PART TWO - THE SWORDS
The waters of the moat stretched lazily about the castle walls, sending rainbows riding on sunbeams up towards the guards who patrolled their wooden perimeters. Camelot, the biggest castle that most Britons had ever seen, needed many guards to keep it safe. It had been completed only five years previously, but it had already faced a thousand separate attacks. England was a wild and ungoverned place, where many men fought for supremacy. It had been that way since the Romans had left, and it would remain so for some time yet.
Inside the high walls of the castle, King Arthur - who was not yet really all that much of a king - stared thoughtfully at the great circular table that lay before him. It had been a wedding present from Guinevere, his wife, and was the scene of the mighty councils of war between the king and his band of hand picked knights. Arthur had chosen a hundred, from thousands of volunteers. A hundred men who could command the armies he would need if he was to conquer the country, and bring it under one throne. There were many men who stood in his way, but only one that was really an obstacle; Mordred, the Dark Knight. Mordred was immortal, and evil. Arthur still had no idea what plans his enemy was weaving, or what his intentions were for England. The dark Immortal had not been seen in England for ten years, and many believed him to be dead or defeated. Arthur knew the truth of course. Mordred was in no hurry. He was biding his time until the day came when he could gather his forces together, and strike another blow against Arthur and his English armies.
"Are you alright my son?" Arthur turned. Uther Pendragon, who had been the first man to kneel before him, had come silently from an inner chamber, and stood now beside the king's chair. "You seem troubled."
"I'm always troubled." Arthur smiled, grateful for Uther's concern. "I have a country of opposing elements to unite, and an enemy who's been hiding for a decade. I wish I knew what Mordred is up to."
Uther sat down on the nearest chair, where Lancelot would sit in time of conference. "Yes, Mordred is a concern; although many believe him to be the least of our problems."
"But not you, Uther." Arthur raised his head to look straight into the old Saxon's eyes. "You believe me when I speak of him as our greatest enemy. Why is that?"
Uther laughed. "Because I'm not blind my son. Look at you. You've not aged a day since you rode into my castle ten years ago. Lancelot and Gawain are adults now, Guinevere has changed with time, and so have I. But you and Merlin... There's more to you than I'll ever understand, my son. Mordred is a part of all of this, and if you say he's a danger still to be faced, then I believe you."
Arthur nodded, and smiled at his friend. "I'm sorry that I can't tell you any more, Uther. I'm sorry that you're growing old."
"I'm not." Uther gave him an appraising stare. "I see your pain, Arthur, when you look at Guinevere. I know how much it hurts you, watching her age. It's not the first time it's happened, is it? You've seen it happen to people before, and you'll see it again. I don't want that. There are rewards that come with age, my son, and one of them is the knowledge that you and your loved ones will grow old together. I should hate to suffer the same pain that you have locked up inside your heart." He reached out with one hand, and let it lie, gently, on the arm of his king. "You have a kind of magic all of your own, but so do I. I'm not afraid to grow old."
"I would be." Arthur smiled back at him. "I couldn't... couldn't watch my life fade away. It has to end suddenly, or not at all."
"My thoughts, too, once." Uther stood up. "But not any more. I'll speak to you later, Arthur. I have things to do."
"Of course." Arthur watched as the old man left, seeing his stiff limbs move slowly, and wondering how much truth there had been in his words. Was there really any reward to be gained from growing old? Old in the mind, yes, but surely not in the body.
"He knows too much." Arthur turned. A man stepped out of the shadows by the door, and wandered over towards Arthur. "We've been here too long, Methos. They're all starting to suspect that something's up."
"Can you blame them?" Arthur, who had been named several thousand years previously as Methos, stared thoughtfully back at this new arrival. "I'm not leaving, Kronos. Not until this is all over, one way or another. You know where the gate is if you want to go."
"I'm not going anywhere." The other man, smaller than Arthur, and roughly the same age, sat down on the chair recently vacated by Uther. "You know I have my own reasons for staying. I'm just... concerned."
"I know..." Methos stared out across the round table. "Nobody says anything, but they're all confused. I haven't even told Guinevere the truth. How can I?"
"You get too involved, Methos." Kronos leaned back in his chair. "They're mortals. Just pawns in our game. You know that. It was you that told me about it all. Why change the way you feel because a few of them seem to be of more consequence than the others? If you must fall in love, choose an Immortal."
"I will, one day. Maybe." Methos stood up. "Come on, Merlin. The day grows older. I've been thinking of going hunting."
"Great. Can we hunt Englishmen?" There was a glint of black humour in the Immortal's eyes, and Methos gave him a withering glare.
"We hunt deer," he said. "I know they don't fight back as well, but they taste so much better."
"Fair point." Kronos fell into step with his old friend as they headed for the door. "But do we have to take all those guards with us? Lancelot and Gawain I don't mind, but all those others. What can they do that we can't do for ourselves?"
"Okay, okay. We'll go alone. It makes them feel better to think that they're defending us, that's all." Methos smiled to himself. There was nothing that anybody - mortal or Immortal - could do to defend either of them. There was only one way that he and Kronos could die, and that was through being beheaded. It wasn't something which was likely to happen by chance, and therefore both men were somewhat careless with their lives. Time would probably change that, when the world was older, and the Gathering was closer, but for now there was little reason to fear the threat of death. It was virtually non existent.
Outside the castle, the yards were bustling with activity. Knights and soldiers practised their sword play and their archery, whilst others trained the horses they would one day ride into battle. Methos and Kronos walked past them all, heading for the stables. They preferred to practice together, rather than with the others. It was almost impossible to avoid been wounded in some small way, especially given the competitive nature of the knights. Immortals healed so fast that it was too risky to let the mortals get too close. Although they might already suspect that Arthur and Merlin were something out of the ordinary, neither Immortal was willing to give them any further grounding for their fears.
The stable master was unsurprised to see his king, and the king's magician, preparing for an unattended journey. Both men were now quite adept at escaping from the castle unseen. He watched in amusement as they rode away, both casting back furtive glances to ensure that they had made a clean break.
The forest was cool and still. It had rained recently, and drops of water still clung to some of the leaves, hanging precariously before dropping to the forest floor. There was no sound to disrupt the peace, beyond that made by the horses, and by the birds.
"It's just like the old days." Methos breathed in deeply as he looked around. "Remember, Kronos? The times when we came here before. No one had even heard of Rome then."
"It was quiet alright." Kronos smiled. "The whole world was like this, or so it seemed. You showed me a thousand different peoples to test my strength against. If you'd given the word, we could have stopped the Romans from landing here, and kept this country for ourselves."
"That wouldn't have been right." Methos brushed some branches aside as they rode, and leaned slightly to avoid their sharp swing back into place. "What would we have done with a whole country, anyway?"
"Ruled it. Raised armies. Conquered the world, maybe. Who cares?" Kronos gestured about him. "It's all relative, anyway. So... inconsequential. Don't lose sight of that, brother. You get so attached. All that matters here is Mordred."
"Maybe." Methos gave him a wicked grin. "But I am king after all."
"Oh, right. King of Camelot. It might as well be King of Not A Lot, so don't forget it. Half of this country still hasn't admitted to having even heard of you, let alone anything more positive. So don't get big headed."
"Me? Big headed?" The expression on the king's face was one of total innocence. "I can't get big headed, or when I unite this country in a blinding display of tactical ingenuity, I won't be able to get the crown to fit. Now be a good chap and lead the way would you?"
"Certainly." Kronos pushed his horse ahead. "Don't get lost back there, your majesty. I'm not known for my skill with a search party."
"I'll remember that."
They rode on a little further, reverting to the companionable silence which usually served them well. Conversation was not the best way to attract game. Gradually the forest thinned to the mixture of woodland and grassland that had proved to be a good site for deer hunting. It was a piece of land which Methos did not feel that he recognised, which surprised him As they left the shelter of the trees, he glanced around. The sun still seemed bright in the sky, and yet it was clear that a mist was descending, grey and threatening. The old man let his hand rest on his sword hilt, the powerful sixth sense which governed all his actions already shouting warnings. Kronos seemed similarly tense, and even the horses were on edge. Neither man spoke, but instead kept their eyes on the way ahead, unsure why a phenomenon as natural as fog should have disturbed them both so much. As it descended upon them, however, their unease increased.
"What do you think?" Kronos asked, his voice low.
"I think - I think it's just fog, and we're a pair of old women." Methos hardly sounded convinced. "What do you think?"
"I don't." Kronos drew his sword, but Methos merely heard the scrape of iron; his confederate was almost completely hidden by the mist.
"The sword is unnecessary, I assure you." The voice was soft, and it seemed to come from up ahead. Methos swung toward the sound, and as he did so, the mist cleared. It remained around them, blocking the sun, but he could now see Kronos; and somebody else.
"Who are you?" It was Kronos who spoke, his voice characteristically blunt, almost harsh. "What do you want, and what is this mist?"
"So many questions." The new arrival, an old man dressed in a grey robe, smiled benignly. "The mist is just a mist, and as for my identity... Well that is irrelevant. What is a name to a man who himself uses an alias... Merlin?"
Methos felt Kronos tense, and put out a hand to forestall any sudden violence.
"You know us?" he asked. The old man glanced towards him, the smile unfaltering, and his voice still soft and polite.
"Of course I know you, Arthur. I've been waiting to meet you. We have to talk."
"We do?" Methos had been afraid of that. He could not feel the presence of Immortals, but somehow he could not interpret that in a reassuring way.
"Yes, we do. Please follow me." The old man turned. After a second, Methos began to dismount. Kronos stared at him as if he were mad.
"You can't be serious. You have no idea who this man is. You can't just go off with him, certainly not on your own." Up ahead, the strange man in the robe looked back at this.
"You are far too suspicious, Kronos," he said. "If I had wanted his head I would have taken it by now, and yours too. Don't think that because you are young and strong you are capable of defending yourselves against me. Now come Methos. We have to talk. Your friend must remain here." Again he turned to leave, and this time he did not wait. Methos hesitated for a brief moment, and then jumped to the ground.
"Forget it Kronos." Methos threw his old friend the reins. "Stay here, and keep your eyes open. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"No buts Merlin." Methos grinned. "I'll be okay. You just watch out for yourself. Face it - if that man knows as much as he seems to, he could have killed us already. We'll just have to trust him. I'll see you soon." He took a deep breath. "Wish me luck." And he walked into the mist.
"Good luck, brother, for what it's worth." The words sounded unnaturally loud in the silence which now engulfed Kronos, and as he sat astride his horse, his sword still in his hand, the mist descended upon him once again.
Methos walked along in pursuit of the strange man. The mist lifted as they went by, creating a path which closed up behind them. The old Immortal tried to ignore the disturbing sense of foreboding which had consumed him. This peculiar man had come from nowhere, and had called both Immortals by their given names; names which they had believed were known only to each other. It frightened him, and Methos had not known real fear in a long time.
"This way." Several feet ahead of his pursuer, the robed guide stepped to one side, and the mist rose to reveal the entrance to a cave. Both men had to bend slightly to pass through the doorway, but once inside, the ceiling rose sharply, allowing them to stand up straight. Methos looked around. A rocky passage stretched out in front of him, dark and winding, with small torches positioned at intervals along its length. They did not provide enough light to dispel the gloom, but they did enable the Immortal to avoid stumbling on the uneven floor. He followed his guide down the passage without a word. Somehow, even without having tried, he knew that speech would be useless. This man had no intention of answering his questions just yet.
They walked on for some time. The tunnel twisted and dipped, at times seeming almost impassable, and yet at other times hardly appearing to be a tunnel at all, due to its size and smooth walls. Methos had a sensation that time was passing around him; that the hours were racing by, whilst he burrowed deeper and deeper into the earth. A burst of claustrophobia flashed through him, and he fought off an attack of panic. Methos didn't care much for tunnels. They were dark and unpleasant, and quite unnecessary to his way of thinking. He did his utmost, ordinarily, to avoid going underground, and yet here he was voluntarily going further and further from the surface. His nerves were already in pieces, and the growing sense of claustrophobia did not help. This brought back too many memories; recollections of burials when well meaning strangers had assumed that he was beyond help. There was more than one Immortal in the world with a profound dislike of enclosed spaces.
"Here." The mysterious guide spoke suddenly, and his voice sounded unnaturally loud in the still tunnel. He gestured to one side, and ducked through a door set into the wall. Methos followed, fully expecting to be overpowered, or even beheaded. Instead he found himself in a large room. It was brightly lit by many thousands of candles which lined the walls, sending peculiar shadows leaping about from floor to ceiling. The Immortal stared about in amazement, confused by the vastness of the space.
"Where are we?" he asked. The strange man shrugged.
"Nowhere. Or somewhere. It has to be one of the two, doesn't it?"
"I - I suppose so." Methos decided to change tack. "Who are you?"
"I am..." the old man smiled. "I am me. I am... One who watches. But if you prefer to use names, you can call me Vigio."
"Vigio. Fine. Now where are we?" It always made Methos feel better to know who he was dealing with, even if he only had a name. It was a start at least.
"We are in a cave." Vigio smiled. "But you knew that already, didn't you. Unfortunately I can't tell you any more."
"At least tell me how you knew my name."
"That's easy. I heard you talking with your friend." It was a convincing excuse, but somehow Methos felt that it was not the truth. He decided not to press the point further.
"So then why am I here?" he asked.
"To meet me." A woman had come, apparently from nowhere, and now stood behind Methos. He whirled about, and stared in confusion at this new arrival. She was tall, with flaming red hair, and bright, dark eyes.
"And who are you?"
"I am Aquia." She smiled. "And you are Methos. Except that you're not Methos; you're Arthur."
"Can't I be both?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. You have to make that decision."
"What do you mean?" Methos was even more confused now.
"You have to decide if you want to unite England and rule it as King Arthur, or if you want to defeat Mordred."
"I rather thought that it might come to that."
"It always comes down to that. It has to. Do you want to make history, or do you want to be a part of something more important? Living as King Arthur - that way lies fame and glory. Alternatively, you can fight Mordred - defeat a dangerous source of evil - and probably be all but forgotten. Worthwhile battles like this one have no place in the annals of history." She smiled. "Where do you stand, Methos?"
"It's not that simple. Do you have any idea how much hope people have in me - in Arthur? They think that I can bring some glory back to England. There are even some Scots who think that I can unite the whole of Britain. I can't abandon them just for some battle between Immortals that they can never hope to understand."
"That's for you to decide. But defeating Mordred doesn't necessarily mean abandoning your attempts to unite the country. It just means that they're less likely to succeed. You have to decide what your primary objective is to be."
Methos frowned. "Why does this concern you? You're not Immortal. What do you know about this?"
"Just... legends, passed down by my people." She smiled. "You're not a legend, though, I can see that. I know things, Methos, and I can't tell you why, or how. You just have to accept that I know certain things about you; and one of the things that I know is that I don't want Mordred to be the One."
"The... One? You know about that?" Methos stepped back. This was getting more and more unnerving with each passing second. "Nobody knows about that. Who are you?"
"That doesn't matter." Aquia turned, and began to pace, her movements making the candles on the nearest wall flicker gently. "I know things, Methos, that's all. Certain things. I can't tell you why, because you wouldn't understand. I just wanted to help you to focus. You have to remember who you are. What you are. This is more than you think it is, Methos. Mordred has plans which could bring him closer to the Prize than you could ever imagine."
"What do you mean?"
"I can't tell you." She smiled. "I'm not even supposed to tell you this much. My people have never interfered with the things we witness. It's not our way. You have to find out in your own time. I had to prepare you, though. To give you a warning. I couldn't take the risk that you might forget about Mordred - become complacent."
"I haven't forgotten him."
"Good. Then don't forget that he's not alone."
"I hadn't. Merlin isn't about to let me forget about Morgan le Fay." Methos smiled despite himself. His friend had become almost obsessed with the Immortal woman, although he knew almost nothing about her. Methos himself had never seen her, but he had heard stories about her beauty and her strange powers. She had tried to hypnotise Kronos ten years ago, when they had last met, but she had not succeeded. All the same, she seemed to have bewitched him in one way at least.
"Remembering may not be enough. Morgan le Fay grows stronger with each new day. She hasn't been idle. She has been learning."
"I see." Methos sighed. "Alright Aquia. You win. I don't know who you are, or how you know what you know, but I'm willing to accept that there's more at stake here than England. I'll fight Mordred when I get the chance, and I'll try to put my business with him before that of the country. But I won't abandon my attempts to unify England. Not altogether. This country means a very great deal to me, although to be honest I'm not entirely sure why."
"Perhaps you've decided that it's time to choose a home." Aquia smiled. "I'm pleased with your decision, Methos, and now I can help you to seal it." She walked to the wall, and reached amongst the candles, extracting a package wrapped in thick cloth. Slowly she unrolled it, revealing a sword. It was long and beautiful, the blade bright and silver. Even its handle was beautiful, inlaid with stones that Methos could not name.
"This sword is named Excalibur. It has been wielded by others before you, and it will probably be used by many others who will come after. It will help you to defeat Mordred, if you let it. Just remember that Excalibur belongs to no one. When your task is done, you must return it to the earth that it came from. Do you understand?"
"I think so."
"Good." She held out the sword, and he took it, turning it over in his hands. It seemed to sing to him, and he stared in awe at the blade, marvelling at the workmanship. It was truly amazing. It was not only the sword, however, which claimed his attention. As he took it from Aquia, he saw her hands, held near to him for the first time. On one wrist, a tattoo was clearly evident; dark blue against her pale Celtic skin. It was a strange design that he was not familiar with, enclosed in a circle, almost as though it were trying to hide itself from watchful eyes. Aquia noticed that he was looking, and she smiled at his curiosity.
"Are you interested in tribal markings?" she asked him. He smiled, self consciously.
"Sorry. I've never seen a mark like that before."
"It's the mark of my people. No one knows for sure where it originated from. It was probably given to some ancient ancestor as a symbol of his worth, or his position in society. Who can tell? My people are even older than you are." It was almost as if she knew that her references to his true identity unsettled him, and would stop him from inquiring further. He smiled uncertainly, and drew his old sword. It seemed battered and sad in comparison with Excalibur. All the same, he felt a pang of comradeship for it. It had served him well.
"What should I do with this?" he asked. Aquia took the weapon.
"I'll see that it's dealt with," she said. "This sword has had its day. If you're to go on, you must leave some things behind."
"I know." He smiled, and slid Excalibur into its new place on his belt. "Is that all?"
"Good. Then I have a question. Why now? Why didn't you come to me ten years ago? If you know so much about me, why leave it so long?"
"Ah." She smile awkwardly. "For... many reasons. We had to make sure that you were the right man to approach. We had to... find things out for ourselves. There's been no reason to talk to you for the last decade. Mordred has been far away, on the other side of the world."
"He has?" Methos' eyes narrowed. "He's come back, hasn't he? That's why you wanted to talk to me now. Where is he? What is he planning?"
"I can't tell you that. I told you; my people don't interfere. We watch, that's all. You must go now, Methos."
There was a brief silence. Methos regarded Aquia thoughtfully, wondering if there was any way to break her resolve. Then he sighed. "How do I get out of here?"
Aquia looked relieved. She gestured towards a doorway, set at the opposite side of the cavern to where he had entered. "Go through there."
"Fine." He indicated Excalibur. "And thankyou, I guess."
"Don't thank me, Methos. The time may come when I have to thank you." Aquia turned, and left the room by a third door. Vigio followed, his long silence unbroken. Methos remained where he was for a moment, staring after them, before another burst of claustrophobia clouded his mind. Even though he was in a large cavern, he was still far below the ground, and that disturbed him. he went quickly to the door which had been indicated. For a second he considered following Aquia and Vigio, but he thought the better of it. Perhaps some questions were best left unanswered. He couldn't help thinking that he was better off not knowing how these people knew so much about him. He ducked through the doorway, and began to follow a new passageway along its twisting and gloomy length. Unease descended upon him once again, and he gritted his teeth, scowling into the darkness, and trying to console himself with cheerful thoughts. At least this tunnel was going upwards. He would break out into the open air eventually; all he had to do was to keep walking.
Alone in the mist, Kronos waited. He still held his sword in his hand, and kept a firm grip on the reins of Methos' horse. The silence stretched out all around him, unnatural in its completeness. No animal sounds disturbed the quiet, and there was no wind. Only the soft breathing of the Immortal could be heard. The horses themselves made no noise.
"Put the sword away." Kronos turned, his weapon swinging towards the voice before it had completed the sentence. The Immortal cut a fearsome image, sitting tall astride his black horse, his cold eyes burning with hostility. The owner of the voice, however, seemed unconcerned. He strolled out of the mist, dressed in a long grey robe, the hood pulled up so that it obscured his face.
"Who are you?" If the newcomer had not yet realised that Kronos was dangerous, his voice should have got the message across. The Immortal spoke quietly, a razor sharp edge behind his soft voice.
"I am Lorus," the man told him, his own voice light and cheerful. "I am a Druid. And you, my friend, are not what you appear to be."
"What's that to you?"
"Nothing. Perhaps." The man turned. "Follow me." And he began to walk away.
"Wait!" Kronos nudged his horse, drawing level with the Druid, and allowing his sword to rest lightly against the stranger's neck. "Why should I follow you?"
"Because your curiosity will not allow you to remain here." Lorus smiled, although it was lost in the folds of his hood. "Leave the horses here. They'll wait." He pushed aside the sword, and began to walk away again. "Or does the great Kronos fear a lone old man without a weapon?"
"I'm not afraid of anything." Kronos jumped down from the horse.
"Good." Lorus gestured impatiently. "Come on then."
They walked for several minutes down a long slope, until eventually the mist cleared a little They were standing by a stream. A smith's forge stood nearby, worked by another robed Druid with a hidden face. Kronos looked from one man to the other, suspicion and distrust showing in his every movement.
"He's not very trusting, is he?" The man at the forge turned around, but if he was smiling, it was impossible to tell. His face, like that of Lorus, was hidden completely by his hood.
"No, just as we expected." Lorus sat down on a rock, and pulled back his hood. His face was lined and clearly ancient. Kronos eyed him with a mixture of interest and suspicion. He was always intrigued by the old. Age was so relative, so far beyond anything that he could understand.
"What is this?" he asked. Lorus smiled, the wrinkles gathering in clumps around his eyes as he did so.
"A meeting. We have something for you." Lorus gestured at his companion, who lifted a sword from somewhere by his side. It looked so new that it could only have recently been forged, probably by the Druid himself. He threw the sword at Kronos, apparently carelessly. The weapon spun lazily through the air, and the Immortal caught it easily, tossing it experimentally in his hand. It was perfectly balanced, smooth and exact, its blade unblemished. He stared at it, almost mesmerised. Dark shadows seemed to move within it, gliding along its surface. The whole thing appeared to be alive. Unconsciously he slid his own sword back into his belt.
"This is incredible." Despite his general dislike of strangers, Kronos smiled broadly. "It must have been made by a genius."
"Thankyou." The Druid by the forge inclined his head modestly. "It was made for you, for a reason."
"I don't understand." The frown returned to Kronos' face, sending dark shadows through his eyes, in tandem with the ones that seemed to flow across the sword blade.
"It's simple." Lorus met the dark gaze as though he were looking into the eyes of a child, rather then those of a man who could have killed him effortlessly, without reason or conscience. "There are battles to be fought, Merlin. People to fight. You know that. A warrior needs a weapon that can be equal to its task, and that one suits you. It's dark, and you have a dark path to walk along, my friend."
"Do I?" Kronos sounded as though this was something that he had always known. He had, after all, never spent any great amount of time trying to be a model human being.
"We all have our place," Lorus told him. "And everyone has his... other half. You are Methos' dark side."
Kronos laughed. "He has a pretty good dark side of his own if you ask me."
"That's not quite what I mean." Lorus smiled. "But you know that. The Druids see things; understand things that others have forgotten. In time they'll be lost altogether, but for the time being... You must understand, Kronos. Not everyone is oblivious to the ways of your race, and those of us who are aware, have our concerns. It's not a game, you have to understand that. Mordred cannot be allowed to win, and there are many others who are similarly unsuitable. In all your playful wanderings you have to remember that certain people have to be removed from the scene. We mortals have a part to play too. If one of you is going to rule us one day, we have a right to try and make sure it's a suitable one."
Kronos laughed. "And you're helping me? I'm nobody's fool, Druid. I'm nobody's 'suitable choice'. Believe this, my old priest; nobody would ever want me to win the Prize."
"That doesn't matter. Maybe you'll understand one day, if you bother to think about it. The dark forces have their place too, and your place is to be Methos' shadow."
"You think he'll win the Prize."
Lorus smiled. "I think I've said too much. I see things, Immortal. I may only be a human, but I have a kind of magic too. And that's all I'm going to say. Now go back, before your friend returns, and wonders where you are. You'd best leave your old sword here. My companion will find it some suitable fate."
"I still don't understand."
"No. You probably never will. Just... be who you are, Immortal. Let Methos be who he is. Don't fight your destiny; but if it takes another hundred years, you must stop Mordred, and Morgan le Fay. That's all that you need to understand. Go now."
Kronos was silent for a second. He looked from one to the other of the Druids, then drew his old sword, looking fondly at its scarred blade one more time. Finally, he threw a careless smile at the smile, before tossing him the sword.
"Here," he said. "Make it into something worthwhile. And ... thankyou," and with that he was gone. The old smith watched him disappear into the mist, before he stared down at the old sword.
"It'll make many things before it reaches its destiny," he said, almost to himself. "But a part of it at least will find its way through Time, and reach you again Kronos. The spirit of this sword will hide within the blade that will one day take your head."
A week passed, and the two Immortals put their strange experiences behind them. They had told each other most of what they had seen and heard, and tried to carry on as normal. It was odd, though, that no matter how hard they searched, they could never again find the place where they had been engulfed in the strange mist.
One day, Kronos was testing his new sword against Lancelot, the best of Arthur's knights. He had grown well in the ten years since he had first arrived at Uther's castle, accompanied by Guinevere, and Ancelus, his father. Now he was twenty-five, and had already begun to make his name into a legend. The two men - one an Immortal, the other a pre-Immortal - battled furiously together in the courtyard, a distant memory hanging in the minds of both. Once, when they had fought together in the courtyard of Uther's castle, it had been immediately prior to a sneak attack by Mordred. Lancelot had seen Merlin killed that day, and yet he was still alive. That event had become folklore amongst the knights of Camelot, and Merlin was seen as a great magician. He seemed to find that amusing, and Lancelot could not understand why.
On the castle walls, a sentry, watching the sparring knights, was startled by a call from beneath him. He looked down. At the foot of the wall, an old woman stood staring up at him, her wrinkled face grinning toothlessly as she squinted into the sunlight.
"Can I come in?" she asked, her reedy voice barely reaching the sentry. He looked about, natural suspicion making him consider the possibility that she might be a decoy. He could see nothing or nobody, though, and the old woman herself could not pose much of a threat.
"Of course. One moment old woman." He went quickly to the gates, opening them enough for the woman to pass. She slipped through the crack, smiling her thanks at the guard, and hurried as best she could across the courtyard. Methos saw her pass, as he walked by with Guinevere. The old woman smiled at him, an odd, knowing smile, and he frowned. She was an Immortal, and yet she was so old. That was unusual. Still, she could not possibly be a hazard in such a well guarded castle, especially given her great age.
"Is something wrong?" Guinevere asked, seeing his frown. He smiled at her.
"No, nothing's wrong. I was just wondering about that old woman."
"Probably a soothsayer or a storyteller."
"Probably." He watched her as she breezed across the courtyard, seeing Kronos freeze as she neared him. The surprise on the Immortal's face as he saw her mirrored that of Methos. The old man shrugged, a gesture which his comrade noticed, and answered with a nod. Old women were not their concern. Methos went back to walking with Guinevere. She was getting older, and although she was still far from old, she would not stay young forever. Methos wondered how much store she placed in the stories which existed about him; whether she believed that he was a magician, and couldn't grow old. Someday she would grow old herself, and would have to look into the eyes of her still-young husband. He could hardly pretend then that there was nothing out of the ordinary going on. It was always so hard, though, to take that first step towards telling someone the truth. To tell a loved one - especially a wife - that she was going to deteriorate and fade away, whilst he had the secret of eternal life, was one of the hardest things that Methos had ever had to do. It got harder every time, too, as he became less willing to handle all of the heartache.
"It's been ten years." Guinevere held his hand lightly as they wandered through the castle. "I - I'm sorry that I haven't been able to give you children."
"That's not your fault." Methos squeezed her hand softly. "It's fate, that's all. And anyway, we've had Lancelot and Gawain."
"That's not the same."
"No, but it's more than we'd have had otherwise." Usually, Methos told someone he settled down with, giving her warning that it was impossible for him to father children. Things were different here; they had to be. This time around he was supposedly a king, and he had to maintain a regal image. Somehow it hurt just as much not to tell Guinevere the truth, as it would have done to have told her everything.
"I know." She slid her arm around his shoulders. "I just wanted you to know that I'm sorry I haven't been able to give you an heir."
"I don't need an heir. I've nothing to give one." He sighed. "Kings and queens need realms to rule over, Guinevere, and so far all I have is this castle." He laughed suddenly. "Actually it's rather nice being a king of nowhere. I don't have to worry about gathering taxes for one thing. Come on. I fancy a swim."
"Me too." She pulled away from him, and began to run towards the castle gate. After a moment, he ran after her.
Kronos sheathed his sword before Lancelot's had hit the ground. Disarming the young knight was not too difficult for someone with more than two thousand years of experience behind him. Lancelot dusted off his weapon, frustrated yet again. Somehow, despite numerous good intentions, Kronos could never bring himself to let the knight win. Pride was always stronger than kindness, it seemed, especially for him.
"That's all for now Lancelot."
"Alright Merlin." The young knight watched the king's magician as he walked away. He didn't think he would ever understand either Merlin or Arthur. They so often spoke in riddles, they hid their good humour behind silence, and they rarely mixed with the others in the castle. Only a handful were allowed past the mystery, and Lancelot had no idea why he was one member of that select group. Arthur was always telling him that he would understand one day, and that he would have to wait until then. It was hardly a satisfactory answer. On the other hand, Lancelot remembered only too clearly the day that he had seen Merlin struck down by Mordred's sword; fatally wounded without a doubt. It was too confusing to waste time pondering over. Lancelot saw Merlin disappear out of sight, and turned away. Let the magician guard his own affairs; Lancelot gave them no further thought.
Kronos turned a corner and glanced around. There was no one in sight, except for the old woman, and he called out to her. She turned, and smiled at him, her face suddenly transformed, in his eyes at least. The vacant stare was gone, and suddenly she seemed full of interest.
"You're Merlin," she said, as if to confirm a suspicion.
"Yes. And you're...?"
"You can call me Margaret."
"Why are you here... Margaret?"
"To find you." She smiled wickedly. "To take your head perhaps."
"If I thought there was any chance of that I'd have taken yours by now."
"You'd take an old woman's head? In a castle full of witnesses?"
Kronos shrugged. "I don't care what the mortals think. It doesn't concern me whether they call me a hero or a murderer. I don't need their approval. Now what do you want here?"
"You, like I said." She drew closer. "I wanted to meet with the king's magician, and to offer him a proposition."
"A mutual friend is nearing a great victory. A rather spectacular change of fortune. He'd like to think that he could be friends with you, rather than enemies."
"A mutual friend?" Kronos' face suddenly darkened. "You've come from Mordred." He started to turn away, but she caught his arm. She seemed surprisingly strong for so old a woman, and he turned back, surprised. The woman stared deep into his eyes, and he found that he could not look away.
"I was right before," she said. "You don't belong with him, Merlin. You're not like him. You belong with us, on the other side. Darkness and light. You know which one you are, and it's not the same as him."
"Everyone thinks they know me all of a sudden." Kronos found that his voice was hoarse, as if his throat had suddenly gone dry. "Arthur's not the great force for good that everyone seems to think he is."
"But can you honestly say that he's like you?" The old woman's voice had acquired a lilting tone, and she was getting closer to him, reaching out for his hand. Somehow he was unable to pull it back.
"Darkness and shadows, Merlin. I see them in your eyes. You don't belong with Arthur, you belong with me." She smiled, and quite suddenly he saw her as she really was, and felt the full intensity of the power that had been hidden, like her face, by her disguise.
"Morgan le Fay!" He tried to step back, but his legs would not obey him. Instead he could only look deep into the black eyes of the women in front of him. For the first time in his life he was incapable of drawing his sword.
"You don't belong with Arthur, you belong with me." She repeated the words softly, and he could feel himself coming to agree with her. Part of him disagreed strongly, but for some reason he could not be bothered to argue. As Morgan turned away, and began to walk towards the castle gate, Kronos found that he was following her. It was an odd sensation which had engulfed him, but not an entirely unpleasant one. He couldn't fear for his life with Morgan le Fay; it couldn't hurt to find out what she wanted. It couldn't hurt him at all.
The secluded lake was cool and still, before Methos broke the surface, diving cleanly into the silent depths. Guinevere, combing her wet hair as she sat on the banks, laughed.
"Show off!" she shouted. Methos resurfaced by her feet, and grinned up at her teasingly.
"Is that a gleam of jealousy I see in your eyes, my lady?"
"Certainly not. I could probably beat you across that lake."
"So you say."
"Yes?" Methos spoke brightly, his voice full of an over eager desire to please. "What is it, oh love of my life?"
"Okay." He disappeared beneath the surface, and grabbed at her feet, which dangled invitingly in the water near to him.
"Arthur!" She splashed at him in exasperation.
"Your majesty?" The voice called suddenly across the clearing, and Methos pulled himself out of the lake immediately. He recognised the voice, and its urgency. Donald MacLeod, the head of his army, was striding towards the lake, his huge claymore swinging at his side with each step.
"Donald!" Methos caught up his shirt from the ground and slung it on. The day had become hot, and he was glad of the breeze blowing across his damp skin. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know." The soft Scottish burr had become stronger, which was a firm indication of MacLeod's concern. "Merlin has disappeared. One of the sentries tells me he was seen leaving the castle in the company of an old woman. The sentry called to him, but he didn't answer."
"An old woman? I saw her myself... She seemed harmless enough..." Methos frowned. He hated to admit it to himself, but it was quite likely that Kronos was taking her somewhere quiet, with one specific goal in mind. The logic was simple really; she was so old that someone was sure to take her head before much longer. It might as well be Kronos. The exhilaration of a Quickening was addictive to many, and it had been a long time since either Immortal had taken one.
"She seemed harmless, aye, but who's to say that she was?" The Highlander shrugged. "I know that Merlin's no fool, your majesty, but I don't like it."
"No, neither do I." Methos bit his lip. How had that woman managed to survive when she was so old? She had not felt especially weak, and must have taken a Quickening or two in her lifetime, but how was that possible when she was, in all honesty, too old to take part in serious combat? There seemed to be a clear likelihood that she was working with somebody; and that meant danger. All the same, Kronos was more than capable of looking after himself.
"I've sent a group of guards out to look for them." MacLeod seemed slightly apologetic. "I know I should have checked with you first, but I wasn't sure there'd be time."
"It's alright, Donald. I know you worry about us when we go out without guards." Methos felt rather like a small boy, sneaking out after he had been forbidden to do so. Donald grinned at him.
"You very rarely do go out completely unattended my liege..." His eyes were round and innocent. Methos returned the grin. He had always liked Donald MacLeod - since the moment when they had first met - and he enjoyed a relaxed and easy relationship with him. Donald was one man that he felt he could tell the truth to, although he knew that he never would. The truth had no place here. Somehow Arthur and Merlin had become shrouded in mystery and folklore, and the truth was even further beyond the fiction that had been constructed. These people were willing to accept that he was magical, ever young, or any number of other things; but to tell any of them that he was, in reality, an immortal warrior of uncertain origin, who had spent three and a half thousand years wandering the world, really was going too far. There were times when he almost didn't believe it himself.
"Which direction was Merlin heading in?" he asked, snapping suddenly back to the present.
"East." Donald gestured vaguely in the named direction. "He's been gone less than an hour, but they were travelling fast."
"Fast? But that woman could barely walk at all when I saw her. She seemed... confident enough, but she was an old woman. She could never keep up with Merlin."
MacLeod frowned deeply, the furrows creasing his brow, so that his eyebrows almost met. "I never thought... But you're not saying that she was in disguise? That she's not really old?"
"I don't know what I'm saying. How fast was she moving exactly?"
"Fast enough. You know how Merlin walks, my liege. Fast; or fastish."
"Damn it. Damn it!" Methos grabbed his boots and pulled them on, and was already running away as he began to buckle on his sword belt. There was no time to admire the way that the sun caught Excalibur's perfect silver blade as it swung around his waist.
"Arthur?" Confused, Guinevere caught up with him, still soaking wet and only half dressed. "Arthur, wait!"
"There may not be any time." Methos set his jaw. "Stay here, Guinevere. I have to go after Merlin."
"Not now Guinevere!" He hated to be impatient with her, hated to sound so irritable, but somehow he couldn't help it. This was a time when he could not share the moment with Guinevere. She couldn't understand.
"I'm coming with you, Arthur." Donald, his big strides allowing him to keep pace easily with his monarch, spoke in a voice which defied argument. Methos doubled his speed, but said nothing. He had to get to the castle, and get a horse, and then follow Kronos. He could not even consider the possibility that he might already be too late.
"We're being followed." Morgan le Fay had abandoned her disguise, and now strode just ahead of Kronos. She held his sword in her hands, turning it over and over to examine the blade.
"So I don't want them to know that we're together."
Kronos was feeling very confused. Added to the unease caused by his apparent inability to think for himself, was his anguish at her possession of his sword. He hated to see it in somebody else's hands. He needed his sword, or he could not feel complete. "But... they'll see you as an old woman - won't they?"
"No. That was an illusion, a form of mass hypnotism. It takes too much of my energy to keep it up for long. I'm not sure that I could do it properly again just yet." She glanced towards him thoughtfully. "You'll take care of them, won't you?"
"If you like." He looked from her to his sword, and then back at her again, an unspoken question hanging in the air. She smiled, and handed him the sword, almost regretfully. It was rather attractive. Kronos looked deep into the blade. He could see his own reflection there, and something caught in the back of his mind. He thought he heard an old man's voice, speaking in a language that only he remembered; but it was probably just the wind. He looked around. There was no sign of pursuit, but his sixth sense told him that Morgan was right. A wicked grin crossed his face. Time to have some fun.
Methos closed his eyes briefly, and clenched his jaw in ill suppressed anger. The grief fought against his growing rage, and he shook his head to try to clear the confusion of clashing emotions.
"Oh Kronos..." he whispered, his voice thick.
"Pardon?" Beside him, Donald MacLeod straightened from examining the body of a guard.
"Er... nothing." Methos took another look about him. Six guards, their swords drawn, had been attacked. They bore numerous body wounds, which could all have been fatal, but each man had been beheaded. Such mutilation was the mark of an Immortal, and Methos could not imagine an old woman capable of killing six men. He remembered his theory that she might have allies. That at least raised the possibility that Kronos was innocent of these deaths; but it suggested that he might be the next fatality. All the same, his headless body was not among the six.
"There are tracks here." MacLeod pointed, and then frowned. "Two went past, one came back, and then he went again, I think. That doesn't make a lot of sense."
"Yes it does." Methos lowered his head. he had always known that Kronos was more than capable of such actions, but he had honestly believed that he had successfully got his friend under some sort of control. It was clear, though, that he had passed this way with the old woman, had returned to handle the guards, and then had hurried back to rejoin his new friend. But why?
"Yes, your majesty?"
"Stay here. I have to go on alone."
"No buts, Donald." Methos rested one hand on Excalibur, trying to find some new resolve within him. "This is my fight, not yours."
"You think this is something to do with Merlin, don't you."
"It's alright, I'll stay." MacLeod frowned. "But be careful my liege. I - I know that Merlin is... a strange man, but I know that he wouldn't do this without reason. Not when he would know that it would bring your greatest disapproval. If he is responsible, I fear that he is not himself."
"You could be right." All the same, Methos could not think of anything to back up Donald's theory. He wanted to believe that Kronos was beyond blame for this, but who was there that could possibly be powerful enough to force him? And besides: if the truth be known, Kronos might have needed to be forced to go against Methos' wishes, but he would not have needed all that much persuasion to kill.
"I will." He smiled. "I'm sorry, Donald. It's nothing personal, but there are some things that have to be between Merlin and I."
"I understand." Donald smiled back, and Methos got the impression that he really did understand, to a degree. As a Scotsman, a Highlander, MacLeod didn't really belong here. Maybe he could appreciate that Methos himself was an outsider, in his own way.
"Good." With a deep sigh and a heavy heart, Methos walked forward, following the rough trail. He couldn't believe that Kronos could have changed so quickly, but all the same, there was a possibility that this was the end of their long travels together.
The sun began to lower itself past its zenith, sinking rapidly towards the curve of the horizon. The Immortal, who had known for years that the Earth was far from flat, and had long ago reasoned out where the sun went at night, walked on along a trail that had long since petered out. Only instinct kept him walking in the same direction, and as the first blue mist of evening began to make it hard for him to see, he gave up looking for signs that his quarry had passed this way. He would just have to keep on walking, and worry later about where he would end up.
The vast walls of a castle rose up in the distance, and Methos pondered them curiously. There had been a castle here for years; an abandoned one if he remembered correctly. It had belonged to some Anglo-Roman who had died and left no heirs. Uther had spoken all about it. He approached the castle cautiously, aware that there was a light burning in at least one of the windows. There might be more, round the other side, but he could not see them. He frowned, unable to see any guards. That worried him. Could the castle really be empty, save for just Kronos and the old woman?
He hurried closer, stumbling on the uneven ground. There was no moat, but the castle was on a hill, and it was hard going to move up it swiftly, whilst remaining silent, and almost flat against the ground. As he reached the top of the hill he drew his sword, and pressed himself up against the wooden walls, trying desperately to regain control of his ragged breathing. The tension that he felt was making him even more breathless than were his exertions.
"Methos." The voice which called his name was loud and careless, and Methos whirled about. Had Kronos gone insane, using his real name like that? Methos had no place here; everyone had to believe that he was Arthur. He looked into the shadows of the approaching night, but could see just the vague shape of his associate.
"Is that you Merlin?" he asked, keeping his voice low.
"Of course it's me." Kronos strode closer, and Methos saw that he had drawn his sword. "Who else would know your name?"
"Half the countryside now. You should know better Merlin." Methos took a few steps closer to meet his friend. "Why did you kill those guards?"
"Guards? What guards?" Kronos seemed genuinely confused. "I haven't killed anybody since... I don't know. Since the last time." He grinned. "Terrible, isn't it, when I don't even remember."
"Kronos..." Methos almost whispered his name. "Six guards, from Camelot, were following you. They're dead now. Beheaded. Did you have anything to do with that?"
"I - don't know. Six guards?" Kronos seemed suddenly confused. "Methos - Arthur - I-"He frowned suddenly, and then smiled. "Come on into the castle. You'll understand then."
"Everything!" The younger Immortal spoke brightly. "You'll see it all. They're in there, and they'll tell you."
"Well they are of course." Kronos gestured up at the walls, and then lowered his tone. "She is so beautiful, Arthur. I've never seen anyone like her before. She's fantastic. Such incredible eyes." He grinned dreamily. "I'm sorry, now, for making fun of you when you fell in love with Guinevere. I understand now."
"What are you talking about?" Methos looked towards the light burning in the window above them. "There was an old woman. Remember her? What happened to her?"
"The old woman? Well that's what I mean. She wasn't old, not really. I didn't understand either at first, but I do now. Come on in, Arthur, and meet her. You'll like her too. You're sure to. Of course, her husband is a bit of a misery, but that doesn't have to be a problem. Come on Methos. Please? I'll have to make you come, if you don't come on your own."
"You will, huh?" Methos glanced suddenly towards the castle gates. A figure had appeared there, tall and dressed in a black gown. It blew around her ankles, giving her an unworldly appearance. For some reason he felt a ripple of fear dance along his spine, which was only partially to do with the fact that she was an immensely powerful Immortal. Kronos had sensed her too, and he whirled around. For a second he seemed frozen, and then he turned back to Methos. This time when he spoke, the jokes had gone.
"You're coming inside, Arthur. Now."
"I guess I am." Methos looked at Kronos' sword. He could try to fight, but he had no chance of winning, and to die at the hands of your best friend was never the best of options. "Lead on, Merlin."
"You first I think." The other Immortal gestured towards the figure at the gates, and Methos smiled ruefully, heading in her direction. Kronos followed close at his heels. His whole manner had changed, and now he seemed almost like a different person. At the gates, the mysterious woman who awaited them smiled through the darkness. Methos' eyes met hers, and he smiled back at her, his expression one of gentle mockery. This could only be Morgan le Fay. Who else was so stunningly beautiful, so dark, and so oddly enchanting? He bowed slightly, determined not to maintain eye contact for too long. It was becoming clear what had happened to Kronos, and Methos had no intention of following him into this almost mindless slavery. All the same, for the brief moment that he had held Morgan's gaze, he had understood a great deal. Morgan's magic was strong, and he remembered Aquia's comment that she was more powerful now than she had been before.
Inside the castle a soft glow lit the corridors. The courtyard had been deserted, but Methos did not believe that there were no guards here. Morgan would never come to a castle unattended. It would be far too dangerous. She led the way to the room where Methos had seen the light. It was a large room, bare of furniture save for a few old and tired looking chairs. A table lay on its side, liberally sprinkled with cobwebs and dust. Mordred stood at the far end of the room, and Methos grinned at him.
"Charming home, Mordred. I love what you've done with it. It's really you." The other Immortal glowered, but did not rise to the bait. Instead he allowed himself to smile.
"Arthur! It's good to see you again. Especially since the circumstances are so very different this time. Don't you agree?"
"Certainly." Methos glanced across at Morgan. "Are you going to introduce me?"
"Of course. I'm sorry." Mordred smiled broadly. "My wife, Morgan le Fay. Isn't she wonderful?" His eyes flickered briefly over to Kronos, and Methos guessed that Mordred was deeply jealous. Presumably the attraction between Morgan and Kronos was not just one way.
"Of course." Methos did not mention his old friend. He would rather that some things were left unsaid. "So what happens now? Or am I not permitted to ask?"
"Of course you can ask." Mordred nodded towards Kronos. "We could have killed you friend, but we didn't. We have no reason to want to kill you either. I've told you before, Arthur - my wife and I have long ago abandoned this foolish battle that our people have become so caught up with. I have no desire to take your head. On the contrary. My plans go far beyond the Prize."
"I'd suspected as much." Methos narrowed his eyes, and stared hard at Mordred, trying to figure him out. "What exactly are your plans?" Mordred smiled.
"I don't think that I'm quite ready to tell you that, Arthur. There's still rather too much to do, and I have no intention of allowing you to get in the way just yet."
"The why not kill me?"
"Because to kill you would mean turning all of Southern England against me, and I don't plan to fight them now. I intend to have you by my side before all this is over, and then it will be rather easier to unite the country. Don't you think?"
"Probably." Methos met Mordred's gaze defiantly. "But I don't think that you'll find me all that willing to help you. Sorry in all that."
Mordred chuckled ominously. "You don't know my plans yet, Arthur. I'm afraid that you're likely to find it hard to resist, once I'm finished."
"Perhaps. But you haven't finished yet, and in the meantime I think you might come to wish that you'd killed me now."
"I'll take that chance." Mordred glanced over towards Kronos. "Be a good chap, Merlin, and take your friend here to the dungeons." The silent Immortal didn't move, and Mordred sighed in exasperation. "Morgan..."
Morgan le Fay smirked smugly. "Merlin, escort Arthur to the dungeons, please, if you would be so kind."
"Okay." Kronos spoke brightly again, cheerful in his hypnotised state. "Come on Arthur."
"What if I don't want to go? Will you kill me like you killed those guards?"
"If I tell him to." Morgan smiled. "So just behave yourself." Methos stared back at her, his expression challenging. He was sure that her strange enchantments would not work on him. He could feel her attractions, but he was not interested, probably because of the strength of his love for Guinevere.
"Is that right, Merlin? Would you kill me?"
"Kill you?" Kronos looked confused, and Methos saw something flicker deep in his eyes. "Why would I kill you?"
"Merlin." Morgan's voice was low and threatening. "Don't speak to him. Take his sword and then take him to the dungeons." Kronos glanced towards her, frowning, then looked back at Methos. He walked forward haltingly, as if greatly confused by something.
"Your sword, Arthur," he said, his voice troubled. "Give me your sword."
"Sorry brother, but you'll have to take it. I'll fight you if I have to." Methos tried to look into Kronos' eyes, but the younger Immortal was avoiding his gaze.
"You can't beat me." A frown fluttered haltingly across Kronos' brow, as he struggled to reconcile his orders with his instincts. "You wouldn't have a chance."
"Maybe not, but at least then I'd know which way things stand with you."
"I-" For a second, confusion reigned, and then resolution settled on Kronos' face. With a sudden movement he knocked Methos sideways, drawing Excalibur from its sheath as he did so. Slightly stunned, Methos struggled to regain his balance. He looked towards Kronos, who stood tall, the mighty regal sword in one hand, and then he frowned. Excalibur had begun to glow. Slowly the glow grew brighter, and Kronos glanced down at it, then at Methos. He took a step backwards, looking to Morgan in his confusion, before, suddenly, Excalibur blazed brilliantly. Kronos screamed, his eyes wide open. His free hand flew to the other, gripping it in a desperate effort to contain the agony which racked his body. He couldn't seem to relax his hold of Excalibur. Slowly he sank to his knees, the scream having faded to a weak moaning sound. He stared up at Methos, his face pleading, as his mouth tried to form words that were forever lost. Shocked, Methos controlled his desire to run to his friend's assistance. Somehow, in his heart, he knew that this was what was needed to bring Kronos back.
"I'm sorry brother," he whispered. Kronos stared back at him for a few seconds more, then fell forwards onto the ground. Excalibur, its blade normal once again, clattered across the floor, and Methos caught it up, swinging it towards Mordred and Morgan. Neither of them had moved, their faces frozen in expressions of disbelief.
"Merlin!" Morgan shouted the name of her floored servant, with an edge of desperation in her voice. "Get up!"
"I think you'll find that he's free of you now." Methos' voice was cold. For a few moments he wanted nothing more than to kill both of his enemies, and to send them from this world forever. He knew that he could not take on both of them, though, and a low groan from Kronos reminded him that there were other things which needed his attention.
"You didn't kill me," he said, speaking to Mordred primarily, but addressing his words to Morgan as well. "You could have done, but you didn't, and I don't care why. Just get out of here now. I won't kill you, and I won't come after you, but next time we meet it'll be different, I promise you." He stole a quick glance back at Kronos. "Six men that were sworn to my service are dead because of what you did to Merlin. They all had families. I know that doesn't mean anything to you, and I know that it doesn't mean a whole lot to Merlin, either, but it does to me. I like mortals dammit! It's not their fault that they are what they are. They don't have anymore say over what they are than we did. I don't believe that it's right to kill them as though they're worth nothing. Remember that; you two have a lot to answer for."
"We'll go." Mordred edged warily to the door, his eyes never leaving the point of Excalibur's clean blade. "But we won't stay away forever Arthur. It may be next week, or next month, or ten years from now, but we'll come back, and next time there'll be none of this talking and enchantments. Next time you won't be so scathing of our capabilities."
"Maybe, maybe not. I really couldn't care less. Just get out of here." He gestured with his sword, and the two Immortals left, their wary glances suggesting that their bravery was only skin deep. Methos turned back to Kronos, helping him to his feet. The other Immortal stared at him for several seconds, and then smiled sadly.
"I'm sorry brother. I know that can never be enough, but I am sorry. I never meant to hurt you."
"You didn't hurt me. Not really."
"Yes I did. Those guards. I killed them all, and that hurt you. I know it did."
"It wasn't your fault."
"Maybe, maybe not." He lowered his eyes. "I'll leave, brother, if that's what you want. I have no desire to be a liability."
"Don't be stupid." Methos sighed. It had been a long day, with the hurried dash across the hills to catch up with Kronos, to say nothing of the events in the castle. He realised how relieved he was that his friend was alright. That relief transcended any anger that he might otherwise have felt, even at the deaths of his soldiers. "I've always known that you're hardly an angel. It's never put me off before."
Kronos smiled, but it was only a weak shadow of his usual broad grin. "Don't forget Morgan," he said. "I'm a liability around her, Methos. I don't know if I can face her again."
"Of course you can. She won't win you over a second time." Methos clapped him on the shoulder. "Come on now. Snap out of it. I don't want you to leave, and I don't think you're a liability." He grinned suddenly, a wicked light in his eyes. "Of course, I don't trust you as far as I could throw you, but then I never have."
Kronos answered the grin with one of his own. "Good, because you shouldn't trust me. I don't want your trust. That would make life too boring."
Methos laughed. "Just as long as you don't trust me either. I want us to be equal, after all."
"Me? Trust you? Are you kidding?" Kronos shook his head. "Brother, I've seen what you're capable of. These people that call you their king - they see you as the great hope of their nation, but I know better. If you felt like it, you could destroy the lot of them."
"But I won't."
"No, you won't. But you haven't changed that much, Arthur. No one can. You can control your dark side, but you can't extinguish it."
"I know." Methos smiled. "But I intend to keep it in control, so wipe that grin off your face, Merlin, and get me back to Camelot. I have a court to attend."
"You're welcome to it." Kronos strode to the door. Halfway there he paused. "Methos?"
"I would never hurt you, you know. I know you disapprove. I know you have changed, and I know that one day you'll change even more. I know there'll come a time when you won't want to ride with me any longer; but I won't kill you."
"Yeah, I know." Methos watched his friend's back as the other Immortal crossed to the door. He thought over those words. Would events one day transpire to bring him into conflict with his greatest friend? After today it seemed more likely than before. He couldn't imagine the idea of Kronos' death, but if it had to happen, it had to happen; just not for a long, long time.
"What?" Methos followed his friend to the door. Kronos stood in the corridor, the point of a soldier's sword at his neck. The soldier was unfamiliar, but his coat of arms was the same as that worn by Mordred. There were at least ten men in the corridor, all with swords drawn, and all looking less than pleased to see King Arthur in their adopted castle.
"Throw down your swords," the lead guard ordered. Methos grinned.
"I'll kill Merlin." The guard wasn't joking, but Methos offered him a beatific smile, child like innocence filling his eyes.
"No you won't."
"You can't." Methos allowed a challenging gleam to light his eyes. "Haven't you heard the stories? Mordred himself once ran Merlin through, and he came back from the dead for revenge. He's a wizard remember."
Doubt clouded the guard's eyes, followed swiftly by resolve. "Then we'll burn you both. Fire stops witches and wizards. You won't come back then; either of you."
"Nicely done Arthur." Kronos' voice was full of good humoured sarcasm. "I always wanted to be roasted alive."
"Don't mention it." Methos put his hand to Excalibur's hilt. "Five to one, Merlin. Do you have a spell to handle those odds?"
"Of course I do. It's called anger." In a sudden, blinding movement, Kronos threw himself to one side. The guard, whose reactions were honed to perfection, stabbed with his sword, but Kronos was too quick, and his throat had already moved from the sword's path. As he dodged aside, he drew his own weapon, lifting it up to meet with the soldier's. The two blades clashed loudly, and Methos drew Excalibur in the same moment. Together, shoulder to shoulder in the corridor, the two Immortals began to push their enemies back. There was only room for two men to fight them at a time, and the going was easy. It was not long before they broke out into the cool night air of the courtyard. They froze. The yard was full of men. Neat ranks of Mordred's guardsmen stood before them, their swords raised. There was no sign of Mordred himself, but his presence was hardly necessary here.
"Uh oh." Methos glanced over at Kronos. "Any suggestions?"
"That's your department brother." Kronos looked about. "We could head for the walls. If we can get to a higher position we might have a chance."
"Okay..." Methos dashed off a quick plan. "Feign to the right, then make a quick dash for the left. We can get to those steps easily enough I think."
"Right with you brother."
They made a wild dash for the stairs. Caught by surprise, the guards fell back, and the Immortals leapt up the stairs leading to the walkway along the castle walls. Once there they could easily knock aside the attacks of the guardsmen as they tried to climb upwards.
"Arthur, look left!" Kronos' voice was sharp and sudden, causing Methos to snap his head suddenly in that direction. A group of soldiers were starting to climb another stairway, and he dashed to prevent them, whilst Kronos hurled himself likewise towards a third set of steps. It was clearly apparent that the two of them could not continue to fight off these constant attacks, running backwards and forwards to cover the various upward strikes. Finally, inevitably, several men reached the walkway, and Kronos headed towards them, whirling his sword vigorously, whilst Methos energetically worked to clear the nearest staircase. He remembered all of his earlier thoughts that he had grown past his violent early days, but as he slashed with his sword, inescapably dealing out numerous fatal wounds, he felt no guilt. Perhaps he would never entirely manage to curb the violent tendencies which made him what he was. But then, he thought wryly, he could possibly not have a whole lot of time left in which to change. Not if these people were to have their way. With that unpleasant thought in mind, he swung his sword again, and was in mid-strike when a horn blast startled him enough to almost make him stumble on the stairway.
"Forwards!" A mighty shout which could only have belonged to Donald MacLeod, made Methos' mind fill with joy. There was little fun in odds of a hundred to one, but if MacLeod were to be here, with reinforcements, the odds could be evened out, and the battle could be as it should; an exhilarating challenge by which to raise his spirits to the sky. "Forward for Arthur!"
"Camelot! Camelot!" The answering shouts were those of a hundred men at least, lifting their voices in perfect unison. Methos backed up the stairs, glancing down over the walls. The gates were shut, but Donald had already set several of his men to break them down. Methos glanced towards Kronos, his eyes lit by the new light of excitement. Kronos grinned back at him, and gestured at the one lighted window just above them. Methos understood. He fought his way towards Kronos, and handed Excalibur to him. With a sword in each hand, his fellow Immortal was twice the obstacle he had been before, and several of their attackers fell back. Meanwhile, Methos climbed upwards, balancing precariously on the very edge of the fence surmounting the wall. He leaned over, his fingertips reaching for the window sill, then he hauled himself up. For a second he swung, almost falling, then dragged himself into the room. He dashed for the torches which were clamped to the walls, grabbed two of them, and tore them down, then ran back to the window. Standing on the sill, he glanced down towards Kronos, and shouted to him. The other Immortal looked up, grinned, and threw Excalibur up to him. Methos, in return, dropped one of the torches down. Each caught his target in the same second, and Methos, suddenly caught up in the high speed drama of the moment, leapt down, landing roughly by Kronos' side, and nearly overbalancing. Kronos caught him, almost setting fire to both of them in the process, and then was gone. Methos saw him as nothing but a blur as he hacked his way through a crowd of guards, throwing his torch at the gates. Methos took merely a brief moment to regain his breath, and then he followed, throwing his own torch after the first. In only a matter of seconds, the gates caught fire, and flames burst into life, leaping skyward to attack the walls. Fearless, the knights of Camelot charged through. The fight was over before it had really begun.
Later, Methos and Kronos, tired and smoke blackened, sat together beside a blazing fire in the conference room at Camelot. Uther sat nearby, and Donald MacLeod, having completed his survey of the wounded, also came to join them, smiling broadly.
"My liege, don't think me rude, but do you ever leave a castle in one piece?"
Methos laughed. "Not if we can help it. Anyway, it's only traditional to burn down Mordred's castles. You don't see us doing it to anybody else's."
"True." Donald threw himself down beside them. "We have three wounded, not serious. No fatalities."
"Good. That's wonderful." Methos glanced towards Kronos. "Isn't it Merlin?"
"Yes, I suppose." Kronos did a fair impersonation of one who cared. "What about Mordred's men?"
"There were many casualties. Many fatalities. We let the survivors go, though. We've no way to keep them. Does that meet with your approval?"
"Of course." Methos nodded confirmation, and Kronos made a non-committal noise. MacLeod smiled, as if understanding Kronos' feelings perfectly.
"Are we any closer to knowing what Mordred's intentions are?" he asked. Kronos looked almost subdued.
"Yes," he said. "I heard their plans - while I was in the castle with them."
"And?" Methos glanced towards him. Kronos shrugged.
"I didn't understand. Their intentions seem to be towards some... object. They said that they were looking for the Grail. The Holy Grail. I have no idea what it is, but the way that they talked, it sounded valuable."
"The Grail?" Uther sounded amazed. "You've not heard of the Grail?"
"I haven't either." Methos settled himself onto his back. "Speak on Uther."
"Of course. The Grail is the cup from which our Lord Jesus Christ drank, shortly before his death. It's reputed to have been brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, many years ago. There are all kinds of stories about it, and they all suggest that the Grail possesses certain powers. Some say it can grant eternal life, others say that it is the source of incredible magic. It's uncertain where the truth lies, but it certainly has a power of some kind. All legends stem from some truth after all."
"I see." Methos looked up briefly. "Donald, would you mind fetching Lancelot and Gawain? Guinevere too. We should discuss this together."
"Of course, my liege." Donald went quickly, leaving Methos alone with Uther and Kronos. He sat up, and looked from one to the other of them.
"Immortality," he mused. "Can Mordred and Morgan be after eternal life?"
"There would be little point, would there?" Uther smiled. "It would seem that they already have that."
"Granted... But if a mortal can be given eternal life by this Grail, then what can it give to one who is already immortal?"
"Indestructibility..." Kronos almost whispered it. "The Grail could make it impossible to kill them by any means, and then they'd be certain of the Prize. Or at least one of them would."
"Exactly." Methos frowned into the fire in the hearth. "What do you think, Uther?"
"I - have no idea of this Prize that you speak of Arthur, but I do know that the Grail is reputed to carry powers beyond any that most of us can hope to imagine. If Mordred were to obtain those powers, and were he to be just a mortal, the consequences would be beyond comprehension. But for him - and Morgan, Merlin, I hadn't forgotten her - for one who is immortal, possessed of a power that I cannot understand... It would likely be the end of everything. We-" He broke off as the door opened again, and Donald re-entered, leading those that he had been bidden to collect. "We have plans to make I think."
"We do indeed." Methos stood up, and began to pace, as his friends took their places around their table. It was usually the scene of conferences concerning English enemies who came against them with small, easily defeated forces. Now it was the focus of something much more important. "It is my belief that we have to stop Mordred, at all costs. I think that we should abandon our attempts to unify the country in the meantime. I can't lead you against other enemies if I'm to be travelling the countryside looking for this Grail."
"You're going to look for it?" Donald was immediately interested. "Well I'm with you Arthur."
"And I'll travel with you as far as I can." Uther smiled. "But it won't be far my son. I fear I've little adventure left in me."
"If finding the Grail is the way to stop Mordred, you can be sure of my assistance, and that of Lancelot too, I'll wager." Guinevere looked at her adopted brother, and he smiled agreement.
"And mine." Gawain, who was virtually inseparable from Lancelot, was quick to confirm his allegiance. "Although I can't help thinking we've missed half of this conversation, my liege."
"You have, but I'll fill in the details later," Methos frowned at a distant point that only he could see. He was not intending to tell his mortal friends everything. Not by a long shot. Only Uther, who somehow had guessed something of the truth, could be allowed to take part in the full discussions. "And you Merlin?"
"I'm with you brother." He grinned. "I'm tired of staying put in this castle. If a quest is on the cards, I'm behind you all the way."
"Good." Methos surveyed all of his friends with a sweeping gaze. "Then we leave as soon as we can. We have a lot to do I think. Mordred will try to stop us, and we have Morgan's tricks to contend with too. The going will be hard. If this Grail was easy to get to, somebody would have found it by now; but I have no intention of stopping the quest until I've found it, and found some way of securing it, so that it's beyond Mordred's reach." He grinned, already looking forward to this new challenge. "This battle has already been underway for ten years; but I can't help feeling that, in all honesty, it's really only just begun." And the ancient Immortal grinned, a flicker of satisfaction dancing across his shining eyes.