All characters are fictional and belong to Panzer/Davis. No copyright infringement is inferred or intended. I'm only borrowing them for a moment in time so please don't sue me. copyright 1998
The smoke rose blue-gray from the peat fire, and the old bard waved it away as he settled himself down to tell the tales that had been passed down through the generations. He gazed at the eager young faces, which encircled him, and which held the anticipation of the young for a good tale on a cold winter's night and smiled.
He reached out, grabbed an ember from the fire to light his pipe with, half listening to the men still at the table with their dinner. He noisily sucked on his pipe, as he waited for the ember to catch the pipe's contents, deciding which tale to tell to the children; he nodded to himself at his choice of tales.
He looked around--they were inside the house of the Clan MacLeod's chieftain, Ian, to celebrate the birthday of the chieftain's only son, Duncan. The heavy beams had become smoke-darkened through the years, and the furniture was rough-hewn but served a very practical purpose. There wasn't a need for anything fancy looking in this Highlander's home, and practical was what you found in any home in the Highlands that you stopped at. Some of the the old ways were still practiced here and there; including the offering of hospitality to any who sought it, especially to the bards who still traveled as in the past by foot, spreading the old stories, songs and poems, in exchange for a night's lodging and food. The bards still held an honored place in the Highlander society as in the old Celtic societies, and a place by the fire was always held in reserve for them.
"Tell us a story, wise one.", The young girl with copper colored curls pleaded and the two boys sitting on either side of her nodded solemnly in agreement. One was dark, a Black Scot, by the looks of him, named Duncan; he was the chieftain's son, while the other, who was a bit taller and more stout, was his cousin Robert. When the bard didn't respond to the young girl's pleads it sat off a chorus of similar pleadings from the other fifteen children.
He held his hands up and immediately the children quieted. "Shah, shah, shah...now what kind of story will ye be wanting?" Cries from different children about the different kinds of stories they wanted rose up in a clamor, and he looked at young Duncan who had remained quiet. "And you, young master, which would it be that you'll be wanting?"
Duncan's brow furrowed as he thought. He had just turned eight on this day, the winter solstice, and massive celebrations were going on throughout the area to honor the Old Ones and their ways, as well as to celebrate the more Christian holiday of the birth of Jesus Christ which was only a few more days away. He brightened as he thought of what he wanted, then spoke up. "I want a true story about the clan with ghosts and battles! Do ye ken of any such like? "
"Aye, laddie, I do!" the bard said, as he gazed at him with his one good eye. Taking a deep breath he began to recount the story: "Long ago, in your grandfather's time, the Frasiers were caught stealing the cattle off MacLeod lands. The brae MacLeods took great offense at this, and demanded tha' the cattle be returned or paid for. They sent their finest mon to the home of the Frasier's chieftain to demand that the matter be settled--either by the return of the cattle or recompense in gold. Th' bloody Frasier had naught but evil in his cold heart and set about to ha' the MacLeod mon killed by treachery. He caused poison to be placed in MacLeod's drink, and when MacLeod drank it, he immediately fell dead at the table, after raising a toast to his host's hospitality."
The bard motioned for a cup to be brought to him and the copper haired girl jumped up at the chance, ran over to get one and brought it back without dripping a bit out of the cup. The bard smiled gently at her. "Thank ye kindly, Deborah Campbell. Ye are a guid lassie!" The girl shyly smiled at the compliment and went back to sit down between her companions. He continued after taking a deep drink. "One of the other MacLeod men escaped tha' verra same night, and returned to tell the MacLeod of the treachery. When th' tale was heard, a cry was heard and the war pipes began to play. In a matter of a few days, the clan had gathered and began to march on the Frasiers. Word got out to the Frasiers and they called their kinsmen, the Murdochs to help them out with the upcoming battle."
He took another drink. The children sat, eyes wide at the tale, silently waiting for what would happen next. Some of the older children had heard the tale before as it had been told for the past fifty years around the fires yet they remained quiet as the tale was retold. "In the MacLeods, there was a young mon by the name of Connor. He came wi' his uncle and cousin to fight th' Frasiers and it was to ha' been his first battle. He was brae and strong, and proud to be a part of wha' was to come. But when the battle started, none would fight him and he despaired. He would try and engage the Murdochs and Frasiers, but they all ran away frae him. Suddenly--" he paused for dramatic effect, arm outstretched in front of him circling in a half arc, causing the children to jump, "A huge mon on a black as night horse came upon him. Connor was sore afraid of him and raised his sword to defend himself against this demon. But the demon thrust his sword into Connor then pulled it out as Connor fell, sore wounded to th' ground. Robert, Connor's cousin, came over to help Connor in his need, and thus prevented th' demon frae taking Connor's head. Connor was taken off th' field and returned to th' home of a MacLeod family, where he died." Soft crying was heard from Deborah and Duncan held her hand and whispered to her.
"But wait!" the bard continued, "In th' mornin' he was whole and alive agin. It was unnatural and many said tha' he should be burned at th' stake as a witch, but instead, he was strapped to a yoke and banished frae the village." He lowered his voice and whispered. "It's said tha' Connor MacLeod haunts th' moors looking for justice. An' tha' he looks for others with demons like his--especially young children..." At this pronouncement, the children screamed and scattered. The old bard laughed to himself, and took a deep drink. When he put down the cup, he noticed that young Duncan was still there, wearing a puzzled expression.
"Is this a real story then?" he asked solemnly. There was something about the story that struck a chord inside him for some unknown reason.
"Aye, lad, I've been told tha' tis true." He shrugged. " But I only tell th' stories, lad. Tis true that there was a lad by th' name of Connor and tha' th' name has been banned by the MacLeod frae being used again ever by anyone in th' fear tha' the devil will visit ye."
"Do ye believe it?" Duncan persisted.
The bard clapped a hand on the boy's shoulder. "I dinna ken, if I do or not, but be off wi' ye before your mother comes looking for ye! Ye need to get to bed, child."
"I'm not a child, I'm a--" Duncan yawned." chieftain's son, and tha' make me almost a man!" He turned to go but at the last minute, turned back to the old man. "I believe it--about Connor MacLeod, I mean." He smiled tiredly at the bard and walked off.
The bard chuckled to himself as he watched the boy walk off. Who knew if it was a true story or not? It always was a good one to tell the young ones and he delighted in the telling of it.
Three years, Duncan figured, since his father had repudiated him and ban-ished him as a devil after he had fought and died--only to revive, completely healed, minutes later. "It's a miracle!", he had told his father as he wiped the blood off him. But his father's eyes had widened in horror to see him alive after seeing him die just a few minutes earlier.
He had been banished and stripped of all right to become chieftain. Later, when he confronted his father and some of the other members of the clan out on a hunting party on one of the paths that led around the forest, he found out the truth about himself but not the most important one: "Where do I come from?" He still held onto the one identity that he had know all his life: that he was Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. He died and revived a few times while trying to survive the harsh winters in the Highlands in that time period, not understanding what was happening to him and why. He didn't understand the feeling that thrummed through him when he had confronted Kanwolf and revenged his father's death nor the sudden transfer of energy when the old hermit in the cave forced him to take his head. What did it mean that soon he would meet the man who would teach him all that he needed to know to survive?
He shook his head once more as he tried to puzzle it all out. He had been living in one of the caves inside one of the craggy cliffs for the past few months as it had been preferable to being out in the elements and he had no place to call home. Ever since his banishment, no one would open their door to him for fear that he would bring the devil inside the house. Many times, he had been driven off before he could make it to the door of the house and he no longer could go to the small kirks to be shriven. He sighed and looked out the mouth of the cave, where he could see the rain was coming down in great sheets.
He looked over his meager provisions and knew that despite the weather, he would have to go out to forage for food if he were to eat this night. He heaved himself upright away from the small fire, bending down to retrieve his bow and quiver of arrows that he had fashioned for himself out of the native ash which grew around the area. He took a look around, added more peat to the fire and headed off.
He immediately began to shiver as the cold rain hit him; he tried to carefully place his feet on the small goat path leading up to the rim of the cliff. But the rain had made the path slick and he slipped often, sending a cascade of debris and rocks to the breakers below. He grappled with the roots that jutted out from the side of the cliff from the vegetation that grew from above him, using them to hold him upright, as he trudged uphill to the rim.
Once he was topside, he jogged into the woods that sat on the far side of the clearing, wiping his face with a hand to remove the rain so that he could see better. He entered the woods cautiously, and notched an arrow into the bow, at ready for the first sign of prey. He carefully marked the tracks on the ground when the lightening lit up the sky and the surrounding area and crept as silently as possible forward. He listened in between the claps of thunder and the rain as it hit the ground for any sound but it was next to impossible to determine if there was any living thing out there with the rain. He stomach rumbled hungrily and he hastened his pace, getting more miserable in the rain and cold the longer he stayed out. But he was determined to find something to eat; as any Highlander would tell you, the weather was something to be ignored because it would pass eventually and there were far greater things to be bothered about. So he went on, looking and hoping that something would turn up soon.
Suddenly, he felt it--a feeling that ran deep into the core of his being and into his head at the same time. He stood upright, his eyes searching the woods but he saw nothing. The feeling persisted, and he couldn't shake the idea that he was being watched somehow by someone and that they were close by. He slowly brought up his bow up to his face. He turned the circumference of his surroundings, ready to shoot the first thing that moved but when nothing did, he lowered it and started backing out of the woods, his dinner forgotten. Every nerve of his being was ringing out a warning and he thought if he retreated then perhaps who or what would follow him; he might then have a better chance at whatever it was then by being in the woods.
He reached the edge of the clearing now and the feeling still hadn't gone away. What was this anyway? Who was this, if indeed it was a person? He turned and began running back to the cliff's edge, turned around to search the edge of the woods one last time. As he did, he slipped on a patch of moss attached to a group of rocks and lost his footing, falling to the shoreline's breakers far below, his body lodging in between two of the largest boulders, instantly breaking his spine in half and killing him.
Far above, a man wearing a MacLeod tartan, sash covering his head against the rain, stood in his stirrups, looking down at Duncan's body and shook his head. He laughed. "He'll live."
Duncan awoke to the delicious smell of mutton. He slowly tested his body out to see if he were fit and in one piece. He remembered the horror of falling and the agony as he hit the rocks--then nothing. He looked around, noticing that he was back in his cave--and that he wasn't alone. He groaned as he sat up.
"Well, it took you long enough to come back to the world! Hungry?" The other person spoke with a soft Scotch burr and held out a bowl of food to Duncan.
Duncan suspiciously looked at him, but took the bowl and began to eat greedily with his fingers. He watched the other man as he ate for any sudden movement, ready to grab his skieah dheu, the small knife that was strapped to his calf in order to defend himself if necessary. He indicated with his head the other man, asking with his mouth full of food, "Who are you?"
"The same as you." The man looked around the cave. "This has been your home?"
Duncan nodded, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth.
"You like it here?" He waited for Duncan to answer; he had plenty of time.
"No, but I have nae else to go." Duncan threw the empty bowl to one side. "What do you mean that you are the same as me?" He held his head; the feeling of warning seemed intensified in the other's presence for some unexplained reason. "I'm not who I thought I was three years ago."
"So? Do you think anyone is?" The other man shrugged. "I know who you are, though. I've been watching you as you grew up. And I heard stories about you too, even when I was far away. As far as being the same, we are in many ways, the same. And yet, we are different." He shifted and pulled out a small bodkin and took a drink. "Ah, nothing like it. Want some?" He held it out.
Duncan took the offered bodkin, took a swig, and noticed the tartan the man was wearing. "Ye be a MacLeod!"
"Aye. You see, the same as you; born in the same village as you too. " His deep set eyes bore directly into Duncan's. "I'm Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. I was born in 1518 on the shores of Loch Shiel in Glenfinnan."
Duncan took a sharp breath inwards. "Th' demon!" He crossed himself and backed away from the fire.
Connor looked sharply at him. "Is that what they call me? " he whispered. "I've been away for a while so I hadn't heard."
Duncan nodded, ever watchful of the other. "Th' stories say tha' you were killed in battle wi' th' Frasiers but ye came back frae th' dead. "
Connor nodded. "Aye, that much is true. But the same thing happened to you, did it not? And you have taken a head and killed another of us, so I've been told."
Duncan slowly came back to the fire and reached over to take another swig from the bodkin. He was fascinated and yet surprised. Connor showed no signs of being a demon--not that he had any idea what a demon was supposed to act like except what the traveling priests would tell the clan for Mass. And, yes, he did die and come back from the dead just like Connor. He passed the bodkin over to Connor who took a healthy swig himself. Then he realized that Connor had said "us". He frowned, started to ask about it when Connor stood up, walked over to the cave's entrance, and looked out to check on the weather. He looked back over his shoulder at Duncan. "You ready to go?"
Surprised, Duncan only nodded then realized what he had just accepted from Connor. "Go? To where?"
Connor walked back to him and laughed. "Don't worry. I'm not going to take you from the Highlands. When the time comes, you will do that on your own. In the meantime, " he bent down, grabbing at Duncan's meager possessions, "we're going to my home. "
Duncan stood there, mouth agape, as one by one, his posessions were scrutinized and either thrown down the cliff's side to the rocks below or kept. When his bow and quiver were picked up, he roughly pulled them away from Connor and slung them onto his back. He grabbed his claymore, swinging it upwards as he hefted it, then pointed it directly at Connor's heart. "Why should I go or do anything with th' likes of you?"
Connor laughed, then looked seriously at him. "Because you need me to teach you how to survive, just like I was taught. And because, like you, I am immortal." He shoved the claymore's blade deep into his heart, falling into a crumpled heap at Duncan's feet as Duncan looked on in shocked horror.
Connor procured a horse for Duncan and the two of them rode through the moors. Duncan, once he got over the shock of Connor's suicide and revival, had many questions and Connor tried to explain as best as he knew how to Duncan. They were becoming fast friends, and each shared a kinship that few could have matched.
One morning, they were riding with the mists still covering the ground, when Duncan pulled back as he recognized the woods they were passing through. "Tis the Donan Woods, Connor."
Connor looked around. "Aye, so it is. We're almost home. You aren't afraid of the woods are ye? Some people say that it's enchanted here. I say that's it's enchanting."
Duncan looked at his teacher. "It's not enchanted. I met a woman here--a witch, some called her. She prophesied that I would become a great warrior and would someday defeat a great evil that rises every thousand years." He looked around, trying to locate where her house had stood. " I did see her and her house but no one else could. She told me that she had been waiting for me for a very long time."
Connor listened to him, and looked about as Duncan did. "She was here? In the Donan Woods?"
"Did she tell you her name? Was it perhaps, Cassandra?" Connor's horse whinnied and stamped its' foot, impatient to move on.
Duncan frowned as he thought back to the encounter. "I was a young lad when it happened--but I seem to recall that it was. Why, does it matter?"
Connor shook his head, patting the horse's neck to calm it. "Nae. The same story was told around our fires when I was a lad about the witch of Donan Woods. But I never met her." He looked at Duncan. "You say that she told you that she had been waiting for you for a very long time?"
"Aye." Duncan nudged his horse forward with Connor following suit. The two of them slowly paced through the woods.
"She was probably one of us, then."
They rode in silence through the rest of the woods, each thinking their sepe-rate thoughts and memories.
Shortly afterwards, Connor pointed out a ruin that stood alone on the moor. "Home!" His face reflected a sadness, yet excitement at being back.
Duncan shielded his eyes with his hand, but saw no buildings in evidence. He glanced at Connor and decided to say nothing. It was obvious that the ruin had been a tower of some sort in times past, but it had fallen in disrepair, or time had taken its' toll on it.
The horses slowly picked their way through the stones that were scattered about from the tower and much to Duncan's surprise, he spotted a lone grave not far from where the tower had stood. He pulled up and dismounted, tying the reins off on the remains of a lean-to. Connor busied himself with getting their provisions off the horses, while discretely watching Duncan.
Duncan looked around at the rolling hills and mountains in the distance, as he stepped over the tower's stone. He headed for the gravesite, unaware that Connor followed closely behind. Duncan had learned to ignore the effects that Connor's buzz caused in him during the course of the journey from the cave to Connor's home deep in the Highlands so when Connor spoke up, he jumped.
"This is Rameriz." Connor looked at Duncan, a bit sadly. "He was my teacher. He found me five years after I was banished from Glenfinnan. The haggis taught me the rules that we live by--or die by." He looked up at the pinnacle of the tower. "He died protecting my wife from the man who had killed me on the battlefield and had come for me."
Duncan took a closer look at his teacher/friend. "Your wife? I dinna know you had been married."
Connor looked up at him, tears in his eyes. "I don't want to talk about it."
Duncan silently nodded his acknowledgement at the pain that was obvious in Connor. They turned around and walked away from the grave, leaving be-hind the memories of Connor's teacher, his mentor, his friend.
Time passed, and Connor made sure that Duncan never had a moment's peace. Together, they were rebuilding the house that Connor had burned after the death of his wife, using the stone and masonry from the tower as well as the native rock, of which there was plenty. It was plain and very rough looking on the outside but it served its' purpose well; it kept the rain off their heads and a place to lay their heads at night.
Duncan grew stronger as he hefted the boulders and masonery into place by hand, and slowly he learned the value of patience. Connor would meanwhile, go into the village and trade some of his finished goods for food and other necessities and wait with the elders talking politics, and flirting with the local girls, leaving Duncan to do most of the work. Finally, he would decide that it was time to head back (and that was usually when the sun was getting close to setting), he would pick up his things and ride like the wind over the moors back home, hair flying in the breeze, MacLeod war cry screaming from his mouth.
Duncan always knew when Connor had come back once again from the buzz he felt as well as hearing the battle cry of the clan, which always raised his blood as well as his hackles. He had begun to resent always being left be-hind while Connor could come and go as he pleased leaving him to do all the work. The more he thought about it, the more irritated he became over it until one night he waited until Connor got home.
Connor had been drinking a bit and therefore not at his best when he suddenly was confronted by an angry Duncan. "Duncan! Look what I have brought home!" and he showed him a bag full of cackling chickens. Duncan took a look and knocked the bag out of Connor's hand, then pulled him off of his horse. Connor hit the ground heavily as the chickens escaped from the bag. He slowly got to his feet, swaying, and looked at Duncan, very puzzled. "What was that for?"
Duncan swung at Connor with all his might and laid Connor flat out on the ground. Connor laid there for a few moments, dazed, and then rolled over, getting to his feet, more sober than before. He swung back at Duncan, connecting with his solar plexus and Duncan doubled over, falling to the ground. He looked up at Connor, saw him standing there smiling and it angered him even worse. He charged at Connor, grabbing him about the waist, sending the both of them tumbling down the hill, over and over one another. A boulder stopped them as they slammed into it to the sound of ribs cracking.
They lay there, gasping for air as well as from the pain of their mutual injuries. Connor was the first up and on his feet, and he held out a hand to Duncan who reached up to grab it, only to pull Connor back down to the ground. Duncan jumped to his feet and ran towards the house with Connor in close pursuit behind him.
Upon reaching the house, Duncan ran in, grabbed his blade, and came back out, sword at the ready. Connor just stood there looking at Duncan--and at the sword pointed at his neck. They both waited for one of them to make the first move. The time crawled. Finally, Connor cleared his throat and asked, "What's the matter? You don't like chickens? Or maybe it's something else?"
Duncan rolled his eyes in exasperation but never let his blade waver from Connor's throat. "You! That's what's wrong! You leave me to do all the work around here, while you get to go down to the village, have a few drams, talk to other people, and see the lassies!" he said.
At this, Connor began to laugh. "So you're jealous that I'm getting all the lassies, is it? And that maybe I'm not doing my share around here. Is that all?"
The sword began to imperceptibly drop from Connor's neck as Duncan began to become confused at Connor's reaction, and Connor took full advantage of it to give Duncan a lesson in tactics he wouldn't soon forget. He grabbed Duncan's sword arm, swinging it away from his neck, while he gave him a kick in the groin, causing Duncan to fall over, clutching at himself. He lay on the ground in deep pain, groaning. Connor stepped over him, paused, then bent down out of Duncan's reach and whispered, "Never let your guard down. Remember that when you are fighting, Duncan." He chuckled and went on into the house, leaving Duncan behind him, still in pain.
The two of them didn't speak for days after the incident except when necessary. Connor knew that it had been a necessary lesson for Duncan; when it came time for a real fight with his life at stake, he would know better than to do that again. Duncan was a quick student, and sharp mentally. He held the potential of being one of the best swordsman Connor had ever seen or fought--if he kept his temper and he could be kept from the lassies for a wee bit longer.
The training began in earnest and every morning the two of them rose before the sun doing the chores necessary to ensure that their lives would go on. It also provided them time to concentrate on why they were there in the first place: to teach and learn the Game.
Connor took Duncan with him to the woods where they could fight unseen, teaching him the basics of sword-fighting, some of which Duncan knew already and had used, but also new techniques that fascinated Duncan. He would spend hours practicing until he had it perfect then move on to the next thrust or parry to be worked on.
Connor watched him from a distance when he practiced; he didn't want to break the concentration and effort that Duncan put into it. He was proud of his student but never told him how good he was. He would wait and see how well he did in a real fight before he would say anything to him of that nature.
Many days, the sounds of steel clanging against steel was heard ringing in the area surrounding the home but it drew no notice from the locals. They were isolated enough that everyone paid them no mind, and Connor's forge would bring few visitors so often he took his it to the neighboring farms to do his work and he began to take Duncan along, showing him how to be a smithy.
"Duncan, one thing you need to know to survive, is how to diversify what you know and do." Connor said as they trudged up the last hill to one of the farms close to their home.
Duncan looked over at him, "Diversify? What's that?"
"It means, to learn many things, to do many things, to be many things. You will not be who you are forever. You will have to learn to hide your gift." Connor sidestepped a rock in their path.
"I'll always be Duncan MacLeod. I'm not ashamed of that!"
Connor stopped and looked at his clansman as he sat down the anvil and cart. "I never said that you should be ashamed of that, Duncan. I'll always be Connor MacLeod too, but I've learned that other men will make it necessary to for you to change your name, your identity, your life often. Questions will arise as to why you don't age, or why you heal so quickly or for that matter, how you heal the way you do. Remember your father's reaction when you came back from the dead? And all the other villagers too?"
"Aye, I do." Duncan frowned at the memory.
"You had it easy. You were the chieftain's son, Duncan. When it happened to me, they tied me like a pig for slaughter to a old yoke that had broken, then hauled me upright. My cousin, Robert, struck me; called me a devil! Even my own lass wanted me burned alive. The entire clan turned out--all wanting me dead. All because of my so--called affiliation with Lucifer when in reality it was only because I was born different." He smiled grimly. "Ramirez told the truth. "Because you were born different, men will fear you." That is the truth of it, Duncan. If it hadn't been for my uncle's intervention, I would have been burned at the stake for something that I had no control over."
Duncan somberly listened to Connor, picturing the scene in his mind of what it must have been like for him, knowing full well that it could have easily been him if it hadn't been for his status. He cleared his voice, uncomfortable with Connor's revelation. "I'm sorry, Connor. I dinna know. You were a thing to be feared of, a ghost that haunted th' moors and young bairns' nightmares. A legend tha' was told on cold winter nights. That's where I first heard about you and many times after that. But you are none of that."
Connor looked away into the distance. "It's not going to be easy for you, Duncan. I willna lie to you. But believe me when I tell you the truths of our lives. You will need to do this."
"I'll never change my name for the sake of others! Never! My life--well, I'll see when the time comes. But everything I learned in my father's house, will stay wi' me the whole of my life. Understand?" Duncan passionately said.
"Why you prideful, arrogant, stubborn Scot! You didna hear a word of what I said!" Connor said angrily.
"I heard. But it's my life and my name! I'll keep it and deal with the conse-quences when and if they happen." Duncan picked up the cart and began to push it to their destination.
Connor watched him go, then slowly followed shaking his head, cursing him under his breath.
"Today we are taking the day off!" Connor said as he shook Duncan awake. He didn't get a response, so he shook him again, a bit harder.
Duncan mumbled, waving Connor off and fell back asleep, snoring slightly.
Again he was shook. "Duncan. Wake up! I have a surprise for you..."
Duncan groaned, rolling over as he did so, and slowly opened his eyes a slit. "Go away, Connor. If we have a day off, then let be, for God's sake." He re-settled himself back into the sheepskins and closed his eyes once more.
Connor walked outside to the rain barrel, picked up a bucket, dipped it into the barrel, then carried it back inside. "Duncan?"
"Go away, Connor!" said Duncan's muffled voice.
"All right..." With this, Connor poured the full contents of the bucket on Duncan's head. He laughed as Duncan rose straight up out of bed, sputtering.
Duncan stood there, stark naked, shivering in the early morning cold on the cot, eyes blazing. "Wha' the bloody hell was that for? " he said through chat-tering teeth. He got down and began searching around for his clothes. He started pulling things away trying to find his clothes, something anything to wear, but to no avail. He looked at Connor, holding himself against the cold. "Where's my clothes, my kilt?"
Connor shrugged. "Away." He grinned at Duncan's predicament. "You know, Duncan, " he began, "now would be a good time to begin running. Build up your endurance. "
Duncan shot him a murderous look and continued searching for his clothes. "Do you think this is funny? "
Connor nodded silently, a big smile on his face.
Duncan looked in one final place, and raised his arms in triumph, as he withdrew his kilt and shirt. Hastily, he dressed and went over to the fireplace, stirring the fire back to life from the embers, standing before it, warming himself. He looked over at Connor. "You are going to die."
"Someday, maybe I will. But it won't be by your hand." Connor said, somewhat seriously. He got up and joined Duncan at the fire, placing a pot of oats over the fire to cook. He glanced over at Duncan, who was watching him as he prepared breakfast.
Despite his anger, Duncan smiled at Connor and the two of them began to laugh at what had happened. They laughed so hard that tears began to fall as each clutched their sides.
"So what's so bloody necessary tha' we get up early?" Duncan managed to gasp as he leaned on Connor for support and he him.
"Why, it's the Highland Games, laddie! We--" Connor said as he indicated the two of them, " are going to participate, as any good Highlander would. Go and saddle up the horses, we've got a ride ahead of us!" He turned about to warm the back of him.
"Th' Games? When? " Duncan said as he began gathering up his things for the journey.
"In two days time. Get on wi' ye now." Connor shooed him out the door then turned back to the house to prepare for the journey.
Duncan went out to the horses and brushed them down, speaking softly to them as he did so. They nickered back at him, shaking their heads, as he ran his hands down their flanks and over their rumps, patting them as he did so. He enjoyed being with them; he instinctively knew what to do with them and how they wanted to be treated. He finished with his task and straightened up in time to see Connor leave the house and head off to a nearby knoll. Curious, he came out of the lean-to where the horses were kept and watched as Connor climbed up the knoll and knelt at the top. Duncan shielded his eyes as he tried to see what was up there--he had never gone to the top himself and wondered what could be at the top of the rise to cause Connor to kneel as he was doing. Perhaps another grave?
Connor reached over and pulled away the weeds which had grown up around the sword that marked the grave. He straightened the sword, noting the effects that time had had on it and took a look around. From here on the top of the knoll, one could see a great distance as the green of the land melted into the blue of the sky. Sharp mountains jutted in the distance skywards and on nights when the full moon shone bright, you could almost reach out and touch the stars.
He gently smiled to himself as once more, he heard his beloved wife's voice through the years gone by and who now had lain under the earth for all these years. "Hello, love. I've come home," he crooned as he stroked the grave's earth. He reached into his kilt and pulled out a small candle that he'd been saving and placed it on the ground in front of him. The wind whipped him fiercely, blowing both hair and clothing about and he smiled apologetically to the grave. "Forgive me, bonnie Heather. There'll be no lighting th' candle today for your birthday. I dinna think tha' th' wind would let it burn anyway!" He laughed more to himself than for any other reason, then sighed. "I miss you, love. I do." He crossed himself and said a silent prayer, then stood up. "Happy birthday, sweet." He turned away and came back down the hill, deep in thought and memories.
He passed by Duncan unmindful of his buzz and went on into the house. Duncan had stepped back into the lean-to as he passed; he looked back at the knoll wondering what it was that was there and why Connor had knelt so reverently at it. It had to be some kind of grave or something. But who? He wasn't going to ask, but it somehow made Connor more human in Duncan's eyes.
Connor came out with the bedrolls, seemingly recovered from his trek on the knoll, and started to swing them onto the horse's back but stopped when he saw that the saddles still hadn't been placed on the horses. He looked at Duncan, disgusted, and dropped them where he stood. "What's the matter? I thought that you would be done by now."
Duncan swung a sheepskin over the back of Connor's horse, then a saddle. He said nothing as he tied the saddle off under the horse's belly, slapping the horse's rump to get it to exhale so that a tight fit could be made on the straps, thus preventing slippage of the saddle. He did the same to his horse, and then picked up the rolls, strapping them onto the horses. When finished, he asked if Connor was ready to go and Connor nodded. They swung up into the sad-dles and took off.
The sun was warm on their backs, and the pace was lazy. They talked between themselves and recounted the old stories of their shared clan, as well as Duncan telling about his life and death. They compared notes on the women they had had in their lives, the bawdier the better, and Connor easily won that conversation, due, he said, "to being the older of the two of them and having more experience with the ladies." Duncan could not refute Connor's assertion as far as the age or the ladies though he told Connor that, "he still was young and could make it up in the years to come." Connor laughed at his statement and said that time would tell.
The first night, they spent out on the moors, the moon as golden and round as could be, with the stars twinkling merrily above. Occasionally, they could hear a wolf howl in the distance, and they would each listen carefully to see how close it was to them. Wolves still ran in packs in Scotland; they were known to be larger as were their European cousins, than the species that were found elsewhere in the world. But their numbers were slowly dwindling due to the hunting and killing of them and it was considered a blood sport. Only the noble families could kill them by law and there wasn't a limit on how many could be taken at the same time.
They ate a cold meal of oat and barleycakes and slept with their swords by their sides. A small fire burnt nearby to keep the wolves away or anything else for that matter. They had made good time this day and expected to arrive at the Games earlier than what they had expected. Duncan and Connor both grew excited at the gathering of the clans even though it was under the eye of the English. It bothered the both of them that the English would oversee the Games but the Scots were not to be trusted in England's eyes and were a bunch of rebellious, unruly citizens of England's whether they wanted to be or not.
The next morning they awoke to the ever present mists on the moors, and once more ate the cakes leftover from the night before and headed off.
The closer to the Games they got, the more crowded the roads became with travelers, revelers, peddlers and the like. Tartans representing all the clans swirled and eddied about them, their blood feuds temporarily forgotten as they too, traveled to have fun at the festive gathering. Pipers skirled the tunes that all knew and loved and an occasional war chant was heard as well as an occasional battle tune from rival clans.
The mood was gay, bright and festive and as they topped the last hill, they looked down on a field full of fluttering pennants of all shapes, sizes and col-ors. Surrounding the fields, the clans had placed their pennants so that they could easily be seen by their clan members and have them gathered under one place. There had been some jostling as to which clan went where and got the best place; dirks had been drawn between the rival clans who had had blood feuds for centuries over the positions.
Duncan and Connor looked it over. "Do we go with the clan or no?" Duncan asked, as he surveyed the layout.
Connor looked out to where the single camps lay on the perimeter of the moor. "I think it would be wiser to stay away from the clan. You would still be remembered by many. And myself--someone might be old enough to remember me, though I doubt it. Still it's better to be safe."
They set up camp, near other encampments but far enough away to afford them privacy. Once they were settled, they walked into the festivities. Duncan and Connor both wide-eyed at the flowing whiskey, women, dancing, and the multitude of clans all gathered in one place. They partook of whatever was offered to them as they walked from one place to another. Duncan worried about being recognized and shunned, but Connor told him not to bother--with so many people here there wasn't a very likely that he would meet up with someone who knew him before his death, despite what he had said earlier.
Duncan decided to take a small respite from all the revelry under the shade of a tree and waved Connor onwards, telling him that he would meet up with him later in the evening. Connor nodded and waved as he made his way through the crowds.
Alone at last, Duncan took a deep breath, taking in the sights, when a hand touched him on the sleeve. He turned to look as a familiar voice asked, "Duncan?"
She looked him over, touching him on the sleeve, the chest, his cheek. "It is you. Aye, it is!"
Duncan stood still as she ran her hands on him, making sure that he was, indeed, real and that she wasn't imagining him. Once she was satisfied that he was her son, he bent down and gave her a hug, which held all the sorrow and pain of separation from one's family as well as the knowledge that this was probably the last time he might see her alive again.
"Mother? Wha' are ye doin' here?" he asked as he held her at arm's length, looking at her, locking into his memory the sight of her. She had grown so much older than when he had saw her last. Her hair had gone gray, her skin more wrinkled, her hands more knarled with arthritis. But her eyes still held the spark of her spirit and the granite of her strength. He led her to a soft, grassy place to sit under the great tree and they sat, holding hands, afraid to let go.
"I came wi' th' clan to see th' Games. I never dreamed tha' I'd be seein' th' likes of you. Oh, but I am happy to see ye!" She stroked his cheek tenderly. "How are ye, son?"
Duncan swallowed the lump in his throat, his eyes misting. "I'm fine, Mother. How is it at home?"
His mother pulled her shawl over her shoulders, and shook her head and laughed. "Och, 'tis always th' same. This person is marryin' tha' one, tempers flare up and wee fights happen--you know, always th' same." She looked at him. "I'm nae one for sentiment, Duncan, but I must tell ye somethin'"
"I ha' missed ye, son. Your father, God rest him, shouldna have done wha' he did to ye. But I'm only a woman, an' he nae listened to me. I begged him, Duncan, to no send ye away. But if wha' happened to ye was a miracle or no, I want ye to know tha' ye will always be my son." She looked at him, eyes turning granite. "And I want ye to remember the Highlands, my bonnie lad, and who and wha' ye are. Never forget it. Never! Where e'er ye go, remember."
Duncan looked at her then away, so that he wouldn't shame her with his tears. The lump in his throat had gotten bigger as he had listened to her. He hung his head, the obedient son. "Aye, mother, I will."
She stood up, and he stood with her. She looked around and then back at him, giving him one last hug, holding him tight. "I need to go."
Duncan quickly gave her a kiss on her cheek and held her tight. She turned to leave but he spoke up and she paused. "Mother?"
"Will ye gi' me your blessin'?" He looked down, almost shamed that he would ask her.
"Oh, Duncan, ye needn't ask, son! Always, ye will ha' it always. Forever, my brae, strong boy!"
Duncan hugged her tight. They held each other, knowing that neither would see the other again in this lifetime. "I love ye, mother." Duncan stepped away from her and turned to go himself when he heard her say something. He turned back to her. "What di' ye say?"
"I said, son, tha' I love ye too." She turned away, walked off and was soon lost in the crowd.
Duncan made his way through the crowds, turning back now and then to see if he could spot his mother for one last time. But it was useless, and he walked on, sadder than when he had arrived. He was jostled and shoved as the crowds moved this way and that, but he paid it no heed.
An English footman bumped into him, nearly knocking him to the ground. Duncan looked at him, quite indignant. "Will ye watch where ye go or no?" The footman ignored him and began to move on, but Duncan pushed him back into place. "I'm talkin' to ye. Did ye no hear me?"
The Englishman looked at him then at the people that passed by on either side of them. He shifted his belt, hawked and spit at Duncan's feet. "Are you talking to me?" The two of them , the English and the Scot were starting to draw a little crowd as they stood there, neither giving ground.
"Aye, I am. Do ye hav' no manners?" Duncan looked around at the assembly that had begun to congregate around them. Men, women and even children were encircling them, trying to catch a bit of the conversation.
"The Scots have no manners, so they don't deserve any from me, I say. You aren't worth it." he sneered. The crowd started to murmur at this; someone started to jeer and others joined in. He pushed Duncan, who fell backwards into the arms of the crowd.
Duncan got up and straightened his sash and kilt. "I no want to fight ye. But I will, if ye want. I just want an apology. That's all."
"I'd rather apologize to a pig. And besides," he paused, looking for his cohorts to back him up. He spotted some of his fellow soldiers making their way through the crowd, which had doubled in number, the crowd louder and rowdier, itching for a fight. "Scotsmen don't fight--they run!"
Connor pushed and shoved his way through the crowd, and grabbed at Duncan to restrain him. "This isn't the place for it, Duncan. Remember what I taught you. Pick the place and time of your choosing." He whispered to Duncan, "If you fight him, think of the consequences."
Duncan looked at him doubtfully.
Connor shook him for emphasis. "Think! What will happen if you fight him?"
Duncan whispered back, "Did you hear what he said?"
"Aye, I did."
The Englishman had been joined by this time, with his brothers in arms, some armed with weapons and some not. "What's the matter, " another Englishman jeered, "You have to have a caretaker?"
Duncan exchanged looks with Connor, who imperceptibly shook his head "no". The crowd was beginning to want blood, yelling and cursing the English. "Sassenach!" someone cried out. "English pig!" another called. They began to close in on Duncan and the footmen.
Duncan spoke up. "No, I don't need a caretaker, Sassenach." He waved Con-nor off. Connor rolled his eyes and prepared himself for a fight, if indeed there was going to be one. "But," he continued, "this isn't th' place to fight if fight ye want."
The crowd rumbled. "Remember York!" someone cried and war pipes were heard playing somewhere nearby. More war chants from the differing clans were heard, in the crowds.
The commander of the battalion that was to oversee the Games, heard the commotion and sent someone to investigate. After a few minutes, the man returned, bloody and bruised. "Bloody hell! Send out the troops!" the commander ordered. He watched as his troops began to get into formation when he heard an outcry from the crowd. He strained to get a look at what was happening but it was to no avail. He waved them out and added the calvery as reinforcements.
Inside the circle, Connor and Duncan stood back to back in the middle of the crowd--the English on one side of it and they on the other. The English knew they were outnumbered but they had weapons while many of the Scots did not. It didn't stop their bravado though because they knew that the troops would come to their aid. Duncan laughed softly, whispering to his clansman, "Wha' kept you?"
Connor eyed the crowd and his opponents. "Be quiet, Duncan! You are going to start a fight that we might be sorry for later." But even as he said this, he waited with anticipation, for the first blow, savoring the feel of battle.
The English made the first move, striking out at Connor with a sword; Connor easily intercepted it with his own, as he felt Duncan lunge away from him. The crowd went wild, joining into the melee with their heart and souls. Duncan yelled at Connor over the sounds of fighting, "'Tis good to be fighting the Sassenach!"
"Aye!" Connor yelled back. "But someday, I hope tha' you'll understand what I tried to say!" He parried another blow, and thrust his katana into a soldier. "MacLeod!!!" he cried as Duncan answered him in the clan's war chant, "MacLeod!!!!"
The calvery began riding en masse into the crowd to disperse it, armed with maces and swords, both of which were applied liberally to the mostly unarmed crowd. People were trampled underfoot in the melee, and screams intermingled with the fierce chants of the clans, who fought the hated Englishmen barehanded or with the weapons they apprehended from the soldiers. They fought without weapons for one simple reason: any type of weapon had been outlawed by the English in their fear that any weapon would be used in a rebelllion against the English crown and all weapons had been taken up by the English. Or so they thought.
Duncan ducked a thrust from one of the calverymen, and turned about in time to parry another blow that came from behind him, reveling in the battle. He heard Connor's laugh over the clanking of metal against metal, and looked over to see Connor take on two of the footmen who had antagonized him earlier, a smile across his face. Duncan had never seen such skill with the sword as he was seeing from Connor and his respect for him grew. He thrust, cut and slashed his way closer to Connor, stepping over the bodies of the wounded and dead. "Connor!", he yelled over the din.
Connor hacked at the man on the right, then turned his attention to the other man. He lunged at an opening from the soldier, plunging his katana deep into him under his arm, and pulling it sharply out. He looked over at him. "Duncan!" He looked around at the remains of the fight, then back at him.
"Do you need any help, clansman?" Duncan offered.
"No, I don't need any." Connor looked about once more; the fighting had started to wind down although the remainder of the Highlanders had their Celtic blood running high and still were wanting a fight. They had taken to settling old blood feuds among themselves under the guise of fighting the English. "Time to go home. The English are going to make us pay for what happened here today." He slashed at a Scotsman who came at him in a Frasier tartan. " MacLeod!"
Turning back at Duncan, he moved over the bodies with the practiced ease of someone who had seen many battles and won. The two of them left; nobody noticed. The calvery horses milled about with the fighting still going on in smaller groups. Connor caught his breath once they got past the last of the participants as did Duncan. Both were covered in the intermingled blood of the people they had fought and their own.
When they had arrived they immediately set to packing, then mounted up, ready to go. Duncan turned his mount around, wondering about the fate of his mother. Was she all right?
Connor noticed his hesitation. "What's the matter?" He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth in an effort to clean the blood which had been splattered there.
Duncan looked at him. "My mother's here. I didn't think that I would ever see her again once my father died. I need to go and try and find her, make sure she is all right."
"Your mother's here?" He looked back towards where he knew the MacLeod encampment was. "Duncan, you can't be responsible for everyone. Even if you try, you can't!"
"Damn it, Connor, I can try!" He moved his horse off in the direction of the encampment.
Connor looked after him, knowing that if it had been his mother, he would feel the same and joined him. The two rode in silence becoming very aware of the silence that permeated the area where the Games were supposed to have been but now was a bloody battlefield, strewn with bodies. Smoke rose from abandoned campfires in the area as well as from the soldiers' setting fire to whatever they could find as a punishment for Duncan's want of an apology from an Englishman's insult. He seethed at the English but his anger didn't reflect on his face. He had seen the same thing happen in so many other places in the past. It didn't matter who was right or wrong in the end. He shook his head at the carnage.
Duncan, meanwhile, searched the littered grounds, for his mother. Soldiers still could be heard, women searched for husbands or sons on the field. Their wails crept into Duncan's brain, unmindful of its' effects, as a lover or son or husband was found either dead or dying. His hatred of the English grew as he surveyed the scene which lay before him.
A few English soldiers rode past them, chasing some of the remnants of one of the clans, and Duncan began to take off after them when Connor grabbed his reins, pulling him up short. "No! You can't help them and find your mother too!"
Duncan shot him an angry look, but then took a deep breath and nodded. They finally reached the encampment and dismounted. There was very little that was left as shelters smoldered, in the crisp autumn air, and there were bodies as well too. One by one, they began the process of turning over the bodies: men, women, and even children too all lay on the ground. Duncan wanted to see if any were hers.
Duncan looked about him. This was his clan, he knew these people, grew up with some of them, had been trained to lead them. He turned over another body, it wasn't who he thought. He looked up to see a woman's gray-haired body ahead of him. His heart leapt into his throat, and he jumped over the body that he'd just looked at, and ran to the body. He rolled it over, and caught his breath. "Oh, sweet Jesu!" he cried. "Mother!"
They fashioned a crude hammock and slung it between their horses, solemnly carrying her body home to be laid to rest by her husband's side. Duncan didn't say a word the entire trip and Connor began to get worried about him. Connor started to think about going home to Glenfinnan. He hadn't been back in more than half a century, so it was to be a very bittersweet homecoming for him too.
The landscape began to get more familiar the closer they got to the village. Word had spread about the area of Mary MacLeod's death and as they passed by the farms and small settlements people would come out to pay their respects to her--that is, until they saw Duncan. The people's eyes grew big at the sight of him and they crossed themselves, calling him a demon and cursed him, running back inside their homes, shielding the children from his sight.
Duncan looked at Connor with a pained expresssion when that happened, with the full knowledge of how they viewed him. "Courage. It's not ever going to be easy, Duncan. They never get over someone's death completely--or get used to it. That's why I said that you must learn to hide the truth of your immortality.", Connor would advise.
Connor made all the arrangements for the funeral and paid for the piper to play. Duncan could only watch from a distance as his mother was buried and a mass was said; the priest had refused to be on Holy Ground with someone who was considered a demon, thus was unfit to be on consecrated ground.
Midway through the mass, Connor began to miss the feel of Duncan's buzz. He looked up, eyes searching the edge of the woods where Duncan had been standing as he watched the mass and service. But Duncan was not to be seen; where was he?
Afterwards, the wake began. As the pipes played, Connor went in search of Duncan. He looked around the village, noting that it hadn't changed a lot since he was a child growing up there. He had to smile at the children as they played outside in mock fights. He passed by, watching them and stopped a couple of times to show some children a move with their wooden swords; then fought them himself, falling to his pretended death, much to the children's delight.
He found Duncan standing inside the doorway of a home, crouched down, arms about his knees. Duncan looked up at him, as Connor placed a hand on him. "Is this what I have to face forever, Connor? Saying good-bye from a distance? Seeing the people you love, leave--"
Connor corrected him. "You mean die."
Duncan looked at him. "Aye. Die. And all the while knowing that you will live?" He cleared his voice, struggling to keep from shaming himself in front of Connor by crying.
Connor listened to him, and knew very well the feeling that Duncan was feeling. "Immortality is a lonely thing, Duncan. There are others far older than me, and one day you may meet them--ask them how they cope with it. We immortals go on while our loved ones die. It's not always fair. Whoever thinks that to live forever would be the greatest thing that could happen to them hasn't lived it."
He cleared his throat. "I was married once; my teacher Ramirez told me that I should leave her so that the pain of her dying would be spared me. But I stayed until she died in my arms, an old woman. I loved her so much that I couldn't do that to her--or me." He paused. "I was shattered when she died."
He put an arm around Duncan's shoulders. "It's time to say goodbye to Glenfinnan, Duncan. There's a whole world out there. And it could be yours, if you stay alive long enough to win the Prize. But in order to do that, you must learn what I teach you and others teach you. I won't be your only teacher. You will have to learn some things on your own."
Duncan straightened up and Connor gave him a hug. "Think of it as a kind of magic that only a few of us get blessed by. Though some may call it a curse...what you make of it is up to you."
Duncan looked at Connor as they began to walk back. "When will I know that it's time to go looking for a new teacher?"
Connor looked him in the eye and said, "When you can best me, then it'll be time to go on your own. And, clansman, you haven't shown me that you can do that yet!" He laughed.
They walked on, and Connor pulled a bodkin from inside his kilt. "Here's to long life!" He took a long drink and passed it to Duncan. "One more thing--about my wife, Duncan. I still am shattered from her death."
Duncan listened and nodded. He followed Connor's example of taking a long drink. "To long life!"
The next few months, Duncan seemed to study with more ferocity all that Connor taught and still hungered for more. There was a distinct change in his personality too, Connor noticed. He brooded more and Connor would catch him often on the moors, alone, looking in the direction of Glenfinnan. He never spoke of his mother or his family again to Connor.
Connor empathized with him but never interfered; he knew that Duncan had to mourn in his own way, the loss of his old life before he would be ready to start out new. He also knew that if Duncan needed him or needed to talk that he would come to him. There wasn't anyone else who knew what it was that he mourned. He was immortal and nothing he did could change it. The spark that Duncan had had before the Games had been replaced by something darker.
Connor sighed, as he came back inside from chipping the ice from the stream to get fresh water for the house. Something had to be done. But what? He looked at Duncan, who sat crouched by the fired wrapped in a woolen blanket against the cold, the candles of the house creating eerie shadows across his features.
Duncan never looked up when Connor entered. He stared at the fire, lost in the thought of all the loved ones he had lost, his death, his banishment, the looks of what would have been his people when they looked at him as he brought his mother home for the burial. What was the purpose of it all?
Connor poured the water into the bucket near the fire to warm it. He thought back to the message that he had received when he had gone to the village last about his business affairs in Aberdeen. Matters needed to be taken care of and perhaps the two of them could take a small trip afterwards. The more he thought about it, the better he liked it. A change would be good for Duncan; let him see the world outside the Highlands. He couldn't stay here always unprepared for the outside world and Connor refused to have Duncan unprepared to deal with it.
At dinner that night, Connor cleared his throat, looking at Duncan who had remained quiet throughout the meal. The sound drew a small start from Duncan, who glanced up at Connor--he had grown used to the quiet, and the cooing of the doves in the rafters in the past months.
"Duncan, I have to go to Aberdeen. I have some affairs that I must take care of and I want you to come along.
Duncan frowned. "Aberdeen?" he rasped, his voice unused to talking. "Why?"
"I told you. I have some investments there that need my attention. After that, I thought that we could go to say, Paris." Connor folded his hands and waited for a reply. "Think of the trip as a kind of birthday present for the both of us. We both could use a change."
Duncan began to eat again as he considered it. To leave the Highlands and go to Paris--aye, that would be a birthday present indeed. Granted, he'd never left the Highlands, but he'd heard strange tales of what was outside Scotland's border. And France had long been an ally of the Scottish monarchy before England invaded it and she lost. He looked back at Connor as he mopped up the last of his broth with his bread. "Wha' if I dinnae want to go? Wha' will happen to me?"
"I think that you can take care of things while I'm gone. But, Duncan, you still have much to learn. If another one of us came while I was gone, do you think you could take his head?"
"I think tha' he would hav' a fight if he wanted one." Duncan smiled for the first time since the funeral. "He wouldnae take my head."
Connor laughed. "Well said, Duncan! Well said! But seriously, you should come. You haven't lived until you have seen some of the Parisian courtesans." he added with a wicked smile. "Or bed them."
"Court-e-what?" Duncan was listening now.
"Courtesans, very beautiful lassies, Duncan, who will break your heart with a look, and when you bed them you will swear that you have died and gone to heaven." His eyes sparkled in merriment as he watched Duncan's face undergoing a vast change as Duncan thought about what he just said.
"Lassies? " Duncan sat up staighter as he tore off another piece of bread. "Like heaven?" He chewed on the bread, all the while thinking about the women he might meet. It had been a very long time since he had even been near one thanks to Connor and the training.
"Beautiful, beautiful lassies with round, firm-" Connor began when Duncan grabbed his arm.
"I know wha' they look like!" He eyed Connor suspiciously. "You're no lying to me, are you?"
Connor laughed and slapped the table. "Would I do that to you? Trust me. On my honor as a MacLeod, you won't be disappointed."
"Aye then, the answer is aye. I'll go. But if you are lying to me--" Duncan began but was interrupted by Connor who reached over to take Rameriz's blade from its' sheath, and laid it out on the table.
He laid his hand on it. "I swear, on Rameriz's blade, that everything I told you is true." He eyed Duncan steadily, then smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "But I have the first pick!"
Duncan laughed outloud. "Not bloody likely if I have any say in th' matter!"
Their business in Aberdeen concluded quicker than Duncan thought it might and both decided to go to the local tavern for a drink. Connor bought ale for the both of them and they both watched the serving girls, telling each other bawdy jokes as they watched them.
Duncan kept wanting more details of the French courtesans that Connor talked about from him and Connor kept having more ale poured into both tankards by the wenches. The serving girls, when they weren't busy, stood in a corner, giggling softly behind their hands at the two of them, making comments about which one they favored.
After awhile, the ale's effects began to tell on the two of them, and they began to get louder and giggled at the smallest thing. One of the girls passed by and Connor grabbed her, sitting her onto his lap, much to her embarressed delight as he started to kiss her neck. She screeched as he continued. Duncan watched with a lecherous grin on his face and did the same as Connor to another girl--or at least he tried to.
She pulled away and slapped him, then trounced off to wait on another table. He held his face where she had connected, as Connor sat laughing at him, his girl slipping off his lap onto the floor, which made him laugh harder as he helped her up off it. "I'll wager you that I can get a girl into bed faster than you, Duncan." he said as he gave the girl a slap on her rump, sending her off. He took another drink, and burped. "Excuse me."
Duncan smiled at him crookedly, and pointing a finger. "Ye think ye can, do ye?" he swaggered, then hiccuped. "How much do ye wager or wha'?" He took another swallow and pounded the table for more. One of the girls came over, filled the tankard and lingered, running her hands through his hair. He grabbed he and sat her on his lap, chuckling.
Connor took another drink. "I'll wager that I can make love longer and more tha' ye. I'll pay for the your courtesan if I canna once we get to France. Deal?" There was no answer from Duncan who was busy kissing and caressing the wench. He reached over and slapped him on the arm. "Deal?"
Duncan broke free, and muttered "Aye, let be, Connor, I'm busy!" He went back to the girl.
Connor walked over to the tavern's owner, and whispered in his ear. A small bag of coins was passed between the two; the owner opened it, taking out a coin to bite it to make sure that it was good. Once he was satisfied the money was good, he nodded at Connor who drunkenly walked back to the table after taking a girl by the hand and lead her to his lap.
Before long, Duncan and the girl got up from the table giggling at a private joke, and walked by Connor and his wench. He tapped him on the way by and waved, a big grin on his face as they went upstairs.
Connor watched him go and imperceptibly nodded to the owner, who went over to a large, burly man sitting at one of the tables and spoke to him. Money exchanged hands, and the large man pocketed the coins. After about ten minutes, the man got up from his table and headed upstairs also.
Connor waited, then heard the sound of a door being broken down, and men's voices yelling at each other as a woman screamed. He started to laugh as he heard Duncan's voice say, "Tha' man is your husband?" and heard the thud of blows being given and dealt. He pushed the girl off his lap and went upstairs to see for himself what was happening.
He peered into the small cramped room to see the girl with the blanket wrapped about her, screaming, and Duncan backed up against the wall, with nary a stitch on. The man held a knife at Duncan's abdomen.
"Need some help, Duncan?" Connor lounged against the wall, watching and grinning.
"Connor! No help needed, thank ye." He shot a look at Connor then back at the man. He shoved him away, kicking him in the groin, who fell heavily.
"I see you learned that lesson well, Duncan." He got up. "Looks like I won the wager."
They had gone by coach to the coast after stabling their mounts in Aberdeen. They picked up a small three masted ship, Traveler, to take them over the channel, ultimately landing at Le Havre. The captain warned them that it could be treacherous at that time of year to sail, since unexpected storms happened in the channel--just look at the record of wrecks. Connor told them it didn't matter, paid him, and they took their bags below.
They sailed on a beautiful, sunny day but the weather changed for the worse that night, as the winds picked up in intensity, and it began to rain. Inside the cabin the lantern, lit by a candle, swayed wildly as the ship pitched in the rolling waves. The planks creaked around them and the two of them kept watch as they listened to the storm which raged outside. Duncan wouldn't admit to being afraid; neither would Connor, although he had made the trip before several times. In many ways, Connor relished the adventure of it and thought that perhaps in the future, if he lived, he would like to be the master of a ship.
Duncan, meanwhile, only prayed that the trip be short and that landfall wasn't far away. He cursed Connor silently for talking him into doing such a foolish thing as to go to Paris. No good Highlander would have a need to go outside of Scottish borders--unless you could kill a Sassenach. His stomach pitched when the ship did and the stench from the ship and it's cargo was enough to make a person lose his appetite--and anything that might be in it.
The storm raged the night through and part of the next morning. Both MacLeods had succumbed to sea sickness by then and their cabin smelled of vomit. Neither had gotten any sleep and were far too weak to even think of getting out of bed when the ship hit calm waters as well as calmer weather. Connor fell asleep finally; Duncan pulled himself out of his bed, despite his weakness, to go topside to speak to the captain.
The sun shone bright and warm making Duncan shield his eyes as he came up from the darkness of the hold where their cabin was. He swayed as the ship gently rocked and walked towards the captain with an uneven gait. "Captain?"
"Yes?" He turned from where he stood, astrolobe in hand.
"How bloody long will we be before we make it to France?" Duncan looked at the vastness of the sea and the seabirds which sailed on the winds, wings outstretched. He held onto a coil of rope as he waited for an answer.
The captain looked at him and his clothes. "First time on the sea, eh?" He chuckled. "We'll be in port this evening, God willing, if the tides are good and the weather holds out." He looked out to sea. "If you look real hard, you can see the coast from here."
Duncan strained his eyes but saw nothing. "There's nothing there but water."
The captain handed him a brass telescope. "Here, use this. It's new; some Italian by the name of Gaileo came up with it. It's called a telescope. Makes things closer for some reason."
Duncan played with it, extending it in and out; he then held it to his eye in imitation of the captain. He looked; then pulled it away quickly in amazement. "Och, it's magic!"
The captain laughed outright at him. "Not magic. Science." He looked Duncan over. "You've haven't been away from home before, have you?" He smiled coldly.
"Wha' does it matter?" He suddenly was cautious of the man. Something about him made his skin begin to crawl. He looked about; a crowd of very tough looking sailors were beginnning to encircle him and the captain. He started to back up, but was stopped by a sailor who gave him a toothless grin.
"Tell me, is it true what they say about Scotsmen?" The captain came down to face Duncan. "I mean," he said with an evil smile,"that you wear nothing under the--what's that called--a kilt?" He shook his head. "Shall we find out, pretty boy?"
Someone grabbed his arms from behind and he struggled to break free. "Now, if ye struggle, then it'll be worse for ye." one of the sailors whispered in his ear while another reached for his kilt's edge.
"No!!!" Duncan reared back and kicked the captain as he and the others came at him. They fell in a tumbled heap and Duncan broke free, grabbing at his dirk. He walked backwards towards the hold as Connor came up.
He assessed the situation and added his sword to the weaponry. "Wha' happened here?" he whispered to Duncan. Duncan quickly explained; Connor's face darkened in anger as he was told.
"Pretty boy, he called ye, did he? Well, he got tha' right." Connor laughed grimly. Advancing on the captain, he held the katana at his throat. "Is this how you treat your paying customers?" he hissed. The captain began to cry, begging for mercy from Connor. He fell to his knees, groveling. Connor kicked him away. The Scots exchanged looks; then both picked up the captain as his crew looked on in trepidation and hurled him overboard.
"Which of ye wants to try anythin' else?" Duncan asked, as Connor held the sword, watching the crowd. The crew said nothing,just warily watched them.
"We need to have someone to guide us into the harbor," Connor said. "Who will be willing to do that? I have a gold piece for the man who can deliver us safely." He held it up for all to see.
"I can." A man, the first mate, Duncan recognized, stepped forward. "I know these waters like the back of my hand."
Connor looked him over carefully, then nodded his assent. "You will get the piece when we arrive. Understood?" The first mate nodded, then started to shout orders to everyone. The crew grumbled, but they respected the first mate, and began to prepare the ship for landfall.
Later in the day, both watched as Le Havre came into view, a walled city that had been a major port for centuries. As promised, the first mate delivered them safely and was rewarded by Connor with the gold piece. They got off the boat thankful to be on land again and away from the crew.
"Now what?" Duncan asked as he and Connor headed into the town.
"Now, we get some other clothes, so what happened on the ship won't happen again to you--or to me." Connor pointed him in another direction, as they turned a corner.
"Wha' wrong wi' th' kilt?" Duncan asked indignitantly.
"Nothin'; but th' lassies like it better here if you dress a certain way. Th' courtesans, especially like it."
"Aye." Connor grinned as Duncan smiled at the thought of the courtesans. "Come on. It'll be worth it. Trust me."
They both were fitted for clothes; Duncan flirting with the seamstress who kept smiling shyly at him as she touched him in intimate places as she measured him for breeches.
Connor chuckled as he watched the exchange. There was something about Duncan that drew women in great number; he'd noticed it in Scotland and it was becoming more apparent. He wondered what would happened when they finally arrived in Paris with all the noblewomen there--and their daughters.
They waited for three days in Le Havre, while their clothes were being prepared. Connor took Duncan around the area, teaching him rudimentary French which he quickly picked up during the wait. Duncan was like a schoolboy as he took the sights and the countryside surrounding the port.
"Wha' will we see once we get to Paris, Connor?" Duncan asked as they sat at a small inn named La Coeur de la Mer on the final day before they departed by coach to Paris.
Connor bit into an apple. He looked around as he chewed, thinking. "Well, it is the capital, so be prepared to see many things. The men in power live there, as do their wives and daughters. It's a dangerous place, a romantic place, a place built for conspiracy."
"If it's all tha', then why do they live there?" Duncan took another bite of his meal.
"Because the palace is there, and where there is a monarchy, there will be the people who hunger for the power it can provide." Connor signaled for another round of wine.
"But if tha' is true, then where do the courtesans fit in?" Duncan took a drink, watching the comings and goings of the other people at the inn.
"They are no different. Women want and crave power as much as men; they use what they have to get it. There are some women there that you never want to cross--they have that much power. There are even some who have the ear of the king as well as his bed." Connor stood up, motioning for Duncan to get up also. He threw some coins on the table and they left.
"If they have tha' much power--", Duncan began.
"No more questions, please! You make my head hurt. Just wait and see." Connor threw an arm about Duncan's shoulders, and laughed. "Let's go and see if the clothes are done."
After a week's ride in a cramped coach, over roads the seemed infested with holes large enough to swallow the coach whole, they arrived in Paris. Duncan grew wide-eyed as he stepped out of the coach as he beheld the beauty of the city. He stopped dead in his tracks as he saw the fine houses of the nobles, and looked over at Connor, who smiled and got his things. Duncan followed suit.
"Now where?" Duncan asked, pulling at the breeches. "Bloody things are uncomfortable. Gi' me my kilt any day." He grimaced.
Connor laughed."Your legs are warm at least, aren't they? They will get better and you'll get used to them. We'll go to my place."
"Your place? You live here?"
Connor hailed a coach, which came to their side. The coachman quickly got off, bowed and took their gear as they climbed inside. "You live here?" Duncan repeated.
"Occasionally. It's a kind of survival tactic, Duncan. Always have another place to go to if necessary. It's something that you might consider doing in the future, wherever you decide to live. It seems that I have developed a kind of, shall we say, reputation, and there are those who want my head. Paris is a good place to be." He shrugged. "I like it here." He pounded on the side of the coach and they took off.
Connor had a small place on one of the side streets. It wasn't gaudy as some of the places were, but it did hold it's own form of elegance. There was a small salon to one side of the front door, and a parlor on the other. A winding staircase led to the bedrooms upstairs where massive four posted beds waited for the weary--or the lecherously inclined.
Duncan took a look around and whistled. "Connor--I canna believe it! This is yours?"
Connor looked around. "Aye."
"It serves it's purpose." Connor headed upstairs. "Come here, I'll show you to your room, then you can have a bath.
"A bath?" Duncan blustered.
"Aye, a bath, wi' water and soap." Connor looked at him. "You need it."
"As if ye don't?" Duncan said indignantly.
"Aye, I do. But there is only the one tub and I thought that you would want to be first. Besides, I have to take care of business here." They stopped outside of the bedroom. "This is where you'll stay. I'll be down the hall." Duncan dropped his bag and looked around. "I'll be back afterwhile; Josette will prepare your bath." Connor closed the door behind him.
As soon as the door was closed, Duncan stripped out of the breeches, muttering curses at them. He reached into his bag and withdrew the familiar kilt, dressed in it at felt more at ease than he had since Le Havre. He heaved a sigh of relief but jumped when he heard a knock at the door.
"Monsieur? Are you ready for the bath?" a sweet voice inquired in French. "I will have it ready in just a few moments. I am waiting for the water to heat."
Duncan turned at the sound of her voice. "Josette?" He opened the door and looked at a young girl of sixteen, dark haired and petite.
"Aye, if and when you are ready wi' it." He smiled at her and she flashed one back at him.
"Oui, I will tell you when it is ready." She turned to go but then stopped to look at him. She blushed then giggled behind her hand. Turning, she ran down the hall.
Duncan looked after her, shaking his head. "Strange country but oh, the lassies! Connor didna lie about them!"
The bath had felt good, Duncan conceded. Connor had returned, cleaned up, and now they were on the way to the courtesans as Connor had promised in Scotland. Duncan looked out of the coach's window at the sights that passed by.
"Remember, Duncan tha' you are paying for my lass tonight." Connor leaned back and smiled at his companion.
"I'll do no such thing!" Duncan looked at Connor. "I hav' no proof tha' ye ever went wi' th girl and I seem to recall tha' I was busy at th' time. "
"Why would you need proof, Duncan?" Connor looked at him with a glint in his eye. "You canna take my word?"
"It's a matter of honor."
"Is it?" Connor said sweetly.
A thought dawned on Duncan. "You set me up. Th' whole thing was to see how I'd react in tha' situation or others like it!" His face darkened. "Tha' wasna a good thing to do to me, Connor."
Connor laughed. "I seem to recall getting just as drunk as you; I just might not have had the fun you had. And it did prove a point--you learn, Duncan, you learn."
Duncan held his hands out as if to strangle Connor, then threw them in the air. " I could kill you for that."
"I'd live." Connor pattted his cheek. "Don't take it too hard, Duncan. It was good to see how much you had learned. "
Duncan smiled maliciously. "Wait, Connor, just wait..."
They entered what looked to be a palace to Duncan, sumptious in its' decor with gilded cherubs flying about the ceilings and paintings of lewd and lacivious acts on the ceilings. Ancient Roman marbles adorned columns, and there were ornate gardens one could see out the windows. Wherever he looked, he was astounded by the richness of the house. He jabbed Connor in the ribs and whispered, "Connor?" Connor looked at him as he rubbed his ribs, "What is it?"
"Tell me again, how ye know this woman. She must be verra rich to have all this!"
"I already told you about that, but since you asked, I did her a favor a few years ago and she gave me full run of her house. And as I told you before, she doesn't own the house, it belongs to a nobleman. He gave it to her as a gift to her loveliness."
"Wha' was the favor, Connor?" Duncan asked in all innocence.
"Don't you ever stop asking questions?" Connor answered in exasperation, shooting Duncan a "don't ask" type of look.
Duncan started to ask again when they were interrupted by the arrival of the lady in question. He stared; she was at least as old as his mother had been at death. Connor opened his arms to her, smiling. "Katerina, my love!"
"Connor, you've come back to me! Where have you been?" She gave him a large hug, and Connor rolled his eyes at Duncan, who began to laugh. She then noticed Duncan and her eyes lit up. "Oh, Connor, you must introduce me."
Connor pulled his clothes back into place, and then said, "Countess, may I introduce to you my clansman, Duncan MacLeod. Duncan MacLeod, the Countess Dupree."
Duncan bowed as Connor had told him to and kissed her hand, at which she fluttered her fan in excitement.She then approached him, running her fingers up his arms and down his chest. "Bonjour, madame." Duncan stepped back and held her hands, looking at Connor in consternation.
"Katerina, be nice to him. He's my student, and I promised him a special treat. You do have a special treat somewhere, do you not?" He leaned in and whispered to her, "He's a virgin, be nice."
Duncan overheard the exchange and frowned at Connor. "I am not!" Connor your time has come!, he thought to himself.
"Oh, but I always have special treats for my friends." She eyed Duncan. "I would not mind trying him out myself."
"If ye wouldna mind, stop talking about me in tha' manner! I'm no just meat!" Duncan was truly angry with her. What he didn't understand of the language he understood from mannerisms. He turned to go, and looked back at Connor. "Are ye comin'?"
"Duncan, stay. You are insulting her. She means well. You wouldn't want to go back to the Highlands without doing what you came here for,would ye?" Connor said evenly.
Duncan looked at him.
The countess came over, held his hand, and apologized. "I am sorry, cherie. You are so beau, so handsome. And I dream of my younger days perhaps. Look!" Clapping her hands, women of all descriptions came out from separate rooms, lining up in front of the Scots. "It is your pick--and I will not have you pay tonight as an apology for my behavior from before."
They were all beautiful, in some fashion. Duncan walked up and down the line,feeling a bit embaressed for the girls as some were no more than that. They all smiled invitingly to him and he finally picked a girl who in a way reminded him of a Hghland lass he had known in his childhood.
Connor meanwhile took the prettiest one there and the two of them went into their separate rooms, with Duncan noting which room Connor was in. He smiled wickedly as he went into his room.
Late into the night, Duncan quietly slipped out of bed, careful not to wake his girl. He got dressed and went down the hall in search of the room where Connor slept. He found it; opening the door, he slipped in and began to gather up Connor's new clothes. He paused at the bed; Connor slept soundly. He smiled, then supressed a chuckle as he walked out carrying the clothes.
Once he got back to his room, he began to throw the clothes into the fire, piece by piece. This, he thought to himself, is for Aberdeen. Into the fire it went. This piece is for making me do all the work while you weren't there. He threw another onto the fire. He continued until there was nothing left. He was sorry about the waste of money for the clothes but he somehow felt so much better when he finished.
He then went back to sleep only to be shaken awake. "Duncan, have you seen my clothes?" Connor whispered, not wanting to wake the girl.
Duncan rolled over, opening an eye. Connor stood there, with a linen wrapped about him. "Yes."
"Where?" Connor anxiously asked.
"On you. Now let me sleep." He closed his eye and began to roll back over.
Connor grabbed him. "Someone took them! They're missing."
"Good." Duncan sat up, trying to keep from laughing as he looked at Connor.
"It's not funny!" Connor scowled at him.
"I seem to recall that I said the same thing before we left for the Games. Or don't you recall that?"
"Aye, I recall that. Wait, you did something to them, didn't you?" Connor looked at him a moment then pointed a finger at him. "You did!"
Duncan started to laugh and continued so hard that he fell out of bed. Both stood there, one laughing, one not.
Finally, Connor began to laugh at the incongruity of it all, dropping the linen as he did.
The girl woke up, sleepily rubbling her eyes, to see the two Highlanders standing stark naked, clutching their sides in mutual laughter. She shook her head. Scotsmen!
"All right, truce, Duncan. We're even. It's together from now on. Deal?" Connor said, holding his side.
Duncan looked at his teacher. "Deal."
Connor began searching about for something to wear but it seemed that the only thing available was a beautiful, soft pink washed silk gown with an undercoat of sky blue. He looked at Duncan as he donned it, his piecring eyes blazing in fury. "I'll no forget this, Duncan. Ever!"
Once dressed, Duncan and Connor snuck out of the place as Connor swore harsh epitaphs at Duncan all the way back to his home.
They traveled through the surrounding countryside around Paris, but the weather took a turn for the worst finally and they decided to go home to Scotland. Neither was anticipating the crossing of the channel again, after the last trip coming over to France.
Fortunately, the return trip went without incident and they rode back home after picking up the horses in Aberdeen. A light snow was falling and it glistened on the trees and rocks. Connor wore a long woolen cloak against the cold and Duncan had finally begun to accept the breeches, admitting that there was something to be said about them.
Secretly, he liked the fact that his legs were covered and warm, but they still were binding and uncomfortable. The freedom of movement the kilt provided was a plus but the breeches allowed the same kind of movement only in a different manner.
They passed through the Donan Woods in silence. An owl swooped down to catch its' dinner in front of them, nearly spooking the horses. Connor's reared but he controlled it; they continued on towards their home. The woods became darker the deeper they went into it and the skies began to lower too.
Connor examined the sky with a worried look. "Í think it's going to snow, Duncan. And I think it's going to be bad."
Duncan looked about and nodded his agreement. "I think you're right."
They began to ride faster; the snow began to fall and the temperature began to drop. At the edge of the woods, Connor kicked his horse into a run. Duncan grinned and the two raced through the moors, jumping rocks and fallen trees as they went flying towards home.
As they drew nearer, they saw smoke rising from the same direction as the house. Connor pulled up hard on the reins, stopping his mount but in the process was thrown from it.
Duncan came up behind him and also stopped.
Connor groaned as he got up, grabbed his horse's reins and re-mounted. They cautiously made their way to the house--what was left of it. The house had been burned almost to the ground; the remains of it still smoldered. He slowly dismounted, then walked around looking at the destruction.
Duncan slowly dismounted, as he too, slowly surveyed the damage. "Sassenach did this, Connor. I've seen it happen before."
"Aye, so have I. " He frowned. "They must be close by--the fire isn't completely out. Come on, let's see what's left. You go over by the tower. See if the grave is undisturbed. I'll go around the rest of the place." He led his horse to the lean-to and unsaddled it, then searched for some feed. He found some in the corner and gave it to the horse.
Duncan let his horse wander free to fend for itself. He headed out to the tower and the grave taking note that there must have only been a small bunch of soldiers who did this if he read the tracks right.
All seemed well and in place and the grave was undisturbed. Duncan sighed his relief; only God knows what Connor would do if they had disturbed it. He turned back and looked out to where Connor should be; only to see him at the top of the knoll. Duncan walked back and waited.
When Connor didn't come down, Duncan began to worry. He started to shiver and began to gather wood for a fire.
Once the fire was going, Connor still knelt at the top of the knoll, much to Duncan's surprise. He decided to go and make sure that Connor was all right. He climbed up to the top of the knoll; Connor was pushing the remains of the frozen earth over what was obviously a grave. "Connor?"
He stopped what he was doing and looked at Duncan. "They opened her grave. They desecrated her grave!" His face was livid. "Have they no respect for the dead?" He then returned to his task, swearing under his breath.
Duncan knelt and began to help with the task. The wind whipped the snow about them, and the cold turned their fingers blue. "Who is this, Connor? " Duncan asked gently as he placed the last clumps of earth on it.
Connor brushed his hands off and stood. "My wife, Heather." He looked at Duncan then he reached down and grabbed something that marked the grave. Duncan looked closer at it as the earth reluctantly gave it back after the decades. A great broadsword was slowly revealing itself, the basket hilt intricately carved with Celtic markings. Something was written on it, though Duncan couldn't read it.
With one last tug, it broke free of the earth and Connor hefted it, remembering the feel of it's weight and the strength of it. He knocked off the earth that still clung to it and held it out to Duncan. "It's yours. No one will find her now."
"No, Connor, I canna take it." Duncan frowned, and backed away.
"Aye, you can take it. You have earned it. But you must promise me, if anything should happen to it, you will return it to her. You are the only one who knows where she is, outside of me." He held it out again to him.
Duncan reluctantly took it and hefted it. It had a good weight to it and the grip felt as if it had been made for him. He took a swing at the snow which still fell. It sung as it sliced the air. A fine weapon. He brought it back and tried to decipher the letters on the basket. "What does it read, Connor?" he asked finally.
They ate a cold meal of mutton and oats, washed down with ale. Connor remained quiet, holding his hands out to the fire to warm them, as Duncan was similarily doing. Connor looked up on occasion to look at the house and his homelands, shaking his head. Duncan swore that he saw a tears in his eyes, at one point.
"How many were there, Duncan? Could you tell?" Connor finally said at last.
"I dinna for sure, but it was a small group. They were mounted, but then they must have dismounted to set fire to the house. It looks as if they were searching for valuables if you look at the pattern of the footsteps." Duncan glanced at Connor, noting the cold anger still reflecting in his face. He had never truly seen Connor in full wrath until now. It was disconcerting to look at him and know why the anger was there. And Connor had every right to be angry; the Sassenach couldn't leave the Scots alone even in death.
"Pack light, Duncan. We are going to teach the buggers a lesson in Scottish hospitality." Connor abruptly stood, sweeping the cloak around him and walked off.
Duncan stood and kicked the snow over the fire to extinguish it. He turned to his task of packing once again, pausing to pull his kilt out of the saddlebag and changed back into it. He smiled slightly at the familiarity of the feel of it, then his face went blank as he prepared himself for what lay ahead.
After a few minutes, Connor came back, holding a small bowl salvaged from the fire. He dipped his fingers in it; when removed, his fingers were blackened with ground charcoal. He streaked them across both cheeks and brow, then held it out to Duncan, who followed suit. Both knew the symbols etched upon their faces; they had been old when the Old Ones were still walking the earth. They were meant to frighten and to protect from harm, though Connor thought silently to himself that the English had better start to pray because nothing was going to protect them from him.
The snow fell in large flakes; the wind then proceeded to blow them into large drifts and hide any tracks of the English. They tracked them as they could, pulling the cloaks tightly about themselves from the biting cold.
Connor knew that the soldiers would have to hole up from the weather and wouldn't expect an attack in this storm. That was why it was ideal for them to go now. They had the advantage of not suffering from frostbite; they could get it, but the effects healed themselves almost immediately unlike the mortal soldiers.
Duncan looked on either side of him as he rode, trying to spot the direction the soldiers had headed once they had left home. He finally pointed some tracks out to Connor who silently nodded as he reined his horse in that direction. The light was quickly failing; if they were to have any luck locating the English, it had better be soon.
Inside the English encampment, the sodiers huddled about a small fire, blankets pulled tightly about themselves in the hope that it would block out the cold and wind. There were seven soldiers; the horses were tied nearby.
One stood watch on the perimeter of the encampment, waiting to shout a warning if necessary. So far, they had had no resistance, and the last place they had gone was vacant. There had been a small forge there; they had looked for any hidden goods but found nothing. One of the soldiers had been ordered to go to the top of a tall knoll and keep an eye out for any resistance; once he arrived, he had shouted down that there seemed to be a grave at the top.
The others quckly joined him once the house had been torched. Perhaps there might be something of value inside the grave? They took out their daggers and began to dig at the frozen earth, only to find the body of a woman and nothing else. One of them had laughed at it, saying that all the Scottish women looked like that; then he proceeded to show how little respect he had for the Scots as he turned his back on his friends and steam rose from the urine as it hit the cold air and body.
Disappointed and cold, they left the grave open and the body exposed. They tramped back down the knoll, pausing to warm themselves in the blaze of the home, before mounting back up and riding off.
The man on watch grew sleepy and his teeth chattered from the cold. He held his fingers before him, blowing on them to warm them up. He had never seen a storm like this before and wished that he was somewhere warm. He kept gazing off to the fire, wishing that he could join the others, to warm himself. He never heard or felt the blow which decapitated him.
Connor looked down at his handiwork for a moment then glanced up at the others to see if they had noticed anything. They never moved and satisfied, he slipped back into the darkness and to Duncan.
The soldiers one by one said their goodnight to each other as they curled up on the hard cold ground to sleep, each as near the fire as possible. Soon all was quiet in the camp.
The Scotsmen sat hidden in the hills, which blocked the wind. They exchanged looks and nodded. Slowly, the two of them rode into camp screaming the war cry of their clan. Instantly, bedlam broke loose as soldiers sat upright and were killed where they sat. For those who managed to get to their weapons, Connor dismounted and gave them a fair fight for their lives as he yelled Heather's name. He allowed them the honor of fighting, against his true desires of pure revenge. Connor was a man of honor and justice and he wanted justice for what they had done to his home and loved ones.
Duncan also fought the soldiers one on one. It was often an uneven match and didn't last long. Before long the soldiers lay scattered on the ground, dead. He looked up at Connor who walked among the bodies, making sure they were dead.
Connor glanced up at him. "That is the end of it. It will go no further from me. May God help the English." He remounted and waited for Duncan to do so also; once Duncan was mounted, they turned and rode off, leaving the bodies exposed to the cold and to the wolves.
They rode off in the same direction of their home; both cold and weary travelers who had taken action to avenge a wrong. Connor pulled up inside the woods and looked back over his shoulder, then at Duncan. "Maybe I was wrong to do that, Duncan."
He sighed and continued. "Never lose your temper in a fight; it gives the other the advantage and the power. You must learn to control it to your advantage, to focus it to a point where it becomes a strength and an ally. But if you must fight, do it for what you believe in, what is just, and a good cause. And never try to judge people, Duncan. Everyone has their own story as well as their own sense of right and wrong."
Duncan slowly nodded. He looked about him then back at Connor. "But there are things tha' will make a body angry; wha' then? How can ye no judge people, especially immortals?"
Connor nudged his horse into a slow walk; Duncan followed suit. He shrugged. "Always remember to reveal less about yourself than what someone else wants to know. Do more listening than talking--you'll learn more. What is not said will speak louder than words ever could. You'll learn to read people and to judge their motives before they reveal themselves to you with time and experience."
He nodded his head and continued. "And yes, there will be situations where you will get angry and rightfully so. But remember to temper it with restraint and mercy. Humanity, as a whole, doesn't have our advantages of living many lives century after century. Show mercy where you can, Duncan. As far as judging people, especially other immortals, you must follow your instincts."
They rode in silence for a few minutes, then Duncan glanced at his mentor. "You showed no mercy to the Sassenach back there. How is that different from what you just said?"
Connor halted his horse completely, jumping off to grab some snow from a drift. He wiped the ancient signs from his face, then wiped his hand on his clothes. He thought for a moment. "What we just did might be considered revenge. In a way, that was exactly what it was. But did they show mercy to the other Scots they encountered before they got to our home? Probably not. And they had no right to violate a grave as well as a body like they did. It was a just cause, Duncan. I fought them and allowed them the mercy of an honorable death. So did you, remember?"
Duncan looked off in the distance. "I remember, but it doesn't make it right, Connor."
"Are you doubting my judgment?" Connor retorted then swung back up into the saddle.
"I'm questioning it. It's not right to take a life without cause."
"Oh? What about war then? We fight, Duncan, it's what we do. Remember the first rule that I taught you? That rule is what we live by, survive for, hope for us to be the one. There can be only one in the end and God help humanity if one of us wins the Prize. God help humanity if that one immortal has a blackened heart and nothing but evil for a soul. It would cast humanity into a pit of darkness that they may never recover from."
"Do ye believe that?" Duncan reached down and also cleaned off his face with snow, straightened, and steadily looked at him.
"I have to believe it, Duncan, because it's tradition and because I have otherwise lived, fought and died for no reason whatsoever the past hundred years plus some if I don't." Connor narrowed his eyes as he looked at his student.
"Do ye want to be the one?" Duncan asked from curiosity.
"Do you?" Connor countered. "We need to go and get some rest. Immortals need sleep too and I'm tired." He headed off back towards his home.
Duncan paused as he watched Connor ride away. There was so much he thought he knew and yet he found out on a daily basis how much he didn't know. If he left Connor now what would his chance of survival be? Would he be an easy prey for someone older, more experienced?
Connor knew that he was riding alone but never turned back to look at his clansman. It was his choice to make. Duncan might have a chance alone against another immortal. He was as prepared as he should be, he knew for this stage of his training. He'd given Duncan far more of himself and more training than what Rameriz was able to give him prior to his death.
Rameriz prepared him for his immortality; now he had prepared Duncan for his. Someday Duncan would prepare another for theirs. It was a tradition. He turned to look as he heard hooves come flying from behind him to see Duncan rein in beside him.
Finally Duncan broke the silence. "Where to now?"
"There is a small monastery near here. We can stay there for the night. After that, we'll see what comes."
A month later, Connor finished up packing as Duncan watched. "I have to go away on business, Duncan. You stay here. I think that you can take care of things while I'm away. Be careful."
Duncan nodded then turned back to sharpening his sword with the long even strokes required for a keen edge." If anyone asks for you?" Duncan began to say but Connor finished for him.
"Tell them that you don't know me. You'll be safer that way. And if one of us comes looking for me, you know what to do."
"Aye. How long will ye be gone?"
"I dinna know. Depends on the weather and what or who I encounter." Connor grinned. "And do remember to leave some of the lassies for me."
Duncan laughed. "Ye are still angry about Paris!"
"Maybe I am." Connor turned and left, grinning at the thought.
Shortly after Connor's departure, strange murders began taking place wherever Duncan went. He had to move from place to place before someone could connect the murders to him. Each of the murder victims held a ragged piece of MacLeod tartan.
Duncan dreaded not knowing who or what or why he was being pursued and tormented like he was by someone unknown. He was the only MacLeod in the area at the time. He knew that he would be blamed for the murders based on the tartan each victim possessed at the time of death.
He wished that Connor was around. He constantly asked for him from the locals, wishing desperately for some word on where Connor was and when he was going to return. The murders continued; finally the true murderer revealed himself to be another immortal like himself by the name of Martin Hyde.
Hyde was in pursuit of Connor; when Duncan challenged him he was easily defeated and humiliated by Hyde. Duncan was Connor's student, Hyde knew; he'd researched his victim well. But Connor wasn't about and Hyde left a message for Connor in allowing Duncan to live.
Connor returned shortly after the incident between Hyde and Duncan. He listened as Duncan explained what had happened, interrupting now and again to get the details right. He scowled as he was told.
"Who is he, Connor?" Duncan turned back from the window as he looked at Connor. He waited.
Connor sat at the table his hands folded in front of him. "Someone I ran into a number of years ago. He only goes for the older immortals but stalks their students in order to get to the older, more powerful immortals. He is like a hunter--he's ruthless and relentless in the pursuit of his prey."
"So I noticed. I tried to take him, Connor, but he was too good for me." Duncan gulped ashamedly before looking back out the window.
Connor came and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry about it, Duncan. In time, you'll be able to take him on, if he lives that long or anyone else for that matter. And you will win." He patted Duncan's shoulder. "Maybe you'll be able to defeat me in time too. But you are doing well."
Duncan remained silent, but looked over his shoulder at him.
"Aye, I don't say tha' to anyone, I'll have ye know." Connor grinned. "I think that it's time to go to Italy. A change of pace is in order and we need to learn something new, change professions. I happened to get letters of introductions to the Doge of Venice for the two of us. And it's always good to learn a new language. And the lassies--"
Duncan pointed a finger at him, as he said suspiciously, "Don't tell me--they are bonnie, right? Is this going to be another Paris?"
Connor looked at him, hurt written all over his face. "Why Duncan, what would make you think that?" He grinned wickedly then winked.
"Experience." Duncan grinned wickedly right back at Connor.
The years flew by. Connor had slowly withdrawn as Duncan's teacher over the years as Duncan's proficiency increased; his role became more of mentor to his protegee`. He still watched over him, showed him the necessary things so that he could win in a close fight or any fight for that matter, and instilled in him a sense of his responsibilty towards mortals.
Duncan had always felt his responsibilties toward his fellow mankind keenly, but with Connor's help, saw what being immortal really could be like. He had great respect for his elder clansman--he no longer was the demon of a child's nightmares, but a man that had been thrust into a situation unlike any that could be imagined--unless it happened to you.
And it had.
He glanced over at his companion, sitting opposite of him at the table. "You know how long I've been with you, Connor?'
"Let me guess. Too long?" Connor drily remarked, as he lifted his glass up for a drink. His eyes bore into Duncan's soul, then he looked away towards the entrance of the shop where they sat.
Duncan looked too, but nothing happened. He raised his eyebrows in a questioning manner at Connor, who sat very alert, eyes searching the area.
"We have visitors, it seems." Connor softly said under his breath to Duncan.
"Where?" He swept the area with his eyes; still he saw nothing.
"Close by. Obviously, they don't want to be seen." Connor stood, throwing coins on the table, and motioned Duncan to follow him out the back entrance. They left as Connor kept close watch of the shadows, not wanting any surprises.
The made it back to the palace of the Doge without incident, going directly to their rooms. Duncan went over to Connor's room once he had checked out his to make sure that nothing had been disturbed.
He knocked softly, and Connor answered, katana in hand. He looked both ways in the hallway; once he was assured that it was safe he motioned Duncan in.
Duncan went over by the fireplace to warm himself and stared at the flames. He turned as he heard Connor begin to sharpen the katana with his whetstone. He frowned. "Is there going to be a fight?"
"Aye. It's what we do, remember?" Connor paused on a long stroke upwards, then laid his sword down in his lap. "You asked me earlier if I knew how long you had been with me."
Duncan sat on a small stool near the fire. "Aye, I did."
Connor smiled tightly. "You have to say one thing about immortality--you never forget anything even when you want to. It can be a real curse. I met up with you in 1625 and it's 1632 now. That's seven years. "
"Aye, that sounds right." He shifted on the stool, clearing his throat as he did so. "Connor, in all that time, have I ever once said thank you for what you have given me, taught me? I will be forever in your debt."
"There's no debt between us, Duncan." Connor said gently. "I wanted to do what I have done for you. It's tradition. Someday you will have a student perhaps; you will pass on the legacy I have passed on to you from Rameriz and from whomever his teacher was all the way back into time. Tradition plays a great part of our lives and our rules of the Game. When I go, you will follow after me in my footsteps."
"Are ye going somewhere, Connor?" Duncan stood and went to get himself a drink of water from the crystal decanter near Connor. He took a drink and waited for an answer.
"Something like that, Duncan. Our time is coming to a close, my friend. Soon you will no longer need me. But for now we needn't worry about it." Connor stood and placed the sword into its' sheath. He looked down and laughed softly, his eyes stealing to Duncan's face. "I'll never forget about Paris, you know. How I got out of the Contessa's--"
"But you looked so good in the dress, Connor." Duncan laughed, slapping his knees in delight at the memory.
"Don't remind me!" Connor smiled sheepishly and a tinge of pink flushed his face.
Duncan stood and mock curtseyed to Connor, who instantly flicked out the katana and held it to Duncan's neck. Duncan froze in place, as Connor laughed coldly. "So, do you think it's funny?"
Duncan gulped, and blurted out,"Connor I--"
"Be quiet, haggis!" The sword pricked at his neck as each of them watched the other. Connor walked about Duncan and the sword traced a circle about the base of his neck.
Duncan swallowed again. He knew what kind of a swordsman Connor was and had been the brunt of many a losing round with his teacher. He slowly backed up towards the door with Connor following, the katana still at his neck. Without taking his eyes off Connor, he slowly began to unsheath his sword, the one that Connor had given to him at Heather's grave. It scraped as it was pulled from the sheath, causing Connor to glance down at it's location.
Duncan pressed his advantage in that instance, and pushed Connor back away from him.
Connor stumbled against the stool and fell, but quickly regained his footing.
Duncan turned, opened the door, and ran outside into the night with Connor in close pursuit.
"Connor! What are ye doing?" Duncan cried out as he turned to confront Connor.
Connor feinted and thrust his sword at Duncan who caught the thrust easily. He pushed it away, and swung back at his friend. The sword sang through the air, clashing off key with Connor's. Parry, thrust, keep your balance, remember to keep your head, Duncan's mind repeated over and over.
The fight wound down through darkened alleys, into the plazas, past churches. Metal continually struck metal sending showers of sparks into the cobblestones as the blades connected from each of the combatants' blows.
Duncan was gasping from the weight of the broadsword, not understanding why the whole situation was occuring, while Connor also struggled to keep his breath as well as his advantage.
He learned well, his voice inside his head told him. See how he wields that? Very impressive. He will do well on his own. He'll survive. He'll live a long life.
Connor struck another blow at Duncan, drawing blood.
Duncan grabbed at where he'd been injured, losing momentum in the fight. He quickly regained his sense of calm control and kicked at Connor. The blow connected at Connor's solar plexus and he fell, his katana skittering across the stones.
Connor clutched at his abdomen and turned his head in time to see Duncan raise the sword over his head for the fatal strike. He reached over and pulled Duncan's feet out from underneath him causing Duncan to fall heavily to the ground.
Connor got to his feet shakily and held out his hand to Duncan. "Very good, Duncan. Class is over. You don't need me anymore."
Duncan paused as it registered that he had just been tested; he reached out to the offered hand and pulled himself upright. "I could have killed you!" he said between gasps.
He walked over and reached down for the broadsword, only to bring it up in two pieces. He held it out, examining the pieces, then held it out to Connor.
Connor took the pieces, frowning as he examined them closly. He shrugged, saying to Duncan, "Looks like you have a trip back to Scotland to fulfill a promise you made me. As far as you killing me, I told you that I might die someday, but it wouldn't be by your hand. Remember?"
"Aye, I remember now. And I will fulfill that promise, Connor. On my honor, I will."
"I know." The two turned back towards the palace, gradually getting their breath back and keeping a slow pace in the night.
Connor stopped as they were almost to the palace and scoured the dark, nerves jangling warnings as he felt the familiar illness he always felt when another immortal drew near. "We've got company..."
Metal clanged and sparks flew off the two connecting swords, as the combatants circled, both gasping for air. Each of them were evenly matched against the other and the fight had continued for the past hour. Duncan's arms was growing weary from the katana and he raised it again to ward off a blow from his opponent.
Once more, he thought about all that Connor had taught him through the years; he would be forever grateful that Connor had found him. But he knew that the time had come to go. If he could best this one man, then he was free to leave; that's what Connor had told him. He didn't want to shame himself in front of Connor, who stood watch nearby.
He thrust the sword at the other; the other danced away. Again he swung the sword; this time he connected as it bit deep into his opponent's side, causing him to fall on all fours. He lifted the sword up then swung it down, using the sword's momemtum to cleanly cut through the vertebrae and tissue of the neck.
He stood there, gasping, as the quickening enveloped him. It felt as if it burned through him and he cried out, as wisps of memories that did not belong to him, traced through his conciousness. Involuntarily, his arms' muscles tightened, causing them to straighten to either side of him, still holding the broadsword in one hand. He threw his head back in the agony that was also an estacsy, crying, then fell to the ground.
Connor came over to help him up. "Well done, Duncan, well done!" He gave him a hug, patting him on the back as he did so, then led him off to the palace.
Once in his room, Duncan lay there on the bed, then sat up and looked Connor in the eye. "Does this mean that my training is through?"
"No, it means that my time with you is done. I need to move on, Duncan. Maybe get some more training myself." He shrugged. "Never can have too much." He carefully watched Duncan to judge his true feelings.
"What will you do?" Duncan stood up and looked out the door, as the thought of losing Connor threatened to engulf him and leaving him feeling bereft.
"I don't know. Maybe go to the New World." Connor said noncommitally. "But don't worry, I'll stay in touch. Someone's got to keep you out of trouble." He laughed; Duncan turned to look at him, joining in.
"Aye, I might need that now and then." Duncan nodded in agreement while grinning sheepishly.
Connor stood, gathered up his things, and met Duncan at the door.
"Is this goodbye, Connor?"
"I never say goodbye, Duncan. It's too final." They looked at one another, and each hugged the other in affection and respect. "Be careful, Duncan. Don't lose your head, Highlander."
Connor pushed past Duncan and walked down the hallway, as Duncan watched. "Connor?" he said.
"Don't lose yours either!" Duncan called and Connor smiled then shook his head. Opening the door that led to the courtyard, he turned back to where his horse waited, mounted and raced off into the plaza, shouting, "MacLeod!"
Duncan watched him go then said to no one but himself, "I'll see ye around, Highlander," before shutting the door behind him.
To the sequel of Legend, "By Invitation Only"