This story revolves around a little village in times past that rested peacefully on the side of a great mountain. Normally, the town would be of little note, and no scholar, no matter how studious, would find its name amongst all the annals of history. Yet it is the stories forgotten by history and remembered in legend that are most worth retelling. History is remembered and recorded by the educated few, so as to reflect what is important to those who see the world from a high tower. But legend is remembered and recounted by the common man, so as to reflect what is important to those who still till the earth and live by its soil.
Since the name of the village is unrecorded, I cannot say with any certainty what it was, except perhaps that is was likely a name in the common language for “hill-by-the-mountain,” or called by some other natural feature, not unlike many small towns of similar flavor. The town consisted of a number of wood-working folk of various natures, for surrounding their little hilltop a great forest spanned as far as the eye could see, even much of the way up the mountain. While the village and its people were not unusual, tales spread about a magical fountain that sprung up in a cave near its peak. Of what sort of magic, none seemed to agree. Some said it could grant eternal youth, while others believed it would heal any malady and restore one to his former and truer self. As with all tales of that sort, few took it entirely seriously, and even fewer ventured to seek out the fountain, for the climb to the peak was treacherous, and rarely did any who attempted the feat returned to tell of it. Of those, none had even discovered a cave, let alone a fountain.
One day, an old peddler entered the town. He had an ill look about him; his face shone pale in the rising sun, and scraggly grey hair fell upon the wrinkles lining his long face. Since visitors were rare, he had little trouble gathering the attention of the townsfolk to reveal his merchandise.
“Look here,” said the old man, exposing a bottle from beneath his cloak, “This is water from the ancient fount in the mountain, and I promise that all those who drink of it will find beauty and youth for as long as he drinks.”
Before any commotion could be raised, he uncorked his bottle, and released but a drop upon his tongue. Immediately, he transformed before the crowd into a young man, with strong stature and long blonde hair. The eyes of the people grew wide, and in trade for the water, the people gave much of their gold. Pains and aches were healed, wrinkles faded, and color and life restored to skin and hair. Festivity filled the evening air, and the merchant was forgotten. What the people of the town did not know was the true nature of the peddler; he was a powerful wizard who often wandered the wood seeking to take advantage of the imprudent.
The following morning, the aches and wrinkles had returned to the people, but worse than before. They were forced to drink more of the water to be well again, but each following morning, the aging became worse and worse. The process continued until only several drops of the magical water remained in all the village, and all but a few were too feeble to move without their magic drought. The people searched across the hills and woods and mountainside, but the peddler was nowhere to be found.
Now, only the children of the village remained unaffected by the curse, for they had no desire for the water, and it was the children who were forced to nurse their parents. Although the adults became feeble, they also grew ill-tempered and treated the children poorly. The youth convened and decided something must be done. The peddler could not be found, and the only solution that seemed to have any hope of success was to find the true fountain and pray the water could restore the townsfolk. Most the children were afraid of such a journey and argued they had to care for their parents instead of risk the hike. Only one boy stepped up and offered to fulfill the task, and his peers quickly accepted him. He packed that evening, remembering to take along with his provisions a bottle with which to draw the fountain’s water. He also took a long coil of sturdy rope and his father’s hunting knife. One of his friends promised to care for his parents while he was gone, and he left the very next morning for the mountain.
When Jon began up the mountain, he did not know where he might look to find the fount, but he had heard an old tale that a fox with fur white as the moon lived in the cave, drinking its water and living forever. For three days he hiked, always traveling upward, looking for any signs of a cave or a white fox. On the third night as he lay down to sleep, he noticed two thoughtful eyes watching him, glinting in the star light. The white fur of the fox glowed as bright as the moon.
“I have heard of you, the fox with fur white as the moon,” stated Jon, standing to meet him. “Please, show me where the cave with the magic fount is that I might save my village.”
The fox tilted his head as the wind picked up, rattling the branches of the trees. He responded, “Why would your village need the magic of the fountain? Is it not their fate to live and to die as everyone else?”
“That is their fate,” answered the boy, “But before their time. They were tricked by a wizard into drinking a magic water that would bring youth for a short time, but increased age soon after. All those who drank it are too feeble to hike the mountain, so I have come instead.”
“What does your story mean to me, who lives forever?” asked the fox. “Is it for you to choose the time in which your people shall live and pass? They have made their decisions, and they chose greed and vanity, and their consequence they now must reap.”
“It is my choice that I might save them if I can,” said Jon, “And I choose neither from greed nor vanity. What is that consequence to you, who lives forever?”
“It is a consequence you do not yet know,” replied the fox, “But if it is the waters of the fountain you desire, then I shall lead you there.”
The fox of the moon-fur leapt over Jon’s head and sped on into the thickening trees. Jon realized the fox was larger than any fox he had ever seen, easily twice his own size. The boy followed in close pursuit. Every time he thought he had lost the fox, a glint of his white fur flashed through the entanglement of branches, and he followed as quickly as his legs would carry him. Stray twigs scratched and clawed at his face as he ran through bramble and briar, leaping fallen trees and trickling creeks in the light of the stars. He knew not for how long he pursued the fox, but he would not relent. The path began to ascend, and slowly little by little the trees became sparser. Finally he came to a clearing near the peak of the mountain, and cut into the rock face was a small crawlway, only large enough for a child to enter. Two brilliant blue eyes gleamed at him from the hole before disappearing within.
The boy knew better than to rashly disappear into an unknown crevice, so he withdrew his rope and tied one end to a nearby tree while adjoining the other end to his belt. Jon then lowered himself and began to crawl after the fox. The ceiling of the little cave pressed against him. The darkness would yield no sight; he could rely only on what his hands could feel ahead of him. Jon believed there was only one path, but he could not tell for certain if he had not passed other extensions that might lead elsewhere throughout the mountain. Still the boy pressed onward. In the dark, he began to wonder should he ever return from this cave. He worried his rope would not be long enough to extend the entire trail. Jon remembered stories of men who died trapped in the mountain, and other much wilder stories of unnatural fates for those who wandered too far off the beaten paths. He felt for the knot of rope on his belt and was comforted to find it holding tight.
The path narrowed and drove deeper into the mountain. Just as Jon was uncertain he would be able to fit further along the trail, the tight passage emerged into a grand cavern, filled with light that emerged from the very stones themselves. The light was of all colors and changing colors, from soft blues and earthen greens to fiery reds and regal violets. The air hung heavily, for it had not been disturbed for an age. A pile of corroded bones lay in the corner, too small to be the bones of any man, but perhaps those of a child. Jon could hear the slightest trickle of water, drip by drip. He spied only a small pool of water, fed by the droplets of a hanging stalactite. While the rocks shown many colors, the stalactite alone glowed white. Jon prepared his bottle and cautiously approached the pool, but the growling of a fox halted his footsteps.
“You have followed me into my house and my home to steal my precious water,” growled the hidden voice of the fox, “But it is not for your belly I led you here, but for mine. Life and death matter little to me, but upon flesh and wit I do feed. So, all who partake of this water must answer first a riddle. If you cannot answer me the riddle of the fount, then I will certainly eat you whole.”
“Then tell me the riddle, fox of the moon-fur. But should I guess it, I will fill my bottle with the fountain’s water and return safely to my village.”
“Agreed,” growled the fox hungrily, “But do not take long, for I have not eaten in over an age, and I am very hungry.”
The fox’s voice came again, but this time slightly louder and closer:
“This ravenous beast none can escape:
A rich man’s comfort and poor man’s fate.
For him, men labor, fight, and die
While he the wells and fields lays dry.
He’ll take your food and drink your wine;
Should you decline, he’ll growl and whine,
Until you finally acquiesce,
Else your soul shall go to rest.”
Jon stood thinking for a moment, puzzling over each line in his mind as the colors of the cave blazed around him. The air grew silent and still, withstanding his own breath, but he could feel the glowing eyes upon him.
“Give me three guesses then, since my life depends upon them,” demanded Jon.
“Give me three quick answers then,” growled the fox, “What is your first?”
“Is it you? The fox of the moon-fur?”
“Wrong. What is your second guess?”
The fox’s voice had grown yet closer, but echoing amongst the many jutting rocks of the cavern, Jon could not tell from whence it came. He tugged at his rope once more, and felt that it was still taut, with only a coil or two left at his side. He was far from the surface indeed, and even with the rope, he knew he could not outrun the fox through the narrow crawlway. The lights emanating from the stones no longer gradually faded between colors, but shifted more rapidly.
“Your second guess? You take too long,” uttered the fox’s voice again. Jon spun around to where he thought he heard the voice just behind him, but nothing was there. He realized his first guess was too obvious; riddles were usually more difficult. The answer likely was no beast at all, or even something tangible. He slowly inched towards the fountain, preparing to fill his bottle and run if he must. What would the fox concoct as an answer to his riddle? A thought suddenly came to him.
“Greed! Is the answer greed?” asked Jon, much more confidently.
“Clever boy, clever boy,” echoed the fox calmly, “But still not the right answer. Final guess, and make it quick. I am so hungry, I must swallow you whole.”
“Yes, give me a few moments to think,” said Jon. He believed he could feel the unearthly breath of the fox upon him, yet still his eyes discerned nothing. The lights of the cavern now flashed quicker than before, and only between oranges, reds, and yellows, like the pit of a great fire. Might the answer be money? Or perhaps envy? He did not want to risk another guess. He drew closer to the pool.
“You are nearly out of time,” grumbled the great fox, “I am sure you are quite tasty, tastier than the other children. And I am so hungry.” The cavern suddenly rumbled as if a small earthquake rose from below, but Jon somehow distinguished it as the rumbling of the fox’s belly. Just then the fox emerged, his fur no longer pale as the moon, but a mix of crimson and orange, reflecting the flames of the cavern walls. His eyes now shown red and drool slipped from his hungry jaws. He appeared now more wolf than fox. The burning beast stood easily taller than his prey as he steadily approached, as if he had physically grown to match his impending hunger. The cavern shook once more with the growling of his stomach. And then Jon’s eyes grew bright.
“Even you who lives forever are haunted by the answer to the riddle, are you not?” declared Jon. “The answer is the stomach!”
The fox lifted his angry head and howled like the wolf he appeared to be, and the cavern trembled the more fiercely. Jon felt as if he stood within the crater of a volcano.
“It is no matter, boy! I am too hungry, and I shall eat you whole!”
The fox leapt through the air toward Jon, all hesitation left behind. But the boy was ready. He withdrew his hunting knife and slashed savagely at the approaching jaws of the beast. The great fox, who had never encountered a child such as Jon, was not expecting a defense, and the cool, sharp blade of the hunting knife sliced him clean across the snout. The fox of the moon-fur erupted in spasms of agony and rage, for he had not known the sting of pain since he was first mortal at the beginning of the world. Yet Jon could not escape the mass of his enemy, and in the creature’s fit, Jon was thrown into the fountain’s pool.
Within the water, all was calm. The flaming colors of the cavern were gone, along with the fox’s howls and the quaking of earth. He could hear nothing. Jon at first tried to swim, but the water grew heavier, his energy and will quickly fading. He sucked in his first mouthful of water. Solace encapsulated him. He stopped struggling as he felt the water restoring his body. He looked around to see the cerulean sea dotted with little specks of light, what they might be he could not guess. They extended forever. He was floating in the sky, surrounded by stars, floating ever upward. His eyes began to close in the peace of sleep. He was drowning. He wanted to drown. But he could not, for this water brought only life. He would drown forever. He looked up to see a circle of light, surely the moon, growing more distant every second, the seconds fading together to minutes. Then darkness. Something tugged at his side, interrupting his peace. What could it be? It would not let him float away. It would not let him drown. He felt for it, and found a rope. A rope! Why a rope, why a rope?
Jon suddenly remembered. Summoning the last of his strength, he grasped the rope and pulled. He floated sharply towards the moon, but it was not a moon. It was the world, it was real life, it was his purpose, it was freedom. Some strength returned. He pulled again, this time with two arms he climbed, climbed from that eternal depth toward the world that he remembered, that he knew as a child. He fought comfort, and he fought pain, all at once. He pulled again, gasping not for the heavy succor of endless water, but for the wild levity of the air above.
Finally, in a great splash he emerged, hanging onto the rope with all the strength of a man and faith of a child. The fox was gone. A trail of thick blood ran down a dark tunnel he failed to notice earlier. Jon took several minutes to breathe in the stale, yet refreshing air. Then he filled his bottle with the fountain’s water and returned by the path he came, following his rope the whole way.
Jon made his way back to the village without further incident. The children and townsfolk were glad for his return, for several who had drunk more greedily than the others of the wizard’s potion had already passed away from their old age. He gave one drop to every person who had partaken of the wizard’s draught, and they were immediately restored to their initial health. All were amazed by the boy’s story concerning the fox and the pool and the cave of lights, but none fully believed him, for he was only a boy filled with imagination. Some suggested he had only found another wizard with a kinder heart. No man had ever found the fountain, so how could a boy? Could it be that the secret to youth can only be found by those still young?
Everyone was still grateful for his magic water, whatever its source, though they continued to age as normal after they had been restored. After many years, the boy’s tale was mostly forgotten, becoming a myth and fancy of the last generation’s imagination. Only three drops from the fount remained after Jon had helped the entire town, and the wise boy kept them secret and safe for himself or for those he loved. However, Jon alone never grew old, but remained his age. He would have given the drops away, but he could find nobody who could answer the riddle, the riddle of the fount. And Jon still walks the earth to this day, a boy with a few drops of water and a riddle that one day you may be fortunate enough to answer.