Lonely on the Mountain by Sandra Strait

Winner of the ‘I Like the Quiet’ award and Runner-up for the ‘Mbuna Fish’ award at the White Knight Awards for Xander-centric fiction.

I Like the Quiet Award Winner

Mbuna Fish award Runner-up

January 2006, and Xander is staying at a camp site on Zomba Plateau in Malawi and taking in the view. There’s a little more to his trip than rest and recreation, however…

Lonely on the Mountain

Chapter One

“No shop?” I could feel my eyebrows shooting up. “You’re kidding, right? A self-catering camp with no shop?”

The proprietor nodded. “There is no shop.”

“O-kay,” I said, “but there is a spoon?”

“We have cutlery, yah, and plates, hey,” he said. Not even a hint of a smile. I guess he wasn’t into The Matrix. “We cook the food for you, Mister Harris, and we provide the cooking oil and salt and that sort of thing, but not the food, hey. If you haven’t brought any then you’ll have to go down into Zomba town. Sorry, hey.”

I shook my head. “It’s okay, I have food. It was just, like, what if I’d forgotten something, you know? Going down that road again, really not my idea of a fun little trip.” I looked around, sizing the place up. There was a guy sitting reading a newspaper over on the other side of the room. A tall white guy, tanned, and lean, and kinda rangy. Might be a guest, might be one of the camp staff, I had no way of telling as yet. Not much else of interest. “So, I guess I hand over my stuff for your cook, right? Any particular time?”

“That depends when you want to eat, hey,” the manager guy told me. He had one of those real clipped White South African or Zimbabwean accents, the sort where they hardly seem to move their mouths when they speak, and it came out pretty much as ‘thit dipinds win yuh wint tuh eat’. “And on what you’ve got, man. If it’s a tin of soup then ten minutes will do. If you want a roast buffalo you’d better hand it over now for tomorrow, hey.”

I laughed a little. “The tin of soup’s more my style. I guess I’ll get myself unpacked and settled in, ‘kay? Then I’ll take a look round. The view is really something.”

“That’s right, man. Just one thing, hey? Don’t go wandering around outside the camp at night. Malawi’s usually pretty safe, man, especially Zomba, but not right now, hey. There are leopard up here and one of them killed a girl not long back.”

“It wasn’t a leopard,” the other man spoke up. He folded up his newspaper and climbed to his feet. He was wearing a short-sleeved khaki shirt and drill slacks, and he had one of those weather-beaten tans that you get from working outdoors the whole time. So deep that it almost looked like he’d stained his skin with walnut juice. Definitely a white guy, though, and he had that same kind of Zimbabwe or South Africa accent. All he needed was a bush hat with a leopard-skin hatband and he’d have been the stereotypical Great White Hunter out of one of those old movies. Probably plotting to bump off Tarzan so that he could go poach ivory or something. “I’ve never seen a leopard kill without using its claws, hey. Could be it was a baboon.”

“Maybe. Or a hyena, hey?” The manager turned back to me and gestured towards the other guy. “Anyway, if you want to see the plateau by night you go with Rod here. He’s the guide for our night-time walks. You’ll be safe with him, hey. Felix Mtwali runs the daytime trips. I’ll introduce you tomorrow.”

“Uh, yeah.” I thought that I’d better sound a bit nervous at this point. “Hey, they didn’t say anything about dangerous animals in the brochure. It is safe, right?”

The guide made a noise halfway between a cough and a laugh. “This is Africa, man. There are always dangerous animals. If you wanted to be safe you should have stayed in America.”

“I guess,” I said. I gave him a twitchy little smile. “I’ll get settled in, like I said. Yeah.”

He gave me the room key and I headed off to the little round chalet that was to be my home for the next few nights. It was basic, but clean, and it looked like it would be comfortable enough. I’d stayed in plenty worse places. And hey, if I’d wanted luxury I’d have gone to the Le Méridien Ku Chawe hotel instead of coming to this budget camp. Thing is, luxury wasn’t part of my itinerary and, despite what I’d said to the manager and the guide, neither was sightseeing.

I unpacked my clothes and stashed them away, and I sorted out some of the food for my evening meal and put the rest into cupboards, and then I locked up my suitcase again. There were a couple of things in it that I didn’t want any nosy cleaners looking at too closely. I sat down in a chair and thought for a while.

I played back in my mind that conversation about the animal that had killed the girl. One of the guys had suggested that it had been a leopard. Nope. The other guy, Rod the guide, had said that he’d never seen a leopard kill without using its claws, and that fitted in with everything that I’d heard since I’d come to Africa. His own suggestion had been a baboon. Well, yeah, they were dangerous animals. I’d seen the fangs on a mandrill in West Africa and hey, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be bitten by one. The baboons round here weren’t as big as mandrills but they still weren’t anything to be taken lightly, ‘specially if there was a troop of them, and maybe they could kill a girl rather than just mauling her.

Only, not when that girl had been a Slayer.


“Wow,” I said. I breathed in slowly and tilted my hat back away from my face. “That sure is some view.”

“Back in Colonial times they used to say it was the best view in the British Empire,” Felix Mtwali said. He was speaking loudly, making sure that all of us in the little party of hikers could hear, and I guessed that the comment was part of the spiel that he went through every time he took a group out on the walk. “It is very spectacular, is it not? Mulanje over there is nearly fifty miles away.”

Spectacular wasn’t a big enough word. Awesome, maybe. From where we were at Queen’s View the face of Zomba Plateau fell away nearly sheer for more than two thousand five hundred feet to Zomba town way down below us. Beyond that the ground sloped down to the plain that stretched away for miles and miles to where the great brooding bulk of Mount Mulanje towered in the far distance. A few small clouds drifted over the plain; some of them below us, some of them higher up so that we could see their shadows marching across the land.

“I wouldn’t have believed that you could see so far,” a girl remarked. She was an American, a good-looking girl who looked to be in her early twenties, and she was with a guy of around the same age. Most of the talking as we’d hiked across the plateau had been about the things we saw, there hadn’t been much in the way of social chat, and I hadn’t heard what they were doing in Malawi. I’d caught that her name was Meryl and that the guy was Dave, but that was about all. “Hey, Mulanje’s even higher than this place, right? So how come the view is better from here than there?” She was speaking to Felix, but she gave me a look and a little smile as she asked the question.

Felix chucked and pointed at the distant mountain. “You see that white streak across Mulanje, chiphadzuwa?”

“Uh, yeah. Is it snow?”

“There is sometimes frost in Mulanje in the cold season, June or July, but never during the rains,” he told her. “I have heard of snow falling there then too, but I have never seen it. No, it is mist. There is often mist lying over Mulanje and you can see little. Also, chiphadzuwa, Zomba Plateau is not so big, and from there it is not as impressive as Mulanje is from here. This is where the view is the best. Except for Emperor’s View, perhaps. Tomorrow’s walk will be there and you can compare it. Today we will go on to Chingwe’s Hole and there we will have lunch.”

We stayed maybe half an hour at Queen’s View. There were five of us, plus Felix, in the group; me, the two other Americans, and a married couple who could have been in their thirties or maybe forties, from England. We got talking among ourselves as we looked out over the plain.

“You don’t look like a tourist,” Meryl said to me. “Are you with one of the NGOs?”

“You could say that,” I said. The Watchers’ Council was non-governmental and it was definitely an organization. “I’m a researcher. I look into the allocation of resources.” True but meaningless. “How about you?” I asked the question without thinking, and then regretted it. I had a feeling that she might be interested in me as a guy, which was not of the good seeing as how she was with another guy, and I should have just kept my mouth shut.

“Just tourists. We had a small inheritance, and I wanted to get away from the States for a while, and I’ve always wanted to see Africa. Dave, not so much, but he’s coming along to make sure I stay safe. He’s my brother,” she informed me, putting just enough stress on that information to give me a hint that I was right about her being interested in me.

She was a very pretty girl. Kinda slim, long legs, and a nice smile. It had been quite a while since I’d had any female company of the relationship kind – trainee Slayers don’t count – and I couldn’t help being tempted to respond. Only, girls who are interested in me usually turn out to be demons, and anyway I had a job to do. “Well, I hope Africa lives up to your expectations,” I said, and moved off to look out over the plain in another direction.

I could see what must have been Blantyre and Limbe off in the distance. A big urban sprawl, or at least what passed for a big urban sprawl out here, with a combined population of maybe half a million. There was a big hill near Blantyre, a huge lump of granite, and I’d passed by it on my way into the country and been pretty impressed.

From here it looked like a pimple.


Chingwe’s Hole just depressed me. Nobody knows how deep it is, or so Felix said, and the locals used to use it for burials. A dark deep hole with dead bodies at the bottom. Yeah, right, where have I heard that one before?

The others ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ as they listened to Felix’s spiel. I stood it for a minute and then I walked away and stood by myself.

“Are you okay?” Meryl had followed me.

She talked the same way as everyone that I’d grown up with, more or less, and I had an idea that it might mean that she was a California girl. Somewhere West Coast, anyway. “I’m from Sunnydale,” I said.

“Oh.” Her eyes went big and round. “I – I’m sorry. Did you lose anyone in the, uh, disaster?”

“A few friends,” I said, maybe stretching a point. I’d hardly known most of the Potential Slayers who died, apart maybe from Amanda, and I wouldn’t really have called her a friend. I wouldn’t have called Spike a friend either. Not then, anyway. It wasn’t until afterwards that I’d realized that I missed him. We’d hated each other a lot of the time, sure, but there had been moments when we’d gotten on okay. Snarking with each other had been kind of fun sometimes. And hey, if it hadn’t been for Spike I’d have two glass eyes rather than one. Anya, well, friend wasn’t the right word. “And the girl I was engaged to,” I added. Not that we were actually engaged there at the end, and I had no idea if we’d ever have gotten back together for good; but I’d wanted to try, and I missed Anya the way that I missed my left eye.

“Oh,” Meryl said again. “I’m sorry.” I didn’t respond, and she waited for a moment and then wandered back off to the Hole. Her eyes were still big and sad. I’d made two people depressed instead of one. Way to go, Xander.


Lunch was sandwiches, made up by the camp cook out of whatever ingredients we’d given him, and whatever drinks we’d brought along, which was Coke for me. There were wooden picnic tables and seats but they were pretty fragile on account of being riddled with holes. They looked like they’d been through the mother of all firefights. I was pretty darn careful when I sat down.

“Uh, Felix, what made all the holes in the tables?” Meryl asked. “Was it termites?”

Felix stopped smiling, pretty much for the first time since we’d gathered at the camp to go on the walk. “They are drilled with holes so that the local people do not steal them, chiphadzuwa,” he explained.

“I thought nobody lived up on the Plateau?”

“The people walk up the track from the town,” he explained. “It takes perhaps two and a half, three hours, but they come to sell things to the tourists, and sometimes to steal. These tables would fall to pieces as they were carried down the mountain track, and so they are safe.” Felix pointed back the way we had come and we looked that way. Three young boys, probably something like ten years old, were approaching. “See, chiphadzuwa, here are some of the local people now.”

I wondered what ‘chiphadzuwa’ meant. He addressed all the men as ‘bambo’, which means ‘mister’, and when he spoke to the English woman he called her ‘mai’. I made a mental note to look it up in a phrasebook later. I’d probably find that it meant ‘demon who is going to sacrifice Xander to the hyena spirits’, or something.


Sure enough, the kids wanted to sell us things. Mainly polished stones. Semi-precious, you could call them, tourmaline maybe. Not my thing. If I was going to wear a piece of stone on a thong around my neck I’d go for turquoise. Meryl bought a couple, probably because she felt sorry for the kids.

One of the kids was pushing along a sort of toy car made out of stiff wire, with a working steering wheel on a long stick, and he was using it as a kinda cart to transport the things that they were selling, which I guess was easier than lugging it up the steep track in their hands. What they had, apart from the stones, were local wood-carvings. Not much of a selection, but there was one piece that interested me. A scaled-down copy of a Zulu spear, the kind that everybody calls an assegai but that the Zulu call an iklwa, carved out of a really hard wood and then stained jet black with shoe polish. It had a fair edge to it, probably so that it could be used as a paper knife, and a decent point, and I had an idea that it might come in useful.

I paid them more than they asked and they gave me great big smiles and a chorus of ‘zikomo kwabiri, bambo, zicomo!’ ‘Zicomo’ was the first word of Chichewa that I’d learned and it means ‘thank you’.

Felix frowned at me. I guess he didn’t want the kids to get too much encouragement, ‘cause if too many started coming and got too pushy with the selling it’d kinda put off the tourists. Well, yeah, I’d been in places where they were all over you like flies, but I couldn’t see me having that much effect on this place. They’d walked up two and a half thousand feet of mountain to sell me the stuff. They deserved to get a halfway decent profit on the deal. That’s what I think, anyway.

Or maybe he thought that I was a dumb American with lots of money and no clue about what the local stuff was worth. Well, duh. I know that a Kwacha is just a little less than a single American cent, and it’s divided into a hundred tambala, and prices are so low in Malawi that you can actually buy some things with a couple of tambala. Local things, anyway. I’ve been around a while, I know how things work in Africa. Or don’t work, that is, ‘cause, hey, the whole continent is kinda fucked. And don’t ask me how to fix it.

I guess Meryl took it as a sign of me being a nice guy. When we moved on she started walking alongside me instead of with her brother. She talked to me about the butterflies, and the birds, and the trees, and I couldn’t help starting to smile and to talk back. The black mood that I’d fallen into at Chingwe’s Hole lifted and I started to feel pretty good for a change. Of course, I knew it wouldn’t last.

I looked up ‘chiphadzuwa’ when we arrived back at the camp. ‘Beautiful young woman’. I wouldn’t argue with that.


I’d picked up a couple of newspapers on my way into Malawi. I found some more in one of the public rooms at the camp, a week or two old, and I did a bit of reading before the evening meal. There were sections in English and in Chichewa. It looked as if they didn’t cover the same things, and I thought I might miss out on what I wanted, but it turned out that it was in the English parts anyway.

‘Wild dog kills boy.’ ‘Lions attack five in Nkhata Bay’. ‘Mystery animal kills young woman on Zomba Plateau’. ‘Widow found dead with neck wounds’.

The lions turned out to be real lions. The victims had been mauled but were alive and they knew lions when they saw them. And when the lions bit them on the ass, which is what they’d done. Not funny really, ‘cause the people were pretty badly hurt, but hey, better the ass than the throat. Anyway, I could leave the lions to Wildlife Officer Alex Chunga and his men, who were tracking them through the bush.

The other cases were more in my line. No witnesses. The ‘wild dog’ was just a guess. It had happened after dark, the wounds were in the throat, and the place was only five miles from Zomba. The dead widow, who was thought to be a suicide, had been in Zomba Town. The young woman – well, that was Grace Chirwa. One of my Slayers.

It might have been useful to go through the newspaper archives, and to be able to read the Chichewa pages, but I didn’t really need to do that. Grace would have put the pieces together, and followed the trail, and it had led her here. To her death.

There was something on Zomba Mountain that was descending to the plains, killing, and returning to its lair. It wasn’t any leopard, or baboon, or lion. It was cunning, nocturnal, highly mobile, and killed with bites to the neck; and I could put a name to it.



  • Chapter 2

  • The characters in this story do not belong to me, but are being used for amusement only and all rights remain with Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, the writers of the original episodes, and the TV and production companies responsible for the original television shows. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER ©2002 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer trademark is used without express permission from Fox.