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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

The Book of Leaves - 31. Remove the Head

The cold air burnt his lungs. A black tidal wave of panic threatened to engulf him. All thoughts of what had to be done vanished in the high priest turned his focus on him. Already two robed figures rushed forward to grab him. They would make him March up the platform and then it would be the end of him.

"No, no, you can't. Twin o'rre - "

It was not his own voice that helped him to clean on to the last shred of his sanity, but the lycan's. Barghast rounded on the Scarlet Priests, his lips frothing. He growled something in the language of the desert; a threat most likely. Crowe was tempted to let him have his way with them. Let him paint the snow with their blood the way they'd painted it with the blood of so many others. He grabbed the lycan instead. The Okanavian snarled once more, but did not direct his fury on the practitioner.

"You have to keep a hold of yourself, " he gasped. Terror's grip on him was so tight it was difficult to breathe, difficult to speak.

"No, twin o'rre, I won't let them - "

"You have to or we'll both die." Crowe ignored the clatter of boots behind him. He did not fight when gauntleted hands seized him roughly by the arms. He was simply too exhausted, too numb to do anything more than except his fate.

Once on the stage the High Priest's shadow fell across him. Eyes so dark and so blue gazed at him from the depths of the hood, Crowe felt as if he was drowning in them. He looked up into the narrow, deep set features. There was something familiar about them. I know you, he thought. I've seen your face before. Of course he had, when he drank the sap from the aether tree, his mind told him. But his body rebelled against the attempt at rational thought. There was something else at work here, something logic and reason alone could not conceive of. The man was so close Crowe only had to reach out slightly to touch him.

When he held out a gloved hand, it took all of the practitioner's bodily will not to flinch. Lapel light caught the rubied ring on the High Priest's finger. "Do you give your body and soul to the Scarlet Church? Will you become a vessel for Elysia's will?"

I will not. I am the vessel for Mercius’ will -

Another pair of cold eyes touched him. The woman from the farm. She was looking at him now, grinning from ear to ear. She recognized him. He recognized her. All she had to do was raise her voice and call and it would be the end of him. Instead she raised a finger to her lips, a vow of silence: I won’t say anything if you won’t.

He didn’t understand why she wasn’t saying anything. Was she playing with him? It didn’t matter. The High Priest, everything he’d come here for, was right here in front of him. All he had to do was act. I can end things right now. Every cell in his body told him he couldn’t. Everywhere he turned to look he was surrounded by the enemy. Even if he managed to do harm to the High Priest, his chances of killing him in this instance were close to none.

Crowe's throat seized, refusing to form words. With all of Fruimont watching, he nodded. "Yes."

The High Priest waved a hand and the young woman sitting beside him rose silently to her feet. She offered Crowe a fanciful dagger with blood-red jewels encrusted in the hilt.

Take it, take it, take it, take it…

He could kill her. He could kill them both.

“Prove it,” the High Priest said.

Crowe took the dagger.

He turned to face the condemned on legs that felt too weak to support him. The old man had not moved from his kneeling position on the platform; the shackles left no room for movement. His blood-curdling sobs had subsided into pitiful whimpers. Perhaps if Crowe stood there long enough, gawking like an idiot, the old man would freeze enough before the practitioner had time to do the deed.

Having momentarily forgotten about their existence, the practitioner risked a quick glance at the faces seated at the side of the platform. Particularly at the dark-haired narrow-faced man watching the scene with bloodshot eyes. Even with the weeks worth of gray-streaked growth on his face, Crowe could see how sunken and hollow the man’s cheeks were. Though the practitioner had never laid eyes on the man before today, before this horrible moment, Crowe knew he was looking into the defeated face of Benedict Matthiesen.

A memory that had been lurking in the back of Crowe’s mind, unbeknownst to him, shoved its way to the front, unwilling to be denied: Suddenly he was the boy Hansel again and Petras was showing him how to skin a rabbit. He remembered how the the white fuzzy creature had struggled and kicked, trying to break free from the cruel fingers of its captor. Hansel wept silent tears for it, but knew better than to speak on behalf of its life. Petras would only mock him for his efforts or throw him down in the cellar, and Hansel did not want to go back down there.

Seeming to divine his thoughts in that eerie way of his, Petras looked up at Hansel. His face softened to the boy’s surprise.

“What I am doing may seem barbaric to you,” he said, running the blade of the dagger across the rabbit’s neck. Hansel sucked in a breath, as the rabbit’s lifeblood seeped from its neck straight into the wooden bowl placed beneath its twitching legs. “Perhaps, if you’re not old enough to wish so already, you wish you were like all the children in the village, able to laugh and play and think foolish things the way all children do. Unfortunately, that is not your life and it never will be. We must all do things we don’t want to do in order to survive. There is no exception, not even you. And you will have to make those choices more than most.”

The rabbit’s movements were becoming less erratic, more sluggish. Its blood was almost black in the gloom of the house.

“If I did not kill this rabbit we would not have sustenance tonight, or the drive to get up and forage for food tomorrow. It's you or it.”

“What about a man?” Hansel asked.

“Men are no different from rabbits,” Petras answered. “Like you, they’re just trying to survive. When the line between life and death becomes that thin, it’s no longer a matter of morality. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do. Sometimes one good man, who doesn’t deserve to die, so thousands of good men don’t have to; and sometimes you have to be the one to draw the knife back…”

Once more the world tilted when someone shoved him once more, yanking him from the past. No matter how hard he tried to dig his heels in, the surface beneath his feet felt porous and unsteady. It was as if the very world was tipping over, falling off its axis, and no amount of meditation or direct action could right it back.

Exhaustion pulled at him like an anchor, but he pressed on, his body making the decision for him. He stood over the old man now, looking down at him. This is no rabbit, he told himself.

But he’d already made his choice, even as a voice screamed at the back of his mind in repudiation. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do. Sometimes one good man, who doesn’t deserve to die, dies so thousands of good men don’t have to; and sometimes you have to be the one to draw the knife back…

As Crowe repositioned himself so that the heels of his boots were pressed firmly to the floor, it was not of the life of the people in the square he thought about, or even his own life. He thought of Barghast and Jack standing out there in the square, watching him, counting on him to make the right decision. It was their life he chose over the life of this man.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, pressing the blade of the dagger to the man’s jugular. Tears scalded his eyes. Inside he felt something pitch forward and then shatter. Mercius, forgive me, he thought.

The man below him, who had been making his own prayers to the Great Tree, gagged on his words the first time Crowe brought the blade of the dagger across his throat. His blood was hot against the practitioner’s numbed flesh; the smell was so strong and meaty it made Crowe salivate. His feet kicked, making the chains clink against the stone, his body spasming. The tangled mass of his hair felt greasy in the practitioner’s fingers as he used one hand to support the head and the other to saw. Soon the guttural noises were drowned out by the wet pattering of red hitting the ground and the grisly sound of sharpened steel slicing through meat. Though the practitioner’s arm protested in exhaustion he kept cutting.

The best thing he could do for the man was get it over with as quickly as possible.

It was not quick. Beheading a man with a knife is not like skinning a rabbit.

The head parted from the neck with a wet, sopping sound. Crowe raised it into the air with both hands while blood continued to downpour from the steaming stump that had once been attached to a torso. He held it up for all to see the way a child holds a special rock up to a parent. Then he turned and offered it to the High Priest. “I swear fealty to you, High Priest, and to Elysia, Mother of the Void.”

The High Priest took the proffered head with a grin, as if what Crowe had given him was an everyday bauble. The dagger was also taken.

He clambered down the steps, exhausted, aching, and soaked in another man’s blood. The onlookers who had watched the execution with indifference scampered to get away from him - the people he’d come here to save were terrified of him. He didn’t blame them. I can only imagine how I must smell.

How he smelled was the least of his concerns. He had to find Barghast. He dove back into the sea of parting faces, wondering if he’d ever leave these treacherous waters, knowing he deserved nothing more than to drown in them. And still he waded forward, looking for the face of the life he’d traded for another - that was the excuse he gave himself. So that Barghast might live. So that we might have a chance if only the slimmest of chances…

But Barghast was not there. The place where the lycan had been stood empty as the grave.

He dropped to his knees in defeat. Somehow he’d managed to raise himself when he’d wanted nothing more than to bow down like the lowliest of mountains, but now there truly was no rising after this. He looked down at hands. Hands that were not his own, but the hands of a stranger, covered in another man’s blood, and screamed. His scream was the scream of an animal, high-pitched and agonized. Before long those screams was swallowed up by the screams of others as the executions continued on.a

Copyright © 2023 ValentineDavis21; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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