The carriage rocketed through the rain, water and mud splashing up against its frame. It was going far too fast, shuddering with every turn of the wheels, the whinnies snorting, their hooves thundering, spurred onward merely by terror...
She leaned over him, pressing down the gauze, eyes terrified.
“Look at me, Willow. What do I do?”
His gaze was dull. His breath rattled. She pulled more gauze out of the kit. Applied pressure. Slid sideways as the carriage rounded a bend. Scrambled back to him.
His lips moved. “Run.”
“They’ll get you.”
She shook her head. Growled. Slid back the door. Jumped. Looked back.
The carriage hurtled away into the gloom. Soon it was gone.
It was near dusk when those at the outskirts of town, hurrying home from work, saw the Kougra approach.
She was thin, a fact exaggerated by the too-large garment hanging from her shoulders. It seemed that, perhaps, this garment may have once been a symbol of wealth, now fallen into ruin. Many others wore just such clothes.
But none attempted to help this stranger. There was a look in her eyes- of sadness, and a sort of primal, fierce wariness that made it seem as if she would lash out at any who tried to approach. So the townsfolk hurried by, averting their eyes when possible, and the Kougra was left to herself.
The rain had abated, leaving in its wake a grey, overcast twilight that helped to shield the town from distant eyes. Even so, the Kougra kept to the shadows once she’d reached the town proper, prowling in the darkness of looming walls and warily eying the passers by.
Near the centre of town, there was a narrow side street. The Kougra entered this, came to the end, and took a left. At the next intersection she turned right. Now she was in an alley so narrow that her elbows pressed against both walls when she moved. Near the end, on the right, a rotten board had fallen away from the base of a shabby old villa. With difficulty, having made sure that no-one had followed her, she got down on all fours and squeezed herself into the low space beneath the house. The Kougra turned around so that she could still view the alleyway, yellow eyes fierce, and settled down to sleep.
But years of living in constant danger had affected her. Waking at the slightest unusual sound, she passed a restless night beneath the villa. Every time someone in the street shouted, or a whinny squealed, she was alert- blazing eyed, tensed for battle. Then day came, and the Kougra crawled further back into the den, resuming her fitful slumber.
When night again fell, she checked the alley for signs of life, before crawling out of her hiding place and moving cautiously towards the intersection. There was someone in the adjoining street- a young Mynci, sifting through a dumpster. The Kougra slid around him, unnoticed, pressing herself against the wall before melting easily away into the shadows beyond. She was so careful, so expert in her movement, that not so much as a hair was stirred on the back on the Mynci’s neck. Within moments the Kougra stood, almost invisible, beneath an overhanging tree. Before her, a small Shoyru was busy lighting the circle of lamps that bordered the town square. In less than a minute he would reach the one directly in front of her, and she would be seen.
Before that happened she slipped away, keeping close to a row of garden walls, shifting her paws with such care as to be only a little less quiet than a ghost. There was a small building at the end of the square, just at the edge of the pool of lantern light. A faded sign, hanging above its chipped and rotting door, read: BAKERY. The Kougra paused, looked about her with those keen eyes then, in a blink, darted over to the building and pulled a knife from somewhere within her clothes. Hidden from the street by a bushy tree, which grew in a box by the curb, she began to work at the lock, ears pricked all the while. Minutes passed. Then there was a soft click, and she put the knife away. Half rising from her crouch, she pushed the door open just enough to slip inside, leaving it ajar behind her.
A stack of bread loaves rested in a huge basket to her right. She grabbed one, used the door’s keyhole to examine the street- which was quiet and empty- and slipped back outside, pulling the door shut behind her. There, concealed once more by the tree, she kneeled a while to devour the meal.
No one passed by her in that time. The square was still, the Shoyru having by then finished his duty. The Kougra licked bread crumbs from her lips, looking around in the darkness. A tall stone arch stood nearby, marking the entrance to a broad boulevard. Staying low, and as close to the bakery wall as possible, she darted towards it. As she drew closer, a group of five Lupes came into view beyond. Four were sniffing the ground, the fifth looking about him intensely.
The Kougra recoiled automatically, fur bristling. She glanced over her shoulder, seeming to search for something through the darkness. Almost immediately, her eyes grew sad. After a moment of melancholy contemplation, she approached the bakery and put a foot on the window sill. Then another. From there, she pulled herself up onto the veranda, and was able to climb onto the roof.
There was a cool wind blowing in the direction of the Lupes, perhaps carrying her scent. She wasn’t safe. With the agility of youth, she made her way across the weathered roof and jumped down into a long lane. The only person about was a sleeping Bruce, too deep in slumber to be woken by her arrival. The Kougra stealthily moved away.
In this lane there was only one lamp, positioned so that any late night travellers could read the street sign. As she passed on the opposite footpath, the Kougra happened to glance at the name. She froze, a statue for several seconds, only her fur moving as the wind made circular patterns in it. Then, returning to life once more, she blinked and looked around. Some inner conflict clearly showed in her harsh features.
She started forward, then growled quietly and turned back. Passed close by each mail box, straining her eyes to make out the numbers. Every so often she would stop and glance about, all senses alert for the smallest sign of danger. Only a short amount of time passed in this fashion, before she stopped abruptly at number twenty three.
Her gaze snapped upward, to the dark street-facing windows with their drawn curtains. A faint gleam in the backyard indicated that a candle was still lit somewhere, very near to an uncovered window, and the Kougra nimbly jumped the fence and went to investigate.
Quiet as a shadow, she slid around to the back of the house. When she was directly beneath the candlelit window, she ventured to peer inside. Her whole person exhibited wariness and ferocity but, when she saw what was going on inside that little room, she softened considerably.
An old blue Kougra maid was holding a young Kougra girl with a pelt of that same colour, only more vibrant. The girl, face hidden from the watcher by the woman’s shoulder and a veil of beautiful ebony hair, could not have been older than seven. She was wearing purple pyjamas and, despite the distress she was exhibiting, looked healthy and strong. At one point she shifted a little, so that the watcher was almost able to see her face. A look of intense longing seized the watcher’s features, and she leaned forward, but all she caught a glimpse of was a golden watch chain as the girl raised a paw to wipe her eyes. The watched touched a paw absently to her own wrist. Then the old Kougra stood, still carrying the child, and left the room.
The watcher remained a while longer, gazing into the quaint little room, with its little bed and simple cream and white décor. Then she turned away. A tear glimmered in the corner of one eye. Suddenly, the bark of a Lupe sounded from somewhere in the street. She took off, springing easily over the fence and into a small meadow, not looking back.
The grass was long, making it a simple task for her to conceal herself amongst it. The strong, floral perfume hanging on the night air helped to disguise her scent. Still, she could not be entirely safe and, as she crouched there, her ears were raised and alert.
The ferocity had re-entered her gaze, but the rest of her showed mourning. Her shoulders were slumped, her head bowed, tail limp and still. Once or twice she murmured, to herself only, a few words that consisted mainly of a pair of names. It had been a long time since she let her guard down so much. At any other time, she would have recognised the foolishness of relying on one’s hearing alone.
Eventually, she came to her senses. She looked up, bright eyes glittering, seeing shadows beyond the fence and smelling Lupe. She stiffened, angry at herself. Trying not to make a sound, she wove her way towards the fence behind her, which stood directly opposite the first. All the while, she kept her eyes on those wandering shadows.
Then it happened. One shadow turned. A pair of green eyes found her in the darkness. No longer needing to hide, she spun around and ran. Calls of alarm followed her as she flew through the grass, stems dragging at her fur, and jumped the fence. Raced towards a narrow stream. Ran under the bridge. Meanwhile, the cries of the Lupes echoed loudly in her ears, spurring her on.
She passed another street sign, read it at a glance, but kept on running. Came to an intersection marked by yet another sign, and turned right. By now the Lupes’ voices were growing faint, so she slowed her pace to a gentle jog. The Kougra came to a low stone wall which stood in front of a large house, and climbed over it with ease, landing softly on a well groomed lawn. Keeping low, she made her way around the side of the house, to a wooden door. It stood in an alcove, the walls around it made- like the rest of the house- of brick.
The Kougra ran her hands along the wall, until she found a brick with a large chip in one corner. Again, she looked behind her. Again, her gaze grew sad. But she seized the brick, jiggling it back and forth, and gradually working it out of its place. When it came free, she laid it carefully on the doormat, and looked around, all senses alert, for anyone creeping up on her. Satisfied that she was alone, she reached into the gap in the wall, beyond which was a hollow a few bricks long and one brick deep, and withdrew a cuboid package.
From there, sticking close to the wall, she returned to the street. The moon, almost full, was now high in the sky, dispelling much of the night’s natural shadow. Clasping the parcel tightly in her paws, the Kougra sought for a safe place in which to rest. She climbed onto the roof of a small shed, but then saw, beyond a row of houses, the woods. The Lupes were still far away, judging by their voices and the absence of a scent. She wrapped her clothes more tightly about her skeletal frame, returned to the ground, and drifted hurriedly in the direction of the trees, cutting through several back yards in the process. Up ahead, she could see the canopy rearing its head, a dark promise against a screen of stars.
She made it, sliding into cover with the stealth of a hunting meowclops. The trees, lit eerily by the moon, were varied in type. There were pines, sequoias, and oaks, among other things, swathed in great tangles of vines.
Quickening her pace, she pushed on deeper into the wood. She was perhaps a little less cautious now, her paws occasionally scuffing at the leaves, a gasp of breath sometimes escaping her. But even so, she ought to have heard the other approach. It leaped forward, tackled her, sending them both crashing to the ground. She spat leaves, hissed, sprang to her paws as he backed off. There were three more spread out around him, blocking her escape. Behind her was a tree.
The Lupes eyed her warily, muscles tensed. A scrawny blue Kougra, pelt matted with grime, clothes in tatters. A sorry sight that would invoke sympathy, were it not for the ferocious eyes and vicious, threatening teeth, glittering beneath a short and uneven fringe. This only made them nervous, angry, and they growled. She backed up against the trunk of the willow.
She blinked. A smile flickered across her features, startling her captors. Her knife was already half drawn, but now she freed it completely from its makeshift sheath and held it loosely by her side. New energy coursed through her veins, new courage, giving her strength and making her captors draw back. She was no longer just one Kougra- to them; she seemed as fearsome as an army. But, to the Lupes’ credit, they managed to regain their composure and bravely snarl in the face of this threat. One even seemed about to pounce.
Missing none of this, the Kougra gave another smile. Her knife glimmered, held close by her throat, now. Her courage had been restored, and she knew what to do. He had shown her.
“I’m ready,” she said quietly. “Take me, if you can.”
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