The Heart of The Forest 2.13

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[Wolves Camp | Otium 7th, 2525 |Before Sunrise]

The pleasant sweet-scented breezes—a constant over the past few months—abruptly gave way to a dense, humid stillness overnight. With every step towards the training grounds, Lena’s breaths weighed heavier on her lungs. The sun wouldn’t rise for a couple hours still, but unease drew her out of bed earlier than usual. Her trek to their regular meeting spot was slow and introspective. When Lena was offered the position of Instructor a year and a half ago, it was specifically to take charge of Dani’s training. According to their mother, she was bright, an exceptionally quick learner, and in many ways a natural, but something was holding her back and Claire’s attempts to reach her had only caused Dani to shut down ever further. It was a last resort; this arrangement. The only thing left to try before their mother was forced to consider Dani’s training concluded, yet insufficient. It was a gamble that paid off. However, now Lena had reached a point in her sister’s training where she was forced to admit there was nothing left for Dani to learn within the confines of a training regimen. Unbeknownst to Dani, this would be their final spar. Her training was concluded. Whether or not it was sufficient, was yet to be determined.

The training grounds consisted of multiple clearings interconnected by narrow trails. Each clearing served as its own contained training area. Instructors were given autonomy over these areas and what type of training to conduct in them. Lena already set up a few surprises for this final session the previous night. All she had left to do was wait for sunrise.

Six years ago, in that same clearing, their mother enrolled Lena to be Dani’s first sparring partner. They’d both been just children, then. It was Dani’s first time wielding a training sword and Lena was only a few months away from graduation. To say they were unevenly matched would be a huge understatement. Her mother’s stern reminder on that day had since become her mantra.

“Remember, if you hold out your hand every time she falls, she’ll never learn to stand on her own.”

At first, Lena couldn’t bring herself to punish Dani’s mistakes with anything beyond meager strikes. Claire said nothing of this, but Lena felt her mother’s disapproval simmering in the air as she observed the spar. It wasn’t the fact she was ignoring instructions, but that she understood why doing so was a disservice. Dani was there to learn.

Forced resignation guided her hand. The training sword struck the side of Dani’s face with a harsh sound. Not hard enough to cause serious harm, but enough to knock her down and create a bruise across one cheek.

Dani was always a tough child. Most setbacks didn’t faze her, and neither did injuries. She’d scraped her knees and hands, fallen off branches, she even broke her wrist swinging from one branch, all without a single tear shed. Despite being nothing compared to the pain of a broken wrist, the blow of the training sword left her rattled. Her eyes were bright as she picked herself up. And when their mother asked if she wanted to continue, her voice quivered. “Y-yeah. I’m fine.”

It was a painful lesson for them both. Dani’s bruises faded within a few days, but the resentment over the spar took far longer to wane. With forgiveness came the understanding that, like it or not, some aspects of their relationship needed to change. As training progressed, they continued to change. And as training concluded, they would change even further.

Lena sat on a patch of grass, closed her eyes, inhaled the pleasant earthy smell that rose from the damp soil, and tried to clear her mind as much as possible. The sun would rise soon.

[Wolves Camp | Otium 7th, 2525 |Sunrise]

The heavy atmosphere and dull, grey skies announced the oncoming storm. Dani could feel it before even getting out of bed. Stuffy air and humidity permeated her room. Her sleeping clothes stuck to her body, damp with sweat. As dangerous as storms in the forest could be, Dani usually enjoyed them. The hours leading up to them, however? Not so much. She forced herself out of bed with a groan, dragging her feet out of the room to go wash up and change. On the way to the mess hall for breakfast she observed Workers and volunteers attempting to secure the camp as much as possible by taking down weak branches in the camp’s vicinity and adding reinforcements to older buildings that weren’t yet repaired. Even with all available Wolves at work, they were unlikely to cover the entire camp, and if Dani wasn’t scheduled for training, she would be helping as well.

Under normal circumstances, Dani would suggest that Lena call off their session, but the moment Lena allowed her a whopping three days’rest after her last session with Matthison, she had a feeling this one was going to be different. That was too much downtime, without an apparent reason. She tried to make the most of that time, of course. Not only to heal the exhaustion and pain from Wayne’s endless sparring sessions, but also the mental toll of dealing with the man’s unrelenting disapproval.

The dining hall was quieter than usual. Dani assumed most people had gotten up and gone straight to work on securing the camp. If the storm caught them off guard, things would be a lot worse. Only a few families were present; tired parents fussing over their children’s breakfast choices. One of the smaller children in the room was having a fit over the insufficient amount of sugar he was allowed in his oatmeal. Dani couldn’t blame the kid, she’d never take oatmeal without at least a half a cup of honey mixed in. She chose a fruit bowl for herself, taking the time to greet the kitchen workers and pushing back annoyance when Larissa cheerfully mentioned they finally found a replacement for the stew pot she’d accidentally ruined. Good. Maybe now people would finally stop bringing it up.

The abundance of empty seats that morning allowed Dani the opportunity to sit by herself for once, but as she walked past one of the smaller tables, a cheerful wave drew her gaze to a smiling woman sitting at one of the corner tables with her young son. Dani knew her from a young age, initially as the lady who would come over to tell her stories and tuck her into bed during times where her parents were preoccupied with the clan’s affairs, and later as the dotting wife of the man she constantly aggravated trying to sneak daggers from the armory. Her initial thoughts of solitude brushed aside, Dani smiled and walked over to sit across from them. “Philippa. Fancy seeing you here of all places.”

Philippa smiled softly. “I was about to say the same. I hear most Instructors cancelled training sessions today.”

“I’d be surprised if Lena allowed forces of nature to interfere with my suffering.” Dani smiled, ruefully, as she poked around her fruit platter. “I assume tutoring was cancelled too?”

“Mhm. Your mother wants all capable adults to help with preparations. Minimize the damage as much as possible.”

Dani smirked. “Capable adults, huh? Guess that rules me out right there.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. I’d say you’ve come a long way from the toddler I once knew.”

“I don’t know if it’s been that long.” Dani mused, finally deciding on a piece of fruit. As she chewed, she turned her attention to Philippa’s son. The boy was almost the spitting image of his father; the same dark eyes and dark hair, similar mannerisms . . . In fact, he was glaring at his bowl of oatmeal as though it was trying to run off with his favorite dagger. “How’s it going, little Bana? Trying to glare that oatmeal into submission, are we?”

The boy put down his spoon and looked up at her, then briefly glanced at his mother as if accusing her of treason for putting him in this position to start with. “You know my name is Evin.” He glowered. “And yes.”

Dani chuckled. “If you let it get cold, it’s only going to taste even worse.”

Evin picked up the spoon with a grimace and prodded the lukewarm mush in his bowl. “I guess.”

“Look at it this way; eating food you find gross is an important survival skill.”

Evin paused in contemplation, stirring the oatmeal further. “So . . . They’re making it gross on purpose?”

Dani snorted, trying but ultimately failing to hold back a burst of laughter. “You know, I never thought about that. Wouldn’t surprise me if they were.”

Evin dropped the spoon into the bowl with a hard clink and turned to his mother. “If I take an apple, may I be excused?”

Philippa nodded. “Of course.”

Evin jumped out of his seat, all too eager to leave the bowl of, maybe intentionally disgusting oats behind, only held back by his mother’s gentle grasp on his shoulder.

“I don’t want you to stray too far today, as soon as the wind starts picking up, I want you to come straight home. No matter what Perry has to say about it. Are we understood?”

Evin nodded and ran off, only stopping to grab an apple on the way out of the hall. Dani shook her head, amused. “Mom would have made me sit there until I finished it. You don’t waste food.”

“Evin would sit here all day; storm or no storm. As important as that lesson may be, helping secure the camp is a more productive use of my time today.”

“Good point.” Dani hummed thoughtfully. “Perry . . . I wonder if that’s the same kid Sarah keeps complaining about.”

“Probably. He’s about Sarah’s age. He’s a good boy, but he’s older than Evin and seems to have the same regard for rules as you used to at that age,” Philippa said with a small grin.

“That bad, is it?”

The woman chuckled softly. “You weren’t that bad, just a child being a child. What has Sarah been complaining so much about, though?”

“He’s smug about beating her at games. That’s her one complaint, but, it’s a constant. If I didn’t know any better I’d think he’s doing it to get a rise out of her.”

Philippa hummed, toying with her empty tea cup. “Maybe he is. That’s how childhood infatuation begins sometimes.”

“I’m positive Sarah would be appalled at the implication,” Dani laughed. “Either way, it seems harmless enough.” She finished her last pieces of fruit and set the bowl aside. “I should get going. I’m running late and if that storm comes sooner rather than later, I don’t want to be caught in it.”

[Wolves Camp | Otium 7th, 2525 |After Sunrise]

The sun had been up for, Lena assumed, at least a half hour when the sound of rushed footsteps and ragged breathing disturbed her meditative state. It was no surprise Dani was late; punctuality was never her strongest suit, but today of all days the delay would cost her. Lena opened her eyes with a deep calming breath and stood to greet her sister. Dani appeared seconds later, red-faced and disheveled. “You know you’re supposed to be here at sunrise and not ‘at any minute after sunrise’, right?”

“I know, I’m sorry. I ran into Philippa in the mess hall and got a little sidetracked.” Dani leaned into her knees, trying to steady her breaths. “I . . . I don’t know why you didn’t call the session off. Everyone else is helping secure the camp.”

“I know.” Lena walked over to where she left her gear and retrieved a water flask, holding it out for Dani to take. “Here. You need to regain your composure before we begin.”

Dani accepted the flask and drank eagerly. As she returned it, her breaths softened. “Alright, so clearly, calling this off and helping around camp like everyone else is out of the question. Are you going to tell me why?”

Lena turned away to dispose of the now-empty flask, her statement matter-of-fact: “I have nothing more to teach you.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Genuine confusion mixed with a poorly contained undertone of hurt. Dani’s words didn’t tremble the same way they had during that first spar six years ago, but it came across just as vulnerable.

“You still have a lot to learn. You’re a kid; still too immature, still a little more reckless than it would be advised. Try as you might, you lack any real understanding of the weight you’re expected to bear moving forward.” Lena kept her back to Dani, going through some of the equipment she’d brought with her earlier in the morning. “Those are things I can’t teach you. No one can. I’m only here to determine whether or not you excel in everything else, because then . . . There’s a good enough chance you’ll survive those lessons as they come.” One by one, Lena carefully laid out an assortment of different blades on the ground between the two of them, meeting Dani’s eyes at last. “Pick one.”

Dani’s gaze fell on each individual weapon, assessing. Whatever her concerns about the storm, or hurt over Lena’s assessment of her abilities pushed aside in favor of this one minor task. “You said you have nothing more to teach me. So this is the end of my training?”

“Your training is, for all intents and purposes, already over. There’s only one thing left . . .” Lena let the sentence trail off as she collected her own sword.

Dani nodded, eyes fixed on a pair of long daggers. “Whether I excel in everything else or not.”

“Mhm.” Lena smiled. “The longer it takes for you to make a decision the longer we’ll stay out here. I think the sky is getting darker.”

Dani briefly glared at her, but picked up the daggers, pushing the other options aside with her foot. “What are the terms of this spar?”

“Anything goes. We fight until I yield,” Lena said, waiting to make sure the words registered.

“Until you yield. So I can’t end the fight if I want to?” Dani asked, feeling the weight of the daggers in her hands.

“No. You can end the fight whenever you want. Actually, you can leave now if you want. Your training is over.”

Dani scoffed. “But if I do, I won’t graduate. Is that it?”

“How am I supposed to look mom in the eyes and tell her, without a doubt, that you’re prepared for this if you refuse to show me?” Lena moved the rejected weaponry fully out of the way. “Your indecision, Daniela, your self-doubt, those have always been the only obstacles to you becoming a Wolf. And to your merit, I’ve seen you make progress this year, but I’m not convinced that’s enough. I’m not convinced that you won’t go out there and choke.”.

******

Lena’s words burned in a way Dani hadn’t been able to anticipate. The force behind her initial strike was the culmination of every unshed tear, every bruise suffered, every morning and afternoon dedicated to overcoming aches and exhaustion. Furious and mindless—like a wounded animal whose only response to pain is lashing out. Lena merely stepped out of the way of her blades, Dani’s recklessness punished with a precise slash to the forearm. If they were fighting until first blood, it would have been a swift ending.

Dani took a step back to compose herself. The pain didn’t faze her as much as it brought back memories. Of being small compared to her sister. Of being made to feel her every mistake. Of biting down frustration upon frustration. The intrinsic truth that she was, at one point, less of a challenge than a training dummy. Her sight blurred and refocused with a steadying breath. Shadows moved across the ground as dark clouds swirled above their heads. The air was suffocating static. Dani forced a deeper breath and raised her head, meeting her sister’s eyes instead of looking down like a scorned child.

Lena had a reputation for being an effective killer, but she wasn’t particularly known for her swordswomanship, or as a fighter in general. She wasn’t even known to fight. It occurred to Dani that what she knew of her sister’s abilities so far was the bare minimum required during their training sessions. As she stood there, unnervingly tranquil, awaiting her next move, it dawned on Dani how easily her temper would have gotten her killed had Lena intended it.

Another deep breath. A soothing breath. Dani forced herself to regain control of her own senses, to relax her grips on the daggers. She struck again, this time with focus, and precision. Like before, her blades whiffed effortlessly through the air, but met no metal. However, this time when Lena swung her sword, Dani blocked it with her left dagger, not wasting time in striking with her right. Lena backed away from the blow, and the next one, and the one after that. With every dodge she took a couple of steps back, or to the side. Despite being on the offense the entire time, it wasn’t lost on Dani that Lena was leading her around wherever she wanted in the process. Her attempts to shift that dynamic, wrestle control away from her sister, only resulted in more injuries.

Lena was a chess player. She fought, Dani concluded, in the same way she played; with ruthless, calculated precision. Every ache forming in her muscles, every drop of sweat trickling down into her eyes, every stumble and every slash of blade that followed, was premeditated. Lena had no intention—or need—to end this fight quickly. And Dani was just a king getting chased into the corner of the board.

Something snapped under Dani’s right foot and as she felt rope coil around her ankles she mentally cursed herself for not predicting it. The feeling of being swept off her feet wasn’t new at this point. She pushed back against the panicked sensation in the pit of her stomach, against the instinct to drop her weapons and flail her arms. This time she couldn’t afford to waste time in cutting herself down, or lying on the ground wallowing in self pity. She scrambled back to her feet with a groan, just in time to avoid whatever it was the whooshed past her head. A small blade embedded itself into the soil where she’d been lying just a second ago. Lena was nowhere in sight. “Throwing knives.” She muttered, lifting her head and yelling at her surroundings: “You have throwing knives?”

The complaint was drowned out by a rumble of thunder and, of course, no answer came. Branches cracked above her head as they bent from a sudden gust of wind. Dani snorted, muttering under her breath as she headed into the wood. “Oh, I’ll make you yield, alright . . .”

The wind’s merciless assault on the forest masked the sound of Dani’s footsteps. It also made navigating the woods an absolute nightmare of flailing branches, forcing her to duck and cover her head in order to protect her eyes. The inability to see where she was going, or what may be lurking in her surroundings made Dani feel like prey. Lena couldn’t control or predict the weather, but it was undoubtedly working to her advantage.

She was walking against resistance. A loud snap and a thunderous crash in the distance announced the storm’s first fallen tree. Dani pressed on, trying to ignore the thought that it could have just as easily come crashing down on either of their heads. A subtler sound followed, a gentle crunch of grass behind her back; almost imperceptible underneath the howling winds and moaning trees. Dani spun around, throwing one of her daggers at the sound. It met Lena’s sword handle first, but the reaction bought her time to cut the distance between them, and strike. That was all Dani needed. One momentary lapse she could exploit. It wasn’t enough to break through Lena’s guard altogether, but enough to gain control for the first time.

The clash of metal harmonized with the rumble of thunder and a closer crash of lighting. Deep howls yelled out as the wind swerved between trees, splintering wood in its wake. A solitary raindrop landed on Dani’s head—cold and almost as heavy as the dye pellets they’d used for training. Another soon followed, two or three more, and then the sky itself seemed to crash into the earth with a deafening sound. The unrelenting force of the downpour staggered them both on first impact. Dani recovered faster and, as impulsive as Lena had accused her of being, chose to collide head on with her still-armed sister in an effort to knock her off her feet. The impact disturbed every bruise and every cut she suffered in the past hours. That pain amplified as both her and Lena hit the now-muddy ground. Lena’s sword escaped her grasp and Dani caught it before she was able to recover and scramble for it. Dani rolled aside and rose to her feet, using Lena’s own sword to pin her to the ground, the tip of the weapon pressed against her throat. “Yield,” she rasped.

Lena held her eyes, defiant. The scuffle had left her just as breathless, but a smirk played at the corners of her lips. “And what if I won’t?”

Training was over. Dani felt in her hand the amount of pressure the blade exerted on her sister’s flesh. Not enough to wound, not even enough to break skin, far from being deadly whatsoever. What if she won’t? “Lena . . . Yield.”

The smirk turned to a grin.

Dani felt her stomach churn as she added the smallest increment of pressure she could get away with. “Yield.” Please. She pushed the blade further, but not enough to bleed. Nothing. “Twins . . . Curse you to hell . . . YIELD!” Her voice cracked, the water welling up in her eyes was a warm contrast to the cold onslaught of rain, but her hand remained steady as she pushed the tip of the sword past the layer of skin, pausing there, the request wordless this time. When there was, again, no response, she pushed further and a trickle of blood trailed from the cut before instantly washing away from the rain.

If it hurt, Lena didn’t show it; not a flinch, not a twist in her expression. In fact, she laughed. A deep airy laugh, almost relieved. “I yield.”

Dani pulled the sword away and let it fall to the ground. The dagger followed. Whatever nervous, chaotic energy had been fueling her this far immediately drained from her drenched body, leaving an exhausted stupor in its wake.

“Dani,” Lena called, her tone gentle. Dani hummed, fruitlessly wiping the water from her eyes before looking at her sister. Lena held out her hand and she took it, helping her up to her feet despite the multitude of aches it stirred. Once standing, Lena pulled her close and wrapped her in a tight hug. “It’s okay, you’re okay.”

Dani’s first instinct was to pull away from her sister, but as Lena held her in place she eventually returned the embrace. The comforting gesture wrung a sudden, undignified sob from her. Around them, the storm continued to rage and build momentum, the forest helplessly bending to its fury. She forced her breaths to settle. “We should get back before a tree comes down on our heads.”

Lena released her with a chuckle. “You know mom will still put you to work, no matter how stabbed and beaten you look, right?”

Dani shrugged, picking up the weapons she’d dropped on the floor and holding Lena’s sword out for her to take. “I’ll live.”

Lena slipped the sword back into its sheath with an amused mumble. “Yeah. I think you might.”

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