The Battle of Heart and Mind 3.16

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 [Wolves Camp | Inviditas 20th, 2526 | Midday]

Dani stared at the closed doors of the dining hall. With one hand firmly grasping the door handle, she drew a breath, exhaled, and pushed. For a brief, blissful moment, Dani caught a glimpse of the usual atmosphere within as the doors parted—the gentle clamor of conversation filled the air amidst the warmth from the working stoves and the delicious smell of roast meat and herbs— but the moment she stepped foot into the hall, all voices erupted into a barrage of speculative murmurs, then quickly fell into tense silence. If a feather dropped somewhere in that room, Dani suspected she might hear it.

The sound of the doors gently shutting behind her back echoed. Looking around at the familiar faces, Dani found most of them awkwardly staring at their half-eaten meals, or taking exaggerated drinks of water. As much as she hated it, it was her own doing. None of them had seen her in days. Even on her birthday she’d opted to stay indoors, playing hands of Olith with Sarah in her cabin. She clenched her right fist until her knuckles started to ache, then relaxed, shoulders slouched as she started to make her way towards the counter.

With each passing day, it became clearer that the entire clan was at a complete loss of how to act around her. Some of them whispered amongst themselves and fell silent the moment they noticed her approaching, others tried to offer something like condolences only to be reminded—probably much more harshly than intended—that Lena was still alive. She was still alive. There was no point mourning the living.

There were many things Dani loved about her home. The way news and gossip spread like wildfire, had never been one of them. Her mother broke the news of what took place at the village, and Lena’s current condition, immediately after the Hourglass ceremony, opting not to do it beforehand. It would detract from its purpose and be unfair to those still mourning their losses. For the first time in three years Sarah didn’t ask if it was her turn to hold the hourglass; the first time ever she didn’t make a fuss about having to leave the party. In fact, she didn’t stick around for it at all. Dani hadn’t stuck around long herself.

The clatter of a metal cup hitting a wooden table drew her gaze. One of the older Recruits frantically scrambled to right it and contain the trail of water about to spill off the edge onto the floor. Faint laughter momentarily rose only to almost instantly die out. A spark of life too weak to fully ignite in the glum atmosphere. It wasn’t their fault. Dani knew she wasn’t the only one affected by the uncertainty of it all. Of what would happen if the worst came to pass. How would things escalate from there? It felt like their lives as much as Lena’s hanging by a very thin, frayed thread.

“It’s nice seeing you out in the open.” Larissa greeted.

Dani looked up from the platter of roast meat and vegetables she’d been contemplating, her thoughts coming to such an abrupt stop she momentarily forgot how to form words. “Yeah,” she mumbled. “I got hungry.”

“I see that,” the woman retorted, briefly eyeing her empty plate. “I was about to leave Isaac in charge and have lunch myself, would you like to come sit with me in the kitchen?”

Dani hummed, taking one more glance around the dining hall and finding no empty tables. Empty seats, yes, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to deal with that awkwardness. “Yeah, that actually sounds nice.”

Larissa smiled and opened the partition that separated the area behind the serving counter from the dining hall and reached out to take the empty plate from her hands. “Come on, then, I’ll fix you a plate and you can sit where it’s quiet.”

Dani nodded and followed the older woman into the kitchen. Quiet wasn’t entirely true. The kitchen staff was still in the middle of serving lunch and several workers were still ensuring there was food available for whoever may still walk through the doors. The prep table was full of clutter, but Larissa made room for them on a smaller table more out of the way of the hustle and bustle. Dani poked at her food at first, listening to the clatter and exasperated voices of the workers, and only started to eat when she felt Larissa’s gaze on her from across the table.

“You know,” the woman started, matter of factly, “You might not realize this, but you were only six when I first arrived here. That’s a long time watching you fail to steal cookies and being made to scrub floors and ruin cast iron pots for whatever transgressions you committed that day.” She looked towards Dani, gauging a reaction from her, but when Dani made it clear she wouldn’t acknowledge the comment, she continued. “I’ve known you for quite a while, I don’t need to ask how you’re doing—I’m not going to—but if you’d like to talk or if you need anything…”

Larissa trailed off and Dani responded to the offer with a quiet nod. Dani liked spending time with the workers. Not to say she didn’t enjoy spending time with other Actives or even Instructors closer to her age, but there was a lack of expectations with the workers. In general they didn’t scrutinize her role in the clan, and were a lot more critical of her propensity to cause trouble or accidentally destroy cookware.

“Do you need some help with cleaning up, maybe? I need to keep my hands busy.”

“We don’t need help, we do this every day, but if you’d like to be put to work, of course.” Larissa nodded, indicating the visible bruises on Dani’s knuckles. “Cleaning up is probably better than whatever it is you’ve been doing with your hands lately.” Dani shrugged, poking at a piece of carrot with her fork and before she had a chance to reply, Larissa said, “it’s okay to be angry. Not so much if you’re hurting yourself.”

“What, this? I’ve had worse during training. I’m not self-punishing. I’m just, not even angry, just frustrated. Sitting around doing nothing, waiting for news, you know? Mom obviously won’t assign me anything right now. Twins forbid I step one toe outside the camp’s borders.”

Larissa nodded, her expression betraying the fact she agreed with that decision; a thought Dani was thankful she didn’t voice. Maybe her mother was right—she probably was, in fact—but that didn’t mean Dani wanted to hear it.

“There’s been no change in your sister’s condition, then?”

Dani shook her head. “Maddie’s been reporting back constantly even though there hasn’t been much to say. Mom and dad aren’t giving us much detail, but dad said the Healer seems confident her condition will improve, she’s just not strong enough to be moved yet. I don’t know. I’ll believe that when she’s here.”

Larissa nodded and they finished their meals in silence after that. The moment Dani’s plate was empty, the worker piled her own on top of it.

Dani took the plates without complaint and stood up, agreeing with a mock salute. Normally she hated washing dishes, but this time she didn’t care what she was asked to do. Whatever kept her mind from focusing on worst case scenarios.

Midday stretched  into the afternoon and Dani hadn’t left the kitchen. Despite several of the staff expressing concern over her insistence to take work off their hands, they also lacked the courage to outright refuse. The rest of the kitchen bore very few signs of the whirlwind of activity that took place just hours ago. The prep table was cleaned, all leftover ingredients appropriately put away in storage, the stoves were unlit and gradually cooling. Silence filled the space aside from her own breathing and the incessant scrubbing as she cleaned one of the metal serving trays used earlier in the day. She was about finished with it when a soft scuff of boot against floorboard reached her ears, approaching slowly, hesitantly, and Dani didn’t need to look up to know the origin of those footsteps. She was more than used to hearing them. “Hey, squirt.”

“Hey.” The greeting seemed to ease Sarah’s hesitation and she poked her head in through the doorway. “What did you do this time?”

“What do you mean?” Dani asked, setting the now-clean tray down on the prep table.

“Dad said you were here doing clean up, I figured you got yourself in trouble.” Sarah shrugged, walking into the room, pulling up a chair by the smaller table and sitting heavily. “Maddie wrote again,” she mumbled. There was another letter attached, though. Dad asked me to bring it to you.”

Dani joined her little sister, taking the seat across from her. Sarah dropped a sealed envelope on the table and waited expectantly for her to open it. The back of the envelope read “Runt” in uneven letters. She turned it around and saw the same nondescript wax seal she used while writing home from Newhaven. Inside, she found three sheets of parchment. The first one matched the same uneven writing from the envelope, the second was a drawing of a chicken.

Sarah peered from across the table and pulled the drawing from her hands. “Why did someone send you a chicken drawing?”

Dani snorted, trying to hold back a fit of laughter. “It’s, uh, sort of an inside joke, squirt. But you can keep that if you like it.”

“Why is it purple?”

The question finally broke Dani’s resolve and she exploded in a fit of hysterics, not helped in the slightest by the utter confusion plastered on Sarah’s face.

“Dani… What…?” Sarah mumbled, confused, but unable to hold back a small chuckle of her own. “Are you okay over there?”

“Yeah, yeah, I…Heh…” Dani coughed through her remaining traces of laughter and drew a steadying breath. “I’m okay. I just wasn’t expecting to see that, that’s all.”

“Who’s it from?” Sarah watched her closely, hazel eyes narrowing with suspicion. “Did you get a boyfriend in Newhaven?”

“What? No, squirt. I was in Newhaven for, what, less than a week? Of course not.”

Sarah didn’t seem convinced. “Girl… friend?”

“No.” Dani chuckled. “No. Finn is just a friend. They saw me drawing something for you when I was at the Inn, so… That’s what this is,” she tapped the drawing. “Just poking fun at me.”

“You drew a dragon, this is just a chicken.” Sarah deadpanned. “Don’t they know the difference?”

“Yes. I think this is just supposed to be a purple chicken. Do you want to keep it or not? Because otherwise I will.”

Sarah handed the drawing back. “You should put it on your wall. Your room still looks boring.”

Dani frowned. “Hey, I have one of your drawings up there now! I don’t need to cover every millimeter of wall space, you know?”

“You don’t have to, but why not?” Sarah smiled, but as she stared at the letters in Dani’s hands it gradually faded. “What do those say?”

Dani looked down at the two letters, the shorter one was from Finn; evident from the usual greeting of, “Hey Runt”. It was mostly well wishes. A lot of words were scribbled out as though they’d struggled with what to even write in the first place and the ones that made it into the note contained visible spelling errors. Dani briefly glanced at her sister, finding the writing reminiscent of how Sarah struggled with her own. It explained why they were so reluctant to write in the first place, and made her appreciate the effort, even if the contents were sparse. She folded the note and set it down, reminding herself to pen a response later.

“This one is just, you know ‘I hope you’re doing okay’ and that kind of stuff. Finn’s not that much of a wordsmith,” she told Sarah. She then picked up the second letter and barely contained a small gasp of surprise upon realizing who it was from. She stopped to listen for any sign of movement or activity in the hall outside, not wanting anyone to walk in and overhear what she was about to say.  “This one is from Mads. Do you want me to read it out loud?”

Sarah nodded.

“Okay.” Dani skimmed over the first paragraph, then went back to the start and recited it word for word. “Hey, Dani. I hope this letter finds you well; and sealed, I don’t know what the protocol is for personal correspondence. I’ve never had to send any. Either way, I hope you get it. I’m not sure how much detail your parents are giving out and I thought you’d want to know exactly what’s going on with your sister. If you already know, you can just ignore this first part.”

She looked up at Sarah. “Did dad give you any details?”

Sarah shook her head. “No. Just that she wasn’t well enough to come home yet.”

Dani put the letter down on the table, and leaned closer to look Sarah in the eyes. “Do you want to know? I need you to be sure about this, squirt. It’s probably not going to be easy to hear.”

Sarah held her gaze for a long moment, expression serious as she considered the question. “I know,” she mumbled, finally, “but not hearing it hasn’t been easy either.”

Dani stared down at the words inked into parchment in a script that looked almost unnaturally neat. She recalled Maddie bragging about being able to change her handwriting style, or mimicking others if she wanted, and wondered how much effort she dedicated into keeping a steady hand. Again, she read ahead before reciting the words aloud, and the more she did, the more she was forced to fight the urge to lie. To shield her baby sister from a reality she wasn’t sure she was strong enough to face herself. Throw that letter into a fire and say everything was going to turn out okay. Even if okay had never felt this far away before.

“Dani.” Sarah’s voice cut through her rushing thoughts, soft, but impatient.

Dani sighed, reminding herself that Sarah could usually tell when she was being lied to, and if Lena was there she would give her the truth. If she lied now and things took a worse turn, she’d only be adding betrayal to an already painful situation. She briefly met Sarah’s eyes, who looked back impatiently, and read, trying her best to keep her voice steady.

“The last time I saw Lena fully conscious was the night we arrived, before the Healer tended to her wounds. We spoke then and she warned me of the possibility she might not wake up. She’s lost a lot of blood and currently her body is fighting off a high fever that refuses to break despite the Healer’s best attempts. He seems confident that it still may. I’m no White Shadow and perhaps a week is not enough time, but if I’m to be perfectly honest I’m beginning to doubt.”

Dani paused, noting how the word ‘doubt’ was slightly smudged. She glanced up and met Sarah’s eyes, finding her sister’s expression surprisingly a lot steadier than she herself felt. 

“There’s more. Want me to keep going?”

Sarah took a deep breath and mumbled, “yeah,” the shakiness in her voice gave away dread in spite of her brave façade.

“I asked the Healer what will happen if the fever doesn’t break and he said that organ failure would then occur. Regardless there is no way to transport her home until she starts to fight back and show signs of improvement. Lena is the most stubborn person I’ve ever met and I’m sure she’d do anything to be able to go home, but she was already in pretty rough shape by the time we got here, and that recovery could be a long time coming.”

Dani stopped as she reached the next paragraph and froze, once again setting the letter down. When Sarah stared at her questioningly she said, “okay, squirt. Uhm, apparently Lena asked Maddie to tell us something in case she… In case she didn’t get a chance herself. Now, she thought that because it may take a long time for her to come home, maybe it would be good to know now. But she wants us to decide, if we want to read it or not.”

“Hmmm…” Sarah leaned back against her chair, staring up at the ceiling. “Did… Did you look?”

“Not yet.” After a moment’s hesitation, Dani folded the letter. “I’m scared to,” she admitted.

“It’s just words, right?” Sarah mumbled, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. “What are you so scared of?”

“If I read it, that’d be like admitting there’s a chance she won’t…” Dani forced the next breath out of her lungs and without second thought pushed the letter away, letting it sit in the center of the table between them. She couldn’t say it, she didn’t want to entertain the thought. Not yet. Lena was alive. She was still alive. Mourning was for the dead.

“You wanted to go to Newhaven.” Sarah muttered. “What if we just go? At least we’d get to see her.”

Dani shook her head. She’d thought about it. Multiple times over the past week. Even after she promised not to go anywhere; not leave the camp under any circumstance, she’d lay on her bed and stare at the map on the wall, pondering what routes would get her there faster; the safest. How many times had she snuck out of camp for childish reasons? How far had she strayed in the past without consequences? She could do it, she knew she could, and yet… A tired sigh blew past her lips as she stood up and turned away from the table; from that letter.

“We can’t do that to mom, Sarah,” she muttered. “It wouldn’t be right. Not when… No.”

“What if…” Sarah’s voice was weak behind her back. “What if the last time we saw Lena was the last time ever? And I just… I walked away. I didn’t even say anything. What if I never get to say I’m sorry?”

Dani ran both hands over her eyes and took a steadying breath before turning around to face her sister. Sarah was watching her through teary eyes, both hands on the tabletop, fingertips almost digging into the wood mere centimeters away from that folded piece of parchment.

“I… I don’t have an answer for that, squirt. I don’t think anyone does. Sometimes, things just happen that way. You don’t get to say everything you thought you’d get the chance to say later, because… There’s no later.” She walked over to her sister, crouching to meet her eye level. “And I don’t know if this is going to be one of those times. I really don’t.”

Tears pooled at the corners of Sarah’s eyes, trickling down her cheeks as she struggled to fight back a sob. “That’s not fair.”

“I know.”

“It’s not fair!”

Sarah’s voice echoed in the empty kitchen and broke into a whimper. All Dani could think to do was pull her little sister into a tight embrace and allow her to cry. Because Sarah was right. Nothing about this was fair, and as much as Dani wanted to think otherwise, they were both equally helpless. On her first day of assassin training, her mother told her that sooner or later, death would make itself a known reality. A constant weight on her shoulders; not just something to consider for one hour during Hourglass Night. Dani thought she fully understood what that meant after fulfilling her first contract, but at no point had that weight felt heavier than standing in that empty kitchen, listening to her little sister’s muffled cries, and knowing she was powerless to do anything.

Once Sarah was finally spent, Dani took the letter from the table and held it out for her to take.

“Here, squirt. Why don’t you keep this? Up to you if and when you read it. You don’t even have to tell me.”

Sarah took the letter with a silent nod and placed it in her pocket unread.

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