Xaxac realized how intensely fall had fallen as he rode across the fields and looked out at the orange sky and the wheat that had been partially harvested. Without the sun high in the sky he was shivering as Agalon helped him off the horse; the thin material of his form fitting outfit did nothing to guard against the cold that was creeping into the weather.
Agalon walked with purpose; he was preoccupied, and Xaxac suspected that they would not stay with the fighters all day, as they normally did. He didn’t think they had brought anything for lunch. He prayed he was right as he watched Agalon open the gate and followed in behind him.
The fighters seemed to be doing perfectly fine without anyone watching them. They actually seemed as if they had started their exercises earlier than they did with Agalon, because they were already up and running as Xaxac entered. He was happy, for reasons that he could not identify or articulate, to see Billy leading the group. The last time Xaxac had seen Billy the Bull he had been so severely injured by Agalon that he couldn’t stand without quivering; he would have never been able to run.
So Xaxac huddled into himself and curled into a ball when he went to sit at the table in the training grounds.
“I’m back!” Agalon called, and the group stopped to face him, “And I’m disappointed. We’re leavin for the first match and I’m thinkin we might be fucked.”
“Who’s on the roster for Basilglen?” Billy asked, then seemed to realize he had forgotten something important in his eagerness and hastily added, “Master.”
“You and Wyatt,” Agalon answered, “So you need to go through your poses. You’re lookin slow. You sparred at all? Even a little bit? I mighta fucked myself…” He ran one gloved hand over his face and Xaxac, wishing he had gloves, looked to the sky to see where the sun was. Summer had barely ended. He shouldn’t be this cold. Life in the house had softened him in a way he was unprepared for.
“You alright?” Agalon asked, sounding as if he was genuinely concerned, “I can get a vet out here.”
“I’m good,” Billy said, sounding insulted, “I meant, who am I up against?”
“Oh,” Agalon said dismissively, “OfLoraxia.”
“Terry?” Billy asked.
“I reckon,” Agalon said, reached into the bag at his side and pulled out the folded up stack of paper he had gotten at the courthouse. He read over them quickly and continued, “Wait, no the other one, Barry. Wyatt’s got Terry. Either way ought not make much of a difference. If you don’t qualify in the first round I’m gonna be madder than hell. Hold on, I got the brackets. That’s your first one, though. If you can’t even get out of the district there ain’t really a reason to keep you around.”
He laughed, though Xaxac didn’t think the proclamation was particularly funny. At least it was heating up a little. With the sun in the sky it would probably be a beautiful day.
“I ain’t worried about it,” Billy said.
“Then why’d you ask?” Agalon asked, “I’m real nervous about this year. Nobody looks ready. And I been gone.”
“I wondered what the cops thought about the monster,” Billy said, and Xaxac darted his head up from his small cocoon of warmth to look at him.
He didn’t like what he saw.
Agalon followed Billy’s eyeline and laughed.
“Hey Honey Bunny, come here,” Agalon commanded, so Xaxac hopped up, still with his arms crossed, and ran to him, then cuddled into his side and burrowed himself under Agalon’s cape.
“You cold?” Agalon asked.
“Just kinda chilly,” Xac said, “It ain’t really cold yet.”
“My fighters are half naked,” Agalon said, “I thought humans could handle the chill.”
“They’re movin around,” Xaxac explained, “we warm up when we move. But I’m fine! I promise!”
“Wanna move around a little bit?” Agalon asked as he wrapped one arm around Xac and used the other to tuck the schedule back into his bag, “Warm up a little?”
“Sure!” Xac said eagerly, “Do I get to run around again?”
“You heal, darlin,” Agalon said, and Xaxac popped his head out from under the cloak to look up at him, “I wanna see somethin. Would you indulge me?”
Xaxac didn’t like the look in his eyes, but it wasn’t as if he had the option to deny Agalon anything. He didn’t like the question about how quickly he healed. He was a bit afraid that someone was going to hurt him. But there was nothing he could do. So he smiled.
“Of course, master!”
Agalon grabbed Xaxac by the shoulders and positioned him in front of him.
“Alright, darlin, do me a favor. Don’t get hit.”
“Um… ok?” Xac shuffled uneasily, “I uh… I’m… Aggie I don’t wanna… I’m scared!”
“Everything’s gonna be alright,” Agalon promised him and kissed him on the cheek, and Xaxac shivered.
“I don’t think you can even hit an out-of-shape pleasure slave,” Agalon told Billy, “Let alone a trained fighter. I think I fucked myself with that spell, got ahead of myself, let my temper get the better of me. I think I might oughta withdraw you and just eat the losses instead of makin a fool of myself in the cage.”
Why was he doing this? Why was this happening? Xaxac had to have done something terrible when he shifted, something he deserved to get hit for. He darted his eyes around the enclosure and saw that the walls had been scratched, rattled, and in one spot the ground looked as if it had been disturbed and recently filled in.
His eyes widened as he came to the heartbreaking realization, as the pieces slotted into place.
Rabbits burrowed. Rabbits dug.
Maybe he really hadn’t hurt anyone.
But he had run.
Lorsan had said that they had ‘found him’.
To find someone, they had to be missing.
He had tried to run away.
He was a runaway slave.
“Aggie, I’m sorry!” Xac turned and grabbed his shirt with both hands, staring up at him with pleading eyes, “I would never run! I swear! I can’t control it! I can’t control it! I’m cursed! I swear! It ain’t my fault! I didn’t mean to-”
Agalon put a hand on either of his shoulders, and Xaxac did not like the look he saw in his eyes.
“If you had got much farther, I would never have been able to catch you, do you understand that? You could have gone off into them woods, the sun would have risen, and you would have been out there alone, without even the clothes on your back. What would you have done then? Alone, lost, with no one, with nothing?”
“Aggie I’m sorry!” Xac begged, and felt the tears running down his cheeks.
“Look at me,” Agalon demanded, because Xaxac had buried his face in his chest, “Just don’t get hit.”
Agalon spun him and shoved him toward Billy.
Xac screamed, upset, disoriented, and fell forward onto his hands and knees before he was able to steady himself.
“You sure?” Billy asked in confusion. The last time he had hit Xaxac he had been so severely punished it left him unable to function, but he had been there, the night the moons were full, had seen the monster escape.
“I don’t think you can hit him,” Agalon said, “But I want to see you try.”
Billy shrugged and Xac screamed again.
He got up and darted away in a crouch, only stood upright and looked behind him once he reached the fence, but Billy was right on his heels, and Xaxac realized, in that instant, how he got his name. He charged like a bull, and Xac understood instantly that knocking his tooth out had been nothing. If Billy charged, full force into him now, it would shatter bone. So he screamed again and ran toward the eating area, glancing behind him every so often. Billy hit the wall hard enough to rattle it, turned direction, and followed after him. Xac shrieked again, put one hand on the tabletop and leaped over it.
“Stop making that goddamn noise!” Billy demanded.
“Yeah, Honey Bunny, that is real loud,” Agalon agreed, but Xaxac didn’t heed either of them, because he watched Billy place a hand on the table, and barely had time to form the thought: Sure to god he ain’t gonna throw that at me, no he totally is- before it happened, so he took off at a sprint in the opposite direction, through the training grounds.
This wasn’t going to end unless he figured out some way out of it. He deserved what he got. He was the reason Agalon had had to go to the capital, he had probably had to pull a lot of strings to keep him. Agalon undeniably had a monster at his house, a monster that could get loose and wreak havoc on the surrounding plantations, on the people. He had a right to be angry.
But Xaxac was operating on the undeniable fact of the matter, which was that pain was bad, and he had been given a chance to avoid it, through the goodness of Agalon’s heart. But they were in an enclosed space, the wooden walls of the enclosure were easily ten feet tall, and there was only so far he could run. He wouldn’t be able to avoid Billy forever, the place was too small, and he watched Billy compensate every time he turned, every place he darted. It was only a matter of time before he caught him.
“I’m sorry!” he yelled again as he bounced off the wall and changed direction, “Please, master, I’m sorry!”
“He can’t hit you!” Agalon called again, took a thin book out of his bag, and began to read it, as if Xaxac was not running for his life, as if it wasn’t important.
Xaxac screamed again as he felt the air beside his head move, as the punch Billy threw almost connected.
“Run, rabbit, run,” Billy taunted, and Xac screamed-
And then realized he was right.
Billy was stronger than him, but Xaxac was a bunny.
So he hopped.
He sacrificed a bit of speed to crouch, then jumped as high as he could, and to his amazement he felt his fingers graze then grasp the top of the fence. He thanked his lucky stars as he used the momentum to pull himself up until he was sitting, then standing on the top of the fence.
Agalon thought this was hilarious.
“Really?” Billy asked, “I can get up there, little rabbit. I’m taller than you are. If you can reach, I can reach.”
“Well can you not?” Xac begged, then screamed as Billy slammed into the post he was standing on and he almost lost his balance, “Stop it! Stop it!”
Billy did stop, and elected instead to jump, and Xaxac realized that maybe his bunny hop had not been so impressive after all, because had he not danced away when he did, Billy would have grabbed his leg and jerked him down.
“How can you jump so high?” Xac shrieked.
“You’re in a tough spot, Honey Bunny!” Agalon called, “You might have to fight back.”
“I can fight back?” Xac asked.
“You can try it,” Billy snarled and kicked the post Xaxac was standing on.
“Stop it!” Xac yelled and looked out over the training grounds, trying to get his bearings. The row of little wooden houses were set up against one wall, and he thought he could hop from the fence onto the roofs, so he ran in that direction, hopping from post to post with his arms outstretched, hoping desperately not to fall. His lungs burned as he made the leap-
And landed heavily on the roof of the slave quarters.
“What exactly is it you think you’re doin, little rabbit?” Billy asked.
“I don’t know,” Xac admitted, speaking slowly, “But… I’m…” he darted his eyes around, trying to think of any way out of the situation, “Gonna… figure… it… out…” at least he had time, he thought in an uncharacteristic bought of optimism, “by… the… end…” his eyes locked on Agalon, who had put the book away and was now watching him with the fighters. Agalon! “Of this sentence.”
The first time Agalon had allowed Xaxac free reign to run around the grounds, he had leaped at him, expecting him to catch him, but he hadn’t, and Xaxac had knocked him down. Billy was much, much bigger, much bulkier than he was, but Xaxac remembered quite a few things from his childhood, one of which was that it was much more painful to get hit with the small side of something, like a rock or shovel, than the broad side.
“You’re cornered, little rabbit!” Billy said from where he paced, back and forth, in front of the houses, “Rabbit, whatcha sittin in the corner for? Ain’t gonna rain no more no more.”
Xac back up, ran, and jumped.
He thought, surely, he could, at the very least, knock him to the ground so he could figure out where to go from there.
But that didn’t happen.
Agalon had fallen.
But Billy caught him.
And he screamed as Billy used that momentum to slam him into the ground even harder than he would have hit on his own. He hit hard on his side, connected first with his shoulder, and felt a sickening pop there and a pain so severe he could not describe it in the arm that hit first.
His shriek of pain echoed through the entire plantation.
“I hit him,” Billy declared, “want me to keep going?”
“Xaxac!” Agalon yelled, and the emotion in that scream made Xac think that for some reason, some reason he would never understand, Agalon had truly believed he could win. Agalon thought too much of him, and believed too hard in him. But that made no sense; he had never had a chance. And now the pain rocketed from the arm through his entire body; something had torn, something had broken, and he couldn’t move anything from his shoulder down.
“I’m sorry,” Xac begged through his tears, “I didn’t mean it, I swear. I’m sorry, Aggie, I’m sorry. I’m cursed. I’m sorry.”
Agalon was saying something to him, but Xac was in the kind of pain that made interpreting the sounds coming out of his mouth in any meaningful way impossible.
It would heal. He healed.
He wondered when he would be able to knit again.
Agalon put one hand between his shoulder blades and grabbed his upper arm with the other, and it hurt more than it had before; Xac hadn’t known it could hurt more than it had before, and screamed out a question he knew the answer to.
Because he had run.
Because he was a monster.
“Because I gotta set it, Honey Bunny,” Agalon said, “And I gotta get it back in the socket.”
But Xaxac didn’t understand, and it was more pain than his body was capable of processing, so his mind shut down. He was no longer with them.