she hear the sound of dread, coming ever closer down the stairs.

Rattle-clunk, rattle-clunk, the chains slid and fell on each step. Rattle-clunk, rattle-clunk, came the sound of their end.

The fox looked set to flee, fearing the worst for the little hare. Rattle-clunk, and now the sharp hiss of Mr Rattle-Chains’ breathing, and the shushing drag of his dead grey feet. The fox was frozen, the bird quite forgotten, as she eyed the black stairwell in terror. Rattle-clunk and the sounds of the hunt echoed from that terrible night, all those years before, when the last she had seen of her mother were the pieces left behind after they tore her apart- an ear, a foot, a tail of one of her siblings by pieces of her mother’s pelt. She shuddered, but could not move.

Then, like a streak of light, the hare raced out towards her. He comes! Screamed the hare, pounding in a fierce hopping run by the fox’s body. He comes, and we must flee! The fox shook herself, aware of the world once more. Turning, she followed the hare and ran behind him all the way, the bird in the cage clutched in her teeth, her long tail hunched beneath her in fear. Together they ran for the break in the wall. Only once did the fox look back- long enough to see Mr Rattle-Chains reach for his hell hounds through the open cage door, ready to secure a thick chain about one thick black throat while they slept in a magic haze- only for the hound to leap and bite and rend, the howls of the giant eclipsed in the night as howls of the hounds rose in blood lust.

The fox looked away and ran and ran, trying desperately to catch the hare that flashed brilliantly ahead of her. They ran on, through the night, long after the sounds of the castle had faded, and still they fled.

Eventually, however, the moon set and the hare began to slow. Where comes this speed? Panted the fox as she caught up to him. I had not known you to be so swift before.

Ah, said the hare, his nose a-twitch. It was a full moon last night, my dear fox. I ran with my mother’s blessing, and did I not give you a merry chase as I promised? The hare smiled at the fox, who stood amazed.

Together, the fox and the hare travelled back towards home. The daughter of the Queen of Foxes had been too long away from her den, and she feared her kin may have missed her. The hare had a contest to win as well, and time was running swift ahead of them. Soon, it came time for them to part ways. As they stood face to face, across the clearing where the fox had first caught the hare, the hare reminded her of the favour she owed him.

I have thought long, said the hare, and decided- I will have the golden bird that you stole from Mr Rattle-Chains.

The fox grew grim. She had planned to use the bird to guard her den from the hounds should they visit. One note from the small golden songbird and the hounds would fall helplessly asleep before another fox might die. She had no desire to give it up. Name another favour, she asked instead.

No, said the hare. I will have the bird, or the song I make of this journey will be naught of the Queen of Foxes’ valour and only of her sneak thievery and fear. Furious, the fox handed the bird to the hare.

Oh, but run little hare, said she, or I will eat you up the next we meet. And, with a flash of her tail she vanished in the brush.

And so the hare took the golden bird, and he taught it how to sing the words he had composed over that long, long month. With her in tow, the hare bard came back to the hall of the Fawn Queen.

High above the floor of her court, still swinging in her seat of spider webs, the Queen listened to her concert. The wolves sung of the snow lands to the north, where the world beyond the forest was giving way to the White Queen on her chariot of ice. The nightingale sung of love in the south, where the great stag of the forest had fought off man and reclaimed the world. The cicadas sung of the Fawn Queen’s beauty and the very many pleasures she had bestowed during the summer months- but also of her terrible justice, and of how the forest kin had grown to love and fear her. At last, the hare came forth and set the bird before the hall. He tapped a long branch, coughed, bowed to the Queen, and lifted his wand to conduct the golden bird.

Together, they sung of the long nights on the road, of the friendship of a hare and fox- known enemies- and the sadness of lost kin. They sung of the fear brought on by Mr Rattle-Chains’ keep, and the baying of the hounds on the wind. They sang of the sun, and of the moon, and of the magic in the nighttime. And such was the golden bird’s voice, that the whole assembly felt the pull of the journey. They felt the world as it turned from the place of a shivering little hare, and of the courage he had in the face of horror.

Needless to say, the hare won his prize.

And what shall I give you, my hare, asked the Queen.

For a long time he mused. Once he would have asked for freedom to see the world. But, after seeing the world he knew that this was not something the Queen might deny him (though she could try). Or he might have asked for her hand in marriage, to rule as king beside her. Or, perhaps, riches and wealth. But now- I would ask only this, my Queen, said he. I wish for the speed of the moon forever. In the nighttime, or in the day, in the full moon and in the waxing and the waning and the dark, I would ask that all hares be given the gift of swift feet. This way we will keep ever ahead of the foxes and the hounds, the giants and the Queens with their spiders- and race ever swifter towards our mother the moon at the end.

So the Fawn Queen granted the hare’s wish, calling on all the powers of the forest to bestow the long legs of today upon the hare. Barely stopping to thank her, the hare disappeared in a trail of dust and fled with his bird into the world. There after, the hare was seen in only two poses on this earth- running and running, in joy and in jest, or gazing at the moon and dreaming of home. But, what became of the bird is best left for another story.

FIN

By Danielle K. Day

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