“Keep Sunflower,” Shreya said to Marietta and Zinnia. She gave Ellie a brief, and perhaps placating, glance. Ellie picked up on that subtle quality immediately. “You need her more.”
Ellie played nice. Her argument became trapped in the puffed-out portion of her right cheek. What if the foxes turned hostile? What if they were already there, sniffing them out and doing whatever animals did that gave them such good detection abilities? For all they knew, the foxes were expecting some girls in a bunch of animals to show up.
She swallowed her concerns, feeling needles slide all the way down her throat.
Marietta seem to have a snout out for misery and discomfort. She sensed Ellie’s, and flashed her a disingenuous grin. “You’ll be fine.”
She would be fine, sure. Tell that to the knots cramping up her stomach. They balled up, their entanglement clogging up the pit that was also forming at the bottom. Her body was a mess of doubt and fear and a strong sense of refusal. Every time she considered turning back, she remembered that Shreya needed her.
Ellie grabbed her spear. “You’re damn right we will be.” She plastered on a smile, the main ingredient to its glue idiocy. Even she had to admit that this was a risk beyond all risk.
Despite all the time she had wrestled with this very thing, her conscience wouldn’t let it go. Whenever she had a quiet moment of introspection, her psyche used it to belittle her decision. And then, every single time, another part of her did what it could to hush the naysaying. It was like an endless cycle going nowhere, like wheels cotton mind… But it would be over soon, wouldn’t it? Once they crossed the threshold into fox territory, there would be no turning back.
“We’ll wait here,” Zinnia said.
“Scream if you need us,” Marietta said.
Sunflower whined when Ellie left her behind. Marietta distracted her with a hand game. The Fox boys stayed seated. It seemed like Zinnia was going to do most of the work in keeping an eye on him, her hand lingering near the hilt of her knife. Of course, if it came to it, Sunflower could spring into action at a moment’s notice. Zinnia’s knife would likely go unused.
Shreya and Ellie walked in silence, Ellie trailing in lock-step behind her. Worry over being allowed to talk kept Ellie quiet. She traced the tension in Shreya’s shoulders. It was apparent through her clothing, her posture flagging it loud and clear.
Her uncertainty set the volume of her voice to low. “It’s like what Marietta said. We’ll be fine,” Ellie said. “Weren’t you the one who said we have nothing to worry about?”
“I worry for my sister,” she replied, her voice barely above a whisper.
Ellie hurried her steps to get back in shoulder-to-shoulder line with Shreya. She considered all the things she could say, like reassurances and dosages of reality. “At least we will know soon,” she settled on saying.
“I am sorry for having you do this. I promise everything will be back to normal after this.”
She laughed. “We don’t do normal, remember?”
“Back to us, before.” Shreya toyed with her hat strings. “As soon as I can, I will do something for you.”
“Nah, I’ll do something special for you first. You deserve it more,” Ellie said. Her ankle began to pulse, or rather, she became more aware of the feeling as they traversed another hill. She hadn’t noticed any pain after the fall. It was now striking against her, like a lonely attention-starved snake. The fangs of the metaphorical creature clamped down.
Shreya touched her arm. “We are close to the gate. The boy did not lie.”
Trying to act as natural as possible, Ellie readjusted her hold on the spear to better support her weight. It wasn’t like she never used it as a makeshift walking stick, so she hoped her change in gait would go unnoticed.
To Ellie’s surprise, the Fox community was surrounded by tall wooden walls on all sides. They had enclosed themselves, something that didn’t read as very forest guardiany to her. Wouldn’t they want to live among the trees? Her studies on animal behavior were lacking. Based on Shreya, it seemed like they all wanted to be “one with nature.”
Delineations like walls felt too…human. Sensible, yes, but not something that animals would want to delve into. As far as she knew, their enhanced senses removed the need for walls. If they had the appropriate patrol line set up, the walls would be entirely unnecessary.
Faint lines etched into the walls spelled out nonsensical Casternian phrases. Unless “down butter” had a special meaning to the foxes, whoever had been assigned to do the writing severely missed the mark. Near the words were drawings that looked more like humans than animals, not an odd physical quirk in sight.
An imposing gate was their only entryway by normal means. Hanging from a chain was a golden bell, which held their distorted reflections. A tall stick rested nearby, available for bellringing.
“There’s something weird about this place. I don’t know if I’m feeling paranoid, but are you sure this is the Fox Village?” Ellie asked.
“Yes. It reeks of them.”
“Do you pick up your sister at all? Catch any whiffs of her?”
Shreya sniffed. “It is weak. She was here. Many wolves were here.” She gestured to the space around them. “What is strange is…where are the greeters? Where are their guards?”
“I don’t know about this,” Ellie said.
“She must be here. We will use the bell,” Shreya said, moving towards it.
“Hold on! What if there’s something going on?” Ellie asked. “What if we are better off finding another way in? We can sneak in, check things out, and then tiptoe out once we have Shanti.”
“We should not sneak. They will get the wrong idea.”
Truth be told, if they needed to climb a wall, Ellie wasn’t so sure she could manage it with her ankle the way that it was. Still, it felt like the safer option. “But what if they are setting up a trap? Anyone who comes into this door could get hurt. We go around and we avoid it.”
“The wrong idea,” Shreya repeated.
“I’m just not sure ringing the bell and announcing our position to everyone is the best thing to do. We can surrender if they catch us. We’ll just explain that it seemed like something was off and we were concerned.”
Shreya suddenly became fixated on something towards the bottom of the gate, her eyes widening. Ellie followed her gaze to find what an optomist would argue was dried paint.
“…Is it fresh?” Ellie asked.
“Not sure,” Shreya said. “It looks old. I do not think we need to worry about it.”
“See, now we really should sneak in.”
“I think this is more reason to ring the bell.”
A/N: Help these girls settle their argument. Decide their fate. Voting will end this Sunday, December 31st at 11:59 PM EST. Hope everyone had a good holiday. Try not to get too turnt on New Years’ Eve.
11 voters on the last chapter. 7 people voted for Sunflower staying with Marietta and Zinnia. 4 voted for her going with Shreya and Ellie.
New chapter Tuesday, January 2nd. Forgive me for any post-Christmas or post-New Years rust. We are also nearing our two year anniversary. Wow, time flies!