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This is part of Jane's series of "Twelve Days of Stories" for Xmas 2007/2008.

Six geese a-laying

(This one's for Stu.)

"I won, Granny! I won!" The game had kept Leena and her brother quiet for nearly an hour, but all good things had to end.

"Well done. Now, put the pieces away, carefully, and come and help me chop the cabbage." As the child counted the game pieces one by one into the cloth bag that also formed the board, she asked "Were you the geese, or the fox?"

"Geese, this time. We took turns, 'cos the geese always win."

"Quite right, and you remember that."

"Why's that game called Fox and Geese, Granny? The pieces don't look anything like geese."

"Didn't your grandfather tell you the story, while you were helping him make them? Well, sit down, then, and I'll tell you now, while we finish making this stew."

"Once upon a time, there were six geese. They laid plenty of eggs in the barn, and some of them were allowed to hatch out into goslings so we'd have more geese the next year. They were big strong birds who flew out to the lake and back - but in spring, when the goslings were hatching, they had to be careful of the fox. You see, while the fox couldn't take a full-size goose, because she could fly away, he liked the tender little goslings that had only just learnt to stagger. And he liked the eggs they laid."

"Ooh! It's a Russell story!" Why the fox should be one of the boy's favourite heroes, when he inevitably lost, was an unanswered question, but the lad had always been strange.

"That's right, it's a Russell story. And as you know, and as the geese knew all too well, Russell the fox was very fast, much faster than any goose. And he had sharp teeth, and claws. Whenever he got into the barn, the geese ran around as fast as they could to try to protect all the eggs and the goslings, and the goslings ran too, as fast as their short legs and big feet could carry them, but he always got one and escaped with them.

"So, the six geese got together in a gaggle to decide what to do. One of them said that they should listen for Russell approaching, and stop him before he got into the barn. But they had tried that before, and he was too fast: they never managed to stop him before he got into the barn. One of them said that they should challenge Russell to fight one of them, not the goslings. They were bigger and stronger than he was, if he would just stand still. But Russell had sharp teeth, and sharp claws, and they didn't think this was a very good idea. One goose actually said that they should give Russell one of te smallest and most sickly goslings each night, if he would agree to leave the others alone. But even the geese who thought that was a good idea would only do it if it was someone else's gosling whow as given to the fox. At last the oldest goose said that she had a Plan. They would have to try something new, something that meant all of them working together.

"When Russell crept into the barn that night, instead of eggs and goslings in nests all over the floor, he found that the barn was almost bare, but that at the far end, all six of the adult geese were standing in a row, with their wings spread so that they almost touched. The goslings stood behind them. "Now then, sisters!" hissed the oldest goose. "Forward!" And the row of geese marched towards him."

"Like a shield-wall? But they're geese!"

"A bit like a shield-wall, yes, though they weren't very good at it. They didn't all move at the same time, they hadn't practised enough for that, but the elder goslings filled in the gaps, so it didn't matter much. So, they kept marching forwards, and to get at the eggs, Russell was going to have to get past them - but there wasn't a gap! He couldn't simply jump over an adult goose to get at the goslings behind them, they were standing up tall and stretching their necks towards the roof. And then as they got closer to him, and the gap between them and the wall behind him got smaller, the oldest goose said "Claw and beak, girls, claw and beak!" The geese didn't have very sharp beaks, and their claws were only meant for mud, not for fighting, but they started to kick out on each step as they moved forwards. They might be able to hurt him, they might not, but Russell still couldn't see a way past them to the eggs, and he backed off until he was against the wall. And then the geese crowded in on him, and pushed him right back outside the barn where he had come from.

"Russell decided that he'd had enough of geese for one night, and went off to look at the hens instead. And the geese squawked with delight, and ran around celebrating their good fortune and bravery. If Russell had come in then, he would have had no trouble in taking an egg: but he didn't."

"Huh." The boy stood, disappointed that his hero had failed again. "I'll go and check our chickens."

"You do that - you never know."

Her brother gone, Leena was still quiet, her finger in her mouth as she did when she was thinking. "Granny. We do a dance like geese to stop the Bad Man taking the goddess. Is that like this? Is it the same story?"

Oh, the girl was bright! Too bright, for her age, but her grandmother was still proud of her for making the connection. "Almost. Our dance brings the goddess back, remember, after she's been taken, and broken. This is an earlier story, an easier one."

"So Russell does get a goose, later?"

"He does, yes. A very special goose, who lays a very special egg. But don't you tell your brother that!"

This "fox and geese" game seems to be a variant on the norm, with two types of "geese": one that can be "taken" by being jumped over in the normal way (the cygnets) and one (the six Geese) that cannot. Even with only twelve geese instead of the normal thirteen, this would seem to bias the game in favour of the geese even more than normal. However, there is a hint that here the Fox player needs only "take" one of the goslings to win the game, and this change in victory conditions would push the bias back the other way. For more details on this type of game, take a look at Wikipedia on the subject.