THE GIRL FROM AQUITAINE
She had been standing on the bridge for half an hour or more; certainly for as long as he had been able to see her. As far as he could tell she was planning to jump, or was trying to think of reasons why she shouldn't. He couldn't see her very well, but he knew more or less what was going through her mind, even though the expression on her face was a mystery. She was staring into space; into a vastness greater than the gulf stretching beneath her. Kronos had stared into that gulf more than once, and in a curious way he had come almost to love it. An echo of death, or a premonition of it. This mortal woman, standing there on the edge of the bridge, couldn't begin to appreciate the true vastness of it, the true horror or the true beauty.
She didn't notice his advance, seeing him only when he was a few hundred yards away. Her hands tightened on the railing of the bridge, certain that he was going to try to talk her down, or forcibly pull her from the bridge. She was determined to jump, just as soon as she could summon up the courage, and no stranger was going to make her change her mind. Especially not this one. Who the hell was he, to be wandering here, in the middle of nowhere, where nobody ever came? She saw black jeans, recognising an expensive designer brand, along with a black T-shirt that was anything but expensive, topped by a heavy black leather jacket at least a size too big with the sleeves inexpertly cut off. He wore boots too - big, black ones that looked like a cross between something from biker heaven and a vision of S&M. Certainly not an ordinary tourist then, but probably not a police suicides expert either.
"I'm not coming down. At least, not that way." She didn't look at him as he came within shouting distance, but remained staring fixedly at the drop. Kronos shrugged. He didn't give a damn whether she jumped or not.
"Fine." She had left a sports bag lying on the bridge, and he picked it up. You never knew - she might have left something worth having in it, and if she wasn't going to be using it again he didn't see why he shouldn't investigate further. She frowned, looking back at him with indignation.
"Hey! That's my bag!"
"Not if you jump off that bridge it isn't." He paused, looking up from his rifling to meet her eyes for the first time. Her gaze faltered, a little unsettled by the force of his stare. "You jump, you die. Quickly. You won't be needing..." He glanced down at the contents of the bag. "Lipstick and pocket mirrors anymore." An expression of distaste crossed his face, and he tossed the bag to the ground. "Don't you have anything useful?"
"In my pocket, yes. I wanted some ID, so I kept my wallet with me." She gestured downwards rather vaguely, wondering why she was bothering to explain herself to this extremely strange man. "I didn't want to be listed as a Jane Doe, or whatever the local equivalent is, especially if I can't be recognised after... this."
"Oh." Quite obviously he wasn't interested. She was faintly hurt, without understanding why. How dare he come here, at the moment of her death, and treat her like some trifle, some nothing that he happened to find along the road?
"Just who are you, anyway?" Turning away from the edge she regarded him with irritation. "Why are you here?"
"Walking." He had no reason to explain anything to her, and didn't intend to bother. "Why?"
"Because I came here to be alone. I'd appreciate it if you left now."
"I don't want to." He wandered past her, out into the middle of the bridge, intentionally causing it to sway slightly from side to side. Instinctively she made a grab for the railing, holding on to steady her balance. "I came here to enjoy the view."
"You don't look like the type." She wasn't sure what type he did look like exactly, but in her mind the kind of person who walked all of this way just to enjoy a view was probably the poetic sort. Romantic, sweet, whatever. Not hard as nails and dressed in black leather.
"Really." His lack of interest in her opinion was cutting, and he didn't spare her a second glance as he sat down on the edge of the bridge. He was apparently oblivious to the great height; as much so as he was oblivious to her. She glared at him, wondering why he was sitting in so dangerous a place, where it would be so easy to slip and fall. His obvious dismissal of the danger made her feel a fool for thinking her own intended gesture to be so dramatic. After all, here she was intending to die, standing on the edge of the bridge with shaky legs, clinging to the railing - and there was this stranger, with no apparent desire for death, sitting in a much more dangerous position without even breaking a sweat. He began to whistle, and she felt her irritation grow.
"Shut up." It was an irritating sound, although admittedly quite musical. A tune she didn't know, simple and lingering, which caught the edges of her awareness and clung on.
"Are you still here?" He glanced back at her, expression still devoid of interest or compassion. "If you're going to jump, jump. I came here to look at the place, not to listen to you complaining."
"I was hoping for some privacy! I came here to - to--"
"To die." He shrugged, with utter heartlessness. "You don't count anymore, not if that's your intention. I just want to sit here and watch the sun."
"You're a complete bastard, you know that?"
"It's been hinted by others occasionally, yes." He was staring ahead, pale blue eyes fixed on the distant mountains. She searched her mind for an internal compass, and decided that he was looking south east. The Ukraine, perhaps? Geography had never been her greatest subject, and the way that the USSR had changed and changed about since 1990 had only made things worse.
"Are you going to leave?" She had no means by which to make him, and certainly no suitable threats to use. To step down and decide to try again later though, or to come another day, would seem such a dreadful anti-climax. She had psyched herself up for this, more or less. Everything felt almost completely ready.
"I wasn't planning to, no." He was still watching the mountains. She felt her exasperation build and peak, and finally cease. Confound the man. What the hell was he doing here? She asked him as much, but the only answer that she got was the tiniest of shrugs. Maybe he was going to jump too. Maybe he had been as annoyed by her presence as she was by his.
"Do you know the area well?" It was absurd, trying to strike up a conversation, think up small talk, whilst standing on a bridge waiting for the right moment to jump to her death, yet somehow the silence that stretched between them felt so uncomfortable otherwise. She had always hated silence, and her friends had told her before that her inability to deal with lapses in conversation was a failing of hers. Why couldn't she just enjoy the silence occasionally? Why always let it get to her, embarrass her? She felt stupid for allowing it to get to her that way now. Why should she be embarrassed by anything anymore, when everything was about to end? And yet she couldn't just ignore the silence, and she had to think of something to say.
"Yes, I know this place." His words were unexpected, but welcome. She had thought that he would just ignore her, as he had been doing all along. "I was born somewhere to the east of here, a little to the north as well I think. Not far. I spent much of my childhood wandering through these mountains and the flat lands beyond them."
"A gypsy?" She had always thought of them as being dark people, and he was quite pale skinned. Those very pale eyes, that brown-black hair - not Romany, certainly.
"No." Still he wasn't really taking any interest in her; wasn't looking at her, or really even addressing his words to her. It seemed instead as though he was talking to those distant mountains. "Just people without a home. Driven out of their city by a tyrant."
"Um... a communist leader?" Now she was confused. She knew very little about Eastern Europe, for during her school days it had always been on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and nobody had seemed to know much. There hadn't been tyrants forcing whole populations out of their cities, though, had there? Whole peoples forced into a migratory lifestyle by evil rulers? Perhaps it would have been time to visit a library, if she hadn't been about to die.
"What?" He glanced back at her, eyes sparkling with contempt. His eyes had the power to cut right into her, and she felt his disapproval more than she had ever felt anybody else's before. "No, not communists. Just a man. A man with an army, who wanted the city for himself and his men. All dead now of course."
"Oh." Her voice faltered, but the hanging silence was growing oppressive to her again, and she was anxious to prolong the conversation. Maybe she should just forget it all and jump; except for some reason it was impossible to do so whilst this man was here. She couldn't help feeling that her death was supposed to happen in peace and quiet; in solitude and emptiness. She was afraid that she would look a fool; that she might scream as she fell. She didn't want anybody to see her if that happened.
"Was this... quite recent?"
"Recent?" He shook his head, and she felt the vibrations all the way along the bridge. Again she caught instinctively at the railing, and mentally she kicked herself for it. Why was she clinging so desperately onto life when she was so determined to leave it? How deep did these reflexes go, these instinctive urges to ward off death? "No, not recent. Four thousand years, give or take a few. It hasn't changed much here though. A few rivers have moved, that's all."
"I'm sorry?" She had heard, but she wasn't sure that she had. "Four thousand years?" Great, she was here with a nut. A reincarnation devotee perhaps. Why feel so uneasy, she asked herself. Even if he truly was a complete nut, and proved to be a danger to her, why let it be a worry? She was going to die anyway. Unsurprisingly that didn't feel like much of a comfort.
"Give or take." He pointed at something; a particular mountain perhaps. "The city was just beyond there."
"Four thousand years ago." She couldn't keep the scepticism from her voice, and saw a thin smile cross his face. It wasn't a nice smile, she decided. It had an edge that seemed to cut right through her.
"It's hard to be more accurate than that."
"I'd imagine so." She shook her head. "Look, is there some reason why you've come here to tell me this?"
"I didn't come here to tell you anything." He gestured to the bridge. "This has always been a favourite place of mine. In all the world there are few better places just for thinking. I built this bridge with my brothers, for easier access to the lands west of here, and I've kept coming back ever since."
"This bridge is ancient. It's been repaired a lot, but basically it's been unchanged for thousands of years."
"Around three, more or less." He turned his head to fix her once again with those piercing, pale eyes. "But it's changed a lot, actually. We made it mostly from wood."
"You're weird." She turned her back on him, and contemplated the horizon. To hell with the fact that he wouldn't leave - she was just going to do what she had come for anyway. She peered over the edge, looking down at the world beneath her. It was a gorge, although not as deep as some, very rocky and very uneven. Death was a certainty, as far as she could tell. There was no way it could be avoided, with all those sharp bits to hit; all that hardness, too far away.
"I'm weird?" She could feel his eyes on her, even though she was no longer looking at him. "I'm not the one who's trying to throw himself off a cliff."
"You don't understand." She felt a bit superior now. What could he know about it? What could anybody know about the things that drove people to suicide? The only people who could know the real depth of that feeling were, almost exclusively, dead. For obvious reasons.
"Oh, I understand." Such off-handedness. Damn it he irritated her. Maybe she could contrive to take him with her when she jumped. It would serve him bloody well right. "I've killed myself before. Sometimes for a game, sometimes for a gesture. I've even done it because I genuinely wanted to die." His voice took on a reflective character, as though he really was remembering an incident in his past. "I threw myself off a building in Greece, when a woman I thought I was in love with died. I was angry. She was too young." His eyes were still burning into her, and she began to feel very uncomfortable. Why couldn't he just go away?
"And this was four thousand years ago?"
"No. Two perhaps, or thereabouts. I'd worked it out quite carefully. I was going to land on my head. Crush it, like a grape in a wine vat. Of course what really happened was that I broke all of my ribs, and had to lie there looking like a fool until I could get up and walk away." She thought that she heard him laugh, a soft noise, almost sinister, although she couldn't quite put her finger on why that last adjective applied. "But then we all have our weaker moments."
"Excuse me." She turned around, precariously, almost falling as she did so. "Would you answer me a question?"
"If I feel like it. I don't often."
"Just who the hell are you? What are you doing here? Why are you speaking to me, and why are you spouting all of that insane rubbish? I came here to die, not to listen to a madman talking about non-existent memories from a made up past."
"That's more than one question." He sighed and rose to his feet, sauntering back towards her with such mysterious purpose in his otherwise aimless gait that she was quite fascinated. He had very fluid movements; a cat-like grace that made every casual motion into something precise and strong.
"So indulge me." She shrugged, and tried to pretend that she was as casual and unconcerned as him. "Consider it a last request."
"I never grant last requests. Too magnanimous." For some reason he was grinning at her, and his eyes were sparkling quite enchantingly. "Death knows no magnanimity, and neither do I. Besides, what good did a last request ever do anybody? One last chance to beg for life, or just to wish for it. Quicker just to kill, and have done with it."
"I--" The enchanting shine in his eyes had turned to something darker and infinitely more unpleasant. She thought about taking a step back away from him, but stopped when she realised that that would take her over the edge of the bridge. He ignored her unease, just as he had ignored almost everything about her since first appearing, and merely stepped up to stand next to her, arms resting on the rail of the bridge. He was staring down at the rocks below, a half smile showing his complete lack of concern over her intended fate. If the thought of her body lying broken on those rocks bothered him at all he didn't seem inclined to show it.
"Besides," he added, as though continuing his monologue on last requests, "it's only people who are about to die who qualify for such things."
"I am about to die. I came here to jump, remember?"
"Yes." He leant further over the railing, dangerously so, and everything wobbled horribly. She clung on to whatever was close enough, and wished that he would step back. "But if you really wanted to do that, you'd have done it by now. So unless you want me to toss you over the edge, we both know you're not going to go over." He smiled the smile of somebody who knows that he is right. "But in answer to your question, I came here to see whether or not I still wanted to jump."
"You-?" Now she really didn't understand "Why would you want to kill yourself?"
"Why would anybody? Especially you, with so little life to live anyway. Where's the need to kill yourself, when you're unlikely to live more than a hundred years whatever happens?"
"There are all kinds of reasons, I can assure you." Wonderful. Now she was becoming a suicide snob.
"Love? Money? Disasters?" He was laughing at her, and she knew it. She hated him with a passion that she thought she had lost the ability to feel. "Pathetic, and you know it. When I died - really died - it was because I thought I didn't want to live anymore, in today's world, with no fire anywhere anymore. Then I came back, and I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to be here. I've been back now for two years or more, but I don't feel alive again yet. I don't feel like I'm back. I feel like I'm only visiting."
"I don't understand you." She felt rain beginning to fall, and sighed inwardly. Now she was going to get wet, when she shouldn't really be here at all. She should be beyond caring - or maybe she should still be back in her hotel room, warm and dry, and never have come here in the first place.
"I didn't expect you to." He turned away from the brink, looking up at her instead. "I came here to see if I still liked the idea of looking for an end, but I don't want to be dead again. I didn't enjoy it much the first time."
"You really are quite mad, aren't you."
"Perhaps." His cold, cold eyes carried a smile, but it wasn't directed at her. "I've spent so long wandering about, wondering what I'm going to do with my life now that I've got it back again. I thought about destroying the world's economy with a computer virus. I thought about buying a nuclear bomb or two from one of the former Soviet states, and taking half of Europe out just to see what the map looked like afterwards. Couldn't think of anything that felt really worthwhile though."
"You... thought about blowing up half of Europe?" So she had been right, after all, to be afraid of this man. Always supposing that he was telling the truth now. He shrugged.
"Not really. Too impersonal. Too soulless."
"Meaning that you'd rather not kill so many people?"
"Meaning that I'd rather not do it without being able to see the whites of their eyes. That's the difference between the modern world and me, and that's the issue I've been trying to address these last few years." He looked up at her again, eyes sharp. "I knew you weren't going to jump, as soon I realised that death wasn't what I was after either. I planned to throw you over the edge though. I haven't let a single person see me and live. Not in this place."
"You were going to... kill me. Why?" Like many people, even at the moment of suicide, there was still a powerful instinct within her that fought death. She was surprised to feel so much fear, but perhaps not as surprised as she might have been a few minutes before. It was only now that she realised he was right, and that she wasn't going to jump. She felt rather disgusted with herself for her lack of conviction, and wondered why she couldn't bring herself to do so simple a thing. It was what she wanted, wasn't it? Maybe she could prove him wrong. Maybe she could do it after all. Instead she began to back away from him, and away from the edge of the cliff. He didn't make any move to follow her.
"Old problem. Minor one." His eyes glittered above a merry smile. "A friend of mine got himself into some trouble. Mass murder and cannibalism or something. I helped him get out of a secure ward, and one or two people objected. Somebody died rather messily. People complain so much more about these things than they used to."
"I... imagine that they probably do." Her blood had gone cold, something that she had read about without ever having experienced before. It was a sensation that she felt particularly anxious not to suffer again. "I... Are you still planning to... to..."
He grinned. "Chuck you over? My dear woman, there's nothing I'd rather do. I'd thank you for your companionship first of course - and for your ears. Believe it or not I haven't spoken to another living soul in almost a year."
"And then I'd throw you over the cliff." He wandered off the bridge, smiling almost gently, and she backed away from him, wishing that she owned some kind of weapon.
"But I--" There was nothing that she could think of to say to him, and she was certain that no amount of pleading would make any difference to a man like this. She saw the bright, hot, mad lights of his eyes; so pale and calm in one respect, so clear and cold and insane in another; she saw the cool brilliance of his smile, as mad as his eyes and every bit as cold. She saw mockery and fury and humour and hate, and knew without a shadow of a doubt that there was no way to prevent him from taking her life. Of all the cruel ironies that she should run into this man just as, for the first time in more than a year, she had finally decided that death wasn't what she was looking for after all. Everything that was wrong in her life had come to a head; brought her to this place where she had planned to kill herself; then had shown her that she wanted, after all, to live - just in time to die at the hands of a madman. She closed her eyes, and heard a short, utterly spine-chilling laugh. Footsteps moved towards her - and then there was silence. She waited, trembling, trying not to think of what was about to happen, but when nothing happened at all, she opened her eyes again. And looked around. And saw nothing. The mysterious, nameless man, so terrifying, so remarkable, so strange, had vanished completely. The only sign that he had ever been there at all was the shaking, shivering sound of the breathing that she couldn't control.
She went back to her hotel as quickly as she could, still terrified, still trembling with the after-effects of the shock. Nobody greeted her with surprise when she arrived; why should they, for they hadn't known what she had set out that morning to do. The bartender smiled at her when she sat down opposite him, and raised an eyebrow when she asked, in faintly shaky Polish, for a double of whatever was the strongest drink he had to offer.
"Hard day?" His English was faultless, which didn't surprise her. By nationality she herself was French, but she had learnt to speak English so long ago that she spoke it with only the shadow of an accent. The same seemed to be true of everyone, wherever she happened to go.
"Something like that." She downed the drink, then ordered another one, wishing that the first had had a quicker effect.
"If you're sure." He handed her the second drink, and watched her sink it only slightly less speedily than the first. "Another?"
"Better make it a single." She wasn't much of a drinker. "And... can I ask you a question?"
"That's what I'm here for." He grinned. "Questions, advice, philosophy, psychology... it's all part of the training."
"I don't want a psychological assessment. I just want to know about a man. I think he lives up in the hills."
"Oh." He nodded, unsurprised but obviously a little impressed. "Congratulations. Not many people see him and live to tell the tale."
"You know about him then. It's not a secret."
"Hardly. The authorities have been trying to get him for months. He hides himself away up there, comes out every so often to kill a tourist, or a local. He steals things, comes and goes so easily you'd think he had the power to make himself invisible. He's British, supposedly, but the authorities there aren't very clear on the matter."
"They won't admit he's a British national?"
"They don't believe that he is. He was supposedly mixed up in the rescuing of a really nasty type from a secure hospital in Bucharest, but the security camera pictures clearly show him with a large scar across one eye. Now suddenly he doesn't have the scar. The police thought that maybe they're twins, but the only person who answers the description is a British man named Peter Kerensky, who supposedly murdered his sister-in-law a couple of years ago. He vanished, and hasn't been seen since, but there's no record of him having a twin."
"The man I saw today didn't have a scar."
"But the British police still aren't sure that he's Kerensky, or that Kerensky himself was ever who he was supposed to be. There are other names that have been linked to him - Kato, Kradic, Kronos. There's a picture dating from 1979, of a man wanted for the murders of three policeman in New Zealand, that fits this guy Kerensky to a tee - except that in that picture he has the scar again."
"1979?" She sipped at her drink, rather regretting having taken the others so quickly. "That's crazy. The man I saw today wasn't much above forty, if that. In 1979 he'd have been barely twenty, and he certainly wouldn't have looked exactly the same."
"Exactly." The bartender grinned. "People like telling stories. Maybe he's a ghost, and that's how he manages to come and go so easily. A malevolent spirit, living in the hills."
"Yep." He nodded at her empty glass. "Another?"
"No. Thanks." She pushed the empty glass back to him, and he took it away for cleaning. "I wonder why he didn't kill me. He said he was going to."
"Maybe he liked the look of you. Maybe he was in a charitable mood." He frowned at her. "You really got that close?"
"We spoke, for quite some time."
"And he let you live?" He whistled. "You're somebody pretty special, or just very lucky. Nobody else can claim to have got as close as that and survived. So tell me - did he look solid? Sound British? Sound mad?"
"He looked very solid. And yes, he did sound British; English I'd say, and very well spoken." Although, as she had just pondered herself, many people in the world spoke English well enough to pass for natives of the country, without ever having set foot there. It was that sort of a language, it seemed.
She nodded. "Very. Cold and unhinged, but... very intelligent. I could see it in his eyes. Horrible."
"Rather you than me."
"Yeah." She stood up, thinking about her room, and about how much she would enjoy sinking into her bed. It wasn't much past noon, but she felt as though she had been through enough today to fill several days, and she needed the sleep. Just so long as there weren't too many dreams to prevent her from getting the rest she needed. She couldn't help thinking that as soon as she closed her eyes she would be treated to endless replays of the day's events. That face, with its mad, bright eyes; its mad, bright grin. The voice, echoing in her ears. Cool and sharp and strangely captivating. Soft and spine-chilling and horrible.
"Good day." The bartender offered her a nod of farewell, and she held up a hand in a motionless wave.
"Yeah. And thanks."
"No problem. You should talk to the police you know."
"I will. I will." She turned away, heading away from the stairs even though she was still thinking such sweet thoughts of bed. What she really wanted was a library, she knew that much even as she imagined falling into soft sheets and pillows. She wanted old newspapers, and all of the information she could find about the man she had encountered that day. Suddenly it felt like the most important thing in all the world.
The library proved to be very well stocked with information about the mysterious madman in the hills. It was the town's personal news story it seemed; something with which they had a curious, morbid fascination. They had lost more people to him than any other locality; most of the tourists who had vanished or been found murdered had been staying there. The librarian had seemed almost excited by it all, as though she couldn't fish out the old newspapers quickly enough.
"If you'd prefer I've got every relevant article on disk." She had just carried up the third or fourth pile of papers before she came out with this piece of information. Anybody else would have rolled their eyes, but perhaps near death improved patience.
"Um... well perhaps." A pause, for diplomatic purposes. "But I'd like to use the papers as well though, so you won't have brought them here for nothing."
"Oh, it was no trouble." Maybe there was little for a librarian to do around here, and the chance of a bit of activity was too good to miss. "Staying locally are you?"
"At the hotel, yes. I heard about the man up in the hills, and I was interested to find out more."
"As well you should." The librarian leaned closer, dropping her voice to a whisper even though there was nobody else around. "He's a ghost, you know."
"You take my word for it. There's no other explanation. He flits about in those mountains like the wind, and nobody sees him come or go. Once they found a man still alive, who claimed that he'd just seen his companion fall, cut clean in half by a sword, and neither of them had heard so much as a footstep. A second later he was lying there too, almost disembowelled with one stroke, and he still hadn't seen or heard anything. Couldn't even tell the people who found him whether his attacker had been blond or dark. Never saw a thing." She shook her head. "He was the sixth, no, the seventh victim. Died later that day in the hospital. You wouldn't be thinking of going out into those hills yourself now would you?"
"Me? Hardly. Not now that I know about all of this, anyway."
"Yes, well. Perhaps somebody should have warned you. Tourism is still a small industry around here, though, Miss...?"
"Laseaux. Sophie Laseaux."
"Hmm. You see, a story like this can be the death of a town, Miss Laseaux. It's not good for business. The last thing we need is for everybody to be scared away, just because a spirit with a chip on its shoulder is wandering around in the hills beheading anybody who sees it. I'm sure you understand."
"Oh. Yes." That was a direct lie, but she supposed it didn't really matter. For a woman who seemed highly excited by the mere mention of the madman living nearby, the librarian seemed anxious to present herself as somebody irritated, even inconvenienced by his presence. To claim that it was better to have tourists being beheaded by him - presumably just as long as they were up to date with their hotel bills first - rather than warning anybody that he was out there, seemed even more peculiar still. She considered raising the point that the man in the hills - who had, at least to her knowledge, something approaching a name - was probably not a ghost. She was proof of that, surely? She had felt his breath on her face, briefly; had seen his chest rise and fall, and seen the marks that his fingers had left against the cold metal of the railing on the bridge. Ghosts didn't leave evidence like that, surely? It was all... weird shapes on photographic plates, and dripping, slimy ectoplasm. Wasn't it?
"Well, I'll leave you to it, anyway." Fishing the CD she had mentioned out of a locked drawer in one wall, the librarian handed it over. "Don't strain your eyes."
"I won't." She smiled, a little unsettled by the woman's attitude. "Thankyou."
"Not at all." Sensible shoes clacked across the floor, and the librarian was gone. Sophie looked down at the shining disk in her hand. Did she really want to do this? Why the sudden obsession? She knew the answer to that already though; he had done something to her; insinuated himself into her life, and prevented her from thinking about anything else. She needed to know more about him; to be able to put flesh onto the metaphorical bones, and hopefully turn him rather less of a phantom. Reading tales of his terrible acts probably wouldn't help to make her less afraid, but at least it would help to convince her that it hadn't all been a dream. That there really was a nut out there somewhere, wandering about in the mountains.
She read for most of the day, for most of three days. Outside the library everything was moving. She had spoken to the police, and they had mobilised men from a half a dozen towns nearby. Groups of them set out every day, with dogs, with guns, with flak jackets. Soldiers came and went as well, in heavy gear that turned them into monsters rather than men, their helmets pulled low, their collars turned up, their heavy boots bashing out rhythms on the roads. She heard the babble of their voices under the window of her little study room at the library, and watched them swinging their rifles, the grenades bobbing and bouncing as they hung from strategic hooks on the chunky, knife- and bullet-proof vests. Sophie wondered if they were sword-proof as well, and whether there was, for that matter, anything that would protect against the wild swing of a sword. What the hell was he doing up there with a weapon like that? She hadn't seen one on him that day by the bridge, and it was definitely the kind of thing she would have remembered. Nuclear bombs, mad eyes, talk of being alive for four thousand years, yes. Sword, no. All the reports mentioned one though. She smiled to herself as she thought about it, even though there was really nothing to smile about. So much for the years of boredom and normality in her life, without anything unusual or fantastic to bother with. Now she was perhaps the sole surviving person ever to encounter a homicidal legend hiding in a mountain. It was something to tell her friends about, she supposed.
She read on, through the stories of bodies found, sometimes literally in pieces; through accounts of alleged sightings, narrow escapes and garbled descriptions. Some she could dismiss immediately as rubbish and lies; people had described him as big, when she knew that he was barely her own height, and of no especially impressive build; others had described him as being much darker than he really was, or with dark, flaming eyes. Others still, apparently having encountered the tales of his alleged double, the man with the scar, had described him as being similarly marked; a large, vertical scar that was sometimes on the right eye, and sometimes on the left. She knew that he didn't have a scar at all, or at least not one so visible.
The talking of the soldiers and policemen outside went backwards and forwards, coming and going as the hours passed. As the days passed. She hadn't heard anything about Kronos being sighted or captured, let alone killed. She didn't hear his voice outside, as soldiers brought him in under guard. Her mind wandered, going back out into the mountains, to where she had met him. She saw those deep eyes, with their glitter of madness that was not quite insane; of badness and unpleasantness that somehow was not quite evil; of humour and intelligence and life. Enough life that he had been able to give her back her own, anyway. She thought about the people he had killed, without ever quite being able to forget that he had left her unmolested. All that he had done was annoy her, and throw the occasional insult her way - not at all the same as chopping her up with a large steel blade.
She read on, through accounts that couldn't possibly be true, and others that probably were. Descriptions that didn't make an ounce of sense, and others that seemed quite accurate. Through conflicting reports referring back to the case the bartender had mentioned, in New Zealand during 1979, and other reports of the man with the scar who had broken into the hospital in Bucharest. He had told her about that himself, though; she remembered that much. He had mentioned a friend, and something about cannibalism, then an escape and a messy murder. So was he some poor unfortunate who believed the tales that had been spread about him, or were they somehow true? She didn't understand how they could be, but the more she read the more she began to feel that she needed to know. She wanted to know something; anything. Anything about the man who claimed to have walked through these lands four thousand years ago, and built a bridge three thousand years ago, with the help of his brothers. A man who had murdered several policemen more than twenty years ago, and didn't look a day older now. A man who had spared her life.
She stopped reading, early in the evening on that third day, her eyes fixed unseeingly on a cup of coffee she had fetched several hours before, and which had remained untouched. It was cold now of course; as cold as the one she had forgotten about several hours before that, and as cold as the one she had been served during breakfast back at the hotel, and which she had again forgotten all about. She couldn't remember what she had been thinking about then, but it had probably been Kronos. She had thought of little else since returning from her meeting with him. He had stopped her from killing herself, no matter how hard she tried to forget that. She had told the policemen about him, and the soldiers. They were out there now, with bands of civilian volunteers and fortune hunters, all searching for a man they had no real intention of capturing alive. A man who had shown her, even if it had been for just a moment, that there was still some joy in living - whether or not his original intention had been to kill her. She had told those people where to find him, and had given them the best description they had ever had. She had told them how he had apparently had a fondness for the bridge, and how it was likely that he would be found there again. If he was killed, it would be her fault.
Pictures of dead men scrolled up the computer screen, and she told herself that they were more important than her own feelings. They had died, even if she hadn't. It didn't work. Whatever her feelings on the issue, for some reason the image of all that she had seen by the bridge wouldn't leave her. She remembered the way she had felt when she had gone there, when she had been ready to say goodbye to the world. She remembered how she had been gathering her nerves for the jump when Kronos had appeared. How the desire for life had come back to her, however temporarily, and how she had left that place feeling more alive that she had done in years. He had done that, even if it had been unintentional; and in payment she had arranged his likely death. It didn't seem very grateful.
"This is crazy. He's mad. A killer." Her words echoed in the little room, not drowning out the excited chatter of young soldiers in the street outside. She imagined Kronos being carried into town, dead. Those pale blue eyes shut forever; that cool, cool smile gone.
"Damn it." Slamming her fist against the desk, she rose to her feet and went over to the window. Crowds of people were outside, watching the soldiers and the policemen come and go, forming into groups of their own to go out and join in the hunt. There was a suggestion of blood lust in the air; of people anxious to see some action, and hopefully the conclusion of the legend of a madman with a sword. Why couldn't she just be happy for them, with their hopes? They had had this shadow hanging over them for a long time now, and she had no right to come here and regret having helped them to find a way to stop a killer. So why the guilt? Why this feeling that she had to do something?
"Crazy. He'd kill you as soon as he saw you." Besides, he must know. He must have seen the policemen and the soldiers by now. What good could she do even if she did try to help him? She would only get herself killed, and all just to try and help a man who definitely didn't deserve that help. She reached out and clicked off the monitor, then sighed deeply and stared into her thoughts. Why hadn't he killed her? Surely that meant he couldn't be all bad? Didn't it? Was there perhaps any chance that he hadn't killed those other people? That he had just been a convenient person to blame, and that the real killer was somebody else? Perhaps he really was just some innocent man, in need of psychiatric help. And after all, he had saved her life.
"Damn it." She muttered the words again and again, wishing that she had never seen him; had never spoken to him; had never gone out there that day. Wished that she had not come to the library and read about him, or gone to the police and told them about him. Wished that she hadn't allowed herself the chance to think about him since. It didn't do any good. Why should it? Wishing had never changed the past, no matter how many people had tried. Turning her back on the little room that she had all but lived in for the last three days, she went out of the building and into the street. Even the librarian was out there, watching the last group of uniformed men going out, marching off on their last patrol before night fell. The party atmosphere still lingered, even though nothing had yet come of the patrols.
"Hello." The librarian looked like a reveller at a festival, her face slightly flushed and her eyes bright. If there had been a bonfire, or a man selling hot dogs, any outsider would have thought that this was a street party, not a town awaiting the capture of a murderer. Sophie nodded a greeting and then wandered on down the street. Everybody was talking excitedly. They all thought that it was just a matter of time now; that the madman would be captured or killed soon, and brought back here for everybody to see. Sophie couldn't help agreeing with them. How could any man, especially one who was not really a ghost, possibly hope to evade so many men? She felt cold, certain that she would soon have his death on her hands. Why did she care? Why should she? She knew the answer to that of course, even though she didn't want to. He had got into her head, and there was no getting rid of him. No thinking straight anymore. No stopping her strange desire to find him, and warn him, and help him to get away. She rubbed her eyes, trying to rub away the images of cold blue eyes in her brain. It didn't work. She hadn't expected it to. Walking on past the groups of milling civilians, past the soldiers and the policemen, past the kids playing games in the middle of it all, she headed on out of the town. The mountains scared her with their emptiness and silence, but she knew that she couldn't keep away from them any longer. Senses crackling over threats that she couldn't see, she quickened her pace and walked on up the steep slopes. The darkness grew and the wind picked up, and she hugged herself against the sudden cold. She must be crazy. Far out there somewhere in the darkness was a person who was crazier still, and she was trying to find him. Even worse, if she was right in her estimate of him, then by now he would know she was on her way.
Kronos was in high spirits, which was usually bad news for somebody. He had seen the ranks of soldiers and policemen, and had delighted in them. Adversaries. His heart sang with the word. He had no immediate desire to kill them, although the idea of it made his hand itch to draw his sword. His main concern was with the game of it all; of staying hidden whilst they searched; of watching them without them being aware of his presence. It was fun, and it was good training. Ever since his reawakening, within the body of another man, he had been constantly testing and training himself, even more than before. The body had needed it, even if he hadn't. The muscles had needed schooling, the reflexes had needed honing. He had had to learn the art of stealthy movement all over again, and teach the new body to flit silently with shadows, just the way that the old one had done. His mind, with its four thousand years of practice, had soon brought the new body in line, but he hadn't had many opportunities to test it. There had been a couple of battles alongside Methos, the last one more than a year ago, and there had been the tussles with wanderers in the mountains since then. Nothing very taxing of late, which he found depressing - or would have done, if he had been capable of depression. It was a side effect of Kerensky perhaps, but he didn't seem to be bothered by the same extremes of temperament he had suffered before. No ferocious doldrums whenever he thought about the changing of the times, or all that he had lost; although the anger still remained. He still had the capacity for furious rages that made his blood sing and his heart race - and for that he was glad. Some things it was as well to leave behind, for any number of reasons. Others it was best to keep.
On the same day that Sophie Laseaux began to feel that she owed a debt to Kronos, and wanted to help him to keep out of the clutches of the authorities, Kronos was having the time of his life - far from being in the sort of danger that Sophie had feared. He ran like the wind through the mountains, laying false trails, sometimes allowing his pursuers to follow him for real; other times letting them catch a tantalising glimpse of him up ahead, before he vanished again. It amused him to let them think that they were getting close, only to lose him again when he took a different turn, or vanished down one of the many fox holes that he had dug months before. These were his mountains, after all. Always had been. He had ruled them, ridden through them, terrified anybody who had had to come through them. The policemen and soldiers, not to mention the civilians, all mobilised by Sophie's shaky account of her experiences, were no trouble at all. He didn't even bother hurting any of them, even though he could feel his sword arm yearning.
With dusk came the better soldiers; the ones who had waited for the lack of light in order to bring their toys out to play; the heat sensors, and the infra-red goggles; the microphones that picked up the tiny noises that travelled so well after dark. Kronos played on, leading these better, more experienced soldiers on even more complex dances. The moon rose above his head, shining down through misty clouds, making the world pale and cold. Dark shadows marked the passage of the soldiers and the policemen, and heavy sounds and tired noises showed where the more awkward civilians were gathered. Kronos was just a blur; a whisper like the wind. A whisper waiting to become a shout.
It was late into the night when Sophie found him, on the same side of the bridge where they had first met. He was sitting on a rock in a small hollow, drinking red wine from a bottle, and eating what looked like a roasted turkey leg. He glanced up as she drew nearer, and the moon illuminated his face just enough for her to see a flicker of interest.
"What do you want?" He finished with the turkey leg and tossed it aside, watching her over the neck of the bottle as he drank some more wine. She stayed where she was, scared now that she had come this far. She didn't know what he would do to her if she went any closer.
"You knew that I was coming, didn't you."
"Of course. I heard you. Do you think I could have stayed ahead of your soldiers for this long if I couldn't tell when somebody was approaching?" He didn't stand up, and didn't look at all tense. Clearly he didn't think her a threat. "One person. One woman. Not an expert. So I thought, what civilian would come here alone? Nobody worth running from, certainly."
"Are you going to ask me why I'm here?"
"Why would I do that?" He lowered the bottle, and put it down beside him. "I'm not interested." He rose to his feet.
"I came all the way out here looking for you." Again she felt angry, incensed. He had the ability to make her feel that way; a manner of getting under her skin, and leaving her insulted and indignant. He, needless to say, was unapologetic.
"So you did." He stretched, and she saw the sword hanging at his side. It was in a black leather sheath, with silver-coloured studs along its length, and its long hilt gleamed in the moonlight. "But I don't need your help, and I don't want it. It's coming a little late by now anyway, isn't it?"
"What makes you think I'd want to help you?" She took a step forward in her indignation, but quickly froze again. He might not have laid a hand on that sword yet, but she had no doubt that he would do so if she pushed matters too far. "You're a killer. I've read all about you. The tourists, the locals, the doctor at that hospital in Bucharest. The policemen in New Zealand--"
"New Zealand?" He frowned at that, and then smiled. "Oh yes. New Zealand. Nice country. The volcanic nature of it rather appealed to me."
"You're sick." She started to turn away, then looked back at him. "As it happens I did come here to try to help you. I felt as though I owed it to you. I felt bad about sending all of these policemen and soldiers up here. But you wouldn't care about that, would you."
"No." He picked up the bottle of wine and threw it at her, and she caught it with surprised hands. "Why feel guilt for sending the police after a wanted man? It's what people do, in your world. And you don't owe me anything."
"You saved my life." She pulled the top from the bottle, and took a tentative sip. It was strong and rich and impressed her immensely; clearly the sort of stuff that she had looked at on supermarket shelves before, but had never bought because of the cost.
"I gave you your life. I could have killed you but I didn't." He shrugged. "But I didn't save it, and whatever you say, you didn't come up here looking to thank me. You came up here because you knew that, in time, you'll want to end it all again. Probably you already do, deep inside. You're hoping I can stop that feeling, like you think that I stopped it before."
"That's not..." She shook her head. "No, you're wrong. You stopped me from killing myself, and I came here to thank you for that. To try to repay you. When we spoke that day by the bridge, I realised that I wanted to be alive, for the first time in years."
"You can't blame me for that." He strode towards her rapidly, and her breath caught in her lungs - but all that he did was to take the bottle away from her. "Believe me, saving your life was never my intention. It's never my intention to save anybody's life, and certainly not that of some mortal woman who means nothing."
"So you're back to the insults again." She folded her arms, staring at him as he finished the bottle of wine. It was strange that she felt no fear, even though that had been all she had felt on the way here. If he was going to kill her, she reasoned, he would have done so by now. "You can say what you like to me. I came here because I felt that I owed something to you, and because I knew that I wouldn't forgive myself if I saw your body being carried into town by the police or the army. Obviously it was stupid of me to care."
"Obviously." He seemed amused.
"Look, I didn't have to come here you know."
"I know." He drew back his arm, and sent the empty bottle spinning away through the air. She heard it smash somewhere far away, and guessed that it must have broken on the floor of the gorge; the same floor of the same gorge that she had been planning to smash herself on. A shiver ran down her spine. "But you came."
"Yes. I did." Circular conversations were always so much fun. "Look, I... I should be going."
"Back to your hotel." His eyes were glittering, emphasised by the moonlight. "Sweet dreams."
"You could at least say thankyou. I could have been shot by a trigger happy policeman; arrested for being out here; anybody could have seen me talking to you."
"I'm not responsible for your actions." His head snapped up suddenly, and he looked towards the shadows nearby. "However I am responsible for your silence."
"Huh?" She wondered if he had heard something, but when she strained her ears to listen all that she could hear was the faint wind. "What-?"
"Quiet." He had grabbed her before she was aware he had moved, twisting her in his arms, holding a hand across her mouth. Her muffled squeak of protest died in her throat, and she didn't offer much of a struggle as he pulled her towards the bridge. Three figures stood there, backs to the twosome, with powerful flashlights scanning the ground.
"Civilians." There was disappointment in Kronos' voice. Sophie wondered what exactly he had been hoping for. She tried to voice a question, but his hand pressing against her lips made it impossible to speak.
"Quiet." His voice was no more than a breath on her cheek, and certainly the three men didn't hear it. She kept her eyes on them as Kronos dragged her closer to the gorge, not turning away until she felt her feet brush the edge of the cliff. She fought then, silently and hopelessly. Kronos carried her effortlessly, pulling her closer to the ground when the bridge loomed into sight.
"Don't throw me over." She managed to get the words out when his grip loosened slightly. A flash of cold blue - moonlight reflecting in his eyes - was the only answer she had. Struggling didn't do any good. She thought about trying to attract the attention of the three men with the torches, but they were further away now.
"Don't struggle." The voice was right in her ear and she felt the panic within her rise. Was this what he said to everybody before he killed them? Don't panic, don't struggle, don't try to fight me. Her whole body was over the edge of the cliff now, and she could feel the roughness of the rocky walls of the gorge pressed against her side. Rock, cold and smooth, and - emptiness. A hole.
"Keep steady." The voice was above her now, as she moved lower. Her feet felt the edge of the hole, and her arms, suddenly regaining the power of movement, reached out to grip the sides. The hole before her seemed to grow, swallowing her up as she fell forwards. Kronos wasn't holding her any longer, and for a second she thought that she had fallen into the gorge; then rock hit her, and she knew that she was lying in a tunnel. Weak with relief, she crawled forwards into the darkness. What the hell was this place? She hadn't seen anything like it when she had been on the bridge before, in the daylight. Whatever it was, it had to be very well hidden from above. Feet struck rock nearby, and she guessed that Kronos had landed beside her.
"Where are we?" It felt weird addressing her words to emptiness, but in here the darkness was so complete that she couldn't even see her fingers, when she held her hand close to her face.
"Home." Footsteps came towards her, then light flared up. She saw Kronos, lit by a match flame, then watched the little light as it moved towards the wall, touching a hanging lamp that flared up instantly. Its warm glow brought a steady light that was extremely welcome, even if it did carry gruesome shadows alongside it. Sophie saw a cavern, hewn out of rock, with unlit lamps that swung from the ceiling and an array of oddities lining the walls. Ancient skeletons that had fallen to pieces, wooden barrels sinking into shapelessness, stout chests bearing locks that were almost rusted away. Rugs lay on the floor, faded and thinned by age, and weapons stood in piles and pyramids, like stores in waiting for a war against soldiers from another age. There were swords and spears and shields and axes, all bearing the marks of extreme age. Cobwebs hung over them, showing how rarely they had been moved.
"It's incredible." She rose to her feet, heading over towards the bric-a-brac, studying it more closely. One of the axes had a head of bronze, and she could see how truly ancient it was. The still air down here, and the relative dryness of it all, had preserved them well, but the signs of age were still upon them. "Who brought all of these things here?"
"I did." He shrugged. "Me and my brothers. The chests and barrels are things that we stole from travelling merchants. We used to store them here. For some reason these never left. Perhaps we didn't think that they were worth selling, or maybe we liked them too much to want to lose them. I don't know."
"But these things are ancient. Did you steal them from museums? Archaeologists?"
"No." He retrieved another bottle from somewhere, and used the point of his sword to remove the cork. How he did it she couldn't see, but presumably he had extensive practice.
"I know. It's ancient." He threw himself down on the floor, apparently finding no hardship in the cold, uneven rock. "They know who I am. The locals. Why don't you?"
"I know who you are." She remembered all of the things she had read. "Your name is Peter Kerensky, and you're English. You murdered your sister-in-law, and had to go on the run. There are several crimes that were blamed on a man answering your description, but the authorities think that you might have a twin who's at least partly responsible. A man with a scar."
"Oh." He seemed amused, although she thought that there was an odd look that came into his eyes at the mention of the scar. One of his hands reached up, tracing a path vertically across his face, exactly where the scar had been in the picture of the man behind the incident in Bucharest. "And how far back do these reports of yours go? Ten years? Twenty? Long enough to include those policemen in New Zealand I suppose."
"Yes." She shifted her position, wanting to sit down but afraid to try it. He hadn't put his sword away yet, and even though he seemed relaxed enough, she didn't trust him not to do something unpleasant if he took a dislike to her actions.
"But not before then? Not Mexico in 1964, or Siam - Thailand, whatever - in 1958? Ireland in 1946?"
"1946?" She shook her head. "What is this, a family thing? You, your brother, your father - all nuts? Did your father run around the place dressed like an advert in a sex magazine as well, or is that just your thing?"
"You want to watch your mouth." His expression was one of mild tolerance, but his voice was filled with ice. She shifted awkwardly.
"Look, I don't know who the hell you think you are, but I want to leave now. This is all just a little too weird for me."
"Fine. See if you can get out. Just remember, when you're falling towards all those rocks down below, that it's not a good idea to try to leave this place on your own. Certainly not when you've never tried it before."
"Are you threatening me?"
He laughed, and her blood ran cold. "No. I don't need to threaten you. Why bother? If I want I can throw you out of the doorway and nobody would ever even see you fall. The police might find your body in the morning, and somebody would probably realise who you are. They wouldn't know how you got there, and neither would they care. They certainly wouldn't trace you to this place." He shrugged, and held up his bottle in a mocking salute. "Not threats. Just action. If I choose it."
"You think you're some kind of god, don't you." She could see it in his eyes, like the delusions in the eyes of a madman shut away from the world. "You think you can do anything."
"I can." He stood up then, striding towards her with the casual speed of an over-confident man picking up young women in a singles bar. "I do." Her eyes strayed to the sword, still held in one hand, and she swallowed hard. "I always have."
"I want to know why you brought me here." Her voice was horribly shaky, especially compared to his own calm tones. He grinned at her, a lascivious expression that suggested all kind of possibilities.
"You wanted to come. You're still looking for ways to prove that your life is worth living." He handed her the bottle, then spun on one heel and strode away. "And to tell you the truth, so am I."
"Are you going to kill me?"
"Hell, I don't know. Ask me tomorrow. Ask me the moment you leave. I won't know until you're either lying dead at my feet, or walking away beyond my reach. You've got an even chance either way."
"And the soldiers? The policemen?"
"Who cares? Like I said, they know who I am. They're unlikely to give up and walk away, now that you've given them such a good lead. If I have to kill them that's bad luck for them, but it shouldn't matter to you."
"It'll be my fault." She felt very hot, and it seemed strangely hard to breathe. He grinned at her.
"Yeah, it will. So how does it feel to condemn half a town to death?"
"You're sick." She turned away, heading back towards the entrance of the cave, but stopped as soon as she saw the task ahead of her. How could she climb those few feet of sheer rock, especially in the dark? Far beneath her, barely visible now that the moon was mostly hidden by cloud, was the bottom of the gorge. Her legs felt wobbly, and she felt the blood rush to her head.
"You want to be more careful." She was barely aware of his hands taking her arms, and leading her back away from the edge.
"Thanks." She remembered the bottle in her hand, and took a long drink, shocked by the strength of the alcohol. "I think."
"Death is overrated. It's not something to try just because you're bored." He offered her a smile that was almost warm, although his eyes rather spoiled the effect. "Stay here until morning. If you want to leave then, fine. At least you won't fall, or get yourself shot by trigger-happy soldiers when there's light to see by."
"Would you care?" She drank some more of the wine, and found herself wondering if it was the last of some truly ancient vintage, hidden here for who knew how long.
"Maybe. I haven't decided yet." He took the bottle away from her. "You should be careful with this. It's nearly five hundred years old. I hid a case of these bottles here in around 1610, and I haven't been back much since then. There are rather a lot of them left."
"You do talk a lot of rubbish." She headed back towards the middle of the cave, and sat down on what remained of a once thick rug. "So we're just going to stay here, are we? And do what exactly? Make fascinating small talk until the sun rises?"
"If you like." He seemed to have lost interest in her again, and instead of sitting down with her, or showing any sign of a desire to keep the conversation going, had started to look through the piles of old weapons. He seemed excited by them, earnestly polishing long ruined blades on a piece of cloth he had found. The bronze axe cleaned up well, and the cobwebs fell away from it, but the rest of the weapons didn't look salvageable, except as museum pieces. "Eventually, if the soldiers insist on staying out there, I'll have to start killing them. You can watch. Decide for yourself whether life is worth anything."
"I won't let you kill those people!" The shock in her voice gave her extra volume, and she listened to her words echoing around the room. Kronos flashed her an ironical smile.
"Yes you will. You'll watch, and you'll see what you think. Whether life is worth living, or only worth ending. You can decide once and for all if you're going to end it for yourself. It's a game, when you think about it."
"And you? You were wondering about your own life. About whether or not that was worth keeping. Or was that just talk?"
"No, I meant it." His cool eyes regarded her thoughtfully. "We could make that a part of the game, if you'd like. If, by this time tomorrow, you've decided that death really is what you're after, I'll abide by your decision. We can end it all together. How does that sound?"
"It sounds like you've been living on your own out here for too long."
"Maybe." He sat down opposite her, sword once more in its sheath, bottle of potent wine on the floor at his feet. The bronze axe lay across his lap, beginning to show signs of a remarkable shine. He seemed fascinated by it. "I need excitement, certainly. Challenges. Games. There's none of that here, in these hills. I suppose it comes from hiding for too long."
"And killing people helps?"
"Of course." He seemed surprised. "You're a sad lot these days, aren't you. You don't know. None of you do. You've never killed a man, and painted yourself in his blood. You've never set fire to a town. But you expect to be able to understand what makes me tick."
"So will you be, by this time tomorrow. Either that or you'll be dead." He smiled, and with an odd perversity she realised that she liked the way it made him look. Warmer somehow. More... human?
"I'm hungry." She realised it even though she was still scared, even though she was so unsettled. She wanted to be far away, from here and from him, but she couldn't help remembering that it had been a long time since she had eaten anything. She looked around at the boxes, wondering if there could possibly be anything remaining in one of them that was edible. How old were they really?
"Over there." He almost looked disappointed, as though he had been expecting her next words to be something more interesting or profound than the simple statement of her hunger. She looked to where he was pointing, and saw cans; several of them, piled neatly in a pyramid. She saw self-heating cans of soup and of coffee, a couple of tins of beans, and several of curried something. Not anything that screamed its nutritional value at her, but she decided that beggars couldn't be choosers. Selecting a can of soup she spent five frustrating minutes trying to figure out how to work the self-heating gimmick, before burning her fingers on the suddenly hot can. She offered some to Kronos, but he had shut her out again, and had eyes for nothing save the bronze axe.
"If you were really around four thousand years ago I suppose you must have seen a lot of them." Drinking the soup carefully, and trying not to scald her mouth, she nodded at the axe in his hands. He didn't look up, and for several moments didn't answer. She assumed that he wasn't going to, and turned away.
"Not really." He still didn't look up, and his words almost made her jump. "Historians like to give names to certain eras, but I'm not certain exactly what it is that they call the Bronze Age. I never noticed a time of as great a prevalence of bronze as they seem to imagine. But then, I had standards even back then that called for steel."
"I didn't think steel was invented back then."
"Steel has always been invented. It's just doctored iron, and for as long as men have played with metal they've known of that. Oh there were newer and better ways invented of making the steel, but most of them were needed only because the old ways were forgotten. The Mesopotamians could do things with steel that weren't rediscovered for another three thousand years, but no archaeologist will be able to tell you about it. They never see such things. The world has forgotten more knowledge than it currently knows."
"You really believe all of that, don't you." She felt sorry for him again, she realised. This poor man, lost in a fantasy world, in which he was somebody ancient and wise. He needed help, not arrest or death at the hands of the men she had caused to be sent after him. Perhaps her grandfather, a psychiatrist back in France, could be persuaded to pull a few strings and get the poor man the help he so obviously needed. It was almost sweet, really, the way that he had spoken of her as the one that needed help, to recover from her suicidal thoughts.
"Of course I believe it." He looked up from the axe for the first time, and she saw the burnished glow that his work had brought to it. It would never again be the weapon that it had once been, but in his hands it was recovering some of its former pride.
"You're laughing at me again." She finished the soup, and looked for somewhere to throw the can. Nowhere obvious presented itself, so she tossed it back to where she had found it. Kronos arched an eyebrow.
"Haven't you spoken to the people back at that town that you're staying in? They all know who I am."
"Yeah. So you said." She was conscious of her accent returning, the way it sometimes did when she was angry or tired, and saw the small smile that crossed his face in reply. He liked the fact that she was annoyed, and was beginning to lose control of herself. "So who are you then? Why do you think you're so special?"
"Think?" His brows deepened, and she saw the flickers of anger that ran through his eyes. "I don't think it, I know it. So do the others out there on the hillside. Do you think that so many of them have turned out, just because a few tourists were murdered? They say that's the reason, because they know that you won't believe the truth - but these people know their folklore. They might not believe who I am, but they know it anyway. They know that their ancestors passed down tales about me, and each and every one of them recognised those tales in the things that they heard, when I came back here. They know."
"Know what?!" He was driving her insane now, with his wild eyes and excited voice; his fierce, furious pride and allusions to something mysterious. Yet again she swallowed the urge to scream at him.
"What face the Apocalypse wears. What nightmares the name of Kronos once brought to the whole of the world." He moved closer to her, not rising to his feet, not shuffling, but seeming to glide like a snake across the floor. Half smiles danced across his face, and his eyes never once left hers. The bronze axe moved in his hand, until he was holding it as though ready for battle. She tore her eyes away from his long enough to see the newly cleaned blade swoop close to her, and she started to back away. His hand caught her arm and he began to stand up.
"No. Don't leave. Not yet. You wanted to know the truth."
"I know the truth. You need help."
"Oh it's not me that needs help." With a flick of his wrist he dragged her to her feet and hurled her against the wall. She struck it hard, the breath knocked from her body, dots floating before her eyes. The axe raised, and she swallowed hard. Hadn't they been getting on rather well? She had thought that things were going okay between them. He clearly saw the fear on her face and laughed at it, moving closer to her all the while.
"Don't--" She had been about to plead for her life, but realised the senselessness of that before she could fully embark upon the sentence. Why beg for a life that she knew meant nothing to him? Even if she was heartrending in her plea, he wouldn't take it seriously. That much she knew without doubt.
"Don't what?" He held up the axe, gazing at the blade as though seeing it for the first time, seeming to drink in every sweep and curve and each tiny blemish. "Do you think I would dirty this on you?"
"I..." Her voice trailed off when she realised that he was caressing his own wrists with the edge of the blade. He wasn't going to kill himself, was he? Right now? She didn't think that she could get out of the cavern without his help, and he would be no use to her dead. Besides, she didn't want to have to spend the rest of the night with a dead body for company, whilst she waited for enough daylight to see her way to safety. "Look, I--"
"Shut up." He was holding the shaft of the axe in two hands now, his eyes once again locked upon hers. "You wanted to know the truth, so don't hide from it when it comes. You wanted to know what the people of that town know, or think they know. You wanted to know if I was telling the truth about being four thousand years-old."
"I don't. Believe me, I don't."
"Oh but you do." He raised the axe one-handed, lifting it as high as he could. She stared at it, transfixed and horrified, certain that it would descend at any moment upon her head. His manic grin had increased. "Everybody always wants to know the truth."
"Does it hurt?" The words tumbled out before she could stop them, but he didn't laugh.
"Like fire. But don't worry, it won't hurt you." He gave the axe a swing; a wave in the air like the signal of a leader calling his troops into battle - then suddenly, swiftly, the weapon fell. She saw its gleaming, age-wearied blade bite deep into his chest, and saw the blood that spouted forth. It foamed from his mouth and gurgled in his throat, and she watched it pool on the floor at his feet. She screamed. He laughed.
"Keep screaming, mortal. Scream for help." The blood was flying from his mouth as he spoke, and a fine spatter decorated her clothing. She tried to back further away from him, but the wall was behind her, and there was nowhere for her to go. Blood was dripping onto her shoes, and as he coughed and laughed and choked, more of the stuff sprayed up at her. She felt droplets touch her face, and whimpered.
"Get away from me." She tasted his airborne blood as she spoke, and gagged. "Leave me alone."
"You wanted the truth." His voice was stronger than it should be; harder, and carrying more unpleasantness than it had done as yet. How could he carry so much force, retain so much strength, with a bronze axe lodged in his chest? She watched him, stricken with horror and revulsion, as he tore the weapon free. Blood showered her again, painting a fine spray over her clothes, and dripping thickly onto her shoes. Dark red blood, bright red blood; veins and arteries equally torn asunder. She wanted to throw up.
And still he was laughing. Still he was able to seize her wrist and keep her from breaking away. She began to shake, watching through building tears as he threw the axe away across the cave. It rang out as it struck the rock of the floor, painting speckles and streaks of blood on its way.
"Let me go." The words fell out in a jumble that was barely coherent. "Let me go and I'll find help. Get an ambulance. The soldiers out there..."
"Help?" He laughed in her face. "I just stuck an axe in my chest. There's no surviving an injury like that. Unless..." He let go of her suddenly, using both hands to tear away what remained of his T-shirt. The sight that met her eyes was hideous; bits of bone and internal organs protruding through slashed skin. He leaned against the wall, paler now, and at last beginning to show signs of weakening. "Keep watching."
"You're kidding!" She started to edge away, but he reached out for her, pulling her back. She fell against him, and her hand pressed into the mess that had been his chest. He winced.
"Now now. Fighting dirty is my game. Not yours." He pushed her away a little, dribbling more blood from his mouth. He had to be choking on it now, surely. Drowning in it even. How could he not be, given the amount that was running down his chin?
"What happens now?" Certain that he would not let her go, she began to resign herself to waiting here until he died. He was smiling at her again; leering rather than displaying any real humour; eyes filled with mockery and contempt.
"Now you see who I really am." He looked increasingly weak now, leaning his head back against the wall, taking deep breaths. Her eyes trailed down from the rivers of blood coming from his mouth, lingering without her consent on the gory mess that was his torso. It seemed to be moving, which made her stomach churn. More damage? Bits falling out of place because of the mess? He was still laughing at her, breathless now. His eyes were barely open.
"I could still help you." She had no idea how, but it seemed that as long as he was still breathing there might be a chance. His grin grew.
"Just watch." He couldn't hold his head up now, and it lolled, flopping forward so that at last she could no longer see his unnaturally bright eyes. His spell upon her was broken, to some degree at least, once those eyes were hidden, and she began to back away. He didn't do anything to stop her this time, and she merely watched him as he sat there, motionless, his chest no longer seeming to move. Was he dead? She was tempted to creep closer to him and check, but she couldn't bring herself to do so. He might wake up; might still have enough strength left to hurt her.
"Kronos?" The name sounded strange coming from her mouth. "Kronos, are you... dead?" There was no answer, which didn't really surprise her. It had, after all, been a pretty silly question. He still didn't move. Surely it would be safe to at least check for a pulse? For some reason she felt that it was necessary to do so. Drawing in a deep, shaky breath, she began to move back towards him. She thought that the wreck of his chest was moving again, though not with breath. Was it about to collapse in on itself? Could he have caused that much damage? Berating herself for her lack of biological knowledge, she reached out one hand to touch him, and met with skin that felt alive. Was that normal? How long before he actually felt dead? What did dead feel like, come to that? Her eyes fell once again to that horrific chest, staring unwillingly at the broken bone... the... mending bone? The retracting organs, the sealing skin. As she watched, transfixed, he came back together. The gash healed, the colour returned to the paling skin. Utterly terrified now, she began to run. The gaping nothingness beyond the cave's small entranceway meant nothing to her in her haste. She didn't even look to see where the door was.
"Wait!" His voice, strong and loud, rang out in the big room. She ignored him. Footsteps pounded after her, and she increased her speed. Moonlight shone ahead, but she still didn't think about the gorge. It didn't even enter her mind until a sudden, heavy force slammed into her back and knocked her to the ground. In falling she almost went over the edge, and a dizzying view of the bottom of the cliff swayed before her terrified eyes - then she was pulled back to safety with a jerk.
"I seem to make a habit of saving you." Strong as ever, Kronos was standing before her. His chest was still covered with blood, as was his chin, but he seemed to bear no real injuries. If anything he looked more powerful than before.
"I... didn't ask you to." It sounded petty - phenomenally so, especially after all that she had just seen. Things such as pettiness didn't seem to bother him though, for he merely smiled, yet again, and let her go.
"I know. I like doing little acts of charity every so often. It keeps my reputation in a state of flux." He turned away, stripping off the leather jacket and ruined T-shirt that were so doused with his own blood. "Well no, not really. Actually the only reputation I've ever had is as a bloodthirsty maniac, but I've found I like it that way." He caught up a heavy container of water, and upended it over his head, washing a red torrent onto the floor. She found that she was watching with a strange sense of fascination as he turned back around to reveal a chest that was completely unscarred.
"So now you know." He seemed almost childish, like a kid boasting about something he was proud of. She didn't respond; just watched as he found a clean shirt from somewhere and pulled it on. It had longer sleeves that hid the wiry muscles of his arms, and tiny silver buttons that caught the half-light as he wandered back towards her. For some reason, this time she didn't retreat.
"So you're... what exactly. Immortal?"
"Yeah." He bent to retrieve his sword, sliding it into some kind of sheath that appeared to be strapped to his back. She wondered how she had managed not to see it when he had taken his shirt off. Maybe it was invisible. After all that she had just seen, she was perfectly prepared to believe that. "But not just immortal. I'm an Immortal. My kind own the world, and we let you live in it through nothing more than charity. I wanted you to see, before I take you to the next stage of your education."
"Yes." He seemed to think that he was being terribly generous; like a benevolent ruler granting favours to a subject. "To show you what life is."
"But I thought you weren't sure about that yourself?"
"I can't always be sure if I want another four thousand years of life - but in the mean time at least I know what life is. I know what it means, because I know what it feels like to save it, or to take it. I know what it means because I spent four thousand years living it to the full, experiencing everything, doing everything, feeling everything. You - you've had what? Thirty years? Thirty years of wishing for things you've never had, and working for things you've never wanted. Thirty years of nothing, leading you to want to throw it all away. That's not life. If it was, you wouldn't have been quite so quick to think of ending it."
"I'm not the first to want to commit suicide." She turned away in disgust. "Look, I never asked you to interfere. I didn't want you to help me, or to save me, or to bring me here and show me... show me what you just showed me. I'm just an ordinary person. I live an ordinary life, and that's all I've ever wanted to do. I want to go back to that now."
"Too late." She knew exactly what expression was on his face, even though she couldn't see it. The manic grin, the glittery eyes. "Because I did save you. I did bring you here. I've shown you things that mortals aren't supposed to see, so that you can see a little of what really goes on in the world you're so anxious to leave. Now it's time to show you the rest of it."
"Rest? Such as? You talked about knowing what it feels like to save lives and to take them, but I'm never going to know that."
"Think again." Grabbing the bronze axe, he stuck it into his belt. "You're going to see it all, because that's the lesson I plan to teach you. I'm going to show you everything. My life, in one night."
"So that I can be sure I don't really want to die, or so you can be sure that you don't?" She blurted the question out without thought of how he might react to it, then flinched in anticipation of a storm. It didn't come though, and he seemed unperturbed by the implication.
"Maybe a bit of both. I died in 1997, but a few years later my brother brought me back to life. The thing is, you see, I had died because I wanted to, and even though I was glad at first to be alive again, I still have to face the things that made me want to die in the first place. A world I don't understand anymore, a life that's changed too much. For a while, with the fighting and the fun, I didn't have to think about that. Now I do. I wonder if perhaps what I really want is to be dead and buried, and never to have been brought back - but I was brought back. I am alive again. That's my story, mortal. What about yours?"
"It's nothing special." She was acutely conscious of how tiny the problems of a mortal woman must be to somebody who had lived for four thousand years. "I'm just not going anywhere, that's all. Everything I'd ever planned to do just hasn't happened. I can't get a job that I want to do, but everybody else I know is achieving so much. I see each year go by, and I realise I'm going nowhere. Doing nothing. My life is probably a third gone already, and I've done nothing with it. Sometimes carrying on seems so pointless, that's all."
"There's always a point. Even if it's just the point of a sword." He began to stride towards the mouth of the cave. "Now come on. We've waited here for long enough."
"Where are we going?" She didn't think to refuse. Even if she had believed that she had a chance or a choice, strangely she couldn't help feeling curious. She wanted to go with him, just as much as she wanted to run away and forget they had ever met.
"Up." It was all that he would say, so she followed him to the entrance of the cave. It looked darker than ever outside, with the moon just a glowing blur behind a smudge of grey cloud.
"But I can't climb up there. I barely made it down."
He shrugged. "I'll help."
"How? The edge of the cliff is too far away. You're no taller than I am."
"Maybe not. But I'm far less afraid of falling. Funny, isn't it, how worried you are when you still haven't convinced yourself that it's worth staying alive. I've seen a lot people kill themselves - I was even the cause of more than a few suicides - and nearly every one of them was screaming in fear as they went, or tried to fight it in the end."
"But you're not afraid of dying?"
"Afraid?" He had reached the doorway now, and leaned out into space. "Falling won't kill me, at least not for long. There's no reason for fear."
"Aren't you the lucky one."
"Yeah." He reached out, stretching up with his hands to a ledge with which he was presumably familiar. She had forgotten his claim to have frequented the place thousands of years ago, and tried to imagine him, in the olden days, climbing in and out of the place with the weapons and stores that had remained there. It seemed well nigh impossible to perform such a feat, but perhaps he was right, and the removal of fear did bring the impossible more within reach. If she had still doubted that, she ceased to do so when she saw him suddenly leap upwards, and swing himself up out of sight. A scratching noise followed his progress upwards, and soon she knew that he had reached the top of the cliff. A few seconds later he was leaning down to her, holding the handle of the bronze axe for her to grasp.
"Grab a hold." His voice was icy and firm, yet with a certain sense of comradeship behind it. She wondered how he could possibly hope to pull her up. What was he holding onto, in order to reach down like this? She knew that he wouldn't answer her if she asked though, and would probably be insulted by such an apparent lack of faith - so reaching up, and trying not to look down, she grabbed onto the handle of the axe. It was made from some kind of wood, she thought, aged to the appearance of metal. It felt harder beneath her fingers than any kind of wood she had ever held, and looked darker in colour than any tree she could name. It was worn to an unexpected smoothness, but pocked and scuffed by age, and her fingers didn't slip when she gripped it. Almost immediately she felt her feet jolted off the ground. A wave of panic ran through her, but she closed her eyes tightly, clung grimly on, and told herself that he was strong enough to lift her. She wasn't going to fall. She wasn't going to slip. She wasn't going to fall down into that gorge. Not yet, anyway. Not until she had made that decision for herself.
"Nice trip?" She was lying on the grass at the cliff's edge before she was aware of it, still clinging to the handle of the axe. Kronos was standing above her, ironic smile still etched onto every line in his face.
"Yes." She smiled back at him, a little weak from the realisation that she had made it without falling. She didn't remember being so scared or relieved before, "I didn't think you were strong enough to lift me."
"To be honest, neither was I." He shrugged, and every bit of hatred she had ever felt for him came flooding back. He was dismissing her again, as a nothing that was without consequence. "But I was, and you're still here. So we both got what we wanted, didn't we."
"I really, really hate you." She meant it as she said it, but when he leant down to pull her to her feet she couldn't help feeling differently. Why was anybody's guess.
"Hate is good." He handed her the axe, and she took it uncertainly. "Hate is a good way to be sure of being alive. It's a good way to feel alive. It's a very powerful emotion."
"But not a very constructive one."
"Depends what you want to construct." He turned his back on her, and she thought about burying the axe in his skull. If he was thinking about suicide there had to be some way to kill him - and perhaps she would get lucky and that would be it. Even if not, it might buy her enough time to make an escape. She didn't do it though, and just watched him as he turned to stare up at the sky. "If you want to construct yourself a pretty triumph of peace and love and understanding, I suppose hate is a bit of a stumbling block. But if you want to experience everything that life has to offer - the good and the bad; the hot and the cold; the pain and the pleasure - then hate is indispensable."
"If you say so. I've never really hated anybody before."
"Then I'm already teaching you something, aren't I." He pointed skywards. "See that constellation? That's Cassiopeia."
"I know." She stepped up to stand alongside him. "I do know some things. Some of them are even worth knowing."
He eyed her as though she were something barely worthy of contempt. "Cassiopeia," he continued, with just a touch of superiority in his tone, "is the guiding constellation of the people who raised me. It was a tradition within the caravan to always face the horses and the tents towards her at night. She wasn't called Cassiopeia then of course, although her shape hasn't really changed enough to comment on. She could still have been a reclining queen. Back then I knew her as Carys. I don't know what language it's from, but it means 'crooked line'. I always liked that. A crooked line, zigging and zagging its way from one place to another."
"Is there a point to this?" She could feel her courage beginning to swell, perhaps now that they were no longer in that strange half-world beneath the ground. Just a few minutes ago she wouldn't have dreamed of showing disrespect. He didn't take his eyes from the stars.
"Of course there is. By daylight, when in doubt head east. Always face the rising sun, unless you plan to attack someone. But by night, always aim for Cassiopeia."
"Because you'll always find what you're looking for, that's why." He started walking, without bothering to see if she would follow. She did so, surprised at the fact that she had not even hesitated.
"And what are we looking for?"
"What do you think? Our pursuers. My pursuers. Your mortal friends who think they know who I am. With their folklore and their records, and their theories about how much of it all is true. We're going to hunt them, just like they're trying to hunt me." He grinned, and the moonlight shone in his eyes and flashed on his teeth, and on every one of the little sparkling silver buttons on his shirt. "Only with greater style, and a good deal more success."
"And what do we do when we find them?" She looked a little pale and drawn, even more so than was a natural result of the moonlight. He could tell that she had already guessed the answer, but her natural revulsion for it was contradicted by the sort of fascination with which he was more than familiar.
"What do you think? We have a tea party, invite their friends and relations."
"You want to kill them, don't you." She didn't sound nearly as shocked as she wanted to be, and she couldn't help realising that somewhere deep inside was a horrible sort of wonder; an excitement that she didn't want, but couldn't fight.
"Hey, I want to kill everybody. Why discriminate? But here I get the hunt; the added fun of staying out of their way, and chasing them whilst they think that they're chasing me. It all adds to the game."
"And supposing I tell them? Supposing I make a noise, lead them to you, run away and warn them that you're planning to kill them? What then?"
"Then?" He reached out one pale, moonlit hand, stroking it gently across her cheek. "You know what happens then. You couldn't get away from me, mortal. You couldn't get six feet without my sword slicing you in half. One shout, one word of warning, and your head will be shouting by itself in the next world, whilst your body lies rotting here in the hills. You know that." He smiled at her, in the most insinuating, appalling fashion, making her skin crawl at the sight of it. "But you don't want to run, do you. Just like every other mortal I ever chose to play my games with, you talk of what's right and wrong, and about how evil I am - and yet when it comes down to it you're as transfixed by the blood and the violence as I ever was. More so perhaps. At least I never claimed to hate it."
"You don't know that. You don't know how I'd react. I - I've never seen a man die. Why would I want to do that now?"
"Because." He started walking onwards again, faster now. There was an urgency in his movements that suggested a real desire to get his little game underway.
"Because what?" She hurried after him, wishing that, if he had to drag her along on his little adventure, he could have found somewhere a little less rocky and uneven to do it in.
"Because you want to." He clammed up after that, even though she didn't really consider it to have been much of an answer. Presumably it was to him - or perhaps he was just sinking back into another of his uncommunicative phases. She trailed along after him, trying to think of further questions, and trying to convince herself that she wanted to make a break for it. Was it cowardice keeping her at his side? The thought that she didn't want to risk her own life saving others? Somehow she preferred that to the idea that she actually wanted to watch him kill people. What would he do to them? Would it be very gruesome, or clean and quick? And what if he didn't manage to complete his self-set task, and was captured? What would happen to her? She didn't like the idea of being arrested as his accomplice, and spending the rest of her life behind bars. She stayed with him though, and as the minutes ticked by and the scenery moved on past them at ever increasing speeds, she stayed at the heels of the Immortal. She couldn't think of anywhere else to go.
And so she learnt what it was like to be a hunter. After years of behaving conventionally, and living her life the way her peers dictated, Sophie Laseaux found herself crawling that night through the rough terrain of the Polish mountains, thick black mud obscuring the whiter parts of her clothing, the wickedly glittering ancient bronze axe gripped tightly in her hand. Kronos had painted his face in swirls of black, a design clearly intended more for dramatic effect than for camouflage. Whatever the paint was, it smelled strongly of charcoal, and stuck thickly and wetly to the skin. He had insisted on trying out a few of his designs on her own face, even though it didn't show up well on her black skin. For some reason she was proud of the marks though, as if they were something that she had earned the right to wear. Marks of rank, perhaps, or the hard won paint of a warrior heading into battle.
"Are you sure you know where you're going?" They seemed to have been walking for a long time now, without any sign of the soldiers and policemen that she knew were out here somewhere. He glanced back at her impatiently.
"I told you. We're following Cassiopeia."
"Yeah, I know. I was just wondering if she really knows where she's going."
"Trust me." He was pulling ahead again, and she watched him approach the gentle upward slope that lay before them. He was almost at the top when he threw himself down, lying flat on the grass as though suddenly in need of sleep.
"What--" She broke off at his manic, one-handed gestures, and lowered herself down to the ground as well. Had he seen something? Heard something? She couldn't hear a thing, and all that she could see was the grass. She changed her voice to a urgent whisper in order to make another stab at her question. "What's happening?"
"To what? Kronos, I can't hear anything. There's nobody here."
"You're fast becoming an unpleasant burden, you know that?" His voice had dropped down again, once more taking on that icy quality that was so horrible to her ears. "Listen. Listen or leave."
"Fine." She crawled a little closer, wondering if there was something over the rise that was the source of whatever sounds he could hear. There was still nothing. All she could hear was her own quickened breathing, and the wind rustling the grass round about. As she reached the top of the slope, and peered over it to what lay beyond, she saw nothing at all. Not even a nocturnal animal disturbed the peace. She sighed.
"I give up. I've listened, I've looked. Are you going to tell me why we're lying here, or do I have to go on guessing? There's nobody here."
"Not yet, no." He had his head cocked on one side, listening to the wind. "There are three people heading this way. Heavy boots, so they're probably soldiers."
"You're kidding. You can tell that?"
"Of course." He rolled over onto his back, staring up at the stars. "Two minutes, perhaps less. Depends on whether their speed changes."
"And then they arrive. They stand down there. We join them."
"And they shoot us?"
"Yeah." He stood up, stark and strong in silhouette. "That's one option."
"Shut up." And he was gone, running down the slope, down into the small depression below. She lay still, peering over the top of the slope, looking down towards him. A thin mist had risen from the ground, covering his feet to the ankles, rising in tiny, sylph-like tendrils to point skeletal fingers at the stars. The moon made the mist glow, and the black paint on his skin was all that she could see of his face. Somewhere close by a voice asked a question, but she couldn't hear enough of it to know what it was. She only heard the answer, a little louder, a little more easily deciphered.
"Another hour, then we turn back."
"And then mine's a double." There was a chorus of broken laughter in answer to this comment. Sophie wondered who the voice belonged to, and felt the shout of warning form itself against her vocal chords. Her mouth stayed shut though, and ever though her body trembled with the building tension, she didn't move. Didn't stand. Didn't speak a word. She was still telling herself that she would do something - anything - when the three approaching men walked into view. It wasn't too late even now, her senses told her - but she still didn't do anything. Instead she watched as the three men moved towards the one man standing before them.
"Peter Kerensky?" The lead soldier, a sergeant in a uniform that looked as though he had slept in it every night for a week, was already lifting his rifle. Kronos hadn't made a move with his sword, and just stood there, as still as a rock. She thought that she saw his eyes glitter menacingly though, when a finger of moonlight brushed across them.
"No." He was smiling. "My name is Kronos." A hushed whisper of a reaction passed between the three men, and he laughed. "But then, you already suspected that. Didn't you."
"You're coming with us." A sharp scrape of metal indicated that three rifles were being readied for use. Sophie's heart began to rise into her throat.
"No." The voice was quiet and gentle, with a crispness about it that made it impossible not to hear. "I've been where you're going, and I'm not going back there."
"Just put your hands above your head." The rumpled sergeant moved a little closer, lifting his rifle to point straight at the chest of the man he was confronting. He looked into a set of icy, pale eyes; saw a grim, cold smile etched onto a mad, painted face, and just for a second he hesitated. Just for a second, his finger moved away from the trigger of his weapon, and just for a second his body blocked the aim of his two friends. Sophie's mouth fell open to shout a warning, but she still didn't make a sound; and in that strangely frozen second, the only one of them that moved was Kronos. Sophie saw him draw his sword; saw its cold, moonlit length flash as a blur of silver and white in a beautiful, horrible curve that ended in a burst of arterial red. Before her widened eyes the chest of the scruffy sergeant tore open, and with a wail of pain and shock he collapsed. Kronos stepped over him, his right boot pressing down into the man's upturned back, stifling his cries against the mud. A shot rang out, but Sophie could see that it had gone wild. A little plume of dirt spat upwards from the ground, marking the place where the bullet had struck. A moment later the fired rifle fell to the ground, as its owner's severed head spun away in an arc of gore. Sophie wanted to scream, but her lungs still wouldn't work. She stared on, transfixed by the sheer spectacle; saw the last remaining soldier raise his rifle, and heard the burst of bullets. She saw a shiver run through Kronos as he reacted to what must have been several hits; then saw a hand still gripping its rifle fall earthwards. The soldier choked off a cry of agony - a single, miserable noise - before the blade of the sword tore him open from his waist to his chin. He collapsed like a puppet, dropped in a sorry heap by the puppet master, into a lifeless tumble of limbs. Unmoved, Kronos began to clean his sword.
"Are you alright?" She walked towards him rather stiffly, unsure why she was asking the question. He glanced up, and the unfailing moon picked out the splashes of red across his clothes, standing out even against the black of the cloth. She wondered which ones were stains from the bullet holes that must still be leaking, and which were just the result of the messy kills.
"Of course I'm alright. His step was unsteady though, as he turned away from his victims and looked back towards the path they had been taking. "Come on."
"Or stay. Whichever." He was walking away from her, and she felt a strong burst of panic. She didn't want him to go - didn't want to be left here alone, with these three dead men. Already the place had a restless air about it, like that of any place where violent death had come unexpectedly. An air of ghostliness and unhappiness, and a feeling of faint oppression. Kronos didn't wait for her, and she had to run. How could he move so fast with who knew how many bullets in him?
"You were shot." She tried to keep her voice steady. "You should take it easy for a bit."
"Three bullets. They all found their way back out again, and I don't expect they hit anything too vital."
"Most bits are pretty vital when you think about it. Vital enough to be a worry when large bits of lead go through them, anyway. Are you sure you're alright?"
"I'm quite alright." He was obviously getting irritated. "If they had hit my heart, I'd have known about it. Nothing else is likely to be too debilitating. Now keep your voice down."
"More soldiers?" She felt a sick feeling in her stomach. Would she warn these ones? Did she dare? But then again, did she really want to? She remembered the creeping feeling of excitement and awe she had experienced when Kronos had killed the first three men, and found herself feeling oddly eager for more. What was wrong with her? Had she always been like this?
"No, not soldiers this time. Policemen or civilians."
"No big boots?"
"And no chit chat." He smiled back at her, although with more dark amusement than warmth. "Soldiers talk. Make jokes. Trench humour, they used to call it. Other people have a different attitude to this kind of work. They're more likely to show their fear and unease."
"You ought to write a book. Enemies, And How To Find And Kill Them. It'd be a best-seller by the end of the year."
"You're recovering your sense of humour." He paused slightly in his stride, and looked at her askance. "It's not very welcome, but it does mean that you're remembering how to live." She didn't know how to answer that, and so didn't.
"How far away are these policemen?"
"Not far. Close enough to be able to hear you, certainly."
"Oh." She felt a little embarrassed, and then told herself off for it. "Sorry."
"No matter. They're still coming this way." He grabbed her suddenly, pulling her behind an old, gnarled tree that stood nearby. As hiding places went it was fairly pathetic, but she was sure that if she crouched down she would be largely invisible. Kronos, needless to say, showed no desire to hide.
"What are you-?"
"Shut up." He moved away from her, and as if on cue the moon slipped behind a cloud. He vanished, lost in accelerated darkness just as the approaching footsteps finally became audible to her. She thought that she saw the shadows increase, but couldn't put any number to the new arrivals. Three, four, five? Somebody shouted something in Polish, but she had become so used to conversing in English that it took her brain longer than usual to translate.
"I saw something."
"Me too." The second voice was deeper than the other, and sounded as though it belonged to somebody full of Dutch courage. "Are these mountains haunted?"
"Only by ghosts too old to worry about who you are." A third man came a little closer, and Sophie pressed down against the base of the twisted old tree. The bark was leaving its print on her hands and knees, and she ignored the discomfort.
"There was definitely a female voice." A fourth man spoke up next, his voice coming from further away than the previous three. "I wish my English was better."
"What good would that do?" A fifth voice, female and somewhere around middle age. She sounded as though she smoked a lot, decided Sophie, before wondering when she had got so observant. "We're not interested in what they're talking about. Just where they are."
"Which is probably right on top of us, listening to everything we're saying." The third man stepped briskly forward, passing so close to the tree that Sophie was sure he would be able to hear her breathing. "Maybe we should try being a little more noisy. I think it might be possible, if we really try hard. The other units might not have heard us yet."
"There's no need to get sarcastic." Footsteps scuffed the grass. "Anyway, we've got the guns. This guy has never been seen with more than a sword. We can drop him before he can get anywhere near close enough to--" The man's voice broke off into a curiously choking gurgle, and Sophie pressed her face into the side of the tree. She knew what had happened, even though the man's comrades clearly didn't. She wondered why she didn't feel more sick, and why she still wasn't making any move to speak up. Deep within her she could hear exhortations to sound the alarm; to warn these people what was coming. Instead she found that she was smiling, and holding her breath in what was now, unmistakably, excitement. A thud indicated that the man whose monologue had been cruelly cut short had just hit the ground. Somebody exclaimed in surprise, and in that moment a bright light lit up the ground. A hand held floodlight - a beam of almost painful brilliance - brought daylight to a broad strip of the hillside. Sophie shrank back into the shadows, at the same time trying to see what was going on. She saw three men and a woman, all dressed in dark blue that should have been pristine, but wasn't any longer. A hard day and night tramping about in the mountains looking for an elusive killer had left them mud-spattered and dishevelled, and two of them looked as if they had fallen over at least once. The one wielding the torch swung it around in a half-circle, dizzying Sophie when the powerful glare bit into her eyes. There was no shout though; no sign that anybody had seen her. Instead they were all looking at Kronos.
He was standing over the body of one of their number, half crouched, like an animal defending its prey. Blood ran down his face, fresh and wet, where clearly it had burst from his victim's battered body. It was hard to see exactly what he had done, but from the amount of blood that was already soaking the grass all around, it was clear that it had been something violent. He was grinning, his eyes hot and bright and sparkling in the light of the torch, the blood dribbling into the face paint, blurring it all in rivers of red and black that left him looking like the worst kind of debauchery given form. At the sound of an exclamation of revulsion from one of the onlookers, however, his whole manner changed. Coming suddenly erect he pointed the sword at the four other police officers, shoulders going back, head coming up, in a display of furious, exultant pride.
"You know who I am. What made you think you could come here, to my mountains, and kill me?"
"Put the sword down." One of the officers had obviously done the 'talking the psycho down' course quite recently, and had adopted the world renowned placatory gesture of holding both hands out and looking unthreatening. "There are more of us than there are of you."
"Numbers don't matter when you have the Apocalypse in your back pocket." He moved a little closer to them, and they back-pedalled slightly. "If you want to try your luck you can do it one at a time or all at once. It doesn't matter to me."
"One quick radio message from us and every policeman and soldier in the country will be breathing down your neck. You'd be better just to surrender." The woman was walking slowly towards him, trying to look as though she wasn't really trying to think of a way to disarm him. "At least then you'll get a nice room. Comfortable bed. Good food. It's got to be better than sleeping in the mountains, eating - what? Rabbits?"
"And the occasional policeman." He pointed his sword at her. "Come and get me, if you really think it's what you want. It's not an especially great night for dying, but it's better than some."
"You're not killing anybody." The woman raised her gun, a chunky looking hand weapon that looked like it might have been able to fell an elephant in its tracks. "Just put the sword down, and put your hands above your head."
"You're joking." He lowered the sword, and blood ran down its blade onto the ground. Somebody retched. "Do you really believe that your little peashooter scares me?"
"If you don't surrender I'll blow a hole in your chest so big that we'll be able to stick your head in it once we've cut it off." Her lips twitched into a thin, self-confident smile that Sophie decided she didn't like. "I've heard a lot of rumours and stories about you, and who you're supposed to be; but even if only a fraction of them are true, cutting your head off will end this. And that would make the world a good deal happier."
"Maybe it would." His left hand twitched, and Sophie saw something glitter between his fingers. "But there are a lot more ways to get shot of you." His hand moved, and a small, exquisitely crafted knife flashed through the air. The woman staggered, and dropped onto one knee.
"What...?" She was confused, unable to see what the problem was. One of her hands rose uncertainly, touching her chest and feeling the wetness of blood. The knife moved as her fingers glanced off it, and she gave a gasp of sheer pain, then slowly toppled over. One of her companions crouched beside her, and shook his head.
"She's dead." Clearly he was addressing his colleagues, for Kronos certainly didn't care. He cocked his head on one side, regarding the mortal thoughtfully.
"You bastard." The policeman's voice shook with emotion. "You cold, bloodthirsty bastard. There was no need for that."
"There's always a need." Kronos pointed at the furious mortal, using his sword blade the way somebody else might have used an accusing finger. "Even if it's just desire."
"You cold, unfeeling--" With a roar that made Sophie jump with fright the man came to his feet and threw himself at the Immortal. Galvanised into action by their companion the two other men also came to life, running forward at his heels as though they were, together, some mirror of a pack of hunting wolves. Kronos made no effort to fall back, and instead his face twisted into a grin that was at once both terrible and wonderful; an expressive conglomeration of his joy, as well as all the darker emotions that made him what he was. Sophie saw the sword move upwards, and saw the first of the men run full tilt onto the blade as though unable to avoid its silver grasp. The sickening sound that his body made as Kronos wrenched the weapon free seemed to the mortal woman watching as though it were the single most terrible noise ever heard upon the face of the Earth; then the man had dropped to the ground. His friends stumbled past him, both of them coming at Kronos at once. Sophie saw gunmetal gleam in the moonlight - saw the sword dance forward again - saw one of the men stumble and fall. Then all at once the sound of gunfire burst free upon the night, churning up the darkness with the spitting flame of charging bullets. For a second Kronos was frozen; a dark shape silhouetted against a spray of light from the muzzle of a gun; then his body leapt and danced and jerked like a puppet controlled by a madman; a furious display of energy that could not have been natural. Sophie saw him hurled backwards by the force of the bullets tearing through him; saw his body judder and quiver as it crashed to the ground; then, finally, she saw him lying still. Nothing moved anywhere for a second.
"Got you." The voice of the mortal man who had fired carried no sign of celebration or joy. He was angry; furiously so. Hurt perhaps, scared, or just shaken. The gun wobbled in his hand and then fell, and for a moment he didn't move at all. Sophie wondered what she should do. Was Kronos about to revive? She didn't think so. Perhaps even he needed time to recover from those kind of injuries. Should she run away? Remain hiding here? Stand up and show herself? Was it time to prepare a speech telling how she had been kidnapped, brought here against her will? Could she successfully lie about the number of people she had seen Kronos kill - people she had not tried to save? Could she make any of it sound convincing? She didn't try in the end, and stayed where she was, watching. The policeman who was still on his feet made some comment, and Sophie took it to mean that at least one of his comrades was still alive. The last one to have been wounded by the sword she assumed, since it seemed unlikely that any of the others could still be breathing. Moments later he was standing over Kronos, with a rifle gripped firmly in his arms.
A rifle? Sophie didn't know much about guns, but she knew that this one was huge. At such a range it could do untold damage, and the policeman was pointing it squarely at Kronos' head. She imagined the shot, and what would happen; could see Kronos' skull bursting apart like an over-ripe watermelon dropped at a market stall. That would kill him; she didn't need to be an expert in the ways of Immortality to know that. Her heart quickened, and she found herself shrinking from the thought of his death. He couldn't die. She couldn't let him.
With a scream that came not from her, it seemed, but from some distant primordial ancestor, she leapt from her hiding place and raced towards the frozen tableau. She was snatching the axe from her belt as she ran, eyes focused on nothing in the world save the policeman with the waiting rifle. She saw him turning half towards her, saw his weapon move to point at her instead; and saw the axe in her hands, no longer moving under her control, swing up in a perfect, faultless arc. Her body jerked as the impact jolted her wrists; she felt her hands gripping more tightly to a weapon that she did not want to lose; and through eyes that seemed suddenly all-seeing she saw a head spin away through the air. The policeman's body crumpled and vanished from her consciousness, and the axe fell from her hands.
"Who are you?" The weak voice of the one remaining policeman broke into her thoughts, and she turned jerkily towards him. He was lying just a few feet away, one hand gripping his service revolver, the other pressed to a wound in one side. She wondered if that hole in him - that clean, gaping tear - was a terminal wound; then knew that it made no difference. How could she leave him, with or without that gun in his hand? She gulped in several breaths of blood-scented, blood-tasting air.
"I'm nobody," she told him, and her eyes met his. He knew, she could tell. He knew that she was going to kill him, and he knew that she was just starting to realise that she would enjoy it. She wondered if he knew why, for that much at least still eluded her.
"Call the police," he told her, his voice weak. She thought about it. Even though she had just killed his friend, she still thought about it. Thought about going back; about finding a way to put everything back like it had been, before she had met Kronos, before she had watched men die; before she had killed them herself.
But there was no going back, and she knew it. Her eyes fell almost unconsciously upon the sword Kronos had dropped onto the grass. She barely thought about lifting it, about raising it as high as she could, the blade that was still washed with the blood of his colleagues pointing straight towards the man at her feet. She closed her eyes then, so that she wouldn't need to see the dying eyes, and used all of her strength to smash the blade deep into his chest. He made no sound, and it was some time before she realised that he must be dead; that she was still standing there, the sword deep inside him, her eyes closed tight and her head bowed. She couldn't pull the weapon free, and so she left it.
"Kronos?" Part of her didn't expect him ever to be able to answer her again. Even though she had seen him recover once, and knew that he had been shot before and survived, still she couldn't quite believe that he could recover this time. How could he? His chest had been torn apart, and as she peered down at him, she saw more blood than she had ever seen before. What if he never woke up? She told herself not to think of such things, and instead lowered herself to the ground to sit beside him. One of her hands sought one of his, and she held it tightly. So warm, yet chilled by the cold night air. So still, so lifeless. She clung on, not knowing what else to do, and waited to see what would happen.
He awoke at dawn. She hadn't realised how close it was; how old the night had become. One minute there had been darkness; the darkness that always came before the reawakening of the light. She had lowered her head, closing her eyes and trying to remember why she had come out here tonight; then suddenly she had opened her eyes again to faint, grey sunlight. Birds were beginning to sing, and the shadows were creeping soundlessly away across the grass. She blinked, a little disorientated, and stared around at the newly arisen world.
It was going to be a cold day, or at the very least a cool one. She could see that straight away, even though she had never really had such awareness before. Her eyes travelled over the small creatures scattered about, showing no fear in a place where no person had moved in some time. Young rabbits, birds fluttering this way and that; a small, fox-like creature snuffling nearby. Her eyes lingered on those places where she knew that she would not be able to see the dead people that lay around her, but in the end she turned herself, with an effort, to look at them as well. They were sprawled where they had fallen, naturally enough, arms and legs splayed, blood spread out over a wide area. The last one to die; the one that she had speared with the sword, was still fixed rigidly to the ground; the sword standing up like Excalibur driven into the stone. She shivered, but she wasn't sure how she felt.
"Morning." Kronos sounded disappointed. She jumped at the sound of his voice, and turned her head to look back at him. He hadn't moved, but as she looked at him she realised that his eyes were half open, and must have been all along.
"I don't know what time it is," she told him, although she was wearing a watch and could have looked at it at any time. She didn't think of it.
"It's morning," he told her, as though there wasn't anything else that mattered. Morning, daytime, evening, night - perhaps he didn't recognise any other times. Daylight and darkness the only distinctions of importance. She smiled.
"You could be the death of the modern world, you know that? Time is supposed to be important. We're always supposed to know what time it is."
"Why?" He sat up, although the movement clearly required some considerable effort of willpower. Bullets lay all around him, and she knew that they must have been ejected by his body. He had been lying on a cushion of them.
"Because. I don't know. Got to know the time, got to save time. Got to be doing something." She helped him to his feet. "You look like hell."
"No I don't." Seeing the axe lying unattended nearby, he bent to collect it, then pulled his sword free of its gory resting place with no apparent relish. "Believe me, I've been there."
"Then what does it look like?" She didn't really want an answer, but something made her ask the question anyway. He shrugged.
"Like hell. I didn't like it much. Decided not to stay. Funny, but you'd think a place full of torment and debauchery would be fun. I suppose that would rather be against the point, though, wouldn't it." He shouldered his sword. "We ought to be moving. There'll be people out soon, looking for everybody who hasn't reported back in."
"How long do you think it'll take them to find..." Her voice trailed off as she thought about the dead people again and more particularly the two that she herself had killed. Her legs were starting to shake.
"I don't know. Depends on whether or not they have any equipment on them. Homing beacons or whatever. They could be here in five minutes, five hours or five days."
"And then they'll find out." She shivered. "I've never been a wanted murderer before."
"There's a first time for everything." He wasn't being exactly supportive, which infuriated her. She had saved his life, and if he had noticed he wasn't showing any sign of caring. She thought about mentioning it herself, but decided not to. Why sink to his level?
"I suppose so," was all that she said in the end. He shook his head.
"You don't see it, do you. Tell me, my shaky little mortal woman, exactly what you're feeling right now."
"Sophie. My name is Sophie, not 'mortal', or any of the variations of that you've been using. And what do you mean what am I feeling? What do you think I'm feeling? I've just killed two people. I looked them in the eyes, and I killed them with a bloody great axe and a sword so coated in gore it almost made me throw up. I want to faint, that's what I'm feeling. I want to be horribly and violently sick, and then go and curl up somewhere and pray that it's all been a dream. How should I be feeling?"
"Alive." His eyes were sparkling like fireworks. "When I met you you were so sunk in self pity that you couldn't even get properly angry when I got in the way of your perfect little suicide plan. Now you're feeling everything more strongly than you've ever felt it before. Extremes of emotion; pure and sweet. Don't tell me that you don't feel alive."
"I feel..." She shuddered. He was right of course, but the idea of it made her hate herself. So in learning how to live again she had had to kill somebody? Two somebodies? In getting past her own suicidal moment she had had to take lives? It seemed like the most selfish of exchanges, but she couldn't deny that she was grateful for it. She turned her back on him, and wished that she had let that policeman kill him, and obliterate that grinning, mad head. He surprised her, though, by reaching out and putting a hand on her shoulder.
"They're not important, Sophie. Nobody is important in life except yourself. Nobody else matters. No other death counts, no other ambitions mean a thing."
"If I believed that I'd hate myself more than I did the day I decided to jump off that bridge." She pushed his hand away, but turned back in the end to look at him. "Why? Why did you bring me here? Why did you let that man shoot you?"
"Who let him? I didn't know he'd be so quick with that gun." He sighed. "I didn't trick you, you know. I didn't make you come out here to see me, I didn't force you to come with me, and I didn't make you feel obliged to kill these people to save my life. You did it all yourself."
"Yeah." She remembered the moment of the first kill, and thought about the elation that she could not deny she had felt. "I thought..."
"Thought what? That you weren't a killer? That you are now?" He bent to begin cleaning his sword, apparently willing enough to waste time despite his warning that there might not be much of it left. "Almost everybody can kill, given the right circumstances. The right set of encouragements. But it takes more than that to make you into someone like me."
"You have a really warped view of the world, you know that?"
"Not really. I'm just realistic." He finished cleaning off the blood, and began earnestly burnishing the blade. "Or maybe I'm just a little out of date. Time was we all carried swords, and fought in the street, and killed each other at the slightest provocation."
"Times have changed." She smiled, even though she didn't feel much like it. He glanced up, meeting her gaze with his piercing blue eyes.
"Yes, they have. These days you prefer to kill each other with bombs, and pretend you're doing it for grand causes." He shrugged. "Still, it's your world, your century. You're the one who has to live in it."
"Meaning what? That you're not going to?"
He grinned. "Hoping that I've decided to jump off the nearest cliff, or hand over my sword and ask you to take a good swing?" Setting the weapon aside, he stood up and facd her with glittering eyes. "Sorry, but that's not what I meant. I'm an Immortal, that's all. I was born four thousand years ago, and I've seen millennia begin and fade; religions born and die. I'm outside Time. Damned if I'm going to kow-tow to it."
"You've changed." She wasn't sure how, but she knew that he had. He smiled.
"So have you. Your eyes are alive again."
"Yes. I suppose so..." She couldn't deny that she felt wonderful, even if she hated herself for it. He clapped her on the back.
"Don't let it get you down. Those people would have died eventually anyway, one day. So why let your conscience bother you? Just think about everything that it did for you. All those frustrations that you needed to work off. All those secret furies, all those hidden hates. Everything eating you up from the inside out, and killing you slowly all the time. All gone now."
"That your opinion as an expert?"
"It's the truth." He shrugged, unperturbed by the bitterness in her voice. "But you don't have to listen to me. Forget all of this. Hide from it and pretend it never happened, and you'll soon feel the resentments come back. And then, sooner or later, you'll wind up here again, ready to jump off that bridge."
"So I'd be better devoting my life to murder and mayhem just so that I can feel alive?" She shook her head, arguing with the horrible thought that he was right. "I don't understand you, Kronos. You're an intelligent man. Why can't you see that life doesn't have to be like that?"
"Mortals." He shook his head, clearly disgusted with her for something. "I'm not telling you to become another me. There's nothing on this Earth that could make you like that. I'm not telling you to become another serial killer, or genocidal maniac. I just don't want you to forget. I've shown you things I haven't shown another mortal in two thousand years, and you're talking of throwing it all away because you can't handle the guilt. You have deep black holes inside yourself. Learn to fill them."
"I wish I could." She sighed. "But right now there might be people coming after us, and I can't think straight about anything. I thought we were supposed to be hurrying?"
"If you want." Catching up his sword again, he slid it back into its sheath. "You'll need to clean up if you want to be able to pass unnoticed. There's a stream over this way."
"Wouldn't happen to be hot, I suppose, with its own supply of soap?"
"Actually it's extremely cold. The only reason it isn't iced over is because the water moves too fast. Cold water is best for washing off blood."
"Well you'd know." She gestured at the dead bodies. "Shouldn't we...?"
"What? Bury them? Why?"
"Because. It's what people do. It's... nice."
"Oh. Right. To make you feel better. You killed them, Sophie. You used a sword and an axe to tear them apart, and you have to learn to live with it. They certainly won't. And burying them won't help them or you." He scanned the skies. "Besides, the morning is getting on. There's no telling who'll be moving around in these hills once the sun gets a little higher."
"I see." She lowered her eyes, wondering if there was something that she could at least say to the men she had killed; some apology she could make for not feeling worse about it all. It revolted her that their deaths had made her feel so much less like dying herself. Elation like that... she knew that she wouldn't forget it for a long time, and she only hoped that it was not the sort of thing to become addictive. A shiver ran through her, but she couldn't think of a way to make the dark thoughts fade away. Instead she focused on one ray of hope, a possible lifeline thrown to her by her Immortal companion, and gave voice to it as she hurried along in his wake.
"What did you mean, when you said that there was nothing on Earth that could make anybody else like you?"
"Worried that you're turning that way yourself?" His eyes were hot with a mockery that made her blood boil, and her stomach churn. "Simply because nobody else has my style, or my..." He shrugged, unable to find a satisfactory word. "My relish in it all I suppose."
"That's not a proper reason. Why do you kill people? What made you the way you are?" He grinned at that, and turned to face her as he walked.
"Oh sweet little twentieth century. She was a wonderful old thing, wasn't she. Turned all of her loyal mortal subjects into amateur psychologists. You may get turned to a way of life by circumstance, or fashioned by your experiences and surroundings, but it doesn't work that way with me. Nothing made me what I am. I just... am. Believe me, I chose this. All of this. From the very first man I killed, when I was... probably no more than eleven years-old, to every one of those police officers I sliced up with my sword. It's the life I made, because it's the life I wanted." He reached out and stroked her cheek, his hands strong and hard, and stained with blood. "Just as I could choose to take your life in a heartbeat. If I wanted."
"And you wouldn't feel sorry? You wouldn't feel any remorse at all?" She felt as though a cold hand had seized her chest, not only arresting all the motion of her heart and her blood, but also cutting off any connection she still had with her emotions. He frowned.
"Remorse? I haven't felt remorse in... maybe four thousand years. I felt sorry once, when I found my mortal family massacred, but remorse at any actions of my own? No, I don't think so. Why bother? Why should anybody bother? For mortals life is too short, and for Immortals... one act, or one wrong doing, means nothing from the perspective of millennia." He drew a deep breath, and she could see from the depth of the contentment in his eyes that he truly believed all that he had just said. He was free of all the ties of humanity, perhaps; certainly most of them. It should have been horrific, but she was still too troubled by a life that had meant nothing to really be sure of what to believe now. All of the troubles that she was running from, and which had led her to the brink of suicide, made a life without any feeling seem attractive, even if her heart did still find the idea repulsive.
"It's going to rain." His abrupt change of the subject made her brain turn circles, and she frowned at him.
"No it's not. The clouds are all wrong, and the weather forecast was--"
"Trust me, it's going to rain." He quickened his step, apparently not in the mood for getting wet. "After four thousand years you get a feel for these things." He came to a sudden halt, and she nearly collided with him. "And that's not all that you get a feel for."
"Don't tell me it's going to snow, too." She stared up at the sky, trying to see where he was getting his weather information from. "If I get caught out in weather like that after spending the night out here I'll wind up catching a cold."
"Colds are viruses. You don't catch them just through getting a bit chilly." He was speaking as though heavily distracted, his eyes elsewhere. "Listen to me, Sophie. When I say run, I want you to run as fast as you can, back the way we've come."
"Run? I can hardly walk I'm so tired. And besides, I--" She broke off. "Who is it? More soldiers?"
"Yes, I think so. Good ones too. I almost wouldn't have noticed them." His hand touched her shoulder. "Just get ready to run. They probably won't be interested in you."
"I'm with you aren't I? If I run they'll shoot me." She was afraid, and couldn't help it. She had seen him deal with soldiers before, without breaking a sweat, but this time even he seemed to have lost some of his confidence. Perhaps his sharp senses had detected more of them than before, or perhaps he was unsure of himself since encountering the group of policemen, who had obviously known how to kill him. Either way he wasn't standing the way he had before, and hadn't even lifted his sword.
"Shooting is quick, especially the way they'll do it." His eyes flickered towards her, and she fancied that she saw a smile in them, even though it wasn't reflected in any other part of his face. "It's better than jumping off a bridge, or slitting your wrists, or doing any one of the other things you're likely to find yourself doing some day. Why not just let them do it for you? Save your conscience the trouble."
"Because my conscience doesn't care." She took a deep breath, and touched the bronze axe at her waist. Perhaps she could fight her way out? The idea of using the weapon again made her heart cry out in anguish, but it was an idea. Besides, if they were going to shoot her, she wouldn't have to live with the guilt for very long. Funny how it was easier to think of her own death now. When she had really wanted to kill herself; when all that she had wanted had been to die; it had seemed the hardest thing in the world to accomplish. Now that it wasn't really what she was looking for, she felt quite calm about facing it. Not that she didn't still feel afraid.
"Then face them with me." He was striding away from her, heading for a place where the ground sloped sharply up hill. Overhead was a rise bare of grass and undergrowth, where only rocks lay. She saw no sign of movement, but from his attitude it was obvious that the enemy were hidden there. The sword was in his hand now, and its bright blade caught the full light of what little sun remained. The clouds were fast upon them. The rain he had predicted was coming.
"Kronos!" She saw the man rise from cover, and thought that the Immortal hadn't. She should have known better of course. A knife flashed, just as it had done before, and the man above toppled and fell. His body landed close to where Kronos stood, and a bird squawked in panic.
"Don't hide from me, little mortals." The voice of the man dressed in black was pure ice now; something more terrible than Sophie had ever heard. She drew her axe, not wanting to use it, nor even sure if she would be able to, but wanting the reassurance of it in her shaking hands. Up ahead more people were coming into view; six of them at least, with more beyond. They were carrying handguns and rifles, and their belts were set with grenades. It was hopeless. It had to be hopeless. Kronos didn't even take a step back.
"Come on then." His head was high, his shoulders back. If there was any part of him that was afraid by the prospect of dying, it didn't show. Hopeless odds were perhaps just another game to him; another challenge. She remembered how he had told her that he was looking for a reason to go on living - perhaps he didn't care if he didn't make it out of here today. Sophie Laseaux, however, really didn't know Kronos all that well.
They came for him at once, and he was ready for them; just as he had been before he had even known that they were there. All six converged on him, not one even glancing Sophie's way, and Kronos met them head on. They didn't fire their guns, perhaps because the danger was too great of hitting their own people, or perhaps because they wanted to make the fight more personal. Kronos obviously didn't care. His sword flashed and danced, a knife leapt as though it were a living thing, independent of anybody's control. In the middle of it, with blows raining down all around him, and blood colouring the air, the Immortal began to laugh. It was a laugh of mad joy and utter relish; a laugh of pure insane delight that echoed from the furthest mountains - and Sophie felt something inside her start at the sound of it. Her fingers gripped the axe more tightly; her vision became sharper, clearer; and with a silent prayer to a god she had thought she had forgotten, she ran to join the fight.
The axe was an unwieldy weapon, but an unexpected one. The soldiers did not react to it at first, too stunned to suddenly find a second warrior ranged against them. Kronos had been enough of a challenge, seemingly impervious to the blows from their fists and their guns, heedless of any danger; but another now coming to join him? One or two of them fell back; a gun shot rang out, where before there had been silence. A second later another shot answered it, but it was a soldier that fell. Sophie felt a burst of exhilaration, and wondered if she was going mad. Somebody else fell, and another man after him; and suddenly the odds were more even. It no longer looked so hopeless; even the clouds seemed less oppressive. Sophie began to laugh.
"Go." Kronos pushed her back, away from the two men who remained on their feet. She protested, struggling against him, almost eager to use her axe again.
"Run!" The urgency in his voice was greater than any she had heard in her life, and with the sort of sixth sense she had seen him display before, she felt her eyes drawn upwards; up to the rise from which the six soldiers had come just a few moments before. She paled. They were everywhere. Ten of them, twenty - she couldn't count and didn't see the point. How could anybody hope to win out against twenty men all with guns raised and ready to fire? And yet Kronos hadn't backed away. He hadn't lowered his sword, or even changed his expression. Instead he was just looking grim.
"Kronos?" It wasn't a question - more a plea. He cast a look back at her, and she saw again the mad joy in his eyes. He really did live for this stuff - really did believe that he would be walking away from it, the victor in every way.
"I told you to run." His voice held no concern for her safety, but his eyes were berating her stupidity. She gripped the axe more tightly, and tried to swallow. Her throat didn't work.
"Throw down your arms!" The soldier at the front of the little group was holding a gun bigger than any she had ever seen - not that she had seen all that many. It was pointed at Kronos, the muzzle not wavering in the slightest. This was a man who was certain that he could not lose the victory he already believed he had won. Kronos took a step forward, and his sword raised itself in both his arms.
"You can't kill me with your guns. You know that. Every one of you has been raised on the tales that most of the rest of the world has forgotten. You know who I am."
"Yes, we know." The soldier still didn't lose his aim. "And when we've shot you, we'll take your sword and with it your head. Even immortality has its limits."
"Not the kind that keeps me going." With slow, even strides he was changing his position, moving in front of Sophie as though he thought he could protect her from all that heavy artillery. She wondered if that really was his intention; if he really cared that much. It seemed unlikely, but it made something inside her feel that little bit better.
"Just throw down your sword. The girl too, whatever it is that she's holding. Believe it or not I have no real desire to kill either of you - I'd rather see her at least stand trial."
"We all know that isn't going to happen." They were starting to advance now, but still Kronos was holding his ground. Unsure what would happen if she tried to run, Sophie did the same. She was acutely conscious of the blood running down the handle of her axe, tickling her fingers and her wrists; acutely aware of every note of every bird song; every whisper of every breath of wind. Rain was beginning to fall, and each drop felt like a stinging blow when it hit her skin. She started to shiver. Was this what judgement felt like? The punishment that came as repayment for murder? Maybe she deserved it, whatever these soldiers were going to do.
They were swarming around now; all of them, flooding down from the rise; spreading out and circling around; twenty pairs of stamping boots, and twenty threatening glares. Sophie fumbled with her axe.
"I told you to run." His voice said Hard luck, it's too late now. She wanted to ask him what to do, but there wasn't any time for talking. The axe wobbled in her hands, and she almost dropped it. Heartened, not that they appeared that threatened by her anyway, the soldiers surged forwards. Somewhere off to her right Kronos gave a bloodcurdling battle yell that seemed to turn her spirit back thousands of years, and her axe responded before she did. It lifted up, raised itself so high that the rain flying from its blade hit her in the face. She saw the drops of water mingling with the blood, and spattering the diluted drops onto her, and onto the men who were rushing to overpower her. There was a second - one brief, tumultuous second when she honestly believed that she could fight them all; when her heart surged and all the sorrows of the life she'd always thought she'd wasted left her behind - then hands grabbed her wrists, tore the axe away, dragged her arms behind her back. She was expecting to be handcuffed, but instead they merely held her hands. Their grip was as hard as any steel. Something knocked into her back, and she saw the ground rushing up to meet her. She hit it hard. Voices clamoured around, and the world detached itself momentarily.
"Kronos!" She didn't know why she was calling on him for help - even if he was in a position to do any good she didn't think he would answer her. Cold metal pressed into the back of her head. An obvious warning to remain silent, to remain still. Above her the chatter had reverted to Polish, and it was a struggle at first to understand it. They were talking about Kronos... Awkwardly she turned her head, wondering all the while if the gun was going to go off. It didn't. She saw grass, pale and rough, turning muddy as the rain continued to fall - and a long way away she saw Kronos. He was standing with his back to the rise, his sword a mass of blood. The rain had washed it down the hilt in waves, covering his hands and soaking the sleeves of his shirt. There was a hard, set look to his face, and she couldn't tell what he was thinking. She wondered why the soldiers didn't just shoot him; why they were gathered there, clustered around one of their number. Whoever he was he had taken to using her axe - Her axe, as though it never been anybody else's, as though it really did belong to her. She saw the blade crash with blistering force against the upraised sword, and saw the strain on Kronos' face as he took the weight. So that was their game - playing it his way, perhaps because they knew that it was the only way to kill him. How he could keep going when he had been fighting for so long she didn't know; when he hadn't slept the night before, and had spent the time fighting others. Perhaps such things were different for Immortals.
"You've got him! Keep at him!" The soldiers were excited; ridiculously jubilant, cheering their axe-wielding champion like a crowd of football supporters waving banners at a match. Kronos was suffering badly, and she could see it in his face. His opponent was much bigger, much stronger, and whilst his weapon might lack finesse it certainly did not lack force. Again and again it swung, and again and again Kronos ducked or parried, meeting the attack without being able to mount one of his own. The soldier with the axe was laughing, and Kronos was hot with furious rage. His eyes gleamed with the promise of murder - if only he could get in one blow. But the blow did not seem likely to come. Her eyes blurred with the rain, her vision partly blocked by the grass that was pressed against her face, she tried to make sense of what she was seeing. Kronos was losing; he had to be. How could he hope to win?
And then, just as it seemed at its most hopeless, suddenly everything changed. With a yell that she recognised; the same yell she had unleashed when she had run to kill the man who had been about to kill Kronos, the Immortal broke away from his position and came at the soldier from a new angle. The other soldiers tried to cluster around; tried to get in his way and knock him down, wielding their rifles like clubs. One or two blows seemed to hit home, but with a furious strike that almost laid himself open to a fatal attack from the axe, he swung his sword in a circle. The soldiers scrambled back, slipping and sliding on the ground, and the axe-man, dirtied bronze blade lifted high, came in for what was clearly his definitive assault. Kronos dodged. There was no longer any finesse to his movements. He simply threw all of his weight into a move that carried him beyond the reach of the axe; but the soldier, determined, still tried to catch him with the murderous blade - and his reach was inevitably over-stretched. Wobbling, swaying, unable to keep his balance on the wet mud, he slipped, skidded, tried to right himself. The axe fell back, and Kronos darted forward. Sophie saw his sword dance a familiar arc; saw the answering arc of spraying blood. Her stomach churned its equally familiar response.
The body fell. She didn't see where the head landed, and none of the soldiers seemed to have been looking. Instead they were all staring at Kronos. She imagined them all surging forwards, rushing him at once, in a mixture of rage and grief, finishing the job that their elected champion had been unable to complete. Instead they began to back away. What was wrong with them? Didn't they want to kill the man? They had seemed to, a few seconds ago, and yet now they looked like children retreating from a feared foe. She wondered what had made them so afraid, then saw the change that had come over the defeated man. Her heart flickered uncertainly in her chest.
The flames came slowly at first; blue, snake-like fires that didn't seem to burn what they touched. She didn't see any smoke, or smell anything. All she saw were rushing sparks that wrapped themselves in ropes around the fallen form, leaping and dancing about amongst the blades of grass, making the mud spatter and dry, and the drops of rain boil away to vapour. Far from retreating with the others Kronos seemed to welcome it all. She saw him lean into the light, stretching out with his sword and his arms, letting the tendrils of bright, bright fire reach out to embrace his exhausted body. The soldiers fell back, and the ones that had been holding her were suddenly gone. She stumbled to her feet.
"What's going on?" She asked it of the soldiers, in French first without realising it, and then in English and Polish. None of them answered her. Instead they pushed past, still backing away, leaving her isolated in the forefront. She took only one step back, too transfixed even through her fear to want to run away. In a strange, wild way she was fascinated; enthralled; even delighted.
The climax came in a rush that was too intense even to see properly. With a roar of wind and unidentifiable sound, the lazy fingers of blue fire began to build; build upwards and outwards and grow in colour and strength until instead of mere tendrils there was a wall; a terrific blue light that made her eyeballs sting and her breath freeze in her lungs. Wind rushed past her, and the rain whipped up into a frenzy. It lashed her face and tore at her clothing, and her feet sank into muddy puddles that shouldn't have been anywhere near so deep.
"Retreat!" The howl of the commander rose above the wind, and his men, needing no persuasion, turned and ran in a mass. Barely able to stay upright, Sophie watched them go, her attention half stolen by the furious pyrotechnics going on nearby. The ground shook, and above her head the clouds parted, turning to wild, frothed milk, churning about and racing across the sky in a maelstrom. In the centre of it all, at the heart of the storm, with the blue-tinted rain pouring down his face, Kronos was holding his sword above his head. The lightning raced from the blade, tearing through his body, driving him to his knees. She wondered what it meant; how he had caused it and how he was withstanding it. How much longer could it continue? As if in answer to her question a peal of thunder rolled overhead, so loud that it seemed to be threatening to bring down the sky - and when the last of it had faded, and the silence had returned, the lightning disappeared. A shiver ran through Kronos' frame, and with a groan that was almost a sound of pleasure, he fell forward onto the ground. Gently, as though nothing had happened, the clouds drifted back into place, and the rain slowed to a halt. Only a faint flicker of blue fire that curled around the tip of the fallen sword served as a reminder of what had taken place.
"Kronos." She ran to him, terrified, but he looked up as she came, and forced himself to his feet.
"They'll come back." His voice was urgent. "Soon..."
"But that - all of that--"
"That was the Quickening." He laughed, shaking his head. "Not your concern, nor theirs. But they'll be back soon enough. We should be gone then."
"I should get back to the hotel..." She wanted to take his arm and help him to walk, but he seemed more than capable of doing so alone. How was anybody's guess. Shouldn't he be even slightly singed after being struck by that much lightning? She longed to ask him about it, but she knew that he would never answer her. If she wanted any kind of a conversation right now, to help her divert her thoughts and regain control of her senses, it would have to be about something else. It seemed a shame.
"Hotel?" He shook his head, laughing at her. "Do you think that they don't know who you are, or that they won't find out by the end of the day? If you go back there you'll be in a police cell before you can close the door of your room."
"I don't know. Not back to what you were doing before, that's for certain. They'll find you."
"Maybe they should. I did kill those people. I should stand trial..." She saw the look that passed across his face, and smiled. "I know. You see things so differently - you are so different. I think you've just proved that beyond any shadow of a doubt. I would never expect you to understand."
"I don't. If they arrest you, they'll probably kill you. These people here know about me, but there's no way they're going to tell all that to the rest of the world. They're a closed little mountain community, and they want to handle it themselves. The quick way."
"Just like I wanted to deal with myself." She turned her head, looking away across the mountains. "So what do you suggest? Go into hiding? Find a mountain range to live in all by myself, the way you've been living here? Hide away from the world, and hope that I'll find my reason to go on living hidden in a cave underneath some bridge?"
His eyes glittered. "We all make mistakes. This place was mine. I'm leaving now."
"And going where? Half the world knows your face. From what I heard in town it's only the fact that I've had my eyes closed to life for the past couple of years that I've been able to miss seeing you plastered all over the news."
"Appearances can be changed." He was cleaning his sword again, the way that he so often seemed to be cleaning it; as though it was an obsession. He seemed to be expecting her to treat the axe the same way. "I can grow a beard, change other things. Let my hair grow a little perhaps. Go back to travelling. There are a lot of places in this world where you can lose yourself forever if you don't want to be found. A lot of places where no one will ever find you."
"Oh." He seemed to have it all worked out. For herself she didn't have a clue what she should be doing. Finding a psychiatrist perhaps, who would listen to all of this without having her committed, or just handed over to the nearest policeman.
"The world is a big place." He turned away from her, fetching the axe from where the beheaded soldier had dropped it. "There isn't a question you can ask that doesn't have its answer out there somewhere." His eyes narrowed, and she saw the glint of disapproval deep within them. "It's definitely time to be moving on. I've been alone with my thoughts so long I'm starting to sound like MacLeod."
"Can I come with you?" She wasn't sure why she was asking the question, and hadn't even known that she was going to until it had burst out. For a second she prayed that she had only asked within herself, and not spoken the words aloud; and then she saw the frown on his face, and knew that she really had been heard.
"With me?" She couldn't tell whether it was confusion or distaste that was most evident in his expression. "But you hate me. You hate everything that I am."
"You hate what you think that I'm doing to you. You want to be a proper little mortal, content with your lot in life, not even thinking about all of the violence that goes on outside your door. You're afraid that every second you spend with me will take that away from you, and warp you into some twisted killer. It's written in every lack of sparkle in your eyes, and in every whimper you make when you see my sword."
"Yes." She did hate him, but the truth was that she was more terrified of herself than she was of him. He killed people, but she wanted to kill herself. "I... I don't want to feel like that again Kronos... like I did when I first met you. I know that I will if I go back to being on my own again, back in my old life... or even in some other one that I try to make. I'm just not ready for any of that. You make me feel alive."
"I make you kill other people. Which makes you hate yourself. Which makes you seek death more than you ever sought it before." He reached out, touching her hair. "Such self-destruction."
"I just want to come with you. I... I wouldn't get in your way."
He laughed at that. "If you did I'd kill you."
"Then I can come?" She hated herself for asking it, and could feel herself beginning to tremble all over. "Kronos please. I've never asked anybody for anything before."
"Then come." He turned away from her then, marching away across the hills, without even looking back at her. "If you can keep up. If you can tell when to be silent, if you can see when to keep out of the way. If you can manage not to scream at the things that I do. But don't expect answers, Sophie. Don't expect revelations and life-changing experiences. And don't expect any help."
"Thankyou." She ran after him, wishing that the confounded axe wasn't so heavy. "Thankyou. I'll--"
"You'll do nothing." He had dismissed her again, and she could see that he was barely acknowledging her presence. "You'll keep out of the way."
"Yes." She tried not to think about the past twelve hours, and told herself that it would be different elsewhere; that he would be different, in a place where people weren't hunting him down. He couldn't always be like this. Nobody could. "I really appreciate this. Really."
"Oh, you won't." His words were fading into the distance as he walked ever faster, ever out of earshot, but she thought that she caught the last of them as they drifted away. "By the time I've finished you'll be wishing you'd jumped off that bridge."
"Pardon?" She raced after him, but when she caught him up he was silent, staring ahead to mountain ranges she couldn't name. "Did you say something? I thought I heard..." She let the words drift off. He wasn't going to answer them. The only response she saw was the burning of his eyes and the gleam of his twisted smile.
And that was when she knew she was losing her mind.
Yeah, I know, I said this was going to be a Methos one. Kronos was feeling restless though, and he said it had been too long since he had spent thirty thousand words mindlessly killing people, so I said he could have a story if he really wanted one. He chose something brainless and essentially plot-less, so here it is. Take it up with him if you have any objections...!
I was also trying to answer a few people who have said that I'm hopeless at writing for female characters. They're right as it happens, and I am hopeless at it, but I thought I'd give it a go anyway. Decide for yourself whether it's a complete disaster.
Until next time then...