They'd lived near the Border for as long as anyone could remember. Marinette didn't know why, most sensible people stayed as far as they could.
No one knew exactly what the Border was, just that no one dared cross it and those that did came out…changed. Generations past had marked the line of its territory with a wall of white stone to warn away the foolish wanderer. Not a hundred feet from the wall started the Border, a seemingly endless expanse of ancient trees and thick underbrush. In the darkness, and on a clear day, you could see swarms of white butterflies flitting amongst the trees. This, Marinette's Grandmere had said, was a good sign, for as long as the butterflies remained white, the Border remained asleep.
Time and age had decayed most of the wall to rubble, but the line had always held true and the Border had remained silent.
There hadn't ever been more than stories about it either, tall tales of monsters in the wood and a sickness that stole the souls of its victims. Some even said a god walked in those woods and was angered when mortal man trespassed upon its domain.
Whatever the truth, no one had seen much come out of that place for generations, until a young boy from Marinette's village vanished into the Border.
It was the largest village in the Valley and the closest to the Border, though it was only in recent years that it had grown in size. Still, it was small enough that most people knew one another quite well and Ivan had been a playmate of Marinette's since they were children.
He was a large boy, gentle despite his outward appearance of gruffness and with a very sweet nature about him. Marinette could only remember him fondly and with a sense of regret. That day had happened so quickly though, it was hard not to think of the what ifs.
They were all fourteen and Ivan had a crush on the local tanners daughter, Mylene. He was upset that day after being teased about it and disappeared in a huff. They didn't know it then, but Ivan had stormed too close to the Border and was taken by an Akuma.
Akuma happened when the butterflies turned black. They possessed the unwary, turning them and making them do terrible things. The woods of the Border became darker that day, stretching out over the land as though they were trying to take over. In hindsight, that was the Border's very purpose. The roots of the trees grew further, the boughs shook and scattered seeds into the dirt, growing quickly even as the Akuma changed Ivan.
He came then. He descended upon the village roaring in anger and pain. A great, stone Gollum, bent on revenge and destruction. Marinette could still see the beast in her mind, hear the devastating blows as it crushed homes and livelihoods with its fists. People scattered, screaming in fear as the very earth beneath them shattered to pieces. Lives were lost that day, young men who were brave enough to fight, old ones who couldn't move out of the way in time and even children who found themselves in the wrong place.
None of them knew then that it was Ivan.
And that was when Chat Noir came.
Cloaked in shadow, green eyes glowing, he came and with his magic defeated the great stone beast, driving him back towards the Border.
But he wasn't able to save Ivan.
Today Ivan stood, right at the Border's edge, like a warning to them all. He was nothing more than a statue now, frozen forever. Vines and moss grew over his great, stony crags. There was no movement now, save for the occasional bird that landed on his head.
His family and Mylene were the only ones who dared approach, laying flowers at his feet like it was a grave marker. Marinette went too sometimes, if only to support her mourning friend.
After the attack, Chat had ordered the men follow him with axes and torches. Together they hacked and burned the over grown edges of the Border before they could encroach further.
"Stay in the light," the wizard had warned, "You must focus only on your task. The Akuma feed on negative emotions."
It was unusual for Chat to be so serious. Whenever they had seen the wizard in the past, he always had a smile and a joke ready. But this time, as they would soon find out, there was nothing funny to be seen in the situation at all.
Ivan's family had begged, wasn't there anything he could do for their son? Chat's expression was sad when he shook his head.
"I don't have the right power to do that," he explained, "I can contain, but I cannot purify. Any attempt I made would more likely kill Ivan than free him."
The occupants of the Valley did not see Chat Noir often, though he was well known throughout. A powerful wizard who had been commissioned with guarding the Border by the King himself. He roamed the land, a reckless, carefree being that had been around for as long as anyone could remember. Always dressed in black, moving like a shadow though the countryside and always appearing where he was needed the most. There were rumours about his origins, though no one knew for sure. They said he had made a deal with a god of chaos, granting him power over destruction. Others said he was the embodiment of bad luck, and that was why he never stayed in one place too long. The more far-fetched claimed him to be the bastard son of a long ago king, banished to a solitary existence patrolling the Border.
Whatever he was, he was their Chat Noir. Their wizard. Their lord. Their guardian.
Marinette hadn't paid much attention to him that day. Her father had been injured in the attack and she was busy helping bandage wounds and clean up rubble. But at the end of it, she saw him.
She was crossing the village green, a bundle of linen in her arms when something drew her gaze towards the Border. Smoke was rising in the air from where they were burning the woods back and the sound of axes chopping could be heard in the distance. The sky was dull and grey, the air dry with the smell of burning. There he was, standing watching, his back to her. The hood of his cloak was down, revealing gold blonde hair and two leather cat ears. She wondered why he wore them.
She stopped, watching him without knowing why. As though sensing her gaze, the ears suddenly perked and the head whipped around. Green eyes found hers, piercing and glowing despite the dull light. Everything froze and the breath hitched in her throat. Something shot through her and she felt…afraid. The green eyes blinked and a tired grin spread across his face. He turned around fully, bowing to her from the waist.
Cheeks burning, she turned away and hurried along. She tried to ignore the pit in her stomach as she realized, just before he smiled, he had looked scared too. That was the second time she had ever seen him.
It was not the last Akuma attack, but that first had been the most brutal. Every time though, Chat was there to stop the evil before it could cause too much damage. The first victims though, the ones who became possessed, were always lost.
As her Grandmere would have said, the bad times had come again.
Still, their village remained luckier than others. It had always been lucky, if truth was to be told. The people were a hardy sort and their stubbornness had paid off with almost two decades of good fortune. Trade ran well in the area, the farmers always produced plenty of food and even the poorest of the inhabitants lived well. It seemed the only bit of bad luck they suffered from were the Akuma attacks and those were dealt with by Chat.
So no one ever went near the Border. No one dared, for there hadn't been a soul to come out unscathed by whatever twisted magics lay within.
Well, except for Marinette.
When she was a very little girl, she had wandered into the woods alone. For twelve days no one saw neither hide nor hair of the child, her parents had been out of their minds with worry, while the people of the village shook their heads in pity, writing off Marinette as lost for good. No one had ever come out after so long after all.
Just when hope seemed lost, Chat Noir had stridden in on the thirteenth day and come out with her again before the sun had set. She didn't remember much except for dancing lights and the wizard's strong arms around her.
And she was fine, completely fine Chat had assured her worried parents. It wasn't an Akuma that had led her in, but a feu follet. A ghost light.
The village had been wary of her for a while, some parents warned their children off her and others ignored her like she didn't exist. The answer became clearer as she was older.
Marinette was bad luck.
Not to anyone but herself of course, but people didn't need much to shy away. She was clumsy and awkward. She broke things, lost them, and tripped when there was nothing there. If there was mud on the ground, her skirts found it. She ripped her clothes and dirtied her knees more times than any other child in the village.
When she got a little older and it became clear Marinette wasn't a threat to anyone, except herself, the wariness was replaced by pity. It was generally whispered that Chat Noir had cursed her for wandering into the Border as a warning to anyone else foolish enough to try.
Marinette wasn't sure if that was true or not, but it certainly explained a lot.
"You're not cursed," her mother would scold her playfully, "We all have an awkward stage when we're younger, you'll grow out of it."
She said that every year.
The one consolation about always ripping her clothes, was that Marinette learned how to mend them and by extension, how to make them. She fell in love with making her own clothes and then her family's too. She enjoyed the process of creating something new and kept sketches of all kinds of designs pinned about her room. When she was fifteen she managed to convince the local seamstress to take her on as an apprentice and soon she was known for being more than just unlucky. Anything she mended lasted longer than before and she had a knack for fitting clothes to suit her customers. Her dream was to open up a shop of her own someday, perhaps faraway in one of the fashionable cities to the north.
Dreams aside, her life was good. Akuma aside it might have been perfect. But then, nothing in life ever is.
Nathanael worked in the printer's shop. He worked the machine and spent his spare time creating beautiful pictures and illustrations. He was a tall youth, with a mop of bright red hair he kept combed straight. It hung secured into a low ponytail at the base of his neck. His fingers were always stained with ink and he had a quiet, soft-spoken way about him.
He was nineteen now and on the verge of taking over the print shop from his aging master. It was generally agreed amongst the gossiping mothers of the village, that he was a very descent match for any of their girls. As it was, he had his eye on the baker's daughter, Marinette Dupain-Cheng.
It was a bright morning when he decided to propose to the apprenticed seamstress. He had washed the ink from his hands and put on his best shirt. He collected his sketchbook, the portrait of the girl in question he had finished last week nestled inside.
He left the shop to buy flowers, a whole bushel of pink blossoms he knew she would love. He put every care and attention into making everything as perfect as he could. He'd surprise her at her parents' shop; ask her to take a walk with him in the fields and when they climbed the hill overlooking the village, he'd ask her.
She was a sweet girl, perhaps a bit clumsy, but Nathanael didn't care. She had always been kind to him when they were children and he had been far more awkward than her. They were friends and he hoped…well, he had every reason to hope.
He paid for the flowers, bringing them up to his nose to take a sample of the delicious scent. He felt good about today. The village market was littered as usual, bringing in traders from all parts to sell their wares. He marveled at the bright colours, the smells and sounds of people chattering on. Everything today seemed more vibrant, more colourful, and more beautiful.
"A gift for someone special?" a stranger's voice asked beside him.
Nathanael turned and was greeted by an inquisitive pair of green eyes. The stranger was a man about his own age, dressed in travelling garb, a grey cloak thrown carelessly over one shoulder. His blonde hair was neat and he had a friendly smile plastered to his face.
"Yes," Nathanael said, willing to share his joy, "For a very special lady. I'm proposing today."
The stranger's smile widened.
"Bonne chance!" he said sincerely, "I wish you both well."
"Thank you," the young artist smiled, stepping away with a spring in his step. The stranger lingered at the flower shop long enough to purchase a sprig of lavender, which he tucked into a pocket on his vest before carrying on his way.
As for Nathanael, his day was unfortunately not to go as planned when he crossed the path of one Chloe Bourgeois.
Marinette was putting the final touches on a delicate blue and white dress. Her fingers worked swiftly with the needle, fixing the hem in place. She then smoothed down the skirts over the mannequin, checking with a critical eye for any flaws in her work. She was basing the design on what news she had managed to garner about the latest fashions up north. The styles were becoming simpler, with modest necklines and a form-fitting bodice. She had managed to find a sky blue fabric for the dress itself and was using white ribbon and lace to accent its features.
She smiled to herself. This was something she was good at and she reveled in the triumph of completing another gown. She'd added other details to this one, shortening the hem and slimming the waist in an attempt to mimic the dresses of her mother's homeland in the East. She'd spent weeks on detailed embroidery and her hard work had paid off.
Marinette let out a satisfied sigh and stretched her tired limbs, stopping when loud voices from outside drew her attention to the window.
She recognized Nathanael's red hair as he scrambled in the dirt, trying to collect up some scattered pages. A bouquet of pink flowers lay forgotten in the dust and a small crowd of people had gathered outside, not one of them making a move to help him.
And little wonder, for in the centre of it all stood a very familiar blonde woman, her arms crossed and a smug smile lighting her face. Marinette growled under her breath.
The scene she came onto made her blood boil. Chloe Bourgeois was the Mayor's daughter, the richest girl in the village and she never let anyone forget it. If they did, it was more than likely the local sheriff would come knocking on their doors. This and other selfish antics had not endeared her to those in her own age group, who she took particular joy in tormenting. Marinette had been a favourite target of hers when they were children, though she'd since learned not to push the dark haired girl too far.
"Leave him alone, Chloe!" she snarled as she charged through the crowd of on lookers.
The blonde turned towards her, a triumphant smile on her face. She held up a piece of paper, neatly ripping it in two.
"No!" Nathanael cried, looking pained.
Chloe laughed, letting the pieces fall to the ground.
"Looks like Marinette's here to save the day again," she said sarcastically, "Come on Sabrina, I've had enough of these peasants."
The red haired daughter of the town sheriff scurried along behind the blonde. The crowd started to disperse and Marinette rushed to her friend's side.
"Let me help," she said, bending to pick up the torn pages.
"Don't!" Nathanael snapped, grabbing them from her before she could utter a word. Marinette blinked as the pages were snatched from her hands, eyes widening at the sudden red flush in his cheeks and the angry glare on his face.
"Nathanael?" she started.
He shook his head, expression immediately regretful.
"Just – leave me alone," he said quietly, crumpling the torn pages in his fists and stalking away.
Confused, she flinched.
It didn't take much to set Chloe off, but it usually took something. She wondered what…
"Wow, that was harsh," a snide little voice commented somewhere behind her, "Trouble in Paradise?"
She whipped around, her cheeks flushed and anger coursing through her. Almost everyone was gone, but the only one staring at her was a green-eyed man she hadn't seen before. She zeroed in on him, her irritation getting the best of her.
"And what do you mean by that?" she demanded, stalking over to him, "Do you think this is funny?"
The man actually looked surprised.
"No! No! I just meant that – I mean I didn't – it wasn't –" he stuttered out, grimacing. Something guilty crossed his expression and she bristled.
"Why didn't you help him?" she snapped, "No one deserves to be humiliated like that!"
With that, she turned on her heel and ran in the direction Nathanael had gone, hoping to catch him. She didn't know what was going on, but she wasn't about to leave a friend to deal with the aftermath that was Chloe.
The stranger watched her go, slapping a hand to his face with a frustrated groan and shooting a glare at something in the fold of his grey travelling cloak.
"Nice one," he scolded.
Nathanael ran, his chest hot and tight. Blood pounded in his ears as he vaulted blindly through the town streets, then out the gates, and into the fields. He kept running, feet pounding on the dry earth. He was furious and embarrassed, humiliated by the jeering taunts of that spoilt brat! He was only thankful Marinette hadn't come a few minutes earlier. If she had, she would have seen a full-grown man brought to his knees by the harsh words and jeering of Chloe Bourgeois. What woman would marry a man so weak after that?
And to have her come in and rescue him…
His face was burning with humiliation. He didn't know how he could face her, face the entire town again. So he ran, until his feet took him far away.
He stopped when he saw the white wall. It was low now, broken into rubble at places where the forest had tried to overtake. The earth leading from the wall to the Border itself was still scorched black from Chat Noir's magic. Not far away stood Ivan, permanently petrified in stone.
Nathanael's gaze moved up to the great monster. Green moss coloured his rocky surface and vines shot up to tangle around his enormous limbs. At his feet there were flowers. Mylene most likely.
It was sad and sweet all at the same time. They were fourteen when Ivan was taken and five years on she still held on to her childhood sweetheart.
Sighing, Nathanael took a seat on a large piece of white rubble and looked at the crumpled pages in his hands. What had once been Marinette's face was now a smear of dirt and charcoal from his pen. His hands, which he had so carefully kept clean, were stained with dirt.
As was the rest of him.
No, he couldn't have asked her like this. He couldn't have looked at the pity in her eyes.
Anger and resentment boiled in his belly and he scrounged the pages up, hot, furious tears threatening to fall.
He'd been so sure of himself.
This was Chloe's fault. This was all her fault!
He wished it were her face he was twisting into nothing!
Behind him, a black butterfly flew free of the trees.
A/N: This is…something of an experiment. It's loosely based around the novel Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which I highly recommend especially if you've ever read a Russian fairytale. I have a bit of a fascination with European folklore at the moment, so this story is pretty much just an excuse to research a bit more into it. I didn't intend to take up another fandom, but Miraculous Ladybug was sufficiently addicting enough that I need to get it out of my system. This story I'm predicting 10 -12 chapters at the moment, so lets see how it goes. Happy reading folks!