In the end it came down to just dogged persistence. It wasn't that his features matched closely enough; the dark eyes and hair, skin tanned to cocoa in the sun. They were not impressed with his stature or even the fluid grace of a muscular body hammered into strength.
No. It came down to the simple things. The only things that matter to a fellow warrior race. Honesty. Fairness. Skill with a blade. The willingness to fight for the tribe. In the end, Duncan had only to be himself to win the respect and the place amongst the Lakota.
And then the turning of lore began.
"Teach me," he said simply.
He learned the ways of the ground and water. Sassafras, the bright green trees of the hillsides, yielded up leaves to thicken soups and yellow-green blossoms for tea. Sprigs of sweet bark became trail snack, chewed like gum. The bowed-head prayers of wild onions became familier herbs and the tall sorrel he gathered in handfuls to stuff their fish with.
The medicine man, Utabre', taught him how to catch a lark with a stone and a twig and a whispered word. They caught a heron with a partially submerged rope and held him long enough to pluck some of the long feathers for arrows.
He waterproofed canoes with the bark of the paper birch and scrubbed tallow and beeswax into hides to shed the downpour. He speared for fish. He learned to move noiselessly in the water and still all but the slightest ripples of his passing.
He learned to discern the difference between the wild lettuce with its blue-green leaves and the other similar ground plants, some of which were deadly. He pounded red cherry bark into mash and took it along on hunts to prevent the casual cough that would spook the game.
He wrestled until he was weary, kicked dried horse dung in games with half naked children and finally mastered the stringing and pulling of the bow. Never had he danced so madly to such drums at such fires. He fell easily into the peace of the proud people and stole glances at Little Deer, his body long denied.
"Time enough," he mused to himself. "There will be time enough."
He was in the open before sunrise, alone, as was his want. The air was brisk and he curled around himself where he sat, watching the sun creeping through the fingers of trees in the distance.
"I feel at home and haven't felt this way for so long. You would like it here. The quiet. The peace in this place." He smiled, a flash of white teeth in a tanned face. "I've picked up your same damn habit. Sneaking away to talk aloud to someone not even there the same way you used to when you thought I wasn't looking. Stubborn old Scot...I knew all the time you chatted it up with Ramirez.
He sighed as his eyes shifted eastward. "I miss you, Connor. Wish you were here. This is the closest to being in clan as I've been." He tilted his head, squinting into the sunlight. One braid at his temple brushed his cheek. "I'm not sure how we'd pull it off though. You're all the wrong colors to fit in easily. Eyes too blue, skin too pale. I suppose I could hand you a knife and we could go at it like a couple of tigers like we used to. Maybe strip you to footgear and set you out in the open to run--for a day and night and another day--until their ponies pulled up. That would convince them you were worth enough to adopt, too."
He sighed deeply again, prodding the ground with one finger.
"Funny. I can look up today and know somewhere that you are looking up at the same sun. And I don't even know where you are anymore...." The voice trailed off. "I miss you. You're the only piece absent from this picture."
He stood and stretched, catlike, arms and fingers wide as if to capture the horizon, and then laughed, boyish and young, as a stray thought crept in. "Yeah, but you have to get your own girl, though, you stink-weed. And you are an old Scot; 'spect you'll want two of them!"
The mare stopped, tossing her head and swiveling her ears at the delay. The rider was nondescript. Grey clothing; coarse, dusty and worn. Battered hat with a rumpled rim holding down unruly hair. One hand, long fingered, swept the thick ponytail off his nape.
His countenance was calm and unreadable. Almost unremarkable except for the eyes, deep set and intense, never stopping the scan of the terrain. He looked up in thought. The sun fell full into the face of Connor MacLeod for a moment before he turned his horse away.
Listening to a whisper somewhere in his soul.
There never was time enough...it came crashing down around him in the spring. When all the world thrust itself into new life, his was cast into death.
The evening before was spent languidly...pretending to nurse a bruise from his ongoing wrestling bouts with Two Beads, showing Kahani some easy knife throws and flirting with Little Deer. She crept down to the river to watch him bathe, staring unabashedly at the broad shoulders that tapered down to the narrow hips. Deep through the chest, his sinewy breasts flattened and swelled alternately with the movement of his arms. His abdomin was lined from the ribcage down in progressively smaller and more defined muscle pads. Thatches of dark hair did little to conceal anything from her roving eyes. His was the terrible beauty of a hunter.
She laughed softly, chucking pebbles into the water until he noticed her hiding amongst the cattails. He made as if to catch her, cascading water off his sleek form as he emerged, but she darted away. Nude Indians around him in the current laughed and gestured in crude good humor. He chuckled and planed the water out of his hair, whipping it in a smooth arc across his back.
They spent the night in sweet love, bodies entwined and all of his longings uttered and answered within her arms. She was so beautiful and free. He saw himself made whole in her eyes. In the morning, she tossed his clothes out the door and shooed him away, naked and laughing under the casual regard of the tribe.
"Ho-kora! Go you!" she called out their teepee. "A woman can only get sleep and peace when the buck is gone!"
He hopped into his trousers just as a pack of unruly boys swooped in from the side and made off with his shirt. Hoots and jests and running feet throughout the camp. The smell of roasting meat and hickory. The old men sat in their doorways, fanning the fires and yelling at the dogs that circled in the never ending attempt to steal the venison. Fish hung on branches to dry. The air was new and crisp and alive.
He plunged headlong into the woods and soundlessly covered the familiar terrain. Idle footfalls followed at a distance...his favorite horse, tame as any pup. The open country called to his soul and he thought of nothing as he walked and ran alternately until tired. He wedged himself between the cliff rocks and crabbed his way up to get a view, heedless of scrapes and gashes.
For miles he traveled, picking his way carefully through the timber and brush. Wildlife flitted away before him. The spring flowers were in bloom. Violets peeked meekly through the carpet of pine needles. Everywhere flashed the sunny buttercups and hues of Indian paintbrush. Snowy morning glory patterned the glades and stream banks.
Near the far reaches of Lakota territory, he stopped and chewed dried fish and venison. It was quiet. A dawning sense of wrongness nagged at him and he rose warily from his place by the little fire. The whisper of immortality seeped in on him and, for one bright moment, he thought it was Connor.
It was Kern.
They crested the hill, both walking. Afternoon was creeping quietly over the rider and horse. He was footsore and desperately needed a bath. His stomach growled and he studiously ignored it, listening intently to both his surroundings and the faint glimmer of something else. A feeling of unrest made him quicken his pace, drawing the tired mare after him.
The slash of branches across his face and the rush of terrain in his peripheral vision told him that his horse was in a dead gallop. It seemed so slow to his quickened heart. The filly did not lose her pace down the shale or across the flats that rippled with grass. Duncan set his heels into her as he had never done before and the animal responded to the urgency in his voice, stretching out into the run with her mane and tail streaming.
The first body, crimsoned and twisted, buzzing with flies, loomed suddenly in her way. The horse faltered, changed leads abruptly and gathered herself. She jumped over the grisly surprise and Duncan went sliding off her shoulder. His moccasined feet touched once...twice...fingers snarled desperately in the long mane and then he was down--hard--one long, rolling tumble amongst rocks and grass. Adrenaline drove him back on his feet, staggering, eyes staring at the carnage.
The whisper turned to dread curling in the pit of his stomach. Connor came down the slope at the same easy pace and drew up. The body of a woman, torn apart, skull crimson from where her scalp had been wrenched off sprawled at the mare's feet. She was a steady mount, long used to the Highlander and his trap lines...just another bloody animal to her. All the same, she sidled her feet about and held her head higher.
Pain and death. Battlefields aplenty had he seen. It never got any easier. The blue eyes went flat and cold when the next body was a child....and then another. Another. And one over there, wedged in the rocks where she had tried to hide her little body. Mother of God.
A steady stream of mauled corpses, all women and children in an obviously vain attempt to flee the savagery led him on. It was another quarter of a mile before he got to the true site of the slaughter.
The fierce eyes took it in: torn baskets, burnt teepees, blood spattered blankets, feathers blowing loosely, the idle rise of smoke from spilled fire pits. Through it all the brutalized corpses of the entire tribe, throats slashed, wombs torn open, testicles severed for souvenirs, ruined faces...Connor walked in hell.
He saw him before he felt him, uncannily zeroing in on Duncan from a distance. Collapsed on the ground with someone across his knees. The older man shivered all over with some ill-timed memory from long ago. Was this why he was here? Was he always to just pick up pieces, never to see the whole? Was he strong enough for this? The God of the immortals must be laughing at the joke....
He let the mare go and crept in quietly on his clansman, a slow and measured pace. The boots made little sound. He stepped through the blood and spilled bowels to reach the man who sobbed so quietly and rocked the woman so tenderly.
Duncan never looked up.
The quicksilver of his presence felt wrong. Like his soul was bent. He reached ever so slowly and placed his hand on the back of Duncan's neck, worming his fingers through the tangled locks to reach the skin. He listened, calling up training from a man hundreds of years away from him...breath to breath. Keep the tempo. Focus. Listen. Feel for it....
"She knew the names of the grasses..." His voice was twisted and high, laced with pain. "The wildflowers. The songs that told where her people came from." Grief gave his smile a grimace. "How they lived, what they believed in."
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
....Watch the laboring chest of the man he knelt beside. Listen for the beat of a heart. Listening and finding and pacing his own to match it as Duncan leaned into his chest in agony and turned his brow against the nondescript hat. Breath and pulse, reaching for him, searching...and then the suffering pouring raw and blistering across him, catching his heart so piercingly. He had to conjure up hidden strength to stay under it.
For a very long time Duncan held the woman and Connor held them both. The sun worked its way across the hill. Soft shadows crept near and the flies swarmed around them. Somewhere far away, a bird cried at the coming evening. He thought it sounded like his heart.
"Do you think we ever lived like this? Like a tribe, together with a common language? A reason and a name for each living thing?" The soft accented voice reached him where he stood watching the flames. He didn't turn his head, unable to look away from this ending to Little Deer and Kahani. "Did we once belong somewhere, a time...a place...however briefly?"
He had built the pier himself, silently and bitterly. Connor had sat with the bodies of the little family and watched him work. At one point, Duncan glanced over to find that his old teacher was holding both Kahani and Little Deer by the hand, stroking the long fingers over theirs in silent benediction. It struck right to his core. There was darkness in his soul, watching and waiting for him.
They stood together, shoulder to shoulder and watched them burn.
Next, came the conflict. Duncan sought to carry every tortured body to the charred circle and the elder man got in his way over and over again until he was forced to face him.
"We can't do this, Duncan. There are too many. The smoke will draw back the soldiers to hunt whom ever still lives." He ducked under the blow, giving ground to the rage that flared abruptly out of the dark immortal. "They will track us down."
"You should have been here. We could have saved them." The voice was low and tight.
"Like with Charlie? You said the scout was immortal, Duncan." He spoke quietly against the curtain of anger. "The scouts never lead the fight, they only find the camp. They skip in latter to take spoils. We would have been taken down by the sheer numbers, just like they were..." He waved a hand at the fallen bodies. "Kern would have chopped us before we'd even regained our feet, let alone get healed enough to fight."
"We could have saved some of them!"
"Who? Which would you pick? Just your woman and then run?" He ducked the first, but had to take the roundhouse that followed it in quick succession. "Could you run? Or would you fight?"
They were down in a thrash of bodies, struggling. Duncan was stronger and fueled by rage.
It took all of his skill to block the worst blows, fighting purely defensively and twisting out of the savage embrace. "Duncan! Should we have stayed to die? Would she have wanted it?"
The hand clenched in his shirt collar held tight with fury. "They are people of the land...let them go back to the land."
Duncan paused just a moment. "The scout. I'm going to kill him. I will hunt him until he is dead."
"Not like this. Kill him, yes, but not in this blind rage. You'll be consumed by it, just like after Culloden."
"And you weren't?"
Fair and true. Connor had sullenly gone back into the Highlands after the killing was done, curled around his pain like a bear. "You need time, Dhonnchaidh*."
"And theirs is over, Connor," he spat back, shoving him away. The birds were already amongst the dead and the sight infuriated him even more. "I won't rest until it's done."
Just like taming some wild, young stallion...the struggle only began when you got the rope across their necks. They would plunge and drag you willy-nilly, fighting for their head, eyes rolling. The only thing you could do was stand still and let the rope slide like a serpent through your grip. They would circle at the very edge of the fence, eyeing you distrustfully. Even a lump of sugar took a week to get them from the apex to the hand that held it. Connor simply had to let him go, watching with grave eyes as he assembled clothes and weapons and a mount.
He followed, albeit at a distance. Just outside the ring of presence. Powered by grief and rage, Duncan hit every settlement and fort for one hundred miles in his quest for Kern. The elder Highlander simply stood by and waited and watched.
He saw the fights. The way the younger man harnessed his strength for the conflict, utterly possessed with hatred. He barely slept and snatched meager meals. He saw him drug away into jail and then take to the woods with the Indian Shaman. Swords never appeared...and even if they did, he knew the rules.
He felt every one of his 353 years and stretched and pulled at his neck. "You tried to train it out of me, Nakano," he spoke softly. "I always did store up tension in my neck. I wish I'd listened closer to that lesson, you goddamn little sorcerer. And you, Ramirez," the soft consonant voice continued conversationally, "you could have warned me how much you would care about them. No matter how old they get, how hard they run. How much you come to love them and fear for them. Fumbling after them like a ball you've dropped."
"I know why you chose this place..."
Duncan watched the slender fingers spider across the etchings, hearing and not hearing the words. Part of him was surprised that Connor had found him. Part of him not surprised at all. His teacher had always had special gifts. May-Ling told him that the bond between the first teacher and student was strong...and besides, they were clan.
He never knew it could hurt so much. Had all the others been merely dalliances to his heart? Connor continued to talk...he answered with only part of himself attentive. He hurt everywhere. All he wanted was the silence, the return to peace that he had had only a few months ago. No more words.
"...maybe...but you can't stay out of it forever..." There was a wistful quality in the voice that he hadn't noticed before.
"No. Not forever..." he responded reluctantly, "--but for a while." He sounded like he was asking for permission. He hadn't asked for permission from Connor MacLeod for centuries and it made him frown mentally.
The gentle smile and snort drew his eyes outward. "They'll find you." A statement of fact.
"Eventually," and he couldn't help the pained smile that followed. It was returned by the older man and then both were quiet, listening to the scream of the hawk and the skree of the gulls over the water.
He hadn't heard him move, but the hat was gone when he looked up. Connor's hair had always been thick and unruly. A bit untamed even in the Highlands when it was combed through with tartan. "What are you doing?" he asked, watching him shed coat and sword.
"You've a cabin to raise. Winter'll be along quick in this high country. I'll help."
"I don't need help." He sounded petulant and it sparked a note of anger in him. Not again. He didn't want to give over into the rage again. Coltec had drained it away and he didn't want to go to that black place ever again.
Connor merely stood, sleeves rolled up, and looked down at him with something inscrutable in his gaze.
"You were right...about the soldiers. Even if you had been there, they would have killed us and Kern would have taken us." The admission came easily to Duncan. He could own up to mistakes. He looked up into the eyes that watched him. "I don't want to talk, kinsman."
"I know. You don't have to." He scanned the area, face placid. "Tell me your vision, Duncan, and let's get her up."
They worked side by side with axes almost ceaselessly. Duncan put all his pain in his swing, using brawn and not skill until the ache of his muscles matched the feeling in his heart. Half nude, the sweat gathered and ran down between the broad muscles of his back, lending a fine sheen to his torso. He planted his feet wide for balance and grunted very softly with each blow. The blade of the double-edged axe, heavier than the one his companion used, made short work of the smaller trees. Piles of wood chips, startlingly white and lending the air a sweet aroma, littered the ground.
He paused to scrape at a blister with the tip of the blade. Off to his left, Connor was talking, in Gaelic, words keeping time with his labor.
Unlike the vigorous and heated strokes of his younger counterpart, venting anger, the swing of the axe was easy and methodical. No hurry was in the motion. The lazy swinging turn as he freed it from the wood to arc once more...slowly at first and then the determined swiftness just before striking again. Clockwork. Every thonk of the blade buried it a half inch into the wood.
He had been talking at the largest tree for a while, thought Duncan. It was right at the corner where he wanted his cabin to face and had to come down. Besides, it would make a great ridge beam. He strode over to set himself up opposite the blue-eyed Scot and set the axe back in motion. In between the lighter strokes, entered a hammering echo. He brought the blade to bear at an angle against where his kinsman worked and wedges of timber fell out with each double blow.
It still took them half the day to pull it down and two more to chop out the stump. They worked from dawn until twilight, day after long day. Then came the limbing of timber and hacking it smooth. They cut the notches and wrestled the heavy logs about, grunting and cursing and straining against inertia.
It took ropes and pulleys to hoist them up, Connor leaning out over space to lever them in and Duncan trembling at the exertion of the lift. He would collapse in the dirt upon hearing each whoop from above that it was in place, panting and coughing in the puff of dust.
Through it all his silent grief remained. He never spoke of it and had no intention of doing so.
Connor, true to his word, never asked.
But no matter how hard he worked, sweat running in rivulets through the hair on his chest and swirling it into curls, the pain remained. And not just outward agony either, for with every true physical labor there was always the threat of injury looming over the top of them. As immortals, death wasn't easily found without a fight...but hurt could find them anywhere and did.
Duncan cried out involuntarily when his hand was crushed and was powerless to stop the reflexive tears until his healing caught up. He broke his leg and nearly fainted dead away when Connor grimly set the bone before it mishealed. He called him horrible names.
The other man just nodded. It delayed him for half an hour, chafing and grumbling while the elder Highlander worked alone in the interim.
Connor swore vehemently at injuries along the way; broken fingers, scrapes, blisters upon blisters and any of a myriad dangers, one of them dropping him straight to the ground without so much as a cry of startlement.
Duncan knew he had gone missing only by the sudden absence of the sibilant voice that cussed throughout the day. He found him on the other side of the cabin wall, broken like a bird in the silt.
"Stupid Scot," he said when recognition returned to the stunned eyes. "You do have to hang on."
"That's Mr. Stupid Scot, and why'd you go an' pole ax me with that tree?"
"Serves you right. Last time it was me, landing on my butt in the dirt."
"You landed on your head, Duncan, that's how I knew you couldn't possibly be hurt."
"Connor," he warned and then smiled his first true grin in all the weeks they labored. He saw his reflection in the eyes that watched him and remembered Little Deer. The pain swept back in, stifling like a blanket and closed up his features. He got back up to work; Connor was a bit before he was on his feet again.
Nothing left but the roof.
The stars were welcome, but the cool air was not. Warmth from the fire went straight up away from them. They sat close to it in silence, lost in thought.
Duncan stirred and spoke to his companion. "Give me the dipper." He watched him lean out away after the item and focused suddenly on the hand that reached out--Connor's fingers trembled. They stilled around the cup and he passed it back without comment.
Connor's fingers were trembling.
What the hell? What was going on?
Duncan sidled himself closer to his clansman and put a hand out to clasp the lean shoulder and as soon as he touched him, he knew.
How many times had he remembered that Connor died when he was young? The ferocity of a warrior's heart trapped forever in the light framework of a Highland boy. His teacher was all arms and legs, whipcord slender with long clean lines of muscle. The power of his will could get him through all kinds of hardship, but he was built for running and agility and swift reflexes. He had strength; just not the kind to meet this grueling punishment from before dawn to after dark, with no rest. Meager meals. Frigid nights with light blankets.
In all the weeks of hard labor, the older Scot had not shed so much as his shirt and bathed alone after dark. All he had to do was see him to remember. He had not even paid any attention to this taciturn immortal...he was too busy with his own injured soul. He didn't know who he wanted to slap, himself, or the man under his hand.
"What are you cussin' me for now?"
"What the hell are you trying to prove, keeping up with me?" Duncan hated the words he would say already. "You've never been as physically strong as I am. You know I set this pace to work out my pain."
Connor never even turned his head. He stared unflinchingly at the firelight.
"Why are you pushing yourself so hard. Christ, you must hurt like hell."
He turned his head at this last and smiled that ironic smile that both irritated and comforted Duncan. "I do hurt like hell. In places that shouldn't even hurt."
"Stupid, stubborn Scot." His only answer was a grunt of acknowledgment. "Here," as he reached and pulled at the shirt Connor wore, "Take this off and let me rub all the knots out."
"No, Duncan." Connor's hands came up stop him. "Just leave be. I'll be all right in the morning."
"Like hell. Day in and out like this? Pushing so hard? If we had a fight on top of it every day, maybe, but this kind of punishment lingers." He got no response to this last and scowled. "It hurts too bad for me to even lay hands on you, doesn't it?" No reply, but he knew it was true all the same. "Dammit, Connor!"
"You say that a lot, Duncan. Surely you can get more creative..."
He almost went and said it again.
"Tomorrow, I want you to rest. I'll put up the roof. The day after, you can get up on the top with me to lay the bark."
"Tomorrow, I'll get up and work right along side of you as I have all along." Connor's tone was firm.
"No, you're not. You can't keep this up, Connor. You're not strong enough. You don't need to hurt just because I do."
"I've kept up. Every single day."
"Dammit--!" Duncan stopped mid-word and swore in French and a smattering of Russian at him. Arguing with Connor was like poking butter in a wildcat's ear. Sound and fury, end result always the same. "You're as stubborn as a goat."
"Remind you of someone, hmm?"
He waited for a while, then tried a different tack, softly asking, "Why won't you let me take care of you?"
The face turned to view him fully and his voice was just as gentle. "Say that aloud again and listen to the words this time."
He didn't speak. There wasn't any need. Connor told him 300 years ago that Duncan learned best by self-discovery. How many times had he struggled with sword moves and heard that dry chuckle and the words "I can help you. Let me help." Here he was again, still learning things he ought to know by now. He was a fool.
"Some day," Connor's voice continued in that same gentle tone, "it will be my turn to hide beside you, maybe for awhile. But today, I'm strong enough for the both of us." He paused and repeated it. "Strong enough."
Another long silent pause before Duncan broke it again. "Lie down next to the fire. I'll curl up around your back. The heat will help your pain settle."
Not even an argument, just a quick assent that made him swear at himself. He must really be hurting. He felt useless--but then, he had made his teacher feel useless for a long time now. He stripped to the waist and settled himself around his oldest friend and sighed. "We haven't slept this way since the high country, eh?"
"Dirt floor. Always being hungry. Hardly any cover. Cold as..." his voice dropped off.
It would have been funny if it didn't hurt so badly. All of his pain was on the inside and all of his comrade's pain on the outside. He was late recognizing it, but his mentor had arrived just when he was supposed to.
Little Deer's last touch seemed so far away. It dawned on him that time would probably even rob him of her face.
And, as Connor settled against him in companionable silence, something deep inside finally broke and he lacked the strength to meet it. In the end, it was a helpless battle. Just like the one all those miles away from here.
Connor turned over and reached out to hold him.
"Finally," he thought silently, listening to the wrenching sorrow, the breath and the heartbeat of his younger counterpart. He knew that all of his strength was on the inside and all of Duncan's was on the outside. Both of them were exact opposites with each possessing what the other needed at the right moment to find peace and healing. And they were immortal and clansmen. Forever.
Thank you to Sharz and Celedon for editing and Beta reading
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