The Quickening and the Dead
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
Becoming One by Leslie Fish
The Best Quickening by bookmom
Wired by Leah CWPack
Surge Protection by Ghost Cat
The Fellowship by Storie
I Get a Kick Out of You by Ysanne and Leslie Fish
The Music of the Spheres by Wain
MWC: The Quickening and the Dead
Your challenge, should you choose to participate:
OPTION 1: Write a short story or scene involving one or more HL Immortal character and an offbeat and unexpected consequence of the effects of a Quickening.
OPTION 2: Write a short story or scene where an Immortal's Quickening energy manifests itself in a weird or unexpected manner, independent of any beheadings.
Disclaimer: If you want your entry archived, make sure you put "MWC" in the subject line of your posted effort.
MWC: Becoming One
Posted By: Leslie Fish <email@example.com>
Date: Saturday, 5 January 2002, at 2:19 a.m.
By the time the radio began playing "Auld Lang Syne", Duncan and Methos were very drunk.
By the time the song ended, Duncan was solemnly proposing to swear Blood Brotherhood.
"I mean it," Duncan said, with immense care to keep the words clear. "'F it ever comes down to jus' you an' me, I won' fight. I'll defy the damn Gathering itself. Blood brother."
"Mmmm, soun's good." Methos was well into the euphoric stage, where everything sounded good. "I've sssworn with far worse pipple-- people. Gotta be a knife here somewhere..."
"Got my sword..."
"No, no, no swords. Jus' wanta make a little cut, not take your arm off. ...There. Knew I had it aroun' somewhere."
Methos came wobbling back to the coffee-table carrying an antique scalpel. The half-inch blade was still sharp.
Duncan dutifully rolled up his sleeve and held out his arm. Methos sat down, none too gracefully, beside him.
"Gotta take my shirt off, damn. Jus' a minute..."
"I'll do it."
"Naah, who's the doctor here, anyway? Hm, former surgeon, anyway. Hold your arm still...jus' a little, little cut..."
"Jus' a little cut. Now me... Ouch!"
"Okay, now press 'em together. Uh, like this. The cuts, together. So they bleed into each other."
"Ahhh... That's better'n the old way. Hold tight..."
"Ol' way? What's that?"
"Mmm, mix the blood in a cup, an' we both drink it."
"Yuck! Sounds like it'd take a lotta blood."
"Right. Tastes awful, too. Hol' the cuts together...bleed int' each others' veins...much better. More direct. No nasty taste."
Just then the familiar blue lightning flickered at their close-pressed arms. It tickled. It itched. It felt odd.
"Share blood, share healing-quickening-ing..." Duncan marveled. "Tha's a real Blood Brotherhood oath. Blood an' Quickening. Real."
"Real," Methos agreed. "Okay, you can let go now."
"Uh, I did let go."
Duncan stared at their two bared arms, with no hand holding them together now. They were still joined. He tried tugging his arm way. Methos yelped as his arm followed.
"We're stuck!" Methos sounded astonished. "We...we must've healed together!"
"Huh? In five thousan' years you never saw that before?"
"Never! Damn!" He tugged. "Uh, I can see it...it's just a little spot, there, where the cut was."
"A little, little cut, you said."
"Just a little, little spot. Just the skin. We can pull it apart...no, cut it. Quicker." Methos reached for the scalpel again.
"No, wait!" Duncan snapped, suddenly much closer to cold sober. "You were a doctor once. Tell me: how long does it take for blood to circulate completely through the body?"
"...Uh, just once? Can't 'member... Five minutes, I think. Ten for sure. Why?"
"I think I'm inspired." Duncan stared hard at their joined arms. "We leave it long enough, ten minutes. Blood from both of us, in both of us, all the way around. Sealed, for that long..."
"Duncan, what're you getting at?"
"Methos, think! 'There can be only one'..."
"But what if two BECOME one?"
Methos' jaw dropped as he took it in. "Share blood, share Quickening, sealed together... Oh, ye gods! Could it be true?! Could we be safe??"
"Ten minutes," Duncan whispered.
"Give it fifteen," Methos added.
They sat together, while the radio played the opening bars of the New World Symphony, staring at each other in wild surmise.
MWC: The Best Quickening
Posted By: bookmom <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Saturday, 5 January 2002, at 3:58 p.m.
Your challenge, should you choose to participate:
OPTION 1: Write a short story or scene involving one or more HL Immortal character and an offbeat and unexpected consequence of the effects of a Quickening.
This came to me on my way to work this morning and I had to endure 4 hours of the Brothers MacLeod interfering with my ability to concentrate. They have finally given me some peace now that it is written. Sigh...
The Best Quickening
London The Rooftop
The tears came. He closed his eyes tightly wishing them away but still they came. Soon he could not control the heaving of his chest and the strangled sobs that escaped his throat. Still on his knees he threw back his head and cried his brother’s name into the rainy night.
Scotland The Highlands
The burial was a small quiet affair. Methos and Joe had given him plenty of room. They realized he needed some time alone and had gone back to the little Inn where they were staying. He walked aimlessly around Loch Shiel, sometimes skipping a stone sometimes just gazing out across the sparkling blue water.
His grief was deep. Duncan knew it would be a long time before he would even be able to speak Connor’s name without choking up. A sharp noise brought him out of his reverie. He looked toward the forest to see who or what had caused it.
A large dark shape passed deep within and Duncan knew it to be a stag. He made his way slowly to an outcropping of rock and sat down hugging his knees. Memories of that fateful day on the rooftop crowded his mind. He savored the images and feelings he still retained. It was unusual for a Quickening to linger like this, but he was glad that it had. Perhaps he was not ready to relegate Connor’s essence to that nether place he so quickly shoved the others to.
He relived the Quickening yet again. The intensity of Connor’s love for Heather, himself and many others washed over him. He felt the pride Connor had never been comfortable showing him. Images from their many years spent together flickered in him mind’s eye like some old movie. These memories were from Connor’s perspective and left Duncan with a warmth reminiscent of a good highland wool blanket.
“I told you not worry Dhonnchaidh. We will be together forever.” Connor’s gravelly voice intruded upon his thoughts.
“Connor?” Duncan asked aloud.
“Yes Brother, I am here.”
“But…how can you do that?” He had never quite believed Connor when he said that Ramirez and Nakano sometimes talked to him.
Duncan felt more than heard the chuckle.
“Since you hold their Quickenings now, I am able to do the same.”
“But how come you never spoke to me before? It it, it’s been terrible,” stuttered Duncan.
“Your grief has been too sharp for me to get through. I had to wait until the right moment, when you finally accepted that it was my choice and not your fault. You know this had to be.
The stag picked its way carefully down the slope stopping at the waters edge to drink. When it was done, it turned its majestic head toward Duncan regarding him through huge brown orbs.
“Feel the stag, Duncan,” whispered Connor. “Feel it’s heart, the hot blood coursing…”
Duncan took a deep breath and centered on Connor’s words. Another deep breath and he extended his senses feeling the powerful heart pounding with uncertainty as the stag scented him.
“Become one with him Duncan!” cried Connor. “Feel the freedom!”
Duncan let out a roar, jumped off the rocks and ran. It was as if the two had become one. The stag startled as if it had been shot, took off across the sand and headed for the forest. Duncan reveled in the heady feeling of animalistic power. He could feel Connor enjoying this melding of animal and man.
They ran until they could run no more. The stag disappeared into the forest finally finding solace amongst the great trees. Duncan collapsed in the sand, the euphoria slowly draining away.
“Thank you Brother.” Connor’s voice was but a whisper and Duncan knew it would be awhile before he heard that comforting sound again.
As he headed back to the Inn, Duncan felt at peace with himself and the world for the first time in many years.
Cassandra could see MacLeod's expression of relief halfway down the block. It did not appreciably change by the time he caught up with her, his breath billowing in the cold air of a Parisian January.
"I heard. You're all right?"
She shuddered and turned to continue on her way. "Not quite. But eventually I will be, Duncan."
He walked beside her, stuffing his gloved hands into the pocket of his overcoat. "You don't look well."
"I'm not used to it." She glanced up. "How did you find out?"
MacLeod noticed that her eyes were watering slightly, and she looked distinctly pained. "Joe told me, this morning. They didn't identify your opponent, though. Any idea who he was?"
"No. I had an impression of a very new, very ambitious young Immortal." She shuddered again. "I couldn't convince him to go away."
MacLeod frowned "Was he immune to your Voice?"
Cassandra shook her head and smiled bitterly. "No. He never heard it. I don't believe he ever took the Walkman earphones off, the entire time we fought. He simply appeared in the alleyway, challenged me and attacked." She closed her eyes. "He was still wearing the damned headphones when his head hit the pavement..." She swayed.
MacLeod grabbed her arms, alarmed. "Why don't we grab a table in the cafe across the street and rest a bit? You obviously aren't taking the Quickening well." He glanced left and right to check for traffic and hustled her toward the cafe.
Cassandra shook her head again. "Coffee isn't going to help," she insisted. "Nothing is going to help. I'm in for a rough stretch, and there will be no avoiding it."
"Have you always had a problem after a Quickening?" Duncan solicitously led her to the door of the little shop and took her coat. "Is that why you've avoided taking any heads?"
"I've always avoided killing anyone on principle." She glanced at him ruefully as she took a seat at one of the nearby tables. "In the case of your Horseman friend, I was willing to make a critical exception."
It was MacLeod's turn to flinch. "I know how you feel about it, Cassandra. But I'm still glad you didn't."
She settled her head in her hand. "I'm not up to that particular argument with you just now. And besides, my principles aren't all that are keeping me from the Game...not since the turn of the last Century, anyway."
MacLeod frowned again. "Why is that?"
"It has to do with my psychic abilities. Ever since the 20th Century, any time I was forced to take a Quickening..." she shuddered again in pain. "...interference."
"What? Oh--coffee, please. Plain," MacLeod told the waitress who had stalked up to their table.
"Tea." The waitress left.
MacLeod leaned forward, resting his sweatered arms on the marble surface of the cafe table. "Who's interfering? The rules of the Game..."
"Not that kind of interference. Transmissions. I get signals. At first
it was just a few radio signals. The next time, there were hundreds of them,
all at once. The time after that, television, microwave broadcasts, wireless
telephones, satellite..." She held her head
again in obvious pain. "It's deafening. One time, I passed an MRI facility. I thought my head would explode. Until it fades, I could go mad." She whimpered. "My head is full."
MacLeod sat back and whistled. "You've become a victim of technology."
Cassandra sighed. "The only solution is to avoid taking heads." Their beverages arrived and they stirred and drank in silence.
"How long does it usually last?" MacLeod asked, keeping his voice lower than he had before.
Cassandra noticed and smiled wanly. "A week or two. I don't get much sleep..."
MacLeod was shocked. "Would it help if you got away somewhere? We could grab a plane to a remote..."
She stopped him with a hand on his arm. "No, but it's lovely of you to offer. She squeezed her eyes shut against what MacLeod now recognized as another wave of overwhelming input.
"I wish there was something I could do to help. At least let me get you back to your place safely. He hesitated, reaching for his cell phone. "Sorry to add to the noise for a moment. He dialed and spoke into the device. "Methos?"
Cassandra's head came up, a frightening look in her eye. Duncan held up a placating hand. "He gave me a lift over this way. He'll get us home."
"It will only be for a short ride. Methos, pick me up at the Cafe Charles on 15 Rue DeLecroix. Right, yellow sign."
MacLeod flipped the phone closed and took her hand. "Think of it this way; he'll be your chauffeur. Where are you staying?"
"It's not a short ride at all. I'm out in Avry, beyond Orly Airport."
MacLeod was not to be put off, After some argument, Cassandra relented. Around fifteen minutes later, a black car slid up to the curb, just as some snowflakes started to drift down outside the cafe's front window.
Methos looked suitably surprised and wary at the sight of MacLeod's companion. "I'm not certain if I want my hands on the wheel, if she's coming along," he declared, eyeing the woman as she took the passenger seat. Despite an effort to look coolly scornful and self-possessed, however, his sharp scrutiny caught on that something was amiss. "Where to?"
MacLeod gave him the address from the back seat. "And no bickering, this trip. We're not in the mood."
"Fine, but you're buying the next tank of petrol." Methos shrugged with a sardonic smile and pulled into the street. They drove along in silence for a spell. Every now and again Cassandra would show the effects of her condition, despite her best efforts to look stoic before her nemesis. His eyes cut over whenever she did, but he refrained from comment.
As they pulled onto the A6 out to Orly, Methos reached up for a moment and felt under the sun visor.
Cassandra suddenly sat up, her eyes wide. "What was that?!"
"Huh? What?" Methos asked defensively, jockeying the car into the flow of fast-moving traffic.
"What did you do? What was that?!" She demanded, her voice rising.
"Methos?" MacLeod menaced from the back seat.
"I didn't do a damned thing. I just turned on the box," the older Immortal protested. "I'm not about to add the price of a citation to the cost of this little excursion--"
"Where is it?!" Cassandra clawed frantically at the visor and
snatched out a small, flat black box. A series of little lights blinked
on one side. "What is this?!"
"That's a state-of-the-art radar damper, and it cost me a bloody fort--hey, what are you doing with that?"
Cassandra didn't reply. She had slapped the device against her forehead and was sliding gradually down in the passenger seat, her eyes closed, a look of blissful relief coming over her face. "Oh...oh, that's wonderful," she moaned.
Methos alternately gawked at her and watched the road. "Has she finally gone insane?" He asked MacLeod.
The Highlander sighed and shook his head. "How much for the box?"
"What are you talking about? That's mine!"
"How much, Methos?"
The driver muttered a string of curses and spat out a number.
As he pulled out his wallet and dug through, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod shook his head and sighed. "I'm starting to get a clue," he murmured, "why someone thought there could be only one."
MWC: "Surge Protection"
Every computer help-desk operator has a horror story: the man who thought his CD-ROM drive was a cup-holder, the grandmother who put her computer's mouse on the floor and used it like a sewing machine pedal, the man who wondered why his computer wouldn't work during a power failure, the Macintosh user who evacuated his home because he saw a picture of a bomb on the monitor screen. So far, however, none have been able to outdo this one. The following is an actual transcript of a help-desk phone session.
§ § §
[Note: recording begins somewhat abruptly as the client is taken off Hold.]
[Female Voice #1] "…can't believe you did this! You know I use this machine for work, yet you just couldn't keep your hands--"
[Female Voice #2] "Hey! Don't blame this on me. You're the one who had a temper tantrum."
[Help Desk] (faint sigh) "Help Desk, thank you for waiting. My name's Wes, what seems to be the problem today?"
[FV #1] "Thank goodness! I need to recover some lost data on my machine. This is an emergency: I'm an author and I'm under a deadline. I have to get what I was working on back again, and quickly."
[HD] "Calm down, Ma'am. How much data do you think was lost?"
[FV #1] "From what I can tell, all of it. The computer's useless, it won't work at all."
[HD] "All right, we'll see what we can do. Can you tell me exactly what happened?"
[FV #1] (pause) "Umm, well, there's not much to say. I got mad at the machine and it just… stopped working."
[HD] "I see. You were using your computer, there were some problems, you got mad and the computer stopped working."
[FV #1] "No, I wasn't using the computer. Someone else was using it, without my permission. That's why I got mad." [FV#2, interrupting] "Will you stop trying to blame this on me!"
[HD] "Let's stay focused here. You say you got mad; could you be a bit more specific? Did you hit the machine?"
[FV #1] "No."
[HD] "Kick it?"
[FV #1] "No."
[HD] "Drop it?"
[FV #1] "No!"
[HD] "Throw it?"
[FV #1] "No! I'm not a complete idiot. I walked in, saw Am--my friend mooching my machine, and lost my temper. There was a big blue flash, a lot of sparks, and the computer shut down."
[HD] (muttered) "Finally!" (aloud) "Ohhh-kay. I really don't think that this has anything to do with you getting angry. It sounds like there was an electrical surge."
[FV #1] "Electrical surge?" (pause) [FV #2] (giggling) [FV#1] "Yeah, I guess that's as good a description as any."
[HD] "Was there a fuse blown in your building; a thunderstorm in the area?"
[FV #1] "No, nothing like that. Though it did come very close to having a storm…" [FV#2] "You wouldn't dare!" [FV#1] "Don't tempt me."
[HD] (trying to change the subject) "Okay. Now, did you have a hardcopy of any of this?"
[FV #1] (frustrated) "I'm an author, a novelist. If I printed out every rough draft, I'd end up using up an entire forest!"
[HD] "All right, stay calm. I was just asking. Do you have any sort of back up whatsoever? Tape back up? Floppy disk? Zip drive? CD-ROM?"
[FV #1] "Of course I had floppies! I always have floppies."
[HD] "Okay, now we're getting somewhere. You shouldn't have any problem getting your work back from the disks."
[FV#1] "That would be true. Except for the fact that my disks appear to have had a Zen experience."
[HD] (confused) "I'm sorry, a Zen experience?"
[FV #2] (giggling) "Yes, they've become one." (dull thudding sound)
[HD] "Please don't drop the disks, they may still be recoverable."
[FV #1] "Not without a hammer and chisel."
[HD] "You know, I feel obligated to remind you that it's not good to keep your disks on top of the computer."
[FV #1] (angrily) "They weren't on top of the computer. They weren't anywhere near the computer!"
[HD] (cautiously) "Look, this is sounding more and more like a hardware problem; I'm not sure how much I can do for you. Do you have a service center where you'd be able to take the machine?"
[FV #2] "That's what I suggested." [FV#1] "I'd love to do that, but it would be a bit difficult. You see, the machine is partially melted into the floor."
[HD] (nervous) "Melted? Is everyone okay where you are? Was there a fire?"
[FV #1] (quickly) "No, no fire. Nobody got hurt. Just the blue flash, the sparks, and the big meltdown. My machine is now a lump."
[HD] "All right. If you can recover the hard drive, you might be able to install it in another machine…"
[FV #1] "I can't get to the hard drive. I can't even open the cover. What part of 'my machine is lump' didn't you understand?"
[HD] (frustrated) "Let me get this straight. You're trying to tell me that your computer overloaded for absolutely no reason, the machine physically melted, and all your floppy disks, stored elsewhere in the room, also melted. You do realize that there is a penalty for abusing this service?"
[FV #1] (extremely angry) "Now you're going to imply that I'm a liar? You're just going to sit there in your little geek cubicle, with your little headset leash, telling me, after everything I've been through today, that my problems are nothing more than a prank phone call?!?"
§ § §
Note: At this point, there was a sizzling noise, and the phone line went dead. The operator was unable to reestablish contact with the client, nor any other outside line. The operator could not resume his duties until his headset was replaced and he was reassigned to another station. The cubicle where this incident occurred needed to be rewired completely. To this day, no technician has been able to explain this incident. No one knows whether the client's problem was solved, nor whether it was a legitimate case. It remains a mystery.
MWC: The Fellowship
(This is in response to last week's MWC - sorry it's late. Scherry's been dividing her time among several projects.) OPTION 1: Write a short story or scene involving one or more HL Immortal character and an offbeat and unexpected consequence of the effects of a Quickening.
§ § § § § § §
Badge slogged moodily home through the gray, wet, weary, depressing, cold…surely days were not created less appealing than this! “We must live these days,” he muttered. An old man, probably younger than Badge was now, had told Badge that on the day of his mother’s funeral. “We must embrace these days and cherish them; they prepare us for the hope and realization of better days to come…go ahead and cry, Badger, until the need has passed…it’s easier to submit to sacrifice when you know the sun will shine again…”
Exactly why such memories invaded Badge’s thoughts at every inclement moment, he could not tell, but rain was quite common in Seacouver, so Badge remembered often.
He slowed as he approached the hotel parking lot; his usual route gave it wide berth from the sidewalks across the street, so as to avoid the childish feelings of entrapment that descended whenever he found himself surrounded by the hulking, silent metal monsters. He had been struck by a car when he was a teenager and almost killed. Those hours in the vacuum between life and death had been strange and most unsettling. The experience had bequeathed to him a disconcerting curiosity as to what lay beyond the boundaries of human life. It had also left him terrified of being hemmed in by automobiles. Riding in them was not a problem; standing in front of them was out of the question. Crossing the street robbed him of breath and swayed him dangerously over the verge of hysteria, but it was a brief terror that he had long since taught himself to face and conquer and leave behind each time he was forced to make that helpless dash to the other side - before the light changed, the engines growled with hungry anticipation, and all those pairs of halogen eyes fixed on him…
He stopped, suddenly trembling and sweating at the choice before him: cross the street, or navigate the parking lot? The vehicles on the road were alive and moving, but there were so many more in the parking lot…row upon endless row of them, waiting, patiently…
A feral cry brought Badge very nearly out of his skin, and he scanned the parking lot for its source. He saw movement, heard a harsh, metallic clacking…what on earth? Badge edged closer, attempting to focus through the misty gloom, playing out his senses as he had done throughout a lifetime of stints as an electrician, a lineman, a fireman, an older brother, a father, a sniper in Nam, a prisoner of war.
There was desperation in the air; he moved closer; anger, bloodlust, but mostly fear. Fear of failure. Fear of death. A fight to the finish? And after that, then … ?
Badge shuddered at a man’s gut-wrenching death cry, followed by a dull thud, as of something heavy falling to the wet pavement. There was no time to contemplate an explanation, for a man staggered from between two of the vehicles, trembling and gasping for breath, his pale skin tinged a sickly yellow by the security lights. Badge’s phobia momentarily rooted him in place as his mind screamed at him to hurry across the parking lot and help the injured gentleman. He was quite tall and lean, with short dark hair, and his long coat hung open to reveal jeans and a sweater. The front of the sweater was dark with blood. He turned, as though sensing himself watched, and stared at Badge.
Badge felt a tingling in his arm, a tightness in his chest, and regretted that he had not taken Lydia’s advice to see a doctor long ago. His focus wandered as the man in the parking lot went to his knees. Suddenly the victim straightened with a cry as the security lamp above him erupted in a shower of sparks. Electricity arced from one light to the next and slithered eagerly down the pole to the man on the ground.
No! He’ll die!
Badge had too much experience with and respect for electricity to foolishly defy logic, but he had also done time in the company of wars and fires and children, all for whom logic was the deception of fools. He looked for exposed wires, lines on the ground, something to account for the faradic activity destroying the security lights, but found no explanation. The current forked like lightning and descended onto the injured man, who cried out at its touch. Badge roared in concert with the victim and charged into the parking lot, fear forgotten in the face of desperate need. He opened his arms wide and hurled himself against the man, intending to fall with him and roll them both out of range of electrocution. In that split second before they touched, Badge met the other man’s eyes and felt himself falling, falling...the voltage surged amidst Badge’s brain and he cried out in a language he had never heard before as he slipped away, slipped away…
§ § § § § § §
“I am old, old, old…so very old. I am old, so very old.”
“Badge? Honey, I’m here. Wake up now, please. Please talk to me, Badge.”
He had to think for a moment. Wade through the memories; sort his from among those of others…so many others. “Lydia?”
Her sigh of relief rewarded his efforts; he had passed this first test.
“Wh…what happened?” There was so much in his mind; he lacked the wherewithal to begin organizing the contents.
“Hopefully you’ll be able to tell me, when you are feeling better. The hotel experienced some sort of electrical disturbance. When they went to investigate, they found you in the parking lot. All the security lights and several cars were destroyed.” Lydia’s voice broke and he opened his eyes to see his wife sponging away tears with a tattered Kleenex. “Your heart wasn’t beating, Badge. A couple of hotel employees brought you back by performing CPR. They said as soon as you awoke, you tried to get up and run away. By that time an ambulance arrived and they had to sedate you to calm you down. They’ve kept you sedated for the past two days and have run tests; they don’t understand why your heart stopped. They say it looks healthy for your age and that even your cholesterol and blood pressure are better than they’ve been in years, but you still need to lose some weight. Oh, Badge, I’m so glad you’re awake! I’ve been so scared. I don’t ever want to live without you.”
Lydia leaned forward against the bed and laid her head on Badge’s chest and he caressed her hair, a soft silvery blonde. Neat as a pin, Lydia was; slim and prim and lovely. A wonderful wife, a loving mother to their four children, a seamstress and a gourmet cook; thrifty, too, not frivolous with money like some women he knew. No man could ask for better, Badge thought, even as he wondered at himself for that particular line of thought. In their thirty-nine years together it had never occurred to him to assess his wife’s characteristics in such analytical terms.
“I’m having a bit of trouble remembering some things,” he said.
“Mmm,” Lydia stroked his chest, squeezed his hand. “What things?”
Badge frowned thoughtfully, willing the answer to show itself. He knew the information was there; he just could not seem to access it. He gave up as Lydia raised her head, the question still in her eyes.
“Who,” he took a deep breath, “is Duncan MacLeod?”
§ § § § § § §
A quiet Friday night was a rare animal indeed, but one that Duncan welcomed after a day of non-stop activities. He checked his calendar to make sure: no dates, no obligations, no events he simply could not miss. He snapped the laptop shut with a happy sigh and padded into the kitchen to investigate the refrigerator. He was chopping an onion, sniffling and squeezing his eyes against the fumes, when he heard the lift on its way up and sensed the arrival of a friend; interesting how he could do that since the two of them had shared a Quickening.
Methos staggered into sight and dropped his coat across a chair. At Duncan’s concerned frown toward his bloodied midsection, Methos raised a hand and nodded. “Yeah, well, you should have seen the other guy.”
“What other guy?” Duncan smiled. “I’d have hated to see you right after the fact. You still look like you just lost a fight with a well-equipped cat.” He reached into the fridge for a bottle and tossed it to his friend, who toppled backward onto the sofa as he caught it. “You okay?” The cuts and bruises would soon be healed and forgotten, but Methos was reticent beyond his usual reserve.
“Do you need to leave?”
Duncan shook his head. “I’m hibernating tonight. What’s up?”
“Something happened,” Methos began, “that I’ve never encountered before.” Duncan’s eyebrows elevated. “I know,” Methos acknowledged dryly. “At my age, I must have seen it all.” He took a drink.
“After the fight, I felt a pre-immortal. He’s immortal now, and he’s going to need the usual explanation, education, etc. You need to be the one to tell him; he will recognize you. You are already his friend.”
Duncan blinked at Methos. “Well, you can start by giving me an explanation, education, etc. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He sniffled and smudged an onion tear from the corner of his eye with the back of his hand.
“Are you okay?” Methos sat up, concerned.
“I’m fine. Go on,” he urged.
Methos took a long drink. “The new guy is Badge Elder.”
“Sounds like the designation of a religious order.”
“That’s not his name. His grandmother called him Badger when he was a two-year-old asking questions nonstop. The nickname stuck. He never liked it, but finds his given name so offensive that Badger became the lesser of the evils.”
“I’ll bite. What is his real name?”
“Marion. He was named for the grandmother who called him Badger.”
“Ouch. John Wayne never cared for that moniker, either.”
“Yeah, and he still doesn’t.”
Duncan’s eyebrows elevated again, but Methos continued.
“Badge was adopted by the Elders when he was approximately two months old. Three months later his mother conceived for the first time; it was also a boy. To their credit, the parents did not favor their real son over their adopted one. The boys grew up as true brothers, loved each other ‘til the bitter end.
“Badge married his high school sweetheart, Lydia, three weeks before his brother, Sandy,” Methos smiled as Duncan winced, "got married. Sandy and Josephine had four children. Badge and Sandy both fought in Vietnam, but Sandy was killed in Saigon and Josephine committed suicide when she found out. Badge and Lydia adopted the children and raised them as their own.
“Since leaving the military Badge has held a number of successful jobs, seen his kids married and have children of their own. He’s looking forward to retirement now…”
Methos trailed off, exhausted, and finished his drink.
“How old is he?”
Methos grimaced. “Sixty-two.”
Duncan breathed out, long and heavy. “I’ll call Dawson so somebody can Watch him. Where is he now?”
“In the hospital. He resuscitated in the parking lot. It would have scared everyone to death, except a couple were doing CPR on him.”
“Let them think they’re heroes,” Duncan muttered, and keyed the phone.
§ § § § § § §
Lydia looked at her husband, surprised. “It’s funny you should ask. He has been here a couple of times to check on you, but you’ve been sleeping. I thought I knew all your friends but, Badge, I’ve never seen this Duncan MacLeod before!”
§ § § § § § §
“So how is Badge supposed to know me?”
Methos leaned back and plunked his empty bottle on the end table. Duncan arose to get him another, but Methos shook his head and waved the offer away.
“When Kronos and Silas died…you remember the Quickening.”
Duncan met Methos’ eyes; they held the gaze for an endless moment until both looked away. They had not discussed it, the mingling of essences that created in them a brotherhood deeper than blood.
“It wasn’t like that,” Methos continued, “but sort of on that order. When the Quickening began, Badge ran to me; he misunderstood the source of the fireworks and assumed I would be killed. He was trying to save my life by pulling me away from what he thought was deadly voltage. He grabbed me and…” Methos shrugged.
“So he shared the Quickening with you?”
“Not exactly. It empowers you and me. It killed him as surely as if he had grabbed a live power line. But somehow, I suppose because he was a pre-immortal, we shared some of one another’s memories. I know all about Badge. He knows very little about me; after all, sixty-two years out of five thousand is hardly an intimate glimpse into my life, and he didn’t see nearly that much, just bits and pieces of now and then; some of the things he saw were memories of others whose Quickenings I possess. But I know what he knows about me; I was aware of the scenes he saw in my mind when he saw them. One of the things he saw was Duncan MacLeod; you are a trusted friend. Whether he will recognize you as my friend or his, I do not know; but he will certainly know who you are and will be inclined to trust you.”
Duncan nodded. “I’ll go see him in the morning. You coming with me?”
Methos dissented. “He barely got a look at my face, and it was pretty dark; he may not even remember what I look like. What he saw of me was from the inside out, like I see myself. I would like to meet him when the time is right. For now, I think it would be best if you tell him the things he needs to know.”
§ § § § § § §
Badge sat on the edge of the hospital bed Sunday afternoon and gazed vacantly out the window, attempting to make sense of the weekend. He had inquired after the other man, the one with the bloody sweater, but neither the police nor hospital personnel knew what he was talking about. Lydia had asked the hotel employees for him, but no one had seen any other injured party but Badge himself. His mind was tired from remembering things that had never happened to him - that had happened to many other people, including the man whose life he had attempted to save. He did not understand what had taken place and he was both frustrated and angry about it.
He remembered the cars all around him, but the memory did not produce the usual tremors. He had always felt like an idiot, anyway; he could face down a mortal enemy in a jungle, jump out of a plane into uncharted territory, run into a burning building with a two-inch hose, climb a utility pole, help his children do their algebra homework…but he could not bring himself to walk in front of a car.
Lydia had finally gone home to bathe and eat. The doctor had visited after she had gone and told him he could go home with her when she returned. Two days of observation had uncovered no ill effects beyond a few extra bats in his belfry. How to exorcise them, he exhaled wearily, then winced and touched his forehead at the subliminal vibration that abruptly droned between his eyes.
Duncan hesitated in the doorway and observed the heavy-set older man who stared out the window. He took in the silver hair and dark gray eyebrows and straightforward black eyes and decided that Methos was either slipping, by missing the opportunity to comment on Badge's physical similarity to his name, or that the Old Guy was simply showing polite consideration toward a new and bewildered fellow immortal.
“Hello, Badge.” Duncan hoped his voice sounded more confident than he felt.
The man turned slightly and did a double take. “Duncan? Duncan MacLeod! It’s so good to see you! I…” the men shook hands and Badge scratched his head with regret. “I know that I know you. I remember you,” he said. “I just…don’t remember…exactly how I remember you. My mind’s a bit fuzzy right at the moment.”
“I can dispel the confusion,” Duncan offered as casually as circumstances would allow. “I know all about what took place in the hotel parking lot Friday night, and I’ll be glad to explain the details. It may take a while…it’s kind of a long story.”
Badge treated Duncan to a brief calculating glance, a visual strafing by a soldier who was confident in himself, if in nothing else. Duncan recognized the look of a man assessing a risk.
“So tell me,” he finally said. “I’ve got the time.”
“Yes,” Duncan smiled and pulled up a chair. “You certainly do.”
§ § § § § § §
MWC: I Get a Kick Out of You
Posted By: Ysanne and Leslie Fish <email@example.com>
Date: Saturday, 12 January 2002, at 7:21 p.m.
(Ysanne was totally stumped about how to end this little story, so she threw herself on the mercy of the Forum. Leslie Fish kindly supplied the ending, and the two parts fit perfectly.)
MacLeod paced the floor of his London apartment, the quickening he had taken hours ago still writhing over his sensitized nerve endings. He found it hard to think coherently, but he could feel, and he felt terrible. Worse than terrible. He felt as if he were plugged into an electrical outlet like a bloody hairdryer or a George-somebody-or-other grill, an appliance with no off-switch. He’d gone through his most strenuous workout, done everything that used to give him relief before this maddening brain-itch had begun. Nothing. Nada. Maybe he should set a tied hanky on his head, roll up his pant legs and tell everyone he met that his brain hurt, ala Monty Python. He punched the wall with one big fist as he rounded the corner of his kitchen and stalked down the hall.
The quickly-healed abrasion generated enough pain to distract him for a moment, but not enough to stop the relentless, off-key buzzing in his ears. As he paced back from the bedroom to make his way around to the kitchen again the buzzing was joined by pounding, and a far-away, irascible voice. He finally realized someone was at the door, and went to peer through the little peep-hole. He saw a fish-eye view of Methos, and the Old Guy was looking pretty unhappy.
“Go away, Methos,” he shouted through the door, “I’m not up to playing host tonight.”
“Let me in, you idiot,” Methos shouted back, his voice muffled by the heavy pine door, “or I’ll shoot the lock off.”
He’d do it, too. Gritting his teeth, MacLeod opened the door and let in one rumpled, exhausted-looking Immortal. Methos glared at him and stalked over to crumple onto the sofa.
“Do make yourself at home,” MacLeod grumbled sarcastically under his breath. Aloud he said, “Why are you at my door at…” he paused to consult his pocket watch…”three in the morning, calling me names?”
“Better question: why are you up rocketing round your flat at three in the morning?”
“None of your business. If you’d stay home, you wouldn’t have to participate in my ‘rocketing.’”
“Ha! If only,” Methos said darkly. “Why don’t you stay home yourself instead of hunting up stray Immortals and lopping their heads off in the middle of the night? Developed a taste for rough quickenings, have you?”
“I don’t hunt up stray Immortals! I was ambushed, if you really must know. And what makes it any concern of yours, anyway? Did Joe take early retirement?”
MacLeod moved restlessly around the room straightening art objects, then headed into the kitchen. After wiping down his spotless sink he headed down the hall. Methos craned his neck to see into the kitchen, then sighed theatrically as MacLeod bore down on him from the opposite direction.
“Sit down, will you? Stop pacing and pour me a drink. Please,” he added belatedly.
“I’m an Immortal, not a bartender,” mumbled MacLeod petulantly, but he opened the drinks cabinet and poured them both a short whisky. He finished his in a few quick gulps and stood fiddling with the heavy crystal glass until Methos reached over and took it from his hand.
“Sit down,” Methos repeated firmly, “we have to talk.”
“Sure, nothing better than a nice natter at three ack emma. Methos, why are you here? You look like hell, and I must look the same. Go home, get some sleep. Somebody should, and I’m fairly sure it won’t be me.”
“Have you tried warm milk? Cold beer? A blunt instrument to the skull? Work with me, here, Mac, you’re killing me.”
“Oh, so sorry! It’s me that’s vibrating like an off-balance washing machine; what’s it got to do with you?”
Methos looked uneasy, almost guilty, and through the strident thrum inside his head MacLeod felt slightly alarmed. Methos didn’t do guilt, as a rule. MacLeod shifted from foot to foot and jiggled the change in his pockets as his friend hemmed and hawed. Suddenly Methos’ eyes narrowed. He rose, put his hands on Mac’s chest and pushed. Mac fell into a chair and sat there looking stupefied.
“Will you stop fidgeting for five minutes? It’s got everything to do with me since you’ve been taking heads every day but Sundays! Every time you take a quickening I…” Methos paused and glanced away, looking a bit shamefaced.
“What?! And I am not fidgeting. In fact, I think the quickening is finally settling. Or maybe your whining has drowned it out. Mission accomplished, you can go home now.”
“Fine! All right. Here’s what happens, MacLeod. You whack a head, take a quickening, feel like you’re going to explode, or implode, something very nasty, anyway. You skate round your flat like a duck on ice, or you do a twenty mile gallop, or a kata or five – anything to try and settle the quickening. It takes forever, every time. And here’s the important part: I can’t rest until you do! Whatever is happening to you is happening to me, too. MacLeod, you’re driving me crazy!”
Methos voice had been growing louder with each word, until he was shouting. Mac just looked up, his mouth slightly agape, shocked into silence. Methos reached down and chucked him under the chin.
“Oh, close your mouth,” he ordered tiredly, “you look about five years old like that.”
MacLeod sat up straight and regarded Methos with suspicion. “You mean to say that you’re sharing these quickenings? I’ve never heard of such a thing! Just how long has this been going on?” A thought struck him, and his cheeks took on a hot, rosy hue under the tan. “Uh…wait. You feel what I do? Everything?”
One side of Methos’ mouth quirked up. “Oh, yeah.”
“Oh, great,” groaned MacLeod, collapsing back again.
“Get over it, Mac, we’re all adults here. Mostly,” he added with a leer.
“Never mind that,” said MacLeod repressively, “let’s just find out why it started, and maybe we can make it go away. The sooner the better,” he added under his breath.
“Well, I know when it began for me: Bordeaux, the double quickening.” He held up his hands to stave off Mac’s incredulous sputtering. “I only realized that in hindsight, though. Until recently what I’ve felt was nothing definite, only a quick wave of vertigo or maybe a bit of pain behind the eyes. Didn’t even connect it with your taking quickenings until recently. I think you’ll know when the worst of it started, if you’ll think about it.”
MacLeod nodded. “Kell,” he said, frowning.
“Got it in one,” Methos agreed. “Somehow the bast**d is acting as an amplifier. I’d have realized it sooner if I hadn’t been so sleep-deprived. Do you actually PLAN taking all your heads in the middle of the night?”
“Yes. Torturing you is right at the top of my to-do list, Methos. Now how do we stop it?”
“I’m very old and wise, but I’m not on the Psychic Friends Network. How should I know?”
“What’s the use of being five thousand years old if you don’t know things like this?”
“Well, pardon me for having other interests. I do have a theory or two, actually.”
“That’s more like it. What’s your theory?”
“The first one has to do with deliberately setting up a sharing experience, then analyzing it as it happens…”
“Hold on. You want me to ferret out a handy Immortal, challenge him, and take his head as a kind of lab test? Let’s move along to theory number two, shall we?”
“You have something against science? Okay, theory number two. We obviously share some kind of wavelength, but perhaps Kell’s quickening isn’t tuned to the same channel. What I mean is, there may be a dissonance that allows Kell’s absorbed energy to surface and join with the newly-absorbed quickening. We perceive this quickening dissonance as an overload of nervous energy. Think of feedback on a speaker.”
MacLeod looked thoughtful. “Well, that’s a pretty good description of how it feels, anyway. So how do you propose we prevent this feedback thing from driving us both round the bend? You’re not going to suggest wearing aluminum foil beanies, are you?”
“No,” Methos sighed, "but you've given me an idea. You wouldn't by chance have any copper wire about, would you?"
"No..." MacLeod forced his jittery brain to work, turn another cog. "I've got some gold jewelry, and silver. Would that help?"
"Would you have a fairly long chain, either metal? They're both nicely electro-conductive."
"Wait a minute." MacLeod got up and trotted off to his bedroom. A moment later he came back, holding a silver neck-chain about twenty-five inches long. "Will this do?" he asked, holding it out.
"Let's try. Sit down beside me." Methos patted a space on the couch. MacLeod slumped into it.
"Let's try the easy way first. Put your arm next to mine. ...That's it. Now..." Methos looped the chain around both their arms, looped again until the chain was tight. "There. Are you feeling anything different?"
"Uhmm, it itches," MacLeod admitted. "Feels weird."
"Yes," Methos muttered, staring at the chain. "Like a static charge building up..."
A flicker of electric-blue light played briefly over the chain.
"Ouch!" yelped MacLeod. "What's happening?"
"I think it's working...whatever it's doing..."
The lightning flickered again, longer and brighter.
"Ow! Jesus! It's getting worse!" MacLeod yelled. "It's building up to something!"
"Ye gods!" Methos gasped. "I think I understand--
We've got to ground it! Come on, quick!"
With that he jumped off the couch, dragging MacLeod with him, toward the kitchen.
"Owww, it's definitely getting worse! What the hell are you doing, Methos?"
For answer, Methos pulled MacLeod down beside him on the floor in front of the sink, and yanked open the cabinet door.
"The pipes!" he shouted, above the growing sizzle of the lightning. "Ground it out!"
MacLeod understood. He shoved their chain-joined wrists against the exposed drain-pipe, just at the lower bend of the goose-neck.
The blue current jumped to the pipe, shot downward and upward. With a furious sizzle and pop, the handles blew off the sink faucets. Water spewed toward the ceiling. The lower ring snapped and shot off the bottom of the drain-pipe, letting more water spill out into the cabinet. Blue static played over their skins, rayed to the ceiling and burst the light-bulbs in a shower of sparks and glass. Small lightning-bolts rattled off the silverware in the dish-drainer, scorching the near kitchen wall. As a grand finale, the dishwashing machine exploded internally, blowing out its door.
Silence descended, except for the two men left panting on the kitchen floor, the sound of shouts from other apartments in the building, and the steady burbling of water. MacLeod pulled their arms away from the now half-melted drain-pipe, and felt for the chain on their wrists.
"Owww, pull it off," he gasped. "The damned thing's melted into the skin!"
By feel, in the dark, they pried the bits of melted metal off their arms. In a moment, the welcome flicker of healing-lightning erased the burns.
"Well, other than that," said Methos, shaking his arm, "How are you feeling?"
MacLeod had to stop and think about that. "It's gone," he realized. "The...dissonance is gone. I...I'm pretty much okay. You?"
"The same. I think it worked. We grounded it out."
"Yes... I think I'm back to normal. Just tired."
"I'm exhausted. Can I sleep here tonight?"
"Sure," said MacLeod pulling Methos to his feet, "But I don't think we'll be getting any sleep soon."
Methos looked around the darkened kitchen, listened to the sound of spilling water and shouting neighbors, and groaned.
"Lord, one way or another, I knew I wouldn't be getting any sleep tonight!"
MWC: The Music of the Spheres
It was with her always, not quite a poem, almost a song, and she heard it in all of the languages she knew and all of the places she wandered. It followed—or perhaps led—her across plains and mountains, deserts and rivers, towns and wilderness, It was the first thing that greeted her in every new home she lived in, a low, murmuring cadence as familiar as her heartbeat, a faint whisper present in the rustling of leaves and the scratching of her broom against a stone floor.
"Kssss, ksss, ksss," it called to her as she swept, named her, "Kssssandra."
She wondered at first if everyone heard snatches of the half-tune but quickly took the puzzled stares of those she asked—mortal and Immortal alike—as her answer. She alone felt the rhythm vibrate through her, she alone heard the tantalizing unfinished words.
. . . one will
To vanquish . . .
Only . . . child . . .
Born . . .
For the first hundred years or so, Cassandra tried to conjure the missing words. The words always laughed at her efforts and skipped away, gone for hours or days at a time. She would find herself pleased at first to have some power over them then, missing them, would call them back. Panicked, she would realize that she could not remember the rhythm or the words when they were absent, no matter how hard she tried. She always greeted their return with the contented sigh of one who returns home after a long voyage.
She named it Canticle, though it often seemed more chanted than sung. The words came when they wanted, at their leisure. Once or twice in a century, she would hear a new word in the singing of a bird or see a new word in the wheeling of the stars overhead.
When the land and sky had no more of the Canticle to share, they sent Cassandra on to live somewhere else, somewhere, she always hoped, where she would find more words. A few frightening times, the rhythm nearly swallowed her, thrumming through her bones and driving her heart to an unnatural beat. But for most of Cassandra’s endless days and nights, the rhythm played a gentle counterpoint to the earth beneath her and the sky above her, the Canticle a shimmering silvery halo that surrounded all of the creatures of the world.
An evil one will
To vanquish . . .
Only a . . . child
Born . . .
Who has seen both . . .
Canticle was with Cassandra in all of the lands around the Mediterranean Sea and wove itself through the many lives she lived—teacher, healer, wise woman, and mother. It comforted her when her students learned enough to strike out on their own or when those she loved slipped beyond the veil of death. It traveled with her through dry, dusty lands and rich, green ones, to Babylon and Rome, and finally to the far western reaches of the Roman Empire, to Hispania.
She knew not what drew her there, but she hoped that Canticle approved, because it grew louder and louder as she traveled west, and then inland, and then into hot mountains perfumed with pine and the gray dust that her footsteps raised as she walked.
As she approached the town of Abula, the words grew to a wild crescendo that drowned out the sounds of the river she crossed, the shouts of a crowd, even the stench of the charred human remains at the foot of the stake near the town walls. Then the words dropped away, and Cassandra felt a tingling the length of her spine. She stared at the blackened shape that was carried out of the embers and away from the town walls. She shivered as the tingling danced up her spine again. The person—man or woman, she did not know—who had been burned at the stake was Immortal. It was a terrible death and a terrifying rebirth.
Cassandra waited until night to visit the charnel heap. Kept company by owls and bats, crescent moon and Canticle, she watched with pity and curiosity as the unrecognizable charred mass began to reshape itself into human lines. The blackened, crackled surface slowly gave way to smooth, pink flesh. It was nearly dawn when the Immortal man finished his painful journey back to life and drew his first agonized breath.
The abject terror in the man’s eyes told Cassandra that the death at the stake had been his first. She had much to explain to him but first, she had something to ask—his name.
"Roland Kantos," he answered her, wrapping himself in the cape she had brought. He surveyed the charnel heap, sniffed at the air.
"They burned me!" he said.
Cassandra moved him away from the town walls and tried to quiet him. "We will talk about that later. For now, we must leave this place."
"They burned me for sorcery." Roland’s voice rose into angry laughter.
He spread out his fingers and turned his hands over and over again, examining them. "Look at me! My powers are greater than I imagined to come back from the dead."
"We must leave before they find you," Cassandra insisted.
Roland stood stock-still. "I can hear them coming!"
Cassandra raised her eyebrows. "There’s no one coming. What do you hear?"
"A song or an incantation," he answered. "I can’t make out the words."
Cassandra pulled harder on Roland’s cape and led him across the river. She had never met someone who heard Canticle before. Silently, she asked the river, the moon, and the rocks if they thought she had been brought to Abula to find a student who might teach her the missing words.
She taught Roland all she knew of Immortality and of the other secrets and skills she possessed. He proved a willing pupil, but Cassandra was wary of the hatred and anger that fueled his elaborate plots to take revenge on those who had ended his mortal life. She took him, unwilling, out of Hispania and into Gaul, but distance did nothing to cool his anger. Each day, each month, Cassandra felt more and more uncomfortable under Roland’s gaze, always at its most intense when Canticle’s words danced loudly in her ears.
Despite her hopes that Roland might help her to hear Canticle complete and whole, Cassandra learned only two new words in her years with her new student. Even those two words seemed to come from—Cassandra admitted that she never knew where they came from, but she was certain that it was not from Roland.
Late in their second midwinter’s night together, Cassandra tended the fire that needed to burn until dawn. In the red glow of the fire, Canticle whispered to her.
Cassandra jerked her head upward.
An evil one will
To vanquish . . .
Only a . . . child
Born on the winter solstice
Who has seen both . . .
Cassandra’s heart beat wildly out of step with Canticle. She knew two more words; she also knew who the evil one must be.
Roland gave up all pretense of gazing into the fire and fixed Cassandra with a cold stare. He smiled.
"Evil one?" he asked with obvious relish.
Cassandra turned back to the fire and began a chant to the dying winter sun, loudly blocking out the new words that she didn’t want Roland to discover.
She left Roland sleeping by the fire and headed north, as far away from him as she could manage. For the first time in her life, she raised her voice in anger against Canticle, demanding to know why it had led her to Roland. She regretted her words immediately, but it was too late; Canticle was gone. Cassandra found once again that she could not remember the words; without the steady pulse that had vibrated through her for more than a thousand years, she ached with sorrow.
Cassandra fasted from the full moon to the new, speaking words of apology to Canticle in all of the places she knew it best—in the woods and by the streams, in fields spangled with yellow flowers. At sunset on the day when the moon began to wax again, a rabbit crossed her path. It sat on its haunches, buff-colored belly fairly gleaming in the fading light. The rabbit spoke to her in faint, murmuring tones that she couldn’t quite understand. The breeze picked up the rustling sound, and the world filled with words and rhythm. Canticle had returned.
Roland followed Cassandra, catching up to her in spirit if not in the flesh. She saw him often in her dreams or reflected in streams and pools of water. Taunting, threatening, he goaded her with the knowledge that he heard Canticle through her. When it was complete, Roland warned, he would prevent the words from coming true. Canticle’s prophecy would be undone; nothing—especially you, Witch he sneered—would stop him from being the last Immortal standing.
Canticle kept company with Cassandra through a dozen lifetimes. Rome fell; wars came and went; the seasons spun round and round; and every century or so, Cassandra was given another word or two. The language of the words changed, Chaldean, Greek, Aramaic, and Phoenician gave way to French, German, English, and Gaelic.
Always north and west Cassandra went, growing in strength and knowledge, watching unfamiliar constellations slip above the horizon, and always staying one step ahead of Roland. Whenever she stayed in one place for long enough, she would make shielding rituals to protect herself, and not the simple ones she had taught Roland.
When the Black Death overtook the people of Paris, Cassandra felt compelled to stay with them and heal all those she could. She made a sanctuary for herself on holy ground, bathing every day in rowan flower water, venturing out to tend the sick and dying only in broad daylight. Roland haunted her more often in darkness than in light.
Darkness and light. Only a . . . child born on the winter solstice who has seen both darkness and light can stop him, Canticle whispered. By nightfall, Roland was in Cassandra’s dreams again and eagerly listened to the words and rhythms that pulsed through her sleep.
The next day, Cassandra moved on, leaving Paris and the Black Death behind, grieving for those mortals who had died and those who would die without her care. She went over the sea, moving ever farther north and west, and made a new life in a small town in Ireland.
Cassandra became a weaver. She worked the loom by day to feed herself. By night, she wove a cloak to protect herself and the child Canticle spoke of, a cloak made of thread as fine as spider webs. Now, when Cassandra heard the familiar words, she also heard the names of colors, and she sent them dancing across the loom—the blue of midday sky, the pearly pink of sunrise, the white and brown of a bird’s egg, the green of spring grass. Cassandra wove all of the colors of creation except the lifeless black that Roland’s body had been when she had discovered him. Canticle told her to weave the near-black of midnight and the deep slate gray of summer thunderclouds, but Roland’s color must not form part of the cloak, lest he find Cassandra and destroy the child who was prophesied to defeat the voice of death.
The clacking sound of the shuttle followed Canticle’s pulse throughout the many nights of weaving, and Cassandra sang along as she worked:
An evil one will
To vanquish all before him.
Only a . . . child
Born on the winter solstice
Who has seen both darkness and light can stop him,
A child and a man.
She wove through a lifetime and in three different villages, and then the cloak was done except for one last weft thread. She retired to holy ground to embroider the cloak with every bird, animal, and plant of the Earth, with the sun and stars and moon and wind. The cloak was nearly done, and Canticle had given Cassandra nearly all of its words. The single unfinished edge on the cloak waited for the last color of fine thread, and Cassandra waited for Canticle to name the last word.
Even unfinished, the cloak was a good—but not perfect—shield against Roland. His ghostly visitations were less and less frequent, and Cassandra felt that she and Canticle’s secret were safe to go about the world again. She resumed her life among mortals, living once more as healer and midwife, friend and lover, until Europe completed its recovery from Rome’s demise and reached out to explore new ideas and new lands beyond the seas.
Cassandra lived in a small house facing a different sea from the ones the explorers traveled, a cold northern sea that faced east. For some decades, she had sensed anxiousness in the rhythm and words that accompanied her day and night. She felt that time was growing near for her to learn her Canticle, perfect and complete. Perhaps just this once, it would be right for her to try to conjure a word.
She was cooking her breakfast at the hearth the morning that the fog crept in under her door, curled around her feet, and gently nudged her.
"All right, I’m coming. Is this the day?" she asked the fog.
She took her breakfast from the fire and left it uneaten. Following the fog outside, she wrapped herself in her canticle cloak, finished but for a single thread. She hugged the embroidered fabric to herself and called for protection against Roland’s prying eyes and ears from the virtues of all things created:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.
Cassandra followed the tendrils of fog to the sea. The waves called her name in the sharp hissing of foam on sand, in the slapping, hollow sound of wave on water, in the thundering charge of sea to shore. She nodded an answer to the sea and walked to the stream that ran near her house. She shed her cloak and dress and bathed, scrubbing her skin until it was pink and tingling and washing her hair until it squeaked under her fingers.
She dried herself in the sun, wrapped herself in her cloak, and walked to a clearing in the woods, greeting the plants, birds, and animals as she went, calling them by name. She touched the plants with smooth leaves and fuzzy ones. She talked to the bugs that crawled and those that flew. She saluted the creatures that nested under the ground and those that sought shelter in the trees.
Cassandra sat in the middle of the clearing. There she spent the day in meditation, and as dusk approached she recited Canticle again and again, losing track of time, focusing her heart and soul into the one blank space that interrupted the flow of words.
Night fell, and the northern lights raced green and blue and violet across the sky. Cassandra dropped the cloak to the ground, stood naked in the clearing, reached out to the night, and begged Canticle for the final word. She spread her arms wide and poured herself out into the words, and her body convulsed as her essence spilled out like lightning arcing to the sky above.
Cassandra became less and less as she spread out upon the winds. Her arms grew long and feathered. She opened her mouth in surprise when they lifted her into the air and across the sea. Stars above her, wind beneath her, she held her breath as she sailed in a long and poignant chord of Canticle, borne to a land of mountains and glens.
Canticle thrummed within and around her. Cassandra froze in awe of the completed Canticle:
An evil one will
To vanquish all before him.
Only a Highland child
Born on the winter solstice
Who has seen both darkness and light can stop him,
A child and a man.
Frozen in awe, she forgot to beat her wings, and she tumbled down, landing hard on the green grass of the clearing by her home.
Roland’s voice tickled her ear. "You must have wanted this very much to have given up part of your Quickening for it. A Highland child born on the winter solstice? It can’t be too hard to find the right one."
Cassandra wrapped herself in the cloak, and Roland’s voice faded to the merest whisper. She ran to her home and took out the last color to add to the cloak, the color Canticle had sung to her when she flew over the sea—black. Not Roland’s cold, hard black, but the warm, shining black of the hair of the Highland child.
With trembling hands, Cassandra took her best needle and wove the gossamer black thread into the space she had left in her cloak so many years before. Under, over, under, over the needle darted, until dawn found Cassandra sitting with the cloak in her lap, now whole and perfect, a wondrous shield. Stunned, Cassandra listened—and heard nothing. Canticle had stopped. She called for it to come back, but the silence remained.
Cassandra packed her bags in the empty silence and left her home by the sea. Aching with loneliness, she trudged with determination toward her goal, vowing to ensure that Canticle’s prophecy came true, even at the cost of her own life.
A gull flew overhead and called out the first note of Canticle. Long habit led Cassandra to open her mouth in reply. She was surprised to find that unlike the other times that Canticle had gone, the words were still with her. Canticle had not left Cassandra; it was, instead, a part of her, as much as her bones and her thoughts. Covering her mouth with the cloak so that Roland would not hear, she joined her voice to that of the gull and sang the canticle she knew so well. Her footsteps light, Cassandra headed for Scotland to find the Highland child.
§ § §
As terrifying as an experience as it had been, sprouting feathers and flying across the Irish Sea turned out to be easier than sailing across. The boat, which had seemed large and solid in the harbor in Ireland, seemed small in the sea, and smaller and more fragile still as it ventured north into the Atlantic to reach the western shore of Scotland.
Cassandra usually loved the majesty and power of the open sea, but this voyage was troubled with choppy waves and sudden storm that left her chilled and nauseated, and she heeded the advice of one of the men to get below decks and try to sleep through it.
She was still in the habit of talking to Canticle as if it were there, and in a way it was—the power of the sea was Canticle, and so was the screech of the gulls and the shanties the sailors sang. Cassandra threaded her way down the narrow ladder-like steps to the dark confines below the deck, stopping along the way to ask a small brown rat if it felt as seasick as she did.
Below decks, her nausea increased, and she wondered if the men—a gray-bearded father and his four sons—had only sent her from the deck so they wouldn’t have to listen to her talk to herself and watch her vomit. She considered turning herself back into a bird, but wasn’t sure if she had ever become one or simply dreamed it.
Cassandra dozed fitfully, dreaming of flying with the moon above her and the wind ruffling her breast feathers. She skimmed low over the surface of the churning waves and swooped up high to circle the irregular, rocky islands that guarded the western shore of Scotland. She held her breath and dove through a small cloud. She barely had time to take note of its insubstantial, foggy interior before emerging, exhilarated and drenched, into the sunshine again. Unerring, she chose a landmark and sailed inland to the place Canticle had shown her, the place where two lochs and a river met, their meeting place looking like a crooked cross nestled at the foot of rugged mountains. Hearing the warning rumble of thunder, she banked around a towering cloud.
She awoke with a start, with Roland’s cold laughter in her ear. Cassandra clutched the shielding cloak to herself, all the while cursing herself for not tying it on more tightly before she fell asleep, and headed for the deck. The boat lurched hard to one side, and she hit her head against a timber. The pitch and heave beneath her made progress slow as she half crawled, half scrambled up the narrow steps.
A frightening scene awaited her on the deck. The gray-bearded father and his sons stood with vacant eyes but confident smiles, staring at a sheer rock face, which the boat was approaching with alarming speed. Cassandra tugged at the old man’s sleeve and begged to know what he was doing.
"Going home, mistress," he answered.
Cassandra grabbed the edges of her cloak and flung out her arms. She embraced the old man, and as the embroidered fabric closed around them both, his eyes focused on the rock before them. He turned the ship hard astern, and the boat, groaning and shuddering, lumbered out of danger.
From that moment until they made landfall, Cassandra never left the deck nor took her eyes from the sailors. She could feel their wary eyes on her, too, and sadly resigned herself to living with their suspicions. She couldn’t blame them; after all, it was her that Roland had tried to harm.
"What was he thinking?" Cassandra asked out loud, checking herself when the youngest of the sailors turned narrowed eyes on her. He spat on the deck and turned back to his brother, who was making a game of hiding a pebble beneath one of three empty walnut shells. Cassandra watched him palm the pebble and slip it beneath a supposedly empty shell, but his brother did not and sat open-mouthed when the pebble seemed to disappear from its place.
Roland couldn’t have killed me by wrecking the boat, she thought, turning a placating smile to the sailor. But he would have killed the others. She schooled her fury at Roland’s blatant display of power and focused it on a single thought: Cassandra would fool her adversary into following a false trail.
When the boat dropped anchor, the relief that Cassandra felt to be out of under the sailors’ scrutiny was small compared to their obvious joy to be rid of her. She slung her few things over her shoulder, ate a hasty meal, and headed into the hills above the harbor’s village.
She found a spot with a commanding view of the south and east. There she waited in silence and with her eyes closed, feeling the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon, casting her mind back to a place she had lived more than two thousand years before. She stretched out on her back and called up the image of the night sky over the highlands south of the Black Sea; she saw the land, smelled the trees, heard the birds calling overhead.
When the moon was at its highest, Cassandra flung aside her cloak and waited for Roland. She didn’t wait long.
You’re getting weak, old woman, he sneered. I can see where you are, and I’m right behind you. Constantinople is beautiful at this time of year, don’t you think?
Cassandra quickly wrapped herself in her cloak again, and Roland’s voice stopped. It was done, and any regrets she felt would have to be weighed against the time she had bought to protect the prophecy child. Murmuring an apology to a land and people she had loved well, Cassandra walked back down to the harbor village and made plans to travel inland on the morning.
§ § §
This is the place.
Cassandra heard it whispered by a thousand voices along Loch Shiel.
This is the place, sang the waters as they lapped the shore. The golden eagle said it, and the trees and flowers danced it. This is the place.
Cassandra walked toward the village of Glenfinnan, twisted her mouth into a wry smile, and asked herself—or perhaps Canticle, because she no longer knew if they were one or two— "Are you sure this is the place?"
In answer, a fist-sized rock appeared in her path, and she stumbled over it.
This is the place.
"We don’t have much of a sense of humor today, do we?" Cassandra asked.
Cassandra walked through the village, all of her senses open, hoping to find the prophecy child. By nightfall she was tired and frustrated, and she thankfully accepted the hospitality of an old couple who lived in a small house. She spent the evening meal asking them about villagers who had been born on the winter solstice, but they knew of no one.
Her long and trying day gave way to a sleepless night. She spent the hours carefully reviewing every home she had passed and prying into each one with her mind. By morning, her nerves were frayed.
She greeted a morning sunbeam with her conclusion. "This is the right place, but it’s not the right time."
Immortals who lived long enough learned that staying in one place for too long was a luxury they couldn’t afford. Mortals noticed far too soon that Immortals didn’t age. Cassandra didn’t know how many years might go by before the prophecy child was born, but she knew she must stay close by, so she slipped just outside the circle of mortal society to live alone, as she had so many times in the past.
In a wood near the village, Cassandra found a small stone dwelling, abandoned and very old, with a stream she could dam up to form a pool and a nearly flat spot she could clear for a garden. She thought a holy man might have lived there once, for the faint odor of sanctity still clung to the house and rose from the stream.
Three times she walked around the house sunwise, sprinkling water from the stream onto the ground. Then she took a lump of chalk from her bag and inscribed a blessing on the lintel and over the windows. She finished by removing her rainbow-colored cloak and hanging it over the door.
In time, Cassandra cleaned and repaired the little house and bought a few goats and chickens and some seeds for the spring planting. The men of Glenfinnan never came near her, and few women did, either, but she wasn’t lonely. A small black cat wandered through her door one day, and Cassandra found her to be a good listener. When the cat was asleep, Cassandra talked to the spider that lived above the hearth or the trees that sheltered her home.
The solitary life suited her well. Her only troubles came in the form of nightmares of Roland laying waste to the highlands that bordered the Black Sea. Cassandra would sit up, gasping and trembling, the faces of slaughtered innocents still before her after she was awake.
The first time that it happened, the black cat opened its green eyes and stared at Cassandra, meowing once.
"Of course I regret it," Cassandra answered. "But I had to send him there, Kit."
Kit kneaded the blanket and curled herself back against Cassandra’s thigh to sleep.
"It was the lesser of the evils," Cassandra insisted.
When she finished her daily chores, Cassandra would try to turn herself into a bird again. She spent nights awake under the moonlight or in front of the fire, trying to repeat each detail that had led to her remarkable transformation. She would bathe and fast, recite Canticle over and over until she lost track of time, all to no avail.
Night after night, Cassandra focused on what it felt like to become a bird—the deep ache in her bones as they stretched out, the strange itching as feathers erupted through her skin, the peculiar stiffening of her lips and nose as they grew into a beak. She tried making bird noises, tried standing with her arms outstretched, tried reciting the name of every bird she had ever heard of in every language she had ever learned, and her body steadfastly remained human. Kit met her attempts at flapping and chirping with a mild feline bemusement that bordered on boredom.
The one-year anniversary of Cassandra’s attempts at metamorphosis arrived and was marked by a furious bout of housecleaning, although the house was already spotless. Cassandra washed every surface in her home twice and scrubbed the dishes and clothes until her skin bled, healed again, and bled some more.
After supper, she dawdled over tidying the hearth and spent a good deal more time than usual conferring with the spider. The door beckoned; it was time to begin meditating on becoming a bird but Cassandra turned to her bed instead, stripped it, and began to remake it.
Kit hopped onto the blankets and opened her mouth in a silent meow.
"I don’t want to," Cassandra said, sitting down and sticking out her lower lip.
She shook her head and sighed. "I haven’t pouted in a millennium."
The cat meowed.
"I don’t understand," Cassandra said. "How am I supposed to not think about transforming? How could that help?"
Kit sat opposite Cassandra on the bed and stared at her. Cassandra stared back and fought for a moment to stay upright. The room swirled, and she reached out for balance, coming nose to nose, whisker to whisker, with the cat.
Everything seemed larger and louder than it had been the second before. Cassandra could hear the spider spinning its web above the hearth and the sound of leaves rustling outside. She looked at Kit’s black paws and her own white ones, side by side on the bed.
The two cats landed lightly on the floor and padded outside. Cassandra followed Kit around the kailyard. Her heart beat out of rhythm when they approached the wall of the goats’ pen; there was a faint skittering of rodent feet in the wall there. Without prompting from Kit, Cassandra sunk to the ground and skulked by the goats. Her haunches twitched, and she pounced on a flash of gray in front of her.
Kit reached the mouse first and dispatched it with a playfulness that would have shocked Cassandra if she had gone on two feet instead of four. She was sure of one thing; a decapitated Immortal mouse would be as permanently dead as a decapitated Immortal human.
Kit trotted back to the house and shared her meal. The feral growl that arose in Cassandra’s throat frightened even herself. The hot, metallic flavor of blood was in the back of her throat, and her stomach rumbled. She couldn’t remember being as hungry as she was in that moment.
Cassandra sat back on her legs, shocked and gagging on the taste that lingered in her mouth. She took several deep, shuddering breaths to try to control her heaving stomach. Her eyes watered. She wiped her tongue on her hand and looked down at the black cat, who just a moment before had been the same size as she.
"I think I’ll let you have the rest, Kit," Cassandra said.
§ § §
After that day, it became easier and easier for Cassandra to transform herself. She mastered the seesaw run of a hare and the howl of the wolf. Walking with spider legs was very complex indeed, but she met the challenge of moving eight delicate jointed legs in harmony. A few months of experimentation led her to two conclusions: first, that the creatures of the world had much more to teach her than she had ever assumed possible; and second, if one was going to transform oneself, it was better by far to be predator than prey.
The pool outside her home had long been a place where glimpses of the outside world, especially Glenfinnan, were visible, but the glimpses were often short and confusing. An afternoon of trotting around the village as a stray dog or a morning of flying overhead with the dizzyingly sharp vision of a kestrel supplemented what Cassandra learned in the visions.
She discovered that the people of Glenfinnan were afraid of her. They spoke of her hushed tones, and ascribed magical powers to her. Men and women alike made surreptitious gestures with their hands when her name was mentioned, warding off evil. Cassandra was saddened but not surprised. She had lived through this before.
She spent one grim afternoon as a butterfly following four boys into the wood as they tried to find her house.
"She’s got snakes for hair," one of them said.
"Does not!" said another.
"My father saw her. She’s got snakes for hair and fire for eyes," the first boy assured. "If you look into her eyes, you turn into a pillar of salt."
Another boy spoke up. "Smoke comes out her nose. And she asks you a riddle and you can’t answer it, she takes you up a mountain and throws you off."
The first boy spoke up again. "Father says that if she catches you, she cuts you open and eats your liver. Then your liver grows back and she cuts you open again the next day."
The mixture of ancient horror stories was astounding, almost comical. Cassandra wondered what the boys would think if they saw true evil—the bloody deeds of Roland that plagued her nightmares.
For a moment, Cassandra considered turning herself into a bee and flying up the first boy’s kilt to deliver a stern reprimand. She settled for flying through the group of boys in a brilliant display of color, distracting them from their gruesome conversation and leading them off to play by a stream.
As she grew in knowledge and strength, she learned to alter her human appearance. As long as she made herself look a few years older than the few women who braved the forest to find her, she could fool them into thinking that she was mortal. Find her they did, because she made dyes in beautiful colors, knew medicines they did not, and always managed to get a goat to kiddle late in case milk was needed in winter for the sick and the newborns whose mothers had died bringing them into the world.
Cassandra draped herself in a glamour one March morning when she sensed footsteps approaching her house. By the time the knock at the door came, she had worked a few lines around the corners of her eyes and spangled her hair with gray.
"Come in," Cassandra said. She was sitting near a window, sorting the good peas from the shriveled ones for her first spring planting.
The visitor hesitated. Cassandra looked up to find a young woman with ginger-colored hair. She fiddled with the rainbow-colored cloak that hung over the door, rolling one edge back and forth in her fingers.
"Come in, Mary," Cassandra urged. She had expected her for some time. Sooner or later, the women who wanted children but couldn’t have them came to Cassandra for advice.
Cassandra listened as Mary told her, with many pauses and a few tears, what Cassandra already knew—that she had never conceived a child easily nor carried one to its time. She recounted every lost pregnancy, every prayer.
"No one knows I’m here," Mary concluded. "The midwife and the priest think that you’re evil."
Cassandra raised her eyebrows. Mary was nothing if not straightforward. "Do you think I’m evil, Mary MacLeod?"
"I don’t know," answered Mary, holding her jaw firm and avoiding looking at the black cat.
Cassandra put aside the basket of pea seeds she had been sorting. "You don’t know if I’m evil, but you’ll brave whatever might come to have a child. Is that it?"
Mary nodded. Cassandra considered her for a full minute.
"Eat no parsley, lovage, or rye," Cassandra said as she rooted through a chest for a small linen bag. "Take an infusion of raspberry leaves each day. You may use these until the canes leaf out this year."
Mary opened the bag and took an experimental sniff of the dried leaves. She never took her eyes from Cassandra.
Cassandra dove back into the chest again and withdrew a charm made of acorns and bits of thread. This she placed in Mary’s hand. Mary held on to it as if for dear life.
Cassandra hesitated for a moment and uncurled Mary’s fingers. Holding her hand over the charm, she said in a language forgotten by all but her, "You were right, Father; much of the medicine’s virtue is in their faith."
Mary’s eyes grew wide at the sound of Cassandra’s magic words.
Then Cassandra talked to Mary again. "Lie with your husband when you will, but be sure this charm is hidden among the bed clothes."
Mary blushed for a moment, hesitated, then squared her shoulders. "But what if we . . . what if we’re not . . . "
Cassandra threw back her head and laughed. "If you’re not in your house, then touch this to your belly when you return. And be certain to pick the leaves and heather from your hair. Otherwise the women will envy you and your fine, handsome husband."
Mary stood up and started for the door.
"One more thing. Say a few extra prayers on Lady Day," Cassandra added.
Mary looked at the charm. "You do not think Our Lady would mind?"
"Who else would understand how much you want a child? The commandment was to be fruitful and multiply, was it not?"
Cassandra put her hand on Mary’s forearm and was puzzled by two contradictory visions. In the first, her heart nearly broke with Mary’s as she held a dead baby boy in her arms. In the second, Cassandra found herself standing on tiny, sturdy legs, pressed in a hug against Mary’s bosom, looking up at the woman through the unmistakable golden radiance of a child’s love.
Cassandra squeezed Mary’s forearm once more in farewell. "You’ll be a good mother, Mary MacLeod."
§ § §
Whether it was Cassandra’s charm or Mary’s faith in it, Mary conceived soon after. Cassandra had heard what the women of Glenfinnan said, that a single look from her would curse any pregnancy, so it came as no surprise that Mary never visited her again. Cassandra was able to see Mary’s growing belly clearly enough in the little pool outside her house.
By fall, the red deer had grown a much thicker coat than usual, and Cassandra could tell that a harsh winter was in store. Kit agreed, and so did the great-great-granddaughter of the spider that lived above the hearth. In preparation, Cassandra laid in extra stores.
Roland continued to haunt Cassandra’s dreams. The nightmares were so frequent that Kit had become used to Cassandra jerking herself upright in bed, gasping and crying.
"When my work here is finished," Cassandra would tell the sleeping cat, "I’ll go to the Black Sea and perform as many healing rituals as I can."
Except for the intrusion of Roland’s murderous acts on her dreams, she thought very little of the outside world. As the days grew shorter, Cassandra’s world focused on her home, which she rarely left except to care for the goats and chickens and bring in firewood and water.
The weather was especially cruel in late December. The icy winds convinced Cassandra to celebrate the solstice indoors. When the early dusk approached that day, she fed the chickens and goats, milked the she-goat, and began her observance of the holiday.
Cassandra walked around her house sunwise, writing a blessing over every window and the lintel of the door. Then she went inside and started a fire in the hearth. She planned to spend the night stoking the fire and singing. Kit and the spider sang with Cassandra. They sang about the sun, flattering it and coaxing it to rise higher in the sky the next morning. The wind and the trees joined in, and the fire hissed and popped with them.
Kit yawned, curled up on Cassandra’s lap, and began to purr. The warmth of the fire and the rhythmic chanting was too much for Cassandra. She began to doze.
Cassandra was startled awake when Kit leapt from her lap to the floor. The fire was low, and the wind was whining around the house. Cassandra knotted her shawl around her and was mending the fire she heard a strange noise at the door.
Kit was there first, sniffing at the thin stream of air that crept in over the threshold. She slid behind the rainbow-colored cloak and began pawing at the wooden door. She padded over to Cassandra and gave an insistent meow.
Cassandra went to the door and opened it a crack. The wind was strong and frigid even in the shelter of the woods, and cold air spilled across the floor of the house. Cassandra looked up at the moon, visible through the leafless trees. There was a thick, milky halo around it; there would be snow soon.
Next, she peered into the woods and neither sensed nor saw anything unusual. The pool had iced over; the stream had a thin shelf of ice at its banks that in time would bridge the water and meet in the middle. Cassandra thought she should check on the goats and the chickens. Stepping outside, she nearly tripped on a dark bundle on her doorstep.
This is the one, Canticle whispered. Pick him up.
Cassandra obeyed and stooped to pick up the bundle. It had been years since Canticle had spoken to her in such a clear voice.
She hurried inside and closed the door. Kit followed her to the hearth. Cassandra dropped into her chair by the fire, unwrapped the dark, frayed cloth, and gasped.
It was an infant boy, naked under the dark cloth. His hair was still damp from birth. His umbilical cord had been cut and then tied with a dark string; the cord stump was purply red and still filled with blood.
Cassandra touched his cheek. It was cold. His hands and feet were dusky blue, and he was too limp and cold to even shiver. With one hand, she took off her shawl and fumbled to unlace her bodice and shift. She hugged the baby to her warm skin and begged him not to die.
She spent a worried hour by the fire. She had tucked one of the baby’s hands under her arm. The other she warmed in her mouth. She cradled the tiny cold feet in her hand. The spider dropped on a line of silk from above the hearth and hovered there for a while before ascending to the ceiling again. Kit circled the chair in concern, pausing to sniff the baby from time to time, then rubbing against Cassandra’s ankles in encouragement.
Slowly, the baby’s hands and feet began to feel warmer. He shivered for a few minutes until his color returned. His eyelids fluttered and finally opened.
"Welcome to the world, love," Cassandra said with a smile. She drew a finger down the baby’s soft cheek. He turned his head toward her finger, and his mouth began to open and close like a baby bird’s.
"I knew that it would be a foundling," Cassandra told Kit and the spider. "If I had known that I would be the one to find him, I would have been better prepared."
In her left arm, Cassandra balanced the baby, who was by now butting his mouth against her breast very insistently; she took out some of the goat’s milk and warmed it on the fire. The baby was squalling, and Cassandra walked him around in circles and hummed to him. Impatient, she checked the temperature of the milk again and again. The third time she leaned over the hearth to check, her nipple trailed into the baby’s mouth, and he clamped down on it and began to suckle.
Cassandra looked at him and snorted. "If only it were that easy!"
The baby was quiet for a while, his mouth rhythmically working her nipple, his eyes blissfully closed.
Cassandra sat back down in her chair with a bowl of warm goat’s milk. She dipped her little finger in the milk and slipped it between her nipple and the baby’s lips. Bit by bit, drop by drop, she eased the infant away from her breast and fed him fingertips full of milk until he fell asleep.
Cassandra took a length of linen and improvised a breechclout for the boy, then held him to her again and wrapped them both in her shawl. She curled her feet under her in the chair. She was exhausted.
She looked up at Kit and answered her sharply. "What do you take me for? Of course I’m not going to keep him! He can’t grow up here, feared and despised like I am."
The cat continued to stare at her.
Cassandra voice was softer. "I’ll take him to Glenfinnan tomorrow. Mary MacLeod is near her time, and any woman who wants children as much as she does will open her arms to another baby. I’ve seen her heart, and it’s a good and loving one."
Kit let out a short mew that was more like a chirp.
"I promise you I’ll take him tomorrow, Kit," Cassandra said. "For tonight, let me pretend he’s mine."
Despite being propped up in a chair, Cassandra slept peacefully, without a single glimpse of Roland in her dreams. She awoke well before dawn, a warm wet spot spreading against her skin, the baby nuzzling her breast. While the goat’s milk warmed, she put another makeshift breechclout on the baby and changed her own clothes. Drop by drop, he sucked the milk from her pinky finger and then let out a soft belch.
Cassandra swaddled the baby well and put on her brown cloak, working briskly so she wouldn’t have time to reconsider what she was doing. She went to her door, pulled down the rainbow-colored cloak, and wrapped the baby in it. Taking a deep breath, she picked him up, opened the door, and set off for the house of Mary and Ian MacLeod.
Cassandra paused at the little pool beside her house to see if she could get a glimpse of Mary MacLeod, but the frozen surface was mute.
"Don’t be afraid, little one," Cassandra warned as she worked a glamour on herself. Her smooth face became lined; her hair became white; her shoulders stooped. She would pass through Glenfinnan as the crone from the woods, not as herself.
Snow had begun to fall, fat, wet flakes, and Cassandra hugged her precious bundle to her, singing to him as they walked down from the woods and into the village. Glenfinnan was peaceful before dawn, but Cassandra felt disquiet and grief emanating from the MacLeod’s house. She hesitated for only a moment before knocking on the door. The baby had begun to whimper in her arms.
Ian MacLeod opened the door. He looked haggard, his eyes hollow and his jaw slack. Cassandra walked past him into the little house. She took in the scene before her—Mary’s face tear-stained, the midwife exhausted, a tiny body shrouded and silent in the cradle.
"I found this infant boy, and I am too old to care for him myself," Cassandra said as she opened her cloak and revealed the crying baby.
The midwife peered at the baby and then at Cassandra and crossed herself. "She’s the witch, Ian MacLeod! Send her away from here. That’s no boy child, but a changeling, a child of the fairy world. See it in his eyes, a blue so dark that they’re nearly violet!"
"What I see," Cassandra said, "is a baby who needs a mother and a mother who needs a baby. And a father who needs an heir to lead his clan after him. No one need ever know that he is not yours."
"I know!" cried the midwife, "and I’ll tell."
Cassandra pitched her voice so that Ian would hear it from inside his own heart. "No one will know about the baby if you send the midwife away, Ian. She is a good healer. I promise you she’ll find another village to care for."
Ian looked at his wife’s pleading, hopeful eyes and turned suddenly to the midwife. "Leave here," he told her as he hurried her out of the house, "by tomorrow night. Take your things and be gone, else I’ll . . . "
The door slammed shut, and Cassandra heard no more of Ian’s threat. Cassandra winced and offered a silent apology to the midwife. She would have to find her before she left and make amends.
Cassandra shifted the crying infant in her arms and crossed to Mary’s bed. She placed the baby in her arms, and he quieted immediately. Mary bit her trembling lip and looked from the still, small form in the cradle to the hungry, wailing baby in her arms. She traced the whorl in the baby’s dark hair and kissed his fingers. The baby turned his mouth to her, and she lowered her shift and held him to her breast.
The door opened and closed again, and Ian entered the room, smiling and nodding.
"There’s a strong lad with a lusty appetite!" he said.
Mary unswaddled the baby as he nursed, examining every inch of him, counting his fingers and toes. She stopped for a moment and picked up the rainbow-colored cloak. She looked at Cassandra with realization dawning in her eyes. She held the cloak to Cassandra.
"What will you name your son?" Cassandra asked, refusing to take the proffered cloak.
Mary put the cloak down on the bed and considered the baby.
"His name is Duncan," Mary laughed through her tears.
Mary pushed the cloak away, and Ian rolled it up and put it into Cassandra’s hands.
"If no one’s to know that he’s not ours, then there can be nothing in this house that was not here last night," Ian said firmly.
Cassandra sent her voice vibrating through Ian and Mary. "The cloak will keep him warm and safe."
They remained unmoved despite all of her urgings. The night was almost done. Cassandra would have to leave before first light. She bid them farewell and set off through the snow.
When morning broke over Glenfinnan, it found Cassandra in the guise of a spider, painfully and stiffly moving her cold legs back and forth on the lintel of the MacLeod home, spinning a silken blessing that shimmered like a rainbow in the day’s first shaft of sunlight.
§ § §
So busy was Cassandra weaving a blessing over the MacLeods’ door that she forgot to look for the midwife. Try as she might, Cassandra never found her.
But the midwife found Cassandra. Night after night, she came to Cassandra in her dreams. Cassandra saw her wandering the Highlands, cold and weary, always looking in vain for someone to take her in.
Shortly after Duncan’s birth, Cassandra began to dream new dreams. In the first, she held him at her breast in front of the fire. He looked up at her and smiled, a thin line of milk rimming her nipple and his lips. Then he sat up. His eyes grew darker; his cheekbones broadened; his tightly curled hair brushed his shoulders.
"I am Ismet. I was born on the winter solstice," the dream baby told her.
Cassandra asked, "Where is Duncan?"
"Duncan is safe in his mother’s arms," Ismet answered. He looked down at his abdomen. Cassandra watched in horror as a gaping wound appeared there, Ismet’s blood and entrails spilling out onto her lap.
He collapsed against her arm whispering, "Why did you send Roland to my village?"
The new nightmares came with terrifying regularity—once a week at the beginning, then twice, then every other night. Ismet, Alican, Nesim, and Sadi.
Cassandra took out her loom and began to weave a winding sheet for all of Roland’s—and her—dead. After the nightmares left her drenched with sweat and shaking, she would need to spend hours at the loom until she could sleep again.
Adem, Kamer, and Hasad, The shuttle flew across the warp threads. Azize, night after night, month after month, the winding sheet grew. Khanh.
Cassandra’s days were better than her nights. She kept a close eye on Duncan, watching him in visions in the pool by her home, visiting Glenfinnan in the guise of a dog or a bird. She saved him from danger on the few occasions when he evaded Mary’s watchful eye. He was her only joy.
Cassandra ran out of linen and began to spend the nightmare nights working in wool. Card and comb, spin and weave, Zuleman and Efrayim.
When Duncan was nearly three years old, still with the soft and rounded look of a toddler, he wandered into the woods. Cassandra took him by the hand and sang to him as they walked toward Glenfinnan. She took him as far as the tree line, hugged him, and sent him back down to where his people were.
Seeing his mother, he laughed and ran, pointing behind him and saying, "Pretty lady! Pretty lady!"
Mary MacLeod cast a worried look to the woods, and Cassandra slipped behind a tree. After that, she was careful not to appear to him in her own guise again.
Pretty lady, I am Sevilin, and I was born on the winter solstice. Roland killed my mother and sisters, and then he killed me. What did we do to you that you sent him to our land?
One day Cassandra became a steady, flat rock under Duncan’s feet when he nearly slipped from a mountain; another, she was a wave that pushed him back to shore when he chanced to fall into the cold waters of Loch Shiel.
Duncan grew, and so did the winding sheet. When Cassandra had used all of the wool, she took the cloth from the loom and began to embroider the faces she saw in her nightmares, white thread on white winding sheet.
The nightmares stopped on Duncan’s thirteenth birthday, although Cassandra didn’t realize it until she had slept four blissful and uninterrupted nights. On the fifth night, Roland appeared so vividly that, even years later, she did not know if it was a dream or a vision.
They stood facing each other on an endless plain at sunset. All of the colors of the rainbow arced across the great bowl of the sky to become a deep blue behind Roland. The first stars were shining. Cassandra approached her adversary, trodding on thyme and mint. Roland stood still and waited for her.
"The Black Sea? I’d compliment you on an elegant and well-played bit of strategy, Cassandra, but it wasn’t strategy."
Cassandra was careful to keep her face impassive.
Roland smiled at her. "It was really an act of desperation, wasn’t it?"
"You didn’t have to kill all those people," Cassandra said.
Roland shrugged his shoulders and replied in a mild voice. "I didn’t have to, no. But why take a chance? Born on the winter solstice, born near the winter solstice. What’s the difference?"
Cassandra’s hand wrapped around the hilt of her sword, knuckles white.
Only a Highland child, born on the winter solstice . . . , she remembered. She was bound by Canticle’s prophecy; she was not the one who would kill Roland. Her hand dropped away from the sword.
Roland’s breath was hot in her ear. "Was it worth it, Cassandra? All of the deaths that you’re responsible for, and for what? To try to save a single life—try to save it and fail?"
The ground fell away under Cassandra’s feet and she awoke in her bed, her arms flinging out to the side with such force that Kit awoke and let out a meow of protest before settling her aching, ancient bones back to sleep again.
I’ve found you, Cassandra, and I’m coming for you—and for the child.
§ § §
After that night, neither Roland nor those he had killed haunted Cassandra’s dreams. To her profound relief there were, at least for the moment, no more victims to add to the roster embroidered on the winding sheet, and it sat folded and undisturbed on a large stool near the hearth. As winter wound to spring, Cassandra let go of the tension and grief that had been her companions for so many years.
Roland was coming in a day—or in a month or a decade. Cassandra used whatever time she had to grow as strong as she could. She made her spring plantings and tended the goats and chickens, observed the rhythms of the skies and the ebb and flow of the seasons around her. From the steadfastness of the mountains and the mutability of the clouds she drew her strength.
She followed Duncan’s actions from near and far but discovered that she had very little to protect him from. Ian and Mary were stern, loving parents, and the adults of the clan kept a watchful eye on all of the children.
Cassandra was alert within the peaceful and calm circle of her existence. Her thoughts probed the farthest reaches of the Highlands, from the great, cold sea to the north to the rolling hills to the south, from the place the sunrise first touched the land to the place the sunset bade it a good night. The more she attended to the business of life, the farther and clearer she could see.
Shelling peas was part of the business of life in July, and she sat at her table, snipping the tops and tails from the pods and stripping out the strings. Her thumb scooped against the moist pods, sending emerald peas bouncing into a wooden bowl. From time to time, she would offer a pea to Kit, knowing that the cat would decline the offer and go back to cleaning her fur. Then Cassandra could eat the sweet morsel herself.
With only a half a dozen pods left to be shelled, Cassandra stopped and muttered a curse.
Kit stopped licking her back leg and stared at Cassandra.
"Damn," Cassandra repeated. "Roland’s in Scotland."
She conferred with Kit and the spider until the day was long gone. They decided it would be futile for Cassandra to ignore the prophecy by challenging Roland, futile and dangerous as well, for her death would leave a child—another child, Cassandra pointed out—at the mercy of a murderer.
They determined that it would be best to lure Duncan to her house and hide him until Roland had passed through Glenfinnan. Planning how to accomplish that took most of the night. Cassandra would draw men of the village away and then appear to Duncan as someone he knew and would obey when he was told to follow along into the woods.
Cassandra closed her eyes and concentrated on not concentrating; when she opened them again, she was wrapped in the guise of Ian MacLeod. Kit meowed her approval. Cassandra shook out her long hair. As she smoothed her hair down, the glamour faded and she resumed her own appearance. She closed her eyes again and opened them as a white she-wolf. The spider had suggested white; they had no time to spare, and it was imperative that the people of Glenfinnan spot Cassandra immediately.
Cassandra spent an entire day first skirting and then boldly walking into the fields where the clan’s sheep were grazing. A second day and a third passed without the men of Glenfinnan taking up arms to follow her. After a week, she sat down by the hearth with Kit and the spider to review their strategy.
They needed to take drastic measures. At dawn the next day, Cassandra transformed herself into the white she-wolf. She trotted to the field where she knew the sheep would be. She closed her eyes and shook her head from side to side so that her choice would be a random one. When she opened her eyes again, she fixed them on the closest lamb. Whispering an apology, she charged into the flock of sheep and separated the lamb from the rest.
Closer and closer now she followed the lamb, zigzagging behind it and nipping at its heels. A few more bounding steps and her jaws were on the lamb’s neck. Cassandra clamped down hard and shook the lamb once to snap its neck. She took care to leave a trail as she dragged it above the tree line.
When she and Kit and the spider met at the hearth that night to talk, Cassandra took the winding sheet from its place and began to embroider a lamb upon it.
Cassandra went to the little pool time and time again over the next few days to see what the people of Glenfinnan would do about the lost lamb. Kit joined her there, and they stared from the watery images to each other with disbelief at the people’s inaction. With Roland growing closer every day, Cassandra would have to try again.
She did try again—and again and again. By the time the men of Glenfinnan finally decided to hunt the wolf, Cassandra had embroidered another two lambs, a ewe, and a ram on the winding sheet.
Cassandra watched carefully as the men of the village took up their arms, divided into small groups, and fanned out through the forest. She gave a little nod to Kit and began to get ready to find Duncan and bring him to the forest. Cassandra had just transformed herself into Ian MacLeod when Kit looked up from the little pool and called her to look.
"Well, I should have guessed, shouldn’t I?" Cassandra said, letting Ian’s glamour slip from her shoulders and puddle about her on the forest floor.
She and Kit smiled at the pool and its image of Duncan alternately coaxing and goading his cousin Robert into setting out on their own wolf hunt.
Cassandra waited until she heard them crashing through the underbrush; she assumed the appearance of the white she-wolf and leapt toward the boys, sending Robert running and knocking Duncan to the ground. She carried Duncan back to her home, settled him in her bed, and drew up the veil of the forest to hide them.
Before Duncan had regained consciousness, Cassandra froze in her tracks. Kit’s fur stood on end. The spider scurried up to the ceiling and wedged itself into a crack.
Roland was in Glenfinnan.
She dared not leave Duncan, so she could only know what happened by watching the visions reflected in the little pool. One of the visions took her breath away. In it, Roland approached Mary MacLeod and asked her to tell him where to find the child born on the winter solstice. He spoke to her in the voice that would vibrate from within and without, the voice that she must answer. To Cassandra’s astonishment, Mary resisted. Roland took her by the wrist and twisted her arm. Mary fell to her knees with fear and pain on her face.
Cassandra jerked to her feet, ready to fly to Mary’s aid. Then Mary invoked the name of the Lady to whom she was so devoted, and made a final and triumphant effort to guard Duncan’s secret. Roland left unsatisfied.
Cassandra stirred the surface of the little pool, unable to watch any more. All she could do for the moment was wait. She cooked supper, milked the goats and fed the chickens, and bathed in the stream. When she emerged from the water, Duncan had awakened and was staring at her in awe.
A child and a man, Canticle had said. Cassandra thought she saw glimpses of the man Duncan would become, and not only in his reaction to surprising her at her bath. He had been brave enough to fend off a wolf attack so his cousin could escape, and rather than being frightened and confused by waking in Cassandra’s home, he observed everything around him with a keen eye.
Cassandra fed him supper and tended the bump on his head, then tucked him into her bed. Kit settled next to him and purred, and Cassandra curled up in the chair by the hearth and fell asleep.
The next day, Cassandra stretched her senses as far as she could. The glen and the mountains were at peace; Roland was gone. The only sounds she could hear were those of Duncan’s people come to find him, and she sent him to his father’s arms.
§ § §
It is time to go, Canticle whispered.
Even before she heard it, Cassandra had known. She had spent two years watching over Duncan after Roland left, and the woods had slowly gone silent around her. Kit had died and was buried near the garden. No more spiders lived above the hearth. Even the trees and the wind were quiet.
The only sounds Cassandra heard were those Duncan made as he tried time and time again to find her home, but she had kept the veil of the forest drawn up.
It is time to go, Canticle whispered, and Cassandra agreed.
She turned the goats and chickens loose near the village and packed the few things she needed—some medicines and herbs, some seeds, a change of clothing, and the winding sheet. She said goodbye to the house and turned toward Glenfinnan to find Duncan and see him one last time.
Before she had gone a dozen steps she heard him. He was in the woods again, calling to her and looking for her home. He was kneeling on the ground now, looking for signs of a trail. Cassandra walked to the edge of the forest veil, which was shimmering and transparent on her side but opaque on Duncan’s side.
"I have to go now," she said, pitching her voice as birdsong and wondering how much of it he would understand.
For a moment, she saw a confused mosaic of the life he would lead, some fragments bright and others dark, none of them large enough for her to know more than that he would live for many, many years.
"You’ll be fine without me." His jaw was squarer now, his shoulders broader. When he called Cassandra’s name again, his voice was deeper than it had been the night he slept in her home.
"I have places to go," she said, opening her bag and touching the winding sheet, "and many amends to make."
She reached out and kissed his cheek, tousled his hair. He looked up, startled, but his eyes were focused far beyond where Cassandra sat.
She stood and walked away, turning back once to say, "We’ll meet again when the time is right, Duncan."
Quickly, so she wouldn’t have time to change her mind, Cassandra set off on the trail that would take her away from Glenfinnan. She lifted her voice and commanded all of the beings of the forest and glen, "Take care of him for me."