Book one: The Maiden

by suricata




There was pain. He was quite clear on that. He could even define what kind of pain it was. Hangover. He ran his tongue, several sizes too large, over teeth, several layers too mossy, and groaned.

That hurt worse.

Feeling like this, his body should be lying in the street somewhere, face down in muck. Perhaps a passerby would pity him and drop a few pence somewhere so he could go scrounge a cup of...

Coffee.

His nostrils flared, and he almost considered opening his eyes to see if that lovely smell was merely a hallucination or if someone had actually taken pity on a poor rotted-out bastard.

And that thought led to the realization that he wasn't face down rolled off some kerb. In fact, his body felt almost... comfortable. As though in a bed. A bed with cool, crisp cotton sheets and a pillow that was definitely feather-filled.

"Open your eyes, there's a good boy," a voice as soft as the pillow coaxed, and he realized with a start that it was talking to him. It was a nice voice, a pleasant voice, not the sort you wanted to disappoint. So he tried to open his eyes, but they were gummed shut, sealed to darkness forever.

There was a heavy sound, and then the touch of warm, wet cloth brushing against his face. The dampness soaked into his lashes, loosening the gumminess, and he raised those stone-heavy lids to grass-green eyes staring down into his face. The eyes pulled back, revealing a pale face squared off by a firm chin, and posessing in addition to eyes a small, sweet mouth, and a nose and cheekbones as blunt as the chin. All in all, a pleasing face to wake to, if nothing remarkable

"Who... where?"

And then it all came back to him, and he closed his eyes, unwilling to look upon this ordinary angel, far too good for the likes of him. He should have died. Had in fact been trying to die, although he only now recognized that fact. But it seemed that his father's legacy consisted of more than moldy books -- he had the Giles liver as well.

Too bad. Dying would have made the world a much cleaner place.

"None of that, now." She moved briskly, placing the cloth somewhere behind her and coming back with a mug steaming and smelling of ambrosia. "Come on, you need this to jumpstart your heart. Once we get the blood moving, you'll feel much more the thing."

It wasn't so much what she said, not how she said it, but the simple fact of her saying it, as though there were never any doubt but that of course he would do as she said, that made him move. And once he was propped up, and inhaling the bitter taste of brewed coffee, it seemed perfectly logical to listen again to his angel and shuffle to the shower, standing under the weak spray until the worst of the stink ran off and down into the drain.

And just as he was beginning to feel human again, the memories came back, sweeping him out of that safety and back into the depths of horror. The voices, the screaming, and the blood, oh god the blood. His fault. His fault, all his fault...

He came to again curled in fetal position in the corner of the shower, the water cold on his skin running and mixing with the tears hot against his face. And the voice and the eyes and the stubborn face were there, helping him out, drying him with a thin white towel that scratched comfortingly, and the scent of springtime grass and sunlight that followed him back down into bed and kept him company down into oblivion.

An angel, come to rescue him. Or a demon to torment him with knowledge -- more damn knowledge -- of what he had lost. At the moment, he couldn't give a damn, just so long as he could sleep; sleep, and not dream.

Waking the second time was easier. The shades were pulled against winter sunlight, and his hostess was a pale shadow against pale walls, her hand warm against his clammy skin. A soft voice sang him back to sleep, and the warmth of a spring afternoon's sun soaked into his bones and eased the aches away.

Waking the third time was easier still, but he did nothing more than stay where he was, in the small flat's single bed, and watch her move about the room, into the galley kitchen to fix him more coffee and the occasional toast and marmalade that he was able to swallow. And then she would sit there, perched on the back of an oversized, overstuffed chair, feet on the cushioned seat, and he slowly came to realize that she was barely a child herself, no more than an underfed fifteen.

From his ancient, jaded depths of twenty, she seemed innocent. Unsullied. And he protested her association with him until he looked again into her green, green eyes, and all doubts were silenced forever. Wisdom and pain in equal measure resided there. Young, yes, but he had been young once and it hadn't kept him from learning terrible things. She knew those things. But they didn't compel her, didn't bear her down into the muck he wallowed in and wallowed within him.

And as he fell asleep for the fourth time, he thought that perhaps she would be able to teach him how to stay clean.

And the days passed, and the nights, and Rupert was dimly aware of them, but nothing really seemed to exist beyond the confines of the flat. He and Mada rambled over conversations, stopping often for long periods of silence. She left only to buy more food, and he wondered once why she wasn't in school, but it seemed a thing so foreign to her, as though no classroom could ever teach her anything she would need to know, that he didn't let himself think of it again.

And he found himself telling her about himself.

"Father wasn't home very often. A kiss on the cheek to my mother, and then he would toss me in the air and hug me, and he was gone. And life went on, my mother and I doing all the things that families do when the man of the house's away, always waiting for him to come home. Other's fathers travelled on business, especially in our town, so I suppose it wasn't thought as odd, but my mother had such a worried look on her face when he was gone. And then some times he would bring a young man to dinner, always the same yong woman, to stay with us overnight in the spare room that way always kept ready for him, and that was worse."

Meddy tilted her head, encouragement for him to go on.

"I hated that girl, even while my mother fawned over her. I knew, even then, that she was the reason my father went away so often, and why my mother worried so when they were gone. And I was glad when they died."

"The young woman?"

"Yes. And my father."

And they fell into another silence, a cool, soothing absense of sympathy or inquiry; and in that silence Rupert could almost hear the torn place within him, the place ripped apart when his mother had received that terrible phone call in the middle of the night, begin to seal itself. Never to disappear, for wounds of that sort didn't. But it no longer dripped bile into his soul, and he was able to remember his parents for the first time in years without that terrible mix of anger and guilt.

Another sleeping, and another waking. Soup this time, with fresh-baked bread, and a glass of orange juice that burned his mouth and made him long for a toothbrush. She brought him one, her own. He used it, then slipped it into his pocket, like a relic, and stared at himself in the mirror. The skin seemed unfamiliar, drawn and heavy, and the color of parchment.

"You need to get out more, Ripper my lad," he could hear Ethan saying, and shuddered violently. Turning the cold water tap to high, he shoved his entire head under it, drenching the voice to silence.

"After that, after my father died, my mother seemed to give up. She couldn't bear to look at me. One day, my uncle, my father's brother, came to take me away. My real education was about to begin. Family tradition. Family honor."

Meddy laid her hand upon his, where it was gripping the coverlet, and he was able to relax slightly. "I was eight years old, and had never heard the word 'slayer' before. Before I was nine, I hated it."

He wasn't at all surprised when Meddy didn't ask what a slayer was. How could she not know? This recitation wasn't for her, it was for him. And so he went on, telling of the long days first in school where he struggled to be just another of the blokes, then at home, learning the ancient histories, and sacred texts, and legends and myths and demonologies --

And when his voice cracked on that last word, Meddy lay down beside him on the narrow bed, and he wrapped his arms around her and wept. Wept for the souls of his friends, for the innocence he had lost, and for the healing he could feel winding like new vines along the inner turns of his soul. Healing he did not deserve, but which had been given to him: a precious gift, a new start. A second chance. And the source of it slept trustingly in his arms, while he lay wide awake, breathing in the scent of redemption, terrified of the monster he knew himself to be.

Two days after that, he found himself sitting upright at the table, eating -- cautiously -- a full meal. And a fine meal, as well. Meat, rare cooked and crusted on the outside, and fresh vegtables and new potatoes coated with herbs -- "No Englishwoman could have cooked this meal," he teased her, finally able to tease, and was gratified to see a shy smile curl her lips.

"What, because I don't boil my meats, you accuse me of being a foreigner? I'll have you know I'm as much a part of this island as the soil and the trees and the air you breathe."

"A god is not limited by the land of their birth," he said, watching her over a raised fork. She blinked, and a light flush stained the length of her cheekbones, but other than that she did not react. He had outwitted demons, outwaited schoolmasters. He could be patient for her.

"Gods are beyond this plane, beyond this flesh" she said finally, raising her glorious green eyes to look at him. "I don't know what I am, but I know what I am not. I have no desire to be more than flesh and bone."

Rupert put his fork down slowly, waiting for her own unburdening.

" I was born of a mortal woman," and it sounded almost like a plea.

Rupert shook his head. All the education that had been cramed down his throat, all the musty tomes he had been bequeathed, none of them had been wasted, for even while despising the reason, he had loved the learning.

"Born nine months past the Betane fire," he said. A statement, not guessing. It was almost embarassing that he hadn't recognized it before. Who else would have found him, succored him, redeemed him. Who else, to be there when he needed a reason, but the reason itself? "Born on a night the moon was full, and the wind rattled the doors though no storm was near, and the elk and the owl stood by."

"I am human!" she insisted.

"You are human, and more," he responded, catching up her hands in his own and kneeling before her on the floor, feeling at once rediculous and perfectly right and proper. "You are redemption. Daughter of the Moon and the Woods. Avatar of the Three. Child of the Hunter and The Wisdom. Human and more." He stopped, bringing her hands to his lips and pressing a brief kiss onto them. "The Land incarnate. My own dear Lady."

She gulped back what might have been a sob, and forced a smile, looking every inch the forlorn girl-child.

"If I am your Lady, you must be my Knight Errant."

"As you command me, my Lady. My life is yours."

"Then I give it back to you," she said, drawing her hands away and staring into his soul with her inhumanly green eyes. "And you know what you must do with it."

end book I

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