Vixenscratch

Short stories and serials by Alexandra Herakai

To Catch a Thief

 Eyra woke with a start, sitting upright and looking around him before he’d quite managed to identify what had disturbed his sleep. His ears twitched, panned around, looking for some kind of sound, while he looked around his small camp. Under normal circumstances he’d have made camp up off the ground in a small tree or similar, but he’d been exhausted when he was finally ready to sleep the previous night.

The meat from his kill was still there. The pile of dirt near the fire, where he’d buried what was going to be his breakfast, was still there. His small pack of supplies was still there, and didn’t look as though anything had touched it. Everything seemed to be in order, then, except…

Only men would steal his roll of half-treated hides out of his camp while leaving all that fresh meat. A growl rose in the jaguarundi’s throat, the fur on his tail rising. All his work and lost sleep the last two weeks, wasted! And that for such a silly, simple thing as being tired and half forgetting, half not bothering, setting up the illusion that his campsite was not there.

He tore down camp with efficiency that belied his still drained state. There was no use staying out here now; he’d be better off tracking the thieves than waiting for his depleted energy reserves to recover and then wasting another week or two getting a new kill. Besides, the beasts in the area were uneasy now, one of their number dead to an illness they could not smell nor understand.

He left most of the meat, only bringing what would stay fresh long enough for him to eat it. Catching some small game or digging up roots and tubers would have to account for the rest. He didn’t know how long it would take to catch his thieves, but he doubted they’d give him time to stay and finish tending to his drying meat, nor that they’d be terribly inclined to keep a pace he could keep up with while so heavily burdened. He was a tracker, a tanner, and a mage, not a mule, after all.

Breakfast, in the form of slowly baked meat and a pair of wild bird eggs he’d found by chance while making camp, found its way into his stomach without him really tasting it, and he was still lamenting the waste of all the meat, bones, and teeth that he’d not get a chance to make use of or sell now.

Thankfully, the pair that had robbed him — a large mustelid and a smaller canine, judging by the prints in the mud by a stream they’d passed — had left plenty of tracks, and he made good time following them. True that they had the advantage of being fresh, while he’d lost a fair deal of sleep lately and had treated the stolen hide only the previous afternoon, and it was possible they were so easy to follow because they were travelling fast, but there was still the hope that they were simply stupid.

After all, they had robbed him in his own camp, while he was sleeping not ten feet away.

On the third day, he spotted smoke through the foilage. So he’d lost, then; if they’d made it to a settlement no doubt they’d be trying to offload the stolen goods as soon as they possibly could. Never the less he pressed on, hoping to at least catch sight of the pair that had caused him such trouble, maybe get an opportunity to give them a piece of his mind. Unconsciously, his hand went to the small pouch of poison powder at his belt. It was tempting to give them more than just a piece of his mind.

Entering the inn, he spotted a badger and a vixen sitting at a table off to one side, the roll of hides — still barely treated, by the looks of it — underneath the table at their feet. Across from them sat an impressive-looking feline, sporting immaculately-groomed white fur with grey rosettes. The snow leopard’s tail danced, and he licked his fangs as he spoke to the pair of thieves.

Eyra drew a deep breath, endeavored to make his five feet look as intimidating as he could possibly could manage, and walked over to the table, ears slicked back.

“Excuse me, gentlemen, lady. I believe the pelt in your possession is the one that was stolen from me three days ago. I would like it back so I can finish treating it.”

The badger hardly looked at him, baring the teeth on one side of his mouth — the upper canine tooth was broken — and grunting. That seemed to be the signal for the vixen to rise, her smile far too toothy to be genuine. “Excuse me, but we are speaking with the fine lord, not with you. Everybody knows there are no solo hunters of the tarravi. Be on your way, and don’t bother us any more.”

A voice behind Eyra, then, deep and rumbling. “I would give the cat’s fur back if I were you.”

“We caught it fair and square, you stay out of this,” the vixen replied, though she was sounding a lot less confident.

“Yet you are trying to sell the good lord a half-treated hide. I am sure he does not appreciate you attempting to sell him stolen goods.”

“Indeed I do not,” the leopard said, and though he had not raised his voice, the edge in it was enough to make both of the thieves flinch. “And if you are the rightful owner, sir cat, I will be most delighted to purchase the hide from you at a fair price when it has been prepared to your satisfaction.”

Eyra bowed to the man. “I would be honored, lord. And I assure you, I am the rightful owner of that pelt; I tracked her, slayed her, skinned her, and started treating the hide. These two came in the night and stole the skin from my camp and I have been following them since.” The badger opened his mouth to speak, but Eyra anticipated his protest and cut him off. “I am not mistaken; I am a very good tracker and you two left a clear trail.”

“Nobody hunts tarravi alone,” the vixen said, again, meekly, clinging to her one protest.

“Eyra Yaguarondi does,” the chestnut cat replied shortly, pushing past her and fishing the rolled-up hide out from under the table. “You had best not ruined my work.”

He had his back turned, didn’t see the vixen reach out towards him, but spun around when she cried out. A huge wolverine was standing there, holding her wrist hard, and a knife much like his own was slowly slipping from her limp fingers. The wolverine reached out and caught it before it could fall to the floor, sticking it into the woman’s belt.

“Don’t be a sore loser, fox,” the wolverine rumbled, squeezing her wrist harder and making her knees buckle in pain. “I will not see the cat hurt.”

When the large mustelid, easily seven feet tall and broad enough for three of Eyra, released the vixen, she slunk out of the inn with her shabby tail between her legs, cradling her injured wrist. The badger stood looking at the dark-furred wolverine for a few moments, then rose and followed his partner, glaring at Eyra as he went.

“Thank you.”

“I suspected they weren’t honest when they arrived; if I can’t kill a tarravi bare-handed that badger sure couldn’t, and he wasn’t carrying a blunt weapon.”

“So you hunt tarravi as well, then, sir?” the snow leopard asked, rising from his seat. “I see few hunters around these parts, and if you have skins to offer I would quite happily accept them. The coin… Would not be an issue.”

The wolverine shook his head. “I have not yet found a tanner-mage to–”

“We will hunt the tarravi together for you, lord.” Eyra bowed again. “If you will permit me the time to care properly for this first hide. I do not believe in a job halfway done.”

He could feel the wolverine look at him, offered the mustelid a quick smile.

“I do owe you a chance, don’t I, after you saved my life?”

“I will try not to disappoint you.”

They both turned towards the nobleman as one, bowed their heads.

“I would be pleased if you would do me the honor, good hunters. Five hides should be enough for me if you can find the beasts. Please do let me know when you have them ready for inspection.”

“As you wish, lord.”



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