The Broken Clay (Part 1)
Highlander/Raven slash. Amanda & Duncan. U.

AUTHOR'S DEDICATION: Assailed by a serpentine conscience I stand mesmerised, caught between his feral magnetism and my unwillingness to risk that which I hold most precious. Yet, yet I cannot turn aside. I am bound by the gestures of instinct, the ritual of the hunt. Even as it must end in death – be it symbolic or material – I am trapped in a maelstrom of intellect and emotion. He smiles, a tiny signifier, but so tangible a foothold I must grasp it else it fades and is lost. A word, a throwaway sentence – the briefest of biographies – I swallow whole. Like some perverse St Vitus' dancer I am forced to play the fool. Stumbling and twitching in full view of the aghast spectators I re-enact my very own theatre of the absurd: a love song with no validity… (December, 2004)

Shapes: a crocodile's head of land, high rock descending to a stone snout; thick fortifications encapsulating a huddled grid of tenements and provincial palaces. Marks left by the crushing fist of history, layered and pummelled into the semblance of order.

Colours: baked dark loam crashing against the bleached bone of wall. Faded candy-striped awnings in parchment, carmine, verdi gris; the burgundy of a church roof juxtaposed against a rainbow roof line of ochres. Sky pale, cloudless – the memory of azure. A sea the colour of aberdonian granite.

Everywhere dust, stone, crowds, noise…

Valletta, Malta, 2009. Three weeks into an unrelenting June relieved only partly by a motley collection of mummified palms and infrequent ice-cold beverages brought from the café's art deco interior. Despite the dry impasse of the weather Duncan's erstwhile companion gave little sign of impending discomfort. Indeed with her close-cropped bleached hair and cappuccino tan she looked far cooler than his beer. If anything about her situation came close to stirring her it was Duncan himself, who was paying her less attention than the ruddy-faced Europeans leering at her from over the sweating rims of empty glasses.

"Remind me why we're here again?" she looked askance at her fellow journeyman currently slouched with his chin on his chest and worrying the shattered earth beneath their table with lazy insistence.

"Hmm?" A dull boot raking flakes into alien sigils. Motes of dust scrabbling for purchase in the thin air, falling breathless to earth.

"I mean the Med is so passé this season. All the action's over in Buenos Ares and the Earth Summit." She briefly considered raising an eyebrow to punctuate this fact.

"We always come here. You used to love the mad bustle of the citadel". Listless his eyes roved the small square and neighbouring tables. Still anywhere but her direction.

"We haven't always come here in centuries." Cross now. She wasn't even sure she had been here before, at least not with him. Suddenly a gaggle of Japanese schoolgirls snaked past all talking excitedly at once. Seconds later Hortez sidled out of a darkened side street starting after them, milky right eye twitching wetly in his hungry face. Off his head on LIL again, she thought. There's one like him down every alley in every country: the tattered dregs of youth with angelic bodies and vulpine minds. The noise of the ensuing altercation soon echoed off the close stone walls of the square. She shifted uncomfortably in the plastic sling of the chair, momentarily aware that even in the relative shade the material threatened to burn her bare skin. "If you insist on sitting here any longer the least you can do is get me some more wine." Wordlessly Duncan heaved himself upright, muscular forearms glistening against the metal frame of the chair. As she watched he half-lumbered across the narrow pavement into the darkened recess of the café front narrowly missing Hortez loping back to his own twilight lair. It was, she thought, turning into one of those decades.

Inside the café the humidity was oppressive. Electric candles glared off huge gilt mirrors strategically placed to hide the absence of windows. Along the left-handside a massive glass counter stretched half-way to the back wall. Beneath the thick layer of gelid condensation ice-cream shared prominence with vintage wines. Impervious to the faded glamour of the establishment – and it seemed to the climate – immaculately dressed waiters in pristine white shirts and charcoal waistcoats negotiated safe passage between tightly-packed patrons. For a moment Duncan stood staring at the huddled masses waiting to be served at the bar, then, too fatigued even to sigh, he headed downstairs to the toilets. Surprisingly the basement was empty of people. A scum of indiscernible origin clung to old flagstones and bottom part of the walls. The lowest point of the floor was fifty or so feet above sea level but somehow the liquid detritus of the harbour outside had wormed itself into the bedrock and ancient dock workings, seeping into the medieval roots of the buildings above. Mixed with the humid atmosphere and the slight foetid breath of an aging sewer system the cafe's basement was not a fragrant place to loiter. Methodically Duncan pushed open the dark panelling of the gents' door and crossed to an urinal. He felt as if he was on autopilot, actions controlled by the unforgiving sun and by an indefinable sense of listlessness which had grown over the past months. As his bladder emptied, adding his own masculine scent to the air, he wondered if he should have taken his companion's advice and gone to Argentina instead. Perhaps the antagonism inherent in the summit would have sparked a response in him. Once more his adopted America had found itself ranged against the more aggressively environmental might of Greater Europe. Without the calming influence of the Korean chairwoman trade sanctions would already have been set in motion. He hadn't seen a good old fashioned political fracas in years.

The hot water tap spluttered briefly into life under his fingers scalding his palm and sending a plume of steam towards the mirror. Cursing he stepped back instinctively, catching sight of his reflection in the process. The eyes staring back were not his own. In the silence he could hear the pounding of his heart. As he turned to leave the door burst open with a whipcrack. A young man grimaced in the doorway, showing a bad tooth, then lightened the response into a polite smile: "Sorry mate, here ye go." The door was held open with a pale hairy arm bearing a line of blue-green tattoos. Duncan stared at it for a moment as if not quite seeing it properly.

"C'mon mate. I need a piss." The Highlander looked down into the man's face. He was not as youthful as he first appeared: wrinkles had already begun to set in at the edges of his eyes; his temples not quite greying. A thousand responses came to his mind but the man had already pushed past him into the toilet and Duncan was never one for loitering. He left as silently as he had entered.

"Wine?" asked Amanda crossly as Duncan slumped back in his seat empty-handed. He ignored her but his eyes fixed on a figure emerging from the shop front following it back to its seat at a far away table. He seemed almost hypnotised by it, unable to remove his gaze. She peered at the figure: a man of no real beauty, homely in his way but nothing special. Bad skin, bad hair and probably a bad attitude too judging by the crude slogan on his teeshirt. "What's so special about him?"

For a brief second the raw emotion on Duncan's face was painful to see. Before she could enquire further he was on his feet and lurching towards the stranger.