Normally the camp was sound asleep when the night-hunters returned, but the night was gone and the camp was buzzing with morning activities. Everything grew quiet as the night-hunters, their fur matted and stained with reddened sap, walked between the huts. Their strings of prey were dropped off mechanically on the butcher table; as one they walked to the lake and stripped off their death-ridden clothing to wash away what they could of the night’s events.
Lacey didn’t even think to be self conscious about the now-obvious budding wing folds that ran underneath her arms. She just scrubbed at the sap-sealed blood on her skin. The freezing water only seemed to make the sap harder.
A soft black hand rested on hers just as she was about to start clawing at her flesh. Lacey looked into Cooper’s shining eyes and envied the mask on her face. The lake water reflected Lacey’s face, a dark distortion against the light grey skies, but she knew all of her guilt showed on her face. How could it not?
“What happened?” Cooper asked, startling Lacey out of the reeling litany of reasons that this was her fault playing in her mind.
“N-nniva—” Star began, through chattering teeth, and then sank into the water as if she was melting. Berellan pulled her back up, keeping her head above the water.
“Niva is dead,” Berellan said, his voice deep and hollow. Tiny Tee mewled and came over to help him with Star.
Cooper snapped her hand back from Lacey. Yes, Lacey thought. Now she knows. I did this. It is my fault.
“What? Where is Blayd? Is Blayd ok?”
“He’s still in the Wood.” Lacey closed her eyes. The day-hunters were still out there and so was Devan. After they had buried Niva she had begged Blayd to find Devan first. She wasn’t sure what Blayd would do with him, but she knew what Goeden and the cats would do. She couldn’t have one more death on her conscience.
“Well come on now, you aren’t going to get clean in the lake, only catch your death.” A shiver passed through Lacey at Cooper’s choice of words.
The raccoon-woman herded them all to shore and brought them over to the bonfire. A crowd had gathered on the lakeshore, even a few Herd had come to the Hunter side to see what was happening. They scattered as Cooper shooed everyone back and sat the small party of night-hunters down at the fire.
“Don’t just stand gawking, make yourself useful.” Cooper clapped her hands and pots of hot water were brought over. Cooper began wiping Lacey’s arms with a warm rag. Someone threw a cloak around her shoulders. Three deer-women saw delicately to Star, her elongated weasel features crushed by the massive weight of her grief.
The warm rag felt good on her skin. Lacey watched as Cooper matter-of-factly wiped her stains away. But there were other stains, stains only Lacey could see. Every time she thought she had figured out a way to get everything she wanted, it all went horribly wrong and others suffered the consequences.
Lacey could see the pain in Cooper’s eyes, even though the raccoon-woman tried to stay on task. Niva was dead. The whole camp was grieving. All because of Lacey. She reached down to stroke Cooper’s furry ear. A sob escaped her black lips, but she kept busy. Once they were cleaned up, and huddled under blankets as close to the fire as they could bear, Cooper kept finding things to do. It was the way she dealt with her pain.
Suddenly the whispers outside the ring of firelight were silenced, and Ezerelle appeared. Lacey shrank back a little; the firelight sharpened the deer-woman’s angled features.
“Lacey, Star, Tee…my poor little ones,” Ezerelle’s voice was soft and mournful. She laid a hand on the hulking shoulders of Berellan, and stroked a thumb down the wet tracks in the white fuzz on Tiny Tee’s cheeks. “What happened?”
Lacey stood up and hugged the cloak tighter around her. She wanted to confess. Maybe then the stains would really be washed away. Everyone waited for her to speak; she started to shake. She couldn’t bring herself to do it. What would they think of her? What would they do?
The firelight flickered off wild faces, and clawed hands all around her. She remembered the claw marks in the dirt where someone had dug out the base of the tree, and knew what had happened. Goeden had once again killed someone she cared about. She shoved her guilt down and let the anger burn.
“Goeden!” The word burst out of Lacey, like an accusation. It was directed at Ezerelle as much as the devious rodent. “He killed Niva.”
Star gaped. Berellan rumbled. Tiny Tee squeaked, covering her whiskers with her little hands. Lacey hadn’t told them about the claw marks.
“A tree fell on Niva,” Berellan said, his giant brow furrowing at Lacey. Tiny Tee shook her head slightly. Lacey wasn’t sure if the mouse-girl was uncertain or merely warning Lacey not to speak of such things. But Lacey was not going to stay quiet.
“I saw a hole in the dirt, someone had dug out around the base of the tree.”
Ezerelle slid her arm around Lacey’s shoulders. Comfort radiated from the deer-woman, but Lacey could not forget the secret meeting. She stiffened.
The concern in Ezerelle’s eyes wavered, and anxiety painted her face for a moment. “Lacey, perhaps you should sleep. Let your head clear.” She motioned for Cooper to take her back to the hut.
“I know what I saw.”
Cooper patted her hand and tried to pull her away. “Maybe Ezerelle is right. Some sleep will do you good.” Her words were edged with fear. The other Wished shifted and murmured.
“There was a hole!” Lacey insisted.
“Perhaps the rain washed out the soil under the tree. It sounds like this was a terrible accident.” Ezerelle’s eyes pleaded with Lacey not to continue.
“There were claw marks in the dirt! How can everyone just turn a blind eye to everything he does? People are dying!” Lacey snatched her hand away from Cooper and spun around. “Goeden may have done this, or ordered it to be done. But all of you are responsible, because you just let him do it!”
Nobody would look her in the eye. Not even Star, whom Lacey had heard calling Niva her soul mate just a day ago. Nobody spoke, nobody moved, until finally Tiny Tee wiped at her face and sniffled.
Spell broken, Ezerelle heaved a great sigh and shook her head. “A tree in a storm is not a practical weapon. How could anyone know the exact time Niva would be walking in that exact spot, or control it precisely enough that it would land in that exact spot. I am sorry Lacey, but I just don’t believe anyone in this village is capable of such a thing.”
Now it wasn’t guilt that kept everyone from looking her in the eye. They all thought she was crazy. Lacey even started to doubt herself. She had seen the woodsmen take down trees. They used ropes and pulleys to control where it fell.
“But I saw… The tree was right along our trapline. Goeden had to know we would be there tonight…” Even as she said them the words sounded feeble in her ears. But then she realized something. “Where is Goeden anyway?”
Heads swiveled this way and that, but Goeden was not among the crowd, nor were any of his cats.
“Don’t you think it is odd that there are no day-hunters here?”
Lacey felt the strength of her conviction returning, the faces around her looked thoughtful, pensive. But just as she was about to return to her argument Blayd stumbled into camp. The crowd turned as one to see him heave a burden off his shoulders.
He held the limp body of Devan in his arms.
A/N: I hope you are liking the story and not too sad about Niva. That was really really hard to do by the way! Remember to vote and comment if you liked the story, and add it to your reading list if you haven't already! You guys are amazing!
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Lacey is a bat girl. Seven years ago, her mother wished at the well in the heart of the Wish Wood, transforming a young bat-ling into a human girl--mostly human. But Lacey is growing up, Mama has a real daughter now, the kids in town tug on her poin...