Chapter 2:

Lesson #2: Sacrifice

One Lone Fox

For what felt like ages, Dolo spoke, his words like a never dry spring. He taught me. About their bodies, their faces and the many feelings they scatter on them, the tools they have created to aid them in their conquests over nature and the wondrous places they called ‘home’. And as real as it was said to be, it was nothing short of a fantasy.Bookmark here

Yet as night drew nearer and my worries lay forgotten, Dolo grew weaker and wearier. His eyes turned dim and his smile was reduced to a timid twitch. And I could sense his smell dampening, like the air in the morning after the storm. Nevertheless, he still carried a fire in his voice, a gentle, nurturing flame that could keep me enthralled for winters on end without ever wanting a break.Bookmark here

Outside our entrance, the ground crinkled and the salty stench from before returned even sourer. Sliding the door to the side, the captain poked his head in.Bookmark here

‘– and maybe one day, who knows, you may learn how to talk!’ Dolo ended, a glimmer dashing over my eyes.Bookmark here

‘Yes, yes! But until then, it’s time,’ the captain retorted simply. He looked at me, grinning, ‘Are you ready to meet some wonderful people?’Bookmark here

I nodded excitedly. Of course I was! I’ve been told of the exquisite selection of men that will compete to take care of me for the rest of my life. But happy as I was, Dolo didn’t share my joy. Bookmark here

‘Sure thing, captain,’ he sighed, letting his eyes drop almost shut. ‘Let me just...pretty her up a little, please.’Bookmark here

‘Good thinking,’ the captain nodded slowly. ‘Five minutes. Wouldn’t want you getting any thoughts.’ With one more friendly grin, he slid back out and away.Bookmark here

I looked at Dolo, eager and with my tail swishing uncontrollably. He didn’t budge. With a smile that contradicted his wilting eyes, he stared at the ground. It was only when I approached him, ears flattened, that he shook his head as if to wake himself up.Bookmark here

‘Oh, right, before I forget,’ he reached for a piece of paper and quickly scratched something on it. And when he presented it to me, my first thought was natural. What is this?Bookmark here

‘Foxes know each other by scent, don’t they? Well, humans go by name. And... I figured that a good parting gift would be to have a name of your own.’Bookmark here

My mouth fell open, sparkles erupting across my body as my tail rose and wagged. The food, the caretaking and now...a name. It took one day for this kind species to welcome me as one of them. Bookmark here

‘It reads “Kaya”,’ he explained. ‘Give it to...whoever you leave with,’ he continued, his words withering towards the end. Bookmark here

I got restless. Too excited, I wanted to leave, but as soon as I was about to get out of the tent, his hand stopped me. And when my bewildered eyes tried to meet his, I found them staring somewhere far away.Bookmark here

But after a short while, he turned towards me, bending down so that we could see eye to eye. And with a deep sigh, a stray, yet dim sunshine found its way back into his gaze.Bookmark here

‘So, I guess this is goodbye for us,’ he spoke quietly, his lips trembling. Then, he extended his hand, slowly reaching above my head. Instincts kicked in, fear, watching his movement wary and intent.Bookmark here

But as his hand caressed through my hair, every worry melted away, leaving only bliss in its stead. I closed my eyes, my tail calmly dropping as wave after wave of pleasure washed over me.Bookmark here

How could someone’s touch be so...heavenly? An eternity passed and when it ended, I barely recovered. My vision was hazy, senses numbed. Only a small tap on my nose brought me back to reality.Bookmark here

‘Let’s go, Kaya.’Bookmark here

I had to smile at that.Bookmark here

Hand in hand, Dolo led me towards our destination, the large tent in the middle of the camp. Many voices came from inside and accompanying them were equally many assorted scents. Some were musky, some were rancid and nose-turning...none were as sweet and docile as his.Bookmark here

And when we entered, a swarm of eyes settled upon me, the men inside filled with awe at my arrival. I couldn’t help feeling like a peacock.Bookmark here

The captain waved at us and Dolo’s grip tightened as we cut through the crowd and joined him. We settled on the two empty chairs next to the captain, our audience following our every step.Bookmark here

‘You saw her, everyone!’ the captain shouted, commanding the attention of the increasingly excited crowd. ‘Small, dainty, skin and hair as pure as fresh snow! Who wouldn’t want this beauty next to them?’ I couldn’t hold my tail still, as it restlessly slammed against the chair. Dolo, however, remained listless, eyes both fiery and dampened.Bookmark here

‘Imagine, gentlemen! How those soft ears and tail must feel to the touch! Imagine! Staring longingly into those golden eyes as you wake up! Imagine! That whisker to whisker smile greeting you every day!’Bookmark here

Dolo’s teeth ground together, seeing the crowd’s growing excitement. Wasn’t he content with the praises I received? Bookmark here

Suddenly, my ears twitched behind me, catching a short rustling that died as quickly as it was born. Must’ve been some fowl. It slipped my mind quickly, as my attention was solely drawn to the people before me.Bookmark here

Every fox was unique, but humans were a cut above. Men as dark as soot stood next to others as pale as me. And on their clothes I could spot the rainbow, from the bloodiest red to the most lavender purple and hey all swam in a sea of brown, a colour shared by both Dolo and the captain.Bookmark here

‘What are you waiting for! Prove your worth!’ the captain ignited the men’s passion. ‘Five thousand’s the start!’Bookmark here

‘Six!’Bookmark here

‘Ten!’Bookmark here

‘Fifteen!’Bookmark here

Dolo grunted slightly, his hand clenched on his elbow. His smile had nearly waned, while his eyes left only a flame inside. Even his scent soured, now as stringent as a cranberry’s. But as soon as he looked at me, it settled back to a diluted nectar, the fire in his gaze dwindling.Bookmark here

His changing mood brought a weight on my chest, but it was soon lifted by his reassuring smile. He nodded towards the crowd; some of the men rested silent and bitter, probably having lost. As such, they retreated from the centre, stopping right in front of the captain’s men.Bookmark here

‘Thirty!’Bookmark here

‘Thirty five!’Bookmark here

‘Thirty seven!’Bookmark here

Plenty competed, but plenty more lost. It soon became a habit for those that missed their chance to join their fellow losers at the side and watch on as the competition continued.Bookmark here

But as the remaining shouts grew fiercer, my ears perked towards another noise. Another rustling, closer and followed by a muffled thud, as if a bobcat fell on moss. Must’ve been normal around the camp. No one else seemed concerned, after all.Bookmark here

Rather, they were more interested in the hurricane of whispers blowing through the tent. For me, it was all unintelligible, but, as they spoke, some looked at the captain’s men, some at me, some at the captain himself and most had their eyes trained at Dolo. All of them united by the murkiness in their narrow gazes.Bookmark here

‘Fifty!’Bookmark here

‘Fifty one!’Bookmark here

‘Fifty two!’Bookmark here

As only a few stuck to the centre, the sides began to fidget. Glances were cast in all directions, as if to measure everything in sight. These glances were followed by an approving nod, then another set of glances, followed by a brief respite of calm before the fidgeting resumed. As much as I couldn’t contain myself, they couldn’t either; even Dolo noticed that. But as his eyes circled around the room his heartbeat picked up and his scent ignited.Bookmark here

‘Seventy!’Bookmark here

‘Seventy and a half!’Bookmark here

‘A hundred!’Bookmark here

Where there were shouts now silence reigned, as only one man was left standing. As if to confirm his victory, he looked around the room, the glint in his eyes obvious even behind the wooden cover secured to his face. And I couldn’t sit still anymore. My dangling legs shot forward as I wanted to join the man next to whom I’ll spend my human days. But Dolo’s arm stopped me before I could get off my seat.Bookmark here

‘Patience,’ he cut, staring at the man in the middle as if he wanted to pierce him.Bookmark here

The same noise rang again, but this time my ears were certain. It was right behind me, past the tent. The earth crinkled, closer and closer and when it stopped the horror of dried blood entered my nostrils. I turned around, breathing hastening.Bookmark here

‘What is it?’ Dolo leaned next to me, matching my gaze. ‘Are you okay?’Bookmark here

I nodded. I was fine, just...confused. Once again, there was nothing there, but that all too familiar smell was too vivid to not trigger anything in me. But once again, I shrugged it off, trying to focus on what lay ahead of me.Bookmark here

‘Oda! You magnificent bastard! Where did you get that much gold?’ the captain joined the winner.Bookmark here

This Oda was a tall, black robe of a man, hung on top of a sharp, cold aroma. His eyes were blue and lifeless, biting like the blizzards I’ve had to endure. Once again, he scouted the room, some of the men returning his glare with nods of their own.Bookmark here

‘I have my means,’ he spoke in a low, melodious tone. The captain approached joyfully, his hand outstretched.Bookmark here

‘Eh? Who did you rob for that? Must’ve been a noble or a foreign prince!’Bookmark here

‘Quite the contrary. Probably as far removed from that as possible,’ Oda trilled. ‘I got it from you.’Bookmark here

The captain’s smile dwindled. As muscles tensed around the room, salt and musk wafted through, stronger and stronger. Anxious tapping drummed from somewhere, breaking the silence like a foreboding woodpecker. Dolo swiftly got up, hand shoved deep in his pocket as he joined the two.Bookmark here

And it came once again. The rustling. Followed by a quick breeze and the smell of blood, as fresh as it could be. The captain groaned, leaning on the winner for support as he doubled over. Deep in his back was a stick, smoke billowing out of the dark feathers lining its end. Dolo jumped back, settling between me and Oda.Bookmark here

‘You seem confused, boy!’ the man’s knife pointed at Dolo’s chest. ‘But how so! You must’ve known about him!’Bookmark here

‘Captain! What...what did you do!’ Dolo cried.Bookmark here

‘What didn’t he do! Slimy crook!’ Oda waved his hand towards the awe-stricken crowd. Much like them, I couldn’t think. All I could do was watch and tremble.Bookmark here

‘His tenebrous past notwithstanding, faulty goods! Bait and switches! Led us astray with fake names, made up convoys, false information from top to bottom! Really – ‘ he looked at the captain ‘–hundred thousand doesn’t even cut it!’Bookmark here

‘I...Urghh,’ the captain groaned for a retort.Bookmark here

‘But you have your use, I’ll give you that. Because sometimes, you give us –’ he looked at me, then at Dolo ‘– gold.’ Bookmark here

His knife was bloody. The captain was on the floor with a new hole in his chest. And a river of blood followed Oda’s weapon as he sucked every droplet out with his blade.Bookmark here

‘Kill all those that need killing. Retrieve the girl.’Bookmark here

Those were the words that plunged us into hell.Bookmark here

‘Kaya!’ Dolo shoved me back. I found myself on the ground before I knew it, sheltered by my toppled chair.Bookmark here

The captain was a ‘crook’. Oda, my destined caretaker, was nothing short of a senseless murderer. And even the sweet Dolo lied to me… Filling my head with delusions of perfection…Bookmark here

I didn’t want to see. I needed a way out of this world. But I could smell blood and fire burning flesh and the ground would quake and breeze after breeze would refresh the scent of rot and decay surrounding me like a fetid mist.Bookmark here

It was madness. A massacre. Death.Bookmark here

How could humans do that… Kill their own with a smile on their face. How could they be so delightful one moment only to turn spoiled in the blink of an eye? I...I didn’t want to...Bookmark here

‘Kaya!’ Dolo’s cry made my eyes shoot open. Through a haze I could see him in front of me, dirty and reeking of blood, not all his own. ‘When I tell you to run, you run. Understood?’Bookmark here

No. I didn’t understand. What was happening? I was surrounded by silhouettes in a storm, their last breaths were the wind and fire was their rain. And so many lives were wilting away on the ground.Bookmark here

‘Come here!’Bookmark here

‘Run! Please! Don’t look back! I’ll find you, I promise!Bookmark here

As Dolo’s cry rang in my ears, I found myself hanging in the air, held by the waist. And whatever picked me up convulsed, as if it had sent all its strength forward.Bookmark here

The heat was unbearable and the light it brought on forced my head away. I heard screams. Then smelled charred meat. Then the clenching grip on me loosened up and with my hands and knees on the ground once again, instinct took hold.Bookmark here

I fled. In front of me was the moon, beckoning me outside. And nothing else mattered. I had to get away, away from everything. Dolo’s pained grunt was a good reminder of the danger I needed to escape.Bookmark here

Past the camp, over the hedges, between trees and across puddles. Far from the bloodshed and into the forest that never smelled more alive. It was only when my legs gave way that I collapsed next to an oak, overseeing a small pond.Bookmark here

I leaned above the water allowing my reflection to stare back at me. Ears and lips shivered, eyes almost shut. Something climbed up my throat, something I had to cough out, but as much as I did it wouldn’t leave.Bookmark here

I was one of them… A monster with a face so twisted and vile… With rivulets flowing down and nothing but pain scarring my flushed cheeks… All of it, I wanted to sob it away, but that same girl kept looking at me with the same despair I looked at her. Forever following me...Bookmark here

Bushes shook behind me and I tossed around. My tail stayed on end, the scent of blood and embers rushing out. But when the hint of honey followed, it fell to a rest. Out in the moonlight stepped Dolo. Bookmark here

But I was even more scared of him than I was in my loneliness. He was human. Their kindness hid malice. And everything could be a trick...Bookmark here

‘Kaya!’ he muttered, his voice weak and lost. Limping, he shuffled forward. ‘You’…’Bookmark here

He reached towards me, but I winced away. I knew he had been smiling and I knew that now, that smile withered. And he tripped, falling to his knees mere paces from me.Bookmark here

But even so, he persevered. Crawling like an animal, he neared. And seeing that, my tail curled around me as I slowly backed away.Bookmark here

‘I...see.’Bookmark here

He stopped, his voice like a dying murmur. The wind flew in, moving a couple of branches out of the moon’s way. And finally I could see what I smelled.Bookmark here

Scores on his chest, arms and legs. Face, pale and lifeless, eyes the colour of shrivelled wood. Blood oozed out of his wounds, free and unabated, but in spite of that, he carried a gleaming smile on his lips. Bookmark here

‘I lied...Those men weren’t wonderful, were they?’ he chuckled.Bookmark here

I...shook my head. He knew… They weren’t.Bookmark here

‘They...wanted to hurt you… But don’t worry… I let them hurt me instead,’ his head fell. Bookmark here

What was he saying? Did he do that for…Bookmark here

‘Your first contact with us was...awful. I know… But those men, trust me... they aren’t human…’Bookmark here

But why? Why would you do it? Why would you do that for...Bookmark here

‘Humans... care for one another. And I hope I’ve cared enough for you to remember that.’Bookmark here

Something rough touched my nose. And with a smile drenched in blood, dirt and pain, he collapsed next to the tree.Bookmark here

I rushed to his side, my heart beating like a hummingbird’s, whilst his had...stopped. He was dead. And he died for me.Bookmark here

Why… Why would someone do that? Who would sacrifice so much for… Was this human? Was this true humanity? I needed the answer, but the only one who held it was now forever silent.Bookmark here

I pounded his chest lightly as the cold air seeped into me. And a tepid droplet fell on my hands as I senselessly tried to stop his life from dripping away… You can’t die now, Dolo! Not for me! Not when you saved me! Please...Bookmark here

Please... live!Bookmark here

I felt something. A warmth at my extremities, small but spreading like wildfire. Curious, I opened my eyes and when I did, I was met with a faint, mint glow engulfing my fingers. And under the light it cast, I could see the wounds on Dolo’s arm...closing up.Bookmark here

My eyes widened and ears perked up as I slowly ran my hands over his body. Skin grew back, colours returned, his sunken features emerged once more, shimmering with life. And when I reached his face, one tap on his nose and another on his mouth made his chest rise again.Bookmark here

With that, the glow left, as suddenly as it had arrived. What happened, I didn’t know. But I took comfort in feeling Dolo’s hot breath on my skin. He was alive. That was all that mattered.Bookmark here

Exhausted, I let myself fall against the tree. I looked at him. Even now, coming back from the dead, he had a smile drawn on his lips. One that I shared as I settled my tail on top of his chest, providing his heart with some much needed comfort.Bookmark here

Humans...they were scary. Strong. Smart. But hard to understand. But now that I saw what they could do, not only I needed to, but I wanted to know more about them. Because the first thing I learnt was that true kindness from them will not stop even in the face of death…Bookmark here

As I closed my eyes, drifting away towards a much-needed sleep, I cast a gleaming glance at the man who gave it all for me. And one final thought crossed my mind before the night took hold of me.Bookmark here

I’m glad you’re human.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.