Challenge response. He was seven years old when it was decided that he would never become a man.
Cry To Heaven by Anne Rice
Not A Man by M. A. McRae
Moonlight fell upon the ground in streams of quicksilver. The shadows of the earth and the trees were as black as pitch. There was no sound, not the call of an owl nor the chirp of crickets—only his laboured breathing and the distant crunch of leaves as they were disturbed. The man could feel his pupils dilating as widely as they could go, the muscles of his eyes straining with the effort. Rough, ancient tree bark scratched at his shoulder blades through the embroidered velvet coat he wore. His fingers trembled from cold and fear. His spine was hot as adrenaline slithered through his veins. Something awful hunted him through the darkness, making the hairs on the back of his neck and arms stand on end. His heart pounded in his breast and he covered his gasping mouth with his palm to stifle his loud, heaving breaths, mist streaming out from his nostrils as it came into contact with the frosty autumn air.
"Wren!" a woman's anguished cry pierced the night.
The man stiffened against the tree, hyper-aware of the meagre light of the moon throwing the world into stark contrast and the fragile, brittle leaves resting just underfoot. He dug his fingernails into the tree trunk. One wrong move, a moment of noise and she would find him…
"Wren!" she cried again. "Wren, where are you? Come back to me, Wren! Oh, please…"
A spherical lantern wobbled into view like a golden will-o-wisp. It faintly illuminated the profile of the woman's lovely face. However, her makeup was smeared horribly, red lipstick smudged across the one side of her delicate mouth, and the agonized twist of her yellow eyebrows, flaxen locks cobwebbed haphazardly across her cheeks, transformed her into something that was almost ugly.
The man trembled at the ghostly sight of her, his heart choking him from its seat in his throat, and he slipped around the tree, fleeing, his tailcoats whipping behind them. He was unable to avoid snapping a twig underfoot, and his breath caught at the damning noise.
"Why did you leave me, Wren?" the woman moaned. "Please, come back to me, my Wren!"
Go back? No, no, never. Not if he could help it, not if there was even a sliver of a chance of freedom! He would not go back into that cage!
The long, spidery limbs of trees snatched at him, scratching at his clothes, face, and hair. Branched whipped at his face as his feet pounded the earth, leaving stinging red welts on his flawless, pale skin. His enormous lungs heaved. He could run faster than her, but she would not give up easily. An icy bead of sweat trailed down his neck, for his could almost swear that he felt her eyes on him, following him even now like they always followed him.
'My precious songbird…'
"Wren, come back!" She cried. "Wren! Come back!"
She was nearing hysteria. She was most dangerous when she was in hysterics. His heart skipped a beat as terror briefly swallowed him.
The roots of the trees rose from the earth and tripped him. A short, soprano cry escaped him as the heels of his hands plowed into the dirt and his mouth was stuffed with rotting leaves. He coughed, hoarse gasps filling the air as he fought to fill his lungs after having the wind knocked clean out of them.
She was getting closer; he could hear the leaves cracking under the heels of her shoes. He scrambled to his feet, squelching rotten undergrowth and dirt between his fingers, tearing his palm open as his fingers closed around a thorny bush, but he ignored the stinging pain, clenching his hand into a fist and stumbling onward. Escape, escape… he had to escape!
His uninjured hand clawed at the air as if he could tear the darkness from the trees like curtains. His breath plumed white before his face. Oh, how terribly he wished he was an actual bird and not just named after one. He would have wings then, he would be able to fly far, far away, out of her reach where she could never reach him ever again—!
His foot struck empty air.
"Don't leave meeeeee!"
He fell down the steep slope as if he were boneless, his long arms and legs smacking harshly into protruding stones and bushes that tore his fine clothes to tattered rags. He didn't stop rolling until he hit the stream at the bottom, his body breaking the thin sheet of ice that crusted it like a watery scab. The stream was deep enough to wrench a shout of pain from him as cold stabbed through his torn clothing, his entire body spasming as the abrupt temperature change. Water rushed into his ears and for the scant seconds before he thrashed upright all he could hear was his own drumming heartbeat trying to fly from his ribcage.
Shivering violently, he pushed himself to his hands and knees and made for the bank, his sopping wet hair clinging to his cheeks and neck. He briefly entertained the idea of diving into the deeper portions of the stream and allowing the current to sweep him away, but it was too cold, much too cold. It was hard to believe that it was only a few months ago when he had found young Miss Melissa's tutor bathing in this stream, playing a concert-worthy ballad on a child's ocarina, the very image of a living water nymph—the memory alone was almost enough to drive the worst of the chills from his bones and he wished terribly that those happy summer days had not ended so soon.
Climbing the bank was a labour; his left knee refused to take any weight, so he had to drag himself up with his arms. In what seemed to be no time at all, his forearms and chest were coated with mud and bits of leaves, but it seemed to be taking the whole night to reach the top of the slope. Better if it was, for if it took that long then the woman looking for him would have surely wandered far away from him by then.
A set of sharp talons landed on his shoulders, pressing harshly into his skin.
His head snapped up to find her face mere inches from his, her blue eyes wide and watery, her golden hair wild, her teeth bared, eyebrows tilted severely into an expression of animalistic desperation. He screamed and she screeched in return, her voice like a dying hare, and she dragged him up the last few feet of the stream bank to deposit him on level ground. He got a brief glimpse of the smudge of stars overhead before her body blocked out the sky. For all her slight frame, she was much heavier than she looked.
He moaned in distress, writhing under her as she straddled his chest with her thighs, her long fingernails digging into his arms as she forced them to the ground where he could get no leverage in his shoulders to push her away.
'No! No, I won't go back! I'll slit my throat if you make me, I swear to God, I'll slit my throat, so even if it doesn't kill me, you'll never hear me sing again—!'
"How could you do this to me, Wren?" She sobbed, pressing her forehead against his. Her golden curls fell free from her hood to tickle his cheeks and he shivered as her tears fell upon his face.
"Why would you try to leave me? I love you! I've been like a mother to you!"
Disgust rose in his throat, thick and sour like bile, and he turned away from her, covering his ears with his hands and shutting his eyes to block her out, though he could still feel her cold, sharp nose pressing into his neck, her slender fingers picking at his hands for attention.
'You're not my mother!'
A gangly, severe looking woman with hands forever stained from indigo dye-baths flashed across the backs of his eyelids.
'Real mothers don't castrate their sons!' his mind wailed. 'Real mothers don't rape their sons!'
Her little red mouth caressed the shell of his ear, her hot breath so stark against the cold that his skin burned. Her voice was familiar, comforting even though it was tainted with madness.
"Wren. Wren. Wren. My Wren…"
"Angelique…" he whispered, agonized. 'I hate you!'
Her soft lips brushed feather-light against his jaw, moist and familiar. Her kisses grew in pressure and urgency as she neared his mouth and finally forced her lips upon his. He shivered at her kiss, their breaths mingling. She scratched softly at his wrists, wanting him to wrap his arms around her, but he would not.
"Wren. I love you, Wren. You're my precious little songbird, my little singing boy. I love you, you love me—you can't leave me; you can't ever leave meeee…"
He sobbed quietly into her mouth and she swallowed his stifled cry like it gave her life, the rhythmic sucking of her mouth growing deeper and more needy. God help him. God help him, despite all she had done to him, he loved this woman! He loved her as much as he hated her. He had been her ward since he was seven years old, how could he not love her? She had swept him out of the threadbare cradle of poverty and given him the world.
And all it had cost him was his manhood.
But, in taking that from him, she had just as much taken the world from him as given it, hadn't she? What finery, jewels, or accomplished talents could make up for the loss of his family, of the feeling of wind on his face, the freedom to do what he wished when he wished it? She had purchased him from his desperate, impoverished parents, stolen his freedom, cut away his adulthood before puberty could even begin, spitefully sent away the woman he'd so selfishly, foolishly fallen in love with under her nose…
He didn't know where she was now. He didn't know if she was even alive. He had no idea what Angelique had done to the young teacher in her petty jealousy. And it all came back to his mistress' love of his singing voice, that fateful day in a church in a tiny country town.
'Damn you, Angelique. Damn the castrati!'
A songbird with clipped wings could never fly away.
Not my best, but that will come with time, I suppose. I don't have any followers over here, and whether one likes it or not, reviews really do make one write faster and better. It's been too long since I really wrote something original and in the weeks working for a slot of time to open up so that I could work on this, the enthusiasm has withered (::sigh:: this always happens).
If you took the time to read, please take the time to review, for I would certainly do so for you!