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I was born of the Devil. That is what they said. I was a conjure of night and fog, and the grave was the womb from which I emerged.

That is what they said.

It was November, when the first snows fell wet and heavy on brown brittle grass and trees stung leafless from the cold. Even the hardy conifers, rising up from the valley in thick fingers, where glen became hillside and then at last mountain, seemed to fade to a dull gray-green in the cold, their branches yawning under the snow’s weight.

They found me in a basket, beside the cemetery gate. Their ragged funeral procession drew into a knot of whispering around me. The dead man they had come to bury was forgotten for a moment as they stared down at me.

A torn piece of cloak was all that shielded my naked, wailing body from frost-laced wind. My cries would not cease, they said. I punched the air with angry, walnut-sized fists as if to strike out at them all.

None of them would have me. All of them had mouths enough to feed already, and harvest that year had been poor.

No one stepped forward to claim a child of the Devil for his own.

In that cold dawn, the priest and the townspeople clustered around the basket, frowning down at the creature within it and wondering how they might be rid of me in such a way that would not stain their conscience. None of them wanted me.

So he took me.

He said the priest sent for him, but gave no message. He came out of curiosity, for no man of God had ever dared summon him. I can imagine the sight of him, trudging through drifts of snow, steam puffing out in white bursts from under his hood as he took shape from a cold mist.

All around him was white: snow, fog, frost-covered stones of the cemetery and the faces of those who awaited him. And yet he was black. No flesh was visible. Black boots to the knee, black trousers stained with old blood, black longshirt and a lambskin vest taken from that unlucky animal born the Devil’s color. A heavy woolen black cloak fell six feet from his broad shoulders, ending just above the snow. His black capuchon was drawn up against the cold. His leather hood of office fell down over his face, stiffened from beneath with thin metal boning to form a hideous mask: long, pointed nose, thick and frowning lips, a severe brow brooding over the eyeslits.

No wonder they thought him the man to decide the fate of the Devil’s child.

“What is it?”

He was a man of few words, fewer even than I, and of short patience. They drew back from his growl, and the weaker ones shielded their eyes from him.

The priest cleared his throat, dry in the bitter wind. He pointed. “Someone has left a child here, a boy.”

“What concern is it to me?”

There was a pause, for no one wanted to speak first and risk his stare. Then they opened their mouths as one, Babel rising anew in the frost and fog of the valley.

“Born on All Souls’ from the look of him. The Day of the Dead!”

“His hair, the color of hell-flame!”

He rested his hands on his hips, and in doing so drew back his cloak that all might see his sheathed broadsword, pommel carved with his mark of office. The hush fell again.

His voice sliced through the air like a scythe. “Do you want me to kill it?”

The priest spoke again, nervous now. Perhaps he had been wrong to call for the man. “No, Meister Scharfrichter. I thought…the boy has no home. You have no son. Perhaps he has been left here for you.”

He left the rest unsaid. There was no need to speak what was obvious, that my appearance augured badly and no one would risk bringing ill luck across their thresholds, not even the priest.

The man behind the mask considered this. Then with the suddenness of a bull charging, he stormed toward them. They scattered, terrified.

He looked down at me, saw that I was well-formed and my color good, despite the cold. My shrieks alone were proof of healthy lungs.

Then he picked up the basket and tucked it under his arm as if it were a loaf of bread.

He turned his back on the cemetery and the silent crowd. And he carried me away from the town, skirting its fringes along the path to which he was restricted. I can see him, tree-trunk legs never breaking stride as he carried me up into the pine-covered hills, away from those who would not have me.

I remember none of this, of course. I only repeat the story I was told when I asked him once how I came to be the executioner’s son.

Chapter One, Plaguewalker

copyright 1998, 2012 Gemma Tarlach


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