The Second Life and Adventures of Benjamin Finn:
Chapter 7: In Which the Author Finds Things Can Always Grow Worse
The evening was in every way the perfect end to a less than perfect journey.
An uncharacteristic display of frivolity found Wren and I lounging beneath Walter's statue, enjoying an evening which was remarkably uneventful in contrast to our prior time spent in each other's company, with talk and pleasant banter shared as we struggled in vain against the inevitable conclusion of our time together. For while I would be moving on to presently unknown exploits with the next sunrise, we two were keenly aware that there would be no more grand adventures for our fair queen; at least none that would require the sword arms of those that had risen up in rebellion beside her. As such, it was over this particular topic that we resorted to our tried and true habit of trading anecdotes towards the end of trivializing what lay before us.
"I will miss it, though," my friend ruminated after a pause between jabs, her arms folded over the stone balustrade as she watched the picturesque sunset over the city below; the rosy glow of dusk upon her face coming very near to matching that of her former complexion, save for the faint traces of unlit Will markings at her temples.
"What - miss the constant threat of death?" I chortled, yet unaware that we had slipped from banter into something more sincere. "The days on end without a bath? The horrible rations that probably tasted no better than our boots? Oh, of course. Yeah, I can see how you'd miss that."
With a low chuckle my companion reached over and swatted my arm with the back of her hand none-too-gently, "Not that! Living out there; it was liberating. And I'll miss the camaraderie of people who saw me as an equal; as their friend. It was nice… having friends…" It was a surprisingly poignant remark and not a prospect that I had ever before considered; after all how could a person who had lived their life in a bustling castle surrounded and adored by servants and nobility possibly understand what it meant to be lonely?
Perhaps Jasper, Walter and that Elliot fellow had been more of an exception than the rule in Wren's case.
"Here now. Don't talk like that. You'll always have friends," I said, at last adapting the pensive manner in which she now spoke, "Battle made friendships never really die, you know."
A small smile touched her lips, one that was a trifle too sad for my liking. "No… those friendships never die."
Realizing where – and more specifically to whom – her thoughts were now wandering I found my fingers settling against hers without intention, knowing only that I was eager to halt her thoughts before they brought back the tears as they had before. Though I can say without boasting that I have a strong stomach in many aspects, I admit that I have never been one to easily bear witness to the sight of a woman crying, and found Wren's tears the least tolerable of all. "I know what it's like," I assured my friend with all of the empathy I could safely bring myself to experience, "believe me, I do. But you still have Page and Kalin-"
My throat promptly constricted in reaction to her query, for I hadn't expected her to request my inclusion as readily as she had. Of course I was aware that we had evolved from mere allies into fast friends, but the manner in which she had leapt at the opportunity to validate our ties to one another seemed almost as though it was the foremost thought in her mind, which was bullocks, I was certain.
"Especially me." I soothed, giving her fingers a squeeze and immediately gratified to feel the pressure of hers in return. "Don't you doubt that for a second, pal." With that she set free a breathy laugh and released my hand from her grasp, leaving me bereft of the pressure though her fingers remained against mine in a tactile contact which was barely perceptible; but only just.
"Life's going to get pretty boring without you around, you know," she admitted with a quirked lip and an arched brow that betrayed her return to a more jovial spirit. "Are you sure you won't reconsider? I bet if you left off the dramatics a bit Page would eventually come around."
My indifferent shrug at her offer was purely reflexive and my following admission only marginally less so. "I'm not so sure I care to make the effort anymore, to be honest. I need someone who understands my wit and charm. The offer to help her was just to get a rise out of her; we all know she's not too fond of me."
With that Wren's face schooled to perfect composure as she gave a thoughtful nod, as though earnestly contemplating my admission. "Yes, you are fairly intolerable." She confirmed at last with none-so-much as a twitch of her lip to betray her jest.
"Right then. Glad we're all in agreement on that."
With a laugh and a shake of her head the last of my Heroic companion's melancholy dissipated, leaving quiet contentment in its place, and me equally content to join in her silent comfort, until at last she sighed and pushed herself back from the railing.
"I think we've put this off long enough, don't you?"
Reluctantly, I admitted that she was right. There was no sense in delaying the moment any further; the sun had since slipped beneath the horizon; the pinks and golds of the sunset replaced by purples and midnight blues of dusk. In the city beneath our vantage a room above the tavern awaited me and, in the harbor just beyond, the ship that would take me abroad with the sunrise.
"Well, pal," I sighed and held my upturned hands out in a gesture of mute surrender to the finality of the moment when, to my astonishment, my actions were met with arms encircling my chest and soft hair coming to rest against my ear. This I had not anticipated, intended, or even dared hope for, and yet I found my arms enveloping Wren's undeniably exquisite form without so much as a heartbeat's hesitation.
"I will miss you, Ben," her whisper beside me was as heartfelt as the embrace, and before I could bring myself to regret my actions, I tightened my hold upon her. If only just this once I would allow myself this one moment. After all, this could quite possibly prove to be our final farewell; nothing incongruous could possibly be taken from one friend giving another a parting embrace, I repeated to myself emphatically.
"I know," I murmured into hair that smelled enticingly of sandalwood, leather and gunpowder; a mixture I found too intoxicating to not savor. "I'll miss you, too." I allowed myself the luxury of deep inhalations for as long as she saw fit to remain until it was that her head retreated fractionally. Immediately I feared that she had discovered my indecent appreciation – that I had offended – when unexpectedly her cheek pressed tentatively to mine.
"This will always be your home," she murmured, her breath wafting to my ear deliciously so that I was forced to suppress the shiver that threatened; "I know you may not see it so, but it's true. Remember that and come back soon, will you?"
And in the delirium that was the result of the utter and complete bliss in having a sample of what I had denied myself for so long, I could not tell if she referred to Albion, the castle or her arms.
"Count on it," I vowed, finding it difficult to rouse my voice into anything smoother than rough cut stone; knowing somewhere within the bowels of my mind that I needed to break away from her, that willpower alone could not withstand this temptation much longer. It was a warning that I dismissed far too readily. "Don't forget me before then, all right?"
Blinking before my eyes at that moment were two tiny moons pearly and gleaming in the failing daylight. I'd never noticed before that Wren was not precisely my height, but stood ever so slightly above me; the difference so minor one could only notice it if we stood as close as we were now.
"Never." She breathed.
And that, as they say, was that. My faculties were undone, right there in that single word. So it was that I did the one thing I'd thus far admirably abstained from; I leaned into Wren and laid my lips to hers.
It was sweeter than any other experience in my life, for there was nothing about kissing this woman – this indomitable force of power and authority – that betrayed anything but total and complete innocence. No desperate pawing, no covetous noises, just a kiss that was as pure and tender as anything I'd ever known; returned and not simply tolerated.
It was only when she responded to my advances by flattening her palms against my back to hold me closer against herself that I realized what a grievous infraction I had committed, and broke the contact with a start.
"Damn. I'm sorry," I found it impossible to meet her gaze at that moment, for the first time too terrified of what sort of reaction I might find painted across that porcelain-pale face. "Look I know better, honestly. You're not the sort-"
A leather-clad palm reached up to cup my cheek, cutting off my self-effacing groveling; those same twin moons burned so brightly as they gazed at me that they could have become stars.
Wren appraised me for a moment, her thumb brushing at my unshaven skin as her eyes roved over my face, before at last murmuring "Shut up, Ben," through a smile which seemed very nearly timid. And it was with this command that she leaned into me to reclaim my lips with hers.
I startled into wakefulness so violently the frame of the bed beneath me creaked in protest of the reaction.
The night had been fitful; my dreams tormenting me with memories of Wren's arms and lips, before shifting cruelly to conjured images of a woman weeping in the shadows; though it was clear that the unseen mourner and the object of my affection were one and the same. Not even in sleep could I escape the wretched truth of my failures, and what I had brought down upon a woman I had no right to hold so dear.
For there was no use denying it – though in truth I had never denied my feelings to anyone – not even myself. Instead, like every other complicated situation in my life that could not be solved with a bullet or a witty comment or by following the orders of one in authority, I had simply run from the truth and in the most convenient and practical manner available to me. Two years ago I'd fled by leaving behind all of Albion under the guise of seeing the world; then to the arms of those willing women when I'd returned to my homeland and found myself desirable as I'd never been, before finally returning to my most tried and true distraction: battle.
Yet now as I sat in the darkened second story of Plum House, listening to Wren's slow breathing from the bed beyond the screen that separated us I could no longer pretend not to notice.
I was in love with the Queen of Albion.
I'd loved women before, of course, though their less than monogamous career paths or scandalous lifestyles had made developing anything beyond the physical nearly impossible, a fact which had always worked out to my benefit when it came time for me to leave their company for the call of adventure.
There had even been a time when I'd been attracted to Page, though my one-sided flirtations with her had admittedly been more to distract myself from the one woman I yearned for and yet could not allow myself to pursue. What right did a simple solder of even simpler stock have to possess the Righteous Hero Queen of Albion? None – at least not until that fateful night when she'd responded to my irrepressible slip in propriety and sufficiently stolen what remained of my tattered reason.
Thus naturally I took her to bed, thinking nothing of what our actions represented until she was sleeping within my arms. And there it was in that post coital moment that I gave in to the colossal panic my sense of logic so generously provided, leaving her bed without explanation and knowing full well that Wren was not the sort of woman who took such things as relations with a man lightly. She'd mourned that Elliot fellow with a thorough devotion some wives would not have granted their late husbands after all. And in all of the time I had known her and called her friend, my Heroic companion had never once given in to any of the advances, propositions or flirtations that had been flung at her… save mine.
With a feeling I could only compare to a lead mortar ball being dropped into my gut, I realized that two years ago Wren had loved me.
No. No, it was much, much worse than that. Two years ago we'd been in love with one another.
And laying there in the dark, listening to her as she slept, I could not decide which was worse; that I'd lost the opportunity to be with the woman I loved like no other…
…or that I'd come so close to winning her.
I stood from my bed, recognizing my eagerness to move as the telltale sign that I was ready to run again, and in distinguishing this I was able to chose an escape that would not take me from the house; electing instead to take my leave to the sitting room downstairs where I stoked the fire that had burned to coals before deciding to retrieve a bottle of brandy from one of the cabinets. It was still fleeing from reality I knew, but a man could not be expected to change his character on a whim.
There, in a flash of what I can only describe as non-light, color drained from my surroundings the world around me froze in place, as still and silent as a charcoal drawing. The clock at my back ceased to mark time and the flickering of the fire stilled as though it was nothing more than a portrait, its light present but cold and wrong. Even the shadow I cast remained before the cupboard doors, showing that my last act had been to rub my face as I rummaged through the cupboard.
And standing before the door was the old seer, silent as a cat watching a bird yet in such vivid color as she gracefully folded her hands before her waist that I knew she was the cause of my altered surroundings.
"Bloody hell!" My cursory acknowledgement was no doubt imprudent but a lesser alternative to my first impulse which had been to pull pistol and fire. "A simple 'excuse me' isn't too much to ask for now, is it?"
"You do recall my warning." Of course I was aware that she wasn't truly asking; one who could watch every moment of another's life undetected did not have to ask questions after all. "The weapon cannot be located if you separate."
"Of course I remember," I admit growling in agitation, which was undoubtedly similarly rash, but then I was in no mood for games. "I promised that I'd see this through, didn't I?"
"See to it that you do. Guilt can make men do foolish things in the name of atonement, as can concepts such as status. When next you put it in your mind that you are not worthy to stand at her side, recall this; Wren's mother was raised not as royalty but as a beggar child and then a gypsy. Her blood is no nobler than yours." It was uncanny the way the old woman could get into my head, and I bristled at her words. Was nothing of my life sacred with her about – not even my thoughts? For of all of the thoughts I would not want another to know, it was the ones she had picked from my head that I would have hidden above all.
"You're wrong there," I countered, not attempting to disguise my exasperation with her actions, knowledge or all together general presence before me. "Wren has Heroes in her bloodline. And her father was a noble. I'm the son of merchants."
"Look back far enough, Captain Finn," Theresa said cryptically, "and you will find Hero blood in almost every line." The gypsy regarded me for a moment. "And your assessment of her father is incorrect. While he was indeed noble, it was not by birth."
"What are you talking about? Lord Eugene was born into one of the highest ranking houses in Bowerstone."
"Indeed he was. But Lord Eugene is not of who I speak."
My eyes lurched to the stairwell, expecting to see Wren standing there listening, yet the landing was empty, the house around us silent. Hearing Theresa's words without Wren present seemed somehow a betrayal against my friend – and that was not something I could endure again. "Lord Eugene was… Why aren't you telling her this?"
"If Albion's last Hero knew the truth of her paternity she would not be able to complete the task before her. The Crawler would use this knowledge to destroy her and she would put up no resistance when the creature pressed its attack."
My mind was instantly consumed with such a potent understanding I could not even pretend that I did not know who it was she was referring to. "Walter… it's Walter."
Of course, it could be no other. Walter, who had guided and watched over Wren since she slept in a cradle. Who stood by each and every decision Wren had ever made; no matter how impractical or objectionable it had been to the rest of Albion. Who had held fast to a near fanatical pride and belief in Wren even to his dying breath. Such devotion went well beyond that of a soldier following his monarch. Walter had doted and supported Wren in only a way that a father would of his beloved child; undoubtedly keeping the knowledge secret to protect Wren and her mother from the stigma of adultery.
I found my sympathies going out to the man. It must have been hard watching his daughter grow thinking her father cared nothing for her while knowing nothing could be further from the truth. It would have been easy to tell her the truth and yet to do so would have ultimately caused her greater harm than good.
In truth, we might all be dead today if Walter had not taken his secret with him into death.
Before me Theresa had either failed to notice my bewilderment at this revelation or, more likely, lacked the proper amount of humanity to bother with giving me a chance to digest this information, for she deliberately continued with carrying out the business at hand.
"When the host is destroyed, the creature will try to find sanctuary within a new body to inhabit. Without the cult to perform the ritual that would place it within a new host, the Crawler will be forced to make the transition alone and immediately. Ordinarily this is quite dangerous, and could very well result in failure, yet such will not be the case this time. Having already developed an affinity for Walter, adapting itself to his daughter's physical vessel will require almost no effort, and will be the only viable option available in the weakened state it will have been reduced to. When the time comes it will be up to you to ensure that the Crawler does not gain a foothold into our world again."
The only answer I received was the seer's absolute silence, which was quickly obliterated by the bellow I set loose within the confined space.
"No, no-no-no-no-NO! You cannot ask that of me! The weapon – you said the weapon would be enough!"
"It will be, though only if you've the courage to use it."
"Then I'll finish it myself! We'll find the weapon together and then I'll send her off – she doesn't need to die for this!"
"Only with Wren at your side will it be possible to defeat the Crawler. Even inhabiting a corpse rather than a living being, it is still too powerful for you. Without her, fighting the Crawler on your own will accomplish only your death. She must be there to destroy the present host so that the creature can make the transition, and it is during this transition that you must destroy them both."
"But I thought you couldn't see what happened! How can you be so sure-"
"I can see what will transpire if you ignore my warnings. If you fight the creature alone you will die and Albion's Queen will have no alternative to obtaining the only weapon capable of defeating the darkness permanently. If you do not face her when the Crawler takes her, she will become the bane to her people she strove so desperately to destroy."
Without warning something hard struck at my knees, and it was with a bizarre sort of detachment that I looked down to find that it had been the floor. "You swore her an oath, Captain Finn," the despicable woman pressed her assault on my quintessence without mercy or compassion, "that you would end her life if she became a threat. I am here to forewarn you that it will be so. Will you break your oath to her and forsake her people so that she might live on as a monster?"
My mind took a cruel turn at that moment, as though bent on causing irreparable harm to my conscience for it began to conjure up things I'd have done well not to consider, such as the sound of Wren's laughter, and the way that her smile could make a man's heart flutter like a hummingbird. Dejected, I hid my eyes behind my hand. "Don't ask this of me… I won't do it."
"I ask this of you because you are the only one who can." The hag's voice cut through my misery, ringing so clearly I wondered absently if she might be placing her words directly into my head. "Refuse this task and you will condemn the world to the darkness she so desperately fears. This choice is yours alone to make."
I was immediately overwhelmed by the urge to demand why the wretched woman did not adopt the task herself; for all of her omnipotence why could she not stand up and deliver us from damnation?
Yet when I unshielded my eyes to flay her with my question I found the room lit warmly by a gently crackling fire, and the space before the door empty as that of my chest.
Poor Ben. He's such a bleedin' romantic! Come on, you know he is. Just look at him! He's totally that guy who lost everyone he ever loved, was afraid of getting hurt again, but couldn't suppress his romantic nature. Hence the previous love interests of questionable taste. But then he finds "the one" and despite his best efforts, can't help but to fall for her.
And then that witch has to go and drop the bomb on him.
Why, you ask? Because it wouldn't be a story worth reading otherwise.