"Look! It's the demon child!"
The child flinched when the first pebble hit her shoulder, cowering behind emaciated arms as more pebbles followed the first. Pebbles graduated to rocks, and the first solid hit rocked her back, cutting a jagged gash across her arm. Still she swayed mutely, huddling into a ball on the ground to present the smallest target possible.
The crudely woven reed basket she held crumbled under the assault, no matter how hard she tried to keep it protected. The berries she had spent all afternoon gathering spilled out onto the dusty ground, to be picked up by the laughing and jeering village children, who popped the berries into their mouths and then spat them out mockingly at her.
"Disgusting halfbreed! Who knows if the stuff she picks is stained by her dirty blood!"
A few of the older, bolder children took to kicking the thin girl around. Her long matted hair hid her face from her abusers, the rags on her worn further from the beating. Fresh blood mixed with the smashed berries on the ground, red on red in a vivid palette, a stark contrast to the beautiful blue above.
"What a weak dhampir! No wonder your vampire father left you behind! Not even a demon would want such a useless child, I'm sure!"
The children burst out laughing at the words of the oldest boy in the group, the ringleader. At 15, he was almost a man, and was all to ready to impress his younger brethren.
"If all demons are like this, I'm sure I'll be able to kill plenty with the lord's army!"
Saying this, he aimed a solid kick at the girl's head, leaving the imprint of his boot against her arms held defensively there. Her small body trembled; even though there was but a year's difference between them in age, she was far smaller than he was, and half-starved on top of that.
"Hah! Good for nothing demon! Your whore of a mother must have regretted having you! But a harlot who'd open her legs for a monster wouldn't know better, eh? Maybe I should show her what a real man feels like, but I wouldn't want to catch something from a dirty whore like th---aghhhhh!"
The girl, who up till then had quietly accepted all the abuse thrown at her, moved with sudden, shocking speed as she sank her teeth into his leg, biting straight through the thin cloth of his pants. The boy screamed bloody murder and tried to shake her off, but she held on with all the tenacity of a rabid dog, neither flinching nor yielding even when heavy blows were rained down on her sides by those brave enough to come to the boy's aid.
It took a good solid strike to the head to finally knock her unconscious, and the rest of the village having come to investigate the noise, had to haul her off the whimpering boy's leg. Her jaw fell slack once removed from her target, and a fearful murmur spread through the throng.
For amidst the blood smeared across her face, was the unmistakable sign of fangs, larger and sharper than any human's had any right to be, right there in the girl's mouth.
"Bad blood, that one..."
"Should have smothered that creature at birth, we should have!"
"That's still the chief's grandchild, demonspawn or not. We'll see what he has to say about this now!"
"My poor boy...the priest said his leg might'n be saved...that wretched demon must be burnt! Wicked thing!'
When she finally came to, she was in a familiar place: the dark cellar. Shivering, she crawled carefully over to the woodpile, wincing with every movement as her body protested every wound.
The sparse stack of straw that served as her bed was right where she had left it, before she had sneaked out earlier to pick berries for her mother. It was only 2 more days to midsummer, her mother's birthday, and she had wanted to bring something for her at least. It had been sheer bad luck running into that gang of village children, but she had tried her best not to retaliate. Mother had said that they would leave her alone if she stayed away from them. That if she didn't fight back, eventually they would go away. We can't offend them, our lives are at their mercy.
She listened. She had tried really hard. She hid in the cellar all the time, coming out only when it was dark, so that it was less likely anyone could spot her. Running into a single person would perhaps invite a curse and/or a thrown rock at most, but most simply called her names or just ignored her, taking the long way round to avoid passing her.
The mob though, that was what she feared. When humans ran in packs, they inflicted far more pain on her. The last time that had happened, they had tossed her into the river. She survived only thanks to her sleeve snagging on the branch of an overhanging tree as she was being swept downstream, giving her precious seconds to recover and find her grip, before clawing her way back up to safety.
The memory helped her endure the pain from this round. At least she wasn't cold and wet this time. Every part of her body hurt, but she could survive it. She just had to pretend to not exist for a while. If no one saw her for long enough, they'd forget what happened. She could do this. She would do this, if only Mother could be safe above ground.
Voices from overhead. Faint lines of light from between gaps in the floorboards gave her just enough of a listening post for the happenings above ground. Not that she needed those even, right now. The yelling was increasing in volume, so much so that she didn't even have to strain her hearing to listen in.
"That demonspawn must go!"
"We're sick of having that creature around! It's a curse upon our village! Why, old man Baker's prize cow died in labour just last week! It must be the fault of that demon child!"
It wasn't the first time this had happened. Every time something unfortunate happened in the village, everyone ran to the chief, her grandfather, accusing her of having caused it. Dead chicken in the coop? It had to be her, never mind the fox prints in the sand. Milk spoiled? It had to be her too. Every time, Grandfather had placated them by issuing some mild punishment on her. She could live a week without food. No water was a bit more painful, but she had learned very quickly that rats made good eating, and their blood oddly nourishing, if she could only catch them. As a result of her efforts, rats were perhaps scarcer around her family's home than anywhere else in the village.
But she survived. Against all odds, she stayed alive. The first time a rat bit her, a tiny child barely old enough to toddle around, she bawled...and bit right back. In the lonely cold of nights, her tears were warm against frozen cheeks. When she was in pain, the tears rolled silently down, she having learned to erase her presence as much as possible to avoid trouble.
Grandfather had been distant, but he had let her live. Mother did not come to see her often, but she treasured every moment like a rare and precious treasure. A once bright eyed child with an inquisitive gaze had grown into a gloomy, fearful adolescent. She spoke rarely if at all, and avoided all human contact. It was safer for everyone that way.
"Chief! You can't explain this away anymore! My boy...his leg...the wound was cursed! It's that demon child! She must die!"
Loud thumping sounds overhead, and the girl flinched, hands fisting into the dirty straw.
"It's all this woman's fault! Carrying that demon seed in her...we should have just burnt her from the start! Her and that demon of hers!"
A quiet bubble of rage rose within her. It was much the same feeling that had led her to bite the boy earlier. No one was allowed to hurt Mother. It didn't matter what happened to her. She would protect Mother!
Her abused body somehow found the strength to stand, though she had to hunch over to avoid hitting her head. There was a loose floorboard right in that corner...
A crashing sound, the sound of splintering wood. She moved in response, every tattered muscle begging her to stop, but a red haze had clouded her vision.
Mother Mother Mother...
One fist crashed into the board overhead, splinters digging into her knuckles. Another wild swing, and another, and another. Displaying brute strength one would not have expected from that emaciated body, she ripped the weakened board away, hauling herself up into the house...
...right into the middle of surprised and agitated villagers. The sudden appearance of her wild, unkempt form raised more mutters of "demon" and "filthy creature" from the superstitious villagers, but she was used to that. Instead, the girl zeroed in on her mother, who was on the ground holding a swollen cheek, courtesy of the heavy backhand that had knocked her down to begin with.
"Mother..." The sound came raw and raspy from her throat, her voice rare used and choked with emotion. As she tried to reach out towards her, a burly villager cuffed her hard against the back of her head, sending her sprawling to the ground.
"Look at what that demon did!" The burly villager pointed at the destroyed floorboards. "None of us are safe with this monster around! I say we kill it now!"
A roar of approval from the assembly, and hungry hands reached for her, only to be halted by a clear, ringing voice.
"There will be no deaths in my house tonight!"
Grandfather... She thought dimly, even as she struggled to crawl towards her mother.
"We can't have a demon in our village!"
"It's almost the Summer Solstice, I will see no violence done at my hearth."
The chief's voice was firm, but the villagers were out for blood.
"Then cast them out! We are an honest people! What do we have to do with demonspawn?"
"Cast them out! Cast them out!"
She finally reached Mother. As she reached out with a trembling hand, that hand was knocked aside. Mute, she stared in quiet surprise at the hand that had struck her.
"You were a mistake! I wish you had never been born!"
I wish you had never been born!
Her bloodied hands lay limp by her sides. There she knelt in hollow shock, Mother's words ringing in her head. Voices rang overhead, but she heard nothing. Her eyes were open, but apart from the look of utter loathing from her flesh and blood kin, she saw nothing else. She felt nothing when rough hands hauled her up like a sack of wheat, her entire body slack and unresponsive, dead weight that took two strong men to lift, even light as she was.
They bundled her into a sack and took her far into the forest. The entire time she stared into nothingness, uncomprehending. She was a filthy, unwanted creature. No one wanted her. Mother hated her. She had nothing in her life.
They left her there, deep in the forest. For a day and a night she lay unmoving, until the wolves came to investigate. She heard the pack howling, and felt nothing. Neither fear nor pain, and even cold and hunger were abstract concepts independent of her shattered consciousness. What did she have left to fear? What did she have to live for? Let the wolves come and gnaw on her bones. Then, at least, she would have served some purpose.
She lost all sense of time. But no sharp teeth found her limbs, and when she came to again, it was raining, a soft sound muted against thick walls. And yet, she was warm.
She twitched, cracking one eye open fearfully, wondering if it was all a dream. She felt as if she might sink forever into the impossibly soft material beneath her. Was this a bed? Like the ones she saw the villagers rest in? She had never had more than a handful of straw on iron hard ground. This almost reminded her of drowning in the river, and her limbs flailed on reflex, eyes snapping open...
A huge room greeted her vision, lit by a cheery fire on the far side. Against the tall windows set in stone, rain beat a futile pattern against the glass. Shadows danced with every hiss and spatter of the crackling flames, and she was momentarily entranced by the hypnotizing figures leaping across the walls.
"Lily, we shouldn't be here. What if someone sees us in here?"
The first voice answered the second, anxious one.
"Don't be silly, Snow. We were the ones to find her anyway, and I wanted to see if she was ok."
"But...that's a human isn't it?"
"I don't think so...humans don't have fangs like us. Look! She's turning towards us!"
Two girls swam into her hazy vision as she tilted her head to the side. One was tall and elegant in white, the other was smaller and smiling brightly at her.
"Are you feeling better?"
One pale hand reached out to her, and she flinched instinctively, shying away like a wounded animal. Peeking out of the corner of her eye, she was surprised to see that the smiling girl didn't seem at all angry. Instead, she looked...concerned?
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have scared you. My name is Lily, and this here is Snow. What's your name?"
Name? She blinked in confusion. She had many, many. Demon, creature, devil child...
Her throat worked soundlessly, nothing but a whimper working its way loose. The one called Snow took a step back, wary distrust on her face.
"Lily, we really shouldn't be here. What if the Master finds out?"
"Don't be a worrywart Snow! Can't you see that she's like us? Surely the Master will let her join the Clan!"
"Well I don't know about that! And look, it's almost time for our medicine! Let's go!"
Snow was already halfway out of the door, one hand beckoning at Lily to join her. Lily hesitated, taking a step towards the door, before squaring her shoulders and turning back towards the bed where the girl lay.
"It's going to be ok. I'm sure everything will work out somehow!"
As she said that, Lily reached out, and ignoring the flinch, firmly grasped that thin, battered hand in a gentle grip.
"You're going to be alright."
"Lily! We're going to be late!"
Lily called out, then looked back down at the still stunned girl.
"I'll be back as soon as I can. You won't be alone anymore, I promise."
With that, she gave the girl's hand one last squeeze, smiling kindly down before turning and running in a flurry of lacy white out of the door.
Left alone in a too-large room, surrounded by the patter of rain and the distant tones of a great bell, the fire died down to embers, leaving her shrouded in cold shadow.
But her hand stayed warm, the memory of that gentle touch lingering on her abused skin. Wet trails ran down her cheeks, cold and sticky against the sudden warmth that had lit like dying embers in the shriveled remains of her heart.
She wept without knowing why, not tears of pain or loss or abandonment. Unfamiliar tears, chill and messy and clogging up her nose, the impossibility of someone having willingly held her hand choking her up from within.
It's going to be ok.
You won't be alone.
I'll be back.
Mother had never said these things to her. She never had anyone say these things to her. No one had ever touched her except to hit her or throw her out. No one had even smiled at her. Impossible, it had to be impossible. This had to be a dream.
And then just as she had convinced herself that it wasn't real, she came back. She barely remembered what this girl called Lily said, only staring in wonder at the angel that had descended into her life, for the sake of a filthy demonspawn like herself.
"Everyone in the Clan is named after a flower, you know. I guess it's a tradition of our bloodline...I'm sure you'll get one too! Do you have a name?"
Uncertain shake of a head, but it was greeted by a broad smile.
"So you can understand me after all! I was a little worried you couldn't speak our language. Hey, do you mind if I gave you a name? I found you after all, near the daisies...Daisy? Hm, no...you don't look like a daisy. You're a little thin and pale right now, but I think you'll be really pretty once you recover. Oh! I know what your name should be!"
The girl stared mutely at her angel, content to listen to her forever, as long as she was by her side.
"Marigold sounds about right! You have that wild beauty about you, and you look really cute too. Marigold...are you alright with me calling you Marigold?"
A name...she never had one...Marigold...
"Oh! Did I upset you? Why are you crying? If you don't like Marigold, we don't have to go with that. I'm so sorry..."
The girl (Marigold?) stuttered, her vocal cords rusty from disuse. One hand twitched hesitantly upwards, hanging uncertainly in the distance between them.
"I-I-I like it. T-thank you."
Marigold's fingers twitched towards Lily, terrified of rejection since the other girl had gone silent when she had started talking. Hit by a sudden wave of self doubt, Marigold curled her fingers back towards herself, only to be surprised by a sudden warmth around her hand.
"Thank goodness...I'm sorry if I was a little overwhelming earlier. We don't get new friends around here often..."
Lily was clasping her hands in both of her own. The newly christened Marigold stared at their joined hands, the soft warmth of them sending strange emotions cascading through her.
"Yes, friends! Ah, I'm sorry, I should have asked first! Will you be my friend?"
A cute head tilt, coupled with a hopeful smile. Marigold was sure she had never seen anything more amazing before.
"I-if you're ok with it being me..."
In that moment, that smile, Marigold found herself responding, unused facial muscles working to form a hesitant smile. The action seemed to unlock a warm elation within her, driving away the cold emptiness that had been her constant companion since she could remember.
That for the first time in her life, she was not alone.