Hunted

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Karen Fox is attacked on her way home from school and left in a coma by her attackers. While she lies in her hospital bed an extraordinary thing happens – her spirit journeys to another world. In this parallel world Karen inhabits the body of a fox and becomes the guide to a young man called Mowl who is caught up in a complex and dangerous mix of politics and religion. A world in which old feuds are long fought over and not easily settled. In this world tribal allegiances hold great power, and religion, politics and old beliefs are in conflict. It is not easy to be neutral. But time is against both Karen and Mowl and their desperate attempts to survive are fought out against the knowledge that animal guides have a very short time to exist.

People are always curious about where ideas come from – I am too – but it’s usually an impossible question to answer. In the case of Hunted however, I know exactly where the idea came from. I was stuck – I wanted to start another story but hadn’t thought of anything I wanted to write about (this happens to me quite a lot). I was washing up one afternoon and listening to the radio news and because I wasn’t concentrating properly two separate news stories got muddled up in my head: the first was a report of a girl who had been attacked by a gang of girls and left badly injured, the second a story about banning fox hunting. In my mind the girl became the hunted fox and that idea became the story.

Originally the story was called ‘Fugue Fox’ because in a musical fugue a melody or phrase is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others.

I wanted to address the same kind of ideas in the two worlds in alternating chapters. A fugue is also, according to my Chambers dictionary ‘a form of amnesia which is a flight from reality’ which is what Karen might seem to be doing when she turns into a fox. I wanted the reader to be uncertain as to which was the real world and perhaps to believe that Karen was dreaming the whole fox episode. In the end it did not seem such a good idea to call the book Fugue Fox – it’s a difficult word to read and although to some extent the title shaped the book it didn’t need to have that title in order to ask the question of what was real and what wasn’t. Now the only obvious remaining reference to the whole ‘fugue’ idea occurs when Karen fox first meets Mowl and he calls her ‘fewg’ which is also the name for fox in his language.

I also really liked the concept of something deemed impossible in this world being part of the religious culture of another – so that while the idea of Karen becoming a fox is unbelievable in this world, the idea of a fox being an unborn human soul – an arl is a commonplace of Mowl’s word. It is interesting to imagine that – just maybe – from another perspective people on earth are living in some kind of underworld – in a preliminary form from which they migrate. This is sort of true anyway if you believe in heaven although Mowl’s world is obviously not meant to be a heaven – just a place with a different world view and one which, from Karen’s point of view, is no more wrong than the ideas she grew up with.

I found ‘Hunted’ a more difficult book to write than ‘Warriors of Alavna’ perhaps because I was trying to do something more complicated, and because I had to invent Mowl’s world and its religion for myself.

Read Chapter One

Chapter One

At Bay: Day 1

She ran. There was a roaring in her ears. Her legs moved leadenly, She willed them to move faster, but they merely staggered uselessly. Fear had robbed her of coordination. Time slowed. She was shaking. She knew she wouldn’t get away, couldn’t get away. Tina pushed her. She stumbled backwards, legs trembling. There was nowhere to go. Her fear was a kind of sickness in her mouth. Tina’s thin, pinched face was contorted into a mask of spite. Tina’s face was centimetres from her own face. It blotted out everything. Tina grabbed a hank of hair, right near the scalp. It shocked her; the rough hands, the strength of Tina’s hands.
They were all round her now, six or seven of them shouting at her. The sound of their taunts and the opening of their mouths got somehow separated in her head. ‘Karen, you slag! You should’ve left my Billy alone.’ The mouths moved vicious and red, like animals snarling. It made no sense. It hurt when she fell. It was a stinging kind of quick pain, like a childhood graze. The kick hurt more. Her flesh felt thin as a peach skin, unbelievably vulnerable. She shrank from their boots and tried to disappear. She curled up like a baby in a womb and tried to protect her head. There was blood everywhere, in her mouth as she sobbed, ‘Please stop! I never…’ Her voice sounded pathetic even to her. The roaring in her ears turned to a kind of ringing and she slipped into a fuzzy black space of silence and darkness and hot pain. They were still there when the light came back.

‘She’s come round.’
‘She’s not going to get away with it that easy!’

They had dragged her somewhere near the canal. There was no one else around. They could murder her here and no one would find her for months. She felt damp and did not know if it was from the ground or if she had wet herself. Her school skirt had ridden up high to show her pale freckled thighs. Her skin was so white it looked blue where the veins coursed. Livid purple bruises were already forming. Mel and Cindy were laughing and pointing. Tina’s smile was a leer of triumph. It made Karen realise with cold certainty that the worst was yet to come. She did not want to face whatever came next. There had to be an escape. They might kill her. She staggered to her feet and began to run while they laughed. They let her go a few metres until, whooping with the pleasure of it, they caught her and pushed her into the mud, screaming obscenities. She had a picture in her mind of a fox set upon by slavering hounds. She hung on to that thought as they punched and kicked her until the darkness engulfed her again.

It was dark when she woke. Everyone had gone. She moved cautiously. She had a memory of pain, sharp pain, searing pain, sudden pain that obliterated the sun for a minute. She only allowed herself to remember the horror of it for an instant, no more than that. She slammed shut the cage door on her memory. She would deal with that later.

She found that her limbs moved easily enough and so staggered to her feet. The scent of blood was strong. She wrinkled her nose. It was a damp night. The stench was pungent, canal water, urine and fear. She made almost no sound as she padded along the muddy towpath. She did not want to go home. She knew she was in a mess. Just for the moment she could not quite remember where home was. That did not worry her. The further from the scene of the attack she went the better the air smelled. She would find home by first light. She was sure that she had a home, but she could not go there straight away. She had to get away. She did not want to answer any questions. There would be questions she knew, because something had happened to her. Something bad had happened to her and she did not want to think about it. She wanted only the cleansing wind blowing round her in the quiet night. And solitude, she wanted solitude most of all. She did not usually like the dark but the moon was bright and she found she could see quite clearly. There were no houses nearby, only the lock-keeper’s cottage, long uninhabited. It was a heritage ice cream and gift shop in the summer. It smelled stale and musty and she passed it swiftly. She could go anywhere. What could hurt her more than she had been hurt already? She sniffed the air, reveling in the unexpected multiplicity of the scents that surrounded her; damp mould on wood, wet leaves and sweet grasses, the strong odour of the earth and the still water, reeking a little of oil. She felt a great surge of energy and delight and started to run, more swiftly than she had imagined she could, while the cool wind ruffled her hair and brought the promise of other places in its fragrant wake. Freedom. For now there was just the night and her lean little body pounding along the moonlit towpath. There was no other word for it. This was freedom.

It did not strike her as odd that her sense were abnormally acute that night, nor that she ran with an unusual speed and rhythm. Perhaps it was the shock of her experience but she accepted all this strangeness unhesitatingly. It did not even strike her as odd that she wished to run through cold fields far from home, after what had probably been the worst afternoon of her life. None of her normal concerns broke through her ebullience. Karen cared only for the intoxicating odours in the night air and the wild pleasure of her own loping, ground-eating stride. It carried her swiftly from the scene of her humiliation.

She was quite lost. Not normally adventurous, she had always avoided walking near the canal. It was a lonely path and it was possible to walk many mikes and see no one but the occasional dog walker or hiker en route to the distant hills. This part of the canal crossed wasteland. Beyond the canal there was only open country for several miles. For Karen, this was uncharted territory. She neither noticed nor cared.

The countryside was not lush. Even the valleys were not so sheltered that they would interest much apart from sheep. It had been moorland before industrialization and even where cultivated, trees were still wind-beaten into stunted deformity. She ran on through fields and over small brooks, over stony outcrops, always keeping well away from the sprawl of buildings. Nowhere where there were people was safe.

Her feet pounded the ground, beating time to her heart’s rhythm, urging her on. She ran further and found herself running through a forest of giant trees, straight limbed, unbowed and perfect as a fairy tale. She had never seen them before. The air smelled clearer, cleaner without its undertone of carbon monoxide. She must be far from town here. She stopped. She stood panting, her body shuddering, in a kind of wonder. Her heart’s wild beating slowed. Why had no one told her of this great forest? There was something subtly different about the way it smelled; the earth here somehow had a different flavour. She was warmer too and not just because of her exertions. For the first time she had an intimation of strangeness. Things did not seem quite right. The piles of decaying leaves were quite deep in places, almost up to her chest. That should not be. For the first time since she had woken by the bank of the canal she began to think. Perhaps she had suffered some kind of concussion. What was she doing running around like this? She brought she hand to her head. The movement was awkward. She had to lower her head to meet her inexplicably inflexible arm. Had she broken it? No, it was worse than that. She had no hand. No scream escaped from her throat, but only because her vocal chords would not obey her. Panic nearly overwhelmed her. Her whole body trembled. She closed her eyes. She had made a mistake. She must be hallucinating. She must be suffering from shock. She opened her eyes. She still had no hand. Though it was dark in the forest, her keen eyes had no trouble recognizing the unmistakable form of an animal’s paw. She had no hand, only a paw. It could not be true. She was positive that she had not always had a paw. She had not been expecting that. Somehow she had become something else. Yet there was no sense that this experience was in any way unreal, indeed nothing had ever seemed more real. She breathed deeply. This was no dream. The lightest of breezes frilled the thick hairs of her winter coat. The sensation was pleasurable and quite unlike anything else she’d ever felt. She had not always been like this. She had not always had this dark red fur. It was all wrong. She struggled to remember what she had been expecting. She had not been expecting this. She could smell the moist mustiness of the fermenting leaves, the loam of a fecund earth. Even in the darkness each variation in texture in the tree bark and each small gradation of colour in the fallen leaves was acutely visible as if she viewed everything through a portable microscope. This was beyond her imagination. She should have had hands, that was it, she should have had hands and so how could she have a paw where a hand should be?

Something made a great howl of anguish. It was a terrible, tortured cry. As her body’s reflexes took over and the bunched muscle of her haunches tensed, ready to run, she realised that the something was herself. It was the only noise her inhuman throat could make. Something like despair sapped even her lively animal body of energy. What could have happened to her? How could this have happened? What could she do? Things were badly wrong she knew that. Beaten and bemused she slunk towards a leaf-filled hollow. She buried her nose under her hind legs. How could such an animal muzzle be her nose? How could she have hind legs? She wrapped her fine brush of a tail around her. How did she get a tail? That was wrong too. She had not always had a tail. It was all part of a terrible wrongness. Desolation dampened her fox body’s instinct for preservation. Karen wanted only the oblivion of sleep. In spite of everything it came swiftly. Oblivion was her only answer to the unanswerable ‘Why?’

There were reprisals of a sort. Not enough as far as her family were concerned. After a long night ringing round the local hospitals, her grandfather had discovered that a dog walker had found her battered, unconscious body by the canal bank. He had gone straight to the police. Tina and the others had been charged with ‘actual bodily harm’ or something like that. It made little difference. The gang were given suspended sentences. Women’s violence was not taken that seriously. Karen remained suspended in no man’s land, in hospital. The bruises faded, doctors set her broken bones and no one could explain why she failed to recover consciousness. They called it a coma.

To begin with there were lots of letters to the local paper bemoaning her fate and that of the country, that such a thing could happen in an ordinary town. The national press got hold of the story just as it had run its natural course in her home town. They made much of the traffic tale. Readers of one of the tabloids sent money, cards and an embarrassment of small soft toys to her bedside. Nothing worked. Karen remained oblivious to them all.