Methos felt vaguely annoyed. The world was cold, wet, and spinning in a rather nauseating way, and he was not really sure where he was or what he was doing. Hiding?
He was comfortably curled up in his secret hiding place nobody could find - well, to tell the truth, he was cold and miserable and huddling under the juniper bush not far from the village - when he heard her calling his name. A dog poked a wet nose into his face and huffed a greeting, turning to yelp victoriously back towards its approaching mistress.
“Mato, come, the singing is about to start!”
Viiger stuck her head in under the branches. She looked very much like her namesake, the little ringed seal, with her round dark eyes, snubby nose and sleek short hair. Her father still stubbornly called her Aino, “the only one”, but Mato could see her growing into her newly given, adult name. Grown-up … everyone got to be a grown-up. That reminded him why he was hiding in the first place and brought up his disappointment afresh.
“I don’t want to.”
Viiger did not question his ridiculous lie. She just crouched and waited patiently.
“He was my bear! I saw him first, and I found all his dens and sleeping places and I watched him for weeks! They should have taken me with them when they went to hunt! I don’t want to listen to the stupid songs! He was supposed to be my first bear!”
Viiger cocked her head and seemed to think about it, very seriously. Mato expected her to say all the reasonable and right things, like that he was still too young to go bear-hunting, or that when a bear came to the People to allow himself be hunted, it would have been wrong and an insult to the bear to ignore his invitation, or that there would be other bears in the future.
Instead, Viiger said, “The bear, you watched him for weeks. You knew him. He was your friend. It would be very disrespectful not to attend the wake of a friend. But he was not only your bear. Bears are kin to us all. He came to the People, as our brother. And it would be selfish to set yourself apart from your people, just because not everything went your way.”
She stood up and extended a hand to Mato.
Mato sighed. As always, she was right. It was really annoying how she always knew best. Reluctantly, he allowed himself to be pulled up and towards the voices of the village.
The bearskin, complete with head and paws left intact, was spread out on a wooden platform in the centre of the village.
People crouched or stood around it, talking excitedly. Mato wanted to hide somewhere in the back, but Viiger determinedly dragged him behind until they’d found a perfect vantage point within the innermost circle, near the head of the bear, close to the fire and the hunters who had distinguished themselves in that particular hunt.
Nobody told them to go away and leave the place to their betters - maybe they did actually consider Mato’s part in tracking the bear somewhat important. The idea of maybe being given that amount of attention made him uncomfortable and he half-turned to go sit somewhere else. Viiger held onto him.
“Be quiet,” she whispered, “and pay attention. You need to know what to do when you kill *your* first bear.”
He subsided, partly because she was not only smarter, but also very likely still stronger than him, and partly because the crowd had quieted. Everyone’s attention was now focused on the figures in bearskins and masks that had suddenly appeared and the singing that was softly beginning.
The song swelled and followed the path along the World Tree, from the Bird of Heaven laying the egg of the world to the present, from the age-old kinship of the man and the bear, to the honouring of the deeds of the particular bear laid out for the wake. It was already getting dark. The bear-headed shadows danced, the song hummed in his bones and the world spun and spun and spun...
“Adam!! Come on, get up, you silly old sod!”
Somebody was dead set on not letting him sleep.
“Come on, lazybones,” dark curls tumbling around a deceptively innocent pixie-face, a strong firm grip more in tune with who the graceful girl was, all sleek strength mixed with mischief.
“Aa-man-daaw,” he drawled, knowing he was being annoying and thoroughly enjoying it, “but I am a very very lazy man.”
She pouted, oh so prettily, but he could just as well enjoy her pout while sprawling on the green grass.
“Dancing is too much hard work,” he decided, “with nary a reward for the sweat.”
Something tickled his nape and suddenly his view of the sky (and of Amanda’s pout) disappeared as his eyes were covered by another pair of hands.
“If you will come and dance with us, there may be such rewards in store you cannot even imagine,” the owner of the hands said, the voice like honey and sweet smoke, filled with past memories and future promises. The voice that went with serious grey eyes and a loving friendship he cherished.
He lifted his free hand, signalling his surrender.
“With such promises dangled before my nose, how can I refuse?”
“And what a substantial nose it is, too,“ quipped the little minx, Amanda.
“You should really teach your student better manners, Rebecca,” he mock-complained, while they were pulling him towards the swaying circle of dancers.
“Move your legs, not your mouth,” laughing admonishment into one ear;
“Manners are no fun,” sultry whisper into another.
The music quickening, dancers swaying, round and round the maypole, Rebecca’s honey-coloured hair whipping into his face, Amanda’s laughter filling his ears.
The promises of dark locks mingling with gold and soft hands everywhere, lips red from kissing, warmth and giggling under the covers - or were they memories? Was it Beltane, or were they dancing around a harvest fire? No, it was the midwinter tree, carried there on the shoulders of the Blackheads guildsmen, bedecked with gaily painted paper-and-cloth roses; there was snow everywhere, snow and cold, but it did not matter, because they were dancing and the world was spinning faster and faster and faster.
Someone was talking somewhere, urgently, worry in her voice, but it was too far away to make out the words. He was aching all over, and cold, and nausea rose up from the pit of his stomach and choked him.
He turned his head to the side and vomited a thin stream of bile onto the slushy ground. He felt an ache deep in his bowels, as if he had been gutted and had just healed, which, he decided, looking around, would probably have been just what had happened. He sat up gingerly, squinting at the bodies around him, already covered in a thin layer of snow.
Somebody moaned. Not all dead, then … yet, he amended, looking at the youth sprawled down on his back next to him. He’d been the drummer boy, Methos recalled, all nervous bravado to hide the bone-deep fear; now his guts were spilled out on the ground from the bayonet slash to his stomach, face ashen and glittering eyes fixed on Methos’ face.
“Help,” the boy whispered, barely moving his lips, “thirsty?” He lilted the last word upwards, as if making it a question.
Methos crawled to the boy’s side and scooped up some snow with numb fingers, pushing it between the blue-tinted lips.
“Thank you, s-sir,” the boy stuttered - what was his name? Methos felt he should remember, but he did not, and there were always so many of them, all dead, their names and faces mixed up. He was too tired to remember, he decided, he should just lie down and sleep. But the boy was still talking, in hoarse whispers, asking something.
“....dying, aren’t I, doctor, sir? I’m afraid, so afraid. I want my mommy,” sobbing in choked whispers,” ...it hurts...”
The poor boy was as good as dead already, but if he could do something to ease his last moments … but he had nothing with him, no laudanum, no blankets, no help, just his two bare, cold, numb hands.
“Don’t be afraid, lad,” he said, “it’ll be all right.” He took the boys hands in his and rubbed them gently.
“Death will come and take your hand, like this; take you away on his pale horse. The pain will go away - can you feel it?
"Soon it will not hurt anymore. There is nothing to be afraid of. You’ll be warm and you will sleep and there will be no pain.”
The boy looked up at him, some of the fear in his eyes easing. “Mommy...sleep...sing?” he whispered.
“Your Mommy will sing you a lullaby,” Methos promised. “And I will sing to you until she gets here.
“Bye baby bunting
Daddy’s gone a hunting...”
“Duncan, I could really use your help here. Adam’s not...well, he’s not *listening*. I can't very well carry him, especially if he’s flailing and kicking up a fuss... Maybe the punk that challenged him was high or something, but really, Adam looks like he's tripping. A bad trip, Duncan.
What do you mean, why you? Because first he tried to dance with me, and now he’s sitting next to a corpse, holding its hand and singing a lullaby! You owe me, Duncan MacLeod, so don’t even *think* about leaving me here alone to deal with this!”
This one had been - a challenge, almost, enjoyable in his raw anger and youthful arrogance, used to fuel quite formidable skills - one likely to have been reared as a warrior from birth, unused to defeat, yet not stupidly overconfident. Methos felt almost exhausted, but of course he won - he always did, and this time, he would not only have the largest number of trophies, but also the most varied collection.
Absentmindedly, he reached for his knife and started cutting into the corpse's right hand at the wrist. Caspian and Silas were always so predictable when they played this particular game, they would try to cheat (Caspian - did he really think his brothers would not notice he’d taken both hands from the kills? The man should think less with his stomach, probably), or go for sheer quantity (Silas - though there was a certain beauty in watching a lone giant in berserker rage - or play - wade into a mass of snarling, fighting bodies and lop off heads, hands and other body parts). Kronos, of course, was more of an artist. But Methos felt confident that this time, he would come out the winner of the hunt. He would have the most interesting stories to
go with his collection of dried and wrinkled hands on a string, a gruesome necklace of hard-won trophies.
Like a vengeful god collecting tribute he had stalked from one rumour of greatness to another, leaving destruction and sorrow in his wake. He needed no armies to sow fear in the hearts of people, just his hand was enough. He had kept to a common theme this time, challenging every mark for their most-prized skill or belonging and taking care to take that together with the hand - not always bothering to take the life, just the most important facet of it. From a travelling bard bested in his art in front of an entire village, he’d taken his tongue in addition to the hand; from a minor ruler claiming the best of luck in everything, including games of chance, his puny villages - the smell of blood and smoke still lingered in his hair – together with the arm that had lost them on a whim. From this one, he’d taken the Quickening, together with the sword and the hand that had unsuccessfully wielded it.
Frowning, he lifted his head as an immortal presence - tinged with familiarity - approached. They’d agreed to meet at the pre-arranged spot, all four of them, but of course Kronos could not resist looking for him. Honestly, the man was as impatient as a child sometimes.
“Impatient, brother? But this time, *I* win,” Methos threw over his shoulder.
“Yes, I can see that you won, Adam,” the other sounded puzzled for some reason, but clearly impatient, so, ha!, he’d been right on that account ... wait, Adam? Who was Adam?
A hand on his, preventing his work with the knife.
“Hey,” he exclaimed, turning and throwing an annoyed glance at Kronos ... no. Wrong face, wrong buzz. Wrong time? Or place?
Not Kronos then. Not the end of the dry season on the plains, either … slush and darkness and nausea. Oh, *Duncan*.
“Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod,” he recited, happy and proud somehow to have hit on the right name for the face, if not the place or time in this spinning vortex. Well, it would all come soon enough, if only the spinning would stop. It was most vexing.
Wait, hadn’t there been someone else here, too?
“If I were you, I would not call for Amanda right now. You threw up on her shoes."
Duncan prodded his arm.
“Come on, old man, let’s get you out of here, so you can sleep it all off. Hopefully.”
Duncan was really kind of a mother hen, muttering and puttering like this, Methos decided. He dug his heels in and refused to be packed into a car.
“Bear wake?” he asked, “is it done? Did we sing all the songs?”
“Methos, you’re not making sense. There are no bears here and the only wake held will be yours, if you do not get into the car this instant!”
There was no need to be so impatient and grouchy, was there? Especially given that his head felt like it was floating away and he maybe wanted to throw up again.
“Here,” a bottle of water held to his lips and too quickly confiscated again, his body folded up and pushed onto a backseat by strong hands, a plastic bag thrust at him as if in an afterthought, “and if you miss the bag when you puke, I’ll make *you* clean the car afterwards.”
Methos found himself unexpectedly warmed by the caring evidenced if not so much by the word choice, then by the tone of voice and the actions. He must have drifted off, because the next moment he found himself being pushed into a familiar-looking lift (the infernal clanging of the door making him cringe) and then being allowed to collapse on a couch, still clutching the plastic bag like a talisman.
He blinked twice, and a face with two worried brown eyes snapped into focus. Oh, hey, it’s Duncan again, he thought. It meant something … in any case, he felt much less lost. Still, there was room for some improvement.
“Your infernal barge is making me seasick. Who in a right mind lives on a river?”
He groped around to steady himself and found a hand. The hand was warm, with a strong, comforting grip. The barge - or his head, or the world - settled somewhat.
“Methos, we’re in Seacouver. The barge is in Paris.” There was amusement, with a tinge of worry creeping in.
“So?” inquired Methos querulously. He was still a bit dizzy, and sleep was seeping through the cracks in his mind, smothering all thought. He probably should do something about Duncan's worried frown. After all, the man had been a good friend to provide warmth and dryness to replace cold. And helped with the nausea.
“Dun’ worry,” he slurred, “be right as rain soon. 'S not the first time.”
He squinted at Duncan. Well, maybe some more reassurance was needed. Methos made a concentrated effort.
"'M not gonna kill anything. Or puke. Sleep now."
This was apparently considered sufficient, as it garnered him an awkward pat on the shoulder and a blanket thrown over him.
Duncan had moved away to putter in the kitchen. Methos drifted in and out of sleep to the comforting tune of familiar sounds. A muted clang of the lift heralding the arrival of Amanda. Snatches of a conversation held in whispers - "...already called Joe..." "...a bad Quickening?" "...see how he is in the morning?" A clink of the silverware, a whistle of the tea-kettle; every bit gradually adding solidity to the present. Even if he was not quite sure yet of the time or place, it was a pretty safe one to be in, Methos decided, and slept.