1699 -- Somewhere in the Caribbean
The sun's baking him in his own salt, hot enough already that the sky's more white than blue. Above the grey stone walls, he can see the dark green tops of the palm trees and white clouds mounding behind them. Rain is piling up out to sea, readying for the afternoon's storms.
Duncan wants to close his eyes against the heat, against the brilliant red wool of the soldiers' uniforms. (He wonders how they're surviving; he's sweltering in linen and broadcloth.) Bad enough Duncan got here too late. His pride won't let him give them the satisfaction of seeing him flinch.
In the back of the courtyard, the drums begin the slow roll, and the prisoner is brought forward to the gallows. Behind Duncan, the two soldiers detailed to him press near. They're close enough for him to smell the clove that Wellford has been sucking for the last half-hour. Still, he's lucky they're not even closer. Only his court connections had saved him from their hands on his shoulders or their shackles on his own wrists.
He's fought too hard to save the prisoner. Duncan knew it even as he'd argued, but he couldn't stop. Worse, he's admitted to no reason for his interest. So the authorities invented their own, far from flattering explanations. Only his startled, clearly innocent disbelief saved him from charges of sodomy. The guards have dogged his steps since and inspected every item Duncan sent through the jailer, whether it was decent food, brandy, clean clothes, or the one priest brave enough to dare the stigma of piracy.
Now the soldiers stand, and watch, and wait. They intend to make sure there's no last, desperate attempt on Duncan's part to save 'William Farrier.'
There won't be.
Connor forbade it with a single dark glance the one time Duncan managed to see him with a minimum of witnesses. Worse, Connor was right, is right. Duncan knows that but it's a hard thing to stand here and wait for them to kill his kinsman, his teacher.
The edges of his leather belt cut into his palms again and again. Each time he notices, he manages to loosen his grip. Every time, his hands fist again without conscious decision on his part. It's the only thing that's saved the guards behind him and another few dozen spectators come to watch the hangings.
A measured tread precedes and follows Connor -- they've set a pair of guards fore and aft of him, and the two in front are so blank-faced that Duncan knows they're frightened. They should be. Connor paces amid them lithe and feral as some cheetah in the Spanish court. He can't stop the English hanging him, but he's put fear in their souls first.
Since Connor's been in the jail, men have wandered the corridors holding their skulls in their hands. Transparent women have walked out the stones with death wounds and blood still on them. There've been odd sounds at night, odder winds through the corridors, and lightning striking at noon and midnight from clear skies.
The guards will be very glad when William Farrier is dead and buried. Glad enough to make it quick, Duncan knows, and gladder still to give his kinsman's body over to him for burial somewhere far away. He knows also that both of these things were part of Connor's calculations.
Sharp as his own blade Connor's always been, changeable as Highland weather, and as secretive as the depths of the lochs he's walked. Duncan's always wondered if it disappointed Connor that his student and kinsman couldn't master the trick of breathing water. What he's sure of, however, is that Connor's put some plan in motion here and he's determined -- And bound? Duncan hears himself think. Despite the moment, he laughs. Connor's shoulders lift a bare trace at the sound; that makes Duncan glad of his wayward thoughts.
Whatever game Connor's playing here, it's against the world -- Connor always says he can't be bothered to hate the English -- and Duncan can tell that it's important enough to die for now, if it wasn't when Connor began. Connor's going to have to settle for a stalemate, however. He can't win at this point, but he refuses to lose either.
So Duncan stands motionless on the hot cobblestones, feeling the heat rise through the soles of his shoes, and watches them hang his kinsman.
Oh, they read the charges first. Connor stands and watches them -- it makes the crier nervous, and he stumbles and stutters over words and phrases he should know by heart -- but few of the crimes seem likely to Duncan.
Connor's sharp enough for a man to cut himself on, aye, and he'll let you think he's agreed to any number of things that he's ignored, not yea-said, but he's no thief. Smuggler, well, that part's likely true, and struck a gentlemen? If officers count, certainly. He didn't fall into their hands peaceably, and God forbid he should. Refused to drink to the King's health? Connor's snort of disbelief is audible, his first sound since they've brought him out.
Evaded taxes -- who hasn't tried? Avoided churches? Not on Heather's birthday. (Duncan wishes again that he'd had the chance to meet her... but he's glad she's not here watching this.) Made pagan sacrifices? That one surprises Duncan, but Connor's smile says aye, and no regrets, and that it'll take a few years and a fine keg of brandy to get the truth of it from him. The charges of murder, however, are false and, from the way cords rise in Connor's neck and shoulders, offensive.
Duncan can't see his kinsman's hands, but he holds no doubt that they're fisted tight as his own. And the claim that Connor stole the ship is nothing but lies. Connor owned his Bonny Lass outright through his own earnings, and a small consortium of investors supplied the first ten cargos. Connor turned them handsome profits, too, or they'd not have invested again.
Duncan tried to argue that charge but two ships officers swore to the theft, and the nearest copy of the deeds of ownership is sea-shredded now. The Penzance registry of ships has the deed properly recorded, but it won't prove him right soon enough, and so Connor still goes to the gallows. (The two officers -- not gentlemen -- will die one month soon for their false oaths, but it can't be yet; that would only kill Duncan, too. Bad enough they've already brought Connor down and claimed head money for him, to boot.)
Like the enlisted men, the crown officials are terrified of their prey, even bound as Connor is. His hands are shackled behind him; an extra chain runs down to the hobbles around his ankles. He still manages to pace smoothly and climb the gallows steps without the assistance they're loath to give. Connor's put the fear of the Gaels in them, sure enough.
The air's prickling against his skin, and not only his. Duncan can see fibers rising on the shoulders of the muslin-clad lady beside him. She's wearing smuggled cloth to watch a man hang for smuggling; Duncan wonders whether she knows the verse about whited sepulchres. Out to sea, thunder rumbles and echoes through the courtyard. Connor's doing, Duncan's certain, and he nods once to his kinsman as the charges end and the priest says, "May God have mercy on your soul."
Connor smiles at the priest, cold and sardonic and far too knowing. The man backs away from him as if Connor's the Devil himself and in this mood, Duncan knows who he'd bet on, blasphemous thought though it is.
"Don't worry about my soul, man. Worry for yourself when St. Peter asks about the seventh commandment. Not to mention that inconvenient verse in Leviticus eighteen." The priest blanches and the guards look puzzled; Duncan only wonders what Connor heard when no one thought he was listening and which sin he means. That part of Leviticus covers everything from false witness to witchcraft, incest, bestiality, and sodomy.
After that comment, they make very sure the noose is knotted and placed properly, and that the drop kills him. They're indecently quick, lest Connor tell more of their secrets, but very competent.
The crack of Connor's neck going holds Duncan still against the sun's heat, against the cobblestones' surety under his feet, against the rising storm headed ashore in ranked black anvils ready to hammer the port city. Two of the soldiers pull him down against the noose to be sure of his death anyway, rather than leave him to dance in air and maybe curse them all with his death.
Space is clearing around Duncan as they cut Connor down, the press of people moving anywhere else. Do they think he's Connor, then, to be so afear'd of him? The thought makes him smile. The last two guards between him and the gallows move aside as he steps up, and an old man who'd hoped to make a few coins selling oranges at the hanging crosses himself instead. Duncan's smile sours as he looks at the dispersing crowd, the frustrated vendors: dead or alive, Connor chills them still. Good.
The blacksmith's hammer falls silent and a rattle of chains tells Duncan he's leaving and taking the shackles with him. Behind him, his assigned guards hold back. Why not? Their job is done. Wellford is muttering the Lord's Prayer. Syms, the second guard, is better educated or perhaps simply smarter; he's partway through the Twenty-third Psalm. Duncan ignores both of them and hands the executioner a guinea.
"For making it quick," he says when the man's eyes burn with questions.
"Aye, sir." The man nods to him, his accent as broad as Duncan's ever was -- lowlands Scot, though, not mountain-born and -bred. "You'll have men coming to help you carry him away, then?"
Duncan snorts, his smile tightening. "No man here would take the job for any pay, and I've no need of them. He carried me off a battlefield once. I can carry him now."
That gets another nod and the man's face eases. Duncan knows this story will make its way back through the soldiers to their officers and the governor. Using the truth to repair his reputation is something Connor would approve of, and it's only good sense. The hangman even relents enough to help Duncan haul Connor's body up and get it over his shoulder.
The limp banging of limbs against his torso isn't nearly as bad as the way the head moves against his back, but Duncan turns and walks out of the courtyard anyway, past the cart and broadcloth shroud laid ready to receive Connor's body. He's no need of those, and begrudges the trappings of 'justice' even one more moment on Connor's body, or his own. Duncan paces across the square, slow and steady because he's not afraid of Connor (not much, anyway, and certainly not for the same reasons they are), and he's even less afraid of the rain painting a dark grey line across the bay as it advances towards the island.
Let the rain wash this off him, wash his kinsman clean of their jail and their travesty of 'justice.' If the rain can't, there's always the sea.
1999, somewhere in the Caribbean
The sun bounces off the sand, scatters off the waves, and pours down over them, pulling gold from Connor's hair and red out of Duncan's curls. The wind whips salt across their skin, cakes salt along the edges of their mouths as they work. Their clothes are edged with salt acquired in the sea and dried in the air. It's as well for Connor that he's always found the wind and the sea enough company for himself, for it's little company he's had from Duncan these last days.
He'd expected as much.
He'd had the dreams three nights running -- never the same in the details, always the same in the substance. Duncan was in every one of them, looking even worse than he had after Tessa's death. In every dream, he was honed thin, but sometimes his hair was cropped ragged and close to his head, as if with a knife, and other times it's long but lank. His skin was sometimes sunburnt, sometimes paled to sallow rather than gold.
The clothing and surroundings changed constantly, ranging from clan colors and kilt to leathers and homespun, from chain mail to Victorian evening dress. Even worse, each time Duncan was trying to reach someone in time: an unknown gypsy man, with dark, wavy hair, all fire and impulse in his bright clothes and brighter eyes; Darius, dressed in his usual brown robes and forced to his knees by men in black leather jackets with guns and an ancient battle axe; FitzCairn, crumpled to his knees and bleeding out from a fatal wound through his chest and out his back.
Three nights running, Connor woke after watching Duncan drown trying to reach them: drown in loch water clear and deadly as an ice spear, in fall leaves rotting as they fell to fill his lungs, in a slide of rocks that looked far too much like grave markers, in streams of blood every color from crimson to maroon to brown.
Duncan's blood is still red enough, Connor knows -- he's seen it often enough these last few days. Seen enough of his own, for that matter, and watched their blood mingle as their lives have. They look more alike than they have in years: both sun-tanned, both with close-cropped hair. Duncan's still better-looking; Connor's still more stubborn. Stubborn enough to drag the man out of his lair in Europe by reminding Duncan who's clan elder. Stubborn enough to let Duncan growl and frown and stay silent for three days of sea travel and four days of work ashore and at sea. Stubborn enough to let Duncan finish wearing himself out so that he'll have fewer defenses up when Connor finally cuts him open to clean out the wounds.
More than stubborn, though, Connor's devious. He's pulled Duncan out of worse moods than this. It's just a matter of enough small things in a row.
Connor scorches breakfast to make Duncan pay attention to his surroundings and ignores the glare when Duncan finally realizes who got the burnt bits. He repeats directions, requests, warnings until Duncan at least nods acknowledgement... then waits 'til Duncan's impatient enough to nod without having really heard the words to claim Duncan owes him the Isfahan prayer rug he had in the 1940s. It was close, but Duncan caught himself and glared. Connor just laughed. He tosses water bottles just short or too long, trying to make the man move on the theory that if his limbs are still, his thoughts may be too.
If stillness would fix this, the time laired in a Wicklow cottage would have done it. Duncan's had months to meditate, to practice katas, to catch up on his reading, and his flirting. None of them have healed the man, or he'd not have turned up in the Miami airport too thin, too pale, and too worn for an immortal in the Game. Especially an immortal who doesn't change his name.
Connor's seen Duncan through worse straits than this, however, so he does now as he did then and works the man from sun-up past sun-down, giving no quarter and accepting no dissent. He chases Duncan through katas at dawn and a run along the sand after, then into the sea to trade sweat for salt water. Strong coffee after that, and breakfast, and out on the boat to bring up wooden casks from the sea-bottom.
Back-straining work, even underwater, rocking up oaken chests to lever a net under them. Bloody work, too, if Connor hadn't brought fine chain gloves such as modern butchers wear to protect their hands. Good thing he did; leather would never have survived the barnacles crusted on the Lass's hull and mounded on the chests and casks he's come for. Even with the gloves, Connor's bled from the barnacles and the corals and the jagged edges of the holes left by the cannonballs.
Duncan's job above is hardly easier. Baking in the sun while he keeps the boat in place. Holding her steady while the winch pulls the load up, backing her slowly to keep the bow up, then piloting them back to the island while Connor secures the casks. Helping Connor unload chests, and casks, and barrels covered with barnacles and heavy as lead. All of it is work to make muscles burn and tendons creak with ropes burning across palms and sun and wind burning across skin.
Duncan hasn't asked why they're doing this or what Connor expects to retrieve from the sea. Past the first furious phone conversation, he hasn't argued at all, only bent his back to the loads Connor puts on him. Proving himself, Connor judges, to someone not there and possibly no longer alive. Hardly the first time a man's been left with choked, swallowed, and unsaid words -- it happens to mortal and immortal alike. Time heals wounds, aye, but the worst ones have to be cleaned before the days can work their balm.
It's not time to lance this wound yet, Connor knows. The pressure's not built enough to blast everything before it, and it will be better if Duncan's the one to expose the wound to the open air. Beyond the question of what he'll forgive Connor, if Duncan accomplishes most of the healing himself, he'll kick himself less after. No sense setting him up for a slower job healing, no matter how much Connor hates watching him like this and wishes, futilely, that Duncan would snarl at him, or curse, or harass him about slacking his own share of the work.
Duncan does none of it.
So they train and then work from early-morning to mid-afternoon. By the time they've finished unloading the boat from one run out and back, the afternoon storms are mounding high above the waves. Connor's not lived this long by tempting the sea that hard. It's hardly as if the cabin doesn't need work. Sunshine and salt breezes are better for Duncan than rain overhead and grey light to drag his spirits down, but Connor can't deny that the sight of work recently done, and done right, is another kind of cure for Duncan's silence. So there are window sills no longer rotten, and shelves coated twice with oil ready to be assembled, and a refrigerator humming thanks to newly-installed solar panels.
Duncan needs to talk, Connor knows that. Not yet, though. Not from the set of his mouth when Duncan eats words he doesn't even realize he wants to say, not from the tension that gathers in shoulders and neck when Connor pauses too long nearby. His hands fist and knot around whatever's closest -- wood or rope creaking with the strain, leather bending under his strength. And still no words, no comments, no complaints.
Connor knows the signs. After years teaching Duncan, he'd be a fool if he didn't know how to read the man's moods. So he waits. It's no more than Duncan's done for him at times.
Duncan's silence shatters at last with a curse that the inanimate objects in question can't possibly take as an order. The only sounds that afternoon have been the lapping of the waves, the shrill call of a pair of optimistic sea birds, and the sand shifting under their feet. That was before timbers devoured by barnacles and time gave way to the weight within. With a crack of wood and shell, some of the cannon shot within drop out.
The first ball hits Duncan's back foot; the second misses him entirely, thudding down into the sand. Canvas deck shoes are no protection against shot. Small bones give way within flesh, pulling air from Duncan's lungs even as shock tries to pull air in. His hands tighten on the chest as his balance wavers. The barnacles on the wood cut fingers and palms to the bone and he lets go, the curse escaping with the chest. Duncan's still trying to get his feet clear when the casket lands and breaks wide open.
Shot rolls away in every direction, clipping the ankle of his good foot, and Duncan goes down in a tight-curling heap, reflexes driving him to get a hand around one injury or both.
Connor turns back to him at the first crack of wood giving way and sees the whole mess turning into something out of an old black and white slapstick film. He'll laugh some other time, however; there's blood and bone visible and the pain's going to hit in full force any moment now. He gets to Duncan as the first wave hits, wrapping arms around him for comfort and company and wordless apology.
Connor's been waiting for the pressure to clear Duncan's wounds, but it's still a surprise to realize that Duncan's crying.
It's not just the pain of these wounds, not with those sobs racking the man from shoulders to still-healing feet. The dam's broken at last, like the thin shell of rusted iron around gold smuggled as cannon shot. Like the iron, the pain's useless 'til it's melted and reshaped through tears, and comfort, and contemplation. Connor kneels in the hot sand, under the glaring sun still too high overhead, and supports Duncan as his wounds empty themselves into earth and air, water and fire.
There've been times Connor's envied Duncan's ability to grieve so openly, recognizing in it a resilience he lacks. This isn't one of those times yet.
Years of training and practice or no, Connor's muscles are starting to scream protests when Duncan finally looks up. From grief, to resignation, to recognition... Duncan looks up into Connor's face, startled. "You knew."
"That you needed this? Aye." Connor shifts his weight, the change almost as good as a rest, and settles back into the sand, stretching his legs in front of him and his arms overhead. His back pops and he uses a newly-freed arm to wipe sweat off his face.
Duncan wipes the salt from his cheeks, scrubs his face with his hands. Connor smiles despite himself at the stripes of blood left behind. From grief to war paint.... Duncan glances at him and smiles at something he sees. "What?"
Connor just shakes his head. "Come and clean off in the sea."
Duncan follows him down to the water, more animated than he's been since he got here. "Connor... why are we here? And why didn't you tell me we were bringing up gold?"
"We're here because you needed to be." Connor dives into an approaching wave, surfaces dripping and pushing wet hair from his face. "You didn't want to hear anything yet." He glances at Duncan. "I brought some of the Lagavulin."
Duncan nods, quiet again. "You have been planning this to bring sixteen-year single malt... I'd like that." He's frowning again, but it's thought, not grief or ruts. Connor's not entirely surprised when Duncan asks, "We're salvaging the Bonny Lass, aren't we?"
Connor nods. "I was paid too well to move that shipment, but I only thought they were fools, not desperate."
"That's why you had me pay the crew's families so well." Duncan nods now, unsurprised. "Finally found her, or found good ways to dispose of gold?"
"I found her years ago," Connor admitted. "But you were busy, and I was, and I hoped if we waited long enough, they'd come up with still better tools for the salvage. But I took the island when I got a chance at it. Cost me a bag of matched pearls and a promise to kill a man whose head I wanted anyway."
Duncan smiles as the tale unfolds, lightening enough to splash water at Connor over the difficulty of passage in and out of the bay -- difficulty Connor's created over the years by deliberately sinking non-ferrous debris for coral to grow around, and fish to nest in, and radar to have trouble finding....
Connor's smiling too, but it's from pleasure in Duncan's recovery. Duncan's not well yet, but now he will be. Whisky and shared grief will ease the process, but the wounds are clean and will heal well and quickly, leaving only faint scars to twinge in bad months as some broken bones warn of changes in air pressure. They may even serve as an early warning, if Duncan chooses to look at them that way.
Connor and his kinsman have always healed differently. Duncan's wounds fester and force the shrapnel out. Connor knows his own wounds close over, and cyst, and calcify, leaving him with a hard, sharp-edged memory, mistakes crystallized into experience and wisdom in his own time. Duncan has a gift for showing up with whisky while they harden, to offer an ear, and a shoulder, and a tongue ready to goad to mischief or tell tall tales of mischief he's gotten into while they've been apart -- whatever Connor needs. And he has to ask why Connor's here now?
"Sea-cleaned like us," Duncan says as they gather the scattered cannon balls, some still looking like solid iron, but several cracked or rusted away 'til the gold shows through. "What will you do with it?"
Connor shrugs. "Blood-marked like us, too." Duncan only nods. Ah. So that is the problem. A death he couldn't prevent, or a loss he still can't bear.... If Duncan can admit it's the bloodstains, though, he is healing. Good. "Well, it being so much like us--"
"Fair to look at?" Duncan teases. "Valuable for itself?"
"And immortal and a prize, aye." Connor lets a laugh escape. "I thought I'd treat it like one of us: best discussed over whisky."
"I hope you brought more than one bottle, then." Duncan grins suddenly. "Race you to the house. Loser cooks dinner."
Connor will let him win because it's good to see Duncan smiling again. He'll make sure Duncan's problems get discussed before the question of how and where to split the gold comes up because Duncan's clan and clan always comes first. And he'll enjoy the sunset, and the breezes, and the no-longer-quiet cabin even more for having his cousin here instead of lost in his private pain.
Tomorrow, or the day after -- whenever Duncan's talked enough -- Connor may even see if he's ready to try breathing water again now that he's not fighting air, either....
~ ~ ~ finis ~ ~ ~
Comments, Commentary, & Miscellanea:
The ghostly figures and the lighting were Connor's doing; he learned the one from Nakano and the other from Ramirez. Bonny Lass is, of course, named after Connor's wife, Heather. No, I don't know Who Connor was sacrificing to, nor what he was sacrificing. If you do, I'd love to hear about it.
'Whited sepulchres' is a fine old Biblical insult referring to hypocrisy: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness." (Matthew 23:27, the King James Version.)
Sixth vs. Seventh Commandments: The Jewish faith and Protestant Christians list "Thou shalt not commit adultery" as the seventh commandment; Catholics list it as the sixth. Connor was raised Catholic but he's a businessman, too. In 1699, with William of Orange on the throne ten years and Catholics forbidden by Parliament to sit on the throne, Catholicism could be seen as Jacobite sympathies and get a man killed. He used the Protestant version to skewer to the priest.
The gypsy man Connor didn't recognize in the dream is Jacob Galati from "Judgment Day" and "One Minute To Midnight."
Ishfahan rugs, whether prayer size or larger, are superb works of the weaver's art. Lagavulin is an equally fine example of the distiller's art.
And for the curious: Duncan hasn't lost anyone new. Gods know he lost enough over the duration of the show. What set off the memories and grief was a phone call from one of Fitz's old students, trying to get in touch with the old rogue....
Devo wrote a sequel poem to this, called Salt. Enjoy!