Once upon a time, in a forest where three streams merged into a small, fast-flowing river, the locals say a shadow took life in the form of a black fox.
So shiny and thick and smooth was the coat of this black fox, it was said that hunters who caught sight of her were driven mad with the desire to own her pelt.
The best hunters for miles around chased after this elusive prey, but none succeeded. Indeed, many of them chased after the fox, deep into the darkness beneath the ancient pines, and never returned. Some believe they came across misfortune. Some believe they were taken by the fox into the fairy realm. Some have even more sinister theories to relate.
In a time when the autumn was crisping the leaves and turning the air cold, a young man went into the woods to gather firewood to sustain his family through the oncoming winter.
His bow was slung across his shoulders, and he carried an axe to cut wood, but he had no intention of killing any living creatures this day, and after many long hours of chopping and gathering, the young man set his axe aside and went to the riverbank to drink.
After dipping his hand into the cool water, a shadow flitted from the corner of his eye: The fox.
She sat, perched on a rock, close enough to touch, so still she might have been a statue.
The young man had heard the stories, but although her fur was undeniably beautiful, and though his fingers did ache with the desire to touch it, he could not find it within his heart to draw his bow and take aim, nor could he muster up the fear that the old women in the village instructed all men to have for such fey creatures.
For a long moment, he sat as still as the fox, staring into her golden eyes and admiring her beauty. The fox, growing impatient with his quietude, demanded, "Well, aren't you going to hunt me?"
"Why should I?" The young man asked, "There are enough pelts to keep my mother, my sister, and myself warm during the winter. Good, strong hides, from bear and deer. Your coat is beautiful, but far too small, and would serve no purpose. There is no need for me to take it from you."
"But the village would sing your praises," the fox said, stepping down from her rock and slinking forward, mischief gleaming in her eyes, "The one who bagged the elusive black fox! The old hags would thank you, worship you for removing the evil fey demon that I am from these woods."
"If you are a demon," the young man answered carefully, "Then my arrow would not find its mark, nor would my dagger bite your pelt. I would only anger you, and have the same fate befall me as did the hunters before me who pursued your pelt."
"Then for your own satisfaction," The fox demanded, "I see how your hand strays from your side; you long to touch my fur, to feel it beneath your fingers."
The young man nodded, "Yes, I cannot lie, I do wish to touch your coat, but not when it is soaked with cold blood. If you would allow me, then I would gladly touch you, but if you will not, then I shall not pursue you."
"You will not hunt me then? For need, for fame, or for desire?"
When he shook his head once more, she flicked the white tip of her tail irritably, and then she was gone. In her place crouched a woman, naked but for the flowing black locks of her hair that covered her body like a coat.
The fox's golden eyes stared out from her face, and her nose was nearly touching the man's as she smiled, "Then you have won my favor. Go now in peace, and never want again."
The woman disappeared, the black shadow disappearing beneath the pines with a laughing yip and a swish of white-tipped tail.
The young man returned home, and though he often ventured out into the pines to the river bank, he never again saw the black fox.
Winter came, and mysterious gifts of firewood, rabbits and pheasants were left on his family's doorstep. The snow around the gifts was always trampled by the tiny paw prints of the fox, but just occasionally, the prints were that of a human.
These gifts never ceased; every winter's night, they were left on his doorstep, even when he grew old and had a family of his own.
As the twilight of his life fell upon him, he lay in his deathbed, staring peacefully out of the window, into the night as the snow fell.
A shadow entered his room, a soft yip called his attention, and a naked woman sat down on his bed beside him, grinning mischievously.
"Well, old man," she said, "Did I not keep my promise? These long years, have you wanted for anything?"
The old man smiled, "I am grateful for all that you have done," he answered, "But there is one thing yet that I still would very much like."
"And what is that?" the fox asked, twitching her tail in annoyance.
He chuckled, "I would still very much like to touch your coat."
The fox's gaze softened, and she nodded, "You have kept my favor. Go in peace, and never want again."
The next morning, the old man's sons and daughters found him without breath, smiling peacefully.
A small black shadow that had been curled up beneath his hand leapt off of the bed at their entrance, fleeing through the window and flicking a white-tipped tail, while a laugh-like yip echoed through the still winter morning.