Author's note: Although Connor MacLeod is the point of view character in this story, the physical laws governing immortality are taken from Highlander: The Series. And, um, when I started this I didn't know that Duncan's cabin was on an island, and I never felt like fixing it. Sorry.
Connor was losing track of how many times he had frozen to death. His brain was much too cold to count past twenty. At least the blizzard winds that kept hurling stinging snow in his face and filling his ears with their unearthly howling had finally died down again.
He'd been miserably cold plenty of times before and had always thought that dying of it would be pretty simple. You just got colder and colder until finally your blood froze, and you died. But as it turned out, there was a fascinating sequence of events that came before the blood-freezing part. Now, for instance, he was starting to feel sleepy, and absurdly happy. Soon the hallucinations would begin.
He hoped that this time it wouldn't be bears. Or the sensation that his clothes were filled with rocks, weighing him down. The first time, he had come back to life nearly naked in the snow, and had to follow his own trail backwards to retrieve all of his clothes. After that he'd spent half a morning tying the strings around his furs and boots into impossible knots so that he wouldn't be able to take them off. But he would still prefer that to being eaten by bears.
And in spite of his precautions, he'd lost his sword about three deaths ago. It had just seemed too heavy to carry, and he'd left it lying in the snow somewhere. When he came back to life he had tried to go back and look for it, but another blizzard had come up and made the search impossible.
The loss bothered him terribly, although sometimes he couldn't remember why. Roddy Kesler was doubtless just as lost in this winter hell as he was. And maybe it was better this way. After another twenty deaths like this he might be tempted to take his own head.
Stubbornly he made himself put one foot in front of the other, even though he hardly knew where he was going. It was still snowing too thickly to see more than a few yards ahead, let alone what part of the sky the sun was in. He had no idea where he was, unless you counted what continent he was on, but he hadn't worried much about it for quite some time. Unless he had wandered all the way to Alaska or the world had plunged into another ice age, spring would eventually return and melt this snow into submission. If he just kept going, somehow he would find a way to get warm again.
The tree in front of him refused to budge. He tried to move around it, but it was hemmed in too close to the next one, and the next one as well. Finally he realized it wasn't a thicket. It was a cabin.
He found a door, and a latch. It was dark inside, and not much warmer than outside, but all at once Connor determined that he had frozen to death for the last time.
* * *
A spark glowed in the tinder, and he blew on it carefully until a tiny flame licked out. He placed it in the nest he had built in the belly of the stove, and fed it blessedly dry little splinters, then sticks, and finally a small branch or two. The heat spread slowly over his hands and face, as welcome as a lover's touch. Then his head filled with the rushing sense of another immortal.
Maybe Roddy wasn't lost after all.
He didn't have a sword, but there was only one door. He crept up beside it and heard someone lift the latch. He didn't have much strength left -- he probably only had one chance.
A shapeless bundle of a man moved cautiously through the door, and a sword glinted with reflected firelight. Connor lunged at the man, forcing the sword away from him, but an arm hooked around his neck and he was dragged backward, gasping.
"Who are you?" a voice rasped in his ear. Not Roddy. He knew at once that he should recognize it, but it took a moment before a name came to his cracked lips.
His clansman loosed him abruptly and he staggered as his head swam. The light of his new little fire flickered across Duncan's astonished face.
"Connor? What are ye' doing here?"
The tentative map in Connor's head did an astonishing flip-flop. This was Duncan's cabin? Just what range of mountains had he come over?
"Trying not to die again," he answered finally. "I hope you don't mind."
Duncan lowered his sword. At least he was carrying it. "But the path is unmarked. How did ye' get here?"
Connor tipped his head back toward the peaks he had come from. "The long way."
"Are you crazy? With these blizzards howling like a hundred wolves?"
"Believe me, it wasn't on purpose. Would you please close that door -- it took me a lot of work to get this fire lit."
Duncan closed the door and began shedding his furs and bundles. From the look of them Connor guessed that he had been out hunting. He turned back to the stove to make sure his fire would survive the disturbance, and then picked up Duncan's sword and began using it on the hopeless knots in his outer clothing.
Duncan looked at him sharply. "Where's your sword?"
"I lost it in the snow somewhere. I'll have to go back and look for it when the weather clears."
Duncan snorted. "You may be here for a while then." If he remembered Connor's long-ago, oft-repeated lectures about the fate of an immortal foolish enough to misplace his sword, he gave no sign.
The stove quickly warmed the small cabin, and Connor found himself shivering violently as warmth finally began to seep back into his bones. Duncan eyed him wordlessly and threw him a thick wool blanket. He wrapped it gratefully around his shoulders.
As soon as he began to get warm Connor realized that he was terribly hungry. He had exhausted his supplies some time ago, and had only avoided starving to death because the cold always got him first. Duncan heated water for tea and handed him a chunk of smoked venison and some hard tack. It tasted as good as any thing he had ever eaten.
With the comfort of warmth and nourishment he began to shake off the lethargy of weeks of mindless wandering and dying. He looked around the cabin with newly awakened curiosity. It had been Duncan's home for nearly a year now -- his personal refuge from the killing, from the game, built on holy ground. Connor's eye picked up a few relics of Little Deer and her people, the only hints of color or beauty in the room.
Duncan's vulnerable eyes intercepted his gaze.
Connor cleared his throat. "It looks like you're doing well here."
"I have everything I need."
He turned away, and Connor let the matter rest. He had no intention of opening up that argument again -- not yet. But he noticed for the first time that though Duncan was speaking English, his Scottish brogue was as thick as ever. Probably the result of so much time alone, with only himself and the woods to talk to.
That might change very soon, if Roddy had kept his bearing better than Connor had, or at least had the good sense to hole up somewhere when the blizzards struck. But perhaps this was not the best time to tell Duncan about it.
Connor spent the evening respecting Duncan's silence and sitting as close to the stove as he could. He kept the fire burning bright and hot, adding another log every time it threatened to settle down to embers, until Duncan began to glare at him. No doubt he was thinking of the effort it had taken to chop it all.
Connor shrugged and promised himself he'd replenish the supply. He never wanted to be cold again. He wondered if he might enjoy living in the Sahara for a while, or maybe the jungles of Africa. Or perhaps the south of France?
He started out of a doze when Duncan tossed a pile of furs on the floor next to him. "You can sleep there, if you like. Just try to keep from catching fire. Burning to death is quicker than freezing, but it hurts a lot more."
Connor nodded and crawled into the soft heap with a sigh at the blessed luxury of sleeping warm and dry and fed, surrendering peacefully to the darkness for the first time he could remember in weeks.
* * *
Connor dreamed of snow. Soft, deep, cold, smothering snow, in drifts so high he floundered trying to dig his way through them. Roddy was getting away, his snowshoes leaving wide impressions in the drifts. Connor dug faster, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't keep up. Then Roddy's sword flashed in the air, and Connor looked up to see Duncan fall headless in the snow!
He awoke in a tangle of furs. Thin lines of light from the banked coals escaped from the hinges of the stove beside him. He remembered where he was. He took a few shaky breaths and began to untangle himself.
"Connor? S'that you?" Duncan's sleepy voice drifted from the bed.
"It's all right. I was just dreaming."
"'Bout what? Being attacked by bears?"
Connor grunted, still fighting with the furs. At least it hadn't been that. "Just snow," he said. "Lots and lots of snow. I guess I died in it a few too many times lately."
Duncan grunted understanding, and his pallet creaked as he rolled over and settled in to sleep again.
Connor lay awake for some time. He had learned to pay attention to dreams -- they often suggested possibilities he might otherwise have overlooked. Why had he dreamed that Roddy had killed Duncan instead of him?
Then he remembered just why he had been stalking Roddy Kesler, and felt the hair on his neck stand up. Roddy had already killed another of Connor's students -- a mere boy not yet ready to fight. Confronted by an older immortal, Paul had taken refuge in a secluded cemetery. From what Connor had been able to piece together, it seemed that Roddy had shot him from a distance, dragged his body from holy ground, and taken his head.
To Connor's knowledge, no immortal had ever taken another's head on holy ground. But what Roddy had done came hair-splittingly close. Connor had no intention of allowing him to live. But what if he had unwittingly lead Roddy to Duncan's sanctuary?
He should probably tell Duncan first thing in the morning. But his clansman seemed none too pleased that Connor had unwittingly invaded his self-imposed exile from the game. Finding out that Connor had lead another immortal to his sanctuary wasn't likely to improve Duncan's temper. Besides, Roddy was not Duncan's responsibility. If Connor could find him and take his head, Duncan need never know.
Connor made himself stare into the darkness until he had a plan, and some hope that it would work. Then he closed his eyes again and let darkness take him.
* * *
The morning dawned clear. Connor stepped out of the cabin to answer nature's call into air glittering with tiny frozen particles under a pale, sharp sky. The cold froze his breath in his lungs and invaded his clothes like a relentless enemy. He finished his business as fast as was physically possible and hurried back into the cabin. Stirring up the fire to ward off the chill, Connor nearly abandoned his plans.
But he had learned a long time ago that there were worse things than dying.
He turned to his clansman. "Duncan, I need to ask a favor of you."
Duncan had ducked out to fill the kettle with snow and was setting it on the stove. "What?"
"I need to borrow your sword."
At that Duncan turned abruptly. "Why? This is holy ground. You'll be safe here."
"But I need to go out and look for mine. I don't want to go unprotected."
"In this cold? Have you lost your mind? The weather will turn soon enough. You can stay as long as need be."
"It's not that. I just -- I feel naked without it. You know how it is."
"Connor, there aren't any other immortals or even any mortals for miles around here. Trust me, I've had a whole year to scout it out."
"Probably so, but they always seem to turn up unexpectedly."
Connor hesitated, realizing that if he pushed any further Duncan might catch on that he was only telling part of the truth. But abruptly Duncan tired of the argument and thrust the hilt of his katana in Connor's direction.
"Go freeze to death a few more times then, if you've a mind to."
Connor took the hilt, bowing properly over it as if they were in Japan instead of this uncivilized wilderness, and Duncan, surprised, acknowledged the gesture grudgingly.
"And don't lose it like you lost yours," he added.
Connor couldn't help grinning at Duncan's parental tone. "I won't."
The snow had melted and soon the water began to boil in the kettle. Duncan dug into his tea canister, and Connor drank two cups to fortify him against the cold. He stuffed all the hardtack and venison that Duncan offered him into his satchel, not knowing how long he would be gone. Duncan said not a word more to him, but sat down with a pile of hides he was cutting into long strips.
Wearily, before the lure of the cosy cabin got the better of him, Connor put on all his layers of clothing and furs again and stepped out into the bitter cold.
* * *
He spent the better part of the day scouting a perimeter around the cabin, wide enough to give him some warning if he saw that it had been crossed, but small enough that he could get around it in an hour or so, once he'd broken the trail. A thin wisp of smoke was visible at times from the cabin, though it was hard to distinguish from the high, windswept clouds.
Everywhere he went the virgin snow was unmarked by human footprints. It was waist deep and more in drifts between the trees, and the memory of his snowy nightmare hovered uneasily at the edges of Connor's mind. But the knowledge that food and fire and walls against the wind were only an hour away steeled him considerably against the wolf of winter in the air. He wondered how many times in his wandering he'd died for no other reason than that he simply gave up.
Hope didn't ward off frostbite, however, and his toes and fingers ached smartly by the time he met up with his own trail again.
The sun had nearly completed its low arch by the time he returned to the cabin. Stew bubbled from a large pot on the stove, its aroma enough to set Connor's stomach growling. Duncan was cooking biscuits on sticks over the coals.
After a few perfunctory questions about Connor's search, Duncan ladled the stew into bowls, and they ate together in silence.
Connor broke it, casually. "I remember when we first met. On the moors, in Scotland. You had the most insatiable appetite for conversation I'd ever seen. I didn't think you'd ever stop talking."
Duncan looked up at him. "What'd you expect? I'd been wandering alone for almost five years, no clan, no family. I didn't even know what I was."
Connor paused, looking around. "Well, now it looks like you've mastered the art of solitude."
Duncan looked away. "I've had three hundred years to learn."
"But you don't seem to have mastered peace."
There was a heavy silence. Connor waited, watching Duncan struggle with this presumptuous judgment.
Finally he sighed. "Connor, leave it alone. You're not my teacher any more. I have to work this out myself."
"I don't want to be your teacher. But I'm still your clansman, still your friend. Time doesn't heal everything. You should know that by now."
Duncan sighed again, his eyes deep and weary, shadowed with grief. "Time. Three hundred years. I've seen generations of men born, grow old, and die. I've seen wars, hatred, death -- so much death. I feel like an old man, at the end of a long journey."
"But you're not at the end. Unless someone takes your head." Connor continued in a casual tone. "I suppose I could do it for you, if you want."
Duncan eyed him sharply. Connor grinned briefly, pleased.
"And what if you live four hundred years, or five hundred? Or a thousand? Do you want to spend them here, all alone with the past, with the ghosts of the people you've loved?"
There was a long silence before Duncan finally answered. "I don't know."
* * *
After supper Duncan sat beside the stove, melting bits of lead in a long spoon over the coals and pouring them into his bullet mold. Soon he had a row of shiny new bullets to put into his pouch. Then he cleaned his rifle, and greased some traps, and filled his powder horn. He left the rifle loaded on twin pegs beside the door.
Connor, who had no rifle or traps or even a sword to sharpen, spent the evening going through the half a dozen well-worn books he found stacked in a corner. Only one of them was new to him, written by a Frenchman who had apparently run off as a young man to seek his fortunes in the Congo. After fifty pages Connor reconsidered the jungles of Africa as possible refuge from colder climates. Being immortal didn't help much if you were caught among headhunters.
He put the book down with a sigh and looked over at Duncan, who was now carving something out of a twisted piece of wood with a large knife, to all appearances perfectly content with the silence. It was a beautiful, knotted chunk of heartwood -- but despite the shower of tiny shavings in Duncan's lap, but Connor couldn't tell yet what kind of figure was supposed to be emerging. He withdrew his gaze before it drew his clansman's attention and threw a few more blocks of kindling into the stove. He sat back and sighed, remembering.
Duncan had been a fine student. And more than a student -- a friend, a partner, almost a brother. Connor looked back at himself as he must have seemed to Duncan when they met -- the grim, lone wolf, with enough decades under his belt to have accepted the loneliness of immortality. And Duncan, disowned and wandering but still a MacLeod in his heart -- so young, naive, headstrong, full of life. Their years together had awakened something in Connor he'd thought dead with his mortality, or perhaps with Heather -- the ability to laugh, to trust, to believe that the pleasure of living was worth the inevitable pain.
But their paths had diverged a great deal since then. Looking back he realized that Little Deer's death had been more to Duncan than just the loss of one more lover. When Connor had happened on him kneeling in the midst of his slaughtered tribe, rocking back and forth with her body in his arms, too stricken even for tears, he had remembered his own losses and thought he understood his kinsman's pain. But it was not like Duncan to retreat like this, to turn his back on his responsibility to the Game. Something had broken in him, leaving him drifting, hiding in this unpopulated wilderness.
Connor wished he could somehow give back the gift that Duncan had once given him -- but he had to admit that he didn't have the first idea how to do it. Duncan was probably right. He'd have work it out on his own.
At length Duncan set the carving on the mantle, swept the shavings into the fire, and blew out the lantern. Connor settled himself again on his pile of furs beside the stove and found himself actually hoping that it wouldn't be long before he ran into Roddy Kesler.
* * *
But the next morning as he went around his perimeter, the surrounding snow was still unbroken. What if Roddy never came?
He knew it was still far too early to abandon his vigil. After a month, maybe two, he might start to feel more confident. He grunted with exertion in the biting cold and wondered if he could keep Duncan in the dark for that long.
Now that the path was broken, it only took till midmorning get around it. Satisfied that Roddy wasn't close enough to reach the cabin while he was gone, Connor set out to look for him, and, hopeless though it was, any trace of his sword.
He wasn't sure exactly which direction he had come from, since he hadn't known where he was at the time. But he had to have come over those craggy mountain peaks to the northeast, and there was only one likely-looking break that might form a pass -- he headed toward it.
All traces of his passage were gone, of course, leaving him to break a new path through the deep, crusted snow. He could only guess at landmarks his blizzard-weary mind had managed to register -- trees, slopes, pockets of meadow. He came on an enormous slab of rock thrust up from the ground -- surely he would have remembered it if he had seen it, but what if he had missed it by a hundred yards, or even ten, in the blowing storm?
Just when he was beginning to think he was on a hopeless quest, he found the breathtaking spectacle of a series of frozen waterfalls which he was certain he could not have crossed without dying memorably. The deep blue in the depths of the ice and the ponderous columns of falling water frozen in time made him stare in wonder for several minutes before he brought himself back to his task. The waterfalls would form a northern boundary for his search. Climbing up alongside it was exhausting, dangerous work, but some distance up he was rewarded with a clear view of the open space in which Duncan's cabin was nestled. Nothing whatsoever stirred in the snow-covered landscape.
But the bitter cold was settling into his bones again, burning his feet and hands and face, and he remembered quite clearly how relentlessly it would turn to the illusion of warmth, and then to hallucinations and death. He made his way back to the cabin as quickly as he could, retracing his path through the snow-covered woods. Inside, he stirred up the fire and sat as close as he could to the stove without being burned, shivering again until warmth finally made its way through him. Duncan eyed him several times as if seriously questioning his good sense, but offered no commentary.
Connor slept in the afternoon and awoke restless. Duncan was busy stretching furs onto frames to dry, and once again looked quite capable of keeping himself busy into the candlelight hours. But there was still sunlight left, and the woodpile across from the stove was looking a little too lean for Connor's taste. He looked around for an axe.
Duncan nodded distractedly when Connor announced his intentions and went outside again. The woodpile lined the northern wall of the cabin and was covered in snow drifts. Connor set to work on the end where the wind had blown away more of the snow, hauling blocks from the pile and splitting them into wedges.
He hadn't gotten far, however, before he discovered a hollow place between the blocks of wood. Had squirrels made a nest here? He pulled off a few more logs. An entire clan of squirrels, it would have to be. And then he saw a whole lot of brown, shaggy fur, and a paw with claws the size of . . . . Quick as a wink he was back inside the cabin, heart pounding.
"Duncan, there's a bear in your wood pile!"
The first trace of amusement Connor had seen stole across Duncan's face. "That's Tsatcha. It was too warm for her in the cabin, so I made her a place in the wood pile."
Connor couldn't believe his ears. "You let a bear in your cabin?"
"She's just a yearling. Her mother was dead in a trap. I couldn't just leave her. What? It's not like she's going to tear my head off."
"Remember I told you I don't know if limbs grow back. Are you going to let her stay until she's grown?"
"Nah, I expect she'll wander off come spring."
Connor shook his head. It figured. A master of solitude indeed. Let Duncan retreat into the wilderness with no one else around for miles, and he started making friends with bears.
He went back outside and gingerly replaced the logs he had removed. It didn't look as if the bear had been disturbed. Hopefully it would stay that way. He didn't much feel like splitting logs, but could hardly go back in and admit he was afraid of a hibernating yearling she-bear. By the time he finished, the wood pile inside the cabin was stacked to the rafters.
Duncan had heated the rest of the stew, and they ate together again in silence. It seemed more comfortable than it had before, and this time Connor made no attempt to break it with conversation.
After supper Duncan sat on the floor again with his carving, and he didn't seem to mind that Connor, having nothing better to do, sat by the stove and watched him. Tiny curled shavings collected one by one in Duncan's lap, and gradually the shape of a canoe emerged from a wooden pool of water, with a crude figure inside dipping his paddle into the swells. By the proportions, Connor guessed that it was a young man, or perhaps a boy. Even with only the rough outlines, however, he could sense the peace, the inner stillness of the figure in the canoe, at home and at one with the river and sky.
"You're very good," Connor observed finally.
Duncan shrugged. "All it takes is practice."
Connor rather doubted it. He looked around for more evidence of Duncan's earlier work and didn't see any. But Duncan had apparently finished for the evening, for he stood and brushed the shavings into the fire, then laid the piece on the mantel. He banked the coals in the stove and turned out the lantern.
"Good night, Duncan."
Despite the comfort of furs and warm and darkness, Connor lay awake for a long time.
* * *
He awoke the next morning to find that Duncan had gone, taking his sword and rifle. Presumably he had gone out to hunt again. Forced into inactivity, Connor realized he had almost been looking forward to his daily trek through the snowy woodland.
But he had hardly roused the fire and heated water for tea when the sound of a rifle shot echoed sharply through the brittle air. Alarmed, Connor downed the rest of his tea and hurriedly put on his wraps. But just as he reached for it the door swung open and Duncan ducked inside. "I've shot a moose. Come help me skin it and cut it up before it freezes."
Connor followed Duncan for perhaps a quarter mile before he saw it. An enormous brown moose lay at the bottom of a slope. Duncan plowed through the deep snow on the edge of the slope, pulling out his knife. Connor hurried to his side and pulled the skin back with gloved hands as Duncan sliced hurriedly sliced along the carcass.
"With this cold it will be a good, thick pelt," Connor said.
Duncan nodded and glanced around. "Have an eye out for wolves."
Steam curled off the carcass as the hide came away. The moose's blood
froze where it pooled in the snow -- before long the meat would freeze solid
as well. It took both of them to get the hide out from under it, and then
Duncan began hastily scraping it while Connor cut away chunks of
meat and set them in the snow to freeze. Both of them glanced up every few seconds, half-expecting to see a hungry predator slinking over the ridge, attracted to the scent of their kill.
"You want the entrails?" Connor asked, when he'd taken all of the meat he could conveniently get.
Duncan looked back at the remaining moose parts. "Leave it for the scavengers," he said reluctantly. "We'll have all we can carry as it is."
They loaded the chunks of meat on the hide and bound it to a straight young tree. They slung the ends of the pole over their shoulders and staggered to the top of the slope. Connor's hackles rose constantly as they made their way back to the cabin, certain that every thicket and snow drift hid a predator about to spring, but they arrived without incident..
Duncan led the way to a small lean-to at the side of the cabin, where he hung the meat on pegs where it would freeze solid and stay fresh until he needed it. Then they dragged the huge, shaggy hide inside and stretched it out to dry.
Duncan surveyed it with satisfaction. "There. I'll wager you wouldn't freeze to death even in a blizzard with that on your back."
Connor had to agree. "As long you don't fall in a river and drown under the weight of it."
The moose had been hungry work, and Duncan set out some dried apples and hardtack and smoked venison, which they ate together in companionable silence. Then Connor took the sword and rifle and went out to make his own rounds.
He followed his perimeter quickly, then set out toward the pass. He didn't get too far past the waterfall when the waning light forced him to turn back. He began to rethink his decision to try to find Roddy on his own. Perhaps it would be best to simply wait at the cabin for spring. Working with Duncan on the moose had reestablished a fragile sense of camaraderie between them, like a ghost of their time in Scotland. Perhaps it would last a few months.
That night as Duncan scraped more tiny shavings from his carving, Connor was startled when his clansman suddenly asked him a question.
"Connor, have you ever met any of the really old immortals?"
Connor considered. "A few. Ramirez never told me how old he really was, but he was born in Egypt. I've crossed blades with one or two that might've taken my head but for a dose of good luck or the grace of God."
"Did you ever meet one named Darius?" There was something in Duncan's tone that sharpened Connor's attention. This was more than idle conversation.
"The priest who lives in Paris?" Duncan nodded. "I've heard of him. I've also heard some strange tales about him."
"The legends say he was a warrior until he took the head of a holy man," Duncan supplied. "Since then he has lived on holy ground, dedicated his life to peace."
"You know him?"
Duncan nodded. "He believes that killing is wrong."
"All killing? Even the game?"
"But peace at all costs means slavery or death. You know that. And what about protecting the lives of others?"
Duncan gestured absently with his carving knife. "I don't know. His words have such power. The kind of power truth has, if you can muster the faith to believe it."
"And you want to believe him. Is that why you came here, lived with the Lakota?"
Duncan nodded. "I was at peace with them. A kind of peace I've never known before." His voice changed. "And then they were slaughtered like sheep."
Like the Scots at Culloden, Connor suddenly realized. This wasn't a new grief for Duncan.
"And I wanted to kill him, the man who lead the soldiers to them."
"But you didn't."
"No. Another one found me. Another immortal, a man of peace. He took away the hatred, the anger . . . "
But not the pain, Connor thought. He considered his words carefully. "Sometimes, to stop the killing, you have to kill the killers. It's the way the world is."
"But not the way the world should be."
For that, Connor had no answer.
* * *
The next day it began to snow again. Thick flakes felt silently from a dove gray sky, and Connor was quite pleased that he had talked himself out of the necessity of traipsing through the woods again. Rather than face a day of boredom he asked Duncan for something to do and was rewarded with a set of broken snowshoes to repair. Duncan, apparently feeling impervious to snow, set out again with his rifle and sword.
The morning past slowly in the pleasant stillness of the cabin. Connor had just finished lashing a splint to the broken snowshoe frame when the door swung open. Duncan stalked in and stood in front of Connor with snow melting on him.
"You lied to me. You haven't been looking for your sword. You've been guarding me. Why?"
Connor looked up, startled. "What?" He thought he was prepared for Duncan's discovery of his subterfuge, but the raw anger in Duncan's voice took him by surprise.
"I saw your perimeter. Don't try to deny it. Did you think I couldn't face him?"
Connor looked Duncan in the eye. "I'm the one who lead him here. He's my responsibility."
"Like hell." Duncan flung his sword onto the bed and started taking off his furs. Suddenly Connor's brain put several things together at once. There was blood on the sword, and a stain on Duncan's sleeve.
"You fought him." It wasn't a question. "And since you're still alive . . ." He left the obvious conclusion unsaid and let out a long, slow breath. So, it was over. All his worrying and scheming had been needless.
Duncan paused without turning. "Connor? I didn't take his head."
Connor blinked with shock. "What?"
Duncan finally turned and stared at him defiantly. "We fought, I won. But I didn't take his head."
* * *
The morning passed in uncomfortable silence. Connor wasn't sure whether Duncan was more upset about his own imperfect solution or Connor's presumed judgment of it. More than once he cursed his own stupidity in losing his sword. Duncan was hardly likely to loan him his now. What's more, Duncan believed that they were safe here on holy ground. Connor wasn't so sure. Twice he nearly opened his mouth to say so, then closed it again.
Around noon a shot rang out. Connor looked up -- he and Duncan stared at each other for a long moment. Then Duncan was at the door, with Connor at his elbow.
Roddy stood twenty feet away, a drawn sword in hand. "Connor MacLeod!"
Duncan stepped partially into the doorway. "This is holy ground. You can't fight here."
"I am Roddy Kesler, and I have come for Connor MacLeod. I've seen his tracks -- it's no use hiding him. Is he an immortal, or is he a mouse?"
Duncan stared in disbelief. "I am Duncan MacLeod, and I already bested you. This is my home. Go away!"
"If Connor MacLeod does not answer my challenge, I will burn down that cabin around you, drag your bodies from the smoldering wreck, and cut off both of your heads with his sword."
Connor's eyes went suddenly to the blade in Roddy's hand, and instantly recognized his dragon-headed katana. "He has my sword," he heard himself say in disbelief.
"He wouldna do it," Duncan murmured at the same time.
"Yes, he would," Connor replied. "He's done it before."
Duncan's eyes registered shock. "And survived?"
"If the rumor is true." Rumors might only be rumors, after all, and the one he'd heard it from had not been immortal, didn't know the significance of the tale he was telling, but Connor didn't care to stake his life on it.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Duncan demanded.
Connor turned to look him in the eye. "You quit, remember? Besides, would it have made any difference?"
Duncan didn't answer. He stood staring at the ground, jaw locked, until finally he said, "All right." He handed Connor his sword.
* * *
They had to go past Connor's perimeter to leave holy ground. To Connor's surprise, Duncan accompanied them -- apparently he wanted to know what happened even if he disapproved of the proceedings.
The first few exchanges were cautious, both of them testing each other's skill and the uncertain terrain. Roddy was inexperienced with the katana, and it didn't take much for Connor to send it flying out of his hand. He didn't favor fighting.
Roddy's sword was an older, heavy, two-edged weapon -- it took more energy to use and was less capable of finesse, but the impact jarred Connor's arms every time he parried a blow.
He managed a jab that drew blood from Roddy's shoulder.
Then the snow betrayed him. His foot slipped as he blocked a cut, and he felt the tip of Roddy's blade slide past his own and down his ribs and into the soft flesh of his belly. He felt warmth against his skin as Roddy withdrew his sword and looked down expecting to see his guts spilling out, but so far there was only blood. He brought his sword up just in time to deflect a blow that would have taken off his head, and felt metal bite into his shoulder down to bone.
He cried out in pain and felt himself slipping into shock. He wasn't sure he could defend himself until wounds this deep could heal. Connor parried the next few blows with difficulty, feeling his head begin to swim from loss of blood. Then Roddy slipped past his guard and thrust the point of his sword between Connor's ribs.
He gasped and saw the snowy ground come up to meet him. He knew he didn't have the strength to rise but he tried anyway, seeing Duncan's horrified face floating against the snow-covered pines. After the quickening Duncan would have an advantage, if he took it. Would his clansman overcome his aversion to killing to avenge his teacher's death?
Then a strange chanting drifted into his ears, unexpected and ghostly. It was a lot like the hallucinations he'd had while freezing to death -- but then he thought he saw Duncan standing in the snow, arms raised, eyes closed, swaying a little as if to a drum beat. He stared, wondering if it was real, but then his vision wavered. Snow burned against his face, and he choked on the blood filling his lungs. In a wash of agony, he felt his sword wrenched from his grasp and closed his eyes, waiting for the fatal blow.
Instead an unearthly roar shattered the stillness of the woods. Connor thought perhaps he was hallucinating again, but seconds passed and his head remained attached to his shoulders, so finally he forced his eyes open.
Something brown and shaggy and very large was bearing down on him -- no, on Roddy Kesler. The big man had dropped his sword and was running for his rifle. With the same certainty that he knew that he was about to die, Connor knew that Roddy wouldn't make it. The bear was almost on top of him. The rifle went off once, the report sharp in Connor's ears, but then the world went black, and he felt his heart falter, and stop.
* * *
Air seared into his lungs as his heart started again with a jolt and life flooded back through his icy limbs. For a moment there was only pain, astonishing and overwhelming, but then it began to fade, and he remembered who he was -- Connor MacLeod, an immortal, an outcast, wandering through centuries, eternally locked in a struggle for the prize.
He opened his eyes and tried to sit up, wincing at the sharp protest from his still-healing chest and stomach. A strong arm helped him up. His vision blurred, then settled, and he realized that he was inside the cabin, lying on Duncan's bed. Bleeding all over Duncan's bed, in fact. Well, not bleeding any more. But the furs beneath him were crusty with drying blood. How long had he been dead?
"What happened?" His voice came out dry and hoarse, and Duncan handed him a tin cup filled with water. He sipped it gratefully.
"What did you see?" Duncan asked with a measured tone that made Connor look at him sharply. He sifted through his hazy memories.
"I was about to lose my head when a bear came for Roddy. I suppose I could have been imagining things, but I'm still alive so something must have happened."
"You did see a bear. It was Tsatcha."
Connor looked at Duncan sideways. "That didn't look like a yearling she-bear to me. Besides, I thought you said she was hibernating."
"She still is. I checked the wood pile myself."
Connor shook his head, trying to clear his brain. "What are you saying? Was she there or not?"
"Yes and no."
Connor gave up. "Well, one way or another she saved my head." He chuckled a little. "I guess she doesn't know the rules of the game."
"Maybe not. But the Old Ones do. Roddy threatened us on Holy Ground. They have their ways of defending it."
Suddenly Connor realized what Duncan was driving at. And he remembered something else. "I heard chanting."
Duncan nodded calmly. "A prayer to the Old Ones. I guess they heard me."
Connor swung his feet to the ground very carefully -- he felt only a twinge in his stomach. "What about Roddy?"
Duncan shrugged. "Last I saw he was high-tailing it back into the mountains with an angry bear on his heels. She may have killed him, but I doubt she took his head. But I don't think he'll be back, either. And maybe he's learned a lesson or two."
Connor stood up. Even the twinge was gone. "And maybe he hasn't. Duncan, I have to follow him."
Duncan turned to where Connor's sword lay on his work bench, cleaned and polished and sharpened. He bowed and held it out to Connor. "I know."
Connor bowed and accepted it wordlessly. He curled both hands around the hilt and suddenly felt whole again.
"And you'll need some new clothes, and food for the journey." Connor turned and saw a whole pile of winter necessities laid out neatly at the foot of the bed. "Fortunately we're pretty much the same size," Duncan added, while Connor stared in silence at the offering.
The trail would be cold by morning, and besides, Connor hated long leave-takings. He started stripping off his blood-crusted clothing. "And I thought you were getting used to my company."
"You're welcome any time, Connor. You know that."
Connor nodded. "I know."
Duncan nodded toward the woodpile. "At least you took your turn with the axe -- and without you throwing another block on every five minutes, it ought to last at least a month."
Connor stopped in the act of pulling on a boot. "Have you ever frozen to death twenty times in a row?"
"I've never been dumb enough to try and track another immortal through a blizzard." Duncan grinned. "You know, I was afraid you were going to burn the cabin to the ground that first night."
Connor finished packing the supplies that Duncan had provided and started
He looked around again before going to the door. The unfinished carving on the mantel, a blue beaded necklace hanging over the bed, and outside, covered by snow but carved into immortal stone, the signs of the Old Ones. Suddenly he remembered them as clear as if he were looking right at them. And without asking why, he knew that Duncan would be all right. Somehow he would find peace, or at least the courage to keep living, in hopes of finding it.
"Thank the Old Ones for me."
He stepped out again into the snow.
To the Authors' pages.