1. In the Shadow of War

She ran for the shelter, clutching the baby in her arms.

“Soon, sweetie, soon! We’re on our way to safety, I promise.” She was saying it as much for her own benefit as the baby’s, as if simply saying the words could make them come true.

The baby did not cry. It listened to the sirens, eyes as round as plates. The Luftwaffe was bombing London, again. People had lost count of how many consecutive days they had been running for the shelters with the rising and falling scream of the siren filling their ears, sweeping them onwards like terrified animals towards a place of refuge.

“Come along, Miss, ‘Itler’s not going to wait for you, dear!” The ARP warden took her by the elbow to encourage her along with the others. Then he saw the baby in her arms. “Sorry, Madam! But please, hurry up do, missis!”

She was not only escaping the bombs, but also the creatures that were after her baby. Their baby. The only precious thing she had left of him and their love. Her reason for living.

Beautiful. He had called her beautiful. And he had not yet seen his daughter.

She had not been aware of her heritage before she met him. She had only fallen madly in love with the tall young stranger. In the midst of the war they had clung to each other as though they were drowning and the touch of the other would save them both. He had told her what she was, and after the initial shock the knowledge had finally eased her pain of being different.

She no longer cared about her childhood – the way all the others had mocked her, how she kept getting herself into trouble, and that final day, when she had taken all she could stand. After that, all the children avoided her, and even though no one believed their stories, she became an outcast. Before, they had bullied her, now they did not even come near her. She spent the rest of her childhood alone, without a single friend, completely ignored.

When she was old enough, she moved to London and found a position as a servant. No one commented on her tall frame in the kitchen. They hardly spoke to her at all, and she lived for those moments when anyone threw her a word, even if it was just an order to peel potatoes. She remembered with warmth the day the grocery boy took a liking to her.

“Hullo, Beanpole!” he said the moment he saw her. “What’s the world like from up there? I bet people are always saying you’ve got your head in the clouds!”

“Nothing I can’t handle! I just duck whenever a bird flies towards me.” She quite surprised herself by coming smartly back with a reply that earned a delighted chuckle from the boy.

.”Handy for me that you’re so tall,” he grinned, “now I don’t have to knock on the door, ’cause you’ll see me coming for miles off, wontcha, eh, Beanpole?” He was cheeky, but so cheerful and kind that she couldn’t be offended. She found she was smiling despite herself.

He carried the groceries into the kitchen.

“Where d’you want them then, gel? Over there?” He touched his cap and was on his way with a wink and an appreciative lipsmacking noise. She was still smiling when a voice cut in from behind her.

“Oooh, someone’s got an admirer!” It was one of the maids, the pretty one, who had seen the whole thing. She fluttered her lashes mockingly, with her hand on her round hips. “Fancy that, you’ve got yourself a follower who likes ‘is women to look like a boy!”

To emphasize her meaning, the maid threw back her shoulders so that her own rounded bosom made the boot-boy’s eyes pop out.

After that they called her the Beanpole, and snide remarks by the other girls about her thin frame made it clear that they thought no man would ever be interested in her. Still, most of the time they weren’t too mean, just showing a sort of sly sympathy for an unfortunate young woman who did not look as a woman should.

She kept quiet, and continued timidly to do her job the best that she could, eager to please the others and even smiling at their comments about her boyish figure in order to win acceptance into their ranks.

When she came of age, she began to have a constant fever, but oddly enough she did not feel any weakness. By then the war was underway, and in the midst of all the uncertainty and fear she had met him. She saw him first, and stopped in surprise. There weren’t many men who were even taller than she was, so he stood out amongst the others. There was something else about him; something that she seemed to recognise. She was sure she had never met him before, though.

“Good afternoon, Miss!” He lifted his hat to her, taking her by surprise, as she walked towards the pond in the nearby park. She liked to sit and watch the water, and the ducks swimming. Sometimes she took them bread crumbs from the kitchen, not that there was often much left these days, when every scrap of food counted.

“He… Hello,” she stammered, instantly captivated by his intense gaze. To her horror she blushed. Her heart thumped loudly in her ears.

He was tall – so tall – just like her. And handsome. He was probably the best looking man she had ever seen. He was just standing there there, looking at her in…what was that expression… wonder? As though he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. And then his eyes began to smile, and her knees suddenly felt weak, so that she had to take a step to regain her balance.

“There may be a war on, but I’ve never known a smile knock someone off their feet!” he said. “Well, not anyone as lovely as you, anyway.”

It took her mind a few seconds to catch up with what her ears had heard. Lovely? He had called her lovely! She peeked at him to see if he was joking. No, his eyes looked as though he meant what he said. He apologised for his forwardness.

“I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to be offensive. Would you – walk with me?” he asked, and, noticing her nervous gaze searching for other people, he added “Just round the park, of course.” He held out his arm to her.

After a moment’s hesitation she had agreed. They walked together for almost half an hour. He was polite, thanking her when she told him it was time for her to go, and lifting his hat again. They met again the next day. And the next.

And then he stole a kiss from her under an old oak tree and her response was so fierce that her cheeks burned with shame for the entire evening. A week after she had first met him they became lovers.

He had been escaping from something; because he only agreed to meet her as far from crowds as was possible in a big city like London. She did not ask what he was hiding from, too afraid to, for fear of losing him.

They had three wonderful months together, meeting in parks, and in his room, when they could. Her visits to him were as secret as she could make them, though sometimes she wondered if the other servants guessed.

One evening, when she was lying in his arms, nervously knowing that she was late and that she should have already left his little room in his boarding house, hoping that she could avoid his landlady again, that he looked into her eyes so intensely that she was almost scared.

“There is something you need to know about yourself,” he said.

“About myself?” She did not understand.

“Yes. You are not who you think you are,” he said, gently tucking a lock of her hair behind her ear, and kissing her softly under her jaw, in the place that made her gasp with pleasure.

“I’m not? Who am I then?” She smiled, trying to make a joke of it, but feeling apprehensive.

“We share a secret, you and I,” he said and locked eyes with her, but there was none of the usual laughter in them, only tenderness and… fear?

“I know…” she tried to sound light, “if they knew what I have been doing with you…”

“It has nothing to do with this,” he said, tracing her shoulder with his finger, “And yet it has everything to do with this. I have put you in great danger.”

She looked at him questioningly, waiting for an explanation.

The explanation came in short, hesitant sentences, while he held her tight, as if fearing she would break from his arms and run away. It was not what she had expected. While the words came out, she listened mutely, stiff as a statue, not believing what he said. Not wanting to believe anything he said, because every word confirmed the fear she had been trying to escape all her life. Every pretence of her being normal was shattered forever, there in the shadows of the ordinary little room that had witnessed their deep love for each other.

“I think they have found me. I saw one of them in the park, but none yet near this house,” he finally said, “It is not safe for you to be seen with me anymore. After tonight I have to disappear. And you must promise not to try to find me here. If I am right, they will be observing this location soon, and will follow anyone who comes here, to see if that someone could lead them to me. You must believe me – your life is at stake. Please, for the sake of our love, don’t come back here. I shall look for you again, when it is safe. And trust me, I will find you.” He kissed her again.

That was their last day together. The following day she looked for his tall, unmistakeable figure, but it was not at their usual place in the park. Nor the day after that. She wandered around the park, searching everywhere, but knowing in her heart he would no longer be there. But she could not help herself. It took all the self-control she could muster to stay away from the boarding house.

And soon afterwards she found out she was with child.

She managed to keep her pregnancy a secret for a few months, but because she was so tall and thin, it began to show sooner rather than later. She could not hide in loose dresses much longer, and before too long they would throw her out of the house. She could not let her parents hear of her shame.

But where could she go? No one would take on a maid who was pregnant and unmarried. And she would never return back home, to be mocked by the villagers.

“What’s up, Beanpole?” The grocery boy appeared suddenly at the top of the area steps, although she had thought no one was around when she went out to catch some fresh air and fight the nausea that was now her constant companion. “Not enjoying your position in the fancy house with all the toffs?”

She could not help a tear escaping and quickly wiped it away, leaning slightly forward so her dress did not stretch over her belly.

“I guessed it. Them pretty gels are teasing you all the time, aren’t they? You mustn’t let ’em upset you. You know what – I might have a place for you, Beanpole. One that would suit you better. My sister just got married and moved out and it’s her landlady, what now needs a maid to help her. She’s blind, you see. You might even be able to live there without paying rent, if you’d agree to look after her. I know my sister did. You wouldn’t mind working for a very grumpy old blind lady, would you? The old girl’s all right when you get to know her.”

This time tears really began to fall. It was the answer to her prayers. An old lady who was blind!

“Tha.. thank you…” she managed to hiccup.

“There, there, gel…” the boy patted her hand, trying to appear older than his years. “And I’ve got news for you, too. I’ve got me call-up papers.” He seemed proud and excited.

“Your – call-up papers? But – you’re far too young to be conscripted!” Her own problems were forgotten for a moment.

“I’m eighteen, Beanpole. Just ‘ad me birthday – so there we are.”

“They won’t send you overseas, though, will they? You’re too young.”

“Dunno. Have to wait and see. Well, aint you got a hug for a man what’s going to serve ‘is nation, Beanpole? Lovely scent you always have on, and I don’t mean the smell of onions! I’d like to get a bit closer.”

“Of course!” She felt a sudden rush of affection for him. He was so young. Absurdly young to fight.

He put his arms around her, not caring that his head only reached her chin – and immediately let her go and looked down at her belly in surprise.

“Put a bit of weight on round the middle, haven’t you? Oh Beanpole – you aint in the family way, are yer?”

She nodded, mutely, tears springing into her eyes again.

“Who was it, my girl?” He looked angry, “Who did this to you?”

“I can’t tell you,” she whispered, trying to wipe the tears that refused to stop running.

The boy stood there quietly for a while, and then nodded his head.

“Good thing the old girl is blind. Just you carry on for another day or two, and my sis will fix things up with the old lady. You try to keep your secret a bit longer, and you’ll be out of here in a couple of days, if they’ll let you go.”

In two days she resigned and moved into the little house of the blind old lady. They made an agreement that she did not need to pay rent for her tiny bedroom, if she ran the household for her landlady.

The old lady had been quarreling with her neighbors for so long that there was no danger of any of them popping in for a visit and seeing that the new maid was pregnant.

So there she stayed, working hard so the landlady would not throw her out. She hid her growing belly in a long thick winter coat whenever she went out, trying to find clues to where he had gone, visiting all other the places where they had met, hoping for a note, a message. The only place she did not go to was the house he had been living in. He would never have left her voluntarily, not with the feeling of deep belonging that they shared, so something must have happened to him. Had he died in the hands of those he feared so much?

She did not find any trace of him, and when her pregnancy became too obvious, she stopped going out. They blocked the windows with cardboard at night and she stayed indoors, hiding in the darkness of the blackout.

Shortly before she was due, there was a knock on the front door late one evening. She tried to keep her huge belly hidden behind the door when she opened it. There was the grocery boy’s sister, carrying a big professional-looking bag. The woman smiled up at her.

“Step outside, duck, so the landlady won’t hear,” she said in a barely audible voice, “She has the ears of a bat, that one.”

She reached for her winter coat hanging by the door, leaving the door slightly open. An ARP warden came round the corner, spotted the chink of light and yelled “Oy! Put that bleedin’ light out!” Quickly wrapping her coat around her like a cloak, she stepped outside closing the door behind her. The grocery boy’s sister opened the coat enough to take a look of her bulging form, measuring it with a pair of knowing eyes.

“Hmph. Yes, not long now. I’m Molly, as I think me brother told you? I’ve come to stay with you until the baby arrives and I’ll help you with the labour. Some swine got you into trouble, eh, dear? ”

At that she stepped inside and proceeded to greet the landlady with the pretext of having to stay in the city for a few days and asked if she could stop over for a few nights. The landlady agreed, perhaps convinced by some eggs brought as a gift.

Her labour started two days later, early in the morning. Soon, she was clutching her belly as the spasms began. She needed to get out of the landlady’s house as soon as possible, so they hurried off, with Molly calling out that they needed to “get some bits and pieces of shopping.” Molly walked with her to an empty house, supporting her when the pain made her lose balance. It was a smart house whose owners had gone to the country for the duration, and Molly had the key to it because her brother delivered goods here when the owners were at home, and she cleaned for them.

There, in the kitchen she gave birth to her daughter, helped by her unofficial midwife, who seemed to know exactly what she was doing.

“Our ma was a midwife and I’ve helped her plenty of times,” Molly explained, “as well as her having seven of her own. And you are doing just fine, despite the pain. Hold my hand tight when you want, sweetheart, and don’t you try to hold back – that includes screaming if you need to!”

The baby came out surprisingly fast into Molly’s capable hands, though it felt as though she was being torn in two. She tried not to cry out because of the neighbours, but could not stay completely quiet. Luckily no one came knocking on the door.

The grocery boy’s sister cleaned the tiny baby and wrapped her in a shawl she had with her, and when the afterbirth had come away, helped the new mother to her feet.

“Here are some pads for you to hide the bleeding. I’m sorry that you can’t stay here. I’ll help you back to the landlady’s house, but you’ll have to take it from there.”

She looked down at her new daughter, and then at Molly.

“Do you really think she’ll believe us, the landlady?”

“Dunno, sweetheart, but we have to try. Do you think you can walk now? That’s a good girl. And little ‘un’s fine. Just fine. So pretty. One of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. Are you sure you don’t want to see if we can find a new home for her, a good one?”

“No! I can’t give her up, I can’t!” The anguish she felt at the idea was beyond belief.

They carried the baby girl to the old lady’s house, pretending they had found her on the street with a note on her saying the mother could not keep the baby.

“What? Someone abandoned a newborn on the street? I can’t believe the morals of people in wartime!” the old lady said, clearly cross. ”A foundling! What on earth do you intend doing with it?”

“Her,” said Molly, “it’s a girl. The baby is far too tiny to be taken anywhere else. That’s my opinion. She might not make it anyway. Might as well make her few days on this earth happy and comfortable – better than taking her to an orphanage, they’re nasty places, them! She’d likely die there. She’ll need constant attention, though. I’ve plenty of sisters and aunties, so I get lots of advice on how to take care of newborns. I’ll see if they can help. Perhaps my brother could bring some bottle milk, if needs be?”

“It won’t survive without mother’s milk!” the old woman shook her head, “But I suppose we can’t do much else. I’ll give her a few days.”

“Not a word though,” said Molly. “You know how people talk.”

Luckily the new mother had plenty of milk, and despite her tiny size, the baby hung onto life, sucking at her breast hungrily as she fed her in the privacy of her room.

“Well, well, well,” marvelled the old lady, “I’d never have thought it possible that a newborn could thrive on anything other than mother’s milk. Never thought to be learning something new at my age!”

Once it was clear the child would live, the landlady surprised them all by falling in love with the little baby. If the old lady suspected the truth, she was kind enough not to voice her suspicions. After the grocery boy’s sister left, they were allowed to stay. Strange though her circumstances were, she found herself almost content with her baby and the old woman, who was now almost a substitute grandmother.

The connection between the new mother and her baby was so strong that she spent all her free time sitting by the cot, admiring her perfection. That anything so beautiful could have come from their love made her mute with gratitude. Looking at the sleeping baby she either felt such love her heart would surely burst or she fell to the pits of deepest despair, missing him so much that it hurt her, fearing what might have happened to him.

“I will protect her, I promise you,” she whispered to the empty room one night when she could not sleep and was sitting guarding their baby. She gently stroked the unbelievably soft skin on her daughter’s cheek. The baby did not wake up but a tiny hand wrapped around her finger. She could not take her finger away and sat there with hot tears running down her cheek, mumbling words of protection and love.

And then she began to see the shadows. At first she thought it was some problem with her vision. They seemed to follow her, slipping just out of sight when she turned to look at a movement she thought she had seen from the corner of her eye. Then, one day, the sudden noise of something clattering to the ground behind her in the street made her jump, and when she turned around quickly, she was certain she could see a shadowy figure behind the fallen dustbin, just for a few seconds.

Now she was certain they were real creatures. What her lost love had told her about the ones that were after him made her very scared, but why exactly these shadows should be following her, she did not know. Were they trying to find him through her? Why had they not shown up earlier, if that was the case? How had they found her? What were they looking for?

She had her answer the day one of the shadows materialised inside the old lady’s house. She returned from the kitchen with a tea tray for the old lady, and saw her sitting in her armchair, tenderly holding the baby. She was crooning an old nursery rhyme to the child.

“Bye Baby Bunting, Daddy’s gone a hunting, to get a little rabbit skin to keep a Baby Bunting in…” The absurd words rang in her brain and would not go away.

It’s a trick of the light, she told herself. A trick of the eyes. A trick of – the brain. But that – she did not want to think about that, the possibility that it was only in her mind. It was standing right next to the old lady, who had no idea of the presence of the nightmarish creature, and kept on cooing at the child. The mist – entity – reached out human-like arms towards her baby.

Her rage flared in an instant, and her body responded. She slashed the shadow down and killed it with the fury of a lioness protecting her young. Quickly, without hesitation.

The shadow silently crumbled into a heap of dust. The landlady seemed not to hear the sounds the killing made, and thankfully could not see how the shadow had been destroyed, or her deepest secret would have been out. But that also meant there were no witnesses to the existence of the shadows. Only she had seen them.

She was now horrified. He had told her that there were things in this world people had no idea about, and she had nurtured the thought that he was talking in metaphors. She had not quite believed all he had to say about her heritage, because it had been too strange for her rational mind. Now, after what had just happened, there was no way of denying that he had meant it literally.

She served the old lady her tea with unsteady hands, avoiding the heap of dust on the carpet, and then cleaned the floor. The dust looked just like ordinary dust, and there was much less of it than she had expected.

“It’s time for her bottle. I’ll take her for her feed.” With her hands still shaking she reached for her baby, careful to avoid the spot where she had killed the darkness. She fed her daughter in her room, rocking her body back and forth, mumbling prayers under her breath, calling on heavenly forces to protect her and her child. Looking down at her daughter, she came to a sudden decision.

“I need to go out and try to find something to eat. I heard of a place that has some meat and we’ve still got coupons.” She tried to sound calm. “I’ll take the baby with me.”

“Be careful she doesn’t catch a cold. That can be a serious thing for a baby! Wrap up warm.” The old lady seemed to be reluctant to let them go.

She had no clear plan of what to do next, but she couldn’t get the hideous image out of her head. If one of her nightmares could make it into the house, surely more of its kind would follow later. For now, she did the only thing that came into her mind – she ran away.

Then the air raid siren started its wailing scream, and she took shelter with the baby until the bombing was over. When she returned, in the place where the old lady’s house stood there was nothing but a blackened, smoking ruin. The stench of burning filled her nostrils as she watched the hopeless task of the wardens and the fire services as they picked their way carefully over the debris. She knew that they would find no survivors. She turned away, with a catch in her throat, holding her baby even closer to her, kissing her head. But mingled amongst her sadness for the grumpy old woman who had turned out to be so kind, there was relief. Surely the shadows now thought she and the baby were dead too?

She sought shelter in an old church with her child, but did not dare to sleep for fear of the shadows returning. She sat there, with dark rings around her eyes, holding her baby, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible in the midst of others who had lost their homes. They were avoiding her – or was that her imagination? In the corners of the room, she seemed to see shadows, but they were real shadows – the shadows of people who had lost their homes, and sometimes their loved ones. Only, her eyes darted from one figure to the next, seeking reassurance that they were normal people, and not shades.

And now the air raid siren had started to wail again. She ran towards a shelter, through the darkening streets, holding the baby tightly. Her heart was beating so loudly she couldn’t even hear the sirens anymore. The shadows on the streets condensed around her, moving at the same speed as she was running. She sobbed silently, scared out of her wits.

They were waiting for her under the notice with the underground sign and text that read “This way to the air raid shelter”. People ran right by them, not paying any attention to the shadowy mist that was darkening and swirling by the gaping entrance to the Underground.  It was as though they did not see the creatures at all.

The shadows were not alone. In the midst of them stood a tall, dark man. He was leaning against the wall, with his face half-hidden by the brim of his hat, and and the swirling mass of shade responded to his slight movements as he inhaled his cigarette and then exhaled the smoke, slowly.

On the other side of the street was another man, without a hat, whose skin seemed to glow strangely in the gloom. This man had piercing dark eyes and his stillness made her wonder for the moment if he was a mannequin. His whole attention was directed on her and her baby, and his eyes did not blink.

The tall dark man with the hat turned his head in her direction and she saw him clearly for the first time as he looked pleasantly back at her. It was the look of someone who was absolutely certain of his power. There was something about him that did not fit in – he did not seem British, somehow.

She knew what he was the second she saw the golden, piercing eyes measuring the baby in her arms. Her lost love had explained all about the yellow eyes to her. And he had warned her of this man especially, if he was whom she suspected him to be. He was just as he had been described to her.

“Give the baby to me,” said the man, from the midst of the shadows. His voice was barely audible, but for some reason she heard him loudly and clearly. She did not recognise his accent.

“No.” She was holding her daughter so closely to her that she heard the baby give a little squeak of protest.

The planes were right above them now, the last of the running people had vanished through the underground’s entrance. The air raid sirens were still wailing and the shadowy mist seemed to swirl around the dark man to the rhythm of the sound. She thought she saw monstrous forms within the misty darkness, half animal, half human. The screeching of the bombs as they fell and the crump of the first explosions came from not too far away. The ground was shaking under her feet.

“Then we shall take her, if you will not give her up willingly,” said the man in a bored manner and with a slight movement of his hand gestured to the shadows to move forward. They began to glide towards her.

“Why?” She squeezed her baby even tighter, feeling the rage rise again up her spine as the shadows formed a dark circle around her. The mist licked around her feet and she looked down to see human-like hands grabbing at her legs.

“She is of our kind. She belongs to us. She should have been born to the wife we chose for him, but he chose you. Still, the blood is pure in you, so the child might fulfill our expectations. She will grow and help our race in our journey back to glory.”

She knew now for certain he was the one her lover had warned her about. Still, she had no idea what the glory might be that the man was referring to. He sounded like a religious zealot. One thing she knew for certain, however. She would not give her baby up without a fight. Not to him. Not to anyone.

The world blew apart just as the shadows reached out for the baby. The blast blew the darkness away like smoke in a storm. She flew– up, up, away from the demolished street. She landed on the debris of a building shattered by a previous raid and gasped for air. Blood ran into her eyes, but she felt no pain. She only knew she had managed to hold the baby safe, and was lying on her side like a broken bird, crouched around the tiny creature.

The air in front of her seemed to tear apart like paper. She knew she must be hallucinating, because she had hit her head so hard. What she was seeing could not be real – yet it seemed impossibly clear to her. A woman in strange clothes stepped out of the air towards her. She was wearing trousers like a man, made of some worn-out blue fabric, and a bright red, short leather jacket. She had some kind of sports shoes, with odd thick soles, on her feet. And her hair was very short, like a man’s… maybe she had been ill and they had been forced to cut her hair…maybe it was some new uniform… maybe…

“Here, let me take your baby to safety.”

She looked into the eyes of the woman with short hair. They were ordinary, kind, concerned human eyes. She trusted her.

The woman took the baby from her arms and tucked her safely in the crook of her left arm. Then she just stood there, looking at her with a curious expression on her face.

She fought through the mist in her mind for the word. Concern. That was the word. That was the look on the short-haired woman’s face.

“Come, sweetheart. It is your time to go.”

She rose with amazing lightness. She couldn’t have hurt herself badly, after all, if moving was this easy. They went through the opening in the air, and the woman, holding the baby safely, turned and raised her hand. The woman made a slashing movement and the opening closed quickly. But not quickly enough. She had seen her own body, in an odd, twisted position, in the midst of the bricks and broken glass.

She understood.

“Your time has come, sweetheart,” the woman repeated, “You can go in peace – your baby will be safe with us, and will do our best to hide her from the shadows and their masters.”

The young woman had one last look at her beautiful baby. She tried to touch her child’s face, but she couldn’t feel her fingers. The words came out in a whisper. “Goodbye, my darling.” She smiled, and felt great love flow towards her in return.

“Thank you!” she said and her voice sounded oddly clear to her now, and somehow like a gentle wind blowing.

Then she turned and began her journey into a beautiful landscape, heading towards the light that had come to greet her, leaving her old life behind.

Previous: Whispers

Next: Chapter 2 Kitty is Gone




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