Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail is out now and available at woodsy-studio.itch.io!
“This is one of the worst ideas you’ve ever had,” Heremon muttered as he knelt down below a window near the service entrance to the Melinkov keep. “I can’t believe that you convinced me to go along with it.”
“Come on,” Sofya replied. She was crouched beside him, her hand on the windowsill. “I saw the looks you were giving that woman. You are more excited about this than I am.”
“She was quite rude, but that doesn’t justify theft.”
“The AFC stole the Arm from the ir-Dyeun. The Empire stole it from the AFC. And then the Melinkovs stole it form the Empire. We’re well beyond justified at this point.”
Heremon frowned. “I don’t think that’s how it works.” Ever since Sofya had suggested breaking into Melinkremlin to take the arm, Heremon had voiced his concerns. But she knew the truth. Heremon was beside her for a reason. He wanted to take the Arm from the Melinkovs as much as she did.
The plan to retrieve the Prophet’s Arm was relatively simple. Because the Melinkremlin keep was built after the Fey reactors, the entire structure was dependent on Fey-powered electric lights. There were no fireplaces, no torches, and surprisingly few windows. At night, the only thing that could illuminate the corridors were the neon lights that lined the walls.
Very few would-be burglars would be able to take advantage of this particular design feature. Disabling Fey power to the building would require destroying or disabling multiple transformers across Volgrad, some of which were as heavily guarded as the keep itself. Sofya, however, had an advantage.
“Any luck?” Heremon asked.
“There’s a pipe in the wall a few feet from here,” Sofya replied. She pulled her hand down from the windowsill and began to creep towards where she felt the Fey energy pulsing through the wall. All magic—even magic pulled from a rift to power gaudy lights in a human castle—left a signature that Sofya could sense if she concentrated. And sensing it wasn’t the only thing she could do.
“And you’re sure this is going to work?” Heremon asked. “Do you know what happens to most humans when they break a Fey energy pipe?”
“I survived an entire reactor exploding. Trust me.”
“Maybe I trust you. But I don’t trust your magic. Just because you keep living through things that should kill you doesn’t mean they’re safe.”
“Using my glamours should kill me. Sensing the arm should kill me. After long enough, it starts to sound like a hollow threat, especially when this keep is full of people who might actually do the job if we get caught.”
Heremon’s eyes went wide. Before he could reconsider the plan, Sofya pressed her hand against the wall where she felt the Fey energy pipe. Her fingertips went cold. Frost began to spread across the wall as she focused her magic down into the center of the wall.
The pipes used to carry Fey energy through Human cities varied in quality, but they were all generally sturdy enough to withstand the elements. Fortunately, Sofya didn’t need to break the pipe. That’s just what she’d told Heremon so that he would go along with the plan. But that wasn’t enough to cut power to the keep, with all the redundancies throughout the building. He would have never agreed to let Sofya do what she really intended. She needed to reach inside. She needed to connect with the energy inside. Once she did that…
A surge of adrenaline rushed through her body as Sofya’s ice sorcery began to mingle with the pure Fey magic in the pipe. It was stronger than she expected. It didn’t just connect her with the lights and heating elements in the keep. The magical energy stretched back, through the transformers, all the way to the Volgrad Fey rift. And for just a second, it found something similar in Sofya.
She could feel the Fey pouring into her, like it had a mind of its own. It was as if it was trying to form a circuit, with her body as one part of a loop that had to be closed. She thought it should hurt, but instead if just felt warm. It felt welcoming.
“Sofya, what are you doing?” Heremon asked, panic edging into his voice. He was beginning to realize her true plan. “Tell me when we need to run.”
“It’s not going to explode.”
Before Heremon could respond, the lights inside the keep went dark. Then the lamps illuminating the courtyard were extinguished. And finally the spotlights along the wall flickered out. The entire castle was enveloped in darkness.
“What in Dyeun’s name–”
“I’ve done it before,” Sofya interrupted. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Done what before?”
“I overloaded the transformers in this part of the city.” Sofya said. She removed her hand from the wall. Her skin no longer tingled. She couldn’t feel the Fey energy flowing through the pipes any more. “Now, come on. They’ll reset soon. We only have ten minutes or so.”
Sofya could tell he wanted her to elaborate, but there was nothing more to be said. She understood her power even less than he did. At least he was raised around magic, learning to use it from a young age. The only things Sofya knew were what she’d managed to discover through experimentation.
The guards patrolling the Melinkremlin keep were now in complete darkness, but so were Sofya and Heremon. Fortunately, Leshin could see exceptionally well in the dark. As soon as they crawled into the service entrance window, he took Sofya’s hand and began leading her through the hallways.
Heremon served as Sofya’s eyes, but Sofya was the one who knew where the Arm was being held. She pressed her finger into his palm and pointed him in the direction where she sensed the artifact. This was a system they’d devised shortly after they met, when they were in hiding from the Empire and the Leshin while Sofya recovered from her injuries. For the first few weeks, she was almost completely blind and Heremon had to lead her everywhere.
The first few hallways were easy. The only people in the back of the castle were the servants and they were too distracted by the power outage to notice anything. But as they approached the foyer and the stairs leading to the second floor, Sofya could hear the sound of the Melinkov’s guards trying to secure the building. In the center of the keep, where there weren’t even windows to provide ambient moonlight, the guards were completely blind. They stumbled towards the edges of the building, where they could find at least some dim light, leading them away from Heremon and Sofya’s objective. A few of them tried to illuminate the space in front of them with the soft glow from their pistols, but it fortunately wasn’t enough for them to see Sofya or Heremon as they slipped into the foyer.
Going up the stairs proved even more difficult. Heremon carefully guided Sofya upwards, but she kept hitting her feet against the stairs as they ascended. The sound was mostly indistinguishable from the keep’s inhabitants stumbling around blind, but each bit of noise made her heart jump in her chest.
Sofya hadn’t really thought through what she would do if they were caught. Heremon would never approve, but a cloud of ice crystals could potentially provide an escape. That was the closest thing she had to a plan, since even if it failed he could take responsibility for the magic. Most Humans didn’t know how specialized Leshin mages tended to be, and no one would ever be able to prove Heremon was unable to create an ice spell.
When they reached the second floor, Sofya guided Heremon to a hallway to the east. As soon as they approached, Sofya saw the soft green glow of a pistol raised in front of a guard’s face. He couldn’t see them. Not yet. But he was getting closer. She clenched Heremon’s hand and they ducked into a closet on the left.
“Is anyone there?” the guard growled. Sofya held her breath. She and Heremon were wedged in a space that barely had room enough for one of them. The guard stopped briefly outside the closet. Sofya had never been more relieved that Heremon stopped wearing Leshin perfume. If the smell didn’t give them away, her coughing would have.
After the briefest moment of hesitation, the guard moved along. Heremon slowly opened the door and they stepped outside. Sofya pushed her finger up against his palm, directing him towards a door on the far end of the hall.
As they approached, Sofya could feel the magical energy from the Arm even more acutely. It was strong and distinctive in a way that Sofya had never quite sensed before. Even though Heremon said it could no longer possess any real power, Sofya couldn’t help but wonder.
Sofya reached out and touched the door. It was locked but it didn’t feel particularly secure. The Melinkovs weren’t keeping the arm in a vault. This seemed like more of a bedroom or office. Fortunately, breaking open a locked door was one of the easiest things for Sofya to do with ice magic. She placed her hand on the doorknob and chilled the lock until it was brittle.
Just as the lock was about to snap open, Sofya heard the hum of the neon spotlights outside. The Fey transformers had been reset and power was returning to the keep. They had to hurry.
Twisting her wrist, Sofya popped open the lock. She and Heremon quickly stepped inside just as the lights in the keep flickered on. The hard part was over, or so she figured. Getting into the second floor of the mansion was harder than getting out, especially when she and Heremon could both use magic to soften the fall from a window. There was just one complication that she didn’t account for.
When Sofya turned around, she gasped. The first thing she saw was the Prophet’s Arm—a spindly steel limb held together by a flexible metal pipe that spiraled around it from the shoulder. But that was expected. What wasn’t expected was the man it was attached to.
Wearing the Prophet’s Arm was a tall, blond Leshin man. His hair was slicked back and he was dressed in an embroidered green tunic that looked quite expensive, though it had seen much better days. There were dark circles under his eyes, though otherwise his face seemed quite calm for a man who was clearly a prisoner.
“Well, look at you,” the Leshin man said. “I suppose you are the rescue party.”
The one-armed Leshin man looked from Heremon to Sofya, then back again. “So you’re not here to free me?”
“Answer our questions!” Heremon growled. He was generally a mild-tempered man, but would often lose his cool when plans like this went so awry.
“I am Simion ir-Sheaf. I am a merchant and banker and currently a prisoner being kept unjustly for doing merely what I believed was right.”
Sofya rubbed her temples. Even she was rattled by the strange turn the case had taken. “Okay, Simion ir-Sheaf, where did you get the Arm?”
“The one you’re wearing. The false arm. You know what I’m talking about!”
Now it was Simion’s turn to be puzzled. “My arm? Why… Why is that important? I bought it a month ago from some humans who were looking to make a few gold pieces off something they scavenged.”
Heremon crossed his arms and looked at the Leshin man skeptically. “You bought it?”
“Listen, I don’t know where they got it. And I don’t particularly care. Do you know how hard it is to find Leshin craftsmanship this delicate on this side of the forest? I’d been using a wooden arm for years and those humans had no idea how much something of this quality is worth. Did I take advantage of them? Yes, perhaps.” He hesitated. “Wait, is that what this is all about? Is this all because those soldiers realized how much I cheated them?”
Sofya sighed. “You have no idea what that Arm is, do you?”
Simion’s eyes went wide. “Wait a minute… You’re not here about me at all! You just want–”
Heremon stepped forward. “Listen, I think we all got off on the wrong foot. You surprised us, Simion. We weren’t expecting to find anyone here. Let’s start over. You tell us why you’re here and we’ll tell you why we’re here. Then all three of us are going to find a way out.”
“Like I explained before,” Simion said. “I am a merchant and banker from the city of Vodotsk. I have lived there and performed these perfectly legal services for years. I chose to remain after the occupation because I believed that other Leshin who remained would be denied those services by humans and I wanted to help. Well, I wanted to help and I saw an opportunity.”
“Get to the point,” Hremon muttered. “Why is House Melinkov keeping you prisoner?”
“Well, as you may know, Leshin who chose to leave Vodotsk and return to our lands often had their property seized by the Empire.”
“That’s how you ended up with that arm,” Sofya said. “But we’ll get to that later.”
Simion gave her another puzzled look, but continued with his story. “Similarly, Leshin who remained in Vodotsk would have their property seized by the Vodotsk County government. It was all quite shady—claims that taxes weren’t paid, land taken and rented back to the Leshin at exorbitant rates compared to human neighbors—nothing explicitly illegal but still quite oppressive. I assisted certain Leshin clients in hiding assets and attracted the ire of the county government.”
“So you were committing a crime?” Heremon asked.
“The county was committing a crime. Their practices are clearly in violation of the treaty between our people. As is my imprisonment here!”
Sofya looked at Heremon. “I don’t know the exact terms of the treaty but I’m pretty sure Leshin criminals in formerly occupied territory can’t be locked up without cause.”
“Their soldiers barged into my shop and dragged me away!”
“That’s definitely not legal,” Sofya said. “But, unfortunately, we aren’t here legally either so…”
“So rescuing you is still going to be difficult,” Heremon continued. “But don’t worry. Now that we know you’re here, we can’t just ignore the situation.” He looked around at the room where Simion was being kept. It was well furnished, though covered in the Melinkov’s gaudy colors. A pile of trays near the door demonstrated the Leshin was well-fed. “Though admittedly there are far worse places you could be imprisoned.”
Simion narrowed his eyes. “I don’t want to be imprisoned anywhere. And what about you? Why are you here?”
Sofya considered her answer for a moment. They had already revealed that the reason they broke into the mansion was related to the prosthetic arm Simion now wore. She didn’t want to tell him the full story, but it seemed like there was no other option. “The men who sold you that arm weren’t soldiers, but separatist rebels. And it’s not just any arm, it’s also a historical artifact. It once belonged to the prophet Cathal ir-Dyeun. We were hired to find it by a Leshin museum.”
Shocked, Simion looked over at his metal arm. He gaped at it. Such a silence fell over the room that Sofya could hear the Melinkov guards scrambling in the halls. At least two of them were headed upstairs, meaning they didn’t have enough time for Simion to fully process what he’d just learned.
“Forget the Arm for now, Simion. What kind of magic can you use?”
“Magic? I… I actually don’t use magic.”
Sofya rolled her eyes. Of course the Leshin they happened to run into would have no useful spells, when his very presence made Sofya unable to use her own magic. “That’s just wonderful,” she muttered. “Do you have any ideas of how we’ll escape?”
“If I knew how to escape, I wouldn’t still be here. How were you planning on getting out?”
“There’s a window further down the hallway. We were going to jump.” Noticing the skeptical look on Simion’s face, Sofya further elaborated. “Heremon is a healing mage. He can temper his fall, then catch me when I jump.”
“Y-yes,” Heremon stuttered. “I was going to catch Sofya. I don’t believe that plan will work with you, Simion.”
Simion smiled. He was strangely calm. “Ah, so you’re Heremon and Sofya. Finally I get your names out of you. It took you long enough.”
“Our…names?” Heremon asked.
Before she could say any more, there was a loud bang! against the door. Sofya’s pulse spiked as she looked around the room. There was no way out. They were trapped and, with the lock broken, it wouldn’t be long before the door came down.
“Well,” Sofya said. “At least we know they treat their prisoners well.”
Unfortunately for Sofya, the dungeon beneath Melinkremlin Keep was nowhere near as comfortable as the bedroom where Simion ir-Sheaf had been kept prisoner. The floors and walls were solid rock, slick with accumulated moisture from the humid western plains. The only source of light was a flickering neon tube above the cell. There was a bed and a toilet, but it seemed like she was expected to share it with Heremon and Simion, who had been removed from his luxurious cell for trying to escape.
“While I appreciate the rescue attempt, it seems you have drastically worsened my situation,” Simion muttered. “I’m not even sure we’ll get fed down here. At this point, it might be easier to let us die. No one will come looking for two Leshin and a mercenary.”
Sofya shook her head. “They won’t let us die. I’m not just a mercenary. They wouldn’t risk getting my blood on their hands. And even if they are so foolish, trust me. I’ll get us out of here before we die of starvation.”
“Who, exactly, are you?” Simion asked.
“That is a very long story.”
“It appears we have plenty of time.”
Heremon cleared his throat, as if to remind Sofya to be careful. While they shared a common jailer, there was no way to know if Simion could be trusted. At best, he was a criminal with good intentions. At worst, he was as much an enemy as the Melinkovs.
“I’m the firstborn daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Oraz,” Sofya said. “Sure, I’m disowned. And maybe my family would prefer it if I was dead.”
“This isn’t encouraging,” Simion replied.
“Just trust me.”
Simion nodded. “Now it all makes sense. You were never really afraid of being caught, because you don’t think they will hurt you. Your Leshin friend, however… You risked his life.”
“I go where Sofya goes,” Heremon snapped. “Even if she has stupid ideas.”
“You’re a loyal man,” Simion said. “That’s good to know.”
“She saved my life.”
Before Simion could ask Heremon to elaborate, the sound of footsteps echoed through the hall outside the jail cell. Sofya sat up, alert, expecting to see the Melinkov matriarch. Sofya had never met Alma Melinkov, but had heard plenty of frightful things about her temper. Surely, Sofya thought, a break-in at the family’s central keep would warrant her attention. She was wrong.
Once again, it was the young grand-daughter, Nadezhda, who was dispatched to deal with Sofya. Nadezhda was alone, not even accompanied by the guards who had protected her earlier. She was clad in a long, dark red coat that was tightly buttoned over her chest. A small patch of silken fabric, likely a nightgown, poked up through the lapels near her neck. She’d come straight from her bed to confront Sofya, which raised even more questions about what was going on at Melinkremlin Keep. Sofya had her theories, but she let Nadezhda take the lead in the questioning. At least for now.
“Personal papers?” Nadezhda sneered. “The IKV? An investigation? What a joke. You just came in here to rob us. I knew you were in a bad place, but this is just–”
“Rob you?” Sofya exclaimed, cutting her off. “You know exactly why we were here. We came to find the Leshin you had imprisoned, in violation of our treaty with the AFC. And look at this, we found him.”
Sofya didn’t know much about Simion, but she assumed he wasn’t stupid enough to undermine her story. There was a way for all three of them to get out of this unharmed and it absolutely required Nadezhda to believe that Sofya and Heremon broke in to rescue him.
“I told you,” Simion said. “I told you they would come to find me.”
Nadezhda huffed. “First of all,” she said. “We didn’t sign any treaty. The Empire signed a treaty. The Vodotsk county government signed a treaty. But Volgrad wasn’t involved. House Melinkov was never even consulted.”
“Your brother is on the Vodotsk county council,” Sofya replied. “Surely that counts for something.”
“Leshin in Vodotsk are required to register with the county,” Heremon continued. “In exchange, they are given the protection of county law.”
“The Melinkovs don’t own Vodotsk,” Sofya said. “Not yet.”
Nadezhda started to pace. Sofya could tell that she was getting under the young Melinkov’s skin. “All of this is beside the point. You broke into my home. You interfered with the Fey power system, which is a crime greater than whatever it is that you’re accusing me of.”
“False imprisonment,” Sofya replied.
“Whatever. You have nothing on me. Not compared to what I have on you. And unlike this one-armed Elf, your crimes were actually committed in Volgrad. You are right where you belong.”
Sofya crossed her arms. “So, you’re just going to hold us here indefinitely? No trial? Because if you have a trial, people are going to find out about your friend Simion.”
“Well…” Nadezhda hesitated. “Yes. Yes we will. I don’t see why not. Unlike your family, we don’t have to answer to an Emperor. This is our sovereign territory and we will do as we please.”
“I’d like to speak to your grandmother,” Sofya said. “Because you’re right, but only half right. You aren’t the sovereign here. She is.”
Nadezhda’s face twisted into a scowl. “I act with her full authority while she is away!” she exclaimed.
“Oh, she’s away,” Sofya replied. “I thought she was under the weather.”
Something in Nadezhda snapped. She turned away from the prison cell and began to march back towards the staircase. This wasn’t what Sofya wanted. She thought she understood why Nadezhda was handling this situation, but there was a piece of the puzzle she still didn’t have. There was something about the situation that still didn’t make sense.
Despite this, Sofya wasn’t ready for Nadezhda to walk away. She was still certain that the Melinkovs weren’t going to keep them indefinitely or starve them, but she wasn’t prepared to spend the night—or however long Nadezhda decided to sweat them out—in an uncomfortable jail cell. Sofya wanted a drink. She wanted a good meal and an attempt at a few hours asleep by herself before sunrise.
Nadezhda thought she was in control. But Sofya could sense her insecurity. She was young. She wasn’t used to having this sort of responsibility. She was in over her head. And Sofya had to play off of that.
She closed her eyes and thought of her mother. No one terrified Sofya like Irina Rykov, and it had nothing to do with her position of power. It didn’t matter that she was Duchess of Archaleretsk, or even leader of House Rykov. She could have ruled over nothing more than a patch of land and her voice would have struck fear in Sofya’s heart. Sofya tried to imagine what she would say in this situation and how she would gain control over the situation. She’d seen Irina bully young, naive nobles into submission. Surely, Sofya could do the same.
“I have a proposal for you,” Sofya said, just loud enough that Nadezhda would hear her halfway to the stairwell.
Nadezhda turned and chuckled. “Oh, you have a proposal for me?”
“Let us go and you won’t have to explain to your grandmother why there are Imperial troops surrounding Volgrad.”
“Are you joking?” Nadezhda replied, but she wasn’t laughing anymore. And she wasn’t walking away. She returned to the jail cell and stared daggers at Sofya through the bars. “You’re a nobody. Your name means nothing. Your family won’t look for you, let alone the Empire.”
Sofya took a deep breath and suppressed her anger. She remembered that her mother never yelled. She never raised her voice. And she never let it crack. “Even though its wings may be clipped, a hawk still has talons,” she said. “Do you have talons, Lady Melinkov?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I lost my inheritance. I lost my home. But I didn’t lose my name. I’m still a Rykov and that still means something.” Before Nadezhda could argue, Sofya continued. “The Emperor might not care about me, but he cares about the Melinkovs. You refuse to submit to him. He would love nothing more than a reason to turn his army on you. But he can’t. He has to respect your sovereignty. At least until he finds out there is a Rykov in your dungeons. Now? Now he will crush you. Not because he wants to save me, but because he wants to wipe your family off the map and take this gaudy excuse for a castle for himself.”
Nadezhda’s eyes went wide. Sofya didn’t know if what she said was true, but that didn’t matter. Nadezhda knew even less. “But… But you broke into our castle.”
“To rescue a Leshin held illegally. Which means as soon as you try to justify my imprisonment, you’ll make all new enemies. The Leshin will call for Melinkov blood.”
“And maybe this is all a well-thought out plan to win over the people of Vodotsk,” Sofya continued. “But I suspect that your grandmother doesn’t know about Simion. She certainly doesn’t know about me. She’s not here. Where is she? Is it Melinkov controlled land? You said she was under the weather. Seeking medical treatment? If I had to guess, she’s in Eszthernetsk for the best Krovakyn-trained doctors. Land controlled by the Empire. I could think of some awful ways she finds out about all of this.”
Nadezhda was silent, which confirmed many of Sofya’s assumptions. It was strange enough when a younger grand-daughter was the representative to greet her earlier in the day. But sending her down to discipline prisoners caught snooping in the keep was nigh-unbelievable, unless she was the ranking Melkinkov on the property.
“You thought I would make quite the present to your family,” Simion said. “A Leshin smuggler is quite the treat. But now I believe the treat has gone sour. I have attracted flies. And those flies will bring vodyans and marowits and other horrid creatures that will tear you apart.”
Sofya stood up and approached the bars of the jail cell. Her hands were shaking, so she clasped them behind her back to hide her uncertainty. “Let us go and we forget any of this ever happened. You never abducted Simion from his shop. You never kept him prisoner. We never met. I never broke into the castle. And you never foolishly risked angering the hawks of the east.”
If Sofya was nervous, Nadezhda was terrified. Sofya could see it all over her face. Her eyes twitched around the room. Her cheeks were flushed, even under her dark skin. “You… You are no different from the rest of them.”
“Now you get it,” Sofya replied.
“You think you can just take what you want from us. Overload the Volgrad power grid. Steal into our homes. Interfere in our business. What gives you the right?”
“You do,” Sofya said. “And in exchange, you get to survive.”
The next morning, Sofya, Heremon, and Simion were escorted from the Melinkov dungeons to the walls of Volgrad. A carriage was waiting for them to take them back to Vodotsk. Nadezhda made them wait out the night, which was more than Sofya expected, but in the end wordlessly caved to Sofya’s demands. She did not visit them again, and did not give Sofya the satisfaction of seeing her defeated. Instead, two guards carried out the task. They did not speak a word, which was fine by Sofya. She was leaving the Melinkov keep with the Prophet’s Arm.
“I must say, Sofya, I am impressed,” Simion said as soon as the carriage started moving and they were safely on their way from Volgrad. “I did not expect to be rescued without bloodshed.”
“Remember, we weren’t there to rescue you,” Sofya replied. “That was just a very convenient story.”
Simion smiled. “You rescued me nonetheless.”
Sofya tapped the front wall of the carriage, getting the driver’s attention. “That reminds me, we should head for Edun instead of Vodotsk. Our client will want to, hm, negotiate with you over your arm.”
The driver grunted in acknowledgment.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to make a prisoner out of me as well,” Simion replied.
“We’ll be back in Vodotsk by the afternoon,” Sofya said. “I just figured you would want to work something out with out client. I’m sure he’d be happy to provide a new arm, just as good, from Alba or wherever else. Or we could just take the arm as payment for rescuing you.”
Simion smiled. “Let’s meet your client.”
On a mostly empty road, the drive from Volgrad to the Leshin border took less than two hours. Sofya and Heremon sat mostly in silence, listening to the steady hum of the carriage’s fey engine. There wasn’t much they felt comfortable talking about in front of Simion, who was still a mystery to them. It seemed almost unbelievable that a Leshin who lived in Vodotsk during the occupation didn’t recognize the Prophet’s Arm. And he seemed rather reluctant to talk about himself, aside from his business as a banker, trader, and pawn broker for the Leshin remaining in Human territory.
When the carriage arrived at the forest’s edge, it stopped so an Imperial soldier and Leshin border guard could take a quick inventory of the inhabitants. These small checkpoints—barely manned roads into the forest—had replaced the larger camps like the one raided by the IKV.
Sofya, Heremon, and Simion all provided names and seals to the guards and told them they would only be in the forest for a few hours. Fey-powered carriages were only permitted in Leshin territory for passenger drop-off at the nearest city, in this case Edun. If Sofya wanted to go any further into Leshin territory, they would have to hire a horse-driven vehicle there. Fortunately, there was no need for the extra expense.
Once the border paperwork was complete, the carriage advanced forward, where a thick canopy of trees nearly blocked out the sun. The Great Forest that marked the original border between Humans and Leshin was thickest at the edges, where powerful nature magic maintained dense tree growth. Traveling further into Leshin territory, the plant growth thinned and there were even large, empty plots of land where sprawling cities were built within the forest. But Edun was only a small town, with wooden buildings and huts crammed between the trees.
Most people in Edun lived in what Sofya would call treehouses, carefully constructed rooms perched in the high branches of the dense forest. Nestled in the thick trees of the Leshin/Human border, these homes were as sturdy as anything on land, and allowed the ground below to be used for roads and public buildings, as well as the many animals of Edun.
Other wildlife roamed the town with impunity, untamed and generally undisturbed by the Leshin. Some were tame, such as the horses and trash-devouring gnilbeasts. Others were bonded pets, wild animals that individual Leshin had domesticated with magic. But most of the creatures were completely wild, living on their own among the people of the town without an interference.
The Leshin claimed it was their way of living in harmony with nature. Sofya wasn’t sure that harmony was possible. She liked animals, but found the proximity Leshin tended to keep with them rather unsettling. Their tolerance for snakes was especially concerning.
Wildlife, however, was not Sofya’s primary concern as her carriage approached the Edun tavern where Braden ir-Alba was staying. Instead, it was the large number of horses tied outside the building. Six large stallions were reigned to the thick trees surrounding the tavern. The horses wore leather armor on their heads and sported thick saddles with holsters for both sword and bow. These were military steeds, and it was strange to see so many at a single tavern in one of the smallest towns in the forest.
“It does not appear that we will be meeting with your client discretely,” Simion said, peering out of the carriage.
“The AFC might be here on completely unrelated business,” Sofya replied, though she didn’t entirely believe it.
“Let us hope that this is the AFC,” Simion said. “For you may have pushed all the ir-Dyeun out of your lands, human, but they still roam the forest and the western plains. Many think that this is still their land and they may yet take it back.”
The carriage stopped before the end of the road leading to the tavern. “Did I hear that right?” the driver asked. “You think there might be ir-Dyeun here?”
Simion smiled. “Perhaps I should not have said it aloud. I seem to have spooked your driver.”
“This is as far as I go,” the driver barked. “You can get a horse-drawn carriage back. I’m not sticking around.”
Sofya didn’t argue. She paid the driver and let him leave. It wasn’t fair to get anyone else involved. To be honest, she had considered turning around and returning to Vodotsk herself. But they’d come this far. She’d been willing to break into Melinkremlin Keep to steal the arm. She wasn’t about to back off just because of a few scary-looking horses.
“To be honest,” Sofya said. “I’m glad I have two Leshin with me this time instead of just one.”
“You so sure that I’m on your side?” Simion asked, smirking.
“If there are ir-Dyeun in there, they will want to rip your arm off and take it on a crusade. So, yes, I assume that you’re on our side.”
“Fair enough. Let us see what this place holds for us.”
To be continued…