(I've posted a few excerpts from this one, which is circling in various forms in my head. This repeats some of the plot points of previous iterations, but in a different form. It's... getting there. Slowly.)
I remember the anger most of all, driving me through the freezing, early snow. I couldn’t feel my toes in my boots and my ears hurt like they’d fall off, but right at that moment, I hated my father so much it didn’t matter. I hated him enough that I brushed aside the early nips of the storm foxes’ teeth. I hated him enough that, striding through the bush, I wasn't even scared. I hated him. He was going to pay.
I reached the old, rust-red railroad, abandoned in the bush decades ago, the faltering line demarcating native eucalypts and wattles from plantation pines. Unlike the eucalypts, the pines looked natural in their coverings of snow. ‘Look at us,’ they seemed to say. ‘We were made for adversity.’
So, it seemed, was I.
It was anger that propelled me through the darkening forest as wind spat snow in my face. It was anger that drove me deeper and deeper into the trees that loomed overhead, blocking the light that glinted in storm foxes’ eyes. But it was grief, when at last I reached the Winter King’s clearing, that brought me stumbling to my knees.
I was eight, and Mum had gone.
“Fix it,” I told him, the Winter King, with his great stag antlers and all-seeing eyes. “Bring her back.”
He smiled sadly. “You know I can’t.”
I challenged his gaze. “Send your foxes. Find her.” The storm foxes, riding invisible on the wind, nipped at my ears, my nose. I ignored them.
His smile vanished. “They are not my foxes any more. They no longer do my bidding. I could not send them if I tried.”
“Then make me one.” My heart hammered in my chest; this was it, this was my father’s punishment, the thing I’d set out to do. He’d driven my mother away, and now I would leave him too. “Make me a storm fox, and I’ll find her.” If I could ride the winds as they did, I’d find my mother wherever she was. Nowhere in the whole wide world would be too far. I’d find her, and I’d bring her back.
The Winter King’s eyes glazed up with tears. “Is this really what you want?”
My jaw ached. “I do.” Cold burned my fingertips. Alive. I felt alive, so damn alive; nothing could touch me now.
The Winter King bowed his head. “So be it.”
I stood, too agitated to kneel, robbed of the fight I’d expected. “I hate him,” I said, though it was none of the Winter King’s business. The storm foxes circled me, red fur and cream throat, black eye and white tooth, glimpses magically visible in the gloom. “I never want to see him again.”
The Winter King laughed without mirth. It sent shivers down my spine. “Be careful, child. You’ve lost one parent already.”
I scowled and swatted away a fox that nipped at my ear. “I’ll find her.”
The Winter King bowed and faded away.
The foxes’ nips grew restless, daring—a toothy, masochistic leer. For the first time, fear trilled along pathways that anger had made.
I didn’t scream when they tore into me—I’d asked for this—but I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my face. It didn’t take long before blood joined them, trickling from my eyebrows, dripping off my earlobes, oozing from wounds on my neck and scalp.
I closed my eyes, alive. It hurt, but in a way that was normal, natural: the physical response of a body being torn apart. For the first time since Mum had walked out, the pain in my heart dulled.
The sharp, sweet iron of blood overtook the crisp smell of the pines. My pulse rushed in my ears until I couldn’t hear the quiet yips of the foxes any more. Slowly, I sank to the ground, fighting against the impulse to shelter my head.
Maybe something had gone wrong. Maybe the Winter King had left me to die. Walked out on me, just like everyone else eventually did.
I tried so hard to be good.
Under all the pain, something began to itch. I opened my eyes. At first all I could see was a haze of red—blood, maybe, or fox fur? It was hard to say. But then the musk of fox grew stronger, the iron of blood faded into the background just a little, and I realised the trees were taller than they had been.
No. I was shorter.
I swiped blood from my eyes—
Ow. I had claws. I stared at my hand—paw—hand? I had paws?
Oh. I realised the storm foxes had withdrawn a little, and that the pain had changed. Instead of the sting of open wounds, I ached like I’d run to Melbourne and back. And I had paws.
I tilted my nose to the sky and yipped with delight. I was a storm fox, and now I’d find my mother quick as breathing.
I leapt off the ground, ready to soar with the winds and the snow. For a heart-buoying moment I flew—
The ground smacked into me like disappointment, and I discovered the truth: I was a fox. Not a storm fox. Just a fox.
Foxes couldn’t cry. I was glad.