I was walking the streets of the city. Which city? No, I don't think I'll tell you that. I haven't lived 200 years by giving away my location to every Tom, Dick and Harry who comes along. Besides that would leave evidence and I have others besides myself to think about. I tell you my story because it fulfils a human need in me, and I relish anything that lets me feel human for even a short time, rather than like the abomination I truly am. But to leave evidence would be an unforgivable risk. As it is, who would believe you that these tales of mine are true? Who would you tell?
The city. Dark and very cold tonight. Surprising actually, after the heat wave that we have been having. Some might say that it's a welcome relief but to me it makes little difference. The only difference is that I can once again walk the street and think, without having to move among people who have found it too hot to spend the night in their squalid little homes and have gone outside in the hope of catching a cool night breeze. Those people are in bed right now, or perhaps in front of a fire. No matter, at least they do not disturb my thoughts and they leave me to my solitude. A small price to pay for that, this cold and wet night.
But then I feel it. I have felt it before, of course, whenever I have encountered one of my unholy brethren, but this time it is different, soft, almost caressing me, like the stroke of a mothers hand on a cheek and then it explodes into life. I drop my bag to the ground and fumble with the fasteners. I pull my blade, and cast my eyes around searching for the source. A man, a disgusting derelict, lies nearby. No, not him. And then I see her. She emerges from an alley. A girl, who appears to be not much older than myself. But, of course, her appearance means nothing. She is the one. I cautiously advance towards her, my sword tip toward the ground, but ready for anything.
"My name is Peter Woodley. I wish no harm to any one who does not wish me harm."
She stares at me blankly. Or at least that is my first impression. Then I realise, that what I see in her eyes, is pure unadulterated terror. I see the blood on her face, and on her clothes. No sign of any wounds, but we heal quickly. Then her eyes change. She feels my presence. She speaks, her voice somewhere between a rasp and a croak.
"Who are you?"
"As I said, I am Peter Woodley. Are you all right?" and then realisation hits me. I test my theory.
"Excuse me, I know this sounds strange. But . . . have you died recently?"
She shrinks from me in terror, and I know I've guessed right. She doesn't understand. She doesn't know what's happened. I move towards her, she mumbles something under her breath, and almost climbs the wall to get away from me. I feel the desire welling inside me. I can take her, I can have her power, her knowledge. I step forward and my sword rises seemingly of its own volition. Her mumbling increases in tempo and speed, and becomes more coherent.
". . . Holy Mary, Mother of God . . ."
Mother of God, what am I doing? My Mother - a vision of beauty unparalleled in all my experience. I see Her face as I awoke that first time with no inkling of my potential, I see Her loving face as we moved together for a century and a half. And I see Her body sliding off my blade, and Her blood spilling across Her dress and across the floor, and Her head as it parts irrevocably from Her shoulders. And I remember my oath.
My sword clatters to the ground and I embrace the frightened girl. She struggles for a moment and then her nervous energy dissipates, and she crumbles sobbing into my arms.
The gods alone know how I got her home. It wasn't easy. She was weak and tired and shaking from cold and terror the entire way there. She was crying in my arms. Finally I got her to the apartment and up the stairs. I hammered on the door with my free hand and it was opened by Monica.
Who's Monica? An interfering, and extremely persistent former social worker who tracked me halfway across the world and then refused to leave me. She claims to be interested in my welfare, but I know her real reason for staying is her fascination with my kind. I let her stay because it serves my interests as well. It is extremely difficult for someone who looks like a little boy to rent an apartment or to steer clear of local welfare authorities (that's all I need, another concerned woman following me!). It becomes so much easier when I travel with Monica. People just assume I'm her son and think nothing more of it. And, truth to tell, I've lived a lonely life. Having someone near me, who cares for me, is comforting. But I digress.
I dragged the girl across the threshold of the apartment and into a chair. I was then, very rudely, shoved away by Monica whose nascent and quite unfulfilled maternal instincts do have a habit of coming out at the most inopportune times. In her favour, however, she doesn't exactly overburden you with questions. She took over and began her ministrations. I bolted the door, and moved to sit down. Monica looked at me and said sharply "Sweet tea."
I made the tea.
After Monica had managed to calm the girls bout of near hysterical weeping, and had placed her in bed (my bed!), we had a small discussion.
"Why did you bring her here? You're always telling me that we have to be careful, that we can't let mortals know about you."
"The problem doesn't arise, Monica. She isn't mortal - although she probably was this morning. I think she's just suffered first death, and she's not handling it well. I brought her here, because it was that or kill her. She's too dangerous in her present condition, too much of a liability."
"So what do you intend to do?"
"I intend to train her, if I can, and if she'll let me. Monica, this may place you in danger. Please leave before it is too late."
"You've asked me to leave before, and I've always said no. Nothing has changed."
"But it has. I almost killed her tonight, Monica. I came within a hairs breadth of taking her head. It's innate in all of us. There can be only One. If two immortals are in close proximity for any length of time, they will fight."
"Stop that. You're a rational human being. Don't make excuses. If you kill someone, it is because you chose to, not because you are born to do it."
"I am not human, and I was not born. I am cursed by some joke of the gods to wander this world, to kill or be killed, and I would thank you not to speak of that which you do not understand."
"You lived in peace with Amelia for over half of your life. You can do it, if you try to."
"And I killed Her, remember. I loved Her and yet I still killed Her." I began to weep, and shake myself now.
"I killed the only person who ever loved me. I killed my Mother, because of my insane jealousy. I killed Her husband and then I took my sword and slid it into Her back and then, without remorse, I took Her head. Oh God, what have I done."
I fell into Monica's arms and cried myself to sleep. And once again for the second time in a night, her tender mercies came to the aid of a distraught child.
I awoke in Monica's bed (God knows where she slept), got up and entered the kitchen to eat the breakfast she had prepared. I had just begun to eat when the girl entered the room.
"Good morning" said Monica, as if dying and then waking up, being accosted by a strange person with a sword who then drags you home, and then waking up to breakfast in a strange bed, in a strange apartment lived in by two strangers, was the most normal thing in the world.
"Who are you?" said the girl looking, straight at me. "What are you?"
"My name is Peter and the second question might be better put as 'Who are we?' We are immortals."
"Immortals - both of you?"
"No just me. Please, what is your name?"
She stared at me as if trying to work out if I was serious. She decided to answer my question at any rate.
"How old are you, and where are your parents?" That was Monica.
"I'm 15 and I don't have any. I've been kicked from foster home to foster home since I was about three. I'm a state ward. I've been on the street for the last nine months. They try to find me, but your average social worker couldn't find their arse with both hands."
I laughed at that, and Monica gave me a rather pointed look. I decided to take charge of the situation.
"Belinda. What happened yesterday?"
She went pale. "I'd rather not talk about it."
"Please, I c-can't . . ."
"Peter, can I speak to you."
Monica ushered me into my bedroom.
"Peter, don't push her. She's been through enough."
"I have to know what happened Monica, if I'm going to help her."
"Peter, when I was putting her to bed last night, I noticed something. She'd been molested very recently. She was exceedingly bruised, and judging by how fast you heal, she must have been very severely injured."
"Molested, you mean . . . um . . ." I might be 200, but in some ways I'm still only 16. There's some things I don't like to think of.
"She was raped, Peter. Repeatedly and very brutally."
My hand crashed into the wall. According to Monica I looked like I was about to explode.
"Calm yourself, Peter. For her sake."
"I'll kill them, I'll hunt them down and kill them."
"Calm down! I wouldn't have told you if I'd known you'd be like this."
"How did you expect me to react? I can't let this slide."
"Why, because she's immortal."
"That doesn't matter, no girl should ever have to go through that."
"Fine, we're agreed. She's suffered enough. Don't talk about it until she's ready, and don't pressure her."
I brought myself under control with great effort, and returned to the kitchen.
"Well Belinda, do you believe me?"
"Yes, we are."
"How old are you?"
"Two hundred and eleven. I suffered my first death at the age of sixteen, and stopped growing older at that point."
"You don't look sixteen."
"People were smaller in my day, and I never had enough to eat. I was very small even for the 1780s."
"So you're 200 years old, and you can't die."
"That's what I said."
"I don't believe you."
"Monica, don't let her leave." I went to the drawer and picked out a very sharp knife. I unbuttoned my shirt exposing my chest (and my incredible lack of body hair), and stood directly in front of Belinda less than two feet away, and I plunged the blade into my chest. The pain was incredible and I fell to the ground and died.
When I stood up Monica was, once again, calming Belinda. She must have been a good social worker. I moved to the sink and washed the blood off my chest and rebuttoned my shirt.
"Now, do you believe me?"
"How can I argue with that." she was wide eyed.
"Fine, now sit down."
It was time she learned the rules.
"The first thing that you must know and understand is that we are not alone. Immortals walk the Earth in quite respectable numbers. Don't ask me how many there are, I don't know the answer to that. An immortal can look like any type of man or woman or child and like humans we can be good or evil, brave or cowards. But in the end, there can be only One. That One, the last immortal left alive will have all the knowledge and power of every immortal who has ever lived, and he or she will be invincible."
"But, if we are immortal, how can there be only one of us left?"
"The term 'immortal' is slightly inaccurate. It would be better to say that we are very hard to kill, at least permanently. If we receive a fatal wound, we will revive after a short time. But if your head is ever removed from your body, that's it. That's the end, and you are as dead as any mortal."
"Is that why you had a sword last night?"
"The sword has long been the weapon of choice for immortals. A few of our number use other weapons but for the most part, swords are it. That's part of what I'll teach you. How to use a sword, and how to defend yourself. You must be able to do so. Many other immortals will come after you in order to take your quickening. That's what we call your powers and knowledge. When your head is lost all that power flows to the immortal who killed you."
"Are you any good with a sword?"
"I'm over 200 years old, and you don't reach that milestone without having some skill. But truth to tell, for a lot of that time I was under the protection of another immortal, Amelia De Laney."
"What happened to her?"
I averted my eyes. "I killed Her."
"Why? What for?"
"Amelia was the closest thing I ever had to a mother. We lived together for 150 years, and then She married. I was jealous and in a fit of rage I killed both Her and Her husband."
"You killed her because you were jealous. What type of monster are you?"
"The same type as you, Belinda. We are monsters. We are abominations of nature. Accept that and your life will be much easier. Now I am willing to train you, but if you do not wish to be trained by me, I will arrange for you to fly to Paris. There is a man there, a Catholic priest who will arrange for your protection. That's another thing. We cannot fight on ground that is sacred to any religion on Earth."
"Why didn't you kill me last night? Why didn't you take my quickening?"
"I almost did. But I couldn't go through with it. I've sworn a oath, actually two oaths. The first is never to harm any one who does not wish to harm me or mine. The second is never to kill a woman."
"Never to kill a woman. What happens if one attacks you?"
"I'll run or I'll die. My oath is inviolable."
"Please, I would like you to train me. Will you please?"
I went to my room and came back with my Mothers sword.
"Please take this and use it in good faith. May it serve you well."
I trained her. She was a very quick study and that made things much easier for me. Despite my words to her, I knew that she was in danger from myself as much as from any other immortal. I did not desire her quickening, but though the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. I could not be trusted and when the time came, if the time came, she had to be able to defend herself from harm.
The summer ended and the autumn came round. By this time, I had taught her all that I knew about the art of swordsmanship. Her style was not quite the equal of mine, but her strength was greater. I have fared well enough in my encounters with other immortals and so I judged her capable of meeting any challenge. Despite this, I did not intend to let her fight any. If it became necessary, I would defend her.
Her injuries healed exceedingly quickly as is always the case with our kind. Her mental scars were far more durable however and I had no idea how to deal with them. Monica had some success, I do believe, but I did not concern myself with that aspect of Belinda. I was not capable of helping her with those types of problems.
We left the city, just as the weather grew colder. I don't like the winter. Everything dies. It is also not advisable to stay in one place too long. Others might find me, and someone might notice a child who never grows older. We went north.
We moved into another faceless apartment. I took Belinda out with me, to scout the area. It pays to know your territory. Where is it safe to fight? Where can you find the sanctuary of Holy Ground? Knowledge like that can mean the difference between permanent death and a chance at life. It was just as well that we had that information, although at the time I could not know that.
Our reconnaissance accomplished, we returned to the apartment. I had the usual discussion with Monica. She always attempts to enrol me in a school. She's a fine lady, but she persists in thinking of me as a child. I speak five languages, I understand strategy and mathematics, and I've lived through a great deal of history. There's nothing a school can teach me. It might be nice, to be able to live for a time as a normal person, but then it might be nice if the streets were paved with gold. It's a pipe dream. My sole existence is based around living to the time of the Gathering, and at that point fighting until I am killed. I have no illusions about that. My skill is not great enough for the Gathering to be anything but a death sentence.
The weeks passed. I spent a great deal of time describing to Belinda all the immortals I have known. If it comes to a meeting she must know who she can trust, and who will not hesitate to take her head. But when it came down to it, her first meeting was with an immortal that I had never encountered before.
She charged into the apartment, pale and breathless, "Peter, where are you?"
"I'm right here, what's wrong?"
"I ran into another one of us. He scared me."
"Tall, looked about 30 or so. He had dark skin and cropped black hair. He was wearing leather, like a biker wears. I felt him first, and then he came up to me. He said his name was Kima, and he said . . . he said . . ."
"He said he'd kill me. He told me to be at Stricketts Point at midnight."
I rose and went to my room, and emerged with my sword and a sharpening stone. I inspected the blade for nicks, and began work. Belinda went and got hers. I shook my head.
"No. You're not going."
"What! But why not?"
"It's not a game, 'Linda. There's no reason for you to fight him. I'm here and I will protect you."
"Why did you teach me to fight, if you won't let me?"
"So that if you had no choice, you would at least have a chance. Don't be too eager to enter battle, you won't always have a choice."
"I'm almost as good as you are, with the blade."
"I don't doubt your skill, but skill is not everything. It's much different in battle than from when you are just sparring. The last time I fought another immortal, I pissed my pants, I was so afraid. My throat was so dry, I almost choked on my tongue, it was so swollen. I only survived through sheer luck. A woman came by, and not knowing what she was seeing shouted at the man. It gave me a chance and I took it. I took his head from his body, and got out of there quickly."
"What about the woman? She must have seen you."
"She did. It was me." Monica had entered the room, without my noticing. I realised that I was on my knees in front of Belinda, holding her hand. I stood up and separated.
"Yes, well, that's why I must go in your place. You can't face battle until you absolutely must. That's not negotiable, that's just the way it is. Accept it."
Belinda spoke to Monica, "Is he always like this?"
"Oh yes, after I came upon his battle, he gave me a long talk. Told me to leave and forget I had seen him. I'd lead the other immortal to him, you see."
"She was interfering, as usual." I said. "She'd encountered me, when some other interfering person, reported my 'sad plight' to the social services. I was living alone in an old warehouse at the time. She came after me, and she just get coming. She followed me halfway across the world for ten years, trying to find out what I was. Somehow, another immortal found out what she was doing and followed her. When he found me, he came after my head. Monica," I addressed myself to the woman. "I have a meeting tonight with another immortal. You are to keep Belinda here, and you are not to leave this apartment yourself. If I am not back by dawn, you are, both of you, to get out of the country as fast as possible. Get to Paris, and find Darius. He'll keep you safe. Do you understand me?"
I stood on the Point at midnight. The night was cool, the stars were bright, and I was calm and ready for action. I was not afraid of fighting or of death. I was totally composed and at peace.
I felt him. I began to shake and broke out in a cold sweat.
He came out from behind some sort of monument.
"You're not the girl."
"Very perceptive, sir. My name is Peter Woodley. I wish no harm to any man who does not wish me harm."
My voice wavered and cracked. It's high pitched at the best of times, but now I sounded like a soprano on helium.
"Prepare to die, boy."
I took my unsteady stance and raised my blade. I felt the whole inside of my body quavering, and I wasn't even sure that I'd be able to stand his first assault.
"I'd wanted the girl, but you'll do. I can always take her afterwards - and then I can kill her."
A rage rose from within my bowels and emerged from my mouth as a scream. The fear left my body and I attacked him with a savage flurry of blows any one of which would have removed his head in a instant. Unfortunately, while raging anger did a lot for my courage and my strength, it did worse than nothing for my accuracy.
He dodged aside, very smoothly and counter attacked. We charged back and forth up and down the gentle slope, crashing at each others blades with such fury that my hands hurt just from the vibration of the hilt. Sparks danced along the length of our blades, miniature quickenings in anticipation of the great and powerful one that would surely be released this night. I had heard of this happening, my Mother had told me of these power charged battles, but I had never been in one. This was the fight of my life, and the fight for my life.
And the fight for the woman I loved.
But I was losing. The sheer power of my blows was tiring me, and my hands were shaking with the pain. My opponent was not faring much better. I could see a vein pulsing at his temple and beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. But still in a protracted battle, his greater stamina could very easily be the turning point.
In desperation, I tried a move my Mother had taught me, years before, a feint and a counter thrust that was hard to anticipate, but even harder to execute. Luck was not with me, and my sword spun away as I brought it crashing down on the steel of his blade. He grabbed me and pushed me back into the ground. It was over.
He raised his blade above his head. I tensed for the strike.
"There Can Be Only One!"
Time slowed, and the blade came slashing down towards me. But though time seemed to have slowed so had my reactions, I could not move away. And then I felt her, and so did he. A moments distraction, a scream of "PETER, NO!" and I rolled away. His sword arced past my ear, I swear I felt it touch. My legs coiled as I snapped an upward kick into his body just below the ribs. I rolled away and grabbed my sword. I came to my feet, his blade arced up and I THRUST.
The sound of my blade, the feel of its path, as it cuts through flesh and bone and sinew on its path through his body is the most disgusting thing that I have ever felt. I pull the blade back, and he slides off it, and slumps on the ground. His legs give way and he crumbles. I kick his blade away, and take up the stance.
And once again time dilates as my blade cuts down towards his neck, its blade gleaming red in the star light. And as it cuts down through the neck and through the bone, the sound is not of sinews and flesh, but the sound of triumph and of freedom, and of love.
The world explodes around me as his spirit melds with mine, as his knowledge encroaches on mine, and I become more whole and solid. The power slides through my body to the ground and from the ground back into my soul. The savage strength of the quickening pushes me downwards to my knees onto the cold wet grass, and my eyes roll back in my head as I pass out from the sweet agony of the mind, and body that I feel.
I awaken cradled in Belinda's lap.
"I told you to stay away."
Monica speaks. "You can ask us to help you, you can ask us to give you peace, you can even ask us to leave. But you can never ask us to let you face death alone."
I lie there with the two people in the world that I love, amidst the blood and suffering of a man I have just killed. And for the first time in 45 years I am happy. I am truly not alone. I have a family.
We left the city before dawn, once again moving, always moving on. It is a life with little hope of change, a life with few rewards and a great deal of suffering. But I would never change it. It is for the first time a life of hope.