After centuries, the only clear memory he keeps from his first life, beyond his first name and that of his tribe, is the agonizing pain of knives in his back, and the sure knowledge that if he bothered to turn, he’d know the faces of his killers. Would see the father-in-law he should have killed years before and an uncle who’d finally given in to fear of his nephew’s martial power. There is knowledge, too, in the memory of his own strength and a certainty that if he chose, he could have taken their lives in a heartbeat, even with their blades drawing blood, stab after stab.
But why bother? He vaguely remembers loss and loneliness, a wife and son years and hundreds of miles out of reach. What was there for him in that moment, that memory? Nothing worth living for any longer. Instead he let himself fall, away from his attackers and into the depths of the river that has always meant home.
That he doesn’t die is something of an unwelcome shock.
That the Northman the man who was once Cherusci stumbles upon that night in the forest looks at a ragged wild thing and thinks “there is a creature worth saving” is nothing less than a miracle. The chieftain takes him to the village and calls him “son” and gives him a new name, one starting with a similar sound to his old, though the chieftain could not know that.
The village welcomes another warrior, and the villagers too are willing to ignore the strangeness of him, taking his prowess on the battlefield for another kind of battle fever, one granted by the gods as a blessing instead of the curse he knows it truly to be.
His life with the northmen is a gift, though one he knows must be short-lived. Even his fighting skills will not grant him safety if he lives too long among time, ageless and deathless as he is.
Still, that life ends even faster than he guesses, with the death of his newfound father at the hands of a friend, a betrayal that feels like his history repeating itself on another person he has grown to love and respect.
He flees the aftermath like a coward, unwilling to honor the victor in their brief little war, and unable to summon the rage to kill the bastard in his turn.
He cannot be chieftain, even if he is ever and always a chieftain’s son.
A sea away from the land he was born to and the northern climes he’d tried to call his new home, he travels at the side of a monk, one fiercer than any of those he remembers, who wields a staff like a limb and looks upon him and calls him “immortal” as if it is a title and not a strange fluke of his nature.
It is the monk who teaches him of his heritage and tells him of those who watch and record the lives of the undying.
It is the monk too who warns him of the only way that he might die: beheaded at the hands of another just like him.
He does not know whether to wish to meet such a foe and finally find his peace or to travel as far as possible, to keep that death from ever finding him.
In time, this life as a monk’s companion ends just as the others have, with death, though this time over a cliff and into the sea, his holy friend sinking beneath the waves with a sigh, a boat and their salvation just too far out of reach.
He survives, of course he does, pulling himself into the tiny craft alone. He takes up the oars in his hands and rows.
There is nothing else for him to do.
The next leader he serves is a king, one he stumbles upon almost by accident, fleeing another traitor’s soldiers, desperate to keep his crown and his life.
It is an easier thing that it should be, sending a canyon collapsing on the pursuers, but the king seems to think it no mean feat.
The king’s first name is offered too him like a gift, and he cannot help but accept, drawn in by the hope in the king’s eyes and the fierceness of his loyalty to his men.
He remembers a leader like that, one long gone by a river in Germania.
He stays to see if this king can succeed in saving his kingdom as that long not-dead leader failed to.
He stays too for the familiarity of this life with its sword and armor and steed.
There is no wife for him in this life, but he finds that a relief. He’ll not watch another woman be taken from him, not by an enemy or old age.
Instead, he watches everything else taken: brothers, king, and country.
Watches an age end and wonders when he will find his end in turn.
Impressment is by far the worst of the lives he’s lived. Captains keep his secret, shuttling their prize from one ship to another, swearing each other to keep quiet about the man they work to death over and over again.
He’s tried to drown and more than once, thrown himself overboard and prayed not to be rescued.
They never allow him that escape, however. He’s too valuable, his strength remaining even on half rations and little water, even when other sailors have passed out from exhaustion, he labors on for lack of a reason to let himself stop.
He’s never given up, not once in this life or the ones long lost in his past.
It is a cruel irony, that the very thing that might have been a virtue in a mortal man is such a failing in an immortal one.
If he could just stop, he thinks, it would be a blessing.
One that might even restore his faith in the gods, even if he can’t remember which of them he first believed in.
Freedom brings brothers again and blades in his hands and a place where his size and strength are again valued along with himself.
He’s not a slave here in Nassau, not matter how he occasionally feels used by the Captain he’s sworn to follow this time.
It is strange, fighting for profit instead of freedom, striving for coin instead of a cause.
Bitterness swells within him like tides, flowing in against his gritted teeth, then ebbing when he cannot find the energy to care who he kills, what he drinks, where the future might take him.
At least in this life he has the sea.
It is a comfort to look upon a place that has existed long before him, and will even once his ancient body finally dies.