"All things must end, Duncan," he says. And I imagine that his voice is dry, amused; that it carries only love and comfort, not grief or recrimination.
Before that devastating, lightning-struck evening, I would have disagreed with his calm statement. Temporized. Debated with him as we had done nearly my entire life: leisurely over a game of chess, over tumblers of fine whiskey, or perhaps fiercely at sword point. I would have argued that our friendship -- nay, our brotherhood -- would never, could never end while we both lived. While we both lived. It is no comfort now that we each would have been subtly mistaken. That, even having severed the bonds that joined our lives myself, with a single, deadly stroke, our friendship and love lives on. After a fashion. Mangled and bleeding, agonizing, yet alive.
Can a shade speak from beyond the grave? If so, then perhaps I truly hear his voice and not that of my guilty, desolate, and angry heart.
"Don't worry about me, Duncan." Now his voice is chiding and wry. "I'm just fine where I am. But you--" and I think I feel the sharp prick of his katana under my chin, teaching even in death, "--you still need to watch your head. And get on with your life."
Every breath bears the bright agony of a knife thrust and the tears scald my face. Get on with my life, Connor? If only it were that simple. I laugh weakly and then press my fist against my mouth to stifle the sobs that follow.
For the rest of my days, even if I never draw my sword again, I will feel the obscenely harmonious vibration of that fatal stroke; hear the whistle and hum as ancient, blooded steel traced its inexorable, deadly arc through the night air. And I will remember his fleeting, relieved, and approving smile, just before his light took me.
Grief -- stark, raw, and bleak, his and mine both -- ravaged me then, far more devastating than the violent, coruscating energy of his quickening. Images flashed past too quickly to recognize, vivid, poignant impressions of a troubled, conflicted life all too similar to my own. And then my body was seized by an electric fist and flung across the rooftop. I remember that I screamed.
Hell is the quickening that you must take, that you choke down, retching and writhing. One that indelibly sears your soul with the vileness of misspent, corrupt immortality. Or with the bewildered, betrayed, and agonized confusion of a close friend, a lover. Or a son.
In comparison, Connor's quickening was merely bleak Purgatory.
Judge, jury, and executioner. I have played each of these roles, and many more throughout the centuries. Sometimes against the advice of companions much older and wiser, and sometimes, to my everlasting regret. But the role for which I am most ashamed, for which I suffer the greatest, gnawing remorse -- I can barely think the words before the breath catches in my throat:
Kin-slayer. Thrice over. Robert. Richard. And now Connor.
Love is patient, they say. Not jealous, but kind. It rejoices in the truth and bears all things, believes all things. Hopes all things.
Most of all, they say, love never fails.
Oh, but it does, it does; they lie. Love fails and love kills. And now, whatever the cause -- passion, delusion, or mercy -- dead is dead, and my hands are forever stained, red and sticky with their blood.
Penance for these heinous crimes is denied me though, for what act or acts of contrition could possibly erase the taint, could ever fill the void left by their passing? By what right could I possibly beg forgiveness? Perhaps Methos is right. Perhaps our very survival is the ultimate penance we offer to those whom we've loved, killed, and those whose trust we've violated. And who better to remember them -- Robert's youthful bravado, Richard's unwavering faith, Connor's generosity and tutelage -- than the killer who loved them best.
Quiet footfalls sound on the creaky steps of the inn just outside the bedroom door. A familiar wash of presence ripples across my skin chasing away Connor's restless shade. I don't rise from the edge of the bed or turn: I know well Methos' soft, nearly stealthy tread and the deep, vibrant song of his immortality.
"Ready to go, Mac?" Mercifully, I don't have to imagine the compassion in his voice or the warmth and strength of his hand as it briefly graps my shoulder. And no, I'm not ready to go, to bury my brother beside his first beloved. I will never be ready. But this, Methos already knows.
"Sit with me?" I hate the roughness and quaver in my voice, the neediness, but as he sits beside me, I welcome the clasp of his callused hand in mine. He knows well where I am today: how I feel, how the words stick in my throat, how my heart seems empty, shrunken, and cold. He knows what it is to lose a brother by one's own hand.
Though the tears on my cheeks have dried, Methos isn't fooled.
"Unless you insist, Duncan," he ventures, "we can do this tomorrow. I can call the priest..." But I shake my head, no. It must be today. The pain will be no better tomorrow, and can be no worse.
Very slowly, I release his hand and rise; my tension-stiffened joints creak like an old man's. I feel ancient, worn to the bone, weathered and bleached like a fossil exposed by the relentless motion of water and wind against stone. From the corner of my eye, I catch Methos' weary nod.
"When you're ready, then." His voice is soft and broken this time. He too, knew Connor well.
Xenophanes of Kolopbon once said: All things come from earth, and all things end by becoming earth. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. True for all things under heaven except perhaps immortals, for we bear the quickening of those we've slain. Something indestructible, whether benign, quiescent, or ravaging, must live on within us when we drink down their essences. Something ineffable must -- does -- survive: I remember too vividly the nightmare that followed Coltec's quickening.
Yet I feel no stronger or wiser, today. No more skillful, loving, or kind. I feel nothing of my lost brother. Of my lost son. Instead, I am grievously bereft, alone in the world, as if exiled once again. This time, by my own hand.
Zen masters would assure me that all things in this world are transient, that what comes into being must ultimately pass away. But I have never been able to sever my worldly attachments as they counsel. And so I know that along with his quickening, I will always carry this emptiness, this pain, this love, until I die.
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