Chapter 21 - Stone (Part 2)
The human world had been up in arms in the late 1840s; the poor revolted against the rich, and the Council forbade the lycans and werewolves from interfering in human matters. They were guardians of the human world from the supernatural world, but when it came down to humans battling against humans, they were not to intervene.
But the abuse, the slaughter, the mercilessness that humans had against each other baffled Stone’s mind. If they only knew of the dangers that lurked in the woods and from the dark corners of their cities, would they still persist in the destruction of themselves and each other?
It was as if their god created their flaws to be more than they could bear, and they took out their pain and suffering on those around them.
The previous years leading up to that day in 1848 had proved challenging on the humans, as their crop harvests yielded devastatingly poor results. Thousands starved to death, and many succumbed to the temptation of immortality that many vampires offered to them—if they were granted immortality at all.
There were several raids on villages and mills, and poor men and women were slaughtered in order to steal their stores of grain.
While out on patrol one day, one such village along the river that bordered the Schwarzwald territory had been hit.
He tried to steer clear of it, but the cry of an infant tore at his heart and paternal instincts. Despite his strong aversion to smoke and fire, he couldn’t force himself to pass it by.
Emerging from the evergreen and deciduous trees, their leaves all yellow and gold, he found a scrap of cloth stuck in a bush that he tied around his waist after shifting into his human form, in case he happened to come across another human that was still alive within the blackened compound. As he strained his ears, he realized that it didn’t seem likely.
The stone mill was the only structure untouched. As he approached the burnt-down huts huddled together, their tin roofs collapsed in and ash and soot blanketing the earth from the few posts that remained, his senses told him there was not another soul alive within the charred place, aside from the solitary heartbeat that pounded weakly.
Bodies littered the ground. Men, women, and even a few children. At least a dozen of them. All of them slaughtered. All of them staining the earth red as flies and fleshing-eating birds swarmed around them, picking their bones clean.
Two days, he guessed. It had been two days since their lives were taken from them.
Removing the cloth around his waist, he used it to cover his nose and mouth from the lingering stink, relying on his sight and hearing to find the source of the cries.
They were getting weaker, fainter, and when he found the infant buried underneath a pile of rubble, it was already near death.
He remembered in vivid detail how frail the body was. How bony arms, like gnarled roots from trees, projected out of sharp shoulders, and equally unbearably thin legs jutted out from protruding hips and a hallowed belly. Her pale blue eyes reflected the edge of death as she stared up at him without seeing him.
He’d never seen a human baby up close before, never mind handled one so fragile.
He tried to be gentle. Tried to pick her up in such a way that he would inflict the least bit of pressure on her brittle body, but he didn’t hold her securely enough and she slipped.
He pushed the memory from his mind.
With his heart in his hands, he took Aubree’s small, delicate palms and pressed them to his chest. [I didn’t know how to pick her up. I was too gentle and she slipped. I panicked. I tried to catch her, and when I did, I grabbed her too hard and...]
An image flashed quickly in his mind as he grimaced.
Her body was crushed. Her bones snapped in half, piercing through the skin and gushing out blood. It slipped through his fingers and stained the blood-infused earth underneath him.
Her heart beat once more before falling silent.
[I tried to be careful...]
Shuddering, he willed her to understand. He was a father himself. He had three grown pups. At the time, he couldn’t bear the thought of someone killing his pups.
How cruel Fate was.
She came and took away his firstborn.
A life for a life.
He hung his head. [I should have been killed. I deserved death. I anticipated death. Instead, I was exiled because it was an accident. And in addition to that man I killed in my youth, I was deemed a threat to all.]
He held onto her thin wrists, the bitterness of his past, his reality, his world smacking him in the face. [It is shameful and disgraceful to kill your own pack members. Rogues and exiles have no attachments. No one cares if they live or die. Alphas only care about the well-being of their own pack, their honor, and the Lycan Code that dictates we protect humans. Other packs won’t hesitate to kill an outsider deemed a threat. It was easier to oust the unwanted for someone else to take out. Thus, I was branded and cast out in hopes of someone else eliminating my existence.]
Swallowing, he forced himself to meet her gaze again. She’d been quiet. Her emotions unreadable as his own engulfed him, but he knew she could feel his guilt and the pain he carried from the accident. It had plagued him for decades. The shame was unbearable. The weight of it made him want to enter another pack’s territory and lie in a field, openly inviting someone to execute him.
But his family refused to let that happen.
[Adelaide wouldn’t leave me. She rejected the Schwarzwald Pack. She couldn’t bear the separation. The pups too. Alistair followed, just like he followed his sister and joined our pack when we mated. Gunner and Hector didn’t want to be left behind and joined us as well.]
Heaving a sigh, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the headrest. [I don’t know what I did to deserve them. I’d be dead if it weren’t for them. But now you know everything.]
For over eight-hundred years, he had lived. Witnessed death, destruction, loss, and redemption. He didn’t know how much longer he would live, but that was never something he worried about. He should have died three times, and each time he had escaped death’s clutches.
After Adelaide and Arthur’s murders, he would have welcomed death if he met it. Now, with Aubree in his life, he hoped he’d never cross paths with it. At least, not in the near future. He wanted to live again. Start over again.
If she was willing and able to still love and accept him now that she knew everything. All of his secrets. All of his shame. All of his burdens, so heavily claimed.
Taking a deep breath to clear his mind, he pressed his palms to the back of her hands on his chest and reached for her emotions through the bond. Whatever filled her—disgust, anger, resentment—he’d take it. He deserved it. He kept this from her, knowing it would disgrace him, but also praying that she would find it in her heart and soul to at least understand him, and perhaps one day forgive him.
A pang of overwhelming sadness and ache burned his chest before she slipped her hands over his shoulders. Leaning in, she wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face there as she began to tremble. It hurt to breathe. The pain was so raw and strong it choked him.
[You’re the strongest person I know,] she whispered into his mind.
[No, I’m not.]
[Yes, you are. You’ve been through so much. Despite all this, you are still loving, kind, and just.]
He brushed his fingers through her hair, and held her head against him, seeking warmth and finding a shred of it buried deep within the ache. He tried to coax it out as he rubbed small circles into her back with his other hand.
[You don’t resent me, then?]
Her arms tightened around him. [No! How can I resent you? It was an accident. You grieved so much. You suffered so much. You still hold it against yourself when your every intention had been good.]
A hint of salt wafted up to his nose before the teardrop landed on his shoulder.
[Stop it. Stop blaming yourself and hurting yourself like this. I can’t bear it. It’s crippling.]
He closed his eyes as they prickled and pressed his nose to her head. The ache within him spread, but it was warm and bittersweet.
[I’ll try, Love. With you by my side, perhaps in time my burden will be lifted.]