Chapter 1 - Flight
The little fox was running as fast as his paws would carry him through the snow, as he heard the tracker dogs bark behind him. The humans chasing him would soon get to their horses and catch up to him. And if they got him it would definitely be his end. His only chance was to run west, away from the human's estate and the village, of which the guards by now sure were informed about him escaping, and get to the forest. If he could just reach the woods he would be faster by foot than his pursuers on horses and might be able to get far enough before they track him down.
His paws were already stinging from the freezing cold snow and it neither helped him that he didn't wear anything else than the loincloth, which was barely able to cover him anymore, torn and worn as it was. But he couldn't give up now. Better dying out here in the cold than being killed by the humans for what he had done. And they would kill him, that's for sure.
He had finally reached the edge of the forest. More trees, more bushes and hedges, and more potential hidings and shields, since he had no doubt that they would use their guns on him once they got into range. Suddenly he stopped in all his motions.
Right in front of him stood a human in a similar bewildered pose. One of the guards? No, he was neither mounted nor wore he a sword or carried a rifle. And his chasers would most likely come from the opposite direction. The man neither seemed to be a hunter. No bow, no pray.
All the same! No one would bring him back there. At least not alive. He bared his fangs and claws and snarled a warning towards his opponent. His hot breath created clouds in the cold air. The human himself turned to a defensive pose and drew a knife from his belt. 'This is only one man' the fox thought, 'I can do this. I already did this. I can do it a second time.'
Behind him the tracking dogs' barking grew louder. It's now or never. But as the human heard the dogs, his pose loosened up somewhat. "Are you being chased too?" the man asked. The fox didn't answer and wasn't losing his guard. Then the man turned the knife in his hand around, so that he held it by the blade, and passed it over to the fox. "This way," he said and took off towards the forest.
The fox looked confused at the knife in his paw. 'Being chased too' he thought again. So the human was also on a flight? The now clearly hearable barking interrupted his thoughts. He followed the man. What else choice did he have?
The human ran deeper into the forest, over a small creek and came, after some time, to a hold at a big flat rock. He threw a glance over the area and then started to push at the stone. As the stone slab was shoved aside, it revealed a small dark hole whose bottom the fox couldn't see in the dim evening light under the trees. "Get in there," the human said and again glanced at his surroundings.
"Sure," the fox frowned, looking up at the much taller human.
The man rolled annoyed his eyes and went down the hole himself. "Now get down here," he called after the fox.
He looked at the direction the dogs' barking came from, then at the hole again and thought for a moment. "Fuck," he muttered and climbed down the wooden ladder. The human shoved himself past the fox, pulled the rock back over the hole and thereby locked out the last bit of light the opening had let into the hole.
The hole was pitch black, but the fox of course was able to see in the dark. And he saw how the man was searching something in the lather bag he carried. He still held the man's knife and, for god's sake, if that human made him, he would use it. However he only got out a box of matches and lit one. "This way," he said as he followed down a tunnel. The fox went after him. "At first I thought you were one of the guard's chasers," The man said.
"Yeah," he answered, "They used to use the short ones as chasers, y'know 'cause of their better noses. But as I hear, haha, they're back to regular dogs again."
"We're not short, you're just huge," the fox protested.
"Whatever," he said as he handled the matchbox and the still burning match over to the fox, "hold this." The man took a wooden board from the side of the tunnel and blocked with it the way they just came. "We should be rather save here. They usually don't go underground." No wonder. The tunnel was barely tall enough to stay upright, even for the fox. The human had to almost crawl. A fight with swords or to aim a long rifle down here would be impossible.
"But if they're not gonna follow us, why do you block the exit?" The fox asked while the man positioned a wooden beam between the board and one of the beams on the tunnel wall that held the ceiling.
As soon as the man was done he turned and grabbed the matches, to lit a new one, and went further down into the earth hole. "Because they're dogs do," he answered the question.
The human guided him deeper and deeper into the underground and they came across a lot of forkings and crossings. But the man seemed to know the way, since it didn't look like he had to think about where he had to go. Or maybe he was just hoping to get somewhere. But eventually the two reached a tunnel on whose end a light shine. "Don't say anything and just follow me," the human whispered before they reached the light.
They entered a room somewhat bigger than the tunnels. Walls and ceiling were supported by more wooden beams to prevent the tall earth cave from collapsing. The room in total was about the size of two medium-sized rooms of a regular house, and enlightened by a handful of candles. It was crowded with several untrustworthy looking people. At the far end a rat sat on a table and was sucking on a hookah. Judging by the look of the rat and the smoke cloud that lingered in the room, he must have done so for some time. Next to him a weasel sat in an equally stoned way. To the left of the weasel a grim looking shepherd dog sat smoking a cigarette and to the right of the rat a big muscular human was holding a glass of brown liquid, probably of alcoholic nature. Then there was a small table on which yet another human, a coyote and a fox sat. And they were playing a game of cards. The last one was a passed out dog lying on the floor, still holding an empty bottle in his hand.
God where the fuck did he just ended here?
No one seemed particular surprised to see the human, or the stranger he had bought with him. Those people just continued to talk and smoke. The fox followed the human, as he had told him, to the table on which the rat sat. The human reached into his bag and pulled out a small wrapped something and laid it silently on the table before continuing to one of the little wooden doors, that led away from the main room.
He followed the human into a corridor at whose sides more doors led somewhere. He finally opened the door at the end of the room and went in. The fox followed after him and the man closed the door behind him. Now they were in a small room containing only a sleeping place and a board that was attached to the beams in the wall to serve as a table. "Since I saved your ass," the man said taking off his bag, "I'm gonna take the bed." The bed was only a wooden box filled with dirt, covered by some hay, a linen and a blanket. "What's your name anyway?" the man asked as he sat down on the bed and let out a sigh.
"What's yours?" the fox returned the question, testing the grounds for many more questions he wanted answers for.
"Jack," the human answered.
"I'm Sis," the fox responded to the man's question, "So, Jack... Where exactly are we here?"
Jack was about to take off his shoes and jacket as he fished something out of the pocket of the worn wool jacket and answered, "These are tunnels build by thieves and outlaws to hide from the guards and get around unseen." He gave the little paper box, he took from the jacked, a little nudge and pulled a lighter from it, than another nudge and a cigarette followed. "They reach 'til under the village, into the sewage system," he finished.
"So these friends of yours are thieves and criminals?" Sis asked pointing his thump at the door.
The Human had the cigarette put to his mouth and twitched the lighter to lit it up. "Friends? No. Thieves and criminals? The worst!"
Jack took a draw and puffed out a white cloud of smoke. "I'm a thief too."
"So you were running from the guards?" the fox asked. The human only nodded. "And why did you have to run from them?"
Jack puffed another cloud, held the glowing stick between two fingers and said, "I'll tell you. But I'd like to have that thing back first," he pointed at the knife the fox still held in his hand. He leaned up from his sitting position and reached over to give him the knife. It wasn't like he could beat him down here, with all these guys out there waiting for him, even if he wanted. More so, he had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide and he was exhausted and tired. And this was at least a place where he could rest some. And if Jack had intended to kill him he could have done so already. Or he could have not saved him at all in the first place.
Jack had the cigarette put back to his mouth and grabbed for his bag again. He fished something out and showed it the fox. He was stunned as he looked at a finely manufactured piece of jewelry. It was a necklace made of green diamond-like shaped gemstones. "So," Jack said as he put the necklace back into his bag, "What about you? You sure are not a thief. Otherwise you wouldn't have asked a fellow thief why he was running from the guards. What were you running from?"
The fox felt uncomfortable telling him and rather would keep all of the story to himself. At least for now. But he could tell him at least that, "I escaped from the Dolemans estate."
"Doleman?" the man repeated, "Then you were a slave?"
Sis stared at the floor. "Yeah," he admitted quietly.
"Well, congratulations for getting out of there then."
After the fox didn't reply to that for some time, Jack continued, "So... What you gonna do now? Anywhere to go?"
Sis shook his head. He wanted to change the subject, "Why did you actually help me?"
"Don't know," he said shrugging his shoulders as he pressed the last stump of his cigarette out against the wall. "Maybe I wanted to help you. Maybe I didn't want them to get you so you could send them after me. Maybe I'm just a really nice guy. Who cares?" Jack yet again reached for his bag and pulled out another wrapped package, like the one he had given the rat. He unpacked a loaf of bread and broke it into half. He gestured towards the fox on the floor and asked, "Want some?"
"Thanks," he said and took the bread, "and thanks for your help too."
He waved it off. "If you got nowhere to go," Jack asked, "wanna come with me?"
"With you?" the fox asked confused.
"Yeah," Jack answered, "I'm heading eastward. Tomorrow in fact."
Sis considered this for a moment, "Why would you even want me to go with you?"
"Traveling alone is boring," he said as he swallowed the last bit of his half of the bread, "Besides," he said munching, "you are fast and small. That could come in handy."
"I'm not gonna get a thief!" he insisted.
The human yawned, "No one said ya 'ave to. On the other hand, you're already an outlaw for running away. What do you got to lose?"
Sis thought about that. He couldn't stay here. By tomorrow the whole village would know of his escape, and of what else he did... He could at least travel with him until he was far enough away from here. He was right, he had nothing to lose. He didn't know anyone here, had nowhere to go, no money, not even reasonable clothes. "Ok," he said finally, "I'll come with you."
"Good," he said while he rolled up the blanket and tossed it at the fox, "better get to sleep some. We're gonna head off early tomorrow." And with that Jack rolled himself up into the linen and blew out the candle.
Sis took the blanket and nestled himself into it as good as possible. This was still better than anything he had at the Doleman's. But he really wasn't sure about his whole situation. He had to think of all that had happened today and tried to sleep. But it was tough.