'Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies
Nobody that matters, that is.'
- Edna St Vincent Millay
I feinted wildly convinced that I was lost. She was stronger than me, and far more experienced with the blade. I ran backwards almost falling in my haste, and she was overbearing me all the way. She struck again, and a searing pain raked across my chest. I crashed down, and she brought up her sword for the coup de grâce. My blade flew up to block my neck. Her blade arced down towards it – and shattered as it struck. She stood there stunned as I rose, shakily to my feet.
"Kill me now, boy. Take my power, it's yours."
"Get out of my home, you bitch. I'd sooner cut out my heart than kill a woman."
"That's a weakness. You can't afford those scruples boy."
"My name is Peter, and those scruples have saved your life. Leave now before I reconsider."
My name is Peter Woodley, and I am immortal. I probably appear to you about thirteen, but I am considerably older. I was born in 1760 in the slums of London Town, another urchin, the son of a whore - or so I thought. I've since been told she couldn't have been my mother. But she was the only person I had and loved. It was 1776 when I came into my noble heritage, the most noble and accursed on this Earth.
The fight I just had was over my quickening, naturally enough. Because I was so young when I died, sixteen years, and with the body of a younger child many of my kind believe me to be an easy target, a simple kill. They are wrong, and I have taken the heads of the men to prove it. But I always let the ladies go. I will not kill another woman ever. My life is cursed because of the first. The savage irony is I go on living because of Her. She trained me, and She gave me this fine blade against which no other has ever stood.
It was 1776 as I said before. I was one of many thousands of London's children forced to eke out a meagre existence on the street. We worked, when we could, for sixteen hours a day for the smallest copper coins. I had to support my mother now. 40 year old pox ridden, gin ridden prostitutes don't make much of a living. Mum was ill, a terrible coughing fit and I was afraid she would die. I was desperate to find some money in order that we might find a warm room for the night, and so in desperation I turned to crime. It was that or sell myself to sailors on the docks. I saw a Lady, a vision of beauty dressed in fine lace and a hat that would have fed my mother and I for months. I had seen Her before, and thought She was the most divine creature I had ever laid eyes upon. My heart raced when I thought of Her, and She inspired thoughts in me and feelings I had never had before. I turned down an alley to count my pickings from my day of picking pockets. A few coins, more money than I had seen in days, but still it wasn't enough.
"Excuse me boy."
My hand went to my knife. No one was going to take my money. My eyes came up, and there She was standing before me. I saw the wealth She was wearing, and something within me snapped. I thrust the knife before me.
"Your money or your life."
She looked at me in shock, then disappointment, and then anger came into Her eyes. She moved faster than any person I had ever seen, and delivered a stinging slap across my cheek. She grabbed my wrist and twisted my arm, I dropped the knife in pain. She struck me again, and again, and again and I fell into darkness.
I awoke some time later in a dark room. It was obviously a cell, judging by the stench of human misery and of human filth. I was scared out of my mind. I was for the short drop on a long rope, if you understand my meaning. The best I could hope for was a life in a foreign land, being treated like a dog until I dropped dead. A couple of bailiffs came into the cell, and asked me my name.
"Peter Woodley, sirs." I said.
"Well Woodley, you're up before the court now. Speak the truth lad, it's your best chance at life."
They took me up the stairs and into the dock. I looked into the room. There was the judge, who looked totally uninterested in the proceedings, a few gentlemen of the city, and the Lady. She was staring straight at me, a faint smile curving Her lips.
The beak spoke. "Peter Woodley. How to you plead to the charges against you?"
I took the bailiffs advice. "Guilty, to all charges, my Lord."
"Peter Woodley, on the charge of robbery with violence, I will be merciful because of your tender age. I hereby sentence you to transportation for a period of seven years. . ."
I almost collapsed in relief.
". . . however on the charge of attempted rape, there can be no mercy. I sentence you that, on the morrow, you shall be taken to Tyburn, and there before the citizens of London, you shall be hung by the neck until you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul."
Now I did collapse.
Mercifully, I did not awaken until I was roughly shaken by a guard the following morning.
"Come on lad, lets not keep the Devil waiting for you."
I was taken outside and loaded onto the back of a cart, with three other condemned prisoners. We were sitting on our coffins, as the same cart would bring us back after the formalities were completed. We were driven through the streets of London. Some people jeered at us, others looked sympathetic. I saw every detail. This was my last day on Earth. They were going to hang me. I was going to die, without having experienced life. Remember, I was only a child. I began to cry.
"Show some bottle, mate."
One of the guards was looking at me. He was faintly sympathetic.
"I'm innocent, I'm innocent sir."
"I never hanged a man who wasn't. Look lad, if you're not guilty, you'll be with God in a few short minutes, and all your problems will be over. Here."
He handed me a hip flask, full of gin. I gulped it down, as the cart came to a stop. I looked up at the three legged gallows, a ladder at each side, coils of rope over the crossbeams. I was manhandled from the cart and dragged to the gallows. I was pushed up the ladder, followed by one of the guards. He tied my hands behind my back and slipped the rope around my neck. My eyes were casting around desperately seeking a way of escape. I saw the Lady. She was standing close enough to me that I could have spit in Her eye. I wanted to, but my mouth was so dry. She smiled at me, as the ladder was kicked out from beneath me. I fell a short distance, and began to choke. Everything blurred, and then went dark, as I died.
I awoke in another dark room. I was tied in a comfortable chair in the most luxurious surroundings I had ever encountered. The Lady was sitting in a chair opposite me. On Her lap was a sabre, held in one dainty hand.
"Good morning, Peter. I trust you are well."
I was speechless, as you can probably imagine.
"I am Amelia De Laney. I am sure that you have many questions for me. I will endeavour to answer them."
"Where am I?"
"You are in my townhouse in London, and here you will stay until I decide to let you go."
"How am I still alive?"
"Very simple, you are immortal, as am I."
"Immortal? You mean I cannot die."
"I mean that you are very hard to kill. I also mean that from this day forth, you shall never in your life be older. You will be – thirteen for ever."
"I'm sixteen. I'm just a late grower."
"Well, you shall be very late now."
I remembered my trial. "Why did you say I'd raped you?"
"A few reasons. The first is, simply, that I needed you dead. When I came upon you in the alley, I was going to kill you. You merely gave me access to a method that allowed me to avoid any possibility of blame for your death. The second was that I wanted you to experience the terror of death, it will make training you much easier. The third is that I wanted you to have no contact with your former life from this moment forth. From this moment on, I am your mother and you are my son, and together we will stay forever."
"I already have a mother!"
"I'm afraid you don't. It doesn't work that way you see. You are a foundling. You are not born of mortal woman - at least not so far as we know. All of us are the same, we do not know who our parents are, and we can never have children."
"Is that why you want me?"
"Yes, I suppose it is. We lead a very lonely existence, we cannot afford to get close to mortals, we cannot let them know what we are, and when we do find a mortal that we want to get close to, they die. I want a child, I want someone to love, and you shall be that child, and you shall be that love."
"You keep saying 'we'. There are more of us?"
"Of every race, of every type of man and woman and child. But in the end there can be only one."
"Only one what?"
"Only one of us left. That One will have all our power, all our wisdom, all our knowledge. We call it the Prize."
"How can there be only one of us, if we cannot die?"
"We can die. If you are ever beheaded, your power is lost and your life is snuffed out like a candle forever. If you die in any other way, by hanging for example, you will revive. But of course, while you are dead, you are vulnerable. I will teach you the rules that you need to survive, the rule that bind us."
"Never fight on holy ground. Always fight one on one. I will also teach you how to fight, how to use a sword."
Amelia, my Mother now, taught me well, and treated me in all respects as Her son. I was educated by the best tutors and taught the noble arts of riding and fencing. She taught me how to fight and how to survive, She taught me the tactics needed to win. Each year on my birthday we went to the Orkney Isles to a place named Skerrabra. She told me that this was where Her people came from, and I wondered at her age. She always told me "A gentleman does not ask a ladies age!" and I had to be content with that. This was the only place on Earth I felt a connection to. London changed but this place has remained the same all through my life. On my twenty first birthday amidst the mounds, She gave me my sword. A straight blade with a golden hilt. A sword of legend, it dated back a thousand years. It had been a chieftains sword in the violent, ancient times. It has served me well, and I still bear it today. She paid for my mum, the woman who had raised me from birth to be sent to a sanatorium on the south coast, where she was treated by the best doctors in the land. She lived to be seventy two, though I never saw her again. We moved in great and powerful circles, the nobility of the Empire. We attended dances at the palaces of all the crowned heads of Europe. We lived in stately comfort through the reigns of George III and IV, through that of the Empress Victoria, my Mothers close friend, through Edward's reign and into that of another George. And my Mother met a man.
I knew She had had lovers in the past. It was a lonely world for us. But since I had come to Her, it had been She and me always. His name was Jeremy Harding, and he was a handsome man, a fine man of about thirty, distinguished looking. He was loving to Her, and kind to me, and I resented him for it. She was mine, and he could not have Her, and he could not get around me by faking friendliness. They married after a short courtship. I said nothing for I would not see Her unhappy, but it broke my heart, that She had found a man, the man I could never be.
All went fairly smoothly for six months or so. I hid my feelings well, and Jeremy began to win me over. Given time, I believe we could have become friends but I did not give it time. It was two weeks before my birthday in June of 1926, when I returned home after a walk to find Jeremy in the parlour.
"Go up and pack, old man, we're off to Paris for a few weeks."
"Paris, we'll be in Paris on my birthday?"
"Yes, I suppose so Peter, you'll be how old? Fourteen?"
"Something like that. Mother and I always go to Scotland on my birthday."
"Not this time, lad. We've decided to go to Paris."
"Where is my Mother?"
I strode past him. Up the stairs and to my room. I went to my bed and lifted a floorboard next to it. I took up my sword, and descended the stairs again.
He turned, and in one fluid movement I ran him through. He collapsed to the ground. He was the first man I had killed, my Mother had always protected me from any challenges by other immortals. She had been everything, done everything for me, and I repaid Her with black treachery. I turned and again walked up the stairs.
I entered Her room. Her back was to me.
"Peter, is that you?"
"Be a dear, and fetch my trunk from the attic would you."
I stabbed Her through the back, blood spread across her lovely dress. I withdrew the sword from Her. She turned around slowly and fell to Her knees.
"Why?" She gasped.
I could have told Her. I could have told Her that the man she loved was lying dead beneath us. But I did not. I raised the sword and simply said.
"There can be only one."
And then I took Her head. The lights exploded, the windows blew out and I was driven to my knees by the power of her quickening, and by my sudden realisation of the evil I had done. Her spirit flowed into me, the man who least deserved it, the scum who killed his Mother, the lowest form of life.
I fled the house, burning it as I went.
I wander the world now, a boy without a home, a family or any right to either. I live because She taught me well, and gave me the blade that I bear. A blade that will not break whatever I do with it. I live now trying to do good, attempting to make amends for what I did. It is fortunate that I am immortal because I will need all eternity to wipe out my sin, to save my blackened soul, to ever feel happiness again.