October came, bringing frost-crusted mornings and earlier sunsets, and gradually filling barns, larders, and storehouses with the snowy winter's provender. The hills and valleys were transformed from lush greens to blazing oranges, reds, and yellows – the forest's seasonal masterpiece. When darkness fell, the crystalline air seemed to magnify the moon and stars until they became almost impossibly clear.
The wealthiest farmers in Tarry Town, the Van Tassels, had announced a corn-husking party to be held near the end of the month, to celebrate the nearly-complete labor of gathering. Every family in the village was invited, and the whole event was expected to last well into the night, for after the actual husking, there must be a great dinner, followed by a dance. Given few opportunities to indulge in such delights, the youth of Tarry Town were certain to take full advantage of the occasion and make it last as long as possible. And, on these rare celebrations, the elders for once were lenient with their offspring, allowing them unusual freedom to remain late at the party.
The farm hands would never allow such an opportunity to flirt with the village girls to pass them by, and, Axel having been accepted into their number during his time at the Van Tassel farm thus far, the town schoolteacher was coerced into promising his attendance. (It was perhaps also due to the fact that Axel was a relatively new instructor, and had not been master of the schoolhouse when any of the present youths had been small enough to attend. Had it been so, his oppressive personage would not have been invited to haunt the festivities with memories of books and desks.)
So it happened that, as the early evening fell over the valley, the farm hands hurried in slightly earlier than usual, hastening to clean the day's labor away and arrange their appearances to best advantage for the exciting evening ahead.
The excitement among the village girls, as they bedecked themselves with their prettiest petticoats and a few treasured ribbons, was perhaps even more heightened than among the lads. A corn-husking meant, by tradition, a marvelous chance for hopeful young hearts, and a corn-husking at the Van Tassel's meant no less than the most sensational opportunity of the year.
This was the sacred tradition of the corn-husking: all who came to husk corn were in desperate search of an ear with red kernels. Whatever youth of the village happened to be the designated representative of the family hosting the grand event was bound to bestow a kiss on the lucky finder of a red-kerneled ear. When the hosts' eligible child was a daughter, the farm hands would compete to husk corn in a frenzy, searching for the red prize that would secure them the maiden's kiss. When the selected youth was a son, the girls were just as adamantly competitive.
The Van Tassels being the hosts of this corn-husking, the honor of bestowing the prize kiss was, quite unequivocally, thrust upon the eldest son Roxas. Regardless of the boy's willingness, he was elected for the duty, and not a young lady in Tarry Town could truthfully claim disinterest in the matter. Indeed, as it may well be imagined, certain of them had particularly ambitious dreams regarding the red-kerneled prize.
As the gathering convened, all the young people took their places around the barn where the corn to be husked had been collected in preparation. Many a young pair of eyes was fruitlessly fixed on the waiting corn, seeking any russet colors peeking from the uniform green of the husks. All waited for the signal to begin.
It was also the duty of the Van Tassel heir to begin to the contest, and though he inwardly loathed the proceedings on this particular corn-husking night, he boldly forced a cheerful face as he entered the barn, greeting the waiting party and mingling briefly at first. His hardest task at the moment was keeping his eyes neutral and blithe, and most definitely not trained irresistibly on the redhead among the attendees. It was a terrible struggle for Roxas to resist staring at the handsome teacher, to his mind looking so much more attractive than usual, dressed now in his best waistcoat. None of the girls in their loveliest dresses could rival the sight of his lover, so attractively yet modestly attired.
His worries, however, extended beyond the difficulty of tearing his eyes from Axel – it was now time to start the dreaded corn-husking. Attempting to sound merry, he stepped up on a nearby bench and called out, "Ladies and gentlemen, with your permission, I will begin this husking competition! Now if you will all prepare…" He paused, as the young people lit upon the piles of corn, each taking up an armful before pausing, eyes trained on the speaker, waiting for the signal to begin.
Roxas glanced around at the waiting assembly. "All ready? Very well…begin!" The barn was instantly a flurry of activity, as each person began their rapid search for the first red ear.
Naminé hurried along with the others, yet she knew she had an advantage. Inasmuch as she had so many fond followers among the lads, she had once again taken advantage of their loyalty. If any of those five she had already made arrangements with should find a red ear, they were to slip it carefully to her. Certainly, they would have to endure the sight of another kissing their beloved, yet they had been faithfully promised to receive a kiss from her in return…afterwards. And, for certain, no lad in his right mind would prefer a public kiss in front of the entire gathering to a private kiss after all had left…perhaps somewhere in the dark night, alone.
It was expected, by all who knew of the arrangements, that Naminé would surely succeed in securing the coveted kiss. And many young men were well content with that, for after the first kiss was given, any further finders of red-kerneled ears were granted the right to choose from anyone among the company the youth who owed them a kiss.
As the hands flew and the husks fell, Axel steadily participated, yet his heart was reluctant and uncertain. He did not know of Naminé's plots, yet even so, if a man were to find a red ear when a man was to bestow the kiss, he invariably gave the prize to a girl of his choosing. There was not even the ghost of a chance that Axel could be happy tonight, for Roxas must kiss someone, and it would not be Axel. He hoped dearly that at least he would not find a red ear himself, thus forcing him to make the embarrassing and tortured decision of what young lady to give his beloved's kiss to.
Despite all Axel's wishes that he not find the first red ear, fate chose this occasion to prove her unkindness. It was only his third ear that turned out to be red-kerneled. Fortunately, he spied the flash of color before uncovering it completely, and immediately hastened to cover it again with green. He dared not pause and draw attention, so he dropped the ear back into his pile and quickly secured another, relieved when no one seemed to notice his slightly strange behavior.
No one, of course, except Roxas, whose eyes were still adamantly fixed on the object of his desires, in spite of his desperate struggles. As Axel continued with the next ear, his face slightly flushed from the torment of the barely-avoided embarrassment, he felt the insistent gaze and automatically looked up. His green eyes locked with Roxas' troubled blue for a moment – only a brief moment, yet they both felt the same longing, and both knew the other's thoughts perfectly.
If not for these others…if not for this need for secrecy…
A few short minutes later, whether by her own discovery or the aid of one of her agents no one knew, Naminé found a red ear.
The girl leapt up with a victorious cry, revealing the color she held to all. Many hopeful hearts fell, a few were relieved, and two were shot with pain. It had happened.
Roxas forced a smile onto his face, yet he was unable to prevent an unhappy flush on his cheeks. The crowd, of course, merely took it for a bashful blush. All eyes fixed on him, Roxas moved toward the girl, feeling only one gaze among them all. Naminé waited sweetly, batting her eyes at the young man who hesitantly approached her. When Roxas was close, she shut her eyes and paused, chin tilted slightly upward.
With an inward sigh of resignation, tinged with a feeling of unhappy despair, Roxas closed the distance and lightly connected his lips to the soft, pursed, pink ones. He waited, suppressing his instinctive shudder with all his willpower, commanding his body to pause for an obligatory moment. After what felt to Roxas like an eternity, he withdrew, his final act of willpower being to move slowly rather than suddenly, and maintain composure afterward.
The main event over, the young people returned to husking their corn, gossiping happily, the atmosphere somewhat more relaxed, while many still searched to discover the next red ear. As hated as the moment had been, now that it was over Axel and Roxas both gladly found relief from their burden of dread. The rest of the husking proceeded without adding trauma to the secret lovers' hearts.
In time, the corn all cleaned of its covering, the party moved to the house, open and welcoming with a large dinner spread for all to choose from. Roast meats and plentiful sauces weighed down the tables, breads of all kinds were abundant, and fruits and vegetables filled any gaps. The desserts were particularly appealing – pies of every variety were laid out, accompanied by cobblers and tarts and cakes, and all gathered around a fine bowl of spiced punch. The Van Tassels mingled with their guests, spreading an air of welcome and cheer throughout the house.
Roxas and Axel were both seen separately at the dinner, but by the time the dance began, they were nowhere to be found. A few who sought them for dance partners were disappointed in their search, but none persisted too long, for other partners were plentiful, and the dance floor beckoned. Only Naminé marked the absence with any particular care. The girl was angered at being robbed, as she felt herself, of her rightful partner, yet she was so beset by other requests that she was unable to give proper attention to the matter that evening.
Axel's heart was racing, the pounding blood almost roaring in his ears. The narrow forest path was treacherous, roots springing up in the dark, attempting to trip him as he ran toward the small, isolated shack that he called home. The bite of the cold air and the darkened forest would have been enough to make him wary of spectres haunting his steps again, had Axel been able to spare a thought for such things. His mind, however, was utterly indifferent to supernatural worries – the only sensation or thought Axel was truly aware of was the pressure of the smaller hand clasped tightly in his own. Nothing else mattered but that crushing pressure, save perhaps the sound of heavy breathing from the boy who ran close beside him through the night.
Neither had at first intended upon escaping from the party. They had only meant to meet one another privately, to speak a few words and console themselves over the painful experience at the corn-husking. Such was their mutual plan, when their eyes met across the room at dinner.
Knowing the house was out of the question, and feeling sure that the barn was still too close to be safe, Roxas turned his steps further as he crept carefully away from the party. Axel waited, not daring to disappear at the same time, yet watching for his lover's direction. His last glimpse saw Roxas turning toward the forest, and from this he knew well enough the spot for their rendezvous.
A short while later, he also slipped away, stepping ever more quickly as the night swallowed him, hurrying toward the clearing where they often stopped in their walks…the clearing where he first knew he loved Roxas.
As he stepped out from the trees, assured by the moonlight that Roxas was there waiting, alone, the blond boy turned, pausing a moment to check cautiously for any followers. A moment later, assured that they were indeed alone, Roxas rushed into Axel's arms, the two young men crushing their bodies together in a warm embrace.
The unhappiness he had suppressed at the party suddenly flooded Roxas, causing his voice to tremble on the edge of tears as he spoke softly, "Axel!"
The teacher held the lad close, stroking his hair soothingly. Hearing the broken cry, he leaned down, murmuring gently into the shell of a delicate ear, "Shhhh…I believe you owe me a kiss, Roxas." His small, loving smile could be heard in the low tones.
Without pause, Roxas turned his face up. "Yes," he whispered quickly, before pressing his lips ardently to Axel's, cleansing away the memory of that unwanted kiss with a touch that was at once passionate and warm. For many long moments, they spoke only with the caresses of their mouths, communicating all their misery and longing and love.
In time, they drew back, and Roxas buried his face in his lover's warm bosom. Both eased of their hurts, they held one another tightly, content merely to embrace thus in the moonlight, each feeling the beating of the other's heart and breathing in the other's scent.
At length, Roxas spoke. "Axel," he hesitantly began, "I hope it never happens again. I never want to kiss another again, only you." The teacher's hand rubbed between the thin shoulder blades, silently understanding and agreeing. "I want…I want to be only yours. Forever. I want to belong only to you."
Axel, moved, clutched the boy yet tighter. "I too…" he began, but choked on his emotion at that point.
Roxas moved to be able to look up into Axel's green eyes. He whispered sweetly, longing filling his gaze, "Like the poem you read. Ecstasy. I want…to give myself to you. I want us to be one."
Awestruck by the words and the sight of his cherished love, Axel could only nod. "I…will give you all of myself as well." He pressed a quick, soft kiss to Roxas' lips. "Not here, however. Will you…come with me?"
Shining blue eyes locked with his. "Yes." Their hands clasped together, and Axel turned to lead them stealthily through the woods.
When they were free of Van Tassel land, they had broken into a run, eager to make the most of the small time they had. So it happened that Axel and Roxas were running together through the forest, nearing their destination. It was already the witching hour, and Roxas must rise in his own home at dawn. They could not waste these few short hours together.
When they reached the one-room dwelling, Axel quickly admitted his guest, then slid the bolt to secure the door. As Roxas glanced around the humble dwelling, Axel checked the shutters over the windows as well, making sure that no ill-fated chance should allow for their discovery. Certain that they were safely concealed, he turned to light the lamp on the lone table in the room.
As he finished this task, he felt arms wind around him from behind. Small hands clutched at his stomach, and he felt the pressure of a face pressed against his back. "Enough waiting, Axel." The voice drifted to him, slightly muffled. Yearning to see the beloved face again, Axel clasped the restraining hands with his own, removing them so that he could turn and face Roxas, who stood only inches away. He continued to hold the boy's hands in his own, and Roxas looked up at him, yearning evident on his face. "Come, Axel. Make love to me."
The whispered words were like an arrow of flame through his body, yet he still paused, tenderly raising Roxas' hands. Holding them close, he pressed a gentle kiss on the backs of the fingers, each hand in turn. Roxas opened his hands against Axel's face, tenderly holding him there, as Axel's lids fluttered gently shut a moment at the brush of those fingers.
Axel swallowed. "I am afraid, Roxas. I fear hurting you."
The hands moved to his neck, grasping tightly and pulling his face closer. "I am stronger than you think, Axel. Or have you forgotten that I am a farmer?" A smile had crept into his voice, but it faded back to seriousness at his next words. "And…I fear no pain that comes from being united with you." Roxas brushed their lips together sweetly.
Axel sighed against the soft lips. "We will be damned for this, you know."
Roxas' blue eyes were all but closed. "I welcome damnation with you."
Axel could hear the whispered reply, could feel Roxas' lips on his own as he spoke. His own eyes were closed, yet he did not need them in order to connect their mouths in a full, loving kiss. After a long moment, they withdrew for air, and Axel spoke again.
"Then…if you are sure…"
Roxas' only reply was to kiss him again. And again. And yet again. More deeply than they had ever kissed one another. Axel felt a burning heat spread over his body, threatening to engulf him, obliterating his reason and sense. He clung to these, however, remembering that without them to guide him he was liable to cause his lover some injury.
He wanted to think only of Roxas, to focus all on Roxas' pleasure. Therefore, considering the boy's comfort, he bent to carefully lift the smaller frame, carrying the blond to his small bed. It was not the finest bed, as he wished it could be, for Roxas' sake, but it was the most comfort he could provide his love with.
As he lay Roxas down, the youth inhaled deeply, his body stretching on the surface in enjoyment. "Axel…it smells of your scent…"
The man fondly nuzzled his beloved's neck. "If you like it, I'm pleased…however, I like your scent the most." He kissed the exposed throat adoringly, moving lower until his lips pressed a delicate clavicle. Roxas' soft moan of pleasure reached his ears, inflaming his desire to be nearer to the boy. They mutually sought one another's mouths again, relishing long, deep kisses as their hands began to explore and caress each other's bodies, which were fast becoming intimately tangled on the bed.
It was Axel's increasingly passionate caresses that first began to dislodge Roxas' clothing, untucking his shirt and loosening the laces that held his garments on. Soon, his hands traced directly over warm, smooth skin, as Axel moved up the slender chest, the shirt giving way and revealing, by degrees, the boy's beautiful body. Roxas encouraged him, breaking away from their heated kiss and raising his arms, allowing his shirt to be completely removed.
Axel was still a moment, gazing in wonder at the beautiful form, the skin that he had scarcely even dared to imagine until now, but had yearned to see and touch. Roxas watched his expression, thrilled to see the effect he had on his lover. At the same time, however, he also grew somewhat impatient, desiring more, longing for Axel's skin to press against his own.
He reached up, drawing green eyes to his own, as he began to work at the buttons of Axel's waistcoat. His blue eyes shone with quiet excitement as he loosened the garment, rising up and leaning close in order to push it free, Axel submitting to his actions without breaking their locked gazes. The intense green of his eyes blazed, the only indication of his powerful excitement.
Roxas reached the laced linen shirt and had to look down to work at the ties. He was sitting now, Axel kneeling before him, straddling his legs and watching, entranced, as the blond youth slowly undressed him. The small hands sent thrills through his body as they played about his waist, untucking his shirt. Before removing the article of clothing, Roxas leaned up, gently kissing a few spots on Axel's neck and suckling briefly just below his ear lobe. He then slid his hands up the taut muscles of Axel's torso, and, as the redhead mimicked Roxas' earlier action, lifting his arms obediently, the boy pulled the shirt off entirely.
Each entranced by the sight before them, their arms reached slowly, reverently for each other. As Axel closed Roxas in his embrace, he leaned forward again, lying the youth back down and pressing him slightly into the bed with his body, as the skin of their exposed chests connected.
Their kisses were no longer sweet or innocent, even in the slightest. Axel took full advantage of Roxas' chest being exposed, and firmly caressed the most sensitive spots, soon moving to replace his fingers with his tongue and lips and teeth. Beset by pleasure, Roxas threw his head backwards onto the bed, as a cry of Axel's name escaped his throat.
As their touches grew increasingly intense, the tiny room gradually became oppressively hot and stifling. A glistening sheen of moisture coated the warm, glowing skin of both young men as they delighted in the touches and tastes that they had so long been denied. Each explored the cherished body of his lover, blissfully memorizing every perfection and imperfection. The remaining clothing on each of them was soon stripped away in an agony of mutual want, exposing them to one another's adoring sight.
Axel was giving pleasure to Roxas unlike anything the youth had experienced before. The sensations were beyond what he had even dared to guess, and were all compounded by the joy that filled his heart from knowing that it was Axel with whom he experienced this incredible act of love.
The teacher, for his part, could hardly contain himself – every time Roxas cried out in enjoyment, Axel burned in agonized arousal, growing desperate for their union. However, with an iron will, he forced himself to move very slowly and carefully, gradually preparing the precious body, unable to bear the idea of hurting Roxas.
At length, the youth was as prepared as possible, and Axel could no longer wait. Nor was he alone, for Roxas had been begging him to hurry for many minutes. He, too, yearned for the moment to come when his body could be joined to Axel's.
As they slowly came together, sweat-soaked bodies arching, tense with passion, Axel and Roxas melted and merged into one another, sharing the most intense, agonizing pleasure. They moved together into the fullest pleasure that could be known, until neither knew where he ended and his lover began. They were one, and together, as one, they understood the true meaning of ecstasy.
The faintest gray of pre-dawn was just beginning to touch the eastern sky. The first faint, echoing cocks' crows from distant farms could be heard as Axel supported his lover's weight. Their time was short. The Van Tassel farm, like every farm in Tarry Town, rose before dawn. Even now, neither could be completely sure that a farm hand or two might not be about; they could only trust their lives to the darkness, and hurry, hurry to disappear from sight before the dawn could reveal them.
Axel had left Roxas hidden by the house while he slipped silently into the barn and removed a ladder from its familiar location. Returning as silently as a cat, he placed the ladder against the house under Roxas' window. Roxas prepared to climb the ladder, gathering his little strength for the task.
Roxas could not deny that he was exhausted, and far weaker than he had ever expected. The climb would tax him severely; even walking home had been difficult, and his concerned lover had supported him much of the way. His legs were uncooperatively weak, and his whole body ached, often with particularly acute pains that made movement terribly difficult.
He had not anticipated such burdens when he lay, dazed and glowing with pleasure, in Axel's arms. His thoughts then had lingered with delight on the knowledge that he and Axel belonged to one another now, and shared the most exhilarating, beautiful bond. As he lay, curled against the broad chest of the man he adored, he blissfully whispered words of love to the redhead, who replied in kind to all that he said.
"I love you, Axel…and I belong to you forever, now." Blue and green eyes glistened and shone; fingertips pressed against soft lips and traced treasured features.
"We belong to each other. I am as much yours as you are mine. My precious love, you alone have my heart, as long as it beats." Lips met lips again – the faintest touch, yet it filled two minds and two hearts beyond what they could hold. Fingers knit together, clasping tightly, fusing as the souls were fused.
They remained like this as long as they dared, until at last they were forced to rise from the bed and face separation. Only then did they realize that Roxas could scarcely stand under his own volition. Pain crippled Roxas and restricted his movements, and it became clear to Axel that he must lend his help, or his darling would never reach home swiftly and safely.
Roxas had no choice but to accept the aid, but he refused to hear Axel apologize. Sweetly kissing the man's cheek, the boy whispered into Axel's ear, "I told you I would gladly brave damnation for this. Simple bodily pain from our first time shall not trouble me."
Thus, Axel had brought Roxas home, and thus, the youth prepared to struggle up the ladder and, under cover of the last of this unforgettable night, to secret himself in his own bed as though he had been there from the beginning. He had a private suspicion, however, which he did not voice to his already worried lover, that he would not be able to rise and work on the farm today. His mother, he was sure, would be given the added chore of caring for her son, who would have seemingly taken ill since the night before.
Turning for one last, priceless moment before mounting the ladder to his window, Roxas traced the fingers of both hands over Axel's brow, letting his hands then rest on either side of the gorgeous face. The teacher, overcome with agony at the thought of parting again so soon, gathered the blond into a crushing embrace, kissing him desperately one last time. The youth answered his heat and longing, but only for a moment. As a cock's crow sounded nearby – on the Van Tassel farm now, certainly – they broke away, Roxas turning to escape to his room, and Axel waiting to see him disappear through the window. The blond head reappeared for one moment, barely visible, a soft call reaching the waiting man's ears, to which he responded.
"I love you…"
And then, Axel hurried the ladder back to its proper place in the barn, and vanished into the forest.
The Van Tassel fields were short one young worker that day. The young heir, though not seen for a day of hard labor, had convalesced enough to make his appearance in church the next day after. As the townsfolk crunched through the crust of frost to the chiming of the church bell, the lanky schoolmaster plainly visible among them on account of his bright hair, the still-weak blond in the company of his family was greeted by many who inquired after his health. Until the service began, he was fully occupied with the task of setting many concerned minds at ease – he was much better, it had only been a passing fever, and he was certain that he would be at full strength again and busy in the fields on the morrow.
It was not until after the service concluded that the local teacher was able to meet the young Van Tassel and express his own well-wishes for the boy's recovery. As all had come to expect, from the weekly reiteration of the routine, the pair carried their conversation out of the church and began their usual stroll back to Roxas' home. The townsfolk were insensible to the sparks that shot from blue eyes to green and back again; as little did they notice any rising warmth in the chilly air that surrounded the youth and the teacher. And for all Axel and Roxas felt a pull as of a powerful magnet drawing them together, none in the vicinity seemed affected by the irregularity in gravity. They passed, unnoticed, on their way, their thrills in one another's company known only to their own minds, and sensed only by the heart of their companion.
All save one. One mind and one heart apprehended the unspoken communications between the two. One person saw them, and knew what she looked upon. One young girl, who had reason to give her attention to the Van Tassel boy and his friend, and who had been lately trained in mysterious powers, read with her intuition and a touch of her arts the truth, as plainly as if it had been written in a book for her benefit.
Naminé saw. Naminé understood. Something had changed since two nights past. Roxas belonged to Axel. Axel belonged to Roxas. It was an unquestionable fact, and it sent her spirit into a terrible, yet silent, rage.
The hours could not pass swiftly enough from that moment on. The night would not come at its proper time, but must delay and tarry for long hours, seeming never to finally send the traitorous daylight away. In the intervening time, the silent chaos of the girl's fury boiled, then settled somewhat, hardening into an unshakable determination. She would not allow this theft of her heart's desire to go unchallenged.
Night finally fell, suffocating the sun with inexorable death, and snuffing out the slight warmth that the fair Sunday had brought. The nearly-full moon, gliding in and out of sight behind scattered shreds of dark cloud, cast snowy light on field and forest, illuminating the almost barren branches and the almost emptied fields before withdrawing behind a darkening veil again.
Naminé waited, biding her time, until the black hours had silenced all life, sending men and women alike to their warm beds. It was only then, when the witching hour was nearly come, that the young girl slipped from her home and made her stealthy way along the familiar, forbidden trail to the cursed shack of her tutor.
When she reached her destination, she did not so much as hesitate, but entered without a word or a knock. She had learned, from several visits, that the warlock, Marluxia, was never surprised at her coming, and always seemed to anticipate the precise moment of her arrival.
Sure enough, he was waiting by the fire, his eyes fixed expectantly on the door as she walked in. Naminé was no longer unnerved by this, but boldly met the man's stare. She was, however, slightly surprised when the man spoke first, directly addressing her purpose in coming, without her even stating it.
"So, curses are no longer sufficient? You come now to seek his death?" His eyes held their usual bemused glint.
Naminé's eyes did not waver from his. "Is it possible?"
Lazily, the warlock grinned. "Not directly. Our Master is not permitted to take life with his Art. We have, however, many ways of leading the ignorant and fearful to their own destruction."
The silken blonde head shook once. "He is neither ignorant nor fearful. He will not be easily led. I need a stronger curse to bring against him, a truly murderous spirit."
"Oh, would you seek to command even the Hessian?" The sardonic comment from the warlock tauntingly referred to a well-known and oft-repeated legend, particularly popular in this valley. It was said that, long years ago, when the tramp of war was heard over hills and fields and forest tracks, foreign devils had been sent, paid by the enemy to wreak havoc and death on those who fought on their own land to free themselves. One such, it was told, was a terror above all others – a demon wearing a suit of skin, who neither ate nor drank of human food, but sustained himself with the blood of those he slaughtered. His aspect was wild, a fearsome, black-robed monster atop a beast so dreadful it barely resembled a coal-black horse. His eyes shone with madness, his teeth were sharp as fangs, and his shrieking cry of bloodlust was reputed far and wide to echo with the screams of Hell-bound demons.
His signature, his favorite act, was to slice the head clean off the shoulders of any poor soul he murdered. It was said that none who fell under the cut of his blade retained his head, but the Hessian took and kept them all as mementos. None dared to even guess what use he put them to. His reason for this barbaric act, it was rumored, was simply that he liked best the spray of blood from a neck severed quite through.
Of course, fate was not always kind, but in this case, she chose to administer a poetic sort of justice. The Hessian was at last tracked down, hunted through the forest by a great number of men, and was upon the brink of death, bullets riddling his body, when they caught up with him. It was a merciless, avenging sword that took his life, severing his head, as he had severed many others.
Thus the legend ran, and the elder folk of this particular valley were commonly heard to say that the hellish spirit of the Hessian still walked forth, for he was a demon loosed in a man's body once, and remained still a demon loosed upon the earth, only now he was bodiless. Many a villager had claimed to see this spectral figure on bitter winter nights – the figure of a large, powerful man atop a mad, crazed steed, ominous and terrible enough, without adding to that the fact that there was no head on his shoulders. He moved as if he had eyes in sockets, rode as if he looked where he went, and yet was so obviously headless that bright daylight could have shown it as clearly. There were even some who had been cursed by the experience of an extremely near encounter, and these claimed that, from a closer vantage, they could plainly see the stump of mangled neck that remained with the Hessian's body.
In short, this spectre was the unquestioned worst and most terrible of those known to the locals, unless Satan himself chanced to go for a midnight stroll upon the Earth. It was this Hessian demon that the sarcastic warlock referred to, and consequently, it was this monster that the young witch set her sights on.
In answer to her tutor's taunt, the girl faced him directly, expression serious as the grave. "If I did? Could I?"
Marluxia leveled a more serious gaze upon his apprentice. "It is not impossible to command the Hessian…" he carefully began. Yet before he could continue, the girl interrupted.
"Then I will. I want the Hessian. He will rid me of this…interloper." Her voice, on the last word, dripped disdain and loathing.
As Marluxia replied, he moved to stand before his small fire, indicating to the apprentice that she should join him there. "It is a spell of no small consequence. It carries grave repercussions. An oath you will never be free of."
"I guessed as much. You will not dissuade me thus."
An unconcerned shrug from the man conceded to her determination. "Well, I can show you the means…it is a matter of having possession of the Hessian's head yourself – I can tell you where to seek it – and casting a certain spell over it, a summons, which I can teach you. The curse of having worked such a spell will, of course, never fade."
"So you said. If that is all, then show me now. I wish to command the Hessian as soon as possible."
A small sneer returned to the handsome face. "Two more things you lack. First, the Hessian will not come out tonight. He can only be commanded on the night of a full moon. You must wait a few days for that."
Naminé ground her teeth with frustration, but forced herself to be patient. Not long, she reminded herself – not long. "And second?"
The smirk had grown, and the tall man almost leered down at his pupil. "You, my little maiden apprentice, will never command the Hessian as you are. No demon of his power would submit to be commanded by a virgin witch."
Naminé was suddenly silent and still. The obstacle was one she had never even considered. She wavered a moment, unsure what to do. However, her mind had only to turn once to young Roxas Van Tassel, and recall the hated teacher, and bring to vivid recollection the certain sense of unity between them that she had seen that morning, and her resolve returned.
"That is a problem easily solved. I can soon be rid of that barrier, and I have no qualms in the matter either, not if I may reach my goal by it. My only challenge now, then, is to choose the lad who will hold silent after the act, I suppose."
"Or…chose a path that will make you yet more powerful." The low voice resonated with an evil depth as Marluxia turned toward her. A moment later, before she could even ask how this might be, a cool hand wrapped itself around her slender throat, and the other grasped firmly at her chin, lifting it to the suddenly close face of the warlock.
"To lay with any man will suffice…but if you lay with me, you will gain some of my power. With more power, you will have more command over the Hessian, and all other dark forces." A sharp fingernail grazed along her fair cheek, tracing idle patterns over the skin, seeming to contemplate the possibility of scratching sharp cuts there.
Naminé felt the slightest shudder of instinctive horror at the man's words and touch, yet it was only a moment before her hunger for power took control. Squaring her chin, she replied.
"Then I will lay with you." Her blue eyes dared argument.
Marluxia, though certainly an evil warlock in many ways, could not be said to be unfair. He had never deceived his apprentice into committing sins, unaware of the results. "If you so choose, I will concede. However, I warn you, any village lad you might pick would unquestionably be gentler with you. I am…" The hand at her throat slipped, harshly and firmly pressing down the front of her body before gripping painfully tight at her hip, "…quite rough. I promise you, little maiden witch – it will be painful with me."
Forcing aside the slightest tremor of fear at this threat, Naminé prevented herself from shying away from the violating touch. Locking her eyes to Marluxia's again, she addressed the man who towered over her with a resolute voice.
"Even so, I will lay with you."
The moonlight was gone, overcome by the thickening clouds in the sky. The forest, at the darkest hour of the night, was left in an inky blackness. The lone soul that passed silently through the trees would have been lost for certain, no matter how familiar with the lay of the land, were it not for the supernatural powers this girl now possessed. By the strength of these new and unfamiliar talents, she was able to make her way using a kind of mysterious sixth sense, whereby she could somehow discern the path without seeing it in the usual way.
Darkness of night concealed nothing from one such as she had become.
Even though her natural vision revealed nothing in the black forest, Naminé's eyes were wide, fixed and staring ahead. Even had there been light to see by, it may well have been that those blank eyes would remain blind. There was a kind of terror in their emptiness that spoke of a soul insensible to the world around it, for the time being. However, no other wanderer met the girl, and so she reached her home at a frantically brisk walk in a very short time.
Silent as a shadow, she slipped through her familiar home to the security of her bedchamber. However, the once familiar and safe room seemed foreign to her now. She had been fundamentally altered, and the person she was now felt no ties to this place.
What she did feel most acutely was a rush of strange, unfamiliar but irresistible power, a sensation that seemed to course through her veins, mingling with her blood. The cadence of her heartbeat seemed different – stranger, stronger, faster, and slightly irregular. She was deeply aware of this power – the power that had entered her very body, fusing with it and becoming a part of her physical existence.
Even as these unearthly feelings crashed through Naminé's being and she struggled to maintain rational thought, an even more all-consuming burden weighed on her. Pain.
Never in her life had she experienced or imagined agony like this. Her small frame was still wracked with suffering, shuddering under the memory of the hurt she had felt this night. To be sure, she had chosen to commit the act – it was at first consensual. However, the maiden she had been could never have suspected what her choice truly meant. Furthermore, what Marluxia had done with her, consent or no, was so harsh and violently carried out that it could only be called by one name. Rape.
A surge of panic swept through Naminé, and she choked herself violently to stifle a scream that nearly tore itself from her lips. At the same moment, however, she was on the very brink of maniacal laughter – the ecstasy of power filled her, and she was certain, wholly and completely, that she could do anything, she could command anything. The night was her ally, and in the night, she would never fear again.
As she lay down, eyes still wide and empty, locked on the blank wall beside her bed, she could not force the horrible memories away. They crowded fast upon her mind, one after another, until she nearly went mad. At last, there was the final memory of the end.
The warlock, Marluxia, stood by the fire again as Naminé regained consciousness on the bed. She turned to see the man standing, a thin blanket wrapped around his waist, his muscled upper body bare, dimly lit by the flickering flames. And it was by these flames that she at last saw the traces of black marks etched over his body, seemingly faint and trailing from the front. On the man's broad back, however, the black patterns spread and covered the pale flesh in grotesque shapes. And, mingled in among the lines on his chest and back, were other marks – not black tattoos, but white, raised flesh. Scars.
"I will give you this." The man spoke low, not looking at her. "I will tell you a story, but this once, that none other has ever heard." Her eyes were fixed on his face, which gazed into the heart of the flame. "I was never apprenticed. I did not choose damnation for myself, not at first. I became thus because I received power. I received it within my body, as you now have. Yet…I was not asked whether I wanted it or no. A man – a warlock, rather – took me from the village where I lived, and held me captive for a time, toying with me cruelly, and, at the end, he forced me down and raped me. From then on, I had the power, and could not deny it."
The man's stare was expressionless as he looked up to meet Naminé's eyes once, briefly. He then turned away again, and his final word to her was: "I only tell you because…your hair…reminded me of him."
Three nights later, the newly-born witch cast her spell.
The piercing cry of a screech owl echoed suddenly through the fast-darkening forest. Twilight was fading, the black, twisted branches against deep, dark blue vanishing slowly as the celestial backdrop gradually turned pitch as well. The night was already cold, providing ample encouragement to remain indoors, should any tired farmers be considering otherwise.
Axel could not be so persuaded, not even by the gripping chill that caused his breath to billow out from his muffler in a cloud so thick that it threatened to obscure his vision. No screeching owl could startle him, not even the dread of spectres could tonight dissuade him from his goal. He was going to meet Roxas secretly by night, and no power of Heaven, Hell, or Nature would keep him back.
They had seen less of one another in the fields of late, for the greater part of the work was done, and the work that remained was often scattered. In addition, Axel had been assigned a lot of odd jobs that carried him away from the general company of the workers and Roxas. For this reason, they had had few opportunities to speak for a few days – an eternity to them – and had only met in passing earlier today, as they were finishing the day's work.
Roxas' whisper as he passed the taller man had been brief: "At the schoolhouse. Tonight." Simple, small words, yet the tortured desire that had flashed but a moment in those enchanting blue eyes had been enough to guarantee Axel's presence at the trysting-place by the time the last light faded, where he was sure to wait all night if necessary.
He need not have worried on that account. Shortly after he arrived at the schoolhouse – unlocking the door and kindling a small fire in the stove, then settling himself to wait – the creaking hinges were pressed open again, and Roxas slipped inside, shutting and latching the door immediately.
The next moment, they were in each other's arms. Their lips met in mutual desperation, impatience and longing pressing their bodies together. For a long moment they remained clasped to one another, enjoying melting kisses, feeling the pounding race of the other's heart. They saved words for later – for now, they needed to touch, to feel the other person to whom they were now so intimately connected. They had each realized, since parting the night of the party, that now, being joined, it had become unbearable for them to be forced to separate from one another. Their longing to be together had become intensified and compounded by the wretched misery that they each felt when apart. And they had been forced to wait days after their union, unable to touch, unable to satisfy the now-unbearable need for intimacy.
And so they clung together now, sharing kiss after deep kiss, communicating their painful longing to each other, and answering each other with love.
In time, they moved slightly apart, and, relieved somewhat of their agony, stood with foreheads pressed together, hands clasping, unclasping, and beginning to roam lovingly, eyes fixed first on the lips of the other, then each rising to lose themselves in their lover's sight. Roxas' hands traced again over the taller man's face, while Axel began to slowly remove the lad's bulky coat, enraptured by the expression the young blond fixed upon him. Roxas' smile was soft and adoring, but his bright, lovely blue eyes glittered with joyful anticipation. His excitement was otherwise muted; only his eyes betrayed the wild eagerness that was bringing a flush to his face and a fast, gasping quality to his breathing.
"You…are so beautiful…" It was all Axel could manage, so close was he to speechlessness.
The boy kissed him, slowly, softly, then spoke, his warm lips still brushing against Axel's. "I have longed for you so dreadfully since that night. I never felt pain like I did when you left. I never…" His tongue traced lightly over the parted lips of the redhead before reaching in to kiss again, drawing apart so gradually this time that it seemed they would never disentangle their mouths. "…Never want to be parted from you again."
"If only…" The older man swallowed uncertainly, "If there was some way…to be together…I would never leave you." He took one of Roxas' hands from his face and pressed a kiss to the precious palm. "I love you." The sweet whisper was touched with longing, and Roxas responded by burying his face in the warm chest, curling himself into Axel's arms.
Axel held the boy a moment, his fingers combing through the soft gold strands. He was, however, still suffering – still longing for more of the one he adored. Accordingly, he bent down, reaching around the boy's legs and lifting Roxas bodily, carrying his slender frame as he would carry a bride, catching up the half-removed coat as well.
Roxas gasped slightly with surprise before finding himself safely cradled in his lover's arms. He giggled delightedly then, and wound his arms around Axel's neck, relaxing as Axel carried him closer to the fire. There he was gently set down, and the redhead carefully lay Roxas' coat upon the cold floorboards. He placed atop that his own heavy coat and jacket, creating a makeshift bed in the empty schoolhouse. The boy, watching, smiled to himself, thinking how kind his beloved was. It tempted him beyond what he cared to resist, and he leaned over the kneeling man, draping his arms around the strong shoulders and murmuring in Axel's ear.
"That's enough, my love. I don't mind if I have a bed or not…all I want is you. And soon."
Turning on his knees, Axel was met by Roxas' heated kiss. The boy bent down to press hungrily into the man, who reached upward with his own mounting desire. His arms soon drew the youth down, gently guiding him to the makeshift bed and laying him there tenderly.
Roxas' fingers already played at the ties of Axel's linen shirt, pulling them loose slowly and just a bit teasingly. Both young men felt hot already, and their movements grew faster, neither one willing to delay any longer.
The night lengthened and grew deeper and darker around the isolated schoolhouse and the two secret lovers, as they bound themselves together in ecstasy yet again.
It was the witching hour. The coals burned low and red in the stove, the cold crept silently in, and Axel and Roxas held one another close, for warmth and for their own pleasure. They basked in the beautiful feeling of laying together with their love, sated at last, and enjoying every minute together.
As the burning heat from their lovemaking faded to the normal heat of their bodies and the fire slowly cooled, Axel retrieved Roxas' clothes. He gently dressed the boy in them, Roxas submitting to him with almost as much pleasure as he had felt when submitting to being undressed. He, in his turn, dressed Axel as well, and then the two reclined together, willing the hours to pass slowly. Willing this moment to last for eternity.
They knew nothing of the wicked thing that approached them, loosed from Hell for the very purpose of tearing them apart long before dawn could, and much more eternally than dawn ever would.
Roxas' head was against Axel's chest, and he heard only the man's breathing and steady heartbeat. It was the teacher, therefore, who first pricked his ears to the strange sound.
He stiffened. No one should be riding at this hour. Roxas immediately felt the alteration in Axel's body and looked up, concerned.
"What is it?" Axel swiftly placed a hand upon the soft lips, listening intently. In that silent moment, Roxas too heard the sound, and both realized with perfect certainty that it was growing rapidly nearer. The schoolhouse stood alone on the hill, apart from the rest of the town. As the galloping horse drew close, unmistakably approaching the lonely building, the young men felt icy fear grip them.
They were discovered. They must be. There was nowhere to hide and it was already too late to extinguish the small fire. There was no way to explain their rendezvous. It was over.
They expected a voice to call them out – perhaps many voices that would demand they show themselves. Instead, the lone rider, upon reaching the schoolhouse, paused before the door. Suddenly, there was a terrible crash against the wood – the bolt shivered, but fortunately held.
Shocked by this unexpected action, Axel and Roxas clung fearfully together in the dim, empty room. They dared not speak, nor were they accosted verbally by the rider. Instead, the horse moved to the side, circling the one-room building. When the animal reached one of the shuttered windows, the unthinkable happened. A sudden crash made the lovers jump in fear, as a fist was sent straight through the vellum window panes, resounding against the heavy wooden shutters.
The action made one thing clear – this was no father come for his son; this was no villager with ordinary hostility at all. The two young men within rose in near terror, silently moving to find weapons for themselves. Axel grabbed up his long wooden pointer, while Roxas found the broom kept in the corner and beheaded it for better defensive use.
Twice more the rider circled, and then grew silent. Waiting. The two within also waited, tortured moments passing as they imagined their fate, should they be forced to encounter this unknown person. In breathless whispers, they conferred. Had the other been seen as he came? No. Had any suspected them since the party? No, none that either knew of.
At length, the usual slight scent of wood smoke – emitted from the stove quite naturally – began to grow rapidly stronger. Wondering vaguely at this, Roxas glanced around, and soon spied tendrils of smoke curling into the schoolhouse all along the back wall.
"Axel!" He cried in fear. The man turned, seeing the indicated smoke, and rushed over. His hand jerked instantly back from the wood of the wall – it was scorching hot. And, in a brief moment that seemed terribly long, the two looked around and began to see similar tendrils snaking in all around them.
Wide green eyes met blue. Roxas choked out, in a strangled whisper, "They wouldn't…no one would…!"
"But they evidently have!" The appalled teacher replied. He hurried to the door, more ready for a fight than to be burnt alive.
When he opened the door, Roxas close behind him, their tormentor was waiting in plain sight…and the sight froze them in terror, then hastened their retreat. Fortunately so, for the door was barely bolted when the thud of a sword burying itself in the wood was heard.
It was no creature of this earth that had set fire to the school, and that waited for them to appear, presenting themselves for certain slaughter. No man of the village rode a demon creature of black that wore the faint guise of a horse, and no man ever walked about alive without his head on his shoulders.
Yet this was the figure outside the school – a black-robed, headless rider, armed with a bloody sword, mounted upon a black demon with rolling red eyes.
Dumbfounded, the teacher, eyes wide with shock, mumbled, "A…demon? Some ghost or monster…?"
In a panic, Roxas turned to Axel, clasping him tightly. "It's the Hessian! It must be. The Headless Horseman of the valley! Oh, why should he come for us?"
"A ghost, Axel! A demon, never mind the story! He wants to kill us!" At the back of the school, fingers of flame were licking their way in through the gaps between the shutters. Roxas made a terrible effort to think. "We can't stay. We'll have to run…"
"Outrun a horse? Or…whatever that is?"
Agonized blue eyes met his – Roxas knew. He understood. It was a doomed chance. "If we…run in opposite directions at once, he can only follow one…and perhaps he'll hesitate."
Weakly, Axel shook his head, still holding Roxas' gaze. "I can't. If it follows you…I can't."
"I know." Suddenly, tears spilled from the ocean blue eyes. "I, too…but neither can I let us die here. I love you." The words conveyed everything in that desperate moment – neither could let their love perish now, not after so short a time…not when they wanted to spend all of their long lives with one another. Axel understood. He felt the same.
Roxas was casting about, his panic barely controlled. "We can rush out suddenly, race in opposite directions. We can each try to find a horse. Maybe the one who is not followed can…make it back to help the other. The closest pasture in that direction (he pointed to the left of the school) is the Finhagan's. The closest that way (the right) is probably Keller's. Before we run, we can throw this at him." Roxas reached for the large Bible on the teacher's desk, from which Axel read daily to the students as a common school ritual to improve their character. It was the only sacred item in the school, the only thing likely to give pause to an inhabitant of Hell. Roxas regretted, now, that they had held their tryst in the school, rather than the church. Knowing local legends as he did, having been born and bred in Tarry Town, he was certain they would be much safer on sanctified ground. The thought gave him an idea.
"In fact," he spoke while hurrying back to Axel at the door, "If he follows you, forget about the horse. Run for the church instead. I will do the same. The one he does not follow, try to get to a horse. The other, I think, will be safe for a short while if he can get to sacred ground." He glanced at Axel, who nodded his understanding, though his expression remained twisted with terrible fear and pain. The thought of losing Roxas…
He turned to the boy suddenly, gripping the slender shoulders and fixing an intense stare on those wondrous blue eyes. He struggled for words – the flames crept in, quicker and hotter – but he didn't know what to say. He knew that they stood little chance, if this spectre was out for their lives, yet his mind recoiled from the very idea of "goodbye." It was beyond impossible for him to voice that hated, horrible word.
Choking on tears of his own, Axel only managed, "Roxas…I love you." The priceless voice of his lover, shaking with emotion, replied with the same words. As one, under the impulse of one mind and one heart, both moved forward, crushing their bodies together in a desperate embrace, passionately sharing a searing kiss that burned more powerfully than the fire raging toward them, already licking at their coats, left in the middle of the building.
The ancient schoolhouse was blazing like tinder. There was no more time. Together, the young men threw the door wide. Roxas hurled the Bible at the waiting demon, and both dashed in opposite directions. A hellish scream echoed in both their ears as the Hessian recoiled, seared by a brush with the holy book.
However, the Hessian was not delayed long, and had no need to hesitate in choosing a victim. Axel breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the nightmare in hot pursuit – Roxas was safe. Turning, he fled at full speed toward the church.
Roxas, for his part, ran at an even greater panic than at first – now, as unbearably as he wanted to turn back and rush to his lover, his only means of helping Axel was forward, away from the man. Tears stung his eyes as he raced through the night. Strangled curses fell from his lips as he soon realized just how impossible it was for him to achieve any real speed. It was fortunate for the boy that the Hessian had no designs on his life – after his tryst with Axel, he was weak and, as before, in a crippling amount of pain. It was less than before…but more than plenty to make his steps falter infuriatingly. Agony wracked his small frame as terror for his lover drove him on, each footfall sending bolts of pain through his body, each step a struggle of willpower to force his failing legs to move.
Axel, though slightly better off physically, was also already quite tired, and he had a demonic horseman riding on his heels. Terror lent him speed, speed that he had never run with before, yet the monster closed rapidly upon him. The pounding hoof beats nearly drowned out the deafening roar of his heart beat – apart from that, Axel heard nothing. He could all but feel the horse's hot breath on his neck…
It was only Axel's greater agility, being on foot, that saved him. An irregular hillock twisted the terrain, and a few small trees gathered about. Axel, long legs reaching as far as they would in his full-tilt run, dashed through the obstacle without thinking. The Hessian, evidently occupying some sort of physical body as a part of his manifestation, had to evade the obstacle, turning aside and nearly causing the horse to fall.
Now slightly ahead of his pursuer again, Axel strained through the black night, his eyes fixed on the church steeple shining silvery and sharp in the light of the full moon, like a giant steel needle piercing the sky. It seemed as if the moon-white grave stones hovered far out of sight, marking the boundaries of sacred ground which he would never live to reach. The headless pursuer was gaining again, and Axel felt himself hovering on the brink of unconsciousness, a threatening black tunnel gathering over his sight. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't hear, he had no idea how he was still running…
Suddenly, he went sprawling, skidding across the rough and partially-frozen ground. He scrambled in a panic…until he realized that no horrible gory blade was crashing down on him. Twisting quickly around, he saw that he had tripped on something shining white in the moonlight – a grave stone.
The Hessian was stopped dead a short distance away, unable to enter the hallowed ground, the horse rearing and screaming with its master's rage at being unable to reach the prey. Frightened, Axel jumped to his feet and put as much distance between himself and the horseman as possible. As the ghostly pursuer paced his wild steed back and forth, Axel had an idea. The church, he quickly ascertained, was unlocked. He hurried inside, rushing to the back and finding the bell rope in the choir room. Pulling heavily, he set the church bell clanging loudly, alerting the villagers at least to the fact that the school was a massive conflagration by this time. At the same time, he hoped with all his heart that Roxas would hear the sound and be comforted as to his continued survival.
He wasn't safe for long, however. As a few distant houses began to light up, their residents rushing out to the alarm and immediately noticing the distant glow of the blazing schoolhouse, a glass-paned window shattered. Axel hurried out of the choir room, only to see one window after another being smashed, as the Horseman rode around the building, sending flaming projectiles through the glass. The resident of Hell seemed capable of conjuring fire upon anything he touched.
The new fire was rapidly spreading throughout the church. Axel ran for the door, narrowly avoiding the spreading flames, and flung himself into the cold night once again.
The Horseman was waiting at the edge of the church yard, and for one dreadful, interminable moment, with the fire growing hot behind him and the cold terror unmoving before him, Axel faced the demon.
Slowly, the bloody sword was raised, pointing directly at him. Then, as all else seemed to grow quiet, a soft, hate-filled voice drifted to Axel's ears, seeming to come from the Hessian, yet not at all a male voice.
I will not give him to you. Thief! Return him to me…
The girl's voice shocked Axel, but he also felt anger rising in him at the implications of the words. "No." He spoke menacingly at the headless figure. "I love him." Within these few words, Axel placed all his determination, all his devotion to Roxas, and all his defiance of any power that sought to part them.
A shriek of rage sounded from the monster, drowning out the sound of approaching hoof beats. The demon horse reared in fury; at the same moment, a living horse bearing a living rider leapt over the low picket fence surrounding the graveyard and tore in the direction of the teacher.
Roxas pulled the horse up hard, crying out in relief and desperation, "Axel!" Without further encouragement, the man jumped astride the horse, which Roxas immediately kicked into action again, turning its head to race through the churchyard, away from the Hessian, who stormed after them, but had to ride around the perimeter of the sacred ground.
The horse needed little encouragement – it was already in a frenzy of panic, being followed by an unearthly threat. They flew through town and away, passing fields and farms that had been so familiar. Axel rode behind Roxas, clinging with one arm to the thin ribcage, the other hand latched in the horse's rough mane.
The Hessian was gaining, bit by bit, but Axel could only think of Roxas. There was sweat covering the boy's face, over a pallor that frightened him to see. "Are you all right?" He nearly had to shout in Roxas' ear to be heard.
The blond head shook stiffly. "Hurts." Roxas yelled back. And truly, if the boy had thought running for his life was painful, he had come to learn that riding bareback at a full gallop directly after was far, far worse. He had already pushed his body well beyond his own limits in his desperation to save Axel. Now, though danger was still right at their heels, he could feel darkness closing over him – it was no longer bearable.
Axel would have had no warning when Roxas fainted, had he not been worriedly watching what he could see of the boy's face. He had just enough time to tighten his grip around the smaller body, holding the suddenly-limp form close. He kept the unconscious Roxas atop the horse, but this added strain was extreme – his strength waned rapidly as the hectic flight continued, the Hessian still behind them, still gaining, and now screeching with a laugh that sounded like all the hordes of Hell were dancing with glee.
Neither Axel nor Roxas was ever seen in Tarry Town from that night forth. The village was in chaos that night – the night that the schoolhouse burned to the ground, and the little old church, also ablaze, took the efforts of the entire village to save from a similar fate. Only a few farmers, far away, near the outskirts of the valley, had any idea of what might have become of the two.
The rumor was spread that a certain old farmer who lived quite on the extreme border of the valley saw that night two horses pass his home with the swiftness of lightning. On the first, he thought perhaps there were two figures, hunched low. The second, however, was his greater concern, for it was the most blood-curdling sight he had ever seen.
The Headless Horseman atop the black demon became a far more oft-told legend for quite some time. The Hessian rose from local fame to rather widespread infamy, yet none outside of Tarry Town ever saw the spectral being.
The Van Tassel family was devastated at the disappearance of their son, and searched high and low for him. The schoolteacher, having no close connections in Tarry Town, would have been passed off as less significant and soon forgotten, had he not disappeared the same night as young Van Tassel. As it was, dark and suspicious rumors were spread, as the villagers recalled their notion that the teacher was an agent of Satan, and may have spirited the young lad away at last.
It was a subject of some speculation, as well, whether the rider or riders who fled the Hessian on the night of the fire could have been Axel and Roxas. Perhaps, then, some other force was at work. Perhaps it was not Axel who stole the youth away, but some evil that fell upon them both. None ever knew, and the one girl who did know the truth never spoke of it. She lived another year in the village, but wasted rapidly before her family's eyes, and, on a cold night a year later, she vanished quietly from the town. None could swear to have seen her after that. However, the little boys that dared each other in the woods began to tell of a pretty lady they often met near the dreaded home of the old warlock. Thus, the place became feared as the home of a mysterious enchanter and a young temptress, and so it remained for several generations.
And, though it may seem quite apart from the story of these strange events in Tarry Town, it happened that, quite far away in a much larger town, a young schoolteacher secured a post that winter. He was a bachelor, and lived with his young nephew, and neither of them ever married or moved to separate homes, as long as they both lived.
~ Epilogue ~
Axel turned the key in the door of the house, centrally located in a bustling part of the city where he now lived and worked. He stamped his feet on the mat outside, jarring loose the mud that clung to his boots, which he then removed just inside the door. The streets were terribly muddy in spring.
A call from outside summoned him back to the door a moment, where the wife of the house next to his called her greetings. "Good day, Axel! I hope my boy has behaved himself in school this week!"
"Aye, Mistress Simson, he has made great progress in his sums."
"Glad to hear it, sir! Good day to you! Fine weather today, yes?"
"Indeed it is. Good day!"
With that, the tall teacher entered his house, closing the door and turning in time to see a slightly-built blond appearing from the kitchen down the hall.
"Welcome home, Axel." The lovely face beamed at him as the boy approached.
"Good day, 'nephew.' The redhead winked. "Has Mary left yet?"
"Yes, I was just setting out the dinner she made. She has been showing me how to not ruin the food or make a mess after her work is done." A chuckle from Axel greeted these wry comments as the shorter youth helped the man out of his overcoat.
"Well then," the man replied, arms snaking around the slender body and drawing them close together. "If the maid has left, where is my proper greeting, Roxas?"
Roxas smirked slyly into his "uncle's" face, murmuring his reply while tapping a finger against his lips. "Waiting for you to come and take it."
Deciding against any further banter, Axel leaned in and did precisely that. It was a long moment before they withdrew from the warm, loving kiss.
Gazing into hazy, bliss-filled blue eyes, Axel spoke low, "Were you all right at work today? Not too sore?"
His lover shook his blond head. "Not too sore. The grocer didn't even notice, so none of the customers at market did either. I was fine."
"Mmm," Axel hummed, nuzzling his lips against the soft neck. "Think you'll be all right tomorrow too?"
The embrace of his lover tightened, and he could feel Roxas' heart pound against his chest. Their eyes met, all smiles of secret joy and adoration. And, as they leaned closer again, just before he felt the pressure of another sweet kiss from Roxas, he heard the cherished voice whisper happily:
Note to readers! Hey guys! If you read this because you're into Axel and Roxas and that's pretty much it, well...thanks! I hope you liked it! :D But if you also wonder if this Kurosora1984 lady has anything else to entertain you, and if you are even a little interested in other guys getting their sexy romance on, check out my current original story on FP! Links in my profile! Thank you, dears! :D