by Parda (December 1998)
========== WINTER SOLSTICE, 1592 ==========
Connor MacLeod tethered the mare in a grove of trees, where Reama would be sheltered from the wind, then started up the steep hillside. He pulled his furs close around him and climbed rapidly, for though the path was faint in the withered grass, he knew the way well.
He reached the top of the hill and paused there in the darkness. It had been many years since he had stood in this place. It had been a lifetime.
It had been his first life.
========== WINTER SOLSTICE, 1530 ==========
"How old are the stones, Father?" Connor asked, crouched on the top of the hill. On the next hilltop over, the stones stood, silent sentinels against the sky, darker shapes against the darkness of the Solstice morn.
"I know not, lad," his father answered, crouched close enough to Connor so that their shoulders were touching. "The stones were here long and long ago."
The wind gusted icily, but Connor did not shiver and did not complain. He would be thirteen in two weeks' time; he was almost a man, and a wee bit of wind would not bother him. He huddled deeper into his sheepskin, grateful for the solid weight on his back and shoulders, though he wished for furs such as his father wore. Maybe this year he might go hunting by himself and bring back a pelt which his mother could make into a wrap for him. Then he would indeed be a man, a hunter.
His father added, "Some say the Picts built them; others say they were made by the Danaan. Or perhaps the giants of old set them here before the Flood came."
Now Connor did shiver, from the memory of the many stories heard by the fireside. Giants had walked this land once, though the Tuath de Danaan had vanquished them, and then banished them all to deep caves underneath the mountains. Or perhaps, some of the giants had become mountains?
He peered at the hilltop again. Those stones looked like great jagged teeth, and the hill itself had the shape of a head. The giant could be lying on his back, the hills close by on either side could be his shoulders. His belly had been flooded by the loch, and the two taller hills across the water were his knees sticking up. Connor was relieved that the hill he and his father were on was farther away. He would not want to be standing on a shoulder of the earth giant.
Connor's toes were numb from the climb and the cold, and he shifted his weight, the pale frozen grass crunching under his boots. He pulled his plaid over his head, then tightened his sheepskin around himself, for the thin keening wind was bitter, and the air was frosty enough to burn as he breathed in through his nose. He was glad his father was next to him, glad of the warmth between them, glad to be old enough now to go with his father on this day.
His father had come to his pallet very early that morning, before even his mother and his two older sisters had stirred to cook the porridge or to stoke the fire. "Hush, lad," his father had hissed, "and get dressed quick now. We go to greet the sun."
Connor had rushed to comply, pulling his leggings on, then fumbling as he wound the lacings around his calves. He had pulled on an extra sark for warmth, then wrapped his breacan close and put on his sheepskin. He and his father had left the cot and made their way through the silent village, heading for the hills.
They had walked for hours, through forest and glen, climbing over fallen logs and leaping over rushing burns. As they had walked, Connor had eaten a hunk of cheese wrapped round with still-warm barley bread, grateful for the food in his belly. The hard frozen earth under their feet changed to the harder gray rock of the Highlands as they climbed, and the bare trees gave way to windswept grass and patches of snow.
Connor's narrow shadow was fading as the near-full moon which had silvered the landscape was setting now behind them. The light from the moon was matched by the patch of brightness in the east, and the entire sky had lightened from black to gray. It was almost time.
Connor shifted his feet again, and his father looked over and grinned at him. It was light enough now that Connor could see the faint lines of gray in his dark hair, like the stripes in the fur of Sorla, the cat who lived with them at their croft.
"Not long, lad," his father said. "See?" He pointed to the stones, now clear and distinct against the soft grayness.
Father and son watched in silence as the grayness was tinged with pink, then with yellow, and the stones were outlined in light. They stood then, their backs to the wind, waiting, until the glimmer of light on the horizon became a shimmer, then a sliver of brightness that hurt to look at, the thin edge of a disc of shining gold.
The disc crept upward, the grayness of the sky gone now into a hard pale blue, the pink and yellow fading. Suddenly, the sun was there, whole and complete, a perfect ball framed between the tallest of the two stones. It hesitated, balanced on the edge of the world, as a bird hesitates for an instant before it leaves the safety of its perch and takes flight. Then the sun leapt upward, and hung suspended in the sky.
The sun had risen. Even though the coldness of winter still lay ahead of them, the days would be longer now, and, someday, spring would come again.
Connor let out a satisfied sigh. He had been holding his breath, waiting to make sure the sun would really rise, afraid the earth giant might keep it captive and winter would never end. He had seen the sun rise before, of course, while he was taking the kine out to pasture, or while he working in the fields or hunting with his father. But to see it this way, on the winter solstice, on a mountain top, framed by silent stones ...
Connor sighed again as the sun rose above the stones, freed entirely from the earth, and heard an answering sigh from his father.
"A grand sight, is it not?" his father said. "My father brought me here, as his father brought him." He clapped Connor on the back, then laid his arm about Connor's shoulders. His father turned to him and smiled then, his teeth a flash of ivory in the darkness of his beard. "And someday, you'll bring your sons here, and show them the rising of the sun."
Connor stood straight and tall beneath his father's hand. "Aye, Father," he pledged, smiling up at him. "I will."
========== WINTER SOLSTICE, 1592 ==========
He had not. He never would.
Connor MacLeod watched as the first edge of the sun glimmered above the hill, then wrapped his furs more closely around himself. It was colder now than it had been on that day over sixty years ago, and the wind was piercing.
Connor and his father had gone to the stones together for the next four years, until the year when the Clan MacLeod had fought the Clan Fraser on a cloudy autumn day. His father had not been with him that day, for his parents had been gone to visit his sister Mairi and her husband at the birth of their first child. Connor rode into battle with his cousin Angus by his side.
It was Connor's first battle with his clan, and his last.
He had been mortally wounded that day, but he had not died. Connor MacLeod rose from his deathbed, and his clansfolk turned against him, saying it was witchcraft, calling him demon and devil. They wanted to burn him at the stake, but Angus convinced them merely to banish Connor. His clan did that eagerly enough, cast him out with shouted curses and hurled stones and dung. Connor left his home village of Glenfinnan, and wandered away. He returned to the stones that winter, two weeks before what would have been his nineteenth birthday.
========== WINTER SOLSTICE, 1536 ==========
"Father!" Connor called softly, when he saw the dark, hooded figure moving slowly up the hill.
His father lifted his head, then quickened his pace, coming closer. Connor ran.
"Aye, lad," his father said huskily, as they came together, both their hands clasped on upper arms in fierce, almost painful, grips. His gaze was intent on Connor in the dim light, moving swiftly over him, searching for changes and differences, seeking the son he had lost.
Connor stood rigid under his father's scrutiny, remembering again the curses, the shouts of "Demon!" and "Devil's spawn!" He had not seen his father since he had been cast out, for he had not dared to return to Glenfinnan, and his father had not known where he was.
His father's eyes were near black in the dimness, only a thin rim of white catching the moonlight. He looked into Connor's face, searching still, and then he nodded. "Aye, Connor," his father said, more softly now, then pulled his only son to him in a strong embrace.
Connor closed his eyes, the wool of his father's plaid hood rough against his cheek, the long hairs of the wolf fur on his father's back soft under his hands. His father's arms were tight around him, and he held on tighter still. "Father," he whispered.
His father cleared his throat, a harsh sound, then stepped back a bit, his hands still firm on Connor's shoulders. "Come to greet the sun, lad?" he asked lightly, as if they had met by chance on their way through the village, and seen each other only hours before.
"Aye, Father," Connor said, trying for the same light tone. "As you taught me." His voice failed him then, the words caught there in his throat and dying, strangling him.
His father cleared his throat again, then snorted, a white puff of air coming from his nostrils. "Aye," he said, then nodded and said very low, "As I taught you."
He turned to look at the east. "We'd best go; 'tis almost time." He let go of Connor then, but slowly, his hands moving down Connor's arms to clasp hands together for a moment in a bone-cracking grip. The two men walked up the rest of the hill, then stood together, side by side, to watch the rising of the sun.
Connor was taller than his father now, by a finger's breadth or so, and their shoulders touched as they stood there. The sun rose, as it always did, and moved above the edge of the earth. Connor sighed in relief and satisfaction as the sun came free of the standing stones, and his father sighed, too.
They stood there in silence a moment more, then Connor asked, not looking at his father, trying to let the words out easy this time, "Is Mother well?"
"Oh, aye," said his father. "Fusses about the chickens, as ever, and coddles the old milch cow. Fed her the oats I had been going to have for my own porridge, she did."
Connor nodded, a slight grin twisting one side of his mouth. His mother had a fondness for the animals.
His father continued, "She's busy with the weaving and the spinning, too, this time of year. She had a cough around Michaelmas, but she's better now." His father shifted his feet apart, then braced his hands behind the small of his back and spoke more quietly, "She's not sung since then, though."
Connor's grin disappeared. His mother had always sung at her spinning and weaving. All the long, dark days of winter their cot had been filled with music and stories and laughter. His own life was quiet now, but he liked to remember the sound of his mother's voice, and to imagine he could hear it even from far away.
"Your sister Mairi had a boy," his father said, his voice strong again. "A fine lad. Named it Colin after me, though, of course, it's a McNabb, her being married to Eachann McNabb. And Ailis is in Glenaladale with her husband. They'll be having a babe come spring."
Connor nodded, but the news meant little to him. He would never see his sisters again, or their children. It would be too dangerous to visit, both for himself, and for them.
"And you, lad?" his father asked, glancing at him, his gaze intent again, but harder now, more measuring. "How have you fared?"
"Well enough," Connor said shortly. "No one's tried to burn me for at least a month." He did not have to try to control his voice now; the bitterness came easily enough. He had been sleeping in the forest, sometimes staying in outlying crofts, doing odd jobs and helping out the farmers, but word of the demon returned from the dead was traveling all around the loch. Sometimes he was recognized, and then he had to run again.
"Tcha," his father snorted disdainfully. "Damn fools, the lot of them." He turned to Connor and shook his head in disgust. "I tried to talk to them, when I got back, but they're a stubborn heap of beetle-headed clotpoles." He took Connor by the shoulders again and said fiercely, "But I've not done yet. We'll have you home again, lad."
Connor shook his head slowly. "The clan cast me out, Father. They'll never take me back."
"No!" Connor's voice was harsh and hard, for he had not spoken much these last few months. He knew his clan would never trust him again, and even more important, he would never trust them. "It's over." He shrugged off his father's hands, then turned and walked a few paces away, staring at the withered grass between his feet.
After a moment, his father came to him and stood beside him, but said nothing. There was silence between them for a time.
Connor finally spoke, the words coming hard once more. "I'd like to see Mother again."
"She'd like that, too," his father answered. "It's not been ... easy for her." He cleared his throat again, that familiar rough sound. "Where are you staying, Connor?"
"The hunting camp we-" Connor stopped himself, then continued, "The hunting camp, in the narrow glen." Every autumn since he had been eight, he and his father had camped there when they were hunting for deer. This last autumn, his father had gone alone.
"We'll come to you there, on Christmas day." His father smiled, a brief movement of lips that did not reach his eyes. "Your mother's made you a present."
Connor tried to smile back. He saw with surprise that there was more gray than black in his father's hair now, and the lines were deep around his eyes and mouth. His smile faded, and he swallowed hard. "Father." There was nothing more he could say.
There was nothing more he needed to say. His father reached for him again, and held him close.
========== WINTER SOLSTICE, 1592 ==========
The sun lifted free of the stones, and Connor turned and went back down the hillside. He was eager to get to shelter, for dark clouds were moving quickly across the sky, and he smelled snow in the air. Reama whickered at the sight of him, and he patted her in greeting, then they started on their way back.
The path wound near the edge of the forest, and Connor caught glimpses of the loch between the trees. He had grown up looking at that loch; he had seen it blue under a summer sky, and black with a silvered path of moonlight that led to the sky. Today the loch was sullen gray with white-tossed waves, and the small village of Glenfinnan huddled on the hill above the shore. Connor guided Reama to take the long way around. He did not want to go near Glenfinnan.
After he had been banished, he had avoided all villages, and after that Christmas day, Connor had never seen his parents again. One of the villagers had been hunting and had seen him, and told the others that the demon was in the forest. Connor and his parents went deeper into the woods to hide from the angry mob, and Connor said his farewells then, knowing he could never return. The villagers would turn on his parents next.
Connor wandered south, to the land of the MacDonalds. There he met the blacksmith Dhugal MacDonald, and become his apprentice.
Blacksmithing was hard work, but pleasing. Connor enjoyed the making of things, seeing the metal twist and shape itself under his hands. MacDonald had no sons, and only his youngest daughter Heather was still at home. Connor found her pleasing as well, and she had felt the same way about him.
========== WINTER SOLSTICE, 1540 ==========
Heather shivered in the cold, and Connor wrapped his furs more tightly about them both. Her back was to him, and he crossed his arms comfortably under her breasts, enjoying the warmth of her body against his. He and Heather had married the year before last, a few months after her father had died, and Connor finally felt at home again, for the first time since he had been banished. Her hair tickled his cheek and neck as the wind blew the curly strands about, and Connor nuzzled his way through her golden curls to kiss the sensitive place just behind her ear.
"Here, now," she said. "The sun is about to rise. You'll miss it."
Connor laughed softly and kissed his way down to her shoulder, then lifted his head and looked to the east. There were no standing stones nearby, but the sky was still glorious with streaks of pink and orange, and the darkness of the night had faded. Heather was right. The sun would rise soon.
"You watched the sun rise with your father, Connor?" Heather asked, placing her hands atop his and intertwining their fingers.
"Aye," Connor answered. "We climbed the hill to watch it rise behind the stones." When Heather and he had first married, they had lived at her father's blacksmithy in Glenaladale, but stories of the demon who had returned from the dead had come to their village, too, and people had begun to whisper, and to stare, and then to curse. Connor and Heather had moved to the south-east and settled near the village of Glencoe.
Heather did not say anything, and after a moment Connor asked in concern, "Are you ... happy here, Heather? Away from your home village?"
"Aye, Connor," she said swiftly, turning around slightly in his arms so she could smile up at him and give him a quick kiss. "I like it here." Her smile grew gentler. "I'm happy to be with you."
This time the kiss was not so quick, and Connor did not feel at all cold, though the air was frosty and the wind chill.
"Here, now," Heather said again, pulling away from him a little and giving him a playful cuff on the side of the head, "you took me out of my warm bed this morning to come out here on this cold hill and watch the sun rise, and I'm not going to miss seeing that." She turned around decisively, but wiggled closer to him in a way that let him know he would have little enough trouble getting her back into that warm bed later.
Connor grinned and put his arms around her again, then leaned his cheek against her hair. They were quiet as they watched the sun rise, a misty ball of brightness behind a thin layer of clouds.
When it was above the horizon, Heather turned around and smiled up at him, her blue eyes bright and merry. "It'll be a few years before you take our son out of a warm bed to watch the sun rise."
Connor smiled back, then reached up to smooth her hair away from her face. His fingers lingered on the curve of her cheek as he said, "I was thirteen before my father would take me, even though I started asking to go when I was five."
"Thirteen?" Heather said, and her smile became an impish grin. "Best we get started now then, if he's got to be that old."
"Now, Blossom?" Connor asked, using his pet name for her, as both his hands slid down the subtle curves of her back to the more rounded curves below.
Heather pulled away from him and nodded. "Now," she said, and took off running down the hill, back toward their home, the tall square tower of stone near the quick-flowing burn. Connor laughed and followed, catching up to her easily and taking her hand as they ran together. Today would be a good day to start a son, this first day of winter, when the sun rose again.
But Heather did not get with child that month, nor the next, nor the next. "Next month," she would say, then smile invitingly at him. "We get to try again." In the summer, she went to the village midwife and asked for a potion. "Next season," she said to him on her return, but her smile was not quite so merry.
The season passed, and the next, and still there was no babe. Two years after they had been married, Connor found out why.
Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez rode into their lives one sunny day, a ridiculously elegant figure in lace and velvet on a fine white horse. Ramirez explained to Connor why he had not died in the battle with the Frasers-Connor was an Immortal. So was Ramirez. Immortals healed almost instantly, and they would never age. And they could never have children.
Connor shook his head as he stared at Ramirez. "That won't please Heather," he exclaimed. It did not please him, either. He turned to look at Heather across the crowd of people at the fair at the village of Glen Nevis. The sun glinted off her golden hair as she smiled at a pair of young boys, and her red dress swayed about her as she made her way through the throng. She had never looked more beautiful.
Ramirez caught Connor's arm and stopped him from going to Heather. "You must leave her, Brother," he said firmly.
Connor simply looked at Ramirez, then shrugged him off roughly and went to her. Connor would never leave Heather. She was his wife.
But several weeks later, Connor asked her, hesitantly, "Heather, what if ... what if we should have no children?"
She came to him then, and took his hands and kissed him sweetly. "I have you, Connor."
"But, if ... there are never children," Connor persisted, hating to ask, needing to know. He would not leave her, but he would not stop her from leaving him, if she wanted to. If she wanted to find another man, a man who could give her children.
"Ach," she said disparagingly, "little devils. Who needs them?" Then she stepped closer to him and laid her hand on her chest. "Connor, you're all I want in the world. I want to stay with you, forever."
She kissed him again, more fierce than sweet, and Connor returned the kiss with desperate need and relief. He had lost family and clan and home. He could not bear to lose her as well.
But, of course, he did. He was an Immortal, and she was not.
========== WINTER SOLSTICE, 1587 ==========
Connor stood alone in the cold rain and watched the faint patch of brightness where the sun should be. Every year for almost the last fifty years, Connor and Heather had watched the sun rise over this hill. Some years they stood in rain; some years it was clear and cold, some years it snowed. There had even been a few years where it had been warm. But this morning, there were too many clouds to see the sun.
There had been too many clouds this year. The autumn had been wet and cold, with a dampness to the air that settled in your bones and your teeth and made you shake. Heather had caught a chill some weeks before when she had spent the day in the rain pulling onions. The chill went away, but a cough lingered on.
This morning she had been feverish and tired, and she had urged him to go without her. So for the first time in nearly fifty years, Connor went to watch the solstice by himself, while Heather stayed at home.
She stayed in bed until Christmas, then was up and about again. They celebrated Hogmanay with a glass of whisky, then the next day on his birthday they ate barley bannocks sweetened with honey she had collected that summer. Connor was sixty-nine, and looked to be about nineteen. Heather was sixty-seven. Her golden hair had faded over the years, then turned pure white. It had kept its curliness and thickness though, like a lamb's coat before its first shearing. He still loved to run his fingers through her hair.
Her cough worsened as the winter continued, a deep hacking cough that woke her from her sleep. Then the chills came again, and Heather grew more and more frail. Connor brought her food, though she ate little, and as moving became more difficult for her, he helped her to dress.
She moved carefully about their cot, each movement slow and deliberate, each step a shuffle. Connor watched her and said nothing, remembering when she had scampered up the rocks to the top of the waterfall near their home, and chased the geese away from the garden, and run down the hillside holding his hand. In the evenings they sat quietly by the fire, hand in hand. Sometimes, if Heather was not feeling poorly, they made love.
In the early spring, when the lambs were born, he brought a little one to her, and she held it on her lap and stroked it. Heather had always had a fondness for lambs, carrying them about and laughing at their antics. She watched from her bed as the lamb walked about their cot on unsteady legs, and smiled.
It was in the dark of night when he woke to the sound of her coughing. He lit a candle and knelt by the bedside. "Heather," he whispered.
"Connor." She smiled at him. "My beautiful man."
He smiled back, embarrassed as always when she called him beautiful.
"My husband." Heather reached over and touched his hand.
"I am that, my love," he answered, taking her hand in his own. Her skin felt fragile and dry, the delicate wrinkles softening the thinness of her fingers.
"I've never really known...," she said quietly.
"Why you stayed?" Her eyes were dark in the dimness as she looked up at him.
How could she not know? Connor swallowed hard, wondering how he had failed to tell her this. He tried to tell her now, in words that did not say nearly enough. "Because I love you as much now, as the first day I met you."
She smiled again and tightened her hold on his hand. "And I love you." Her smile faded as she turned her face from him and lay back on the bed. "I don't want to die," she said, sounding more regretful than frightened. "I want to stay with you, forever."
"I want that, too," Connor said, but he knew there would be no forever, not for her. Only for him, a forever of emptiness, a forever without her. Heather's next words came softly, and he leaned forward a little to hear them.
"Will you do something for me, Connor?"
He would do anything for her, but there was nothing he could do. "What, Blossom?"
"In the years to come," Heather asked, "will you light a candle, and remember me on my birthday?"
He would remember her every day of his life, and every night. Every dawn, and every sunset. But she had asked, and he would give her anything. "Aye, love," he answered, trying to smile, his voice hoarse from the tightness in his throat. "I will."
"I wanted to have your children, Connor." The regret was clear enough now.
"They would have been strong," he said, swallowing hard again, "and fine." Connor had often imagined their children-a little girl, laughing, with her mother's golden curls and merry smile; a sturdy boy to work beside him, perhaps with gray eyes like his own, or maybe blue like Heather's.
Broken wishes, broken dreams. There would never be children. He had not been able to give what she wanted most.
She turned away from him and whispered, "Don't see me, Connor. Let me die in peace."
This one last thing she asked of him, the one thing in the world he did not want to give. But she had asked him, and he could not say her nay. He had to let her go.
Connor gathered her in his arms and held her close against him, the familiar weight of her body so very light now on his lap. He looked up and away, as she had asked, but his hand reached out to stroke her hair.
"Where are we, Connor?" she asked, her voice wandering and quiet.
"We're in the Highlands," he answered. "Where else?" He remembered the first day he had met her, the first day he had loved her, and he wanted her to remember that day, too.
"We're running down a mountain side," he said, seeing again her father's forge, seeing Heather with her legs flashing under her skirts as she raced down the hill, laughing at the world, her golden hair streaming out behind her.
"The sun is shining," Connor said, moving his fingers gently through her curls, remembering the way her hair had gleamed in the sunlight. He saw her now at their home, in all the ways he had seen her through all the years, in shadow and sun, rain and fog, in summer and winter and fall. Laughing and crying, awake and asleep, angry and happy, young and old. In every memory she was beautiful.
In every memory she was his love.
One scene came to mind, not so long ago-Heather in the springtime, watching the lambs. "It's not cold." He thought her breathing was a little easier; perhaps she was falling asleep for a time. "You've got your sheepskins on," he said softly, not wanting to wake her as she laid her head on his arm.
"And the boots I made for you," he whispered, then listened carefully for any sound of her breathing. There was none. The white strands of her hair curled around his fingers and clung to them, and his hand lay stilled in the softness of her hair.
Connor bent his head to hers, and kissed her one last time.
"Goodbye, my bonny Heather."
========== WINTER SOLSTICE, 1592 ==========
Connor clucked to Reama and urged the mare on. The sky was solid gray now, and the air was colder. It had been sunny the day he buried Heather, there on the hillside where they had so often stood to watch the solstice. The white clouds had drifted overhead, and the lambs had bounced and gamboled about him as he carried her body up the hill. He marked the grave with the sword his father had given him, then he slowly walked away.
He stayed at their farm for a time, but the silence was too deep. He set fire to their house and watched it burn, then took Ramirez's katana and went to Edinburgh. The city was strange to him, its people and its customs odd. He stayed for several years, learning the English language, beginning to learn to read and write. Then one day he sensed another Immortal, and he realized that he did not know what to do.
He left the city and went back to the Highlands, to Cassandra. The local people called her the witch of Donan Woods, but Connor knew she was an Immortal. She had been Ramirez's friend, and she had visited him soon after Ramirez had come to stay with Connor, fifty years before. She was tall and beautiful, with green eyes and long hair that shone copper and bronze in the sun, and she was older even than Ramirez.
Cassandra offered to teach him, to finish some of the training Ramirez had started, and Connor agreed. He had been staying with her these past six months, but it was time for him to leave. She seemed content enough to live as a recluse in the forest, but Connor knew this was not the place for him.
There did not seem any place for him. He did not even know who he was, anymore, and he did not want to think of what he might become. Ramirez had told him about the rules of the Game, and of what it meant to be Immortal. He had told Connor about Immortals battling to the death, beheading each other and taking the Quickening, the soul and the power of another. Ramirez had told him that in the end, there could be only one Immortal left to win the Prize.
Yes, Ramirez had told him of these things, but Connor had not truly understood. He had not understood what it was to look across a table at a friend and wonder if-when!-your friend would try to kill you. Or to wonder if someday you would try to kill your friend. He had not understood what it was to be a hunter and a killer, to always be careful, to always be wary, to trust no one. He had not understood what it was to be alone.
Cassandra did not tell him of these things; she showed him, in a brutally effective way. Now Connor truly understood-in his blood and in his bones and with every breath he took, both asleep and awake-now he knew what it meant to be a killer. Oh, he had known what it was to kill, on occasion or when the need arose, but now he knew what it meant to *be* a killer, every day, every hour, every second. Now he knew what it meant to be an Immortal.
He did not want to live this way.
He did not have a choice.
Connor breathed deeply, tasting again the coming snow. It was almost midday, and he was well into Donan Woods now, near where Cassandra's cottage was hidden. Connor dismounted and led Reama up the steep slope. The light covering of snow on the thick carpet of fallen leaves made for slippery footing.
He would leave tomorrow, he decided; there was nothing in the Highlands for him now. He had no place here, no home, no clan, no kin. He could see no reason ever to return. He would go back to Edinburgh, then maybe travel to England or France. Maybe Italy. It did not matter where he went.
He slowed as he approached the cottage, but he could not sense Cassandra's presence at all. Connor tethered Reama loosely to a tree, then went into the cottage, glad to be out of the wind. Cassandra was not there, but the fire was burning brightly, so she had not been gone long. He glanced about the room and saw the flat rock they used for his writing practice lying on the table. The words "Went to village" were written in charcoal upon it. Connor was pleased not to have to sound out any of the words; reading was getting much easier.
There was no reason given for her absence, but her basket was missing from its place near the door, and several small bottles of herbs were gone, too. He knew she sometimes acted as a healer for the villagers; perhaps someone had taken ill. Connor shrugged; it was not his concern. He went to take care of Reama.
He put the mare in the shed, then rubbed her down well, while the ewe stood in the corner and chewed her cud, her breath showing white in the air. The snow Connor had smelled earlier had started to fall, though he suspected it would soon be more ice pellet than flake. He was looking forward to hot food and a warm fire, but first he had to feed Reama and the sheep. Connor poured oats in their feed troughs, then went to get fresh straw for bedding.
He bent to pick up an armful of straw, then froze. There was a baby lying in the pile of straw, wrapped tightly in a cloth he had sometimes used to wipe down Reama. Connor squatted down and peered at the child closely. It was asleep, and he did not want to pick it up and wake it. The baby was a new one, perhaps a day old, maybe only hours. Its dark hair stuck straight up on the top of its head, and one tiny fist was clenched near its cheek. How in the name of God had it gotten here?
Connor rummaged in the straw and uncovered a damp spot, dark with blood, then looked again at the babe and shook his head. Its mother had walked through the cold and the wind to the witch's cottage, hidden in the shed, given birth, cleaned the babe and wrapped it warm, then left it in the straw and gone away. He knew such things happened, but he could not understand it. What could induce a woman to abandon a child, her own flesh and blood?
And what was he to do with it? He certainly could not feed it, nor could Cassandra. They did not even have any milk from the sheep; the ewe had dried up in the fall. Well, he did know that a young one ought to be kept warm. He put a blanket over Reama, then picked up the babe. It nestled neatly in the crook of his arm; its head fit into the palm of his hand. Connor stared down at the tiny features. The scanty eyelashes were dark against the smoothness of its cheek, and tiny wrinkles creased around its eyes, making it look oddly like an old man. Or an old woman, Connor thought suddenly, wondering if it were a boy or a girl.
He made sure the baby was well-hidden under his furs, then went back to the cottage. He sat near the fire with the child on his lap, laid out straight in the hollow between his legs, then unwrapped it and took a look. It was a boy, definitely. Connor made to wrap the babe up again, but as he bent over a sudden liquid warmth struck him in the neck and cheek, and Connor jerked away and swore in surprise. The wee lad was still asleep, and Connor laughed out loud. "Good aim, there, lad," he said, as he wiped himself dry. "Even with your eyes closed. And quite a distance, too." He was still chuckling as he replaced the cloth; then he laid the child on the floor near the fire.
He dished out a bowl of soup from the pot over the fire and ate hurriedly, wondering what to do. The child would not sleep much longer; he was already stirring, making small whimpering noises and sucking on his fist. Connor decided to take the child to Cassandra now, rather than wait for her to come back. She would know which of the village women could nurse the babe. The weather was only going to get worse, and it would be dark in few hours.
He was halfway to the village when the bairn started to squall in earnest. Reama did not care for the noise; she laid her ears back and pranced nervously. Connor knew exactly how she felt. How could so much noise come from such a small creature? He tried shifting the lad about, while still trying to keep him protected from the wind, but the baby only cried louder. Finally, Connor looped the reins around one arm, held the child close against him, and gave him his finger to suck on. That seemed to work, at least for now. He was glad they were close to the village.
He dismounted before they crossed the barley fields, and left Reama in the shelter of the trees again. The child had fallen asleep, lulled by the motion of the horse, and Connor was profoundly grateful. Now to find Cassandra.
He hesitated a moment more, unwilling to enter the village, remembering the cries of demon and the angry faces. But no one would recognize him; no one even knew who he was.
Connor walked with firm step to the village, a rough semi-circle of cots, huddled together against the wind. The smell of sheep and smoke was strong now, even over the cold crispness of the snow. It was a very familiar smell. A woman was walking toward one of the cots, a blurred figure seen through the falling snow. At first he thought she was one of the villagers, for she carried a basket and her clothes looked like any other clanswoman's, but just as he sensed another Immortal, the woman spun around and looked carefully about her. "Cassandra!" he called, to reassure her.
She came over to him, and they went to the back wall of a cot, out of the wind. He tossed his head to move the hair from his face and nodded to her.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
He opened his furs, revealing the child still nestled in the crook of his arm. "Some village girl must have given birth in your shed," he explained. "I found the babe in the straw when I came back."
Cassandra set her basket down, and Connor handed her the baby gladly, then told her, "The babe squalled half the way here, and bothered the horse."
Cassandra had no eyes for him; she was absorbed in the child, holding it close against her, an unusually tender expression on her face. Finally, she asked him, "Is it a boy or a girl?"
"Boy," he said.
Cassandra seemed pleased at his answer and said to the babe, "A highland child, a foundling, born on the winter solstice."
Connor nodded at the words. It was an apt description of the lad. The lad seemed to like it, too, for his eyes opened and he blinked once, but did not cry.
Cassandra finally looked at Connor. "You do not know, do you?"
"What?" Connor asked in puzzlement.
There was a slight smile on her face as she said, "This child will be Immortal."
He stared at her in shock, then looked at the child again.
"You do not feel it?" she asked.
He had not, but now ... Usually, his perception of Cassandra's presence faded quickly. It started as an insistent ache in his temples, then became the lightest of touches there, as if a stray breeze was blowing his hair. Now, it felt different, slightly more intense. "Perhaps there is something," he said slowly.
Cassandra nodded. "It is hard to sense, especially on a very young one. It becomes easier as they age."
Connor had not realized that. He wondered what else he had not realized about Immortality, and how dangerous his ignorance might be. They both turned at the movement from the village. The door of one of the cots opened, and a stocky woman came out, carrying a bundle in her arms, and made her way slowly to smaller cot. Cassandra took in a sharp breath. Connor looked at her curiously. "What is it?"
Cassandra said flatly, "That babe is dead. No midwife would take a babe away from its mother, or walk so slow with a living babe." She glanced once at the child in her arms, then said to Connor, "Why don't you go back to the cottage, and take my basket with you? I will take care of this babe."
He did not want to leave her here unprotected. Unlikely as it might be, there could be another Immortal about, and she should not have to fight when she was taking care of the child. Since the lad would be an Immortal someday, he would need protecting, too. Connor was not about to leave a woman and a child alone. "I'll wait for you, over by the trees."
She shook her head slightly. "You don't need to, Connor,"
Connor shifted his weight and said evenly, "I want to." He was not going to leave.
She seemed about to protest again, then she suddenly smiled at him and nodded. "Thank you, Connor," she said softly.
He nodded in return, then watched as she carried the child to the cot. When the door had shut behind her, he picked up her basket and made his way across the field, back to his horse. He could see the approaches to the village from here, the road to the loch, and the other three paths that led to the pastures and the forest. He spoke softly to Reama and waited, wondering what kind of family the lad would have, what kind of life he would lead, here in the village of Glenfinnan.
What kind of death the boy would have, he thought suddenly, realizing anew that the child would become an Immortal. Would they banish the boy, too? Connor would not wish that on anyone. Banishment was a harsh sentence for a clansman. Or would they try to burn him? That would be even worse. He decided to ask Cassandra to keep an eye out for the boy.
He pulled a length of his plaid over his head as a hood, for the wind was howling now, swirling the snow as the flakes covered the ground with whiteness. He had waited perhaps a quarter of an hour when Cassandra came and nodded to him. She was no longer holding the babe, but he did not take the time to ask her about it now, for the snow was turning to sleet, and it was already dark. They set off for her cottage, walking on either side of the horse. The mare could not carry both of them, and the footing was treacherously icy in spots.
When they reached the cottage, Connor took Reama to the shed, and gave her another thorough rub-down. They had spent a long time in the cold today, and she deserved it. He gave Reama and the sheep fresh straw, then went to the cottage. Cassandra met him at the door and helped him unfasten his furs, then handed him a mug of tea when he sat down in front of the fire. The mug near burned his frozen fingers with the heat, but it felt good even so.
She joined him in front of the fire with her own mug, then said, "You have a new clansman."
Connor gave a satisfied grunt, then drank some tea. It was hot and bitter, and the warmth was welcome in his belly. "What did they name the lad?"
"Duncan MacLeod, of the Clan MacLeod."
Connor said the name again, slowly. "Donnchadh MacLeoid na clannad MacLeoid." He nodded, pleased. "It has a good sound."
"He'll need a teacher," Cassandra said suddenly, her gaze steady on him.
"You will teach the lad, will you not, when it is time?" he said. Cassandra would be close by; she could keep watch for the boy.
Cassandra looked away from him then, and stared into the fire. She gave a small shrug. "I doubt he'll be willing to accept a woman as a teacher. He'll not respond to me." She looked at him from under lowered lashes. "You did not think much of me as a teacher in the beginning."
Connor grimaced at the memory and rubbed his chin. "True," he admitted, then said with a grin, "But that stopped about the third time I found myself on my backside in the dirt."
That made her smile, at least for a moment. "Would you have accepted me as your teacher if you hadn't already known about Immortals?" she asked, serious again. "If I had found you first, would you have accepted me as you accepted Ramirez?"
Connor's grin grew wider as he remembered his first sight of Ramirez. The man had been dressed in red velvet and laces, with a cape of peacock feathers and a plumed hat. Connor had never seen such a ridiculous sight. But his opinion had changed soon enough; Ramirez had been a good teacher, then he had become a friend.
"He'll need a man for his first teacher, Connor," she said softly. "It's better so."
Connor nodded. "Aye, I can see that," he agreed, wondering what ancient Immortal she would find to train the boy.
"I think you should teach him," Cassandra said.
Connor stared at her. "Me?" He was not even one hundred yet; he had met only three other Immortals in his entire life. He hadn't even taken his first head! How could he teach the boy? Someone else would have to do it. "No."
She tilted her head to one side and studied him, the way she did when she was thinking about something, or when she was choosing which color thread to use in her embroidery.
That look made him nervous, but he sat quiet beneath it.
"I think you will be a good teacher for him," she said, nodding, as if well-satisfied with her conclusion.
Connor studied her in return. He knew he was not qualified to teach Duncan. What made her say that? "Why?" he demanded.
Now her look became more penetrating, and Connor forced himself not to move. "You are strong, Connor," she said. "Not just in body, but in mind. You know what it is to be alone, and you know what it is to care."
Connor knew about the loneliness, but caring had nothing to do with Immortality.
Cassandra's eyes darkened in the firelight, and she added, leaning forward a little, "You are tough enough and careful enough to survive, and I think you will be able to teach him what he needs to know."
Connor blinked at the unexpected words of praise. She had been his teacher for nearly half a year, and she had seldom said anything beyond, "Better," and more rarely, "Good." Usually she was merely silent, and watchful.
Cassandra added, "When you teach, you also learn. It will be a good experience for you."
He grunted in agreement. His father had often said the same thing. But before you taught, you had to know what you were teaching. Connor did not feel he knew anything about being an Immortal. Not really.
She said earnestly, "He's your clansman, Connor MacLeod, and your kin, in more ways than one."
Connor had no clan. He had been banished. Banished from the clan, and banished from all normal life. He had no kin either. His parents were long dead, and he had buried Heather over five years ago. He started to shake his head, but Cassandra was still talking.
"We can never have children, Connor, but the relationship between a teacher and a student is very like that of a parent and child." She paused, then said softly, "He will be your son."
Connor jerked his gaze from her and stared at the fire, feeling again the boneless weight of the bairn nestled in his arm, the curve of the delicate skull cradled in the palm of his hand. He had never held a newborn child before.
Cassandra's voice was almost soothing as she said, "Your son at first, and then your brother in the years to come."
A son, and a brother. A kinsman, and a clan. Connor snorted softly, not really believing it. Was it possible, after all these years? It could be, he knew, if he let it. It could be, if he cared. And he did care, he realized suddenly, remembering the surge of protectiveness he had felt at the village. He cared about that child, and he wanted that child to care about him.
He nodded slowly. It would be good not to be alone anymore. "You'll send word?" he asked.
She smiled at him, a gentle satisfied smile. "When it's time."
Connor left Cassandra's cottage the next morning, on a day of brilliant sunshine and glittering ice. He was off to Edinburgh, but someday, he would be back. Someday, he and Duncan would climb the hill in the darkness on the winter solstice, and stand on the mountaintop.
They would stand together, side by side, and watch the rising of the sun.
========== AUTHOR'S NOTES ==========
- To find out what Connor's parents gave to him as a Christmas present: Wild Mountain Thyme
- To see Connor and Duncan going to see the sunrise together: Dearer Yet the Brotherhood
- For Cassandra's view of the adoption of Duncan: Hope Forgotten III: Guardian
- For the complete story of what Cassandra taught Connor in a "brutally effective way": Hope Forgotten II: Witch
Most of these are available on fanfiction dot net.
DISCLAIMERS: The Highlander universe, the characters you recognize, and some of the dialog are all the property of Rysher, Gaumont, and Davis/Panzer. The Highlander Universe and the characters are used without permission, but no copyright infringement is intended.
This story was not written for profit, but in honor of the Solstice, Connor MacLeod, and Duncan's birthday, and as a present for Bridget, dedicated Connor-fan . I hope you enjoyed it, too.
Many thanks to beta-readers Cathy, Genevieve, Vi, and Bridget.
LOCATION OF CONNOR AND HEATHER'S HOME
The novelization of the movie "Highlander" has Heather and Connor moving away to the Cheviot Hills, near the border of England, and living first in the village of Jedburgh, then Montrose. But the filming locations for the movie make it clear that Heather and Connor are still living in the Highlands. The loch that Ramirez and Connor go boating on is Loch Shiel. Connor and Heather's tower is near Glencoe, and the village fair was actually filmed near Glen Nevis.
As far as I know, there are no standing stones near Glenfinnan. However, standing stones can be found in many places throughout northwestern Europe. There are single stones, and stones in groups, either in circles, rows, or placed randomly. Many of them are aligned in some fashion with astronomical events.
THE TUATH DE DANAAN
The Tuath de Danaan (the Tribe of Danaa) is an Irish myth, but the Highland Scots were originally an Irish tribe, called Scoti.
About two thousand years ago, the land we now call Scotland was inhabited by the Pictish people. They tended to be dark of hair and eye, and have dusky skin. The Romans call them Picts, "the painted ones" because they painted themselves with woad.
The Picts were pushed to the north by encroaching southern tribes, and also pushed from the western Highlands of Scotland by the migration of the Scoti tribe from Northern Ireland. Irish Gaelic and Scots Gaelic were the same language for many centuries, and the cultures were very similar, both having clans, plaids and tartans, bagpipes, cattle-raising (and cattle-stealing), and the same music and stories. (This is another reason that Highlanders and Lowlanders tended to see each other as foreign and strange. They were two very different cultures.)
Later, around the 7th-12th centuries, the Vikings came over from Scandinavia. This mixing of tribes is why the gene pool of the Scottish people produces red-hair and blue eyes (Vikings), dark hair and dark eyes and darker skin (Picts), and dark hair and gray or blue eyes (Scoti), and all the mixes in-between.