"Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!" The rhythmic, persistent sound of the oar master's voice echoed in the damp wooden ship. It played its dull melody in time with the marching feet of the guard, patrolling up and down the walkway between the two sets of oars - an off-key rhythm, that assaulted the ear after a short time, and threatened to sharpen tempers by the end of a long sea voyage. The men at the oars would have screamed to the pair to cease their infuriating noise, were they in any position to do so; for speaking was not permitted in the ranks, and energy was to be saved for rowing alone.
"Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!" The oar master raised his voice for the next section of the melody, as though added volume might somehow cause his voice to have greater effect, and increase the efficiency of those mercilessly racing oars. The guard quickened his step in response, his hard leather heels striking the wooden deck with a solid, sinister pace.
"How much further?" It took the tired and grimy galley slave some time before he realised that the man seated beside him had spoken. Words were so actively discouraged amongst the slaves that conversation had become a rarity indeed. He frowned at the other man in confusion.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said, how much further?" The man who had spoken so unexpectedly sounded as if he were rapidly approaching the end of his patience. "I assume that we're heading for the north of England? Surely we must nearly be there by now."
"You're new to this, aren't you." His companion, chained to the same oar, threw him a careless smile. His answer was a frown.
"What's that got to do with it? Does experience help you to know how long it will take to reach England?" The first man stretched, trying to ease his exhausted shoulders. "I'd like to get there whilst I'm still capable of movement. Escape gets a little difficult if you're too tired to move."
"Escape is a little difficult when you're chained to an oar." His companion gave the short metal links a quick shake. "And it wasn't the length of the voyage that I was referring to. If you were an old hand at this like the rest of us, you'd know by now not to speak. Asking questions is strictly forbidden."
"Is that so?" The first man looked disinterested. "Well I don't see anybody enforcing the silence."
"Be quiet there!" Materialising behind them like a man possessed, the guard had raised his whip before his words had escaped his mouth. The tip of his fearsome tool slashed down at the pair, cutting at the shoulders of both men without discrimination. The first gasped at the shock of it, but the second seemed barely affected.
"I warned you." He bent to his oar with a renewed effort, either ignoring the pain, or feeling it less keenly than the other man. "And in answer to your question, we're nearly there. Listen carefully and you'll hear the birds. We're near the coast. Don't expect an easy escape though. We're not generally taken ashore with the rest of the crew."
"I wasn't really expecting to be." The first man smiled a tight little smile, which suggested frustration at the new pain in his shoulders, irritation at his companion's unhelpful attitude, and a genuine wish to be friendly. "My name is Aelfric, sir. Of Wessex. I am a servant of his majesty King Harold, but I was taken by the Norsemen several weeks ago. It was a kind fate that saw me immediately sold to the oar master of a vessel bound straightaway for England - and so now I must escape, and rejoin my king. It is a matter of duty. This is an invasion fleet, and I must be whatever use I can be to my country."
"Indeed." The second man stared at the outstretched hand for several moments before taking it. "Edward. Of... well, Wessex too I suppose. Amongst other places."
"Wessex?" Aelfric frowned at him. "You have more the look of the Welsh about you."
"It's possible. My family isn't exactly of a heritage exclusive to Wessex." He lowered his voice, eager to avoid another beating even though the first one did not seem to have damaged him as much as it had Aelfric. "You spoke of escape."
"Of course. What else is there to do? For goodness sakes, man. You can't tell me that you can sail this close to our home shores without trying to make some kind of a break for freedom? The king will be counting on me, even if you have no pressing need to leave this place. Just how long have you been here for anyway?"
"I don't know." Edward smiled at him, his dark green eyes showing a certain kind of sorrow that bore more than a trace of wry humour at its core. "Longer than I'd planned, certainly. The last time that I tried to escape, the fellow I was chained to the oar with went along with me as far as the final move, and then chose a rather crucial moment to inform me that he couldn't swim. Of course without his input we sank like a log. These chains weigh more than you'd think, and he was dead weight enough to compromise the floating abilities of the oar, such as they are. We were fished out of the sea before I'd had a chance to swim a stroke."
"Bad luck." Aelfric sounded genuinely sympathetic, but Edward clearly felt such misfortunes to be the least of his troubles.
"Huh. I'd have accepted the failure, if it hadn't been for the stupid imbecile managing to drown himself before we were hauled back out of the ocean. I had to take the oar all by myself for the rest of the voyage. It was in rough seas too." He frowned at the light smile upon the face of his fellow slave. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing. I suppose I had been lingering upon my own misfortunes for so long that I hadn't given much consideration to how much worse things could have been." Aelfric glanced aside, looking through the adjacent oar-hole to where the sea foamed and splashed about outside. "I've lost track of the time to a certain extent, but I'm sure that it's been rather less than a month since I was a free man. But you've been down here for so much longer. Goodness knows how many dungeons you've languished within, whilst I was making merry with the king back home."
"Dungeons have their good points." Edward gestured at the oar. "There are few of these in stone rooms on dry land. Plus the food is better. Less saltwater contaminating everything."
"Perhaps. To be honest, the food that they give us here is so bad that the brine does us a service by disguising the taste. Anyway, I--"
"Silence!" Striding back towards them, the guard with the whip raised his favourite tool of enforced obedience into the air, threatening to bring it down once again. "I've already warned you two."
"Jumpy, isn't he." Aelfric jumped as the whip cracked above his head, and could not disguise his relief when it failed to descend. Edward smiled.
"I did warn you about the talking."
"So you did. Clearly the whip bothers you a little less than it bothers me. Or are you just used to it? You strike me as being the chatty type."
"Perhaps." Edward shrugged. "Or perhaps I just heal easily. It hurts, certainly, but not for long. All the same, one day I'll get hold of that whip and strangle him with it. He's been asking for it since we first set out."
"I would be delighted to help." They shared a smile, before Edward gave a brief shrug and returned his attentions to the oar.
"We'd be fools to try it. We'd be cut down before we laid so much as a hand on him. Nonetheless, if I set my mind on revenge I make sure that I carry it through." He smiled a tight, hard smile that for a moment made Aelfric feel decidedly uncomfortable. "I always get my own back eventually."
"Somehow I can believe that." There was a moment's silence. "You must forgive me for my persistence, Edward, but have I interested you enough to persuade you throw in with me? I can't promise you the chance for revenge against our guard, but I can promise you satisfaction in other areas. Freedom. A chance to earn the gratitude of King Harold. Our country is a very rich and successful place, and its leader is an extremely powerful man. Such men are the kind that it pays to have as friends."
"True." Edward frowned at him, nodding slowly. "That's very true."
"Then does that mean that you'll help?" There was a peculiarly intense look in Aelfric's eyes that momentarily threw Edward. He frowned. The last thing that he needed was to become responsible for his oar mate, for he had problems enough of his own to deal with. On the other hand, however, inhuman healing capabilities or not, the whip wielded at his back was fuelling his anger fast. Edward - known still, to certain friends, as Methos - was not famed for his limitless patience, particularly when personal injury and danger were involved, and the months of keeping his head down and waiting for the best opportunity for escape had resulted in nothing more than the less than gradual fragmentation of what little of his patience had existed in the first place. He needed to get away from his damp and salt-encrusted oar, before he did something that it was only possible that he might live to regret. An escape on his own was not exactly brimming with possibilities, and even an Immortal could find himself in serious trouble when confronted with the huge battleaxes brandished by the crewmen that lined the decks of such a ship as this. Edward had no intention of losing his head to some fur-clad barbarian in the midst of a temper tantrum - and Methos could only second that opinion. Aelfric might just be worth the trouble. He stared at the hand outstretched towards him, and tried not to look too apprehensive. Allies were not usually to be welcomed, for allies tended to expect their alliances to be mutual - and that, in turn, led them to expect Methos to exert himself for their benefit.
"Do we have a deal, Edward?" Aelfric's eyes had narrowed slightly, as though hurt that his friendship had not readily been seized upon. Methos dredged up a smile.
"We have a deal." He took the hand, and clasped it tightly. "Escape."
"Or death." Aelfric seemed vindicated. Methos raised an eyebrow.
"I would hope not." He paused for a second, waiting for the roving presence of their whip-wielding guard to pass them by. "Look at the water. It's the only way to know when night falls, and that's when they're planning to go ashore."
"Then you think that we're that close to land?" Aelfric's eyes glowed with an excitement that might have spurred Methos to great enthusiasm, had he not been worrying about the chances of losing his head.
"I do." He watched as the waters beyond their damp walls sloshed closer, bursting through the hole which served as a rowlock. Some of the salty spray splashed onto Aelfric's trousers, but the Wessex man did not notice it. "The warriors will go ashore, and the guard will be lighter. They assume that come nightfall we're all too exhausted to move."
"That assumption is not far wrong." Aelfric stretched his weary arms, earning a grunt from an oarsman nearby. It was not advisable to be seen to do less than one's share of work at the oars, for fellow slaves were not above the betrayal of others of their kind. Methos smiled.
"Exhaustion can be our friend. The others are less likely to make a noise when they see us depart. They may not even see us at all."
"And then we go up on deck, and - and what? Jump overboard, or straight onto the shore? Run one way or the other? Swim where?"
"Don't complicate matters too much. Sometimes a well thought out plan is the greatest handicap." Methos ran a hand over the links of the short chain that fixed him to their oar. "This chain is the only plan that we need. We have to get free of it. After that, it's better just to react, and let events take care of themselves."
"Improvise, you mean." Aelfric frowned. "Perhaps. Certainly planning has done me no good up until now. But these chains - and the guard. Surely he won't go ashore?"
"No. But every night he leaves here, and returns a while later smelling of strong wine. We should have long enough to make a move without worrying about him."
"If we can get rid of the chains." Aelfric gave them a tug, achieving little save the bruising of his wrists. "I can't see that being an easy task, Edward. Whoever made these chains knew their business. These are designed to take a man to the grave, rather than allow him to go to freedom. How often are you released from them?"
"At the end of a voyage, never before. The locks rust with the splashing of the sea water, and sometimes they won't come undone at all." Methos shrugged, making the chains rattle loudly, out of synch with the monotonous pattern of the other chains, as they moved with the rhythm of the constant rowing. The whip-wielding guard heard the ill-fitting sound, above the other rhythms of the galley. His sharp eyes flicked back towards the pair, and Aelfric bent to his oar with a greater gusto.
"Look lively," he hissed under his breath, but Methos had already realised the danger of their discovery, and was also redoubling his efforts. The guard lingered behind them, his eyes suspicious, but his mind dull in anticipation of the wine he planned soon to drink. Methos waited until the man had once again passed them, before continuing their previous conversation in a much hushed tone.
"I've been working on something. The possible means of escape." He let one hand slip along the oar, reaching down beside him to the hard wooden bench upon which the two men were sitting. Aelfric could not see where he put his hand, save that it appeared to be into some crevice within the side of the bench - but when the hand came back to the oar, it carried with it the glint of metal. Methos held the object out, revealing something a little smaller than the length of his hand; thin and pointed, and rather roughly formed as though from one of the nails that held the ship together.
"The locks are not complicated affairs." Thinking of some of the locks he had encountered - and circumvented - over the years, Methos could have reiterated that statement with a hundred times the feeling, but he left it at that. "It won't take much work with this to get the chains undone. Even so there won't be time to be wasted. We break open the locks, and go straight up onto the deck. There'll be no time for rescuing others, and no time to play with any guards we might happen to encounter. Straight up on deck and then over the side. Every man for himself."
"You mean if the opportunity comes for me I'm to take it? Regardless of what happens to you?"
"Regardless." Methos had no intention of being left behind by this duty-bound mortal, but he could not and would not say so. "I'll do the same, even if my conscience screams at me to do otherwise." Which, he thought with an inward smile, would be extremely unlikely. "There'll be no time to worry about others, or to help each other out if anything goes wrong. Escape is a solitary business, or should be if it's to be successful."
"Then why help me at all?" Aelfric eyed the makeshift key, as if suspecting that it might be some deadly weapon in disguise. "Perhaps this is a trap, designed to enable the men of this ship to follow me to where the king is to be found?"
"The king is sure to be on his way here, ready to defend his country against the coming attack. It wouldn't need a ruse like that to find him." Methos tucked the lock-pick into his tattered shirt sleeve. "As for why I'm helping you - we're chained to the same oar, in case it had escaped your notice. It's hard to make a getaway at such close quarters without alerting a neighbour, and I've known men raise the alarm before, rather than be left to face the consequences when an oar mate has decided to slip overboard during the night. I'd have escaped before now, if I'd been able to trust the man I was sitting beside."
"It's good to know that you trust me." Aelfric clasped his hand again, this time disturbing the rhythm of rattling chains so much that the guard was upon them in an instant. The whip cracked in the air, above their heads at first, but with the threat of descent ever present. Aelfric turned his attentions back to the neglected oar, trying not to notice the glowering looks from the other slaves. It was not hard, in the face of such unpleasantness, to think that these wretches might betray him for the chance of earning themselves a little favour. He vowed not to give them that chance.
"It's decided then," he whispered, earning a blow across the shoulders from the whip that twitched restlessly behind him. Methos nodded curtly, thinking thoughts of his own salvation that gave little mind to the man whose fate was tied so closely to his own.
"It's decided." He wondered how long it would take him to be rid of Aelfric, or whether it might be prudent to stick with him. It was always possible that King Harold might be glad of the return of his man, and the king of so wealthy a country was a good ally. On the other hand, a war was brewing, and Methos had no desire to be coerced into entering the fight on either side; much less the one that opposed the forces of Harald Hadrada. The Norsemen had a reputation for their successful raids and their great fighting skills, whilst King Harold was famous for little more than being the nominal successor of a king of far greater renown. The old Immortal frowned to himself. Better not go with Aelfric back to the king then; far better, in fact, merely to strike off on his own as soon as possible. He nodded to himself as he pulled hard upon his oar. Escape, and then a fast dash inland. He would be safe enough within a day. Confidence filled him, which should have been reason enough for him to be wary. Instead it made him all the more determined to set his plan in motion. After all, with the assistance of his neighbour to help guard against the raising of the alarm, and the certain means with which to escape the chains, what could possibly go wrong?
The water slapped gently against the hull, causing the slightest rise and fall of the boat against the tide. A prisoner coughed, making a dull, hollow sound that was magnified by the surrounding silence. Someone else snored, moving restlessly and causing their chains to rattle. A rat scurried.
"I don't like this. It's too quiet." Free of his chains, Aelfric stood by the rough-hewn ladder that led up on deck. "It's too easy for us to be overheard."
"Everyone is asleep, save for one or two exceptions. They won't hear a thing." Methos took one final look about at his fellow slaves. Killing them all was one certain way to be sure of keeping them silent, but he didn't think that Aelfric would stand for that. He seemed to be the kind of man more likely to abandon any hope of his freedom if it had to come at such a price.
"And if the alarm is raised?"
"Then like I said, we'll have no time to wait for each other. It'll be every man for himself. Do whatever you need to get ashore and make good your escape, because I can assure you that I'll have no problem with diving over the side and leaving you to your fate. There's a time for helping your fellow man, and a time when such things are nothing but foolishness."
"Hard words, Edward."
"Hard words belong in hard times." Methos climbed onto the first rung of the ladder, glad that it made no noisy protests about his weight. "Give me a little time to get to the top, and then come on up. Two of us climbing at the same time might well make too much noise. I'll deal with any guards that might happen to be at the top, so it should be easy going from then onwards."
"Are you sure that you can handle the guards alone?" There was genuine concern in Aelfric's eyes, and Methos almost felt guilty for his plan to leave the Englishman behind. He couldn't help liking the enthusiastic little fellow, especially after so long without anybody to call a friend. He smiled.
"I'm sure. I have some battle experience, and I know what I'm doing." He dropped a hand onto the other man's shoulder. "Keep a count. Give me until a hundred." He frowned. "You do count?"
"I can count." Aelfric's face was hard to make out in the gloom, but Methos thought that he detected a smile. The man's bright eyes glimmered in the light from the candle up on deck, but the rest of his face was plunged into shadow. The effect was one of curious disembodiment, as though his eyes were floating alone. It emphasised the obvious intelligence in the sharp and alert eyes, and made Methos feel curiously ill at ease. He nodded.
"Of course you can. Start now." He began to climb. Behind him he thought that he heard an intake of breath, as though Aelfric had been about to call some message of good luck at his retreating back, but had thought better of it. He smiled to himself as he climbed. Aelfric might serve the king, but clearly it wasn't in any military capacity.
The deck was dark and silent, the only sounds that of the surf on the shore, and the breathing of the three guards nearby. They sat along the side of the boat, looking towards the land that lay so close. Not one of them was looking back towards the hatchway, trusting in the chains to keep the slaves out of the way. Methos smiled harshly. These people were feared throughout Britain for their lightning raids and apparent invincibility. He wasn't impressed by a foe that kept their backs turned to the most evident threat of all. Silently he drew his lock pick. It was hardly the weapon of a civilised man, but it was the best that he could do - and Methos was nothing if he was not adaptable. In his hands there were few items that could not become deadly weapons upon demand, and a lock pick was no exception. Swift and stealthy, his Roman-style sandals making no noise on the wooden planking, he crept up upon the closest guard. The man started to turn as he approached, his head beginning to make the swing that would bring Methos into his line of sight. He never completed the turn. With an abrupt but precise movement, Methos stabbed forward with the modified nail that had become his lock-pick, catching the man in the side of the neck. At the same time he reached out with his free hand, stifling the dying guard's cries with a heavy hand clamped firmly across his mouth. The man's fledgling shout, unable to burst free upon the night air, died unspoken. Methos let the body slide gracelessly to the floor.
"What was that?" The second guard, hearing some sound that had gone unnoticed by the Immortal's ears, turned to the third with a quizzical look upon his face. His comrade listened for a second, but clearly had not detected anything. He shook his head.
"Nothing. Probably somebody moving about below decks. The oar master and the guard most likely, drinking themselves to sleep." The pair shared a laugh, and Methos smiled grimly. Not only was the hated whip-wielding guard's love of a good night-cap the main reason for his being able to escape, but it was also the excuse for the sounds that he made whilst making that escape. He bent to the body at his feet, ignoring the two other guards now, and pulled the big, weighty sword from the body of their dead colleague. It was heavier than he had been expecting, and it took some effort to raise it. He wished for his own sword, smaller and lighter, and far more graceful in its poise. He had no idea where it was now, save that it had been taken upon his capture some six months previously. It was probably lying at the bottom of the sea now, or drifting in the sand beneath the estuary where he had first been dragged aboard some other godforsaken vessel.
"Where do you suppose the others are?" The voice of the second guard came to him clearly now, as he moved closer to the hapless pair awaiting execution. His colleague was silent for a moment.
"Making their way south. They'll be aiming to meet up with the others, and form a sizeable army. We've brought plenty of men with us, you know. One of the greatest armies we've ever raised."
"So I've heard. I also hear that we're going to need it. King Harold isn't going to give up without a fight. He's got quite a reputation."
"And a lot to live up to. If Harald is to beat him, it will take more than manpower. I believe that he'll do it though. We have the tactical advantage. At the end of the day, history is on our side."
"And the people of this country fear us." The second guard gave a short laugh. "With good reason."
"We could be setting up our homes on this coastline within the month." His companion sighed, as though such an outcome was all that he desired. "It's good soil, or so they say. The vines grow well here."
"You're a farmer at heart. What happened to the warrior that I came on board with?"
"He met me." Stepping forward, Methos slammed the point of the huge and heavy sword into the chest of the second guard. "And he surrendered peacefully."
"What-?" Leaping to his feet, the third guard was in time to do nothing save watch his comrade slide to the deck in a stream of his own blood. The unfortunate man was dead long before he came to a slippery halt, his wide, surprised eyes fixed upon his companion as though accusing him, blaming him for his death. "Who are you? What's--"
"Too many questions." Methos stabbed him, even as the man was drawing his own sword. The second weapon fell to the deck with a clatter. "I don't like questions."
"You're a dead man." The third guard had slumped to his knees, one large hand grasping at the blade driven deep in his chest. He cut his fingers on the sharp edge, but did not seem to notice. Presumably, thought Methos, one pain was not of importance in the midst of another.
"Am I?" He raised his eyebrows, then dragged the sword clear. "I hadn't noticed."
"You will." His victim toppled forwards, collapsing face down on the floor at his killer's feet. His last breath went unnoticed, a soundless rush of air and blood at the feet of a man that was no longer watching. The Immortal was turning now to welcome Aelfric, newly clambered from within the hold, form just a silhouette against the many other shadows.
"Edward?" His whisper sounded excited. Methos raised an arm in greeting, urging the man forwards. There was no time for conversation, and he tried to convey this in the urgency of his movements. Aelfric seemed to pick up on some of his body language at least, and increased his speed. His feet slipped a little in the blood that spattered the deck, but he did not lose his footing. Methos pointed to the rail.
"Over the side. The water's about at shoulder height, and it's not far to the beach. It's shingle from what I can see, so move quietly. We won't be out of danger until we're a long way from the shore."
"You sound as though you do this sort of thing quite often." Aelfric sounded as if he was joking, but Methos merely fixed him with a sardonic, unappreciative stare.
"More often than you'd think." He gestured politely ahead. "Shall we go?"
"Hey you!" The shout came from further up the deck, where a fourth guard, long hair blowing with surprising ferocity in so light and calm a breeze, rose suddenly to his feet. Methos froze, the captured sword held rigid in his whitening knuckles, the breath stilled in his lungs. When life did return to his muscles, it was merely to allow a depressed groan to escape his stress-tightened lips. He hesitated.
"Edward? Edward, what's going on?" Aelfric's voice told the Immortal that it was not an explanation of what was happening that he needed, but a detailed instruction on what exactly he should do about it. His confidence in the ability of his companion to know what to do next was almost touching. Methos, however, was not in the mood to appreciate such flattery, and did not even look at him.
"There are more guards." He could hear footsteps on the ladder behind them even as he spoke; could see the long-haired man at the other end of the deck moving towards them, drawing his sword, moving with longer and faster strides all of the time. There was simply neither the time, nor the opportunity to fight them all. He hesitated, then hurled his 'borrowed', heavy sword at the nearest guard, and shoved Aelfric towards the rail.
"Over the side. Remember what I said - every man for himself. I'm sorry, but I don't have the time to look out for you anymore." He began to clamber over the rail. Alongside him Aelfric mirrored his actions, moving with a speed that he had not shown before. His anxious feet slipped on the wood, and the over-hasty escaper tumbled headfirst over the rail. He landed awkwardly beneath Methos, struggling against the surf to rise to his feet. More cautious, but no less hasty, Methos also straddled the rail.
"Get them!" The easily recognisable voice of the oar master, desperate to prevent the escape of two of his slaves, echoed across the deck. Methos made it over the rail, catching his sleeve on the rim of one of the battle shields that decorated the edge of the boat. He struggled, hearing material rip. The shield wobbled, but stayed firm. On the ground, up to his knees in water but still keeping up an admirable speed, Aelfric was running towards the beach, slipping and sliding but still making good progress. Methos groaned. Just his luck. If he hadn't been so swift to press the issue of not waiting for each other, he felt sure that Aelfric would have gone out of his way to come back and help him now. He pulled harder at the shield edge that gripped his wrist so effectively, but save for a dull clanging as the metal struck the rail, he achieved nothing. Down below him Aelfric stumbled out of the surf and made his breathless, staggering escape up the beach. Methos followed him with his eyes, hearing the footsteps of a good many men coming up behind him. He tugged once more on the shield; felt it coming loose beside him; felt his arm move with a sudden renewal of freedom as the persistent obstacle finally relented under his frenzied assault. It was too late. As his arm came free and he stood once again in readiness to make the leap into the shallow waters, the guards behind him seized hold of him, catching his shoulders, his arms, his hands. He struggled, fighting against them just as he had fought against the accidental hold of the shield. It was fruitless. Slowly, inevitably, but with added force and speed, he felt himself being dragged backwards. The rail pressed against the back of his legs, and he felt himself beginning to fall.
"Let go!" He shouted it with a furious desperation, as though he believed that they might obey him, and let him escape them. Instead of agreeing to his impossible demand, they pulled all the harder, dragging him down, over the railing, hurling him to the deck. He struck hard, landing badly, blinking up at the circle of angry faces through eyes dazed by frustration as well as the rough handling. He knew the face of the oar master, and his whip-wielding accomplice - but now there was no whip, merely a sword. The tip pressed down against his neck.
"Damn slaves." One of the guards went to the rail, looking after Aelfric as he vanished out of sight. "Now what do we do?"
"Kill him." Hands grabbed Methos by the arms, dragging him to his feet. More footsteps sounded out around him; confused voices; shouted questions. A flaming lamp shone nearby, singing the furs that hung around the neck of one of the closest guards. Methos smelt the unpleasant odour of the heated fur, recognising it plainly in the cold air. He winced away from it, reacting as much to the smell itself as to the sudden brightness of the hot flame. More footsteps resounded, and a harsh voice, filled with a cold, clear authority, demanded to know what was going on. There was a silence, and the circle of men surrounding Methos broke apart, admitting a handful of new arrivals.
"Well?" There was a man at the centre of this new group; a tallish man of no greatly impressive build, but with a very distinctive appearance. He had the face of a man who had lived outside for much of his life, combating the hardest of times, and fighting the toughest of battles. He was a survivor, clearly; a strong man; determined and ruthless. Methos felt the power of the man's presence, even in the grip of his guards, for their hands upon his shoulders and arms tensed suddenly as the men became eager and attentive.
"He's a slave sir. One of the oarsmen. He was caught trying to escape with another man."
"They worked the same oar." The oar master was glaring at Methos as though he could kill through the power of his stare alone. "They must have planned their escape at some time during the day."
"Where's the other man?" The new arrival stared around at all of the assembled guards, demanding an answer through the subtext of his words. There was a hesitant silence, before the oar master stared at the floor, shrugged slightly, and tried to look anywhere save at the man before him.
"He got away," he muttered finally. The man before him narrowed his eyes.
"He got away?" Disgust seemed to drip from his tongue. "How? How is it that he managed to get so far without anybody noticing?"
"The guards were overpowered - killed. I--" The useless stammering of the oar master was cut short by a vicious cutting gesture from the powerful figure before whom he quailed so pathetically. "I'm sorry. It... won't happen again."
"It had better not, or next time you'll be the one making up numbers at the oars." The new arrival turned to Methos, held motionless before him by the querulous guards. "And what do you have to say for yourself? Apologies? Pleas?"
"Maybe." Methos was watching him through narrowed eyes, certain that he could find a way out of this, if only he timed it right. His answer was a sardonic smile.
"Well it won't do you any good. You're a dead man, and there's no escaping that." He made a gesture towards the guards, suddenly seeming tired and annoyed, as though he could no longer be bothered to deal with this unfortunate situation. "Cut off his head and throw the body over the side. We'll keep the head. Put it down with the slaves. Maybe they'll take the hint. Just don't let them know that the other one escaped."
"Sir." One or two of the guards snapped to a clumsy attention, their big, bulky frames preventing them from looking ordered and neatly erect. Methos blanched.
"You can't do that." He stared after the retreating figure of the man who had ordered his death. "Hey! I'm talking to you!"
"And I don't care." The man turned back to look at him, eyes as cold as any that Methos had ever seen before. "You're a slave who has killed a number of my crew. There is only one sentence to be passed."
"But I can help you, damn it. So I'm a slave. Big deal. I know things. I can tell you things. Don't think that just because your short-sighted colleagues chained me up to some oar, that that means I'm opposed to you and your little battles here. Trust me - you do not want to kill me."
"Oh but I do." The man turned around, as if intrigued by this loud mouthed prisoner. Instead of being bored with proceedings, he seemed suddenly anxious to play a greater part in them. He drew his sword. "As a matter of fact, I want to kill you so much that I think I'll do it myself. Ordinarily I'd leave such things to the guards. It's their job to clear up after you and your kind. To deal with you when you get above yourselves. But I think that I can make an exception in your case."
"Shut up." The sharp edge of a heavy blade came up against his throat, pressing against his windpipe until it was almost impossible to breathe. The furious eyes of this strange Viking flashed up close, and the Immortal felt hot breath upon his face. "That man over there. Behind me now, lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood, is my son. My first born, barely a man, born to me when I was younger than he is now. He meant a very great deal to me. I was never more proud of him than I was on the day that he swore fealty to Harald Hadrada. I knew that he might fall in battle against the English, marching against King Harold. I never expected him to die here, without stepping ashore. I never expected him to be cut down by a slave with a stolen sword."
"You still don't want to kill me." Methos could barely speak, but he persevered nonetheless. He had to. Words were all that he had left, for he knew that he was on the verge of death. There was no bluff being played out here; he was teetering on the brink of the final conclusion to his long life of fumbling survival. "I can help you."
"Of course you can." Sarcasm flared up. "A slave, fleeing his masters, desperate to make good his escape and return to join his kinsmen on the battlefield, is always sure to turn his coat and join up with the men who enslaved him. Now shut your mouth, fool, and die like a man."
"Look at me." There was little enough light even in the glow of the fiery torch, but Methos drew the man's attention with the authority in his voice, and the flaming brand moved closer, illuminating his face as well as those of his immediate captors. "Look at me! Do I look English to you? I'm Welsh, damn it. The Welsh owe no friendship to the English. I've been fighting against them for years, and my intention was always to join up with the Norsemen and help in the fight against England. I know where that other man has gone. The slave that escaped." The sword moved fractionally, allowing him the barest amount of room in which to catch a little more breath, and force his words out a little more easily. "His name is Aelfric. I know where he went, and who he'll be meeting. He works for the king, and if we follow him he'll lead us straight to Harold. We spoke about little else all day. Aelfric is a loyal servant of his king."
"Cheap words, sold to buy a life." The would-be executioner sounded disparaging, almost disgusted, by such a blatant betrayal of a confidence. Methos took a deep breath. He was letting Aelfric down; probably signing the man's death warrant - and very likely that of King Harold as well. He should probably feel guilty - maybe he did a little. On the other hand, he had specifically said that it should be a case of every man for himself. If betraying Aelfric was what it cost to survive, Methos was prepared to betray him a hundred times over. After all, he hardly knew the man. He certainly cared nothing for this probably pointless struggle between Hadrada and the armies of the King of England.
"All words are cheap, friend." He stared back at the angry eyes before him, trying to appear genuine in his desire to throw in with this tattered and rag-tag bunch of ill-dressed warriors. "But I mean what I say. I'm no devotee of the English king. I can help you to defeat him with minimum loss of life. Surely that has to be worth something?"
"Maybe it is." There was a long silence. The grip of the guards on the Immortal's arms felt restless and heavy, suggesting anxiety and frustration. The men on this boat did not want to be here. They wanted to be marching off to battle with Hadrada, not cooped up waiting to hear tales of how the battle had gone. "And maybe it isn't."
"I can win you the respect and gratitude of Hadrada. I can deliver you the King of England on a platter. Do you want to risk missing up a chance like that?"
"Maybe not." The sword at his throat wavered, then abruptly moved back, hanging casually at its owner's side. "But know this. I don't trust you."
"Fair enough." Methos stared nervously at the still drawn weapon. "You don't have to trust me. Just listen to me."
"And you'll help us against King Harold." The spokesman was sizing him up, as though judging his ability to succeed in such a task. "And what of your friend who escaped from us? Are you prepared to betray your fellow slave as well?"
"I'll betray whoever I need to." Methos stared back at the ruthless eyes before him, allowing just a little of his Horseman nature to shine through. In actual fact he was feeling increasingly bad about selling Aelfric in such fashion. The notion of guilt disturbed him faintly, and he didn't feel entirely equipped to deal with it. He decided to simply ignore the sensation, and concentrate on his survival alone. "Just listen to me, and let me help you win this war."
"My pleasure." The evident leader of those left on board made a gesture with his hand, and Methos felt the grip on his arms relax. He stepped free.
"Don't thank me." The sword raised again, threatening the decapitation that had been demanded before. "Just talk."
"Yeah." The alien feelings of guilt beginning to rise in his breast once again, Methos moved more squarely into the circle of light cast by the flaming torch, and began to speak fast. His audience pressed in close, eager for his information; eager to capture every moment of his betrayal. He thought of Aelfric, but he dismissed the thought straight away. His survival was what counted. His life was what was important - and he would do what he had to do to protect it, just as he had always done. Guilt was simply not his style.
They marched for the best part of a day, walking hard, feet sending clouds of dust into the air. There were twelve of them, almost all of the men left on board the boat, leaving only the minimum of guards behind to look after the slaves below decks. Methos marched in the centre of the group, flanked on either side by a burly Norseman wrapped in leather and furs. They kept their weapons sheathed, apparently trusting him enough now to keep their swords from his neck, although neither of them allowed him space enough to separate himself from their looming presence. Ahead, little more than a sword thrusts distance from the weary Immortal, marched the charismatic, leather-faced man who had claimed to be the father of one of the guards Methos had killed. His name, it had soon transpired, was Gered, and he was evidently a man of some importance. Methos was wary of him, for the man was unpredictable and cold, and his tough, lived-in face was too hard to read. Even with four thousand years of experience behind him, Methos was not sure how best to deal with a man who was so determinedly aloof.
"Where are we going?" He asked the question of the men on either side of him, but neither answered. He asked again in a different language, and then a third time in a different language still - but he received no response. Someone behind shouted something in a different language altogether, but when he repeated his question in that language a hefty shove between his shoulder blades was the only recognition that he received. The day progressed, and the lengthening shadows of the marching party remained as silent as the men who gave them birth. Only when night was beginning to fall, and the distant lights of a string of campfires told them of their journey's end, did anybody speak. Gered raised an arm to slow the advance of the party, and gave the order to wait for his return. He strode off into the gathering dusk; a shapeless shadow of a man on long, leather-clad legs. Other shapeless shadows came to greet him. There was the glint of moonlight on weapons blades; the passing of numerous shadows to-and-fro before the fires; the distant sound of hail and hearty greetings. Methos through that he smelt meat cooking, and was certain that he could detect the familiar odours of alcohol blown to him on the evening breeze. Wine and ale, mixing their scents, mingling with the smell of the burning fat and crackling flesh above the campfires. Rabbit, thought Methos, who had some considerable experience in such matters, and probably deer too. There weren't all that many wild pigs these days, which was a shame - he had always rather liked the taste of wild pig. Domesticated animals tended to outnumber the wild ones these days, and the Vikings would not steal domesticated pigs just yet. They were still hoping to have some element of surprise on their side when they met up with the forces that were sure to be heading towards them.
"This way!" Gered's loud voice; powerful and strong and yet showing the signs of age, echoed over the broad expanse of land between the camp and his waiting companions. The little group started up again, moving faster now, eager to reach the warm fires and the roasting meat. The burly men on either side of Methos looked hungrily towards the crackling flames and the large stone jugs of ale, but made no move to head towards them. Instead they guided their increasingly sulky prisoner towards the waiting Gered. He stood in the company of another man, equally tall and lean; equally powerful of build and character. Grey hairs speckled his dark head, adding a sense of venerability to his lined face. Methos looked up at him with a sense of increased foreboding. He was beginning to get a good idea of who exactly this new man was, and he didn't like the ruthlessness that echoed from Gered's cold eyes to the eyes of his latest companion. It made them look like brothers, in a curious way. It also made them look like a very hard audience indeed. He offered them a cautious smile.
"You may leave us." The new man waved an arm in a stiff gesture of dismissal, and the two guards flanking Methos bowed shortly and departed. Methos watched them go. It was a relief to have the space now to breathe without feeling his ribs being compressed, but the loss of his guards made him feel oddly exposed. His hesitant smile wavered, then ran away altogether.
"This is Harald Hadrada, King of Norway, and soon to be ruler of England." Gered spoke with real expectation; a sense of clear fondness as well as great respect for the man standing beside him. He inclined his head. "This is the man that I mentioned, sire. I apologise for having left the ships with so few guards, but I did not know what other course of action to take. Sending a runner might have lost us valuable time."
"Indeed." Harald turned the full force of his eagle's stare upon Methos. "And you are?"
"Edward." He left off the 'sire', despite fully realising that it was inadvisable to do so. He was playing a part though - a rôle just like that of an entertainer - and at the moment his character was still a sulky and failed escapee. "Of... Wales." If Aelfric had thought that he had the look of the Welsh about him, he might as well try to follow through, and play that rôle now. Certainly he had a Celtic look to him, of that he was sure. His dark hair and green eyes might have harkened from anywhere, but coupled with his skin, a tone or two paler than most of the native English, and added to his slight frame, there was certainly the suggestion of something that was foreign to these parts.
"And you wish to help me to defeat the English." Harald was watching him now with a glint of amusement in his dark eyes. Perhaps he was aware of the opinion most Englishmen held for the Welsh. Perhaps he shared it. To most of the people of England, Wales was little more than a large community of slaves, waiting to be captured by raiding parties. There was no real reason for Harald to consider Methos to be anything more than a fool, either to be returned to the longboats and the tender mercies of the oar master, or merely to be killed now and left to the elements.
"As I told him," Methos deliberately spoke of Gered in a disrespectful tone, "I was working on an oar next to an Englishman in the service of King Harold. We planned to escape together and go to the king. Aelfric seemed to think that Harold would be very grateful - although presumably only because I claimed to be a Wessex man myself. We spoke for much of the evening about Harold. Aelfric seemed certain that his king would be aware of your approach. He had no faith in your ability to catch the English unawares. He was heading south to join the troops that he felt sure were already marching north to meet with you."
"Lies." Harald sounded dismissive. "Harold expects an invasion force from Normandy at any time now. He waits in the south, ready to combat William the Bastard. The troops marching north to meet with us are small forces, lacking the leadership of their king. They will be easily overthrown, and then we can finish the march south and defeat Harold - in partnership with William if necessary." He smiled rather wolfishly. "Not that it would be a very long-lived partnership."
"King Harold marches towards you. Aelfric was sure of it. Perhaps he believes that he has time enough to spare to return south after dealing with your foes. Perhaps he has information about William of Normandy that you aren't aware of. There are any number of explanations, but at any rate can you afford to doubt that he marches here now? Judging by whenabouts he must have left London, if you were to move fast you'd be most likely to encounter the main bulk of Harold's forces near Eboracum." He caught a frown from Harald's dark eyes, and waved a hand in illustration of his confusion as he searched for the town's modern name. "Jorvik, they call it now I think. This country is forever changing the names of its cities as one set of invaders departs."
"And you say that you're Welsh?" Harald looked amused, clearly not believing the tale. Methos was too well informed to be a foreigner, or perhaps seemed too well educated. "Never mind. Jorvik, you say. And you're sure of this?"
"As sure as I can be. My information is some days old. The most pressing concern when Aelfric was first captured by your countrymen was that of Normandy, but allowing for the average marching time, if they set off after hearing of your plans, they won't be far away by now."
"Then you still have no certain proof that Harold is even heading this way." Harald shrugged. "I can't belive that he is. Not with the threat of another invasion in the south."
"And what if he has had news of a delay on Normandy's part? Weather perhaps, or a political situation that he had to deal with. Who knows? Besides, the king knew that he would soon be facing forces from the north, and it makes little sense that he would allow you to get away with it, no matter what the threat from the south coast."
"It's a gamble on his part if he is heading this way." Harald was frowning, clearly considering the tale, and wondering how far to believe it. Methos, who was improvising fast, mixing guesswork with the bare bones of a tale told to him by Aelfric, was relieved to see that the Norse leader was listening attentively. "A brave gamble."
"But a great success if it works in his favour. To wait, and to risk having to fight against two foes at once, coming at him from two different directions, would be foolish. He would have no chance. He'd rather greet you in the north anyway. There are too many Northern Englishmen who look to the Vikings more readily that they look to the king in the south. There's too much shared kinship and loyalty. Harold doesn't trust the locals not to fall in with you and boost your numbers as you march south."
"Then he has more sense than I've credited him with. Perhaps he's more of a successor to King Edward than I'd thought." Harald smiled suddenly, the expression quite changing the dark, harsh lines of his face. "I thank you, Edward. Your information is appreciated, and I will consider it during the night. Now, you say that you have an idea where Harold is right now?"
"I know where Aelfric was hoping to meet him. He planned to get a horse at his first opportunity, and race for the most likely rendzvous. The army will be riding north at the moment, probably stopping as little as possible. Aelfric hoped to cross paths with Harold close to Jorvik. He has important information on the size of your fleet, and he has a rough idea of the number of men on your side. He was a late addition to our numbers below, so he was brought onboard after most of the soldiers. That means that he knows how many men were aboard the boat he was imprisoned upon - and he knows how many boats there were in total. He's seen enough to know all about your weaponry, and to be able to make considered guesses about any number of things. Aelfric is a very intelligent man."
"So it would appear." Harald rubbed at his chin, then turned away to confer with Gered. His body language cut Methos from the conversation, but the Immortal could hear enough to know exactly what they were discussing.
"What do you think?" Harald was asking Gered. The lean soldier shrugged his fur-cloaked shoulders.
"I think that he's trying to save his life, sire. He knows that the penalty for being caught escaping, especially after killing members of our crew, is death - particularly since he's tried to escape before. He's telling us all of this to ensure a stay of execution. I don't trust him in the slightest."
"I'm not sure that I do, either. Perhaps he's telling the truth, and he really is a Welshman looking to see England defeated. We've joined forces with people from this island before, who stood to gain more from our rule than with that of the native English. Why should this man be any different? I'll grant you that he seems to have some hidden agenda, and I'll admit that he's not a man I find it easy to trust - but he could be useful. As he says, he knows this Aelfric. Perhaps King Harold will be grateful to the man who helped his trusted servant to escape."
"You're planning to send him to Harold's camp?" Gered did not look or sound as though he believed this to be a good idea. "If we take our eyes off him, he'll run in the first available direction; and whether that takes him to Harold, to William of Normandy, or up into the furthest reaches of the Scottish Highlands, it would make no difference to him. He can't be trusted."
"I agree; which is precisely why I plan for us not to take our eyes off him. He could be useful, yes - but he could also be very dangerous. I'll make it clear to him that he lives only as long as he proves to be of use to me, and that the slightest sign of betrayal will be dealt with summarily. I'll have him killed in an instant if he betrays me, with his head on a pole as a banner for our warriors to march under. But if he proves to be useful, and obedient... well then I'll see that he's treated kindly. Perhaps even allowed to return to Wales one day. That's a better deal than he'll get from the English, no matter how grateful and understanding Harold proves to be. King Harold trusts no one. He's been expecting invasion from Normandy since the day that he first inherited the crown. He certainly won't put much store in some unknown man escaped from a Viking longboat, whether his friend Aelfric voices his support for him or not. There is too much at stake for Harold right now."
"You think that Harold will save us the trouble, and execute Edward?"
"Perhaps. But I rather hope not. I'm intending for our friend Edward to serve us first - by discovering the size of Harold's armies and position."
"Send him in, leave him to gain the necessary information... and then have him sneak back out again, to warn us?" Gered whistled softly. "He'd have to be an exceptional sneak to manage something like that. He's also have to be extraordinarily lucky."
"And you're saying that he's neither?" Harald was smiling, with a strange sort of humour that suggested he would rather be disapproving, but couldn't quite manage it. "I think he's the perfect man for the job, particularly if he has somebody that I do trust going along to keep him in hand. Somebody who can pretend to be a fellow escapee, or some such renegade, anxious to find sanctuary with the English. Such a man would hardly be as welcome as Edward, and would be in no position to discover the information that I want - at least on his own. He could serve to keep Edward in hand, however, and perhaps to assist him in his task."
"And I assume that you have such a man in mind?" Gered spoke as though he was perfectly well aware of whom his leader was thinking. Harald nodded.
"Do you think that you can handle the task?"
"I can handle anything that you care to throw at me, sire, you know that. But will they believe it? I look like the man that I am. I may be darker than most of our warriors, but I still look like a Norseman."
"But you could pass for an Englishman, if you had to. You forget - you'll be arriving in the company of a man known to be an escaped slave - somebody who can claim friendship with a servant of the king. Alone, you wouldn't have a chance, but with that small piece of trust in your favour, you should be alright." He looked serious. "There's a risk of course..."
"Risks matter nothing to me, Your Highness." Gered's chest swelled, with the pride of an old warrior who had no need to prove himself. "I'll do it."
"Well good for you." Butting in, even though he had not been included in the conversation, Methos stepped forwards looking indignant. "You'll be on your own if you do go. There's no way that I'm agreeing to a job like this. It's madness! I'm no soldier, and I'm certainly no spy."
"Then there's only one thing left that you can be." Gered had drawn his sword. "You must be a dead man."
"No. But I am a sensible one." Methos was looking from one to the other of the Viking marauders, studying them closely as though, somehow, he might have missed some hidden smirk that would tell him it had all been a joke. "Let me get this straight. You want me to infiltrate King Harold's camp, so that I can sneak back out again at the first available opportunity, and tell you what's going on there? Can't you just go tearing in there and hack them all to pieces or something?"
"Not if he has more men than we're expecting. We have limited forces. We're in a hostile country, and our reinforcements are at least a day's sail from here. Harold has all of the Englishmen he wants, ready for the taking. They can't turn down a demand from their king. I want to know how many men he has at his immediate disposal, so that I can make the best tactical decisions regarding my initial assault." Harald folded his arms. "And you are going to get me that information."
"I'll be killed." Methos folded his own arms, although the effect, with his spindly body, was rather less impressive. "I've seen heads on poles, and I know that these people like to go in for that kind of stuff. I'm not going to go wandering in there waiting for my head to--"
"If you don't do this, I'll cut your head off." Gered was smiling, his eyes filled with a particularly unpleasant kind of humour. "There shouldn't be any danger, if you're careful. Your friend Aelfric will speak up for you, provided that he's managed to find Harold by the time that you reach them."
"But by the time it takes me to get there and back, the English could already have reached this place. You could be in the middle of your battle long before I'm in any kind of a position to get back here with your information. I'm just one man, on foot, in unfamiliar territory."
"You're a resourceful man. You'll find a way to get there, and get the information, and get back here in time. Harold won't march on us here even if he does know where we are. The tactical advantage is too much in our favour. Your mention of Jorvik is more likely. There are plenty of places outside the city where a battle could be fought in open territory. We'll move out slowly, so as to be fresh for the fight. Harold will try to recruit as he goes. He'll be moving slowly too, to conserve his energy just like us. There'll be plenty of time for your friend Aelfric to meet him, and plenty of time for you to meet him too. You find yourself a horse from somewhere. I'm sure that you'll manage it." Now smirking in a manner horribly similar to Gered, Harald let one of his hands fall to the massive sword in his belt. "After all, you did say that you wanted to help us to defeat the English. I should hate to think that you've had a change of heart. if you had... then I should have to cut that heart out, and display it next to your head when I stick it on a pole." He shrugged. "It's your choice."
"And what's to stop me just leaving and not coming back?" Methos already knew the answer to that one, at least to a degree. Harald smiled, his long canine teeth glinting in the light from the many fires.
"Gered will be with you." He gestured towards his companion, as though he felt that Methos might have forgotten exactly who Gered was. "He can't do this alone, because he needs you to get him into Harold's camp. He can, however, dispense with your services very early on into the mission, should he choose. Your usefulness is extremely limited. Do we understand each other?"
"Yeah." Methos looked from one to the other of the men - lank and lean, made burly by so many wrapped furs. There was something about them both that made them appear ungainly, and yet it was an illusion that did not convince. Methos could see the power in both frames; could see the strength that rested so close to the surface. He did not doubt for a second that either man could move with speed enough to cut him down if he made even the slightest move to escape.
"Good." Abruptly Harald seemed jovial, and even friendly. He clapped a hand upon the Immortal's shoulder, which, covered as it was merely by a tattered shirt, felt the full force of what amounted to a heavy slap. He almost fell, and Hadrada appeared concerned.
"We've talked for long enough." His manner was changed as surely as if he had been awarded a new mind. "You've walked a long way, and you must be tired. You certainly look it. Rest, and have something to eat. I'd offer you something more substantial to wear, but you won't fool King Harold if you turn up dressed in new clothes. You have to look like an escaped slave." He gestured to the closest of the fires, where a thick and glutinous stew of some local vegetables and other assorted greenery was bubbling furiously in a large iron pot. "There's plenty to eat, and plenty to drink. Just don't leave Gered's side." He smiled again, and once more offered Methos a flash of those ever-changing, ever-mocking eyes. "Or I'll have your head before you've taken a step." He shrugged, and waved a hand much like a benevolent host greeting guests at a party. "Enjoy yourself."
"You're too kind." A moment passed between them, of amused dislike and clear distrust. Methos was the first to smile, using his long years of easy self assurance to guide him. He stepped towards the fire, lifted a rough hewn wooden bowl from the ground beside the flames. He used it as a scoop, sliding it into the thick stew, filling it with the lumpy, gloopy foodstuff. It smelt strongly, but not unpleasantly, and mingled well with the odours of the plentiful wines and ales. With a small smile, innocent on the surface, but noticeably less so underneath, he turned around and handed the bowl to Gered. The big man took it, more as a reflex action than in gratitude. He stared at it in his hand, as though uncertain how exactly it had got there. Hadrada laughed.
"I think he understands us, Gered. Sit down and relax. Eat. I have men to speak with."
"He understand us alright." Gered was watching Methos waith darkly suspicious eyes. "But I don't trust him." Methos raised his eyebrows, intentionally using all of his remarkable acting skills to present himself as the most faultless soul imaginable. Harald shrugged, as though trust meant little.
"If he's up to something, he'll be a fool to try it. He knows that his life is on the line. Unless he thinks that he can survive a beheading, he'll do exactly as he's been told, and he'll behave himself." He watched, dispassionate, as Methos turned back to the fire to fetch a bowl of stew for himself. The Immortal sat down on the ground, his back to the two men discussing his likely fate, and began to eat. Somebody sitting nearby handed him a wooden mug filled with a strong, sweet beer with a smell that brought to mind late afternoons coloured by large amounts of mead. Methos raised it in salute, and smiled broadly.
"You're not fooling anybody." Snatching the mug from him, Gered drained it in a gulp, then threw it back to the man who had first offered it. The man, a burly blond warrior who looked as though he could tear Gered apart with a single hand, winced noticeably, and vanished back into the growing darkness beyond the flames. His movements slow and heavy, Gered sat down beside Methos.
"That wasn't very friendly." Methos picked up a second mug, and filled it from a greasy wineskin lying nearby. The liquid was rough and young, crushed very recently, and apparently by people with very inefficient feet. Pieces of grape skin and chunks of badly mashed fruit flowed past his lips, but he had drunk worse. Besides, he thought, with an inward smile, it certainly beat anything that he had had whilst incarcerated in the slave galley. He began alternating mouthfuls of the rough liquid with swallows of lumpy, hot stew, studiously ignoring Gered all the while. The silence lingered, the other Norsemen who were seated nearby falling into a similar hush, either respecting their moody taciturnity, or fearing Gered's actions if they countered it. It amused Methos to see the way that the tall, ageing soldier was regarded by his younger, stronger colleagues. It worried him too, for this was the man within whose hands his life now rested so unavoidably. He was aware of the mortal's dark eyes upon him, but he shut them out. He was good at that. Four thousand years of getting himself into trouble had helped him to perfect the art of ignoring annoying antagonisms.
"You're planning something, aren't you." Gered's voice, kept deliberately low, sounded hoarse and throaty. Methos did not look towards him, although his face showed a flicker of reaction to the noise. He forced a single second of humourless, almost scathing laughter.
"I'm always planning something."
"You intend to betray King Harald?"
"Not necessarily. Believe me, I don't care in the slightest who wins this battle. Harold or Harald, it's all the same to me. All that interests me is survival. My survival."
"Good." Gered finished the last of his stew, then threw the bowl aside and positioned himself more comfortably. Somebody offered him a rug that looked suspiciously like the entire skin of a bear. All that was missing were claws and head. Gered nodded and grunted a brief thanks, then pulled the rug around him, using his own furred clothing to rest his head. "If you want to survive, Welshman, you'll do as I tell you."
"Why should I? Just like Hadrada said, you only need me to get you in. What's to stopping you from killing me then?"
"Amusement. And it's King Harald. You'd be wise to remember that." Gered's smile was unpleasant, filled with undertones of mockery that were in no way diminished by the fact that he was well aware he had no audience. "Maybe you're right, and I will kill you."
"And maybe you have even more hidden agendas than I do." Methos finished his own stew, then lay back on the hard ground. Nobody had offered him any rugs or animal skins, but it didn't matter. He had slept in worse and harder places than a stretch of coarse grass, and the fire at least was still warm. Beside him Gered laughed lightly.
"You'd be surprised." He stretched, his long, lean body seeming to grow by at least a foot. "Now get some sleep. We leave as soon as it's light, and if you want anything to eat, you'll have to have had it by then."
"Fine." Methos folded his hands behind his head, and stared momentarily at the cloudy skies. It annoyed him faintly that there were no stars to be seen. Why sleep out of doors if there were no stars to brighten your slumber? He thought, inescapably, of some of the other campfires of his long life; some of the other starry skies and the nights of rather more companionable rest. Kronos by his side, sword always at the ready; Silas snoring from the midst of a pile of stolen rugs, woven by craftsmen unwilling to give up their wares. Silas had never liked to sleep in furs, for he preferred his animals to be of a more lively kind. Caspian had been there too in those days; a shadowy presence on the other side of the campfire, surrounded by the grim souvenirs that seemed to help him sleep; severed limbs and blood-soaked blades; the boots made of leather that had once been human skin; all pieces of his day's work as a Horseman. Methos smiled lazily to himself. Odd how memories of a time he had abandoned could warm him now with their presence.
"Edward?" Gered's voice startled him back from the brink of sleep.
"What?" He didn't open his eyes or turn his head. That simple set of disrespectful actions seemed to annoy Gered no end, for he kicked out with one heavily booted foot, catching Methos on the shin. The Immortal mumbled incoherently, but made no effort to be more civil. Gered harrumphed loudly.
"Your friend. Aelfric."
"What of him?"
"He'll be upset to find that you're a traitor."
"I suppose that he will." Methos wasn't sure whether or not he cared much, but it disturbed him faintly to think that he might.
"Maybe I should tell him." It was clear from the Norseman's voice that he was smiling broadly. Methos threw him a sidelong glance.
"That might make our task a little more complicated, mightn't it."
"For you maybe." Gered shrugged his narrow but powerful shoulders. "Not for me."
"You're enjoying this, aren't you." Propping himself up on one elbow, Methos turned to glare at the mortal. Eyes lined with tiny wrinkles stared keenly at him in the red firelight.
"I just want you to keep some things in mind, that's all. Such as who your life belongs to."
"You might be surprised." Methos stifled a smile. It was odd, really, the things that one could find amusing. Gered sighed.
"You can't win. Even if the English don't kill you, we probably will."
"Maybe." Methos lay back down again, and returned his attentions to the stubbornly starless sky. "Or maybe I'll kill you all." And he smiled, and closed his eyes. Gered was silent for a long time, staring at the still form of his unusual prisoner. There was something that he didn't quite understand about this man, with his strangely bright eyes, and his obvious labyrinth of secrets. It was something that he felt sure was important, but couldn't quite begin to unravel. In the end he merely grunted, then threw a lone fur towards the unfathomable fool beside him. Methos smiled, pulling it around himself with a feeling of pleasant satisfaction.
"Thanks," he said quietly, already turning his back on his unexpected benefactor. Gered's only answer was another grunt. Soon he made no sound at all, save the faint drone of a snore that was never quite completed. Methos stared into the darkness, wondering about the chances of escape. The whole world, it seemed, was oblivious to him, and he was capable of movement of the quietest sort. Somehow, though, he didn't trust his chances enough to take the risk. Better just to wait. Maybe King Harold would be the saving of him. After all - who was there that could rival the King of England?
Dawn awoke with a grey glare, that lit up one end of the sky by only the faintest of amounts. It seemed stubbornly determined to prevent that glow from spreading to the rest of the world, as though holding itself back to deprive the Britons of the daytime that was their entitlement. Gered stirred, hearing the first birds as they shouted their mingled chorus at the still sleeping sun.
"Noisy beggars, aren't they." The voice was inordinately cheerful, and clearly belonged to somebody who was annoyingly wide awake. Gered sat up, pushing himself out of his cocoon of rugs and furs. Nearby, his back to a fire that had remained surprisingly agile, was Methos. Despite his frayed and faded clothes, he looked oddly neat and tidy, as though he had - for some inexplicable reason - decided to have a wash. He seemed to have shaved too, although quite how he had managed it - let alone why he should have wanted to - was beyond the bleary-eyed Viking. He scowled at the former galley slave, who was sprawled on the warm ground beside the fire with an air of joyful indolence, like some semi-reclined prince expecting to be waited upon hand and foot. He smiled at Gered, eyes filled with a sparkle that strayed dangerously close to mockery.
"What are you doing awake?" Standing up, Gered began to brush dust and muddy debris from his clothes and hair. Methos shrugged.
"I thought we were making an early start?"
"We are." The big man stretched, his fingers cracking loudly as he linked his hands to force the kinks from his muscles. "Are you ready to go?"
"I've been ready for ages." Methos was smirking, albeit in a guarded fashion. "Breakfast was good, although I wouldn't mind repeating the experience if you're hungry."
"I don't think that you'll need to do that." Gered was stripping off layers of furs, trying to make himself appear a little less Viking, for the purposes of fooling the English. Methos' smirk grew, and the ageing warrior glared at him thunderously.
"What?" The Immortal's eyes were wide with innocence, giving him the appearance of a wronged child. Gered shook his head. "Just get us some food for the trip. Nothing major, because you're the one who's going to have to carry it. Something that looks as though we could have stolen it from the locals."
"Anything else?" Something in Methos' tone; something angry and hard and entirely unexpected; made Gered look up rather sharply. For a moment he thought that he had caught a glimpse of something very cold in the murky green eyes turned towards him; but as soon as he became aware of it, it had gone. In place of the iciness there was now an empty insouciance. All sense of rebellion - if indeed there really had been any - had vanished.
"No, nothing else." Wondering if his peculiar companion was really to be trusted, or whether Hadrada's cause would be better served by killing the irritating Welshman right away, Gered jerked his head towards the pile of cooling flat loaves, which had been cooking in the embers of the next fire along. A lone cook, brought along from the comfort of one of the longboats and clearly not enjoying the experience, had been left to prepare and guard them during the course of the night, and he was dozing now with his head in his hands. Methos stepped past him, silent and swift like some thief in the night, and caught up four of the loaves. He wrapped them in a piece torn from a fluttering standard, showing a blatant disregard for the honour of the family that owned the simple but powerful flag. Gered winced. He knew the family well, and if they found out who had massacred their standard, they would kill him as well as the Welshman. Fortunately, however, nobody seemed to have noticed. Save for the dozing cook, the rest of the camp was apparently fast asleep.
"Ready?" There was something about Methos' eagerness to get going that rang alarm bells in Gered's head. He frowned until his heavy brows became conjoined.
"I'm ready." His eyes travelled to the loaves, safe and secure in their neat little bundle of one knotted and cannibalised battle flag. "Stay where I can see you, and don't try anything funny."
"That's it? No farewells for Harry, your great and fearless leader?" Methos searched for Hadrada by means of a long, sweeping gaze that took in the whole camp. Gered pushed him away from the fires, directing him off on his way.
"It's King Harald, and he'll know where we've gone. I don't want to waste any more time than is necessary. Now march, or I'll forget the plan and kill you outright. It wouldn't be any great loss."
"Killing me will not be necessary." Methos spoke rather haughtily, then slung his makeshift bag over his shoulder, and set out at a roughly ninety degree angle to the rising sun. It wasn't his favourite direction, but with a bit of luck, south would serve them well. Gered glared after him, then followed on in his wake. His temper was rapidly failing him, and he let his hand fall to his sword. Hadrada could make what plans he liked - but Gered was determined that sometime soon, maybe even before all this was over, he would have the Welshman's head on a pole. Beneath his rough-sewn tunic, his heart began to pound with a restless beat.
They stole horses from a piece of common grazing land not far from the camp, taking care to look out first in case of witnesses. Nobody was there to see who had stolen the horses, or which direction they used to make their escape. The horses were boisterous creatures, clearly glad to be out for a run, although not capable of any great speed. They were hardy creatures though, well able to keep up a fair pace for a good length of time, and their sturdy legs were more than capable of covering the hilly terrain. Not exactly battle mounts thought Methos, with more than a little snobbish disdain. Still, they seemed enthusiastic enough - and they were free.
The English were camped just where Methos had thought them likely to be, although it had taken no great amount of inside information for him to find them. He was sure that the Vikings themselves could have made just such a deduction, and found the king and his troops just as easily. Hanging back though, as the pair did, watching the gathered army in the half light of gathering dusk, it was easy to see why Harald had wanted to have somebody scout ahead first. The size of the amassed force was impressive; there were more than enough men to make any encounter into a protracted struggle. Methos raised an eyebrow.
"Hadrada hasn't got a chance."
"It looks that way, doesn't it." Gered had apparently given up trying to remind him of the king of Norway's status, and instead frowned down at the assembled army, dark brows furrowed in concentration. "Perhaps we should ride straight back to warn him."
"He wouldn't listen." Methos had not known the Viking leader for very long, but he was certain of the stubbornness and tenacity that he had seen in the mortal's eyes the previous evening. Gered nodded.
"Perhaps we should get some more definite information. Actual head counts, as opposed to general estimates."
"All that that will do is to make the situation seem even more hopeless." Methos sounded decidedly unconcerned, and Gered glanced across at him.
"So much for you wanting to help us defeat the English. You don't sound too bothered by the threat of our failure, Welshman."
"Yes, I know. I simply can't understand it."
"But I think that I can." Gered turned back to look at the encampment. "I wonder if your friend Aelfric made it through."
"We'd better hope that he has, hadn't we. He's the only thing keeping us from a summary execution once we ride down there." Methos smiled. "That is, if we do ride down there."
"We do. I want to get inside that camp. There may be some sabotage that we can indulge ourselves in. Something that will help to turn the tide of the battle out of their favour."
"I was afraid you were going to say that." The Immortal rubbed self-consciously at his neck, thinking of the multiple threats that had already been made against his head since his botched attempt to escape from the longboats. "After you then."
"I don't think so." Pulling his giant sword out from its scabbard, Gered jumped to the ground, hiding the scabbard itself in the long grass nearby. Then he thrust the sword into his clothes as if it were some trophy won or stolen, rather than the sword that he possessed by rights. He remounted. "You lead the way, Edward. I don't want to give the impression that I don't trust you, but I don't plan to let you get behind me."
"Thanks." Methos nudged his horse forward, letting it choose its own pace down the steep and slightly crumbling slope. The stout little creature seemed happy enough to move at a remarkable speed even on such unpleasant ground, and he did nothing to discourage it. Behind him Gered seemed rather less happy, and Methos smirked. The Viking was no horseman, as had become steadily more apparent during the course of the day. He didn't seem to enjoy being on horseback at all, and clung onto his mount's mane with a grim look of brewing nausea.
"There'll be guards." Speaking through clenched teeth as he struggled to maintain his balance on the ride down the slope, Gered spoke in a hushed voice that struggled to be truly quiet.
"There are." Methos had spotted the two men some time previously, whilst he was still waiting at the top of the slope. "They're just ahead of us, hiding behind that blackberry bush."
"How many?" Gered didn't bother to ask how the Welshman had managed to notice something that he himself had completely failed to see. He was fairly sure that there would be no straight answer; and, of course, there was none to give. Methos had four thousand years of experience in such matters, which enabled him to see things that others did not.
"Two. Not big, and not terribly well armed." Methos slowed his horse to a halt. "They have bows. I'd suggest discretion."
"You're probably right." Gered slid to the ground, looking grateful that the horse ride was over. Methos followed suit, although with less speed. He had no desire to be at the receiving end of an arrow, even if - or, more accurately, precisely because - it was nothing fatal to him. He left his horse behind, and took a few, slow steps towards the blackberry bush.
"Hello?" He lifted his arms out to his sides, glad, for the first time since leaving the longboat, that he was unarmed. "My name is Edward. I'm looking for a man named Aelfric, who serves King Harold. He and I escaped from the Vikings together, two days ago."
"Keep very still." Rising up from behind his bushy cover, one of the men levelled his bow at the wary Immortal. "No sudden moves." He flicked his gaze towards Gered, further away and therefore less of an immediate threat. "Who are you?"
"Gered." He was trying to make himself seem small; less of a warrior, and more of an ordinary Englishman. "I escaped on the same night as Edward and Aelfric, although I was onboard a different boat." He forced himself to relax, ignoring his soldier's instincts that were telling him to be on the alert. "You're not going to shoot us, are you?" Methos stifled a smirk at the fearless warrior's surprising acting ability.
"Get moving." The second man, standing up with his crossbow levelled at Gered, spoke with a curt sort of authority that suggested at rank. Gered nodded politely.
"May we see Aelfric? Is he here?" He moved with an exaggerated slowness that hinted at timidity, and long years of being subdued as a slave.
"He's here." The second guard looked at his companion, asking an unspoken question that received an equally unspoken answer. The pair hesitated further, and then the first guard gave a short nod.
"I'll take them. You'd best stay here." His eyes travelled up to the top of the slope down which the two new arrivals had come. "Keep a watch up there in case there are any more of them. They might be Vikings."
"Do we look like Vikings?" Methos had to admit to himself that, yes, in many ways they did. Gered, for all his remarkable acting skills, had the look of a sea borne warrior about him, for his nature was written in every line upon his leathery face. Even Methos himself, thin and slight though he was, did not look especially local. Time had forged strong links between the Normans and the Vikings, and his appearance, if it suggested anything, certainly suggested Norman leanings.
"Maybe not." The first guard gestured with his bow. "But I'm not going to take any chances. Now move."
"Whatever you say." Finely skilled at obeying the orders of men who were threatening to kill him, Methos moved smoothly in the direction indicated. Gered followed on, hands still kept away from his sides, and away from the sword that was hidden beneath his clothing. The weapon was very obviously that of a Norseman, and he wanted to be sure that he had thrown off some suspicion before he allowed it to be known that he was thus armed. Anything else was too great a risk.
They did not walk for long, for the camp, carefully screened from all directions save above by a combination of undergrowth - both natural and artificial - and the geography of the area, was situated only as far away as was necessary to muffle the inescapable noises of the men that waited there. One or two of the soldiers glanced up as the little party passed them, but they seemed largely disinterested. Methos felt almost insulted.
They walked on until the soldiers around them began to take on a more distinguished appearance. There were bigger and better weapons on display, and standards that fluttered in the breeze. Bright colours began to proliferate, and clothing of better quality and material. Methos looked about for Aelfric, but could see no sign of the man who had been his rowing partner. Instead he saw more and more soldiers who were beginning to look in his direction; more and more men who were obviously interested in him and his companion, and who were also starting to look decidedly unfriendly. One or two sword blades glittered wickedly in the firelight, and several of the scattered guards fitted arrows to their bows. The guard accompanying Methos and Gered herded his two charges towards a simple tent made of animal skins, fixed to a framework of crooked wood. He knocked loudly on one of the poles that held the rickety structure upright.
"Yes?" The voice was imperious; the voice of one who held a natural authority that he knew was respected as his God-given right. King Harold of England had been chosen by King Edward himself to be his successor - or so the dying king's vague gesture had appeared to indicate. Harold was no Edward the Confessor, but to his followers he was man enough and warrior enough to protect the country that lay at his feet - and in times such as these, that was enough. The man that stepped out of the tent was, then, secure in his position and bearing; tall and lofty, and with an air of comfortable superiority. He looked aloof and imperious, and yet also bore himself with a distinct suggestion of the ordinary human being that lay beneath the pomp and royal esteem. He also looked tired. Methos could sympathise - he had been travelling a lot himself over the past couple of days, and Harold had had to do so with the certainty of a decisive battle looming before him - and another waiting so closely back in the south. If he was afraid for the outcome of his battle against Hadrada, though; to say nothing of the certain war that was coming with William of Normandy; he gave no apparent indication of it. Even Methos, so finely tuned to the thoughts and emotions of others; so attentive, as a rule, to the subtle expressions in faces and eyes; could not see any of the fear that he was sure the man must be feeling somewhere inside.
"What's this?" Harold asked the question even though the answer was obvious. The guard gestured towards the two guests.
"I found these men outside the perimeter of the camp, sir." He bowed shortly, like a man who had not had much practice at such things. "They claim to be friends of Aelfric. I thought that I should report to you immediately."
"Friends of Aelfric?" Harold's sharp eyes leapt from the guard to the two men with him. Gered considered making some appropriate response, but did not want to speak too much. A lowly guard who had toiled all the way up country from the south could not necessarily be expected to know the accent of a Norseman, but a well-travelled man of the world like Harold would be sure to know his voice as soon as he spoke. He had to work on his English accent, and he knew it only too well.
"Your Highness." It was Methos who saved the day, although that was, thought Gered with wry amusement, entirely because of the threat to his own life should the king become suspicious. The Immortal bowed smoothly and deeply, just as if he had been doing it all of his life. "My name is Edward. I come from Wessex, and I made the acquaintance of a fellow Wessex man whilst chained to an oar in a Viking longboat. We helped each other to escape, he and I, and we talked of our desire to make it to your ranks to offer our support to our king. Sadly we were separated during the business of escape, and I haven't seen Aelfric since." He indicated Gered. "This man chanced to escape on the same night, and we ran into each other as we searched for cover. We've been together ever since." He had guessed at the reason for Gered's silence, and attempted to prevent any suspicion falling upon the other man. "His name is Gered. My apologies, sire, but he doesn't speak well. An injury to the throat received during the escape. He was hardly fit to travel at first, but he was determined to come here, and be of what service he could to his king. That's why we've arrived so much later than Aelfric, Your Highness. We were forced to move slowly to allow him some time to recover."
"I see." Harold was watching them both with a certain amount of uncertainty, as though aware that the story was a lie, but unable, just yet, to prove it. Gered watched him through narrowed eyes, by turns certain that they had been discovered, that they would soon be discovered, and finally that they were in no danger at all. Harold nodded curtly, then turned back to the entrance of his tent.
"Aelfric?" It was not a question but an order, and the former slave answered him immediately, appearing in the doorway with smart and unhesitating speed. His bright, intelligent eyes leapt immediately onto Methos, and he started forwards with a delighted smile.
"Edward! I'd thought that you'd been recaptured. I didn't see you after the escape..."
"I was held up." Methos gestured at Gered, knowing that, if they were to be discovered, now was the time when it would happen. There was always the chance, after all, that Aelfric had seen the Viking before. "This is Gered. He was a slave on one of the other ships, and he escaped the same night that we did. We were laid up together for the first day. I'm afraid that I lost your trail."
"You know these men?" Harold spoke with imperious tones, playing his rôle of lord and master to the full. Methos wasn't at all sure that he liked the man. He had known his fair share of both kings and emperors over the years, and Harold was far from being in the same league as many of them. To be fair, he had a good deal more going for him than Claudius, and was rather better looking than Ethelred; but he had none of the personality and charisma that even a nut like Caligula had possessed in abundance - when he wasn't murdering pregnant women or plotting world domination with Incantatus in the Royal stables. Just about the only thing that Methos could see in Harold's favour was his obvious good standing amongst his men. The Immortal tried not to look too disparaging, even though he was quite certain that he himself had made a far better king than this upstart.
"Not both of them, sire." Aelfric practically bounced over to shake Methos' hand, pumping it up and down with a display of enthusiasm that bordered on comical. "This is Edward. We, er... we were chained to an oar together."
"By those barbarian Vikings." Harold spoke with a distaste that rather belied his own probable Danish roots. Gered shuffled awkwardly, but did not make a sound.
"Yes sire. The barbarian Vikings." Methos stifled a smile. "We've come a long way to be with you here, Your Highness. I appreciate that you don't know us, but we're here to offer our services as best we can. We bring information on the troop deployments of Harald Hadrada. We watched him separating his men into attack units, ready for the battle field."
"Harald plans to ambush you north of Jorvik. He's hoping to meet your armies two days from now." Gered lied well, and Methos had to give the man some credit for improvising with such fluency. He even remembered to make his voice suitably gruff and harsh, just as though his supposed injury was bothering him. Harold raised a kingly eyebrow.
"North of Jorvik?" He lowered his brows into a meaningful frown. "In two days time? Are you sure?"
"Positive, sire." Methos could, and frequently did, lie with the best of them, in the way that only four thousand years worth of practice could have helped him accomplish. "We can lead the way - although perhaps not immediately. It's a long journey, and your horses must be tired from the march north."
"Hmm. Don't let's be getting ahead of ourselves." The king looked from one to the other of them, as though judging their trustworthiness by the thickness of the dust upon their skin and their clothes. He didn't seem to like what he saw, and his caution was clear upon his face. Aelfric shifted awkwardly on the balls of his feet.
"I will vouch for these men if necessary, sire." He spoke quietly, and with the sort of firmness of tone that suggested he was a much valued aide. "Without Edward, I would never have been able to escape, and clearly he trusts this other man..."
"Gered, sir." The ageing warrior bowed smartly, offering his former slave a charming smile that quite hid whatever feelings he was actually experiencing. He rubbed his throat, as though trying to hide his pain, and deepened his voice still further to utterly disguise his accent. "At your service, and that of our king. It's an honour, sir."
"I should imagine that it is." Aelfric looked as excited as a child might, when being faced with some great occasion or festival. Clearly the prospect of swelling the ranks with a pair of his fellow escaped slaves was very much his idea of heaven. Gered almost pitied the poor fool for his ill-placed faith in them. Certainly two alleged Britons seeking to help their king would do Harold little good. It was obvious that the man was not destined for a long reign. The experienced Norwegian warrior could easily see Hadrada breaking the would-be hero king in half. "Your Highness?"
"Yes, alright." Looking tired, as though speaking to such ordinary folk exhausted him terribly, Harold waved a hand in the air. "They can stay, if you're so sure that they're to be trusted. Find them somewhere to rest, and something to eat I suppose. Do you have weapons?"
"No sire." Methos lowered his head, not finding it at all hard to appear sorrowful. "My sword was taken from me when I was captured. It was quite a wrench. It had been in my... my family's possession for several hundred years. An ancestor of mine fought with it at Camlan, they say, alongside the Knights of the Round Table."
"Is that so?" Harold had raised an eyebrow, as if re-evaluating his opinion of this lanky and most un-warriorlike individual. "Then we shall have to find you another sword that might go some way to replacing it." He turned to look at Gered. "And you?"
"I have a sword, Your Majesty." Feeling more or less secure now, he pulled it free from his clothing. "I stole it from a Viking during my escape - which was when my throat was injured, sire. It's a good weapon, and I like the idea of fighting them with one of their own swords."
"Yes. Quite." Harold favoured him with a small smile that smacked of patronising indulgence. "Most amusing. I can see that you're a man to strike fear into the hearts of the Vikings." He nodded, and touched his hand to Aelfric's shoulder. "You have most promising friends, Aelfric. Most promising."
"They won't let you down, sire. My word on it." His devoted servant bowed low from the hips as his lord and master departed, without warning, leaving attendants desperately throwing themselves to the ground in obeisance, and Gered startling himself into a hurried bow. Methos offered only the smallest nod to the man's departing back that he thought himself likely to get away with.
"So that's King Harold." He disguised his low opinion of the man with a display of enthusiasm that appeared entirely genuine. "I can certainly see why Edward the Confessor chose him as his successor."
"Exactly." Aelfric was still struggling to contain his own enthusiasm. "And I know that he appreciates your offers of assistance. It may be that two more swords on our side will be all that it takes to tip the scale of the battle. We have to beat Hadrada you know. If we don't, Harold is sure to lose the throne. There are those even now who question his right to rule, and support will keep waning. The Vikings..." He shrugged. "The people remember Canute, you see, and he was from the lands of the Vikings. He made such a success of ruling this country, and he's remembered as a great hero. Too many people think that Harald Hadrada could be such a man as that."
"I've certainly heard many tales of his accomplishments in battle." Gered kept his voice and face passionless. "He's said to be the bravest of men."
"Yes." Aelfric sounded a little doubtful. "Perhaps. But Harold is the rightful king of England, and he will win this battle."
"Just so long as William doesn't sneak in and take over the country whilst Harold is looking the other way." Methos put on his best and most innocent expression, oblivious to Aelfric's horrified face. "Anyway, somebody said something about food."
"Yes. Yes of course." Shaking himself, as though to throw of the effects of Methos' ill-timed comment about William of Normandy, the mortal brought his smile back out once again. "Will it be food first, or a sword for you, Edward?"
"Food." Gered's hand landed lightly upon Methos' shoulder, harmlessly enough to the casual onlooker, but digging in painfully enough to make the Immortal struggle not to wince. "Edward has no immediate need of weaponry, but we are both hungry. We've had nothing but some bread that we stole from the Vikings, and I suspect that their cook hadn't given it his full attention. I'd swear that rather than taking the flour from the millstone, he used the stone dust instead."
"What else do you expect from a Viking barbarian?" Methos eyed him rather sourly. "And you should really be resting your voice, Gered. I'd hate to see any further injury befall that throat of yours." Knocking aside the Norwegian's hand in a gesture that appeared casual and friendly, he smiled a little smile that might have been either warm and light-hearted, or frosty and fierce, depending on how one looked at it. Aelfric clearly saw it as the former, for he gave a little laugh and gestured ahead.
"The food then. We have plenty of that. One of the archers killed a deer earlier, and we've kept it back especially for the king and his most trusted aides. I'd be happy to include you in that group, if you'd like a little roasted venison?"
"We'd be delighted." Gered strode after him, rubbing his hands together. Methos trailed along behind.
"I don't suppose you happened to bring along any ale, did you?" He asked it without really expecting an answer in the positive, and indeed Aelfric did not look as though his answer was going to be a pleasant surprise.
"The king doesn't like alcohol before a battle. He says that its bad for morale, and for the performance of the soldiers. I think perhaps he worries that we're youngsters unused to such things, and that we'll wake up late for the fighting. Still, he is the king. It's best to agree to his demands, since he makes them so rarely."
"You like him, don't you." They had reached a fire, from the spit above which the smell of cooking meat rose readily. They sat down around the warm hearth, and Aelfric began to cut pieces of the meat with a small, pointed dagger. He smiled at Methos' question.
"He's the king. What's to like? The truth is that he saved my life. It was a year or two ago, and he was returning from a trip abroad. He had been in Normandy as it happens, speaking with William there. Anyway, I was returning from nearby myself, on an errand for my master at the time, the Bishop of Walchester. I was attacked by a gang of cut-throats, and King Harold - not that he was king at the time of course - rescued me almost before I was aware that I was in any danger. He's changed since he became king. I doubt that he'd do something like that these days. But then they say that power and such things change a man, and with the Succession being so acrimonious, and times being so hard with the threats both from the south and from the north... well." He shrugged. "It's difficult sometimes, when you don't know what's going to happen. Here." He handed them both a hot piece of meat. "I'm sorry that the meal is so unrefined, but then after the food in that longboat you're probably glad to be eating some meat again."
"Yes, quite." Methos, for whom the lack of meat in his diet as a guest of the Vikings had been the least of many worries, smiled gratefully and wished silently for a flagon of ale. It didn't materialise. He offered around the last of the bread that he had taken from the fire at the Viking camp, but there were no takers. "So tell me, Aelfric. What's the king's battle plan? Is he hoping for surprise, or is he intending to use sheer force of numbers?"
"I doubt that there'll be any element of surprise." Aelfric shrugged. "Beyond that, who can say? He has his plans, I'm sure of it; but he doesn't share them with the likes of me. I'm little more than a glorified clerk. I keep track of what's to be paid to the soldiers when we return home; of the costs and the like." His chest swelled. "And I'm to write an account of the battle, for the history books. I shall tell the story of what happens, and describe King Harold's glory for the instruction of generations to come. It may well be that this battle remains famous for centuries."
"It may well be." Methos tried not to sound too unconvinced. Aelfric brightened at this apparent show of solidarity.
"I can show you my account now, if you'd like. There's not much; just a basic description of the journey up here, and of how King Harold came to hear of Hadrada's invasion. It's written in Latin..."
"I can read Latin," Methos reassured him, not bothering to add that he had spoken it before many people beyond Rome itself had even heard of the language. "Yes, why don't you go and get the account. It'll be informative, and I'm sure that Gered here will be particularly delighted to read it. He's a bit of a scholar on the quiet, aren't you Gered?"
"Huh." Gered, who had never written or read anything in his life, and had no desire to change that state of affairs now, dredged up a smile for the eager to please Englishman. "Certainly. I'd love to know more about the king. Edward and I shall finish our food, and look at it together then."
"Right." Aelfric jumped to his feet, effortlessly displaying how easily the fatigue of his slavery had left him. "I shan't be long." He hurried away, tripping over somebody's sleeping feet as he ran. Gered smiled.
"I almost like him. It'll be a pity to kill him, but the loyal ones are the most dangerous."
"Yes." For a moment Methos felt a moment of remorse, but he quelled it quickly. He was still working to save his own life. He would worry about others later on. "Still, at least he seems willing to talk."
"As do you." The Viking made a swipe at him with the back of his hand. "You want to watch your tongue, Welshman. With luck we can remain here unsuspected - but asking about Harold's battle plans may well be pushing things too far. People will get suspicious."
"Maybe." Methos finished his venison and bread, and wondered if any of the guards had some ale that they had secreted away somewhere. They were all a long way away though, far beyond the warmth and the light of the fire - and he was beginning to feel one of his lazier moods coming on again. "But I don't think that he suspected anything. He's too busy trying to please everybody."
"You'd better hope so." Gered leaned back against a pile of abandoned shields and helmets. "Wake me later, Edward. You can tell me what you've learned from Aelfric's accounts."
"Me?" Indignant, Methos kicked his leg to reawaken him properly. "Why me? I've travelled just as far as you have, and I'm still recovering from the less than humane treatment I received at the hands of your colleagues in that damned longboat. I'm tired."
"Hard luck." Gered closed his eyes again, this time with one hand on the hilt of his sword. The threat was implicit. "Wake me when we're ready to ride into battle. I think I can live without the preparations, but I'd be terribly sorry to miss seeing Harold's head tumbling into the dust."
"You haven't won yet." Methos' tone suggested mutiny. Gered opened one eye.
"But we will." He said it firmly, warning against any possible action. Methos scowled. His life might be inextricably tied to the triumph of Harald Hadrada, but he was increasingly determined to find a way to change the course of events. He wasn't sure exactly what to do about it, but quite suddenly he wanted King Harold to win the battle. It shouldn't be too difficult for a man such as himself - after all, guiding the victories of armies was a game at which he had once been the master. All that it needed was time, and the right opportunities, and he could have Gered crushed in defeat. He smiled unpleasantly into the firelight. He'd teach the pipsqueak mortal to make threats. By this time tomorrow, the Viking army would be history.
Gered awoke with a feeling that something somewhere was very wrong. He wasn't sure where the instinct came from, just as he failed to understand any of the senses with which he was so liberally endowed. He only knew, as consciousness returned, that everything within him was alerted to the presence of danger. His eyes snapped open, and he reached for his sword.
"That won't do you any good." The voice was soft; but soft in the way that ice was soft; and dangerous and deadly despite its insinuating nicety. He looked up. There were three men ranged beside him, grouped in a semi-circle so that the only way he had to run was into the blazing fire. How they had come upon him without him realising it confounded him - until he saw that their feet were bare to soften the noise of their approach, and that the metal parts of their clothing had been wrapped in cloth to prevent chinks and rattles. Slowly he let his hand fall away from his sword.
"What's going on?" He spoke towards the one that had spoken to him, although his words might have been addressed to anybody. "I'm a guest here. Is this the way that you treat the guests of your king?"
"Only those that are spies for the Vikings." The man made no effort to raise his own sword against Gered, but neither did he show any sign of backing down. "Do you deny the charge?"
"You already seem to have sentenced me. Is there any point?" He glanced about. "The Welshman. Where is he?"
"Welshman?" The soldier looked confused. "There's no Welshman here."
"Edward, damn it. The one that came here with me. Where's he gone?"
"His lordship is accompanying Lord Aelfric and the king on a scouting expedition with some of the men. Once Lord Edward had explained your plans, the king immediately took him into his confidence. They've become quite close."
"Lord Edward?" Gered shook his head. "This is ridiculous. That man came here with me. We were together on the road. If he's a friend of the king's, and I'm supposed to be a Viking spy, why would we have been travelling in each other's company? Answer me that!"
"He told the king all about your plot. He explained how you forced him to accompany him here." The soldier finally raised his sword at this point, although he looked somewhat less than threatening with it. "You might have succeeded if you hadn't fallen asleep, and that's the terrible thing about it. You came so close."
"So close to what!" Enraged, and not at all bothered by the threat of three armed men whom he felt sure that he could easily defeat, Gered leapt up. The soldiers fell back slightly, surprised by his sudden movement. "Damn that little-- I'll break his neck the next time that I see him. Welshman my foot. He's a spy. A wretched--" He broke off, gazing from one to another of his accusers with his eyes narrowed. "He's set me up, hasn't he. He's done something. I thought that it was safe to sleep. I thought that--" He shook his head. "I've never known a man that could slip past me whilst I was asleep."
"Maybe you're getting old." The guard who spoke up now had not spoken before, and from the terrified look upon his face that came in response to Gered's fierce glare, it seemed likely that he never would again. The Viking sighed, trying to calm his temper.
"Look," he attempted eventually, when he was sure that he had regained a little control, "just tell me what it is that I'm supposed to have done."
"You poisoned the king's wine." The third guard managed to sound incensed and wondering, all at the same time. "If Lord Edward had not been able to slip away from your side during the night, and warn the king of what was to happen, his most gracious majesty would now be dead. And then our troops would have marched north, to be ambushed by the Vikings a day earlier than expected. Claiming that the attack was to come north of Jorvik in two days time. To think that anybody would attempt anything so underhanded."
"Yeah. Just think." Confused and frustrated, as well as somewhat apprehensive, Gered rubbed at his eyes. He tried to think as he spoke and as he listened, hoping to come up with some plan of action that might enable him to escape. There didn't appear to be anything save the less attractive violent option. Violence might help him to escape these three men, but there were others still in the camp who would be alerted by the scuffle, and who wouldn't be so easy to defeat. He wondered where his erstwhile prisoner was, and where exactly he had obtained the poison that he had so evidently put into the king's wine himself. Who had been the poor fool forced to test it, to prove that it truly was poisoned? For a moment he was stunned at the suggestion of such cold-heartedness on the part of the Welshman - or possibly not-Welshman. Then he remembered the way that the guards on the longboat - his own son included - had been cut down so mercilessly; and then there was the speed with which Edward had agreed to betray Aelfric, his supposed friend. Clearly there was a good deal more to the man than had first appeared.
"Alright." He lifted his hands a little, moving them away from his body in the universal gesture of surrender. When he spoke he again he had finally discarded his increasingly ineffective attempts to alter his voice. Now, perhaps, was the time for a sort of truth. "I admit it. I was sent here by King Harald Hadrada to even the score a little. But don't imagine for a moment that I could embark upon such a task alone." The guards looked at each other, evidently uncertain about this. Gered sighed. If he was about to be executed for his crime, the least that he could do was to make sure that Methos suffered the same fate. "Just think about it, okay? Maybe Lord Edward made some excuse to the king to explain his presence here with me; but maybe he was lying. Maybe I am the only guilty one, and the king has gone off scouting with a friend - or maybe you've sent him away with a man who intends to kill him. He must have known that poison had only a slim chance of working. He must have known that most kings have their food and drink tested for such things. Maybe all that he wanted was to lull Harold into a false sense of security so that he could take advantage of a much better chance to kill him later on." He stared at each of them in turn, using his eyes to demand that they listen to him, and at least consider his theories. "Well?"
"He's right." One of the men lowered his eyes. "Even as we speak the king may be on his way into a trap. We should get the rest of the men together and go after him. If we're wrong, he may be a little angry with us - but if we're right..."
"Of course." The third guard looked back to Gered. "What about him?"
"What about him?" The first guard hefted his sword in his hand. "There's only one thing to do, isn't there. Just make it quick and clean. He deserves that much for trying to help us now. I'll get the others together."
"Right." The third guard lifted his own weapon, glancing along the blade for a second, as though to check the sharpness of its edge by vision alone. His eyes flickered back up to Gered's lined and weathered face.
"Do you want to draw your sword? A warrior should always die with his sword in his hand."
"Thankyou. I appreciate your understanding." Gered reached into the folds of his clothing, tightening his hand around the hilt of his sword in fond imagining of a similar grip around the neck of the aggravating Welshman. Inwardly he smiled. Whilst the sword was in his hand there was still a chance, no matter how small. He watched the man before him prepare for the execution, and he watched the others beginning to muster for a new march. A hundred and one carefully laid plans seemed to have evaporated, all because he had fallen asleep. All because a man newly emerged from slavery had outwitted him with a unexpected manoeuvre. Never before had he witnessed such fluent betrayal. His greatest sadness was that there seemed little chance he would live to extract his revenge.
Methos was in high spirits. It was a fragile sort of a high - the kind that invariably came before a sizeable fall - but he was happy nonetheless. It had taken all of his skills, and every one of his many years of practice, to slip past Gered without waking the man; but he had done it. It had taken just as much patience and cunning to make his way past the hundreds of sleeping - not to mention the further hundreds of waking - soldiers in order to reach King Harold's tent. He had knocked on the post, walking in as soon as his business there was questioned; and had claimed that Gered had doctored the king's wine even before he had himself been able to slip the poison into the goblet already standing accused. He had grabbed it with a flourish, sliding in some grains of a substance he had collected en route with Gered to Harold's camp that day. From there it had been a simple matter to embellish his tale with further claims against Gered's already questionable character, accusing him of everything from mass murder to incest. He had felt - almost - a slight twinge of guilt when Harold had demanded that some hapless servant test the wine - had almost felt inclined to intercede on the poor man's behalf as he had stumbled, with knees knocking, towards the suspect goblet, reaching out for it with quivering hands. He had eyed it with an expression of utter wretchedness, before swallowing the lot in one mouthful. Unspoken protests that Methos had never really intended using anyway, died on his lips as the unfortunate servant died rather more slowly at his feet. After that, things had been even more simple than before.
And now he found himself miles from the camp, riding with King Harold, the ever-cheerful Aelfric, and a band of war-hungry soldiers, on the look-out for any Vikings that might happen to have strayed from their main party. Methos' feelings of idle, very much half-hearted guilt had begun to return, but now it was in sympathy with the Vikings. He had no real quarrel with them, save for the issue of his slavery. It seemed fairly certain that Gered was dead by now, and the few Vikings that they did encounter along the way went fairly swiftly to join him. The guilt did not last terribly long. Perhaps it was the Immortal's high spirits; perhaps it was his enjoyable detachment from the fates of those around him - perhaps he was just feeling especially cold-hearted. He didn't bother dwelling on the issue. He really wasn't in the mood.
"Enjoying the ride, Lord Edward?" King Harold was also in high spirits, not that that state of affairs made him any less irritating. As a vaguely aloof host he had been annoying - as a cheerful companion he was definitely not a fun person to be with. He sang loudly in an off-key voice, or told long, involved tales of supposed exploits, many of which Methos knew to be false. He had been in Italy three years previously, and knew for a fact that it had not been Harold who had cut down the assassin attempting to murder the Pope. He knew that with certainty, for the real hero of that occasion had been Darius, an Immortal of dubious intent known to some as a killer of particular ferocity, and to others as a sweet and gentle man incapable of harming a fly. If Harold actually had been in Rome at the time, he definitely had not been standing three paces away from the Pope. Methos would have most definitely noticed him, since he had himself been the would-be assassin. Not that he could admit that of course, especially since he was supposed to be dead.
"I'm having a wonderful time, Your Majesty." He put plenty of false cheer into his voice, and hoped that it sounded genuine. "Hunting Vikings is good sport."
"The best." Harold waved an arm around at the surrounding countryside. "And there's no shortage of places in which to look for them. Perhaps we should split up."
"Surely that would be far too dangerous, sire." Aelfric was extremely nervous, not at all enjoying the excursion, and particularly unhappy about the fact that they were heading towards a possible battlefield with only just over half of their forces. Methos threw the anxious mortal a broad smile.
"I think that it's a wonderful idea, Your Majesty. We could make a game out of it perhaps - whoever finds the greatest number of Vikings is declared the winner."
"And what does he win?" Harold seemed dubious, undoubtedly because the suggestion of a prize seemed to indicate that it might be expected to come from his own royal coffers. Methos shrugged.
"Since you yourself are bound to be the winner, sire, I'll have to think of the prize myself. It's sure to be something fitting for so gallant a deed. Gold perhaps."
"Gold?" Harold paused, thinking, then nodded. "Very well. A game it is then - although nobody is to stray too close to anything that appears to be the main body of men. If you see them, you report to me immediately, and we'll head back for the rest of the men. Understand?" His answer came back in dribs and drabs, from his immediate circle of hangers-on and from an increasingly confused series of guards and foot soldiers. Aelfric was looking extremely worried. Methos was feeling extremely cheerful.
"I think I'll take this direction." Turning his horse's head, Methos allowed it to take a few steps, before he slowed the mount down and glanced back. "If that's alright, Your Majesty?"
"What? Oh yes, yes." Harold waved a hand in dismissive fashion. It mattered little to him where Methos chose to go, particularly since nobody would dare beat the king in a competition. "But remember, Lord Edward, that I want you at my side as we ride against the Vikings. This is fine for sport, but for the real battle we must ride together."
"Of course, Your Highness." Methos turned on one of his widest and most innocent smiles. "It will be my greatest honour to ride with you into battle. I'm looking forward to it." He was quite growing to like the 'Lord' prefix to his name, although he had no idea where it had come from. Presumably Harold made the assumption that he must have some title, on the grounds that no commoner would ever dare to address the king. Bowing low from his seated position on the horse's back, he raised a hand in farewell, and rode away. For a while he was aware of Aelfric being with him, struggling to keep up as he rode a horse that was far too big and strong. He fell back eventually, slowing to a halt in the midst of a wide expanse of wiry grass and tufted thorns. Methos pondered briefly whether he should feel guilty at leaving the little fellow behind, where he was clearly an easy target for marauding Vikings. He dismissed the thought. He was getting good at doing that. The growing sense of guilt that had, in part, led him to disband the Horsemen, was now leaving him at speed. It cheered him immensely, and he had soon put the thought of Aelfric from his mind. Now there was only one thought left - to get a long way away from the north of England, and find somewhere where the battle was no more than a distant threat. He decided to head south. If the war was in the north it stood to reason that the south was safe; and there perhaps he could find some decent beer, and a comfortable place to sleep. He smiled to himself as he thought about Harold's 'suggestion' that they ride into battle together. The king would be disappointed, if that was to be his plan, for Methos would be far away by the time that the two armies came within sight of each other. It served the presumptuous ruler right. There had been a distinct measure of command behind his words - a clear hint that Methos was not as trusted as he might have thought, and that he was to be closely watched in order to ensure his loyalty. Such things irritated the Immortal tremendously. Who did Harold think he was, demanding his presence in battle? Methos alone chose who he fought, and where such fights took place. He certainly would not be ordered about by mortal upstarts who didn't begin to know who they were dealing with. Goading his horse a little faster, he smiled happily to himself. He had made his escape, and that was what mattered. It would all be plain sailing from here.
Harald Hadrada didn't know what was happening. From certain victory, he had found himself verging on the brink of failure. He had no idea what had become of Gered and Edward, in whom he had placed so much hope. They had set out to give false information to the English, and make sure that King Harold was not ready for the battle when it came; but instead it seemed that they had vanished from the face of the Earth. He was left at a considerable disadvantage, and it looked suspiciously as though he had betrayed. He thought of a variety of unpleasant things that he could do to Gered when he saw him again, but could see no sign of the once honoured warrior. Perhaps he was dead. Perhaps Edward, the dubious Welshman, had turned the tables on all of them. Slashing about with his sword, the dangerously fatigued King of the Norwegians imagined that it was the Welshman who was receiving the brunt of his attack. In truth, of course, it was merely a succession of English soldiers who fell before him; and that in itself was something that they were doing in increasingly reduced numbers. More and more of them were avoiding his weapon altogether. More and more of them were dodging past, or striking back; wearing him down and leading him to take greater and greater risks with his life. He knew that his men were outnumbered. If they had only been able to attack unexpectedly, as he had originally planned, they might have had a chance. But that idea was dead now, and he was fully aware that he would soon be likewise. There no longer seemed to be any way in which to fight back. He only wished that, if he was to die at the hands of these Englishmen, he could first find out what had happened to the men in whom he had placed so much trust; the men who had destroyed the last chance of his army. They were dying all around him now - the men who had travelled with him across the sea to fight in this place, and who would now never get the chance to return home. He was their king - their supreme leader - and yet he was powerless to prevent their deaths. He couldn't stop thinking that if he had only followed his first instinct, and had the Welshman killed, then none of this would now be happening. Perhaps it had always been inevitable, Welshman or no - but the point was that it would always be impossible to know. He was still wondering when the first sword blade drew the first drop of blood from his body. He didn't notice the pain. At first he didn't even notice the fading awareness.
At the edge of the fighting, and on the opposite side of it, Aelfric was also thinking of absent friends. Since the rather unexpected disappearance of Methos, he had been trying to think of some reason why his fellow countryman should have chosen to slip away. The only one that came readily to mind was the suggestion that his erstwhile rowing companion was not quite so dedicated to the cause of the king as he had claimed to be. That brought all kinds of new questions to mind, and despite his desperation to have faith in a man that he had come to consider a friend, Aelfric could not help but look for the dark head of the tall, lean man in the ranks of the opposition. He knew that King Harold felt the same way - betrayed by a man he had taken so unquestioningly into his confidence. Harold had even provided him with the means of his escape, and a sword to take with him - possibly even a sword that he could now be using to swell the ranks of the enemy. Some distance away from Aelfric, where he was slashing about him with his own fearsome weapon, the king was thinking extremely dark thoughts indeed. If Lord Edward - or whoever the hell he was - used that sword against the English, Harold would personally have him cut into little pieces, and then thrown to the many winds. Strangely it was precisely such thoughts which sustained him, and gave him added strength in the heart of his battle. Occasionally he caught a glimpse of Hadrada, struggling nearby against rising odds that he could not hope to defeat. Harold smiled to himself. This much at least he owed to Lord Edward - although he had no way of knowing, of course, that the only reason Methos had chosen to help him was because he considered himself to have been insulted by Gered the Viking. If Gered had been a little less cocksure - and a little more vigilant - the outcome of the battle might well have been extremely different.
It ended the way of all battles - with one side declaring victory, in the ruins of the opposing side. Hadrada lay dead on the battlefield, the best of his men strewn around him. Some had survived; some managed to escape from the vengeful English. Most were dead. King Harold strolled across the field in the company of the devoted Aelfric, looking out upon the fallen hundreds. He felt a certain sorrow for the men who had marched with him to meet the enemy, but it was not the sorrow that came from true loss or comradeship. He was, after all, the king - and those who fought alongside him were compelled to do so by law. It wasn't really as though they had chosen to be with him. It wasn't as if they were his friends. The king had no friends.
"It was a flawless victory, sire." Trying to sound as though he was not too revolted by all that he had seen, and was seeing still, Aelfric focussed on the ground at his feet. If he stared long enough and hard enough at his shoes, he hoped that he would not have to notice the carnage. In practice it was by no means that simple, for the earth was spattered with blood stains and gore, and the bodies lay close enough together in many places for it to be impossible not to see them. He pondered staring at the sky instead, but had to conclude that Harold would not be impressed by such action. Instead he simply tried not to see that which it was impossible to ignore.
"We won, certainly. I'd like to believe that nothing else matters." Harold stopped beside the body of Hadrada, and wondered if he should be magnanimous enough to allow the few surviving Norwegians to take their king away for proper burial rites. He couldn't decide.
"You don't think that our problems are over?" Aelfric was aware that his king had been looking for something amongst the many dead bodies, but he wasn't sure what exactly it was. Harold stared at him in silence for some moments.
"Edward," he said finally, speaking the name in the heavy voice of doom. "I had rather hoped that I'd find him here."
"You think that he went over to the other side? After he saved your life, and told us about the real position of the enemy? If it hadn't been for him we'd have been attacked a day earlier than we were expecting. We'd have been wiped out."
"We might have been." Harold's eyes were narrow as he thought about this possible fact. "As for the rest... He could have lied about his friend, and planted the poison himself. He could have had any number of hidden agendas. The point is that we can't tell until we find him."
"Even so, sire... to suggest that he was working for the Vikings makes no sense..." He frowned. "And I mean that with absolute respect, sire, of course. I just can't believe that he'd work for the people who kept him as a slave."
"Then perhaps he's working for the Normans. It's perfectly possible." Harold toyed with one of the necklaces that he wore; symbols of his office and of his high rank. "That was what I meant about this battle not really being all that matters. We could be facing the Normans across a battlefield in a matter of days. We're far from being at full strength. We need days - even weeks - to recover. I can't quite bring myself to believe that we have that long."
"You think that William will come soon?" Aelfric whistled, staring at the ground. "You're right, sire. That would be a problem." He hesitated. "And you believe that Edward might be working for him?"
"He has a good game with Hadrada and myself, and then lets William finish the job. It makes sense when you think about it." Harold sighed, then dropped a hand onto his companion's shoulder, and smiled one of his increasingly rare smiles. "We should be making a move down south, old friend. There's no sense in staying around up here when the country is still at threat."
"But we're not ready to fight any more battles, sire. It would be suicide to confront the Normans now."
"And it would be suicide not to. If they invade whilst we're sitting here having a rest, the country will be lost. William could have taken over before anybody thinks to make a move to stop him. I don't have the full support of every man in England, Aelfric. Far from it. There are plenty who say that I should never have succeeded to the throne." He shrugged, looking uncharacteristically disconsolate. "Maybe they're right."
"Right, sire? Who else could have led the army to defeat the Norwegians? How many other rulers of this country have there been who could stand up to the Vikings? Certainly none of the others who were considered possible successors could have commanded these men as well as you." Aelfric looked around, trying not to think of how many friends were amongst the dead. "If we have to fight William the Bastard, I suppose we shall have to do it."
"That's the spirit, Aelfric." Harold sighed. "Have you begun the tale yet? Have you written it all down as it happened?"
"Hardly, sire. I've not begun yet. I was fighting as well."
"You were?" The king laughed. "And I always thought of you more as a scribe. I shall have to watch you fighting some day."
"Probably sooner than either of us would wish." Aelfric smiled. "I shall begin writing immediately, sire. Will you give the command to move out, or would you like me to do so? I can write as we ride, after all."
"No. Leave the command for the time being. We'll let the men get a little rest whilst they can. I think we can spare them a short while at least."
"And then we head south. Perhaps William won't be there yet."
"And perhaps he will."
"Yes." Harold turned away from his friend and confidante, staring towards the place where his remaining men sprawled in exhausted silence on the wiry, sparse grass. "And perhaps he will."
Things were very different in the south. The weather was warmer, for the November winds were not yet so wild as they had been in the north, and the sun seemed stronger and more bright. Methos, still astride the horse given to him so thoughtfully by King Harold, made good time during his journey, for he doubted that Harold's forces would tarry at Jorvik when there was still Normandy to deal with. One man on a horse could travel much faster than an army moving at the speed of its heaviest-laden foot soldier, but all the same he saw no reason to be slow. From time to time he heard rumours of the battle's outcome, in the talk of the locals that he passed on the way. Some said that King Harold had met Hadrada in the northeast, others said that the meeting had been in the northwest. Some said that Harold had won, others claimed the same of Harald. Methos ignored the talk, for none of the people recounting such tales could possibly have known the truth. He told himself that he didn't care what had happened anyway, and simply rode a little faster, thinking instead of the peace that reigned in the south. With a new sword at his waist - another thoughtful gift from Harold - and a horse that he could sell for a fair price, he felt safe in the certainty that he had nothing at all to worry about. He would buy passage somewhere; to Normandy perhaps, where he had one or two friends; and then make his way cross country to the south of Europe. After all, it would not be terribly sensible to be around when Harold's troops returned home. He had no intention of being caught by an army of men feeling betrayed - and even less intention of being caught by Hadrada's men, if it turned out that they had won. They would be even less glad to see him than would Harold.
He reached the south coast early one morning, as the eastern sky first lit itself up in its customary cool silver glow. Dew soaked the grass beneath the horse's hooves, and the animal, tired and thirsty after a long journey with little sustenance, bent its head to the wet ground. Methos dismounted, happy to let it eat its fill. It had earned the meal with interest, for even though they had not bothered to travel at night, they had not taken very many breaks during the days. After all, he had reasoned, with considerable good humour - when you had just run away from two different armies, both of whom felt that they had some kind of a claim on your loyalty, it was not usually considered too sensible to dawdle.
The world was quiet in the south. Methos had become used to the silence during his ride, for he had kept away from the major centres of population, preferring instead to keep to the quieter backwaters. Now that he had arrived at his destination it seemed natural that the silence and isolation should continue. Anything else would have been too much of a shock to his system, and so he gave no thought to the situation. So conditioned was he to the lack of noise and people that he didn't notice how long it had now been since he had seen anyone; and it didn't even register that none of the local fishing boats were out upon the waters. The early hour was just right for fishing, and it was rare that a fisherman did not take advantage of such perfect weather - but lost in his own mind, Methos thought only of himself. He played with his new sword, practising one or two simple manoeuvres to test out its weight and its strength, giving his long-unused fencing muscles a quick workout. He lay in the wet grass thinking about food - about hot stews and fresh bread, and about beer and wine and mead. He planned his jaunt to Europe, and thought about the places that he would go to, and the people that he would visit. Maybe he would run into a few old friends, or reawaken a few old memories with a jaunt to the old country. Even now, in the days of less violence and unpleasantness, when he tried to actively avoid large scale death and dismemberment, he found it strangely enjoyable to wander through the rough and hilly terrain where he had once led his reign of terror. Maybe it was just a way of reminding himself of how far he had come; of how much had changed, and how glad it made him for it to be so. Maybe it was just to remind himself of the glory days, and of how much happier he had been then. He didn't know. As always, however, he didn't dwell on the thought for long; and stowing away his sword, he grabbed his horse by the guiding rope and led it away towards the beach. There were houses there, as well as some rough and unenviable looking arable land, and that meant the possibility of finding somebody who might buy his horse - or at the very least someone who might take it in payment for a boat trip over to Europe.
There was a narrow path leading down to the village at the foot of the cliff, but the gradient was not too steep, and the ground was fairly firm. Methos made good time, although the horse occasionally struggled against his leading hand. Its feet slid on the rocks, catching at others where his own surer feet found no trouble at all. It was with some apparent relief that the horse pushed past him onto the flat ground at the base of the cliff, and Methos let it wander onwards at its own pace. The creature strolled along in the surf, looking fascinated by the salty spray, kicking at the foaming waves. Methos ignored it. He was far more interested in finding somebody who could help him find a way out of the country.
The first house that he tried was empty, the roof partly fallen in, and the few basic furnishings scattered about the floor. It looked almost as if there had been a struggle - as though somebody had pushed their way into the building by force, and had carried off the inhabitants. He told himself that this was foolish thinking, and that the truth was something far more simple - but the second house, and the third, showed similar signs. Troubled, he abandoned his search of the houses, and headed instead for the place of worship. It was a small building, not much bigger than the houses themselves, but the small bell marked out its special status, as did the slightly sturdier nature of its construction. He banged on the heavy front door. There was no answer.
"Hello?" He banged a little harder, wondering if he had strayed across some abandoned settlement - a village struck by disease, perhaps, as happened sometimes. The inhabitants might be all dead, or might have gathered somewhere together in the face of their sickness. He had encountered such things once or twice before, and in such cases it tended to be the religious buildings that became the centre of things. He could not smell the scent of death, however; could not feel the oppressive air that so often followed in the footsteps of a dangerous infection. He did, however, think that he could smell the familiar, salty scent of blood. He hit the door again, and this time it swung open.
"Hello?" He went inside the building, his eyes reacting in surprise to the sudden darkness. His hands easily found the candles beside the door, but there was nothing with which to light them. He pushed the door wide instead, hoping that the growing light outside would illuminate the room enough for him to find his way around. Sure enough, a single shaft of sunlight shone up the beaten earth aisle between the wooden seats, flashing upon the large oak stand that carried the book of worship. Methos went over to it, his eyes scanning the waiting page. Latin words, each one a work of art, stared back at him, mocking his curiosity with a complete lack of answers. He turned his back on them, and instead looked towards the altar. A tray lay there, fashioned out of some local wood, its surface polished to a fine sheen by the years of proffered gifts. There were none upon it now; no coins or offerings of food; no small treasures left by penniless villagers who could ill afford such gestures. The tray bore only a few spots of dried blood, sprayed across it as though by a careless painter. Methos trailed his fingers across the smooth surface, feeling the gentle roughness of the dried marks. So small a series of stains could not possibly be the reason for the lingering odour, and he turned his head towards the darkness that remained at the back of the church. He could see something there; a shape that lay just beyond the altar. It was indistinguishable from the shadows, but he had a distinct feeling that he knew what it was anyway. Moving forward slowly, he crouched down beside it, reaching out his hands. A familiar stickiness greeted his searching fingers, but long years of experience at close quarters prevented him from feeling the desire to flinch away. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the deeper blackness, peering into the murk, seeking the expected sights with his sharpened vision. Sure enough, as the shadows faded, the lines of a dead man came into view before him. A priest, dressed in a worn and faded robe, one hand clutched around a wooden cross. There was a huge wound in his chest, stretching down to make a ruin of his stomach, the whole a mass of blood that had dried to a gluey consistency. One or two flies buzzed angrily at the disturbance, but there were few such insects in the midst of November. Methos ignored them. There was little decay as yet, so the body still looked fresh. He estimated that it had been dead for about three days.
"What happened to you then?" Not really expecting an answer, Methos leaned closer to the fallen figure, trying to search for any clues that might tell him what had killed the priest. The weapon had been large; a sword at a guess, although certainly not the light and more easily manoeuvrable type that he himself so favoured. That seemed to rule out an attack by thieves or bandits, as such weapons were not easily come by, and were usually only owned by the richest of men. They were not often stolen, either, since they took years of hard practice to master. He preferred not to use them himself because of the hard work that went into wielding them; and he was a trained swordsman with several millennia's worth of experience. Frowning, he rose to his feet. He wanted to go back outside into the sunlight, and try to find somebody who might be able to tell him what had happened. It was doubtful that a Viking raiding party would reach so far south, but the alternative theory was not one that he especially liked. He stepped backwards away from the body, intending to return to the scattering of houses, and search for clues elsewhere. Something big and determined blocked his path.
"What the-?" He turned in a rush, hand travelling towards his sword with a speed that only lifelong paranoia could accomplish. Heavy hands met his arms, slowing them, hampering them, holding them. He struggled, but movement proved impossible. A face, darkened by the light behind it, moved across his vision, accompanied by several heads, several bodies; a whole group of people who had managed to slip into the building when his back had been turned. He caught a fleeting glimpse of a gleaming helmet, and of an arm clad in a basic form of protecting chain mail.
"What's going on?" He shouted his question against the rising volume of approaching feet - large numbers of heavy boots tramping up the aisle-way of beaten earth, knocking aside the wooden seats. Other questions echoed around him; other voices; other demands. Somebody asked him who he was; somebody demanded to know what he was doing there. Another voice shouted that a royal horse had been found outside in the surf. A dull ringing laugh sounded in his ears.
"A royal horse?" The man behind the voice was becoming visible now, as the sheer volume of people present blocked off the glaring light from the doorway. Methos could see a face with high cheekbones, and a tumble of tightly curled brown hair that framed a neatly shaven jaw. "Then we must have a royal spy with us here." The increasingly distinct face moved closer, and Methos found himself looking into an unexpectedly bright pair of eyes. "Where is the king?"
"The king?" For a second Methos was unsure what he meant. Which king? There was hardly a shortage of them to choose from just lately. The people around him jostled, anxious to be a part of the impromptu interrogation. The face with the high cheekbones moved closer.
"King Harold. Where is he? When will he arrive?"
"Arrive?" Methos frowned, and then gradually let the tensions flood from his pinioned body as the meaning behind the questioning became clear. "Oh no. You people are from Normandy."
"And we await King Harold. William wishes to take his rightful place upon the throne of England. If we have to fight for that right, we will. Either way, we need to hear from Harold first. Now where is he?"
"Up north." Methos could feel the resistance ebbing away from him. "Listen. I have nothing to do with the king. I'm not a spy. Really. Truly."
"You own a royal horse." Further hands jostled at him, removing his sword. "You carry royal weaponry. The king's crest is on this sword."
"Yeah, I know. There's a simple explanation for that. Honest."
"A simple explanation?" The clean-shaven face moved away again, and Methos found himself being hustled towards the doorway. "Such as the fact that you're working for Harold?"
"I'm not!" He said it with such insistence; such determined indignation; that for a moment his captors slowed. "Look, for pity's sake, what it is with people just lately? I don't give a toss who you are, or which king you want on the throne. It's doesn't concern me. I just want to be left alone."
"I think that William will be wanting to speak with you." Blissfully oblivious to his prisoner's struggles and protestations, the clean-shaven man with the tightly curled hair pressed onwards to the door. "Right before he has your head cut off, and stuck up on a pole for all of Harold's supporters to see. It was very lucky for us that we came back here when we did. Otherwise you might have been able to report to your lord and master without us ever being aware of your presence."
"I don't--" The Immortal broke off, too tired to argue further. "Oh forget it. Cut my bloody head off. At least then I won't get roped into any more facile bloody battles. I'm sick to the back teeth of second rate royals arguing over who gets to be king."
"Clever words, friend. But you're not fooling anybody." The clean-shaven leader of this newest band of heavily-armed antagonists was still resolutely leading the way forward into the sunlight beyond the church door. Methos sighed. So much for leaving the fighting back in the north. So much for making an easy escape overseas. He was rapidly coming to the conclusion that 1066 was not his greatest year. He sighed, increasingly disconsolate. Maybe he should have just stayed in the longboat.
Methos awoke with the distinct sensation of danger, added to the even more distinct sensation of extreme pain. He opened his eyes, staring upwards for several moments at a brilliant blue sky. A particularly large and noisy sea bird wheeled above him, and he cursed it for its wretched shrieking. The shrill, coarse sound echoed through his sorry head, hammering at his ear drums until he thought that his skull would split. He sat up.
"You shouldn't be moving." The man beside him was dressed in slightly finer garments than were the other men who lay scattered around, and from the look in his serious eyes, not to mention the collection of items gathered around him, Methos surmised that he was a physician. He smiled.
"Why not? Surely you don't intend to keep me in good health just so that I can be killed later?"
"You're not dead yet. The chances are that you'll stay that way." The physician moved towards him, as though to check his head, but Methos flinched back.
"No thanks. I have my own kind of medicine." He rubbed at the back of his head, which had already healed - long ago, he suspected. The fact that it still hurt was just one of the many discrepancies of immortality. "What hit me? I feel as though I was bashed over the head with a mace."
"Not exactly." The physician gave up his attempts to give the recalcitrant patient an examination, and instead sat back down upon the sandy ground. "I'm surprised that you're up and about again so soon though. You were hit pretty hard. And it was with a shield, incidentally."
"A shield? Who was wielding it? Goliath?" Methos sighed and straightened up, testing his weight on his legs. In all honesty the pain was now passing, and there was little need for the wounded soldier act. He enjoyed it though. He was already more than well aware that he was apt to get little sympathy from his captors, and was therefore determined to extract as much as he could from this obliging medical man. Somehow he felt it was his due. "Can I get anything to drink? It feels like my mouth is full of sand."
"I wouldn't be surprised if it is, given the way that the others were knocking you about." The physician reached for a container made of animal skin, and slung it towards the recovering Immortal. "My name is Stephen, by the way. I practice the art of healing."
"So I guessed." Methos wondered what name to give, then decided that he might as well stick with Edward. It hadn't exactly served him well up until this point, but he had at least become used to answering to it. "I'm Edward. I'm er... Welsh."
"Really?" The physician seemed interested. "Then you could be just the man for us. If you're Welsh you'll surely have no love for the English king?"
"Oh." Inwardly, Methos winced. Maybe the Welsh alias wasn't quite such a good idea after all. After four thousand years, it really was about time that he sorted out which order it was best to do his looking and his leaping in. "Well when I say Welsh..."
"You're Welsh?" A big man dressed in expensive armour was coming towards them, wiping his hands on a cloth held for him by a page. That the page was a pale and fair-skinned youth, obviously of breeding and rank, suggested that the armoured man he accompanied was of similar consequence. Methos didn't think that this was the renowned William of Normandy, but it was probably somebody who was well-positioned within the inner circle of command. He hesitated before answering.
"Who wants to know?"
"Good question." The armoured man seemed amused. "But not necessarily a sensible one. You're not exactly our guest here, so I'd suggest that you answer our questions promptly. I'm not above making reprisals if my demands aren't met."
"I don't doubt it." Methos, who had seen precisely what it was that this new arrival had been wiping from his hands, had real feeling in his voice. He wondered if the telltale red stains on the cloth clutched by the page boy were in any way indicative of the fate suffered by the people of the deserted seaside village he had discovered.
"Good." The big man, rather surprisingly, offered his hand. From the closer quarters that this contact provided, Methos could see that the fellow was not nearly as big as he had appeared. The armour added considerable bulk to what was probably a very normal-sized frame. The false Welshman wondered how long it took to struggle into so much leather and chain mail, and couldn't help thinking that the armour favoured by his Horsemen in the good old days had been of a much more sensible design. It had been lighter for one thing, and easier to put on or get off. Admittedly, though, it probably would have been of very little use against one of the bigger bows of modern times. They were becoming quite powerful. The sound of the Norman's voice dragged him back to the present, and he tried to show more interest. "I am Richard," the soldier was saying, "and I serve William of Normandy. Now; are you, or are you not, a Welshman?"
"I suppose I am, yes." It was a stab in the dark; and an uncomfortable one; but he was assuming that the Normans, like the Vikings before them, would be happier trusting a Welshman than an Englishman. A Welshman was after all a potential ally against King Harold. An Englishman, on the other hand, was more likely to be put to death instantly - or tortured for information, which was a fate that Methos was just as eager to avoid. Anxious to find out, sooner rather than later, exactly what it was that he was getting - or, rather, had already got - himself into, he asked the only question now open to him. "Why?"
"Because you might come in useful, that's why." Richard was regarding him with great thought, as though assessing him for military capabilities. "We have invaded, and we plan to conquer."
"Of course you do." Thinking dark thoughts of Hadrada, Methos wished that he had headed north instead of south after taking his leave of King Harold. "But that doesn't explain where I come in."
"You want to live don't you?" Richard was smiling pleasantly, in a way that rather belied the spatters of blood on his clothes, and the few drops that marked his face. There were still stains on his hands, too, that the page boy's cloth had not quite removed. Methos nodded, albeit in a guarded fashion. This was beginning to awaken feelings of déjà vu within him, and he couldn't help thinking that he knew what was coming next. Richard smiled, his actions breezy and cheerful, his demeanour one of faultless amiability and blamelessness. "Good." He straightened up, looking back towards the north. "Somewhere out there is King Harold. He's been up north recently, if our information is correct, fighting against King Harald of Norway."
"I believe that that was the case, yes." Methos tried to sound as though his knowledge of such matters was sketchy at best. Richard hardly seemed to have heard him.
"We also have information that he has heard of our approach, and is marching home with his army at full speed. We want to engage him in battle, and we want to do it as quickly as possible. That way he will not be fully rested, and will be at a distinct disadvantage. Do you understand?"
"Of course." Aelfric's face flitted through the Immortal's mind, and he found himself wondering if the enthusiastic Englishman had survived the fight against the Norwegians. Theoretically he should have, since he clearly was no fighter. He should have been safe enough away from the field of battle, busily writing down the events that he was witnessing. Somehow Methos didn't think that it was quite that simple, and a rather disturbing sensation of guilt began to toy with his conscience. He shrugged it off. Guilt was not for him.
"Then perhaps you also understand how useful you can be to us. Now, Harold will probably consult with his advisors before meeting here with us--"
"You want me to go and speak to him?" Methos couldn't help smiling. The mere idea that Harold would listen to any message that he brought was amusing enough; the suggestion that he would even consider taking such a message was just plain hilarious. He had no intention of ever going anywhere near King Harold again. He liked his head where it was, and was far too determined to have it remain there. Still, agreeing to deliver a message was as good an opportunity as ever to make a run for it. He could head to his suddenly adopted home of Wales, and make a quick dash for Ireland. Plenty of people, himself included, had managed the dangerous sea journey west from there, to the lands that lay across the vast ocean. Not even an incensed King of England would follow him to a country he didn't even know existed. Richard laughed.
"Hardly, my friend. I have no intention of leaving such an important task in the hands of a man that I suspect would use it merely as a chance to run away. I have already sent the men best suited to the task, and I have no doubt that Harold, or somebody close to him, has spoken to them by now. Besides, it's unlikely that Harold would listen to a Welshman."
"You're probably right." He could have added Particularly this Welshman; but such things were best left unsaid. He was not surprised to hear that Harold had headed home so quickly, if he had received news of the Norman approach, but it was news to him that the English forces must have been so close behind him during his own journey. They must, he surmised, have taken a different route, or the foremost riders would have come within his sight. Perhaps they had had headed straight for London, for urgent conference with Harold's consultants. It was common knowledge that the king had made some promise to William concerning the English crown, and that, ever since assuming his new rôle, he had been growing increasingly paranoid about the chances of an invasion force arriving from Normandy. The chances were that he had a fully fledged battle plan in place for just such an occasion. "But if that is the case, I don't see any possible use that you could have for me. Why don't I just leave you to your war?"
"Because you're a prisoner here." Richard spoke with an icy undercurrent to his voice that left Methos in no doubt as to his likely fate if he pushed his luck too far. He tried to look innocent, and began to wonder with a greater sense of urgency about the current whereabouts of his sword. It certainly hadn't been on him when he had woken up. "The English and the Welsh have been at odds for years," Richard was continuing, "and that division is a weakness that I think it would be a good idea to address. If William has a Welshman riding at his side as we head to the battle with Harold, it will send a message to your countrymen. Normandy is a friend to the Welsh. We can work together to ensure that the take-over of England is smooth. We can guarantee Wales a better status."
"Oh." Methos resisted the temptation to put his head in his hands. "Listen, I really think that you're overestimating the power of my presence. I'm nothing special. I don't have any rank or position in Wales. I'm just a guy. Whether or not I'm seen to be helping you will matter little to the people over the border."
"Maybe, and maybe not. The Welsh are tired of being treated so badly by the English, any fool can tell that. They might just be ready to take a chance at improving their lot. I certainly wouldn't blame them if they did." Richard seemed excessively pleased with himself. "Don't tell me that you're not interested in securing a better future? What are you doing in England, Edward? I'm willing to bet that you didn't come here a free man. Now you can't tell me that you don't stand to gain from a country that's no longer ruled by King Harold?"
"I'm not exactly his biggest fan, no." Methos had no intention of vociferously opposing the plan that his 'host' had just outlined, no matter how wrongly the Norman soldier had judged him. That way lay death, and possibly even a death of the kind that might actually kill him; properly. It certainly wasn't hard to act as if he was opposed to the current ruling powers, anyway. Richard's good cheer increased perceptibly.
"Then I'll inform William immediately. Tomorrow, or perhaps the next day, we ride into battle against the king; and you will be at the head of our column."
"Me?" Methos wondered if he could claim a sudden sickness, or perhaps just demand to be excused on the grounds of extreme cowardice. "I don't want to--"
"Of course..." Richard leaned closer, so that the smell of the blood on his armour and skin was plainly discerned above the altogether fresher scent of the sea. "If you refuse, you must understand that I'll have to kill you. Help us, and I'll make Wales a free and equal nation. Stand against us, or refuse to be a part of this, and I'll cut you down without a moment's hesitation. How do you think you'll look with your head on a pole, and your body floating slowly out to sea?"
"You strike a most persuasive argument." Methos glanced towards Stephen, who had remained seated nearby. The physician had clearly been listening intently to the entire conversation, although he showed no reaction to it. There was not so much as a flicker of emotion in his intelligent, compassionate eyes. The Immortal considered asking the man his opinion, but felt sure that, for all the sympathy that there had earlier been, Stephen had long ago chosen his side. It was William of Normandy's crest that he wore on his armour, after all. The physician clearly felt the scrutiny of the Immortal's gaze, for he looked up slightly, and the barest of frowns crossed his face.
"You look as though you're asking me to contribute." He sounded a little uncomfortable. "As a doctor, my only concern is to save the life of my patient."
"And?" Methos was eyeing the man with no small amount of suspicion. Stephen shrugged.
"I can't claim that I've saved your life, Edward. You seemed to do that yourself, despite taking a blow that would have done for most men. I do, however, still have some vested interest in your welfare. It's my profession, after all. My calling. Speaking as a man who trained with the finest medical men in all of Europe, I have to say that it would disturb me greatly to see your head cast up on a pole, when clearly you value it's current position so highly."
"It's nice to know you care." Methos rubbed his neck, and found himself thinking back, inexorably, to the day that had started this entire adventure, when he had been taken prisoner by the Norsemen and put to work in one of their accursed longboats. He was sure that there was somebody in particular that was to blame for that, but he couldn't quite remember who. He had the distinct impression that he had been exceedingly drunk at the time. There was a lesson in that, no doubt; but not one that he was ever likely to learn.
"So what is your answer?" Richard was beginning to shed bits of armour - a large, chain mail shirt that left his chest several inches smaller in width, and a massive belt that clearly served to protect his stomach and waist from all manner of assaults. Methos watched the process dispassionately. The man's blatant display of military might affected him not in the slightest; and he was still rather of the opinion that his own, old ways were best. If nothing else, the black leather with all of those tiny, polished metal disks sewn across it had a whole lot more style than all of that chain mail and heavy padding. The wickedly sharp looking sword, currently being held by the diminutive page boy, most certainly did have an effect however; and it was this weapon that now drew Methos' eyes. He scowled.
"I don't have much choice, do I."
"None at all." Richard was smiling with a grim kind of satisfaction. He turned away, calling with his eyes to a group of his fellow soldiers seated nearby. They reacted immediately to his evident rank. "These gentlemen will look after you until we're ready to make a move. In the meantime, I'll leave you in peace."
"Look after me?" Methos watched the approach of the armed Normans with an uncomfortable sensation of unease. One of the men was carrying a heavy looking shield, which bore a small splash of blood along the base of its rim. Methos had a strong suspicion that the blood was his, and he knew exactly how it had got there. "I don't need looking after."
"I hasten to disagree." Richard was still smiling pleasantly, although his body language was already cutting Methos out of the forefront of his mind. "I don't think that William would be too impressed if his new recruit vanished before the battle was even over. And I don't think that you want to get the next King of England angry just a few days before his ascension to the throne." He took his sword from the page boy. "And you certainly don't want to make me angry."
"No." That was one thing that Methos had to agree with. "I don't think I do."
"Then you'll be good, and let them take care of you." Richard thrust his sword into the sheath on his belt, then pulled on a pair of leather gloves. "I'll be back later. You'd better still be here."
"Yeah." Methos watched him with thinly disguised distaste, as well as a fair measure of unwilling respect. He was getting heartily sick of the overly-authoritative associates of would-be kings. And why was it that only one of these three would-be Kings of England had so far actually been English? What was it about this blasted country that made it such an attractive prospect for rule? When he had been king, back in the sixth century, there had been nothing extra-specially wonderful about it that he could remember; just several crucial battles interspersed with long periods of extreme boredom. There hadn't been any great riches either. He had lived in a draughty castle, had eaten lumpy porridge and coarse bread, and certainly didn't remember anything that might inspire a frenzy of such determined invading. Feet grinding on pebbles and small shells made him look up, and his eyes met those of the three men summoned to 'look after' him. He moved, unenthusiastically, to greet them.
"This way." The nearest of the men reached out, not bothering to be gentle about the manner in which he caught hold of the Immortal's arm. Methos suffered the indignity of being unnecessarily manhandled across the sand, to a place where a low fire burned, flames pale against the sand and the colourless sea. The page boy trailed along in his wake, clearly torn between duty and a morbid fascination. Methos could feel the round blue eyes fixed upon him, but for once he didn't care. Usually such attention tended to bring out the Horseman in him. He didn't even feel the familiar irritation grow when he was pushed to the ground beside the fire, and the page boy positioned himself opposite. The three Normans, clearly as unimpressed by the babysitting detail as Methos was to be babysat, showed no interest in either of their companions, and instead turned their attention to a game of knucklebones. They were placing sizeable bets on the outcome of the match, muttering and joking amongst themselves. Methos wondered if it really would be as easy as it looked just to stand up and walk away.
"Are you going to fight in the battle?" The little page boy had spoken up in such a small, reedy voice, that it took a moment for Methos to realise that he had spoken at all. He turned his murky green eyes towards the boy, frowning speculatively at the pale face, large eyes, and unruly mop of wavy blond hair.
"Looks like it." He spoke with a complete lack of enthusiasm that the boy clearly did not share. "How about you?"
"Me?" The young boy clearly wasn't sure whether or not to take that question seriously. "I won't be fighting."
"Well aren't you the lucky one. Maybe you can use your influence to secure me a seat on the sidelines too." Woebegone, and growing increasingly more so with every passing moment, Methos turned his head to watch the three soldiers playing their knucklebones game. How did he get himself into these things? He thought about the upcoming battle, and wondered what Harold's reaction would be to seeing him at the head of the battle charge. He decided that he didn't really want to find out. Trouble was, he didn't see any way of avoiding it. There wasn't much that a man could do when superior forces were ranked against him, particularly when the only friendly faces belonged to a physician and a page boy.
On the other hand, he had faced worse odds before. He wondered how closely these people could watch him when they were all riding into the heat of battle, and allowed himself a little smile. If he timed things right he could slip safely away, and enjoy the show as both sides wiped each other out. Once again Aelfric's trusting face floated accusingly through his mind, and once again he ignored it. For all he knew, the little fool was already dead. There was no certainty, after all, that he had even survived the last battle. Deep down, however, he felt certain that he had; and he thought about the hurt and betrayal that Aelfric was likely to feel, upon learning that his former friend was fighting with the invading Normans. He blacked the thought out. He was Methos; Immortal, Horseman and survivor.
The rest of the world could go to hell.
William of Normandy was a bitter man. It wasn't easy making a name for yourself when everybody knew the truth of your parentage so well that you were known far and wide by a derisory nickname. If the invasion of England was to prove anything to anyone, it was to make sure that the people back in Normandy finally learned never to poke fun at William the Bastard. He was tired of being looked down upon by so many of his country people. He was tired of waiting, too; tired of waiting for King Harold to finally remember who he was, and about the title he was supposed to have been granted. Harold had made William a promise once, and it was a promise that he had failed to keep. That made William angry and upset; and determined to put things right. He didn't care if that meant that he had to tear apart the country he hoped some day to rule. He didn't care if that meant that he had to murder, or subjugate, or enslave the very people he intended to lead. He was going to make his point to the world; or he was going to destroy its economical centre in the process. It didn't pay to look down on William the Bastard.
"So what do you think of this Welshman?" Sipping speculatively at a particularly bad casket of wine, the would-be ruler of England regarded his lieutenant with a look that suggested he would not be impressed by bad news at this juncture. "Will he help us?"
"Do we need his help?" Richard inclined his head in a gesture of humility. "If, of course, you don't mind me answering your question with one of my own."
"I don't." William gave a vague shrug, that was just a shade too casual to be genuinely so. "And no, we probably don't need him. But Harold betrayed me, Richard, and I want to see him destroyed. Winning this battle; defeating him; taking away his throne and his crown and his country; that's not enough. Getting this Welshman of yours to help us out might just mean that we can succeed where every other king of this country has failed. We can drive Harold's failure home in a way that would really make my name; not only as his equal - his superior - but also as a true successor of that old man Edward the Confessor, that the people of this country still hold in such high regard. That's what I want, Richard. That's my due."
"Of course." Richard smiled, trying to hold the expression without too much of a quaver. He had always known that William was a little unhinged - a little too desperate to lose the derogatory nickname that had been forced upon him. He was trying too hard now, just as he had been trying too hard for the last twenty years. Richard had sympathised once, but he was beginning to lose interest now. "Look, there's no need to worry. This Welshman is going to help us whether he likes it or not - and he doesn't like it. He's got no choice, and I've made that very clear to him. If he doesn't help us, he dies."
"Good." William threw aside the casket of wine, letting the rest of its foul contents stain the sand around him. One or two anxious sand hoppers leapt to safety, making damp grains of sand fly into the air with every movement of their tiny, bouncing feet. "And do we now know where Harold is?"
"Well on his way by now sir." Richard stroked the hilt of his sword, as if anxious to dispense with the preliminaries and jump straight to the battle itself. "From what we knew already, Harold has been somewhere in the north, but he always knew that he couldn't afford to dawdle on the way back south. We think that his advisors in London will try to talk him out of meeting us in battle, but he's unlikely to listen to them. He wants this over and done with just as much as we do. Given his recent action against Hadrada, we should have a considerable tactical advantage. With luck the day will be ours."
"Luck will have nothing to do with it." William turned his head, staring along the beach to the low flames of the fire that marked the spot where Methos was sitting. "Perhaps I should have a word with this Welshman."
"He's not exactly the communicative sort. At least, not in the sense of being of any use to us." Richard thought back over his verbal exchange with the prisoner, but could remember nothing that had been particularly helpful. It had all been a bizarre mix between a rueful, and just plain flippant, disregard for his authority - as though the Welshman had been scared and annoyed and frustrated by the situation, all at the same time. He certainly had shown no overt desire to be of any use.
"I don't care if he hates us, or if he has no intention of telling us even so much as his name. If I want him to talk, he'll talk."
"I have no doubt of that, sire." Richard shrugged, managing to make the brusque movement appear as respectful as it was possible to be. "Shall we try?"
"No, not now." Sounding oddly like a spoiled child, William leaned back against the sacks of provisions that were positioned behind him, and then closed his eyes. "I don't feel like it now. Maybe later."
"As you wish." Richard bowed his head and withdrew, feeling extremely relieved to be doing so. There were times recently when one felt extremely grateful to be allowed to leave William's company with all of one's limbs intact. He had begun to see offence in the most innocent of actions, and as a result had begun taking action accordingly. Just as many men were now being executed by him as were being lost to skirmishes and disease, and only three days previously he had ordered the beheading of a young soldier who had been caught apparently making jokes at his expense. Richard had known the young man in question, and was entirely sure of his loyalty. The boy would never even have thought about making such jokes; but his death had been ordered and so it had been carried out. That was the way that it had to be under the rule of the man who would be king. Maybe things would settle down once the unfortunate title of the Bastard had been struck from William's name forever. The English throne would do that. It had to.
By the fire, all was very quiet. The guards instructed to watch over Methos were all asleep, or were pretending to be. Only the page boy remained obviously awake, his round, pale eyes fixed firmly upon the Immortal's apparently relaxed face. Richard eyed the supposed Welshman with suspicion as he passed, for he was certain that the unusual individual was not nearly as relaxed as he wished everyone to think that he was. There was the vaguest of flickers in those closed eyelids, suggesting that they were opened by the barest of amounts, and that an extremely alert mind was peering out beneath. Drawing his sword, Richard sat down just opposite the prisoner, and rested his large, naked weapon on the sand. There was still no response. The Norman stretched out a booted foot and nudged hard at the apparently sleeping man.
"What?" Methos did not move, nor open his eyes. Richard felt a strange burst of satisfaction for proving that his prisoner was not really asleep. It was a pointless sense of triumph, and his own foolishness for feeling it made his already fractious mood deteriorate even further. He scowled.
"Who are you?"
"My name is Edward. I'm a Welshman." Not so much as a flicker passed across the surprisingly gentle face, and the murky green eyes remained closed. Richard's irritation increased, but short of unnecessary violence, which would undoubtedly attract the unwanted attentions of William; not to mention the numerous other Normans on the beach; there did not seem to be anything that he could do. He tapped his fingers on the flat, gleaming blade of his sword, fancying, for the briefest second, that something in his prisoner's face showed a reaction to the sound. He repeated it, but the reaction - if indeed it had been one - was not repeated. His scowl deepened.
"You're lying." He wanted a confrontation, for he was still angry from his exchange with William. Lately the leader of the Normans always made him feel like that; frustrated at his own position in the relationship; increasingly unsatisfied by the fact that his life lay so precariously in the hands of a man who was acting increasingly unpredictably. He hated to be in a position of such helplessness where his own life was concerned; and if that meant that other unfortunates in the near vicinity had to bear the brunt of his frustration, that was just too bad.
"I probably am, yes." The Welshman's response took him by surprise, which in turn irritated him further. His anger only grew when one of those intelligent, self-aware eyes slowly opened, seeming to smile at him in a distinctly mocking fashion. The barest trace of a smirk disturbed the man's lips. "Does it matter? Aren't we all lying, just a little?"
"Who are you really?" For a second a strange sort of panic settled into his mind, replacing the irritation of earlier. If this man who not who he had led everyone to believe him to be... if he was, horror of horrors, not really Welsh... Richard swallowed hard. He would have to kill William. There would be no other way to save his own life, and probably those of the men who followed him. Instead of putting his fears to rest, the prisoner merely opened the other eye, and turned to face him squarely. Richard raised the sword slightly, as if to make some threat with it, but changed his mind at the last moment. For a second he held the other man's eyes with his own, then shrugged and looked away. Even though he was no longer looking, he felt sure that his prisoner was smiling at him.
"My name is Edward," he said finally. "I'm a Welshman escaping from... well, from various people actually. I haven't been having a lot of luck lately, and it doesn't look as though things are going to be improving much in the very near future. Why do you ask?"
"Because our leader is a vindictive madman who will let nothing get in the way of his dream to take the English throne. If you've lied to us, he'll kill you - and me." Richard turned back again, once more using the power of his own fierce gaze to hold the other man's eyes. "I want to make sure that there aren't going to be any surprises."
"There are always surprises." Methos turned, looking along the beach with startling accuracy, so that his gaze was directed exactly at the place where William was lying in blissful repose. "The English won't be easily beaten, you know. King Harold is hardly a great leader, but his men are devoted to him. They have a huge army."
"Hadrada has thinned their ranks a little." The Welshman's knowledge of the English forces had made Richard's suspicions grow, but he made no comment about it at first, and instead merely frowned. Methos nodded.
"Yes. Perhaps. On the other hand, the Norwegians were severely outnumbered. They were hoping to use surprise to catch the English forces off guard, and gain the upper hand that way, but something happened to prevent that scheme from working. It's my guess that the English won a resounding victory, and will have marched back south filled with the glory of their success. A man can win a battle on morale alone, you must know that. I've seen small armies defeat larger ones a hundred times, just through devotion to their leader, or through conviction in their own abilities. Don't be too sure of yourself. Always leave a way out."
"That's your advice, is it? Your way of doing things?" The suspicions were building powerfully within the Norman now, and it was all that he could do to avoid the growing violence from erupting. That was all that he needed; attracting the attentions of who knew how many of his associates. "And is that what you were doing when we found you? Is that what you're doing now? Damage limitation? Finding yourself a way out?"
"I don't follow you." The expression of gentle perplexity was faintly mocking, and Richard was experienced enough in the ways of men to know that he was being lied to. His anger increased, but he kept it carefully under control.
"Oh yes you do. Maybe you want to explain to me just how it is that you come to know so much about the English and the Norwegians? Were you there? And if so, what exactly were you doing there and why?"
"Ah." Methos nodded, stretching slightly so that he was resting in a more comfortable position. His eyes lingered for a second - rather longer than a second in Richard's fancy - upon the large sword that lay so very close by. "There is actually a very good explanation for that."
"I'm listening." Richard was quite proud of the way that he insinuated the gentlest of threats into that simple sentence. His eyes glittered, but the only response that he was able to elicit from Methos was a vaguely uncomfortable looking shuffle. The murky green eyes widened, as though to insist once again upon innocence; then narrowed, cleared, and finally showed a flash of the truth that seemed to lie beneath. The thin shoulders shrugged, an air of fatalistic acceptance making the face lose its momentary lines. A vague smile came out to play; and play it did, for Richard could not quite shake the feeling that he was being played with in some way, even though it was impossible to think that this prisoner could have the upper hand.
"I'm sure that you are." The eyes smiled even more, then flicked speedily away, instead looking up towards an approaching shadow. Richard had not noticed it before, but he saw it clearly now; and recognised it for what it was. William was staring down at them, eyes narrowed against the glare of the reddening fire. His arms were folded, as they usually were when he was angry, but his face seemed relatively placid. He was staring at Methos, who was staring back at him. Their expression of interest was shared, and mirrored between them. Richard felt the irritation burst within him, even though he dared not show it. The infuriating Welshman had been about to open up to him, he was sure of it - just as sure as he now was becoming that this 'Welshman' was not a Welshman at all. Now he would never know if the man had really been about to speak, for he doubted that the opportunity would ever arise again.
"Richard." William's voice was pleasant enough, all traces of his earlier churlishness gone. Richard smiled up at him, rising to his feet in an easy movement.
"Sire. This is the prisoner that I spoke of." It did not escape him that the veils he had seen before in the Welshman's eyes slid back into place as soon as the mention was made of his prisoner status, and that once again those gently mocking eyes were unreadable. Inwardly he glowered, but outwardly he let his smile grow. "Was there something that I could be--"
"No Richard, there wasn't." William was staring at Methos with a hungry expression on his face, the lights of his ambition burning brightly in his eyes. "This is the man - the Welshman? The one who is going to help us to achieve our goals?"
"Yes sire." Richard's eyes sought Methos, attempting to warn him in some way; to impress upon him the importance of not angering the Norman leader. Methos, however, was not looking in his direction. Instead his attention was entirely William's own. William nodded.
"Good. So tell me, Welshman. What have you decided? Is the continued subjugation of your people the best way forward for them, or do you intend to make it known to them that I am their friend; that I will ensure that they prosper as a nation? It is not hard, I believe, to see which is the best step forward for all of us?"
"Of course." Methos could not have sounded more genuine had he been speaking of some deeply held and heartfelt belief of his own, and Richard breathed a sigh of relief that was almost audible. Whatever game this man was playing, the gods be praised that he was well skilled in it. There seemed little chance of him being caught out for just as long as his performance remained so practised and smooth. "You must understand though, that my standing amongst the Welsh is hardly high enough to make them join you just because it appears that I have. You'd need an army for that, or a folk hero. I'm just some bloke that happened to stray too far over the border."
"But men will sit up, and they will take notice. News travels, and it affects those who hear it." William's eyes had become quite icy, as though he did not at all appreciate having his thoughts and ideas questioned by a man who was his prisoner. "And besides, I don't much care if every Welshman on this whole blasted island detests you utterly. I've decided to try this, and try it we shall - unless for some reason you'd prefer not to ride into battle at the head of my cavalry?" Some flicker in Methos' eyes apparently alerted him to the likely answer to such a question, for his frown deepened and darkened, and his tone changed to one of obvious menace. "Remembering of course that if you choose not to join us in battle, the only other option is your immediate death. I don't have the time to make it as drawn out and painful as I would like, but I will personally ensure that your head at least is helping to lead the battle charge. If you understand my meaning."
"I think that I do." Rueful resignation fluttered across the studiously ingenuous face. "I rather think that I'll take you up on your offer. Quite suddenly I have this inexplicable desire to charge into battle on a big horse."
"Sensible man." William nodded slowly, clearly forming thoughts and ideas in his mind even as he spoke. "Then we make our move in the morning. As soon as it is light, we set out to meet with King Harold, so that I may take the crown that is owed to me. The crown that should have been mine from the moment that King Edward breathed his last." He slapped his hands together, apparently sealing some bargain with himself. "Then it's all decided. The three of us shall form the focus of the main assault."
"Fine." Methos looked towards the fire, already planning his flight. It wouldn't be easy to make a break from the foremost point of an attacking army, but he had made less likely escapes in the past. It was something that he was good at. William's eyes narrowed.
"You wouldn't be planning to escape from me, would you Welshman?"
"Me?" The affronted look upon Methos' face was so realistic that Richard had to try hard not to smile. William, however, did not seem to have been taken in. He looked towards the dozing guards, awake fully now, due to the sound of their master's voice. The most senior of them returned his gaze with a questioning one of his own.
"You have orders sire?" Like most of those who worked for William, he was scared of their leader's mercurial moods, although faithful to the man for his undoubted strength and skill. William's expression changed to one of unpleasantness and spite.
"I believe that I do." He nodded towards Methos, who was intent upon their conversation, despite his expression still being fixed upon that of casual indifference. "Make sure that he doesn't escape; now or during the battle. If he isn't still at my side as we ride in amongst the English forces, I'll have each one of you roasting on a spit, just as soon as the battle is over. Is that understood?"
"Yes sire." The guard rose to his feet, brushing the sand from his clothing. "We'll take care of him." He clicked his fingers, and one of his companions fetched a large coil of rope from the stores nearby. Methos reacted instantly, beginning to rise to his feet.
"Now hang on." His eyes, fixed upon William's face, were furious. "I thought that we were supposed to be allies? You speak big words about working together for the common good, but you have a very strange way of making it happen."
"I'm merely protecting my interests." There was no sign in William's face of any intention to relent. Richard frowned.
"Sire, if I may suggest--"
"You may not." William's voice was sharp, and he glared at his lieutenant as if in a sudden rage. When he spoke again, however, he sounded altogether more soft and understanding. "I've already explained my plans to you, Richard. I won't have them foiled by a man with nothing but his own interests at heart. Don't tell me that you trust this fellow?"
"I can't say that I do, no." Richard avoided Methos' gaze, suddenly feeling oddly as though he had just betrayed a friend. "But perhaps if he was to promise--"
"A promise would mean nothing, and I have no intention of pretending that it might be otherwise. No; I must be sure." He waved with one arm towards his guards and their prisoner. "Secure him, and see that he stays secured. I'll speak to you all again in the morning." With that, he turned smartly around, boots sending sand spraying out in all directions; then he marched away. Richard watched him go, the better to avoid the guards as they manhandled Methos to the ground. The Immortal struggled, although only for the principal of the thing. He knew straight away that there would be no possibility of actually escaping. As his arms were dragged behind him and bound tightly with a length of coarse rope, he found himself suddenly able to look up at Richard. The Norman was studiously avoiding his gaze, but under the lingering scrutiny of it, he eventually turned slightly to meet the accusing eyes. He shrugged.
"I'm sorry." He sounded as though he meant it, but his guilt was as nothing to a man who so rarely felt guilty himself.
"I was prepared to help you." Even with a mouth full of sand, the venom in Methos' voice still shone through. "I'm not saying that my help would have been of much use, but I was prepared to give it to you nonetheless. Now there's no question of it."
"You have no choice." Richard abandoned his own guilt, and echoed a little of the prisoner's venom. Methos smirked rather unpleasantly as he was pulled back up into a sitting position. One of the guards bent to tie his ankles to a post that a colleague had driven into the sand.
"There's always a choice, Norman. Especially for me." His smirk became a fully-fledged, and extremely evil, smile. "But never, my friend, for you. I'll make sure of that. And from here on in, that's to be the only certainty."
They rode out in the morning; a long train of horses accompanied by many men on foot. William and Richard took the lead, followed almost immediately by Methos, and Stephen the physician. The latter rode in silence, head down, apparently lost in some deep thought that even Methos was not of a mind to disturb - not that it would have done much good to try. He could only assume that Stephen, with a doctor's dislike for violence, was thinking and worrying of the battle that lay ahead, and of all the friends and countrymen that he would have to attempt to heal, or merely leave to the elements if there was nothing further that he could do for them. For his own part, Methos had more to worry about than the worried imaginings of a Norman physician. Still bound behind him, his arms were becoming extremely painful, his hands numb and uncomfortable; his wrists grazed and bleeding. He was more than horseman enough to be able to ride without trouble in such a position, but that did not make the excursion any the less unpleasant. Richard glanced back at him once or twice as they rode, but William remained looking fixedly ahead. Methos ignored them both. There was little point in making any response to Richard's inquiring glances, and he was not in the mood to be truly menacing. It was too much like hard work.
The messengers returned long into the ride, with the expected news that King Harold had long been aware of the landing of the Norman forces. Their boats had been spotted far out to sea, and the news had been delivered by watchers stationed along the southern coast. Already Harold and his men had returned south, after marching at a killing pace in order to meet the invaders at the earliest opportunity. It made William smile broadly to hear such tidings, for it meant, beyond doubt, that Harold and his men would be all but too tired to fight. When the meeting came, it would be a quick and certain one; or at the very least one that should not be too hard on the Norman forces. Even Stephen brightened a little, presumably less concerned about the fate of the English than he was about his own confederates. The deep silence into which he had fallen since setting out on the ride from the beach had lifted, and he even smiled once or twice at Methos as they travelled. They were smiles that went unanswered, and eventually, after much discouragement, they petered out. Stephen looked at the sky instead, and thought of other things.
For his part, Methos did not know what to think. He was riding back towards an army that he had thought never to see again; an army that, in a moment of fierce rage, he had helped to victory when sworn to help their enemy. It was also an army that, in order to be sure of saving himself, he had abandoned before their battle had begun; departing without hope of news of the fate of his friend. Now he found himself on the verge of meeting once again with those very men, who no doubt would be less than happy to see him. It was not their reaction that worried him, however, but his own feelings on the matter. What if Aelfric had not survived the battle with the Norwegians? How would he feel? It rather distressed him to realise that he genuinely appeared to care what happened to the Englishman. Once again the stirrings of guilt grew within him, and once again he stamped them down. What reason did he have to feel guilty? What fault was it of his of these mortals persisted on fighting with each other? Certainly he could not be blamed if they tried to drag him into their little wars, and he chose to protect his own interests rather than theirs. He glowered at the surrounding countryside, and tried to believe that he was really convinced by everything he had just told himself. Why was it then that he still felt so damned guilty? It didn't help that he could still see Aelfric's annoyingly enthusiastic grin when they had first begun to plan their escape together, aboard the Viking longboat.
Time vanished into the sun as they rode; or perhaps it was swept away by the growing autumn wind. Methos neither knew nor cared. He had no idea how much time was passing, or where exactly it was going to - even four thousand years hadn't taught him that much. He only knew that it seemed as if Hastings as been chosen as the place of battle, since that was where they appeared to be heading. Clearly it held some tactical advantages, or maybe was just close enough both to London and to the coast to make it the ideal place for both sides. Methos had not been to Hastings for a long time, and had no idea what sort of place it was; but then presumably the Normans were equally uninformed about the English countryside. Perhaps Harold had chosen the place. If he had, it was quite possible that they were all riding straight into a trap.
"Perhaps we had better stay here for the night." Richard was watching the sky with an expert's stare; scanning for hints as to the coming weather, or perhaps for some prophetic signs. To do so was not uncommon practice after all, and Methos could understand any nervousness that those who believed in such things might be feeling. There had, after all, been a comet the previous night; a bright, fiery streak across the sky, of the kind that meant many things to superstitious men.
"You're probably right." Richard had been expecting some lofty comment from William, but instead his leader seemed civil. Perhaps he was tired from the long ride, or perhaps he was subdued from thoughts of the fight ahead. Richard doubted that it was the latter. William might regret unnecessary deaths, like anyone who was truly human; but he cared nothing for any death that would help him in his struggle to become the king of England, as he so strongly believed was his right. The man was obsessed.
"Thankyou sire." He glanced back, anxious, if nothing else, to allow Methos a rest. Quite why he felt in any way sorry for the infuriating 'Welshman', especially since he was somebody who quite clearly had no intention of helping them in their fight - and was, quite probably, working instead for their enemy - was beyond him. Still, feel sorry he did, and he wanted at least to see the ropes loosened. William apparently saw the direction of his thoughts.
"Don't be too soft, Richard." His voice was soft and instructive. "Give the order to relax for the night by all means, and see that the men are ready to ride into battle at first light if necessary. But don't get any ideas about relaxing security."
"Of course not." Raising his hand, Richard shouted out the order to rest, and behind them the many horses came to a grateful halt. One by one the mounted men jumped to the ground, leading their mounts towards the makeshift campfires already being erected by the foot soldiers. Methos slithered easily to the grass, apparently unhampered by the ropes. Richard and Stephen joined him immediately, acting as one in an instinctive attempt to shield him from William and his harsher authority. Richard cut the ropes, although the unsheathed sword that he held in his hand, not to mention the confining presence of so many guards, did not give the Immortal reason to be optimistic. He followed the unspoken order to head for the nearest campfire, and sat down beside it with his back to the other men. His sore shoulders would stop complaining soon; he knew that from long experience. The cuts on his wrists would not linger for much more time than that, but the anger, as he well knew, would simmer for a long time. He thought about his revenge upon Gered, when he had turned the tables on the marauding Vikings, in order to ensure that the English won. It didn't look as though he was going to have the opportunity to play the same trick with the Normans. He thought about it all the same, turning his brooding mind to plans and plots and dreams that there might be some hope of accomplishing. Each thought ruled itself out, but it kept his mind occupied. Thinking was better than listening to the talk around him, and it was certainly better than paying any more attention than necessary to the ring of men helping to cut him off from the freedom he had now been seeking for so long. It definitely beat thinking about Aelfric, and allowing the uncomfortable attendant feelings to plague his mind. Damned mortals, with their damned silly battles. Why did they have to get him involved?
"Thinking about the fight?" Stephen was watching him closely, his intelligent, round brown eyes narrowed with gentle compassion. Methos met the gaze with his own steady eyes, showing no compassion in answer to that so brazenly on display upon the face of the Norman.
"Just wondering how many of you are going to come marching home at the end of it." Methos flashed him a conceited smile. "I shan't bother counting you back."
"You won't get the chance. If we die, you're likely to suffer the same fate. You'll be in the middle of it." Richard did not bother looking at him as he spoke, having learnt the previous night that it was all but impossible to get what he wanted out of those deceptively cunning features. Methos smiled.
"You'll find that I'm a hard man to kill."
"Most men die pretty quickly once their heads have gone flying from their shoulders; and if you don't keep William happy, that's exactly what will happen to you." Richard turned his head to spare the irritating 'Welshman' a sidelong glance that he did not bother sustaining. "Or do you think that you're immortal?"
Methos smiled a lazy smile. "I'm just saying that I'm a hard man to kill. I have no wish to die, and I'll avoid death in just the way that other men do. But when I'm in the thick of it out there, with you, be sure that you're looking in my direction, as well as at the English. You never know which direction the fatal blow will come from, when you've got a man at your back that you've not treated with the greatest of kindness." The smile froze on his lips, teasing and insulting and threatening; like that of a child playing a game that carried echoes of reality. "Or are you planning to send me out there unarmed? If so, your great and wonderful leader isn't going to be making many friends amongst the Welsh. It doesn't look much like the foundation of some great alliance if he sends his first Welsh subject to face the enemy unprotected."
"You're no more a Welshman than I am. Your worth as an ally lasts only so long as I decide to keep up your game." Richard stared at the fire, avoiding the brooding eyes without knowing quite why. "If I was to tell William my suspicions, you'd be scattered in pieces for the birds to eat, before you'd have a chance to beg for clemency."
"But you're not going to do that." Methos spoke with total self-assurance, his certainty seeming all the more so due to the quiet pitch of his voice. Richard couldn't argue, and merely shrugged.
"So we ride into battle, and you kill me. Then what? Will you go back to the English and rejoin them?"
"No. I'll just turn about and head away from it all. I have no interest in your battles. I've fought wars that encompassed entire continents, and involved the greatest generals ever born to mortal man. Who rules a country today is of no interest to me. Why should it be? So long as I survive, England can be run by jungle tribes, or hunters from the wastes of Siberia for all I care. And I really don't care. Not one tiny little bit."
"I see." Richard turned his back, as though willing now to ignore him. "Then perhaps it's time that I showed the same disregard for your future. From now on, friend, if William chooses to tie you up, or to keep you under guard, or to mistreat you in any other way, I'll keep out of it. He can do what he wants with you."
"Fine." Methos' voice was quiet, although the subtext in his words seemed somehow to be so loud that he might have been shouting. "Better that we don't owe each other anything."
"Why? Thinking that it might make you lenient? That it might make it harder for you to walk away once the battle's started?"
Methos laughed. "Fine dreams, Norman. Fine dreams. You could save my life a thousand times, and it wouldn't stop me from walking away if I thought that my misplaced loyalty might be putting me in danger. I know what matters, and I don't let insignificancies stand in my way."
"I'm learning new things about you all the time, aren't I Edward. They're not terribly pretty things either."
"Life isn't terribly pretty, Norman." Methos smiled a cruel smile, as though to emphasise his point. "But death is. It's where the greatest part of my experience lies, even though I've been turning my back on it just lately; and if I choose, I can bring it to every one of you. So don't turn your back on me once the battle's started, Richard. I won't hesitate for a second whether there's a sword in my hand or not. My brothers and I didn't need weapons when we held the known world in our thrall. I don't need weapons now."
"You're insane." Richard threw another log on the fire rather quickly, feeling suddenly in need of extra light and heat. Methos laughed.
"No. I just think that I've got a lot of my brother in me tonight. I'd offer to introduce you, but if you've fought many battles you'll probably have met him already. He's the one who stands watching the bloodiest of battles, or fights at the very heart of them. He smiles to see every severed limb, and laughs at every fallen head. He's the one who glories in the madness at the core of the chaos, and causes the greater part of it."
"Is that so?" Richard was trying to feign indifference, but by this time was failing completely. "And who, then, are you?"
"Me?" The cruel smile broke suddenly, turning into a grin of such innocent, childlike delight that the Norman soldier was quite taken aback. "I'm the nice one. I'm the one who saw the light." He shrugged, the sparks of gentle humour and harmlessness shining in his eyes. "And if I feel like it tomorrow, I can make things very unpleasant for you on the battlefield. I can kill you without you even realising it. I have no cause to swear to - no flag to fight under. So don't turn your back on me, Richard." The smile hardened and the lights left his eyes, somehow seeming to draw all of the brightness and warmth from the fire as it did so. "Even if I offer the hand of friendship, that'll be the very hand that cuts your throat."
The English left their horses at the end of the battlefield, as was their tradition. Methos sat atop his own mount, looking down upon the opposing forces as they arranged themselves in formation before the Normans. They looked vulnerable as they stood together, their weapons still marked with the dried blood of the Norwegians, their standards still dirtied from the mud of Stamford Bridge. In contrast the clean clothes and shields of the Normans seemed much brighter, almost as if the English were already beaten and downtrodden. It was all too plain that Harold's forces were tired, and even the king himself no longer looked so certain; so annoyingly sure of himself. Now he just looked as if he wanted it all to be over.
"They don't look like much, do they." William, high atop a magnificent black charger, was delighted. His already fevered imagination had grown to ever more excitable proportions during the morning's arrangements, and he seemed now to consider himself as good as crowned before the first blow had been struck. Next to him, a sword now in his belt, Methos frowned.
"Don't underestimate them. There are a lot of them, and they're very determined."
"So am I, Welshman." William flashed him a sidelong smile that was surprisingly warm and well-meant. "And mind that you give a good account of yourself down there. Be sure that the insignia that I gave you can be clearly seen. That marks you out as being from Wales, and will spread my message for me. Just be sure that you survive for as long as possible, and that you do the best you can."
"Because if I die you'll kill me?" Methos smiled despite himself, his mood already considerably lighter. His outburst the previous night had done much to dispel the frustrations of the past few days, as well as improving his mood greatly with a little playful intimidation. He didn't get nearly enough of that these days it seemed. He might no longer be a Horseman - for much of the time at least he was a man of peace now - but still it seemed that he needed to return to the old ways every once in a while. It made his heart beat a little stronger, and it prepared him for moments such as these.
"I choose to ignore your sarcasm, friend Edward." Sounding haughty, William turned away. "Richard?"
"Here sire." His lieutenant, still gripped in an almost inexplicable nervousness from the previous night, was watching Methos with a suspicious eye. "Shall I give the order?"
"I certainly don't plan to sit here for the rest of the day staring at the enemy." William straightened his back and his shoulders, seeming to grow several inches in height as he did so. "I have a battle to fight, and a crown to win."
"A country to conquer." Richard smiled a thin smile, clearly not greatly won over by his leader's confidence. The previous night had drained him of most of his desire to fight, even though he was not entirely sure why. He couldn't understand why just a few lines of conversation with a prisoner should have changed his attitude so; and yet it had, and he now felt drained of all his earlier confidence. Methos ignored him now, as though treating him as a threat already dealt with, and that did nothing to lessen his trepidation. William had clearly noticed that something had changed in his lieutenant, for he was frustrated as a result, and treated the other man with a measure of unmasked disapproval.
"If you would rather return to the camp and await our return, Richard..."
"No sire." Richard cast down his eyes, and tried to ignore the burning rush of humiliation. Behind him the horses of the men moved restlessly, as though embarrassed to have witnessed his discomfort. William nodded.
"Then I would suggest a hasty advance, before the English grow tired of waiting. The fools have dismounted, as usual. With us on horseback they'll stand even less chance of success."
"Nothing like a fair fight." Methos, who cared even less for fair fighting than did William, smiled at his own words. The Norman leader glared at him, and he smiled airily in reply. "Shall we go?"
"Just stick close," William warned him. Methos smirked, his faintly mocking gaze meeting Richard's sullen eyes.
"Oh I will." He drew his sword, letting the familiar feel of weighty metal dispel the last of his unhappiness. Even though he didn't want to be in battle, at least he could comfort himself with the knowledge that he was to be accompanied in his misadventure by a good weapon; a better one even, perhaps, than the one the Vikings had taken from him when he had first been captured. Swords focussed memories, after all. All of the energies and anger of the Horsemen that lingered in the air could be drawn towards him as soon as the rays of the early sun gathered upon a well-made sword point. He smiled at the thought, and let the brightening sun catch the blade fully along its length. Behind him the men of the Norman army shouted their approval, and their horses stamped their feet. William smiled at this display of wanton enthusiasm from the men who had already followed him so far.
"Give the order Richard." Sitting tall atop his horse, he successfully projected an image of true regal pride. Methos couldn't help thinking that the Norman would make a good king, if he ever managed to lose the almighty grudge he seemed to bear against the world. Richard nodded slowly.
"Advance men!" His voice thundered back, echoing about amongst the ranks. A mighty shout echoed in return; a cry of determination touched by premature victory. William laughed. Then, raising his hand up into the air, he let it fall in a final signal of the decisive manoeuvre. Horse hooves echoed on the hard ground. The birds fell silent, and took to the wing to find new places to rest. Even the wind seemed to hold its breath. For his part, Methos merely felt glad - of action at last; of the long awaited chance to make another break for freedom; and for the simple fact that he was no longer thinking of Aelfric. Soon the battle overtook him, and he was no longer thinking at all.
The smell of the battlefield was the same as it had ever been; the same, easily recognisable mix of blood, sweat and fear. Mud mingled with the overall scent, the sweat of the Norman horses mixing with that of the humans. Methos smiled a grim smile as he rode forward with his latest allies. With the passing of every year he told himself that he grew further and further away from the days of the past; the days of war and massacre; of blood and chaos. And then, every time, along came another battle such as this one; some other conflict that made him face his darker side again. And every time, without fail, he felt everything that he had ever known being unleashed within him once again. He felt it now, just as he had suspected he would; a powerful pounding inside his chest as his heart urged him onwards; a rushing sensation of excitement in his brain that seemed to sing him forward. He held his sword high, letting it swing and tear; hack and slash; forcing its wicked path through the English soldiers. He saw no sign of Aelfric, and hoped, for one guilty second, that the Englishman was well out of the way, sitting alone somewhere, out of the reach of the archers' bows, writing up his accounts for posterity. He saw no sign of Harold either, although he did see the king's personal guard, which suggested that the king himself could not be very far away. He had almost expected to see Gered, but he was sure now that the Viking was dead. He was sure to have been executed following Methos' claim that there had been a plot to poison Harold's wine. Methos could not resist a smile as he thought about it. He could only think that it served Gered right, for daring to think that he could rule the life of a man older than most civilisations.
"Fall back!" He heard the cry from the English ranks, and amused himself for a while in trying to hunt it down. Already several flag-bearers had fallen, but those that shouted out the orders, by the sheer volume of their own voices, marked themselves out as equally attractive targets. He located the source of the latest cry, and rode towards the hapless man at full gallop, leaning low in the saddle to deliver a killing blow. The man let out a cry of surprise, and a companion, eager to save the life of his friend, made a fruitless jab with his sword at the mounted warrior. Methos felt the point of the sword tickle his ribs - no more than a scratch that he doubted had even drawn blood, before his own sword knocked the head from his intended victim. He whirled in his saddle, crashing backwards with the hilt of his weapon, aiming for the man who had tried to strike at him. The man had already fallen. William had knocked him down with a single blow, taking full advantage of the fact that the English soldiers, all on foot, made such unavoidably easy targets. The Norman king appeared to be enjoying himself immensely, but Methos could not share his enthusiasm. He felt it of course; knew it well; and yet could not feel the old fires burning quite so fiercely when he knew that William shared them. It almost seemed to weaken the flames a little, and to ease his battle-drunk soul.
"That way Edward!" His shout a jubilant bellow, William pointed off to their right. The king's guard were there, formed around their sovereign in a determined attempt to defend him against the Norman swords. Harold was fighting back well, giving as good an account of himself as were any of his men, but the odds were beginning to tell. Methos could see the exhaustion on the king's face, and he understood it well. He was not feeling at full strength himself following the events of the last couple days; but immortality did more than merely make someone harder to kill. It increased their strength and endurance, and made it so much easier to recover in all manner of ways. He felt little sympathy for the mortal Englishmen who did not share his immortal constitution, however. Whilst they might have treated him better than had the Norwegians, still there had been the distinct hint of coercion. The thought made him turn his mind to the Normans, who had treated him much more harshly than had the comparatively friendly English. It had been a Norman who had ordered him into battle, and had taken such unfriendly steps to ensure that he could not leave before hostilities commenced. William himself, however, was too hard to attack directly, and retribution was too certain were he to attempt anything against a man so heavily defended. There were other possibilities though; other people at which to lash out; and one in particular at whom he had already directed a well-crafted threat. He thought back to the paled face of Richard, William's lieutenant, during their fire lit discussion the previous night, and let revenge's bitter glow warm him now from within. There was other sport to be had on this battlefield, besides tormenting the weakened English. Better fights could be fought amongst those who were supposedly on his own side. If nothing else, the treachery gave matters added spice.
"Edward!" Stephen sailed past him, a dripping sword held high above his head. "How goes it?"
"Fine." Methos turned his horse away, intending to head for the places where the action was thickest. "I thought you didn't like battles?"
"It's a problem easily overcome." Stephen grinned at him, eyes shining with a roguish glint. "Once the battle starts, I can usually forget my worries and my inhibitions. Besides, it hardly looks as though there will be many of our own dead on the field today."
"Perhaps. Harold's men have great tenacity. Whether or not the outcome is certain, the battle is sure to be a long one." Another Englishman made a stab at Methos, and the Immortal cut him down without a thought. It seemed almost a shame to indulge in such killings when his sympathies were already deserting William's men, and were causing him to increasingly favour the English. Stephen clearly did not share his sentiment, for the physician had turned about to attack another knot of the enemy. Methos left him to it, guiding his horse towards the place where he had last seen Richard.
The Norman soldier was hard to track down, for he was a skilled fighter, and was moving about the field with a fluidity of movement that most men upon a crowded and chaotic battlefield could only aspire to. Methos, with his immeasurable years of experience, found such things now came to him with ease, but he was impressed to see the Norman at work. It seemed almost a shame to kill him, until he remembered how much he hated the man. Quite why he felt that way was not clear to his understanding; after all, it had been Richard who had untied him; Richard who had spoken up for him; Richard who had tried to make William treat him with more kindness. Perhaps that was why he hated him so much. Even though the days when he had so despised any act of mercy were now long behind him, still he found that he had a curious contempt for those who displayed it to any great degree. Mercy, guilt and generosity were three things that he did not think he would ever understand, or successfully embrace. The guilt that still flickered in his mind whenever he thought about Aelfric was enough to make him angry with himself for such a weakness; and to increase his distaste for anybody else who might experience such things.
The English were falling back. He saw it even as his hunt for Richard began to narrow down. So far had the enemy numbers been depleted that it was becoming increasingly obvious where the Norman soldier must be. Methos smiled his calculating smile once again, eyes fixed on a blur of colour visible through the English ranks. Richard, it seemed, had lost his horse. He had not let the setback slow him down however, and was laying about him with gusto, striking down more soldiers than the enemy seemed capable of replacing. Methos could almost imagine forming a fine alliance with a man so skilled, until he remembered their conversation during the night, and thought about how Richard had looked at him so scathingly; treated him as a nothing, or even worse. His hand tightened on his sword hilt. Richard was one of many who he thought deserved to die, but even an Immortal could not wipe out two entire armies alone. That meant choosing one to take the fall for all of the others; one person upon whom Methos could pile all of his recent frustrations. Besides, he thought, somewhat sulkily, the man had asked for it. It would almost be a shame not to kill him.
Stalking Richard was a game that seemed to have no end. From one end of the battlefield to the other he pursued the man, losing his horse, his helmet, and finding his cloak torn almost from his shoulders by Englishmen determined to drag him down. He pulled the cloak more tightly around him, determined not to lose it. Not only was it a cold day, warmed only by the furied knots of frenzied mortals, but the cloak served a dual purpose. William's determined plan to unite the English and the Welsh under his rule seemed to rest upon Methos making his presence known on the battlefield as a Welshman - but Methos was not a Welshman, and was determined not to fight under false colours. He didn't need some other country taking his glory. When Methos fought, he fought only as Methos. Therefore he made certain that the Welsh insignia was hidden beneath the cloak, smiling unkindly at the thoughts of William's plans going unfulfilled.
He came upon Richard by chance in the end, finding him at last beginning to struggle under the sudden weight of opposing odds. A huge Englishman, one of the most powerfully built soldiers still remaining on the field, had engaged him close to where King Harold had last been seen. Clearly Richard had been heading for the king, and had been cut off in his pursuit by one of the sovereign's loyal supporters. He fought hard against the display of superior strength, but it was all too obvious that he was being was being worn down. Methos watched for a while, unhampered by the crowds of men fighting around him, all of whom seemed to busy to bother striking out at the Immortal in their midst. Richard was fighting well, but hopelessly, and even though his allies were now most certainly in the majority on the field, none of them seemed to be in a position to come to his assistance. Methos shouldered his sword, and with sudden, grim speed, headed over towards the faltering Norman.
He reached the pair just as it seemed likely that Richard was to be lost. With a shout of triumph that seemed to be some popularly used battle cry, the Englishman raised his weapon above his head like a club, and brought it down towards the Norman with mighty force. Methos swung his own sword forward, severing the soldier's arm with a single slice. Arm and weapon fell to the ground as one, narrowly missing Richard. Instead of the steel blade, the Norman was struck with a spout of fresh blood, that hid his features almost immediately, and plastered his hair to his skull. He spluttered and coughed, but still managed to roll out of the way as the writhing body of his attacker crashed down upon him. Methos stabbed the unfortunate Englishman in the back, ending his misery, then turned his attention to the fallen Norman. They watched each other warily for a moment, Richard looking about him as though searching for any potential ally.
"Edward?" Spitting blood from his mouth, Richard struggled back up to his feet. He was still wiping his face, struggling to see through the curtain of his attacker's blood. "What's going on?"
"We're fighting a war, Richard." Methos pointed his sword at the still wary soldier. "We're on the same side, remember?"
"I remember. It was you that I thought had forgotten. You said..."
"Yes, I did." He almost smiled. Quite what instinct had been activated within him, causing him to save the life of a man that he had sworn to kill, he had no idea. It seemed that he was growing a whole new set of instincts these days; but something within him shied away from the suggestion that he might be cultivating an inclination to help others. Such a possibility was tantamount to heresy. Eager to dismiss the idea, he turned his back on Richard abruptly, whirling to deal with a man suddenly facing him from the right, then twisteing about to take down another man coming at him from the left. He found Richard just finishing him off instead, and froze in mid-swing. Their eyes met, and Richard flashed him a comradely smile.
"Just returning the favour, Edward." There was the note of friendship in his voice; the sound of past differences being put aside. Methos froze in his movements, his senses telling him that there were new assailants fast approaching, but his heart telling him to stay where he was and face off to Richard right away. He might not get another chance, for the English forces were now so depleted that the battle could not possibly drag on for much longer. There was a noticeable thinning of the action around them; increasingly they were being separated from the others, who seemed to be engaged just in rounding up survivors. Only a few people nearby were still doing any serious fighting, and if he left it much longer, it would be impossible to strike down Richard without every Norman on the battlefield knowing that he had done it. There had been altogether too much talk of beheading just recently for him to feel at all comfortable about what the repercussions might then turn out to be.
"Behind you Edward." Richard was staring towards the approaching soldiers. Three of them, Methos thought, judging by their footsteps. There was a mist rising now, which deadened sound and created odd audio hallucinations, but he knew the sounds well enough. Three men, wearing heavy boots. Average sized men by the sound of it, and moving at quite a pace.
"I know." He spoke very quietly, and saw a flicker in Richard's eyes. The Norman had at last remembered the threatened danger of the previous night. Methos smiled wickedly. "What? Do you doubt your abilities as a soldier all of a sudden?"
"There are English soldiers approaching, Edward." Richard was moving closer, but only, it seemed, so as to get into a better position to fight the men now coming their way. "They are the enemy. There is no reason why we should try to fight each other."
"No reason." Methos smiled lightly, turning as he did so to watch the men approach. He thought that he recognised one of them, and was a little alarmed to see that the fellow was carrying a Viking sword. He thought back for a brief moment, seeing Gered in his mind's eye; that very sword raised to strike off Methos' head, after the death of Gered's own son onboard the longship. So the Norwegian was dead. No surprise there then, not really. All the same, he felt an odd moment of remorse. Perhaps if he had handled things differently in the north, the Normans would not have won in the south. So far he had not failed once, in all of this, to uphold his usual skill of always backing the winner - and yet he had found himself not liking a single one of those winners. Maybe the Vikings had been the best choice all along. Maybe none of them deserved to win. Maybe he should just wipe the lot of them out, or play some ancient hand that would leave them all confounded. Weave his double-edged web, and leave nobody knowing who to trust. It might have been worth it, had he been able to summon the enthusiasm. He just didn't care about any of it anymore.
"Throw down your swords." He heard Richard's voice beside him, but he didn't really listen to it. He was thinking about Aelfric, sitting next to him on the bench in the longboat, risking the wrath of the oar master in order to chat nineteen to the dozen about his plans following his escape. Their anxious discussion of ideas, their dash for a freedom that had come only for one of them. He thought about Gered leading him on a suicide mission, where his rôle had been to betray Aelfric; and yet he had turned the tables on Gered only to betray Aelfric all over again, not to mention Harold, and Harald. And now here he was thinking longing thoughts of how he could best betray the whole lot of them. Somehow the idea of betrayal no longer swelled his heart, or made him laugh at the sport of it all. It almost upset him. He didn't want to have changed that much. Perhaps now was the time for one last bloodbath, before the change gathered pace, and finally succeeded in turning him into somebody else.
"I come to challenge the Norman who killed my brother." The first man, the leader of the threesome, was marked with sweat from the fighting, and seemed tense with nervous energy. His words were directed at Richard, although his colleagues showed no such narrow-mindedness. They seemed happy to leave Richard to their comrade, and determined to tackle Methos themselves. He glowered at them, but they showed no sign of being affected by his warning.
"Indeed?" Richard seemed interested in their proposal; excited almost. "And there was I thinking that the battle was all but over. Did you hear them Edward? They wish to challenge us."
"So it appears." Methos had considerably less enthusiasm. He had hacked his way through the battle, striking out at Englishmen and Normans indiscriminately, all so that he could challenge Richard to the battle he felt he needed; the battle that he hoped would clear the air, and make him feel in some small way avenged. This latest development did not help him. Nonetheless he moved aside, giving Richard room to move, and at the same time signalling to the two English soldiers that he accepted their challenge. They moved apart, ready to take their turns in order to keep the fight fair. He smiled at that, for it was a rare event indeed when he fought fairly himself. It often amused him to see others so eager to display the code of conduct that he had spurned long ago.
"So I killed your brother?" Richard sounded lofty, albeit still interested. "And who was your brother?"
"His name was Wolstan. This was his first battle." His challenger seemed amused. "Although I saw him give a good account of himself when he fought you. Perhaps the Normans aren't the great fighters they claim to be."
"Really? It doesn't seem to be the English who are winning here today." Richard raised an ironic eyebrow. "All the same, you've got a chance to prove that you're a better soldier than I am, at least. Put up your sword and we'll see which of us triumphs in the name of his king."
"Your king? William isn't king yet, and just as long as Harold lives he never will be." The Englishman tensed, ready to strike the first blow. "But no matter. Such trivialities don't prevent us from fighting each other. Are you ready?"
"I'm ready." They smiled at each other, almost as if they were friends. Methos scowled.
"Nobody ever asks me if I'm ready." He caught sight of one of his two challengers moving towards him, attempting to attack from an undefended angle, and whirled sharply about. "Naughty."
"Just fight, Norman." The soldier spat the words at him with such force that Methos did not bother telling him that he wasn't a Norman, and in fact had no loyalty to William's side at all. Instead he merely settled back into the rhythm of the fight. It was not easy fighting one man whilst keeping his eyes firmly fixed on another, but it was something that he had managed many times before. He only had to be sure that he kept his current opponent in one place, so that he could keep an unbroken watch over the second of his challengers, and be ready in case that man came to join the first.
They fought for some time; warm work, without a let up. The three Englishmen seemed better equipped, and better trained, than the others that Methos had fought that day. He tired quickly, never really the greatest of fighters, but his attacker was relentless, and nothing seemed to deter him. Only when an unexpected cry came from across the field; a voice raised in triumph from a long way away; did the little fight lose its steady rhythm. Methos listened with half an ear, aware that his opponent was listening more fully. It was a proclamation, issued by someone who spoke with a Norman accent. The mist cleared enough, briefly, to allow a passing vision of others also listening; then the murky clouds fell back into place, and Methos was alone again with his companions.
"Harold is dead." He heard the proclamation, but he didn't pay any attention to the words at first. They were merely sounds that meant nothing to him. "King Harold is dead. Long live King William."
"Harold dead?" The Englishman fighting Richard faltered, but the Norman soldier did not take advantage of his slip. Instead he fell back, apparently ready to end the skirmish.
"The battle is over," he announced imperiously, and somewhat redundantly. "If you men surrender now, I'll see to it that nothing happens to you or to your families. You'll find William an understanding ruler, when he has occasion to be."
"The battle over?" The man fighting Methos shook his head. "I don't believe it." All the same he took a step back, lowering his sword slightly. Richard offered him a placid smile that showed none of the viciousness of the fighting he had been a part of all day.
"You must believe it. All of England must believe it. William is your king now." He seemed relieved. "I almost didn't believe that I would live to see it. It seemed such an unlikely goal at first, but now..." He swung around to face Methos. "You see Edward? The day is ours. We won! Good work my friend." Whirling back around he addressed his former opponent with what appeared to be genuine amiability. "I'll see to it that the survivors are treated well. Do I have your sword?"
"Do I have a choice?" The Englishman looked across at his two confederates. "What do you think?"
"I think that the battle isn't over until I say so." Methos was still hefting his own weapon, apparently not considering giving up just yet. His blood was up, lifting back into a mindset where his frustrations and indignations had all come crashing back. "I still have scores to settle."
"Not if the war is over." Richard shot him a warning glance, then stepped forward to the Englishman who had so wanted to kill him. "Give me your sword, my friend. We'll end this here and now."
"But you're forgetting something," Methos told him, moving forward with a catlike grace. There was something predatory in his body and his voice, and the English noticed it even if Richard did not. "It wasn't my war. I wanted no part of it - not the ideology at any rate. You can't tell me when it's over. I'm not on your side, and I'm not on their side either. I'm a free agent, and Harold's death means nothing to me."
"Edward..." Richard was starting to turn, remembering as he did so the warning he had received the previous night, not to turn his back on the Welshman during the fight. He started to lift his sword, instinct kicking in before his mind had even begun to grasp the concept of betrayal. Methos was already standing beside him, a smile lighting his eyes from within.
"Just one last victim, before we call it a day?" He was still smiling, and Richard tried to twist away. Something was blocking his movements, but he couldn't yet see what it was.
"Why?" he asked, the first traces of fear showing behind the anger in his voice. Methos smiled at him, one eye looking away, fixed upon the three Englishmen spread out in a crescent-shaped wall several paces away.
"Because soon the battle will be over, and I won't get another chance. Because it's what I said I'd do, and therefore I feel obliged to do it. Because Gered is dead, and Aelfric probably is - or soon will be. Because Hadrada is dead, and Harold is dead, and William is sure to be a little difficult to get to. Because it's what I need for my peace of mind." He grinned broadly. "And because I think that circumstances have sent me back in time today. My body may be standing on your battlefield in England, but I think that my heart, for one day at least, is locked in my brother's fist two thousand years ago, in the mountains far east of here." He moved his face closer, and dropped his voice to little more than a menacing whisper. "Because I want to see how much I've changed."
"Traitor." Richard began to lift his sword, but found his arm unwilling to comply. His limbs felt strangely leaden. His side was aching too, and whatever it was that was preventing him from moving now seemed to be growing hotter. He tried to move in the other direction, and felt his side explode in sudden pain; and as he glanced down for the first time, he finally saw why it was that he was unable to move. Methos' sword was protruding from his side, the blade angled up slightly, as though to cause the greatest damage far inside him. He blinked.
"Surprise." Methos gave him a hard shove, and the sword sank further in. He gasped, the pain rising from a dull ache to a sharp burn. "What's wrong, Richard? No more speeches about Norman superiority? No more tirades claiming that I'm not the man I appear to be?"
"W-why?" The word grasped its way out of a dry and painful throat. Methos smiled and stepped back, pulling his sword free of the weakening body, and knocking the Norman to the ground with a single blow.
"I've already told you that, Richard. Because it's what I wanted to do. Because once it was all that I did. Because... hell. Just because I felt like it." He knew that he was already speaking to a dead man - reciting words to dead ears that cared nothing for what he said. He glanced up at the Englishmen instead; his only remaining audience now. His eyes were unnaturally bright, and his face was flushed with a manic tint, but he cared nothing for such things. He didn't care what the English soldiers were thinking, and neither did he care what he himself would think, when all of this was over and he had calmed down again. All that he wanted was to find some way of lessening the indignities he had been made to suffer since his capture by the Vikings some months earlier. He wanted to burst out of the cycle of guilt that his traitorous conscience had been making him suffer with, ever since Gered had accused him of being friends with Aelfric. Most importantly of all, he just wanted to stop thinking for a while, and let events take control of themselves. With this in mind he smiled disarmingly at the Englishmen, all of whom were now looking decidedly thrown. One of them moved towards him.
"I--" He looked back at his companions, then turned once again to Methos. "Does the amnesty still stand? Is our safety still guaranteed?"
"Was it ever?" Methos grinned at him, eyes sparking flame. Kronos would be proud of him, he told himself, although he doubted that he would be proud of himself in a few days time; not once the adrenalin had seeped away again, leaving him with his increasing desire for peace and seclusion. Maybe not, he thought offhandedly. Maybe he would just stick with things the way they were now. Maybe he would just go back to the old ways, and to hell with the years of growth and change. Maybe he was just going mad. Maybe that was why everything was circling around inside his head, when once no thoughts would have bothered him at all. He scowled at the Englishman before him, glaring deep into the young, confused eyes before him.
"No," he said finally, when he knew that there was no point in thinking about it further. He felt guilty, which was bizarre. Why should he feel guilty about killing Richard? Maybe he was just feeling bad about what he was planning to do to these three men - and yet that was even worse. Why should he feel guilty about three complete strangers? Guilt, it seemed, was about to become his greatest enemy. He decided that, if it was going to torment him any further, he was going to have to give himself a reason to feel it in the first place. He let his smile grow, and let his eyes harden. The young English soldier before him saw what was about to happen before Methos was really aware of it himself. He saw the realisation in the blue eyes; saw them widen; saw the thoughts and fears. He thought that he saw one final connection happen within the man's startled brain - the determination to retreat. He swung his sword. The soldier's head fell to the ground. His feet took that final step back. Methos glanced up.
"Sorry." He almost laughed as he said it; almost pulled back to increase his sport; then moved forward again with greater speed, dispatching the second Englishman with even greater fluency than the first. The second body collapsed, twitching faintly, the torso slit open along its full length. Methos let out a long breath. A lot of frustration and irritations were dying today. It felt good. Now if only he could get rid of the last one, by finally telling his mind to quit ruminating over Aelfric's probable fate.
"Norman bastard!" Rushing at him with a mighty swing of his sword, the one remaining Englishman let out a roar of rage that seemed to make the very ground tremble. Methos, taken by surprise, leaped aside, readying himself for this final confrontation. The man came towards him again, sword raised high above his head, and this time Methos dodged aside only just in the nick of time. His swift form missed the point of the weapon by the tiniest of margins, but there his luck gave out. Tripping on a swiftly outstretched foot, he lost his balance, almost falling to the ground; and was not quick enough in his recovery to avoid the fierce blow aimed at the back of his head. Fortunately the aim was awry, and instead of hitting his target with the deadly blade, the Englishman struck Methos with the hilt. Stars burst apart before the Immortal's eyes, and he almost collapsed. Catching himself at the last instant, he straightened, rallied, and whirled about. His sword sought its target even before he had been able to think about such things himself. He watched, almost as a detached onlooker, as the point of the weapon flew towards its target, striking home in the warrior's chest.
With a mighty cough the man went tumbling; collapsing upon his knees with his hands gripping madly at the hilt of his sword. Blood spouted between his fingers, and stained the coarse material of his shirt. Methos breathed a sigh of relief, wiping his own blood - and, it seemed, everyone else's, away from his eyes. It had begun to sting, weakening his vision and frustrating his attempts to widen his circle of view. He spat more of the stuff from his mouth, feeling its globular consistency as it dribbled down his chin. Damn it, but he hated battles. The iron-like taste of the blood on his lips and his tongue no longer tasted the way it had done once. It no longer made him feel alive. He smiled to himself, despite his thoughts. On the other hand of course... The smile became a little broader as he saw somebody else approaching him. One of the few survivors from the English side by the look of things, although he had been far from fussy about which side he fought against as the battle had lurched onwards to its natural end. He waited for the man to become visible through the mist, searching for more than just an outline. He thought that he heard a voice, although he could not hear any more than a faint buzz as yet. Too soon to hear the words, or even to properly hear the voice itself. The dull crashes of other fights deadened the other sounds around him.
"Edward." The mists were clearing, and Methos could see the fuzzy, silhouetted form of a man more clearly than before. He recognised the voice now too, without needing to know the face that still hid in the hazy clouds shrouding the body.
"Why Aelfric. You survived. How nice for you."
"But not for you." The man strolled closer, a large sword swinging clumsily at his side with every step. "I had hoped... I don't know what I had hoped, not really. I trusted you, but quite obviously that never meant anything. I suppose you were hoping that everybody would be killed, and that there would be no one left to know what kind of a traitor you are." He looked about, his oddly confused eyes scanning the foggy field. "So you were working for William of Normandy all along."
"Actually, no." Methos eyed the large sword, wondering where his own weapon was. He suspected that it was buried under the sizeable body of his last victim. "The Normandy lot press-ganged me in just the same way that the Vikings did - and just like the English seemed about to do."
"You volunteered your services to us." Aelfric sounded icy. Methos shrugged.
"If you want to put it that way, then yes I did. But if I hadn't, the Norwegians would have killed me. It's complicated... but I was only acting to save my life."
"And in the process you betrayed us and the Norwegians. Only Normandy wins in this, and who knows how many men have died in the process. You could have prevented it."
"No I couldn't. William of Normandy was always going to come here to fight. Harold sealed his own fate when he made a promise that he couldn't keep; and it was your lot and Hadrada who started the battle at Jorvik."
"But you made us all think that we could win it! If Hadrada had known the odds against him, he would never have fought; and then we wouldn't have been so weakened by an unnecessary battle. We would have been far less fatigued, and then maybe we might have stood a chance here today. Whichever way you look at it, Edward, this is your doing. All of it."
"Maybe it is." Methos shrugged lightly, his expression one of gentle but firm watchfulness. "I was a prisoner, Aelfric. First of the Vikings, then of the English. Oh your lot treated me well enough, but it was clear how they felt. I don't take too kindly to being treated like that, especially by people who want me to help them. It doesn't put me in the best frame of mind for being useful. Hadrada thought that I was dispensable; Gered treated me like a slave long after the chains were gone. If that hadn't been the case, I might not have betrayed them. But then you thought that I was dispensable too, didn't you. Harold wanted me to fight alongside him against the Vikings. I couldn't allow that. I wish to survive, Aelfric; and if there had been the slightest chance of pulling the same trick, and abandoning the Normans here today, I would have taken it, and left the whole lot of you behind."
"This is your country. We've been fighting these last few days to decide who is to be the king - who will rule the country where you and your family live. Does that not mean anything to you?" Aelfric sounded disbelieving; unable to comprehend a man who would not care for such vital issues. Methos offered him a sardonic smile.
"I have no family, Aelfric. I have no country. I certainly have no loyalties to kings and queens and ruling families. Why should I? You know, once upon a time I was the King of England." He smiled at the look of disbelief and contempt on the face of the other man. "It's true. This land was mine, four hundred years ago, and Harold was no successor to my throne. He didn't deserve it, and I won't mourn now that he has lost it. I have no allegiances, so I can't be a traitor. I have no country, so you can't say that I've betrayed my countrymen. I'm not a Welshman or an Englishman; and neither do I care about Normandy, and what happens to the Normans who intend to take over this place. Why should I? None of it matters to me."
"No, I suppose not. You've saved your own skin, and nothing else bothers you, does it." The English scholar raised his heavy sword, seemingly oblivious to the clumsiness of the movement. It was painfully apparent that he was less than skilled in such matters, and did not have the ability to make the next move. Nonetheless, he was determined to make it. "Well now it's time to see how you defend yourself against me. Let's find out if you can find a way to squirm out of this fate."
"Somehow I don't think that that's going to be difficult." Methos spoke without conceit; just simple, honest amusement. He smiled. "You can't kill me Aelfric. You'll never manage it. If you take one step towards me, the Norman archers will cut you down where you stand. I don't care for them, and they don't have my loyalty - but I have theirs. I helped to win this battle for them. I've got it made in the new England."
"Until the next threat comes along, and you betray every man on this whole island."
"Yeah." Methos nodded; a strange sort of nod that seemed to combine a careless shrug. "Until then."
"And you have no regrets? No conscience? No thoughts or feelings that what you've done here was perhaps not the best or the right thing to do?"
"Conscience?" Methos laughed. "I had a conscience once, my friend. It told me that some things were right, and some things were wrong. And then one day..." His voice slid down a notch, becoming a dramatic, theatrical whisper that was for Aelfric's ears alone. "And then one day some piece of worthless scum put a knife right into me. Right here." He banged himself on the chest. "And I died; painfully. In the desert, all alone, lying in the dust and the dark, where nobody would ever find me." He smiled; a brief twitch of his lips that made darkness shine brightly in his eyes. "And then I woke up. I opened my eyes, and I saw the world as it truly is, for the first time in my life. No illusions; no falsehoods inspired by a temporary life spent searching for meaning and answers. No half-understood myths or fables. Just the truth." He took a step forward, still empty-handed, with nothing to use as a defence against Aelfric's uncertain sword. The Englishman however, transfixed by the insane words, made no move to strike him down. "And then there was no more conscience, and there was no more guilt, and there was no more remorse. There was only me." He stopped short, and grinned. "It was the end of everything."
"A madman." Aelfric shook his head, angry and confused. "King Harold is dead. All of my friends are dead - because of a madman?"
"Not mad." Methos smiled again, this time with more humour than before, and with infinitely more menace. "Just immortal."
"Immortal." It was Aelfric's turn to laugh. "You're not immortal. You're no god, Edward, anymore than are the rest of us. You can die, and I intend to kill you. You have no weapons with which to defend yourself, and the Norman archers you speak of seem to me to be nowhere in sight. I intend to kill you, and scourge your presence. You don't deserve to live."
"Maybe not." Methos moved towards him, heedless of the sword. "But it's not for you to end this life for me. Not for you, not for the Vikings, not for the Normans... just as it wasn't written that the Greeks or the Romans or the Egyptians should do it. Just as the Mesopotamians had no choice but to let me live, and just as the Babylonians failed to end things for me. I walked amongst the Phoenicians and the Celts and the Gauls; I lived many lives under many different kings and emperors and generals. But not one of the people I passed along the way was able to kill me, Aelfric. Why should you be any different?"
"Determination? The certainty that you're nothing but a madman with an inflated opinion of himself?" Aelfric brandished his sword, but Methos reached out with scarcely a flinch, and seized the other man's wrist. The sword hung, stilled.
"Turn about Aelfric. Leave this place. I enjoyed your company once, and for that I'm prepared to let you live. Times change, my scholarly friend. A hundred years ago, or perhaps even less, I might have killed you for the insults you've thrown my way today. A thousand years ago I'd have cut you down before we had come anywhere near this far together. Times change though, and I'm feeling magnanimous right now. Leave, and I'll let you walk away unscathed."
"Killing me is the only way to save your own life, Edward." Aelfric had paled a little, but still he was clinging to the conviction that the man confronting him was mad and delusional. He could not believe that the stories of immortality were true. The firm belief gave him added strength. "I will not let you leave this battlefield alive."
"Then kill me." Using his superior strength to force the other man's hand, Methos pulled the opposing weapon until its wicked point touched his chest. "One thrust, Aelfric. Can you do it?"
"I've killed others here today. Why not you?" The white-knuckled hand hesitated nonetheless. Methos smiled.
"Why not me indeed. Just try it, my friend. Then you'll see why not me." He pulled hard, and the sword point cut a neat hole through his clothing. He could feel the cold metal now, pressed against his skin, and fancied that a single drop of blood was rolling down his chest. Strong instincts for self-preservation begged him to pull back, but the stronger, more stubborn streak bade him keep his position. He smiled his mocking, threatening smile, and let his mad green eyes bore deeply into Aelfric's mind. "Come on, friend Aelfric. Be a hero. Make King Harold proud."
"You hurt him." Aelfric's own eyes flickered, confused and distressed. "He trusted you, but you left him. We looked out for you in the ranks of the Norwegians, but you weren't there. We wondered at any number of fates that might have befallen you."
"I ran away." He shrugged, emphasising the little meaning that such an event had for him. "But I ran into a slight difficulty when I tried to find a way to leave the country. The Normans. They were rather loath to give me up."
"It seems that you're a popular man when battles are to be fought."
"Indeed. Some say that I'm lucky, and that I bring luck to those who have me on their side. And then there are others..."
"Who say what exactly?"
"Ah well." He fingered the sharp edge of the sword blade. "That would be telling now, wouldn't it." Shapes in the mists made him frown, and he pulled back slightly. Aelfric interpreted the movement as a partial surrender, and the sword wavered in his uncertain hands.
"Conscience all of a sudden, Edward?"
"Hardly." Methos nodded towards the indistinct shapes now approaching. "The Normans, checking for survivors. I don't think that they're cold-blooded killers, but it mightn't be advisable to let them know that you're still alive."
"Looking out for me Edward?"
"Warning you. We were shipmates once, of sorts. Take my advice and leave now, Englishman. I don't often try to save a life, so take the gesture as a compliment and go."
"It's no compliment when the devil tries to save you. He's only waiting until such time as he can better use you to his own ends." The sword lifted again. "I don't need your help, Edward."
"Aelfric, listen to me. If they see you standing against me, they'll kill you. Believe it or not, ever since I left Harold to head south, I've been wondering what had happened to you. I hate to admit that I care, but it rather seems that I do. For pity's sake..."
"You've been worrying about me?" Aelfric seemed to find this intensely amusing. "To what end, 'shipmate'? Don't try to make me believe any more of your lies, Edward. I'm no longer in the mood."
"What? Give up my sword? The sword that I took from Harold himself? All that remains of the king of England - give it up to a bunch of invading Normans on your say so, just to save my life? And to save it for what? Why should I want to live as William's prisoner? To write down the defeat of my king for his annals, just as Harold himself once made me write for him? I don't think so."
"If not for--"
"No." There was steel in Aelfric's voice and eyes - a steel that had not been there before, at least as far as Methos had noticed. He remembered the bumbling nature of the Englishman's escape from the longship, and the way that he had stumbled and stuttered his way through the surf as he had dashed for safety. There was not a hint of that side of his character now, as he lifted the sword again, and placed it against Methos' chest, just as the Immortal had placed it himself a few moments before, as a challenge. "Enough Edward. Your lies, your betrayals - enough. It's time to silence that mouth of yours forever."
"Even though you'll be killing yourself?" The figures in the mist were moving from body to body now, searching out their own kind from within the anonymous dead. There were few enough Normans lying amidst the English casualties, and the search was not taking as long as it might. Soon the prowling figures would be close enough to wonder what was going on - to see Aelfric, and recognise him for an Englishman - to wonder what he was doing holding a Norman ally at sword point. They would kill Aelfric then, and the realisation that he cared; the realisation that he honestly didn't want the little man to die, cut through the Immortal's ancient heart like the sword thrust that so surely awaited it now.
"Even then." The sword bit closer to the thin chest of the ancient immortal warrior. "My apologies. I had hoped once to be your friend."
"It's not too late."
"Is it not?" A sardonic smile lifted the corners of Aelfric's mouth, though not enough to lighten his eyes. "Think again."
"I--" He broke off, for even as he was taking a step back to avoid the approaching thrust, he felt the sword blade enter his body. He choked on the words that had been about to come. Pain surged through every vein; a dull, aching kind of pain that spoke of mortality even to an Immortal. He felt his knees begin to fail him.
"Sorry to deny you your last words Edward, but I feel sure that they would only have been more lies." The sounds echoed above him, recognisably Aelfric's voice, but now sounding barely human. Methos tried to look up, but he was falling to the ground, and he did not seem able to right himself. His hands gripped the sword blade that was now slick with his own blood.
"Run." He gasped the words with the last air that seemed likely to fill his lungs. Aelfric stared down at him; but instead of the pity, or the compassion that Methos had come to expect from those gentle eyes, he saw only a cold hard-heartedness that suggested he had never really known the scholar at all. His heart seemed to skip what few beats remained to it. Aelfric smiled.
"Welsh." The word was spoken as an insult. "You lied to me when you said that you were a Wessex man. You're nothing but a Welshman. A slave. Well now you're getting what you deserve."
"Welsh?" Methos was not sure if his questioning voice was audible, but the inquiry was unnecessary. Even as he asked it he remembered the insignia that William had insisted he wear. It had been beneath what remained of his cloak, but must have become visible as he collapsed to the ground. So now Aelfric had seen it, and assumed him to be Welsh. Was this really the contempt a supposedly gentle man could have for a fellow island dweller? Footsteps echoed in the grass that was now so close to his ear, and he sensed rather than saw Aelfric turn. Stephen's voice sounded far away; coming from so close and yet already fading.
"Edward?" There was the concern of a healer in his tones, although it meant little now. Had Methos been mortal there would have been nothing that a physician could have done for him, and not knowing that he was not mortal, Stephen would not have been about to try. Other feet thumped against the ground. There was the sound of a scuffle. Methos tried to lift his head to ascertain Aelfric's fate, but it proved impossible. It didn't matter. He already knew what that fate had to be. He heard a gasp of pain that could only have been the Englishman's, and then felt a heavy weight fall across his legs. Something warm and wet soaked through his trousers, and he smelt the metallic scent of somebody else's blood mixing with his own.
"Edward?" Stephen's voice again. he tried to answer, but the words wouldn't come. Gentle sounds were easing him into silence, but he ignored them. Focussing all that he had, he stared up into the gathering darkness, through which, just vaguely, he could see the outlines of the Norman medic's face.
"Aelfric?" he gasped, breathless and anxious. "The Englishman...?"
"Dead." There was a grim note to Stephen's voice that suggested the physician himself had dealt the fatal blow. Methos nodded. He could no longer feel the guilt that had plagued him since the moment when he had first turned against his fellow slave, after agreeing to help the Norwegians. He was free of it, and that was good. Now he'd be damned if he'd ever feel it again.
"Good." The word was his death knell, and he heard it gladly. "He bloody deserved it."
He awoke when the day was old, and much of the field was clear. The human vultures who gathered at the edges of battlefields had stripped him of his cloak and boots, but his sword was still safe, still buried in the chest of his final victim. He tugged it free, after much struggling, and headed for the edge of the field. There were a few people camped there, but none that were likely to recognise him. He ignored them, just as they ignored him. Theirs was a grim task, to steal from the dead, and they were not the kind to indulge in hearty greeting. He passed them by, wandering out into the world beyond the light of their campfires. Stars were beginning to speckle the sky above him. He wondered where the Normans were, and why they had taken their own dead, and yet in the end had left him behind. What had he been to them, after everything? Probably just a Welshman, just as he had been to Aelfric. He scowled up at the darkening skies. Didn't anybody recognise his true worth? Wasn't there anybody in this grim and heartless world who could look Methos in the eye, and recognise the power of his being; the ancient powers of his soul; the true majesty of his very existence? He was through with being a pawn; a slave; a nobody. He wanted to be something more.
"Kronos." It was a stupid question of course. Naturally there was one man who knew him; who knew what he was capable of, and what great history he possessed. One man in all of the world who could always make him feel special; could always make him feel like a true king - and a greater and more powerful king than Harald, or Harold, or William could ever aspire to be. He nodded to himself. Yes - it was time to seek out his brother. Time to be someone again. Time to remember who he really was, and perhaps to end forever the changes that threatened to leave his Horseman past too far behind him.
"Not a slave." He announced it to the skies, and to the uninterested scavengers lining the battlefield. "And not answerable to mortal kings. Not anymore." He ran his hand down his sword, and watched his own blood colour the blade. Droplets sprang through the air, catching the last reddening light of the dying sun. "And my name is no longer Edward." He thrust the sword into his belt and headed off in search of the nearest horse. "My name is Death."
1066 - Battle Of Hastings, last conquest of Britain et al... William the Conqueror, Bayeux Tapestry, yadda yadda yadda. The Battle Of Stamford Bridge (Harold v Harald) took place in late October, and the Battle Of Hastings (Harold v William) in mid-November. Possibly less well known are the whereabouts of Kronos during this year, which is rather odd given his usual propensity for turning up during the more bloody parts of history.
Anyway... In 1066 England was extremely prosperous, making it a target for a variety of would-be invaders. The details of Harold's so-called promise to William are uncertain, but certainly there were plenty of reasons why William should have been so anxious to have the throne of a country like England. It was certainly worth a lot to him in fiscal terms. I have no idea whether or not he was interested in getting the help of the Welsh though, and he certainly made no attempt to ease tensions between the two countries. At this time the Welsh (or Waelsh as they apparently were then) were considered by the English to be the lowest of the low. Waelsh was just another word for slave, and raiding parties routinely went over the border to round up stray Welshmen and their families for forced labour in England.
As usual I make no apologies for the modern English speech (I don't speak Saxon, and even if I did I doubt that my spellcheck would agree to go along with it). Suffice to say that in 1066 the English, Norwegians and Normans would probably have had no real difficulty in understanding each other. Only a very few words seem to have differed to any great extent. Neither do I make any apologies for any confusion resulting in the similarity between the name of King Harold and that of King Harald. It wasn't my idea.
The Edward referred to as Harold's predecessor is of course Edward the Confessor, famed largely for refusing to go to bed with his wife, and for praying a lot. His was one of the most successful and profitable reigns in years, coming hot on the heels of a string of similarly successful rulers (all of Viking origin as it happens). Jorvik (or Eboracum) is York of course. There. Never let it be said that the Internet isn't informative. On the other hand, I might have made all that lot up, in which case it's not terribly informative at all.
Oh yes. I should probably point out that Viking ships were almost certainly rowed by freemen sitting on deck, not by slaves sitting below decks - but that didn't fit in with the story. So, er... maybe these particular boats had been borrowed from somebody else. :)