The Heart of The Forest 2.08

Shadows Rise

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[Wolves Camp | Sagacitas 8th, 2525 |Midday]

Lena stirred with the creak of her front door. The invading footsteps were cautious, but familiar. Of the few people who would venture into her cabin unannounced, Eldric’s heavy boots stood apart from Dani’s much lighter footfall and the pitter patter of Sarah’s sandals. Lena was surprised to discover Eldric away from camp upon leaving the Alpha’s cabin the other day and although Tom later confirmed that he was granted permission to accompany Emmett and his suspension was not yet lifted, he wouldn’t tell her what they were off doing.

She remained motionless as the footsteps lingered in her living room, and didn’t bother opening her eyes upon hearing them slowly approach the bedroom. A stifled huff of laughter sounded from the doorway. “Come on, now. I know you’re not still asleep.”

Eldric’s voice was soft and amused, but Lena picked up the hint of travel fatigue looming underneath. Still, she ignored his accusation, and pulled her blankets up over her head with a fitful noise. Eldric paced across the room, his feet knocking against stray rolls of parchment littering the floor. His weight pressed down on the edge of the bed, causing the wooden frame to creak in protest. “Helena, come on,” he called out, lightly tugging on the edge of the blankets to uncover her face. Lena kept a vice grip on the blankets, forcing him to let go with an annoyed groan. “I swear on all the Twins, I will tickle you if I have to.”

“Don’t you dare.”

“Ah,” Eldric exclaimed, triumphantly. “Never thought I’d see the day I’d be the one to scold you for being lazy. Yet, here we are.”

Lena huffed under her blankets, but pushed them aside to shoot Eldric a glare. “I’m not lazy, I’m trying to make the most out of a day off. My mother wants to see me later and I have a feeling she’s about to push another assignment on me. As if Dani wasn’t enough of a handful.”

“She relies on you,” Eldric offered. “I know for a fact many in the clan would give their right arm for that kind of high regard.”

“And they’re idiots to think that way.” Lena sighed. “There’s a very distinct line, El, between having a conversation with my mother and addressing the Alpha. Failure weighs twice as heavy on my shoulders than it would anyone else in the clan. That high regard people like to envy? It’s called expectations.”

“Whether it’s your mother or the Alpha you’re dealing with, if she has such high expectations of you, then she considers you capable of meeting them. Trust me, that is something to envy.”

Lena sat up. Eldric was still in his travel clothes, his hair was messy and his face unshaven, she reached out to lightly scratch the side of his face. “Did you just get home? You look like a drifter.”

Eldric snorted, taking her hand in his and lowering it. “I’ve been back in camp for about half an hour. I’ve been sitting in your mother’s office watching Emmett describe all the nothing we uncovered.”

“Where did you go?”

“Iceforge. It’s north of Blackpond. Blacksmithing village. I’m not sure what sort of lead Emmett was pursuing; he was allowed to bring me, but not share any information. Whatever it was didn’t pan out, apparently.”

“How was traveling with your brother?”

“Awkward and draining. How was traveling with your sister?”

“Oh, it was lovely. Dani’s great.”

Eldric shot her a look of pure skepticism. “Come on. You’ve spent the past year, give or take, complaining about how much of a brat Dani’s been.”

“Oh, she absolutely is, but Dani likes being in the forest, she loves camping, she pulls her own weight, never complains that she’s tired. . . Traveling with her is a breeze.”

Eldric snorted softly. “At least one of us had a good time.”

Lena gave his hand a small squeeze before working hers free. “You need to give Emmett a chance, El. He’s been really trying since he came back.”

“I know, but just because he’s trying doesn’t mean I owe him anything. Emmett is a smooth talker, always has been, and I’m sure it’s easy for everyone to think I’m being a jerk because he’s such a great guy, but the reality is he did nothing but make my life harder while he was around and then he left. If he wanted my forgiveness he would have asked for it. What he actually wants is for me to ‘get over it’ so he never has to own up to anything.”

Lena sighed softly. “Fair enough. Have you actually said any of this to him?”

“Emmett isn’t a child. I shouldn’t have to explain to him that he needs to apologize,” Eldric scoffed.

“Maybe you shouldn’t, but if you want to forgive him, odds are you may have to spell something out, maybe draw him a picture. You’re assuming he won’t apologize because he thinks he’s done nothing wrong, but maybe he just assumes trying to make up to you already counts as an apology and you’re just not accepting it. And if that’s the case; I know that’s difficult for you, but it may be necessary to confront your brother and tell him you need to hear it.”

“Or. . .” he said, drawing out his sounds as if to make his next point stick. “He could stop being an idiot so I don’t have to.”

Lena shook her head, unable to hold back a laugh. “Runs in the family, then.”

“What does?”

“You just said Emmett wants you to get over things so he doesn’t have to confront it and here you are admitting that it bothers you because you don’t want to confront him about it.” Eldric stared back at her as though he was trying to read a foreign language written in minuscule handwriting. Lena shook her head, reaching out to pat the top of his head. “Think about it again after you’ve gotten some sleep.”

Eldric frowned, but immediately relaxed when Lena proceeded to sift her fingers through his hair. “I brought you a sandwich.”

Lena proceeded to lightly scratch the back of his head, smirking as he leaned into the touch with a distracted hum. “Why did you bring me a sandwich?”

“Because. . . ” Eldric trailed off, trying to keep his focus under the attention, eyes starting to close. “Your mother said no one saw you come out today. And I know how you get.”

Lena hummed. “How do I get?”

“You shove your face in a book all day and you forget to eat,” Eldric murmured, halfway asleep.

“Mhm. I guess I do get like that sometimes.” Lena smiled, her touch slowing to a halt. “Have you gotten something to eat already?”

“Yes.” Eldric opened his eyes blearily. “Sorry. We decided to travel overnight and I haven’t,” his sentence was broken by a violent yawn. “Sorry.”

“I figured as much.” She moved her hand away and scooted over, patting the empty space at her side. “Take off your boots and come to bed.”

Eldric shook his head, standing up. “I’ve been traveling all night. I should go home, my clothes are dirty and I stink.”

Lena snorted and pulled him back down by the hand. “Boots off, Fletcher, it’s nap time. Come on.”

“I’m not a five-year-old,” Eldric muttered, “. . . Nap time.”Despite the complaints, he kicked his boots off, laying down on the empty spot beside her with an exhausted sigh. “Go eat your sandwich.”

“I will in a minute,” Lena answered, settling down next to him. “Close your eyes.”

******

The sun was just starting to lower when Eldric began to rouse from sleep. Lena was still occupying her side of the bed, fully dressed, her attention divided between the pages of a book and the markings of a lit candle on the nightstand.

“Did you eat before shoving your face in that book?” he croaked.

“Yes. It was delicious, thank you.”

Eldric snorted, stretching. “I didn’t make it, I just delivered it.”

“In that case,” she smirked, “it was a little dry. It did arrive in good condition, though.”

“That’s good to know. If your mother decides I need a new function, I can deliver food to all the lazy bums in camp.”

Lena glanced at him over the book’s pages. “Do you want me to kick you off this bed, Fletcher?”

Eldric held his hands up defensively. “I should be getting up anyway. I still smell like a muddy sheep.” His gaze falls on the candle. “At what time are you supposed to go see your mother?”

“In twenty minutes.” Lena’s gaze remained on the book as she flipped the page. “If you want to spend the night here, you can let yourself in after you get the smell of sheep off.” She shot him a brief glance, another smirk tracing her lips. “I’ve decided not to question that.”

“It’s my coat. The ground was wet where we camped yesterday.” Eldric frowned, watching her eyes move across the page. “I’m assuming you uncovered something in your expedition and that’s what your mother wants to discuss.”

Lena stopped reading, her gaze fixed in the center of the open book. “You know that if I did, it’s my mother’s decision how and when to disclose that information. And while I often disagree with that, this isn’t one of those times.”

“You can’t even confirm or deny whether you found something?”

Lena lowered the book. “Don’t try to persuade me, El. You know that anything pertaining to the Wolf Hunters is sensitive information. Not just because of what happened with Eddie, but because of how riled up everyone is. Including you. Especially you.”

“Can you imagine anyone in this camp being so sure they’re going to die that the only thing they can do is swallow their ring so it doesn’t get taken from their corpse? Because I couldn’t until I witnessed it that night.” Eldric let out a shaken breath and slid to the edge of the bed. “It’s an eye opener; it really is.”

“Why do you think they take them?” Lena closed her book and set it aside, watching the back of his head as his shoulders dropped. She scooted closer and let her hand rest on his shoulder. “The Wolf Hunters know they can’t kill every single one of us, but they can break us. And if you let them get into your head, that’s one step closer for them.”

“Keeping me locked up in here. . . I know your mother means well, but it isn’t helping.”

“If doing something, no matter what, is more important to you right now than finding a way to end this, then you need to step back. For your sake and the clan’s, El.” Lena spared another brief glance at the candle and sighed. “I need to go or I’ll be late. Listen, go take a bath, change, burn that coat and. . . We can talk about this later. Maybe after this meeting I’ll be able to tell you something.”

Eldric snorted and shook his head. “The coat doesn’t stink that bad.”

Lena gave his shoulder a few pats before removing her hand. “Yes, it does,” she said, reaching for her boots. “Will you be here when I get back?”

“Depends on how long that meeting will take. You might be back before I am,” Eldric mumbled, fetching his own boots. “But, yes, I’ll be back.”

“Alright.” Lena gave his shoulder one more reassuring squeeze as she stood. “I’ll see you later, then.”

Eldric reached for her hand before she had a chance to pull it away and held it in his. Lena flinched, expecting he would have something else to say. He didn’t speak, instead his thumb traced the silver band around her ring finger. The gesture brought forth an odd sensation of awareness towards something she’d worn for so long it had become a part of her. “El. . . I really have to get going.”

Eldric nodded, giving her hand a gentle squeeze before letting go. “I’ll see you later.”

******

Upon reaching the Alpha’s cabin Lena was greeted by a closed door. Her mother hadn’t informed her there would be other participants in this meeting, and the closed door indicated that not only was she late, but there were other Wolves already there ahead of her. She knocked on the door and peered in. Her mother was sitting in her usual place behind the desk, across from her were Emmett and a girl Lena didn’t really know. She had seen her in camp, knew Emmett had recruited her last year, but that was it. They never spoke, and Lena had never even properly heard her name.

“Welcome,” her mother greeted, beckoning her closer and indicating the empty seat to Emmett’s right. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Lena closed the door behind her and took a seat. “I’m sorry I’m late. Something came up.”

“That’s alright.” Claire nodded towards the girl sitting beside Emmett. “This is Madeline Sauver, she has been with us since Obitus last year. Have you two had a chance to meet yet?”

“No, I don’t believe we have.” Lena offered Madeline an acknowledging nod. “I’m assuming this relates to the situation we discussed during my briefing?”

“Yes, it does. See, Emmett recruited Madeline with the suggestion that she become a Scout. This suggestion stemmed from her previous experience as a mercenary. And it so happens Madeline has an enlightenment that may prove useful now, considering our predicament.”

“Is that so?”

“I can prevent other Enlightened from affecting me,” Madeline chimed in, “the White Shadows referred to it as ‘suppression’.”

Lena hummed. “Will this work with telepathy as well?”

“It should. I’ve never come across any enlightenment I couldn’t suppress as long as they’re within my radius.”

“It works by proximity? If that’s the case, a telepath that can affect the mind in a wider radius, could possibly by-pass this.”

“I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t tested it beyond what was necessary.”

“That’s for you to determine,” Claire said. “I’ve already discussed with Madeline and Emmett what her assignment will be, but I’m leaving it entirely up to you if or when Madeline is prepared to go. Since this woman’s enlightenment behaves similarly to yours, it would make sense for you to be the one to test her limitations.”

Lena raised an eyebrow. “You want me to actually use my enlightenment on another person?”

“Yes. I understand the risks, but it would be far more dangerous to send Madeline out without being sure she won’t be discovered.”

“You understand the risks, good. Does she?” Lena nodded towards Madeline. “Because I don’t think anyone would volunteer for this.”

“Mind your tone, Helena,” Claire warned. “Everyone in this room is aware of your abilities. Do try to keep in mind that I am responsible for the well being of all members of this clan.”

Lena let out a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that’s not the case, but what you’re asking me to do is a lot riskier than a simple spar. Broken bones heal.”

“I believe you are perfectly capable of conducting this safely,” Claire said, cutting Lena off with a raised hand when she tried to interject, “even if you don’t.”

“Can’t say I share that trust, my own personal experience considered,” Emmett finally spoke up with a casual shrug, “But Maddie seems confident that you won’t be able to get past her barriers, and this is a vital task. If she’s unable to pull this off, there isn’t anyone else in the clan who would, and this becomes another dead end.”

Lena looked past Emmett to where Madeline was sitting. She held her head up, her gaze moved from one speaker to the next attentively, the small crease in her forehead more and more prominent as the conversation moved without acknowledgment that she was present. Yet, she didn’t seem comfortable enough to speak openly in front of the Alpha. She still saw herself as an outsider; even within this room, which begged a very important question. “What’s in it for you?”

Madeline met Lena’s gaze and her eyes narrowed briefly; a hint of offense she kept separated from the confusion in her voice. “Sorry?”

“If you understand the risks and you’re willing to take them, I would like to know why. If you were recruited in Obitus last year, you’ve been with us for, give or take, four months now? I doubt you would have even heard of the Wolf Hunters before that. It can’t be that you’re just that eager to catch them.”

Madeline nodded. “You’re right, I’m not as emotionally involved in fighting the Wolf Hunters as someone who grew up in the Pack or even someone who’s been here for longer, but I doubt they would care to make that distinction. They wouldn’t stop to ask how long I’ve been a Wolf or whether or not I’ve taken my oath yet; assuming they even know it exists. If you want to be skeptical about my motives being altruistic. . . At the very least you should know I’m not stupid enough to think this doesn’t affect my own survival.”

“If you’re worried about your survival, the easiest way to ensure it would be to leave. You haven’t actually taken your oath yet, right? Emmett is sitting here because he’s still responsible for you.”

“Emmett recruited me because he felt I would be useful, I know he didn’t do it because he likes me. And I accepted because being here has its perks. The simplest explanation I can give is that nothing in this job’s description is nearly as immoral as Newhaven can be. Especially for a mercenary. The people who are willing and able to pay for a sellsword or a spy are far from upstanding citizens, if you catch my drift.”

“You got sick of being a pawn for rich idiots, you mean?”

“Yes.” Madeline smiled. “Long story short, that’s it. If you want to know more than that, I guess you’re welcome to try and find out.”

Emmett snorted. “You’re signing your own death sentence if you’re gonna provoke her, kid. Just putting that out there.”

Lena rolled her eyes. “Shut up.”

“You know I’m not wrong. Show me where I’m wrong.”

“Children, enough.” Claire sighed. “Helena, this is your assignment. You are welcome to decline, but take into consideration how it might set us back.”

Lena ran both hands over her eyes, whatever levity Emmett’s little jab had brought was immediately snuffed out. “I don’t feel I have a choice. Emmet’s right—he’s an idiot, but he’s right. This is a vital task.”

“Will you be able to take on this task and maintain Daniela’s training routine intact? If not, I can temporarily reassign her,” Claire offered.

“No. She won’t accept that and I’m not going to risk what little progress we’ve made. I can handle it.”

Claire frowned. “Are you sure? I need you to be realistic with how much work you’re able to undertake at once.”

“I can do it.” Lena shrugged. “If this kid here is as good as she thinks she is, it won’t be a problem, will it?”

“I’m nineteen,” Madeline argued. “Would you mind not calling me ‘kid’?”

Lena masked any trace of surprise, but gave her an inspecting glance. Madeline was short and fresh-faced; she could easily pass for a fifteen-year-old. Normally this sort of miscalculation would warrant an apology, but for as long as she was Lena’s responsibility, they wouldn’t be having that type of relationship. Lena shook her head. “We’ll see if you earn it first.”

Madeline scoffed. “I thought it was just Emmett, but looks like all Instructors are stuck-up jerks, huh?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Emmett said. “Hate to be the one to tell you, but we’re actually the nice ones. Some Instructors out there, if their Recruits don’t try to murder them before lunch time, they’re not pushing ‘em hard enough.”

“I’d love to say he’s joking, but he’s not,” Lena added before turning her attention back to her mother. “If there’s nothing else, it’s still my day off.”

“There’s nothing else for now, but I would like you to keep me informed on your progress.” Claire offered her a brief smile. “Please remind Eldric that my door remains open, if there’s anything he’d like to discuss.”

“Of course.” Lena stood, sparing Madeline another short glance on her way out the door. “Training grounds, sunrise. I have a schedule to keep, so don’t be late.”

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