Owen steps out of Andrei’s house again ten long minutes later, and sees a cluster of townspeople gathered outside. A few red-uniformed soldiers limp among them with bloody arms and bandaged heads. Walking wounded. One of them leads Roach by the bridle. Maria herself is out in front, Stefan trudging alongside with one arm draped over her shoulder.
The survivors from Maria’s cellar, with the tattered remnants of Andrei’s militia. Maybe two or three dozen, tops. Out of a town of hundreds.
But they’re alive. That’s something.
Owen stands absolutely still, completely numb, frozen to the bone, blinking in the moonlight, arms hanging limp as he gazes unseeingly into the night. Maria slows and waits twenty paces away, a cautious respectful distance.
As if she’d already known.
Owen blinks one last time, scrubs a hand over his bruised face and walks over toward them. Maria hesitates, opens her mouth to ask but stops, once, twice, before finally forcing it out on the third try.
‘Is Paul in there?’ she whispers.
Owen nods. ‘Yes. What’s left.’
She flinches. ‘You sure?’
‘His shoes are in there.’
‘After all these years missing? You sure they’re his?’
‘Just like you said. Blue velvet. Silver buckles.’
‘They must be all mouldy by now.’
‘Only a bit. It’s dry in there.’
Maria falls silent. She stares towards the trees, just past the lodge, as if she can’t bear to look directly at it. She’s completely still, but her hands are clenched. Her knuckles white.
‘Can …’ she falters, then composes herself. ‘Can you tell what happened?’
‘No,’ Owen lies. He’s no mortician. But he’s seen enough twisted horrors over the years, and he knew enough of the lowest depths of depravity humans could sink to.
And he can guess.
Maria’s jaw clenches. She steps forward. ‘I should go look.’
He grips her arm. ‘Don’t.’
She pulls free, glaring. ‘I have to.’
‘But I want to.’
‘Better if you don’t.’
‘You can’t stop me. You’ve no right to stop me!’
‘I know. I’m asking, that’s all. Please don’t look.’
‘I have to.’
‘I don’t have to listen to you!’
Owen takes her trembling hands. ‘Then listen to him instead. Listen to Paul. Pretend he grew up instead. Imagine what he would’ve grown into. He wouldn’t have been a baker or a carpenter. He loved flowers, right? He loved bright colours. He would’ve been a painter or a poet. An artist. A bright, smart, creative person. In love with life. Its simple beauties. Full of common sense, full of wisdom, and worried for you. He’d look at you now and shake his head and smile fondly and say: c’mon Mum, do what the nice man’s asking.’
‘He’d say: Mum, trust me on this.’
‘But I have to see. After all these years of not knowing. Of fearing the worst.’
‘Better if you don’t.’
She struggles in his grip, almost frantic. ‘It’s just his shoes, for Christ’s sake!’
Owen shakes his head sadly. ‘It’s not just his shoes.’
‘It’s been three long years. What else can be left?’
‘No,’ Owen’s voice is weary with resignation, his words scraped raw and hollow. ‘I mean … it’s not just his shoes.’
Maria freezes. She stands stock still for five whole minutes, her face stricken in betrayal. Horror. Guilt. Owen stands close before her, hoping he’s blocking her view of the lodge, happy to keep on standing there for as long as it takes, ten hours, ten days, ten years, forever, anything to stop her venturing inside that sickening house of horrors. Her bleak gaze is a thousand miles away, her lips moving silently as if rehearsing arguments. Look or don’t look. Know or don’t know.
Eventually she drags her numbed gaze back to his. ‘How … how many shoes are in there?’
‘About twenty pairs.’
‘No!’ And suddenly she slips from his grasp and crumples to her knees, her head thrown back, wailing in abject despair. As one Stefan and two townswomen step forward and kneel to wrap their arms around her, rubbing her back tenderly, patting her heaving shoulders. Comforting a grieving mother as best they can. Eventually her sobs trail off into broken muffled sniffles, tears pouring down her stricken face.
One of the merchants edges forward, face twisted in misery as his wife shuffles behind. ‘Our youngest daughter Elena, she had these lovely green satin shoes, did you …’ he trails off.
Owen nods. ‘They’re inside.’
‘Oh … God!’ The mother turns away, burying her face in her hands as her husband holds her close.
Owen sighs heavily. ‘Two or three children a year, probably. Andrei got a taste for it. A gnawing hunger. An itch he couldn’t scratch. There are no ghosts here. Ghosts don’t exist. The kids who all vanished in the night? They never left. Andrei made sure of that. A predator always finds his prey.’
Stefan gapes at him, aghast. ‘He kept them? All their shoes? He robbed their bodies and just dumped them in there?’
‘Not dumped. Displayed. Empty shoes laid out on these white cloth shelves set in the walls. Like shrines. Souvenirs. Mementos.’ Owen clenches his fists, seething with impotent rage. ‘Like trophies.’
There’s a long, dreadful pause.
Maria struggles to her feet, flapping the others’ hands away. ‘I should go look.’
Owen blocks her path. ‘You’ll hate yourself for it. All your life. You’d wish you hadn’t.’
‘And I regret it. Now I wish I’d never gone inside.’
Maria falls silent again. She sighs raggedly, gazing out towards the whispering trees. Then she turns to him. ‘Tell me about the empty shoes. On their little white shelves.’
Owen shakes his head firmly. ‘Not a chance in Hell.’
‘No, I mean … I need to know they prove Andrei did it. Like evidence. I need you to tell me that. Before we do anything else.’
‘He did it,’ Owen growls. ‘No doubt at all.’
Maria scrubs a hand across her eyes. ‘What now?’
He raises open palms. ‘Entirely your choice.’
‘What would you do?’
‘Not my decision to make.’
Owen sighs heavily. ‘I’d go inside, and I’d set the place on fire, and burn it down to the ground until there’s nothing but ashes left. Just dusty old books and a madman’s sick trophies in there.’
‘And the spike pit? In the woods?’
‘Leave it alone. Never go out there ever again. Let the wildflowers grow right over their bones. Besides they’re not really there. Not anymore. They’re always here’ – he taps his forehead – ‘and here.’ He places a hand over his heart. ‘The good memories never leave you.’
I’m sorry, he aches to tell her. I thought he was decent, too. You should’ve known better than to trust my judgment. I let myself think people weren’t petty, evil and cruel. I let myself get coaxed into friendship again like a stray cat who’s offered pitiful scraps. Not anymore. This is why I always assume the worst of everyone, so I don’t fuck up this royally ever again. He takes a breath, but he can’t tell her any of that, and anyway he’s learned enough to know it would never comfort her, never fill the gaping chasm of devastation scraped raw inside her. Because he had trusted Andrei too. Spoken to him like a friend, joked with him, helped him, would have saved his life if he’d had the chance. Another reminder of why he’s acted the way he did for so long, wandering the countryside alone, closed off and suspicious, never trusting anyone, because people are shit in this stinking cesspool of human misery.
You shouldn’t trust people, he wants to say, and also to fall on his knees and plead Please don’t ever stop trusting people, Maria. I’m so sorry. Please don’t ever stop believing the best in people, rather than seeing only their worst as I have. Please don’t ever stop being kind, and trusting, and hopeful, and brave, and good. Please don’t let me have ruined you. I’m sorry, Maria, so very sorry.
He reaches for her hand. She won’t unclench her trembling fists, but her hand lingers near his, at least, and she doesn’t pull away when he steps towards her. ‘I want to leave here. Now,’ she declares, her voice a fraying rope about to snap. ‘And never come back.’
The world settles back into the old familiar shape Owen knows so intimately well, the ugly lack of mercy, the predictable pattern of petty cruelty. He can practically hear it click snugly into place in his head. No good guys, no heroes riding in to save the day — only the small precious space you staked out as your own and protected from all outward threats by any means necessary. He breathes against the tightness in his aching ribs and reminds himself that this is how things work, this was how they’ve always worked.
Maria raises her chin, eyes finally dried. Mastering her grief. Making herself brave. ‘I’ve been thinking.’
‘Great,’ he mutters, just to rile her up.
She shoves his shoulder – ‘You have to be nice to me, idiot. I’m traumatised’ – and he feels a sudden bone-deep surge of fondness for just how full of horseshit she is.
He rolls his eyes but indulges her. ‘What have you been thinking, Maria?’
‘I’ve been thinking … that you did a good deed here, after all.’
‘Oh yeah? Which one?’
But now she flashes him a dangerous glare, the one growling don’t you dare belittle me, the one that means her feelings are dangerously on the verge of being genuinely hurt if he keeps on dismissing her. So he dampens down his weary cynicism and forces himself to listen to her. ‘You couldn’t save all the people of Reikstadt. Nobody could. But Owen … you nearly died closing the portal to Hell.’ She prods him sternly in the chest. Ouch, ribs. Ouch. ‘And. You. Closed it.’ She sighs and presses herself close to him, rubbing his back tenderly. ‘What … what would’ve happened if you’d lost?’
Owen honestly hadn’t given much thought to it, not with all the running and fighting and killing, the dying screams echoing through his head, the way her grey-flaked hair tickles his nose, now smelling only of ash. ‘Dunno.’
‘It would’ve stayed permanently open, right? A gaping doorway into Hell. Forever.’
‘And the Devil would have risen to scorch the earth anew.’
‘And unleashed an army full of those nightmares you fought. First overrunning Wallachia. Then rampaging across the entire world. Thousands of innocents would have needlessly died. Millions.’
‘I … I guess so.’ He hadn’t considered it quite this way before. He’s always tried to concentrate on one life-or-death situation at a time. Sweat the small stuff first. Save one person, then (hopefully) the next and the next. Keep a low profile. Don’t ruffle feathers. Try not to get chased out of town with torches and pitchforks. Kill one demon. Then another when it bares its ugly face. Start small, then think bigger. Save one village. Then its neighbour. Rinse and repeat. Simple is always best.
‘Christ.’ He scrubs a hand through his hair, suddenly overwhelmed with the enormity of it all. ‘I just wanted a beer, for God’s sake. Just passing through. I was planning to leave anyway. I would’ve.’
‘But you didn’t.’
‘But I meant to.’
‘But you didn’t. That’s what counts.’ Maria caresses his cheek. ‘So you saved the world. Again.’ She sweeps an arm towards the huddled knot of survivors, men and women alike ground down to nothing but flint, yet still standing tall. A few children peek out shyly towards them. ‘You saved our world. You saved our tomorrows. And … and you bought us closure. Remember that.’
He strokes her brow, wiping away a smear of ash. ‘Does thinking that help you feel better? Make all the hurt worth it?’
She sighs, gazing out over the charred smoking ruins of a dead town. ‘Not really. Not always. But it’s good to keep things in perspective.’
‘Wow,’ Owen deadpans. ‘That’s deep. Whoever knew you could ever be so sensible?’
She balls her hand into a loose fist and pushes gently at his jaw, miming an affectionate punch. ‘I’m being serious, dumbass. A real hero’s not someone who always wins, who always saves the day. It’s someone who takes the hard hits, who gets knocked down’ – her eyes glow with fond pride – ‘and who always gets back up.’
Owen blushes, taking Roach’s reins. ‘So … what’s your plan now?’
Maria sighs. ‘Lead these people to another town far away, someplace west. Argesh, maybe. Gildova. It’ll be a long hard road, but we’ll manage.’ She glances at Stefan, who nods. ‘Somewhere safe these children can build a future.’ Then she squeezes Owen’s shoulder. ‘But I don’t think that’s really your thing, is it?’
Settling in one place? Putting down roots? Starting a family? Eugh. Owen pulls a face, and Maria smiles. ‘You ain’t finished yet, are you?’ She gestures to the crowd of survivors. ‘You did good here. So why stop now?’
Owen rolls his eyes. ‘Stop what, for God’s sake?’
Maria rests her head against his shoulder. ‘This! What you’re doing! Roaming the countryside, killing monsters and rescuing people. Continuing your family’s work. As crazy as it sounds, this entire fucked-up nightmare was just what you needed.’ She kisses his cheek. ‘You’ve rediscovered yourself. It’s what you were born for. And I think you ought to see it through.’
Owen nods uncertainly. ‘… Okay. Makes sense, I guess.’ He mulls it over, then smiles. ‘Spent far too long reacting to things, getting bounced around from one fuck-up to the next. If I’m gonna get killed someday, I’d rather choose it head-on than find myself tricked into it by someone else. Better I go my own way.’
Maria pats his hand. ‘I’m glad you think so.’
He grins back. ‘I’m not completely stupid, eh?’
Her smile is way too smug. ‘I’m glad you think so.’
‘Ha ha, very funny.’ He rolls his eyes as she giggles.
Stefan squeezes his arm, looking concerned. ‘Are you all right, though?’
Owen snorts. ‘Yeah. I’ll be okay. Just need about a month’s sleep, a brand new body and a bucket of beer.’ Roach trots forward and nuzzles Owen’s forehead, nibbling at his hair. Owen grips her mane and mounts up, his whole body aching for a rest.
Maria takes his hand, her thumb tenderly stroking his bruised knuckles. ‘Take care, Owen.’ Behind her Stefan throws a crooked salute, grinning through his battered face.
Owen smiles back. ‘You too.’ He digs in his heels and Roach moves off, plodding wearily through the smouldering devastation as the townsfolk recede into the distance far behind.
On the open road again, he thinks. Back into the wilderness. Silence and stillness all around. Just chilly air and a night mist falling, its pale tendrils curling through the treetrunks. He reaches the half-rotten signpost at the muddy crossroads and pauses.
Which way now? To his left lies the Kingsroad, a straight shot ninety miles west across desolate floodplain and barren farmland, three hard days’ ride all the way towards Targoviste. Back to civilisation. The Belmont Manor. Home. To his right lie dismal fog-shrouded pine forests pockmarked with squalid isolated villages, the cold shadow of Krystan Pass, onward through the gloomy foothills of the Icepeaks to the port city of Braila, fully two hundred miles east.
Right or left? East or west? Braila or Targoviste?
He takes a deep breath. Squares his shoulders. Flicks Roach’s reins and turns right.
And heads east. Into the wild.
© 2021 | Tom Burton