(A/N – This is the third and final part of the Prologue. I had originally wanted it only to be two parts, but it just got too long. Many thanks to my wonderful beta, Polly Moopers!)
Lozère, April 1854
Erik plucked restlessly at the rough linen coverlet. He had been in the infirmary for two weeks, in a room by himself, tended by the sisters and occasionally seen by the doctor. It seemed an endless age to be isolated. He felt fine – better than fine. He felt strong. But the doctor had refused to let him out, and though Sister Marie-Thérèse visited him daily, he had seen none of the other sisters or children at all. It was all so odd, and he was frustrated. Really, the way they behaved, you'd think he'd died.
He put a hand up to the damaged side of his face. He could feel the puckered skin along the scars; they itched sometimes. Sister Marie-Thérèse had an ointment made with olive oil that helped a bit. But aside from a slight stiffness on that part of his face, he felt no ill effects from the attack at all. The stitches had come out days ago.
There was a soft knock at the door, and Sister Marie-Thérèse entered with that odd, sideways gait she now affected. Erik thought she did it to avoid his gaze, though he couldn't imagine why. He wished she'd stop; it made her look like a giant crab. He began to smile at the thought, then felt a bit guilty. She'd always been kind to him.
"I've brought you something." Sister Marie-Thérèse said timidly.
"I hope it's something to do," Erik said. "I shall die of boredom soon."
Sister Marie-Thérèse swallowed. "It's something to wear. Something that will help you."
"What help do I need? I'm fine; look," Erik tossed aside the bedclothes and stood, solidly. "I don't feel dizzy or weak in the slightest. I have no need of bandages or crutches. But I do need my clothes – I'm getting tired of wearing this nightshirt. Have you brought me my clothes?" He asked, sounding hopeful.
"Not yet. Why don't you see how this fits, first?" She held out an oddly-shaped piece of brown canvas.
"What is it?"
"It's a mask. I made it for you myself. See, the top part is like a little hat, and this part here comes down to cover the – the hurt part of your face, and there is a strap to hold it on. It ties in the back. I used your winter cap for sizing, but I'd like you to see if it fits." She looked almost shy.
Erik laughed. "I'm not wearing that! What kind of a fool would I look like, wearing a thing like that?"
Sister Marie-Thérèse blinked, and he realized that he had very likely hurt her feelings.
"I'm sorry, Sister, it's just – what on Earth is it for? I've never seen anyone wearing such a contraption. How Georges would tease! Surely the doctor doesn't still fear infection? I'm well, I tell you. And," he added slyly, "I heard him say that the risk of infection was over."
There was certainly nothing wrong with the boy's hearing, Sister Marie-Thérèse thought. The doctor had been out in the hall when he'd told her that, and she had thought the door was shut. It must have been left open a crack. Well, there was no getting around it. She had dreaded this.
"Erik – the mask – the thing that happened to you, well, you are different now. Yes, you are well! And we are all so happy," she said, though she did not look happy; she looked worried. "But we thought it would be better – we all thought – better for you and for others. It's so unpleasant when people stare."
Erik looked at her as if she had lost her mind. "You think people won't stare if I'm wearing that? Where is a mirror?" He looked around, noticing for the first time that everything reflective had vanished from the room. "Sister," he said urgently. "Will you please bring me a mirror?"
"I really don't think – "
"I want to see myself."
Sister Marie-Thérèse turned and fled from the room. She'd wished she could spare him this. It hurt her heart to see him standing there, looking so vulnerable, and yet with that face! She had faith that everything happened according to God's plan, but it was hard – so hard! – to see such an affliction visited on a small boy. And one who had been as beautiful as an angel! She wiped a tear, and composed herself. When she returned to Erik's room, she brought a small hand mirror and the Director of the orphanage with her.
"I should warn you, Erik, that your appearance has changed," M. Guillaume said.
"I want to see."
Sister Marie-Thérèse handed him the mirror with no comment.
At first, Erik thought that they were playing some sort of trick. He didn't recognize himself. He raised a hand, and the reflected figure raised one, too; otherwise he'd never have known himself.
The skin on the damaged part of his face had healed, it was true, but it was now crisscrossed and distorted by a network of raised, red, scars and welts. He looked like he'd been stitched together out of rags. The cheek on that side was sunken and hollow, the skin stretched tight between cheekbone and jaw; the underlying muscle must have withered or been damaged. He could still chew, but he looked like a death's head. His upper lip was higher on one side than on the other, giving him a permanent sneer. Part of his nose had been torn away, one side ending in a ragged strip of cartilage instead of a rounded nostril. The skin around his right eye was pulled down by the scars, making that eye appear larger than the other.
"It's a miracle your vision wasn't damaged," said the Director, noticing his scrutiny.
Erik only looked at him and went back to studying the mirror. M. Guillaume fell silent again.
Scars ran across his scalp as well, and there was a lone streak of grey in his jet-black hair. Erik turned his head from side to side. From one side, he looked the same as he always had – maybe even better. His eyes were a brighter yellow, and his skin had the glow of health. But from the other side, he was a goblin.
Erik looked up at the two adults. "Will this go away?" he asked.
"I'm afraid not," the Director said.
"I'll look like this always?"
"The doctor said that the scars will shrink and fade in color over time, but they will never go away entirely."
Erik thought for a moment, his hands playing with the mirror.
"Am I ugly now?"
Sister Marie-Thérèse blushed crimson and looked at her feet. M. Guillaume coughed. The boy had a way of cutting directly to the heart of matters, and he was clearly waiting for an answer.
"Your appearance has changed," M. Guillaume repeated. "Some people will find the change startling."
"God loves all his creatures equally," Sister Marie-Thérèse put in.
That was enough. Erik held his hand out for the mask. "I'll wear it," he said. "I don't care how attractive people find me, but I do not wish to feel their eyes upon me."
The mask was given and accepted. Sister Marie-Thérèse reached for the mirror, but Erik held onto it. "I need to get used to my new face," he said.
The adults hesitated, but Erik had fallen into a sullen silence.
They left, closing the door behind them. There was an awkward pause.
"He took that rather well…considering," Sister Marie-Thérèse said after a moment.
"You can never tell with him."
Behind them, they heard the sound of the hand mirror being thrown to the floor and smashed.
He was outside at night again, but this time he wasn't going to go anywhere near the forest. It was well past midnight. Erik had waited until the orphanage was silent, then stolen up to the dormitories and made his clothes into a small bundle. With the he wrapped three apples he'd taken from the kitchen. He left his prized pennywhistle, his one musical instrument, on the table beside the sleeping Georges, who had often admired it in the past.
Now he was free. What he'd do with that freedom he'd yet to determine. He looked back at the orphanage and thought he saw a candle flickering in one of the windows. Perhaps Sister Marie-Thérèse, bidding him farewell? He had a feeling she'd understand his need to go. She'd always understood him better than anyone.
Erik raised a hand, and saw the candle flame go out. He put on the mask and began walking through the darkness on the road to Saint-Étienne.