The Holy Ground Highlander Forum Midweek Challenge
Archivist’s Note: The stories and vignettes offered here from various Forumlanders have not been edited or changed other than having a spell-check performed and being reformatted for this website.
The Challenge by Leah CWPack
Folie Adieu by Palladia, Storie and Wain – Removed
from the internet. An edited version appears in zine form as a
stand-alone novel! Check out Ashton Press Highlander
Mirror for the Cajun Moon by Ghost Cat
MID-WEEK CHALLENGE: HOW'S BAYOU?
Your challenge, should you decide to participate, comes to us this week courtesy of a suggestion by Palladia and Rottie:
Write a short story or scene involving one or more of the HL characters and the following elements:
1) Mardi Gras (anywhere)
2) A vegetable
3) reflection (light or image)
Disclaimer: Remember to put "MWC" on your subject line, if you wish to have your entry archived.
MWC: "Mirror for the Cajun Moon"
There was nothing that Deb wanted more than to get out of Louisiana, but it wasn’t that easy. Nothing seemed easy anymore. So much had happened in so little time: her kidnapping, the blizzard, combat and then, afterward—- Isn’t it strange how no one ever really mentions what happens after a Quickening? To the victor goes the spoils, but what happens when the spoils of war includes people? With Dorian still fresh in her mind, so to speak, it was a simple thing to "create" his last will and testament. The mansion and all its contents were to be sold, the profits used to provide generous stipends to all the staff. Well, almost everything; Deb could not resist "liberating" a couple of items. She hoped that Duncan wouldn't come to the wrong conclusions when a pair of trophy cats and a Confederate cavalry sword were delivered up North.
Forging a document is child’s play, especially when, essentially, you are the person you are trying to imitate. The hard part came when "Felicia DuChamp" needed to establish herself as a long lost relative of the dearly departed. Something this delicate required a lawyer's touch, and that would involve a trip into town.
Taking down an enemy in his home territory was daunting enough at the best of times; for an inexperienced Immortal it can be overwhelming. It was only Deb's second trip to New Orleans, yet at every turn she was assaulted by a chilling sense of déjà vu. She felt an odd recognition of places she'd never seen before and had to restrain herself from calling out the names of—-to her—-total strangers. A sight or sound might provoke a sudden memory of something that had happened before she was born. Worst of all, there where moments when, quickly glimpsing a reflection, she had the disturbing impression that the image she saw was not her own.
It was a sense of purpose that had sent her out on this quest, and it was that same purpose that kept her focused, kept her sane. She used that queasy double vision to best advantage, letting newly acquired memories guide her steps. Grey’s lawyer had an office, in grand Southern style, in an impressive historical building in the French Quarter. Or rather, it would have been impressive if it had actually been maintained. Deb had as little contact as possible with the lawyer, who had all the charm and grace of a Louisiana swamp 'gator. Not surprising, based on his choice of clients, the "gentleman" was willing to do anything, as long as he got a substantial fee. There were spirited negotiations over the size of said fee (in which Dorian’s skills were put to good use) before the grieving Miss DuChamp was assured that her needs would be satisfied. The late Dorian Grey’s assets would indeed keep Deb from "starving artist" status for quite some time; yet, even as the funds were zipping electronically to a secret account, she couldn’t help but feel horribly dirty. It was her first blood money.
§ § §
"My first Mardi Gras in New Orleans in decades, and I'm spending it in a run down hovel in the middle of nowhere!"
Deb wasn't sure whether or not finding Amanda again belonged on her list of recent strange coincidences; if so, it was probably the only one for which she was genuinely grateful. Without a sense of focus, or even a familiar frame of reference, Deb's identity had very little to hold it together. By the time she ran into Amanda, she was literally falling to pieces. The more experienced Immortal recognized the signs of Post-Quickening overload and had reacted accordingly. What Deb really needed was a strong dose of the familiar to counter the overwhelming tide of foreign thoughts and memories; barring that, Amanda could only provide a neutral environment away from all the mental "noise".
Amanda's maternal instincts, once aroused, were formidable; unfortunately they tended to have a finite lifespan. The loud click of her high heels as she paced the tiny shack made it clear that Amanda's latest batch of empathy was quickly going sour. "I should be out there, having fun. Think of it; I could be dancing, I could be laughing, I could be—-"
"…picking pockets?" Deb had recovered slightly in the past few days, at least enough to develop a certain black humor.
"If I wanted sarcasm and depression, I'd have gone traveling with Methos. I don't belong here! Where are the parades, the parties, the young men throwing cheap plastic beads?"
"Don't talk to me about parties. Your last party almost got me killed!" She stopped suddenly, knowing that she was being unfair; there was no way Amanda could have known. Deb's defensive anger crumbled, leaving emotional wounds raw and exposed. "This is all just too much for me. I melted a couple thousand dollars worth of electronic equipment with a temper tantrum; I may or may not have caused a blizzard and…and I—I *killed* a man! I've had too many things happen that aren't normal; *I'm* not normal!"
Amanda stopped her self-absorbed pacing and came to her young friend's side. "Darling," she smiled gently, "you never were normal; you've said so yourself."
Deb shook her head vehemently; "There's a difference between being proudly eccentric and being afraid of what I've become. I used to think that I'd be the same person I was before; that I'd just live longer—-or not," she added with a fatalistic shrug. "Now it's as if I'm being forcibly reminded that I'm Not Quite Human." A faint crackling tingled in the air, lifting every hair on her body; but without anything to propagate it, the emotional charge quickly faded. "Look at this! I can't even control myself. Just leave me alone." Before Amanda could say a word, she retreated into the cabin's only bedroom and locked the door.
§ § §
Deb couldn't really say how long she'd been sulking on the bed. Of course, in her current state of mind, she couldn't always be certain she even knew what year it was. Nonetheless, when a cacophony of sound startled her out of her funk, she was pretty sure she was ahead of schedule; she hadn't planned on going completely insane quite so soon. Yet, what other explanation could there be for hearing horses? Horses, and men shouting and singing…in French?!?; she had to be hallucinating.
She was just starting to wonder if every lunatic's Voices were quite so loud, when she heard another voice. "Debra, get up." Excitement colored Amanda's voice. "The Mardi Gras is here!"
Even the prospect of going mad hadn't done much to improve Deb's mood; "Leave me alone; I know what day it is!" she growled back through the door.
"No, I mean the Mardi Gras is *here*! Go look outside if you don't believe me."
Deciding that even her delusions wouldn't be this bizarre, Deb reluctantly crossed the room, pulling open the shutters. The old shack had no glass windows; the sudden assault of noise rocked her on her heels. What she saw gathered outside her haven could only be described as a circus. In all directions were men and women in elaborate masks and costumes; some perched on horseback, others crowding the back of a pickup truck; all laughing, singing and dancing. In one corner she was sure a pantomime play was being performed. Through the riot of sound she heard a few words that she recognized, but didn't understand in this context, "Capitaine" and "La Courir."
By the time Deb reached the dilapidated front porch, Amanda was already talking to the leader of this ragtag group, a handsomely dressed masked man on a white horse. They were speaking a patchwork mix of French and English that Deb found oddly comforting. Not surprising; after all, the term Cajun was originally a corruption of the word "Canadian." It seemed their tiny cabin, while out of the way in most respects, stood right on the route of a traditional Cajun Courir. A Courir was an old Mardi Gras tradition, or so Amanda explained, where a gathering of the community traveled from house to house, asking people if they would "accept the spirit of the Mardi Gras" and begging for food. At the end of the day, all the food collected was made into a huge communal meal, and the whole thing became and excuse for one big celebration.
"Come on," Amanda urged, "it's tradition. Besides, how many times does a party knock on your front door? You go down into the cellar and see what we have to contribute, while I talk to the Captain here." The bewildered Canadian allowed herself to be pushed toward the cellar door, idly wondering how the Lady Rogue had decided the man was cute behind that mask. Maybe she just had a thing for white horses.
The stairs were old and badly lit; Deb crept down cautiously, testing each step before putting down her full weight. The root cellar was little more than a dirt chamber and, not surprisingly, contained mostly roots: potatoes, turnips, and a few things that a northern girl wouldn't likely recognize. As she took a quick inventory, a mesh canvas bag in one corner caught her eye. The long green shapes with the tufts of yellow silk were as unmistakable as they were unexpected.
The sight of that small sack of corn brought a sudden wave of homesickness. Her hands reached out as if to make certain the object was real; the feel of soft cornsilk and rough canvas brought back memories of Alberta summers, of Taber corn sold from the back of a farmer's pickup truck. Rushing home to cook them so they'd be as fresh as possible; risking burnt fingers as you ate the cob with your bare hands, mouth dripping with sweet juices and smooth, melted butter. The memory was so intense, so real, so undeniably *hers* that she wanted to fall to her knees and weep with joy. She had found an anchor on which her identity could hold fast.
Deb gathered up a generous donation with brisk efficiency, unfettered by her previous apathy and depression. There was a new spring in her step as she emerged into the daylight, a difference Amanda could not help but notice. With exaggerated ceremony, she presented her offering to the Capitaine, hardly keeping back a grin. Scanning the crowd quickly, Deb recognized a familiar figure that even a hawk-faced mask couldn't disguise. She pointed out her Watcher to the captain, mentioning that he was very good at peeling potatoes. A little KP will do you good, Savage. Yes indeed, without a doubt, the Cat was back.
§ § §
The Courir was undeniably the best they'd had in years and the Mardi Gras meal, an "everything into the pot" gumbo, fed all who attended. In true Cajun style, there also seemed to be more than enough celebration to go around. Except for one person. During all the singing and dancing and yes, even the storytelling, Deb Campbell sat on a fallen log, her back to the crowd. She had finally won the claim on her identity and come to terms with the fact that she would never be *quite* the same person she was before; she now had to deal with what she had done, and she wasn't in much of a mood to party.
Amanda was in her element: laughing, dancing and flirting shamelessly with the men. But, even though several handsome fellows were showing her the meaning of the phrase laissez les bons temps roulez, it just didn't feel right. Her on again, off again conscience was pricking her. How could she truly enjoy herself if she couldn't share her joie de vivre with the one who needed it the most? Extricating herself from her admirers, playfully instructing some of them to "hold that thought", she went off in search of the young Canadian.
Deb still sat alone, staring past the edge of the clearing into the swampland beyond. The atmosphere seemed to fit her mood. As she often did, the author didn't bother to look up when they Buzzed each other; she spoke before Amanda had a chance to say a word. "You know," she said quietly, her melancholy voice at odds with her words, "Fitzcairn would have liked this party."
Amanda blinked in surprise, being one of a small group that knew the truth of what had happened at another party. "Would have? You mean he's not here, enjoying himself?"
Deb shook her head slowly, as though it were a heavy weight on a pendulum. "I haven't heard from him since—-since combat. It's very quiet in his corner of my mind. I think… I think he—integrated—during the Quickening, to protect me from the full force of Grey's personality. It's not fair. I lost my innocence, I lost part of myself, and now I've lost him too.”
"You haven't lost him; he's more a part of you than he ever was." Deb didn't seem to be in the mood for logical explanations. Desperate, Amanda tried the direct route; "Is there anything I can do?" Deb's heavy head swung side to side once again; "I just need to be alone, okay?"
Her solitude did not last very long; in the midst of a Cajun celebration, melancholy is unacceptable. A voice interrupted Deb's thoughts; heavily accented, but kind. "You do not look like someone who has accepted the Mardi Gras. Come, cherie, there is nothing so horrible in this world that it cannot be set aside for one day."
I killed someone, is that horrible enough?; Deb turned to face her intruder, he was still brightly costumed, though his mask dangled loosely from one hand. He was older than she had expected, yet still attractive. His kindness was unfeigned; her harsh verbal attack lost some of its sting. "Bad enough. Someone died."
He sank to the log beside her as though physically stunned by her words. His words were hesitant and, if anything, more gentle than before. "Was it a friend? Family?"
Deb shook her head, letting go of the story that she had held so tightly; "No. I didn't know him. But I was there when it happened. In the end, we were… very close." How easy it is to confide in a stranger.
The man half-turned to look at her better; he almost reached out to touch her, then stopped himself. "Death is not such a horrible thing. All life must eventually die. You and I; we die a little bit even as we talk to each other." Speak for yourself, Deb thought sardonically, but she knew what he meant. This was, after all, the home of the Jazz Funeral. His words continued, paralleling her thoughts; "The world is only as terrible as we allow it to be. We have two choices. We can focus on Life; or we can focus on Death. Cherchant le mal, on le trouvera." Look for the worst, and you will find it.
The stranger gestured dramatically, pointing, not toward the celebrants, but away from the bonfire. "Look around you, cherie, and tell me what you see." She hardly bothered to lift her gaze from the contemplation of her folded hands. "It's a swamp: stagnant water; bare, skeletal trees; things quietly rotting in the darkness."
"No cherie, you look with your eyes; you must allow yourself to see with your heart." He gently pulled her to her feet, gripping her shoulders softly, but firmly. "Regardez." He made the single word sound somehow magical.
Deb lifted her downcast gaze. At that moment, the moon arose from behind the trees, touching the water and transforming it to liquid silver. The bare trees seemed like sculptures cast in bronze, and the very air itself glowed. Her eyes widened; her face filled with awe. She spoke in a hushed whisper, as though afraid to disturb something sacred. "It's beautiful." For a moment, the two stood together, sharing the majesty of the moment. Then the stranger lifted her chin, so as to better see Deb's face in the moonlight. "The bayou is not the only thing that is beautiful tonight. Now, shall we dance?"
Gracefully accepting his invitation, Deb made her choice; to focus on Life.