The Heart of the Forest 2.09

Shadows Rise-RR

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[Wolves Camp | Inviditas 10th, 2525 | Midmorning]

The lake was one of two places Dani could find some semblance of peace and quiet. The clearing was connected to the Wolves Camp by a narrow path, but was otherwise engulfed by forest. While the location wasn’t unknown by any means, it was rare to see anyone there for any prolonged periods of time. Dani wasn’t sure why most avoided the area, she assumed most of her clan mates just didn’t respond well to being alone with their thoughts. Whichever the reason, she had no qualms about taking advantage of it if she needed a moment, or wanted to do something away from the clan’s prying eyes.

The waters were static; undisturbed by the gentle breeze, threads of golden light shimmered across the surface as though it was smooth mirrored glass. A beautiful, calming sight; or it would be, if not for the gradual increase of pressure in her skull beginning to blur her vision. Dani hung, upside down, arms dangling inches from the lake’s surface, legs hooked over a sturdy low-hanging branch. It was uncomfortable, but her ankles weren’t bound in a trap this time, and falling would result in a dip into cold water rather than a body full of bruises. She drew a few controlled breaths, crossed her arms over her chest and gradually hoisted herself up until she felt them touch her knees. That position barely eased her existing discomfort, created several others, and she wasn’t able to hold it for very long, but compared to her initial attempts a month ago; it was remarkable progress. Dani let her herself go with a ragged breath, fingers once again inches from skimming the surface of the lake. It was still too early in the day for the water to have warmed from the early spring sun. It would be a cold dive should her legs refuse to hold her weight further.

 

“What are you doing?”

The question was sudden enough to almost startle Dani into a premature descent. The voice came from a spot just beyond the scope of her peripheral vision, but she’d become familiar with it in the past month. “Maddie. What are you doing here?”

“The camp is getting way too crowded. I don’t understand all the excitement over the Hourglass ceremony. I thought it was supposed to be this solemn thing.” Madeline stepped forward, closer to the edge of the lake and into Dani’s view. “Why are you upside down?”

“I’m practicing.”

“I thought your mother said no training today.” Madeline sat by the edge of the water. “Practicing what exactly?”

“Being upside down,” Dani choked out through a coarse breath. “Long story.”

“Alright.” Maddie looked up at her with an air of amusement. “So, what’s the deal with the ceremony tonight?”

Dani glanced at Maddie with a soft snort. “You really want to have a conversation now?”

“It can wait until you’re finished,” Maddie paused, reciting her next words slowly as if trying to push past a thin layer of disbelief, “being upside down.”

Dani chuckled, letting herself drop into the lake. The water was nowhere near the freezing temperatures it had been just a few weeks ago, but still cold enough to shock the exhaustion out of her muscles. She lingered underneath the surface of the water, opening her eyes to watch the swirling shimmer of sunlight piercing the depths. Only when her already aching lungs began to protest did she finally emerge.  She found Madeline leaning close to the margin as if worried about her not coming up. “I could pull you in so easily right now. You’re lucky I’m so nice.”

Madeline shook her head and backed away, sitting down on the grass once again. “I keep hearing that. I think you people genuinely don’t know the definition of that word.”

“Which word? Nice?” Dani grinned. “I think we are. Aren’t we?”

“I think that’s debatable, and there are many people in Valcrest who would disagree.”

Dani’s smile faltered, but didn’t fade away entirely. “I forget you haven’t completely washed away your Newhaven stench. Maybe a dip in the lake would fix it.”

Madeline rolled her eyes at the threat. “No, thank you.”

Dani huffed a trace of laughter, expelling some excess water from her nose in the process. “Sooner or later, just you wait.” She pushed herself out of the lake and wrung some water from the ends of her hair. Reaching behind the tree she had been perched on, she pulled out her travel bag. “It’s been nice having a training buddy this past month; truly, but I need to change out these clothes before I catch a cold and we’re not that close yet, so . . . Turn around please.”

Madeline flinched but obeyed. “You’re not worried someone’s going to walk in here?”

“Never happened until today. What are the odds it’s going to happen twice?” Dani opened the bag and pulled out a soft cloth towel to dry herself with.

“Every Wolf aside from those residing in the cities has been called back to camp and most have already arrived. So I’d say they’re greater than usual.” Madeline pointed out.

Dani hummed softly, her tone distracted as she focused on changing out of her drenched clothes. “Haven’t seen them. I was here all morning.” The soft smile that formed on her lips translated into a cheerful intonation. “I look forward to seeing the camp busy and cheerful tonight though. It’s going to be fun.”

Madeline made a confused sound. “Fun?”

“Right. You were asking me about the ceremony. It is your first year participating after all.” Dani finished dressing and fetched her boots, coming to sit next to the older recruit. “You know how the Newhaveners move the date of the Hourglass Night when a King or Queen dies, right?” She contemplated her boots for a moment, but set them aside, rolling up her pant legs and dipping her bare feet into the river. “You can look now, by the way. I’m done.”

Madeline turned around so that she was facing the lake once more. “Yes, I know.”

“Well, we do something similar here. When an Alpha or Beta dies, we move the date. It has been that way ever since the ceremony was created. With one exception.” Dani sighed, leaning back into her hands and stirring the waters with her feet. “Sixteen years ago, on this date, my father died. He wasn’t an Alpha, or a Beta, but his death affected my mother; and the clan, in such a way that tradition was broken.”

“I thought Tom was your father.”

“Tom is Sarah’s father.”

Madeline frowned, her question hesitant. “What about Lena’s father?”

Dani snorted a laugh. “Lena was adopted before I was born. Mom didn’t change her name out of respect for her birth mother, but we don’t talk about her father.”

Madeline nodded. “So your father was the first non-Alpha, non-Beta Wolf to move the Hourglass Night. How does that affect the ceremony?”

“The ceremony hasn’t changed. It’s what happens after that’s changed. The first Hourglass Night after my dad died, the clan was glum, my first birthday was only five days away . . . And my mother decided that he wouldn’t have wanted his family to mourn, more importantly; he wouldn’t have wanted me sad so close to my birthday every year. So she decided that once the solemn hour came to an end, we would throw a party. And ever since, that’s what we do; we mourn and then we have a party. It’s the only night where alcohol is allowed in camp.”

“Drunk Wolves,” Madeline grinned. “Interesting.”

“It tends to be, yes.” Dani’s smile saddened as she watched the canopy above. “Bright clear sunny day today . . . I bet he’d say we’re lucky he died in spring.”

“That’s dark.”

“Sooner or later, we all go,” Dani mumbled. “We’re born knowing that. What matters is what you do until then.”

Madeline sighed. “That’s darker. Being born knowing you’re going to die.”

Dani chuckled. “Death gave us mortality, Mads. It’s a gift. That’s the whole point of the Hourglass Night, to mourn our losses and remember that our time is valuable precisely because it runs out. Like sand to the bottom of an hourglass.”

Madeline followed her gaze, momentarily watching the slivers of blue sky peering from behind the tree branches. “Your father died before you were even born. Is that a gift to you?”

“I never met him. People like to talk about how much I take after him, that I have the same spirit, and I can’t describe how much hearing that hurts. On the other hand . . . Sarah exists and her life is definitely a gift to me.” Dani kicked her feet underwater and glanced at Madeline. “It’s easy to think that Death is always a bad thing—no one wants to die, or see someone they love die—but truth is . . . Nothing is black and white like that.”

“That’s a fair point, I guess.” Madeline snorted. “If it helps, I have no idea about my father either. I don’t think even my mother knew for sure who he was.”

“You were an accident, then?”

“More like an occupational hazard; her words, not mine.” Madeline offered a rueful smile. “She wasn’t a great mother. Best she taught me was to effectively uncover people’s dirt, or their wants, and use them for manipulation.”

“Huh. Maybe I shouldn’t have told you my tragic backstory, then.”

“You’re too smart for those sorts of tactics.”

Dani laughed. “Come on, now.”

“You think I’m joking, but you’d be surprised how often that type of flattery works. People always like to think they’re the smartest in the room. Nobles especially. Noble men most of all.”

Dani shook her head. “Newhaven sounds exhausting when you put it like that.”

“It is. Don’t get me wrong, the City itself; the real City of Newhaven, is an incredible place in many ways. The lies the crown likes to sell, though? This immaculate image of the ‘First City’? It’s all crap. Closer to the Noble District you go, the smellier the bullshit.”

Dani hummed under her breath, giving Madeline a brief contemplative glance, then grabbing her and pushing her into the lake.

Madeline thrashed in the water and pushed herself to the surface with an angered huff. She shook her head in an attempt to keep the ends of her short hair from sticking to her face and fixed Dani with a furious glare. “What the hell!”

“Huh. I guess a dip in the lake didn’t help.” Dani grinned, getting on her feet and holding out her hand to help Madeline out. “Don’t worry though, we’ll make a Wolf out of you yet.”

[Wolves Camp | Inviditas 10th, 2525 | Nightfall]

Dani sat by the lake all morning and the greater part of the afternoon. No else stopped by after Madeline left. It had become  usual for her in the past couple of years to avoid the crowded encampment until it was time for the whole clan to gather. It was no surprise that she hadn’t been sought after throughout the day. When the sun began its descent and the golden rays of sunlight darkened to orange, then to red, she finally abandoned her seclusion and rejoined the clan. Some of the people crowding the center of camp were retired Wolves; released of their oath by the Alpha and granted permission to return for this one occasion every year. Seeing some of them again was like being visited by estranged aunts and uncles. Dani didn’t really know most of them too well, but all of them had something to say about her father, or about how she was only a small ‘pup’ when they left and look at her now. Never mind the fact it’d only been a year since they were there last. Never mind that they’d had the exact same conversation then as well.

Dani endured the bear hugs, the shoulder pats, and smiled through their cheerful reminiscences. It was bothersome, but, at the same time, seeing how fondly her father was remembered and receiving even a small fraction of that affection warmed her heart.

Once she managed to duck away from all that attention, Dani looked around for her sisters. Sarah stuck to her mother’s side, looking chipper and no doubt pleading to be the one to turn the Hourglass during the ceremony. Thomas oversaw the workers, releasing them from duty as soon as their part of the preparations were complete. The incoming darkness commanded the ceremony to begin; for everything to be ready before it swallowed the encampment whole, and it was the Beta’s job to see it done. Lena, however, was nowhere in sight. Dani walked over to her mother and sister, and as soon as she was within earshot, she chuckled.

“. . . When do I get to do it?”

“When you’re older, love. It’s still your sister’s role for now.”

“Dani won’t mind if I do it.”

“I’m sure your sister would let you have the clothes off her back should you ask, but that doesn’t mean they belong to you, now does it?” Claire’s amusement was palpable.

Sarah sighed, defeated. “No. But it’s not fair. I can’t even stay for the party later.”

“There are a great many things you can presently enjoy which your sisters have been forced to leave behind. They can’t go back just as you can’t grow up any faster. That’s the order of things.”

“It’s not fair, I agree,” Dani chimed in, playfully poking her sister on the sides. “We should let Lena hang you by the ankles while I sit in and do math problems.”

Sarah rolled her eyes and shoved Dani’s hand away. “I’d take that over math problems any day.”

“I’ll be sure to let her know.” Dani momentarily grinned, but as she glanced around yet again, there was still no sign of Lena. “Where is she anyway?”

“Sarah, please go ask your father if all preparations are still on schedule, please.”

Sarah offered them both a suspicious glare, but ran off to find her father. Claire waited until she was out of earshot before answering the question. “Lena will be here. I spoke to her this morning and she informed me that Eldric was having some trouble with the prospect of attending the ceremony tonight. It has come to my attention that his emotional state has been somewhat unstable this past month.”

Dani snorted softly. “Yeah, she told me the whole thing is starting to hit him.”

Claire nodded. “The fact that he has been spending a very noticeable amount of time in your sister’s cabin has also been generating comments. Which, his father is surely displeased by.”

“As far as I’m concerned he can take his displeasure and shov—”

“Daniela,” Claire warned, pushing back a slight trace of amusement from her voice. “That attitude won’t do anything to help your sister’s situation or Eldric’s. I suggest you stay out of it.”

“I have no intention to get involved in that mess. I just think the whole thing is ridiculous. Eldric is an adult. If daddy doesn’t agree with his choices he needs to stand up and deal with it.”

“Fair point, but I suppose now isn’t the time to demand that from him either.”

Dani frowned; of course her mother was right, she had no idea what Eldric’s head was like since he survived that encounter with the Hunters and, exasperated as she was, adding more stress on top of it wasn’t her intention. “No. Of course not.”

“If he’s chosen your sister to confide in, the best we can do is hope she’s able to handle that for herself. And if Reuben needs a reminder to maintain his composure; well, that’s my job isn’t it? At least for now.”

“Don’t joke about that, mom. Not tonight.”

“Far from me to joke about such things,” Claire said, her serious tone offset by the trace of a smirk. “It’ll be a dark, silent, excruciatingly long hour of us all, love. But it’s only one hour.”

Dani nodded, holding back a tired sigh. In the distance she heard a few friendly remarks indicating Eldric had joined the clan for the first time that day. There was no sign of Lena until the camp was almost fully dark. Without the usual flicker of torches and the orange glow of the campfire, it was hard to make out the figures and faces crowding the central clearing. Dani only noticed Lena’s arrival when she felt a hand briefly on her shoulder. In the distance, she caught notice of Tom, navigating the crowded camp with Sarah in his arms. As the darkness engulfed the encampment the cheerful atmosphere began to shift. The chorus of high-spirited voices died out and a heavy silence filled the air.

Tom put Sarah down next to Dani and the younger girl situated herself by clutching her hand. The clan was then left to wait in silence as the Alpha and Beta walked the path to the Alpha’s cabin to retrieve the Hourglass. The wait was part of the process, it served as a cooldown period from the frantic preparations and the happy reunions. Likewise, the walk to and from the Alpha’s cabin was to be conducted in absolute silence.

The Hourglass Night was the only night where the entire camp gathered at once. Every man, woman, and child; regardless of their role or lack thereof. From the very first Night she could remember, the sight always made her think that if the Twins could look down on them from above—as some seemed to believe—they must all look like a swarm of ants had taken over the forest. Families would normally stand together, smaller children clinging to their parents in the dark, much like Sarah had clung to Dani’s hand. The majority of them were too young to fully understand the ritual.

As Dani’s eyes started adjusting to the dark, more and more faces became distinguishable. Most of the adults had their heads lowered in silent contemplation. The younger members of the clan were a mix of boredom and confusion, but tried to the best of their abilities to emulate their parents and remain silent. Eldric and Emmett were standing with their father, Madeline was standing just a few steps away from them, occasionally glancing in Emmett’s direction as if unsure of what was supposed to happen next. It occurred to Dani that she probably should have given a more practical explanation of what the ceremony would be. It wasn’t too different from what was done in Newhaven, but it wouldn’t surprise her to learn Maddie had never participated in one so public as this before. With the corner of her eye, she chanced a small glance at Lena. She also kept her head down, eyes fixed on a random spot on the ground. If she wanted to ask anything about her well-being this wouldn’t be the time to do it. The silence was so intense that even the slightest shift of a boot against soil was loud enough to be frowned upon. Dani held back a small sigh and resigned to keeping her head down as well.

However many minutes it took to walk to and from the Alpha’s cabin, it felt like hours. Her parents’ approaching footsteps echoed amidst the clan’s introspective silence. Once they came to a halt, Dani raised her head to watch her mother, as did the entire clan.

Claire stood, holding the hourglass in her hands. The object was ancient; it had stood in the Alpha’s cabin since the dawn of the Wolfpack. Unlike most hourglasses in Valcrest, this one contained no golden sand, only red. It was rumored to originally contain golden sand, but the Wolfpack’s losses had been so great that no living Wolf had memory of seeing it and no written records existed supporting those claims. Beyond the red sand, it was a simple object; smooth glass framed by the same dark wood which constituted the Alpha’s cabin itself.

As the clan’s attentions gradually fell on the Alpha, Claire drew a deep breath, preparing to disrupt the silence, and when she spoke it was soft, just loud enough to be heard by all. “First and foremost, I would like to thank you all for being here. Especially those of you who took time away from your new lives specifically to be here tonight. Those of you who have stood here and watched my father stand where I am today, my grandfather before him,” she briefly smiled. “More than any other people in Valcrest, Lady Death is a constant presence in our lives. We are, for all intents and purposes, her most loyal agents. However, we are by no means untouchable. We are not immune. Any other day, any other night, we should face that reality stone-faced and resolute. We are supposed to be, above anything else, unbreakable. We suffer our losses, no matter how grave, and we move forward because even one solitary moment of weakness can prove catastrophic. Especially now.” Claire’s gaze scanned the faces before her, each and every one. “Any other night, I would be the one to instill this notion within the core of this clan. I should be the one to demand that unyielding strength from each and every one of you. Because, as we’ve already witnessed this year; the moment one of us falters, the Wolfpack is severely wounded, but tonight . . . . Tonight I also have to be the first to admit that I have been deeply saddened by every single life lost to this conflict. Not just in this past year, but from the very beginning. For the past sixteen years, I’ve been angry, broken hearted, and exhausted. I know that for many of you this past year has been especially difficult in that regard. I can’t realistically predict how and when all of this will end. I can make no promises one way or another, but I can offer you this one night to mourn your losses. To be angry, broken hearted, and weak.”

Claire turned and held out the hourglass for Dani to take, briefly smiling as she deposited the full weight of the object onto her hands. “Before we turn the Hourglass tonight, I invite you all to honor those who deserved to be standing here tonight by speaking their names.” Once again she gave pause, allowing the clan a moment to breathe. Over the silence, a few sharp snifflings could be heard along with faint sobs. Once the moment passed, she lowered her head in a respectful bow, placed her right hand over heart—a gesture mirrored by the rest of the clan—and recited, one by one, the names of the Wolves whose lives had been lost since last year’s ceremony. Each name was immediately echoed by the rest of the clan in perfect unison: “Stuart Barnett, Kiera Bellamy, Elliott Whelan, Bartholomew Wade, Deirdre Hardwick, Emma Draper, Abigail Speight, Gale Logan, Nicole Pearce, Bryce Attaway, Elijah Howard,” all except for the very last one.

The name was met with some level of resistance. “Edward Feany.” Many Wolves present remained silent—Lena among them—while the remainder of the clan repeated his name. Dani looked up at her mother, unsure whether she should turn the Hourglass or not after this display. Despite a disapproving scowl marking her features, the Alpha offered no verbal admonition and simply reached to place her hand on top the Hourglass’ wooden frame, keeping it there until every single Wolf present relented and spoke Edward’s name. And although Lena was the first of the group to do so, the scolding look she was given as Claire released the Hourglass indicated that, for her at least, the verbal admonition would eventually come.

As the final whispers of Edward Feany’s name were finally scattered into the night, Dani turned the Hourglass at last.

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