The Heart of The Forest 2.05

Shadows Rise

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[Wolves Camp | Lunaris 24th, 2525 | Afternoon]

Dani’s footsteps fell heavy on the path to the armory. On some distant, level-headed part of her mind, she understood that Lena was probably right. Whatever Wayne had said, buying into provocation was never a smart move. If she were the Alpha, accepting that spar would have been a sign of weakness. However, she wasn’t; not yet. She hadn’t earned the right to call herself a Wolf. Whether or not she wanted to admit it, Dani did have something to prove.

The armory rested on the northeast side of camp, a short walk from the fire pit. It was a large shed, without windows and one thick wooden door protected by a sturdy lock. Camp laws prohibited access to the armory by Recruits and Wolves who underwent disciplinary measures. Three guards were posted there at all times and one individual was in charge of monitoring the entrance and inventory; nothing should come in or out of that cabin without his knowledge.

Dani smiled as she reached the end of the path only to be met with a stern glare. “Hey, Mat-,” She flinched, quickly correcting herself on how the man prefered to be addressed. “Bana.”

“Dani,” the man greeted, graciously ignoring her misstep. “Whatever you’re up to, the answer is no.”

“Give me a little credit. If I was up to something, it wouldn’t be this straightforward. Lena sent me to pick out a weapon. You can write it down on the ledger and everything.”

The man’s dark gaze lingered on her for a prolonged moment, scrutinizing, but he eventually relented and opened the door. “Are you having a spar?”

Dani nodded as she stepped into the armory, eyes scanning the weapon stands row by row. “Mhm. I’d ask you to come watch, but I know you can’t leave your post.”

“Pity.” Bana’s smile was implied in his voice as he entered the shed behind her. “I’m sure it will be a spectacle the likes of which the Wolfpack has never seen.”

“One way or another,” Dani mumbled, self-doubt beginning to break through her earlier resolve as she stared at one particular weapon stand, examining its contents.

Bana responded with an interested hum, coming to stand beside her. “Who are you sparring?”

“Franklin.”

“Smithy’s boy? Hm. Have you seen him fight? Know anything about his strengths?”

“No.”

“Alright. I see.” Bana glanced at her then back to the weapon rack. “Do you know anything about your strengths, then?”

Dani’s answer was an apathetic shrug followed but a disgruntled mumble.

“Alright, an easier question then; what have you been training with?”

“Short blades mostly. Some archery on the side.”

“Well, you can’t use a bow. So short blades it is.”

Dani hummed, examining her choices. A vast array of short swords and daggers sat along shelves, each with its own shape, weight, hilt—all of which had a purpose of its own in a fight. “You wanna recommend me something? I’m already taking too long.”

“I would recommend you think about what you know of your opponent, what his build is, what advantages you might have over him.”

Dani hummed. She didn’t know much about Franklin. They never trained together and didn’t interact much socially, either. He was physically imposing. A mind reader, according to Lena. Matthison was fond of strategic approaches and he sang Franklin’s praises to the winds, so she assumed he knew how to explore an opponent’s weaknesses well. If all of those assumptions were correct she was in a disadvantage and would need to take control of the fight as quickly as possible. Assessing the vast selection of blades in the racks, her attention focused on one particular pair. “These.”

Bana stepped up and pulled the weapons out of the rack for her. They were two thick metal batons the length of Dani’s forearms. The batons were round and slowly tapered to a dull point at the end. Two prongs, protruded from a hilt, and ran perpendicular to the batons. “An odd choice.” He held them out for her to take. “Are you sure?”

Dani reached for them with a small nod of approval. She swung them carefully around to get a feel for their weight. In spite of their tapered shape, the steel kept its rigidity; soft leather handles ensured a lighter grip. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

Bana still sounded skeptical. “Have you ever trained with these before?”

“I’m following your recommendation, Bana. Don’t sound so doubtful.”

“How exactly are you doing that?”

Dani smirked. “Bet you wish you could come and watch now, huh?”

“I’m sure I’ll hear all about it later.” Bana remained even-toned as he led her out of the shed. “Make sure not to conveniently forget to return these later.”

“I would never.”

Bana shut the armory’s door behind her with a heavy slam. “Your sister informed me that you were granted permission to carry that knife you took, but we agreed, should it happen again I be the one to decide on a punishment for you.”

“I didn’t take that knife under your watch, first of all. Secondly, you should be thankful that I exposed such a blatant security flaw.”

Bana snorted. “Much appreciated. Do it again and you’ll be single-handedly responsible for the care and maintenance of every weapon in this armory for at least a week.”

Dani shook her head. “Alright, fine. Last time I do you any favors.” She waved over her shoulder at the man as she started back to the center of camp. “Thank you for the help.”

Dani’s walk slowed on the way back. She knew that word would spread further and more people would gather the longer she delayed, but she used those extra seconds to study her chosen weapons—grow accustomed to the weight in her hands, try different strikes, test different forms. These weapons were not slashing weapons. It would take a forceful stab to deal a lethal blow, but for the sake of a spar, the heavy pommel and the pronged shape would hopefully work to her benefit.

******

As predicted, word had spread around the encampment like wildfire and a small crowd gathered in the center of camp to await Dani’s return. So much so, that she needed to push her way through a group of recruits to reach her sister. The whispered questions of whether or not she had decided to run away were still alive amongst the spectators as she passed them; not immediately noticing her presence.

Lena stood in the exact same spot she’d left her. She waved Dani over once she managed to break through the anxious recruits. “You took your sweet time, didn’t you?”

Dani put on a smile, ignoring distracting murmurs from the crowd. “Sorry. I’m not allowed in the armory every day.”

“Don’t tell me you made a mess in there, I would really prefer not to deal with that today.”

“I was already threatened with being in charge of wiping blood stains off of daggers for a week.”

Lena raised a brow. “I should ask Bana if he’s sure he wants you tending to his blades. I mean, you didn’t even know you’re not supposed to soak a cast iron pot.”

Dani glared at her sister. “I was tired. And that pot was ruined either way.”

Lena was about to make a retort when something caught her eye and she glared over Dani’s shoulder. “Franklin, what do you think you’re doing?”

Dani turned around to see what caught Lena’s attention. Franklin was in the process of switching out his own sword for a blunt weapon, but stopped in his tracks and turned to Lena with a confused look. “I thought it would be fair to level the field a little.”

Lena walked past Dani to speak to him. “So you think using a sword will give you an advantage?”

“It clearly would, yes.”

Lena hummed. “Assuming that’s correct, why wouldn’t you want to use it? As much as I dislike this entire spectacle, a spar is designed to measure your skill, Franklin, not your sense of chivalry.”

Franklin frowned. “Your sister has batons. If we’re fighting until first blood, that’s one hell of a disadvantage.”

“Dani had the armory at her disposal and she decided to use batons. If that decision was unwise, you’re not doing any favors by sparing her the consequences.”

“Are you two going to keep talking about me like I’m not standing right here? Dani interjected. “Just wondering.”

“Sorry,” Franklin offered, politely. “I’m trying to keep a level playing field, is all. Those are pretty dull, I’ve only seen the guards use them when they need to break up a fight.”

“That’s fine.” Dani smiled. “To answer your concerns, Frankie, there are multiple ways to make a person bleed. If it puts you more at ease we can fight until someone yields, but Lena’s right. You’re not doing me a favor. And even if you were, I don’t want any.”

Franklin acquiesced and stepped up to the center of the circle formed by the small crowd of idle Wolves, sword in hand. “Until someone yields. I’m good with that.”

Dani nodded, holding one of her weapons with a reversed grip, the baton pressed against her forearm and the heavy pommel protruding from her clenched fist. She drew a deep breath and turned to her sister with a small smile. “You got any last-second advice for me?”

Lena smiled back. “Just give it all you’ve got. And if it’s not enough . . . Know when to yield.”

Dani chuckled. “Encouraging. Thanks.”

Franklin was a year younger than Dani, but carried himself as a full-fledged Wolf already. Tall, strong, and sharp-minded. His reputation in the clan grew exponentially over the course of his training after he managed to earn not only respect, but high praise from Wayne Matthison. An honor all but a select few Recruits had been granted over the course of the man’s extensive career.

Dani, on the other hand, was known as problematic. Some young Wolves brave enough to tease the Alpha’s daughter granted her the unofficial title of ‘Runt’ once it became known she wouldn’t be graduated to Active alongside others her own age. It wasn’t surprising that the clan was curious to witness this specific matchup.

There was a rise and fall in the crowd’s whispers as Dani stood before Franklin. Her weapon choice forced her into a defensive stance; she simply couldn’t charge a stronger opponent wielding a very sharp blade head on with her two pronged batons in hand. Franklin quickly took advantage of her defensive tactics, unleashing powerful strike after powerful strike from his first salvo. Dani struggled to dodge out of the way, only risking a block when absolutely necessary. Franklin was quicker than she anticipated. She was still faster, but she wouldn’t survive by dodging alone and Franklin’s next slash proved that as it tore open the left sleeve of her tunic.

Both fighters flinched as neither was sure whether Franklin’s blade had broken skin—it hadn’t. Franklin smirked. If they were fighting to first blood, he’d have nearly won. Dani’s smirk reflected his as she dodged the next sword slash. It would take more than a few slashes for her to yield. She continued dodging, though the more she did, the more strenuous a task it became. If it continued, he would tire her out and land a decisive blow. Dodging as a tactic ran its course. After a couple she tested the waters by blocking his blade with her batons. How could she deflect Franklin’s blade in order to create an opening? Franklin’s sword hit her baton at an awkward angle, causing it to vibrate in a way that he lost a firm grip. This was her opening. Her first attempt at a strike resulted in another harsh slash, this time to her midsection. Dani groaned, but still no blood. “Screw you, Frank, I like this tunic.”

Franklin smirked. “Take better care of it then.”

Dani snorted, but her annoyed response caught in her throat as she was forced to dodge another slash. As she staggered backwards she noticed the faint glow in Franklin’s eyes, indicating his enlightenment was in use. She didn’t know the particular ways Franklin’s enlightenment worked; Lena explained even the same type of telepathy could manifest differently from individual to individual, but she knew it meant he could read her thoughts and therefore, anticipate her every move before she made them. If this continued, she would never find an opportunity to strike. Dani drew a deep breath, sidestepping to avoid another swing of Franklin’s sword. He was quick to follow up before she had a chance to counter, once again pushing her back.

This wouldn’t do.

Rather than let her aggravation rise, Dani drew another deep breath and thought back to her training. She didn’t have any practical experience in fending off telepathy—Lena refused to try and she understood why now—but she had ingrained in her the notion that some telepathic abilities—like mind reading—drew from the conscious mind; unlike Lena’s that read into the subconscious. And conscious thought wasn’t impossible to control. It was, however, difficult, and she had no practical basis to assume she could pull it off. Despite what many liked to assume, she’d never tried to act without thinking. This could work to her advantage or cost her the fight.

It was a risk Dani would need to take. With another steadying breath, she forced her mind to disengage. Focus on something else. Just like that, she remembered pages upon pages of gardening-related rambles in Pietra’s journal. She’d read it so many times she could recite it word for word. And recite it she did—line by line—in her head. This dissonance between her mind and body threw her off, making her next block clumsy, but she continued reciting all the necessary composting steps she remembered off the top of her head. Muscle memory took hold after a couple more awkward blocks and finally, after listing half the peonies in Pietra’s garden by their ridiculously average names—Ewan, Cornelia, Azra, Oscar, Gismund, Eugene . . . Who the hell names a flower Eugene? she thought. Whether Franklin was distracted, confused, or annoyed by her mental chatter, it caused him to slash in a much-too-wide arc, aiming for her chest. The open arc of his swing finally created the opening she’d been waiting for. She ducked under his slash, trapped his arm in the prongs of one of her weapons; above the elbow, and twisted. Franklin screamed and dropped his sword, bending one knee. Dani followed up by striking him in the face with the pommel of her second weapon, causing a bloody gash on his cheekbone. Franklin lost what remained of his balance and fell flat on the ground, one arm still twisted behind him. After a few painful attempts to break free he tapped the ground in defeat.

Dani dislodged her weapon from his arm and stepped back, allowing him to recover. “Are you alright?”

Franklin nodded as he started to pick himself up. “Shoulder’s gonna ache for a few days and I may need stitches, but I’ll live.” He smiled. “Clever trick.”

Before Dani had the opportunity to answer, her mother’s voice cut through the crowd. “If the spectacle’s over, I suggest you all return to your assigned duties. Thank you.” The crowd dispersed in a heartbeat, leaving the two Recruits and their assigned Instructors standing in the center of camp under the Alpha’s scrutinizing gaze. “Whose idea was this?”

Wayne had retreated into silent observation during the fight itself, but stepped forward to face the Alpha. “I suggested it.”

“You suggested it take place here as well, Matthison? Because I would expect you to anticipate that conducting a spar in the center of camp might cause a disturbance. The training grounds are far removed from the living quarters and work stations precisely for that reason.”

“That was indeed a terrible miscalculation on my part, Alpha. My apologies.” Wayne did a good job at sounding sincere even if his intention to create a disturbance was calculated.

“I’m sure it was,” Claire said. “Don’t let it happen again.”

“Of course not, Alpha.” Wayne respectfully bowed. “May I be excused? I should ensure Franklin tends to that cut properly.”

“Yes you may,” Claire answered, turning to Dani. “That was dangerously close to his eye, Daniela, I hope that was unintentional.”

Dani squirmed, holding her weapons behind her back under her mother’s stare. “He moved. Sorry, Frank.”

“That’s alright.” Franklin smiled. “No harm done. It was definitely an interesting fight.”

“Interesting indeed.” Wayne offered Dani a smile of his own. “Well done, girl.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Wayne nodded, leading Franklin away to treat the gash on his face, leaving the Alpha to tend to her children yet again.

Surprisingly, once Wayne and Franklin left, Claire smiled. “How did you bypass Franklin’s enlightenment?”

“Pietra’s boring gardening journal.” Dani admitted, examining the tear across the middle of her tunic. “I recited it in my head word for word and hoped it didn’t make me forget my training.”

Claire “Very resourceful.”

“Thank you.”

“I would advise you to return those to the armory before you forget and then dispose of that shirt. I need to have a word with your sister.”

Dani shot Lena a small glance, but nodded and started making her way back to the armory. She had an idea of what her mother and sister would be talking about next.

[Alpha’s Cabin |Lunaris 24th, 2525 | Late Afternoon]

When Lena spotted her mother in the crowd during the spar, she knew she would find herself sitting in the Alpha’s cabin afterwards. Ever since she started training Dani she’d kept most of the details of their sessions private even to her mother. She reported on her progress regularly, of course, but a lot of the particulars were intentionally left out. Her mother had been lenient about being kept in the dark, but a public display in the center of camp was sure to affect her disposition.

“I’m curious, Helena. What made you think this was a good idea?”

Lena leaned back into her chair, crossing her arms. “She wanted to do it.”

Claire made a short disbelieving huff. “She wanted to do it? That’s it?”

“Yes. I would have preferred it didn’t happen so publicly, but she took initiative. She’s not where she needs to be just yet, but it was a step forward.” Lena half smiled. “They won’t be calling her ‘Runt’ anymore.”

“Have you been teaching her to resist telepathy?” Claire’s tone was undoubtedly wary.

“In theory only, and that’s not how I would have recommended putting it into practice.” Again, Lena smiled, “although I suppose it worked.”

“Alright, you have my permission to act smug, just this once. It was pretty clever.” Claire returned her daughter’s smile briefly, but her tone soon sobered. “Seeing as your sister is making such progress in her training, how would you feel about taking her with you on an assignment?”

“Depends on the assignment.”

“Nothing dangerous; or at least it shouldn’t be.” Claire opened her desk drawer and pulled out a rolled up parchment. “We have narrowed down a few trading communities within the forest that may have received visits from our Hunter friends in the past year, however . . . If they have, they aren’t very open about it. I would like you to visit two of these communities, talk to some of the locals and see what you can discover.”

“You mean for me to use my enlightenment?”

“That’s your decision. If you think you can do so without raising suspicion or causing harm. Remember these people are innocent in this dispute.”

The latter statement caused Lena to involuntarily grimace. “Yes, Alpha.”

“I’ll give you two days to discuss the assignment with Dani and make the necessary arrangements.” Claire’s smile was thin as she added, “it might do you both some good to be away from camp for a few days after all of this.”

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