Published: December 11, 2012
Ferric's New Friends
By Ed Conen (Iron Ed)
Based on a drawing by Sarrah Wilkinson (Nightlyre.)
The young kit was busily picking berries for his mother, and happily stuffing half of them into his mouth. He was much closer to the village than his parents usually let him go unsupervised but the village males would be out in the fields at this time of day. The kit felt confident that he would be safe as long as he headed home before the villagers returned for supper. Besides; he wasn't actually -in- their village, or even in clear sight of it. He was just in the edge of the woods that encroached between the village and the nearer fields.
The first basket was full, even with the kit putting half his work into his mouth, and he was now working on the second. This basket was filling faster since he had filled his furry tummy along with the first basket. This time most of his gleanings were going into the basket when an odd feeling set the fur standing up on the back of his neck. He took a quick glance behind himself and froze, then, making no sudden movements, he turned around. Squatting on the ground behind a spread cloth full of… things were two goblins! A quick glance to right and left showed no other goblins in sight, but the only thing that meant was that they were not in sight. Even a little kit knew that much. The kit was noticeably taller than a goblin, especially with their stooped posture, but he was not stronger. He could certainly outrun one too, but they usually travelled in packs and were probably all around him even now, just out of sight.
"The young fox works well," said the bigger goblin ingratiatingly, "Will he trade?"
A quick side glance at the other goblin showed that one eyeing the full basket of berries hungrily. This goblin was smaller than the one that had spoken and had a different, slighter build. Perhaps this was a female? Were they a mated pair? That should be a good sign, shouldn't it?
The young fox relaxed slightly, but he still wished his father was with him. He'd never actually met a goblin before. These two wore the leather straps, beads and feathers their kind favored. They were really more decoration than clothing since their fur made clothing unnecessary in most weather just as it did for the fox. The leather did include certain pieces that could be considered light armor however, especially on the male.
On the other hand the only visible weapons, other than teeth and claws, were belt knives and they were safely sheathed. Careful to keep his ears and tail up the kit smiled back nervously and moved to sit opposite the goblins. "What will you trade for?" he asked looking from one to the other.
"Berries!" piped up the slighter goblin instantly, "Nis is hungry!"
The bigger goblin lowered his ears and cuffed the other lightly; then he rolled his eyes. "Berries," he agreed with and waved a hand over the goods on his trade cloth. "What would you?" he invited.
A look at the goblins' trade goods showed mostly junk. There were also some simple but interesting goblin-made craft items, and a couple of decent objects probably put out just in case the kit had more to trade than it looked like. Like any boy the fox kit was fascinated by a knife at the back of the display. He quickly learned he had no chance of acquiring it though, not with just berries as trade-goods. Besides, if he tried to drive too hard a bargain the goblins would probably just pick their own berries. The berry patch did not belong to anyone in particular after all. There was also the faint but still real possibility that if there were more goblins nearby they'd just take all the berries from the fox and leave him with nothing.
Watching the smaller goblin fidgeting and eyeing his berries touched the kit's softer side and he began to wonder if maybe she was a daughter rather than a mate to the other goblin. Casually he counted out five of the biggest berries, from the second basket, and offered them to her with a polite dipping of his own ears and just a slight tail wag.
For her part, the goblin started to snatch at the offered gift but stopped at the last moment and looked a question at the other. He sighed, nodded briefly and looked away, pretending to straighten a string of beads. The female straightened, dipped her ears in thanks to the fox and plucked the berries gently from his hand one at a time. She then popped them into her mouth and made obviously happy sounds.
In the end a deal was struck. The goblins got the full basket of berries and the fox kit accepted a mixed bag of fancy buttons that he knew his mother and sister would like almost as much as the berries. He also got an empty, goblin-crafted basket that he planned to fill with berries to replace those he'd just traded away.
With a sigh of relief the young fox watched as the goblins packed up their trade goods and moved off down the trail. The female looked back at him and dipped her ears as she followed the other away and the kit responded with a smile and dip of his own dark-furred ears.
So, in the long run the fox kit was coming out ahead. With the goblin-crafted basket he'd still have plenty of berries to take home; it just meant a bit more work filling it. Even the bag containing the buttons would be interesting to show off. It was goblin-made too, of soft leather and with an interesting dragon's head design burned into it.
The kit moved off to the side to an untouched patch of berry canes and went back to work. Most of the cane patches were fresh and had not been too picked over yet. Still, the fox did not take more than half the berries in any patch and tried to not trample the canes or knock unripe berries to the ground. His mother had knocked it into his head to always be considerate and leave some for others and to not waste the canes or unripe berries. They'd be there ready for picking in another week or two.
Working steadily and moving in the same direction he finished filling the first basket quickly and stashed it under a tree. Daydreaming of bragging to his sister and friends of his encounter and successful trading with the goblins, all by himself, the kit had the newly acquired goblin basket filled within another hour. He stashed that basket with the first and went back to get a few more berries for his stomach before heading home.
The fox had his head down as he tossed several berries into his mouth while rounding a tree when he walked face first directly into the belly of a… The higher his eyes went the lower the kit's ears went as he looked up and up. Eventually he found himself looking directly into the eyes, and exposed teeth, of a…
"Human!" the kit yelped. His tail tucked automatically as he turned to run in panic. He didn't make two steps before; looking back over his shoulder, he fell directly into the berry patch he'd just left moments before. The thorns on the berry canes caught in his fur and clothing and the more he struggled the tighter they clung. Worse, in his panic he'd not been able to step carefully and at least a couple of thorns had worked their way between his footpads and into the softer undersides of his toes. He managed to roll over onto his back and get his hands up; claws extended he bared his own teeth as he growled warningly at his attacker.
Oddly enough the human didn't follow up its advantage. It squatted down where it was and quit baring its teeth as it calmly studied the fox kit it had trapped.
"I won't hurt you, young tod," it said in a soft, almost melodious voice, "You don't need to be afraid. You surprised me as much as I did you; besides, you're the one who ran into me, remember?"
The human bared its teeth again and this time the fox remembered that this was the human equivalent of a smile, most of the time. When a member of the fox clans exposed his teeth in a smile or laugh he also opened his jaws. Humans didn't really growl and exposing their teeth with closed jaws was a smile while exposing them with open jaws generally happened with laughter. This human had only been smiling at him all along!
The young fox quit growling and ducked his head, ears down in embarrassment. "My apologies," he said formally, "I mistook your human smile for the start of an attack."
"Oh! I'm so sorry!" said the human quickly dropping its smile. "And here I am a professional guide and liaison making such a beginner's mistake too. You really did surprise me!" "Here; let me help you up," said the human extending a hand. This time it smiled without exposing its teeth.
The kit paused to study the human for a moment before extending his own hand cautiously. Unlike with the goblins; it only took a moment to realize that this human was a female. She had a smoother body shape than male humans and, even though she only had two, her breasts were considerably more prominent than those of the average vixen. Of course, she was also considerably taller than the average vixen.
"My name is Ferric," the kit introduced himself, "YOUCH!" He yelped loudly and hopped in place, almost falling down again.
The human bent to catch Ferric around the waist with her other arm and helped him to sit against the tree under which they'd met. "What happened?" she asked in alarm, "Are you badly hurt?"
"Thorns," groaned Ferric through gritted teeth as he pulled his foot up into his lap, "I stepped on them wrong when I tried to run from you."
"Oh thank goodness," replied the human, "I was afraid it was something bad like a twisted ankle."
"Easy for you to say," Ferric grunted as he tried to turn his foot to where he could see the bottom, "Humans wear shoes."
"True," admitted the human, "And we tend to forget the problems of those who don't." "Here; let me do that for you," she continued. "It's my fault after all for baring my teeth like that. A professional guide should not make such a mistake. By the way, my name is Ashleigh; friends usually just call me Ash though."
Ferric hesitated just a moment before extending his foot, ready to snatch it back if 'Ashleigh' tried anything mean. He had nothing to fear though as Ashleigh carefully searched the fur under his toes for the one thorn Ferric directed her to. Then she did the same for the other foot, which had two thorns. After he was back on his feet she helped him with brush and thorns stuck in the fur and clothing on his back where he couldn't see.
"Thank you for the help…Ashleigh," said Ferric after taking a few cautious, mincing steps to make sure all the thorns were gone. "I'm sorry I reacted like that. My parents have taken me into the village before and I should have known."
"I was happy to do it, Ferric," Ashleigh replied, "And please call me Ash. After all this I'd like to think we could be friends!" With that she grinned at the fox with a toothy, human smile.
Ferric giggled and then quickly straightened up into a more adult tod-like posture. "Ash," he replied and gave her a foxy grin of his own.
"So," Ashleigh said, "What are you doing here outside the village? I thought foxes tended to stay away from human towns unless they have business there."
Ferric's ears slowly drooped in dismay when he looked around and realized where he was. "Oh no; Mother will trim my ears!" He started to run, yelped, and sprawled in the leaves and grass again.
"Ferric! Are you all right?" exclaimed Ashleigh as she hurried to the distressed kit. She helped him sit up and reached for his feet. "Did we miss one?"
"No, I don't think so," Ferric replied through gritted teeth. "That one is just extra sore right…there!" He bit back a yelp as Ashleigh probed under his toes.
"It feels okay, and none of the thorns I pulled out were broken," said Ashleigh, "I think maybe that one just hit a nerve or got right into the joint before we got to it. Come on and let's get you into the village where I can soak it with hot water; that should help."
Ashleigh helped Ferric to his feet and he held onto her as he gingerly tried to walk.
"Wait; my berries," said Ferric.
"Berries?" Ashleigh asked.
"That's what I was doing here," the young fox explained, "Picking berries for Mother. Could you get them for me, please? They're over behind that tree…there." He pointed to a tree not far away.
Ferric's new friend hurried to the indicated tree and returned with the two baskets of berries. "Nice picking job," she said handing them over, "These look really good. I was just getting a few handfuls for myself when we ran into each other."
Taking a basket in each hand Ferric gave Ashleigh a grin, took one limping step and nearly lost everything. He crouched on the ground, frustrated and embarrassed almost to the point of tears, but was just a little too old to admit it.
Here; I'll help you," said Ashleigh gently. She took one basket and helped Ferric up. Ferric put one arm around the much taller human's waist and held onto her belt. He carried one basket in his free hand. Ashleigh, couldn't stand and still reach Ferric's waist so put her arm around and just below his shoulder while carrying the second basket in her other hand. Together they hobbled into the village.
Eventually Ashleigh had Ferric ensconced on an out of the way bench near one of the small shops where he had a view of the main street. Since most of the human tods were still out in the fields or pastures things were pretty quiet and he only saw the occasional human vixen or kit at a distance.
Ashleigh brought soap and a pan of hot water out to wash his injured foot and then had him sit and soak in it. He was already feeling better when she sat next to him and said, "They had some kind of celebration here yesterday, but apparently we both missed it. But; I happen to know they made ice-cream and have some left over in the ice-house. I'll make you a deal; I'll buy us a couple of bowls if you'll provide a handful of berries for each of us to put on it. Deal?"
"Ice scream?" asked Ferric perplexedly.
"Ice 'cream'," his friend corrected him. "You've never had ice-cream?" she asked in surprise, "And living as close to this village as you do?"
"I never even heard of it," admitted a shame-faced Ferric.
"Well I'll provide the ice-cream and you provide the berries," Ashleigh said. "I promise you it's good. I've never met a kit yet; fox or human who didn't love it!"
Ten minutes later Ferric had his nose in a bowl of something really cold and really good. Ashleigh laughed and had to slow him down and explain about an 'ice-cream headache' before it was too late.
While they ate Ashleigh asked about Ferric's goblin-made basket and he told her all about his first time trading with goblins. "You say the smaller one's name was Nis? You're lucky; if those are the ones I know you ran into one of the nicer groups of goblins. Goblins have their own ways, same as humans, foxes and dragons and we all have to tolerate the differences in order to get along and, as goblins go, Lares and Nis are a nice couple to deal with. I've run into them several times and always been well treated, so I go out of my way to treat them well in return. I recommend you do the same and word will get out to the other goblins about you too."
Ferric cocked his head as he listened and looked at his new friend. "I think you are a nice human too," he informed her seriously.
Ashleigh laughed at that. "Thank you!" she replied, "And I think I've found myself a nice fox friend! Now, how's the foot?"
Standing proved to be no problem now and Ferric wiggled his toes with only a slight wince. He quickly covered it up but Ashleigh's sharp eyes had seen it anyway.
"I'm expecting a friend to meet me here soon," Ashleigh informed Ferric, "Want to wait with me and play a game or something until she gets here?"
Soon they were both in the grass under a tree between buildings, using dice borrowed from the storekeeper and with Ferric's buttons for counters. He was doing quite well against the adult human and finally cocked an eye at her suspiciously. "You're letting me win aren't you?" he asked.
Ashleigh started to laugh but saw Ferric's expression and caught herself. "I play to win," she told him seriously, "I don't try my hardest when I'm just playing for fun with friends, but I only give away games to small children. I promise, you are winning honestly today." Then she smiled again, "This just isn't my game apparently!"
Ferric nodded; smiling happily back at Ashleigh before throwing the dice as if nothing had happened. They continued back and forth like this while talking of goblins, trading, families and Ashleigh's most recent guiding job. At one point they turned around at the sound of barking and saw a big dog chasing a goblin down the far side of the street.
"Hey; that's one of the goblins I met today! I've got to help him!" exclaimed Ferric starting to rise.
"Wait; it's okay!" said Ashleigh catching Ferric's arm. "That's my dog, Rosie; she won't hurt him. In fact that is one of the goblin couple I told you about; Lares. He knows Rosie is just playing and is giving her a good chase."
Sure enough, moments later the two were headed in the other direction with the goblin holding onto Rosie's tail as the big dog dragged him along running faster than he could on his own.
After watching this give and take between Rosie and the goblin for a few minutes the dice game continued until a shadow fell over the players.
"Company!" Ashleigh announced and started to rise, "It's about time too."
Ferric glanced over his shoulder as he picked up his buttons. He actually barked in alarm as he jumped up and tackled Ashleigh, knocking her off her feet and back behind the corner of the building they were playing beside.
"Ferric! What-??" Ashleigh was shocked to find herself flat on her back with her new friend on top of her.
"Dragon!" Ferric hissed in warning, "Be quiet and maybe it won't find us!" Peeking around the corner revealed the black monster investigating the abandoned buttons and berries. Quickly he drew back and hissed at Ashleigh again to be quiet. Ferric couldn't understand why Ashleigh was laughing. Hadn't he just possibly saved her from a huge, carnivorous creature?
"Ferric; it's okay," Ashleigh said sitting up and brushing herself off. "I promise, it's okay. This is the friend I was waiting for! Please, calm down now; we're safe."
"A dragon?! The friend you were waiting for is a dragon?" repeated Ferric in a shocked tone. "You didn't say anything about a dragon!"
"I'm sorry," Ashleigh said stifling a giggle, "I thought I'd surprise you; not give you a heart attack. Please forgive me? Still friends?"
"Grrr," Ferric grumbled brushing at the back of his neck. "It's going to take all afternoon to get my fur to lay flat again."
"Well you do look kind of like a fluffy porcupine at the moment," Ashleigh chuckled. "Come on; let me introduce you to Keesa."
"You're sure she won't mind?" Ferric asked hesitantly, interested despite what he'd been thinking. "I've never even seen a dragon before!"
"Keesa won't mind; I'm sure," encouraged Ashleigh, "Maybe she's never seen a fox before either. Come on now." With that she stepped around the corner of the building to greet her friend. "Keesa! Where have you been? I've got someone for you to meet!"
"I think I got a peek at him just now," the big dragon replied, "Is that really a fox you have there? Oh, sorry; the wind was wrong. I had to tack back and forth the whole way here. That's what took so long."
Seeing the dragon acting friendly, Ferric finally followed Ashleigh and went to stand beside her. "Hello, dragon!" he called loudly.
"Hello, fox!" the dragon replied in her deep rumble as she canted her head to get a good look at him. "I've seen your kind before," she continued, "But I've never met a fox in person. How do you do? My name is Keesa."
"I'm Ferric," Ferric answered, "And I've never even seen a dragon before; you're huge!"
"I'll take that as a compliment," Keesa responded, "Thank you. And I thought foxes were supposed to be red."
"There are as many grays as reds," responded Ferric defensively. "We can climb trees way better than they can too. What kind of dragon are you? I thought only riftwalker dragons were black, but they're all gone."
"Guess again," rumbled Keesa, and then she grinned at Ferric, showing all her huge teeth. "Boo!"
Ferric's fur puffed out again instantly and he disappeared back around the corner trying to drag Ashleigh with him.
Ashleigh tried not to laugh as she resisted Ferric's efforts to 'save' her again; but it was hard. "Keesa!" she scolded, "That was not nice!"
"True," Keesa admitted with a chuckle, "But it was funny. I like seeing his fur puff up like that."
"Keesa; he's only a kit!" persisted Ashleigh, "Now apologize and tell him he's safe with us!"
"Ashleigh's right, Ferric," Keesa said in her most reassuring rumble, "I really was just playing with you; I promise I would not hurt you! Please come back; I've never talked to a fox before."
"Ferric?" called Ashleigh after a few moments.
It was another full minute before the two mismatched females saw whiskers and muzzle slowly reappear around the corner of the building. Gradually Ferric eased his way out into the open. His ears were laid back and his whiskers twitching as he crept out, down on all fours and prepared to run again.
The human stood quietly, well back and with her hands on her hips as she patiently waited for the spooked kit's nerve to return. "Come on, Ferric," she coaxed, "Please?"
Keesa had moved even farther back and was not showing any teeth at all. "Yes; please come back Ferric. I've already promised not to hurt you, and if Ash claims you as a friend then I also would like to be your friend."
Finally, after watching and sniffing for a bit, Ferric sat back and scratched under his chin, then gave himself a shake, stood up and walked over to stand next to Ashleigh.
Ashleigh put an arm around the young fox's shoulder reassuringly when he inched closer to her side. She really did have to repress a giggle at how his tail stayed puffed out, but he valiantly worked to keep it from tucking under as he looked up at the dragon towering over them both.
"Ferric; as you already know, this is Keesa. Keesa and I have become good friends over the course of this trip and I trust her completely." Ashleigh said seriously. She smiled and waved a hand towards the dragon fondly, "I have slept right next to her on many occasions and feel as safe there as anywhere else I can think of. Keesa, this is Ferric; a new friend I just met today. He has already proven himself to be brave, resourceful, honest and considerate of those he deals with; even those who are total strangers to him. With qualities like these, I like to think the three of us could all become very good friends to each other!"
"I agree, Ferric," rumbled Keesa, "Unlike some humans I have known, Ashleigh has never lied to me. If she says you are a worthwhile friend, then I trust her judgment and would also be pleased to know you as a friend." "I don't have many," she added almost wistfully.
The dragon and the human waited; watching the young fox's ears flag as his inexperienced mind thought all this over.
Eventually, Ferric straightened up and slipped away from Ashleigh's reassuring hand. With his ears pricked forward and a slight waving of his tail he walked out to Keesa. "I've liked being with Ashleigh today, Keesa," he said with a friendly fox smile, "I think I'd like to know you too."
Ferric stood his ground when Keesa dipped her muzzle down to sniff him and even reached out to touch her nose as he sniffed at her in return. Tail definitely wagging now he turned as his other new friend moved up beside him again.
"I'm glad this all turned out so well," Ashleigh said brightly, "But I think we're making the villagers nervous." "Or at least you are," she amended while grinning at the dragon.
"Wha'dya say we help get our new friend safely home, Keesa? I'm afraid with my help he's managed to injure his foot and will end up losing his berries trying to walk home."
"I'm willing," Keesa responded without hesitation. "I'm sure that, between the two of us, we can manage to get new friend Ferric home safely," she added dryly.
"But…I don't…It's not that far!" protested Ferric, "You don't need to do that; I can still walk home okay!"
"Come on," Ashleigh urged him with a grin, "Don't worry; we don't have anything else to do and we're staying near here tonight anyway. Just you wait here with Keesa while I go get Dex, my horse."
"So, what do you think of Ash?" Keesa asked Ferric curiously once their friend was out of hearing.
"I like her," Ferric answered firmly looking up, "She smells good, and it doesn't change when she tells me things."
"Good; I like her too," Keesa agreed, "Ash has never lied to me, she's a good worker and she's fun to talk to."
"Yeah; we talked a lot too," said Ferric, "We had a good time. She played Pickit with me too, and I won!"
"Did you? Good! I've never cared about that kind of game myself, but Sukozu would probably like it. Maybe some day you'll meet him and play," Keesa suggested.
"Is he one of Ash's human friends?" asked Ferric curiously.
"Dragon," corrected Keesa, "He likes associating with humans though. Maybe he'd like foxes too; I don't know."
Ferric and Keesa were getting along quite well even in the short time before Ashleigh returned with her horse in tow. Moments later they were walking out of town; Ferric in the saddle and carrying one basket of berries in one hand and holding onto the saddle with the other. Ashleigh walked alongside carrying the second basket and leading the horse. Keesa brought up the rear a little distance back to keep from spooking the horse.
Ferric kept fidgeting around until finally he asked, "Don't you want to ride too, Ash?"
Ash smiled back at him. "That's all right," she replied, "I'll ride after we drop you at home. Dex is mostly calm around dragons now but he can still get a bit spooky on occasion. It took a long time to get him used to Keesa's kind and I wouldn't want him to act up and buck your berries all over the road!"
"It still doesn't seem right," grumbled Ferric, but he lapsed into silence and enjoyed the ride. "I almost never get to ride a horse," he said finally, "Usually foxes walk or run. I could run all the way home without even getting tired, if my foot wasn't sore."
"I could run it too, but I'd be all out of breath when I got there," acceded Ashleigh.
"I wouldn't be tired OR winded," put in Keesa as she pointedly fanned her wings and made everyone laugh.
It was only about a mile, maybe a bit less, to the stretch of forest where Ferric's family lived and seemed even less than that as the three cemented their new friendship along the way. Keesa stopped and hung back as Ashleigh took Ferric the last hundred yards or so to the den. Here the woods were too thick for Keesa to pass through without damaging trees. Ash gave Ferric a hug and told him goodbye before leaving him within shouting distance of home and then returned to where Keesa waited to walk back to the village.
Ashleigh would spend the night in the village and continue her trip on horseback the next day. Keesa would fly ahead to wait at the next spot they'd chosen along their route.
Ferric was already thinking of the tales he'd have to tell about this day. Not only had he met goblins and successfully traded with them, alone; but, he'd also had his very first taste of ice-cream, made friends with a human and actually played Pikit with her and won. Last, but not least, he'd not only seen a dragon, but they'd become friends too. And not just any dragon either, but a real, live riftwalker! Not even his father could say that, or anyone else he'd ever known.
That night Ferric curled up in his nest-bed reliving the glories of the day. He was still too excited to sleep, he thought, almost as much from telling and retelling the tale as from the actual adventures. Totally to his surprise the next day he fell asleep immediately. Who knew that much excitement could to lead to exhaustion and sleep as easily as it could to lying awake all night?