Starling hunched his shoulder as a clod of earth struck him in the back. Ducking his head, he tried to walk away but found himself surrounded by a ring of hostile faces.
“Leave me alone!” he muttered, injecting a tone of bravado he didn’t feel. The mood of the townsfolk was angry and frightened, a bad combination. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Amon’s wolfish form floating silently next to a hostler, black smoke drifting out between its bloodstained grin, full of sharp teeth and bright malice. He ignored it.
“Witchspawn!” spat another. “Whatcha do with our children, you little shit?”
“I didn’t do anything to your children!” Starling insisted, though he knew it was pointless. These people weren’t in the mood for reason or justice. They were looking for a scapegoat, someone to hurt to soothe the hurt that had been done them.
A woman, her eyes red from crying, screamed at him. “Liar!” He could see Focalor’s wasted form twining itself around her tenderly and licking the tears from her cheeks. She hooked her hands into claws and tore at her hair. “Oh, you stinking liar!”
Starling looked at her helplessly. How could he tell her that her baby was dead because of her, that she herself had drank willingly of the poisoned potion that soured her womb and strangled her child? That her shame was the source of her anger and her grief? She wouldn’t listen. None of them would.
“We saw the King talking to you,” a man to his left said belligerently.
“Yeah? Then you also saw him letting me go.” Starling shot back.
“Well, mabbe he did. But he didn’t look too happy about it, did he? Neither did Lord Pavel. I dunno what kind of yarn you spun to save your worthless hide but we know what you are.”
“Oh? Tell me, what am I?” asked Starling bitterly. He stood his ground, refusing to be cowed, refusing to apologize for the oddities that made people question his essential humanity. But the townsfolk saw his defiance as evidence of his complicity and their faces grew uglier.
“An abomination!” someone yelled. “Stealing our children for your dark masters!”
“My wife died in agony screaming because of you!” another man cried hoarsely. Starling saw Malphas standing behind him, the stinking feathers of its black cloak wrapped around the pale shade of the man’s wife. He wanted to close his eyes, but couldn’t.
“You were betrayed,” he gritted out. “By someone you love. Not me.” Useless. He might as well have been screaming into a storm. The circle around him drew tighter, and the grey evening air was thick with the coppery smell of violence. Starling peered into each pinched face, saw nothing but condemnation and felt despair. “Please—” he started.
“Shut your filthy gob,” said a heavyset farmhand, muscles lying under his fat like a slab, and backhanded Starling across the mouth. He reeled backwards where rough hands pushed him back into the center of the ring, swaying drunkenly. Blood dripped from his lip.
“Murderer!” a woman hissed, and spat in his face.
“Demonlover!” Someone shoved him viciously in the back, and he was driven to his knees, scrapping the skin off both palms as he fought to keep himself from plowing into the dirt face first. Starling lifted his head, clear grey eyes spitting contempt. Those who met his gaze took a step back, and made a warding gesture against evil.
“That won’t help you,” he said softly as he got unsteadily to his feet. “The evil is not out here, but in your hearts. Leave. Me. Alone. Please.” He poured all of his desperation into that last syllable, hoping against hope that they would listen.
For a moment, the crowd froze, uncertain. Then a sweet girl’s voice in the back called out, “Don’t believe him! You’ve seen him skulking around the edges of your houses and farms, you know no animals can stand to be near him, how crops wither in his presence. He lies! A pretty face to cover up his black heart. That is no boy! He is a monster in a child’s skin, preying on us! Put him down before he destroys any more families!”
To this, Starling could offer no defense. There was nothing he could say that he hadn’t already said. It looked like he wasn’t going to get out of this alive after all. Leraje closed its jaundiced hand over his trembling one and even though he couldn’t feel its touch, he was grateful. At least he wouldn’t be alone.
When the first rock was thrown, it veered ever so slightly so that it glanced off his shoulder instead of breaking his collarbone. And the second stone curved subtly to hit the meat of his thigh instead of nailing him in the groin. But soon, there was too many projectiles whizzing through the air and Starling staggered when one smashed his cheekbone, and another slammed squarely into his stomach, doubling him over. He dropped to the ground, curling up into a fetal position, biting his arm to stifle his sobs of pain as the merciless rain of stones continued. A particularly large rock bashed him on the side of the head and he felt the world go swimmy and gray. It hurt to breathe and his legs felt like they existed somewhere else, only dimly connected to his body. He wished for it to be over soon. From far away, he heard raised voices.
“Hey! Hey! What are you doing? Stop! In the name of the Watch, stop!”
But then an unkind boot kicked him onto his back and then stomped on his chest and Starling knew no more.