Duncan tried to still the wild beating of his heart. He took yet another deep breath and wished his meditation would work its usual magic. He felt joy, inescapable joy. He was meeting Connor for the first time in almost 40 years! There was so much to tell him, so much to share, so much to hear. A smile broke through as he thought of the last time he'd seen his kinsman. They'd had a great time in London. That buxom redhead only had eyes for Connor. Too bad she hadn't a sister.
The long practised movements held almost no sanctuary for him this evening. Every aspect of nature intruded into his thoughts, reminding him of why he was so happy. The wind stirring the dark branches with their new buds called to him. The earthy smell of the forest wafted over him and into him carried on that same breeze. Even this far away, he could hear the rushing of the river swollen with spring’s bountiful gift. An abbreviated squeak and the flapping of wings told him that an owl had found dinner for its chicks.
Spring was a time of rebirth and he felt it keenly. After so many years of war and death, he felt reborn himself. Native American life was so like living with the Clan of his youth.
Duncan couldn’t keep the smile from his face as he decided to give up. Well, perhaps he wouldn’t sleep this night. He hadn’t expected there to be a problem.
He and Little Deer had made sweet love earlier. Their passion for one another had only grown since she welcomed him to her bed, and tonight had been wonderful. With him leaving on this hunting trip, she had not wanted the loving to stop. He’d pleasured her with skills learned from centuries of loving. Finally, Little Deer had fallen asleep nestled in his arms with her head tucked under his chin and her long, dark hair flowing over his broad chest.
Duncan was sure he would follow suit lulled by his lover’s warmth and softness. But it was not to be. Thoughts of Connor danced in his head. It had taken a full year of letter writing before he could convince the stubborn Scot to come West. Duncan wanted his kinsman to know the joy that he did. Life in the Pacific Northwest was simple and relatively peaceful.
He surveyed the scattered tipis and other signs of the Sioux settlement. Pure contentment washed over him. Everywhere he looked reminded him of his love and their son. That stump was the place he sat the first time Little Deer combed out and plaited his hair. Her hands had been so gentle, untangling all the knots. He remembered the closeness of her body and how her breasts had brushed against his back wiping all coherence from his thoughts.
A long, dark shape drew his eye. There was the canoe he and Kahani had taken out just that morning. They had shared so many things. The boy’s incessant thirst for knowledge made him a joy to teach and he had a streak of devilment that Duncan secretly enjoyed. He would be honoured to help this little brave grow into a great hunter. Perhaps one day Kahani would lead this tribe as he had been groomed to lead his all those years ago.
A warm hand on his shoulder brought him out of his musings.
“I see the joy on your face, Duncan and know it is not the Bluecoats that keep you awake tonight.”
Duncan turned into Little Deer’s embrace. “I think only of you and Kahani, Little Deer, and how much happiness you have brought me.”
He didn’t want to think about the American Army just now. He kissed her gently, his hands tangling in her dark, silken strands. He could lose himself in her again.
Her eyes were still heavy with sleep. “Come back to bed, Duncan. You have a long journey ahead of you tomorrow. It would not do for a brave such as yourself to fall asleep on his horse,” teased Little Deer.
He followed her inside their tipi, still not sure whether he would be able to sleep.
Kahani, moving restlessly, cried out in his sleep. Little Deer looked at the dream catcher hanging on the cross pole and hoped it would do its job. The nightmare continued to plague the little boy so Duncan crawled under the furs beside him. He stroked the boy’s brow and murmured words of comfort in soothing tones. Duncan drew his arm around Kahani and he soon quieted. Little Deer snuggled up against Duncan’s back, tucking her arm around both her men. Peace and contentment enveloped Duncan, and he slid quickly into sleep.
The forest was a contrast of dark green, black and white as the early morning sun poked through the trees. Patches of snow still lay in gullies occasionally blinding him as they caught the strengthening sun. Duncan slowed his horse to a walk, letting them both take a breather.
The friendly chirp and call of the birds was music to his ears. He took a swig of his water and wiped the back of his sleeve across his mouth. Little Deer had sewn this jerkin and pants for him from the stag he had brought down the first summer he arrived.
He remembered the long winter nights when they had sat together with Makina. Little Deer had tried to hide her good-natured laughter behind her sewing as Duncan stumbled over the difficult sounds of the Sioux dialect that her husband was teaching him.
He kicked his mount into a slow canter, eager to reach the falls before dusk.
It was brighter now and Duncan was awed at the meadow dotted with wild flowers that unfolded before him as he reached the edge of the forest. His stomach growled and he was grateful for the chance to take his afternoon meal surrounded by such beauty. He spied a small bunch of rocks and rode over to it. He slid off his horse and let her crop the tender new shoots growing amongst the dried, golden stalks. Duncan stretched mightily, feeling his vertebrae crack. Little Deer had packed him some jerky, dried berries and bannock. He ate contentedly, resting against the warm granite. The hot sun beat down taking the chill from his bones. Soon he was nodding off, the previous night's activities finally catching up to him. Sometime later, he was startled awake by a soft nose gently prodding the pouch at his waist.
“Sorry, girl, nothing for you today,” Duncan said, stroking her velvet nose.
The trek from the Sioux settlement to Big Chute waterfall took him until late afternoon. He saw Connor before he felt him. His kinsman was resting against a huge maple wrapped snugly in his long coat, his brown slouch hat pulled low over his face. Connor had set up camp and the delicious smell of coffee reached Duncan on the light breeze. Duncan smiled. That man could sleep anywhere at the drop of a hat. Duncan chuckled. “At the drop of ‘his’ hat,” he amended silently. That was one talent he was envious of.
Connor peered up from under the brim of his hat just enough to make sure it was Duncan he sensed. The elder MacLeod smiled to himself. Duncan looked more Indian than white. His hair was longer than it had ever been and braids framed his tanned face. He wore a buckskin jerkin, breeches and moccasins. It was no great wonder that the tribe had welcomed him warmly. And knowing his kinsman’s flair for languages, no doubt the man spoke their tongue fluently.
Connor waited until one leather-clad foot kicked him good - naturedly.
“Get up you lazy Scot!”
Connor pushed the brim of his hat slowly off his face. “Moccasins don’t quite pack the same punch as boots, eh, Duncan?”
“Get up, Connor, or you’ll find out the hard way!”
“I doubt I’d be the one getting a good thrashing, Duncan, but let’s not fight until we’ve had some coffee.”
He let Duncan pull him up and they embraced each other warmly.
All week long they hunted, skinned, cleaned, dried and talked.
“I’ll go and check the trap lines this morning, Connor,” Duncan offered.
“I’ll expect you back sometime after lunch then,” nodded his kinsman.
Duncan was pleased with what they had caught. He took a rabbit and skinned it for lunch. He was just biting into a haunch when an Immortal presence washed over him.
March 13, 1872
Connor put the last of the dried meat in a pouch, wrapping it securely. He surveyed the neat bundles stacked under their stone housings.
“Duncan’s tribe will surely welcome this bounty,” he thought, putting it with the others.
Thinking of Duncan, Connor realised it was later than he thought. His kinsman should’ve been back by now. An irrational fear gripped him. They'd got into a routine and whoever checked the trap lines always returned just after noon if the traps were full and Connor had expected the traps to be full.
“He’s probably just fallen asleep. Dinna fash yourself, Connor,” he admonished. But his words sounded hollow in the little clearing.
He hesitated to start another task just in case. “Just in case what ... ?” his little voice asked him. He didn’t know, but something was driving him to find out.
Connor quickly saddled his chestnut gelding and pointed the horse’s nose towards their secondary camp.
He slowed his mount as he entered the camp’s perimeter. Connor’s fear turned to dread. His instincts had been right. There was evidence of a scuffle. Duncan had been taken by surprise by somebody. A half-eaten rabbit still remained on the spit. Bones littered the ground and the billy can had been knocked over.
Connor studied the ground looking for clues. His kinsman had struggled with someone a lot bigger than himself. He could see Duncan’s soft imprints twisting and turning with large, heavy booted ones. He picked up two coffee cups. It also appeared that whoever it was had shared his meal!
And ... dear God, his spear! Connor pulled it out of the ground. He grunted with the effort. The dread gripping his heart slid like a cold rock to the pit of his stomach.
“Who or what in God’s name would have driven him to hurl his spear with such force and then leave it here?” he wondered.
It took no great effort to see which way Duncan had gone … west …at a full gallop. “Dear God, no ...” It came out as a harsh whisper. Connor slid the spear beside his sword and mounted up. He had heard talk of the U.S. Army routing out the Indians on his way out here, but this was so out in the middle of nowhere. He hoped he was wrong. He had to be wrong.
He urged his horse to give just a little bit more. The 15 miles that had taken Duncan most of a day to travel at a leisurely pace took Connor less time than he thought. Some parts of the forest slowed him down and he cursed the low branches and fallen logs that impeded his speed. He also had to take care he was following the right path. It wouldn’t do to get lost here.
Finally he reached the settlement. Duncan’s skewbald whickered a greeting. He slid off his horse in absolute shock, leaving the reins trailing in the grass.
Bodies lay canted and broken everywhere, freezing the village in a horrifying moment in time. He stepped around a brave whose head had been scalped. The poor man's face still showed the pain and terror he felt before he died. Young, old, women and children; they had all been brutally murdered. The acrid smell of smoke from the remains of smouldering tipis pierced his nose. He almost gagged on the bloody stench of death. He was transported back just over 100 years to another time and place where innocent people just trying to live their lives also had been brutally murdered. They, too, had suffered for who they were.
Connor remembered Duncan’s rage back then. He had slaughtered as many English as he could. God help the Bluecoats now. They had no idea with whom they were dealing.
A lone figure rocked slowly back and forth, the body of a woman filled his arms. Tears stung Connor’s eyes and he wiped them away angrily. If he were to be of any use to Duncan he would have to be strong, but overwhelming grief and anger welled up inside him. He let the tears fall silently down his cheeks.
He cried for the tribe. He cried for the senseless waste of human life. But most of all he cried for Duncan. The man had been so undeniably happy. He had all the things he had ever wished for. Duncan had described it one night when all the work for the day had been done and they were lounging under the stars sipping from the fine bottle of single malt Connor had brought.
“Do you remember the wonderful feeling of being a part of the Clan, Connor? I don’t mean just the part where we all worked our asses off to bring in the harvest or tend the sheep. I mean the times when we all worked together to build a croft or rescue some errant sheep from a bog. Or the times when our mothers made soup for the sick or clothes for the new babes?”
Connor closed his eyes and remembered.
“Do you remember the Gatherings, days and nights filled with laughter, singing and dancing?”
“You forgot the wine, women and fighting, A Dhonnchaidh.” Connor passed the bottle back.
Duncan took another swig of whisky. “That’s what it’s like Connor. The language may be different. The land may be different, but ultimately it’s the same.”
“And this time, you have a wife and child,” added Connor silently, something fate had never gifted Duncan with before.
A soft keening brought Connor back to the present. He wiped his eyes once more and took a deep breath. He walked slowly towards Duncan trying not to see the carnage all around him.
“I’m here Duncan.” Connor didn’t know what else to say. He wasn’t sure Duncan was aware of him. He walked over and put his hand comfortingly on his kinsman’s neck and knelt down.
His kinsman continued to rock his dead wife. Then in a voice that was almost unrecognisable, “She knew all the names of the grasses ... the wild flowers, the songs that told of where her people came from ... how they lived ... what they believed in.”
Duncan’s shoulders shook as he tried to contain his grief.
It had been more than an hour and still Duncan gave no sign of giving up his burden.
“It will be dusk soon, A Dhonnchaidh. Let’s bury her. I’ll help you dig.”
Connor didn’t know one word could hold such emotion.
He had to help Duncan stand after kneeling in the same spot for hours now. Thank God for Immortal healing. He just wished it could do the same for Duncan’s heart.
Duncan laid Little Deer gently on their pallet in what was left of their tipi.
“You prepare her. I’ll go and gather the wood,” offered Connor.
Their eyes met for the first time and Connor realised what Duncan still had to do. The pain he saw was almost too much to bear.
“I’ll stay with her,” whispered Connor.
It didn’t take long for Duncan to find Kahani. Mercifully he and the other boys playing by the stream had died a quick death. Duncan cradled his son to his breast and brought him home. Together the clansmen prepared Duncan’s family and wrapped them in the softest doe skin.
Connor was glad the work gave Duncan something to focus on. He hadn’t said more than those two words since his breakdown earlier, but Connor knew the cost of this tragedy was high. Duncan’s anger was growing steadily and another outburst might help to release his grief. But it was not to be. Tight-lipped, Duncan chopped wood with a ferocity that almost scared his kinsman.
When the pyre was finished Connor stood by his brother. The flames were bright against the night sky. Connor hoped they wouldn’t bring the soldiers back.
“Do you think we ever lived like this?” he asked. “Like a tribe with a common language … a reason, a name for each living thing? Did our people once belong somewhere … a time … a place, however briefly?”
There was no answer and Connor expected none.
In the cold light of dawn Duncan changed from his buckskins back into the clothes that had brought him here. It was with a ruthless precision that he pulled on his boots and gathered his meagre belongings.
“I’ll go with you, Duncan.”
His kinsman fixed him with a frigid stare. “This is not your fight. Kern is mine.”
“At least let me help you track him.”
“No.” The word was said with a finality that sent shivers down Connor’s spine.
He watched the closest thing he had to family ride away in a cold fury. Kern was a dead man living on borrowed time.
Skewbald: a white horse with brown patches
Dhonnchaidh: literally dark warrior or Duncan in Gaelic
Croft: a small hut
Late Spring, Dakota Territory, 1872
It wasn’t just Duncan MacLeod’s heart that ached. His whole body ached. His eyes burned with lack of sleep and his cold hands were clenched so tightly around the reins, Duncan thought they were frozen to the leather.
He had been riding steadily for four days unwilling to give up on the whisper of a lead he had on Kern. It was still pouring rain on this last day of April. Four inhospitable days of bone chilling rain. It had come down in sheets drenching him almost immediately, but he didn’t care if riding in this meant meeting Kern in the next town.
Duncan kicked his mount into an unwilling canter. He knew he was pushing this roan mare too hard, but anger and grief pushed him beyond caring. The only thing that mattered was getting to Kern. He patted her neck and told her not to worry. Her next owner wouldn’t be such a hard task masker. He would make sure of that. She flicked back an ear eager to hear his comforting voice.
In his initial flight after Kern, Duncan unhappily traded his sturdy little Indian mount for this wonderful horse. He hadn’t the time to wait for his skewbald to recover, for he had pushed her just as much or more than he was pushing this one now.
She was beautiful to look at, but he hadn’t chosen her for that. She was deep in the chest and had strong sound legs. His eye for horses stood him well. This mare had carried him farther and faster for longer. He smiled grimly. Soaring Eagle would have liked her very much and would have playfully fought MacLeod for the right to ride her. His rage flared again and Duncan wanted nothing else but to take Kern’s head with his bare hands.
His mount whinnied at some unknown thing. Guiltily Duncan stroked the rain-soaked neck with stiff fingers. He knew she had just about given him all she had to give. He mentally shrugged. It could not be helped. She would get a well-deserved rest in a few hours.
Lightning flickered in the distance and a peal of thunder made his horse skitter sideways. Duncan steadied her with comforting words and a strong leg. He dug into her heaving sides once again urging her into a gallop hoping to make town before the storm broke over them.
He rode into yet another town, cold, wet, hungry and tired. Regardless of how he felt, he saw to the mare’s well being himself. A warm horsey smell greeted his nose as he led his exhausted mare into the stable. Duncan shivered. His clothes felt more wet and clammy in here as he began to untack his horse. The mare turned her head inquiringly as Duncan’s almost numb fingers finally managed to undo the girth and pull the saddle. It was if she was saying, “It’s about time.” He met her big brown eyes guiltily and rubbed her nose on the way to the saddle peg. Fetching a body brush on the way back, Duncan angrily pushed his dripping braids out of his face. He began at her proud neck. The water flew off with each flick of his wrist. He put his whole body into the task of brushing out the soaking mare. It wasn’t long before the chill left his body and he started to warm up despite his wet clothing.
The mindless task gave him time to unwind. Despite the weariness he felt, four days in the saddle left him as skittish as the mare in the storm.
Connor cursed his Immortal kinsman. How could Duncan push his mount so hard in this weather? He pulled the brim of his hat lower down as another gust of wind blew the rain into his face.
Connor followed Duncan from the massacred Sioux settlement taking great care to be at least a day behind. He was greatly concerned for his kinsman. Grief and anger drove a man to do uncharacteristic things. They were a dangerous combination and Duncan already had a bloody history of slaughter. Connor was loath to see a repeat of the aftermath of Culloden.
He turned his horse into a wooded copse and looked for clues. Yes, Duncan had probably spent a small part of last night here weathering out the worst of the storm. Connor sighed and slipped off his horse. At least Duncan was easy to track. Connor dragged the hastily strewn branches back into a small lean-to. Rummaging in his pack, he found one of the parcels of rabbit he and Duncan had dried.
“I know I’ll be mighty sick of this when all’s said and done,” he lamented to his horse as he took enough strips for dinner. Cutting a hunk of bread from the stale loaf and retrieving his canteen, Connor slumped up against a tree and proceeded to wolf down his cold repast.
The pain was killing him. He never thought it would be so bad again. Debra’s death had hurt tremendously two hundred years ago. Back then he had only himself to blame for that. Not that it mattered he thought disgustedly. She would have never been happy. His Immortality saw to that. Even if his Immortality had never been triggered, he couldn’t have given her the bairns they wanted. That fact alone would have made her bitter. Duncan shook himself mentally. No use going there. He had enough guilt to deal with.
No, this was different. They had been a family. The only real family he’d had since Glenfinnan. This was a time he had truly felt at peace since he became Immortal. Now a chill wind had frozen his heart and with every fond memory of his tribe, a piece would shatter and pierce his body making the anger more intense.
Duncan stood in front of the mirror and listened to the rain beat down. Flashes of lightning illuminated the sparsely furnished room and highlighted his garish features. He stared at a man he barely knew. Duncan thought he’d put this insane anger behind him many years ago. His thoughts turned inward to that first time long ago when a blind rage had first overtaken him. The slaughter of the English was all that mattered then. They had killed the innocent well after the war was over, trying to rid Scotland of her people and he'd left Prince Charlie to avenge them. In doing so, he'd become as bad as them; killing men in front of their wives and children. He felt ashamed even now with the memory of the Earl of Rosemont's son's eyes wide with fear as he, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, threatened the boy and his offspring to come that they were not safe from the likes of him.
Culloden had weighed heavily on his heart for the last century and nightmares had plagued many of his nights. He realised now that they had all but vanished while living with his Sioux family. It wasn’t something that he consciously noticed until one woke him last week. A loud crash of thunder brought him back to the small dingy room. The old rage, self-loathing and vengeance filled him anew. He hated what he’d become but he also knew he couldn’t change it. Then something else crept into his heart, despair. Duncan scrubbed large hands over his scruffy face forcing the tears back inside.
What if he couldn’t find Kern? Would he continue to hunt the man through the centuries? Would he hunt down every last soldier? Once Ceirdwyn had helped heal his wounded soul with her bright laughter, tender hands and simple wisdom. Her words echoed in his mind, "More blood does not make it better.” But his heart paid no heed. He was born of a warrior race and more recently had been made hunkakaga, or relative of Makina and his family, also born of a warrior race. They killed the killers and he wouldn’t stop until Kern was dead.
He kicked off his boots angrily and dropped onto the small bed. With his hands laced behind his head, Duncan lay on his back watching the lightning play off the ceiling. He wished he had another bottle of whisky. Being this lucid hurt too much.
Exhaustion and what liquor was still in him, soon took its toll and he fell into a restless sleep.
Duncan awoke with the dream still fresh in his mind. He was combing Little Deer’s hair, the black silky strands falling through his fingers. He enjoyed plaiting it. With a little grin, he swept it off her neck and playfully kissed her there inhaling the fragrance that was hers alone. Much to his horror, her head wobbled and her neck fell sideways with a sickening twist. It was broken!
A red rage filled him and he flung the covers aside. Last night had been a waste of time. After tending to the horse, he had hit the saloon and the bottle. He had drunk more than he ate buying men drinks in hopes they had heard of the large man he was after. When all he could get out of them was that someone had thought he might have seen a man of that description at the general store, he had hit the bottle in earnest. When his anger finally let loose, the fighting began.
He had taken on three or four at a time. It took half a dozen to subdue him and throw him outside into the mud. Luckily money could by anything or anybody and he managed to secure a room for the night. In the morning, he sold the roan mare and bought a large bay gelding.
Duncan led the horse slowly through the muddy street still trying to pick up any information. Heads turned and women pulled their children inside as he passed. He was a sorry sight. Dried mud clung to his long coat, his hair was wild and unkempt, and a pair of braids framed a months worth of untended beard. Some words caught his attention and he fixed the two cowboys with a cold stare.
They stopped talking as he approached. The taller of the two men stood a little straighter.
“We don’t want no trouble, Mister, so go along like or I’ll call the Sheriff.”
“I just want to know about the Fort. I heard you say something about Calvary. Is there a unit stationed there?” Duncan’s voice was rough and tightly restrained. It sounded foreign in his own ears.
The two men looked at each other. They had seen Duncan in action and were not about to tangle with him alone.
“Just tell me what I want to know and I’ll leave,” Duncan growled.
“There’s a Calvary Unit stationed at Fort Willoughby,” said the man reluctantly.
Duncan’s spirits rose. “How far?”
“The outpost is ’bout three days ride south.” The man turned his back on Duncan and resumed his conversation with his friend.
Duncan mounted up and was gone like the wind.
Connor rode into town that evening. He expected to hear something of Duncan and was not disappointed. Sitting in the bar nursing his whisky, Connor listened to a boisterous conversation between a group of men, surreptitiously watching them from under the brim of his hat.
“Whadda ya mean ya coulda taken him sober! We all seen him, Jeff!”
The man speaking punched Jeff playfully in the arm. “He was like a she bear protectin’ her cubs. There was no stopping that one.”
The red haired man took a gulp of whisky and wiped his sleeve across his mouth.
Connor looked around the bar and could see the muted evidence of Duncan’s anger. At least half the men present sported new bruises and there was a pile of damaged chairs in the corner.
“He twisted and turned like a trapped cougar,” said the burly man sitting next to Jeff. There ain’t no way, Jeff. He’d a killed ya without a thought. Did ya see his eyes?”
Downing the rest of his drink, Connor got up and went to the bar. “I’ll have another whisky if you please, Ma’am.” He smiled and took off his hat.
The Barkeep took note of her polite customer. Not too tall, with long sandy hair, which was barely tamed by a strip of leather. She was immediately attracted to his oddly accented voice and ruggedly handsome face, which held the most striking blue/green eyes.
“You’re not from around here either, are you?” she asked looking into those eyes.
“No, Ma’am, but that doesn’t stop a fella from getting a drink does it?” Connor drawled, laying his money on the bar.
“Only if you start to bust up the joint it does,” she said grimly, handing him his drink.
“Sounds like there was some excitement here last night.” Connor nodded to the bunch of men still loudly discussing the fight.
“Ya know, I’ve seen lots of barroom brawls, Mister, but I ain’t never seen one quite like that one.” She shook her head sadly.
“What was so different?” he asked. He already knew, but wanted to hear what she thought. Connor watched her intently. Her face showed genuine concern.
“Well, it was like this. He comes in to the bar lookin’ like he ain’t seen civilisation for months. That’s not so unusual, we get all types here.” She smiled and nodded slightly at him. “He orders a couple shots of whisky and some grub which he digs into like he’s starving. Then he starts asking after this fella he’s lookin’ for. Buys rounds for everybody trying to get any information. I never seen anyone so desperate.”
Connor sipped his whisky slowly, his minds’ eye clearly seeing a wounded Duncan. He felt heartsick for his kinsman.
“When he asked for a whole bottle, I figured he was just going to drown his sorrows. And he did for a time. Half way through the second bottle, most pass out and who am I to interfere with a man’s sorrow? But him, he starts to harass the boys. Says they’s holdin’ out on him. Well, he takes Ned by the throat and shoves him into a table, and when a bunch of the others stood up, all hell breaks loose.”
Connor passed a hand over his face. Things were getting out of hand fast. With every town Duncan hit, the rage was worse. No one had been killed, yet. Maybe he should try and stop his kinsman. Perhaps letting him vent like this was wrong. Kern’s trail was pretty cold and neither of them would find him. The son of a bitch had disappeared into thin air. Not surprising. Both he and Duncan had done the same countless times over. But he didn’t want his kinsman’s grief to come between them and then have it come to swords.
“You know this man, don’t you, honey?” Her voice softened. “Friend of yours?” She took in the pain on Connor’s face. “He had a strange accent too, the same but different from yours, if you take my meanin’. Kinda Scotch, I think.” She wouldn't mind trying ease his pain, but he seemed far too preoccupied.
Connor nodded and tossed back his drink. The Barkeep refilled his glass and waved away his hand as he pulled out more money.
“This one’s on the house, Luv. You look like you could use it.”
“Thanks.” He raised the glass to her in salute. “So he started a fight,” Connor prompted. He wanted her to finish the story. Hopefully she knew where Duncan was headed.
“It wasn’t just any old fight, it was a one man massacre.”
Connor winced at her choice of words.
“The long and the short of it was that even though the boys kept at him, he never stopped. If a couple had him by the arms, his feet were flying. It almost didn’t matter how many times they punched him. I ain’t never seen anyone move so quickly and fight so dirty. Finally they all piled on top of him and managed to knock him senseless long enough to throw him outside. I was thankful he didn’t come back in. But then again, the boys all took their guns outside and stood on the porch. I think he got the message.”
“Do you know where he went?”
She gestured vaguely. “Cal and Lou said he was headed south to the Calvary outpost. Good luck findin’ him, Honey.” She looked up into Connor’s concerned face. “You gonna try and help him find the one he’s lookin’ for?”
Connor shrugged noncommittally.
“Well if ya did, it might get rid of that haunted look your friend had in his eyes. I seen lots of troubled men and this one’s hurtin’ pretty bad. This feller, he must have done something right awful to your friend for him to be in such a state.”
Connor nodded his voice low and raspy. “You don’t want to know.” He reached across the bar and took her hand in his raising it to his lips. “I thank you for your hospitality and information, Ma’am.” He put on his hat.
She blushed. “You’re welcome. Your friend is awfully lucky to have someone like you watching out for him. I hope you catch up with him real soon.”
The morning was dull and overcast, the threat of rain hung heavily in the air. Duncan’s mood mirrored the weather, dark and brooding. The words, “ I hate them, I hate them, I hate them all!” pounded in his mind with every dull thud of his mount’s hooves.
Duncan felt guilty about what he had done the night before, but not enough not to do it again. It felt good to let this anger loose. He hated his Immortality and all that went with it. He knew he would suffer through the years remembering how at peace he had been for the first time in centuries and that it had lasted such a short time.
He could still feel the soft touch of Little Deer’s hands on him, hear her gasp in delight as he kissed her behind the ear, and see the passion in her eyes as they made love. The sweet memories turned to dust as he again remembered the heavy slack body in his arms and the sickening loll of her head as he gathered her into a closer embrace. There would be no more tears. Only hate and anger.
Did Kern kill Kahani? His was the kind who derived enjoyment from such sport. If Kern had killed some of the women as he had boasted, Duncan imagined he had probably killed some of the children too. The thought that such scum had touched his child made Duncan see red. Kahani had been so full of life the morning of his departure.
“No, Kahani,” he said picking the little boy up, “Connor and I will hunt the stag and the moose. Duncan hugged him and whispered; “Good hunters practice their bow. We’ll track the deer when I get back. That will be your next lesson. Now promise you’ll protect your mother for me while I’m gone.”
The little boy solemnly promised then wrapped his arms around Duncan’s neck and hugged him back.
In the middle of the day, the sky grew darker and the rain started. Duncan reached into his saddlebag and pulled out his beaver skin hat. Again he wished for the oblivion of drink. Riding alone with his thoughts was deadly. Kahani's exuberant cry rang in his ears, "MacLeod, I caught a fish!"
He felt the pride of a father. "You're growing up to be a great hunter, Kahani."
He remembered Ravenwing's entreaty, "Ride with us MacLeod, we could use your tracking skills today."
It wasn't hard to see Little Deer's eyes sparkling with love, her fingers soft on his face, "You're so handsome. Sometimes I forget you're a white man."
With each memory the hate increased. The rain was pelting down hard now. What did it matter? His mood was as foul as the weather and all he wanted was to find Kern. He rode on till the sludge grey sky turned black. He should stop for the night. He had ridden the beast at a full gallop most of the day and it surely needed a rest. He tried to sleep, but with a sharpness that made him howl his agony into the dead of night, memories intruded.
They had just returned from a morning of fishing. "You're father would have been proud of you today, Kahani." He conjured the little boy's troubled face in his mind's eye.
"MacLeod, will you ever go away?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because my father did."
"And you're angry with him?" His heart had squeezed with sadness at the little boy's nod. "Kahani, you're father didn't choose to leave you, he was taken."
And then he had placed his beaded necklace around his adopted son's neck and uttered his oath, believing his immortality would this one time protect them.
"I promise you, Kahani, I will never leave you."
But he had left them, and they had died. He saddled up and kicked his mount into a slow canter.
He made the outpost by midmorning the next day. He could see the smoke curling up into the grey sky. Knowing he might meet up with Kern fired Duncan and a deadly rage lay very close to the surface.
He rode into the settlement and took note of the tipis. He frowned in disgust. Dismounting, he found the water trough and took a drink. A bunch of soldiers dressed in blue uniforms were milling about and Duncan found himself wanting to kill ever last one of them.
The Captain was addressing his men. “We don’t need more men, Sargent, just a competent scout. Like the one that helped clear out the Sioux last year,”
Duncan walked over.
“You mean that tracker Kern?” asked one of the men.
Hatred knifed through Duncan and he didn’t hear the reply.
“Where’s Kern!” he growled.
“What?” The Captain was completely taken by surprise.
Duncan’s voice dripped with contempt. “The Indian scout that helped clear out the Sioux last year!”
“If you want work, Mister, report to the Pay Master.” The soldier turned to go, but Duncan had other ideas.
He grabbed the Captain by his lapels and bellowed, “I want to know where he is!”
“Sargent!” screamed the Captain.
Duncan found the barrel of a gun inches from his face. He grabbed it and punched the man holding it. Another soldier attacked and Duncan felled him too. One by one they attacked and Duncan took them out easily, until one came up from behind.
“What are you men waiting for!” the soldier screamed as Duncan tried to wrestle out of his grasp.
Leveraging himself against the man holding him, Duncan kicked the next one to come within striking distance, to the ground. He broke free and lunged for the soldier who had held him. They fell into the hay trough. Duncan managed to get on top and began to pummel the man.
There was no coherent thought, just hatred. Duncan wanted nothing more than to beat the soldier to death. They had killed his wife, his child and his happiness. He would kill them all.
A body landed on him and all three rolled to the ground. Duncan ended up on top and punched the man beneath him senseless. Duncan rose to his feet. Spying a box of ammunition, he picked it up and would have smashed it down upon the soldier’s head when he was jabbed sharply in the kidney.
Already exhausted by lack of sleep, nourishment, and this latest outburst, Duncan fell. He felt strong hands grip his arms and a gun barrel choke his throat. He struggled wildly to no avail. They brought him into the prison kicking and screaming.
“Take your hands off me!” he growled again. It was then that an Immortal presence invaded his mind, momentarily robbing him of his focus. The three soldiers thankful for this advantage shoved him into the small cell.
Duncan lunged at his captors through the bars. “You’re dead. I’ll find Kern then come after the rest of you!” he screamed. His voice rose with the futility of his situation. “You’re dead! All of you!”
He felt eyes upon him and Duncan turned to find an Indian gazing compassionately at him. A voice of reason cut through the haze. “Would that help?”
“It’s none of your concern,” Duncan said in a low voice. He turned back and gripped the bars tightly.
Duncan felt a small kinship with this man. He had not viewed himself as a “white man” for quite some time, and here he was sharing a cell with someone who would probably understand his plight.
“Ni too ha ho? (Who are you?)” The Sioux words came easily to Duncan’s tongue.
“Asheesh na luny a ha ho? (Are you always so polite?)”
Feeling somewhat shamed Duncan answered, “Lato hash na. (Not always.)” He briefly regarded this Immortal Indian who seemed to be able to look into his soul and then dropped his gaze.
“My name is Kol T’ek.”
“That’s not a Sioux name,” he growled. Duncan’s eyes strayed once again to the Immortal Indian and then turned away. It was getting harder to sustain the anger that had brought him here.
“My tribe was long before that.” Kol T’ek’s voice was soothing to Duncan’s jangled nerves. “I have been with the Sioux.” He paused. “You also have a name.”
Duncan paced like a caged tiger, his voice tight and low. “MacLeod, of the Clan MacLeod.” He took off his gloves angrily, heading for the front of the cell.
Kol T’ek looked at him knowingly. “Ah, European tribe.”
It hurt to be reminded of the loss of that family too. Duncan wondered how this man could understand so much when so little was said. He found himself being drawn in and his curiosity got the better of him.
“What did you do?”
Kol T’ek’s voice was full of sarcasm. “Do? I was Indian I suppose.” He paused. “Also, they say I killed soldier.”
Duncan couldn’t help feeling for this man but he had to know. “Did you?” he asked quietly.
“They were riding down a young Indian for sport. I did this,” Kol T’ek raised his arms above his head, “the horses reared, the soldier fell off and died.”
The circumstances appealed to Duncan’s sense of justice. “They can’t blame you for that!” he said with a small measure of incense.
“No?” stated Kol T’ek quietly. “Still they will hang me, and who’s to say I didn’t make the horses rear.”
Duncan couldn’t stand the injustices anymore. “I hate ‘em,” he swore softly. Then the anger came back full force and he screamed, “I hate ‘em all!”
Once again the Indian’s soothing voice calmed the Highlander slightly. “I know,” said Kol T’ek quietly.
“They only know how to take and destroy… the land, the forest,” Duncan paused as the pain washed over him again, “the women and children.” The anger rose a little more. “It never stops. Never!” he growled.
Kol T’ek hoped his words would get through to this man. “It can stop for you.”
Duncan stood up and gripped the bars tightly, his words forced between grit teeth, “It will once the man responsible for my family’s slaughter is dead.” Duncan’s hands unconsciously mimicked the actions he wanted to perform on Kern’s neck.
“Listen to me.” Kol T’ek’s voice was at once commanding and soothing. “Your hate is not destroying him, but it is destroying you.”
Duncan wasn’t sure he wanted to hear this. “Who are you to know?” he demanded.
“I am Hayoka. It is my job to take the hatred from the world. I’ve been doing it for centuries. I take the evil into myself so others may have peace.”
Duncan watched him take a leather pouch from around his neck. Totems and medicine bags were not unfamiliar to him. He wondered what was inside.
Kol T’ek continued in that soothing voice, “It is why I exist. You are not evil, but you are overcome by hate and in your pain you are blind.” He took the mushrooms out of the pouch and offered them to Duncan. “I can help you. I can take the hate, stop the pain.”
With just those simple words, Duncan felt as if he had been thrown a lifeline. But he was afraid to let go. He didn’t want to forget Little Deer. The hate and anger kept his love of her alive and burning inside him. “Maybe I don’t want help. Maybe I need to hate.”
But the words were said almost half – heartedly, and Kol T’ek was sure Duncan wanted his help. “No, it is not your nature.” He nodded toward his outstretched hand. “Take them,” he commanded.
Duncan looked from Kol T’ek to the oddly shaped mushrooms and back. The Indian nodded his encouragement again. Duncan grasped the dried fungi and put them in his mouth. They imparted a strange musty flavour that wasn’t unpleasant. He chewed slowly and it didn’t take long for them to take effect. His vision became blurry and the sounds of the prison disappeared. The world fell away and Duncan found himself at peace once again.
Calvary Outpost, Fort Willoughby
Late Spring, 1872
Connor MacLeod watched from behind a large out-cropping of rock as they led an Indian mounted on a horse across the prison-yard to the forest and prepared to hang him. The tree was a large pine and obviously by the bite marks in the branch, had been used numerous times. Despite the taunts and jeers, the Indian didn’t struggle like most men did. He just sat there expectantly, his large round face portraying a calm acceptance and was that a flicker of impatience? Connor knew from personal experience just how horrifying it was to be strangled. If the noose wasn’t just right, death could take agonising minutes instead of the seconds a quick break of the neck took. He shivered involuntarily, and turned his thoughts to the brutal army that had caused his kinsman so much heartache.
The Indian was given no respect. There was neither priest nor blindfold. "No doubt the only crime this man committed was being Indian,” Connor thought sadly. Once long ago, his people had suffered a similar fate. A scowl crossed his craggy face as it always did when he thought of Culloden. He shared Duncan’s anger at the thought that mankind still hadn’t changed in all these years and probably wouldn’t for sometime to come. Connor idly wondered if he would live to see the day.
Was Duncan still there? Had his kinsman suffered the same fate? His tracks led into the camp. There was no mistaking the deep hoof marks of a horse ridden hard in the rain, but with all the traffic going in and out of this place, there was no way to tell if his kinsman had left. He watched in sorrow as the sergeant struck the horse smartly on the rump, sending the animal bolting out from under the hapless Indian.
The soldiers went back to the outpost, leaving the Indian to die alone. Once Connor was assured they wouldn’t return, he hurried toward the choking man. It hadn't been a quick break after all and maybe he still had time to save him. A twig snapped and Connor started suddenly. The sound did not come from underfoot. He looked about but could see no one. Suddenly he felt the other’s Immortality and continued to the tree regardless. No one deserved to die this slow death. Already the man's neck was an ugly purple and his lips blue. His breath barely whistled through a mostly collapsed windpipe as his body fought to live. “It’s OK, I’m not here for your head.” Connor spoke gently, trying to calm the man, not knowing if he could still hear let alone understand. Sunlight glinted off the dagger that quickly appeared in the senior Highlander's hand. The Indian's already bulging eyes widened in fear and he struggled feebly even as his world turned to black.
Connor pulled the dagger from slack body. A feeling of uneasiness skittered down his spine and he looked around again. The stark outlines of thickly matted bushes amongst the huge trees was all he saw. Spring had yet to open the growing buds. A light breeze blew through the upper branches masking any sound he might have heard. It felt like he was being watched. It was not a feeling he liked. He wiped his dagger on a mossy stone then cut the Indian down. The wiry Scot eased the solid weight gently to the ground freeing his neck from the rope.
Keeping an eye out for trouble, he ran the short distance back to the rock, and his horse. Drawing his sword from its scabbard, Connor warily led his mount to where the Indian lay. Looking at the dead Immortal, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. His body still thrummed with the adrenaline surge an Immortal presence always elicited. That, combined with what his instincts were telling him, that he wasn't alone, made him edgier still.
Connor heard the sudden rush of air into deflated lungs and felt a strong presence. He lifted his hat, smoothed back his unruly hair then rubbed the tiredness from his face, turning his attention to the man lying in front of him. The Indian coughed, rubbed his neck and scrabbled into a crouch.
The Scot introduced himself. “I’m Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod and I have no quarrel with you.”
Kol T’ek eyed the man leaning casually against a tree, ivory hilted sword held point down but in readiness just the same. Immortality not-with-standing, there was no physical resemblance; this man was of slighter build, light-haired with a mish mash of accents blurring his native burr, but Kol T'ek knew beyond a doubt that Connor and Duncan were brothers. These two were blessed with a friendship few Immortals ever experienced. He could feel the man’s goodness, but was wary none the less. He raised an eyebrow at the name given and stood up.
“It is no coincidence that you are here.” Kol T’ek’s voice was rough. He coughed and rubbed his throat again. The bruised flesh had almost healed. Dark purple was giving way to a light blue colour streaked with yellow. Extending his senses, he probed Connor's presence. He was honourable, loyal, practical, and hard-working among other things. Many of these things Connor shared with Duncan, but there was an underlying edge to the man that was not. He probed a little deeper. This one didn't trust easily and had known much pain as many of their kind did.
“I am Kol T’ek. Thank you for freeing me and not taking my head.”
Connor touched his hat and nodded slightly. “You know my clansman, Duncan, then?” he asked hopefully.
“He was full of anger and hatred when we met.”
“And now?” Connor prompted.
“And now he is not.”
“You are a Shaman … a medicine man, Kol T’ek?” Connor said while eying the leather amulet around the Immortal’s neck.
Kol T'ek explained why he had turned Hayoka for the world then said what Connor needed to hear the most.
"MacLeod was not evil but his spirit needed cleansing. His heart is still broken but it will mend now.”
“Is he still in there?” Connor nodded toward the army jail.
“No, he has gone west, seeking solace. He needs time.
Connor smiled grimly. “Thanks.” He had first hand knowledge that time indeed did heal all wounds, but he wondered just how this cleansing was accomplished. Perhaps one day he would be able to coax it out of Duncan over a good bottle of whisky.
A bird called close by and Kol T’ek answered it in kind. It wasn’t long before the brush parted and another Indian appeared. He was dressed much as Kol T'ek was, soft deer hide shirt, pants, and moccasins, but a quiver and bow were slung across his back. He too wore a totem of some kind around his neck. The same feeling of uneasiness washed over Connor and he knew for a certainty that this man had been watching him. Their eyes met briefly and the Scot was relieved to see no animosity harboured there.
“I am glad to see you, Running Elk.” Kol T'ek smiled and clapped his friend on the back. Running Elk looked warily at Connor who turned away and seemingly busied himself with his horse.
“Seven suns, Kol T’ek!” Running Elk exclaimed, throwing the prison a dark look. “I thought they would never let you out. I prayed for a quick death so we could leave this evil place.”
“There was a reason, Running Elk. I will tell you on our journey home.”
Connor paid little attention to the amulet of this Indian, believing him to be another Shaman. Who else would accept Immortality so easily? The symbol of the ram’s horn contained in a circle was not familiar to him yet.
The two Indians melted silently into the forest leaving Connor to pick up Duncan’s trail.
Duncan rode out of the Fort Willoughby Outpost feeling at peace with himself. Kol T’ek had worked great magic on him. If it hadn’t happened to him he would have never believed it. Some of the pain of losing his family and his life remained, but the blinding rage was gone. He wished the memory of those awful days after the massacre could be wiped away too, but that was not to be. Duncan would live forever with the knowledge that he was all too human.
He ran the events of that magical morning in his mind over and over again as he rode for the nearest town. First, a strange feeling of displacement came over him as he chewed the dried mushrooms. Next, his vision wavered and he felt Kol T'ek steer him towards the cot. He was barely aware of sitting down when a great rushing sound filled his ears and the dingy little cell was swallowed in blackness. When he opened his eyes, he and Kol T’ek were sitting on Holy Ground in a peaceful glade. If he tried hard enough, Duncan could even conjure the fresh earthy smell and the rat-a-tat-tat sound of the woodpecker.
When Kol T’ek grasped his head, it was a like a magnet pulling all the negative feelings into one place. The pain was excruciating as all the rage and anger was pulled into one place, leaving the rest of his body feeling cleansed. Dimly he heard Kol T'ek's voice in his mind assuring him that all was well. Then the pressure released and he knew the Hayoka was taking it in. He’d been afraid to let the anger go. He never wanted to forget Little Deer or Kahani. Now he was glad he’d met up with the Immortal shaman.
Unfortunately, there was little he could do for the man in return. The Army was hell bent on hanging the gentle Indian for the death of that soldier. Nothing he said in the man’s defence mattered. Kol T’ek urged him to go and not to worry. Duncan shrugged mentally. Immortality was a both a blessing and a curse.
He rode west and north towards another Sioux settlement that he knew of. He had a request to make of the Elders there.
Shaman's Island, Summer, 1872
A solid weight lay on his chest. A smothered giggle reached his ears. Nimble fingers playfully followed the line of soft dark curls that led to the thicker wiry ones. "Little Deer?" he mumbled sleepily. "It's too early for that." Duncan reached down to pluck the teasing hand from waking him even more only to come up empty. He sat up quickly, reality abruptly crashing in on him like a dash of cold water. It had been a dream, wishful thinking on his body's part. It had been months since they'd last made love. Still, his body remembered. They would never make love again. He ached for her touch, but that in time would desert him too, as would the everyday memories. They would fade and all he’d have left were the special ones and the few solid mementoes like his spear, Kahani’s beaded necklace and the feathers he’d braided in Little Deer’s hair the day before he left to meet Connor.
He pushed the flap of the tipi back to let in some fresh air. The sun was just rising and the sky was a kaleidoscope of colour. Duncan lay back down and stretched lazily, deciding not to let bitterness and heartache start his day. If he were to survive this, he would have to let the grief go and get on with living. Isn't that what he always did? He pillowed his head on crossed arms and enjoyed the sight. Lavender and rose-coloured cottony clouds merged together like irregularly shaped quilted squares. The colours warred with each other in the upper sky, giving way to glorious shades of pink as his eye travelled toward the horizon. It was the simple things in life that brought pleasure back to him in small increments. Soon his thoughts turned inward as memories of sunrises he and Little Deer had shared flitted through his mind. One very poignant and special sunrise he would always carry with him replayed itself with startling clarity.
Lakota Sioux Camp, Fall, 1870
“It’s time, MacLeod.”
Duncan woke instantly at the soft words in his ear and the gentle hand on his arm. He looked up into a face bravely set, but he could see the grief shining in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Little Deer gave a small nod and left the tipi.
Duncan dressed quickly in the pre-dawn darkness. The soft cured hides caressed his skin and he absentmindedly compared them to the rough wool of his youth. With half an ear, he listened through the thick-hided tipi to the muted voices of Long Arrow and Swift Current discussing which stories they would tell of their fellow warrior, Makina. The man had been a bold warrior, a skilled hunter and a loving husband and father. He would be sorely missed.
Duncan ran a hand through his hair and winced at the knots and tangles he encountered. He searched for the bear grease and his comb. Grief knifed through him as he thought about the death of this man who was more than a friend to him. Makina had welcomed Duncan into his family, declared him a blood brother and now trusted him with the care of his young son and wife. Duncan had never been so readily accepted after his banishment until now. He never thought he would ever feel the contentment of belonging again.
Not finding either comb or grease, he knelt down beside his pallet and despite the darkness, found the small black memory box he kept in the shallow depression under it. He rummaged in it for something to tie his hair back with. He encountered two silver celtic ties which he quickly dismissed. He felt Teresa's small lace fan laying folded along the entire length of one side. His fingers brushed leather, metal and something very soft. Hamza's pocket watch lay silently under what he sought. He lifted out the beautifully tooled leather thong that Neehani had given him. Somehow, Debra's blue satin ribbon had wrapped itself around it. He untangled it gently and laid it back inside. The colour had matched her eyes and a vision of them bright with laughter robbed him of his breath. He closed the beautiful lid that was inlaid with mother of pearl but did not put the box away.
He fingered the smooth lacquered wood and wondered what small part of Makina he would keep. Tears threatened to spill and he took a few calming breaths. He put the box away and arranged his sleeping furs over top of it. In a few swift movements, he gathered his long hair and tied it back. A warmth spread through him as he remembered the beautiful young Sioux shyly offering him the gift. He suspected the girl had designs on him, but he was not ready to commit himself just yet.
Stepping out of the tipi into the cool morning air, he watched the small village come to life. A few squaws were drawing water from the river. Young braves were tending to the horses, laughing and taunting each other good-naturedly. Already cooking fires were lit and he could smell the feast that was yet to come. Dogs ventured as close as they dared hoping to scrounge a scrap or two. He stretched and nodded good morning to Long Arrow. The tribe treated death as a natural part of life, but his life was far too full of it for him to view it so. Hadn't he tried to escape the horrors of not just war, but of the White Man's way by accepting Makina's offer to become one of them? Life in the New World had become a rape of the land and its Native peoples.
He now understood Darius' knowing look when he took his leave of the Immortal warrior priest. The man had lived through the conquering of many a new land and knew what lay in store for Duncan. It had taken Duncan over fifty years to find the peace he had left Europe for, but once he had seen how the Sioux lived off the land and how closely it mirrored a life near and dear to his heart, he'd jumped at the chance. And now he was burying another.
How was Little Deer handling this? He had brought her brother-in-law Chaske home just over a year ago, and now she had lost her husband. Apart from her mother, he and Kahani were all that she had left. She had a strength about her, but he'd heard her weeping long after she thought everyone asleep. He took a deep breath of freshly scented air and let it out slowly. It was still cold enough for him to see his breath hang momentarily in the air. He centered his mind and brought raw emotions under control. He would do what he always did: go on living in hopes that the future would bring more happiness than sadness. Shouts for help with the pyre brought him out of his thoughts and he went over. The midnight blue sky held streaks of blood red as the sun started on its journey. A few stars still graced the upper sky. He always enjoyed this part of the day. It brought the promise of hope and a new beginning.
The screech of a startled jay filled the air as the men worked together building the final resting place for their friend. They would honour Makina all day with feasting and stories, then as night fell, they would send his spirit off to be reborn. Dark pink and gold now tinged the underside of a few clouds and they were almost done.
Then it was time for the small tribe of Lakota Sioux to gather. The sky was aglow with reddish golden light as the sun rose a bit more. He stood beside Little Deer and Kahani, fingers slowly stroking the eagle's feather plucked from Makina's headdress. They would need him in the coming days and weeks. Duncan sought Little Deer's hand and squeezed it gently. He knew he could never replace Makina as husband and father, but he could provide the essentials for living. Watching her stand proudly as the chief reminded all that Makina’s spirit would go back to Mother Earth and would be reborn, Duncan thought that maybe one day he might come to love this strong, beautiful woman.
Getting up, Duncan made his way down to the water’s edge. He wiggled his toes in the cool sand, leaving imprints, which the gently lapping water quickly filled. He stretched his arms high above his head and groaned contentedly as he felt a few vertebrae pop. A yawn soon followed and he decided it was now or never. He walked into the cool water, feeling goosebumps travel up his body. Stopping when the water was just below his navel, he contemplated the deeper, colder water. Why did it always have to be such a shock? His legs were already used to it, too bad his upper body wouldn't feel the same way.
He shivered and stood on tiptoe as small waves found their way over his navel. He shifted uncertainly knowing the best way in was the quickest. He remembered how some mornings he and Kahani had run buck naked from tipi to lake laughing and whooping as their quick strides splashed water over them both. They would run in as far as they could, then fall as the deeper water slowed them down. The memory goaded him and he finally dove under to clear the last remnants of sleep away.
The cold water was indeed a shock and he surfaced gasping. Pausing only long enough to whip the hair out of his eyes and catch his breath, Duncan swam quickly out into deeper water, his powerful arms churning like a paddle wheel, his legs pumping like well oiled pistons. As he warmed up, he slowed his stroke and calmed his breathing. With a body already honed to perfection, he was sleek as a seal. He swam effortlessly through the water as he found his pace. He turned around after about fifteen minutes and headed back. Closer to shore, he dove again to pull the hair back off his face.
Surfacing, Duncan wiped the water out of his eyes and reclined comfortably in a semi-sitting position. His toes peeked out of the water as he sculled his hands slowly back and forth. The sky was still slightly pink, but was giving way to the deep clear blue of another stellar day. He looked at the hill and pictured his cabin surrounded by this peacefulness.
He needed solitude and peace desperately. There had been few times in the past two centuries where peace had lasted very long at all. Duncan clung to the memory of Paul’s sanctuary before he’d confirmed his suspicions of Kalas. That haven had repaired his soul, but an abbey was not the place for him this time. He felt so close to Little Deer and Kahani out here in the wilderness. Sometimes when he walked the forest, he imagined he could hear their laughter on the wind, and at night see their faces dancing in flames of the fire that kept him company.
Sadness and grief overwhelmed him again. He swiped at the water angrily startling a heron from its breakfast in the marsh. Why had he left? Little Deer couldn’t comprehend the white man’s need to take over and remake the land even if it meant destroying all before them. She couldn’t understand that the sheer numbers coming West would mean the end of her people’s ways, but he could. He’d seen it before. If he had stayed, maybe he would have fought Kern and prevented the Army from coming. Maybe, said the little voice in his head. Maybe. And maybe Kern would have taken his head and he'd be dead too. But still he felt guilty, guilty for leaving, guilty for living.
An eerie ululating cry shook him out of reverie. There was work to be done. Duncan swam toward the shore, stopping quickly as he caught sight of a pair of loons swimming around the point. He watched the oddly patterned birds arrive at their destination: a stand of water-weed. First one, then the other upended until all he could see were pointed black tail feathers disappearing. It was amazing to see just how long these birds could hold their breath. They dove and resurfaced repeatedly; many times popping up quite far away as they unsuccessfully chased a fish. Watching them dive for their breakfast reminded him that he hadn’t had his yet.
Dressed as a White Man, but still looking every bit the Indian, he walked through the forest marking trees suitable for felling, letting his thoughts wander. Duncan felt honoured that the Old Ones had granted him land on Shaman’s Island. He would build a cabin that would last a long time. He’d never had a place to call his own, never had a place where he could retreat in times like this. He’d never felt the need before. Connor had chosen that lovely big building in New York City almost a century ago. It held a special place in his kinsman’s heart. Not only was it a base for his operations, it was home. Duncan knew he was welcome there anytime, but still...it was Connor’s.
The location for the cabin had been easy to pick. A small hill overlooked the protected inlet. A lone carved stone stood sentinel at the top, marking the island a holy place. It drew him over and he let his fingers wander over the roughly carved stone. Ancient carvings of people and circles depicting suns, and moons graced the face of it. Was it a message, a warning or a picture of long forgotten gods? He didn't know, but took great comfort in the peaceful feeling emanating from it.
The sunlight slanted through the trees and warmed his hands on this cool morning. The day held promise of another hot but tolerable afternoon. There was a light breeze and he welcomed it. His work was not light and the muggy days last week, combined with the annoying bugs had made his life miserable. He walked amongst the oaks and maples that fought for space beside the faster growing evergreens. Looking carefully around, he pictured the lay of the cabin. These fir trees and these saplings would come down. He wanted a clear eastern view so he would catch the rising sun in both the bedroom and kitchen.
He swung the axe quickly, cutting an "x" into them. This oak would stay. In fifty years it would serve well as a shade tree. These large evergreens would make a good storage shed. The axe swung again and again. Walking deeper into the forest he marked a dozen large oaks for the cabin itself. A large fir tree rose majestically before him and he could see from its girth that it would make a splendid canoe. He did not yet have the tools to fashion one the way most White Men would, so he would hollow out this tree the way Makina had shown him. It wouldn't be very refined, but it would do if he needed to ferry anything large.
That night, the first full moon of summer shone down on the island, almost giving the beach the illusion of day instead of the dead of night. He remembered the wonderful night he and Little Deer spent under last year’s same full moon. Duncan turned over onto his stomach again and sighed heavily into his pillow. A few tears rolled down his face making dark spots on the soft deer hide. When he was troubled, his mind was often his enemy. Tonight was no different.
The tipi was quiet except for the sound of whetstone on steel. Kahani rolled over and called out a few words in his sleep. Duncan smiled. It sounded like his son and Otter Tooth were playing happily together in this dream. He looked over at his wife. Wife. He’d never had one before. It felt good to love and be loved. They shared a look and he felt a warmth spread through him.
Little Deer surprised him one night by calling him husband. She said that they were married in their hearts the day they’d declared their love for one another. Even though it didn’t seem to matter to Little Deer, maybe he should propose marriage. There had only been two others that had made him feel like this and he would have married them if he could. Now he had the chance. He would ask Tika about the marriage ceremony.
“Come, Duncan,” Little Deer whispered with a mischievous grin. She put down the moccasin she was mending and rose gracefully to her feet.
“Come where?” Duncan asked. He was happily sharpening his spear, enjoying the feeling of being one with his family. He was almost loath to stop the familiar rhythmic motion.
She crossed the short distance to where he was sitting and took the spear from his hands. “This can wait. The night will not.”
Duncan looked back at Kahani and Tika, Little Deer's mother. They were both sleeping peacefully. Little Deer pulled impatiently on his hand. He followed her out of the tipi where the night sounds intensified. The drone of crickets and the constant chirping of tree frogs threatened to drown one another out. They walked silently across the settlement to the water. An owl hooted. Little Deer sought out his hand and they walked together along the shore. The evergreens were a stark outline against the dark night sky and the smooth white stones shone on the beach.
Little Deer squeezed his hand. “The moon is so bright tonight, we can see our shadows, Duncan. Why do you think that is?”
Duncan stopped and pulled the leather thong from her hair. It fell in a wave that caught the moonlight. “Does it matter when it turns your hair to quicksilver and puts stars in your eyes?”
Little Deer smiled and kissed him gently. “My warrior is a poet.”
“Your warrior is in love,” Duncan growled as he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her deeply.
Reluctantly she pulled away from him. “Come my love. There is something I want to show you.”
Little Deer led him into the forest. They wound their way through the trees finally stepping onto a well-worn path. Duncan soon realised where they were going. The sound of rushing water grew louder and the sight that greeted him took his breath away. Little Deer drew him over to a ledge of rock, and sat down. He put his arm around her and hugged her tightly. A veil of water cascaded over the cliff. The bright rays of this full moon made it sparkle like the gossamer strands of a spider’s web full of dew. Never had he seen such a sight, and he said so.
Moonlight reflected off the rising spray of the turbulent water at the base of the falls turning the droplets into thousands of diamonds shimmering in the air. Little Deer turned her face up to his, her eyes shining with delight. Duncan caressed her cheek and gazed lovingly into her eyes. His heart was full of love, his life full of joy, gypsy curses blindly forgotten. The words reflecting these feelings came unbidden to his lips. "I love you, Little Deer. Will you be my wife?"
"You know that I will," she whispered against his lips. She put her arm around his neck drawing him down on top of her where two became one once again.
Duncan left the small tipi and went down to the beach. He was exhausted, but sleep would not come, only memories. Kol T'ek was right, he would never forget her, but the memories were like a knife in his heart. Immortal healing only went so far at a pace like this. He wanted to work his body, his mind especially into oblivion, but he knew there was a ways to go before he reached his goal.
He stood barefoot on the beach. Cool sand. Duncan then moved his awareness up his legs. Pulled ligaments, strained thigh muscles. Moving past that he went higher. Sore lower back. Above that, cracked ribs? No, just very bruised. He'd fallen from a tree, while hacking off a particularly large branch. They still felt cracked though they must have healed by now. He travelled mentally onward across his upper back and shoulders. Tension. Oh, what he wouldn't give for the feel of Little Deer's strong fingers right now. Focus! Torn ligaments and muscles. Dislocating his shoulder in the fall had been very painful as had his solution to popping it back in. Strained biceps, and triceps. Chopping, dragging and lifting, accounted for that.
Finally he let his awareness stretch to his fingertips. Aching hands, bruised knuckles, blisters that had healed, burst, bled and healed again. Last stop was his neck and head. Tension, and just waiting for him to lose focus were memories. Little Deer's eyes shining with love for him, Kahani tackling him in the sleeping furs when the little boy had finally come to trust him, listening to Makina make his wish known as Duncan held him, knowing death was not long coming. FOCUS! Perhaps pushing himself harder would help.
A deer came to the edge of the trees and walked down to drink, totally unaware of the man standing stock still not a hundred feet from her, and the war that was raging inside of him. Duncan completed his internal check and raised his hands slowly to the position of his first kata, fingers held just so. The deer raised her head at this movement, but not perceiving any danger, lowered it and continued drinking. The slow thump of his heartbeat pulsed loudly in his ears. Duncan turned his awareness slightly outward letting the beauty of the stars intrude. You know that one, there, Kahani? That's the Big Dipper. The handle is also Ursa's tail. See the rest of The Great Bear there and there? All three of them had lain on the beach under the velvet sky that night. He knew then the joy his own father must have felt raising him.
FOCUS! Duncan willed the painful image of his family away, blowing out a cleansing breath as hands and body performed the ritual movements. Deep breath in. Dancing the dance of the hunt. FOCUS. Push and blow the pain out. Riding bareback with the young braves, whooping with the sheer joy of a powerful steed and the wind in your hair. Deep breath in. Little Deer's silken flesh gliding over his. Hands slowly pushed with a cleansing breath out. Kahani's happy laughter. He missed them terribly.
He felt empty and alone. Little Deer's softly uttered endearment, "I love you, my husband," echoed in his mind. He turned the graceful kick he had planned to do into a fierce one, exhaling a harsh breath at the same time. The deer startled, darted up the slope and back into the forest.
A quick turn, hands jabbing at unseen opponents, Duncan pushed already tortured muscles into a high-energy kata. His carefully laid plan to clear his mind in successive stages evaporated. The grief coursed through him and he picked the physical pain to concentrate on. Perhaps by dawn, he’d be able to sleep.
The hot sun beat down and Connor stopped paddling to wipe the sweat from his brow. The glare off the water reflected painfully into his eyes as he removed his hat. He leaned over the side of the canoe and drank from his cupped hand, then splashed some cool water onto his face. It wasn’t nearly enough so he dipped his hat into the water and poured it over his head sighing contentedly. Water sprayed out in all directions as he shook his head like a dog. Connor replaced his hat and just sat in the canoe enjoying the serenity. He could understand why Duncan chose to be here.
The dull thud of an axe cutting into a tree reverberated across the water. The blows were hard and steady, invoking a long-forgotten memory.
The Scottish Highlands, Fall, 1626
“Gi’e it a rest, man. You’ll no’ have any strength left for anything else,” Connor said exasperatedly. He had just about given up on Duncan.
Duncan ignored him and continued to hack at the tree. Powerful arms swung the axe repeatedly. Chips of wood flew to the ground with every stroke, the resounding thud echoing through the forest.
“We have enough firewood to last us until spring, Duncan. We need to hunt.” When that didn’t stop him Connor growled, “You’ve probably scared away the game for miles around.”
“Good.” It was more an exhalation of breath and Connor wasn’t sure if he’d heard right or not. He studied Duncan’s face. The man had his jaw clenched so tightly Connor could see the muscles bunched into hard little balls. Duncan’s eyes bored into the tree as if that alone would cut it down.
Even though they’d known each other for a while, Connor was still learning about his student and clansman. Connor was not naturally a talkative sort and not very apt to open up about himself even when he did talk. But Duncan had freely told him of his banishment from the clan one night a few months after Connor had found him. This stoic silence and brutal expenditure of energy was something new.
Connor put out his hand and halted the next swing. Duncan turned hard brown eyes his way in a gaze that would send a lesser man scurrying for cover. But Connor stood his ground.
“Leave me alone, Connor,” Duncan growled, pulling his arm out of the wiry man’s grasp. They stared at each other, neither man backing down. Connor didn’t know the words to unlock his student’s silence, so he turned and walked back to their hut. The steady thwack of the axe was the only thing he heard for some time.
Long after the sun went down, Duncan returned to their hut. Connor tried not to stare but it wasn’t hard to miss the deep pain reflected in his clansman’s eyes. Connor was sure this all had something to do with the fiery-haired young lady they’d seen in the market earlier that day. They’d both heard the laughter and turned as one to see what lovely lass had made such an enchanting sound. Duncan had gone white as a sheet and left muttering something about needing his horse shod. Connor completed his business and met up with Duncan at the blacksmith’s.
The Blacksmith’s, that afternoon
The smell of fresh horse dung wafted out of the little stone building. Connor stopped just before the doorway. The two-toned ring of hammer on iron threatened to loose bottled memories. Heather's laughing face loomed in his mind's eye and a playful admonishment to "Come away from that damn forge," echoed in his ears. Many years had passed, but he still felt her death keenly. He took a deep breath and put them away for another time. Something was troubling Duncan. He would concentrate on that. He walked inside the dimly lit shop.
Duncan stood holding a great stallion's head. It was clearly spooked. Large dark eyes were white rimmed and its ears were laid flat back. Duncan’s large hands stroked the huge animal’s neck and face. Words of comfort spoken in a low, soothing tone gentled the beast even more and Connor was thankful when sharp black ears came forward twitching at Duncan’s voice. There was nothing more dangerous than a frightened stallion in a small space.
When the horse was finally led away, Connor said, “’Tis thirsty work all this marketing. Let’s go to the pub, aye?”
Duncan’s face was unreadable. “You go. I’ll start back with the supplies.”
“Either we both go or we go home.”
Duncan saddled his newly shod mare and led her out of the barn. Loading his share of the supplies into his saddlebags, he then mounted up without looking at Connor and rode away. Connor watched the broad back of his student disappear into the crowded market place. Understanding that Duncan needed some time alone, Connor mounted up and followed at a discreet distance.
They’d returned home and Duncan had been uncommunicative ever since.
It was far into the night when Connor stirred, not quite sure what woke him. A choked sob reached his ears. He didn't need to open his eyes to know that Duncan was vainly trying to stifle his grief. Connor wondered what on earth could’ve happened.
The next night
The campfire was roaring and Connor welcomed the heat on his face. To dispel the autumn chill even further, he uncorked the whisky and took a pull.
"Come and sit, Duncan, you've done enough," Connor said indicating the stump on the other side of the fire. He watched his sullen student complete his day by drawing out his evening chores.
Duncan continued to meticulously clean the bridle.
"Put the damn thing down, Duncan, and come join me for a drink."
Duncan knew that tone and it brooked no argument. He walked the short distance to the barn and hung up the bridle. His horse whickered a greeting and he went over to her. Holding her soft dun coloured cheeks, he gently stroked them with his thumbs while he leaned his forehead briefly against her's.
"He wants to talk, girl, I know it."
The horse tossed her head gently and made a throaty noise in return.
Duncan let go of her and rubbed her velvet nose. "I can't. I can't tell him."
She tossed her head again and swished her tail then stood silently as if she was listening.
"He'll think me weak, Sunny." His fingers moved up between her ears and he scratched her favourite spot. Duncan laid his forehead against hers once again. His voice was low and raspy. "He might be a great warrior and my teacher, but what gives him the right to know my heart?" He moved to her side and wrapped his arm around her neck burying his face in her black mane. He breathed in the warm comforting smell of horse and ran his face along the soft hair underneath, his head finally coming to rest just behind her ears.
Sunny twitched her ears back as her master's familiar voice rumbled between her ears. "We've been together a year, Connor and I. He's given meaning to my life again. I know what I am now. He works me like a mule, training for this prize that seems so farfetched. We talk about swords and fighting and far away places. We share a birthplace and the MacLeod name but what do I really know of him?"
His fingers absent-mindedly scratched between her ears again.
"What will he think when he learns I've been mourning a girl, dead almost 10 years?" His hand strayed to her cheek again and he stroked it lovingly. I should be married by now and have a herd of bairns." Duncan's voice dropped to a rough whisper. "But that will never be. Will I ever love another so, girl?" His eyes strayed across the barn to the bales of hay and sacks of oats, but they saw something different. "This Immortality is a curse no matter what Connor says. If I live forever, so will this pain."
Duncan gave her one final pat and went out to face his teacher. He got as far as the doorway and stopped. Connor's lean form lounged on the stump nearest the fire, his plaid draped loosely about his shoulders. Booted feet were propped on a stone, warming comfortably.
He couldn't do it. He needed someone to share this with, but the stalwart sight of Connor, by the fire, made him falter. This was the great Connor MacLeod, a hundred-year-old warrior in the body of an 18-year-old. Did Connor still feel the passion of youth? Yes, for how many times had they tumbled various barmaids in the past year? Had he experienced love, true love as he himself had? He didn't know. Did Immortals mature passed the age in which they were locked at the time of their first death?
Connor felt Duncan's eyes on him. He turned to see a look of apprehension cross his student's face.
Connor offered up the bottle and smiled. "I won't bite you, man."
Duncan came slowly forward and took the whisky.
"We live our lives in secret, Duncan, rarely do we ever share what we are with mortals. Only another one of us truly understands and Immortal friendships are just as rare. The bond between student and teacher can be a strong one." Connor's tone turned wistful. "When Ramirez taught me, we shared many things." The elder Scot's now familiar staccato laugh filled the air dispelling any melancholy. "Usually though, the haggis, was intent on showing me just how much I didn't know."
Duncan relaxed somewhat and let a small smile curl his lips. "Sounds familiar." He couldn't believe Connor had called the legendary swordsman a "haggis".
"Living outside the normal span of life gives us a unique perspective. Time passes differently for us. We live, we love and we fight. Never forget to live Duncan. It can be so easy to let the death that's always waiting for us rule our lives."
The younger Scot got tired of standing and finally sat on the stump across from his teacher. Duncan took a drink and motioned with the bottle, chiding Connor in mock exasperation. "That's what yer doin' to me? Letting me experience life by working me to death?"
Connor's face lost all hint of humour. "I wasn't the one forcing you to chop that tree."
Duncan downed more of the scotch and wiped his mouth. They were both silent for a long time, passing the bottle back and forth, each with their own thoughts. Connor finished off the whisky and got up to get another. He suspected it would take more than one bottle to loosen his student's tongue. When he came back, Duncan's face clearly showed the war that was waging itself inside. The man would have to learn to hide his feelings if he was to survive Immortality. Adversaries pounced on any weakness their opponents showed and he'd have to teach Duncan to do just that too. The man was far too forgiving and honourable. It was going to be a very tough and painful lesson to teach. He did not relish the thought.
When the level in the second bottle dropped considerably, Duncan said quietly, "The girl in the market place, she's the sister of the one I once loved."
Connor looked up from the fire glad that Duncan had finally decided to open up.
“Her name was Debra Campbell.” Duncan’s voice was thick with emotion and drink. “She was pledged to ma cousin Robert, but our hearts could only love each other.” He played with a bit of kindling, breaking the soft wood into little slivers.
Connor took a swig of whisky and passed the bottle to Duncan. Duncan ran his fingers down the neck of the bottle and over the soft curve as if it were one of Debra’s, his eyes seeing some inner vision.
“She was the bonniest lass. Her hair was the colour of a sunset on fire. She had a temper to match.” As if realising what he was doing, Duncan took a drink and passed it back to Connor who wisely stayed silent.
“She was strong and had a mind of her own.” His voice broke. “She would’ve made a great chieftain’s wife. We both knew that Debra and Robert were to wed, but when it came time ... ” Duncan stopped and cleared his throat. “We knew, Debra and I, that things couldna go on as they had. It was getting harder to keep our hands off each other. I would nae dishonour our clans with a handfasting. The son and daughter of the clan chieftains should be wed proper.”
Connor nodded and tossed some more wood on the fire.
“But it was not to be. Father and I went to talk to Angus, her father.” Duncan gestured violently and his voice became bitter. “He nae had sense." Duncan got up and paced the short distance to their hut and back. "Could nae see that our clans could be joined happily. He said that the pledge was made and nothing would break it.”
His teacher had no problem seeing where Debra got her wilfulness. Connor poked and prodded the wood until he was satisfied it would catch properly.
Duncan swallowed audibly and sat back down. He passed a hand over his face his voice low and throaty with emotion. “It was then that I knew I had to leave and come back in a few years time with a wife of my own.” He motioned for Connor to pass the bottle. He gulped the amber liquid quickly and grimaced at the fire flowing down his throat. “Debra would have none of it and accused me of not lovin’ her." He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "She could nae understand that I could no' bear seein’ her knowin’ she would never be mine.” Anger coloured his voice. “Fool that I was, I gave her a bracelet. The bracelet that was to be my wedding gift to her.”
Getting up, Duncan turned his back and Connor had to strain to hear the next words. “I should ha’ known Robert would no' let her keep it.” Duncan was silent for a long time and the level in the bottle dropped even more.
Hoping that Duncan would continue, Connor said, “He challenged you,” knowing full well how the love of a woman affected men, and how those fights usually turned out.
Duncan spun about brandishing the bottle, his voice rising with anger. “My father in his infinite wisdom bade me to take up the challenge for honour! I would have settled for first blood and conceded when Robert drew mine, but he was mad with jealousy.”
Debra’s scornful voice still rang in his ears, “When I lie with you, Robert MacLeod, it’ll be him I’ll be thinkin’ of!”
The atrocity of his actions were too terrible to utter aloud and Duncan fell silent again, but Connor could see it plainly in Duncan’s eyes. He was used to seeing a range of emotions reflected there, but Connor had never seen such deep pain.
Connor’s gravelly voice was soft and understanding. “You had no choice, A Dhonnchaidh. Your father had no choice.” Left unattended, jealousy over a woman could almost destroy the clan. Ian MacLeod had made the only decision open to him and Duncan had paid the price.
“I know.” It came out as a harsh whisper.
Knowing how much honour meant to his student, Connor suspected things had gone badly between Debra and Duncan after Robert’s death. Whatever “it” was, this was the thing that was bothering him. It had to come out. “What happened after that, mo charaid (my friend)?” Connor asked softly.
Duncan shook his head and finished off the whisky. It hurt too much to go on. He didn’t want to think about it anymore. God damn this Immortality! He couldn’t even get properly drunk!
Connor stood up. “Did you leave her, Duncan?” he asked sharply, seeing the wall rising quickly between them.
“Drop it, Connor,” Duncan said thrusting the empty bottle back into his teacher’s hand. His voice took on an accusatory note. “Did you hate yourself so much for slaying a kinsman you couldn’t bear to stay?”
Duncan growled, “I said drop it!” and he brushed past him toward their hut.
Connor’s hand shot out and gripped Duncan’s shoulder hard.
He twisted but couldn’t quite get free. “Let go, Connor,” Duncan ground out between clenched teeth.
Connor threw the bottle down and grabbed Duncan’s arm pulling it up behind his back. “Hit a little too close to the mark, did I?”
Duncan sank slowly toward the ground, twisted, then quickly elbowed his captor in the side. It was enough of a surprise for Duncan to knee the leg supporting all of Connor’s weight and they both went down.
Punches were traded and Connor was barely able to roll out from under the onslaught of his furious student. Lying on his back, he managed to kick Duncan squarely in the chest sending him flying backwards. The sounds of harsh breathing filled the night air as both men caught their breath.
Connor, not as drunk as Duncan, came quickly to his feet. Duncan rolled slowly onto his hands and knees, still catching his breath. His head hung down and long dark hair obscured his face. Connor expected some kind of deception and acted quickly. He bowled Duncan over and came down on top of him with one knee in the middle of his back. He twisted one of Duncan’s well-muscled arms up again and leaned forward panting slightly. “Now tell me what happened.”
Duncan struggled feebly. Why did this man want to know? Why couldn’t Connor just let him be?
“You want to be here all night, Duncan?” He looked down at the man on the ground.
“No.” Fire still burned in those dark brown eyes.
He pushed hard with his knee and pulled up on the arm. Duncan grunted and stopped struggling.
Connor released his hold slowly allowing Duncan up to rub his arm.
“What do you want to know, Connor?” The bitterness and anger hadn’t cooled at all. “That I killed her with my pride? That she died because of me?”
“I’m sorry, A Dhonnchaidh,” Connor whispered. Finally, the God-awful truth.
“You want a blow by blow description of how I watched her go over the cliff and couldn’t save her?” The tears were starting to come now. “Do you know what it’s like to be helpless in the face of death?”
Yes, Connor thought silently, I do. Instead of saying anything, he wrapped his arms around his grieving clansman.
Duncan’s voice was a tortured whisper amidst his tears. “Debra was willing to die for our love. I called her back from the edge, but it gave way.”
“Love can wound deeper than any sword, lad,” Connor said softly. He cradled Duncan as best he could and let the man cry it out.
No wonder the sight of the lass’ wee sister now grown had such an effect on the man. It would almost be like seeing his love again. He would share his story of Heather and Ramirez's of Shakiko this night. It might help Duncan to know that they need not be jaded warriors and that Immortality was a double-edged sword. Another hard lesson to learn, but one that needed to be taught.
That night a new bond was forged between them.
Shaman's Island, 1872
One last scoopful water went over his head and once again Connor took up his paddle, eager to see how his kinsman was doing.
Duncan paused in mid-swing as he felt another of his kind. “It must be Kol T’ek,” he thought. “No one else knows I’m here.” Just to be safe, he retrieved his sword from the lean-to.
On one hand, the sight of Connor’s familiar figure coming through the trees surprised him and on the other hand, it didn’t. Duncan had long ago given up trying to explain his kinsman’s uncanny way of finding him.
The smell of sap was sharp in Connor’s nose. He strode up the hill letting the sounds of the axe lead him to his kinsman. At the top, Duncan appeared with katana in hand.
“That’s an improvement,” Connor thought. He took in the number of logs stacked in a neat pile and smiled grimly. Some things never changed.
“You’ve been busy.” Connor nodded toward the pile.
Duncan turned and went back to chopping. It was never easy talking to Connor. How was he to tell this man, (who had lived through the same banishment he had, who had lost his first his teacher and then his bonny Heather), that he wanted out of the Game for a while? How did he tell a man who had never run away from anything that he couldn’t cope with the pain and loss anymore and that he just wanted to take a break from it all?
Connor picked up the canteen and drank deeply. He watched Duncan methodically cut down the tree blow by blow. It was just a matter of time before Duncan told him what was on his mind. The man had always found solace in hard work and an understanding ear. Connor could wait. He upended the canteen again, wiped his mouth and headed for the beach to refill it.
There was no way around this Duncan decided. He would just tell Connor. It wouldn’t be the first time they disagreed on something. He scowled. Why did he feel the need for his kinsman’s approval anyway?
Connor refilled the container and sighed. Duncan had always been the one to wear his heart on his sleeve and this time was no different. It was hard to admit, but by not opening their hearts all Immortals were doomed to live a long empty existence. The voice of reason reminded him that when they did love they were doomed to suffer the pain of loss through the ages. He stood and looked back up the hill. Duncan freely chose to live and love no matter the consequence, to enjoy happiness for whatever time he was given.
Connor had unconsciously let Duncan into his heart when he’d shut out so many others. Duncan was more than a beloved student. Over the years they had progressed from clansmen in a teacher/student relationship to family. He loved this man and knew for a certainty that it was reciprocated.
Silence descended on the island, bringing Connor out of his thoughts. He grabbed his coat and put it on in hopes that the infernal mosquitoes wouldn’t be able to bite through that, then trudged back up the hill hoping to find Duncan in a more talkative mood. A scowl crossed Connor’s face as he watched Duncan catch his fingers as he manoeuvred a log on to the crossed poles. The man’s heart was broken and only time would heal it. Personal experience had taught him that. He reached over and squeezed Duncan’s shoulder.
Connor's voice rumbled softly, “I know you loved her, but you can’t keep them from dying. They all do. Men kill men. We kill each other.”
Duncan’s expression told Connor that he didn’t want to hear those words. “I don’t care who does the killing. I’m tired of it!” he cried. “I’m tired of the endless, mindless fighting. I’m tired of death.”
Connor felt deeply for his friend, but couldn’t deny the truth. “You can’t quit,” he stated quietly.
“I didn’t ask for your permission, Connor!” Duncan swiped angrily at the axe resting at his feet and walked over to the newly filled canteen. He drank a few gulps letting the air settle between them. He wouldn’t back down now. If it was a fight Connor wanted, Connor would get it. Duncan glared at his kinsman challenging him to dispute this.
This track would end the conversation in anger or worse, and he didn’t feel like fighting just now. Connor took another direction. “I know why you chose this place,” he said quietly. Connor ran his fingers over the carved stone next to him feeling the comforting thrum of peace emanating from it. “It’s Holy Ground.”
“That’s right.” Duncan wiped the dribble of water off his chin. “I did ask permission of the Old Ones to build my cabin here.” Duncan couldn’t help the note of defiance that crept into his voice. He was still prepared to fight Connor for his beliefs.
“No Immortal can fight here. Ever.” Connor imagined the cabin and the life Duncan would lead here. “You’ll always be safe.” The words he didn’t say hung in the air between them leading Duncan on.
“I’m glad you approve.” It was now or never. Duncan took the bait, finally saying what was on his mind. “Connor, the battle between good and evil can do without me for a while.” Did his old teacher understand?
Connor sighed mentally. “Maybe, but you can’t stay out of it forever.” It was finally out in the open. He understood Duncan’s need for his approval. Once a teacher, always a teacher.
Duncan looked up into Connor’s face. “No, not forever, for a while.”
Connor smiled, giving the acceptance Duncan was looking for. “They’ll find you.” “Eventually.” Duncan smiled wryly at his mentor and friend knowing that Connor was always right, well, almost always.
The outside of the cabin was finished. Duncan staggered out the back door to relieve himself. It took three tries for him to unbutton his breeches. "What ever happened to a good old-fashioned kilt?" he wondered fuzzily.
Connor appeared magically and proceeded to water the ground beside him. “What’s taking you so long, mo charaid? I thought you’d gotten lost out here.”
"He must be really drunk," Duncan thought. "He’s mixing Gaelic and English again." Duncan managed to re-button his breeches enough so they wouldn’t fall down. He playfully nudged his kinsman. A heavy Scots accent was a clue to just how drunk he was too. “I’m no’ the one who dinna make it to dinner las’ week.”
“You’re saying that I got lost?” Connor’s tone was as sharp as the dirk he carried. He hastened to do up his breeches as he regained his balance. “I told you, that cougar led me on a merry chase.” He pushed Duncan back. “Don’t touch me while I’m pissing!”
Duncan laughed. “It’s an island, Connor! Maybe next time you can leave a trail of breadcrumbs.” Duncan turned around and shoved him as he went back toward the cabin.
Connor cursed in Gaelic, then French as he careened off balance once again. Drunk as he was, Connor still managed to catch Duncan’s sleeve and they both went down in a flurry of arms and legs. A good-natured tussle ensued with neither man being seriously hurt.
“Geroff me, Connor,” Duncan grunted. Connor’s blue eyes glittered with amusement as Duncan freed his arm and tried to throw Connor off his back.
Duncan rubbed the small of his back. “You have bony knees,” he groaned as his kinsman finally slid off.
Connor smiled. Duncan might be the larger man, but Connor knew how to get past his guard, drunk or not.
The ground was a thick carpet of pine needles. Connor lay down on his back and laced his hands behind his head. Duncan rolled over and did the same. They were both silent for a while with their own thoughts. The chorus of frogs displaced the loud thumping in their ears as their hearts finally slowed. Stars twinkled brightly overhead against the velvet blackness of the sky.
Connor said quietly, “It’s time I moved on, A Dhonnchaidh.” As much as he’d enjoyed helping Duncan, it was time to give the man space to heal.
Duncan slapped idly at a mosquito buzzing around his ear. “Where will you go, Connor?” He wasn’t surprised. It was early fall now and he imagined Connor would not want to be caught up here in the winter.
“I couldn’t have done it alone.” The long pause gave weight and a deeper meaning to the gratitude. “Thank you.”
Connor understood the implied meaning and made a noise of acknowledgement in the back of his throat.
Duncan watched his kinsman paddle away from the island. He was alone again. They had not said goodbye as usual. Would this be the last time he saw Connor? He hoped not. He turned back and looked up at the cabin. Winter would be long and hard, but he would not be bored. The outside of the cabin might be finished, but the inside was empty. Just like himself he thought grimly. Well, he would stay as long as it took to make himself and his cabin whole.
Shaman’s Island, Spring, 1882
Duncan watched the stone skip across the calm water - once, twice, three times. A fish jumped thinking the stone was a bug on the surface. Ever growing ripples spread outward, mesmerising him.
Just like Immortals. They go on forever, imperceptibly mixing with the rest of the tide.
He squatted down to look for another perfect skipper. Strong fingers sifted through the sand and smooth polished rocks. He picked three more and skipped them one by one. Fine sand clung to his callused palm and he brushed it away.
These hands had accomplished many things this past decade. He ran a thumb over the calluses of his right hand. For the first time in many a year they were different from the ones on his left. Repeated exposure to the axe and handles of various tools had caused these.
Duncan turned and looked at the magnificent cabin he and Connor had built. It was no longer an empty shell. He looked at his hands again. Broad and strong from centuries of wielding a sword, they had crafted most of what made it a home. Long winter nights had been spent designing, building and sewing. Year after year, he’d kept at it until it was as finished as it would ever be.
He wondered when the change had happened, this feeling of boredom. He supposed it was when he’d started making more trips to the main land. These weren’t the expected trips where he bartered his soft hides for staples like flour and ammunition. These trips often took him to the barroom for a drink and the sound of other human voices. He’d kept to himself for the most part, but recently he’d struck up a conversation with another trapper and asked for news from abroad.
He’d never really be bored living here. There were too many things to do just to survive, but he felt bored with his own company. Reading, meditating and swimming weren’t enough anymore. Duncan was amazed to realise he actually was starting to crave the oneness of community again. Time, hard work and the peacefulness of the land had healed his heart and soul. The pain had lessened to a dull ache when he thought of Little Deer and Kahani, memories of them brought warmth to his soul, not the bitterness of loss.
Perhaps, finally, he was ready to face the world again.
Author's Notes: Many thanks to my beta reader, NIGHTJESSI, who used her considerable talent to keep me from making too many mistakes. To MacNair, not only for her inspirational frus, but to her and Celedon for pointing out the little things and giving me the encouragement and support to keep writing until the muse was done. Special thanks to Cel for putting this on her site and dressing it up with such lovely graphics. Special, special thanks to Leah and the Mid Week Challenge and La-La lander with her Cheap Imitation Mid Week Challenge too, and to all those who begged me to write the sequel to Indian Spring. For without them, this story would have never been.