The Red Braid

The woman had not chosen to be in the tower. They had taken her sword away from her, and her bow, and even her boots. They hadn’t been very good boots, that was a given when you were a soldier, but they had been better than nothing at all. (She could have insisted on better boots, given who she was, but that would have been cheating.)

Her captors didn’t know what to do with a female soldier, that much was clear. She had seen her comrades taken away, the axes; she knew the reek of slaughter. After all, sometimes she had done the slaughtering. On the other hand, her captors were also people of poetry and strange prejudices, and they prided themselves on a chivalry bound up with roses and filigree chains. The tower had been their compromise. Her cell was so spacious that it wasn’t quite a cell, although you couldn’t call it the height of luxury either. She slept upon sheets of worn silk and a soft mat rather than one of rice straw, and while the window was narrow, it let in stripes of sunlight and moonlight and the occasional bird-shaped shadow.

In the early days she had hoped that her brother might ransom her, but the cost of her ransom would be dear, she knew; and war was expensive. He had always been the calculating sort, and she didn’t expect him to value one horse-archer, even a good one, even his sister, over a company of keen-eyed mercenaries. It was just the way he was, and besides, as her mother had always said dryly, a woman had to make her own luck in a world of men.

The woman had only two changes of clothing, but it was not, she reflected, as if she needed to fear battlefield mud and gore in here. Along with the weapons and boots, her captors had taken away all possessions that they deemed metaphysically dangerous, such as the whalebone charm to the dragon-of-the-sea, or the beads of alternating carnelian and alabaster she had worn about her neck for protection from gangrene spirits. But they had left her a single braided cord, which had been a gift from her great-aunt.

“It’s a ladder to escape,” her great-aunt had said one firelit evening, her fingers turning the worn red, white, and black cord around and around. The woman, then a girl, had only halfway paid attention, despite her interest in the cheerful orange-tinted red of the component cords. Her great-aunt, for all her lean beauty, her amber-brown eyes, was something of an eccentric. Even to her death she always went around in black gloves. But she was still talking: “Eight threads in the braid, do you see? One missing. It’s a one-way ladder. Still, best to have some way out than none.”

“Yes, Auntie,” the girl said, and reached for the cord to wrap around her wrist.

Now, the woman walked over to the window–too narrow to see much, too wide for any self-respecting architect to claim it as a loophole–and glanced at the distant mountains, the low-hanging clouds. And she heard in her head, It’s because you have to divide by four, something she’d overheard her great-aunt saying to her mother, whatever it meant.

No: she didn’t want to stay here any longer. Patience had gotten her this far; it would get her no further. She listened for the guards, but they were accustomed to her docility. So she took out the braid and began doing the only thing she could think of, unweaving its strands, red and white and black. As she did so, she felt a pleasant dizziness. She set her teeth and kept unweaving. She began to see why the braid’s construction required multiples of four.

When she was done, she lifted one paw, then another, then another, then another, looking at them in turn. Interesting. And she had a plume of handsome white-tipped tails, but there should have been nine and one was missing. Eight threads in the braid. Not that she knew anything about braiding, but even being an unwhole fox spirit was better than being a whole captive.

She slid through the window ghostlike–as if walls could hold a fox spirit–then ran down the side of the tower on black-stockinged fox feet, silken, fearless. When she reached the base of the tower, she looked up–the tower appeared much taller from a fox’s vantage point–and cocked her head. Then she shrugged a fox shrug and slipped from the tower’s shadow into the distance, contemplating foxish mathematics all the while.

Flashfic for telophase. Prompt: kumiho; kumihimo.

I may have a weakness for fox spirits.