Oliver’s stepmother had been kind to him before his father died, but now she took every chance she could to make his life miserable.
“Go into the deepest part of the forest, and bring back a basket of berries and mushrooms,” she said. “If you come back empty handed, don’t expect any dinner tonight!”
Oliver hated the forest. It always seemed that there was something watching him from the shadows, just beyond the corner of his eye. He was tired, hungry, and hadn’t found a single berry or mushroom to take home when he heard a faint voice crying for help. He followed the sound and found a fox whose paw was caught in a trap.
“Oh, please set me free,” the fox cried. “My life will be yours, and I’ll serve you for the rest of my days. I’ll do anything you wish of me, but please open the trap and set me free!”
Taking pity on the poor creature, Oliver forced the trap open. The fox limped a few steps, and then whined.
“You’ve saved me, and by my oath, I’m your servant,” said the fox, licking at its ruined forepaw.
“I have no need of a servant,” Oliver told the fox. “Anybody would have done the same; you don’t owe me anything. I free you from your promise.”
“You are too kind, master,” said the fox, hobbling away into the undergrowth. “Such kindness will not go unrewarded. We will meet again.”
* * *
“You good for nothing, lazy, ungrateful little toad!” Oliver’s stepmother cursed. “I’ve been at home all day, working my fingers to the bone, and you’ve been playing about instead of gathering food for our dinner! I don’t know why I bother. I should sell you to the travelling folk.” Oliver wished that she would, but knew it would never happen. She enjoyed tormenting him far too much.
“But Mother-” Oliver began.
“I’m not your mother,” she screeched. She leaned in close to his face, “Listen, filth. We have somebody very important coming down from the castle to look over our horses, and the yard is a complete mess. Get out there and clean up before they arrive. I want to get a good price for those old nags, and it doesn’t help if it looks like we live in the middle of a junkyard.”
“But father worked for years to breed those horses. The bloodlines are-”
His stepmother gave him a rap on the back of his head and shoved him out the door. “Do as you’re told!”
Off balance, Oliver tripped on the step, and fell face-first into a puddle. Before the door slammed shut, he heard his stepmother cackle with glee at his misfortune.
The yard was a complete mess. Oliver sighed; his father would never have let things get this bad. Dancer and Swift, their two horses, came to the fence to watch him. He felt himself becoming angry- his father had sacrificed so much to make sure those two horses had the right parentage. They had been everything to him. It wasn’t fair. Nothing was fair. He wiped a handful of mud from his hair, and sullenly begun tidying the yard.
The yard was still in disarray an hour later when the carriage arrived. It was brightly decorated with painted roses and gold leaf. Four knights in shining plate armour provided an escort.
The carriage door opened and a girl stepped out. Oliver’s mouth went dry. She was the most beautiful sight he had seen in his short, miserable life. Her long curls shone golden in the sun, and her lips reminded him of wild strawberries. He’d heard people talk about the princess’ beauty, but he’d never seen her before with his own two eyes.
His stepmother emerged from the house and curtsied before the princess. She wore her Sunday best, but still looked like a pauper compared to the princess.
They hadn’t looked his way, and yet he was suddenly overcome with an awareness of just how filthy he was. How could he present himself to the princess looking like something the cat had thrown up on the floor?
“Psst! Hey! Down here!” The voice came from under a bush by the fence. Oliver knelt, and found himself nose to nose with the fox. It grinned at him.
“I don’t know what you’re so happy about,” Oliver whispered. “This is my one chance to meet the most beautiful lady in the kingdom, and I look like I’ve been swimming in filth.”
“That’s easily dealt with,” said the fox. “What if I said you could meet your lady and make a good impression on her to boot?”
“How?” Oliver was suspicious; all the stories he knew said that foxes were mischievous and unreliable.
“Just touch my paw,” the fox said with a wink. “Trust me!”
Oliver glanced over his shoulder. His stepmother was leading the princess over towards where he knelt, but they hadn’t seen him yet. With no other way out, Oliver touched the fox’s good forepaw.
A sudden heat flashed through Oliver’s body. He felt himself growing larger, muscular. His fingers fused into hooves, and his face stretched out into that of a horse. It took less than three heartbeats before the transformation was complete. He couldn’t see himself, but he felt strong and powerful.
The fox slunk back out of sight as the two women entered the yard.
“I’ve heard some fascinating things about the horses you have here,” the princess was saying. “I had to see for myself if the rumours were true.”
“Oh yes. My late husband knew a thing or two about breeding horses.” His stepmother’s demeanor had changed completely. She sounded friendly; even kind. “You won’t find better stock anywhere. Here, let me show you.”
Dancer and Swift approached the new arrivals, friendly and eager. The princess patted their necks and passed a critical eye over both. She found very little to complain about. “These horses are-” Her voice cut off as she noticed Oliver.
“And what is his name,” the princess asked, gliding across the yard towards him.
Confusion passed over his stepmother’s face for a moment but she recovered quickly. “Oliver,” she said. It was the first name that came to her. “That one’s name is Oliver.”
“Oliver,” said the princess, trying it out. “A strange name for a horse, but somehow it seems to fit him.” She ran her hands down his side, and then inspected his teeth. He felt he could drown in the brightness of her eyes, and be happy doing it. She smelled sweetly of flowers and nectar.
“He’s perfect,” the princess declared at last. “How much?”
“I couldn’t let it go for anything less than one thousand gold marks,” his stepmother replied. The price was outrageous, no matter the horse.
“That is not acceptable,” said the princess, her face darkening. “You would not ask such a high price from anybody else.”
“Your highness, Oliver was my husband’s favorite,” she lied. “He looked upon him as the son he never had. He means more to me than any amount of gold. I am only willing to sell at all because the alternative is starvation.”
The princess’ lips pursed in thought. “I will sleep on it,” she said. “I will return tomorrow and tell you my decision.”
Once everyone had left the yard, the fox appeared once more and touched a hindpaw to Oliver’s hoof. The transformation reversed. Oliver was again himself.
“Oh ho ho,” said the fox, “What an impression you made! Was I right or was I right?”
Oliver didn’t say anything. He stood for a while, looking at the gate where the princess had left.
* * *
That night, Oliver’s stepmother beat him for not being there to greet the princess when she arrived. She beat him for keeping ‘Oliver’ the horse a secret from her. She beat him for being a lazy fool who hadn’t cleaned the yard properly when told to. She beat him because the princess had left without handing over so much as a copper penny.
Most of all, she beat him because she enjoyed it.
* * *
It had been three nights since the princess came to their farm, and they had heard nothing from the castle about her return. The beatings grew worse and worse each night, as his stepmother got angrier and angrier.
Worse than that, Oliver felt that the princess had taken a piece of himself away with her. He thought of her every waking moment. Her face, her voice, her scent.
He was out by the grazing paddock, mending the fence, when the fox next came to him.
“Ho, Oliver,” it said with its trademark grin. “I have news you may wish to hear. That princess of yours is on her way back here right now with a big bag full of gold. Can you imagine the look on your stepmother’s face when she can’t find the horse to trade for it?”
Hope flared in Oliver’s heart briefly, and then died. “I can imaging the beating I’ll get for losing a horse worth one thousand gold marks,” he sighed. He threw his hammer down in frustration. “Not to mention the disgust she’ll feel when she sees me as I really am. Better that she never returned than this! Can’t you turn me once more into the horse she comes to see?”
“I could,” mused the fox. “But remember, I have only one good paw left. I would not be able to change you back again. She would buy you and take you far away from here, never to return.”
“Being taken away would be more a blessing than a curse,” Oliver said. “And I could bear being a dumb beast so long as I was hers.”
The three-pawed fox held out his hindpaw. “Touch my paw, and it will be so.”
With a grim determination, and a glimmer of hope, Oliver touched the fox’s last good paw.
* * *
The princess decided to ride her new horse back to the castle. She was pleased with the purchase, even if she had paid five times the price the horse was actually worth. The widow needed the money, and the princess had plenty to spare.
She smiled and patted the horse on the neck, making it snort happily. ‘Oliver’ was such a strange name for a horse.
It was such a powerful animal, and as much as she admired it, it was not at all suited to her. It would, however, make a perfect gift for her betrothed.