Cleansing Fire - The Plague

Duncan first met Rhiannon in London during the Great Plague, when Sean Burns and Robert Kenilworth were working to save the lives of mortals. But Kenilworth has a mortal wife who is herself in danger.

MacLeod sensed there were two of them on board. He had left Methos alone, and he was not expecting anyone else. Amanda, Gina, Robert - none of them were in Paris. The unexpected invasion made him nervous, and he entered the barge with his sword drawn, his long coat swinging behind him.

Methos turned and looked at him sardonically. "For God's sake, MacLeod, put that thing away and bring in the beers."

Beside him, a young woman stood up slowly and took a step towards him.

"Hello, Duncan."

He hesitated for only a second, then he smiled, his face lighting up with pleasure.

"Rhiannon - what are you doing here?"

"I came looking for you." She smiled wryly. "It was a bit of a shock to walk in and find Methos here instead."

Duncan glanced over her shoulder to where Methos was still sitting. Methos? Surely no one else called Adam Pierson by his real name.

"You two know each other?" he asked in surprise.

"We had a passing acquaintance about two thousand years ago," Methos answered. "Hey, come on, MacLeod, what do you have to do to get a beer around here?"

"Go get 'em yourself." Duncan told him without taking his eyes off Rhiannon: not for the first time he thought Methos had a genius for getting in the way. "They're on deck."

While Duncan ignored him, Methos stumped off and came back carrying a case of bière blonde. He took out three bottles, threw one to Rhiannon and one to Duncan, and settled back with the air of someone prepared for a good show.

"You still haven't told me why you were looking for me," Duncan persisted.

Rhiannon sat down again, and he sat close beside her, thinking how beautiful she still was.

"It's Robert," she told him quietly. "I think he's gone over the edge again.

"Kenilworth? I thought he'd been okay for years."

"He had. He really had." She wasn't sure how much he knew, and she began filling him in. "You know after his wife died - after the fire - he went to Portugal, went back into a monastery. He didn't work for … centuries. Then about a hundred years ago Sean Burns found him. He spent a long time with him, trying to heal the wounds. And afterwards Robert came out of the monastery, travelled to Brazil and began working again."

"Yeah, I'd heard."

"He's been an epidemiologist, done some really important work on cholera. And he married again, about forty years ago, acquired a step family. A few years ago, he began working on an AIDS vaccine, and the word was he was making real progress. Then his step-daughter contracted HIV. She's dying, Duncan, in a hospice in Rio de Janeiro."

Duncan groaned, remembering how Robert had been after the loss of his first wife.. "History repeating itself," he commented.

"Exactly. He's really lost it this time, Duncan. I went to Rio as soon as I heard and tried to talk to him. But he wasn't making any sense at all. He was angry, hurt, all over again. And bent on revenge." She leaned towards him. "The man who infected his step-daughter was a student. He came to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, and the last they heard he was in a hospice somewhere in the outskirts. I'm not sure because I lost track of him, but I think Robert has followed him here."

"And you want me to help you find him?"

"No, I want you to help me find Sean Burns. Duncan, he's the only person who can help Robert"

Duncan got up abruptly and went to the window of the boat, staring out. Behind him there was a moment of strained silence, then he said harshly,

"Sean Burns is dead."

"Dead! How? Who took his head?"

He could hear the anger in her voice, the desire - however fleeting - for revenge.

"I killed him…" The words stuck in his craw, and he had to swallow a couple of times before he could get them out.

"You?" The shock in Rhiannon's voice was palpable.

"He wasn't exactly himself at the time," Methos said softly, his voice as dry as dust.

Duncan turned slowly and faced her, leaning heavily against the bulkhead.

"I had a Dark Quickening," he told her.

Rhiannon stared. "I thought they were a myth?"

"Most people do," Methos remarked.

"This one was real enough, believe me." He closed his eyes. "I went to find Sean because I thought he could help me. But then when I was trying to talk to him, the darkness took over, and I killed him."

Rhiannon got up and came over to Duncan, gently took his hands in hers. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's hurt you to remember."

He forced himself to meet her eyes - and saw pity in them.

"You were his friend," he said curtly. "You have the right to know what happened."

"How did you escape?" she asked him.

Duncan looked over her shoulder, towards Methos, remembering. "Your friend there knew the antidote."

"Well, he's been around a bit," she smiled.

"Yeah, he has."

"Come on." She took his hand and led him back to the sofa. On the other side of him, Methos opened another beer and put it into his hand.

"So fill me in," he said. "Who's this Robert Kenilworth?"

Duncan glanced at Rhiannon. "He's a scientist," he said heavily. "When I first met Rhiannon, he and Sean Burns were running a plague hospital in London." He sat back, remembering. "Most of the physicians had left London. Those that were left were ignorant and overworked. Robert and Sean had more knowledge between them than most of the rest put together… The trouble was, Kenilworth had a mortal wife."

Duncan stared into his beer, recollections coming thick and fast now.

It was in a coaching about thirty miles outside London. He had eaten a meal in the snug, and was heading up into his room when he sensed the presence of an immortal. He began to move cautiously along the corridor until, outside one firmly closed door, the buzz stopped him in his tracks. Duncan took a deep breath, drew his sword, opened the door and stepped inside.

"I'm Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacL--" he began, but he never finished the sentence. For lying on the large four-poster bed in the middle of the room, and plainly naked beneath the sheet that half-covered her, was a young woman with a mass of honey-coloured cascading in curls about her shoulders.

He would have apologised and withdrawn, but before he could speak she was out of the bed and on her feet, her own sword in her hands, her bare feet planted squarely on the floor.

"And I am Rhiannon of Pen-y-Gwrhyd."

He swallowed and took a step backwards, but the woman followed. Her eyes confronted him, unabashed, unafraid, her face set hard and determined. But at the same time, she had a sensuous beauty that she carried so easily… He couldn't look away - the way she was carrying her sword it could cost him his head. But he could feel himself flushing.

"I've no desire to take your head, lady. Not unless you're thinking of coming after mine."

"Well, that's good," she murmured. "Because if you want my head, you're going to have to learn to keep your eyes on my sword arm."

She moved so swiftly he had no time to defend himself. And suddenly he was aware of his sword clattering on the floor beyond reach, and the feel of cold steel against his neck. It rested there for a fraction of a second - long enough for him to taste fear. Then she lowered her sword and smiled.

"On the other hand, I can think of a lot of things I'd rather do with you that take your head, Duncan MacLeod."

She left her sword quivering, point down, between the floor boards, stepped towards him and kissed him. He responded, clumsily at first, still recovering from the shock, then with passion.

After a moment, he lifted her lightly and lay her back on the bed and began to tear at clothes. But she stopped him, stilled his hands, and after a moment began to undress him slowly herself.

"You're good," he said, sometime later.

"Mm? As a lover or a swordswoman?" she purred.


"Well, you're not bad yourself, Duncan MacLeod. You're very gentle, for a warrior."

"I've told you, I mean you no harm, Rhiannon."

"I know. But real gentleness is rarer than you think." She ran her finger down his chest. "All the same, you've a lot to learn. There are plenty of female immortals out there who would have taken advantage of your… distraction without a second thought."

"I thought you did take advantage of it?"

"You've still got your head on your shoulders, haven't you?"

"Aye," he answered comfortably from amongst the pillows. "So are you offering to teach me?"

"I might," she smiled. "If I thought it was worth my while. I'm riding to London. Where are you heading?"

"London? What do you want to go there for? I hear it's full of plague."

"I have some friends there who are running a plague hospital."

"A pest house, you mean?"

"They wouldn't call it that. And they wouldn't thank anyone else for it either," she reproved him. "I'm taking them money for medicine and food."

"On your own? Och, a lady like yourself should not be carrying money in these parts without some protection."

Rhiannon laughed, throwing back he head so that her hair fell in a silky cascade down he back.

"I don't need your protection, Duncan MacLeod," she scoffed. "But I'd welcome your company."

The hospital they were heading for was on the site of an old monastery. "Holy Ground," Rhiannon remarked. Like every other hospital in London, it was painfully overcrowded. Bed space had long since been filled, and the ill and dying lay on pallets in the corridors and quadrangles, forcing those still mobile to step over them as they moved about.

Sean Burns, Robert Kenilworth and his wife had kept a couple of small apartments for themselves high up the a corner of one wing. There, in the evenings when they were too exhausted for anything else, they would sit and drink beer and talk over the events of the day.

Sean was a Physician of the Royal College. Most of his mortal colleagues had fled to the safety of the countryside, leaving the care of the sick to the lowly and previously despised apothecaries. And he felt keenly that the credit he gained by remaining in London - invulnerable as he was - was ill deserved.

Robert was not a doctor, but a scientist. For many years, when in Christian Europe, science and medicine had been all but smothered in superstition, he had worked in the East. And then, as ideas had begun to open up again, he had returned to England, worked in a monastery. When the monasteries were destroyed, he found other ways of working, relishing the new freedom of thought that was becoming possible.

He had been working to understand the causes of bubonic plague when he had met Sean and been sucked into his healing mission. To begin with, it had been nothing more than an opportunity for study, a chance to test his theories. But by now it had become a vocation for him too. The sickness and dying surrounding him distressed him deeply, and he worked frantically, looking for a cure.

His wife, Margaret, helped to nurse the patients. Robert had tried everything he could to get her to leave London, but she would not go. And every day, like Sean and Robert, she walked among the patents, bringing them drinks, making them comfortable, feeding them the medicines that Sean prescribed.

Somehow they found room for Duncan and Rhiannon. And for a while the two of them stayed, running errands and making themselves useful as best they could. As well as the medicines they brought with Rhiannon's money, Robert sent them out into the country with instructions to look for herbs. This was something Rhiannon had done before, and she knew the best places to go to get feverfew, chamomile and other rarer herbs.

Away from the censorious eyes of what was left of London society. Rhiannon was free to kick off the trappings of a lady that plainly irritated her, and travel as a man. She and Duncan rode and fought and made love among the fields and hedgerows and copses of the countryside outside London.

"It's getting harder and harder for me to be a warrior," she told Duncan. "When I was your age, I could carry a sword openly and no one questioned it. Even a few years ago, before the Civil War, if I ruled myself and paid not allegiance to no man, I was considered eccentric, but no worse. But now - if a woman has a place in society, then she is expected to sit and simper and make herself beautiful, and busy herself with music and sewing."

"It's not that bad!" Duncan protested.

"No? You try asking a gentleman today if he considers educating his daughters and see what answers you get."

Duncan smiled, running his hands through her long hair. "I still find it hard to see you as a warrior."

"Still?" she retorted. "I'll have to give you some more lessons."

"Och, I know you're a good swordswoman. But--"

"Duncan, I was raised to lead and protect my people, just like you were. When my people died, I fought for my country for more than a thousand years."

"So what happened? Why did you leave?"

"When the English king killed the last Prince of Wales and installed his own son in his place, I had no country left to fight for - I had to get away. I spent a couple of centuries in Brittany - then ended up back in England." She smiled. "Ironic, isn't it? I actually quite like the English these days."

"Aye. So do I. So long as they keep their hands off Scotland."

"Don't count on it, Duncan. What happened to Wales will happen to Scotland."

"Och, no. That'll never happen. We've got a Stuart king on the throne. "

"And before that we had Tudor kings on the throne for over a hundred years. And Wales is still a subject nation of England." She shook her head at Duncan. "I give Scotland another fifty years before she's ruled from Westminster."

"Well, if that happens, I'll have to stop liking the English and start fighting them again," he said.

"Then Scotland will have a good sword on her side," she smiled.

It was late at night when Margaret first began to show symptoms of illness. She had a headache and began to feel sick. But it was a hot, oppressive summer's evening, and she managed to persuade Robert that she was just tired and affected by the heat. By morning, however, her temperature was high and she had begun to shiver. Robert and Sean had seen the onset of the disease too often for there to be any mistaking the symptoms.

Duncan and Rhiannon were sent out into the countryside, ostensibly to get fresh supplies of herbs for medicine, but really because they could only get in the way. When they returned, Margaret was very gravely ill. The tell-tale swellings that characterised plague victims had appeared in her neck and groin, and she was weak and delirious. Robert was distracted with worry. Sean had banished his unquiet presence from the sick room in the hopes of getting Margaret to sleep a little, and in their small sitting room he railed against himself, against her, against the whole world.

"Stupid. Stubborn… I tried to make her understand the risks she was taking, but she wouldn't listen to me"

"Margaret knew the risks," Rhiannon told him gently. "She stayed because she needed to be with you."

"Then I should have left. To hell with the work here. To hell with everything. I should have gone away with her, somewhere safe."

"And throw away the chance of finding a cure? Of stopping all the dying?"

Kenilworth swung his arm wildly, as if sweeping aside the mortal world. "What does it matter if I find a cure? They are all going to die anyway"

"You don't mean that," Duncan told him sharply.

Robert's body went limp. "…They all die anyway…" he repeated in a different voice. Tears began to roll down his cheeks, and Rhiannon went and put her arms round him.

"If anyone can help Margaret, Sean can" she told him soothingly. "You know that."

She held him until he was quiet again, then she said gently, "Go on. You go back inside. Margaret needs you now."

Duncan stared after Robert's departing back.

"Is it worth it?" he asked grimly. "To love someone so much, knowing that you're going to lose them?"

"You know it's worth it," Rhiannon said softly. "You've loved someone and lost them, haven't you? In seventy years you must have done. Are you telling me you'd rather you'd never loved."

"No, of course not. But Robert seems to take it so hard."

Rhiannon stared at the closed door of the sick room. "Yes," she agreed. "Robert's always has a problem with mortal dying. Sometimes it seems as if every individual death pains him beyond bearing. And at other times he talks as if the fact that they are all going to die anyway makes them just so much cannon fodder."

"I've met a few immortals who've thought like that. Robert's not like them."

"No. Robert is a good man at heart. But I don't believe he's ever decided if immortality is a gift or a curse. And it's not as though the thought just comes to him occasionally, like it does to all of us. It's with him every waking moment."

"Then he'll make a curse of it," Duncan commented.

"Yes. I think perhaps he has."

Three days later, Margaret died. Almost at once, weakened by the strain he had been under, Robert became ill. Sean, knowing that Robert needed no help from him, asked Duncan and Rhiannon to smuggle Robert out of London into the countryside where he could recuperate in peace. There was nowhere they could openly take a plainly infected man, so they took him in a closed carriage to a deserted cow byre they had found in the months previous and used for other purposes. There was hay there, and clean straw, and they made a tolerably comfortable bed for Robert and another for themselves, and waited.

It took a day or two for the fever to recede. While he was still ill, he talked feverishly, of Margaret and of his love, and of his grief. But once he was well gain, he would not speak of her at all, or of what had happened. It was as if he had shut down that part of him that had ever known Margaret. One night, he took one of the horses that they had brought with them, and simply disappeared. He did not return to the hospital, and for a long time no one had any idea where he had gone.

With the coming of the cold whether, the worst of the epidemic was over, and life gradually began returning to the capital. .All the places that had been closed down by the plague, the theatres, the ale houses, all began opening up again…The demands on the hospital receded, and for a while Sean, Duncan and Rhiannon were able to enjoy themselves. Both Duncan and Rhiannon went their own ways, but several times they met all met up again. Then they both got a message from Sean that Robert was back in town.

"He's talking wildly of having found the cause of the plague - of knowing how to stop it from happening again. I don't know if I am dealing with a genius or a madman, and I would welcome your support," Sean wrote.

They met in the little sitting room at the top of the now nearly empty hospital. Robert had changed almost out of recognition. He has lost weight and his neat-trimmed hair and beard had grown wild and straggly. And his eyes were too bright, as if feverish. He looked as if he had not slept in a long time.

"It's the rats," he said. "Rats spread the plague. I don't know how they do it, but the rats are the key, I'm sure of it. We have to find a way of killing the rats - all of them, as soon as possible, before it starts again."

With an effort, the three of them managed to calm Robert and get him to sleep a little. For a while, the three of them sat on, trying to decide if Robert was crazy or not, and what to do either way.

In the morning, he was no better. He swamped them with evidence for his deductions that only Sean understood, and then only partly. And he railed about schemes for killing the rats. But he wasn't carrying them with him, and he knew it. Halfway through the afternoon, he disappeared again.

And a few days later, the fire started.

"Wait a minute," Methos interrupted. "Are you saying this Kenilworth guy started the Great Fire of London?"

"I don't think he actually started it, no," Duncan admitted. "He was coming across London Bridge and saw the flames. And instead of trying to put out the fire, he made sure that it would spread.

"From what we could find out, he went on a kind of four-day spree, carrying the fire from one building to the next, one street to the next. Not that it needed much help, in that wind, and with most of the building made of wood. And then of course it was days before there was any organised fire fighting."

"Couldn't you have stopped him?" Methos demanded.

"We never associated it with Kenilworth. We thought he'd just gone off on his own again. And in any case we busy trying to save the hospital."

"We only found out afterwards, when Robert came back," said Rhiannon.

His clothes were scorched, his hair and beard singed. His face was black with soot, and although he appeared outwardly clam, there was a manic gleam in his eyes.

"I did it," he told them. "The rats are dead, I have stopped the plague."

"Robert, what do you mean?" Sean asked him urgently.

"I burnt it all down. The rats had nowhere to go. They perished in the heat. I've seen their bodies everywhere."

"What have you done, Robert?"

"I made the fire grow. Don't you see? Cleansing fire. The city has been made clean again."

"Kenilworth - people died in that fire"

"Oh, what, eight people?"

"It could have been a lot more."

"What of it?" he ranted. "Do you know how many the plague killed? How many it would have killed? And I have saved them. I have saved them all…"

Once again, Sean persuaded him to stay at the hospital for the night. But whether it was the memories that surrounded him there, or the inevitable low after the manic high, he was seized by a black depression, repeating over and over, "I couldn't save Margaret. Why couldn't I save Margaret? If I'd realised sooner, while she was still alive, I might have saved Margaret…" Over and over, and even Sean could not get through the blackness.

"Not long after that, we heard he'd gone to Portugal," Rhiannon said. "He buried himself for centuries in a monastery, among a silent order of monk - until Sean found him."

Rhiannon suddenly looked very tired. Duncan heard the slight catch in her voice as she spoke Sean's name, and it seemed to put a rift - small but imperceptible - between them.

"It's late," she said. "With Sean dead, I need some time to rethink what to do. Can we meet again tomorrow?"

"Of course," said Duncan. "But listen, you're welcome to stay here"

"No, thank you. I've got somewhere to go. Really."

"Okay. If you're sure?"

"I'm sure."

Methos got up with her.

"I'll walk with you," he said to Rhiannon, and Duncan was grateful that for once Methos was not staying around to be annoying.

Once alone he searched among his shelves for a book he remembered - one that Sean Burns had given him years before. As he searched he could feel, faintly but unmistakably, Sean's presence, soothing and steadying him.

Eventually he found the book he was looking for - a copy of Daniel Defoe's 'Diary of a Plague Year' that Sean had given him when it was all over, when they had all gone their own ways. He sat down again where Methos and Rhiannon had sat, turning the pages of the book, remembering.

At the time of the Dark Quickening, Sean's presence inside him had been so vivid. Like no other quickening he had ever taken, Sean had remained a recognisable personality. At the edge of the pool where Methos had taken him, it had even seemed to him that they had talked. But by now the awareness had receded, until most of the time it was like something half-glimpsed out of the corner of his eye - not even there unless he remembered. Until Rhiannon brought it all back to the surface again.

"The tragic thing is," he heard (or did he remember?) Sean saying "that Robert was right. The fire did stop the plague."

"Yeah. Ironic isn't it?"

He closed his eyes, remembering how Rhiannon's had looked when he told her that he had killed Sean.

"It wasn't you that killed me, Duncan," Sean said quietly. Or seemed to say.

"Tell that to Rhiannon," he muttered to himself. And shut the book.

continued in Part 3: The Fire.

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Created by Catriona Troth

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Last updated 12/04/1997