A Long Time Can Be a Very Lonely Place.
Many go mad after one or two lifetimes. That's a given. Some of us embrace that fire within, the gift of The Quickening. We walk among the mortals, brighter and more vital, living enough for a score of their brief lives, sometimes more. Some among us skulk at the edges of society, too hurt by the ephemeral nature of the fragile ones to take full advantage of our unending existence.
Introductions are in order. My name is Asa and surnames matter not when you've lived for almost twenty centuries. I've been called many names: the Black Wolf, Loki's Daughter, The Fury, Hecate's Blight; many, many names, some of which I've deserved and others, not so much. I was born in the far north, in the lands of snow, ice and fire, a daughter of warriors, and I cannot die.
You may ask what I seek here, at the southernmost point of Africa during the early 1700s, and I will tell you I am a hunter. Not of elephants for their ivory, or leopards for their spotted pelts, but of men. One man in particular: Connor McLeod, the Highlander. He's intrigued me for a while now since my lover encountered him a century or two ago.
"Why didn't you finish him then?" I asked the Kurgan.
He smiled, though his dark eyes flashed annoyance. "Ramirez got a hold on him. He proved a bit livelier than I originally anticipated."
My laughter was met with a scowl. "You let him slip through your fingers?" I could hardly believe anyone would escape my lover's blade once he'd unsheathed it.
"He wasn't ready. It was too easy to despatch him, but I took Ramirez's head and showed his woman what a real man can do."
It was my turn to scowl.
The Kurgan is like that. We'd met each other during some internecine squabble among the Frankish tribes. Although it was in our nature to kill one another, we'd struck a truce, the very force driving us to fight for supremacy leading us in a careful dance, a matching of wits, bodies and, sometimes, blades. At some point we may allow our natures to reach their logical conclusion, but for the now we recognised the benefits of an association, of sorts.
There is something about the thrill of being with a dangerous man, one who is as apt to drive you to the very edge of passion or take your head. I live for danger, for treading that fine line between life and death. After all, I can only lose my head, can't I? Fires may burn me, rocks may crush my bones and blades pierce me, but so long as I keep my head attached to my neck, I will keep returning.
The Kurgan and I could be siblings, the same pale complexions, the same wealth of ebon hair, but although I am tall for a woman, I do not match his stature and my eyes are the palest blue, so light they match the glacial ice of the land of my birth. We come together, perhaps by chance but mayhap that knowledge that we are one and the same; attracted and repelled by equal measure.
It isn't in him to be loyal, and I take my lovers when and where they catch my fancy, but I can't help but feel jealousy's sting when he speaks of his. He reserves his heart for none but himself which is as it should be for players in this Game. I know all too well he'll take my head one day, and in his presence I remain vigilant. It is like tangling with a deadly snake, exhilarating madness, where one false move results in fatal disaster.
We bide our time throughout the centuries, feeling the pull of the Gathering, but none quite ready to commit to the acts that will bring the end one sword stroke closer.
So, when it came to noting his vexation with the youngling Connor McLeod, of course my interest was piqued. My Kurgan is not known for backing down from an opponent, and he is second only to me when it comes to hunting. Of course I was going to try my hand at confronting this Highlander and, let me assure you, it was anything but easy.
Besides, it gave me something to do.
I found his trail in Holland, where he'd forged beautiful edged weapons for a baron. He'd gone by the name of Louis d'Argent back then, masquerading as a Frenchman but his master's touch in the blades he turned out was unmistakable. But I arrived two years too late, to discover he'd set sail for the Cape Colony. An annoyance, really, but no great obstacle. I had yet to explore the southern parts of the Dark Continent.
Our McLeod was a crafty man. Although a Louis d'Argent had signed on aboard De Prinskasteel, no Monsieur d'Argent had disembarked at any of the ports of call, according to the vessel's records. But after some prompting on my part, the baron's steward remembered the Cape Colony being foremost on McLeod's mind, so I would have to trust my instinct on this one, even though rational thought suggested he could have been bluffing to throw people like me off his trail. One can't be too careful playing the Game when your enemies are as long-lived as you are.
Now what on earth would drive a man such as McLeod into the wilderness? As far as I knew, the southern parts of Africa were nothing more than arid badlands filled with belligerent natives and wild beasts. Not that such threats would scare me, who would love the Kurgan, but one doesn't live for almost two thousand years without exercising some prudence.
I disembarked at the refreshment station in the shadow of Table Mountain one blustery autumn afternoon, the docks a confusion of slaves, merchants and DEIC officials. They looked askance of a tall woman dressed like a man, a bow and quiver slung over her shoulders. But no one sought to hinder me when they spied my sword, a beautifully crafted schiavona, one manufactured by none other than one Monsieur d'Argent, which would shortly take his head.
I did not wish to remain long in this dirty little town of muddy, dung-filled streets swarming with surly burghers. The Dutch are but the watered-down brethren of the Northmen and are unworthy of my notice. But they loved my gold well and I would have to stay long enough to pick up the Highlander's trail. The rooms I took in an inn on the outskirts of town were well appointed, overlooking a smallholding where a young Dutch family cultivated vegetables and kept fowl.
Can't say I envied these colonists. Theirs was a hand-to-mouth existence eking a life out of the dirt while trying to grow produce for sale to the passing ships. The children had hungry, pinched looks to their faces and the woman's hands were rough and reddened, her clothing faded and patched, and her mouth turned down at its corners. Of the husband there was little sign and I assumed Mistress van Dyck was a widow. This would never be my fate. My womb was sacrosanct and I came and went as I pleased.
It took me three weeks to catch a whiff of my elusive Highlander and then, only by accident, a conversation overheard in a tavern. It would appear that Master McLeod travelled under the guise of an explorer, one Peter McFarlane. How many Scotsmen would be seen travelling the interior of this dreadful land with "an odd sword" at his side? Mad Highlanders, perhaps.
When questioned, the young magistrate admitted to dining with the fellow at an inn to the north, and had spoken of searching for something in the Cedar mountains. Sederberg they called it in their tongue, a land of wild bushmen, elephants and tigers. I'm sure they meant leopards, but who was I to argue? And how difficult would it be to find a lone white man in the wilderness? And what, by Odin's beard, was he looking for out there?
Grinning to myself, I imagined my beloved Kurgan's shock when I presented him with Connor's katana. His expression would be priceless and well worth the effort.
Good horses proved hard to come by in the colony and I eventually settled on a chestnut gelding with a wall eye and uneven gait. Tiger bait, I thought, and the name Tiger Bait stuck, though I daresay the beast had been destined for the knackers before I bought it. I purchased enough supplies to last a fortnight, soldiers' rations of oats and dried meat, and enough small coin to trade with the wild and woolly farmers I expected to run into along my route.
If one thing could be said about the burghers of this country, they took pride in their hospitality and I could be very charming and extraordinarily persuasive, should the need arise. I should not want for creature comforts while I hunted McLeod, but I had an inkling that the land I was travelling to was far bleaker than the American West.
Ten days of travelling brought me to the mountainous region I sought. The last people I'd encountered thirty miles behind me had been rough, reminding me more of peasants of six hundred years ago than the proud Dutch they were supposedly descended from. When they saw that I was not a man, they were afraid, terribly, horribly afraid, and I elected to move on after replenishing my supplies. They regarded the pitiful coppers I gave them as if it were a wealth beyond comprehension. If it did them some good to accept the pittance, then I was glad. They had not seen McLeod nor heard of him, and the first seeds of doubt took root.
For a few days I camped alongside a winding, tea-stained river. The Olifants, the locals called it and I detected what I assumed to be ample sign of these pachyderms' passing. The night was filled with strange calls of animal life I was unfamiliar with. During the day baboons, so chillingly human-like, scolded and barked from the cliffs to my left as I travelled steadily north.
And the heat! It was terrible, the heath-like vegetation scorched to a green-black with hardly a scrap of shade to be found. Wiry clumps of reeds sprouted in boggy patches and it was difficult to imagine how any creatures could live here.
But life there was, and my arrows brought down plenty of fresh meat in the form of small game. Herds of large grey and ruddy antelope remained always in the distance, larger than cattle. Despite these wondrous sights, I longed for cooler climes and was fast realising my quarry would remain elusive.
On the fifth day I saw a break in the mountains, a small saddle that would be easy to cross compared to the burnt-orange sandstone layers forming such an impenetrable barrier. The soil was sandy and I followed a game track, Tiger Bait perking up immediately as we entered a stand of thorn trees.
I was not prepared, however, for the pride of lions whose midst we rode into. Perhaps I'd been sunblind and not as vigilant as I normally am. The next thing I knew, a large male with a shaggy mane stormed from the side with a fearful roar. Tiger Bait squealed and bucked, and the next I knew I was flying through the air, my bow breaking with snap as I impacted with the ground. Fighting a half-dozen angry lions proved vastly different from a single swordsman, and I took many grievous wounds before my schiavona convinced the giant cats to seek easier prey.
Ragged and sore, I found shelter in an overhang. Of the horse and my supplies there was no sign. Cursing myself roundly for my inattention, I waited until nightfall before setting out again. I wasn't going to give up now that I'd come so close to my goal. And I'd been in worse predicaments in the past. What didn't kill me would only make me stronger, and I still possessed my sling-bag, which contained my fire-making tools and other small assortments, and my snares provided me with enough to keep me going.
I had entered a world of hidden mountain valleys of surprising beauty and was glad to discover abundant water. Thick stands of cedar provided me with shelter at nightfall and their aromatic wood made great, blazing fires to keep predators at bay. Sometimes I found signs of other people. Their bare feet left next to no imprint on the ground and I surmised these must be the bushmen the Dutch hunted like vermin.
Sometimes I gained the sense of being watched but the mysterious natives did not reveal themselves to me during the time I searched for the Highlander. To stave off the cold, I made myself a cloak of rabbit skin and took time to feel the land, to understand its harsh, rugged beauty. I could grow to love this place, I realised, admiring the twisted red sandstone formations while listening to the wind mourn through the grasses.
Autumn gave way to the first rains of winter before I found signs of McLeod. Someone had camped beneath an overhang in a shale band in a long valley, packing stones to create a makeshift wall to stop the wind from biting, and had piled a soft-leaved shrub to make a bed. He had left his mark on the soot-stained walls, carved carefully beneath the names of earlier explorers: Connor McLeod, 1703. He must be lonely, cut off from society. Like me, he had in all likelihood not spoken to another European for many months.
Smiling, I traced those letters. My quarry was close.
It was only with the first sprinkling of snow on the peaks rising in dizzying heights above me that I encountered the man. I had followed a dark river's course to arrive at a deep pool surrounded by cliffs and had fancied myself alone when the prickling started on my nape, that peculiar magnetism triggered whenever another Immortal is near. I rose, reaching for my schiavona just as a figure stepped out of a thicket fifty paces ahead of me.
I had never met McLeod before. The Kurgan had described him as a "stripling lad as pale as a fish" and I'd imagined someone more hesitant than the sun-browned man who regarded me with a steady gaze. His hair fell in a bleached mane on either side of a clean-shaven face with a high forehead and straight nose. Although he was not tall, it was clear that he was well-muscled and stood with the assurance of one long used to a life of constant fighting. A sword man's stance.
Like me, his hand twitched near the pommel of his chosen weapon, though his expression remained mild.
"Greetings," I called. "You must be Connor McLeod, the one they call the Highlander."
"Aye, and what if I am?"
A quick survey of our terrain revealed that it was not the best for combat, with many gullies furrowing the sloping rock. I relaxed my stance and held up my hands.
"I have travelled far seeking you. I am Asa," I said. I did not see any point in lying.
The man stiffened at my words. "The Fury?"
"Some know me by that name."
"I do not wish to take your head."
"But I would take measure of the man who vexes the Kurgan so greatly."
At the mention of my lover's name Connor grimaced, his posture remaining wary. "What do you know of the Kurgan?"
"Enough, but let's not stand like mortal enemies. I would enjoy a small fire for the chill hasn't left my bones for days, and I can share some dried meat with you in exchange for news."
"There is a cave not far from here. It is sacred to the tribes who live here. We may talk then and you may follow me there, but keep your distance until we arrive."
A careful man then, this McLeod. Very well. I would play his game. After all, one doesn't survive this Game for long trusting every immortal. Following at a respectful distance, I appreciated why my love sought the Highlander. The Quickening's fire was strong in him, not so much from having bested other, lesser immortals but a natural grace of power that made him nimble and almost at one with his environment. And though he was a born fighter, he radiated tranquillity, as well as a large share of sadness.
We Immortals all know sorrow. It dogs our steps and steals our joy. Whomever we choose to love, mortal or not, are eventually torn from us through age, sickness and, in the case of an Immortal, through combat. Connor had been close to Ramirez. Many of us had been. I, personally, had not wanted to face him in combat but the old man and I had enjoyed our fair share of misadventures over the years.
I chose not to show my hurt when my lover bragged about his conquest, and hid my pain at the Spaniard's passing. Such is our way of life. We fight or we die. We can't afford emotional attachments.
McLeod brought us to an overhang a considerable distance from where he'd found me, high up in a ravine where a waterfall crashed into a pool not yet stained the colour of the river below. I knew the moment I stepped onto the sandy ground strewn with stony shards that this place was holy. Many figurines had been painted in red ochre, and marched across the rock wall. A small circle of stones marked the spot where the Highlander had his hearth, his blanket rolled neatly and placed next to his pack and a stack of firewood.
"It's not much," he said, "but it's better than nothing."
I dropped my things and sat, and busied myself packing the fire. "Sacred ground. A rare find in this wilderness. Who are you running from that you hide in the hinterlands of this godforsaken continent?"
He offered a short bark of laughter. "I suppose you could see it that way. I needed space, a place far away from others, and The Quickening brought me here. Who am I to argue?"
"Like The Quickening brought you your mortal wound courtesy of the Kurgan. The same way Ramirez was drawn to you?"
In my time I had initiated one other, a young Englishman who'd eventually fallen to the Kurgan's blade. Since then I'd ignored at least half a dozen promptings. It would go better for those young men and women if they were never drawn into the Game.
He shrugged, looking thoughtful. "Perhaps."
"So, who will it be? There aren't many here and I doubt the natives will allow you close."
"I don't know. You tell me. What drew you here?"
"Yet you found me."
I laughed. "I think you allowed me to find you. I could have wandered here for decades with you one step ahead of me all the time."
"True, true, but we've both been alive long enough to know we cannot always understand the way these things play themselves out."
"My, my, so much wisdom from one as young as you." I couldn't help myself. He was what, not even three hundred years old?
McLeod gave a soft hiss then stepped back. "What do you really want with me, Asa? You're not here to extend a friendly hand, that much I know. You're a known companion to one I've sworn to kill."
"And I was Ramirez's friend, don't you forget that. I knew him a thousand years before you were even conceived."
Something in the hurt of my tone brought him up short and he took another step back, muttering some oath beneath his breath.
"Yes, McLeod, I am that old. Don't you forget it."
He spread his hands helplessly. "So, you are here now, seeking me. Why?"
"I'll be honest. I'd thought I'd take your head but now I'm not so sure I even want to. You intrigue me, and it's not often that I am moved sufficiently to risk providing a meal for wild cats to seek someone who quite obviously does not want to be found." I could still take his head but I was gratified when I saw his eyes widen.
McLeod stood watching me for a while and the silence grew heavy with only the staccato squeals of a small brown bird and the never-ending sough of the wind.
"You are here now," he said. "I will offer you something to drink and eat. Then I must ask that you please be on your way."
He did not relax once, ill at ease at my silent regard while he busied himself making a fire and setting some water to boil in a small iron pot. Wordlessly McLeod offered me some hard, flat bread wrapped around venison that had been smoked and flavoured with something that made me think of rosemary.
"What's this?" I asked him when he passed me a steaming mug.
"It's something the locals call 'red bush'. It's tea."
The liquid tasted vaguely like honey but took a deeper draught when I was certain it wasn't poisoned. McLeod drank from his own mug, raising his brows in what I took as amusement at my cautious sipping.
"You know, I wasn't quite sure what you were like," I told him.
"What were you expecting?"
"I don't honestly know. It's difficult marrying the stories with the man."
"That you're some larger-than-life figure I keep hearing about; some of your exploits."
"The same can be said of you," he pointed out, "and not all of what I've heard of you is that flattering, that you best many men in battle, that you drink the blood of the slain, that you are the lover of the Kurgan."
"The first and the last may be true, but often those telling the tales aren't there to see the truth of the situation. And I can't expect others to understand the context in which I find myself. Do not judge. Some have said you are prone to melancholy and often act before you think; that you have a temper and are apt to picking fights with mortals. You are quarrelsome."
He nodded at my words. "There have been times but then aren't we all human, despite our longevity?"
"And we have very human needs that fester like sores within us if they are not met. You are but a few hundred years shuffling about this world. Can you imagine multiplying that time threefold? Then double that number. A long time can be a very lonely place."
A frown creased his brow and he sighed. Not looking at her, he spoke. "To be honest, I came out here not only because of The Quickening to find some peace within myself. And all I found was aching discontent." He looked up, grey eyes meeting mine. "I sometimes wish I could just let someone take my head but even when locked in combat, I cannot do it. Something drives me."
"I know what you mean."
"But for us to sit here when we should be trying to finish off this natural inclination within us to take the head of the other is also...wrong."
"You had Ramirez with you for a year or so."
"That was different. He was my teacher. I just can't bring myself to get close to anyone."
"That's your problem. You don't let anyone in." I knew full well I was contradicting my personal sentiments, but McLeod didn't need to know that and, besides, I was a fine one to talk when considering my only serious indulgence.
He lowered his head and dug his fingers into his hair, a drawn-out groan escaping him. "I'm tired of hearing that."
"And you're going to hear it a lot more over the centuries you face."
He looked up. "And you're here now, for what?"
"As stated before. Simple curiosity. Companionship before we part ways again, and perhaps we can learn from each other."
"So you can take my head a few hundred years from now or sell me short to the Kurgan. You needn't even have told me you're here now because you want to take my head. Why else are you carrying one of my schiavonas?"
I drew a deep breath and looked him square in the eye. "Perhaps I had sought you to take your head. Initially. And mayhap, if I'd found you sooner, it would have resulted in a direct challenge, but something's changed." I shrugged. "Something about this place, it's made me feel disinclined to behave in my usual manner." This was a truth. Something had changed.
McLeod grunted. "So, now you've met me. What are you going to tell the Kurgan?"
"What makes you think I'll tell him anything? For all I know, I may feel like challenging him the next time I see him. Or I may feel that it is not necessary for him to be aware of our meeting. Hell, I may only see him in another twenty, fifty or sixty years. Or even a hundred. Or never." I whispered the last word, not sure how I felt about that prospect.
The sizzle-crackle of The Quickening intensified in that moment and something prompted me to reach out to touch his hand. It hit me with a sudden breathlessness that McLeod was the first living person I had voluntarily made physical contact with in a very long time, and his skin felt warm, very present beneath mine.
He did not recoil but neither did he break eye contact. If I listened very hard, I could hear whispers, courtesy of The Quickening, brief slices of the past, nameless faces and an aching loss that gnawed at him like a canker. My next move seemed the simplest in the world. I seduced Connor McLeod and I enjoyed every moment of the conquest. What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.
I'm not the kind of woman to kiss and tell, or spill all the explicit details. Those five weeks that lasted until early spring were balm for my soul, just the right amount of human contact that I realised I needed at the time. I will be honest and say he was perhaps the most thorough, careful lover I've had, though at times I would appreciate and need the urgency I found in the Kurgan, whose raw, brute force excited other parts of my soul.
But I'll remember the last day I spent with Connor for as long as eternity is my friend. He'd fallen asleep on the soft sand near a river we'd followed for a week. The sun had long passed its zenith and it was the high-pitched shrill of a hunting kestrel that had roused me, stirring that deep-rooted restlessness within me that told me it was time to go.
I spent a long time watching him, observing the deep, even rise and fall of his chest and the way he regained some of the innocence of the "stripling lad" my Kurgan had found so derogatory. If the Kurgan represented that dark, remorseless side of my personality, Connor had shown me a side of the old Asa, the one who'd run purely for the sake of feeling the blood rush through her veins or had sat still in the sunshine, merely being and existing in a pure unadulterated moment of bliss.
The truth was, none of us knew how the Game would conclude and who would take the Prize or, if indeed there was some sort of prize awaiting the final victor. The time of The Gathering lay ahead, soon. I could feel the tug of it. Not now but soon, in a century or two. And what is a century or two for someone who's seen a score.
Another truth presented itself to me: I didn't want the Prize. I didn't want to participate in the Gathering. I had seen more lifetimes than most immortals would and, frankly, I was tired. That old need to best my opponent had somehow been tempered during the time I had spent with this man, this Highlander, who was whispered about in awe. He was just a man, an ordinary man carrying an extraordinary burden. That he would be one of the two finalists left over at the Gathering, I had no doubt. Whether he would prevail? That would no longer matter to me for I would be dust.
Perhaps a year ago the thought of entering a state of not-being would have filled me with an irrational dread but now it seemed almost a release from the endless cycles of humanity seemed doomed to repeat, one way or another.
I want to see what lies on the other side of The Black Gate.
But Loki's Daughter is ever full of mischief. While Connor slept, I drew his belt knife, a blade kept devilishly sharp by such a master swordsman. I knew I had the strength to cut off his head with such a wicked knife. Years of preparing meat and beheading other immortals had taught me much about where the vertebrae would lie, but I wouldn't do it.
I selected a tendril of his sun-bleached hair and cut, curling the strand and wrapping it in a small square of leather. Two thousand years of experience had taught me how to move without making the least disturbance, and Connor did not wake as I pulled on my clothes, shouldered my pack and struck out south. I did not look back.
Some heaviness had lifted from my heart when I imagined the Kurgan's expression when I handed him that strand of gold, dearer than any a queen would wear around her neck.