All the Hopps children were warned from a very early age never to trust a fox. There were three ironclad rules which they all were told over and over again by their grandfather.
Never bargain with a fox. They won’t truly give you what you want. They will take everything from you and leave you with nothing, if you give them the chance. They never steal, but they don’t have to. Above all, they desire you as a plaything. You are a toy for their amusement and when they are spent with you, they’ll still never hand over what you sought from them in the first place and leave you empty and used.
Never believe the words of a fox. They know exactly your heart’s desire and will hold it over you. They will dance with you, using their words to coax you onwards making you believe you’re the one with power until you are powerless to their whims. They will sing sweet lies to you and lure you into their abode. And once you go beyond that border between worlds, the door standing in the ring of mushrooms, you will never return.
And, most importantly, never fall in love with a fox. For certain, there are few more graceful and beautiful creatures in all the realms. But they don’t love in the way a rabbit does. They don’t understand what love means. You can tear your heart out and throw it on the ground in front of them. They’ll just laugh and reward you with a peck on the cheek, or maybe offer you a smirk with their sharp teeth. But they’ll never love you back. And you’ll be left forgotten, a withered husk of the rabbit you once were.
Judy always laughed at those stories.
Pop-Pop had a vivid imagination and there was no such thing as foxes in Bunnyburrow. But they were interesting tales, especially in a house where nothing particularly interesting ever happened. Her father and older brothers had seen to that, erecting a large white picket fence that separated the surrounding wilds from their crops. They didn’t account for the hole in the fence, split open by the tractor and just the right size for someone as small as Judy.
At age five, the world was her playground and the summers were as bountiful as the family’s harvest of carrots. The warm seasons were for drinking lemonade, staining her skirts from rolling in the grass, and catching fireflies in the evenings. But, most of all, it meant exploring beyond the border and into the wilds.
She wasn’t so daring, at first.
When she found the hole in the fence, she only poked her head out and found that the outside wasn’t quite the hellish landscape her grandfather made it out to be. It was much like the farm, if a little overgrown, with trees the size of houses in the distance. A few seconds looking out was all she could brave initially before she scampered back to her siblings with a story to tell.
Taking the first step outside days later was the start of the real adventure.
Goosebumps had her fur all standing up on end, the same feeling she got whenever she snuck some extra cookies from the cookie jar. When Judy discovered that she would not, in fact, spontaneously ignite into flames for daring to place a toe beyond the border between her world and the outside, she dared to move a little more. Before long, she was outside the fence entirely. A rabbit, a young bunny, completely from the safety of the burrow. Her mother was going to have a fit if she ever discovered what she had done, though it was Judy’s full intention to keep it as her little secret.
For the moment, she hadn’t a care in the world for she had bested the dragon that was her family’s picket fence.
She rolled around in the hills for the first time, laughing the whole way. She smelled the wildflowers and their interesting scents. She tasted the open sunshine and the dew on the grass. She listened to the birds sing of summer and happiness. The world was so much wider and vast than the little box she had been trapped in. And everything was as beautiful as the tiny window in the fence had promised.
But then she came to the edge of the forest.
Suddenly, the birds weren’t singing their little sings anymore. The sun ran away from such a dark place. The leaves were dry and cracked beneath her feet and there was the scent of fire in the air, though not a pyre in sight. Her ears, gifted for hearing as all rabbits were, could have sworn she picked up the faintest sound of laughter and lutes deep within the wood. Suddenly, Judy Hopps very much desired to be home and made for the hole in the fence, dirtying her fluffy white tail on the way out.
She went to bed that night dreaming of foxes with their sharp teeth and bright orange fur, dancing amongst the trees. It was determination that sent her back the next day.
There was no sun on the day she resolved to finally step into the woods. Instead, the ground was sticky with mud from the morning drizzles and Judy had to wear her little yellow raincoat with matching hat as she blazed familiar trails until she came face to face with her adversary; the dreaded forest. But there was no laughter in the woods that day, nor the sound of music or the smell of a campfire. Instead all was quiet save for the dripping of rain amongst the leaves. In the passing clouds, the entrance to the woods looked all the more imposing for a small rabbit such as herself. Though she summoned the courage to press forward and was rewarded by her curiosity.
The woods opened like a door, branches seemed to push aside for her on their own and leaves gave wet kisses on her ears as she passed through unimpeded. Even the roots of the ground seemed to snake away from her, shy to touch her gentle feet.
There was a different kind of beauty to the place as she approached a clearing in the woods.
While Judy had known the open land with sun and fields of wheat her whole life, she never once considered darkness could have its own charm. The limited light made every ray of sunshine precious, while the raindrops on the trees made the leaves glow like emeralds. The smell of a passing storm left everything fresh and clean, renewed for the next sunny day. And, if she focused really hard, she could hear the music again.
She learned too late why the forest had summoned her in such a tempting manner when the wood opened up to a small stump. There a fox sat, with a lute in his paws and strings plucking in an enchanting accord with nature itself. He stopped at the sight of her and their eyes locked for what seemed like an eternity.
“I know now what my eyes did see. A rabbit there who comes to me. Though she be but a bun, young and small. Tell me, little one, did you hear the forest’s call?”
His voice was like the ringing of small glass bells. Each delicate and precise in their tone, making it almost sound like he was singing. He just sat there, smiling at her. Judy had never seen such sharp teeth before, which promised danger but made his grin all the more charming. She knew the color red, but his fur went beyond color. It was like looking into fire and seemed to dance without him moving an inch. But it was his eyes that captivated Judy the most. They were all the greens in the world combined. The deepest forest green, the aquamarine of the ocean, the emerald of fresh cut grass, and the jade of malachite. He was all of these things and so much more.
Despite his question, Judy continued to remain silent, feet planted like moss on a stone. The fox frowned like a child with a broken toy and delicately put his lute to the side of the stump.
“I see my lady is shy, such a shame. I mean you no harm, how about a game? But first I might ask, if it’s all the same. Might I make an inquiry to have your name?”
Names were not given lightly, especially when dealing with foxes. And she parroted a warning she heard long ago.
“My Pop-Pop says that if you give your name away, you might never get it back.”
The fox chuckled, his laugh something like the slow gong of a grandfather clock. “Your Pop-Pop is a wise old bun. But mustn’t you take risks to have fun?”
Judy gulped as he offered her his open paw and eyed his claws. Though he looked young and honest, there was a depth to his eyes that spooked her. She knew in her heart that the being sitting before her was older than the forest itself and just as treacherous if she was careless. Every word spoken had to be measured with care, something young Judy wasn’t prepared to handle on her first outing into the woods. Instinct took over and she had taken one step back without even realizing it.
The fox’s frown deepened. But he soon smiled again with all the sweetness of an apple.
“Ah, but I see your mind has been made. You’re a clever bunny who won’t be easily swayed. Don’t let me keep you. I bid thee ado. You won’t find me groveling, nor will I deign. For we both know you’ll be back again.”
Judy spoke to no one about the fox.
Who would believe her? Foxes were spoken of in the same breath as unicorns and dragons, and no one really took Pop-Pop’s stories seriously. The true danger beyond the fences came in the form of savages, or so her father would say. Vagabonds with no proper rules like rabbits, some who’d trap you and cook you and eat you. The world was wide and treacherous with things that sometimes went beyond understanding of a simple bunny, which was why bunnies were better off tending to their burrows. The simple life that came in the form of farming crops and playing in the dirt, best not to think about what scary things could lie in wait.
So, Judy kept her adventure to herself. In part to spare herself from the resulting scolding which would follow it. But it was mostly in the last thing the fox had said to her. That she would be back again.
Of the small list of things Judy Hopps disliked, one of the big ones was being told what to do. At times, her parents would watch her go out of her way to do the opposite of their demands. She didn’t like to conform and was never one to pick flowers and play with dolls like their other daughters. She would much rather roughhouse with the boys and tumble in the mud. Her behavior often concerned her mother, but her father would typically laugh it off.
“She’s a Hopps, Bon,” he’d say. “Let her get her jumps out now. Then she’ll calm down a bit as she gets older.”
Needless to say, Judy much preferred spending time with her father.
When she was old enough, she’d often be the first one up on the farm to give him a paw tending the fields, before all the other boys. She couldn’t do much besides pick the weeds, at first. But as the years went on she could find herself claiming a place with the usual roundup of Hopps farmers. She built a healthy interest in herbology and appreciation of agriculture when most of the Hopps’ daughters were more engaged in sewing with their mother or developing a growing curiosity about boys.
And so it went until she was about ten and she abandoned her memories of the fox in the forest.
She never forgot about the tiny hole in the fence, which was still wide enough to fit her. But the call had been lost to her and her inquisitive nature tempered with her new hobbies in farming. Judy had gotten her taste of the outside world and, for now, it was satisfying. The memories of the smirking, rhyming fox was nothing more than an ideal dream. A fantasy. And she was fast becoming too old to run away with her imagination.
Life went on in the simple luxury of the Hopps farm, as it always did, with Judy learning and growing every step of the way.
Her second encounter with the fox was not an accident like the first time. It’s one thing to stumble across a creature of the fae and quite another to go looking for one purposefully. When a fox doesn’t want to be found, he will not be discovered no matter how hard one looks for him. Only knowing his name will bind the beast, or so the stories go.
Judy Hopps knew neither his name nor where she was going when she squeezed her way through the fence one night. Her only companions were a lantern and a cowl, borrowed from her mother’s wardrobe to help make her feel bigger when wandering around outside the farm. It trailed over her shoulders like a cloak as she peered into the darkness, looking for the trees.
The forest was not so friendly to her at this time of night.
Judy winced as a thornbush scraped her left cheek and her feet danced when she stepped on a pinecone that let out a sickening crunch. Everything was deathly quiet and her every interruption felt like a discord to the music of evening. Her ears perked in every which direction, begging for some sign of life. Nothing good came of wandering the woods in the dark. Nothing good came of anything past midnight. But still she pressed on to find the clearing she saw only in dreams.
A single ray of moonlight touched the stump which she remembered the fox sitting upon, playing his lute like it was only yesterday. Five years had passed and the clearing looked the same as it had in memory, pristine like a photograph. Her torchlight was like the sun to the calm blue of the late evening and she suddenly felt very exposed.
But not a soul was watching her.
“Hello?” she called to the darkness. She did her best not to sound shaken from the cold.
Judy waited for one hundred heartbeats, which was not a long time for rabbits but long enough all the same, before she dared step forward into the grove. She half expected something to leap out and attack her as she risked each step. Before long, she was standing in the exact same spot as the fox years ago. But there was nothing and no one to be seen. Only a voice calling out to her in the distance.
Judy’s ears shot up like rockets. Though there was no one there. It wasn’t a voice one could hear with ears. Rather she felt it deep within her, like a low rumble through her very core. It was the sound of rain hitting a tin roof or a rock tumbling down a stone well. The echo of the natural force colliding with an unnatural object. Something that caused her very soul to tremble.
Try as she might, Judy couldn’t understand the words spoken to her. She could only tell where they were coming from, behind the stump and deeper into the woods. And the closer she came, the louder they were like the beat of a drum. Still she could not decipher them. It was maddening to the point where her feet had begun to move on her own, passing her through the brush and deeper and deeper until she came to the source.
It was a grand tree that stood before her, older than the forest and older than stone. Older than time itself. Judy didn’t know how she knew this, but she did as she gazed into the blue abyss glowing from the roots like moonlight. An opening into a gaping maw stared back at her, large as a door and just as inviting. It was from within that Judy heard the voices. And closer and closer she drew like she was reaching for the knob of a portal.
A paw that was not her own grasped her outstretched wrist before she could touch the void.
“I know few dangers that may be, then a door which lies beneath a tree.”
The fox’s voice no longer sounded so pleasant or charming like a song. Instead it was like the strike of thunder, quick and precise while shattering the steady calm of an evening rain. It was at that moment Judy remembered where she was and pulled away from the fox in an instant. He allowed her to leave his grasp, though he had the power to forbid it if he wished. Judy had the horrible feeling that she awoke something terrible.
They shared a moment of silence. The fox hadn’t aged a day since she last saw him, immortal and young as he was. It was as if she had merely returned in morrow to him, though his green glare had a deeper coldness to it that she was more familiar with. She had learnt to recognize it as disappointment, though it softened as she stared up at him.
“My dear young bunny, whom I adore,” he said. “Though she’s not quite so little anymore. I apologise, I needn't have caused you fright. Tell me, what brings you to my home tonight?"
Careful as she was, Judy knew the dangers of playing with fire. And few burned brighter than the fox himself, even under the light of her lantern still in paw. His words quieted the voices she had been hearing until there was only him and her in the grove once again.
"I need your help."
“Ah, yes, a favor, that I should have known. Why else would you come so willingly into my home? Tell me, my dear, what is your desire? What burns in you like a roaring fire? Don’t be shy, I’ll hear your plea. Just tell me whatever it may be.”
She had come all this way, risking much and not just getting through the forest. Her entire family would be worried for her, though they had worries enough. But they were also all counting on her, even if they didn’t know it. It was for that reason alone she blurted out her intentions that night.
“My father is sick,” she began her tale. “He was working the farm last week when he stepped into a hole and wretched his ankle. The bone snapped and he has a fever. I’m worried...We’re worried that he might not last much longer.”
“Dutiful daughter, honest and true. But what is a simple fox to do?”
“You can help us,” Judy said with more force as she straightened her back to face the fox, though he towered over her even with her ears. “I know you can. Pop-Pop says that foxes can do all sorts of magics. You can heal him.”
“Heal, she does say. As if that were her only way. We both know why you came to me. Why, the reason is clearly plain to see.”
He crouched down so that the two of them were eye to eye. His voice broke from all song as he spoke with a tone that had the seriousness of a graveyard.
“You’re curious about foxes, aren’t you little bunny?”
Judy scowled. “Don’t call me little.”
“Forgive me, I found little to be very astute. Perhaps the bunny might prefer the word cute.”
“Do not call me cute either,” Judy clenched her lantern tighter and used her only threat. “I will walk out of these woods right now. You said it yourself, there is another way.”
He laughed. “Clever bunny, if my words you perceive. But what makes you think you’re allowed to leave?”
There was the glint of his teeth in the moonlight as he spoke. Some of the stories said that foxes would lure rabbits away to eat them, sometimes even stealing them from their beds as they slept. Judy could command herself not to shiver but she couldn’t control her nose as it twitched. That seemed to be what the fox was after. Her flinch to his threat.
“I merely jest. You pass my test. I am no savage who would steal you away. I am merely a humble fox with a game to play. My help you require, my aid you shall see. But do not expect that boon will be free.”
Judy swallowed the rock in her throat. This was no doubt what the fox truly wanted when he tried to spook her. She repeated her grandfather’s rules in her head as she answered him.
“Well, what do you want then?”
“What do I want, such an odd question. Allow me to speak and make my confession. Some foxes are won over by treasures made of silver and gold. A friend of mine loves wine and can be easily sold. Some take an offering of vegetables and fruit. Some taken away daughters, like lust laden brutes. But I am a simple fox, living under this tree. Thus my request is but a simple plea. Treasures and baubles are pretty, but not my aim. And so all I’d have from you, dear bunny, is your name.”
It was the second time the fox had asked for her name, Judy could recall perfectly well the same request when they first met five years ago.
It was in the way he said it. Have. As in ownership of. To control. To claim. To be the master of. Such permission was like handing the fox a leash. Though there was no give in the fox’s voice. He had made his inquiry seem so small in comparison to the glories other foxes before him had demanded. But he might as well be asking Judy for her very soul. Never bargain with a fox , she told herself.
“I cannot give you my name,” she said. “Is there something else I can give you?”
“There is not a single thing that I will need. Tis only your name which you should concede.”
“There must be something,” Judy thought for a moment. “You play the lute. What if I provided you a new one? My uncle works with iron and--”
The fox’s expression contorted in a manner Judy never thought a face could make. “Iron is a foul cruel metal. Many might call it the fox’s nettle. A lute made with iron, I dare not clutch. Iron burns and sizzles to the touch.”
“So you don’t like iron,” Judy whispered to herself. “How about baked goods? My mother makes a wonderful pie.”
“For a fox, there’s no nectar sweeter than the pouring rain. The berries are my banquet, the flowers my grain. So believe me when I offer no offense to your mother. But I would not trade one of my meals for any other.”
Judy was about to make an argument that he hadn’t tried her mama’s roasted carrot cake either when she was taken aback by the bored expression on the fox’s face. He let out a yawn and stepped away from the tree back into the woods. His scarlet fur somehow seemed to blend in with the brush, despite every logical thing Judy knew about the color red. It was like he was becoming one with the nature around him.
“Let it be known my desire is not mysterious. Come find me again when you want to talk serious.”
“Wait!” Judy called before he disappeared completely. “What if...What if I promised to visit you again?”
He paused with only his bushy tail remaining visible through the brushes. A sly smirk appeared in the ivy and leaves.
“I can hardly see her coming sprinting or flocking. How many visits are we talking?”
“How many?” Judy repeated the question. “I don’t know...Once more?”
“Once,” he laughed. “I know for a fact rabbits aren’t long of life. To me, it seems you mortals live on the edge of a knife. You’ve proven yourself already to be shy. I’d rather not wait till you’re ready to die. While it’s true you may fade while I remain in my prime. Still, waiting till then feels like a waste of time.”
“Alright, alright, I get it,” Judy said, looking to the sky beyond the canopy. It was as if the clouds themselves sensed her gaze and parted to reveal the moon. “What about...What about every night of the full moon?”
“You speak of witching hour?” the fox asked. “A time most usually cower. If that is your wish, I won’t refuse. But your suggestion leaves me rather confused.”
“It’s so you don’t get any ideas that I’m trying to cheat you. I play fair.”
“She says that as if I do not. It makes me wonder what bunnies are taught.”
“Then we are in agreement,” Judy ignored the comment from the fox. “If you do this for me, I promise I will be here in the full moon of next month, since it has already passed this cycle. But if my father’s foot is not on the way to healing by then, I will not come.”
“My dear little bunny, have no worries or fear. Your father will be walking again within the year.”
The fox returned in full form, as if the bushes had never existed to begin with. He offered Judy an outstretched paw. And at its center was a small brown bag.
“Heed my words closely and obey,” continued the fox. “See that your father eats this once a day. Have it with water, no more than a spoonful. Follow my instructions and he’ll be strong as a bull. One final warning, before you up and flee. Do not forget what you’ve promised me.”
There was a gust of wind as the pouch landed in both Judy’s paws, looking much larger than it did when the fox held it. The weight of it nearly pulled Judy down to the forest floor, she expected it to weigh nothing. When she looked up where the fox had been standing mere heartbeats ago, she found nothing but the evening air and the sound of crickets, echoing the final words he whispered to her. What you’ve promised me.
Judy’s nose twitched as she tucked the bag into her belt and scurried home.
She might have dismissed all that had happened the night before for a dream were it not for the pouch tightly clasped in her paws first thing in the morning. Judy didn’t even remember coming to bed as she stirred and scampered down to the kitchen to fetch the spoon. Most of her brothers had already risen to tend the fields with their father sick in bed and only her sisters were there to push past. A ladle was filled and she carried it all the way to her father without spilling a drop. It was only when there that she even bothered to look into the bag the fox had given her.
“Seeds?” her father laughed weakly as he stirred from his bed. “Jude, I don’t think I should be eating anything tough as a nut with my health.”
“Just swallow it whole then,” she replied with big eyes. “Please? For me?”
He could not refuse such a look, Judy had her own tricks she had learned over the years. After dancing with the fox all night, a few batting eyelids felt like child’s play. Not that Judy liked the idea of fooling her father, but it was for his own good as much as hers.
And so she continued her encouragement for a few days. Then a week. Then a three.
Before long, as the fox had promised, her father was well enough to move about. Or hobble as it were, with a large cast around his ankles as he waddled through the fields. Judy kept right by his side the whole way as a shoulder to lean on. No one said anything, but she was sure they all knew that she had something to do with their father’s returning health. It was in their looks and whispers. Judy became rather fond of all the attention as she would skip through the flowers, helping with pulling the weeds and carrying the tools around the farm. It seemed, for a time, as if everything was finally going back to normal.
Until the night of the first full moon, at least.
She convinced herself that she had read the calendar wrong. That she still had one more day before the glow of the moon reached its zenith. But when she stared out at the sky that night, she knew what she must do.
Wrapped in a blanket like a cloak, she approached the same hole in the fence as she had nearly a month ago.
The night was drier than before, with the heat of the summer forcing a slight drought on the lands. That caused the leaves to rattle like bells at her approach, though she was sure the fox knew she was coming even without sharp ears. His whisper came like the crack of a whip behind her as she stepped into the clearing with the stump.
“Of course I did,” Judy did her best to sound offended and not scared. “I promised, didn’t I?”
“To some, words are wind and talk is cheap. But a promise to a fox is one you must keep.”
“Why? Had I not shown up, what would you have done?”
The fox didn’t answer the question and instead strode past like a dancing flame, his tail fluttering in the night like a torch that continued to outshine even Judy’s lantern. He claimed his place on the stump and produced his lute, as if from nowhere. The sound it produced was like the song of a thousand cicadas singing in harmony. If Judy closed her eyes, it was like listening to the evening from her bedroom with the window open for coolness after a warm summer day. The comforting thought was ruined by the question she had been pawing leading up to this moment.
“What are you going to do with me?”
“Do with you?” the fox laughed. “Why, dance, frolick, and play. No harm will come to you during your stay. I told you before, I am not savage nor a brute. To bask in the full moon with you is my only pursuit.”
“That can’t be all of it,” Judy said defiantly swinging her lantern so that its light clashed with the glow of the fox. “You expect me to believe that you only accepted my bargain so that I could just sit here for the night and listen to you play music?”
“We don’t have to do that, I leave the choice to you. Truthfully, I have no preference to what it is we do. We can sit here and stare, if your mission is spite. Tell me what you wish to do tonight. Even if you do nothing but complain and groan. At least tonight I’ll not be…”
His song trailed into a sad smile and continued his playing.
“Do what you will, I will not cause a fight,” he finished with a few plucks of his string. “You need only remain here until the morning light.”
It was about two in the morning when Judy was starting to question everything she knew about foxes. He had not moved an inch save for his fingers and the moths were starting to gather around him and Judy’s lantern, left to the side.
She had been entertaining herself in the various ways she knew how. When counting the blades of grass in the glade grew too boring, she switched to catching fireflies instead. It was a good dry night for them and they fluttered about the place, as if summoned by the fox himself. Above them, the owls feasted and glided through the open sky as the moon acted as a spotlight for the pair below.
Judy hadn’t even noticed he had stopped playing until she captured her first unlucky lightning bug with her paws.
“Had I known you preferred catching stars, I would have gone and prepared some jars.”
“They aren’t stars,” Judy said with some indignation as the bug escaped between the cracks of her paws.
“Are they not? See how they glean? How many stars up close have you seen?”
“Well...None, I suppose.”
“Since a truth you cannot divine, I’d say this point is certainly mine.”
“That’s not how it works,” as Judy struggled for a reasonable explanation for the heavenly bodies, despite never giving much thought for them before. “They’re...So far away. But they’re still bright enough to see. Therefore...Therefore they must be larger than bugs!”
“Size is simply a perspective, is it not? You’d be a giant to the bugs that you swat. Though if one takes a step back to see. You’d be but a bunny, small and wee.”
He seemed to love tactfully reminding Judy of her short stature. She huffed and he laughed, returning to his lute.
“To your one point I concede. Stars are very large indeed. My point remains that facts can be skewed. At least when you see things from a certain point of view.”
The latest Judy had ever stayed up was four in the morning. That was when the early birds awoke, tweeting in preparation to greet the day. Sitting around doing nothing was a poor exercise to keep awake. While the rush of running into woods allowed her to get by at the start of the night, Judy could not fight the exhaustion without lowering her head across from the fox, whose songs were sounding more and more like lullabies.
He only stopped again when she yawned and curled up into a ball.
“It seems it’s come to the end of our play. In a couple of hours it will be a new day. Don’t fret though, I’ll see you soon. Come the dawning of the next full moon.”
“I’m still awake,” she said, eyes slitting open when she sensed his approach. “I still need to walk home…”
“The little bunny needn’t worry her cute little head. When next she opens her eyes, she’ll awake in her bed.”
“Don’t call me cute…”
“With what little I know of you, I can hardly be blamed. Things would be so much easier if you gave me your name.”
Foxes and names continued to be a dangerous game. Judy couldn’t help but wonder if it was the fox’s plan all along. To wait until she was too tired to be incoherent enough that she might actually fall for such a trick. Even if he sounded genuine, his words were laced with the thinnest layer of venom. It was enough to cause her eyes to narrow with the same distrust as most rabbits did when thinking matters made their brains fuzzy.
Perhaps it was her exhaustion and the familiarity through the night with the creature that caused her tongue to slip.
“I would have your name first, fox.”
He seemed rather taken aback by that. Judy hadn’t even sensed his approach as he stood over her with a surprised smile.
“Clever bunny,” he whispered. “To try and take what is mine. Surely you should know that that’s my line.”
“You can’t expect me to hand over what you won’t even give me yourself.”
She had done something unexpected again. Though she couldn’t quite put it into words, the fox’s rhythm had some sort of beat like through music. A flow to things that kept order to the forest. Or perhaps he was the dancer to the tune of nature itself, a slave to its music. Regardless, she had tripped him up somehow. She had interrupted the flow of things. She was the thunder in the storm, the cadence in the music. Or so his eyes told her.
“There are quite a few names those can give a fox. Some call us a pestilence or a pox. There are some who would call me, slippery, sly, or slick. But you, my dear bunny, may simply call me Nick.”
The name had a weight to it and it was so heavy on Judy’s tongue that she could barely speak it. “Nick? That’s all?”
“That’s all, is all that she can say. A name is not something easily given away. To do so would make one a thrall. A slave to answer to beck and call.”
“And you would give that to me?”
“As for matters we just discussed, I see it as a way of earning your trust.”
His shined green as they turned to her, almost as if they were asking her and your name is ? Judy felt her front teeth bite at her lower lip as her eyes grew heavy. She wouldn’t be awake for much longer. But she was not so tired as to fall for his ploy.
“Then, you may call me…”
“Carrots!” shouted Stu Hopps the next morning. “Juicy carrots! Fresh from the ground! No more an honest haggle from here to the Hills than with a Hopps!”
Judy had resigned herself to managing the carrot stall with her father that morning whilst his broken leg continued its slow healing. He was a far cry from the bedridden rabbit he had been weeks ago and had taken his seeds everyday without complaint. Now he was eager to help his family anyway he could with the harvest season rising soon. Judy wished she could share his same enthusiasm.
True to his word, when Judy eventually fell asleep she awoke in her bed as if nothing had happened the night before. Stranger still, she did not carry the exhaustion of a bunny who had stayed awake most of the night. In fact, she felt the most refreshed she ever had in the morning, and she wasn’t even old enough to start drinking coffee. It was as if the evening had been nothing more than a dream, a fantasy she had visited under the influence of the full moon and too many warm carrots before bed. There wasn’t a trace of any of it happening, her feet weren’t dirtied nor fur unkempt. And the memories taunted her as they faded away, again all just like a dream
She had one keepsake in particular that rolled around on her tongue, though she dare not say it aloud.
“Dad, why are names so important?”
Her father stirred as if he had forgotten she had been there sitting next to him that whole time. He was too busy changing paws with money from the crowds of bunnies that passed them by.
“Why, a name is what proves your worth, Jude. Every rabbit in the burrows knows that there’s no one you want to trust more with your carrots than a Hopps. Even your brothers are starting to make names for themselves in their own rights. They might be catching the eyes of some curious does from the Hills soon enough, you mark my words.”
It was true that business had been booming with a fine harvest despite the dry season. While all the other farms were serving shriveled carrots to the townsfolk, the Hopps’ farm carrots continued to be their usual big and juicy selves. Her father took a bite from one of the samples as the rush came to a lull before the next wave of travelers down the dirt path leading towards the main square of the village.
“What about giving someone your name?” Judy found herself asking.
“Well, your mother did that for me when I asked her to marry me. You see, when a buck and doe love each other very much--”
“Daaaad,” Judy whined. “That’s not what I meant. I’m talking about...If someone asks for your name...And you give it to them?”
If she was sounding like a fool then her father did a good job of disguising it before he distracted himself with a new customer.
Judy kept patient for as long as she could before it became obvious that he intended to drop the conversation in favor of work. Business was booming and if they brought in enough income, they could afford more paws in the fields and then some. Money was the least of Judy’s worries though and, despite forgetting her question, her father didn’t forget about her presence.
“Hey Jude, do you mind grabbing some more wheat from the bushels? I’m ‘fraid we might run out at this rate. Might be a good thing to check on old Pop-Pop too.”
She didn’t complain, she was there to help after all. She did, however, pout as was common for any child her age being ordered to do chores. Before long she was contemplating little games for herself to pass the time and humming to her work rolling the bales of wheat the size of her from the barn to the dirt road of the shop. It took her longer than she cared to admit to recognize the tune that came to her lips, though it was her grandfather that put it into words.
“That music,” Pop-Pop grumbled from his job of weaving straw hats for the other Hopps so they wouldn’t burn their heads in the fields. “Where did you hear that song, Ruby?”
“My name is Judy, Pop-Pop.”
“Rosie used to hum that song when she was still with us.”
He continued speaking as if he had not heard her. It was common enough for her grandfather to mutter to himself about days long past, going on all sorts of stories whether anyone was listening to him or not. Sometimes he would have whole conversations with himself even if he were alone in a room. Judy stood right before him looking understandably confused, yet he looked miles away from her.
“Always told her it was too dangerous to go hopping around out near the woods. She always shrugged me off. It was like she was being called there by something, though she’d deny it every time I brought it up. It was always like she was hiding something. I thought she was seeing someone else until she agreed to marry me. She was so beautiful when she danced with me the night before our wedding day. But by dawn, she had left and no one knew where she had gone. She just disappeared entirely. Gone like a sudden gust of wind.”
Normally Judy would politely nod along to her grandfather’s stories as just another quirk of his. But there was something strange yet familiar about the tale. It was the same feeling she felt when she was in the forest.
“What happened to Rosie?” Judy found herself asking.
“It was the foxes that took her,” her grandfather claimed, only it didn’t sound so crazy anymore. “She was always a wild one. It was in her eyes, green as emeralds. Same as yours, Tootie.”
“Judy,” she repeated before shaking her head. “And my eyes are purple. Are you sure she was taken away by foxes? How do you know if you didn’t see it happen or weren’t there?”
“I know because it’s what they do. They want what they cannot have. Real love? Emotions? Feelings? Those are just words that mean nothing to them. They can see it, though they can never feel it. So they crave it and are jealous of us for it. And when you go beyond the border between their world and ours, you never come back. They don’t allow you to.”
“Why not?” Judy asked. “Is it because they have your name?”
“If you give away your name, you’re not going to get it back. A name is power. It’s a cage. It’s how you can tell two things apart, but it’s also more than that. It’s like when a bride gives away her name to her future husband.”
“Dad said something similar…”
“Remember the three rules,” Pop-Pop warned with a stern finger to her face. “Remember them. Foxes aren’t to be trusted. They aren’t like us. They desire what they cannot have.”
A week came and went again, bringing the promise of the colder seasons with the chill in the evening air. All the while, Pop-Pop’s words echoed through Judy’s head like a stone tossed into the deepest of wells. In a rare moment of desperation, she turned to her mother to hear the full story about her grandfather.
“Rosie?” her mother said, half out of the surprise that Judy had come to her first and half from the memory of a ghost. “You must mean Rose Thumper, dear. Goodness me, I haven’t heard that name in ages.”
Her mother, like most of the other girls around the farm, settled on her place in the kitchen and was hard at work roasting carrots in the oven with the mashed potatoes with garlic butter sizzling over the stove. Judy swore that there were sometimes where her mother never even let the sun grace her fur and the other joys of wandering outside. Judy did her best to ignore her sisters giggling at her own ineptitude with peeling a particularly stubborn tater.
“He said something had happened to her,” Judy muttered her fib. She could not mention foxes around her mother or she’d never get a proper answer. “But he wouldn’t say what.”
“You’re best not troubling your Pop-Pop too much, sweetie. He’s had a long, hard life and sometimes he sees the ghosts of rabbits who are no longer with us. The Thumpers simply moved towns decades ago, and with them I’d assume Rose went too. Your grandfather had an eye for her, but she was something of an oddball even amongst the other bunnies, so I was told by your grandmother.”
“Candy said Rosie Thumper was the worst cook this side of the burrow,” added one of Judy’s sisters who had been listening in. “Said that if you wanted a proper poison, you never had to go searching for an apothecary. Just have a piece of Thumper pie.”
“Rude rumors are unbecoming of a young lady,” her mother said with that stern tone of voice reserved for when the wooden spoon was ready to come out. She only softened her speech when she looked down at the mess Judy had been making. “Oh, Judy! Here, you need to be careful with that peeler. It may look harmless but it’s actually quite sharp. You can lose part of your finger holding it like that.”
Judy scowled and dropped both the peeler and the potato in the cloth over her thighs, which she had been using to catch the debris while working. “This is stupid. I’m never going to have to know how to make baked potatoes. I can just eat the berries that grow out on the farm.”
“I have a feeling your future husband will not care much to have raw blueberries for dinner every night.”
“ My husband won’t mind that at all. If he really loved me, he wouldn’t care if I didn’t like to cook. And cleaning would be done once every month, at most. Not every week.”
“That’s a fine wish, sweetie,” her mother said, doing her best not to roll her eyes like she usually did whenever she listened to another one of Judy’s boasts. “But just remember, that sometimes it’s perfectly fine to settle on things that are simpler and the way things have always been. Look at your Pop-Pop. Even after Rose Thumper left, he still had seventy happy years with your grandmother before she passed away. May her soul rest easy.”
Judy just groaned and picked up the peeler again if only to get her mom to stop talking about marriage. She half wished that her father was there, he had a habit of quieting her mother when he sensed that Judy didn’t want to hear about such topics. Weddings and husbands were something that was another life away, something for adults who were taller and ancient. So long as the summers went on with such vibrant colors and beautiful harvest, and so long as her father remained healthy, Judy would never have to worry about such things.
“I expected this night would have much ado,” said the fox Judy had come to know as Nick. “Tell me, is there something that troubles you?”
It was the second month since Judy’s promised to the fox, a promise she had kept even with the autumn chill in the air. She had approached the forest huddled in her blanket for warmth, with even the summer bugs all burrowing away for warming pastures, wherever they went for the winter. Yet, strangely when she arrived at the forest clearing to find Nick with his lute, she no longer felt she needed her blanket and was content to dance around in nothing but her nightgown. It almost made her feel like a fairy were it not for a real one sitting on his stump across from her.
She looked his way when he asked his question. In truth, it was the first thing he had said to her upon her arrival. Judy had felt compelled to dance amongst the colored leaves without any prompting from Nick or any thought of what she would do that night. The dancing eased the many questions on her mind as it tangled with the mystery she had been grappling with these past days.
“...You wouldn’t happen to know a rabbit by the name of Rose Thumper, would you?”
Nick’s smile could say a thousand things alone, like words were just a pretty garnish the fox would indulge with only for Judy’s sake. Even though he had ceased plucking at his lute, it seemed like the music still played through the bright trees.
“A Rose is a pretty thing, though not without thorns,” he admitted. “Such a flower is best left unplucked, or others will mourn.”
“I wasn’t insisting that you--” Judy caught herself before she twirled in the other direction. “Nevermind. I’ve just been thinking a lot lately about stupid things.”
If a smile from a fox could say a thousand things, a frown would say ten thousand more. It was a rare form for any fox Judy had ever seen to show any form of sadness. Though, then again, she only ever knew this fox. And he would be unfamiliar with the customs of rabbits. Hardly the person to go and talk to about the petty problems of a dumb bunny.
Still he insisted, as he put down his lute fully to the ground. It vanished in an instant, as if it were never there. Or always there and a part of the forest and Nick had just been borrowing it.
“If it troubles you much, I won’t break your mask,” he said, walking up to her and taking her by both paws. “Still, I feel it is my duty to solemnly ask. What’s on your mind, Carrots?”
The last sentence felt out of place in the fox’s mouth. They were words meant for a bunny’s tongue, the sort of slang that Judy heard much around the farms and in the borrow. It caught her off guard and she huffed a laugh. She knew that the fox was doing his best to make her feel comfortable by using words only a rabbit would use. Even if it was for just a moment.
“It’s nothing,” Judy admitted. “Really, it isn’t. Just something my mother said to me last week when I was trying to help her in the kitchen. She said I had to learn how to cook if I was going to find myself a husband.”
“Ah,” Nick smiled again. “I can count on one paw the things I disparage. One of those things happens to be marriage.”
“Foxes don’t have wives? Or husbands?”
“The bond of marriage is one taken in faith. A product of religion, that ugly old wraith. We foxes have companions that we adore and we fond. And sometimes those most special with us do we bond. But that person is not someone kept under lock and key. The one whom we love is always, first and foremost, free.”
Judy’s eyes widened slightly at the word love. It caught her by surprise and she found that a redness was forming in her ears. Of embarrassment, of course, as she thought to her Pop-Pop’s rules.
“That must be nice,” she admitted after some silent pondering. “I don’t know if I want to get married. I’m only ten, after all.”
“Well, my dear, you’re still far from your prime. From what I know of bunnies, you still have plenty of time. You may stay with me here, until that fateful day. Here we’ll dance and frolick and sing and play.”
His voice trailed as Judy noticed she then had been smiling a little bit before she hid it away.
“If it’s not a husband whom you wish to flaunt,” he continued. “May I ask what Carrots wants?”
No one had ever really asked that of her before. Her father had been content to let her play in the happy fields of her childhood, enjoying the summer that never had to end. What she had known her whole life was the endless fields, grass stained skirts, and sticky sap in her fur at the end of the day. That was why her mother’s words had left such a deep echo in her heart. For so long, she had been going in one direction that she never even considered where it led. Or what was expected of her in the end. “I don’t know,” she replied after giving the question some thought and releasing Nick’s gentle paws. “I can’t play and dance like a kid forever. Even I know that much, I’m not stupid.”
“I can imagine,” Nick said, smirking with his teeth. “A bunny such as you has no simple desire. There must be something deep inside you that burns like wildfire. Think deeply to the quiet place when you dream hard. You have something there which you preciously guard.”
Judy frowned and looked down at her chest, clasping the neck of her gown. “Do you promise not to laugh if I tell you?”
“I swear upon my honor as a fox and I swear it thrice. My demeanor will be cold and stern as ice.”
Judy breathed in deeply and spoke words that she didn’t even know existed, for they had been buried in like a building geyser. It only took a tiny hole to send it all rushing out of her at once.
“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life stuck in Bunnyburrow and living on a farm like everyone else. I don’t want to learn how to cook, clean, or even sew unless it’s to mend holes in my clothes from play. And I don’t want to be anyone’s wife. I want to see the world. I want to go on adventures and climb mountains and swim in the ocean. I want to help people who need the help, because I think I’d be good at it. They say there’s whole cities out there beyond the fences. Beyond even these forests. I want to see it for myself.”
Nick chuckled. “That’s quite a ways to go. Beyond to a world you never know.”
“You said you wouldn’t laugh!” Judy cried as she threatened to kick him.
“I hadn’t expected your dreams would entice. Your words have the power to melt through ice.”
“You’ll find that my foot has the power to bruise too!”
She thought that when she did kick the fox, he might vanish like she was moving through a pile of leaves. Like she was trying to catch smoke with her paws. Yet her foot hit something solid and Nick yelped, clasping at his shin as he did the most undignified hop. In that moment, Judy felt as if she had crushed the wing of a beautiful dove as Nick dropped back into his seat on the stump. Her heart was unburdened only when he looked up and laughed her way.
“Well, if your foot already has such power, then perhaps there’s hope for you yet to flower.”
He had such the widest green eyes that, for once, made her feel taller than him.
“My advice?” he asked like she had asked him. “Put aside these thoughts of marriage or grooms. Instead, give yourself time to fully bloom. You have many years to decide what’s your fate. But that doesn’t mean you have to sit there and wait. If a life of adventure is the fate that you’d weave, why do not simply get up and leave?
“Leave?” Judy asked, blinking before she could lose herself in his gaze. “Do you mean if we were to go on adventures every month I’m here? You’d take me away from here, this forest even though it’s your home?”
“Perhaps,” answered the fox. “I’ve told you already when we spoke prior. My wish is whatever you desire.”
For a moment, Judy almost forgot that this was only the third time she had met with the fox. Talking had become so easy with him and it wasn’t until that moment that she realized why. While her parents would always lend her an ear, it was hard to listen to every single Hopps child, let alone only Judy’s interest. With the fox, with Nick, he would hear everything she had to say no matter how silly it was. He made her feel like the center of the whole world. It made her think that, for just a moment, Nick wasn’t something out of a legend or a fairy tale.
Still, his ideas were too big for a small bunny her age and Judy shrunk back down into her dirtied nightgown.
“I dunno,” she admitted. “That seems kind of dangerous. And it’s so far away, like you said.”
“Indeed,” he replied. “Such heavy thoughts can feel like a great weight. If it’s more comfortable for you, I’ll happily wait.”
And wait he did, as the visits continued on through the summer. And then through the year.
Before long, winter came and went and came again. It did not matter the weather though, or the temperature. Judy kept her promise with the fox and joined him in basking under the full moon. She found that she was never cold so long as she was in the forest clearing, though there wasn’t so much as a fire to warm her through the long nights. There was only the music and the fox that played it. Before long, Judy found herself longing for the night of the full moon and the dancing that would come from it.
It was a well kept secret that Judy continued to guard closely. Every month, she would slip out when the rest of the den had gone to sleep for their early morning. She was always careful and no one even knew she had left the burrow. It was like magic most nights, the way Judy seemed to glide along the floors and out the window and over the fence, with the hole fast becoming too small for her. Even when there was fresh fallen snow, she wouldn’t leave so much as a single track behind.
While Judy continued her play with the fox, however, life went on with the Hopps family.
Though her father’s leg had healed enough that he could walk again, he still carried the limp along with him as he continued to work the fields as best as he could. But everyone could see that age was catching up with him and soon it would be time to pass the farm off to his oldest children and settle down to reap the benefits that came with old age and wisdom. Everyday, Judy could see the changes in her family as her siblings took on more responsibilities around the household while her parents’ workload lessened. Wrinkles appeared along her mother’s forehead and white started forming in her father’s fur, all while Judy noticed changes about her own self. She no longer had to use a step to reach the window, for one. The dresses she often wore in summers past were now too short on her and her mother had to go to the Hills and buy her new ones. Her world seemed to grow just a little bit smaller with each passing day. And though she felt older, Nick treated her no differently from the day they first met. Foxes never aged, after all.
The forest became the only life Judy ever knew, as she found her focus, even during the busy harvest months, shifted to daydreams of the meadow and the stump filled with the sound of music. More often than not, her family would catch her dancing in a strange way with her head in the clouds and feet on the ground. As she would dance, she’d hum an eerie tune that would make all her siblings shift uncomfortably around her. Some swore that whenever she got into one of those strange moods that her eyes would change from purple to green, though Judy insisted they were just seeing things.
Still, it was enough to worry her mother. Her father could only talk her down so much before he too agreed to do something. Given the farm was in perfect order and his health no longer in danger, that meant attention could be drawn to building a bigger future. And with it, a bigger family.
“You just have to meet him, Jude,” her father said from the front of their wagon. “This is a great surprise to everyone. And he was the one who approached your mother first.”
Everyone had been telling Judy how great an honor it was for someone to be interested in her, from the moment she had been plucked from her bed to when they were forcing her into the beautiful green silk robe her mother had picked out for her.
At age seventeen, she had bigger things to be worrying about than a buck whose attention she had snagged while working with her father in the marketplace. Worse, she couldn’t, for the life of her, figure out exactly why she had lured in yet another buck seeking her paw in marriage. Most of her sisters had already been spoken for or were actively hunting for husbands of their own. That meant they would focus on the traditional tasks of sewing and cooking, rarely stepping outdoors. Judy, on the other paw, spent most of her time helping her father out in the stalls when she wasn’t frolicking in the woods.
Business had been booming for the Hopps, with her father’s bad leg he had taken to marketing instead of tending to the fields, leaving that to his children. That meant many long trips to the neighboring Hills to give everyone a taste of the finest and juiciest carrots that side of the burrow. Naturally, Judy jumped at the chance to go with him and see more of the world, helping him with the business of traveling along with her brothers. That included hiring some horses who agreed to pull the cart, making sure everyone was fed for the journey, polishing the wheels, loading the carriage, and all manner of work that would form calluses on her paws. It also meant a lot of exposure to the outside world, which had never heard of the Hopps until now.
Judy still didn’t quite understand how being sweaty and grimy from a hard day’s work was considered attractive in the eyes of the cityfolk. Her sisters all smelled of perfumes and flowers, while her scent was that of grass clippings and wet leaves. While she dressed nicely now with her fancy clothes and combed fur, that wasn’t her true self covered in stains with a holey skirt that she’d tie in knots to help her move swiffer. It was the wilds which she belonged to, after all. But even that had no claim to her name.
“What’s his name again?” Judy asked, staring out the back of the wagon and trying not to soil her dress or there would be hell to pay with her mother. “Jonathan Savage?”
“I knew you were paying attention,” her father beamed with pride. “The Savages are the biggest name in the Hills when it comes to business. Jonathan happens to be their youngest son and an eligible bachelor. Your mother says all the girls swoon over him.”
It was good fortune that Judy was facing away from her father so that he didn’t see her eyes roll. There wasn’t much challenge in being the biggest in business when Judy could count the number of large families in the Hills without even using all her fingers and toes. She let her feet dangle from the edge of the cart, the only thing that her mother would allow her to dirty during the trip. She would be coming up later in the evening to join the Savages for dinner. Judy hoped that they wouldn’t be held up too long with the full moon that night.
Of the things Judy had been expecting that evening, a party was not one of them. She quickly learned that the Savage family never did anything small, and the dinner actually involved most of the village heads and the surrounding burrows as well.
They came with their fine clothing, elaborate velvet tunics lined with silver brooches and plump hats with feathers, all shaking paws and false smiles, some with gold teeth. Judy did what was expected of her, curtsying and smiling back at the old rabbits and pretending to listen in on the groups of girls her age, who spent their time gossiping about boys around the town. Though it was a brisk autumn evening, Judy felt quite warm in the crowded ballroom even after her mother had made her clean her feet when she arrived. Everything was sparkling and pristine like out of a fairy tale. The chandlers were made of diamonds and glass, much like the goblets which freely passed around. Most of all was the music. It was practiced and perfect with the band having flawless synchronization, but that also made it sound stiff and unnatural to Judy’s ears.
It was quite some time before they served dinner and an even longer wait until Judy could finally meet him.
“Jude,” said her father. “I’d like for you to meet Lord Jonathan Savage.”
“You can call me Jack, my lady.”
Lord Savage came in offering Judy’s father his arm as they walked together approaching the girl’s table, her father still using his cane. Judy regretted filling herself up on the feast, thinking that by shoving food in her mouth it would excuse her from talking. Now there was an angry ball of stuffed carrots rolling in the pit of her stomach as she rose to greet her future suitor.
She supposed he looked fine for a lagomorph. He was an arctic hare, much like the rest of the Savage clan who hailed from the cold north, with striking black lines in his fur that highlighted his pure white body. For clothes, he was dressed in the finest overcoat money could buy, stitched by a master tailor and held together with cold iron buttons on his cuff and chest. His eyes were sharp and blue as iclies and they stared down at Judy as she bowed to him and repeated the pleasantries that her mother commanded her to say.
They were given only moments to speak with each other before the business of the courting continued.
“You’re quite different from all your sisters,” Lord Savage told her.
“I apologize if that offends you, my lord,” Judy replied. “I’ve not been one for perfumes and gossip.”
“So, I’ve noticed,” he said, smiling for the first time all night.
Then came the dancing.
Jack was stiff as ice as they waltzed around the ballroom as the band continued their playing. There was not a single flexible bone in the hare’s body even as Judy dipped and swirled around the dance floor. He was as solid as his iron buttons, and even firm in his bows when the mandatory dance was completed. By the time the dancing was done and the music slowed, Judy was looking for more reasons to hate the hare. Not to mention, it was very late in the evening and somehow the party didn’t even feel in the thralls of its final hours yet with desserts just being passed around. Carrot cakes with seven layers. Judy never cared much for sweets and instead moved to get some fresh air.
Outside was quieter and allowed her a moment to think as Judy stared up at the full moon.
She rested on the balcony, her aching feet throbbing from the hardwood floors. The manor was at the very edge of the forest, with all the fences made of the same iron as Jack’s button jutted with points to keep unwanted visitors out. Being so close to the Hills, Judy could still feel the heaviness of smoke in the air as every inch of her body tried to pull itself away from the party. She had half a mind to leap from perch and run off into the woods. She knew that she’d always end up back at home in the morning. Though she resisted the call, knowing full well that if she just went running she’d cause her parents no small amount of grief before they scolded her when she turned up at daylight.
Judy lingered for as long as she could before someone would be sent to look for her and turned to face the perfectly orchestrated music. But she paused mid step when something else called to her. Her ears twitched in the direction of the forest below as she gazed out into shadows giving away to the light of the moon. She heard the imperfect sound of strings being plucked, like humming of leaves and wind through the trees. Imperfect, but beautiful all the same. She cracked a smile at the sight of a red flame waiting at the edge of night, lute in paws as green eyes stared back up at her.
Without thinking, she leapt from the banister, landing on the grass softly and gracefully as a falling flower petal.
“I was wondering if I had earned your spite,” said the fox. “For you not to grace me on this beautiful night.”
“I wasn’t spiting you,” Judy gave me a toothy grin. “I just got dragged into a party thanks to my parents. I will keep my promise to you and come to the clearing when this is all done. I was just meeting a potential suitor.”
“Potential suitor? You speak with such hateful terse. Tell me, who is the fellow that which you curse?”
“Oh, he’s no one of importance,” she replied, looking back to the large mansion looming behind her like a mountain to climb. “He’s a poor hare, rich only in cold metals and rocks. Dead things that don’t have much warmth. I don’t think he even knows what the sun tastes like. It makes me wonder why it’s me that he’s interested in when there are so many more beautiful does in the village.”
“To that thought, Carrots, I can hazard a guess. Men always want what they do not possess.”
With the fence between them, it was hard to see which one of them stood in the cage. Being so close to iron gave Judy a chill when the wind blew and the leaves rustled like glass. She shivered, huddling her arms close together and longing for the warmth of the woods, where Nick could get by with a light tunic and leggings that seemed to be made of leaves.
“You could come in,” Judy spoke up suddenly. “And not stay out in the cold, you know. There’s plenty of food to eat.”
Nick chuckled. “The gall of you to try and bribe me with food. You must think yourself to be very shrewd. But I do not think my coming is very wise. A roomful of rabbits has with it many eyes.”
“You can hide in plain sight. I know you can, I’ve seen you do it before. Just disguise yourself as someone and come inside. Everyone is either too busy to notice you or too drunk to look closely.”
“Even if my adventure was short and brisk, the thought of being caught is too great a risk.”
“Well, then you wouldn’t have to be alone in the woods tonight.”
The fox seemed to chew at her words for a long time. It took Judy a moment to realize that the music had stopped and Nick was staring into the lawn behind her where there was an approaching chill, like the coming winter.
“Lady Hopps,” called the stern and refined voice of Lord Savage. “I saw that you had disappeared from the ballroom and I--”
Judy recognized a bit of herself from seven years ago in how her suitor became even more like ice and froze in place at the sight of the creature lurking behind the bars, ear up high and eyes wide like glass balls. Foxes were true myths around the more industrious parts of the Hills, and you didn’t expect to run into legends in your backyard. There was a heaviness in the air akin to the moments before lightning would strike.
“What,” Lord Savage found his voice. “Is that foul creature?”
Judy went grasping for lies yet couldn’t come up with any to take hold of to try and explain why there was a fox lurking outside of the Savage property line. But when she glanced back to Nick searching for guidance, it wasn’t a fox that stood where he had just a moment ago. Whatever it was, it hid most of itself beneath a ragged cloak and even harsher breathing. Nick’s lute had become a gnarled cane that supported his hunched back. Most of his features were hidden beneath a large straw hat that had two dented ears sticking out. As part of the illusion, Judy could smell the stench of sickness and liquor as Nick spoke in a forced raspy tone.
“Beg pardon, my lord,” he spoke. “I was simply enraptured by this simple beauty from afar. She was kind enough to let me borrow a few moments of her time. I meant no harm.”
“I should hope not,” the lordly bunny huffed. “This is a private residence, you shouldn’t even be in those woods. How did you get in here?”
“I can see I am not wanted,” the sad eyes of Nick’s persona turned to Judy but for a moment. “I will trouble you no further then and be on my way.”
“You’d best before I hop over that fence and chase you off myself and beat you with that cane.”
“Lord Savage,” Judy spoke when she could no longer sit by and watch things unfold so poorly. “Surely there’s no need for such violence.”
“One look at him is all I need. He’s a vagabond and a bandit. I would not allow any harm to come to you, my lady.”
“He’s done nothing to me! We’ve only just been speaking with each other if you had the heart to listen but for a moment.”
She looked to the place where Nick had been standing and found him gone without a trace, as if he had never been there at all.
The remainder of the party went sour following that encounter. The servants of the Savage family were sent out to scout the area for any signs of the intruder, though of course they turned up with nothing. Catching a fox was like trying to catch sand, as Judy knew from experience. Nick would only be caught if he allowed himself to be. And they never knew that the shadow they were chasing was actually something from stories older than all of them combined. They thought they were after a bandit or vagabond that had no business soiling the perfect town the rabbits had built for themselves. Everyone left the event in a rather foul mood, but none so more as Judy’s parents.
Judy had made it quite clear to them that she had no interest in Lord Savage or his wealth. Not when he had such a cold heart. Her mother expressed her own outrage to the sentiment, which Judy had expected. But she did not anticipate her father’s reaction even after things had cooled off into the afternoon.
“Jude, you have to understand that this is a wonderful opportunity for not just you but all of us. I’m getting too old to run the farm and soon things will be changing. Marrying into the Savage family would secure the farm’s stability for generations.”
“But it’s not what I want,” came her reply. “He’s too cold and would make for a horrible husband.”
“Well, sometimes it’s good to just settle on things and make compromises. Look at your mother and I. We didn’t quite get along when we first met. But then we made things work and talked things over. Perhaps if you met with him in a less formal setting…”
“I don’t think he even knows what an informal setting is. I don’t want to be kept locked in some iron cage for the rest of my life. Can’t we find someone else for a suitor?”
“Jack made it clear it’s you he’s interested in,” her father spoke with an unfamiliar frigidness. “You’ve turned down just about every suitor we’ve thrown your way, Judy. You’ll be eighteen soon and if we wait around for you to feel ready for marriage then it will be too late. You know it kills me to say this, but this is not negotiable. I’m sorry, but your mother is right. I need to start being more firm on this. The wedding is non negotiable. You’ll be pursuing your courtship with Lord Savage if he didn’t already take offense to how standoffish you were to him last night.”
“I’ll hear no more of this. The decision is final.”
It was quite the long wait until the next full moon.
Needless to say, Lord Savage was more distracted by the intrusion on his property than any offense Judy might have said to him. And despite her best efforts to appear cold and standoffish to deter him, he seemed to pursue her favor only more feverishly. It came to the point where her father would forbid her the refuge she would normally seek through work around the farm or with vending in the marketplace. Instead, the trips to town were about leaving her at the Savage estate to become more familiar with her impending new family. There was very little Judy could do to escape her captors, with either servants or family members constantly being at her side. She felt bound and tied to the mansion, which she was constantly told over and over would be her new home in due time.
Lord Savage, himself, was often away on business regarding the mines that his family owned. Whenever Judy did see him, it was often at dinner with the whole family. There he would prattle on about matters in the market that she had to pretend to understand least she’d receive trouble from her mother who quizzed her upon her return home late at night. More and more, Judy felt trapped within the cold, marble halls of the Savage estate. And more and more she found herself longing for the warmth of the moon’s zenith.
When it did come, she practically ran for the woods at night, her bare feet kissed by the dew on the grass as she slipped through the trees like the wind. To Judy, the forest was so familiar with her that she could navigate the hidden path with her eyes closed. Even though it was late autumn, there was a warmth to glade as the melody of a lute called to her like the flame of a campfire.
“It’s a sad day when even I can tell,” called the fox waiting for her. “That Carrots does not look so well.”
Judy collapsed at his stump and played with her ears. “No, I’m not at all. But just play your music for a while. Please. It’s soothing when all I’ve had this past month to hear is the droning of stone walls.”
Nick smiled and nodded. No other words needed to be spoken.
As she grew older, Judy’s nights with him were less about play and more about the music and dancing, followed by the deep conversations and secrets the two would share with each other. It was not long into his ballad when Nick would receive all that had plagued the bunny’s tired mind. He let her speak fully, remaining silent while his fingers did the talking on his strings.
She told him everything. Her finalized marriage, scheduled for spring when the snow thawed. Her father’s sudden abrasiveness on the matter. Lord Savage and his decadent family whom really tasted the sunshine or the grass outside. The planning and preparations of a wedding. The names, faces, and responsibilities she was expected to learn. Her growing lack of sanity trying to balance everything.
When she was done and spoken her full, it was the wee hours of the morning. Nick’s paws were rough and calloused when he could finally cease his gentle playing.
“It’s not a wonder why you’re so full of rage,” he said. “It sounds to me like you’ve been placed in a cage.”
“We spoke of this before,” Judy replied, lying on her back in the grass. “Marriage. I just...Didn’t think it would happen so fast.”
“As important things often seem to do, they tend to get the jump on you. But before your mind wanders and leads you astray, tell me on the matter what does your heart say? In this moment you’re busy and have a lot on your plate. But is Carrots happy and content with her fate?”
Judy had been so busy with things that she hadn’t even considered her own happiness. She had been told that it was good for her, good for her family. Girls in the village all swooned over Lord Savage and his brooding nature. Judy had been told how lucky she was to have caught his eye. How grateful she should be. And so, she had tried to seem pleasant and wear a smile through the month. And yet…
“I am not,” she found the words came harsh and easy to her lips. “You said it yourself, it feels like I’m being placed in a cage. Father says I’ve been allowed to wander and play for too long. That this is a part of growing up and I should accept it and settle for what I can get it. But to do that feels...Wrong.”
“So leave then, if that is your way. I do not see why you should stay.”
“Because I have to,” Judy admitted while rolling in the gross, burying her head into her arms. “The marriage is too important to my family’s business. If I just ran away then I would be abandoning them. And with so much gone into making things work right now, my family would be the laughingstock of the entire burrow if I skipped the wedding. No one would ever do business with us again if the Hopps were known to go back on their word.”
Nick knew when there was little to be said in that moment, a time to let the music do the talking about. A sad requiem played from his strings as Judy ran through her situation over and over again. The way she saw it, there was no practical path that would result in both her own happiness and the prosperity of her family. Her family which she had already done so much for, she wouldn’t just abandon them. Even when her father was sick and dying, she remained the dutiful daughter and she couldn’t leave them.
It clicked in a moment as Judy suddenly remembered what Nick had done for her that summer night.
“You could help me!” she said, jumping to her feet. “You healed my father once, so you must have some magic that could fix things. You could do something that would satisfy everyone!”
“I could,” Nick admitted with a hesitant nod. “But I told you before and I will tell you thrice. Magic like this always comes with a price.”
“Whatever it is, I would pay it,” Judy spoke more defiantly.
“Do not be so eager without hearing what I have to say. For you do not consider what you must pay. The magic I speak of is terrible and old. Strong is its grip and powerful its hold. To save your own family and not become a wife, what I would need is compensation of life.”
“I would have to die ?”
“Not die, though you may wish you were dead. Which is why this is an area I did not wish to tread. I admit, there was once a time where it was my greatest desire. And I say all this so that you know I am no liar. Since our meeting I’ve come to...Care for you a great deal. This fate you’d be given, I am in no hurry to seal. Our time spent together has been, to me, a simple bliss. And if I went and ruined that, it would be time that I miss. To do this to you without warning would be unjust. And from me, it requires a large amount of trust.”
“Of course I trust you,” Judy said almost at once. “If there’s anyone I could trust with this, it would be you.”
For a moment, Nick looked as though he had been pierced by an arrow in the way he put one paw to his chest. Then he sighed and took a different persona. His appearance darkened as the red in his fur looked more like a violent fire. His eyes a wild green flame as he stared up at her. Suddenly, the fox Judy thought she knew didn’t look quite like himself anymore. He became taller as he stood from his stump, like a true fox from the stories her Pop-Pop told. Judy swore she could hear thunder rumble in the distance as he uttered his words.
“Then hear me as I make myself heard. Rabbit of pasture, bounded by word. Hear me as my demands are made. For what I require is significant trade. Hear as I give my call. For what you most give me is not tiny nor small. Hear me, as I now make my claim. For what I require from you is your…”
In the days that followed, Judy felt no different despite what she had given.
The way the stories went, she expected to feel empty. Or to feel like she was tied to some foul fate. Judy wasn’t sure what it said about the world when she could continue after having given away so much. Instead, she had duties to perform and she was determined to make the best of things.
Autumn died into a bitter winter, made colder by many nights spent in the Savage estate for holiday parties. There were more feasts and celebrations than Judy could count. She was even allowed wine for the first time, though it was a sour taste on her lips. Still, she kept a smile going by remembering Nick’s parting words to her.
“Keep appearances up like an actor in a play, and I promise I’ll return for you on your wedding day.”
Still, it was hard during the next full moon. She rose from her bed like she normally did, stepping out into the thin layer of snow from the night before with nothing but a night shirt on and a lantern in paw. The forest did not call for her and when she tried to reach the clearing, she found herself turned around and lost, always ending up back at the entrance. The trees felt eerily empty too, like they had abandoned all life with no even the birds or birds lingering in such a place. Briefly, she had the thought that Nick had taken from her what he wanted and ran off, just like her Pop-Pop warned. She thought to call his name, for she knew that would summon him to comfort her. But she kept her faith and returned to bed, cold and alone that night.
Winter raged on with heavy storms as the wedding preparations were made with invitations sent to everyone in town. There were times when Judy wondered if her sisters were having more fun with the event than she was, as she developed more of a taste for wine after many nights spent with the planners discussing arrangements. Her dress was picked out from the finest tailor in the burrow and was worth more than her father made in a year. She couldn’t deny that it did look beautiful on her, though the smile she donned with it wasn’t genuine. Instead, she felt more like a child dressed in their parent’s clothes when she looked in the mirror. At least the tasting of food for the reception was something to look forward to and she was never without her fill for the day.
The season turned to false spring as work in the farms began again. The more distant travelers came and stayed in the Hill, waiting for the right day when the flowers would blossom and the birds returned.
It came on a gorgeous Sunday morning, the sort that came only in stories with the sun shining in such a way that everything was left in a golden haze.
Judy remembered waking up feeling sick to her stomach enough that she skipped breakfast. Most of her day was spent fitting into her dress and preparing with perfumes and makeup, things she was only wearing for the first time. The ladies around her chatted and hummed excitedly enough that she felt like the only person in the world without a song in her heart. When they were finished, she didn’t even recognize the bunny staring back at her in the mirror with big purple eyes and a deathly pale dress.
Much of the rest of the day was waiting patiently for the guests to arrive. Judy paced in the side rooms of the only abbey in the Hills as the attendees filtered in and the musicians prepared their instruments. It was only when her father arrived, dressed in his Sunday best, did she know it was time.
“You look beautiful, Jude.”
She could hear those words a thousand times but the one person that had to believe it was her. And she couldn’t when her insides felt like they were twisting into knots. As they walked down the aisle together, Judy found herself growing weak with fear. Nick had made no attempt to reach out to her since that night in autumn. There was not a clue to what he planned, only his word of promise. As Judy glanced to her Pop-Pop, sitting in the front aisle seat, his words rang in her ears. Never trust a fox.
Judy didn’t hear much of the speech from the old deer priest as he waffled on about true love and other things the clergy were supposed to say about marriage. Judy hadn’t even noticed that Lord Savage had been standing next to her until they were coming to the end of the ceremonies and the end of their vows and the priest casted an expectant glance at Judy.
“Then I now pronounce you husband and wife. Lord Savage, you may kiss the bride.”
A chill came in through the church before the lord could do as commanded. The glorious day outside faded in an instant, like a dark cloud blocked the sun. In that moment, there was only one light in the form of vibrant red fur standing at the back of the abbey. Judy felt her heart rose just as everyone around her sank into their seats. Hushed whispers fell over the crowd as they quickly realized what the cause of this disturbance was.
“So many faces in this wedding do I see,” said Nick. “And yet you did not think to invite me.”
“You?” Lord Savage found his tongue for a literal myth walking into his wedding. “Wait, I know that voice. You were the vagabond from that night months ago!”
“Guilty as charged, my dear Lord Savage. And for your transgression, your wedding I intend ravage.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Judy’s father was the next to speak. “I know not who or what you are, but this is a holy day you are intruding on. I’ll have no nonsense on today, of all days.”
“By all means, Mister Hopps, I mean no disrespect. But there is a certain due payment I’ve come to collect.”
“He’s a fox,” Pop-Pop shouted at the top of his lungs, pointing a shaking finger in the direction of Nick. “Dangerous and wily. Hold onto your babes, or he’ll steal them right from under your noses!”
In that instant, the abbey erupted into a panic as mothers clutched their children and people scrambled over each other for a better look at what assumed to be a bedtime story. Nick stood proudly before them, though Judy knew the words pained him. She had seen that look in his eye before. Yet he came anyway for her, despite what he knew would happen in being gawked at like some monster.
“My good...Fox,” her father tried again. “I know not what past offense we’ve done to you, but we’ve meant no harm. Today is my daughter’s wedding and this is to be a time of celebration, not ill will. What did you mean by you’ve come to collect payment?”
Nick’s laugh echoed far and wide through the abbey. “You bunnies and how you hide away in your burrows. You’d know I was here all along had you been more thorough. Really, my appearance today should come as no surprise. Fear not, all will be made clear when I collect my prize.”
“He speaks in riddles,” her father decided.
“And annoying rhymes,” added Lord Savage as he drew the iron sword at his side. “This is your last warning, fox. You are not welcome here. Leave now or things may start to get violent for you.”
“Perhaps then this might get you to stop,” Nick outstretched a paw. “Come to me now, Judith Laverne Hopps.”
The use of her name was like the crack of lightning. In an instant, Judy felt herself pulled from the altar right into Nick’s arms as the whole church gasped. It was a strange feeling, like an invisible leash had been placed around her neck. She felt that even if she wanted to leave Nick’s grasp, she couldn’t. Not that she wanted to. Not when he was her only shield. His touch at her shoulder felt more real than everything about that day. Though to all around them, it appeared as he had snatched her away like some great beast.
Lord Savage stared dumbfounded at the two of them, having bore witness to magic for the first. The oldest and most powerful kind of binding.
“You foul creature! Release her, at once! She doesn’t belong to you!”
“Nor you,” Nick replied. “You see, Lord Savage, you can own body and you can own blood. You can purchase a house made of wood or hut made of mud. You can keep your treasures of diamonds and gold. You can buy from any market or whatever is sold. You can even keep women, if they love you and swoon. I suspect you know that well, given your silver spoon. By right, this bride is certainly yours to claim. But know that I will always hold tightly onto her name.”
And with that, the two of them were away like the crack of thunder.
The fresh air blew her dress about as Judy found herself standing back in the clearing of the forest. She did not know how they came to that spot, the journey had all seemed instantaneous in her eyes though the hour was late by the lowered sun in the sky. Nick was waiting for her at his usual stump, plucking at his lute in a familiar tune.
“What happened?” Judy found herself asking. “Is it over?”
“In a word,” he replied with a smile. “The sleeping village is in quite the uproar. You’re lucky to have a family whom adores. The search has been ongoing, the church bell it chimes. It may be wise to remain hidden for quite some time. And since your husband’s marriage is legal in court, it’s your family that he will have to support. As for your own fate, I tell you to please be at ease. You’re free to go wherever or do as you please.”
“But you didn’t tell me it would happen like that. You’ll be shunned for stealing me away, won’t you? They’ll come looking for you.”
“Indeed, they’ll come to find me and my kind they will curse. They can do what they will, I’ve suffered worse. If they come to this place, they’ll only find me gone. After all that’s been said and done, perhaps it’s time I moved on.”
Judy frowned as the forest felt just a little bit emptier from the fox’s musings. After waiting to see Nick again for so long, it was sudden to have him talk about leaving though she could understand why. She had no doubt given her parents a fright and there were few so terrifying as a concerned parent protecting their child. Not that she felt that she could go home now. For all intents and purposes, her parents saw her kidnapped by a fox.
“Ah, before I forget, there is one final task. A dirty deed before victory’s basked.”
He put down the lute and approached her as thunder rumbled in the distance again.
“They had to believe magic with their own eyes and see, that is why I’ve bound yourself to me. But now I must break that chain, lest it becomes our blight or bain. Judy Hopps, I return your name to you. No longer will anyone tell you what to do.”
There was an unspoken wholeness in Judy’s chest as Nick undid the binding, like she had been holding her breath those many months. Only now did she feel free again, like she had many summers ago when she first wandered into the woods.
“...Thank you,” she whispered as she put her paw to her heart.
“It is you I must thank for putting your trust in me,” Nick smiled back. “For such faith brings no small amount of glee. But now I must leave and be on my way. There will surely be trouble if I delay.”
“Right now?” Judy called out to him as he turned in the other direction, behind the stump. “Wait! Surely we have a little bit of time before they find us. Where am I supposed to go?”
“Anywhere,” came the reply. “You’re free to do as you please. Though if I were you, I’d remove the wedding chemise. Your freedom was the purpose of this, or so I thought. Don’t tell me your dreams are still tied up in knots.”
“But...But this forest is your home. Your freedom...”
“Freedom is an ideal, and those are rarely true. Everything I’ve done, Carrots, I did for you. For you are more real than a destiny fated. If this is to be farewell, then my curiosity is sated.”
She could hardly take the time to process those words as they stepped into a new clearing, one she hadn’t seen in years. The door stood waiting under the tree surrounded by a ring of mushrooms. It’s blue glow now called like the open sky. Judy felt the beating of her heart like a drum as she swallowed, listening to the voices of those beyond calling out to her dearest friend. She could understand them now. Nick approached it like someone prepared to go home after a long day’s work, stretching casually in front of the portal.
“I’ve done my good deed for a century or two. Now I can rest and bid thee ado. Whatever your plans, I know they will be great. Go forth and conquer, your future awaits. Let your ambition burn brighter than any pyre. And may your feet take you to whatever world you desire.”
He then stepped forward towards the door, his back to her as Judy finally knew what she had to do.
“And what if I said the world I desired wouldn’t be the same without you?”
Nick’s foot paused in midstep, halfway between this world and the next.
“Why is it you insist on complicating my task,” he sighed. “Such a thing you desire is not mine to ask.”
“That’s why I’m the one asking it. It’s my decision to make.”
“Don’t you have your family to keep in mind? Surely you’ll feel sad to leave them behind.”
“Excuse me, weren’t you the one who kidnapped me in front of the whole town? Yes, it will be sad to leave my family, but I’m not leaving them with nothing. Everyone did see me get legally married to Lord Savage and they would talk awfully of his family if he just abandoned my mother and father after watching their daughter get kidnapped right before their eyes while he did nothing. Now he’s in the same situation I was. That’s why you waited until my wedding, wasn’t it? You always hated the ideas of marriage and trapping people in cages.”
Nick admitted to nothing and instead turned to face the now determined bunny. The portal hummed angrily behind him.
“The world behind me is one you’ve never known,” he tried again. “It has no villages nor houses of stone. It has only forests where the foxes frolick and play. Foxes who may not take kindly to your stay. I beg you Carrots, reconsider this jaunt. Is such hardship truly something you want?”
“Why not?” she asked him. “You’ve done the same for me and more.”
“That matter is different, as you very well know,” Nick spoke bitterly before his eyes lit up from realization. “But I know another reason why you should not go. Travel to my home requires a significant toll. Surely you’d not think it a free and easy stroll.”
“So, you want something in return,” Judy nodded knowingly. “Then how about a trade? I would give you my name.”
“Names have less value when they’ve been used and accrued. I would only accept payment in the form of something new.”
His final reason only had Judy stumble for but a moment before she was struck by an idea. Without wasting another moment, she hopped into Nick’s arms as he caught her almost on instinct. His eyes wide with surprise as she gave the kiss she had been holding onto since the wedding. Though he did not push her away and pulled her in closer to an embrace. Though Judy would always be opposed to the idea of marriage, for once the idea of being together with someone forever didn’t sound so bad.
“...I suppose that settles it,” Nick said as he carried her to the border. “Though it’s not too late to quit.”
“Stop trying to make this place my tether,” she replied. “I promise wherever you go, we go together.”
All Nick could say before he stepped through the door with her was simple and not foxy at all. “As you wish, Judy.”
The disappearance of Judy Hopps only fueled the fire for the legends of foxes, of course. Though she was not gone forever, she would visit her family again years later looking no older than the day of her wedding and still in her gown. It was enough to appease her parents and the people who mattered to know she was safe and happy. But old hatreds are not so easily forgotten and the events at the wedding of the formerly young Lord Savage became something of a myth or a warning used by the old folks to tell their children about deals with foxes. Judy would make a habit of visiting the realm of bunnies on every anniversary of her wedding. She laughed when she heard the stories about herself as she walked the old burrow streets, seeing how the world had moved on without her with bigger and bigger buildings each passing year. Every visit the burrows changed more and more. That was a good thing, she decided.
Maybe someday their worlds would move closer together when the old warnings went unheeded and curiosity struck young bunnies to go searching for the truth. Rules were made to be broken, after all.