The Heart of The Forest 2.12

Shadows Rise-RR

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[Wolves Camp | Inviditas, 15th, 2525 | Sunrise]

Dani lay awake, listening to Sarah’s soft breaths resonating in the otherwise silent room. She wanted to sleep in, she’d tried, but sleep wouldn’t return no matter how much she willed it. With a resigned sigh, she pushed her blankets away and sat up. Sarah was sprawled on her stomach, one cheek pressed against her pillow, hair disheveled and concealing part of her face. Dani held back a chuckle. Sarah always moved around so much in her sleep she’d wake up in the morning looking like she’d wrestled a tornado. Her restlessness had been a constant ever since she was a toddler. It wasn’t unusual for Dani to wake up early for training and find her sister with her feet on the pillow or sliding halfway out of the bed. Dani smiled. Her little sister had grown. Their room felt smaller and smaller with each passing year. It hadn’t dawned on Sarah yet, but the thought lingered in the back of Dani’s mind that this was going to be her last birthday living in the Alpha’s cabin. Of course, that meant she would have more room; more independence. It also meant that she wouldn’t be coming back to the same room she’d called home for the past sixteen years. Not all changes were negative, but they were nonetheless, unavoidable changes. Hiding under her blankets like a child trying to escape a nightmare wouldn’t keep those changes away.

Outside, a soft breeze carried with it the sweet scent of flowers and wildberries. Dani’s usual routine would have her seek out breakfast in the dining hall, but upon exiting the Alpha’s cabin, she walked in the opposite direction instead, around the back of the cabin, through a narrow path that led to the river. Her pace was a lazy stroll, occasionally interrupted when she stopped to pick a couple of berries. By the time she reached the river’s edge, Dani had a handful of them, casually popping one in her mouth between steps. She followed the river until she reached a small stone bridge that curved over one of its branches. She dashed across the bridge and stopped on the other side with a soft snicker. When she was little running across that bridge felt like going up and down a giant hill. That same incline felt inconsequentially small to her now.

The trail on the other side of the bridge extended for a few miles and ended on a small valley. The area was beautifully unkempt. Tall grass and wildflowers covered the ground as far as the eye could see. Rows upon rows of engraved stone tablets peered out amongst the vegetation. Trampled grass created makeshift paths in between rows. Dani, followed one of them, popping another sweet berry in her mouth as she made her way to a particular Gravestone. The engraving, crudely etched onto the stone, read: Richard Preston, 2483 – 2509. She stopped in front of it and sat on the grass, breathing a soft sigh.

“Hey, dad.” Her greeting lingered in the air, unanswered. “Sorry I came in early. I guess that means I don’t get to tell you how my day went this year, but. . . I don’t know, I guess I was anxious. It’s been a strange year.” Dani looked away, putting another berry in her mouth distractedly as she searched for words. “It’s a nice morning, though. Mom said you liked spring the best. I’m still more of a fall kind of person. There’s nothing better than crunching a pile of leaves, is there?” She used her makeshift breakfast to stall for time, chewing slowly as she searched for words. “I . . . Okay, so . . . I asked mom. I asked her about the day you died. The Wolf Hunters, how that started; the whole thing. I know she didn’t want to talk about it but I had to, I needed answers. And now that I have them. I just don’t know,” she stopped, trying to swallow the knot forming in her throat, “I don’t know what I should do with it. Tom said no one can make me Beta or Alpha unless I accept. He said you’d tell me that if I don’t feel being Alpha is my rightful place, then I should say no. The problem is, how the hell am I supposed to know that? A couple of years ago, I just wanted to be able to shirk responsibility and not feel like I failed the entire clan, but now. . .” Dani groaned, tossing the few remaining berries away and watching as a couple of birds descended on them. She wiped her hand on her tunic and ran her fingers through her hair. “No one’s going to say it, but I can tell they need me to be ready for this. The more this conflict with the Hunters escalates the more I feel the clan looking to me like I’m their safety net. It makes me feel responsible, and I’m not sure if I want to be.”

Dani stared at the grave, almost hopeful, as if the gentle rustling of grass could suddenly transform into an answering whisper. No answer came. Dani shook her head, her chuckle broken by a choke. “Don’t know what I was expecting there.” Her laughter softened, then ceased with a soft exhale.

Dani had only been ten years old when she started coming here alone. Back then it felt more acceptable, more natural, to assume the grass could whisper, or that rocks could somehow speak for the dead. Her father’s voice had always been—always would be—a figment of her imagination. A game of pretend she played with herself. Another bout of stray, shaky laughter escaped as Dani wiped her eyes on her sleeve. She briefly glanced at the wet spot staining the fabric before letting her hand drop, holding her head up, and forcing a steadier breath.

“So that’s what’s been going on in my life the past year or so. How have you been?” she mumbled. “Is the weather nice down there?” She leaned back on her hands and looked up at the swaying tree branches hanging over the field, an easier smile gradually forming on her lips. “I bet you miss the fresh air, right? I’d miss feeling the breeze . . . The smell of grass and flowers. Also food. Food is great. Definitely worth living for. Lena and I went to this village, you know, to try to get some information on the Hunters and hmmm . . . They made some really great corn cakes. It’s a shame we can’t go back there anymore.”

Dani examined the grave with a sideways glance, laying down on the patch of crushed grass. The silence that permeated the air was heavy and comfortable, like a thick blanket. Warm rays of light spread out further over the graveyard with the passing of time as the sun rose higher. Sarah would be awake soon, and like it or not, Dani knew she wasn’t allowed to spend her birthday in complete solitude. Even if Lena would be willing to respect her space, Sarah knew no such boundaries. She sat up and stretched. “I should go. I don’t put it past Sarah to track me down this far. She’s persistent, that one.” Dani got on her feet and brushed stray blades of grass from her hair. “I love you, dad. See you next year.”

[Wolves Camp | Inviditas, 15th, 2525 | Midmorning]

Frantic, consistent knocks rose Lena from her first decent sleep in over a week. She groaned in frustration and tried to ignore, but of course it didn’t stop.

“Is someone hammering something?” Eldric muttered, his voice muffled on her shoulder.

“No. It’s Sarah.”

Eldric hummed. “Who gave the nine-year-old a hammer?”

Lena opened her eyes and gently elbowed him away so she could get up. “She’s just knocking on the door, you dope.”

Eldric groaned and rolled away. “She’s not gonna stop, is she?”

“No.” Lena sat up, rubbing her eyes. “It’s Dani’s birthday today.”

“Oh.” Eldric stretched with a tired yawn. “So you’re going up the river?”

“Yes.” Lena found a pair of slippers and left the room to finally get the door open. “Alright, I’m up, stop it.”

The knocking stopped, but upon opening the door Lena was met with the crossed arms and raised shoulders of an agitated nine-year-old. “What took you so long!”

“What do you think, Sarah? I was sleeping.”

Sarah frowned. “It’s the middle of the morning, you should be up by now.” She assessed Lena carefully, her expression softening. “Does your head hurt again?”

“No, I feel fine. I just wanted to sleep in. I thought Dani would be doing the same.” Lena made way for Sarah to enter the cabin. “Sit down for a bit. I need to change.”

Sarah entered and took a seat at the table. “Dani wasn’t home when I woke up and no one’s seen her around. I wanted to go look for her at the cemetery but dad said I’m not allowed to bother her there.”

“And he’s right. You don’t disturb someone when they’re at the cemetery. It doesn’t matter who. If Dani’s out there, she’ll be back soon.”

“I don’t understand why she has to go there every year,” Sarah said, tapping her foot against the floorboards.

“That’s a good thing,” Lena said. “People go to the cemetery to talk to people they’ve lost. Why they do it is up to them, but it’s like any other conversation: it’s rude to interrupt.”

Sarah hummed. “So, if anyone in the clan dies, they go to the cemetery, right?”

“I mean, they don’t go anywhere if they’re dead, but . . . They are buried there, yes.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “You know what I meant. Don’t be a word-mincer.”

Lena chuckled. “Word-mincer?”

Sarah shrugged. “Isn’t that what you call someone who picks other people’s words apart?”

“I guess it can be.” Lena shook her head and turned towards her bedroom door. “Just, sit there for a second and let me go change.”

Sarah paused for a moment, frowning, then asked: “Is your real mom there too?”

Lena froze with her hand on the door handle and, pushing past a moment of hesitation, answered, “She’s not my ‘real mom’, Sarah. But yes, she’s there too.”

Sarah shifted in her seat. “Oh. Birth mom, then?”

Lena relaxed with a soft sigh. “That’s more correct, yes. Think about it like this: am I your real sister?”

“Don’t be stupid. Of course you are,” Sarah scolded.

“Then, by that logic, who is my real mother?”

“. . . Mom is.”

“That’s right.” Lena opened her bedroom door. “Just wait a couple minutes and we’ll go see if Dani’s back.”

“Okay.”

Lena entered the bedroom and closed the door behind her back. Eldric was already out of bed and dressed for the day, occupied with the laces on his boots. “Are you alright?” he asked without looking up.

“I’m not so sure,” Lena admitted. “It’s complicated.”

“If she’s asking questions you don’t feel comfortable answering, you should let your mother handle it.” Eldric finished tying the laces and looked up. “There’s no reason for you to feel responsible. Most of it happened before you even existed. It’s their mess.”

Lena didn’t meet his eyes as she walked past the bed, focusing on fetching a change of clothes from. “It’s not about responsibility, El. I guess I just,” she paused, rummaging through her dresser’s contents while attempting to organize her thoughts. “As stupid as it may sound, I just want to be able to control the narrative for once. It is technically my past, right? So why have I never had a say on how, or under what circumstances, this story gets told? It’s alway something people find out about me sooner or later and no one ever questions whether I have anything to say about it.” She picked up her clothes and tossed them on the bed. “You’re right, it all happened before I even existed, but hey. . . I exist now.”

Eldric sat on the edge of the bed throughout her rambling, and Lena could feel his attention on her as she kicked off her slippers, the footwear slamming into the wall with a harsh thud. The wooden frame creaked under the thin mattress as he leaned more heavily into it. “I don’t think that sounds stupid. I understand,” he told her. “Sarah asked about the cemetery, right? Why don’t you take her there sometime? Just tell her the whole story, be straightforward like you would be about anything else. And if she asks how you feel, be honest about that too.”

Lena nodded, silent as she changed her clothes and put on her boots. Sarah’s impatient foot-tapping could be faintly heard coming from the other room. “What are you going to be doing today? She asked, sparing him a short glance.

Eldric sat up straighter, scratching the back of his head. “I don’t know yet. I think I’ll just go around camp and see what work needs to be done.”

“Mhm,” Lena mumbled, looking around for her hair brush. She spotted it on the floor, but as she bent down to get it, Eldric scooped it up instead. Lena reached to take the brush out of his hand and frowned when he pulled it away, concealing it behind his back. “Eldric, what are you doing? Give me that.”

He offered a calm smile. “I will, I just want you to pay attention to me for a second.”

“I’ve already been paying attention to you for fifteen seconds. Considering how you’re asking, I think that’s more than enough.”

Eldric shook his head, amused. “Why are you so damn stubborn, kid?” He held the hair brush out to her, but refused to let go when she grabbed it, pulling her into a hug. “I just want to remind you that you’re going to spend time with your sisters for Dani’s birthday. All this heavy subject matter will still be there tomorrow. Your sister will only turn sixteen today.”

Lena scoffed half-heartedly, the hug doing its job of mellowing her out. “You’re right. I know.”

Eldric’s smirked. “I’m always right.”

Lena shook her head and finally pulled the hairbrush out of his grip. “Just go on and be useful. I can’t leave Sarah waiting too long, she’ll get bored and start touching my stuff.”

Eldric chuckled and let go of the embrace. “Alright. Just remember to have fun today.”

“I will.” Lena smirked, raising her voice. “Careful crossing the living room. She’s bitey today.”

“Hey!” Sarah complained.

Eldric snorted. “Don’t provoke the kid like that. She already hates me.”

Lena withheld a headshake, running the brush through her hair. “Sarah doesn’t hate anyone, El. She’s just pouty about not getting more attention. It doesn’t have that much to do with you.”

“I don’t know, those dye pellets to the crotch felt awfully personal,” Eldric muttered, opening the bedroom door. “I’ll see you later.”

“Later. Remember to have fun too.”

Eldric shook his head as he walked out into the living room, offering Sarah a casual greeting as he walked past. The fact her sister refused to utter a response wasn’t lost on Lena and she added this animosity to the growing list of topics she’d need to address as soon as possible. With her hair finally done, she left the room as well. “Alright, squirt. Let’s go see if Dani’s back yet and, if you want to go fishing you know what we’re going to need.”

Sarah jumped out of her seat, ready to get going, and then immediately lost her excitement. “Ugh, worms. Gross.”

Lena smiled, leading the way out of the cabin. “The fish don’t think so.”

“Why can’t fish like fruit?” Sarah complained, kicking up dirt as she followed Lena down the path to camp. “Why do they have to eat live things?”

“I don’t know. I mean, if you really think about it, is it that much better for us to eat dead things?”

“I’m becoming a vegetarian.” Sarah declared, disgust clear on her face.

“That’ll be over next time there’s mince pie for dinner and you know it.”

Sarah let out an exaggerated groan of defeat. “You’re right. Ground up animal corpses are too delicious. I’m not strong enough to resist.”

“Then you shouldn’t judge the fish. Worms are like mince pie to them.”

Lena stopped as they reached the center of camp and glanced around the central clearing. It was late enough into the morning that there was constant movement between Instructors and Recruits heading out to the training grounds, Workers busying themselves with whatever was necessary to keep the encampment running, and Actives making preparations to leave on their next assignment; same as any other morning. Upon first glance Dani was nowhere in the area. “Alright, why don’t you go get your fishing pole and whatever else you want to bring? I’ll go look for Dani and grab some food in the mess hall. We can meet back at my house and start going up the river from there.”

Sarah nodded, her “Okay!” already distant as she ran off to grab her things.

[Valcrest Forest | Inviditas, 15th, 2525 | Early Afternoon]

The heat of the early-afternoon sun was offset by a cool breeze. The smell of sweet berries and herbal tea mixed with the earthy scent of damp grass emanating from underneath their picnic blanket. Dani’s favorite fishing spot was a grassy field upstream from camp. The area was just outside their territory, but still deep enough into the forest—and close enough to the clan’s protection—for them to feel at ease. The stronger current made fish sprier there and if not for Sarah’s insistence in tossing them back into the water, they would be going home with a decent haul by the end of the day. Dani complained that all they were doing was fattening up the fish for someone else to eat, but the nine-year-old was adamant in allowing them to live another day. Sensing that their little argument might escalate, Lena diffused the situation with a suggestion. She and Dani could play a few hands of Olith and leave the fish to fend for themselves. Sarah’s enthusiasm was obvious compared to Dani, but she agreed to the game, recognizing that upsetting her would potentially sour their entire afternoon together.

Sarah rushed to get her Olith deck and box of tokens from her bag and they all sat together on the grass, under the shade of an oak tree. Lena didn’t usually partake in card games, so, in order to avoid any further arguments, took it upon herself to deal their first hand. They each received seven cards, appraised what they had, and made their starting bets. After that, Dani had a choice to make; try for a military or diplomatic approach. Military hands were easier to make as they utilized the number cards; which she had plenty of, but they could be easily trumped by Diplomatic or Divine hands. She could either keep her number cards and hope she can build a strong enough hand with those to win, or… Relinquish all of her number cards and hope for a Diplomatic hand instead. Dani looked up, Sarah had already exchanged two of her cards and was unabashedly enjoying her struggle. Dani snorted and turned in her five number cards, hoping for the best. Lena dealt her replacement cards and left them to it, turning her attention to a book she had brought. Dani examined her newly-dealt hand and held back a smile. Once again Sarah was waiting for her to make a move.

“Dani, come on. In or out? Why are you taking so long?”

Dani glanced at Sarah from behind her fan of playing cards, eyes narrowing. Her sister’s expression was uncharacteristically stoic as she sat lazily on the grass, cards resting face down beside her. Dani focused her attention back on her own hand with a mutter.

“I’m thinking.”

“Thinking is for chess. This is Olith; you either have a hand or you don’t.” Sarah smirked. “I’m thinking you probably don’t or you would have called by now.”

“Funny, I’m thinking that since you’re being so cocky, I should probably raise.”

Sarah stared her down, unmoved. “You wouldn’t. You don’t have the balls.”

“Excuse me, what?” Lena interjected, glancing at them from behind the pages of her book.

Dani had been doing a good job of keeping a straight face so far, but Sarah’s innocent “What?” finally caused her to break into hysterics.

Lena glared at Dani, keeping her tone even. “Sarah, where did you get that from?”

“Uhm, from watching some of the older boys play last week.”

Lena pinched the bridge of her nose. “Alright, that shouldn’t surprise me. Just . . . Don’t go around repeating everything they say.”

“What’s wrong with what I said?”

Lena hummed, looking out into the river. “Well . . .”

Dani managed to control her laughter in time to cut in. “Balls are ‘boy parts’, you know, private parts. It’s a rude thing to say.” She chuckled, toying with her pile of tokens. “You are right though, I don’t have them, but I am going to raise you.”

“Daniela,” Lena scolded.

“What?” Dani shrugged, tossing her token down on the grass between Sarah and herself. “She’s not too young to understand there are boy parts and girl parts.”

“That makes no sense,” Sarah muttered, tossing her own tokens on the grass to cover the bet.

“Of course it does,” Dani answered. “See, boys have—”

“Not that!” Sarah laughed. “I know about that. I mean, it makes no sense to say that if you want to call someone a coward. If no girls have balls that would mean all girls are cowards. Which is stupid.”

“Stop saying ‘balls’.” Lena warned.

“You just said it yourself,” Sarah argued. “Don’t be so hyper-critical.”

Dani chuckled. “I think you mean ‘hypocritical’, squirt.”

“Oh.” Sarah turned to Dani, inquisitively. “What’s the difference?”

“Hypocritical is when you criticize someone for something that you do yourself, which . . . Lena can be sometimes. Hyper-critical is when you just criticize people a lot; which is something Lena is all of the time.”

“Hey,” Lena objected. “Not all of the time.”

“Helena, I bet one day your gravestone will read ‘actually, this is why you’re wrong’.”

Lena shook her head, trying to disguise a trace of laughter. “Alright you two . . . First of all, I only tell people they’re wrong, when they are. I don’t see how that’s my fault. Second, I’m a grown adult and I can say ‘balls’ as much as I damn please.”

Sarah arched an eyebrow. “Is it any less rude if an adult says it?”

Dani shook her head. “No, but see . . . If an adult does something rude, they have to face adult consequences for it. You’re a child, you’re mostly exempt from those consequences, but you also have to obey the adults in your life.”

Sarah frowned. “Ugh, does that mean I have to obey you now?”

“Technically, yes.” Dani shrugged. “It’s not a great deal for me either, kiddo. Now I’m responsible for you too, you know?”

“Oh, so . . . If I do something wrong, you could get in trouble too?”

Dani shook her head. “Before you start getting any ideas in your head, no, it’s not exactly like that. It’s a little more complicated, which is why we should probably stop talking about this stuff.” She gestured towards Sarah’s cards. “Show me what you have.”

Sarah collected her cards from the grass. “You’re talking about ‘adult consequences’.”

“Mhm.” Dani smiled. “Don’t make me say it.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “I’ll understand when I’m older.”

“Exactly.” Dani smirked. “Come on, are you gonna show me your hand or not? You were all talk just a couple of minutes ago.”

Sarah smirked. “You raised, why don’t you show your hand first?”

“Alright, sure.” Dani lowered her cards, laying them face up on the grass. “I have a Peace Treaty. Five Queens backed by Knights.”

Sarah appraised the displayed card with an impressed hum. “That’s a solid hand. I probably would have raised too if I was holding one of those.”

Dani frowned. “You have a Divine Hand, don’t you?”

Sarah lowered her cards with a satisfied grin. “Five Twins of different suits. That’s a Holy Fist!”

Dani groaned. “Ugh, you absolute brat.”

“I was going for a full Pantheon, but I didn’t have time to switch out the last two cards while you were busy laughing.” Sarah’s grin was unwavering as she collected the tokens.

Dani shook her head in disbelief. “I can’t believe you won’t even let me win on my birthday.”

“Humility is a gift,” Sarah told her, nodding along to her own words, her grin widening as she added: “Happy birthday.”

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