FOX

Alice has lived all of her life in the pack, helping the older members and spending most of her time in her fox form. But the pack is in danger. First, there are the terrifying people from the nearby Village. Next there is the intimidating pack living on the other side of the forest, who threaten to steal their clearing. There are traitors about and it seems like Alice is the only one who can uncover the truth.

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1. Chapter 1

‘Alice, would you mind helping me with this?’

‘Could you come and do something for me, Alice?’

‘Would you be so kind, Alice, as to give me a favour?’

‘Alice, do this’, ‘Alice, do that’ – that was all I’d been hearing all day. I knew Kristen meant well, but it was driving me insane! She was cradling one twin in each arm and looking at them fondly with her pale brown eyes.

‘I brought you some more milk,’ I said. Kristen hardly acknowledged me as I passed her two bottles full of thick, white liquid. She began to feed each twin simultaneously – an art she has been perfecting since her baby twins were born ten months ago.

I sat down on one of the logs circling the fire, grateful for a few minutes’ rest. Never again was I going to spend a day helping Kristen with the twins, I vowed. I had to ask Dominic to move me to a different position in the pack. All today had proved was that I was awful with babies – I was so worried that I would break them! I looked over at Dominic, sitting in his dominant position in the pack. Who was I kidding? There was no way he would let me move, especially considering my past positions. I remembered Victor getting so annoyed with my pathetic hunting skills that he almost broke both of my legs. Then there was the time I fell in the lake when fishing with Karl. Not forgetting when I brought Merinda a bunch of nettle leaves instead of the mallowberry stems she had asked for . . .

No wonder no one wanted me around. I had no real talent, except for being extremely clumsy.

Someone tapped me on my shoulder. I looked round and saw that it was Penelope. ‘Your turn for guard duty,’ she said.

‘Fantastic,’ I said sarcastically. Guard duty meant standing in a deserted field for two hours, waiting for nothing to happen. ‘Did you see anything, Nelly?’

‘No. Not a thing. As usual. Come on, Alice, you’d better go quickly or Dominic will do his nut when he realises that I’ve left that stupid field unoccupied for more than a minute.’

I smiled. She was absolutely right, of course – Dominic, our pack leader, always made sure that all of the land surrounding our clearing was being guarded at all times, and, trust me, you didn’t want to be the one found neglecting these rules.

I stood up, thanked Penelope and walked over to Kristen.

‘I have to take my turn at guard duty now, Kristen,’ I said to her. She took absolutely no notice of me.

‘Hey there, little Elspeth,’ she cooed, ‘you haven’t drunk all of your milk yet. And, no, my precious Kasper, you can’t have your sister’s milk!’

I rolled my eyes. Sometimes it was like the only people alive were Kristen and the twins.

‘Kristen?’ I waved my hand in front of her face. That was literally the only way to get her attention sometimes.

She looked up at me. ‘Ah! Alice, there you are! Could you be a dear and go and grab some apple purée for me? And after that, could you hold Elspeth, while I rub Kasper’s back?’

‘Kristen,’ I said, getting impatient, ‘I need to go to guard duty.’

She sighed and said quietly, ‘Well, if you must.’ Then she turned her full attention back to the twins. ‘Come on now, Elspeth; finish your milk like a good girl.’

I turned on my heel and made my way across the clearing. Half the pack were sitting on the logs positioned around the fire, enjoying their break; and the other half were off doing their jobs and duties. I didn’t have my own role in the pack yet as I was still only thirteen. Since the age of eight, I’d just been helping out other people in the pack and generally not doing too well at it. When I turned fifteen, I would have to take on my own position, which was supposed to follow my strengths. But considering that so far I hadn’t found anything I was good at, I wasn’t looking forward to that day.

The second I left the clearing, the trees became thicker and more numerous. They linked together to form a protective layer over me. I followed the familiar path to the large field Penelope, Eddie, Rory and I took turns guarding. I sat down in my usual corner where I could see everything from the strange rows of golden, dry plants to the tips of the pointed structures which made up the Village.

The Village had been there for as long as I could remember. Dominic sais that he was only a young boy when the Village first appeared and it had been growing bigger ever since then. He said that everyone who was in the pack back then merely looked on at the Village with curiosity. They watched the ‘Houses’ and ‘Buildings’ (at least, that’s what I think they’re called) slowly being put up. They observed the strange people with their oddly rounded ears and noses, lumpy bodies and eyes too close together. They didn’t realise that these people posed a threat to us until they started venturing into the woods.

Dominic told the story the same way every time. When he was young, there was a hunter in our pack called Mickal. He was out hunting when he found himself face to face with someone from the Village. Mickal quickly shifted to his bear form and – oh, the next part always gives me shivers of fright down my spine. The people from the Village – they had lethal weapons. Sharp, pointed silver sticks which they fired into their prey using something which Viktor heard them call ‘Bows’. Mickal didn’t stand a chance.  They took him back to the Village – still in his bear form – and Dominic says that he was never seen again.

That was when our pack realised that the Village people were dangerous. Ever since Mickal was killed, we had been keeping a close watch on the village, but never daring to enter it. Whenever one of us came across someone from the Village, we fled. We wanted nothing to do with them.

A tight feeling knotted around my stomach when I thought of this. The Village people sounded terrifying. Even though I had never so much as glanced at one of them for more than a second, I was still scared out my wits just by the thought of them.

The Village people weren’t the only thing we had to worry about – there was also another pack in the forest. They wanted our huge clearing and had tried to seize it many times. As our pack was so much bigger than theirs, we always defeated them – but that didn’t stop Dominic doubling his guard duty watches.

There was a weird thing about that other pack though: they could only transform into wolves, whereas everyone in our pack could turn into a huge variety of animals. I was a fox, Penelope a lizard. Dominic could turn into a huge stallion, while Rory was a lion and Eddie a goat. And that was just to name a few.

I squirmed on the hard, uncomfortable ground. I hated guard duty more than anything. It was so long and tediously boring. Nothing ever happened and I spent the whole time waiting for the sun to move to the right position in the sky so I could finally leave.

After a few minutes, I decided to shift into my fox form. I may have had a worse view of the field, but it was a lot more comfortable. My human form was horrible – small, spotty, greasy red hair – but as a fox I was bold and bright, with glossy fur and shining eyes. If I had my way, I would stay in my fox form all the time, but Dominic insisted that we all shifted to human form whenever we were in the clearing.

I snuggled down on the ground, which, although still hard and dusty, became considerably more comfortable in my simple fox mind. I closed my eyes, the hot sun beating pleasantly on my back. It wouldn’t matter of I had a quick sleep while on guard duty. No one would notice and, to be honest, half the time there wasn’t anything to guard – especially in this field which was trusted to be guarded by us ‘young ones’. Anyway, I was so tired after running about after Kristen all day . . .

Something shot past my head. I woke with a jolt. There, missing my red, bushy tail by hardly a hair’s length, was a long, silver stick. Its sharp point had nestled itself into the ground beside me. I snatched my tail away from it, thinking, that almost went into my tail!

‘See that, son?’ My sharp fox ears picked up the low booming voice. ‘That’s a fox. Come on – shoot it before it runs off.’

My heart pounding in my chest, I reluctantly looked at where the sound of the voice was coming from. Two people were standing across the field, one half the size of the other, and I was in their direct line of vision. I knew, even from this great distance, that they were armed with the same weapons which had killed Mickal.

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