Monday, April 12, 2021

Vendril: The Mark of the Silver Fox

"Helios' sacred buttocks, we did it!" The boy's voice was quiet, but fiercely proud.

"Shut up and keep walking," said the girl behind him. "We're not safe yet, and if they catch us now--"

The shutter of a lamp slid up, casting light all down the alley. Teleian was almost painfully aware of how exposed his face was; he could see feel the faint shift in the bag they carried between them as Tennira tried to duck her head deeper under her cowl. It might even work for her, but his own cowl had fallen to his shoulders several blocks back, leaving his face completely exposed: visible, memorable.

"...You'll have led us right to your meeting-place?" asked a human voice in better-than-passable elvish.

"Run!" said Teleian, but Tennira seemed frozen.

"Go ahead," said the human. "It'll save us time and make the Archon's job easier. All it costs us is a couple of crossbow bolts. No?"

The human was still an indistinct figure behind the light of the lamp; the streets and alleys of the elf-ghetto were dark even to elvish eyes. King Elfbane the Second and his troops wouldn't spare the resources to keep them lit, or warm, or clean. Still, when the peacekeeper gestured sharply with one upraised arm, the motion was visible enough: "Put them with the others."

"Run," said Teleian again, this time in a whisper.

"They'll shoot me," Tennira whispered back. 

They would, of course. They might miss -- they were only human -- but then they might not. But even that would be better than facing one of the King's Archons. Every rumor about them was more monstrous than the last. In the eyes of the King's justice, the elves were already guilty. "We surrender," Teleian said quietly. He glanced back at Tennira and nodded, and they knelt together, lowering the heavy canvas bag to the ground. The stolen weapons inside clunked as they shifted positions. 

Teleian kept one knee up and the other on the ground, but lowered his head. He had practiced springing up from this position, even without a blade. If he waited until the last moment, maybe he could take the crossbows by surprise and escape. He wouldn't be able to warn the resistance, even if he lived; he'd be lucky to escape the city. Still, better to die in the attempt...

The light flickered wildly as something heavy hit the ground. A moment later, someone slid the shutter closed and -- Teleian thought from the sounds -- set the lamp down on the dirty, broken bricks of the alley. 

"This way," said a voice, little more than a breathy whisper. A hand touched his shoulder, squeezed briefly, released. "Bring the bag." 

Teleian reached back, found his end of the bag, and lifted. Tennira must have done the same, because the bag rose without changing angle. "This way," said the voice again, and they followed. 

A narrow strip of sky was barely visible overhead; that was all that allowed them avoid the walls of the alley. The figure ahead of them was a shadow in the darkness, visible only as a faint gleam when it lifted one gloved hand to show the glint of a silver ring in the starlight. 

"You're him, aren't you?" whispered Teleian, and felt Tennira half-stumble behind him. "You're the silver fox."

The figure didn't answer, and a moment later Teleian became aware of the faint sounds of other people ahead. There were a full dozen at least, all of them standing in the dark; and from the whickering, at least one horse. The soft clop of a hoof suggested more. 

"Well?" called a voice, a soft baritone.

"It's done," said the breathy voice of the Fox. 

Faint light rose, soft balls of false flame spreading out. The walls of the alley became visible, one of them the back of the headquarters. Three small carts, loaded with wooden crates and rolls of cloth, filled the exits; the space between them was crowded with elves. 

Teleian recognized several of them: Mannanith Smokeleaf, who gave orders to the local cell; Evareth Nooncall, who hired all manner of people to work as her messengers, and quietly forged papers in the back room of her serving-house. A handful of others, all part of the resistance; Teleian knew their faces and names, but little of what they did. They should have been inside the headquarters; that was where he and Tennira had intended to surprise them with weapons stolen from the humans. 

But the humans had turned their clever rebellion into an ambush that would have crushed this part of the resistance. Judging by the human guards who lay unconscious against the sides of the alley, it had worked... or it would have, if the Silver Fox and his companions hadn't intervened. 

There were four of them, now visible in the faint magical light. The Fox himself wore a leather mask worked with metal and flat black lenses, red-brown and black, with a snout to match his namesake. A black cowl fit tight around his head, hiding the rest of his features. Still, he moved easily and motioned to one of the wagons. "Put your bag there. I'll see that it gets put to use." 

Standing beside the wagon was the Boar, who wore a metal helm shaped to look like the head of a pig, complete with tusks. He -- or she -- grunted a deep-throated approval as the weapons clunked onto the wooden slats. The horse stamped, and the Boar reached out and put a hand on the rail of the cart, as if to hold it back with his arm alone. Then again, thought Teleian, looking at the size of that arm, maybe he can. Or she. Or whatever. 

"It's done," said the Fox, "at least for now. We'll take you out of the city, and send your families along as soon as we can. Climb onto those two wagons, and find a crate to hide in." 

Teleian watched as several of the elves moved towards the wagon. An owl-masked figure stood beside one, a hawk-masked figure beside the other. 

"I'll stay," said Evareth, and beside her Mannanith nodded. 

"They may not have looked at us too closely," he said. "Not enough to recognize us. It's worth the risk."

The Fox regarded them for a long moment, then nodded. "Be careful, as you can." 

"I'll stay too," said Tennira, startling Teleian. 

"No," said the Fox. "They know your face." 

"I had my cowl up," she said, lifting her chin defiantly. "They didn't see--"

The fox shifted slightly, and suddenly had a knife in each hand. "They've known your face for some time now," said that breathy voice. "So you let us take you away, or you go back to them. They won't believe you didn't betray them, but that's still your choice to make." 

Teleian said, "Tennira?" 

Her shoulders slumped, and all of a sudden she was moving past him, heading for one of the wagons. He tried to reach out for her, but she slipped past his hand. 

"Leave her," whispered the Fox. "We sent word to your family this afternoon; take the other wagon, and you'll rejoin them on the road to Duendewood." 

"And Tennira?" Teleian knew his voice was bitter, knew the Silver Fox didn't deserve that, and also knew that he couldn't stop himself. He had cared for her; he couldn't just let that go. Even if, he realized suddenly, she led me into this whole scheme and exposed the resistance here.

"She will go elsewhere," said that quiet voice, the one that commanded attention by its absence of volume. "There are other homes for those of our blood, and in time she might even redeem herself there."

Teleian hesitated, then nodded and headed for the wagon. Two of the others were already fitting themselves into crates. No doubt it would be a long and uncomfortable ride before he would be free of the city -- and longer and more uncomfortable still before his heart was free of Tennira. He wondered if she hated herself as much as he, in this moment, hated her. I was an idiot, he decided. I ruined everything.

"Quietly, now," whispered the Fox. "Get them on the paths."

Teleian pulled himself up onto the wagon, located a crate, and lowered himself into it. He knew he would be a minor piece of the legend: more elves rescued by the Silver Fox, more traitors against the King who vanished into the night, never to be captured. More of the Elfbane's guards left helpless with the mark of the Silver Fox upon them. I'll be more than that, he decided. I'll keep trying to fight. I'll take guidance from people I can trust. I'll come back to help the Fox, if I can.

He held that thought firmly as the Boar fitted the lid of the crate over him and hammered it into place.

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