Major Grant and Colonel De Lancey were sitting by a fire enjoying a glass or two of wine. It was a pleasantly cool evening and the intelligence that Grant had just brought back suggested that they would not face any action for at least a few more weeks.
That news must have spurred Lord Wellington into taking action to alleviate the men’s boredom, as an excited young captain came running up to them and breathlessly delivered the news. “His lordship has asked me to inform you that he will be riding to hounds in the morning if you should care to join him.”
Wellington regarded hunting both as an excellent sport and as admirable training for teaching a soldier to improve his horsemanship and learn how to find his way about a country as quickly as possible, and he had even had a pack of hounds sent out from England to make sure he achieved the best possible result.
“Thank you,” said Grant, looking at De Lancey with a raised eyebrow.
He had never taken part in the hunts – during his youth in the Scotland he had often amused himself by spending his days in the foothills of the mountains and had become quite fond of the foxes that made their dens in the cairns so he could not bring himself to contemplate killing their kin.
De Lancey had ridden out on several occasions, mostly because he appreciated the exercise and it gave him a chance to enjoy his friendship with Wellington under less formal circumstances, but ever since his inadvertent brush with the natural world he had become quite passionate in his opposition to a pastime that he now regarded as barbaric.
He was about to say as much when he noticed Jonathan Strange approaching and a glint appeared in his eyes.
“Keep him talking,” he whispered to Grant, receiving a puzzled look in reply as he rose and excused himself on the pretext of important business elsewhere.
After talking with Strange for an hour or so, Grant could no longer contain his curiosity so he bade the magician good night and made his way to De Lancey’s tent.
“What have you done?”
“Nothing.” De Lancey protested, feigning innocence. “Yet.”
He reached under the pillow on his bunk and pulled out a small woven bag that Grant recognised immediately. “But I thought we might be able to do something to help our four-legged friends.”
“Are you mad? You expect me to agree to use Merlin’s magic without his knowledge? We have no idea what will happen.”
De Lancey opened the bag and took out the golden pendant, swinging it to and fro in front of Grant’s face.
“Oh come on, you’re an old hand at it now and surely it is worth the risk to save one of your fellow creatures.”
“You are not going to let this go, are you?” De Lancey shook his head, a gleeful look playing over his face.
Grant sighed, he supposed he could at least listen to the idea that had De Lancey so excited. “I take it the plan is for me to draw the pack away from any other foxes in the vicinity.”
“Of course.” De Lancey was looking ridiculously proud of himself. “It is perfect. You will be protected by the amulet and the other foxes will have time to get to a safe distance.”
Grant was not convinced.
“How will you make sure they pursue the correct fox?”
“I will ride with them and focus their attention in the right direction.”
“But how will you know it is me?”
“You forget I saw you the last time. You have quite a distinctive appearance.”
“Well, for one thing, it seems you do not forget your heritage when you are transformed – the Cross of Saint Andrew is marked out quite clearly in white fur on your forehead.”
This seemed to please Grant a great deal.
“Besides.” De Lancey glanced downward. “You have a much thicker tail than the local animals.”
Grant rolled his eyes, marvelling anew at the man’s ability to turn even the most casual remark into an innuendo. “And how do you know I will return safely?”
“Oh stop worrying. You have always come back for Merlin.” He stuck out his lower lip in a petulant pout and fluttered his eyelashes. “Would I be wrong in assuming you will do the same for me?”
“Damn it William.“ Grant threw up his hands in surrender. “You know I cannot resist that face.”
De Lancey beamed. “I knew you would not let me down. We should do it now so you have time to gather your senses and figure out the lie of the land. If anyone asks for you in the morning, I will tell them you had to attend an urgent meeting.”
He looked Grant up and down with a wicked grin.
“Right then. Get that uniform off.”
The hunting party gathered early the next morning – headquarters staff were joined by men from every regiment of the line, in every conceivable uniform, and on every sort of horse. De Lancey made sure he rode close to Wellington, who liked to be out in front – sometimes too near the hounds for his huntsman’s peace of mind.
The hunts in the Peninsula followed much the same pattern as those back home. The only forbidden terrain was past the Allied lines in the direction of the French. It was understood that a fox must be allowed to make good its escape should it seek safety beyond the Allied outposts.
They set off at a fair pace and it was not long before the hounds picked up a scent. De Lancey scanned the ground in front of him to try and catch sight of their prey and cursed under his breath when he saw a small, skinny fox dart across the track and into the bushes just a few hundred yards ahead. “Damn it,” he muttered, “where are you Grant?”
From his vantage point on the higher ground, Grant watched the hunting party slow down as they approached the edge of the dense undergrowth – the hounds could follow the fox in there but the horses would not find it so easy. He was fully aware of himself and waited for De Lancey to look in his direction before breaking cover and making a dash for the more accessible woods to the north.
De Lancey smiled in recognition, shouting out and pointing in his direction and the huntsman and dogs took off after their new target.
Grant was enjoying the exhilaration of the chase, allowing the animal’s natural instincts to take control as he zig-zagged across the open ground and into the trees, when he almost ran into another fox, a small female that had clearly never encountered a hunt before and just stood frozen in her tracks.
He could hear the pack on his tail and, worried that it would follow the scent of this new fox or split up and pursue them both, he barked at her to follow him. His voice was apparently just as commanding in this language as in any other because she immediately turned towards him and gave a little yelp. They ran until they reached the other side of the woods, only to find a small party from the hunt had ridden around the edge of the trees in an attempt to head them off and drive them back towards the hounds. Grant swerved away to the east and, slipping almost under the belly of the leading horse, set his head for the open country that lay in that direction and led to the Allied outposts, urging on his companion until they crossed into the safety of no man’s land.
“What a peculiar thing.” Wellington turned to De Lancey “The larger fox seemed to be protecting the other. I have never seen anything like it. Perhaps this is not to be our day after all.“ With the sun now beating down and the imperative to avoid exhausting either men or horses, he reluctantly gave the order to return to camp.
De Lancey paced back and forward in his tent. It had been dark for two hours and there was still no sign of the fox. Much as he hated to admit it, it seemed as if Grant might have been right to worry about the outcome of their mission. Unless… he would not have gone back to Merlin instead would he? Not now that the two of them had become so close? Perhaps there was something about the magic itself that would make him return to the necklace’s owner. He was just about to bite the bullet and seek out Strange’s help when he heard a snuffling form outside the tent and a pointy nose appeared through the open flaps.
“Oh thank God!” he exclaimed as the fox calmly walked over and sat down in front of him. “You have no idea…”
The fox tilted its head to one side and the look it gave him was so like Grant’s exasperated expression that he could not help laughing as he bent down to remove the necklace.
About two months later as the army was preparing to move to a new position, Grant and De Lancey were lying on a bank a short distance from the tents, eating their lunch and waiting for the order to strike camp, when they heard a rustling in the bushes.
De Lancey glanced up and almost choked on his sandwich. Standing in front of Grant as if she wanted to show him something was a little red fox and at her feet were three tiny cubs with big bushy tails and diagonal white crosses on their foreheads.