Chapter 18 - A Glimpse of Fear
“I am ready,” said Notail to the trees.
A growl answered him.
“Ready to take my rats,” said a scraping voice. “I know your game, fox.”
From the mass of trees it came but it was not a dog. It was stockier and lower to the ground. It was fatter than the Black Dog. Old too. Its eyes were watery and its fur greying where once that fur would have been brilliant white against black.
Notail had seen badgers before. Sometimes they would come to the edges of the stoneforest where the true forest touched man’s world. He had always avoided them.
The badger looked hard at Notail.
“A fox and a dog somewhere near by the stink of it,” it said. “That’s no fuss. Hardclaw’s faced more and sent them to the hollow just the same. You won’t have my rats, oh no.”
Notail let go his breath. He glanced about for Bone. The badger was right. The young dog was near.
The badger moved closer. It was slow and ponderous but big too. Big enough to give Notail the fight it seemed to want.
“I have not come for your rats,” said Notail. “I was only looking for my friend.”
Hardclaw shook his striped head.
“Hardclaw knows your game,” the badger said. “You foxes are always coming round Hardclaw’s land sniffing out a nice bit of rat. But this is my land. My rats. Not your land, fox.”
The badger’s snout flared. Notail could see its brown teeth. Sharp and ready to bite.
“I just want to go on my way,” said Notail. “You can keep your rats.”
He made to move away but the badger moved with him.
“You aren’t going nowhere, fox,” said the badger. “I know what you’re up to. If I let you go on your way you’ll tell all your fox friends about my rats. Hardclaw will have no rats left if he lets you go. Hardclaw will have an empty belly and Hardclaw don’t like having an empty belly.”
Notail made to move again but before he was a pawfall away the badger snapped at him.“No, fox,” it said, “it’s the hollow for you. Don’t worry, there are plenty of foxes down there waiting to keep you company though they might not say too much.”
Hardclaw laughed. It was croaky laugh. A scratching laugh.
Notail glanced back at the hollow. He wondered how deep it was.
“I just want to go on my way,” said Notail again but as he looked at the badger’s wet eyes he knew it was not going to be so easy. This would be a fight. Not the fight Notail expected but a fight nevertheless. He sighed.
“Hardclaw’s rats are for Hardclaw not foxes, not dogs,” said the badger. “Hardclaw fought for his land and he will never give it up. You end tonight, fox.”
The badger growled and came at Notail. It leapt at the fox, brown teeth as wet as its eyes.
The weight of Hardclaw took the wind from Notail. They fell to the dirt. The badger’s claws tore at Notail. They were hard claws but not sharp. Old claws. Notail clawed back at the badger and bit at its neck. Over and over they rolled. Notail could smell the badger’s stinking breath. It was rank with rat scent.
“The hollow wants you, fox,” said Hardclaw and then his teeth were biting down onto Notail’s shoulder.
Notail cried out in pain and they parted, both waiting for the other to attack again.
When they were apart Notail could see the damage he had done to Hardclaw. He was covered in cuts and blood stained his fur. For his own part, Notail could only feel the pain in his shoulder but no blood had been drawn and even the pain was passing. The badger was so old and so slow and wounded and tired. Notail felt almost sorry for him as he came again with his wild and near-mad eyes.
Hardclaw threw himself against Notail.
They rolled over and over. They fought as they rolled, claws scratching and ripping, and at last Notail managed to kick the badger away.
“Can you feel the hollow call you, fox?” said Hardclaw, grinning.
Notail felt a breeze brush against his tail stub and looking back he saw he was at the very edge of the hollow. One more pawfall and he would fall, join the foxes Hardclaw spoke of. And now Notail felt afraid.
“You’ll have no rats tonight, fox,” said Hardclaw. “You can feed on the bones of your brothers instead.”
And now that Notail was standing right on the very edge, he could not escape on either side of the badger, whose wide body blocked the way. It is not supposed to end like this, thought Notail. Not like this.
Harclaw gave a desperate bark and threw himself at Notail.
“You won’t have my rats, fox,” he cried.
His forepaws were outstretched. Hard claws flashed.
And something leapt with him.
“Bone!” cried Notail as the young dog struck Hardclaw, flinging the old badger to the side, to the hollow’s very edge.
Bewildered, Hardclaw made to rise but his weight was too great. His paws scrabbled for purchase but the ground came away. The badger stared desperately at Notail. Hardclaw reached out a claw, slowly. For help, thought Notail. No. For one last attack.
“My rats,” growled the badger and then he was gone, down into the darkness. “My rats!” he cried as he fell. His voice faded like a memory fades.
Bone backed away from the edge. The young dog’s legs were trembling.
“He is gone,” said Notail.
The young dog smiled. Notail smiled.
“You found me,” said Bone as they climbed back up to the tree line. “I knew you would.”
“I should never have left you,” said Notail but Bone was not listening.
The young dog was staring at the night sky. Star after star after star fell, scratches of light burning into the horizon.
When no more stars fell they padded on together into the west. Always west.