The Mark of Cain
The world had been a childish dream. Even as the acid had seeped into the veins of his forearm, staining it with the symbol of all the things he yearned and feared to hate, he had seen the goodness in everything, the great quests on which they would send him, the wonderful things that he would achieve. But too often the death’s head stain only brought disillusion. Once he had tried to wash it away, using all the spells and soap he could lay his hands upon, Kreacher looking on with something of pity in his hardened eyes.
Nothing. It remained. It would always remain, grinning at him as though it knew what he had attempted, as though it had seen through the layers of Blackness he had with time acquired, building them up around him to keep out the cold, or was it to keep in the warmth? He had some of that, though his brother had taken the greater share, all fire and light.
And he, Regulus, the little star, was always on the brink of burning out.
In his mind, he was, and always had been, the Black Prince, seeking to save the kingdom from ruin. His armour was his name, his sword a short, twisted wand. By his side was his loyal vassal, the only one who had taken the time to understand, to care.
He blinked, the smell of salt water too strong for his delicate nose. Too used to the smoky city air, he could not grasp the meaning of the ocean, its endless bounds and roaring currents. It splashed over his shoes, but he did not heed the biting chill. Hand extended to his vassal, he stepped forward into the darkness of the gaping mouth of the earth.
It was so easy to lose himself in these dreams, to pretend that none of it was real. It lessened the pain in his arm, that heavy mark of Cain burning and throbbing through his flesh. He did not know why there must be pain. It did not make him stronger. It did not increase his loyalty. It did all of the things it ought not to have done. Fragments of hate shot from his eyes and rang through his voice, but they thought it aimed at the mudbloods, the traitors, not at themselves and their great, noble cause.
Regulus looked upon the tainted ones and felt no hate. From afar, he watched them live as he could not. He watched them love and feel and be
. They had their dreams, but they remembered that there was something else, too. That freedom was theirs.
And he, what did he have but his wand, Kreacher, and his love of stories? Those heroic errant knights took little with them on their quests to ancient lands and distant places, so different from the dusky, tapestried walls of Grimmauld Place that were his prison. He looked out from those clouded panes upon the grey street and drank in his mother’s stories because he knew of nothing else, nor did he want to. It is your destiny, she had said, to do great things, to do your duty as a Black.
His brother had laughed, the brighter star, burning scarlet and gold, cloaked in black leather and fading denim, never neglecting to display his filial animosity. He was the one who stole off into the night, escaping the dark tower of his youth, but never would he cast off the Blackness. That, Regulus knew, would always remain.
It grasped him still, clutching at his throat, threatening to pull him beneath the raging waves. His feet slipped upon the water-smoothed rocks. Something about the ocean shook him, sending every nerve into electric shudders; each pounding wave was the beating of the earth’s own heart, counting down the minutes, the seconds, of his insignificant existence.
A task, the Dark Lord said, one long, skeletal finger beckoning him forward.
At last, a quest! For him, only him. Regulus’s heart had never known such pride. He was ready to throw himself at the feet of his lord to kiss the hem of his nightblack robes and profess all the love and loyalty of his open, youthful heart, but the cold eyes of the lord chilled that heart, stilling the juvenile energy that threatened to burst forth. Obedient, Regulus knelt to accept the task, his mind a silent void, his dreams falling at his feet when he heard all that was required: his house elf.
There would be no quest, no glory, only the sacrifice of his vassal, who returned with a broken soul, madness in his eyes. In the bowels of the prison, shrinking against the kitchen sink, he commanded Kreacher to speak, to tell the tale that could not be untold.
Did not the knights of Arthur weep? This knight did, his tears rising the house elf’s tattered rags.
One stab to his heart. One spark of light in the soul of a Black.
It did not take long for the next to come. The lord’s summons this time brought no visions of glory. There were no great battles, no honour. Only pain.
The lord spoke of the brother, the dog-star that rode high in the heavens, defying the darkness with all the arrogance of a Black and all the courage of a Gryffindor. When the Dark Lord gave his command, his voice was like thunder, shredding the air with a murderous blast.
He could not breathe. The water was already drowning him, the mist that filled the air now also filling his lungs, its salty flavour puckering his cheeks. That moment, those words, they had killed him instead. So he was to be Cain, the murderer, the betrayer of a brother’s trust. No matter if that brother did not care. Regulus did. He always had. This was his test, the assurance of his loyalty to the lord of darkness. It would not have been difficult to carry out the order. There were a thousand ways to kill, if only one was willing to relinquish his soul.
Regulus would keep his soul at the price of his life. He was not afraid. There was nothing to fear in death.
He looked upon the wall of stone, the gates of a castle stronghold. Impenetrable, they would say. An impossible task. Like asking a boy to kill the brother he secretly worshipped. One was not allowed to look to the gods of flame, only those of darkness, but Regulus – yes! – defied them. He defied them all in his thoughts. He defied them by standing in the most impossible of places, by doing the most impossible of things.
He wished to battle the dragons and wild beasts that threatened the kingdom, doing service to his lord as he was bid, bringing glory to his family name, but in this world of darkness and lies, his quest had changed, become greater, bolder, more brilliant. He looked upon the gaping mouth of the cave and thrilled at the chase, the glory, the pride. It was all within his grasp, but not in the right way. He had made a change, tossing aside the consequences like an unwanted glove, knowing that, whatever happened, whatever was the cost, he would pay it with an untainted heart.
This was his destiny. This was the final battle at the gates of the Castle Perilous. Within, he would find the Holy Grail. Within, he would seal his fate.
He. Regulus. Cain. The cursed brother, damned to wander the world’s wilds alone and despised by all who heard his name. Or was he the valiant knight, off to rid the world of its greatest evil, the cruel tyrant who etched his name across the clouds, vainly seeking immortality where none was to be found. Cain knew this. The knight knew this. But the gleaming serpent never knew what he had released by tempting the first mother. Pandora never saw the hope that lurked in the corners of the forbidden box. It was the law of all nature that opposites should be inextricably linked. The Dark Lord would never see that immortality could only exist in death.
The Grail was false, its jewels no more than charmed rocks, its gold peeling away to reveal sickly pewter. He had no choice but to destroy it.
His world had been a childish dream, now shattered, crushed underfoot. He had changed changed so much since those days when he had thought himself capable of all manner of things, all brilliant things, glittering like jewels in the sun. Shade drew too soon over his face. It began to mirror the death’s head etched into his flesh.
Standing before the castle gates, he took a blade from his robes and looked down at the darkening mark upon his arm. It glowed and grinned, mocking his courage, burning deeper than before. He was being summoned. Failure to report on the success of his task. Failure to complete the task. He would bear the punishment – death – without the batting of an eye. It was more than a mere equation of his life for that of his brother. It was his life and that of his master in exchange for all the world. Those Muggles could live out their lives and never know what had been done.
He pressed the blade against the Dark Mark, the brand of Cain.
Kreacher clutched at his robes, tears running down his wrinkled cheeks. He let out a single cry. Blood dripped down the rock wall. It rumbled; the gates opened.
The knight let his progress be halted by his vassal, who hastily wrapped the wound, the death’s head carved in twain, its power still binding, the noose tightening around his neck, but Regulus did not heed it. He did not feel the pain. It was buried deep beneath the dream. It was his only armour, the only way for him to continue on until the end. It would not be long.
He thought of how he had tried to see Sirius one last time. For hours he watched the tiny room where he knew Sirius lived and the light that hardly ever burned. Regulus saw the silhouette against the window. He saw his chance to set himself free, to let his star shine brighter, but then the light had gone out, and he drifted away. Sirius had a home. Sirius had the world. Sirius was safe. Better that he never knew the truth. That his brother – the weaker, the quieter, the lesser – had died for him.
Would Sirius have done the same? Would the brighter star give its light to another? He knew the answer. He buried it deep. Let that die instead. Let Sirius live.
The ocean still roared behind him. He would never understand it now.
The castle hall was just as his vassal had described. Kreacher shuddered at the sight, but Regulus strode forward, wand carelessly in hand. He saw it all so clearly in his mind. He remembered all of the stories, all of the little details that made them seem so real. More than seems. He knew not seems, one thing masquerading as another. The dream never wore a mask. It never lied. It made the world beautiful, transforming a prison into a universe, a lonely boy into a valiant prince.
It did not take long to reach the tiny island where the Grail lay. He already knew what he was meant to do, first with the boat across the lake of death – touch not the water for there the dead rest
– then to the charmed, cursed basin – forget the world you leave behind, little knight, drink from the Lethe and join the dead
. Kreacher sobbed with every breath, begging to take his master’s place, but Regulus was not like that. Regulus was not the Dark Lord. Free from guilt, from every shadow of imagined sin, he swallowed the potion, one cup after another, and let his mind fall away amidst the house elf’s cries. Kreacher would be obedient. He would do his part. He would replace the locket and re–
The dreams ran together, colours mixing into newer, brighter shades, unlike anything he had ever seen before and would see again. He was the Black Prince and Henry the Fifth, racing into battle. He was Sir Galahad and Sir Percival, virtuous and true. He was all the knights and all the kings, all the heroes across the span of time. He felt their pain, tasted their glory. They lived again as his star fell dim, the lights and colours growing thin, the air cold.
At the last he was Hamlet in the death of a Danish winter, Horatio’s tears washing the mark of Cain from the bandaged wrist of the greatest of all the knights, a boy of seventeen.
With a final flicker, the light burnt out.
Perhaps you will make more sense of this story than I can. It's meant to be somewhat abstract, leaping around in time and space in a pseudo-stream of consciousness style. There's a bit of Bible, English history, and "Hamlet" floating throughout this - "He knew not seems" is from Hamlet's line in Act 1, Scene 2. The quote from the summary was something I decided on before "The Dark Knight Rises" increased its popularity.
This story doesn't feel finished yet to me (no story ever does), so if you have any suggestions you would think would improve the story, please let me know.