"You never heard those legends, Nick?"
"I'm a city fox, Judy. The stories I grew up with were on TV. I thought rabbits and foxes were just natural enemies and that's all there was to it."
"Well, a lot of the time that was the case, but apart from the legends there's even a bunch of archaeological evidence that rabbits and foxes would live together sometimes. The anti-pred lot say that's just from foxes killing bunny families and moving in, but when generations of bunny and fox graves are side-by-side the evidence is pretty substantial. But it doesn't get mentioned much these days because it was part of the whole rabbit clan era, and rabbits with foxes would, um. Tend to raid their neighbours to steal their food. And sometimes their children to raise and marry into the family to diversify the bloodlines. It wasn't a nice part of history."
"None of history is all that nice, Fluff. But it's a cozy sort of idea, apart from the whole fox and bunny warlord thing. Maybe I was a Hopps fox in a former life, and that's why you fell so hard for me?"
Judy rolled her eyes. "Maybe I was the foxtender in a former life, and that's why it's so easy for me to wrap you around my little finger."
Judy's attention lifted from her fletching in an instant as the low, deep sound of the drum reverberated through the Hopps Burrow. It was a call to war. All over the farm, kits were running for the deepest tunnels and everyone else was going for their weapons, as every grown rabbit had at least a spear to protect the Burrow.
With practiced motions, Judy flew over to the weapon stand of her room - her own room, despite her Household consisting only of herself, a treasured recognition of her status - and seized her javelins and shield. The javelins were the finest in the burrow, made of the straightest saplings their foragers could find and toiled over by the burrow carpenters for hours before their points were fire-hardened, and the shield was marked with the faded pawprints of every kit in the burrow as a constant reminder of her duty. She flew out the door and along the corridor towards the main hall, and quickly arrived to see Stewart, her father, awaiting the arrival of the burrow's warriors, who were beginning to arrive, delayed by having to strap on armour.
As the last of them filed in, the drum trailed off and Stewart looked over the eight warriors, including Judy. Most of them were his children, though one was a grandchild and two were married to his children. Without preamble, he addressed them. "There's predator spoor in the lower paddock. Canid. It might just be passing through, but from it's direction, it looks like it's traveled through rabbit lands, so it might have a taste - and a talent - for rabbit hunting. And even if it doesn't, if it gets a sliver of a chance it is likely to try to prey on our chickens. Judy," she stood to attention with pride, "track it. If it's not leaving our territory at speed, slay it yourself if you think you can safely, or return and lead our warriors to it. Warriors, await word from her at the hide by the lower paddock. If she has need of you, follow her instructions."
There was a series of thuds as they banged their fists on their chests in recognition and sped away, Judy easily outpacing the warriors as she headed straight for the lower paddock. It was part of the outskirts of the Hopps territory, where tasty grasses were allowed to grow wild to increase food stocks without making their presence too obvious to wandering predators.
The tracks were easy to find. Too easy. Foxes were cunning, and didn't broadcast their trail so blatantly. Judy at once suspected a trap, but close examination of the pawprints hinted that her quarry had an unnatural gait. Wounded or crippled, perhaps - or cunning enough to try to trick someone clever enough to see through the blatant path they had left.
Moving with even more caution now, Judy moved along the trail, her light frame barely disturbing the brush that had been so disturbed by the fox's passage.
Nicholas, born of Piberius, formerly of Tribe Wilde, had thoroughly denounced every fox Ancestor he had ever been taught the Name of.
Tribe Wilde had been among the most devout tribes in the entire Lower Range Grazelands. Their temples had been glorious, their sacrifices generous, their leaders picked in accordance with the omens. Even Tribe members as lowly as he had been expected to sacrifice often and devote large stretches of time to learning to interpret the will of the Ancestors.
All in the past tense. Tribe Wilde was no more. Those that had not been ground under the brass-shod hooves of the aurochs warhost or pierced upon their horns had been sacrificed to their ever-hungry fire god. Nick believed himself to be the only exception - trampled into the mud, he had been fortunate enough to lose consciousness face-up, and he had regained enough sense early enough to drag himself away from the battlefield before the aurochs priests had found him, with nothing but a large number of bruises and a broken left hind-leg to show for his former Tribe. He had lurked nearby long enough to discover that all the non-combatants of the tribe had been fed to the fires, and unable to stand the sight of charred bones or the scent of burned fur, he had fled.
He had no idea how long ago that had been. Infection had set in in his leg, and for an indeterminate amount of time all higher thought had been burned away by feverish hallucinations, and he had devolved into a wandering feral beast. When he had regained his sanity, he was a great deal thinner and thoroughly lost. He had been wandering aimlessly ever since, his broken leg still keeping him from hunting. He had been living off what few foraged roots and berries he could find, which was not so much sustenance as it was prolonged starvation, filled with sorrow for his slain mother, rage for his absent Ancestors, and pity for himself.
His leg had begun leaking pus again, he was thinner than any fox he'd ever seen, his fur was beginning to fall out, his clothes had long since fallen off of him from battle damage and weeks or months of accumulated wear, and everyone he had ever known and loved was dead. When he awoke to find a javelin's point held against his throat, he almost felt relief that death had finally taken mercy on him.
Whatever Judy had been expecting, it wasn't this.
She'd never seen a fox in the flesh. The closest she'd come was being hunted by a jackal once, and having been on the same battlefield as a wolf. But she had heard stories of them, and all of them mentioned a sly, cunning creature, equally dangerous whether it was trying to physically hunt you or pretending to be civilized so it could convince you to let your guard down. But this fox was a pathetic sight - bloody, broken, naked and half-starved, though part of her still quailed at the sight of his teeth and claws - definitely 'his', she realized before averting her eyes from that particular body part - she just couldn't see the creature before her as a danger. But she wasn't stupid, so she held her weapon to his throat anyway.
The creature's eyes had opened, and he stared at her in tired resignation. For a long moment neither moved or spoke, before the fox spoke in raspy voice in a language she had never heard before. When he didn't get a response, he changed languages, and spoke in what Judy recognizes as an oddly-accented version of the trade tongue.
"Before you slay me, rabbit, tell me; would any of your rabbit gods accept the soul of a fox?"
Judy narrowed her eyes at the question. "Don't you foxes have Gods of your own?"
"We have Ancestors. But all of my Tribe's priests are dead, and the anchor stones have been untended for weeks now. The Ancestors are lost to the howling void, and I have no desire to join them there."
Judy ran through the Gods in her head. The Goddess she was initiated to, the Defender, patroness of warrior-women and wayfarers, might take pity on a refugee, but she doubted it. And all the War Gods would accept a sacrifice of a foebeast, but would be unlikely to take their soul. The only real possibility she could think of is the Trickster, who would probably be quite amused to have such a creature given unto him, but she would not wish such a fate on even the creature before her.
Motivated partly by pity, and partly by ambition, another possibility entered her head, and she almost could not believe it when she heard herself saying; "if you would give your death to rabbit Gods, would you give your life to a rabbit Clan?"
As she approached the main hall, she saw one of the warriors had beaten her there, and was reporting to Stewart. She groaned internally. Nathan. Her brother, but then, most of the rabbits in the Clan were her siblings, and few let that stop them from jockeying for position with each other. Nathan was especially ruthless when he saw an opportunity to raise himself up at someone else's expense, or even just to undermine someone he saw as a rival. Sure enough, as she approached her father, his head jerked up and he leveled an incredulous look at her. "Am I told truthfully, daughter? Have you brought a canid to our Warren?"
Judy had been mentally preparing her argument, and delivered it with calmness she did not feel. "I have brought a defeated enemy to serve us. The traditions of the Clans allow for the taking of thralls."
"Yes, of other rabbits, and of rodents! Not of large predators!"
"In his current state he can put up no more of a fight than the weakest rabbit."
"And what of when he is healed and fed, and a match for any three warriors in the burrow?"
"By then I will have broken him, or I will have slain him myself."
Stewart stared long and hard at his daughter, his eyes calculating. Finally, he nodded. "You may have your... pet. But he becomes part of your Household. You feed him. You guard him. If you cannot tame him, you slay him. If he breaks our laws, you will take responsibility. And should he cause the death of any Hopps rabbit, you being my daughter will not stop me from outlawing you."
Judy almost quailed, but was too stubborn to even consider backing down, even in the face of such harsh conditions. "I accept."
Nick made no attempt to move from his location, sprawled in a corner of an empty silo embedded in the side of a hill. Even if he felt willing and able to make a run for it, the half-dozen rabbit warriors watching the door, armed and armoured as they were, were probably a match for him on his best day. As he was, he might be able to take out one, with a bit of luck and the benefit of surprise. But honestly, he didn't see his current situation ending particularly worse than his life had already ended up. Either he got a quicker death than starvation, or he got a second chance at life. And the life of a rabbit's thrall may not be so bad.
Even before the aurochs had appeared, he had always been on the bottom rung of society. Gifted with his hands and tongue though he was, he had been shut out of any role as crafter or trader by his lack of family ties to the Tribe's power blocs. He had made a sparse living around the edges of society by pretending to be a hunter, and thus permitted to craft his own hunting supplies, and then selling them illicitly to actual hunters for a small share in their catch.
Honestly, being a rabbit's thrall was not likely to be that much worse.
His thoughts turned to a specific rabbit - the one that had offered him a new life. She wore the outfit of a hunter, but carried herself like a warrior. Of course, skirmishers were not unknown to fox warfare, but Nick never would have thought of applying the label to a creature a tenth his size. Could a rabbit throw a javelin with enough strength to threaten a larger creature? Or was his captor more used to fighting foes her size or smaller? If she could throw while running, adding the swiftness of a rabbit to her throw could make it more effective, he mused. Or perhaps she would just charge and let momentum drive her spear home, although a fire-hardened point would not last long in a melee...
The focus of his musings entered the silo and he watched her cautiously. She did not seem like a mammal about to deliver a death sentence, but then, he had no experience in reading rabbit emotions. She started to address him in her own language, frowned at herself, and switched to the trade tongue. "You will be a thrall in my Household, fox. If you give me cause to regret my mercy, remember that it is well within my power and rights to return to you the death I have saved you from."
Nick bowed his head in recognition, a wry smile spreading across his face. As threats go, he'd heard more fearsome ones just for blocking the wrong fox's way back in Tribe Wilde. He'd lend his services to this bunny clan, and be fed and housed and perhaps even healed by them, and then he could slip his leash and be on his way. To where, he wasn't quite sure. But he'd work that out later.
Archaeological note: the True Names of the Gods of the rabbit Clans were considered a dire secret, and as such no known record of them was preserved. In all but the most private rituals and ceremonies, the Gods were referred to when spoken by their titles, and when written by the runes of three elements that each god was believed to combine within them. The King of their pantheon, for example, was Air-Motion-Mastery, while the Queen was Earth-Fertility-Harmony.
Shadowed by the other warriors of the clan, who were partly cautious, partly curious, Judy lead the fox through the dim main thoroughfare of the burrow, rabbits scattering before her before forming up again behind her to gawk. Eventually she arrived at the quiet little branch that her room was off, and she lead the fox into the darkness, and, his night vision easily piercing the gloom, he watched as she produced a flint and tinder from a pocket and used it to light a candle atop a desk. With the room illuminated, Judy noticed that he dwarfed it, making the room that seemed luxurious for her seem cramped. The fox watched her as she rummaged through a rough wooden chest at the foot of her bed, and eventually produced a simple silver torc, which she slipped over the fox's forepaw and up his limb to rest on his upper arm.
"There. This marks you as my thrall."
The fox flexed his arm experimentally. "That's it? No collar? No chains?"
"I will have our metalworker chisel the thrall-rune and my name-runes into it later, but yes, that is it. You are a thrall, fox. Not a slave. Rabbits do not take slaves." Judy recited the lesson she had been taught when she was a child. "An enemy taken in battle is free to choose between resuming being our enemy, and thus being slain, or serving us as a thrall. Should a thrall have children, they would be raised as free members of our clan, and once they become adults, they can choose between being inducted into the clan or leaving with our blessing." She looked over the fox almost possessively. "You are part of my household now. It is my responsibility to feed, house, and protect you, just as much as it is your responsibility to obey me."
The fox fell silent as he mulled her words over, and Judy winced internally at them. Now that she had committed herself to this path, the logistics of it rose up to haunt her. The fox had to be at least five times her size, and would have a diet to match - more while he put back on the weight he was obviously missing. That would not be cheap. As a warrior she was fed by the clan leader - her father - for her part in protecting the fields and flocks, but that would not extend to other members of her household.
And that was not the only issue. The single room that her 'household' consisted of, that she had been so proud of so recently, seemed impossibly small now. If she kept the fox elsewhere, it would be a tacit admission that she could not provide for her household. But to keep the fox in her room, to have it sleep within claws length of her, would be far too risky, even if it seemed inclined to obey for now. She turned back to the chest and considered it's contents carefully. It marked the accumulated wealth of her lifetime's service to the clan - gifts from her father, the proceeds of trading birds and reptiles she had hunted, spoils from chicken raids and the few wars their clan had been involved in. A number of torcs, mostly silver but one gold, a few bronze bars, a number of strange silver discs with foreign runes chiseled on one side and a crude carving of a mustelid's head on the other that had started being circulated around the clans a few years back, and even a genuine treasure - an eagle claw-and-feather fetish said to ward off evil spirits, and from the lack of evil spirits around the place it seemed to be working.
By the end of the day, her wealth was going to be much reduced, as she tried to figure out which of her neighbours would be likely to sell her the adjacent room.
The core of the rabbit economy was chickens. A chicken would eat grasses that rabbits found unpalatable, and bugs that would otherwise feed on a rabbit's crops, and could be loosed on untended wilderness to feed themselves while the clan's warriors stood watch to defend against predators and other rabbit clans, and the chickens would find their way back to their henhouses at night without requiring rounding up. In this way, they would provide food - a rabbit could not live off meat or eggs for long without their health suffering for it, but they could make up about a third of a rabbit's diet without causing distress indefinitely, and as much as a half for a season or so without causing much.
The value of this could not be overstated. If a clan didn't have enough food, the clan weakened, and eventually died. If a clan had extra food, it could be traded for things that would strengthen the clan. Metal tools and weapons, or more chickens, or fruit tree saplings, or just for gold and silver trinkets. Food would rot, but precious metals could last generations, and in this way the surplus food from a good harvest could be 'stored' indefinitely. So a creature that effectively increased a clan's food supply by half again was a godsend. Literally so, in rabbit mythology.
If this was not enough, a bare field that had had a flock of hungry chickens unleashed upon it, after they had scratched through the soil looking for roots and bugs, was ready to be sown for seeds that could be planted closer to the surface, and so much easier to plow for ones that had to be planted deeper.
As such, the measure of value used by rabbit traders was the chicken. To be specific, a female chicken of an egglaying breed that has started laying eggs within the last month. Some chickens, such as males that were poor fighters or females that didn't lay, could be worth as little as a quarter of a chicken worth of goods. Generally, a year's worth of grain for a single rabbit was worth one chicken, though of course none but the poorest of rabbits would live on nothing but grains. The kaningild for a clanrabbit was ten chickens, or fifteen if he was from a chicken-owning family. The kaningild for a warrior was 25. There were innumerable other traditional values that the clan traders would be able to recite, but that was the foundation of rabbit economics.
So when Judy found herself at the end of the day having seen her personal wealth drop from around twelve chickens (not counting the treasure, treasures being notoriously difficult to value) to four with nothing to show for it but a bedroom for her fox thrall and an agreement from one of the wealthier households of the clan to supply food for him for the next season, she started to wonder if she had made a serious blunder. And, she reflected, she was still going to have to clothe him.
Nick savored his meal. Roast bird! Eggs! Fresh fruits! Bread! He had not eaten this well in... ever! From long experience with hunger he knew to pace himself, and he managed to resist the urge to gorge himself fully on it and left a decent portion of it aside to snack on later as his stomach adapted to actually being full again. He patted his stomach and leaned back against the hard-packed dirt wall he was sitting against, smiling at the world in general and sipping on an awkwardly small wooden mug of some sort of drink - it had the tang of alcohol, but much milder than the spirits his tribe had made. Across from him, sitting on a simple wooden chair, was his... what was the word? Not owner, apparently. Master? Leader? Matriarch? Thrallherd? She was finishing off her own meal, similar to his (rabbits eating meat! had the world gone mad?) though with a side of grasses and flowers. She had scarcely taken her eyes off him the whole time - not nervous, as far as he could tell from the alien body language, but definitely cautious. He decided to break the silence.
"So, what is your name?"
Judy frowned. "I will have to teach you our language. I am Judy, Warrior of Clan Hopps. Daughter of Stewart, Chief of Clan Hopps. I am Initiated to the Defender - that is one of our gods."
"I am Nick. Son of Piberius. I suppose I am a thrall of Clan Hopps now. Formerly a... crafter of Tribe Wilde, but Tribe Wilde is no more. Even when my Tribe could maintain Ancestors, I had none."
"What does that mean? Everyone has ancestors."
"There is a specific word for it in the fox tongue. There are the ancestors that everyone has, and there are Ancestors, who did mighty deeds in life, and in death their spirits are sustained by the tribe. To not count an Ancestor among your ancestors," and Nick smiled at the awkward wording of it, "is to be of low status."
"I see." Judy considered leaving it at that, but something compelled her to keep talking. "Though my father is the Chief of the Clan, that does not give me status. This Clan is new - almost all of it's members are his descendants, or married to them. I have earned my place as a Warrior."
Nick's gaze lingered over her body - though he didn't know much of rabbit physiology, he knew muscle when he saw it - and then over to the weapons by the door, and the half-completed fletching on the desk. He nodded in acknowledgement, his gaze remaining fixed on the desk. "A fox Warrior is only for war. Is a rabbit Warrior different? Some of those arrowheads would be poor against creatures wearing the armour the other Warriors wore."
Judy looked surprised. "You are correct. While guarding against large birds and reptiles, we also hunt smaller ones. You said you were a Crafter, but you recognize arrowheads?"
"I crafted mostly hunting supplies."
Her eyes narrowed. "For fox hunters..."
Nick saw the direction of her thoughts. "To slay mammals was only for Warriors. Our hunters could only hunt birds and reptiles, as you rabbits do."
Nick saw Judy relax at his words, and was thankful he had told her his true occupation of crafting, instead of his 'official' one of hunting. Her natural assumption of what a fox hunter actually hunted could have ended badly for him.
The rest of the atmosphere dissipated as the wall behind Nick started to crumble. He scrabbled away with a yelp, and stared as the wall collapsed to reveal a team of rabbits wielding stone digging tools. Judy chuckled at him and exchanged a few words with the rabbits, who eyed Nick cautiously before returning to their work. She turned to Nick and addressed him again in the trade tongue. "This will be your room. The only exit will be through my room, and there will be chimes on the door. I sleep lightly and with a dagger, so do not try anything."
Nick bit back a smile at the fierce little rabbit and nodded in acknowledgement.
A final surprise met Nick later that day, shortly before what he assumed - being unable to tell the time in the underground burrow - was nightfall. A rabbit, female and older, came to the room and greeted Judy with a warm hug and a great deal of chattering in the rabbit tongue. She was heavily pregnant, and walked with the aid of the stick, though she seemed to be using it more to gesture with than to actually assist her in moving.
The older rabbit came up to him, the stick raised as if daring him to try anything, and at his inaction started to examine his broken leg. Judy spoke up on her behalf; "This is my mother, Bonnie. She is of the Earth Mother, not of the Great Healer - but our Clan does not have anyone Initiated to the Healer."
"Not for lack of trying, but none of those lot are too keen to move to the frontiers for a one-family Clan. And I can speak for myself, Judith." The older rabbit - Bonnie - poked at his injured leg, noted his yelp, and then started to gently but firmly feel her way around the site, avoiding the infected wound above it. "It's not a break, it's a fracture - partially healed, too, it would've been fine on it's own if it weren't for it being connected to a silly bugger that won't stay off it." She dabbed a paw gently on his wound, and brought it to her twitching nose. "Hm. Infected, but not bad enough that he's done for. Clean it with boiled water - boiled, not boiling, only need to see that mistake happen once in a lifetime - then put some of the... what's the word..." she frowned, and said a word in the rabbit tongue. "That leaf on it, under a bandage. He's not to walk much for a week, and no running about for a month. After that he should be fine." She looked up at Nick's face, then grinned. "Welcome to the Clan. Hurt any of my kits, I'll beat you to death with my stick." She prodded him in the chest with it before turning to leave, sharing a few more words with Judy in the rabbit tongue before leaving.
"A month, mother! Do you have any idea what he's already cost me for the room and the food? If I can't put him to work before then..."
"He can rest for a month and then work for a lifetime or he can work now for a week or two and then never again." Judy sighed, and Bonnie continued on. "Another thing, unless you've got a very specific kind of work you're going to be putting him to, he's going to need clothes."
"Bashful thing's got it tucked away, but if it's in proportion he could probably beat a Warrior senseless with it. Your ambition might be going a bit far this time, you know."
"Oh gods, mother, stop it!"
Bonnie laughed long and hard while Judy buried her face in her paws. "Don't worry about the clothes, I'll get the young'uns that are learning stitching to do it - their screw-ups will be a whole lot less noticeable for being on such a big lanky thing. But you're going to owe me a fair bit for the material. How much have you spent already on this fox?"
Judy hesitated before answering. "Eight, for the room and a season's food."
"I'll let you owe me it until he's back on his paws and paying his way, then. I sure hope this works out for you, Judy."
"Me too, mother."
"Though if he does turn on you, I think we could get ten for his pelt and claws and teeth. Fifteen if his fur's looking less scraggly by then."
True to her word, Judy had had a door installed to his new room and the old door shored up by the time the day drew to a close. She had also hung a number of bone chimes from her side of it, so that it could not be opened without filling the room with noise. Even if he had been so inclined, Nick had to admit it was unlikely he could get through the door without alerting her.
As he curled up on the straw pallet that Judy had provided, in the first room he had ever been able to call his own, his leg throbbing under the clean, fresh bandage she had applied, he thought to himself that things could definitely be worse.
'Kaningild' is an invented word, but based on the very real historical Germanic concept of wergild, with the old Germanic word for man (wer) replaced by the word for rabbit (kanin). Wergild was the amount of money that, by law, you were obligated to pay to someone's family or clan if you took their life, and the amount was based on the social rank of the person in question.
Thankfully, Judy's mother had delivered a pair of breeches early the next day, obviously knitted with more enthusiasm than skill, but while it wasn't pretty, it was sturdy, and would allow the fox some level of dignity and get her mother to stop making insinuations about her formerly nude thrall. After that, the first couple of days were tense, and Judy had a hand on a weapon for every minute of them, even while asleep. But before long, the fox's obedience and apparent acceptance of his new lot in life beguiled her into letting her guard down. She still kept weapons close at hand, but then, she always did even before the fox had entered her life. Such was a warrior's lot.
They spent most of their time out in the sun, with Nick walking on all fours to spare his injured leg as much weight as possible, allowing him to watch rabbits at work to get a general idea of what would be expected should he be ordered to assist in the fields. While he watched, Judy gave him language lessons. Most members of the Clan did not speak the trade tongue, and if he was going to live with them, he would need to learn to communicate.
They had been shadowed by other warriors at first, but before long they returned to their usual duties. Judy made sure to stay within a horn's blow of where warriors would be guarding chicken flocks or patrolling, just in case, but Nick continued to play the part of a happy thrall. She supposed she couldn't blame him - so far, his service had consisted of lying flopped in the soft grass, repeating words taught to him, and engaging in light conversation. Not the sort of workload that would forment rebellion.
There had been a couple of roadblocks right from the start. The fox's predator teeth couldn't manage the tooth taps used in the rabbit tongue, and he had learned to substitute tongue-clicks instead. And he would never be capable of the nose-twitches used in formal speech. But he was a fast learner, and before long he was able to communicate in mostly full sentences, though his grammar and accent remained atrocious and he often fell back on the trade tongue to make complicated points.
Eventually they ran out of harmless training phrases - the bird is in the tree, the wheat grows from the ground, and so on - and they found themselves making actual conversation. Judy started to get a feel for fox society as Nick started making comparisons between what he saw of the Clan and his former Tribe, and she found herself more thankful than ever for being a bunny. Fox society sounded very harsh and restrictive, especially for those born without the good fortune of having ancestors of note. Rabbit society put great emphasis on duty to clan and family, but also on personal freedom - an oath to a Clan or a spouse is meaningful because the rabbit in question is willingly sacrificing part of their freedom for whoever they were swearing to. Nick seemed to appreciate this point of view, but Judy wasn't sure whether he genuinely believed it or whether he was just saying that because it would be unwise to criticize the Clan to Judy's face.
During the fourth day, struck by a sudden suspicion, Judy had brought her arrow-crafting supplies and some incomplete arrows along with her when she had taken Nick out to the fields, and asked him to finish the job for her, since he had claimed to be a crafter. Without shifting from his relaxed sprawl he had taken one of the arrowshafts, examined the fletching already done, and frowned. He had unwound the thread, discarded the feathers, and picked through the bundle of feathers she had given him until he found a couple to his liking. Using his claws, he had split them down the middle, and then gently scratched tiny grooves in the arrowshaft to align the fletching to before rewinding the thread, tighter and neater than it had been before despite his much larger paws. Judy had been somewhat put out at first, but had to admit that the fox's work was better done than her own.
Nick picked up a bodkin arrowhead and examined it. "Is this for hunt or fight?"
"Either. Do you make different arrows for different purposes?"
"Yes. Glue for hunt, recover after without losing head. But fight? Just spit. They pull shaft out, head stays in."
Judy was quiet for a while. "Rabbit battles... aren't usually like that. The Clans fight to see who is stronger, there's usually few deaths unless the two Clans are feuding. Though if it's some other species, we might do things like that."
"Ah." He pricked his finger on the point of the arrowhead. "This is..." He mimed striking two things together. "Fire stone?"
"Flint. Flint is sharp. Good for through armour. Easy to make. But for other heads? Bigger heads? Uneven. The..." He mimicked something flying through the air, making a whistling noise with his mouth. "Goes wrong way. Need other stone." He made the motion of rubbing one thing against another. "Takes longer, but better. The..." He grimaced, and switched to the trade tongue. "Broadheads, and swallowtails. They do more damage when they hit, but because they're bigger they need to be better made or the arrow is unbalanced. Better to make from stones for grinding instead of stones for knapping so you can make them even on all sides." He shrugged and switched back to rabbit. "Metal best of all. But shoot at bird, miss, lose metal. Very expensive. Save for enemies, or big snakes, big lizards."
Judy was impressed. "Do fox hunters use bows a lot?"
"Nothing left near fox Tribe that fox can catch with paws. Need bows instead. Small birds, fast lizards."
Judy nodded and indicated the javelin that was lying next to her. "Rabbits mostly use spears. With the momentum of a running rabbit, a good thrust or throw can go through anything."
Nick eyed the javelin warily and nodded.
Judy picked up the arrowshaft that Nick had fletched and examined the work closely. "You do good work. You must have been quite in demand as a crafter."
Nick considered telling the truth about his slight lie in that regard, but decided against it, instead saying "some. Traded goods for food, lived well enough." To avoid further conversation, he picked up another arrowshaft and busied himself with it, and the conversation trailed off there.
Five days into his new life, Nick had become quite used to being watched. Judy's cautious gaze was fixed at him for most of his waking hours, and when she wasn't around one of the other warriors was. On top of that, just about every adult rabbit he happened to encounter kept a wary eye on him until they managed to leave his general vicinity without outright fleeing. So it took him a bit of time to realize that a new set of observers had been added.
Once more him and Judy were in a quiet corner of the Clan's fields, and Judy - who had been running out of ideas for how to improve Nick's grasp of the language - had started sharing with him the tales of the rabbit gods, with him to interrupt whenever he didn't understand part of it. She wasn't the best story-teller, and often had to pause to remember the details, and there was still an element of tension between the two of them. But he found the tales to be entertaining nonetheless, and he found himself liking the rabbit Gods more than he had the fox Ancestors - but then, nobody was using the rabbit Gods as an excuse to declare themselves better than him. His status as a thrall was built entirely on relative martial might, and he could respect that.
Nick interrupted Judy's story to ask, "what's the word for a young rabbit in the rabbit language?"
"That's the word for a young fox in the fox language."
The two of them exchanged mildly perplexed looks, and then Judy asked "why do you ask, anyway?"
"Well, we've got some watchers."
Judy followed Nick's gaze to the edge of the field, where a line of stone field markers marked the boundary between a tended field of grass and an untended one, though Nick still couldn't tell what, apart from height, was the difference. And in the untended part, a half-dozen sets of undersized rabbit ears were protruding from the top of the unkempt grass, spoiling what would have otherwise been a very impressive concealed approach.
With two sets of eyes looking at their hiding space, Judy and Nick's watchers realized that they had been caught, and an argument in high-pitched bunny voices broke out as each of them blamed the others. It quickly devolved into a scuffle, and before long one of the bunnies was ejected from the grass and rolled along the shorter grass of the field. It was a young rabbit kit in a simple frock half-covered in dirt and grass burrs, and she scrambled onto her paws as she realized that Nick and Judy's eyes were now fixed on her. She almost fled, but then looked from one to the other and back again and then sidled up to Judy and whispered more than loud enough for Nick to hear, "can I ask the fox a question?"
Judy nodded, smiling, and the kit bit her lip as she looked Nick up and down and gathered her courage. Urged on by whispers from the undergrowth, she stood tall and proud and with only a slight waver in her voice, proclaimed "I heard that foxes are born from the bad gods and that's why they got six legs is that true?"
Nick blinked at the earnest little rabbit kit, then looked down at himself. "One, two, three, four... I only see four."
The kit narrowed her eyes at Nick in suspicion, then walked a careful circle around him, looking for concealed legs. Then she nodded reluctantly. "Okay, but if you get any extra legs you hafta say so, okay?"
Nick smiled, but nodded gravely in agreement. "That seems fair."
The rabbit kit seemed content with this, and hopped back into the undergrowth to rejoin her friends, and they started chattering with each other about the number of legs a fox could have. Nick's smile lasted as he watched her go, then looked to Judy to find her watching him thoughtfully. "What?"
She shrugged, and it wasn't long before Judy's stories had started up again, but some of the tenseness between them had been dissipated.
That night, Nick was awoken from his sleep by the rhythmic thuds of a tool on soil. He blinked in the darkness, and looked around for the source, his night vision barely able to penetrate the subterranean gloom. His eyes were drawn to a section of wall which he remembered being able to tell in better light was discolored from where a door used to be. As he watched, a small portion of the wall started to crumble and fall to reveal a tiny hole, which began to widen as someone continued to chip away at it. Then the tool was withdrawn, and there was rustling and mutterings of complaint as someone squeezed their way through; Nick found himself tensing up, until he saw the ears poking their way through and realized they were much smaller than that of an adult bunny.
Eventually, the rest of the rabbit wriggled it's way through the hole, revealing itself to be a young male dressed in a pair of tiny breeches that were now utterly covered with dirt. The rabbit reached back into a hole and whispered something, and the room was dimly illuminated as a tiny candle stub was passed through the hole. Then there was another set of rustlings, and then the whispers grew until he could make out what they were saying.
"You knocked some of the dirt loose when you went through, I can't fit through!"
"Pass me the pick, I'll loosen it up from here."
"It won't fit!"
"Well, widen the hole until it does fit!"
Nick broke the conversation by clearing his throat, and then there was silence for a long moment, before two or three sets of paws scampered off and one very regretful kit slowly turned, and his tiny candle illuminated the uncomfortably close face of a fox.
Nick knocked on the door to his room, setting the bone chimes on the other side to tinkling, and a moment later heard the rhythmic clack of someone working a flintstone and before long the door creaked open to reveal Judy in a plain yarn tunic; from the look of it it had once been a dress for a much smaller rabbit, but now served as a nightshirt that barely preserved her modesty. She had a candle in one paw and a dagger in the other, and looked thoroughly unimpressed. Nick wordlessly indicated the cowering kit in the corner, who, if anything, looked even more terrified to see Judy than he had been when it was just Nick.
Judy just sighed.
A brief interrogation revealed that the young kit had accepted a dare to tunnel in to the fox's room and count his legs to make sure he hadn't transformed into a slavering abomination in the service of evil gods in the past few hours. To his credit, he swore up and down that it had been a one-bunny operation, even in the face of Nick pointing out that there were at least two others involved from what he had heard. As the interrogation concluded, there was a knock at the external door and Judy went to answer it, revealing an older doe in a nightdress. Seeing Judy, the doe smiled. "My boys are telling me that my Jim has gotten himself eaten by the fox. Normally that's their fall-back lie for when he's off causing mischief, but now that there's an actual fox around I figure I better check in with you."
Judy sighed and wordlessly invited the rabbit in. "Hi, Beth. Yes, he's here and he's fine. Tunneled in to count the fox's legs."
Judy just sighed again, shaking her head. She pointed to a corner of the room, where the young kit - Jim - was cowering, covered in dirt and still holding his candle stub, and seemed to be seriously considering retreating back into the fox's room. Meanwhile, the fox had taken the opportunity to sprawl himself on Judy's much more comfortable bed. Judy groaned and braced herself for Beth's inevitable needling.
"Well, Judy, your thrall-taming technique certainly seems unusual..." Judy groaned again, and buried her hands in her paws. "But it seems to be working! Who can argue with results?"
"Just take your kit and go."
Beth chuckled to herself and gave Jim a look, who reluctantly fell in behind his mother, and the two of them bid farewell to Judy and Nick - Jim with a nervous mumble at Beth's prodding - before leaving. Judy turned back to the fox in question, who seemed to be already half-asleep. "Oh no you don't. Out."
Nick whined, but complied, hauling himself upright again. "Are you sure there's not room for two? I've never felt anything as comfortable as this in my life."
"I know it's comfortable. It's a feather duvet over a beech leaf pallet over a wooden frame, and I worked my tail off for a season to trade for it all. And remind me to tell you some of the stories about the Defender tomorrow, so you'll know better than to crawl into my bed uninvited."
"What about invited?"
Nick slunk out with a put-upon air, returning to his straw pallet while Judy rolled her eyes, fighting off the urge to smile. As she closed the door behind him, she realized that she'd put the dagger down to answer the door, and had been unarmed and alone in the dark of night with a fox. And yet she couldn't quite find it in herself to be worried about that.
This is probably an unrealistically fast timeframe for Nick to learn to speak rabbit, but mutual intelligibility would really get in the way of the story. Maybe Judy sacrificed a chicken to the Knowing God, and his blessing is allowing Nick to absorb the rabbit tongue.
Why did Judy go to the effort of getting a really comfortable bed? Rabbits aren't used to sleeping alone, but Judy's pride won't let her not maintain her own room. She's the leader of a household, even if it is a household of one. So the really comfortable bed is to make up for the crushing loneliness.
It was the first time that Judy would be taking her fox hunting with her, and she had taken every precaution.
They would be hunting in a patch of forest on the opposite side of the farm to where the kits would be playing. The chickens would be kept in one of the fields today instead of loosed to forage in the wilds, freeing up most of the warriors. And those warriors would be shadowing the two of them, ready to swoop in and slay the fox should his obedience turn out to be a ruse.
She hoped it would not be. Even beyond the riches she had already spent on the fox, and the prestige she would lose for having lost control of a thrall, she had found herself starting to like the predator. He was clever, he responded to praise like a mammal dying of thirst responds to water, and he was starting to make himself helpful. Her quiver was filled with arrows finer than any she had ever made for herself, and she had tested a few to make sure the fox hadn't sabotaged them somehow, and found they flew truer than the ones she had fletched herself. And he had asked for more rocks - and hadn't communicating specific types of rocks past the language barrier been a challenge! - to start working on new arrowheads for her.
If he was genuinely happy to serve, and not just biding his time for when he would be able to turn on the Clan or escape from them, then he could be an asset to the Clan just as a crafter. But she had greater ambitions than that, and Nick had admitted to her, cautiously to avoid reminding her too much that he was a natural predator, that he would like to join her in her hunts. He could stalk the forest without having to run on his injured leg, after all. And when he was fully healed... in her dreams, she saw herself charging into a line of enemies on the back of a fox, throwing their shieldwall into disarray and single-pawedly breaking their lines. Being toasted at the victory feast and being elevated to the Clan council... when the Clan was large enough to be lead by a council instead of just her father, anyway. Riches! Honour! Respect! Metal weapons and armour! Treasures!
But that was for the future. Right now, she had to go hunting with a fox without being hunted BY a fox.
She had made sure Nathan was in the group of warriors shadowing them. If the worst should come to pass, he would not hesitate to strike down the fox. He would then hold it over her for the rest of their lives, but at least the Clan would be safe from the predation of a rampaging fox.
Nick had hunted before, and had quickly discovered he was no good at it. Sure, he could find prey quite easily - he had the keen nose and eyes of a fox, after all - but when it came to killing, it was hopeless. His aim with a bow was poor, even worse with a javelin, and the only one in danger when he was trying to wield a sling was himself. And while he was normally fast on his feet, the prey that remained around the fox tribe's land was faster. When he went hunting, the only food he brought back was roots and berries overlooked by the other hunters.
Some small part of him felt shame at the prospect of a rabbit outdoing him in the hunt, but he had never truly considered himself a hunter. He was a crafter. And the rabbit would be hunting with arrows that he had fletched for her, and the pride of that overshadowed the shame. It was a curious feeling - most of the hunters he had traded with back in the fox tribe had looked down on him for 'failing' in his role, even as they took advantage of it by trading the worst of their catch for the best of his goods. But now the one using his goods was someone who had done right by him. Speaking of, as he looked Judy over, he noted with pride that all eight of the arrows in her hip-quiver were ones he had reworked the fletching of. She had also left behind her javelins and shield, being armed only with her bow and her trusty dagger on her hip, counterbalancing the quiver. He wondered if this was an indication that she was starting to trust him.
When Judy indicated for him to lead the way, he lead the two of them downwind for a while - normally a terrible idea when hunting, but he had a hunch he wanted to check - and then closed his eyes and started breathing deep through his nose. To smell things was easy. To filter out all the irrelevant smells to find something worth smelling? That was the difficult part.
Rabbit. Female. Familiar. Well, of course. The undertone of the soil of the Hopps burrow clinging to them both. The plants surrounding them all had their own subtle smell that had to be disregarded. The barely-there smell of running water, a nearby brook. And, blown on a gust of wind, more rabbits. Four- no, five. Four male, one female. All adult. Tense. Undertones of cured leather and bronze. Vaguely familiar. The rabbits that had stood watch over him just before Judy had claimed him.
To be honest, he would have lost some respect for Judy if there hadn't been back-up following them. But, to his surprise, he found that the revelation stung a little.
Never mind that. He had a job to do. He disregarded the rabbit guards and inhaled again, each gust of wind bringing new scents. Nothing. Just more plants. Wait.
Without opening his eyes, Nick pointed a paw. "Mint, that way."
"We grow mint in our gardens, we don't need to harvest it wild."
"For me to smell it from this far away, something disturbed it, and recently."
Judy nodded, and started to head in the direction he had indicated, unshouldering her bow, which was short even by rabbit standards, but tightly-strung. Nick noted with approval the way she carefully treaded through the brush, avoiding making unnecessary noise even though they were still some distance from even the tracks of their quarry, though she was obviously hindered by a body built for speed rather than stealth.
Before long, Nick was reminded of one of the reasons he had never made it as a hunter. His nose lead him straight to the mint bush, but then could do nothing else, as all he could smell was, of course, mint. So Judy had taken control and investigated until she triumphantly indicated a patch of dirt that looked like every other patch of dirt in the forest to Nick, speculated that their quarry was some kind of large lizard, and started leading them away from the bush.
This went on for perhaps half an hour, with Judy indicating spoor and Nick being completely baffled at how she had picked it out from the backdrop of the forest's undergrowth. Nick started to get very faint whiffs of their prey, which indicated it must be close, as reptiles had much fainter smells than mammals. With a smell to follow as well as tracks they redoubled their speed, and before long Nick could smell the creature itself shortly ahead, instead of just the traces it had left behind.
Judy pressed on ahead alone, letting her keen ears guide her towards the very faint noise of a lizard snuffling through the leaf litter, barely distinguishable from the breeze playing through the grass and leaves. She knew it was close by, but the wild grass - higher than her head in places - was concealing it from her, though thankfully vice versa as well. The leaf litter was dense here, likely what had attracted the lizard to this place, and every step was accompanied by a silent prayer to the God of the Wild that the leaves she was about to put her weight on was not concealing a twig or stick or depression that would alert her prey.
Not all of these prayers were answered, as the snap of a broken twig filled the air, followed quickly by the rustling of a creature fleeing. Judy bounded forward, her powerful legs lifting her clear of the grass for just long enough to catch a glimpse of her quarry and the surrounding terrain - the lizard was skittering directly away from her, and the direction would take it to a stretch of relatively open ground before it could disappear into thicker underbrush, so she decided against trying to take a shot in mid-jump, which was beyond her skills to do with any accuracy. When she burst from the grass and took aim, her first shot - over-enthusiastic, she scolded herself - was off-target, flying past the lizard and into the undergrowth it was fleeing towards, likely never to be seen again. She cursed, took aim, took another heartbeat to take proper aim, and let fly. The arrow flew true and the flint head penetrated the lizard's skin and buried itself deep in it's side, tearing something between a squeak and a squeal from the reptile. It charged on regardless and in an instant was gone from view, and Judy allowed herself to relax. A few moments later, the fox joined her side, and Judy addressed him while staring after the lizard. "It will be easier to follow - panicked, it will disturb more brush as it runs, and will leave spots of blood as well."
"Even easier than that. I could follow the smell of a blood trail blind and concussed."
True to his word, Nick blazed a trail after the injured lizard at a brisk walk - he had tried to jog, but his own injury protested and Judy had told him to stop. The lizard had been fast, but a brisk walking speed allowed them to remain right behind it, and several times they heard it scuttering away as it heard their pursuit and begun fleeing again. They caught up after about an hour of pursuit, and found it half-collapsed, a broken arrow-shaft still protruding from it's side, still trying to crawl away from it's pursuers but weakened by exhaustion, overheating and blood loss. Judy took careful aim and dispatched it with an arrow to the back of it's head.
It was large for a lizard in these parts. Nick figured it to be about a quarter of Judy's size. It was a good catch for a fox, supplying about four or five day's eating. Accounting for the take of the tribe leaders and the expense of time and effort and the loss of the arrow that had missed and been lost in the undergrowth, Nick estimated it at a good take for a day's hunting. And together it had only taken them a couple of hours.
Judy's estimation of the lizard's value was entirely different. The skin alone, being vivid green with black dots, was a worthy prize, being almost entirely whole and of a good size - if tanned well, it would be worth an entire chicken. Two if Bonnie transformed it into a nice garment first, as it would make a fancy tunic for a noble in a richer clan, or a good, lightweight jerkin to act as armour. Possibly for herself, though that would put her deeper in Bonnie's debt instead of eliminating it. The claws and bones would be very useful for fishhooks and needles and arrowheads. Finally, the meat was very useful. It could be smoked to preserve it, which chicken meat could not be, and it offered a very different taste for rabbits sick of poultry. A good stock of reptile jerky could allow a clan to last a winter without having to slaughter any more of their chickens than they otherwise would, allowing them a surplus of chickens in the early spring when other clans would be desperate to buy them to replace the ones they ate. And there was enough there to provide the meat portion of the entire clan for a single meal. So that could start making a dent on her debt even if she decided to keep the lizardskin for herself.
(Her duty to her Clan consisted of guarding the rabbits and goods, and thus the results of her hunt was considered her property. However, it was considered to be very poor practice to sell food to your own Clan. A gift to one's own Clan, on the other hand, would usually be met by reciprocal gifts, allowing something very much like a trade to take place while all parties gained honour from showing such generosity to each other. Technically, there was no requirement for the Clan's leader or leaders to respond to such gifts with ones of their own, but a lack of generosity was a sign of either poor leadership or lean times, and would undermine their status within the Clan and would often lead to pressure for new leaders to be found.)
When Nick and Judy emerged from the forests just before sundown several hours later, it was with Nick festooned with the day's take - the lizard, two much smaller skinks, and a bluejay, all tied together with makeshift rope made out of grass and dangling from either side of Nick's bare back, acting as counterweights for each other. Judy followed behind, carrying a double armful of wild berries. They were contained within her tunic - when Nick had lead them to the berry bush, she had decided that her breeches and undershirt were capable of preserving her modesty, though she had made a mental note to bring some empty bags on the next hunting trip. Or at least to check with Bonnie to see how Nick's tunic was getting along, so his tunic could be used next time. One of her arrows had a broken shaft, one had hit a rock and needed a new head, two needed refletching, and three had been lost entirely, leaving her with a single functional arrow of the ones she had taken out - though she had another quiverful of ones she had made herself back in her room. Both of them were covered with dirt, mud, and blood.
All in all, it had been a very productive day.
While modern hunting puts a lot of emphasis on humanely dispatching the prey, historical hunting, being motivated by survival instead of sport and involving equipment a lot less deadly and reliable than what we have today, did not have the luxury of playing nice. While the kill described in this chapter could be considered cruel by modern standards, it's folly to judge ancient cultures by those standards.
Unfortunately, simply bringing home a slain creature is just the start of turning a few well-placed arrows into food and goods. The process of separating a creature into various types of usable components - meat and organs for food, bone for crafts, skin for tanning - takes a sharp knife, a strong stomach, and a fair bit of hard work. And it was on a fairly strict timetable, because the moment a creature's life ends, the clock is ticking before decay sets in and renders the whole lot unusable.
Clan Hopps, being a fairly small clan of prey creatures, did not have a butcher. The cooks would happily turn meat into meals or jerky, and the long, complex and laborious process of tanning a hide could be turned over to Bonnie and her team of young would-be clothiers, and the clan crafters - most of whom crafted only after attending to their responsibilities in the field, but the Hopps clan had, in recent years, been able to support a small handful of bunnies dedicated to the production of trinkets and trade goods - would be delighted to take any bones and feathers that Nick didn't claim for future fletching. But the butchery itself was the responsibility of the rabbit - or rabbit and fox, in this case - who had slain the creature. So, set against twin deadlines of decay and nightfall, the two of them set to work, having carried their catch over to a small structure by a river on the edge of the core Hopps land. To call it even a shed would be generous. Three walls and a roof kept the rain off and the wind out, while the remaining side was left open to keep smells from accumulating. A large, flat stone served as a table, and a knife had to be fetched from the burrow proper - though now that they were back in the core land, there were always helping paws within earshot to fetch and carry.
"There's a rabbit clan up in the hills that knows the secrets of bees, and sustains itself entirely off their products, including beeswax candles," Judy explained conversationally as she started to pluck the bluejay, and Nick hefted the notched bronze knife experimentally, uncomfortably small in his paw. "They burn brightly, without smoke and with a nice smell, so they make working after sunset a lot more comfortable. We usually trade for a good supply, though we do have to make do with rushlights in lean years." She screwed up her nose as Nick made the first cut on one of the smaller skinks - wanting to get some practice with the knife in before he got started on their larger prize - but continued on, refusing to show that it got to her. "So it isn't a matter of light that is rushing us. It is safety. Though this is Hopps land, and we would fight and die to protect it, sometimes it is best not to have to fight at all. The smell of blood drawing in predators," Nick gave her a dry look at that, and she looked slightly embarrassed, but plunged on anyway, "is a minor risk. We can fight off most wandering predators. But at night, the fight would become much more dangerous."
Nick nodded in understanding as he set the unwieldy knife aside, having cut open the skink's belly from chin to tail, and started to work on separating the skin from the muscles within. Foxes did not have sharp claws (except for those among the warrior classes who deliberately sharpened them), but they were sharp and strong enough to separate the connective tissue between skin and muscle. Soon he was stained red to the elbows. This proved to be a problem, because when Judy started calling for extra hands to start digging an offal-hole, they arrived, took one look at a shirtless, bloody Nick, squeaked and fled again. She considered going after them, but then just rolled her eyes and picked up the stone shovel herself and set to work as Nick turned his attention to the second skink.
"There has been talk among the warriors of digging a pond to trap fish within, and feed them the offal of our hunts. It is galling to waste food, even food no rabbit would eat. But it was decided that we simply don't hunt enough to justify the effort." She leaned on the shovel and smiled at Nick. "After today, I'm thinking the two of us will be able to change that."
Nick spared his work enough attention to smile back at Judy. "I think you might be right."
The moment was shattered a moment later as a pair of cautious rabbit warriors stalked into the clearing, trailed by a crowd of nervous young rabbits that Judy had tried to summon earlier. They took one look at the bloody but obviously not rampaging Nick and the entirely-at-ease Judy, rolled their eyes, and left again, leaving the kits doubly nervous, because not only were they still in front of a bloody fox and surrounded by the smell of death, but they had also shown a lack of courage. Judy quickly put them to work before they could contemplate fleeing again, and one of them took over the hole-digging, a second was instructed to carry the plucked bluejay to the kitchens, and an unlucky third was told to stand by to carry lizard meat away as Judy took up the knife and started to separate organs and bones from useful, preservable lizardflesh.
It was long after sundown by the time the two of them finished, having had one of the innumerable kits fetch some candles to light up the area, and the same pair of warriors that had checked of them earlier had returned to keep watch until the job was done, the offal was buried, and all of the rabbits safely returned to the burrow. Nick was having a hard time telling all of these hundreds of rabbits apart, but these two were among the easiest - the only female warriors apart from Judy, the two of them looked near-identical except that the younger of them had used ochre to dye her fur red.
The two skinks had been done by the time the last of the sun was gone, the skins, bones and meat all hauled away to differing destinations within the burrow, but the final lizard was a lot more bothersome - Judy's initial arrow had, it turned out, pierced it's intestines, and while that injury had allowed it them to catch it, it had also fouled a significant portion of the meat, which had to be carefully separated from the meat that was still usable. The work was exhausting, smelly, and frustrating, and with every portion of what would have been perfectly good meat that was thrown into the offal hole, Judy swore she was going to practice her aim even more.
Finally, hours past sundown and with the other warriors starting to get restless as night progressed, the job was done. The few kits that were still available to help - those near enough to adulthood that their fretting parents hadn't come to retrieve them quite yet - took the last of the meat and bones away, filled the offal-hole back in, and four of them cooperated to carefully carry the almost-whole skin off to Bonnie, who had been told of the catch and was standing ready to begin the tanning process to prevent spoilage. Which had been a carefully-guarded secret among the crafters of Nick's tribe, but he had learned from an offhand comment that the Hopps clan used crushed alder bark. The length of intestine from the lizard had been spared from the offal-hole, as Nick wanted to use it to make gut string for his crafts instead of using the twine that the Hopps clan preferred.
By the end of it, Judy was as splattered with gore as Nick. A proper bath could wait for the warmth of day, but if they returned to the burrow as completely soaked in blood as they were, the smell would keep half the burrow from sleep as ancient instincts that Judy and the other warriors had learned to suppress told them that they were in terrible danger. To say nothing of the terrible matting that they'd suffer if they slept with bloody fur. So the two of them reluctantly braced themselves against the chill of night and dipped their arms into the river to scrub away at the blood, which was far easier said than done; it took a seeming eternity for the job to be done, and by the time it was, Judy was shivering violently. She made another mental note to see to Nick's tunic - if she was suffering while fully dressed (her own tunic having long since been put back on, and the berries it had contained transferred to a much more conventional basket), then she could only imagine how the half-dressed fox was doing. He bore it stoically, suppressing his shivering as best he could, but the occasional tremor still went through him.
Judy gathered up the tools and candles, double-checked that all the offal was buried, and lead the way back to the main entrance of the burrow, her familiarity with the area trumping Nick's superior night vision. Parting ways with the other two warriors, her and Nick made their way through the half-asleep and barely-lit burrow to Judy's household.
After she let the exhausted fox through the door and turned to her desk to put away the skinning knife (and making a mental note to return it to the communal tool storage area in the morning) along with her hunting gear, she heard a whumpf from behind her, followed by a great deal of rustling and a long, satisfied sigh. She didn't even have to turn around to know what that was, but she did anyway. Sure enough, the fox had collapsed into her bed and wrapped itself in one of her sheets. She opened her mouth to admonish him, but paused before the first word emerged. The straw pallet in his room was fine for this time of year - she'd slept on a similar bed before she had invested in her current one - but after a near-midnight bath, she felt that it would have been cruel to banish him to it. And, she reasoned, she had blankets enough to keep her warm through all but the coldest of winter nights, so there were more than enough for her both her and a fox to ward off the chill of an early autumn night without sharing. So she could just prod the fox until he freed up enough space for her to sleep in, wrap herself in an entirely separate blanket, and thereby toe the line between generosity towards her thrall and... any sort of dalliance of the sort that her mother and sister had both gone out of their ways to imply.
She nodded at her sound reasoning as she poked at the fox until he surrendered a rabbit's width of space at the head of the bed. Then, as an afterthought, she slipped her sheathed dagger under her pillow. Just in case.
The morning after their hunting trip, Nick had been limping heavily. Even though Bonnie had checked and confirmed that no damage had been done, and it was just from him putting too much strain on his other three paws with a gait he wasn't used to, Judy blamed herself. Bonnie had said he could walk on it after a week, but she probably shouldn't have taken that to mean he was fully capable of hunting expeditions exactly seven days later, even though he had been the one to bring the possibility up. She was the head of the household, and his wellbeing was her responsibility.
After an enormous breakfast - they had missed dinner the previous night, after all - they had a quick bath, for which Judy had simply handed Nick a small sliver of soap and pointed him further along the river, not wanting to give the fox the wrong idea after allowing him to share her bed, even platonically. After which they set off, with a much closer destination in mind this time. Judy lead Nick to a low hill to serve as an archery butt, where she intended to fulfill her promise to herself to practice her aim as well as let Nick take his weight off his paw and get some of his crafting done.
While she had practiced, Nick had lounged at the base of a nearby tree, looking infuriatingly at ease, but when Judy had taken a break from her target practice to venture over, she'd found his eyes focused and his paws hard at work. He was surrounded by a small circle of fascinated kits that watched him work, splitting their time between fleeing squealing whenever he made a sudden move and fetching equipment and materials for him. He carved sticks into arrowshafts with a small bone knife, examined them closely, and then decided whether to sort them into the three piles beside him: rejects, practice arrows, or proper arrows. Judy honestly couldn't tell the difference between the three piles, but when he had given her one of the precious few proper arrows, properly fletched with the bluejay feathers (and temporarily bound with twine, since the lizardgut was still being rinsed by the current of the river), it had flown straighter and truer than any arrow she had ever fired, and she could have sworn it dropped less over distance too - though that last one may have been wishful thinking.
After that (and after one of the kits had recovered the precious arrow) Nick had gotten to work on making practice arrows for her, fletched with chicken feathers and tied with scraps of twine. Before long, however, she was joined in her target practice by the kits, who had managed to get their hands on a tatty old practice bow and were taking turns in firing off Nick's rejected arrowshafts that Nick had 'fletched' with leaves, tied with creeper vine.
It was a quiet, peaceful, and productive day; the sort of day that even the most glory-hungry of warriors grudgingly valued. And seeing her fox surrounded by fascinated and only slightly terrified kits had done almost as much as their successful hunting trip the previous day to convince her that she made the right decision when she had taken a fox as a thrall.
A rather uneventful chapter, but nevertheless it serves a dual purpose. Firstly to emphasize how much effort every damn thing takes in a pre-industrial society - it took Nick and Judy about an hour and a half to catch the lizard, and killing it only took a few seconds, but to skin, clean, and gut it takes hours more on top of that. And they've farmed out the most laborious tasks onto the rest of the Hopps clan to members who are more skilled in the areas in question - tanning in particular is incredibly laborious, but smoking meat and carving or scrimshawing bones is no easy task either.
The second purpose? Well, nothing breaks down walls between two people like successfully completing an unpleasant yet important job together that would have taken a lot more time and effort alone. This isn't canon, there's no established wellspring of goodwill to draw on. Even though they're getting along fine so far, they're still natural enemies in a society not that far removed from nature. So it will take time and proof of good intent for Nick to earn his place.
"Seriously? This is it?"
"Yep." Judy ran a practiced eye over the horizon. "All of the hens are watched by their respective roosters, and each of the roosters has a Hopps clanrabbit watching it. Roosters watch their hens carefully, so nothing can get at the chickens without alerting one of the roosters, which alerts the rabbit watching it, and if he can't manage it he yells and alerts us, and if it's more than we can handle we blow our horns and alert the whole Clan." She shrugged. "Apart from checking the horizon every now and then to make sure a rival clan's entire war-party hasn't decided to pay us a visit or anything like that, that's the entirety of my role today."
Nick ran his gaze experimentally over the view. They were suspended up in the trees, sitting against the trunk the small platform they were perched upon was attached to. Judy had been worried about whether he could haul himself up, but he had reassured her that foxes were good at climbing trees, and had managed to haul himself up without putting too much strain on his injured leg.
The view was pretty nice, but he had to figure it would get dull after a while. He was glad that Judy had told him to bring his arrow-crafting supplies. For her part, Judy had brought a small lump of wood, and had already begun to carve away at it with her dagger with the long practice of someone who had had to fill endless idle hours in the past.
Nick looked up from his work as a gust of wind brought a fresh scent to his nose. It had just been a flash but for a second he had been sure- and then the wind picked up again, and he was positive. "Judy. Strange rabbits upwind. Ten or so. Not of Clan Hopps."
Judy looked at him askance. "You surely can't know the smell of every Clan Hopps rabbit."
"No, but I know the smell of the soil in the Clan Hopps burrow. These rabbits have a different soil clinging to them."
Judy's sheathed her dagger, tucked whatever it was she had been crafting away into a pocket, and started to climb down from the hide, gesturing for Nick to follow. He did as best he could - climbing down with three legs was somehow even more difficult than climbing up - and, pointing, guided her through the underbrush towards where the smell had come from. When he finally found their scent trail, Judy knelt down, examined the trampled underbrush, and nodded. "You were right." Then she pursed her lips and blew a sharp, loud whistle through her teeth than echoed through the woods. At the edge of hearing, there was a distant crash of undergrowth being trampled as the noise provoked someone into action.
Nick started and made to chase after them, only to be halted by Judy. "That will call the others. Either the trespassers will flee, or they'll be slowed by their business here and we'll be able to catch them after the others appear." She lead them slowly along the trail the foreign rabbits had left, which was obvious enough that even Nick could see it.
Their slow, quiet pursuit was helped along by the noise the trespassers were making. Shortly after the whistle, there was the crow of a rooster facing down a threat, followed by a series of clucks and squawks, then a lot more as the distress spread to the rest of the flock. Nevertheless, Judy did not increase their pace. When the trail lead them to where the confrontation with the rooster had happened, they found the rooster trussed up with string and a few of his hens gathered around him nervously - with quite a few missing. The Hopps clanrabbit that had been watching the rooster appeared out of the underbrush at Judy's approach, clutching his spear boldly - not quite a full adult, but old enough to want to act like one. With an exchanged nod, he braced himself and fell in behind the two of them, to his credit barely giving Nick a nervous glance.
They sped up, and shortly after the sound of a horn being blown reverberated through the forest directly ahead of them. A few moments later they reached the treeline, and paused to take in the situation. A single Clan Hopps warrior was staring down a dozen foreign rabbits. From Nick's untrained eye, only three of the trespassers looked to be warriors - the others wore the plain clothes and carried the simple spears of regular clanrabbits. Beside each of them was a chicken with legs and beak tied with rope. The Hopps rabbit confronting them was the only one of the warriors that Judy had gone out of her way to bring to his attention - Nathan. A rabbit of talent and ambition, she had said, and warned him not to give the warrior an excuse to try to put him down. He wielded a long, thin club, with one side of the head left blunt and the other studded with jagged shards of flint.
Nathan broke the tense silence. "I know those markings. Clan Beveren. Didn't expect to see you in our lands after that utter failure of a raid autumn before last."
"Nathan of Hopps." One of the foreign warriors sneered, tightening his grip on his sword. "My uncle still walks with a limp, because of you."
"He should consider himself lucky to be walking at all." Nathan twirled his club nonchalantly. "How about you leave the chickens where they are and head on home before I give you something you can hold in common with your uncle."
"Three warriors to one." The foreigner sneered, stepping forward. At that, Judy stepped out of the treeline, Nick and the clanrabbit they had picked up on the way a step behind her. To their right, another warrior did the same with their bow drawn and arrow nocked, and to their left a half-dozen Hopps clanrabbits with spears emerged as a group. None of them made any attempt at stealth, so the moment they started to move the trespassers whirled to see them.
"Count again, Beveren." Nathan said coolly, but couldn't quite manage to keep the relief out of his voice.
Seeing Nick had really shaken the confidence of the Beveren bunnies. They had clearly been ready for a fight against Hopps rabbits, but when a fox had stepped out of the trees, obviously backing up the Hopps clan, they had been thoroughly discouraged. After some parting bluster to save face, they left the chickens where they lay and cautiously backed away, turning and bounding off after they had put enough distance that they felt safe from a spear in the back.
As the Hopps clanrabbits saw to the bound but thankfully unharmed chickens, Nathan approached Judy and Nick. "Thought it sounded like your whistle, Judy. How'd you spot them? Beveren are sneaky little bastards."
Judy indicated Nick with a toss of her head. "I didn't. He sniffed them out as they passed us."
Nathan eyed Nick. It was very similar to the look Nick had received from Nathan on the time or two they had crossed paths - distrust with a side of sizing up for a fight - but there was an entirely new analytical gleam to his eye. "Useful."
"I've found him to be, yes."
After the chickens were untied and lead back to their fretting rooster in the trees, Nick started to wonder about the implications of the attempted theft. Was this an act of war? Was there violence in the Hopps clan's future? Should he be planning his escape sooner rather than later? But when he voiced his concerns to Judy (minus the one about escaping, of course), she had shook her head in response.
"It was just a chicken raid, Nick. Not even a full raid. A few warriors get a handful of other rabbits together to pay a visit to the neighbours to make sure they're taking proper care of their chickens. If they're not guarding them properly, then they take them where they'll be more properly appreciated: their own clan." Judy chuckled, with uncharacteristic humour in her voice. "That's the way it was taught to me, anyway. It's not even unfriendly, as long as they don't go too far with it. If they managed to take our chickens, then we didn't deserve to have them. If they don't deserve them either, they'll lose them soon enough."
Nick mulled it over. "Oh, I think I see. And then if you go over there and take some of their chickens successfully, they don't get to complain?"
"Now you're getting it." Judy smiled. "Those with skill or the favour of the Gods get a few extra chickens and a bit of glory, and everyone learns to keep a close eye on their chickens. That's the real reason for the tradition, or so I've been told. We don't really have 'elders' in Clan Hopps since dad's the oldest there is, but I've spoken to a few in meetings with other clans. According to them, most of the predatory mammals know better than to try to edge in on rabbit territory with anything less than a full invasion force, but the birds of prey and large reptiles aren't so smart, and if they get a foothold in these parts everyone's flocks will suffer. So the Gods encourage us to keep our neighbours on guard, for everyone's common good." There was a comfortable silence for a long moment as they watched the chickens huddle together in the underbrush. "Thanks for backing us up today, Nick. A thrall isn't obliged to fight for the clan, but if you hadn't looked like you were going to, the Beverens might have tried to press their numbers advantage. Between me and Nathan I think we could have beaten them, but it would have been risky."
Nick smiled. "You're welcome, Judy. Besides, I guess I've gotten used to having you around."
The rest of the day passed uneventfully, and before long the sun was setting and the chickens started to make their way back to their henhouses. With Nick busying himself in his room with carving a strong, straight sapling he had found while they were watching the chickens, Judy took the opportunity to visit her father in the clan hall. She walked in just as Nathan was explaining the events of the day, and to her surprise he wasn't leaving out the part that she and Nick had played. Stewart nodded in greeting to Judy, his eyes barely leaving Nathan as he took his account in, but when he finished he looked over at her questioningly and she nodded in confirmation. He leaned back in his chair by the fire thoughtfully.
"Maybe this was just some Beveren hothead trying to recover some lost pride for their defeat against us two years back, but a Hotot trader mentioned that the Beverens were refusing to trade their food. If they had a poor harvest, they could be looking at a lean year that's driving them to look for ways to increase their food stocks." Stewart drummed his nails on the arm of the chair thoughtfully. "Hopefully our display of might today discouraged them from thinking they could take it from us." He favoured Judy with a grateful smile, and she practically preened in response. "Still, I'll put the word out to keep the chickens close in for the coming months. It'll probably mean we'll have to start supplementing their feed a little, but it's better than losing them to raids." He looked at Judy thoughtfully. "Thank you for the report, Nathan. I'll have a word with Judy in private."
"Yes, father." Nathan saluted, gave Judy a thoughtful look, then left the room. Stewart indicated the chair next to him, and Judy took a seat.
"You did the right thing today. I think that any of our warriors could beat any other clan's warriors one-on-one, though that might be paternal pride talking, but we're still a one-bloodline clan. We don't have the numbers to stand up to any of the other clans if they get the impression that we're a ripe target for raiding." Judy nodded, biting back a pleased smile at his praise. "That said, news of us having a fox among our numbers will spread through the other clans like wildfire. Especially since it's unlikely they'll realize he's a thrall, since from Beveren's point of view he seemed about to join in the fight. They'll probably assume he's a mercenary, and it'll colour their perspective of us." He leaned forward, looking Judy in the eye. "We can't be seen to mismanage this. You keeping your fox under control just became more important than ever. Keep him happy or keep him scared. If he tries to escape, slay him - a fox hide in the clan hall will be better for how other clans see us than the fox disappearing entirely."
Judy nodded again, reluctantly. She could see her father's point. A clan that couldn't pay it's mercenaries was a vulnerable clan, and if the other clans were assuming that's what Nick was, it would be a lot better to invent a story about him turning on them and being slain by the Hopps warriors than to let them assume they had lost him through mismanagement.
She just hoped Nick wouldn't force her paw on the matter. She'd gotten used to having him around, too.
I've been looking forward to bringing inter-clan politics into this for a while. And Nathan has started to grow on me. He's always been an ambitious, smug little shit in my head, but he's the Hopps' ambitious, smug little shit, and he's usually going to act in the clan's best interests because he fully expects to be the one running it some day. Better to have him inside pissing out than outside pissing in.
An early autumn chill had the clan's farmers worried. If it developed into a full-blown frost, it could ruin the late harvests and cost the clan a great deal of food, and some were arguing for it to be harvested early to avoid taking any chances and risk losing out on almost half the season's growing time. While the debate raged on and various gods were consulted and portents examined, Judy had a fair bit of spare time on her hands. She wasn't going to drag the fox out into the chilly weather until his tunic was ready, and her mother had said that a couple of other projects needed finishing before the tunic could be focused on. And with her father's warning echoing in her ear, she didn't feel comfortable leaving Nick to fend for himself in the burrow while she ventured out without him.
She had initially thought that it would be a good opportunity for him to finish crafting as many arrows he could out of the materials he had at hand, but she had underestimated just how fascinating the clan's kits found him. His constant refusal to sprout extra limbs and prove the 'berserk evil beast' hypothesis correct had, through the impenetrable logic of children, convinced them that he was utterly harmless. If the warriors weren't killing him he couldn't be an enemy, and since he only had four limbs he couldn't be a secret enemy, so he must be a potential friend. The subtleties of Nick's exact status in the clan was completely lost on them. Although rabbit traditions allowed for the taking of thralls, Clan Hopps had never had the military might for it to be a practical possibility in the past, so the youngsters had no concept of it.
The result of this was that whenever Nick ventured out into the common areas of the Hopps burrow, he would be swarmed by kits requesting that he play with them, or tell them stories, or make toys for them, or just remain still long enough for them to clamber over him and fight over who got to stand on Nick's head and proclaim themselves King of Fox Mountain. Adorable though it was, it definitely wasn't productive.
So after giving the kits enough time to get it out of their systems after meals, she would shoo them away from or off him, and take him back to her room where he could use her desk and candles to work uninterrupted. The unintentional side effect of this, however, was to leave her alone in her room with her fox all day. She could practically hear the tongues already starting to wag among her sisters. And apart from it's effect on burrow gossip, it also lead to long periods of silence where both of them worked on their crafts to fill with conversation.
The conversation had meandered somewhat awkwardly at first, but after they had found a solid common ground in weaponry, it flowed a lot more naturally. Their respective approaches to the subject - Judy as a wielder and Nick as a crafter - meant that they had very different perspectives without them clashing. And Nick living in... wherever fox territory was, had exposed him to a whole range of weapons Judy had never even heard of. After they found that staple to fall back on, things eased even further between the two of them.
Of course, just because she was finding herself more and more comfortable with the fox didn't mean she didn't have a responsibility to her clan.
"Now will be the time to watch him," Judy stated, looking each of the warriors in the eyes in turn. They were assembled in the small hall Stewart usually used for private discussions and small meals. "We will learn whether this useful and friendly creature that has shared our burrow has been the truth, or an extended deceit. If he was a wicked creature, he would have nothing to gain by revealing it before now, since if he performed some mischief and limped away into the night he could easily be caught. But now that he is capable of moving at speed again and suffer no more than an ache at the end of the day, that is no longer the case." Her gaze was level, concealing the roiling emotions under the surface. The thought that the fox she had grown fond of being a lie made her feel sick to her stomach, but her duty was to her clan. If Nick was being true in how he presented himself, he would not suffer from this increased watch. He would never even know it had existed. And if he wasn't... better he die on the end of a Hopps spear than be allowed to bring harm to the Hopps clan.
"Let me be clear," she continued. "If he is an enemy, he needs to be slain. But if any of you get it into your head to slay him unnecessarily either to add to your own prestige or out of some misguided thought that it would be safer to be sure, I will challenge you to single combat, and one of us will die, and I swear by the Defender that it won't be me." Her gaze lingered on Nathan for half a second longer than the others, but his look in return didn't change from his expression of blank attentiveness. "He is of my household. Do not forget that."
As Nick put the finishing touches on the last of the bluejay-fletched arrows as Judy was off checking in with her relatives, his mind was whirring away. He had never been one to plan much for the future, but with his leg almost healed, it was time to start making some decisions - if he was going to escape, the time to do it was when he was almost fully fit, but when the rabbits thought him still crippled. But the question was, if he did escape, then what?
He had a vague idea of trying to retrace his wanderings back into fox territory and hope he could find a tribe that hadn't been devastated by the aurochs, but then what? As a lone wanderer, he'd be lucky not to be killed as an outlaw. The very best he could hope for would be a desperately understrength tribe adopting him, but he didn't know the Secret Words of the crafters, nor did he have the contacts among the hunters of that hypothetical tribe that would let him surreptitiously act as one. He'd have to hunt to eat, and he knew from long experience that, while he was a good tracker, he was a terrible hunter.
So what else did that leave him? The life of a vagabond, living off whatever wild berries and roots he could scavenge? That would be tough enough at the best of times, and as evidenced by this recent chill in the area, winter wasn't far away. It would be a race to see what killed him first, cold or hunger.
Maybe things weren't so bad as the slave - no, thrall - of these rabbits. They fed him, housed him, clothed him, and he was even growing fond of his handler. And perhaps now that he had demonstrated his value as a crafter, they would not subject him to a lifetime of back-breaking work as a beast of burden in the fields once he was healed, as he had been fearing.
Perhaps there would be no harm in waiting and seeing.
As he double-checked the lizardgut bindings on the final arrow's fletching and nodded to himself, he resolved to let the chance at escape slip away from him. And a small voice at the back of his thoughts wondered how much of that resolution was down to the gratitude he expected to see on Judy's face when he presented her with a complete set of new arrows, each made entirely by his own paws.
When Nick gingerly emerged from Judy's room, looking around warily for any merciless rabbit guards or pack of kits eager to tackle him and demand that he entertain them, he was quickly swept up by a warrior that Judy had introduced him to before by the name of Steven. Steven rarely talked, but when he did he seemed friendly enough, despite the numerous scars and sword on his hip in it's intricately-patterned scabbard.
With nothing better to do than to fall in by his side, Nick followed Steven and was lead to the kitchens, a massive room full of busy bunnies preparing meals both for the rabbits fed from the Clan's food stores and the majority of the households that didn't have a kitchen of their own, so used the central ones. It was loud, warm, and cozy, with kits under every table, curled up in small groups for naps in the heat of the cooking fires and lurking hopefully in case there was a dish that needed tasting, a spoon that needed licking, or some leftover ingredients that needed eating.
Nick and Steven sat at a table in a relatively quiet corner. After Steven shooed away the kits that ran up to accost Nick, he disappeared into a side door and came back a moment later with a clay jug and a pair of mugs, and poured them a generous measure each. Nick picked his up and took a sniff, then coughed. "What is this, some sort of spirits?"
"Yep. Take the worst of the barley beer, distill the hell out of it, and you get this stuff. Clan Velveteen's specialty." The scarred rabbit clinked his clay mug against Nick's and sculled it. Nick tried to follow suit, but could barely manage a sip, and even then it took all of his mental fortitude to keep from grimacing. He had never had the opportunity to cultivate a taste for spirits back at Tribe Wilde. "So, how long you planning on sticking around for?"
Nick paused halfway taking a second sip and carefully set the cup down. "It didn't seem like I had a choice."
"Half-starved, crippled fox doesn't have a choice. Isn't much of that fox left in front of me, though." The rabbit poured another drink for himself and swished it around in his mug musingly. "Judy takes her responsibilities as a head of a household seriously. Been taking good care of you."
"Should she not have?"
"According to the traditions, taking care of you is exactly her duty. But the traditions all involved other rabbits, or smaller prey animals, as thralls." Nick tensed in his seat, not liking where this was going. "But a large predator like yourself? There's an argument to be made that the traditions don't apply here."
Nick opened his mouth to reply and paused, racking his mind for a counterargument, but there was no question that he was significantly larger than any rabbit warrior, and he had only his word that he honestly thought that he was no match for any of the rabbit warriors, who's speed and skill would easily counter his size advantage. He closed his mouth with a snap and eyed the warrior sitting across from him cautiously, half-convinced that he was about to be attacked.
After a long, awkward silence, Steven smiled mirthlessly and threw back his second mug of the potent spirits. "May your gods watch over you, Nick." With that, he stood and walked away, seemingly unconcerned about showing his back to a potentially hostile predator.
Nick muttered "haven't got any gods" under his breath at the rabbit's back, and sat back and waited for his heartbeat to slow again.
Steven meandered out the door like he didn't have a concern in the world, but the moment he had broken line of sight with the fox he sped up and turned into a nearby side room. Inside were four other warriors and Stewart, all armed. When Steven entered, they tensed up, then relaxed again when Steven shook his head.
"So?" asked Stewart brusquely.
Steven stood for a moment, marshaling his thoughts, before speaking slowly and thoughtfully. "Any warrior could have argued that size doesn't necessarily make for a good fighter, any trickster could have wriggled his way out of my questions, any half-feral brigand would have attacked at the threat, either verbally or physically. But I put him on the spot and he just... froze." There was a pause as the Chief and the assembled warriors digested that. "Have you looked at what he's been making?"
Stewart reached into a pocket of his breeches, and produced one of the bluejay-fletched arrows, and passed it to one of the other warriors - Thomas, the only other archer in the tribe apart from Judy, who examined it closely before speaking up. "From what Judy said, the only thing he used of ours was the glue. The shaft he carved, the head he knapped, the bindings he made from gut. And from the look of them, they're at least the equal of any other in the burrow. Better, if Judy's raving about their accuracy is true."
Stewart nodded. "Then his story is ringing true. Once our trader gets back, she can tell us if the Hotot Clan has heard of these aurochs the fox spoke of, though even if they have not I would not take that as any more reason to doubt the fox. All indications were that he had wandered far." There was a series of grudging nods as the assembled warriors all agreed with that assessment.
"Well then," Steven said, a smile suddenly appearing on his face. "I, for one, am glad we don't have to be the ones to stamp out Judy's fledgling household, strange though it may be." There was another series of nods, this more heartfelt. Nobody wanted to be the one to dash the fierce young warrior's ambitions - for their own sakes, if not for hers.
As Nick nursed his mug of spirits in the kitchen and brooded on the conversation he had just completely failed to manage, he scanned the massive room with his eyes. Most of it's inhabitants weren't paying any attention to him - a couple of the closer cooks glanced at him now and then and he briefly smiled at a gang of kits who were openly staring at him while whispering to each other, causing them to all try to hide behind each other at the same time and ending up tripping over each other and falling onto the ground. Maybe he wasn't about to be executed by overly-cautious rabbit warriors after all.
But there was one set of eyes he didn't catch. On the far side of the kitchen, seemingly helping prepare a freshly butchered chicken for cooking, Nathan watched, and waited.
I really enjoy the contrast between this ancient culture and the most normal, modern names I can think of.
Two weeks since the last update! Sorry for the delay here, folks. I've been roadblocked on this one for a while, and my attention has been on other projects of late.
To say that Nathan was an ambitious rabbit would be like saying that grass was green. But as the Hopps rabbits could tell you at great length, there is much more to grass than its colour, and Nathan's ambitions were grander than mere personal glory. He planned to be first in line when the Clan grew to the point where it required a council to make decisions, rather than it just being the chief's responsibility. That required more than just impressive deeds to his name. That required the Clan to believe him to be of sound judgement and impeccable honour.
So when Nathan's vigil paid off and he saw the fox creeping out of Judy's household, he stayed his paw. When he trailed behind and saw him leaving the burrow entirely, he stayed his paw. If the fox broke into a run or left Hopps lands, then he would be able to strike it down and have there be no doubt in anyone's mind that he had acted correctly.
So when the fox walked into a small copse of trees on a patch of land too gnarled and rocky for the Clan to have bothered clearing and didn't emerge on the other side, Nathan was forced to reassess.
As Nathan entered the trees, alert for any trace of his quarry, he was quickly thrown into confusion by a sound that had been muffled from outside: the steady ringing of bronze on stone. When he caught sight of it, it didn't help clarify matters for him - the fox, illuminated by a single candle, was chiseling runes into a large standing stone, perhaps half again the fox's height.
Nathan's first thought was that the fox was leaving messages for his tribe - the one he'd claimed was wiped out - but the copse was deep within Hopps territory. There would be no way for a fox scout to reliably penetrate this deeply undetected. And even if that was the plan, he could have written the message on papyrus or carved it into a bit of wood or something instead of laboriously chiseling it into a massive stone. Which left one main possibility: this was religious.
This put Nathan on a lot shakier ground. Like his father, he was initiated to the King of the Rabbit Gods, but apart from the rituals of combat and the wording of sacred oaths he had never really paid much attention to religious matters. After all, the Hopps clan was too small to support anything but a tiny communal shrine to the King of the Gods, that was really just Stewart's personal shrine that he shared with his sons and grandsons. So there were no dedicated priests in the Clan to learn of such matters from, and he had never gone on a pilgrimage to visit a temple of one of the other Clans.
He lurked in the undergrowth for some time, gnawing on his lip thoughtfully while he watched the fox work and considered theological matters he had never given much thought to in the past.
To be honest, Nick thought, he was probably wasting his time. There surely had to be innumerable rituals and incantations that went into the creation of an anchor stone and the enshrining of an Ancestor that he had no idea of. But over his lifetime he had been forced to tend to the blasted things enough times that he could remember every rune carved into them, and maybe, he hoped, replicating that with the names and deeds replaced would be sufficient. And that the relatively modest deeds would suffice. He thought that a mother that had managed to feed and raise her son enough that he had reached adulthood relatively fit and well-nourished, despite them both being trapped on the bottom rung of fox society, was plenty impressive, but he was fairly biased on the subject.
It cost him nothing but lost sleep to make the attempt. And if there was even a chance of giving his mother an anchor to free her spirit from the howling void, he owed it to her to try. Nick paused in his chiseling as he got to the part where the name of the fox that had enshrined the Ancestor was to be carved, and after thinking about it for a while, he carved 'Nick of Clan Hopps'.
With that, the work was done. He watched the standing stone for a long moment, hoping for some sign that it had done something, but of course he knew nothing he could observe would happen, because how to channel the wisdom of the anchored Ancestors had been a very well-kept secret in his tribe. He shrugged to himself, and reminded himself of one of his mother's lessons to him - to recognize that which he could not help, and not to gnaw on the issue fruitlessly. He just hoped that if it did work, his mother would be content to oversee this clan of rabbits.
Nathan had considered confronting the fox, and had almost revealed himself to do so a dozen times while he watched, but each time he was stopped by a wave of unaccustomed unsurety. He very rarely found himself in a situation where he wasn't completely sure of what he was doing, and charging forward on uneven footing seemed to be a dangerous prospect. He knew the rabbit gods were said to be vengeful when offended, so who's to say that the fox ones wouldn't be? If the fox was just setting up a shrine to his own gods, then spilling the fox's own blood upon it was practically guaranteed to end badly.
For the first time, he cursed his own inattention to theological matters not directly tied to combat. He had never considered that he would be facing a situation like this. All he could really think to do would be to slink away and ask his father's advice, which would surely undermine his own ambitions for clan leadership.
Nathan was so lost in thought that he almost didn't notice when the fox had finished chiseling, and tucked away the hammer and chisel inside a small roll of leather. But he definitely noticed when the fox looked around the copse and announced, "I'm going back to the burrow now, so you might as well walk with me."
Nathan considered remaining hidden, but decided that it'd just embarrass both of them. With as much dignity as he could muster, he emerged from his hiding spot, and was gratified to see surprise flash over the fox's face - the fox had been scanning the undergrowth much further from him than where Nathan had actually been hiding.
After a moment of tense silence, Nick turned and started to walk back to the burrow and Nathan fell in beside him. Nick took mercy on the rabbit and answered his unspoken question; "I smelled you a while back. Though to your credit it was just for a moment or two. Still, shouldn't have been upwind at all."
Nathan winced. "I though you were going through the copse so I circled around it at first. Going around it upwind was faster, and I was worried I'd lose track of you." Nick just nodded in response. "So, what is it you were doing?"
Nick hesitated before answering, not particularly feeling like explaining fox mythology to the rabbit he saw as his biggest threat in the burrow. "A shrine."
"To fox gods?"
"In the middle of the night?"
"I was taught that night is when the spirit world is closest to this one. So night is when such things are done."
"And Judy knows of this?"
"Of course. She supplied the tools."
Nathan fell into silence again at that, returning to his thoughts. The two of them walked side by side in uncomfortable silence the rest of the way back to the burrow, where they parted ways - though Nathan, of course, waited to see that Nick really did return to Judy's household.
In the coming days, things remained tense between Nathan and Nick, but the tenseness became tinged with the beginnings of mutual respect.
When Nick had been told there was a caravan being put together and he was to help, for a moment he was afraid that he had miscalculated and he was going to be made into a beast of burden. Then he had been introduced to Cotton, the red-furred warrior he had seen a time or two and apparently Judy's favourite niece, and told that because she would be one of the warriors guarding the caravan, she needed a javelin or two to back up her bronze-tipped spear.
It seemed like half the clan was gathered in the clearing by the river. A wagon made of sturdy lumber took pride of place in the middle, and sack after sack of grains and vegetables were being brought over and piled up in it from hidden silos and storage sheds. The rabbits that were to go on the trip, either as guards or just to pull the wagon, were primping, preening, and generally gussying up, a number of them splashing about in the river, ostensibly to get cleaned up but from the look of it, it was more for the sake of splashing about. Even his usual crowd of tiny rabbit followers had abandoned him to join the frolicking in the river.
As had become his custom, he had found a nice shady tree to sit against while he worked, and while most of his attention was taken up by the javelin he was working on - it could very well be that Cotton's life could rely on it in the coming days, after all - there was enough to spare to watch the frenzy of activity. The crowd of rabbits in the river brought a smile to his face, but most of his attention ended up being grabbed by Judy and Cotton, who were sparring with quarterstaffs in place of spears. Rabbit combat, he had learned, was broadly split into two very different approaches: the ones they used on each other, and the ones they used on larger, slower mammals. Combat against larger foes was based entirely around speed and momentum, where rabbits would build up speed enough to do serious damage to a larger mammal with a thrust or a throw before breaking away before a counterattack could come. But against each other, rabbit combat was instead based around rapid strikes aimed at the head and upper body of their foes, and avoiding or blocking the same in return. Each 'round' consisted of the two of them circling and feinting for as much as a minute or two, and then only seconds more once blows started flying and one of them scored a hit with the blunt tip of their staff that would have been a killing or incapacitating blow if there was a spearhead there instead.
Judy and Cotton broke from their sparring, and Cotton threw her staff to Judy before bounding off to join the others in the river - though an adult and a warrior, she was still fairly young, and at times it showed. Judy watched her go with a tolerant smile, then walked over to join Nick in the shade, examining his work so far with approval before joining him against the trunk. Nick let the comfortable silence be for a long moment before he broke it. "I don't get it. The Beverens might be looking to expand their food supplies by force, and we're taking an entire cartload of food to them and trying to trade?"
Judy's reply was matter-of-fact, unconsciously slipping into the teaching voice she had started to adopt when explaining things to Nick. "It's a caravan, Nick. Under the protection of the Talking God. No matter how they feel towards us, they wouldn't dare to steal from it, or they'd be made pariahs among the rabbit clans."
"But if they're facing starvation-"
"The Beverens are a larger clan, but they're still reliant on others. From memory they've got about twelve hundred rabbits of nine bloodlines. If they couldn't seek marriage partners outside their clan, their family tree would be a bramble within three generations. Even apart from losing the benefits of trade and allies and warnings of other species on the warpath, to be pariah is to face a slow but certain extinction."
Nick mulled that over for a while. He hadn't considered how the incredibly large families of successful rabbits would affect their society. "Oh. So they wouldn't resort to that until they were truly desperate."
"If they were, they'd start calling in favours for food, or slaughter their flocks for food, or sell off their clan treasures, or even sell their bronze weapons and tools. As a last resort, they'd dissolve the clan and the separate bloodlines would each seek to join a clan that could feed them - most any clan with food to spare would be happy to take in an entire bloodline." Judy shook her head. "But that's a worst-case scenario. More likely they had a harvest that was poor enough that they'll need some extra food to comfortably make it through to the next one, and they're hoping they can get it in a way that doesn't cost them too much or display weakness to the other clans. If that's the case, then buying from our caravan would be expensive, but it would mean they could save face. Maybe their failed chicken raid on us would make them more likely to accept that solution."
"And if they've already solved their food problem somehow?"
"Then the trip will be wasted. That's why we're hurrying, so hopefully they haven't fixed it before we arrive." Judy shrugged. "Such risks are the nature of trade, and knowing when to take those risks is one of the secrets of the traders."
Nick nodded, and the two of them watched the rabbits playing in the river for a moment. "Is that why is everyone so excited? Seeking marriage partners?"
Judy chuckled. "That's the problem with being a one-bloodline Clan. We're surrounded by rabbits that are almost all either relatives or already married. Now that my brothers' and sisters' children have started to reach adulthood, some of them at least have cousins to experiment with, but marriages between cousins are discouraged. So they practically fight over chances to visit other tribes. Some of them will probably end up staying, or coming back with a left-pawed spouse. But most of them will probably find someone to spend their time with while they are over there, even if they don't end up bound to them."
"What's a left-pawed spouse?"
"I suppose you would say... a trial spouse? If they are still together in a year, they will be married proper, and matters of property and household and children will be decided. Until then, they stay with one or the other's household."
Nick nodded, distracted from replying as he gave the completed javelin in his paws a final look-over. He'd prefer to have time to fire-harden the tip so it could be used as a spear, but as a thrown weapon it would serve. He passed it over to Judy, who looked it over closely and nodded in satisfaction. "Nice work. Thank you."
Confession: I steal bunny names from Zootopia fanon and fanworks constantly.
This chapter and the previous one were written together, and combined are about as long as I like my chapters to usually be, but I split them up because they work better as separate mini-chapters.
The 'trial spouse' thing is a concept I stole from the Scottish Hebrides of the Middle Ages. Not to be confused with Morganatic marriage - both of these were known as 'left-handed marriage' in their respective regions, but are very different concepts.
Rabbit combat: IRL rabbits fight by getting up on their hind legs and boxing with each other. It's adorable. So I adapted the go-for-the-face approach for rabbit-on-rabbit combat in this universe.
After the caravan set off, pulled by a few dozen rabbits and guarded by three of the burrow's warriors, life for the Hopps clan returned to normal. Which meant that the debate about whether to bring in the harvest early resumed, fueled by the previous week being spent examining the signs and portents, both natural and otherwise. Eventually the farming faction that had been for an early harvest won a partial victory after Stewart waded in and settled the matter with a compromise, and the decision was made that the wheat and bean crops, being more susceptible to frost, would be brought in early. The next few days were a bustle of activity, with every rabbit old enough to understand the concept of carrying something from point A to point B joining in the effort. Even the warriors joined in, out of custom rather than obligation, and once Judy had stripped down to her breeches and undershirt and thrown herself into hauling, Nick disregarded his own misgivings about manual labour and joined in himself. There was an almost celebratory undercurrent to it all, and harvest songs broke out apparently spontaneously and in moments were being sung by the entire clan in unison, almost six hundred voices united in songs, before fading away as the song ended to be replaced by industrious quiet.
The backbreaking effort of reaping, bundling and storing it all didn't damage the jubilant mood, in no small part thanks to barrel after barrel from the clan's cellars being broached for all to slake their thirsts. Beer and wine for any of the adults who fancied and any of the kits brave enough to try, and elderflower cordial and mulled cider for everyone else, all still cool from the cellars.
In the wheat fields, activity was centered around the precious few bronze sickles, the wielders of which were steadily rotated so that they didn't have a chance for their speed to drop. Each of the warriors took a turn, and allowed themselves to be subject to good-natured ribbing when they didn't last as long as the most experienced farmhands. In their trail, a swarm of rabbits with sharp bone or stone knives separated the heads off each stalk, collecting them in baskets and bags to be taken away for storage. Others gathered up the wheat stalks that were severed at both ends but still mostly whole to use to act as bedding. And as each field was completed, the clan's chickens were unleashed upon it to scratch the unused and fragmented wheat stalks back into the soil as they feasted upon loose grains and displaced insects.
Over in the bean fields, most of the kits laboured, being able to pluck all but the uppermost bean pods right off the plant unassisted. Many of the beans ended up in the kits' bellies rather than in the baskets, but that was part of the harvest as much as the songs and the drinking, and their appetites were barely enough to put a dent in the total, even after they started delivering them as snacks to the adults working in the wheat fields. Those that weren't eaten were delivered to the kitchens, where they were shelled and blanched before being delivered to the deepest, coolest part of the clan larders, where they would last up to a year if bugs, moisture and mold didn't get to them.
All in all, it was very satisfying work, which surprised Nick. Truth be told he wasn't working as hard as most, since he spent most of his time occupied with whetstones resharpening scythes and knives, as well as drinking rabbit-sized flagon after flagon delivered to him by his entourage of rabbit kits, who were fascinated by the amount he could drink. Though most of it was cider and cordial, the kits managed to get their paws on enough beer and wine that by the end of each day he was comfortably tipsy enough that he happily joined in in hauling sacks of wheat heads from the fields to the burrow, and did his best to join in on the harvest songs after he started to pick up the words.
Each day as the sun went down and the rabbits moved back into the burrow, they all assembled in the main hall, packed shoulder to shoulder along the tables and feasting on fresh vegetables, newly-baked bread and whole roasted chicken. Though of course he delighted in the chicken, Nick's memory of having absolutely nothing to eat had left him willing to try anything. He had quickly discovered that some parts of the rabbit diet were just plain incompatible with him, but found a particular liking for fresh vegetables, and beans that had been on the plant mere hours before were no exception. Nobody had commented on him, at Judy's urging, joining the rest of the clan at the tables for the harvest feasting. But he had attracted some sideways looks, and a few of his closer watchers had noticeably relaxed at his obvious enjoyment of fresh vegetables.
And after dinner, when he curled up in front of the roaring fire and was quickly covered in kits who had decided that he'd make a good spot to nap after feasting, he could feel dozens of pairs of eyes on him, but nobody objected or tried to separate him from the children. And he had a smile on his face as he slipped into a nap of his own.
Wheat would be a fairly different crop for bunnies than it is for humans. The much larger relative size would make threshing by hand (well, by paw) viable, and besides that they can eat the chaff (the hard shell around the seed), though more for roughage than nutritional value. This also means they don't have to come up with a clever way to separate the wheat from the chaff either. So they're storing the entire head of the wheat stalk, and leaving the rest of it in the field to be plowed back in, since they've got no ruminant livestock to feed the hay to - rabbits can eat hay, but I'm applying more refined tastes to these bunnies.
Mankind, on the other hand, finds the chaff to be the useless stuff, since the stalk can be fed to livestock as hay. Before we built machines to do it for us, separating the wheat from the chaff was a difficult and time-consuming process that pretty much boiled down to hitting a bushel of wheat with a long wooden flail for about an hour to loosen the chaff, then using wind or a fan to blow the chaff away. In pre-industrial society, an entire quarter of agricultural labour was dedicated just to doing this.
Agricultural history buffs might be tempted to blast me for the inclusion of 'bush beans', beans that grow without support, which are a very modern development. Do you think so little of me that I'd have these quite Celtic rabbits growing Mesoamerican beans? These are obviously the broad bean, Vicia faba, rather than any 'true' bean of the Phaseolus genus. And broad beans grow unsupported. So there.
(I know this chapter is short, but it's a necessary set-up for the events of the next chapter)
Nick's eyes flew open as the low, deep sound of the drum reverberated through the Hopps Burrow. For a confused instant he thought he must have been dreaming of the distant drums he'd heard that night when Judy had found him, but the alarmed cries of kits waking up all around him confirmed that this was really happening. Throughout the room, chairs were being knocked over as the few adult rabbits that were still present ran for their weapons.
While he was getting to his feet, the only rabbit that hadn't immediately run for a weapon approached. Steven, apparently out of religious obligation, was never without the sword at his hip.
Nick spoke up first, almost yelling over the drums. "What's happening?"
"We're about to be attacked. By the drum patterns, it's a large force. The entire clan is mobilizing to meet it."
"Judy's the one that's sounding the alarm! She must have left the feast early to stand watch."
"What should I do?"
Steven looked at him hard for a moment, then replied, "go with the kits. They seem to like you, so you should be able to keep them calm while they hide."
Nick felt a tug on the leg of his breeches, and looked down to see one of the kits wordlessly pointing down the door to the corridor, where the rest of the ones that had been napping with him were gathered, torn between fleeing to their hiding place as they had been taught and seeing what Nick would do. With a final "good luck," to Steven, he started to follow them.
The hiding place was simple. There was a communal sleeping hall for Stewart's as-yet-unmarried sons and daughters, as well as various grandchildren who slept there either due to a lack of room in their parents' household or because their parents thought it would build character and promote social bonds with the rest of the clan. And among the literally hundreds of beds, one of the simple wooden framed stuffed with straw was never slept on, because if someone parted the straw, they'd find a hole in the packed soil floor beneath that lead to a large, underground chamber.
It wasn't fancy. It wasn't even comfortable. The walls and floor were all hardpacked dirt and the only things to make a stay in it bearable were a deep hole to use as a toilet on one end of the room and a barrel of water on the other. On top of all that, it was illuminated only by what little light penetrated the straw of the entrance hole, so most of the room was completely black. But it did mean that if the battle was lost and whoever the enemy was managed to break through the Hopps forced and reach the burrow, they wouldn't find the kits unless they spent a significant amount of time searching every nook and cranny - and if they had the opportunity to do that, it meant that not enough Hopps clanrabbits had survived to be able to regroup and drive off the invaders, and the clan was effectively wiped out anyway.
This was explained to Nick by Robert, one of the older kits who would be inducted into adulthood at the start of the coming spring. Most of the kits actually seemed fairly calm. Apparently it was rare that more than a couple of years went past without the entire clan having to take up arms to face one threat or another, so all but the very youngest - those too young to understand what was going on, and so had been guided to the hidden room by their older siblings or cousins - had never experienced this before.
Time seemingly ground to a halt as they waited. The boredom of the empty room and that the kits needed to keep quiet for the room to serve it's purpose lead most of them to try to get some sleep in the hopes that they could start having fun again when it was all over. But Nick could find no such refuge, not when he knew that somewhere overhead, a battle was raging. His thoughts span in circles as he wondered what was happening, and whether he should have tried to convince Steven to allow him onto the battlefield.
He wasn't a fighter. He knew that. His disastrous attempts at being a hunter back at Tribe Wilde proved that he couldn't even reliably kill small birds and lizards, so what chance would he have against these unknown foes that were attacking Clan Hopps? A large attacking force wouldn't be dissuaded by a single fox in the way that the Clan Beveren chicken-rustlers had been. Surely he would have just gotten in the way, even if he could convince Steven. And he knew that the rabbit clans believed thralls had no place on the battlefield.
But he still felt like he should have tried. Right now, Judy could be fighting for her life, and the thought of her being injured or even killed twisted his gut unpleasantly. It was strange for him to feel that way about a rabbit, much less one that had pretty much enslaved him, but... she had trusted him. Not fully, he didn't think - she still slept with her knife, after all, though that might just be a personal quirk. But even if she didn't trust him to not try to escape, or to try to attack her, or whatever it was she was wary of, she trusted him to be competent. She trusted the weapons he made to protect her life and clan, and she trusted his knowledge on related matters to be sound. She recognized and respected his abilities. He had never experienced that before, and every simple expression of gratitude for his work glowed warmly in his memory. And she might be being struck down on the battlefield at this very moment.
And what of his own fate, if Judy fell? She was the one that had risked making a fox her thrall. Without her, what would the rest of the clan do? They surely wouldn't just let him go, not with all he knew of the clan. Would he just default to being Stewart's thrall? If so, would he continue to avoid becoming a field-slave? Or would they just cut their losses and end his life, as probably would have happened that very first night if anyone but Judy had found him?
He supposed it wasn't the worst thought. He'd lived long enough to know that there are worse fates than death. And if he was to die... well, he had probably built up enough goodwill that they'd listen to his requests, so he could ask them to execute him in the morning daylight, and to illuminate his body with a torch or candle the first night. That would give his mother a chance to snatch his spirit up - assuming he had managed to bind her spirit correctly, of course - and then he could continue to watch over Judy's family from the spirit world. There were, he supposed, worse ways to spend an afterlife.
Nick was shaken by his grim thoughts when the near-silence of hundreds of softly breathing kits was broken.
Footsteps. Rabbit footsteps. Nick resisted the temptation to relax and call out. He had to figure that if these were Hopps rabbits, they'd be calling to them that the coast was clear. He closed his eyes, took deep breaths, and tried to pick through the scents of the horde of adolescent rabbits surrounding him.
To his nose, a Hopps rabbit in the Hopps burrow was practically invisible. Hopps rabbits smelled like the burrow, and the burrow smelled like Hopps rabbits. These rabbits stood out in the smell of Hopps like the sun through the fog. And among them was another, much stronger smell that Nick had encountered only a couple of times before - a smaller predator. A weasel? Ferret? Whatever it was, it only highlighted to Nick that these were intruders, and not Hopps rabbits returned from a successful battle. And the footsteps grew ever louder as the intruders approached the entrance to their refuge.
Looking around the darkened room full of sleeping kits piled atop each other, he knew that there was no question of even trying to escape. Any attempt to alert them all of the danger would just give their position away even quicker, and it would take more than long enough to give these strangers a chance to do whatever it was they intended. And while he could probably escape alone, he immediately rejected the possibility out of hand. There was nobody else who could protect these kits, so Nick resolved that it would have to be him.
So when the straw at the entrance hole was swept aside and a head blocked the sudden influx of light - a rabbit head, but Nick didn't let that stop him - it was immediately met with the full force of the leap of a half-panicked fox.
The rabbit fell backwards, propelled by the full weight of a fox, as the dagger that had been in his hand went flying. With a sickening crack his head hit the wooden frame of another bed, and Nick compounded the damage as he propelled himself off the insensate rabbit to turn his attention to the next nearest figure. The tiny corner of his mind not occupied with survival or panic noted there were five other animals in the room, not counting himself or the rabbit he had just left slumped on the floor. Four rabbits, all with a creamy, almost orange coat - very different to the now-familiar grey of the Hoppses - and what looked like a stoat with a snowy-white coat. While he was taking that in, instincts he didn't even realize he had had directed him to pounce claws-first at the nearest rabbit.
It had raised it's sword to defend itself, but not quite in time - even though it scratched a line of burning pain across Nick's ribs, it didn't stop him from tearing at the rabbit's chest with his claws, and when it flinched back in agony his head darted forward and his jaws latched onto the rabbit's neck, squeezing down until he felt, rather than heard, the crunch of a life ending. He disentangled himself from the certainly dead rabbit just in time to dodge a spear thrust, and as he backed away he plucked the sword from the ground, still wet with his own blood. He wielded it without any kind of skill whatsoever, bludgeoning away like it was a mace, but between the size disparity and adrenaline it didn't matter. He clubbed right through the guard of his current target, shattering the spear raised in defence like kindling and smashing the rabbit to the ground in a burst of gore. But there were still others.
The rest of the fight swam past his eyes in a blur of blood, pain and violence as adrenaline and desperation drove him further into a frenzy, and in what felt like moments it was all over. He lifted himself from the body of the stoat, unclenching his jaws from the back of it's neck with some difficulty, vaguely wondering what had happened to the sword. He managed to haul himself upright, fighting back a wave of dizziness and looking around him at the aftermath. All of a sudden he was exhausted. The fight had seemed to only last moments but he felt like he had run a marathon. Well, that was easily fixed, he thought blearily. He tried to sit himself down on one of the beds, but missed and collapsed against the side of it. That would work too.
When the bravest of the kits, standing on the shoulders of one of her brothers, managed to scramble out of the hidden room, she found the room covered in the slumped forms of rabbits, and in the middle of it all, Nick sitting propped against one of the beds, his head lolling forward, blood pooling around him and the broken haft of a spear protruding from his stomach.
Judy was frustrated. The invaders - a clan of orange-furred rabbits Judy didn't recognize - seemed to be going out of their way to avoid a battle, as skirmishers clashed along the lines but the invaders kept pulling away. Judy itched to take her bow and teach them a lesson, but her place was in the middle of their forces. With three of their warriors away guarding the caravan, she couldn't risk not being in the thick of things, should the enemy finally commit their forces. And in the darkness, lit only by the massive bonfire constructed behind the Hopps lines, it would be very easy for them to close quickly before she had a chance to reposition.
Judy had to wonder at their motives. They didn't seem to be vying for position, and they had to know they couldn't manage a sneak attack at this point. The few sling stones they sent at the Hopps skirmishers weren't enough for attrition to be their goal. So what were they up to? And why were they even here in the first place? She knew the fur patterns of every rabbit tribe for ten days in every direction and these rabbits weren't among them. They couldn't be an outlaw army - they almost all had the same fur pattern, and an outlaw army would be nearly so uniform - but then, who would travel so far to raid a stranger?
Judy didn't have much longer to ponder it, as a horn was blown in the distance that she recognized as belonging to Thomas, the clan's other archer and the de facto leader of the skirmishers. She called for the clanrabbits around her to brace, and noted with pride as they closed ranks and held their spears out in an impenetrable wall, ready to skewer any attacker unwise enough to try to take advantage of the darkness to sneak a charge.
Sure enough, as the skirmishers' warning had predicted, she began to make out a wall of advancing enemies at the edge of the firelight. With the bonfire at her back, her night vision was hurt, but the enemies had to advance into the illumination which made them virtually blind. But now that they had lost the element of surprise, they had to either advance or retreat - making camp and waiting for sunrise would be virtually suicidal, since it would allow the Hoppses to take full advantage of their familiarity with the area to pick away at them.
Her eyes narrowed, Judy watched their advance until they crossed an imaginary line she had decided on earlier. She thrust her spear forward towards the enemy and cried "Charge!", and with an angry roar her clan charged with her into the ranks of the enemy.
Judy was in her element. Near every day she honed her skills in combat, whereas most clanrabbits barely had a few scuffles a season to build up experience in. Even though she spurned the heavier armour and fancier weapons some of her siblings favoured, her vast experience with the spear made her practically invulnerable in the chaos of melee. She could predict every jab and thrust made by her opponents long in advance and bat them aside with contemptuous ease, and retaliating with a strike of her own that rarely failed to drop her target in their tracks. The only real risks were being flanked - which she knew she would not be with the Hopps clanrabbits at her back - or if a warrior from this enemy clan were to show themselves and face her.
Truth be told, she was starting to wonder about that. The Hopps clan had fewer warriors than most at the best of times, and at the moment they had three of their warriors off with the caravan. She should have been challenged by now to stop her portion of the line being the rock that the enemy wave broke upon. So why was her cutting a swathe through the enemy continuing unabated?
She took a half-step back into the Hopps line and joined the spearwall, letting the much simpler task of holding the enemy back be taken over by instinct as she used the opportunity to scan the enemy lines, but unless one of the enemy clanrabbits arrayed before her was, like her, skilled in lightly-armoured spear fighting, there were no enemies anywhere near her skill level - and if that was the case, she felt confident in her ability to take them on and win. So she threw herself back into the fray, and a gap in the line opened in front of her as the enemies tried to distance themselves from her. With a cry of "forward!" that only barely rose above the din of battle, she lead the clanrabbits near her through, and in an instant the enemy spearwall was doomed, and the enemy had to choose between flight or facing spears at their front and back. All at once the fight went out of them, and the enemy started to break away from the fight, some of them dropping their weapons in their haste.
As the enemy broke and started to run into the night and the clanrabbits that had followed her into the gap gave chase, Judy resisted the urge to pursue or to unsling her bow and harry them. Just because she had broken the enemy here didn't mean they were scattered everywhere, after all. So she trusted in Thomas and the other skirmishers and made her way down the Hopps lines towards the center, where she knew her father would be able to point her to where she was most needed.
Navigating a ragged line of nearly four hundred Hopps clanrabbits clashing with at least as many enemies was easier said than done, but this wasn't Judy's first battlefield, and it was made easier by the fact that the enemy was starting to break all along the line. Victory, it seemed, was close at hand. But it only took one knot of resistance to rally the entire enemy force back around it, so she continued on, looking for Stewart, knowing that if anyone could point her towards trouble areas, he could.
As she approached the center of the line where Stewart was supposed to be, she could immediately tell that something was wrong. The enemy had already broken from this area, but there was a tight knot of Hopps clanrabbits around a section of the battle lines. With a sense of foreboding, Judy reached the knot and elbowed her way through, and came to a halt as she reached the mostly-empty churned-up patch of ground they had been surrounded.
There, surrounded by a wall of silent Hoppses, knelt Stewart. Cradled in his arms was the battered and bloody form of Nathan, his eyes closed but his hand still clenched around the handle of his mace. Judy stared uncomprehendingly at the broken form in Stewart's arms. It occurred to her she'd never seen Nathan still before. Even when he was sitting for a meal or around a fire, his eyes were constantly darting around, watching everyone with that constantly calculating look of his. Seeing him lie still seemed fundamentally wrong.
She'd seen a lot of battle wounds in her time, and the wounds on Nathan's form told a story. They weren't the incidental injuries of a melee - these were the wounds of someone who had been attacked after they had already fallen. At a glance, three of the injuries - a wide slash across his stomach and a pair of stab wounds in his chest - could have been individually fatal. As it was, if Nathan still lived, he wouldn't for long.
Unlike her mother, Judy knew nothing of the healing arts. She didn't know if the otherwise fatal wounds Nathan had suffered could be treated, and even if they could she wasn't the one to do it. Judy was a warrior. So when she had recovered from the shock of seeing him lying broken in his father's arms, her first instinct was to charge after the enemy that had done this to her brother.
She resisted the urge. Her duty to her Clan was not merely to strike down it's enemies, but to defend it against them, and charging off into the dark would be to abandon that duty. So she tightened her grip on her spear, took a deep breath, choked down the maelstrom of emotions boiling within her, and stepped forward to stand at her father's side.
There was a disturbance in the crowd, and it parted to allow Bonnie through. She barely faltered at the sight of Nathan's broken form, and in an instant she had knelt down beside her husband, taking Nathan from him and setting to the desperate and possibly doomed task of trying to save his life.
Splattered with his dying son's blood, Stewart looked more lost than Judy had ever seen him. But after a moment he shook his head and steeled himself, looking around the crowd of watching Hoppses. He rose to his feet and took a moment to gather himself. And that was when the yelling Hopps child forced his way through the crowd, shouting about invaders in the burrow.
Judy had hesitated for but half a heartbeat before she took off towards the burrow. To instruct the Clan to return to the burrow was no simple feat, with most them spread out along the battleline, wounded that would need careful carrying, and skirmishers scattered throughout the night. With how few warriors the Hopps clan currently had, normally she would never abandon her responsibilities in coordinating that. But if there were intruders in the burrow - ones that had caused one of the kits to abandon their hiding place to alert them - then all could already be lost. Seconds would count, and none in the clan were faster than she.
The run to the burrow took less than a minute but felt like a lifetime. And when she finally raced through the halls and reached the gore-strewn sleeping hall the kits were hiding in, the sheer horror she felt before she realized that the gore belonged to the intruders and not to the Hopps children haunted her dreams for months to come. And just as she was realizing that none of the bodies belonged to the Hopps kits, she recognized one of the slumped forms through the crowd of kits as Nick.
After she stopped staring (how much time did she waste staring in horror? the possibility that if she had acted faster things could have been better would haunt her, but it was just one of many things about that night that would) she pushed through the crowd of kits and knelt down next to some of the older ones who were staunching the bloodflow with their paws, which were already stained crimson up to their elbows. She blanched at the sight of the spear protruding from his stomach, but that would keep for now - it wasn't doing him any more damage where it was, and it was preventing any further bleeding. The immediate concern was in the nasty gash along his ribs. The kits had done their best, but the cut was long and blood oozed between the gaps in their paws.
Ignoring the chorus of voices of the kits expressing their relief, she drew her dagger from her belt and pulled a blanket from the bed Nick was propped against, cutting it roughly into long, thick strips. "Pull him forward, away from the bed," she commanded, and the kits scrambled to obey. She leaned in close to Nick to run the makeshift bandage around his body, and her head pressed into his chest as she groped with one hand for the bandage she had passed around it with the other. She could hear his breathing, worryingly light and quick despite his unconsciousness, and his heartbeat, though still strong, was also fast. For a rabbit. Was it faster than a fox's heart should be? She didn't know, and tried not to let that distract her as she pulled the strip of fabric taut around Nick's back and started to bandage his wound.
Behind her, she heard the clamour and yells of the Hopps clanrabbits returning to the burrow as they stormed through it, searching for intruders, but somehow she knew that there were none left among the living. The time for fighting rabbits was over. Now was the time for fighting Death.
Separate from the coming chapter for tone reasons. Next chapter should be up within 24 hours.
For Nick, when the world swam back into almost-focus, his first thought was that he was supposed to be worried, but he couldn't remember what about. Before him, a familiar rabbit floated in the air, all grey and purple and red. And something about that didn't seem right. "Judy?" he murmured, before he realized what was bugging him. "You're bleeding?"
The face smiled at him, and he smiled back automatically. "It's not my blood."
"Oh," he replied. He tried to process that. "That's okay, then."
"You have to drink this."
Nick sniffed the air, and he winced at the smell of blood, but there was also... "soup? M'not hungry."
"Please, Nick. It's important."
Well, if it was important. He managed to focus his eyes long enough to see the spoon hovering above him, and tried to lean forward to take a sip, wincing at the pain in his gut before he was pushed back against whatever he was leaning against. Instead, the spoon came to his mouth. Onions, he thought, licking his lips. A lot of onions. A bit of sage, too. Not bad.
As the spoon returned and he drank from it again, a memory finally surfaced. "Are the kits okay?" he murmured, around a mouthful of soup.
A gentle paw cupped his cheek, and he leaned into it. "They're safe. You did good, Nick."
"Good. I'm glad." There was something else that was bugging him, but it didn't seem so important. He managed to keep himself awake for the next two spoonfuls of the onion soup, but couldn't fight sleep off any longer.
Most of the time, the room was used for Bonnie's lessons to those that wanted to learn the arts of sewing and weaving. But when needed, beds were moved in there to be close at hand for Bonnie's rudimentary skills in the healing arts to be put to use on them. This was one of those times. And in one of those beds, propped up against the wall, was Nick. The rest of the room was bustling with activity as Bonnie and a few of her assistants tended to the other wounded from the battle, but Judy had eyes only for her fox.
Judy dropped the spoon into the bowl of onion soup. She could tell from his breathing that Nick had just passed out, or fallen asleep. She supposed she couldn't blame him. And she had gotten enough of the soup into him before he had.
She glanced down at the spear still protruding from him before looking away again. In a few minutes, the soup would reach his intestines, and if the spear had pierced them the wound would smell of onions. If so... there was nothing they could do for him, except to give him the mercy of a quick and painless death. But if not? Then she would start the long and painful process of trying to save his life.
Time passed excruciatingly slowly, measured in the fox's breaths, but eventually - and too soon - it was time. She leaned forward - careful not to poke herself in the eye with the shattered haft of the spear, wouldn't that be a perfect end to the night - and sniffed gingerly at the wound. The smell of blood was overwhelming, of course, but thankfully, that was all there was.
The feeling of relief was overwhelming. All she wanted to do was to collapse over Nick and cry. But Nick's wounds needed tending, and with Bonnie working feverishly to keep Nathan alive a few beds down, there was nobody better for the task than her. So she checked the supplies she had prepared earlier - herbs, bandages, a sharp bone needle and thread made of gut - and took a deep breath to steady herself. Then she wrapped her hand around the shaft of the spear, and pulled.
Again, separated for tone reasons. More on the way.
When the next morning came, very few members of the clan had managed to sleep at all, and none of the warriors had. But they would have to keep waiting, because Stewart had announced to the clan over breakfast - briefly, and with none of the usual ceremony that was expected on such an event - that he was forming a war council to deal with the conflict that the clan found themselves embroiled in. Naturally, himself and Bonnie were on it, but Judy was shocked to found herself named too, along with the other present and healthy warriors - Sheena, Thomas, and Steven - and the absent trader, Victoria.
After the communal breakfast, where Judy did her best to dig in despite her lack of appetite in the hopes that food would substitute for sleep, she and the other newly-made Councillors were summoned to Stewart's private hall. When they arrived there, they found Stewart in a somber mood. "Every warrior the clan currently has on the council, and there's still a position unfilled." Bonnie laid her paw on Stewart's arm, and he steeled himself. "No need to dance around the subject. I know the clan that attacked us. For them to travel so far to attack us... I can only assume that the old Chief has died, and leadership has been assumed by his son, Hubert. Nasty little shit. Back before I founded the Hopps Clan, both he and I were mercenaries, and ended up on opposite sides of a battlefield." A bitter smile crossed his face. "He thought he could defeat me, and I was not gentle in teaching him otherwise. He swore vengeance. Until now, I thought it an empty threat. But now? As Chief of the Argente clan, it seems he's trying to settle matters, despite the fifteen days' distance between us."
Judy glanced around the council. Bonnie obviously knew this already, as she was watching Stewart's steeled expression with worry. Steven, as always, was dispassionate. Thomas was nibbling his lip, lost in thought. Only Sheena had much of a reaction, wincing and closing her eyes as she realized what Stewart meant.
Judy broke the silence. "A feud, then. A personal feud elevated to a clan feud because both those involved are chiefs."
Stewart nodded. "It seems so."
"That's why they went after the children," Bonnie added. "This is a war."
"Can we survive a feud?" Thomas blurted, saying what they were all thinking.
"No," Steven replied flatly. "At least, not under normal circumstances. But with them living so far away, we may have a chance."
"Fifteen days away. That's a thirty day round trip," Judy mused aloud. "In the middle of the harvest season..."
"Especially if that early frost materializes," Bonnie said. "For the past fifteen days they've been marching here instead of bringing in crops. For the next fifteen they'll be going back home. I wonder if they were expecting to loot our storage bins to make the trip worth it."
"Will they really leave so easily, with empty paws?" Thomas asked.
"After last night? Between Nathan and Judy's fox-" Steven began to respond, but was interrupted.
"Nick." Judy stated flatly.
Steven looked at Judy, and nodded. "Between Nathan and Nick, they lost six warriors and a mercenary. And Thomas' skirmishers did some real damage to their clanrabbits during the rout. It was impossible to get any kind of count of their numbers in the night, however."
"So even if their war-leader still lives, I doubt they will chance a second attack of his own accord." Stewart mused. "They'd return home for orders. And by then it will be too late to send a second raid - they'd run into the teeth of winter."
"But the same applies to us," Thomas countered. "We couldn't mount a counterattack until the caravan returns, and by then it would be too late. So we'd have to leave it unanswered for as much as two seasons!"
"We don't have much choice," said Judy. "We can't send a raid into the snow, and come early spring we'll need every paw tending to the fields."
"Let me take the skirmishers and harry them! Maybe not all the way back to their burrow, but we must make them bleed for what they tried to do!" Thomas struck the table with his paw to emphasize his words. This was a side to him that Judy had never seen - ever since he had become part of the Hopps clan, Thomas had always been fairly quiet, when he wasn't spending long days hunting far from the burrow. It seemed the attack had uncovered hidden depths to her sister's husband. But, she remembered, he had children that would have died if it weren't for Nick's intervention.
"No, Thomas. Until the caravan returns, we need every able paw defending the burrow." Stewart's voice was gentle, but commanding, and after a moment Thomas nodded reluctantly. He obviously didn't like the point, but he accepted it. "But that raises that matter. The kits."
He nodded to Bonnie, who continued the thread. "Those that were awake said that there was no warning. Just that the- that Nick tensed up, and a moment later the entrance was uncovered and he attacked the intruders. They must have gone straight for the entrance. They knew where it was."
There was a long, uncomfortable silence as everyone considered what Bonnie was implying. But Judy broke it before it stretched too long. "Did anyone see any non-rabbits on the battlefield?" There was no reply save the shake of heads. "They only had the one non-rabbit. A stoat would have been useful in the skirmish, but he was with the warriors that infiltrated the burrow. If his sense of smell was as good as Nick's, he could have lead them there. And then to the kits."
The tension in the room lessened a notch as they considered that. Eventually, Sheena spoke up for the first time. "What of other clans? These Argente may not have broken tradition, but they certainly strain it. Escalating a personal feud to a clan feud without notice? Bringing in other species to assist in infanticide? I know my husband's clan would certainly frown upon it. Perhaps not enough to ally with us, but certainly enough to spread word of their misdeeds."
Stewart was already nodding. "We'll send Victoria out again once the caravan returns. As a member of the Council, she'll be able to speak with my voice. The Velveteen owe us a debt." He paused for a long moment, then continued on, cautiously. "Steven, will you go with her?"
The rest of the council looked to Steven as one. They knew what Stewart was... not quite asking, but hinting at. Steven closed his eyes and near a minute passed before he exhaled deeply. "For the kits, Stewart."
"Thank you. I am in your debt." Steven nodded. "Afterwards, the Beveren. We can't fight two wars at once. We need to shore up relations with them. Though we can wait until Victoria returns to discuss what we'll offer them."
After the meeting broke up, Sheena, Steven and Thomas went out on patrol to keep watch for the Argente. Judy, however, accompanied Bonnie back to the sick hall.
"All I can really do for them," Bonnie was saying, "is try to keep infection from setting in. Beyond that, it all depends on them. Your fox may recover fully in time, but Nathan..." she sighed. "He's fighting. That's all the good I can say for him."
"Any sign of infection in them?"
"None in your fox, not yet. But Nathan fell into dirt and mud. It's already bad, and it's a miracle it isn't worse."
Judy fell silent as she followed behind Bonnie towards the sick hall. She was desperate for sleep, and ached to go back to her nice comfortable bed... but she could sleep just as well on a chair next to Nick, and be there if he woke. She owed him that much.
She felt so helpless. Nothing could be done except wait. Wait and hope that Nick healed. Wait and see if the Argente would attack again before they set off back home. Wait for Victoria and the other warriors to return home. Wait, wait, wait.
This chapter is dedicated to Labjer and his depiction of Judy: http://spiffydoodles.tumblr.com/post/151353007900/so-when-is-the-next-rabbit-clans-fox-coming-out
"Hello, Nick's mother." Judy's voice was soft, and seemed to be swallowed up by the gloom of the underbrush. "Sorry, but he never told me your name." With a paw that barely trembled, she reached out and felt the outline of the words carved into the stone. So many of them, and Judy didn't understand a single one. Nick had explained the general idea of the anchor stone, but she had just taken it to be the fox equivalent of a shrine. But to see the bare stone jutting out from the earth in what little moonlight managed to filter through the trees, covered in foreign runes... it seemed almost sinister.
But according to Nick, it anchored his mother's spirit, keeping her safe from whatever horrid afterlife foxes believed themselves doomed to. So she treated it as such, despite her misgivings. "I couldn't ask Nick about the rituals or taboos, so I'm sorry if I do something wrong. We don't have a shrine to the God of Life and Death in our clan, but I'm hoping you could help." She paused, waiting for a response, then felt foolish for doing so. She turned to the cargo she had brought from the burrow - a young, plump hen, wings and legs and beak bound. Her head swiveled wildly from where she lay, watching Judy with one eye and then the other. She continued to address the anchor stone as she watched the worried hen wriggle. "Our gods - rabbit gods - like gifts. I wouldn't know what to decorate your shrine with, so I was hoping that a chicken would do. I know they don't have the same significance for foxes that they do for us, but..." Judy realized she was rambling and shut her mouth.
Without further ado, she knelt down beside the chicken, drawing her knife and placing her free hand on the chicken's head. The hen tried to struggle, but she was far too trussed up to achieve anything. With a quick, practiced motion Judy sliced deeply into the hen's neck just below the jaw, and blood poured out, staining her paws red in an instant. She held the hen down as her struggles increased, and soon she went limp.
Judy rose to her feet and approached the anchor stone once more, and considered it for a moment. Normally there was a bowl, and a branch from a specific tree, but in this circumstance, it felt right to use nothing but her paws. She flicked them and a spray of blood spattered across the stone, barely visible in the near-darkness as black circles against the dark grey of the stone. She considered it for a moment longer, then reached out and pressed a bloody paw against a gap in the carving. "Please," she said simply, before withdrawing her hand and considering the perfect, bloody pawprint she had left on the stone.
Well. That was that. Either it would help, or...
Judy turned, lifted the chicken carcass across her shoulders, then started to make her way back to the burrow.
Most of the Hopps clanrabbits had abandoned the beds as soon as they were physically able to, even when it was unwise, and after a week the only two remaining were Nick and Nathan. Judy had spent nearly every waking moment in a chair between the two, watching one and then the other. Nick's wound had been healing well at first before an infection had taken hold, and though the Hopps' herbs had managed to fight it to a standstill, he was ravaged by fever and the few times he regained consciousness, he had rambled in the fox tongue before falling back asleep. Judy had worried that he had forgotten the rabbit language, but Bonnie had reassured her that the fever wasn't severe enough for that. He was probably just too confused to realize what language he was speaking in. And Judy reassured herself that when he caught sight of her, he seemed to recognize her, and his chatterings in the foreign tongue took on a more animated tone. The infection seemed to be fading, and Bonnie, though unsure of fox physiology, seemed confident that he would recover soon.
Nathan was another story. Though by some miracle he had been spared the worst of infection the pink froth had bubbled out of the worst of his wounds when it was fresh was a very bad sign, as was laboured gasping that filled the room. Aside from that was the amount of blood that he had lost. Every couple of hours someone had to try to feed the comatose rabbit chicken liver soup in the hopes that it would help replenish his lost blood, and try not to choke him with it - and when they failed, the pathetic, gasped coughing wrenched at their hearts. And every day the bandages had to be pulled back, the pus wiped away, and a herbal poultice to fight the infection reapplied. Though Nathan's ambition had sometimes - well, often - put him at odds with Judy, she would give anything to have him back to his usual plotting self instead of the limp, gasping figure that he had become.
It took Nick a bit of time to realize that he had regained consciousness. His mind was sluggish in a way he was unfortunately familiar with, and it throbbed with pain besides with the headache that almost always seemed to accompany a fever for him. Though the details of what had put him in this situation eluded him, the surface he was lying on was comfortable, there was something soft under his head, and his nose was filled with the familiar scent of dirt and rabbit. So he knew he was safe.
The rest of his body started to wake up, and spurred by hazy memories of a fight, he started testing his extremities to make sure they were all there. His legs were fine, though moving them sent a throb of pain through his stomach. Stomach wounds could be really bad, but if he was still alive, it was probably okay. His right arm was fine too, though his hand ached terribly - he had a brief flash of memory of bringing a sword down over and over until his foe stopped moving, each jarring impact sending pain through his arm. That explained that. But his left arm refused to move, and his left hand felt numb, and he could feel a dampness soaking into the fur-
Worry spurred him into wakefulness and his eyes flew open, immediately filling him with regret as candlelight stabbed into them and filled his head with fresh pain, but he resisted the need to screw his eyes shut again and looked down at himself, terrified that he'd see a mangled mess or a stump where his hand should be. But instead he saw his perfectly intact hand being used as a pillow by a sleeping rabbit, drool soaking a discoloured patch in his fur. Her paws had a tight grip on his, probably spurred by his unknowing attempts to wriggle free. He felt a smile spread across his face as he took in her sleeping face.
"She's barely left your side. Probably wouldn't have at all if she didn't have watch to keep." Nick's gaze flew across the room to his right, where he saw Bonnie sitting in an armchair, a needle and thread in one paw and a ripped tunic in the other. "Are you actually with us this time, or are you still lost in the fever?"
"I'm here." Nick's voice was raspy and weak, and speaking made him realize just how dry his throat was. Bonnie put her sewing aside and rose to her feet with surprising confidence for one so heavily pregnant, and walked over to his side.
"So you are. Welcome back, then." She placed a gentle paw on his head for a moment, then started to check the wound in his stomach, peeling back a wad of fabric. Nick winced at the smell of pus and herbs, but it was far more of the latter than the former, and Bonnie seemed pleased with what she saw. "Most of the infection is gone, and you're healing well. Thought we'd lose you for a while there."
Nick watched curiously as Bonnie replaced the poultice, wincing slightly as her touch sent a fresh stab of pain through his side. "Apart from Judy," he noted, "this is the first time an unarmed rabbit has been this comfortable in my presence."
"I know for a fact you're as weak as a newly-hatched chick right now. Besides that, you've earned my trust, and then some." Bonnie reached out and placed her paw on Nick's. "Whether the Argente had death or thralldom in mind for the kits - for my children and grandchildren - you saved them from that. That's a debt that would take quite a bit of repaying."
"I already owed Judy my life."
"Yes. One life. Now we owe you near two hundred." Nick didn't have a response to that. He watched as she gently probed at his ribs, causing a wound that he had forgotten about to start sending fresh pain through his body. "This cut was fairly shallow, once we staunched the bleeding you were fine healing it yourself."
"Don't thank me, I was busy with Nathan. It was Judy's work that saved your life. It's going to leave you a nasty scar, though. She never was good at stitching." Nick looked again at the rabbit dozing on his arm, and smiled again. This fierce, ambitious little rabbit kept surprising him. "Now that you're awake, you can feed yourself. I'll bring you in something to eat. I think we've still got some chicken soup left."
Nick unconsciously licked his lips at that, and Bonnie smiled as she turned and left the room, leaving Nick to stare thoughtfully at the sleeping Judy.
I don't apologize for my prolonged absence, but I do regret it. I wish I could promise that it won't happen again, but all I can say is that I'll do my best not to let it.
It's been a while since I've been able to check the reviews. I'll be catching up with them in the next day or so, and responding to any that asked questions.
As Bonnie left to fetch food for him, Nick turned his full attention to Judy. She looked entirely different asleep, her constant alertness and seemingly boundless energy and drive replaced with uncharacteristic peace, partially blocked from view by one of her ears flopped over her face. He gave into temptation and ran his free paw over her head, smiling as she responded by trying to burrow deeper into his arm.
"Judy," he murmured, poking gently at her cheek with his thumb. "Hey, Judy."
She groaned in protest, but an eye cracked open to search for the source of her torment. "Don't know why I bothered to get you your own room since it seems you're never in it..." Judy griped, still mostly asleep.
Nick smiled and glanced towards the doorway. "Lucky your mother just left, or you'd never hear the end of that one."
Judy's visible eye slid open further as she processed his words, then flew open all the way as realization hit her. "Nick, you're awake!" She lifted her head off his arm, and Nick stifled a groan as feeling began to return to his arm with a wave of sharp tingles.
"I am," he said with a smile. "And I hear that you're to thank for that."
Judy gave a half-smile, mostly proud but a little bashful. "Save your thanks for after you see how badly it's going to scar. My needlework wasn't very neat."
"Neat enough to keep my insides on the inside. That's what matters."
They smiled at each other for a quiet moment, and then Bonnie bustled back into the room with a bowl of soup and they looked away from each other.
Though he didn't regret his actions for a moment, Nick was filled with frustration in the days after awakening from his injury. He had had precious little time to enjoy his return to nearly-full fitness from his broken leg, and then he had gone and gotten a hole through his gut. Though Bonnie had released him from her care, she had told him in no uncertain terms that he was not to lift anything heavier than a cup of water, lest he tear his wound back open and he have to start healing all over again. So he was back on all fours again to take the weight off his abdominal muscles as much as possible.
However, while that irked him, it was more than made up for by the change in how the Hopps rabbits were treating him. Nick had thought he had already been fairly accepted among the rabbits. The most friendly treated him more warmly than any fox but his mother had back in his tribe, and even the most standoffish and suspicious of the rabbits had treated him with nothing worse than aloof, cautious disdain. By the standards of a fox used to being on the bottom of the pecking order, it was practically welcoming. But now, with the blood of the clan's enemies under his claws and the rescue of the clan's kits to his credit, he was learning of a whole new level of warmth and acceptance from the clan. Everywhere he looked he founds smiles and nods of recognition, and travelling through the warren towards the end of the day had turned into a gauntlet of invitations to join households for a meal and groups of bachelors for drinks. Judy had told him that his newfound celebrity would fade over time to some extent, but as a blooded member of the clan he would always be entitled to respect from his new clanmates.
Judy especially had refused to leave his side lately, as well as ruthlessly enforcing Bonnie's orders that he not strain himself. It took him days to convince her to go back to her duties guarding the clan, and only managed that by going to where she would have been standing guard anyway, and then promising that he wouldn't do anything more strenuous than taking a nap in the sun. The only time she had left his side was to meet with her father, regarding, Nick assumed, the defence of the clan against their newfound enemy, and even then she ordered a gang of kits to watch him carefully and pile atop him and pin him down should he try to do anything strenuous.
It was a week after he had awoken from his injuries that they found themselves reclining atop a boulder, which was itself atop a small hill overlooking one of the clan's wild grass fields. They both knew that the field was full of chickens feeding as well as the rabbits watching them, but the grasses easily swallowed that horde, and from their vantage point they seemed completely alone. The conversation had trailed off into comfortable silence, but Nick could tell that Judy had something on her mind. So when she took a breath and opened her mouth to speak, Nick lifted his head off his paws to give her his full attention.
"So," Judy started. "Clan Hopps, and my father's clan before it, don't really have a tradition of thrall taking in living memory, except for yourself, of course. If there are rituals associated with it, we've forgotten them. So I discussed it with my father and the rest of the Council, and, well..."
Judy got to her feet and took Nick's unresisting arm, and wrapped her paws around the rabbit-sized torc she had put on him as an armband what felt like a lifetime ago. She gave it a tug, then another, then put her full weight into it and managed to budge it, after which it slipped off him without resistance. She turned it over in her paws as Nick stared at her uncomprehendingly.
"Did you think you'd remain my thrall, with us so deeply in debt to you?" Judy smiled and shook her head. "You're no longer a thrall of Clan Hopps. You are free to make your own trail with our blessing, or remain with us as our guest. Though we were hoping- I was hoping- that you'd be willing to join Clan Hopps as a full member of our Clan."
Though Judy was outwardly calm, by this point Nick knew her well enough to recognize the nervousness behind it and the brittleness of her smile. It was enough to shake him free of his own shock, and he reached out, ignoring Judy's squeak of surprise, and pulled her into a hug. "Of course, Judy. I'd be honoured to join your Clan."
To Nick's surprise, nothing much changed. He ate the same food, he performed the same tasks, and he slept in the same room (after automatically accepting Judy's invitation to stay in her household). As far as he could see, the only thing that had changed for him was that he now had the freedom to say no to any of the above, but since he couldn't think of a single thing he wanted to do more than to spend his days accompanying Judy in her duties and crafting weapons surrounded by adoring and fascinated kits, what would he say no to?
So he whiled away the twilight days of autumn, letting his wounds heal and soaking up what little sunlight there was. The chickens spent almost every day in the fields, pecking away at the dying grass and scratching for bugs in the hardening soil, as their watchers tried their best to push back the day when they'd have to be fed from the clan's finite chickenfeed. His paws were always occupied since the battle with the Argente had cost the clan quite a few arrows and javelins. He had been surprised the first time that Judy had put a small pouch of silver trinkets - payment for a bundle of wood-fired javelin - but not as surprised as Judy had been when he handed them right back to her. He was still eating her food and living under her roof, after all. He told her they could renegotiate after she had made back what she had spent feeding and housing him.
The only real change came right on the onset of winter, when Victoria and the caravan finally returned from the trading trip to Clan Beveren, weighed down with silver, chickens, and a handful of smitten Beverens. The jubilant air was dampened slightly by Victoria being immediately whisked away to a council meeting - a council she hadn't known existed, let alone that she was made a member of in her absence, but the rest of the rabbits went on mostly undeterred in celebrating being reunited with the rabbits that had went with the caravan. Cotton in particular got a big hug from Judy before she had to race off to join the council, and to his surprise Nick found himself taken along as Judy's guest.
By the time Nick and Judy arrived at the council meeting, Victoria had been filled in on events in her absence and the other warriors had taken their places around the table in Stewart's private hall.
"The Beveren are prideful, of course," Victoria was saying as they entered. "And their war leader in particular has a dislike for us. But by sticking around - ostensibly for the sake of romance, since my escort found themselves very popular - I managed to wait them out. Winter creeping closer convinced them to take a solution now before the coming snows cut off their options. I managed to get a little more than the normal price, mostly in silver, and by the time I left they seemed much more well-disposed to us, especially since most of my escort either ended up staying behind or brought home left-pawed spouses. Of course, if I had known-"
"No way you could have," Bonnie interrupted. "You did the right thing."
Stewart nodded reluctantly. "As much as I would have wanted to attempt an alliance with Velveteen now rather than later, peace with Beveren is worth waiting until spring. Besides, the silver will be needed, should this feud escalate into all-out war."
There were nods of agreement all around. A thoughtful silence had barely begun to fall before Thomas broke it.
"Surely there must be a way-"
"We went over it in the last meeting," Stewart interrupted. "And several times in private since then. Don't think for a moment I'm any less eager than you to repay the Argente for what they tried to do, but I won't throw lives away needlessly. Rabbits do not raid in winter." The final sentence was said with the weight of a truism, and was met with more nods. Thomas settled back down into his chair, unhappy but mollified.
"Why not send a few volunteers to burn down an outbuilding or two?" To his surprise, it was Nick that had spoken up. Seeing he had the room's attention, he forged on. "It was what feuding families would do back in Tribe Wilde before things broke out into an all-out war.
"We're on the verge of winter," Victoria answered. "It's a surprise the first snow isn't already here. It's too late for a peaceful visit to our neighbours, let alone sending even a small band so far away."
"Do rabbits do that badly in the cold?" Nick scanned the faces at the table, surprised at the nods he got in return. "I mean, it's a bit uncomfortable, but a fox can shrug off anything short of a blizzard, and in a blizzard we can just bury ourselves in the snow and sleep through it." Nick looked around the table, suddenly uncomfortably aware of the number of eyes on him. "Why are you all looking at me like that?"
Stewart leaned forward in his chair, his eyes alight and a grim smile on his lips. "How would you like to do your clan a great service, Nicholas Hopps?"
Thus concludes the saga of the rabbit clan's thrall, Nicholas of Tribe Wilde. I'm not completely happy with this chapter, but I've been much more unhappy with the lack of chapter that has been the status quo for longer than I care to consider. And leaving a story that so many seem to enjoy unfinished has been a constant itch at the back of my brain.
However, while Nicholas of Tribe Wilde's story is over, Nicholas of Clan Hopps' story is just beginning. The part of my brain responsible for writing seems to be laying fallow at the moment, but should ARCF 2 start to grow, I'll add a new chapter to this story pointing the way towards it.
Thank you all for joining me on this journey. It's my hope that it won't be the last.