1493, Springtime, South of London
Voices disturbed the darkness and Arthur sat up in bed, eyes squinting to pierce the shadows and ears straining. It was pitch black in their small bedroom, quiet except for the voices that steadily grew louder. They were shouting. Angry. Frightening.
"Francis," he whispered, reaching out to touch the warm body lying beside him. Francis was still fast asleep, breathing slow and deep. But the voices were even nearer now and Arthur shook the other man until Francis too sat up.
"Cher, what ees eet?"
As much as he loved that sleep-slurred accent, Arthur ignored it and held onto Francis' arm. "Listen," he whispered, and both men grew still. Shouting voices easily penetrated the house.
Green eyes wide with fear, Arthur tightened his grip on the other man. "Francis," he whimpered, and a soothing hand touched his cheek.
"Shhh, Arzhur. Eet will be all right. Come."
Moving quietly but quietly, Francis abandoned the bed and pulled Arthur along with him. They dressed as quickly as they were able, not caring if their clothes matched or were done up properly. A faint red light slowly illuminated the darkness, allowing them to see a little.
"Torches." Arthur's voice was hoarse. "They brought torches."
For a moment, both men paused to listen. The low murmur of dozens of voices filled the air, punctuated by occasional shouts.
"I told you I saw someone." There was no accusation in the shorter blond's tone. It was monotonous, as if every emotion had left him in the face of this threat. "We should have left yesterday when we had the chance."
"Arzhur. Arzhur, look at me."
Hands on his face made the Englishman meet his lover's gaze, the sky blue eyes calm despite the commotion outside.
"Eet's going to be all right. I promise. Okay?"
The green-eyed blond didn't move.
"Okay," he replied softly, then jumped when someone pounded on the door.
"Come out or we'll burn it down!"
Terror made Arthur tremble, hands moving up to wrap around Francis' wrists. This was it. They'd been discovered, had only gotten to spend a few short years together. He should have tried harder yesterday to convince Francis to move; he'd known it wasn't his imagination that someone saw them together even though they'd been in the woods, that it wasn't safe for them here anymore. But Francis had managed to assure him that things would be all right, and now…now their friends and neighbors were outside with torches, angry and violent. They were out for blood, but Arthur wasn't about to let them take away the only person who'd ever made him happy.
The Frenchman stared at him. "What? No. Arzhur, we will go togezher, we— "
"Will you shut up?" Arthur's eyes were hard as he glared. "Listen to them, Francis. They're going to burn us out. We're surrounded. At least I can give you a chance."
As soon as he realized what that meant, tears welled up in Francis' eyes. "Non, Arzhur. Please."
Seeing those tears and hearing the weakness in the voice that had always spoken to him so tenderly put a pain in Arthur's heart. Yet he forced a smile and pulled the taller blond into a hasty kiss.
"I love you," he affirmed, not for the first time, looking straight into those eyes as Francis tried desperately to hold himself together. Then he pulled out of the Frenchman's grasp, drew his cloak tightly around himself, and ran. Shattered wood and glass threatened to cut him when he threw himself through the window, hit the ground and rolled.
But Arthur was already up and running again, quickly crossing the space between his and Francis' house and the surrounding woods. If he could make it to the trees he could lose them, could lead them on a wild chase until they gave up, then vanish with Francis and live in peace somewhere far away.
Just as he reached the edge of the forest, hulking figures stepped out of the shadows and reached for him. He ducked, sliding on the wet grass as his momentum continued to carry him forward before he managed to get enough traction to change his course, sprinting along the tree line as more of the villagers appeared.
Already, his lungs ached and his muscles burned, fueled by adrenaline that helped him outrun his pursuers. Only when he was met with another wall of people did he stop and back up, head tossing as he searched for a way out. There was none—a ring had formed around him, and more were coming. It looked like nearly the entire village had come to hunt them down.
In a last ditch effort to escape, he launched himself at the villagers, knocking them back but not breaking through the line; hands grabbed onto his clothes and arms, yanked his hood down and gripped his hair, pulling painfully so that he cried out.
"Get your hands off me!" he shouted, but it was too late. They hauled him back into the center of the ring again, keeping his feet off the ground as he kicked and writhed. "Let me go!"
"Hold him!" someone commanded, and many of the other voices that had been shouting insults went quiet. "Where's the other devil?"
"He's still in the house!"
Two of the villagers headed towards the house, one carrying a torch and the other a large, dangerous-looking hammer. Just the thought of Francis being harmed sent a fresh wave of panic through Arthur's body and he went completely still, frozen as he watched his door being broken down and then the villagers vanishing inside.
Please be gone. Please. Run, Francis.
Minutes passed. Crashing noises reached them from the small building, the sounds of his home being torn apart. He'd spent years on that house, had built it himself. Everything in it was made by his own hands or earned in the same way, and they were destroying it like it was nothing.
Finally, the two emerged, and Arthur had never been so relieved in his life than when he saw that they didn't have Francis with them.
"He's gone! Must've snuck out while we were chasing his whore."
The word was like a blow, made Arthur flinch back and glare.
"He won't get far. Take some men and catch him—they'll burn together."
Immediately, those holding onto Arthur were binding him with rope, his hands tied behind his back, arms lashed to his sides, ankles hobbled so he could only shuffle along as the majority of the crowd began to make its way back towards the village. A sudden roar made him look back and his eyes went wide, feet stumbling over themselves.
"No!" he screamed, horrified to see his home on fire, the flames quickly consuming every bit of wood until the pillar of smoke blocked out the stars. His home! All of his things! Gone! "Savages! Bastards! Go to hell, all of you!"
They shook him, roughly, and forced him to look forward again as his home continued to burn. "You'll be there long before us, devil."
"I'm no devil," the blond spat, putting as much contempt into his voice as possible. He recognized these people as the villagers he'd known for years, people he had done business with and always considered to be his friends. They had never given him trouble and he had never done anything to deserve their disrespect or suspicion. Until now.
It was terrifying to be dragged through the dark the way he was. The torches gave enough light for them to follow the path, but Arthur continuously tripped over the rope binding his ankles, had his feet kicked and stepped on by the men and women around him. Pokes, prods and jabs made him wince. Insults were shouted and ignored to the best of his abilities. Listening to them wouldn't do him any good, and he was too busy hoping and praying that Francis was long gone, that he'd gotten what little money they'd stashed away and vanished into the woods, run so far that they wouldn't catch him.
Please be safe.
The walk back to the village felt like hours, though Arthur knew it wasn't nearly that long. Mostly, he was starting to feel his exhaustion now that the adrenaline was fading. His feet dragged in the dirt, his shoulders drooped and his head hung lower than he normally would have allowed. Not even his dignity could keep his chin up at this point—having been roused from his sleep and chased was taking its toll on him.
"Tie him there."
Rough hands barely registered in his mind as they led him across the village courtyard and bound him to a post near the well. It was a relief to be able to sit, even if he still wasn't free to move as he wished. His feet ached inside his boots since he hadn't bothered to put on stockings, and the chill of the night air easily passed through his clothes now that he wasn't surrounded by dozens of other bodies. Uncomfortable as he was, he was grateful to stop moving, and within moments a dreamless sleep overtook him.
Something nudged his thigh. "Wake up," a gruff voice commanded, followed by a firmer nudge. Groggy, Arthur opened his eyes and shook his head, trying to rid himself of the last vestiges of sleep and to work some of the stiffness out of his neck. Sleeping on the ground like this hadn't been pleasant, but he didn't let that show as he gave the man who'd woken him a baleful glare.
A cruel grin. "Time to confess to your crimes, blasphemer."
"I haven't committed any crimes," Arthur snapped, his temper rising hot and fast. "Let me go this instant, you—"
A swift kick to his stomach effectively silenced him before he could call the man any number of insults and offensive names, and the blond was left coughing as he tried to take a breath. Pain in his ribs betrayed that they were bruised, if not cracked.
"Not another word or it'll be the stockades for you."
Biting his tongue, Arthur didn't offer a reply. The things he wanted to say would only earn him another cracked rib.
Slowly, the village came to life around him. People went about their business, sometimes stopping to stare at him, most giving a wide berth as if he might be hosting some infectious disease. Children called him names and tossed stones. They missed more often than not, but a few landed good hits and left him with tender bruises. It was the children attacking him that hurt the most, since many of them had come to his house over the years and learned their skills with a paintbrush from Francis, or learned to carve from him. They'd used to look up to the man they now abused. It was just lucky that parents soon came and shooed the children away for fear he would retaliate in some way.
As the sun rose higher, Arthur found himself in a position with no shade or shelter. The heat would have been stifling if it hadn't been spring still—the summer sun might have been too much for him—and he had little hope that it wouldn't rain later in the day. If he was exposed to that, he would definitely fall ill. Not that his captors cared about that.
Much worse than the sun and more immediate than possible rain was the pain settling in his shoulders and back. Stiff, aching pains in his bones from the lack of movement, from ropes pulling his tendons and muscles in uncomfortable ways. It would be a relief to be untied, whenever that happened.
Time had never passed so slowly, had never been so wasted. Bitterly, Arthur thought of his home being burned. How many projects he'd had lined up, personal and for business.
A new easel for Francis.
Benches for the local chapel to replace those too old to be used any longer.
Toys for the village children.
Wood carvings that were to be done under Francis' watchful eye.
Gone. By now, he would have been at least half finished with the easel, or carved a few simple toys. Now he was probably never going to have the chance to make any of those things.
He hoped the Frenchman had gotten away. It seemed unlikely that he had, otherwise he'd have been dragged through town and tied next to Arthur. The fact that he was still alone by the well was reassuring, in a way.
By the time the sun reached its peak and signaled that it was noon, Arthur was on the verge of begging for a drink, just a sip of water to ease his dry throat.
This is barbaric.
Even if they thought he was a sinning blasphemer who deserved to burn, they should at least have the decency to give a man a drink.
Scowling immediately, the green-eyed blond looked up to see three men approaching him. "What do you want?"
"Aw, don't be sour." One of the men grinned as he began untying Arthur from the post. "I hope you've been praying—won't be long now." He hoisted the smaller male to his feet with little trouble and Arthur struggled to regain his footing, both legs all but numb after having sat motionless for so many hours. The blood rushed to his feet, made his lower half feel like it was being pricked by a thousand needles, and he almost collapsed. Thanks to the man still holding onto his arm, though, he managed to stand up straight after a few moments and rolled his neck, twisted his spine and shook the stiffness out of his shoulders.
Without another word, he was led through the town and out into a barren field nearby. A small crowd gathered and followed, growing larger as they progressed, until nearly the same mob as last night surrounded them. Arthur noted with darkening eyes that a pyre had been built, faggots piled around a tall post and chains nearby to hold him. There was a small platform, too, that had been erected in order for the priest and sheriff to watch the proceedings.
"Arthur Kirkland." The priest was an older man, likable enough though his sermons were often dry and boring. "You have been charged with blasphemy, of sinning against our Lord God by laying down with another man, both outside the bonds of holy matrimony. Do you deny it?"
It would be so easy to lie. He could claim innocence, accuse Francis of using devil powers to force him into the acts he was facing judgment for. They would believe him—faking despair and pleading for forgiveness would be easy. By afternoon, he would walk free. He would move under the guise that this place held too many painful memories, find Francis somehow and disappear with him. Yes, it would be the easiest thing in the world to lie.
But Arthur would never be able to live with himself if he turned on the man who loved him. How would he look into those trusting blue eyes and know what he'd done? They would never find peace that way, not if Francis was hunted for devil powers. No, he wouldn't do that.
With a stiff spine and a hard gaze, the blond looked his priest and former friend dead in the eye. Silence fell as the crowd waited.
"Love is not a sin."
A murmur went through the crowd; there were a few shouts of "sinner" and "burn him" Arthur didn't look away from the man whose chapel he'd helped build. He hadn't been an avid church-goer, but he'd never committed any sin worth mentioning. He'd always gotten along with his neighbors.
How easily people would turn on someone.
"Burn me." It was almost a challenge. "It's not my soul that will blacken with murder." His claim was followed by outrage, insults and blows alike forcing him to cover his head with his arms and stumble forward, closer to the pyre.
Being closer was unnerving, made his throat feel tight, his heart pound. Threatening, that's what it was. A promise that his life was about to end. And he was scared, just as anyone would be, but he didn't change his mind. There was no going back now.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the priest nod and tensed a split second before several pairs of hands grabbed him, dragged him forward and forced him up onto the wooden platform built to hold the stake, branches and dried brush tied around the base to let the fire thrive. Ropes were wound around his body and the post, knotted to hold him in place. He kept his mouth shut and his chin up, refused to meet the eyes of the men securing him in place. The only thing he thought about was Francis, his voice, how his accent distorted some words, the way he often slipped into French without noticing, his art and perfect smile, those eyes that promised happiness and warmth and love no matter what…
Be safe…I love you…be safe, please…
He thought about Francis and managed to smile even as he was left alone atop the pyre and the men below lit their torches. A low crackling filled the air; the crowd was silent, gravely watching as the torches were touched to the piled wood. They caught immediately and after a moment the fire burst, quickly consuming the timber it had been given, then catching the platform. Heat under his boots made Arthur want to look but he turned his chin up, closed his eyes and took a deep breath of the air that had yet to be poisoned by smoke.
Sweat began to gather on his skin as the heat grew more intense, then painful. He flinched away from it but had nowhere to go, twisted against the ropes even as they rubbed his skin raw through his clothes. It stung, made his nose and mouth and eyes burn with smoke; his skin felt like it was drying out and cracking, the sharp pain quickly growing as the platform and then his clothes caught.
Unbidden, he screamed, the sound high and piercing, easy to hear over the roar of the fire. Some of the spectators looked away, uncomfortable at the sight. And still he kept his eyes closed, screwed tight against the pain that was consuming him, blocked out every other sense. The screams died to choking coughs, whimpers as his body spasmed.
"Please!" he shouted, barely able to hear his own rasping voice over the roar and crackle, the snapping of wood as the platform began to collapse in on itself. He couldn't take it anymore, he wished his heart would stop already so that he didn't have to feel. Not even his desperation to escape the pain could hold him up as his muscles gave and his body hung limp against the ropes that were slowly weakening—the fire had gotten to them, too.
Too slowly, his vision began to fade, and then there was nothing but darkness. No sound, no light, no feeling. No pain. Blissfully, no pain.
Then weightlessness, as if he was floating in a pool of water, but he was dry. Was this what dying felt like? He'd never spent much time thinking about the afterlife but he still hadn't imagined it would be this. Wasn't he meant to go to heaven or hell, enjoy paradise or suffer for his sins? Or was he in limbo, judgment of his life not yet passed? Well, he was sure he'd end up in heaven. This floating sensation was pleasant, though, and he wouldn't necessarily mind staying this way for a while. It was peaceful. Perfect after so much pain.
Disappointment that he apparently wasn't going to enjoy this for much longer made him frown. Reason told him that if he could hear, then he should be able to speak, and it would only be polite to answer whoever had said his name.
"Yes?" he replied cautiously, because suddenly he realized that this person could be a demon to drag him to hell or an angel to guide him to heaven and if it was a demon then he wasn't sure he wanted to talk to it. Weight was starting to pull on his limbs, made him aware of which way was down, and soon he felt firm ground beneath his feet. The sensation of fabric against his skin was gone—grass tickled the bottoms of his feet and his toes, and he wondered if he were completely bare for this stranger to see.
"You can open your eyes."
"I'm not sure if I want to."
"If this is hell, I don't want to see it."
The stranger chuckled and Arthur jumped to feel a hand settle on his shoulder. "This isn't hell."
Turning to face the direction the voice and touch had come from, Arthur frowned slightly without opening his eyes. "How do I know I can trust you?"
"Any man willing to do what you've done has nothing to fear from me."
"And what have I done?" the blond asked suspiciously, earning a gentle pat from that hand.
"You saved his life."
Surprise made Arthur forget his wariness of this place and this stranger and he opened his eyes to find a tall man with messy brown hair, kind eyes and a warm smile. He was odd, dressed in brown in and gold robes that draped around his frame and all the way to the ground, just brushing the tops of the grass and partially covering his sandaled feet. But the most unusual thing about him were the massive wings that rose above his shoulders, apparently sprouted right out of the man's back.
"You're…an angel…" Arthur could barely believe his eyes, though he tried to convince himself that of course this man was an angel, why wouldn't an angel come to take him to heaven?
The angel chuckled. "Yes. My name is Romulus."
He'd never heard of an angel called Romulus before, but he supposed the scriptures wouldn't include the names of every angel to ever exist. "Ah, I'd introduce myself, but you seem to know about me already."
"True, and I may I tell you, we're all very impressed with your actions these past few hours."
Arthur snorted; he couldn't help it. "Yes, getting captured by a mob and burned at the stake is an awe-inspiring chain of events."
"That's not what I meant. We're impressed that you sacrificed yourself to save Francis. He's far away from that village now, though he keeps wondering if he shouldn't go back and try to help you. In a few days, he'll sail back to France and find a meadow, where he'll spend the rest of his life in peace."
Hearing it brought tears to Arthur's eyes, though he quickly wiped them away. Now was not the time for crying. "I'm glad he's safe."
"And that's your doing, Arthur. Your sacrifice gives you a choice—you may either pass on to the afterlife, or you may become an Angel."
Become an Angel? Could he do that? "I didn't realize that was possible."
"We're very careful who we make this offer to. You would be a valuable Angel."
It was humorous, in a dark way, to think he'd been killed for sinning only to become an Angel. "Would I get to see Francis again?"
"If you wish, though there are rules involved when we interact with humans."
"I'll follow them." There was no hesitance in his response. "I want to be an Angel."
Romulus smiled, hand moving to settle in the middle of Arthur's back as he guided the blond forward, towards shimmering white buildings in the distance. "Then allow me to welcome you to heaven, Arthur, our newest Angel."
Well, I hope you enjoyed the bonus chapter…heh.
On a lighter note, I did create that ask blog. The url is on my profile, though I'll also put it here to save the trouble for anyone who wants to look. There's only the one drawing so far, and I don't like it very much, but, well, you know. I tried.