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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 53. Homecoming


Crow stayed off the main highway, sticking to the back roads where he thought he would have less chance in bumping into a passing Eurchurch patrol team. He let Broana move at her own pace, no longer in a rush to reach Annesville. He no longer truly cared if he made it to his hometown or not.

The land was peppered sparse with abandoned homesteads like the one the Stray Dogs had slept in after escaping Fort Erikson; he slept in barns and hayloft, foraging through houses in search of food. Most of them were empty, having been cleared out by the owner of the home who had clearly left due to some unseen danger, but occasionally he found a forgotten can of beans or dried deer jerky. Within all the farms he visited he never found any sign of what caused people to move from their homes: no signs of conflict or death. He knew he should feel afraid or cautious but he felt every bit as barren as the cabinets he searched through, as if the ability to feel emotion had been torn out of him. The only other signs of life he encountered were rabbits scampering about or the occasional weary coyote.

After a week since the incidents in Whifden, his thighs rubbed raw and sore, his clothes stinking of dirt and unwash, Crow reached his hometown. It sat in the center of a bowl, surrounded by the jagged tops off the Plaesil mountains. From where he stood he could see a cluster of wooden buildings to form the town’s center. If he shielded his eyes he could see more houses spread farther back. To the left of the town the woods which he had roamed often as a child, hunting rabbit and deer, went back for miles. Even now in his thorough state of exhaustion he yearned to lose himself in the surroundings of pine trees.

He was well aware of the dangers that awaited him within the town. Eurchurch patrolmen would be combing the entire hellscape in search of him, turning over every town. It would only be a matter of time before they caught and arrested him. And then there was the Scarlet Priests and the Red Wraiths. He was close enough to their territory he might very easily encounter them here. He was fighting the inevitable. But he wanted to see his hometown one last time; he wanted to see what had become of it. Why though? he asked. It’s not as if there are a ton of good memories here. This is where your journey of pain started.

But not all memories had been bad. He missed the house his aunt and he had lived in his whole life. He missed how Aunt Lena and he would sing together. He recalled fond memories of her teaching him how to build snares as a child. Besides where else was he to go? There was nowhere that would have him. If I’m about to fall from grace - not that I had much grace to begin with - it might as well be in the place where I was born and raised. What’s left of it.

He carefully made his way down the slope, leading Broana down the steep, rocky decline by the reins, encouraging her with soft mumblings. Once at the bottom, he closed his eyes, channeled his mana throughout his body, working a glamour. He did not use the glamour to go unseen but rather to change certain aspects of his features: to round out his features and make his nose less longer. It wasn’t much but hopefully it would make it harder for him to recognize. Having a week long stubble helped.

Few people were out and about. With winter quickly approaching and night falling the already chilly air had grown cold enough to numb his fingers despite the rabbit hide gloves he wore. What few souls he did see moved through the snow with a mixture of caution and grace, seeking to get somewhere warm.

He spotted an inn called The Jalasa Grove. The sign hung from the door, showing a red Jalasa tree. He was tempted to walk inside and order himself a meal, wanted as a criminal or not be damned. He still had the coin he’d yearned the night he’d stayed at Madame Vorca’s. His belly growled painfully at the thought of having warm food - something otber than rabbit or the raccoon he’d caught.

The decision was made before he had time to talk himself out of it. He walked across the wagon tracks in the snow to the door and pulled it open. Made of wood, the door was rather heavy.

The inside of the pub was dimly lit. The walls, counters and table tops were made of wood. Frost covered the windows. A fire crackled merrily in the hearth at the front of the building, where several people sat around silently warming their hands and drinking from metal cups. Several pairs of eyes turned to stare at him in silent caution, searching his face in recognition. The glamour seemed to hold up because there were several curious murmurs before they looked away.

“Can I help you, stranger?” a large woman asked. She stood at the bar, looking at him with tiny eyes from a large round face. She had her large hands placed on her ample hips. She watched him with suspicion. Crow had almost forgotten how primitive people in the mountains could be. They didn’t like strangers coming into town. Looking at her closely, he realized he knew the woman. Everyone called her Geese for some reason. Back before Aunt Lena had gotten sick, Geese had come to her with a lump on one of her breasts. My aunt healed her, made the lump go away. He swallowed the lump in his throat. Mercius help me. I was stupid to come back to this town. To just turn around and leave without saying a word would only draw more attention to him. She had already seen his face and if she looked hard enough she would recognize him. And he was much too hungry and tired to care about what happened after this point.

“Do you have anything to eat?” Crow asked.

“I have bread rising. I can put it in the coal oven. And I have plenty of cheese and mead to drink.”

Lane reached into his pocket and pulled at several coins. He slid them across the greasy surface of the counter. “Keep the change.”

Geese gave him an odd look before sliding the coins into a small pouch attached to her skirt. She poured him a tankard of steaming cider before disappearing through a thin door behind the counter. She returned moments later with a steaming loaf of bread sitting on a wooden plate and several slices of cheese and a small dish of butter.

As soon as she set the plate down, Crow immediately began spreading butter on the bread. The bread was so hot to the touch it scalded his skin.

“I take it you must have traveled a long way then?” Geese asked conversationally.

Crow nodded cautiously. “For a little over a week.”

Her eyes widened. “All by yourself? I don’t know anyone crazy or brave enough to travel in such a fashion. You must have a deathwish. Are you from around here?”

“Used to be,” he said. “I left to fight with the Inquistion. I received an honorable discharge. I wanted to catch one last glimpse of my hometown before I moved onto bigger and better things.”

Geese squinted at him; this time there was less suspicion in her beady-eyed gaze. “You do look familiar. Do I know you?”

Crow did not answer but went back to eating.

“Forgive me,” Geese said after a moment. “I don’t mean to ask so many questions. As I’m sure you know we up here in the north aren’t very good when it comes to hospitality. We tend to treat everyone with suspicion.”

Crow smiled as he chewed as a piece of cheese. “I don’t mean to seem rude myself. I’m just exhausted from my travels.”

“For a couple more shillings I have a spare room upstairs you can use. I keep it for just in case purposes. You can use it for as long as you need to.”

Crow reached into his pocket once more and handed her three of the six shillings he had left. “I’ll take it.”

 

 

The room was not as luxurious as his lodgings at Madame Vorca’s, but Crow didn’t care. The mattress of the bed, while tough, was a lot more comfortable than sleeping on the cold hard ground.

He slept straight through the rest of the day and evening until morning. His body was still sore from constant traveling but he felt refresh. With a pail of water he washed as much of the dirt and grime from his body as he could. By the time he threw the sponge into the pail the water was brown. He had just finished knocking when he heard a knock at the door.

“It’s just me coming to check on you,” Geese’s muffled voice said through the door.

Crow hesitated for a moment. He thought about putting another glamor spell on. No, he thought, I will not hide my identity away like an animal. If she decided to turn me into the Eurchurch then so be it.

He opened the door. Her eyes widened in recognition; she let out a gasp of shock. “You’re Lena’s nephew! By the Light of Mercius I knew I recognized you!”

He nodded.

“You and she just disappeared,” Geese said, coming into the room. She sat on the edge of the bed, making it sag in the middle. “Everyone knew she was sick, knew you had been taking care of her, all alone in that big house. Then we saw the house. There’s barely anything left of the house but it’s foundation! You disappeared. What happened?”

Crow leaned against a wooden support beam. “Well you know how it is for healers and practitioners both. After so long our minds begin to wear. Dementia. And it gets worse over time like a tumor. That’s what happened with Aunt Lena. After so long of curing cancer, tumors, illnesses, and cuts she started to go mad. But you know that,don’t you Geese? You came to her over that lump on your breast. Turns out you had cancer and my aunt made it go away. I took care of her for as long as I could. Fed her, bathed her, got her medicine from the town clinic, tried to get someone to come take a look at her. But no one would. Everyone hated her because she took me in after the death of my parents even though they needed her at the same time. No one helped me, no one checked on us. I did it all alone. By the end, right before she died, she was hardly human. I would have to tie her down to keep her from getting up and hurting herself.”

He smiled bitterly. His eyes glittered with tears. “Right before she died she had one final moment in clarity in which she remembered who she was and who I was. She asked me to put her out of her misery. She told me what she was going through was worse than being trapped in the Infernal Depths. And so I did what she asked me to do. I made sure to make it as quick and painless as possible. I suffocated her with her favorite pillow.”

“By the Light of Mercius,” said Geese. She had gone very pale.

Crow showed no signs of having heard her, lost in memory. “After it was done and she was no longer breathing I packed my things. I knew there was nothing left for me here. I didn’t belong here, I never did even though this was the town where I was born. But then I’ve never really belonged anywhere. So I buried her and then burnt the house down. Now she’s at rest. But I’m not and I don’t think I ever will be.”

Geese licked her lips. She spoke in a shaky voice. “You said you joined the Inquisition?”

He nodded. “Not of my own choice.”

“I don’t understand your meaning.”

“It’s part of a much longer story. I’m too tired to go into it.” He fell silent. I’m tired down to my soul.

“Why did you return?” she asked. “Were you homesick?”

“Homesick.” He laughed more bitterly than ever. “I suppose a little. Which is strange because I hate this town with a passion. I’d burn it down to the ground if I could.”

“Were we really so cruel to you?” Geese asked softly.

“Yes,” Crow said sharply enough to make Geese flinch. “Unforgivably cruel. This town, after everything my aunt did for you people, turned a silent eye to her suffering. And in doing so I suffered more than anyone could understand.” He was shaking angrily now. He hated the round-faced woman sitting before him, hated the room in which they stood in, hated the whole town. If I had my way I would burn it all to the ground, he thought. And why not? I’m certainly capable of it. I never should have come back to this place. What a fool I am!

“I’m wanted by the Eurchurch,” he said, clearing his throat. “They think I’m a spy for the Scarlet Church. Oh, the irony.”

“Are you?” Geese asked.

The practitioner scoffed. “Mercius help me, no. Not that it matters. It’s only a matter of time before I’m captured. I just wanted to pay my respects to my aunt before...” He couldn’t finish out loud, so he finished it in his head. Before I die.

Geese rose to her feet. “Before you go I want to apologize. I was one of the people who used to gossip about your aunt. I hated her the same as everyone else, feared her, feared you...until the day I went to her and she took my cancer away. Because of her I’ve had two more beautiful years with my daughter and my husband. Without her I would not be here. I’m sorry for the pain I’ve helped create. I know it’s not much, I know it doesn’t change anything...”

“It doesn’t.” He smiled at her. There was a great sadness in it this time but not anger. “But I accept it all the same. I don’t want to die angry or with regrets. Well I have a long walk ahead of me. I want to leave this place by evening.”

“At least eat a little breakfast before you do,” Geese said, reaching towards him before stopping in her tracks. “And I can give you some food for your hike. It’s the least I can do...”

Have I judged this woman too harshly? he thought. Did I lash out too hard? “That would be much appreciated,” he said with a nod.

 

 

After eating a hearty meal of fresh baked bread, cheese, and coffee, Crow set out for his aunt’s house - or what remained of it. Geese had packed him with provisions: more bread and cheese, dried deer jerky, and a flask of ale to help keep him warm on the hike. It was a slow journey. He was still sore from his travels and the snow that had fallen overnight had hardened in a brisk wind. Still he forced himself to push on, determined to reach his destination.

He left the center of Annesville behind, passing houses that sat on acres of frozen farmland. Few cattle and horses were in sight, residing in the warmth of their barns. The houses here were small and primitive, built of logs cut from the sturdy tree trunks of the trees that grew alongside the town. The trunks had been cut and shaped into sturdy logs. The people of the north, while socially primitive, could never be outmatched when it came to building and adapting even in the harshest of climates.You could count on them to find a way.

Passing a familiar looking house, Crow stopped long enough to remember the dream (illusion) the demon underneath the Scarlet Church had pulled him into; there was no cheery Barghast to offer him soup or warmth. Crow shivered at the memory but also felt a fresh pang towards the Okanavian. He missed him more than words could say. Crow moved on.

He reached the remains of Aunt Lena’s just a little past noon. He was half hoping the harsh weather would have demolished what the fire hadn’t destroyed, but there it still stood on its hill, the last human dwelling before the wilderness took over, stretching on for miles. The blackened windows seemed to stare at him accusingly. Look at what you’ve done to me, the house said to him. Have you come to finish what you started?

Yes, Lane thought, I just might have. This time I just might make sure you are nothing more than a pile of ashes.

Most of the roof had fallen in, leaving the innards of the house exposed to the cold elements. The door hung awkwardly on its hinges like a drunk fighting to stay upright. The windows that he could see on the bottom floor had been shattered. But not all was gone: sitting on the porch was the rocking chair where his aunt used to sit on. He could see her sitting there now, despite the cold, perhaps knitting him a winter hat or a new pair of socks. She had tried to teach him how to knit and crochet but he had never had the patience for such things; his patience had always been in hunting, building traps, and tracking prey.

He climbed up the porch steps carefully. They groaned underneath his feet, threatening to break altogether but held fast. He set his pack down in the rock chair; surely no one was around to bother it, except maybe a racoon or fox. He slid through the doorway into what had once been the living room of the house. The house had been old, built by an ancestor in their family. The walls were made of granite, which was commonly mined in the Plaesil mountains. He had been a fool to think it would burn all the way down with no more gas than he had used.

The two armchairs his aunt and he had used to sit in the nights they would read before the fireplace were torn, the stuffing hanging out in places like exposed innards. The rest was charred black. The fireplace still stood but did not possess the reassurance of warmth and coziness it once had. There were scattering of various animal droppings littered around the floor. Intricately spun spiderwebs clung to the corners of the roof and bookshelves.

To his right was the staircase leading up to the second floor. It still looked sturdy enough to climb up. Soot, grit, and pieces of broken glass crunched underneath the practitioner’s worn boots as he carefully made his way up the stairs. The baniser canted to the right when he leaned his hand on it. Up at the top of the landing Crow craned his head back to look through the roof; he had a perfect view of the sky. He watched wispy white clouds crawl lazily across the sky. A bird fluttered across the ceiling, landing in a nest built on top of a support beam. Baby birds cried hungrily, their heads craning blindly for food with desperate abandon. The mother dropped a worm into the nest.

Crow smiled at the sight; it seemed the house was not fully devoid of life. Did his aunt’s spirit, perhaps, reside in this place? The thought both comforted him and frightened him. Regardless, even if the lift that resides in this place is nothing more than a dwelling place for a mother and her baby birds then how can I burn the rest of it down in good conscience? he asked himself.

He couldn’t.

He passed the door that used to his bedroom and went to the door at the end of the hallway. It was already halfway ajar. He barely had to nudge with his hand to get it open. On the way towards the door a huge lump had appeared in his throat. Now he swallowed it. If Aunt Lena’s ghost was anywhere, it would be in this bedroom, where she had died. If so would she be angry at him.

She asked you to kill her, he told himself. You did what you did out of mercy and love.

That’s what you want Geese to believe, a cruel voice whispered in the back of his mind, sneering. That’s what you try to tell herself. But we both know you didn’t kill her out of love. You killed in her in the end because you were weak. You resented her. How often did you think about killing her just so you could pack your things and leave this place?

He entered the room.

The bed where she had spent most of the last months of her life and died was mostly covered in debris where the roof had fallen in on it. The floor was covered in motes of dust and soot. But even now he could see every spot when she had dragged herself out of bed, vomiting on the floor or the spot before the window where he had found her kneeling with a knife in her hand, wrists bleeding from where she had cut herself. He remembered all the times he had lifted her back into bed, feeling the sharp edges of bone beneath the filthy white fabric of her white nightgown. When she’d been healthy, Aunt Lena had been a strong healthy woman but towards the end the madness had reduced her to a raving skeleton of skin and bones held together only by the thinnest layers of flesh.

In the last moments of her life he recalled how she had looked at him, her eyes crystal clear, not full of rage and confusion. She had gripped his arm gently and firmly, her eyes wet with tears. “Please Crow,” she said. “You must do the impossible...I know I shouldn’t ask it of you but I can’t do this anymore, it’s worse than burning in the Infernal Depths. There’s nothing of me left...

When he pressed the pillow over her face it was as if she had already given in. Malnutrition had obliterated her health; it hadn’t taken more than a minute for her breathing to stop.

Now in the present, little more than a year later, the memory drove him to his knees sobbing the way the guilt on that day had. Lane knelt in the dirt, sobbing breathlessly. He pressed his forehead into the soot, seizing it in closed fists.

“I’m sorry,” he wept. “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me...”

Copyright © 2020 ValentineDavis21; All Rights Reserved.
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Such an intense chapter. So many strong emotions. So curious how this visit on memory lane will turn out in the end.

PS: I also get the feeling Crow might get his wish, to burn the town to the gound, maybe just a little... 

Edited by johnnyboy2285
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