Warnings: Implied witch-burning, religious themes
A/N: Written for originalfic_las for the prompt: "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster." — Friedrich Nietzsche. This has been edited and expanded from the original version.
Summary: A father would do anything to save his daughter.
Marcus wrung his cap in his hands nervously as the priest’s servant looked over his stock of logs. Many of them were decorated with enigmatic drawings in mud, and a veritable flock of cats swarmed over them, watching them both.
“Are they dry, woodcutter? Well-seasoned? These aren’t going to send up huge clouds of smoke, are they?”
Marcus was puzzled by the questions, and let his confusion show to cover the solid freezing knot of fear in his stomach. He scuffed his toe over more of his daughter’s drawings in the dust of the yard and tried to keep his voice even when he replied.
“No sir. Clean-burning they are, and hot. Kept dry and aged well.”
The priest’s servant nodded shortly and signaled to the driver to bring the wagon around.
“We’ll take a full load. And may God bless you.”
As the wagon drove away, Eve emerged from where she’d been playing in the woods, a cat cradled in her arms.
“What are they burning, Papa?” she asked in her dreamy voice.
Marcus reached out to embrace her, but did not have the heart to answer.
“We need more,” the priest’s servant said as leapt down from the wagon. It was a larger one than last time. “And it must be blessed. Father Robillar has come to do it himself.”
Marcus stood aside as the tall, well-fed priest descended from his rich carriage, altar boys scrambling in his wake, carrying holy water and oil, and a priceless illuminated Bible.
“Woodcutter Marcus,” the priest said, with a ponderous nod of his bearded head. “God smiles upon you for this service. You and your daughter.” Father Robillar’s gaze turned towards Eve.
Eve smiled vacantly at her father from her position at the priest’s horses. She whispered nonsense in their ears and petted them, utterly enchanted. Fear touched Marcus with freezing fingers as the priest watched her closely before turning his gaze back to him.
“The wood will burn hot?” Father Robillar asked.
“It will, Father.” Marcus’ voice came out as a whisper.
“Then blessings be upon you.” And the priest raised his hand in benediction.
Three wagons rolled into Marcus’ yard, along with Father Robillar’s carriage.
“My bishop is quite pleased, woodcutter Marcus. The burning was very hot.” The priest waved them inside, deigning to sit at Marcus’ table and drink from his cup.
Marcus stared at the ground as Eve drew meaningless pictures in the ashes of the hearth, humming tunelessly as she did.
“The bishop wants three wagonloads this time, woodcutter.”
Eve looked up at the richly-dressed priest and smiled, her head crowned with a wreath of daisies. A half-dozen cats dozed at her feet adoringly. The priest glanced over at her once before returning his iron-hard eyes to Marcus.
“The sinners are cleansed by the holy fire of God. Rejoice that you are called to be a part of this.”
“I’ve trees that need felled, Father,” Marcus said, standing up abruptly, needing to be anywhere but here.
The priest tossed a pouch marked with the bishop’s signet on the table, clinking metallically, as Eve cradled on of the cats in her arms and spoke to it softly.
“One shall not suffer a witch to live, Marcus. We do God’s work here,” Father Robillar said evenly.
“What price your suffering?” Marcus asked sharply, before staring back at the floor, appalled with himself.
The priest’s eyes hardened. “The bishop requires five wagonloads next time, woodcutter. Many still await purification.”
That week, Marcus could see the red glow from the distant cathedral painting the sky. He imagined he could also hear the screams. When he woke up, his dreams full of fire, he focused his gaze on his daughter, sleeping in pure innocence, a kitten at her side, and tried to pray to be forgiven.
“Papa, why is Uncle Pierre sad?”
Marcus let his axe fall to the ground with a thud as Eve’s question penetrated his fatigue. He has been felling many, many trees as of late to fuel the bishop’s fires.
“He was crying today. The bishop’s pretty horses came with a wagon and they took Yvonne for a ride, but Uncle Pierre was sad,” Eve said, letting a kitten bat at a flower she dangled from her fingers.
“He must miss Yvonne,” Marcus said, feeling a terrible tightness in his throat.
Eve did not smile as she climbed upon her father’s chopping block.
“The horses will come back. They will come back and take more people for a ride to the city. And they will take your logs and they will take the people to the cathedral and the sky will glow red because I’ve seen it glow red,” she said all in a rush. “I talked to the horses and the men with the horses talked and I listened. Angelique and Claudine and Dione will go to see the bishop.”
Marcus could feel his face growing hot with unshed tears as Eve spoke. Her flower wreath upon her head made her look regal, even as the cats began to jump on her lap to take advantage of her unfailing generosity.
“But I will not go, because my papa gives the bishop his logs.”
“No, little one. You will not go,” Marcus said in a whisper.
“Papa,” she said, and reached out to touch his cheek with her slim hand. “I will go.”
His daughter stood up on the chopping block and dropped a kiss on her father’s head, like the Virgin bestowing forgiveness upon a penitent.
When Father Robillar returned, the flames could be seen for miles. Marcus was waiting for him on the road, in front of the funeral pyre of his livelihood, the immense piles of wood setting up a furnace inferno of heat. A daisy chain wreath dangled from Marcus’ fingers, and a dazed and scorched kitten was firmly clutched in his hand. Tears cut runnels in the soot upon his face.
The priest’s carriage stopped in front of him, and Father Robillar flung open the door, a furious scowl on his face.
“Woodcutter, the bishop’s firewood! What is the meaning of this?”
“No more, Father. There is no more,” Marcus said listlessly, almost unheard in the roar of the flames.
“And where is your daughter?” Father Robillar asked dangerously.
“She has been blessed, Father. God and his angels have blessed her.” New tears ran down his face to stain Marcus’ shirt turned back to the flames. They burned hot and clean, with little smoke, just as he had promised.
“You have courage, my son,” the priest said, eyes narrowed against the heat. “God will favor you for this.”
Marcus watched Father Robillar drive away, before turning his face to uncaring Heaven.