"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.