There was once a newborn child.
Like most children, it arrived bawling and howling, blind as a man to night, and so wordless as the most decrepit of mutes. However, it also stands to be said that this child was a cat, and a particularly handsome one of the two-legged variety at that.
He – for it was a he - bore the most perpendicular features, and once his patchy, infantile fur had been ruffled and dried, it was dark, silvery and fine. So much was rather to be expected, given his proud heritage, and none could look upon this boy without seeing his parent's faces mirrored in full. The mother's name was Ciel, the father's Silvanus, and though they had been wed come only the spring past, the pair could not possibly have been more certain of their adoration for one another, nor the surety of their connection.
Now, this pair had both settled in the same village into which this child was born since the day they too had been little more than children, and for the most part they were glad for this. It was a quaint enough place, far, far from the monotonous bustle of the cities and larger towns, and yet plenty large enough to provide all that a small family might need, as well as hearty, kind neighbours to assist with the nurturing of new life. The boy was in good hands, and in the care of good hearts. They named him Magnus, and so hoped for him a long and prosperous life.
However, it is not this child whom our story follows.
And, perhaps, it is indeed better this way. For as the first winter of his life fell, only grief and discourse followed. It was as though the season itself were an evil, conceited thing, taking all joy and camaraderie from the world, and replacing it with sheer hate and discrepancy.
Doors slammed, voices screamed, hearts shattered, and bonds were eschewed. Before long, there came the longest night of all, when Silvanus's shadow cast itself out onto the cold stones outside, never to return.
A period of silence came to the village, almost as if the breaking of one home had meant the downfall of all else for the people there. Hands of aid were offered, and words of consolation spoken. However, nothing but the balm of slow, hard-won time could ease her wounds, and those glad assistances soon turned to bitter spite with her everlasting refusal and despondency.
It was in the child's second year that the new arrival came to the village. The previous summer had been bright and fresh, and thus it's mother was of somewhat a new mind also. However, all past was forgotten by most with the buzz of this great advent. It had been a long time since a foreigner had come, and longer still since one had made to stay.
The wives and the geezers told that he had come from far to the north and had led many a sled and convoy in his time, as was the common way of those who hailed from those lands. As all idle chatter does, this talk rendered in Ciel's mind an preconceived image of some dark, rough man, and she could only shake her head at such deluded thoughts. Never again. Her mind would make to convince itself. I'm not going to to do this to myself again.
However, when she finally encountered a tall, lean figure upon a stroll through the village marketplace on a fine summer day, there was absolutely no doubting that it was indeed the one that she had heard so much about. He was handsome, surely. Strong, lean, with gloss-grey fur and the proudest of features. Ciel had never met one so sightly before.
His stance was strong also, as he hardly even faltered when Ciel found herself losing track of her step, and tumbling face-first toward the ground when her foot caught on his own. No sooner had she tipped over, however, than his hands were reaching out to catch her, planting her feet firmly back on the ground mere seconds after they had left it.
After he had righted her and made to bid her a desperate string of unwarranted apologies, they began to talk, and her duties amongst the stalls were soon forgotten. He was a stranger, a maverick, and a thing of mystery for her. His name was Darius Aventis, and what a fine calling it was. The first time she parted from him, she couldn't bear herself until they were in each-other's company once more. Again and again they met, and she soon knew so certainly as anything that he was the right choice. This one wouldn't fail her.
Needless to say, it wasn't much time until words turned to promises, and little more before vows were said once more. Darius was a perfect father for her child – loving him as though her were his own - and all was finally well for these two opposite yet perfectly entwined souls.
However, in truth, all was not.
It happened quite suddenly, when autumn was sending orange from the sky to kiss the ground. There there had once been plenty, there was suddenly none. The wagons of foodstuffs with their dark, earthy smells stopped coming, and the traders had nothing but words to sell. The elders and the leaders - even old Garaum himself - bargained long and hard, and when they could do this no longer, they took to their hall and consulted one another for a day and a night, and then again until the sun was beginning to peak in the sky.
When they finally emerged, it was with a solemn seeming upon their faces, and bags under their eyes that told of more toll than age alone. The words they spoke to the common people were of rationing and increased labour, making hard to till the fields even as they turned to rot with the turning season. There were to be no wastages, they said, and most importantly, absolutely no more needy mouths to be brought into the village, unless that mouth came with a pair of attached and able hands.
Everyone returned home cold and scared that day, but Ciel and her sweetheart perhaps most of all. Something was troubling them, and troubling them deeply. What were they to do? But the choice had already been made, and the deed had already been done. Ill chance had fallen, and there was no telling what could happen now.
Winter arrived with it's blessings of snow and chill, but there were no celebrations nor condolences to be had. It was a hard time, and made all the harder still through the sheer lack of sustenance for strained body, and the fact that after some months Ciel could no longer leave the house, for fear that they be discovered from her admittedly increasing girth. Thankfully, however, that dark time the year before had led to most members of the village considering her an introvert anyhow, and it wasn't long before the bleak white turned to pale, sharp green, bringing with the eve of spring the promise of new life.
It was soon clear that the child wasn't far away. Yet there were no doting neighbours and midwives nor the aid of a physician if one was required this time. Of course both parents were utterly terrified, and this meant that poor Magnus was almost abandoned in his crib most nights as they fretted together over the arrival of the new child. Worst of all, food was still scarce, and there was talk of yet further shortages in the future, even though green flourished most everywhere the eye could see.
One night, Darius took to the drink – as was an extremely rare occasion for him - and in his dulled stupor made pledge to seek the assistance of the townsfolk in assuring his wife's livelihood. However, the very next morning, whispers of conspiracy were abound, and a single tale upon the lips and pens of all within the village. Apparently, a pair of wolves had been discovered with child on a road just shy of the lake, and had immediately been thrown out of the village with the bawling babe in their arms, lacking even a single bite of food.
It amazed them that another couple had been enduring the same torment that they suffered now, but for Darius especially it meant only one thing. They mustn’t know. Their new child must be hidden away until the day that it could take to work. At least then they could have some chance of persuading the elders to see differently.
The babe came with the first blossoming flowers. They named him Sairn, after one of Ciel's travelling forefathers. He grew fast, and the restrictions and precautions of his parents' clandestine arrangement rose with him. As so, Magnus's growing awareness found itself similarly limited, purely through the extended fear of his parents. Closing thresholds met every first step, and blinded shutters each curious glance.
As so this ritual continued, until confused glances turned to words; spoken under a childishly slighted frown. 'Why' and 'why not' were among the original things that both brothers spoke, and remained a necessary staple of their vocabularies until the answers to those inquiries was so ingrained in his mind that asking once more was clearly purposeless even to his youthfully eager mind.
More than once it seemed as if the scale would tip, and the village would erupt into rioting but - thankfully and accursedly - all managed to somehow remain stable. The cold and the heat interchanged, as did the sun and the moon, but the borderline famine was always constant; tiring and wearing down the people till they could almost stomach no more action than attending to their jobs and then returning hope to sleep.
Darius found himself toiling out in the fields with most of the able men of the town, leaving Ciel at home to constantly wage her obligated war against fatal exposure, and in turn the freedom of her erstwhile children. Life was far from joyful, but it continued all the same without much happenings of note, aside from domestic bickering and the sliding by of the years.
Eventually, there came a night where the world outside was almost so silent and sombre as the world within. By now, Sairn had come sixteen summers old, and nigh on sixteen winters also. Magnus was not so much older, though one could not have told from that one's brash, stoic manners, and cold way of looking at the people and world around him.
The two half-brothers got along well enough, but not half so amiably as one would hope for two trapped within close quarters for their entire lives thus far. Even so. they had managed to remain somewhat close, though Magnus proved violently aloof more often than not, clearly feeling spiteful that he be restrained to such a degree through the sheer merit of his brother's existence.
But something was different this eve. Sairn could sense it, though there was no telling how. Sleep was lax to come, and whenever he did manage to close his eyes, something tickled at them to open once more, no matter how hard he tried. He was lying in his bed with the rough sheets pulled up over his ancient nightclothes, but for all evidences he might as well have been out toiling in the fields.
The house was only one storey, of course, so usually if he listened hard enough he could hear Magnus's gentle snoring, and perhaps that of his parents also. Yet tonight, both of those sources were utterly silent, and this only added to his uncertain malease.
Then he heard the faint footsteps leading down the hall.
Sairn was up in a flash, giving almost no regard to the fact that his sheets almost tripped him up and over onto the floor. The room was utterly cast in darkness, but that mattered little to his reflective eyes as he shifted across the rough planks toward the door, ignoring the sparse adornments of the space – rough pale wooden furniture also - so well as he could, coming to press his perked ear against the half-closed threshold that led out into the house beyond. He could still identify the noise. Perhaps it's only mother or father going to draw a glass of water from the kitchen, or...
The sound of the tread continued long past where he knew the entrance to that portion of the house, leaving Sairn somewhat bewildered in his dazed state. What? There was only one thing in that direction; the front door.
He hesitated only the slightest of seconds before easing the door open with the point of one claw, and sliding through and out into the dimly moon-lit hall. The windows at either end both glowed an eerie white, shining on the barren walls and that same plain floor that had borne the pacing of so many monotonous years. If it's mother or father, I can easily turn back around and slip into bed all over again without being seen, after all.
Padding across the way with as much nervous speed as he could persuade himself to use, Sairn made forward the good five yards to the alcove where the door, and prepared himself to peak around with just the peak of his head and ears. Has someone broken in? Who is it?
However, when his eyes finally came about the corner, he almost let out a gasp of surprise to find a familiar figure standing by the flat panel of the door itself and to the side of the small side table with it's sad, wilting flowers, poised to unlatch the threshold, and clearly doing his best to stifle the sharp noise that that motion would undoubtedly make.
“What are you doing?”
Magnus didn't even jump as he turned to behold his brother's approach; perhaps through lack of caring whether he was discovered or not. There was a unmistakably reckless determination behind his eyes, burning and roiling like the most wild of blazes. Before, that furious maelstrom had meant that his brother was on the verge of a rage-fuelled outburst or some such upset, but Sairn could somehow tell that this was something much, much different.
“I'm leaving this hell.” The dark, silvery glint to Magnus's fur as he turned slightly with the words was forbidding indeed, and the features below them were too set and severe for there to be any doubt as to the sincerity of his words. “There has to be somewhere else. Anywhere, anywhere else than here.”
Sairn surged forward with a tensing of muscles, and seized hold of his half-brother's arm before any more could be said. “Stop. This is crazy!””
Magnus only bared his fangs slightly, and made to tear away while his other arm finally unfastened the door, allowing a slight breeze of chilled night air to penetrate the space. “Don't try to stop me.”
Sairn set his chin, and made a hasty decision, pulling his arms back with all the might he could muster, making to pull Magnus down to the ground where he could call out for his parents without the fear of him trying to get away. There was no telling what could happen to his brother if he went out into the wild on his own, and he wasn't going to stand by and let that happen.
But Magnus wasn't having any of it. No sooner than Sairn had made to haul down, he wheeled about in that grasp to do the unthinkable; fully unsheathing each and every claw in his right hand and striking it across Sairn's face, coming mere millimetres from carving into the surface of his eye with a rivulet of sheer lighting agony.
Reeling back with a repressed howl, Sairn was forced to blindly lean back against whatever nearest surface he could find, accidental pushing at the vase and sending it crashing to the floor as he felt Magnus's form sweep past in a sharp rush of wind, almost definitely making a break for the suddenly unobstructed door and the escape beyond.
Sairn's parents soon came rushing out into the hall at that last calamity, but by that time it was far too late. Magnus was consumed by the dark night - vanished to the wind - and no amount of timid calling that night would or did bring him home.
He was gone. Much like his father, much like their dying hopes of a normal life.
Yet another period of quiet fell across the household in the days after, and once more it seemed as if the village was suffering as well. There was no silver lining to this incident, even given the lack of a hungry mouth to feed. Ciel and Darius fell into a kind of dull, monotonous stupor, and Sairn found himself affected likewise. He and Magnus had been too far apart in both manner and appearance to ever be exchanged in the public eye, so there was no hope of him finally being able to venture out of the house in the wake of this event; only further misery and boredom.
In this way, the years resumed their sorry passage, with no relief from the outside world to speak of. Before long, it was hard to believe or even remember that there had been another person to keep him company in the void of endless time that enveloped his days.
Eventually, even the cut across his eye stopped weeping, then scabbing, and before long was little more than a darker line beneath the fur on his face. Yet one thing was constant; relief never came, and the village was so desolate and desperate as ever, even when nearly two decades had passed since the crisis began.
Two years after that fateful night, what remained of the family was sitting in their barren, pale-wood dining room to finish their meagre share of rationed rice, bread, and beans. Meat was extremely hard to come upon these days, and thus it was no surprise to find a gross lack of the such upon the chipped, brittle crockery upon
One might have hungered for conversation, but in truth there was nothing new to discuss. After all, what had changed? Darius was in his rough, many-times-patched work clothes from his day of toil, and the fare set before them was sorry to be sure. Even so, it was not so bad as they had been forced to suffer in times past, so there was no mutual complaint to be shared either. The dusk was nearly over outside, and thus utter silence reigned supreme over the table, interrupted only by the occasional clacking of utensils and awkward coughs.
That was when the bells started to clang off in the distance.
In a motion amusingly comparable to a pair of feral house-cats leaping to their feet, both Ciel and Darius had pushed back their chairs and set down on the planks no sooner than the first echoes had begun to fade to silence, ears a-perk, eyes wide, and with Sairn only seconds behind them.
“It's the alarm.” Darius was suddenly moving about the circumference of the table, evidently headed for the sole stark window at the head of the room, just opposite the doorway leading out into the hall and the entrance beyond. The flames in the sconce about the edge of the room flickered with the brisk motion, making the darkness outside all the more apparent as the middle-aged cat pulled the wooden blinds to the side and stared out with some intensity. “Highwaymen are raiding us.”
Ciel seemed lost for words for a moment, and was still standing by the table where she had jumped up by the time that Darius had left the glass and made to the doorway. “That hasn't happened in decades!”
Darius wheeled, stopping momentarily in his tread with an expression of steel. “It's happening now.”
There was a flurry of sudden movement through the house, and by the time Sairn could ease his own shock and confusion, both of his parents were gone from the room and bustling to and fro though other parts of the house; Darius finding his hatchet and gripping it hard in one hand while his wife rushed after him with various exclamations of protest. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and he was absolutely unsure as to how to react, sufficing with coming to the threshold of the front door in loss of what else to do.
Darius desperately tried to assure Ciel to remain home, but in the end she refused with such dedication that he caved, and handed her a lighter mattock also. Before long, the pair were rushing to the very threshold beside which Sairn was stationed, and his father had one hand upon the handle, with the other still white-knuckled about the handle his blade. “Stay here, no matter what.” Darius's eyes flashed with sincerity. “Promise.”
Sairn nodded once, but they were already opening the threshold and moving through before he could speak. “I promise.”
Then the door slammed shut, leaving him staring at the wood; heart racing, and mind wheeling.
A moment of gross silence fell across the space, and suddenly he could hear the commotion outside all too well. Screams were beginning to ring out through the night air; some shriller than others, and a few truncated quite suddenly with no apparent cause. For almost two whole minutes it felt as through he stood there without breathing, or even moving the slightest inch. I can't... His resolve was breaking, ever so slowly. He simply couldn't bear the thought of leaving his parents and the rest of their village to die, even though the latter had seen nothing but eternal suffering pressed upon his life.
Then, like a crack of lightning, it snapped altogether. Not thinking any more than was necessary to allow action, he seized hold of the door handle and wrenched it open with such violence that his claws came out to scratch into the rough metal. Just like Magnus did all those years ago. Hopefully I'm not leaving forever, like he did.
No sooner had he stumbled from the gaping door way than the assault of violence hit him; in the rough but still faint hint of smoke on the air, the yells and shouts barging at his ears, and the fleeting of bodies wherever he looked. There were people rushing and running everywhere in the fading light, making rapid crunching sounds upon the rough dirt road that ran between the far-apart sets of village houses that lined the way, and though he couldn't identify any actual bandits among them, from their panic it was clear that it wouldn't be long before he did.
Sairn had been outside before, of course, as the village was sparsely packed enough to allow such a thing, but never in the presence of people, and certainly not with such a sickening thud seated in his heart. The sounds of screams, shouts, and the occasional nerve jolting gunshot were all to audible to his ears, and for a few moments it was all he could do to jerk his head to and fro, looking for something – anything - he could do to help, and make this madness end.
Finally, suddenly, his gaze snapped to a single figure, stood just a few yards away in the centre of the road. Unlike the other figures racing about, this one – a wolf, he assumed, though it could have been a coyote or some such - was standing still, flat, and, yet still more irregular, was facing toward a group of also stationary figures who literally seemed to be quivering where they stood; women all.
It only took Sairn a moment to recognise the barrel of the shotgun in the wolf's hand, and but another for him to force his muscles into action, charging forward with enough speed and strength to bring him within range of melee before a breath had eased into the past. “Stop!”
He collided with the wolf at such a velocity that the former had to stagger strongly to avoid falling over completely; giving little regard to his own safety or the blazing point of danger that was the shotgun's muzzle. The women had scattered long before the tussling eased enough for him to toss a glance in their direction, and that at least was somewhat of a relief. The wolf was horrifically strong when he began to push back, however, and Sairn could tell that he didn't have long before he was utterly overpowered.
“We'll finish you off, scum.” Wheezing almost straight into Sairn's ear, the wolf's words were husky, and his breath stank of tobacco and beer. “We've had to take for far too long. When we control this village, the food will come to us.”
Still acting purely off instinct, Sairn dropped his hands from his foe's body, and instead fastened them upon the iron of the shotgun, seeking to haul it back around in a reverse direction. The quick-change was enough to catch the wolf utterly by surprise, and thus his grip was loose enough for the weapon to pop free; at least for the moment. However, no sooner than he had successfully pried it free than one of the last fingers on the wolf's hand caught on the trigger, creating a great enough bang to make him blink as his adversary was sent slamming to the dirt, a dark ripple of red visible in the faint dusk light even through the cloud of resulting dust.
Stepping back quick enough as to not be buffeted by the crimson mist that sprayed from the impact of the blast, Sairn's legs almost buckled with the release of tension that the aftermath of the fight had awarded him. However, even so, his eyes momentarily flashed to the darkness between two of the nearest houses, where another figure stood very much as though he had been watching the whole thing with some interest.
Still in the sway of shock from what he had just done, and rather unsteady in his stance, Sairn frowned nonetheless, further surprise and vague recognition flashing through his mind.
But then the figure was gone – turning to disappear in the night - and he was wheeling to acknowledge a tearing voice that called from the opposite direction. “Sairn!”
He belatedly recognised both of his parents rushing towards him, seeming utterly terrified to see him out in the open. Ciel had lost her mattock, and Darius seemed a little worse for wear, but it was a relief to see them whole nonetheless. Suddenly, he realised that the screams were all but gone, and the stampeding of feet had turned to little more than the occasional rushing man headed to or fro between the houses. There was smoke upon the horizon, but even he could tell that it was the steam of waning flame, rather than that of a raging blaze.
No more able to react than understand quite what was going on, Sairn suddenly found himself unable to move as his parents forsook everything in favour of enveloping him in their arms. Darius was holding him close, and whispering with some relief into his ear. “I told you not to leave.”
“What's going on?”
Their brief huddle suddenly broke apart as all three of them recognised the new voice; loud, husky, but definitely unmistakable. Garaum. Sairn was the first to wheel about to face the old ram as he came down the path, and thus was met with a frown even before Ciel and Darius could turn in the same way. “Who are you?”
He gulped, but in his foggy state of mind, the thought of restraining speech utterly failed to come to him. “Sairn Aventis.”
The ram came to a halt, and looked to the two adults with some apparent shock. “You have another child?” He shook his head. “You know what the penalty is for this.”
People were starting to gather around now. It seemed that the last of the bandits had either been driven off or dispatched, and a eerie kind of quiet was gradually falling over the entire village as eyes came to meet Ciel and Darius's with unveiled disgust. Their anger and fear is coming back around. Sairn couldn't remember ever feeling more terrified.
“Wait.” Stealing a rapid breath through his own sickened stomach, Sairn tried to force his thoughts into regimented processes as he made to speak to the ram and the crowd once more. “One of the bandits said that they had been taking food. Perhaps we can find where they came from, and if they have supplies there.”
Garaum frowned, as did most of the other faces he could see beginning to crowd about himself and his parents. However, it was abundantly clear that even given the situation at hand and the adrenaline flowing through their veins, they weren't willing to disregard the hope that this telling could entail. Thus, it was little surprise when the elder breathed a sigh in return, and furrowed his brow yet further. “We will deal with this later. Rest assured, however, that there will be no mercy for your transgression.” He a gave a nod in their direction. “Darius. You know the ways of nature. Tell us what you can see.”
The cat in question was certainly in no position to refuse, and thus it was almost instantly that the crowd was forced to part to allow him exit from their confines. Afterwards, he set to the nearby outskirts of the village, and examining the defined boot-and-footprints upon the dust of the road. This was some remnant of his old life, to be certain, but it mattered little, as it was soon enough that Darius righted himself once more, and made his declaration with a face that could have very well been made of steel. “The tracks come from the east.” He nodded once. “The mountains. It has to be.”
Garaum failed to hesitate gathering the most able men he could muster, and instructing them to follow the path. Those that he assigned were exhausted, but the task at hand was imperative enough to pump new energy into their veins. If they acted fast, there was less chance that what remained of the bandits could return, and also that reinforcements could arrive.
As the new group started to leave the village, Sairn and Ciel were finally able to rejoin Darius, and the former was certain rush almost directly to his side with question in his eyes. “Father?”
Darius sighed and nodded, clearly more afraid than he was letting on. “It will be alright. Let us just follow them for now.”
Not quite sure what else to do, Sairn simply nodded, and began to fall into step. After all, what else could they do?
It was a long, hard trek up and around the base of the peaks, made none the easier by the fact that the villagers around Sairn wasted absolutely no time in shooting him and his parents – who were ever hovering protectively nearby – the most evil of glances.
He had heard of this spite and hate for his entire life, but frankly it was quite frightening to find that his mother's fear had been righteous all this time. For the moment, however, none of them seemed liable to come to actions or even words. Perhaps they had witnessed what he had done, or perhaps they were just too frightened from what had just happened to consider making the first move.
Before long, they were up and around the rocky ridges, and it became necessary that they light torches as the last remnants of light fled from the horizon. Eventually, the faint treads led them to the mouth of a rough crag just before one of the highest mountains of all, whereupon they disappeared.
Garaum wasted no time indicating that they should proceed on, though his face was shaded a cruel yellow by the light of the flames they held aloft. “Be careful. There could be more of them inside.”
Cautiously, slowly, they began to head toward the entrance, forced to proceed in single file even given the danger possibly at hand. When the first man finally came out into an open space, the torch leapt high with a gust of win from the exterior, revealing the rough insides to be much as expected. However, as Sairn and his parents came out in close accord, it was soon revealed that there was much more to the space than met the eye.
Crates, sacks, and boxes lined the wall of the cave adjacent from that they had entered, continuing as far and high as the lacking illumination could shine. There were smoking sconces about the space, making it clear that this space had been both freshly occupied, and there were a few open vessels visible with the likes of rice and grain spilling from their mouths; apparently having been used as sustenance by the highwaymen themselves.
Scrambling through in an abashedly unstable way and into the rapidly accumulating crowd of dumbstruck figures about the entrance, Garaum's face first came into yet another frown before breaking a bewildered gasp at the sight. “By god.” And indeed it was a thing of shock to all of them. If this was what they had been taking, then it was indeed possible that once the traders had caught wind of the fact that the roads were clear things would return to normal; normal, such as Sairn had never known it.
“The village is saved.” The old ram wasted no time in tottering over and looking the Aventis family up and down with wide eyes as the men about him began to rush forward to open lids and examine containers with various shouts of excitement. “I can do nothing but thank you.”
Suddenly crying, both Ciel and Darius ignored the elder to turn on Sairn once more, cradling him all-inclusively in their arms with enough strength to slightly stifle his words. “How did I do?”
Ciel gave a tearful smile, barely visible in the flickering torchlight. “Magnificently.” Her grin deepened yet further. “You were magnificent.”