PART ONE - THE FIRST BATTLE
It was the beginning of the fifth century AD, and on a bright and clear spring morning, two men rode south, enjoying the silent companionship of a long journey which was nearing its conclusion. The two men had the appearance of youth, but both had experience enough to know that appearances could be deceiving. Neither man seemed to be much more than thirty years old, and yet their names had been famous two thousand years previously, when they had ridden together across Europe. They were legends of an oddly anonymous kind; famed for the accomplishment of deeds which would never be connected to them. Who, after all, would think it possible that any man could be responsible for events which spanned millennia?
"At last the weather is improving." One of the men, wiry and dark, and possessed of a certain lofty self-assurance, broke the long silence. "I was beginning to think it would always be winter."
"It's not so bad." His companion, a taller man of slight build, smiled at the blue skies. "It could be a lot worse."
"It has been. We should never have left the Mediterranean, Methos." The second man gave him a wry smile.
"Oh now that would be sensible, wouldn't it Kronos. Two thousand years living in the same city? I can't say that I would recommend it."
The first man grinned. "People might suspect something," he said haughtily, "but they wouldn't dare to say anything." His friend rolled his eyes.
"You would say that. Anyway, we had to leave Europe. After that affair with Leon..."
"I know." The two had become involved in a centuries old argument between rival Immortals; two men who had fallen in love with the same woman nearly three hundred years previously. The outcome had been that Leon, one half of the warring duo, had beheaded his enemy, and the resulting Quickening had been visible for some considerable distance. Leon had been imprisoned for witchcraft, and rather than leave him to the warped justice of the mortals, Methos and Kronos had rescued him. Denounced as accomplices of an evil spirit, they had had no choice but to get as far away from their accusers as was possible, and had finished up in Britain. Life was surprisingly good on the isolated island, and it was not hard for two men of considerable intelligence and skill to make a living.
"Then don't complain." Methos smiled. "We could have ended up much further north. How do you fancy Scandinavia?" He received a scathing look in reply.
"Not a great deal. I never saw the attraction of snow."
"That's because you have no soul. You should try to find the romantic hidden within you." Methos almost laughed at the image of Kronos becoming romantic. The younger Immortal glared at him.
"I don't have a romantic hidden inside," he said gruffly. "If I thought there was one I'd behead him... And I'll behead you too if you don't shut up." Methos smirked.
"Temper temper. Anyway, look sharp. We're getting near to civilisation."
Up ahead, the imposing walls of a Saxon fortress rose into view, the towers staring out across the countryside with a curious mixture of dignity and threat. The two Immortals were immediately on their guard. There could only be talk of Britain now, and Methos and Kronos must be forgotten. As they approached, a sentry called down to them.
"Who goes there?"
"Two travellers, looking for shelter," Methos called back. "We've been riding for days." A face looked over the battlements, staring down at them suspiciously.
"You'll have to surrender your swords on entry," the face told them.
"Like hell we-" Kronos began, but Methos silenced him quickly.
"Take it easy," he whispered, then raised his voice again, for the benefit of the sentry. "Certainly," he said obligingly. "Now will you let us in?" The face disappeared, and a few moments later the heavy wooden doors swung open. The ancient pair rode through, on guard, as always in a new place, for the presence of other Immortals. Four sentries approached them.
"Your swords please," one said, his voice courteous, but demanding nonetheless. With a certain amount of unease, Methos drew his sword and handed it over. Kronos, glowering but silent, did likewise.
"I hope you know what you're doing brother," he hissed. Methos smiled reassuringly and dismounted.
"We want to speak to whoever is in charge," he said brightly. "We have services to offer."
"Services?" The lead sentry seemed amused. "And what could two travellers possibly have that would interest us?" Methos shrugged, trying to keep the atmosphere light.
"Our swords, our minds - many things." He was keeping his tone even and friendly, aware that the sentry was deliberately goading him. Now that he had handed over his sword he would make an easy target, and he was more than aware of this fact. So, however, was the sentry.
"Many things? Suppose you give us a demonstration?" One of the other guards, obviously wanting to join in the fun, smiled mockingly. "What is it that you do exactly?
Kronos moved before Methos could stop him. He sauntered forward, his movements easy, then suddenly grabbed the guard by the front of his tunic, lifting him almost off the ground. The guard found himself looking deep into a pair of penetrating blue eyes, lit by an insane light.
"We do many things," Kronos told him, his voice almost friendly. "We're magicians. Very powerful magicians. I could kill you right now, and nobody would ever know how I'd done it." He smiled broadly, and his eyes glittered. "Shall I show you?"
"No - no." The fear in the guard's eyes was obvious, but he was too scared to try to break away. "Please - I have children." Kronos glanced back at Methos, his expression one of deep amusement.
"What do you say brother? Should I let him go?" He turned back to the guard again, his tone becoming menacing. "Or shall I kill him?"
"Let him go." Methos tried to keep the exasperation from his voice. There were times when his companion's theatrical flare could be a little irritating. Kronos pushed the guard away, taking on a nonchalant air as he returned to Methos' side. The other sentries edged closer to each other, their eyes showing their fear and suspicion. No one spoke, the tension of the moment growing almost audible in the silence. Only Kronos seemed unbothered by it, his smile not affected in the slightest.
"What's going on here?" A sharp voice came from a few yards away, and Methos glanced back. A tall man, with obvious authority, had come from one of the outbuildings. He wore a long green cloak, and stood with his hand on the hilt of a large and impressive sword.
"My lord Uther-" The guard that had been singled out by Kronos stood to a shaky attention. "These people are travellers. They came to offer their services to you."
"They did?" Uther, a chestnut haired man with a bushy beard and piercing blue eyes, came forward, and looked his visitors up and down. He had evidently witnessed everything, and seemed amused. His gaze flickered form Methos to Kronos and back again, and the amusement sobered as he looked into their eyes. There was something there that he did not fully understand. "And what makes them think that I want the services of two... magicians?"
Methos smiled, although he made no attempt to deny Kronos' claim to magical abilities. "Everybody knows of the troubles growing on your borders," he said, meeting Uther's gaze and holding it. "We offer you two more swords. My friend's alone is worth ten others."
"Is that so?" Uther glanced back to Kronos. The blue eyes that stared back into his were unnerving in their measured defiance, but no more so than Methos' polite and calculating ones. "Supposing I suggest some sort of test. If I like the way you handle yourselves, I'll take you on."
Methos raised his eyebrows. He liked Uther, with his gentle mockery and steady eyes, but this wasn't exactly what he had had in mind. "A test?" he asked. "I suppose that would be alright. What did you have in mind?" Uther smiled at him.
"Follow me." They walked through the fort, down the muddy tracks which led between the buildings. Towards the centre of the settlement a raised dais stood proudly. It was clean, in contrast to the dirty buildings which surrounded it. Uther led the way up the steps, and gestured at the centrepiece of the display. A large stone, roughly hewn from some quarry of bluestone, had been placed on the dais, and protruding from its side was the hilt of a large sword, the blade deeply embedded into the rock. The Saxon lord stood to one side.
"There you are," he said, his deep voice displaying just a hint of amusement. "Pull the sword from the stone. If you can do it, we'll talk."
"And if we can't?" Methos asked. Uther laughed.
"Then we'll talk about the penalty for attacking one of my sentries."
"I haven't decided yet." He smiled. "People have been trying for decades to draw out this sword, and no one has succeeded. Why don't you see if you can do any better?" Methos regarded him in silence for a second, then flicked his gaze over to the stone. He nodded.
"Alright." He took a deep breath and walked to the stone, rubbing his palms together to try and secure a better grip. Slowly he closed his hands around the hilt, feeling the cold metal, tensing his arms in readiness for the strain he was about to put upon them. He set his feet, and pulled. Behind him he heard a soft laugh, but was unsure if it came from Uther or one of the sentries. They were expecting him to fail, and it hurt his pride. He pulled harder. Slowly, the accumulated power of three and a half thousand years flowed into his arms, and with a last, determined effort, he stepped back. With a squeal of protest, the sword slid free, and he raised it into the air, his face triumphant. The blade shone in the sunlight, sending rays of diamond studded splendour radiating out across the courtyard. He lowered the sword and grinned at Uther, a certain smugness visible on his face. Uther stared at him, his expression one of complete disbelief.
"By the Earth Mother..." he gasped. "No one - no one can pull that sword free. I've seen men the size of Hercules try and fail." Methos swung the sword in an arc, feeling the weight of the blade. It was an impressive weapon, although in truth he preferred his own. Uther still seemed to be in shock. "The legends say that whoever draws out that blade is the rightful king." Slowly he lowered himself onto one knee. "My lord - tell me your name."
"My name?" Methos had not yet had the time to decide on an alias, but he had to tell Uther something. "My name is... Arthur."
"Arthur." Uther stood up, gripping Methos by the shoulders. "My lord Arthur. Forgive me for my words earlier. I - had no idea that you would turn out to be so important."
"No." Methos was feeling more than a little confused by this sudden turn of events. "Neither did I. Uther, I'm not a king." The Saxon smiled at him, his expression suddenly like that of a proud father.
"You weren't a king when you came here my lord, but you can't deny the words of a legend. You're a king now. Do you have a second name?"
"A second name? I'm - just Arthur." Methos reviewed the other names he had used during his lifetime, but they were Greek, or Babylonian for the most part, and would hardly be suitable.
"Then let me offer you my own name sire. Pendragon is as good a name as any."
"Pendragon?" Methos turned it over in his mind, liking the sound. "Arthur Pendragon. I like it." A thought struck him. "Uther - could I ask a favour?"
"Of course." The expression on Uther's face suggested that he would have granted Methos anything in the world.
"Our swords were taken from us when we came in. Can we have them back?" He had barely finished asking before a sentry brought the weapons forward. He handed one to Methos, and one to Kronos, who took it with enthusiasm, swinging it in his hands before he sheathed it.
"What now Arthur?" he asked. If these people were willing to accept Methos as their king it seemed sensible to make the most of the situation. The ancient man shrugged.
"We came here to fight," he said, his voice displaying his still present confusion. "There's no reason to leave now." He turned to Uther again. "My companion and I are tired," he said. "We've been travelling for days. I'd be obliged if you could give us somewhere to sleep."
"Of course." Uther began to lead the way down the steps. "Follow me my lord." He frowned. "May I ask the name of your companion?" Methos glanced back at Kronos, his mind working fast.
"Merlin," he said, unsure exactly where the name had come from. He hid a smile. "He's my magician." Uther looked interested, but said nothing. Instead he led them to one of the buildings, throwing open the door and gesturing inside.
"Here," he said. "It's not much, but there are beds, and I'll have someone bring you something to eat."
"Thankyou." Methos waited until Uther had gone, then shut the door, before he threw himself onto one of the beds. "What a day."
"From beggar to king in the blink of an eye." Kronos sat down. "Not that I'm questioning your judgement your majesty, but next time can I choose my own name? mean - Merlin? Where did that one spring from?"
"I don't know." Methos laughed. "But it suits you. How does it feel to be the king's magician? After all, you can't blame that one on me. You started it."
"Yes, alright." Kronos, lay down and stared at the ceiling. "Still, this does have possibilities. A warrior king who can't die. I rather think that we have a home here for a long as we want it."
"Mmm." Methos sounded sleepy. "Haven't I always told you that you'll do alright if you stay with me?"
"Huh. In case it had escaped your attention, Arthur, I'm not here for kings or magicians. I'm here to fight."
"You'll get your chance. These Saxon warlords are always fighting each other. It's been this way since the Romans left. I'll be surprised if we don't get somebody here within a month or two trying to take this land."
"Good." Kronos yawned. "We can't let them take it away from you when you've only just got it."
"That's reassuring." Methos smiled to himself. Events had taken a surprising turn, but as always he felt capable of handling the situation. So he was to be a king - well that was a part he could play without too much difficulty. It might even be fun. He let himself relax, and turned his thoughts to sleep.
The days turned into weeks, and Methos and Kronos settled quickly into their new lives. For Methos it was easy to display the wisdom expected of a good king. He had not been idle during his long lifetime, and had accumulated considerable resources of knowledge. With his eyes which suggested at experience well beyond his apparent years, it was not hard to appear regal. Meanwhile Kronos had soon won the respect of the sentries. His daily practice with his sword had gained him a fearsome reputation. Similarly, his mysterious eyes and tendency to moody silence did nothing to dispel the fear which the inhabitants of the fort already had for him. The king's magician was a secret and formidable man. It amused Methos to see how much Kronos enjoyed cultivating this image. He liked people to be afraid of him, but the fear was hardly misplaced. Under different circumstances, Methos felt that he might almost be afraid of Kronos himself.
In the early light of one new morning, a little over a month since their arrival, Methos and Kronos took advantage of a lack of spectators to spar together. Their swords clashed repeatedly, and the air filled with sparks of light and fire. Both men loved the sound of meeting blades; it was a noise that was a part of them. Any Immortal rested the security of his existence in the power of his sword, and the sheer exhilaration of a fight became one with their life force. The two ancient Immortals fighting together in the courtyard of the Saxon castle were no different. Each pass with the sword seemed to cause a new burst of adrenalin to flash through their veins. The exhilaration was intoxicating.
With a triumphant swing, Kronos knocked Methos' sword from his hand, and watched it spin across the courtyard. He raised his own sword to Methos' neck, and grinned at him.
"Too easy Arthur. You're slacking."
"Show off." Methos changed his voice to one of desperation. "Don't do it. Please, don't behead me. I couldn't live with the shame." Kronos lowered his sword and went to retrieve the other one. He checked its blade for damage with an expert eye, and was turning back to Methos when he felt a buzz of energy shoot through him. His eyes met with his companion's, and he quickly threw Methos his sword. They ran to the fortress gates. On the walls, a sentry was talking to someone. The disembodied voice which came from the other side of the gates was impatient, with a note of superiority. The two Immortals exchanged glances. If they had detected this visitor, he must have detected them, although his voice had not displayed any change in emotion. The sentry glanced down at them.
"My lord Arthur," he said, surprised to see his king, and the king's magician, arriving dishevelled and slightly muddy. "Lord Mordred is outside. Shall I grant him entry?"
Methos frowned. He could only feel the presence of one Immortal, and this Mordred would not want to cause trouble in the midst of a fort. He nodded, and the gates eased open. A second later a man rode through. He was tall, with a neatly clipped black beard, and he looked to be in his mid forties. He stared down at Methos and Kronos, looking from one to the other before he dismounted.
"King Arthur?" he asked. Methos stepped forward.
"I'm Arthur," he said, speaking evenly. There was something about Mordred that he disliked. The man held himself with a little too much superiority, and his eyes suggested insanity, or perhaps something more serious. There was something almost familiar about them, and the thought almost made Methos shiver. He had seen that insane gleam in the eyes of Kronos, although it was usually just in play. Somehow he got the feeling that Mordred was exactly what Kronos could have been if he had not joined up with Methos; and what he could still become if he ever lost his self control and went back to the old ways.
"Good." Mordred smiled. "Then I've found my man. I want to talk to you Arthur."
"Alright." Methos led the way to his living quarters. Behind him, Kronos kept close to Mordred, his sword still in his hand. The threat was obvious, but Mordred was apparently unconcerned, if anything slightly amused by the situation. Once inside the building, with the door shut, he turned to his hosts.
"So, where have you two come from then?"
"Never you mind." Methos gestured at Kronos to sheath his sword, and then sat down. "What do you want?"
"What do you think?" Mordred pulled off his gloves and sat down on the edge of a table. "I want this. All of it. This fort is the gateway to the whole of southern England. It's my intention to take the whole country, and this is as sensible a place to start as any."
Methos raised his eyebrows. Unifying the country was an idea which had struck him before. He had seen it united under Rome, and part of him still remained loyal to the Roman Empire. He did not intend seeing the country pulled together under the hand of this man, however. Mordred was not a man that he was willing to concede to.
"I'm sorry," he said., "but I don't feel inclined to let you get a hold of this place. If you want it, you'll have to take it."
"Oh I intend to. I hardly expected to find you that easy to persuade." Mordred smiled at him. "I have to admit, though, that I wasn't expecting the pair of you to be Immortals. It does alter my plans somewhat."
"We apologise for the inconvenience." Kronos spoke from the door, where he stood - a looming presence intended to intimidate. Mordred glanced over at him.
"Oh it's no inconvenience," he said. "It just calls for a rethink. This place will be mine."
"Will it?" Methos stood up. "You'd better leave Mordred. You've delivered your challenge, and now there's nothing else to say." Mordred also got to his feet.
"I haven't delivered any challenge," he said. "I have no intention of taking your heads. That would be far too easy. I enjoy a little mental stimulation."
"So do I." Methos stared into Mordred's eyes. "And I usually win. If you want to raise forces against us, we'll be ready for you."
"Good." Mordred walked briskly to the door. It was still blocked by Kronos, who showed no sign of moving. Mordred glanced back at Methos questioningly, and the old Immortal gestured to his friend. Kronos moved aside, opening the door as he did so with ironic civility. Mordred smiled at him as he left the room. "Although I have to say," he called back. "I don't restrict myself to the battlefield. I have many ways of getting what I want." The door swung shut behind him, and Kronos looked to Methos.
"What do you think?" he asked. Methos made a face, obviously thinking hard.
"I don't know." He smiled suddenly. "But we did want a fight. Come on." He led the way out of the room. Mordred, having mounted his horse, was already heading for the gates. Sensing them, he turned, and raised his arm in a Roman salute. Both Immortals watched him go, experiencing the confusion of indecision. Mordred was a serious concern, but the prospect of an interesting challenge was not entirely unwelcome. As the other Immortal rode through the gates, they heard footsteps. Uther was approaching. He watched Mordred depart, then frowned.
"What did friend Mordred want?" he asked, his voice displaying the distrust he felt for the visitor.
"You know him?" Methos turned in surprise.
"Oh yes. Mordred has been gathering support on our borders for some months. He wants this fort, and our lands, and he's hardly bothered to make a secret of it. What did he have to say?"
"No more than you've just said." Methos was thinking again. "I think he just wanted to introduce himself. You say he has lots of support?"
"A fair amount. Enough to cause us some concern." Uther looked at Methos appraisingly, as if judging whether or not he should speak further. "My lord..."
"The legends say that whoever draws out the sword is the rightful king of England. Of all of Britain perhaps. Do you intend to fulfil that destiny?"
"Reunite the country you mean? As it was under Rome?" Methos smiled. "It had crossed my mind Uther. I still consider myself to be a Roman citizen."
"Good. Then we can't allow Mordred to defeat us." Uther seemed to stand taller. "May I make a suggestion sire?"
"Nearby here there's a warlord by the name of Ancelus. He has many knights in his service. He'd be a valuable ally and I would recommend that you speak to him. He has heard of your arrival, and I can assure you that he has no love for Mordred. He might well be persuaded to join his forces with ours."
"And what exactly are our forces?" Kronos asked, his voice a little sarcastic. Uther liked to talk of his position, and he acted the part of a powerful man, but he seemed to have little to back it up. The Saxon smiled at him.
"They're dependable," he said. "This castle isn't big enough to house that many knights Merlin. Most of my - of our - allies are landowners in their own right, with small followings sworn to our support. You'll meet with them soon enough."
Methos had watched this exchange silently, and now he spoke up, a slight frown on his forehead. "Ancelus you say?" How long will it take us to get to his castle?" Uther smiled, a hint of apology around his eyes.
"Well... I sent a rider there several days ago, suggesting that he might like to come here. I've been expecting a visit from Mordred. Ancelus should be here within a day; by tonight probably."
"Tonight." Methos nodded. "Alright, we'll play it your way; alliances. I see no reason to hand England to Mordred on a plate. But I'll only make deals with people that I like, and feel that I can trust. I know that you don't know much about us Uther, but Merlin and I have our own ways of doing things, and anybody we work with is going to have to accept that."
"They will." Uther looked at him with a new shine of determination in his eyes. He had already taken on the appearance of a soldier. "Anybody who joins with us will be more than prepared to take the word of the rightful king of England. These are dark days, sire, but a good many of us still hold to the old ways. Rome has left us, but that's no reason for us to abandon its path. We can unite England again."
Methos nodded. It felt good to have an aim; a true goal on which to set his sights. A battle was fun, exhilarating, and a valuable test of his expertise and cunning, but when he knew that he was fighting for something specific, it took on a new dimension, and became more than just a game. For the first time in many years Methos felt real purpose and inspiration in his life. These people were really counting on him; they really believed in him. He himself had no reason to disbelieve ancient oracles. Maybe he was the rightful king of England. If Uther believed it then who was he to argue? He smiled, and a new resolve burned in his eyes. It was time to begin to fulfil the prophesy.
The evening was just beginning to darken the light of day when Methos and Kronos, reminiscing together in their quarters, were hailed by a sentry. They hurried outside. A train of horses paraded through the gates, led by a man who could only be Ancelus. He was dressed in a tunic of material similar to that worn by Uther - finer than those worn by the guards - and he was wrapped in a long cloak. At his side rode a boy of about fifteen, and a woman, probably in her mid twenties. She had long blonde hair, and carried herself with obvious pride. Methos stared up at her, and she turned bright green eyes towards him. A delicate shiver ran though his spine. She was beautiful, and he could barely take his eyes from her. She smiled at him, and he smiled back mechanically. Kronos noticed.
"Not again," he murmured, under his breath.
"What?" Methos asked, not looking at him.
"You're in love again."
"I am not," Methos lied. There were times when Kronos infuriated him.
"I know you too well brother." Kronos smirked. It wasn't that Methos fell in love easily, it was just that when it happened, it happened completely. "That's just what I need: a moonstruck monarch."
"You'll be a mortally struck magician if you don't shut up." Kronos gave him a sidelong glance.
"Arthur!" Uther strode over towards them. "Sire - let me present our guests."
"Of course." Arthur turned to the dismounting visitors, and Uther indicated the lead man.
"This is Ancelus, my lord. Ancelus, may I present Arthur, our king, and his... assistant, Merlin."
"My lord." Ancelus shook Methos' hand firmly, and nodded at Kronos. He indicated the boy beside him. "This is my son, Lancelot." The boy - a tall and strong looking youth, whose military training had obviously begun early - bowed shortly, and moved aside to make way for the blonde woman who stood behind him. "And my ward, Guinevere. She is a queen in her own right, and a valuable ally for you, sire, if you win her respect."
Methos turned slowly to Guinevere. "I'll do my best to win that at the very least," he said softly, and Guinevere nodded courteously at him. As a queen she was his equal, and he had no need to show deference, at least until he had won over the whole country.
"I'm sure you will," she told him, the ghost of a smile playing about her face. "Shall we start with a conference?" Methos nodded.
"I've seen to it that the banqueting hall is cleared and ready," the Saxon told him. "We'll be comfortable enough in there. Shall I lead the way?" They went quickly to the hall. Inside, the long table stood empty, waiting for the group to position themselves around it. Methos sat at its head, Uther beside him, whilst Ancelus, Lancelot, Guinevere and a number of Ancelus' men sat further down. Kronos remained standing, a lurking presence, helping to further enrich his mysterious reputation. He never missed an opportunity, reflected Methos, wryly. Always the shadowy figure. He decided to start the ball rolling.
"We had a visit from Mordred earlier today," he said. "He's confident of taking this castle, and I don't intend to allow him to do that. He's got the same plans as us - to reunite England under one rule."
"His isn't the kind of rule we have in mind for our country," Ancelus said. "I can think of many people I would rather have as an overlord. England won't be safe with him in charge."
"Granted." Methos leaned back in his chair." So we need to find a way to stop him."
"He has a formidable army behind him," Guinevere said. "I have been raised in the house of Ancelus, but I still have armies of my own, which will stand behind you Arthur." Methos smiled at her gratefully.
"Thankyou. Any other suggestions anyone?"
"There's my cousin, Loth, who lives in the north," Ancelus said . "We should go to see him. He'll stand with us." Methos nodded.
"Fine - but I can't leave this place."
"Yes you can." Kronos, who had no love for councils of war, spoke from his customary position by the door. "I can look after this place for you while you're gone. And if Mordred should come by..." he grinned." I'll handle the situation."
"You mustn't kill him," Methos said quickly. "And you know what I mean by that." Kronos raised an eyebrow, amused. He knew, and he supposed that Methos did have a prior claim to Mordred's life.
"Alright, I'll leave it to you to take his head. But you know that I'm more than capable of looking after things here." Methos nodded. He was a little unsure about the wisdom in leaving the volatile Immortal in charge of such a potentially explosive situation, but Kronos was right; he was more than capable of handling it,
"Okay Merlin. The castle's yours until I get back. I'll leave in the morning., with as few people as possible. That way we'll attract less attention. Ancelus - you'll have to come of course. Uther, I'll leave it up to you whether you stay or go. We'll take a handful of guards."
"Arthur..." Kronos began, but Methos silenced him.
"Relax Merlin. If we get attacked the worst they can do is kill me, alright?" The unspoken subtext passed between them, and Kronos nodded.
"Point taken." He smiled, knowing how cryptic he would sound to the others present. "Just remember that some forms of death are more fatal than others."
"What about me? And Guinevere?" Lancelot, all but forgotten, spoke up from his place next to Ancelus. "Do we go with you, or stay here?"
"You stay here." Methos turned to him. "I'm not suggesting that you're not up to the journey, but like I said; the fewer of us that go, the better."
Lancelot nodded. He was old enough to obey the orders of a king. Guinevere met Methos' eyes as he looked at her, and she smiled. He didn't like having to leave so soon. He would much rather get to know the queen a little better, but such pleasures had to be laid aside for the time being. She obviously understood. So did Kronos, who witnessed the exchange, and he rolled his eyes. Methos noticed and glared at him.
"Then it's settled." He stood up and looked at each of the people sitting around the table. "In the morning Ancelus and I leave for the north."
"And me too," Uther put in. "I feel sure that Merlin can handle things here without me, and I'd feel happier knowing that there are at least two men with you that can be trusted, sire."
"Fair enough." Methos left the table, and strolled outside. He knew that Kronos would follow him, and felt certain that Guinevere would too. Outside it was dark, and the clear sky showed thousands of stars. He stared up at them, remembering the Greeks who had given them their names.
"There he is." It was Kronos, standing behind him, also looking up at the sky.
"The bear. Arturis."
"Oh, yes of course." Kronos was referring to the Celtic root of Arthur. "Do you think I'm doing the right thing Merlin?"
"The right thing?" Kronos laughed. "How should I know? When did I ever worry about doing the right thing?"
"You know what I mean." Methos knew that Guinevere had followed them out, and that she was listening, but he didn't care. "Making these alliances, trying to reunite the country. Staying here with these people."
Kronos shrugged. "Who am I to question the king?" He grinned. "Relax brother. Of course you're right. You always are. This country was never meant to be a jumbled mass of conflicting regions. It was prosperous under Rome, when it was united. It will be again, under you."
"I suppose. Then you have no objections?"
"Objections? You know me Arthur. I relish chaos. I'd have no objection if England was to stay divided. But if you want to unify it, then that's what we'll do. It's something to fight for after all."
"And you were always a fighter."
"It's what I do best. You think, I fight. That's why we make such a good team." He glanced back, and caught Guinevere's eye. "But right now I'm thinking too."
"Of what?" Guinevere asked, coming over.
"Of taking a walk." He glanced over at Methos. "I'll see you later, Arthur."
Kronos began to walk away. "Goodnight. And watch your head brother." His voice was tinged with amusement. Methos scowled, earning a smile from Guinevere.
"Are you really brothers?" she asked him. He shook his head.
"Could one father have two sons like us?" he asked. "We'd have been abandoned at birth." He turn to face Guinevere fully. "You don't have a father, do you?"
"Not anymore. I don't remember him at all. My mother either." She smiled sadly. "But Ancelus has been like a father, and I've enjoyed watching Lancelot grow up as a brother. I helped to train him. He'll make you a good knight one day Arthur."
"I'm sure he will." They began to walk around the fort, following the walls, enjoying the almost complete silence.
"And what of your father?"
"My father?" Methos tried to remember. He had no real father of course, but he hadn't known that until he was older, and the man that he had called father was already dead. "He died, a long time ago. I'm afraid I don't remember him very well."
"So you wander the countryside with just your magician for company, fulfilling legends in your spare time?" She smiled at him, and he laughed.
"Merlin and I have only got each other, so yes, we 'wander' together. But I don't go in for legend fulfilling all that often."
"And now? Are you really only doing this for Rome?"
"You've been educated the Roman way," she prompted. "Merlin called you Arturis. In Celtic it would be Artus."
"So it would." He smiled. "No.. I'm not just doing this for Rome. I'm doing it because I enjoy a challenge, because it's what Uther wants, because I think it's the right thing to do - And because I don't want Mordred to do it first."
"That's a good enough reason." She took his hand. "Arthur?"
"When you said that you didn't want Lancelot and I to travel with you... It was just because you wanted to travel light, wasn't it?"
"Of course." He stopped suddenly, catching her other hand. "Guinevere - I've only known you for a few hours, and already I don't want to be separated from you. But I meant it when I said that the fewer of us go the better. I'm sorry - but I won't stop you if you want to come with us."
"You couldn't stop me." She smiled. "But I don't mind waiting. How better to learn about the king than by spending some time with his magician?" Methos laughed at that.
"You'd get more information from a stone," he said. "Merlin isn't known for being forthcoming."
"No? Well it doesn't matter." She leaned forward slightly, and kissed his cheek. "There'll be plenty of time for me to find out about you in the future. When you get back."
"There certainly will." They stood together for a few moments, then he sighed. "I'd better go to bed. I've an early start in the morning."
"Of course. Goodnight Arthur."
"Goodnight." He smiled at her. "When I get back from the north, I'll tell you all that you want to know about me. I promise."
"Fine. But not all at once. We have plenty of time." He grinned at that, and left her, the temptation to stay and talk nearly too strong. The door to his living quarters was open and he went inside, unsurprised to see Kronos sitting in a chair. The younger Immortal glanced up at him questioningly.
"When's the wedding?" he asked. Methos gave him a withering stare.
"Not yet," he said, unbuckling his sword. "Why? Are you jealous?"
"You mean do I want you all to myself?"
"You know what I mean. You should try settling down someday Kronos. You might like it."
"I have tried it, and I don't see the point. She'll get old, Methos, and she'll die, just like all the others. I've lost somebody that way, once, and I don't plan to do it again."
"I know. I know what'll happen, but I don't care. Not yet. We could have forty years together before she gets old."
"Forty years?" Kronos shook his head. "What's forty years to you?" He sighed. "I don't want to hurt you, you know I'd never do that. I just hate to see what it does to you, when you have to bury them."
"I know..." Methos spoke the words softly. "Sometimes it's worth it though, that's all. The memories are worth the pain."
"Are they?" Kronos sounded cynical. "I suppose that's what makes us different brother. I don't start what I can't finish." He stood up and took off his own sword, throwing it onto his bed. "Just to change the subject... What do you make of Lancelot?"
"The boy? He's a pre-Immortal." Methos sat down to pull off his boots.
"I thought so. What do we do?"
"For now we do nothing." Methos was thoughtful. ""We could be involved with these people for years yet. We let him grow up, and we try to make sure that he doesn't die too soon. That's all we can do for anybody in that situation."
"If he becomes a knight, chances are he'll die in battle before very much longer."
"And if that happens one of us will be there." Methos sighed. "Another Immortal setting out in life. Do you remember your first death?"
"You know I do. You were there."
"So I was. And I've been stuck with you ever since."
"Your idea, brother, not mine."
"Yes, well somebody had to keep an eye on you." He smiled. "Kronos?"
"Go to bed."
"Yes your highness." He bowed. "Whatever you command?"
"Really? Methos raised his eyebrows. "Whatever I command?" He ducked as Kronos threw his cloak at him. "Now that's no way to treat your lord and master."
"Methos, do me a favour. Shut up and go to sleep."
Methos clucked his tongue. "The young have no respect for their elders these days."
"The young?" Kronos laughed, and blew out the candles, plunging the room into darkness. "You're the only one who remembers when I was young."
"Maybe." Methos stood up to go to bed, and tripped in the darkness. "Ow." Kronos' voice came to him, disembodied in the blackness.
"Serves you right."
Outside the castle walls, hidden in the shadows of a cluster of trees, two figures stood in earnest conversation. One was the guard who had been attacked by Kronos nearly two months previously. The other was Mordred.
"I don't know that I'm doing the right thing," the guard said, his voice thick with guilt.
"Of course you are. You swore allegiance to Uther, remember? Not Arthur. And I've already given you my word that Uther won't be hurt. I'll leave him alone."
"Yes, but Uther supports Arthur." The guard was battling with his conscience. Mordred began to toy with a gold coin.
"So he does... But you said yourself that Merlin humiliated you. You have a right to get your own back don't you?"
"Yes... I suppose so." The guard watched the coin as it twisted its way between Mordred's fingers. "You won't hurt the household?"
"Of course not. I just want to make a small gesture, to make a point. Anyway, you said yourself that Uther won't be there." Mordred flipped the coin through the air, and the guard caught it eagerly, greed lighting up his eyes. "There are plenty more like that if you carry on the way you're going."
"Yes, lord Mordred." All traces of guilt and indecision seemed to have vanished. "I'll open the gates at midday, three days from now. I'll make sure that the guards have been drugged so that they don't raise the alarm. Merlin is usually in the courtyard then, practising with his sword. I can't speak for the others."
"Midday will be fine." Mordred smiled, the insane gleam lighting up once again inside his eyes. "A little leverage should help to tip the scales in my favour quite nicely. This could be easier than I thought."
The next morning, Methos left as planned, accompanied by six others, including Ancelus and Uther. It was likely to be a long ride to the north, and allowing several days for discussions with Loth, they were unlikely to return within three weeks. Guinevere, Lancelot and Kronos, all three trained as warriors, had something to occupy the time at least, and they soon fell into a routine. Kronos had no objections to helping Lancelot. The boy was unlikely ever to be a threat to him, so it was only fair to assist in the building up of his skill with a sword. There was an unwritten code amongst Immortals, which said that the younger ones should be helped by their elders. Lancelot was not an Immortal yet, but he would be, one day. Guinevere too was a fair sparring partner. She was no match for Kronos, but then few people were. She was good enough to make combat interesting, even if the outcome was a clear certainty.
On the third day after the departure of the others, Kronos and Lancelot were practising together in the courtyard, watched by Guinevere. She was shouting encouragement, and paid no attention to the rest of the fort. The walls were lined with sentries as usual, and she saw no need for alarm. The day seemed like any other. She had no way of knowing that the sentries were in various stages of intoxication, the drug that they had been given leaving them dead to the world. They remained standing, their bodies apparently unaffected, but their minds comatose. Although things seemed normal, it was only the three people in the courtyard, and a few of Ancelus' men who had remained behind, who were still conscious.
Suddenly, Kronos stiffened, halting the fight, and causing Lancelot to stumble.
"What-?" he began, but Kronos silenced him, his eyes bright and alert. Guinevere frowned, surprised by his sudden alarm.
"Damn," he said. "Damn... Lancelot; inside. Find the others. Now."
"It's a little late for that." It was Mordred, riding towards them, apparently from nowhere. Kronos pushed Lancelot back, stepping forward,
"Get off your horse, Mordred," he said harshly.
"That wouldn't be a very good idea now would it. Besides, I'd hate to spoil the fun." Mordred gestured towards the gates. Men - many men - were coming up behind him. Kronos glanced around at the castle walls, bothered by the inactivity of the sentries. Mordred laughed.
"They won't help you," he said cheerfully. "By the time they recover it'll all be over."
"All?" Kronos tensed himself, readying for battle. "Don't hurt the boy Mordred." He kept this voice low, and Mordred glanced over at Lancelot, interested.
"That wouldn't be very sporting , would it," he agreed, catching the meaning behind Kronos' words. "Very well." He moved his sword aside, signing to his men as he did so. They moved forward as one, and Kronos raised his sword to meet them. Guinevere did the same, as did Lancelot, and the handful of others who remained awake were also coming to join them. The odds were not good though. The Immortal prepared himself for the onslaught.
The first wave was easy to repel. Kronos swung his sword, killing two men at once. Several others got past him, and Guinevere handled them quickly. Steadily the number of attackers increased. As many as could be killed, there were more to replace them. Kronos heard a muffled shout behind him. Lancelot had been overpowered. A second later Guinevere was taken likewise. The other, he knew, were already dead. This was just not fair. The odds were twenty to one. Surrounded as he was, he knew that he didn't have a chance, but he fought on regardless, until something struck him from behind. He fell forward, dazed from the blow. Several men dragged him to his feet., and he glanced about, checking that Guinevere and Lancelot were still alive. After assuring Methos that he could look after things, he did not intend to allow his old friend's new love to die whilst she was in his care. He recognised one of Uther's guards amongst Mordred's throng, and scowled at him. The guard stared up at Mordred, horrified.
"You - you said that nobody would get killed," he gasped. "A gesture, you said. Just a gesture-"
"I lied." Mordred cut him down with a single blow of his sword, then brought his horse up alongside Kronos, staring down at him. "As I said," he told his captive. "A necessary rethink. But I think you'll agree that I've handled things rather well after all. Wouldn't you?"
"It's not over yet." Kronos growled the words at him, and Mordred smiled lightly.
"It's over for you Merlin," he said, and made a thrust with his sword. Kronos tried to dodge aside, but he was held too fast. The last thing that he felt was the touch of the sword on his chest, and the cold agony as it cut its way through to his heart. His legs gave way, and he struggled to keep his head up. It was no use. The guards let him go, and he collapsed. Mordred stared down at him, then turned to his men.
"We're leaving," he announced. "The lady Guinevere is coming with us, but the boy remains here. He can pass on a message to Arthur. You know what the message is, don't you boy?" Lancelot stared back at him defiantly.
"I can guess," he said, his voice thick. It had hurt to see Merlin cut down so mercilessly. Mordred smiled.
"Good." He nodded at Kronos. "He's coming too."
"Him?" One of his men looked up at him, obviously puzzled. "He's dead."
"I don't care. We take him with us."
Guinevere looked disgusted. "Isn't that a little perverted?" she asked, watching as the body was thrown onto a horse. Mordred shrugged.
"I don't know my lady. Is it?" One of the guards moved to draw the sword which was still buried deep in Kronos' chest. "Leave that," he ordered sharply. As long as the sword was embedded in it, the Immortal's heart could not heal, and he would remain in his present state. That would make things a little easier. The guard looked puzzled, but obeyed nonetheless. He mounted his own horse, no doubt pondering over the seemingly bizarre actions of his master. Elsewhere Guinevere was put onto a horse, whilst other guards took the horses from the stables, gathering them up. It would make pursuit harder if the horses went with them. Lancelot's guards locked him into one of the stables, leaving him fuming but helpless. It hurt his pride that Mordred was winning so easily, but there was nothing that he could do to stop it. Inside his windowless prison he heard the voices of men and the whinnying of horses, and listened to them fade into the distance. It was infuriating having to sit there, waiting for the sentries to come to their senses. He consoled himself with thoughts of Arthur. The king would deal with Mordred, once he, Lancelot, had ridden to find him and tell him what had happened. They would ride together from the north with Ancelus and Uther; would gather together their supporters, and rescue Guinevere. Mordred would pay for murdering Merlin in such cold fashion; just as soon as Lancelot could get word to Arthur.
The northbound party made goodtime, and were soon far away from the castle. By the time that Mordred made his attack on the fort, they were already far away, and within ten days of leaving their home territories they had arrived at the castle of Loth. Ancelus gained them entry without difficulty, and they were received in the lord's hall. Methos was impressed. The wooden walls of a Saxon fortress were not the most homely of enclosures, but Loth had done much to make his hall as attractive as possible. He stood as they entered, and Methos saw that he, like Ancelus, had a young son in training as a warrior. From somewhere deep within him, Methos felt a pang of a sorrow he thought he had buried. It would be nice to have a son to raise, and train in that way. Maybe it was for the best, though, that Immortals were unable to have children. The pain of watching them fade and die would be too great to bear.
"Loth!" Ancelus strode forward to embrace his cousin. "And Gawain!" You've grown my boy. How old are you now?"
"Twelve sir." The boy looked up at his father's cousin with eyes that reminded the man of his own son, Lancelot. They would ride into battle together one day, he told himself, and make names for themselves. He turned to indicate Methos.
"This is Arthur," he said. "We have to talk to you Loth. Arthur plans to reunite the country, and to rule as the king of England. We need your support."
"My support?" Loth walked forward, and studied Arthur carefully. "You stand by him yourself cousin?"
"I do. This man is the future of England, Loth. He may even rule Scotland one day. He pulled the sword from the stone."
"The old legend..." Loth seemed amused. "I tried to pull that sword out every day when I was a boy." He nodded. "You know that I want to see England united again, Ancelus. It's always been my desire, just as it's always been yours. If you think this man can do it..."
"He can," Uther put in. Methos gave him a grateful smile.
"My friends have great faith in me," he said, "and I certainly intend to uphold that faith. I have to say, though, Loth, that I have no chance of winning unless I can get enough support to defeat Mordred."
"Ah yes. Mordred." Loth smiled. "If ever there was a reason for me to give you my support it's to see him crushed." He looked at each of his guests in turn, finishing up by staring hard at Methos. He liked what he saw, he had to admit. "Alright, I'm with you. I have a thousand men who'll stand with us if I give the word."
"Excellent." Ancelus clapped his cousin on the shoulder. "A thousand of your men, added to a thousand of my own - Uther has about the same, and so does Guinevere. There are others who'll join us too - forces we can gather on our way back to the south." He grinned at Methos. "We'll win England back yet."
"Maybe." Methos matched the grin." But I don't want to gather our forces yet. Not until it's really necessary. I'd rather just be sure of their support, and know that there'll be there for us when we need them."
"That's no problem sire." Loth gestured at some of his guards. "My men are the fastest riders in the land. They move up and down the country on the best horses bred on these shores, in half the time that anybody else can do it. They'll carry messages for you, anywhere you want them to go."
"That would be wonderful. Thankyou Loth." Methos was surprised, but glad, that this was going so quickly, so easily. "In that case we can head back south as soon as possible. Will you ride with us Loth?"
"I certainly will - if you've no objection to my son coming with us." He gestured at Gawain. Methos glanced over at the boy. He was small; three years younger even than Lancelot, but he wore a sword, and the Immortal had no doubt that he was already a fair hand with it. Fierce blue eyes stared back at him, and he smiled. The boy was not Loth's son of course, but he couldn't say that. It seemed that Lancelot was to have a companion in pre-immortality.
"Of course he can come. I wouldn't hear otherwise." He could hardly allow the boy to be left unguarded in such potentially dangerous times. If he was going to look after Lancelot, he might just as well look after Gawain too.
"Thankyou; you won't be sorry. One day he'll fight for you too." Loth put a hand on his son's shoulder. It seemed as though he might be about to speak further, but he was interrupted by a loud noise outside the hall; a clattering and banging, and several shouts. Everybody turned to the door in amazement as it burst open, and a boy dashed in. He was muddy, and his clothes were torn, but Methos recognised him immediately. So did Ancelus.
"Lancelot! What in the name of- What are you doing here boy?"
"I'm sorry." The captain of the guard, who had unsuccessfully tried to prevent the boy's entry, looked apologetic.
"It's alright Donald." Loth came forward. "Lancelot, you have some explaining to do."
"I know." The boy looked wild - desperate. He turned to Arthur. "Sire - it was Mordred. He drugged the guards. He-"
"What?" Methos was at Lancelot's side in an instant. "He did what?"
"He drugged the guards. Well, Simon did it for him. Mordred attacked. He had thirty men with him at least - more. There were only eight or nine of us awake." He dashed the sweat soaked hair from his eyes "They killed our men father, and - and Mordred killed Merlin." He lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry sire. Merlin killed many of Mordred's men, but they caught him. They were holding him, and Mordred just cut him down where he stood."
Methos stepped back. For a second he had been afraid, but Lancelot had not seen a Quickening. He would have told the story differently if he had. There was a chance, of course, that Mordred had wanted to take Kronos elsewhere, and kill him where there would be no witnesses, but he had suggested that he was not interested in their heads.
"Don't worry too much about Merlin," he told Lancelot. The boy glanced from Loth to Ancelus, and then back at Methos.
"Mordred took the body with him." His eyes lowered. "And he took Guinevere too. There was nothing that I could do."
"He took Guinevere?" Methos turned and walked to the nearest window, staring out. "That changes things. But I don't think he'll hurt her. He wouldn't have bothered taking her if he wanted her dead."
"Well it's fairly obvious what he wants from us." Ancelus' voice betrayed the anger he was trying to restrain. "I swear I'll kill him if he hurts her."
"He won't. And I think you might find it a little difficult to kill Mordred. Guinevere should be alright. If I'm not mistaken, she can look after herself, and Merlin won't let Mordred do anything."
"Merlin is dead!" Lancelot couldn't understand the king's inability to comprehend this. Methos smiled at him. He couldn't explain, of course, but Lancelot would understand it all one day.
"No he's not." He turned back from the window. "Merlin isn't like the rest of you. He's... a magician, remember? Don't take anything at face value where he's concerned." He tapped his fist on the hilt of his sword. "We have to ride south again. Rescue Guinevere so that Mordred can't use her against us. He'll be running a small operation for now. A kidnapping is hardly a major military endeavour. If he'd had all of his forces together he wouldn't have needed to drug our guards. We won't need a full commitment yet, so I'd suggest we take some men - a hundred perhaps - and mount an operation to get our friends back. Merlin should already be working on the inside for us." He looked suddenly at Lancelot. "How long ago did all of this happen?"
"It was... six days ago I think. On the third day after you left." Lancelot frowned up at Methos." Is Merlin really alive?"
"For now, yes; at least I think so... Loth, can you give us a hundred of your men?" Methos was already forming plans, abandoning some immediately, setting others aside for future development.
"Yes, of course." Loth gestured towards his captain of the guard. "This is my brother-in-law, Donald MacLeod. He's the best man I have. He can choose your hundred, and lead them south for you. If you're looking for warriors, Arthur, you can't find a stronger man than a Scot."
Methos turned to the captain. He was tall, with red brown hair and a claymore that would make many a brave soldier turn pale. His bare arms were decorated with intricate blue tattoos.
"Are you prepared to follow me?" he asked. A Scot had no reason to love an English king after all.
"I'll follow you." The man's cool eyes stared back at Arthur, obviously caring little for titles and royalty. "And not just because my sister married Loth. I know Mordred; and any enemy of his is worth fighting for." His deep voice, with its melodious burr, was reassuring in its frankness. Methos nodded his thanks.
"How soon can we be ready to leave?" he asked. MacLeod looked thoughtful.
"Give me the rest of the day to get the men together... I'd like longer to prepare them but I suppose we can dispense with that. We can be ready to leave at first light. It'll take us some time to go south though. Mordred will have plenty of time to get ready for us."
"He could have gathered all his men by the time we get there," Uther added. Methos shook his head.
"He doesn't want a full scale confrontation. Not yet. He's just testing us. For now, all he wants is a battle, to find out what we're made of, and to see what he's up against. It'll be some time before we ride for real against Mordred." He clapped his hands together. "Enough talk I think. Donald - please see about collecting your men. The rest of us had better take it easy I think. We have a lot of travelling ahead of us. Mordred may not be looking for a decisive war as yet, but he's not going to give in all that easily."
Life returned in shuddering, painful gasps. Kronos tried to keep still, but his chest hurt anyway. He opened his eyes and looked around. Guinevere sat on a chair some distance away, and he blinked up at her guiltily, wondering how exactly he was going to explain this one. She didn't speak, and he tried to move, but seemed to be tied to something. A voice inside - an echo of Methos perhaps - told him to relax, and take stock of his surroundings. In the absence of anything better to do, he heeded the voice.
He was sitting on the floor of a large room, probably in a fort, not unlike Uther's. He was tied to a pillar, or a post of some sort. Guinevere was there too, so Mordred had obviously brought her along. That made sense; she was an ideal hostage. She was still watching him, but for some reason she didn't seem scared.
"Er... I can't really explain this," he began falteringly, but she held up a hand to stop him.
"Mordred said that you'd wake up." She smiled, a hint of wonder in her eyes. "I never expected you to be this powerful a magician. To return from death..."
Kronos smiled to himself. The old joke about being a magician was returning to save him. Well he wasn't about to complicate the situation by denying it now. It would simplify matters somewhat if Guinevere was to believe that he had magical powers. And after all, the Immortals were not so very far removed from the realms of magic and fantasy.
"Did Mordred say anything else?" he asked.
"Just that we're to stay here, until he hears from Arthur. Does he think that he can make Arthur surrender by holding us here?"
"Well if he does he's mistaken." Kronos shifted his position slightly. "Can you untie me?"
"Yes, of course. I'm sorry. Mordred said that if I disturbed you, your magic would be stopped."
"I'll bet he did." Kronos watched Guinevere out of the corner of his eye as she struggled with the ropes. He had always hated to have people behind him, even when he knew what they were doing. In all his life as an Immortal he had only ever trusted Methos completely. Suddenly his head snapped around to the door, making Guinevere jump.
"What is it?" she asked, remembering the last time that he had become so abruptly alert. As if in answer the door opened. Mordred stood framed in the doorway, another person - another Immortal Kronos sensed - behind him.
"Ah, Merlin. You're awake." Mordred strode into the room. "And trying to escape already. You don't waste time do you?" He half turned, to indicate his companion. "May I present my wife, Morgan le Fay."
Kronos looked up at the new Immortal. She was very powerful - even more so than Mordred perhaps - and she was also very beautiful. Long black hair hung down to her waist, and cold black eyes saw everything that there was to see. For a moment he understood the fear that so many people experienced when they looked into his eyes.
"So this is Merlin." Morgan le Fay walked further into the room. "Arthur's magician, or so I hear." She crouched down, so that her eyes were level with those of the captive Immortal. "You don't belong with him Merlin. You're one of us. Why not leave him?"
"Merlin..." Guinevere stood up. "Don't listen to her."
"Shut up." Le Fay only glanced at her for a second, but the ice in her eyes chilled Guinevere to the bone. The forbidding stare flicked back to Kronos. "Join us Merlin. You don't belong with him." The eyes were almost bewitching in their intensity; deep and encapsulating. Magical. Kronos looked away.
"We're not so alike," he lied, realising how close he had come to being won over. "You hide behind tricks." He looked up at Mordred. "Give me my sword, Mordred. Let's decide this the way our people are supposed to decide things."
"I don't think so, Merlin." The dark Immortal curled his fingers around his beard. He had seen something pass between Morgan and Kronos, and he wasn't sure that he liked it.
"Are you afraid?"
"Maybe." He smiled. "Or maybe I just have other plans. Long term plans. You'll find out what they are, in time. A year from now, or maybe ten... Time is hardly important to us, is it?"
"Shut up Mordred." Morgan stood up, no longer interested in events now that her attempt to hypnotise Kronos had failed. "Come on. We have things to see to."
"Of course my dear." Mordred smiled down at Kronos, and bowed to Guinevere. "I'll see you two later." They left, and the door clicked shut behind them.
"Your people?" Guinevere had backed away slightly. "What did you mean? Are you related to Mordred in some way?"
"Perhaps. But that doesn't concern you." Kronos' voice was sharp and impatient. He had little sympathy for the fears of mortals.
"I think it does. Mordred's plans involve my country. Whatever his intentions are - whatever he is - are my business too, don't you think?"
Kronos sighed. Guinevere was a warrior, and it stood to reason that she would want to be involved in this, but he wasn't going to tell her the truth - at least, not all of it.
"Alright. Mordred and I are... of a kind. Morgan le Fay too."
"Yes. And Arthur, in a way. We... have a battle to fight. It shouldn't concern you, but for some reason Mordred thinks it does. He's after something."
"Then it really is only you and Arthur that can save England." Guinevere sat down her chair again. "All our forces don't matter."
"Yes they do. We'll still need armies. Mordred has them - people from this country like you. We have to face them with armies of equal size, and they can't all be... magicians." He tried a smile. "Now can you untie me please?"
"Can't you magic yourself out of those ropes?" He tried to decide whether or not she was joking, and decided that she was.
"I wasn't paying attention when we were taught that particular spell. And if we're going to have to wait several days for Arthur to get here, I'd rather not spend them sitting here like this."
"Alright." She returned to his side and finished untying the knots. Freed, he stood up and stretched. His chest still hurt a little, but that was hardly surprising, and the ragged hole in his tunic, with its accompanying red stain, should raise a few questions among the mortals on Mordred's side and Arthur's; but that wasn't a concern. Let them think what they liked; none of them would ever guess the truth. He only wished that he could work out what it all meant. Why were Mordred and Morgan so interested in uniting England? Why not just kill him? Why play games with him and Methos? None of it made sense, but they had to be after something. It could have nothing to do with the Prize; that would not come until the Gathering, and that was not here yet. He doubted that it would come for centuries, for there were still far too few Immortals in the world. He had seen the look in Morgan's eyes though. Through the ice, and the hypnotic glow, there had been the unmistakable shine of greed. Mordred had it too. If it wasn't the Prize that they were after, it was something of equal value; maybe even worth more, especially since Mordred had indicated that they were willing to wait for years before they made their final move. He had to talk to Methos. There was something far more important at stake here than just the sovereignty of England, but he could not begin to guess at what it was.
The towers of the fortress broke up out of the horizon like broken teeth. Methos, at the head of his column of men, stared at his distant objective from a vantage point on top of a hill.
"That's Mordred's castle?" he asked.
"That's right." Ancelus, by his side, was looking in the same direction. "That's where he'll be keeping Guinevere. What's our plan Arthur?"
"A simple attack." Methos looked around for MacLeod. "Donald; you lead a quarter of the men round from the south, Ancelus from the north, Uther the east, and I'll take the west. We'll head down later tonight, and make our move first thing in the morning."
"And what if Mordred kills Guinevere in revenge?" Ancelus was deeply concerned for the woman he thought of as a daughter.
"He won't. This is all just a away of making his presence felt." Methos couldn't explain to them how Mordred was trying to win one over against his fellow Immortals; trying to prove that he was the best without provoking a direct hand to hand fight with one of them. He also couldn't explain that he and Mordred would survive this whatever happened, but that the others would not necessarily be so lucky. "At the moment this is just a game to him. It'll be real soon enough, when we all gather our full compliment of fighters."
"Just a game? It'll soon end then. If we kill Mordred now, he won't be able to gather his forces at all. There won't be any war." Uther did not bother to hide the contempt he felt for his enemy. Methos did not answer. It couldn't end here of course; Mordred could not be killed. In the middle of a battle, where there were sure to be witnesses, the evil Immortal would have to be allowed to keep his head. Otherwise there would be far too much explaining,. He doubted whether the off hand excuse about magicians would explain away the spectacular visual display of a Quickening. This would have to have its final conclusion another day.
"Hey. Wake up." Kronos, with all of his usual gentility, shook Guinevere awake.
"What? What is it?" She sat up, feeling the confusion of a rude awakening. "What's happening?"
"And you woke me up for that? Merlin, it's been dawn at least eleven times since we were brought here. I fail to see-"
"Something's happening." He went to the window, their only source of light. "There are people moving about outside the walls."
"How can you tell?" Guinevere joined him at the window. She could not detect any unusual movement.
"Sixth sense. Long practice." He grinned at her. "It must be Arthur. Come on," and he crossed quickly to the door.
"Merlin... It's solid oak. Aside from the hatch they push our food through its immovable. We're not getting out that way."
"Yes we are. I'd have done it before, but we had no where to go then." He stood in front of the door and frowned thoughtfully at the window. It faced east, and he had been planning this for some days. "Another couple of minutes should do it."
"Watch." He felt inside his tunic and produced a small, circular piece of glass, then began pulling at some loose threads on his clothing. By the time that the sun was beginning to shine its rays through the window, he had a small pile of material on the ground.
"Quiet." He knelt on the floor, and began to twist the glass, trying to catch the right position. A man had taught him this trick in the East, and it had proved useful before. The sun's rays caught the glass and he grinned triumphantly, focusing them carefully on the scraps of material. Slowly, very slowly, they began to smoulder. "Come on... just a little more..." he breathed. The sun continued to shine. If it went behind a cloud now he would not be responsible for his actions. The smouldering material threw a faint spark into the air, then, suddenly, it caught fire. "Beautiful!" He stood, and pulled Guinevere away. "Keep back. It won't take long for the door to catch."
Outside, Methos and his men were preparing to attack. It was still early, and the guards, few in number, were not especially vigilant, but he knew that their luck would not hold. If they moved any closer to the castle they would be spotted, but he couldn't wait around much longer. He had to attack now.
"Look!" Beside him, Gawain pointed. He glanced in the direction indicated. From the centre of the fortress, flames were beginning too decorate the sky. He grinned, guessing who had caused them. It was the perfect diversion. The guards could not fight him and the fire. "Stay here Gawain," he ordered. "You too Lancelot."
"But-" Lancelot began. Methos silenced him.
"Stay here." He moved his horse forwards, out of the cover of the trees which had hidden him for so long. "Attack!"
In almost perfect unison, the four groups of horsemen descended on the castle from their chosen sides. On the walls, a guard saw them coming, and shouted a warning, but most of his confederates were busy fighting the fire which had spread so quickly. A wooden castle would burn to the ground in a matter of hours, or even minutes given the right conditions. There was almost no resistance as Methos and his men attacked the walls from all four sides. Some of Mordred's men, fleeing the fire, tried to take the fight outside the castle, but Methos paid them little attention. Let Ancelus and the others take care of them. He had to find Guinevere.
"Arthur!" He turned. Kronos, black from head to foot from the smoke, erupted from a nearby building. He was supporting Guinevere in his arms, the smoke having been almost too much for her.
"Merlin!" Methos leapt from his horse and ran to his old friend. "Is she alright?"
"She's fine." Kronos had got a sword from somewhere. "Have you seen Mordred?"
"No; but I wasn't expecting him to stick around here. He's probably got a secret way out." Methos gazed around at the confusion. Men were running everywhere, and the flames were out of control, leaping joyously about them. "I know you said you like chaos, but isn't this going a little too far?"
"I'm hardly started yet." Kronos handed Guinevere to Methos. "Here, she's your girlfriend, you take her. I'll see you later." He raised his sword, and ran off, heading back into the confusion from which he had come. Methos began to half carry Guinevere away. They met with little resistance. A few guards offered some half-hearted opposition, but Methos killed them easily. He was half way to the walls before he realised that Guinevere was standing on her own.
"Hello," he said, as if he was in the habit of meeting her in the midst of a blazing castle.
"Hello." She bent to pick up the sword of a fallen guard. "Nice of you to come and help."
"My pleasure. Shall we?" He gestured at the exit and she nodded.
"Certainly." They ran forward. At the walls there were more guards, and more fighting was underway. They fought their way through, Guinevere proving her skill with a sword. Outside the castle the ground was strewn with bodies. Some of them would be his own men, Methos reflected sadly. It seemed a little unfair that the mortals had to give their lives in the battles of the Immortals. Still, they had chosen to be here.
He stood back with Guinevere, and they watched the castle as it neared its end. Creaking walls collapsed in on themselves, sending sparks leaping high. He looked around for Kronos, spotting him emerging from the chaos some yards away. His sword was red with blood, and he looked elated, his eyes bright with the excitement of battle. There would be very few prisoners.
"Oh no." It was Guinevere. She had noticed a body lying face down on the ground. "Ancelus."
"What?" Methos turned. Sure enough, Ancelus lay dead. The lucky blow of some guard had killed him. Loth, too, was dead. He had fallen near to his cousin. Methos sighed deeply, truly sorry. He had liked both men.
"Arthur." he turned. MacLeod strode towards them. He glanced down at the body of his brother-in-law, and for a second the grief showed on his face. "I can't see Mordred anywhere."
"No, you won't He'll be long gone." Methos looked at the ground. "I'm sorry Donald, about Loth."
"No need for apologies Arthur. The best we can do for him is to look after Gawain."
"I'll do that." Methos turned his eyes to Ancelus. "And Lancelot too. What about you Donald?"
"Me? I'm yours Arthur. I'm a Highlander, but there's no reason why I shouldn't fight a battle or two in the south. When Mordred is the enemy I'm prepared to be an Englishman for a while." He held out his hand. "The clan MacLeod is at your service, Arthur, should you decide you need it. For now, and forever if necessary."
"Thankyou." Methos shook his hand, deeply grateful. He looked up at the castle to watch its last moments. The flames would burn for a while yet, but the castle was gone, and soon the flames would be too. He only wished that he could believe the same of Mordred.
Hours later, in the banqueting hall of Uther's castle, Methos and Kronos sat together, with Guinevere, Uther, Lancelot, Gawain and Donald MacLeod. They had been talking together, about Mordred, and their plans for their next meeting with him. It was clear that he would return.
"We have to get the best," Uther said. "The best knights we can find. Men who can lead others into battle. If Merlin is right, and Mordred is after something, we can expect him to stop at nothing."
"I agree." Methos stared deep into the fire, thinking of the other flames from earlier in the day. "We'll gather together a band of knights the like of which has never been seen before. We'll build a new castle, stronger than this one, and big enough to house more men. We'll build up the biggest army this country has seen since the legions were here. This could be a long battle. A long war. It could take decades before we defeat Mordred. He's likely to appear and disappear at will, if today is anything to go by." He glanced across at Kronos. "Merlin? If you have other plans, you'd better say so now. I'd rather have you with me in this, but if you don't want to get involved..."
"I am involved." Kronos was thinking about Morgan le Fay. He was going to meet her again, of that he was certain. "It doesn't matter how long it takes, Arthur. And anyway; one day long or fifty years, a battle is still a battle. I'm not going to turn down the chance of a fight."
"Good." Methos had not really expected Kronos to leave, but he had had to ask. He looked around at his friends. Lancelot and Gawain were still just children, but they were likely to grow to adulthood before this was finished. Mordred was a formidable foe indeed; perhaps the strongest that the old man had ever met. He would not be forced into a straight fight, and as such there was no way that Methos could kill him. An immortal enemy was the worst kind of all, and Methos wished that he and Kronos could handle this alone; but Mordred had an army, and Methos would therefore have to have one too. He had no idea what the Immortal was planning, but whatever it was, he was going to stop him. In the meantime, there would be other battles, unrelated to this one, with rival warlords who wanted their lands. There would always be fighting going on until England was united again, and these small wars would help them to keep in shape, help them to stay ready. One day Mordred would come back, and when he came, he would find Methos waiting.
Except for names and possibly dates, I make no claim to historical accuracy here. Arthur probably lived between 475 and 542 AD, which is likely to have been the date of his death. At that time, women were the equals of men in all things, and it is quite likely that Guinevere would have been a warrior queen. It was only after 1066, when Norman ideas were introduced into England, that women lost their rights.
The castles would all have been wooden... Stone castles were introduced into Britain during the Crusades, when it was realised that it did make more sense to build them that way, for obvious reasons. They had been in usage in the East for years.
The Romans withdrew from Britain officially in 407 AD, which is 98 years before this story is set; however people still believed for years that the good days under Rome would return. Following Rome's departure, England fell apart into warring factions. Arthur is generally considered to have been of direct Roman ancestry. Many Romans stayed behind, so it is quite likely.