Once upon a time, there was a girl named Em.
She lived in a castle along with her six other brothers and sisters. Everyone got along with each other except with her because she was different. She was born with a birthmark, big and pale, that mapped itself from her neck down to her shoulder. “It’s the devil’s child,” they’d call her. “She’s been marked by the devil!”
The only time they ever played with her was at Em’s expense. They would lunge at her and reel back just as fast, to see who got closest without touching her. Once, Em tried to grab them back, but when she did, they screamed and stared at her as if she was a monster. She never played with them again and avoided them altogether. Many years went by and her oldest brother was eighteen and he was sent off to another kingdom. “He’s such a good son,” her parents would say. “He’ll do great things for the country.” Em didn’t know there were other countries in the world and listened intently whenever she could. As long as she was quiet, and stayed out of their way, she could listen for as long as she liked because her parents didn’t care for her anyway.
Then there was her fifth sibling, who was married to a prince at sixteen and she was sent off to live in his castle. Em wondered if she’d be married off too someday… And so, one after the other, her siblings left the castle until she was the only one left. She thought, maybe now mum and dad will pay attention to me, sense I’m all they got? She tried getting their attention by singing and playing the piano but they would just send one of the maids and drag her away. “They are very busy,” the maid would say.
Soon, Em stopped trying to make them notice her and stayed in her room, where everyone preferred her anyway. All day she’d read or sing or play the piano. Other days she’d just sit by the window and look as the world moved on without her, dreaming of being sent away one day. The only time she ever left her room was when everyone was asleep and she had the whole castle to herself. Unfortunately, the castle was very dark at night and she would jump at every suspicious sound, or shadow. She was especially frightened near the kitchen where she heard strange moans at night. She asked her father for a lantern but he wouldn’t give it to her. “What would you need a lantern for anyway? He asked. But Em wouldn’t say, fearing he’d lock her up if he knew what she was up to. Then one night, she saw something glowing in the dark. It was a lit lantern that was resting outside the kitchen door. Pleased with her find, she snatched it and ran back to her room, never considering it might belong to somebody esle. The next morning, two servants were fired and the noise from the kitchen went away.
Many years later (when she was twelve) after coming home from one of her nightly adventures, there was an old lady waiting in her room. Em almost dropped the lantern because she thought it was some sort of goblin that had followed her. But as the creature turned, Em could see it was a person smiling. Her name was Emma, which was funny because that’s what Em always thought her own name would be if her parents had bothered finishing it.
As it turned out, Emma was very kind and she’d stay with Em all day long telling stories or brushing her hair. “I’m so glad you are here,” Em said. “I don’t ever have to leave my room and feel lonely again.”
“Oh? Why wouldn’t you want to leave? The night is yours, nobody is gonna hurt you.”
Em scratched her neck. “I don’t really like the dark,” she said.
Emma put down the brush and said. “Have you ever heard about Vampires?”
Em shook her head.
“They are tall and handsome creatures of the night and they got their eyes on you. They’ll come for you, one day, when you are ready.”
Em jittered out of her chair. “Me? Why?!”
Emma caressed Em’s neck which didn’t help to sooth her because nobody had dared touch her there before. “They’ll protect you because they know you’ll do great things. That’s why everyone is afraid of you,” she said.
Em thought about it. “Everyone? Even monsters?”
Emma smiled. “Even monsters.”
“But then… Why aren’t you afraid of me?”
The old woman quirked her mouth. “I’m too old to be scared of death.”
When Em was left alone, she thought about what had been said. If everyone was afraid of her she could do whatever she wanted! That very same night she went without her lantern. She knew the castle by heart and at first, she was scared without it but as her eyes got used to the darkness she became more confident. She even went to the tower at the abandoned part of the castle, where the Wraith is said to wander up and down the stairs. And lo and behold, she came back without being hurt! Ever since then, the night became hers and she would sometimes frighten others that walked the dark. Sometimes she would even eves-drop on her father’s meetings which she wasn’t supposed to hear: apparently, things weren't going well for her oldest brother in the other kingdom and rumour had it he’d been captured and locked in a prison somewhere. For some reason, this amused Em, thinking of her siblings being locked away in a dark cell with nobody to talk to and she secretly wished all her siblings shared the same fate.
Two years went by and she was fourteen. She was looking out the window when a mysterious carriage drove up to the door. Excited, she snuck downstairs to have a listen. It was an old man in his 40s that came through the door. He had a large beard and a dreary look about him. Her father frowned as he stepped inside and didn’t seem too pleased to see him. They went into the parlour where her father always had his secret meetings. Em climbed stealthily down the stairs, relying on the dark to hide her, but then the stranger suddenly turned and stared straight at her. Her heart froze and she shot back. He couldn’t have seen her in the dark, could he? She went back to have a look but they were gone. Em was too nervous to go closer and it didn’t feel safe sneaking into her father’s meeting. She decided to go back to bed where she lay awake, wondering who the stranger was and what he wanted.
“Wonderful news!” Her father said. “You’re going to live with your uncle, Ben, for a while.”
Em looked at her uncle who sat across from her at the big breakfast table. Em could see a smile creep up despite his beard. “He is very lonely, you see, after his wife died and his children left him. He wants a family and we are far too busy to visit him, so we thought you two can keep each other company. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Em glanced at her father. She had never seen him smile so widely before or talked about her for so long. She remembered wishing someone would take her away but she’d never imagine it would be like this.
“Yes, father,” she said, obediently.
That very same afternoon they dressed her up in a big black dress with a large collar that covered her neck. It was hard to move and breathe but she would endure anything to get away from that place. As Em stepped out of her room, she looked back at Emma. She grinned and shooed her away. Emma was her best friend but she knew it couldn’t stay that way forever. She stepped out into the sun that burned her pale skin. She hadn’t been outside for years but that wasn’t what bothered her the most. There were a lot of people staring at her. She didn’t like the looks they gave, curious and frightened gazes, and she hurried inside the carriage and shut herself in. Her parents waved them goodbye as they drove off through the castle gates where a whole new world opened up to her. “You’ll like it at my castle,” Uncle Ben said. “It’s big and empty and you can walk around as much as you want.”
Em had barely noticed her uncle in the dark corner of the carriage and he sort of blended in with the shade. On their way, she saw many things. Mostly fields of wheat and red barns and a village on a hill in the distance. They even passed a windmill that was still because there was no wind. But soon the open country gave way for the trees and they entered a forest. The path they took was through the mountains and the road became narrow and more dangerous. The carriage could barely keep the wheels on the road, at some places, and Em could swear she heard part of the road crumble as they went across. Em sat completely still, afraid the carriage might topple over the edge. “We are almost home,” Uncle Ben said.
Em stuck her head out and saw a big black castle on the side of the mountain. Maybe not as big as back home but it had walls and towers and all the things castles are supposed to have. They passed through the gates and entered the courtyard that was empty and abandoned, except for two figures waiting for them. One was a tall slender woman named Jane who wore a bonnet that covered much of her face. The other was a large broad shouldered man who, at least to Em’s eyes, had a very immature face, and his name was Hans. They bowed and took care of Em’s bags as they exited the carriage. The courtyard was so quiet. “Where is everyone?” she said.
“Gone, I’m afraid,” Ben said. “After my children left me and my wife passed away. These two poor souls had nowhere else to go so they stayed,” Ben explained.
Then we are all misfits, Em thought darkly.
Hans took care of the luggage all on his own and carried it up the stairs. Jane showed Em to her room. The room was large and had its own fireplace that was empty and made of stone; in fact, everything was made of stone, the walls, the floor, thankfully, her bed wasn’t. It was one of those beds with curtains on four sides and a roof. Hans put down the bags with a loud thud. “Dinner is ready in an hour,” Jane said and walked stiffly out the room. Em was now alone. There wasn’t much of anything in her room, there were no paintings or a piano she could play on. What would she do all day? She decided to go out and explore and she went back to the courtyard. It was still quiet, except for a lonely crow that croaked on top of one of the abandoned buildings. Many of them had cracked windows and on some, the doors stood ajar, as if the people left it in a hurry. She explored some of the houses but didn’t find anything interesting. Then, a voice called for her through the second story window. Jane poked her head out and pointed at the entrance. Has it been an hour already?
Ben waited for her at the dinner table and a lot of food was splayed out. “We didn’t know what you liked so we made a bit of everything,” Ben said.
Em smiled and bowed politely. She didn’t really know how to behave in front of other people but she had seen her mother bow in such a manner and imitated it. Ben’s smile broadened and he offered her a seat. The food looked delicious. There were many different kinds of meats and vegetables and all sorts of other things she had never tasted before. Well, she might have. She was never allowed at the dinner table back home and she had to make due with the scraps they gave her afterwards. In fact, this was the first time she’d ever seen a whole cooked chicken before.
“I heard you went exploring earlier,” Ben said. “You should visit the garden next. It’s beautiful, although, it’s a bit overgrown. Nobody has tended it for years, so be careful. There are thorns and some of them might be poisonous if I remember correctly… Don’t eat anything.”
Em grinned. She loved gardens, at least the idea of them. They didn’t have a garden back home, her father thought it was a waste of space. After dinner, Em thanked Ben for the food and went straight to the garden. The garden was big and there were several paths that lead to nowhere because the roads were swallowed up by the undergrowth. Massive trees and bushes made it impossible to go anywhere, but she picked a path and pushed through the twigs and thorns that scraped against her skin and tore into her dress. Eventually, she came out the other end where she found a small marble house in the middle of the garden. It was beautifully decorated with pretty angels and flowers etched into the stone that once must have been white and pure but now was greyed and darkened. There was a big black iron door that was chained shut with a pretty silver lock on it. Em went closer and tried to pull at the chains when someone came out of the brushes. “Don’t do that,” Hans said.
Em jumped. “W—why? Uncle said I could go wherever I want.”
“Just don’t okay,” he said, inspecting the lock carefully before disappearing into the bushes again. Em stared after him. Had he been following her? There was something strange about that man, she thought, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. It was as if he was both young and old. His face was soft and kind while his body was big and rough… Em glanced back at the iron gate, more curious than ever. She decided to ask Uncle Ben about it. She found him at the library, buried in books. It was a big library, with ladders on wheels that you could slide along the shelves with. He looked very old hunched in his chair, more so than usual.
Ben looked up as she approached. She froze. It wasn’t the first time he had noticed her even though she tried to be quiet. He was strangely aware of his surroundings as if he was nervous all the time or maybe afraid? Em was worried that she’d upset him by disturbing him but he simply smiled and beckoned her over. “What can I do you for?” He asked.
“Uncle, I found a strange marble house in the garden… What is it?”
“Ah, you must have found my family tomb. Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yes… But it’s locked. Why?”
“To keep thieves out, of course,” he said, bluntly. “There are many family valuables in those graves, you know.”
This made sense and she felt silly not figuring it out herself. She bowed politely and left. As she excited the library, her cheeks grew red. Did Hans think she was a thief?! Why else did he try to stop her? She stomped through the hallway trying to find him. “Hans! Hans!” she called but there was no answer and she couldn’t find him anywhere. She sighed, maybe she’d find him outside? At the courtyard she heard some strange grunts and whooshing sounds of something being swung through the air. Em snuck through the gates and there she saw him, swinging a sword around, a weapon much too small in his hands. He slashed the air, took a stance, and then slashed again. Em thought he looked clumsy and she stepped forward just as he was finishing a blow. Hans dropped the sword and cast glances from side to side, ready to run. “What… What are you doing here?” He asked.
“Hmph, I can go wherever I want… What are YOU doing?”
He shrugged. “I dunno, just playing.”
“War, I guess.”
“Boys seem to like war…”
There was an awkward silence between them and they avoided each other’s gazes. “So, what do you want?” Hans asked tersely.
“Do you think I’m a thief?”
Hans winced as if hit by the words. “No, why would I—.”
“Because I wasn’t going to steal anything. I just wanted to know what’s inside.”
Hans rubbed his neck, making Em conscious of the collar that hid the scar on her own neck. Hans noticed. “You don’t have to hide that, you know,” he said. “Nobody cares.”
“Oh, why is that? Everyone else seems to.”
Hans frowned, opened his mouth and closed it again as if he had something to say but didn’t know how to put it. “It’s dangerous in there…”
Em snorted. “Oh? Is there a monster locked up, perhaps? A vampire even?!”
Hans face turned scarlet. Both were still, then he bolted around the corner, moving so fast he was gone before Em could hurry after him.
Em didn’t see much of Hans after that, maybe he avoided her? Hans was clearly hiding something but couldn’t figure out what that was.
If there were something dangerous in the castle Ben would have told her, or would he? Truth be told, she didn’t know anything about her uncle but he was so kind to her she chose to believe in him and she went back to the garden, many times, skulking around the bushes, always ending up by the tomb somehow. All the roads seemed to lead to it. She pulled at the chains, despite Han’s warnings. She half expected him to pop up unannounced like last time but he never did. The chains were sturdy and she couldn’t break them even if she wanted to. Besides, she’d seen enough of the garden anyway.
Em spent many days exploring the rest of the castle. She began by opening every door she came across. Almost all of them were empty, well, at least abandoned, with cobwebs and layers of dust on the floor. Even though the sun was up, the hallways were dim as most of the windows were just slits in the wall. Em looked through one of them, imagining soldiers scurrying around below and a cloud of arrows falling on them. This was an old castle, built for defence rather than living. Although the light was dim, it was still strange for Em to walk about during the day, she was used to hiding. She’d even put her collar away and she was glad to be able to move her neck freely again. She promised herself, after scolding Hans, that she would thank him afterwards.
The deeper into the castle she went, the darker it became until she came to a part of the castle where there was no light at all. She was used to the dark but she brought a lantern anyway because she didn’t know this castle very well yet. Out of all the places she’d explored so far, no part of the castle was truly silent. There were always birds chirping (or crowing) or wind whining through the crenels, but here, it was completely quiet. The floor squeaked a little at her step and she could hear her breathing. Without warning, the hallway came to an end and she reached a staircase that spiralled further down. Em didn’t hesitate to go further. I am the marked one and everyone fears me, she kept telling herself. When she reached the bottom, the floor was soft. There was a carpet and big velvet curtains hung from wall to wall and there were pillows spread all over the floor too. Em gawked at everything and didn’t notice the figure coming up from behind her. It touched her shoulder and Em spun around. All she saw was a great tall figure, its face veiled in darkness. Em bolted towards the stairs “Wait! Please wait,” the figure said. “I haven’t had a guest for so long. Why don’t you stay for some tea? or wine, if you prefer it.”
Em stopped with one foot on the staircase. She was completely disarmed by the tone of the person’s voice. She raised the lantern and recognised Jane with her big bonnet and tall and slender figure. “Would you like to have a seat?” She said. Em nodded and sat amongst the pillows. Jane then moved swiftly from one dark spot to the next, lighting candles along the way. “Here,” Jane said and offered her a goblet of wine. At least, Em hoped it was wine. Jane observed her silently. Em had never noticed how big her eyes were before. “Do—Do you live down here?” Em asked nervously.
Jane tilted her head and fiddled with her fingers “The darkness calms me,” she said. Em could relate. In the dark nobody could see her or taunt her. Did Jane have something she wanted to hide too? “Oh!” Jane cried, springing to her legs. “I have some cookies in the drawer.” She disappeared ghostly into the darkness and then emerged with a plate of cookies. They were very soft and some had fur on them… Em took one that seemed the most stale and chewed on it in small bits. “So, how are you settling in?” Jane asked.
“It’s a lovely castle,” Em began. “I love exploring it.”
Jane smiled. “It makes me so happy to hear you say that!”
Jane had such a kind energy about her and her voice was so soothing and pleasant that Em wanted to tell her more. “I ran into a funny stone house the other day, in the garden. Of course you know about the tomb. It’s very beautiful. I wanted to have a look inside but it was locked.”
Jane’s smile tightened.
“I don’t really know why I wanted to, maybe because I couldn’t. Hans even tried to scare me off by saying there were some sort of monster inside. I suppose he had his reasons but I wished he'd just be honest with me.”
For a moment Jane seemed stiff as a board and her face was veiled by the dark so Em couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Then, all that tenseness fell off and she smiled softly again as if she’d had a long discussion with herself and lost. “I think it’s best if you have a talk with Ben,” she said and helped her up from the pillows.
Em climbed a few steps up the stairs, taken aback by Jane’s reaction.
“It was lovely seeing you. I hope you’ll come visit again,” she said and then all the lights went out at once and Jane’s figure disappeared in the void. Em rushed up the stairs and through the hallway. She didn’t stop until she was safely in her room and tucked under the bed.
The people in the castle was more than weird, more than strange. They had been so kind to her, but why? Every possible explanation went through her mind, everything but the obvious. They had come for her for a reason. Em touched her neck, it itched terribly. She pretended to be sick so she didn’t have to speak with Ben because she was afraid what he was going to say. Jane would often come and leave a plate of food for her but Em always pretended to be asleep to avoid looking her in the eye and reveal what she was thinking.
One thing was clear, she had to escape.
One night, when she was looking out the window to plan her escape, she saw something moving amongst the bushes in the garden. It was only a blur but it moved awfully fast and a horrible thought struck her. Was the tomb really locked? Did whatever that was supposed to be inside roam freely, stalking outside her door and waiting for her to come out? Em shuddered at the thought.
She made sure not to eat all the food that Jane left her and saved some for her escape. And one morning, when the sun was bright and orange, she decided it was time. She didn’t know if the sunlight affected them at all but she felt more comfortable walking in daylight. She opened her door carefully, trying her best to not make it squeak. She was only partly successful. Then she went down the stairs, as quiet as she could, and exited through the front door. She ran through the courtyard and hugged the wall and made sure that nobody was waiting for her outside the gates. The luggage with food and some extra clothes was heavy over her shoulder and she corrected it as she peered down the road that led down the mountain. They’d expect her to take the road, she thought, and veered left into the forest.
She didn’t have confidence that she could find her way through the mountains but as long as she went downhill she’d reach the flatlands eventually and then it would be easy to find her way back home… Suddenly her bag felt heavier and her feet dragged along the ground. Her vision became misty and the bag slid off her shoulder and she crumbled at the edge of a ravine. Would her parents even take her back? They were so happy when she left. Did she even have a home anymore? And her siblings, would they protect her even if she knew how to find them? She touched her neck, realising she had forgotten her collar. She realised she had nowhere to go and everyone in the villages below would call her a monster. The sun had fully risen and shone on the land below her. The golden wheat fields that stretched out endlessly and the mountains in the distance looked so beautiful, she thought.
How she wished she was never born…
A twig broke behind her and she shot around. A boy, about her age, came out from the bushes. He was wearing a simple straw hat and he looked at her indifferently. “What’s the matter? Are you lost?” he said.
Em dried her tears. She came to her legs and brushed the dirt off her dress, being careful not showing the left side of her neck. “Who are you?” She asked with a steady voice.
The boy blinked, a bit taken aback. “I’m Joseph, my family has a farm down the path there,” he said and pointed down the hill. He eyed her clothes. “Are you from the castle?”
Em stepped back. “N—No! I’m from…”
“Watch out!” the boy shouted and reached out to grab her wrist. But she wriggled out of his grip in panic and then she started falling. There was nothing but air beneath her and Em closed her eyes. This is for the best.
But as she fell, something caught her. The boy was holding her in his arms and great black wings splayed from his back, flapping desperately as they tried to make it back to the ledge. The boy crumbled and dropped her on the ground - gasping on his knees. Em observed him. His wings were half folded on his back and the sunlight gleamed through the thin skin of the wings, showing veins and bones. The boy slowly came to his legs and without the straw hat to hide his eyes she recognise him. “Hans?”
“What did you do that for?” He said, furiously.
“Sorry… I— I thought… I—.”
He sighed. “Just don’t do that again. I don’t think I can save you a second time,” he said and stretched his wings. He gritted his teeth and one of his fang’s popped out from under his lip. She stared at it but she didn’t find him scary, for some reason. “Is it… Is it difficult to fly?” She asked.
His wings disappeared behind his back like they’d never been. “No, not usually. Only when I have to carry someone,” he said accusingly.
Em blushed. “Okay, I said I’m sorry.” They looked awkwardly at one another. “You are Hans, right?”
“Hard to believe? I must be getting better,” he said proudly.
Em smiled. “What’s gonna happen to me now?”
“First I’m gonna get you back home. They’re all worried about you.”
Em thought it was ironic, only a moment ago, she doubted she even had a home and all along she’d been trying to run away from it. “Then what?”
“Then… Nothing, really. Nothing you don’t want to,” he said and offered his hand. His words were sincere and she accepted it. “Will it hurt?”
“Not if it’s done by someone you trust.”
They didn’t say a word to each other as they walked back to the castle and the awkwardness was heavy in the air. Ben and Jane were waiting for them, although, Jane looked different. She didn’t wear her bonnet anymore and she was shorter, although still as slender. She gave Em a soft smile and then looked sharply at Hans. “You scared her, didn’t you?”
Hans sighed. “I didn’t! I actually saved her, if you have to know,” he said.
Jane's eyes grew bigger and she was about bury them with questions when Ben interjected. “I’m sure they are alright, honey,” he said and kneeled in front of Em. “We are so sorry for deceiving you, Em, but we thought it was best to hide what we are.”
Jane stepped forward. “You should have known better. She could’ve handled it. I don’t understand why you had to insist on this ridiculous farce.”
Ben hunched his shoulders as Jane’s words rained down on him.
Em snickered. But even though she was immensely relieved she still felt a bitterness that had been nagging her for a while. “Why me? Why did you go to all this trouble to put the mark on me?”
Ben and Jane exchanged looks. “Em, there’s no such thing as the devil’s mark.”
“Well that’s convenient for you, isn’t it?!” Em erupted. “Everyone is afraid of me and… Emma told me, she—.”
Ben put his hands on her shoulders, looking her in the eyes. “One thing you must know about people is that they are very good at making up stories that make them afraid,” he said and stood, correcting his sleeves. “I don’t remember that part of myself anymore but my wife still has a knack for it,” he said and turned around.
Em gasped. Jane had vanished and Emma stood in her place, frail and old as ever. Although her eyes were more fiery and not as pale. “Jane?”
Jane smiled wrinkly. “We’ve kept an eye on you,” she said. Then, her skin seemed to be seething and she became a blur until Jane turned into her own size and her skin was smooth again.
“But why go through all this trouble for me?”
“It wasn’t entirely unselfish,” Ben said. “I wasn’t lying when I said we are lonely. We’ve been so for hundreds of years!”
“Does father know?”
Ben nodded. “A family secret,” he said with a wink.
“So what happens now?”
“Now, you become one of us and you’ll live with us in the castle. Shouldn’t be much of a change, really, only you’ll have a truer life with much more freedom!”
Em smiled wryly. “Do I have to drink blood?” Em asked.
Jane kneeled in front of her. “Yes dear, that’s something we can’t change. All I can promise is that it will taste divine.”
They all looked at her as Em considered this. Ben stared eagerly while Jane had a soft look about her. Hans did his best to not show what he was thinking but he wasn’t very successful.
“It won’t hurt,” Ben added.
Em took Hans hand. “I know.”