The spear came down towards the top of Shreya’s head. She clapped her hands over it, grasping the wood. Their tug-of-war began, Zinnia’s only advantage her leverage. Ellie screamed at both of them to stop. Marietta kept laughing. And Sunflower kept doing whatever it was that dogs like her did when her owner’s favorite people were fighting.
Shreya changed her strategy. She pushed, rather than pulled. Zinnia stumbled back. Her grip loosened. Shreya yanked the spear out of her hands, forcing it to take a hard left to the grass. While a less determined person would’ve taken this as a sign they were outmatched, Zinnia decided to tackle Shreya, instead.
They rolled. When they came out of their conjoined tumble, Shreya had Zinnia pinned beneath her. She pressed her palm to Zinnia’s throat. The intricate muscles housed within pulsed rapidly against Shreya’s skin. Unwelcome memories—victims, food by another name—pierced her for a split second before fading.
“Shreya, no!” Ellie grabbed her arm. Shreya tensed.
As if scalded, Shreya’s hand shot away from her. “Sorry.” She eased the rest of the way off of Zinnia, careful and cognizant of the other girl’s movements.
When Shreya offered her hand to Zinnia, Zinnia refused it. She stood on her own.
“Wait, before you say anything,” Ellie said, waving her arms, “I just want to say that I was going to tell you everything. I just… There wasn’t a good time. I was afraid you wouldn’t help us if I told you too soon and, um, ah… At least she’s not an Erzyan spy, right?”
“She’s a wolf,” Zinnia said.
“A good wolf.” Ellie slung her arm around Shreya’s shoulders. She smiled widely, her attempt at counteracting Zinnia’s growing horror.
“What’s wrong with you?” Zinnia aimed her words at Marietta next. “And, you! You should hate her the most. If it wasn’t for wolves like her, you wouldn’t be here. You’d have gotten away. It doesn’t make sense. None of this makes sense!”
“I know this is bizarre in all of kinds of ways. I had to take a lot of time to process it. It’s a lot, I know…” Ellie’s hold on Shreya became tighter. “Some things just don’t make sense. This is, this is how things are. Shreya’s my girlfriend.”
“You’re an idiot. Do you really think that?” Zinnia asked. “How much have you told her about Stockbrunn? This is horrible.”
“Hey,” Marietta cut in. “They’re both idiots. That’s why they’re perfect for each other. If it makes you feel any better, the only reason why they’re back together is because of you. You went and meddled.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better at all!”
Marietta grinned. “I know.”
“I have to tell someone about this. I can’t let you be like this, Ellie.” Zinnia hugged herself. “You’re going to thank me later for stopping you.”
“You’re not going to stop me. I’ve never been happier.”
“You have been.”
“Let her leave,” Shreya said. She left Ellie’s hold to retrieve her hat. “If she tells, it is on her soul. She will live with her choice.”
“I’m not letting her go anywhere,” Ellie said, “not until she promises me she won’t tell anyone about us. It’s our business to tell, if we ever want to tell anyone about us, anyway. It’s not up to Zinnia.”
Marietta snorted. “She’s appsolutely not going anywhere! Zinnia would never wander into the woods on her own, especially now that we’re in enemy territory, so to speak. I know I’m not going back with her if she leaves. I’m sticking with Miss Wolfy here.”
“So you’re holding me hostage, is that it? You might as well tie me up with that rope over there, then.”
“Look, you’re the one who’s being ultra aggressive with all of your threats. This is what happens when you act like a jerk. People become jerks right back at you,” Ellie said.
Shreya yanked her hat down over her head. “Be understanding.”
“Exactly! Be understanding,” Ellie repeated.
“I was talking to you. You were a jerk, too, when you found the truth. This is difficult information to take. She has to…has to understand it. She needs to learn to trust me. Yelling at her does not help.”
Ellie sighed. “I guess you’re right. No, I know you’re right. Sorry about all the yelling and threatening stuff.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Zinnia said. She bit her bottom lip. “Shreya’s right. This is difficult to take. Everything about your relationship flies in the face of reason. Sorry for being a jerk or whatever else you want to call me. I know it probably took you some restraint not to call me something worse.”
“If I can accept Shreya the way she is, then you should be able to,” Ellie said.
But how much do you actually? A sharp pang of doubt shot through Shreya.
“I didn’t want to interrupt the delicious arguing that was happening earlier, but since it looks like things are wrapping up to a boring point, I’ve got to ask everyone something,” Marietta said. “Where’d the dog go?”
Sunflower was BORED. Everyone kept talking. They talked all the time. Talk, talk, talk. Why didn’t anyone want to play? Marietta threw a stick. It was a fun stick. But then Ellie took it away. Ellie said no. Sunflower had to listen. She liked to listen. Listening made Ellie happy. She liked when Ellie was happy.
Ellie was upset! She yelled. Shreya and Zinnia played games. Ellie didn’t like that. Why didn’t Ellie like games today? That was a big mystery. Every game made her upset, and Sunflower was bored. Games helped with that. Games meant no more boredom. But if Ellie didn’t want games, how could Sunflower play any?
Simple solution: play games where Ellie couldn’t see. Lots of games to play in the grass. There was the roll around game, the find a stick game, the chase a butterfly game, the bark at the tree game, oh, oh, so many games to play. Wonderful games surrounded Sunflower wherever she went. Everyone could talk while she played. Simple solution, good solution, yes.
Picturing Ellie’s approving face, Sunflower’s heart swelled. I love Ellie!
Sunflower dashed down a hill. She picked at the buttons on her clothes. Ellie had scolded her earlier for messing with them. Sad. That made Sunflower sad. Ellie wasn’t allowed to be upset. It was too sad. So Sunflower stopped touching the buttons. Ellie was the best there ever was. Sunflower couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t have Ellie.
Butterfly!! White wings. Black specks. It went in circles. Twirly, swirly, little butterfly. Sunflower giggled as she followed it. The butterfly led her further away from the talky, talky, do-nothing group. It was exciting, calming fun, different from having to pull on a rope. Butterflies were so silly. They went wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted.
Leaves were on her shirt. Oh, no. Sunflower brushed them off. Ellie told her to be neat. These clothes had rules. Marietta had rules. Marietta liked fixing Sunflower’s hair. Sometimes, Sunflower messed her hair up on purpose to see Marietta’s reaction. That was a fun game. She missed her house a little.
But! Ellie! Ellie came back. Goodbye, Marietta’s house. Learning words with Marietta was fun. Marietta’s house was small. Sunflower slept outside. The grass was cold at night. Marietta gave her a blanket and told her not to tell anyone about it. Marietta was silly. Silly like the butterfly.
Not silly. The bad smell in her nose wasn’t silly. A growl grew deep in Sunflower’s chest. Her ears flattened back. She hated that smell. What was that nasty animal? Bad animals needed to be stopped. The other dogs at home said that about everyone. They hated everyone. No one was allowed at the house unless Hilda liked them. Hilda seemed nice. But Hilda didn’t like Sunflower in the house. But Ellie liked that.
But. But. But.
Happy Ellie was the best Ellie there was. The other dogs loved Hilda like Sunflower loved Ellie.
Bad smell. Sunflower stalked it. Hunting was a fun game. She once hunted a bad smell and found weird people. They were nice. They fed her. Good people feed me, like Ellie! Sunflower swung from excited over Ellie to angry at the bad smell. Ellie. Happy. Bad smell. Angry.
There it was, the source of it. The animal had a big fluffy tail. It reminded Sunflower of a plant. Lots of fur, lots of material for Sunflower to sink her teeth into. The bad smell was all alone. Lingering scents suggested there may have been others around at some point. Sunflower wished they had stayed. There would’ve been more tails to attack.
The tail bobbed. Silly tail. So silly like the butterfly.
“Sunflower,” she heard Ellie call. The group stopped their talky, talky. They were gaining on her.
No, no, no! If Ellie found her, she wouldn’t be allowed to play.
Get the tail.
Shreya saw what happened next in slow motion. Just as the group crested the hill, Sunflower charged the unsuspecting fox. She brought him down in a series of yelps. Ellie shouted for Sunflower, trying to get her away from the animal.
She took Ellie’s spear from her. “Off of the dog!”
Her directive should’ve been the other way around. Sunflower appeared to be the clear winner in the desperate wrestling they were doing. The fox boy’s lip had been busted open, his blood pungent. He weakly shoved at Sunflower.
Ellie sharpened her command. Sunflower finally left him alone, a wild look in her eyes.
The fox’s reprieve didn’t last for long. Shreya pointed the bladed tip of the spear at him.
Marietta and Zinnia wisely didn’t get involved. They hung back behind Sunflower and Ellie.
“Speak if you want to live. Do you know Casternian?” Shreya asked.
The boy looked about as old as a wolf pup. He pouted, his quivering lip worsening his wound. “Tiny.”
Shreya switched over to the forest language. Out of the languages she knew, it was the one she had the least of a handle on. It had been developed as a universal language for animals rebelling against the idea of adopting Casternian Common. The problem with it was that not every animal species saw a point in sharing a common language. Why bother when they already had their own language?
“Quiet, you…is die, you,” Shreya struggled to communicate.
The fox boy said something too fast for her to translate. Something about being loud.
“Village. Question. Delivery. A…wolf. Wolves. Village, village?”
“My village is…” She only managed to understand the front half of his answer.
Her frustration rising, Shreya went for a hodge-podge of Casternian Common and the forest language. “Where is your village? Village. You have a wolf there. I need to know that wolf. Village delivery wolf. Tell me where!”
“I tell you,” he said. “My village is there.”
“Wolf is there?”
“Yes.” Something, something. “Wolf.” Something, something else.
“Good job, Sunflower,” Ellie said, rubbing the top of Sunflower’s head. “Good job catching that fox!”
“Ellie!” Sunflower cheered.
Fear lit anew in the fox boy’s eyes. “No,” he cried. He started babbling.
“Okay, so we know where the fox village is,” Marietta said, talking over the boy. “What are we going to do with him? Kill him?”
Zinnia shoved Marietta’s shoulder. “I can’t believe you’d say that.”
“What if he runs and tells someone we’re here? We’re good while we have the element of surprise, am I right?” Marietta asked.
“We are not attacking them. We do not need surprise,” Shreya said.
“He’s bleeding. He’s definitely going to tell them he’s been attacked if he gets away.” Marietta rubbed her shoulder, frowning.
“Marietta might have a point. Maybe we should break his ankle?” Ellie asked. “One hard stomp or something.”
“We’d be leaving him to die, then. Killing him now would be more merciful.” Marietta shrugged. “I’m only laying out the options here.”
Zinnia shook her head. “Why don’t we watch him? Marietta, you and I aren’t going to be that helpful if any real fighting happens. Let’s be honest with ourselves.”
“Something bad could happen to you,” Ellie said. “We’re all safer as a bigger group.”
“You mean we’re safe heading straight into a fox village? We could take Sunflower,” Zinnia said. “There’s no point in us killing a defenseless baby animal. That’s just…cruel and really unnecessary. We’ll watch him and make sure he doesn’t run away.”
“We need Sunflower, too, though,” Ellie persisted.
“We are not fighting anyone,” Shreya said. She sighed. “What we need is to hurry and go.”
“Settle the argument, then,” Marietta said. “Who gets Sunflower?”
A/N: This poll choice was going to be a lot darker originally. I’ve got a hangry kitten who wants her dinner yelling at me, so forgive the lack of editing.
11 people voted on the last chapter.
10 people voted for Zinnia and Shreya to have a short fight, and later the group can sneak up on a fox or multiple foxes. 1 person voted for the opposite.
Next chapter Tuesday, December 19th. Voting for this poll will end Sunday, December 17th at 11:59 PM EST.