[P] And now I have finally seen the light
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March 7th. wow such plots much selfie [452]


Coli knelt in the melting snow, calmly dipping her hands into the mud to feel for the frozen ground beneath. The land was thawing bit by bit, but she knew the northern winter did not give up so easily. No doubt they would be hit by another snowstorm or two before Ostara rolled around. She shivered, and readjusted her cloak. She was however pleased to see the communal garden already had some hardy shoots of new life. Hopefully most of them would be strong enough to withstand the cold, and then she could replace those nature reclaimed with the seeds from last harvest. Every growing season she worked to expand the garden a little further, to accommodate their ever-growing pack.

Little Ninian had accompanied her on the walk, and was presently stomping and splashing in the mud in an attempt to mimic her mother’s hands-on task. The trio had received their Frithr pendants, and with it, their independence. They were old enough to explore the safe reaches of Jordheim, at least, and in another month or so their Vald Ríkr father would likely take them hunting and patrolling to begin teaching them of their adult paths. It was always too fast for Colibri, who wished she could balance family and work with the ease that Niernan did. If she could have remained in the house with her infants and her mate forever, she would have. She missed having Bel and Orvar around, too, because they seemed bigger every time she saw them. She felt so exhausted trying to keep up.

Fionna and Russano had grown so much and were beginning to speak their minds, ask questions about everything, and make friendships in the village. Ninian had proved a bit of a puzzle for her parents as the child was strangely quiet in comparison. Her father was concerned that she could be mute, but Coli insisted she had heard their daughter make noises during play. Coli had feared it was an anxiety like Fiora had suffered, but Nini proved she was not timid by any means — the boldness of youth often sent the small white pup clambering into situations that her mother had to rush and retrieve her from.

There was nothing to do but wait and see how Ninian grew, just like the garden (and perhaps add prayer for good measure). Coli swallowed the lump in her throat as she watched Nini gleefully muddy her pale fur, and as always was reminded that the littlest pup almost didn’t make it. Every day was a gift, so she should not fret over something as trivial as first words. She reached out and ruffled her daughter’s ears, and was rewarded with a happy nuzzle.


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The news had come to New Dawn, but not to her first. Saul’s sister was the messenger, and she had met another wolf at the borders, and the gossip spread that way – frustratingly slow for the one who did not engage in idle chatter. When the name finally reached her ears – how her heavy paws had torn up the frozen ground above the communal den, heedless of the stones that cut her pads open and cracked her nails. She had buried a treasure there, something to hover over her while she slept. Now she needed it back.

It suddenly made dreadful sense to her why Uncle Saul had looked so haggard at the Ausa Vatni. There had been no sunshine-blonde curls at the table, and Florina had not asked, nor had she been told the reason why. In her simple way, she thought there was no reason. Surely she would have been told. She had worried about her mother’s health, about her sisters’ safety, about rank and gender and true strength, about the pack she left behind and the pack she pledged herself to, but the one thing she had not worried about because it was impossible —who would have done such a thing. Only a monster.

Her treasure dangled from her jaws, still covered in soil from its safe hiding place. The wolfdog ran flat out, barely a hitch in her step from her recovering hind leg. The healing scar was deep and dark, sweeping claw marks that dragged from hip to hock. She bled to protect this pack. Florina had killed the wolfslayer bear, killed the rogue who stole Krys, killed the female who escaped Vináttan justice. She did not know who to kill to mete out retribution this time. She had not been there.

Florina outright told her it wasn’t safe on her own— I don't want you to end up dead in a ditch somewhere, that was one of the last things she said to her cousin. There was anger in her because her warning had gone unheeded, but it was nothing in comparison to the fury building in her with every step she took. Florina believed it was safer for her family if she was not there to break them, but oh, someone had come to break her sunshine-sister, and by the gods, she would break every bone in their body for it.



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#3
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A chill wind whipped her hair into her face, and Coli shivered, rubbing her arms together. The air temperature was dropping, and she was concerned a storm could be rolling in. Come on, Nini, let’s go back home where it’s warm, she called hopefully, and her daughter’s ears perked up in attentive recognition. Fionna showed promise with gardening itself, but Ninian just liked playing in the dirt and tracking it back indoors.

Perhaps they would get a nice sunny day soon where she could convince Fiora to join them and have a girl’s day planting seeds. Her boys – and she was counting Teagan in that group, because if Lochlan and Niernan were doing something outdoorsy, Teags was sure to follow – could have their own fun day in the woods. If she could just get Farina to come with, she was sure they could make happy memories together. Her warm smile grew at the optimistic daydream.

Abruptly Ninian went still, her pale eyes round as saucers. The pup’s posture grew stiff-legged, and creamy fur rose in a downy ridge along her spine. Coli gaped for a moment at the uncharacteristic aggression in her child before her own gaze fell on what had spooked the little Stormbringer. She drew her breath in a sharp hiss through her teeth, and scrambled to her feet.

In the nearby woods, there was a wolf silhouetted in the shadows of trees. The large canine barreled on all fours directly for them, and for a brief moment of horror, the bulky lines of its halfling form made her think of Haku. Colibri’s blood ran cold, and she stood paralyzed at the sight.

Stay away from my Mama! shrieked a tiny voice, hoarse and faint, which dissolved into pained coughing. Coli stared dumbly at her youngest - she spoke! - before she was galvanized to step forward and shield her bodily from the threat. She was no fighter, but she would do anything she could to keep harm from her pups. But the wolf had halted in front of them, its bared teeth grasping a muddy object that dangled on a string. Spattered with mud, paws bloodied, and haunch slashed open in a dreadful wound, Colibri had not even recognized her own daughter.

Florina, gods, wh-what happened? You sc-scared me half to d-death! I never even heard you call at the borders… ah… are you trespassing? Coli stammered in confusion, anxiety coiling in her stomach.

Something was very wrong. Silver eyes blazed at her with an intensity that left her trembling, and even Ninian’s little body was pressed against her leg for support.




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She plunged over the border of her once-home without a thought. No one stopped her. She could have been an enemy striking at the heart of Jordheim, and no one stood in her path. She ran wild through the pine forest, barely weaving around the trunks of trees when the juggernaut wanted to smash right through them. Her tireless limbs knew exactly where to take her even as her mind raged on, and the journey was a blur of familiar landmarks before the garden came into view.

Of course her mother was there – fooling around with plants in the dirt instead of forming search parties, patrolling the border, being a leader and protecting everyone under her. Florina saw the gaunt lines in her mother’s frame (recovering from illness but much too slowly), and remembered how brittle her bones were underneath that paper-thin skin rent with scars.

She could not even take care of herself, let alone her kids, and least of all an entire pack. Flori glowered as her little sister yipped at her, and Colibri finally spluttered something in recognition.

You let this happen and you didn’t tell me, Florina growled, and dropped her treasure to the ground.

It was a pair of lumpy mittens strung together, painstakingly hand-stitched by a beginner with a needle. They were fashioned out of rabbit hide with the pliable leather on the outside, and downy fur lining the interior. They were her birthday present from Sólieri. She had cherished them long after Sóli went back home to her father, and kept them hidden from Zalen and Raeka and anyone who would question why she had such a thing she never used.

Florina had been cursed with her mother’s sentimentality. She ran on instinct, strength, logic, and yet this flaw crippled her. It was what kept the Frithr pendant around her throat long after she left home, it was what made her steal Kerrian’s blue jay feathers and tie them to the cord as her trophy, and it was why the sight of Sólieri’s mittens now made her want to kill in the worst way possible. Her talons sank deep into the cold earth, anchoring her from flying into a rampage when her mother’s expression registered confusion instead of a satisfactory response.

You told me your family was more important than leadership. Sólieri is family. Why did you let this happen? Why haven’t you gotten her back?

There it was – the dawning look of guilt and wretched sadness settling in a pall over her mother’s countenance. That was what she needed to see.




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#5
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[484]



There was nothing Coli could say to justify her niece’s continued disappearance. Of course she felt sick over it. Everyone in the pack tried to keep their eyes and ears peeled for word of the abducted Stormbringer, but there had been so little to go off of that no progress had been made. Saul was suffering terribly in the meanwhile, and Coli no longer knew where to find Lilin. Coli wanted to say she was handling day-to-day issues to try and free up the Virding for searches, but it was a poor excuse when she had done little for the pack since her litter’s birth.

The Sannindi wilted, and turned to look down at Ninian, who was confused and upset by the tense confrontation. Nini, honey, I need you to be a big girl and run along home to Daddy. Mommy has to have a grownup talk with your big sister. Do you remember the way back all by yourself? she murmured gently, halfheartedly hoping to hear the pallid girl speak again. Her pup leaned harder against her leg, silently unwilling to leave her.

A sad smile tugged at the corners of Coli’s lips, and she added, I thought you were a brave explorer who knew the way, but all right, I can carry you home like a baby if that’s what you’d rather. That did the trick, and with a huff, the white cub scampered off in the direction of Jordheim.


Coli gulped nervously before meeting the accusatory glare piercing through her. Her heart was hammering in her chest so quickly it was making her light-headed. Now, F… Flori, I… I didn’t tell you because I thought we could find her by now and you wouldn’t have to worry, she murmured weakly. A loud growl rumbled from the wolfdog.

We were able to find Carya because there was a trail and they stayed close by in Amherst, but we haven’t given up this time either, she added faintly. Sóli and Carya had not fallen prey to the same male as far as they could tell, and that made it all the more frustrating to have no leads.

What do you mean? Carya was taken too?

The truth was unpleasant, but she needed to share it. Colibri cringed, ears flat against her mane. Yes, she admitted, and the wolfdog’s growl rose in crescendo. We brought her home safely, just like we found Aspen and Rúni when they went missing, and I swear we will find Sólieri the same way. Have faith, Florina. Bad things happen all the time, but good will prevail in the end.


How strange it was to hear herself say that to the daughter born of a terrible act of violence. Even though she didn’t know it, Flori and her sisters were the good that prevailed from a bad thing. Coli never used to have such faith before they came along.






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[528]



Her mother’s faith was different from her own, even if they invoked the same names. Florina did not believe that Vinátta’s gods rewarded such passive worship – she had faith that they had chosen her for greater purpose, and her actions were their tribute. She was the weapon of Valkyries, blessed and impervious, and she claimed the lives of the unworthy once judgment was passed on the battlefield. Vináttans fell prey to evil again and again, and were the lawbreakers punished? Was the border protected from further breaches? Where was the savior to strike down the monster who stole Sólieri from their fold?

Her rage was focused into a tempered steel glare, sharp as a blade. This had gone on long enough. Sentimentality made Florina stay too long in New Dawn, where she had genuine friends, a warrior rank she was proud to have earned, and a partner she had shared herself with so fully that she did not know how to break away. She gave them her blood in defense of their lives, and they never had to question her dedication. Sentimentality had left her fragile mother in charge of something she was never equipped to handle, and it was rotting the pack from the inside out, as Colibri poured energy into it and dwindled to skin and bones. Amidst all of the inner turmoil and the hooks of guilt pulling her in every direction, Florina finally understood what had to be done. And she hated it.

Mom. You’re weak. You have not been fit to lead for too long, and packmates like Sólieri suffer for it. I challenge you for the title of Sannindi!

Colibri’s wounded gasp made her tall ears flatten against her skull, though her tail flagged high in brazen dominance. Flori had taken action, and the events were now set in motion. She would not back down – this had to be done for the greater good. Her family would hate her for this, even more than her first betrayal, but she was strong enough to weather that now.

She had been a child when she broke her mother’s wrist and ran away from home, stubbornly unwilling to face the consequences. She was an adult now, and she knew how to shoulder responsibility no matter how weighty. This was how she would repay her debt and keep her loved ones safe. Farina and Fiora had stood at her side at the Ausa Vatni; she wondered if they still would now. They could hate her as long as they still lived.

The wolfdog stared unblinkingly as Coli sank to her knees, shock and hurt stamped all over her expressive face. Her resolve did not falter as she watched her mother wilt like a flower before her, because it only proved her point. There was no will to defend the rank and fight back. Florina could not dwell on the lingering regret for what would come next: resigning from her post as Epsilon of New Dawn. She swallowed, and spoke gruffly again.

If family means more to you than leadership, prove it. Step down and be with your family. Let me defend my home and redeem myself.






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-fin- [709]



Florina spoke a harsh truth, and Coli could not refute it no matter how much it stung to hear aloud. The muddy ground was cold and wet, but Coli was numb to it as she drew the cloak around her kneeling form. Her chest ached from the dizzying pace of her heartbeat, and it was difficult to draw breath.

She had known all along that she was too submissive for the mantle of true leadership, but she had stepped up to the challenge and did the best she could with what she had. She only wanted to help the pack she had founded, ease the strain on Saul and Lilin for a while, and become someone her daughters could be proud of when they were old enough to understand. She had never really been in charge – that was for the Virding alone.

Knowing that someone had enough faith in her to give her that chance had carried her through the darkest of days. She would always have that. She was a better person now than she used to be, but she had outlived her usefulness, it seemed – there was now a more worthy candidate to replace her, and Vinátta would be better for it. She could watch her kids grow up, and spend all of her time with the mate she adored. Was it selfish to step down from her duties? Or was it selfish to stand in the way of one who could perform them better than her? She considered it, long and hard, and recalled what she had just thought about good prevailing. Could Florina even do this?

Florina had been away for so long, and she was still young despite her maturity. Zalen insisted Florina had strong leadership capabilities in New Dawn, but Coli had no way of knowing how accurate that was. And would anyone accept her wayward daughter? If Saul were to name a successor, surely he would rather one of his trusted allies like Palaydrian, Bran, Shiloh… her Niernan was one of the strongest candidates, near and dear to both of their hearts. Saul had once been uncle to Flori and filled the role of the father she never had, but she did not know whether he would ever trust her now.

But… it was her title to pass on, and if she insisted, she knew she could give Flori the reins. It could be the leap of faith that her daughter needed to finally absolve her of the guilt she harbored. Coli had long forgiven Florina for the accident, but her daughter had exiled herself until now. If she was denied this, she would never return. Was this the right choice for both of them? She would have to consult Saul before anything could be made official…

Gods, her chest felt so tight it was painful. The dizziness made her vision swim, but she forced herself to concentrate on the decision at hand. Florina was completely right. She was weak, and she needed rest to heal herself if only for the sake of her family.

Even if she chose someone else to replace her, she could not go on as Sannindi. The realization was exhausting, and her head drooped, shoulders slumped in defeat.

I… I have to talk to Saul… but I… I will step down.

There was silence. She had not noticed Florina shifting, but she felt the strong arm wrap around her shoulders and help her upright. The small wolf leaned heavily against the supportive bulk of her kin, trembling in sudden relief.

Her fluttering eyes lingered on the muddy pair of mittens now strung around the wolfdog’s neck, which dangled close to her battered Frithr pendant with a pair of blue feathers tied to it. Losing Sólieri and her pack all at once — this was not a power grab, it was a sacrifice. And it would only get lonelier.

Flori, I… I’m so sorry, she whispered into the cream fur.

The hands that engulfed her small fingers were surprisingly gentle as they led her back to Jordheim, and only let her go once she was home in her bed with Nini cuddling against her. Before she heard the door click shut, she heard Florina’s low mutter.

...I’m sorry too.







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