This is a furry story, set in a world where animals live pretty much as humans do in our world. It's not a sex story, although it contains hints of gay love, but a tale of a young fox boy struggling through his daily life on the streets of a big town. To those of you who read my story Autumn Mists; this is the story Robby's siblings were pestering him to tell. Hope you will like it as muh as they did. As a word of warning, I'd like to repeat Robby's words, though: It's not a happy tale.
Any thoughts or comments are most welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org
For more of my stories click here.
The Beggar Boy
A trickle of morning sunlight found its way down to the street, catching a glimpse of reddish-brown fur as a small shape dashed between alleyways. In an hour or so, there would be people everywhere as stores opened and business commenced, but right now almost everything was quiet. The town of Cendaria had not yet woken up, except for the one person who was already up and about. Bug had had a good night; late last night he had found a stable with a rusty old lock that had been easy to pick. He had slept in the hayloft, warm and comfortable even though it had made his nose slightly runny. To top it off, his friend Cay had been able to slip him some leftovers from the café where she had found temporary work. Just a couple of titbits of whatever the previous night's guests had spurned, but it was still most welcome. Bug swallowed a mouthful of cheese, then peered out onto the main street. It seemed empty enough, so he walked briskly towards the Eastern Square. Once the streets were crowded, ducking the town guards would be easy, but right now he felt overly exposed. Footsteps coming from up ahead sent him scurrying towards the nearest alley, just before two surly guards walked by. He cowered behind a trash can as he recognised the larger of the two. The man of some canine breed, and just as mean as he was big. The street kids knew all too well to stay out of his sight at all cost. Getting caught would cost you your hide. Bug hugged his long, fluffy tail to his chest, closing his eyes and praying to whatever gods may be out there that he hadn't been spotted. He held his breath until the footsteps were out of hearing range, then stayed put a little while longer in case they were trying to trick him. When he finally dared to move again, the street was empty once more.
At the square, the first of the stands were just being erected. Bug strolled lazily around, but kept his eyes and ears open for more guards. With a little luck, someone would ask for his help, and he might get a coin or two as thanks. Not that there was much he could do; he was too small and skinny to be any good when it came to hauling goods or set up stands. But on occasion he would get to help in whatever ways he could. Usually as a delivery boy or a messenger. Not today, though. Nobody even glanced at him twice, but rather looked away as soon as they had seen him. This puzzled him, until he found out why when he spotted a poster with a picture on the noteboard. It was a picture of a thin fox face with reddish-brown fur that darkened towards the tip of the muzzle. Ears that flopped slightly, dishevelled nut-brown hair and large dark blue eyes, almost purple. It was no doubt him, and the poster said that he was to be reported to the guards on sight. A beggar, a con man and a thief, it called him, and stated that he would be cast out of town upon arrest. Not likely, he knew, just as everybody who avoided him with their eyes knew. He would not get thrown out until the guards had had their fun with him. And once he found himself back in the countryside, he would be bruised and battered beyond recognition. If indeed he survived at all. Cursing his rotten luck, Bug turned to run, but when he did someone stopped him. He vaguely recognised the equine woman as a shopkeeper who had let him work for her a couple of times in the past.
"Don't let them catch you," she whispered, and he felt a handful of coins slide into his shirt pocket. "Better stay put for a while."
"Thanks, ma'am," Bug whispered back. "I will."
It was too late to disappear back into the alleys, though. Just as Bug started to walk briskly towards the nearest side street, a harsh voice cried out, and he cursed his luck once more. It was the canine he had managed to avoid just minutes ago, the one the street kids all knew as Pain. The cry had quickly summoned more guards, and Bug knew with an icy feeling to his stomach that there was no way to escape. But then there was a commotion just behind him. Two stand owners had confronted the guards there and were shouting at them.
"Can't you just let off!"
"He's just a kid, for guides' sakes! Can't be more than ten!"
Twelve, actually, Bug thought to himself as he seized the opportunity by the tail and hauled it home. He felt a hand grab for him, but it only caught the hem of his shirt. With a cry of triumph, Bug tore himself free, and dashed down the side road and into an alley. The guards were on his heels, though, but now they were on his turf. He took a left turn into a narrow passage between two houses, and then jumped a tall wooden fence. Another left, then down a flight of stairs. There was a drain pipe beneath the stairs, he knew, and he dodged into it. It was a tight fit; in another years this hiding place would be lost to him. The pipe led him to one of the street kids' most secret hideouts. There was a round chamber here, where several pipes converged coming down from the upper parts of town. Someone had told him that it had been built to accommodate the water flow from heavy downpours, but Bug believed that it had been a gift from whoever built the town in some distant, long-forgotten past. A gift to any child who ever needed to get away. He chuckled silently to himself as he heard loud voices just outside, cursing his escape. Someone suggested the pipe, but the answer was the same every grown-up always gave, with some variation.
"Don' be ridiculous, Kadd. Not e'en a maggot could'a fit in there."
* * * * * *
It was almost midday before Bug dared to leave Sanctuary, as the street kids called the place. He would have wanted to leave sooner, because now at the end of summer it was already beginning to get chilly in there. By the time he had gathered up enough courage to start moving, his teeth were clattering. But at least he might eat well that day. He smiled and patted his shirt pocket, but instead of hearing the nice clinketing of coins he froze as all he felt was his own slightly dirty fur. The shirt had torn when the guard grabbed it, and Bug hadn't even noticed! For the third, fourth and fifth time that day, the gods and goddesses of luck were soundly cursed. No choice, then, but to hit the streets again. Bug searched through the pockets of his well-worn shorts before he found what he wanted; a piece of charcoal that would create patterns in his fur and change the colour of his hair, to make him look like a wolf halfbreed.
A few minutes later, he was back on the streets, this time safely hidden in the crowd. Some of the street kids were pickpockets, but Bug had always tried to keep from stealing. Not so much because he felt that it was wrong, more because he relied on other methods to earn his living. His young age, and his even younger looks, usually let him get by. He walked back and forth for a little while, then spotted someone who looked promising. It was a male cougar, well-dressed and seemingly in no particular hurry. Bug matched his stride to that of the man, then made his way up alongside him.
"Good day, sir," he said in a cheerful voice, making it a little bit more high-pitched than it usually was. "Nice weather, isn't it?"
"It sure is." The cougar sounded neither friendly nor hostile, something that made Bug hope for the best. "Still warm, but that'll change soon."
"Yeah. Nights are already cold if you don't got a bed."
"Are you saying you don't?"
"Yes, sir." Bug let his ears droop, then hugged his tail to his chest. That usually worked. "Could you spare some change, sir? Maybe a quarter-marker?"
"For your sick old granma and your little sisters and brothers, I assume?"
"No, sir, for me. I really don't wanna go to sleep hungry tonight, too."
"Well, at least you're honest." The cougar smiled and dug through his pockets, then handed Bug two copper coins. "Here you go."
"Guides bless you, good sir!" Bug fired off his most dazzling smile, and got a bemused one in return. "If only more people were so kind!"
"Yeah, yeah. Easily suckered, you mean?" Bug giggled, and blushed a bit. "Run along now before I change my mind."
Bug smiled again, then took off for the nearest alley, where he stopped to tuck his coins safely away in the inside pocket of his shorts. Half a marker was enough for two meals, or maybe a meal and a hot bath. He would not lose this money. After that he made several unsuccessful approaches, but a kind elderly collie lady gave him a couple of apples.
Just outside the Eastern Square there was an archway, which was more of a bridge between the upper floors of the houses on opposite sides of the street. Bug climbed up there and sat down to watch the people while he ate his apples. There were so many, all so different yet so much alike. And most of them had both a home, a job and a family. He shook his head at the thought. No good would come from being bitter. He was who he was and he had what he had. That was all there was, and it would do no good to complain about it. The weather was good, the apples were sweet and juicy, and he had two coins which he once more touched through the thin fabric of his shorts. Life was good.
It had begun to darken the next time Bug hit success. A well-dressed wolf had stopped right in front of him, scratching his chin and looking about as if trying to find his way. Bug saw out of the corner of his eye that Snack, another of the street kids, had also spotted this opportunity, but with his quick feet he beat her to it.
"Need a guide, good sir?" he asked, cheering inwards as he saw Snack curse him and turn away. "I know my way around town, could show you anywhere."
"I need to find a soldiers' house, which is supposed to be around here." The stranger had a deep, almost growling voice, and he had an angry look to his face. Bug began to feel a bit uncertain. "This map I got ain't exactly helping."
"I know the place, good sir." Bug took a step back as he was fixed with an unfriendly stare. "Could show you there."
"At a price, of course."
"Well, kindness don't fill my stomach, good sir. A half-marker will get you there in ten minutes."
"I don't have any coins." The wolf's eyes softened somewhat as he scratched his chin again. "Nor any minutes to spare, really."
"Well, it is a bit of a walk."
"Tell you what, son." He reached in underneath his cloak and brought out a roll of parchment. "You deliver this to Kami the Knight Captain, and I'm sure she'll give you a coin for your trouble."
"It's not bad news, is it?" Bug asked, staring suspiciously at the parchment. "Bad news is rarely rewarded, good sir."
"No, just a letter from mommy," the wolf scowled, then laughed at Bug's bewildered look. "It's not your business what it is, nor mine. It's sealed, and it stays sealed, clear?"
"Give it to Kami and nobody else, got that?"
"Get going, then! I've got a meeting at the scented houses."
Bug took off at a run. The soldiers' encampment lay just around the corner, although he would have led the wolf on a much longer tour. Shortcuts didn't merit much payment. As he neared the door to the place he paused, thinking if it weren't for the best to just toss the message in through a window and leave. Soldiers weren't as bad as guards, but some of them could be quite nasty. Especially if news or orders weren't to their liking. Was it worth a half-marker to find out what this Knight Captain Kami was like? He touched his coins again; he already had two meals secured. On the other hand, one full marker's worth would buy him a meal, a bath and a room at one of the cheaper inns. The temptation of a real bed was impossible to resist. He walked up to the door, swallowed the lump in his throat and knocked. The canine soldier who opened didn't see him at first, but then looked down at the now slightly trembling fox kit.
"No beggars here," he growled. "Get lost or I'll have your pelt!"
"I h-have..." Bug's voice failed him, and he had to start over. "I have a message, sir. For Knight Captain Kami."
"Hand it over."
"Sir, I was supposed to give it to her in person, sir." Bug's ears lay pressed flat against his skull as he eyed the surly soldier. Any second now, he felt certain, he would get beaten. "I had to promise I would, sir."
"Hmph! All right, then." The soldier stepped aside to let Bug through, but grabbed his arm as he passed. "But no tricks."
"No, sir." The iron grip made Bug whimper. "I swear, sir."
The soldier let him go, then called for a stable boy to take him to the Knight Captain's room. Bug followed the boy, a rowdy-looking cat a few years older than him, keeping quiet and unobtrusive. After a minute or two, the stable boy stopped at a massive oak door and tapped it.
"Messenger to see you, sir."
"Let him in."
The cat opened the door and ushered Bug inside, then left. Bug was left facing a tall fox woman in her mid-forties. The fur on the side of her face was beginning to grey, but her muscular body and her steely eyes told him that she was in her prime. His knees turned weak with fear as she stared at him without speaking, and he almost tripped on his own feet as he walked up and handed her the roll of parchment.
"Ah, good. I have been waiting for this." Her voice was surprisingly mild, but her eyes were hard. She took the message and opened it, then read in silence. When she looked up she seemed surprised to see Bug. "Are you still here? Off you go, son. This is none of your business."
"Wait, ma'am," Bug whimpered as she took him around the shoulders and pushed him out the door. "The guy who gave me the message..."
"Will get what's coming to him, yes. He will learn that you don't just hand things like this over to anybody!"
"Ma'am, please! He said... he said that... that you would p-pay."
"Did he?" She fixed Bug with an angry glare that made him cringe. "Well, that's out of the question! If I give you silver I'll soon have every street urchin in the entire Eastern Sector on my doorstep with forgeries and fakes."
"Oh, all right!" She sighed. "Go to the kitchen and tell chef Arine to give you supper. After that, don't even think of coming back unless you bring a real message."
"Wouldn't dream of it, ma'am," Bug said, trying a smile and getting at least a non-hostile stare in return. "Thank you, good ma'am!"
"Just so you know, officers are honoured as 'sir', whether women or men. Keep that in mind!"
Kami pushed him out of the door and closed it behind him. Bug leaned against the wall and let out a deep breath. That had been a little more scary than he had hoped for. And no money, to boot... Well, at least he would get a good meal, and he could use his two coins to get a room with a bath. With a little luck, the innkeeper might even be kind enough to let him have needle and thread to mend his torn shirt. He straightened up and started moving back towards the entrance. It would be bad if he were caught loitering inside an encampment. He found the same soldier who had let him in and stammered something about getting supper, and the man laughingly pointed him towards the mess hall. There were soldiers all around going to and fro, or sitting at tables with loaded plates. The smells coming from the kitchen made Bug's stomach growl, and he licked his lips. Just as he was gathering up courage to approach the counter, someone grabbed him around the neck. It was a huge, fat bear, who snarled at him viciously.
"What are you doing here, you filthy boy?" Bug could only whimper, because his windpipe was squeezed almost shut. "Get out before I cook you!"
"A-are you chef Arine?" Bug almost whispered. "K-knight Captain K-kami said I could have supper here, sir. I de-delivered a message to her."
"As if we give away free meals! That woman is far too soft for her own good!" He dropped Bug to the floor and kicked at him. "Get out!!"
"P-please, sir!" Bug cried. The smells coming from the kitchen were almost driving him mad. He thought of something, then fished out his money. Bed and bath would just have to wait. "Please, sir, I... I can pay for it. Look!"
"Well, what do you know." The bear smiled, but it was not a warm smile. "And whose coins were those, if I may ask?"
"I got them from a kind gentleman. Sir, please!"
"Hmm." Chef Arine seemed lost in thought for a moment, then he held out his hand. "All right, if you pay, then I guess I could help you out. Come with me."
Bug's near-purple eyes lit up, and he licked his lips as he handed over his money, then followed the fat man to the back of the mess hall. Chef Arine opened a door to a hallway which seemed to lead to storage rooms. They walked down this corridor and stopped in front of a closed door.
"You can't eat with the soldiers. You understand that, right?"
"Yes, sir," Bug replied meekly. He didn't quite understand, but guessed it had to do with him being a street kid, dirty and still with spots of charcoal in his fur. "Thank you, sir."
"Here you go." The bear opened the door, and Bug froze, puzzled as he stared out into a deserted alleyway. "Well, go on!"
"Said I'd help you out, didn't I?" He kicked Bug in the back, and the boy fell out and landed hard on his face. "I'll give you some advice for your money, kid. Don't bother your betters! Now get out of my sight, or I'll kill ya!"
Bug clambered to his feet and ran, with the bear's laughter ringing in his ears and shame and humiliation burning on his cheeks, along with the scrapes had had got from falling. As if this were not enough, two guards spotted him as he left the alley, and immediately gave chase. Bug was able to shake them off pretty soon, though, but when he finally stopped his lungs were burning from running so hard. His stomach was growling at him for not fulfilling the promises made by all those wonderful smells, and the pocket where his coins had been weighed him down with their heavy emptiness. Without really knowing where he was going, he let his feet guide the way until he found himself down by the river which ran through Cendaria. Bug knew that it had a name, a long name in some forgotten tongue, but he could not recall what it was. He walked up to the nearest bridge and crept into a small area just above the water. His heart turned to ice when he recognised the place. This was where...
No! He could not allow himself to think about Pan, not now. Not with every bad thing that had happened to him that day. It was dark now, and had started getting really cold, so Bug hugged his tail to his chest and tried to get some sleep. It had been a lot colder that night... No, mustn't think of that. He focused on his near-empty stomach and the pain in his face, and this occupied his mind for a while. But sleep eluded him, and in its stead came the dreadful knowledge that he was about to start crying. Street kids shouldn't cry! Tears were signs of weakness, end the weak ones died! Bug wasn't weak. He had been a street kid for a long time now, longer than most of the others. And only once before had he cried, since he had got his street name and become one of the outsiders, the outcasts.
The sight appeared before his mind's eye, so vivid that he could not refuse it. It was a little over a year ago that the new boy had arrived. A tiny goat boy with a black eye, dried blood around his nose, torn clothes, a story nobody asked to hear and a name nobody cared to know. They had called him Pan, and he had been totally smitten with Bug from the start. Bug had at first reluctantly accepted his new protégé, but had soon learned to tolerate the little guy. They had become inseparable, and soon begun calling each other 'brother'. Acceptance had become fondness, and fondness soon became love. By now the hated tears had started running down Bug's cheeks. He knew which memory was next. The clock tower. The two of them had run into and just barely escaped Pain and his most feared guard bullies; by sheer luck they had found an unlocked door leading into the clock tower of the Eastern Sector's town hall. There they had spent two nights, lying pressed tightly together even though it wasn't very cold, and they had also shared their first and only kiss. The next morning, Pan had been gone, leaving only a note saying 'Not again'. Bug hadn't cried then, but had spent most of that autumn looking for his little brother. To no avail. Then, all of a sudden, just as the weather changed into the coldest winter in memory, Pan returned. He had been badly beaten, and was bleeding out of the corner of his mouth. His clothes were torn to shreds. Bug searched long for someplace warm, but all barns and sheds and stables had been locked, and nobody had been willing to let them into their houses. In the end, they had found this place underneath the bridge. They had talked some, without really saying anything, then Pan had finally gone to sleep, shivering and with his breath ragged and unsteady. Bug had held him all through the night, trying to shield him from the chill, but in the morning the tiny body had been as cold and pale and still as the snow around them. Then, Bug had cried.
* * * * * *
He woke up with a start, not even remembering having fallen asleep. Something had been stirring in his dreams and made him feel both sad and scared, but he couldn't recall what it had been. The cold made him shiver, or perhaps it was something else. He reached up and touched the matted fur of dried tears on his cheeks and on the white tip of his tail, which he was still hugging tightly. It was still dark, even though he could see some light trickling down from the town above him. They were all sleeping, warmed by fires and nice big blankets. All well-fed without knowing what it was like to be so hungry it hurt. New tears welled up in Bug's eyes, but he fought them back. He had been weak enough for a lifetime! It would do no good to cry. Pan was still dead and Bug was still hungry and frozen. Wailing like a little kit could not change that. He thought about leaving the bridge to try and find some warmer place to hide and sleep, but changed his mind when he felt how stiff his joints were. It was maybe a couple more hours until dawn, and then he would see if he could get himself something to eat. This time he managed to keep his mind from going to unpleasant places, and he fell into a dreamless slumber.
Next time he woke up someone was shaking his shoulder. He shied back before he realised that it was just Snack. He let her pull him to his feet, then stretched and flexed his sore muscles while he waited to see what she wanted.
"Did that guy give you anything? Last night, I mean?"
"No," Bug muttered surly. "Just a message to deliver, and... well, it came to nothing."
"Hungry?" He nodded. "Come with me, I got real lucky this morning!"
Bug followed her up to and across the bridge, then down a steep alley leading to the lower side of the Southern Sector. He felt thankful; she had seen his tear-streaked face, but had said nothing. Snack was a feline mix-breed, with grey and black striped fur, a mop of dark hair and a round, friendly face. The two of them had been friends for a couple of years now, ever since she had left her name and her life behind to become a street kid. They were about the same age, even though Snack looked older because she wasn't as small as he. She now led him through a narrow passage between two houses, to a place he hadn't seen before. So this was where she went when she needed to get away. It must have been an inner garden, shaped like a triangle by the three houses that bordered it, but it was obvious that nobody used it. Grass grew wildly there, and some kind of low shrubbery that Bug did not recognise, In one corner, Snack had cleared out a place for herself and made a nest with some blankets and filled with various trinkets she had gathered. There was also a basket filled with bread that was so freshly baked it steamed the chilly morning air. Bug's stomach growled at the smell of it, setting them both off giggling.
"It fell off a bread cart," she explained. "Nobody saw it except me. Want some?"
"Yes, please!" He happily accepted a roll of white bread and bit into it. It was warm, and tasted sweet. "Pity you don't have some wine and cheese."
"Don't be a greedy little Bug." They laughed. "I'm gonna bring some to Chirp later on. You wanna come?"
"Sure," Bug mumbled around a mouthful. "You're such a good friend."
"Well, I couldn't eat all this before it went stale, anyway. Besides, I still remember that watermelon you got."
"I still remember the stones you spat in my face."
"Yeah, that was fun! What are you gonna do today?"
"Dunno. Hit the square, I guess. Gotta take it easy a couple of days."
"I saw the poster." She leaned over and touched his shoulder. "Bug, you have to be careful. They say you stole a whole purse of gold!"
"What?" He laughed. "Would I still be here if I had gold? I'd be out of this guideless town so fast my tail'd fall off."
"I know. But it's still what they say. You know what they do to thieves." She shuddered. "Remember that guy from Westtown?"
"Yeah. But I won't end up like that!" He took another bite of bread, and spat crumbs while he talked. "I bet you anything that gold is in Pain's pocket. He's just blaming me 'cause of that time when me and..."
He fell silent, his face growing pale beneath his fur. He fought hard to keep his breathing steady, but still gasped when Snack touched him lightly. Her face was filled with both concern and understanding.
"That bridge..." she whispered. "Wasn't that where..."
"Are you sure you're all right?"
"I will be. It's just... I thought about him last night."
"Yeah. And I think I dreamed about him, too."
"Come on." She got to her feet and pulled him with her, then handed him a couple of sugar rolls. "Here. Let's eat while we walk."
They slowly made their way back into the Eastern Sector, keeping their eyes and ears on alert against guards. Bug was glad that she hadn't pressed him to say more. The memories hurt enough as it was. At the square, they paused to look around carefully before sneaking over to a dead-end alley where Chirp's place was. The squirrel boy had his hideout on a third floor balcony where the branches of a tree had grown so close to the house that they blocked the door from inside the house. To a street kid who could climb, though, it was easily accessible. The people who lived in the house didn't even know about the guest just outside. As they climbed up the tree, Bug thought about himself. He was one of the few street kids who didn't have a special hideout. He had many places that he knew of, and where he often stayed, but no one spot like his two friends. There had been the bridge, but he usually avoided it if he could. Chirp was ecstatic about the bread they had brought him, and just couldn't stop thanking Snack. He was a happy, ever-smiling boy with a thin grey-furred body. The two friends listened as he chattered on about how he had almost got a job at a warehouse, but how at the last minute the workman had decided that he needed someone a tad stronger. How Chirp could talk incessantly while eating was beyond anybody's guess. After they left the balcony, Snack grabbed Bug by the shoulders and pinned him to the wall. Although slightly older, he was too little to put up a fight.
"Listen, Bug," she said, her face dead serious. "I don't want you out there today. Not tomorrow, not for a good while."
"Shut up. Bug, you're my friend, and I don't wanna see you get hurt. Go back to my place and wait there."
"Shut up. Eat more bread if you want. I'll find us something better for supper. Okay?"
"You're not gonna take care of me like I'm just a kit!"
"No, I'm gonna take care of you like you're my friend and in danger. You can pay me back the day I'm the one who is wanted." He opened his mouth to protest, but she quickly shushed him. "Shut up. It's decided. I've got a few favours to claim. We'll eat well tonight. And you could use a warm place to sleep."
"How about the Queen's bed chamber?" Bug muttered. "She could bathe me in hot water and scented oils while she fed me grapes and roasted chestnuts."
"If you need a bath go jump in the river." She laughed at his dour look. "So what if you're a little dirty? So am I."
"I noticed." He pinched his nose. "If I stink as bad as you do the guards could smell me anywhere I go. Might as well hand myself in."
"Don't talk like that! You'll get through this. If you're just smart enough to accept the help of a friend when it's offered."
"Yeah, you're right." He sighed. "It's just... I don't wanna be weak."
"You're not weak, you're wanted!"
"I cried last night."
"I know. Don't you think I cried when I heard about poor Pan? I still do, some times. The rest of us loved him, too, you know."
"It wasn't just that." Bug sat down, leaning against the wall. "It was everything. I let it get to me, and then when I realised that I had gone just there..."
"It gets to us all sometimes." She sat down next to him and offered a shoulder which he gladly rested his head on. "I saw my sister last week."
"I didn't know you had a sister."
"I don't. At least not anymore. Not now that I'm just Snack."
"So, what happened?"
"She was dressed in finest cotton. Just the kind of blue half-long dress I would've loved to wear. And she looked so well-fed, too."
"Did you talk to her?"
"No way! Snack hates her guts for what she did to the old me. I would have killed her if we'd been alone. Instead I went home and cried because of the unfairness."
"Poor Snack." Bug touched her arm, and she sighed, pressing herself closer to him. They sat like that for a little while, then Bug got up. "I'll see you back at your place."
"Great! Look out for guards, don't eat all the sugar rolls, don't touch the teddy bear and please try not to pee in my yard."
"Got it, sir!" They both laughed. "You be careful, too."
"I don't have to, I'm cute!"
* * * * * *
That became a very long day for Bug. He wasn't used to doing nothing, and he was soon bored out of his skin. It only took a few minutes to explore all there was to see in the little 'courtyard'; there really wasn't much to see. The houses had no windows facing that way, and even Snack's stash of stuff could only keep him occupied for a little while. He sighed, then pondered going for a stroll, to see if he could scrape up some money, but he decided against it. He had promised to be a good boy and stay low. It was perhaps safe, but also very boring. There was no sunlight in there, so he soon started to freeze. The pile of blankets looked quite inviting, and he soon purred with delight as he wrapped himself in warmth, hugged his tail to his chest and let his consciousness begin to drift. He was still lost in a haze of thoughts and memories that didn't quite form when Snack returned. To Bug's surprise it had already begun to darken. He opened his mouth to apologise for the teddy bear being wedged between him and his tail, but the smell that grabbed his nose and yanked him to his feet whisked all else out of his mind. Snack had brought a pot of steaming beef stew, and while she rummaged through her belongings to find a bowl and two spoons Bug did his best to inhale the food through his nostrils. She laughed at him as he leaned over the pot with his tiny black nose twitching madly, his eyes closed and a happy humming sound in his throat, then she filled the bowl and sat down to eat. Bug's mouth was watering so badly that he just sat there at first, spoon in hand and licking his lips over and over again. But when he saw Snack tuck in he quickly followed suit. It took two more bowls before they were both full, and even then the surprises weren't over. Snack held up a bag of boiled sweets, and nearly doubled over with laughter at the ecstatic look on Bug's face as he tasted one.
It took them most of the evening to finish the rock-hard, fruit-flavoured sugar-powdered sweets, and by then Bug was almost beginning to feel queasy from eating too much. They wrapped themselves in the blankets and leaned against each other, looking up at the tiny patch of the starry night sky that was visible overhead. Even though he had stayed still most of the day, Bug soon started yawning widely. He wasn't really tired, however, so he just enjoyed the company of his dear friend, listening to every word as she spoke.
"I went to see Diamond, you know, from the Three Bells inn. I saved her son once when he got into trouble with the guards. She's said I can ask anything of her, anytime, so I begged her for something to eat."
"Make sure you thank her from me, too."
"I already did. The stew's leftovers from the inn, but it'll keep 'til breakfast."
"And the sweets?"
"A gift from the kid. He works at a delicatessen now."
"Great! Make him owe you more favours."
"Well, he did say I could rescue him any day." They laughed. "I think he's got a kind of crush on me."
"Well, he blushed all red around the ears when I kissed him." This made Bug laugh so hard he rolled over and fell out of the makeshift bed. "Hey, I thought you'd get jealous!"
"Not a chance!" Bug managed between fits of laughter. "You're my best friend, and friends don't get jealous."
"Oh well," she sighed. "Can't fault a girl for trying."
"Guess not." He got up off the ground and returned to the blankets. "Do you wanna kiss me?"
"You don't have to let me kiss you just 'cause I'm helping you."
"I know," Bug whispered. He sat up and put his hands on her shoulders. "But you can still kiss me."
Snack's whiskers twitched as she leaned slowly closer to Bug. He watched as she closed her eyes, then pressed her lips against his. Her hands went around his neck, and they held each other close while they kissed. When she finally broke the kiss and leaned back their eyes met, and they both broke into fits of giggles.
"That was not like I had expected," she sniggered. "It was like kissing a baby brother, not a boyfriend."
"Hey, I'm older than you!" Bug's faked indignation made her laugh even more. He licked his lips. "You taste like powdered sugar."
They kept talking and laughing long into the night, and Bug learned more about Snack than he had ever known, except of course for what had happened before she was Snack. In return, he told her about his own life as Bug, not even leaving out the nights in the clock tower with Pan and their kiss, which had been very different from the one he had just shared with her. For the second night in a row, he would have to go to sleep with his cheek fur matted with tears. To his surprise, Snack was crying as well.
"That's so sad," she sobbed. "Everybody knew how much he loved you. Why did he leave?"
"I never found out." Bug's voice was just a thin, meek whisper. "He couldn't talk much after he came back. And then he... he..."
With that, the dam burst. Last night's tears had been mostly for himself, but now he cried for Pan, and for what might have been. He even cried a bit for Snack, for not being able to be the boyfriend she so clearly wanted. She held him for a long time, letting his tears flow and sometimes joining in them, but mostly just comforting a friend in need. It was almost dawn before they fell asleep.
The next few weeks were a very happy time for Bug. He and Snack had found a new level of friendship that no longer held any uncertainties. They were the very best of friends, no more and no less. She left him in her little nest in the morning, then returned a couple of times a day to talk to him, to bring him food and drink, or just to be with him for a couple of hours. The posters were soon gone, and even though he was still careful Bug started taking short walks while the streets were crowded. The guards no longer seemed to be on the hunt for him, and Snack could soon report rumours that the gold had been found in the house of an adult thief. So the street kids were a bit more safe, at least for now. The two of them helped each other find temporary jobs, beg for coins in the streets or for food in the square, and to find new things for their yard. For Bug had moved in with his friend. After the dangerous days, neither of them felt like parting ways, and Bug was reluctant to go back to sleeping outside after spending a few nights among warm blankets. They managed to buy a couple of cheap, soft pillows at the square, and Bug begged his way to a bag of flower seeds from a merchant, which they planned to plant in the yard came spring. They kept themselves quite well fed now that they worked as a team, and even managed to get some warm clothes in time for winter. It was a happy time for Snack as well, at least as far as Bug could tell from her ever-present smile and her clear laughter that was often heard when they lay talking to each other at night. Not to mention when they decided to spend some of their money on a bathhouse visit. Splashing around in hot pools, shuddering together under cold showers or just playing with other kids in what seemed like a huge indoor lake had been so much fun for them that the owner had threatened to throw them out if they didn't calm down. Bug had thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of being clean, while Snack had more enjoyed the playing. That night, Bug just couldn't stop smelling his own fur, so delightfully free from grease and stains. He even took Snack's hand and held it up to his nose, breathing in deeply while purring happily. This had caused her to laugh until her stomach hurt. After a while, it had been as if they had always lived together, and Bug even started thinking about if this was what it was like to be married. If so, then he wouldn't mind, but he kept such thoughts to himself. It wouldn't do to give Snack any ideas. Better to enjoy this happiness while it lasted.
It lasted until just before autumn gave way to winter. Until the night when Snack didn't come home.
* * * * * *
Winds had been hard all day. The snow had started falling an hour before midnight, yet Bug didn't give up until it was well past two in the morning. He wrapped his coat closer around his shoulder to keep him warm from the raging storm. The streets were totally deserted, and the person he had been waiting for didn't show up. Dejected, he decided to go back home. He still thought about the little yard as home, even though it hadn't felt like it during the last month. The roof he had put up to protect the nest from snow had collapsed in the wind, and he sighed to himself as he put it up again. This would be a cold night, despite the blankets, the pillows and the teddy bear he now hugged every night along with his tail, for comfort. Only after he had taken his clothes off and buried himself in blankets did he realise that he had forgotten to eat that day. It happened now and then. He was often so busy searching that all else escaped his mind. The other street kids had long ago given up on helping him, even Chirp who had tried his best to stay loyal. They had all done their best to make him accept the cruel fact.
Snack was dead.
Yet he refused to give up. He had even raided the town hall; a very dangerous mission since the place was always guarded. But even though he had gone through all the records of arrests, evictions and death he had found nothing that revealed what had happened to his friend. This was nothing unusual, which Chirp and the others had tried time after time to tell him. Bug knew with his mind that street kids often disappeared without notice, but his heart refused to accept this. His heart wanted to know what his head already knew. He felt the teddy bear against his naked stomach; he had forgotten to ask Snack if it had a name, and he didn't want to give it one in case she came back.
The first two days had been agony. Bug had waited at the yard, desperate to go and search for her yet afraid that she would come back while he was gone and miss him. Days passed, turned to weeks, yet he found nothing. The guards would surely have bragged if they had managed to kill a street kid without getting caught, yet he had heard nothing. Every night was sheer agony. The loneliness that had been comfort to him was now like having a hole in his heart. The other street kids were friends, true, but his relationship to Snack had been special. All the more so after she had taken him in, and especially after the night when they had tried to kiss as lovers. He sighed and squeezed his tail closer around the teddy bear. If she would only come back, he would gladly try to be her lover. Would do anything to make her stay. He often thought about love on nights like this one, when the solitude gnawed at the tough Bug and tried to get to the person beneath. The person he had been. The soft one who would surely die without Bug there to protect him.
He had had another name then, a name that was now lost. His small body and quick movements had given him a new one. A better one. One that wasn't supposed to break from things like hunger and cold and loneliness and loss. He cried for hours before he finally succumbed to a restless sleep. That day had seen his last hope to ever find out what happened come and go. He had managed to set up a meeting with Pain himself, the most vicious and ruthless of the guards. On neutral ground, both alone, on the square at midnight. Yet there had been no sign of the large canine, not even the deathtrap that Bug had half feared and half been hoping for. To end it all.
The next morning the town was in complete chaos. Three guards had been found dead at the square in the Eastern Sector, and every street kid was wanted for questioning or possibly murder charges. One of the guards had been Pain, the one who had half hinted to Bug that he knew something about Snack, and who had agreed to meet him to talk about it despite his legendary hatred for street kids. The news was a total shock for Bug, and he even found himself feeling sorry for the guards. Partly to try and help, and partly to try and avoid being hunted, Bug wrote a note telling what he knew, that he had been waiting for Pain who never showed up, and that he had been at the square until after two in the morning without seeing anything. He signed the note with his mark, a drawing of a ladybug with half-raised wings and six black dots on its shell, then slipped it under the door to the Guard Captain's office before dashing back to his shelter. Apparently other street kids had done the same, because the number of wanted-posters dwindled rapidly over the next few days. Surely, Bug thought, even the guards would be smart enough to know that not even sixty street kids together would be enough to kill three fully armed guards. Their deaths remained a mystery, and in time the gossip began to die down.
So did Bug's obsession with finding out Snack's fate. He slowly but surely began to accept the fact that he would never see her again. As long as she was not found, though, a shred of hope remained within his heart that she had found a better life. Been adopted, found a job out of town or even got married. Anything that was better than life in the streets. When spring came, he planted his flower seeds in the yard that was now his home, and as they grew he sometimes whispered to them at night, telling them about the girl who had owned the land they grew on. The girl he would have given them to once they were big enough to pick.
Summer arrived, and Bug's life was slowly returning to normal. With the help of the other street kids, he got rid of his depression and was soon out there dodging guards and making a living from begging or running errands again. As before, he got by from day to day, sometimes going to bed hungry but usually at least somewhat fed. Even the emptiness inside his heart began to lift. He spent some time with Chirp and Tap, a young mouse boy who had moved in from the countryside, accepting their offer of comfort and friendship, but mostly he kept to himself. Just as he had done before meeting Pan, and then again before moving in with Snack.
* * * * * *
"Copper coin to spare, sirs?" Bug smiled his warmest and crouched his legs slightly to look smaller. "Tenth-marker for the poor and hungry?"
He was trotting along next to a young wolf boy, not much older than himself, who was in the company of a huge horse man. The latter had a massive battle axe strapped to his back, and Bug was more than a little scared of him. But the wolf had kind eyes, and smiled as he turned to his friend.
"I'll see what I can find for you." He rummaged through the horse's pocket and came up with a shining silver coin. "Here you go, little one."
"Sir!" Bug cried out. "You must be mistaken, this is a five-marker!"
"Not at all, get yourself a nice, hot dinner tonight."
"Thank you so much, kind sirs!" Bug whirled around, squealing with delight. "Guides bless you!"
"I'm sure they will," the wolf said, smiling. "I'm sure they will. Now, off you go."
Bug obeyed, vanishing into the crowd, but not before he had heard the large equine mutter something about 'always so generous with other people's money'. He seemed more bemused than angry, though. Bug pressed the coin to his lips and kissed it loudly. It would keep him fed for more than a week, maybe even allow him to buy a couple of firecrackers for the Midsummer feast. It was only a couple of days away, and it was also the day when Bug would turn thirteen. Or at least he thought he would. He wasn't entirely certain that Midsummer's Day was his birthday, but he always celebrated it as if it were. Yes, he would be thirteen, but he was still as small and scrawny as he had been when he was ten. Well, never mind. He shook his head, too happy about his newfound wealth and too busy whispering blessings to the kind wolf and his friend to bother his mind with problems that weren't problems. It was a good thing to be little; it made people more likely to give.
It was a good birthday for Bug. Probably the best one he had ever had. He treated Chirp and Tap to dinner at the Three Bells, at a slight discount because he had been Snack's friend, then the three of them set off the fireworks he had bought. They gave him a leather necklace with a small silver pendant in the shape of an eagle, which he assumed that they had bought but didn't ask. Tap ran off to his hideout and returned with a bottle of wine, which they shared while watching the Midsummer dance at the square, and the ensuing fireworks display. Bug was a very happy boy when he went to bed that night. A very happy teenager, he corrected himself. He felt slightly tipsy from the wine, even though it hadn't been very strong and he hadn't drunk much. The sky was clear, and he lay underneath his blankets and counted stars while he waited for sleep. Thirteen. It was almost impossible to believe. When he had first become a street kid, and was still getting used to being Bug, he had only been six. Thirteen had seemed like aeons away; in fact, at first he had doubted that he would even live to be seven. But he had prevailed. Bug had saved him, and he had returned the favour by becoming Bug so fully that he could no longer remember what he had been called before. He could barely remember the before at all. He was Bug and he was now thirteen, and that was all he was. Except that the bed seemed unusually empty that night. Snack had never told her his birthday, or if she even celebrated one, and neither had Pan. He decided that this day was good enough for them as well, so he saluted the stars and wished Snack a happy thirteenth and Pan a happy eleventh. It should have made him sad, he thought as he let himself sink deep among the blankets, yet he still felt happy. Happy that he had come to know and love two such wonderful people, and that they had loved him back. He slept peacefully that night.
* * * * * *
Winter came early that year. Not with cold, but with lots and lots of snow. Thick, wet layers that covered everything and refused to melt. Bug tried his best to keep his nest free from snow, but every night when he came home there was more of it. The little roof did not hold for very long. All he could do was to brush his blankets clean, then burrow deeply beneath them to stay warm. The weather made people less eager to walk the streets, too, which meant that it was hard for the street kids to make a living. Bug was hungry more often than not, yet he knew that he was luckier than most. He had a warm place to sleep, thanks to Snack, and he had warm clothes, also thanks to Snack. The square was mostly deserted these days, but sometimes the shop owners took pity on the smallest kids. On such occasions, Bug thanked all the higher deities he could think of that he was still so small. He tried his best to share what he managed to scrape together with Chirp, and more so with Tap, who had never seen such a winter from the street point of view before. But he could only do so much. It was foolish to give more than he could spare, even though it tore at him whenever he had to tell the little mouse that he had nothing more to share. In the end poor Tap gave up. Bug saw it happen; two guards had spotted them when they were coming out of a grocery store with a strip of dried meat each, but when Bug ran Tap stayed where he was and let himself get caught. The store owner, upon hearing the guards sneer at Tap and tell him that hungry wild wolves would be waiting for him outside the gates, stepped up and accused him of stealing the meat. Bug thanked him later, because even though Tap was sent to prison at least he wouldn't starve or freeze to death.
As the winter raged on, Bug began to hear worrying news. In the Northern Sector, five street kids had gone missing since the first snow, and three more in the Western Sector. Everybody knew that street kids vanished now and then, but eight in just over a month? Chirp and a wolf girl called Stripes sneaked into the large town hall, but found no records of deaths or arrests. Even the guards seemed puzzled by this, although not bothered, judging from what Bug and others overheard while hiding out of their way. The street kids grew more and more anxious as New Year approached, as two more of them had disappeared right there in the Eastern Sector. They rarely went out of their hiding places alone, and Bug teamed up with Chirp for most of their forages into the streets or to the square or to the shops. At night, they slept together, either in Bug's nest or up on Chirp's balcony.
A few days after the New Year had been celebrated, the two of them were down at the river, where a fishing boat had just come to dock. Anybody who helped hauling crates was likely to get a coin or two, or at least a fish for their troubles. The two boys worked as hard as they could, which in Bug's case was not very much. His mind was occupied with dark thoughts, though, so he was able to ignore his aching back and arms. It was the same for Chirp, although the squirrel boy did his best to keep up his usually high spirits. The New Year's feast had not been a good one for the street kids. They didn't dare to attend the festivities, and the ones who did, including Stripes, had not been seen again. They were all in danger now, and both Bug and Chirp knew that it was foolish to work out in the open like this. But they were hungry, and the promise of fresh fish was more than enough to brave the danger. After more than half a day of hard work, the boat was finally unloaded, and the kind captain gave them a half-marker coin and two fish each. Thanking her most politely, the boys took off at a run. No guards were in sight, though, nor any others who might look suspicious. Bug wanted to hurry back to his place to light a fire and start cooking the fish, but Chirp wanted to stash away his coin first, saying that they would meet at the nest. Bug watched the bushy winter grey tail disappear around a corner, and crossed his fingers hoping that he hadn't seen his friend for the last time. He started walking back towards the nest, keeping to the moderately crowded streets rather than using the back alley shortcuts where nobody could see him. It was getting late, and he let the shops' windows distract him, pondering whether or not he should buy a loaf of bread before he hurried home. He didn't notice the stranger until he felt a hand touch his shoulder. With a yelp of fear, he jumped, then backed up against the baker's window, hoping someone inside would see him and come to help. The stranger didn't look dangerous, though. It was a Raccoon male, maybe in his mid-forties, dressed like a rich man and with an apologetic look on his face.
"Sorry to startle you, young man, but you are the one who is called Bug, aren't you?" His voice was mild, but Bug was too scared to say anything. "Of course you are, your eyes are just as she told me."
"Wh-who told you?" Bug squeaked. He was trapped between the window, the man and a high pile of snow, and he silently cursed himself for being such easy prey. "Who are you?"
"My name is Crossbow, old soldier name." He laughed, but the friendly tone did not ease Bug's worry. "I work for Miss Cecilia's father, and they have asked me to find you. Not an easy task, I might add. It has taken me months."
"Who's Miss Cecilia?"
"Oh, that's right, you don't know her real name. In your world she was called Snack."
* * * * * *
Bug's eyes were still wide as saucer as he sipped his hot chocolate. Crossbow had politely stepped aside to give him a free way to escape, but had begged him to stay and listen. Reluctantly, Bug had agreed to sitting down at a café. The story he was told sounded almost too good to be true. Snack had met her father that day, and the two of them had ended up talking all night. In the morning they had left town, and she had sent a friend with a message for Mr Bug. Hadn't he got that note? No? Well, as it turned out Miss Cecilia's father was a very wealthy man, and he was not very keen to take in a street boy, even one who had been his daughter's best friend. In the end he had given in to her, though, and Crossbow had been sent to find Bug and deliver the invitation. If he wanted, he could have a new home. Bug's head was spinning. He knew that he ought to be suspicious, but at the same time the offer was too tempting to just walk away from. The two of them talked for a long time, and Bug soon forgot to worry about what Chirp would think. The café owner cooked his fish for him, at Crossbow's insistence. The raccoon had order a sandwich for himself, and had stayed mostly silent while Bug ate.
"Miss Cecilia has been most anxious to hear from you, young sir. She was very worried when I couldn't find you at first."
"Well, the streets are kind of dangerous right now." Bug was beginning to trust this man, whose eyes stayed concerned and whose voice stayed mild. "We mostly stay hidden."
"So I heard. Lucky one of the guards I had asked to keep an eye open for you saw you at the river. Earning your supper, no doubt."
"Yeah." Bug swallowed the last of his meal, then leaned back in his seat while crossbow ordered him another mug of hot chocolate. "Tasted a lot better this way than just grilled, too."
"I cannot even begin to fathom what it's like to live on the streets. Miss Cecilia has told us some, but it is as if she doesn't even remember most of it."
"That's because they are Snack's memories. Of course she wouldn't know about that."
"I don't understand that." The man chuckled, causing Bug to giggle. "Are you finished? Shall we go and meet her?"
"Certainly. Miss Cecilia would have been out here looking for you if her father had not forbidden it. Her entire family is staying at the Wizened Owl."
"That's really expensive," Bug muttered, reluctantly impressed. He gulped down the last of his chocolate as Crossbow tossed some coins onto the table. "I'm done."
The two of them left the café and started walking towards the nearest bridge. The Wizened Owl lay in the Southern Sector, and it would take a while to get there. Bug thought about trying to leave a note for Chirp, but decided that he could do so from the hotel. There were always street kids around the expensive places, waiting and hoping for a chance to run errands for the wealthy. Maybe he would soon be part of a wealthy family. Or at least friendly with one. Still, there was a nagging doubt in the back of is mind. Could this really be true? Surely such a break was a thing of fairytales and fantasies? Yet his hopes that Snack had really lucked out won him over, at least until a thought struck him.
"Hmm?" The man had walked just behind him in silence, giving him the distance he needed. "Anything you want to ask, dear boy?"
"What about her sister? Snack's, I mean?"
"Oh, she's fine, too. It was a very happy reunion."
"No." Bug froze, and backed away. "You're lying. Snack hated her sister."
"Feelings can change over time." He took a step closer to Bug, who continued to back away. "Come, now, surely you don't want to disappoint your friend?"
"You're lying!" Bug turned to run, but Crossbow was too quick for him, and caught his arm in an iron grip. "No!!! Help!!!"
Bug's cries were silenced with a hard slap across the muzzle. Stunned, he licked his lips and tasted blood. he tried to resist when the raccoon dragged him towards a dark alley, but was far too weak. So now he was the one who would disappear, and Chirp was the one who would be left to wonder. Maybe even to cry a bit. Bug found himself hoping that the squirrel boy would make use of the blankets in the nest, and that he would take good care of Snack's teddy bear. The 'Miss Cecilia' thing had just been a ruse, he realised, and he felt tears well up in his eyes. Then everything else was replaced by fear as Crossbow slammed him into the wall of the alley and pressed a knife to his throat.
"If you cry out, or struggle, you're dead!" The mildness was gone now, replaced by a terrible cold. The raccoon's eyes were now as if made of steel, and Bug cringed. "Understand?"
"Yes," Bug whispered. "Understand."
"You will answer my questions, clear?" Bug nodded slightly. "What did Saithe tell you? The one you kids call Pain?"
"Don't lie!" The blade pressed tighter to Bug's throat, and he felt it draw blood. "You talked to him, and you were supposed to see him again the night he died."
"He... he said he knew something about Snack, but he never told me what."
"What do you know about the Hunting Zone?"
"N-nothing! I never even heard of it!"
"Is that so?" He laughed, but it was not a friendly laugh. "I know for a fact that you talked to the goat kid. The one who got away. What did he tell you?"
"Pan? What's he got to do...?"
"I ask the questions! What did he tell you?"
"He... he told me that he loved me." Bug lowered his head, not caring that the knife cut his skin again. "We talked some about our time together, but that's all. He was so weak..."
"How sweet," Crossbow scowled. "So he told you nothing about where he had escaped from?"
"No! Did you...?"
"No more questions from you!" Another slap stung Bug's cheek, and he couldn't keep his tears back. "If it turns out you've lied to me, your girlfriend Snack will be in deep trouble, do you understand?"
"Is she alive?" The third slap almost made Bug pass out. "Sorry. I didn't lie. I don't know what you're talking about."
"Hmm. So I've been chasing your mangy tail all this time for nothing." He seemed lost in thought for a while, but the blade kept pressing against Bug's throat, so he did not dare to try and break free. "Do you want to go to your friend?"
Crossbow's grip around Bug's arm tightened while he put his knife away, and then he started dragging the boy down the street. Every now and then someone turned to glance curiously at them, but Bug didn't dare to call for help. If Snack were still alive... he didn't want to risk putting her in harm's way. After a few minutes' walk, they reached a weapons store, and Crossbow dragged him inside. It was empty except for and old ermine woman behind a counter. She eyed him with a look of expectance on her face, then went to close the shop while Crossbow dragged Bug up two sets of stairs and into a small office. Two men were waiting for them, a badger Bug recognised as a Guard Captain and a lion he knew worked at town hall. They glared at him while they waited for the shopkeeper. Once she had joined them, all eyes turned to Crossbow.
"The kid knows nothing. I told you this wasn't necessary."
"Are you sure?" the badger asked. "He did talk to Saithe."
"Yes, but apparently your men got to him in time. They were supposed to meet that night."
"Who are you!?" Bug cried, unable to keep quiet. The inevitable blow to his head did not stop him this time. "What have you done to Snack?"
"You'll meet her soon enough," the shopkeeper said, grinning widely. "She made a fine pelt, and so will you. Maybe I'll let you hang together on my wall."
Bug felt as if his soul had turned to ice. So she was dead. He fought his tears and his panic back, though, and started thinking about a way to escape. He could hear as if from a distance how the others talked about him, but he didn't really listen.
"...knows nothing about the Zone."
"That's what you hope."
"Well, he knows now. Too much."
"Let him in there. Time for us to have some fun."
"This one could bring in a lot of money, though. Looks like he'll last a while."
"I haven't done one in for a long time. We have money enough."
"The sooner he's dead, the better."
The lion's words woke Bug up from his haze. With a cry he kicked back at Crossbow's leg, then ducked as the raccoon tried to grab him. The way out was blocked by the shopkeeper, but Bug had spotted an inner door, which he dashed through before anybody could stop him. He now found himself inside a huge room, which must have reached well into the next house, perhaps even the one beyond that. The room was filled with fake trees and bushes, rocks and pits. All kinds of traps and obstacles. His heart sank. So this was the Hunting Zone. This was where all those kids had disappeared to. Without ever returning. Seeing no other choice, Bug ran into the room and hid behind a rock that seemed to be made out of wood and cloth.
"Don't worry, he won't get far," he heard the shopkeeper's voice from behind. "Grab a weapon. Hundred markers to the one who gets 'im!"
He peered out of his hiding place and saw the four of them fan out to cover the entire room. Panic surged up inside him, but he forced himself to calm down. Had Pan really escaped from this place? But how? Maybe there was some passage that a small kid could squeeze his way through, or maybe he could get back through the door. No, he realised as he saw that it was padlocked. He cursed his rotten luck, and was then forced to duck as the shopkeeper swung at him with a spiked club. She swore loudly as he crawled in underneath a tree and made a run for the far end of the room, more than a hundred feet away. He paused behind a bush, willing himself to breathe as quietly as possible.
"Your girlfriend didn't even last this long," he suddenly heard Crossbow's voice from just a few feet away. "But she lived a good while after I shot her, though. Enough to tell us all we needed to know about you. In the end she begged for death, just like you will."
Bug felt his jaws fall open, and then a red rage gripped him. With a snarling cry, he ran out of his hiding place and attacked the raccoon. Crossbow was too fast for him, though, and fired the weapon of his name. Bug felt the arrow hit him just below the ribs, but he didn't slow down. The raccoon was standing right next to a window, and when Bug hit him shoulder first, they both crashed through it. The fall seemed to take forever, yet Bug just barely had time to twist his body so that he landed on top of Crossbow. There was a sickening crunch of broken bones as the raccoon hit the pavement head first, then another as Bug's shoulder smacked into stone. He knew it was broken, but worse was that he felt the arrow move inside him, tearing through his entrails. There wasn't much pain, just a numb cold that spread through his body. He felt someone touch him, and jerked to get away. With dim eyes, he recognised the soldier he had met once when he had brought a message to the encampment.
"Stay still, son," he said in a low voice while he checked the raccoon. "Don't worry, he's dead."
"Third floor," Bug gasped through clenched teeth. he could taste blood in his mouth. "They're murderers..."
"I know. We've been wanting to get our hands on these bastards for a long while, but we never knew where they were. And tonight someone reported a kid being dragged in here, so we came. Are you that kid?" Bug nodded. "Just hang in there. I'll get a medikit right away."
"They... get away..."
"Don't worry, Knight Captain Kami's up there with a score of soldiers. If they're lucky, those hunting guys will live to see the gallows tomorrow morning."
The soldier took off running, and as soon as he was gone Bug fought his way to his feet. He would not just sit and wait to get caught. His ankle felt badly swollen, maybe even broken, yet he managed to start walking. His nest was no more than a few minutes away, and he knew a shortcut that the soldiers would not be able to follow. It was all over now, he knew, but he wanted to get home before they found him. He had killed a man. It wouldn't matter that Crossbow had been a murderer; Bug was an outlaw, and an outlaw's life was forfeit for such a crime. Even if they didn't hang him, they would still lock him away. He wasn't like Tap, being robbed of his freedom would surely kill him. Limping and clutching his broken arm, he squeezed through a narrow passageway that led back to the Eastern Sector. Across a street, through an alleyway and across the main street. He was almost home. A trail of blood lay behind him, but he didn't care. He could smell smoke, and the cloudy sky was lit up by flames. With a little luck, he thought, those three were burning the house down around themselves to avoid getting caught. He hoped that the soldiers all got out, though. Knight Captain Kami had seemed okay, even though she was strict, and the soldier who had found him had sounded concerned. Maybe they weren't going to hang him after all. No, he knew what he had done, and what the laws said. He crossed one last street, paused to sweep away the bloodied snow so they wouldn't be able to follow him, then he was at the nest. Chirp must have been long since gone, but the squirrel boy had left him a couple of slices of smoked fish. Bug laughed, but the pain that followed made him sink to the ground. He tried to pull out the arrow, but it hurt too much just touching it. Bright red blood gushed out and soiled his jacket, dripping down onto the ground. He was cold, and using the last of his strength he burrowed down among the blankets and hugged his tail to his chest. He felt around for the teddy bear, but couldn't find it. His vision was getting blurry now, and he was really tired. He suddenly thought of something. A memory formed of two adult foxes who looked upon him with warmth and love shining from their eyes. It changed, though, and now there was anger and disgust on their faces. Bug did not know who they were or why they were so angry, but through the mists in his mind he recalled the word they had used when they shouted at him. Amethyst. Had that been his name? He couldn't really remember, but it did kind of suit his purpe eyes. Then the memory was gone, and he was Bug again. In the distance he could hear fire alarms, and voices shouting and people running. Yet all he could think of now was Snack and Pan. If there were such a thing as fairness, he would soon meet them again. He hoped that they would be waiting for him together, as friends should, and he hoped that he would get to kiss them both and tell him how much he loved them. How much he had missed them.
A fit of coughing racked Bug's thin body, and fresh pain surged through his body. He clenched his teeth tightly, and blood welled up into his mouth when he emptied his lungs. He did not breathe in again.
* * * * * *
A tiny streak of grey flashed across the morning-empty street, followed by two rowdy guards yelling for it to stop. The lithe figure refused to obey, though, and rounded a corner, then ducked through an alleyway. The young wolf grinned to himself as the guards' voices receded behind him, and he was just about to head back home when a strong hand grabbed him around the neck. The two soldiers stared at him with angry eyes, but then they lightened up and started laughing. They warned the boy to stay off the streets when they were empty, then let him go. Puzzled, the little wolf soon broke into a smile, thanked them and took off again. The soldiers whose names were no longer Chirp and Tap sighed and shook their heads, then grinned. It seemed like there would always be street kids, no matter how hard the guards worked to get rid of them. They and their fellow soldiers did not work at all to that end. Talking about old times, they walked towards their encampment, ready for a hot meal and then a warm bed.
The wolf boy took a detour to avoid the guards, then backed up and squeezed his way through a narrow passage that led to his own secret hideout; a triangular yard in between three houses standing closely together. He burrowed down between the blankets in his nest, deciding to follow the nice soldiers' advice and stay put until the streets were more crowded. He knew he had been lucky to find this place, and luckier still to find the ragged teddy bear that he now clutched to his chest as he went back to sleep, thumb in his mouth. Yes, he decided, he was lucky. Life was good.