“What about the blood on the door says that ringing the bell’s a good idea?” Ellie raised her staff to bar Shreya from nearing the alarm. “Seriously, I want you to walk me through your thought process, because I don’t see it.”
“It is old. It is not relevant to this,” Shreya said.
“Old or not, it’s a sign that they’re not friendly. Somebody got messed up right here, maybe killed. Do you really want to gamble on this one? Let’s find a gap in the walls and peek in, at the very least. I’m not gonna let us walk into an ambush. Ambush, as in, a surprise attack out of nowhere, in case you don’t know the word.”
“I understand ambush.” She gave the bell and the door one last hard look each. “Okay, then, we go quickly. Come.”
Shreya wasn’t kidding when she said that. Ellie practically had to skip to keep up with her hurried pace. Having to haul the spear didn’t make it any easier. As they moved along the perimeter of the fox village, they checked for gaps in the wood.
Once they found one, Shreya pounced for it. She peered into the split in the barrier, leaning against the wall.
“What’s it look like in there?” Ellie asked, her voice held at a careful whisper.
“Normal. Foxes are patrolling. You can see.” Shreya moved over.
Peeking through, Ellie found herself disagreeing with Shreya somewhat. The fox village didn’t look all that normal. Where were their buildings? There were a couple of things there that could be called huts at best, sculpted out of mud and grass. No actual homes, from the looks of it. No Town Halls, no stores. Everything was out in the open without true privacy.
A mother and father fox urged their toddler to waddle towards them. Two kids poked sticks into the dirt, playing some kind of scritch-scratch game. A small group of foxes gathered near a fire pit, deep in conversation as they tended to the coals.
Towards one of the back walls, lay a wrapped bundle. Something poked out of it, like a dark silk. It was easily missed among the other things by it. Meat. Vegetables. Other packaged goods. Ellie strained her eyes, her vision threatening to blur as she re-examined the bundle.
“…It’s moving?” she asked, not trusting herself. “Take a look at this.” Ellie got out of the way, Shreya taking her place. “All the way against the far wall. That pile of stuff.”
“That is the peace offering,” Shreya said. “And, that is… Shanti!” She spun on her heel and darted off.
Ellie raced after Shreya, following her to the opposite end of the fox village. By the time they reached it, her legs threatened to give out. Huffing and puffing to catch her breath, she watched Shreya search along the wall for holes. The tight boards presented a problem.
Shreya knocked gently on the wood. “Weak. Find the weak part.” She stooped to check on the lower points.
Something else caught Ellie’s attention. She pressed her hand to the seam in the planks, where the fixtures were enjoined. “The more I think about it, the more I think they couldn’t have built this themselves. How would they have gotten the hammers and nails to do this?”
As if she didn’t hear Ellie, Shreya said, “Break it. We have to break it. This piece here. The rest will hold. Break these two and we can crawl.”
“I don’t have an axe. And, um, hold on, you don’t want to try the bell thing now? They looked kind of peaceful in there, other than the whole Shanti-in-a-blanket thing. I didn’t see anything too scary in there,” Ellie reasoned.
“Peaceful?” Shreya spat the word back at her. “You worry for peace now when you are the one with the spear. What changed?”
“I’m…” Ellie struggled to admit it. Scared. “It’s going to make a lot of sound. There’s no fast way to do this. As soon as we start, a bunch of foxes are going to run up and see what the fuss is about.”
“Are you telling me to surrender? Shanti could be…she could be hurt. We are so close.”
“No, no one’s surrendering. What we need is a distraction to get their attention off of Shanti. I could put your hat on, pretend like I’m an animal, and ring the bell. That should get somebody’s attention for long enough. It might buy you a little time.”
“You should not be the one,” Shreya said. “They will see through the disguise.”
“Then I should be myself, the Heiress of Stockbrunn.” She tapped the town’s emblem on her belt buckle. “I’ll say that Stockbrunn has an offer for the foxes. I’ll act like I’m on a diplomatic mission. Mentioning Stockbrunn will be my shield in all of this.”
“I would be the better distraction.”
“How am I supposed to break these boards?”
“Kick it. Keep kicking it.” Shreya mimed the action for her. “I do not like splitting from you, but this feels like the only way.”
“It’s dangerous no matter who’s doing what,” Ellie said. “Listen, I should be the one who knocks on their door. If a wolf shows up, they’re going to be on high alert. I may raise some suspicion, but not as much as you. Do you get what I’m saying?”
“Yes. Run when there is trouble. I will get you when I can.”
“Will do.” Ellie saluted her.
What am I getting myself into? was the prevalent question in all of this.
Question of the hour. Question of a lifetime, that hopefully wouldn’t come to an end because of an ill-fated rescue operation. Heading for the gate, Ellie couldn’t shake the naysaying she’d thought she had shook off. It came back full force, making its way into her hands that wouldn’t stop shaking and her heart that wouldn’t stop racing.
Calm down. She tensed her hands, then relaxed them to give herself a brief restart. This should be easy. Talk to them. Run away with Shreya if anything goes wrong. You’re the Heiress. You should be able to—
Someone rang the bell before she reached it.
Ellie froze, not daring to make a sound. The gate’s doors creaked open. Conversation ensued around the corner. Whoever it was didn’t sound happy. Indecipherable murmuring accompanied their voices, the exchange becoming more heated.
Shreya approached Ellie, as quiet as ever. Ellie would’ve jumped if it wasn’t for Shreya saying, “You need to go. Walk, do not run.”
Whatever was happening at the entrance started sounding worse. They yelled back and forth. The formality soon ended and they were shouting over each other, no one able to get their words in edgewise.
“What’s happening?” Ellie whispered.
“My people are here. I do not know how many. They demand to see the Fox King. The foxes argue. Go, Ellie. Leave.” Shreya grabbed her arm to redirect her. “Go that way now.”
An agonized cry ripped through the soundscape. The shouting grew in intensity. Ellie tried to track what was going on. The rushing of movement. Screams of terror. The sick, foreboding feeling welling in her chest.
“Th-they’re attacking the foxes,” Ellie realized. There was no mistaking it. “I thought you said they gave up.”
“You have to go.” Shreya shoved her forward.
“And so do you. If your people are here, then that means Shanti’s safe. This is over.”
“I can’t leave her. What if something happens to her in this fighting? It is time to try.”
“Or time to trust your wolf people and move. C’mon, Shreya. We’ve got to go before we’re both caught up in this. Be reasonable.”
A/N: Sorry for being a day late with this. And sorry for not directly translating last chapter’s choice. For some reason, I interpreted the outcome like this and didn’t double check it before I finished.
Next chapter will be on Tuesday, the 16th. I’ll leave the voting open an extra day longer, so expect it to end some time on Monday, the 15th.
13 people voted in the last chapter. 5 voted for them to ring the bell and discover the foxes have been attacked, and that Shanti’s gone. 8 voted for “They sneak their way in…and they get caught up in an attack on the foxes. They find Shanti.” As you can see the chapter above isn’t exactly that. *cringe* Sorry. At least I didn’t write the wrong choice down like I did that one chapter where Zinnia and Ellie got into a big argument in the cafe. Anyone remember that blunder?