Unforgiven: A Highlander fic

So a few weeks ago, Medieval POC, the website I feel is the actual purpose of the Internet existing, posted this picture:


and requested immortal vampire fic. I was all like “VAMPIRE WUT NO HIGHLANDER OBVS!” and she said that would do too.

And then I, er, had an idea. And then…well, then this happened:

Unforgiven: A Highlander Fic
Etruria (today, Tuscany): ca 500 BC

The last thing he remembered was the lion killing him.

He didn’t expect to awaken in a field; he did not expect to awaken with a surge of pain that felt like his blood had been set on fire. That faded quickly, as if was no more than a warning of things to come, and he was left again with the strangeness of awakening at all, much less beneath the blazing sun and surrounded by wildflowers. His faith said the afterlife would put him in a home much like the one he’d left, domed and comfortable, and that he would be reunited with the family who had gone before.

It said nothing of a sharp-nosed man crouching over him, expression patient, as if he had been waiting for some time and was prepared to wait longer yet. “Ah,” he said. “There you are. What’s your name?”

The answer to that seemed a long time in coming; surely the dead knew who roamed their own realm, and the lion’s blows had rattled his own brains. “Alcaeus.” he finally replied. “Who are you?”

“Alcaeus. What on earth were you thinking, going after the lion?”

“A child was going to die.” That, he remembered more clearly than his own name. The boy had stood up and said it all very simply: today he would be fed to the lion, the Nemean Lion, the beast of the north. Alcaeus might go in his stead and slay the monster; if he failed, then in a month’s time this child of no more than ten years would be sacrificed to appease the gods and draw the beast away. There were three paths before him that day, and two led to the child’s death.

The third, of course, led to his own glory, and the survival of a child, besides. It was reason enough to have acted.

Still, it earned a derisive snort from the slender man. “Children die all the time. And if you didn’t notice, you died instead, accomplishing nothing.”

Alcaeus’ eyes closed in dismay. He had known, of course; he remembered the blows that killed him, but this was so unlike the afterlife he had been prepared for…. “You are not Leinth,” he said after a time, and opened his eyes again. “Laran?”

A softness came over the man’s face, an inward change that could not disguise the masculine lines of his nose and jaw but which somehow awakened all that was female within him. “Could I not be Leinth? Deity of death, god and goddess?” His female manner faded as quickly as it had come; Alcaeus could only stare in wordless astonishment at his shifting aspects as he spoke again. “But Laran…Laran is closer. God of war,” he said, and a depth of bitter irony shivered through his voice. It returned to its usual tenor with his next words, the change so swift it might have been imagined. “You can call me Laran. But as it happens, you’re not dead.”

“Thank the gods.” It was not that he minded dying, but waking in a field of flowers under sunshine and the sarcastic voice of a thin-faced man was not what he hoped for from the afterlife. “…why am I not dead?”

“Because you’re immortal. Get up and get out of here before anybody else realises it.” Laran stood and offered his hand, pulling Alcaeus to his feet. “You already know how to fight, so I’m not going to waste my time on you. The rules are simple: you can’t die unless your head leaves your shoulders. There are others like you who will try to kill you for your power. You’ll feel them coming. Kill them or talk your way out of it and you might just live forever. Good luck.” He strode away, leaving Alcaeus alone in a field of golden flowers.

* * *

Rome, Italy: ca 250 AD

He had worn the lion skin for so long he no longer saw it: it had been rendered meaningless, save in the midst of battle. Not even ordinary battle, where even the luckiest mortal could not slay him, but in the rare and invigorating fights for his life, on the days when he encountered another immortal who knew to strike for the throat.

He did not think the skin conveyed an unfair advantage; he had slain the lion fairly, with the strength of the gods that coursed through his veins. Any immortal might have done so, and might have reaped the benefits of its impenetrable skin. Its head was his crown, its neck wrapping his, its forelegs shielding his arms, its wide pelt, his back. Front strikes might break his unprotected chest, but even a direct cut to the throat—and he had felt more than one over the centuries—could not penetrate deeply enough to leave so much as a scar, nevermind take his head from his shoulders. Time and again, his enemies had fallen back in shock as that fatal blow had proven otherwise, and had instead died themselves.

It lay over his shoulders now, that pelt, the lion’s ferocious head fallen back as he drank wine beneath what had been, when he was young, the Rasennan sun. Now that sun and all it looked upon was Rome’s, and the gods of his childhood had become the gods of fable, the parents and the progenitures of the new world. He stood among them, in fact; the stories of his deeds had become legend and he himself had become the child of the gods in the retelling. It was not, he thought, so far from the truth.

“Alcaeus.” As if his thoughts had conjured the name, it was spoken aloud by a sardonic voice, unheard for centuries and yet entirely unforgettable. Laran strode across the courtyard as confidently as he had once left Alcaeus in the fields, sat across from him, and partook of Alcaeus’ wine without bothering to ask.

He had not changed at all over the centuries, save for the black hair, which was no longer shaggy, but instead clipped fashionably close to his head. The deep-set eyes, clear hazel in the sunlight, and the sharp features were unmistakeably the same, as was the slender, strong build. Alcaeus watched as he downed an entire flask of wine, and said, “I haven’t heard that name in a long time.”

A smirk danced across Laran’s features. “No, I suppose not. Heracle, Heracles, Hercules, son of Zeus, hero of the people. You went back for the lion.”

Alcaeus shrugged. “A child was going to die, and it did not need to. Why didn’t you go to fight the beast? You’re one of us. A child of the gods.”

“Please.” Laran smiled again, more derisively than before. “Of the Titans, at the very least. But yes. I’m like you.”

Caution wrapped itself around Alcaeus’s heart. “The Titans are the fathers of the gods.” There were questions implied in the statement, questions that Laran shrugged away. Still with caution in his heart, Alcaeus asked, “Why didn’t I feel your presence?”

“There have to be some advantages to being a Titan.” Laran cast an exasperated glance toward the sun as Alcaeus frowned, and waved off another asking of the question. “I didn’t want you to feel it, obviously. If you live long enough you may learn to hide your quickening, too.”

“I’ve lived seven hun—” Alcaeus dropped his voice, though his protest made him realise that no one amongst the drinkers at the hall would recognize the language they spoke; Rasennan had long since died away, overtaken by the Romans, just as their gods had been. Still, he confessed the years more quietly: “I’ve lived seven and a half centuries, Laran. How long do I have to live to learn such a trick?”

“Quite a lot longer than that. It’s good to see you again, Alcaeus. We should do this again in another few hundred years.” Laran checked the flask for any last dregs of wine, and, finding some, saluted Alcaeus with it and left with it in his hand. Near the door he stopped, though, and glanced back. “I wouldn’t recommend any more adventures, Alcaeus. That lion skin isn’t infallible. None of the immortality artifacts are.” His gaze turned inward, regretful, and he spoke the last words far more softly: “I should know.*”

Then he was gone, leaving a bemused and wineless Alcaeus to watch the changing of the sunlight across the drinking hall floor.

* * *

Dintagel, Cornwall: ca 550 AD

Cuva Nectan, they called it: Nectan’s Tub, for the holy man who had sat in hermitage above it only a handful of years earlier. A handful by Alcaeus’ reckoning, at least, for all that it had been a lifetime for the mortals who swarmed this cold, foresaken coast. It was a deep water pool, fed by a waterfall ten times the height of a tall man—ten times his own height, and he was the measure by which this band or warriors took their mark. Not because he led them, though he would have if he could—their king was a man driven by visions of glory and heeded advice, they said, from madmen who aged backward and prophets who spoke from the heart of the earth—but because he towered over the next of them: to be taller than the knight called Morien was to stand with the trees.

The water was welcoming, in its breath-taking way. They had each been annointed in it when they were accepted into the band; most of them returned from time to time for its seclusion, for the beauty and silence that had drawn the saint here half a century since. Alcaeus dove, as comfortable beneath the water as he was above, and let himself remain submerged in the safety of knowing he was isolated here and no one would be astonished when he rose, still breathing, in an hour’s time.

Or he might have done, had the sting of warning not sent him bursting to the surface with a clenched gut. His sword lay on the shore with his armor, with the lion’s skin that had survived the whole of a thousand years with him. No enemy immortal would allow him the chance to reach it. A thousand years, only to die in a half-frozen pond at the edge of the Roman empire. Cursing, he swept water from his eyes, and as his vision cleared, felt his fear abate even as his astonishment soared.

Laran sat cross-legged like a tailor at the side of the pool, nimbly slicing the lion’s skin into shreds with one of its own claws. Still cutting, he glanced up, looked Alcaeus over, and rolled his eyes. “Put some clothes on, Alcaeus. You put Diana rising from her pool to shame. No wonder they thought you were the son of a god.” He threw Alcaeus’ tunic at him.

Alcaeus caught it with the reflexes of a trained warrior, and used it to rub his torso dry as he stared in disbelief at the tattered skin. “What have you done?”

“I told you,” Laran said mildly, “to stop using it. You’ve fought and defeated half of Britain on your way here. I won’t have you deciding you ought to take it one step further and earn a crown for your own head. Not when I’ve put this much effort in already, and not when I know you for a man eager for his own glory.”

“Not just,” Alcaeus protested. He could not quite move; could not entirely believe that his talisman had been taken from him, much less in such an uninspired way. It ought to have been ripped from his shoulders as he was felled, if it was going to happen at all. Losing it to a shaggy-haired, woad-marked—for Laran was both of those things now, and beneath the blue his skin had tones of ice to it—wizard was a farce, not a glorious exit. Beneath the astounded churn of his own thoughts he heard himself speak, choosing a single word from the ones that rushed through his mind: “Wizard,” he said, and then with a laugh bordering on incredulous, added, “The man who ages backward. How did you make him think that, Laran?”

“He came up with it on his own. Natural consequence of being a child when we first met. Then, I was an adult and therefore unimaginably old. Now he too is an adult, and since he can now tell the difference between an old adult and a young one, I have clearly aged backward.” Laran stood, brushing away glints of golden fur as the lion skin fell to the earth in irreparable pieces. “I’ll be gone before this is over, Alcaeus. Aging backward or not, I can’t stay long enough to see it through. You’ve longed for glory. Stay with him and your name will go down through history again as one of the legendary retainers to a great man.”

“To see what through? What have you begun?”

“Balance,” Laran said after a moment’s silence. “I set an imbalance into place long ago, a weight of darkness that could not have lived as long as it did without my manipulating it. What I make here helps set it to rights.”

Alcaeus’ words flew free before he could stop them: “You made me.”

The older immortal fell out of motion as though he had become a stone; as though Alcaeus had struck him with a stone, and when he moved again it was to smile only with his glittering hazel eyes. “Perhaps I did. Perhaps the balance is less askew than I imagine it to be. Thank you for that, Alcaeus. It may keep me warm on a cold night, sometime hence.” His eyebrow arched. “Warmer than you are at the moment, at any rate. Get out of the pool, Sir Morien, dry off, and go back to sword practice. The lion skin has allowed you to become sloppy, and if you want to live to see me again, you’d better stop dropping your guard.”

He slipped away into the forest, leaving the final word ringing behind him as he always did. Alcaeus, standing hip-deep in numbingly cold water, thought of his swordplay skills, and of the lion skin, and, grimly, went forth to do as the wizard of the wood had instructed.

* * *

The Holy Land, ca 1200 AD

He was, in all ways that mattered, a prince: a crown lay upon his head, a woman of noble birth lay behind him in the holy city as his wife, and men followed him in droves to fight against the infidels who came from the north to steal their lands. Not that Jerusalem was holy to him; his gods still walked among the Etruscan fields and threw lightning from the sky in their anger, but this was a time and place of war, and he was made to lead men, to inspire them, and to fight with them.

A dozen times since the Crusades began had he felt the warning of the quickening. Some of those had led to battle, battles that he would not have survived had his own god of war not scolded him for poor form half a millennium and more since. Some had led to friendships, others to passion; none of them had led to the stillness on the battlefield that this one did. He reined in his horse, a fiery mare who loved the fight as much as he did, and searched the field for the other immortal.

When he saw him, it was at an impossible distance: the quickening did not reach so far. Not, at least, for any ordinary immortal, but it was Laran who stood, streaked with blood and muck, in front of one of the healer’s tents. He carried a sword, but it was sheathed at his waist; in his hands he held a bowl of water that steamed visibly even under the sun’s heat. Laran’s lips pursed and he shifted the bowl to one hip, then lifted fingertips to his temple, as if to indicate the crown Alcaeus wore. He shook his head, a clear expression of disapproval even across half a battlefield, and the last thing Alcaeus knew was the agony of a blade sliding through his ribs from behind.

* * *

Providence, Rhode Island: 1857 AD

His hand shook; the letter in it shook, rattling until the words were almost unreadable. It had been forwarded by his solicitor, a man called Martin, and though he could no longer see the print, its intelligence was burned into his mind:

“Mr. Martin must certainly be aware that passports are not issued to persons of African extraction. Such persons are not deemed citizens of the United States.”

This: this was what had become of Heracles, that he should be denied his very personage in the modern era; that he should be denied it despite being a denizen of the state of Rhode Island, where slavery was illegal. A voting citizen, and an elected warden: the first colored man to be so elected. And yet upon desiring to leave his homeland, he was taught the price paid for the color of his skin. He, who had once been a hero.

“Thomas? There is someone here for you.” His wife hesitated at the door, not wanting to disturb him in his anger and yet clearly of the opinion the visitor was important. “A doctor, he says. Doctor Adam Pierson.”

“I do not know an Adam Pierson and I am not unwell.” He had hardly spoken when the rush of sensation washed through him, the buzz beneath his skin that said another of his kind was nearby.

No immortal in his right mind would demand a fight in daylight in the presence of ordinary humans, but neither could he easily ignore the summons that the quickening commanded. Thomas Howland sighed and gestured for his wife to allow the man inside.

He was familiar: hawkish features, deep-set eyes—in the darker light of the house they were black rather than hazel—black hair, a slender and strong build. A white man, thought Thomas Howland, who as Alcaeus had never thought of any man in those terms. “Laran,” he said sourly. “You got me killed, the last time I saw you.”

Laran’s thin mouth twisted in a smile. “Laran. You and I may be the only two people living who even remember that name. The crown on your head got you killed, Alcaeus. All I did was catch your attention at a bad moment, and that’s on you. Anyone who wants to live in battle doesn’t let himself get distracted that way. But I’m not here to argue with you over old injuries. I am here to wonder why you’ve chosen, beyond all reason, to live in the slave-ridden United States. I would ask, but—”

Alcaeus looked to where his wife had gone, and allowed himself a brief answering smile. “A child would have died. Am I so predictable, Laran? She was very young, and they would have taken her into slavery. Even here in Rhode Island, they would have stolen her and smuggled her across a border, made her into chattel when she had been born free.”

“You cannot save them, Alcaeus. You can never save them all.”

“I tried,” Alcaeus interrupted. “In Britain. I tried, Laran. The children—”

Pain shattered across the old immortal’s face. “Yes. I know. Perhaps I ought to have seen it. Perhaps I ought to have told him more. But I didn’t, and the balance…” Weariness replaced pain, then faded so swiftly that it might never have been. “The balance was not as restored as I might have hoped. So here I am, doctoring the mortal, for all that I know they must save themselves, and if they can’t—”

“Then what? Then we who cannot bear or father children will inherit their earth? No, Laran.” Alcaeus sat, throwing the damnable letter aside as he did so, and gestured for the older immortal to sit as well. “We are here to guide and inspire, not to inherit. I can’t accept anything else.”

“Which is no doubt why you’re here, a husband and a father, an elected warden in a country that would slap you in chains in half of its states, and in which you cannot even be granted a passport as a free-born man—” Laran’s eyebrows rose sardonically, invitation to a second interruption, and Alcaeus obliged.

“How can you know that? I have only just received the letter—”

“I pay a great deal of attention. That, and your application was never going to be granted. I would almost call you a fool for trying, except this is a bad place to be, a very bad place, and it’s going to get worse. You had to try something. But you should be careful with the names you take, Alcaeus. Thomas Howland may have been a free-born man of color, but he died early and someone always remembers. Someone always remembers the dead. You’re safer in Liberia.”

“Where I cannot go,” Alcaeus replied bitterly.

Laran reached into his doctor’s satchel and withdrew papers that he slid across Alcaeus’ desk. Alcaeus didn’t touch them. He didn’t need to. They sent nearly the same vibrant sting through him that other immortals did, for all that they were merely papers. “They’re legitimate?”

“Asks the Etruscan born Greek hero playing at being a free man of color in the United States? They’re legitimate enough. Go on, Alcaeus. Take them and take your family away from this blighted land There will be war over this question soon, and if you do not die in that battle, your children are likely to, and if the question is settled badly, you will all wear chains.”

“Why would you care?” Alcaeus thought the elder might answer the question; he did not expect the darkness that slid through Laran’s eyes. He had not thought the question might be a dangerous one. He had not, he realized in that moment, ever thought of Laran as dangerous at all. Slowly, almost individually, hairs rose on his forearms and nape, sending a chill not unlike the Quickening’s warning over him. He did not blink; did not allow himself to show the sudden caution—he would not call it fear—that had awakened in him, and yet he knew Laran was fully aware of it. He knew, too, that while the revelation might change every aspect of their friendship for himself, it changed nothing at all for Laran: the elder did not care that Alcaeus had never thought him dangerous, nor did he care that that estimation had been revised.

He did, a little to Alcaeus’ surprise, answer the question that Alcaeus had almost forgotten he’d asked: “I care because I’ve been a slave myself. Good luck, Alcaeus. When will you leave?”

“Soon.” Alcaeus let his new-born nerves go and smiled instead, the broad, quick expression that legend said even the gods had loved. “I’ve commissioned a portrait, something to be remembered in this difficult country by. We’ll leave when it’s done.”

Laran winced. “Not a good idea, not for one of us. Better to leave no record of your face.”

“Or my deeds,” Alcaeus said dryly. “How can you live with no desire for glory, Laran? How can you bear a life lived only in the shadows?”

The other man gave an easy shrug. “Glory is for those who don’t want to live forever.”

“You are at least three thousand years old, Laran. How long is forever?”

A bright smile, perhaps the first Alcaeus had ever seen, flashed across Laran’s face. “Always one day more than I’ve lived so far.”

“And this is how you spend those days? Slipping in and out of the lives of others like yourself, offering assistance?”

“Not at all. You’re a special case.”

“Am I? Why?”

Laran stood, his more familiar sardonic smile once more in place. “Because you acted when a child might have died, Alcaeus, and in the days before I met you, I had seen too many children die.”

He ought not have asked; as it was he waited until the doctor was nearly at the door before he did: “How many by your sword?”

Laran, Etruscan god of war, turned his head until he was profiled by the sun pouring through the doorway, and far too gently, answered, “All of them, Hercules. All of them.”

* * *

Berlin, Germany: 2014 AD

It was almost impossible to tell the buzz of the Quickening’s warning from the electricity of the crowd; that was, he sometimes thought, what would kill him in the end. Not that an immortal would start a fight in the midst of a movie premiere—it was harder and harder to find unobserved corners to do battle in as it was—but if he should someday forget the one was a warning, he might finally lose his head. It had been centuries, after all, since the lion skin had graced his shoulders.

But for tonight, at least, he could still tell the difference, and so as he grinned a world-famous smile and waved and took selfies with fans, he also scanned the crowds, looking for the one who stood out.

When he found him, he almost laughed. Standing amongst the screaming thongs, Laran’s dourly amused expression was more welcome than almost any other face could be. The ancient immortal flicked a salute of greeting and faded into the crowd, one moment visible and the next gone, for all that Alcaeus was looking right at him as he disappeared. The old man had intimated he could do things with the Quickening that others couldn’t: a gift of age, or of being the father of the gods; Alcaeus had never shaken the suspicion that Laran somehow was of the Titans, or that he knew more of where the immortals came from than he would ever let on. But in the midst of the premiere, it didn’t matter: Laran was not an enemy, and there were hundreds of people desperately hoping for a moment of Alcaeus’ time. He didn’t forget Laran’s presence, but he let it go, enjoying the moment, and was not surprised when, in the small hours of the night, Laran emerged again from beneath the guttering lights.

He had, Alcaeus thought, the patient expression of a man who had been waiting for some time, and who was prepared to wait longer yet: a familiar expression, one that brought a famous smile to Alcaeus’ face. Laran was nothing, a shadow in the streetlights; no one else noticed him, though neither did his entourage object when Alcaeus stepped away to greet him.

Or to be greeted, with the dour observation of, “That was considerably less accurate than even the Romans had it. Why that story, of all the movies you could have made? Why foster lies about the man you once were? It’s a strange way to relive glory days, Alcaeus.”

“These are the glory days, Laran. As for why: they asked. How could I resist?”

An eyebrow almost as eloquent as his own internationally renowned expression lifted upward, causing Alcaeus to laugh. “All right, you would have, but you and I were never alike, old friend.”

“This is a dangerous path, Alcaeus. You can’t keep it up much longer. The history you’ve already built—”

A shard of regret, thin and sharp, pulled a grimace across Alcaeus’ face, and his voice dropped, though he knew that—again, as always—they spoke a tongue long since forgotten by the world. “He was on such a dark path, Laran. So troubled, as a youth. So many arrests, so many fights. When he died in one of them—he looked so much like me, and I could just—just—make myself look that young, that soft. It was a chance to draw who he was back from the edge, to make him into something brighter, someone who had escaped the path that nearly killed him.”

“And make a hero of him.”

There was a strangeness in Laran’s voice, a mercilessness that Alcaeus had never heard before. He spread his hands, opening himself to the other immortal’s judgment: “What are we here for but to guide and inspire?”

“Perhaps to protect the children,” Laran said quietly. “Are you very sure, Alcaeus, that that’s how it happened? That his path, and not you, took him into darkness? That you did not see an opportunity and press the advantage? He did look…very…like you.”

The famous smile went still on Alcaeus’ lips for only an instant, but more than long enough for Laran to read it. “You fool,” the ancient said without emotion. “You glory hound, you dog among men. Here is the truth, Alcaeus, and I know this because I have power of my own and a prophet who is glad to wound me: in a world without your interference, that boy pulled himself back from the edge and became everything you have made him, but without sin on his soul. You have unmade a hero, a man of the people, and you have done it all for your own glory.

“I will not kill you now. It would break too many hearts, because of the thing that you are, the thing that he could have, would have, been, had you not stolen it from him. But when this story passes, when this age ends and this hero fades away, then shall Laran await you, Alcaeus, because if not for you, a child would have lived.”

the end
* * *

*See IMMORTAL BELOVED, a novel-length Highlander fic by the same author

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