Scotland had not changed much in the nearly forty years Connor had been away. The rugged landscape was the same, the beautiful mountains with a trace of snow still decorating the peaks, the heavily antlered hart with his loyal hinds that would suddenly thunder across the hills, pausing to pose at the top as if to say, “catch me if you can.” It was so easy to picture Heather at home in front of the hearth, peacefully carding wool, awaiting his return as she had so many times, for so many years. Almost half his life, a lifetime ago.
He looked back down the trail. His student was laboring now. He supposed he should slow down, but it would do the lad good to run him into the ground a little, keep him too busy or too tired to think. Duncan spent too much time at that, or maybe he had just had too much to think about these last few years, with not a soul to talk to.
Connor spotted a nice flat rock where the ground wouldn’t be soggy. He dismounted and unsaddled his horse, hobbling him loosely to let him fend for himself for awhile in the new spring greenery. He pulled out some dried meat and hard cheese, and was settled into a comfortable position propped up against his saddle by the time Duncan came huffing and puffing up the trail. The boy flopped to the ground, laying face down and breathing hard. He had worn his shirt as well as his kilt this morning, but the rips from all the wounds he had taken in battle made it hang in stained rags useful mostly just to soak up his sweat and flap in the breeze.
“What exactly,” Duncan finally gasped, “are you trying to teach me by running me to death?”
“You shouldn’t just stop, you know,” Connor advised him. “You might get…” he winced in sympathy when Duncan hissed and grabbed at his thigh. “…a cramp.”
Connor set aside his food and reached for the lad’s leg, where he could see the thick muscles just below his kilt all knotted up into a painful ball. It took a minute of hard kneading, but at last the muscle let go, and Duncan let out his breath in a gusty sigh of relief, his flushed face pressed against the cool rock.
“Water?” he asked, turning onto his back after a few minutes of rest, and Connor passed him the skin, noting approvingly that it was sipped this time, instead of gulped. It appeared the boy was teachable after all, even if it took a few hard knocks to get him to pay attention. This one learned lessons the hard way, unfortunately, and that might make life difficult for them both. Damnation, he didn’t feel prepared for this at all. He was barely a hundred years old and had no business taking on an Immortal student. He could never come close to the only model for teaching he had – the ancient and exotically flamboyant Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, now dead so many years. But it wouldn’t do for Duncan to sense his uncertainty.
He had resisted the call back to his homeland ever since those awful dreams that had sent him shouting, straight out of his bed night after night, and pulling him inexorably north, but the impulse had been relentless. It ultimately drove him back across the Channel in the dead of winter, the seas heaving, and the blowing spray turning to ice crystals that sliced like knives at any bare flesh. Then, at an inn in southern Scotland, he had overheard the story of Duncan MacLeod, his death, his rising and his banishment, and knew instantly that this was what had drawn him. A new immortal. Why this particular one had called to him from so many leagues away was a mystery. He only he knew he wasn’t ready to be anyone’s teacher, especially not here in this land that held so many powerful memories, good and bad.
“Connor?” Duncan called to him, pulling him out of his morose thoughts. “Are ye going to eat that all yourself, or did you expect me to run down my own meal, as well?” His head was cocked to one side, his mouth tight, but there was a glint of amusement in his eyes that belied any real ire. Connor pulled some dried meat out of his pack and tossed it to the lad, who consumed it like he had attacked all the food they had shared – as though if he didn’t eat it quickly, it might be snatched away.
He’d have to get Duncan to shave off that unkempt beard so he could actually see the boy’s face. So far, all he knew was that his clansman was a good sized fellow, topping him by an inch or so, with big bones and broad shoulders that, with a little more muscle, would probably be formidably strong. But years of near starvation had made him about as lean as Connor’s own naturally thin frame. The long, thick, matted hair and beard hid most of Duncan’s features, but nonetheless, a pair of large brown eyes still managed to give away almost everything the lad felt and thought.
That was also something Connor would have to teach him about, and a lesson he wasn’t looking forward to. The world was a cruel place, and showing every thought and emotion in your face was giving a powerful advantage to your enemies. It was a lesson he had somehow always known, and it had been heavily reinforced in the hard, lonely years of wandering and fighting all over Europe and Asia after he had left Scotland.
Duncan finished the portion of meat Connor had given him, and although he surreptitiously cast a longing gaze at the cheese Connor still held, he didn’t ask for more. “I hope you’re not expecting me to run all the way to Glencoe,” Duncan grumbled, lying back, his hands laced under his head for a pillow.
“Why?” Connor asked. He sliced off a chunk of the cheese with his dirk, and tossed it so it landed on Duncan’s chest. “Don’t think you could do it?” He had to wait for any answer beyond a surly growl while Duncan propped up on one elbow and chewed a large mouthful of cheese.
“I dinna’ think I care to,” Duncan finally managed to say around his food, then he took a few swallows of water. “And what’s the point? Is there some reason we need to hurry? Someone on their deathbed?” he asked.
“No. No one is waiting,” Connor said, a little more curtly than the remark deserved. He deliberately put thoughts of Heather out of his mind, although she never seemed very far away, especially here.
“Then what is the big rush? If you really want to go that fast, you ride on ahead, and I’ll catch up,” Duncan waved the last of the cheese to make his point before popping it into his mouth, then lying back again, chewing contently.
Connor took a long breath, and stifled a sharp reply. “Duncan,” he said softly, “If you met up with another Immortal right now, you’d be dead before you could draw your sword, so from now on, until I say otherwise, you stay with me, and do as I say.”
“Och,” Duncan sighed, shifting around to find a more comfortable position, “I’ve been taking care of myself just fine all my life, Connor MacLeod. I’m no’ too bad with a sword, myself, you know.”
Connor had to hide a smile at that. Duncan’s swordsmanship was crude, at best, by Immortal standards, and from what he had seen of the battle at Glen Fruin, remarkable mostly in a singularly stubborn ferocity of purpose. Perhaps it was time to disabuse his student of his exalted opinions of himself. “I thought the same thing, until Ramirez…” but soft snores interrupted him, and it was clear any lecture about fighting techniques would fall on deaf, or at least unhearing, ears.
He let Duncan sleep for a while, catching a quick nap himself. The boy looked worn down, ragged and underfed. And Connor suspected there were things about Immortality that Duncan couldn’t bring himself to ask about yet, possibly from some earlier encounter with an immortal that had not gone well – not that many of them did go well, at least not in his experience. Connor quietly gathered up their things and saddled the horse. Another day of travel and they would reach Glencoe, where he could get some more supplies and get Duncan some decent clothes.
“Och, the day’s half gone,” Duncan said, sitting up at last and rubbing his eyes.
“Aye, that it is, so I guess we’ll have to make up for the lost time, won’t we?” Connor advised, giving the girth of the saddle one final tug before he mounted.
“Oh, no. Connor!” Duncan struggled to his feet. “I canno’ run the whole way to Glencoe. If you want to go that fast, then let me ride awhile, and you can run your legs into stumps,” he insisted.
Connor looked down at his student with a smile. “But what would you learn from that?” he asked, then kicked the stallion into a slow trot, ignoring the curses he heard behind him.
The village of Glencoe was just a cluster of huts and houses, but with a central marketplace that attracted a fair amount of business. Sometime in the last forty years, an inn with a stable had been built to accommodate travelers, and a smithy shop had been added, as well. Connor inspected the place from the top of a rise while he waited for Duncan to catch up. Surprisingly, after the fourth day of steady, slow running with frequent stops for food and water, the sturdy young man still complained, but it seemed to be more for form’s sake than because he was struggling with the exertion. He even appeared to enjoy it a little, especially as the weather cleared and they had a few days of sunshine to brighten their travel.
Connor found himself unexpectedly touched that the youngster seemed to crave his company, shyly asking questions over their meals and listening raptly to Connor’s stories of his first teacher. Connor deliberately painted a glowing, heroic picture of the exasperating ancient Egyptian, and he had to acknowledge to himself a certain pride that Ramirez’ had chosen him as a student. The guilt he had carried over Ramirez’ death gnawed at him, getting stronger the closer they got to the valley where he had been given his first lessons in Immortality.
“I was returning from a trip into Glencoe for supplies when I felt…something,” Connor had told Duncan the previous twilight by their campfire, when the sun had just left the sky, leaving traces of gold and orange and pink trailing in its wake. “It was like an awful pain, but no where in my body that I could see or feel. It’s hard to explain, but I knew something terrible had happened. When I got here I found Heather sobbing in the ruins of the old stone tower where we had lived, and Ramirez’ headless body in the rubble left behind after the Quickening.” Connor closed his eyes against the ugly memory. “Someday,” he whispered. He didn’t finish the thought, but when he opened his eyes, he found Duncan studying him with those luminous dark eyes that concealed nothing.
“Aye,” Duncan agreed. “Someday, you’ll find him, and he will pay for your teacher’s murder.”
Connor shook himself a little, reminded that he had more than swordsmanship and vengeance to teach his student. “Nay, Duncan. It wasn’t murder. It was a battle between Immortals, and even had I been there, I could not have interfered once the challenge had been made. The Kurgan had come looking for me, though, to finish the job he had started on the battlefield with my clan, the day of my first death – but you are right. Someday I will meet him again, and one of us will lose his head.” He caught the quick, uneasy look in his student’s eyes. “I don’t intend that it be me,” he added, making sure he had a smile of confidence as he said it.
Truth be told, he was centuries away from being ready for a battle with the likes of The Kurgan. He had taken exactly twenty-three Quickenings in his first hundred years, each of them a messy, near-disaster. But each time, endurance, quickness and an ability to find a place inside himself that allowed him to think with cold, crystal clarity, had ultimately provided victory. If he had anything to teach this lad, those would be the qualities he would pass along.
Connor let his eyes re-focus on the familiar, yet strange village below, letting the memories wash over him as they had so many times during the past few months, but even more so as they neared his old croft. He heard footsteps, and turned to see Duncan trotting up the trail behind him, coming to a breathless pause as he spotted their destination. He had expected the youth to be glad to see the end of their day’s travel and the promise of a real bed, but Duncan’s eyes narrowed. He put his hands on his waist, catching his breath, then looked around at the hills behind them.
“Ready for a hot meal and a soft mattress?” Connor asked, but there was no answer, and Duncan refused to look at him. “Duncan?”
“You go on ahead,” Duncan said, still slightly breathless, now pacing back and forth. “Leave me my cloak and some food, and I’ll camp over there,” he pointed to a small rock outcropping.
“Surely you don’t think you would be recognized in every village in Scotland.”
Duncan shrugged. “Why take the chance? I’m used to sleeping out of doors, anyway. Come by tomorrow morning and we’ll go from here.”
“No,” Connor stated flatly. “You’re staying with me, and I’m going into the village.”
Duncan crossed his arms over his chest, his feet firmly planted at shoulder width. “And I say I’m staying here.”
Connor carefully dismounted, flexing his legs a little after being so long in the saddle. Then he stepped up to his clansman, untroubled by the fact that he had to look up slightly into Duncan’s stubborn glare. “Are you my student, or not, Duncan MacLeod?”
Duncan paled a little around the eyes, but stood his ground, his chin rising in defiance. “Aye, Connor MacLeod, I’ll be your student, but I’ll no’ be a laughing stock or have you be ashamed of me, or have to defend me from the likes of those as would stone me, beat me and toss me into the nearest loch, which is what happened the last time I tried to go into a village.”
“And just how long are you going to hide away, Duncan?” Connor asked, a little more gently. “Are you ashamed of who you are?”
“No!” Duncan snapped, but then had to look away when he couldn’t hold Connor’s intense gaze. “But…they hate me, Connor. And I just…” he put his hands up in a helpless gesture and shook his head.
“I guess you never get used to people who hate for no good reason,” Connor admitted, he was not sure if sympathy or bullying was a better tactic in this instance, but he could not help but take pity at the stark pain in Duncan’s eyes. But his comment only prompted a surprisingly bitter laugh from his young clansman.
“Who says they have no reason?” Duncan snapped, and would have turned away except that Connor grabbed him by his ragged shirt and twisted him back around.
“I do! You are not a demon, Duncan MacLeod. You’ve done nothing to be ashamed of. It is they who are in the wrong, not you. Do you think I would have ridden a thousand miles in the dead of winter for someone I did not believe was worthy of the effort?”
“How do you know?” Duncan snarled at him. “You don’t know me, or what I’ve done, just that I’m one of these…these…” he paused before he could say the word, “Immortals you speak of. You don’t know that I wasn’t there to protect my father and my clan when my village was threatened. He died, Connor! He was the village chieftain, and I was supposed to be there, to stand by his side, to watch his back. Now my mother is a widow with no one to care for her, and my village is being led by a pompous, arrogant…” he couldn’t go on, and turned and walked away towards the rocks he had indicated would be his resting place for the night.
Connor followed at a bit of a distance, watching Duncan stride over to the rocks, then turn and cross his arms, sliding down the side of a weathered slab of granite until he was sitting on the ground, looking as immovable as the rock he leaned against. Connor squatted in front of his student, trying to look him in the eye, but Duncan was staring at the ground, and the hills, anywhere but at his teacher. “Duncan,” he finally said quietly, “whatever you did, or think you did, or didn’t do, has to be put behind you. You have a whole new life ahead.” He reached out and let his hand close over Duncan’s wrist. “I won’t let the villagers hurt you, nor you them.” Connor didn’t really expect his words to have any effect. They were things you would say to a frightened, hurt child, not a warrior seasoned by many battles.
But Duncan wasn’t acting like a seasoned warrior. He was acting like someone who cared so deeply about his obligations, had so many emotional ties to his clan, his family, that whatever reasons caused his failures did not matter, only that he had failed them. It seemed a stunningly painful way to live. Connor had long ago shielded his heart from such self-inflicted wounds, discarding his sense of clan or family, living only for himself or the very few he let inside his barriers, the way an Immortal was intended. Or at least that was what he told himself, again and again. And in that, he had nothing at all in common with Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod.
Well, perhaps there was one thing in common, he decided. He took a deep breath and swallowed, then reached up and grasped his young student’s shoulder, squeezing it. “We are family, now, Duncan. You and I. Clansmen and Immortals. Together. If I go into that village alone, I will have no one to watch my back, and you will have no one to watch yours.”
Glittering brown eyes finally met his, and Duncan took a deep breath, then licked his lips and swallowed before he reached up across his chest and put his hand over Connor’s. “You really need me to watch your back?” he asked softly.
“Aye, I do,” Connor answered, holding on tight even though he had never been comfortable with physical demonstrations of affection – except with Heather, but she was the single exception to just about everything in his life.
Duncan let out a long sigh, staring at his lap for another moment. “Well, all right, then, if you’ve a need,” he said softly.
Connor stood and held out his hand, and Duncan grabbed his forearm so Connor could help him to his feet. “And besides,” Connor added over his shoulder as he turned, mounted his horse and kicked him into a trot, “I’ll need someone with a strong back to carry our supplies around.” He laughed out loud as he heard the now-familiar, whine of “Connor!” behind him.
The villagers watched curiously as the two strangers in MacLeod tartan, one on horseback, one on foot, ambled into town. Duncan hung back a little as Connor handed over his horse to the stableboy, then stepped into the inn. It was dark inside, but a brightly burning fire in the huge hearth gave some illumination, and was a welcome warmth from an otherwise cool spring day. Duncan hesitated in the doorway while Connor found a comfortable seat near the fire. He pretended to ignore his student, but was aware of Duncan’s nervousness. At last the youngster moved into the room, staying close to the walls, and taking a seat in the furthest dark corner.
Connor ordered an ale from the maid who came to serve him, and ordered one for Duncan as well. She brought him a tankard, but when she took Duncan his, the youth sank back even further into his chair until Connor glared at him. Stubborn git. He reluctantly took it, at last, but Connor could feel his discomfort radiating from across the room. He caught Duncan’s eye and waved him over, but the man just sank further into his dark corner.
Connor motioned again, this time with a warning look on his face that said there would be a price to pay for disobedience. With a sigh, Duncan rose and came over, standing with his back to the rest of the room, his mug in his hand. “What!?” Duncan whispered.
Connor took a drink of his ale, licking his lips at the dark, nutty taste. “You’re trying so hard not to be noticed that you’re making a spectacle of yourself,” Connor chastised him. “Sit here with me. We’ll have a bite to eat and get a decent night’s sleep in a real bed. Enjoy it while you can, once we get to my old croft, life will not be nearly so comfortable.”
Duncan shifted from foot to foot. Even though he had been trying to look smaller, he ended up straightening his shoulders and broadening his stance. “I have no money, Connor, but I dinna need your charity. I can sleep in the stable with your horse.”
“Lord preserve me from stubborn and prideful children,” Connor murmured under his breath.
“What?” Duncan asked.
“I can hardly keep an eye on your back, or yours on mine, if you are sleeping in the stables,” Connor insisted, losing his patience at last. “Although since you are being such a horse’s ass, it might be the best place for you.”
At that, Duncan slammed his ale down on the table, liberally and wastefully sloshing its contents, then turned on his heel and left, drawing every eye in the room. Connor watched the dramatic exit, then closed his eyes with a sigh and a frown, loosening the rein on his senses a bit as Ramirez had taught him decades ago. Reading a quickening, finding the unique life essence of another, was a lesson he had never forgotten even though he rarely used it. The lad didn’t go far, probably just to the stables. At least he had enough sense not to abandon their teacher/student relationship. The deliberate inspection of Duncan’s quickening aura also revealed a surprising power and strength. It was deep and had a clarity to it he had not felt before, reminding him of Scotland’s mountain rivers rushing over the rocks, carrying the melt from the deep winter snows down to the sea.
Connor let his irritation fade, and then he silently cursed his own impatience and callousness. Duncan had been rejected, abused, mistreated and derided for three years. That he still had any pride left at all was a sign of a strong and resilient character. Or pure Scots pigheadedness.
When Duncan’s aura didn’t fade away entirely, Connor relaxed and settled in for the evening, flirting outrageously with the innkeeper, a handsome, big boned woman who scoffed at his flattery, but blushed all the same. He had a few ales and a big bowl of thick mutton stew swimming with vegetables. It was well after dark when he ordered a second dinner, and took it out to the stables.
It smelled and sounded like every stable he had ever been in, of dust, horse sweat, dung and hay, old leather and musty blankets, accompanied by the soft breaths and vibrations of the animals stirring at the appearance of one of the two-legged variety that sometimes brought them grain or hay. There were about a dozen stalls of a not particularly generous size, so he doubted his student was sleeping under his stallion’s sharp hooves.
“Duncan?” he called softly, so as not to alarm the animals.
He looked up into the darkness, and saw his student lean over from the loft where the hay was stored. “I’ve brought you some food.”
“Thank you, but I’ve made myself a nice dinner here from the hay, as is suitable for a horse’s ass.” Duncan’s voice rumbled down petulantly from above.
“Duncan,” Connor growled in irritation. “I didna’ mean…”
“You needn’t trouble yourself about it,” Duncan interrupted, “After they threw me out, many’s the time I snuck in at night and stole from the animal pens in Glenfinnan. Scooped up the extra grain and boiled it into a mash. It wasn’t too bad if you washed the dirt out first.”
“All right,” Connor snapped. “I’m sorry. I should not have called you a horse’s ass, but you are the most stubborn…”
“It’s kept me alive,” Duncan interrupted again, this time in anger. He had disappeared, retreating into the darkness where Connor could hear him rustling around in the hay. His voice was sharp and bitter. “I told you I have nothing, Connor. No clan, no land, no family, no belongings. Only my pride, and I need no one’s charity or pity. If that’s why you sought me out, then go find yourself another student.”
“Tell me, clansman,” Connor spoke up into the deep shadows above, “back in Glenfinnan, when you lent a hand to help with the lambing, or mending a roof, or hunting, were you doing it out of pity?”
“Of course not. It was my duty, part of what keeps a clan together.”
“That’s all I’m doing,” Connor responded. He hesitated a moment, then added, “There is a bond that drew me to you, Duncan. I was pulled here, and this is what I am intended to do. And it’s something I want to do.” Connor was surprised as he realized the words were true. He wanted to make sure Duncan MacLeod had a chance in this wretched Game of theirs. He wanted to watch him grow and mature and become…what? Something quite unusual, Connor realized. Someone who could be a trusted friend through the long, lonely centuries that stretched ahead.
Connor took the lack of a response as a good sign, or at least as not a bad one. “I’ll leave this here for you and you can return the dishes to the kitchen when you’re done.” He put the bowl of stew and mug of ale on a nearby barrel and turned to go. He was almost out the door when he heard Duncan’s mumbled voice again. “What?” he called.
“I said, …thank you.”
Connor smiled to himself. No doubt the lad was going to give him no end of grief, but he might just be worth it. “You are most welcome, Duncan. Goodnight.”
Connor bought some supplies, and the two MacLeods left by mid-morning the next day, slogging through a steady Spring rain. Connor didn’t make Duncan run, but instead had him carry several heavy packs of food and grain, splitting the load equally between his horse and his young companion. Connor could hear grumbled complaints in Gaelic and English throughout the day, but he pressed on, now anxious to reach the glen where he had spent a over third of his life. At last, he saw the remnants of the old tower outlined against the gray sky, and brought his horse to a halt.
His throat had closed tight and his heartbeat seemed painfully loud. He closed his eyes for a moment to get his feelings under control. Could he do this? Suddenly he wasn’t at all certain, and coming here seemed the worst folly.
“Connor? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing!” he snapped, and dug his heels into the stallion’s flanks, surging ahead. The horse broke into a slow canter and he topped the rise overlooking the small glen where he and Heather had lived out her life…their lives…his life. Until it ended with her gasping away her last breath in his arms.
“Will you remember me?” she had whispered, her face still luminously beautiful despite the ravages of time. “On my birthday?”
“Yes, my love,” he had answered.
And so he had, no matter where he had traveled, he always took time to stop, to conjure her face with her soft, pale cheeks just touched with the flush of their passion, her unruly, golden hair splashed against the pillow, her sweet soft lips and wonderful blue eyes. He would always remember her voice, gentle but firm, reminding him of the practicalities of life when his daydreaming had meant the loss of a whole afternoon when he should have been working at the forge, or attending to the never ending chores of their small croft.
He had ever been a dreamer, wondering about the distant horizon, about what lay on the other side of the vast ocean he had seen during trips with his clansman to the western villages. Ramirez had spoken of so many different lands, different languages, different people with skins of various hues and eyes of many shapes. He longed to see them all, but he loved Heather more and she was tied to this land, and he would stay with her for so long as she lived.
But she had aged and withered and died and he had buried her…there…at the top of the rise on the other side of the glen. He stopped his horse and looked around, seeing not the few remaining stones of their cottage, burned and abandoned a generation ago, or the tumbled remains of the tower where once he and Heather and Ramirez had laughed and told stories for hours on many an evening. He saw it as it had been once, but would never be again. A sturdy tower, although old and worn from centuries of exposure to the weather, and a tidy cottage, the thatch fresh and neat, the shutters open to light and air, chickens pecking around the doorway, their three dogs lying in the shade, pink tongues lolling in the mid-summer heat, and Heather, sitting in the sun, her hands always busy carding wool, churning butter or mending clothes…
“This is it?” a voice intruded. Duncan was looking around the sparse glen with a dubious eye. “Where are we to camp? I thought this was your home.”
“It was,” Connor said. “But that was forty years ago.” He ignored Duncan’s obvious doubts and pointed towards the tower ruins. “There may still be a ledge intact in the tower, and we can get some shelter from the rain there until we have a chance to build something more permanent.” He clamped down on his desire to turn away, and urged his horse forward. It had been a mistake to come here. He should have known it would be uninhabitable, but he had come, nonetheless, wanting to evoke Heather’s presence, to feel her, sense her, touch her once again…but she was dead, he reminded himself firmly, blinking back the irritation in his eyes caused by the cool wind.
Duncan unloaded his burdens with a grunt and a sigh, stretching his back with relief and, Connor suspected, a desire to make his suffering obvious to his teacher. Well, if the boy expected pity, he was going to be sorely disappointed, Connor decided grimly. “Unload the horse, then you’ll need to find some dry wood for a fire,” he instructed as he pulled his katana, and his bow and arrow from his saddlebags.
“Dry wood?” Duncan sounded incredulous. He looked half-drowned, his clothes and hair plastered to his skin from the steady rain.
Connor didn’t deign to answer, just moved underneath a ledge of rotted wood and stones that provided some shelter from the wet, beginning to clear a space for them to make camp.
Duncan made a uniquely Scottish noise in the back of his throat, effectively communicating his disgust and disbelief, and Connor hid his smile. He had missed the sights and sounds of his homeland, even though they triggered almost as much heartache as fond memory. But Heather would not have wanted him to think of the loss, only of their love, so he deliberately set about conjuring the best of their times together, and hardly noticed when Duncan left, or when he returned almost at dusk. It made him start to realize that if it hadn’t been for the intruding sense of an Immortal, he would have been so lost in his thoughts and memories that anyone could have crept up on him unaware.
Somehow, Duncan had found some wood that was dry enough to burn, and they pulled some threads from the protected sacks of grain Connor had bought to use as tender. The rain slacked off a little after dusk and although the ancient beams dripped steadily, it was more comfortable than being in the open. The two men shared a meal, and Connor realized his student was watching his teacher warily, eating in silence. He reached into his saddlebags and drew out a bottle of whiskey he had purchased in town, uncorked it and took a careful swallow, then passed it to Duncan.
“This place brings back a lot of memories,” Connor finally said, realizing he had been distant and irritable all day.
Duncan nodded, his dark eyes observing him closely as he took a swallow, then passed the bottle back. “You loved her, then?”
Connor took a slow, deep breath, reminding himself once again that Duncan MacLeod was a man, not a boy, and seemed to be quite sensitive to the thoughts and emotions of those around him. “Aye,” he nodded. “I was fortunate to know her before I knew what I really was, and all that it meant. Immortals spend their lives fighting battles of various kinds, but I think one of the hardest to win is the battle of loneliness, of knowing your friends and loved ones will age and die, leaving you behind to mourn.”
Connor took another careful swallow and passed the bottle back to Duncan, trying to think what needed most to be taught, and how best to approach it. So far he knew almost nothing of his clansman’s life, except the obvious. It was clear Duncan had taken his role as clan chieftain’s son to heart, and that it came naturally to him. But he was also a man who had seen real pain, and known the ultimate rejection a person can endure, and Connor had no idea whether the bitterness he had seen in Duncan would ever heal. Perhaps that was one of his first tasks as a teacher.
“Are you sorry you loved then, since you lost her?” Duncan asked quietly, and it took a moment for Connor to remind himself of the topic of their conversation.
“No. Never,” Connor said, taking the whiskey back and taking a long swallow this time. The liquor and the dark night, the companionship of another Immortal and the return to this almost sacred place gently loosened his normal reluctance to talk about himself. And, he told himself, how better to encourage his student to trust him than to demonstrate a little trust, himself.
It would be good to share some of the memories that had been crowding around him all day, to know that someone else knew of her, remembered her, if only through stories. He sipped at the strong liquor, and found himself telling Duncan how he had met the willful daughter of a blacksmith after his exile from Glenfinnan, of her beauty and her gentleness, her courage in the face of her fear that he might leave her once she grew old, of her kindness and her humor, her willingness to put up with such a man as he. And he told of the pain they both felt as the years took their toll, and her body gradually failed. “She died in my arms, and only asked that I remember her always, on her birthday. And I always do. I find a church and I light a candle for my beloved Heather.” When he finished, he was surprised to find moisture on his cheeks when he thought it had stopped raining, but it felt like a great weight had been lifted off of his chest, and he was able to smile.
He looked up at his student, to find him staring into their small fire, dark eyes liquid and shining in the dim light. “I’m sorry,” he offered quietly. “I don’t usually go on like that.”
“No,” Duncan raised his hand slightly as he used the other to stir the fire with a stick. “It is a blessing to know a great love like that, to be able to share your life with another, to grow and learn together. I wish…” Duncan shook his head with a jerk and turned his head away.
“What?” Connor asked.
“I loved a woman once, but…she died before we…” Duncan shrugged. “She died,” he finished lamely.
“I’m sorry,” Connor said. He had been so lost in his own memories, he had not been paying much attention to anything else. Right now, all he wanted to do was fold himself in the sense of Heather’s nearness, and dream of her. He blinked hard to shake his thoughts back into order and focused on Duncan. The whole point, after all, had been to get his student to talk a little. “Can you tell me what happened?”
Duncan shook his head. “She fell from a cliff,” he said softly, staring into the fire. “It was several years ago.”
Connor waited for more, but the silence dragged on. “Surely there’s more to the tale than that,” he urged at last.
The dark shadow was very still. “Aye,” he whispered. Connor passed him the whiskey, and Duncan took a swallow and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “She was betrothed to my cousin Robert, who was like a brother to me. But Debra and I had loved each other practically since we were children, and we asked permission to marry. But Debra’s father wouldn’t hear of breaking his promise, and Robert wanted Debra even if she didn’t love him. I couldna’ blame him. She was so beautiful,” Duncan sounded so young as he spoke of his love, his voice gentle and soft. “And she was the daughter of a Campbell village chief, which would put him in line for leadership in both clans. Robert challenged me over it, and called me a coward when I refused to raise a sword against him, but my father said the family honor had been besmirched and fight him, I must.” The sudden spurt of conversation died, and Duncan took another swallow.
“You killed him?” Connor asked, when his clansman seemed not to want to go on.
The dark head nodded. “Aye. I killed my kinsman. His blood stained my hands, and I couldn’t stand to think on it, couldn’t look in the eyes of any of my own village, and I decided to leave Glenfinnan, but Debra…” Duncan covered his mouth with his hand and stopped.
Connor said nothing, all the while wondering how long the boy had waited to tell someone this awful story.
Duncan took a long, shaky breath. “She said she would rather die than live without our love, and ran to the edge of the cliff, you know the one? Overlooking the river that leads down to Loch Sheil?” Connor didn’t know whether Duncan could see his nod in the dark, because now he seemed intent on telling the rest. “I told her I’d stay, that I would marry her, that I could live with Robert’s ghost, but I couldna’ live with hers, as well. She reached for my hand, but she had stepped too far out. The earth crumbled away…and she was gone. I watched her as she fell. I could see the look of horror in her eyes. I had reached for her, but…”
Connor reached out and grasped Duncan’s forearm, and the two men sat in silence until gradually, Duncan’s trembling eased. “Anyway,” Duncan said gruffly, taking another drink from the bottle, “T’was a long time ago.”
“Not long enough,” Connor said gently. “Never long enough.” He took the bottle away, stoppering it carefully and tucking it into his pack, wondering whether he had taken on more than he had realized with young Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. “Go to sleep, Duncan. We have a long day tomorrow.”
“Aye,” he replied. “In a minute, after I bank the fire and make sure your horse hasn’t wandered too far off.
Connor recognized a plea to be left alone, so he unfolded his pallet, and drew his cloak over himself for warmth, his thoughts still whirling with memories of the wonderful lifetime he and Heather had spent in this place, and how fortunate he had been. He was afraid he would be unable to clear his mind, but the comforting memories folded around him and he quickly felt himself drifting off to sleep until a small noise, a movement, a breath, a sigh, pulled his heavy eyes open. Duncan was still sitting by the fire’s dying embers, his face etched in pain and tears, his arms hugging his torso, rocking slightly back and forth.
For a moment, Connor thought of going to him, but decided to let the man mourn in private. There would be time, he decided. Plenty of time for them to build trust, and more than enough pain to share in the process.