The Heart of The Forest 2.06

Shadows Rise

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[Valcrest Forest | Lunaris 27th | Midday]

In the depths of the forest, the golden rays of sun penetrated the thick canopy, bathing the icy earth in shimmering light. It was a gloriously sunny day. Dani woke Lena before sunrise, a rolled up map under her arm, and several suggestions of routes that would allow her to explore new areas of the forest without compromising their travel time. And despite her sister’s dedication and planning, Lena was forced to remind her that this wasn’t a leisurely trip and traversing uncharted territory while on an assignment would be irresponsible.

Nonetheless, Dani’s excitement at having permission to leave the camp was palpable and, even after two days of travel, it hadn’t waned. Ever since she was little, she was happiest when exploring the forest, and most of Lena’s memories of those early days involved chasing her through the woods and dragging her home to be scolded. Under the constant threat of the Wolf Hunters, even attempting to sneak out became difficult and even when she managed, Lena knew Dani wouldn’t stray as far from camp as she would like. Despite what she wanted people to think, she wasn’t that much of an irresponsible brat.

“We should stop here.” Dani made an absent gesture at their surroundings. “Seems like a good enough place.”

“You want to stop?” Lena arched an eyebrow. “I thought you’d want to keep going for at least another hour.”

Dani shrugged her travel bag off her shoulders and set it down. “It’s midday. I’m hungry. Besides, I noticed you haven’t had your tea this morning. And now you keep rubbing your eyes.”

“I appreciate you looking out for me.”Lena smiled, scanning the area for dry wood. “I’ve decided not to take it today.”

Dani frowned. “What? Why? Doesn’t it help your headaches?”

“It does, but it also hinders my telepathy in some ways, and depending on how this visit goes, I may need to use it.”

Lena could sense Dani’s eyes tracking her every movement as she meandered through the trees, snapping dry branches every few steps. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

Lena answered with a disgruntled hum. “It can be. I won’t try it unless I feel I have to, but it’s vital that I’m at least able to.”

Dani tilted her head to peer over at Lena as she disappeared behind the trunk of a tree. “How can tea hinder your telepathy?”

“I’m not sure how it’s supposed to work exactly, but,” Lena paused as she nearly tripped over a raised root, “my headaches are technically not a physical ailment. They’re a result of mental strain. Because I struggle constantly to keep my enlightenment in check, that mental strain becomes physically painful. The tea eases that pressure by suppressing it to some extent, but it’s not supposed to be something I use indefinitely. The ideal scenario would be to control my ability well enough in the future that it won’t be necessary.”

“I didn’t know you could suppress enlightenment like that.”

“In some ways, for some enlightenments, you can. Some enlightenments work on triggers or have physical factors that make suppressing it a little easier. Some herbs have . . . Mind altering properties—let’s call it that—that can help with some forms of telepathy.” Lena stepped out of the trees with a sly smirk. “Don’t drink my tea. It’ll probably mess you up, normie.”

Dani grinned and said, “I’m curious now.”

Lena’s expression immediately turned to a warning glare. “I’m serious, don’t play with that kind of stuff.”

“I’m just joking! Twins.” Dani laughed, reaching for the dry wood in her Lena’s hands. “Give me those, I’ll start the fire. It always takes you ages.”

Lena rolled her eyes. “Once, not always. I remembered to pack matches this time.”

Dani shook her head, setting a bundle of sticks into a small campfire. “You rely on those too much, that’s your problem. Half the time the stupid things don’t even work anyway. You need to learn to make a proper fire with just sticks. Hone those survival skills.”

Lena groaned, rummaging through her bag for their travel rations. “Maybe you need to learn to use matches properly. Unless they’re wet there’s no reason half of them wouldn’t work.”

“You really can’t stand being inept at something, huh? You just gotta argue about it.” Dani chuckled, fishing out a flint and steel from her own bag. “If I had a magnifying glass on me, I’d show off. It is pretty sunny today.”

“Now you’re just being a smug little shit,” Lena half-heartedly scolded.

Dani was quick to fire back with a smirk. “Learned from the best.”

Once they’d set their temporary camp, the sisters sat by the warmth of their fire, snacking on dry rabbit jerky and roasting chestnuts in a small iron pan. Although Dani had been in high spirits and quite talkative during their journey so far, the topic of why she’d been allowed on this assignment in the first place hadn’t been approached. It was a simple task in theory; stop by the village, browse their wares, and try to stir up conversation with some of the locals and try to pick up on anything out of the ordinary. Not something Lena would need assistance with or that would even pose much of a teaching opportunity for Dani. The real reason she was asked to bring her sister along was to take her away from the clan long enough for the whispers surrounding that spar with Franklin to subside. Rumors spread in the Wolfpack like wildfire, but they were also quick to burn out in most cases.

“Are you going to get those?”

“Hm?” Lena forced her mind back to reality. Dani was pointing at the last portion of roasted nuts. “No, you can have them. I’m full.”

“Great.” Dani helped herself to the nuts, glancing at her sister. “So, what’s eating away at you?”

“Nothing in particular. Just thinking about the assignment,” Lena said.

“Mhm.” Dani chewed on one of the chestnuts, frowning in thought. “Are you worried about maybe using your telepathy on those people?”

“A little, yes.” Lena found her waterskin and took a short swig. “I’m also considering what else I can do about your training when we get back. That spar was far from what it could have been, on both parts. I’m sure it gave Wayne something to ponder as well.”

Dani flinched. “What do you mean? I thought I did well.”

“You did well, but you did well within the limitations of your training. So did Franklin. Therein lies the issue.”

“So I did well, it just wasn’t good enough.”

Lena picked up the self-doubt in her sister’s tone immediately and shook her head. “Let me be clear on what I mean. The way you prevented Franklin from reading your mind worked. And considering you had no practical experience on how to fend off a telepathic assault whatsoever, you did exceptionally well applying what little you knew and using it to your advantage . . . .”

Dani rolled her eyes and mouthed, “However . . .” at the same time as Lena said it. Lena paused to shoot her sister a glare. “However, the only reason it worked is that Franklin didn’t know what he was doing either.” Lena took another swig of water. It became clear that abstaining from her tea was beginning to take a toll. “What you did is a tactic commonly known amongst telepaths as ‘mental cluttering’. In simple terms, it’s the mental equivalent of shouting in someone’s ears to disrupt their concentration. It can work; as you’ve seen, but unless you’re dealing with an inexperienced telepath, it almost certainly won’t.”

Dani’s expression smoother over as curiosity seemed to win out over self-deprecation. “So, I won because Franklin isn’t as capable using his enlightenment as he should?”

“Mhm,” Lena agreed. “That’s why I said you must have given Wayne something to think about. And the outcome of this spar might hinder Franklin’s graduation. Not only is he inept as a telepath, he was also leaning on his enlightenment to the point that you managed to overpower him almost immediately by what basically amounts to shouting in his ears.”

Dani leaned back, hands resting against the cold soil behind her back. “That sounds less than ideal.”

“It is. For both of you. ‘Telepath’ is an extremely broad term. That being the case, they make up the vast majority of the enlightened population. Franklin’s ineptitude in using his enlightenment, and yours in fending it off effectively, are both fatal flaws that need to be corrected as soon as possible.”

“You make that sound as unpleasant as I’m sure it’s gonna be,” Dani muttered, tilting her back to stare at the fallow branches above their heads, beams of sunlight flickering as they waved, shading and highlighting her cold-blushed face. “So what are other ways to handle it, if not with . . . What did you call the thing I did?”

“Mental cluttering,” Lena told her. “There is mental blocking which is the most commonly used method; very effective against mind readers and some forms of mental manipulation, but it wouldn’t work against someone with my branch of telepathy. Blocking only affects the conscious part of the mind. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to raise mental barriers in your own subconscious.”

“So what would work against someone like you?” Dani asked, briefly glancing at her sister before averting her gaze to the tree branches once more.

“Unknown.”

“What do you mean?”

“If there is a way to defend against someone with my type of telepathy, it is currently unknown. There are theories, but they have never been attempted.”

Dani straightened up to look Lena in the eyes. “Why not?”

“First of all, these types of telepathic abilities are rare. Second, it would be too dangerous for the reasons we already discussed.” It was Lena’s turn to focus on the barren trees above their heads. “Witters wants to conduct these tests. He thinks that these sorts of rare enlightenments, while dangerous, if controlled could actually be channeled to help people, but so far there’s nothing to indicate it would even be possible.”

“If you leave and go with them . . . Is he going to test that theory with you?”

Lena shrugged. “Maybe. I know the leader of the White Shadows isn’t interested in me entirely for my benefit. Jon Witters is the kind of person who isn’t satisfied with telling himself he’s done enough when a problem isn’t fixed. He thinks that every enlightened person has the ability to control their magic; however powerful, it just takes finding the right way to do it.”

“Do you think he’s right?”

“I hope he is, but I don’t know.” Lena’s eyes lingered on the swaying branches above. The light seeping through had shifted with the passing of time. They’d made good time, but delaying further wouldn’t serve a purpose. “Are you done eating?”

“Pretty much. You want to get going?”

“Mhm. If we keep this pace we might be able to get there by nightfall. Don’t know if there’ll be any vacant beds in that village, but we might be able to at least score a decent hot meal then.”

Dani nodded, getting on her feet and putting out the fire. “What kind of stuff do they sell there, did mom say?”

“Tools, woodwork, that kind of thing,” Lena answered, rinsing off the pan and storing it away in her bag. “If you want to buy stuff for yourself, I hope you brought your own gold.”

“Of course I did.” Dani patted her hip where her coin purse was hanging. “I want to maybe get something for Sarah. If they have animal carvings or something else like that. I think she’d like those.”

“They might. Won’t know unless we get there, so get a move on clearing that up. Let’s go.”

[Unnamed Village | Lunaris 28th | Early morning]

They arrived at the village late the previous night. Lena set up their tents just outside their borders, not wanting to hassle any of the villagers for room and board at such a late hour. They did take the time to introduce themselves to the village elder; a woman named Sylvie, and accepted her kind offer of rabbit stew. Their conversation was brief, Lena assured her they were simply passing through and likely wouldn’t stay another night; there was no need to make arrangements. Dani was the first to wake in the morning and exit her tent. Almost immediately, she was greeted by a smiling young woman and her toddler—the boy peering at her from behind his mother’s skirt. Dani blinked slowly at the smiling figure, still disoriented from sleep. “Uhm. Hello?”

“Hi. I’m Emmeline, Sylvie’s grandniece. And this is Leopold, my son.” She tried to coax the boy from hiding. “Say hi, Leo.” Leo shook his head, clutching the fabric of Emmeline’s dress closer to himself. “Sorry, I don’t know why he’s acting shy. My aunt wanted me to come ask if you wouldn’t like to join us for breakfast.”

“Oh,” Dani mumbled, glancing towards Lena’s tent. “I’ll have to wake my sister. Besides, we wouldn’t want to inconvenience your aunt. We can just fix ourselves some porridge.”

“You should save your rations if you’re traveling.” Emmeline insisted. “Besides, it’s no inconvenience at all. Aunt Sylvie loves speaking with visitors. You can come whenever you’re ready.”

Dani hummed shooting another, more doubtful, glance towards Lena’s tent. “Sure . . . I’ll talk to my sister.”

Emmeline nodded, her friendly smile, unwavering. “Good. I’ll let Auntie know to expect you.”

“Sure,” Dani repeated, watching as the woman turned on her heels and—shy little boy in tow—made her way back to the village. Their camp wasn’t far, it was possible to see the small well in the center of the small settlement. The houses were humble, constructed out of wood, stone, and straw. Stables and animal paddocks were stationed along the edges of the village, and Dani could see a few stray chickens and a goat roaming free amongst the town mutts. She once again glanced towards Lena’s tent, hearing movement. “Did you hear all that?”

“Yes.” Lena’s voice was contained within the greenish-brown canvas. “Very persistently nice of them.”

“Do you think there’s something more to it?”

“There definitely is, but . . .” Lena emerged from her tent, working to untangle a few strands of hair. “There could be a multitude of reasons for that. Maybe they just want to keep us happy so we’ll spend more coin. Or they want to make us more trusting so they can get us talking about ourselves more, which can also be for a multitude of reasons; some innocent, others not so much.”

Dani snorted softly. “So you don’t know.”

“If we had these answers we wouldn’t need to be here.” Lena smiled. “We’re going to breakfast, then you’re going out to browse the wares at the trading post and be your lovely social self with these people.”

Dani nodded. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to stay behind and talk to Aunt Sylvie since she likes visitors so much.” She nodded Dani in the direction of the village and started walking herself. “I’m sure she has some stories to tell.”

The short walk to Sylvie’s cabin was punctuated by curious glances and stray whispers, especially from the village children; some of which needed to be scolded by their parents not to stop and stare. At first, Dani assumed it was just the novelty of strangers, but as Lena knocked on the elder’s door she came to the realization it was almost entirely directed at her. She frowned, but before she had the chance to whisper something to Lena, the door opened.

Sylvie was the embodiment of a grandmother—or at least what Dani imagined grandmothers to be; soft spoken, accommodating, and kind. She quickly welcomed them into her home and led them to her kitchen table before excusing herself to tend to something outside; promising to join them soon. Emmeline set a plate of sweet rolls on the table, her son once again rushed to cling to her the moment they walked in, but was scooped up by a tall, dark-haired, young man; presumably his father, and clung to his neck instead. A blond boy about the same age as Dani occupied the chair beside the man. He nodded at them in greeting. As Emmeline continued to set the table with hotcakes, jars of jam and honey, and pitchers of milk and water, she smiled at the both of them. “Please, sit; help yourselves. This is my husband, Stanley and his apprentice, Robert.” She sat down herself, plating one of the hotcakes and beginning to cut it into small pieces for Leo. “My apologies, I didn’t catch your names when I stopped by earlier.”

Lena shook her head with a polite smile, taking a seat and motioning for Dani to do so as well. “That’s alright. I’m sure my sister would have remembered her manners, had she been more awake.”

Dani flashed her a momentary glare, but nodded. “Apologies. I’m Dani. And this is my sister, Lena. It’s nice meeting you.”

“It’s nice meeting you, as well,” Emmeline replied, taking the initiative to plate a small stack of hotcakes for each of them. “We don’t usually see many visitors in the winter time. Are you heading for Newhaven?”

Lena accepted her plate with a polite thank you and proceeded to cut into the small stack of flat cakes. “No, we actually have to deliver some fabrics to another village a couple of days away from here. Dani likes exploring whenever we travel; take different routes, discover new places, and such. We heard there were some villages in this area that sell nice tools, woodwork, things like that and decided to investigate.”

“Oh? What kind of tools would you be interested in? Stanley here is the village ironsmith.” Emmeline smiled proudly at her husband, who was trying to pry a fussy boy from his neck and into a high chair.

“I was thinking about wood carving tools. We have a friend who has an interest in woodwork. I thought that a tool kit would make a good birthday gift in a couple of months,” Lena answered, taking a bite off her breakfast.

Stan managed to wrestle Leo into his chair and give Lena his full attention. “I could definitely prepare a tool kit like that for you, but it might not be ready before nightfall.”

Dani could see the wheels turning in Lena’s mind at this point. Eldric’s birthday was still a few months away, but it was unlikely they’d come back after this. “We could just stay another night,” she suggested. “We won’t be late with the delivery.”

Lena hesitated, but agreed. “I guess it will be worth the wait.”

“Mhm.” Dani grinned through a bite of her breakfast and informed, “It’s for her boyfriend, so do your best wo—” Her sentence was interrupted by a pained groan as she was promptly kicked under the table. “Ow! Uncalled for.”

“It’s not their business who it’s for,” Lena scolded.

“Ah, young love!” Sylvie exclaimed, entering the kitchen behind them. “There’s nothing quite like it.”

The statement actually managed to make Lena recoil in slight embarrassment and cause Dani to choke out a laugh, poorly disguised as a cough.

“Don’t worry, all my tools are the highest quality and if you’d like we can discuss having something engraved on the box as well.”

Stanley’s offer was a more-than-welcome change of subject and Lena was quick to nod along. “I would appreciate that, sure.”

“Great. You should pass by my workshop later in the afternoon. It’s the building right beside the general store.”

Not long after, Stan finished his breakfast and bid his wife and son goodbye, leaving to tend to his work. Robert lingered, informing that it was his weekly day off so, if they wanted, he would be happy to show them around the village, joking that it would take five whole minutes to see everything. Dani was the first to finish her breakfast and, remembering what she and Lena agreed on, took up his offer. Lena, on the other hand, stalled on finishing hers and offered to stay behind and help clean up the kitchen, since Sylvie had been so kind in opening her home to them. Emmeline was quick to accept the offer on her grand-aunt’s behalf, her tone apologetic as she mentioned needing to watch Leo and that he was getting to be a handful. Dani would normally offer to help as well in light of this, but since Lena wanted her to go out in the village, she quickly excused herself before she could be roped in. As she exited the kitchen, she heard Lena make some offhand disapproving remark about her aversion to housework. She had to hold back a snort; out of the two, Lena was the one who would rather not step foot in the kitchen if she could avoid it.

The winter chill was a stark contrast to the stifling hot ambiance of Sylvie’s kitchen. Dani huddled into her travel cloak, fighting back her initial shock.

“Are you cold? I can lend you a thicker coat, if you’d like,” Robert offered.

It was the first time she heard the boy speak since they arrived at Sylvie’s house. Even Leo had uttered a few words during breakfast while fussing at his mother for more hotcakes. Dani glanced at him with slight curiosity. “No, thank you. I like the cold, it was just really warm in there. Robert, is it?”

Robert nodded. “You can just call me Bobby.” His dismissive shrug was an attempt to come off more at ease than he actually was; his shoulders were tense and he was quick to hide his hands in his pockets as he led her to the center of the village. There were children at play and, once again, a few stopped to stare at her before being scolded by a passing adult. “What’s up that?” Dani mumbled. It was more to herself, than an actual question, but she got an answer nonetheless.

“Your hair.”

She turned her head to fix Robert with a small glare. “What?”

The boy almost physically recoiled under the scrutiny. “Most of the kids here never left the village. They’ve never seen anyone with red hair before. The only person they even heard of having red hair is the Queen.”

Dani’s expression shifted from slighted to amused with his explanation. “Is that all? Twins, it’s just hair. I don’t know what’s so special about it.”

Robert shook his head, laughing softly. “It’s a novelty to them. Besides, it’s very pretty.”

“I understand. I just find amusing what people think is unusual in Valcrest of all places.” Dani stopped walking as they reached the well and offered her hand for one of the stray mutts to sniff. “I mean, I’m definitely nothing special compared to what some people out there can do.”

Robert shrugged. “I don’t think you need to be enlightened to be special. I think that depends more on the person you are.”

Dani smiled as the mutt wagged its tail and licked her hand. “In a way, yeah. Being magical doesn’t mean you have to perform extraordinary feats and just because you aren’t doesn’t mean you won’t leave a mark in the world somehow, but as far as unusual goes, someone who can change their eyes color and levitate objects around them should draw more attention than my hair color. Yet, here I am; the village spectacle.”

“I’m sure if there was an eye-color-shifting-object-levitating act in the village right now, no one would be paying attention to you.” Robert half smiled and added: “Well, almost no one.”

Dani glanced at the boy momentarily. Robert was leaning against the side of the well, hands still in his pockets, watching with interest as she gave the willing mutt some well-deserved ear-scratches. “These guys belong to somebody?”She asked, noticing another, larger dog coming over to sniff around her.

“No. We all take turns feeding them. Same with most of the animals here. Cows and goats give milk, chickens give eggs. The dogs fend off the wildlife. The horses are used for travel. Or we lend them to visitors sometime, if they’re going to the City and back,” Robert explained. “But not to just anyone. Clint runs the stables and he’s really paranoid that people might not bring them back. He only lends them to regular visitors, if Sylvie vouches for them.”

Dani hummed. “Do you get a lot of regular visitors?”

“Not this time of year, but in the Springtime; yeah, a few.” Robert thought for a moment, then added. “We haven’t lent the horses to anyone since last spring, in fact.”

Dani nodded as she divided her attention between the two dogs. “My sister wants a puppy for her birthday, but I’ll be surprised if she gets one.”

Robert arched an eyebrow, glancing in the direction of Sylvie’s house. “Your sister seems old enough to get a dog for herself, no?”

Dani followed his gaze as she straightened up and laughed. “I meant my younger sister. She’s nine.”

“Oh. That makes a lot more sense.”

“Actually, I was looking to get something for her. She likes wood carvings, puzzle boxes, things like that.”

“Oh, we do have some nice stuff like that in the general store. Stan makes these little puzzles out of iron nails too. They’re not for small kids, but a nine-year-old could definitely play with them.”

“How are nails a puzzle?”

“He bends them so they’re hooked onto one another and the puzzle is that you have to find the right way to pull them apart.” Robert explained. “I have one at home, I’ll go get it and you’ll see.”

[Unnamed Village | Lunaris 28th | Midday]

Housework was one of Lena’s least favorite activities, but she made sure to do more than her share so that Emmeline could give Leo her full attention. Once the boy finally got over his shyness, it became immediately clear why his mother seemed to desperately cling to her offer. Leo was overflowing with energy and constantly demanding; so much that Emmeline felt obligated to take him out to play, leaving Lena to assist Sylvie by herself.

Lena didn’t find housework difficult, just tedious; something that Sylvie’s company more than made up for. The old woman had a tome’s worth of stories to tell. She’d lived in the village her whole life, her parents and grandparents as well. Her family had been there since the early days of the settlement, when the community formed from deserters on both sides of the war, trying to keep their families safe. War times were distant in most people’s minds nowadays, according to Sylvie. The hostilities between Blackpond and Newhaven were petty and almost childish in nature compared to what they once had been. It was safer to welcome visitors now than it had been when she was young. Yet, they could never be too careful. Despite the woman’s grandmotherly nature, the subtle warning contained in that statement wasn’t lost on Lena. She didn’t address it directly, neither did Sylvie.

Once the kitchen was clean and most of the preparation for lunch concluded, Sylvie put on a kettle of water for tea and shooed Lena out to the living room, saying she’d done enough.

Although Sylvie had instructed her to sit, Lena paced the small living room as she waited; wooden figurines decorated the living room table, the cushioned chairs by the fireplace and the sofa looked comfortable, but worn. Childish drawings adorned some of the walls; not unlike the ones Sarah proudly displayed in her room. Some were signed; Spencer, Micah, Eleanor . . . . Lena questioned if the elderly woman had any children. Emmeline was a grandniece; the grandchild of a sibling, so maybe not. Or maybe, not anymore. Her eyes landed on the large adorned hourglass sitting proudly on the mantelpiece; specks of red sand standing out amongst the golden grains.

“Do you partake in the ritual?” Sylvie questioned, coming out of the kitchen with two warm cups of tea in a small tray.

“Not every year. Depends on my state of mind when the day comes. I’m not sure if I truly need a day of remembrance. It’s not as if I’ve forgotten them.”

“You will once you’ve lived to be my age.” Sylvie quipped. “Life is harsh, unforgiving, and loss is unfortunately a great part of it. Time has its way with memories; its ways of twisting, bending, and blurring them together.”

Lena hummed, her eyes focused on the hourglass, as though attempting to imagine a name and a face on every grain of red sand contained within. The only face that came to mind was accompanied by the sensation of burning needles stabbing into her temples. She squeezed her eyes shut with a sharp inhale, breathing out slowly as the pain faded. Whatever memory she was about to retrieve faded before it even had the chance to form. She opened her eyes, forcing a deep breath. In the body of the hourglass, she glimpsed a ghost of her reflection; blue light draining from its irises against her will. With another deep breath, Lena forced her hands to release the edge of the mantlepiece, forced herself to regain her composure, to reclaim full control over her senses.

“Are you alright, sweetie?” Sylvie walked to Lena’s side and pushed the warm cup of tea onto her hands. “Here, drink some tea.”

Lena turned away from the hourglass with a small shake of her head. “It was just the start of a headache, nothing more.” She accepted the cup and raised it to her lips, inhaling the scent of peppermint before taking a small sip. “I feel better now, thank you,” she mumbled, finally accepting Sylvie’s invitation to take a seat; more out of necessity than any other reason.

“Are you sure? I’ll be honest with you, child, you look more exhausted than me. At your age, that’s not a good sign.”

Lena took another sip of tea, forcing a calm smile despite the rush of blood still ringing in her ears. “I’ve always had a lot on my shoulders, but I’m sure that’s true for most people nowadays. Life is harsh; harsher the longer we live, just as you said.”

Sylvie’s smile was sympathetic. “Are you fully responsible for your sister now? You don’t seem that much older than her.”

Lena shook her head. “Not exactly, but I am currently responsible for her education.”

“I see. Pardon my curiosity, but . . . You don’t look very much alike.”

Lena snorted softly. Sylvie was, of course, correct in her observation. Dani had taken after her father, while Sarah was almost a perfect copy of their mother as a child, but even then, they had several characteristics in common. Lena, on the other hand, stood apart from them: darker skin tone; or at least not as light, black hair, and even though both her and Dani had blue eyes, hers were a deep dark blue, while Dani’s were much lighter; almost in-between blue and green. “No, we wouldn’t. I was adopted before Dani was born. I was just a few months old when my birth mother died. I don’t have any real memory of her. The man she conceived me with was never interested to begin with and died before I was old enough to seek him out.”

Sylvie hummed through a small sip of tea. “It sounds like a rough start to life, but I assume the family you have now has treated you well. You’re certainly protective of your sister.” The elderly woman smiled coyly. “With the way you glared at Robert when he walked out with her, I’m sure he’s fully convinced you would chop off his hands and feed them to the dogs if he doesn’t keep them to himself.”

“I have to be. That kid knows how to get herself into trouble when she wants to.” Lena took another sip of tea, holding back a grin. “And I’m sure that won’t be necessary.”

“It wouldn’t, but I understand that you would prefer to be safe than sorry in regards to your family’s well-being.” Sylvie’s eyes held Lena’s and an unmistakable spark of light flashed within them. “After all, we all want the best for those we love, don’t we?”

Lena nodded cooly. “Of course.”

Sylvie drained her tea cup and stood. “Well, unfortunately lunch won’t prepare itself. You may join your sister once you’ve finished your tea. Emmeline will come find you when it’s ready.”

Lena’s eyes tracked the elder’s movement as she once again retreated into the kitchen. Only after the woman had been out of sight for a solid minute did she allow a shiver to run its course along her spine. She stalled in finishing her tea, listening to the innocent sounds of pots and pans resonating from the other room. Nothing in the whole exchange had been harmful—not even the parts of it Lena was unable to fully wrap her head around—yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that the ground had suddenly vanished right beneath her feet.

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