"How can you call this justice? They get attacked, and now the perpetrators get a chance at honour and glory as their punishment?" Niamh raged at the alpha primes when they returned from meeting with the camp leaders.
The twins were trying to balance the need for justice with the need to keep their army working together in defense of the territory. Hayden looked apologetically at his daughter. "They didn't come away unscathed. The one male lost his arm and I only barely managed to save Ragre's life from the gut wound."
"So Roedin defended her! But if he hadn't been there, if they had been successful in assaulting Avery, then we could finally punish them? Do you realise how wrong that is?"
Roedin put his hands up. "Please keep your voice down. She needs to sleep."
Adelyn gave him a terse look. "She's not a child, Roe."
"No, but she's hurting and exhausted. Allowing her to rest will at least give her a chance to deal with this," Roedin snapped.
Bryant gently laid a hand on his brother's shoulder. "She's alright, Roe. We'll look after her."
"Yes, we've been doing such a good job of that," Roedin spat. He stood up from the table abruptly and stalked to the window. "They likely would never have known she was there if I hadn't…"
Hayden interrupted. "But because you were there, they didn't. You stopped them and she knows it."
"And now they get to march off to battle for the honour of the Ancestors," Niamh spat out bitterly. "I bet they really regret picking that fight now."
Hayden took a deep breath to keep his calm. "The scouts reported what appeared to be an large group of anymles marching across the farmlands of the Dimok Valley burning the fields as they go. We're going to respond to the threat while letting the soldiers blow off some pent up energy. It's a good opportunity to test them out."
"I also couldn't help but notice that the females were once again denied the chance to participate. So a sexual predator is on the battlefield but those who might truly want justice are denied the chance to exert it. Yes, this sounds fair," she added.
"Actually the females are allowed to participate," Adelyn corrected. "They've just 'chosen' not to. Apparently they feel they aren't ready." She pursed her lips in frustration.
"They probably don't feel ready because they aren't being given the training they deserve," Bryant added.
"Maybe. But more likely they're being forced by social pressure to stay away," Hayden clarified.
"So make them! You're the Alpha Prime, tell them to step up and defend our lands!" snapped Niamh.
Hayden looked at her in disgust. "Is that how we do things now in Corinth? Conscription? Pressing anymles into service so we sacrifice them instead of precious sapiens? Think it through, Niamh! I send them to battle when I know perfectly well they haven't been adequately trained, and they are killed, thus ending the family's bloodline. If you're looking for a rebellion, there are easier ways to start one!"
He was getting tired of being the villain in this story. There were no easy answers but he needed to work with the anymles. They were a key part of Corinth and his responsibility.
Niamh pushed away from the table in anger. "You make it sound like you're flipping a coin and deciding their fate. I'm saying they have rights and should get to decide it themselves."
"That's not fair," Adelyn intervened.
Niamh stalked to the door, grabbing her coat off the hook. "I'm going to talk to them. The females had better be in the training ring and we'll see who's really ready." She stormed out of house.
Adelyn hurried across the room to follow her out. "Niamh, wait! Let's go together." The females stalked off into the camp.
The males remained at the table nursing their drinks and picking at the remnants of dinner. Hayden glanced at Roedin briefly, wondering how he was handling the attack on his mate. They were lucky Roedin hadn't killed the males in the gang, though Hayden wouldn't have faulted him if he had. The lack of discipline was deplorable and he hoped a small battle would cull the herd. At least take some of the edge off.
Roedin gave the appearance of control but Hayden knew what it was to see your mate threatened. He also knew what it was to have a mate who was strong, intelligent, stubborn, and independent. But where Sari had power and sapien abilities, Avery was human and so fragile. Strong, but still human.
He heard the creak of the stairs and looked up to see Avery standing in the doorway. She had washed the blood off and slept most of the day, but her eyes were hollow and her posture sagging. His heart cracked when he saw how she hovered by the stairs nervously, her eyes darting around the room.
He waited for her to say something witty. She would crack a joke, a sarcastic comment. She always tried to make light of things and brush them off, as if she felt that life was too short to take it too seriously. But not this time. Now she stood with her back to the wall and wariness in her eyes.
Guilt swept through Hayden. He had invited her to come, promised her safety. Roedin had practically begged him to not bring her to camp and Hayden had brushed him off, saying he could handle the anymles. But he couldn't handle a human whose past haunted her and made her behave…unpredictably. He turned his face away in shame.
Roedin moved towards Avery but she didn't step into his embrace like they all hoped. The damage had been done; the trust that had been built up was broken down again.
"Did we wake you?" Roedin asked gently. Avery shrugged a shoulder and looked down at her feet. She hugged her arms to her chest protectively, and chewed on a fingernail.
Bryant moved to the stove to dish out some food. "Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat? I made it myself." It was a forced lightheartedness, like he was really proud of his cooking and wanted her to try it. Avery nodded and tried hard to give him a smile. It was a start.
She approached the table and sat down next to Hayden as Roedin placed a cup of tea in front of her and took a seat. She reached for the cup but dropped it quickly with a quiet hiss. Both her palms were raw and bleeding slightly. She caught Hayden looking at them and grimaced.
"I broke a glass and tried to clean it up, but I was…in a hurry."
Hayden nodded and met her eyes. "I can fix them for you, if you'd like. It won't hurt at all." She nodded and turned her raw palms up, slowly extending them to Hayden. He took them gently in his own hands and quickly closed the cuts with his magic. He detected another injury.
"Where else?" he asked softly. If she was surprised that he knew, she didn't show it.
"The back of my head. I used it to break his nose. But, based on my headache, I think it was a draw."
There it was, a small glimmer of Avery-humour. She was hurt but not broken, and just needed process it. She had, after all, been through much worse. A stone settled low in Hayden's stomach at that thought.
He gently placed his hand on the back of her head. Her flinch was almost imperceptible. Almost. He wasn't offended, just sad that the trust they had was so fragile.
There was a bump the size of a goose egg and a small cut where her scalp had split open. It must have bled profusely but likely mixed in with the sapien blood she had been drenched with. He closed it easily and smoothed out the bump and she sighed with relief as he pulled the headache away as well.
When he finished she blinked her eyes open and gave him a small smile. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. It's the least I can do."
Bryant returned to the table and pushed a bowl of stew in front of her and she grasped a spoon but held it just above the food. She stared at the bowl and swallowed painfully without moving.
"Shit," Roedin muttered under his breath. He snatched the bowl away, quickly carrying it over to counter and began digging through the cupboards. Hayden glanced at Bryant but neither male saw the problem.
"It's fine, Roedin. I'm sure it's delicious," Avery said unconvincingly.
"No, no. There's something else here to eat," Roedin reassured her.
Bryant, for once, refrained from making a wisecrack about her not liking his cooking. He stepped up to the counter with his back to the table.
"Maybe if you told us what was going on, we could help you out," he muttered.
Roedin didn't pause as he collected some cheese and crackers and poured a fresh glass of milk.
"It's the stew. She made stew for me when we were trapped at the cabin," Roedin whispered under his breath. "It was insensitive for me to not think it would trigger a memory." Bryant put a fist to his mouth and closed his eyes.
Roedin returned to the table and Avery immediately downed the milk and reached for the snacks. She couldn't hear the males talking but she guessed at what was said.
"It's alright, Bryant. You didn't know. I'm sure it's very good though," she gave him a sad smile.
Again Hayden was wracked by guilt. She had been attacked in his own camp and was now trying to reassure his captain of the guard that his cooking was acceptable.
"Would you like to go back to the city?" Roedin asked her suddenly.
She looked up at him with large eyes. "Where are you going?"
Roedin was torn. He wanted to send her home to safety but she clearly didn't want to go without him. "We're going to stop some rogue anymles who are attacking farms in the country. All the warriors will go to practice, and see how a battle is organised."
A flash of panic came across Avery's face. "You're leaving?"
Hayden stepped in. "All the males are leaving. Niamh and Adelyn are going to stay with the females to continue their training while we're gone."
Avery chewed while considering this. Hayden could practically see the wheels turning in her mind as she processed her options.
"I'll stay with the females then," she concluded. "Sounds like we have some things to talk about."
Bryant leaned back on the counter grinning. Roedin clenched his jaw, frustrated with Avery's decision but respecting it. It would have been easier for him if she had returned to Corinth but he had to let her make her own choices.
"Do you think I could have some of that stew, please?" Avery asked. Hayden just smiled as Bryant grabbed the bowl.
They collected at the edge of camp where fires were lit and ceremonial herbs were smoking. The morning sun had just reached the hillside and the wind was calm. The new trainees tried not to look nervous as the experienced warriors sharpened their blades and flexed their muscles. Younglings ran about, giddy with excitement.
Bryant supervised the preparations while Hayden and Roedin consulted a map to determine where they should open the slipstream. It would take a lot of their power to move such a large group, but they didn't want other primes opening streams in the wrong spot.
Niamh wore her own armour in a show of strength and Hayden could feel the fury pouring off Adelyn, the taste of power and strength carrying on the wind to the warriors across the circle. He could even hear a few hisses now and then as they shot predatory looks at her. Hayden knew she was doing it on purpose to get them riled up. She hadn't succeeded in convincing any females to go to battle and was seething in frustration. Hayden didn't doubt she would have loved it if one of the anymles lost control and attacked her.
He shot Adelyn a warning look but she deliberately didn't meet his gaze. To the side he saw Avery shift slightly closer to Roedin. Even the human had picked up the scent of tension in the air.
Ragre milled about with the warriors, unwilling to be be left behind even though he was severely injured. His torso was heavily bandaged and he walked slightly hunched to take pressure off his side. It was with no small amount of satisfaction that Hayden thought of how painful it would be for him to fight. As Ragre approached the group, Hayden saw Avery's hand reach out slightly and grasp Roedin's. His brother's eyes widened in surprise but he didn't take them off Ragre as he walked by.
Hayden was about to open the stream when a commotion broke out among the males. He heard gasps on the far side of the circle and looked over to see a female Tigris anymle approached the circle. She bowed low to Hayden and Adelyn.
"Are you sure?" Adelyn muttered under her breath.
The female stood tall and spoke with a strong voice. "I have been blessed with three sons. My line will continue if the Ancestors take me on the battlefield. But my legacy will be one more step for the betterment of all anymles, and my sons will carry that forward if I don't return."
Some of the males cried out behind her. "She has borne male triplets! She is too valuable to go into battle!"
"She must be kept for breeding!" another shouted.
Hayden looked over and saw one male in particularly staring her down silently. The female warrior glanced over but he nodded once. Her husband was in support, a rare couple indeed. Twins were considered sacred amongst most sapiens and triplets were practically holy. That this female had borne them, and had the support of her husband to take up the sword, was unfathomable.
Hayden accepted her nomination and gestured to Roedin to open a stream. The Myotes closed his eyes and drew on his power, digging dip in order to create a large enough stream to slip such a group. He raised his hands and thrust them out in front of him, holding the stream open as Bryant led the warriors through.
Hayden turned to Adelyn. "We'll be back in a few days. I'll get this lot to flex their muscles and blow off some steam, then we'll return once the blood-lust has dimmed. If we come back straight after the battle, the hormones will be uncontrollable."
Adelyn rolled her eyes. "Fight smart, little brother."
Hayden smirked. "Only by a minute," and opened his own slipstream to transport the rest