The Battle of Heart and Mind 3.14

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[Wakefield Village | Inviditas 7th, 2526 | Early Evening]

Stanley secured the village’s only supply wagon in order to get them to Wakefield. They traveled slowly as he avoided divots and rocks in the trail. While Madeline appreciated the man’s concern, she was sure Lena would prefer a faster trip to a comfortable one.

Lena was in and out of consciousness throughout the ride. Upon waking she would mumble things, most of them unintelligible. All except for once when her eyes focused on the back of Stanley’s head as he steered the wagon and she mumbled to him, “Clint should have listened.”

Madeline frowned, looking between her friend and Stanley. Lena didn’t stay awake long enough to answer any questions, so she focused on the man. “What did she mean by that?”

Stanley sighed. “Sylvie tasked Clint with intercepting your raven. She wanted to know what your intentions were, but he was not supposed to touch, let alone intercept any messages.”

“What good would intercepting the raven do, then?”

Stanley shot her a glance over his shoulder. “Clint is a beast speaker. He can communicate with animals, but it’s not speaking, exactly. He couldn’t really learn as much from your bird as he’d like and chose to disregard Sylvie’s warnings not to touch the messages.”

“Those weren’t exactly written in a way just anyone would be able to understand, so why would he keep intercepting them?”

“I couldn’t answer that. I only know about it because Sylvie found out this morning. She was fuming. Said she didn’t want whoever was expecting to hear from you to come poking around and well…” Stanley shrugged. “Here we are.”

Stanley stopped the wagon and walked around to help her, looking doubtful.

“Are you sure this is where you want me to leave you? I could take you as far as Newhaven.”

“I’m sure, thank you. You’ve done more than enough.” Madeline didn’t mean for it to sound as harsh as it did, but she was tired and the last thing she wanted was to waste energy evading prying questions. “Just stay here for a couple of seconds. Keep an eye on her for me.”

Maddie had never used the tunnels to enter or exit Newhaven. As a citizen, she never needed to before, but not even citizenship would allow her to bring an undocumented stab victim past the gates without raising questions. She knocked on the door of the blacksmith shop and loud barks answered her before a tall burly man cracked open the door. The man’s expression upon seeing her was a stark reminder of the dried blood coating her tunic and hands. Maddie pushed the thought aside, buried it for later, and explained the situation as briefly as possible. Right now they needed passage. They’d wasted too much time getting this far. It’d take hours to traverse the tunnels, and Lena might not have that long.

The burly man carried Lena inside. Maddie didn’t know what to offer Stanley besides a tired “thanks for the help.” She didn’t wait for a response. If they were both lucky, this would be the last time they’d ever see each other anyway.

The burly man—he never offered his name, and Madeline didn’t care to ask—offered to carry Lena through the tunnel. She remained unconscious, limp in the man’s arms, and Maddie found herself nervously checking multiple times to ensure she at least still drew breath. Thankfully there was no getting lost in those tunnels, the only way was forward.

Maddie reached the end and slammed her fist against the hatch until it opened to a disgruntled Scout. “How many times do I have to tell you people you’re only supposed to knock onc—” 

They silenced upon seeing her, then noticed Lena and swore viciously under their breath. They pulled her up then helped the burly man bring Lena into the wine cellar. “Twins,” they muttered, then raised their voice, turning towards the door “Sander!” They led them out of the cellar and down the hall, still occasionally yelling out for Sander and cursing under their breath.

“Here,” they indicated one of the beds and watched as the burly man set Lena down. “Shit this doesn’t look good. Fuck. Give me a second. I’m sorry, Anton, I know you need to go back to your family, but I need you here right now. I’ll be right back.”

The burly man—Anton—nodded quietly and sat on one of the vacant beds. He looked exhausted and worried, but not surprised at being asked to stay. Madeline wondered how many injured Wolves he might have had to carry through the tunnel in the past. She thought about sitting down as well, but ended up standing at her friend’s bedside instead. Maddie saw a couple of times how Lena’s enlightenment would have her look. Haggard and in rough shape, but even then, she always carried an air of invulnerability about her. As if she was too proud to allow it to disrupt whatever she needed to get done that day. Clearly even Lena couldn’t out-stubborn a fatal stab wound. Her skin had grown pale and sheened with sweat, and while she still breathed, it was strained; as though the act required every ounce of strength her body still possessed and that strength was consistently draining.

Like sand to the bottom of an hourglass. Madeline frowned and pushed that thought away with all the others she’d been trying to ignore since leaving the village. Death was not a force anyone was meant to reckon with. If anything, the Wolfpack was leaving proof that if it wants to claim you, it would.

“Not today,” she muttered. “Not like this. It’s not your time.”

“You got her here, it’s all you could’ve done, kid,” Anton told her.

Madeline nodded, even though she didn’t agree. They could have packed up and left. If they had, this wouldn’t have happened in the first place. “Won’t be worth much if she dies.”

“Can’t even begin to imagine what might happen then.”

Madeline let the conversation end there, but judging by Anton’s expression he was imagining something. She didn’t know the details of how this conflict with the Hunters started in the first place, but she did know it started with Dani’s father. It wasn’t too much to assume things might escalate with this.

“See what I’m talking about, Lysander?”

The Scout marched back into the dormitory, sounding rightfully aggravated and dragging someone after them. The new person in the room, Lysander she presumed, was a tall, thin man in his mid-twenties, dark skinned, shaven head, and an expression that turned immediately sullen upon seeing Lena.

“This is far beyond my capabilities, Finnley,” he said, approaching and leaning over to check her bandaged abdomen.

The bandages were stained a dark red, but considering how long they’d been traveling, it looked better than Maddie expected. “These bandages are holding up well; probably what saved her, but they’re not exactly clean and we might have to worry about infection.” He stood straight and sighed. “Ironically, the only person in this room with the proper knowledge to tend these wounds is Helena.”

 “Kind of an issue seeing as she’s got one foot in the beyond, ain’t it?” Finnley said, their voice dripping with sarcasm. “That Healer you’ve been fucking with this past week, they still in the city, Sander?”

“I haven’t… We did not…” Lysander started to protest, but Finnley cut him off.

“I don’t care who’s big spoon and who’s little spoon, or whatever else you two have been up to. He’s still in Newhaven, right? Go get him. Drag him here if you have to.”

“You know that bringing an outsider down here isn’t that simple. There are safety protocols for a reason, Finn.”

“Are you shitting me? Do you want to write back to camp and inform the Alpha that her daughter died on our watch because you were worried about the damn safety protocol? How safe do you think you’ll be when that happens?”

Lysander glared at Finnley, lips pressing into a thin line as the words sunk in. “This was your call, are we clear?”

“Stop wasting time, Sander!” Finnley scolded.

Lysander groaned and left the room, his footsteps rushing down the hall until they faded into silence. Finn stood in the center of the room for a moment, mismatched eyes fixed on Lena. They then ran both hands through already-mussed up hair and shook their head as if to brush away whatever emotion that might have stirred, turning their attention to Madeline instead.

“Oy, come with me. Get cleaned up, eat something,” they said.

“I’m fine,” Madeline muttered, unwilling to go anywhere just yet.

“That wasn’t a question. I’m not risking two people dying on my watch tonight,” they insisted. “Come on. Anton isn’t going anywhere for now and there’s nothing else you can do.”

Madeline groaned, mirroring their gesture and running both hands through her sweat-drenched locks before forcing herself to step away. “Wouldn’t put it past this bitch to drop dead the moment I turn my back I swear,” she muttered.

“I know, I mean how dare she,” Finn added, amused. “The disrespect.”

Madeline shook her head, unable to contain a laugh. “What’s your name again? Finn?”

“Finnley; Finn, whichever you prefer, really.” They shrugged as they spoke, then nodded to indicate the hall and walked out, waiting for Madeline to follow. “What’s yours?”

“Madeline, Maddie. Whichever,” she answered, shrugging as well.

Finn smirked as they led the way to the washroom. “You doing that on purpose or out of habit, Madeline?”

“What?”

“You’re mirroring me,” Finn explained. “Habit then.”

Madeline scoffed gently under her breath. She shouldn’t be surprised they’d caught on to that. “Takes one to know one, huh?”

“That it does, rookie.” Finn opened the door and held it for her. “You can clean up here, I’ll see what I can do about a change of clothes. I swear we go through bloody clothes so quickly in this place.”

Madeline entered the washroom and Finn let the door close behind her. The room smelled clean; like humidity and soap. The lighting was dim, the stone walls and floor made her footsteps echo. The sound grated in her ears, like a ghost following in her footsteps. She removed her tunic and discovered the blood had soaked through to her undershirt as well. How much blood could a person lose? Maddie scoffed, Lena would probably know the answer.

The water was cold. The stench of stale blood permeating her clothes and skin didn’t mix well with the sickeningly sweet scent of honey and herbs emanating from the bar of soap. The only sounds in the room were the increasingly frantic sloshing as she tried to scrub her hands clean, and her own shallow breaths resonating off the narrow walls. Her hands were as clean as she could possibly make them, but she only stopped when her skin started to feel raw; when it started to hurt. Maddie clenched her fists to try to stop them shaking, forced her breaths to steady, pushed down the spiraling thoughts attempting to overcome her senses. Because this wasn’t the time or the place.

A sudden knock on the door disturbed the silence, and from the other side Finn called.

“Oy, rookie, you decent? I got you a change of clothes.”

“That’s a complicated question there,” Maddie quipped, trying to keep a tremble from reaching her voice. “If you’re worried about preserving my modesty or whatever, I don’t care if you don’t,” she added.

The door opened and Finn walked in, then matter-of-factly tossed a clean tunic in her direction. “Here. These are mine so they’re gonna be long on you, but we can figure something better out in the morning.”

Madeline nodded and put it on. It fell below her knees and the sleeves were comically long, but it was clean and that was the part that mattered. “Thanks, I appreciate that.”

“Don’t mention it.” Finn stood, arms crossed, just watching her expression intently for several seconds, then asked: “You hurt at all?”

“No. No, I…” Maddie didn’t know why, of all things, the question was what finally caused tears to start spilling out. She choked on a bubble of laughter as she answered. “I don’t have a scratch on me.”

Finnley sighed. “Okay, well, scratches I’d be able to deal with, whatever else you got going on there, I’m not so sure.”

Maddie shook her head. “I…” She let out another chuckle and forced a deep breath. “I’m fine. It’s just been a long day.”

Finn nodded towards the door and started leading her out. “First assignment?”

“Yeah. Just out of graduation.” Madeline followed Finn out of the washroom and down the hall, shaking her head. “Was supposed to be an easy one.”

“They never are, but hey, think about it…” Finn smirked at her. “This is literally the worst possible outcome, so you’ll never have another one go as badly as this.”

Maddie managed a genuine laugh in response to that. “That’s true. I guess getting the Alpha’s daughter stabbed almost to death is as bad as it can get.”

Finnley walked them to a small back room. It looks like a mix between a storage room and a mess hall. There were ale casks and sacks of grain stacked along the walls, but also a small stove and a couple of square wooden tables and chairs. A pot of stew bubbled over the stove. The aroma of vegetable broth and herbs immediately enveloped her senses. When was the last time she’d eaten? That morning? Too long judging by how her stomach clenched.

“Sit, I’ll fix you up,” Finn offered.

Madeline sat while they served two bowls of stew and scoured for a loaf of bread, bringing it all to the table at once with the ease of someone accustomed to waiting tables regularly.

“Water or ale?” they asked.

“I thought alcohol wasn’t allowed.”

“When in Newhaven, rookie.” Finn poured themself an ale and took a swig while awaiting her answer.

“Just water, thanks.”

“Suit yourself.”

They poured her a glass of water and joined her at the table. “So, mind if I pry for a second?”

“Depends,” Madeline told them, pulling off a piece of bread and dipping it into her stew. “What do you want to pry into exactly?”

“Are you and Lena close? ‘Cause you looked downright rattled and you were guarding her bedside like you were ready to fight someone.”

Maddie grimaced, but forced herself to take the stew-soaked bread into her mouth and eat it before the topic of conversation killed her appetite entirely. “We’re friends, I guess. The only reason she went there was because they thought something happened to me.”

“You don’t understand why she’d do that, right?” Finn asked the question as though they already knew the answer. “Look, being an outsider in this clan is a different experience from being born into it. I’ve been with the Wolves since I was eight and sometimes I still don’t fully get it either, but… They wouldn’t have just left you behind. And yeah, that’s something you’re gonna have to remember.”

Madeline didn’t know what to say to that. She just nodded and focused on slowly getting through her bowl of stew. Finn allowed her to remain in silence, but by the time the bowl was nearly finished, Maddie broke the silence again. “You’ve been with the Wolves since you were eight?”

“Mhm.” Finnley didn’t seem to mind the question. Maddie wasn’t quite sure why, but that unassuming openness almost grated on her. “My parents kind of just… Got fed up with me and left me in the woods. One of their Scouts found me roaming around, dragged me to the Beta, he dragged me to the Alpha, she took a long look at me and decided I was worth keeping for some reason. Or maybe she just took pity on me; to be honest I never asked. Rest is history, I suppose.”

Madeline looked at them inquisitively and asked, “Your parents ‘just got fed up with you’?”

“I was a bit of a problem child. Not gonna say I don’t blame them; I do—screw them, both of them—but I wasn’t easy to handle. I’m sure most didn’t think I was gonna graduate at all, even less become an asset. Dani was pretty much the only kid who was genuinely nice to me and holy shit did I hate that.”

“What? Why?”

Finn shrugged. “I don’t know. Kid brain. I kinda resented how easy things looked for her. You know when you want to dislike someone, but they’re so likable?” They laughed. “That sounds really stupid, but like I said; kid brain.” Finn’s smile turned into a frown as they poked the vegetables at the bottom of their bowl, and they added: “Lena wasn’t nice, she was always a bitch; through and through, but, uh… She did knock some sense into me. Doesn’t surprise me she ended up an Instructor. ‘Cause she knew exactly why I kept acting out, had no problem giving it to me straight either, not an ounce of regard for the fact I was just a kid. You gotta respect that, you know? When you’re that young everyone’s always trying to fix you without asking any real questions or even looking you in the eye.”

“Yeah, that… That sounds like Lena, alright. Straight to the point.” Madeline shook her head and wiped her eyes with one oversized sleeve. “She’s so damn sure of herself it’s infuriating. Too sure of herself, and I keep telling her…” Maddie cut herself off and scoffed.

Finn chuckled. “Aye, it does sound like you two got pretty close. It surprises me. Lena never seemed like one to take to people easily. Or vice-versa. The whole ‘being a bit of a bitch’ thing.”

Maddie shrugged. “She can be; zero regard as we know, but she’s also a lot nicer than you’d expect. You know, she woke me up for training after Hourglass Night by barging into my room and I was so hungover I wanted to murder her, but… Couple days later she knocked on my door and brought me a stack of books. Because she noticed I only had three and I’d been reading them over and over.” She sighed, taking a long swig of water. “I stole those books. I taught myself to read. Only thing my mother ever taught me was not to trust anybody. You’re right, I don’t understand why she did it; any of it.”

Finn nodded, their smile understanding. “Dani was here on a contract during the winter and she said she wanted me to write to her. Swear the whole family’s just weird.”

Maddie shook her head. “Have you written to her?”

Finn shrugged, but before they could answer, there was a knock against the doorframe and Lysander was standing there, accompanied by a slightly shorter man in Healer’s robes.

“This is Silas,” Lysander introduced. “He uh…”

Silas shook his head. “We’re wasting time, Sander.” He turned to Madeline. “Miss, your friend is awake and she refuses to let me do anything before she speaks with you.”

“Lena is awake?” Maddie was surprised, to say the least. She didn’t think she had the strength for anything anymore. “Yeah, sure. Yeah.”

Maddie wasted no time standing up and making her way back to the dormitory, the Healer at her heels.

“I’m allowing this because it would be easier than attempting restraints, but I must remind you time is of the essence here. She’s lost a lot of blood, that she’s awake and able to speak at all is almost unprecedented,” Silas warned.

Maddie shook her head. “I know how much blood she’s lost, I was there.”

The Healer sighed. “Just try to make this brief so I can help your friend.”

They entered the dormitory and, as Silas said, Lena was awake. Her breaths were strained, punctuated by harsh wheezing. She looked even paler than before, shaky and sweaty, but the sound of footsteps entering the room caused a weak smile to tug at the corners of her lips.

“Mads?” she rasped.

“I’m here,” Maddie answered. “What the hell is wrong with you, you idiot? Let the Healer do his job.”

Lena managed a strained chuckle. “Yeah, yeah, in a minute. Just… I need you to listen for a second because… This man over there is gonna stitch up my insides. The… The uh… The anesthetics are going to knock me unconscious and if they don’t, my body going into shock will do the trick.”

Madeline hated how casual she sounded, as though she was describing something out of one of her medical tomes. “Yeah, well, you got yourself messed up.”

Lena groaned through another chuckle. “Shut up so I can get through this, please.”

“Okay.”

“Have you reported back yet?”

Maddie shook her head. “I wanted to wait on the Healer.”

“Okay, good, so…” She coughed, trying to clear some dryness in her throat and bit back a whine in the aftermath. “When you write that report I need you to remember that going into the village was my call. I’m an Instructor, you were following orders.”

“Lena, that’s not…”

“It was my call, Mads.”

“Lena, what…”

My call. Say it back so I know you understand.”

Madeline bit back a retort. Arguing would only drag this out further. They were wasting valuable time. “It was your call.”

Lena let out a breath, almost relieved. “Thank you. Now, if I can’t get out of this, if I don’t wake up…” When Maddie was about to protest again, Lena reached out to grab her wrist and silence her. “I got presents for my sisters at the village; they’re in my bag. The box is for Dani, I think she’ll enjoy it. I got a couple of crafting kits for Sarah, figured she’d have fun with them. Please tell Dani I’m sorry I couldn’t keep my promise. Tell Sarah—and this is important—tell her I’m not angry, that none of this is her fault. I need her to know that. Promise me you’ll tell them.”

“Yeah, of course I’ll tell them. I promise.”

Lena forced out a shaky breath and nodded. “Alright. Okay.” She glared over Madeline’s shoulder at the Healer. “I’m ready now.”

Silas nodded and stepped forward, placing a hand on Madeline’s shoulder. “I’m going to need you to clear out now, miss. You won’t want to be here for this.”

Madeline wanted to argue, she wanted to stay even though she knew he was right, but Lena gave her wrist a feeble squeeze and let go, expression guarded.

“I’ll see you later,” she muttered.

Maddie nodded and stood. “Yeah. Later.”

[Wolves Camp | Inviditas 10th, 2526 | Early Morning]

Dani escaped to the lake as soon as she was out of bed. The camp filled early for Hourglass Night, and the last thing she wanted was to deal with all that excitement. The forest never felt more alive. Threads of golden sunlight illuminated the clearing. The smell of fresh grass and the sweet scent of wildflowers permeated the air and clung to her clothes. With every gentle breeze, small delicate flower petals cascaded from the trees above, adorning the lake’s dark waters in white and light pink. The pleasant ruffling of leaves and the chaotic harmony of songbirds resonated overhead, gently disrupting the silence.

No matter how harsh the winter, spring always followed. And while that understanding served as a comfort in the past, Dani couldn’t find it within herself to feel it now. Lena’s absence had left a lingering frost in its wake; a suffocating, sharp, pain in Dani’s chest. As though trying to breathe through icy water. And no matter what she tried, no matter what anyone said, it would not leave.

The village wasn’t that far. At the very least she should have sent word of what she found. Dani tried to keep her thoughts from seeking out the memory of last year’s ceremony, from remembering the weight of the clan’s hourglass in her hands, from the thought of having to stand there and say her sister’s name while holding it. She refused to let herself think of Lena coming home with her ring missing from her finger like so many others had in the past. She refused to entertain the thought of her never coming back at all. Instead she tried to convince herself she was worrying for no reason, that her sister would show up in a day or two; send word at least, and this frigid, suffocating, unwavering feeling of dread would finally dissipate. Lena said she’d be back before Dani’s birthday. She promised to be safe. That had to count for something.

And so, Dani sat there, rummaging for pebbles in the grass and tossing them into the water a little too roughly, unable to make them skip across, until the sound of approaching footsteps disrupted the quiet.

Dani turned to face the sound and saw Tom standing on the end of the trail, his expression was guarded. Too guarded. It made her immediately jump to her feet.

“What’s wrong?” Dani asked.

Tom didn’t answer her question. “Have you seen Sarah this morning, Daniela?”

“Uhm, no. It’s early and there’s no training, she should still be in her room…” She trailed off, glancing in the direction of the cemetery. “If she isn’t I think I know where she went.”

“Would you mind finding her and bringing her to the Alpha’s cabin as soon as possible? We need to have a conversation.”

Those words sapped the last remnants of warmth from her. Like a dying flame snuffed out with only a thin trail of smoke left in its wake. “Dad, what’s wrong?”

For a brief second she noticed his shoulders drop and a faint hint of sadness reach his eyes. Tom was never easily rattled, but he was rattled now. “We’ll talk about it at home, kiddo. Right now I need you to find your sister.”

Dani knew there was no use arguing, so she nodded and made her way down the trail, pushing down something bitter attempting to crawl its way up her throat.

******

Dani had gone to the cemetery but Sarah wasn’t there. She returned to camp and upon asking around discovered that she’d taken to visiting the raven rookery in the mornings. Wooden towers situated on the northern side of the camp housed the clan’s messenger birds. The ravens were bred, cared for, and trained by a group of workers. Many of the Recruits and Actives held a fondness for the animals and interacted with them frequently. Communication in and out of the encampment however, was restricted to Scouts, and even personal messages to and from camp strictly monitored. Personal birds would only be assigned to Scouts whose assignments required they remain in the field without a permanent station, or remained in regions too remote to allow frequent visits to an Inn. Madeline was sent with her own bird to the village and the bird was likely to remain with her thereafter. If she was alright, at least; Dani still didn’t know.

As she approached, the sounds of the ravens became more prominent. Several of the adult birds were out and about in perches surrounding the buildings and announced her approach through vocalization and clicking sounds. Dani wasn’t a stranger to ravens, she’d handled them plenty, but she wouldn’t deny that being surrounded by a flock of them made her extremely nervous. They were friendly and, unless given reason to dislike someone, saw any and all members of the clan as a source of treats and attention; but they were still intimidating creatures to be surrounded with. The closer she walked to the towers the more she could feel their dark beady eyes focus on her. A couple of them flew down to lower perches and peered over curiously. The ravens’ calls and agitated cries alerted one of their keepers; a tall brunette with short unruly hair poked her head out of one of the towers, spotted Dani, and smiled.

“Look who it is. Are you here to send a message or to collect the kid?”

“Hey, Val. I’m here for the kid. Where is she?”

Val pointed at one of the two towers, unfazed when one of the ravens flew down to land on her shoulder and began to peck at her hair in a bid for attention. “With the wee ones. She’s been a little obsessed with one of ‘em.”

“I’m sure mom will love hearing that.” Dani smiled. “She could make a case for not getting her a puppy, but it’s not like ravens are hard to come by around here.”

Val chuckled. “Right, I told her I can’t do anything about it unless the Alpha authorizes. I don’t want any trouble.”

“You don’t want any trouble with the Alpha or with my sister?” Dani asked.

The worker shook her head, petting the bird on her shoulder. “Yes.”

“Either way, I’ll get her out of your hair, at least for now.”

Val gave a half-shrug, careful not to disturb her companion’s perch. “Nah, kid’s a joy to be around. It’s no bother.”

“Yeah, she is.” Dani agreed, smiling as she entered the building.

Inside of the rookery it was dimly lit. Most light came from the high windows the ravens used to roam free. Sarah was hovering over one of the nesting fledglings.

Upon noticing her older sister she beamed and whispered, “Dani, look!”

Dani walked closer and looked in the nest. The bird Sarah seemed so excited for was youngling, just growing its initial flight feathers. They were pale, light grey fading into white. The bird’s legs and beak were likewise a pale grey rather than the usual black, and its eyes a light blue.

“Wow, that’s unusual,” Dani whispered. “So this is why you’ve been hanging out here lately?”

Sarah’s smile faltered. “Well, I came for the first time because I wanted to know if Lena sent any messages, or…” she lowered her voice as she admitted, “or if I could maybe send one. Even though I don’t know where she went. I thought, maybe the ravens could find her.”

The childish hopefulness in her sister’s voice only added to the heaviness in her heart. “They’re smart, but not that smart, squirt. Besides, you can’t just message people when they’re out in the field. It could put them at risk.”

“Val explained that to me, yeah,” Sarah sighed. “I just… I don’t want…”She trailed off and took a deep breath, carefully stroking the raven’s head. “What if something happens to her and she still thinks I hate her?”

“Sarah…” Dani turned to face her sister and found Sarah avoiding her eyes, her focus on the raven. “Lena doesn’t think you hate her.”

Sarah sniffled, her eyes fixed on the bird as she shrugged. “She didn’t even tell me she was leaving. Lena never just leaves without saying goodbye.”

“There was a chance Maddie might be in trouble so she left in a hurry, that’s all.” Sarah scoffed under her breath and Dani grabbed her shoulder, gently turning the girl around to face her. “Hey, look at me, listen… You’ve been upset, that’s all. You didn’t do anything wrong. And Lena doesn’t think you hate her.”

Sarah’s shoulders dropped. “I just miss her. I’m done being upset. I wish I knew when she’s coming back.”

“Me too, squirt,” Dani mumbled, trying to forcefully inject an encouraging tone into her voice. “Remember what we talked about, though? We can’t ever be sure how things will go out there, but you should always expect the people you love will come back for you.”

Sarah nodded, wiping at her eyes with her sleeve. She then turned to face the bird again. “I wanted to show her this little guy. I bet she’d find it interesting. You know, it’s a—what you call it—anomaly. And Val said they might put it down. It’s not fit to be a messenger bird, it stands out too much, but look at it. It’s so pretty.”

Dani smiled, sure of where her sister was going with this. “You’re thinking about asking mom to let you keep it?”

“Mhm. I can take care of a bird. Do you think she’ll let me?”

Dani hummed and gave the bird a tentative stroke along its beak. “I’ll back you up when you ask her, but… Not today. Dad asked me to come get you for a talk.” When Sarah frowned and opened her mouth to ask, she quickly added, “I don’t know what it’s about yet, I was just told to find you. We should probably get going.”

Sarah wasn’t reassured. “Lena isn’t home yet and you said dad looked worried.”

Dani grimaced. She’d been trying not to let her mind go there. “It could be nothing, squirt. We don’t know yet”

Sarah shook her head and took the lead in leaving the rookery. Dani followed with a sigh. Lying to her sister never worked out, she was smart and she was attentive to other people’s emotions. Even if Dani refused to say it; or even admit it to herself, it would be clear to Sarah she’d been thinking it too. Lena should be home by now.

******

When they entered the Alpha’s cabin, the first thing Dani noticed was her mother’s absence. It was Tom, alone, waiting for them behind the desk. He asked them to shut the door behind them and sit. Where his expression had previously been guarded, it was now a mix of deep concern and sadness.

“Girls, I…”

He trailed off, already at a loss of words, and that cold sinking feeling in the pit of Dani’s stomach immediately gripped her entire body at once.

“Dad… What happened?”

Tom forced a deep breath, steadied his voice, and continued. “Madeline sent a message from Newhaven. It arrived this morning. Lena found her well, but her messages had been intercepted. They were setting up to leave and, for some reason, Helena decided to go into that village one last time. There were Hunters there and, according to Madeline, one of them recognized her.”

Dani leaned into her knees and hid her face in her hands. The tightness in her chest was too much to bear; too painful.

“No… No, no, no…”

She forced herself to take a deep breath, pushed down the urge to scream, tried to fight back against the searing chills slithering across her spine, the spike of rage sinking its teeth into her core; to stay in the present despite the tumultuous thoughts rushing through her mind. Lena said she’d be back safe; she promised not to go down there. It wasn’t worth the risk. Why would she do that? Why?

“…Is she okay?” Sarah’s voice was weak; fearful, anticipating the answer she wanted wouldn’t come.

“I don’t know, pup, she was very hurt. Maddie brought her to Newhaven and there’s a Healer taking care of her now, so hopefully she will be, but right now we don’t know.”

Dani only lifted her head when she heard her sister sob. She wanted to tell Sarah that Lena would be okay. She had to be.

But Tom was right, they couldn’t know that. Saying it now would just be a lie. “Where… Where’s mom?”

Tom’s expression twisted. “As you can imagine this news was very hard on her. And she’ll need to address the clan soon… She needed space, some time to recompose, and asked me to let you girls know; to not wait for her. It wouldn’t be fair to withhold this information. We wanted you to hear it before anyone else.”

Dani rubbed both hands over her face. Why did she have to go there? She promised she wouldn’t go there.

Her foot rapidly tapped the floorboards, her jaw ached. “I’m going to Newhaven.”

“I can’t allow that, kiddo.”

Dani glared at her father, uncaring for the consequences. “I’m going.

“No. Not after what happened to your sister, Daniela. We also had word of an incident in Blackpond. One of our Scouts was killed in the city and his partner failed to report back. We don’t know if she was killed or has gone rogue. His ring was taken. These people are dangerous and right now, they’re feeling cornered.”

Dani stood, slamming both palms on the tabletop. “Good. They should be feeling cornered, they should be afraid.” She pitched her voice low, the ice in her veins began to simmer.

“Dani.” Sarah grabbed her wrist, her voice barely loud enough to cut through the sound of rushing blood in her ears; weak, pleading. “Don’t. You can’t go. Please.”

Dani closed her eyes, her nails momentarily dug into the wood before her fingers went slack and a harsh breath escaped her lungs. Her father wasn’t who she wanted to fight right now. Sarah wasn’t the one she wanted to hurt. She felt her anger subside, quickly turning into exhaustion, and sat back down.

“I’m sorry,” Dani mumbled. She took her sister’s hand and squeezed. “I’m sorry, squirt. I’m not going anywhere. I won’t leave you, I promise.”

“You said we should always expect the people we love will come back for us.” Sarah said, squeezing her fingers. “And Lena… She’ll come home. Right?”

I’ll be safe, I promise.

I’ll be home before your birthday.

Dani reached out to wipe a tear from her little sister’s cheek, trying to force a smile but feeling it break. “Yeah, squirt. Of course she will.”

Sarah’s smile was small, sad. She was always good at knowing when she was being lied to, but this was clearly a lie she wanted to believe.

“Hey, squirt, do you mind if I talk to dad alone for a little while?” Dani asked.

Sarah’s expression immediately shut and her fingers sank into Dani’s hand, refusing to let go. “No. You’re always making me leave, why can’t I ever know what’s happening? She’s my sister too!”

Dani sighed. It wasn’t fair to be asking this now; Sarah was right to be angry, but she wouldn’t be able to ask what she needed with her sitting there, she just couldn’t. “Listen, I know, Sarah. I do. I’m sorry, I just… I need you to do this for me right now, okay? I promise—I swear—we can talk about it later if you want.”

Sarah’s frown didn’t fade and a quiet sob overtook her as she looked to her father. “I want mom.”

Tom held back a grimace. Dani could just barely imagine how her mother must have taken this news if she wasn’t there. “I know, love, she’ll be here soon.”

Dani squeezed Sarah’s hand to draw her attention, then gently worked her fingers free, reaching for her shoulders instead. “Do you remember what else I told you that night? It’s okay to worry and it’s okay…”

“…to be scared.” Sarah finished. “Yeah. I remember.”

“And it is, squirt. It’s okay, but… Mom still has to be the Alpha. She can’t be scared and be strong for everyone else at the same time, so… Right now she needs to take some time. I’m sure she’ll be back soon, and I’ll be right here until she does, I just need a couple of minutes too. Please?”

“Just a couple of minutes?”

“Two minutes. You can count them if you want.”

Sarah drew a shaky breath and nodded, briefly wrapping Dani in a too-tight hug, before reluctantly letting go and turning to leave the office.

Dani watched Sarah retreat into her room and once the door was properly closed, she leaned back in her chair, exhausted. Without thinking, she reached out to rub the bridge of her nose, then stopped herself halfway and lowered her hand, fist clenched. “How bad is it?”

Tom let more of his composure slip with Sarah out of the room and Dani could see it in his eyes before the words left his lips. “The White Shadow in charge of her care is still uncertain of her odds. She was stabbed in the abdomen, the sword nearly ran her through. In the time it took Madeline to bring her to the Inn she lost an exorbitant amount of blood. That she made it as far as Newhaven was…” He grimaced. “Maddie said the Healer called it ‘an impressive display of will’.”

“Sounds about right.” Dani snorted, rubbing her eyes. “Stubborn. For once it did her good.”

“I hate this too, Dani. I do. I wish she was here, that we had her home, but… She’ll be safe at the Inn. You’ll be safe here. They plan to move her once she’s stable, but for now this is how it needs to be.”

“Is Maddie staying with her?”

“Yes. Until she’s ready to come home. She’s not alone, she’ll be well taken care of, kiddo. I promise.”

“I just want…” Dani ran both hands over her eyes and through her hair. “I hate them. I hate them! I know that’s not how we operate, but… I want someone to pay for this.”

Tom reached across the desk for her closed fist. “Your anger is justified, Dani, but the moment it takes control of you. The moment you allow it to change who you are and what you stand for… You’re right, that’s not how we operate. That’s how they operate. We’ve made that mistake once before and tonight is a reminder of that.”

Dani grimaced, fingers slowly unfolding within her father’s grasp, a bitter smile tugging at her lips. “I guess, then, I understand them just a little bit better today.”

“Understanding can be a great asset, pup,” Tom said, giving her hand a small squeeze. “Just don’t allow yourself to change so far as to become the very thing you hate.”

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