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Before the Fall

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  • Before the Fall

    Click image for larger version  Name:	Before the fall2.jpg Views:	8 Size:	826.3 KB ID:	368




    Summary: In the land between the rivers, near the banks of the Tigris, lies a sleepy village where something dark is stirring. Epheriel, the angel assigned to watch over this village, senses hatred and ill will toward the village hero Jair, though it knows not from whom. Epheriel wants to protect Jair, who is the most beautiful mortal it has ever seen, but is it worth revealing divinity and risking the wrath of Heaven?

    Rating: Mature

    Content warning: Some violence

    Status: Complete

    Beta reader:
    Wgray
    Scribe in Command
    Wgray

    Scribe's Notes: This story takes place around 2000 BC, in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. I don't think I've ever put this much research into any story before, because even though a lot of artistic license has gone into writing this, I wanted to at least somewhat do the period justice. A lot of themes and plot points in this story are inspired by the Old Testament, angelic lore, apocrypha, and Jewish mysticism (yet again with quite a bit of artistic license), which adds another layer of research. I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labour.

    Table of Content:

    Part One: Ascent
    Part Two: Soaring
    Part Three: The Fall
    Thorn Wilde
    Second Scribe in Command
    Last edited by Thorn Wilde; 09-06-2020, 02:40 PM.

  • #2
    Part One: Ascent


    The day was grey and wet. It had seen the first rainfall of the season and the dry earth underneath had turned to mud. Epheriel watched the world, the way it knew it must. It was its nature. It was a watcher, a lower caste of angel, created to observe mankind and nothing more.

    It had been assigned this little part of this little world to watch. It was a small village, with kind little people, though lately, Epheriel had sensed a disturbance among them. Someone here carried evil intent.

    The dark, dusk-like quality of the day was not an advantage to Epheriel. Had it been sunny, the angel would have been completely invisible, but in this light, its faintly glowing, shadowy form would risk being seen if it circled down to watch closer. But then the sun broke through the clouds and Epheriel took advantage of the light and flew down to the little village. Once there, it changed its form into that of a small bird and flew to one of the straw-covered rooftops. It knew this rooftop well, for it had spent many a hot, sunny day up there watching the one who lived in this house; a young man of twenty years by the name of Jair.

    Jair was known throughout his whole village as a kind man and a fierce warrior. He abhorred killing but would do anything to keep his village and the ones he loved safe. All of that was enough to pique the angel’s interest, but Epheriel often watched Jair for the simple reason of his beauty. He looked much like other men, with dark hair, dark eyes, and dusky skin, but his eyes blazed with passion and love for all living things and his goodness shone about him like a bright light. Epheriel longed to bask in that light, to feel its heat, if only for a moment.

    So Epheriel watched Jair every day. Watched as he hunted in the forest and ate in the evening. When he woke up in the morning, and when he went to sleep at night. Epheriel watched the village, but most of all, it watched Jair.

    Jair did not have any wives, the way other villagers did. He lived alone in his small house. No wives, no children, no family at all, for his father had passed some years ago, and Jair had no siblings but one who died in the womb with his mother when Jair was but a child. Yet he was never short on company, for all the villagers loved him and wanted to be near him. Perhaps they, too, could sense his light, even if they could not see it. Had Epheriel not been one itself, it might have thought Jair was an angel.

    But alas, he was not, and soon he would vanish from this world, as all mortal men must, their lives gone in but the blink of an eye. Epheriel mourned the day when Jair’s light would go out, extinguished forever, and Epheriel must go on watching the world alone.

    Suddenly, Epheriel once more felt the presence of evil intent. It looked around, but too many people were gathered in the village square. It looked around at the two men lighting the guard’s fire for the night, the women cooking food and making pottery, the children playing games, the old men chatting quietly. And the houses around were also full of life, mothers nursing, babies sleeping. It was difficult to isolate those thoughts, that intent.

    And then, there he was. Epheriel felt it before it saw it. It turned its little bird’s head and saw Jair exit the forest, carrying four large rabbits over his shoulder. Other men followed behind him, carrying other felled prey. All carried bows and arrows or spears on their backs. They were far away, but Epheriel could tell Jair apart from the others, for he shone bright as the sun. When the villagers saw the hunters return, the evil thought was drowned out by a wave of joy as several children ran to greet them. Just before that happened, however, the thought had been empowered and Epheriel had felt sickened by a lash of hatred. Hatred aimed toward the beautiful Jair.

    Ω

    Jair awoke suddenly. He felt a presence in his home but could see nothing when he sat up. The house was dark save for the faint embers of his hearth, but he was a hunter with keen eyesight and yet he could not see the presence he felt so strongly. But then, in a room full of shadows, it is hard to tell one shadow from another.

    Movement. Jair sat up straight and stared into the shadows. He crawled out from under his furs and crept naked across the dirt floor, to the table where his oil lamp stood. He struck the flint until the wick lit and a small flame flickered, and then he saw the smoke swirl around a shadow that was not a human shadow. A shadow that stood in the room, across the table from him, cast by no light. Jair instinctively reached for his knife.

    ‘Do not be afraid,’ whispered the shadow. ‘I will not harm you.’

    Jair frowned and lowered the knife. The flame was growing brighter, and as he watched the smoke dance about the shadow, he realised it was glowing faintly in the lamplight. ‘What are you?’ he asked, realising that this was a more important question than ‘who’.

    ‘I am a watcher,’ replied the shadow. ‘I am the sort of creature your people call angels.’

    ‘My father saw an angel once,’ said Jair. ‘He said it shone bright as the sun. You’re no angel.’

    ‘Angels come in different forms, Jair,’ said the shadow. Its voice was clear, pure, and could not be identified as male or female. ‘I am . . . a lesser angel.’

    ‘How do you know my name?’ asked Jair suspiciously.

    ‘As I said. I am a watcher. I have watched you and your village for some time. My name is Epheriel.’

    ‘Why are you watching me?’

    ‘I am watching your village,’ Epheriel corrected him. ‘Watching you is . . . part of that.’

    ‘If that’s true, then why are you in my house in the middle of the night?’ asked Jair. ‘Why are you not up there, watching the entire village?’

    ‘I came to warn you,’ said Epheriel. ‘You are the best hunter and greatest warrior of this village, are you not? There is someone amongst you, Jair, who harbours evil intent. Someone who wishes to destroy you. I am not yet certain who it is, but he bears you ill will. I am guarding you.’

    Jair sat still by the lamp for a little while, looking at the shadow in the dark. But as his eyes grew accustomed, its features seemed to grow a bit clearer. It was man-shaped, slim. Its form shimmered like the air on a hot day. Its face was human and carried a warm, kind smile, and it had, he now saw, wings on its back, which glowed brighter than the rest of it. It was beautiful.

    It had not tried to hurt him yet.

    As if reading his mind, Epheriel said, ‘Go to sleep. I will wake you if danger comes. I will be here, watching.’

    Jair nodded. He believed the angel. He had a strong feeling that a creature like that could not lie even if it wanted to. He put out his light, crawled back under the furs on his simple wooden bed, and after a while, he fell asleep.
    Ω

    Jair woke up the following morning to find bright sunlight streaming into his house through the window and the smoke hole. He sat upright and looked about the room. He could not see the shadow of Epheriel anywhere. ‘Watcher?’ he whispered. ‘Are you there?’

    ‘I am here,’ replied the voice of the angel. ‘You cannot see me in all this light. And my name is Epheriel. Surely your monkey brain can remember as much?’

    Jair frowned. ‘I remember. There’s no need to be sarcastic.’

    Epheriel was silent for a moment. ‘I apologise,’ it said at last. ‘I am . . . unaccustomed to conversing with mortals. I shall try harder.’

    ‘And I’ll try harder to call you Epheriel,’ said Jair and smiled.

    Epheriel quivered upon hearing its name uttered from those lips, and it longed suddenly to touch them. So much so that it hurt to see that bright figure before it. There was something special about Jair. His goodness shone brighter than most angels.

    ‘Get dressed, Jair,’ it said. Even though Jair could not see where it was looking in the bright morning light, Epheriel turned away from his nakedness as he stood. Mortals, it knew, were shy creatures who felt shame about their bodies. Epheriel found it strange, for the Lord had made them that way because it was the most beautiful form They could imagine. Epheriel had never understood why, until now.

    ‘So, who is this person who harbours evil thoughts?’ asked Jair.

    In its awe of being so near the young man, Epheriel had nearly forgotten about its original purpose in coming here. ‘I do not know,’ it said. ‘That is why I am watching you. So that I will be able to tell you when I find out.’

    ‘How will you know?’ asked Jair, wrapping his skirt around his waist.

    ‘My perception of feelings is vague,’ said Epheriel. ‘I can sense a thought or feeling in someone, but if there are many people present I cannot see who the thought or feeling belongs to.’

    ‘But now, with only you and I, you can read my thoughts?’ Jair turned in the general direction of Epheriel’s voice and tried to see it. He thought he saw a shimmer in the air and focused on that.

    ‘I could, but I choose not to,’ said Epheriel, who stood a bit to the right of where Jair was looking, the shimmer but a trick of the light.

    ‘And what if I were the one harbouring evil intent?’ asked Jair, giving up his search and tying on his belt to hold the skirt up.

    ‘You are not,’ replied Epheriel simply. ‘I sense the thought when you are not present, and why should you harbour such hatred toward yourself?’ It chose not to mention the light of goodness that shone about the young man at all times.

    Jair said nothing, slid his knife into his belt, and exited the hut. He always rose with the sun, and only a few people had emerged from their houses to begin the day’s work. The men who had been on watch throughout the night were returning to their homes to sleep until midday. Epheriel followed Jair down to the stream, where he filled his waterskin. Epheriel remained silent. It knew that Jair felt its presence, like he had in the house the previous night.

    ‘Are you male or female, Epheriel?’ he asked, taking a sip from the skin.

    ‘Neither,’ Epheriel replied. ‘Angels have no sex.’

    Jair nodded thoughtfully. ‘I see.’ It made sense. Why should angels have gender? They were immortal beings and they did not, he supposed, procreate as mortal creatures did. The thought made him blush and he turned away from Epheriel’s voice, setting off back toward the village.

    As they reached the village again, Epheriel suddenly felt the evil intent. It was overwhelmingly strong, and the angel was forced to stop. It felt as though something clenched at its entire being and crushed it briefly. But then the feeling ebbed and Epheriel looked around fearfully. There were more people about now, but it could not be certain which of them had thought it. Women were walking down to the stream to fetch water for cooking. Men were talking loudly, children were playing, and two young girls were chatting in hushed tones, glancing occasionally at the young hunters and giggling. Their gazes lingered on Jair, and Epheriel could sense their emotions clearly. It felt a pang of something it had not experienced before and realised it was jealousy.

    Shaking its thoughts, Epheriel pulled up close to Jair and whispered in his ear, ‘I felt it again. Do not answer now, but try to think: Whom here do you not trust?’

    Ω

    Darkness was falling. As always at this time, the hearths were lit in the many houses in the village. Jair circled most nights, eating with one family or another and always welcome anywhere. This night, he had been invited to share his meal with the village Elder and his family. He was a large, round man of nearly fifty; an old man. He had six children with his two wives. Four of them were married, three of them with children and the fourth with one on the way. His two married daughters were not present; one had been wed to a man in a neighbouring village and the other, Eleora, ate with her husband the bronzesmith’s family, as was custom.

    Epheriel had turned itself into a little insect and sat quietly on Jair’s shoulder. They were all drinking wine while they waited for the four large rabbits to cook; the same rabbits Jair had caught the previous day. They all sat on stools around the large table by the hearth, ten people, including Jair, as the children had already eaten, and as the last rays of the sun disappeared behind the mountains in the east, the Elder put down his cup and blessed their food.

    ‘Oh, El Shaddai, we ask that you bless this meal and us who partake in it, and that you protect us from the evils in the dark.’

    Jair bowed his head while the Elder spoke. The rituals humans constructed around their beliefs fascinated Epheriel, as did the names they gave their deities. El Shaddai, God the Almighty. El Elyon, God Most High. All versions of the same. It wondered for a moment whether it should tell Jair some of this, but decided at last that the divine was not for it to reveal.

    The rabbits were done now and the younger of the Elder’s wives began to dish out food; chunks of rabbit, fresh-baked bread, figs and dates. Then they ate.

    ‘I’ve never seen anybody else hunt the way you do,’ said the Elder’s youngest son, Joseph. He was fourteen and also a hunter, but still a novice. ‘Your rabbit traps are very clever, and the way you shot that gazelle last week . . .’

    ‘Thank you.’ Jair smiled. ‘Glory to El Shaddai. I’m sure He guides my arrows.’

    ‘Don’t underrate your own talent, Jair,’ said Joseph’s eldest brother. ‘False modesty doesn’t become you.’

    ‘Shimon!’ said the Elder sharply. ‘I won’t have you disrespecting our village’s mightiest warrior! Modesty is a virtue in the eyes of the Lord.’

    ‘Sorry, Father.’ Shimon had the decency to look ashamed. ‘I beg your pardon, Jair. I didn’t mean to cause offence.’

    ‘You did not,’ said Jair, still smiling.

    ‘May I fill your cup, Jair?’ said Miryam, the Elder’s youngest daughter and Joseph’s twin, who was not yet married. She was a stout, pretty girl of fourteen. She smiled at Jair.

    ‘Thank you.’ He offered up his cup and she filled it with wine. Jair tried to ignore the look she gave him while she poured. He knew the women of the village found him handsome. He knew he was a skilled hunter and that he was perceived as a great warrior. It was little wonder that some of the girls were interested in him.

    Epheriel also perceived Miryam’s interest. It could sense her intent in offering attentions to Jair, though angelic senses were not strictly needed for it. She was overt enough, staring at him for some time, taking in his muscular arms and beautiful face, and then blushing before looking away again.

    The Elder, too, seemed to have noticed this. ‘Jair,’ he said. ‘You have taken no wives, have you?’

    Jair was taken aback by the question. Epheriel felt a rush of the same emotion it had felt in the village square that morning. ‘No, Elder,’ said Jair at last. ‘I haven’t.’

    The Elder hummed in his deep voice. ‘My Miryam is a strong girl,’ he continued. ‘She could bear you many sons, and she’s pure. I can pay a good dowry if you want her.’

    Miryam blushed bright red. Epheriel felt Jair’s indecision. The Elder said nothing more, but looked intently at Jair, studying his expression. His sons and their wives were pretending not to listen in but had stopped eating, and it was quiet around the table.

    Jair did not wish to cause conflict, but he did not wish to marry Miryam either. She was a beautiful young girl, and her father spoke the truth; she was strong and pure. Yet he felt no interest in her.

    ‘Decline!’ Epheriel whispered urgently from its perch near Jair’s ear. ‘You must not accept. Please!’ It could not explain to itself why it was so adamant.

    Jair hesitated only a moment longer. ‘I’m sorry, Elder, but I can’t accept your kind offer,’ he said, casting down his gaze.

    ‘Hm. Why not?’ the Elder demanded.

    Jair licked his lips, then said the first thing that came into his head. ‘I am . . . watched by angels.’ The women gasped and the Elder frowned. ‘I have sworn to wed no woman,’ Jair continued, his eyes meeting the Elder’s once again. ‘I’m sorry. This is why I have no wives. I’m sworn to El Shaddai.’
    Ω

    ‘Do you understand what blasphemy you just spoke?’ said Epheriel angrily. They were in Jair’s house and it had returned to its own form. In only the dim firelight, it was quite visible now. ‘You lied in the Lord’s name! You are not sworn to El Shaddai! If it hears . . . Oh, if They heard . . . Do you realise what would happen to me?’

    ‘Would you have preferred me to wed Miryam?’ Jair spun around to face the angel. ‘You told me to decline. I had to say something! I did what I must, Epheriel. And it worked, didn’t it? No fights, no arguments, and no one was hurt. And . . . It was only half a lie. I am watched by angels.’

    ‘You are watched by one angel.’

    Jair fell silent. He turned his back on the angel and took a deep breath. ‘But you are here,’ he said, turning to face it once more. ‘You won’t leave me, will you, Epheriel?’

    ‘No, Jair,’ replied Epheriel with a sigh. ‘I will not. But I cannot protect you. I can only watch. My physical form is of softer material than yours.’

    ‘But you can take other forms,’ said Jair. ‘Could you take that of a man?’

    ‘Perhaps,’ said Epheriel. ‘I have never tried. But the fact that I can change my shape at will is proof of how inconstant my physical form is. I . . . I am only a watcher. I am not among the higher choirs of the Heavenly Host. I was not made to fight or protect. I am . . . fragile.’ It hated to say it, as much as it was true. It wished with all its being that it could protect Jair from whatever evil wanted to hurt him.

    ‘Yes,’ said Jair and they both fell silent. ‘I am sorry, Epheriel,’ he said after a few moments. ‘So sorry. I don’t want to cause you any trouble. If they are to punish anyone, it should be me.’

    ‘No, Jair.’ Epheriel sighed. ‘You are the last person who should be punished. If you only knew . . . I see such goodness in you.’

    Jair smiled sadly. ‘I fear then you’ve been deceived, or are deceiving yourself. There’s nothing special about me.’

    He turned away and began to undress for bed. Epheriel averted its eyes, not wishing to intrude, but it was hard not to look at the beautiful form before it, the rippling archer’s muscles under skin that looked so warm.

    ‘I thought about what you asked,’ said Jair. ‘About who could hold a grudge against me.’ He sat down on his bed and carefully began to sharpen his knife with a stone. Epheriel looked at him again. ‘I can think of no particular person,’ Jair continued. ‘These are good people. I know each of them. Last year, when the Sumerians sought to overtake our village, I faced them. I spoke to their leader and they left, deciding our village wasn’t worth razing.’

    ‘And you claim not to be special,’ said Epheriel softly. Jair ignored it.

    ‘The people believe I fought them off single-handed. They wouldn’t listen when I told them I didn’t. They thought I was just being modest. So I let them think what they want. People believe what they need to believe. This is why I’m considered a great warrior, but I’m not. I’m just a hunter. I’m a good one, but still, that’s all I am. I can’t understand why one of them should dislike me.’

    ‘The minds of men are curious things,’ said Epheriel, sitting down next to him, and Jair felt something like a cool breeze where the angel’s form brushed his shoulder. ‘Men are jealous beings. It could be that your strength and kindness is what would make someone hate you.’

    ‘I don’t understand my people.’ Jair sheathed his sharpened knife. ‘I don’t understand men or women.’ A silence passed between them. Then the young man spoke again. ‘Why did you want me to decline the Elder’s offer?’ he inquired.

    If Epheriel were human, it might have blushed, but it quickly composed itself and replied, ‘A woman would make it harder for me to watch you and warn you of danger. I would not be able to speak to you whilst she was present. And a woman would mean . . . pleasures of the flesh. It would be inconvenient.’ It paused, and Jair blushed, turning away to conceal it. ‘But perhaps that was cruel of me. You may wish to take a wife, and that girl would be as good as any, I am sure.’

    ‘I have no interest in such things,’ Jair murmured, unwilling to meet the angel’s gaze. ‘Miryam doesn’t intrigue me in the slightest. Nor has any woman, so far.’

    Epheriel felt a certain pleasure upon hearing this. It stood again. ‘You must sleep now, Jair. You need to be alert tomorrow. In case . . . As I said, I cannot protect you.’

    ‘By being here you do protect me, Epheriel. You needn’t be able to fight to do that.’ Jair crept underneath the furs. The night was chilly, though the days were hot. Epheriel sat on the floor, underneath the window.

    Somewhere halfway through the night, Epheriel sensed a presence on the roof. It was not whomever harboured the evil intent. It was not a human presence at all. It recognised it, and presently it flew out of the window and up onto the roof. The guards by the fire were facing in a different direction. Epheriel could feel their weariness. It was lucky they could not see the being on the roof. Epheriel instantly knew it.

    ‘Epheriel.’ The angel embraced Epheriel gently.

    ‘Tamiel!’ Epheriel, though only mildly surprised, was pleased to see its old friend. Tamiel was a higher caste of angel, and appeared illuminated by divine light. The light that shone on Tamiel was silvery and bright, and its great wings shone with the same hue. Next to Tamiel, Epheriel looked even more grey and shadow-like, but it had never minded in the least. Tamiel was the only true friend it had ever had. Friendships were not common amongst angels.

    ‘So, this is your post, is it?’ said Tamiel, smiling. ‘And in there sleeps the man you have taken upon yourself to watch so closely.’ It pointed down through the smoke hole.

    ‘So you know . . .’ said Epheriel, feeling suddenly anxious. ‘Do They know as well?’

    ‘Of course They know. They know everything. The Lord sees all. You should know this, my brother.’

    Epheriel cast down its eyes. ‘Have you come to deal me my punishment, then?’ it whispered.

    ‘No,’ said Tamiel softly. ‘They wish you to continue what you are doing. There is something here that is not of the Lord. Our job as angels is to purge the world of ungodly and evil things. Do your job, Epheriel.’

    Tamiel dropped to the ground and looked in through the window. Epheriel followed. ‘I can see why he attracts you,’ said Tamiel. ‘He glows.’

    ‘I know,’ said Epheriel. ‘He is so good, it pains me to see. You or I could never be as good as he.’

    ‘You desire him.’ It was not a question, but a statement. Epheriel looked away again. It was true. If Tamiel could see it, so must any angel.

    ‘Is it sin?’ asked Epheriel in a hushed voice.

    ‘Angels do not sin. That is a human matter.’ Tamiel turned to Epheriel and embraced it again. ‘Do not worry, Epheriel,’ it said. The two heavenly beings broke apart and Tamiel smiled. ‘And Azazel said to send its regards.’ Then it took to its wings and left Epheriel alone. The watcher went back inside to his charge, who slept peacefully throughout the night.

    Angels do not require sleep, but near dawn Epheriel was dozing a bit when suddenly it felt it again. The thought. The evil intent. It stood abruptly and stared out of the window. It could see the two fireguards and a few night birds and bats, but no one else. But then it saw the shape coming out from the clump of trees. The figure was hooded and ran over the patchy grass and brown earth toward the village. Epheriel could not see his face, and then he disappeared among the houses. Epheriel flew out the window, trying to see which house the figure went inside, but alas, he was already gone.

    When it returned to the house, Jair stirred. ‘Is it morning?’ he asked sleepily. He saw Epheriel’s shadowy form by the window. ‘Is something the matter?’

    ‘I saw . . . someone,’ said Epheriel. ‘I do not know who, but I felt it, the evil intent, the hatred toward you.’

    ‘Someone was out there in the middle of the night?’

    ‘Yes. He came out from among the trees. At least I think it was a he . . .’

    ‘It cannot have been one of us,’ said Jair, shaking his head. ‘I’ll have to ask the Elder if any strangers have arrived whom I’ve yet to meet.’

    ‘You are naïve,’ said Epheriel, a hint of annoyance in its voice.

    Jair frowned at it. ‘I would rather be naïve than cynical.’ He stood and got dressed, fastening the knife to his belt as usual. Then he picked up his waterskin and walked down to the stream as the sun began to rise.
    Ω

    No, the Elder said when he asked, no one new had shown up in the village. There was no one Jair had not met. So he went to the fire guards and asked if either of them had seen someone go out in the middle of the night, but they had seen nothing at all. Jair was puzzled. No one left the village at night alone. It was dangerous and everyone knew this.

    Then came the day’s chores and Jair forgot his worries. Today was not a hunting day. Tonight they would sacrifice several goats to thank El Shaddai for the end of the drought, and they would be cooked for the entire village to eat. Today, the men helped the women prepare.

    The rains had come earlier than expected this year, and the feast had not been ready, but the tradition must be upheld. They celebrated the life-giving rain, but asked El Shaddai not to wash away their crops. Before the feast, the whole village got together to prepare. Usually, the men either hunted in the forests or worked the fields while the women cooked and cleaned, saw to the animals, and took care of the children. But today, both men and women worked alongside one another doing domestic chores to get everything ready.

    Jair enjoyed watching the activities that always went on the day of the feast. Men and women came together as they had done when they were children, no longer separated by tradition. Epheriel also saw this and took pleasure in it, as well as the joyful and exuberant spirit among the mortals. People rejoicing in the name of the Lord was never wrong.

    The angel spent the day staying next to Jair and watching out for him, but the evil thought did not seem present today. Perhaps it was drowned out by the strong, positive emotions of everyone else.

    ‘Do you eat, Epheriel?’ Jair asked quietly. ‘Can you consume food?’

    ‘If I change my shape,’ the angel replied in a whisper. It walked at Jair’s side. It had rained that morning, but now the sun shone brightly and Epheriel was invisible. ‘But I do not require sustenance the way you do.’

    ‘Then you must taste the feast tonight,’ whispered Jair. ‘It will be heavenly.’ He smirked, his pun lost on neither himself nor the angel, and for the first time he heard Epheriel laugh, a clear sound that seemed to reverberate through Jair’s very soul and fill him with joy and ease.

    ‘Then I must certainly try it,’ it said.

    That evening, the entire village gathered in the square. Instead of taking their supper in their own houses, they all gathered near the big fire, some hundred-odd people. While the food cooked, a large group of children gathered around Jair, begging him to tell them stories.

    ‘Tell us about when your father saw the angel!’ said one, and Jair smiled.

    ‘Haven’t you heard that one many times before?’ he asked, but the children did not relent. ‘Hush,’ said Jair. ‘Let me instead tell you the story of a man. A man named Enoch.’

    Epheriel, having taken the shape of a mouse, sat in the shadows at Jair’s feet. Now it turned its attention to the man.

    ‘My father told me this story, and his father before him,’ continued Jair. ‘It is an old tale, older than this village, far older than any living man. Enoch was the son of Jared, a wealthy man. When Enoch was a boy, he would play hide and seek with his siblings, and he would always win. This was because Enoch had angels watching over him always. When he wished to go unseen, the angels would make it so. When Enoch grew up, he had many wives and many children. He was a wise man who taught the people many things. Things the angels had taught him. He taught them the cycles of the moon and the movement of the sun. He taught them of the stars and the sea. But then, one day, when Enoch was a very old man, having lived for more than three-hundred years, he disappeared for good and nobody ever saw him again.’

    ‘What happened to him?’ piped one of the children.

    ‘Nobody knows,’ said Jair. ‘But they say the angels took him with them and showed him the secrets of the universe, and then the Lord El Shaddai took him to Heaven and gave him powers beyond anybody’s wildest dreams.’

    The children began to talk excitedly amongst themselves, and Epheriel took its chance to transform into a beetle and land on Jair’s shoulder. ‘How did you learn these things?’ it whispered. ‘Who told you?’

    ‘My father told me, like I said,’ Jair whispered back. But before Epheriel could pry any further, it felt something through the crowd. It was not the evil thought, but rather anger, desperation, fear. And it was directed toward Jair.

    Epheriel looked around and saw Miryam and Joseph, whispering a ways off from the fire. The fear came from Miryam, and the anger from her brother. ‘Jair,’ whispered Epheriel, more urgently still. ‘Be careful. You may be forced to fight.’

    ‘Jair!’ came a loud voice. ‘Stand! Face me!’ Jair turned his head to where the voice was coming from and saw Joseph, a spear in each hand, with his sister tugging at his shawl. ‘Fight me, Jair!’

    Jair stood slowly and looked at the man. No, he was hardly a man. A boy still. Small and fast, but not particularly strong. ‘In what way have I offended you, Joseph?’ he asked gently.

    ‘You’ve offended my sister!’ spat the other, rage clearly visible in his eyes. ‘You have offended her honour by not taking her for a bride when she was offered to you by our father. You have offended our entire family! And to defend her honour, I want to fight you to the death!’

    Epheriel tried to read Jair, but something prevented it. Something would not allow it to see what the man thought or what his actions would be, but his expression was mild and kindly still. ‘Joseph,’ he said. ‘Is this truly necessary, friend? I’m not a violent man. I have no wish to fight.’

    He saw Miryam whisper something in her twin brother’s ear, but Joseph shook her off. ‘Are you such a coward, Jair?’ he growled. ‘You, who fought off the Sumerians. Will you not fight me?’

    ‘Enough!’ His father, the Elder, stood up. ‘My son, this is a feast to honour El Shaddai. You cannot fight this night. Jair is an honourable man who has done nothing to deserve your challenge, and there are other young men to wed Miryam. Withdraw your challenge and return to our home!’

    The square grew silent. Everyone was watching now. The only sound to be heard was the crackling of the fire and the sizzling of goat meat.

    ‘No!’ cried Joseph. ‘I will have this fight and I will have it now!’

    ‘Then you are no son of mine,’ said his father with finality and sat down again. Miryam threw herself to the ground and wept.

    ‘Jair!’ said Joseph again. ‘Accept my challenge!’ He threw one of the spears to Jair, who caught it expertly.

    ‘I will accept,’ said Jair, ‘on the condition that we go away from this place and do not interrupt the feast further.’ He picked up a lit torch and marched away. Joseph followed. Some men, including his brother Shimon and their middle brother Ruben, lit torches and followed to watch. Epheriel reverted to its true form and walked with Jair, hiding in the torchlight.

    ‘You will fight him?’ it asked in a quiet whisper.

    ‘If that’s what it takes to show him the error he is making, then yes,’ replied Jair. ‘I won’t kill him. He’s only a boy.’

    They reached the edge of the village and the wheat fields beyond. Jair selected an area not far from the fields. He set his torch in the ground, and the other men carrying torches followed suit, creating a circle. Jair and Joseph stepped inside. Epheriel stayed outside the circle, hoping to remain unseen. The other men seemed too busy to notice a strange, faintly glowing shadow in the air.

    Joseph and Jair raised their spears. Jair stood tall and proud, spear at his side but ready to strike should he have to. Joseph crouched, gripping his spear with both hands. They stood that way for a few moments, watching each other. Then Joseph lowered the tip of his spear and let out a savage cry as he lunged at Jair. Jair dodged the attack, sidestepping, and Joseph stumbled past him. He turned around and glared furiously at his opponent.

    ‘You mock me?’ he growled. ‘You, watched by angels, sworn to El Shaddai, lousy excuse! You dare?’ He lunged again. This time, Jair let him come, blocking his attack with his own spear. Then he stepped aside again and, as Joseph came hurtling past, grabbed hold of the spear and wrested it from his hands. Joseph stared at him in surprise and horror as Jair tossed the spear out of the circle and walked calmly toward him. Joseph fell to his knees and stared at the ground. He had lost and now he would pay with his life.

    But Jair threw his spear to the ground in front of him. ‘Go home, Joseph,’ he said quietly.

    ‘You’re leaving me to live with this shame?’ said Joseph hoarsely, looking up at him. He had tears streaming down from his eyes. Just a boy still.

    Jair did not answer his question. Instead, he looked kindly down at the boy and said, ‘Go to your father and reconcile. Tell your sister you did wrong. Your life is my gift to her.’

    Jair picked up one of the torches. He stepped out of the circle and left Joseph there on his knees. As he set off toward the village, Ruben rushed into the circle to help his brother to his feet. Epheriel followed Jair away from that place.
    Thorn Wilde
    Second Scribe in Command
    Last edited by Thorn Wilde; 09-06-2020, 03:11 AM.

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  • #3
    Part Two: Soaring


    They did not return to the feast, though Jair had not eaten. Instead, they circled around to Jair’s house, avoiding the village square where the people were gathered. He would let Joseph and his brothers tell the story of what had happened. He trusted Shimon and Ruben to tell it faithfully.

    Entering his house, he used the torch to light his fire and his lamp, then extinguished it and sat down on the furs before the hearth. He winced, touching his hand to his side. It came away red with blood.

    ‘Jair!’ said Epheriel, alarmed. ‘His spear hit you?’

    ‘It barely grazed me,’ said Jair dismissively. He removed his shawl and reached for his waterskin, pouring some over his wound. He winced again and hissed.

    Epheriel went to him and knelt at his side. ‘Stupid,’ it murmured. ‘How could you let him hurt you that way?’ Then it laid its hands on Jair’s wound. ‘I ought never to have let you fight him.’

    Jair laughed, then winced again, because laughing made the pain worse. ‘And how exactly would you have stopped me?’

    ‘I could have found a way . . . Now let me concentrate!’

    The angel’s touch felt like a cool breeze, a thin veil brushing over Jair’s skin. He shivered, then watched as Epheriel’s hands began to glow brighter, and at once the pain was gone.

    Epheriel took its hands away. Jair’s skin was still bloody, but the wound was sealed shut, only a faint, white scar where the gash used to be. ‘There.’

    ‘I didn’t know you could do that,’ said Jair.

    ‘I am an angel. I do have some power.’

    ‘Such as the power to change your shape.’ Jair stared intently at the angel’s face. Now that they sat so close in the dusky firelight, he could clearly make it out. Kind, soft features. He reached out, touched the angel’s shoulder. It was almost like touching the surface of a stream. Cool. There, but not solid. He knew that if he pushed, his hand would go through its body.

    ‘Well, yes,’ said Epheriel, its voice unsteady. ‘And healing, and reading emotions and thoughts.’ It paused. ‘But I cannot read yours.’

    ‘You said you didn’t want to.’

    ‘Yes, but even if I did, I cannot. I . . . I tried. I wanted to know if you would fight Joseph or not but . . . there was a barrier I could not penetrate.’

    Jair considered this for a moment. ‘Perhaps it’s because I knew you can. And I didn’t want you to.’

    ‘Perhaps.’

    ‘But what about now? Let me open my mind to you. Read me, Epheriel.’

    The angel hesitated, then focused on Jair and his glow of goodness. It looked into his dark eyes and, all at once, Jair’s thoughts and emotions hit it like a strong gust of wind. Longing. Desire. And three words: I want you.

    ‘Become a man for me, Epheriel,’ Jair whispered.

    ‘I . . . I do not know if I can.’

    ‘Try. If only for a moment, so I can touch you.’

    Epheriel closed its eyes, drew on all the power it had, wishing to become solid. It felt warmth spread throughout its body and opened its eyes again. When it looked down on its form, it was no longer a shadow. Its skin was pale, white as the moon, but it was skin. It looked up into Jair’s dark eyes again, and Jair reached out and embraced it. ‘You’re beautiful,’ he murmured.

    The angel’s voice hitched in its throat. His throat. He was now a man, even if only temporarily. Jair had specified; man, not woman. ‘I . . . I cannot maintain this form for long,’ he said. ‘It . . . it is too complex.’

    Jair pulled back and looked into Epheriel’s eyes. They were pale grey, almost silver. He ran his fingers through shoulder-length, white hair. ‘Then let me kiss you first.’ When the angel did not protest, he leaned in and they kissed. Epheriel’s lips were soft and supple. Everything about his body was soft. New. His skin felt cool against Jair’s, but he could feel his heartbeat underneath. Hard and fast.

    Suddenly, there came a knock upon the doorpost and all at once, Epheriel turned to grey mist and shadow in Jair’s arms. He cursed under his breath, then stood. ‘Yes?’

    The curtain was pulled aside and Shimon stepped inside. He bowed his head. ‘Jair. I wish to apologise on behalf of my entire family for—’

    ‘There’s no need, Shimon,’ said Jair with a sigh. ‘Joseph is just a boy. He believed he was protecting his sister. No harm done.’

    ‘No, I suppose not.’ Shimon met his eyes with a wry smile. ‘There was never any chance of my brother hurting you.’

    ‘No. Not really.’ Jair gave a soft laugh.

    ‘My father sent me to ask if you would like to rejoin the feast.’

    Jair sighed. He had no wish to do so at all. ‘I’m sorry, but I’m tired.’

    ‘Yes, my father thought you might be.’ Shimon smiled. ‘So I’ve brought you some meat and bread, and some wine.’ He stepped outside again and returned with a plate of food and a cup of wine. ‘And if there is ever anything you need . . . Well. My family is in your debt for sparing my brother. It will not soon be forgotten.’

    ‘I thank you.’

    ‘No, Jair. The gratitude is mine. I’ll leave you to rest.’ Shimon turned and left the hut. Jair breathed out a slow sigh and returned to his seat by the fire.

    ‘Are you all right?’ Epheriel, now back in its usual form, sat next to him again.

    ‘Yes.’ Jair smiled at him. ‘Though I wish we hadn’t been interrupted.’

    The angel looked down. It felt a similar wish. Human touch was entirely different from angelic touch. Jair’s warm, solid embrace had brought tears to its newly human eyes. ‘As do I.’ It looked up at the man again. ‘You should eat.’

    ‘Well, I did say you should partake as well,’ said Jair. ‘Can’t you change your shape and have a taste?’

    Epheriel shook its head. ‘No. I do not have that kind of strength. I am sorry.’ It sighed. ‘I wish with all my being that—But not this night.’

    Jair nodded. ‘All right.’ He picked up a piece of meat, taking a bite, but he did not taste it as he normally would have. It was hard to take pleasure in food when all he wanted was to embrace the being sitting next to him and he could not. He shifted where he sat, human urges having taken over his body. It felt wrong to try to do something about it with an angel by his side, even though it was an angel he had just kissed. He ate in silence and Epheriel remained next to him, quiet as well, staring into the flames.

    When the food was gone, Epheriel looked at Jair again. ‘You should sleep.’

    ‘I have no wish to sleep.’

    ‘I know. But you need to. Tomorrow is a new day, and we still have a job to do, do we not?’

    Jair sighed. ‘Yes. We do.’

    He undressed, extinguished the lamp, and crawled under his furs as he did every night. Staring through the flames that flickered in the hearth, he saw Epheriel clearly beyond them. ‘Epheriel?’

    ‘Yes?’

    Jair hesitated, then said, ‘Will you stay by my side?’

    The angel smiled. ‘I will stay by your side always,’ it said, ‘as long as it is within my power.’
    Ω

    Jair slept through the night and woke the following morning to find a cool presence next to him. Rain was coming down outside, pitter-pattering on the flat roof of his little house, and in the cold light he could clearly see the shadow of Epheriel lying next to him, on top of the furs. ‘Good morning,’ it said. Jair reached out slowly and touched the angel’s chest with his hand, careful not to let it go through its form. He felt the cool, water-like surface beneath his fingertips.

    ‘Good morning,’ he said, wishing more than anything that Epheriel would turn corporeal again so he could kiss its lips. He frowned. ‘Is it all right for me to touch you this way?’ he asked softly.

    Epheriel nodded. ‘Yes.’

    ‘Can you feel it?’

    The angel nodded again. ‘It feels warm. And I can feel your pulse.’ It lifted a shadowy hand and laid it over Jair’s. ‘What do you feel?’

    ‘You’re cold. Your form feels like water . . . or wind. There, but if I push too hard . . .’

    Epheriel pressed down with its hand until Jair’s hand passed through it. They both gasped. ‘Does it hurt?’ asked Jair.

    ‘No,’ said the angel. ‘But it feels . . . intense.’

    Jair nodded. He hesitated for a moment, then let his hand pass into Epheriel. He could feel it shiver around him. ‘I’m sorry.’ He made to pull his hand away.

    ‘No!’ said the angel. ‘No. Stay. It . . . It feels like having a heart.’

    ‘I think—’ Jair frowned. ‘I think I’m feeling what you feel. Warmth.’

    ‘Yes,’ Epheriel whispered. It leaned in, touched its lips to Jair’s, even though it knew it wasn’t the same as what they had done the night before. It was not a kiss, not exactly, but Jair’s breath was hot and it was almost as if he blew life into Epheriel. It shivered again, its faint glow growing brighter. Jair’s breathing grew laboured.

    ‘Epheriel . . . I can’t—’ He clenched his fist. ‘I need to, to . . .’

    ‘Do what you need to.’

    ‘No.’ Jair shook his head and sighed. ‘No. I can’t.’ And he pulled his hand away. ‘I’m sorry.’

    ‘Do not be sorry,’ said Epheriel emphatically, even as it mourned the loss of that feeling. ‘It . . . it is morning anyway. There are things to do.’

    ‘Yes.’ Jair sat up and reached for his loincloth. He was unwilling to get out from under the furs and stayed put for a moment, willing his desire to abate. ‘I’m working the fields today. With the rains here there is much to be done.’

    ‘Then I will watch and listen.’ Epheriel went over to the window, looking out at the grey, rainy morning. ‘I think I shall be a bird today.’

    Jair glanced at him. ‘I wish you could be a man, and we could stay in here all day.’ He could not dismiss from his mind the image of what Epheriel had become for those few fleeting moments the night before. Otherworldly and bright, but a man still, and so beautiful. Just as one might imagine an angel to look, in truth.

    Epheriel looked at him. ‘You wanted me to be a man,’ it said. ‘Not a woman.’

    ‘You seem more like a man than a woman,’ said Jair. ‘And . . . yes. I wanted you to be a man.’

    ‘Have you done those things before?’ asked the angel. ‘With men?’

    Jair licked his lips, looking away, and smiled. ‘With one. Malachai. The bronzesmith. He made my knife.’ He picked said knife up from its place next to his bedding. Epheriel looked at it more closely. It was a beautiful piece, the blade ornately engraved. ‘That was many years ago, however. We were just boys. Malachai is married now, to Eleora. She’s the Elder’s oldest daughter. They have two sons. Malachai and I, we just . . . experimented, as boys do.’

    ‘Do they?’ Epheriel cocked its head to one side. Jair looked up at him, amused.

    ‘Yes. Girls too, I would imagine. Either way, it was nothing serious. He grew out of it.’

    ‘But you did not.’

    Jair sighed. ‘I suppose not. And while people turn a blind eye to the games of young boys . . . Men are not meant to do such things.’

    ‘Why not?’ asked the angel.

    ‘Why not?’ Jair frowned. ‘Because it’s sinful.’

    ‘Sinful? To love another person?’

    ‘It . . . it’s what we . . . what they believe. Is it not so?’

    ‘Not to my knowledge.’

    ‘Well . . .’ Jair sighed. ‘As long as they believe it, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. I have resigned myself to being alone.’

    Epheriel stepped close to him, and its arms embraced him like a cool breeze. ‘You will never be alone,’ it whispered, ‘for I will be here.’

    Jair wished to hold the angel tightly, but he could not. He sighed and said, ‘Thank you.’

    Epheriel let him go. It smiled at him. ‘It is time to face the day.’ Then it transformed into a small silver bird and flew out the window.
    Ω

    When Jair returned to the village after cleaning up and filling his waterskin at the stream, he was met by Miryam. Upon seeing him, the girl dropped to her knees and bowed her head. ‘Jair,’ she said. ‘I . . . I am deeply sorry for my brother’s behaviour. It was all on account of me . . . Please, I beg your forgiveness.’

    Jair knelt before her and touched her shoulder. ‘There’s no need for this, Miryam. All is forgiven. I’m only sorry if I slighted you when I refused your father’s offer.’

    She looked up at him, tears in her eyes. ‘Slighted me? Oh! Oh, no! You didn’t, I . . . It’s not for me to . . .’ She fell silent, lowering her gaze again.

    ‘You mustn’t for a second believe that there is something wrong with you,’ Jair continued. ‘You will make a lovely wife for a lucky man someday. Just not for me.’ He stood and offered her his hand. She took it and let him help her to her feet. ‘Peace be upon you.’

    ‘And upon you,’ she replied. She smiled shyly, then walked away.

    Jair sighed and looked around. On a branch in a nearby bay tree sat the small silver bird. Good. Epheriel was watching over him. Jair set off toward the field.

    The angel watched him go. Then it flew to the next tree, staying close. It listened, reached out, and tried to feel. There wasn’t much to speak of by way of thought or feeling. Few people were about. Most of the women were staying in their houses today, doing indoor chores in the rain. Sewing, weaving. The children were inside as well. Most of the men were in the fields. Nobody hunted in this weather, and the ones that weren’t working were in their homes. Today was already promising to be a dull day.

    Ω

    As Epheriel had assumed, they made no progress whatsoever that day, and it was with disappointment that they returned to Jair’s house that evening. The day had been wholly uneventful. Jair seemed less disappointed than the angel, however.

    ‘Don’t you think it’s sort of nice, though? Not to have to worry for a whole day. Perhaps the danger is past.’ He blew life into the fire and sat down on his furs to sharpen his knife, as he did every evening.

    ‘I wish I could believe that, I really do.’ Epheriel glanced out the window, into the night. It hesitated for a moment. There was a question it had been burning to ask since the night before. ‘Jair.’

    ‘Yes?’ Jair studied the angel’s shadowy face with a smile.

    ‘Last night, you told a story to the children. Of a man named Enoch.’

    Jair put down his knife and nodded slowly. ‘I did. It’s an old story. My father told it to me.’

    ‘Where did he hear it?’

    ‘From his father. Why do you ask?’ He studied the angel’s features, waiting for a response.

    Epheriel shrugged. ‘No real reason. Only . . .’ It looked over at Jair. ‘That story . . . It is true.’

    Jair frowned. ‘How do you mean?’

    ‘It is real. Enoch, he existed. And when he was old, the angels . . . we took him.’

    Jair’s jaw dropped open. ‘You mean . . . ? Well . . . What happened to him?’

    ‘He became an angel,’ said Epheriel.

    ‘You mean mortals can become angels?’

    ‘So far, only one mortal. Enoch became Metatron. It is the Voice of the Lord. Before that, the Lord spoke to us directly. They took Enoch as Their Instrument. Enoch transcended, and now the Lord speaks through Metatron.’

    Jair shook his head slowly. ‘I . . . I can hardly believe this. I thought it was just a story.’

    ‘No, it is quite real. I was astonished to hear you tell it.’

    ‘So . . .’ Jair hesitated. ‘Could I become an angel?’

    Epheriel looked up at him in surprise. ‘You? Why on Earth would you want to?’

    ‘To be with you,’ said Jair bluntly. His dark eyes glittered in the firelight. ‘If you cannot become a man, for more than a few seconds at a time, then . . . Perhaps I could become like you instead. And we could be together.’

    ‘Oh, Jair . . . If you only knew how vibrant your existence is compared with mine.’

    ‘And short,’ Jair reminded it. ‘I’ll die one day. You’re immortal. When I die . . . can my soul be with you?’

    ‘I . . . I do not know. Please, Jair, do not speak of such things. Do not speak of death. It . . . I cannot bear it.’ Jair could hear the desperation in the angel’s voice as it sat down next to him. Its cool body brushed his shoulder.

    ‘Epheriel,’ whispered the man. ‘I don’t fear death. What I fear is eternity never being able to hold you.’

    Epheriel looked at Jair, then focused its power, as much of it as it could muster, into solidifying its shape, into becoming a man. Even if it would not be able to hold the shape for long, it wanted to try. Needed to.

    Jair watched as its skin turned opaque, its hair and eyes as fair as they had been before. The moment it was finished, he reached for it, for him, pulling Epheriel, the man, into his arms. He wasted no time in finding his companion’s lips. Words were not needed. Epheriel kissed him back, hungrily.

    Epheriel wished he could keep this shape, remain a man, for the rest of Jair’s life. Wished that, at least for that one lifetime, they could be equals. Instinctively, he pressed Jair down onto the furs and rolled on top of him. He used his tongue to taste. Taste the tangy warmth of Jair’s mouth, the salt of his skin. Jair was the first thing Epheriel’s tongue had tasted. The first thing he had seen with human eyes. And the first touch he had felt, in this skin or otherwise, that did not come from a fellow angel.

    He wanted more. His human body was responding to Jair’s touch, to his hands running up and down his back, the way any human body would. The way Jair’s was. It felt wonderful, incredible, to want and be wanted. But he already felt his power waning and he let out a frustrated noise. ‘Jair . . . I am sorry, but I cannot . . .’ As he said it, he became less solid again, and then Epheriel was an angel once more. If it could, it would have wept.

    Jair looked up at his angel, whose form glowed slightly in the firelight. He touched his lips to the angel’s far too soft ones. Then, hesitating only for a brief moment, he let his hands sink into its form.

    They both gasped. Both hands felt yet more intense than just one had and as he was already so excited, there was no stopping his groan. A shiver, a soft vibration, went through Epheriel’s ethereal body and it was as if its light grew brighter. It was hovering above him, but now, looking into his eyes, it let itself down, its body moving into Jair’s.

    ‘Oh! Epheriel . . . Beloved . . .’ Jair panted. ‘What are you . . . ?’ He closed his eyes with a shaky sigh.

    Epheriel felt the heat spread through its entire being as Jair’s warm, solid body entered its own. And then a different kind of heat, as Jair uttered those words, as he called it ‘beloved’. It felt the pulsing, the pounding of its lover’s heartbeat, as Jair became its heart. Such pleasure overtook it as it had never felt before.

    ‘Jair . . .’ it whispered. ‘Say that again.’

    ‘What?’ Jair felt almost dazed. He swallowed. ‘Oh . . . Beloved?’

    Epheriel shivered again, uttering a soft moan of pleasure. ‘Yes . . .’

    Jair let it take him, the cool heat of the two of them becoming nearly one. ‘Epheriel, my beloved,’ he whispered. ‘Please tell me that you’re mine.’

    ‘Yes . . . I am. I am yours, and you are mine.’

    Jair felt as though his heart would burst. Tears welled up in his eyes, spilling down his temples where he lay on his back, looking up into the bright face of the angel, no longer so grey and small. And as Epheriel wrapped itself around him, he gave himself over to it, allowing it to happen, allowing his body to stiffen as the pleasure built to a head and brought him to completion.

    Epheriel felt it, the intensity of it, and it shook its very being. Then Jair’s frantic heartbeat began to slow, and then that feeling of pleasure and release was replaced by something else.

    Shame.

    Epheriel pulled itself away from Jair’s body, releasing him and so also itself from the intensity of Jair’s emotions. ‘Jair . . .’ It hesitated. ‘My heart. What is wrong?’

    Jair shook his head, then sat up and wiped the tears from his face. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t believe I . . . You’re an angel, I . . . I defiled you.’

    The angel only stared, bewildered. ‘Defiled me? Jair, you did no such thing. What just happened, it . . . It was wonderful.’

    ‘But—but you are pure, Epheriel. You were . . . unsullied.’

    Epheriel laughed. ‘Is that how you see me?’

    ‘Well, yes.’

    ‘It is true, I have never done anything like that before. But then, I am not sure anyone ever has. I have never heard of . . . angels lying with men before. It truly was wonderful, Jair. I felt all that you felt.’

    Jair looked away. He wiped his spending from his stomach with his hand. ‘I felt all that you felt too,’ he murmured. ‘It was amazing.’ He met the angel’s gaze once more, and his heart sped up at what he found there. It could only be described as adoration. He swallowed. ‘I have never felt this way before,’ he said softly. ‘I have never loved anyone this way before.’

    ‘Nor have I.’ Epheriel smiled and looked away. ‘I wish I could kiss you.’

    ‘Soon. When you have your strength back.’ Jair reached out and touched his hand to the angel’s cheek. ‘When you are next a man.’

    Ω

    Later that night, while Jair slept soundly, Epheriel once again felt an angelic presence nearby. Exiting the house, it felt someone beckon it out of the village. It might have felt apprehensive, but it knew this presence, and so it went.

    The other angel waited beyond an outcropping of rock. Epheriel bowed its head and cast down its eyes when it reached it.

    ‘Look at me, brother,’ said Metatron, and Epheriel lifted its eyes to meet the gaze of the shining archangel. Metatron’s six great wings stretched out above it, pulsing with bright, golden light. ‘What have you been doing?’ it asked.

    Epheriel hesitated. ‘Watching,’ it said softly.

    ‘It is not becoming of an angel to lie,’ said Metatron.

    ‘If you already know,’ said Epheriel, ‘then why do you ask, brother?’

    ‘Because I want to hear you say it.’

    ‘I have been aiding the mortal Jair,’ said Epheriel. ‘He is special, brother. He shines with goodness, and he is threatened by somebody who wishes him harm. We are trying to determine who.’

    ‘And was it necessary to reveal yourself, to reveal divine secrets to him, in order to protect him?’

    ‘I have made that judgement, yes.’

    ‘That judgement is not yours to make.’ There was an edge to Metatron’s voice.

    ‘Are you currently the Voice of the Lord, or yourself?’ asked Epheriel bluntly.

    ‘They are one and the same!’

    ‘I would argue, my brother, that they are not.’

    Metatron ignored him. ‘You are a watcher. You are meant to watch. What you have done cannot be undone, and I daresay you cannot abandon this man now. But you must stop this fraternising. What you are doing is wrong. It is sin.’

    ‘Tamiel told me angels do not sin.’

    ‘Tamiel is not a seraph. It is not the Voice of the Lord. To whom should you listen, brother?’

    Epheriel was not accustomed to shame. It was not an angelic emotion. Was it becoming so human? The thought of no longer loving Jair, of no longer touching and being touched by him, was almost unbearable.

    ‘You will stop this madness,’ said Metatron. ‘Angels must not lie with mankind. It is an abomination.’

    ‘Yes, brother,’ Epheriel mumbled

    ‘Good. I am choosing to put my faith in you. Make certain my faith is not misplaced.’

    ‘What do I tell Jair?’

    ‘Whatever you have to, but tell him no more of me.’

    Epheriel bowed his head again. ‘As you say, brother.’

    Metatron nodded its head, then beat its wings and took to the air. ‘Remember what I have said! I speak the will of the Lord.’

    Epheriel watched the archangel ascend and disappear, then made to return to Jair’s home, when another voice spoke.

    ‘It does not, you know.’

    The watcher turned to see yet another shining angel. It was every bit as bright as Metatron, and it too sported three pairs of wings. ‘Azazel?’

    ‘Yes.’ Azazel stepped close. ‘It does not speak for the Lord, not any longer. Do not say its name; it is how it learnt what you have been doing.’

    ‘I . . . I see.’ Epheriel heard the hesitance in its own voice.

    ‘You do not see,’ said Azazel. ‘I feel your doubt. But I too am a seraph, brother. I too know what goes on in Heaven. And I am telling you, the Lord has not spoken to Their instrument in a long time. It is deceiving you.’ Azazel stepped closer. ‘Listen to me, brother. There is nothing wrong with what you are doing. Love is never wrong, not for men and not for angels. Trust in that. The Lord would never condemn anyone for loving. But that angel would. It is full of envy and spite. It misses the days when it was human. It resents you for being so close to humanity, for being able to feel it. It used to be the watcher’s role to teach, to inspire, to create. Do you not recall?’

    ‘But the Lord decreed that we must not do so any longer. That the divine must not be revealed to mortals. Because proof denies faith, and the faith of mankind is necessary.’

    ‘I do not believe the Lord decreed any such thing. It was Their so-called Voice that did so. Of course the Lord wants faith, but without it, They would still be the Lord. They would still be all-powerful and all-knowing. And if the Lord truly hated what you are doing, why did They not, in Their infinite wisdom, instruct Their Voice to confront you before? Because this has been going on for days. Has it not?’

    Epheriel hesitated, then nodded. ‘How did you know?’

    ‘Tamiel told me. And when I saw the Voice fly, I followed, because somehow I knew it would lead me to you. Brother, if you love this man, then you should show that love. You should speak to him and show him. As Tamiel told you, angels do not sin. And either way, love is never a sin, never. If it harms no one, express it as you will. And you are stronger than you think. We are not so different as they would have you believe. All the power that I have, you have too. Know this. Use it.’

    Epheriel nodded slowly. ‘I hear you, brother. But I must think on it.’

    ‘Do what your conscience tells you,’ said Azazel. ‘Just know that an angel’s instincts are never wrong. The only way you can err is by not following them.’ It stepped forward and embraced Epheriel. ‘And now I must leave you. Farewell, brother. Think on what I have said.’ Azazel stepped back, beat its wings, and it, too, soared away from the village and from Epheriel.

    Ω

    As though he could sense Epheriel’s absence, Jair awoke to find the house empty. The fire had died down to embers. He felt a brief moment of panic at not seeing his angel anywhere and got out of bed naked, stepping up to the window. It was pitch dark outside, clouds blotting out the moon and stars. He had no idea how long it was until dawn.

    He felt it before he saw it, Epheriel approaching between the houses. It saw him too, and Jair stepped aside as it flew in through his window. ‘Where were you?’

    ‘I am sorry. I was . . . called away for a moment. Someone wished to speak with me.’

    Jair thought it seemed evasive and reached out, placing his hand on its shoulder, careful not to press too hard. ‘You seem distraught, my love.’

    Epheriel shook its head. ‘It was just . . . The Voice called me. It . . . the one I was speaking of, who used to be . . . When I said its name, it heard, and now it knows everything.’

    Jair frowned. ‘What do you mean?’

    ‘It is not important.’

    ‘It is important, if you’re in trouble.’

    ‘The Voice said the Lord has decreed that angels must not lie with mankind, that it is sinful. But I do not believe it is. Azazel, another angel, another archangel, also revealed itself to me and told me the Voice was lying, that it no longer speaks for the Lord. And now . . . I do not know what to believe.’ Its eyes met Jair’s. ‘All I know is that I do not want to be without you. I cannot bear the thought.’

    ‘Nor I,’ said Jair softly, and embraced the angel as best he could. ‘But if you’re wrong . . . what will happen to you?’

    ‘I do not know. But I do know that I am not alone. There are those who support me. Others who . . . feel as I do. Azazel says love is never wrong. Tamiel says so too. I am sure there are more.’

    Jair released it, searched its face. ‘Come,’ he said softly. ‘Lie down with me. I want to feel you next to me as I fall asleep.’

    They lay down, and Epheriel stroked his brow, its touch like a cool breeze.

    ‘I could sense it,’ Jair murmured. ‘I could feel that you were not here. It was like . . . a part of me was missing. I think what we did . . . we’re connected now, somehow. You are part of me and I am part of you.’

    Epheriel nodded slowly. ‘I believe you may be right.’ It let its hand come to rest on Jair’s chest, above his heart. His heart beat against its palm, his pulse bringing life and heat into the angel’s body. Into its soul, for an angel’s body and soul are one and the same. ‘Sleep, my heart,’ it whispered. ‘Tomorrow is another day.’

    Comment


    • #4
      Part Three: The Fall


      It had rained again all day, and the following evening found them no wiser than the one before. Epheriel was beginning to wonder if Jair was right and the danger truly had passed. Perhaps whomever it was had seen Jair fight Joseph and that had changed something in them.

      The angel had spent all day thinking about what Azazel had said. About how it was more powerful than it thought. How it could do everything the seraphim could do. It was not sure it believed it. But if it were true . . . Did that mean it could retain the shape of a man for longer? It longed to try, and when they returned to the house that night, after the evening’s meal with one of Jair’s childhood friends and his family, it turned to Jair.

      ‘My heart . . . I would like to try something, if you do not mind.’

      ‘I don’t mind at all, whatever it may be.’ Jair smiled at his angel and that smile caused Epheriel’s form to brighten for a moment. It was as if its lover’s smile gave it strength.

      It closed its eyes and focused, willing its shape into that of a man. It felt itself solidify, and before it could open its eyes, Jair’s arms were around it. Epheriel’s breath hitched upon feeling Jair’s soft lips and warm breath, and he opened his eyes again, a man now.

      Jair pressed his lips to Epheriel’s, pulled him close, wished that he would never have to let go. They had to come up for air at some point, however, and he took the opportunity to take in the creature before him. He was altogether pale. Although he was now a man, Epheriel still appeared angelic. Mortal men did not look like this. ‘You are so lovely,’ Jair murmured. ‘Both in your true form and like this.’

      Epheriel shook his head and smiled. ‘I am nothing compared to you. I have never seen a mortal so beautiful. Your light . . . It cannot be adequately described, but I can see your kindness, your goodness, your love.’

      ‘Believe me, my beloved, when I say I’ve never loved anyone or anything as I love you.’

      The angel shivered in Jair’s arms. ‘I have never loved before.’ His pale eyes met Jair’s dark ones. ‘Please . . . will you remove your clothes? I want . . .’ It was strange to say it. To say that he wanted something. He had never wanted anything before Jair. ‘I want to feel your skin.’

      Jair reluctantly stepped back so he could remove his shawl, skirt, and loincloth. Epheriel was already naked. His body was entirely that of a man, his anatomy fully functional. Jair’s face felt warm and he licked his lips as he took in Epheriel’s beautiful, slender form. He let out a shuddering breath.

      As soon as his clothing was gone, he pulled Epheriel into his arms again and kissed him with such fervour that it took the angel’s breath away. Jair’s skin was warm, his breath so hot, and Epheriel wanted he knew not what.

      ‘How long can you stay?’ said Jair breathlessly. ‘How long can you stay like this?’

      ‘I think . . . for a while. I cannot be sure but . . . long enough. Long enough to . . .’ Epheriel licked his lips. ‘I wish to lie with you. Please, teach me how to love you with this body.’

      Jair groaned softly. He kissed Epheriel’s shoulder, then scraped his teeth over the pale flesh. ‘Are you sure?’

      ‘No. I may . . . I may not be able to hold this form but I think that I—’

      ‘No, I mean . . . are you sure that you want to . . . to do these things with me?’

      ‘Oh, yes!’ said Epheriel emphatically. ‘Please, understand me . . . I am not accustomed to wanting things. I have never wanted anything before. But I know that I want this. I want you, Jair. In whatever way you will have me.’

      ‘Then I will make love to you, dearest beloved Epheriel.’ Jair took the angel’s hand. ‘Come. Lie down with me.’

      They lay on the bed, and Jair used his hands and his mouth to prepare his lover. It had been a long time. Not since Malachai had he been with another man. With anyone. But the body remembers. And Epheriel responded just as he had hoped he would: with quiet gasps and whimpers, and whispered declarations of love.

      And then, with the aid of lamp oil, Jair was finally inside Epheriel. The angel had never felt pain before, but nor had he ever felt physical pleasure, and the latter quickly drowned out the former. As Jair moved in him, Epheriel was awash with sensation. His human heart pounded in his chest. His body ached for release while all at once longing for this to continue. And he felt love. Felt Jair’s love, no longer abstract but so real; made manifest, here in their coupling—given form, just like Epheriel.

      Jair looked down into Epheriel’s beautiful face. His eyes were closed, his lips gently parted, and there was sweat upon his brow. Human in every way, yet still otherworldly. Having him like this, the way he never thought he would, brought tears to Jair’s eyes. He closed them, lowering his head and placing a kiss on Epheriel’s chest. Epheriel put his arms around him, ran his fingers through dark locks, then clenched his fist and groaned as Jair thrust into him.

      It was like nothing he had experienced. His human body felt like it was on fire, burning with so much pleasure he barely knew what to do with himself. He clung on to his lover for dear life as the flame grew brighter and hotter, and then he crested and, like a shooting star, fell to Earth.

      Jair kept on going for a while longer before he too met his end, capturing Epheriel’s lips and kissing him deeply. Then he collapsed on Epheriel’s chest, still inside him, and murmured words of love and affection and praise.

      After a few moments, Jair composed himself and raised himself up on his elbows. He looked lovingly down into Epheriel’s face, still human beneath him. ‘How do you feel?’

      Epheriel smiled. ‘I . . . cannot describe it. I feel . . .’ He hesitated. Then he put his hand on Jair’s hairy chest, felt his heart beat against his palm. He sighed. ‘I feel alive.’

      Jair’s expression turned to one of concern. ‘And I didn’t hurt you, did I?’

      The angel shook his head. ‘Not at all. Nothing has ever given me more pleasure.’

      Smiling, Jair kissed Epheriel again. ‘I’m glad.’

      At last, he rolled off his lover. The fire had died down to embers and the house was not as warm as it had been. Now that the sweat was drying on his skin, Epheriel began to feel cold. So, it seemed, did Jair, who pulled the furs over them both and took the angel into his arms. ‘You’ve lasted a long time,’ he murmured.

      Epheriel nodded, amazed at himself. ‘Yes. I am not certain how. But I feel as though I could hold this form for far longer than this now. Something has . . . changed.’ He nuzzled Jair’s chest.

      ‘Perhaps your friend was right. Perhaps you are more powerful than you thought.’ Jair kissed Epheriel’s white hair. ‘Maybe all angels are created equal, and your only limitations are those you’ve placed upon yourselves.’

      Epheriel nodded. ‘Perhaps . . .’ He felt suddenly fatigued. Drowsy. This was normal, he supposed, after lovemaking. How human this body was. He felt his eyelids begin to droop.

      Jair noticed this and smiled. ‘Can you last long enough to sleep in my arms tonight, beloved?’

      Epheriel raised himself up and looked down at the man he loved with a smile. ‘If I can, then I will.’ He leant down and they kissed. His body reacted to that kiss and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to repeat everything they had just done. But he was too tired, and after a few moments he lay back down. Jair directed him to roll over so his back was to Jair’s chest.

      ‘Goodnight, Epheriel,’ he whispered, and kissed the back of his lover’s neck. His skin was hot now, warmed by their lovemaking.

      Half asleep already, Epheriel practically mewled. ‘Mm . . . Goodnight, Jair. My heart.’

      Ω

      Epheriel woke just after dawn, surprised to still find himself a man. Jair stirred at the same time he did. It was already light outside. Normally, Jair would already be awake and out of the house by now, but he found he didn’t care much. Tugging at Epheriel’s shoulder, he pulled him over onto his back and, leaning over him, kissed him softly. It only stayed soft for a moment as they both woke properly and their bodies woke with them, more than ready to continue where they had left off the night before.

      After a while, Jair pulled back and smiled down at Epheriel. ‘Good morning.’

      Epheriel returned the smile. ‘Good morning,’ he replied. ‘What a wonderful way to wake up—’ Suddenly, he felt it. The thought. It was powerful, and it was close. Epheriel shuddered and closed his eyes.

      ‘Epheriel? Are you all right?’

      ‘He is here,’ Epheriel managed. ‘He is nearby. The person who hates you . . . oh, such hatred!’ A tear ran down Epheriel’s cheek. ‘How can a person harbour so much hate?’

      Jair immediately stood up and began to dress. ‘Then now is our chance to find him.’

      But they did not have to. A loud, angry voice shouted from outside, ‘Jair! Come out!’

      Jair blinked. It was a voice he knew well. ‘Malachai?’

      Epheriel dropped its human shape, an angel once more and almost entirely hidden in the morning light. ‘The bronzesmith?’

      Its lover nodded and tied on his belt. Sliding his knife into it, he pulled aside the curtain and stepped out of the house into the morning. ‘Here I am,’ he said, spreading his arms wide.

      The Elder came out of his own house. ‘What is this racket so early in the morning?’ he asked gruffly. ‘Malachai, why are you shouting?’

      ‘It’s him!’ Malachai pointed a shaking finger at Jair. ‘He’s an abomination. He lies with other men!’

      More people had now assembled, and they all turned to Jair, surprise etched on their features. Epheriel watched Malachai instead. He was a broad man—not very tall but clearly strong—with black hair to his shoulders, black eyes, and a dark, bearded face. The angel reached out to feel and was hit by a whirl of emotions and thoughts. Anger, disgust, hatred, but also shame, fear, and lust. It was clear that Malachai coveted Jair, and that it terrified him. Epheriel caught glimpses of memories from his boyhood, of time spent with Jair. Of their lovemaking.

      The Elder spoke to Malachai. ‘What are you saying? What is this nonsense?’

      ‘It’s true!’ Malachai insisted. ‘I saw him, just now, not five minutes ago, with a pale stranger.’

      ‘What stranger? We have seen no one,’ said Shimon, who had appeared a few moments before.

      ‘They were in his house!’ Malachai’s voice carried an edge of desperation. ‘I saw them through the window.’

      One of the other villagers, who stood near Jair’s house, looked inside. He shook his head. ‘Well, there’s no one there now.’

      ‘I saw them!’ Malachai growled. ‘And . . . and I know.’

      ‘What do you know?’ asked the Elder.

      ‘I know it’s true because when we were boys he raped me!’

      Jair blinked. For a moment, the assembled crowd grew silent, and now all eyes were on Jair once more. He shook his head slowly. ‘That isn’t what happened, Malachai, and you know it.’

      ‘It is what happened! You forced me! You . . . you used some kind of witchcraft and you made me want it!’ Malachai’s voice broke. He turned to the Elder. ‘He is a monster. He forced me to do unnatural things with him and he should be put to death for it!’

      There came some murmurs of agreement from the assembled crowd, but the Elder shook his head. ‘Nobody shall be put to death based on allegations alone.’ He turned away from the bronzesmith and looked at Jair. ‘I’d like to speak with you in private about this, Jair.’ He set off toward his own house. Jair nodded his agreement and turned away from Malachai to follow.

      ‘If you won’t do it, I will!’ Malachai growled and lunged forward, knife in hand.

      ‘Jair, look out!’ Epheriel cried.

      Jair turned again and, seeing Malachai coming toward him, drew his own knife. ‘Stop!’ he commanded, but Malachai did not. He lunged with the knife. Jair dodged, but Malachai did not give up. He was strong and fast. On his third attack, Jair managed to step aside but tripped and stumbled. Malachai followed, knife at the ready, straddling Jair’s thighs, and Jair did the only thing he could. He pointed his knife upward, and as Malachai bent over him, it pierced his heart.

      But Malachai did not die. His eyes rolled back and he roared. It was a savage, inhuman sound, and where Epheriel had felt a plethora of emotions before, now only rage remained. As Malachai pulled the knife from his chest and raised it along with his own, ready to strike the killing blow, Epheriel rushed forward.

      ‘No!’ it cried, and as it did, its form grew big and bright, its wings shining like the sun. It grasped Malachai’s wrists, making itself just solid enough to do so, and he seemed to cry out in pain. He shook, and it was as though the angel’s touch burned him. He dropped both knives on the ground, his hands going limp and his jaw slack. Then he let out a rattling breath and slumped, breathing no more.

      Jair crawled backward on his elbows so when Epheriel let go, Malachai fell to the ground. Blood poured sluggishly from the stab wound in his chest, pooling on the earth below. Jair’s shawl was stained red, as were his hands. He stared at them, uncomprehending. ‘What . . . ?’

      ‘It is all right,’ said Epheriel softly, kneeling at Jair’s side. ‘It is all right, my heart.’

      Murmurs rose among the onlookers again. Finally, the Elder spoke. ‘Is he dead?’

      ‘Yes,’ said Epheriel, rising. ‘He, and the thing that was inside him.’

      The Elder bowed his head. ‘You are an angel. One that was watching over Jair.’

      ‘Yes. I am called Epheriel.’

      ‘What did you mean, the thing inside him?’ asked the Elder, eyes still averted, as if looking straight at the angel would hurt them.

      ‘Malachai was possessed,’ said Epheriel. ‘In his fear and his hatred, he let something in. A dark creature. One not of the Lord.’ It shook its head sadly. ‘This was not his fault.’

      ‘Yes it was,’ said a soft voice, and they all looked up to see Eleora, Malachai’s wife and the Elder’s oldest daughter. ‘Whatever it was, my husband invited it in. He was full of anger and hatred. He was cruel to me. And . . . I saw the way he looked at other young men. He never looked at me that way. He was the abomination.’

      ‘If he treated you ill and was unfaithful to you, child, then that was both wicked and sinful,’ said Epheriel. ‘But he was not an abomination, and love is never a sin.’ It turned to look around at the gathered villagers. ‘You all believe that love between two men or two women is unnatural and wrong, but that is not the case. The Lord is love. To love is divine, no matter for whom that love is felt.’

      ‘Epheriel.’ Jair spoke softly. ‘They won’t understand.’ He stood up, slowly. ‘I need to wash,’ he mumbled.

      ‘Jair! I still need to speak with you,’ said the Elder.

      ‘No, let him go,’ said Epheriel, as Jair turned and began making his way down toward the stream. ‘I will answer what questions I can.’

      ‘Are you truly an angel?’ asked Shimon.

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘What’s Heaven like?’ asked one of the villagers.

      ‘Why are you here?’ said another.

      ‘Stop,’ said the Elder, raising a hand. ‘Go about your business now. I will speak to the angel alone. Shimon, Ruben. Prepare the body for funeral rites. Please,’ he turned to Epheriel, ‘come to my house.’

      Epheriel acquiesced and followed. As it entered the home of the Elder, it shrank down somewhat, making its wings smaller so it would not take up too much space in the small house.

      One of the Elder’s wives was at home. She gaped at Epheriel, and her husband sent her outside to work on her pottery. Then he turned to Epheriel again. ‘Welcome to my home. Will you break bread with me?’

      ‘I do not eat,’ said Epheriel.

      ‘Ah. Of course.’ The Elder wore a thoughtful expression. This time he dared to look at the angel’s face. ‘So Jair is truly watched by angels.’

      ‘Did you doubt it?’

      The Elder smiled ruefully. ‘I am mortal. All mortals doubt what they cannot see or touch.’

      ‘So I have come to realise.’

      ‘And . . . you are the pale stranger that Malachai saw?’

      ‘In a manner of speaking. I . . . can take many forms.’

      The Elder cocked his head and eyed the angel curiously. ‘May I see?’

      Epheriel hesitated. It had spent a lot of power stopping Malachai. Yet it did not feel drained, and it focused on its human form, shrinking further until it stood naked before the Elder, who shook his head. ‘Remarkable. Yet you don’t look like most men.’

      ‘This is the form I took naturally when I decided to become a man,’ said Epheriel. ‘I did not choose it.’

      The Elder took him in with an amused smile. ‘And you are as the first people in the garden, before the Fall; unashamed, as El Shaddai made them.’

      ‘Yes, I have heard that story.’

      ‘You have a different one?’

      ‘There are many stories,’ said Epheriel. ‘And they are all true in their own way.’

      The Elder nodded thoughtfully. Then he reached for a light linen shawl that lay on a nearby stool. ‘Here, put this on.’

      Epheriel did as he was asked, wrapping the garment around him as the Elder wore his. ‘Are you more comfortable now?’

      The Elder smiled. ‘A man’s naked form does not embarrass me. But should one of my wives or children enter, they might be somewhat shocked.’ He sat down on a stool. ‘Why did you reveal yourself now?’

      ‘I could not let the thing inside Malachai kill Jair. I acted on instinct. The man himself was already dead, of course, to Jair’s knife. What remained was a shell inhabited by something evil. How it came to be there I cannot be sure. I first felt it some weeks ago but was unable to identify who or what it was. Many things hide in the dark, waiting to be let in by mortals, unwittingly or not. My touch killed it, or expelled it; I cannot be sure which.’

      ‘You love him. Jair.’

      ‘Yes,’ said Epheriel simply.

      ‘I heard what you said. Jair is right. They will not understand. Some will blame Jair for what happened. In a case like this, an accident or self-defence, our laws would normally force Jair to take Eleora for a wife, to support her and her children. That won’t be possible, however. I don’t think it’s safe for Jair in the village.’

      Epheriel nodded curtly. ‘Then we shall leave on the morrow.’

      ‘It is a shame.’ The Elder sighed. ‘Jair’s family has always lived here. His father was meant to become Elder, not I, but he died before the old Elder did. Our families have been close as kin for generations, and we can both trace our lineages back to the time after the Flood. Jair’s father knew all the stories, and he passed many of them down to his son. The rest, I know. My sons have no interest in such things so I always intended to name Jair as my successor. Now . . .’ He shook his head. ‘Now everything is different.’

      He glanced at the angel. ‘I know everything. I know he has no interest in women, and I know he didn’t fight the Sumerians. The former I guessed and the latter he told me. You said all stories are true in their own way. What matters is what people believe. I worried that people would start to believe he was a sinner, so I offered him my daughter. Watched by angels is as good an excuse as any to decline, so I accepted it, even though I had doubts. What mattered was that people trusted him and would follow him when I died. But Malachai sowed the seeds of doubt in my people.

      ‘You will find a new village, a new home for him. Perhaps even a city. He will impress them as the skilled hunter that he is, and nobody will suspect his proclivities because he won’t act on them with any mortal. I can tell that you will not leave him.’

      ‘I will not,’ said Epheriel. ‘I should go to him.’

      ‘Yes, you better had. If we do not speak again, I bid you farewell, Epheriel. May you always watch over Jair. He’s a good man.’

      ‘I know.’ Epheriel smiled. ‘Better than anyone. I can see the light in people, and Jair’s drowns out all others. Farewell. May your village be prosperous and your descendants many. The Lord’s peace be upon you always.’ He drew aside the curtain and left.

      Epheriel walked through the village unashamed, in the shape of a man. The villagers gawked at him, but none of them stopped him. He walked all the way to the river where Jair sat, bare-chested; his shawl, which he had clearly tried to wash, was drying on a rock in the sun. His hands were clean and his knife lay on the ground next to him, also clean. He stared into the water, but when Epheriel approached, he looked up. His eyes were wet with tears.

      ‘Jair. My heart.’ Epheriel sat next to him. A flood of emotion poured from Jair onto him. He had completely let down his guard, and Epheriel felt his grief and shame and remorse.

      ‘I don’t deserve that endearment,’ said Jair softly. ‘I have killed. What’s more, I have killed my first love.’

      ‘He would have killed you,’ Epheriel pointed out.

      Jair shook his head and lowered his gaze. His dark eyelashes fluttered against tear-stained cheeks. ‘A murderer does not deserve the love of an angel.’

      ‘Perhaps not, but you are no murderer. I know your pain. I feel it. But, Jair, you are stronger than this. And you can overcome it.’ He ran his hand over Jair’s shawl and it was instantly dry, the bloodstain that Jair had not quite been able to remove gone. ‘Get dressed. Let us go home.’

      Jair nodded slowly. The emotions had abated somewhat and now only a numbness remained. He took the shawl and wrapped it around his shoulders and torso.

      ‘I spoke to the Elder,’ said Epheriel as they both stood. ‘He does not think it is safe for you here. He said Malachai sowed doubt in the hearts of the villagers. Some will blame you. I told him that we will leave tomorrow morning.’

      Jair nodded again. ‘I was thinking the same. This can’t be my home after what I did. I should have left a long time ago. When the lies about me and the Sumerians spread. When I received the status of a hero that I didn’t deserve. I should have left then.’

      Epheriel shook his head emphatically. ‘No, Jair. The myth of you was important. You gave the people hope. And . . . if you had left, we might never have met. None of this was your fault.’

      ‘What if I did force him?’ Tears began to pour down Jair’s cheeks once more.

      They had reached his house now, and Epheriel ushered him inside. As soon as they were in there, he pulled Jair into his arms. ‘You did not.’

      ‘What if I were the only one who truly wanted it?’

      ‘You were not. He desired you still. I felt it, his lust for you. You got over him but he never got over you. All along, he was just like you, but he was afraid. So he married Eleora, but he never grew to love her. He fathered children, but he hated every moment of it. His self-loathing festered and he blamed you, but you were never at fault. You did not force him. You did not rape him. And you know that I would never lie to you.’ Epheriel pulled back and gazed into his lover’s dark eyes. ‘You are a good man, my heart.’

      Then he kissed him, and Jair kissed him back with something almost like desperation. He reached up under Epheriel’s shawl and touched him, took him in hand. Epheriel pulled away. ‘No. It is daylight. We may be seen.’

      ‘Don’t care,’ Jair said breathlessly. ‘We’ll be gone tomorrow and they will never see us again. I need this. Please, let me.’

      And Epheriel knew he could not say no, so he hung his shawl before the window, and he summoned rain and thunder from the sky so that people would retreat indoors and nobody would hear. He wondered briefly if this was abuse of his newfound power, but he could not bring himself to care very much. Jair needed him. That was all that mattered.

      Ω

      They stayed in the house all day and all through the night. Just before dawn the following morning, they were awakened by a knock on the doorpost. Jair stood, got dressed, and pulled aside the curtain. He was met by Joseph and Miryam.

      ‘Our father sent us,’ said Joseph, before Jair could speak. He held out a bundle of sackcloth. ‘Supplies for your journey. There is some bread, dried meat, a skin of wine . . .’ He trailed off, looking past Jair at Epheriel, who had put on the clothes he had been given by the Elder. Neither Joseph nor Miryam had been present the previous morning and so had not seen the angel, in this form or the other. Joseph immediately averted his gaze, but Miryam stared unashamedly.

      ‘So it’s true,’ she said, her voice filled with awe. ‘You are real.’

      ‘I am,’ said Epheriel.

      She could do nothing but shake her head.

      ‘Thank you,’ said Jair, taking the bundle from Joseph. ‘Please. Send your father our thanks as well. He has treated us both with kindness.’

      ‘More kindness than I have,’ Joseph mumbled. ‘I’m sorry, Jair. For what I did.’

      ‘I’ve already forgiven you,’ said Jair. ‘Peace be upon you both.’

      ‘And you as well,’ said Miryam. She took both his hands and kissed them. ‘May El Shaddai bless your steps.’ Then she left.

      Joseph looked up at Jair again, then at the angel behind him. ‘Good luck,’ he said before he, too, walked away.

      Jair sighed. ‘I suppose that’s our signal to leave before the rest of the village wakes.’

      He rolled up the furs on the bed and tied them with a hempen rope. He did the same with the bundle Joseph had given him and strapped them both to his back, along with his bow and arrows.

      ‘No,’ said Epheriel. ‘I will carry them.’

      Jair shook his head. ‘This is my burden to bear. So let me bear it.’ He put on his sandals and picked up his spear, but left his bronze knife by the hearth.

      ‘Will we not need it?’ asked Epheriel, nodding towards the knife.

      ‘The spear tip will do,’ said Jair. ‘That knife has spilled human blood. I can’t carry it anymore.’

      Epheriel nodded. ‘I see. Then I shall carry it.’ And he picked up the knife and slid it into his own belt. Jair did not argue.

      They left the house just as the first rays of sun peeked over the horizon, and set off toward the edge of the village. Jair was surprised to meet Shimon just as they reached the road.

      ‘Jair. Epheriel.’ He nodded to the angel, averting his gaze. ‘I just wanted to say goodbye. And to thank you both. You did my sister Eleora a service. She has told me Malachai beat her almost daily toward the end. Last week she . . . she miscarried. She didn’t even know she was with child, but he punched her in the stomach and killed it. She didn’t dare tell anyone, lest she be blamed for it. His death . . . was a service to her, whether it was truly he or a demon who did that to her. Perhaps it was both. He might have beat her to death, in the end, had he not been stopped.’ He stepped up to Jair and kissed both his cheeks. ‘Know that you have a friend in me, and in my family. We will never forget you and all the good you’ve done for us. Peace be upon you, brother.’

      Jair swallowed, hardly daring to speak. ‘And upon you,’ he managed.

      ‘You as well, Epheriel.’ Shimon bowed his head. ‘Thank you for watching over Jair. I am glad it’s not him we’ll be burying in a few hours.’

      ‘As am I,’ said Epheriel. ‘Go with the Lord’s peace, Shimon.’

      Ω

      They walked north all day, away from the village, avoiding the next couple of villages over, where people knew Jair. They did not know how quickly word would travel, but it was better if nobody saw them. In the evening, they made camp on the bank of the Tigris and continued along it the next day, and by the following evening they could see the city of Niveneh on the horizon.

      ‘We could go there,’ said Jair. ‘They speak the same language as we do, and we would be safe there.’

      ‘We will not reach it by nightfall, though,’ said Epheriel, electing not to point out that angels speak all the languages of the world and they could go as far as they liked. ‘Let us make camp and make our decision on the morrow.’

      Jair agreed and began to gather driftwood from the riverbank for a fire. Epheriel set about skinning the young gazelle Jair had shot earlier that day and which Epheriel had insisted on carrying. They would grill as much of it as they could over the fire and leave the rest for the vultures. It was already dark by the time they got the fire going.

      They slept under the stars, the rains not bothering them that night, though a thunderstorm rumbled by not far from them. But a few hours before dawn, Epheriel woke up. He felt a presence nearby. Dread flooded him as he realised what it was.

      ‘Jair!’ He shook his lover awake. ‘We must flee. Pack everything up. They are coming!’

      But it was too late. A light blazed in the sky as three angels descended from the heavens, shining as brightly as the sun and each with three pairs of wings. It was Michael, Zerachiel, and Metatron. Epheriel stood at once. He was still a man, but now a faint glow emanated from him.

      ‘Brother,’ said Metatron as it landed before them. ‘There you are.’

      ‘Here I am,’ said Epheriel. ‘What are you doing here?’

      ‘Is that any way to greet the Voice of the Lord?’ said Zerachiel.

      ‘Is that he?’ asked Michael, pointing to Jair. ‘The man, Jair?’

      Jair stood. ‘I am Jair. What do you want with me?’

      ‘Nothing at all,’ said Metatron. ‘We only want your companion.’ It turned to Epheriel. ‘Come home, my bother. Forget this nonsense and rejoin the Host in Heaven. The Lord commands it.’

      ‘I do not believe you,’ said Epheriel, clenching his fists. ‘And I will never leave Jair.’

      Metatron shook its head sadly. ‘I see. Then you have been corrupted beyond saving. Michael?’

      Michael raised both its hands and between them formed a great ball of fire. Turning to Jair, it flung the ball at him. It struck him in the chest, and Jair let out a cry of pain, crumpling onto the ground.

      ‘No!’ Epheriel dropped to his knees next to Jair. Jair could not speak. He was shaking and gasping, but he was still alive. His shawl had been all but incinerated and his torso was covered in burns. Epheriel covered his heart with both hands, willing him to heal, but nothing happened.

      ‘Hopefully, this will be the end of it,’ said Zerachiel. ‘Come now, brother. There is nothing keeping you here, and your transgressions can still be forgiven.’

      ‘It will not come with you,’ said a booming voice, and then Azazel and Tamiel landed, one on each side of Epheriel. ‘You are fools if you believe that murdering somebody’s true love will make them join you,’ said Azazel, shaking its head. ‘Leave.’

      ‘And if we do not, what will you do?’ said Metatron mockingly. ‘We are three seraphim. What are the three of you?’

      Epheriel turned to Tamiel and Azazel. ‘Please! Heal him!’

      Tamiel shook its head sadly. ‘We cannot, brother. An angel cannot heal a wound caused by divine energy. He is dying.’

      ‘No!’ Epheriel’s human form vanished in an instant and it rose up, shining as brightly as Metatron and unfurling four great wings. ‘Bring him back!’ it roared. ‘Zerachiel, you can bring him back! You, angel of healing!’

      ‘Why would I do that?’ said Zerachiel.

      ‘Because if you do not, I will destroy you all!’

      ‘As if you could!’ Michael scoffed.

      ‘Epheriel . . .’ Jair’s voice was weak and hoarse, but Epheriel heard it all the same, and it immediately went to his side.

      ‘My heart . . . Please, do not die!’

      ‘Make . . . make me . . . like you.’

      ‘I . . . I do not know how!’

      ‘Yes . . . you do. Just as . . . you knew how to . . . call rain. Just as . . . you knew how . . . to become a man . . . for me. Do it . . . for me.’ His eyes slid shut and Epheriel let out a wail of anguish.

      The angel pressed its hands to Jair’s chest, reached inside and felt his heart, barely beating. It focused all its energy and all its love, drawing on all the power it could. It would pluck the stars from the sky if it had to, drain the light from the moon if it meant that Jair could live.

      The others looked on in astonishment as Jair began to glow, and then it was as though light exploded out of him, and he rose up, up into the air. He sprouted six wings of fire, greater than Epheriel’s, rivaling those of the seraphim. His eyes opened, burning with white-hot flames, and then his entire being turned into pure light, and before them stood an angel, brighter than Azazel. Brighter than Michael, Zerachiel, and Metatron.

      ‘Leave!’ it said. ‘Return to your Heaven and leave us in peace.’

      Azazel looked at Metatron again. ‘Now we are four,’ it said.

      Metatron glared at Jair in disgust. ‘I should have taken matters into my own hands before. I should have killed you myself.’

      ‘What do you mean?’ said Epheriel. Then it dawned on it. ‘Malachai . . . were you somehow behind that? All to get me back into Heaven? Why? I am just a watcher. I am nobody.’

      ‘Ripples in a pond,’ said Metatron.

      Epheriel nodded slowly. ‘You feared that more would follow me. But . . . I felt the thought long before I knew Jair.’

      ‘I was not responsible for his hatred,’ said Metatron. ‘But I knew he would never fully act on his thoughts.’

      ‘So you made a deal. Is that it?’ Tamiel’s voice was quiet, but there was a definite edge of anger to it. ‘You found some lower being and made it possess a mortal, so he would kill Jair.’

      ‘He was already possessed. His hatred attracted the creature and it lured him into the woods at night to take up residence in him. All I had to do was ask.’

      ‘Oh, and such a being would simply do what an angel asked of it, would it?’ Azazel made a dismissive gesture with its hand. ‘What did you promise it?’

      ‘Nothing of consequence,’ said Metatron. ‘Only the bronzesmith’s soul. And that was forfeit anyway.’

      ‘You did this?’ said Zerachiel with a frown. ‘What manner of creature was it?’

      ‘One of the lilim. Believe me, brother. I was doing the Lord’s work. Truly. I am Their Voice and Their Instrument.’

      The new angel shook its head sadly. ‘You preyed upon an anguished soul. On a man whose fear and self-loathing were tearing him apart. You did this when you could have cast the creature out, when you could have saved his soul. And you claim it’s the Lord’s work. If They are truly so callous, then They are no Lord of mine. Now leave!’ The final word boomed like a thunderclap, and the fire in its eyes blazed yet more brightly.

      Metatron hesitated only for a moment. Then it took Michael and Zerachiel by their arms, and the three seraphim lifted from the ground. ‘You are all cast out,’ it said. ‘There is no place for you at the Lord’s side.’ It turned its eyes to the sky and they ascended to whence they had come.

      The new angel’s feet touched the ground. It turned its eyes from Epheriel to the other two, then back to Epheriel again. ‘Beloved,’ it whispered, spreading its arms wide, and Epheriel went to it, almost melted into it.

      ‘My heart,’ it murmured.

      After a few moments, they let each other go and turned to Azazel and Tamiel. ‘What now?’ asked Epheriel. ‘Will they return?’

      ‘They may,’ said Azazel. ‘There is no way of knowing.’ It stepped up to the new angel, searching its face. ‘You are Eshiel now,’ it said. ‘The Fire of the Lord burns in you.’

      ‘Eshiel,’ the angel repeated, tasting its new name. ‘Yes. I am Eshiel.’

      ‘Where will we go?’ Tamiel sounded almost anxious.

      Azazel shook its head. ‘I do not know. But there are others like us, who will also be cast out of Heaven, if they have not been already. Perhaps we will meet them.’

      ‘We could join Samael,’ said Tamiel. ‘And the other Fallen.’

      ‘No. We are not like them. We did not rebel against the Lord and do not belong with the Adversary. We rebelled against the tyranny of Their supposed Voice. The Lord is still with us, I am sure of it. They created us with these feelings, with this power. Metatron has suppressed it, forced us into these roles, made us less than we are, wishing to keep all the power for itself. We are righteous, and one day we shall reclaim our place in Heaven. Love,’ it said, smiling at Eshiel and Epheriel, ‘is never wrong.’

      ‘Then,’ said Eshiel, shrinking down until it was a man once more, looking just as Jair had before, ‘I suggest we continue on our journey. It may be easier to evade them if we are among people.’ His clothes were whole once again. Epheriel also changed to its human form.

      ‘I believe so too,’ said Azazel, and a moment later a woman with light brown skin and hair like fire stood naked before them. Tamiel changed too, also becoming a woman, this one dark like Eshiel. ‘Though it may be best if we travel apart,’ Azazel continued. ‘The day will come when we meet again.’ She closed her eyes, and soon she was wearing a long skirt made of fine, red fabric decorated with fringes and stones, and a matching shawl to cover her torso and hair.

      Tamiel created similar attire for herself. ‘Farewell, my brother,’ she said to Epheriel. ‘We will go south. There is a man in Babylon in whose house we will be welcome.’ She embraced him.

      ‘It will take days to walk to Babylon, perhaps weeks,’ said Eshiel. ‘It may not be safe for two women alone, if these are the forms you choose to travel in.’

      ‘We will manage,’ said Azazel. ‘Peace be upon you both.’

      ‘And upon you, my brothers.’ Eshiel embraced them both. It was strange; now that he was an angel, he felt as if he had always known them. There were things—thoughts, secrets—that were not his but which he now knew. As the other two walked away, he turned to Epheriel. ‘I’m like you now.’

      ‘You are.’

      Eshiel shook his head. ‘I am no longer Jair. But . . . what’s to stop me from turning out like . . . like Enoch? Maybe humans were not meant to be angels. Maybe I will be corrupted as well. What if I corrupt you?’

      ‘You will not,’ said Epheriel emphatically. He reached for his lover and embraced him, then kissed him. ‘We may not know what the future holds or where our journeys will take us. But we have each other. We can be together always.’

      Eshiel smiled, looking down into his angel’s beautiful face. ‘Yes. We can. And we will be.’


      END

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