[The Heart of The Forest | Spiritus 10th, 2525 | Late Night]
Claire sat at her desk, leaning over documents long rendered useless by the engrossing darkness. Her fingers toyed with a small silver band, watching the metal glimmer under the moonlight infiltrating the cracks along the walls. The office door was closed for the first time in days. Outside her cabin, the forest lay dormant. A soft breeze caressed the trees, raining down dried leaves across the ground and whispering false promises of safety to unassuming travelers. Being born within these woods, becoming part of the dangers lurking in its shadows, Claire held no illusions of safety. To her, home was just that: beautiful, tranquil, dangerous.
The pitter-patter of bare feet and the creak of a floorboard caused her to straighten in her chair, placing the silver ring on the desktop. It stopped outside her door, lingering there in an easy silence; doubtful, then . . . “Mom?”
Claire concealed the ring within her desk drawer before approaching the door, prying it open to find her youngest child standing there. She opened the door fully and lifted the nine-year-old into her arms. “Sarah, why are you out of bed?”
“The shadows . . . they’re moving.”
Claire hummed softly. “I see. Your sisters aren’t home, I presume?”
“Lena only comes home tomorrow. I don’t know where Dani is.”
“Probably out exploring somewhere. Hopefully she’ll come back before morning this time. Then I won’t have to punish her.”
“Why? You know she’s not here.”
Claire carried Sarah back to her bedroom. Both beds were messy; abandoned by their occupants in a hurry. Daniela’s bed showed no sign that the teenager attempted to cover her tracks. “Your sister is growing up now. I expect her to disobey me. And I also expect her to do a better job of it.” She smiled softly. “Now, what was it you were saying about shadows?”
Sarah pointed to the darkest corner of the room, head resting against Claire’s shoulder.
“You were seeing something over there?”
“Not something, just . . . movement.”
“I see.” She placed Sarah down and offered the girl her hand. “Shall we investigate, then?”
Sarah clutched her hand tightly and nodded. “Okay.”
It only took a couple of steps to reach the corner of the room. Claire could feel her daughter’s hand tighten around her fingers and offered a reassuring squeeze in return. “Here we are. Do you see anything?”
“No.” Sarah’s reply held an audible note of embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be scared of the dark anymore.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for, love. Now, back to bed. You’re far too young to be awake at this hour.” Claire once again scooped her youngest daughter into her arms, holding the girl to her chest as she crossed the room to deposit her into bed.
Sarah watched her with bright eyes and a small, concerned frown as she was being tucked into her blankets. Of her three children, her youngest resembled Claire the most. It was like seeing her former self staring back at her, searching for comfort and reassurance. Sarah had the same messy brown locks and the same round hazel eyes she had as a child. The same fair skin and freckled nose. Even her laughter sometimes echoed the carefree child she once was.
Claire stared back at her daughter with hardened eyes. A few grey hairs cascaded down her shoulders amidst light brown waves. Worry lines and sleep deprivation marred her features like trenches sunken into her skin. Slender, callused fingers reached to stroke the child’s hair, accompanied by a soft melodic hum. “Do you know what your grandfather used to say to me when I was your age?”
Sarah rubbed at her eyes, her question a sleepy mumble. “What?”
“He’d tell me, ‘Pup, there may be dangers lurking in the shadows, but you need to remember one thing’ . . . .” Claire leaned in close and whispered, “I’m still the most dangerous thing in these woods. And I love you.” She planted a gentle kiss on Sarah’s forehead. “So you have nothing to worry about, understand?”
Claire smiled fondly. “Good.”
“Can you stay here with me?”
“I still have some things I need to take care of. I won’t be far, so don’t worry.”
“I promise. Now close your eyes, love.”
Claire sat in the dark until Sarah was sound asleep; the illusion of moving shadows seemingly forgotten.
By the time Claire left Sarah’s room, the forest was no longer dormant. The walls of her cabin—sturdy as they were—did little to muffle the anxious chatter surrounding it. She was thankful her youngest had gone back to sleep. That her teenagers were absent; even if against her orders. They didn’t need to witness the events about to unfold.
Claire opened the door of her cabin and as the sole of her boot crushed its first blade of grass outside, all chatter withered and died. Hundreds of stares followed her every step and she met every gaze as she passed, stern and unyielding. Some flinched or cowered, others bowed their heads in a silent display of respect. She kept her eyes forward as she walked, watching the cloaked figures move with the corners of her eyes.
Even for Claire, being surrounded by the whole of the Wolfpack could be an intimidating thing. The Alpha wasn’t the same as a king or queen. Her position granted her no form of immunity, she had no rights to rule over these people. It was her place to serve the clan’s best interests above her own. And if the clan decided she’d failed, it was their duty to hold her accountable. To cast her out, or worse.
Yet, it was the crowd of assassins that cowered under her watchful gaze. They were there, every single one, on her command. A summoning from the Alpha wasn’t to be taken lightly, and most of them knew the reason behind this meeting.
Claire stopped in the very center of the crowd. When she spoke it was just loud enough to be heard by all, no more than necessary. “I’m sure most of you have already been made aware of the incident this afternoon, but for those of you who have been absent prior to this summoning . . . . There has been a severe breach of security. It resulted in the loss of two Actives and a time-sensitive contract was unable to be fulfilled. The target escaped and was unable to be traced.” She paused, allowing the clan to exchange whispers and assimilate the information for a few seconds. “I could show some leniency towards failure—even one as dire as this—if not for the loss of life in its wake. Someone here was either careless or committed treason. And as a result, two of our own have been slain. Stripped of their rings. Abandoned alone to bleed. Their families are grieving as we speak. And that . . . That is inexcusable.”
Under the light of the moon, it was hard to see every nuance of their expressions, but Claire could hear leather-clad feet shifting in place, the swishing of cloaks, and the soft clang of weapons hanging from sheaths as the clan collectively squirmed.
“A mistake this grave needs to be investigated and if an act of treason is discovered, I will personally ensure that the culprit is severely punished.”
Another collective squirm succeeded those words. According to the clan’s laws, execution was the harshest punishment inflicted on those who knowingly or deliberately caused the clan harm. “Of course, an investigation would require a lock down. It would set us back weeks, if not months, and considering the losses we have already sustained . . .” Claire sighed softly, allowing a small shred of frustration to show through. “I decided to offer the culprit an opportunity to stand before the clan now and confess in exchange for leniency. This offer expires within the next two minutes.”
An array of hushed whispers erupted within the crowd. Concern, fear, confusion and anger could be heard within the chaos. Claire watched them as the seconds burned away. The fearful reactions were understandable. She had expected them. What drew her attention amidst all of that was one silent figure standing in the crowd. Still like a statue even as the crowd erupted into mayhem, head low in contemplation.
His name was Edward Feany. A boy of twenty, born within the clan. Claire had trained with his father as a teenager. They were friends for many years until his passing. For a moment she wondered what he would think of this situation.
It was only in the last seconds that Edward finally moved, and with each step forward the rest of the clan began to once again fall silent. Claire watched his expression carefully as he stopped in front of her. “Edward, you have something to tell me?”
The young Wolf nodded, gathering a deep breath, not quite able to meet her eyes. “I . . . I Made a mistake.”
“I discussed the contract with Eli at the Inn. I used the target’s name. I asked where he was going.”
“You understand we have no control whatsoever over who comes and goes at the Inn?”
“Yes. It was clearly a lapse of judgment.”
“Clearly.” Claire’s tone was stern, yet contained. “And you realize that Eli is now dead because of this.”
Claire drew a deep breath and placed her hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Ed, I would like you to do something for me. I would like you to look around.” She waited for him to reluctantly obey. “Four years ago you took an oath. Do you remember?”
“Will you please repeat it back to me?”
Edward met her eyes, almost pleading. “What?”
“Recite your oath, Ed. I’m sure you still remember it, no?”
“I, uh . . . Of course. I remember.” He squirmed, but held her gaze. “I hereby swear on my life and honor, to live by and enforce the laws of the Wolfpack. I hereby swear on my life and honor to defend this camp and its people, to the best of my abilities, for as long as I still breathe. I hereby swear on my life and honor to never harm, betray, or abandon any member of this clan, as long as they remain true to this oath.”
“And you are bound by this oath until . . . When?”
“Until Lady Death claims my soul, or I’m released of it by the Alpha.”
“Well done.” Claire smiled, her fingers dug deeper into Edward’s shoulder. “There was a reason I called this meeting. I wanted the person responsible for this to fully grasp the magnitude of their mistake. To face those they swore to protect. To never harm, betray, or abandon. The people who surrendered their lives to this clan; same as you have. I wanted to offer the opportunity to make amends by telling the truth.”
Edward was taller than Claire, younger, physically imposing, yet he made no attempt to push her away. Claire’s fingers sank further into his shoulders as he tensed. “You promised leniency.”
“In exchange for a confession, yes. The problem, Edward, is that you lied. You omitted the fact that you had been drinking heavily despite it being against our rules. You omitted the fact that you amassed a gigantic gambling debt during your time in Newhaven. And that debt mysteriously disappeared prior to the contract being intercepted. Did you honestly think we wouldn’t find out about that?”
Edward grimaced. “I—”
“You already wasted your opportunity to speak. I want you to surrender your ring, surrender your weapons, and accept your punishment.”
Edward reached for the sword at his waist, fingers tight around the hilt as he glanced at his surroundings. It quickly became apparent that there was nothing he could do except obey. He removed the sheath from his belt, and let it fall to the ground at their feet. His daggers followed. Last, but not least, he removed the silver band from his left ring finger and held it out for her to take. “What will you tell my mother?”
Claire sighed heavily as she took the ring and placed it in her pocket. “The truth, Ed. There would be no point in lying.”
A trace of remorse and shame finally appeared on Edward’s face, but he simply nodded.
Claire kept one hand on Edward’s shoulder while the other reached for the knife in her belt. “Edward Feany, you have been found guilty of acts of treason and is hereby sentenced to death, according to the laws of this clan. Do you accept your punishment?”
“Take a knee.”
Edward obeyed and kneeled down before her, head low. Claire drew her blade and slid it across the young man’s throat, draining him of blood in a matter of seconds. His body slumped lifeless to the ground. Claire re-sheathed her knife and drew a steadying breath, staring down at the fallen Wolf with a sullen expression before looking up to one of the nearby veterans. “Wake a couple of workers and see to it that he receives a proper burial. I need to inform his mother.”
The Wolf nodded and went off to carry out his orders. The silence that befell the clan in the aftermath was mournful. Not only for the loss of a brother, but for the severance of a bond that should have remained unbreakable. Edward’s betrayal was a bleeding wound in the Wolfpack’s side. A painful reminder that they would always be as strong as their weakest individual.
It was morning when Claire finally returned home. Her night had been spent ensuring that activities slowly returned to normal in the encampment. Only after the blood had been cleaned and all rites had been performed did she entertain the thought of sleep.
The cabin was quiet as she entered, but the door to the girls’ bedroom was cracked. She approached it with silent steps, pushing it further open, just enough to peer inside. She was surprised to find Sarah’s bed empty, but before she had the chance to worry, she noticed a small pile of blankets huddled on the floor, in the darkest corner of the room. She walked further into the room with cautious steps and settled on the floor beside her daughter’s sleeping form.
Sarah cracked open one eye and looked up at her with a sleepy mumble. “Did you take care of things?”
Claire hummed, reaching out to gently stroke her daughter’s hair. “I did. Why didn’t you stay in bed?”
“I tried, but I kept waking up and seeing the shadows.”
“So you decided to sleep on the floor instead? Why?”
“Because the shadows don’t look as scary from over here.”
Claire snorted softly, pulling the girl into her arms. “Smart girl.”
Sarah huddled closer, laying her head on Claire’s shoulder. It didn’t take long for her to drift back to sleep. Whereas Claire remained awake despite her exhaustion, watching as the golden beams of sunlight began to flood the room.