THE WINDS MAY CHANGE
The sun rose ponderously above the hills as though, still sleepy from the long night, it was unwilling to raise its head and would rather stay in its resting-place. Several people saw it rise, but none of them felt any delight in the witnessing of its return. For the day to come again was no reason for celebration. It was merely an indication that another night had passed, and that Time, in its inevitable way, was moving onwards and onwards. It was another day, and it would mature and brighten just as all those other days which had preceded it. It would lengthen and grow old, and the light would fade and the day would come to its end; and then would come the night, and the darkness, before finally the sun rose again and there was another day to replace the last. It would go on as always. There would be no change. All would be as before.
Methos, one time wanderer, one time marauder, past and future peasant, scholar, warrior and king, raised his head with the others to watch the new dawn as it rose through the brightening blue skies. He stifled a yawn, rubbing the dry earth and stray pieces of grass from his hair as he sat up. Once upon a time he had got out of the habit of sleeping on the ground, but it had returned to him quickly and with surprising ease. He stretched his arms and legs and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, feeling pleasantly refreshed. A roast pheasant would make a very satisfactory breakfast, perhaps with some smoked fish to go with it. On the other hand, grapes and apples and a few other sweet and juicy fruits would be equally welcome, with a jug of wine - beer would be better, but it was harder to get hold of in these parts - and maybe a mug of water, just to wash away the last of the night's gruesome shadows. He smiled as he rose to his feet and watched the others moving about to begin preparations for the day. Breakfast, as usual, would be whatever was left of the food from the previous day - cold, and very likely congealed in grease. That was if he was lucky, and there was something left. They had been stuck out here for so long, with their numbers growing all of the time, that food was as scarce as all of their resources. Even the water was rationed, and the last of the wine had run out six months previously.
"There's no time to stand around admiring the view Methos. Make yourself useful." One of the women hurrying past him paused momentarily to push him away from the sleeping area, and in the general direction of the horses. He scowled at her as she scurried back to her own duties. The time was when a woman such as that one would not have dared speak to him in that way, or to be so presumptuous as to tell him what to do with his time. But it was not his time anymore - it belonged to them all; each and every one of the people living in this barren stretch of hilltop and steep valley, and the seventy thousand others living in the towns below.
"I'm going, I'm going." He headed off down the hillside, nodding terse greetings to those who took the time to speak to him. All was so flustered and busy that his words were few, and it was only as he reached the horses that anybody bothered to throw more than a basic 'good morning' in his direction. The man in charge of the horses - a prematurely aged and heavily scarred fellow of some fifty-three summers, with a twisted back and a pronounced limp - raised what was left of his battered leather hat and offered the new arrival a cheerful smile. Basoc was from Gaul originally, or so everybody thought. He was as silent about his origins as he was noisy about everything else. All that was known for sure was that he had been born with one leg rather shorter than the other, and as a result had never been one to fetch a good price in auction. He had been bought to do the harder and more dangerous work that valuable slaves could not be risked for, and had won his twisted back when a wild and untethered horse had taken a clear dislike to its new status as a slave of the Roman Federation. Despite that incident nobody loved horses more, or knew more about them, than the curious little man with the scars on his face.
"Good morning Methos! You'll be wanting Linicus of course? Or perhaps you'll be preferring something you've never ridden before? I know you like a challenge."
"Anything with four legs will suit me." Swallowing his customary irritation at the man's inability to do anything without an accompanying barrage of chatter, Methos watched as the ageing fellow limped over with a horse chosen from the ranks. It was tall and bay-coloured, with a bright glint in its eyes and something wild in its tangled appearance. Basoc grinned.
"Here you are; four legs. We got this one a week ago. Some general left him lying about unattended, and he decided to come home with me. Didn't you." He rubbed the horse's nose and it twitched its tail in an answer that the little man seemed to understand. "Didn't even have a name; at least, not one that I could guess at. So I had to come up with a new one. Do you want to guess?"
"Not really." He knew that he was going to be told what it was anyway. Basoc could never wait long enough for anybody to make a guess. As far as Methos was concerned, a horse was a way of getting from point A to point B, and although some of them were very attractive, and some were even quite engaging, he preferred not to get attached to them. What was the point? They didn't even live as long as mortals. He would rather not know the creature's name, or be obliged to call it anything at all; but Basoc was in charge here, and the rules were of his making.
"I call him Laterus. I once knew a physician by that name… years and years ago it was. He was a big man, with hair that went its own way, just like this fellow's. And he was--"
"Basoc? I really have to be going. I have to relieve the watch on the perimeter, and I have scouting to do on the borders. You're going to make me late."
"Late? Can't be late. His Majesty would have us both thrown to the wolves." Basoc shrugged and handed the reins to the Immortal, turning and scurrying away as fast as he was able. "Late? Nobody's late. I'm not late. Never been late. Not me."
"Perish the thought." Wondering if Basoc had ever managed to be anything other than late for anything, Methos swung up onto the horse's back and turned it about to face the highest point of the mountains about him. From his vantage point on the horse's high back he could see the rocky outcrop where the night sentries waited. Theirs was a job that he did not envy, for it became bitterly cold on top of the mountains at night time, and to have a fire in such an exposed place would be folly indeed. Anybody could see it, and nobody was to be trusted. The Romans had eyes everywhere.
The ride was fast enough, but it took a long time. Methos whistled to himself as he rode, content to let the horse do its work without guidance from him. It had the sense to go in the direction he had pointed it in, and needed nothing but the most basic of hints. Occasionally the path became steep enough for its hooves to slip, and stones fell in little cascades, but he did not dismount. Soon enough the hardy creature found its footing again, and the going once more became smooth.
"You're late." The leader of the night sentries, a broad-shouldered Greek with a patch over one eye, glowered at his relief with the clear hint that he was unimpressed. "There are days, Methos, when I get the distinct impression that you aren't as committed to this cause as you might be."
"Tell Eunus that." With a grin, Methos dismounted. "He brought me in, so if you've got any criticisms…"
"Just get up the hill." The one-eyed Greek stared down at the distant encampment, with its drifting grey smoke and milling human occupants. "Where is his Highness, anyway? He said he was going to come up here last night, and he never showed."
"Went hunting." Walking on past, Methos left the others behind without bothering to finish the conversation. He was not answerable to them, and it galled him to have to listen to their distinctly unfriendly tones. They were Roman slaves, some freeborn and some from generations of slavery; and he was a Roman citizen, or had been at least. Any opportunity that they got to insult him, or to act in a disrespectful manner, was something that they cherished. The immaturity of it annoyed him, but he was not fool enough to let that be known. At the end of the day, he had no seniority to enforce here; no rank to uphold. For the first time in a long time, he was a man living solely amongst equals. Ordinarily he wouldn't have minded, but with men like Lorestes, the patch-eyed Greek, sometimes it was an annoyance that he was not still a fully-fledged member of the Roman Republic, with all of its rules and regulations to back him up.
"Too late to think again now, Methos." He muttered the words to himself as he led his mount up the last few paces to the highest point of the rocks. Lorestes and the others were already on their way down, heading for the scraps of broth which had been guarded for them overnight. There was nothing worth hurrying for; just pieces of rabbit drifting in thin liquid, mostly the greasy gravy that came from the animals when they were boiled for hours in their own juices. It was enough to turn his stomach just to think of it. Hardly the kind of hearty breakfast he looked forward to, with a long, hard day's work ahead. Images of long-lost delicacies floated into his mind, reminding him that he had left without breakfast; but then, having thought about what breakfast was, he had no desire for it. Fish would be nice, cooked on the glowing embers of last night's fire, the flesh flaking as it fell away from the bone… He sighed. A lot of good thinking about it did. They were on an island, surrounded by water in the way that islands had a tendency to be, and yet the only water in these hills were the springs of streams still in their infancy, which harboured neither fish nor anything else that might be edible.
He pulled the makeshift halter from the horse's head and left it to wander on its own amongst the rocks, then clambered up onto the wooden platform where he was to spend the first part of the day. The sun was in his eyes as he turned to scan the mountainous horizons, making his position next to useless. If there had been any stray Roman soldiers approaching from that direction, he would have been unable to see them until they were virtually on top of him. Methos knew all about attacking out of the sun, and it did not take a man of his great experience to know that the encampment below him was in a woefully untenable position. It would be a nightmare to defend, and almost hopeless to hold for long in a siege. He sat cross-legged on his platform, and sighed in deepest misery. He had thought the same thoughts yesterday, and the day before; and every one of the ninety-two days before that, ever since he had been given this duty to perform in the mornings. Ever since he had finally been accepted by the people who made up this unfortunate band. Ninety-two days. He shook his head. He was mad. Ninety-two days of eating greasy rabbit broth and undercooked (or burnt and blackened) bread, made by people with too much to do to see that the flour was made properly, or that the ingredients were mixed sufficiently. The water invariably had mud floating in it, and even though he had once not so much as batted an eyelid at such things, he had become all too used to the good things in life whilst living as a Roman. Thoughts of displeasure filled him, and he turned away from his sentry duties to watch a spider crawl across his wooden seat, admiring the effortless way in which it managed not to get its eight legs in a tangle. He wondered idly how it would do if it were drunk. Two legs were problem enough then, and the extra six could only get in the way even more. He sighed. By the gods, he was bored. He wasn't sure that he could stand another morning perched up here, watching the sun progress into the sky and waiting for the soldiers that weren't coming to make the attack that they were not going to make. The horse seemed to sense his restlessness, and it tossed its head and made pawing motions with its front feet.
"What keeps you here?" Cocking his head on one side, the old Immortal slung the creature a crooked look. It ceased it pawing and stared back at him, as though thinking. "You could leave, you know. Rome would take you back, like a shot." The horse whinnied softly and he smiled.
"Don't be daft. They don't know who you've been working for. Anyway, what are they going to do? Crucify you?" A vaguely horrified snort was his answer. He smirked.
"Relax. You know something? I was one of them once. Living down there, in one of the towns. I owned six or seven horses like you. And six or seven people too, to look after them, and to run the farm. Seemed like a good idea at the time. I knew about this place up here, like everybody did, but I just figured they were troublemakers, and that they'd all be caught before the first winter. Never imagined that a bunch of runaway slaves could hold out for this long. It's been three years since Eunus led them up here, and they still have control of several towns." The horse seemed to be asking him to continue, but he was not in the mood to conduct conversations with animals. Instead he rested his chin on his hand and stared back at the hillside he was detailed to watch. He couldn't even see the lowlands from here, let alone the coastal region where his farm had been. He wondered who was running it now. It was sure to have been sold, or presented to some consul or prefect for services rendered. Barely three months ago he had been down there, running it himself, before the soldiers had come out of nowhere. They had accused one of his labourers of being in league with Eunus, the escaped slave who had led so many of his fellows against their Roman masters. Methos had stood up for the young man in question, particularly since he was a freeborn and the son of an old friend, but the boy had been arrested anyway. At a loss, Methos, with the total lack of thought that he could at times have beheaded himself for, had set out to find Eunus for himself, in the hope that the famous leader of men could be persuaded to do something for a man who was, despite his protestations of innocence, clearly one of his valued informers. Eunus had been happy to oblige, had sent some of his men to help out, and had left large sections of the Roman infantry reeling; but he had also refused to let Methos go back to his farm. It was a reasonable enough suspicion on his part, since the Immortal knew where he was and where his best defences were placed, but it was galling nonetheless. But then, thanks to the wagging tongue of one of his all-too-nosey neighbours, Methos was now wanted by the authorities anyway, and there was a cross with his name on it waiting somewhere in those innocent looking lowlands. He couldn't have gone back to his farm even if he had been allowed to, which was one of the reasons why Eunus had been willing to let him take an active role in the rebellion. The self-styled king of the slaves had apparently taken a liking to his press-ganged recruit, and the uneasy alliance had turned, almost without either party realising it, into a firm friendship. Not that that helped to ease the boredom any.
Methos sighed, rubbing his eyes to try to make them focus better on the rocky landscape around him. The horse was still staring at him, clearly as bored as he was, and he smiled at it. Maybe it wasn't so bad to hold a conversation with an animal. It was something to do to pass the time after all.
"You've got it easy, Laterus, you know that? Carrying me up and down this hill is nothing at all, pal." The horse seemed to agree with him, and he grinned. "I'd offer you a bag of oats to help pass the time, but Basoc doesn't think there are enough to last out the month as it is. Much more of this bad luck, and you're going to be eating rabbit stew like the rest of us." Laterus didn't seem to think that this was such a bad idea, which only served to reinforce the Immortal's opinion that horses were not the most intelligent of animals. He turned away, ignoring the creature, and instead looked towards the most distant of the hills. Out there was the rest of the world, which he had almost forgotten about. The world beyond Sicilia and the claustrophobic strongholds of the slaves. Every so often some of Eunus' people tried to make a break for it, to escape to the coast and the broad sea that lay beyond it. None of them ever came back, but Methos was not fool enough to believe that it was because they had made it to freedom. The ones that weren't caught by the Legions were found by loyals, and turned over to the authorities; or were caught by the thieves and rebels who had made the outlying regions their own. Nobody made it past them alive, except for the most heavily armed and capable of Roman soldiers. Beyond the hills and the towns and the farmland, even if it was possible to get that far, still there was the barrier of the sea. The ships were in the control of the Legions, and whereas one man might have a chance to slip by them, that one man was not Methos, who was known to every Roman citizen on the island. Besides, for all of his frustrations, he was not yet willing to give up on the seventy thousand people who followed Eunus, and who certainly would never manage to slip past the centurions who guarded the coast. The rebellion was beginning to mean as much to the old Immortal as it did to the one, visionary slave who had started it three years previously; but just because they had held out for those three years did not mean that they could hold out forever. It was this certain knowledge that the end was nigh which was making Methos all the more determined to find a way out; and all the more depressed at the simple understanding that there was no way at all.
"Oh... sod it." Heaving a tremendous sigh that seemed to suggest more than a passing restlessness, Methos got to his feet and climbed down from the wooden platform. He fancied a walk. He wanted to go somewhere where he could see no reminders of his duties, and hear no voices drifting to him along cool mountain winds. Somewhere where the great cause that was so inevitably pointless could not wander unbidden into his conscious. He kicked at a lone pebble, and watched it skitter and dance across the rocky top of the barren hilltop. Why was it all so dead up here? Why did the dry summer have to reduce so much of his surroundings to a half desert-like stretch of seemingly lifeless olive trees, and tangled grape vines? Even the grass looked as though it would rather be somewhere else.
"Going somewhere Methos?" The voice was soft and filled with a gentle humour that suggested at something else. Methos grinned, although the unseen figure behind him could not see the expression on his face.
"Yeah. I'm going far away." He kept the amusement from his voice.
"Looks like we got back just in time then. What's the penalty for desertion?"
"A banquet fit for a king, and free passage to another country." Smirking, Methos turned about. "Okay, you caught me. Now what?"
"We can never catch him by surprise." There were two figures now confronting the old Immortal on the mountain top, and the second of them spoke with a strangely mournful tone of voice. "It's as though he always knows that we're coming."
"He has eyes in the back of his head." The other figure sounded unconcerned, and uncaring. "His eyes have eyes. There's nothing he doesn't see; or thinks that he sees."
"Huh." With a resigned sigh over the simple fact that he was not going to be able to escape into the mountains today, Methos sat down on the nearest and most comfortable looking rock, and stretched his legs out in front of him. "So did you catch anything?"
"There's nothing worth catching in these parts." The second of his guests, the man who had seemed sad at their failure to creep up unannounced, also sat down. He was a mortal, unimpressive of height but strong of build, with short dark hair that stuck up on top of his head as though it were always longing to be the first to see what was over the next ridge. He wore a simple brown tunic and sandals, and a short sword hung at his waist. The unassuming figure, with his soft brown eyes and gentle smile, was a man who had almost single-handedly brought Rome to a standstill; a man who had set out to tame a giant and had almost succeeded. He was Eunus, an escaped slave who now ruled over some seventy thousand fellows and held several major towns in his control. A less likely figure to hold such sway could hardly be imagined, but Eunus was one of the most striking individuals that Methos had ever met.
"If there's nothing to catch, why bother going hunting?" Leaning back against another, bigger rock, that Mother Nature had seen fit to place so conveniently close to the one on which he sat, Methos folded his hands behind his head. "You can't sit still, that's your problem. You always have to be doing something. You should learn to relax… take the world in your stride."
"Ha." The other man, who had thus far remained standing, kicked a heavy looking stone in his companion's direction. "There's always something to hunt in these hills, and always reason to hunt them. I got six of the offensive little creatures today, and another three last night. Caspian would have cooked them for you, and given you something more interesting to eat than rabbit stew."
"I would rather live on rabbit stew for the rest of my life than eat another of Caspian's 'roast haunch of wayward traveller'." Throwing an irritable, if basically good-natured, glare in the other's direction, Methos shook his head. He could never quite figure out just why Kronos stayed here, any more than he could quite understand what had brought his sometime companion to this place to start off with. It was hardly his scene.
"They had to be killed, I suppose." Eunus was frowning, staring into the middle distance as was his frequent habit. "Shame really. They might have been able to tell us something about centurion placements."
"They wouldn't have told us anything." Scathing, Kronos kicked at another stone. He seemed restless again already. "They would just have run straight down the mountain and blabbed it all to the first Roman they set eyes on. You know that, I know that. They knew that, which is why they didn't complain when I killed them."
"Did you give them time?"
"What? You think I'm slipping?" The cool blue eyes flashed with something like bright amusement; then all of a sudden their almost perpetual cold veneer was back, and the humour was hidden. "Let's go hunting."
"We've just got back." Sounding sleepy, Eunus stared up at the cloudless blue sky. "There's no point in risking capture for game that doesn't exist."
"We can make our own game." The wiry Immortal kicked at the ankle of his ancient partner in crime. "We can hunt Methos. He runs well, and he squawks well when he gets stabbed. It would be just like hunting quail, only bigger."
"Sit down and shut up." Irritable in the heat, Methos closed his eyes and tried to shut out the glare of the sun. "Ah… Hades. I can't relax. It's like trying to sleep in a kiln."
"You had all night to sleep." Kronos was as restless as if a biting chill were forcing him to keep on the move. "It's daylight now. Time to ride out of the sun at unsuspecting fools who try to cross our path. Time to deliver the vengeance of anonymous gods upon foolhardy mortals. Time to--"
"You, friend Kronos, were meant to ride forever across uncharted hills." Eunus sat upright, looking suddenly up at his companion as though seeing him for the first time. "You were never meant to stay hiding in a restricted area like this one, with limited foes and limited space." The words were clearly a revelation to him. "Just what are you doing here anyway?"
"Passing through." The cold blue eyes glittered. "I'd leave, but then I'd feel guilty."
"You haven't felt guilt since…" Methos' words trailed off. "You've never felt guilt."
"You insult me." Kronos did not sound terribly insulted. "I heard that my good friend Methos was here, and I wanted to come and give him a hand. There's nothing wrong in wanting to join a cause you care for, is there? In wanting to help a group of freedom fighters to stand up for something that means so much to them?" He swung up onto the wooden viewing platform so recently vacated by his partner, and drew his sword to inspect the blade. "I took a head the day that I arrived on the island, and local law demanded that I forfeit my own in penance. I had no intention of dying under a Roman sword, any more than a Greek one or an Egyptian one, or any of the others that have tried to make the blow in the past. So I decided to see if Methos really was up here. Simple, really." He shrugged. "But days pass, and nothing changes here. The routine never changes, the faces never change. The way of life stays the same. I think I should have stayed on the mainland, intercepting tradesmen."
"The boredom is getting to us all, that much is clear." Eunus shook his head, trying to think of something inspiring to say. When he was in the besieged towns that he had ruled for so long, or when he was making one of his speeches to his devoted followers, the words came easily. Long speeches that filled the heart with joy, and encouraged all of the people to cheer him and to sing his name in songs of glory and hope. Somehow, when he was alone with these two men, those words just wouldn't come. Even if they did find their way to his lips, the speeches meant nothing. It was as though, in some strange way, these two were different to all those thousands of others. They seemed to have heard it all before. They had seen too much for mere words to inspire them; had done too much, and wandered among too many great orators. What was he, but just another man, looking after his idyll? These two were something far beyond that, but it was a feeling that he could not quite understand, or even vocalise effectively. Many times he had vowed to question them, on who they really were, and where it was that they came from. How did they know each other, and how had they met? What bound them together and gave them so much mutual understanding, and what gave them that strange aura of power, unmatched by others? Yet somehow the questions never made it from his mind to his lips, and somehow he knew that they would never be answered anyway. It was all most peculiar, but he took heart from it nonetheless. There was little else to inspire one, in this barren world of hardship and constant struggle.
"Maybe the boredom isn't going to be never-ending." Climbing slowly to his feet, Kronos stood on the wooden platform, staring towards the sloping horizons. "I'd say things are likely to be happening pretty soon."
"What's going on?" Leaping with practised agility onto the platform, Methos turned to look towards the hills he had been detailed to watch. The glint of sunlight on metal answered the searching questions of his eyes, and slowly the images of sun-drenched armour and patterned shadows shifted and changed into ranks of marching soldiers. Lines of helmets, lines of leather-clad arms and shoulders, endless seas of gleaming metal slung over identical tunics. He stared, almost unbelievingly, at the rows of erect spears, their shining, pointed tips all aimed skyward. He turned to watch the mounted man who rode at the head of the infantry columns, carrying a golden eagle on a high wooden perch, the emblem of a Legion of men. There was something awe-inspiring in that simple symbol, with its stiff, gold bearing and bright, unseeing eyes. Men had been known to die to protect the eagles, and Methos knew that the soldiers marching towards him now were prepared to do a lot more than that. A single, slow note of disbelief escaped from his lips in the form of an almost soundless whistle.
"Trouble," he muttered, the word hardly reaching Eunus, who was still on the ground. The leader of men shaded his eyes from the sun, staring up at the two men.
"What is it?" he asked, fear colouring his words with the certainty born of sudden desperation. Methos turned to look back at him, then jumped to the ground and drew his sword.
"They're coming." The words were simple, and needed no elaboration. Eunus closed his eyes momentarily, taking a deep breath that wanted to shudder in his lungs. He gave a faint smile, filled with the hint that he would rather be elsewhere, before the strength of his personality overrode the momentarily lapse, and his eyes hardened into dark notes of simple resolution.
"Good." His smile became a ghost, showing some distant echo of the last three years. Three years of sometime skirmishes and half-hearted attempts to crush a rebellion that half of Rome could not even believe was happening, let alone take seriously. Methos' declaration was indication enough that this was something different. "We'd better get back. I'll sound the retreat and we'll regroup in the towns. They'll be easier to defend than the advance camp."
"We're running?" Kronos sounded disbelieving, as though he would rather be riding into battle against those thousand advancing troops than returning to the city to await a lengthy siege. "I'm not in the mood for a retreat."
"Then stay here and hold out against them all on your own. Just bare in mind that their law demands your head." Methos whistled for Laterus, and indicated that Eunus should ride. Friends they may have become, but to the people in the camp, and even more so to the people in the cities that he ruled, Eunus was not merely an ex-slave who liked to spend time in the mountains with his friends; he was King Antiochus, who was destined to lead them all to victory against their former masters. It was important to them all that they see him in that guise, especially now that there was a battle to be fought. Eunus seemed to see this necessity in his companion's eyes, and he climbed onto the creature's back.
"Nobody is going to stay here to meet the centurions when they come. I need every man to prepare the defences in the towns." He stared hard at Kronos. "I know you're not one of us, but I need to know that I have your sword at my disposal. There are seventy thousand people down there who need my protection, and who believe that I have the skill to bring them through this."
"My sword belongs to nobody." The bright blue eyes, so cold and pale in their arctic intensity, glittered in the light of the sun. Then the Immortal smiled, quite abruptly, and leapt lightly down from the wooden platform that had given them the news they had not wanted. "But I'll come with you." His tone was light and carefree, as though the promise of a battle was the one thing that interested him now, and the likely fate of Eunus and his myriad supporters was nothing at all. Methos did not doubt this for one moment, and he cast his old friend a warning glance as they began the trek down towards the camp he had so recently left.
"I care about these people, brother," he said gently, his voice soft so that Eunus would not hear him. Kronos grinned.
"Brother, just lately you care about everybody. Give me enough time, and I promise to cure you of that affliction. In the meantime, how does it affect you if I choose to have a little fun? I promise to fight only for the good of these people. One fight, after all, is very like another."
"One day, I promise to find the cause that will inspire you. Something that will make you think of a little more than just the fun you get from wars and fighting." Despite the sudden heat of his words, Methos was glad of his friend's presence. Whatever in Hades it was that Kronos believed in, he was the man to have on your side in a fight. At least, Methos thought that he was. With Kronos you could never be sure whether he was going to guard your back until Doomsday, or if he was likely to turn tail and head for another horizon, just because he was getting bored with the company.
"I have many causes that inspire me, brother." The bright, slightly evil grin had come back out for an encore, and the ice-blue eyes were glittering again. "But none of them include the wellbeing of a bunch of mortals. These people want to fight for their freedom. They risk their lives battling against a spectacular military might, in order to spend the few years they have left with the freedom to live as they choose. Mortals will never know true freedom. No mortal can ever experience the liberty that we have. I can't share their excitement in an endless struggle for something they can never achieve." He shrugged. "Still, they're happy, and I won't deny them that. Eunus is quite a man… for a mortal."
"You can be a cold, unfeeling jerk at times, you know that?"
"I know it." There was a brighter shine than ever in those clear cold eyes. "But don't pretend to be the hero in front of me, Methos. We both know that you came here by accident. We both know that you would never have chosen to join in with this little crusade. You would never risk your precious neck for somebody else's dream." He smiled again. "It's good to go to battle, brother. Isn't it."
"It feels better knowing that the cause is right." Even as he said the words, Methos felt a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. Maybe it was confusion, or maybe it was just the most sneaking of suspicions that Kronos had been right. It felt good to tell himself that he was here for a reason, and that the people he lived with had come to mean something to him, but at the end of the day, he couldn't help wondering whether he had stayed on through a genuine sense of camaraderie, or whether he simply, like Kronos, had wound up here more or less by accident, and had been unable to find a way out. He wanted to swallow his unease over the matter, but the uncertainty that still gripped him was confirmation enough that his brother had indeed been right. It was nice to be able to tell himself that his motives were good, and it flattered his ego to think that he was fighting for a true and just cause; but at the end of the day he was an Immortal, and he could never be a part of this ideal that Eunus strove for. Such things were for mortals alone.
"Something bothering you, brother?" Kronos asked him, the smile in his eyes showing that he knew exactly what occupied Methos' mind. The old Immortal shook his head.
"Good. A clear head for battle, remember? No worries, no fears, no doubts. Otherwise you'll get yourself killed, and probably plenty of other people too."
"I know." Methos stared at the sword that he still held in his hand. It caught the light of the sun and flashed it back into his eyes, making him blink and look away. For a second, lost in the clean, shining metal, he thought that he had seen a glimpse of his own eyes, looking back at him. But they were eyes that were confused and strange, and the look that they gave him was not his own. He quickened his pace and tried to shut out his doubts, but his instincts still plagued him even when he had succeeded in focussing his mind elsewhere. He could not shake the feeling that something was coming. Something unpleasant, something bad. It was a sensation that filled his mind and infiltrated his very soul. A cold shiver ran through his body and he slammed his sword back into its sheath. He had been wanting this action for a long time, to drive away the last of the boredom; but now that it was coming he no longer wanted it. All of the boredom in the world was better than what was coming now.
General Augustus Flavian, son of Flavius Hedes, one of the most powerful politicians in the whole of the Republic of Rome, sat astride his huge black horse and stared down towards the town that lay before him. The town of Tauromenium, sprawling and picturesque, its white walls having been built more for decoration than for defence. He stared dispassionately at the flowers growing up the walls, and did not stop to consider the aesthetic beauty of the blue slate roofs and the vines trained to climb up the wooden railings beside the houses. He got no pleasure from such things.
"So this is the town that a slave has been hiding in all this time. It has no defences, no strong walls or siege towers. I've seen better defences in the homes of the barbarians I was sent to tame as a young centurion." He pulled off his heavy helmet and turned to glare at the young soldier beside him. "Why has he not been brought to heel before this? Why do I have to be here now, to lead you all into battle against a miserable slave? We're Romans, damn it. How can he challenge us?"
"I don't know, General." The young soldier looked petrified, as though the mere act of speaking to the huge man was a capital offence. "I - I suppose we all thought that he was an easy target, and we weren't properly prepared. Sir."
"Properly prepared? How much preparation does it need to kill a rebel? By Hades, he's just a slave!"
"Yes sir." Humbled, the soldier glanced away, as though desperate to make his escape. "Should I sound the advance, sir?"
"Now? No I don't think so." A small smile spread its way across the general's jaw, but its presence gave the young centurion no relief. If anything the sight of the huge and ugly man smiling was worse than his scowl. "I think we'll stay up here a while first. Let them know we're ready. Let them wait for us to come."
"Yes sir." Drained, the centurion turned away. "I, er… I'll pass the word, sir. Get everybody out on show."
"You do that." The soldier quickened his step, and was almost out of earshot when a shout rang out behind him, calling him to a halt. He froze, not wanting to go back.
"There was an incident, Centurion. Some thirty days ago, on the coast. A man was killed. Do you remember?"
"A - a citizen, sir?"
"Of course a citizen!" The voice was like thunder. "Do you think I'd give a damn if it was some foreigner who was killed. Or a slave?"
"Yes sir. I - I mean, no sir." Quaking, the young centurion frowned. "I remember the incident, sir. A man of some importance. A - a politician, I believe. He was beheaded by a stranger."
"He was indeed." Flavian was staring at the town below them now, his burning eyes no longer holding the young centurion prisoner. "The man who did it is very likely down there, or in the other town that these infernal slaves have taken hold of. I want him, is that understood?"
"Yes sir. How - how are we to know him?"
"He'll know me, Centurion. Don't worry about it." Smiling once again, Flavian shaded his eyes from the sun, and stared down at the city below him. He could see people moving around in it now, running about in the streets and stopping to talk to each other, pointing up at the horizon and its disturbing vista. Let them talk, let them point, let them whisper. Flavian didn't care. All that he wanted was to ride down into that village and send the heads of all those mortals tumbling into the dust. And then, when he had finished, he would send after them the severed head of the Immortal that he knew was down there somewhere. With three thousand troops behind him, he could not fail. They had the might, they had the resources, and they had the skills. Before him lay seventy thousand slaves who knew little more than how to farm, and how to work a blacksmith's bellows. They could make weapons, but they couldn't use them. He smiled. Soon they would be nothing more than seventy thousand memories, and then they would very quickly be forgotten.
The advance party reached the first of its towns very quickly, finding no barriers to their progress save for a few stray centurions that were easily dispatched. Eunus was worried. There had been many men, all marching straight towards the camp, but now they were no longer in sight. Where were they? He could not shake the feeling that their presence had been solely to allow to him to know that the army was coming; to give him enough warning to prepare; or to think that he was prepared. The large town of Henna was calm and peaceful as he rode down into it, and from that he could only imagine that they had seen no sign of the Romans on their borders. Presumably that meant that the attack was going to be on Tauromenium first.
"Worried?" Methos, his voice soft, had appeared as if from nowhere. He stood beside the mortal now, not looking at him but seeming to see him anyway, and to know the lines of worry that Eunus could not keep from his face. The escaped slave gave a bitter smile.
"I have a war to fight. Of course I'm worried." He shook his head. "Before, they sent small companies after us. Men sent more to demand our surrender than to fight us. It was easy to get the upper hand with a little cunning and clever placement of my forces, but now…" He gave a deep sigh. "All those men… They're serious this time, aren't they. They want to defeat us. And if that's the case, it means I'm never going to get the chance to ask for our freedom. I was hoping that I might cause them to agree to our demands, but now they want to destroy us. They're not going to make any deals."
"You don't know that," Methos told him, although the Immortal himself knew that it was true.
"We both know it." Eunus managed a smile. "Don't try to make me feel better, Methos." He sighed. "There's no sign of them anywhere. They'll have gone to make the first attack on Tauromenium, and I don't think that the defences there are strong enough. I should be there with them."
"The defences there are as strong as the ones here. You have as many people there as you do here."
"But I'm here. Don't you see? I'm the reason for all of this. They fight for me. They fight because of me. This all started because of some stupid idea that I had, and every fight we've been in, every attack we've held up against, has been because the people here are willing to die for an idea that I put into their heads. I have to be in the front. They have to be able to see me when we fight. If Tauromenium is going to face an attack, I should be there."
"In the front line, you mean. Ready to receive the full charge from all those soldiers? They know you, and once they see you, you won't stand a chance." Methos shook his head. "You're a good man, Eunus. You have good plans and damn fine intentions, but there are days when I think you're a little light in the head. Dying isn't going to help your cause. If the Romans kill you, they're not going to call off the attack and let your followers go."
"They might." The oddly nondescript leader of men glanced up as the dark and silent figure of Kronos slid into place beside him. "Don't tell me you've come to plead for my sanity too."
"Me?" The Immortal looked surprised. "What would I want with your sanity? Or your life either for that matter. It's yours to do what you want with." He grinned his wicked grin. "But if you're going to go and kill yourself fighting for honour and freedom, do you mind leaving me your wife? She's not bad looking, and I'd like to get a chance before the Legions get here, and have all the fun first."
"Why you--" For the briefest of seconds, anger sparked in the mortal's eyes. It was the first time either of his rather older companions had seen any of the negative emotions so openly displayed upon his face. For the briefest of seconds it looked as though he might be prepared to strike; to lash out in response to such a blatantly hostile manoeuvre from his supposed ally - then abruptly the anger slid from his eyes and he gave a small smile. "Damn you, but you're a hard man, Kronos. I could have killed you then."
"No you couldn't." The words were not said lightly, or in any way in jest, but were a mere statement of fact and steadfast certainty. There was an element of ice in his voice, and for the strangest of moments, Eunus felt cold. Then he smiled.
"Okay, so I'm not going to Tauromenium. I guess they'll have to take their chances. But I'm not going to take a back seat when the battle comes to Henna. I can't do that."
"Nobody is asking you to. All that we want is to make sure that you don't cut your own throat fighting a battle that can't be won." Methos smiled, his fondness for the mortal showing through despite his wish to remain impartial. "Look, don't worry. You stay here and do what you can. Keep the home fires burning or whatever. Kronos and I will take a party to Tauromenium, and try to do what we can for the people there. We'll buy you some time. You get the defences ready, and prepare to let in the people from the other town if we're forced to fall back. Okay?"
"I can't ask you to do that." Eunus shook his head, taking Methos hand in his own. The ex-slave had a hard hand, Methos could not help noticing. As a worker on one of Sicilia's interminable estates, he had led a hard life, and it was no wonder that he was willing to struggle so hard to find something new for the child he hoped his wife would one day bear. "You're not one of us, Methos. You're not even an escaped slave. You used to be one of them, one those people out there. You owned an estate, and you owned slaves, and I won't let you put your life on the line fighting for a cause that isn't yours. Kronos isn't even as dedicated as you are, and so help me I don't think you're dedicated very much. You only stay here because you've become my friend, and that's not reason enough to die."
"Who said anything about dying?" There was impatience in Kronos' voice, as though he could not wait to get out of the town, and away to the promised battle. "It takes more than you'd think to kill us."
"You know what I mean." There were hard lines on the mortal's face now. "Why would you want to go out there? Why would you want to put your lives on the line for us? You have no part of any of this. We may have become friends, Methos, but at the end of the day you're still a Roman."
"Do you think I'd betray you? Is that it? That I'll walk out of here and go straight over to the other side?"
"No." The lights in Eunus' eyes showed that he was telling the truth. "What I want to know is, why you're here at all? Why aren't you on the other side? If you're going to head out there, and maybe never come back, I want to know why. I think you owe me that much."
"You know something, Eunus?" Methos smiled at his newest friend, a gentility in his eyes that Kronos had not seen in a long time. "I wish that I'd met you when you were just plain Eunus. Before you became King Antiochus, with a kingdom to defend. I wish I'd known you three years ago."
"Three years ago you were part of the reason I decided to fight back. Three years ago we could never have become friends."
"Maybe, maybe not. Times change, Eunus. People change. Maybe if I'd known you then, things would have gone differently. Maybe I could have found you another way through this. If I'd had a reason to get involved back then, I might have thought of something sooner..."
"If you'd known me back then, you wouldn't have spared me a second's glance. I would have been just another faceless slave. You people… you look straight through us, Methos. How many slaves have you seen in your lifetime? And how many have you really looked at? How many could you have described, just moments after leaving them? You would never have spoken to me, and you would never have helped me, because you wouldn't have cared." He shook his head. "There wouldn't have been any different ending to this if we'd known each other then, and you know it. You're fond of saying all that, about times changing. But the truth is that they don't. Not that much. People certainly don't."
"I do. I was one of them, and now I'm one of you."
"Yeah, I know." Eunus frowned. "But you, Methos, you're different. I can't see why, and I can't see how, but the usual rules don't apply to you. It's like you move through life and you don't get affected by it. You change and adapt however you need, and you always have a fresh set of answers, whatever the questions might be. For the rest of us it isn't like that. I'm here, and I was always going to be here. This is how it was always going to end. I just want to know that you understand all that, before you make your final decision about what you're going to do next."
"You know what I'm going to do next." Methos drew his sword. "I'm going to go out there, and I'm going to join the battle at Tauromenium, and I'm going to try and win you the day. Don't start composing your epitaph just yet."
"I wrote my epitaph a long, long time ago. Three years ago when I threw off the hand of my oppressors and decided to give my people the chance they had always longed for. It's a simple enough piece, and it's full of the unstoppable march of fate. It was always fight or die. I told my followers that it needn't be that way, but I never believed anything else."
"Well you believe what you want, and I'll believe what I want. I prefer to think that we've got a chance to make it through this, and that things are going to be for the better afterwards. Maybe that's why I'm prepared to take the risk and go out there now." With a small smile, Methos shook the other man's hand. "Don't set so much store by fate, Eunus. You can change all manner of things if you want to. Nothing is pre-dictated, and nothing is irreversible. Nothing. We'll get through this, I promise. Now." He glanced towards the town gates. "I'm going out there, with Kronos and a few others. We'll aim to be back before nightfall. Agreed?"
"Agreed." Eunus smiled at him. "Be careful, please? I'd like to think that I could have you beside me for a long time yet. Both of you."
"You don't want me beside you." They were the parting words of Kronos, for the wiry Immortal strode away as soon as they were said. Eunus watched the dark form as it vanished into the distance, heading for the gates and the horses that stood there in waiting.
"He's a strange man," the mortal observed, his voice soft. Methos smiled to himself.
"You have no idea how many people keep telling me that. But we all have our little idiosyncrasies. You want to fight for freedom, Kronos wants to fight for…" He grinned. "Kronos just wants to fight."
"And you?" Methos' eyebrows raised in a question, and Eunus finished his sentence. "What do you want? What spurs you on, day by day? What goal have you set your sights on?"
"Me?" Methos smiled, his eyes seeming to rest upon some distance sight that was invisible to the mortal, and would remain forever so. "I just want to live forever."
"Okay, so do you want to tell me what all that stuff was about back there?" They had been riding for a little while, their small band of mortals far enough behind for their talk to be relatively unguarded; or at least as unguarded as it ever was, as it ever could be. Methos frowned.
"What do you mean?"
"All that talk with Eunus. Are you going soft?"
Methos sighed. Lately it seemed that everything he did was classified by Kronos as going soft. His brother was not as much of a hard man as he liked to make out, but that didn't mean that he was the kind to put flowery speeches above action on any day of the week. Clearly he did not appreciate words of gentle reassurance, of the kind that his companion had just used to try to make Eunus feel better.
"I am not going soft, Kronos. Why do you always have to bring that one up? Do you think that I'm losing it, just because I choose not to massacre innocent civilians in my spare time anymore?"
"No. I just think that there are ways of dealing with people like him, and there are ways not to. You saw the way he responded when I mentioned his wife? He's a hard man, and he's led a hard life. You're not in Greece anymore, dealing with your scholars and philosophers. Eunus is a slave, and he's never even had the most basic education. Why talk to him about destiny and the preordained?"
"Because he comes from a culture that believes in it." Drawing his horse to a halt, Methos glanced towards the distance horizon. He could see the walls of Tauromenium now, and although he could not yet see the ranks of Roman soldiers waiting there, he knew that they could not be far off. Time for stealth to replace fast riding, and for all of them to move with silence now. Kronos, his own horse also still, stood up in the saddle.
"Destiny has nothing on the excitement of the unexpected, brother. We could ride on them now, and leave them trembling in our wake."
Methos had to laugh. He only hoped that his companion was joking.
"There are sixteen of us, brother. They have more than a thousand men. Who is going to leave who trembling, exactly?"
"Spoilsport." The younger Immortal swung to the ground with a nimble ease, and led his horse into the sparse undergrowth that grew nearby. That was the trouble with a place like Sicilia; there was no thick vegetation, no close cover that they could use to ease their advance. "What now?"
"I want to scout ahead, and see for sure what it is that we're up against. Then we have to get into the town and talk to the lieutenant Eunus left in charge there. Fellow called Primus I think. Used to belong to a friend of mine." He grinned. Kronos smiled back.
"Let's hope he doesn't remember that, or he'll have you swinging in the breeze before you can say Tauromenium. Okay…" His practised mind was already working. "Scouting isn't a problem. The pair of us can do that." He turned to the nearest of their mortal band, and nodded to the one who was closest. He was a big man, who looked as though silence and stealth were more than just impossible for his ungainly bulk. "Do you think you can lead the others into the town without attracting any attention?"
"Sure Kronos." The big man, a simple-minded fellow from some northern land he could not even name himself, gave a ready nod. He reminded Methos of Silas, which perhaps explained why Kronos had so much time for him. Of course, Methos himself would never have put the charge to Kronos that he might be going soft, but the thought of it amused him nonetheless. They watched as the rest of their band departed, the big man in the lead moving with a speed that was in marked contrast to any prejudices Methos might have held about him before.
"Now what?" he asked, once they were alone. Kronos grinned, drawing his sword with a loving movement that was at once both as smooth as well-written poetry and as harsh as the weapon's razor edge and tip.
"Your plan brother, not mine. We go scouting." He left the horses without a backwards glance, ducking low and running off at a breathtaking pace, taking a path at an angle to that trodden by their companions. Methos rolled his eyes, and stole a moment to glance heavenward. He should have guessed.
They crept quietly through the undergrowth, or at least what little of it there was. Despite his concerns, Methos could not shake the feeling that he was a child, being let out of his lectures early in order to go and play with his friends. It felt good to be out here with Kronos, creeping along within a stone's throw of an impossibly large and well-armed enemy. He had to suppress an almost overpowering urge to giggle. Kronos seemed to have picked up on the atmosphere, or to have a been a part of it all along, for he chattered away as they went, whispering and muttering and pointing things out in a way that was very much un-Kronos. He was as childlike in his enthusiasm as his partner, enjoying the thrill and the sensation of imminent danger. They were so woefully under-prepared, so completely unable to fight back should they happen to be noticed. Kronos tightened his fingers around the familiar shape of his sword, and the weapon's well-polished blade shone a brief response, as its minute change of direction brought it more fully in contact with the sun's powerful rays. Methos' own weapon flashed in silent answer, and he lowered it slightly to bring it down into more shadow.
"Take a look at that." They had rounded a crest of the hill on which the advance guard were positioned, and now the full forces of the enemy were visible to them. They stretched out beneath, sun glinting on weapons and armour, horses tossing their heads restlessly in the heat, trying to dislodge clouds of flies that were too small, and too far away, for the watching Immortals to see. All was silent, yet sprinkled with occasional shouts, the sounds of a shield clattering carelessly against a spear tip or a sword blade, or just against the rocks that lay so liberally about the place. Methos felt his unbelieving whistle slipping back onto his lips.
"By the gods…" he breathed, rubbing the sweat from his forehead as he squinted down into the valley. "Brother…"
"Impressive, isn't it." Even Kronos seemed overawed, but then, Methos remembered, there was a beheading waiting for him, should he happen to be recognised during capture. "I have to say, brother, for mortals they're not bad. They stay in formation even in rest, and their weaponry is far better than anything Eunus has got."
"Eunus is a dead man," Methos told him, the realisation powerful in his mind. "There's no way he can get past that lot, no way he can escape; and they aren't here to negotiate."
"The question is never what the outcome might be; simply how much you achieve on the way." There was a dark glitter in the other's eyes, almost as if, for the first time in so many countless years, he might actually be facing his own mortality. "Eunus isn't afraid to die. He's more afraid of what will happen if they don't kill him."
"But I don't want him to die." The admittance hurt. Methos had been trying to avoid getting attached to mortals since… well, at least since the last time, when the child he had helped to deliver and raise had grown old and died before him. Now here he was, yet again, feeling an unacceptable fondness for somebody he could not save. His mind worked over all of the possibilities, but short of forcing Eunus into an escape he could think of nothing that would work.
"He's got to die sometime." There was a faint irony in Kronos' words, a hint of a gentle teasing that was an attempt to make his brother feel better. Methos just glowered.
"If that's supposed to help, it's not working."
"You never learn, do you." There was a look of surprising gentility turned towards him now, as though Kronos had forgotten the vast amount of soldiers and their lethal proximity. "You always let yourself get close to them. Always let yourself get drawn into their little struggles, their little worries and concerns."
"And you don't."
"No." This time there was harshness in the eyes and in the voice, although as usual the face managed to retain some of its impassivity. "Once, brother. Once. And never again."
"Of course." His kept his tone dry. Methos knew that Kronos liked Eunus, and that he even seemed to care about some of the others. He had taught Lautus, the heavily-built man who was even now entering Tauromenium with their little advance party, how to read and how to write. He had even sat up, hour after hour, watching the big man's son when he was ill. Maybe that was more through scientific interest than through any kind of concern; at least, that was what Kronos had claimed at the time. Methos saw more than that, but then he knew Kronos better than he knew the blood that flowed through his own body.
"It's all immaterial anyway." Shading his eyes with his hand, Kronos looked once more at the breathtaking vista of stationary soldiers. There were more before them now than they had seen advancing when they were up in the hills; there were many, many more. More than just a thousand, although that would probably have been enough for a successful siege. There were probably even more than five thousand. Eunus still had the upper hand where numbers were concerned, but that was not enough. It never was. "Eunus will die, because there's no other way for him. The Romans will take back Tauromenium and Henna, and all the other rebels will be taken back to the estates they used to work on. Some will be sent away, some will probably end up in the arena. It'll all be over, one way or another."
"And Eunus won't have achieved anything." Methos couldn't help thinking back over the three years that the rebellion had been going on; recalling the ninety-two days of his own association with it. He remembered every moment of the fifty-six days since he had woken up to the feel of another Immortal presence, and had met Kronos, grinning at him in the darkness and insisting that he was a lifelong convert to the cause of emancipation. Somehow, after all the fun and all the terrible, heartrending boredom, it seemed a dreadful shame that it was going to have to end at the word of some faceless Roman general who was just obeying orders; the orders of some other faceless Roman, who had never and would never actually meet Eunus in person. Somebody who would never know about his passion for Greek poetry, or discover the strange way in which a largely uneducated slave had managed to develop such a passion. Somebody who would never stop to talk to him, and find out how much faith he had in human nature, despite the hardness he had endured. Eunus would fall beneath the sword of a man who would never know how much love and faith the scruffy-haired ex-slave had inspired in a seventy-thousand strong crowd of eclectic individuals, varying from the quietly intellectual to the downright barbarous; a crowd of men, women and children who had chosen to give him the name of a famous dynasty of kings, because that was how much they thought of him. The attacking Romans wouldn't care anything about King Antiochus. All that they would care about would be crushing the hand of rebellion before it could spread any further.
"Don't let it get to you, brother." His tone unyieldingly light, Kronos turned away from the hill slope and faced back towards Tauromenium. "I think we've seen enough. Don't you?"
"More than enough." They began to go back down the hill, as guarded as ever and considerably more subdued than they had been during the journey up. They had almost reached the scant bushy cover in which they had first contemplated the climb when they felt a stirring; a growing sensation of excitement and fear that delighted and dreaded in one fell swoop. It was a feeling that almost hurt in its intensity, and yet could not be anything more than pleasant even in its essential unpleasantness. It sang, it whistled, it buzzed.
"Oh, great." Kronos turned, staring back up the hill. A single figure stood there, staring down at the pair with eyes that seemed to see more detail than they had any possible right to at that distance. It was a large figure, dressed in a uniform that hardly seemed to stretch across the mighty muscles of its shoulders and back. A sword so big that Methos felt sure he would not be able to lift it with six hands lay easily in the grip of just one, whilst the other hand gripped a crested shield that stood almost as tall as Kronos. Massive sandalled feet were planted far apart, giving an added illusion of even greater size. He was too far away to see with any great certainty, but it looked as though he was smiling. Slowly, with infinite care, he raised his massive sword above his head.
"Uh oh." It was a pointlessly useless thing to say; so completely out of scale against the disaster they were about to be faced with. Methos took a step back. "Er, brother…?"
"Yeah. Good point." They looked at each other, looked back at the huge figure on the hill, and saw the massing forces beginning to move around him. The Romans were on the march. "Tactical retreat. Manoeuvre to a more defendable position. All that sort of thing."
"Yeah." Methos let his eyes travel once more across the great expanse of soldiers beginning to pour down the hill. Together the immortal pair began to run.
They ran until it felt as though they could run no longer, running over land that had not seemed nearly so rough before, over a distance that had not seemed nearly so vast when they had set out. It had seemed just a short way, a jovial stroll up the hill, a riskless excursion for fun. Now, going in the opposite direction, it was a feat of pure stamina, a mad dash, a wild, desperate chase, followed by rank after rank of soldiers in their identical costumes, their flawless weapons pointing at the sky. The huge Immortal, his mighty sword raised high in the air, was somewhere off to the left of the charge, riding astride a black horse so big that it seemed to have more in common with an elephant than with the equestrian steeds of the other mounted soldiers.
"I hope somebody is ready to open the gates…" The words barely made it out of Methos' constricted throat, burning all the way as they turned from thoughts into sounds. "Otherwise we're dead."
"Shut up and run." Kronos stole a glance over his shoulder, and saw yet another wave of men sweeping over the hill. It was hurting his pride to run like this, but he was at a loss to know what else to do. What else could they do? They could run and they could - well, they could run some more. Even sheltering in Tauromenium seemed pointless now, given the size of their enemy. Then again, even running was pretty pointless, given that they were on an island, with no way off. They could try running straight into the sea, but it was full of sharks and they were as unwelcoming a foe as any sword-wielding soldier, immortal or otherwise. He put on an extra burst of speed, uncertain where the energy for such a feat was coming from, and tried not to think too much of the dishonour of dying as a prisoner of the Romans. Being dragged before a fellow Immortal, in order to have his head sliced from his defenceless body, was far from the end that he would have chosen for himself. If he had to die, and he had never entertained any real aspirations towards being the One, it would be with a sword in his hand, battling for something that mattered. There were few enough things which mattered to him, but those that did were worth dying for.
They reached the town walls just as they were truly beginning to believe that they would never see them from the inside. The gates swung open the tiniest amount, and strong arms reached out, seizing the pair and dragging them through. Methos felt his feet slip out from under him, saw the earth rushing up to meet him, as he was pulled out of the way of the doors and the great barriers of wood and hand-beaten metal slammed shut behind him. There was a resounding crash as the heavy bolt was thrown into place, then there was the briefest moment of the most wonderful silence. He took a series of deep, deep breaths.
"Are you alright?" He looked up into misty blue eyes and gave a short nod.
"Yeah. Just fine."
"Good." Strong arms, the same ones no doubt which had dragged him into the town, hauled him to his feet and left him leaning against the wall. "Then you can take up a position on the walls to help us fight."
"Of course." He could still feel the sword in his hand, although his fingers were almost too numb to feel it. "Thankyou."
"Don't thank me." The misty blue eyes, and the man behind them, were already heading away, and he caught a brief glimpse of the curt fellow as he climbed up onto the walls. Clearly a one track mind was a help around here. His eyes caught those of Kronos, and the younger Immortal smiled.
"Ready for round two?" he asked, his eyes glowing with that iridescent light that they always displayed in such moments. Methos couldn't help thinking that he would make an easy fortune if he could bottle and sell the joy of that kind of adrenalin rush.
"I just want to go to sleep." He raised his sword, hearing the first yells of the Romans as they came into the attack. A line of spears flew over the walls, striking the ground without breaking their rigid formation. One travelled straight through a watching townsman, pinning him to the ground as it completed its arc. The body of the man went limp without so much as a struggle, and his suddenly bulging eyes went dim. The scene had a horribly prophetic feel to it.
"That Immortal out there isn't going to rest until he's got us." Kronos sounded thoughtful, as though there was more than just the excitement of battle on his mind. "His power… I felt him when he was much further away than most."
"And he felt us." Methos wondered who the huge man had been, and hoped that he would never get the chance to get that well acquainted with him. Other Immortals were an unpleasant bunch on the whole as it was, even without being taller than could possibly be legal. He remembered the man's massive body, with the sword that looked as though it could have beheaded twenty men with a single stroke, and made up his mind to be elsewhere - about as elsewhere as was at all possible - when that huge individual finally made it through the gates. He had no illusions about that. Whether or not Tauromenium could withstand the might of the attacking Romans was not the issue; all that was important was when exactly the town would eventually fall.
"Are you thinking about something?" Her voice was soft and gentle, and he smiled without turning to look at her.
"About anything in particular?"
"Life." He smiled, then did turn about, reaching out to take her hand. He loved her hands. They were long and beautiful, although hard from her years of toil. She was not as old as him, but then he seemed to remember that he was just a young man. Thirty? Or was he even that old? She was several years younger, of that he was sure. He remembered the day that he had first laid eyes on her, and had known that she could never be his. She, after all, belonged to another person, who lived on an estate half the circumference of the island away. He had managed to get to her regardless. He had managed to spend time with her, to make her love him the way that he had loved her from that first, hopeless moment. When he had finally taken his last from his master; when he had at last realised that he could take no more and that he had to be free, she had been the first one to come to him. She had joined him almost before he had realised that there was anything to join. She had stood beside him when he had made those first few speeches to the assembled masses, and had turned them around to his new way of thinking. She had held his hand when he had persuaded those seventy thousand men and women that his way was the only way possible from now on. If it hadn't been for her, he doubted that he would even have made it this far.
"Life?" She seemed surprised. "Or death?"
"Well, maybe a little of both." Gently he pulled on her arm, until she came to sit beside him. Her pale brown skin was smudged with dust and dirt from the dry town outside, and from the work that she did all day. "Latira?"
"What?" She smiled at him, although he could see that her eyes were troubled.
"When the Romans come, do you really think we can beat them?"
"What do you want me to say?" Her grip on his hand tightened. "Methos will do what he can, and he will bring as much help as he can. We're bound to lose Tauromenium, but if we can hold out for long enough here, they might go away and leave us alone. Maybe they'll give up."
"Do you really believe that?"
"No." Her voice was a gentle laugh. "It doesn't matter. We always knew that it might end this way."
"And do you mind?"
"Not really." She rested her head against his shoulder. "Eunus… When we came here we never expected miracles. What was the point? We're a bunch of runaway slaves, trapped on an island, facing the might of Rome. What else is there to do but lose? We tried, and I'm happy to leave it at that."
"It all feels so useless." The words weighed heavily on his heart. Even though he had never lost sight of the futility of the gesture he had felt himself compelled to make, somewhere along the line he had come to believe all those speeches he had made to his followers. Somewhere along the line he had really begun to believe that he might be able to make it through. That he might be able to win, and to lead his fellow ex-slaves to some new and peaceful existence beyond the borders of Rome. Now, finally, he could see that that was never going to happen. It hurt.
"The wind changes its direction all the time." She was smiling, he thought, although he could not see her face now that it rested by his chest. "You told me that. The wind changes, but we can't. Once we choose our direction in life, we just keep on going along it. The Romans are coming, just as we always knew that they would."
"And Methos is risking his life to bring reinforcements for a battle that's lost before it's even begun." He sighed heavily, seeing the strange man in his mind's eye. Methos was a weird individual, and Eunus hated to think of him dying in the wreckage of the dreams of seventy thousand virtual strangers. Eunus hated to think of him dying at all. Somehow the strange man, with his air of total indifference to life's little hardships, had come to represent something to the doomed leader of thousands. He wanted Methos to make it out of the town alive, just as much as he wanted Latira to be safe, and just as much as he wanted his own pointless struggle to be over. There were possibilities in those wishes, he realised, and he took his wife's other hand and began to think in silence.
The air was thick with the sounds of battle, and with the unmistakable smell of fresh blood and butchery. The mud within the town, in the places were the dusty roads met the walls, was tinged with red and cluttered with the bodies of the dead and the dying. They had tried at first to keep all the dead ones together, to collect them up into a pile that would be out of the way, but the numbers of the slain kept on rising, and soon there was just not the time. The Romans went relentlessly on, attacking the gates and the walls, hurling never-ending supplies of spears into the town beyond. It was hopeless, and there were few left amongst the inhabitants of Tauromenium who thought otherwise.
"We should leave, brother." Wiping grime and a fair supply of somebody else's blood from out of his eyes, Kronos focussed on Methos, fighting alongside him. The older Immortal had become a whirlwind in the thick of the battle, cutting and slashing about him with the skills he had perfected so long ago in the days when they had lived for nothing but warfare and death. Methos gave what sounded like a bitter laugh.
"You don't say." He backed off slightly, taking a moment to survey the scene. The enemy had broken through the wall at one point, and there was a steady stream of Roman soldiers climbing into the town. For the moment the locals were dealing with the problem, working with hard won unity to keep back the intruders, but there was only so much they could do. The gates, abandoned now as other, more pressing concerns revealed themselves, were buckling and cracking under the onslaught of a fresh attack. "We were supposed to take reinforcements back to Henna."
"We'll take what we can." With a reckless leap, Kronos threw himself down from the walls, taking off through the carnage-filled streets. Methos could see him making gestures, could faintly hear his voice as he shouted orders to anybody who would listen. Primus, the leader of the Tauromenium party, was evidently shouting orders of his own, for many of his followers broke away from the main body of the fighting to follow Kronos. Methos gave a grim smile. They might be able to get their reinforcements, they might even be able to make it out of Tauromenium alive, but would they really have any chance of getting back to Henna without attack? He ignored his concerns and set off along the walls, intending to meet with Kronos at the other side of the town, where lay their best chance for breaking out.
He was almost there when he felt the sensation that he knew so well. It had been present at the back of his consciousness for much of the fighting, and he had become almost accustomed to it, but now, suddenly, it gained a new and startling intensity. He knew what the feeling meant, and led by a force that he could not resist he looked down over the walls. The immortal Roman general, still riding his huge black horse, was directly beneath him, grinning up at the other Immortal with a look of quiet confidence and open threat.
"I am Augustus Flavian!" he shouted, his voice deep and rumbling like thunder. Methos managed a smile.
"I'm challenging you, Immortal."
"Well I'm declining. Thanks anyway." He ducked, jumping down from the walls in a sudden desire to be as invisible to the other man as he possibly could be. He heard a roar, and his sixth sense made his heart pound. He put on a mighty burst of speed.
With a violent, impossibly loud splintering of wood, the huge black horse of Augustus Flavian burst through the weakened walls, leaping over the barrels and crates piled up as a half-hearted second line of defence. Methos had a vague sight of lashing hooves almost directly above his head, and he threw himself to the ground.
"Prepare to lose your head, Immortal!" Flavian leaned down from the saddle, his great sword slashing and cutting at the air directly above Methos. The fallen Immortal rolled desperately away, struggling back to his feet and dodging yet again as another unexpected blow descended upon him. He almost lost his footing again. Feebly he raised his own sword, not so much a barrier against the other's mighty weapon, more a useless attempt to hold off a giant with a toothpick. He heard Flavian laugh.
"Methos!" It was Kronos, his voice coming from nearby. Methos wanted to look back at him, to see the familiar face of the one man in all the world that he thought of as his friend. He knew that the rules forbade his brother from interfering, but there were times when both of them had taken liberties with those very rules.
"Do something, Kronos!" The voice sounded much like that of Lautus, their large companion from earlier, but if Kronos answered him Methos did not hear. He was too busy dodging blow upon blow from a sword that seemed far too large to be wielded with the sort of skill and finesse that Flavian displayed.
With a cry that startled him, and a wild, desperate shriek from the huge black horse, Flavian wobbled in his saddle. His slashing sword stopped in mid-blow, and Methos, halfway through yet another dodge, overbalanced and crashed to the ground. Barely a second later he saw the towering figure of Flavian above him, wavering slightly with the motion of his panicked steed. A long arrow, feathered courtesy of some local bird, stuck in his neck. He tried to grasp at it, to pull it free. Hands caught Methos by the arms and the shoulders, dragging him upright.
"We don't have much time." He didn't recognise the voice, or the face behind it, but he allowed it to spur him onward. He ran, past the general, past Lautus, past the others who were assembling as their band of reinforcements. Kronos was at his side, but other than that he was aware of little.
"I'd like to be sure he can't come after us," he heard himself say, surprised by how tired and breathless he sounded. Kronos nodded.
"I know." Both knew that it was impossible. To take the general's head in front of so many witnesses would be terribly foolish, but it was still an attractive thought. "He'll keep."
"He'll come after us." Wiping sweat from his brow as he ran, Methos dodged the people rushing about, dodged stray Romans who had managed to find their way into the heart of the town. He saw children at windows, saw women torn between wanting to stay and protect them and wanting to join in the fighting. Most of them were already by the walls, fighting alongside the men who had become their friends during the three long years of their rebellion. It was all coming to an end now, and they could all see it.
"This way." The same unknown voice which had hurried Methos earlier led them down a small alleyway. The walls were close together, and there was little light. The sky was growing dark anyway, but in the small alleyway, where only a crack of daylight was visible above them, all was shrouded in darkness. It was too narrow to travel in anything more than single file, and in places they had to move sideways to pass through at all. Lautus grunted and swore under his breath as he struggled to get by, and Methos heard the soft giggle of his immortal companion, amused by their larger friend's difficulties. Kronos could always be counted upon to find humour in the least likely places. Rather like that one time in Egypt, when there were about to be thrown to the crocodiles for some misdemeanour (he still wasn't sure quite what) and Kronos had suddenly decided to find it deeply hilarious that their captors had apparently chosen the one stretch of the Nile where the crocodiles did not seem to be even remotely hungry. Methos had been rather more interested in using the hard-won seconds of bemused inactivity to escape, but Kronos had been almost helpless with laughter. He had recovered quickly enough to behead their captors with his usual gory zeal, but he had still been laughing about it some time later. Methos forced the memories back as he hurried on down the tight alley. His phenomenal memory chose the oddest times to remind him of long-ago escapades.
They broke into what remained of the daylight mere seconds after plunging into the darkness, although it seemed that they had been in the passage for a lot longer. The sounds of fighting were muted now, as though the battle were taking place some distance away. Methos looked about, surprised. They had taken a shortcut through Tauromenium, and were now at the far walls, where the fighting had as yet not taken hold.
"Help me with this." The unknown voice, which Methos could now trace to a tall, broad-shouldered man with red-tinged hair and a patched and threadbare blue cloak, called them to the walls. There was a rectangular shape traced in the wood, just above the stone base to the wall, and although the outline of the shape was filled with dust it soon became clear that the rectangle was a door, presumably hidden from sight on the outside, and available as a means of secret escape for those inside the town. The stranger ran his hands around the door, clearing away the years of dust and grime which had accumulated in the cracks. Kronos was the first to reach him, and together the pair tugged and pulled at the door, gripping at the tiny handholds their fingers managed to find in the crack. There was a soft grating noise, and the door began to move.
"Pull harder." The unknown man with the red-tinged hair moved his hands to get a better grip. Kronos followed suit, his face showing the strain of the task. Together they pulled again, and slowly, inch by painstaking inch, the door opened. The man with the red-tinged hair grinned, and reached out a hand to Kronos. The Immortal stared at it. He was not much given to the shaking of hands, an entirely unnecessary tradition to his way of thinking. On this occasion, however, he extended his own hand, shaking the other's briefly, firmly, with no flicker of emotion on his face. Methos smiled. Suddenly things were getting up again.
"We'd better hurry." Lautus, his eyes on the walls and the alleyway, and on everything else that they could hear going on in other parts of the town, had urgency in his eyes. "The Romans know that a group of us broke off from the main body of the fighting force. We have to stay ahead."
"True." The man with the red-tinged hair began to usher them through the doorway. More people were arriving all of the time, and they crowded around the door rather faster than it was possible for them all to travel through it. Kronos leaped onto the wall, using his sword and some of his favourite threats to keep the mob in order. Methos found himself propelled by the crowd to the edge of the action, where the man with the red-brown hair was cleaning the dust from his hands with his cloak. He looked up as the Immortal approached.
"There'll be plenty of them to fight in Henna," he observed. Methos nodded. He wanted to ask the man his name, but suddenly the crowd was surging forward again, and the pair were tugged apart. He caught a glimpse of a pair of intense blue eyes watching him as he was ferried away to the door, then he was in the line for passage through, and he could not see the mortal at all.
"Take it steady. Go easy, there's plenty of time." It was a lie, but Methos felt obliged to say something. At this rate half of them were going to be crushed to death before they even made it out of Tauromenium. Even Kronos no longer seemed able to keep them in check. He wondered where his friend was, and hoped that he was not planning on jumping down from the walls. That was foolhardy enough on the inside of the town, but the walls were higher on the outside, and it would be impossible to escape injury of some kind. They didn't need that kind of publicity, especially now.
Outside the town the darkness seemed to be more complete. There were no lanterns to provide illumination, merely the broad expanse of open sky, moonless and coloured a dull grey. It had not had time to ripen to the deep violet-black of true night, and the stars were only just beginning to struggle forth. Methos watched them, wondering which was the first. He could do with having a wish or two granted tonight.
"Stop stargazing brother." Kronos had come upon him unannounced, which was hardly a surprise. The younger Immortal was clearly eager for the off, and even as his companion began to stir himself once again, Kronos was organising their troops into readiness. They fell into a marching formation with little resistance, happy to take the orders of somebody who at least seemed to know what he was doing. More people were coming through the door all the time, but still Methos could see no sign of their unnamed friend. He heard a shout from within the walls.
"Damn!" Turning, Kronos yelled to Lautus, gesturing for the big man to take his place and begin leading the others on to Henna. The column moved forward, plodding slowly until Lautus threatened to leave them behind. They broke into a jog then, slipping and stumbling on the rocky, dry ground, but still keeping more or less in formation.
"The Romans are on to us," Methos said, heading back towards the walls. Kronos nodded. They reached the door just as the last few people fell through it, lurching after the main body without needing to be told. Methos glanced through the doorway. He could see his new friend, in position some yards from the door, hurling back Roman spears with a fierce zeal. He glanced back, as though feeling the immortal eyes upon him.
"Run!" he shouted, his eyes bright and the determination clear in his voice. Methos hesitated, but Kronos did not bother even to do that much. He leapt through the door, sword above his head, cutting a swathe through the band of Romans as though oblivious to the threat of their own weapons. Methos stumbled after him, his eyes rebelling against the sudden presence of lamplight again, after the darkness beyond the walls. He felt his sword strike something warm and alive, and felt the answering touch of something that was alive no longer.
"You have to get back through the door. I'll close it up and hide it. They'll take a while to work out what has happened." The voice sounded close by, close enough to make Methos jump. He knew the sound of it now, even though the man behind it was still a stranger. He looked deeply into the intense blue eyes.
"You'll be left behind," he said, feeling an unwillingness to comply with such a plan. The other man smiled.
"I know. Don't worry."
"They'll kill you."
This time the smile was more tense.
"Come on, there isn't time for chit-chat." Wiping his sword blade clean on the nearest corpse, Kronos strode over to the pair. "We have to get out of here before any more of them come to play."
"He's right." The blue-eyed stranger pushed the pair of them towards the door. "I'll cover your tracks as best I can. They'll work out where you've gone eventually, but I should be able to get you a good head start."
"Thanks." It was a simple word, but it was all that Methos could think of to say. He let Kronos lead him towards the door; then suddenly they were through it and back in the growing darkness of the outside world. Almost immediately the door began to close behind them.
"But--" He had remembered that he had wanted to ask the other man's name, but the door was already almost closed. He caught a glimpse of red-brown hair disappearing, a brief image of an arm before the door closed completely. The arm, unusually, was covered by a long sleeved tunic, and he thought he saw the faint mark of a blue tattoo on the wrist. Then the door was shut and Tauromenium was closed to them. Methos wondered if he really had seen a tattoo, and if so, what it signified; where the man had come from. He wondered what his name had been. So many questions, and now no way of ever getting them answered. He felt Kronos tug on his wrist, then turned and ran off with his brother into the night.
Behind them, in the flickering lamplight within the town's walls, the stranger with the red-brown hair and the curious blue tattoo on his wrist finished piling up all the barrels and junk that he could find into position in front of the door. Now that he no longer had an audience, his movements were stilted and slow. He stared around at the ground, seeming to find it hard to focus, then registered the presence of a great mass of confused footprints. He began to scratch them away, rubbing at the sandy ground with his booted feet until all evidence of the passing multitude had gone. He wiped sweat from his forehead, then glanced towards the covered door. Somewhere out there, beyond that hidden opening, some five hundred people were racing to defend a town that he had never seen. He smiled, but the smile was cut short by a gasp of pain that racked his body. He clasped at his side where a broken spear head protruded from his torso. Blood soaked his tunic now, and had begun to pour in a river down his leg. He eased himself to the ground near the bodies of the Romans he had helped to despatch. His head felt light, and the pain in his body that he had become almost accustomed to was no longer as great as before. The flickering lamplights whirled about in his eyes, and his last thought as he fell backwards amongst the bodies of the other dead was of two Immortals running towards Henna, and of the distant sorrow that he could not have gone with them.
Henna was quiet and dark, and there was no sign of any Roman presence. Methos knew that they were there, somewhere. He could not see them, and since they were mortals he could not feel them, except with his sixth sense. He knew that they were out there, though; hiding in the shadows, keeping still and quiet and waiting for some chance of attack. The order would come soon, when Augustus Flavian recovered from his 'deathblow' and set out after the Immortals he knew were to be found somewhere near here. Methos could not help thinking that he was putting all of these people in danger through his presence amongst them; that maybe if he took off, and made his flight obvious, Flavian would be willing to follow him, and to leave the mortals alone. It was a egotistical thought however, and he knew it. Flavian might have known that there were Immortals involved in Eunus' rebellion. He might even have known that there were two of them; but to think that he would be willing to abandon the orders of Rome in order to hunt them down was ridiculous. If Methos ran, Flavian would still take Henna and arrest the escaped slaves; and then he would go after Methos.
"We'd better get inside before our friends come after us." Kronos did not sound at all out of breath after the run, despite the hard going over rough ground in pitch dark. He was still spoiling for a fight, and the action he had so far taken part in was only serving to build up his desire for another battle. His sword was unsheathed in his hand, and the blade rested in a blanket of darkness, all but invisible in the faint glow of distant starlight. Methos could see traces of dried blood that the last clean had not removed. It rested in the point where blade met hilt, and it stained the hand of the man holding the sword. Dried and drying blood, still red, maybe even still sticky. He knew that it marked his own weapon, his own hands, his own clothes. It was on his boots, and the hair above his forehead felt matted, as though it too was covered in somebody else's blood. Just so long as it wasn't his own.
"I hope somebody down there has some food." He could not understand his hunger, but then a war was always a good way to raise an appetite. Kronos laughed.
"Rabbit stew?" he asked innocently. Methos winced. When this was all over - always supposing that he managed to avoid Flavian's sword, of course - he was going to eat the best meal he could possibly find, even if he had to kidnap a chef to get it. And wine, too - lots of wine, with a side order of beer, beer and even more beer. He had almost forgotten what the stuff tasted like, which was truly a bad sign.
They advanced quickly, the two Immortals now leading the column, glad to see the doors opening at their approach. Clearly somebody had been watching out for them, and Methos was only slightly surprised to discover that it was Eunus himself who greeted them. The mortal looked far older than he had when they had left him, and there were dark smudges around his eyes that emphasised the drawn look of fatigue. He smiled at the company. Five hundred men was considerably more than he had been hoping for, and he was glad to see that all those he had sent out had managed to come back. All the same, his enthusiasm was dimmed. The heavy responsibility on his shoulders was weighing him down more than ever before, and Methos could see that fact written in every one of the premature lines on his friend's face.
"Methos." Eunus gripped his hands. "Thankyou. Maybe we have a chance now."
"Don't be too sure." Looking around, not really wanting an audience, Methos led the mortal away from the others. Concern showed in Eunus' eyes, along with that cold certainty that always came when a terrible truth was known before the telling.
"What is it?" he asked. The answer did not come immediately, and he glared. "Methos, tell me. What is it?"
"Trouble." The old Immortal sighed. "There are more of them that we thought, Eunus. A lot more. Thousands and thousands. If Tauromenium isn't lost yet, it will be before first light. The Romans will be here soon, and even with all these reinforcements I really don't think we have a chance."
"That many, huh." Eunus sighed, his eyes searching out the lamp lit windows of the houses nearby. There were many people in those many houses. Many figures, many names, many memories. "Dammit." His voice was low, hoarse. It sounded as though the man behind it had lost his last hope. "Methos…"
"What?" Lost momentarily in thoughts of his own, Methos glanced up. The mortal had acquired a faraway look in his eyes; a thought or a plan, or possibly just a last ditch idea for some kind of minor victory.
"I want to speak to you and Kronos, just for a moment. I have a lot to get ready, and there isn't time to stand around talking for long. I just want a quick word, in my house."
"Sure." Methos turned to signal to Kronos, and found the other man standing at his shoulder. He glared. Kronos smiled at him, in his lazy, almost humourless way, his pale blue eyes lost in shadow and only catching the tiniest fraction of the available light. Together the threesome made their way to the house where Eunus lived with Latira.
She was sitting inside, her back to the door, a small lamp in her hand. Its light was negligible; the barest flicker, which did little to illuminate the room around her, and which left thick piles of shadows heaped along the walls, gathering to conspire in the corners. She turned at the approach of the three men, and rose to her feet.
"Eunus." It was not a greeting or an acknowledgement, merely a word. He smiled at her, making a valiant attempt to hide his fatigue and despair, and not succeeding.
"Methos, Kronos." She nodded politely at the pair, although it was a formality alone. Everybody knew that she had no love for the pair, and avoided them both as though her life depended on it. "I see you made it back alright."
"They've brought us a good many reinforcements. At least five hundred men, all well armed." Letting some of his old enthusiasm back into his tone, Eunus stepped forward, taking her hand. "I'm indebted to them both. And they're just about to do another little favour for me."
"Such as?" Methos asked, surprised by this turn of events. Eunus flashed him an apologetic smile.
"Sorry. I wanted to try and set this up so that you wouldn't have a chance to refuse. Any of you." His eyes sought out those of the others. His wife, turned slightly away, suspecting what was to come; Methos intrigued, interested in what Eunus was about to say; Kronos, eyes hidden, face in shadow, expression anyone's guess. His unsheathed sword was the only part of him that caught the light at all.
"I want you to take my wife. Get her out of here, and away. The three of you can make it, even if a larger party can't. You'll make it to the coast, I know, and from there to a boat… You'll be on the mainland before you know it, and in safety, and then--" His voice caught. "And then I can join you later, with the others."
"Are you mad?" Latira sounded insulted. "You're asking me to leave here? To leave you?" She shook her head. "No way. I don't care if these two say yes, they can go if they want to. But I'm staying right here, with you."
"Don't be stupid." He gave her no chance to speak further. "Methos, please. Say yes? You have no place here, and I've already told you that I'm not comfortable about having you die for a cause you only became involved in by accident. This is my fight, my fault." He glanced across at Kronos, but the other man was still next to invisible. Kronos had even less reason to be here than Methos, and he was sure that he could count on the smaller man to agree at least. They might have been friends, but there was an aloofness about Kronos that suggested he was ready to leave at any moment. "If you stay here, you'll die, and you know it. Either they'll kill us all or they'll arrest some, but either way they'll kill you. You're both wanted for reasons beyond just this rebellion."
"True." The voice of Kronos was soft, drifting out of the shadows that masked his face. "No matter what happens, if we're caught here, we'll die." He put a slight emphasis on that last word, as though it held some greater meaning for himself and his friend than it did for Eunus or Latira. "Flavian will see to that, regardless."
"I know." Methos answered him in a voice that was little more than a whisper. "But I'm not ready to leave yet."
"Neither am I." Even if she had been prepared to go, Latira would not have left with either of these two men. She hated them both, and she could not understand why Eunus liked them so much. She had spent some time with Kronos up in the hills, and had watched him with a pair of sneak thieves who had crept into their camp one night. It had taken one word from the strange man, one glimmer from those ice-blue eyes, to force the pair to their knees. She had seen the desperation in their eyes, heard their pleas for forgiveness and for their very lives. He had not even blinked. A single blow from his sword had beheaded them both, almost as one, and she could still remember the spray of blood, the wet thud of the decapitated heads as they had landed on the ground. Kronos had turned to look at her then. There had been nothing in his face; no sorrow or pity, no sign of remorse. There had not even been any hint that he had enjoyed the killing. All that there had been was amusement at her discomfort. He had known that he had scared her, and that had pleased him. He seemed to feed on her fear and her unease. Methos was even worse. He had never spoken to her out of turn, never been anything less than a gentleman in her presence. He had never done anything overtly violent or unpleasant to her knowledge; and yet there was something in his eyes; or worse still, behind them. Something that glittered almost without her knowing it. Something that worried the part of her that she liked to keep hidden. Her whole family had had the gift of Sight, and there was something about Methos that made the spirit of her ancestors scream.
"You're going with them, Latira." There was something in his voice that brooked no refusal. He was staring at her in a way that meant something to both of them. "I don't care if it's a son or a daughter; but I do want it to be freeborn. Do you understand me?"
Her eyes lowered. So he knew then. She had been hoping to keep it a secret. What kind of a choice was it to have to make, to have to choose between your husband and your child? Even the thought of it hurt. Eunus smiled, pleased.
"Then that's settled," he said briskly. "I'm expecting the first attack at any time. It'll be the perfect cover for your escape."
"Not if we don't plan to go." Methos kept his voice low, staring at the lamp in Latira's hand. "Why do you have to be so single-minded? Why do you have to give in like this? You could come with us. There's no telling how many people we could get out if we put our minds to it. We planned this months ago. What we would do if we were attacked, where we would all go, how we would set to and get off Sicilia. We can make it work."
Eunus smiled at him.
"It's a nice thought, isn't it. That we could still win." He shook his head. "I don't believe in miracles, Methos, and I'm surprised to think that you do. Nothing changes, everything just… is." He shrugged. "I knew it would end this way the day that I marched out on my master and started this whole stupid plot. My only sorrow is that so many others have to follow me to my death."
"They didn't have to join you. They chose for themselves, the same way that you can choose now. Nothing is without hope of change. You don't have to die here." There was emotion in Methos' voice, and a spark of fresh hope in Latira's eyes. Eunus shook his head.
"Just leave," he said finally, turning away slightly. "While you still can."
"No." The resolution in Methos' voice surprised himself as much as it did everyone else. "I'm not going anywhere. Anybody would think that you wanted to die."
"I'm already dead." The answer was soft and sad. "I was dead the moment that I walked out and began all this. Just because the deathblow hasn't yet been struck doesn't mean that I'm any more alive now than I will be this time tomorrow. I used to think that there were chances, possibilities, but it's coming to an end just as I always knew it would. Just as it always had to. My father used to speak of fate and destiny, but I didn't believe him. Until now." He took the lamp from Latira, holding it up slightly so that he could see Methos more clearly. "Every day we were up in those mountains, waiting for the Romans to come, I used to wake up in the morning and find the wind blowing in a new direction. It renews itself all the time, and I used to think…" He shook his head. "But we're just not like that. We only have one direction, one way, and I'm coming to the end of mine now. There isn't anything anybody can do about it." He shrugged, giving a small, light smile. "As Euredes said, all those years ago." It was a reference that he knew Methos, the one man in Henna who shared his knowledge of the Greek scholars, would understand; but he saw no answering smile, no sign that the comment was a shared one. "I keep telling you this. Why can't you just accept it?"
"And leave." Methos stepped forward, about to say to something. Words rushed into his brain, falling over themselves in their eagerness to escape from his mouth. There had to be something that he could say. There had to be some argument, something that would convince Eunus that his simple philosophy was fundamentally flawed. He had to find some way to persuade his mortal friend that the rigidity he had sealed himself into was not all that he thought it was. But the words never came, and the argument never had a chance to present itself. A single blow struck him on the back of the head, and he pitched forward onto the ground. Darkness consumed him.
Kronos stared down at the unconscious figure of Methos, then glanced up at Eunus. His pale eyes, dark with shadow, were alive with lights and conflicts. He stuck his sword into its sheath, freeing his hands to carry his brother. Eunus did not speak.
"He always believes in renewal, rebirth. All things change, all people, all places." Kronos spoke softly as he dragged Methos into the nearest chair. "We see it everywhere we go, and he believes it the way others believe in the gods. You can't help but believe it when you've lived for thousands of years." He was not looking at the mortal as he spoke, but had he been searching for a reaction to his comment he would have been disappointed. Eunus did not so much as flinch. "He reinvents himself time and time again, and starts out afresh; a new home, a new life. I think sometimes he forgets that it doesn't work that way for you people."
"But you remember." Eunus could not take his eyes of the slumped form of the tall man he had become so close to. He would have liked to have been able to look into those oddly ancient eyes as he said his final goodbye, but the eyes were closed and without them the face looked young and ordinary. Almost. Kronos glanced up, holding the other man's gaze for several minutes.
"There's nothing to remember," he said finally. "It's no different for us than it is for you. He thinks he changes, that he starts out fresh and new every time, but he doesn't. Neither of us does. He's still the same man that he was on the day he was born, and he always will be. It's still the same road we're walking on, whatever he thinks."
"Then you agree with me. You agree that I have no choice, no other way but to stay here and wait for the Romans?"
"No." His voice simple and more or less uncaring Kronos stared at the mortal, holding his eyes for the fleetest of moments. "You're staying here because you think it's what you should do. You could walk out of here right now, just like you could have done three years ago, and nobody would get in your way. It's not fate holding you here, or destiny, or anything else that you might want to call it; it's stubbornness, and that's the only thing you can't change about what's coming." With the barest of effort he hefted Methos onto his back, then turned slightly, ready to leave. For a second he paused. "When the Romans come, there'll be a general with them. A big man on a black horse. Keep out of his way, he's not after you." He seemed to be saying it as some important piece of advice - a farewell gesture perhaps - but it meant little to Eunus. The mortal stood in his house, the lamp in his hands, watching as the two men left him, to disappear into the darkness. He wondered if he should have responded to the comment about the general, but there seemed little point. There seemed little point in thinking about anything. He hardly even noticed when Latira left to follow Kronos, and he did not notice at all when the lamp in his hand gave out, leaving him lost in darkness.
Methos awoke to find himself on a hillside, lying in a patch of dry, stringy grass. Kronos was sitting on a rock nearby, staring at him in thoughtful contemplation. He seemed troubled by something. Latira sat a little further away, absently breaking a small, dry twig into pieces. She did not look up as Methos stirred.
"My head hurts." Sitting up, the old Immortal rubbed the offending part of his anatomy, and glared at Kronos. The younger man shrugged.
"At least you've still got a head. You wouldn't have kept it for long the way you were going."
"I know." He sighed, trying to convince himself, and then climbed to his feet. Wherever they were, they were a long way from Henna. He could see no sign of it. His eyes took in the three horses grazing discontentedly nearby, and also lingered on the wife of their erstwhile leader. She was studiously ignoring the pair of them. Somehow he could not help thinking that this was not going to be a particularly smooth and fruitful union. He offered her what he hoped was a friendly smile, but she reacted much as though he had glared at her using one of Kronos' best scowls.
"We have to go," he said finally. "If we hang around here much longer the Romans will catch up with us, and then we might as well have stayed in town."
"True." Kronos glanced back in the direction they had come from. "Flavian will be looking for us."
"And he's not going to give up easily." They smiled at each other. Latira still glared. She did not yet seem ready to face the prospect of losing her husband, but as Methos gave her a hand to her feet she stared back down the hillside.
"He's dead, isn't he," she commented. Methos nodded.
"Yeah, he is." He wondered if there was something he should say to her, but decided against it. He wasn't exactly her favourite person after all. He was surprised to find her hand touching his arm, turning him to face her.
"Who's Euredes?" she asked him. He frowned, surprised by the question. He had almost forgotten Eunus' words back at the house.
"A Greek poet," he told her eventually. "He wrote about the unyielding nature of things, the way that we're all compelled to suffer at the hands of destiny. The way that we can never hope to change what is." He shrugged. "Not my philosophy."
"Oh." She nodded, then sighed and turned about. It was beginning to feel cold, despite the fact that the sun was almost up. The hand of winter was not far off, and she knew just as they did that it was sensible to begin their travels as soon as possible. They had no idea how far they had to go, and every moment would count in the months to come, if they were to avoid the worst of the weather. When she spoke her tone of voice suggested that she was trying to be brave. "I… suppose we'd better be on our way." Methos nodded.
"Sure." He left Kronos to gather the horses together, and stood alone to use those last few seconds to glance back down the hill. He couldn't see Henna, but in his mind's eye he could see it only too well. He knew what was happening down there; what had happened and what was still to come. Not wanting to think about it didn't seem to help. Almost in a world apart, he watched Kronos swing up onto his horse, ignoring Latira's fumbling attempts to mount. She would get used to it, if she was to get anywhere with the pair of them. If not, maybe they could lose her somewhere.
"Straight on to the coast?" Kronos was asking, dragging Methos back to the present. The older man nodded, and without further hesitation climbed onto the third horse.
"Sure brother, straight on." He touched his heels to his steed's flanks to bring it in line with his brother's, keeping an eye on Latira all the while. Clearly horses hadn't been one of her responsibilities as a slave. As they moved forward together, a cold wind blew past them, chilling Methos' neck and making him shiver in surprise. Kronos glanced out across the hills.
"Look brother," he observed, his tone unreadable. "The wind has changed."
"Yeah." Spurring his horse onward in a sudden desire to be gone, Methos did not meet his old friend's eyes. "I know."
In 135 BC, a slave named Eunus led a rebellion against the Roman estate owners of Sicilia (Sicily), precipitating the First Slave War. It lasted until 132 BC, during which time 70,000 slaves under the command of Eunus (known to his followers as King Antiochus) took control of two Sicilian towns, Henna and Tauromenium. Finally, after three years, the Romans regained control of both towns and the rebellion was put down. Eunus was killed, and 20,000 of his followers were executed.
The quote from Euredes referred to by Eunus was from a poem, probably written sometime in the 3rd century BC - (trans. Allwood, 1910):
"Their insubstantial breath cannot be held THE END
Though try we must to capture what we can
For it must be in this unhappy age
That unrestrained alone the winds may change"
The quote from Euredes referred to by Eunus was from a poem, probably written sometime in the 3rd century BC - (trans. Allwood, 1910):
"Their insubstantial breath cannot be held