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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 - 32. Winter

By the time he went to bed the next night, the previous night seemed like a dream to Crowe. Not in the way that it didn't seem real to him - he would never forget what happened…how could he?...but that in a strong bout of depression came upon him. This was not like the moods that came and went like a rainy day, but a storm that blocked all else out. A heaviness in his limbs made it a climb to get out of bed. It would be easy to do so to lie in bed and let things go. The old man was drifting more and more lately, not so much as a fuss, but he knew better than to let himself become complacent. His condition came with an elasticity that knew no bounds.

So Crowe tended to Petras as he told himself he was meant to. For now this is the purpose the Great Tree has given me, he would tell himself as he cut up Petras's meat for dinner. I am doing my part in the Grand Design. That much he knew. Of course there was no getting away from the truth of how he felt; emotions can only be delayed, never denied. They revealed themselves in the ever growing pockets of stillness as winter dragged itself into spring. He did the things needed to keep himself and his charge alive. Yes, he knew how to handle himself with mana, but those skills had not come before he knew how to wield a blade and live off the earth. He foraged. He ate what he needed to. He fed Petras, bathed him, and read aloud from The Book of Leaves. There was a sort of peace and devotion that came in the repetition of these tasks.

In the moments when he would sit in the living room where he always used to sit, and he looked out at the white void outside, a sense of panic overtook him when he feared something outside might try to burst in and devour them. And there were moments when he knew exactly what that thing was: the truth.

The truth about Bennett.

The truth about what he'd done for Bennett, and how he'd known he could do it. And most of all the truth of what he knew was coming: things were about to get a whole lot worse.

Three days later Bennett's father showed up at the doorstep. He tried to seize Hansel in a hug; thankfully, due to his narrow build, he had little difficulty in evading the blacksmith. "It's a miracle!" Jeb fell on his knees, almost pulling the practitioner down with him. Crowe pressed his heels into the ground. He fought the earth for the strength to remain standing.

When the big man at last released him and rose to his feet, Crowe offered him tea in a trembling voice. Jeb nodded before seating himself at the kitchen table while Crowe put a pot of water to boil over the flames. They sat at opposite end of the table, sipping their tea, watching one another, hoping the other would speak first. What made the blacksmith think Crowe would be willing to take the plunge first? As far as he was concerned nothing existed between them but animosity. The tenuous truce that had been formed between them was over. Now we can go back to wanting to kill each other. “I wanted to bring Bennett,” Jeb said. He sipped tentatively at his tea. “Do you have anything you can put in this?”

Crowe grabbed the half full bottle of spirits from the cabinet. He filled their mugs to the top. Too much for his usual taste, but right now he needed every drop to have this conversation.

“I thought it would be good for you to see each other, but he refuses to leave the house.”

“He just needs time." Crowe sensed it was deeper than that. Jeb knew it too, he just didn’t have the courage to say it. That was fine, it didn’t need to be said. Bennett’s afraid of me. Bennett’s afraid of what I am. Not even the whiskey-spiked tea could save him from the agony the thought brought him.

“He should be over here, getting down on his hands and knees, offering you praise!” Jeb growled before gulping down the rest of his tea. Hansel scooted the whiskey bottle closer to him, which he accepted without hesitation. Liquid squashed as he emptied the rest of the spirits in his mug. When he looked up guiltily, Crowe waved a hand in a lazy dismissal: Have as much as you want…I don’t care.

"I didn't do it for your praise," Crowe said. His voice came out sharper than he'd intended. Why was this man sitting here at his table where he didn't belong? "I did because he is a friend who I care deeply about. He just happened to be part of the Grand Design." Even as he said these words, they left a black mark on his tongue.

Jeb bowed his head stupidly as if the boy had struck him between the eyes. When he spoke his voice came out grating and slow and full of regret. "It's you. It's the Perennial. And I almost shot you that night."

Upstairs the ringing of a bell saved Crowe from confirming the truth. Petras was up. For the first time, the boy was grateful for his intervention. He mumbled something about having business to attend to, and hastily climbed up the stairs. He'd the shame and stupid reverence on the blacksmith's face far more than the rage and disgust from nights past. When Crowe appeared at the foot of Petras's bed, his eyes were empty of recognition or sense. He stared around the room with the expression of a lost child that softened Hansel. We leave the womb without the ability to form thoughts or words and we return much the same way when the Great Tree takes us, he thought. "It's okay." He took Petras's fingers. They felt cold in his. Had Petras ever felt warmth? Was he even capable of it? "You're at home, in bed, safe. I'm going to take care of you."

Crowe helped him with the bedpan. Once Petras finished his business, Crowe clambered back down the stairs to get rid of the mess. Jeb had left, leaving his empty mug on the table, the only sign he'd been there at all.

Crowe breathed a sigh of relief.

 

 

When Bennett did appear, it was on the day every man old enough to lift a rifle left for the frontlines of the Scourge. When Crowe opened the door and saw the one person he’d ached over for many days past, he expected to feel surprise, relief, something other than emptiness. But as he looked at his best friend’s face, seeing that his hair was long enough he could tie it back into a ponytail, he felt numb.

“Bennett,” he said in a flat voice.

"Crowe,” was all Bennett said. And nothing more.

Something cold and icy pierced the veil guarding Crowe's heart. “Are you frightened of me?” he demanded in a faltering voice. After what I did for you. After what I gave up for you…

“I’m sorry,” Bennett said. “I’m sorry for how I’ve treated you. I’m sorry for being such a shitty friend. The night you gave me your blood I saw you for what you are. I saw the things you will have to endure and the things you will have to do in order to endure them. I am not just frightened of you, I am frightened for you.”

Crowe gulped, noting the rucksack dangling from one beefy shoulder, and the rifle on the other. “Going to get yourself blown up then, are you?” he asked coldly.

“Are you kidding?” Bennett said with a poor imitation of his usual cocky smirk. “You know how bad I’ve been want to get out of this fuckin’ town. It seems like this is the opportunity I’m going to get, I’ll take it.”

“I’ll start lighting candles for you in the window in hopes that you find your way to The Great Tree.”

Bennett flinched. The practitioner stood in the doorway of the house, his shoulders shaking with fury. He didn’t say anything further. He simply turned about and walked away. Crowe watched him grow smaller and smaller, until eventually he disappeared over the ridge of the hill; with every step that carried him further away from Crowe, the practitioner began to wither inside. Tears of anguish seared his eyes. He drowned and sputtered on the urge to call after Bennett, to go to him, and wish him farewell, but another force stitched his lips shut. Only when Bennett was gone from his sight did Crowe find the will to stagger back into the house and slam the door shut behind him.

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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