© Jill with assistance from Lorie
Methos held Alexa's arm carefully as they boarded the plane, trying to support her without being obvious about it. He could see how hard it was for her to hide the pain she was in. Her skin was hot under his palm. She smelled of apples, but underneath was the scent of death. He blinked back tears and cursed himself for his inability to protect her.
He settled her in the window seat, and her eyes brightened as she turned her beautiful smile on him. The smile was sunlight and innocence. There were no words. They had said many things to each other in the short time they had been given. Now they rode an airplane towards the only hope he had left. If he could not get her there in time, he would succumb if only to spare her further suffering. It had happened before when he failed and he had created what safeguards he could against it happening again.
Safeguards. Would she be there, this time? She came the first time, he had once believed, because she had no choice. The compulsion he planted had brought her when the signs triggered it. He had been almost as astonished to see her as she was to see him. It had been so long. The second time he had not truly expected her but there she was. She swore she had only come to help his lover. This time... this time there was a telephone number and he had called it desperately, but she was not at her apartment. He hoped that meant she was waiting for them. He could not help Alexa alone.
They had one suitcase and the coffin. To Methos' almost-surprise they were allowed through customs without difficulty. Her influence, he was almost certain. She had paved the way for him with the Chinese who held power in this place. They had to stop for a while, Methos holding Alexa when the pain overwhelmed her. She was stoic and made no sound, though she huddled in his arms, trembling. At last the wave passed and she opened her eyes, liquid brown with blue and green flecks. He could drown in those eyes. He already had. She spoke quietly. "Promise me again."
"You know it's a promise I may not be able to keep."
She touched his lips with her hot fingers. "Promise me, anyway."
He sighed and kissed her knuckles, tasting the salt and sweetness of her skin on his lips. "I promise."
And they went on. Eventually they had to hire horses to ride and a pack pony to tow the coffin. The mountains, with treacherous slopes of scree and fields of snow, beckoned them ever higher. The air was cold, dry and so utterly clear you could see forever. If only they had forever.... Alexa and Methos drank the sights in, almost able to forget the agony which rested within her frail body. Then Methos saw the almost invisible break in the sheer cliff-face ahead of them, and he took them to it and inside.
Holy Ground. As ever there was the sensation of some presence watching him. What archaeologists would give to discover this place. It was older than he could remember, and it had been abandoned even then. It was here where, the first time in his life perhaps when he was a thousand, his friend and he had brought their wives to try to protect them from the ancient enemy. They had succeeded. By the next his friend was dead. That second time had cost him everything, and yet sometimes he dreamed of what had happened afterward and longed for it. He knew, without a doubt, that his third time he would have been unable to resist if she had not been there to help him. So it was not as much of a shock as it might have been when he felt an Immortal presence and looked up to see her sitting on the steps, waiting for them.
She stood as they approached. She was dressed in loose-fitting stone-washed levis and a sleeveless, white silk shirt. Her multi-shaded auburn hair cascaded down her back, the curls he remembered flattened by some chemical magic the modern age employed. She did not look at him but only at Alexa and said softly, her voice low and warm, "Welcome. I am Cassandra. I'm here to help you."
Alexa seemed caught by the other woman's eyes. Methos was not surprised; this had happened with the two previous wives. Slowly, she slipped off of her horse, seeming barely conscious of him when he put his arms out to steady her. She stepped towards Cassandra and he could see in her wincing movement that the pain was growing again. He bit his lips and waited, for this was ritual and he had taught her what to do. He watched her stop and reach her hands out, saw Cassandra twine their fingers together and wait for the shorter, golden haired woman to speak. "I am Alexa Bond. Woman to woman." She turned and moved toward Methos, her face pale and strained, she reached for his hands and he took hers like Cassandra had. She met his eyes for a long moment, blinking back tears. She spoke, her voice trembling. "Woman to man. Help me. Free me."
And he spoke at the same moment as Cassandra did, both of them using the ancient discipline of Voice, channeling power through their vocal cords. "We will free you."
He saw the way Alexa was affected by the doubled statement. Fraught as it was with power, she had to believe them. Her belief would make it easier. He released her left hand and held only her right. Cassandra joined him, taking Alexa's left hand, and they turned the young woman towards the steps leading into the great cave. Methos ignored the grizzled Tibetan men who took charge of the horses, except to notice when two of them gathered up the coffin and followed.
Guardian entities prowled the ancient temple inside the cave. He could almost feel them. If he was willing to open up his senses and run the risk, he would probably see them. Who had carved the temple, he did not know. Who the gods were, he could not say. The written language on the stones was dead, and only the Immortal who had first brought him here had still known how to read them. And that one had learned from another, who had learned from another, who had learned... but he had not taught Methos, who chose not to wonder why anymore.
Great stone snow-tigers guarded the doors, unmoving except for the illusion of life created by wavering torches. He was glad he had not added electric lights when he thought of it the last time he had stayed here. It would have felt unnatural. Though after a time here his mind felt clear and clean, his body always felt weak. Blame it on the Yak Butter, he thought with a smile.
Alexa asked him, "Why are you smiling?"
He looked over to see that both women were watching him as they passed together into the interior of the temple. He allowed a roguish grin to cross his face. "Yak Butter plays hell with the digestion." Alexa giggled and even Cassandra smiled slightly. Methos wondered if she ever came here in the times between as he did. He thought not. She had no one here to cling to, as he did. No one whose presence was lost to her unless here.
They helped Alexa onto one of the two great stone slabs. He could see she was already beginning to curl over with pain. There's not much time, he thought. "We have to hurry," he said aloud.
Alexa looked at him with trusting eyes. "Remember your promise," she whispered.
Yes, yes. He had promised not to do anything rash to end her suffering. And yet he knew the pain would ultimately drive her mad, and she herself would beg him to end it. He closed his eyes and swallowed his grief. "I remember."
The two Tibetan men opened the coffin. With utmost care they brought out the corpse within. Long dead, mostly a skeleton. The brownish hair looked brittle. The lovely white dress was stained. Methos could not look at it and instead concentrated on the beauty of Alexa, who just as intently avoided looking at it by staring into his eyes. He sensed rather than saw the Tibetans lay out the corpse on the neighboring slab.
He asked her softly, "Are you afraid?"
She smiled and gave a slight shake of her head. "Not of this. Of what will happen to you if this doesn't work, yes."
He buried his head in her hair, memorizing again its scent and silken feel. "You shouldn't worry about me."
She caressed his hair, her fingers sending pleasant tingles down his scalp. "I should. You will live with the consequences, my love."
Cassandra cut in, her voice rich and warm and threaded with apology. "It is time."
With a final, tender kiss Methos left Alexa to the ministrations of the Tibetans and joined Cassandra at the entry arch, where she was pouring the closing arc of glittering sand running along the perimeter of the room. Alexa seemed to breathe easier once the circle was complete. Methos and Cassandra stayed at the entry, standing guard and reaching with all of their senses to feel for Ahriman's presence. It was getting closer.
The mortals wrapped the end of a long, wet strip of cloth around Alexa's right wrist. The other end they quickly and gently wrapped around the left wrist of the corpse. The men worked swiftly, as aware as were the Immortals that Ahriman was close. Methos' astonishment caught up with him. Cassandra had trained mortals in the rituals, reducing the pressure on the two of them as they did not have to both prepare Alexa and enforce the wards. He should have done something like that, and if he only trusted mortals more, he might have. Oh, Cassandra... what if these someday betray this place.... He forcibly dismissed those thoughts. If they succeeded, he would be too exhausted to care. If they failed... curiosity would be the least of his problems if he failed again. It was unbearable that he might fail this temptation again.
A bell signaled the completion of preparations, and Methos and Cassandra moved together to the slabs. Death stood over the corpse, and Life stood at Alexa's side. Men approached each of them, holding the daggers that would be used.
Cassandra's voice rolled through the air, a thrill and thrum of power. "Now is the time of the rejoining. Spirit and body will join and be at peace." She raised her arms in front of her, palms up.
Methos matched her stance and replied "Soul and flesh, come together now." The language had changed over the years, but the men assisting them... priests? acolytes? guards? knew what to do. The sharp blades were brought down on their palms, cutting deep. Blood dripped onto the wrappings, sizzled and vanished. Then Methos and Cassandra both reached down and placed their now-healing and sparking palms on the wet cloths. And the glow of their Quickenings rose up, reached out and joined, enfolding them and the two bodies they touched.
Methos' arms shook as the power surged around and in him. There was pain, the pain of loss again and the pain of sharing, of being seen and known. Cassandra cried out once, but he could not raise his eyes to glimpse her. The agony coursing through his bones had to be ignored. He locked his attention on the slab below him, watching the shape beneath him moving, transforming. He could not see clearly with the intense light and the flashes of lightning, but some sense told him it was, indeed, working. He breathed a prayer of thanks to all the gods he had ever known.
Cassandra's whole body shook and her head was thrown back. The power they channeled between them was a maddening agony and she had to take the brunt of it, being female. This she was accustomed to. Perhaps it would not have been this way, if Methos had been concerned about anyone but himself when he had trained her for this. She struggled to retain her sense of self, even as another part of her mind reached out to confirm that the ritual was proceeding successfully; that the bearers were safely away from the power ripping through the sanctified room.
The liquid in the bindings under their hands ate at their skin, slowing the Immortal healing, but a few more minutes and the light faded. There was a moment of stillness, and then the very ground beneath them shook. Methos' head cleared and he found he was on his knees, still clutching at the cloths on the slab before him. He could hear Cassandra's breathing in the now-silent room. Then there was a loud noise, and the air was filled with chanting as the knife bearers returned with their brethren. Bells rang and fragrant candles carried in, incense pots shaken over their still-trembling figures.
The knife bearers inspected the slabs and announced "J'halkah!" Neither Methos nor Cassandra knew the language, but they knew the announcement meant "success." Methos rose and his own senses confirmed it. The slab before him was empty, only the wrappings remained. Cassandra's bier was also empty. Alexa's body was now one with her spirit, and she lay naked in the space between the altars, her body appearing as though it were only asleep, not over two years dead.
The priests moved to lift her and prepare her for internment. As they washed her cold skin, then rubbed it with fragrant oils, Cassandra began the words that would complete the ritual. "Body and spirit now are one."
As was his duty, Methos spoke the alternate lines. "Flesh and soul together."
"This wholeness is at rest."
"Never to be disturbed again."
"By the powers of earth and air, fire and water."
"By the power of love and all the living."
"So be it."
Alexa's body, dressed now in a white linen shift, with greenery twined in her hair, was ready. The priests carried it to the opening in the floor, and paused while Methos touched her one last time. Then they gently carried her into the hall of the dead, where she would join the others of Methos' loves in eternal rest.
The hall was filled with music now, dancing and celebration. Cassandra and Methos stood quietly, drained of all emotion. Barely able to stay on his feet, Methos knew that Cassandra was just as exhausted. He put an arm around her and held her until the burial was complete and the stone replaced in the floor.
Then the worshippers withdrew, and they were left in silence.
He could feel a question building, sensed it as Cassandra considered what she would say. She never simply acted, but always thought first about the possible consequences. Even so, when she asked, it was not the question he had anticipated. Her voice was gentle as she said, "Why do you do this to yourself?"
He shivered as his thoughts twisted back through the passage of one thousand years, triggered by simple words.
Thunder rolling beneath him. The world swept by with the steady gait of his horse, yet the mountains never seemed to be closer. Faster, faster, don't let it be too late! He had to get home. He knew it; he felt it. He wished he had some idea why, but did not let that slow him down. He should not have gone so far away!
At last he was in town and forced to slow down. There was afternoon traffic, merchants plying their trade, people running errands. The town looked so normal against the terror in his heart. He answered the waves and shouts of old friends, but did not stop to greet anyone as he rode for home. The modest house in which he and his wife lived also looked normal. Surely the impression of stillness he had was only his imagination. He was certain she was still there, and still alive, but in what condition? What had brought him hurrying so, away from business deals and all the other things he had to do to maintain their comfortable lifestyle? What was wrong?
His senses flooded with Presence and his blood burned. An Immortal was somewhere close by. No, only one-where close by. This one had to be in the house. Methos' lips curled back from his teeth. He controlled his rage without effort. Act, not feel. He jumped from his horse’s back and stroked the animal’s nose, leaving it loose in front of the door. If he had to take a Quickening, he and his beloved Gwen would need to leave quickly. He did not allow himself to think of the chance that he would have to leave without her.
His first and best plan of attack, then. Behave like a foolish, helpless youngster to get the enemy's guard down. He hurried to the door and found it unlatched. Opening it, he called anxiously, "Gwen?" There was only silence. He could almost sense the mocking laughter someone must be keeping carefully muffled. There was no one in sight. The simple house had only a bedroom and the main living area. It was spacious to allow flow-through of air. The second door Methos had insisted on installing lead out the back of the house, just in case. The door to their bedroom was closed. Methos felt a surge of contempt for his unwanted visitor. Such simplistic tactics were meant to unnerve him and make him behave rashly in a challenge. Well, whoever it was, they were in for a surprise.
Methos widened his eyes and approached the bedroom door with anxious steps. "Gwen?" he called again, more urgently. The door would swing outward into the living area, as he had designed it. He yanked it open, springing back as he did so. Whoever was in there would not be able to throw Gwen onto Methos' sword. That was not the path chosen by this enemy, though.
"John!" Gwen choked out. She was naked, her glorious curves marred by bruises, scratches, and the brutal arms of the Immortal who had only just released her mouth so that she could both breathe and call to Methos by the only name she knew him. Her rich brown hair was down, falling across her shoulder and shielding her breasts slightly from both men's gazes. The room reeked of sex, but that was no surprise. She had obviously been raped.
Methos put stunned horror on his face and stuttered curses even as he studied and judged the Immortal he faced. Male, died late, perhaps even in his fifties. Fair skinned with thinning hair, body held with little discipline. This man would be an easy kill and Methos would enjoy it. Except… he looked around as if trying to find an extra weapon. Too confident, was this stranger. There had to be some trick. Poisoned blade? Too easy to lose with that. Perhaps men hidden somewhere? No, there was no one else. Methos glared fiercely at the stranger. "Our battle doesn't concern her. Let her go and we'll fight."
"Oh, I don't think so, 'John,'" the man said. His voice was tenor and sidled into Methos' ears like poison. "She's useful to me, where she is."
Methos sneered. "As protection?" He met Gwen's eyes and felt a shock. For all her tears and struggles, there was a strange blankness in her eyes. He studied her body as best he could. Perhaps there was some terrible injury not visible from the front?
"You might say that," the stranger answered him. "But no, she is more insurance than protection." Then he shifted so that his mouth was next to Gwen's ear, and when he spoke, his voice took on a strange, musical quality that enveloped the room in a breath of magic. "Oh, Gwen. You gave such pleasure to a stranger. But that makes you an adulteress. And your husband knows. He could have you stoned for that. Why don't you save him the trouble. Kill yourself."
The Voice! And now the command had been laid, only this man could negate it! It took Methos a moment to collect himself, for he had not expected anything of this sort. He had thought he killed off all knowledge of the Voice long ago, in his mad years. It seemed he was wrong. He could hear Gwen sobbing through the pounding in his head. He felt a surge of raw, unbridled hatred the likes of which he had not felt for centuries. The stranger had taken control of Gwen, and still beaten her. The bastard.
He had to force his attention away from the man, for Gwen needed him. He said hoarsely, "No, love! I forgive you! Don't leave me alone!" She knew he needed her desperately, he told her so every time they made love. That might just give her a reason to stay alive, at least long enough for him to force the stranger to negate the order. Methos inhaled scents in the bedroom, looking forward to the shock the man would feel when the Voice failed on him.
He would swear the stranger must have cultivated that sinister, grating laugh. His flesh crawled at the too-intimate way the other man's eyes swept his body. But when the man spoke again, it was not with the Voice. "She will die. And then she will belong to the Master. And so will you, again."
Methos froze in truth this time. No.... "What are you talking about? Who are you?"
The man smiled coldly. "My name is Roland. And you are Ahriman's slave, Methos."
He stumbled back against the door. "My name is John! I'm a free man!" Holding the act of being a hapless youngster he wondered how he had missed the signs of Ahriman's return. Was it just that he had refused to see them? It was possible. Damn his carelessness! But if he kept up his act, Roland would be uncertain of what Ahriman had told the man. Methos pulled himself up and snarled, "Let her go!"
Once again, Roland's voice rolled with power. "Ah, but if I let her go, she will kill herself with that knife." He indicated a carving blade that Methos had not seen lying on the bed.
Methos just barely bit back a groan. "What do you want?" he asked bitterly.
Roland smiled cruelly. "Ahriman wants you to destroy the Champion, that's all. I said I would do it, but he wants you. I can't see why." He looked Methos over again, smirking.
And the distant feeling that Methos had not been paying attention to clarified insistently. Ahriman. A distant hunger and glee in chaos and pain, death and despair. He closed his eyes. He could return to Ahriman's service, could ride again across the mortal world, leaving death in his wake. Power over mortal life and death all his. It sucked at him and he felt a tipping. He stiffened and opened his eyes. It was meant to be seductive. A thousand years ago the pull had been very hard to resist. Now it was merely an external tug. To spend another thousand years killing people like Gwen, destroying all their hopes and possibilities of a future? To silence again philosophy, music and dreams? He glared defiantly at Roland and sneered, "If he has only weeds like you in his service, no wonder he wants me back! But I want more than existence as his slave!"
For a moment, Roland's face twisted with a hopeless kind of rage. Then he seemed to recapture control of his expression and he sneered back at Methos. "You'll serve... whether you want to or not." He shoved Gwen towards the blade on the bed.
And Methos channeled all of his strength into moving with a speed most other people would not have believed. He caught Gwen's wrists in one hand and pulled her against him, even as he smashed the ball of his other hand into Roland's face. There was the feeling of impact, a sickening crunch, the smell of blood as the other toppled, dead. There was no time. He ignored Roland as he bound Gwen's wrists behind her back. "I'm sorry," he told her urgently.
"But I dishonored you," she sobbed. He pulled her along with him out the kitchen exit. Just as he expected, there was a horse tethered outside with all its tack. It was a beautiful, huge, black animal. Methos wondered who Roland had taken it from. He automatically noted the rich tack as he bundled Gwen up onto the saddle and settled behind her. He urged the horse into a fast gallop. Best to put as much distance between them and Roland as possible before heading for the temple. Methos cursed himself as they rode. If he took Roland's head, Gwen would kill herself before he recovered from the Quickening. Her soul would be Ahriman's to torment and before long Methos would surrender to Ahriman's service in order to spare her. He would have to kill her himself, or no amount of magic would protect her. And it was so far to the temple....
Roland was never far behind. Methos could feel Ahriman's distant presence guiding the Voice-wielding Immortal. He had to save his strength for watching over Gwen and sometimes digging up some of the gold and other jewels he had hidden along the route. Gwen struggled to stay strong for him. She ate and drank at his urging, spoke to him and held him close. He knew that she would kill herself the moment she had the chance. She had no choice.
When they finally reached the region where the temple lay, it was astonishingly easy to travel through. No one tried to waylay them, no local lords attempted to detain them. Methos could have taken care of either and kept alert, but he was relieved he did not have to. Roland caught up with them when they stopped for provisions in a small village. The melody of Roland's voice echoed almost at the same time as his presence seeped into Methos' senses. "Bring me the outsiders," he commanded smugly. Methos whirled and drew his sword but, to his astonishment, the villagers around made no move to obey.
Instead, they turned and stared at Roland. Then the shouts began. "It's a demon!" and they were snatching stones from the ground and flinging them at the Immortal.
Methos secured their provisions on their horse and leaped up behind Gwen. They raced at top speed out of the village. Sometimes you just don't question miracles.
They rode through the hidden pass two days later and Immortal presence tolled through his senses. He drew his blade instinctively though he was almost certain who it was. There she stood at the temple entrance, auburn hair curling past her waist, eerie beauty shining in her expressionless face. She was still alive. Cassandra.
Of course she was here. The compulsion he had lain when she was his slave brought her when the signs of Ahriman's approach began. As long as she lived, she would come. He closed his eyes on his relief and dismounted at the foot of the temple steps. He brought Gwen up the steps with him, keeping her close. He turned to Cassandra, letting the ice of power that he had saved for the ritual reverberate through the air. "We are pursued, an Immortal with magic in his voice. Don't -- "
"Roland," she stated, still regarding him emotionlessly.
He stumbled and gaped at her in surprise, forgetting to use the Voice. "You know him?"
Her face was like a beautiful, frozen mask until she turned from him to Gwen. Her answer, though, was for him. "He was my student."
Methos understood, then, why the villagers had been proof against Roland's Voice. Cassandra had prepared them for him. She had the power to... realization nearly buckled his knees. "You didn't have to come," he said, shaken.
She ignored him, bringing Gwen into her arms and exchanging the ritual greetings. She was not using the Voice, now. Her tones were rich, warm and confident. She was a priestess who knew her power. How had he missed seeing what she could become? But then to live as Ahriman's servant willingly had meant the suppression of most of his sensibilities. Methos stood mute, watching the tension drain from Gwen, and then his beloved wife was weeping quietly in Cassandra's arms. After a short time, he touched her shoulder gently and the three of them entered the temple.
As ever, there was no one present but themselves. Methos felt a pang of despair. The ritual was hard on those who performed it. Now he knew Cassandra could leave if she chose. There was nothing he could do to force her to perform the ritual in the time they had, not without profaning Holy Ground. Alone, he would not be able to shelter Gwen's soul. He shuddered and whispered, "How long?"
Cassandra turned her head and looked at him indifferently. "Since before the first time."
It seemed as though the temple swayed around him. He did not doubt her, though she had offered no proof. She had come anyway, perhaps to kill him, but then decided to do the ritual. For, once you had command of the Voice, you could not be commanded by it.
She ignored him, settling Gwen on a stool and then bringing her a drink that filled the area with a piney, green scent. Methos watched as Gwen's lovely, dark eyes closed slowly, and he helped Cassandra ease his exhausted wife onto a pallet. He held Gwen's hand as she fell into a deep sleep. He watched her intently for a time rather than look at his fellow Immortal. This had been so much easier when he believed he controlled Cassandra. Finally, he cleared his throat and said hoarsely, "Roland's compelled her to suicide."
He could almost feel her breathing, but could not guess what she was thinking. After a moment she asked, "What will you do?"
He brushed a wisp of hair from Gwen's forehead and sighed wearily. "I have to kill her." He waited, choking. When Cassandra said nothing, he looked up into her eyes. "Gwen is a good Christian! If she suicides - "
"Her soul cannot be laid to rest. Ahriman will use her against you."
"Yes." Oh, yes. Cassandra understood. She had seen it the last time. Was that why she had helped though she did not have to? She was so gentle with Gwen. He blinked back tears and looked down at his sleeping wife. He would have to kill her when she was conscious, or her soul would not know she was free.
And the only thing not part of the ritual that Cassandra said to him later, was, "You knew what was coming. How could you do this to her?" He had been helpless to respond.
And in the present, a thousand years after that, her words were different and even said with kindness. "Why do you do this to yourself?"
He drew a shuddering breath. "I didn't do it to myself. I did it to her, like I always do."
"No," she answered him gently. His face was drawn, eyes haunted. She suspected she looked much the same. She could only remind him of what he must already know, except in this grief he had forgotten. "You cannot choose to live and feel, and then choose when you fall in love."
Methos shuddered at her words. Of course he could choose. He could isolate himself, then the only weaknesses he had Ahriman could not exploit unless he allowed it. The weaknesses of loneliness and powerlessness in the ever-changing world.
Cassandra considered Methos' quiet misery. He dealt with loss so badly, that even the expectation of losing Alexa Bond again had driven him to attempt suicide. She did not want to imagine the loss that had driven him into Ahriman's service three-thousand years ago, the loss that had left him the heartless, murderous animal who had taken her mortal life and enslaved her. And so she came to help him again, even at the risk of having to resist temptation. Because she had already seen, in him, what could happen when temptation was not resisted. She had refused it a thousand years before.
Why am I doing this when I don't have to? she wondered for the thousandth time. She leaned back in the saddle, and her mountain horse stopped, ears swiveling mildly. She stroked his broad, strong neck, letting her fingers catch in the thick coat, and stared down the cliffside at the lower mountains. Maybe it was worth it just for the sight, the feel of the wind, the clear life of the mountains. She drew in a long breath. The moment of peace lasted only until the memory of a fragile, mortal beauty crossed her mind. Just a woman with gray, curling hair, pale skin. Her name was Mariel. She had been in her sixties when Methos brought her to the temple. She was dying, wasting away before their very eyes. And her life could only be saved if Methos would serve Ahriman.
Cassandra had listened to Methos speak to his wife, whispering words of comfort and sorrow. Mariel was the one to tell him he must not give in. He had sworn to her he would not, if only she was safe.
Mariel, and whoever it was this time, was the reason Cassandra had come. And the people who would suffer if Methos became what he had been, so long ago. She sighed and urged her horse on. Best be ready when Methos arrived. She wanted to be finished and out of his presence as quickly as possible. The impulse to let him know her own power was always strong. And then there was Roland.
She winced at the memory. Roland was what Methos had been. She had left instruction in the villages along the path to the mountain, a balding man who attempted to use the Voice would trigger an attack. Oh, but the temptation to make it only a man who used the Voice had been strong! But still, whoever was under threat because of Methos' selfishness did not deserve what might happen. Cassandra hissed and grimaced angrily. He should pay for what he had done.
Her skin tingled, the hairs rising. She gripped her horse's flanks with her legs as the poor animal started. She broadcast her confidence back at the beast, but he would not steady. And then there was a horse stepping beside her, a great white beast. She nearly jumped sideways off her horse when the rider came into focus.
Methos. But of course it was not Methos. However strange the feeling crawling under her skin was, it was not the sensation that defined a nearby Immortal. Having put that in focus, she studied the image beside her, forcing to pretend simple curiosity. The image was as she had known him; blue woad covering half his face, white, desert clothes not remotely fitting for this climate. No scents came from him or the horse. This was merely an illusion, and not a very good one at that.
There was no one this could be but Ahriman. She calmed her surprise. She had not disbelieved Methos that first time, when he had taught her to do the ritual with him. What could make such a powerful Immortal afraid, but a demon? She shrugged slightly and turned her head to watch the path ahead.
Noise it had, as the horse snorted. Her own mount trembled beneath her, but she calmed it. The demon spoke in Methos' voice, a tone cold as stone. "Look at me when I speak to you, bitch."
The words, the tone, evoked a time she would like to have forgotten. It was so unexpected in this place that she laughed. She would not look toward the image beside her, a white blur in the corner of her eye. Its voice became wheedling, a tone she had never heard Methos use. "Come, girl. Give me Methos, and I'll give you what you want most."
She bit her lip and held her breath. If she answered, it could very easily lead to being trapped. She would not be the fool Methos must have been.
Ahriman's voice came into her ear. "This." A pressure against her ankle surprised her, and she turned to look. The slave at her side shrank from her abrupt attention. It took a moment to register who it was, since the simple presence was a surprise. Methos: dressed in simple, light clothing, of a cold master's refusal to care for her property. His eyes were hollow, skin white with the cold. His expression was desperate. Only the cold had forced him to reluctantly try to get her attention.
She knew what she was being offered, then. This -- him -- at her mercy. To treat as he had treated her. She swallowed and turned her head away from the illusion. She could have him like that, if she said yes to Ahriman. The hunger that rolled through her soul was terrible, but she swallowed it. That only made her feel sick.
There was a snort from her side. "I could give you him. And Roland, too. You won't get another chance."
He dogged her for an eternity longer, but eventually gave up when she managed to steel her resolve enough that his illusions could not touch her.
She shook her head clear of the memory. Her anger at the temptation had stayed with her for a time, and made it impossible to pretend she was still under Methos' control. She turned to study his introspective face. "Ahriman approached me the last time, Methos."
It startled him out of his deep sadness and into meeting her eyes. "What did he offer you?" he asked, blinking.
She regarded him steadily. "You... as my slave. And Kantos, if I wished."
Methos choked on a laugh. "That must have been tempting."
"It was. Frighteningly so." She could not speak for a long moment. "I was furious, for how tempting it was." It had been worse than any siren song of legend.
She pushed to her feet and offered Methos a hand up. The plunge in her energy was expected, but no less exhausting. He took her hand and stood. She marveled that, however tall he was, he no longer loomed over her. He seemed like a bending willow tree rather than a towering cliff.
For Methos, there was startling relief in the fact that Cassandra was touching him willingly. They had never touched except when necessary for ceremony since she was his slave. It was hard to hold steady, not to lean on her. He knew she was as exhausted as he was. He felt a dizzy plunge in his gut, as memory released the emotions of the time when she had stood over him, Silas' axe in her hands. He swayed and she steadied him. He drew a breath and asked tiredly, "Why didn't you do it?"
She met his gaze, puzzled. "Do what?"
"Take my head. You said you would."
Cassandra shook her head and tugged him lightly towards the sleeping chamber. Past experience had shown there would be no energy for leaving here without a good, solid night's sleep. She sighed as they walked, feeling his attention still on her, the question important for him. "I owed you one."
He was bewildered, and cast through his memories quickly to see what he had done that she would leave him his life when he most wanted to die. When nothing came up, he asked in confusion, "Owed me one for what?"
They were in the room and she released his hand, slumping onto the pallet that she had made up for sleeping in the day before. She looked up into his eyes and answered, "For suggesting I lure Kantos to Duncan, before Ahriman's return. I would never have thought of it myself."
Oh, yes. He had done that. He felt the strength leave his legs and sank down next to her. "You more than paid me back for that, when you agreed to act as bait for Kronos, to make certain Mac would be angry enough to take him. And when you -- " he broke off.
She finished for him. "Agreed to force Duncan not to trust you?" They stared solemnly into each other's eyes for some moments, and then Methos nodded once. Cassandra let a faint smile touch her lips. "I also agreed to take your head if Kronos failed to, and Duncan wouldn't."
He smiled wryly, and lowered his eyes. "I... I wanted to spare Alexa -- and myself -- the pain." He held back the silent admission, that he had thought he could not bear the emptiness he felt, now that Alexa's spirit was at rest. He would no longer feel a vague sense of her presence watching over him. He was alone, again.
Cassandra watched the hollow sadness on Methos' face. He would be all right, she knew, if he gave himself time. If she had killed him, though, when Ahriman came.... She said gently, "You wanted Duncan not to trust illusions of you Ahriman would make, if you were dead."
He uttered a bitter, brief sound. "He fell for illusions anyway. Just not of me."
Oh, no. She tensed and studied the planes of his face intently. Truth, Methos, she thought and asked, "How is he?"
He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands and drew a deep breath. "I'm not sure. He's gone into retreat." A wry chuckle escaped the cupped palms. "He's rather near us, actually. Ahriman tricked him into killing his student."
"Ah." She shuddered at the thought of what that must have done to Duncan, and closed her arms about her shoulders. She had never killed a student by accident, she thought with bitter amusement. She had only done so in self-defense. Methos dropped his hands and met her look with the same expression. Perhaps they thought the same thing: that with Roland dead, only Duncan would torture himself. He would come out of it sane, though grieved. He was very strong, was Duncan MacLeod, of the Clan MacLeod.
Cassandra sighed and shook her head. "Plans within plans, Methos. But I do not want your head."
Puzzled, he frowned. "Then why did you pick up Silas' axe?"
"I had to test Duncan." She waited with tired bemusement as Methos digested her words. At last he simply looked at her in confusion. She smiled slightly at his bewilderment and explained, "I had to make certain he would protect you. I didn't want you forcing him to take your head in the aftermath of Silas' death."
He drew in his own deep breath and let it out slowly. "Thank you." He meant it, now, and stared into her eyes until he was sure she believed him. Then he pushed himself up and settled on the next pallet over. In an almost companionable silence, they descended into exhausted sleep.
He woke with blood in his nostrils, held still against his body's impulse to jerk with pain, the immediate, instinctive urge to flee. The air he breathed in stank of blood, excrement, cooked meat and smoke. He ignored the gag reflex. There was no time for any such foolishness as he carefully opened his eyes. His home was in smoking, blackened ruins, though some of the more stout timbers still stood. There was no one moving and the sky above him was somber and overcast. He gave in to the coughing fit as his lungs struggled for clear air, slowly turning over and standing up in the ashes. His burnt clothing began flaking apart, but he ignored that as he caught sight of the body that had been his wife's.
It was a blackened, twisted, pitiful thing, now. He could almost pretend it was not human, but for its location where he, dying, had been forced to watch as soldiers brutally raped her. He knelt beside the body, heedless of his discomfort, choking again on the scent of burnt human flesh. Soldiers. Not bandits, but who could tell the difference these days? Who led these men and permitted such beastly behavior? These were supposed to be civilized times. This was supposed to be a civilized place. He clenched his fists and rubbed at the tears that suddenly seemed to drench his face. "Alloren," he whispered. He reached down, but did not quite touch the blackened flesh.
Immortal warning, seeping through his senses. He drew a breath and glanced around for a blade, but nothing caught his eye. Then the other Immortal came into his sight. Methos crouched over Alloren's body, and tried to look ferocious when all he felt was dead. The other stopped and they stared at each other. Gradually, details penetrated Methos' grief-fogged brain. The other Immortal wore some of the leather armor of the soldiers, but was covered beneath it in grime and soot. He held a blood-stained blade at an angle. Furious blue eyes blazed out of the face and Methos could just make out the distortion of a scar beneath the grime. "Kronos," Methos managed to say when he could clear his throat. "Rezorial, too?"
Comprehension seemed slow in the blazing fury of the younger Immortal's eyes, but it came. A nod was the only answer.
What a shock it had been when they had met. Rezorial and Alloren, twin daughters of the most prominent merchant in the region, both married to Immortals. Of course, their father had not known, but Kronos and Methos had felt the irony strongly. They were not friends, yet ignored the imperatives of the Game for the sakes of their wives.
Kronos suddenly snapped out, "I'm going to destroy them. All of them."
Methos lifted his head, a thrill of fire burning through the numb shock he still felt. Destroy them, the army that had done this. He tasted blood on his tongue. Reality snapped through him. Impossible. "Have a good time."
Kronos' bared his teeth and snarled, "Coward!"
The word did not phase Methos, as he knelt beside his wife's body. He touched the sticky, cracking flesh, but could only remember the smooth beauty of the young woman. Her smile was like the dawning of a new era. Her eyes had been as dark as the warmest summer nights. He would have lost her sooner or later. He just would have liked it to be later. What could he do against an army, except to raise another to defeat it? Past experience told him that one army was as bad as another.
He ignored Kronos and gathered up his wife's remains. He would make a new fire, a good one that would properly cremate the body. He laid her out and began preparations. He did not know Kronos had left, until the younger Immortal returned with Rezorial's body. They built the pyre together. Just as they were about to set it alight, they heard familiar voices from behind them.
They spun and there stood Rezorial and Alloren, holding each other close and staring at the pyre in quiet horror. Kronos gave a sharp cry and ran to his wife. Methos froze and stared at Alloren, unable to speak as he sought to remember something about her death that would allow her presence here to be real. She took a step towards him and held out her hand pleadingly. He could not move away. It was her, it was really her... but so was the body behind him on the pyre. A lucid calm took him over as he realized she had to be a ghost. He reached out for her hand. She vanished with a startled cry. He heard nearby a hoarse shout as Kronos' wife also vanished.
"No!" Kronos bellowed at the sky. At that moment it began to rain, but Kronos was still screaming. "I will avenge you!"
Methos clenched his fists at his side. His wife had been murdered, her soul wandered the afterworld, unable to rest. Something else niggled at his thoughts, a voice of alarm crying sheer warning. He was too tired to decipher it. Mortals had done this and the only way to avenge Alloren and set her free was to gather mortals to fight each other. Perpetuate the situation. Let them kill each other, although it would be far more comforting to take the revenge himself. He was Immortal. All mortals were alike. Even if the men who killed Alloren were dead, there would be others just like them to exact revenge upon. He could do it, with time. "We need an army to defeat them, or we'll die."
Kronos spun to him. "Then we'll get an army. We'll kill them all."
"It'll take years!"
And Kronos hissed back, "Then it will! We have all the years there are!"
The rain fell in thick, freezing drops on the steaming ruins of Methos' home, making it impossible to light the pyre that would consume the two women's remains. The rising steam became stained red with blood. Methos watched the effect with detached interest. A shape moved in the red mist. Kronos had finally noticed and was staring at it with fury and suspicion. He held his blade ready to fight anything that came.
A tall man stepped close to them, unaffected by the rain. He had long, braided hair, his face wolfish with hunger. His eyes gleamed red as he looked from Methos to Kronos and back again.
The niggling voice in Methos' head finally came clear. "Ahriman," Methos said in dull astonishment. Had it been so long? Was it already that time?
"You know him?" Kronos was asking.
"He's a blood god," Methos mumbled through the roar in his ears.
He could feel Kronos digesting that information. Ahriman itself spoke. "I can give you the power to avenge your wives, now. You won't have to wait."
"Yes!" hissed Kronos immediately.
Methos shook his head, trying to clear the fog that seemed to have come into it with the rain. "And what would you ask of me?" he demanded.
Ahriman smiled cruelly. "Only that you destroy my enemy. He is one of you. I will give you the power to avenge yourselves, for a thousand years."
Kronos accepted immediately. Methos hesitated on the cusp. There was a reason to say no, was there not? He struggled with it. He could have a thousand years to prevent armies from forming and attacking towns and cities. He could have anything he wanted. All he had to do was kill Ahriman's enemy. He thought of Alloren, wandering the afterlife because mere soldiers had murdered her. His mind vaguely reminded him that he could put Alloren to rest himself. But then he realized he did not really want to do that. No, he wanted her to be able to watch as he took revenge on the men who had defiled and murdered her.
"Yes," he finally said, and saw a wild grin on the face of Kronos. "Yes."
Methos cupped his hands into the freezing water, closed his eyes and splashed it up into his face. His fingers went numb with startling speed. He chuckled as the drops clung to his eyelashes and trickled down his neck. Gods, the memories. He shook his hands and rubbed them against his jeans as they warmed. It had taken so long to realize that his supposed freedom was a trap. The first blatant hint was when he could not keep Cassandra to himself. He had managed to let that slip by in the name of his survival. The centuries passed with occasional twinges until it became too much to let slip. Too much to survive in that way. Until he had to get away, forever. He shook the drops away and drew in a slow breath of the brilliant, cold morning air. That was all over. He would never be trapped so easily again. Never.
Not even for having Alexa back with him.
He walked back into the room he had spent the night in, and this time stopped in surprise. The room was lit like a desert day, and a woman stood at its center looking down at Cassandra, who sat cross-legged on her bedding. The woman was another red-head, tall, with winging eyebrows. Her clothing was voluminous, brown desert garb. He caught an impression of dark eyes, greenish-brown and asked, "Who..?" She vanished, and the room was lit once again only by lanterns. Cassandra was looking at him, blinking half-sleepily. He understood immediately. "You can do that, too."
His quiet admiration pleased Cassandra. This particular skill, that of projecting images, had served her well since she had inherited it. From a teacher who wanted desperately to give a favorite student a needed edge. Methos' voice, warm and shy, sifted her thoughts. "Who was that?"
She glanced at him as he sat down beside her. Thoughts crowded her throat, seeking expression. She closed her eyes and drew a breath, waiting for them to clear and settle. Tears welled and she forced herself to relax and let them seep through her eyelashes. Her throat tightened as she answered the question. "Her name was Circe. She found me in the desert, after I escaped from you... from Kronos." She did not know how many days. It had rapidly become a continuing story of slow agony, drying, burning feeling of death approaching. Freezing cold if it happened at night. And she had kept going, sure she could still feel the horsemen behind her. Fleeing that feeling. The sudden, overwhelming horror when, near death, the ripple and sick twirling of her senses said one of the four was near. But that knowledge had proven false in her amazement as she found a stranger's face above her. Another woman.
She shook her head again, clearing her thoughts. Methos' question was asked with a warm, soothing tone, "Did she have the Voice?"
Cassandra shrugged slightly and opened her eyes, wiping the tears away self-consciously. There were so many people lost in the past, but Circe had been the most important. Did she have the Voice? Yes. Illusions, and centuries of experience, all of which she had given to Cassandra. She ignored the question, remembering the three of them together. Amusement burbled through her and she smiled. She glanced up into Methos' eyes, which were turned on her gently. "Did you know Rebecca?"
She could feel his surprise in the silence before he said slowly, "Yes. We were friends."
She smiled at his careful answer. "So were we. We met about three-thousand years ago."
Methos could picture it, putting together his oldest memories of Rebecca with the image of the woman Circe, and Cassandra. He did not pursue on her evasion of the question. He was certain that woman had the Voice. Rebecca had it, too. The three of them, each very different but sharing red hair of various shades... he smiled at the thought and asked, "You traveled together often?"
There was something peculiar in his tone and she eyed him suspiciously. His face was still, head tilted slightly to the side. "Yes," she answered warily.
He grinned at her, his face lighting with extraordinary life. "I can just imagine the three of you coming into settlements. A wall of red-heads. Or as the three Norn sisters -- "
The laughter seemed to spring in a suddenness she rarely allowed herself. "That was not us." Yet the image was full in her head, Circe as a wizened old woman, Rebecca as a middle-aged and herself as the youngest. But the two of them had lived far longer than Circe, and Cassandra had outlived Rebecca, though was still younger than the other woman.
Methos sat beside her. She was surprised to realize his proximity no longer irritated her. In fact, it had not each time they had met, this millennium. He looked over at her, his eyes soft and sad. He said mildly, "We have to go soon, or we'll start to feel ill."
Surprised, she asked, "How do you know?"
He shrugged slightly and lowed his gaze. "I come here sometimes, when I miss them too much. I stay until I can't anymore."
Cassandra stared at him in surprise as he gazed at the floor. He was a nostalgic? That felt very strange to realize. She tilted her head to get a better view of his expression and reminded him gently, "This is a place of mortal death. It resents us."
He blinked, a troubled frown tugging the edges of his lips. "Yes, I suppose it does." With a sigh, he flowed to his feet and offered her his hand. "Shall we leave together?"
She found no reason to hesitate and slipped her hand into his, allowing him to pull her to her feet. She tightened her grip just a bit on that broad, warm palm and gazed into his eyes. "Methos...." He reluctantly met her gaze. She asked the question she had wanted to ask for almost her entire life. "Why did you become a Horseman?"
He swallowed and blinked, his suddenly damp eyes reflecting the lamp-light. "I sought the power to revenge my wife's murder and lay her spirit to rest." He put his other hand over hers and stared down at the three hands unhappily. "It took a thousand years for me to realize... that I never felt her presence again after I accepted Ahriman's offer. Never ever."
She felt moved to reach her free hand out and lay it gently against his cheek. "Living without thought of the past, or hope for the future, cannot be done indefinitely."
He smiled faintly. "I know." He leaned down, then, and rested his forehead against hers. "I'm sorry, Cassandra."
"I know." And that was all that needed to be said.