"Don't wander off too far. I don't want to have to go through all that again to get you back."
The barest shifting of his unkempt hair was the only recognition he gave her.
He was silent a moment longer. "Yes?"
"....I'm sure....she's not down here." she said at last. She wished she could feel as sure as she tried to sound.
He searched the swirls of ash roiling in the void overhead wordlessly, face unreadable even if she had found the courage to look. In his long mortal years, he had never understood how the gods could be called merciful when they did not allow a beloved one who had gone on to speak with those left behind, even a little, if only once.
After he came to himself again amid the scoured ruins of his village, there was nothing he would not have given the gods to hear just one whisper of his mother's voice in his heart; just one that was not merely the desperate echo of a memory. His faith, his soul, his life, whatever, however. Just one whisper, just one word, telling him she was safe. He prayed to the Goddess; how he prayed. He even prayed forgiveness for his rage that had taken her murderers, though he felt no remorse for them. He begged in tears until he had none left to shed, then begged again. His heart continued to scream helplessly when his throat grew too raw to give it voice.
Only silence, terrible, final silence, met him; and the memories were drowned by his anguish, his guilt, and his helpless fury.
Did the Goddess hate him now? Did his mother?
Or was he just alone?
The demons had come then; having felt a release of power so potent it had torn a Gate between worlds, they were seeking its source, be it opponent or opportunity. When they found such might in such a tiny, shaking form, they openly considered killing the terrified child on the spot for the human blood they could smell in him.
Instead they asked him, with jagged smiles, what had happened.
The shocking news of Sister Aime's pregnancy out of wedlock quickly became the favorite feed for the matriarchal old hens of Emaner. Even girls in the service of the Goddess got in trouble; not praying enough or praying for the wrong things, they sniffed, bemoaning the decline of the Church and civilization this surely heralded. Rumors that the father was anyone from old Father Miel to the unhappily-married Mooboo rancher at the foothills were scattered daily and hungrily pecked up.
Aime answered the rare direct questions about his identity, subtle or blunt, with the same smiling eyes and enigmatic reply. "He's the man I love."
Whoever he was, he never returned to her; and somehow, as their child grew within her, the village gossip grew protective of the girl. Surely proof of the devotion the Goddess prays for, they sniffed, wiping away pious tears with their aprons. No matter the young men who blushingly proposed to do the honorable thing in his stead, she was only for her unnamed beloved. Bachelors at the tavern alternately wept into their ale over how lucky that man was, or beat their mugs against the counter cursing him as a motherless scum of a fool for abandoning such a sweet angel.
Aime had known from the start he could never truly stay with her. That was part of a secret she held more carefully than his name.
When Aime's time came, Mother Piete was unnerved by a terrible dread as she delivered the child into the world; the infant's tiny wails as his mouth was cleared made her shake so badly she nearly dropped him. The very real warmth as Aime took her son to her breast for the first time could not erase the awful coldness that chilled the older woman to the marrow.
Aime named the babe Noir for the striking color of his eyes, and the whisps of hair that promised to match them. Father Miel would hear none of Piete's private concerns, and made a great game of fussing and tickling the infant to squealing like a proud grandfather. He did, however, take her counsel that Aime be given leave of her duties to raise the child, and moved the young mother into his scarce-used chateau.
As Noir grew, Piete came to wonder what devil's madness had overwhelmed her at his birth. A clever, well-mannered child, he had a sweet voice that only rose when he sang the praises of the Goddess in services. He seemed best at ease around his elders and the mysteries of the Father's extensive, dusty library; he was not an unfriendly boy, but the rambunctious children in the village were bored easily with dreaming and not doing, just as he was bored with doing and not dreaming. Father Miel speculated quietly Noir may succeed him one day. Mother Piete chuckled that the youth already had the old man's same lazy life of books, except Noir actually read them.
"Maman....was Papa a....a bad man?" the ten-year-old finally managed the courage to ask, even if he did so hiding beneath his tousled bangs as though he'd just uttered a vulgar word.
Aime had to smile; the old rumors must have sprung anew in the children, planted by their parents. She knelt down to ease her son, but his chin only dug further into his chest. "No, Noir. He was a fine, proud man."
"Why did he go away?" he whispered then; unable to stop himself, hating himself for the sadness he knew would shadow his mother's eyes at the question. He bit his lip hard.
Sadness she knew her son shared, yet he thought most for hers. She drew him in close. "Sometimes, we can't always be with those we love in the way we would like best." she smoothed his unruly hair back to meet his eyes at last. "But never doubt that he does love us both."
Noir gripped at the hem of her skirt, hiding his face in its folds instead. He knew his mother was right; life was not always kind in Emaner, and he had already been called upon the last winter to sing a funeral lamentation. He felt sorrow for all the pain he saw then, behind black veils and beneath black-ribboned hatbrims; he sang it over their cries, but he never wanted to understand it.
Aime's soft caress at the nape of his neck soothed the questions she knew he left unspoken. "Those that you love never leave your heart, Noir. You are part of one another." she coaxed him to look up, coaxed a tremulous smile from him with her own. "My heart is yours. Your heart is mine. Right?"
The boy answered with a tight hug.
Unlike Father Miel, Noir was given to seek his solitude outdoors, in the forests further up the mountain his mother had raised him to love. Summertime the next year, solace was proving to be a difficult commodity, though; for somehow, he had caught the curiosity of one of the other village boys.
Cruton, the smith's son, was almost his age, but it seemed to Noir he asked at least twice the questions the older boy ever had.
"Wanna climb a tree?" the boy repeated, rocking on his folded legs before springing to his feet and wandering the small clearing. Noir had lost count of how many times he'd been asked. He shook his head, turning another page in the book he'd chosen for the day. His climbing a tree couldn't possibly match the adventures of saints and heroes.
"Well, I do." Cruton hopped. Noir was nearly as sour-faced as his father after a day over the anvil. "How can you learn everything if you don't learn how to play?"
"In a little bit." Noir murmured, not noticing the other boy had already shed his jacket and was clambering up the nearest trunk.
Moments later Cruton tumbled back down with a cry, blanched and transfixed in terror by the branches overhead.
Yellow eyes like frozen flames burned down on the boys. The hellish beast crouched low with a hiss, then leapt.
Noir could not describe what happened next, even if he had wanted to recall it. A slipping of his very soul, and then blackness took him. Flashes of heat, the sharpness fangs and talons, the salt of blood, hideous snarls.
When the sunlight slanting through the trees led him back to the waking world, he found himself alone. There was no sign of Cruton, and the monster had been savaged and scattered to grisly pulp across the meadow. His pale face and hands were smeared with its blood, although his clothes were clean save for the skidding of grass. A foul bile clung in his mouth, and an awful heaviness pressed in his chest. The birds had all fled, or hid in silence.
Stumbling between the trees, the older boy could tell his companion had crashed heedlessly back down the path to the village; a shoe here, a bit of cloth the brambles snagged there. He breathed relief to see Cruton huddled among his usual cohorts in the square, then ran back up the mountainside to the spring. He felt unclean within and without, and what he retched at the water's edge was not breakfast, only sickening him further.
Cruton did not seek him again, nor did it seem he told anyone whatever he saw. Noir returned to the chateau, and did not leave.
Piete fretted the child was becoming ill, so suddenly aimless he had become, but careful examination proved his faint assurances that he was not were true. His mother tried gently to share the secret burden of his heart, but he buried it deeper still. It was not a weight she should bear.
Instead, time not spent on chores was spent shut in his room, hands clenched white in prayer.
Was it the work of the Goddess, to save them? It did not feel like the miraculous strength of the saints and heroes of legend. It felt like the mindless brutality of the evil they battled.
The Fallen, then? He choked back a whimper, and the bloodless fingers ground into his forehead.
His mother and Father Miel had taught him even in the darkest hearts, there is light, and even the lightest hold a shadow.
But which was his?
Cruton's fear hurt, but Noir shared it.
The morning of the third day, Noir somehow remembered the book he'd borrowed from the Father; he'd left it up there, in the fateful clearing. Willing his fears to a corner of his mind, he concentrated instead on his responsibilities; numbly retracing his steps into the forest quickly as legs would allow while the sun sank into dusk, when none would notice him.
The lingering stench of death nearly buckled him into the grass as he arrived; he tried to ignore the cloying reek and see nothing except the book he had come to reclaim. It lay where he had thrown it when he dashed to Cruton's side. He sank down as he picked it up, shivering as he wiped at the dew-stained pages. He almost wished the boy was there annoying him again.
Strong hands dug into his shoulders, threw him back and pinned him. His head swam as he tried to focus past the stars winking behind his eyes to the scowling faces looming above him. It was Cruton, and his friends; the eldest and biggest, Moutarde, was the one crushing him down, while brothers Pepin and Miche clutched at knives swiped from their mother's kitchen. Cruton danced in agitation behind them, questions clearly answered at last.
"Show yourself!" Pepin's blade flashed across his cheek, close enough he could feel the chill of the metal over the hot breath of the demand.
"I'm not...!" he gasped. The sharp edge pressed a thin line of blood from his jaw, insisting otherwise.
"You are!" Cruton cried out, pointing to the foul decay and fragmented bones scattered at their feet. "You are, you are! I watched you!"
"We have to warn the Father." Miche urged with a hushed voice, flinching to follow the younger boy's gestures. "The witch is probably planning to kill us all."
Noir stopped squirming to stare in horror. Moutarde felt him shake harder, and turned grim eyes to his.
"Confess, devil. Confess before you and your mother return to the fires of Hell!"
A piercing howl answered him.
When awareness returned this time, Noir's hands were crusted with gore and clawing deep into Moutarde's quivering remains. Staggering back in a whirl of revulsion, he saw the others dead; all save Miche. That one gibbered and scrambled away as the child's agonized eyes fell on him.
Noir ran then, too; blindly, mind empty of all thoughts save one.
Aime could only rush to her son and gape in horror as he stood paralyzed and bloodied in the doorway. "Noir! What happened!? What did this to you!?"
"Th-th-they tried....M-maman, they.....they want to hurt you, Maman, you have to run!"
She pressed him close as furious shouts erupted outside.
Neighbors who had smiled at her at market, sang with her and Noir at church, and blushed with offers of marriage became ghoulish distortions in flickering torchlight, twisted with fear and hate, shadowed by pitchforks and spears meant for her shaking child. Clutching Noir's hand, Aime stepped out to the street; she then stepped forward to shield him, arms spread. "Wait! Please! He was just trying to protect himself!"
"That's a lie!" Miche shouted; the shame of fleeing the hellspawn that butchered his brother gave him a vengeful courage now. "I saw everything! He turned into a demon! She's a witch!"
"He killed my son and his friends!" Volonte roared. The blacksmith was a massive man, and the spear he brandished was one of his deadliest works. "That's all I need to know!"
"Death to the demon!"
"Death to the demon's mother!"
Aime's eyes did not leave them, but she stepped back a pace as they advanced, whispering calmly over her fear. "Noir....you must escape."
He shook his head wildly, seizing her skirts. "Maman....!"
"Remember, Noir....just as there are good and bad people, there are good and bad demons." she blinked hard, wondering if he ever could forgive her. He should never have learned this way. "Your father was a demon. But he was a fine, proud man. Never be ashamed of your powers."
She looked down to him then, with the same tender smile that had comforted him so many times. "Noir...be a good boy."
Volonte's spear left no time for more. The young mother was past hearing her son's screams as she slid to the cobblestones, past feeling his arms around her neck.
"Yes! We killed the witch!"
"Next is the demon child!"
The heat of her blood as it soaked him from the street seemed to immolate him.
Father Miel and Mother Piete remained silent behind the locked doors of the Goddess. Poitreene's will was absolute in such a tragedy; they would not question Her judgement. They would only pray mercy for the poor girl.
Neither of them could know their own judgement was on them, on all of Emaner, with a consuming surge of darkness and a child's sobbing shriek.
Too soft? Too hard? Just right? Concrit/beta appreciated. :B ♥