In the dead of winter, night had fallen across a snowy forest, the full moon's light casting silvery glimmers through the bare, icy branches.
For one rabbit, the light was all she had between her and oblivion.
Gasping, the doe fled through the trees, the moonlight guiding her between the massive trunks. Her clothes were simple and practical, a vest and knee length breeches made of linen, all done in an earthy brown. It seemed like not nearly enough in the biting cold, but her running kept her warm.
Too warm, perhaps. Her head felt hot and fuzzy, her lungs burned, and her legs were absolutely on fire. Not to mention the wound in her side felt like a glowing brand was being pressed to her skin.
"Come on, ya' dogs! She's tirin'!" came a voice from behind her, sounding much closer than she would have liked. She risked a glance over her shoulder. Three huge shadows pursued her through the trees, their dark silhouettes broken only by their eyes, pools of reflected moonlight. The only distinction she could make between any of them was that the farthest shadow only had one pool of reflected moonlight staring back at her.
Turning forward again, she turned sharply, disappearing behind a tree. Taking advantage of being out of sight, she turned again and again, zigzagging through the wood. She knew it wouldn't lose them, (curse this snow for revealing her every step!) but she hoped that it would slow them down a tiny bit.
Jumping over a tree root as high as she was tall should have been nothing for her, which is why it was such a surprise when she completely failed to do so. Her entire lower body slammed into the obstacle, while her upper body continued forward. The result was her flipping over the root and falling flat on her back on the other side, the shallow snow doing little to cushion her fall.
Momentarily stunned, she lay there, staring up at the moon. She only allowed herself two gasps before she forced herself up.
Or at least, she tried to. As she stood, darkness overtook her vision. When it cleared, she was face down in the snow, ears laying flat on the icy covering, with no recollection of falling.
When she raised her head, it was like lifting a boulder, which was strange, because her brain felt as though it were made of cotton, her thoughts fuzzy and confused. She slowly swung her gaze before her, looking for some clue as to where she was and why she was laying in the snow.
The sound of approaching footsteps brought it all crashing back. Ears snapping up, the sensitive accessories told her that her pursuers were close. Too close.
Knowing she hadn't the strength to outrun them any longer, she used the root that had tripped her as a guide and(mostly using her arms) crawled to the nearest tree. There was a niche at the base, created by the joining of two roots, and she moved to occupy it.
However, her plan to camouflage herself by curling up by the wood and praying her hunters ran past her was interrupted when what she thought was bark was actually cloth, giving way beneath her weight and dumping her down an inky black incline.
She didn't know if she rolled two times or twenty, but by the time she hit the bottom of the hole she was blind and completely disoriented. Slowly raising herself to all fours, she tried to take in her surroundings, but she found she couldn't see a thing.
A sharp whistle sounded behind her. Staying on all fours, she turned to look at the source. She could just make out the faintest sliver of light marking the entrance she had fallen through.
"Why are we stopped? Where is the rabbit?!"
Hearing the voice of one of her would-be murderers made her gasp, her paw jumping up to cover her mouth. When nothing but silence followed, not even the crunch of snow, she was sure she had been heard, and she resolved to not make another sound.
Something grabbed her foot.
The doe screamed in terror as she was dragged away from the only source of light, deeper into the inky black. A large paw on her back quickly forced her to the ground while another wrapped around her mouth, sharply muffling her scream.
Grabbing the paw over her mouth with both of her own and pulling didn't dislodge it. Kicking, bucking and twisting, she tried to shake off her captor until a large, moist, clearly-not-a-rabbit's nose pressed against the base of her ear.
"Shh, shh, shh," the sultry, masculine voice shushed her. "None of that." The feeling of his warm breath in her ear ignited something in her chest: a fear of tortures worse than death. Eyes nearly rolling back in fear, she froze.
One of her pursuers' voice drifted down to them from outside. "What was that?"
"Quiet," warned the creature that had her in its grasp, his warm whisper in her ear sending a shiver of revulsion through her.
Ahead of them, a splotch of moonlight appeared on the floor as the cloth covering the entrance was pulled aside. "Hey! I found something!"
"Is that a burrow? Do rabbits have retreat burrows?"
"Use yer nose, ya' daft bastard. That's a fox den!"
It was like waking from a nightmare to realize you died in your sleep and went to Hell. Deep-seated instinct combined with a lifetime of deliberately instilled fear fused into a gut wrenching, heart pounding panic that made her chase through the woods seem a prance through the daisies by comparison.
"MMMMM!" she screamed into his palm, eyes spinning wildly in their sockets. Digging her feet into the soil below her, she strained with everything she had to shove the beast off of her.
He responded by collapsing atop her, pinning her to the dirt with his greater weight. "If you want to live," he ground out through his teeth-she knew because she could feel his fangs on the edge of her ear, his lips brushing the velvety shell as he spoke-, "then be still."
The doe went limp, trapped beneath his warm fur. Clenching her eyes shut in the dark, tears began to stream down her face, wetting her cheeks and his paw alike.
"Fox! We know yer there! Throw the rabbit out and there'll be no trouble from us!"
She felt the fox shift above her as he raised his head and sniffed. Then he dropped his muzzle back into her ear to whisper, "What have you done, little one, that three wolves would offer to leave me be in exchange for you?"
Answers couldn't come, since he kept his paw firmly clamped over her mouth. Not that she was especially coherent, anyway.
"Fox! I won't say it ag'in! Give us the rabbit or there'll be trouble!"
The monster shifted again, so he could lay his head against hers, burying half her face in the thick fur of his cheek as he watched the entrance.
She could feel his heart beating against her back. It was slower than hers, steadier, reflecting his calm. The fox didn't seem afraid at all of the three wolves barking at his door.
"Alright! You were warned!"
Silence reigned for several long moments.
"Well? Tomas, get in there."
"Wha'? Why me?"
"Yer the smallest."
"I still won' fit! And foxes use poison, I hear. Got stuff that'll make ya' puke yer guts up, for real!"
"Tha's a wives' tale."
"Think so, Tomlin? Then go in yerself!"
"Wha'? No! Asides, it was Tomsey what got his eye took. He should go in."
"Ya' frog fondlin' whoreson! I just lost my blinkin' eye, why would ya' send me in first?"
"Mind who yer calling 'whoreson', Tomsey. She's yer mother, too!"
As the three brothers devolved into bickering over who would stick their head in the hole, the fox whispered next to her, "You took a wolf's eye? Impressive, for a bunny."
"Brothers! Brothers!" the one called Tomsey called, silencing his pack mates, "Let's take another tack. Why don' we smoke 'im out?"
"Very well," said Tomlin, sarcastically. "Produce the kindlin'."
"There ain't no kindlin'," Tomas helpfully pointed out. "This snow has everythin' wet."
"Yes, Tomas, thank ye'. I hadn't noticed," Tomlin bit back, snide.
"Why ya' gotta talk like that?"
"Brothers," interrupted Tomsey before the arguing could resume. "Might we try digging them out?"
"Oh, yes, wonderful idea," came Tomlin's seemingly signature sarcastic reply. "And while we dig, I'm sure the fox won't skip right out the back."
"Fox den's have two holes, Tomsey," Tomas agreed with his brother, somewhat reluctantly.
"Can we wait them out?" Tomsey asked, sounding frustrated.
"No," said Tomlin plainly. "This fox has gone down for winter. He's enough food in there until spring. We barely have enough for two days."
"I can't just let 'em go!" Tomsey burst. "That roaster took my eye, and I won't have a pelt take my revenge for me!"
"I don't think ya' can help it," said Tomas, trying to be the voice of reason. "She's been down there for a while."
"Fox could have that coney skinned and smoked by now," agreed Tomlin.
Down in the inky dark, the doe whimpered at the thought, nightmarish visions of being skinned alive and held over a fire dancing before her eyes. The impenetrable shadow surrounding her just made the images all the more vivid.
"So, that's it? 'Sorry 'bout yer eye, Tomsey, but it's time to bugger off'?"
"Yeah, that's it. Sorry 'bout yer eye, Tomsey, but it is time to bugger off," Tomlin snarked.
"Damn ye', Tomlin! I'll put out yer eye and see if ya' think it's such a laugh!"
"Don't ya' show yer teeth to yer big brother! I've been telling ya' since ye' were a pup not to play with yer food! Ya' ain't nothin' to blame but yer foolishness for losin' that eye! Yer lucky that's all ya' lost."
"Lucky?! Ya' call this lucky?!"
"Yes, lucky! If that shiv went in any deeper, ya' could 'ave died. Is that how ye' want to be remembered? 'The wolf killed by a bunny.' The most shameful death since Uncle Redin, but at least it was a pred what killed 'im, even if it was a weasel."
"You oughtn't talk like that about uncle."
"What's it matter, Tomas? I'm still right. I understand yer embarrassed, Tomsey, and that's why I ran all this way, but we lost it. The rabbit's gone. Time to go."
A brief, tense silence fell over group, while down below, the doe still hadn't gotten over the "skinned and smoked" comment. Her heart was beating so fast that it felt as though it might burst.
"Fine. But imma try somethin' first. The two a yuh just wait a second," said Tomsey. "Hey, fox!" The wolf's voice seemed to double as he shouted directly into the entrance of the tunnel. "I don't want the whole rabbit! Throw me out a foot, or an ear! I wanna know she's dead!"
Every appendage the doe had twitched in rapid succession, her body seeming to take stock of them in anticipation of losing one.
But the fox didn't answer, nor did he move.
As the silence wore on, Tomsey began to grow impatient. "Dammit, fox, she took my eye! Why dontcha show a little charity! Between preds."
Still, the fox didn't reply.
"Damn ya', ya' dirty, connivin', worthless pelt! She took my eye and ye' better send me out one a' hers!"
The doe startled when something gently hit her face. It was the fox's finger, which began to thoughtfully tap, the claw hitting her cheek terrifyingly close to her eye. It was the only evidence she needed to become certain that he was going to do as the wolf demanded and remove one of her eyes. Then he would skin her and smoke her and- and-!
The fox barely noticed as the doe fainted in his grip, finally overcome by fear and exhaustion.
"Curse ya', ya blighter! I'll be back fer ya' and I'll use yer hide fer a girdle!" There was a tearing sound as the wolf destroyed the only thing that belonged to the fox that he could reach: the camouflaged cloth covering the entrance to his den. "C'mon, lads, let's get back ta mother."
As the footsteps faded away, the fox listened intently, carefully counting them to make sure the wolves hadn't sent two away to convince him they had left while leaving the third waiting by the entrance. Wolves were dolts when it came to many things, but never let it be said they weren't wily hunters.
Not that he was about to stick his head out there. They had been right about one thing: he had plenty of supplies. There was no need to risk himself just to check if they had really gone.
Once he was reasonably convinced they were alone, the fox let himself relax. "That moron broke my door," he grumbled to himself, before looking down at his surprise guest. "I don't suppose- Hm?" both eyebrows rose as he noticed how limply she lay beneath him. He pulled his paw away from over her mouth and was surprised when she slumped to the ground. Standing on all fours, he looked down to find her sprawled across the dirt beneath him, completely still.
"Oh, come on…" he grumbled as he rolled her onto her back. Her head lolled to the side, presenting him with her profile. Leaning forward, he intently studied her face for any sign she was faking, any twitch or tremble. Finding none, he hovered his paw over lips. A puff of air warmed his pads and moved his fur.
"Well, she's not dead." His nose twitched as he scented blood. Following the smell to the source, he found the wound in her side. "Yet," he amended.
He let out an aggravated sigh before raising his gaze back to her face. Reaching up, he pressed a finger under her chin and slowly rolled her head to the other side, allowing himself to see the rest of her face. As he studied her soft features, he spoke with certainty, "You are going to be trouble."
AN: Welcome to my side project: Year of Discovery. Now, what makes this a "side" project and not a main one? Updates. I will update this whenever I find the time to do so, so don't expect regular weekly updates like I strive for with Electric Eldritch Eidolon.
Now, for credits: The idea for creating an early history piece was inspired by Boney_M's wonderful fic A Rabbit Clan's Fox. However, that is where all similarity shall end. I won't be using his original clan structures, gods, faiths, etc. This story will be my own.
After I had written this and put it up for preview on Cimar's Discord channel, Cimar actually pointed out it was very similar to Lauri Laurintytär's unbelievably well written and drawn comic, Forest Tails. Let me assure everyone that this was purely by coincidence(I had never seen the comic before the similarity was pointed out) and that, starting with the second chapter, my story will no longer resemble hers(except for all the talking animals and forest settings, of course).
I would like to thank DrummerMax64 for his wonderful editing and Starfang's Secrets for her continued support.
I'll update this story Sunday evening, if I update at all. So, if the story isn't updated on Sunday, you know you're not getting an update that week.
Alright, that's everything for now. Thanks for reading.