The Heart of The Forest 2.03

Shadows Rise

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[Valcrest Forest | Lacus 26th, 2525 | Midday]

The brittle grass lay dormant among the wilting flower beds. As she approached the house—a humble construction made up of stone and wood—the vegetation crackled under the soles of her sandals. The knock on the door rang in her ears like a distant echo, the feeling of hardwood against her knuckles numbed with the passing of time. The door opened to bright hazel eyes; they scanned her face, the clothes she wore, the basket of flowers in her hands. They smiled from behind the door. Curious, warm: Alive. Her voice echoed as she spoke; there, but at the same time distant, her own smile was a mask even then. The kitchen was immaculately clean and smelled of freshly baked bread. She sat there nursing an untouched cup of water, making pointless conversation about keeping rose bushes healthy in the height of summer. She should be leaving by now. Of all the mistakes an assassin can make, that was indisputably the worst possible one.

The knife concealed within the flower basket: She was careless in reaching for it. Rose thorns punctured her wielding hand. Blood prematurely stained the white petals; the scent of iron mixed with sweet perfume. As she pressed the blade to the girl’s throat she’d expressed regret. She didn’t understand why, of all the times she’d done this, this one felt different.

“Lena.”

Why did her mind cling to this memory?

“Lena.”

“Why does it still hurt?”

“Len—”

A pained yelp raised her from sleep. Her fist was clenched tight around something breakable. It took time for the pained noises it produced to override her instincts completely. She let go and opened her eyes. Pain assaulted her temples the moment she tried to sit up. Her eyes blurred the image of whoever was sitting beside her bed, a figure dressed in greens and browns—like everyone in camp—hunched over their right hand. It was the person’s disgruntled muttering that finally sparked some recognition. “Eldric . . . Hmph . . . What the hell are you doing? Don’t sneak up on me like that!”

Eldric let out a pained hiss, rubbing the inside of his hand. “You almost broke my fingers. Twins.”

“Don’t. Sneak. Up. On me.”

“Tom said you weren’t feeling well last night and no one’s seen you all morning, so I figured I’d come check up on you.”

Lena groaned, rubbing circles on her temples until the pain started to subside. She raised her head with a sharp inhale and tried to force her eyes to focus. She could see Eldric clearly now; still sitting on the floor, hunched over his right hand, brows furrowed in aggravation. When he looked up to meet her eyes, however, his expression changed to one of concern. “Hey. Does your head still hurt?”

“Yeah. It’s . . . It’s getting better. You just startled me.” Lena drew another deep breath and slid down from the bed to sit on the floor beside him. “Let me see your hand.”

Eldric shook his head and brown locks flung over his eyes; overgrown and unkept. “It’s alright. I think my pride got the worst of it.”

Lena snorted and reached out to take Eldric’s hand in hers. “Let me see. We’ll worry about your bruised ego later.”

Eldric relented with a soft groan. “I see your mood hasn’t improved yet.”

“I have the day off, I should be able to sleep it all away if I want to.” Lena mumbled, looking down at his hand and examining a forming bruise in his knuckles with a guilty twist in her expression. “It’s not so bad, but drawing your bow might be a problem for a week or two.”

“Good thing I’m still suspended then. It won’t matter.” Eldric muttered, trying to pull his hand away.

Lena held it in place with a small scoff. “Hold still.” She scolded, applying gentle pressure on the center of his palm in a slow circular motion. “It’s just a suspension. It won’t be forever, El.”

Eldric winced as she pressed into his hand, but his tension faded with a soft breath. “And I shouldn’t see it as punishment. I know.”

“Doesn’t sound like you know. It sounds like you’re beating yourself up.”

Eldric shook his head again and pulled his hand from hers. “It’s better now, thank you.”

“El . . .”

Eldric got on his feet and nodded towards the small living room. “I brought you some soup and some bread. You gotta eat something. Come on.”

Lena sighed, giving her eyes another soothing rub before standing up herself. “Sure. Do me a favor and put the kettle on, I need to make tea.”

Eldric hummed on his way out of the room. “I thought you didn’t like tea.”

“I don’t, but I have to take it.” Lena glanced around her room. Her day clothes were sorted on a chair beside her bed. Most of the floor space in her bedroom was littered with leather bound tomes, scrolls, and writing quills. Every now and then she would take the time to organize them, but in a day or two, the room would once again fall into organized chaos. When she and Dani still shared a bedroom in the Alpha’s cabin, her sister would constantly complain about her ‘crap’ all over the floor and Lena’s refusal to let anyone clean up her side of the room. She breathed a soft sigh as she started to make her bed, and vowed to organize the mess later in the evening.

“Is that all the White Shadows had to say about your headaches? Drink some tea?” Eldric called from the living room.

“No.” Lena replied, smoothing her bed sheets over the mattress. “I mean, sort of. Their master is the most powerful telepath still alive in Valcrest and he called me . . . uhm . . . unprecedented.” She placed her pillows neatly over the sheets and proceeded to change for the day. “He advised me to stay, but since I refused, he gave me what he could to try to alleviate my symptoms.”

“Is it working?”

Lena hummed in thought, eyes focused on the thick laces of her boots. “It might be too soon to tell.”

“And by that you mean . . . no.”

Lena finished with her boots and joined Eldric in the living room. “It might be too soon to tell. I haven’t been exactly diligent in taking my medication.” She walked to the fireplace to pull the kettle from the fire, setting it down on the mantelpiece. The water inside rattled, covering the gentle sounds from the nearby river. “Yesterday I told my sister she needs to grow up, yet I haven’t been taking care of myself properly because tea tastes bad.” She half-smiled. “She would never let me live that down, now would she?”

“Definitely not.”

Lena searched the shelves above the mantelpiece for a small tin and a tea cup. “No. Because I need to set an example, right?”

Eldric let out a soft snort. “You’re kidding me. I’ve known you forever and I don’t remember you ever being a child. Give yourself a break, why don’t you?”

“I remember.” Lena stated, focused on preparing the mix of herbal tea. “It’s something he told me was ‘unprecedented’ about me, apparently. I always remember.”

“Do you remember the last time you had some mindless fun?”

Lena hummed, stirring the concoction in her tea cup. “Two months ago when it rained.”

“Oh yeah. The great mud battle.” Eldric straightened himself and let out a soft laugh.

“Mhm.” Lena finished stirring and brought the cup to her lips, trying a small sip. She grimaced. “Warm grass. I don’t know how people drink this stuff regularly. It’s disgusting.” She turned to Eldric with a smirk. “You want some?”

“No. No, thanks.” Eldric coughed and his tone gave away how the tea’s smell was making him queasy. “You enjoy that.”

Lena chuckled as she carried her tea cup with her across the room and set it down on the table. Eldric stood beside the table, awkwardly shifting his weight from one foot to the other instead of sitting. She sat and nodded for him to sit across from her. He did so with some hesitation. Eldric had been in her cabin many times before, but since he came back from that ambush, he’d avoided spending time alone with her. Lena wasn’t sure if his nervous state was because he didn’t want to be there, or because he expected her to call out his behavior. She chose not to. “So what did you bring?”

“Oh, uhm . . . Just some onion soup. Wasn’t sure if you’d like that or not, but Larissa swears by it.”

“Yeah, that’s fine.” She drew the bowl closer and tried a spoonful. It tasted nice, but it made her realize her stomach wasn’t feeling much better than her head. “Thanks. You didn’t have to worry.”

“I’m not buying what you’re trying to sell right now. Just so you know. You look like you just swallowed a pile of rocks.”

Lena took another sip of tea to try and disguise her discomfort. “I’m fine. Just a little queasy. It happens.” She put the tea cup down and tried a piece of bread, finding it easier to stomach. She focused on picking apart small bite-sized pieces while she watched Eldric fidget in the seat across from her. After what Emmett said the night before, it had been her intention to give him his space, but it was increasingly difficult to do when he was acting like he’d sat on a nest of fire ants. “What’s the matter?”

“Noth—” He stopped himself before she had the chance to glare at him. “I know I haven’t . . . I’ve been . . .”

“Weird and distant. Yeah. I know.” Lena half smiled over her cup of tea. “It’s okay. Twins know what your head’s been like after what happened.”

Eldric let out a harsh breath. “Yeah, you don’t know. You don’t know half of it.”

“What do you mean?”

Eldric leaned into the table top, covering his face in his hands. “Okay, well, I didn’t . . . I don’t want anyone to know about this. Least of all my dad or Emmett—they can’t know about this, but. . . whether I like it or not you’re going to find out, so might as well say it.” He let his hand drop onto the table with a dull thud. “I messed up that night.”

“You missed, Eldric. It was pretty dark, these things happen.”

Eldric shook his head, letting out a trace of bitter laughter. “No, I didn’t. I don’t miss; not by accident.”

“Not by accident? You’re saying you missed that Hunter on purpose?”

Eldric nodded, brown eyes fixed on the tabletop. “He was just a kid, Lena. He looked younger than your sister. Maybe if I had another second to think about the implications, but I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Please, please tell me you’re not hiding this information from my mother.”

“No. I mean . . . She knows. I didn’t really have to tell her anything.” Eldric sighed and slouched in his seat. “I’m pretty sure that’s why I’m still suspended. I know I should be counting my blessings after what happened to Eddie, but . . .”

“Eddie committed treason.” Lena’s tone turned sharp. “It’s not the same thing.”

“Isn’t it? Is it still going to be, ‘not the same thing,’ when that kid comes around and kills one of ours because I let him live?”

Lena scoffed. “Eddie chose to divulge confidential information for a bag of coins. If what you did was even remotely the same thing you wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Eldric’s expression hardened at her words. “Eddie wasn’t a bad person.”

“I liked Eddie. He was an excellent assassin, he was always nice to me, his parents have always been nice to me; and I feel for his mother because the moronic decision he made could have gotten her killed, too. He either didn’t have the awareness to consider that or he didn’t care.”

“Is that what you. . .” Eldric stopped himself mid-sentence, his expression suddenly guilty. “I don’t know if things are that black and white, that’s all.”

Lena parted another piece of bread and took her time chewing on it, watching Eldric’s expression intensely. “What were you going to ask? ‘Is that what you . . .’ what?”

“I . . .” Again, he flinched. “I was just wondering if you think anyone who goes against the clan like that deserves what Eddie got; no matter who they are.”

Lena frowned, but kept her eyes on his. “Yes. And of all people you should understand why. It might be the only sensible thing your father regularly spews.”

“At least the two of you agree on something, I guess.” Eldric’s tone was rueful as he ran his hand over his eyes. “I don’t know if I agree with that.”

“Let me put it this way: how much gold would it take for you to endanger Emmett’s life? Your father’s? Mine? The lives of everyone you grew up with? Can you honestly imagine a scenario where it’s acceptable to cross that line?”

“No.”

“Then you’re not a traitor. Black and white, maybe, but there it is.”

Eldric nodded, but his eyes were once again examining the tabletop. Lena left him to ponder the conversation as she finished her tea one small sip at a time. Then she stood, grabbing the leftover bread. “Do you have any assigned work for today?”

The question broke Eldric from his thoughts with a startled jolt. “Uh, no. Why?”

“Get up, you’re coming with me.”

Eldric stood, slowly. “Okay.” He didn’t even try hiding the apprehension in his voice. “Where?”

“I don’t know. I think maybe we should go see what my sisters are up to.”

Eldric rubbed the side of his face. “Doesn’t Sarah have tutoring today?”

“Mhm.” Lena opened the door and ushered him out. “And Dani has a day off, so I’ll bet whatever you want, she took her out somewhere instead.”

“You want to, what, sneak up on them or something?”

“Mhm.” Lena glanced around as they left her cabin. Even with the thick canopy above, the sunlight made her recoil, a trace of her previous discomfort still lingering behind her eyes. She drew a deeper breath and pushed it down. “Can you go get your bow? We’re gonna need that.”

Eldric shot her a questioning look. “I’m suspended. I’m not allowed to carry weapons. And what for?”

“I’m an Instructor and I’m authorizing you, so if anyone asks you can tell them that. And you’ll see.”

“Lena . . .”

Lena smirked. “Just go and get it, don’t look at me like that.”

Eldric crossed his arms over his chest, the stern look he tried to give her offset by a small smirk of his own. “I don’t like this. You have that same look in your eyes Dani always gets when she knows she’s about to do something she shouldn’t.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Go get your bow, I need to make a small supply run, and we’ll meet up a little ways up the river. If they went fishing, I know where Dani’s favorite spot is.”

Eldric snorted, offering a mocking bow. “Yes, your highness. Anything else you need?”

Lena chuckled. “Don’t let your father catch you doing that, smartass. And yeah, actually . . . Arrow shafts. We’re going to craft something.”

Eldric nodded and, with another mock-salute, he started on his way back to camp, calling out over his shoulder. “Finish that bread before you start wreaking havoc.”

[Valcrest Forest | Lacus 26th, 2525 | Early Afternoon]

“Sarah, stop swinging that thing around. If you hook me, I’ll throw you into the river, I swear.”

Sarah’s shoulders sagged and she lowered her fishing rod, letting the line dip into the water. “I’m bored. I think the fish are doing that winter sleep thing Lena was talking about the other day.”

Dani chuckled. “You mean hibernation. And the fish aren’t hibernating, exactly, it takes them longer to bite because the water’s cold. They’re just down there thinking ‘hmmm . . . Do I wanna get out of bed for this?’. You just need to be patient.” She sat up straighter in her patch of cold grass and added, in a near-flawless impression of their mother. “Patience is a Wolf’s greatest weapon.”

Sarah giggled. “Don’t let mom hear you do that.” Sarah sighed and recast her fishing line. “How is patience a weapon?”

“Ask mom.” Dani shrugged, readjusting against the trunk of an old hollow tree that hung over the edge of the water. “Or, I don’t know, ask Lena.”

“I’m asking you.”

Dani glanced at her sister. Sarah’s eyes were persistently on her, brow creased as she waited for an answer. “Alright. You like playing Assassin, right? And the point of that game is to do what?”

“Uhm, you either have to assassinate all the targets without getting caught, or you have to figure out who the assassin is before they take out all the targets. Depends on what role you’re playing.”

“Alright. So when you lost your game to Perry yesterday . . . What happened?”

“Do we need to talk about that?” Sarah muttered, averting her gaze to the river. “I said I’ll get him next time.”

“You wanted me to answer your question, didn’t you? Your game is a good example. So talk me through what happened.”

Sarah huffed, feet dangling off the edge of the tree stump she chose as a seat. “Okay. Dahlia made us sit in a circle. She handed out the little notes with the roles written on them. Mine said Assassin. I gave it back after I read it and waited for everybody else. Then the game started.”

“Did you know Perry was the Knight?”

“No. Usually it’s not hard to tell who the Knight is, but . . .” Sarah groaned and gave her fishing rod a small tug. “I was stupid, I should have waited.”

“There you go.” Dani chuckled. “That’s the whole point of that stupid game. It’s a basic puzzle. You’re in a crowded room, say it’s a ballroom, maybe. Or in the middle of the Newhaven market. You know there are guards, but you don’t know where and you don’t know who. You can’t just go up to the target and attack them. You’ll get caught.”

“But you can’t take too long either.” Sarah mumbled. “I don’t get how he figured it out so fast. He called me out the moment I took down my first target.”

“Mhm. Let me ask you something . . . When everyone was giving their roles back to Dahlia, was Perry the last one to hand his over?”

“. . . Yes.”

Dani shook her head, amused. “Clever. He was probably watching the other kids read theirs first. That’s how he made you out. By your reaction when you got the role.”

“I didn’t react.”

“Of course you did, squirt. It’s the role you wanted. It’s how you like to play the game. Maybe you think you didn’t, but you reacted. There’s things that, try as you might, you can’t hide.”

Sarah’s expression became troubled. “Then how am I supposed to win?”

“He waited for you to take down your first target because he wasn’t completely sure it was you yet. It was just a suspicion. And that’s something you can exploit next time. If you can’t control how you react to something, change the circumstances that you can control. Exercise patience, squirt, like mom always says.”

Sarah nodded, though her expression remained closed. “It sounds easy when you say it like that.”

Dani breathed an airy laugh. “It’s not gonna get any easier when you’re my age. Trust me.”

Sarah shot her an amused sideways glance. “You’re saying that like you’re old or something.”

“Yeah, well, my muscles feel old today. You want some easy-to-follow advice, kiddo? Don’t get hung up by your ankles.”

Sarah smirked. “If it’s easy to follow, how come you didn’t do it?”

“I make these mistakes so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.”

Sarah’s smirk was unwavering. “You’re very dedicated. Thank you.”

Dani shot her little sister a warning glare. “I’m sore but I can still throw you in the river.”

“You’d have to catch me, grandma.”

Dani shook her head, unable to hold back laughter. “Ow. You’re ruthless, kid.”

“If you’re well enough to throw me in the river, you should be well enough to do a prank like I wanted, but . . .” Sarah shrugged, once again tugging on her fishing rod. “Here we are.”

“You wanted to prank Lena. And even if I wasn’t broken from training yesterday, that’s just not possible, squirt.”

“What, because of her enlightenment? Lena’s the one that always says it’s not impossible to get past telepathy.”

“Hers is different, Sarah. Why’d you think she had to go see the healers?”

“What do you mean? I thought she had a headache or something.”

Dani shook her head, realizing it was probably a mistake to bring that up in the first place. “Yeah, she does.”

“Then what do you mean?”

Dani pulled her fishing line out of the water with a groan. There was no use pretending any fish would bite. “Look, I shouldn’t have brought that up. Just leave it.”

“Why?”

Dani put the fishing rod down. “Look, if you want to know what Lena was doing with the Healers, then the right thing to do is ask her. Not me. That’s why I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Oh.” Sarah frowned, pulling her fishing line out of the river as well. “But do you think she’s gonna be fine?”

“Yeah, of course she is.” Dani stood and stretched with a pained groan. “Don’t even worry about it, squirt.”

Sarah nodded, her frown persisting. “If something bad was gonna happen, you’d tell me, right?”

Dani’s shoulders slumped with a tired sigh. “What do you think is going to happen?”

“I don’t know, but. . . No one ever tells me anything. I’m not stupid.”

Dani shook her head, taking Sarah’s fishing rod from her. “Look, you’re a smart kid. I know if I give you that whole ‘there’s nothing to worry about’ spiel you’re not gonna buy it, but. . . I’m your sister and it’s my job to protect you. Sometimes that means I’m gonna tell you things, and sometimes that means I won’t. Just because you’re smart enough to understand something, doesn’t mean you should be dealing with it.”

“How come you get to decide what I should be dealing with?”

“Let me put it this way. Everyone’s got a time when they have to stop being a kid. And it’s never a choice. It’s gonna happen for you too eventually, but as long as I have a say in it, it’s not gonna be now, okay?”

Sarah nodded, resigned. “Okay.”

“Good. Now . . . I may be a little roughed up, but I’m still good enough to try and steal some cookies from the kitchen. What do you think?”

Sarah’s grin wasn’t as wide as usual, but she was willing to take the distraction. “I think you’re gonna get caught. Like last time.”

Dani glared in response. “Hey, that was a fluke.”

“It’ll be fun to see you try again anyway.”

“You’re really pushing your luck today, you know tha—” Dani cut herself off, her attention stolen by a discreet ruffling in the foliage behind her back. She pulled Sarah closer with a frown. The river was part of their territory; relatively safe, even if unpopulated. Nothing there should be able to harm them, but the movement still put her on edge.

“What is it?” Sarah tried to keep her voice steady, but unconsciously cowered behind Dani at the same time.

Dani shook her head, trying to listen past her little sister’s voice. The forest was quieter in the winter—the whole hibernation thing Lena was teaching Sarah about. Stray noises weren’t as common this time of year, but she couldn’t hear anything now. Was something there or was she being paranoid?

The answer came with the dull twang of a bowstring. Something cut the air and struck the middle of her back. It was dull—not soft, but not hard enough to inflict pain—whatever it was split open on impact and disseminated a cloud of pink dust onto her clothes. “What in the actual hell?”

There was a brief moment of confused silence before Sarah caught on to what she had just witnessed and erupted into laughter. Dani’s tension eased, though with an aggravated groan. “Very funny,” she muttered, eyes scanning the nearby foliage in search of her assailant. The trees were stagnant. Aside from Sarah’s multiple attempts to rein in her laughter, the forest was silent. Dani dropped the fishing rods, eyes narrowing as she stared out into the woods. They had walked up the river for half an hour, give or take. The woods were denser further away from camp, but the area edging the river was open space; dead grass, the occasional fallen tree, a few smooth rocks, and nothing but the wide open sky above. It was one of the reasons she liked coming here, but also the reason she was in such a vulnerable position in relation to whoever may be hiding in the trees nearby.

“I didn’t know you could do that with an arrow.”

Dani glanced at the object Sarah now held in her hands; an arrow shaft. The head—whatever it was made of—had been destroyed on impact, but the fletching had familiar characteristics. “Eldric!” A soft laugh emerged from somewhere among the trees. It sounded distant, somewhere in the branches above. She shook her head. This wasn’t something Eldric would get up to entirely on his own, and there’s only one person that could talk him into it. “Damn it, come on.” She grabbed Sarah by the hand and rushed her into cover as another arrow whizzed past them. They ran into the woods, dodging branches and jumping over tree roots, and stopped under the cover of an oak tree to regain their breath.

“I thought it was your day off?” Sarah was clearly not as bothered by the prospect of being pelted with pink dye.

“It is.” Dani muttered. Any other day she wouldn’t have minded so much, but she was still suffering the consequences of her mistakes the previous day. This little game wouldn’t do her aching muscles any favors.

“It is.” Lena’s voice cut in from behind the oak tree. “So stop freaking out. If this was a training exercise, I’d have Eldric use real arrows.”

Dani turned and peered around the trunk to glare at her sister. “I’m tired, Lena. I thought you were going to let me rest today.”

“Yeah, so did I, but you know . . . I wasn’t allowed to sleep like I wanted. Besides . . .” Lena smirked, looking past Dani to their younger sister. “Someone was supposed to be in tutoring right now. And not idling by the river all day.”

Sarah shifted uncomfortably in place and Dani rolled her eyes. “One day isn’t gonna hurt.”

Lena hummed. “Maybe, but since we all have free time today, might as well turn it into something educational, don’t you think?”

Dani rubbed the bridge of her nose with a sigh of resignation. “Okay. What are you planning?”

Lena smiled and pulled something out of her pocket. A light pink orb small enough to fully conceal within a closed fist. “I hid a few of these around this area. I’m going to count to. . . Let’s say one hundred. That’s about a minute and a half for you two to find as many as you can before I come and find you.”

“That’s uncharacteristically fair of you.” Dani couldn’t help a small smile. “What are those things made of?”

“I don’t know if I should tell you that. Twins know what you’d use them for.” Lena smirked, examining the pellet in her hand. “Maybe if you win.”

“Do I get extra points if I track Eldric down and hit him on the head? Because I was planning on doing that anyway.”

Lena chuckled. “Yes. Just don’t knock him off any trees. This is supposed to be a harmless game.”

Dani faked a disappointed groan. “Fiine, I won’t cripple your boyfriend, don’t worry.”

Lena shook her head with an aggravated snort, but followed it with a grin. “One. . . Two. . . ”

Dani flinched, but caught herself when Sarah immediately ran off in search of the pellets. She dashed right after her sister, eyes scanning their surroundings for any trace of color that seemed out of place. She was immediately thankful to have Sarah on her side. As it turned out she had a keen eye for tracking the small colored orbs, darting in and out of the bushes collecting as many as she could fit in her arms. She was so efficient that Dani decided to leave her to it and focus her attention on other things instead. Such as the occasional sounds echoing among the trees around them and what directions they might be coming from, in the back of her mind she could still hear her sister’s voice calling out each burning second. Fifty… Seventy… Ninety… Ninety-one… Ninety-two… “Psst…” She drew Sarah’s attention in a whisper and nodded towards a hollowed out tree with an opening big enough for her to hide inside. “Remember what we talked about earlier? Patience.”

Sarah nodded, holding on to her half of the pellets and remaining as still as possible in her hiding place. Dani held onto hers and started sneaking her way across the narrow gaps between tree trunks, trying to be as silent as possible. Lena was already on the move by now and she wouldn’t be the easiest to track down, but Eldric, on the other hand . . . He was easy to find, just harder to reach. She retraced the path she’d taken into the woods, more carefully this time, until she found a relatively safe place to stop. There, she removed her coat and used it as a makeshift pouch, wrapping it around her share of pellets so that they wouldn’t fall out of her arms and shatter. It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do.

Dani knew this area like the back of her hand. The trees here were old, most of them weren’t very climbable to begin with, and of the ones that were, only a handful would be able to support someone Eldric’s size. It didn’t take much effort to find the right one. The trickier part would be to get him without being spotted. She approached the tree with caution, staying within cover and moving as slowly as possible not to draw the archer’s attention. From where she stood, she could see him sitting on one of the highest branches right above her head. Thankfully she didn’t need to get up that high, just high enough to make a good throw. After double checking the makeshift pouch of pellets, she began to work her way up the tree trunk, reaching the lowest level of branches, then the one right above it. She balanced on the sturdiest branch available and took one of the pellets out; an orange one, weighing it in her hand, trying to calculate the arch of her throw just right. If she missed, there wouldn’t be an opportunity to try again. When she was sure she had it just right; that she wouldn’t miss her target, she made the throw.

The orange pellet flew in a perfect arch and struck Eldric right on the back of the head, splitting immediately upon contact and creating a cloud of orange dust. Dani took the opportunity to quickly climb down and make a run for it before he was able to recover. She didn’t run far before she felt something fly right past her head. Eldric had gotten down from his perch and was right on her trail. She wound through the trees, doing her best to avoid the projectiles, but ending up with a few multicolored spots on her arms and legs in the process. Finally she ducked and hid behind a tree right across from where Sarah was still hiding, patiently waiting as instructed.

Dani shot her little sister a smile and held up one finger. Then two. Three. Four. At the count of five Eldric walked right between the two trees and while his focus was on Dani, Sarah jumped out of hiding and unleashed a merciless array of colored pellets on him, only interrupted when Lena came out of hiding and struck her with a yellow pellet to the back of the head.

Rather than being fazed, Sarah turned around and retaliated, hitting Lena right in the chest, causing her to cough when the dust cloud flew at her face. While Dani was distracted laughing, Eldric recovered and struck her, being immediately struck himself on the side of the head by one of Lena’s pellets. He spun around to glare at her, huffing a small cloud of blue dust. “I thought you were on my team!”

Lena smirked.“I don’t recall saying there were going to be teams. Besides, it’s extra points for hitting you in the head.”

“What!?”

“I’d start running if I were you.”

[Wolves Camp | Lacus 26th 2525 | Sundown]

Lena called the game off once the sun began to set; which didn’t stop her younger sisters from assaulting her with their leftover pellets. Eldric was already rainbow colored down to the tip of his boots by then. The dye powder she used was washable; nothing dangerous, she had been very meticulous about that. She wasn’t entirely sure whether their clothes would be salvageable however—something their mother might be less than pleased about. Despite that, and the onslaught of multi-colored pellets she had to endure; it was well worth the outcome. The mud battle two months ago had been something the younger children started and managed to rope some Recruits and younger Actives into participating, who then managed to rope in some of their Instructors and by nightfall the entire camp was caked with mud. Such spontaneous moments of reckless play rarely took place in camp outside of Creation Day. So much so that when they did occur it wasn’t unusual for as many people to take part as possible. Unless there was something dire in need of attention, her mother would usually allow the event to run its course, then instruct all participants to clean up their mess for the workers’ sake.

As fun as those moments were, this had been the first time in almost a year that Lena engaged her sisters in something that didn’t revolve strictly around training. Not unlike the mud war, this was just a small reprieve. She would wake up the next day and fall back into her role as Dani’s Instructor, Sarah would go back to listening to her tutor speak of things she wouldn’t be able to fully understand until she was inevitably required to experience them first hand. The shadow of the Wolf Hunters would continue to loom over their head. For the moment—however long it lasted—she was content to watch them laugh amongst themselves as they tracked ahead on the way home.

“Your head still hurts doesn’t it?” While her sisters were eagerly walking ahead, Eldric had remained at her side. “Your face paint is all smudged where you’re been rubbing it,” he added.

“Yeah, but just because I was born with this doesn’t mean I’m gonna let it run my life.”

“Doesn’t mean you gotta hide it and just bear it by yourself.”

Lena shook her head, her eyes following her sisters’ footsteps. “Not all the time, no, but some things are more important, you know? So if I have to bear it, I will.”

Eldric shook his head. “Was it your headache getting to you or did you just let them win, then?”

Lena glanced at him, eyebrows arching. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Come on, now. I know for sure that you were tracking them down the entire time.”

She chuckled. “I didn’t need to win today. I can save that for the training grounds. This wasn’t about that.”

“Suppose that’s fair.” Eldric snorted. “You didn’t have to make me such a prized target though.”

“It was Dani’s idea and Sarah decided she doesn’t like you now.”

Eldric winced. “What? Why?”

Lena shrugged. “Don’t know. I think it might be a jealousy thing. She’ll get over it.”

Eldric ran a hand through his hair, adding an orange smudge to the blues and pinks staining the dark brown strands. “Do they know?”

Lena sighed. “Depends on what you mean by that, Eldric. I think, honestly, everyone knows by now. Officially? I told Dani and that’s it. My mother knows, Tom knows, but they’re not going to ask anything unless it causes problems. Emmett knows because he’s not an idiot. Your father knows, but he’s going to pretend he doesn’t until he has no choice; because he doesn’t want it to be true. So on, so forth.”

Eldric nodded. “I’m sorry. I know it makes me an asshole. . . Not wanting to talk about it because I don’t want to deal with him. Clearly it wouldn’t be an issue otherwise.”

Lena thoughtfully hummed. “I don’t know, you might have to go through Sarah. She’s nine, but I think she can take you.”

“After today, I think you might be right.”

“Well, I can’t bribe your father with butter cookies, so I think you still have it easy in comparison, but . . . Wear a helmet just in case.”

“Butter cookies. Noted.”

While it was impossible to arrive at the Wolves Camp unnoticed, if you were well known enough, the scouts and guards wouldn’t bat an eye, even less acknowledge your presence. It wasn’t often that they saw the Alpha’s children stroll into the encampment covered, head to toe, in rainbow-colored powder. The laughter and whispers ran so rampant at the sight of them, that by the time they reached the center of the encampment the Alpha herself was standing there to greet them.

“Would one of you care to explain the meaning of this?”

Dani was utterly unfazed by her mother’s stern glare aimed directly at her person. “Nope. Wasn’t me this time.” She smirked and pointed over her shoulder at her sister. “I just wanted to go fishing, I swear.”

Claire looked past Dani and caught Lena’s gaze, an exhausted sigh escaping past her lips when her eldest daughter responded with a shameless grin and a shrug of her shoulders. “Daniela, Sarah, go wash up. And get rid of those clothes, I suspect washing off that dye won’t be worth the trouble.” She turned to Eldric next. “You too, Fletcher. Your father and brother are currently absent, I suggest you make yourself presentable before they return.”

Eldric flinched, taking a half step, then stopping. “Where did they go?”

“They’re visiting a couple of associates. Separately,” she added. “That’s all you need to know. Now go wash up and change. The longer you stand here the more likely you’ll be reprimanded for carrying that bow around during your suspension.”

The threat was enough to get Eldric moving as fast as he could, leaving Lena standing by herself in front of her mother. “You’re not really going to punish him are you?”

“I have no doubt that this was entirely your doing, so no.” Claire gave Lena a scrutinizing look. “I should count my blessings that you don’t share your sister’s affinity for wreaking havoc in this encampment at every given opportunity.”

“Funny. It’s the second time I’m accused of that today.” Lena smiled. “It was just a game, mom. I’ll help them clean up, if their clothes need replacing I’ll cover the costs.”

Claire shook her head, trying to the best of her abilities to contain her smile. “Make sure Sarah washes up properly then take your sisters straight to the dining hall. Make sure that they have enough to eat, please.”

“Sure.” Lena unconsciously rubbed her forehead, smearing the layer of dye on her skin even further. “Will you be able to join us?”

“Unfortunately, I need to wait for Emmett and Reuben to come back and report.”

“They can’t report to Tom instead?”

“I’m afraid not. Not this time.”

Lena frowned, but held back from voicing any questions, reminding herself that they were standing in the center of camp and not in her mother’s office this time. “I understand you need to take care of this whole situation, but,” She paused, “I’m not entirely sure they do.” She nodded in the direction her sisters had wandered off. “Tomorrow night, maybe?”

Claire’s followed the path her daughters had taken. “I can’t promise that, but I’ll make an attempt.” She turned attention back to Lena. “And Helena. . .”

“Yes?”

“When Reuben inevitably antagonizes you for getting his son involved in your little stunt today, you are going to keep your head down, report it to Thomas and let him handle it. Are we understood? I don’t want any more public screaming matches or altercations between the two of you or I’ll be forced to intervene.”

“Intervene how?”

Claire rubbed her forehead, not unlike her daughter had done just moments ago. “Let’s just say that if this encampment; immense as it is, proves itself too small for the two of you I’ll be forced to find a more permanent solution. And I doubt the outcome, whatever it may be, will prove itself beneficial to everyone involved. Least of all Eldric. I advise you to exercise restraint from now on. Twins know Reuben is incapable of it.”

Lena was unable to hold back laughter at her mother’s remark. “So, what you’re saying is that I need to be the adult in this situation.”

“That is precisely what I’m saying, yes. Hopefully not until tomorrow, though.” It was Claire’s turn to nod in the direction Dani and Sarah had gone. “Go take care of that mess and try to get a good night’s sleep tonight.”

Lena nodded and started on her way, mumbling a tired, “Good night, mom,” over her shoulder.

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