THE door slammed hard as Alen fell against it, the sound reverberating in his head like an accusation of guilt. He leaned against the scarred wood, chest heaving as he labored to draw breath. His entire body shook from the heavy pounding of his heart, the tremors echoed in the blood-stained hands he held up before his face. Unshed tears blurred his vision, softening the hideousness of the gore that gleamed obscenely in the firelight. Alen closed his eyes—blue as the soft summer sky—but was unable to block out the nightmarish images repeating in his mind like the scenes of a gruesome, never-ending play.
The unforgettably sickening gurgle of a scream drowned by blood as it gushed dark and thick from a ruined throat resounded maddeningly in his ears. Alen reached up to shutter them with filthy hands but managed only to smear the dark wetness that covered them into his mop of light-brown hair and down his smooth cheeks. Grief and fear twisted his features, the aspects of youth ravaged nearly beyond recall. At last, the tears fulfilled their threat, two fat drops welling over and falling from his thick lashes. They traced a path through the gore upon his face, leaving behind cleansed streaks of soft, pale skin.
Was it too much to wish for to simply be left alone? Alen had not asked for the unrelenting attention that the young farmer and his friends had foisted upon him as he’d walked home from the market. He had been running an errand for his mother while she took care of business in another part of town, obliging her request to pick up a few odds and ends before hurrying home to the sanctuary of their cottage. Though he had endeavored to pass through the cluster of merchant stalls unnoticed, he could feel the unwelcome weight of covetous eyes. He had been scurrying past the brew house—one of only two the small village boasted—remembering other times when he’d been forced to flee from drunken hands. Try though he might to remain inconspicuous, Alen was a sublimely comely lad, and his attempts to pass through the village without drawing attention were doomed to failure.
The trio had spotted him instantly as they stumbled from the more decrepit of the two pubs, their speech slurred by the pitiful dross that passed for ale at the watering hole. Alen grimaced when the tallest of the three turned toward him, the boy's inebriated gaze running up and down the length of Alen’s modestly clad form. The youth had expressed his interest in Alen before, the prettiness of Alen’s face apparently overcoming any hesitation due the sameness of their sex.
The rapidly waning day and the swift promise of night urged Alen to make haste, as he was reluctant to be caught away from home after dark. The sky was turning an ever-deeper blue, its cloudless expanse broken only by the omnipresent mountain that towered over the village. The ancient rise of black rock sheltered the small town nestled at its foot from the fury of the storms that swept in occasionally from the east. Yet its beneficence was marred by the fury sheltered in its burning heart, promising the people living in its shadow a swift demise should they ever anger the gods that controlled their fates.
Alen gave no thought to the familiar view as he walked, trying to keep the farmer and his friends in sight even as he strove to ignore them. They had a reputation for being bullies to the lads in town who were younger or smaller than them. Though they had caused Alen grief more than once, usually they were content merely to subject him to leering grins and the occasional grope and to otherwise let him be. Alen quickly realized, however, that he would not be so lucky this time. The young men began to follow him as he hurried along the main boulevard that led to the village’s southern border, the degree of their alcoholic indulgence making them bold and incapable of disguising their intent. They sped their pace to match his hastening steps, and soon Alen found himself dashing through the streets, clutching the basket that held his purchases. He paid no heed to the startled gazes he drew from the villagers in the square as he ran, his thoughts consumed entirely with the desire to reach the safety of his mother’s cottage.
Though Alen was not short by any means, the superior length of his pursuers’ legs soon erased the distance between them. A hand grabbed Alen by the collar of his tunic, straining the stitches of the carefully sewn fabric and lifting him nearly off of his feet. The tallest of the three lads took hold of Alen’s arm in a viselike grip and hauled him into a nearby alley, deaf to his frantic pleas to be released and left in peace. Alen tried to resist, but his modest stature was no match for strength gained by years of physical toil. Steely hands slammed him against a rough stone wall, and a cry escaped him as his shoulder took the brunt of the impact. The basket fell to the ground, dumping into the dirt a wheel of cheese, a loaf of bread, and a haunch of venison wrapped in an oiled cloth. The youth and his friends merely laughed at his pain and the spoiled food.
A dull, mud-brown gaze examined his features with malicious interest. Alen closed his own eyes against the heated perusal, though he could still feel the weight of the young farmer’s stare. The youth moved closer, using his larger form to trap Alen against the side of the building. The stench of liquor on the taller boy’s breath swept hotly over Alen’s face, the foul odor threatening to singe the hairs in his nose. Alen fought the urge to gag but was unable to repress a shudder as lips hastily moistened by the flick of a tongue pressed against his ear, presaging a slurred mumble that dripped with drunken lust.
“What, you think yer better’n us, ya little slut? Doncha know,” he taunted, “whores are only good fer one thing?” The stocky youth chuckled darkly when Alen shivered at the threat. His grin widened into a sneer when slender hands pushed against his chest in a frantic bid to escape.
“Please,” Alen whispered, his voice trembling with fear. “I just want to go home.” He bit back a sob as the farmer leaned heavily into him, pinning him hard against the rough stone.
“Uh uh, none o’ that. You treat old Thom nice, ya hear, or you’ll be runnin’ home ta yer mommy with a limp.”
“Don’t hurt ’im too bad, Thom,” one of his friends sneered. “We want a crack at that pretty li’l ass.”
The young farmer laughed at his companion’s eagerness. “What d’ya say, love, huh?” He pressed his lips to Alen’s ear in a mockery of a kiss. “You gonna show me ’n my boys a good time?”
A pitiful whimper was all Alen could manage to voice his fear and disgust as a slimy tongue trailed lewdly up the trembling column of his throat, the reek from the farmer’s neglected mouth threatening his equilibrium. The youth pressed against Alen, the bulge stretching the front of his breeches clearly bespeaking his rapacious objective. Fear lent Alen’s slight form an unaccustomed strength as he pushed hard against the taller boy, the violent suddenness of his thrust startling the young farmer enough to throw him off balance. Alen didn’t pause to marvel at the unlikely success of his maneuver. Darting nimbly to one side, he counted on the other boys’ drunken state for aid as he tried to dodge past his captors and run toward the relative safety of the main street.
Having never imbibed any type of fermented brew, Alen was woefully ignorant of the differing effects of drink upon a slight lad like himself as compared to the strapping youths from whom he tried to flee. Despair caught him as swiftly as the hand that grabbed his shoulder, foiling his attempted evasion. The gripping hand swung him around to face the angry scowl of the boy he had knocked down. Before he could voice a protest, its mate slapped him viciously, sending him careening to the ground. The farmer’s grip upon Alen’s shoulder was unrelenting as he fell, causing the weakened stitches of his tunic to give way beneath the opposing forces. They ripped in grating counterpoint to his cry as he hit the hard-packed dirt. The gaping cloth fell open to reveal a pale shoulder, further inflaming the violent desires of his tormentors. Alen’s heart raced with unrelieved panic as the farmer and his conspirators loomed over him.
The exaggerated difference in their statures was nearly comical, and the sob that slipped from Alen’s trembling lips sounded suspiciously like a laugh. Never had he shirked any physical labor his mother had asked of him, yet compared to these ruffians, he had no more defense than would a blushing maiden. Cursing yet again the vagaries of fate that had dictated his delicate appearance, Alen cowered away from the three youths, unable to see past the leering menace radiating darkly from the other boys’ faces.
The chief of his attackers fell upon him, and Alen gasped fitfully as the breath was driven from his lungs. The sticks and rocks that dug into his back through the flimsy fabric of his tunic and breeches were nothing to the seeking fingers that pinched his pale flesh with bruising force. He struggled against the larger boy, desperate to avoid both the cruel fingers and the sloppy kisses the farmer pressed against his unwilling lips, but his efforts merely earned him a harsh growl. Fingers thrust into his hair and tightened painfully.
“Ahh!” Alen’s eyes stung with tears as the strong grip pulled against his scalp, holding his head motionless.
“I said, none o’ that, or I swear I’ll make ya wish ya hadn’ta crossed me.”
A thick tongue pushed passed Alen’s lips, invading his mouth with all the finesse of the pillaging marauders that had long ago made the small village one of their favorite hunting grounds. After centuries had passed under the raiders’ black cloud of terror, the gods had finally taken pity on the downtrodden people and banished the foreigners back to their faraway lands. Their existence was known only through the artifacts and paintings that the priests maintained to warn the people of what would befall them if they ever angered the gods, yet Alen swore the farmer’s broad, dull-looking features reflected the terrifying visages of the thieves depicted in those ancient portraits. Alen knew from his lessons in history that treasure was not all the raiders had been wont to steal, the boy lying atop him a glaring testament to their penchant for spreading their seed through rape. Fearing that he was soon to fall victim to just such an unspeakable fate, Alen glanced beseechingly over the dirty-blond head of his captor toward the other two youths. He pleaded silently for help, but his heart sank as he quickly realized there would be none forthcoming from that quarter. Rather, the farmer’s companions seemed quite content, even eager, to witness their friend take what so many others had coveted.
Alen choked when a heedless thrust slid the farmer’s tongue down his throat, but his fear reached its zenith when determined fingers began tugging boldly on the drawstring that secured his breeches closed at his waist. Acting without conscious thought, Alen raised his leg sharply, the bony curve of his knee connecting bluntly with a point high on the farmer’s thigh. Although Alen missed the soft target for which he was aiming, the other boy was startled enough to cringe away in expectation of the pain which would have befallen him had Alen succeeded. Pushing himself up with his elbows and feet, Alen scrambled backward, away from the dangerous trio. He opened his mouth to shout out for help, but the young farmer came at him again, bellowing epithets, his eyes crazed with drunken rage and thwarted lust. Alen rolled over, hoping that he might make better progress on his knees, but something grabbed his foot, drawing him back and thwarting his bid at freedom. His palm smacked against a hard object, and he closed his hand around it instinctively as his attacker summarily flipped him back over. Before his mind had recognized the rock as such, Alen struck out with it blindly, his arm flailing wildly in panic and a hysterical shout lending power to his assault.
No foresight or plan guided his hand. Alen’s only intent had been to incapacitate the other boy enough so that he could get away. But the jagged edge of the stone slid across his attacker’s neck, slicing easily into the skin and leaving a yawning gash in the young man’s throat. Alen’s empowering cry was abruptly silenced by the farmer’s choked whimper of pain, and he stared in horrified disbelief as his assailant toppled and lay still on the ground.
“By the gawds, what have ye done to old Thom?”
“Ye’ve killed him, ye demon-spawned whore!”
Alen shook his head, his expression frozen in shock as his gaze remained fixed on the body. “No. No—” The mumbled denial was barely audible to his own ears. His entire body rebelled, his stomach churning as a pool of steaming red spread out from beneath the young farmer’s head. Alen willed for the fallen youth to move, but such wishes were as futile as the dead boy’s unslaked lust.
The farmer’s companions fled, spewing frightened curses and swearing that they would cry foul to the village guard. “Please don’t!” Alen cried after them weakly, his voice faltering into a rasping croak as he begged them not to fulfill their threat. I’ve done nothing wrong, he told himself, frantically attempting to quiet his growing panic. He had only defended himself, as anyone would have done when faced with the imminent loss of virtue and the certainty of pain, but the attempt at logic rang hollow. The farmer’s lifeless body decried his professed innocence as it began its slow decay into dust. He had committed murder, and the knowledge stained his very soul. What price would be demanded? What penance must be paid? The circumstances aside, Alen knew that nothing could ever erase his crime.
He gathered himself to follow the other boys’ example, knowing that he should get away before the soldiers came. Once he was at the mercy of the authorities, he feared that any protestations of innocence he dared to make would be met with naught but scorn. Yet, still he remained for a few precious seconds, unable to stay his hand as it reached for the body lying motionless before him. It fell heavily upon the youth’s shoulder as he tried in vain to shake the other boy back to wakefulness, as though the young farmer could be returned to life as easily as one is retrieved from a deep sleep.
An instant after a coppery taint hit his senses, a vile warmth began to soak into the knees of his breeches. Alen cried out in disgust as he sprung to his feet. The crimson flood spilling out from beneath the body reflected his image, capturing his horrified expression in the badge of his guilt. He slapped at his legs in a futile attempt to rub away the dark stain of blood, but succeeded only in coating his hands with the scarlet wetness. He stared at them in horror as he raised them before his face, the rapidly cooling redness glinting malevolently in the distant light from the torches that flickered along the main street. The young farmer’s blood seeped into his skin, marking him forever with the irrefutable truth. Alen’s ears rang as the very air seemed to shriek an accusing howl, naming him murderer and cursing him to damnation.