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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 24. Episode Three: Fruimont

Benedict Matthiesen lay in bed, listening to his wife’s breathing. Sheathia was laying on her side, head resting on top of the crook of his shoulder. Her breathing was regular, hinting no signs of nightmares. The same could not be said for Matthiesen. Though the room was dark and silent, nightmare images and sounds taunted him. Every time he fell asleep he awoke moments later with only Sheathia’s soothing voice and kisses to lull him back to sleep.

Earlier today he had stood in Fruimont’s square and witnessed thirty-seven people, a mixture of men, women, and children being crucified by disciples of the Scarlet Church. He’d listened to their cries for mercy, their eyes boring into his, the sense of betrayal in their tormented faces. He saw crimson splatters of blood coloring the white snow like paint across a milky canvas, heard the metallic clanging sounds as the hammer pounded the nails deeper and deeper into flesh mingled with agonized screams. Their charges: for refusing to bend the knee and swear themselves to the Scarlet Church and their ways. The looks of confusion and betrayal were reflected in the crowd forced to watch, for to witness these punishments was now mandatory.

What would his father have thought if he were to see his son today? What would he say?

He knew they expected him to put a stop to it somehow, some way. He was the mayor of Fruimont after all and it was his job to make sure they were protected - that’s what Matthias Matthiesen would have told him. You do what needs to be done for your people, no matter the cost. How many times had Matthias told him that, his breath stinking of whiskey, before taking his last drink and never taking another? Matthias would have done more; he wouldn’t have just sat around feeling sorry for himself while his city burned and rivers of blood ran through his streets.

But there was nothing Benedict could do now, or his father, for he was no longer mayor and Matthias was dead. Damen Orlys had taken over the mantle, keeping Benedict and Sheathia and their two children, Nicholas and Elise, around to watch his city fall. Not even during the days of the Eurchurch-Practitioner War did Benedict think he would witness such a terrible event.

You could try to do something. But you won’t because you’re afraid of the consequences: because he’ll kill your wife and children even though families are losing their children out there every day.

The executions were bad but they weren’t the worst. Since the Scarlet Church had invaded Fruimont the wards that kept demonic threats at bay had been taken down. Within a week’s time there were already reports of several possessions. Any healers or Eurchurchman associated with the Eurchurch had been executed: crucified or flayed alive depending on what mood Damen was in so there was no one to help the inflicted.

Benedict was haunted by his failures most of all. His own children were looking for him to do something, to get them out of this catastrophe. How could he explain to them he was utterly helpless? The most he’d managed to do was send a letter to the Eurchurch in hope they would send some relief. He particularly hoped Loras would find a way to convince Drajen to act. Now he was waiting...waiting for a response, trying to keep an eye out, hoping he could get the response - if there ever was a response - before it was intercepted.

It all seemed hopeless. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d felt so old...so helpless. Within a month’s time, the well son of the respected man who had aided Loras Gyrell’s campaign against Pope Drajen was but a cowardly shadow of his father.

Benedict could no longer lay in bed. He had to get up and move around. His thoughts would not let him be. He’d given up on the prospect of sleep. He gently lifted Sheathia’s head and set it down on the pillow. He knew the peaceful expression on her face was just an illusion; she was just as emotionally exhausted as he was.

He climbed out of bed and padded over to the wardrobe in the corner of their spacious bedroom. He slid into his bathrobe and slippers and stepped out onto the balcony of their large penthouse apartment, closing the door gently behind him to keep the cold night air from seeping into the room. Even in the late months of summer it was freezing cold in the North. Even as he looked at the squared buildings clustered together, snowflakes drifted silently from the sky, carried by ice-tinged gusts of wind. Tonight the streets were practically deserted. The eerie silence unnerved Benedict.

Up until a month ago the streets within the downtown area would be crowded with merchants trying to sell their plunder, cabbies, and prostitutes. How quickly the city he’d ruled and loved had changed under the cruel rule of Damen Orlys, High Priest of the Scarlet Church - within the blink of an eye. Now the only people who walked the streets were the Red Wraiths, armed with rifles. The number of men and women patrolling the streets had multiplied since many of Benedict’s patrol men had converted to Red Wraiths for fear of being executed. Though Benedict could not entirely blame them from converting so quickly (not after he’d done nothing to put a stop to the executions), their betrayal still stung. Some of them had been friends. Even the city’s officials who had worked closely and loyally with him were now in Damen Orlys’s pocket.

Pulling out a wooden pipe from the pocket of his robes, Benedict filled it with a bulb of jalasa and lit it with a match. Smoke plumed into the wintery air as he took a drag and blew out the smoke. He was a tall, lanky man with broad shoulders and long salt-and-pepper hair which seemed to have more white in it with each passing day. Normally, under the unwavering guidance of Sheathia’s firm admonishments, Benedict kept himself clean-shaven. For the past seven days he’d neglected to shave and so now the lower half of his face was covered in bristly stubble.

Why don’t you do anything? a voice teased him. Why do you just stand there, smoking your pipe, staring forlornly at a city that you no longer recognize?

Because any attempt to stop it would only make it worse. Damen Orlys doesn’t just command his disciples and the Red Wraiths, but is in league with demons as well.

This was what he tried to tell himself, a false reassurance. Every waking second of every endless day, this mental conversation warred within him. One second he would feel frightened for the lives of his wife and children and the next he would feel a fury so strong he feared he would explode...only for the fear and exhaustion to stomp out the flames.

He saw a hint in the sky where the sun was starting to rise: a small light in an expanse of black. Over the first few days of this nightmare he’d seen the first signs of night turning into day as a good omen; this nightmare was temporary and would pass; the Eurchurch would send help and take back the city. When this did not happen and he didn’t get a response to the letter he’d sent off, Benedict accepted it for what it was: a false sense of hope.

When Benedict could no longer stand the cold, he went back into the bedroom and crawled underneath the sheets. Not once while he’d stood outside had Sheathia moved. She had slept heavily for the last week and a half, sometimes throughout most of the day, leaving the kids in the hands of their nanny. Benedict was worried about her, worried about all of them.

He wrapped his arms around her and settled his chin gently on top of her head, breathing in the smell of the lavender and vanilla shampoo she used and waited for the start of another nightmarish day to begin.

 

...

 

Moments later he heard the door open. That would be Tilde, Nicholas and Elise’s nanny. Even with the state of chaos Fruimont found itself in, Tilde still showed up promptly at seven a.m. in the morning. Though Benedict and Sheathia told her there was no point in risking her life to be there, Tilde would shake her head adamantly and say, “There’s nowhere I’d rather be in these dark times.”

Listening to the sound of her light but familiar footsteps, Benedict smiled sadly. If there was anyone who would remain loyal to his family it would be Tilde, even if it meant being crucified for showing her faithfulness. The kids loved her and she loved them immensely in return and though Benedict knew Tilde would never say it out of respect for their parents, she viewed Nicholas and Elise as the kids she never got to have.

Benedict forced himself to get out of bed once more, being careful not to wake up his wife, and dressed himself. It took longer than it should have. His limbs felt as if made of hollow wood, his longer fingers, usually quick and graceful, fumbling clumsily with the buttons as he tried to get them in the hole. Depression, like glue, was the only thing that kept him from cursing in frustration. He ran a comb through his hair and stepped out of the bedroom, closing the door behind him. He found Tilde moving with ease and grace around the kitchen, already in the process of getting Benedict’s coffee ready.

Even in her old age (she had at least a decade on Benedict and Sheathia), Benedict noted she was an attractive woman - not in a sexual way, but simply in the way she’d held her age well. She wore a long fleece which hung down to the back of her thighs and faded blue jeans. Her red hair, accented with streaks of grey, was piled on top of her head in a neat bun. She wore little makeup and didn’t need much to begin with; not with her high cheekbones, narrow, effeminate nose, and her mouth which had laugh lines engraved around it. No matter the hour of day or the weather, she always showed up looking impeccable. Even now, with everything that had happened in the past seven days, she seemed to have an infinite amount of comfort and love to offer.

We don’t deserve her kindness, her devotion, Benedict thought. He didn’t know where the thought came from but it seemed right somehow - seemed true.

“Morning Benedict,” she said, pulling a coffee mug out of the cabinet. She spoke in the curled accent common here in the mountains. “Sorry if I woke you.”

He smiled, seating himself at the kitchen table. “You never wake me, Tilde. I was already awake. I couldn’t sleep last night.”

“Neither could I.” It was only now, when she’d said anything, that Benedict noted the dark circles starting to form around her eyes. She smiled, a trifle sadly. “Too much on my mind. Too much worry.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, guilt souring his stomach. “I’m sorry I’m not doing anything.”

She arched an eyebrow as she passed him a steaming mug of coffee. “What can you do? You are but one man. This situation goes beyond the power of one man, no matter how strong his heart and mind are. I’ll wake the kids up and get their breakfast ready. Or would you like me to wait?”

“Go ahead and wake them, please.”

She nodded and went into the hallway. He listened to the soft sound of her voice, sipping thoughtfully at his coffee. It was only these sounds, the sounds of home, the sounds of those he loved, of all that was familiar, that provided any sense of comfort. And lurking around it like a preying lion, was the constant threat and fear that came with knowing it could be torn from his grasp - and there would be very little if anything at all he could do about it. The power of love for his wife and children, and for Tilde, was beautiful and painstakingly fragile; it was the only thing that kept him going, kept him clinging onto his tenuous sanity. He knew if anything happened to them, especially the kids, he would kill himself without a second thought.

Like an elderly duck, Tilde herded the children into the kitchen, her face filled with a light and joy that warmed Benedict’s heart. She truly loves them, he thought, eyebrows creased together. She belongs with us, not out there on her own...especially with everything going on. He’d come to a decision. He would bring it up before leaving for the meeting this month.

His children looked more beautiful than ever. Benedict felt his heart swell with love and pride at the sight of them. With each passing day and year his love for them only seemed to grow, immeasurable, indescribable. Nichola’s dark brown hair stuck in tufts and cowlicks. He had his father’s long narrow face and dark eyes, while Elise looked just like Sheathia with her raven black hair, dark blue eyes, petite nose and rosy lips. Benedict knew without doubt Elise would grow up to be a heart melting beauty like her mother.

If she survives this crisis with the Scarlet Church, he thought, his heart jerking with terror. The thought horrified him but it was there and there was nothing he could do to escape it.

“Morning, Papa,” Elise said, having to stand on the tips of her toes to kiss his stubbly cheek.

“Morning pumpkin,” He beamed and kissed her on the forehead.

“Morning, Father,” Nicholas muttered hugging him. As always, Benedict mused at how his son only called him Father instead of Dad, as if lobbying for Benedict’s approval. One day Benedict hoped he could find the words to express the sense of pride he already felt towards the boy, who was quiet and thoughtful, strong and intelligent. Benedict could already see the man Thomas was starting to become, slowly emerging from the boy’s youthful flesh.

“Morning, son,” he said, hugging the boy back.

“Would you like anything for breakfast?”

“No - I need to get going.”

She gave him a motherly frown. “Now, what do I always tell you? It’s best to eat something in the morning. Even if it’s just a piece of toast.”

“I know. You can lecture me about it later. There’s some other things I need to discuss with you in the living room if you don’t mind.”

He saw confusion and worry in the way her slightly bushy eyebrows knitted together but nodded anyway. She followed him out of the kitchen and into the living room. The living room was large and spacious with brand-new expensive furniture. A window that took up the whole wall overlooked the city of Fruimont. Glancing towards the kitchen to make sure the kids weren’t eavesdropping, he dropped his voice to make sure only Tilde could hear him.

“I want you to keep the kids away from the windows as much as you can. I don’t want them being exposed to these barbaric crucifications anymore than they have to. Also I’m worried about Sheathia. I know this is taking an emotional toll on her as it is on everyone but she has been sleeping far too much. Try to get her out of the bedroom and interacting with the kids if you can - don’t force her, of course, but just keep an eye on her, eh?”

Tilde nodded. “I will do what I can.”

“Also there’s one more matter that I’ve been giving some thought. In the end it’s up to you of course.” Benedict cleared his throat. “You have been good to my family and no amount of thanks can cover my gratitude...”

Tilde blushed. “Benedict, there’s no need...”

He waved a hand to shush her. “Yes, yes there is. You are a part of this family. The kids love you and Sheathia and I love you as well. And we could not have gotten through this last week without your help. I do not like the idea of you out on the streets on your own. You are a capable woman and very smart but I would feel comfortable if you would stay with us. Live with us, as it were.”

Tilde’s eyes brimmed with tears. “Live…?”

“Yes. This apartment is too big for our small family. Even after thirty years of living here it’s still much too big, even with the kids.”

In saying this Benedict remembered how lucky they were to have not one but two kids. Many times Sheathia and he had tried to have children and there had been many miscarriages. He remembered the countless appointments he’d gone with Sheathia, as the healers tried to fix her womb with mana only for nothing to happen. Finally, when the both of them had given up hope of having any children at all, Sheathia had grown pregnant with Thomas, and Elise three years later. We have no business having children at our age, he thought, but it happened...it finally happened. The Light granted us our wish, bless Him.

It made his family all the more precious.

If only He would free us from this nightmare so I wouldn’t have to spend every waking moment in fear.

“We have a spare bedroom. It’s spacious with plenty of space to put your things and an attached full bathroom. It’s yours if you want it.”

Tilde beamed at him, smiling blissfully. Seeing her smile like this made the day worth living. “Do you really mean it?”

“I do. I can have someone pack your things and transport them here if you wish. You won’t have to worry about a thing.”

She nodded and wrapped her arms around him in a fierce hug. “I accept. I best make the kids’ breakfast. The little tykes are probably starving.”

Benedict followed Tilde into the kitchen and gave the children a hug and a kiss. Just to make Tilde happy he grabbed a buttered piece of toast and gobbled it down as he left the apartment. Instead of taking the lift down to the bottom floor he took the stairs, wanting to savor the warmth he felt before reality of what was going on in his city hit him.

Copyright © 2020 ValentineDavis21; All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Comments

It is apparent that Benedict is a good man, a loving husband and a caring father for his two children. As readers we are aware that the help of the Stray Dogs is on the way. It is my hope that this help reaches this town in time to overcome the ravages of the Scarlet Church.

Mister Will

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