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     “The village lay in fire and smoke, choking the air into smothering fog…”

     THE TOWNSPEOPLE WERE GATHERED IN the center of a quadrangle, beady-eyed and stiff. Their lips were curled with ire and menace, pawning all mercy to the merchant of their anger. Foul faces etched with hatred lined the market square, each one pointed to the boy who stood with his body bound to a sturdy post on a block of wood. His head was bowed in what could have been shame, with the dark silk of his hair tumbling to his bare shoulders. Large sacks filled with straw and twigs lay chaotically stitched together at his feet, tilted inwards so that their puckered mouths squeezed their dry bile at his ankles. Torches blazed merely inches from the kindle, tormenting the youth with threats of falling.

     More villagers flooded into what little spaces were left, squeezing tightly into every gap that opened in the contorting, crowded forum. Some had come from the next town over, hearing only tidbits of tales about the strange boy who had settled there. When they saw him, they gasped and whispered words of dark, evil things. The mere sight of him sent wicked shivers through their spines, freezing their bones beneath the summer heat. The boy, though humanoid enough in shape, possessed a pair of dark wings that arched from his back like a cascading waterfall. They seemed to be made completely of shadow - ever-swirling shades of a monochromatic rainbow that sucked up the colors of the sun and devoured it into emptiness. It was if they had a life of their own, rustling and fidgeting with an eagerness that did not match the calm, stoic behavior of their master. They wrapped around him and brushed his pale skin free of torch-dust and soot, caressing him where others dared not even to touch. And still, he did not look up. His arms were ruggedly tied behind him with thick, rough ropes that sank into his wrists like the sharp, unforgiving teeth of a feral creature.

     In time, a man could be seen rounding the corner from a warped, misshapen archway; his long robes kissing the dirt and cobblestones with a mixture of reds and golds like the breaking of dawn. His head was cowled and shrouded, but high, gaunt cheekbones were visible in the shadows where the light tricked itself onto him like a joke. Beside him was an older man, his myrrh colored hair bubbling from his scalp like tawny froth from a pint of ale. They crossed the courtyard with barely a glimpse to the mob of infuriated commoners, nor to the creature that looked as if he hardly ever breathed, a mere statue of living flesh. They walked onwards in the straight line of a ceremonial procession and reached the edge of the wooden stake that once had been grand, but now loomed above them in a weak imitation of the past. A scroll fell from the long, gnarled fingers of the cloaked man who, by the seal that spoiled the rich, coiling paper, was the Elder of the town and its adjoining villages. He spoke the words that lay scrawled across the long tapestry of a page, his voice low and grave, full of accusation.

     “My people, humble people,” The crowds gave a small cheer, timorous and disquieted, as if they were uncertain as to the procedure of such an assembly. “We have adorned ourselves in the garments of justice this day, where we have, upon looking in the mirror of our modesty, found a speck of dirt that has spread and defiled our peace with a terrible stain of malevolence. This fleck, no more than a boy as he stands before us now, has proved his criminality and will surely grow in his sinful skin just as his wickedness shall grow and consume him into evil. It is my greatest despair to inform you that this foul creature has laid his devilish hand upon our own, dear Muirne…”

     An awakening gasp riveted through the gaping mouths of the crowd. Everyone knew that the mentioned name belonged to the daughter of the man who stood beside the Elder, his eyes drowning in the shadows of betrayed ghosts. Whispers of what had happened to her began questioning through the air, each one more nervous and anxious than the last. The Elder held up his wrinkled hand to face the sky, and the garbled voices fell obediently dormant.

     “It withers this old heart to pieces to say that she is now gone from us. Let us relish in our fortune that the daemon did not suck away her soul for his foul intentions, and instead, let her rest peacefully beyond the last gate of death. Never again shall we hear her sing songs to our herds of geese, or listen to her whittle jokes to the tethered horses. We will never see her dance with us when the spring rushes in through the warm south, or have her parade in the ceremonial robes of a proper and decorous marriage. No, instead she was infected and corrupted by this creature. She loved his spoiled charm despite our warnings, and now lays frozen in the grave of her consequences. Our dear, sweet little Muirne will not taste breath again because this wretched youth has tainted her lips and insulted her cheeks with his caress, while his monstrous spawn ripped her womb to shreds.”

     A crescendo of horror arose in a torrent of heated anger and despair, each expression cooking in frightened amazement upon hearing that Muirne had birthed a child, and not just any child - something foreign and wicked, something that came from this unknown boy. Her father fell to his knees and wept bitterly like an orphan boy dying from starvation; his trembling hands pressing the redness in his face to a pallid white while his shoulders heaved and fell like a heavy stone trying to break itself against impossible rocks.

     “Where is it?” voices outrageously demanded, their eyes filling with pity. “Should we not kill it along with its creator?”

     “We’ve searched the chalet for any sign,” the Elder began, his parched hand gripping the rolled up scroll with a fierceness that lay loyal to his vengeful face. “But there is no mark or trace that has led us down the path of the infant. It seems it has vanished, though more likely it is being cleverly hidden by the dark arts of this boy-daemon, our curse. So, we come before the hour of his appointed execution to ask of him—“ and here, the man turned and lay his cold, accusing gaze upon the winged youth: “—where is it?”

     For the first time, the boy shifted against his bindings; a slow, languid lift of his head paying homage to the sky as if his Gods mocked him for such bouts of insanity.

     “Speak!” commanded the Elder’s harsh, biting voice, and the winged thing looked at him with eyes that were blacker than the night – no, darker – for even the night has reflections of stars and moons, but here they were absent in his deep wells of stark ebony.

     “Your malevolence is beautiful,” he said, his voice like little pebbles plopping into a cold, shadowed stream. “It is a pity that you shame yourselves by letting it perish into ignorance and cruelty.”

     “Filth,” cried they, “Shadow! Where is your wretched spawn?”

     He seemed almost to smile then, a remote glint of ivory teeth that teased behind the crescent shape of depraved lips. "Indeed, she is no more. The bundle of dark fire you speak of was doused and extinguished the very night she was given life."

     "Lies! But it does not matter. With no paternity to care for her, she will be swept into the carriage of Death on a platter supplemented with starvation and chill."

     A jousting star of shooting anger seemed to ignite sparks in those inky eyes, revealing a truth that tore at him with the claws of a failed fatherhood. His head bowed low as he slumped forward in remorse, letting the dying light of midday catch the strands in his hair that revealed bits of blue amongst the black - yet another spy to his foreign heritage. He made no contest of activity until he heard the screeching of rusting wheels toppling over the uneven patchwork of haphazard stones. His gaze drifted to fall in bittersweet arrest upon the decrepit, old cart that housed the limp body of Muirne, her coiling brown hair scampering to and fro with each jostled bump of the wooden wagon, and her plain, white shift growing ugly with the splattering mud that was slapped onto her by the large wheels.

    The boy made a movement towards her as if he had forgotten that he was tied and lost his breath where the ropes ground into his chest. His audience laughed and jeered at him, clapping their hands together in an obnoxious display. He ignored their mockery and angled his slender face, stretched it as far as he could manage, and pointed his chin awkwardly in the direction where the girl lay; pale and lifeless, like a wilted flower bereaved of a suitable mausoleum.

     The girl’s father appropriately stood, attempting to hide his face as if he were ashamed to weep further. His eyes were deep and sunken with sorrow, their splintered hue of caramel peeking out over the rim of a grime-encrusted sleeve. Grief weighed down upon him profoundly, thick and vindictive, to the point where his shoulders were hunched in misery while he struggled to stay upright. “Muirne,” he said, his voice cracked and broken. “Muirne, my beautiful Muirne…”

     The Elder's fingers wrapped their thin, skeletal length upon the man’s shoulder in absent comfort. “You know what must be done now, Iseult. We shall pray that the Moons will grace us with Her purity as we trial the monster that murdered her.”

     Iseult’s eyes broke free of their trance, suddenly alarmed. “What? No, you can’t be serious! You can’t be. Not with my Muirne. What if the boy fails the trial? What then? I won't let you sacrifice her like a common goat based on the choices made by that wretch! I can't. She deserves more than that! She has been lured, cheated and abused by a devil. Let her have her peace with the proper burial of our people. Do not play games with her ghost any longer.”

     “My dear Iseult,” the Elder said, and his tone softened in a way that made the father’s heart fall. “She was given a choice in her living days. She was warned and advised against meddling in the affairs of this boy. We gave him scraps of vegetable peels where she gave him fruits ripe with viscous juice. We called him a shadow where she gave him names of flowers and foreign sugars. We tolerated him where she loved him, and because of this she has a crime that must be repented. Death is not an escape where sin is involved, and in this way only may she have the hope of cleansing her soul so that wherever she goes in the afterlife, she will be worthy to begin the ordeal of what lies beyond.”

     Iseult felt the heaviness of that truth, of that outcome, and felt as if he were internally drowning. Air seemed to stop at his lips as he looked at the Elder with pained eyes - eyes that understood, but would not forgive. “You would condemn her for her ignorance, for her desire to find parity in an outsider? This is not justice; this is madness!” He looked to the crowd for support, but they remained still as posts, poised in favor of the Elder. His people feared the unknown and took no chances when mysterious or evil deeds crossed paths with the village. Each proposal preached by the Elder, he knew, was to ensure that darkness be driven out. He would find no empathy here.

     Unbelieving, bristling, he turned and moved past the older man with the gentle force of a broken heart, and pressed through the crowd before him towards the small town that lay beyond the courtyard.

     No one dared to question his behavior, though curious eyes followed him as he left. They had never known what it was like to lose a child of their own to such immoral tragedy, and all but assumed that his defiance was an act of an emotional outburst and not to suddenly question their routine in dealing with corruption and criminal affairs. They shifted and began to busy themselves with fussing over the dead weight of the young woman to pull her off the cart. Twelve hands assisted in slinging her through the loopholes of arms, all cradling her gently as they brought her towards the planks of wood and settled her to prop against the sacks of kindling. The boy's moonless eyes, now piercing shards, gazed down at her rag-doll appearance with an expression that was unidentifiable. Obscurity smoothed his face into what could have been anticipation or disbelief. Whatever it was, it vanished quickly, and he locked eyes with the Elder as the older man spoke.

     “Now, boy! Here is your test, wherein lies the fate that you will give this poor spirit. You will have one arm that is to be unbound, and with that arm, you will be able to touch this girl however you wish it. If you do not touch her, not even a movement or thought in her direction, we will remove her from your fate and she will be buried as all our people are buried, with flowers and prayers and poems, all piled to the brim of her casket. If you are a minion of the devil, as I believe you solely to be, our myths claim that you’ll not be able to resist the temptation to brush your greedy, vile hands upon her once innocent skin, and she will be doomed to burn with you into the pits of the afterlife. Either way, unfortunate one, you will die with the crime of her murder.”

     As promised, the tight, rough hands of the man fiddled with the knots of tangled ropes, pulling one way, and tugging another until one arm was set entirely free. The boy swooned in complicit release, denying all prospects of would-be-virtue to collect those porcelain fingers around Murine in a wind-swept embrace. His elbow pivoted against its joint, bending to hook around the cadaverous woman in a way that pressed her dead weight against him. His intake of breath caught her scent of wilted lilacs and decayed lavender. 

     “Fiend!” screeched the Elder, his eyes burning with fervent hatred and incredulity: “You monstrous animal! You had the choice to save her and yet you have condemned her to dance in the path of daemons and impious worshippers!”

     “No,” the youth murmured, his words silky and cool, surprisingly calm. “You are the one who is going to burn her and send her into the Afterlife that you believe in. I stray to her, because I would not trust to leave her in your hands. No,” he said again, his voice prickled with agitation, “she is coming with me.”

     “I’ll be honest,” the Elder mused, his voice growing colder and tight with oppressed temper. “I’m quite unhappy that I’ll not be able to see you blister and shrivel to ash. You understand the flames will be so high, so thick, that it will make it difficult to witness your flesh charring like a block of wood, or how that smug smile will melt and drip from your face like sap from a weeping tree." No response came from the youth, who nestled his cheeks into the tangled array of Muirne's teeming locks. The Elder flew both middle and pointer finger to assign two patrons to the deed; they nodded briskly. Torches readied themselves in blazes of seductive flame, their crackling song the only sound as they flew earthbound and struck into the flaxen straw.

     The flames snapped and crackled, growing larger and wilder as they ate with an impatient hunger. The boy tensed, but did not scream, and watched the Elder with a bizarre crooked smile until the curtain of fire closed around him.

 

..:|:..

 

     On the far side of the courtyard, where a small, stone wall caged the entrance into a thatched forest, a babe let out a feeble whimper. The cheers and shouting that raged from the bonfire drowned out the newborn sound, her cry like a timorous bell marking its softest pitch.  A cooing word trickled down to sooth her disturbed ears, while silk-bound hands ran through the prickles of her fine, flat hair and swaddled the infant into the heaps of soft garments.

     “You will be his memory,” the voice said, sprinkling each syllable like stardust upon the girl’s milky forehead. A swirl of fabrics caught the air like stormy clouds, centering the figure like a silhouetted phantom as he quit the grisly celebration just as easily as if he were leaving an empty room. 

 

END

 

The tale drains into silence, and the deep, imaginative voice of the Storyteller diminishes like a soft, exotic secret.

Dozens of thirsty, expectant eyes succumb to disappointment at the daring cliffhanger. Murmurs spill in protest, the irritation evident in each objection. Tongues flap wildly like the dithering wings of quibbling ravens.

 "What happened to the child?" Questions procure like angry, twittering birds.
"Did she survive?"

 "Oh, she survived..." the Storyteller muses, head cocked delicately to the left. "She survived far longer than the townspeople predicted she would..."

 

(Story continued in "The Orphan Child")