Archivist's notes: This was a Mid-Week Challenge issued on the Holyground Forum. It was to have the following elements within it:write a short scene or story involving one of the HIGHLANDER characters, unexpectedly encountering a supernatural, allegedly mythical or strange phenomenon. This can be of any nature or form. Remember that mood and reaction will be your focal points.
~ ~ Some things are born in the blood. Others are born through fire. The very rare are birthed in both. -- Duncan MacLeod. ~ ~
* Monday *
The phone call came at 2:35 a.m., rousing Duncan straight out of a dreamless sleep and into apprehension. Who would be calling at this time of morning, if it was not trouble? He was completely alert when he picked up the receiver ... but alertness was no shield against the words on the phone in a stranger's voice.
"And here I thought a Scot nearly five centuries old would be a challenge," came the refined tones. "Your kinsman was as pitiful in a fight as he was in his life." Click, the phone went dead in his ear.
Duncan was on his feet, towering in helpless rage and fear over the nightstand that supported his phone. The brick walls easily contained his shouted threat and the whispered entreaty that followed it. He sat down on the bed and stared at the shadowed tapestry opposite of him while he dialed in the darkness, fingers punching numbers by memory and long usage. Ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing ... without an answer.
* Tuesday *
Walking through the deserted New York loft searching for clues, Duncan paused to regard the photo hanging near Connor MacLeod's desk. It was a picture of himself, laughing over some poorly told joke of his mentor's. How his older clansman managed to reduce a perfectly tuned pun to tatters, he would never know ... and it dawned upon him that his kinsman likely slaughtered the telling and punch line of them because it was funnier to Duncan than the actual joke ever was. Connor drew merriment like a lightning rod when he was in Duncan's company.
The calendar was blank. The answering machine held nothing but a telemarketer's voice. The bed was disturbed as if his old friend had been roused abruptly out of sleep without time to tidy it and Duncan swore viciously at the sight. Connor was an old sea captain; he always kept his things neatly. The dark immortal, boots scuffing softly on the wood floor, heaved open the pocket door to the Rotunda and gazed in a circle at the treasure of the elder Highlander's life.
He searched like a hound after the scent; riffling through the rolodex for a card left slightly askew, crawling beneath the desk for a post-it on the floor, shuffling through a box of receipts for the faint trail of Connor's last days. He studied the floor for blood and scrutinized the walls for the faint outline of a sword - but there were no bleached outlines telling him that a weapon was gone. There was not even the scuff of a shoe on the floor.
Connor wore sneakers. They wouldn't leave scuff marks anyway, Duncan berated his anxious mind.
It took an hour to break into his computer, using every known code and ancient nickname they had ever tossed at one another in their 400 years of kinship to gain entrance.
The phone rang and the Highlander winced at the shrillness echoing in the abandoned loft. He let the machine pick it up and lunged for the receiver as the voice on the line came across:
"Looking for a corpse, are you?"
"Where are you?" demanded Duncan. "Name the place."
"Ah-ah-ahhh. So eager to rush to the same fate as old Connor?" mocked the voice. "Tsk, tsk, tsk. You didn't learn very well - or was he just not a very good teacher?"
Duncan swore in fury and hurled the phone across the room.
* Wednesday *
The next call was in the middle of the night like the very first one. Duncan burrowed out from the sheets that still held Connor's scent of cologne and whisky to answer it. He hardly noticed that he reached for both his katana and the phone at the same time.
"Curled up in his covers, are you? Do you smell the fear he left on them when he knew it was me coming to call?"
"Are you tired of playing the mouse yet or do you always squeak this much before facing the lion?" Duncan sullenly baited back. Sword in hand, surrounded by his clansman's possessions, the younger MacLeod had no fear of any man. If Connor was truly gone, this was just the first step on a long deadly hunt. He could feel the burn in his blood already beginning.
"Ahh, a little spunk from the cub? Very good," returned the clever voice. "You really should have been there to hear him scream. I broke all of his fingers when I had him down - one at a time - just to hear it over again."
Duncan put the katana away and curled up again to rest, wishing the pillow next to him was burdened with a familiar profile and breath. He hugged his arms around himself and dreamed of a hundred dawns waking with a missing person ... and all of his fingers were whole.
At daybreak, the younger Scot caught the first plane back home after locking up and resetting the alarms at the Hudson Street address. If an immortal had baited Connor out and now was prank-calling to harass Duncan, there was no need to stay at the elder Highlander's place ... his tormentor would follow. He might as well be home where he could train and ready himself.
Sure enough, the phone calls began within an hour of his arrival back in Seacouver: taunts and words aimed to rattle his nerves and play on his grief. Duncan began hanging up and unplugging the phone for various lengths of time, reversing the frustration.
He had no time for grief - not yet. No tears, no reminiscing, no pouring through old letters and photographs to laugh and weep alternately. No dealing with the terrible dark ache he knew waited for him somewhere inside once this was settled.
There was a payment to be made in blood and he trained and fought mental opponents for hours preparing to exact that price. Retribution kept every shred of grief from permeating his body and every tendril of sorrow that crept into his mind he sparred to a standstill in preparation for a showdown. He slept in exhausted oblivion night after night, waiting.
The taunts went on and he compartmentalized them without tumbling their horror around in his head. Celts were notoriously set in their ways and Duncan refused to allow himself to be rattled. He did some of his own taunting right back.
* Saturday *
They finally faced each other in the wilderness, surrounded by trees and rocks and scrub grass. Duncan spared the briefest thought that he may fail at this task for the man opposite him was built powerfully and exuded strength. They were unevenly matched in height and obvious muscle mass, but the Highlander was powered by single-minded purpose.
No immortal was going to hold Connor for long before Duncan took him back. He belonged to him; they belonged to each other by name and the lightning that sang in their blood. It was a matter of Clan vengeance - of tribal retribution. When a warrior fell, there was always a coup to be fought for and won. He would try even if it cost him his life in the end.
The struggle was titanic. The ground was torn up and bloodied, young pines hacked down and boulders gashed by steel. Duncan streamed crimson from a score of cuts. All of his skill was pressed to its fullest and he fought within the mental framework trained into him by centuries of battle.
The deadly process of thrust, parry, lunge and counter move all took place within him as well as without as he fell into the pace; planning ahead by a score of moves even as he launched the present ones. Variables altered his next motions, each categorized instantly and he changed his steps and sword strikes as they came. Powered by determination and leashed rage, the Highlander lived inside the blazing heat of an immortal warrior: a beautifully choreographed dance of death.
Unaware of such petty things as fear and pain and thought beyond the present fight, Duncan was completely given up to revenge - unrelenting, unheeding, indomitable, burning with bloodlust. He would have Connor's last essence.
It was only the superior power of the quickening, overwhelming and submerging him that finally pulled Duncan from that deep place within himself where the fight was powered and orchestrated. Streams of agony and thrills of ecstasy warred and washed over him, sending him staggering off the bank and into the river that meandered heedlessly through the battle zone. The icy water and burning lightning jerked his attention around until he found focus and searched through the pattern for the signature of something familiar.
Connor? Duncan's inward cry sounded. Where are you, brother?
CONNOR! more desperate, pleading and aching as the quickening began to fade and settle towards the dimness within him. Brother come, before it's too late! Show yourself!
Nothing remained of the elder MacLeod.
Not a tendril of his essence held its shape. The lightning wound down, losing power and slowing in its strike pattern. Duncan cried aloud with the terrible loss and opened his eyes to see the courses of fire billowing through the scenery around him...
... and saw him! In the fire, long coat open and his head up: Connor MacLeod, walking. Duncan was completely mute, staring.
"Why are you looking for me here, Dhonnchaidh? I am not among the dead," came the surreal accented voice.
The Highlander in the water staggered, stunned, and went down in a heap, bumping down the current on rocks until swept to the bank again. By the time he waded ashore, both the fire and lightning were gone and with them went Connor's apparition.
* Monday *
The email was short and cryptic, much like the terse elder MacLeod was when a little perturbed.
** What the hell are you doing? **
Duncan typed right back: **Checking your head. It's a dirty job but someone has to do it.** He could have sworn he heard the old man laugh from wherever in the world he was. A clever pun delivered true, but on his own end Duncan put his face in his hands to thwart the wash of relieved tears.
~ ~ Dig within yourself for the truth and it will come bubbling out. But only if you dig for it. -- Connor MacLeod. ~ ~
Connor was banging on his door within the week, unshaven and his hair unkempt. When Duncan opened it, the elder MacLeod reached for the stronger man and pulled him into a bearhug, folding his arms around Duncan in such a fashion as to temporarily give the impression of a blanket. For a moment, the younger Scot merely stood in the circle of it like a child surrounded by the moon or caught up inside an angel's wings: content and peaceful and safe.
"What the hell happened, Duncan?"
"Some bastard was hounding me. He said he killed you."
"You believed him?"
"I went to your place. It was deserted and your bed was unmade. I didn't find any clues as to where you had gone."
"All this from an unmade bed?"
"He knew where to find me and what would bait me."
"I can't be your price, Duncan!"
"Am I still yours?"
"Quit riding me because I care, kinsman."
"Quit caring so much that it puts you at risk, Duncan!" Connor retorted, releasing his grip. They stared, eye to eye, weighing each other and the words spoken. "Some day it will come, Dhonnchaidh, and you won't be able to prevent it and you will take on more than you can handle," the elder MacLeod said softly.
Duncan snarled right into his face, "Shut the hell up Connor. I won't live false to myself!" It was a curious juxtaposition: the fierce visage of the younger immortal while at the same time he impulsively hugged the smaller Scot again, as if trying to verify that he truly was alive.
The elder endured the embrace without qualms: he knew exactly what this was. He had seen it in the chestnut eyes that had initially met his own. Duncan had feared him dead ... fought to redeem his quickening for himself and found it not so. It was the living man that Duncan most needed to see, to touch, to hear. And Connor was definitely living.
They went inside. Duncan threw together a meal and Connor ate voraciously as usual and without comment. When it was over, they sat and relaxed and picked at their teeth with toothpicks, catching up on trivial news before the next round.
"Duncan," Connor began, sitting close with his long fingers dangling off one knee, "you can't hunt someone down simply because I lose a fight."
"And you can't tell me how to live," the younger Scot grumbled back.
"And that's precisely my point - I want you to live!"
"Then don't get yourself killed!"
The old Highlander sighed. This was a pointless and circular argument. If he lost a fight, Duncan would hunt down his killer no matter what to avenge him and take possession of his quickening. It was a noble and touching thought, but that didn't change the fact that it put the younger MacLeod at risk. How did I get to be such a focal point in this man's life? I'm just the immortal who happened to be the first one to find him. Duncan is strong and wise and good. A born leader. Not like me.
As if to answer the unspoken thoughts, Duncan looked him fully in the face and spoke aloud: "there are a lot of people who call me friend and come looking for me to be strong for them. I can do that Connor; be the leader and be their strength when they need it." He paused. "But only if there is one man in this world who can be my strength, my shade tree to rest beneath. Something solid to lean against when I'm tired and overwhelmed. I can carry all the rest of them ... if you can just carry me."
Connor felt as if he had taken a hammer in the chest, stealing his breath and pulse away. I knew all of this. I've known all along. I just didn't realize that he knew. There weren't any words to say and so he sat silent and gazed back at this man who had come full circle: protégé, kinsman, friend and brother. Sat and watched until the younger man ceased his inward muttering and registered that he had been heard.
"He said he hurt you, Connor," Duncan whispered.
"He never even saw me. I was in Germany."
"He said he broke all of your fingers to listen to you scream."
Connor reached and placed his hand across Duncan's. "My fingers are fine."
"He said he burned your eyes out."
"There's nothing wrong with my eyes."
One by one, cataloguing each injury aloud, Duncan drew out from behind the barred door in his mind the hideous words that he had been taunted with over the course of a week. Connor rejected each one until there was nothing left but the truth and when it was done, the nightmare was finally over. Duncan thumped him solidly on the back hard enough to pop his eyes wide and laughed wild and boyishly in the release of his tension and fear and rage.
They got roaring drunk and played cards and told stupid jokes made even worse by botched punch lines. They caught up in all the comings and goings of immortals through their respective towns. Duncan showed off a bevy of photographs and Connor switched from dialect to dialect in his inebriated state until the younger man swore at him because he was using four languages at once. They raided the pantry for all the snacks and fought over the chocolate. They toasted fallen friends and comrades and gazed blearily and silently at the fire.
Slowly winding down into exhaustion, Connor crawled into bed with his clothes on ... it was the diligent younger Highlander who exasperatingly tugged the filthy sneakers off and put them on the floor. He stood over him for a moment, deep in thought, before piling the covers over his clansman and then settling himself down to sleep. There were no phone calls and no dreams - just peaceful rest.
And in the morning, Duncan woke beside a missing person ... and all of his fingers were whole.
Story inspired by a photo and powered by Muses who smiled knowingly the instant Duncan MacLeod 'sensed' something was amiss while performing a kata in Endgame. Beta reading by Sharz and lynnann.
The Mid Week Challenge is presented every Wednesday by Leah CWPack on the Highlander Holyground Board located at: Holyground Forum
The MWC is open to everyone and the archive [managed by Annie CWPack] is located at: Look for it about half way down the page.
First photo created by Jan the Man and used with permission. His site is located at: Jan the Man
Second photo compliments of Celedon and her site is located at: Celedon's Chambers