THE TRUTH IN MASQUERADE
Smoke drifted gently from the pile of twigs and pine cones. A crackle of flame, pale orange and with little warmth, leapt above the smoke for a brief instance, but it was not strong enough to re-ignite the true heart of the fire. In a gradual exhalation of cooling smoke, the fire breathed its last. For a second, silence reigned; but like everywhere else in a world ruled by industrialised humanity, there was little hope that the silence would last for long. Soon, floating its way tinnily through the close knit trees, came the sound of a radio. Bad pop music, played at a most un-neighbourly volume, fought its way through bushes and shrubs, through ground ivy and creeper, through flowers and grasses and a hundred other types of vegetation and assorted greenery. Occasional bursts of static as the much aimed for but never quite reached frequency failed to crystallise, did little to improve the overall audio effect. Beside the dying embers of his fire, a figure stirred in grouchy frustration.
"What is that infernal racket?" Lifting his head, heavy from too many cans of cheap supermarket beer, the figure stared blearily through the trees. The distant vocal harmony of a song by some faceless - and apparently talentless - boy band told him that somebody in the far too near vicinity was listening to a youth music station. At one time that would have meant decent music and a balanced selection of different tastes and styles. Now all that it meant was mindless dance music and endless covers of tacky ballads sung by irritatingly young people whose musical skills could only be improved by a programme of compulsory beheadings. It was only fair, really. It was the only humane thing to do. Society would thank him for it, he was sure.
"I hate this bloody forest." Making it to a sitting position with the maximum of effort and the minimum of equilibrium, the figure rubbed sleepily at his short, dark hair, in a vague attempt to tell it to behave. It had not needed telling, but his hasty attempt at discipline had left it sorely in need of a comb. Since there didn't appear to be one within at least twenty miles, that was clearly hard luck. "I hate this forest, I hate this season, and I hate this country at this time of year."
"And where would you rather be?" Emerging from a pile of blankets and sleeping bags nearby, the tall, athletic figure of Duncan MacLeod - swordsman, Highlander and Immortal - stretched briskly. He rose to his feet with quiet ease. "You want to go home to Seacouver, go ahead. Ditto with Europe."
"Yeah, some welcome we'd get." The slumped figure - who, though he in no way looked it, laid claim to being the oldest man alive - turned the full power of his glare onto the late, lamented fire. If he was hoping that the sheer heat of his angry stare would be enough to spark some life back into the cooling twigs, he was disappointed. A curl of smoke rose lazily into the air, as though flaunting its independence of spirit. "We're injured parties - victims. We were entitled to a little more understanding - a little more support. Instead we were arrested, interrogated - treated like criminals." He hugged his knees, staring dolefully into non-existent flames. "I used to think of Seacouver as my home. Now I'm not sure I ever want to go back there."
"Don't be daft. It'll blow over." MacLeod took a few steps towards him, as though about to show some sign of solidarity - but he paused and wavered, and then gave up altogether. It was not easy to put a consoling hand on the arm of a man more than four thousand years your senior. It was hard to offer hard-earned advice to a man who had probably learned those same tough lessons in the days before Babylon had even thought of hanging its gardens. Besides, Methos was not always the most approachable of men. He was as likely to push aside the hand of friendship as he was to welcome it; and it was almost impossible to predict which response he would give at any given time. In the end MacLeod settled for sitting down a few feet away, and adopting a stance similar to that of his companion.
"We were seen leaving the scene of a murder, Methos. We left a lot of suspicious people behind when we went off to Poland. You can't expect them to just forget about us. And then when we were in Europe - there were more bodies there. People saw me and Kerensky having a sword fight in the middle of the street - and a local was found beheaded right where we were fighting. Everybody thought Kerensky was the same guy that broke Caspian out of the asylum in Bucharest; we were seen with him and might well have been accomplices... If I'd been the police in Seacouver I'd have arrested us too."
"I know why they arrested us." Methos' voice was cold. "I just... I just hated sitting there, in that interview room, repeating the same answers to the same questions, over and over again. I'd just lost somebody I cared a very great deal about." His eyes lowered. "I'd just lost two people. I wanted to go home, not sit there being yelled at by some arrogant sergeant who kept trying to make out that I was an illegal immigrant." Indignation was bright in his eyes. "Me, an illegal immigrant. I was living in that country when his ancestors still believed that the world was flat, and didn't have the guts to go and find out if the Americas even existed. Nobody gave a toss about immigration papers then."
"They didn't mean any harm, Methos." Trying to calm the world's oldest man when he was in one of his stubborn moods was like trying to calm a hurricane. All that you could do was wait for it to blow over. It didn't help that MacLeod sympathised with him, and understood completely. They had been targeted by an international organisation, framed for murder, and enticed halfway across the world only to lose a man who had become a close friend - all for the sake of an ancient fable concerning the possibility of bringing a dead Immortal back to life. MacLeod had been relieved when the ritual - designed to bring Kronos back amongst the living - had failed; even though it had meant that the death of an innocent mortal had been in vain. Methos, however, clearly felt differently. Notwithstanding his obvious grief over the death of the mortal - Peter Kerensky, a man with whom he had become close - he also had to deal with losing Kronos all over again. MacLeod didn't think that he would ever understand how a man as intelligent as Methos - a man capable of acts of startling sensitivity and goodness - should remain so devotedly attached to someone whose entire life had been a catalogue of brutality and destruction. But then, compared to Methos, MacLeod himself was a young man. He had been alive little more than four hundred years, and there was a lot that he still didn't understand about life, about people, about emotions. Methos claimed a similar ignorance, and he had been alive for at least five thousand years. Clearly the heart and the mind were not meant to be easily understood.
"I don't care whether or not they meant any harm." Rising to his feet, Methos made a few vague attempts to straighten out his creased clothing. It wouldn't have been any less creased even if he hadn't been sleeping in it, and it steadfastly resisted his attempts to make it look any less dishevelled. "All I care about is getting breakfast. What do we have?"
"Nothing." MacLeod spoke the word with resolute cheer. "We don't have so much as a soggy biscuit. Maybe we could find some other campers, and offer them a trade."
"Trading what? Three cans of flat beer and a leaky tent?" Methos shook his head. "Besides, the only people camping nearby are the ones with the bad taste in music. If I get anywhere near them I'll feed them their radio. It didn't stop all night. The junk they've been playing on that radio station makes your record collection sound positively tuneful."
"My, aren't we in a pleasant mood today." The look that MacLeod received in response could have set fire to a pile of damp straw at thirty paces, but he ignored it and carried on regardless. "You could have slept in the tent last night. Even better, we could have gone to a hotel. We could have spent last night in the lap of luxury, with warm beds, and a decent breakfast to wake up to. It was your idea to sleep out in the open, and your idea to go camping in Britain in December. If you're going to moan, kindly do it elsewhere."
"The tent is still wet inside, if you remember, because somebody left their rucksack pressed against the canvas during a rainstorm. There's no way I was going to spend last night trying to sleep in three inches of water. As for going camping in Britain, in December, nobody asked you to come along. You could have stayed in Seacouver. You could have gone back to your boat in Paris. You could have chosen one of the three hundred ex-girlfriends who are forever dropping by for visits, and gone to spend a few weeks with them. As for camping out, that was not my idea. My idea of sleeping under the stars is to spend the night in the Planetarium. I just wanted somewhere quiet and out of the way. Somewhere where there weren't many people." His expression glowed with meaning. "Somewhere where I could get some peace and quiet."
"I came with you because I didn't want you to be alone. I didn't think it was fair to let you go wandering off after everything you've been through. I thought you'd appreciate the company." MacLeod had risen to his feet, and towered over the older Immortal now. Frustration vied for space with indignation in his eyes. "In case you hadn't noticed, Christmas is just around the corner. That's a hell of a time to be alone, and feeling miserable. I thought I was doing you a favour by tagging along."
"I don't need babysitting." Methos looked disparaging. "And what makes you think I care about the time of year? It's not a festival I've ever felt much enthusiasm for."
"You can be a real misery guts at times, you know that?"
"Yeah? Well lucky me. I'd rather be miserable than a pain in the backside." Methos turned away. MacLeod stared after him.
"Actually you're pretty unrivalled in that department too." He regretted the words even as he said them, but there was no way of stopping them once they were out of his mouth. He saw the other man's body tense for fraction of a second; saw the slightest hesitation in his stride as he began to walk away. Then all of a sudden Methos was stalking towards the tent, reaching for the battered rucksack he had brought with him. MacLeod had no idea what was in it, but it bore all the luggage that the old man had brought with him from the States. It was the rucksack Methos had taken with him when he had gone wandering in Tibet not so very long after he and MacLeod had first met. It was the rucksack MacLeod had caught him loading into his car the day that the truth had come out about his involvement with the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It was incredible to think that they had been through so much together.
"If I'm that hard to live with, you won't be sorry when I leave." Hoisting the bag onto his shoulder, Methos cast one last look back at MacLeod. "I might see you back in Seacouver in the spring. I can't see myself wanting to go back there much before then, if at all."
"Methos wait..." MacLeod took a few hurried steps after his friend. "I didn't mean it. I was angry."
"We're both angry, MacLeod, that's half of the problem, wouldn't you say? We've just spent several weeks wanting to kill each other, fighting on different sides, and I still haven't decided which side it is that I'm on. Do you really think we should be spending time alone together? I'm not sure I know where I'm going right now; I don't even know if I'm really me anymore; so how the hell do you expect me to sit here and play happy families? I don't want you feeling sorry for me, or following me around, or trying to help me open up to my feelings. You don't understand me, MacLeod. You never will. There's no way that you can ever hope to, regardless of whether or not you live to be this old. Now do us all a favour and go back to Seacouver. Drop in on Joe, make sure he's okay. He's had a rough time of it lately too. Maybe he needs your support more than I do."
"Forget it MacLeod. I'm not interested." He turned away and was gone, striding off into the forest. MacLeod stared after him, forehead crinkled into the deepest of frowns. He didn't know what to do, or to say. It was probably too late to do or say anything. Without another word he bent to his own rucksack and began to stuff his supply of blankets back into its hidden depths. Methos might not want company, but he was going to get it anyway. That was what friends were for.
Some way into the forest, Methos kicked disconsolately at the ground, and watched a shower of leaf mould and pine cones skitter away from his savage feet. He hated arguing with MacLeod. Just lately they seemed to be fighting a lot more than they had in the past, and he knew that it was largely his fault. MacLeod was very much the easygoing type, looking after everybody, helping everybody, never meaning anybody any harm. Perhaps that made him an easy target for the old man's anger. Right now that anger was dissipating, leaving him with a very unsatisfactory sense of frustration. Something felt very restless inside of him, very tumultuous. He wanted to punch something - and preferably not MacLeod. With a heavy sigh he shifted the weight of the rucksack on his shoulder and stepped wearily off the forest floor, back onto the rough and muddy track marking the way back to the main road. There were deep furrows filled with water which made the going hard, and he swore fluently in Sumerian as he narrowly avoided slipping into one. No sooner had he regained his balance when he slipped again, this time loosing his right foot up to the ankle in cold and muddy water. Calling down curses upon the driver of whichever vehicle had left the furrows in the track, he extracted his cold and wet foot, and watched the water run out of the bottom, top and sides of a shoe claimed by the manufacturers to be waterproof in all conditions, and quite impossible to puncture through normal use. Clearly normal use didn't include walking, and certainly not along a damp path. Oh didn't he just love the twentieth century. There had never been any other century like it for shoddy workmanship, lack of pride and bloody inconvenient rainstorms in isolated, muddy forests. Well possibly not that last one, but he was sticking by his analysis all the same. If in doubt, blame the century. Once you'd lived through half a dozen they became very easy targets.
"The English winter - ending in July, To recommence in August," he quoted blithely, and then scowled and kicked at the ground again. Next time he needed to get away from it all in a hurry he was going to choose Mauritius, or possibly the Sahara Desert. At least it would be warm there. Some lamentable inner instinct kept drawing him back to Britain time and time again. He didn't understand it, and he didn't especially want to. All that he knew was that it was a pain in the backside, and that he wanted some new instincts. Why Britain? After thousands of years where the whole world was his own personal domain, what had persuaded him to settle on Britain as his home away from home? And to come here in December was just plain foolhardy. A man of his age shouldn't be getting cold and wet. Perhaps he could persuade some nice nursing home - one with central heating and double glazing, and all the other creature comforts that made the twentieth century bearable - to take him in until the sun came back from the southern hemisphere, or wherever else it chose to go when winter gripped these cold and rain-lashed shores. The sun had more sense than to come to Britain in the winter. Why did he never follow its example? Despite the cold, and the uncomfortable soggy chill in his right foot, these thoughts helped lighten his spirit somewhat, and he found his stride lengthening, the weight of his rucksack hanging less heavily across his shoulder. His thoughts trailed back to MacLeod. Perhaps he should go back and apologise. He had been very rude, as usual. He had hurt his friend's feelings. He had been acting, once again, like a spoilt child. It was not a nice thing to have to admit to, and it was even less nice to realise that he was genuinely sorry for it. What had happened to not feeling guilt since the eleventh century? But then that was Duncan MacLeod for you. He could bring out the saint hidden within the sinner, and lead battalions of hardened miscreants to a heartfelt and genuine repentance. It was enough to make you feel sick - but no less guilty. Methos sighed. He'd find a pub, have a few drinks, and then go back and apologise to MacLeod. The Highlander could wait. It wasn't as if either of them was going anywhere. He nodded briskly. He liked that plan. Best of all it gave him enough time to try to overcome the feelings of guilt, and therefore hopefully make an apology unnecessary. As if in answer, though, he felt the familiar, growing tingle that told him another Immortal was close by. He scowled.
"MacLeod? I thought I told you I wanted to be alone?" He spoke the words to an empty road, turning around to face his friend where the other man seemed most likely to break through the trees. There was not a soul in sight. The trees were still, and nobody stepped through them to meet him on the track. He could see no sign of MacLeod. "Mac? Come on, stop playing games. I'm sorry I got mad with you, but you shouldn't be so bloody nice all the time." There, that was an apology wasn't it? Quite a gracious one too. Well... a bit gracious, anyway. He'd said sorry, after all. "Mac?" There was no answer, and he sighed. Great. Just his luck if MacLeod had stepped off the track and sunk up to his ears in quicksand. He paused, considering, weighing up his options. He could leave his friend. In two thousand years some enthusiastic scientist could have a whale of a time excavating him. On the other hand, that wasn't the most friendly of plans. Joe would be cross with him too. Heaving a sigh of overly-theatrical, long-suffering desperation, he strode from the path and plunged back into the trees.
It was dark in this part of the forest. He had long since left behind the tinny crackle of the world's most irritating radio station, and it was almost entirely silent here. There were no birds, and the only sound was that of the wind, snatching half-heartedly at the tree tops and whispering threats of snow at the half-buried forest floor. He paused, listening for a while, unable to hear any sign of Duncan MacLeod's voice. All that he could hear was emptiness, and all that he could feel, beyond the trailing presence of the other Immortal, was a deepening sensation of unease. He lowered his rucksack to the ground, and let the muscles of his shoulders and back tense into unwilling readiness.
"Hello? Mac?" He considered taking a step forward, but decided that he did not want to go too far from the track. Treacherous furrows notwithstanding, it was still the best means of a swift escape. "Who's there?"
"I am." The voice was soft and gentle, and at its sound he whirled about. Somebody had come up behind him, unheard and unseen. A tall, lithe somebody, dressed from head to toe in black, a curved scimitar held brazenly in two gloved hands. The gloves were black, and decorated to an intricate degree with threads of gold and silver, and with tiny beads that flashed in the muted light of the green-tinted sun. "You must be Methos."
"Who the hell are you?" He took a step towards the other man, hands held out to his sides. "You can see that I don't have a sword. So how about dropping the theatrics and trying a little courtesy?"
"I don't much care for courtesy." The other Immortal was smiling at him. "And I don't believe for a minute that you're unarmed. So why don't you just keep your hands where they are - or better still, lift them up a little higher?"
"What do you want?" Anger burned in Methos' eyes. It was embarrassing to be caught out so easily, and by somebody who looked more like a street entertainer than a warrior. He held the sword as though he knew how to use it, but his costume was a mass of embroidery and beading. Even his boots were ostentatious, bedecked with a multitude of coloured glass charms, spattered with mud from the forest floor, and yet still retaining a certain sense of comic cheer. He looked as though he would have been more at home performing street theatre at the Edinburgh Festival, or swinging from the roof of a tent with the Moscow State Circus.
"What do I want...?" He seemed to be thinking, as though unsure of the answer to that one himself. "I want... I want you. I want the oldest man alive. I want the great Methos."
"How do you know who I am?"
"Oh that's easy. I know all kinds of things. I know things you've forgotten, and things you never wanted to know."
"But you definitely don't know when to shut up." The old Immortal took a step forward, but the scimitar wavered close to his chest, and he froze. "Just who the hell are you?"
"My name is Shade. Kyle Shade." The other Immortal flashed him a smile that bore traces of insult and amusement. "And I've come for your head."
Duncan MacLeod wandered along the path, managing, in his troubled and distant state of mind, to step into every puddle available. It was giving him a growing affinity for Doctor Foster, the old hero of the children's rhyme, who had gone to Gloucester and practically drowned himself during a rainstorm. It had long since ceased to rain in this neck of the woods, and the water just hung everywhere now, refusing to drain away, or to dry in the weak, struggling sun. It was the sort of weather that got into everything, and made everything feel cold. All that he wanted right now was a warm hotel room, an even warmer bath, and a glass of good whisky. Add a favourite opera record playing loudly from the corner of the room, and it was easily his favourite scenario. Instead all that he got was a forest, a lake of muddy puddles, and waterlogged boots not at all improved by cold and soggy socks. He thought that he felt a sneeze coming on, but it never materialised. He sighed and walked on.
He wasn't sure how long he had been walking, when he felt the first, distant sensation of another Immortal's presence. He stopped immediately. Methos? More than likely; and if MacLeod had felt him, so he too had felt MacLeod. That meant that he knew he was being followed, and would more than likely quicken his pace and try to leave his pursuer far behind him. Either that or he would turn around and head back to meet the Highlander, head hanging in whatever strained performance of contrition seemed most likely to win him some sympathy. You could never tell with Methos. You never knew how he would react and when, or if the sorrow he sometimes displayed was genuine, or just put on for effect.
He started on again, moving slowly, able always to feel the distant Immortal presence as a gentle hum in his subconscious. It was as if the other person, for whatever reason, was trying to remain just within the range of his awareness, without ever allowing him to feel the presence as a certainty. It was that suspicion that brought him eventually to a halt. He stared ahead. Could it be Methos, toying with him? Could the old man be that angry, or that out of sorts? Somehow he didn't think so. Methos was moody, he was bad-tempered, and he could be a definite pain in the neck, but he was not given to playing irritating games. Without another thought, MacLeod broke into a run.
It was easy to spot Methos' footprints, now that he was certain he was looking for them. He followed them, seeing where they broke away from the track and headed off into the forest. He pushed after them, and had not gone very many steps before he found Methos' rucksack lying abandoned on the ground. A frown meandered its way across the Highlander's forehead. What had befallen his friend? Suddenly angry he caught up the bag and ran back to the road. It was sloping upward now, heading for higher ground where the track was less waterlogged, and the trails less evident; but he ran on nonetheless, looking for any sign that his friend had passed this way. The Immortal presence grew in his mind as he ran. There were two of them now, which suggested to him that Methos was with somebody - or that somebody had met with somebody else. But where did that leave Methos? MacLeod didn't want to think.
He had gone some way before two buzzing suspicions in his mind became three. He slowed to a halt, looking this way and that, before finally, with a feeling of growing dread, hurrying on his way. The trees at the sides of the road were beginning to thin, and the track was widening, hardening, turning to stone, then to gravel, and then finally to tarmac. A car park awaited him up ahead, lined with a scattering of picnic tables, and fixed, granite litter bins filled with crisp packets and Kit Kat wrappers. An empty Coke can blew along the ground, startling him with the suddenness of its scratching and rattling.
There was only one car parked up ahead. It was silver, as though the manufacturers had forgotten to paint it before sending it to be sold. There were stickers in the windows, and three figures positioned within and around it. A tall, lithe man dressed entirely in black stood beside the car, one hand gripping the wrist of a second man - an equally tall, thin fellow of a very familiar build. The third figure was seated in the car, and MacLeod could see few enough details of his appearance. He appeared to have brown hair, possibly quite light, and he seemed to be talking to the other two. Gradually the black-clad man released his hold on Methos, and Methos, straightening himself up and trying, for the second time that morning, to make his rumpled, crumpled clothes look a little more neat and tidy, gave the black-clad man a hard push. The man stumbled but did not fall. Neither did he attempt to retaliate. Instead, to the watching Highlander's surprise, he offered his hand. Methos did not take it immediately, but finally, and with no apparent misgiving, he stepped forward and clasped the proffered fist. MacLeod frowned. Just what was going on here? All of his instincts had warned him that his friend was in trouble; and he had learnt at his cost never to mistrust his instincts. The evidence before his eyes had until now seemed only to confirm his suspicions; and yet here the group was acting like a battalion of old comrades at a war veterans' convention. The watching Highlander could hear faint vocal traces, borne to him by the blustering wind. Its constant presence, whipping lone and broken words around his shoulders, reminded him of how cold he was, and how wet; and how disgruntled. It would not be at all pleasant to have come so far, and got so wet and muddy, only to find that he was trying to save the world's oldest man from yet more of his old friends. Duncan MacLeod didn't like Methos' old friends. They had a tendency to be megalomaniacs, or mass murderers. Some - usually the ones that he was closest to, like his deranged brother Kronos - managed to be both. Either way, MacLeod invariably felt himself obliged to kill them - but then he had gone through a phase, which he now much lamented, when he had felt driven to kill a lot of people. He had dispatched the sort of summary justice he had once learnt to hate. He was through that period in his life now, he hoped. It had been forced out of him through a series of violent and bitter encounters. Perhaps it was the thought of that dark time in his life that made him think more kindly towards the gathering before him. Perhaps it was just the desire to make for somewhere where he could be a little warmer, and a little more comfortable. At any rate, regardless of motive and misgivings, he squared his shoulders, put his best foot forward, and strode over towards the lone, silver car.
He approached the gathering slowly at first, suspicious despite the apparent geniality of the atmosphere - and even though it was obvious that all three Immortals were aware of his presence. He nodded a greeting to Methos.
"Hello Mac." The world's oldest man had opened his eyes to their biggest and roundest extent, and had the look of a manifestly innocent choir boy. "I thought you were back at the campsite?"
"I was." MacLeod's eyes drifted over to the black-clad stranger, who was, to his suspicious mind, very likely a kidnapper. "I thought you were in danger. I thought I'd see if I could help out."
"Yeah. I thought I was in trouble there too for a bit." Methos shot daggers at the black-clad man. "Duncan MacLeod, this is Kyle Shade. He's a little over-dramatic, but I don't think he means any harm."
"I knew you were following me." Shade, his black eyes glittering like chips of finest onyx, turned immediately towards the Highlander with one hand held out in welcome. "I couldn't resist playing the intrigue card. Still, it brought you running."
"It certainly did." MacLeod's gaze drifted past the grinning Immortal to the figure within the car. "How about our friend here. Don't tell me he's a comedian too?"
"Don't be angry, Mac." The voice from within the car was young and old at once; the voice of a man who had died when very young, but had had time since then for his character and personality to outgrow his face. The accent, like that of Shade, was English; his eyes, also like that of his friend, were bright with amusement and goodwill. He leant over towards the window, which stood open despite the rising cold. Duncan stared into familiar eyes, saw a familiar, amiable face, and felt his frustration and lingering displeasure seeping slowly away. He smiled.
"Reece. I should have guessed it was you when I saw the car." The younger man smiled at him.
"Newer model. Far more flair than the old one, but it doesn't do nearly as many miles to the gallon." He indicated the array of stickers on the back window, which seemed to chart the history of cartoons from Felix The Cat to Battle Of The Planets. There was nothing of more modern origin, but one day there would have to be. There would come a time when Reece Walton would no longer be able to convince his contemporaries that he had grown up watching the children's shows of the seventies. He would have to suddenly develop the power to be nostalgic for Power Rangers or Captain Planet.
"I told them you wouldn't be cross." Methos was hovering uncertainly, as usual playing the rôle of over-protective father where Reece was concerned. His eyes were still rounded in the display of insincere innocence, and with his hands sunk deeply into his pockets, and his clothes and hair still considerably ruffled, he looked even younger than Reece himself did. MacLeod pulled open the nearest door of Reece's car.
"Let's get somewhere a little warmer, shall we?" he suggested, before turning suddenly back, and thrusting Methos' rucksack at him with enough force to send him staggering. He smiled at the effect, and Methos scowled. "Then we can talk about whether or not I've got any reason to be cross." His eyes alighted with their full measure of suspicion on the decorated person of Kyle Shade. "And we can talk about what you two are doing here, and whether or not I'm going to want to turn round and head straight back to the States."
"See." Leaning back to shift his wheelchair out of the way, so as to make room for the extra passengers, Reece raised his eyebrows at Shade. "I told you he'd be willing." Shade glanced nervously towards MacLeod, but the Highlander studiously ignored him. He had a growing suspicion that he was about to hear something that he most definitely would rather have known nothing about. Suspicions usually led to adventures, and adventures invariably led to danger, fights and people trying to kill him. Right now all that he really wanted was that hot bath, and the large glass of malt whisky that went with it so splendidly in his dreams. On the other hand, he mused, as he watched the rainwater spray up from beneath the car tyres, when you were lost in a foreign country during the wet and windy winter months, what better way to warm the soul than involving yourself in something recklessly inadvisable? He smiled at the thought, a hundred as yet unasked questions spinning in circles in his mind. First and foremost, however, he was going to get hold of a large glass of whisky. Quite honestly, the situation demanded nothing less.
"So what are you doing out of the retreat?" Striding across the annoying fluffy pink carpet of his hotel room, MacLeod sat down on the most comfortable-looking in a whole range of particularly cosy chairs. "I thought you were under orders to stay well out of the Game?" Methos shot daggers at him with his eyes, but MacLeod ignored the older Immortal. Reece grinned.
"Yeah, I was." He held up his hands in anticipation of the tirade about to burst. "I appreciate the concern, Methos. I know you're worried about me, and I'll admit that the retreat is a great place to stay and be safe. But the fact is, I just decided that I wanted to see a little more of the world. I figure I'm safe so long as I stick with Kyle."
"So long as you can trust Kyle." Having previously been charm itself towards the black-clad joker, Methos now fixed him with a particularly ugly glare. Shade visibly wilted under its force.
"I haven't killed anything since 1836." He shrugged, and smiled happily. "Except jokes. I murder them all the time."
"I can believe that." MacLeod took a sip of his whisky, and gave a happy smile of his own. When the mini-bar was stocked as well this he didn't mind having to miss out on his hot bath and opera records. "So what brings you to this neck of the woods? And don't tell me you were just passing through. Nobody ever 'just passes through' a cold and wet forest in the middle of winter. Not unless they need their heads examining."
"We were looking for Methos." Reece looked and sounded a little awkward. "Amanda told me where you were. She said you were on holiday... so we figured you wouldn't mind if we dropped by. We're not interrupting anything are we?"
"No." Methos sounded emphatic. "Unless you want us to do anything dangerous, in which case..." He spread his hands in a clear gesture. "Sorry, but you know how it is. I'm up to my eyeballs in work right now."
"It might be dangerous." Reece sounded strangely uncertain. "The truth is, I'm not really sure just what is going on. It's all a little peculiar."
"Go on." Despite his desire for a quiet break and the absolute minimum of disruption, MacLeod was interested. He leaned forward in his chair, the pleasant warmth of the room, and the thick, fluffy cosiness of his bathrobe apparently lulling him into a particularly complacent mood. Reece frowned.
"We were at the retreat," he said finally, the frown leaving him quickly. Reece, as MacLeod well remembered, did not seem able to keep from smiling for long. "That's how I met Kyle - he turned up one day to run a course in metaphysics. Anyway, one day the monks that live close by - they're in seclusion, and they hardly even speak to each other, let alone mix with the retreat - they found this guy, wandering about in the hills. He didn't know his name, he didn't know where he came from, or where he was supposed to be going. He was covered in blood, and his clothes were a mess; and he was an Immortal. Kyle and I tried to speak to him, to find out if he knew what he was, but the monks wouldn't let him speak to the rest of us. They did at first - and then suddenly they took him away, as if they'd found out something about him, and didn't want him to mix with anybody else. It was weird - or at least I thought so, so I tried to find a way to speak to him. Kyle thought I was making mountains out of mole hills, but he helped anyway."
"It was a slow day," Kyle interjected. "It was help Reece or do the laundry, and I'm not big on laundry. Some of those socks had mutated well past the simple woollen footwear stage."
"So anyway..." Reece shot him a mock glare before regaining control of the narrative. "I broke into the... the monkery or whatever you call it, and he was sitting in this room all alone. They'd given him a Bible to read, and he kept reading Revelations, over and over again. He seemed to know it by heart, even though he didn't know anything else. I talked to him for ages, but I couldn't get anything meaningful out of him. Vague words, disjointed sentences... the oddest things that he kept saying. He knew my name." The Immortal frowned again, gazing at the floor by his feet. "He knew my name, and he knew all about me, and yet he didn't seem to know how. He knew that I knew you--" Here his eyes turned abruptly to Methos. "He called you by name, which is why I thought I'd better get word to you straight away. I know how important it is for you to remain incognito."
"He knew that much?" It was Methos' turn to frown. "And yet you're sure he had amnesia?"
"Or some form of it at least." Reece shook his head, then leaned back into the comforting embrace of his easy chair. "He didn't know anything about the Immortals, or the Game, or the Gathering - and yet he knew that you were five thousand years old. He didn't seem to think there was anything odd in that, either. Just accepted it as perfectly natural."
"He didn't answer any of your questions?" Interested now, MacLeod tapped thoughtfully on the arm of his chair. "He really didn't know anything else at all?"
"He knew the date. He was very clear about the fact that it was 1999. He knew that Kyle's boots were based on a design worn by street entertainers following the Reformation. But as soon as I asked him anything about himself, he just couldn't fill in the details. It wasn't that he was lying, either - he honestly didn't know. He couldn't even tell me how he knew who I was, and who you were. It was like being with a child; until he started with all these quotes from Revelations - creepy stuff about Death riding a pale horse. Then he said that the monks were angry with him, and he shouldn't have said as much as he had. He kept babbling on about the Apocalypse, so I figured he was one of these end-of-the-millennium freaks." He shook his head. "Even in an isolated retreat in the mountains, you get pretty sick of people going on about the year two thousand. I started to dismiss a lot of what he said after that. Except..."
"Except what?" Methos looked and sounded very urgent, and for a second Reece's eyes lingered on him, showing faint traces of confusion.
"Except that the monks caught us talking to him. They were angry - really angry. I mean, I always thought monks would be nice types, you know? Quiet, studious - but nice people, like priests, or vicars or whatever. But these guys... they were so angry with us. They were screaming and shouting and raving in Italian. I didn't understand a word of it, but the mystery man started speaking back to them in the same language... except maybe not quite the same."
"It was Latin," put in Shade, his voice certain. "He spoke it fluently. It surprised me. I know a lot of people still understand it, but you don't often hear it being spoken these days. He told them..." He frowned. "I'm a little rusty I'm afraid. I haven't spoken Latin in centuries, and I never learnt the classical stuff anyway. He said something about the Apocalypse. I got that bit very clearly. He told them that they couldn't stop the wheels once they were set in motion. Something about the pale horse again. Then he got very agitated. They were screaming at him about judgement and retribution - real foaming at the mouth stuff - and he was just shaking his head, saying that he didn't know. It was like they were accusing him of things, or claiming that he knew about things. And he was just shaking his head, and saying over and over again that he didn't know anything, and he didn't know what they meant. Then it was like somebody had tripped a switch, or something, 'cause he just blew. He picked up a chair and threw it at the fire, and then he grabbed the nearest monk and looked like he was going to shake the life out of him. It took most of the rest of them to drag him off, and he was shouting about retribution being in the eyes of the beholder."
"That bit was in English." Reece was nodding, in close agreement with everything Shade had said. "He also said something else... something about how they couldn't stop it - I don't know what, he wasn't going into specifics. After that the monks dragged him away. I wanted to stop them, but they were pretty serious, and there didn't seem to be a whole lot that I could do. They threw Kyle and me out. After that we hung around a bit... didn't hear anything else. We asked at the retreat, but nobody knew anything. Nobody anywhere seems to know anything about that brotherhood. They're just this bunch of monks who have been living there, in almost total seclusion, for as long as anyone can remember. The brotherhood itself is thousands of years old, apparently. They claim to be Christians, but as far as I can tell from the reading I did, the brotherhood predates Christianity by at least a thousand years. It's weird. I've been living practically in their pockets for several years now, and I've never even thought about them before. Now it seems that every time I do think about them, I seem to come up with something increasingly weird. I just can't figure them out. They certainly don't seem to practice much Christianity. They don't seem to actively practice any religion, at least as far as I could tell."
"They sing a lot," put in Kyle. "Tuneless dirges, and not like that stuff they play on the radio sometimes... the Gregorian chants. This is really tuneless stuff, mostly in classical Latin and some language I didn't recognise. Strange words for monk-type hymns, too. Lots of stuff about the Apocalypse, and a whole lot of stuff about retribution and judgement. Not very divine retribution though. From what I could gather it sounded like they were claiming the right to do the judging themselves."
"Definitely not your average monks." MacLeod leaned back once more into the depths of his chair. "It doesn't mean anything though. There are a lot of sects, and most of them are harmless. They could be doing anything out there, but then they could be doing nothing at all. As for your amnesiac friend, it sounds like he could just be a nut. Maybe they were a little hard on him, but then that could be their way. All you're likely to be looking at there is a case for one of the humanitarian agencies."
"You really think that's all there is to it? You think he's crazy because of the way that he spoke?" Reece shook his head. "What about Methos? He knew all about him, and he knew about me. It just doesn't ring true that he's some... some escaped mental patient or something. There has to be more to it than that." His eyes sought out those of Methos, but his friend, who had remained very quiet up to that point, showed no sign of breaking his silence now. "Methos?" The old Immortal turned his eyes towards his fellows, the expression in them quite astoundingly serious for one who was usually so blasé about everything.
"I think," he said, his voice very precise, "that MacLeod is right. For once." If this last shot was an attempt to inject some humour into his address, it did not work. There was no mistaking the hint of darkness in the shadows which seemed to be guarding his face even more than usual. "It's nothing. A madman most likely, very possibly dangerous. Many monks care for people who can't care for themselves, and it's possible that he couldn't get a place in a proper hospital. Many of them can't, especially in countries where there's no National Health Service. Perhaps they were a little objectionable in their treatment of him, but there's likely to have been a lot that you missed. Maybe he doesn't respond to kind treatment. Some people who are lost in psychosis don't react to anything other than violence. It's just the way it is." He seemed to be warming to his theme, and the shadows had left his face. There was the touch of truth about his words, and yet MacLeod suddenly felt the fires of suspicion burning somewhere within his heart. If Methos was speaking the truth, then it was a different, special truth of his own, which bore no resemblance to the reality. He let Methos see a little of his suspicion - but by no means all of it.
"Come on. This is 1999, Methos. However you might have treated mental patients in 1499, or 699 or whenever, this just doesn't sound right. Monks wouldn't take in some wandering amnesiac, and then lock him away without any hope of visitors. And all this stuff about judgement and retribution? It doesn't sound at all right to me."
"Of course it does, if you look at it from the right direction." There was a hard edge to the old man's voice now, as if he were trying to pressure the Highlander into seeing his own version of his truth. MacLeod was not buying it.
"You don't think it's at all strange that these people threw Reece out of their monastery? You don't think that maybe they're trying to hide something? And what's all this talk of Revelations?" His expression hardened, and he thought, for a moment, that he saw Methos waver. "That sounds to me like your special area of expertise. Don't you think?"
"Don't be stupid." Methos did not quite meet his eyes. "All that talk... that's from centuries ago. Millennia. People used to talk about the coming of the Apocalypse in the days before we even began counting the years, let alone numbering them. If some isolated monastery in the middle of some mountains in Italy--"
"Well I think there's something strange in it." Reece sounded hurt at Methos' dismissal of his story. For a second Methos flicked his eyes towards the younger man, but if he had seemed about to speak, he broke off before he had truly begun, and turned his head to stare out of the window instead. It was raining again, which at least meant that the weather would be warming up. All the same there were heavy black clouds on the horizon, and the sky itself was a uniform grey. Clearly there was more bad weather to come; in which case he had no intention of spending another night in the forest. Neither could he face a stay in this country hotel, with its gaudy seasonal decorations and its musical Christmas tree lights. He was already long past sick of Jingle Bells and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, both played in squeaky, electronic style by a little black box stuck up the skirt of a particularly indignant looking plastic fairy. Perhaps it was time to head somewhere else. Somewhere like... Italy. Reece was still staring at him, still looking hurt, and the old man rose briskly to his feet, abandoning his view of the landlady trying to hook strings of flashing, multi-coloured lights to a row of mutinous looking conifers.
"Reece..." He was searching for the right words to give the brush-off to the one person in all the world that he really, honestly cared about. The only person that he could not face hurting. "Look. When you've been around as long as I have, you learn that there are some things you just have to let pass. Maybe I haven't been doing you any favours all these years, letting you stay in that retreat. Maybe if I'd let you see a little more of the world, a little more of immortality, you'd understand now. This is nothing; just a false alarm - a few people who seem strange to you because they do things differently. Maybe you should write a letter to the guy in charge of the monastery, and tell him that you disapprove of the way they're treating their guest, but he'll probably only tell you the same thing I have. However enlightened the world becomes, there are always some people who just don't respond to mainstream psychiatric care."
"You sound like an anachronism, Methos." Reece's tone was surprisingly harsh. "Would you stick me away in a hospital too? Make me spend the rest of my life locked up, away from the rest of the world?"
"Don't be stupid. You know that's not what I mean." Again Methos didn't meet his eyes. Reece fixed him with a particularly quelling gaze.
"No? Well maybe that's what you've been doing all these years anyway. Maybe you meant well, locking me away in that retreat, but--"
"Hey. I never locked you away anywhere. You could have left any time you wanted."
"Yeah, sure I could. But you still sent me there. Maybe you'd prefer it if everybody like me was locked up, is that it? And everybody like that poor guy back at that monastery should be shut away somewhere too, and treated like an animal? Is that what you're saying, Methos?"
"Yes." Methos stood very still now, staring at his wet shoes, staring past them to the marks of muddy water staining the fluffy pink carpet. He felt very cold now that he had moved further away from the radiator, and yet horribly hot under the force of three such hostile stares. "Yeah, that's exactly what I mean. I think those monks are right to keep that guy locked away. And I think you should be back in that retreat right now, keeping away from everybody else, and keeping out of my way. Right out of my way." He looked up, fixing the younger Immortal with a stare that was horribly intense. "Starting now." And he stormed abruptly past the threesome and left the room. The door slammed shut behind him, making the already trailing ends of the tinsel in the corridor outside lose their precarious grip on the ceiling and plummet to the floor. Methos kicked the twinkling strands aside, then with sudden, blinding force, punched the banister beside him. There was the sound of cracking bone, to which he remained oblivious. A lovingly placed display of Christmas cards, pinned to the wall above the stairs, fell slowly to the ground one by one, floating on the warm air. One brushed against the old Immortal's face as it fell, and he pushed it hard. It bounced off his broken fingers, wet with the tears it had knocked from his cheeks, then cartwheeled slowly down the stairs. He watched it for a second, until his vision became too blurred for him to be able see its whirling corners any longer; then he turned about and strode off down the corridor. As he passed them the rows of glimmering lights pinned to the windowsills along the corridor seemed to dim, and behind him his own shadow seemed to quail against the rising storm. Methos was oblivious to all, and his fingers dripped blood onto the carpet as he walked. He still hadn't even noticed that he was injured; and neither had he noticed that he was crying. The faster that the blood dripped, the harder his tears fell, but all that he heard was the growing rattle of the wind outside. It was going to be cold tonight - but not half as cold as it was going to be in a lonely old monastery in the mountains of Italy. Somebody there was going to be very cold indeed.
"I..." Reece couldn't get the words out, whatever ones he had been going to say. He shook his head. "I - I can't..." Again the words trailed off. MacLeod shook his head.
"Something's not right."
"Not right? Of course something's not right." It sounded as though Reece wanted to be performing agitated circuits of the room, but seated as he was in one of the room's easy chairs, he contented himself merely with slamming his fist against the chair arm. "I always knew he came from a different world. I always knew he was old... but - but I never thought he'd honestly think that way. I never believed--"
"Don't be a fool. Of course he doesn't believe that." MacLeod went to the window, staring out at the landlady, busy about her light-erecting. Under any other circumstances he would probably have smiled at the sight, and then gone down to lend a hand. Now he merely turned his back, staring darkly at the floor. "I told you - something's wrong. He was lying about the way that he felt. He was lying about thinking you were making too much of this, too. I know him, maybe better than you do."
"And I don't know him at all." Shade spoke very softly, with the kind of seriousness he had so far seemed unable to display. "I'd say that he was lying. I may not know Methos, but I do know people. In my old business it was very necessary." He leaned forward, putting a hand on the arm of his friend's chair, as close as he could get without grabbing hold of Reece himself. "He didn't mean what he said, Reece. He's... I don't know. He's up to something, or he read more into that story than any of the rest of us did. But he knows something."
"Does he?" Reece sounded bleak now, the anger gone. He turned his eyes to stare at Shade, and then flicked his gaze over to MacLeod. It was penetrating in its intensity, and the Highlander was quite taken aback by the pain he saw in the expressive features. "He didn't even ask, Mr MacLeod. He didn't even seem interested to now how I came to be here. You thought I was dead, didn't you. When we met before, and I had to go and face Joshua Kenton - you thought he had killed me. So did Methos, I saw it in his face. But he never even asked how I managed to survive."
"Methos never asks questions like that - he figures that if you want to tell him then you will. You know how much he values secrecy."
"Yeah, only too well." Reece shook his head. "But I thought that he valued me too."
"He does." Slowly MacLeod began to pace up and down, feeling the eyes of the other two Immortals burning into him all the while. "And Kyle is right; he is up to something. I can feel it. It's like a veil that comes over his eyes when he's got secrets he doesn't want the rest of us to know anything about. It's like shadows falling. He draws up inside, and he won't give an inch to anybody. He knows something alright, and I think it's something he's got to act on."
"You think he'll try to lose us and get to Italy?" Reece looked interested again. "Great. I rather hoped we'd be heading that way. I've got my ticket."
"I think it would be best if I went alone. He might well spot the three of us." MacLeod had come to a halt in his restless pacing, and stood now with his back to the others, staring out of the window at the industrious landlady with her strings of flashing, coloured lights. He could feel the radiator, hot against his legs, but he remained detached from the growing sensation of discomfort. Reece's objections washed over him by and large, but he smiled nonetheless at the exaggerated indignation.
"I am not staying here. If it wasn't for me and Kyle you'd never even know any of this. You'd still be camping out in that forest, aiming for pneumonia by Christmas. There is no way that--"
"Okay." MacLeod spun on his heel, turning back to face them. "Fine, we all go. But we have to play this very carefully. We can't go running up to Methos in the street and trying to get the truth out of him. I know him very well, and I've seen him guarding some of his closest secrets. He can make a lie look like the greatest truth you ever heard, and you'd never suspect a thing. He can dress up anything to look like anything else, and none of us would ever be any the wiser. No matter how well we think we know him, and no matter how well we think we know his tricks, he's still got more than four thousand years on the rest of us. He wasn't idle all those years. He was practising spinning deceit the way spiders spin webs."
"I wonder what it is he thinks he knows." Shade was toying with a pack of cards that he seemed to have snatched from thin air. The constant, airborne acrobatics that the cards performed under his guiding hands were quite hypnotic; and it was some time before MacLeod answered.
"I don't know. The last time that he hid something from me I felt like I never wanted to speak to him again. The skeletons that he keeps in his closet don't just bite back - they leap out waving swords around, whenever you try and open the closet door."
"And that's just the more recent closets. He's got a whole lot more, where he keeps the really mean skeletons." Reaching out for his wheelchair, Reece pulled himself into it, settling into its familiar seat. "We'd better get going, or we're going to lose him."
"We know where he's going. It's probably best if we let him think he's left us behind." MacLeod sat down on the arm of the nearest chair, tapping thoughtfully on his teeth with a thumbnail. He was aware that both Shade and Reece were watching him, apparently eager to hear what their next move was to be. He smiled. "Let me get a chance to get dressed, and then we'll go and get something to eat. We might as well take it easy, and head off to Italy when we're rested and well prepared. If Methos is going to go dashing off half-cocked, at least then we'll have the upper hand."
"I like that plan." Shade rose to his feet and headed for the door. "Do we dress for dinner?"
"In this place? Not unless you have something themed and seasonal." Reece wheeled past him, glancing up at him just as he reached the door. "And if you say that you have, I'm never speaking to you again."
"And there I was planning on wrapping a little tinsel round my shoulders." The flamboyant Immortal demonstrated with his hands. "A little holly on my boots? Perhaps I could do the three wise men in sequins, and a shepherd on each trouser leg."
"One of these days I'm going to take your head," Reece told him, as they headed out into the corridor. "Just to see if you have beads and braiding on the inside too."
"Lovingly sewn to every bone." Shade flashed him a grin before swanning off down the corridor. MacLeod found himself smiling. Perhaps it was time to find himself a sidekick. Somebody who always had a joke for every occasion, and a smile for every tight spot. On the other hand, given that kind of terminal cheer, a beheading would only be a heartbeat away. There was a lot to be said for somebody with as remarkable a capacity for being miserable as Methos. The thought of his friend dampened MacLeod's spirits momentarily, and he toyed with the last remaining drops of whisky in his glass. Methos was in trouble, no matter what he said; he wasn't as good at lying as he thought. MacLeod himself could only hope that if something really was going on in that monastery, it wasn't as bad as it felt. Otherwise they could all be in trouble.
"He's coming, isn't he." In the empty grey chill of his room in the monastery, the voice of the amnesiac echoed around, losing itself in the damp corners and the draughty rafters. The head monk, a hawk-faced man in his late fifties, possessed of the sort of goatee beard and grey streaked hair once favoured by the stars of horror films, loomed in the doorway, staring down at his guest with a hatred that was thinly veiled. "The oldest man. He's coming here."
"Yes. We think so." The monk folded his arms, staring down at the amnesiac.
"And then what happens?"
"Then?" The monk smiled a grim smile, which made his eyes glitter and glow unpleasantly. "Judgement."
"So you keep saying." Rising to his feet, the amnesiac took a handful of steps forward, his bright, confused eyes shining out of the shadows. "But I don't understand why. Why do you want to judge us? What gives you the right? Why have you got me locked up here?"
"We do what our forefathers swore to do. What humanity requires us to do." His smile broadened for the briefest of seconds, before disappearing in a flash, as though snatched away by a frosty hand. "We've waited a long time for this."
"But why?" Taking another step forward, the amnesiac fixed his captor with an intense and searching gaze. "Who am I? What is it that you think I am?"
"You'll find out." In a whirl of brown robe, the monk turned and marched away. He paused in the doorway, lit by the light of the thousand flickering candles in the room beyond. "As soon as your friend arrives, you'll find out."
"I know him?" The amnesiac frowned, shaking his head. "If I knew the oldest man in the world, surely I'd remember?"
"Perhaps." The monk gave a sour laugh. "It really doesn't matter. Tell me something - if a murderer, or a thief, or a war criminal forgets their crimes, are they any less guilty? Should they be allowed to escape scot-free?"
"I... I don't know." The amnesiac shook his head slowly from side to side, as though trying to make his past come into closer focus. "Am I a thief? Or a murderer or a war criminal?"
"You are what you are." With a brisk step the monk moved through the doorway, the breeze created by his passing causing the candles closest to him to blow out. "And you'll pay for it." And the door slammed shut, leaving the amnesiac bathed in darkness. Somehow, strangely, the shadows seemed like home.
It was dark, but his feet took him onwards. The paths through the mountains were steep, but it felt as though he had been walking them all of his life. Winding lanes worn by cart tracks, rambling trails created by wandering sheep, vague pathways trodden by occasional passers-by; people like him, come to walk in these largely uninhabited mountains. They all provided him with the means by which to find his way all the easier, even though he had no idea where he was going. He had been to the retreat once, when he had first decided on it as the safest place for Reece. An ancient place, built upon Holy Ground, where no Immortal could touch his young charge. He smiled, despite his exhaustion. Make that not-so-young charge. Reece was in his mid-thirties now; older than many mortals ever got the chance to be. Older than Alexa, for one. Methos wondered, now, if he would ever get the chance to see Reece again; whether the younger Immortal would ever want to see him again. It had been a hard parting, but a necessary one. As soon as Methos had heard Reece's tale he had known that he had to find the monastery, and that he had to seek out these monks and their amnesiac guest. It was important, as though all the five thousand years of his making were dragging him now to this isolated place. He didn't understand it, but then there was plenty in life that he didn't understand, even after so many years of learning.
"Which way, which way?" Standing on the top of one of the highest places he had yet found, Methos stared out towards the east. It was positively his most favourite direction, and always had been. Today he found no inspiration in it at all. Nothing looked familiar - no landmarks jumped out of the shadowed mountains to suggest that he had been this way before. He scowled at the distant horizon, where a weak and early sun would eventually rise. It was too dark to see much; too dark to know which way could possibly be the right one. It was cold too. There was the promise of snow in the clouds above his head, and a growing frost in the grass at his feet. So much for the sultry Mediterranean. He had been warmer languishing in his forest seclusion back in Britain.
"Looking for somewhere?" The voice was soft, like that of a small child or a young woman; but when he turned around it was a fully grown man who stood before him, bathed in shadow and moonlight, striped by both like some ethereal badger. He had a long, sharp nose and close set blue eyes; tightly curling blond and grey striped hair, and almost preposterously long canine teeth, which in the bad light gave him more than the mere suggestion of a vampire. The moon was glinting in the shaved circle on the top of his head, and he wore a robe of a coarse brown material, that swept the tops of his sandalled feet as he moved. Methos could not imagine a more ungodly looking monk; but a monk he undoubtedly was.
"I think you know what I'm looking for," he said, his voice firm and his stance determined. The monk smiled, baring those long canine teeth until the moonlight managed to prick itself on their sharp tips.
"Then follow me." He turned to walk away, but Methos did not start after him immediately. Instead he called out to the retreating back.
"Which Order are you from?"
"Order?" The monk paused and glanced back over his shoulder. "You mean which Brotherhood of monks do I belong to?"
"Yes." He felt sure that he already knew the answer, but he asked the question through a desire to be sure of his position. The monk's smile became broader - almost lascivious.
"We call ourselves the Order of Hijad. You're not expected to understand the meaning of the name." He moved away again, not seeming to care whether or not Methos followed him; but seeming to know, instinctively, that he would. Methos stared after the man, watching him as he was swallowed up by the shadows. Left alone he sighed, and pulled his thin, too-short coat tighter about himself. It was suddenly very cold here on this mountaintop, and he could feel the weight of his years pulling at him, dragging him down.
"But I do understand it," he whispered to the wind, and an involuntary shiver racked his shoulders. "I remember Hijad." He glanced up at the sky, clearing now in the face of the coming frost. A hundred thousand stars stared down at him; bright, hot white pinpricks in an expanse of blackness as forbidding as the blackness he saw as his future. He knew the stars so well - but they had looked very different indeed, when he had first heard the name of Hijad. He thought of MacLeod, and of Reece; and he wondered if they had seen through his lies yet, and realised where he must have come. It didn't much matter. Even if they had guessed the tale this far, they were not likely to find their way through to the next stage of the truth. Neither, for that matter, was he; unless he got his skates on and followed the monk. He hurried off after his guide, trying not to lose his footing on the uneven ground. It was too dark even to see his feet beneath him, let alone anything else. He couldn't shake the feeling that with every step he took, everything became darker and darker still.
The monastery was lit up inside, bright with the light of countless candles, which sputtered and fizzed on every available shelf and platform. From the outside it appeared as a dull, black shape; all angles and corners and slanting old walls. As they grew closer Methos could see the ancient stones of the earliest builders, and the patchwork of corrections and additions built up over the years. The stylised graffiti of stonemasons marked out the aeons; the changing signatures showed the changing faces which had come and gone through the building's distinguished history. It was with a sensation of growing trepidation that he went up the sloping pathway to the huge, black front doors; and with a feeling of building dread that he reached out for the monstrous brass door handles, and twisted them firmly. The doors leapt open to his touch, throwing themselves inward like startled horses - and all the fierce light of the interior flooded out of the building, apparently relieved to escape its threatening, foreboding restraint. He sympathised entirely.
"Methos." It was a new voice, and one that he did not recognise. In the suddenness of the bright light, however, he could see nothing. His vision sparkled with painful echoes of the candles, and swirls of blackness taunted him. He felt hands grip his shoulders and propel him over the threshold, and other, more forceful hands check him for weaponry. All the while voices conferred in earnest whispers. Some he caught, none were comforting. Finally, still more than half-blinded, he was spun to face the source of the voice which had called him by name. He heard footsteps, and looked automatically to where the face should have been.
"I am Stephen, leader of the Order of Hijad." The voice was deep and rich, the English perfect although not native. "Do you understand why you are here?"
"I can't think of many reasons." Methos wanted to rub his eyes, but his arms were being held. The intensity of the lights was agony after the pitch black outside. He wondered how the monks tolerated it; and decided that they probably didn't, at least for most of the time. It was undoubtedly there just for his benefit. He didn't feel especially inclined to be grateful. "Your other guest. Is he still alive?"
"Of course. We weren't going to begin without you." Stephen sounded as though he was smiling, but Methos still could not see him. "Perhaps you'd like a night's rest first."
Methos shook his head. "I want to see him."
"Fine." The head monk walked closer, catching Methos by the chin and forcing his head up. The old Immortal gritted his teeth. He guessed that Stephen was taller than he had imagined, and that he was now being forced to look up to where the other man's eyes really were. Stephen's voice, coming from somewhere up above him, seemed to confirm that theory. "But don't expect him to know who you are. He hasn't worked out who he is yet, let alone anybody else."
"He'll remember." Methos hoped that he sounded defiant, but Stephen, in response, just sounded amused.
"Oh he's bound to. With luck he'll remember everything - just in time for both of you to die."
"I thought this was all about judgement. I thought we were going to have a trial."
"Is there really any need for a trial?" Stephen's face was beginning to swim into view now, coming and going in a frame of flickering candles. "Do you deny your guilt?"
"I deny everything. I always have." Methos saw a grey-streaked goatee, and piercing eyes of hawk-like intensity. He smiled. So this was Stephen. No foe was quite so daunting, once he had a face to go with his name and his voice.
"You can deny what you like. We know the truth. We always have." Stephen was almost whispering, bending closer as he did so, his lips barely a hair's breadth away. His breath smelt of garlic, a fact which gave him a startling image of normality, and of humanity. It all helped to make him less of an ogre.
"The truth..." Methos smiled. "The truth is like the darkest shadow, in the darkest room, in the darkest house. You can search for it, and you can think that you've found it, but you can never really see what it looks like. In the end, even if you're holding it in your hand, it'll always be eclipsed by the lie."
"Pretty words, Immortal. But they won't do you any good come judgement day." Stephen snapped his fingers, and Methos felt the monks holding his arms beginning to drag him away. He felt his feet scraping on bare stone, and through the painful whirl of far too bright lights he saw figures standing by, watching him. They were all men, all dressed in coarse robes. In their midst he thought he saw - felt perhaps - someone else; someone tall, with an expression of darkest malevolence. Confusion blurred his senses, however, and he could not be certain. Somewhere behind him he heard the sound of a heavy door being thrown open; then he was manhandled along a short passage to the top of a flight of stairs. A man stood at the top of the flight, a large key in one hand, the other hand gripping the edge of a massive oaken door. A large ring gleamed on one of his sausage-like fingers, flashing in fluent mimicry of the heavy brass studs set into the door. The man was dressed like a monk, as were all the others; but just like his fellows there was nothing about him that was even remotely monk-like. Monks were quiet and god-fearing; they walked with their eyes downcast and they spent their days in hard toil or in earnest study. That was how Methos remembered them to be, in his past and in his present. He didn't remember ever meeting ones like these before. He didn't think it was likely that he would again.
"Another guest?" The monk with the key was grinning, his thick, ruby red lips framing a mouth of gargantuan proportions, bearing considerably less than a full house of teeth. Those of the collection which had survived seemed sick and unhappy, varying in colour from a jaundiced yellow to a tobacco-stained brown. "Step right up. Join the party."
"Thanks." Methos got a glimpse of the interior of the room beyond the door. It was very plain and very dark, and he could feel the chill coming off the stone floor, even at this distance. There was a man inside the room, huddled up in one corner, seated on the floor. He didn't seem to be looking up, although in the bad light it was hard for Methos to be sure.
"Don't keep your friend waiting," breathed a voice in his ear. A heavy blow slammed into his back, right between his shoulder blades, and he was thrown forward with breathtaking speed. The darkness of the room engulfed him and behind him the door slammed shut. He heard it echoing in his ears even as he was falling to the ground. Hard stone crashed into his knees, and he felt the ice of its touch on the palms of his hands.
"Are you okay?" He heard the voice of his fellow prisoner, and glanced towards the other man. He had straightened up slightly, staring forward into the darkness, to which he had obviously become accustomed. "They don't seem to like you very much either." He leaned forward a little, and Methos was able to see his shape a little better - could see the faint outline of his tall, lanky body, with its jutting shoulders and sticking out ears. Earnest inquisitiveness crept into the hesitant voice. "Are you Methos?"
"Yeah. I am." He smiled, although he wasn't sure if his companion would be able to see. There was a pause, then the other man rose to his feet and moved over to help him up.
"Good," he said, sounding terribly serious. "Then can you tell me who I am, and why they hate me so much?" There was such a childlike innocence to the voice that Methos felt compelled to look away.
"Yeah, I guess I can," was all that he could say at first. "I'm sorry. It's all my fault."
"It is?" The other man cocked his head, apparently frowning. Methos could see more detail now; could pick out the slightly pointed chin, and the scar that marked it horizontally. He could see the faint traces of the blond moustache, and the marks of further scarring around the neck. He knew those scars well. He had put them there, a long, long time ago. More than three thousand years, by his reckoning.
"Your name is Cernus," he said softly, looking for any sign of recognition in the shadowy face above him. "You worked for me once, a long time ago. Many, many years ago."
"More than twenty?" The voice was almost painfully innocent, just as Methos remembered it, from years before.
"Yeah." He smiled. "A whole lot more than twenty."
"I don't remember."
"No. No you never have."
"Did we do very bad things?"
Methos paused before answering. It was not the simplest of questions to give an answer to, and the answer itself was not the most pleasurable one to give. In the end he opted, as usual, for the white lie that hid the truth from everybody but himself. The truth was not far behind, but it was hiding itself away for the time being. He saw no sense in letting it show itself completely.
"I did some bad things," he said finally. "You didn't."
"Then why do they hate me too?"
Why indeed? He shrugged, able to do nothing else. "Because you were with me. Because you didn't stop me. Because everybody else who was there that day is dead, and we're all that's left. There's nobody else to blame."
"That doesn't sound very fair." The voice was sulky. Methos wanted to reach out for the other man, and offer him some form of comfort. The last time he had reached out towards him, as he remembered only too clearly, it had been to hit him, to push him around, to cause those livid scars across his throat. His hand stalled now, refusing to move any closer.
"Nothing's ever fair." He closed his eyes, seeing Hijad now, like some fearful shadow watching him from the corner of the room. "I won't let them hurt you. I'll make them see that you're not to blame."
"But I am to blame, aren't I." The other man reached out with a bony hand, and gripped Methos by the shoulder. "I am to blame. You're lying to me. I can always see lies."
"I'm not lying, Cernus. You weren't half as much to blame as I was. You didn't do what I did. You weren't a part of it."
"Don't lie to me." The earnest eyes of a man who had been pushed far enough moved closer, until Methos could practically feel them against his skin. "Tell me the truth. Tell me the real truth. Who are these others - the ones that you say are all dead?"
"The others..." The names were as familiar to Methos as his own. "I don't remember." He winced as the fingers bit into his shoulder. "Ow! Okay. There was... there was Silas and Caspian and--"
"And Kronos." Cernus was nodding. "But they're not all dead. You're lying again."
"No I'm not. Not this time. I killed Silas myself, and a friend of mine killed the other two. I felt Caspian die, although I didn't see it. And Kronos... I saw him die. I shared his Quickening."
"But he's not dead." Cernus was staring right into his heart - or seemed to be. "You feel him."
"I--" Methos frowned. "People that die... never really go away. Not when we care about them."
"That's not what I mean." Cernus pressed a cold hand against the old Immortal's forehead. "There was a piece of him in here, and now it's gone. You feel it, don't you. You feel something."
"There could be any number of explanations. He could have moved on somewhere else. But he is dead."
"Perhaps." Quite abruptly Cernus let go of him, turning away. "So what is it then, that we did. What was it that was so terrible?"
"We killed some people. I killed some people. A man named Hijad."
"I remember Hijad." Cernus sounded surprised. "He was the leader. I don't know what he led, but he had a daughter. I didn't like her. She hated a lot. She didn't often smile. The children never played near her tent." He frowned. "Did you kill her too?"
"Yes." Methos smiled bitterly. "Although not nearly well enough."
"I don't understand."
"I mean that I killed her, but only in one sense. I should have finished it. I should have taken her head. Instead I left her alive to found this place. Her own little religion, set up to wait for a chance of revenge."
"To wait for the Apocalypse." Cernus was nodding, apparently familiar with some of the workings of the strange and ungodly monastery. "It's supposed to come in the year two thousand. The Four Horsemen will ride." He went suddenly pale. "But you - you're him aren't you. You're the one on the pale horse."
"The last Horseman." Methos looked towards the door of their cell. "The Apocalypse isn't coming, Cernus. There aren't Four Horsemen left to bring it; and somewhere along the line we lost the desire for it anyway. This is just a warped bunch of people reading tales passed down over three thousand years - looking for the people described to their forefathers in the days before this place even claimed to be a monastery." He shook his head, more or less speaking to himself now, staring into the shadows in deepest thought. "And all because we killed her father. She always was a vindictive woman, but when I first heard of this place a couple of centuries back, I thought it was just a myth. I never really believed that she'd come up with something like this. I sent my friend to the retreat as an excuse to keep an eye on what was going on here, but even when he told me that the place was coming alive; that the monks were behaving strangely; I still hoped that it was just a storm in a teacup."
"Do you think she's going to kill us?" Cernus was facing away now, staring back into the corner from which he had come. Methos smiled bitterly at his back.
"I don't know," he admitted finally, feeling suddenly tired. "You can never tell with Cassandra."
The car jolted over the rough track, sending Duncan MacLeod tumbling forwards into the dashboard for the third time in as many minutes. He winced, making an early New Year's resolution to always rent cars with seatbelts. Shade grinned at him.
"Fine." MacLeod winced as yet another jolt made his spine perform a most inadvisable jig. "It brings it all back. Early motor cars, bouncing around in the days before somebody thought to put air in the tyres."
"Doesn't it just." Shade gave him a shrug that suggested he didn't really care anyway. The rough journey had done nothing to lessen his permanently cheerful spirit. "All those Model T Fords that people enthuse over. They might be quaint and collectable now, but they were hell on the coccyx. I used to feel like a frog in a blender." He paused. "Not that that's a comparison I'd have made back then."
"Naturally." MacLeod momentarily cut off the conversation in order to lean out of the window and wipe some of the accumulated mud from the windscreen. They could hardly see a thing through it, which worried him greatly - not least because Shade himself didn't seem to care. Instead the other Immortal gunned the accelerator and spun the wheel with gay abandon, apparently not at all worried about the potentially deadly terrain. MacLeod had seen people beheaded in car smashes, and he had no wish to try that feat for himself. In an attempt to give himself something else to think about he glanced back at Reece, currently taking his turn on the back seat. The young Immortal was fast asleep, clearly as unconcerned as Shade about the jerking about of the vehicle, and the suddenness of its wild manoeuvres. Shade seemed aware of MacLeod's thoughts, and he smiled, looking up into the chipped rear view mirror.
"Asleep?" he asked. MacLeod nodded, turning back to face the front.
"Yeah. The sleep of the innocent." He smiled at that analogy. Once, long before Richie Ryan had experienced his First Death, the young pre-Immortal had slept that same kind of deep and restful sleep. When he and MacLeod had parted company after the younger man's initiation into the ways of the Immortals he had still dreamed untroubled dreams; had still slept with an uncreased brow. By the time they had met up again, he had been like every other Immortal - tense, restless, worried. Haunted by fears of his eventual fate, and by memories of those of his brethren he had killed. Again Shade seemed to have an insight into his thoughts, for the look he flashed MacLeod, through its usual merry smile, was tinged with sadness.
"Remember when you used to sleep like that?"
"No." MacLeod didn't even bother trying. "You?"
"I don't think so. I remember the first head I took, but not the way it changed me. I don't really remember who I was before. Does any of us?"
"No." MacLeod's smile turned bitter. "I don't think they do."
"But him." Shade nodded at the rear view mirror. "He could well be the only one of us who's different. He's never killed anybody. He never could. He's worth standing up for, and I never thought I'd find one of us that I could honestly say that about."
"Methos once said much the same thing." MacLeod remembered the dejected conversation in Joe's bar several months earlier. They had been certain then that they were about to lose Reece. He still hadn't discovered quite how they had managed not to.
"Methos does care about him, doesn't he." For the first time, Shade seemed serious. His dark eyes were startlingly intense. "I can't quite figure him out. He always seems to be hiding something - trying to keep things to himself. I can't seem to be sure whether or not he's telling the truth; and I thought I knew people as well as anybody."
"Methos never tells the truth. Not entirely. Not unless he really, absolutely has to - and even then you have to watch what you believe. Everything he says has a little of the truth about it, but the whole truth is always in disguise. I think it's probably there somewhere, if you can find it. There aren't very many people who can."
"He hurt Reece with what he said before he left us." Shade sounded angry. MacLeod shook his head.
"Don't hate him for that. He just wanted to keep us out of whatever it is he's gone to do. He thought he was acting for the best... I think."
"But you don't know for sure. We've come halfway across the world, and may well be risking our lives, for a guy none of us really knows."
"You don't have to be here."
"Yes I do." Again that fond look in the rear view mirror. "I'm here for Reece, not for Methos. As far as I'm concerned, a guy who's lived for five thousand years can look after himself - otherwise he'd never have lived for so long. Reece... well he's different."
"Why? Why are you willing to risk your life just to help a man you barely know try and rescue a man you don't know at all?"
"Isn't that what you do all the time?" The directness of Shade's question startled MacLeod, and he frowned. Shade smiled at his discomfort.
"I'm sorry, but just about every Immortal knows who you are, MacLeod. Everybody knows that you look after people you hardly know; that you fight for ideals you believe in. Maybe I'm doing the same thing. They're different ideals, but the goal's the same. We both want to look after things we think matter."
MacLeod stared at him, their eyes meeting in the chipped glass of the rear view mirror. He frowned. "Who are you? Where did you come from?"
Shade smiled, his eyes widening into an expression that seemed to ask who - me? In the end he looked away, turning to stare out of the side window for an alarmingly long time. The steering wheel shook in his hands as he let his attention wander from it.
"I was born in Kent in 1426," he said finally. "My name from that time isn't important. I haven't used it since the day I died for the first time. I was stoned to death by some villagers, who thought I'd attacked a young local woman. They didn't even stop to ask if I was guilty. Three days later they found out that I wasn't, but I never saw a single one of them express any kind of remorse. Ever since then I've been looking for something to remind myself that the world isn't as bad as it tries to be. Sometimes I find that reminder, and sometimes I don't. For nearly six hundred years I've been a smiling face in a world that's always trying to take my smile away. Our kind is the worst. We should be leaders, teachers, protectors. Instead we can't even keep from killing each other." He smiled. "That's who I am. Somebody who doesn't want to care anymore, but can't seem to stop. Somebody who makes people laugh, because it's all he can think of doing to make the world a little better. But now I've found Reece, and he makes the world a little better just by being in it. I've seen whole rooms brighten, just because he wheeled in. It makes me remember why I once thought I could change the world, and I suppose that's why I'm here." His smile became a little embarrassed. "Your turn. Why are you here?"
"Me?" MacLeod seemed surprised by the question. "I'm here because I have to be. Methos and I are joined by something neither of us can claim to understand. He's infuriating, he's rude, he's arrogant - he can be lethal. But the world would be a very empty place without him."
"Hear hear." From the back seat Reece's voice came to them, sleepy and vague. "So let's get a move on, huh? The old man could be Horseman burger by now, and I don't want that to happen until I've clobbered him for causing us all this trouble."
"Amen." MacLeod, expecting the car's speed to increase at this prompting, voiced his agreement whilst tightening his clinging hold to the door. Sure enough, Shade pressed down still harder on the much abused accelerator. The engine coughed, then the car sprang forward, crashing violently into a series of dips and rises. Reece whooped in a kind of glee, and Shade joined in. MacLeod tried not to close his eyes. One of these days he was going to have to have a holiday that didn't end in a mad dash to save somebody. One of these days. Something told him that it wouldn't be any day soon.
Methos awoke in the small hours, surprised to find that he had fallen asleep at all. He was huddled against the wall, close to where Cernus was also lying. The tall, awkwardly built man lay flat on his back, the faint sounds of snoring escaping his loosened lips, and making the ends of his moustache vibrate. It was a soft noise, and one that would hardly count as reason to awaken someone; even someone as much on edge as Methos was just then. He rose to his feet, his senses telling him that something was amiss even before he felt the presence of another Immortal. He took a few steps towards the door, but made no attempt to move within striking distance as the heavy oaken barrier opened slowly towards him. It creaked on rust-laden hinges, adding a touch of atmosphere to the already threatening moment. Methos felt his hackles rise.
"Who's there?" He was sure of the answer, but demanding it made him feel more certain of himself; more in control of the situation. Footsteps scraped on the stone, the darkness outside the door now almost as intense as that within the cold prison. All of the candles had been extinguished; all save one. This latter spluttered unwillingly from a small brass holder gripped tightly in the hand of the new arrival. Methos could not make out much detail by the light of the sick flame, but as the candle was brought nearer, away from the draughts of the corridor outside, the little flame strengthened, and began to burn with a brighter, clearer glow. The old Immortal saw a tall woman standing before him, dressed in the habit of a monk. She had long blonde hair and sharp, piercing eyes; as sharp and as piercing as the nails on her fingers. He could see them clenched around the candle holder, and could imagine them clenching around his neck.
"Cassandra." He spoke the name as matter-of-factly as he could, with no indication of surprise. In the light of the candle he saw her smile, although there was no pleasure in it; no welcome or sign that she was prepared to make deals.
"Methos." She spoke the word as though it were a threat - as though it were some dangerous and vindictive spell for summoning ghastly demons and spirits. Perhaps, to her, that was exactly what it was. "How have you been?"
"Don't let's pretend that you care." He gestured towards Cernus. "Why is he here?"
"He's here to be judged. He's as guilty as you are. My only regret is that the pair of you are all we could get hold of - but of course the rest of the Horsemen have already met their Judgement Day." She smiled, this time with a good deal more malevolence. "Funny, isn't it, how all the stories which have grown up about you say that you'll be the one bringing down judgement upon us all. And here I am bringing it down upon you. Me, the Foundling without a name of her own, bringing death to Death himself."
"Times change, Cassandra. I'm not the man I used to be. Not anymore."
"Rubbish. Oh you might have changed. You might have led a different life, for a while. But I saw you with Kronos, when he came to find you that time. I saw the look in your eyes, the way that you held your head. You're not as much of a new man as you like to think, and the world won't be safe from you until you're dead. I see things, Methos. I know things. I'm older than most of the people alive on this earth, and that gives me an insight most people can't begin to dream at. I know the truth about you."
"You always did have a screw loose." He shook his head. "This is hardly following the Rules, Cassandra. You're supposed to challenge us to fair combat, not stage some mock trial and have your minions take our heads. That's not the way it's supposed to work."
"Oh?" She stepped closer, apparently unconcerned by his dangerous proximity. "And I suppose the way you did it - that was within the Rules, was it? Riding down on us, galloping out of the sun, pounding through villages and slashing indiscriminately with your swords? That's within the Rules, is it? Don't tell me that you saved every Immortal and pre-Immortal, the way that you saved me. We both know that's not the case."
"I'm not claiming anything. All I'm saying is that if you're going to judge me, you have to be better than I am. Otherwise your judgement will be tainted - unacceptable. And if you do this, you'll be no better than the Horsemen. Would Hijad be impressed? Would he consider himself avenged? I don't think so."
"Don't compare me to the Horsemen." Her voice a sliver of ice and her eyes flashing above the candle flame, she took another step towards him. "And never, ever, say the name of my father again."
"He wasn't your father, Cassandra. He was a mortal. He would have died eventually, and probably violently. Most of them did back then. The roving tribes, the healers - they always met sticky ends. You know that as well as I do."
"Scum!" With a flash of sudden rage, she lashed out. He felt her nails graze his forehead, felt the force behind her slap knocking his head back. He let the blow carry him backwards, let his body fall with it, flow with it - let himself crash to the ground. Cassandra turned to look towards him, momentarily losing him in the shadows that swirled about her feet. It gave Methos only the briefest moment in which to react; but it was enough.
He leapt to his feet as she looked away, and with one hand he sent the candle tumbling to the floor. It bounced once, holder and candle going in opposite ways, the flame extinguished almost immediately. With his other hand Methos planted a heavy blow in the middle of Cassandra's back, sending her stumbling across the room. He didn't wait to see her crash into the wall, and instead made a dash for the door. A large, heavy hand smashed down on his left shoulder, gripping tightly enough to bring tears to his eyes.
"Going somewhere?" It was a deep voice, filled with delight. Only now did Methos remember the key-holder; the large, fat man with the huge mouth and decayed teeth. He felt his knees buckle under the pressure on his shoulder, and realised dimly that it was only the man's powerful hold that was keeping him on his feet. A second hand clamped down on his other shoulder; then with frightening, blinding force, he was slammed against the wall. The world, or what little he could see of it in the darkness, blurred alarmingly, and the pasty red and white swirl of the key-holder's face swam out of the mist right in front of him. He got a vague impression of blue-grey eyes, and of wobbling jowls surmounted by tufts of greying hair. Oddly it made him think of a rather portly werewolf, and through fear and pain he felt a strange urge to giggle. The face swam closer.
"What's so funny?" an unpleasant voice asked with real menace. Methos winced. He hadn't meant to smile, and hadn't realised until now that he was. He swallowed his ill-advised humour and glanced towards Cassandra. She was coming out of the cell now, her habit dusty and her hair out of place. She had recovered the candle, and was lighting it with a disposable plastic cigarette lighter. It seemed an odd testament to normality in this dark and extraordinary place.
"I'm very angry with you, Methos," she said softly, although she sounded anything but. Strangely her voice sounded almost like that of a mother chiding her son; and Methos had a sudden, desperate urge to get away from her. There was nowhere to run. The wall was hard against his back, and there was certainly no way through it. The newly resurrected candle flame gleamed brightly against the blade of a dagger, held delicately between Cassandra's long-nailed fingers. "I'm going to have to do something, aren't I Brother Andreas. Something to discourage him from escaping again."
"I can think of something." Brother Andreas switched his hold in the blink of an eye, one of his ham-sized hands gripping Methos by the throat, beginning to lift him off the ground. The old Immortal felt his feet waver in mid air; felt the pressure against his neck increase. His own hands grasped desperately at that of the bigger man, trying to scrabble for a good hold; trying to break the stronger man's grip. Andreas laughed, squeezing harder.
"Let him down." Cassandra's voice was filled with authority - the kind of authority that only the founder of a monastery could expect to wield over its members. Slowly Methos felt his feet regaining their tread, although the grip around his neck lightened only the barest touch. "I had in mind something... something a little more subtle. And a lot more fitting." The knife blade came closer. "Do you enjoy being dead, Methos?" She smiled unpleasantly. "Because I will kill you just as many times as it takes to tame you." The knife flashed once in the muted light, and Methos felt a burning pain in his stomach. He gasped, felt his legs give way. This time Andreas let him fall. Cassandra crouched down by the fallen body.
"Feel the pain, Methos," she breathed, taking a handful of his hair in order to force him to look at her. He saw her, just, through the red haze of his agony. "Embrace it. Welcome it." She smiled again. "Because it's all you've got left." With that her smile faded into a merciless stare and she released him. He fell back, felt his head striking the cold stone of the floor. The world blew apart; and in the blackness at the edge of death he was aware only of the fiery pain in his stomach. Soon that too was gone; and then there was nothing at all.
The car jolted to a final, breathless halt, gasping great clouds of piping hot steam from beneath its much dented bonnet. Shade switched off the engine.
"Perhaps it just wants a bit of a sit down," he suggested brightly. "Be alright in a minute, if we give it a breather."
"Who are you trying to kid?" Leaning forward Reece peered out of the windscreen, trying to see through the clouds of steam to the pitch black scenery beyond. "Still, I suppose it could have been worse. It could have broken down somewhere completely out of the way, without any chance of a tow. We should look on the bright side. There's a whole tree over there. Might be some small furry creature inside, with a phone we can borrow."
"Now that," announced Shade, with a look of deepest admiration, "is a brilliant idea. Hop out and call us a taxi, MacLeod." The Highlander shot him a withering glare, and Shade flashed him an innocent smile in return. A reproachful edge slipped into his tone. "You could at least play the game," he admonished. MacLeod opened the car door and climbed out.
"This thing's had it," he announced, after his half-hearted attempts to open the bonnet resulted only in him scorching his hands and aggravating his already fraying temper. "We're going to have to walk out of here."
"Thanks." Unfolding his wheelchair, Reece joined him on the uneven mountainside. "How far?"
"I don't know how far it is until I know where we're going." MacLeod pointed at him. "You're supposed to be the one who knows that."
"Not in the dark I don't." Spinning in a cheerful circle, Reece scanned the invisible horizon. "I can't see a dickie bird in this light."
"Oh great." MacLeod mentally threw up his hands, turning away and striding up the slope to the nearby crest of their present mountain. He looked about, but the moonlight which had been helping them up until now was gone, and he could see nothing beyond his own feet. There was certainly no evident sign of a religious retreat, with an attendant Methos-bearing monastery. He groaned.
"Having trouble?" The voice came from behind him, and he jumped in sudden, unexpected fear. A man had come from nowhere and now stood before him - a strange, heavily built man, who looked very much like a retired boxer. He was about forty-five, with a nose that looked broken and an uneven coating of brown and grey stubble that grew in patches over his cheeks. There was a large, coiled snake, decorated in red and yellow, tattooed on the back of his right hand - and it came as some surprise when MacLeod completed his visual picture of the man, and discovered that he was wearing a monk's habit and a pair of rope sandals.
"I beg your pardon?" He had heard the other man's question, but he was confused and needed to hear it again before he could answer. There was an unpleasant aura about the man - a feeling that he was not quite who he appeared to be.
"I asked you if you were having trouble." The man smiled a benevolent smile, which seemed somehow broken on his rough face. "Only I have a car just down the slope a way. I'd be happy to give you a lift somewhere."
"There's not just me." Oddly suspicious, although he could not tell why, MacLeod glanced back to where the rented car was still sending clouds of steam skyward. "There's three of us."
"That's no problem." The monk was still smiling, still acting the very image of pleasant, willing friendliness. There really did seem to be no reason not to accept his apparently well-intended offer. MacLeod found himself smiling back.
"My friend is in a wheelchair. Do you have space for--"
"It's no problem. By car I really meant to say van. There's room enough for three of you, and as many wheelchairs as you feel the need to carry." He laughed good-naturedly. "So what do you say? Where are you aiming for?"
"We're heading for..." He paused, unwilling to tell the monk that they were heading for the monastery. "We're heading for a little village near here. We heard that their wine was the best available in Europe, and we're looking for some good stuff for the Hogmannay celebrations." He managed a bashful smile. "I suppose you're not into that sort of thing."
"Perhaps not, these days. But I used to be I can assure you - and I know just the village you mean." The monk laughed again, and despite his earlier suspicions MacLeod found himself warming to the man. "You'd best find somewhere else to spend the night though. Everything will be closed there now." A sudden idea seemed to come to him. "You could spend the night at the monastery. We have plenty of spare rooms, and although it's not exactly built for comfort you would be very welcome."
"Sounds great." It was Reece, speaking as he struggled his way up the slope, Shade helping when he felt he was needed. MacLeod turned in surprise.
"We should press on," he objected, trying to catch Reece's eye. The younger Immortal steadfastly ignored him.
"We can't get anywhere in this light, and I can't make it very far over this kind of ground anyway. My wheels aren't up to it." He offered the monk a broad, utterly charming smile. "We'd be delighted to accept your invitation."
"Great." Their benefactor turned away. "Just wait here, and I'll bring the van over. We should be back at the monastery in no time." He beamed at them all merrily, much like some indulgent father figure. "I'll just be a tick." With that he was gone, scurrying away into the darkness, his robe swirling to display thin, white, knobbly ankles.
"What did you do that for?" MacLeod was exasperated. "We don't know what they're up to in that place."
"Best why to find out. Besides, they might have Methos and I want to find out for sure."
"Yeah, they might have Methos. And they might just be waiting for the chance to add us to their collection. We don't know who they are, Reece. We don't know what they might be capable of. Did that guy really look like a monk to you?"
"I once knew a Roman Catholic priest who used to be a hitman for the Mafia." Shade caught MacLeod's look, which suggested to him that he was being less than helpful. He shrugged. "Well he did. And there was a vicar I met once, in 1901, who took to the cloth after--"
"Okay." His mind full of thoughts of Darius, MacLeod was ready to admit defeat. "I just think it's a little foolhardy, that's all - inviting ourselves into the lion's den before we've checked out the odds. They could have Methos down there. They might have killed him."
"No." Reece's voice was filled with certainty - but it was the certainty that came not from knowing the truth, but from not being able to accept the alternative. "Methos isn't dead. We'll find him, and we'll find him in that monastery, I'm sure of it. He needs our help."
"Psychic now are you?" MacLeod sighed. "Okay, I'm with you - but please follow my lead from now on. I know you mean well, Reece, but in case you'd forgotten, you're a pacifist. If anything goes wrong it's me who's going to have to pick up the pieces."
"And me." Shade was grinning again, looking like anything but a well-oiled fighting machine. MacLeod managed a smile that lacked any sort of confidence.
"Yeah. And you." The sound of the approaching vehicle distracted him, and he glanced up into the blazing headlights of an approaching van. It was a huge, powerful monstrosity, with gleaming bull-bars, bulging, chunky tyres and giant strip lights that spilled a brilliant white glare over the whole of the surrounding countryside. It certainly didn't look much like the kind of van a monk might drive - even a monk living in the middle of nowhere, who was in genuine need of an all terrain vehicle. It was obvious even through the bright light that their helpful friend was not alone in the front of the van. Two other figures were visible as black silhouettes through the windshield. MacLeod reached instinctively for his sword.
"Forget the weapon, Mr MacLeod." The van jerked to a halt, and two of the figures in the front climbed out. They were both carrying automatic rifles - brand new, expensive looking ones, that looked as though they were powerful enough to drop elephants without the need to fire twice. Slowly, almost resignedly, MacLeod raised his hands. Shade followed suit, the expression on his face one of wistful regret. It was almost a sight worth laughing at, save that the Highlander didn't feel much like laughing. He glanced down at Reece, who alone of the three had not raised his hands. He was toying instead with the arms of his chair, not quite meeting MacLeod's dangerous glare. Finally he shrugged.
"Oops?" he suggested. MacLeod scowled.
"Next time, you are definitely staying back at the hotel."
"Yeah." The monks were upon them now, pushing them towards the waiting van. "I think I probably will."
Methos stirred, aware in some vague and distant part of his mind that he was not alone - and that his companions, whoever they may be, were Immortals. It was a feeling that was at once both reassuring and terrifying. Immortals were always something to fear, if nothing else because you could never be sure of their intentions, or your own ability to defend yourself. He was also aware, in a very detached sort of way, that an Immortal was responsible for his present predicament, and might have returned to continue with their earlier conversation. He couldn't remember what it was that they had been talking about, but he knew that he hadn't enjoyed it very much. On the other hand, of course, Immortals could be friends too. He had been talking about the other three Horsemen recently. Could they be the other Immortals he could feel? Was Kronos with him now, and Silas? He opened his eyes, saw a myriad of flashing red and pink signal lights, and slammed his eyes shut before vowing never to open them again. A familiar voice spoke from out of the ether, or more correctly from some indistinct position several feet above his head.
"No I'm not." This time when he opened his eyes the light show was down to a bare minimum - occasional dull sparks for the most part, which fizzed in the back of his head. He frowned, his clearing vision finally allowing him to get Duncan MacLeod's face in something approaching normal focus. "And what are you doing here?"
"Rescuing you." There was not the slightest touch of irony in Kyle Shade's irrepressibly cheerful voice. "Or at least that was the original intention. Then we decided getting caught would be much more fun."
"I thought you were safe." Apparently no longer aware of their presence, Methos stared instead at Reece, who sat several yards away, feigning nonchalance. "I thought I'd made sure you'd stay in Britain, and not come here."
"You tried." Reece smiled, but with little conviction. "I guess you're not pleased to see me then, huh."
"Pleased to see you? How the hell can I be pleased to see you?" Ignoring the gut-wrenching sensation of not-yet-healed stab wounds in his torso, Methos made it halfway to his feet before stumbling. MacLeod caught him automatically, but Methos pulled away, irritated. "You were safe in Britain. Nobody could touch you there. What possessed you to come all this way, to a place where you're in the very worst kind of danger? You have to get out of here. Speak to the head monk. Tell him you don't know me."
"They knew who we are, old man. That's not going to work." MacLeod tried to use a calm tone of voice, in a vague attempt to bring the old Immortal back from the brink of his sudden rage. "They were waiting for us."
"They must have known what bloody stubborn fools you are." Methos whirled about to face the Highlander, but his legs wobbled and he almost fell. This time it was Shade who caught him, helping him to sit down on the floor. "You shouldn't have come here Mac. I have to handle this. Me. It can't be your fight as well, not this time."
"I don't understand." MacLeod, still somewhat disorientated after a long and confusing journey, followed by summary incarceration in a darkened room, was in search of answers. "Some half-baked story that Reece told us, and it means enough to bring you out here, put you in mortal danger, and make you determined to keep the rest of us safely out of it back in Britain? You think maybe you want to elaborate a little?"
"No, not really." Methos rubbed at his side, discovering a wound as yet unhealed. It hurt, which did nothing at all to improve his mood. "This has nothing to do with you. As soon as you get the chance, I want you out of here."
"Not without you." There was very real concern in Reece's eyes, and it was equally noticeable in the strained sound of his voice. "Listen, we came here to save you. The least you could is look like you're glad of the assistance."
"You shouldn't be here." There was the sound of shuffling in the corner of the room, and Cernus emerged from his refuge of shadows and cobwebs, pottering cautiously into the circle of pale and unreliable light thrown out by Shade's pocket torch. The old, bony Immortal frowned at the three newest additions to the collection in the cell, then sidled up to MacLeod to peer into his eyes. "You're not one of them, are you? You don't look like I remember them looking, but it has been rather a long time, and I could be wrong."
"I've already told you who I am." MacLeod was able to speak to the other man with infinite patience, despite his growing aggravation towards Methos. "My name is Duncan MacLeod."
"That's right!" Cernus seemed delighted. "Do you know who I am?"
"Cernus... not now, okay?" Glancing up, Methos offered the other man a reassuring smile. "You should be getting some sleep."
"Okay Methos." The other man seemed happy to oblige, and tottered off back to his corner. Shade frowned at his retreating back.
"Is he okay?" he asked quietly, trying to keep from being overheard. "He's been whispering to himself ever since we got here, muttering about some guy called Kronos."
"Cernus is fine. He's just not as... easily focussed as the rest of us." Methos' eyes seemed drawn to the shadowy figure, now hunched over in its corner, painting dust patterns on the floor. "He used to be a very ordinary guy, but he was kidnapped - tortured. He lost his mind, and then he lost his mortality. He's never been the same since."
"You know each other then." MacLeod sat down beside the oldest Immortal. "You knew from what Reece said that this Cernus guy was the amnesiac found by the monks, and that's why you came here?"
"Yeah. Cernus has had amnesia for years, but it's nothing approaching the ordinary kind. He genuinely doesn't know who he is half of the time, and he has almost no long term memory. Somebody drove a dagger into his skull, and I think it destroyed part of his brain. From what you said, Reece... about him being obsessed with talk of the Apocalypse... I was sure it had to be him, and I thought he could do with my help."
"Why do I think we're not being told the full story here?" MacLeod caught a poisonous look in Methos' eyes, and sighed. "I just want to know what's going on here old man. We found you with multiple stab wounds. Some were almost healed, others looked fresh. You're locked up in a monastery with some other Immortal who feels old, and yet acts like a child. You seem to feel responsible for him some way - why? And why are you here in the first place? Why would a bunch of monks want to lock up somebody who clearly isn't a threat to anyone? Your pal Cernus doesn't look like he could say boo to a goose. Is this an Immortal thing? Is that why we're here too?"
"You're here to keep you out of the way until this is over. It isn't an Immortal thing, not really. It's just about revenge." Methos was staring towards the door, as though expecting it to open at any moment. "Somebody considers Cernus and I to be responsible for something, and she won't rest until she's made us pay."
"And you knew she was here." Reece was frowning. "You always knew what the people in this monastery were like, didn't you - or suspected at any rate. That's why you sent me to the retreat just over the way - so you could keep an eye on them." He shook his head. "And there I was thinking you were worried about me."
"I was." Methos' eyes were burning with a light that was entirely genuine. "But I never have just one reason for doing anything. All moves have ulterior motives. That's the key to survival." He rubbed his eyes, suddenly looking very tired. "I didn't really think this place was dangerous. I first heard of it centuries ago, but I always thought she was dead - that she'd died a thousand years ago or more. There were rumours that she fell in battle against the Romans in Judea or - or fighting for the Romans against the Judeans. Something like that anyway, in about 25AD. I heard rumours she might have been alive in the fifteenth century. There was talk of someone demonstrating her special skills about then, in Vienna. The description was all wrong though."
"You're not making a lot of sense, Methos." MacLeod crouched in front of him, gripping his shoulders. For a moment he was shocked by how weak his friend looked - by how tired and confused he seemed. "Who are you talking about? Who is this woman, and why would she found a place like this, just to help track you down? What did you do to her for goodness sakes?"
"What?" For a second the old Immortal looked terribly guilty - like a small child discovered in the act of doing something very naughty indeed. His eyes shifted about, searching for lies and excuses in the corners of the room. When he spoke, however, it seemed to be the truth. "She founded this place - a place of learning. Nobody read and wrote back then, save for a few. She needed people with special knowledge, special capabilities, to try and find us - find references to us through history. There's been generations of them here, coming and going, scouring literature, historical records, everything. All looking for us."
"Why?" MacLeod did not speak the word as a question but as a demand. Methos stared up at him, the shadows passing and re-passing across his expressive face. Usually he could easily hide his attempts to disguise the truth, but he seemed too tired to bother now. Maybe he just no longer cared.
"Don't know," he said finally, unable to meet MacLeod's gaze. He glanced up, searching out Reece who sat just within the last reaches of the torchlight. "I'm sorry. I should have told you straight away. I should have warned you, so that you wouldn't try to come after me. You have to listen to me now, I--"
"Forget it old man." Reece moved closer. "I wouldn't have stayed away. How could I, after everything you've done for me?" He smiled, his eyes filled with a fond glow. "You're hopeless, you know that? All you needed to do was tell us the truth, and we'd have sorted something out. Your friend Cernus would be welcome at the retreat. There are people there who could really help him. Just tell me what it is you're both supposed to have done."
"You wouldn't say all that if you--" Methos broke off, shaking his head. "Reece, I don't want you here. I don't want you involved. I don't want you to hear what she might say. It's lies, all of it. I didn't do the things she says I did. I swear to you. She's mad. Corrupted. She doesn't know the truth from her own hallucinations anymore. It's the magic, the powers she has. She can control other people's minds, but it's making her lose her grip on her own." As if in answer to his words, the buzz of another Immortal filled the room. Cernus gasped, his thin shoulders beginning to shake.
"Methos?" He sound almost pathetic in his need to be sure of the other man's presence. "Are they coming for us?"
"I don't think so. Not yet." Ignoring MacLeod's attempt to help him, Methos fought his way to his feet. The stab wounds seemed to have healed now, although some of the pain still lingered. "Just stay out of sight and she'll leave you alone."
"What if it's not her? What if it's Kronos?" The blond head shivered, knocking against the stone walls with a dull tapping sound.
"I told you. Kronos is dead." There was no emotion in Methos' voice now as he stepped forward to meet the new arrival. MacLeod stood at his shoulder, but the old Immortal did not seem aware of his presence. The large, solid door eased itself slowly open. The figure of Cassandra stood silhouetted in the doorway, hands on her hips, her darke blond hair curled in a lighted halo around her head. MacLeod gaped.
"You?" He took a step forward, and the monks waiting beside his old flame made no attempt to stop him. Cassandra smiled, moving towards him with a stride that was almost a slink.
"I don't understand. I thought I'd made it clear that I wouldn't let you harm Methos. I told you he was my friend." The Highlander took her wrists, wondering how far he would be allowed to go before he was stopped. "I thought you understood that times had changed. People have changed. He's not the man he was."
"Maybe not. But he was still that man, and it's that man I intend to put on trial." Her long-nailed fingers stroked the underside of his wrists, the nails themselves coming dangerously close to his veins. "Don't get in my way, Duncan, or I'll do what needs to be done to keep you quiet."
"Then perhaps you'd better do just that." His eyes burning with indignation, MacLeod stared from Cassandra to Methos. "And you - all that 'she' and 'her'. You couldn't have told me who you were talking about - who we were dealing with? I could have spoken to her and sorted this out without any of us ever having to set foot in this country. Are you mad?"
"You couldn't have sorted any of it out. Once she got her hands on Cernus it was only a matter of time before she got me too - either by waiting for me to come, or by sending somebody to get me. She's known for some time where I live." Methos seemed greatly troubled, and apparently much distressed. "You should have stayed away. This isn't your fight. It can't be."
"But you haven't done anything." Reece's voice was filled with certainty as he wheeled himself over, coming to a halt by his friend's side and staring up at him with a look of utter conviction. "I know who you used to be, Methos. I know about the Horsemen. But that doesn't give anybody the right to hold you here, to persecute you in this way, to call down their own form of judgement. It's not right." His gaze switched to Cassandra. "It was thousands of years ago. Civilisation was different. People were still stoned to death in the market place for goodness sakes. When the law was that barbaric, how can you expect the people to behave any differently? The Horsemen were a product of their time, and even if that doesn't make it okay, it should at least make it understandable. You can't demand justice now for something that happened in a whole other world. You must have done things yourself that modern society would judge as wrong. If you were there then, if you saw what the Horsemen did, you must have been responsible for bad deeds yourself, even if only by association."
"He speaks well, Methos." Cassandra's eyes lingered on the old Immortal, without turning to look at Reece at all. "It's just a shame that he really doesn't know what he's talking about."
"He knows." Methos let a hand fall onto Reece's shoulder. "He knows all that he needs to. Our world is gone, Cassandra. Trying to bring it back was the mistake that my brother made, and look where it got him. Don't make the same mistake." He sighed, shaking his head. "They have different ways now, and what you're trying to do here isn't right by today's rules. You know that. You certainly can't judge Cernus by modern law."
"I want revenge, Methos. I don't care about modern law, or what's right or wrong by today's standards or yesterday's. Cernus is as guilty as you are."
"No he's not. Do you think I'd have come here, put my life on the line, risked your hospitality, to help someone who's guilty of the sorts of things you're talking about? I came here to save Cernus, because he deserves to be saved." His eyes lowered. "The way Hijad deserved to be saved. The way all those people did. What Cernus did was excusable - understandable even. Whatever you think he's responsible for was really my doing - my responsibility. I'm to blame for everything."
"Really." Cassandra was smiling now. "Then it's settled. An admission of guilt saves us a trial. We can skip straight to the sentencing."
"Cassandra..." MacLeod's tone was dangerous. She didn't even seem to see him, let alone hear him call her name.
"You'll both be put to death at noon. Cernus first, since his welfare seems so important to you. You can see him die, and maybe think a little on how it felt for me to see the same fate befall Hijad."
"You think I don't know how that feels? You think I didn't feel the same thing myself a hundred times or more over the last five thousand years? You think I didn't feel all that and more the day I killed Silas, or when I saw MacLeod take Kronos' head?" Methos was shaking. "Let Cernus go, Cassandra. I'm sorry for everything I ever did."
"No you're not. You don't believe in feeling sorry. You don't believe in guilt. For other people, yes - but not for you. Never for you. Methos never feels guilty. Methos is never sorry." She stepped towards him, touching his face with her long nails. "You thought you loved me once, but you let Kronos take me. Did you feel guilt for that? You killed me in a thousand different ways, just so that I would appreciate the kind of power you could wield. Do you feel guilty over that? What does make you feel ashamed, Methos? What would it take to make a man with no conscience act at least partly human?"
"These days?" Methos smiled sadly, staring away into the distance. "Not as much as I once thought. But on the other hand... maybe far too much."
"I don't think so." She turned away, staring down at Reece. "This one means a lot to you, Methos. Supposing I was to spare you, on the understanding that this one dies instead? Your fault. Your responsibility. No one else to blame, no one else to look to. No way to lie about what truly happened. A life for a life, Methos. His life for Hijad's. How about that for a judgement, for a form of retribution. How long could you live with that kind of guilt?"
"Cassandra!" MacLeod reached for her, but she did not look at him, and her icy expression showed not so much as a flicker in response to his direct plea. Instead her gaze hardened, her cold eyes seeing Methos alone. On Reece's shoulder the old man's hand began to shake.
"You can't be serious," he told her, his voice nothing but a stunned whisper. "He hasn't done anything."
"Neither had Hijad. Neither had the rest of his tribe. Or did the Horsemen claim only to kill those they felt deserved it? What do you say Methos? One innocent life in payment for another? Another pointless death on your conscience?"
"You're mad." He couldn't take his eyes from hers, even though the mere sight of her sickened him.
"And so are you." She sounded almost triumphant, as though having at last found the most perfect form of revenge. "But I'll do a deal with you Methos. Your life for his. He can go free, and so can your friends here - all you have to do is tell the truth. For once in your warped, sordid life, you tell the whole truth. No lies, no embellishments, no disguises. No trickery or deceit. Can you do that?"
"I don't understand. What is it you want me to say? That I killed Hijad? There's no secret there - no need for lies. I'll sing it from the bloody rooftops if that's what you want."
"I don't mean about what you did to Hijad." Cassandra turned away, heading for the edge of the room where a stone shelf provided something like a seat. She sat down, arms folded. "Tell us a story, Methos. Tell us the story of the day you met Cernus. Tell him why he is the way he is."
"I can't do that." Methos, quite suddenly, didn't seem able to look at anything beyond a small square of flooring just by his feet. Cassandra was smirking.
"Why? Scared of what your friends will think of you then? Or just of what Cernus will think? Let him know, Methos. Let him know why I've brought him here, locked him up, left him in the dark. He hates the dark, you know. He's terrified of it." Her sharp gaze switched to the blond Immortal. "Isn't that so, Cernus?" The look she received in answer told her that the tall, bony individual would rather have been left alone in the dark for a year than spend much more time in her company. No coherent sounds came in answer from him, but his eyes alone spoke volumes. She laughed.
"Come on Methos. He can't remember. He doesn't know why he's here, so you have to tell him. Tell him why he has to die."
Methos shook his head. "No."
"Tell him Methos." She was on her feet again, her dagger in her hand just as it had been before, when Brother Andreas had caught him in the corridor. "He might as well know the reason for his death. He might as well hear it from your lips." The point of the dagger turned towards Reece, but the young Immortal did not back away. He seemed fascinated by the weapon's close proximity, and equally fascinated by the strange battle of wits going on between Methos and Cassandra. He wasn't sure of his own part in it, but he thought that he was beginning to. He was painfully aware that his life was the only bargaining chip likely to force Methos to obey his revenge-driven tormentor, and that realisation was difficult to accept.
"For God's sake Cassandra." MacLeod started forward, knocking her hand aside and sending the knife skidding across the floor. "What's got into you? You've set yourself up as judge and jury, looking for what? For revenge against a band of terrorists who split up three thousand years ago? You're insane, and if you try and drag Reece into this you're worse still. That's the kind of move I'd expect from the Horsemen themselves, not from you. I always thought you were someone I could trust."
"Me?" She stared at him. "Of course you can trust me. I've never lied to you, Duncan. I've never tricked you, or abused the trust you placed in me. But him--" She pointed at Methos, her accusing finger shaking hard. "He's never told you one true thing in the whole time you've known him. Everything he says is a mishmash of lies and falsehoods and half-truths. He couldn't tell the truth if his life depended on it, or even if his friends' lives depended on it. His whole life is a lie, whether it's his life as Adam Pierson, or his life as a Watcher - even his life as a Horseman was all about fooling people. Wearing white, smiling as he stood over you, making you think you could trust him, that he wasn't as bad as the rest. And all the time he was the worst of the lot. Not vicious like Caspian, not violent like Silas. Not even like Kronos, with his experiments and games in terror. Methos was more than that - more than any of that. I saw him torture young women until there was nothing left but a shape that might once have been human - and all because they were beautiful, and he felt it was his duty as Death to destroy their beauty forever. Has he told you all that Duncan? Has he told you that kind of truth?"
"I know who he is, Cassandra." MacLeod kept his voice as reasonable as he could, but there was still a trace of anger in it. "It was you who opened my eyes the first time, remember? You told me who he used to be, what he used to be. You helped me to destroy the Four Horsemen for once and for all. You don't have to go after your revenge again now."
"This isn't about revenge." Her eyes flicked back to Methos, no sign of any forgiveness within them; no hint that she might be about to relent and let him or his companions go. "Are you going to talk?"
"Cernus doesn't deserve to hear the truth. It could kill him. He's forgotten it all for a reason." The old Immortal glanced towards the awkwardly built Immortal again, seeing those scars more clearly now, each one a livid mark around his own neck. "Please Cassandra. He's innocent of all of this. Let him go on living his life that way - not remembering. Not knowing."
"You feel responsible for him, don't you." Cassandra's smile was deeply unpleasant. "You feel that you owe him something because of who and what he is now. You're right. You do owe him, and you're going to pay your debt now. Break his heart, or your young friend here loses his head."
"Don't listen to her Methos." Reece's voice was steady and certain. "I won't let her hold my life over your head." His eyes met those of the old man, and for a second he was stunned by the long years he saw there - by the old nightmares that wouldn't go away, and hung about in the expressive face of the world's oldest man. Long lines of responsibility and grief; deep furrows of misery and regret that for a brief moment seemed to mark the young face of the five thousand year-old man. And then suddenly Methos smiled.
"I should have killed you three thousand years ago." There seemed to be genuine warmth in his words and in his expression. "I always said that I could never hurt you, and I've been paying the price for that ever since. Doesn't it mean anything to you that I saved your life in Seacouver back in '97? Doesn't it mean anything to you that I wouldn't let Kronos take your head the day you tried to kill him in his tent?"
"Did it mean anything to you, when Hijad's followers begged you for their lives? Did it count for anything, when all those women and children screamed for mercy? Don't ask me for any kind of fairness or understanding now." She nodded to the monks standing guard by the door, and as one they marched into the cell. One retrieved the fallen knife, whilst another two, including the portly and sadistic Brother Andreas, advanced on Reece. Startled, Shade and MacLeod both stepped forward, but a phalanx of advancing monks held them back. Only Methos remained free and able to act; and he seemed frozen in indecision.
"Methos for pity's sakes! Tell them this blessed story." For the first time, Shade seemed entirely serious, without so much as the suggestion of a joke in his voice. The old Immortal's eyes snapped towards him, as cold as ice and as hard as the most solid of sword blades.
"Shut up." His voice came like the lash of a whip. "You don't understand. You don't know the half of this. Do you think I've kept the truth from him, for three thousand years, for nothing? Do you think that I felt that guilty, that bad about what I'd done - in the height of my darkest years - on a whim?"
"What did you do to me?" Cernus spoke from beside Methos' elbow, his twisted and bony body bent into an odd mimicry of a question mark. "What's this about?" He leaned forward to peer into the older Immortal's much-shadowed face. "Do you know who I am?"
"Well?" Cassandra was holding her dagger to Reece's throat, as though fully intending to use the small weapon to take his head. Methos didn't doubt her ability to do that, just as he didn't doubt the horrible reality of his impending loss. Anybody else. If it had been anybody else but Reece... He was dimly aware of muttering such thoughts almost aloud - of whispering vague and half-held ideas to himself in a moment of desperate indecision. Finally his head dropped forward and his shoulders slumped. A single, long breath escaped him, seeming at first as though it might go on forever. He nodded, although the movement was barely more than the slightest shift in position.
"Okay." He whispered the word under his breath, his tone filled with the sound of defeat. "Okay." For a second his eyes snapped up, taking in everything - MacLeod and Shade, held immobile in the grip of a handful of monks; Reece, his chair gripped by the leering Brother Andreas, Cassandra looming nearby with her thirsty blade; Cernus, cowering so close by, almost pathetically desperate to hear the story Methos was about to tell. A scattering of other monks, there to provide muscle should it be needed, hanging around in the corners of the room, just outside the reaches of the torch, fallen to the ground now, knocked out of Shade's hand when the monks had advanced. Somebody had kicked it, and the glass was cracked, but it still sent out a bleak shaft of light. It flickered as he stared at it, and he switched his gaze quickly away, as though he were jinxing the torch just by looking in its direction. Slowly his shoulders straightened again, and he raised his head. He took a deep breath.
"It was about three thousand years ago, give or take a decade. You have to understand that there wasn't any recognised system for counting the years, or marking the passage of time. We certainly never would have called it 1000 BC, for obvious reasons. I heard of a band of nomads who were reported to be carrying vast amounts of gold, and all manner of valuable goods. A fortune, just waiting to be taken. They were supposed to be very heavily defended though - lots of guards, men who really knew how to fight. We needed some kind of a ruse to take control, rather than just riding out of the sun the way we usually did. Kronos hit on a plan to make one of the nomads help us from the inside, and the pair of us set out one night to find a likely candidate." His gaze trailed off towards Cernus. "It didn't take us long to find him. A pre-Immortal was too good an opportunity to miss. It seemed like a good joke, a good bit of sport. He obviously wasn't one of the tribe. He didn't fit in. His skin was too pale, and his hair too. He didn't look like the others, and for that reason, amongst others, he was celebrated as an important part of the tribe. He was... he was a great philosopher, a great thinker. A scientist, inasmuch as we had such things back then. He studied the stars, he studied mathematics. He painted the most stunning pictures you've ever seen, using plant dyes and pieces of cloth. Huge scenes of mythical creatures, beautiful sunsets. Most paintings back then were very basic. Artists hadn't learnt to use perspective, or any of the refinements we take for granted in the modern art scene. This man was different. His paintings had real depth, real vision." He paused for a second, as though remembering one such painting. "And he was a musician. We heard him playing, as we crept up on his tent. A reed flute or some such. Incredible music, like you've never heard. Even Kronos stopped to listen for a minute, and usually he'd never let anybody see him enjoying such things. He had an ear for music of course, but he liked to pretend he didn't. He liked to pretend he was only interested in death and destruction."
"I like music," announced Cernus with a smile. He looked more like a child than ever, his eyes rounded and wide, his smile innocent and affecting. "I think I used to like it. I don't seem to remember." He beamed at Methos. "Go on. I like stories."
"We caught this man, got him back to our camp. We told him what we wanted, but of course he wasn't about to agree. He was strong, and very determined. Silas beat the living daylights out of him, and we barely got a reaction. Caspian tore all his fingernails out one by one, and he still wouldn't listen to a word that we said. We could have let him go, or just killed him - gone back to find somebody else who would be more amenable. But by then of course he had become a challenge. We had to beat him; we had to win him around, no matter how long it took. Kronos told me to work on him. To try my special talents." He frowned, rubbing his eyes momentarily, looking very tired and very unwilling to continue. "I welcomed the opportunity to test my skills. It was a very interesting assignment. I did everything I knew how to do, and I learnt a lot more in the process. I did things I never would have dreamt of doing otherwise. I drove him mad by inches. I left him out in the sun, I removed whole sections of his skin. I drove sharp objects into him, and I poured boiling oil onto his hands and feet, onto his neck, his chest... When I had finished with him I left him as a shell. No more philosophising, no more painting, no more playing music. No more studying mathematics or astronomy. If he looked at the stars it was only to think about how pretty they looked, not to form theories on what they were and how they had come to be. I stole his mind. I left him as nothing more than a child - and then I made him help us attack his own people - the people who had raised him from birth, treated him as one of their own. I made him watch when the Horsemen attacked. We destroyed everything, and he saw it all. He stood in the middle of the camp and cried like a child, and all around him people were blaming him as they died, cursing him for telling the Horsemen of all the weak points in their defences. And after all that - after all that we had done to him, and all the trouble we'd gone to, we found out that their defences were practically non-existent. They weren't carrying gold or silks, or anything even remotely valuable. All they were carrying was each other. We killed every one of them, save Cassandra, and we didn't even get enough food to make the raid worth our while. They only had a handful of animals, all thin and weak, and scarcely worth keeping alive. I felt... guilty. It was a new feeling for me. Kronos seemed affected by it too, and I guess that's why he let our victim go free. Maybe it would have been better if we'd taken his head, but I guess we thought he'd get over it. We used our immortality to make us invincible - untouchable, strong, invulnerable - and we didn't think an Immortal could remain in such a state. But I met him again, a few years later - a hundred years later. He was still the same. He couldn't remember what we had done to him, what we'd made him do. He didn't remember sounding a false alarm to get the guards looking the wrong way. He didn't remember killing the kid who saw us coming, so that he'd never be able to raise the alarm. He didn't remember being a genius or an artist or a musician. But I remembered him being all those things, and I've hated myself for it ever since. I was evil itself in those days. I didn't have a heart, and if I did I'd done all that I could to bury it. I killed more men, women and children than most people even meet in their whole lifetimes - and yet I felt sorry for that one man. So I've been lying to him ever since. Not complete lies. I told him a little of the truth. I told him more or less what had happened to him, just that I didn't know who had done it. I didn't tell him that he had helped in the massacre of his tribe, although I did tell him that they were all gone. I've met him several times since. I've tried to point him in the right direction every now and again, to see that he's looked after. I've helped him out here and there. I just couldn't tell him the truth. How do you tell a man who's lost his own mind that he was once a genius, able to do anything and do it brilliantly? It wouldn't have been fair."
"I used to be like that?" Cernus had emerged fully into the light, staring at Methos through eyes that seemed blurred with too much trying, and failing, to remember. "I used to be different?"
"I'm sorry Cernus." The old Immortal could not look at him. "I'm sorry that I was ever the man I was back then. I'm sorry that there's no way I can get you back what you've lost."
"Cassandra hated me. My people hated me. All because of you? The reason I can't remember anything - the reason I can't make my head think straight - you did that to me?"
"And more besides." He looked straight at Cassandra. "Much more."
"Then they were right. You do deserve to die." The bony hands reached out, seizing hold of his throat before he had time even to think about moving away. He felt strong, hard thumbs pressing against his windpipe, and the world blurred horribly.
"Cernus..." It hurt to force the word out, but he managed it, startled to hear his voice sounding so hoarse, so strained. "Please..."
"Did I beg for mercy?" Despite the great exertion, the other Immortal still spoke in the voice of childish innocence. "Did I ask you to leave me alone?"
"No. You didn't ask for anything."
"Really?" The grip loosened perceptibly. "I always wanted to be brave."
"Me too." Methos was smiling at him, in the same, almost fatherly way in which he smiled at Reece. Despite the slackening in the stranglehold around his neck, he could feel his legs beginning to give way. His vision was blackening. He found himself wondering if Cernus was actually planning to tear his head off with his bare hands, or if Cassandra would finish the job for him. Spots danced in front of his vision, and his thoughts tied themselves in a tangle. "I... never was though. Even now. Can't... be brave. Can't... can't tell the truth."
Cernus frowned, letting him go so suddenly that Methos crashed to the ground, lying still for several moments, unable to get up. The tall, awkwardly-built Immortal frowned down at his intended victim, the clouds of difficult understanding crinkling his brow into an immature frown. "You're still not telling the truth?" He sounded dangerous, as though lives depended on his getting an answer. They very likely did.
"That was the truth, Cernus. I swear it. Why would I lie?" He made his way uncertainly back to his feet, only to be swatted back down again by a single blow from the other man's hard and bony hand. Even before the stars had cleared from his head, a heavy, solid weight landed on his chest. Cernus was before him, the fires of hell alight in his eyes, and traces of saliva flecking the pale skin of his jaws.
"Then it means death." He was a heavy man, despite his thin body and jutting, almost skeletal frame. The harsh, probing fingers were at Methos' throat again, tearing at the skin, scratching at his neck and his chest until the blood ran. The old Immortal struggled, but not hard enough to stand a chance of freeing himself. To his friends, watching in helpless disbelief, it seemed as though he had lost the will to fight at all - or maybe that he just didn't want to hurt Cernus any more than he had already. The wildly flailing figure of the mad Immortal was a blur in the semi-darkness of the room, and as he fought one of his feet kicked against the torch. The small plastic device was sent spinning across the stone floor until it crashed into the wall, smashing into smithereens and extinguishing its light forever. Cernus gave a whimper.
"It's dark." The sounds of the battle had ceased, and there was silence where there had once been turmoil. Through the darkness Cassandra's voice sounded out in icy command.
"Finish the job or I'll see that it stays dark forever."
"No!" MacLeod might have been helpless to intervene physically, but with the wearing off of the initial shock he had found his voice again. "Cernus listen to me. Cassandra isn't your friend, is she?"
"No." The voice was that of a small child, and MacLeod changed his own voice accordingly. He was soothing, gentle - and yet vital and firm.
"But I am. I came here to try to rescue you. To get you out of here. You want that don't you?"
"Yes." The voice was just a whisper. Cassandra's shoes clicked closer on the floor, and MacLeod steeled himself for a blow that could only be seconds away.
"Then fight the monks, not Methos. We'll deal with him later. He's not going anywhere."
"Damn you MacLeod." Despite the darkness he could see Cassandra's face as it loomed up before him. It was different - not at all as he remembered it. The woman he had fallen in love with was gone, and in her place was an avenging demon - a vision of hell fury and madness. "I'll take your head alongside Methos'. I'll send every last one of you into whatever hell created us." The dagger was at his throat. He knew that she was capable of using it to take his head, no matter how improbable the feat seemed with so small a blade. Held fast as he was in the grip of her monks, he had no way in which to stop her.
"No!" The voice was suddenly hard and strong, although clearly it was Cernus who spoke. "Not them. Kill Methos. Kill me. Not them." He sounded very firm, very determined. "They didn't do anything. It wasn't them. It was Methos, and Kronos and the others; they were there. There wasn't a MacLeod, and there wasn't a man with wheels. It wasn't them."
"Shut up, Cernus." Cassandra spoke with a harshly dismissive tone that was entirely alien to the woman MacLeod had fallen in love with. He frowned, trying to decide if his old lover - his Cassandra - was still there somewhere. If the woman he had known had ever really existed at all.
"No." It was the voice of a sulky child, shot through with something else. MacLeod heard a sound, but he did not see what was coming - and it was only when something shadowy and dark hit Cassandra and sent her flying that he was aware of anything happening at all. The Immortal let out a scream of fury and pain as she was sent flying across the room, to land in a heap with Cernus on top of her. A couple of monks scurried to her assistance, and all at once there was light. Where it had come from MacLeod was not sure, although it seemed to him that the previously pinioned Shade now had an arm free. Whether or not he had had a second torch secreted about his person seemed immaterial, for too many other things were happening at once to make any question more than a vague and indeterminate echo in the back of his mind. New visual stimuli confused MacLeod's brain as he stared about him at the scene now unfolding. Cassandra, sprawled against the wall, her neck broken and her head in a pool of blood. Cernus, sitting beside her, legs crossed and tears pouring down his cheeks. He looked as though he had broken his favourite new Christmas toy, and was waiting for his mother to fix it. The monks, standing around in a circle, unsure of themselves, unsure of what to do. Of Methos there was no sign. He did not appear to be in the room; or at the very least was not where he should have been.
"You! You stupid, stupid, stupid man." Cassandra's voice sounded hoarse and broken, and as she sat up her breathing echoed and rattled in her throat. She gave her head a shake, and the knitting of broken bones filled the room with the sound of death reversed. She made a snatch for Cernus, grabbing him by the shirtfront. "Who the hell do you think you are?"
"Don't hurt me." He shrank away from her as far as he was able. "Please don't. I don't want it to hurt anymore." His face brightened and he made a grab for her dagger, lying so close beside him. He offered it to her, his eyes round and hopeful. MacLeod wasn't sure if it was a peace offering, or a genuine request that she end it all. Either way Cassandra snatched the knife away, holding it close to her chest as though it were a source of great comfort.
"Don't hurt you?" She stroked Cernus' face as gently as a mother might console a child. "As if I would. As if I would hurt you." There was something very, very unpleasant in her voice, despite the reassuring depth of her tone. "I would never hurt you."
"You wouldn't?" Cernus sounded confused. Cassandra's smile turned bigger, brighter, broader - and infinitely more demonic.
"Of course not." The voice was cold and harsh, and the knife blade flashed in the light as it raised itself almost as though by some unseen and ghostly force - and then struck downward. Cernus let out a single shout of fear, before, quite suddenly, one of the monks toppled forward and landed between him and the darting blade. The monk screamed once, and then the knife was buried in his chest and he was silent. Cassandra pushed his body out of the way.
"Methos!" She leapt to her feet, looking this way and that, her eyes searching her enemy out amongst the ranks of her own men. "You're here somewhere. Which one are you? Where are you?" She dashed forward, but the monks, most of which remained unhooded and easily identifiable, did not seem likely to give any answer to her question. She prowled amongst them, staring at each of them, her expression showing that she was quite clearly unhinged.
"Cassandra--" Brother Andreas started towards her, his hands held out before him in what was probably the only gesture of peace he had ever made. "Please - before someone gets hurt--"
"You!" She made a dash for him, and before he could utter a sound the knife had cut his throat. He sank to the ground, breathing his last in a rush of bubbles and blood. The monks began to back away from her, terrified, but she was amongst them still, and still searching for Methos.
"I know you're here somewhere, Horseman." Her eyes blazed with fire. "I can see you. I can hear you. I can feel you." The knife darted forward again, and again a monk fell. The others began to chatter with terror, but still she slashed with her dagger. Finally a group of the brown-robed men moved forward, turning the tide against her, bearing her to the ground beneath their weight. The knife skidded away, and Cernus gave an unpleasant giggle. He made a dash for the weapon at the same time as MacLeod and the others, freed by the panicking monks, suddenly found themselves able to move.
"Cernus no!" Too tired to make much of an intervention, MacLeod tried to make the crazed Immortal stop. A pair of blue eyes turned to look at him, but the light within them was shattered, the consciousness and rationality scattered to the four winds. A crooked, stupid grin split the face in half, even as the big, unwieldy figure was cutting a swathe through the monks. They fell away from him, until he stood before Cassandra. She stared up into his eyes.
"Do you think you can end it?" she asked him, her voice filled with sarcasm and disgust. "You?"
"I have to." He was grinning fixedly, his thin frame shaking. Behind him MacLeod and Shade were moving forward, but he paid them no attention. "You made me see how I used to be. You made me see that! I didn't want to know. I was happier not knowing. I didn't want to know what I'd done." He stared at his hands. "I remember now. I can see it. I remember the boy that I killed. He was my assistant. Such a little child, no bigger than the wolves that used to raid our camp at night. He saw the Horsemen as they rode towards us, and he was going to tell. He was going to let the camp see where the danger was - give them a chance to prepare themselves. I couldn't let that happen. So I took my knife." He stared at the weapon in his hands, as though convinced that it was the same one. "And I drove it into his chest. He looked up at me, and his eyes were wide, and he asked me why." He took a final step towards Cassandra. "He asked me why, and I couldn't tell him. I wasn't me anymore. I knew that I wasn't me, and that I never would be again; but it never occurred to me to blame anyone. I didn't know that there was anyone to blame." The point of the knife pressed against Cassandra's neck, and blood began to seep out through a new hole in the skin. "All this time, all these years, and I didn't remember any of it. But you made me see it again. You made me remember!" Fury flashed in his eyes, transforming his face from that of a confused child into that of a ravening beast. Abruptly the rage was gone from his voice. "That makes me very angry."
MacLeod and Shade reached him just as he thrust forward with the knife. He twisted the blade even as they were dragging him away, and the weapon tore a path through Cassandra's neck. Blood fountained forth, and the whole of her head skewed sideways as the dagger was torn away. She gasped, choking, her hands flying to her throat.
"No! No it wasn't supposed--" They were the only words that she could say before the blood filled her mouth. Her eyes widened, staring up at MacLeod; pleading, filled with desperate anguish. He stared back at her, his own distress leaving him unable to move towards her, or offer her any kind of assistance. It was Methos who stepped towards her at last, moving out of the ranks of the remaining monks, shedding the brown robe as he walked. She stared up at him, her eyes alive with fury and hatred; clearly expecting him to strike the final blow.
"Keep still, Cassie." He spoke very softly, as he might once have done thousands of years ago, when he had still loved her - or thought that he did. He took her head in his hands, as though trying to hold it to her neck with his own strength, and maybe willing his life into her veins. "Just keep still." She struggled, but whether she was trying to get away from him, or maybe to find a weapon with which to strike him down - or maybe just to find a way to make it to her feet - it was impossible to tell. The old Immortal stroked her cheek. "I warned you. I told you we shouldn't tell him. I knew it was wrong... Some truths were never meant to be told."
"Is she going to die?" Again there was that painful innocence in Cernus' voice. He hung very still in the grip of MacLeod and Shade, their combined strength all that was keeping him on his feet. He didn't seem able to look at Methos or Cassandra, even though the blood of the latter was on his hands.
"I don't know." MacLeod wasn't sure how much of her neck had been severed; wasn't entirely sure how much an Immortal could survive. Methos seemed to know though, for his grip had transferred to her hands, and his head was bowed.
"You don't have to be scared," he told her, as though her pulse beating against his fingers was conveying her emotions to him. "The mortals do it all the time. It's just not often that people like us get a chance to do it with this kind of reflection. It's usually over too quickly." She seemed to be trying to speak, but the words could not come.
"Cassandra?" Shocked by the old man's words, MacLeod moved closer, and for a second her eyes flickered up towards him. He thought that he saw something in them - something of the women he had fallen for, before the woman she had become - had always been? - had come between them. He wanted to hold her hand, but he knew that she did not have the strength to lift her own; and his were too busy about their work of holding Cernus. Blue lightning was beginning to crackle from the juncture of neck and head now, bridging the gap between the two. Sparks of it lit up Cassandra's eyes, and broke forth from her mouth. Her hands tightened reflexively in Methos' grip. Startled he tried to let go, but her grip on him was now too strong. Long, powerful cords of blue light sprang forth from out of her eyes and into his - great, long, twisting tendrils tore their way out of her silently screaming mouth, into his, out of his, into Cernus. Blue fire raged across the floor, plaiting itself into ropes that bound Methos' wrists to those of Cassandra, before racing in great streaks across the stone to tie themselves around Cernus, wrapping themselves about his legs and his waist. Shade and MacLeod, beaten back by the onslaught, saw the flames rise higher - cold to the touch it appeared, and yet furious and fiery nonetheless; crackling and slashing and lashing at all that they touched. One of the monks shrieked, and the rest followed suit. They tried to leave the room, but the lashing fires of the Quickening slammed the door shut in their faces, herding them together, pinning them into a corner of the room. A dreadful roaring sound echoed about the stone chamber, shaking the walls and making great chunks of stone fall from the ceiling. Several monks fell and did not get up again. Cernus began to scream, his body shaking violently with a childish terror. In the middle of it all, almost invisible within the heart of the Quickening, Methos was on his knees, the lances of blue light spearing his chest, entering his body through his eyes and his mouth, to shoot outwards again from each of his fingers in a brilliant radiance of fire. Circlets of lightning began to wrap themselves around Cernus' head, and he too sank to his knees. The roaring grew louder as the ground shook harder, and above it all came the wretched keening of the terrified monks, before finally, in a last rush of frozen flame and lashing lightning, all was motionless. All was quiet. Methos and Cernus pitched forward to the ground and lay still.
"Methos!" Reece got to him seconds before MacLeod, although it was the Highlander who lifted him gently up, and turned him onto his back. The closed eyelids fluttered, then opened, and a shaky smile found its way onto the young face.
"Angry." It was a cut-up, broken word that escaped him first - an echoing sound that might have been the beginnings of a sentence, before it foundered. "She was... so angry. I felt it. It's never... hurt that much before."
"You were standing too close." MacLeod heaved him to his feet. "You shouldn't have let her hold you when she died."
"I was holding her MacLeod, not the other way round. I thought I owed her that much." He turned to look at Reece, who was watching him, concerned. "Is everybody else okay?"
"I'm fine." Knowing that that was all Methos cared about anyway, Reece managed a smile. "So's Kyle. And Cernus?" He made that into a question, for the older Immortal was sitting on the ground now, hugging his knees and staring up at the others. Gibbering sounds came from him, but nothing that made any sense. He smiled though, at the sound of Reece's question, and the smile seemed to be a knowing one.
"I'm okay." His expression darkened. "Don't know who I am. Don't know who you are. I'm okay though." He turned to look at Methos, and grinned up at him. "I know you. You're Methos. You ride a pale horse." A frown furrowed its way across his forehead. "That's not a good thing, though, is it."
"It certainly never used to be." Methos pulled him to his feet. "Time to get out of here I think."
"I don't." The voice came from the other side of the room, where Brother Stephen, leader of the monks, had made his way back to the forefront of his band, and now stood between the Immortals and the door. "Cassandra is dead, and you have to pay for that. She brought you here to suffer justice for what you did to her, and to Hijad and his followers. You're not getting out of here alive."
"Don't be daft." MacLeod was angry. "Look at what her desire for revenge did to her. Let us go."
"You can leave, if you promise never to come back." Brother Stephen kept his voice cold and hard. "But Methos and Cernus stay here, and they die. It's the fate that's been waiting for them since Cassandra first built this place, and drew the brotherhood together. It can't end until they're dead."
"Hard luck." Methos started forward. "I'm not dying today, and I'm not dying any other day either. Not so long as I've got anything to say about it." In his hand, although how it had come to be there was by no means apparent, was Cassandra's dagger. "We're leaving. All of us. Now."
"You won't use that dagger on me." Stephen seemed very sure of himself, despite the Brotherhood's firm conviction in Methos' evil nature. Methos smiled back.
"Won't I? I've killed whole tribes, laid whole valleys to waste. Destroyed entire towns without looking back. I killed children in their beds and mothers in their nurseries, and I burned down their houses whilst they stood inside and screamed for forgiveness. Why wouldn't I kill you?"
"Because." Cernus reached out, holding his wrist, pulling the knife away and letting it fall to the ground. "Because you're not like that anymore."
"Yes I am." He looked up, and their eyes met. Cernus frowned.
"Perhaps you are. But you came here to save me. You came here because you knew that they had me - and why. You knew that I'd die otherwise - might die anyway, and you too. You have changed, Methos."
"So have you." Methos was smiling sadly. Cernus cocked his head on one side.
"I have? What did I used to be like?"
Methos grinned, and the sadness hid itself from view in his eyes. "Taller. Taller, and... and you didn't have the moustache when we first met."
"Oh." Another smile. A tick of some distant clock. A change of expression. "Can we go now?"
"Yeah. We can." Methos shot Brother Stephen a look that defied rebellion, and the monk, his eyes somewhat downcast, stepped aside. One by one, at a slow, easy pace, the five Immortals left the room, left the hallway, left the monastery. Outside it was bitterly cold, and the ground was strewn with snow.
"Ouch." Shade pulled his much-decorated jacket about his shoulders. "I'd forgotten it was so cold out here."
"It's December. It's allowed to be cold." Reece spun in an excited circle. "I haven't seen a Christmas outside of that bloody retreat since goodness knows when." He glared at Methos. "And don't even suggest that--"
"Actually I was going to suggest that we go home." He caught MacLeod's look. "Seacouver I mean. See Joe, hang out at the club."
"And Amanda?" Reece's enthusiasm was palpable, and he blushed at their amusement. "Well I like her. Plus I do kind of owe her my life."
"She killed Kenton?" MacLeod's eyes were almost out on stalks. "She interfered in a challenge? I knew she was foolhardy, but I didn't think--"
"It's not like that. I fought him, after a fashion. I was doing a pretty good job of dodging him, and then he got angry. Careless. I managed to get his sword away, and... didn't have a clue what to do next. Some good in a fight I am. So I just sort of stabbed him, and ran away. Amanda tidied up for me. I was cross with her at first, but I suppose I'd never have been safe, otherwise."
"Typical." MacLeod shook his head. "And all this time she left us wondering. If she wasn't always off with that policeman-immortal-guy she likes so much I'd--"
"Well I'm grateful." Methos glanced back towards the monastery. Part of him wanted very much to burn it to the ground, monks and all; and if he had been alone he might very well have done just that. Instead he turned his back on it, and decided to let the monks sort themselves out. "Let's just get out of here."
"What about him?" Shade jerked a thumb back towards Cernus, lurking nearby. He was staring at his hands, muttering things to himself. Methos shrugged.
"We take him to the retreat I guess. They'll look after him. It's probably best if he doesn't see me again. He might remember."
"Remember who he really is?" Reece blanched. "I hope not. Not after the way he blew up this time."
"Yeah." Methos flashed his young friend a slightly guilty smile. "And if he happens to remember the real truth, we're all in trouble."
"Methos..." MacLeod sounded dangerous. Methos grinned.
"Some truths aren't--"
"--meant to be told. Yeah. I know." He sighed. "Do you even remember what the truth is?"
"Yeah." The world's oldest man seemed to be looking inward for a moment, and his eyes turned towards the distant horizon. "It's where you are now. Whatever it used to be, it'll always become something else. The truth is... transitory."
"Not for most people it isn't," MacLeod told him. Methos sighed.
"But I, my friend, am not most people."
"No. Thank God." The last was just a whisper, but Methos heard it nonetheless. He glared.
"Let's just get out of here shall we?"
"Wait." Cernus, apparently noticing their movement, came over towards them, his step jerking and almost unwilling. "I almost forgot..."
"What?" His tone once again patient, Methos turned towards him. The other Immortal was holding something in one of his hands, frowning at it, and frowning at the others.
"It's a secret." He sounded shy. Methos sighed.
"Okay..." He pulled Cernus away from the others. "So what is it?"
"This." A hand came towards him, still clenched into a fist. "He gave it to me."
"Who?" Methos held out his own hand, but the fist remained clenched, just as in some childish game.
"Him. The dark man." At last the fingers relaxed, and a small object fell into Methos's outstretched palm. A silver disk, as from some ancient form of armour, battered and beaten by the years, but still oddly familiar. There was something scratched into one side - a handful of small marks, like words written in a language too ancient for mortals to remember. Methos blanched.
"When? When did he give you this?"
Cernus frowned. "A long time ago." He saw Methos relax visibly, and his frown deepened. "Must have been... a week or more. At least."
"A... week? You're sure you don't mean three or four years?"
"I know what a week is Methos." Cernus giggled, as though the suggestion that he didn't was silly. "He said to tell you... something."
"What? What did he tell you? This is important, Cernus!" Methos' heart was pounding in his chest. It couldn't be - could it? But the mention of the dark man was something that he had heard before.
"He said to say thankyou. And he said to tell you that he'll be in touch."
"The message was..." Cernus grinned. "Soon." He turned about. "I'm going now."
"Yeah." Methos was too stunned to argue. The disk made dents in his palm where he held it too tightly. "No, Cernus wait!"
"I know. There's a retreat. I might go there." The childish eyes glowed with pride. "I can go there by myself, you know."
"Yeah. I know." He watched as the shuffling, awkward frame left him behind, then he slipped the disk into his pocket and went back to the others. MacLeod was frowning.
"What was all that about?"
"He wanted to say goodbye in private, that's all." Methos smiled. "So are we going to stand about here all day?"
"Nope." Shade was already on his way over to the large, powerful van that the tattooed monk had used to offer them a lift the previous night. It was daylight now, although the day was not old. Methos watched him go, glad, despite his growing trust for the flamboyant man, to have a few moments alone with his older friends. He frowned at the ground.
"I wanted to thank you for coming after me."
"You've come after me often enough." Reece ignored the gratitude, but MacLeod smiled.
"Maybe you'll trust us a little more next time."
"This wasn't about trust. It was about responsibility. I owed Cernus, and I had to come here if there was any chance at all of paying him back. I'm sorry about Cassandra. She was... troubled."
"Yeah." MacLeod was remembering happier times, and he would go on remembering them. He had learnt long ago that it didn't pay to dwell on darker times and darker days. He clapped Methos on the shoulder. "But do us all a favour old man. No more secrets."
"Or lies." Reece meant it as a joke, but Methos glanced towards him.
"I never lie to you Reece. Never."
"And I appreciate it." The van was coming towards them now, Shade at the wheel. Methos' hand, in his pocket, was tight upon the silver disk. No more secrets and lies... But then this wasn't either. Not really. And what was a lie anyway, but the truth in masquerade? Byron had said that, and a lot of things that Byron had said made all kinds of sense, in all kinds of ways.
"Back to Seacouver then." MacLeod swung up into the van, disappearing into the warm and padded interior. Reece followed after a moment, dragging his folded up chair in after him. Only Methos hesitated.
"Come on!" MacLeod stuck his head back out of the door. "It's cold in here. Hurry up and shut the door."
"Coming." A sudden feeling of great excitement seizing his heart, Methos climbed into the van and slammed the door shut. In his hand, the disk felt cold and bright. His excitement grew. MacLeod and the others, seeing it in his face, misinterpreted the reason for it, and smiled amongst themselves. It was Christmas, they were alive, and they were heading home to celebrate. Methos knew that that was what they thought, and he let them think it. The real reason for his excitement was something far, far greater. He turned his head to out look out of the window. Somewhere out there - somewhere alive, though the gods alone knew how - was Kronos. His brother, his friend, his companion... and his tormentor, his enemy, and his rival. He remembered back to the close of the previous year, when he had been angry and miserable and grieving for that very brother - and now, at the close of the following year, he was awaiting their reunion. His breath tightened in his chest. Would there be joy, or tears - or anger and violence? Would there be happiness and merriment, or death and destruction? His heart thudded in his chest and he felt the fear rise within him. He was, he realised without surprise, absolutely terrified. He grinned, and his fingers traced the words engraved on the disk. His hand shook too much to follow the grooves correctly. Fear and happiness, terror and joy. Somehow all extremes seemed equally fitting. However he felt, though, and whatever the consequences of it all, it seemed that it was too late now to worry. Whether he liked it or not, Kronos was back. And, with perfect timing and typical theatrical flair, he had chosen the perfect moment for his return.
"Thinking about Cassandra?" Reece asked him, seeing the conflicting emotions bright in his eyes. Methos smiled.
"It's going to be okay, Methos." There was earnestness in the brilliant eyes turned to his, and Methos nodded.
"Yeah." He let the disk go, lest his toying with it should attract too much attention, and then turned to face out of the front of the van. "Yeah, I think it is." And somewhere not terribly far away, a small dark figure with ice-blue eyes was thinking exactly the same thing.
And, after all, what is a lie? 'Tis but
The truth in masquerade.
-- Lord Byron, Don Juan
The English winter - ending in July
To recommence in August
is similarly Lord Byron, and similarly Don Juan.