The River

Part Seventeen: Demons

Ash went into the bathroom, closed the door and turned on the light, then removed the sheet covering the tub. She drained some of the cold water and added warm, then checked Duncan’s body. His arms had relaxed and his legs were becoming flexible. She sat on the edge of the tub and studied his pale, still face, contemplating what drove him to kill himself.

Shortly after she found MacLeod, Ash had broken into the club and checked it out completely. It was an old habit, born of centuries of caution. Trying to find out what was going on, she had read everything in Joe’s computer that related to Duncan MacLeod, both the reports he posted to the Watchers and his private files. She knew his recent history, the painful loss of a woman named Tessa, a woman he had loved deeply, the dark Quickening, and Joe’s fears that this might be another one, how a demon named Ahriman had tricked MacLeod into killing his student, Richie, a young man he had loved like a son, and how hard he had taken it. She knew that Connor had forced Duncan to take his head and at least part of why Connor forced him. She knew about Jacob Kell, and Joe’s worries that somehow the effect of such powerful Quickenings so close together might be responsible for MacLeod’s mental condition.

‘There are more demons, Duncan. Von Kaltenberg was a demon. You killed him, and that evil entered into you. What if he knew how to poison the life of whoever killed him as the final revenge? He said he knew how to do that, and I believe him. It could be the weight of all those losses that broke you, with the final grief of killing Connor the one you couldn’t bear, but what if that evil is living in you, tormenting you and making you hurt yourself and the ones who love you? I’ll have to watch you carefully and see if I can find that evil in you. If it’s there I’ll see it. But what then? If I see it will I have the strength to do what’s necessary?’

Ash remembered the last time she had seen Duncan. It had been in Lisbon, during the war. She had been making contacts in the black market and the Resistance, smuggling arms and supplies into the Warsaw ghetto and trying to get people out, away from the starvation and death camps.  She’d been sent to a meeting with a member of British Intelligence, in yet another vain attempt to bring the plight of those held in the Third Reich to world attention. It seemed the world had no interest in the starvation in the ghettos, or the rumors of wholesale slaughter in gas chambers in places with names like Auschwitz, Sobibor, and Treblinka. The agent had helped her to find a contact in the Resistance that might be able to smuggle out some of the children. The name had brought a smile to her lips. Duncan MacLeod. Could it be the same Duncan MacLeod?

Ash went to the club where it was arranged that she would meet this Duncan MacLeod. Out of the way on a side street, the small club was surprisingly crowded with people, smoky, and noisy with gypsy flamenco music. She gave her name, or at least the one she was using, to the maitre’d, who led her to a private room. It was much quieter, in the back of the building, comfortable looking with a low couch and tables, dimly lit by one small lamp.

There was a man sitting on the couch, broad-shouldered and dark. Ash had felt him long before seeing him, and his tense posture told Ash that he felt her too. He looked up and his dark eyes widened, then his smile lit up the dimness.

“Ash!” Duncan stood and she stepped into his arms. He hugged her, then he pulled back to look at her.

She studied him as he did her; he was as handsome as ever, but a little thin. Dressed in a black suit and somber tie he resembled a mourner, and there was a sadness in him, deep down, but she saw it. MacLeod offered her a drink from the half-full bottle on the table. She accepted, and sipped it slowly. Ash was not that susceptible to alcohol, but she wanted to keep a clear head. They asked the usual questions, how are you, what have you been doing, received the usual answers, then moved on to business. They made arrangements and connections, planning the escape of children from the ghettos. MacLeod was deeply disturbed by her revelations about the conditions there, and he drank steadily. By the time they finished their preparations the bottle was empty, and he sent for another. The effect of the Scotch was beginning to show, Duncan’s eyes were becoming glassy.

They moved on to personal business. Ash was determined to find the cause of the sadness in him. She nudged him to talk, subtly, gently, and he had, slowly, haltingly, lubricated by more Scotch.  Ash didn’t want to get Duncan drunk, but he was doing that on his own, and it did make him talk more freely, although he was beginning to slur his words. He finally worked his way around to the reason for his sorrow.

“It was my fault. I made her go into the bomb shelter, where she died in my arms from the gas. If we’d stayed above, like she wanted…” Duncan’s face twisted and he lowered his head.

“Then she would have died from a bomb, or falling debris, or something else. It’s like that legend about the man who saw death in the town square and ran to another town, only to have death meet him there. It was her time to die.” Ash’s voice was quietly certain.

“Then you believe in fate.” Duncan said, pouring yet another drink, his hand unsteadily slopping Scotch into the glass, overfilling it and spilling some on the table. He picked up the glass and drank it down in one long swallow.

“Yes, I believe in fate. I’ve seen it too many times. What brought me here to you, at this point in time, if not fate? You shouldn’t blame yourself for something beyond your control.”   

“They all die, all those I love. Or they leave me, like you always leave me”

The sound of naked anguish in his voice tore her open. Ash took him in her arms; he rested his head on her shoulder and began to cry softly. Ash let her mask of invulnerability slip, saying, “I know how you feel, Duncan. I don’t leave you because I don’t love you; it’s always the situation involved, like it is now. I have to go back to the ghetto, I have to save as many as I can.  Stay with me tonight. I’m so tired of being alone, so tired of war, so tired of everything.”

He nodded in assent against her shoulder, saying, “How many wars have you seen, Ash? They jus’ keep gettin’ worse. More destructive, with bigger ‘n better weapons.” He pulled away suddenly and reached for the bottle.

Ash intercepted his hand. “Don’t drink any more, Duncan. It’s four A.M., we’ll never get a taxi. We have to walk to my hotel, it would be better if you can walk, I don’t think I can carry you.”

“I wan’ another drink.”

She looked into his eyes; they were unfocused, glazed, and they weren’t tracking together. The Scotch was catching up to him fast, and Ash knew that she would have to get him to her hotel soon, before he descended into a stupor.

“We’ll take the bottle with us, and you can have a drink when we get to the hotel.”

“All right, les’ go now.”

Duncan lurched to his feet, swaying, off balance. Ash stood up and put her arm around his waist, to steady him. She was glad her hotel was close; she doubted he could walk far, even with her help. She picked up his dark coat from the back of the couch; she could tell by its weight that MacLeod’s katana was concealed inside it. Ash got him into the coat, and they left the club by the back door, stepping out into an alley. Duncan draped his arm over Ash’s shoulders. He needed the support, he was leaning on her heavily and unsteady on his feet.

They stumbled through the quiet, deserted side streets. Walking grew increasingly difficult for MacLeod, Ash’s strength could barely keep him upright, and he was stumbling so badly that they lurched into a wall. Ash leaned him against the wall, Duncan’s eyes were starting to roll back, his knees were beginning to buckle, and Ash was worried that he was going to collapse right there.

“Duncan, wake up, we’re almost there, don’t pass out now.” She shook him, trying to get him to revive. Duncan tried to focus on her, blinking and shaking his head.

Ash’s head snapped up and a second later Duncan’s did too. They both sensed the presence of another Immortal, and whoever it was they were close and getting closer. MacLeod visibly straightened, trying to hold off the end product of so much Scotch, but it didn’t matter. Ash would never let him fight in this condition.

She handed him the bottle, saying, “You take care of the bottle and let me take care of this, you’re in no shape for a challenge.”

He took the bottle, but said inconsistently, “You think I’m gonna let you fight for me, think again.”

Ash could see he was going to be chivalrous about the situation, however stupid that was, and there was no time for a long argument. She looked in his eyes and said in that special deep velvet voice, “It’s all right, Donnchaid, I can handle this. Why don’t you watch? You’ve never seen me fight, it could be interesting.”

“I’m no’ lettin’ a woman fight for me!” He almost yelled it.

‘Great,’ Ash thought, ‘Drunken stubbornness, and he’s harder to put under, a perfect combination.’ She pushed harder, her voice deeper, her eyes intense, and she deliberately shocked him. “Donnchaid, I haven’t lived two thousand years by being easy prey.”

As she intended, MacLeod’s fogged brain was stopped cold. He’d had no idea Ash was that old, and it took him a moment to take in the concept.

In that moment the source of the presence turned the corner.

Tall, slender, blonde, Ash had never seen him before. She glanced at MacLeod, judging by the expression of confusion, he’d never seen him either.

“I’m looking for Duncan MacLeod, I presume that you are he.” The voice was cultured and bore a trace of accent, difficult to place.

“Whatever your business is with MacLeod, you can discuss it with me.”

Ash took a step forward; glad she had dressed for the evening in flat shoes and a full skirt for easy maneuverability. She removed her loose jacket, worn as much to conceal the falcatas strapped to her back as for the light chill in the air, and handed it to Duncan; then she tugged her blouse out of the waistband of the skirt.
“And what are you?  His pet? Or is he your pet?” The man’s sharp blue eyes took in MacLeod’s state and he sneered, “He looks like he needs a keeper. I’d heard he was tough, it seems they were wrong.”

Goaded, MacLeod pushed away from the wall, but Ash put her hand on his chest and pushed him back, saying, “No, Donnchaid, just watch.” She smiled into his eyes, a smile so cold it chilled him, and something in her eyes compelled him to do as she said.

Ash stepped away from Duncan, her right hand moving up behind her shoulder, reaching into her loose-necked blouse, coming out with the falcata.

The stranger reached into his coat and brought out a schiavona, shrugging out of the coat after he did so.

MacLeod realized how serious this was, and a rush of adrenalin cleared his head. He straightened, and concentrated on the combatants. Duncan noticed Ash’s odd sword, the balance of it reminded him of a tomahawk or a small battle-axe, although it had a sharp point and could be used in a thrust. 

Most Immortals fought in a combination of styles, each picked up over the centuries. Ash had changed her style very little. What worked in the arena two thousand years ago worked just as well now. MacLeod expected the usual tentative feeling-out of the unknown opponent, the almost balletic dance of steel. He expected grace and fluid swordplay, what he saw was a cross between an execution and a slaughterhouse.

It did start out gracefully enough. Ash moved delicately, on the balls of her feet, like a dancer or an expert fighter. She waited for the blonde man to attack, waited for the chance to slip in under his guard. Too small for a long sword, her technique was to get in close and fast, and deadly. She knew the schiavona, the long thin blade, it was a cut and thrust weapon, and Ash wondered which would come first. It was a thrust, the stranger’s sword hitting her in the upper right arm. She winced, and the stranger smiled too soon.

From his vantage point MacLeod saw it clearly, saw what the stranger never saw and never would, Ash’s left hand slipping back, coming out with the second blade. It came in low, hitting the stranger on the inside of the right thigh. In the draw cut Ash opened an artery and blood erupted. He had time for his face to register surprise, briefly, before being hit in the left chest by the other blade. It cut to the bone, breaking two ribs, and knocked the air from his lungs.

The stranger’s last thought was ‘How can she hit so hard?’ The stranger’s last sight was the flash of both blades soaring toward his neck.

The headless body fell and the lighting arced into her, driving her down. Duncan could feel a backflow like static electricity dancing over him, warming his skin, energizing him. When the Quickening was over he went to her. Reaching down, he heard her quiet laughter. A chill came over him as he realized that there was a part of Ash that loved the fighting and the killing. She was very good at it, but how else could she survive? He was still stunned by the thought of her age, and made a joke about it.

“Not bad for an old lady. Remind me to never pick a fight wi’ you, you fight sneaky.”

“When you’re my size you need an advantage, surprise is mine.”

Ash stood. Her clothes were splashed with blood, and Duncan gave her his coat to cover the stains.

Ash could never clearly remember how they got to her hotel. She remembered stumbling down the hall and fumbling the key into the lock, opening the door, and the two of them falling on the bed. She had to lie there a moment, the Quickening buzzing in her, making her shaky and wired at the same time. When she was able to, she got up and took off Duncan’s coat.

Duncan lay sprawled across the bed. The adrenaline had worn off but the Scotch hadn’t and Ash had to help him undress, the complexities of buttons and belt and zipper too much for his intoxicated brain or inept fingers. It was obvious that even through the haze of alcohol he wanted her. He couldn’t undress himself though his hands kept touching her, caressing her, and together with the Quickening fire rushing through her body it was driving her mad with need.

“Duncan, please don’t.”

“Use me. Use my body. I can feel the desire in you. I can feel the Quickening humming under your skin, along your veins, burn it out wi’ me.”

Duncan was nude except for boxers, now he rushed to complete his undressing in such clumsy haste that he tore the thin Egyptian cotton. Once they were torn he simply ripped them down the side and threw them to the floor. He reached for Ash, his arousal obvious.

“Please hold me, make love to me. Drive the shadows away, yours an’ mine. I know how you want to; I know how it feels, the flashes of strange memories, the pounding energy, the craving…”

He couldn’t undress himself but he was undressing her, his fingers finding her skin, feeling the energy in her, catching it in his hands and feeling it resonating in his own body. He fell back on the bed, taking her with him, on top of him, kissing her. Ash sat up and straddled Duncan; he clutched her thighs, drawing her to him. He was inside her, pulling her to him, deep inside her, at the same time pulling himself up to her until he was sitting up, his face close to hers. Duncan opened his eyes and looked into hers, his golden brown eyes were shades darker than usual, dilated, beautiful. They seemed to connect with the same invisible energy; they could both feel it. Duncan pulled her even closer, Ash couldn’t look away, nothing existed but his eyes, nothing but this feeling, nothing but the sound of his soft moans. He was holding her hips, arching up into her hard, far harder than he would have with a mortal woman, almost too far into pain, almost as wild and desperate as she was.

Ash’s fingernails dug into his shoulders, deep enough to cause bleeding, the healing flashes following the furrows she clawed down his back as he cried out, “Oh please yes, please harder, more, more…” Duncan’s fingers dug into her hips, his powerful hands leaving deep bruises that took minutes to fade, and he hid his face against her neck, then turning his head he bit her shoulder, biting her hard in a futile effort not to cry out as he came, blood-hot inside her. 

He came for what seemed to be forever, the cry ultimately fading like the bruises, Duncan’s body relaxing, becoming heavier and heavier in her arms, until Ash let him fall back onto the pillows. He had finally passed out.

Ash woke him twice; it took that much to slake her desperate thirst for him. The first time Duncan had been drowsy, barely conscious, falling back to sleep as soon as he climaxed. The second time he had responded passionately, rolling on top of her, taking her hard, making her whimper in helpless ecstasy. They fell asleep, tangled together, not to wake again until afternoon.

In the afternoon they had lain in bed in each others arms and talked, making plans for a future that would never be.

“It’s getting far too dangerous in Poland; you need a new base of operations, why not Portugal?  Those who are out need a place to go. We could smuggle people into Palestine together. We could work together, be together.”

Duncan had sounded so convincing, and Ash had agreed to join him. But she had to go back for one more run, to save the last few she could before it all fell apart. The last run. The one that got her caught. The one that ended at Auschwitz, and then von Kaltenberg. After that she was too dirty, too damaged, she couldn’t go to him. She had nothing to give him or anyone, or so she’d thought.

But Ash had started to fragment before she got to Auschwitz. The memory surfaced again, the capture, her and the children she had been leading through the sewers under Warsaw. The cattle car, where she quieted the children with chocolate hidden in her coat, chocolate that tasted bittersweet, laced with a sedative. They all fell into a deep sleep.

“It was best, it saved them from the gas chamber, they died painlessly, without fear. It was the only thing I could do for them.” Ash whispered to herself.

The sedative had been hard to get. There wasn’t enough to kill them in the chocolate, only enough to put them deeply under. She hadn’t brought her falcatas, she had been carrying a large-bladed knife but it was taken from her. There had been no other way. One by one she had tenderly lifted the small sleeping bodies, and one by one Ash had broken their necks with her bare hands. When they opened the door of the cattle car at Birkenau, she was sitting, staring blankly, surrounded by twenty-three dead children, still holding the last one. 

Soldiers pulled the body away from her and dragged her out, and an S.S. officer looked her up and down, smiled, and said,  “You want to kill Jews? We have a job here for you.” He assigned her to the Sonderkommando and she began her work detail in the gas chambers.

Ash shuddered and covered her face with her hands, pushing the memory down again. The last one. The little boy whose name she never knew and never would know, but she could never forget his face, or his huge dark eyes.

After a few minutes she lowered her hands and reached down to brush Duncan’s hair back from his pale forehead.

“I’m sorry, Duncan. I should have helped you. I should have gone to you before it got so bad you felt you had no other way out, but I couldn’t bring myself to offer you anything as filthy and used as I know I am. I only hope that I can help you now.”

Ash covered him again, and went out to check Methos. He was still sleeping and Ash smiled sadly, thinking, ‘You said you roamed the house by day, and the streets by night, how little you must have slept since you left Duncan.’ He’d rolled over on his back, arms stretched out, right leg bent at the knee. He’d thrown off the blanket. The amethyst-gray sweater had ridden up, revealing his stomach and left nipple and the faded jeans had slipped down, showing the beginning curls of his pubic hair. His muscled chest and stomach rose and fell with his breathing.

Ash closed her eyes. She was almost overwhelmed by the need to touch him, desire flaring up in her. She wanted to kiss her way down the almost invisible line of fine hair that led from his navel to those beginning curls. She wanted to make love to him again. The sight of him was almost too much, and she covered Methos to conceal the too-tempting sight of his body, thinking, ‘Damn it Methos, when you brought my desire back to life you had no idea what it would do to me.’ She had to turn away and find something to do or she would wake him, and she knew he would need the rest.

She walked over to the hospital bed and the box on top of it. She opened the box and pulled out the restraints, the smell of new leather filling the air. She fastened the restraints to the bed, carefully examining them. Thick leather cuffs, lined with sheepskin so as not to chafe, heavy, but flexible, with metal buckles, not Velcro, Ash didn’t trust Velcro to hold against MacLeod’s strength. She examined the bed, checking the strength of the frame the restraints were secured to. Then she unpacked and fastened the thick pads for the bed itself, cushioning the steel rails of the bed, to prevent injury from Duncan thrashing and pounding against them. Ash knew any injury would heal, but there was no reason not to spare him any preventable pain. She did expect the worst, and her thoughts were not pleasant. Ash stood over the fully prepared hospital bed, with a look of fathomless grief on her face.

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