A few yards from the barge where she had been told she would find him, she paused, already feeling the tell-tale tingling that confirmed Duncan was there. It began, as it always did, where her skin was most sensitive - her fingertips, her lips, her eyelids. As she moved closer, it would spread over the surface of her body and deeper inside until, as her body became accustomed to it, all she would feel was a deep, powerful vibration somewhere below her ribs.
It was more than three hundred years since she had seen Duncan Macleod. It had not seemed so very long a time to her. But now, briefly, it gave her pause. Nearly three-quarters of Duncan's lifetime - a lot of things could have happened. But - contrary to all her experience - she thought, some things never change.
She pulled herself upright and walked on, feeling the buzz centre itself. At the door of the barge she would have knocked, but then she stopped, knowing Duncan would be as aware of her presence as she was of his. Instead she opened the door and stepped through boldly.
But at the top of the steps going down into the cabin, she froze. The man sitting on the sofa in the middle of the barge was not Duncan Macleod. He was smaller, slighter, apparently younger For the length of a heartbeat, they both stared, taking in that the person confronting them was not who they were expecting. Then in one lithe movement, the man was on his feet, sword in hand, defensive, warning.
Her own sword was out of its sheath almost as quickly. But she didn't move. She went on staring, not trusting her eyes.
"Methos?" she said at last.
He lowered his sword fractionally. "Rhiannon?"
Rhiannon laughed disbelievingly. "I thought you were dead."
"I thought you were in Patagonia," he countered.
"How on earth did you ?"
He shrugged. "It's a long story." He dropped his sword arm and she noticed that his long sleeve dropped over his wrist.
"I can't believe this," she said.
Methos set down his sword carefully and stood up again, holding out his hands. His face had opened, softened; it seemed younger, even vulnerable. Her own sword sheathed, Rhiannon walked down the few steps into the cabin to join him and stopped. For a long minute they just looked, minutely studying each other's faces. Then she drew a deep breath and relaxed, allowing him to put his arms around her.
Her face against his shoulder, she closed her eyes, remembering from deep in her past - a feel, a smell, a taste. Then suddenly she stiffened and drew back, pulling against his arms.
"Duncan," she said: "You've not taken Duncan's head?"
Methos laughed shortly. "God forbid. No. MacLeod's just gone for the beer."
Rhiannon shook her head. "In the middle of Paris, and you have to have beer."
"Some things never change."
He pulled her tight against him, and after a moment they kissed. And in
both their minds they were back in a cold and draughty guard's room on the
Antonine Wall, on the furthest edge of the Roman empire, almost two thousand
He heard the clash of steel on steel from a long way away, then the woman's scream - a scream more of anger than of fear. He began to run along the stone flagged passage, light on his feet, almost silent. Then a short way from the guard's room he hesitated, feeling the unmistakable awareness of another immortal close by. His pace slowed, and he entered the guard's room carefully, his sword drawn.
The sight that confronted him when he entered was of five of his own auxilliaries, with swords drawn, battling with a woman, a young woman, who by her dress and appearance was neither Roman nor Pictish, but British. The woman, the immortal he had sensed, was cornered, injured, but she would not give up. She parried with a fury born of desperation. Her long blade outreached their short ones and they were hampered by the confined space. But in the moment he took to take stock of the situation one of them at last managed to knock the sword from her hand. The woman gave a snarl of fury and almost immediately there were five blades touching her.
"What is going on here?"
Methos had a voice which could make the stone walls of the fortress shake when he chose to use it, which wasn't often. Five blades dropped, five soldiers took a pace back and turned to face him. They looked self-conscious, and at the same time thoroughly aroused.
"Is some one going to tell me what is going on?" Methos persisted, and this time his voice was dangerously quiet.
There was a long silence, then one of them said uneasily, "
We caught her breaking into the prison block, sir."
"She was breaking into the prison block? Well that's novel." He moved up close, so that his drawn sword was only an inch or two from their faces. "And I suppose you thought you'd have your bit of fun?"
At least two of them coloured, but the self-appointed spokesman countered boldly, "Just taking her into custody, sir. Then she produced this sword out of nowhere, sir. Fought like a she-devil. Shouldn't wonder if she isn't a witch, sir."
"You mean you pathetic saps couldn't handle it. God help us if we have to go into battle with you. Now get the out of my sight, the lot of you. If there is anything to be dealt with it here, I'll deal with it."
They shuffled out, resentful, assuming he wanted the prize they had taken for himself. But they knew him too well to disobey - or to complain.
He knew the woman hadn't taken her eyes off him for the whole of this encounter, knew that she shared his awareness of what they both were. When the soldiers were gone, he stooped and flicked her own sword back up to her, staying carefully out of range.
"Is that what you saved me for? So you could have my head for yourself?" she asked him. Her Latin was good enough, he noticed, but heavily accented and not with the local accent.
"It wasn't what I had in mind," he answered her. "But I will if I have to."
She circled him warily, like an animal threatened, sword ready to attack. On her bare arm where her sleeve had been slashed away the cuts to her arm were already healing. Only the deepest one still showed a mark.
"I ought to kill you just for wearing that uniform," she hissed. "What's your name, Roman?"
"Methos?" Her pose shifted slightly from attack to defence. "I've heard of you. They say you stopped some of the soldiers overrunning Craigarnhall. That you stopped the butchery. Is it true?"
Methos laughed grimly. "You've seen them. They're not exactly the most disciplined soldiers in the Empire. Some of them developed a mob mentality. And, yes, I was one of the officers that got them back under control."
"In the village they said that you walked in front of a full charge and faced them down," she told him.
"You know what we are," he replied. "I wasn't in danger."
"But you needn't have done it. I know officers who wouldn't. And didn't. And villages that paid the price." She raised her sword, ready to attack again. "So why did you?" she demanded. And he knew that she meant to judge him by his answer.
What the hell, he thought. If I get it wrong, I can take her head, can't I? "Let's just say I've seen enough of that kind of thing to last even our lifetimes," he said truthfully.
She smiled, and put up her sword. And for the first time he saw her face without its anger and bitterness. And saw how beautiful it was.
"You said you weren't planning on taking my head," she said. "Have you changed your mind?"
"Not in this lifetime," he murmured appreciatively.
"No. I'm not going to take your head," he said out loud.
"Then do you think I could have something to eat and somewhere to warm up?" Her guard relaxed, he saw how white she was and realised how near to dropping with exhaustion she must be. He went to put an arm round her, but she shied away and he backed off.
"Come on. I'll take you to my quarters."
There was a brazier burning there, and furs on the bed he could wrap her in. There was food there too, and she ate what he gave her hungrily, as if she hadn't eaten for several days.
From the shadows beyond the small circle of firelight he watched her closely. She was, apart from any other interest he might have in her, the most beautiful woman he had seen for a long time. She was tall, as the native women often were, and fair, blue-eyed. Her long hair was bound back and braided in the British fashion, and she wore a torque and armrills that marked her out from the peasant class. The plaid she wore under his furs was old and worn, but the brooch that pinned it at her throat had some of the most skilled workmanship he had ever seen. Even in the mortal world she was, or had been, something special.
"I don't even know your name," he asked her when she had nearly finished eating.
She looked at him. Whether it was the food or the firelight, he wasn't sure, but something had brought a glow back to her cheeks. It seemed to him that every time she looked at him she grew more beautiful.
"Rhiannon," she said. "Rhiannon of Pen-y-Gwrhyd."
"Rhiannon of Pen-y-Gwrhyd." His tongue stumbled over the awkward syllables, but he had placed her now, her name, her accent. "From the West. A chieftain's daughter?"
She drew herself up, her pride showing in her face. "The man I called my father was a prince of the tribe you call the Deceangli. I was his adopted heir." She touched the torque round her neck. "When he died, I became Queen."
"How long ago?"
"A little over a hundred years," she answered. He said nothing, afraid to press her, but after a minute she carried on speaking. "When the Roman's first came, we made deals with them. We paid them taxes; they left my father to govern his principality. But after he died, they got greedy. Or maybe they thought I was an easy mark."
Her eyes flashed, and Methos thought: you were never an easy mark. "What happened?" he asked gently.
"I protested, to the agents of the procurator. So they had me flogged and let me go again." She flinched with the memory, her body giving an involuntary shudder, then stiffening, her back straightening. "I was supposed to go back to my people cowed, ready to surrender. But they did not understand. We might be prepared to pay them tribute, but we were not slaves to be insulted."
She was staring into the flames of the fire, remembering. "We did some damage to begin with. We had strongholds in the hills where they could not penetrate, and we became very adept at mounting raids, at harrying outposts and trading routes. But we were not equipped for a pitched battle. After two years they caught us in the open and I was captured, along with some of my best men."
For the first time, she turned and faced him squarely "I was raped by the soldiers that caught me, then when they got bored, I was taken to the garrison commander at Deva. By the orders of Suetonius Paullinus himself, he condemned all the captured Deceangli to death. The problem was, I didn't die with my men. So they tried again - different ways. Luckily for me, they never thought of cutting my head off." She met his eyes and her mouth twisted into a humourless smile. "Eventually they condemned me as a witch and threw me back to my own people to deal with."
"What happened then?" Almost unconsciously, he had moved nearer , until now he sat in the same circle of firelight as she. There were shadows in his mind as he watched her, shadows of other massacres, other victims.
Rhiannon smiled painfully. "We British have a more forgiving attitude to witches than you Romans," she said dryly. "A witch queen - that was more than they could stomach: the principality passed to my father's nephew. But I had my place in the tribe: the witch warrior who could not die.
"I guess we should have learnt our lesson, laid low, paid our tribute. But we were too proud. I was too proud. We tried one raid too many, and the commander who had condemned me decided that if he could not kill me, perhaps he could wipe out my tribe instead. He mounted what they call a punitive campaign. And at the end of it, the handful of us that were left fled to into the hills."
He was aching to touch her, to put his arms around her. But instead he said gently, "How did you find out what you were, what you needed to know to survive?"
Her hands smoothed the edge of her plaid, calmer now that the worst of her story was told.
"We fled to a place that the elders of the tribe knew," she told him, "to the home of a druid, Hefeydd. To Holy Ground. I remember as soon as we drew near I felt - what we feel when there is another immortal near." She smiled at the memory, her face transforming again. "The man who became my teacher walked out of a small hut, and my life began again," she said simply.
"How long did you stay with him?"
"About fifty years," she said. "Until after the last of my people were dead. Then I began to feel there was more I could do out in the world than staying secluded with Hefeydd on Holy Ground. I offered my services to Princes from neighbouring tribes, who were too young to have heard the stories of Rhiannon-who-could-not-die, or who thought that they were legends. I became a warrior again."
She gave him another of her cool, straight looks that seemed to see straight through him. "Then a few months ago," she told him, "we began to hear stories of some savage offensives up here in the north. Not just invasion, but punishment attacks."
"So that's why you came?" he said. "A chance for revenge?"
But she shook her head. "Vengeance - my vengeance - wiped out my entire tribe. I woke up one morning and realised that all my family, a whole community, were dead because I was too proud to accept defeat. I'm here to try to ensure that doesn't happen again - not to take revenge."
She saw the look on his face and smiled wryly. "Yes, I know what I said when you gave me back my sword: that I ought to kill you just for wearing that uniform. But I was angry. Your men had brought back too many memories. In cold sobriety, I am a warrior, not a killer."
"So what were you doing in the compound?" he asked, intrigued. He grinned. "Were you really trying to break into the prison?"
She hesitated, smiling with him at the absurdity but still unsure whether to trust him. "I suppose I was," she admitted finally. "We'd heard that some of the Pictish leaders had been captured in the last battle, but no one knew where they were being held. I was trying to find out if they were here, to see if it were possible to help them escape."
"They're not here," he told her.
"I know. Otherwise I would not have told you so much." She confronted him boldly. "You could have me arrested now, of course."
"I could, yes."
"But you won't?"
He looked outside, through the narrow slit that let in a shaft of moonlight. The thought of her walking out of the room was intolerable, but he would not hold her against her will.
"It's dark" he said. "You've nowhere to go. Stay a while."
"As your prisoner?"
He smiled wryly. "The guard may think so if they choose. So long as they think you're my prisoner, no one will interfere with you. But no, you're free to go."
Rhiannon said nothing, and Methos winced inwardly. "I know," he said, meekly. "Why would you want to?"
"Because you are kind," she answered. "And because you offer me food and warmth and rest when I am so tired of travelling. Yes, if you are so good as to offer, I will stay."
It was already past nightfall, in this northern land of long winter darkness. He would need to be up long before the dawn, and she was exhausted, her body already tired and her mind now wearied by the telling of her tale. He made up a bed for her on his own couch, then began to make one for himself on the floor near the fire. But when he came back from the lavatorium, he saw that she had raised the corner of the blankets and was holding them up for him.
He heard his own sharp intake of breath, and felt the desire which he had held in check all evening almost engulf him.
"You don't have to do this," he said with difficulty. "You owe me nothing."
"This isn't payment," she told him softly.
For a moment he stared without reserve, drinking in her extraordinary beauty, hair the colour of mead, eyes like the northern sky. Then, smiling a little, he unclipped his sword belt and slipped in beside her in the narrow bed.
His wandering hands encountered her slight body through the thin material of her gown. She seemed so frail. Even knowing she was an immortal, it seemed extraordinary that she had held her own against five of his auxiliaries - that for over a hundred years she had been a warrior princess. Then, in the warm space under the furs, they began to undress each other, and flesh met flesh for the first time.
It had been so long since he had last shared his bed with anyone. He knew his men thought him cold or a prude, and it suited him to let him think so. The rest of the garrison, officers and men alike, would take their pick of the local woman - willing and unwilling. But somewhere along the line, he had lost his taste for such couplings. But Rhiannon was different.
He woke before dawn and reached out to her, only to find an empty space beside him. His body told him she was still near, and almost without opening his eyes, he rolled, hand reaching for his sword - only to encounter two blades, lying together.
He looked then and saw her, crouched by the brazier wrapped in her plaid, watching him.
"You don't trust anyone, do you?" she commented placidly.
"I haven't survived this long by being trusting," he countered wryly.
He swung himself out of bed, pulling one of the furs with him, and went and crouched behind her, pulling her against him. "I don't know why you're still here, but I'm glad that you are."
"Right now, so am I," she told him, and he believed that she meant it.
For a couple of days, each time he came back to his quarters and found she was still there, he was a little surprised. Sometimes she was not there, and he thought that she had gone at last, but she would arrive a few minutes after him, as if she always knew when he had come back.
One afternoon, he handed out grain to some British women and children who were begging at the gates, and in the evening she commented on it.
"You should be careful how you judge me," he said dryly. "I might only be doing it because you're here."
But she shook her head. "I spoke to them. They told me they had
travelled from Velvniate because they had heard that here they would not be
It was after a night patrol that he came back to his quarters just before sunrise. Rhiannon was sleeping, lying on her stomach, her long hair loose, a mass of wild curls covering her back. Methos slipped into bed beside her and began to stroke her hair, and then to brush it gently aside, baring her back. He eased a little further down the bed and began to kiss his way along her spine, feeling her stir and wake beneath him.
As he worked his way down, the morning sun found its way through the window slits and a shaft fell along her back. And suddenly he saw the lines scoring the pale skin: fine straight lines, mazing her back, some pale red, most silver.
He must have gasped out loud, because she turned and saw his face, and realised what he had seen.
"They are the marks of where they flogged me," Rhiannon said, "before my first death. What they did later, when they tried to kill me - that left no scars."
He ran his fingers lightly over her back, tracing the line of the scars. He wanted to protect her, to shut her away somewhere on Holy Ground where nothing else could harm her. And he could not evade the irony that the woman who should finally bring out this instinct in him was one who would hardly thank him for his protection.
"How old are you, Methos?" she asked him suddenly.
Taken by surprise, he hesitated for a moment. "Three thousand years, give or take a century," he told her. "I don't remember exactly."
"Then you'll know what a commonplace my story is. You'll have seen your share of death, of torture." There must have been something in his face, because suddenly her witch eyes were full on him, and he felt as if she were seeing inside his skull.
"No," she said, quietly, almost to herself. "More than that. You've been the killer, the torturer "
He could see the emotions crossing her face - fear, disbelief... He couldn't move, couldn't speak. His voice had petrified in his throat.
"How long ago?" she asked.
He considered denying it, laughing at her. But those witch eyes would not let him go.
"A millennia," he admitted hoarsely.
"Ten times my life. Twenty times a mortal life," she murmured. "Are twenty lifetimes enough to pay for what you did?"
They were still lying together, their bodies touching skin to skin. His mind was calculating the distance to his sword, working out that he lay between her and hers. I don't want to have to kill her, he thought.
"No, it's not," he answered, truthfully.
Her hand touched his face. "We live so many different lives, we immortals. We can be so many different people. But there is no escaping what we have done in the past, not even in death."
"So what does that make me?" he said bitterly, shaking off her hand. "A condemned man?"
Rhiannon shook her head.
"If you were my torturer," she admitted, "then maybe I would hunt you down across the centuries. But you're not. You're not even the same man who was a killer or a torturer, or whatever you were"
"You don't know that," he said painfully. "You don't know anything about me."
"I do. Methos, I can't judge you for what you were a thousand years ago. I don't even know what you did, and I don't want to know. But I can judge you for what you are now. And everything I've seen, everything I feel, tells me that what you are is a good man. Not a holy man. Not a great leader. But a man trying to live his life doing as little harm and as much good as he can. That's as much as most people can manage in one lifetime, never mind twenty."
He found he was breathing heavily, his heart pounding, and he had to fight to bring himself under control again. Her hand kept gently caressing his face, and it seemed such an imperative that she, having realised the truth, would have to hate him that it was like the torturer's caress in the moment before inflicting pain.
"How can you forgive me?" he protested "You of all people? You have every reason to hate me."
Again she shook her head. "What we are, our immortality, gives us so much power. And we each have to decide what to do with that power in the wake of our own death - as often as not in the midst of violence. Is it any wonder that sometimes some of us choose to use it for evil? But if we're condemned forever for that first choice, what incentive is there to change?"
He lay back on the bed, shuddering with relief and shock. She leaned over him and kissed him, and , in response to her caresses and still in a kind of daze, he made love to her, half-unaware of what he was doing.
Afterwards he slept, and when he awoke, she was still leaning over him, smiling a little.
"Hello," she said.
"Hello," he replied stupidly.
"You look a little better now," she told him. "And you've stopped shaking." She stooped and kissed the tip of his nose. "You've never told anyone before, have you? About your past?"
"Not since it became my past."
"It must have been very lonely. And a shock when I realised."
He heaved himself up on one elbow, contemplating her.
"Aren't you a little young to know so much?"
"My mentor was one of the ancient ones - like you."
"You must have been quite a pupil."
He pulled her over and kissed her again. And this time he made love fully
aware of exactly what he was doing. And fully aware of how much he now loved
A few day's later he had to ride out to a remote outpost and, on impulse, he suggested to Rhiannon that she rode with him. The hard northern winter was coming to an end, and green shoots of were appearing through the thin covering of snow. Along the edge of the river, catkins were appearing on the willow and alder. Their horses paced slowly side by side on the narrow track, so that their knees often touched.
For a long time they saw no one. Then they stopped at an isolated farmstead where Methos had business. Methos dismounted and went in, and Rhiannon waited outside. It took him about ten minutes to do what he had to. He emerged back into the pale winter sunshine feeling happy and free, glad to be away from the garrison and alone with Rhiannon.
He had grown so used to the sense of another immortal close by that it took him a moment to realise that there was now a third of their kind near by. As Methos stepped outside the wooden palisade that surrounded the farmstead, an armed man was dismounting from his horse, his sword already drawn. From his dress he was British, not Roman, but he was comparatively small in stature - perhaps no taller than Rhiannon herself - and dark-haired and swarthy. He was surely a Pict, one of the Northern tribes.
Methos heard Rhiannon say, "I am Rhiannon of Pen-y-Gwrhyd," and heard the Pict reply, "I am Caerdhu of the Lugi: there can be only one," and he began to run across the rough grass towards them. But it was too late.
"Stand aside, Roman. My challenge was to the Lady. You cannot interfere."
"No, Methos," she said without looking round. "This is my fight. If I lose, just you make sure he doesn't get past you."
He stood, rooted to the spot, helpless, unable to do anything but watch. Rhiannon was a warrior, but this was straight hand-to-hand combat with an opponent who looked to be nearly twice her weight. She was quick and agile, but he was powerful, with a long reach for his size, and it seemed that with every stroke he might get inside Rhiannon's guard.
To Methos it seemed as if the fight were taking place in slow-motion, as if every detail of every stroke was being imprinted on his retina. To have found a woman he could love and trust as he had begun to love and trust Rhiannon, and then have some damned immortal charge in and take her from him that was intolerable.
Rhiannon was tiring. He could see it. Damn it - he could feel it. "I'll slice your head while you're still on your god-damned knees you bastard," Methos snarled, weighing the hilt of the sword in his hand.
She was going to die. He was going to watch her die But then the impossible happened. The Pict's foot slipped, caught in a rabbit hole, a fox hole, something. And as if everything suddenly speeded up again, Rhiannon's blade swung round, glinting in the sunlight, skimming through Caerdhu's neck like a hot knife through butter.
Rhiannon stepped forward two paces, stooping with exhaustion. Then the quickening struck her, lightening out of a blue sky - twisting her body, throwing her to the ground. A bolt struck the tree behind them and it split open, the boughs falling slowly, its new buds buried in the grass. The horses reared, screaming, their forelegs kicking. Then, as suddenly as it began, it was over and the silence was overpowering.
Methos walked forward slowly, knelt in front of her and raised her, hugging him to her.
"Thought I'd got rid of you," he said gruffly, belying his emotions.
She laughed. "Didn't have the guts to do it yourself then?" she retorted weakly.
"Nah. I saw what you were like with a sword."
He held her tight, burying his face in her shoulder, waiting until they could both breathe easily again. Then together they got to their feet. As they reached the horses, Methos said suddenly,
"I don't want to go through that again, Rhiannon."
"Not yet. Not so soon. We deserve some time together - some time before the next head hunter comes after one of us. Or are you too committed to your cause to take time out?"
She met his eyes steadily. "I'm already taking time out," she answered.
"We could go somewhere. Holy Ground"
"What about you? Would you just walk away from the Roman army?"
He laughed dryly. "I signed up for seven years. I've stayed nearly a century. I think I've given them what they're owed - with interest."
Her hand touched his. "We could go back to Wales," she told him. To Hefeydd's home. That's on holy ground."
"We could leave one of the horses. Take his." He was talking faster now, giving her no time to change her mind. "They'd assume we were dead, killed by brigands."
"Why? Why would you do this?"
"Because I nearly lost you. Because I want to begin to live again while I still have my head." He took her face between his hands. "What frightens me is not what I'd be walking away from, but that you could still walk away from me."
She raised her hands to his and held them close. "No, Methos. I
couldn't." She smiled wryly. "Not for a lifetime or two, anyway."
"How long was it?" she asked.
"About fifty-odd years." Methos touched her face lightly, smiling at her. Sitting there in a loose sweater that looked about a size too big for him, and a pair of jeans that definitely didn't, he didn't look so different than he had two thousand years ago, she decided.
"You had a cause to fight that wasn't mine," he said gently. "And I was keeping you from it."
"And you weren't getting at all restless, I suppose?" He gave her the lop-sided grin she remembered so well, and she made a face at him. "I knew you had to leave," she said, "but I always imagined that you'd be back after a few years."
"I did go back once," Methos told her, tugging at the fingers that were interlaced with his. "But you were gone, and Hefyedd was gone."
"So when was that?" she asked wryly.
Methos shrugged. "I don't know. Couple of centuries, probably."
"Hefyedd head was taken by a Saxon in 473," she told him.
"Okay. Maybe it was three centuries."
"Or four?" She grinned at him. "Serves me right for falling in love with a three thousand year old man. He pops out for five minutes and comes back three hundred years later."
"And how long is it since you last saw MacLeod?" he countered.
" About three hundred years."
"You see? A couple more centuries and you'll qualify as an ancient one yourself."
Before she could retort, they both felt the approach of another immortal, and they turned together towards the cabin door.
"I had better be," Methos commented dryly. "I think my system's had enough shocks for one day."
continued in Part 2: The Plague.
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