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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 44. Anxiety

They all sat around the kitchen table: Crow, Barghast, Benedict, and Sheathia. Benedict had the older woman, who Crow assumed was either the grandmother or the nanny, take the children to the back bedroom. Benedict’s daughter kept glancing back at him with open-faced curiosity, the boy with suspicion.

Crow took Benedict through a watered down version of what had happened at the Scarlet Church. Even as he went through the events, doing his best to keep them straight in his sleep-deprived mind, it was hard to believe any of it had happened. It was harder to believe that he’d survived and was here talking about it. It was harder still to believe what had happened to Sara. He would never be able to forgive himself for leaving her behind.

Every time he felt himself losing focus he looked at Barghast. The Okanavian sat on his right; he was so big the chair he sat on looked comically small beneath him. As always, the sight of him was a comfort for Crow, anchoring him to the here and now.

To their credit Benedict and Sheathia listened without asking questions, though they had both grown considerably pale. At one point Sheathia grabbed Benedict’s hand, lacing her fingers through his. Earlier when Benedict had led Crow and Barghast into the kitchen Crow had sensed an aura of love and unity in this room. He’d felt a warmth that was absent throughout the rest of the city. The kitchen, this apartment, was a sanctuary. And we’re desecrating it just by being here, Crow thought sadly. I’m about to ask Benedict and his family to leave their things and their home behind. I’m about to promise them safety when I’m not even sure if I can provide it.

“We’re still not sure what the Scarlet Church is planning exactly,” said Crow, “but no doubt it isn’t good.”

“I have an idea,” Benedict said, clearing his throat. “The number of possessions have been increasing in this city as well as in the rest of the hellscape. Damen Orlys said something about turning the world back the way it used to be. Something about the Primordial Caste.”

“There’s still so much we don’t know,” said Crow. “That’s why we’re leaving as soon as we can.”

Barghast nodded, grunting in agreement. “The sooner the better.”

“I can’t guarantee anything but I wanted to take you and your family with us,” said Crow. “You’ll have a better chance of being safe in Miffridge where the Eurchurch is until they can figure out how to stop what’s happening.”

“You mean run?” Benedict said. He had cocked his head slightly to the side, his eyes wide, looking at the practitioner as if he’d gone mad.

“I know it’s not the ideal situation but what choice do you have?” Crow asked. It was an effort to keep his voice controlled, to keep from losing his patience. I don’t want to be having this conversation. I just want to sleep! “This place is a barrel of gunpowder ready to explode - and if what you say is true and the amount of demonic activity over the past twenty years is any indication then it just isn’t safe here. ”

“But I just can’t leave all these people behind,” said Benedict. “I have a responsibility to them.”

“Right because you’ve tried everything you can to help them, right?” Barghast said bitterly. “You know I used to hear stories about the great Edward Matthiesen, about how he so bravely endorsed Loras Gyrell’s campaign against the Eurchurch during the Eurchurch-Practitioner war, only it turns out his son is nothing like him. Your father would be out there, right now, trying to help the men, women, and children who are being butchered, not sitting here having breakfast with his family.”

Crow gawked at Barghast, surprised. He hadn’t expected this outburst or the look of disdain on the Okanavian’s face.

Instead of backing down, as Crow probably would have done, Benedict bristled, straightening in his chair. His eyes flashed dangerously. “You don’t have to remind me, robber.”

Now it was Barghast’s turn to look surprised. Every eye in the room turned their focus on him.

“Yes, I know who you are,” Benedict continued. “I recognize your face from all the warrant posters. Barghast, the great robber from the Okanavi desert, the tribesman who left his people for a life of crime. You’ve killed a few people yourself, which is why you’re now the Eurchurch’s lapdog. Do you honestly think I would send my children anywhere with you?”

Crow watched Barghast slump in his chair, all the determination deflating out of him. The practitioner had always known about Barghast’s bloody past but it was strange to hear it mentioned out loud. Crow couldn’t stand to see him look so diminished.

The practitioner cleared his throat. “Yes, he has a bloody past, as do I, as do we all. At the end of the day, with what we face, none of it matters. We can either sit here pointing the finger at each other or we can work together in finding a solution. There is no solution if we’re going to stay here.”

Benedict crossed his arms over his chest. He clenched his jaw defiantly. “I’m not leaving my people behind to be slaughtered. You can take Sheathia, Tilde, and the kids.”

“No,” said Sheathia, speaking for the first time since this conversation had begun. “I’m not leaving you, Benedict. I’m staying as well.” Now all the focus in the room was on her and Benedict.

“No.” Her husband shook his head emphatically. “You’re going with them. You’re going to Miffridge where it’s safe.”

“I will not. You need someone you know you can trust. Who could you trust more than your wife? Tilde can look after the kids until this is all over. I know she would never let anything happen to them.” Sheathia looked to Crow and Barghast. “Promise us - promise us you’ll get our children to safety.”

“Nothing will happen to your little ones on our watch,” Barghast said.

Though she didn’t look entirely convinced, Sheathia got up from the table. After a moment Benedict got up and did the same and together, husband and wife, they crossed the living room into the hallway.

“I hope we’re doing the right thing,” Crow said to Barghast.

“We’re doing all we can,” Barghast said.

It’s not enough, Crow thought. Nowhere near close enough.

Ten minutes later Crow and Barghast stood by the front door, watching as Nicholas and Elise said their final goodbyes with their parents. Sheathia was crying and Benedict stood with his shoulders and back rigid; he looked like someone who wasn’t sure if they were dreaming or not. Crow tried to imagine what it felt like to be a parent - the agony they must feel when they have to part with their children in hopes they have a better future. He tried and failed.

The children looked stunned. Elise, the little girl, was hugging a teddy bear to her chest for dear life. Nicholas had the same rigid look as his father, the same confused expression. Tilde was tugging on her jacket and reassuring Benedict and Sheathia she would look after the kids, she wouldn’t let anything happen to them.

Sheathia stooped and kissed Elise and Nicholas on the forehead. “We’ll be together again soon, I promise. Your dad and I are going to make things right. When things are back the way they used to be we’ll come and get you.”

“You promise?” Elise asked in a tiny voice.

“I promise. You be good for Tilde, the both of you, and you do what she tells you. We love you both.”

Holding Elise’s hand, Tilde turned to Crow. “We’re ready.”

Crow nodded and put on his best smile for Elise. “You wanna see a magic trick?”

Her face brightened a little as she nodded. Crow waved a hand over his face. By the time he brought his hand down his features had changed completely. His nose had become longer, the eyes darker. He looked like a stranger.

“That was cool!” Elise screech, hopping up and down excitedly. Even Nicholas was grinning.

“Okay,” Crow said, “you guys have to stay quiet until we’re out of the building. The men watching the front of the building are bad men.”

The group of six filed out of the apartment, Barghast in the front, Tilde and the kids in the middle, and Crow taking up the rear. He wondered if the children would see Benedict and Sheathia ever again.

 

 

As before Crow and Barghast stuck to the back roads and alleys where few people roamed. With Tilde and the children in tow the journey to the tunnels took twice as long. Crow had never felt so eager to leave a place in his life.

“Bah!” Barghast grunted as he heaved the metal grating up and set it down on the asphalt. He grinned at Elise and Nicholas, the expression making the pitted scars on his face deepen. The look was supposed to put them at ease but judging from the way Elise hugged Tilde’s legs, it only made him look more intimidating. “Alright, I'm going to climb down, and then you kids, and then you Tilde.”

Tilde groaned, looking down at the ladder that descended into darkness. “This is going to kill my old bones.”

“The climb isn't as bad as it looks,” said the Okanavian.

The older woman arched an eyebrow. “You're not sixty-two-years-old, now are you?”

Crow watched both ends of the street. His heart hammered in his chest. One by one the group climbed down the tunnel. The children were surprisingly brave, not giving the slightest protest. Perhaps they sensed everyone's lives were at stake.

Finally it was Crow's turn. The metal rungs of the latter were cool against the skin. Already the air was becoming cooler, the sounds of the city becoming distant. His stomach clenched as he realized he was going underground once more. The last time he had gone underground there had been monsters waiting for him - not just monsters conjured up by the imagination of a child, but real ones.

His foot touched hard ground. He felt better knowing he wasn't alone, knowing he was closer to getting away from this place. And as soon as we get on the bus I'm going to sleep - the whole way to Miffridge. With a wave of his hand, Crow summoned a ball of fire the size of an apple. The ball floated by him wherever he walked, providing just enough illumination for everyone to be able to see by.

Tilde was softly humming some sort of lullaby. The sound was eerily familiar. It made Crow think of his early childhood when Aunt Lena would sing lullabies to him when he had nightmares in the middle of the night. It wasn’t until later in life he realized adults were just as afraid of the dark as children and their imagination could just as easily play tricks.

There’s nothing to be afraid of, he told himself. There’s nothing down here in the dark, waiting for you to stumble into it so it can attack you. And yet his eyes kept searching the corners, the dark spaces where danger might lurk, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

He wasn’t aware he was hyperventilating until Barghast grabbed his shoulder and told him to stop. His chest had tightened and it felt as if his lungs were going to explode. No matter how hard he tried to make sure to inhale and exhale no oxygen seemed to be flowing through his body. The walls were closing in on him, threatening to crush him and keep him down here in the dark. I can’t stand this! his mind screamed helplessly. I must leave this place. I must-

“He’s having a panic attack,” he was aware of Tilde saying. “Get out of the way so I can help him.”

He felt her hands grab him gently but firmly. They felt warm and coarse with age; there was experience in those hands. “Sit down, boy,” she said. “You’re not taking in the air you need.”

He did as he was told. He’d forgotten where he was or why he was there. All he knew was the feeling of suffocating. There wasn’t enough air in this space, not enough light. His ears strained, listening to the sound of the old woman’s voice. It was the only thing that cut through the blackened fog of fear that smothered Crow.

“Take a deep breath,” she said. “Do not listen to the pounding of your heart but the sound of my voice. Hear what I am saying. Can you hear me?”

“Y-yes,” he managed to gasp. “Good. Keep listening and trying to breathe. You - yes, you big lug, you. Get down here and help me get him to calm down. I got two frightened children I’m trying to look after. Take his hand, show him you’re here. It’s obvious you two are close and have a connection.”

Crow was aware of someone bending down in front of him, a larger hand taking his own. “I’m here, Little Bird,” Barghast said. “I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.”

“Keep talking,” said Tilde. “Don’t stop.”

Barghast continued to talk, his voice soft and grating at the same time. No matter how hard Crow squeezed his fingers he did not take his hands away. Slowly Crow regained control of his breath. The pounding of his heart began to slow to a normal pace. He focused on the feeling of Barghast’s touch, the sound of his voice.

“Sorry,” he gasped. He was far too embarrassed to glance at them, particularly the children. He couldn’t imagine how frightened they must be. With Barghast’s help he was able to get to his feet.

The group continued their journey through the dark tunnels. The ball of fire Crow had summoned continued to illuminate the tunnel, following the practitioner wherever he went. Twice they stopped so Elise and Nicholas could take a break. Both times Crow drifted off for a moment only to be shaken awake by Tilde when she and the kids were ready to go. At long last they reached the door which would lead up into the watchtower.

Waving for everyone to get back, Crow climbed up the ladder and lifted the door up enough to peek through the crack. He was surprised to find there was no one around to shoot at him. He waited another minute and waved the others up. Elise and Nicholas came up first, and then Tilde. Crow stood to the side and took their hands to help them up.

Night was falling quickly, the sky a dark blue. Snow fell gently from the sky like white glitter. Crow immediately felt his spirits lift just knowing Barghast and he were finally out of the city. He just hoped Lydia and Jack hadn’t gotten tired of waiting and left without them. He had, after all, told them to leave after nightfall.

Barghast laughed in relief when he saw Jack and Lydia waiting for them with Broana, Gunpowder, and Sara’s mare, already mounted on their own horses; his laughter filled the stillness of the forest.

“Thank Mercius’ Light,” Jack said in relief, his eyes wide behind his spectacles. He was looking at Barghast, only giving Crow the briefest of glances as usual. “I didn’t think you would make it.” He glanced at Tilde and the children but said nothing; the confused expression on his face was question enough.

“They’re with us,” Barghast said, gesturing for Tilde, Elise, and Nicholas to get on Sara’s horse. Lydia opened her mouth to object but Barghast waved a massive hand at her.

Once everyone had mounted on their horses, Tilde, Elise, and Nicholas sharing Sara’s mare - Crow felt a tug of grief at the sight of the mare; it disturbed him to think he had abandoned Sara back at the Scarlet Church - their group began slowly making their way back towards the village of Umstadt.

 

 

They rode several hours past dark until the village of Umstadt was well behind them. When Tilde said they could go no further this night, the Strays stopped for the night behind the cover of trees. Even if they were clear of Fruimont there was still a chance a patrol of Red Wraiths could come across their path.

The Strays worked together to gather wood for a fire; if not for Tilde and the children they probably would have endured the night without one. Crow, against objections from Barghast that he rest, insisted on taking first watch. Within minutes it seemed everyone was asleep. Everyone but Lydia. She kept watching him over the flames with her dark eyes; if looks were daggers hers would have cut into him. After a moment she came over to him. He tensed, ready for her to attack, but could do no more. He truly did not have the energy to defend himself. When she didn’t move he said, “I’m sorry about Sara and Rake. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more to help them.”

“I curse the day you ever walked into our lives,” she said after a moment. “It should be you that’s dead not Rake. You ever come near me again and I swear by the Light I’ll slit your fucking throat.”

He expected her to slap him or slit his throat with a knife but she simply spat in his face and went back to her spot by the fire.

There was a plummeting feeling in Crow’s chest. He could feel himself becoming unraveled, the mingled feelings of resentment and anger and guilt and the need for reassurance that Rake’s death and Sara’s possession wasn’t his fault pulling him beneath the surface. What did you expect, you idiot? he thought. Why do you think Lydia or Jack will come around? They hate you because you’re a practitioner. It doesn’t matter what you do or how many times you save them. They will always hate you. You will never be one of them.

And he knew as he stepped into the room where he would spend the night - knew with all certainty - as soon as he got to Miffridge he was leaving. He didn’t know where he was going and he didn’t care, Rose’s prophecy be damned.

Copyright © 2020 ValentineDavis21; All Rights Reserved.

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