The cub lay low, its body slowly shivering as it drew in a long steady breath. Its paws lay flat against the soft undergrowth as it scanned the woods for any signs of life. Shade lay all around it as shadows swayed above it in the sun's glare. Its pointed head silently probed inches further into the air, waiting for the chance of prey.
A small movement a couple of feet in front of it made the animal stand completely still, its eyes still focused on the bush ahead. A small squirrel sprinted out of the leafy cover and darted for a tree. The cub saw its chance and leapt, soaring through the air, only to land on soft, empty ground as the little squirrel ran up a nearby tree.
The cub slowly raised its head as it followed the small animal up the trunk and into the safety of the dense leaves. From where the animal was stood now, out in an open clearing, it was obvious what it was. A red fox, still young at around seven months old. He was a male and had a white flash of fur on his chest.
His small furry body was rising and falling after the adrenaline shock that came from the short leap. His eyes were sparkling green and small fangs protruded from his whiskered upper lip. His long jaw ended in large wet, black nose. The fox's fur was a fiery orange, striped with dust and mud. He lifted his head into the sun and stood up. He looked all around at the fresh green of the forest while the damp wet mud tickled his paws.
He jumped sideways into a nearby bush; the last thing seen of him was the white tip at the end of his bushy tail.
Chapter 1- Family
Vulpi sat by the sun-drenched clearing that he had once so inexpertly hunted in. He was older now, as three long summer months had passed by. Another fox, smaller and a vixen sat across from him. Her fur was short and clean and glowed orange like the dying flame of a candle. Her eyes were a misty pool of amber liquid. She had been looking down as Vulpi twitched nervously. Her head came up slowly and she stared at the male fox
"You must think this through" she said in a quiet tone. She sat for a moment then pushed on "you will be deserting your family and your friends"
As she spoke the vixen bent and sniffed at her swollen belly. Vulpi to came forward and lay his head on her shoulder, thinking all the while of the young pups wrestling in her womb.
"I have to go Berin. The pack-meet is an honour"
Berin snapped her head away from his and stared him in the eye. "What part of some old foxes meeting friends and causing trouble for one night a month is honourable?" she questioned loudly into his face.
The vixen turned and walked from Vulpi. She sat a couple of feet in front of him, her backed turned against him. Vulpi sighed and walked slowly towards Berin.
"You will feel better when I return" he whispered into her ear "but I must go"
Berin stayed with her back turned to Vulpi but dipped her head in understanding and acknowledgement. Vulpi turned and ran out of the clearing, casting back one look at his pregnant vix. She sat alone, staring at her stomach, framed by the deep shade of the forest.
Vulpi started his journey at a trot, knowing that if he was to make it to the pack-meet tonight; he must maintain a steady speed. He carried on walking until he reached the edge of the woods, and the edge of his territory. It was common knowledge that foxes were allowed hassle free entry to the meet, but he still felt anxious as his paw crossed over the boundary line. He quickened his pace through the sunlit meadows of flowers and long grass that he had once so happily frolicked in.
Vulpi knew that in ancient times the pack-meet had been used as a safe-haven where foxes and other forest animals could share there worries and problems, and usually receive help. These days however the meet was just used for old friends to catch up and for a bit of light hearted mischief to take place. Vulpi however had a real problem, one that he knew the other animals could not stand by and watch. The food. Everywhere in his forest, and he was sure in others, prey was becoming scarce. It took far longer hunting to achieve the same amount of food. He knew that with a litter of cubs on the way something must be done for the good of his family.
He also had personal reasons for attending the gathering. When he was young, just a pup of a few months, his father told him of all the fun times that took place at the pack-meet and promised that when he was older, they would meet every month there.
He reminiscing was cut short however, as a slight scent on the breeze caught his attention. It had the tang of a wild animal, yet it was laced with the scent of Man' and the more recent scent of a kill. Vulpi was intrigued by the smell and put his nose to the earth. The smell was strong here, indicating that the animal had walked this way. He followed the scent now intoxicated by the heavy smell of blood. Where the scent became strongest he looked up and saw himself facing a thick bush running straight from his left to as far right as he could see. Vulpi knew that inside, the Man' would plant and then collect strange looking brown grass, which was not natural to the forest. Vulpi heard the sounds of eating emerging from the bushes inside. He stepped forwards and boldly stuck his head inside.
"Hello?" he whispered.
A sharp yowling matched with a flurry of claws knocked Vulpi back out of the bush. A strange, coarse voice floated out from the foliage.
"You shall find no petty scraps here, Rag'an"
Vulpi stared in shock as small droplets of blood popped out from his nose. He straightened himself back up and peered closer into the bushes.
"Are you a fox?" he questioned
A single high-pitched laugh at this question.
"Am I a fox?" mimicked the unfriendly voice. "I would rather die than be named a scruffy Rag'an"
Vulpi sat and waited as the sounds of eating subsided. Then the bushes trembled and slowly parted and a long slender cat emerged and sat in front of the fox. He began to lick his paw, while keeping one large, muddy brown eye on Vulpi.
Vulpi stepped forwards with a smile on his face. "So you are a cat then?"
The cat stopped licking and turned his head directly towards Vulpi.
"Must you use such derogatory Man' terms? I am a noble Felis, born of this forest" the cat exclaimed proudly. Vulpi looked round at all the trees.
The cat went on. "Or at least I was a noble Felis, until the obtuse Man' caught me and put me in this odd trap. Now I am just a housecat".
Vulpi noticed the strange green brand that encircled the cats' neck. It was too bright to be natural and it stank of Man'.
The fox looked into the sad eyes of the cat.
"Tell me noble Felis" he began "have you a name?"
The cat jumped up happy to be the centre of attention. "Of course" he proclaimed "I am Shadow, born of this forest, but trapped by the foolish Man" he added dramatically
Vulpi looked at the skinny grey cat and grinned. "The name suits you Shadow" he said quietly. Shadow let a faint trace of a smile cross his face.
"And now for you" Shadow said slowly. The cat got up and walked round Vulpi, sniffing at him. "You are clean, healthy, you have manners and you're funny. You are different from the Rag'ans that usually come looking for food".
The cat paused, and then continued. "I am guessing by the way you are travelling, that you are attending the pack-meet tonight?"
Vulpi jumped up excitedly and yelled at the cat. "Yes!"
The cat paused and waited for Vulpi to sit down again. "There are many things that I wish to discuss there too". Vulpi nodded as he knew of all the things that the cat was talking about.
Shadow looked up at the sky then back down at the fox. "We should be going then"
The cat jumped through the bush as Vulpi followed closely behind.