“Why I should leave,” Vince snarled as he prowled back and forth in the semi-circle of bare earth that marked the entrance to his den, black ears flat to his head, “just because some entitled deer want to be near the goddamn lake?”
“It's not like that. And you can dig a new, bigger den in a day or two. I don't see what the problem is.” Edward tilted his antlers towards the small skulk of foxes several metres away, who had gathered at the edge of the woodland to wait for the sun to set. “Your friends are being very cooperative.”
“That's because you've told them a load of crap about how great the cemetery is,” Vince spat, the copper fur on his back bristling. He’d had every intention of talking this through civilly with the stag, but his temper had other ideas. Just like last time.
“The cemetery is perfectly lovely, there's trees all around, and there'll be more food for you there.” Edward clenched his jaw.
“Because it's right next to the town! There are people everywhere! It's not like there's not enough room here for all of us here.”
“Hardly,” Edward snorted.
If these glorified donkeys think their pathetic promises will persuade me to leave without a fuss...
Vince stopped pacing and sat on his haunches, eyes narrowed. “If the cemetery is so bloody great, why don't the deer move there?”
“Don't be ridiculous. We need to be near water. Can you imagine having to trek back and forth out in the open like that? Ha! Just wandering about exposed all the time?”
“But it's fine for us?” Vince barked, unmoved by the stag's statuesque appearance.
“Exactly.” Edward stamped his hoof and a cloud of dust billowed between his glossy, russet fore-legs.
“Look, we're different animals, Vince. You know that. Foxes, rabbits, badgers, you're fine near the town. You're underground all day and you can come to the lake at night. We deer, we need shelter, lots of grass, more space to run. Our woodland is getting too crowded and the pond is far too small.”
“Bollocks. You just think you're better than us. Always have. You think you can push everyone in this park around. Now you lot come over here all 'Ooh! We fancy a bit of this lake action actually, so get out of the way or get an antler up the arse', yeah?”
Edward lowered his head and turned an oil-black eye to the fox. “You'd better be quiet, vermin.” The deer's voice rumbled through the air between the two animals. “You know why we're in charge. This park is nothing without us.”
Oh, threats now?
Vince rose onto all four paws, stretched his snout towards Edward’s and bared his fangs. “What happens if I say no?” he growled.
“We will destroy your den tomorrow” -- the deer lifted his head -- “whether you are in it or not.”
“How dare you,” Vince hissed, “my grandparents dug this den before you were even born.”
“Your call.” Edward swiftly maneuvered his towering frame and turned away from the fox.
Vince wouldn't be able to stop them. His teeth and claws could do some damage to one, two even, but they would be no match against a mass of dagger-like antlers and sharp, solid hooves. The other foxes wouldn’t risk helping. Not this time, anyway. This wasn’t another petty disagreement about noise, or digging in the wrong place, and they had their own homes and families to think of.
Before his better judgement could stop him, Vince’s yelled up at the deer’s backside. “I'd rather leave the park altogether than stay here with you.”
Crap. Did I mean that? Crap…
Edward sighed and circled back to face Vince. “Have you ever heard the phrase 'cutting off your nose to spite your face'? The humans say it. It means you…”
“I know what it means,” Vince spat.
“Fine,” Edward continued softly. “Look, we are in charge. We always have been and we always will be, that's just the way it is here. This park is a wonderful place where we can all live together in safety, where humans respect us and take care of us. But there are rules. Just follow the rules like everyone else and you can stay. We never wanted to drive anyone away. Be serious, Vince. Do you really want to leave this place and live amongst humans? Dodging their cars, being kept awake by all their incessant noise, eating their leftovers out of bins? Especially after what happened to your father."
"I'd rather eat their leftovers than ponce around, posing for photos like one of their desperate pets."
Edward snorted and stomped a hoof. “Watch your mouth, fox!”
Vince’s lips curled into a smile. “Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘in for a penny, in for a pound?’ It means ‘screw you.’” He held his paws to his head like two extra ears, and waggled his toes. “Ooh, look at my beautiful antlers! Please, human, please take a picture!” Vince leapt backwards as Edward rose onto his back legs. A yelp escaped the fox’s jaws as the deer's glossy black hooves thumped into the dirt, missing the fox's thick tail by a hair.
“I'll aim for your head next time,” Edward roared, then whispered under his breath, "just like your father."
Before Vince could reply, Edward was already galloping through the trees. The other foxes had heard the noise and were looking over at Vince worriedly. Vince exhaled slowly. “That went well,” he muttered to himself.
What... ugh... Goddamn birds.
Vince slowly peeled open his heavy eyelids and looked around for the source of the irritation. It was dusk, the sky deep orange and navy, the trees around him almost silhouettes.
It was breakfast time, and his stomach growled so loud he almost mistook it for another fox. Uncurling himself, he set about finding something to eat. He could worry about directions later.
Snout close to the ground, he sniffed around for anything that would pass for a meal. His nose led him to small log, which he rolled over with his snout to reveal a veritable feast of beetles and worms. Vince prepared himself. Although not unfamiliar with such a meal, fish was his usual go-to. A bird was a rare treat, back when his parents were still around, before the deer started to crack down on everyone.
The birds bring humans to the park, Edward would always say. Humans help the park, apparently. The nicer the park, the more humans that visit, and the more the animals will be looked after. Give and take. That was the lecture he used to give the foxes every now and again. Of course, more humans meant more attention for the deer. And the more attention they got, the more power they had. A vicious circle.
“Shut up!” he muttered to himself.
At least leaving means I can get away from those bloody parakeets.
Vince sniffed the insects once more before scooping a few into his jaws. He crunched the tiny bulbous creatures between his teeth and swallowed the gritty mouthful. He shuddered.
A nice, plump bird would go down very nicely right now.
"Shut up!" Vince called to the hidden owner of the noise.
"Who's there?" Vince rose to his feet and looked up into the trees.
"Thank goodness! I thought I'd missed you!"
"Who is that? Where are you?" Vince craned his head back and forth, trying to locate the bird, but it was too dark to make out any shapes amongst the dark mass of branches.
"It's meeeeeee! Scrrrrrrraaack-ack-ack-ack!"
Vince sighed. "Rita? What the hell? Did you follow me? And please stop squawking, it's very annoying."
Rita, a magpie, had built her nest in a tree not far from Vince's den over five years ago, while his parents were still alive, so she and Vince had been neighbours his whole life. He wouldn't have described her as a friend, though. More of an irritating acquaintance. He'd explained to her-- repeatedly-- that her singing was very much not appreciated, but her love of music transcended her courtesy. And her common sense. Luckily, Vince's underground sleeping habits meant he avoided most of the racket, but he’d heard the starlings complain about her after she insisted on joining their choir, drowning out their songs with her tuneless chattering.
Rita hopped from her branch and flew to the ground in front of Vince. "Sorry! I was just looking for you. Been looking all day. Was just having a little practice before I went to beddy-byes. I'm so glad I found you! I thought you'd might have already left the park and then I would have had to look in all the gardens and that would have taken ages and--"
"Rita, shush. Why were you looking for me?" Vince sat and rubbed his sleepy eyes with a paw.
"I want to come with you." Rita hopped from foot to foot, her long tail wagging excitedly.
"What? No." He stood up and stared down at her.
"That's not a reason."
"Why do you want to come? I don't even know where I'm going."
"I want to travel with you. See London. Have an adventure!"
"I'm not going on an adventure. I'm just looking for somewhere to live. Maybe find my grandparents old home."
"Sounds like an adventure to me. Come on, I want to see the city! Fly to new places, taste new food, hear new bird songs!"
"I'm not stopping you."
"It'll be better with two of us. Just imagine the songs I'll sing! A sheltered park bird like me, experiencing all that the big city has to offer, accompanying a freedom fighter fox on his quest for a new life in his ancestral homeland!"
Vince sighed. "I'm not a freedom fighter. And I'm really not good company."
"Don't be silly."
"I could eat you, you know. Just turn around one day and CHOMP! Haven't eaten a tasty bird in a while, thanks to the deer..."
Rita laughed. "You wouldn't do that."
"No we're not."
Rita's face fell. "Neighbours, then. Or, we were."
The bird blinked. She looked like she was about to burst into tears.
Christ. Like I really need a noisy, over-emotional bird on my paws right now...
"And I can help you," she mumbled.
Vince sighed again. She could definitely help him. She could tell him what was in each direction, where the nearest place to sleep was, if any humans were near...
I could put up with her, I suppose. If she's quiet.
"Who says I need help?" he replied.
"You're just going to wander about are you? Bumping into humans, rivers, roads, train tracks..."
Vince had heard about trains. Huge, rumbling metal carriages that don't stop for anything in their way, especially small, furry animals. He'd heard someone say that they aren't even controlled by humans. That's why they run on tracks and not roads.
"And you know where the train tracks are? And the river?"
"Well..." The magpie poked at the ground with one of her claws. "No. Not all of them. But I can. I will! I'll Fly ahead of you every day and tell you which way to go and warn you about things. I've been exploring today already, when I was looking for you. I can help you. Please let me come with you."
I'm going to regret this...
"Fine." Vince sniffed and began to walk off.
"Really? Oh, wonderful! Scraaaaaaaaack!" Rita screeched as she hopped alongside him, flapping furiously to keep up with his long strides.
"On three conditions." He stopped dead and stared into her inky eyes. "You can come with me and I promise I will not eat you if-- and only if-- you help me find somewhere to live, you help me avoid danger, and you. Absolutely. Do. Not. Sing. While. I. Am. Asleep."
"I'm sorry, I just got over excited!" Rita flapped her wings and hopped in a circle. "I'll try and be quieter. I hope you don't mind the odd sing-song though. I don't want to get out of practice."
Vince continued on towards the edge of the trees. Rita flapped a few metres ahead, then settled on the ground and waited for him to catch up. It was easier than hopping beside him. "We're going to have a great time! The Fox and the Magpie! Vince and Rita! The Famous Travelling Duo of Richmond Park! Scraaaaaack!"
Vince winced. "You know I'm nocturnal, right? We're not going to get very far if we don't travel at the same time."
Plus, I think I might actually eat you if you wake me up with that noise.
"Of course. I'll adapt. I'll just wake up before you and fly around before the sun goes down to see where we're going. I don't sleep much anyway. Plus, if I go nocturnal, I'll be able to practice during the night while we travel and I won't wake you up with my singing. Win win!"
Vince smiled through clenched jaws. "Well, I'm awake now, so, which way? All I know is my grandparents travelled from the north, but ideally we want a nice big park, as far away from here as possible."
"I know there are lots of big green areas to the north east. In the middle of the city. But I'll need a better look in the morning when it's light. There's a park just east of here though. Right across the big road."
"That's too close. I need to get away from here."
"Of course. Plus we won't have many adventures if we only go across the road. North east it is then!"
"Looks like it."
"That's through the city. Lots of humans and lots of lovely food and lots of other birds! I can't wait!" Rita flew past him again and rested on a low branch while Vince strode through the long grass below. He looked up at her as he passed underneath the branch.
"Just to be clear, Rita, I don't want adventures. I want to find my grandparents' park, build a den, eat, sleep, and maybe do a bit of frolicking about. No drama, okay?"
"Ha! Drama is your middle name. I heard all those arguments you had with Edward."
"That wasn't my fault. He made it his business to piss me off."
"And you lost your temper every time."
"There you go again," she called from the branch, Vince now a short way ahead of her.
The pair continued in silence for a couple of minutes, before arriving at the tall brick wall which marked the north edge of the woodland. On the other side; a path, a road and some houses. Beyond that, neither of them really knew.
"Well, this is it," Vince said. "The big wide world." He tipped back onto his haunches and sprung upwards. His front claws grasped the top as his back feet found purchase on the rough bricks, propelling his slim body onto the top of the wall with little effort. "Are you absolutely sure you want to come?"
"Yes." Rita grinned and flew up to join him on the wall. "Adventure awaits! Scraaaaack-ack-ack-ack!"
Vince rolled his eyes. "After you."