"As my two eyes make one in sight
Only where love and need are one
And the work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever truly done
For Heaven and the future's sakes"
Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mud Time
"We are led to believe a lie
When we see with, not through the eye,
Which was born in a night, to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light."
William Blake, Songs of Innocence
He was scared. He didn't want to admit it. Ten year old male pride was too touchy to allow such a thing. If Mum and Valentina weren't scared, then he wouldn't be.
Except that Mum was scared, no matter how many times she told Father that she wasn't, that she was fine. And Valentina... Valentina had changed.
Bertie left the little farmhouse that his family had moved into less than a year ago to find his thinking space by the river. He missed London, missed it dreadfully. In London after school let out he could take the Underground to Tottingham Court and to the Museum, to wander among the artifacts. Here, he had no Museum, no library other than the little one by the school -- and Father's, but Father wouldn't let him look.
And he had no friends. The people here were too scared. They didn't like or trust strangers. Bad things happened here, in this little town so very far north of London. Even their accents were so different that Bertie sometimes couldn't even understand what the teacher said.
The sky overhead was grey, threatening rain in a desultory way. Bertie settled down by the river under the shelter of a rowan tree, idly listening to the yammering of the water. It really sounded like human voices, sometimes, something that the boy raised in a city desperately needed.
He was scared.
He didn't know what was happening. Katie had gone away, Miss Hull said that morning, gone to God, intoned in pious but quite genuine mourning. She was the third child to have died since Bertie's father had inexplicably left London and brought his family here.
And they were a family, Bertie thought stubbornly. Valentina wasn't really his sister, but he loved her -- something he wouldn't admit until... until... until they stuck bamboo shoots under his fingernails. Until they used thumbscrews... whatever thumbscrews were. Until they made him eat turnips. Bertie spent a few more pleasant moments imagining horrible and hideous tortures that he, Rupert Giles, Flying Ace, would withstand manfully while making witty comments, before his thoughts inevitably returned to Cathy, to Chris, to Diana. To the miners. Even Bertie had heard about how they had found the bodies of the miners. The tales had given him nightmares for weeks. And Mr. Smith, the grocer. Bertie had loved the market. Mr. Smith had always seemed so happy surrounded by people, and had always had a kind word for the new boy in a town where most of the townspeople lived in the same homes that had been occupied by their parents and grandparents and great-great-great-great grandparents.
And then one day the market was closed, and Mr. Smith no longer lived where his ancestors had lived. Instead, he joined them in the churchyard, and sour-faced Miss Wynn had taken over the market. She didn't hand out treats to children the way Mr. Smith had, and he had heard the women in the town mutter that she kept her thumb on the scale when weighing the meat. Bertie decided that he would have a market someday, but it would be like Mr. Smith's, *not* like Miss Wynn's. After he was a flying ace, of course.
Mum didn't like it here. Bertie knew that. Even if she told him that she liked being away from the city, back in the country where *she* had grown up, she didn't like it. Late at night, when she thought he was asleep, she and Father had argued. Father said they had no choice, that they had to stay. Then he said something that Bertie was still trying to puzzle out. "Valentina is the Chosen One," and Bertie could hear the weight of capitals in his voice. "It is her destiny."
"Her destiny?" His mother's voice had risen in anger. "How many times have you told me that? How can it be *destiny* for a girl that young to--" His mother had cut herself off abruptly with a sound like a sob, and Bertie could hear no more after that then the voices themselves, murmuring low.
Father didn't seem to be afraid, but Bertie really couldn't tell. Father didn't have time for him, generally. Sometimes, in London, Father would teach him things. Languages, mostly. Sometimes Bertie would tell him what he had seen in the Museum, and Father would tell him strange and fascinating stories about this cross and that spear. But from the day that Father had abruptly announced that they were moving to Dunsbury-on-Trent, he hadn't ever had time for Bertie.
And Valentina was looking more and more weary. Father told the school board that she was delicate, weak, and so couldn't attend the public school. He'd tutor her at home, he promised, and proved to the school that he was qualified to do so. Bertie wondered sometimes why he had to go to school where all he did was the sums he had learned two years before and stumbled through baby books and stared out the window until the teacher scolded him and made him write, "I will attend to the lesson" one hundred times on the blackboard.
And he knew Valentina wasn't weak. She was strong. Very strong. In the London house, just before they'd left, she'd accidentally snapped a knob off the door, just by tugging too hard on it. Father's face had looked so strange when she had done that.
But she was tired all the time. Sometimes, at night when he had nightmares, Bertie crept into her room --just to see if she was scared too. If she was, he'd comfort her. She was six years older than he was, but she was a girl. But almost all the time, she wasn't there. And once he'd seen her come in, limping, looking so... so very tired. Very, very tired.
Bertie yawned as the rushing water below began to sound like a lullaby. His lower lip slid out in a pout that he had outgrown by the time he was three. He didn't like it here. He wanted to go home. Home, where people and things to see, and his father wasn't always preoccupied and his mother's eyes weren't dark with fear, and where Valentina had had time to play with him every now and again. Home...
It was dark when he woke, dark and cold, the promise of rain having become a drizzly reality. His heavy sweater was soaked through, and he shivered. Disoriented by sleep and rain, for a moment he didn't know where he was. Stumbling to his feet, slipping, smearing mud on his school trousers, he turned in a slow circle, trying to get his bearings.
A figure moved in the shadows before him, a silhouette against the faintest of starlight. Without knowing why, Bertie cringed back against the tree that had sheltered him through his drift through dreamtime. He closed his eyes tightly and chanted silently that he was still asleep, that this was just a nightmare, that he'd wake up and it would be light and he would go home and get scolded for not coming home directly from school...
"Bertie!" the shadow cried out, and Bertie recognized his mother's voice. Manfully biting back a sob of relief he stumbled forward.
"Mum! I'm here!"
Clouds parted enough to let moonlight show him his mother's face, drawn with worry. No, more than that. Terror. "Bertie!" She clutched him to her, holding tightly in an embrace that Bertie would have normally freed himself from, if he hadn't been so scared. Then she took him by the shoulders and shook him slightly. "Rupert Edmund Giles," she scolded fiercely. "You *know* that you are to come straight home from school! Come along," she said, glancing around nervously as Bertie began to try to excuse himself, he needed to think, he hadn't *meant* to fall asleep. "We must go in...."
For the rest of his life, Bertie never really clearly remembered what happened next. He could work out later that, logically, they had been accosted on their way back to the farmhouse. But the first warning that Bertie had was when something warm and wet had splattered on his cheek. His mother's tight clasp on his hand disappeared, as though the misty night had just swallowed her up.
And a monster that even his worst nightmares hadn't imagined stood before him.
Bertie could almost feel his toes growing like roots into the ground. Fear paralyzed him; he couldn't move. He couldn't do anything but stand and shake as a... THING tilted its head and grinned. Eyes gleamed with their own light through the fog, and the horribly distorted face was a study in glee. Without a word, it stepped forward and grabbed Bertie.
With its attack, Bertie's paralysis abruptly was cured, and he began struggling in the creature's grasp. Crying out, flailing in its grasp, Bertie kicked and struck out in blind desperation. With a hoarse laugh, the monster wrenched Bertie's head to one side and prepared to feed.
Bertie tumbled suddenly to the ground, rolling back to curl next to his mother. She was up on her knees, a cut on her cheek seeping blood, horror in her eyes. She wrapped her arms around her son, but didn't take her eyes off the battle before her.
Valentina was holding a long branch, parrying the monster's attempts to rush her. Her face was set, determined, fierce in the low light. The monster had chosen his ambush site well; Bertie and his mother were trapped on a promontory above the river. As long as the path was blocked, they couldn't go anywhere.
"Coward," Valentina hissed, and Bertie felt his chest swell with pride. Valentina was a girl, but she sure didn't act like it sometimes. "All you and yours ever do is attack children. How about a real fight for a change?"
The monster laughed. "A Slayer? Oh, yes, that would be a good challenge. Your blood will be sweet and powerful. I've been waiting for you," he crooned, sounding like, like... Bertie tried to think. Like heroes in movies, he decided, when they got all mushy and kissy. Somehow, it sounded really sick coming from this monster to Valentina. "Why did you wait so long? Why did I have to content myself with the blood of children when you could have--"
He cut himself off when Valentina rushed him suddenly, an inarticulate cry breaking from her throat. He dodged the branch, but not the kick that sent him to the ground. Rolling to avoid the branch that was being brought straight down, like a medieval knight plunging a sword into the ground, the monster gained his feet again, and he and Valentina circled again.
"Let them go," she ordered, casting a glance over her shoulder at Bertie and his mother. Suddenly more scared, Bertie crowded back against his mother again. She didn't seem like Valentina at that moment. She looked cold, and hard, and as dangerous as the creature that had attacked him.
"Oh, hardly, Slayer. Why would I do a silly thing like that? As long as you keep worrying about them, they are a weapon for me."
Bertie had no idea how long the fight went on. It was silent after that, except for grunts and growls that broke from the combatants. Circle, attack, dodge, break away, circle again. There seemed no end to the pattern. The mist strengthened into rain, washing the battle before him into a watercolor of blurring figures.
Finally, Valentina broke out of it for a moment. Breathing hard, she glanced again over at Bertie and his mother. Her eyes met theirs for one moment. Then she folded her lips tightly and she turned back to her enemy. And attacked. With laughable ease, the creature ducked to one side and grabbed her.
This time, she didn't break away. Howling in triumph, the creature bent his head to her neck as he had to Bertie. Valentina's voice was a high, thin cry of pain. The monster was silent -- until a sudden strange cry seemed to coalesce from the air around him and he burst into dust.
Valentina, released from his killing embrace, dropped to the ground.
Bertie felt his mother shudder against him, then bury her face in his hair and start crying. ~Girls,~ he thought, disgusted. Valentina won, and Mum was crying.
Valentina wasn't moving, though. Bertie started wiggling, trying to free himself from his mother's suffocating hold. She wouldn't let him go, merely held on and rocked him. She held him while the rain cleared and the moon gleamed across the path, while Bertie's father found them. He glanced at his wife and son, then knelt beside Valentina. Slowly, he touched her hand, then her cheek. Then he passed his palm over her eyes, bowing his head.
And that was when Bertie understood.
They were leaving, going back to London. Within the week, Father said. Bertie felt guilty. He'd wanted to go home, had dreamed of it.
But standing beside Valentina's grave, he wished that he'd never wished of it.
Bertie looked at his mother, surrounded by clucking townswomen. She seemed remote from them, her face pale and drawn, ravaged by grief. Even though Valentina hadn't been her daughter, Bertie knew that his mother had loved her.
Slowly, everyone left, everyone in the small town who had barely known the Giles family and now would never know that Valentina had been the only one standing between them and a monster that was killing them. The monster was dead, and they were safe. But it had taken Valentina with him.
Alone, Bertie stood where the gravestone would be, staring at the mound of earth that had rattled with such dreadful finality against the coffin. He jumped when his father put his hand on his shoulder, clasping tightly. His father didn't say anything, just the hold on his shoulder, the warmth of human touch. Slowly, unsure of whether or not his father would allow it, Bertie tilted his head until it rested against his father's arm.
They stood there for a long time. Finally, Bertie sniffed and drew his hand under his nose. "Father... why? What was that thing? Why did he kill Valentina?"
Edmund Giles turned his son to face him. His eyes were sharp, piercing as they examined his son's face. Then slowly, he sighed, retreating several steps to a bench, pulling Bertie with him. "I never meant to tell you this so young," he said simply.
And then, as plainly as he could, explained why Valentina had died.
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