BENEATH THE GREEN TREES
"A hunting knife, sir? Fine bone handle, the best blade you could want, sir. Only-"
"Forget it." Casting the market trader an unimpressed look, the man shook his head. "I'm not interested."
"Then how about this hunting horn, sir? Made from a ram's horn, and-"
"I'm not interested in anything." The man walked on, leaving the market stall behind. He cut an impressive figure as he walked through the market. His boots were dirty, and his cloak was spattered with mud, but he was tall and proud-looking. The locals moved out of his way as he walked through their town. The short hair and clean shaven face was a sure indication that this was a Norman, and the sword swinging at his side suggested that he was a knight. Norman knights were not welcome in a Saxon village, but the villagers were usually too scared to do anything.
In point of fact, the tall, dark-haired man was not a Norman. Many years - many centuries - had passed since he had last considered himself part of any nation, although he had especially grown to like the small island that he was visiting now. Its cool climate agreed with him, and its air of detachment from Europe was a good way to protect his anonymity. The man's name was Methos, and he was of the race that called themselves the Immortals. Methos had no home, no attachments, no family. He was just an ancient man who wandered the world with his sword, learning and teaching, and fighting when it was necessary.
"We have to do something!" The voice was raised in anger, and Methos turned his eyes towards it automatically.
"What can we do? It would be mad to try anything. There'll be guards; the Sheriff's men. We wouldn't have a chance." A second voice, also angry, but more reserved than the first, sounded in response. Methos spotted the two man standing a few yards away, behind a market stall. Their conversation was highly animated, punctuated by wild gesticulations.
"Well I've had enough. The Sheriff has been handing out death sentences for every crime that's committed. Pretty soon there'll be none of us left. I say we make a stand now. We can't let him behead this man. It would be a statement! A way to show the Sheriff that-"
"Sshh!" The second man's voice was suddenly filled with urgency, and Methos saw the mens' eyes turned towards him. They were obviously suspicious, and he could hardly blame them. The present situation in England was uncomfortable, but he had no intention of dressing like a barbarian just so that he could pass unnoticed through the towns. There was a certain sophistication that came from four thousand years of living, and it usually required something more than clothing made from animal skins, often only crudely sewn together.
He wandered on. The mention of a beheading made him rub his neck, feeling painfully exposed. If the local Sheriff was inclined to use a punishment like that, this was probably not the place for Methos. He was not exactly intending to break the law, but he did have a remarkable ability to get himself into trouble. Being beheaded by an unpleasant Norman Sheriff did not sound especially attractive.
The fluttering of paper caught the old man's eye, and he turned to glance at a poster nailed to a tree on the edge of the market place. It was notice of a public execution, one that would be taking place that day, and a man's face gazed stonily at Methos. This was obviously the criminal who was to be killed. An involuntary shudder hit Methos as he thought about how the man was to be beheaded. He eyed the criminal. It was not a well-drawn picture, but it was clearly of a man with short, dark hair, and a tanned complexion. He did not look entirely English, and the eyes that stared out from the poster gazed steadily at Methos. They struck a chord, and he frowned. He would have known those eyes anywhere, even without the scar that decorated the right one.
"Oh no..." Methos shook his head. That picture couldn't be of who he thought it was. That was impossible. He had last seen Kronos less than thirty years ago, in Russia. What could he be doing in England now? And surely he was far too sensible to get himself arrested and threatened with execution? Methos shook his head. That was a stupid question. Kronos might be one of the cleverest men that the old man had ever known, but he was even better than Methos at getting himself into trouble. It was hardly as if he had never been arrested - or executed - before.
"Damn." Methos turned in a circle, searching for the place of execution. A wooden stage caught his attention, and he headed towards it, scanning it with a practised eye. The axe which stood against a wooden block was not in the greatest condition, but the blade had been recently cleaned, and it gleamed in the early sunlight, the edge glittering wickedly. Methos tried not to wince. He glanced around, seeing the likely route which the execution party would take from the nearby castle. The crowds would be packed in tight, and he had no illusions about being able to do anything decisive before the party reached the stage. A possible plan suggested itself, appearing somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind, and he pondered it over for a few moments. It was better than nothing, which was what he would have if he discarded it. He scowled, wondering for the thousandth time why he continued to involve himself in the escapades of Kronos. Still, at least it stopped him from getting bored.
"Sir, I have the finest weaponry, made on the continent-" The trader from earlier had lost none of his persistence.
"You have, huh? Where did you get it from?" The seller looked oddly crestfallen at this comment, and Methos smiled to himself. If the man wanted to sell stolen weaponry within sight of a Norman castle, that was his own affair. He picked up a bow and tested its strength, then grabbed a handful of arrows.
"Where can I get a couple of horses?" he asked.
"There's a stall, at the back of the market place," the seller told him.
"Thanks." Methos tossed him a gold coin and set off. He heard a faint gasp as the trader examined the coin, and he smiled to himself. Methos was good at making money, although he rarely looked as though he had all that much of it. He had no idea what denomination of coin he had given the trader, or even what country it had originated from, but he doubted that any of these people would care for much beyond the fact that his coins were made of gold.
The horses were easy to find. The sound of restless hooves and the occasional shout as men tried to calm anxious beasts were easy to follow, and he worked his way through a crowd of spectators to find the horse trader.
"Are you looking for something?" The man spoke in the usual tone of sullen respect that Saxons reserved for Normans.
"Two horses. Fast ones." Methos scanned the animals. Many of them were poorly fed, but a few were in good condition.
"Certainly sir." The Saxon brightened, and Methos sensed that some kind of trick was about to be played. An assistant brought up a pair of restless looking beasts, and he smirked to himself. These people were hoping for a cheap joke at the expense of a hated Norman. They wanted to sell him unruly horses, and watch him make a fool of himself.
"Those will be fine." Methos handed the trader some assorted coinage, and took the leading ropes of the two horses. With everybody watching, he swung up onto the nearer of the animals and the crowd dispersed. The horses felt nervous, but Methos had been riding for more than four thousand years. He could not have fallen off if he had tried. He caught the look on the face of the horse trader's assistant, and suppressed a grin. He enjoyed moments like this one.
The sun rose, and the bright light of midday illuminated the stage in the centre of the market place, casting short shadows about among the villagers. A silence fell over the square as the execution party drew nearer, and the local people strained to see the condemned man. He walked along in the middle of the group, his stride casual and easy, his eyes unafraid. His impassive face did not suggest at any fear, and the villagers began to murmur amongst themselves. Immediately the guards tightened their group, unnerved by the sudden whisperings. An execution was unpopular at the best of times, but when the crowd was sure that it was unjust, or if they showed a particular liking for the victim, things were liable to get nasty. The commander of the party drew his sword, glaring at any villagers who happened to stray too close. His expression said it all; anybody who got in the way of this execution would suffer the same fate as the condemned.
In the centre of the small group of soldiers, the prisoner sauntered arrogantly along, his head held high, and his eyes full of assured self confidence. He was not a tall man, and his complexion suggested a life spent out of doors. His build confirmed it. This man was a born fighter, and was proud of it. He was one of the oldest men ever to have walked the Earth, although he was at least a thousand years younger than Methos. His name was Kronos, and he had been born somewhere to the east, in a world where a man's strength was judged by how many men he had killed.
The execution party reached the stage and marched up the steps, arranging themselves with practised ease. Only the prisoner did not move quickly into position, but used a slow, easy step, carefully calculated to irritate his guards. A ripple of laughter ran through the crowd at the frustration of the soldiers, and even Methos managed a smile. He sat astride his horse at the edge of the market place, his bow in his hands and an arrow already fitted into it. He did not feel especially amused by the necessity of being here, but for all his anger at Kronos for having got himself into this position, he had to respect his old friend's apparent complete lack of concern. The old man raised his bow and sighted along the arrow. He considered the possible targets. He could go for flamboyance, and shoot out the executioner, but the masked man was flanked by guards, and he wasn't entirely sure if he was capable of making such a shot. He watched as two of the guards led Kronos towards the block, and he tensed his shoulders.
"Now." Methos whispered the word to himself, and with a sudden burst of adrenalin he released the bowstring. It rushed past his ears, and he watched the arrow fly. It thudded into the chest of one of Kronos' immediate guards, and the Immortal reacted as though he had been waiting for it. Hurling himself to one side he pushed the second guard at his fellows, sending them sprawling into an untidy heap. Another arrow flew through the air, quivering as it struck the floor of the stage, and Kronos threw himself at the chief of the guards. Methos kicked his horse into action, galloping across the market square with all of the speed he could get from his horse.
"Give me my sword." Holding the chief of the guard by the neck, Kronos squeezed hard. There was not the slightest flicker of emotion on his face, and the guard struggled to breathe as the grip tightened at his throat.
"No, " he choked, and Kronos allowed a brief display of anger to light his eyes.
"Yes," he corrected, his voice almost gentle.
"Come on, brother," Methos drew his horse to a halt. "We don't have time for this."
Kronos glanced across at his old friend. He seemed unconcerned by the potential danger of their current situation., and Methos groaned.
"Come on... It's just a sword."
"It's my sword." Still holding the chief of the guards tightly by the neck, Kronos swung around, looking about at the remnants of the group of soldiers who had been escorting him. His gaze alighted on the executioner. He grinned.
"Give me just a moment, brother." With a sudden twist, Kronos broke his prisoner's neck, then threw the body to the ground and advanced on the executioner. The big, masked man wore a sword at his waist, and he drew it as Kronos approached. There was a wicked look to it; a ruthlessness about its sharp edge that suggested something of the number of men it had killed. Both Immortals recognised it, and Methos scowled. It was the executioner's right to choose from the possessions of the condemned, but why had he had to take the sword? Talk about complicating matters. The older Immortal glanced around nervously, expecting to see a new wave of guards rush towards him at any moment. The villagers were pressing closer, anxious to see what was going on, and that disturbed him. He slashed around his horse with his sword, not wanting to hurt anyone, but desperate to keep the path clear.
"Get a move on!" he hissed up at the stage. Kronos grinned. He bent down, drawing the sword from the belt of the dead chief of guards. The executioner took a step forward, the sword leaping from one hand to the other, and his featureless black mask rippled in the light wind. The two men circled each other, their swords painting cautious pictures in the air in a display of preliminary manoeuvres calculated to test each other. Methos felt his exasperation grow.
"Will you stop playing?!" he shouted, trying to keep the frustration from his voice. "This place is going to be alive with soldiers any minute now!"
"Just a second brother." With a grim smile that did not reach his eyes, Kronos moved forward, closing in on the executioner. The black robed figure raised the sword in defence, and a loud cheer arose from the watching villagers as the two men clashed. They battled together, and the executioner fell back. Kronos grinned, using all of the skills that more than thirty centuries of experience had given him. The executioner stumbled, and Kronos disarmed him with a lazy flourish, the point of his sword immediately at the other's neck.
"I - I was only doing my job." The voice inside the black mask was shaky. Kronos shrugged.
"And I'm just doing mine." He caught the masked man by the shoulder and spun him, tripping him at the same moment. The executioner fell against the block and stayed there, quivering. Kronos caught up the axe. It was a heavy, two handed affair, and a gasp rippled through the crowd as he raised it above his head. He grinned, then hurled the axe to the floor, caught up his sword and leapt over to the spare horse beside Methos.
"Have you finished?" The older Immortal did not bother to hide his disapproval.
"Relax brother. I didn't kill him." Kronos kicked at the horse and the crowds of villagers parted to let them through.
"That's not what I mean. Dammit Kronos, I just risked my life to save you, and you were standing up there showing off. It would've served you right if the executioner had won." Methos spurred his horse on, and glanced towards the castle. The gates were open, and he saw a trail of mounted riders emerge from within.
"Uh oh." With a sudden sense of acute urgency, Methos pushed his horse on to greater speed. Beside him, Kronos reacted just as suddenly. The villagers stumbled aside, trying to clear a path for them to avoid being trampled. Even so, by the time that the two men had cleared the crowds, the mounted soldiers had nearly reached them.
"Halt!" The lead guard had drawn his sword, and he galloped forwards, his face set between dutiful determination and rage. Methos smirked.
"They always say that," he muttered. "Do they honestly expect it to work?!"
"Obviously." Kronos grinned at him. "You'd think they'd learn."
"But they never do." With a flick of their reins the two men were tearing ahead, the speed of their flight raising dust into their eyes, and whipping the wind about their faces. Methos felt the adrenalin pounding within him, and he was unable to keep a grin of pure joy from his face. The thundering of horses' hooves filled his ears, and elation filled his mind.
"Make for the forest!" Pointing ahead, Methos steered his horse towards the trees at the edge of the village. "We might be able to lose them!"
"Right with you brother!" Grinning manically, Kronos charged ahead into the forest, and the two men were soon dodging low branches in a desperate bid to stay mounted. The horses wove a complicated path between the trees, somehow keeping their footing on the treacherous ground. Tree roots and tangled undergrowth presented a considerable hazard to the speeding animals, but as the scenery flashed past, the two Immortals heard the sounds of pursuit fading. Eventually they drew to a halt, deep inside the forest. They were completely alone.
"I think we've lost them." Methos glanced about, his acute senses sharply alert.
"Nice work brother." Kronos jumped to the ground, grinning cheerfully. He took a quick look around at their surroundings. They were in a small clearing, with a river that bubbled gently to itself just a stone's throw away. "This wouldn't make a bad camp."
Methos dismounted slowly, his face serious. His fists clenched and unclenched a few times, then he strode up to Kronos, his face suddenly determined.
"Kronos..." he began. The younger Immortal turned to face his oldest friend, an easy grin still on his face.
Without further speech, Methos swung his fist, delivering a hard blow that caught his companion on the jaw. Kronos fell backwards, the wet bank of the river giving no chance for him to regain his footing, and he landed on his back in the muddy waters.
"What the-?" Stumbling to his feet in a shower of mud and water, Kronos slipped and skidded until he managed to get his balance. "What did you do that for?"
"Why do you think?" Angry now, Methos stood on the river bank, glaring down at Kronos. "You just don't care, do you?"
"I told you I was sorry, but I had to get my sword back." Too angry to climb from the river, Kronos stayed where he was, and the two Immortals stared at each other, the rage clear in both mens' eyes.
"I don't mean that." Methos shook his head, fighting the anger. "How could you do that? How could you get yourself arrested, condemned to death - by beheading of all things, and look so damned unconcerned? If I hadn't been there, brother, you'd be dead now. And there'd have been no one to take your Quickening. Doesn't that mean anything to you?! You'd have been gone!"
"I know." Kronos seemed to have got his anger under control. He rubbed his jaw, and shook his head. "There was no need to worry, Methos. I had everything under control. I could have escaped on my own. You don't honestly think that I was planning to let them kill me?"
"I don't know, brother. I just don't know." Methos turned away, and Kronos caught him up, struggling to climb the slippery bank of the river.
"What?" The older Immortal turned, his expression unreadable, and Kronos looked oddly repentant.
"I'm sorry brother. I didn't know you'd be there. I didn't mean to worry you."
"Exactly! You didn't know I'd be there! What would you have done if I hadn't been?!" Methos shook his head, exasperation now battling with the rage for supremacy in his mind. "How could you take a risk like that? I know that I don't obey the law all that much, but did you have to break it so damn conspicuously?"
"I didn't." Kronos shook his head and turned away. "I am sorry if I've upset you, brother, but I really didn't do anything... much. I was in the forest. Not far from here, actually. I was making a camp, when all of a sudden the place was full of soldiers. They said I was trespassing. They were going to cut my hand off!" Methos could hear the indignation and rage in his friend's voice, and could see it in his eyes. "You know what that would mean. I wouldn't have a chance with only one hand." He shrugged. "So I had to do something. There were lots of them; far too many to fight, but I tried anyway." His eyes blazed suddenly. "The ground was red with their blood before they managed to take away my sword."
Methos sighed, and nodded slowly. His exasperation did not seem to have lessened any, but he could feel the rage begin to fade. Kronos offered him an uncharacteristically innocent grin.
"So... I am forgiven?" he asked, and Methos smiled.
"Yeah, you're forgiven." He sighed, frustrated with himself for not being more angry. "I suppose it wasn't your fault."
"Of course it wasn't." Kronos was already losing interest in the conversation, and he drew his sword, throwing himself down on the ground to begin cleaning the weapon. It was covered in mud from his fall into the river.
"No. Nothing's ever your fault." His tone dry, Methos sat down beside his old friend, and watched him with his sword. Despite his earlier concern, he could understand why Kronos had been so determined to get the weapon back. An Immortal's closest friend was usually his sword. It was the one thing that could save his life or take it away. Methos smirked.
"I didn't hurt you, did I?"
"Do you care?" His voice full of mock hurt, Kronos lowered his eyes. "All we've been through together, and you hit me like the last few thousand years never happened." Methos groaned.
"Kronos, dearest brother?"
"Go fall in a river." They both grinned, and Kronos gave his sword a final polish.
"No, you didn't hurt me."
"Pity. It might have knocked some sense into you."
"Thankyou so much." Kronos sheathed his sword and began to laugh. "Do you remember the first time you hit me?"
"Of course I do." Methos laughed as well. The memory was old, but it was by no means his oldest. "You wanted to go after a bunch of settlers, and I wanted to go after another group instead. I couldn't get you to see sense that time either."
"And you were right, as always." Kronos sighed. "We went after your group and wound up rich men."
"At least until we found a town with a tavern in it. We weren't very rich when we left." They both laughed again.
"Caspian got into a fight and ended up burning half the building down." The younger Immortal leaned back and folded his hands behind his head. "They were good days Methos."
"They were, weren't they. Within limits. But we were right to end them. It wouldn't work these days.,"
"It could, if we tried hard enough. If we wanted it enough." He sighed deeply. "Remember their fear? It was almost powerful enough to see or touch."
"It belonged in another age, Kronos."
"Yeah, I know." There was an oddly sad look on Kronos' face, as if he regretted deeply the passage of Time. "Someday our whole way of life will be a thing of the past."
Methos nodded slowly. "You could be right." He shrugged. "We'll have to make new lives for ourselves."
"I don't know if I can do that." There was a short silence. Methos cast a sidelong glance at his friend, and frowned. Kronos was staring up at the sky, his expression serious. The older Immortal did not reply to his comment. Instead he kept silent for a few moments more, and then changed the subject.
"Do you have a name here?" he asked. Kronos shrugged.
"Sort of. I had to give them a name when I was arrested."
"Adam. Adam Forrest." He grinned sheepishly. "It was the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment."
"It's better than nothing." Methos frowned thoughtfully. "I shall be... Peter. It's a Bible name, and that's always a good thing in these parts. Peter... Castle. Yeah, I rather like the sound of that."
"So what do we do now?" Kronos asked. He sat up, and grinned. "We're not exactly popular with the local authorities after all. They might not have got a good look at you, but someone in the village will have, and there's always one that can be bought."
"That's encouraging." Methos shrugged. "I guess we should make for somewhere where the heat is a little less intense. How do you fancy a trip to Scotland?"
"Might be fun. They say it's still fairly wild up there." Kronos grinned, as if already looking forward to losing himself in the Highlands.
"That's settled then." Methos stood up. "Come on."
"Why not? No time like the present. It'll take us several days to get to the other side of the border, and there's no sense in staying here longer than we have to. They want to behead us, remember?"
"True." Kronos sighed, and climbed to his feet. "We're safe so long as we stay in the forest though. Nobody comes here. I heard all kinds of talk while I was in the castle. The locals mortals believe in all manner of spirits and weird things, and they're all supposed to live in here somewhere. Even the soldiers won't come in very far, especially at night."
The two men mounted and began to ride on through the forest. Their direction took them further from the town, and also roughly towards the north. It also took them deeper into the trees. The light grew weaker as it fought to reach them through layers of leaves and other assorted greenery, and they had to concentrate to avoid the heavy branches that blocked their path. Methos frowned.
"We should have made for the edge of the forest," he muttered, angry with himself for not guessing that the going would be harder this way. "We're not getting anywhere like this."
"It'll be okay." Kronos dismounted, and began to lead his horse. Methos followed suit. It was easier to walk than to ride, and they began to increase their speed again.
"I suppose we're not in any real hurry just now." Methos tried to catch a glimpse of the sun, to guess the direction in which they were travelling. "Are you sure that nobody ever comes in here?"
"Quite sure." The voice came from behind Methos, and he froze. Up ahead, Kronos also stopped, and the two men turned round as one. Three men stood before them, dressed in simple peasants' clothing. They were armed with bows, all three fitted with arrows. There was a rustling in the undergrowth, and Methos realised with a sinking heart that they were surrounded. One of the first three men sauntered forwards. He had an air of cocky self confidence, and a smile that was tremendously satisfied.
"I think we've caught a pair of fugitives." He lowered his bow, relying on those of his friends to protect him. "Do these two look familiar to you, boys?" There was a muted chorus of agreement, and the man's grin grew broader. "Two men, fleeing for their lives from the Sheriff's soldiers. Perhaps we should turn them in?"
Methos frowned, his hand on his sword hilt. Although he could not see Kronos, he sensed that his friend was angry, and he hoped that the other man had the sense not to try anything just now.
"You won't turn us in." Keeping his voice steady and even, Methos met the cocky mortal's gaze, and held it.
"Because you're peasants, and you're in the forest. That can only mean you're outlaws yourselves. Why else would you be in here, when all the locals are too scared to come this far in?"
"True." The mortal smirked. "Okay, so we won't turn you in. But this is our forest, stranger. Perhaps you'd like to tell us why we shouldn't just kill you?"
"Because you might find that a little harder than you think." Methos smiled and took a step forward, ignoring the various arrows pointed in his direction. "My name is Peter, and my friend here is Adam. We were just passing through here, so there's no need to get excited."
"Just passing through?" The leader of the outlaws shook his head. "No one 'just passes through' Sherwood Forest. Not without paying us for the privilege."
"Supposing we just let you live instead." Drawing his sword, Kronos moved up to stand alongside Methos. His expression was dark, and his eyes glittered. The outlaw laughed, his expression becoming somewhat more friendly.
"Good answer." He gestured about him, and the bows were all lowered as one. "Whatever our differences, perhaps you'd join my friends and me at our camp? It's not far from here, and we like to be good hosts. We can talk, and share stories perhaps. We have some fine venison - the king's own - and some particularly good wine that we, er... borrowed from an abbot a couple of days ago."
There was something in the mortal's eyes and voice that appealed to Methos, and he smiled. Even Kronos seemed to have relaxed slightly. The younger Immortal would be more than at home in a camp full of outlaws.
"Okay." Methos nodded, a little warily. "We'd be happy to accept. Lead on."
"My pleasure." With an illustrious bow the outlaw leader turned and began to head off into the trees. The two Immortals followed, aware of the other outlaws around them, but unconcerned just now. This gang did not seem to mean them any harm, and Methos at least was willing to accept that there might be an active sense of honour among thieves. He certainly could not detect any real animosity in the air, and his long life had made him extremely adept at sensing such things.
They walked on for several minutes, before finally they emerged into a clearing. A large campfire burned in the centre, and the area was strewn with assorted weaponry and spare clothing. The camp looked like a particularly disordered soldiers' barracks, and it had a remarkable, homely air to it. The two Immortals looked around, taking in the best exit routes, and automatically scanning for the places that would be easiest to defend. There was obviously a fairly talented military mind behind this forest stronghold.
"Do you like it?" Sounding oddly enthusiastic, their guide led them into the camp, smiling broadly.
"It certainly looks like home." Methos wandered over to the campfire. The day was getting old, and a chill wind was developing.
"It is home." The outlaw threw another log onto the fire, before catching up a cask of wine. He poured a deep red liquid into some pewter tankards - presumably acquired in the same way as the wine - and then handed one to Methos and one to Kronos.
"Welcome to the centre of Sherwood Forest," he said merrily, and the three drank deeply. The wine was excellent, and Methos smiled at the thought of the abbot, and how sorry he must have been to lose it.
"Very good," he said, with considerable satisfaction.
"Thankyou." The outlaw bowed his head in acknowledgement of the compliment. "We pride ourselves on our standard of living here." He drained the tankard quickly. "But where are my manners? I should introduce myself. My name is Robin. The men you see about you will all introduce themselves eventually, but my closest companions here are John and Will." He pointed to the two men who had remained at his side throughout, and grinned. "As you can see, Will has an odd approach to the art of camouflage, but it hasn't done him any harm yet." The two Immortals nodded a greeting to Will, who was a slight young man dressed in a scarlet tunic, and to John, a huge man whose hulking frame threatened to burst through his clothing. The two outlaws nodded a greeting in return, the faint light of suspicion in their eyes matching those of their guests.
The day wore on, soon progressing into evening, and then into night. A plentiful supply of wine flowed, with no apparent intention of drying up, and soon roast venison joined the impromptu party. Robin was a gallant and cheerful host, and soon the five men felt like old friends, laughing and talking together around the leaping flames. Kronos seemed almost to be more relaxed than Methos, enjoying the tales of living wild in the forest, fighting soldiers, and stealing from the rich merchants who made the mistake of travelling through, or near, Sherwood. The two old Immortals had many tales of robbery to add to the discussion, and Methos began to enjoy the camaraderie. Despite his frequent attacks of guilt concerning the life he had led, he remained rather proud of his skill in engineering raids and various robberies. His new found friends appreciated that skill, and he soon began to feel at home.
The night deepened. Robin began to speak about his life as an outlaw, and Methos sensed that the young mortal, whilst obviously enjoying his present life, had a certain regret that he had been forced into it. He had, it appeared, fallen foul of the same fierce attention paid by the Sheriff's guards to their duty, which had led to Kronos' arrest.
"If the Sheriff is so bad, why don't the local people do something about him?" Methos asked, leaning back against a thoughtfully placed rock, and gazing into the ruby depths of his tankard of wine.
"What can they do? The Sheriff was appointed by King Richard, and he never cared for his subjects. All he was interested in was fighting in the Crusades." Robin shrugged lazily. "Nobody could talk to him about mundane English matters like Sheriffs; or the well-being of his subjects. His brother is a little more in tune with local matters, but he's a Norman to the core. I don't think he cares much for the Saxons, and we're the only ones to suffer at the hands of the Sheriff." He frowned. "You two have the look of the Normans about you."
"Is there a law against that?" Kronos stretched, and threw the remains of his long abandoned venison to the large wolfhound sprawled nearby. "Short hair makes for easier sight, and a long beard only gets in the way."
"True. Perhaps." Robin shrugged. "Anyway it hardly matters. Norman or Saxon, the Sheriff's men are after you now." He frowned. "But I'll never be a true friend to a Norman. They demand rents that can't be paid, and then complain when they don't receive them. I've seen whole families dragged off to the castle dungeons for failing to pay rents that they couldn't possibly manage. My men and I do what we can. Any money we take goes to pay the rents, but even so we can't raise enough most of the time." He sighed. "I'd like to make him eat his staff of office, but he's here to stay."
"There must be something you can do." Methos sipped at his wine contentedly, trying to stir his somewhat dulled senses into outrage at this injustice. "Surely if everyone defied the Sheriff, he couldn't do anything?"
"We tried that." Will, whose scarlet clothing somehow detracted from his current solemnity, sounded sour. "Everyone in the county started to defy his laws, and to refuse to make their rent payments. He cracked down on all the rules in response, and started to execute everybody that was arrested. We've lost more people in the last few weeks than in the past two years. Everyone is too scared to resist anymore."
"Exactly." After a long silence, John got up to throw a heavy log onto the fire. "We've done what we can, and it didn't work. I don't think that the locals are willing to take any more risks. They can't afford to lose any more people."
"I feel for the people of the county," Robin continued, "but to be honest we can't help everybody. I'd just like to do something for the people in the local village. They live in the shadow of the Sheriff's castle, and they suffer more than anyone else."
"Well why can't you do anything?" Unused to taking hassle from anybody, Kronos was not inclined towards keeping a low profile. "If you have an enemy, you defeat him."
"Kill the Sheriff of Nottingham?" Robin laughed. "I like your style Adam, but you obviously have no idea of the way things work around here. The Sheriff is a very powerful man. He has close ties to all the rich landowners for miles around. If we killed him nobody would ever be safe here again. They wouldn't rest until all of the peasants were run off the land, and until this whole county had been laid to waste in the search for the killers. It would be a disaster." He shook his head. "And besides, the Sheriff has taken hostages."
"Hostages?" Methos sat up. He had successfully awakened his outrage, and now it appeared to be working overtime. "Why?"
"Because he's probably afraid that someone will try to kill him. I don't know exactly." Robin gazed thoughtfully into the fire. "The local nobles live in constant fear of a peasant uprising, and they're terrified of my band. We've robbed most of them at sometime. They're sure that an insurrection can't be far off."
"So they took some of the local villagers as insurance?" Methos asked. Robin nodded slowly, but did not speak further. Instead John took up the tale.
"They took a local Saxon. He's supposed to have Royal blood in his veins; a real local hero. They also took his daughter." He stole a look at Robin. "Her name is Marion, and she and Robin have been promised to each other for years. No doubt that was one of the reasons she was taken. We can't do anything while the Sheriff has them in his castle."
"Marion's no fool." Shaking off his sudden glum mood, Robin glanced up again. "We grew up together, and she learnt archery too. She's not bad with a sword either, so she's no simpering maiden. Even so, it can't be easy for her, locked up in the castle."
Kronos shook his head, looking confused. "Then why not go and get her?" he asked. Robin smiled.
"Several hundred men, all with orders to kill my friends and me on sight. That's why. Even if we could get into the castle we'd never be able to get to Marion, much less get out again. It would be suicide." There was a pause. "And I suspect that with me dead, the Sheriff would have no reason to keep Marion any longer. He'd marry her off to some rich Norman, or keep her for himself. I'd rather see her killed than allow that."
Kronos glanced over at Methos. "What do you say brother?" he asked. Methos shrugged.
"I've never yet seen anywhere; castle, camp or settlement, that was impossible to break into," he muttered thoughtfully, beginning to feel drowsy from the wine. "All the same though, I haven't had a close look at this Sheriff's castle, so perhaps I shouldn't comment."
"I've had a close look at it." Kronos had acquired the determined tone that Methos knew well. He had sensed a challenge and was ready to rise to it. "It's nothing special. Most of it's made of wood. Carts are always going in and out, and most of the time the guards don't search them. The cook slips extra food to the prisoners, and he doesn't owe any loyalty to the Sheriff. He told me that there's a tunnel that takes waste from the kitchens outside the castle walls. It joins up with a river that runs round the back."
"Really..." Methos closed his eyes momentarily, feeling increasingly sleepy. "I can't say that I fancy crawling up a waste tunnel, but if it's the most likely way in..." He glanced up at Robin. "Would you be willing to try?"
"I suppose." Robin frowned. "But I won't do anything that might put Marion at risk."
"Better to put her at risk than leave her to stagnate." Kronos drew his sword, turning the blade to let it catch the firelight. "The guards won't give us any trouble."
John laughed. Such arrogance should have been irritating, but somehow this stranger seemed to make it attractive. "I rather think you'll find them less than co operative, " he said wryly. "The ones that aren't greatly loyal to the Sheriff are too scared of him to do any less than their best."
"Whatever." Kronos sheathed his sword and stood up. "I'm willing to bet I could get in there and out again without too much difficulty. Peter and I have broken into more places than you've even seen."
Methos smiled into the firelight. That was true. He remembered one particular instance when a Chinese War Lord had captured the seven daughters of a friend of theirs, and together the two Immortals had broken into the War Lord's palace, rescued the girls, and ransacked the treasure chamber for good measure. They had left a chest of gold coins in one of the villages they had passed through, and kept the other for themselves. The War Lord had sent whole armies of mercenaries after the two men who had dared to stand against him, but none had been successful. Methos and Kronos had left for foreign parts, and had greatly enjoyed spending their stolen gold in taverns and market places right across Europe and Asia.
"I'm not sure that I believe it can be done." Robin stretched his legs out towards the fire. "The castle is too well guarded. We just haven't got enough men."
"That's your mistake. Lots of men wouldn't have a chance." Kronos was warming to his theme. "Two men, or three, could slip in unnoticed, find the hostages, and get them out. We could do it tomorrow."
"You're crazy." Robin shook his head, but he seemed interested by the suggestion.
"Not necessarily." Methos suspected that the wine was playing a large part in his current enthusiasm, but he let it carry him away nonetheless. "I think Adam is right. If we knew where the hostages are being held, though, that would give us a better chance."
Robin stared at him, as if uncertain whether or not to take him entirely seriously. "They're almost certainly in the West Tower," he said, his voice showing some of his doubt. "That's the usual place for prisoners of some consequence. The West Tower is the tallest one. There'll only be one staircase, with nowhere to hide on the way up or down, guards every few minutes. Getting in would be impossible."
"Don't be so eager to admit defeat." Kronos glanced at his old friend. "Disguises?" he asked, and Methos nodded.
"Undoubtedly. We'd be sure to find something once we've got in there. Spare uniforms in the guard room perhaps. Then we could walk right up to the top of the tower unchallenged. The only problem would be getting the hostages to the kitchens."
"Once we got up the tower we could deal with the guards up there, and the hostages could use their uniforms, " Kronos told him, and glanced over to Robin. "How many are there?" he asked.
"Just the two; Marion and her father." He frowned. "Are you sure this could work? It all sounds so fanciful."
"It could work." Methos grinned. "It has worked, more than once." He looked serious. "Of course, once they're free, they'd both become outlaws like the rest of us. They couldn't go back to their old lives."
"I don't think they'd mind that." Will grinned. "Marion wanted to come with us anyway, but her father wouldn't allow it. She'd make a good thief. She'd soon be running the band."
"She would at that." John laughed too. "And she's a lot prettier than Robin."
"Huh." Robin smiled, then turned to his two guests, suddenly anxious. "Are you really certain about this?"
"Pretty much." Methos yawned. "Excuse me. We'll talk about this in the morning."
"Of course." Robin lay down as if to sleep, but Methos could see that the young mortal was far from relaxed. The old man felt a slight touch of remorse that he might have fired up Robin's hopes prematurely. He only hoped that their little scheme still seemed practical in the light of day, when the pleasing effects of the wine had worn off.
Methos awoke and looked up at the sky. The morning was well advanced, he judged, which was understandable considering how late they had finally stopping drinking the previous night. He stretched and sat up, suppressing a yawn. Immortals did not tend to suffer from the after effects of alcohol as much as did their mortal counterparts, which was probably just as well. He grinned about at the outlaws, all sprawled around the remains of the fire, and laughed softly. Unless they were very used to drinking copious amounts of vintage wine, they were soon going to be suffering from some serious headaches.
Kronos sat up as Methos moved past, and his hand moved immediately to his sword. Methos grinned.
"One day I'll probably be grateful for your instincts, brother, but sometimes they are a little over the top."
"Huh." Kronos stood up. "My instincts have saved both our lives more than once. And how was I supposed to know it was you?"
"Process of elimination," Methos told him. "This lot are all out of it for a while."
"So what do we do?" Kronos wandered over to Robin. "Do we wait for them to wake up?"
"Probably should. Although we could leave a note and head off for the castle on our own. We work better that way." Methos raised his eyebrows. "You seem pretty anxious to get underway. What interest can you possibly have in saving some mortal woman? These peoples' arguments are hardly a concern of yours."
"Maybe, maybe not." Kronos grinned. "There is honour among thieves you know. Maybe being here with a band of outlaws brings back old memories of brotherhood."
"Or maybe you just feel like a fight." Methos shrugged. "Well, whatever. I'm happy to do this if you are. Where does the waste tunnel come out?"
"Halfway down the hill behind the castle. I figure we can catch a ride on one of the carts that go up and down there all day. That way we ought to be able to make the tunnel without being seen."
"Sounds about right." Methos drew his sword and tested the edge, then glanced about at the accumulated weaponry of the outlaws. "Shall we take anything else? A bow or two?"
"Do we need them?"
"Probably not." Methos smiled ruefully. "But I could do with a little practice. When I shot that guard yesterday I damn nearly shot you instead. If he hadn't moved I think I probably would have done."
"Don't mention it."
"Should we take the horses?"
"No." Methos hunted around for something to write on. "There'd be no point. We might as well walk." He found a sheet of some thick paper, which looked much like that which was used for Bibles. "This must have come courtesy of the abbot too."
"Handy things, abbots."
"Sure are." Methos frowned. "I don't suppose you have a quill on you?"
"Use a feather from one of the arrow shafts. It'd be better than nothing."
"Good idea." Methos grinned. "You wouldn't happen to have a bottle of ink somewhere I suppose?"
"Yeah, three of them in the hilt of my sword." Kronos rolled his eyes. "Are you sure there's any point to this? They probably wouldn't be able to read it anyway. We might as well just wake somebody up."
"Robin spoke like an educated man. I'm willing to bet he can read." Methos grinned. "And this lot aren't going to be awake for a long time yet. What's the worst hangover you remember?"
Kronos thought for a moment. "Constantinople, about two thousand years ago. That inn with the wolf's head above the door."
Methos grimaced. "Oh yeah. I remember. Well multiply how we felt then by about a hundred."
"Exactly. Given the strength of the stuff we were drinking last night I am very glad I'm not mortal." Methos eyed his feather sourly. "Not that any of that helps us of course."
"Then use your head, brother. You're supposed to be the one with the ideas." Kronos caught up one of the tankards, empty now, and without flinching used a small dagger to cut a vein in his wrist. Dark red blood poured into the pewter mug. Methos raised his eyebrows.
"Crude, brother. But effective." He frowned. "How about 'Gone to rescue Marion, be back in time for tea'?"
"Whatever." Kronos gritted his teeth as he staunched the flow of blood. Methos wrote quickly, then glanced over at his friend.
"Yeah." The younger Immortal poured the contents of the tankard away. "I've lost a lot more than that in the past." He waited for the wrist to heal. "Shall we go?"
"Might as well." They began to head out of the camp. Methos cast a look at the sun, before the trees blocked it from his view. "South west ought to take us right there."
They walked on in silence. The thick trees did not make the going easy, but both men were in high spirits. The prospect of the upcoming challenge was enough to make the hard walk seem quite easy. Methos had accepted long ago that he was addicted to the rush of excitement that came when there was the promise of adventure in the air. He had so often tried to settle down and enjoy a quiet life, but somehow it never seemed to work. Something always came up; usually Kronos. As they walked along together, side by side, Methos smiled happily. As ever they looked like a pair of quite ordinary men, fairly young and both dark haired. The thousands of years worth of memories which they carried around had left no clear impression on their faces, and only in their eyes were their countless adventures and common experiences reflected. Except for the old scar which Kronos still bore across his eye, they had been remarkably untouched by life, outwardly at least. There were times, thought Methos, as he tramped onwards through the forest, that thousands of years worth of memories were far more than any man or woman could be expected to carry, especially alone. Fate had given him this long life, but it had also given him Kronos, and that helped to make immortality bearable. If ever it became too boring, or too lonely, Methos was not sure that even his powerful instincts for survival could prevent him from one day making that fatal mistake.
"You're thinking again." Kronos sounded almost disapproving.
"And you weren't I suppose?"
"Me? What would I be thinking of?"
"I don't like to imagine." Methos smirked. "Some new potion?"
"I don't make potions." He shook his head. "You make me sound like a witch."
"What else do you call it, mixing liquids and powders together, and stirring them gleefully?"
"Certainly not magic." Kronos sighed, knowing that there was no way that he was going to win this argument. Methos was teasing him again. "It's a skill I learnt from an Arab scholar. We can't all be historians like you, brother."
"True." Methos grinned. "So do these potions of yours have any uses?"
"Of course. All sorts of poisons. And medicines, although they tend to be less interesting." Kronos suddenly sounded enthusiastic. "I tell you, Meth- Peter. They're doing great things in the East - the Middle East anyway. New advances in astronomy and mathematics. They probably lead the world in science."
"If you say so." Methos smiled. "They have a long way to go before their literature equals that of the Greeks though, don't you think? Compare, say, the work of Euripedes with-"
"Euripedes? Wasn't he the one who had an affair with the son of that general? What was his name?"
"I don't remember." Methos shook his head. "You know, Euripedes was one of the greatest writers to emerge from the golden age of Athens. Do you have to remember him for an affair he had when he was a young man?"
"Yes." Kronos grinned. "Much more interesting than his plays."
"Hey, I'm not complaining. They were great warriors."
"And the greatest of them all was beaten by a shepherd boy."
"Just because he was the biggest doesn't make him the greatest."
"He was still beaten by a shepherd boy." Methos laughed. "The look on his face. When that stone hit him he looked so surprised... I won twenty pieces of gold that day."
"Don't pretend you've forgotten, brother. You were betting on Goliath. I bet you that the kid would win."
"Yeah, I remember." Kronos shrugged. "It was no big deal."
"So you say."
"Sshh." Kronos held up his hand to silence his companion. They had reached the edge of the trees, and the hill bearing the castle rose up in front of them. Methos grinned.
"I always wanted my own castle."
"You've had several."
"True. But they're so much nicer looking these days."
Keeping a sharp look out, Methos walked slowly out of the cover of the trees. A dirt track led towards the hill, and he could see where it wound its way up to the castle. The two Immortals strolled along the road together, trying to appear as casual as possible in case someone should happen to see them. They had not gone far before they heard the unmistakable rumble of approaching cart wheels. Immediately they moved to the side of the road, taking care in case the cart had soldiers on board. Instead they saw an old man with a wagon full of bulging sacks, and Methos smiled.
"Things are going well," he observed happily, and his old friend did not disagree. They waited for the cart to pass them by, then jumped up onto the back. The old man did not seem to notice. Neither Immortal spoke as the cart wound its way up the hillside, but when they were about halfway up, Methos nodded sharply. The two men jumped down, and quickly threw themselves onto the ground.
"Now where?" Methos hissed.
"It's got to be around here somewhere." Keeping flat against the ground Kronos pulled himself along through the grass. It was reassuringly long, allowing for a certain amount of cover. Methos followed close behind, trying to avoid the thistles and the lazily buzzing bees.
"Ah ha." With a self satisfied grin, Kronos slid sideways, rolling downhill slightly. The ground was wet, and the two Immortals saw the sluggish movement of muddy water. Beside the small river was an opening in the hillside. The remains of vegetables and fruit lay around on the grass, and Methos scowled.
"It's going to be so much fun crawling up a tunnel full of that stuff," he muttered. Kronos grinned, already disappearing into the hillside. It was a little more cramped inside than he would have liked, and was unpleasantly dark, but he was not about to admit that to Methos. Instead he crawled onwards, ignoring the slimy feel to the ground around him. At least the darkness prevented him from seeing what he was dragging himself through, he thought, with a rueful grin. Behind him Methos struggled onwards. His greater height was usually a handicap when he was negotiating tunnels, but this one was fairly straight.
"Yuck. I think I just put my hand in a banana skin." Methos strained to see through the darkness, and gave up.
"They don't have bananas round here," Kronos told him, and grinned.
"Then I don't think I want to know what I just put my hand in." Methos scowled. "Of all your ideas, brother, this is not one of the best."
"Was this my idea?"
"Then I'm sorry." Kronos grinned again. Methos was always complaining, like in the old days when he had insisted on wearing white, and had then wondered why he couldn't keep his clothes satisfactorily clean. White was hardly a practical colour when you spent your life up to your knees in blood and gore.
"I think I see a light up ahead." Dropping his voice, Kronos slowed down so that his movements would be quieter. Sure enough, he soon found himself emerging into a shaft. The walls were close enough together to make climbing them fairly easy, and the two Immortals scrambled up into a deserted kitchen. They grinned at each other, the satisfaction of a job well done making them feel elated.
"Now where?" Moving cautiously to the door, Kronos checked outside. There did not seem to be anybody about, but that was probably only temporary.
"How much do you know about the layout of the castle?"
"Not a lot. There isn't any downstairs, I know that much. The dungeons are all on ground level. There was a window in my cell which looked over towards the gates. There's a guard house there, but that's at the front of the castle. We don't want to go that way."
"Well we're going to need to get some guards' uniforms from somewhere, or we're going to find it hard getting up that tower." Methos wandered out into the corridor. "Let's go on a way, and see what we find."
They walked cautiously down the corridor, taking care not to let their feet make too much noise on the stone flagging. They had gone no more than a few yards when they heard voices.
"Back into the kitchen!" Suddenly alert, Methos slipped quickly back the way they had come, and the two Immortals ducked behind the heavy table in the centre of the room. A moment later three men appeared. Two were dressed in uniform, and the third seemed to be some sort of kitchen assistant. Methos saw a grin play across the face of his companion, and guessed that Kronos was about to move into action. He saw his old friend's muscles tense, and then he moved in a blur, leaping out of his hiding place, and drawing his sword. The kitchen worker's head flew from his shoulders, and his lifeless body tumbled down into the waste shaft. Kronos grinned at the two guards, and his eyes glittered. Both men stared at him in thinly veiled terror, certain that they were looking into the face of evil. Methos stood up, his own sword drawn, and grinned too.
"Strip," he ordered, keeping his voice cold. The two men glanced at each other, and wordlessly removed their uniforms.
"Thanks." Without further words Kronos struck down the first of the two, and easily caught the second as he tried to escape. Two more bodies joined the first in the tunnel, and Methos looked down at them. He felt almost sorry.
"Very efficient," he muttered. Kronos caught the slight tone of reproach.
"Sorry brother. Needs must." He shrugged. "It's their fault for being so easy to kill."
"And I thought it was your fault for being so happy to kill them." Methos smiled. "Never mind. Just hurry up and get changed."
Nobody paid any attention to the two guards who strolled briskly from the kitchens and approached the West Tower. Methos grinned, deeply immersed in the excitement that he loved.
"Nobody sees past the uniform," he muttered to his companion, and Kronos nodded in agreement.
"Serve them right if we marched straight into the hall and took a chunk out of the Sheriff." He paused, as if contemplating something. "Say, Peter-"
"No," Methos cut in quickly. The adrenalin was going to his head, and he would probably have agreed if he had allowed Kronos to finish. "We get Marion and her father, and that's all."
"Okay..." The wicked grin came back out for an encore. "But are we going to take Marion back to Robin?"
This time Methos hesitated, and probably for a trifle too long to keep his conscience intact.
"I suppose so." He smiled, and Kronos could see that the old Immortal had one or two other possibilities in mind. It would not be the first time that they had appropriated a female. "I mean - anything else wouldn't really be in the true spirit of the brotherhood, would it?"
"No." Kronos returned the smile. "But it might be fun." They both laughed. Up ahead the doorway to the West Tower gaped at them, a dark black hole leading into the great stone building. A pair of guards stood just inside the doorway, and they nodded a greeting to the new arrivals. Methos nodded back, offering both men a broad smile. Neither questioned his presence, and that amused him.
The spiral staircase twisted its way around and around, and both Immortals stared up at it. It seemed never ending. They set off, aware that the two guards by the door were watching them. Neither Immortal spoke as they climbed upwards, concerned that the sound would travel all too easily to the ears of the watching men.
Onwards and upwards they walked, climbing steadily, and trying to ignore a nagging weariness. Methos sighed heavily, his legs beginning to ache, and he glanced back at Kronos. The other Immortal was looking stubbornly impassive, as ever determined that Methos should not see him display any weakness.
"They ought to hang a rope up the middle," Methos joked. "We'd be up there by now."
"Yeah." Kronos stopped by a window and pointed out. "Look brother."
Methos peered through the small window, and saw a number of wagons in the courtyard below. They looked as though they were being given a cursory search before leaving the castle. Provided they were still there in a few minutes time, that would be a perfect escape route. He nodded his understanding to Kronos, and they walked on up the stairs.
At the top of the tower, two guards stood motionless before a heavy wooden door. They both snapped to attention at the approach of the Immortals, leaving Methos to suspect that either he or Kronos was wearing some insignia of rank. He did not know enough about these uniforms to hazard a guess.
"Afternoon," he said, in a cheerfully casual tone. "We're here to check on the hostages."
"Of course." Neither guard seemed to see anything unusual in this, and they stepped aside. One produced a large iron key, and he unlocked the door with a sharp, precise movement. It swung open.
"Thankyou." Methos strode confidently into the room, and Kronos offered the two guards a friendly smile.
"Come on in," he said brightly, gesturing to the doorway. The two men exchanged a look, then preceded Kronos into the room. Swiftly he took the key from the lock and pulled the door shut, then slammed the hilt of his sword against the head of the nearest guard. The other whirled around, sword drawn, and the two men clashed head on, one cold and determined, the other suddenly desperate and afraid. Methos hurried across the room to where two figures stood silhouetted against a window. One was female, and she drew back slightly at his approach, her eyes flickering from Methos over to the two men fighting by the door.
"Er... hello." Uncertain quite how to address the pair, Methos offered them a tentative grin. "My name is Peter. I, er - I'm a friend of Robin's."
"You mean we're leaving?" The woman - Marion, Methos presumed - gave this new arrival a vaguely suspicious stare. "How do we get out?"
"We're working on it." Ignoring Kronos and his opponent, Methos strode over to the unconscious guard and began to undress him. "If you change clothes with these two we should be able to get you out of the tower okay."
With a quick thrust, Kronos despatched the second guard, a cheerful grin on his face. The body slumped to the ground.
"Oops. That uniform's going to have a hole in it." He shrugged. "No matter."
Methos smirked, amused by the two mortals' apparent confusion. He finished undressing the unconscious guard, and Marion's father began to change into the uniform.
"Hurry Marion," he whispered. "We have no choice but to trust these people." He frowned, and paused half dressed, as if suddenly remembering something. "My name is Alfred."
"Adam." Kronos picked up the unconscious guard and arranged him on one of the two beds on the other side of the room. He covered the silent figure with several blankets, evidently considering whether or not to kill the man, then shrugged and left him. He would probably suffocate under all of those blankets anyway. Meanwhile Methos had stripped the other guard. Marion changed quickly, disguising the ragged hole in her uniform by rearranging the cloak. Once the second guard had been hidden like the first the four went to the door, looking cautiously out towards the winding staircase beyond. Marion looked puzzled. The speed of events had been decidedly unnerving, and these two men were still complete strangers. She was not entirely sure if she wished to trust them.
"What now?" she asked. Methos held a finger to his lips.
"We go down the stairs," he whispered. "Stay casual and keep quiet. Once we're outside, follow my lead and look natural."
"Good plan." Marion looked amazed. "You don't actually have a plan, do you?"
Methos grinned at her, one of his innocent grins that was not quite convincing.
"Of course we have a plan. It's just very open to interpretation. We have to have a little room for necessary improvisation."
Marion raised her eyebrows. "Right," she said, sounding entirely unconvinced. "Just whose idea was this anyway?"
"Robin's." It was Kronos' turn to offer the mortal woman a grin, a charming one which revealed none of his impatience and growing frustration. "Now come on."
They walked down the stairs in single file, with Kronos in the lead. Methos brought up the rear, every step making his tension and excitement grow. He had no idea what would happen when they reached the foot of the tower, and that amused him. Such rushes of adrenalin were just what was needed to save immortality from becoming a curse.
The two guards at the foot of the stairs glanced up at their approach. One frowned.
"You're leaving the prisoners unguarded?" he asked. Kronos shrugged.
"They're not going anywhere." The guard eyed him with something like suspicion.
"But our orders..." he began. Kronos ushered Marion and her father out of the door. They kept their faces towards the ground, and tried not to look too tense and afraid. Once they had gone out, Methos smiled at the two guards.
"We've been called by the Sheriff," he said, his voice low. "Nobody can get into the prisoners without going past you, and they are locked in, remember?"
"We still have our orders." The second guard looked suddenly resolute. "I'm sorry. I'll have to check with the Head of the Guard."
"You do that." Smiling coldly, Kronos did not seem to have moved at all, but the soldier's face registered a sudden surprise, and then pain. Kronos stepped back, his dagger in his hand, and the guard slid to the floor, clutching at his stomach, as if trying to prevent his life from slipping away through the stab wound. Kronos gazed down at him, his eyes glittering. The guard blinked up. He saw what many men had seen before him, and what many others would see in the years to come. The expression on the killer's face was one of intrigue and morbid fascination. The eyes were those of a man who had no concept of the meaning of death. The guard frowned, and like many others in the past his dying thought was the confused realisation that this was no ordinary man.
The second guard backed away. His eyes flickered from his dead comrade to the two strangers facing him, and he shook his head.
"I - I won't say anything," he muttered, his voice sounding desperate.
"Of course you won't." Kronos sounded almost gentle, his face impassive. The guard seemed to relax a little, taking this as a sign of his deliverance.
"Look on the bright side," Kronos continued, his voice still gentle. "I'm giving you the chance to go to a place that I'll never see. Don't you long for peace and eternal rest?"
"No!" The guard backed away again, his face suddenly showing that he was deeply afraid.
"No, me neither." The Immortal offered him a grin. "But then, I don't think it's on offer for people like me. One day I might even envy you."
With a swift, harsh movement he caught up with the guard, and grabbed him by the arm, stabbing him through the heart. The guard slumped to the ground, and Methos watched him fall. He frowned.
"You enjoy your work, don't you brother," he observed. Kronos grinned.
"So do you. You just feel a little more guilty about it later, that's all."
"I suppose you're right." The two men shared a brief smile, a symbol of their ongoing acceptance that they were really just two sides of the same coin, then they hurried outside.
"What took you so long?" Marion was glancing about. "There are people all over the place."
"Sorry. We had some business to attend to." Once more in command, Methos led the way across the courtyard. Several carts still stood about, mostly unattended. The old Immortal spotted one standing right by the gate. It was loaded with flour sacks, empty now, and Methos grinned.
"Perfect," he whispered, and gestured towards it. Kronos nodded understanding, and glanced quickly around.
"No one's looking," he hissed, and Methos nodded. He moved swiftly towards the cart, and pulled some of the sacks aside, waving for the others to join him. Marion and Alfred ran over, and the old man covered them quickly with sacks, burying them from sight. A few seconds later Kronos joined him.
"There are people coming," he said. The man who owns the cart, and a couple of guards."
"No problem." Methos straightened his tunic. "We'll just stroll out when the cart leaves."
"Sure we will." Kronos shot him a totally unconvinced look. "And nobody will recognise us."
"Not in these uniforms they won't." Methos smiled happily. "And anyway, they only ever got a quick look at me."
"Yeah. Lucky you." Kronos grinned broadly. "Well when they arrest us I'll just make sure that they behead you first. When the Quickening kicks in they'll think I'm the Second Coming."
"Of what exactly?"
Footsteps sounded in the dust of the courtyard, and Methos lent casually against the cart, folding his arms and looking relaxed. An approaching guard called out a greeting, and Methos acknowledged it with a careless nod. Beside him Kronos tried not to face the newcomers, but soon the owner of the cart had climbed up onto the seat, and the gates swung open. The two Immortals wandered out of the castle, watching as the cart rumbled along just ahead. Methos was grinning, and after a second Kronos smiled too. After a few more paces they began to laugh.
"I told you, brother. Our lives are charmed." Methos felt almost happy enough to dance.
"Just as well." Kronos let out a deep sigh. "I can't believe nobody realised that we don't work there."
"Like I said; they never see past the uniform." Methos threw back his head and gazed up at the sky. It was clear and blue and the sun blazed down from the middle of it. The day was perfect. That in itself should almost have been a cause for concern.
A sudden shout made both men come to an abrupt halt. They glanced back towards the castle. A man stood on the wall, staring out towards the cart. He was gesturing and shouting, but only a handful of his words were audible at such a distance. Kronos frowned.
"They've found the dead guards," he said.
"They want the cart back." Methos sighed. "Oh well, most of it went okay." They both smiled. Behind them the castle gates were opening again. The two old men broke into a run, and leapt up onto the cart. Methos pulled the owner into the back and Kronos caught up the reins, yelling at the horses in a language that their ancient ancestors had been trained to obey. The owner of the cart struggled against Methos' grip.
"What are you doing?" he shouted. "You make me give you my flour. Do you want my cart now as well?"
"Shut up," Methos told him. "We're not Normans." The man slowed his struggles, his face showing suspicion.
"Then who are you?" he demanded, fighting to sit up. The wild bouncing of the cart was disorientating, and the man glanced about, grabbing for the side of the cart in a desperate attempt to keep his balance.
"What is going on?!" In a sudden shower of sacks, Marion sat up, staring about at the hillside, which was flashing past at an apparently ridiculous speed. "What are you doing?"
"Escaping," Methos told her. "Hold on. I'd hate to lose you now."
"Thankyou so much." Marion hunted around in the sacks for her father, who emerged a second later looking dishevelled. He blinked about, and frowned when he saw the owner of the cart.
"Hello Matthew. What are you doing here?"
"Alfred?" The cart owner frowned back. "I thought you were a hostage in the castle?"
"I was. I rather think that I'm escaping." Alfred clambered out from underneath the sacks. "It's good to see you again, Matthew."
"You too." The two men scrambled towards each other, and clasped hands warmly, both narrowly missing being thrown from the cart as it hit a rock and bounced dangerously.
"You two know each other?" Methos asked. They were all shouting above the wind and the rattling of the cart, but somehow it was all oddly comfortable and pleasant.
"Yes of course. This is Matthew, the miller." Alfred began to try to conduct an introduction. "Matthew, this young chap is Peter, and the young fellow driving the cart is Adam. They're friends of Robin's."
"Robin?" Matthew suddenly smiled broadly. "Well in that case I'm sorry. I thought you were Norman soldiers."
"That's perfectly understandable." The cart leaped again, and Methos fell backwards, only just catching hold of the side of the cart in time. "Adam! Do you have to hit every bump there is?"
"Sorry." Up in the front, Kronos glanced back. "They're gaining on us. We'll be hitting the forest soon."
"We can't take the cart into the trees." Methos stumbled and crawled up to his old friend. "Where does that leave us?"
"Hoping for the best." Kronos struggled to keep hold of the horses, who were beginning to race out of control. "All we can do is jump out when we reach the forest, and hope we can lose the soldiers."
"There's not a lot of hope of that." Methos turned to look behind them. The soldiers were now within range of an accurate archer. Fortunately they were still too busy riding to think about shooting. "Once we leave the cart they'll be on us in seconds."
"Nothing like optimism." Flashing his partner a grin, Kronos pulled on the reins, steering the horses into a collision course with the trees. It required much of his strength to make them slow down, but gradually he managed to reassert some control over the wildly excited creatures. Their mad run down the hill had obviously been more fun for the horses than for the people in the cart. Methos turned to the three mortals.
"As soon as the cart stops, make a run for it," he ordered. "Go straight into the trees and don't stop running. Head for where the trees are thickest."
The three mortals exchanged glances.
"Is there really any hope of getting away?" Alfred asked. Methos shrugged.
"Who knows. We'll find that out." He glanced over at Matthew. "There's probably no need for you to come with us. If you'd rather stay with your cart, I shouldn't think anything will happen to you."
Matthew nodded. "They wouldn't dare hurt the miller. And anyway, it's useful for Robin to have someone who isn't an outlaw, who can get in and out of the castle easily. It's better if I stay behind."
With a sliding of wheels and a bone shaking sideways skid, the cart slewed to a halt, and Methos and his companions leaped out, dashing into the trees. Immediately the sunlight dimmed, and all around them the world was cool and green. It was deceptively restful. Behind them they heard shouts and crashes, and almost immediately the pursuing soldiers rode into the forest. Their horses crashed through the branches and undergrowth, their hooves smashing through the smaller plants and saplings, as they pounded onwards. Methos doubled his speed, running fast in a bid to escape, but he knew that he could not outstrip the pursuers. He could run faster than most, but no turn of speed could save him from the horse backed soldiers coming up behind him.
With a sudden flash of anger, Methos stopped running, and whirled to face the soldiers. He drew his sword, cutting down one of the men before he had a chance to defend himself. Behind him, Methos heard his three companions prepare for a similar stance. For a few desperate seconds they battled together, striking hard and fast. All seemed to be futile. With a sudden cry of command, one of the soldiers raised his hand, and Methos and his companions found themselves looking up into a circle of arrows, the bows held rock steady by experienced hands. There was a tense silence, an awkward moment of indecision and anger at the sudden hopelessness of the situation, then quite suddenly, a single arrow flew from nowhere and struck one of the soldiers in the chest. He stared at it, frozen for a second, and then fell sideways from his horse.
"Attack!" The joyful cry arose from the trees and in a few brief seconds of blissful chaos, Methos saw Robin and his men erupt out of hiding. A shower of arrows filled the air, and the Immortals and their two companions scrambled out of the way, watching as the band of outlaws came in a wildly yelling stream from within their forest hideaway. The horses stumbled and reared, their riders hanging on desperately to avoid being thrown off, down into certain death at the hands of the outlaws.
"Retreat!" The powerful voice of the commander echoed through the confusion, and in a wild scramble of flying hooves the soldiers turned their horses about, dashing back out of the forest in a second rainstorm of arrows. Behind them the outlaws yelled and shouted, waving their bows in the air. Marion ran to Robin.
"You were wonderful!" She said happily. Robin laughed.
"We're always wonderful." He grinned at Methos and Kronos. "I thought you might appreciate a little assistance."
"Yeah, thanks." Methos flashed him a grateful smile. "That was pretty close."
"I'm still impressed that you got this far." Robin strode forward, his voice warm and sincere. "Thankyou. I owe you a lot for this."
"Not as much as we do." Alfred shook Methos' hand, pumping it up and down in grateful enthusiasm. "I was beginning to go crazy, locked in that tower."
"It was nothing." Methos grinned over at Kronos. "We kind of enjoyed it."
"I wish I could say it was over." Robin put his arm around Marion's shoulders. "The Sheriff won't take this one lightly. He's going to send every man he has into this forest looking for us. I don't think he'll rest until he has us. We should probably move on."
"Move on!" Marion sounded scandalised. "Robin, you can't say that. Sherwood is our home. We grew up here."
"I know. But there are other forests." He smiled. "And other sheriffs to annoy. It's for the best."
"You needn't go anywhere." Kronos, who was beginning to enjoy life as an outlaw in this particular forest, spoke up. He looked thoughtful. "When the Sheriff sends his men after you, if you could come up with a decisive enough victory, he might just leave you alone. More or less anyway."
"We could never win a decisive victory. They outnumber us ten to one." Robin shook his head. "It's no good Adam."
"Yes it is." Kronos grinned suddenly. "I have an idea; something that I learned in the East."
"What?" Methos asked, his interest aroused. Kronos grinned.
"I'll show you. First of all I need some charcoal..."
The serried ranks of Norman soldiers stretched out in neat rows at the foot of the hill. The Sheriff was not with them; he rarely was, despite his fearsome reputation. There were several hundred men, all sitting proudly on tall, powerful horses, all dressed for battle and all eager to be off. The commander of the collected forces scanned his men, his experienced eyes searching for any weak point in the lines of soldiers.
"Don't forget why you're here today," he shouted, his voice echoing around the hillside. "These outlaws have blackened the name of the Sheriff of Nottingham. They have tried to steal the pride and question the honour of our forces. We have to hunt them down and kill them." He straightened his back. "Of course, they're just cowardly outlaws. They're probably on the other side of the forest by now."
Crouched in the bushes at the edge of the forest, Methos strained to hear the commander's words. As he caught the last sentence he flashed a grin at Kronos.
"Oh, we're on the other side of the forest alright," he said cheerfully. "We're miles away." He frowned. "Are you ready yet, brother?"
"Just about." Kronos was sitting on the ground beside Methos, fixing a small wooden barrel into a rough hole in the earth. Cautiously he began to pour a trail of dark powder around the barrel, leading off into the trees. His movements were slow and careful, to avoid making loud noises that might alert the soldiers.
"Are you sure this is going to work?" Methos eyed the dark powder sceptically. "It doesn't look like much."
"Doesn't, does it. But I've seen it in action." Kronos grinned. "Told you my 'potions' would come in handy."
"So what happens now?"
"I light it." Kronos produced two pieces of flint and struck them together. A spark caught the sun and burned brightly for a second, and the dark trail of powder caught fire.
"We run very fast." Kronos took a second to make sure that the powder was burning properly, then he grabbed Methos by the arm and began to run, dragging his companion after him.
"Hey, what's the hurry?" Methos asked. There was no answer from his companion. Instead Kronos pushed the older Immortal into a ditch and leapt in after him. "Kronos-"
"Ssh." Kronos glanced up. The soldiers had seen and heard the sudden movement, and in an almighty wave they swept into the forest.
"They're coming!" Methos raised his head, and saw the hooves bearing down on them. "Brother, that powder of yours better-"
Whatever else Methos might have been about to say was lost forever in the sudden thunder that echoed about the forest. The noise was deafening, and a blast of hot wind tore through the trees. Methos felt an unseen force strike him in the chest, knocking him backwards and into the ground. He heard a delighted whoop from Kronos, and wiped the dust from his eyes in time to see soldiers hurled through the air, flying for some incredible reason that he could not understand. Fountains of earth had erupted into the air and were now falling everywhere. It was hard to breathe amidst the dust. He heard Kronos laughing.
"That was spectacular!" he shouted. "What the hell-?!"
"Just a trick." Covered in earth and dust, Kronos looked a mess, but he was still laughing. "I might have used a little more than was necessary, and I think we might have been a little closer than was advisable..."
"Never mind that." Methos began to climb out of the ditch. "Come on brother, there's still plenty of soldiers around here."
"Right with you." The two Immortals broke into a run, heading deeper and deeper into the forest. Behind them, the confused and terrified soldiers were running in every direction, some too scared to care for anything anymore, others still recalling their mission. Some of the braver ones sent a volley of arrows after the escaping Immortals. Methos began to laugh.
"That was truly incredible." He slowed to a gentle run, and clapped his companion on the back. "I take back all I said. You are one hell of a cook, brother, and I want the recipe."
Kronos laughed. "I told you it was good." He glanced about. "We should be near the others now."
"Straight ahead." Methos led the way forward, and they broke into a clearing. In the cover of the trees at the far side, Robin and his men were crouched low. The two Immortals joined them.
"We heard the noise." Robin looked over at Kronos. "It worked then?"
"It worked." Kronos reached behind the men, and picked up a small cask, such as might be used to hold wine or ale. A piece of cloth stuck out of it, ready to be lit when the time came. Robin had built a small fire nearby for that purpose.
"How many are there coming?" Marion asked. Methos shrugged.
"Lots. There were about three hundred that came in. About half are still after us. The others are all either dead or wounded, or they ran away after the first explosion." He grinned. "It was really something."
"Let's hope these smaller ones work as well then." Marion was obviously eager to try, and it sounded as though she wouldn't have long to wait. The shouts of soldiers could clearly be heard coming onwards through the trees.
"Ready." Robin reached back and picked up one of the casks, lighting the rag from the fire. Several of his men did likewise.
"Now!" With a fierce yell the Norman soldiers broke free from the trees, and tore across the clearing. Some were still on horseback, but most were now on foot. They stared in amazement at the small wooden barrels that flew through the air and rolled across the ground. One or two laughed to see such a strange from of weaponry. They did not laugh for long.
The explosions were considerably smaller than the first, but still the ground shook and the air was filled with dust. The horses reared up in fright, and raced off into the depths of the forest, desperate to escape the roar of thunder and the screams of the humans. Again and again the ground trembled as the outlaws hurled their powder filled casks at the soldiers. Some ran for cover, crouching in the trees at the edge of the clearing, and sending hopeful arrows in search of mostly invisible targets. The outlaws fired back, their own skill at archery far superior to the soldiers. One or two of Robin's men fell, but many more of the soldiers joined them. Finally the last, beaten remains of the Sheriff's forces began to limp away through the forest. Robin let out a shout of glee, and leapt into the clearing.
"We beat them!" His voice showed a curious mixture of delight and disbelief. "They're running away!"
"Do you think they'll be back?" Marion ran over to him, and they shared a brief embrace.
"Not for some time. Maybe never." Robin laughed out loud. "Oh, they'll never stop trying to catch us of course, but we've made them think twice about sending forces after us. They were terrified!"
"I don't blame them." Marion laughed too. "I've always wanted to send the Normans packing. It felt so good."
"Didn't it just." Robin spun around. "And it was all thanks to you." He clapped a hand on Methos' shoulder. "It was a lucky day that brought you and Adam into this forest, Peter. You're welcome to stay with us for as long as you like."
"Thankyou." Methos grinned. "We might just do that. Fighting Norman soldiers has a certain attraction, and so does robbing rich merchants." He turned. "What do you say Adam?" His gaze met John's. The huge outlaw knelt on the edge of the clearing beside the slumped form of Kronos. An arrow was embedded deeply in his chest, and it was clear, even from a distance, that Adam Forrest was dead.
The sun rose on a quiet and empty stretch of English countryside, illuminating a peaceful scene of two men walking together, talking and sometimes laughing as they strolled along.
"It's a shame," the smaller man said. "I rather liked being an outlaw."
"There's no reason why you shouldn't still be one somewhere else," the other man told him.
"Yeah, I know. But it's not the same."
"Hey, it's not my fault you got shot." The taller man laughed. "It's a pity you couldn't see Robin and Marion. They were heart broken. Which reminds me." He dug around in the bag on his back. "I saved some wine from your funeral."
They opened the flagon, and began to drink as they walked. Methos was in high spirits, despite the forced change in their plans. As he took a mouthful of wine, he grinned suddenly.
"It was a good funeral."
"It was a damned uncomfortable coffin. And thick. I couldn't hear a thing."
"Pity. There were some very touching speeches."
"Mortals." Kronos made a face. "They're so morbid about death." Methos laughed.
"Well you know, it's quite an obstacle for them."
"Not for us Methos."
They both laughed. Methos bent to pick a piece of grass, and he chewed on it thoughtfully as they walked.
"So, where now?"
"I don't know. I'd like to head east again."
"Me too." Methos nodded. "Japan maybe? It's about time I brushed up on my martial arts."
"Japan? Yeah. Do you suppose they'd let me be a Samurai?"
Methos laughed. "A Samurai? What - a quiet and gentle soul like you?"
"Why not?" Kronos frowned. "I did hear that things are starting to move out eastwards. Some man with a weird name... Genghis Khan. He's supposedly gathering an army together. Might be worth checking out."
"It might indeed." Methos suppressed a giggle. "What a name though. Genghis."
"It's not a name. I think it's just a title. His real name is... Temujin. Or something like that."
There was a pause. "Is that any better?" Methos asked. Kronos grinned.
"No, not really."
"Well then." Methos chuckled. "Honestly; Genghis. He's not going to go down in history with a name like that."
"Oh yeah?" Kronos sounded teasing. "Well you probably don't go down in history with a name like Peter either. Whatever possessed you to call yourself that? It definitely didn't suit you."
"It didn't? I rather liked it." Methos frowned. "Okay; so if I don't look like a Peter, what do I look like?"
"I don't know." Kronos gave him an appraising look. "What about Duncan? Or Adrian? Paul?"
"Duncan? Yuck." He shrugged. "I guess I'll just be Methos for a while." He laughed again. "Hell, if I'm going to meet a guy called Genghis, I don't think anyone will comment on me being called Methos."
"True." They both laughed again, and walked onwards together. There was still a sizeable chunk of England to cross, and then Europe, before they reached their planned destination. All kinds of adventures probably lay ahead. For Methos and Kronos life was virtually unending, but it was very rarely boring. They strolled on together, and set their eyes towards the East.
Temujin became Genghis Khan in 1206. Kronos' powder was gunpowder, of course, the oldest known form of explosive. Charcoal (or carbon at any rate) is one of the ingredients. Not wanting to have old Methos charged with incitement to terrorism I won't list the others. You probably know them anyway.