The Master

His black feet slammed down on the leaf litter that covered the forest floor in a desperate attempt to gain more speed. The birds in the tall oak trees sang their throats raw, however he couldn't hear their sweet mating melodies over his own panting breath and the pounding of his labouring heart, both of which were echoing off his heaving ribs. Up ahead the dense forest gave way to a shallow meandering stream. Splashing into the water his lost his footing on the slippery bottom while trying to clamour out. Exhaustion kept him lying in the icy water for a fatal moment.

Suddenly the haunting sounds of his relentless pursuers rose over the his humming bird pulse that was causing the thin skin of his ears to throb painfully. Urged on by the fear of capture he struggled back to his numb feet and mindlessly clawed his way up the far bank. The howling bay of the hounds got louder despite his continued flight from the pack. He could almost hear the message behind their incessant yapping: 'Master gonna git you for dis one thief!'

He had known that it was wrong to steal that chicken, but he'd been working so hard and was so hungry. Even the hounds that were chasing him now were given table scraps, while he had to fight for every meal. He didn't know what made those common mutts so much better than him. Why should he have to sleep out in the cold while they got to curl up at the Master's feet by the fire. It wasn't fair.

It was all moot now. The important thing was to get away. In retrospect he should have left the farm long ago, but despite the dangers it had been home. Leaping over a fallen dead tree he came to the base of an unusually large oak tree. It's mighty roots grew up out of the ground as well as down into it. He lamented that he was unable to climb, it looked like a safe place to hide.

Just as he was about to press on an alarming sound came from ahead. The hounds had split into two packs and cut him off. Panic took over his senses and he found himself unable to make a decision. Every breath he drew prove only to distract him further as the frosty autumn air lanced through his steaming lungs. Drained and defeated he sat down in the oak's tangled roots. Awaiting the murderous hunters he bowed his head and cried piteously.

Syltra looked down at the miserable fox crying at the foot of her tree. She vibrated her gossamer wings in indecision. The animal was no concern of hers, she was a Dryad, the guardian of trees not foxes. However she also knew that the Vulpine Guardian had fled in terror when the humans had encroached on the forest. She didn't really blame him, although the humans did take some of her trees at least they used them and took them with moderation. One the other hand they cruelly slaughtered his foxes for simple sport and to nail their skins to their walls. So now this little one had no one to even pray to for a miracle. Sighing Syltra fluttered down to the lowest branch.

"You'd better run my fleet footed friend." She advised softly.

The fox didn't even have the energy to be startled. "I can't run anymore." He replied mournfully, laying down to illustrate his point.

"Not even to save your own russet hide?"

"My fur will soon be useless to me, once the dogs have filled it full of holes."

"Aren't you going to do anything to preserve your life?"

"Anything but run."

"Will you fight when they come?"

"Why are you tormenting me? What makes you Spirits so cruel?" The fox snapped. "First Vulpario abandoned me, and now you mock me from your lofty height in the safety of your tree that I can't even climb to escape."

"I wasn't really the one who forbid foxes to climb the trees, that was Rotera. She asked for that favour just to keep your kind from eating all of her squirrels. In return they spread seeds for me."

"All right so I've only been betrayed by my own Spirit. It still doesn't tell me why you should care."

"I shouldn't, but I do. The hounds are almost here."

"So what should I do? Fight? Have you ever seen a Hound?" The fox scoffed.

"Well if I were you I'd climb up here to my 'lofty height' to safety."

Even with the vicious snarling of the dogs about to come over the ridge the fox balked. "C...climb a tree? That's forbidden!"

"I admire your loyalty, Fox. I give you permission to join me."

The nervous fox still hesitated. Animals that went against the Natural Order were cursed forever to be outcast. It was a lesson that the Humans learned once but had seemed to have forgotten, now they just believed themselves as superior. He wasn't sure if he'd risk all of Vulpine kind for his mangy hide, even if he had been given permission.

Suddenly one of the massive hounds leapt into the clearing. He spied the fox and gave a triumphant bay to bring the rest of his pack to the spot. The fox gazed wide-eyed at the domesticated wolf's white glistening fangs. He suddenly knew what gave the squirrels he hunted the motivation to climb so quickly. Decision made, the fox dug his nails into the bark of the tree, however when Syltra cried out in pain he released her sacred tree.

The hound wasn't about to wait any longer for his pack, he leapt at the trapped fox. The fox turned and lashed out at his opponent who was over twice his size. The hound squealed in pain as he pulled back with small gash across his nose.

"Wretched creature!" The hound roared. "I'll teach you to strike at your Superior!" He bunched up his muscles and threw himself at the fox with all his force.

The fox hunkered down and welded his eyes shut preparing himself for the inevitable impact. When Syltra grabbed him by the gruff and hauled him into the air he yelped in surprise. The hound tried to stop, however, he had made a full bodied commitment to his course of action and instead of seizing his prey he smacked into the oak's strong trunk and knocked himself senseless.

Giggling Syltra alighted upon her branch with the trembling fox in her arms. "You're braver than you thought, Fox. I'm sorry about crying out, it has been so long since someone touched my tree that I forgot what happens." Suddenly she truly know what happened to Vulpario, he hadn't run, some hound must have killed his sacred fox. She briefly wondered what she would do when the humans came for her tree. Syltra decided against telling her guest that his God was dead. "Are you all right?"

The fox was too stunned to answer. Cradled in her arms he tried to remain calm as the rest of the pack finally made it to the base of the tree. There were about a dozen of the strong fox hounds now crowding around their fallen leader. The fox looked down at them with pure admiration of their deadly form, after all he was a hunter himself. They were so powerful and united as a pack. He could see their taunt muscles shifting beneath their tri coloured fur. If he had been born such a authoritative creature he wouldn't have to run from anything.

"It isn't fair, I want to be a hound." The fox suddenly stated.

"Hush you foolish creature." Syltra chilled him for the statement and not the noise he made. "Look at their necks and tell me if you still wish to be one of them."

"Why not? They are thick and strong from all that food that the humans hand them."

"Look closer, do you see where their fur is worn away?"

"You're right." The fox noticed the flaw for the first time "Why is that?"

"It's from the chains the humans make them wear."

"Chains?!" The fox cried in alarm.

"That's right, do you still wish to be a dog?"

"At the cost of my freedom? Certainly not!"

"Well now, Fox, you've proven to me that you are loyal, brave, and wise, once given a little help, and your ruddy fur and bushy tail have long been the envy of the forest. Now if you could only prove that you smart as well."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, I see that you are all wet."

"I fell in the stream." The fox admitted.

"Ah, yes, but why?"

"I was just trying to get across it."

"You were treating it as an obstacle, when you should have embraced it as a friend. Tell me, can you smell underwater?"

"Of course not, that power is reserved for the Fish." The fox thought about what she had just said for a moment. Then he said to himself "The hounds are not fish, and they track me by smell... I should have run along the path of the stream instead of desperately trying to get out of it."

"Now you're getting it right."

Syltra looked down at the hounds who were trying to help the fallen one up. Suddenly the air filled with a foul sent. The fox started his panic anew, but she assured him with a gentle touch. The source of the odour walked on two leather clad feet into the clearing. The human yelled at the hounds and lashed at them with his whip at their failure. Yelping and whimpering the dogs obediently headed back towards the farm with their heads down and their thin tails between their legs.

The leader of the pack raised himself up out of the soil and looked up into the tree. When he spied the fox and the Guardian sticking their tongues out at him he reared his two forepaws up on the tree and futility tried to alert his Master that the prey was still in range.

"Damn it dog, get away from their!" The Master yelled. "Get on home before I leave you to the wolves out here."

"But Master, the Fox! He's right there!" The dog whined like a small child. However as part of their punishment the humans could no longer understand the True Language, even within their own kind there was language barriers.

"Don't be foolish dog, foxes can't climb trees, they're far too stupid for such a crafty trick. Now go home to your cage where you belong."

"That's right!" Called down the fox. "Obey your Master, O Mighty Hound."