Once upon a time, there was a fiddler. He was young and inexperienced, and quite unremarkable except for his skill with his fiddle. He was smart enough, yes. Brave enough. Strong enough. But so was everyone else.
It didn’t worry him, though. There was only one thing that worried him.
He didn’t know who he was.
At some point, he had lived with a traveling group, and they taught him how to live on the road. But before that, he could remember almost nothing. And he wasn’t sure how to learn more about his past except by traveling around the country, playing his fiddle, and asking questions. He called himself Skimmer, but everyone else called him the fiddler.
One evening late in the fall, he decided to stop at an inn for the night. As was his custom, he went down to the dining room and played his fiddle for the people eating there. And as usual, everyone was enjoying it. The customers thumped their mugs on the table in time to the song. The servants clapped. The innkeeper watched on, beamed through his bushy beard, and brought out more food.
And then something happened.
The door blew open with a gust of wind, and a red fox bolted into the room. It shot across the floor, not stopping once until it had climbed up onto Skimmer’s shoulders. It curled around his neck, panting and eyeing the door.
Then the hounds broke into the room, barking and yipping. They bounded over to Skimmer and sat in a circle around him, barking at the fox.
“What’s all this about?” demanded the innkeeper.
The door opened again, and in stormed an angry maid with something feathery in one hand. She pointed at the fox.
“This one’s been stealing from the chicken coop again! He killed three last night and another this afternoon, and there would’ve been more if I hadn’t caught him!”
Skimmer opened his mouth to speak, but the dogs were still barking at the fox on his shoulders. He put his bow to his fiddle and drew out a long, low note. The dogs stopped barking, eyeing him curiously with their big, dark eyes.
Skimmer turned to the maid. “I’m sorry, miss. And he’s sorry too.”
The maid wasn’t appeased. Next to his ear, the fox’s heart was beating quickly.
“How much do you want for the chickens he killed?” Skimmer asked.
The maid stared at him long and hard. Finally, she lowered her gaze. “Five gold pieces.”
He took out his money bag and paid her in full. In turn, she set the feathery carcass down at his feet, and called the dogs back to the yard. Her face was gentler as she walked out the door.
Even after she was gone, the fox’s heart was still racing. It watched the door for a second, and then glanced at the fiddler.
“The chicken’s yours now,” Skimmer said.
The fox climbed down from his shoulders and sat by the chicken. And then Skimmer started playing again, the customers started dancing again, and all the tension was gone.
He played long into the night, until everyone had gone to bed. Then he stayed in the dining room, sitting by the fire and watching it burn into the last logs. The fox was still there; he watched his rescuer carefully, and finally said:
“Thank you… I wasn’t sure how I would get out of that one. Your wits are quicker than mine. What’s your name?”
“I don’t know,” the fiddler replied.
“You don’t know your name? What do people call you?”
“Usually they call me Fiddler. I call myself Skimmer.”
“Skimmer…” the fox flicked an ear. “Why’s that? Do you skim stones on the lake? Are you good at it?”
“No,” Skimmer laughed. “I’m really bad at it! But that’s the one thing that I can remember about who I am, and so I try not to forget it.”
Silence fell. The fox watched the fire.
“You really don’t know who you are?” he asked.
“No,” said Skimmer. “But I want to know. And I want to know about my father… who he was, where we lived, what my mother was like. Everything. All I have right now…” he hesitated, “… is that one memory of sitting on the shore of a big lake, skipping stones with my dad. He had the bluest eyes, the deepest laugh, and he taught me how to play the fiddle. That’s all I remember.”
“That doesn’t sound like the people around here,” said the fox.
“No… that’s why I’m traveling. I want to find out where I came from.”
The fox shifted closer to the fire. “You know… our king is supposedly one of the wisest people in the land. I bet he would know something about your father.”
“I do. In fact, I’m willing to help you get to the city and meet the king. Does that sound good?”
A deal was struck. That night, the fox slept inside for the first time in his life. Skimmer slept by the fire, dreaming of kings and castles and foxes chasing chickens.
The next day, they set out for the castle. It was a brisk autumn morning, and everything felt exciting. But as the hours of walking turned into days, and the days to weeks, Skimmer grew tired.
“Why are we slowing down?” asked the fox.
“My feet hurt,” said the fiddler, sitting down on a stump. “I’m not used to walking this far all day, every day.”
“We should get a horse, then. That’s how most people get around.”
“Where am I supposed to find a horse?”
“Right there,” the fox pointed with his nose. There was a farm on the side of the road.
“I don’t have any money,” Skimmer pointed out.
“That won’t be a problem. Just go see if they have a horse!”
As it turned out, the farm was a horse farm. There were all sorts of different horses, whinnying and stamping and sniffing at the newcomer as he followed the farmer past the pens. But all of them were too expensive.
“Ask him if these are all his horses,” the fox whispered.
“Are these all of your horses?” Skimmer asked.
“Well…” the farmer hesitated. “Now that you mention it… there’s one more.”
“Is it a good horse? How much is it?”
“She’s a very good horse. And she doesn’t cost a thing.”
Except the good horse who didn’t cost a thing had a problem: she wouldn’t let anyone ride her. Everyone who tried got thrown off after a minute or so, and she knew how to throw them hard. The farmer was starting to wonder if it was even possible to tame her.
“This is the horse you want,” the fox whispered. “Trust me on this one.”
“Sir,” said Skimmer. “If I can ride the horse, can I keep her?”
“I don’t see why not,” said the farmer. “But she’s big enough to break your neck!”
After a debate that lasted half the morning, he finally agreed to let Skimmer try his luck with the horse.
The creature in question was in a pen by herself, out on the fields. She was white as snow, with a dappled nose and dark eyes. Those dark eyes watched as the farmer opened her gate and let the fiddler walk in. He left his fiddle outside the gate, along with the fox.
“Be brave,” the fox whispered. “She’s waiting for you to show fear: she can smell it. That’s why the others failed.”
At first, the horse stayed where she was on the field, watching him. Then she came closer, sniffed his hands, and stared down her nose at him. He could see why the others had been afraid: her hooves were the size of dinner plates.
“How brave are you?” the horse whispered.
“Let’s see,” Skimmer replied.
The horse stood still while he mounted her. Then she started doing everything she possibly could to knock him off. Skimmer clung to her neck for dear life. The fox ran alongside the pen, yipping encouragement.
“Just hang on! Don’t let go! You’ve got this!”
The horse ran the length of the field, her white mane and tail streaming out behind her. She fought him for an hour. Just when he thought his arms would give out, she stopped bucking. She whinnied once, pranced over to the gate, and stopped.
The farmer came over, utterly shocked.
“May I keep her?” Skimmer asked.
Numbly, the farmer nodded. As they turned to leave, he asked: “Boy, who are you? Who was your father?”
Skimmer turned around. “I don’t know. I’m going to the castle to find out.”
Once again, they set off for the castle. This time, Skimmer was riding the white horse. The fox sat on the saddle behind him, making faces at the dogs who walked by on foot.
This went on for a few weeks, and then they came to wilder country. Inns were few and far between; usually they went to bed around a campfire in the woods. To make matters worse, winter was coming fast, and their food was starting to run low.
“Could you catch us something for dinner?” Skimmer asked the fox.
The fox frowned. “A few rabbits, maybe. All the animals out here are too big and dangerous, or too quick. You’d have better luck with a hunting dog.”
They stopped for the night at a farm house. Skimmer was grateful that they didn’t have to sleep in the woods again.
As it turned out, the farmhouse belonged to a shepherd and his wife. And they had their own set of problems. A wolf kept getting into their fields at night and killing the sheep. When they tried posting guards to watch the sheep, the wolf attacked the guard.
At the fox’s suggestion, Skimmer volunteered to watch the sheep for the night.
“But we’ll need a sheepskin,” the fox whispered.
Skimmer turned to the shepherd. “But we’ll need a…” he paused. “Wait, what?”
As evening fell, the shepherd and his wife were sound asleep in their house. The horse was asleep in the shed. Skimmer and the fox were out in the pen with the sleeping sheep, waiting for the wolf. Skimmer had the sheepskin draped over his head and back like a cloak.
“You’re sure about this?” he whispered.
“I’m sure,” whispered the fox. “The shepherd said that the beast’s only weapon is his teeth; something happened to his claws and they haven’t grown back. Teeth should be dangerous enough, of course. Just remember what I said.”
Something rustled in the bushes, and they ducked behind the sheep. They waited as the wolf came closer, and closer still, until he was at the edge of the bushes. He was sizing up the closest sheep.
The fox tensed. “And… now!”
The wolf lunged. And Skimmer met him halfway.
The fiddler grabbed the beast’s jaws and forced them shut, but then he had to hold on tight as the wolf tried to break free.
This was different than the horse’s attempt to throw him. The horse had been testing him to see how brave he was. The wolf didn’t care; he just wanted to get his mouth free so he could attack. Skimmer held on tight, wrestling with the beast as it tried to break loose.
They fought until daybreak, when the shepherd came out to his field with a quarterstaff. He was expecting to find that the wolf had claimed another victim.
He didn’t expect to see Skimmer sitting upright on the grass, alive. He had pinned the wolf’s muzzle to the ground. The wolf was sprawled out on the grass, panting and glaring at the boy through green slits of eyes.
The glare died away when he saw the shepherd. The wolf glanced back at Skimmer, then at the shepherd with his quarterstaff.
“Shall I kill him?” the shepherd asked.
“No,” said Skimmer. “We talked it out, once he got tired. He’s not going to harm your sheep anymore. He’s going to come with me.”
The shepherd’s wife had just caught up to him. She put a hand to her mouth when she saw the wolf lying on the grass.
“Will you keep your promise?” Skimmer asked.
The wolf nodded.
He let go of its jaws. The wolf staggered to its feet, blinking as the morning light came slanting into its eyes. But it didn’t attack.
The shepherd and his wife thanked the fiddler, and went to inspect their flock. Once they were out of earshot, the wolf looked up Skimmer.
“I’ve never met one as strong as you,” he rasped. “Boy, who are you?”
Skimmer scratched behind the beast’s ears. “That’s what we’re going to find out.”
Once again, they set out for the castle. It took them three days to get out of the wilder country; they wouldn’t have made it if not for the wolf. He caught deer in the woods and dragged them back to the camp for dinner. He also told Skimmer about the country ahead.
“Once we clear these woods, the castle will be right ahead of us, at the bottom of the valley. You’ll find you aren’t alone, either; the king is having a competition for fiddlers. There will be hundreds and hundreds of them in the city.”
“What’s the king like?”
“He’s wise, and kind, and strong. His queen is the loveliest woman in the land‒ not just her looks, mind you. Her heart is beautiful. They had seven children, but the oldest went missing‒ people say he died as a child. No one knows why.”
It started to snow as they reached the city gates. Just as the wolf had said, they met many, many fiddlers. Finding an inn that still had room for travelers was hard.
“With all these people, how are we supposed to talk to the king?” Skimmer asked.
“Leave that to me,” the fox said. “I’m going to the castle, and I’ll be back in an hour.”
Except he wasn’t back in an hour. Or two hours. Or three. As night was falling, the fox was still gone, and Skimmer was starting to wonder if something had happened.
“We should go to the castle and look for him,” he told the others.
“I’ll take you there,” the horse said.
The snow was starting to deepen as they set out into the streets. But the horse was surefooted and quick. In no time at all, they were outside the castle walls, where a pack of dogs was fighting in the snow.
“What’s going on?” Skimmer asked.
“They’ve got the fox!” the wolf growled. “I’ll fight them off!”
In seconds, he had them all running down the street, yipping with their tails between their legs. The fox was curled up in a ball on the snow. Skimmer dismounted and lifted him off the ground. He was alive, but hurt.
“What do we do now?” the fiddler asked the others.
“The gate at the back of the castle,” the fox wheezed. “Quickly.”
Trudging through the snow, the four made their way to the gate at the back of the castle. Skimmer carried the fox wrapped around his shoulders, like how a shepherd would carry his lambs.
As they walked, he thought hard. The king might know how to heal the fox. But how to get to him? All the other fiddlers were smarter, braver, stronger… more important than him. All that he had was a horse, a wolf, and a dying fox. But the king…
Skimmer paused, and then quickened his pace.
The king knew what it felt like to lose someone dear to him. Perhaps he would take pity on them.
The gate at the back of the castle was made of iron bars, but they could see a woman in a dark cloak walking just behind it.
“Help!” Skimmer called. “Can you help us? My fox is wounded.”
The woman came to the bars. For a minute, the fiddler didn’t know what to say. Words failed him; the woman was beautiful. More than that‒ there was something about the expression on her face that stung his memory. Where had he seen it before?
“You’re Skimmer?” she asked.
He nodded, and she smiled.
“Come inside. The king is waiting for you.”
She stepped aside and let him and the animals through the gate. He caught a glimpse of a garden as they hurried to the castle: was it his imagination, or were the bushes blooming with roses? He couldn’t tell; it was too cold, and the castle was so beautiful that anything seemed possible.
Once inside, the queen led him to a living room lit by the light of a huge hearth. She helped him take the fox off his shoulders, and started binding its wounds. Skimmer just watched in awe. The fox blinked, wincing.
“Am I still alive?… It smells incredible in here.”
“We made it to the castle,” Skimmer whispered. “Thank you. Don’t die on us, okay?”
The fox grinned. “I don’t plan on it‒ ouch! Your majesty, can you be any gentler?”
The woman laughed.
“Your majesty?” Skimmer looked at her.
“I’m the queen,” she said. “The fox told me so much about you… he knew that coming to me was the best way to help you meet the king. People don’t usually think of it.”
A voice laughed from behind them:
“So! Is this the boy I’ve heard so much about?”
Skimmer sat frozen by the fire. He knew the laugh. He looked up at the queen, and realized what he had seen in her face. She knew it too; she smiled at him.
Then there was a strong hand on his shoulder, and he looked up into the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. The old king smiled.
“Who am I?” Skimmer asked, knowing the answer before the king spoke.
“You’re my son. Welcome home.”