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
We’ll Always Have Paris by Youthos
All Fall Down by Storie
Sing the Wind and Rain by Leslie Fish
Salamander by Palladia
Fated by Ysanne
Fires on the Horizon by Draconian Bluebird of Glamorgan
To Die Again by vixen69
The Fire Within by Ghost Cat
Flames of Desire by bookmom
MID-WEEK CHALLENGE: BURNS NIGHT
Your challenge, should you decide to participate, comes to us courtesy of current events:
Write a short story, vignette or scene featuring a Highlander character (Immortal or otherwise) and fire as a major element.
Remember to include "MWC" at the front of your subject heading of the post, if you wish to have your entry archived.
MWC: We'll always have Paris
Posted By: Youthos
Date: Thursday, 27 June 2002, at 11:10 a.m.
It was a warm summer night in Paris. Duncan went home lately, after a nice dinner in a beautiful restaurant and a few glasses of 12 year old single malt from the highlands at Joe's new bar. Unfortunately, Joe was in Seacouver at the time, and Duncan was alone, but it was a nice evening, nevertheless. After a lot of hectic events in the last weeks, Duncan enjoyed the time of relaxing.
He just wanted to take off his clothes and go to bed, when he felt the buzz
of another Immortal somewhere near the barge.
He grabbed his Katana and stood up. Who could that be? Methos was in Alice Springs, in the middle of the Australian continent, for unknown reasons, as usual. Amanda? She's definitely the kind of person who would show up in the middle of the night, as if it were an appropriate time for a visit. But wasn't she in Buenos Aires right now? Connor was in the highlands.
The other Immortal was already on the barge and opened the door. "Cassandra!" Duncan said in surprise. "We don't have time to talk, Duncan! Come with me! Now!" Obviously, she was in fear. In horrible fear. "What..." he tried to ask, but Cassandra shouted: "We don't have time!" Duncan decided to follow Cassandra and ask questions later. Something truly horrific must have happened. He had never seen Cassandra in such a state of mind. Not even during their confrontation with the horsemen.
They left the barge. Cassandra ran to the street, Duncan followed her. She
arrived at a red Rolls Royce with a smashed side-window. "Get in!"
Obviously, Cassandra had stolen the car in a hurry.
"Okay, Cassandra, what is going on? Tell me." Duncan said with a voice as calming as possible.
Cassandra didn't give a response. She drove through the empty streets of Paris with a maniacal, almost suicidal velocity.
When they finally were on the highway, Duncan tried again to find out what horrific event had happened. "Cassandra, what is going on?"
Just this one word, spoken in deep pain. At this point, Duncan became almost
as fearful as Cassandra.
"Did something happen to one of your friends? Or my friends?"
Duncan was confused and felt helpless. Cassandra was too traumatized to tell
him anything specific. Just as they left the lights of Paris and drove into the
dark night, Duncan tried to make sense out of this situation.
Nothing had happened to his friends. It seemed that nothing had happened at all. But Cassandra was traumatized and in horrible fear. Then he remembered Cassandra's special abilities to see and feel the things to come. Nothing had happened yet. But something *will* happen. Something so horrible that every other event in Cassandra's life was almost harmless by comparison.
And suddenly came the dawn of the truth into Duncan's conscious thinking.
Suddenly he knew why she wanted so desperately to get them both out of Paris.
Suddenly he knew what kind of fire Cassandra had seen and felt in her horrific
The monstrous fire. The one kind of fire that is as deadly for an Immortal as it is for every human being. The nuclear fire.
MWC: All Fall Down
He lit the Molotov cocktail and gazed through the helix of smoke at the scene below. The warriors trembled and blurred as the flame distorted his view until the haze lifted from his memory and left him staring instead at a twist of smoldering straw.
“Bring out your dead!”
The cart rumbled past as Dr. Adams stepped from the little house and pulled the door closed on the family within. The red staff he carried matched the red cross smeared on the door, mutual warnings of the curse. He stepped into the street in the wake of the cart and doubled over, retching against the miasma of death that settled heavily over him like a putrid, wet mantle.
The driver urged the horse along with his macabre load of corpses, continuing the call along the darkened street. Dr. Adams made his way to the next house bearing the fatalistic marking and rapped his staff against the door. The woman who admitted him suffered herself from early stages of the disease. She would die, as would all of her household. He could do nothing to stop the rampant progression of their terminal illness to its agonizing end. He left the woman and her family to their fate and walked in the general direction of his own residence. The night was full of odors and grief and funereal silence.
It had taken him more years than he remembered to trace the origins of the Plague to the East. It had spread across Europe through the centuries, decimating villages and riding away like a bad dream. This particular onslaught had been delivered to Eyam in a box of flea-infested laundry carried in by a traveler, an inconspicuous stranger just passing through.
“Ingenious,” snarled the doctor. He had no point of reference by which to get in front of the Plague and head it off. He smirked at his own train of thought, but the expression quickly faded to the weariness of perpetual defeat. Battles were won one at a time. This viral slaughter was an endless war; impossible to win when the executor was so effectively and forever elusive.
He dropped the flaming bottle from the catwalk and watched it fall…
A large rat fled before him and slipped under the door of a stable. Dr. Adams glared at the opening in which the miniature perpetrator had disappeared. The Plague had been aided by a rumor that spread like wildfire in the panic brought on by certain death. The previous summer it was noised that dogs and cats were responsible for spreading the disease. The Lord Mayor had summarily ordered that all such pets be destroyed. Many thousands were put to death; thus the predators that could have assisted in the annihilation of the Plague’s true carriers were themselves eradicated from the district. Fleas in laundry, fleas on rats, tiny guarantors of mass destruction. How insidiously simple; how infinitely effective.
The doctor himself felt ill, and hoped he would not have to endure the sickness again. The last time he had awakened in a pile of fetid corpses. He still shuddered at the horror. So many were occupied with the dead and the dying that no one had noticed when he resurrected and walked among them once more.
The bottle shattered on impact. Liquid flame poured across the floor…
The cold winter that ushered in 1666 destroyed many of the fleas, but their hosts remained to ensure the disease did not die. As the doctor contemplated another impending winter, he realized that although the death toll was dropping and the Plague was receding, it was far from over. How many more would suffer and die; families, villages emptied of life as Pestilence continued his rampage. The doctor started with momentary fear as a wail erupted from a house across the street. He knew the voice and the woman to whom it belonged. Last week her husband had been hauled away on the back of one of those carts. Two months before that, her youngest son; tonight, her mother.
It was enough. It was enough.
It was enough.
Dr. Adams altered his course away from residential streets and wandered along the waterfront amidst wharves and warehouses. He identified the stored goods by their smells: oil, spirits, tallow, hemp, straw, coal. A little further he stopped to gaze up at St. Margaret's church. Even holy ground lent him no comfort on this night. He shuffled past the Star Inn and stopped in front of the bakery, sniffing the air. It wasn’t bread, but smoke that drew his attention. For centuries London had observed King William’s couvre-feu law, which required families to put out their home fires at night to reduce the risk of fire in a city comprised of wood and pitch homes with thatched roofs.
The baker, Mr. Farynor, lived behind his shop. He had neglected to douse his fire. Dr. Adams approached the house and peered through the window. Everything was silent; it was nearly one o’clock and most of the city was asleep. The doctor stared through the window at the fire devouring logs on the andirons. In a little while its fuel would be exhausted and the fire would starve.
He flicked the lighter to produce another flame, ignited a second round…
Pestilence would not starve; the only recourse was to somehow stop the Plague. Stop it where it started. Kill the rats, kill the fleas, stop the dying and disease…
Dr. Adams stood before the fireplace trembling, apologizing silently to the baker’s family, to London, to every god whose name he could recall. He knelt to the floor and gathered a handful of straw, twisting the strands into two wicks. He held one to the fireplace until it burned - wondered as it did if there was any other way - and dropped the sparks of straw onto the firewood stacked alongside.
The second bottle shattered, pouring forth fire that could no longer be ignored. The warriors stood apart, acknowledging their battle was, for the moment, over. The voice of Pestilence floated above the flames, mocking. “I can wait!”
He lit the second twist and hurried to the door that Mr. Farynor had neglected to lock. The doctor dropped the burning wick onto the straw-covered floor and watched the fire spread, slowly at first, then faster until the room was ablaze. Dr. Adams fled the bakery, the waterfront, the city. He sat for hours by the bridge with his back to the catastrophe he had committed, battered by the frantic cries of families escaping their homes, saving each other and what possessions they could. It was still very dark when he turned and beheld the horrifying reality of what he had done.
London was burning.
Dr. Adams fled across the bridge from the Plague, the fire, and himself.
He had spared his own life after MacLeod had gone by revealing that he knew the whereabouts of two very old acquaintances. “Have I been wrong about you? Maybe I should kill you right now and make absolutely sure,” Pestilence had taunted.
The question remained unanswered.
He hastened from the power plant, troubled at a long history of postponing destruction that he could not bring himself to overthrow. Pestilence, Famine, War, Death. Once he had been the final word; now he was only distraction for the rest.
He hurried along a residential neighborhood, past a playground filled with children. Little girls linked hands and pulled one another along in a circle, singing a nursery rhyme as they collapsed in fits of laughter. Memory substituted the correct words for the children’s altered lyrics:
Ring a Ring O' Roses,
A pocketful of posies,
We all fall down!
Dead, he muttered under his breath. We all fall down, Dead.
It was enough. He would bring them all together - Pestilence, War and Famine - and together they would die.
Death alone would forever remain to perform under whatever visage he might choose.
* * * * *
MWC: SING THE WIND AND RAIN
Posted By: Leslie Fish <email@example.com>
Date: Friday, 28 June 2002, at 6:16 a.m.
"What am I doing here?" Duncan MacLeod asked himself for the hundredth time, as he swung his pickaxe in a steady rhythm. The roar of a nearby chainsaw played steady harmony to the ringing of his strokes. *I was just driving back from Phoenix...*
He'd had to go there in person; setting up an iron-clad new identity took a lot more these days than just forging a birth-certificate. Of course he drove; he avoided commercial airline flights whenever possible, thanks to the necessity of keeping his sword with him. The passenger-trains no longer ran through the major city of Arizona, and a bus-ride from Phoenix to Seacouver was unthinkable, so drive he must. And of course he took the secondary state highways, the better to avoid harassment from bored police, which was how he'd wound up on the road to Show Low...
...Where the biggest forest-fire in the state's history was burning, out of control. Where he'd run into the fire-fighting crews, pulling back again, desperate for help...
*Methos, I can already hear you calling me a Boy Scout again. How apt. I think they even have the real Boy Scouts out here, digging firebreaks...*
Then he heard the crew-captain run past, shouting: "Shift north! Shift north! It's flanking us again!"
Duncan cursed, shouldered his pickaxe and ran with the others -- all indistinguishable in hardhats and dust -- northward across the flat and narrow valley. They reformed their line, Duncan at the northward end, and began digging and cutting again. At least the problem here was only the scrubby desert brush, not an overpopulation of Ponderosa pines. Duncan remembered that this was Indian land, immune to the wavering policies of the Forestry Service or the lawsuits of more-passionate-than-informed environmentalists, and the Indians had allowed selective logging of the dangerous pine-trees. Still, it took a pickaxe to dig into the hard adobe-clay soil, and the work was back-breaking.
Duncan dug out and dragged away a particularly stubborn mesquite stump, and stood up to rub a cramp out of his back. He could smell the taint of smoke on the treacherous easterly wind, almost hear the distant roar of the oncoming fire. If only they could scrape the ground bare in time... The low but stark mountain peaks were allies, all bare stone, reliable walls channeling the fire into the narrow valleys where there was a fighting chance to contain it. He glanced up at the peak to his right.
*Hell, somebody's up there!*
That much was easy to tell: blue jeans and blue T-shirt against the salmon-pink stone. He couldn't be sure at this distance, but the form seemed odd: bulging, as if carrying a bulky object...
*A guitar!* he recognized the shape. *Who the hell would be playing a guitar on a bare mountaintop in the middle of a forest-fire?!*
Duncan looked quickly from the figure on the mountain to the patch of ground before him. Yes, he'd scraped bare a good wide stretch, maybe ten yards long, and the others were still digging and cutting. He had time, he could scramble up there and get that fool down before the line had to move again. He slammed the point of his pickaxe into the ground, handle high where any volunteer could grab it, and ran for the peak.
The sharp desert mountain stood less than a thousand feet high, at a fairly shallow slope, and the very roughness of the sandstone ground made for easy climbing, affording plenty of hand-holds. As the scree grew coarser the plant-life grew thinner and smaller, finally fading out altogether as he reached the ragged boulders. A hard but fast climb brought him up the bare stone slabs toward the peak, and he began to hear snatches of guitar-chords, wind-flung bits of song.
He recognized that voice. Twangy-alto, heard recently... Yes, just a few days ago, down in the city.
*Lisa! What the hell is she doing here?!*
Duncan scrambled up over the last wind-smoothed slab and came to the rounded peak at last -- and yes, there she stood: Lisa Carp, all right. Same long blue-black hair and red bandana-headband, different T-shirt and jeans, and no simple thong-sandals this time -- she'd put on what looked like army-surplus combat boots, of all things. Sensible on ground like this.
Even so, how had she hiked up here carrying that guitar? It was, he saw, a heavy 12-string. It was strung with silver-colored wires, light-gauge, but their collective tension must have been considerable. He remembered the surprising strength of her grip, and saw where she'd earned it. She was, he noticed, wearing finger-picks on all but the last finger of her right hand; in the harsh desert sunlight they glittered like claws.
She was facing southeast, halfway toward him, and surely saw him coming -- certainly recognized him -- but gave him no more attention than a flicker of an eyebrow. She was concentrating on her song with an intensity he'd rarely seen, even from Joe at his best. What the hell was she doing, and why here?
Then he came close enough to catch the words of her song, and began to understand.
"Hail Thor, Lord of Thunder,
Master of the winds of the western world.
Hail Thor, Hammer-Wielder,
Lord of the Lightning, Lord of Storms."
*It's a rain-charm,* Duncan realized. *How desperate could she be? How much does she really believe?*
He took a cautious step forward, and felt a subtle pressure pushing against him. *The sound-wave?* he wondered. She had a strong voice, but it didn't seem to be that loud.
"Draw the drops of the sky together,
Master of the winds of the western world.
Break the back of burning weather,
Lord of the Lightning, Lord of Storms."
Damned if the rhythm wasn't getting to him, making him tap his feet in time. He couldn't think of any reason not to; obviously he couldn't talk to her until she finished that song.
"Fetch the flock of cloud-sheep grazing,
Master of the winds of the western world.
Lift the lash of lightning blazing,
Lord of the Lightning, Lord of Storms."
*What the hell...* He joined in on the chorus as it came around again. It was a simple tune, easy to sing, easy to learn, catchy. Lisa gave him a quick nod of acknowledgement and thanks, and sang on.
"Bring the wind that bears the waters,
Master of the winds of the western world.
Call the cloud and all it utters,
Lord of the Lightning, Lord of Storms."
This time, when the chorus came around again, he added a simple harmony. It felt right. He couldn't help noticing that the odd sense of pressure, like a static charge, was growing. He could see Lisa's ribs working like a bellows under the loose T-shirt, as if she were putting out more effort than simply breath for singing. It made sense to breathe along with her.
"Join our joy of feast and singing,
Master of the winds of the western world.
Set the sky with laughter ringing,
Lord of the Lightning, Lord of Storms."
Something shifted. There was a definite sense of triumph and satisfaction in that verse, a feeling of something accomplished... *Or of the old god having done his job and sitting down to his jolly reward...*
By watching her breathing, he guessed that she meant to hold the last note. He moved and sang as she did.
Sure enough, she held the last note -- and then jumped it up a full octave: a paean of triumph, like an ancient battle-cry. It made him shiver in the heat.
Right then, he felt his ears pop.
*The air-pressure's dropped,* he realized.
Lisa slumped on her feet and stood panting for long moments, throwing Duncan a weary grin. "Thanks," she managed.
Duncan shook the ringing out of his ears, noticing that the sense of pressure was gone. The temperature seemed to have dropped too. "Nice try," he acknowledged. "Now don't you think we should get off this mountain while the getting's good?"
Lisa glanced over her shoulder, toward the west. "Too late," she said, pointing.
Duncan looked. Oh hell, yes, there it was at the far end of the valley: the tall column of smoke with the glowing base. He couldn't judge its speed from here, but there was all too good a chance that if they climbed down now they'd walk right into it.
"We're safe up here," Lisa explained calmly. "We may catch some of the smoke, but at this height it shouldn't be too bad."
Duncan wasn't too certain. That ugly gray oncoming pillar looked taller than the mountain. Then he noted the canteen at her belt. She could always wet down her shirt or bandana and wrap it around her face. For himself, smoke-inhalation was a painful death, but not nearly so bad as others he'd taken. "You may have to loan me your shirt again," he considered.
Lisa only nodded, looking again at the advancing fire. "If I didn't turn that wind," she muttered, "Or at least slow it..."
"I thought you were trying to bring rain."
Lisa grinned sourly at him. "There are three steps to summoning rain," she said. "First, make a low-pressure zone: an invisible sink-hole in the sky. Second, call water-bearing winds into that sink-hole. Third, make the vapor molecules cluster together and form drops heavy enough to fall. I think I managed the first. Don't know about the others."
Duncan remembered feeling the air-pressure drop, right on the song's last note. The timing was too good for coincidence, and he'd seen enough psychic phenomena to know they were real.
"If the air-pressure drops, wind usually flows into the...sink-hole," he temporized.
"Yes, but which wind?" Lisa gloomed. She pulled the guitar-strap up over her head and sat down, looking spent. "The reason I faced south-east was to call wind from the Gulf of Mexico. That thing--" She pointed over her shoulder. "--is riding the winds from the west. I don't know if the wind from the south-east would still have any water in it, after coming this far across the desert, but if it can come at all it will turn the fire back, over ground it's already burned. That may be enough."
Duncan glanced out at the approaching fire. It didn't seem to be coming any slower, though it was hard to tell at this distance.
But then again, he didn't feel any wind at all: not from the south-east, but not from the west either. At this elevation he should have felt something.
"What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" he couldn't help asking, wondering why she inspired him to corny old-movie jokes like that. "I thought you joined the Watchers the same night I met you, back in Phoenix."
"They want to send me off to France, to their training academy. I'm due to fly out tomorrow." Lisa shrugged. "I figured this was my last chance to do anything about the damned fire. And what the hell, it's my desert too."
"How did you get out here, anyway? I ran into a roadblock..."
"I went down to the map-shop and got a Geodetic Survey map; it shows all the little one-lane dirt roads that nobody else knows about." She pointed to the eastward foot of the mountain. "If you'll look, you'll see a rusty old 1979 Thunderbird parked down there in the scree, where the dirt road ends."
Duncan looked. Yes, there was a beaten-up old car down there. It might have been abandoned for years. Rust and sun-bleaching had turned it almost exactly the color of the surrounding rocks. It was neatly parked where the fire, if it got this far, would pass by to either side. Duncan suddenly wondered if his own rental-car was safe.
"Damn. I may have to hitch a ride with you back to Phoenix. If the fire gets to where I parked my rental..." *Hell, I shouldn't have changed my mind, should have taken a flight out that same night I met her, stuffed the sword in my check-on baggage and hoped for the best.*
He looked again at the column of smoke rising from the mouth of the valley. It was just as tall, just as menacing...
In fact, it hadn't changed size at all.
"It hasn't moved!" he realized, scrambling to his feet. "It's stopped! The wind-- The west wind's died down, stopped driving it! It's just creeping, at best."
Lisa turned to look, and heaved a deep sigh of relief. "Maybe slow enough for the crews to finish the fire-break," she said.
Duncan opened his mouth to say "You did it!", but then stopped himself. Yes, psychic phenomena were real, but so was self-delusion. Lisa seemed to be a remarkably level-headed woman in everything else; if this was her one irrationality, he'd do her the honor of not encouraging it.
"This is just one part of the leading edge," he pointed out. "The fire's front is several miles wide. Maybe it won't come down this valley, but there's still the rest of it."
"Let's hope the rest of it is slowed too." Lisa shrugged. "Every little bit helps."
"It's slow enough now, we can make it to your car and drive out of here."
Lisa peered at the fire, then down into the valley. "Very likely," she said, pointing. "Look: the crews have finished the fire-break."
Duncan looked. "So they have," he admitted, a little guilty that he hadn't been there with them to finish what he'd started. But then, he'd done his part in that. A little, but it was enough. "This valley's safe, at least."
"Yep, and most of the town of Show Low, beyond. I've got a buddy who lives there, and he'd be mightily pissed off if his house burned down."
"We've all done our part," said Duncan, clasping her shoulder. *The Indian land-managers, the fire-fighting crews, maybe even your song.* "Come on, Lisa. Let's go on down."
"Right." Lisa stood up, but paused to pull off her finger-picks, link them together and stuff them in her jeans' rear pocket. The right front pocket, he saw, still held the clip-holster -- and, doubtless, the little gun inside it. He wondered how she expected to take that into France. He expected she'd try. A marvelous mix of the deadly-practical and the wildly fanciful, was Lisa.
"Let's get out of here," he urged, reaching out a hand toward her.
Just then he felt the wind rising at his back.
It was steady, strong, and a held the slightest cool hint of water.
It was flowing from the south-east.
Slender, exquisitely groomed, the hand reached through the curtains of the palanquin, wrist-bangles clinking softly, to trade some coins to the chapatti-seller at the bazaar of Lucknow. A few yards farther down the crowded street, another well-kept hand bought some sweetmeats.
Giggles drifted from the palanquin as it twined along with its guards, the bearers not terribly strained by their burden: two or three women inside, Duncan guessed.
"Nay, laddie-buck, not for you. That palanquin belongs to the Rani, and you'll never set eyes on her."
"Never is a long time, Captain."
"India has a long time. Long time past, long time to come. We're here, but India is older than we are."
In 1856, India was so far distant from Scotland both in miles and culture that Duncan spent most of his time just gorging himself on the differences. The food, the scents, the languages, the sheer mystery of the place drew him as a moth to the candle.
Life and death in India both seemed so arbitrary to him: he knew he could never again catch the smell of marigolds without looking around for a funeral, a platform for the vultures, a mugger fattening on the white-wrapped gifts drifting on the river.
A man might eat a hearty breakfast, do some shooting in the morning, and be dead before nightfall: the diseases and mishaps were so rife.
The first time he had seen a suttee, the others in his troop had had to restrain him to keep him from dragging the widow off the pyre. Especially after she began to scream, before the smoke and flames choked her, he redoubled his efforts to get free of the rough hands that held him.
Never, never, would he forget that. She had walked up to the pyre, made her small red handprint on the post at the entry, climbed on, all as if in a trance. She would follow her husband into death, as custom decreed.
It had been explained to him, later. The word came from the Sanscrit sati: "good woman," and it was their way, their way, laddie, nothing to do with us.
Even though the British had declared it illegal nearly thirty years before, it went on. This is India, laddie. Things happen.
Duncan's eyes followed the palanquin until it was out of sight - not very far in the teeming bazaar - and then he went back to planning the trooping of the regiment with his Captain as they sauntered along.
The screams that erupted in the path of the Rani jolted both men into an approximation of a run, shoving and dodging to catch up with it. The palanquin had been dropped by one of its carriers, tumbling its passengers into the dust. The dead bearer lay at the feet of a turbaned man with a scimitar, who set himself to kill the women.
With no further thought, Duncan cut him down. He turned to help the women, only to be caught by his captain.
"No! You must not touch them. You would defile them."
But it wasn't the captain who stopped him in his tracks, held him from reaching down: it was the warning of another Immortal's presence, and as he looked into the terrified eyes of the young girl, he knew.
Turning toward the man he'd slashed, he watched him begin to crawl off among the legs of the crowd, whose attention was focused on the plananquin and its women, never supposed to be seen by them.
One of the guards took up the pole that had been dropped, the women climbed back in, the curtains were re-draped, and the procession went on at a slightly faster clip, headed back to the palace.
"There'll be hell to pay for them, MacLeod. Those guards are dead on their feet, and if ever the attacker is found, he'll wish he were. We should have held on to him. They'd have fed him to the mugger at the ghat, alive, alive-o."
Duncan hadn't really even thought about the attacker after he'd disabled him, only the girl in the palanquin. An Immortal in the rajah's palace. Who could she be? What would become of her, living for so long in purdah? How could she ever escape, with the guards, the other women forever around her?
It was only two months later that he had his answer. He'd taken the leave he had coming, walked off into the bazaar, and essentially disappeared: he'd become a different man, moving among the crowds not as a Highlander with the John Company, but as one of the sellers of halvah, watching, always watching for the Rani's palanquin.
The Rani herself was an older woman, he had learned, and the girl was the wife of one of the smaller principalities of Oudh. She was at Lucknow, rumor had it, because although she was eighteen and married for four years, she had not yet conceived: she was here to consult with the Rajah's doctors and astrologers.
She must have a child, a son, or her husband's lands would be forfeit to the John Company if he died without heir. The governor-general, a Scot like himself, had applied this "doctrine of lapse." How could Dalhousie have done this? Duncan wondered. Wandering the country and city, soaking up information like a sponge, Duncan knew the resentment this had caused among the rajahs of India and their people.
Back in uniform, watching the sun rise over the palace, Duncan was grateful for the facility with languages which had enabled him to make himself so useful to the Captain that he had near-freedom from regimental duties, just to watch and listen among the local people. He was still trying to put together a plan to get to talk to the girl when the gates opened, and a funeral procession began to wind out toward the place of the pyre, which had been built in the comparative cool of night.
The corpse seemed to be that of an older man, but what stopped Duncan's breath was the widow who followed, barefoot in the dust of the narrow lanes of Lucknow. Suddenly frantic, Duncan spotted one of his regiment, watching calmly from a horse.
"Get Captain Dalton! We have to stop this."
"It's been going on for centuries. It's their way. It's nothing to us."
Duncan reached into his tunic, bringing out several thousand rupees. "It's this to me. Please. And bring me an extra horse."
The private shrugged, turned his horse, and since the streets weren't very crowded so early, made good time back to the encampment.
Duncan was a very good shot with the Enfield, and if he could find someplace to steady it, he could probably make sure the girl's pain wasn't too bad before it ceased.
Just like he'd seen before, the corpse was placed on the pyre and the girl, cloaked in immense dignity, placed her handprint on the post. Calmly, she climbed onto the stacked wood, and lifted her husband's head to cradle it against her breast one last time. At each corner, torches lit the tinder to begin the fire.
The Enfield did its job just as the air around the pyre had begun to waver with heat. Her unbound hair veiled her own face and her husband's, and she dropped across his chest, limp.
The arriving troop diverted the furious mourners just long enough for Duncan to drag the girl from the pile of wood. She wasn't so badly burned, and she'd probably felt no pain at all. He hefted her dead weight across the pommel of the saddle, her long singed hair still dragging the ground, and made for the river to the north.
There would be hell to pay for this, he knew. He'd forfeit everything: his uniform, his time with the regiment, the friendship of Captain Dalton.
At least it wasn't the first time he'd lost everything.
A smoky peat fire, a full moon overhead,
The skirl of the pipes as the dancers are led,
Her hair in the torchlight is red as a flame,
We hide in the shadows, she whispers my name.
The campfire for cooking, a home made of skins,
A fire in the clearing, and drumming begins,
Cool light from the stars show our way to her bed,
She smiles at me over her son’s sleepy head.
The elegant rooms warmly lit by desire
Banish the visions of a funeral pyre.
I offer the mysteries of love and delight,
Kali is forgotten this magical night.
Bombs fall, but we linger and watch London burn,
The report that she makes reflects her concern.
I admire her strong will, but we must retreat,
Together we run through the fire-plundered street.
My cabin is warm from the hearth burning low,
So sweet in my arms, Tessa dreams in the glow.
Fire in the grate falls to ashes and ember.
Trusting in fate, I refuse to remember.
MWC- Fires on the Horizon
The muse had a conniption fit when I told it I had homework to do, but today I was able to finish this. Enjoy!
Fires on the Horizon
“It was a dark and stormy night, …”
“Oh, phuulese, No Lytonny!”
“Do you want to hear this or not?”
“Yeah, go head. You want another drink?”
His companion nodded as he started his tale again….
Late 19th century
The summer night was clear and cool, not usual for a summer’s eve in Northern Montana. The horse he was riding plodded towards the campfire, wanting nothing more than a good feed, water, and a night’s rest. The rider couldn’t agree more. He had been wandering the territory for more than a month, alone and out of work.
“Hello the camp!” He called; knowing full well that the men around the fire were either outlaws or out of work cowboys like himself.
“Hello yourself! Come in if you want, there’s coffee and tobacco to spare,” replied a figure by the fire.
The rider dismounted, and gave a cursory look to the four men situated around the fire. The tallest man wore a dual pistol gun belt, and was examining one of his guns as if his life depended on it. Two others lounged about the fire trading stories and jokes both had heard before, but both were too polite not to laugh at them. The fourth man was nursing a cup of coffee, while he was giving the stranger the once over.
“Where are you headed?” the fourth man asked, evidently he was the sociable one of the group.
“Nowhere special, just looking for work. What about you?” The stranger replied. The small haunch of meat roasting on a spit, a pan full of beans, and a coffeepot steaming by the fire was definitely getting his attention.
“Oh, you might say we’re in between jobs. You’re not from around here are you?”
“ No, I was born in England, lived there until about five years ago, when I decided to see the world. What I didn’t know was how nasty the world could be. John Stevens is the name, but my friends call me “Doc.”
At this, the sociable man looked at the stranger again. Long duster, a well used floppy hat, red kerchief about his neck, dark shirt and pants. He had a small carpetbag, a bedroll and a long thin package wrapped in sealskin. The stranger’s expression was wary, as if he knew more than he was telling, but friendly enough for a one-night visit.
“You can call me “Butch”, the two by the fire are “News” and “Flat Nose”. The one standing is “Sundance”. Don’t mind him, he’s just real particular about his guns. You ever work cattle before?”
“Yes, but it’s not my most favorite thing to do.”
“Help yourself to some grub, it’s not the best in the world, but it’s filling.”
Not having to be told twice, Doc pulled out his plate, cup and knife from the bag, cut a section of meat, ladled a goodly portion of beans and poured coffee for himself and Butch. After a bite of meat and beans, he went back to his bag and took out a few small tins. He opened the first tin, and sprinkled pepper on the meat. The second tin was opened and closed without usage. The third contained a reddish spice, and was lightly sprinkled on the beans. He had been carrying spices since traveling the Silk Road more than 600 years before, and had considerable experience for seasoning any meal.
“Whatcha got there? Is it salt and pepper? Do you know how to cook?” eagerly asked the one called News.
Doc smiled, he knew how tasteless food was when cooked by men on the run. “A little” he admitted. “I’ve had to do a lot of jobs to keep alive. Folks tell me I have a knack for cooking though, and seem to enjoy whatever I put in front of them.”
“Leave the man eat News, you can bother him later.” Doc was surprised to hear this from Sundance; he seemed most likely to watch a stranger then speak to one. He ate without further interruption, as the men did their final preparations before turning in.
Doc spread out his bedroll, took a look at the northern sky and whistled. The others looked up, Sundance had gone for his nearest pistol, looking for trouble.
“Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. Look at the sky, it appears to be on fire.” Doc apologized. The others were stunned at the yellow, green, blue and red glows of the Northern lights. “Those are the Northern lights, you seldom see them this far south unless the conditions are just right.”
The others looked abashed at the Englishman’s knowledge, and Butch silently reevaluated the stranger before him. Maybe there was something more to this dude. Butch asked himself what was to be gained by asking Doc to ride with them for a while. At the very least, there would be one more man, and there was safety in numbers.
The rest of the night passed uneventfully, broken only by the occasional soft exclamation at the sky show above, and the usual snores, grunts and noises of the night.
The next morning, Doc took one look at the scant supplies and took out flour, baking soda, salt and made biscuits for everyone. He also managed not to burn the bacon or the coffee, and the spices added to the leftover beans made the meal fit for a king.
News was still curious and asked “Why do they call you “Doc” Doc?’
“I was in medical school for a while, and have kept my hand in a little.” Doc replied.
That tears it, thought Butch, let’s see what he says to joining up with us.
“Doc, those biscuits were wonderful. How would you like to join up with us for a while? I can’t promise you a steady income, but the work is not hard. The jobs pay well when they’re done, and I know several places a man can relax and enjoy himself. We could use a good cook, and if you know doctoring, then you could really fit in with us."
Doc thought about how often he had traveled the roads of Europe and Asia, the long hours on horseback, the rewards taken when offered and the dangers in traveling in foreign lands. He didn’t have many alternatives at the moment. Hiding out with an outlaw gang for a while might not be a bad idea either.
“Why not?” he asked, “ It sounds like something I could do for a while.” With that Doc became the newest member of the gang…..
“You rode with Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch? Really?”
“Would I make up a story like that? You don’t believe me. I’m hurt. Next you’ll be saying I never traveled the Silk Road.”
“All right, all right, I believe you. Don’t get your knickers in a twist. Tell me about traveling the Silk Road.”
“It was a dark and stormy night…”
Methos ducked as the wadded bar towel soared over his head.
MWC: To Die Again
Posted By: vixen69 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Saturday, 29 June 2002, at 11:16 p.m.
The old woman spread her hands before the one she called "girl"--laughing, laughing. She rocked in her seat, the way old ones would when their bones ached, and she cackled to scare the carrion birds of night with her wizened throat craning.
"You need to learn to die again, girl, to die again." Her grey-white eyes gleamed, rheumy in the firelight. The fire leapt and sputtered from a knot in the log, and the "girl"--older still than the least dream of the crone, shuddered, her nerves on edge.
"To die again." She'd died, again and again--thousands, thousands of times. It was her way...the only way she'd ever known, sometimes she thought. Except one brief respite before. When she had her name. When she had her people. But the crone reached those gnarled, twig-dry hands towards her copper-colored hair.
"I know, I know, Cassandra. You've been there before. But to know who you must be--you must learn to die again. It's your gift." The old woman sighed, weakly. Her heart fluttered, rattling the blue veins beneath her papyrus-thin skin. Soon, too soon the time when she'd leave this so-apt pupil--who Immortal--knew mortality, and though young forever--was old, old inside.
She could make her young again, if only she could shatter that fear, break the old pottery that held her fast, and let pour out her heart. And then, and then...
"Soon, girl. You'll do better than my poor skills." She leaned back, her crumpled parchment skin relaxing in the firelight.
Cassandra thought of Hijad then...her father, always. What had he seen in her, but then, what had he not? And was it not her unspoken promise to him that lead her this way?
She came north, always north, not understanding why, but knowing. As times changed. As the climate seemed to change, and people changed. As civilizations spread, and towns outgrew their borders, and men knew the names of other men too well--she came to seek out the wilder areas--to creep away from the settled world. She was always Bedouin--always a traveler--and knew no home.
In Egypt, she knew one teacher, and learned the sword, a bent thing like scythe--it couldn't save her like the priest's illusions could--and so she learned that.
In Greece--in Athens, she entertained the men who wrote the laws, she stood close to power--but knew too well the danger there. And when men went to war--she cried. The sight of death was powerful--more than she wanted to know. All she remembered too well.
She had tried to turn her face away from these things--but could not. It was her will--always, to follow the old way. To find herself where the sibyls spoke, and judge their sayings by her own mind. To watch the healers in their art, and confide her knowledge. To listen to the priest and the artisan alike, and try to know--to know...
What, she scarcely understood. But she perceived a purpose in her curiosity. It gnawed at her--this sense of purpose--why had the gods spared her these long years? When others faltered from age and privations--but age and privations were her companions? NO torture spoiled, no sword pierced, but rusted before she even forgot its sting. She knew, oh, knew by now what she was...but not herself--not but barely her own mind.
She feared--she did not wish to think on it. But she feared seeing any of *them* again. She feared dreams that felt too real, and the cries of a long-dead people, speaking to her from their dusty graves.
It was with a burning in her heart that she went to Old Grandmother at the edge of the village, in a world but freshly introduced to the Christ of the Roman world, in a world that knew snow, and not the Mediterranean sun, and a place thick with trees and haunts. The old woman took her in, and made her fire warm before her, offering her a thin soup of roots and nuts. She clucked her tongue, thick with the fur of age and the hawking spit of one who stood too long before fire, smoking herbs, peering into time--
"Girl, you traveled long--but further still your journey. Bide with me this winter--and I'll show you what you seek."
She sat before this new teacher, as she had knelt before others. She had been shown the blade, and the knife. She knew the method of taking another off their feet by way of swiftness, and she knew the way of looking at another with the eyes that sensed intent, and read the motions of the other with accuracy that saved her life time and again. She had learned the tone of voice that made a man stop dead and heed her will--why should she not know what would make one obey--when she herself was once made obedient?
She was now being made to think, to remember.
You must be a man, and a bird, then a demon. You must be as the wolf...there is nothing you must hesitate to be," the woman spoke. "And also still…to be invisible. To be like the dead."
Cassandra...shuddered. She knew what it was to be still. *He* made her to be still, stiller than the grave. She became like the dead...and he still beat her. Alive, dead, it never mattered.
It was a thing she could scarcely do--even as she sat still, her mind would never clear itself from those thoughts of what she'd known and seen. The closing of her eyes, the brush of her lids together, brought the thought of a slap, and the breathing in, the gasp before a knife entered, and the breathing out, the force of a blow. She knew what she saw was over and done, but her body felt it ever still.
"Stronger than the body--mind! Stronger than the world--imagination! What you will--is what can be!" the woman hissed, the onion-and-old-lady smell thick off her.
But it was as nothing. Not so long as she feared Death. Not so long as she could not face life. Real life. The life that breathed faith and hope--the life that made things to be. The end drew nigh--Cassandra had to learn. She gather willow withes. She spread sulfur. The time would come. The time would come. The dark god of winter watched over the dying woman as she planned--little lessons. But the great lesson was to come.
She lulled the girl to sleep--no girl. No girl, not with eyes like those. She pretended to know no better, but she knew. More pain had those eyes than all the lifetimes of pain even she could recall--and this was how Grandmother knew Cassandra was old. Of such people she had been told, but never hoped to see one in her life--and yet here this creature was--and in such distress. And yes--like a girl. Her youth robbed. Her innocence stolen. Her power betrayed.
She kissed the sleeping one, the willow withes dry. The smell of sulfur thick, and yet her charge knew no sounder sleep. She was oblivious to the crackle of the branches shoved fast into the embers of the hearth. The old woman, her blood cold, scarcely felt the warmth when finally these pieces burned, glowing. Once the wood strips caught, she dropped them down.
And when well the smoke surrounded her, she screamed.
Cassandra was slow to wake...not understanding at first the heaviness in her head (oh, but the smoke was dark and smelled horrible--and the lullaby of Old Grandmother was known to make a body sleep!) But once wakened, her heart pounded.
"Grandmother!" she called.
The old woman dropped to the floor--as a thing with no bones. She coughed, dryly at first, and said no words. Warm hands found her.
"Oh, daughter...Cassandra," she said, as the stronger one made to lift her.
"are you hurt?" Cassandra asked with concern. Old Grandmother said nothing, and only let herself be lifted. Merrily, the orange glow of the flames began to consume the cabin, and Grandmother felt her lungs become heavy.
This was what it was to die. And to give life.
"Hold on to me," Cassandra encouraged.
But Old Grandmother did more than hold on--more than for dear life. She held her fast.
"Here--I feel so warm..."
"You'll be burnt...I must..."
The straw-bones of Old Grandmother turned to marble, and became harder to lift than a mountain. Cassandra strained, even coughing herself at the thickness of the smoke, and the greater than normal stench of flames.
"Let yourself go?" Cassandra cried. "Let me help you!"
"Help yourself!" Old Grandmother hissed.
But she could not. Not leave alone. She would bring out Old Grandmother if she must burn herself to a crisp to do it. She felt the warmth--more than warmth, and sweated, and felt the steam rise on her neck, and the flame leap too close to her hair.
"Curse you, dim old woman!" she cried, angry.
*Anger, at last* Old Grandmother thought. *At least--this.*
With a force more than one would account for, she bore the woman up, cradling her in her arms as a babe.
(A babe indeed...a babe while Cassandra was yet old, and now a withered thing...dry like kindling for a bonfire...even such as this."
Even so...no matter how she struggled toward the blanket that served for a door, she felt hindered.
"We'll not escape...we'll perish...you and I," Old Grandmother spoke.
"Bull..." Cassandra cursed, under her breath.
What made mere bones and skin so heavy--or encouraged a dying wraith to cling hands like wires to bind themselves with a doorway. She reached with a hand barely knowing why--and clutched her fingers over the woman's bent digits, nearly breaking them to make her let go.
"Should we die here?" Cassandra exclaimed.
"I should..." Old Grandmother whispered.
"NO!" the "girl" shrieked, and with a lunge of her long, strong body, bore them out into the night, into the snow, to gaze from yards headlong the orange glow of Granny’s strange bonfire.
"I think.. you understand now--you are strong enough. You know how to die again."
"Damn you, Old Woman. You and I will live."
"You will," the woman said, closing her eyes. Her skin was not like paper. It was like melting snow, dripping away from her bones. Her heart beat madly--but it was like the falling of snow, erratic. She breathed. "You won't be afraid again."
And then she felt the old woman die--felt it. Went with her…for awhile. Felt darkness, and sadness. What it was to die again, and again, was truly alone. Alone, she watched the flame.
MWC: "The Fire Within"
The evening air was cool and clean, with the scents of life all around. The quiet was soothing; occasionally his presence disturbed some small animal or night-dwelling bird, but mostly the forest was blissfully silent. This particular portion of the Pacific Northwest inspired a sense of awe, a feeling of intruding on something old and powerful, to which not even an Immortal was immune. Out of profound respect, Duncan tried not to set axe to tree in this place, taking only deadfall. It made gathering firewood more of a challenge; but Duncan enjoyed the quest. His kinsman, who would have considered this a chore, awaited him in camp.
Duncan returned to the campsite, guided as much by his Immortal senses as by his sense of direction. He heard a low chuckle as he released his load of branches; “About time lad. Did you get lost? Or perhaps you forgot yerself and went searching for peat.” So Connor felt it too, the timelessness of the place; they could have just as easily been sitting here in kilt and plaid rather than denim and flannel. The light was almost as dim as a peat fire; Connor’s face was barely visible. “What about you, mo charaid?” Duncan grumbled good-naturedly. “Too lazy to care for the fire properly?” He carefully fed the flames, building the fire from a faint glow to a proper crackling blaze.
Connor didn’t answer, he had lapsed into another of his silences. They sat together for a long while, the only sounds the crack and pop of the fire. A ghostly white moth, attracted by the light, circled the camp several times before diving into the flames. Both Immortals watched in silent fascination as the creature disappeared in a hissing flash. Connor sighed aloud; “Someone once called what we have the fire in the blood, but I think they had it wrong. It is the others, the Mortals, who live their lives like quick-burning flames. They rush and rush and then suddenly — poof! They are snuffed out like a candle. So much energy, so much passion, packed into such a small span of years.” He paused, gazing into the flames, seeing Heather’s fiery red hair. Duncan nodded slowly, thinking of Tessa.
Connor suddenly spoke again. “I wonder how many of Man’s qualities spring from the certain knowledge of death? Ambition: the quest to achieve something great before the end; vanity: the stubborn denial that beauty will one day whither away; greed: the compulsive need to surround oneself with things that give an illusion of permanency.”
Duncan reached out to his kinsman, almost, but not quite touching him across the fire. “But what of creativity, art, history? These are also born out of the need to leave a permanent mark in the world. Even science, the quest for answers, for explanations, is an attempt to conquer the fear of Death and the unknown. A short life is not necessarily a wasted life, just as a fire is not necessarily destructive.”
The ghost of a smile flickered across Connor’s face, “You are always too wise for your years, my friend. Where would we be without the warmth and light of fire; without the warmth, however temporary, of mortal companionship? I remember them all. Some burn brighter in my memory, though those often burned out all the sooner.” Connor thought again of bonny Heather; while Duncan conjured an image of his beloved Debra Campbell in the flames.
His expression darkened; “Some of them blazed with such passion that they set off sparks that ignited the passions of others; the resulting conflagrations could lead to revolution, or to war.” The image of small dark men, burning with hatred: Napoleon, Hitler. In the crackling of the flames they could almost hear the cries of the Holocaust victims.
Duncan again tried to lift his kinsman’s dark mood. “That same igniting passion lived in the hearts of Washington and Lincoln; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King; William Wallace and Rob Roy. And never forget the flame in a mother’s eye when she looks into the face of her child. That is true Immortality.” The wind shifted, blowing the smoke between them; Duncan spoke to his invisible kinsman; “Do you think, mo charaid, that in the end, they are better off than we?”
“Connor? Conchobhar?” The smoke cleared, and Duncan saw that he was alone. As he had always been. “Mo charaid,” he whispered into the darkness, “It is not only the mortals whose light burns out too soon.”
MWC: Flames of Desire
Posted By: bookmom <email@example.com>
Date: Wednesday, 3 July 2002, at 12:20 a.m.
He burned for her. Body and soul were consumed by this hot fire. Duncan turned over once more and studied the cracks in the ceiling. It still didn’t matter. Eyes open or closed, he could see her bright blue eyes and pretty face framed by radiant golden hair. His heart thumped madly as he remembered her embarrassed smile when her eyes met back up with his no matter how hard she tried to look elsewhere. She felt it too. Did she burn for him as much as he did for her?
This fire in his soul was not new, but he hadn’t felt it more than twice in his long life. He knew the pain that such passion brought. Debra and Little Deer were never very far from his thoughts. That kind of fire was not pleasurable at all, but he had managed to dampen it through the years. It had scorched him yes, but his heart refused to let the wounds stay open, and the scars would remain forever. Now he was courting that deadly fire again; the fire that ripped through your soul when you lost them.
He closed his eyes and turned on his side willing himself to sleep. His imagination protested by supplying him with images of her long - tapered fingers removing his hair tie and running through the long dark curls that he hadn’t worn for a century. He sat up and ran his own fingers through his not so short unruly mop. Maybe it was time to grow his hair again.
He fell back onto his pillow. A tortured groan was proof that he was losing the battle to resist. His body would continue to burn until it was joined with hers. He wondered what it would be like to kiss her sweet lips and then feel them on his body as he explored her soft curves. He flipped quickly to his stomach and pummeled his pillow with one large fist, a wordless cry of frustration escaping into the night air.
Tucking his arm around the pillow, Duncan laid his head down trying to get comfortable. All lustful thoughts aside, hers was a kindred soul that completed his. His soul yearned for their joining as much as his body did. His heart had been wrong before, but never his soul. He was drawn to her like a moth to a flame, but he wouldn’t burn up in this fire. He would be lit by it instead. Her exuberance, her zest for life shone through, as did her love of Paris. There was something about this city that drew him back time and again and this woman shared that love. He’d watched her spout a schpiel that she’d no doubt done a thousand times, but that did not show. What did was a love of history and this great city.
Weak women did not interest him. She had strength. Would she go out with him? His flight from the police had not been lost on her and still she’d flirted with him. Could she handle the Game? The Gathering had started and Paris was a hotbed of Immortals. Meeting Kuyler had not been unexpected just inconvenient. Would he lose her to the Game?
Duncan whispered her name into the darkness, “Tessa.” Even her name set him aflame. He could imagine whispering it in her ear as they made love. It was a beautiful evocative name.
It warmed him to remember her concern for his welfare. That wouldn’t have been the first thought in most other people’s minds. He burned for her, body and soul. This he could not deny.
It was decided. He would sleep no more tonight. Duncan got up and found his writing pad. First a kata to clear his mind and let the words flow.
As the sun was rising he looked his work over critically. In flowing script he had written:
Golden hair shining
Eyes brilliant blue
Tessa, I think I have fallen
In love with you.
Please dine with me
For I would love to atone
For leaping and causing
Such an unexpected melee.
A fire burns deeply
It will not be acquitted
Till your answer is given
Be it “yes” or “no.”
Some things happen for a reason. Our chance meeting on your barge yesterday
I will be waiting.
The date, time and name of the restaurant were printed neatly at the bottom. He would send flowers and hope for the best.