It was the cusp of dawn when I reached the village, that strange half-light before the sun reaches the horizon. Early enough to show my allegiance, late enough not to offend the villagers’ sensibilities. They were rarely welcoming to those who knocked on their doors in the dark hours.
Lights burned above every door, lanterns and candles proclaiming the relative wealth of the occupants, warning me away. All except for one house, where the lantern was dark and the door open in invitation.
A dim light came from inside, and I slipped into a circle of candlelight with a short, grey-haired woman at its centre. She would be mother or grandmother, or the nearest female relative, which meant it was a girl I’d come to claim if I could. I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or pity the poor creature. My order was woefully short of female members, but in my experience girls were harder to talk around than boys.
The woman greeted me with a nod and shielded the candle with her hand. The action surprised and pleased me, even though I wasn’t so bound to Darkness that the meagre light would hurt.
“She’s in there,” the woman started, nodding towards a narrow door.
The front door slammed wide open behind me, and a tall man burst through. His close-cropped blond hair glistened with sweat in the light of the lantern he held high. I resisted the urge to shield my eyes as he waved it at my face.
“She’s staying there.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Unless you’re the girl’s mother, you have no say in this.”
“I’m her father, and I won’t have her dragged out of here by a whore of Darkness.”
Inwardly, I sighed. The old argument, trotted out by fathers, uncles, and brothers who feared what Darkness had to offer. “I’ll remember your wishes if Darkness ever sends me for your son,” I promised, and left him to wonder how I knew he had one. “But my business here is with the girl and her closest female relative.”
“She’s not closest,” he said triumphantly. “She’s my wife’s mother.”
I turned an enquiring look to the grandmother.
“Don’t you worry girl, it’s been done proper,” she said. “I told Mirley, you do right by that girl or you’ll regret you didn’t. She couldn’t do it herself, so she gave up rights to Sirsa before I summoned you. She’s yours to take, if you’ll have her.”
“It’s up to her to choose,” I reminded.
“The priests are already on their way,” the father blurted. “They’ll be here with the sun.”
I turned to face him, my anger with his pig-headedness rising. Too many times well-meaning parents thought to take the choice from their children’s hands, casting them into the care of the priesthood before anyone could explain to them what being marked by Darkness actually meant. I let it fill me, knew that my eyes went black and speckled with stars like the night sky. The girls’ father quailed as the candle went out and his lantern dimmed to a pinprick.
“Well then,” I said cheerfully. “I’d best get started.”
Beyond the narrow door, the air was dry and herb-scented. Steps led away beneath my feet and I stifled a laugh. They’d locked a child of darkness in a cellar?
As I made my way down, the door slammed closed behind me. There were raised voices, Sirsa’s father and grandmother arguing. Obviously he’d chosen to lock an adept of the Dark in the cellar too, no doubt hoping the priest would take care of me when they came for his daughter. He wouldn’t be so lucky: my choice had already been made.
The cellar had a packed dirt floor and was lined with shelves on which sat jars of pickles and preserves. Bundles of herbs hung from the ceiling, and sacks were piled in the corner like sleeping puppies. For a moment I wondered where Sirsa was. Then I saw her, a patch of dark against darkness underneath the table in the corner. There was a makeshift mattress of sacks beneath her, rumpled and spilling straw.
“Go away!” Her voice was shrill with fear.
I stopped and reached for the low stool, sat down near enough that she would hear me. She turned towards the noise, her senses not yet developed enough to see me clearly. I could see her, nine or ten years old with brown hair that curled behind her ears.
“Do you know why I’m here?” I asked softly.
“You’ve come to take me away. You’ll tear me into strips and feed me to the Darkness, that’s what Myram said!”
“And how would Myram know?” I asked softly. “Is he an adept of the Dark?”
“No!” She flinched. “Papa says only sick people choose the Dark. There’s something wrong with them and—” She broke off, probably remembering who she was talking to.
“Your time is short, you know that,” I told her. “Your father has already summoned the priests. When the sun rises you’ll either have come with me or with them. Which happens is your choice, but it’s the only choice you have.” It wasn’t, running and suicide had also been chosen in the past, but I didn’t want to put that idea into her head. “Do you know what will happen when the priests come?”
“They’ll put me in an asylum. Papa said they could make me better but Gramma said he was lying. She said they’d hurt me.”
“They might,” I agreed. “It depends on what sort of priests they are. Some would see you as a victim of the Dark, cursed through no fault of your own. They would keep you gently. Others would see you as a willing accomplice to your own corruption and try to purify you. It some cases, that can hurt.”
My fingers sought the smooth, tight flesh on my forearms. I knew firsthand what “purification” could mean. Too much sunlight would burn anyone, but at noon when there were no shadows to hide in, then it could do more than burn us. Worried I’d frightened her, I added, “The monks in the nearest monastery are the gentle sort.”
Sirsa had shifted to look at me. She was chewing a fingernail. I pretended I couldn’t see her.
“You don’t sound mad,” she allowed. “Why did you choose the Dark?”
“Because-” I broke off. It was a long time ago, when I was thirteen and wilful. “My parents told me not to,” I said finally. “They told me I was mad, too. They wanted me to go with the priests and be cured and come home to marry.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No. I wanted more than that. The Dark offered me a way to have it.”
She retreated a little, and I wondered if I was losing her. Most girls chose the priests over the Dark from fear of letting their family down. Fear that they really were mad. Signs of the Dark in them were an aberration and showed weakness of character. For boys it was different somehow, less of a taint. I wished I could make her understand. Being marked by the Dark wasn’t good or bad, any more than the sun set was good or bad; it just was.
I slipped from the stool onto the floor to be on her level. She was huddled against the wall, knees up to her chin. There was a ragdoll on the spilled straw beside her.
What kind of parents locked their child in a cellar but let her keep a doll for company?
“Sirsa,” I said, “why did your parents lock you in here?”
“They didn’t,” she said.
“Then who made that bed for you?”
“I did. I stuffed the sacks myself, to make a bed.” There was a note of childish pride in her voice. My heart constricted. She’d already made her choice but didn’t know it.
“Because sometimes, if I can’t sleep or if I’m scared, I come down here.” Her hand found the ragdoll and clutched it tight.
“Does it help?”
She nodded. “I can get to sleep then.”
“Doesn’t the lantern keep you awake.”
“I don’t bring a lantern,” she said scornfully. I saw her expression change as she realised. “Oh.”
In the distance there was the tolling of a handbell. The priests had come. Sirsa looked up at me, her eyes wide.
I met her gaze and saw her surprise as she realised I could see her. “There’s no more time,” I said. “I wish I could show you somehow, it’s not as terrible as you think.”
She shook herself. “What will happen if I go with you?”
“We’ll help you find out what gifts the Dark gave you, teach you how to control and make the best of them.”
“But everyone will be afraid of me. I’ll never see my family again. I don’t care about Myram, but I’ll miss Mam and Gramma.”
“You’ll see them if they’re not afraid.” It wasn’t much of a consolation, since most people were afraid, but I’d wager than her grandmother would see her in a heartbeat. “If they are, well, that’s not likely to change whatever you choose. Even if you come back ‘cured,’ they’ll still fear you.”
She sighed. “It’s not fair.”
She took my hand. “You promise no one will hurt me?”
“No one will lay a hand on you if you do not wish for it. I swear by the Dark.”
She gave a small smile and edged out from underneath the table to take my hand. Her fingers were cold but her grip firm. We both flinched as the door swung open in a glory of light.
The priests made way for us, grudgingly, although they made sure their light shone fully on me as we passed. Just because they were the gentle sort of priest didn’t mean they felt any softness towards those who chose to be an adept of the Dark over a life of confinement. I kept Sirsa safely in my shadow.
Her grandmother was waiting outside, she nodded to me and hugged Sirsa tightly. Her father was waiting too, his lips pinched into a thin line. When Sirsa hugged him I thought he’d push her away, but instead he drew her close and I heard him murmur, “Please don’t go, flower.”
“I have to, Papa,” she whispered back. “I have to find out what I can do.”
The sun had just barely cleared the horizon. Sirsa frowned towards it as she turned back to me. “But where will we go? It’s nearly daytime.”
“Most of us can go out in the day.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that.”
There was a pause as we began to walk. Then, “Why can’t the rest go out in the day?”
That was a lesson for later but I began to tell her what I could, as we walked away from the ragdoll and the straw-stuffed mattress where she’d chosen her future.
First appeared in Cucurbital 2, November 2012