She was the smallest thing I had ever seen. She had been born under stressful circumstances and was premature by a few weeks but she was strong.
Every time I held her I forgot about my grief for a little while. My daughter's smiling face, so pure and innocent really did wonders to raise my spirits. Unknowing about the disaster that had befallen the pack she could smile unabashedly without sorrow.
I had held her throughout the funeral for her mother and Innoko and Roshan.
Roshan had given his life so that Kieran could escape with Nahta. The alpha and beta pair were inseparable these days. Nahta only had Kieran now. She had lost her parents and sister all within such a short time. She begrudged her mother for leaving, for not thinking her daughter a good enough reason to stay.
Nahta was so much like her mother I knew the grudge would always linger. The anger would help her though, at least for the time being. She was be too busy being angry to fall into a black hole of depression and with Kieran at her side she would pull through.
In time she could confront her anger and let that go too. For now it was a necessary crutch for her survival. She would be a bitch—like her mother—but it was a front she needed. She was a strong female. She was assertive and dominating and her attitude sometimes made her unlikable. It was a defense mechanism she used just like Innoko to keep people away.
Only someone truly understanding and soft would be able to put up with her. Someone with endless patience and the ability to let things roll of their back.
That's what Roshan had been for Innoko. He was a silent supporter. His presence had been enough for Innoko and somehow they had made it work between their drastically different personalities.
My daughter did not have a name yet. Winter and I had never really discussed it, deciding to wait until her birth to choose one. We hadn't known if she would be a male or female and we had wanted to know her first to pick a fitting name.
For now she was just my daughter.
I passed her off to the wet nurse before entering Malik's room. The boy had been unconscious until this morning, missing the funerals. His parents had been with him all afternoon but he was asking for me now.
Malik was sitting up in the bed, his head turned to the window. When I entered he stiffened but did not look towards me. His hands clenched the blanket in tight fists but there was no movement from him aside from that.
I took a seat in the chair pulled up to the beside. I didn't say anything, letting the silence fall around us. I didn't mind if there were to be no words exchange between us. I gathered enough to know he felt guilty but I wasn't going to ask for an apology he didn't need to give and I wasn't going to tell him not to apologize either if it was something he needed to do.
I did wish he would look at me though. I needed to see his smirking expression, his confident and degrading smugness. I wanted to see his evil grin that said he had secrets and plans.
I just didn't want to see anymore grief. I didn't need to look upon another sad face.
Not when we had managed to negotiate peace with the Foresters. We had told them this was their last chance and if we had to deal with them again in this lifetime we wouldn't stop until we killed every last one of them. We extended the olive branch during the time of chaos in the Forest Kingdom instead of using their weakness to wipe them out.
Each pack had individually accepted the treaty, deciding it best to return to their old ways without a King.
So it was.
A long sought after peace achieved after much suffering, loss and bloodshed.
I sighed, putting my face in my hands.
"I let you down," Malik said in a voice so quite it was almost lost in the silence. I looked up from my hands but he was still facing away from me. "You trusted me to take care of this."
I pursed my lips. It was true to some extent. I had trusted him, valued his skills and intelligence but it was foolish to believe all of the fault rested with him now.
"How could I not have known he had this planned? All of my spies and not a single word about this." Malik's shoulders slumped. "I sent you away just like Jeko wanted. I left her unprotected." He sniffled, his voice cracking. "I went to her, Sitka. I did my best to protect her in your stead but I–" his voice broke. "I'm smart Sitka but I'm not a very good fighter. I only managed to kill two of them."
"We all agreed that I should go to the mate fight. It was a pack decision, Malik. You didn't manipulate us, you told us the facts and it was a group decision." I looked at my open hands. "This one doesn't rest on you." I leaned forward. "And I am never going to blame you for Winter's death."
Malik turned to me then. The gashes on his face were still healing but they would leave brutal scars. His left eyes was a milky white with a bluish tint now, signifying he was blind in that eye. His lips quivered, wobbling as he tried to be strong and hold back his tears.
He just looked at me with such a grievous, pitiful, expression that I couldn't help but pull him into a hug. My actions broke the dam and he burst out in deep gasping sobs. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he repeated over and over as I hugged him.
"Malik, you were willing to give your life for Winter. You almost did," I kept my voice firm and unwavering because I certainly couldn't start crying in front of him or it'd only make him feel worse. "As for not knowing about what Jeko had planned ahead of time, none of us knew Malik."
Malik pulled away from me then, swiping an arm across his eyes. "But I'm not like everyone else," he objected.
I patted his head and ruffled his chestnut brown hair. "I think you forget you're still just a kid. You're growing and learning Malik. You can't possibly expect yourself to be perfect at fourteen years old."
The boy laughed. "My dad just told me I was perfect in his eyes so you're wrong."
I didn't even have to force the little smile that twisted up the corner of my lips. "Well there you go," I replied.
"Can I meet her?" Malik asked, "Your daughter I mean."
"Of course," I said already rising from my chair to go in search of her.
I didn't have to go far because the wet nurse was already bringing her back to me now that she was finished. She handed me the baby girl, cooing softly at my daughter as she set her in my arms. "Such a cutie," she mused, shooting me a little smile before scurrying off down the hall.
The baby gurgled, spittle bubbling up from her lips.
"Gross," I teased her, using my sleeve that was already dirty to wipe her mouth. I used my hip to push open the slightly ajar door as I brought my daughter over to Malik.
"I thought babies were supposed to be cute," he muttered looking at the baby that was reaching her chubby fingers out for him.
"She is cute!" I scolded him, frowning in protest.
Malik just gave me a disagreeable look, an uneasy expression on his face as I set my daughter down on his lap. "Err..." he looked completely clueless about what to do with the child beaming up at him, flailing about her arms and legs.
"You can touch her you know," I told him wryly, a little offended he seemed disgusted at the sight of my baby.
Malik grimaced but hesitantly reached down to pick her up. He held up from underneath her armpits, her legs dangling under her. "Um..." he titled his head back and forth as he examined my daughter. "I guess she's a little cu–"
He was cut off when my daughter suddenly sneezed.
Malik closed his eyes, his expression contorting into one of horrified disgust.
I laughed, the sound involuntarily forcing its way through my lips. "Sorry, I don't have anything for you to wipe your face with."
"Great," Malik grumbled, glaring at the baby. "I changed my mind. Not cute at all."
As if she could understand him, her face squeezed together and a sudden wail startled Malik to the point he nearly dropped her.
He hurriedly swung her over to me, practically throwing her into my arms. "It wasn't me!" He defended himself.
I just rocked my daughter, shushing her to calm down and giving her my finger to suck on and make her forget about whatever had upset her.
"What are you going to name her?" Malik ventured after the baby's sniffles were reduced to a sucking nose as she slobbered over my finger.
Instead of answering, "I haven't decided yet," which had become my automatic response whenever someone asked, I took a moment to really think about it.
I thought about my mate, hoping an answer would come to me.
Almost immediately a phrase rang through my head so clearly in my mate's voice I sucked in a sharp breath. "Ever," I breathed. "Her name is Ever."
In honor of my mantra that had kept me going until Winter and for my daughter who would keep me going forward.