When I was nineteen, my first year in college, I went to stay with my great-aunt Yvonne. She lived in one of the older areas of town, not that far from campus, in an old detached two-storey which had been converted into two apartments. Aunt Yvonne owned them both. When she heard I was looking for lodgings, she offered me the second one, up on the first floor. It wasn't exactly independent living, not quite the way I'd hoped, but it was rent-free and close enough to count. Besides. I'd always liked Aunt Yvonne, from what little I'd seen of her until then. She'd always seemed ... mysterious, maybe, sort of aloof, but nice. I didn't think it'd be much of a hardship to live upstairs from her for a few months.
And it wasn't, really. It was kind of fascinating, even before it all happened. Aunt Yvonne was as mysterious as I'd vaguely remembered from meetings as a child. She was a lean, strong-looking woman, what they call a swimmer's build, with a cloud of silver-white hair braided back off her face and a pair of lively, mist-grey eyes that seemed to see every mischief you might possibly think of getting into. Mostly, I think, because she'd already gotten into it first, and in finer fashion than anyone else might attempt. I'd thought, before I arrived, that I'd be the one coming home at all hours of the night, and my sixty-seven year old great-aunt the one getting to bed earlier and complaining about the racket I made on the stairs at two in the morning. I mean, my first year of college, I kind of thought that would be the way.
It didn't exactly work out that way. As she told me herself, Aunt Yvonne tended to keep her own hours, and anyone who took issue with it was politely invited to take their noses out of her business and stick them somewhere unmentionable instead. She was either retired or some form of self-employed that was somehow never elaborated upon, and therefore free to go wherever she wanted and whenever she wanted, and to come home exactly when it pleased her and not a second before. She was out as often as I was, often as late or later than I was, and where she went while on her nocturnal wanderings was initially a great deal more mysterious than where I, bog-standard student that I was, usually ended up.
I figured it out later, of course. After what happened, I knew exactly where Aunt Yvonne would wander off to. That was a while coming, though. Those first few months, she could have been nightly travelling to the moon and back for all I knew.
She made quite an intriguing figure, my great-aunt. I think that whole section of town, between the campus, the river and St Ibar's, knew her on sight. The white braid, the range of rust-coloured jumpers, and the great grey raincoat were fairly distinct. Not to mention the house. She wasn't quite the witch in the old house at the end of the road, but she wasn't far off it. It wasn't only the house, the hours and the tendency to disappear every now and then that caused it, either. There was the company she kept, as well.
I heard about Yves well before I ever met him. Not from Aunt Yvonne, mind. She never really talked about him at all, not until afterwards, and things were different then. Other people talked about him plenty, though. I think I'd heard every possible rumour and bit of gossip about my great-aunt's 'boy toy' long before I actually met the man, about a month and a half after I moved in, and when I did I probably wouldn't have recognised him if I'd been going by the rumours alone. He wasn't ... he wasn't much like what they'd described. That made sense, really. I don't think any of them had ever actually met him, as opposed to just seeing him wander in and out of my great-aunt's house at odd hours of the night. Yves was ... not what they described.
He was sitting in Yvonne's kitchen when I met him, around eleven o'clock one Tuesday night. I'd come down for a cup of tea and some company, mostly. I wasn't used to an empty apartment yet, and had taken to heading down to Aunt Yvonne's a couple of times a week. She'd started staying a little longer at home, when she figured that out. In hindsight, it was probably why Yves had started showing up at the house early enough for me to meet him in the first place. They usually met elsewhere for the early parts of the night. I found that out later too.
He was very quiet. That was the first thing I noticed about him. Yves had a stillness about him that ... that caught your attention. It was like the silence in libraries or churches. It made you want to be quiet too. There was no particular reason for it. He didn't glare, didn't look at you in an unfriendly way. He just felt quiet. The kind you didn't disturb. That was all.
He was older than I'd expected as well. Or felt older, anyway. The way people went on about him, I'd been half expecting some sort of devastatingly handsome young man, about my age, with a thing for older women. And Yves did look young, yes. A bit older than I was then. You'd have said around his mid-twenties to look at him, I think. He felt older than that in person, though. Maybe it was just the stillness and the quiet, but he felt like someone older. There were odd moments where he felt positively ancient. He had dark eyes. Very dark, almost black. When he looked at you, he seemed old.
He was as handsome as advertised, mind you. I don't mind admitting I noticed it. Dark olive skin, curly black hair, those ancient eyes. A kind of dignity that came with his stillness. I was nineteen, all right? I noticed that sort of thing. Hell, Yvonne noticed too, all sixty-seven years behind her. Yves had not been cursed in the looks department, not by a long shot. Which might be why ... well. Might be why I thought what I did, later on. Looks and charisma are supposed to be part of the package, right? Add in the sense of age, and it probably wasn't any wonder that I'd jumped to that particular conclusion once the shit had hit the fan.
That was a long way off that first night, though. That Tuesday, Yves was just a juicy piece of gossip finally presented in the flesh, and pretty nice flesh as well. I spent that whole evening just watching him, watching Aunt Yvonne, trying to see if things really were the way people implied. With, perhaps, the tiniest ulterior motive in hoping they weren't, but let's not talk about that. Those thoughts were never going to go anywhere, and I'd probably realised it even then, even if I didn't particularly want to think about it. Yves and my aunt ... He was never going to look at anyone else. What he had with Aunt Yvonne was the kind of thing that happened once a lifetime. Several, even. Poor little innocent idiot me hadn't a hope.
I saw a fair bit of him, after that. Just every now and then, not every night or anything. I think he'd wanted to see what I was like, first. He wanted to see who I was, how I'd react to him, before he decided to keep visiting Yvonne now that I was living above her. I must have passed muster. He came by every three or four nights or so after that, early enough or late enough for me to catch him in passing or sit down with them for an hour of a Tuesday. After a while, he was just a normal part of life Chez Yvonne. I'd gotten the hang of college, more or less, by the time things started to change. As handsome and intriguing as he was, Yves became just a part of the background of my life at that point.
That changed, all of it changed, that December when the attacks started.
It's a cliche, isn't it? College campus, all those young people milling around, staying out late at night. It's the perfect hunting ground in every serial killer or monster story ever. Starts out as just assaults, drunken students reporting someone or something rushing at them out of the darkness, trying to grab them or cut them or something. Then bodies start showing up, and before you know it the special investigator or the vampire hunter is getting called.
There's a reason I'm saying 'vampire hunter', by the way. Of course there is. The three bodies they found that December, just before Christmas. They were all exsanguinated. Neatly and completely, with wounds at the throat. Even in a perfectly rational universe, your thoughts would start to drift a little in a certain direction there. And as things turned out that winter, the universe isn't quite as rational as you might maybe hope.
The police stuck with 'possible serial killer', of course, and later as evidence changed with 'group of killers, possibly part of some vampire-obsessed cult'. Even if serial killers weren't supposed to be the kind of thing that happened in our little neck of the woods, not compared to other places, it was still a saner theory than ... the other one. A significant portion of people who weren't the police were perfectly happy to go with that alternate theory, mind you. 'Vampires on Campus!' Even if it was more than slightly disrespectful to the dead, you can't deny that a rumour like that has juice. More than enough to knock my aunt's dashing boy toy all the way back down everyone's lists.
Except. Ah, except. And, look, I've explained part of why I thought it, didn't I? Alluring, charismatic, youthful in looks and ancient in attitude. Always seen at night. That aura around him that made you reluctant to mess with him. It wasn't completely out of left field. And I didn't just come up with it out of the blue, either. Yves was part of the background by then. It took a little bit more of a prompt before I began wondering if he might be a vampire.
It was one conversation, mostly. One very odd conversation that I happened to listen into one night, which I was most certainly not supposed to have heard. I was back later than usual, you see. I'd stopped going out so much after the second attack, for rather obvious reasons, and I think they both thought I was already in bed or studying. The ground-floor kitchen was on the wrong side of the house to see whether my study light was on or not. I wasn't supposed to be out, I wasn't supposed to be coming back at half past midnight, I wasn't supposed to be sneaking up the outside stairs just in time to hear a rather worrying sentence. They'd have had their conversation elsewhere otherwise, and I might never have gotten involved at all, and never have learned ... just how less than rational the world could be.
"For heaven's sake, Yves, can't you do something?"
"They're not my dead, Yvonne. It's not my business."
My dead, he said. My dead. Plural. It wasn't hard to figure out what my aunt had been asking him about, and apparently it wasn't his problem, because they weren't his dead. Implying that, somewhere, there were people, bodies, that were. That was ... it was ...
I crept back up to my apartment very very quietly that night. I'd been scared for a while by that point. Everyone on campus was, even if they were doing their best to shove it to the back of their minds and not think about it too much. That night, though, I was scared in a much closer, more personal sort of a way than before. Vampires on campus were both more and a lot, lot less terrifying when I didn't suspect I might know who they were.
Well. I still didn't know who the vampires on campus were, technically. Yves had said he hadn't done it. The campus victims weren't his. Given that he'd sounded mildly disgruntled about this at best, and cheerfully implied that he did have victims somewhere else, that wasn't as reassuring as it might otherwise have been. Yves was ... He was either the local serial killer or the local vampire, and apparently he wasn't too happy about sudden competition but he also wasn't too fussed about it either. No. Not reassuring at all.
I did think 'vampire', by the way. I hadn't seen anything yet, I hadn't had anything proved, but I think I thought it. When it was Yves particularly, I think. The campus attacks, I'd probably always thought they were the work of humans. The universe just worked that way. Vampires were stories, and stories were just stories. They weren't real. Up until that conversation that night, I don't think I had ever seriously thought those attacks were the work of anything other than deranged-but-completely-human nutjobs. Yves ... Yves made it different, though. As I've said, he just ... he made you think like that. He really, honestly seemed like someone who might be a vampire. A calm, ancient creature of the night, one that only a fool would challenge. That stillness he had. He made you think things like that could happen. He made it seem like that kind of thing could be real. I thought he was a vampire. I really did.
I don't know what I thought I was going to do about it, mind you. If I was going to do anything about it. I was afraid of him. I didn't want to be around him. I kind of didn't want to live in that house, either. I don't think I was planning to actually do anything, though. I wasn't brave enough, and I ...
There was Aunt Yvonne, you see. I didn't want ... it sounds stupid, and incredibly selfish, but I didn't want to make trouble for her. Yves said that night that the campus attacks weren't him. As good as, anyway, and he'd no reason to lie when he didn't know I was listening. He could have been lying to Yvonne, I suppose, but that ... It seemed unthinkable. Again, for no real reason, it just did. I couldn't report him for something he hadn't done, something I knew he hadn't done, and what could I say instead? I think my aunt's rumoured boy toy might be a vampire and/or serial killer? No, not the current one, he said he didn't do that, he's just a general sort of one. No, I don't have any real reasons for this, I just heard a suspicious conversation once and he just seems like he could be one.
Yeah, I'm sure that would have gone over well.
It might have gone better than I imagined, actually, I realised that later, but I was young and scared, okay? I didn't want to risk it. I didn't think ... I didn't think I'd be believable, and I just ... I didn't want to make trouble for Aunt Yvonne. Which is stupid, I know, but I didn't.
I didn't have to, in the end. I didn't have to report Yves, I didn't have to confront him, I didn't have to try and figure out by myself if and how I'd prove what he was. I got all the proof I could ever have asked for, and I didn't have to lift a finger to manage it. Unfortunately, I got it for all the wrong reasons, and in the worst possible situation.
Yves wasn't the campus vampire, you see. Which, naturally, meant that someone else was. And I was still attending college. And, as it turns out, the fastest way to make the local vampire/serial killer/monster care about the new competition in the area is to take something which said vampire/serial killer/monster considers his. Or related to something of his.
Aunt Yvonne loved me. I don't think we'd ever said it at that point, but she did. Which meant that Yves, by proxy, loved me too. Mostly for her sake, perhaps, but I think maybe ... maybe a little bit for my own, too. After the third attack, he'd started watching me at night. Which I hadn't noticed, perhaps fortunately given what I'd thought of him at the time, and which gave me the heebie-jeebies in hindsight even when I wasn't afraid of him anymore, and which I ended up being very, very grateful one night in mid-January, after we came back from the holidays and campus became a hunting ground once again.
There were two of them. There'd been hints before that. The police had said they'd found evidence of multiple attackers at two of the scenes, and had spread the word for students to be wary and on the lookout for groups of two or more strangers. Which, since they'd also warned students not to travel alone themselves, meaning that everyone travelled in groups of two or more, had made things a little tense and almost tribal around campus.
I was travelling alone that night. I shouldn't have been, and I knew it, but I wasn't on campus, and I was the only one of my group of friends who lived in my direction. I think I thought I'd be safe enough. Bad things didn't happen near Aunt Yvonne's. For, in hindsight, one very particular reason which I probably suspected at the time as well. I thought I'd be safe. I thought they wouldn't come for me there. I was wrong about that second part.
I was sort of right about the first.
I don't remember exactly what happened. Physically, I mean. In sequence. I was confused, I was panicking, and they were very, very fast. The vampires were. They were actually vampires. I saw it, saw one of them very clearly when he pulled me up against his chest. He made me dizzy. He had an aura too. Not like Yves'. Not of stillness and age. Something else, something sickening. I saw his teeth. I saw a face like a corpse. They moved so fast. That wasn't how I knew they weren't human, though. A hyped up human with fake fangs could probably have managed that. I knew they weren't human because of ... of what happened when Yves showed up behind them.
He wasn't fast. He didn't seem to be, anyway. He moved the way he always did, slow and thoughtful and from stillness to stillness. He just ... appeared, really. He seemed to just suddenly be there, but he seemed to suddenly be there very prominently. The aura. The stillness. They paid attention to him. I think they had to. And while they did, Aunt Yvonne darted out of a hedge behind me and yanked me out of the vampire's hands. She shoved me behind her, out of the line of fire, and then Yves ... happened.
They attacked him. I remember that. It was that way around. They went for him, sensing some sort of threat about him that I couldn't. Maybe they even knew what he was, I don't know. I don't think so, though. They wouldn't have done what they did if they'd known.
One of them tried to bite him. I guess, vampires, it was his first instinct. He seized Yves by the hair and shoulder, lunged down and tried to bite his throat out. While he latched on, the other one grabbed Yves by the upper arms and pinned him violently in place. I think I screamed, I'm not sure. Yvonne hushed me. And Yves ... Yves did nothing at all. Yves didn't so much as twitch. A man, monster, thing, was in the middle of tearing his throat out, and he didn't move. He didn't seem bothered at all.
After a minute, I figured out why. I'm not sure the vampire did. He might have been too unconscious. I don't know if he felt it coming on or not. One second he was clamped face-first around Yves' neck, and then ... then he was on the ground, and I don't think either me or the other vampire had any clue what had happened. One second his companion was attacking, the next he was a heap on the path. That ... was not what either of us had expected, I think.
Yves lifted a hand to his neck. Slowly. Idly, I thought, but it could have been that everything just seemed slow and treacly at the time. Treacle. The blood, liquid, that covered Yves' front. It looked a bit like treacle too. It wasn't red or even black. It was yellow. Ish. That could have been the street lights, but it was either yellow or clear or something in between. It didn't spurt. It sort of oozed, gently, out of the wound in his throat. He seemed only mildly concerned about it.
The second vampire was a bit more so. Or he was just agitated in general, probably more by the possibly-dead vampire at Yves' feet than by the colour of his blood. He got upset. He got very upset. He tried to rip Yves' head off. Literally.
Yves grabbed him by the arm, back across his own shoulder, and pulled him away. Pulled, I say. It should have been 'yanked', should have been 'tore', but it wasn't. Yves was so slow. Not slow. Inexorable, maybe. Just ... doing what he needed, when he needed. No rush. He pulled the vampire around in front of him, and then he drove his hand, stiff and held like a blade or a wedge, through the vampire's chest.
That was how I knew they were vampires. That moment. Yves rammed his hand into that thing's chest, and it didn't scream or bleed or collapse like a human would have. It didn't act like he'd wounded it, mortally or otherwise. It didn't act like anything. It disintegrated instead. A person, a thing that looked like a man, and inside half a second it was so much dust around Yves' still-extended hand. It rained down over the body of the other vampire. I remember being oddly disturbed by that. I didn't like the thought of the downed vampire being rained on by its companion's remains.
I was more than a little stupid that night, yes? I was more than a little in shock.
Things were very still for a moment, in the aftermath of that. The silence seemed stretched and huge. There was a ringing in my ears, and Yvonne's hand seemed very tight and real around my arm. Yves did not seem real. He didn't seem real at all. He stood there in the yellow light from the lamps, his yellow blood shining stickily on his chest, with a vampire crumpled at his feet. Things had been normal, before that. Even if I'd thought he was a vampire, even if it had half seemed real, it hadn't seemed real. Less so by the second. I couldn't deal with it at all.
Yvonne could. Not for any good reason either, I found out later. She hadn't dealt with vampires any more often than I had. She'd dealt with Yves, though. It wasn't the same, but maybe it prepared you a bit better than nothing.
"Come on," she said to me quietly, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. "We're going home. Yves will be along soon. Let's get you home."
I almost went. Home sounded good. Home sounded normal. I wanted that. I really did. I almost went with her. Yves moved, though. He leaned down, smooth and easy, and picked up the vampire that wasn't dust yet. It caught my eye. Hard not to, I suppose. Yves studied him for a minute, a little frown on his face, and I just ...
I wanted answers. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted it more than anything else.
"No," I told my aunt. I looked at her, and then back at Yves, and there must have been something, some bit of what I was feeling, visible in my face. "I want to stay with Yves," I said, and she didn't argue. She didn't say anything, she just studied me a little, and then she shrugged and turned us back to follow him without a word. Yves didn't say anything either. He tended not to, though. Even normally. Yves didn't tend to waste words much.
We took the little alley between the houses. I wasn't entirely aware of it at the time, but that had been on purpose on Yves' part. I guess getting caught with a body over his shoulder when there was a serial killer on the loose would not have been a good plan. I was a bit surprised later that he'd thought of it. Maybe I shouldn't have been, but it seemed ... something someone like him shouldn't have to be worried about. It still didn't seem real, that night. I suppose it still doesn't, to an extent. It felt like one long stretch of a dream.
I figured out where we were going, after a little while. It wasn't what I'd expected. The stone spire of St Ibar's grew larger as we cleared the alley and got back onto larger streets. They were still deserted, fortunately. Little Church Street was never exactly a hotspot at the best of times. St Ibar's was an old church, an ancient affair from when this parish had still been a village, not yet absorbed by the greedy outskirts of a growing industrial and then college town. It still kept some of that village stillness around it, an island of relative calm and quiet in the middle of the student section of town. We were heading for the church itself, I realised. More particularly, we were heading for its churchyard.
I picked that moment to get scared again. Obviously. I'd been attacked by vampires already that night, and mostly ended up in shock more so than scared, but walking with a body and whatever Yves was into a graveyard was apparently more than I could handle. I nearly turned around and walked right back the way we came. Aunt Yvonne only smiled at me, a little bit of weary mischief, and steered me gently onwards regardless.
"It's all right," she said. "Safest place in town, actually. You'll see. Don't worry about it."
Easy enough for her to say, I thought, but I followed her anyway. I followed her, and she followed Yves, and soon enough we were picking our way down a narrow, overgrown path between tightly packed headstones. St Ibar's was only a small churchyard, very ancient, and the town had closed in around it. There wasn't a lot of room for the dead left, but there was some.
We ended up in a little clear patch about halfway down the graveyard, under the shadow of a great old yew tree. It was very dark underneath it. We'd left the street lights some way behind us. Fortunately, Yvonne had a torch. Or not so fortunately, maybe, but at least what I saw answered some questions, once Yvonne had given me some context a little.
Yves hadn't stopped when Yvonne and I stopped. He hadn't stayed in the little clearing. He strode right up under the tree, instead, with that vampire still slung across his shoulder. When he reached the trunk, he paused a little bit. He looked back at us, at Aunt Yvonne, and it looked like he waited for a moment. For her approval, I think, or maybe even reassurance. I looked up at her too. Yvonne smiled at him, very gently, and nodded once.
"Don't worry," she told him. "I'll explain. You just get sorted, my love."
My love. I don't know if I remember her calling him that before. Not in front of me. It caught at me a little bit then. Only a little. Yves moved then. Yves 'got sorted'. That turned out to be more than a little bit distracting.
He put the vampire inside the tree. Under it. Something. The roots, that big old trunk, they opened up, and he buried the vampire inside them. The vampire had started waking up at that point. I think it had. It tried to move, so slowly it looked like it was underwater. All it managed to move was a hand, and only vaguely. Yves might not have noticed. He stood over the vampire for the smallest second, a grumpy look on his face, and shook his head slowly.
"You're not mine," he told it. "You shouldn't be here. It will have to do, though."
I meant to say something there. He just sounded so annoyed. Not afraid, not angry, just disgruntled, aggravated that the vampire had made itself his problem. I wanted to say something, probably more than a little incredulous, but then Yves put his hand on the trunk of the tree, and I had no more urge to say anything at all.
The tree ate the vampire. That was first. The tree wrapped it in bark and roots and a ponderously closing trunk, while the vampire gave this thin little scream and seemed to wave its hand desperately. My mouth snapped closed, my hands coming up to cover it immediately afterwards. I was ... horrified. It's safe to say that. The tree closed with a long, rumbling crunch, and I came pretty close to getting sick. I was watching Yves instead, though. I watched him move forward to follow it, move forward to ... to become part of it. The tree. I watched the hand he'd laid on the truck become more bark-brown than human-olive, his dark curled hair take on more than a hint of green, and I watched him merge ... merge back inside his tree. I watched him become part of it once again, and realised distantly why the vampire, the other one, had disintegrated at his hand.
A stake through the heart. That was how you killed a vampire, wasn't it? A wooden stake through the heart. Or a hand. Or a branch.
"How much do you know about yew trees?" Aunt Yvonne asked me idly. I turned to stare at her. To blink, blindly and confusedly, and she grinned faintly at me. Her mist-grey eyes sparkled in the torchlight. I'd always thought there was mischief in them. I always knew she'd seen all the mischief first, long before anyone else could get to it.
"... What?" I managed. Actually, I'm not sure I even managed that. I could have just have a stunned inquisitive noise, for all I know. We'll pretend I managed the word. She chuckled, anyway. She probably would have done either way. She took me gently by the arm again, and guided me over to sit on a tombstone together. It was cold. That's about the only thing I remember about it. It was a very cold piece of rock in a dark graveyard.
"There's a legend," she said, after a little minute. She wasn't smiling quite so much then, I think. She'd sobered some. She was trying to explain in earnest. "Yews have a lot of legends, actually. They were always one of the more magical trees. They live for a very long time, you see. They're very old, some think immortal, and that brings stories with it. There are a few ... Well. There are a couple that have bearing on Yves."
I stared at her. "Yves is a tree?" I said. It was a step too far. I could have imagined him as a vampire. I had imagined him as a vampire. This was nowhere near the same league of strange. There were ... there were stories, and then there was this.
Aunt Yvonne wasn't perturbed, though. She was about as unflappable as he tended to be, and not just from hanging around him for what turned out to have been a few decades. Aunt Yvonne had always been a bit unflappable. It was part of the reason he'd ... become with her what he did. I'm sure of that.
"It is said," she said quietly, "that if you see two yew trees entwined together in a churchyard, it's because two lovers were buried beneath them with a yew branch in their hands, sometimes through their chests, and they were reincarnated as those two trees to be together for all eternity. It is usually a forbidden love, of course. Tragic lovers, who for various reasons could not be together as humans. Their only recourse was to come together as trees instead."
I blinked. Slowly. I'd had a hard night, but all right. I could start putting that together. "Yves ... was buried under a yew tree?" I hazarded, and she smiled grimly. "Is it only lovers? There's only the one tree ..."
"Yes," my aunt answered softly. "There were meant to be two. He died hand in hand with her. But her family wouldn't bury her alongside him. We presume, anyway. They wouldn't bury her with yew. In that life or the next, they didn't want her to be with him. Yves felt her loss, even as a tree. He ... woke up, I suppose you'd say. He knew she wasn't there. So he started to wake up, and he started to become something else. Something a little more ... active."
I blinked some more. "Okay," I managed, maybe not entirely convincingly. "So Yves is a ... a very active ghost tree? Isn't he a bit ... He's sort of solid, isn't he? And, apparently, still made of wood. The vampire ... with the hand ..."
"You could say he's a sort of a dryad, I think," Yvonne said, smiling faintly. "Or a Green Man. He's the spirit of the tree. He's the heartwood. That's the bit he takes with him when he walks, leaving the rest of the tree hollow. It works like that sometimes. He's also ... I don't know how much you've noticed. He's very poisonous. Yew trees are. All of them. Bark, leaves, sap. Yew trees are highly poisonous."
Oh. Well, that explained the unconscious vampire, anyway. The one the tree had just finished eating. Drink yew sap under the impression it's blood, you end up poisoned. Got it. Though at the same time ...
"Um. Is he dangerous to humans?" I asked, maybe not that intelligently. "You two ... I thought you were ... Um. Are you? I thought you were, but ..."
She grinned at me. Unabashed, completely unashamed. Aunt Yvonne was never ashamed of much, and never of him. "We are," she said confidently. "We've been since I was, oh, close to your age. A bit older. That's a long story for another time. He thought I was his lost love reincarnated. We fixed that, mostly, I'm actually not sure I'm not but it's no basis for a relationship either way. So we fixed it but then ... Well. You've seen Yves. Poisonous tree spirit or not, he's more than a woman could pass up, and so long as nothing is ingested it's fine. So I've kept him, and he's kept me. We very much are, yes."
I flushed a little bit. And then, because I couldn't help but think it, given what people had been saying about them since I'd known them, I asked another not-very-pertinent question: "Um. You don't have to answer or anything, but ... How old is Yves, exactly? It's just, people think he's your ... and then it turns out you're probably his ..."
I shut up, bright red, and Aunt Yvonne gave a great peal of laughter. In a graveyard, in January, after midnight in the dark. It was ... I remember that sound. I remember wanting the nice tomb underneath us to open up and helpfully swallow me. I was having a bad night.
"Oh, darling," Yvonne gasped. My great-aunt, sixty-seven years old and giddy as a schoolgirl. "He's ... You're quite right. It turns out I have a thing for older men. To the tune of some nine hundred odd years." She grinned. "Not that old, as yews go, but quite respectable. He's older than this church, you know. It's been rebuilt a few times. Yves has lasted just a little bit longer."
I hid my face in my hands, scrunched into a mortified ball on the tombstone. I think I probably said the next thing more out of a desperate need to change the subject than need to know, at least while the words came out of my mouth, though I realised almost immediately afterwards that I did, in fact, really need to know. It was a slightly more serious subject that the fact that my aunt had fallen in love with a man who looked four decades her junior and actually was eight centuries her senior. Slightly more serious, and slightly more immediate.
"Has he killed anyone?" I blurted, half-randomly and then entirely seriously. Aunt Yvonne sobered completely as well, a little shocked and more than a little concerned. "Besides ... I mean besides vampires. He said ... Uh. I heard ... I heard you one night. I thought he meant ... He said they weren't his dead. I thought he meant the students. I thought he was ..."
I shut up, mostly to stop stuttering, and Aunt Yvonne blinked at me slowly. She was shocked. For the first time that night, she was actually shocked. I guess she hadn't known she'd been overheard that night, and then seeing what I'd thought because of it ... It shocked her. Part of me thought grumpily that it shouldn't have. It had been an entirely reasonable thing for me to think. I maintain that even now. I had every reason to think he'd killed someone.
"... He meant the vampires," she said, very slowly and carefully. "The vampires are ... but you don't know that either. Of course not. Yves is a yew tree. They're planted in churchyards ... for a variety of reasons, I suppose, but they're guardians. They keep the dead from rising. All yew trees, not just ones like Yves. The roots of the yew keep the dead from coming back. Vampires are undead. I wanted him to do something about them, once we suspected, but ... he meant they weren't from his churchyard. They weren't his responsibility. Until they threatened you, anyway. Now they are. One of them is safely gone, but the other ..."
"Oh," I said. Distantly. And then, thinking back on what I'd just watched him, tree-him and him-him, do to that 'other' ... "He put it under his roots? So it would ... So it will die again, and not come back? That's what he was doing?"
Aunt Yvonne nodded. "They're not supposed to be here. The unclean aren't supposed to be part of his churchyard. He could just dust it, but I think he feels the dead, even the unclean ones, are supposed to go back in the ground. You bury dead things, so they can feed living ones. It's the way it works for him. And he needs his sap back, I suppose. I'm not sure how easily vampires can be broken down, but Yves' presence should dispel its magic enough to manage it close to normally, maybe. He'll be at it all night, though, and probably another few as well. We won't be seeing him for a few days, though I'll stop by here tomorrow night to check on him."
That clicked as well. All her wanderings, back at the beginning before Yves had shown himself to me. She hadn't quite been wandering to the moon and back. Somewhere a bit closer, and also a whole lot stranger. Though I suppose they could have been going other places as well, once they'd met up. She never told me for definite. A lady needs to keep a few secrets, she'd said, with a hint of a smile on her face. I decided I didn't want to know. Even if it was entirely innocent, I still didn't want to know. I still don't.
I had a lot of other questions after that night, though. I mean, naturally enough. The universe turned out to be a lot stranger and less rational than I had ever thought. Vampires were real, and the love of my great-aunt's life turned out to be a tree. A very handsome, mildly monosyllabic reincarnated lover of a tree. I had any number of questions, both that night and afterwards, and not all of which Aunt Yvonne could answer.
There was one, though, that I saved to ask them both. Later, much later. Well after Yves was finished digesting his vampire, and after the town had calmed down and the campus murders became a cold case rather than an active panic. I did feel a bit guilty about that, by the way. I still do. The effort the police put in, and had to keep putting in. But, well. I'm pretty sure going in and saying 'vampires did it, but my great-aunt's boyfriend, who is a tree, ate them for it so it's all over now' would not have ended particularly well for me.
There was one thing I wanted to ask them more than anything else. I waited until Yves was there. Until they were sitting together of a Tuesday evening, shoulder to shoulder with his stillness wrapped around them both like a blanket, drinking tea with me for company's sake. It was later that year, March or April sometime, I think. Close to end of year exams. I watched them together, and had to ask.
"What are you going to do when you get too old?" I asked it quietly. I think I was a little afraid of the answer. "You two. I mean ... I mean when ..."
"When she dies," Yves answered. Very placidly, really. Aunt Yvonne barely twitched as well, while I was busy flinching and hunching painfully over my tea. They smiled at me, the pair of them. Yvonne did, anyway, and Yves did his best to look vaguely comforting.
"Don't you worry about that," my aunt told me, rubbing her thumb across her tree-spirit's hand. "That's all sorted, so long as they follow my will to the letter. We talked this out ages ago, me and him. Back when he still thought I was his lover reincarnated."
Yves huffed gently. "When I thought?" he asked mildly. "Wild Yvonne, meaning Yew, who came to my churchyard and knew me for what I was. No reason to think at all. Pff."
Aunt Yvonne elbowed him. Gently. I suppose you don't want to elbow a tree too hard, not if you don't want a bruised elbow anyway. She huffed at him, and looked at me as if to say 'look what I have to deal with'. I giggled a little bit.
"Listen to him," she said, shaking her head. "What that poor girl nine hundred years ago had to put up with. And here am I, signing up for nine hundred more. I need my head examined."
She didn't say more than that. Not then, and not at all, not until her will was read out a few years back. I think I understood, though. Even then. I think I knew exactly what they had planned. I wasn't sure if St Ibar's was even still taking modern burials, I wasn't sure it had room, but I knew they'd have arranged it anyway. She was formidable when she wanted to be, my great-aunt Yvonne. She made things happen the way she wanted them to. That always comforted me. In a less than rational universe, it always made me feel better to know that bull stubbornness was sometimes more effective than all the magic in the world.
It's true, you know. The legend. If you bury two lovers with yew branches in their hands, the trees that grow from those graves will grow entwined. It even works if you cheat a little bit. If one of them was buried, say, nine hundred years late. It still works.
There are two yew trees in St Ibar's churchyard now. One of them sprang up rather more quickly than anyone understood. I suppose Aunt Yvonne always was a bit impatient. She caused something of a furore in the botany department for it, not that she paid the slightest bit of attention to that. I think she wasn't inclined to wait to grow at the normal rate, and it's not like Yves was a normal yew either. He helped. I think he probably helped. They waited several decades to be together properly. He waited nine centuries. I guess I don't blame them both for being a little bit rushed, when they were finally the same species once again.
They stand entwined together, those two yews. During the daytime, anyway. I can see them from the detached house that is now mine. They look good together. They look right.
And every Tuesday night, they still stop by for tea.