Carriage wheels rattled like a Gatling gun as the cab horse raced forward, breath heaving in and out on his errand. Inside, Judy clung to the seat with anxious determination. It was barely an exaggeration to say that she was in deadly earnest.
The summons which brought her had been quick and to the point. Nick, who had been gone for months on a business trip in Roamania had showed up at Saint Ninian's, delirious and half-dead with fatigue. No one knew why, and Nick had barely been lucid enough to tell them his name and show his papers. It was nothing short of a miracle that the nuns had been able to get word to her all the way in London, but they had earnestly begged her to come at once. She had begun packing almost before she was done reading the message.
With a jolt and a swerve, the carriage fairly banged to a halt as though the horse had crashed. Judy hung on for her life, then scrambled to stick her head out. The horse, spurred by the money Judy had promised, panted and leaned on one of the pull bars as he drew out his pocket watch.
"Saint Ninian's Convent, miss," he reported, making his way to the door.
Judy didn't wait. Bursting out of the coach, she threw the money to her driver, shouted her hasty thanks, and with lifted skirts bolted into the red stone building. Nuns of many species, all dressed in black robes and white head cloths, turned to look at her in surprise as she plowed in like a blast of wind from a gale.
"Judy Hopps," she introduced herself, spurning all formality as she fumbled in her purse for the letter. "A fox was brought here; Nicholas Wilde? He's my-!"
"Calm down; calm down, child," urged a badger, striding up and clasping her firmly by the upper arms. "Yes, we have a fox here. He mentioned you."
Judy nearly collapsed. "He's here? Where?!"
"I'll take you to him," the nun promised, "but in Heaven's name, calm yourself."
It took several deep breaths for the bunny to settle her nerves. The nun's advice was sound, but it was all a bunny could do to calm down under such duress, and more than most could have managed. Steadying herself, Judy surrendered to a torturously slow pace as Sister Aria – for so the nun introduced herself – led her through the stone halls of the convent with a halting, shuffling gait.
"Tell me what happened," Judy pleaded, hoping for something to take her mind off how long it was taking her to reach Nick. Though she had initially taken to working for him for want of options, they had been together for several years now and developed an uncommon degree of camaraderie. When she'd heard he was in trouble, she'd rushed from Zootopia as fast as she could and was hardly sure if she had slept the whole way.
"You know already what Sister Agatha wrote," Aria began, "so there is little else to explain. He came by rails from Clawsenburg, as you have read, where he ran into the station yelling his head off for a ticket home. When they learned he was English, they ticketed him for the furthest train in your direction. By the time he reached Boarda-pesth, he was nearly half dead with some kind of brain fever, so they sent him here to recover at our sanatorium."
"But why?" wondered Judy. Nick was the last mammal she would have imagined coming down with any kind of mental illness. The telegraph's words – 'nearly dead' and 'nerves broken' – had so contrasted with the calm, confident fox who left England some months before that she hardly believed them.
Sister Aria shook her head. "I don't know. We took him in and gave him the best care we could manage, but it seems it's not his health that's so much damaged as his spirit. Something shook the poor fox to his very core, and not a nun or monk or abbot who's been to see him can understand it. We're hoping that seeing you will help, or at least that you might know him well enough to help us find out what happened."
Judy bit her lip. Nick wasn't the toughest mammal around, but he was strong. If he was even half as badly off as the letter described, she was sure she didn't know what could have done it. Still, if there was a way to pull him through it, she'd do it if she had to sell her soul. "I'll do everything I can," she promised.
Sister Aria came to a stop outside a plain wooden door, turning to Judy. "You have a good heart. I pray it will be enough, or that God will supply whatever it may lack. Now, let's get you in to see him."
She opened the door, and Judy stepped into the room silently. There on the bed, sleeping in a strange position, lay Nick. The bunny's heart felt jabbed at the sight of him there, his limbs twisted around while his chest rose and fell.
"Why are his arms and legs like that?" she asked, crossing towards the bed. She'd only seen him asleep once or twice when she caught him napping at his desk, and this contorted arrangement was nothing like that.
"None of us knows," Aria confessed. "He also has terrible nightmares, but when he wakes up he can never remember them. He only has some sense of impending terror like King Nebuchadnezzar. We can't make sense of those, but the strange contortions… well, I don't want to get you anxious, but it seems like spiritual torment; worst I ever saw."
Judy didn't know how much stock she placed in the nunnery's religious ideas. She thought, at any rate, that the crosses scattered around were a little idolatrous. Still, if the nuns were helping Nick she supposed she should forgive them that and pray that God, if He objected, would overlook too. For her own part, she went up to Nick and stood beside him. As she watched, he rolled to the side away from her and his legs kicked rapidly as if he were running. An inarticulate sound came from his mouth, as if he were trying to form words but kept getting the syllables wrong.
Sensing that he was having a nightmare, she put both her paws on his shoulder and shook him. "Nick! Nick, wake up!"
"Dwah!" he yelped, jolting awake and throwing himself away from her. The caused him to tumble onto the floor, where Sister Aria rushed to his aid.
"Here, here, it's alright," she soothed, catching his flailing paws and pulling him up. "Judith is here to see you."
"Judith?" he asked, fumbling with the name. He clearly wasn't fully awake. Then, as if drawn by some magnetism, he turned and caught sight of her. "Judy!"
He rushed towards her, falling across the bed in the process. She caught him as he wrapped his arms around her, gasping as if he'd been underwater.
Judy wanted to cry, relieved as she was that she'd finally reached him after such sickening dread for his health. "I'm here, Nick," she said.
Sister Aria stood by, paws clasped with relief. "I don't suppose you remember what the nightmare was," she ventured.
He looked at her for a moment. "No," he said, and then returned his attention to his friend. "Judy, what in the world are you doing here?"
She laughed a little in spite of herself. "That's what I wanted to ask you," she pointed out.
The badger cleared her throat. "If you'll pardon my saying so," she ventured pointedly, "I think perhaps Mr. Wilde would like a few minutes to wash himself and dress, and then you two can have something to eat out in the orchard."
It occurred to Judy then that Nick was still in his nightshirt, and while it was hardly improper for her to be there, it was a little out of the ordinary. "Oh, yes," she agreed rather haltingly.
About twenty minutes found them where the badger had suggested. Judy was having a plate of eggplant heavily anointed with thick mushroom gravy, and Nick was snacking on a stew of boiled grubs. Between them sat a plate of biscuits with which to sop.
"So you don't remember what happened?" asked Judy.
He shook his head, passing a paw over his brow. "Like someone wiped it right off the slate, Carrots," he admitted. "At least… well, nothing but snatches after I got to my client, and that's all like something out of a dream."
She bit her lip. "You mean like the dreams you've been having since you got here?"
He nodded. "Exactly. I still can't figure out if I caught some kind of sickness or what." His paw strayed up to his neck, rubbing uneasily. Then he leaned in toward her and whispered, "And to be honest, I don't know if this place is helping much. It feels too… something."
"Something?" asked Judy, scrunching her face and looking around. The orchard was bright and cheery, the air just cool enough to be pleasant, and the nuns going this way and that all smiled to see their patient up and around. "Seems like a pretty nice place to me."
"It's nice, don't get me wrong. I just feel… out of place somehow."
Judy considered that for a while. She and Nick were both members of the Reform Church, and though he wasn't exactly the most devout mammal religion had never made him feel uneasy that she knew of. At the very least, he'd never complained of it, and she would hope that he'd say something to her if that was bothering him. Neither, she suspected, would it bother him being around a bunch of Cat-olic nuns. In his line of business he often had to deal with mammals from all walks of life and even all countries. Neither did the nuns seem to think any less of their visitors for belonging to a different denomination, if they even knew it.
He must have read her, as he often did. "I don't know what it is," he admitted.
"Could it have something to do with your business trip?" she asked.
The answer came with another helpless shrug. "I have no idea. I barely remember the business trip." Then he sighed. "To be honest, I just want to get home and put whatever it was behind me."
This didn't satisfy Judy at all, but if it was what he wanted, she was fine with that. "No problem," she assured him. "I brought enough money to get us both back to Zootopia."
He let out a sound that was half cough, half laugh. "A reynard and a doe traveling together? My my, aren't you the New Woman."
She shook her head. "We can take separate trains, you know," she pointed out. They had, it was true, traveled together once or twice – he on business, she seeking ideas for her novel – but never over such a distance. She was on the whole the more reserved of the two of them, whereas Nick was more of the, 'I know what I've done and no one can change that' point of view.
Nick chuckled a little. "Still stubborn, huh?"
"Nick, the day I stop being stubborn you'll start to find me boring."
"True," he admitted, picking up a biscuit to dip in his broth. "It does have a certain charm to it."
Over the next several days, Judy stayed at the convent, sleeping in one of the extra rooms provided for visitors and newcomers. She was satisfied to see that Nick was tended to at all hours. He had his privacy, but there was always someone awake and in earshot if he should so much as cry out in his sleep.
Sister Aria observed, with evident pleasure, that Judy's presence seemed to be of help to their patient's recovery. Their picnics in the orchard became a regular occurrence as often as the weather would permit it, and during them he began to recall odd snatches. One of these was triggered, he would later say, by the sight of nuns crossing themselves in prayer.
"Early in my trip," he said, "I remember… getting into a carriage with a lot of mammals watching."
"You?" she asked, pausing over some vegetable stew. "In the middle of a staring crowd?" Nick was nothing if no unobtrusive.
He nodded. "Yeah, there was something weird about the whole thing. Everyone kept crossing themselves and then pointing two fingers at me."
That made no sense to Judy, so she asked a nun about it later without mentioning that it had been in Nick's memories.
"Ah, that's a sign," said the nun, shaking her head. "A protection, you might say, against the Evil Eye. Who did you see doing that, and where was it?"
Judy fudged an answer, wondering why someone would do that towards Nick. She knew some mammals claimed that foxes were made by the devil, and she supposed that belief might persist in Roamania since Nick had spoken of the Catpathians being a kind of whirlpool of religions from all across the world. Something in her gut, though, told her there was more going on.
Her unease began to seem better founded as, over the course of a week, other memories came back. Blue flames by a roadside, running up and down halls to escape from something or someplace, and a woman – a deer, he was pretty sure – pressing something into his paws with great earnest. All of these confused him, and the hall one absolutely unnerved him, but the one that seemed to bother him most was something about a tiger.
"He's built like a tiger," he explained one afternoon when they were quite buy themselves, "but he's black all over."
Judy scrunched her face. "That's strange. Tigers don't come in that color. It must have been a jaguar or something."
"I know, but I remember a black tiger… or maybe it was a dream. I don't know." Nick's ears were back, his tail was bunched out, and his eyes had a strangely hollow look to them. "Seems like the last thing I can remember – the only thing I can remember – after these nightmares is that black tiger looking me in the eyes."
Judy didn't know what to make of the whole thing, but the way he told it set her fur on end.
Nick shook his head. "I don't want to talk about this," he said shakily. "I'd rather not even think about it. What's been going on back in Zootopia?"
It was hard to think of anything that would interest him. For Judy, a lot of the time had been spent simply worrying about whether he was alright and why she hadn't heard from him. "Well, there was the shipwreck," she recalled.
"Shipwreck?" Nick's ears pricked up. "That sounds interesting."
She nodded. "It wasn't long before I came out here to get you. This crazy storm just popped up with hardly any warning, and then boom! This ship came out of nowhere and ran itself up on the beach. There was a bear tied to…" Suddenly she stopped, thinking that maybe it wouldn't be best to talk about that part.
Alas, she held her peace in vain. "Bear tied to what?" asked Nick.
Judy bit her lip. "The bear was the captain; the only mammal left aboard. He tied himself to the wheel, and then… he died."
Nick sighed. "Wow, that's… that's awful." He was strangely afraid to ask the next question that came to mind. "Any idea what happened to him?"
With drooping ears, she admitted she wasn't sure. "The newspapers said that the last few days of the logbook talked all about missing sailors and something on board. Apparently the captain was finally the only one left, so he tied himself to the wheel. Guess he thought he had to go down with the ship."
A strange shudder passed through Nick when Judy talked about there being something on the ship. "Did they ever find out what was going on?" he asked.
Judy could do nothing but shrug. "I don't know," she admitted. "I'm guessing it was some kind of disease on board that made everyone crazy. I was pretty busy with Lucy."
"Hmm, that would keep you tied up," he admitted. Orphaned at an early age, Judy had been taken in and raised by a kindly pair of red deer with the name Westenrut. Though she had diligently held onto her original surname through the adoption, she had none the less become very fond of the family that thus chose her. In particular, she had become the bosom companion of their sole progeny, a sweet doe named Lucy. It had been a fortunate friendship for them both, since Lucy had regrettably inherited her father's sickly constitution and needed a companion who could stay by her to pluck up her spirits. Mr. Westenrut had some time back returned to the clay from whence he came, and hardy little Judy had stuck around to keep an eye on Lucy and her aging mother. She even shared a room with Lucy, since neither of them felt like parting company until marriage should draw them away. Indeed, Judy might not have agreed to leave even for Nick's sake if a young doctor – an oryx named Doctor Seward – had not become a close friend of the family and agreed to watch over them.
Of course, Nick's knowledge of this fact raised a significant question. "How is Lucy?" he asked.
Her answer came with a sigh. "She's been…" She hesitated to explain the whole thing. One or two of Lucy's escapades had a terrible prospect of humiliation if they got around, and it wasn't as if the doe could help it. On the other paw, Nick was her closest friend with the possible exception of Lucy, and she knew he would never tell anyone. "She's been sleepwalking."
"Sleepwalking?" asked Nick, blinking a little. "I didn't know she did that."
Judy shrugged. "It comes and goes. She used to do it when she was younger, and for the past couple of months she's been lapsing back into it. One night she went all the way out to the old churchyard, to the seat overlooking the sea cliff."
Nick winced. A young woman in her nightdress that far from home would risk humiliation. "No one saw, did they?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Just her and me, but it got to the point where I had to sleep with the key to the room tied on my wrist. She seems to be doing better, though. She slept just fine for about a week before I got the letter about you. Oh, and she's engaged too."
"Really?" Nick's ears pricked up. The pleasant news piqued his interest. "Who's the lucky guy?"
"Arthur Honewood. Get this: he was the third man to propose to her, all in one day!" Judy's face crinkled with mirth.
He laughed. "I'm not surprised. She's a pretty one."
"Hey!" She scowled playfully, crinkling her nose and putting back her ears.
Nick smiled and slid a paw towards her. "Aw, come on. You know I only go after unattached females."
"You'd better not," she warned with mock severity. Then she remembered something. "Oh, I got a letter from Mother today, actually. I wanted to read it with you around in case it mentioned you."
"Uh-huh. In other words, in case she mentions my rugged good looks?" he asked with smug vanity.
She elbowed him and drew the letter from her purse, proceeding to read aloud.
"I pray that all is well with you and dear Nicholas. I was glad to learn that you arrived safe and well at the abbey. I hope you two are conducting yourselves so as not to bring shame on the worthy sisters there." At this note, Judy cast a glance at Nick, who only smirked. The fox had been playfully dubbed a bad seed by the old doe, and more than once his uncouth ways had raised warnings of scandal if he should go too far. Come to think of it, so had Judy's now and then.
The next words, however, subdued their exchange. When Judy trailed off and her ears drooped, Nick craned his neck to see the letter. It took him a moment to find what had so unsettled the bunny.
Lucy is elated over her marriage, but I worry for her. She's grown weaker since you left, and that fine gentleman Doctor Seward cannot find what's wrong with her. He has sent word to his old mentor, a professor from Germany, who I am told is a man without equal. I must stay calm about all this, for if anything should become of me who knows what it might do to her? You know that you and she are all I have left now that's worth anything.
Nick leaned his ears back. "What's she mean about something becoming of her?" he asked.
She bit her lip before answering. "Mother didn't want Lucy to know, but… her heart's weak, and she's gotten her last notice. She's got maybe two months to live, and any bad shock will… will kill her instantly."
Nick cringed. "Ouch. No wonder she's keeping it hush-hush." He paused anxiously. "How are you taking it?"
"I've known for a while," Judy admitted, wiping her face. "I guess I always knew she wouldn't live to turn gray, but it's… well, it's hard to believe it's happening."
He laid a paw on hers. "I'm sorry." A long pause preceded his next bit of advice. "Listen, I'll be fine here. You go back home and take care of Lucy and your mother."
She hung suspended between loyalties for a long moment before answering. "No. I'm not leaving you behind like this. You're well enough to travel. I'll get us tickets and we'll be back to Zootopia in a few days."
Nick raised an eyebrow. "You're suggesting we travel together?" he asked doubtfully.
Snorting, Judy slapped him on the arm. "Don't push it, sir. This is bigger than propriety and you know it."
She was right about it being bigger than propriety. Alas, she had no idea just how serious it would be.