The scene unfolds like a tapestry, even though there is no-one present to see it.
There is a man on a big black horse, masked except for his eyes. There is a boy, standing as if transfixed in the dust of the road. Neither of them flexes a muscle; they could be wax figures, or graven stone, for all the movement they make. The wind rustles through the tree-boughs and throws shifting sun-dapple patterns on the pair, but they are frozen motionless, like insects in amber. It is as if the whole world is holding its breath, waiting to see what will happen next. To interrupt would be gravely impolite.
The masked rider lifts his hand and rattles a pair of manacles, dull metal glinting in the sunlight, and the spell is broken. The boy turns on his bare feet and bolts down the path, eyes wide with silent horror. He does not know where he is running to, but like all wild things he flees before the hunter, the voices of all his ancestors whispering dire warnings in his ear.
The rider spurs his horse into a gallop and follows without a sound.
The number of children born with the mark is Legion, and each has a story as unique as their fingerprints, as varying and intricately diverse as a ladybird's spots. Shall I tell you of the one who started it all, the man who gave everything he had for the life of his beloved? Or perhaps the tale of the girl who escaped the riders and trekked for days back to her village, knowing full well she would be shackled and hauled away again within the hour of her return? The gangly lad who ripped open the blood-channels of his own arms rather than be taken, determined to die free under the wide blue sky? It didn't work, if you must know; the masked captors merely bandaged his wounds and carted him onwards to the castle when he was well enough to ride. Never once did his expression register anything but fierce, unkillable pride, even when they placed him in his sarcophagus and shut the lid down tight.
No. These are memorable and outstanding anomalies, and they do not represent the vast majority of experiences among the cursed ones. To truly understand, we must look at a perfectly unremarkable example, for even the unremarkable ones have stories to tell.
This is the simple truth: Once there was a boy, and he was born with horns, and because of this he died. The rest is all details.
They almost always run. Always, without exception, they are captured.
More riders come from everywhere and nowhere, and they cut his flight mercifully short. Like a sparrow hit with a stone from a sling he is knocked to the ground, and then they are on him, and there is no more chance of escape. He is too terrified to fight, and they are too many and too strong and too experienced at this to be fought even if he had the slightest inclination to.
They are surprisingly gentle, these masked figures, but they are also firm. Within moments his arms and feet are shackled and bound. He is picked up by the nape of the neck, like a kitten or a puppy, and plopped without ceremony onto the back of a big black charger, alongside one of his captors. The man smells of sweat, and incense, and ever so faintly of cooked fish, and in this way the boy understands that at least they are human. Whether or not this is any more comforting than the alternatives is questionable at best.
It is midday and yet the village is completely deserted as they canter through, the horses' hoofbeats muffled by sack-cloth tied securely around their feet. The windows of the houses seem to watch them pass by like dispassionate eyes. Disinterest and impartiality are the only emotions the citizens of the town have ever shown the waif, after all; why should things be any different, now that the riders have finally come for him? Sometimes there was also fear in their looks, and he sees that now as well, in the way that children are jerked away from windows as the horsemen trot past, and in the warding sign the priest at the gate etches into the air as they leave this place forever.
The roofs and temple spires of the village are visible, for a time, and despite his rabbit-freeze terror the boy cranes his neck to watch as these landmarks recede into the distance. They grow smaller and smaller and finally disappear completely behind the rolling green foothills, and whether he will ever see them again in life perhaps not even the head priest could say.
At first they quarantined the marked children in an oubliette of the village temple. The evil was contained in their frail bodies, true, but who knew what ill-will and malice the demon within them might still be able to command, even trapped as it was within a prison of flesh? Best not to tempt fate or the Gods, it was said. As soon as the first nubs of horn were spotted, the newborn infant was taken swiftly from its mother – by force, if necessary – and placed in the cell. There it stayed for the first twelve years of life, never seeing sunlight or an unmasked face until the day the riders came to carry it away.
Some of the children cried out when their weak eyes, used to no light but the flickering illumination of a torch, were exposed to sunlight for the first time. The people of the village would nod to one another sagely when they saw this. See how the demon inside them recoils at the kiss of Father Sun? See how they claw at the very windows of their soul? It truly is a wicked beast dwelling within them, and good riddance to it leaving our presence forever.
They were a hardy breed, these marked ones, but even their bodies, supernaturally strengthened by the power within, had limits. One or two of them died from their ill-treatment, and on the nights following these deaths strange things roamed the streets, wavering shapes darker than the blackest patch of midnight shadow. The wind gusted and screamed like a woman in pain - or was it anger? - a chilling noise that set babes in their cribs to wailing and every cur in the village to howling at once in spine-bristling cacophony. Twice this happened, and the shamans managed somehow to ignore it, too stubborn or too frightened to do anything but huddle in their sanctuary until morning came and all was well once more. When the third child died, however, the stained glass windows of the temple exploded into a million shards of razor-edged shrapnel, and the shadows crept to the very doors of the holy building itself, hissing and whispering threateningly like demons sent straight from the pit.
After this the shamans no longer locked the marked children away. They were still treated with revulsion and fear, but almost always they survived long enough to fulfill their appointed task.
He is like a hatchling in reverse. The riders take him to the castle, and they seal him inside what can only be described as a large stone egg, and they leave him there in the dark and the echoing quiet, an unsure, terrified pupa. Terror freezes the boy right down to the marrow of his bones. The silence and the chill are like living entities; if he moves a finger he fears they might hear him and pounce. Malice and ill intent hang in the stale air as thick as dust motes, making it hard to take a deep breath.
The blackness inside the sarcophagus is absolute. Time becomes hard to gauge. Has it been minutes since they left him? An hour? At first he sits unresisting in his shackles, resigned to whatever fate might come for him, but then he thinks of the summer breeze, and fresh spring-water trickling between his fingers, and of his pet cat back in the village. Who will take care of Mitka if he does not return? Will the neighbour children mistreat her with stones and cruel words, as they did him once? She will be looking for him by now, with her funny crooked tail and raspy miaow. He begins to struggle against the pillory-bonds, first one hand and then the other. They do not give, not even an inch. The battle between the boy and the cuffs goes on until his wrists are bruised and sore and all his strength is gone, and then he sleeps, an exhausted, uncomfortable half-drowse.
When he awakens the scenario plays itself out once again, although his struggles are weaker this time, fueled by desperation and little else. Fear of the silence is eventually overcome by fear of eternal entombment, and the child raises his voice, a piping, thin thing that dashes itself against the quiet of the castle like a bird crashing into a windowpane. He calls out again and again for help in a voice hoarse from disuse, but nothing answers him, nothing but echoes and, far away, the sound of the wailing wind.
This becomes a routine. The boy thrashes about until he is exhausted, screaming for help in rising panic as the hours pass and no-one comes to retrieve him. Then he dozes fitfully and sometimes he dreams, disturbed, feverish nightmares filled with hissing voices that tell him of his worthlessness, he and all his kind. Why struggle against what must be, the voices say? This is all you are good for, and all you were born for. Do not struggle against your destiny, silly thing. Join us in our dance.
But always he awakens, and always he fights, even when his wrists begin to slowly seep blood from the constant friction and his tongue swells and blackens, filling his mouth like a dead lump of wood. Images of the streams that flow around the village come to him unbidden, of buckets hauled out of the deep stone wells dripping with crystal-clear water. In desperation the boy puts his teeth to one wrist, willing to do the unthinkable to escape, but the taste of fresh blood makes him retch almost immediately and he gives no more consideration to this macabre way out. He hangs exhausted and defeated from the cell's shackles, head lowered in utter despair.
They say she can hear them pleading for mercy as they die.
Whether or not this is true only one can say, and she speaks not of the dark woman on the throne. Her only words are to the birds, and doves keep secrets almost as well as stone.
He awakens to the sound of the coffin's top being lifted, the darkness of the interior suddenly flooded by dim light. The child does not know how long it had been since he passed into unconsciousness; it might have been an hour and it might have been a month. Whatever the length of time, it has done wonders for his physical condition - the hunger that threatened to consume the boy's scrawny frame from within has abruptly dissipated, replaced by a dull, hollow emptiness that starts in his chest and works its way into every limb and digit. It is not unpleasant, but then it is not at all pleasant, either. It simply … is.
The nameless child squints up at the opening, expecting to see the masked faces of the riders or perhaps even someone from the village, unexpectedly come to rescue him. Instead, he finds himself eyeball to eyeball with a much different visage, someone loftier and greater than any priest or mysterious shrouded horseman could ever hope to be.
She is tall and frightfully pale, an oval face framed by living, breathing smoke. Her whole air speaks of regality, and the boy would be sore afraid if not for the fact that she is smiling. A slender hand is stretched out to him and he takes it, never noticing that his own now seems composed of the same inky darkness that enshrouds the tall woman like widow's weeds.
"What is your name?" she says, and her voice is the echo of water in dark grottoes far underneath the castle's foundations. The child could not refuse to answer her question even if he wanted to.
"… Th-they didn't give me a name," he replies in a whisper, eyes suddenly downcast. "They called me … Boy." Surely when she notices his affliction the woman will turn and leave him, as everyone he had ever come across in his short life has. Who is he to address such a person, cursed and exiled as he is? They had meant for him to die here, he knows this now. Perhaps it is what a freak of nature such as he deserves.
The white lady does not go away; if anything her smile grows by a fraction of an inch. With no effort at all she pulls him out of the sarcophagus and into the open, setting him firmly but gently on his feet. He feels strangely light and airy, like a feather come loose from its bird's wing. The memory of his past life is slipping away more and more with each passing second, leaving a void where there is only her and her alone.
"Well, never mind what they called you. You're one of my children now, and that is all that matters." She lets her fingers trail to where his horns would be, a whisper-light touch. "There are many others of your kind here, you know. Would you like to go and see them? They've been waiting for you quite a long time."
The thing that was once a boy nods eagerly, its shyness overwhelmed by the kind words and actions of the woman who has most certainly saved it from entombment. It speaks again, but the voice has now changed, until it is almost unrecognizable as a child's. The noise that comes out is like a hiss, or the wind blowing underneath the castle's eaves, but the Queen has no trouble understanding what is said.
"Do you have a name?"
And once again she smiles, but the smile never reaches her cold grey eyes.
"Just call me … Mother."
It pauses to consider this, nods, and looks up at her with a new adoration. Mother. For the first time it has a mother. The shadowy figure takes her hand once again, and together the two walk to where a throng of others like it crouch waiting, score upon score of little horned apparitions with glowing blue orbs for eyes and misty black wings jutting from their backs. They open their arms to embrace this new sibling and, gratefully, it joins them.
It is not a lie the Queen tells them, not a lie at all. She has always been a mother to the horned children, all the way back to the first, found wailing and naked in a dried-up reflecting pool five thousand years before. Men sense this and gather them to her, delivering the scions that hold the power she craves to the castle as if drawn by invisible marionette-strings.
She is the mother of them all, and they all come to her, in the end.