Friday, October 09, 2009

Children of God

(Author's note: this story is dark. In themes and in narrative. Act accordingly.)

The Church teaches that we, all of us, are children of God. I believed that, once. I believed.

What brings this to mind?

I was at a banquet; platters stacked high with roast mutton and prok, men and women in colourful clothing filling the hall with chatter and laughter. I was perhaps the soberest dressed of any man there, saving only my superior, Father Henrich, who (like I) was dressed in the black robes of our order. There was, for this and other reasons, naturally something of a distance between us and the other guests at the banquet, but I cared little. It was rare indeed that I had opportunity to feast as I did that night.

Still it was a surprise to me when the Baron himself, emerging from the crowd, greeted Father Henrich and I. His clothes were sewn of velvet and ermine, his bearing was noble and his eyes filled with festive charm - were it not for his slight limp, and what seemed like scars or burns on his hands, I would have thought him the finest example of manhood I had ever seen...

He spoke politely to Father Henrich, congratulating him on the initiation of a new novice (an odd piece of trivia for a Baron to know, I thought), and then turned to me. "What a strapping young lad!" he boomed. "You'll sire many fine children for the Realm some day, I've no doubt at all."

My face turned instantly red with mortification, and I turned away to hide it. Father Henrich was left to intercede in my stead. "He is a Son of God, your Lordship," he apologetically corrected. "His blood is reserved by God, and the only children he will sire are the seeds of faith in the minds of those he will teach." Henrich's wording was clumsy, as always, but I could not have appreciated his assistance more.

"Well, we are all children of God, are we not?" the Baron asked cheerfully, seeming entirely unmoved by the correction.

"Some of us more than others," I heard Father Henrich answer, just before I slipped outside.

Night had fallen since I entered the Baron's castle; the streets were cold on the route back to the cathedral, and I watched about me warily, on the lookout for the thieves and cutthroats known to populate the dark places of the city. None accosted me, though, whether by respect for my strength, for the robes I bore, or simple luck, I knew not. I arrived at the cathedral only somewhat colder than I was when I began the journey - that, and more chagrined by my early flight from the banquet.

The cathedral doors were locked, but Novice Welkin came quickly to open them when I knocked. I tarried not long once inside; the vast, arching expanse of the cathedral's interior, which I knew to be awe-inspiring when filled with life and prayer, was only cold and intimidating when empty, as now. Quickly, I collected the prayer-book and other personal belongings I had left in my cell before leaving for the banquet; then I made my way out of the cathedral, bidding a good night to Novice Welkin as I went, and set my course towards the dormitory where the rest of our order now lay peacefully bedded.

Barely had I passed beyond the cathedral when a hammer-blow fell upon the crown of my head, sending me reeling. A hood fell over my sight, blinding me; I thrashed, sending blows in every direction, but my fists felt nothing but air, while my attackers struck me again and again. Every part of my body seemed a blazing star of pain when at last, blessedly, I lost consciousness.

Unfortunately, I felt no better when I awoke. My bones ached; my skin was cracked and covered in crusted blood; my head - well. It was some time before I grew conscious enough to realize that I was naked, lying on filthy straw; more time yet to muster my much-abused musculature into motion. The place I was in was darker than any I'd ever been before, but a minute's slow crawling was enough to explore its confines in their entirety - and to test its bars. I was in a stone cell, in some sort of dungeon. If it was brigands that had taken me, they were uncommonly wealthy - and though I doubted the possibility that any common criminals could have such wealth as that, the alternative was itself so unlikely - and so worrying - that I preferred the thought of bandits. That this was the Baron's dungeon - that I, a man of the cloth, had been taken for a thief, not by one -

I attempted to occupy myself with prayer, though over the time that followed - minutes? Hours? Days? - thoughts of thirst, hunger, and worry all rendered prayer difficult.

Then came light - light! - flickering and dim, but still a blessing to my eyes. With it came footsteps, and I rose, realizing as I did so that I had fallen asleep. "Hello?" I called, my voice hoarse; with a start I remembered my nudity, and moved to cover myself with my hands. "I need to speak to the jailor - I'm being held here unjustly - "

A pair of men arrived in front of the cell - uniformed, with swords at their hips. Guards, then; not bandits after all. One of them held a torch, the source of the light that heralded their approach; the other fumbled at his belt for keys. "Why am I here?" I asked them, my throat paining me with each word, as he opened the door and pulled me from the cell. My legs had grown weak with inactivity; I stumbled as I walked, the guard's gloved shoves from behind being further antithetical to my balance. "Where are you taking me?" I asked again.

The guards made no response.

The trip was blessedly brief, but the destination was not what I had expected - no jailor's office, no exit, but a black iron door with a shutter near the top, bolted and locked from this side. It radiated menace. The guard with the keys reached forward to unlock the door; I panicked. "What are you doing?" I asked. "God will punish you for your misdeeds - "

The first guard pulled the door open; the one behind, bearing the torch, shoved me through with his free hand. But as I tumbled to the floor, and the door closed behind me, my thoughts were on neither - rather they were on -

- the light -

- her -

- for the cell was not empty.

Inside, naked and prostrate, lay an angel.

She was beautiful - I will say this first, so there is no mistake. She was beautiful, every part of her, despite the grime and bruises that marred her ivory skin. She was beautiful, and the light that shone from her and lit the room like a star was beautiful, and even the burning I felt at touching her - where my limbs, sprawled from impact, touched hers - was beautiful, in its own way. She was beautiful, and there was no drive in me at that moment but the need to protect her. And no thought in me but the question, "Why is she here?"

As the moments passed, and my mind churned, my thoughts grew darker - but I was interrupted before I could pursue them to conclusion. The shutter in the door slid open, and one of the guards spoke through it. "You! Fuck her!"

I was confused - disbelieving. Tearing my eyes off her with difficulty, I looked toward the door, trying to find words to respond. "What?" I asked. "'Fuck' - her?"

"Yah!" the guard replied, his tone derisive. "Fuck her! The up and down, the in and out, the all around, then you have lots of little angel babies together. Lots of fun, and if you don't, we kill you!"

Every fibre of me screamed in protest. I steeled myself, drawing together as much dignity as I could in my unclothed state. "She is a thing beautiful and holy and sacred," I told the guards, "and to do what you ask would be an insult to everything I believe in, everything good and right in this world. I would rather you kill me than I would do as you ask."

The door swung open.

The guards dragged me outside, kicked me onto the floor, and beat me until I lost consciouness.

Some time later, I woke again, in the cell I'd awoken in before. My body was covered in bruises. A small bowl of an unappetizing-looking gravy sat near the bars. I stared at it for some time; when I could muster the strength, I crawled towards it, lapping it up like it was divine ambrosia. My hands were clumsy, and shook as I held the bowl; some of the gravy spilled, pooling on the stone. I stared at that for a while. Eventually, I drank that too.

Then I waited.

When I saw the light again, flickering into my cell, it was no comfort to me.

They hurled me into the angel's cell and ordered me to violate her. I refused. They beat me.

Then again, after I woke up.

Then again.

Then again.

I stopped refusing, after a while. Just lay there, still, with the angel. That gave me longer, before they'd beat me again.

I eventually noticed that the angel's touch didn't burn any longer. It was - a tingle, now. Nothing more. One less torment for me to suffer.

I spoke to her, sometimes. Asked her things; her name. How she'd come here. If she was - happy. She never responded with words. But I think there was something in her eyes.

(She looked almost human, mostly. So beautiful; so radiant; but still, very nearly human. The only difference, in the gross physical sense, was on her back. Two long nubs, scarred, sensitive. (She winced when I touched them.) I eventually realized what they were. The sole remains of her wings.)

I changed, in that place. I knew it, at the time. That I was changing; growing leaner, losing muscle, feeling myself shift - inside, too. I had a lot of time to think. But I never understood.

Then there was a change. The guards opened my cell, dragged me out - but in a different direction. They took me to a room holding a tub of water - dumped me in, scrubbed me to remove the worst of the filth. (Did I ever mention the accomodations they'd made for my lavatory-needs? They hadn't made any.) Then they dressed me, in simple clothes - I could barely remember the last time I'd been clothed - and took me, cleaner and, I'd guess, more palatable to the nose than I'd been for - some time - upwards. They entered an area that was well-lit, furnished, carpeted. Servants passed in the hall, peering at me curiously; I heard some gossip, speculating as to who I was and what crime I'd committed for the guards to be man-handling me so roughly. Higher and higher the guards dragged me, still too weakened by my captivity to resist; and at last deposited me in an ornate wooden chair, opposite a table from the Baron.

"Hello, young man!" he boomed. "How are you?"

I looked at him, finding it impossible to muster any emotion. I could think of nothing to say to him.

"Not at your very best, I'd warrant," the Baron said, his voice as cheerful as ever. His eyes were warm and human. "But you were a strong young man when I first saw you, and I'm sure you'll be back to that in no time. I'm releasing you, as of today, and I must say - I am very grateful to you for the services you have rendered me. If you want anything of me - anything at all, in the limits of my power - just ask."

I stared at him blankly.

"Well?" the Baron asked. "You can't think of anything you'd want?"

A thought bubbled upwards.

"An explanation," I rasped, my throat dry and sore from disuse. "Why you did this to me. To her."

"Ah," the Baron said, nodding somberly. He rose; from a shelf beside his desk he fetched a bottle of wine and a pair of glasses, filling both. He passed one to me; I ignored it. Then he sat back down and cleared his throat.

"An explanation... a wise choice. That, I can give you."

"I came into the possession of an enfleshed spark of divinity, some time ago. The circumstances are - irrelevant, for your purposes, at any rate. This spark was something I had sought after for some time, for it is the nature of Kings to hold within their person the Divine Right of Rulership. So - "

"Hm. I see you do not understand. Let me step back."

"My goal - my only goal, which has always been my only goal - is the betterment of my children. What greater good can a man do in this life, after all, than provide for his offspring? And this is an important matter - too important to leave to chance. I wish my children to be the best - to have every advantage I can give to them. And there is no better way to ensure that than to give them the spark of the divine."

"Now you begin to see. My original plan was to beget children upon the spark myself - but the spark of the divine resents mortal flesh, and, well, burned me badly when I made my attempt. So I planned again - I need to dilute the spark, somewhat - soil it with mortal flesh, just enough that I could approach it."

"So you come into the picture - a strong, healthy young lad, well equipped to do the necessary, and possessed in half-part of divinity yourself. Now, of course, you're in the clergy, like all the rest of God's Children - he hoards them to himself so greedily, doesn't he? Uncommonly selfish, for God. You would not breed yourself upon the spark, or any other, by choice. So - I persuaded you."

"I see the way you look at me. The imprisonment, the starvation, the beatings - all that was for the greater good, you see. For my children. If only you hadn't resisted, everything would have been so much easier. To think you caused yourself, and her, such unnecessary pain!"

"Now," the Baron said, pushing his chair back and standing, "I trust that is explanation enough for you?"

Mutely, I nodded.

"Very well, then," the Baron said amiably. "I suppose I can't persuade you to try any of the wine? It's a splendid vintage - '43, just the thing to refresh you at a time like this. No? Very well. The guards will see you out. From the moment you leave the castle gates, you will be a free man once more."

He was true to his promise.

I stood outside the gates, for a while, watching. I watched the traffic of the city go by - noisy, smelly, rude, a heaven compared to what I had been through. I looked at the sky - the endless blue of it nearly broke my heart. I looked at the castle.

There was something strange, in my throat. Something pulsing, or beating - pushing upwards, striving to be set free. Like a shout of joy, or a scream. I would say that I was helpless to resist its push - but I wasn't. I could have held it back, if I wanted to. I could have walked away. But instead I let it out - tearing at my throat, as it escaped, scraping my escophagus raw and irreparably shredding my vocal cords - and I felt it, as a solid object, not as a sound -

a word.


shattering the air around me, sending people flying and turning carts into shrapnel, flaying the flesh from my bones

and tearing the castle stone from stone, sending it downwards into the earth in a collossal pile of dust and rubble.

Then, belatedly, I turned away. I walked; through the streets that I had known so well; past the cathedral at which I had worshipped, and the dormitory at which I had lived; and through the gates of the city, out, for the first time, into the world beyond.

Were I more arrogant, I would have justified myself; naming myself the judgement of God upon the unworthy and the sinful, sending forth only the punishment they had brought upon myself. Were I more arrogant yet, I would not have stopped at the castle; that word I would have brought forth would have taken the city, too, and brought it swirling down into death. Were I so - but I was not. I had chosen to kill, not only the entirely guilty, not only the somewhat guilty, but also the innocent. I had killed the one I would have given the world to protect. I had sinned, once and then again; and for that, the Word had taken from me my humanity.

There was a pond by the side of the road; I stopped to look into it. I was gaunt and haggard; the clothes the Baron had given me were shredded by the violence of the Word I had spoken. My flesh was torn and peeling in strips; a great hole was open in the side of my throat. Idly, I attempted to speak; the effort produced only a faint wheezing sound. I had already known, before I tried, that speech was one of the things the Word had taken from me.

But the pond did show me something. I reached over my shoulder with one hand, watching my reflection. Along one shoulder-blade I felt a nub; reaching over, I felt the same on the other. My wings were growing in.

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