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[The Heart of The Forest | Duellum 14th | Sunrise]
Eldric watched the first rays of sunlight infiltrate the wooden cabin. That he was seeing the light of another day at all came down to dumb luck. The other members of his crew were older; experienced. The only reason he’d been sent out was his accuracy with the bow and arrow. It hadn’t been worth much in the end.
His arrival gave cause for a meeting behind closed doors. When he recounted the night’s events, he’d had the Alpha, Beta, and all the clan’s instructors for an audience. Above anything else, Eldric wished his father wasn’t sitting there among them.
The briefing, if one could even call it that, was followed by fierce discussion. More so on the part of the instructors. Eldric kept his head down, brow creased, eyes studying the floorboards. A couple of the veterans in the room were of the opinion Eldric shouldn’t have run away. He should have fought if it meant meeting the same fate as the others. In part, he felt they had a point.
The voices surrounding him blurred into a jumbled mess of anger and panic, speaking at the highest possible volume, and saying nothing. There were only two people in that room whose words actually stood for something in a moment like this, and they had both remained unnervingly silent since the meeting began. Eldric’s age and rank left him as the least experienced in the room, but he’d known the leaders for his entire life. It was in their nature to let others voice their frustrations.
“That’s quite enough, the lot of you. Your ancestors would be ashamed.” The outburst made Eldric glance up at the speaker. Wayne Matthison was the eldest Instructor in the room. One too many skirmishes—one too many trips to the Newhaven dungeons—his head wasn’t what it used to be, but unlike many others, he lived to the age of sixty. “The Wolf Hunters have become the threat mothers hang over their children’s heads so as not to sneak into the woods after hours. At what point did we forget there is no such thing as ghosts lurking in this forest? At what point did you forget that all living things bleed the same? We are not indestructible. Neither are they. The moment we start placing blame on a mere boy for our collective failures, is the day these people destroy everything we claim to stand for!”
The silence that followed Wayne’s speech was charged. Every second rang like the scratch of a matchstick next to a powder keg.
“Thank you, Wayne.” The Alpha’s tone was soft on the surface, pacifyingly even, but its undertone was harsh. “You may be seated, if you please.”
Wayne Matthison refused to take his seat, he leaned into the meeting room table with a sneer. “Your father would never have allowed this nonsense to escalate.”
“Matthison, enough.” Thomas Wendell, the clan’s second-in-command; the Beta, wasn’t an easy man to anger. And it had always been crystal clear to Eldric that he wasn’t a man anyone should ever strive to anger either.
“Tom.” The Alpha kept her tone soft, one hand reaching for her husband’s arm. “I would appreciate it if you could sit down and allow me to handle this.”
Thomas returned to his seat at her request, but kept his eyes on Matthison still.
“Thank you.” Claire Wendell was pure restraint. In a lifetime of knowing the Alpha, Eldric could count on one hand the times he’d heard her raise her voice. However, looking down on her as Matthison did was, all the same, unwise. “Wayne… Unless you’ve suddenly developed the ability to raise the dead, or manipulate time in order to undo my father’s death, I suggest you sit down and reflect on the usefulness of that statement.” Her tone lowered to a stern warning. “Alternatively, you can excuse yourself from this meeting.”
Matthison held the Alpha’s gaze and gradually his posture shifted, his expression changing from outrage to embarrassment. The man lowered himself to his chair in silence, eyes cast across the table top.
The silence that befell the room now was expectant, all eyes on the Alpha in search of guidance; or even some reassurance. Eldric couldn’t understand why someone would envy her position. When Claire addressed the room, her tone hadn’t changed from the one Wayne had received. “I want to make one thing perfectly clear before we move on to more productive discussion…” Her gaze moved from one individual to another. “There are no circumstances where an individual would be of better service to this clan dead rather than alive. If I hear any such implications again, I will personally ensure each and every one of you is disciplined.” She ignored the collective squirm that followed and carried on speaking. “With that out of the way, it is undeniable that the Wolf Hunters have and do pose a serious threat. While Wayne was correct in stressing the fact that they are only human and by no means indestructible, it would be irresponsible to underestimate these people, considering the damage they have already caused. Twice before we thought they were dealt with, only to see them resurface again. And now, if Eldric’s assessment is correct, not only are they getting bolder in their attacks, they’re also recruiting.”
“I don’t think that was intentional,” Thomas chimed in. “The boy Eldric described was young, and positioned out of the way of any actual fighting; as though he was there merely as an spectator. That would also explain why they’ve been so quiet for the past few months.”
“They don’t sound the sort to be harboring orphans out of the goodness of their hearts.” Eldric glanced briefly at his father as he spoke up, then cast his eyes back down.
“We don’t know what sort they are, Reuben.” Claire’s tone was, again, perfectly restrained. “What we all need to acknowledge, is that this is a problem we ourselves created. We allowed these people to survive us in the past and it made them more efficient. It’s a mistake we should avoid making again in the future.”
Eldric winced where he sat.
“In this case, however, I think it might have worked in our favor.”
“What do you mean?” Eldric questioned before he was able to stop himself.
Claire locked eyes with him. “It means, Fletcher, that having a group of expert hunters suddenly tethered to mistake-prone teenagers may as well work in our favor. Any group is, after all, only as strong as its weakest link.”
Eldric’s father snorted. “And we’re supposed to sit and wait for them to make more mistakes?”
“No, Reuben. In the meantime, Tom and I are going to thoroughly investigate how they’ve been able to intercept our actives. There’s clearly been a security breach somewhere.”
Thomas nodded. “In fact, we have been taking measures for the past few months. Starting by replacing the staff at both Inns.”
Eldric frowned at the news. “You don’t think…?”
“No one is under suspicion as of yet,” Claire answered. “Least of all your brother, Eldric. You don’t need to worry. However, we may discuss this further in private if you would like.”
Eldric nodded. “Please.”
“Very well,” Claire addressed the group of Instructors. “You are all excused for the time being. Try to catch up on some sleep after paying your respects.”
One by one the Instructors rose from their seats, none of them too pleased. They were likely to be assaulted with questions they had no answers for at this time. One by one they exited the meeting room, with parting nods and mumbled goodbyes. All but one. Eldric withheld a groan when he saw his father was still lingering by the door.
“Reuben, I would very much like to speak to Eldric alone now.”
Reuben crossed his arms over his chest, standing firmly in place. “Why was I not informed Emmett was being called back to camp?”
“Tom and I made the decision not to disclose the staff changes at the Inn. And while that’s not exactly the reason we’ve called him back, we decided it was best to omit the information as well.”
“What do you mean, Claire?”
“Emmett is a fantastic recruiter, Reuben. That’s mostly due to how easily he’s able to reach people; a quality many Instructors currently in our roster seem to lack. I decided his abilities would serve the clan better here than in Newhaven.”
“And he accepted the position?” Reuben said with a scoff.
“He wasn’t enthusiastic, mind you, but yes.” Claire smiled knowingly. “I’m sure you’ll have plenty to talk about once he arrives.”
Reuben once again scoffed and gave no response, choosing to exit the meeting room at last.
Claire watched him leave with a mix of amusement and frustration. “Tom, would you mind keep an eye on things for the next half hour or so?”
Thomas nodded and rose from his seat as well. Once he left and the door closed behind him, Eldric let go of a deep breath. He knew that it probably wasn’t a good sign that the Alpha wanted to speak to him alone, but it was still better than being under the scrutinizing eyes of so many of his elders.
“First of all, Fletcher, I want you to be made aware that I’m putting you under a two-month suspension from active duty, starting now.”
Eldric flinched. “You said…”
“I said the situation worked in our favor, not that you did the right thing. You shouldn’t have volunteered for a mission you weren’t prepared to carry out regardless of circumstance.”
“If that’s what you want everyone else to think, far from me to tell them otherwise, but don’t insult my intelligence. I know very well what you’re capable of.”
Eldric leaned back in his seat and ran both hands over his eyes. “He was just a kid. Thirteen, fourteen at most.”
“In theory, I would say your attitude is admirable, but as is… You’re lucky to still be alive.”
Eldric muttered softly into his hands.
“I would call it luck, and so should you.” Claire leaned into her elbows. “Don’t take this as punishment, Eldric. Take it as an opportunity to spend some time with friends, be an extra hand around the encampment. You don’t want to be out there in the aftermath of something like this.”
Eldric let his hands drop with a sullen nod. “Yes, of course.”
Claire glanced past him at the closed door. “I’m sure your father will have a thing or two to say about how you performed in this mission. And if so… You would do well to remind him that more experienced Wolves have not been able to come home last night.”
Eldric shook his head with a bitter chuckle. “I don’t think I have the energy to go through that whole argument with him. Might be easier to just nod and let him think I agree.”
“It sounds like a fine short-term strategy, but keep in mind that it won’t continue to work indefinitely.”
“When Emmett comes home he’ll have someone else to disapprove of.” Eldric glanced over his shoulder at the door as well. He wanted to go and try to catch some sleep, but he knew that once he stepped out of the Alpha’s cabin, everyone would want to ask him questions.
“You are more than welcome to hide out here until everyone is feeling a little less… Agitated.”
Eldric once again nodded. No one had gotten much sleep last night and the camp was, as Claire herself put it, agitated. He wasn’t looking forward to being the center of it all if he could avoid it. “Thank you.”
Claire stood from her seat and walked around the table to lay a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll have some food brought in for you and a bed roll. I’m sure by the end of today, things will have calmed down.” She gave his shoulder a firm squeeze before withdrawing her hand. “I’ll be right back.”
“Thank you,” Eldric repeated in a mumble. The door opened and closed behind his back, leaving him alone for the first time since he’d made it back to camp. His ears were ringing from hours of listening to people shouting over one another. He knew that meeting had only served the purpose of allowing the Instructors to vent their frustrations so they could go out composed and tell the others not to panic. It sure was a fine short-term strategy.
Eldric shook his head and leaned in to rest his chin against the tabletop. Underneath it, he toyed with the silver band on his left ring finger. Admirable as his mistakes had been in theory, he would make sure not to repeat them in the future. Dumb luck wasn’t going to save him twice.
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