Part Ten

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The next day she leapt out from behind the rhubarb.

He was at the edge of the village, retracing their path to the graveyard, when she startled him with a poor imitation of a monster's roar. She knocked him down, straddled him, tickled him. She worked her fingers under his armpits and over his belly, giggling.

He remained mute, struck dumb by her affection.

Her mirth dovetailed into a song about snowcapped mountains and gold-dipped apples.

Her brown eyes beckoned. She bopped him on the nose.

"You really surprised me last night," she scolded. Leaning forward, she propped her elbows on his chest.

"Those people were-- weird," he said, taking a deep breath just to feel her weight.

"Am I weird?" she asked.

"A little. But I still like you."

"Hah!" She leaned back. "You like this." She waved her hand over her face. "You like when I laugh. Hah-hah-hah! When I sing. Trah-lah-lah! When I dance. Boop-doop-dee. It's not the same thing."

"Someone-- is trying-- to kill you--" he stammered.

She tensed. She replied. "Pffft."

"I'm serious. That stick didn't throw itself at the furry fur ball!"

"Ahk!"

"Those dead midges didn't jump into the river to get a drink!"

"Well nothing dead is thirsty, so."

"Someone is after you. In fact, they told me so last night!"

"Who?"

"A girl. A woman. Who hates you?"

She leaned forward, but did not touch him. "There are other reasons to kill," she said.

"What?" he trembled.

She leaned closer. Their noses touched. "You heard me."

"What if-- it's your sister," he suggested.

She climbed off and stood back, casually leaning against the rhubarb. "What if," she mumbled.

He stood up, still in a tremor. "Escaping monsters is one thing. You can't escape who you love."

"You better stop using that word!" she yelled.

"Why? It's not dangerous."

"Not dangerous? It's the most dangerous! Haven't you heard? Love makes us real. That's what happens to our kind. I don't want that."

"Why not?"

"Real means obligation. Responsibility."

"Real means vulnerable," he countered. "That's what you're afraid of."

"You're one to talk about being afraid!"

He folded his arms. "Maybe I'm an expert."

A grub flopped out of the stalks and wriggled at their feet.

"Uh oh," he said.

A feathered beast swooped out of the air, knocking them over with its sharp wings. The creature scooped up the grub, bounded up on a branch, and gobbled its squirming meal. They glimpsed a spot of red at the back of its head before it hopped and turned around.

The winged menace looked down on them with black, beady eyes.

A smaller creature darted over them, dropping another grub. The writhing larva landed between them, at the edge of the wild grass.

The beast spread its black and white wings-- and shrieked.

"Keep low!" she screamed, fleeing into the grass.

"Wait!" He jumped over the grub and chased after her.

They hurried through the undergrowth. Grubs flew at them from above. The beast dove again and again. They tripped on a pumpkin vine and toppled into a tin drum. The drum fell over and rolled down a hill, bouncing over carrots. It smashed into a cabbage, stopped, and threw them against the back wall. They panted, catching their breath.

He sniffed. "Tomatoes?"

She held a finger to her lips, nodding at a small pouch between them. They each took a side, pulling the drawstrings to make a wider opening.

They stood and waited.

Swish, swish. Swish.

"Now!" she screamed.

They jumped forward, pulling the pouch over the blur appearing at the entrance.

"Let me go!" demanded the muffled prisoner.

He yanked the pouch off, sprinkling the three of them with tobacco shavings. The prisoner coughed as her hands were tied with the drawstring.

"Who are you?" she asked the stranger.

"Like I would tell you!"

"This isn't your sister?" he asked.

"No," she said, tugging on the prisoner's silver scarf. It was torn in two.

"That's mine!" said the stranger.

"But my sister, she--"

The prisoner guffawed. "Do you think your sister owns the only silver scarf? How dumb can you be!"

"But who are you? I've never seen you before."

"How dare you! There's a whole world beyond the sliver of your narrow perception! I loved him, too, same as you!"

"I don't love anyone," she replied.

"Life is too short for that malarkey," spat the stranger. "We're not the big folk. We don't live forever. Our days are not their days. Our weeks, for them, a single cup of tea. Our dreams, our lives, gone by the time the kettle is empty. I loved, and for a time, I was real. I. Was. Real. And you took it all away!"

The stranger struggled.

She squinted. "Wait. Wait. You stole my boyfriend?"

The prisoner frothed. "No! You stole mine! Then you lured him to that-- thing! And I knew I had to do the same to you! Not my fault your sister looks like you. When I learned of my mistake, that it wasn't you I fed to the six-legged beast, I decided any monster would do!"

"Eight," he corrected. "Eight legs." He moved closer to her. "Is all this true?" he asked in a hush.

She looked at him. "I didn't know the monster was there. Please believe me."

He turned pale, and she got that far-away look that made her seem old and fey.

"I saw it-- catch him," she explained. "And-- I was so scared-- I froze. He begged for help. His eyes, terror-stricken, not beautiful, not like the eyes of the monster. It crawled down over him-- and looked at me! It watched me-- watching it, wrap him in silk. So many eyes. So-- many-- beautiful eyes! I serve them! They command me! And I must obey!" She took him by the shoulders. "It wants me to bring you!"

She broke down, crying.

The feathered beast snatched the prisoner out of the drum.

"Arrhhhh!"

They turned to the empty opening-- and stood in silence.

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