The Immortal had been following him for the better part of the night and MacLeod – having made his way through wary, irritated and bored – had finally reached curious.
He'd given his stalker every opportunity to approach. He'd stayed and listened to a couple of sets at Joe's in case they wanted a public face-to-face and then spent an hour in the park thinking they must want a more private meeting.
Then, as the traffic of the streets died down and evening began the slow climb towards morning, he began to play hunter. A few hours of that taught him, whoever the Immortal was, they were as good at keeping themselves one step ahead as they had been at staying one step behind.
As he prowled the city he wondered if it were Richie practising. He discounted that on the grounds he was sure the kid would find almost anything better to do – including a real hunt. That and he was fairly sure Richie had flown back to Paris. There was a chance it was Adam; this suited the man's warped sense of humour. But MacLeod doubted he'd find it funny right now, not with things between them as they were. He sure as hell wouldn't.
There was an outside chance it was Amanda trying to draw him into a game, but last he'd heard she was in Sweden of all places and she'd sounded like she was having fun when she'd called him at three in the morning with a Chokladkaka recipe which, apparently, was 'just fabulous, darling'.
It was possible someone was just trying to wear him out before Challenging him, but once the first dawn began to lighten the shadows it just didn't seem likely. If anything, there was something almost playful about the merry dance he was being led on through the city.
They were hitting landmarks - the bright lights of theatre district as the patrons spilled out of the late show, the dark silence of the museum at midnight. And finally the park again as yellow began to smudge the purple sky.
It was almost as if he was being shown around his own home by a guest, or perhaps more like he was being reminded of the treasures in the attic by a curious friend.
Finally, as the true dawn at last broke the morning into orange and crimson and turned purple to blue, he saw her. She was sitting on one of the stone benches, looking at the sun as it rose; long dark hair a coppered corona at its touch.
She didn't turn as he drew to a stop behind her, adjusted his katana where it hung within his coat, and finally took a seat at her side. Her name hadn't been on his list of potential stalkers but he was glad to see her just the same.
Her mouth curved into a smile as she turned her head to look at him. Despite the summer heat she wore layers of dark clothes, loose and shapeless, only a veil away from widow's weeds. She'd lost weight and the skin under her eyes looked indelibly bruised; it gave her a sickly, tired cast.
But there were no blue spirals of war and vengeance written on her skin and for that alone he thought she looked wonderful.
"You chased me over half the city." He gave his tone a teasing lilt and was rewarded by the glimmer of amusement in her gaze.
"And then you chased me; a girl likes to be chased sometimes, MacLeod."
"You could have just called, you know."
"Well, sometimes she likes the thrill of the hunt too." Her smile became arch for a moment and then softened. "Sometimes."
He reached for her hand and wasn't surprised to find it cold; he gently began to chafe the warmth back into her. She let him; it had been a joke once –
Cold hands and a warm heart, is it? And what will ye claim for these cold feet of yours, woman?
- and then it had become a reason to touch and only to touch.
"Are you in town long?"
"Is that a polite way of asking why I'm here?"
He grinned and let her hand slip away from his. "No, it's a polite way of asking if you want to come to dinner tonight."
"Or you could buy me coffee right now; some crazy Immortal's been following me half the night, you know. I'm thirsty."
The diner closest to the park was empty save for the cook and a waitress who looked like she was stacking glasses at the counter in her sleep. Her nametag proclaimed her to be Gladys, and happy to see them. MacLeod couldn't say he was convinced, but she managed to rearrange her frown into something like a smile as she poured their coffee.
He waited until she'd gone back to rearranging the glasses on the counter before speaking quietly.
"How've you been?"
"You know what it's like." Ceirdwyn shrugged. "You know one day you'll wake up and you won't reach out for them, won't have to remember and just know."
Sometimes he still turned to tell Tessa something he'd read or heard; sometimes he woke and still reached out for her. And sometimes he dreaded the day he didn't.
He nodded, he understood. "And you still wouldn't trade?"
"Never." She shook her head and drew a breath, her expression sharpened and her tone hardened. "I'm here looking for Matthew. I heard he was in Seacouver a couple of years ago and I'm running out of places to check."
The pleather covering of the booth's seat creaked as he sat back; he winced at the sound and leant forward again. "Matthew…?"
"McCormick, I think he's calling himself. Or it might be Salisbury."
Macleod tried not to look uneasy and knew he'd failed magnificently when Ceirdwyn's expression flattened dangerously. "You didn't-"
He raised his hands slightly. "McCormick was alive and well the last time I saw him but, yeah, that was about two years ago."
Ceirdwyn subsided with a nod and then wrapped both hands around her cup, sipped at the coffee. "He missed our appointment. Every fifty years, we meet in England. Just … catch up, I suppose."
"And he always shows up?"
"Always. For six-hundred years. I didn't know you'd be here, so I followed you for a while to …" She sipped her coffee again to avoid having to go on, but MacLeod could fill in the blanks and smiled, not bothering to soften the lines away from sarcasm.
"… catch up, I suppose?"
She took on an old-fashioned look and lifted her chin a degree; met his eyes calmly. "I heard about Sean."
Ceirdwyn doesn't ask what happened or throw any of the hundred platitudes or accusations that she could his way. And she doesn't pity him, and she doesn't say 'I'm sorry'. He's missed her, he didn't realise how much.
So he softened his smile and managed a chuckle. "And after you decided I wasn't insane, you wanted to play a game of tag?"
"Fair enough. You know, he might be… I mean, I don't know the guy well but from what I saw he doesn't run from a fight."
The cup sounded loud against the table as Ceirdwyn gently put it down. "No, he never would. And if he's gone, he's gone. It's who we are and I would speak his deeds and mourn him, avenge him if it was right that I should. But I want to know."
He nodded slowly. "I … may know someone who might be able to help."
She canted her head. "Duncan MacLeod, you look furtive. I never thought I'd see the day."
He wasn't sure if he'd just been insulted or praised, but considered the source and took the safe option. "I do not."
"You certainly do. Have you been keeping bad company?"
This time MacLeod grinned. "Always."
It was easy to fall into the banter. Neither of them meaning anything by it and both knowing it: a gentle way to pass some time.
"So who is your knowledgeable friend?"
"You remember Joe's? You stood outside for about three hours last night. Meet me there tonight at six. You could even come inside this time."
She laughed quietly. "All right, I'll keep my curiosity to myself. For now, anyway. Is anyone else in town?"
He knew what she meant and didn't bother to dissemble. "Adam Pierson, he's a friend."
There was no flicker of recognition of the name and MacLeod went on. "That's all."
"Then I'll try to avoid accidentally Challenging him to a fight to the death."
"Pretty unlikely, Adam's even harder to find than you are."
She smiled and drank the last of her coffee; he reached out and took her hand again as she stood.
"It is good to see you, Ceirdwyn."
She bent to kiss his cheek and then drew away. "Six tonight."
"Right. Inside the bar."
He watched her leave, finished his coffee and then dropped a note on their bill and followed in her wake. The day was warming away the night's chill, soon the sun would begin to beat down in earnest and the streets would slow to slick molasses.
The walk home to the gym wasn't a long one and he glanced only briefly at his bed before checking the time and dialling Joe's number. He was about to leave a message when he felt the first prickling of an Immortal along his senses. They were close and getting closer fast; he dropped the phone and grabbed for his sword.
He'd almost made it to the elevator when the warning became an electric storm that rose up and engulfed him.
Within seconds the Quickening had shattered the window panes, blowing them into the apartment and shredding, shattering, whatever was in their path.
Dimly, he could hear the destruction, feel the sting of the glass as it sliced at him, but all that was lost under the torrent of images of a life he knew so well. And so little. A child, a woman, a warrior, a lover, a scholar, a priestess and a goddess. Faces lost to time, places changed beyond recognition and then gone; two thousand years of grace and terror. An Immortal.
The memories held him so his world narrowed to snapshots; the stairs, the door to the alley, the sun blinding him from the glare of a sword lying in the concrete.
A sharp noise bought him back but it wasn't until the second gunshot, and the bullet ricocheting off the metal fire door next to him, that the world abruptly snapped back into focus. He ducked but couldn't clear the sun-blindness in time to get more than a vague impression of a running figure.
His nerves felt scraped raw, the Quickening leaving nothing behind but loss and the fading traces of a woman he had loved: a crumpled figure in the colours of mourning who lay with her hand outstretched and the last few silver arcs of her life grounding themselves into the cracked concrete around her.
He knelt at her side, and he whispered her name that Andraste would know her last daughter came to her. Above them, a lone crow circled and flew away as the first sounds of sirens began to encroach.
MacLeod staggered back to his feet and turned, knowing he had to get back to the gym. Had to be changed and alert and ready to smile blandly at the police and tell them he had no idea what had blown in the windows, and what was the world coming to.
Her sword lay along the alley wall and he stooped to pick it up as he walked passed. The blade sliced his palm and made his blood a promise.
When he made it back up into the apartment, he brushed the shards of glass from the table and set the sword down; straightened it until it lay with its hilt to the West so the dawn would sharpen the blade.
Satisfied, he retrieved the telephone and, faintly surprised to find he still had power, dialled Joe's number again.
It was later. Which, MacLeod thought, was probably the story of his life.
Joe had been sympathetic and then, when he'd seen sympathy wasn't wanted, he'd been efficient.
Eight hours had seen the pile of paper on Joe's bar grow from a few sheets to files and folders that were in constant danger of sliding to the floor.
"I've got nothing solid on McCormick, Mac. His watcher lost him in-"
Joe looked up from his notes. "How'd you know?"
"It's where he was meant to meet Ceirdwyn. What about her Watcher? They must have seen something."
"The report will take a while, but Debra's good. She'll have seen something. McCormick though, he was definitely there for that meeting. She probably missed him by a matter of days. His Watcher says he drove out one night and she lost him on the back roads someplace in Suffolk. There's something else."
Joe hesitated long enough to draw MacLeod's fixed attention from the beer he wasn't drinking. "What is it?"
"Ceirdwyn was Alexis of Carvetti's teacher and she's off the grid as well – that would make three Immortals directly connected to each other missing in six months. I know the Gathering's heating up, but those aren't random odds."
MacLeod pushed the bottle of beer away and sat straighter, glad to be given something to think about. "Marcus was Ceirdwyn's teacher, but he's gone. Who's left?"
"Immediately? No one. But if they're working their way down, McCormick had – has - two students."
"Right. Carl Robinson, we have to warn him. Who's the other one?"
Joe coughed. "You're not going to like this."
That drew a sardonic half smile. "Yeah, and I'm loving it right now."
"Oh that's just ... great. That's great." MacLeod ran a hand over his eyes and tried not to slump back again. "Where are they?"
"Robinson's in New York." Joe looked momentarily awkward. "I've been keeping an eye on him."
That, MacLeod hadn't been expecting. He'd already felt faintly ashamed for treating Joe so brusquely when he'd arrived and now … nice, MacLeod. Very nice. He tried a smile. "That's good of you. Thank you."
Joe shrugged and waved the thanks and unspoken apology away. "Man with a swing like that ... Last reports on Raines have him in Illinois."
"Crime figures rising?"
Joe's mouth twitched. "Not any more – he's in Joliet."
"Shame." MacLeod gave a brightly humourless grin. "How long's he been locked up?"
"Two months. I'll get an update, see if he's still in there."
"Might be the safest place for him." The trace of amusement disappeared and he focussed on the mass of papers Joe had been flipping through. "Is there anything in the records that would suggest some kind of vendetta?"
"Nothing so far. At least, nothing current. Ceirdwyn wasn't always shy about making enemies but she dealt with all the ones I know of. I'll keep looking but records going back that far…"
MacLeod drew the bottle of beer back towards him. "I know, they're not easy to find."
"You could ask the Old Man. Course, then you'd actually have to talk to him."
There'd been no note of reproach in Joe's voice for himself but MacLeod heard it now, felt his temper flare and banked it down hard. He tried not to let it seep into his voice when he spoke and wasn't sure he succeeded. "Just let me know what you find."
Joe nodded and watched as MacLeod headed out stiff-shouldered. He allowed himself an aggravated huff of breath and then reached for the telephone.
MacLeod stepped out into the afternoon heat. The sun had begun to dip below the city skyline and the glare had him reaching for his shades.
Joe was right; he had to talk to Methos. He just didn't have to like it.
It wasn't that he didn't understand what the man had done, he did. He really did. He knew he could be judgemental, even arrogant sometimes, but to enforce his morality on a world that had ceased to exist thousands of years before he'd even been born was madness.
So his head was fully aware of that. But the tight anger, the horror and betrayal in his chest, they hadn't caught on yet. He hadn't wanted to see Methos because he'd made a career out of following his heart and this was the one time it wouldn't serve anyone well.
But Ceirdwyn, McCormick, Carl – even Raines - they deserved better than his cowardice.
And apparently his feet had already worked that out; they were walking him in the direction of Pierson's apartment.
Within a block he could feel the gentle hum of an Immortal presence along his skin, increasing as he walked closer until it was a ragged pressure that tightened his muscles and raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
He resisted the urge to keep going and stood in the street where Adam, if he took the time to look out his window rather than just making straight for the back door, would see him.
After a few minutes the buzz abated enough he could push it to the back of his mind where it belonged and only then did the front door open. Adam stood in the doorway, poised uncertainly.
"MacLeod. To what do I owe the honour?" His voice was carefully measured, somewhere between polite and reserved, but there was a harder note that wasn't quite hidden under the pleasant tone.
MacLeod suspected his best option would be to ignore it. "Can I come in?"
There was debate in the other man's expression, but finally he nodded and stepped back. "I wasn't expecting company…"
When he saw the apartment, MacLeod could understand why. There were no pictures on the walls, no sculptures, no scattered CD cases – not even a proper bed. In fact, a cursory glance around revealed only a mattress in the corner, a kettle by the sink and a mug on the kitchen island.
"I haven't decided yet." Adam leant back against the wall and crossed his arms.
MacLeod made a more overt show of gazing around. "This looks decided."
"Yes, I suppose it does."
He looked back. "Know where you're going?"
Methos sighed but some of the brittleness dissipated under a wry smile. "You aren't here to listen to my travel plans, MacLeod. What do you want?"
"Ceirdwyn was killed this morning."
"Oh." Adam straightened away from the wall and MacLeod would have sworn he saw something stricken in his expression before it tightened to impassiveness. "You don't think I-"
MacLeod had fought his impulses for most of the night but he was too appalled at the implication to fight this one, he put everything into his denial. "No!" He breathed in and lowered his voice as Adam looked more concerned than reassured. "Of course not. No."
It appeared to work; Adam looked startled but settled back. "Then why are you here?"
"She was looking for her student – Matthew McCormick. He's missing. Joe did a little digging; McCormick's not the only one. We're trying to reach his students and warn them but I want to know who's targeting them."
Adam nodded. "And there's nothing in the records?"
"There might be, but Ceirdwyn was almost two thousand years old and Joe's not found anything that far back. I thought, I hoped, you might know something."
"I'm sorry. Constantine was her teacher, though." Adam gave a crooked smile. "And he was a man with a discerning taste in enemies."
"And I took the head of Mordecai myself."
"Someone seeking vengeance for that, perhaps?"
Adam pursed his lips and clearly chose not to pursue the subject, which MacLeod appreciated. "His teacher was Flavius Sulla."
"Is he still in the Game?"
"No. Sadly for him, he suffered a series of fairly disastrous losses in Britain. The last one was his head."
"Ceirdwyn was from Britain."
"With a name like that, I would hope so. You think there's a connection?"
"When was Flavius killed?"
"Around that time, probably by the Iceni." Adam looked down thoughtfully for a moment, then back up. "That was her tribe, wasn't it?"
MacLeod tried to reconcile the knowledge with a man who'd never met Ceirdwyn, tried not to allow his first reaction to be suspicion.
Adam smirked and interpreted his expression with faintly alarming ease anyway. "I did more with the Watcher Records than look at the pretty pictures."
Apparently he was forgiven, Adam grinned. "And there were some very pretty pictures, some of them were quite distracting."
MacLeod let himself smile in return, and then he let it fade. "So he wasn't head hunted?"
"Yes and then again, no. You've heard of the Cult of the Head?"
"A theory about ancient Celtic veneration of the skull as the place of power, but it's never been proven."
"Oh, everything has been venerated as the place of power at one point or another, MacLeod. I suppose the priests thought they had to find the right spot eventually. Sean wrote about it at length, he found the concept quite fascinating. He believed that particular practise had its origins with us."
Adam looked on the verge of veering off into an academic lecture. That was something MacLeod usually forbore at worst and encouraged at best, but this wasn't the time. He gently tried to steer him back on track. "Why do you think the Iceni took his head and not an Immortal?"
"Because I think he was killed for being inadvisably Roman at them, and then his head taken for its power. Must have come as quite a shock to them that it actually had some. If it had been an Immortal, I would have known.
"His retinue claimed Iceni barbarians had descended on their camp, that Flavius killed two before his head was severed. The two he killed disappeared and so, of course, did his head. They reported lightning, but only that it struck the ground."
"You looked into it, did you know Flavius well?"
"No, not especially. I made a promise and I failed to keep it; the least I could do was uncover the circumstances. Besides, it didn't take much looking into, rumour was rife - Flavius was of the same family of Lucius Sulla."
"Lucius Sulla, the Emperor of Rome?"
"The Emperor of Rome twice," Adam corrected cheerfully. "He was a remarkable man. And at his death, the Empire knew grief." Adam – no, MacLeod thought, Methos - looked wistful for a moment and then shrugged. "I have no idea who Flavius' mentor is or was. It's more than possible that he didn't even have one."
"But it is possible this all started with him. I believe in coincidence, but not that much."
And it felt, the more threads he was given, the less he could do with them. An enemy to Challenge was all he asked for. Which reminded him.
"Whoever killed Ceirdwyn, they weren't an Immortal either. I think they shot her and then took her head."
"You always bring me the best bad news. You might have mentioned that earlier, you know. Where was this?"
MacLeod shrugged off the admonishment. "Behind the gym. I thought maybe it was a message to me, but now that doesn't make sense."
"Maybe it was opportunity, or a chase. She might have been trying to-"
"Ceirdwyn was a warrior, she wouldn't run from a fight."
"But she might run from something else. Or she might run to someone else. Maybe was trying to make sure her Quickening wouldn't be lost."
MacLeod let his shoulders slump. "Maybe."
"I take it Joe's still looking into all this?"
"Yeah. He said I should-" MacLeod winced.
Adam's smile became crooked again. "Ask me? All right, MacLeod. I'll see what I can find." He gestured carelessly at the door and MacLeod took a step towards it and then looked back.
Now there was barely a hint of a smile, but was there was seemed sincere. "I am sorry about Ceirdwyn."
MacLeod ducked his head and pulled the door shut behind him; twenty seconds later he found himself on the street at a loss. There was nothing he could do, not reasonably. The chances of running across whoever had killed Ceirdwyn in a city the size of Seacouver were small enough to be ridiculous.
He began to walk it anyway, starting to retrace the route Ceirdwyn led him through - was it really only hours before? And when he'd walked long enough for tiredness to overtake the anger and turn it to grief, he turned back towards the gym. There would be glass to sweep and a sword to clean and perhaps he'd even sleep.
Methos picked up his mug and distractedly mourned the now tepid remains of what had been the last of his coffee. He could go and buy some more, of course he could, but somewhere along the way he'd picked up the habit of finishing things before he left a place. Well, if he was given the opportunity.
It was ritual once, he did vaguely remember that, and he remembered that what couldn't be eaten or turned into the ground was burned and sent to the gods. He couldn't remember why. Mourning, perhaps? It seemed a touch melodramatic to be applying it to a jar of coffee beans, if so. But it felt right and so he did it.
Rituals could change.
Well, honestly, everything could change. But he'd noticed that most things didn't and that was what his mind was drawing circles around now.
Flavius Sulla hadn't been a stupid man. He hadn't been Lucious, but then who had? Who possibly could be? Even the mighty Caesar had crossed the Rubicon in his metaphorical wake. But Flavius been cunning and brave and, most importantly, he'd valued his relationship with the Iceni. It made him an asset to the Empire and a friend to tribe; Methos had never believed they'd killed him over something as petty as politics.
But he hadn't thought anything else of it – there had been a hundred deaths available to an Immortal then, what with Rome's predilection for removing the heads of its Patriarch elite or the barbarians for their more random dismemberment or trophy taking. If an Immortal had their head taken cleanly in the Game, they had come out ahea-. Well, they'd done well.
Sean Burns had been born when the old gods were fading into the shadow cast by the Christian's God – some more reluctantly than others – but even he had seen the significance of the Cult of the Head.
Methos didn't think the deaths of students and teachers was any more co-incidental than MacLeod did and Ceirdwyn's head, he was sure, had been taken for exactly the same reason Flavius' had been two millennia ago.
He took his coat from the bed and slipped it on, tucked his sword safely within its folds and walked out of his apartment.
MacLeod had slept and dreamed and woke and wondered which one he regretted more. He wanted to find Joe but the press of the crowd in the bar would be too much and, besides, he had a torc to polish.
He worked until the clock in the hall chimed midnight through its fractured facing and then held it up. The torc's curves caught the light and pooled it in the weaves of its decoration until it glowed.
When her body was released from the morgue he would claim it and he'd lay her to rest with her finery and her sword. For now, he gently laid the torc at the sword's hilt and then returned to now cooler streets.
He'd expected to find Joe's packed but the neon sign on the wall was dark and he could only see a single light within; it barely touched the darkness outside.
When the door opened under his touch he reached inside his coat for the hilt of his sword but withdrew it when he saw Joe sat on a stool at the bar, sorting through an even bigger pile of papers than he had been earlier.
"You closed early?"
"Didn't open, gave the staff the night off. Tuesday's always a slow night anyway."
MacLeod was still working out what to say when Joe looked up and he was caught by the tightness of his expression. "Has someone else…?"
"No." Joe lowered his head again and now MacLeod could see the weariness. "At least, I don't think so. Robinson left New York, we think he's headed this way but we lost him somewhere on the I-80."
His concern for Joe was momentarily subsumed by his concern for Carl. "That's insane, he's dead here."
"I'm pretty sure that's occurred to him, Mac. He's coming anyway. How the hell he found out, I don't know."
MacLeod had to smile; Joe looked more put out than perplexed. "The Watchers don't have the market cornered on information, Joe. We do occasionally talk to each other between beheadings and word travels faster than it used to."
"Yeah, yeah." Joe waved a dismissive hand.
MacLeod slid onto the barstool he'd deserted earlier. The bottle of beer was still there. "But Cory's where they put him, right?"
"For now. But it's only because he wants to be, you know that."
He really did. "I need to talk to him. He might know something."
"I'll see what I can do. He might not want to talk to you - you did blow him up."
"Only a little bit." MacLeod's smile flashed teeth. "And all in good fun."
"Right." Joe eyed him dubiously and then switched gears. "McCormick's Watcher sent in a report – a headless corpse was found some place called Brightwell Heath in England. From the description of the body, she thinks it was McCormick. There hasn't been time to get anyone in to verify.
"The thing is, though, none of the Immortals in the country we've got Watchers on were anywhere near there. Closest guy was a hundred miles away and he hasn't taken a head in eighty years."
"What about Ceirdwyn's Watcher?"
Joe grimaced. "Apparently Ceirdwyn was approached by a man. Debra wasn't close enough to see properly, but she said Ceirdwyn didn't react like he was an Immortal. No looking around, she didn't reach for her sword. They stepped into an alley and that's where she lost them. Back streets are a bitch."
"I think Methos knows something." MacLeod wasn't entirely sure why he thought that, but the sensation had been growing since he'd left the man's apartment and, really, it was a safe bet.
"You spoke to him?"
"Yeah. He's looking into it."
"Don't look at me like that."
"Hey, I got no look, Mac." That much was true; Joe's expression was about as clear as MacLeod had ever seen it. That was the problem. "It's good he's helping. Not like there's even anything in it for him."
"Yeah, I get the point. I didn't … I just. He slaughtered thousands, tens of thousands of people, Joe."
Joe nodded understandingly and MacLeod wasn't prepared for the question. "How many people you think you kill a year?"
He blinked. "What?"
Now the man had found a stub of a pencil and flipped the sheet of paper he'd been studying. "Okay, we'll just average it out. Some decades you didn't get out much. Other hand, some you go into battle with a really big sword. So, call it ten? That's four-thousand and change and he's ten times older than you are."
MacLeod stared at him.
"I'm just saying."
"It's not the same. I kill only when I have to."
Joe laughed. "What, when it's self-defence? You can't die, Mac. I'm not sure that applies."
"You're saying I should let them kill me? Let them kill others?" He wasn't getting angry; the confusion hadn't left enough room.
The amusement, however dark it had been, drained out of Joe's expression and left something uncomfortably close to pity. MacLeod just wasn't sure whom it was for. "No, I'm not. I'm saying everyone's got a reason and there's always someone out there who won't think it's a good one."
"You can't seriously condone what he did."
"No, of course I don't. But I can believe he'd let himself be killed before he'd risk it happening again. He almost did, and that counts for something, Mac."
"Then what's the problem?"
MacLeod shrugged uncomfortably. "Me, I think. Which is a little ironic given he's the mass-murderer." He smiled in the face of Joe's somewhat exasperated expression. "You know anything about the Cult of the Head?"
"Academic theory based on the number of skulls found that had been decorated or given special burial or built into walls. Popular in decoration in Iron Age Europe," Joe supplied promptly.
"That's... more than I expected."
The other man frowned. "I do have interests outside the Watchers."
"I know, I don't see where head worship fits in with running bars or playing the Blues."
"Well, sure, it's…" Joe's mouth worked and his hands moved expressively as if to suggest the answer was so obvious he couldn't find the words.
MacLeod watched for a while.
"Okay, fine, it's the heads. That kind of thing gets on our radar. It's just a theory, though. There's no evidence it was religious or anything but trophies or maybe a kinda morbid taste in decor."
"Adam mentioned it when I told him Ceirdwyn wasn't killed by an Immortal. He said Flavius Sulla hadn't been either and Sulla was her teacher's teacher."
"I know we're not believing in co-incidences, but that's still a hell of a leap."
"It's something to work with." And he needed something to work with; something he could polish until it shone, something Ceirdwyn could take with her.
Joe looked at him silently for a long moment, seemed to reach the same conclusion and nodded. "All right. Sulla was in Britain, right? Ceirdwyn was born there. McCormick too. Carl's from New Orleans - that breaks the pattern. What about Raines?"
"It's a pattern, I'll give you that."
"And it doesn't mean a damn thing until we can see the whole picture, I know."
He tensed as he felt first rush of another Immortal presence and then turned with on hand on the hilt of hilt of his sword; half drawing it out of his coat as the door opened.
When he recognised the lean outline, he subsided back. "Methos."
"Good evening, gentlemen … or possibly morning. What time is it?" Adam looked around vaguely for a clock and then abandoned the exercise in favour of dropping a bundle of papers on top of Joe's files.
Most of them were photocopies of a newspaper, excitingly titled 'East Anglian Daily Times.'
"You found something?"
"Possibly. They've been excavating at Sutton Hoo again."
MacLeod spread the papers out. "Sutton Hoo? Those burials were at least three or four centuries after the Romans left. Six or seven after Ceirdwyn's time."
"It's far older than that." Methos gave a strange smile – and it was Methos because Adam wasn't nearly old enough to smile that way. "Rituals change."
"All right, enlighten us."
"It doesn't really matter, the point is they've dug into a barrow at Brightwell Heath-"
"That's where McCormick was killed."
"So I gathered, and he wasn't the only one. The newspapers are all quite excited about it. Three decapitated bodies were found a week ago, the day after there was one more, none of the heads have been recovered."
Joe scanned through the articles. "What's so special about that place?"
"They're excavating because there was a find and by 'find', I mean grave robbery. I think the first three victims disturbed something. Someone." He tapped his finger down on the piece of paper closest to him. "Someone who was buried surrounded with skulls decorated with gold and gems. And the skeletons of hares."
Joe shook his head. "Skulls I get. Hares?"
"Hares were sacrificed to gain the favour of the gods. If they were killed at other times, though, it was supposed to make the killer cowardly. The Roman Legions tended to find themselves beset by hares rather a lot."
MacLeod nodded distractedly and Methos took the hint and went on. "It appears the skulls were a later addition, though. It's not often grave robbers put something back. The hares on the other hand, were buried at the same time and from the evidence it appears they were placed with significantly more care than the body was. There were no other grave goods, not even boots for walking."
Joe tilted his head, trying to read the print. "It was an insult."
"Yes. And more."
MacLeod pushed the lurid headlines away. "But if it is one of us doing this, why didn't they take Ceirdwyn's head?"
Adam restacked the papers. "That I can't tell you."
The phone rang and Joe answered, turning away to have a muttered conversation that MacLeod tried not to listen to. It wasn't long before Joe turned back. "Carl's hit town, he's at the bus station. Must have ditched his car."
"I'll go get him, just get me a line to Raines."
Joe threw an ironic salute at the already departing back and then looked to Adam and spoke once the door had swung shut.
"What aren't you telling him?"
Eyebrows rose. "Why do you say that?"
"It's a safe bet, man."
Adam grinned. "A great many things, but none of them are relevant to this. I'm as lost as anyone else."
"Which is why you knew exactly where to start looking."
One finger rose as if its owner were making a point of contention. "I knew which country, after that the facts presented themselves in all their gory detail. It's the most interesting thing this newspaper has had to report since a rain of fish in eighteen-fifteen."
Joe gave up. "So, blood feud. I can get going for Ceirdwyn if it's about the tribe but why the others? The Iceni were dead and gone centuries before they were even born."
"You said it yourself – blood feud. Tribes fostered their children out to each other to build alliances, effectively making them all one happy family and fair game when wars broke out. After a fashion, the student and teacher convention of Immortals has similar connotations. Anyone who took Richie's head would have to know that they'd find themselves fighting MacLeod before the lightning hit the ground.
"It might be our mystery Immortal is practising pre-emptive self-defence."
"You really think so?"
Adam started to answer and then hesitated as a thought occurred to him. "If it is about blood, Carl Robinson isn't any safer than Raines is."
They looked at each other for a moment and Adam finally coughed. "The bus station, you said?"
Joe nodded. "Right."
And then Adam was gone too. Joe picked up the phone yet again and tried to work out how many favours he'd need to call in to get a message into Joliet.
The Carl Robinson who stepped off the late bus was a new invention and MacLeod had to admit some relief.
He'd been worried that the street personae would be brought out to play again; instead Carl was dressed casually in slacks and a shirt. A shaven head, neat goatee and small round glasses low on his nose gave him an academic air. MacLeod's worries about him being arrested eased off; he didn't even carry himself like the same man.
Carl, grinning now that he knew the Immortal presence waiting for him wasn't after his head, shucked his bag over his shoulder and walked at MacLeod's side as they left the terminal. "I'm not even gonna to ask how you knew I was coming."
"Probably for the best. You look like a school teacher."
"Yeah, well, that's what I am."
MacLeod glanced at him, surprised and pleased and trying to hide neither. "Really? You're teaching? That's great."
"More of a social worker, I guess. But I tutor as well. I figured, all those kids, they just need a hand up. And maybe one of them will be President." Carl's grin widened and then died. "I heard about Ceirdwyn. Truth?"
"Damn. I only met her one time, but she was a classy lady."
"So what's going on, man? I call McCormick, his office tells me he ain't checked in for weeks. I go for Ceirdwyn, she tells me he's missing and the next day she'd dead. Then, suddenly, I'm being followed and I know damn well if I looked I'd see ink on the wrist.
"And you look like you know something, MacLeod, so talk."
MacLeod had a fleeting sympathy for Methos. Very fleeting - nine times out of ten, he did know something. "Not here."
Robinson paused and looked around him, abated with a faintly chagrined expression.
They both felt it then: the power of another Immortal, sliding under the skin and sharpening itself against the nerves.
MacLeod spun and searched the thinning crowd behind them for the source.
"Mac." Carl's warning was barely more than a murmur, but it was enough that he didn't jump when a hand dropped on his shoulder and turned him back to face the mystery Immortal.
He was short but powerfully built and he wore a non-descript black t-shirt and jeans but, somehow, he wasn't wearing them comfortably. On him, they were an anachronism. His hair was dark and long enough to brush his shoulders and his skin was pale – Celtic pale. So were his eyes and they were fixed on Carl without malice or interest, just strangely abstract recognition.
There were no blue swirls on his skin but that, MacLeod thought, was only because he wore them on the inside.
He appeared to be in his thirties, but the lie was apparent to anyone looking – he'd never had reason to hide his age and didn't seem to realise he should try to fit in, look the part.
The crowd was cutting a clear path around him and he suspected not one of them was even aware why.
MacLeod dragged his eyes to the other man; this one was mortal. He was probably in his forties, with closely cropped hair beginning to silver at the temples and a beaten in leather jacket despite the heat. His expression was two parts amusement and one part arrogance and MacLeod knew this was the man who had taken Ceirdwyn's head.
The Immortal stayed where he was, the smirk walked forward.
"Antedios greets you." The accent was English, closer to London than Suffolk but MacLeod was willing to bet the man had been there – probably just once - with a shovel.
"Who are you?"
"Me? Jack. Just Jack. Not important. Him, though." Jack jerked his thumb backwards. "He's important."
"Maybe he was, once. You, I'm interested in. You killed Ceirdwyn."
Beside him, Carl growled something low and dark.
The smirk ignored them both. "The bint? Yeah, I did. Bit of initiative, you know how it is. Bring him a nice new skull. He wasn't pleased about that."
"He's not the only one." MacLeod let his mouth stretch into a smile and was gratified to see the flicker of uncertainty cross Jack's expression.
It disappeared again under almost friendly, confiding tones. "Wanted to do it himself, didn't he? I said, 'Master,' I said, 'there's more.'"
Carl took a step forward and dropped his bag at his feet with a heavy sound. "You tell him I'll fight him any place, any time."
MacLeod tore his gaze away from Jack. "Carl, don't."
"This is my fight. He's going after my people. My family."
"In my territory. And Ceirdwyn was my friend long before she was anything to you." MacLeod wasn't sure whether he was trying to save Carl's life or make sure he himself had the chance to fight Antedios. In the middle of the bus terminal, with crowds and cameras, it really didn't matter.
Jack's voice rose again helpfully. "Don't forget the other one. He put up a fight, he did. I was almost worried. For a few seconds."
"He killed Matthew?" Carl sounded like the breath had been knocked out of him; MacLeod wished he'd found a way to tell the man before but there'd been no time. Antedios had picked his moment. Or Jack had picked it for him.
Jack was shaking his head. "Not killed. Not killed. Things like you can't be killed, he says. More by way of sent him home, you could say."
"Him and me, right now."
"Carl, you can't. Not here." MacLeod took a firmer grip on the man's arm and tried not to picture the scene if they started a fight in Seacouver's answer to Grand Central Station.
Antedios shook his head and then tilted his head back. A second later MacLeod felt it too and from his suddenly narrowed eyes, so did Carl. There was another Immortal, and they were coming closer. He hoped it wasn't Raines; all the eggs in one basket could only end badly.
Whoever it was, they stayed on the edges of his awareness – he had no doubt they were watching, they just weren't allowing themselves to be seen.
After a second the smirk looked around and seemed to catch a signal from his 'Master', but MacLeod was damned if he could tell what it had been. "Right then, we'll be in touch."
Jack backed away, oiled smile firmly in place. When he and Antedios had disappeared into the latest disembarking crowd and the buzz had faded, MacLeod released his grip and dropped his hand.
"I promise you, he will be ended."
Carl jerked his arm away. "By my sword. And who the hell is here now?"
"That would be me." Adam walked forward with his hands in his pockets. "Adam Pierson." One hand left confinement and was offered towards Carl, who hesitated a second before shaking it. "Carl Roberts."
MacLeod looked to Adam. "Do you know who that is?"
"I heard his name, but I'm not a walking Encyclopaedia Immortalis, MacLeod."
"Yes, you are."
Adam shrugged. "Then I seem to be missing a page. But Antedios. Anted. There was … something about coins."
The car was silent as MacLeod drove back to the bar. Carl sat shotgun, still and furious; Adam was sat in the back, a couple of thousand years away. MacLeod didn't try to make conversation, what was there to say?
The single light still shone in the bar and MacLeod tried the door; Joe was still there. The files hadn't bred by any appreciable amount but the bar now seemed to have a crop of coffee mugs.
Joe managed a friendly but tired smile of greeting to Carl and got to business. "'Raines, Cory G' committed suicide a few hours ago."
"Suicide? How?" For a moment, Carl looked more confused than angry; MacLeod didn't expect that to last long.
"He picked a fight with a guy called Tiny."
MacLeod rolled his eyes heavenward. "Right. You get someone down to the morgue?"
"Yeah, he's on his way here. Seven, eight hours out." Joe's gaze moved to Adam, who was sat at the bar and staring blankly at the mirror behind it, then back to MacLeod. "What happened?"
"They were waiting for Carl at the bus station. The Immortal's name is Antedios, the man who killed Ceirdwyn's called Jack."
"I don't know the name, but I can put a call-"
"Antedios." Adam's palm slammed down on the counter; a whip crack echo in the empty bar.
Joe aborted his reach for the phone and turned his hand towards his coffee instead. "Who is he?"
Methos closed his eyes and let out a long breath. "He was an Iceni leader, before Prasutagus. He was, I suppose you'd call him a collaborator. Flavius probably talked him into it – the Iceni didn't fight when Rome first invaded and in return Antedios ruled with the Empire's grace.
"It didn't last long, the Iceni rose up in the end anyway. He was killed in battle but he wasn't a popular leader; his own people may well have done it. He must have realised how unpopular he was, he probably had Flavius' head taken to appease his people."
Carl whistled softly. "Guessing it didn't work."
"Someone they were less angry with, they'd probably have left to rot in a ditch after tearing them apart with dogs. They buried him face up and made sure his gods would know he was a coward. That's…" Adam trailed away, shaking his head with something akin to horror.
MacLeod could sympathise. He'd been born long after the old gods had been taken by the Church and turned into reflections of themselves, stripped of their power and meaning.
But sometimes, when the rain fell too long or not enough, when too many children were born sick or dead, when the English were too many or too strong, that was when the old ways whispered and sacrifices bled and warriors were buried facing the gods below.
He shook his head. "This ends, I'll Challenge him."
Carl rounded on him like he'd being waiting to argue all night; he probably had. "No way, he's mine. You-"
Adam cleared his throat and then spoke quietly. "You're assuming he'll stand and fight. I mean, I wouldn't if I was him."
Out of the corner of his eye MacLeod could see Carl apparently calming by degrees; he wasn't fooled but this was as good a distraction as any. "The Iceni were fighters, he won't run."
"They were and he won't, but this one isn't playing the Game, MacLeod. Ceirdwyn never told you, did she?"
Joe's eyes narrowed. "I knew there was something you weren't telling him."
"Well I didn't know I had to, did I?" Adam's fingers drummed on the bar, a nervous gesture that was pure innocent researcher. MacLeod always found it helpful to know exactly whom he was talking to. "Marcus Constantine taught Ceirdwyn the Game; before that she would have taken heads because that was what she believed she should do. If Antedios has been buried all this time, no one will have taught him either.
"He doesn't know it's Quickening, he doesn't know there are rules, all he knows is that the head is where the power lies. He's not going to accept Challenges and he's certainly not going to care who's watching. It's probably sheer luck he hasn't been seen so far."
Carl's lips tightened, Joe poured ground beans into filter. MacLeod idly watched the fresh coffee percolating. "How does he even know who to look for?"
"I'm … not sure."
Adam looked, yes, furtively innocent and seemed to realise it when MacLeod opened his mouth to question. But, MacLeod thought, attempting to steal Joe's coffee probably wasn't a good plan as far as diversion tactics went.
Joe batted away the hand attempting to 'help' with the coffee making. "It's coming, and you have that look again."
Now he mostly looked betrayed. "Which look?"
"The innocent one. What're you thinking?"
"It's only a theory and it's not ready to share."
Joe shook his head. "We're not a review committee, share it anyway."
Adam's gaze flickered to Carl and then back to the percolating coffee. "I think McCormick told him."
Carl shook his head. "He'd have died first, get another theory."
"Actually, I think that was the problem."
Joe closed his eyes and resisted the urge to rub at his temples. "Will you just get on with it?"
"Fine. I think Antedios was dug up, wandered around for a while wondering what the hell happened and then ran across McCormick, who was probably investigating the deaths. I think they fought and Antedios won."
MacLeod nodded slowly. "You think he saw McCormick's memories."
"Yes. It's a fleeting experience for most of us, probably because it's unpleasant at best and invasive at worst. We repress it. But he would expect it. Welcome it."
In his mind's eye, MacLeod saw Ceirdwyn kneeling beside the body of a Challenger on a dark London street; unheeding of the mud in her skirts or the rain pulling her hair in tendrils down her face. Lips moving as she whispered. "Ceirdwyn would … after she'd taken a head, she'd talk about them. She'd recite their deeds. She said it was so their gods would know them. I thought it was just, I don't know. Her way."
There was silence for a long moment, underscored by the dulled sound of traffic and punctuated with the slow drip of the coffee.
"It doesn't matter. He wants to fight me and I am not running away, you got that MacLeod?" Carl sounded subdued but determined. MacLeod knew he was talking at a wall made of Carl's will and that wasn't something he was going to get through. But still had to try.
"If McCormick couldn't beat him, you wouldn't stand a chance."
"I've been practising and-"
Adam's light cough came again and had the same effect as it had before. He was doing it on purpose, MacLeod realised. He wasn't even trying to reason with Carl, just divert him. "Frankly, I'm not sure either of you would stand a chance."
When he had Carl's attention, Adam shrugged almost apologetically. "The Iceni were famed warriors. '…Those over whom I rule are men that know not how to till the soil or ply a trade, but are thoroughly versed in the art of war and hold all things in common'."
Carl laughed with a hard edge of scepticism. "Yeah, well, she had to say that didn't she. They were her army."
A light of sudden interest lit in Adam's eye. "You've read Cassius Dio?"
Now Carl's debatable amusement disappeared, replaced with a measuring scowl. "Any reason I shouldn't've?"
Adam blinked, apparently taken aback by the sudden venom. "Well, personally I found him to be remarkably dull. I mean, he was writing about some of the most profound and passionate moments in history and he came off like a bargain basement Thucydides. Scientific writing has its place but-"
It was Joe's turn to cough quietly. "Adam?"
"What?" He looked around at expressions ranging from disbelief to bemusement and twisted his mouth into lines that clearly thought they were all heathens. "Fine. My point was that Boudica gave that speech shortly before they burned London to the ground and slaughtered most of the inhabitants. So it could be inferred there was some truth in there."
Carl leaned forward in his chair. "They can't have been that great, the Romans beat them."
A shrug and Adam reached this time for MacLeod's abandoned bottle of beer. "Yes, well, I said they were famed for their fighting skills, not their sense of strategy."
"So if you don't think me or Carl can beat him, what's your plan?"
"Plan? Sorry, no, I was just stating an opinion." Adam avoided MacLeod's gaze but it wasn't easy; he could feel it trying to catch him.
Failing completely to catch Adam's eye, MacLeod gave up and spoke as evenly as he could. "We've done everything we can tonight. Joe, thank you. Get some sleep. Call me when Raines gets here?"
"Sure, Mac." Joe's voice was too mild as well and MacLeod suspected Adam had a whole new set of eyes to avoid. He seemed to have decided looking at Carl was his only safe option and was receiving a look of deep suspicion for his trouble.
MacLeod spoke again. "You can stay at the gym, Carl. Here." He threw the man his keys and hoped the windows had been replaced as the window fitter had promised. "I'll be along; Adam's got some research to show me."
Carl's suspicion deepened the lines on his forehead. "He does, huh?"
"Yes. He does."
Adam matched his smile and then turned it up a notch. "Yes. Research. Lots of it. With colour-coded ring binders."
Looking as though it was against his better judgement, Carl finally nodded and headed out the door. MacLeod gave him a few seconds and then looked back at Adam, who was apparently attempting to enjoy flat beer. "After you."
The man pushed the bottle away looking faintly disgruntled. "I did have plans, you know."
"Yeah, and I'm learning to worry about that."
Adam ignored Joe's cheerful wave goodbye. "And what is it now, MacLeod? Was I drinking my beer-"
"-your beer in a suspicious fashion likely to cause offence?"
When they were out in the still sullenly hot night, MacLeod replied quietly. "You're not fighting Antedios either."
"God, no." Adam glanced at the surprise on MacLeod's face and didn't smile; it would defy the point a little. "I'm not that noble. Besides, that was mostly for Carl's benefit. Antedios might have age but he doesn't have your experience, I'm sure it will be over in seconds."
"So if I went hunting for him now…"
Adam chuckled under his breath. "I would go home. I might even buy another jar of coffee. Unless you'd like me along to hold your coat? Or possibly lead some kind of cheer?"
MacLeod held his gaze longer than most people managed and Adam would have ducked his head and smiled and as good as admitted he was lying through his teeth.
Methos looked faintly bored.
Finally, MacLeod nodded. "Okay. I'm not doing anything until Raines gets here anyway. He should have a say."
Adam decided not to ask if that say would actually carry a vote given no one else's seemed to. But that seemed unnecessarily unkind in the face of genuine concern. Which was the problem, really. He'd be all for unnecessary unkindness if this were only a matter of MacLeod's pride.
He took the question behind door number two. "Do you think he'd even want to make a Challenge?"
MacLeod snorted. "Cory? He might sell tickets."
"Then it sounds like it's just you and Carl – I suggest flipping a coin. I'll see you tomorrow, MacLeod."
He walked on, one hand briefly raised over his shoulder in a goodbye. The other problem, of course, was that he really wasn't noble enough to engage Antedios in a Challenge. The good news, he was fairly sure, was that wouldn't matter.
In the end it was moot anyway, he wandered the city until dawn with only the faintest hint of another Immortal and that was high on the overpass, in the cars flashing by.
Joe had finally fallen asleep on the cot in the back around four. Now the clock across the bar declared it to be all of seven in violently blue neon that the streaks of sunlight hadn't managed to dilute yet.
To make matters worse, his guest was looking disgustingly fresh for someone who'd been beaten to death and then driven all night.
"So, then I said it had to be his lipstick and that's … where it all went black, actually. I guess the problem with counting to ten is, you have to be able to count to ten." Raines' grin widened and Joe tried, really tried, not to smile in return but his mouth treacherously did it anyway.
Raines was still wearing blue prison denims under a grey duster but somewhere between the morgue and the bar he'd managed to acquire a fedora and a sword and while he had to admire the resourcefulness, Joe really didn't want to know how.
"How'd you even end up behind bars? Your usual MO is terminally resisting arrest, right?"
"Heh, yeah." Raines shifted on his barstool and looked faintly embarrassed. "Actually it's a little ... I was going for the whole hail of bullets thing but they snuck in the back. Tear gas, stun grenades, tazers. I'm telling you, these non-lethal policing methods? They're an inconvenience, is what they are."
Joe laughed. "Yeah, yeah, it's tough all 'round."
Cory leaned forward, elbows sliding on the polished wood as he got a better view of the bar's liquid inventory. He slid right back again when Joe glared. "So, Ceirdwyn and Salisbury, huh? That's too bad."
"You don't look real cut up about it."
"Never met the lady, and me and Matt, well, it had been a while."
The flicker of expression came and went too fast for Joe to pin it down. The records only had speculation on why McCormick and his first student had parted ways and he had the feeling it wouldn't be a welcome question. That was fine, he had others. "So why'd you come?"
"You kidding? I ain't gonna sit around and wait to lose a foot from the top. Safest place to be is right here with Saint MacLeod in the way."
There was absolutely nothing but shallow self-preservation in Raines' expression and Joe would have believed it if he hadn't had practise against a much, much better liar.
"Sure. Makes sense." He gave Raines' the same amicable smile he used in the face of Adam's more obvious feints and received the same wary expression in return.
He let his smile widen. "Here, have a beer."
Raines' was looking distinctly unnerved and Joe wondered if this counted as using his powers for good. "Thanks. Speaking of, MacLeod's coming." The man's grin was quick and sharp, uncertainty gone. "Hope it's him, anyhow." He paused and seemed to be turning an entirely foreign concept over in his mind. "Which is new."
Joe looked towards the door, relaxed when it opened under MacLeod's hand and then tensed right up again when the two Immortals adopted saccharinely false smiles. It was disturbing.
"Not nearly long enough."
The smiles became grins and, okay there was a little more tooth showing, but at least they were closer to real. Joe relaxed again. "You talk to Adam about his … plan, Mac?"
"He's not going to try anything."
Cory looked from one to the other. "You want to catch me up, fellers?"
Joe slid him a bottle of beer and the articles on the Sutton Hoo murders. "We think the Immortal who took out Ceirdwyn and McCormick is called Antedios; he doesn't play by the rules and he's coming for you and Carl."
Joe was trying to work out how to fit two thousand years of history gone into as few sentences when MacLeod replied instead.
"Okay." Raines shrugged. "Who's Carl?"
MacLeod's grin widened. "Carl Robinson. McCormick's other student. You'll get on like a house on fire."
"Oh." Raines' mouth curled into a slightly less pleasant smile. "So, what, we're – and by that I mean you're – throwing dice to see who gets to Challenge him?"
"Why? You want in?"
Raines gave a snort eerily similar to MacLeod's and much the same answer as the man had anticipated. "Hell, no. Not my style, Maccy-boy."
For all that he'd been expecting it, MacLeod couldn't quite keep the flicker of contempt from his expression. "How long ago did you last see McCormick, anyway?"
"Eighteen sixty-four. Great year." Raines' lip curled. "Okay, great for me; no one else seemed to be having a good time."
"I can't imagine why."
Cory shrugged. "Hey, I didn't declare war. Can't we all just get along?"
At MacLeod's narrowing eyes, Joe threw in a distraction. "Carl coming?"
It worked. "He's on his way. He said he had to pick up a few things."
Raines laughed. "And you believed him? C'mon, if I was going after this guy – and I'm not, just so we're clear – I'd probably have to go pick up a few things too."
"Carl's smart, he wouldn't-"
"Right. Sure. Because revenge and smarts, they go great together." Cory dropped the smile but there was a spark of wicked amusement sitting at the back of his gaze. That reminded Joe of Amanda and he suspected at least half of the problem was it did the same for MacLeod.
"Come on." MacLeod hauled Raines off his barstool by the collar of the duster, Raines made a fast grab for his hat to stop it from falling.
"Hey!" The man resisted long enough to flail back and grab his beer – Joe was impressed - and then he allowed himself to be pulled along.
Joe tidied the papers, glanced at the now faded clock and went back to bed.
Raines had insisted on keeping his beer and now MacLeod was driving with one eye on the road, one eye out for the traffic police. But there hadn't been time to argue; he'd think of a way to get him back later.
Now the other man was picking at the label on the bottle and the sound was running down his last nerve. Finally, the picking stopped but it wasn't a reprieve – now Raines was talking.
"Not that I'm complaining – yet – but why not let him fight?"
"Because he'll be killed."
"So? How can you run around playing Robin Hood for nearly eight hundred years and still not care what happens to people?" -
"Honour? What does your honour mean to the starving? Show me a pound of honour, a herd of justice, a field of mercy. These people need food, not your ideals."
- "It's better that way."
The answer was too quiet, not flippant enough and it caught MacLeod's attention through the fog of irritation. "What?"
But Raines had already gone on. "Anyway, why do you get a say in what he does?"
"Because I do care, even when it isn't fun. And I owe it to Ceirdwyn." -
"And how will you feed their souls, Corwin? Will you give them fat bellies and damn them forever? Better they die in grace."
- "You're a lot like Matthew, you know that?"
"Makes me wonder what he was thinking, training you."
MacLeod was expecting an answer and turned his head when it didn't come, wondering if he'd scored an unintentional hit. -
"You who cannot die say this? You who God abandons? I could learn more from the poorest cat in the fields that catches mice for its young, than from you."
"They will die anyway. They all die anyway and that must be God's will. It must. You are a good man, Corwin, but you are still a man."
"Then I will tend to my own as he will not."
- Raines was just smiling faintly and watching the road ahead.
"Hah!" Raines was suddenly turning with exultant energy. "Got you. Man, you should've seen your face. Smile sometimes, Mac. Seriously. I mean, he was a good guy I guess, we just didn't see eye to eye on the little things."
MacLeod gritted his teeth and looked away as they pulled up in front of the gym. No Immortal was in there, he was sure, and they certainly hadn't passed one on the way.
Cory pulled the brim of his hat lower and stared up at the conspicuously Immortal-free building. "Salisbury was good. I mean, man, he was really good. Carl better?"
"No. At least, he didn't think so. But he fights dirty."
"I like him already."
"I just hope you get the chance to meet him."
MacLeod reversed the car back into the traffic, ignored the shouts and horns and drove towards the park, resisting the sense of urgency that had him wanting to speed and run red lights. The last thing they needed was to get stopped. He tapped his hands on the steering wheel in a fast beat and tried to find a calmer state of mind.
Some sense of self-preservation had finally kicked in for Raines, at least – he sat straighter and stopped smirking. "You know where he is?"
"Antedios will be somewhere he understands. He's not used to cities, he'll want open space."
Cory read the sign for the park as they sped past it and then looked back. "And he won't care about, I don't know, joggers?"
"No, he won't."
Carl could feel the low hum of the Immortal as he walked a circuit around the park. He hadn't been there often but he could remember a copse of trees at the top of the hill and he thought that would work well enough.
He's received some looks, a couple of comments – wiseasses wanting to know where the pool table was – but he'd ignored them all.
It was Antedios who was tracking him, he was sure of it, and that was just fine. Antedios could track him up here, where the city faded to nothing and the only sound was the birds calling out their own challenges high in a cloudless blue sky.
He waited under the shade of a red cedar as the sun grew higher and began to wash green leaves with gold. The grass was dry and yellowed, but unscuffed. People didn't come up here much.
And that was just fine too.
The Immortal presence stayed at the most of its range, probably at the bottom of the hill. He wasn't surprised to see Antedios' running boy coming towards him.
The man was flushed when he reached the clearing, but he managed a wheezing laugh. "Bit of a climb, isn't it? Still, nice view. I like a nice view."
"He coming up here or you gonna try and do to me what you did to Ceirdwyn?"
"Ah, no. He was very clear there. He's just giving you a moment to say your prayers or whatever."
Carl shook his head. "I got no reason to pray today, you tell him that."
"Tell him yourself, mate. He's picked up the language fast; I'll give him that. Must be nearly a thousand words now."
"So why's he still need you?"
"Not so quick with the little things. Sliding doors, we had a bit of trouble there. And the cars, of course. Less said about the airport the better, honestly."
"Why you even helping him, man?"
Jack shrugged. "Well, I had to, didn't I? He's a god."
"No, he isn't."
"He's pretty sure he is and the undying part's a bit of a clue." Jack's smile turned hungry. It stripped away the veneer of friendliness and Carl had been pretty sure the guy was insane, but now he was certain. "He'll make me like him."
Carl shook his head and fell silent, no point in trying to turn a mind from what it wanted to be truth. If he'd learned anything in almost two hundred years; hell, he'd learned that.
Besides, Antedios had begun the walk up the hill.
Carl drew his sword from the cue bag at his feet and then, he waited.
At first the presence of Immortals had guided him but now MacLeod ran up the hill towards the ringing of swords and he didn't care if Cory was behind him or not. At the edge of the corpse of trees he forced himself to stop – even if Antedios wasn't playing the Game, Carl was and MacLeod knew he couldn't interfere. Not now.
In the ring of cedars, Carl was fighting like MacLeod had never seen him fight before. There was more technique and far more discipline; he could see that within a few exchanges. Carl had always been powerful and fast, but he'd never had the control to not revert to a street brawl when it came down to the wire; he seemed to have overcome the instinct.
And Carl towered over Antedios, between two equal swordsmen that should have given him the advantage. But this wasn't even close to an equal fight; MacLeod hadn't wanted to believe Methos but he understood what the man meant, now.
Antedios fought like Ceirdwyn, but where her style had been tempered by other techniques over the years, his was pure. There was no finesse, not of the kind that MacLeod was used to. But it was sure and inhumanly relentless and Carl was already sweating while Antedios didn't look like he was even breathing hard.
Carl was fighting like MacLeod had never seen before because he was fighting for his life.
Both men were bloody with slices taken by opportunistic lunges. Even as Carl managed another hit along the other Immortal's forearm, MacLeod could see it did nothing to slow Antedios down. If anything, it energised him to greater strength, renewed ferocity.
Two more exchanges and Carl kicked out in desperation to try and gain space from the blade that was hammering though his defence. It was a mistake and Antedios powered through, knocking him to the ground in a full body rush.
When the gunshot rang out, MacLeod realised losing track of Raines had probably been a bad idea.
In the copse, Antedios and Carl had frozen: the former with his sword high and the latter with his attention on the blade with a sick, waiting fascination. MacLeod had seen that expression before; he'd probably worn it himself. It asked, 'what next?'
The moment broke apart and Carl scrambled back to his feet and backed away. He kept his sword in a low guard and tried to catch his breath.
Antedios looked about him, more perplexed than concerned.
"Er." Jack swayed and then sank to his knees. A large red stain was spreading across his chest and the material of his shirt caved unnaturally into the cavity where ribs had been. Too large a hole for an entry wound, the man had been shot in the back.
MacLeod took in the picture and tried to suppress the fierce joy that Ceirdwyn had been avenged, even if it wasn't by his own hand. He wanted the man's slow death to sicken him, he tried to find a trace of compassion but there was nothing. In his mind, he could hear the soft scratch of Joe's pencil tallying.
Jack reached unsteadily towards Antedios as blood began to bubble at his lips. His voice was caught and breathless. "Help m-"
Antedios wasn't unnaturally fast, MacLeod knew he couldn't be, they were all just men. But the efficiency of the sword strokes made his eyes blur and he wasn't sure he saw the blade as Antedios stabbed down and then around, piercing Jack's heart and then taking his head.
The Immortal stared down and then looked up at Carl. "What is?"
Only two words and they were slow and halting, but MacLeod could hear Ceirdwyn's accent – her true accent - clipped but somehow lilting at the same time.
Carl's mouth worked but it was Raines' voice that came from somewhere in the thicket of trees. "Sign of the gods. Think I saw a hare. Not an auspicious time. Call back later."
Antedios nodded sombrely. "Yes."
He backed away and then walked down the hill without a glance at the body he'd left behind.
Carl finally brought his breathing under control enough to ask "What the hell?"
MacLeod walked forward, glaring in the direction he suspected Raines had hidden. "You interfered in a Challenge? You shot a man. In the back!"
Cory walked into the clearing from about five paces left of where MacLeod had judged him to be. He trod carefully around Jack's head and body and then stopped and looked around as if admiring the scenery.
That little show over, he finally answered. "What, I should have asked him to turn around? Anyway, you said he didn't play by the rules. Why should we? And that one had a gun."
"He hadn't even pulled it!"
Raines ignored him and turned towards Carl, then held a hand out with a wide grin in the face of the other man's shock. "Hi, Cory Raines. Mac says we'll run around screaming for a while and then burn to death."
Carl blinked but Raines' grin was doing its work, MacLeod watched as he reached out to shake the man's hand almost in a daze.
Then Carl blinked again and shook the fugue away. "It's like there's no off-switch there. He don't get tired, doesn't even have a defence, it's all attack. And it's like he doesn't even know what pain is."
"So we educate him." Cory was looking thoughtful now; MacLeod added that to the long list of things to keep him up at night.
Carl frowned and looked down at his hand, then back to Raines. "You shouldn't've interfered; I'm not going to thank you."
"Yeah, that's okay. Most people don't, sooner or later." Cory grinned again but this one had barbs in it; then he turned and began to make his way down the hill.
By the time they made it back to Joe's, Adam was already there. He looked tired when he should have been the only one of them to get anything like a decent night's sleep.
MacLeod couldn't quite find it in him to be shocked the man had lied; that needed a longer run up. But hitting every red light in the city and Carl and Raines arguing over baseball and a pencil whispering over paper … well, his mood had sunk even further and he was willing to share it.
While the other two men regaled Joe with wildly differing versions of the fight, MacLeod took a seat on the barstool next to Adam. "Long night researching, huh?"
"You do a lot of thinking on your feet?"
Adam turned an ironic eye his way. "Not recently, it appears. What happened?"
"Carl went hunting, Cory interrupted the fight."
Adam grunted. He understood MacLeod's rigid adherence to the rules, he did. It was part of what made Mac, well, Mac. But he could appreciate the ones who cared less sometimes as well. Mentally, he raised a glass to Raines.
It was probably just as well MacLeod didn't seem to pick up on his ambivalence.
"You were right, Carl didn't stand a chance. I might, but I've never fought anyone like him. Even Kanwulf fought like a man, not some kind of demon."
"What about Cory? He's closer to the same time." Joe had managed to escape the grand recounting – which now, somehow, involved elephants. MacLeod looked past him and could see Carl trying not to laugh: another one to Raines.
He looked back. "So was McCormick, didn't do him any good. I've never seen Raines fight."
Adam half smiled. "Like me, he doesn't if he can avoid it. But he's been up against some fairly impressive odds when he couldn't and he's still here."
"He probably shot them. In the back. Anyway, he said he doesn't want to get involved."
Joe canted his head back. "He said that, huh? You believe him?"
"Because Carl was just going to pick up a few things and Adam's research looks a lot like a practical to me."
Adam muttered something into his beer.
"Well, Raines I believe. And the irony isn't lost on me."
Joe opened his mouth to reply and then stopped as he saw MacLeod's eyes lose focus. For a moment he thought the man has let his mind wander to the past but his gaze sharpened again quickly. He turned to Adam.
"Hares. Everything he's doing, it's religious, right?"
In a true scholarly disdain for absolutes, Adam hedged. "After a fashion."
"So chances are good he's a religious man."
"In his time, the existence of the gods wasn't even a question." Adam's expression went from bemused to amused. "Oh, I see. You plan to release a metaphorical hare."
"No metaphor. He thinks he's fighting with the blessings of Andraste; I want to see how he fights with a few bad omens. If he won't play our Game, we can play his."
The talk of elephants must have ended without MacLeod noticing because now Carl and Raines were looking over.
"You're more interesting than I thought, MacLeod." Raines grinned widely. "I like it."
Antedios sat cross-legged in the centre of the grove and stared up at the stars, ever brightening in the dusk. They were both familiar and unfamiliar, and he wondered if, somehow, this were the Underworld after all. If it was, it was nothing as the Priests had described but they were only men and men could be mistaken.
The ones who had ripped him from the earth seemed like spirits, like demons, though he knew now they were also only men. Weak men. He'd killed all but the one who called himself Jack within seconds and they'd barely done more than raise a hand to ward him away.
Ward him away as if he were the demon, as if he were some shadow-cursed thing.
When the other who buzzed in his head had come to avenge them he'd cut him down with barely more difficultly and he knew even then this could not be the Underworld, for where were the warriors?
He was sure when he saw the passage of time in the man's memory; drank it down deep and understood he was not dead. He was more alive than any around him.
And in the clean purity of the blue fire, he'd seen her face. She had been older and in strange garb and with none of the blue spirals that marked her as Andraste's and lured the spirits that she could borrow their strength and their speed.
He closed his eyes and saw her as she was. Seventeen summers and unwed: the changeling child who stood taller than many of the men. Shield maiden, though she'd lost neither child nor husband. He would have taken her as his wife but that Roman, Sulla, had kept him at bay. Sulla with his poisoned tongue and silver coins.
He'd had Sulla killed but it hadn't been enough; not when there was no skull to show that he now possessed the man's power. In the eddy of the battle his people, his own people, had fallen on him like wolves and dogs upon the fox and dragged him down into darkness. Her blade chased the last of his memories.
But soon those Sulla had touched would be his; he would claim their spirits and take their power and then, perhaps, his goddess would find him in this dark place.
Joe stood, watching the figure as it crouched almost motionless before a small cairn of stones. He wasn't sure if the man was praying or mourning or maybe both, but he could see the streaks of light dried mud that decorated his face. No Woad plants in Seacouver; Iron Age man had improvised.
Joe knew he was seeing a moment torn from time, one that probably wouldn't be seen again. Methos was old, oh was he old, but he changed chameleon-like to suit the age and the past rarely reared its head. This, though, was two thousand years. And he was going to help destroy it.
With barely a pang, he opened the bag at his side and waited for the sign.
He wondered how long he'd be waiting. When he'd left to begin the slow climb up, MacLeod and Robinson had still been 'working out the details' which, as far as he could tell, meant waiting for the chance to deck the other and then grab a sword while no one was watching.
Across the clearing there was a harsh croak and a flurried beating of wings as a raven shot up from the tree and into the twilight sky. Antedios' head jerked up, following its path with unblinking eyes. It wasn't quite the signal Joe had been expecting but ravens were on the list of omens so, taking the moment he'd been given, Joe threw the contents of the bag towards the man.
Antedios stood and spun, searching until his eyes found the bodies of the two hares lying on the parched ground. Joe could hear the ragged gasp.
The raven croaked twice, almost accusingly.
He wondered whose idea that had been. Didn't really matter; it was a good one, the Immortal looked rattled - more rattled by the raven than he did the hares and in Joe's opinion, he looked plenty rattled by the hares.
Now Antedios was spinning again, this time the blade was high. Joe was willing to bet he sensed an Immortal approaching but he still had no idea who it would be. Mac and Carl had been nearly nose-to-nose while Adam rolled his eyes and Cory...
Joe smiled faintly.
A figure slipped into the clearing behind Antedios and gave a low whistle. As the other Immortal turned, Raines bought his sword up quickly and let the edge catch the last rays of the dying sun, then threw the glare into Antedios' eyes and laughed mockingly as the man recoiled.
"You're the last of your people and your gods still turn you away."
Joe saw Antedios flinch, almost mirrored him. It looked like Cory was bang behind the plan to undermine and conquer. Joe wondered how he'd gotten past MacLeod and Carl; he suspected he didn't get past Adam. Methos, Methos would have just let him go.
Antedios bared his teeth and walked forward, not quickly but some how unstoppably. Blade met blade and all Joe could do was watch.
Cory was good but Joe didn't really expect anything less, not from someone McCormick had taken the time to train. More disciplined than Carl, with several centuries more practise, he was holding his own.
And he didn't shut up.
This, Joe suspected, may have featured the largest in his other victories. It was clearly distracting Antedios and when Cory pushed and led the man into stumbling over the corpse of the hare, Joe thought that might be it.
Until Cory's blade swung around high and Antedios' drove forward low.
Both men swayed together for a moment: it was that scene in the movies, that scene when the shot is fired and you don't know who's dead and Joe always thought that was the stupidest thing he'd ever seen. Now he wasn't sure if he was going to be able to watch that without closing his eyes again.
Cory exhaled softly and his knees buckled, he looked down at the length of metal running through his chest and somehow managed a smirk.
"Your gods? They'll like me."
Antedios stared down at him and Cory died waiting for the stroke to come, heralded by the screams of ravens.
Antedios pulled his sword free with effort but he couldn't swing, Cory's blade had cut deep into the man's shoulder and inhuman pain tolerance aside, a severed nerve was a severed nerve.
Joe watched and clenched his hands into fists trying to stop from interfering. Which was a joke, because he did nothing but interfere and one more time, one more step, wasn't going to make a difference. But he couldn't do it, couldn't take it. He couldn't define the line he wouldn't cross, but he could see it fine and it was still stretched out in front of him.
Flickers of lightning danced along Antedios' mangled shoulder, it would heal long before Cory revived. Joe closed his eyes as a man and opened them as a Watcher; the least he could do was record the Challenge.
"You know, something occurred to me." Adam's, no Methos', voice was lazy as the man stepped into the clearing. "Everyone keeps claiming they should have the right to fight you – you killed their teachers, you killed their friends … and then I remembered, it's about blood."
Methos abruptly switched from English to Latin, a tongue it appeared Antedios followed better and Joe worse. He was rusty, but he did his best.
"I claim a blood debt in the name of Lucius Cornelius Sulla for the murder of his son. My claim is just and first."
Antedios seemed surprised, but not perturbed. "Flavius was no son of his."
"Not by birth, but by blood."
Joe didn't understand but from his nod Antedios did. "Your claim is just and first, Roman."
He didn't ask to rest, he didn't ask to heal, he brought his sword up and he waited.
And Methos obliged him.
Joe had never witnessed anything so savage. When MacLeod fought it was a dance that sometimes descended to a brawl. Even Cory had a modern grace laid over old skills. They were what had allowed him to last as long as he had; Antedios had never seen anything like it.
Methos met him on his own ground, over the corpses of hares and under a burnt sky beginning to run with clouds as black as the raven's wings.
As the fight drew away from Raines' slumped figure, Joe inched forward enough to grab his collar and began to drag him back towards the tree line. Literally dead weight, it wasn't easy going.
When another hand reached to help him he startled and drove his elbow back.
MacLeod made a pained sound. "Ow."
"Wear a bell." Another hand reached forward and Joe gave up his place in the body snatching to Carl. "What happened?"
"Cory snuck away while we were arguing and Adam volunteered to go and find him."
"You should probably have been more suspicious about that."
"Yeah, probably." MacLeod's voice was low and distracted as he watched the two men on the other side of the clearing.
Carl sounded choked. "They're just cleaving at each other. The winner's going to be whoever has an arm left."
"When I was young, I heard stories about berserkers who fought like this. They killed their own as easily as the enemy."
Joe shook his head at the two swords met again, half expecting one or both to be sheered in two. "It's a hell of a thing. Cory did pretty good."
"He has a hole where his heart should be." MacLeod sounded more pedantic than pleased and Joe guessed that had to be a good sign.
"Yeah, well, right after he did pretty good, he did pretty bad. But the hare, the ravens - a warm up fight. Come on, Antedios is scary but he can't be that scary."
They watched as Antedios delivered an over-arm blow that drove Methos down to his knees.
"He might be that scary," Carl whispered. They were all whispering although Joe doubted the two fighters in the clearing would be aware of anything but each other.
Methos rolled away fast and came up with a complex driving point that was a thousand years and eight-thousand miles away from anything Antedios had ever known. He tried to block, almost succeeded as his arm took a bloody furrow from the blade's edge. And then he was looking down at the blade low in his belly.
"Time to go." MacLeod and Robinson slung Cory between them and started to make their way down the hill, trying to get away from the epicentre.
Joe limped after them as quickly as he could but stopped at the very edge of the tree line; looked back as Methos swung and severed Antedios' head because Watcher was just another word for witness.
The ravens above circled, their screams silenced and for a long moment the only sound was their wings cutting air that was suddenly charged and alive.
He turned his head away as the first strikes began to thunder down on the hill but couldn't miss the ones that ran like water down the yellowed grass and arced into Cory and then Carl.
MacLeod hurriedly backed away but the Quickening made no move to find him and Joe stood and stared. "You ever seen anything like this?"
"Once." MacLeod's lips tightened and Joe didn't pursue it.
Raines' eyes opened wide and he drew in a shattered breath; he nearly had the time to frame a question before he was hit with a second salvo.
The lightning flared and then died abruptly, leaving streaks of fading white in Joe's vision. He felt a light touch on his cheek and then another.
Slowly, the warm summer rain fell.
Carl stood over Cory, watching the last of the lightning dance and the fade in his hands. He looked at the other man thoughtfully.
Raines' stared up, still a little wide-eyed. "What?"
Carl reached down and hauled Cory to his feet, kept a hand on his shoulder to steady him. "Nothing."
They waited a few minutes but no figure appeared through the trees and made its way down to them and MacLeod knew a hint when he saw one. This time, he even decided to take it.
"Bar still open, Joe?"
Joe nodded. "Yeah, I think it can be arranged."
"Good idea, you know, with the ravens."
Joe stared at him and then shook his head as he followed them towards the cars. "Wasn't mine, Mac."
Joe stood behind the bar and watched; it was what he did. He watched Cory and Carl not looking at each other as hard as they could, so busy not paying any attention they ended up sitting side by side in the booth. The shared Quickening had shown them something, done something, but Joe suspected he'd be left to speculate what it was.
He wondered if that was why the Old Man still hadn't shown.
But at least they were all talking to each other, it had been touch and go for a while there.
Carl pushed his bottle of beer to the side of the table and searched around for a full one. "So, Cory's gonna to give me a ride back to New York."
MacLeod slid a bottle over. "Keep him out of banks and you might even make it."
"Hey! I haven't pulled a bank job in years. There's easier ways to make a buck," Raines nodded earnestly.
"Are any of them honest?"
"Why do you keep insulting me? What've I done to you?"
MacLeod sat straighter. "You want the list?"
Raines held up a hand. "Let's not forget who blew who up, here."
Carl raised an eyebrow. "You blew him up?"
"He blew me up first!"
"That was an accident and the marching band was not my fault."
Joe listened with half his attention, the rest of it on some recreational stock taking. He didn't miss the way MacLeod kept glancing the door; knew he was wondering whether Adam had skipped town.
"How'd you even meet McCormick, man?"
"He had me hanged. And you'd think it'd be hard to go down hill from there, but I got better stories. One time? Me and him were at this banquet and…"
He didn't miss the way MacLeod finally relaxed when Adam pushed open the door, soaking wet and complaining loudly about transport and umbrellas and bloody shops that didn't stock jars of coffee.
"So Ceirdwyn," MacLeod had to stop and contain his laughter, swallowed it down and continued. "Ceirdwyn is telling Bonnie Prince Charlie that he'd make a fine woman and red's definitely his colour…"
So the bar stayed closed again, except for one table where history was passed around like a fine bottle of whiskey and Joe listened as they spoke the deeds of the dead, that their gods would know them.