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The Seduction of the Desert Prince

Chapter Text

The roar and the press of the market filled Methos' ears, along with the cawing, screeching, and lowing of animals seeking food. The heat of day already baked his skin, the discomfort familiar and unremarkable as he hurried along his way.

He turned the corner to the main square and pulled to a full stop, as the sense of another Immortal shot through him. A slave stood on the dais, interested buyers surrounding him, touching him, noting the strength of his flesh -- and the wildness of his eyes. Methos' breath caught in his throat. Even in chains, the man was magnificent. His tanned skin gleamed from the oil they had used, his muscles sharply defined beneath the skin. The auctioneer cried to the crowd of how this barbarian was the last survivor of a brutal fight and yet he had no mark upon him.

As Methos watched, the various interested buyers poked and prodded, squeezing biceps, pulling open the man's mouth to check his teeth, actions that must have been humiliating for such a proud looking creature. He kept expecting the man to rebel, regardless of the well-armed guards that stood behind and to either side of the dais. The man's fury was apparent in the small lines between his brows and his rigid stance, but beyond that he seemed oblivious to either his treatment by his would-be masters or the milling crowd. Indeed, even though Methos knew the man must have sensed him, the only concession he gave was to drop his eyes to scan the crowd, and a slight tensing of his body, barely perceptible given his already unyielding attitude.

And what a body it was, such as could keep a man awake at nights with lascivious thoughts. Methos completely forgot his errand, captivated by the vision in front of him. Irresistibly drawn, he forced his way through the crowd to get a closer look. When he arrived at the foot of the platform, it was readily apparent that his purposeful forward motion had caught the man's attention. Their eyes met briefly, long enough for Methos to know that he had had an impact on the other man as well. Whether it was his hot gaze, or the man's helplessness in the face of Methos' Immortality, it was enough to make the stranger uncomfortable. Methos let his gaze drop to inspect what was on display. Long dark hair cascaded around broad shoulders to the middle of his back, draping a chest of alluring strength, itself covered with thick dark hair that trailed enticingly down the muscular frame. Methos' eyes wandered along this path, lingering on the flat stomach with its tantalizing hollow, moving on to where it disappeared into the cloth that swaddled the man's hips. The material was scant, so as to prove that there were no hidden injuries or deformities, and did little to conceal the man's powerful hips and thighs, or the prominent evidence of his masculinity.

Methos' eyes traveled at a leisurely pace back up the sinewy frame to a face of exceptional masculine beauty. Even in his rage, the man had a face that reduced Methos' insides to a molten state. Strong cheekbones, and a mouth that made Methos long to feel it caressing his body. The lips were lush and full, even when tightened in anger. He continued drawing his gaze upward, only to find it captured by a pair of superb and obviously infuriated brown eyes. He held the gaze for long moments this time, the noise and stench of the crowd fading from his awareness as he saw the intelligence and mortification underlying the passionate anger. This was indeed a prize worth having.

Tearing his eyes away at last, he called out to the auctioneer. "Does he have any special skills?"

* * *

The auctioneer's voice rose and fell, but Duncan could not understand a word. He held himself still as the hands obscenely stroked him, knowing there was no point in trying to get away. He did not know what city he was in nor the language being used; he would have to endure this until he could make a plan. Although, with another Immortal here, that plan might simply be to find a sword before he died. He smiled to himself. At least there would be honor in that; there was no honor in being a slave.

Movement at the edge of the crowd drew his eye, and the Immortal he'd seen drew in close. Hope surged at the thought -- he might not need a sword. An Immortal's loyalty lay with other Immortals, perhaps this man would buy him merely to keep him out of mortal hands, to keep the Immortal secret safe. Duncan could finally make out the fair features under the swath of black that covered the man from head to toe. Pale skin and well-formed features, lips that drew the eye, framed by a narrow beard, and a searing, piercing gaze... he quickly looked away, those eyes knowing more than Duncan could even understand, yet he could not look away for long. The strength and desire he'd glimpsed drew him like a moth to flame, and he shuddered to think of his duties should such a man --such an Immortal -- buy him.

Helplessly looking back down at the dark figure, he was outraged by the man's slow and thorough examination. He could almost feel the eyes burning along the length of his body, and was appalled to feel his own body reacting to the inspection. Steeling himself, he met the heated gaze as it rose to his face, and tried to convey his anger and his contempt for the man. He's a fool if he buys me. He'd never be able to trust me. I'd force him to kill me before I'd give in to him! But in spite of his rebellious thoughts, he found himself unable to look away this time, and felt himself shudder imperceptibly at the warmth in the man's eyes.

He was startled when the gaze was finally broken, not realizing until he was set free that he'd lost track of his tormentors. Most of them seemed to have been satisfied by their examinations and moved aside until the bidding started. Duncan had watched enough of the sales of his fellows to know the process. Then he heard a voice lifting above the noise of the crowd, and realized it was his black-garbed examiner, asking a question of the man in charge, if he could judge by the tone and the auctioneer's reaction. The latter man shrugged, adding a few things in the liquid language, and motioned to the dark figure to come forward. Pushing his way to the stairs, the man began to climb to the platform.

Duncan's breath caught in his throat as he realized what was happening. He had withstood the prodding and exploration of the men here to buy so far; none had shown any interest in him as anything but livestock. But this man's look had been different, and not of the kind Duncan expected. From an Immortal, MacLeod expected to be judged as a potential opponent -- or perhaps an ally -- as some sort of player in the Game. But this man looked at him with different eyes, assessing another type of potential in the strength of his arm and the muscles of his thighs. Though not used to receiving that sort of sensual appraisal from a man, there was no mistaking its intent. The thought of enduring the man's hands roaming over his body as he had those of others....He felt himself flush with a heat that was not due to the burning sun. He consoled himself with the thought that it shouldn't be too bad in such a public forum.

It was worse. He was all too aware of each time the man laid a hand on him, the way his fingers seemed to tease and caress, instead of merely testing his flesh. Worst of all, his own body reacted as if this were any woman he'd ever had touching him like that; he felt himself grow hard. The murmuring of the crowd grew stronger, and he seriously considered closing his eyes to avoid the shame. With all the strength of will he possessed, he pushed the arousal aside, and calmed himself as best he could -- until he caught the other's eyes.

A small, mocking smile teased the man's lips as he stared openly at him, and with a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach, Duncan knew this man was a not an ally. Aye, he would buy MacLeod, he would own him, he would take another Immortal as slave. He clenched his hands into fists and looked away, wrapping his anger around himself like a shroud, unwilling to let it go. The man might buy his flesh, but he would never have his soul. As soon as Duncan could manage it, he would challenge the man and be done with this charade. Honor would eventually be served, and no man would willingly be another's slave.

* * *

Methos was both amused and further aroused by the challenge in the slave's eyes. It had been a long time since he had felt his interest so piqued. He had deliberately provoked the other man during the expected examination, allowing his fingers to linger unnecessarily, though not so long as to arouse the attention of anyone but the intended audience. And he had felt the man's unwilling response. However much he tried not to, the man had also been aroused by Methos' attentions. This had been readily apparent when Methos had turned his back to the crowd and deliberately raised his hand to his lips, dripping with the captive's sweat, and allowed his tongue to flick out and capture a droplet. The tremor that had traveled through the man's body had almost immediately been stilled by his iron will, but not so quickly that it had not been seen. And both men were aware of it.

As if to deny it, the slave spoke, and his voice seemed firm and defiant. "I am Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod!" He waited, obviously expecting some response. The guards moved forward as if to chastise the man, but Methos waved them away. He continued to simply gaze at the man curiously, as if he had not understood, and saw the frustration rise. A Scotsman, then. A long way from home, and from his clan. Adrift in a very different environment, but one with some similarities to the desert home Methos currently claimed. Each with its emphasis on family connection, and respect for lineage and authority. He would enjoy instructing this man in the proper respect for his owner.

Methos had no doubt but that the man would be returning with him to his encampment. It would be necessary to go through with the motions of the auction, but the outcome was in no doubt. He descended the platform in a black swirl, and waited for the auctioneer to begin. He glanced around, sizing up his fellow buyers. There were surprisingly few, probably because most of them had decided that the effort needed to tame such a barbarian would outweigh the potential benefits. He looked like a man ready to die rather than surrender. What most of them did not know was that for this man, such a death would not be permanent.

It seemed that there were two men most determined to win; it was unfortunate that they were rabid adversaries, likely to drive the price up farther than he wanted to go, although his determination was such that he would, if forced. One he recognized as the agent for a private household; the other was a buyer for the local palace. Fortunately, he knew that both men were open to the persuasion of personal gain. Beckoning to one of his men, who were loitering on the edge of the market, he gave instructions and watched as they were carried out. When the bidding finally began, the auctioneer showed mild confusion at the pointed lack of interest from those who had been most keen only minutes before. Methos let it go several rounds to estimate the remaining amount of interest, before doubling the highest bid. As he had known he would be, he was now the impatient master of a mutinous slave, and some eighty dinars poorer.

Chapter Text

The first day of the trip would have been easier if Duncan had been able to sit upright, but his 'Master' apparently had no intention of treating him so gently. The instant money changed hands, he'd been escorted from the dais in chains and then half dragged, half led to a small camp outside of town, where he was dropped onto the ground. The man in black vanished, and Duncan found he was to wait while his owner finished whatever business had been originally planned. Time weighed heavily on him as he sat, his chains dragging against the bare flesh, the heat of the day tinting the metal. The men stared at him without rancor, most of them curled up into makeshift shades as the day progressed. Duncan sweated a river as he waited, the only sound here the buzzing of flies. His throat dry and parched, he tried to stand to go in search of water, but the guard closest to him shoved him to the ground and drew his knife. They stared at one another; Duncan wasn't exactly sure what the instructions had been, but from the reaction, he guessed he wasn't going to be allowed to move.

"Water?" He looked up at the man above him, but the guard simply held the knife ready, as if Duncan were a talking monkey, or possibly something even less intelligent. Duncan thought a moment then mimed drinking from a goat-skin flask. "Drink?" he asked again. The guard yelled to the others, and a water flask was tossed at the Highlander, who eagerly drank down half.

"Thank you." He handed the flask back, and the guard squatted down in his shade, totally silent and detached. Twice more they went through the water ritual, but that was the extent of his interaction with the guards. No one talked to him or gave him clothes, and no one removed his chains. Duncan occupied himself with watching the men and noting how they carried themselves and what that said about the man who had bought him. Every bit of information he could gather would help when the time came for escape. Unfortunately, one thing he discovered was that these men had a great deal of either respect for or fear of his captor. Even in his absence they remained disciplined and alert.

When his owner arrived, the silent camp became a whirlwind of activity, as crates and boxes were loaded onto camels to carry. Duncan found himself being treated no differently than a couple of goats that had been bought, and ended up roped to a rug and a pair of clay jars filled with scented oil, the heavy scent of which masked the smell of the camel he laid upon. His attempted struggle only meant that he had a few bruises to heal, in addition to the humiliation of the guard's obvious amusement. The only concession made to his comfort was the cloth tied over him to protect him from the desert heat. He was kept adequately watered during the trip, but by the time they stopped for the night near an oasis, his body was filthy and sore. When he was pulled from the camel, he could barely stand.

They left him chained near the well as they went about efficiently setting up the camp. No one stood guard over him, but he was aware that he was being watched. This band was anything but careless. Escape would be difficult, but he refused to consider that it might be impossible. And it would be best done quickly; the further they moved from the city, the more difficult it would be. Already he feared that he would be lost as soon as the camp was out of sight. Lost in his thoughts, he stiffened at the realization that the man in black stood only a few feet away, watching him as if reading his thoughts.

* * *

Methos realized that the Highlander was aware of his presence. He crouched down in front of where the slave knelt next to the stone rim of the well, unmindful of his own dignity. "Are you thirsty?" Slowly, reluctantly, his captive nodded, and Methos tried not to smile. It would be good for the Highlander to grow dependant on him, to see him as someone who provided for his needs. It would engender good will, and make the training less difficult. He'd broken too many slaves by being heavy-handed, and he had no desire to break this one's spirit. Part of what attracted Methos to him was the fire, the defiance of his own deeper nature, a battle similar to the one Methos fought every day. Learning to accept this part was never easy, but it would stand the man well in the long run.

Methos drew a bucketful of water from the well, then held the dipper for the Highlander to drink, watching him closely as he did so. The water was fresh and cold, and his captive let a bit run down his chest. Methos' eyes followed the rivulets as they ran down his belly, knowing his hunger showed in his eyes. The slave obviously noticed as well, and Methos could see the muscles tremble under his gaze.

* * *

As his owner watched, Duncan felt his muscles involuntarily tighten in response. He assured himself that it was revulsion he felt, but some part of him was aware that he was lying. Women were never so open with their desire as this man was, and part of Duncan returned the interest as well, much to his shock. He tried to shove the feelings aside, but they lingered, even as the man spoke again.

"So, you who were Duncan MacLeod who was of the Clan MacLeod." The man smiled at Duncan's outraged look. "Yes, I speak your language. You belong only to me, now. You have no name but what I give you, nothing but what I allow you, Highlander. Best you learn that soon -- I am a demanding teacher. " His hand came out and followed the damp trails from Duncan's shoulders downward. His palm traced over a nipple already hardened by the cool water, and rubbed in small circles so that the nipple was the only point of contact between the men. The smile widened as the man took in the flare of Duncan's nostrils, and the lightly-bitten lower lip. Then the hand flattened against the cooled skin, and the long fingers trailed downward. Duncan refused to move away, to give the man that satisfaction, but it felt as if the heat that followed the man's touch on his skin burned away any droplets that the dryness of the desert had left behind. He held himself absolutely rigid as the tips of the man's fingers trailed under his scant loincloth, curving over the sensitive muscle of his lower abdomen.

"We should get you some clothes, even though it is a shame to cover such a beautiful body." The man's whispers barely carried to Duncan's ears, and combined with the intimate touch, they had the effect of isolating them from the bustling movements of the rest of the camp.

When the man pulled back his hand, it was all Duncan could do not to let his relief show. He felt weak; surely it was the result of the degradation and trials of the last few days since his capture. "And when do you take my head?" he spat out his contempt, attempting to distance himself from the other man without letting his uneasiness show.

"Your head? What do I need with that? I've paid good money for you, I'm not going to throw it away needlessly." He looked at Duncan consideringly. "And I have no interest in your Power. At least, not if you're dead."

The last was said in a tone so insinuative and seductive that Duncan could feel the flush rising in his face. "If you were any kind of a man at all, you'd give me a sword and accept my challenge, not keep me chained like an animal!"

The man looked at him curiously. "How old are you, Highlander? Are you one of those who believes that we live only to kill one another? Have you not learned that we needn't always be at war? That sometimes," he drew a hand down the strands of hair that fell over Duncan's shoulders, then looked him straight in the eye, "we can share much more than battle?"

"I am old enough to know that there is no honor in what you intend! At least let me protect that, if it is all you will leave me!"

His captor looked at him consideringly, then snapped his fingers, motioning to one of the men to come closer. He reached within the voluminous folds of his garments to retrieve a key. "Lift your arms." To Duncan's relief, his owner finally unlocked his chains. Turning to the guard, he held out his hand. "Give me your sword."

The man looked from his chief to the barbarian slave in astonishment, but moved to do the man's bidding. Looking over his shoulder, Duncan saw that they had attracted the attention of another of the men, one he had seen attending his captor. Seeing the activity, the man drew closer, concern on his face.

* * *

"Rashanal, what are you doing?!" Namal clearly thought his leader had lost his mind.

"Indulging my new acquisition, Namal. He wished to fight me for his freedom." Methos looked at the horrified look on his companion's face with amusement. "Don't concern yourself, old man. He'll not win. If nothing else, he's exhausted."

"You are insane! He is a slave, to arm him like this-" The other man's consternation was great.

"Enough." The tone brooked no further interference, and Methos turned back to the Highlander, and English. "You wish to challenge me? Very well, let us play. Although, you do realize that if you win, you win nothing but a quick death. Followed very probably by many more slow, lingering deaths of starvation and thirst. Do you wish to continue?"

"Yes. Whatever the result, it will be better than being your slave!"

"Oh, Highlander. You have no idea what it will be like to be my slave. You have so much to learn." The man's silky tone obviously discomfited the slave, who nevertheless took the sword he was given and moved into a fighting stance.

* * *

At first, Duncan thought that he had a chance at winning. His opponent was obviously skilled, but more tentative than he would have imagined. All too soon it became apparent that he had been playing with Duncan, testing him and drawing him out. No sooner had he realized this then he found himself disarmed by a movement that carried his opponent behind him. Quicker than he could react, he found himself tightly held, pressed back against the other man's body with a sword at his throat. He stood still, feeling the other man's chest heave against his back.

From behind them came a smattering of pleased words from the crowd that had gathered during the short fight. His captor turned his head briefly to call out a few commands, then turned back to Duncan, pressing his mouth close to the Highlander's ear. "Shall I finish it, Highlander? Take your head? Is your virtue worth dying for?" His words feathered along Duncan's ear, lips lightly brushing the whorls of flesh.

"Do it." Duncan braced himself, preparing for his warrior's death, content that he had preserved his honor.

"I think not. As I said, I've paid good money for you. And now, I've spared your life, as well. I own you twice over, Highlander." Steel entered the still-soft tones. "You are mine, to do with as I will. If I choose to kill you like an animal, that is my right. If I choose to enjoy the pleasures of your flesh," he pressed his hips tightly against Duncan's buttocks, revealing his obviously aroused state, "that is also my right. You have nothing to say about it." He bent his head to lick along the salty length of the Highlander's throat.

Duncan shivered, a hot breeze chilling his sweaty flesh. But the raised flesh along his arms owed little to the breeze, and much to the feel of the body pressed against his, the mouth tasting his flesh. He felt beset by fury, panic, and other, unnameable emotions. Feelings that he would not name for fear of what he might find.

The man who held him raised his head to breathe again into his ear. "You may be immortal, but there are a hundred ways to die in this desert, and I would find you before you had a chance to revive. I will have your word that you will stay here tonight, or your chains will go back on and stay on until we arrive at my home. Do you understand?" The sword against his throat tightened.

"You would trust my word? Even after I've shown my willingness to kill you?" Duncan found the idea that a man who would enslave another would accept that captive's word puzzling, and disturbing. "What is to keep me from agreeing, and then fleeing as soon as I may?" He held himself absolutely still, leaning slightly into the sword to lessen the disturbing contact at his back.

"Nothing, truly. But you obviously value your honor." There was amusement in his tone. "And there's the small detail of what will happen to you if you do violate your word. Punishment will not be scant, and it will take your immortality into account. And each time you flout me, the punishment will worsen." He paused to let his words sink in. "Do I have your word, or shall I replace the chains?"

Examining his options, Duncan realized he had none. Either he gave his word and gained a bit of freedom, or he withheld it, and spent the night in discomfort. And as the adrenaline of the fight left him, he realized that he was in no condition to risk the desert, even if the idea appealed. Tiredly, he nodded. "You have my word."

"Good." Methos removed his sword and stepped back, slapping Duncan on his shoulder. "Besides. We both know that even had you won, you wouldn't have killed me." He smiled at the look the defeated man gave him as he turned. "You don't want me dead, Highlander. No matter how much you tell yourself you do." He smiled at the confusion on Duncan's face. "Come with me and I'll see that you get some clothing before we eat.î He shook his head. "Though I am tempted to..." He smiled at Duncan's obvious reaction, and leaned in close, curving one palm against the other man's strong chin. "Have no doubt, Highlander. You are mine, in all ways, and in all things." He stroked his thumb over Duncan's lips, pressing them apart to caress the clenched teeth and soft inner skin. "And I will make you love it."

Duncan snorted in disbelief, and then in outrage as his mouth was possessed by the other man. Fingers tightened harshly on his jaw, forcing his mouth open to the brutal, intimate invasion of teeth and tongue. His head was held in place by the hand twined in his hair, preventing him from jerking away, and the kiss was over before he could gather his wits to push the other man away. He tried to ignore the stirring in his blood caused by the feel of the other man's mouth on his.

"Temper, temper!" At the confused outrage on Duncan's face, the man's laughter rang out over the camp, drawing the attention of several men briefly, before they turned back to their work. "Oh, you will be such a challenge! Come!" He turned on his heels and walked several steps before turning back to where his dumbfounded slave stood. "Come. Now." The steel in his tone was evident, and Duncan felt a slight shudder roll through him as he stumbled towards the man claiming to be his master.

His lips felt bruised and swollen, and he could still taste the other man in his mouth. He had to escape. If he couldn't find the means, his only hope was to provoke the other man into taking his head. He would not endure the humiliation this man promised.

* * *

Methos found himself well-pleased with his new purchase. Already the man showed promising signs of confusion, his sensual inclinations obviously warring with his chosen principles and training. In the short time they'd had, the Highlander had demonstrated a strong sense of honor and a willfulness that was very attractive to the ancient Immortal. Methos had become bored lately with playing the desert prince; the challenge presented by this beautiful creature might prove the tonic he needed. For it would be a challenge to have the proud man eating out of his hand and, more importantly, eagerly sharing his bed. He would have to proceed cautiously so as to encourage that sensual, abandoned nature he could sense, without extinguishing the fiery spirit that burned so brightly.

He knew better than to push too far too fast. It would be several days until they reached the encampment. Having demonstrated both his hunger for his body, and his willingness to trust the Highlander to keep his word, Methos would give him the rest of the trip to consider these things. The hardest part would be to keep his hands off the luscious creature. He would simply have to stay away from him completely. He could turn him over to Namal's care.

Striding through the temporary camp with the bemused slave at his heels, he sought out Namal. Earlier that morning, the elderly man had expressed his displeasure with the unplanned purchase. "You are letting your senses overwhelm your sense, Rashanal! This child will be more trouble than he is worth!" Methos had been amused. Namal had been with him a long time, long enough that they had established a friendship of sorts, one that allowed the older-seeming man to speak his mind without fear of Methos' sometimes volatile temper.

"And I say you are wrong, old man. It's precisely that scent of trouble that makes him worth so much to me!" Methos had replied. He smiled now at the memory of the man's face that morning as Namal threw up his hands in despair. He always tried to get Methos to reconsider his more impulsive decisions, and he had been an excellent advisor in most areas. He never would learn that it was best not to intrude on Methos' personal pleasures. Coming to himself, Methos saw the man he sought giving instructions to the guard. "Namal! I have another burden for you!" The man slapped the guard on the shoulder and turned to his chieftain, his face falling somewhat when he saw Methos' companion. "Find him clothes, and a place to sleep. I have his word that he'll not try and escape." He laughed at the skepticism on the other man's face. "Come, he's a bright boy! Once I explained the dangers of the desert, not to mention the dangers of thwarting me, he was sweet reason itself! He has no desire to die, at least not in that fashion. Namal, this is the Highlander." As he watched, the slave dipped his head in recognition. "He is your charge until we reach home. I do not want to savage his sensibilities too badly this soon." Leaving the two men together, he turned towards his own shelter, sparing one last lingering glance for the confused slave he left behind.

* * *

After his owner had summoned the man named Namal and given instructions about clothes and food for the exhausted slave, Duncan had been left more-or-less alone, apart from intermittent contact with Namal, who saw to his feeding and sleeping arrangements. He had been given blankets and a place near the fire, but except for some curious though well-concealed looks, had been left to himself. However, he was never left completely alone, and had found no opportunity to escape. After his buyer's warning he recognized the futility of trying to escape on foot, and the horses were so well-guarded that he admitted the unlikely chance of obtaining one by himself. Even had he been able to secure a mount and get away from the camp without being seen, the desert made an effective prison. Without a guide, he might wander for days before thirst killed him, or his horse--and the sand would make tracking him laughably easy as soon as he was missed.

He was also aware that he had given his word. This confused him badly. He had not expected to be given the trust his owner had shown in letting him roam as freely as he had. To be considered a slave, and yet have his word treated so well puzzled Duncan deeply. Added to that was his uneasiness at how easily his owner apparently read him, knowing that Duncan would not have taken his head, even if he had won. What kind of man was this?

Chapter Text

Duncan kept to his side of the bargain not to try and escape, while his owner kept to his bargain as well. Duncan was allowed to ride the rest of the trip unchained, rather than be treated as cargo. While his body still ached from the unfamiliar jolting of the camel's pace, it was a far cry from the humiliation and pain of the first day. Contrary to Duncan's immediate fears, his owner had not pursued any further intimacy during the several days it took to get to his home encampment. But as the days slowly passed, Duncan was appalled to realize that he was almost resentful that the man had made no further overtures. He told himself it was only because it meant that Duncan had been almost completely isolated, as none of the others spoke his language; but his mind kept turning on the way his body had reacted to the man's touch on the auction block, and at the oasis. Deep inside, he longed for the journey to end, to see what his owner would demand.

After all this, it was a relief late one afternoon to sight what was obviously the main encampment. Spread out in and around a much larger oasis, it was the size of a small village. As they approached, several of the men let out with a ululating cry that was answered from below. Breaking ranks, the men raced forward, to be met by an enthusiastic crowd. Duncan was surprised at the numbers of women and children, and wondered what role his captor played to these people. He was still unsure of the man's name, though he had overheard some of the others refer to him as "Rashanal", always in tones of great respect and affection.

As they neared the compound, he noticed a slight figure race towards his captor's mount and hurl itself into his arms as he slid from the saddle. After a brief but passionate greeting, the man beckoned to two of his men, and with his arm still around the figure clinging to him, moved in Duncan's direction. His gut clenched tight with apprehension as the group approached. He slid to the ground and watched his captor giving directions, his tension increasing as the gestures indicated that he was the subject of discourse. Close to, the term "Highlander" became apparent, adding to Duncan's unease.

The figure at Rashanal's side resolved itself into a young woman, dark-eyed and lovely of feature, who turned to stare at Duncan with obvious hostility as she listened to the man's words. Suddenly she flung herself aside and with raised voice, seemingly began to dispute something Rashanal had said. Without hesitation, the man in black calmly raised his hand and backhanded her, stopping the flow of angry words and knocking her to the ground.

Outrage filled Duncan. "You canna do that! She is a woman, deserving of protection."

The black figure turned to him. "She is a slave, Highlander, as are you. And in my camp, I may do as I please." He looked down at the woman, drawing Duncan's attention back to her. "She knows it is my right."

Although it had not been a gentle blow, the woman was clearly more stunned than injured as she gazed upward in shock and disbelief. When Rashanal spoke again in their native tongue, his tones were clipped and even, his displeasure apparent. The woman nodded reluctantly, touching her cheek with one hand, and responded hesitantly, her tones respectful, if still resentful. Nodding once in approval, he turned to Duncan, catching his chin lightly in his hand and examining the exhausted features. When he spoke, his voice was gentle. "You will go with these men. Tahirih will see to your needs." With a brush of his thumb across Duncan's lips, Rashanal turned to see to the disposition of the goods, leaving the woman and two men to see to his newest acquisition.

Duncan watched him go, trying to reconcile the conflicting feelings this man aroused in him. A slave. He turned the word around in his mind, trying it on and instantly rejecting it. He was a warrior -- a fighter -- and had been such for nearly sixty years. He was no man's slave. He would figure out some honorable arrangement to pay back Rashanal and go, and maybe take the girl with him. She should not have to endure this either.

He turned to her, but the hostility Duncan had seen in Tahirih's eyes previously was mild compared to the fury that was apparent now. Contrasted with that were the amused looks exchanged between the guards as they motioned for him to follow them, gesturing to the woman to precede them. She answered haughtily, and Duncan noticed the irritation that whatever she said evoked in his guards. It was clear to him that she considered herself above taking direction from anyone but Rashanal himself.

She had obviously been Rashanal's favorite, at least, until Duncan showed up. He flushed at the implications of that thought. This was too much to think about; it was madness. He would have wait and see what was to happen, as it looked like Rashanal had no interest in his head -- just his body. His mouth still tingled where he could feel the brush of the man's thumb across his lips. He tried to focus on the rage that had re-emerged with Rashanal's callous treatment of the girl.

The woman tugged his arm, and they set off again toward the center of camp. Duncan found himself the object of much curiosity as he was led through the encampment to a large, centrally located pavilion. Tahirih called out to several other women as they moved, who then bustled off in different directions. The guards lifted the flaps and motioned him and the woman inside, then followed them in, standing to either side of the door. Duncan looked around in amazement at an interior that was much more luxurious than he would have anticipated. Thick rugs covered the canvas floor, and were in turn littered with low, comfortable looking furniture. He was also surprised at the number of books that were tossed hither and yon on tables and pillows.

Tahirih moved through another set of flaps to an inner chamber, then impatiently stuck her head out and motioned to him to follow her. The guards remained in the outer chamber, making it clear by their gestures that they would be close if he tried anything foolish. Looking around, he flushed again as he realized that this must be Rashanal's own tent. Impulsively he moved to leave, but was stopped by the guard, whose amusement was again obvious. As he turned back reluctantly, the women that Tahirih had spoken to earlier came through the outer door, bearing piles of fabric and pails of water, laughing and chattering among themselves. He was gathered up in their movement, and returned to the inner chamber.

As he stood awkwardly, water was poured into a small bath, and towels and ointments laid out. He found himself the object of thorough scrutiny, and not a few winks and lascivious glances, all of which served to stoke Tahirih's ire even higher, and confirm some of his own worst suspicions. When the preparations were complete, she imperiously ordered the women out again, and they left, albeit reluctantly.

Motioning to him to move closer to the bath, she started tugging at his garments, indicating that he should remove them. Whatever her unhappiness, she was clearly intent on carrying out her orders. When he realized that she intended to bathe him, he was appalled. He had no intention of stripping himself in front of her, and fended her off, catching her wrists in one hand and picking up a cloth, making motions to explain himself.

"I can wash myself!" She looked at him mutely, and he sighed in frustration at his inability to communicate. "Look," he said, rubbing the cloth along his arm, and pointing to himself. "I can do it myself!"

Shaking her head, she called out to the other room. Instantly, both guards pushed through into the chamber, and seeing her predicament, moved to intercede. For a moment Duncan was tempted to use her as a shield, but dismissed the thought as unworthy. Whatever her misapprehensions, she was no freer to choose than he himself at the moment. And while baring himself before her was awkward enough, it would be nowhere near as humiliating as having to strip in front of the other men. He released her hands, and reluctantly nodded his acquiescence. For a moment he thought that she would be unable to convince the guards to leave again, but eventually they agreed, their gazes making it clear that any further disruption would not be so easily dismissed.

When they were again alone, he hesitantly stripped down to his loincloth, flushing deeply when she gestured impatiently that he was to remove that as well. Her matter-of-fact acceptance of his nudity only alleviated his embarrassment slightly. Leaving him standing naked, she removed her own outer garments, revealing a figure that was slender yet rounded, covered by a sheer, brightly colored cloth that enhanced her beauty. Gesturing for him to move closer, she dipped a towel in the water, and dabbing at a pot of ointment, began to clear the grit and grime from his body. Her motions were impersonal, but embarrassingly thorough, and he felt his body involuntarily responding to the situation and her presence. Her sly smile indicated her awareness, but she continued with her task, although he was convinced that she lingered longer in some areas than was strictly necessary. He somewhat less than stoically thought to himself that it was an ill wind that blew no good, and relaxed slightly into her attentions.

When she finished with his body, she motioned for him to kneel, and she began combing through his dirty and matted hair. Her motions were not gentle, and his semi-arousal quickly vanished. Throughout the whole procedure she kept up a low-toned diatribe, her tone abusive. When she had combed all the snarls from his hair, she washed it twice, until the water ran clear, and then rubbed musky-scented oil through the curls to prevent it from tangling. She finished and stood, and called through to the guards. Momentarily, several women returned to remove the water and dirty towels, their glances even more admiring of the thoroughly disconcerted young man. When they had departed, their laughter trailing behind them, he thought that the ordeal was through, but Tahirih clearly had further orders. Her hostility hadn't vanished, but now he could see that there was more than anger in her motions. Her eyes were luminous with unshed tears.

Grabbing at his arm, she moved him into the center of the room, and left him standing as she retrieved a vial of oil from the table. Coating her hands, she began repeating the motions with which she had cleaned him, starting with his feet and ankles. Her hands stroked firmly, rubbing deeply into his skin, stopping only to pour more oil into her palms. She moved behind him, stroking sensuously over his back and chest, lingering on his nipples, and caressing down to his thighs and half-hard cock.

It was obvious that she was deliberately seeking his arousal, though the mutinous look on her face showed that it was not her own idea. Catching her hands before they wrapped around his shaft, he implored her to stop, his shame overwhelming his libidinous response. Though she obviously did not understand the words, the sense was clear; equally clear was her intention to complete her job, even if it meant bringing in the guards to restrain him. Closing his eyes, he dropped her wrists and allowed her to continue, the intimacy of her hands overcoming his will to resist. His shame was complete when he felt the warning sensation of another Immortal. His eyes flew open and rested on the closed flap between the rooms.

Hearing Rashanal's voice in the outer chamber, Tahirih's hands faltered briefly, and a tear slipped down her cheek. She brushed it aside angrily, and if anything, her motions became more provocative, finally making Duncan gasp as her fingers passed over his opening. Her smile was triumphant as she slid her hands over his buttocks and down to his balls, leaving traces of oil behind. Whatever her orders, it was obvious she thought the master would be pleased with her results.

When the flap was brushed aside, she stiffened, but kept up her ministrations. Duncan, facing the opening, saw Rashanal stride into the room and stop, staring at the sight before him. Duncan stared hotly at the tent wall as Rashanal walked around him, speaking in pleased tones to the woman at their feet, who responded haltingly. Duncan stiffened as he felt a hand on his shoulder, trembling slightly as it slid slowly down his back to the curve of his buttocks. He gasped as the fingertips slid intimately between, the palm cupping over his ass to caress in circles that sent heat radiating through his painfully sensitized body, before squeezing and pulling away. Rashanal spoke a few words, and Tahirih turned Duncan around to face the bed.

* * *

If Methos had thought that the few days spent ignoring his new slave might lessen his desire, he was immediately disabused of that notion when he entered his bedchamber. His slave stood nude and oiled before him as Tahirih stroked and caressed him to arousal. Methos felt himself harden instantly at the sight of Tahirih's slender hands sliding over the Highlander's swollen, heavy sex.

He moved to the bed, tossing aside his outer garments, keeping his eyes on the pair. He sprawled on the piles of pillows as Tahirih knelt behind Duncan, her hands sliding around to caress his belly and thighs. For long minutes Methos watched, his hunger building. The Highlander was looking anywhere but at the man in front of him, and Methos recognized the man's struggle to control himself. Duncan's sensuality demanded he react, but his stubborn will resisted.

As Tahirih's motions became ever more sustained and intimate, Duncan was unable to prevent himself from clenching his fists, much to Methos' delight. He saw the slight distortion in the Highlander's lush lower lip where his teeth were sunk, the pain presumably aiding his control. He could tell that Duncan was barely able to stand, and his own desire to touch that beautiful body was almost irresistible. He moved to sit at the end of the bed, his arousal painful, and saw Duncan's eyes drop to where Methos' hands rested on his knees. Catching the Highlander's eye, he saw the mingled passion and confusion, as the young man struggled to overcome his own treacherous desires. Eyes locked, Duncan was unable to prevent the moan that escaped his lips.

"Tahirih." The hands on Duncan's body stilled instantly at the sound of the strained voice, and Tahirih moved to kneel at Duncan's side, gazing imploringly at her master. "Take him in your mouth. I want to hear him." He knew that the girl was jealous, and it amused him how desperate she was to please him. She had become far too certain of her place with him, and he had grown weary of her charms. He noted the look of horror on Duncan's face as she moved to kneel in front of him, taking him in her hands again and moistening her lips in preparation.

* * *

Duncan stepped back, pushing her away and looking back at Rashanal. It wasn't that her touch was unpleasing, but he rebelled at being the source of so much unhappiness. The girl was obviously in love with her master, as incomprehensible as that idea was to Duncan himself. She had to know that he had no desire to take her place, but that didn't seem to matter to her. All that mattered was pleasing Rashanal. How had she been reduced to such a state?

"Don't do this! She doesn't deserve this!" He glared at Rashanal, trying to make him see reason by force of will alone.

"What she deserves or doesn't deserve isn't an issue, Highlander. I want to see you respond to her. I want to watch you as she pleasures you. And I want to hear you. Don't you want to feel her mouth on you?" His voice challenged Duncan to tell the truth.

"It's wrong! She doesn't want this! I'm asking you, please, let her go." Duncan did not want anyone to touch him unwillingly, no matter how aroused he was, and the thought of having this man watching him was intolerable. "Hasn't she been humiliated enough?"

Rashanal looked at him consideringly. "Why should that matter to you? She's a slave, and an arrogant one, at that." His eyes narrowed, glinting in the low light. "But it is not her humiliation you fear, is it? You think you can deny me the pleasure of witnessing your response."

Duncan felt his face flame. The shame of being so transparent was almost as great as the shame of knowing the man was right. The thought of those eyes coolly watching him lose control was unbearable. And, to his infinite mortification, arousing. His cock throbbed and he knew the other man had not missed his body's betrayal.

* * *

Methos smiled almost gently, casually stroking himself through thin fabric. "You pretend you will spare her what you imagine to be a great indignity, but it is your own pride you seek to preserve. Do you dare imagine you will have any left, when I am finished with you?" His eyes raked Duncan's body, his hand unabashed between his own thighs. "You can lie to yourself all you wish, Highlander, and I will still know the truth. But since you wish to pretend such selfless concern..." Methos looked to where Tahirih knelt submissively, awaiting the outcome of the exchange. "Tahirih, tell me, do you find your duties unpleasant?"

She looked surprised to be asked. As he had known she would, she answered, "Whatever you want of me, I will do, master. Whatever will please you."

Looking back to the man standing at his feet, he said, "She says she will do anything that will please me. And this pleases me. Greatly."

* * *

Duncan shuddered at the look in Rashanal's eyes, and thought desperately for some way to save himself and the girl further humiliation.

"Come, Highlander, let us continue with the game. She will pleasure you, and then you will do the same for me. I suggest you make a quick study of the technique, as I will not tolerate incompetence."

Duncan's eyes strayed involuntarily toward the prominent bulge between the other man's thighs; a moment later, he realized what he had done and averted his gaze. Too late, he knew. Those knowing eyes missed nothing. The desire to try to cover himself with his hands was almost overpowering. An image flashed vividly, those strong, slender hands forcing his head down, forcing him to take that formidable sex down his throat--or worse--while the girl looked coolly on. The thought made his mouth go dry. He couldn't. What kind of man would he be if he could do such a thing? What kind of man would not fight and die trying to escape before allowing such a thing to be done to him? For an instant the panic almost overwhelmed him, and he seriously considered trying for the door.

But the knowledge that even death would not be an escape stopped him. *And each time you flout me, the punishment will worsen.*

Duncan cast about frantically for some shred of hope. No escape then, and only his strength of will to guard him from the shame of what this man would to do him. If he could not prevent the violation of his body, perhaps he could at least preserve some inner core of will, some measure of honor. He glanced at Rashanal from beneath lowered lashes. The man was not invulnerable... Rashanal's obvious desire for his body was a weakness, of sorts. At least Duncan might spare himself the humiliation of an audience.

He met those changeable eyes, letting his voice drop a fraction. "If you send her away," he offered huskily, "I will do whatever you wish."

But Rashanal looked curiously unsurprised at the offer. "Without fighting me?"

Duncan took a deep breath, and nodded. "Aye. I won't fight you."

The hazel eyes glittered, and with a sinking heart Duncan wondered if he had been manipulated exactly where Rashanal wanted him. "And you have already demonstrated that your word will bind you." Duncan felt a slight flare of alarm at the dangerous look that crossed Rashanal's face as he stood up and moved closer. Once again he felt the heat of Rashanal's palm on his chest, as well as the heat radiating off the body standing so close, close enough that Duncan's erection brushed lightly against Rashanal's robe, setting off small sparks of flame in Duncan's belly. "You believe that you will keep something of yourself from me, because you choose to make this bargain now. You will tell yourself that what I do to you I do by your consent, and that somehow makes it bearable. Nevertheless, I accept your offer."

Duncan kept his eyes open by sheer force of will, locked with Rashanal's own, and tried to control the tremors as that palm moved downward, over his belly, to wrap around the hardness of his cock. "I said I wouldn't fight you," he grated out. "I didn't give my consent. You will never have anything from me you do not take."

Rashanal's eyelids lowered slightly, as his hand slid over the slickened skin. His voice was dark as malt when he spoke. "I bought you, and I will *own* you, Highlander. Never forget that."

"You paid for my flesh. Use it." Duncan's eyes flashed with anger, but it only made the man laugh.

"Later, perhaps." He nodded at Tahirih, and gestured at the door. The girl spat something back at him, but would not go. Rashanal snarled something, and with downcast eyes, the girl left the tent.

The man continued his stroking of Duncan's flesh, sliding his other hand across Duncan's chest and down to his hip, "For now, since you've sent away my other slave, you will have to wash me."

There was motion behind them, and Duncan realized that they were no longer alone. He tried to pull away, but Rashanal locked his hand on Duncan's hip and kept him from moving, continuing to fondle him intimately. With a tilt of his head, he directed the intruder to put down his burden of water.

"It distresses you to be seen like this. Why? You have no need to be ashamed." Rashanal's hand slid over his hip and curved around his buttock to pull him close, so close that Duncan could feel the other man's hardness against his hip.

"It is not right." Nor was what Duncan was feeling at all right. The edge of anger only whetted his need. He tried to tell himself that it was Tahirih that had stirred his senses so, but he couldn't make himself believe it. "Please." With a nod, Rashanal sent the man away, and stepped back. Duncan's cock ached at the loss of his touch.

"Undress me."

Taking a deep breath, Duncan did as he was told, stripping away the garments to reveal a pale, lean form. The man's scent was strong, and arousing. Carefully removing the linen trousers, he caught his breath at the evidence of his master's desire. He knelt to pull them off Rashanal's legs, and felt the man's fingers stroking over his hair, tracing the curve of his ear. Keeping his eyes averted, he moved to gather the lotions and cloths necessary, and poured the water into the bath. He found himself having trouble breathing, and his heart was pounding.

Duncan bathed him carefully, finding himself fascinated by the body standing still under his hands. He tried to keep his motions disinterested, but found his own arousal growing painful, fed by the feel and scent of the man before him. Finally, he finished, and Rashanal pulled him to his feet, till they were standing closely as they had before. Rashanal's hands stroked over his chest and shoulders, and he leaned close to press his mouth to Duncan's throat, bringing to mind those moments after their fight.

"Feel me touching you, Highlander. Tasting you. Do you like this?"

The voice rasped in his ear, and sent shudders through his body. The instinctive assent struggled to escape his lips, and he had to bite it back. He could again feel the other man's hardness against his hip, and felt a maddening desire to feel him in his hand, touching him intimately rather than coldly, as he had moments before. Who was this man, that he could make such unthinkable things desirable?

As if sensing his hesitation, Rashanal pulled back to look in his eyes. "I will not ask you to do anything you do not want, Highlander. Merely touch me as I touch you. You want to touch me, don't you?" His fingers wrapped around Duncan's shaft and stroked down the hard length, the heat from his body pouring off in waves. "Touch me."

Did this devil understand that his gentleness was a kind of cruelty in itself? So much more devastating to coax with words and touches than if he had simply forced Duncan's response. So much harder to obey, when Duncan could not even fool himself that he was unwilling. Rashanal's words echoed Duncan's thoughts so closely that he could not deny his own desire. Swallowing around the knot in his throat, Duncan wrapped his fingers stiffly around his master's shaft, only to have his hand taken and readjusted, so that the warm flesh could slide across his palm. His mind whirled at the madness of the situation.

"Do it like so. Touch me as you like to be touched." Duncan's cock slid from base to tip over his master's palm, giving the soft words, softer touch, and desire-filled gaze an almost hypnotic effect. "Relax and enjoy what happens."

Enjoyment seemed too pallid a word for the fire that was burning through Duncan's body. The intensity of the man's gaze, the intimacy of his touch, the sensuous and unfamiliar feel of his cock sliding against Duncan's hand, all added to the flames he felt flickering along his nerves. Without his volition, his other hand moved to cup and caress his master's hip, sliding between his legs to caress his balls, watching in fascination as his touch was echoed on Rashanal's face. His eyes, which previously had seemed a cool green, now seemed dark and tempestuous, and his tongue snaked out to wet lips dried by the desert wind. Fascinated by the motion, Duncan leaned forward slightly, as if to catch Rashanal's mouth with his own, before realizing what he was doing.

A slight grimace crossed that mouth as Duncan pulled back, and Rashanal began moving his hands more strongly along Duncan's cock, thrusting his hips into Duncan's hands. Sliding his hand deeply between Duncan's legs, Rashanal stroked his finger against the oil-slicked skin behind Duncan's balls, teasingly close to the opening of his body. Duncan began moving helplessly, no longer able to control the groans that he'd been restraining. Closing his eyes, he gave himself over to the pleasure of Rashanal's touch, and the pleasure of touching him. Increasing the pace of his movements, he felt the wetness of Rashanal's arousal leaking from the tip of his heavy sex, and spread it with his thumb, feeling himself getting close. The maddening touch of Rashanal's finger spurred him on, and his eyes flew wide when he felt himself penetrated.

The look on Rashanal's face was all he needed. The burning passion and desire he saw carried him over the edge, and he felt himself spilling his orgasm over the hand that held him so intimately, realizing faintly that Rashanal quickly joined him. Forgetting himself utterly, his cries of release rang clear.

His legs trembled from the release of tension, and Duncan found himself leaning heavily against the other man, allowing Rashanal to support much of his weight. Duncan felt devastated...by what had happened; it went far beyond what he had expected. He had expect to allow the man to use him, had thought it possible that he might react, but had never expected to enjoy it. He had responded -- no, encouraged -- another man's touch. Duncan could not think to cleanse himself, his mind worrying at the sensations still running through his body, and the thoughts tumbling through his mind. Duncan was distantly aware of the other man moving him toward the cool water and cleansing the moisture from his skin; small kindnesses considering the shock that Duncan felt.

Soothing words followed the soothing touch, and Duncan was eased down onto the bed. "Sleep now. That's it. The battle will wait for another day, my Highland warrior." Exhaustion and emotional shock were catching up with Duncan; to his surprise and with an uneasiness too distant to prevent the encroaching darkness, he found himself falling asleep in his master's arms.

Just before he slipped over the edge of consciousness, the rough-soft voice drifted gently to him. "This does not change who you are, Highlander. It only reveals new vistas."

The understanding was the most devastating invasion of all.

Chapter Text

The camp rustled to life, but Methos let the Highlander sleep. Somewhere a pinprick of conscience stirred as he gazed at the sleeping form, but Methos quashed it without hesitation. He had bought the Highlander in an open contract; there was nothing illegal in what he had done. By law, he was allowed the sexual favors of anyone he owned, and Methos had himself accepted that fact as part of a slave's life. The Highlander would simply have to accept it as well, and learn obedience to his master.

Methos reached out and softly stroked the dark hair of the man sprawled across most of the bed, then balled the traitorous hand into a fist. He drew on his robe and left the chamber, motioning to the guards to bring him breakfast.

When his plate of fruit and coffee arrived, the tray was borne by Namal. Methos sighed. He had wanted peace, a chance to consider where to go next, both with the camp and the Highlander, and now he would have to listen to Namal's talk. He sprawled on the pillows and rugs scattered on the floor of the chamber and busied himself with pouring coffee and cutting fruit while ignoring most of Namal's words.

As usual, Namal was not pleased. "Forgive me, my lord, but this is barbaric." The old man started in on the tenets of the law, reciting parable and verse as he'd been taught, about how the prophet encouraged compassion in dealing with slaves--while Methos made sure the coffee was sweetened exactly as he liked it. He found himself easily distracted by each sound that might have come from the inner chamber and the man he had left there sleeping.

Finally, it sounded like Namal was running out of song. "At least give him a chance to earn his slave price. You have done so with the others you purchased other than Tahirih." His advisor's tone became diffident towards the end of his refrain. Methos' temper stirred at the other man's presumption; the very suggestion of freeing the Highlander awoke his most possessive instincts. Tahirih, on the other hand.... He turned the argument around on Namal, taking a perverse pleasure in the other man's anticipated reaction.

"She suited me and I her for so long, it never even occurred to me." Methos paused and looked up at his advisor, "And considering how you feel about her, are you sure you want her freed?" He held up his hand, silencing Namal's protests. "Don't dissemble on my account, Namal. I have seen how you look at her. I know you find her attractive and interesting. I also know that you would never ask for her as long as she is my favorite." But was she still his favorite? That was the question that hung in the morning's air, with the Highlander's cries still echoing in his mind, the scent of his sweat still clinging to Methos' own form. Was she merely an old habit? Did he really keep her out of choice, or was it because he could not bother himself to find someone new? Had she become nothing more than an obligation?

Methos frowned and sipped his coffee. Maybe Namal was right in part of what he said. Maybe it was time to offer Tahirih her freedom. Methos glanced up at Namal. "If I freed her, she would have nowhere to go and no way to earn a living, other her body. She loves beautiful things, Namal. She would not be free for long." He tilted his head to the side as he stared up at his old advisor. There might be another way. "What if you could have her for yourself?"

Namal's breath caught and he looked stunned at the offer, his voice sputtering as he spoke. "I am an old man, my lord, with an old man's interests and ways." He quieted a moment before looking away, his voice drifting wistfully as his head turned. "And she is still so young."

Methos smiled into his cup and told Namal what he had planned for the rest of Duncan's day, while a second plan formed behind his eyes. He would deal with Tahirih shortly, and then there would be no more lectures on the freeing of slaves.

* * *

Duncan did not want to get up. He wanted to stay in bed and ignore the stares he knew would come his way, but such avoidance was not part of a warrior's life. And the bed was no refuge, in any case; in it he was surrounded by the musky scent of his captor, reminding him of his willing capitulation of the night before. Although he was loath to admit it even to himself, the depth of understanding Rashanal had demonstrated frightened him. It was as if the man could read his very thoughts, following each twist and turn his mind had taken trying to protect his sanity.

The memories of the previous night refused to be banished; the searing humiliation of his response burned through him. In the cold light of day, he could not believe how close he had come to complete submission. Where then all his brave thoughts of dying before allowing himself to be dishonored? In the end, he had no thought for his honor, his pride, his freedom -- his only reality had been the heated touch of another man's hand on his cock, the silken feel of Rashanal's sex, the sound of his own unrestrained pleasure. At the realization that his flesh was hardening at the memory, he bit his lip until he tasted blood and tried to turn his mind towards other things.

Climbing from the bed, he pulled on the robe he had been given and poured a glass of water to wet his sour, dry mouth. He could hear Rashanal's deep voice from the outer chamber and bit his lip again at the flare of heat the low tones provoked in his belly. Taking deep breaths, he told himself that whatever his physical reaction to the man, it had been heightened by his exhaustion and the stresses of the days since his capture. He had been unprepared for Rashanal's tactics, weakened by Tahirih's experienced hands. Rashanal thought to use Duncan's own honor to seduce him; Duncan would have to be more careful and make sure that he did not succeed. He would have to find some better way to protect that core of himself that Rashanal sought to own.

The few minutes of solitude were a profound relief, the first measure of privacy he had been afforded, and he used them to gather a cloak of dignity of which he feared he would have great need before long. The respite was short lived. A few moments later, the tent flap lifted. Duncan made control of his expression total, centering his body at rest, hands linked easily behind his back.

But it was Namal who entered, not his master-his captor - Duncan corrected fiercely, chastising himself for the slip-and he felt a piercing regret.

"Good morning," the old man said in heavily accented English. "Rashanal has sent me to see to your needs."

The gentleness of the words and the knowing pity in the old man's eyes felt like salt on an open wound. Duncan's nostrils flared. "I require nothing, unless you want to help me leave this place."

Namal regarded him with compassion, shaking his head slightly. "If you have any intelligence at all, you will put that foolish bravado aside. It will gain you nothing here, save a thrashing at the post."

Duncan blinked, caught off guard by the vivid image the words invoked, Rashanal's white hand on the whip. Would he dare? Nausea rose, and a flush of heat like shame. To be whipped like an animal...

Namal gestured toward a low table on which he had placed a plate of dried fruit and a bowl of milk. "You are pale. You must eat, Highlander." His implacable tone left no room for argument.

Duncan hesitated, but his stomach growled loudly, deciding for him. Sullenly, he moved to the table and put the sticky, sweet figs in his mouth one at a time, chewing and washing them down with the pungent milk. His eyes defiantly held Namal's as the old man watched him eat. The flavor of the camel's milk was strong, unpleasant, but starving himself would gain him exactly nothing; whatever came, he would need his strength.

When bowl and plate were empty, Namal nodded approval. "Now, we will begin your lessons. Do you need to relieve yourself?"

Duncan felt his face heat at the indecently invasive question. He shook his head once, shortly.

"The chamber is behind that screen," the old man informed him placidly, "should it become necessary."

"What have they done with my clothes?"

"You'll do as you are, until Rashanal says otherwise." The old man's expression softened. "Make the best of the situation, my son. He can be a kind and just master, if you let him be."

Duncan drew himself up. "I am a warrior. No man owns me. There is no honor in holding a man against his will."

The dark eyes flashed sternly. "You are far from home, my boy. Here, you are a slave, by law, by fact, by every recognized custom for five hundred leagues. If you forget that, you will die. Do you understand me?"

Duncan stared at him defiantly for a long moment. At last, he lowered his chin a fraction. "Aye. I understand you."

Namal nodded once. "I hope you do." He gestured toward the cushions on the floor of the tent. "Sit. I will teach you what you need to know to survive here."

Interest sparked. Knowledge could be a weapon. "Your language," Duncan said hopefully. "Will you teach me that?"

Namal considered Duncan for a long moment, his expression unreadable. "Ra-jamihn," he pronounced clearly. "Say it."

"Ra-jamihn," Duncan repeated, enunciating carefully. "Ra-jamihn." The word felt odd in his mouth, the syllables liquid and sibilant at the same time.

"It is the most important word you will learn. Remember it."

Duncan shaped the word silently, getting used to the unusual vowels. "What does it mean?"

Namal turned away, gathering his robes about him as he sank down onto a fat cushion. "It means 'Master.'"

* * *

Methos heard the lesson begin and gathered himself together for the start of another grueling day. He wanted nothing more than to return to his bed and start in on some of the baser lessons that had formed in his own mind during Namal's tiresome lecture. He hesitated as he remembered the look on the Highlander's face just before he had poured himself into Methos' hands; the shock at the intimate penetration of his body, and the heavy-lidded look of betrayed pleasure at a sensation so obviously new to him. Oh, what he wouldn't give to abandon his other responsibilities and simply work on sating his unbelievable hunger for the rebellious Scot. For a moment, standing in front of the doorway to the outside, all he could see was a vision of Duncan, lying back on the cushions, a heated and welcoming smile on his face, his hunger a match for Methos' own.

He shook his head, shattering the tempting image. He had been gone for two weeks, and his tribe was in a vulnerable position right now, with a border dispute having started over a well near Emad's lands. While in town, he had learned that one of Emad's main wells had gone dry and that another was down to a trickle of flow. Methos' agent felt that the other tribe had around a month before their livestock would start dying, and the people would follow soon after that, unless they could find a new source of water. Methos was certain the small skirmishes would escalate as the days progressed. War was an almost certain outcome. Now was not the time for sensual self-indulgence.

He grimaced as he stepped out into the morning sun, blinking his eyes in the light. He had no real desire to fight this battle, but his people were dependent on him. He was never going to accept a role with this much responsibility ever again.

Methos paused in his thoughts. When was the last time he'd sworn that? The 800's, perhaps? When his wife and his village had died of plague near the outskirts of Rome. That was the last time he'd allowed himself to take up the mantle of leadership ¬ the Highlander should be thankful for being a slave, so he would not have to choose who would die. Methos smiled to himself; it was doubtful that the man would find it a persuasive argument. He seemed a man that would wear the burden of leadership willingly ¬ yet more proof of the man's relative youth, he thought cynically.

He set off to find Namal's son Jaffir, whom he had left in charge while he had been away. They had conferred briefly the night before, but he'd left it until today to sort things out in depth. He had wanted a rested mind and clear head before he proceeded, and by last night, his mind had been anything but clear. He did not consider himself a man ruled by his passions, but he had found himself having difficulty thinking of anything but his newest acquisition while Jaffir had tried to explain the situation.

Even now, he found his mind returning to the luxury of the night before, his determination to focus on the business at hand set at naught by the slightest memory of the man who had shared his bed. Such a simple act, the mutual pleasuring that had occurred. It was not nearly so intimate as what he had anticipated, what he had found his mind dwelling on from the moment of the slave's purchase, but it had affected him profoundly. If it were not for the necessity of preparing for the upcoming conflicts, he would be hard put not to simply spend the next few days showing the Highlander the possible delights of his new situation. As it was, he would find it difficult to get away before evening with all the things that needed his attention.

Methos took a deep breath as he walked, his cock stiffening as he imagined some of the more personal duties that Namal would be unable to teach. A brief memory of the Highlander's open lips touched him, and Methos had to calm himself to put the image aside. He would have to be careful; it would not do to give the slave so much power over him, that he could not control his own body.

Walking helped, and he rounded the perimeter of the encampment, unconsciously nodding to accept the greetings called to him by others as he passed by. Namal would explain to Duncan how to care for Methos' tent, provide meals, fetch water, and the like ¬ as well as how to care for Methos' horse. Duncan needed to see something of Methos' trust, and ¬ although it might be putting temptation in his way ¬ Methos felt that the other man was wise enough to realize the difficulties with trying to escape. Immortality might preserve him indefinitely, but it made dying of thirst and heat no less painful.

If the Highlander gave his word to stay, that would bind him to this place more than any chains Methos could forge; Methos would work on making sure that word was given. However, Duncan MacLeod did not strike him as a man who would thrive with nothing but the normal slave duties to occupy him. Learning the language would occupy his mind, and having a few added responsibilities would lessen some of his shame at his status. He would still be taught the depth of Methos' ownership, but not at the expense of his spirit ¬ and that meant making sure that the needs of the warrior were satisfied, along with Methos' own needs.

And that brought Tahirih to mind once more, and his decision to give the troublesome chattel to Namal. Methos frowned and looked around, looking for someone to convey his message. Her near outright refusal to leave the night before had clearly demonstrated that her attitude was getting out of hand. Five times the previous day, someone had seen fit to tell him what tantrums Tahirih had thrown while he was away; five times, it had been suggested that Tahirih be sold, or at least set aside. "She thinks herself your wife, Rashanal. She would not eat the same food as the rest of the slaves." It seemed trivial compared to his other problems, but the pattern was there. If he dealt with it now, the problem could not get worse; it could only change. He sighed. Sometimes he regretted making himself so approachable.

Scratching at his beard as he gazed toward the rising sun, Methos accepted that he had kept her with him more out of laziness and self-indulgence than for any other reason. At first, she had been exciting and passionate ¬ but it was the same type of excitement and passion he'd seen ten thousand times before, a simple variation of lust, completely unlike the complex desire he knew he already felt for the Highlander. He should have released her months ago, when he noticed his desire was gone, but he had been comfortable with her, and that amounted to something. She was competent enough in her duties around his tent and skilled enough to satisfy his appetites; the thought of having to train someone new to his likes and dislikes had not seemed worth the effort ¬ until now.

The sounds of derogatory catcalls distracted him from his thoughts, and Methos looked in the direction of the well. Tahirih was striding toward him, her jar balanced on her shoulder, her back straight and proud as she ignored the sneering innuendo of the men that ringed the well. A man grabbed her arm; it was one of the guards he'd sent with her and the Highlander the night before, and Methos noted the contempt on Tahirih's face.

The guard noticed it as well. "You think yourself too good for us, woman? That you are better than we are? You are a slave, no better than any other slave! You have let the lord's attentions go to your head, but what will you do now that he has a new toy to play with? Poor little Tahirih!" The man's gloating voice carried to where Methos stood and gave him new evidence as to how Tahirih had been abusing her position. He knew this man, knew him to be tolerant and respectful of others. For him to be pushed to this level of taunting did not bode well. His eyes narrowed as Tahirih only just restrained herself from spitting at the man.

"Rashanal will not abandon me, you filth! That barbarian, that thick-headed brute has nothing to offer a man such as my lord!" Her tone was fierce and seeded with her jealousy. "I have not lost his favor, and when I am back in Rashanal's tent, you will regret your words!" She pulled her arm away, her steps hastening angrily, ignoring the laughter that followed after her.

She did not see her master as she swept past the group of women at the cook fires, ignoring their pointed silence and the eyes that followed her progress across the camp. So agitated was her gait that the water she carried sloshed over the rim of the vessel, spilling a few precious drops to the hot sand. Her disdain for them was clear.

If he had had any doubts, they were gone now. Even the earnest comments of his people had failed to convey Tahirih's contempt as clearly as this short exchange had. She had always been proud, her status in her own tribe before her capture having been somewhat exalted, but he thought her spirit gentled by his attentions. It angered Methos that he had ignored it for so long, allowing her to sow such discontent, merely because it made his own private life more comfortable.

His mind made up, he beckoned to one of the men by the well, one who had refrained from taunting Tahirih. No need to add insult to what she would perceive as grievous injury. He himself wanted to avoid a confrontation with her, if possible. It would serve no purpose other than to make him lose his already thin hold on his temper. It was cruel, but there was no kinder way. Better to cut with a sharp knife than to let the rot advance; no one knew this better than he himself. And ultimately she would thank him, for having removed her from a hopeless condition. Namal would free her and treat her well, better perhaps than she deserved. And he owed her no explanations, in any case.

The man approached with alacrity. "Go to Tahirih's tent. Accompany her to Namal's tent and tell them that she is now his." The man saluted him, his face carefully blank, and left to perform his task while Methos continued on his own way.

As he moved once more among the tents, he watched his people at their own tasks and felt the burden of his situation anew. They all depended upon his guidance, his leadership. Perhaps it is time to find a new life once this situation is resolved. Time to leave these mortals in the care of their own. Namal, and Jaffir after him, would do well. Without warning, he was captured by the seductive idea that he could simply ride away from this place, the Highlander at his side, no responsibilities save their own necks, no destination save their own whim, no duties save pleasuring each other under the stars.

Methos shunted the thought away, fiercely, disgusted at the way it seized hold of his imagination so easily. He could not remember the last time he had known anything like that warm, excited surge of feeling.

It had felt suspiciously like... joy.

* * *

Duncan's mind spun at the amount of information that Namal had imparted in the short time he had been under his instruction. Drawing water, bringing food, repairing the tent, tending the livestock. Tahirih's apparent fragility must be an illusion; tending to Rashanal's needs seemed to be a full-time occupation. Namal made it clear in his rusty English that though the Highlander might not be expected to assume all of Tahirih's tasks, others more suited to his skills and disposition would be found to occupy him. Duncan was somewhat relieved, having had visions of being expected to simply lie abed and await his captor's pleasure.

That image was not as displeasing as he might have wished.

At first, he had tried to ignore the elderly man, who, though terse, had seemed almost embarrassed by his task. However, Duncan had found himself unwillingly drawn by the depiction of the nomadic daily life and had begun asking questions about the camp and its inhabitants ¬ though he avoided asking about the one who interested him most. So much of what Namal portrayed reminded him of his own home, the interconnecting activities of a small, tightly-bound group of people under the protection and guidance of a single individual to whom they looked for leadership.

He did rebel at some of the duties that he was apparently expected to fulfill, however. "I am a soldier, not a lady's maid!" he protested. "I don't know anything about women's work!"

Namal responded patiently. "Anything you need to know, you will be taught. If it is Rashanal's will, someone will be found to fulfill some of your duties until you learn." He looked at the Highlander shrewdly. "A good portion of your time at first will be taken up with language lessons. Rashanal wishes you to learn so that you can communicate with the others more easily. And I believe that he intends to turn over a good portion of the care of his horses to you, as well. Do you know anything of horses?"

This news evoked some enthusiasm from the Highlander, who was relieved that some portion of his service would be familiar and would hence not be humiliating. "Yes, I do."

"It is good. Our horse breeding brings us additional income at market, and Rashanal's own are the finest of our herd. We will take you later to see what you know."

The lessons continued throughout the morning and by the time of the second meal, Duncan had garnered a small working vocabulary and a basic understanding of what his chores would be. His cheeks burned at the thought of coming in contact with others of the tribe. They would all know what his other, less visible duties were. He could not imagine but that they would look down on him for serving as the sheik's bed slave.

His first taste of how he was seen came when their meal was brought in. There seemed to be many more women present than was warranted by the repast, and he flushed when he realized that they must be there to see him. To his befuddlement, their gazes, though sidelong, remained admiring, and their low-voiced comments between them seemed to echo their fascination. After one particular exchange, he caught a troubled, though amused look on Namal's face.

"What are they saying?" he asked.

Namal looked at him slyly. "They say that it is no wonder that Tahirih has been set aside."

Duncan wished that the sand would simply swallow him whole.

* * *

It was late afternoon before Namal left Duncan in peace ¬ such as it was. They had trailed around the camp, Duncan learning to identify Rashanal's belongings and livestock, where to go for food and other supplies, and showing Namal that he knew one end of a horse from the other. He ignored the sly glances and quiet voices that rippled in his wake, though his cheeks burned; he hoped that it would be taken as a flush from the day's heat.

The men at the pens had been tolerant, if somewhat dismissive ¬ until he proved that he knew what he was doing. He had caused great amusement in his dealings with the camels; apparently, his skill with equines did not easily extend to these great, ugly behemoths. However, his determination and willingness to learn earned him some grudging respect, from the men, if not the camels. Along with the date palms, the tribe's livestock was their livelihood, providing them with food, shelter, and other necessities. His own childhood experience with sheep and goats served him well, and he proved his worth in this area, at least. It went a long way towards making him feel less of an outsider ¬ and a plaything. Perhaps he could persuade Rashanal to find other ways to let him earn his keep and eventually, his freedom.

In fact, he found himself drawing parallels between this nomadic people and his own clan. The closeness and camaraderie, the feeling that each member, down to the smallest child, had their part in the structure of the tribe, and the obvious contentment and good fortune ¬ all of these were familiar to him. They were well provided with water and pasturage, not a mean feat in the desert clime. Tents were in good repair, and everyone looked healthy and happy, even those he knew to be slaves. Everywhere he went he saw evidence of good leadership and respect for the man who held that position. He began to feel that many of those with whom he interacted were predisposed to accept him, merely because Rashanal favored him.

It made his own feelings for the man that much more ambivalent. He respected good leadership, but had trouble admiring a man who would keep others as slaves ¬ and use them as he seemed intent on using Duncan. No matter how many other duties he was given, nor as hard as he tried, he could not forget those that seemed to be most important. All day long, he had tried not to think of the events of the night before, but everything served to remind him of the man with whom he had felt such tremendous pleasure.

* * *

Dusk lined the sky by the time Methos left Jaffir. He had ended up spending the entire day with Namal's son, going over each report of each sentry in detail and drawing a map of their territory, marking possible lines of defense. He was tired and hot and ¬ since he'd dismissed Tahirih from service ¬ extremely hungry. Jaffir had provided him with fruit and wine hours ago, but both men had forgotten to eat a real meal until Jaffir's young wife came for him. Methos had excused himself and was now threading his way back through the tents.

Why had the Highlander not brought him anything? It was his slave's responsibility to provide for his master. If he had not punished Tahirih this morning, she would have made sure he was fed. He ignored the contrariness of his thoughts as his stomach growled its agreement. The further Methos walked the stronger his dissatisfaction, and the more his irritation grew. What had he been thinking to coddle the Highlander like that last night? He should have gone forward with his original plan, and taken MacLeod as soon as they arrived in camp.

His cock throbbed its agreement, arguing with his stomach over the better plan. Methos froze for a moment, thinking of how sweet-scented the barbarian had been last night and how his skin had shone in the firelight. His cock hardened further, and his stomach lost the battle. He would have the Highlander tonight and to hell with the consequences. So intent was he on his destination, he failed to hear the hail, until Namal caught up with him just outside of his tent.

"My lord," Namal panted. "A thousand pardons for this interruption."

"What is it, Namal?" Methos could see the Highlander in his mind, spread out on the floor of his tent like a banquet, and Methos was eager for the feast.

"It is about Tahirih."

"What of her?" he snapped.

"She spent the day with my household, lord. She said you no longer wanted her, and she was to be mine." There was a questioning tone in his voice.

"She is." He could not keep the harshness from his voice. "You seem to have some fondness for her, Allah alone knows why."

Namal's eyes grew wide and he bowed slightly. "My lord, I do not deserve such generosity."

"You may not think me so generous after she throws one of her tantrums. Don't be soft with her, Namal. She is spoiled, and needs a firm hand." Methos slapped his hand impatiently against his robes, wishing the other man gone.

"I shall heed your words, sire." Namal paused, and his voice grew quiet. "But with Tahirih gone, who cared for you? I spent the day with your Highlander, teaching him his duties, and I know he had no time to fetch you meat or drink."

Methos smiled, trying to ease some of the tension. "Jaffir was generous with your wine."

"And food? Did you eat, master?"

"You know I did not."

"Eyah." Namal spat in disgust. "That the other tribes knew we took such poor care of you."

"Namal." Methos clapped his hand on his friend's shoulder, trying to reassure him. "I am fine. One day without food will not kill me." He turned for his tent.

"As you say, Lord. Just do not take it out on your Highlander."

Methos paused mid-stride and turned back. "What?"

Namal looked decidedly uncomfortable, looking everywhere but at Methos' face. "I have been with you a long time, Rashanal. Longer than either of us care to remember."

What was going on? Methos spoke slowly, unsure of where the conversation was going. "That is true."

"There are times when your tongue has been sharper than Tahirih's, and your hands faster than your heart. He is young, and he is proud. Give him time to accept his place." The words tumbled out, unlike the structured lectures he was used to hearing from Namal, and all the more startling for that.

So, the Highlander had already made another conquest in his tribe. Methos frowned. He wasn't sure he liked the idea of that. Perhaps he had left the Highlander in Namal's care too long. Part of the problem with Tahirih had stemmed from his own neglect of his duties. Perhaps it was best Methos took on some of the instruction himself. "I do not need your lectures. He is my slave, and I may do as I wish." His words were sharper than he might have wished, but he did not care. The Highlander was his, and he would control what happened.

"Yes, he is your slave, and yes, he belongs to you. But his mind is quick, and his body holds a certain grace. He could do more for you than just attend your flesh. Have you given a thought to letting him earn his price?" Namal's voice was hesitant, knowing as he did that he trod on sensitive ground.

Methos spoke deliberately, pushing the anger aside. "Namal, I am tired and I am hungry. I have a new slave to warm my bed, just as you do. I suggest we both take advantage of them." He headed to his tent, but cast one final, mocking comment over his shoulder. "If you are so concerned about the freeing of slaves, then free Tahirih." He drew up short as another plan came to him, and he turned to fully face Namal. "Or look to the law for your solution. Is it not written that the woman who bears a child of the prophet is free? And would she not then have a place in the tribe, as the mother of one of your sons?"

Namal laughed, his whole body shaking from the deep, bawdy sound. He shook his head as his laughter stilled and smiled at Methos "So my lessons do sink in. I had wondered."

Methos felt a smile creep onto his lips as his anger and frustration thawed somewhat. "Good night, old man. We will talk in the morning." Take Tahirih into your bed. Just as I will take the Highlander into mine. Languorous heat suffused his body at the thought ¬ they would enjoy more that simple mutual pleasuring this night.

He barely noticed the dutiful salaam his advisor gave him, his body calling him to the Highlander's side.

Chapter Text

When Namal left him with instructions to ready an evening repast, Duncan found himself agitated at the thought of the man who would be returning to partake of the meal. The evening duties were simple enough; he obtained plates of olives and dates, breads and meats from the women into whose care Namal had given him. It seemed that he was not expected to cook Rashanal's food, simply to ensure that it was waiting for him at the appropriate times. Namal had also indicated that for now, Rashanal intended to eat alone, though often he had others to attend him. The Highlander would be expected to provide for them all, though there were other slaves who would assist.

He also prepared basins of water and clean towels, as had been provided the previous night. As he did so, his mind inexorably returned to the night before and the scent and feel of the lean, muscled figure of his owner under his hands. Almost he rebelled, tempted to leave preparations undone and deal with the consequences, rather than seem compliant and submissive; but as insidious as the man had been in coercing Duncan into admitting to his own desire, Duncan was unsure of his ability to deal with the type of punishment that Rashanal might devise. Better to save his resistance for more important battles. He was afraid that he would need to conserve his will for those.

He settled himself in the outer room to await Rashanal's return, breathing deeply to clear his mind of the treacherous thoughts that threatened to subsume him. It was no use; he couldn't erase the feel of the man's body under his hands, the sound of Rashanal's passion, the feel of his own inevitable surrender. Liquid heat flowed through his body as his thoughts continued to betray him. Refusing to be a prisoner of his own flesh, he stood and moved to the panels that separated the inner and outer rooms, studying the intricately woven patterns, again reminded of his homeland, and his mother, weaving cloth for their garments. Gradually, his mind calmed, the swelling of his body retreated - until he felt Rashanal's approach. His head lifted, spine straightening instinctively, but he deliberately did not look up as the rustle of fabric announced the other man's entrance.

"Lovely, aren't they?"

Duncan had readied himself for any assault, physical or verbal, but the unexpected gentleness of the voice and the question caught him off guard.

"They remind me of home," he said softly, before he knew the words were on his lips.

Methos moved nearer, inescapably drawn to the fascinating changes the word 'home' wrought on that expressive face, the way the firelight burnished the soft curve of lower lip, tracing the sweep of dark eyelashes. Beautiful he had been on the auction block and more beautiful still glistening from his bath the previous night - but now, for the first time, Methos saw him without anger or fear drawing taut lines in his face, and something in Methos woke from a very long sleep.

"You will take me there one day," he said, thinking, a child, he is a child and a slave, but oh, he is worth a king's ransom.

The Highlander stiffened, as if realizing some tactical error, and the lines reappeared at the sides of his mouth. He met Methos' eyes, the barest shadow of insolence evident in the clenching of his jaw. "Would you like your dinner now, my lord?" The faint emphasis on the last two words and the proud set of his head made it a poorly veiled challenge and a reminder of the status Methos had forced on him.

So, it begins, Methos thought. Fed and rested, his initial shock wearing off, the Highlander's pride and will rose full force to meet his master's. Had Methos worried about breaking his spirit? Holding that unflinching gaze, Methos knew he would be lucky to bend it to his own.

"I am hungry." Methos raked the muscular body with his eyes, a tactic that had not yet failed to bring a rush of blood to the Highlander's face. It did not fail now. Duncan met his frankly appraising stare gamely, but Methos could feel the heat of his blush from two paces. "You may serve me," Methos allowed, daring him. "Show me what you have learned today."

Despite his earlier decision to pick his battles with care, Duncan nearly refused. The man's arrogance and sultry tones could get under his skin like nothing else. He clenched his jaw against the surge of rebellion, knowing Rashanal saw it: those dancing, gilt-sea eyes seemed to see every thought in his head, every twist of conscience and confusion. Even now, Duncan could not have named the heat and violent urges that those eyes, that spare, elegant form, awoke in him. He had to remind himself forcefully of the guards outside, the defeat he had already met once at Rashanal's hands.

Namal had taught him the proper phrasing, though the words stuck in his throat. He could not quite manage the accompanying attitude of deference, but he lowered his eyes. It would have to do.

"What is your pleasure, my lord?"

Methos found the words inordinately stimulating on those full lips, regardless of their sincerity. How long had it been since anyone had aroused him so easily, with no more than a look, or a movement? "Wine," he decided, wanting to see that mouth wet and glistening. "And for yourself, also." As he waited, he contrasted the Highlander with Tahirih; where she was full of guile, he was full of resistance. Both pretended submission, but the effect on him was as different as night and day. Where her resistance was that of artifice, the Highlander's stemmed from his true, independent nature. She had never been the challenge this one would be.

Methos followed the Highlander into the inner chamber and watched him move to pour wine from a clay flask, struck again by the man's balanced strength and grace. Already he was forgetting about food, about the need to go gently with this one, reverting to his previous hunger. The slight bowing of that stiff neck reminded him viscerally of just how long it had been since he had felt real passion for anything or anyone. Last night he had been careful, his own pride making him seek the other man's willing response when he had wanted so much more. The wanting rose up in him now, more urgent for having been denied.

But it would not do to forget himself now, no matter how sweet it would feel to bury himself in that lush body. Methos controlled his response before the Highlander turned back, goblets in hand.

The glasses were full and effectively prevented Duncan from pulling away when Rashanal's hands found the clasp of his robes. At his instinctive flinch, the hands stilled. "Relax," Rashanal said quietly, expression open and unthreatening. The hazel eyes held his, implacable and yet oddly reassuring. That look gave him no choice in the matter, and yet the unveiled desire made him want to comply. It was a most unsettling combination. "I wish to see you." The hands bared his chest and stomach, fingertips barely brushing his skin, as his robe was left hanging loose from his shoulders. "From now on, you will not conceal yourself when we are alone. Your body is beautiful, Highlander. Do not deny me the pleasure of seeing it." For a moment, Duncan thought the scant dignity of his remaining attire would be taken from him, but Rashanal's hands fell away before they reached the silk undergarment, the eyes offering reprieve even as they warned of eventual payment for the preservation of his modesty. "Do not fear me," the other man said, as if confiding a secret. "You have nothing to fear if you please me."

"I am no' afraid." Duncan's voice was rough, betraying him.

Rashanal smiled indulgently. "Of course you aren't." His fingers curled around Duncan's nape, a casual possession that chased faint shivers through Duncan's thighs and belly. "We're going to have such pleasure together, you and I."

It was a promise, dark and knowing, and a traitorous anticipation curled intimately in Duncan's stomach. He named it apprehension and proffered one of the goblets, wishing Rashanal would take it and give him room to breathe. The man invaded his senses, pervaded them, his very scent a seduction.

The Highlander watched warily as Rashanal accepted the wine and drank. Duncan could not entirely prevent his gaze from falling to the man's lips. Delicate and flushed, too sensuous by far, and utterly captivating, that mouth was a contradiction. The man was full of them. Merciless and gentle by turns, boyish and ageless, controlled and passionate, Rashanal was like no one Duncan had ever known. In another place and time, they could have been friends. The thought made him angry, with himself for wanting that other life, with Rashanal for being so much less than what Duncan sensed he could have been.

"I do not understand you," he said darkly, shaking his head.

Rashanal lowered the goblet, expression unreadable. "I'm not surprised. But what do you mean?"

Duncan knew it was unwise to think of this man as an equal, or treat him thus, but he could not keep the question inside. "How can you be a man of honor, and yet keep slaves?"

Rashanal's eyes clouded, darkening like the sky under press of storm. "I have never claimed an excess of nobility," he said carefully, "nor honor. I do not make excuses."

"But you are no stranger to honor, or responsibility. I know this to be true; and yet, you would take mine from me. Why?"

If he had hoped to reach Rashanal's conscience, it was not working. The man advanced on him, his expression dangerously feral. "Because I can. Because it is my right. Because it is the way of the world, Highlander."

Rashanal's intensity burned Duncan like Quickening fire. He fell back instinctively, the flicker of understanding licking along the edges of his sudden fear. Whatever else this man was or had been, he was no stranger to the ways of slavery - and he had not always controlled his own destiny. The flash of insight felt like pain, a bright tangle of confused reaction he did not want to feel. Dismay and shock, and even a flare of protective compassion warred with his sudden certainty that he had made a serious, possibly fatal, error.

Rashanal had seen his sudden comprehension and his compassion - and had wanted neither.

Duncan took a step backwards as Rashanal put down his goblet and reached for him. When Rashanal's hands laced in his hair, the confusion of Duncan's own reactions brought him to a halt as slender fingers twisted deeper into his thick mane, forcing his head back. That wine-sweet mouth grazed his throat hotly, flooding him with shivers. Rashanal pulled back and looked hard into his eyes. "You pretend to yourself that you are free, but your body knows that I am your master. You ask why? Because I take what I want, and I will have you. Now."

Duncan froze as hands slid down across his ass and hips and then cupped his groin, kneading and massaging his hardened cock. His breath caught, and he could hear the blood throb in his temples as his mind struggled to fix upon a course of action. He wasn't allowed the time for thought as his mouth was taken in a fierce, bruising kiss.

He felt as though he were resisting; some part of him was. But the assault Rashanal was working on his body bound him in a web of his own hunger, a passionate trap that tightened around him the more he struggled. Dark desires rose up from hidden places within him, deep wells of longing for something he had never named, nor faced, nor even known existed. Rashanal had bested him once already, sparing his life - and those dark places in him felt that ownership more deeply than any paid in coin. Fight, his instincts cried, but the wiser, cooler part of his mind counseled that resistance would get him killed, or worse, though a small, traitorous voice whispered to him that he said this only to convince himself of his own helplessness - and therefore blamelessness.

He gasped once for air between soul-searing kisses, breath catching hard as the certainty welled up in him, I want him, want this, oh mother of mercy help me... He never even noticed his own goblet dropping to the floor.

Methos felt the shudder that moved through his slave's body, the hands that uncontrollably clutched at his shoulders. He was ready for the instinctive rebellion of that powerful body struggling against him; when the lush lips parted instead, melting into hot welcome, he was undone. Desire surged through his loins like the heat of the sun itself, and restraint slipped away in the swell of lust that threatened to drown him.

His hands kneaded the muscled flesh as he swallowed the sounds of Duncan's ardor, each moan serving to feed his fever to possess the man as he pulled the Highlander in tight to his body, matching them groin to groin. His tongue flicked over teeth and slid hungrily across the soft palate. Duncan's cock hardened even more, and his own responded eagerly. In a flash, the image of the Highlander kneeling, hands bound at his back as Methos fucked his mouth, came to him with an almost soul-destroying intensity. That wet, sensuous mouth around him, avidly sucking him, muscled thighs spread for balance, the expressive eyes half-lidded in pleasure...

With effort, he broke away from the haven of Duncan's mouth so he could speak, teeth gritted, his lips pressed against the Highlander's ear, his words a ragged whisper. "Down, on your knees. Now."

The dark eyes found his, hectic with desire and confusion, but Duncan barely hesitated, going to his knees with an unresisting motion that made Methos' breath hiss out in a rush of aching need. He wants this. He had to close his eyes and breathe deeply, control threatening to splinter irrevocably. I do this for myself. His wants do not matter.

Then, strong hands found his hips, and the feel of them holding him there, claiming him, was more intimate, more devastating, more dangerous than anything he had known in over a thousand years.

Something in Methos snapped. No. He would not do this. Could not dare do this. The need to sink down with him, to bury himself in this brave, beautiful man's innocent flesh was overwhelming, terrifying. To belong to him, to lose himself in that joining of souls, the devastation that those warm, callused palms promised--no. Even the thought of it reduced him to a shudder of fevered panic, a tiny thread of tremors that ran through him like hot, desperate fear. He belonged to no one but himself.

Breaking that hold and with it the momentary spell that had held him, Methos twisted around the kneeling man and seized his wrists, catching them fast and pinning them below Duncan's shoulder blades. Shoving the Highlander forward with one knee in the middle of his back, he forced the man's face into the woven mat, then straddled him.

Duncan made a noise of protest and anger, but his struggle came too late: he was well pinned. Methos freed one of his own hands and reached for the tie that had held the other man's robe, leaning low over the Highlander. Duncan turned his face sideways against the floor, straining to look up at the man who held him, and Methos made the mistake of looking at him. For a long moment they were frozen like that, Methos on top of him, the strip of cloth in his hand, Duncan flushed and angry and unbearably aroused, hands twisted behind him, his sex pressed painfully into the floor. He shifted under Methos' weight, the warm, muscled sweetness of his ass pushing against Methos' flank and thigh.

It was a challenge and an invitation, a motion so natural it made Methos throb with wanting against the broad back. Mouth dry, he held the dark eyes because he could not move or look away. Their faces were less than a hand span apart.

Duncan felt the surge of blood to the cock pressing into the small of his back. He swallowed hard. When he spoke, the words were a rough whisper, as if to conceal his shame from himself.

"You need not tie me."

He felt Rashanal go very still, the severe planes of his face freezing into an expression unlike any he had shown Duncan before. For an instant, the painful hold on his arms eased a fraction, and Rashanal's nostrils flared faintly, as if he were taking a breath for the first time in too long.

Then those refined, too-red lips twisted in a snarl, and Rashanal yanked his arms up six inches, making him grunt with the pain. Scorn laced the voice, and pity. "You poor, wanton little slut. Don't you get it? I don't need your permission. It pleases me to see you enslaved by your own desires, but it really doesn't matter if you want me, or hate me, or both. It makes no difference at all what you want, because you belong to me."

You belong to me. Methos punctuated the words with little shakes to the pinned wrists that made the big Scot's breath hitch with the discomfort. Saying them was such a relief. With a motion so well practiced it felt like coming home, he bound the other man's wrists with one hand, catching and tying the end of the cloth in a sturdy knot. This was what he had wanted. This was what he had missed. Too many centuries - how had he lived so long without this sweet, sweet submission of one of his own kind? Whether he gave it or demanded it, the rush was the same.

He leaned forward, stroking his tongue along the edge of Duncan's ear, nibbling along the lobe and down the throat, savoring the salty taste of the man's skin. His breath caught as deliciously silk-covered flesh shifted against his urgent arousal. "Yes," he murmured, closing his eyes to savor the feel of Duncan trying to shudder away from the pleasure of warm breath on his ear. "Don't fight it. You can't fight it. I know what you need, and you can't fight it." He bit down slowly on the tender earlobe, sinking his teeth in until Duncan made a low sound of pleading, only partly in pain. "You see?"

The Highlander tried vainly to pull his head away, but Methos bit him there again, then soothed him with his tongue, feeling the tender skin cool and heal against his lips. He went on doing it until Duncan began to lose it in earnest, keening softly and writhing almost uncontrollably at the torment which was both pain and ecstasy. Methos felt it in him, the moment when the pain became pleasure, too, and the ecstasy almost took him over, the sweaty, half-naked body beneath him grinding helplessly against the floor.

Methos rolled off him swiftly, yanking back simultaneously on the strip of fabric and a handful of sable curls. He hauled the other man back onto his knees before the Highlander could find release, but the silk loincloth was dark and wet with Duncan's arousal, the engorged sex jutting up hard against the flat belly. It had been close.

Flushed and panting, beside himself with denied release, Duncan shuddered and struggled again to break his captor's hold. The sight of him tied, kneeling, fighting and hard as a rock, was enough to send Methos right up to the edge with him. Unable to help himself, Methos pressed his open mouth to the sweet-salt warmth of that beautiful throat, sucking gently and drinking in the tastes and scents of him.

"What are you going to do to me?" Duncan gasped out, unable to keep still.

"Eat you alive," Methos whispered with satisfaction, tonguing the delicious place where Duncan's pulse surged under the skin, tasting the faintest edge of his young, strong Quickening. His own need was fierce, but he would not give into it again. He couldn't risk it. This one could own him if he tried, if Methos gave him half a chance.

This, then; less than what he might have taken, but still a magnificent conflagration, still an addiction with its own rewards. "Sit back," he ordered, pulling Duncan's head back to demonstrate what he wanted, his other hand pushing between the strong thighs, spreading them slightly. The muscles leaped when Methos touched him there, tension running under the skin. Dark eyes met his, communicating apprehension and need.

"What are you--?"

Methos shook his head once. "Enough. It is not your place to question what I will do." He curled his fingers into the damp, silken cloth at Duncan's hips, the back of his hand pressing intimately into the warm satin of Duncan's lower belly. The Highlander drew a sharp breath, but need had pushed fear out of his face. Methos unwound the end of the garment and it loosened enough to slip down, freeing the Highlander's heavy, beautifully made cock.

Prepared for Rashanal to touch him, Duncan tensed, remembering the way those elegant hands had held him the night before. He was getting desperate, his arms and his ear throbbing, reminding him forcefully just how thoroughly he was owned at this particular moment, how little he could do against anything his captor demanded. At some point, without even realizing it, he had abandoned his willful resistance in favor of a purely physical hunger. To his consternation, his very helplessness only made his arousal hotter, his pride crushed to the floor where he had lain. He wanted Rashanal's palm cupping his hot, hard sex more than he wanted to be cut free, more than he would have dreamed it possible to want another man's touch. He could not even think past the next few moments to see the shame that awaited him on the other side of his satisfaction.

In truth, he wanted more than the touch of hands. His body sang a sweet ache for what he craved, a need he could not have put into words, a wanting for something he had never known or wanted before.

But even hands were denied him, Rashanal rising smoothly to his feet before him. Those strong, slender fingers in his hair were the only place the man touched him. One-handed, Rashanal worked his own garment off, the practiced ease of it doing something dangerous to Duncan's insides. Rashanal's robes slipped to the floor, and he stood naked before Duncan, an ivory-carved idol made flesh.

The man forced his head down, bringing his face overwhelmingly close to the place where muscled thighs framed black curls and the man's formidable, fully aroused sex. Rashanal gripped his hair tightly, running his other hand intimately down Duncan's nape. "You do as I tell you without hesitation, do you understand?"

Duncan started to nod, but the hand that had rested on the back of his neck stopped the motion.

"You answer me when I ask you a question. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Master," Duncan whispered, the word freeing itself before he could think to stop it.

The words set Methos aflame, and he laced both hands in that thick, soft mane to hold himself steady against a wave of melting heat in his belly. Oh, yes, he is mine. He braced his legs and tilted the slave's head back, forcing Duncan to arch against him. "Your mouth," he grated out. "Now." He rubbed the tip of his cock across the full lips, body tensing with anticipation.

Another shudder ran through the taut frame before him, and Duncan sought his gaze, the apprehension plain. "I've never--"

That vulnerable truth touched something deep within Methos, something primal and dangerously personal. He was helpless to control all the levels of his response to this man, this beautiful, passionate, foolishly unguarded child. "Then show me what you like," he said hoarsely, thumbs caressing the soft hollows at Duncan's temples. "Don't hold back with me. If you please me, I will let you come."

Duncan caught his breath in spite of himself. He wanted to ask what would happen if he failed to please. His cock ached and throbbed at the thought.

Rashanal's mutable eyes glittered, knowing his need. "I suggest you do not make me wait any longer, Highlander." The words were dangerously gentle, reassurance underscored with unbending steel.

The hands in his hair forced his face closer, and Duncan breathed the scent of him, feeling the silken shaft tease hotly against his cheek. He closed his eyes and turned his mouth against that heat, brushing lips and tongue tentatively along the underside of his master's sex.

Methos made a choked sound, electric pleasure flashing through his groin at that hesitant caress. "Yes..." His hold on the other man became needed support as his knees threatened to give out. Gods, that mouth. He slipped one hand down along the tender arch of Duncan's throat, cupping the curve of shoulder, feeling where taut muscle strained against tied wrists. "More," he hissed out, longing to hold that magnificent head still and fuck the sweet mouth brutally, holding himself still against the violent desire. He wanted to feel Duncan pleasing him, wanted to know the other man's rhythms and secrets, his passion.

When he thought that uncertain, careful exploration would drive him utterly mad if it went on one more second, the Highlander sucked in air through his nostrils and opened his mouth, letting Methos into sensuous, engulfing heat.

The shock of pleasure rippled through him, taking breath and thought. Methos knew distantly that he swayed, catching himself against the other man's shoulders, pressing himself deeper into near-orgasmic warmth and silk. He couldn't stop the instinctive motion of his hips, nor the low cry that escaped him. After a fleeting second of resistance, Duncan accepted his helpless, tiny thrusts, throat working gently, intuitively, against the possession. A natural. Dear gods he is a natural at this--

Then there were no further thoughts as Methos lost himself in the darkness of his own rapture and that hot silken sucking.

Duncan felt trapped between the hunger of his mouth for the taste of his master's flesh and the hunger of his groin for the other man's touch. He felt both entirely helpless and completely in control; Rashanal's hands seemed to control the movement of his head, but he felt each movement of his lips and tongue reflected in the other man's reactions. Whatever hesitation he had felt due to reluctance and inexperience had been overwhelmed by his own need to touch and taste. The feel of Rashanal's hands tangled in his hair, the velvet hardness of the cock in his mouth, the brush of rough hair against his face as Rashanal moved deeply into him; all of these served to make his own hunger greater yet. He was lost in the unique tastes, scents and textures of the man.

The surge of bittersweet fluid caught Duncan by surprise, spilling fervently over his tongue, down his throat, over his lips and chin as Rashanal came hard in his mouth, shuddering his release. The man's deep, breathless cry of surprised ecstasy shot sweet bolts of response through Duncan's loins, a sympathetic rush of echoed pleasure. The taste was shocking, illicit, the feelings it evoked in him more so. Overwhelmed, aroused beyond belief and aching, he swallowed the other man's seed with his eyes closed, transported by the carnal sensuality of it, needing only the barest touch to achieve his own pleasure.

At last, Rashanal pulled away, sinking down to one knee, body trembling with the force of his spent orgasm. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, Duncan lifted his face without thought to meet Rashanal's open mouth with his own. Their lips met and melted together, tongues caressing, the kiss deep and consuming and full of the taste of slick, sweet release. Hunger matched hunger, both men lost in the intimate union.

Unable to bear any more, Duncan shifted into Rashanal's embrace, rubbing himself clumsily against one corded thigh. His captor allowed it once, twice. It was almost enough. Panting harshly, Duncan strove for more contact, more friction, more--

Rashanal pulled away, and Dunan swayed forward, off balance. A low sound of deprivation broke open in his throat. Desperate, he pleaded for mercy without shame.

"Rashanal, please--"

The man's pure, sensual abandon was almost Methos' undoing. It was on the tip of his tongue to offer his name, his real name, the longing to hear it on those lips very nearly making him lose all sense. The Highlander was so beautiful like this, his dusky skin slick with sweat, his arousal obviously painful, dark hair falling around his face in damp tendrils. A king's ransom would not be enough, Methos thought, swept with a possessiveness so fierce it burned him. I will never let him go.

"What do you want?" he purred, stroking the sweat-slicked chest, teasing nipples drawn taut with pleasure. The corded abdominal muscles fluttered under the skin, the nipples getting even harder at his touch. A pearly drop of fluid sprang to the tip of the Highlander's cock; the rampant sex was already glistening with pre-ejaculate. "Tell me, Duncan." So lost was he, he did not even notice that he had granted the Highlander the gift of his name. His only thought was for the delicious responses of the man beside him.

"Please." It was a hoarse supplication forced out through gritted teeth. "I need--"

"Yes," Methos agreed, bringing two fingers to his mouth, wetting them. He reached down and ran slick fingertips along the underside of Duncan's cock, rubbing at the tracery of blood vessels in slow, languorous circles. The Highlander's breath came short, his eyes closing, his body arching at the stimulation, his cock seeking more intimate contact. After a moment, Methos withdrew the caress, lips curving. "You certainly do."

To the Highlander's ears, Rashanal's tone was taunting, and it was too much. His trampled pride surged up to momentarily swamp his need. Duncan swore in Gaelic and struggled with his bonds, eyes flashing murderous intent. He managed to shove Rashanal away from him. Slightly off balance on one knee, Rashanal fell back clumsily. Nostrils flared, Duncan felt a tiny stab of triumph, a flash of pure gratification at having taken his captor by surprise.

Recovering quickly, Rashanal went still. His cool gaze found Duncan's.

Too late, Duncan realized he had spelled his own fate in that single mutinous moment.

Watching him realize it, Rashanal's expression chilled further, those changeable eyes going dark and remote. The force of that categorical condemnation hit Duncan hard, flooding him with shame and remorse, even as it fanned his anger. He felt himself breathing hard, face hot with humiliation that he should feel such things, that he should want this man's approval so badly. What was he, that Duncan should feel such mortification for one moment of rebellion? Worse, it had not lessened his arousal in the slightest. He suddenly knew he would give anything if only Rashanal would touch him, take him in his mouth as Duncan had done for him. Anything. The realization only humiliated him further. A whimper escaped his lips as Rashanal casually reached for him, slowly caressing his aching sex - then released him, leaving him feeling utterly bereft.

His captor rose slowly to his feet, regarding him something like disappointed pity. As Duncan watched wordlessly, Rashanal drew his robe back on, cloaking his nakedness as he cloaked the tenderness and passion he had shown, as if they had never been. He moved out of Duncan's line of sight, close behind the Highlander's kneeling, trembling body. With considerable strength he caught hold of Duncan's wrists and forced them up, until Duncan had to struggle to his feet to relieve the pressure. He was forced backward several steps, and Rashanal was doing something with his bonds, something Duncan could not see. He started to panic a little. Would Rashanal tie him upright, and leave him? His need to come throbbed in low waves, unrelenting. Surely Rashanal could not mean to leave him like this?

"Perhaps in time you will learn what it is to submit to me. When you can show me that you have learned, you will regain my favor. Until then..." Was that regret, in the rough-soft, intimate whisper? "...I leave you to consider your error. Goodnight, Highlander."

In another moment, Rashanal was gone from the tent, leaving Duncan standing among the remnants of his fractured pride, one breath from begging.

Several more moments passed before he realized Rashanal had not tied him upright, but had loosened his bindings, making it possible to work his hands free. A minute of determined effort, two, and he was able to free himself. Immortal healing would erase the chafing at his wrists soon enough. All he could think of now was sinking to his knees on the floor of the tent, losing himself in the shattering relief of being able to wrap both hands around his tortured, engorged cock. His own touch was painful ecstasy.

Without anyone to see him, Duncan brought himself urgently to powerful orgasm, shuddering and sobbing his release as it spilled over his hands onto his thighs, the cushions, the floor.

When it was over, the shame a devastating, hot coil in his throat, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod cleaned himself, the cushions, the floor, carefully wiping away the physical traces of his abasement. He kept his mind empty, refusing to acknowledge that the self-gratification of his flesh had done nothing to ease the hunger in his soul, denying to himself the regret that sought to convince him that he had done wrong. Dousing the lamps, he moved unsteadily to the bed. He carefully did not consider why he chose to surround himself with the scent of the man who had humiliated him. Sliding into the comfort of pillows and covers, he kept his mind blank with effort, staring into the darkness.

A long time later, the last guttering candles found the proud warrior curled around himself, dozing the fitful sleep of the condemned.

Chapter Text

Methos looked neither right nor left as he strode out of the tent, leaving the Highlander behind. He carefully schooled his features, making sure that his face did not betray the chaos of his thoughts. He felt shattered, his control slipping. He needed to be alone, well away from the feel of the Highlander's presence, before he did something he would regret.

He strolled quickly through camp to where the horses were kept, nodding at the sentries as he passed. Too many people here, too much life. He needed quiet, to get away for a moment and find his center again. Methos saddled his favorite horse, a black stallion with but a single patch of white, and rode into the desert night.

The sound of the hoof beats on sand comforted him in a way impossible to explain, and the waxing moon was more familiar to him than any other sight in the world. He embraced the rhythm and play of the muscles beneath him, letting night cover him, and letting the soaring movement erase his thoughts, allowing himself to simply be.

Methos wasn't sure how much time passed before his mind ordered itself, but at last, the tightness in his chest began to ease. He headed for the edge of his lands, where an outcropping of rocky hills afforded a complete view of the valley in which his people dwelt. He would need to post sentries there soon.

As soon as he reached the hills, Methos dismounted, loosened the horse's girth, and turned it toward a sparse patch of grass before collapsing against the base of the nearest stone. He stared up at the moon for a moment, letting its cool light wash over him, accompanied by the clear, sharp sounds of the desert night, its quiet stillness, as always, offering relief from the worst of his problems.

With no one around to see, Methos relaxed, resting his head back against the rock. He loosed the bonds that had held his emotions in check and let his feelings slide though him, momentarily overwhelming him. At first, it was simply difficult to breathe, his chest tight and constrained. His body ached with the intensity of the waves of emotions raging through him, leaving him weary and drained. He closed his eyes, deliberately relaxing his body and breathing deeply, feeling his discipline reassert itself, the feelings spending themselves on the shore of his inner stillness. A calmer portion of his mind -- the part that coldly observed at all times and had been responsible for his survival more than once -- catalogued the waves for examination: anger, so great he had felt close to murder when the Highlander had rejected his advances; need and hunger so deep that he found no end to them; a fear that had to be acknowledged and mastered before it overwhelmed him; and pain. Intense, soul-searing pain.

So little. It had taken so little to make him forget all his determination to teach the Highlander obedience, to assure him of Methos' ownership and control, and of Duncan's own status as property. Indeed, the slave had almost owned the master. You need not tie me. Which of them had been in control in that moment? Again he felt the hot, clean anger pour through him, anger that had been erased at the slightest taste of the Highlander's uncontrolled desire, only to reassert itself at the small surge of rebellion.

He had been so close to losing himself utterly, just a few touches away from giving the Highlander anything he wanted, just to feel the unleashed depths of the other man's response. Shudders racked his body at the memory of that mouth on his body, matching him kiss for kiss, making him forget his own name. Too dangerous. He laughed harshly, the sound echoing eerily off the stone at his back. Instead of punishing the Highlander for that display of pride, he should have thanked him. It was the only thing that had brought Methos back to himself, even that small voice that kept watch for him having been silenced by his driving need. If he were wise, he would free the man and send him on his way -- but already he knew that he was incapable of such a sacrifice.

Perhaps the best thing to do would be to indulge his passion, hoping it would burn itself out in Duncan's warm, willing flesh. For it would be willing, he knew. He could make it willing; he had more than enough skill for that. Just the thought was enough to send desire surging through him again, showing him the futility of believing that such a hunger would do anything but grow as long as it was fed. The Highlander was a dangerous elixir, one that might spoil him for any other draught.

Methos drew his robes close about himself, tilting his face to the night sky. He closed his eyes, filling his mind with an image of the man he'd left behind. What was it about this one that made Methos forget all his hard-won lessons? The Highlander seemed everything Methos was not -- direct, honest, open, unwilling to compromise himself, to take the path of least resistance. Such unflinching certainty was seductive to someone who had made a living out of doing whatever was necessary to keep his skin intact and his choices open.

Then again, such convictions led to madness. He would have died long since if he'd allowed himself to be ruled by such arcane principles of honor and pride as the Highlander saw them. His life had not allowed him such luxuries, and it still didn't. He, of all people, knew the futility of caring too much, of hoping for too much, of giving too much, when fate had already named them slave and master. He, of all people, knew that time could not be turned back. He had chosen this life, and if he were wise, he would have the courage of his choices and be satisfied. To put himself, his feelings into the hands of another -- particularly when the other was as Immortal as Methos himself -- would be sheerest madness.

But oh, just for a moment to imagine it, to let himself believe that there was another way. For a brief span of seconds he allowed the fantasy. He would come to Duncan tonight where he slept and free him, against his own better judgment, and they would ride into the night together. They would go someplace green and wet and cool and not look back...

...leaving his people on the brink of a territorial war, without leadership, without direction; too many of them would die. Methos shook his head once, rejecting the image of blood on the sand that came too readily. He had lived that one before.

Another fantasy, then. He would let the Highlander earn his slave-price and free him, and when he had, Methos would make a place for him and ask him to stay---

His fantasy cracked. He knew that the Highlander would not stay. Even if he overcame his shame at what had already passed between them, he was not meant for such desert places, and he was so young. The world would beckon him, and what could such a man as 'Rashanal' offer against that? What would Duncan MacLeod, Highland son, with his brave, foolish warrior's heart, want with anything Rashanal, desert chieftain, could offer him? It was hopeless to even think about.

Part of his mind whispered at him, And if he knew who his captor really was? Not just Rashanal, not the jaded, petty master of an insignificant oasis and a handful of barely civilized nomads -- but Methos, the real Methos? Would the Highlander stay then? It wasn't safe. It wasn't possible. But oh, how he wanted it.

That darkest fantasy whispered treacherously on the night wind, and for just one moment he permitted it. To be known for himself, by one of his own kind...it had been so long. His brothers believed him dead, and so it must remain forever if he wanted to go on living; there had been no one since. Something told him, despite every effort he made not to hear, that there would never be another like this one.

Maybe if he had not succumbed to his baser instincts when he'd seen the Highlander on the auction block. If he had freed him immediately, he might have persuaded the man to accompany him as a guest, given them a level footing from which to learn of each other. A part of him was appalled to realize that the option had never occurred to him; not once had he thought of not owning him. He was filled with an aching regret for his own lack of foresight. If only

His stallion whuffled curiously over his shoulder at just that moment, and Methos jumped half a foot. The black nickered, a questioning sound. Sanity flooded Methos in a cold rush, and he welcomed it with relief and bitter self-mocking. What a romantic fool he was, to think he could have shaped his fate differently. The Highlander had made it very clear that he had no comprehension of a life where freedom of choice did not exist as a matter of course. If he knew what Methos really was, he most certainly would not stay; the blood of too many innocents stained Methos' hands. It would be the height of stupidity to believe even for an instant that MacLeod could be more to him than just another slave, could ever have been anything else.

Just as it had been the height of ignorance to think that he could have been more than just another slave. Methos closed his eyes, trying to control the memories, a skill he'd practiced over time. Sometimes it wasn't enough. This time the memories won, flashes of another lifetime, the remembered cost of his own arrogance and pride.

Livia.

Methos caught his breath at the echo of pain that sliced through him. Who would have thought that the hurt could still touch him, now? Millennia and vast distances insulated him, and still, he could not forget that single betrayal among thousands.

The decades before Livia had been among the most unpleasant he had ever known, and the most solitary. He'd thought himself proof against the seductive wiles of temptation at the point he had come under her charge. Yes, she was lovely, a vibrant, strong, intelligent woman. And she'd seemed kind, patient with a slave who obviously distrusted her and everyone else. He hadn't known that she enjoyed a challenge, that she set herself the task of winning him over as a matter of habit. Oh, her affection had been genuine enough; even in retrospect, he believed this. He just hadn't realized that it was the same sort of affection one gave to a favored pet, or the fondness one had for a particularly lovely piece of statuary. She had talked with him, seeming to value his intelligence and his opinions of important matters. He'd thought himself needed and had let himself sink once again into the illusion of security. He hadn't even realized that he loved her, until she gave him away.

In truth, he had loved an illusion; his understanding of her character had been as flawed as the safety he had thought surrounded him. It wasn't even as if she grew tired of him: she had just had a whim. One moment, he was her favored body slave, indulged to the point of believing himself necessary to her. The next, a newfound ally expressed admiration, and he found himself a gift. "Do you like him? He's yours."

Nothing in his life had ever conveyed to him quite so profoundly that he was property. He later realized that he had never truly believed himself owned until that point. Suddenly, he had seen himself through his Mistress's eyes and knew that he meant no more than the gowns she wore, or the dishes off which she ate: amusing, distracting even, but not something to be missed when it could be easily replaced.

He had been given time enough to understand the lesson: that ownership negated sentimentality, that an owner had possessions, not friends, and certainly not lovers. His own fall from grace had been accompanied by the sly ridicule and subtle torments of those he had previously scorned from his privileged position. He felt a brief flash of discomfort as he realized the parallel with his actions toward Tahirih. Never so old but that you can fail to learn from your own life, old man. Still, he had been kinder to her than fate had been in his own case. Namal would protect her from the consequences of her arrogance and pride.

He had later found that it could be entertaining to seduce a slave, but that it meant as little as breaking a steed to ride. A pleasure, a convenience, something to make life more comfortable. Anything more than that, and you risked being broken yourself. He'd found it a kindness to pass on his lessons, teaching his own slaves that it was a mistake to care too much, his own ultimate indifference serving as an object lesson. A slave who sought more, such as Tahirih, or more dangerous yet, who evoked more, had either to be taught at an accelerated pace, or relinquished. He'd remembered that with Cassandra, but had forgotten it with Tahirih; he dared not disregard it for a moment with the Highlander.

Methos stroked his steed's soft muzzle absently, his agitation calmed somewhat by the animal's dumb affection. Resigned, he cinched the girth tight and mounted once more, urging the animal back toward the lightening eastern sky and camp.

Without question, the most prudent course of action would be to find some way to free the Highlander as soon as possible, and forget him. Anything else would only invite pain. And that is exactly what I will do, he told himself fiercely. At the first opportunity.

Just as soon as I have had him.

That thought and the visceral, vivid image of tousled Scottish warrior flushed with pleasure beneath him, that magnificent head thrown back, made Methos as achingly hard as if he had not had release in weeks.

Grimly, he admitted to himself that it only served to confirm that the danger was even greater than he had guessed-and that he had better make a real effort at controlling his own desires, or risk losing not just the battle but the whole war.

* * *

Dawn broke as Methos topped the ridge above the camp. The sky was pale, edged with the first hints of what would be a vicious, unrelenting glare by midmorning. The night chill had already faded.

Just as he started down the slope, he spotted the three riders. They were moving fast out of the northeast, angling across the jagged hillside toward him. --As they drew closer, he saw that the trailing rider had something draped across his saddle, something heavy. The saddle cloth and tassels of the lead horse gleamed white for an instant, marking the beast as one of Emad's herd.

Methos spurred his horse toward level ground, realizing with a stab of disgust that in his haste to escape the camp, he had ridden out with no weapon save the long dagger he kept hidden in his cloak. If they had a bow, he would be caught for sure. Anger surged. If they killed him and lived to tell about it, his life here would be finished and his people leaderless. He would have to disappear. And MacLeod... would they find one another again? Yes, and he will try to take your head and you will end up having to kill him, you idiot. Move.

By the time he reached the valley floor, Methos could hear the hoof beats of his pursuers. Risking a glance back, he saw that the terrain had enabled the three riders to close the distance slightly. Just then, all four horses crossed into the shadow of the ridge, and in the early morning light Methos was suddenly able to make out the lead rider. A flash of relief touched him as he recognized one of his own border patrol on an unfamiliar mount. He slowed and came back toward them.

And saw for the first time that the something heavy the third horse carried was a body -- the slain corpse of his patrol's captain. The lead rider was bloodied, though the only visible wound was a gash at his temple.

"Hadjii! What happened?" Methos cried, as they neared.

"Rashanal!" Hadjii was panting heavily, obviously near the end of his endurance. The riders pulled up sharply, all three horses stumbling in their weariness. "There were too many, ra-jamihn. They ambushed us, killed the horses under us. We fought--"

"Easy. Rest a moment. That's it. All right, now -- where are the others?"

Hadjii glanced back at the second rider and shook his head. "No others. All killed. We pulled down three riders and took their steeds, but the fourth cut Selim across the belly." He nodded toward the third rider, still breathing hard. "Bayyan pulled him up, and Selim covered our retreat with his bow before the ride killed him. We dared not stop."

Methos took this news in grimly, giving no sign of his shock. Nine of his best men, dead. He reached out and caught the white-tasseled reins of Hadjii's mount. "Emad." Not a question. He fixed Hadjii with his gaze. "The well?"

Grimly, Hadjii shook his head.

* * *

Reaching camp, Methos dispatched the three wounded and exhausted men to Namal and sent for Jaffir. He had been a fool, twice over. He had trusted the word of a man who could be bought more than he had trusted his own caution and experience. His agent had made it seem that there was time to deal with Emad, and he had blithely accepted that as truth, diverting himself with pleasures of the body while Emad figuratively castrated him. As a result, he had lost nine men, twelve good steeds, and worse, a valuable source of water.

He had started toward his own tent before he remembered that the Highlander would still be there, sleeping -- a distraction he did not want and could not afford. He laughed at himself for the weakness, but turned toward Jaffir's tent anyway, planning to meet him halfway.

He knew Jaffir would expect him to form a raiding party at the very least -- perhaps even send for their tribe's allies and declare all-out war. Emad, of course, hoped for just that. Methos had dealt with the man more than once over the years, and knew him to be a shrewd, dangerous enemy, despite his vices. The bold attack on the border patrol was a deliberate insult, as well as being an unexpected and cunning coup.

There was Jaffir now, hurrying toward him, face set and dark eyes storming with his anger. Methos steeled himself for what was likely to be only the first test of his leadership skills this day.

Chapter Text

Duncan's subconscious fought to hold tight to sleep, but the rising heat of morning and a nameless tension in the air made it impossible. He woke at last to find himself alone in the tent.

When he remembered the previous night, his heart ached at being abandoned once again, even as his spirit laughed mockingly at his weakness. How could Rashanal do this? Take him, devastate him, control him, use him and leave him. He felt brittle, as if all his private, innermost thoughts had been pulled out and set on display to be laughed at; he had nothing left inside. He felt as if he were wearing his skin inside out, every thought as sharp as a lash on his flesh. Only a few short days, and already he no longer knew himself.

Last night he had almost accepted -- his mind yelled at him to be truthful -- he had accepted this, had wanted Rashanal's touch. And he missed it now, in the full light of day. Was this any way for a warrior to live? He rolled onto his side, and his conscience pricked at him again. Rashanal is a warrior, and he obviously enjoys this. Maybe, in other lands, it is right for a warrior to lie with men. He closed his eyes and once again felt the heat of Rashanal's hands on him, stroking down over the tautness of his abdomen in search of the heated flesh between his legs. His body immediately reacted, and he slid his own hand down to grasp his swelling cock; his touch turned his mind back to the empty release he had given himself the night before. Oh, he wanted him. And, once again, he felt the shame.

He opened his eyes and sat up, pulling his legs to his chest and setting his head upon his knees, his desire ebbing as he focused on the problem. Namal might know if such things were acceptable, if Duncan was willing to ask. And if the answer was yes -- would that resolve his dilemma? Did his shame stem from the act or the circumstances? Was it because such feelings were evoked by another man -- or because that man owned him? He shuddered as the word slipped through his mind, bringing back the possessiveness in Rashanal's voice and touch. You belong to me.

Would he feel the same if his owner were a woman, one who attracted him as Rashanal did? Would he feel the same shame at his depth of response? Would he feel so torn apart, feel the same lack of control? He had trouble imagining a woman who could make him feel so defenseless. Even Debra, the woman he had loved, had not made him feel this way -- but then, she had not tried to dominate him. It felt so different somehow, contending with someone whose strength and will were as powerful as his own. He had known strong-willed women; but if it were a woman, would he even resist?

Even if he accepted his physical desire, he was still in an impossible situation. He was battered by the conflicting feelings flowing through him: his strong will and independence warred with a dark desire to know what it would be like to fully submit someone like Rashanal. Every word from the man's lips awoke irreconcilable needs to resist and to please.

He breathed deeply -- and was immediately overwhelmed by the heady scents impregnating the bed. His sheer, physical response to the man was his greatest enemy. So, what if he didn't resist? Perhaps his best course of action would be to give in to the physical desire, restricting his resistance to those areas that touched on the deeper bonds of slavery, those areas to which Rashanal referred when he spoke of owning.

Have no doubt, Highlander. You are mine, in all ways, and in all things.

Such possession was much more than merely physical. Duncan had told Rashanal that he would never have anything that he did not take. Later, Rashanal had said that he would not do anything that Duncan did not want -- and he did want this, he could not deny it. There was also the fact that it was the challenge that appealed to Rashanal; he had said so himself. What would happen if some of the challenge were removed? If he freed himself to enjoy the physical pleasures that Rashanal promised, he gave the man that much less ammunition with which to pursue his domination of Duncan's spirit. If he did not physically resist, perhaps Rashanal's interest would wane more quickly, as well -- and Duncan might be allowed to earn his freedom.

Caught in the tangle of his thoughts, he felt the pull of Immortal presence and rolled onto his feet, hurriedly scooping up a robe to pull on. It was halfway over his head before he remembered the words from last night: From now on, you will not conceal yourself when we are alone. He quickly dropped the robe again, unsure of what to do.

Duncan swallowed, fighting down the need to cover himself, his hands clenched in tight fists. He could do this -- would do this -- and he would not let his master see how it affected him. Or perhaps he would, thinking back on his contemplations. Perhaps he would not be the one caught off-guard this time. He took a deep breath and forced himself to relax, listening for Rashanal's entrance.

* * *

Methos watched Jaffir and the men from the shadow of his own tent, feeling the toll of his sleepless night and the tensions of the morning. For now, his will prevailed; they had accepted his decision not to ride against Emad's tribe.

It had not been easy to persuade them to wait; their thirst for vengeance drove them hard. However, weakened as Methos' people were with the loss of their patrol, it would be doubly difficult to defeat a prepared enemy. Better to wait and plan an attack that would suit their own strengths. If they attacked immediately, as was certainly expected, the other tribe would be waiting for them. Emad was too hungry for this; the strength of his attack proved it. After much wearying argument, Methos had at last impressed upon the young warriors the wisdom of waiting until Emad and his men relaxed their vigilance.

Sighing, he stepped into the welcoming coolness of the tent's anteroom. Namal would be here shortly, after seeing to the wounded men and making sure the morning routine had been re-established. For now, Methos could enjoy a few moments to himself, some nourishment, and a short-lived peace.

The wash of the Highlander's Presence soothed him like a balm; he basked in it for a moment in spite of himself, in spite of the voice that warned of the danger, the unprecedented strangeness, of actually welcoming the Presence of another Immortal. He heard the slave stirring in the other room, and he could almost see the sleepy and rumpled man, skin hot and dewy in the growing warmth of the day. He felt another surge of desire, but stronger still was the feeling that spread through him like warm honey on bread. Here was a man who could understand the difficulty his position, who had surely lived with similar responsibility in the past. Methos forgot the battle of wills for a moment, the importance of detachment, and felt only the devastating, unexpected surge of contentment. For the first time, he recognized it for what it was: an easing of loneliness. A feeling of home.

The thought made him catch his breath as he realized just how far he'd let himself fall. On the brink of tribal warfare, and once again, all he could think about was giving in to his passions and forgetting his responsibilities. The thought of leaving his duty behind was more tempting than ever before. To be free again, not responsible for anyone but himselfbut if this had ever been an alternative, it was no longer, not after the morning's attack. He threw himself down on the scattered cushions, realizing just how weary he was from lack of sleep and the strain of holding back his men.

He felt himself teetering on the edge of an abyss. Something inside him gave way, pitching him off into the chasm, his fear tempered with a glorious sense of abandon and excitement. Whatever was happening, it was more intoxicating, and more life-giving, than anything he had felt in a very long time. He couldn't leave, but he could allow himself to enjoy the pleasures that were his to explore. Right now, the Highlander was his, whatever the future brought, and he relaxed into the feeling, luxuriating in the simple pleasure of the other man's existence, temporarily putting aside his more immediate problems.

His earlier turmoil assuaged by the sense of peace he felt, Methos suddenly became aware of the fact that he was famished. He fell upon the fruit and flatbread left uneaten the previous night. In spite of the grim events of the morning, for just a moment he smiled around the mouthfuls of food, remembering the taste of his Scottish warrior, glad to be alive.

The feeling was short-lived. Before he had finished the plate of food there was a commotion at the door. "My lord?"

Methos called impatiently, "Enter."

One of the men stepped in, looking flustered. "It's Tahirih, Lord. She wishes to see you." The man looked even more uncomfortable, as if he would spare Methos this unpleasantness.

Methos could see her through the raised flap, held back from bursting in by another of his men. He sighed with irritation, his euphoria fading as quickly as it had come. He had hoped she would have the sense to accept her change in status gracefully, as she had once before, sparing them both her tantrums -- but it seemed it was not to be. "Very well, let her in."

She entered, haughtily shrugging off the hands of the man who had held her. She was richly dressed in garments provided by Methos himself, and he recognized them as ones that he had favored. Rich fragrance drifted across to him, and her hair was freshly washed and oiled. She had obviously dressed to please him, to try and persuade him to change his mind.

He smiled grimly at her pride, not missing the determined set to her jaw as she walked to him and sank gracefully to her knees at his feet. It seemed that she had forgotten all the lessons he had so carefully taught her. He had allowed her to forget them, entertained by her vanity. He should have taken her in hand much sooner and saved them both what promised to be an unpleasant scene.

He said nothing, waiting to see what tone she would take, catching hold of the slender threads binding his rising anger and hoping she would do nothing to set it loose. Her disruption of his euphoric mood did not bode well for her if she failed to behave.

She drew a breath in preparation for speaking, and he saw the look of barely veiled satisfaction on her face. "Good morning, ra-jamihn," she said, eyes slightly lowered, the picture of decorum. Then she slowly, deliberately raised her eyes to his, as if taking the measure of his mood. His tense silence seemed to encourage her and make her bold, and her voice tinkled with amusement. "I heard that my lord spent the night in the desert." Methos gave a harsh, startled laugh. He should have realized that the camp's grapevine would murmur about his carefully controlled dash from the camp and his return many hours later, and place its own interpretation on these events, as Tahirih obviously had. She believed him disappointed or rejected and further believed it meant that she might regain her lofty position. She must know of the men killed in the raid, but it was more than apparent that this held little meaning for her compared to the possibility of regaining his favor. Contempt and pity chilled him. Though she was still beautiful, the thought of her willing flesh no longer held any charm; her vain self-interest was repellent.

Her voice oozed with sympathy. "I knew that he would not please you, lord. The barbarian is too callow and unskilled to suit your tastes."

Methos flushed as his chill of disgust was chased by a flare of rage, deeply buried, but building at her knowing, conspiratorial look. So assured, as if she knew his innermost thoughts, when she really knew nothing about the man she served. They were on the brink of war, and she thought only of her own status. Did she care nothing for her own tribesmen?

"Tahirih," he said with forced and deceptive gentleness, certain now that he had spoiled her unforgivably, perhaps beyond redemption.

She lowered her eyelashes, a flush rising to her cheeks at his tone and the rare use of her name. "My lord."

He smiled a little to himself. Oh, yes, she would learn this lesson and learn it well. It was long overdue. "Remove your garments."

She was momentarily startled, but covered it quickly and smiled as she stood, slowly running her fingertips over her chin and down her throat, sliding her hands down her breasts to her belt. She moved surely, arching her back pleasingly, as she had at the beginning of each dance, every dance, for as long as they had been together.

Methos could not help but compare her artifice to the Highlander's heated, involuntary responses, and the contrast only exacerbated his already tenuous hold on his temper. Disgusted, impatient, and tired, he grabbed hold of her shoulder brutally with one hand, seizing the belt of her garment in the other, ignoring her shocked cry.

"I said remove them, not fondle them. Have you taken to disobeying every order or only those that do not meet with your approval?" He yanked the belt free and worked the gown open, leaving her naked down the front except for her sheer undergarment. Her dismay whetted his anger, and he felt too raw from the long night of emotional stress; he didn't trust himself not to hurt her, or worse. He let her go and shoved her away from him. "Now take it off!"

Tahirih hurried to obey, clearly confused by his fury. He had beaten her before, but only as punishment, not in violence. He had never turned on her in real anger; she plainly did not know what it meant. Just as plainly, she thought he wanted her. Her color was high, and her eyes betrayed her excitement at his forcefulness. The signs of her response filled Methos with cold revulsion.

In a moment she stood before him in a wrapped undergarment that barely covered her, her only other adornment the silver torque Rashanal had given her. It was a heavy, beautifully wrought piece, worth at least as much as Tahirih herself, and it had marked her his favorite for a longer span of time than Methos wanted to consider.

When she looked up breathlessly, awaiting his next command, he nodded toward the jeweled torque. "That too. Take it off and give it to me."

Her hands fluttered uncertainly toward the lapis and silver ornament. She had only rarely removed it since he had placed it around her throat, soon after her capture. The look on his face must have convinced her he meant business, for she clumsily unclasped the torque and held it out to him, the expectant look on her face giving way to one of hesitation and near fear. Slowly, he approached her and took the heavy half-moon of metal from her hand. Something in his eyes must have reached her, for she began to tremble slightly, and she sank abruptly to her knees once more.

"My lord," she whispered, "what may I do to please you?"

Methos regarded her for a long moment. He'd been a fool to wait as long as he had. The anger faded with the certainty that her trespasses were as much his fault as hers -- and the knowledge that she would likely be the one to pay the ultimate price of his laxness.

"The gown belongs to me," he said at last, "as does this trinket." He tucked the necklace in his belt. There was no malice in his tone, only unbending, implacable steel. "You, however, now belong to Namal and are no longer of any interest to me. He will provide attire for you as he sees fit. Attend him. Now."

Her shock pleased him too much, giving him a perverse pleasure that fed off her dismay. He turned away, willing her to choose the wise path and obey without further sedition.

Of course, she did not. "My lord! I can't -- "

He whirled on her, and she fell back a step. Her arms moved as if to shield her body from his eyes -- or his anger.

"Can't? Can't what? Can't let yourself be seen? Do you imagine yourself so fine, so worthy, that others may not so much as look on your nakedness? You forget yourself, Tahirih! You place yourself above all others, and you bring dissent into the peace that I have built! With the trouble we have, all you can think of are your own selfish desires! You are fortunate I do not turn you out into the desert." He turned his back. "Be sure to please Namal. Otherwise, many of the men have expressed an interest in sharing your pleasures, and I will give you to them instead."

She made a small noise of disbelief behind him and unwisely moved to grasp his robes, pleading, her anguish apparent. "Master! Rashanal! Please, let me make amends! Whatever I have done to anger you, I can make it up to you! No one can please you as I do, love you as I do! That barbarian, what can he give you that I cannot?"

He shook her off, wanting only to be rid of her. "What do you imagine I could want with such a selfish, useless creature as yourself? The slowest camel is worth more to me than your cheap carcass! You would do well to remember that and to show your betters the respect they deserve. Guard!" He didn't even look at her as he called to the men waiting outside to remove her.

Tahirih's tears ran unrestrained down her face. She clung to him, begging. "Please! I will do anything, give you anything, be whatever you want me to be! Namal is old, and I do not want him! I don't want anyone but you!"

Naked save for her undergarment, kohl running down her face, sincere feeling drove her actions for the first time in longer than Methos could remember. Good. Better and better. Maybe she would learn. Maybe she would survive. Maybe it wasn't too late for her after all. She was Namal's problem now, and Methos wished him joy of her. The old man would be welcome to whatever pleasure he could find.

He watched as the guards took her, sobbing, out of the tent. Old memories battered him, one on top of the other, like waves of rain and lightning at the heart of a storm. Why did they always trust him, these powerless ones? Why had he trusted, in her place? When would he ever learn that the world could change its face a thousand times, and some things would forever remain exactly, inevitably the same?

A sound made him turn. The Highlander stood beside the dividing screen, naked, magnificent -- and quite plainly furious.

* * *

Duncan heard the voices in the other room, low murmurs that quickly escalated into loud, harsh tones. He could not understand the words, but the tenor of Rashanal's voice indicated his increasing displeasure. The flutters in his stomach worsened, the cool morning air prickling his skin even as the man's voice seared along his flayed nerves. He felt unsure about what he should do, vacillating as Tahirih's soft voice carried from beyond the partition. Should he stay in the inner chamber? Or was he supposed to go to Rashanal now?

Namal had mentioned that Rashanal did not normally eat alone. Perhaps he was expecting Duncan to serve him breakfast. Duncan balled his hands into fists; he was not going to serve anyone naked. As he stood indecisively, the noises from the other room suddenly resolved themselves into distinct, harshly spoken words he could understand: "Remove your garments."

Duncan's stomach knotted tighter than his hands. Tahirih had been brought back to the tent, and Rashanal was asking her to -- what? An embarrassed, heated flush crept over Duncan's cheeks as he considered the night before; had he so angered Rashanal that he was not going to be given a second chance? And why was it so important suddenly that this not be the case?

If he was not to be Rashanal's servant, what was he to be in this camp? Would he suffer punishment for his failure last night -- or be allowed to earn his freedom? And why did either possibility fill him with equally conflicted feelings? He scrubbed at his face with his hands. It was all too confusing, too many things were going on; he could not sort anything out. He looked over at the curtained divider and knew his only course of action. He would have to ask Rashanal what would become of him now.

He raised the cloth and froze at the tableau in the other room: Tahirih knelt naked on the floor, her clothing in a pile beside her, her hands clutching the hem of Rashanal's robe while Rashanal glared coldly at her as she cried. Duncan still didn't have a strong enough grasp of the language to know what exactly was being said, but he could read the emotions carved into each form, each face. Tahirih was begging not to be set aside, and Rashanal was two seconds away from beating her.

He could see the secret pleasure seated deeply within Rashanal as the woman degraded herself at his feet. Anger flooded Duncan as he realized that Rashanal enjoyed humiliating him the same way. When you can show me that you have learned, you will regain my favor. His life was now directed by the whims of a cruel man. He could still feel the pain of Rashanal's desertion the previous night, but equally strong were the feelings of passion and hunger that the man aroused in him. How could he feel such anger at the man's actions toward Tahirih, and at the same time feel such relief that he himself was not in her place?

He watched the tableau before him, struck by the power of the man, the dominance in his every gesture. The flush that Rashanal's ire had brought to his skin reminded Duncan forcefully of their passion from the previous night, and Rashanal's effortless mastery of him. You belong to me. Duncan swallowed once, hard, recalling the feel of Rashanal's hands and his own promise to himself to accept this desire that dwelt within him.

Watching Rashanal's dispassionate dismissal of the woman, he understood plainly that he had been a fool to think it could be that simple. Without the challenge of 'taming' him, it now seemed likely Rashanal would set him aside, just as he had Tahirih. Just as Duncan had hoped. Only now, watching the confirmation of his hopes played out before him, his inner conflict felt like a tangle of cords knotted about his insides. Was it pride that filled him with the burning need to prove himself worthy? Or was it something else? And why did he feel this tormenting mix of fear and rage and satisfaction at seeing the woman cast away out of hand? No one noticed him as the guards took her sobbing out of the room.

It came to him in a rush what it meant, that tangle of hot, helpless reaction. His head wanted freedom, a chance to earn it or take it at any price. But his heart...his heart wanted Rashanal to want only him. At any price.

Duncan's mouth turned dry, a gasp catching in his throat.

The object of his chagrined thoughts turned at the sound. Hazel eyes widened fractionally, then narrowed as Rashanal took in his expression, his challenging posture, drifting hotly over his nakedness. "You would do well to take her fate as an example, and curb your temper, Highlander."

It was a warning, a scathing tone that lashed Duncan's raw psyche like a whip. He nearly flinched. Something like hot fury, edged with the now familiar bitterness of shame, flashed through his whole body, burning away the tentativeness and indecision that had held him in their thrall.

Methos saw the Highlander go pale, but to his surprise the only other outward sign of Duncan's distress was in the expressive mouth, which drew into a hard line. The slave's voice came low and soft, devastating. "What had she done, for you to punish her so?"

Exhausted, stressed, and nettled by the woman's foolishness, Methos suddenly found he could not bear the combination of those accusing eyes, that voice, that naked skin, probably still warm from his own bed. He lashed out. "Punish her?" He laughed. "If I wanted to punish her, she'd not walk for a week. She is good for exactly nothing to me -- less than nothing! She's lucky I didn't kill her. I was doing her a favor!"

Duncan could not keep his shock out of his face. What kind of favor was it, to break another for the sheer pleasure of doing so? "Have ye' no feeling, no compassion for any but yourself? What are you?"

Methos felt a chill he could not name, followed by a hot rush of something that might have been anger but wasn't. He took a step toward the slave who dared speak to him of compassion. He let his eyes stray at last, his gaze laving the other's nakedness without mercy. "I must say, your attire is an improvement. However, your attitude seems not to have improved at all." He fixed the dark eyes with his own. "Do you think Tahirih would want your pity? Do you think that my taking pity on her would do her any kind of service at all?"

The Highlander blinked, obviously taken aback. "She is a woman-"

Methos nodded savagely. "Yes! She is a woman, in a society that values women for certain traits -- of which she has precious few. More than that, she is property. And unlike you, she will age. She has no compassion, no generosity of spirit. Her beauty fades a little more each day; what will her value be on the day it has faded to nothing, and she is despised and resented by all in her tribe for her foolish pride? She understands nothing, save how to be ornamental, how to manipulate a man's body with some passing competence. When that is lost to her, she will have nothing. What would she do if she were freed? How would she live if I, or some other, did not care for her? Giving her to Namal is the greatest kindness I could show her. You understand nothing."

Duncan shook his head, struggling with what Rashanal had said. Again, his reason argued forcefully with what his heart knew to be true. Could Rashanal be telling the truth? Everything was different here; no law he knew seemed to apply. But, no, he knew -- he knew what was right! Slavery could not be. Must not be. Under any circumstances.

"If you freed her, even if she died or lived in poverty, she would at least own herself!" He found himself pleading with Rashanal, desperate for the other man to understand what he was saying. "It is wrong to take that freedom from any being, whatever rationalization you might put on it. Surely you must see that!"

Rashanal smiled tightly. "Have you never owned a horse, Highlander? Kept it in a stable, out of the rain? Fed it? Groomed it? Given it good pasture and plenty of exercise, kept it warm in the winter... stroked its nose and called it friend, perhaps? Was the horse not happier, healthier, in your care?"

"It is not the same thing!" Duncan could not believe the man really equated the keeping of an animal with the keeping of a human slave. For the first time he found himself wondering how old Rashanal was. How could he have survived even one lifetime and not have understood anything at all about the importance of freedom -- to any man? "There can be no true living for a man until he is free. I have fought many battles in the name of freedom. I have seen men die for it." Duncan lifted his head, meeting his captor's gaze with every scrap of determination left in him. "I would die for it."

Rashanal stared at him as if he could not believe what he was hearing. To Duncan's consternation, he seemed hardly able to contain his amusement. Flushing, the Highlander remembered their fight at the oasis, where Rashanal had beaten him easily.

"Well, we've already had that contest, and I won. I see no reason to think it would turn out differently were we to try it again. But all right, if it is that important to you -- you wish to earn your way free of me? Fine. You pay back my eighty dinars with interest. I will give you one copper coin for each day you spend tending to my things -- my food, my drink, my animals." He picked up a pouch from a table and sorted a handful of coins, then tossed two coppers at Duncan's feet. "Yesterday and today."

He held up a silver piece. "One silver for each day you spend on your knees." He casually tossed that coin at Duncan's feet, another reminder of the night before, and Duncan felt the heat flood him as he remembered his own hunger for the taste of his master's body. He was sure that Rashanal could read his every thought.

Keeping Duncan's eyes captured, Rashanal took the last step that closed the distance between them. He ran one hand casually, languorously over Duncan's flank, his palm coming to rest intimately along the curve of Duncan's thigh, the tip of his thumb stroking the softer inner skin, brushing dangerously close to Duncan's all too-easily aroused flesh. He found himself mesmerized by the other man's words and movements.

"And one gold coin for each night on your back." Rashanal's tone was a rough whisper as he held up a gold coin in his other hand.

Duncan's flinch was instinctive, unpreventable. "You would make me a whore!"

Rashanal let him go and held out his hand, offering him the coin. "That is my offer, you may do with it as you wish. Ten thousand days cleaning and caring for me -- or a hundred nights in my bed. It is your choice."

"That is not a proper choice," Duncan snapped at him, his pulse racing, his dismay apparent. The ridiculousness of the statement struck him a second after the words were past his lips.

"It is all the choice you get." Rashanal's fingertips traced his cheek and jaw. Merriment sparkled in hazel eyes, but there was a certain tension around the mouth, a dark note underlying the words. "You wish a chance at freedom, take it."

Duncan froze as the words insinuated themselves in his mind. Ten thousand days meant thirty years; he wasn't sure he could bear captivity for that long, let alone survive the force of the man's presence. But a hundred days, even a hundred days of -- a hundred days such as that -- were survivable, endurable. He'd been a mercenary before, a hired sword for other men. How different was this than other services he'd given in trade? A traitorous inner voice snickered at the rationalizations he made to justify accepting an offer that had made his blood run quick and hot. His captor smiled, a slow, private smile, lashes curving against his cheeks. He was standing too close; Duncan felt supremely aware of his own nakedness.

Rashanal breathed a sigh, and it feathered lightly against Duncan's collarbone, down the side of his neck, raising faint shivers. "It is not a difficult question, Highlander," he said huskily. He reached out, taking Duncan's wrist in a gentle, steady grip. That easy, proprietary hold made Duncan's blood heat further, remembering the way he had been pinned so helplessly the night before.

But Rashanal only turned Duncan's hand over, placing something cool and very heavy in his palm. At first he thought it more coinage, but it was the wrong weight and shape. Looking down, he saw that it was the same half-circle of silver and lapis he had seen on Tahirih, a kind of necklace. Or a collar, perhaps. It was plainly an ornament of great worth and symbolic meaning. The weight of it there in his hand mesmerized him. Rashanal closed his fingers around the cool metal. For a moment they stood like that, both of his captor's warm, elegant hands curved around one of his. It was a struggle to breathe normally. Something had seized hold of him, something sweet and languid lacing in his belly. At last, Rashanal raised his eyes.

The sudden memory of their deep, open-mouthed kissing struck Duncan hard, making his mouth water, his sex heat. He did not realize that he had shifted some distance toward those enticing lips until he saw the bright eyes widen in response. A hundred days -- endurable? Just the momentary thought, and wanting sank through him like heavy cream in tea. The thought of being possessed by Rashanal was driving him insane by slow degrees. The collar in his hand burned.

A sudden sound at the tent flap froze him to stillness. Before he could pull away, a shaft of light appeared at the tent's entrance; Namal entered, stopping dead in his tracks at the tableau of slave and master, hands entwined about the jeweled torque.

To Duncan's surprise, a change came over Rashanal at the appearance of his advisor. All light went out of the dancing eyes and all expression out of his face. Even his posture seemed to alter, as though taking on a weight he had momentarily laid aside. He raised one hand, cupping it around Duncan's cheek, brushing across the full lips with his thumb. Spontaneously, Duncan's tongue slipped out to caress the callused tip, and he saw the almost imperceptible shudder that traveled through the other man. He felt the tremors himself as Rashanal brushed the moist digit against his own mouth, his own tongue darting out to gather the moisture, his eyes never leaving Duncan's.

Namal had averted his gaze. His voice was strained, though from what emotion Duncan could not tell. "I can return later, Rashanal."

"No. We will speak now." Neither Rashanal's tone nor his face gave any sign of what had passed between the two Immortals. He released his hold on the circle of silver and stepped away from Duncan with a wave of dismissal. "Leave us."

Flustered, off balance in more ways than he could name, Duncan had no choice but to obey.

Chapter Text

Carefully, Duncan bowed as Namal had instructed him then ducked back through the curtain to dress. He was still trembling slightly; he tried to tell himself it was simply the chill morning air, but his body knew better. He could hear the low murmurs of the men talking in the other room, but that was a small distraction compared to what he held in his hands.

He placed the heavy necklace on the low table and stared at it a moment, letting it remind him of what Rashanal had said. Ten thousand days cleaning and caring for me -- or a hundred nights in my bed. Duncan had nearly said yes. It had been on the tip of his tongue, a tongue that wanted nothing but the taste of Rashanal's mouth, his skin, and would have said anything to have it.

If Namal had not entered, he would have said yes. He would have let Rashanal take him, then and there. Fire burned within him at the thought, the image of Rashanal's hands gliding over his skin; the touch of those long fingers was nearly palpable as they ghosted down his spine, cupping and separating... Duncan shivered, his body jerking with need; he quickly threw on his robe to stop the feverish chill.

As he fastened his belt, he could only stare at the collar, knowing what it meant. If he said 'yes,' if he agreed to Rashanal's bargain, there would be no turning back. Could he live with himself after that? After he'd been another man's whore? In five hundred years, would he still be Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod when he'd willingly been paid to lie in another man's bed?

Damn you, Rashanal. I would have been willing without the gold.

A chance lost. Without the offered bargain, Duncan could have given himself willingly, telling himself that it was something done apart from his status as slave. Now, his acquiescence would be forever tainted. He had to get away from the tent, get out in the open air, away from Rashanal's presence, his bed, his scent.

Dressed, Duncan stepped out into the main room on his way to collect Rashanal's breakfast from the cooks, only to pause in the doorway. Rashanal looked tired, his eyes dark from lack of sleep, his body rigid with strain. The easy sprawl Duncan remembered was gone, replaced by a tense huddle as he spoke intently with his advisor. Duncan remembered that haunted look from his father's eyes -- something was very wrong with Rashanal's tribe.

He caught two words -- "Water...well." -- and then Rashanal caught his eyes.

The look revealed a score of complex shadings, a glimpse into the man's true self unlike any Duncan had been permitted before. Worry. Regret. Longing for something far out of reach. It was like watching a fish dart under the speckled surface of deep waters, fleeting and enticing. In that unguarded moment, Duncan realized with certainty that Rashanal had not slept at all.

Something warned him to let his curiosity go for now and make himself scarce. He heeded the instinct, stepping out into the blinding midmorning sun and letting the tent flap close behind him.

* * *

Methos watched the other man go into the inner room. He was so tired, and he knew from the look on Namal's face that he would have no time for rest any time soon. He had left the elderly man with the instruction that though they would prepare as if for war, it was to be done quietly and carefully, so that anyone watching the camp would be uncertain as to exactly what was planned. Emad's people would expect some action, so there was no point in concealing their preparations entirely, but whatever Methos could do to put them off-balance could only serve his own good.

For long moments Methos stood like that, his thumb still lightly caught in his lips, the faint memory of the Highlander's moist caress tingling there. He had seen the confusion warring in Duncan's eyes, the anger and humiliation at the terms of the bargain, his unwilling desire. He felt a multitude of conflicting emotions himself, unsure whether he hoped that the bargain was accepted, or not. Even though he had told himself that he was going to find a way to free the Highlander as soon as possible, he hadn't known he was going to make the offer until the words had spilled from his mouth. His anger at Duncan's presumption had led him to make it as demeaning as possible. He was going to have him, one way or another. Better for them both if Duncan remained unwilling and was brought to Methos' bed as a result of such a bargain, rather than risk the danger of his voluntary capitulation. He knew the Highlander's confusion, knew he was drawn to Methos against his will. Better he continue to think Methos a cruel and capricious master; it would make the inevitable separation easier to bear.

He turned to Namal. "So, make your report, old man. How go the preparations?"

Namal tactfully ignored the fact that Rashanal had stood lost in thought for the better part of five minutes. "They go, although, as you know, many of our men are raw and under-trained. It will be difficult; we still have not recovered from the conflict of several years back. And Rajid is still unhappy with your decision to wait."

Methos' tribe was unusual in that it was held together not solely by the relations of blood, but by the personal loyalty and devotion of the men to Methos himself. He had found himself the head of a ragtag clan almost before he knew it. He had befriended a nomad, Hassad, and traveled with his tribe for nearly a year before a rival tribe had attacked, destroying the ruling family and most of a generation of fighters. Methos had been away during the attack, having gone with a few men to buy supplies. They returned to find a scattered remnant of the tribe trying to survive without strong leadership or guidance. Namal lived, but Hassad, his eldest son, did not.

While Hassad had yet lived, Namal and the man he came to know as Rashanal had developed an easy relationship, Namal treating Methos as yet another of his sons and developing a great deal of respect for the periodically and uncannily wise stranger. Grief-stricken at his son's death, Namal had been in no shape to take on the hard duty of saving a broken people. Methos had resisted the mantle of leadership, but Namal had convinced him that of those alive, he was the only one with the experience, skill, and vitality to guarantee their continued existence. Methos had reluctantly agreed, with the understanding that he had no interest in establishing his own dynasty. He would merely hold the tribe together until Namal's younger son, Jaffir, was prepared to rule.

In the years that followed, Methos had seen their numbers grow slowly, as men who had chosen or been forced to leave their own tribes, for one reason or another, joined them. Some were difficult characters, but most had simply been victims of politics within the tribal hierarchies. They were given a fresh start, responsibility within the growing camp, and the opportunity to begin their own families.

Their growing territory made a toothsome target for Emad's neighboring tribe. However, Methos and his people, aided by Methos' knowledge of unfamiliar skills and tactics, had held their own against a series of attacks and had even won a valuable water source from their rivals -- the very same well Emad had recaptured this morning.

Several years of skirmishes had followed, leaving both tribes undermanned and vulnerable. Fortunately, no other enemies were close enough to take advantage of their weakness. But now, obviously, Emad felt strong enough to make the attempt. It did not help that Emad held a personal grudge against Rashanal and that potential negotiations were therefore very unlikely. Emad wanted to bring Rashanal down, and possession of the well was only part of that objective.

Methos sighed as he turned his thoughts to the present. "Rajid is always unhappy with my decisions." Rajid was a young man, banished from his tribe for dallying with the chieftain's favorite. The only reason he hadn't been killed was because his father had once saved the chieftain's life. The angry, proud youth was intent on proving himself by showing that he was not a blind follower, which he demonstrated by his contentiousness on almost every point of Methos' authority. Methos had given him great latitude because he realized that Rajid's greatest failing was impatience, and he hoped that the young man would soon outgrow that.

"Yes, but this time he has some support, though most were convinced by your reasons. It's too soon after the last time; they remember their losses too clearly."

"And if we move too fast, we will only lose more, perhaps all. Surely they can understand that?" Methos' weariness showed in the frustration in his voice.

"They are young and angry. They are being guided by their passions, not their understanding."

"Well, they'll probably get their wish, just not immediately. With the loss of the well, we'll have to start rationing water soon. It's not going to get much easier, but I see no need to let the jackals pick at our bones just yet." A movement caught his eye, and he looked up to see Duncan at the doorway, obviously prepared to go out. Methos felt his fatigue like a heavy weight, compounded by the still-extant look of confusion on Duncan's face. Methos wistfully recalled those too-brief moments of contentment he'd felt before Tahirih's tantrum.

Duncan stared at him briefly, something like concern flickering over his face before he turned and left the tent. Methos watched him go with regret, his sense of loss much greater than justified by the fading sense of presence. He sighed and looked up to see Namal watching him consideringly. "What is it?"

"The Highlander. He has displeased you?" Namal's countenance was calm but determined.

"I do not think this the time to discuss my personal affairs, even if they were any of your business." Methos' tone was steely, clearly demonstrating his displeasure.

"You left the camp last night, without guards. It was foolish. One might think you were being guided by your passions..." The tone was carefully bland, but Methos knew that the old fool enjoyed his small jokes.

"I am well able to take care of myself." Methos ignored the fact that had it been he who encountered the raiding party, they might not be having this conversation at all.

"It is not a good time for you to be distracted."

"Yes, I know, and I'm working on that. Leave it be, old man." Methos scrubbed his face with his hand, trying to wipe away some of his exhaustion.

Namal seemed content that his point had been made and let discretion rule, just as the tent flap pulled back to show Rajid, followed closely by several others. Methos gave a weary sigh and turned from the old fool to deal with the young one.

* * *

The camp was seething with activity. At first it seemed like simple chaos, but as Duncan made his way toward the spring, the tumult resolved itself into a kind of ordered bustle-one with a purpose. Tents were being moved, animals gathered, and men rushed here and there, giving and receiving orders. These people were readying for war.

The realization sparked every warrior's instinct Duncan possessed, his palm suddenly itching for his sword. Putting the tension and activity in the camp together with the few words he'd understood of Rashanal's conference with Namal, he had a fairly good idea of what the conflict involved. If he was right, this was not merely about some insignificant point of honor or acquisitive greed, but life and death. No wonder Rashanal was showing the strain.

In spite of everything, Duncan couldn't help feeling some empathy for the man. He plainly cared about his people and just as plainly would have avoided fighting if it were at all possible. The discussion with Namal was obviously contentious. Duncan's experienced eye took in the preparations, proceeding under Jaffir's supervision, and he felt a grudging respect. There was no panic, only purposeful action. The perimeter of the camp was being steadily drawn into a tight circle, so as to be defensible, and perhaps even mobile, if need be. The horses were under heavy guard, for in a battle they would mean the difference between victory and destruction. He had seen these desert tribes fight; their small bows were designed to be used from horseback and could mow down a phalanx in one sweeping foray.

As he passed one of the tents, the flap lifted, and he heard a low cry of pain from within. A stern older woman came out of the tent and saw him standing there. She didn't seem to be looking for help, but started purposefully toward the spring without giving him a second glance. He fell into step beside her.

"Madam," he began, trying to remember enough of the strange tongue to find out what was going on. "Your pardon?" She seemed startled that he would speak to her, but grudgingly gave him her attention as they walked.

As he ran through the phrases Namal had taught him, Duncan realized with a grimace that few of them would be appropriate for politely addressing an older woman. "The man in the tent. He is... ill?"

It took her a moment to make out what he wanted to know. At last, she responded in a long series of fluid syllables that, unfortunately, meant nothing to Duncan. Seeing his lack of understanding, she shook her head and instead mimicked the drawing of a bow, the flight of an arrow, using her hands to indicate he had been struck in the thigh.

Duncan nodded comprehension. An attack, then. "Madam," he said again, gently. "How many... dead?" She slowed her pace, but did not immediately answer. He wondered if he had said it incorrectly, but then he saw that her eyes were wet. The tribe was not large. It was likely that in any skirmish, nearly everyone would lose a husband, a brother, a son, or a friend. Duncan knew at once that there had been others killed that morning. "Forgive my trespass," he tried.

She nodded, shortly. At last, she lifted her head with resolve and answered by holding up nine fingers.

Duncan felt a pang. Though he had never known these men, though he was their prisoner, his brief time with these nomadic people had been enough to emphasize their similarities to his own clan, his own people. He thanked the woman in Gaelic, as he had not been taught the local equivalent. She seemed to understand him, though, and gave him a nod that was courteous enough.

At the spring, he saw that a guard had been set to oversee the drawing of water. With one of their wells lost, the remaining sources would be jealously protected, and Duncan knew that rationing might become a necessity. Under the guard's watchful eye, Duncan drew water for the woman and for Rashanal's tent, his thoughts turning unerringly toward his captor once more. The death of nine men explained much of the sadness in Rashanal's eyes and his worn look; the well had probably been lost last night, when the sheik's thoughts had been on...other things.

Suddenly, Duncan was lost in the vivid memory of Rashanal's cock in his mouth, the glide of it over his tongue, the way Rashanal's hands wove through his hair, moving him, controlling him. He shook himself, his disgust at his own lack of control and his unbecoming obsession with the other man almost enough to overwhelm his renewed hunger. Almost. He swallowed hard, tasting the sweet flavor of his own desire.

Duncan felt like he had contributed to the loss of the well himself by taking Rashanal away from more important tasks. He swallowed again and picked up the water jug, carrying it with him to pick up the food for breakfast. If he continued to fight Rashanal, would Rashanal be able to concentrate on the battles the way he needed to? Or would his mind be split between keeping his people alive and subduing his slave?

Would Duncan himself then be responsible for more tribal deaths?

As he walked and worried at the thought, he cast a soldier's eye at the preparations around him, gauging the strength of the men and the type of weapons they had, noting their readiness for war. They all seemed young, on the raw side for recruits. Duncan momentarily wondered what had happened to the older, more experienced men. He would have to ask Namal about that as well.

As it was, there were less than a hundred men of fighting age scattered around the camp. The nine men lost last night were a serious blow. Rashanal would have to be a good strategist to make up for those losses, and he would as well need to know the trick of making a small force seem large. Duncan paused a moment as he realized how little he knew of Rashanal's life. They had been a week on the road and two days in camp, and Duncan didn't even know how Rashanal had come to lead the tribe. There were so many details he had lost in his battle with his own desires.

Breakfast today was much the same as yesterday: millet, sweet dates, camel's milk, and a soft white cheese made from the same substance. But now there were racks set out with meat drying on them; easier to carry in caravan, if necessary. All the little tasks added up, and Duncan was gaining additional respect for Rashanal's understanding of the true requirements for war. A less experienced leader would have already taken his tribe into battle, unprepared and lacking a plan, merely to retaliate for the loss of the well and the men -- but Rashanal had not. There would almost certainly be less experienced men in the tribe, ready to strike back out of wounded pride at an instant's notice. Rashanal would have his hands full keeping his warriors in hand.

Duncan again felt the strong desire to help. He didn't know whether it was the similarity to his own land, his innate sense of rightness, or his growing fascination with the man he called "ra-jamihn." He felt handicapped by his lack of language skills and unfamiliarity with the land and people, but surely there were things to be done that required little more than willing hands and a strong back. He gathered the prepared repast and moved back through the growing tumult.

He could hear the raised voices before he entered the tent. He raised the flap and saw that Rashanal was furiously yet coldly engaged with a young man Duncan did not recognize. The angrier the younger man got, the more controlled and reserved his leader became. Even in his own brief experience of Rashanal's moods, Duncan recognized that this was a bad sign, indicating that Rashanal was close to losing control of his temper entirely. The brash young man seemed too angry to realize his danger.

His entrance drew their attention, and the angry tribesman broke off, throwing Duncan a scathing look. Rashanal sat back, gesturing to a table beside them. Duncan was uncomfortably aware that Rashanal's were the only eyes not on him as he moved to set down the tray. Had his presence been part of the disagreement? Again he felt that flash of uneasiness at his own role in distracting Rashanal. He looked up to see Namal watching him with a compassionate gaze.

He looked back to Rashanal, again uncertain of what to do next. He did not want to distract Rashanal right now, but wasn't sure what was allowed. He caught Rashanal's eye and again saw the weariness.

"I'd like to help," he said quietly, before he could think better of it.

He could not have named the look that flickered in hazel eyes. Rashanal looked to Namal and nodded slightly. Namal rose, and Rashanal glanced once more at Duncan. The dip of his head and languid sweep of his lashes was an eloquent dismissal of both slave and advisor.

* * *

Duncan followed Namal back out into the rising heat of midday. The air shimmered above the horizon, the sun having chosen today of all days to unleash its full fury on the oasis encampment.

The arid heat enveloped Duncan mercilessly, drawing a heavy sheen of sweat from his skin within seconds of walking outside. Namal led him toward one of the larger tents near the center of camp. Duncan wanted to ask where they were going, but the mortal seemed occupied, deeply lost in thought.

Duncan had seen enough to know that this was a good man, a wise man, a man who cared deeply for his own people and for their leader. Namal's obvious respect and love for his chief was unmistakable. What did it mean, that Rashanal could engender such loyalty from a man such as Namal? To Duncan's mind, it added weight to the growing sense he had that Rashanal was much more than he seemed. Every fundamental belief he had previously held demanded that he consider Rashanal his enemy, his captor, a man without honor. Here was a man who believed the institution of slavery was just and right. The things they had done together, alone at night, were deeply shameful, deeply dishonorable things -- or so he had always believed.

And yet slavery was an accepted part of this culture and had been for many, many generations. And as for the other...

Duncan shivered slightly, thinking of the way he had felt. The way he had wanted, with his whole body, his whole soul. That had not felt wrong. On the contrary, it had felt more right than anything he had ever known.

Connor had tried to impress upon him that there would be things in the world beyond his ken, truths Connor could not teach him, but that he must learn for himself. The elder MacLeod had told him that an Immortal lifetime meant the opportunity to experience new things, to learn new ways of thinking that might stretch his mind, his way of seeing, in ways he couldn't imagine.

Duncan desperately wished Connor were here now.

Namal reached his destination and ushered Duncan into what turned out to be an armory, of sorts. Most of the structure's interior space was taken up with well-oiled tack, panniers, and other gear for the horses. Racks of the small, powerful bows and rows of steel-tipped shafts in leather sheaths were arrayed along one wall.

There were no blades in evidence, but several large padlocked storage chests were neatly stacked to one side of the tent's entrance. Duncan's gaze lingered there for a moment, but he caught himself and did not look too long. The possibility for escape was more distant than ever with hostile forces nearby, but he refused to give up hope. To give up hope would mean accepting his enslavement, and that he could not do, not yet.

"Since you wish to help," Namal said with a glint of humor, "you can help me check the gear and bowstrings while we talk."

"More lessons?" Duncan asked, unable to keep the distaste from showing.

Namal looked at him sharply. "I would not have wished you here, Highlander -- particularly not now, when Rashanal can ill afford distractions. But you are here, and it is my duty to see that you are given proper instruction. It is also my hope," his eyes narrowed shrewdly, "that slave or no, you may become an asset in the battle we now face. You are a man of some experience in these matters, if I am not mistaken. Is my optimism ill-placed?"

Duncan felt a surge of hopeful enthusiasm. If he were given a real place here, and a role to fulfill in the coming conflict, would he not gain status in the tribe and responsibilities befitting a warrior? Perhaps even his freedom? But no, he must not jump to conclusions, not yet. He must first do whatever he could to increase his worth to Rashanal and to the tribe. "I would do what I can," he said earnestly. "If Rashanal will permit it."

Namal nodded, satisfied. "Then -- I have been given leave to answer what questions you may have." The mortal indicated the first in a row of cloth-wrapped saddles, and Duncan sank to sit cross-legged on the floor. Gathering his thoughts, he unwrapped the soft oilcloth and began checking the oddly constructed tack, looking for broken stitching and testing the girth fasteners; a tiny thing like a frayed seam could mean the difference between life and death in a battle. Namal started at the other end, following the same methodical procedure.

"I know of the men killed this morning," Duncan said at last. "What happened?"

"A rival tribe, whose main water source has been failing. We knew an attack would come, and Rashanal had stepped up patrols accordingly. But we did not expect that it would come so soon."

"The well Rashanal mentioned?"

"It is a good one, about ten miles to the north. One of the first things Rashanal did when he became chief was to take that land from Emad." With the name, Namal's ordinarily mild tone betrayed ill-concealed hostility. "He has held it successfully for eight years."

"Emad?" Duncan asked, glancing up. "Their chief?"

The old man nodded. "Their chief, who will stop at nothing to destroy Rashanal, if he can."

Duncan paused in his work to wipe his face on his sleeve. The temperature was somewhat more bearable in the tent, but not by much. He longed for a cool bath. To distract himself, he focused on what Namal had not said. "It sounds as though there's more to this than the matter of a well."

Namal laughed shortly, a harsh sound. "Oh yes, much more. Stolen horses, stolen land, many years of raids and counter raids, injured pride, and young men killed. My eldest son, among them. But five years ago, Rashanal took Emad's young bride on her wedding day, and Emad will not rest until he has erased the dishonor of that insult."

Jarred by this information, Duncan looked up sharply. "His bride--! Did he kill her?"

Namal looked surprised and vaguely scandalized at the suggestion. "Of course not! He meant to retaliate for the theft of eight prime breeding mares. He has always cared for her."

The connection sparked in Duncan's mind at once. "Tahirih," he said, understanding at last.

"Yes, of course. Tahirih, the daughter of a very old, very noble line. She was sixteen: beautiful, and prideful, and utterly full of herself. Emad meant to take her for his third wife; when Rashanal stole her out from under his nose, it was a great insult to Emad, and a great coup for Rashanal."

"And now it has cost him dearly."

Namal looked at Duncan with stern disapproval. "Do not judge what you do not understand, Highlander. Rashanal leads his people with cunning and great skill. He has taken in the strays that others did not want and bound them to him, not by blood or birth ties, but by caring for them, by acting when action is needed. He demands their loyalty and has returned it many times over."

Somehow, the old man's disapproval felt just like his father's always had, like the sting of a whip on vulnerable tissue. Duncan fell silent, thinking about what Namal had said. At last he changed the subject, diffidently asking a question that had been stirring in the back of his mind.

"I have heard the others speak the word Rashanal as if it were a title, not a name. Is it?"

"A title, yes, but more than that. Not every chief may be called Ra-shanal. It means 'chosen of God.'" At Duncan's skeptical look, Namal only shrugged. "You would understand if you knew what he has done for us. It cannot be repaid."

"Can you tell me... does he have another name?"

For the first time, Namal's hands faltered. He looked down at them, his mobile face carefully controlled. "I do not know it, if he does."

Duncan sensed he had touched on a sore spot. "It must be difficult, to trust him as you do and not know the same trust from him."

But the momentary tension went out of Namal's expression. He met Duncan's gaze. "What he does, he does because he has no choice. He is not like other men. I know that, and I accept it. My loyalty is not in doubt."

The odd choice of phrasing caught Duncan's attention. "What do you mean, 'not like other men?'"

"I have known Rashanal a long time," Namal said. His tone, and the look he gave Duncan, seemed to hold some significance greater than his words. "Ten years, in all. I have grown to be an old man in that time. And he..." Namal's eyes were sharp, gauging his reaction. "I have never known him to raise a sword when it wasn't absolutely necessary, to take a slave outside of wartime... I have never seen him the way he is with you, Highlander."

Duncan felt his pulse beating, too fast. "And what way is that?"

"He has been conserving strength. For a long time I have felt that he was becoming complacent, dull -- his blood like that of a desert lizard in the burning heat, torpid and sluggish. Now... I think he was waiting for another to come. Another like him, Highlander. Like you."

Another like him... I have grown to be an old man... Duncan started, comprehending. "He told you--?"

Namal cut him off, holding his gaze meaningfully. "He told me nothing. We do not speak of things that need not be said. He is my ra-jamihn."

His thoughts in turmoil, Duncan turned his attention back to the task at hand and was surprised to see they had nearly finished with the saddlery. I have never seen him the way he is with you, Namal had said, and the words seemed to burn him with sweet fire, far out of proportion to what was seemly or even wise. Suddenly he was desperate for some answers, some reassurance that what he felt -- this overwhelming, unprecedented thing he felt -- was not shameful.

"Namal?" he asked hoarsely, eyes on the tent floor. "May I ask you something?" He felt his face redden and immediately wished he could take the words back.

But Namal was looking at him expectantly. "I am here to answer questions," he said mildly. "You may ask."

Duncan swallowed. "It is about... the ways of warriors."

Namal stilled. "You mean... the ways of one warrior... with another?" he said slowly.

Duncan didn't look at the other man, didn't think he could have to save his life. "Aye," he whispered, mortified.

For a long moment Namal did not say anything or even move, and Duncan wished the ground would open up and swallow him. Then, at last, the old man sighed and got stiffly to his feet. Duncan raised his head to see Namal fussing aimlessly with a piece of decorative hand-worked leather.

"Among the desert tribes there are... certain traditions," he began haltingly.

Duncan frowned. "Go on."

Namal was looking more and more uncomfortable. "We are a nomadic people and have always valued our horses very highly. A fine stallion is often prized above any other mount."

"Speak plainly, man. What do you mean? Do your warriors..." His eyes widened. "Or are you tellin' me you use horses--"

Namal's face reddened to match his own. "Don't be crude. I am trying to tell you that there have always been those who have...those who believe in the sacred brotherhood of warriors, the purity of the warrior-bond."

Duncan felt a cool rush of relief, a flood of feeling far out of proportion to Namal's vague and halting acceptance. "Are ye saying..." he had to clear his throat. "Are ye saying there can be... a kind of honor in it?"

At last Namal met his gaze. "There is nothing new under the sun, Highlander. And there is no dishonor in a man making a choice to find whatever joy he can in a difficult situation."

Duncan nodded slowly, thinking about that, about the ring of coins at his feet and the hot yearning of his body, the tangle of conflicting emotions the desert prince awakened in him, and the answer he must give tonight. A difficult situation? That was a vast understatement.

"Thank you, Namal," he said finally, more grateful than the words could say.

Namal's face showed his relief that the difficult topic was past. He waved hastily toward the rack of loosely strung bows. "You're welcome. Now, let us make haste in our task, there is much to be done today."

Chapter Text

As the day wore on, Duncan did what he could to make himself useful. Namal left him for a time, having his own duties and responsibilities, but anything that could be easily demonstrated, Duncan could do. Fortunately, his skin was already tanned dark as a native's, though the merciless sun and hot wind wrung moisture from his body constantly.

Some time after noon there was a break for a light meal; though no one really wanted to eat in this heat, the sustenance was necessary. Duncan noted for the first time that the women and slaves were given a smaller portion of water and the men of the tribe a large one, regardless of their caste or position. He drank slowly, knowing he was ill-equipped to withstand the unaccustomed climate. On the other hand, he would not die of thirst -- at least not permanently. His ego smarted a bit at being considered below even the lowest caste soldier, but surely Rashanal would let him fight, if it came to a battle?

When he felt at least marginally better, he approached one of the women preparing the food. "Rashanal?" he asked, heeding his instructions of the previous day.

The woman gave him a covered basket which steamed and smelled of sweet grains. With it he was given what looked like a large melon, carefully wrapped in a cloth, and then the woman waved him away.

Reaching Rashanal's tent, Duncan encountered Jaffir leaving. He remembered what Namal had said of his sons as they worked: of Hassad, who had died eight years ago, and of Jaffir, who would likely be the next chief if he -- and the tribe -- survived the coming battle.

Jaffir nodded slightly as he passed, dark eyes flicking to Duncan's just for an instant. As an acknowledgment it wasn't much, but at least the man did not treat him as a non-person. Duncan had perceived a similar attitude from the various castes of the tribe and suspected that the divergent origins of the men meant that their own hierarchy applied here, one as unique and complex as Rashanal's people.

Duncan entered the tent with no small measure of nervousness, very aware of the question that remained unanswered, the offer Rashanal had made him. He could still feel the cool weight of the silver collar in his hand, could still see the glint of that one gold coin. Namal had given him a great deal to think about. Duncan could not deny the eagerness he felt, the strong urge to say yes and accept the consequences. Additionally, the prospect of his own freedom in a few short months had lightened his heart immensely; the prospect of what Rashanal would take in return was equally, undeniably tempting. His talk with Namal had only increased his burning curiosity about the enigmatic Immortal who had captured him but would not kill him, who would demand of him things at which he could only guess.

He stood blinking inside the entrance for a moment, eyes adjusting to the relative darkness. The change in temperature was dramatic; Rashanal's tent was of a unique design, the shape funneling the heat toward a cone-shaped vent at the top. A clever arrangement of mesh panels at the eastern wall of the tent let in filtered light. Rashanal's own design, perhaps? Duncan wondered. Or one brought from a distant land, another life? What had he been before? What country had created such a man, and what had he seen and done, in how many lifetimes?

The object of his curiosity turned in the deep shadows, hooded gaze seeking Duncan's eyes. Still blinking from the afternoon sun, the Highlander had not seen him standing there.

Rashanal radiated fatigue, but even in his exhaustion he held himself with that tightly leashed control. The filtered sunlight burnished the man's soft, dark curls to a coppery sheen and cast gold reflections in his eyes. Duncan felt his own sticky, dusty disarray acutely. Then Rashanal moved, raking a hand back through his hair in a gesture that somehow expressed his weariness, his worry for his people, and a kind of unselfconscious vulnerability that made him seem suddenly every bit as young as he looked.

"I have brought you something to eat," Duncan found himself saying, a gentleness in his tone he had not intended.

* * *

Something in the Highlander's manner made Methos look at him more closely, seeking... what? Concern for him? An answer to his offer, perhaps? But for once the young Immortal's expression did not reveal his thoughts. He had plainly been laboring heavily, dust and sweat streaking his golden skin where the loose garments had not protected it. This is not a man who would stand by and let others fight for him, Methos thought.

"Set it there," he said, waving to the low table where he had spent the last hours in conference with his men. "You will serve me."

He watched the Highlander set the basket and bundle of cloth down, for a moment able to just take pleasure in the man's grace and beauty. He had not seen another to equal him in at least three lifetimes. The kind of beauty that transcends, he thought, as the Highlander took the lid off the basket to reveal a fragrant, steaming dish of couscous flavored with butter, spices, and seeds. More than a comely face or strong physique, he was the kind of man that made you want to watch him, each movement a guileless seduction. Again Methos perceived that deep undercurrent of sensuality, that powerful sexuality the Highlander gave off as freely as breathing, as if he were completely unaware of it. In spite of his exhaustion, Methos' body reacted to it like a crystal goblet struck gently, singing its longing.

Methos smiled a little, trying to remember the last time he had seen real crystal or eaten at a table with chairs instead of cushions. It had been well over a century and several thousand miles to the north and west. The irony was not lost on him, that he had left the Western world behind because he was weary of fighting, weary of constant war.

He became aware that the Highlander's eyes were on him, searching his face. "You were somewhere else for a moment," Duncan said, in the manner of a question.

Methos dismissed the curiosity brusquely, unwilling to think about how it made him feel, to know the understanding of another Immortal after so long alone, to have the understanding of this Immortal. "Have you eaten?"

"No."

"Then sit with me," Methos said shortly. He gestured for Duncan to take the cushion across the table from him, and they sat. Methos unwrapped the cool fruit and demonstrated for the Highlander how to open it at the stem. Inside, the melon was sweet and full of clear juice, which Methos instructed him to pour into a bowl. The Highlander cut the flesh from the rind and then into small pieces without being told, serving them onto Methos' plate. Approving, Methos shared the juice with him. Watching him drink the cool, sweet liquid was a pleasure in itself, that full mouth growing sticky with the juice, the darting tongue catching the few drops that clung to the lip of the bowl.

They ate in silence, and that, too, was a blessed respite. Despite the promises he had made to himself last night and today, Methos could not help the deep, fervent wish that this could last, that he could know this simple pleasure with the Highlander always. Just being in his presence was addictive, wonderful in ways Methos had long forgotten. Just for a moment, to know the quiet companionship of one of his own kind, the attentive care of this sensual, remarkable creature.

"You need to sleep," the slave said huskily, as if reading his thoughts.

Methos smiled a little, more at his own foolishness than at the Highlander. "Yes. It was a long night."

Color stained Duncan's cheeks faintly at that, but he was not deterred. "You will need your strength, my lord. You should try to rest now, while you can."

"You are worse than Namal," Methos complained.

"Your people will need you soon enough," Duncan said seriously.

Methos pushed his plate away, leaning back against the cushions. He was too relaxed and contented to chastise the slave for speaking out of place. "Very well, Highlander. I concede your wisdom. I will sleep -- but you will remain here, with me."

He had half-expected reluctance, but the Highlander only nodded, accepting.

"You are surprisingly agreeable," Methos said, eyes narrowing.

The slave kept his eyes down. "I do not wish to be a distraction to you," he confessed.

"So... now you will behave, for the sake of the tribe?" Methos was amused.

"Aye." The Highlander seemed to consider whether to say more. "I would not choose to be responsible for any more deaths."

It jolted Methos, in ways he did not expect. "It wasn't your fault," he said quietly. Duncan looked up, the hope obvious in his face. "Not even in part," Methos assured him.

Duncan seemed nonplused by the reassurance, as if it were the last thing he would have expected from Methos. Awkwardly, he gestured toward the partition which divided the tent. "Will you sleep now, my lord?"

Methos indicated the pile of cushions nearby. "It is cooler in here. Spread these out, then wipe off some of that dust, and come lie down with me."

Duncan obeyed, arranging the cushions where the mesh openings allowed a breeze to pass through the tent. Methos made himself comfortable on the makeshift bed, watching as the Highlander removed the outer layers of his clothing and carefully moistened a small piece of cloth, using it to wipe dust and sweat from his face and throat. Methos felt his heart beating a little too hard, a little too fast. Gods, the man could reduce him to molten longing faster than anyone in his memory. When Duncan was finished, his gaze fell on the ivory-handled hairbrush that rested beside the small washbowl, and Methos drew a soft breath of anticipation. Hearing it, Duncan met his eyes; Methos nodded once, knowing his face revealed how much the prospect enticed him.

The Highlander brought the brush and knelt beside him, and Methos did not try to conceal the way his body wanted this. The offer he had made that morning rested between them, tangible, a question that needed an answer. Perhaps the evidence of Methos' own desire for him would make it easier for the strong-willed Celt to accept this.

He turned slightly, close enough to feel the heat of Duncan's body, but far enough to allow him to begin brushing out the long, thick waves. Methos closed his eyes at the feeling of being cared for, the gentle touch of the Highlander's hands as he guided Methos' head forward. The feeling of contentment that had so briefly been his this morning returned as his other cares faded away. He was aware of nothing but the steady movement of the brush in his hair, the regular exhalations that ghosted across his shoulders, and the accidental touch of the Highlander's fingers against Methos' back as he worked through the tangles wrought by wind and heat.

They sat that way for long moments, Methos soothed by the attention, his lassitude coming to the fore. He only came back to himself when he realized that the Highlander had stilled. Opening his eyes, he turned to gaze back at the man kneeling behind him. The dark eyes watched him opaquely, and suddenly, Methos needed to taste him again, needed to know the feeling of that lush mouth against his own. For just a moment he denied fatigue and shifted around, leaning closer, close enough that the slave could not mistake his intent. Duncan's eyes widened, but Methos curled a hand around his nape before he could pull away.

"One kiss," he said roughly, a tone that would brook no argument. "Don't fight me on this."

But far from denying him, to his surprise and gratified relief the Highlander leaned forward and closed his eyes, meeting Methos' mouth with his own willing one. Methos took it hungrily, tasting butter and spices, cool sweet stickiness, and something of the man's own rich essence as their mouths joined and caressed, giving and receiving succor.

So good, to kiss him like this. The relief and pleasure was so great, the sweet comfort of it so devastating, that Methos found he suddenly could not hold off exhaustion any more. He sank back against the cushions, Duncan following him part way before their mouths finally parted, separated. They looked at each other, not moving, holding to the pleasure of the moment, until Methos felt the weariness grip him, his eyes drifting closed of their own accord.

He dimly felt strong hands turn him, felt the return of the slow, rhythmic stroking of the brush in his hair. A sweet current of euphoria washed over him, and he made a soft sound of surrender to that perfect pleasure.

Sleep took him swiftly, erasing the memory of the momentary weakness.

* * *

Duncan found the shared meal enticingly erotic, aware as he was of Rashanal's gaze upon him as he tasted the melon and drank its juices. For all his hesitancy and true desire to be free, he found the erotic game of mutual attraction beguiling, and he took a secret pleasure in drawing Rashanal's attention. He was equally aware of Rashanal's great weariness, and for once, both his emotional and practical natures were with one accord in urging the man to rest. He could not deny that part of his concern was personal. The deep circles under Rashanal's eyes recalled Duncan's part in the current crisis and reinforced his decision to do what he could to guarantee that nothing on his part added to the man's burden or endangered his people.

Rashanal's reassurance was unexpected but gratefully received. Again he showed that same, seemingly instinctive understanding that was both frightening and welcome. Wanting to show his gratitude, Duncan allowed his concern to surface, encouraging the man to rest. The offer to brush his hair was unplanned, but Rashanal's unguarded response sent a current of warmth through Duncan at the deep intimacy of the thing. As he brushed, his mind emptied of all his concerns and doubts, leaving him to simply be with the man under his hands. He felt and saw Rashanal's gradual and complete relaxation and was profoundly affected by the man's seeming trust. When Rashanal turned and asked for a single kiss, Duncan had no thought of refusal.

Blissful moments of taste and warmth, and then he could feel the last of Rashanal's resistance to his exhaustion seep out of him. He followed him down, unwilling to give up the connection too soon, then opened his eyes to see Rashanal looking at him, his face open and unguarded. Just as it became almost too intense to sustain, Rashanal's eyes drifted closed. Duncan felt his heart contract at the further display of trust. Unable to sit still, but unwilling to disturb the man who nestled close, he gently turned Rashanal and began sliding the brush through his remarkable hair once again. It spread across his knees, the cushions, in a dark and russet-gilded mass of curls, unbelievably soft to the touch.

I have never seen him the way he is with you. Namal's words returned to him again as he let his eyes look their fill for the first time. With Rashanal's intense personality set aside in sleep, Duncan again found his mind circling around the bewildering situation in which he found himself. He still could not define what it was about this man that pulled him so strongly, that made him yearn to give himself regardless of consequence. What was it that Duncan ached for? There was the powerful physical attraction, unexpected and unsought, but something more lay behind the intensity. When Duncan allowed himself to contemplate giving himself to Rashanal, he found his mind shying away from exactly what that meant, both physically and emotionally. Somehow it seemed safer to not think about it too much.

But nothing about this situation was safe. He had to seriously consider what it would mean if he went through with this bargain. Would agreeing to be Rashanal's whore protect him from the longings of his heart? He acknowledged the flare of pain the thought brought with it. You didn't have to do it this way, he thought, putting aside the brush to watch the sleeping man.

Would anything protect him? Or was he too far gone to hold any of himself back? If he stopped fighting the attraction, what would keep him from losing his self-respect completely?

Rashanal stirred slightly, reaching out in his sleep and curling into Duncan's body. Suddenly, Duncan was confronted with the realization that he wanted nothing more than this, to give himself without reservation to everything Rashanal threatened and promised, to know what it meant to give over control of their desires to him -- though he feared this impulse. Thinking about the physical aspects of such a surrender was intimidating enough. But the way Rashanal looked at him and touched him also awoke other desires, and those were much more difficult to consider. They brought him back to the possibility of losing his identity, his self-respect, under the assault of what he was beginning to realize he could feel for this man -- feelings he saw no possibility of Rashanal returning.

In its wake, the awareness brought stark, uncontrollable fear. If he surrendered so completely, he was terrified that he would have nothing of himself left. Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod was not a man who would ever give up fighting an enemy if there were breath left in him. And yet was that not what Rashanal demanded, what he was contemplating even now? In all his life, he had not met another who could match him will for will, strength for strength, so easily.

He started to pull away and felt Rashanal's arms tighten slightly, one arm curling about his waist, a fretful look crossing Rashanal's face. Looking down, Duncan felt an overwhelming tenderness, soothing away the fear. What exactly did he fear? He didn't think it was the physical acts themselves; on the contrary, he found himself looking forward to those with increasing eagerness. He seemed to completely lose control of his own body when Rashanal touched him. The other man's skill and passion brought Duncan's own sensuality to the fore, and he had trouble truly fearing anything the man might do to him physically. He knew that Rashanal desired Duncan's pleasure and response as much as he wanted his own, and Rashanal delighted in stoking those fires. He stroked his fingertips lightly down Rashanal's face, whose features were soft and relaxed in sleep. Such a complex man. An enemy? He had thought so, but now...

Duncan thought back over his conversation with Namal and his own conflicting perceptions of Rashanal. He was beginning to see that in his own way, Rashanal was a man of honor and commitment; Namal had made it clear that he himself believed this. It might not be the type of honor with which Duncan was familiar, but his admiration for the man continued to grow the more he saw of his obvious concern for his people.

It struck him suddenly that he was here, an Immortal, with another Immortal asleep in his lap, an Immortal who was on the verge of war, and who should have every reason to believe Duncan a threat. And yet he lay here, deeply asleep, leaving it to Duncan to watch over him. How could Rashanal sleep so serenely, so deeply? Where did he find this trust that Duncan would not take advantage?

Trust. That was it, wasn't it? Perhaps for Rashanal, the bargain was purely about taking Duncan's body without having to fight him every moment. Duncan had fought -- both Rashanal's advances and his own compelling desires -- because the alternative was to stop fighting, and that he could not do, not without losing some essential sense of self. But there was a third alternative, one he had not considered: one that had nothing to do with weakness and everything to do with courage.

Duncan stroked the dark curls back from the fine hollow behind the sleeping man's ear, studying the unlikely configuration of shadow and angle and luminous curve that came together to make up Rashanal's unusual beauty. He had never even dreamed of feeling this way about anyone, let alone another man. Given rein, his desires were at complete odds with who he thought himself to be. On a purely personal level, the bargain was unthinkable: the thought of prostituting himself was repulsive. Not because of the physical degradation, but becausehe wanted more than that. Becoming Rashanal's whore would make what was between them so much less than Duncan sensed it could be. If they could only relate as equals, warrior to warrior, giving and taking because each chose it.

But that could only happen if Duncan was free. And right now, he could only be free if...he accepted the bargain. He wanted Rashanal, he couldn't deny it. He wanted more than the man's body, though. And if the only way he could possibly get that was to accept the bargainmaybe it would be worth it. More and more he was convinced that Rashanal was a good man, that his actions towards Duncan were driven by forces of which Duncan was unaware.

An act of great courage it would be, to trust his heart and his instincts and to give that trust to another without reservation, to the man he believed Rashanal to be. Not an act of resistance, nor one of weakness, but something else, something more dangerous than either of those. A choice that risked everything.

An act befitting a warrior.

* * *

Rashanal's head was still pillowed on Duncan's lap when Namal appeared some time later, several rolls of parchment in his hands.

Duncan was surprised to realize he had dozed a little, lulled by his master's soft, even breathing and the relative coolness of the tent after his morning's labors. He roused himself and pulled his hands away from Rashanal's hair, sliding Rashanal's head carefully onto the nearest pillow. Pulling his robes in close, he went to see what the advisor wanted.

"Let him sleep," he whispered, drawing Namal away from where Rashanal sprawled unaware. "He needs to rest."

Namal glanced at Rashanal and nodded slowly before turning back to Duncan with a thoughtful look. "I suppose an hour or two won't hurt." He saw the direction of Duncan's curious glance and explained, "I've brought the maps of Emad's encampment and the surrounding borderlands. Rashanal wanted them as soon as they could be found."

Duncan took the rolls of paper and nodded. "I'll make sure he gets them."

Namal followed his gaze toward Rashanal's sleeping form. "He is a good master, Highlander. And we need him at his best right now, if we are all to survive." Unexpectedly, he reached out and placed his hands on Duncan's forearm in the manner of greeting among the warriors of the tribe. "Keep him safe, from himself and others. We will all need his strength."

And then Namal was gone, leaving a disconcerted Highlander looking after him.

With a sigh, Duncan turned his attention to the bundle of parchment in his arms. He cleared a space on the floor and carefully spread the maps out, studying them with avid thoroughness. Slowly he digested the foreign symbols, memorizing the lay of the land and beginning to work out how the camp might be defended in case of attack.

* * *

Methos stood gracefully, waiting for the next command, feasting his eyes on his mistress's beauty. Her words were a soothing murmur as she spoke with her guest, her companion's voice nothing but a vague undertone.

"Do you like him? He's yours."

Methos started. He sought Livia's gaze, but she only sipped her wine and gestured casually that he was to go to her companion. In a disbelieving daze he turned to find dark eyes regarding him with interest.

In his hand the Highlander held a silver and lapis torque, and he beckoned to Methos to come forward. Still stunned, suddenly afraid, Methos found himself getting lost in the passionate intensity of that shadowed gaze, looking away only when his new master caught hold of his wrist. Looking down, he saw that his new owner now held two bracelets, intricately woven of silver wire and golden coins.

Duncan fastened the bracelets around Methos' wrists, his hands broad and gentle, his touch kind. Overwhelmed with fear, Methos shook his head wordlessly and backed away. Duncan did not hold him. But his eyes were unbearably sad, and Methos found he could not look at them.

Suddenly, he was struck with overwhelming pain. The coils of gold and silver wound tighter and tighter, cutting off circulation, making him gasp. He tried to work his hands free, but the pain only worsened. Blood began to seep through the woven strands of wire and drip onto the floor in great crimson stains, running over the tile. He fell to his knees, cradling his torn and bloody arms.

"Come."

The voice was deep, commanding, irresistible. Methos looked up again helplessly, and Duncan was standing at the stone lip of a well, beckoning to him once again. Methos staggered to his feet, the pain still with him, the manacles tightening until he feared losing his hands. He stumbled towards the Highlander, who drew him close for a moment, then stroked his hair and led him down the steps into the well.

Standing at the foot of the stairs, Duncan gently gathered Methos up in his arms and lowered him into the water. As the cool water washed over him, the bracelets melted away, and the pain eased until it was gone. He felt himself held securely in strong arms. He looked up into Duncan's eyes once more and could not look away as the water closed over him in a dark, sheltering embrace.

* * *

Methos awoke suddenly, disoriented, with vague, disturbing images flickering through his awareness. He sat up, feeling exposed and vulnerable, delicate filaments of fear trembling through him. He was alone on the cushions, and the feelings of exposure heightened. Looking around, he saw the Highlander seated by the table. As if sensing Methos' gaze, Duncan glanced up from where he'd been poring over some papers, papers that had not been there when they'd lain down.

"Water," Methos rasped.

Duncan stood and moved to the clay jar, pouring a cup and bringing it over to where Methos lay. Methos, still muzzy from the dream, reached out a hand to grasp the vessel and the other to clasp around the Highlander's wrist. He drank greedily, then handed the cup back and stared in puzzlement at Duncan's wrist and then his own, images of blood and coins tumbling in his mind. Looking up, he saw that Duncan was watching him, his eyes filled with concern. Glancing around, he saw by the shadows that he had been asleep some time; he realized that Duncan had left him and moved around, and that none of it had disturbed him in the slightest. He had slept deeply, as if he had not a concern in the world.

Sudden, inexplicable anger shivered through him, burning away the remnants of the poorly remembered dream. Pulling sharply, he drew the Highlander to him, sliding his hand around the nape of his neck, twining his fingers in the lush hair, and capturing the startled mouth with his own. As greedily as he had drunk the water, he consumed the Highlander's mouth, ravaging the soft lips with his own. In the wake of his deep slumber, his accustomed control deserted him. He felt desperate, avid, craving the feel of the Highlander's body as a starving man craves food. He twisted their bodies so that he lay over the other man, pulling back to look into his face. The confusion he saw there stoked his anger and his desire.

Capturing the slave's mouth once more, he slid one hand between them to tug and pull at the fabric, baring their bodies until he could feel the slide of the other's chest and belly against his own. The Highlander made a sound at the contact, though whether of protest or encouragement Methos didn't know and didn't care. The writhing of that sweet, muscular form against him might have been a struggle at first, but when Methos pressed himself down between the other man's thighs, his belly encountered thin, humid silk and an unmistakable arousal, hot and very hard against him. At the grinding friction, the Highlander moaned and rubbed back. The hands that clutched at Methos' shoulders opened and closed again, and strength to match or overmatch his own held him fast.

The combination of command and surrender in that desperate grip aroused in Methos a fever of need, too long denied and now surging in his blood, crying out for completion. A low moan of his own vibrated against the slave's hot tongue. Kissing was too kind a word for what they were doing now. He was consuming that hot mouth, devouring it as if there weren't enough of it he could taste, touch. There wasn't enough. He thrust his arms under the slave's and wrapped his hold around muscular shoulders, threading his fingers fiercely in the long waves of his hair. He could hold Duncan's head absolutely still like that, could pin him, helpless. And still it wasn't enough, though the honeyed mouth met his with equal passion, the same deep, desperate consumption that could not get enough contact, could not be appeased. Methos tasted salt, his tongue not satisfied to keep to the kiss but darting out in between the deep, intimate caresses to flick at Duncan's lips, the line of his jaw.

Overcome, he moaned aloud and buried his face in Duncan's neck, still tasting, consuming, sucking and pressing the sounds of his need into the sweet-salt heat of his throat. At the assault Duncan gave a high, almost breathless whimper and writhed uncontrollably against him. Methos bit him.

The taste of him, oh gods, the taste of him -- Methos felt himself taken in a powerful grip, hot, needy hands finding the muscles of his buttocks and squeezing, demanding, pleading for more. Seizing the thick mane tighter he pulled Duncan's head back until his throat arched. The hot skin was slick and bore his marks, Methos saw, before he closed his eyes and drew his knees up swiftly for leverage.

Duncan groaned, a sound that broke on a raw whimper of need, and then they were moving together, ravaging one another's mouths again while Methos held him down and thrust roughly against him. There was still a thin barrier of fabric between them, but neither could stop, neither wanted to, the friction of the raw silk driving them both to incoherent cries. Desperate for more, the slave wrapped himself around every part of Methos he could reach, one hand in his hair, one squeezing him from behind, urging him on.

Lost utterly in his need, Methos pinned him and bit and sucked at his throat again mindlessly, crying out hoarsely as at last, at last he neared his pinnacle, felt the pleasure gathering like blunt, hot, shivers in his belly, his groin, his thighs, oh gods every part of him and that beautiful voice keening in his ear, beautiful throat vibrating against his mouth as he bit and tasted blood, and pulsing heat and wetness flooded against his tongue, his belly-

The pleasure struck, quickening fire. He let it take him, let it seize him up and fling him brutally over the edge, felt it slam through him without mercy.

* * *

Afterward, they lay panting and dazed, and it came to Duncan that whatever else happened between them, he would be forever changed by those few moments of annihilation. His pulse beat heavily in his ears. His body-his body was singing, intoxicated with blissful release, trembling with aftershocks. His heart ached sweetly, painfully, closed tight in a fist of fear and euphoria.

If he lived to be a thousand, this memory would stay with him, the moment when he understood the full truth of what passion could do to a man, what it could cost him.

Chapter Text

Duncan rolled over and crawled onto unsteady legs. He looked down at himself, at where his skin was streaked by Rashanal's hands and marked by Rashanal's lips, and at the cool wetness that darkened his loin wrap. He swallowed and glanced over at Rashanal, his master's clothing open and disordered around him, his own stain prominent over his silken groin. He wanted to ask Rashanal what he had done to deserve that angry, incendiary assault, but his master was somewhere far away, seemingly unaware of his presence.

He felt slightly ill as he watched Rashanal's chest rise and fall steadily; he showed none of the turmoil that Duncan himself felt as he struggled to catch his own breath. Rashanal's left arm was thrown across his eyes to keep out the slanting, late-afternoon light -- an obvious warning to Duncan to keep out as well. It roused an aching emptiness in Duncan at odds with the tingling satiation of his body. His heart felt sore, his stomach sinking. Would it always be like this? The more he tasted of the elusive connection he felt with this man, the more he was left wanting, and the more he wondered if the connection were all of his own imagining. A chill touched him as he stared at the stranger who threatened everything he was. Perhaps he had been broken already, to the point that he willingly chose his own ultimate destruction; perhaps he was already lost, all his rationalizations and longings merely a part of his utter dissolution.

Then he remembered the way Rashanal had gentled under his hands as he brushed the dark hair, the way he had curled so trustingly into Duncan's body while they slept. No. The passion had been real. Duncan had felt it, unmistakable, the sweetness of having Rashanal pressed into him, taking his pleasure, and giving it in return. It was the other that was the lie: the coldness, the distance, the anger.

Realizing it sparked his own anger, a flare of resentment that the man could not simply acknowledge the truth and face him honestly. All the power was Rashanal's. What did he want? Did he want nothing more than a warm body in his bed? His actions were contradictory, leaving Duncan ever more confused. Watching him now, Duncan remembered the look in Rashanal's eyes just before the conflagration had overwhelmed them. He had been half-awake, and the look had been...not anger, but...fear? Near panic, in fact, quickly overcome by rage. What was he afraid of? Was he as confused as Duncan himself?

Rashanal stirred, sitting up with his back to Duncan. He glanced over his shoulder, not meeting Duncan's eyes. "What are you waiting for? Fetch a cloth."

The flat, impatient tone cut Duncan deeply, interrupting his musings and giving them the lie. Suddenly, it was on the tip of the Highlander's tongue to ask if had earned his gold coin yet or if Rashanal could manage something more challenging to exact in payment. Then sanity returned, and he bit the words back, barely in time. He controlled himself fiercely, knowing if he did not he was likely to get himself killed. Every line of Rashanal's posture betrayed his mood -- a deep, unfocused anger that promised to metamorphose into killing rage if set free.

As they had been from the first day, Duncan's own responses were powerful and dangerously conflicted, making him catch his breath. The ache returned, stronger than ever, at that certain evidence that whatever he had felt during their frantic coupling, it was not returned.

And beneath that hurt, something dark and primal rose in answer to the untargeted hostility in Rashanal's tone. The unspoken threat touched upon something he had not recognized before, some part of him that wanted that essential clash of wills -- something fundamental that both longed for and rebelled against that final loss of control. He suddenly knew that it would be easy to descend swiftly into blind, killing rage and to take Rashanal with him. For all the man had refused to take his head, it would be easy because the passion was real and deep, and this clash of wills was at the heart of it. It would be such a simple thing to let go, to let his rebellious anger surge and ignite Rashanal's own fury, an inferno that would feed off itself until one or both of them were dead, permanently. At least then he would be free of this insanity.

Shaken, overwhelmed with the sudden knowledge, Duncan ducked back into the inner chamber. He needed to think, and he desperately needed to get control of himself before he said or did something fatal.

Alone, away from Rashanal's overwhelming presence, he was able to calm himself and gain some measure of equilibrium. He shed what was left of his clothing, momentarily stilled by the visceral jolt of memory as his fingers brushed dampness: Rashanal's teeth closing on his throat, the shock of pain sending him over the edge into shattering pleasure.

Working at consciously regulating his breathing, Duncan poured a small bowl of water and picked up a soft cloth. At the divider he closed his eyes for a moment, focusing on the practical. He'd do as Rashanal asked; he would clean up the mess and find the man clean garments, and put off thinking, for now. Namal would be back soon, and it would not do for him to find his chieftain in such disarray.

* * *

Methos kept his back turned as the Highlander moved away, the rapid pulse of his heart a blatant reminder of what he had done, though he kept his breathing calm through sheer willpower. He had felt the other man's eyes on him, palpably willing him to turn and look at him, and he had been unable to do so. Not merely unwilling, but literally unable to confront the confusion he knew would be mirrored in his own eyes. As soon as the curtain whisked into place, Methos rolled up on his knees, pausing there briefly before standing and shedding his damp, disordered garments. Damn the Highlander for not resisting. Damn him for making it so easy for Methos to fall.

He pulled himself up short. He didn't think he wanted to know where, exactly, he was in danger of falling, but he couldn't deny that he had been stumbling along the edge of some abyss ever since he'd brought the man into his camp. The man brought him to a level of anger and fear that he'd not felt inhe didn't want to know how long. It was as if he were not the one in control. Each time he had some small part of the Highlander, it fed both a hunger to have him all and a fear that the next taste would be his last. How much could he eat before it poisoned him? It didn't seem to be the kind of food against which one built up an immunity. He was close to obsession, and he damned himself as a thousand kinds of fool for ever having bought the man.

Come to that, what had possessed him? He hadn't purchased a slave of his own in a very long time, but he hadn't thought twice about taking the Highlander for himself. And now he could think of very little else. The feeling of panic, chased by unfocused fury, swept over him again. The urge to strike out, to hurt something, was almost overwhelming. He suddenly felt exposed, felt the desperate need to cover himself.

As if reading his thoughts, the naked slave appeared from behind the screen, fresh robes and a clean cloth in hand. The dark eyes stayed down, for once showing proper deference. The Highlander's uncertainty was plain as he started to offer the moistened cloth to Methos. Suddenly unable to tolerate the thought of being tended to like some useless degenerate, Methos took the proffered cloth and garments without a word and stalked away from the Highlander.

As he moved, he saw the maps lying spread out on the rug, and seized upon the welcome distraction, forcing himself to dress without undue haste. "When did these arrive?" he asked shortly, ignoring the sharp awareness of the slave's nakedness and his own rekindling heat.

"Namal brought them while you slept," the Highlander offered quietly.

"He should have woken me."

"I thought--"

"You thought," Methos snapped derisively. He snatched up the sheaf of parchment. "I don't need a keeper, whatever that old fool may have told you. We will soon be at war. I'll sleep when my people are not living under the threat of extinction. And you will touch nothing I do not give you permission to touch, is that clear?" He knew that he was overreacting, but that knowledge didn't seem to matter.

The slave's head had come up, and he was obviously struggling to contain himself. Good, Methos thought, not understanding why he wanted the slave to push him, give him a reason to attack, only knowing that this anger needed some outlet, before it made him do something reckless.

But the Highlander seemed to check whatever retort he might have made; he lowered his eyes again and said only, "I'm sorry, my lord."

For some reason, the deference did not appease Methos' temper, but only fed it. He felt cheated, as if something he had counted on had been pulled away. He gestured with the unrolled maps. "What did you hope to accomplish, tell me that?"

He saw the slave's nostrils flare slightly. "I was raised a warrior. I know something of maps and strategy."

"You don't even speak the language. You can't have read them -- if you can read at all, that is." It was meant as a casual jibe, but he saw the honey-dark skin flush slightly, and realization struck. It was not so unusual; in fact, he should have expected it. But somehow, the thought of that agile mind deprived of such a wealth of learning...

"You can't," he said, his black mood temporarily forgotten. "Can you?"

The dark eyes lifted, a banked flame burning in their depths. "I learn quickly."

Something about it, the frank, unvarnished honesty of the man, reduced Methos to a conflicted tangle of impulses. He found himself momentarily overwhelmed by a feeling of pressure on his wrists, of water closing over him. Disoriented, he dropped his gaze, unable to face the combined assault of that penetrating look and the man's unabashed nudity -- a state of undress he himself had demanded, he remembered belatedly.

"I'm hungry," he lied, turning abruptly away. "Go and fetch supper, enough for Namal as well." Well, not precisely a lie; he was hungry all right, just not for food. The diversion would win him a sorely needed space of privacy and a respite from his own obsession with that lush, tempting body. At the moment, he was finding it very difficult to focus on anything beyond the compelling desire to throw the man down and spend the night burying himself in that sweet flesh over and over. The intensity of the compulsion only seemed to grow with time.

He felt the slave's eyes on him, but after a moment, the Highlander turned to obey, and Methos was able to breathe more easily. He sank down cross-legged on the floor, poring over the maps for something to occupy his attention.

As if summoned by the mention of his name, Namal arrived just as the Highlander emerged from the inner room, prepared to go out. Methos called permission for the advisor to enter. The mortal's eyes flicked to the slave's as they passed, exchanging an odd glance that Methos could not read. When Namal turned to Methos, his gaze was bland and uncommunicative.

Irritated, Methos pushed the maps aside and rose. "I don't suppose there has been any news while I was sleeping the day away?" His voice sounded petulant, even to his own ears.

"You know I would have woken you if there had been," Namal chided him. "The men are ready for whatever will come, and the whole camp can be mobile with an hour's notice, if need be. Jaffir has posted maximum guard in four hour rotations on both the horses and the water supply."

Methos nodded grudging approval, unconsciously pacing and rubbing the back of his neck. "Perhaps we can hold a memorial for Selim and the others tonight, if the weather stays clear."

Namal moved closer, plainly attuned to the touchiness of his mood. "It can wait until morning, my lord. Everyone has labored hard today and would surely welcome a night of rest before facing such an unhappy task."

The gentle admonishment grated on Methos' nerves, but he was forced to admit Namal was right. "We will be less vulnerable in daylight, too." He shook his head impatiently. "I don't know what I was thinking."

"If I might be so bold..." Namal began hesitantly. Methos raised a somewhat baleful eyebrow. "You would benefit from an evening of... rest... as well, ra-jamihn."

Methos felt his mouth fall open in astonishment at the man's presumption. "Rest?" His tone darkened. "Somehow I think you mean something else."

Namal inspected his soft-soled boots. "I cannot help noticing you are... rather tense."

Methos laughed softly, a sound with more danger than humor in it. "Why don't you just say what you mean, old man?" The anger and the panic it had concealed started rising again at the tentative insinuation.

Namal risked a glance at him, seeming to revise his estimate of the wisdom of following this topic further. But he was saved having to answer, for just then a distant shout echoed through the camp. In another moment, they recognized the hails of a returning scout.

Methos hurried outside, Namal following on his heels. The scout rode up at great speed, plainly bearing some news of urgency, but a quick glance showed Methos nothing amiss in the camp or on the ridge. He turned his attention to the rider and recognized Bayyan. The lathered horse breathed its exertion noisily as the man dismounted.

"What is it?" Methos demanded, grabbing the horse's reins.

"Ra-jamihn, it is Rajid." The scout's eyes betrayed his fear of Methos' wrath. "He rides north, toward Emad's encampment, with six armed men. I saw them heading over the first rise -- perhaps not too far to overtake them. I recognized Rajid's white mare in the lead."

Like match to tinder, it set flame to Methos' already splintered state of mind. Alight with fury, he let go of the horse's reins and seized hold of Bayyan's shoulder. "You're certain?" Bayyan nodded. Nostrils flaring, Methos forced himself to let go of the poor man before he took his rage out on the messenger. Fists clenched, he longed to hit something. "That idiot!" He started to pace. "His foolish pride is going to destroy us all!" He whirled on Bayyan. "You think we catch them? With the new stallions, perhaps?"

The man shook his head. "Possibly, my lord, I don't know. They have about ten minutes head start, and they were riding fast."

"Stupid, suicidal fool!" Methos swore savagely. Abruptly, he felt himself shaking with pent-up frustration and other, darker pressures from without and within. Namal, seeing how close he was to the edge of violence, waved Bayyan and the guards away, but they looked to Methos for instruction.

"Rashanal," Namal said quietly, "let us go inside and discuss what is to be done." He didn't touch Methos, but gave him an intent, warning look that enabled Methos to wrest himself under marginal control. Don't panic them, that look said. Hold it together.

Methos acknowledged his look with a glance, but resisted the suggestion. He forced his churning thoughts toward the grim situation with effort. "There is no time, if we're to catch them. They will surely have to wait for night to get close to the camp. Emad has stepped up his own patrols, Rajid will have to be cautious to evade them. We can sacrifice that luxury to get there first." They would have to ride light and hard, but perhaps luck would be with them. If not, they might all be dead by morning.

"Bayyan, send for Ferran and Kateb -- you ride with me. Saddle the four fastest of the new breed. We'll meet at the north edge of camp."

* * *

Duncan heard the cries of the returning scout as he made his way back through the camp, a cold supper of sweet cakes and cheese tucked under his arm. The sun would not set for another hour at least, and the air was unusually still, only a light breath of wind touching his skin. He would be grateful for the coolness of evening; he felt overheated, parched in his soul as well as his skin and eyes and throat.

Seeing the rider making for Rashanal's tent, Duncan walked faster, frowning with thoughts of what tidings the scout might be bringing. It seemed unlikely to be good news. His heart rate accelerated slightly, and he was dismayed to realize how profoundly disappointed he felt.

The Highlander was forced to admit that this time his concern was not for the tribe's sake, but for his own. He didn't know if he could bear another night alone with only thoughts of the uncertain future and his own longings to occupy him.

That stopped him in his tracks -- but it was too late to deny the truth of it, the undeniable ache Rashanal's passionate assault had awakened in him. It had been entirely different from anything that had gone before. That uncontrolled combustion had felt more intense, more real than any sexual experience he had ever known. Was it wishful thinking, to believe in the elusive, primal truth of those few moments?

Probably, Duncan acknowledged grimly, resuming his steps. Very likely he had already sacrificed something fundamental he would never regain. But if so, it was already too late for regrets. Either he was right to trust his heart, or he was lost -- in which case, it didn't matter what he chose now.

As if to confirm something he hadn't yet put into words, it was then that he caught sight of Rashanal. The desert chieftain's eyes flashed, hair streaming over his shoulders as he paced, listening to his scout's news, and Duncan felt a curious, unsteady lightness in his belly, a sharp twist in his suddenly fast-beating heart.

Rashanal and Namal had retreated inside the tent by the time Duncan reached it. An impassioned growl, followed by the unmistakable sound of something breaking, was clearly audible; equally clear was the underlying violence in Rashanal's tone. A muffled curse was interwoven with Namal's low tones that were obviously intended to soothe. With some trepidation, Duncan pulled back the flap.

Standing in the entrance, waiting to be seen, Duncan recognized the name of the hotheaded upstart who had argued with Rashanal earlier as well as that of the leader of the other tribe. Had the man been foolish enough to take matters into his own hands? Judging by Rashanal's anger and the strain on Namal's face, it seemed so.

* * *

Inside the tent, Methos moved about, trying to gather the necessary items quickly, but balked by his temper. When he fumbled over the clay bowl a second time, he briefly satisfied himself by flinging it against the table. Methos' anger was not appeased by the broken crockery. Now that his rage had a target, he felt himself close to being overwhelmed by it, unable to think clearly. "I'll kill him myself!"

"I doubt it will be necessary," Namal said grimly. "I suggest we forget about Rajid, and focus on what Emad is likely to do."

Methos paused from pulling on his boots to glance at his advisor. "You mean after he slaughters us indiscriminately? It doesn't matter what we do, Namal, we cannot win if we fight a battle of his choosing. You know that as well as I! Our only hope is to catch them before they get to Emad. And I'm wasting time!" Tucking his pants into the tops of his boots, he made for the door, stopping as he saw the figure standing just inside.

Preoccupied by the latest disaster, Methos' earlier unease was forgotten as he unthinkingly met the Highlander's eyes. At the sight of the man standing there, food in his hands, Methos briefly felt cut adrift. The concern and compassion evident in the intent gaze caused a flicker of familiarity, another strange echo of his half-remembered dream, but instead of the earlier fear and panic, he felt himself held and cared for. Although it made no sense, for a moment he knew that whatever happened, Duncan would be there. His extreme fury dissipated, leaving behind it only the limited and justified anger of a leader for a rebellious follower. And suddenly, he saw his next actions clearly laid out before him.

He reached out and caressed the back of his hand along Duncan's cheek, briefly lost in the memory of the comfort of his touch. He felt the tremor slide through the other man, and felt it echoed in the tightening of his own body. This would be worth it.

"My lord?" Namal sounded worried, his voice dragging Methos away from his inner thoughts.

He tore his gaze from Duncan's and strode to the place where his outer cloak lay, pulling it on with purposeful motions. He needed to go, and quickly, if there was to be any hope of stopping the slaughter.

"What are you planning?" Namal asked quietly, following him out of the tent.

Methos glanced at him. He felt lighter and more certain than he had in longer than he could remember. "The only thing that might save our skins, if we can't catch them in time. I'm going to give Emad what he wants." He turned briefly to his adviser, his glance flickering over Duncan, only to be caught by his agitated gaze once again. "Get the men ready, in case it doesn't work. I don't expect to be gone more than a few hours, but if we haven't returned within a day, take the women and children to the tunnels and defend them as best you can." He cleared his throat, needing to add one last thing. "If that happens, give the Highlander a swordand let him know he's free." The words tumbled out quickly and quietly, pitched for Namal's ears only.

Namal nodded worriedly. "Be careful, my lord!"

Methos paused on the threshold. He did smile then, though it was a chilling expression, boding no good for someone. "Don't worry so much, old man. He won't kill me. He's having too much fun."

And with that, he was gone, leaving Duncan and Namal staring at one another in dismay. "What will he do?" Duncan asked, not wishing to analyze the worry he felt.

Namal shook his head, as if he couldn't quite believe it. "I'm not sure. I believe he's going to try and talk with Emad, convince him not to retaliate."

"But the man hates him!" Duncan blurted.

Namal nodded. "He's counting on that. He'll ask for a parlance and count on Emad's pride to save his own skin. Emad won't be able to resist the attraction of his enemy coming to him on his knees, asking for mercy. Rashanal hopes," Namal added grimly, turning to go.

Duncan took a step forward as Namal started out, offering his help wordlessly.

The advisor glanced at him, then nodded after only a moment's hesitation.

* * *

Methos left the camp prepared to grovel, if necessary, to get Emad's cooperation if they failed to intercept the raiding party. He knew that he could feed Emad's ego sufficiently with his deference to get the other man to see himself as the gracious victor, and he had little fear for his life or those of his men. After all, if Methos were dead, Emad would have no focus for his anger. It had taken little deliberation to persuade Methos to this task. As tribal leader, he was ultimately responsible for the actions of his men. Whether Rajid had been under his control or not, Methos was the one who had to rectify things. And somehow, the support he had sensed from Duncan had made the decision all the easier.

Rajid persisted in his foolhardiness, making no attempt to disguise his approach to Emad's camp, thus thwarting Methos' plan to intercept them. Methos and his companions had only just managed to overtake them when one of Emad's patrols, with Emad himself at its head, sighted them. Two men in Rajid's party were down before Methos was able to thrust himself between the two groups. He caught Emad's attention by throwing down his weaponry, sliding off his horse, and throwing his arms wide, showing his willingness to die.

Emad held up his arm to halt the attack and cautiously moved his horse in close to the motionless figure. He stared down at Methos, curiosity written on his sharp features. "Well, what is this, the great Rashanal, come to throw himself at my feet? I have waited a long time for this, by God's mercy." Motioning to his men to hold, he looked contemptuously at the man standing, head lowered, in front of him.

Good. The bait had been taken. "God's mercy indeed is what I have come for, Emad." Methos raised his eyes slowly, careful not to appear too forward or arrogant. Emad was a fool, but a canny and prideful one.

Emad glanced at Methos' two sets of men, obviously at odds with each other and with him. Methos looked them over as well, trying to see the tableau as Emad would. Bayyan, Ferran, and Kateb held Rajid at bay, the younger man obviously furious at having his plans thwarted, not even sparing a glance for his dead and wounded companions. Two other men had been injured in the first flurried attack, leaving the original raiding party with only two fighters unharmed besides Rajid; those men appeared unsure of themselves now that Rajid was held.

As a threat, if they banded together, there were seven strong fighters and two wounded ones against Emad's ten, several of whom had minor injuries themselves. Good odds, actually, if it came to blows. Almost an even match. However, Methos had no intention of fighting, whatever it took to prevent it, and he tried to communicate that fact.

Looking back down at him, Emad smiled. "And why should Allah, or I, extend mercy to one who brings open warfare to me? Give me a reason I shouldn't let my men kill you where you stand." At his words the man behind him to his left drew his bow tighter, keeping it aimed directly at Methos.

"If I were part of this attack, I would not now be standing in front of you, ready to die." Methos looked behind Emad to where one of his men had his bow trained on his leader's enemy. "And it is only those who have the greater power who also have the power to grant mercy to those less fortunate, Sayyid. I put myself in your power." Methos lowered his eyes again, bowing slightly at the same time. He struggled to keep his face still, to prevent the laughter that threatened to bubble out. He had no idea why he felt so amused, so certain that there would be no more death this night. He felt only sorrow for those who had fallen and a stronger regret that Rajid had not been one of them. He had no use for men who failed to obey, who forced him to such measures. It was not his own pride for which he was concerned. If there was one flaw to his plan, it was that it would leave Emad with a greater arrogance, which could backfire later. Then again, perhaps it would be his downfall.

Glancing up through lowered lashes, he saw the mixed feelings on Emad's face. Delight at seeing his enemy brought so low as to beg, mingled with a desire to injure, and a strange reluctance and hesitation.

"So, I should let you go so that you can attack me later? What kind of a fool do you take me for, kalb?"

Methos nearly smiled again; Emad's tone was still harsh, but Methos sensed that he was listening. If the worst Emad did was to call him a dog, things should progress smoothly.

"You have my word that there shall be no more unprovoked attacks, Sayyid. Indeed, this one did not have my approval, hence my eagerness to appease you." He spoke again quickly before Emad could interrupt. "I did not send them, but I take full responsibility, Sayyid. A master should be able to control his men. To my shame, I did not, but they are the ones who bear the brunt of the punishment." He gestured to the dead and wounded. "Praise be to God that your own men did not suffer the same fate." Because that would make my own task so much more difficult.

"And I should trust the word of such offal? One who would desecrate ritual?"

Methos had thought that Emad would be easy to manipulate; he hadn't thought it would be this easy. Here was the sore spot, the place where Emad's wounded ego lay.

"Come, Sayyid. You and I both know that you came out the better in that...exchange. You got several of my best mares, and what did I get? A quarrelsome, troublesome woman! I would have been best served to leave her to you; perhaps you could have controlled her. And then we wouldn't be in this position!" His tone was cajoling, self-deprecating, amused at his own expense.

Waiting the cue from their leader, several of Emad's men looked ready to laugh, obviously recalling the difficult Tahirih. Emad himself looked less amused, but the truth was, he had come out the better in the exchange, at least in material goods. It was his reputation that had suffered, and Methos' willingness to sacrifice his own pride in this instance would go far towards appeasing that injury.

Methos stood straighter, his face more serious. "We have had our differences, Emad, I cannot deny this. But we are both men of our word. As I see it, we are even at this point, you perhaps a little ahead. I am more than willing to leave it at this, for now."

Emad looked mollified and considering. "And what of the well, Rashanal? If I let you go, I merely delay your retribution."

This was a key point. The disputed well was a valuable asset. Though his tribe was fairly well-provided for apart from it, it did mean a substantial loss in resources. But beneath Emad's harsh tone, Methos sensed a reluctance for things to come to war too quickly. Perhaps Methos' information had not been as flawed as he thought. Perhaps Emad was no more ready for a full confrontation than Methos himself?

"I say that the well is still an open dispute, Emad. And there are other tribes that would be glad to have it, as you well know. It is only yours as long as you can hold it." He was again careful to keep his tone open and non-threatening. "All I ask is that you let us go, let us take our dead and grieve them." His voice hardened slightly. "We have yet to grieve all our dead."

He saw by the look on Emad's face that he had succeeded in reminding him of the men who had died that morning. By negotiating a limited truce now, Methos was indicating that he would forego revenge for those deaths, but he was not conceding the disputed well. This would not be a popular decision, particularly among those who had lost kin, but it was a sacrifice he was willing to make to save the tribe as a whole. There were women and children who would die needlessly, or be captured, if things flared into tribal warfare. Emad should recognize that Methos' offer did not come without this sacrifice.

With noticeable reluctance, Emad nodded sharply, once. "Very well, Rashanal. Take your men and be gone. We stand as enemies still, but this time, I will let you pass. Remember this!" With that, he gestured to his men, whirled on his horse, and rode off, turning his back on the man he had just called 'enemy.' In so doing, he showed both his fearlessness and his contempt of the man he left behind.

Methos watched him ride, hearing the restless movements of men and horse behind him. Suddenly a voice called out.

"You coward! You do not deserve to lead!"

The words were followed by the sound of flesh on flesh as one of Methos' loyal men backhanded Rajid. He turned in time to see Rajid fall to the sand. The young man scrambled quickly to his feet, ready to throw himself at his chieftain, but he was restrained by Bayyan and Ferran. Kateb still sat on his horse, rubbing his hand and looking contemptuously at Rajid.

"Coward, am I?" He let his anger and scorn show. "My pride is a small sacrifice for the lives of our people, Rajid. People you were willing to let die to appease your own vanity! Don't talk to me about cowardice!" He stalked over to where Rajid was being held and leaned close, speaking calmly and quietly. "I wouldn't call myself a hero, but I know that it takes more than a willingness to die to be one. Especially to die for one's own pride. One has to be willing to do what is required, to not give in to one's own desires. Do you think I want to grovel to that fat fool? If I have had to sacrifice anything, it is because of you! I took you in, gave you a place and some respect when you had nothing! And this is how you repay me? By trying to destroy my people? I may be a coward, but you are an ignorant child."

He turned and swung himself onto his mount. "Tie him and throw him over his horse." His eyes met Kateb's. "The bodies as well." He slid his glance over the remaining rebels, both wounded and not. "And do I need to tie you all?"

The four men looked guilty and shamed, refusing to meet his eyes. One of them, a boy even younger than Rajid, finally spoke. "No, ra-jamihn. That won't be necessary." The boy, Hadiya, looked up into Methos' eyes, stricken. "I am sorry, ra-jamihn. I did not know!"

Methos stared at the boy coldly. "I understand the desire to do great things, but great things are seldom accomplished by rash deeds." Hadiya started to say more, then hung his head. He was the only man in a household of women, and his desire to prove himself often led to impulsive decisions; this was the first time he had realized the full extent of what might happen.

Methos ignored the now-silent boy and looked over to where Kateb had finished tying the second body to a nervously shifting horse. "Come. It's time we returned home. We'll say prayer for our dead tomorrow."

At first, Methos pondered the exchange with Emad as he rode, wondering if he had indeed overestimated Emad's preparations for the original attack on the well. He turned their conversation over his mind, sifting through each of Emad's actions. Yes, there was pride, but there was also a little fear as well, and the scent of a braggart whose bluff might be called. The horses had shown signs of weariness, now that he thought on it; they had the overused look of beasts ridden too long without rest. Last he knew, Emad's tribe had boasted a great herd of strong, desert steeds -- an irreplaceable asset in battle. Could something have happened to change that? Perhaps that original assault had owed more to desperation than to cunning; his information might still be valid.

He sat easily on his own horse, letting it lead the group home at a steady pace as he considered what he had gained in the exchange. It was a temporary truce at best, but one that held promise of a permanent answer. If both tribes were hurting, maybe a more enduring bargain could be struck. It was something to hope for.

Lulled by the rhythm of the animal beneath him, set free from the immediate crisis, his mind returned to its obsession. He wondered what awaited him at the encampment. Would the Highlander accept the bargain he had been offered, or would he discard the idea completely? What would Methos do if Duncan rejected it outright?

Suddenly, he realized what an untenable situation he had created for himself. If Duncan refused, Methos had two alternatives: to honor Duncan's decision or to disregard it and force himself on the man. He knew he could make Duncan want him physically, but did Methos want him so badly as to take him unwillingly? Remembering the hungry kisses and voluntary caresses he had had of the slave, he knew that anything less would be worthless. But how could he handle having the man so close without being able to take him?

What had ever possessed him to make such an outlandish offer in the first place? It was obvious that the slave wanted him; a little seduction was all that was required. Why had he felt the need to humiliate the warrior within him so?

Careful. Treacherous ground here.

Perhaps he would withdraw the offer tonight and find some other way for Duncan to purchase his freedom. He found himself wanting an equal more than a slave, but with the bargain between them, there was no possibility of that. If he were careful and tread softly, he could still coax Duncan into his bed willingly and without the bargain, and perhaps the Highlander might then stayor they could both go, once the dispute with Emad was settled. Companions.

Even friends.

The thought warmed him despite the inner voice that warned sternly against such hopes, and Methos found himself urging his mount to a faster pace, the horses that Rajid's party had taken struggling to keep up.

* * *

Duncan eased himself into the small bath and sighed, letting the cool water wash away the day's dirt and grime. He closed his eyes and tried to relax, knowing it to be a fruitless endeavor -- Rashanal had not yet returned.

His stomach tightened into a knot. Rashanal was Immortal. No matter what happened, he would find a way to return to the tribe, to make sure they were safe. And what if by some fluke Emad takes his head? a little voice inside his mind whispered.

He opened his eyes again and picked up the soft cloth, using the mechanics of washing to distract himself from his fears, the water cooling and restoring him from the day's labor. He had learned much from Namal and Jaffir in Rashanal's absence, and he could tell his language skills were better -- Jaffir had understood most of the questions he'd asked, with Namal supplying new words when Duncan found himself lacking the vocabulary.

If Rashanal did not return, they were to move the encampment to some tunnels the desert chieftain had secretly stocked with supplies over the last five years. The underground passages were all that remained of a sizable fortification built some two centuries earlier to defend trade routes from the Spanish; their existence was all but forgotten. Duncan had been impressed with Rashanal's forethought. Such tunnels would be sheltered from the wind and eminently defensible, even by a small force of men. Jaffir had explained that it would be a day's travel, and they would be vulnerable the whole way. But once inside, their people should be safe. Our people, he had said, obviously including Duncan in their number.

Jaffir had shown no surprise when Namal had brought Duncan in on their conference and no reluctance in explaining anything Duncan had wanted to know. He had listened to the Highlander's ideas as if he were more than a slave, nodding and building on the ideas Duncan had developed as Rashanal had slept. Duncan sensed from him the same devotion to and respect for Rashanal that Namal had shown, colored by more than a bit of hero-worship, not surprising in one who had been little more than a boy when Rashanal had become tribal leader.

Our people. Both Jaffir and Namal acted as if Duncan already belonged. Now if only Rashanal could be brought to think of it that way, as well.

At the thought of the other man, fire licked his senses, stirring his cock despite the cool water. Duncan leaned forward and dipped his head under the water, rinsing the last of the lather from his hair and drowning his sudden heat, his legs spread wide to maintain his balance. The vulnerable position prompted the unexpected thought: Rashanal could take me this way.

Duncan instinctively shoved his legs straight, a surge of water spilling over the side. After a moment he clambered out of the bath, his limbs suddenly shaky. His heart pounded as he dried himself, and his movements quietly slowed as his mind worked over the image.

It would be tonight, if Rashanal returned.

He had already made his decision --- he was no coward to change his mind once he had made it. If he had to agree to the bargain for Rashanal to acknowledge what they could be to one another, then that was the way it would be. He would move through this, like water though a cave, and they would both see what lay on the other side. And if he was wrong, if Rashanal wanted nothing more than his body, then he would be free that much sooner, to move on and forget what might have been. Either way, he would have the memories of what Rashanal would teach him; his burning curiosity would torment him no longer.

His skin flushed at the thought of what that implied, his stomach clenching and unclenching with his desire. He did not wish to wait any more, to know what Rashanal would do to him, with him. He set the towel aside, taking up the vial of scented oil that he had set out.

* * *

Too much time to think was dangerous, Methos found, for paradoxically, the closer they got to their own lands, the less the thought of a lengthy seduction appealed. His thoughts were consumed by the memory of his body sliding against the Highlander's, the friction building to an incandescent heat. The powerful rhythm of his steed did little to clear his mind.

Sentries met them at the border, and Methos quickly dispatched a courier to Namal and Jaffir with the news of their return, telling them that he would see them in the morning. When they arrived in camp, he handed his mount off to one of the other men. Turning to Bayyan, he quickly gave directions for disposal of the rebels.

"Take Rajid to his tent and confine him there. The others can move freely, but have them watched." He had considered Rajid's remaining followers on the return ride and felt that on their own they were a limited risk. "Have their wounds tended, and place the bodies with the others for tonight." He examined his man intently for a moment, assessing Bayyan's dark, steady gaze. The man had shown himself worthy of responsibility, and with so many dead, he would have to begin to accept more. One of the dead men had been a newcomer, without kin. But the other had had a young wife, and she could not be blamed for her husband's poor judgment. "Go to Qamar's woman, and tell her she may prepare her husband's body. I will speak to her tomorrow." Bayyan nodded, and Methos turned and left.

He made his way to his own tent. Tired, his shoulders bent, Methos still felt elated at having won the smallest of victories in this ongoing war, in persuading Emad that retaliation was not in either man's best interests. And they had only lost the lives of two men. He scowled as he cursed the fate that had left Rajid one of the survivors. Even with the near brush with death, the child couldn't get it through his thick skull that his actions had been anything but heroic.

He would have to be dealt with. Tomorrow. Tonight, he had other plans. He had felt the Highlander's presence call to him from the very edge of the encampment, and the pull was irresistible.

Chapter Text

As he waited for Rashanal, Duncan changed his mind a dozen times about how he wanted to be found. In the bed? On the floor? Sitting? Standing? Dressed? Naked? Finally he took a light robe and clothed himself, not completely comfortable with his own nudity.

Combing the tangles from his clean, damp hair, he couldn't help remembering the softness of Rashanal's dark curls slipping between his fingers. That led to thoughts of what had followed, the welcome weight of the man as he slept against Duncan's body, the silken heat of him between Duncan's thighs. The remembered sensations overwhelmed his thoughts for long minutes, until at last he returned to himself to find his hair sliding effortlessly through the brush and his body uncomfortably hot, his sex resting heavily, half-hard against his thigh.

He blushed, tingling slightly with anticipation he could not deny. Perhaps a woman would know some other preparations to make, but he could not bring himself to do more. He was clean and groomed, his skin smoothed and slightly fragrant with the silky jasmine oil. It would have to do.

Shaking his hair back and setting the brush aside, he was momentarily at a loss for what to do next. Casting about for some task to take his mind from what was to come, he saw the disarray in the tent and set about straightening the signs of their afternoon encounter and Rashanal's hurried departure. When all was neat he returned to the inner chamber, lighting several of the tallow candles and two small lamps with bronze covers pierced in geometric shapes. They shone their filtered light in intricate patterns, the whole effect of lamps and candles making the room flicker and dance pleasingly.

The night was already cool. Relief from the heat of the day energized Duncan as he went about his preparations, making him forget his fatigue. He spread clean linen on the bed, and arranged the cushions comfortably. A gleam of silver caught his eye; the torque, resting where he had left it that morning. Suddenly very conscious of the purpose of his preparations, he moved as if hypnotized by the circle of metal.

Breathlessly aware of the weight of it, he lifted the torque, feeling it curiously warm against his palms. He thought about what it would be like to wear that symbol, heavy and smooth against his throat, but his mind would not go around it. Time enough for that when it became reality. Swallowing hard, he set it down within easy reach, setting the uncertainty aside with it. The time for hesitation had passed.

At last there were no more distractions, nothing else that needed to be done, and still he felt no sign of Rashanal's returning presence. Duncan found himself standing in the middle of the setting he had himself created for his own descent into the unknown, suddenly seized by a terrible feeling of aloneness. How had he come to this place, where none of the rules of his upbringing applied? In his seventy years he had learned too well how lonely immortality could be, but he didn't think he had ever felt it so profoundly, understood it so deeply, as he did in that moment. Obeying a sudden impulse, he found himself kneeling in the flickering light, closing his eyes as he reached for calm, for some sense of self to hold against the fear.

Almost without realizing it he found himself praying to the God of his childhood. It had been many years since he had felt the need so strongly, but now the longing for guidance, for strength, was overpowering. Father, watch over me, for the road I take is unfamiliar, and I have only my heart for a guide. Father, protect me, for I fear where this night will take me, and yet I cannot turn from the course I have chosen.

As he knelt, Duncan found no answers, no end to his isolation, but recognized at last the answering loneliness he had sensed in Rashanal, the need, equal to his own. It was somehow essential to the instinctive connection he had felt. It was something he could understand, and paradoxically, it eased his fear and loneliness in an unexpected way, affirmed the certainty that his heart did not betray him.

The buzz of Immortal Presence touched him, the deep, rich current singing through him with a welcome resonance, and Duncan's body responded with a languid, understated promise of rising longing. Rashanal had returned.

* * *

Methos paused as he entered the public chamber of his tent. The Highlander was not to be seen, but Methos knew that he was within the walls. The sense of his Presence rippled against Methos' skin like cool water, seeping into his very pores. The untouched supper had been set aside, and the maps were rolled neatly on the table. Pillows had been re-arranged and everything returned to order -- even the pot shards were gone. It all looked peaceful and serene, but Methos did not trust his senses. His anticipation had grown nearly unbearable on the long ride back to camp, along with his hunger, and he had never felt less tranquil.

He strode across the room and threw back the curtain to the inner chamber, then stepped inside. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light. Candles lit the room with a soft flickering glow, gentle and warm after the harsher glare of the braziers in the outer room. His fingers had gone to the fastening of his cloak when he saw the figure in the center of the room. Methos thought his heart might stop beating, and the warm currents caressing his skin suddenly licked at him hotly. He was barely aware of pulling off his cloak and dropping it to the floor, mesmerized by the vision in front of him.

His mouth dry, barely able to breathe, Methos drank in the sight of the Highlander, eyes downcast, kneeling on a rug in the center of the room. He was clothed in a light robe, pulled loosely about him. His hair was free, curling softly against his bronze skin, cascading over shoulders and back like a waterfall. He looked up at Methos expectantly and rested his broad, strong hands on his thighs, his knees parting while he sat back on his heels; Methos could clearly see his partially-erect sex shadowed beneath his robe. But even more astonishing, Tahirih's torque lay on the ground beside him, its silver glinting coldly in the candlelight. Remembering his own uncertainty about the nature of the bargain he had offered, Methos felt a tightness in his chest.

He raised his eyes to Duncan's face, too far away to be certain of his expression. Almost without thinking, Methos felt himself pulled forward, neither man speaking. As he approached, Methos could see the impact of his presence reflected in the shifting and hardening of the Highlander's body, and he felt his own body responding. Methos finally stopped barely an arm's length from the seemingly entranced form.

Duncan threw his head back, desire written in his deep brown eyes. It ignited the fire between Methos' thighs, and he could barely restrain a low groan. From a simple look, speaking without artifice or fear between them, Methos already felt the need to come.

Duncan spoke softly as he stared into Methos' eyes, his hot gaze open and calm. "I want you to put it on me."

Methos' heart twisted at the honesty he saw in that gaze, a sudden and inexplicable pain lancing through him. His exultant sense of victory warred with his earlier reluctance to reduce the terms of his satisfaction to this bitter contract; his body's emphatic yes was winning out over both. This embodiment of physical power and beauty knelt to him, offering, submitting to his will with a grace that took his breath and made his heart pound, made aching desire sink heavily through his whole lower body. He swallowed hard, knowing that he was already lost. He simply did not have the strength to say no when every instinct he possessed cried out to take what was his.

Methos didn't think an Immortal could die from unsated desire, but at the moment he wouldn't discount the possibility.

"You agree to my terms?" he whispered hoarsely, gazing down at the man who knelt before him, seeing no hint of surrender in the Highlander's graceful, self-possessed posture. He wasn't sure what had decided the slave to do away with his resistance, and that uncertainty bothered him. Up to this point he had felt sure in his ability to read the Highlander, to anticipate the twists and turns of his thoughts as if they were his own, but suddenly, he felt as if the rules had changed.

"Yes." Duncan's voice was strong and clear, betraying no hesitation. He lifted the torque in his hands, proffering it, his hands and gaze equally steady.

Methos reached for it, hoping that the faint trembling of his own hand didn't betray him. The metal was cold and hard in his palm, save for where Duncan's own heat had warmed it. As it would be warmed as it sat around that strong, exquisite throat. Suddenly he envisioned this man wearing his mark, possessed by him truly, even if for only a short time. His sense of walking on the edge of some great chasm was heightened, rather than lessened, by the ease of the slave's surrender. He took slow, even breaths to settle the unsteadiness in his limbs.

"For your freedom?" he asked roughly, needing to know, as if the answer could somehow anchor him in the threatening storm of desire.

Duncan nodded with a trace of defiance, his gaze steady, unflinching. But his determination made Methos' pulse speed even more.

"Just for that?" he whispered, before he could stop himself, searching the deep, shadowed well of the Highlander's gaze.

Something darkly secret flickered in the slave's face, and his eyes lowered for a moment, considering behind the veil of his lashes. Then he lifted his head again, leaning back slightly to meet Methos' searching look. Methos was transfixed, breathless with the quiet struggle in that expressive face, the search for words.

"I have... learned much, in the past few days," the Highlander said slowly, watching Methos' reactions. "I believe that one must always learn, to grow and survive. I believe there is much you could teach, ra-jamihn, if I am strong enough to accept this...you." His eyes cleared, as if uncertainty fell away. "I am strong enough," he said, belief rock-steady in his voice, his face. "I accept your bargain, Rashanal." And he bowed his head, the stiff neck giving gracefully, a tangible affirmation of his choice, a clear invitation. "One hundred nights of service, on your terms, for my freedom."

Heated longing, astonished awe, and a kind of deep, unnamed shock ran through Methos. He had not imagined such a man existed, who could make of his own subjugation a profound covenant, a gift of strength and beauty. Never could he have expected this, or predicted the way it would make him feel, the power of his own response. Never had he wanted anything so much, or felt more like he might be settling for so little. He felt his body flushing alternately hot and cold, unsteady in the tide of painful feeling. It occurred to him to be afraid, but even the fear could not stand against his consuming, devastating hunger.

"Lift your hair," he said, when he could find breath to speak.

His eyes devoured Duncan's still-cloaked body as the Highlander's arms lifted to raise the heavy weight of his hair. Moving even closer, feeling the heat rising in waves between them, Methos slid the heavy, jeweled torque around Duncan's neck, his fingertips trembling lightly against the bronzed skin. His eyes instinctively sought the Highlander's again as Duncan let his hair fall down about his shoulders. The clear certainty was laced now with shades of excitement and apprehension in equal measure, but the man met his look gamely, holding himself still against the tremors Methos sensed running through that magnificent form. The circle of silver gleamed, cool against warm skin.

Methos felt himself overwhelmed, the sweet richness of skin and sable softness and flushed, wanting lips begging for his caresses. Like a man who had starved for so long that his stomach resisted nourishment, he barely knew what to touch, what to gaze at first. He saw the faintest trace of a shadow on the sculpted throat: his own fingerprint, a vestige of dust from his hard ride, imprinted on the clean skin. Mine, he thought possessively as the full weight of it settled in him, and the thought of even one night with the Highlander felt like forever, a hundred such nights an incomprehensible enormity of wealth. He found himself shivering with heat; he couldn't think, couldn't move to take what he needed. The thought of kissing that warm, upturned mouth -- feeling that soft tongue against his own -- made him throb, surge with fluid, against the folds of his trousers.

He had to laugh a little at his loss of control. This would not do, not at all. He was making himself crazy with hunger and he had barely even tasted the splendid feast on display before him.

The Highlander's apprehension was visibly stronger now, the trusting look displaced, the man plainly uncertain what this manifestation of his master's ironic sense of humor could mean. Methos felt the sudden irresistible need to banish that look, to see the trust again, the utterly undeserved faith this innocent had placed in him, that precious weight that rested so heavily in him. It burned him, and still he wanted it, ached for it.

He would have it. The desire supplanted the shivery ache in his belly, and he was able to breathe again, to touch the curve of the other man's cheek without throwing him brutally down against the rug. At last he made himself shift away, giving himself a little space in the interest of preserving his sanity. The Highlander wanted to learn, so he would commence the lessons.

"You will send for fresh water and prepare a bath," he said huskily, letting his hand fall. It would be a luxury, perhaps an extravagant one considering their current situation -- but it would be worth it even if he chose to go without water for several days to make up for it. It wouldn't kill him, and he wanted to make absolutely certain this night was perfect, unforgettable.

Wanted, he acknowledged in a dark corner of his mind, to make himself unforgettable.

The slave's face was flushed with heat, and Methos knew he had understood. He would have to speak with the guards as he was, his arousal more than evident. But Duncan did not hesitate, only rose gracefully and moved to obey.

* * *

The guards acknowledged Duncan's instructions without comment, one of the young men moving off at once to send for the things he required. Their stoic eyes-front demeanor did not hide their knowing awareness nor lessen Duncan's embarrassment at his body's betrayal. He was grateful to retreat inside.

To his confusion, carrying out Rashanal's command had, if anything, excited him more. This he did not understand. But he could not deny the near-painful state of his arousal, nor the tiny thread of pride that urged him to take care with the details, to make an effort to please.

Every movement reminded him of the torque about his throat, a noticeable though comfortable weight -- too comfortable. He raised his hand to touch it, remembering the look on Rashanal's face when Duncan had told him he would wear it, that he wanted it on. His mind briefly touched on the thought that he had never truly contemplated not accepting the bargain, but veered off before he could consider too far. What is done is done.

"That was well done," Rashanal said from beside the partition, startling him with the apparent echo of his thoughts. The husky voice raised shivers along the back of Duncan's neck. "It is good that you are learning to obey me. Better that you do so with dignity. A slave should always remember that his behavior reflects upon his master."

Duncan looked at him sharply, stung by the condescending words, but the tone and the expression in Rashanal's gaze was not one of mockery; rather, it was warm, touched with approval, carrying some long ago memory with it. He searched the glinting eyes in the lamplight, then remembered. Connor had spoken to him thus, on occasion, when Duncan had made some small advance in his training.

Disbelieving, his eyes widened. Had this man, the same who seem to have such frightening insight into Duncan's very soul, mistaken him so completely? Had he taken his acceptance as complete surrender? "Do you think to gentle me to the life of a slave, as if I were a colt you would break to hand? I have offered you a bargain, man to man. You accepted." Duncan shook his head, the rustling movement of his hair yet another reminder of the conflict he felt, the need to please coupled with the need to stay himself. "I am no man's servant -- I have not the temperament for it, for one thing. You must see that by now."

The hazel eyes glittered, and Rashanal drew nearer, his movement vaguely predatory. "Must I? You said you wanted to learn."

Duncan drew back. "Aye, but...it is the ways of warriors I spoke of." He forced himself not to drop his eyes, though his voice betrayed him, cracking slightly. "The ways of pleasure...between men."

Rashanal's face seemed to reflect amusement, but there was a certain dangerous light in the eyes as he stalked closer still, studying Duncan. "But there is so much more that I could teach you, Highlander." He used Duncan's own words, taunting gently. "If you are strong enough. You offer me your body; what if I want more?"

Duncan knew the robe he had chosen concealed nothing. Feeling those eyes rake over him, even his nipples drew taut, surely visible through the thin silk. His own eyes flicked down, involuntarily seeking the answering arousal he knew he would find between the other man's thighs. It was there, pronounced -- was there a slight, damp shadow on the pale cloth? Feeling his breath shorten, he raised his eyes to meet those that watched him, knowing his own hunger was apparent. The amusement was stronger, the glint in amber eyes risen now to open heat.

"Do you like what you see?"

Heart thudding dully, Duncan felt naked before him. "I--"

"I do," Rashanal said, eyes wide now with mischief, openly perusing Duncan's body from head to foot, resting longest at his throat, where the collar of silver suddenly felt very heavy resting against his collarbone. He remembered the brush of Rashanal's fingertips along his skin, just above the curve of metal, as he had placed it on Duncan's throat, and his skin burned again at the phantom touch.

Rashanal prowled close now, close enough for Duncan to feel his heat. The instinct to close his eyes, the longing to be touched, was almost overpowering. Was this sorcery, that the man could will responses from him without a single caress?

As if reading his mind, Rashanal leaned close, the barest teasing of his breath touching Duncan's ear. "Don't be so quick to reject what I can offer you, Highlander. I can make you long for my kind of lessons. There is freedom to be found in giving over your will to me, as well as your body."

You are mine, in all ways, and in all things.And I will make you love it.

Remembering those words, Duncan was overwhelmed with the feeling of having outwitted himself, of having let his honor go for naught while listening to the persuasive, hungry voice of his flesh, a most willing participant in his own enslavement. And worst of all, with Rashanal this close to him, he couldn't bring himself to deny it or resist.

"I am a warrior." Duncan held himself still with effort. "No amount of training will change what a lifetime has bred. You cannot make me give you what you want." Even to his own ears, his voice held uncertainty.

Rashanal's mouth quirked at that, and his hand went unhurriedly around Duncan's waist to the small of his back, touching him there gently. Slender, supple fingers traced a line down along his spine to the cleft of his buttocks, then lower, following the curve of one cheek through silk that turned Duncan's skin into a sensitive map of nerve endings. His breath caught, audibly, and he closed his eyes before he realized he had done it.

"You are so certain," the deep voice chided, and he opened his eyes to find Rashanal's only inches away. "Or is it that you're afraid to find out you might be wrong?"

The touches continued in lazy circles, making thought nearly impossible.

"I'm no' afraid," Duncan said hoarsely, at last, wishing fervently that he could find strength to pull away from that maddening touch, knowing he had lost that strength with his decision to accept the bargain.

"You know what I'm asking," Rashanal said softly. He bent his head, tongue barely touched Duncan's pulse point, hand not ceasing its motion.

Duncan swallowed. "Aye," he whispered. "I think so." Rashanal's eyes sought his again, as if waiting for something more. "You wish me to... choose it," Duncan said, with difficulty. "To surrender to you... more than my body."

As if to reward him, the other man's touch firmed, hand curling around the curve of muscle, fingertips pressing through his robe into his most tender place, making his whole body course with liquid heat. It was all he could do not to clutch at his captor's shoulders for support; he bit his lip to hold back his gasp of need.

"Oh, yes," Rashanal said, bow-shaped lips curving. "More than your magnificent body, sweet as it is." His breathing was rougher now, his eyes hot and dark with his passion. "I could take what I want, Highlander, and make sure you never missed it. Make you want it. Never doubt it. But I want you to give it. Are you strong enough?"

The tone was laced with challenge and wound through with longing so powerful it made the hair at Duncan's nape stand up. The heat of the other man's body was only inches away now, and he remembered the way Rashanal had felt rubbing against him full length. His cock throbbed with the memory, but the small portion of his mind that was still resisting considered. Why was this so important to the other man? Was it merely Duncan's surrender that he craved? An assertion of his own power? Rashanal seemed to be saying that such a choice required strength. What strength was there in giving in?

And then Duncan knew.

It was trust Rashanal asked for, more trust even than he had already given, and Duncan knew with every fiber of his being that he would be utterly a fool to give it. He felt a fool already, remembering his juvenile contemplations of what accepting the bargain would mean. He reminded himself fiercely that this man had bought and paid for him as if he were so much horseflesh; that Rashanal had manipulated and tormented him; that even now, his own words were being used against him. But something in him responded to the challenge instinctively, on a level he could not control. And standing there locked in confrontation with that ageless, all-knowing gaze, his body aching, Duncan realized that he had been wrong in thinking that Rashanal had mistaken him; Rashanal had read him like a book, knowing everything, seeing his surrender before he ever gave it.

But Duncan also realized that this was just another level to the bargain, an unspoken, perhaps unrealized, portion. He had decided upon this course in hopes that Rashanal would realize what Duncan already sensed -- that there was some fundamental connection between them, something more than a hunger for each others' bodies. Perhaps this additional sacrifice was not too much to make.

In response, a spark seemed to flash between them, catching in hazel eyes like a brush fire, a dangerous flame that Duncan felt like licking heat in his own belly. It was then that he realized breathlessly: the promise in those eyes excited him, yes -- but the danger, the risk, excited him even more. They would see which of them surrendered the most.

Chapter Text

The curtain parted as Huriye and Nadima arrived with the hot water, oils, and towels, and Methos reluctantly let the Highlander go. He watched Duncan make an instinctive move to help with their burden, smiling privately at the man's strange ideas of chivalry. These young ones had the oddest notions about women. "No," he said quietly, putting a hand into the soft waves at the other man's neck and stilling him with a touch. "Stay." The heat and strength under his hand felt heavenly. Unconsciously he spread his fingers, feeling the dark strands curl around them pleasingly. Duncan's hair felt satiny, cool -- he had not oiled it, and Methos found himself scenting the air, trying to detect the man's own essence. There. Beneath the light fragrance of jasmine, an elusive scent like... what? Something spicy-sweet and darkly rich. He felt as if some essential balance had been restored between them, felt himself in control of the situation once more, another crisis averted.

The two women emerged from the inner chamber, and Methos dismissed them with a nod. Squeezing the Highlander's shoulders, he followed Nadima to the door and held the tent flap for them, turning to address the elder of the two guards outside. "No one else is to be admitted tonight. You are not to disturb me for anything short of a war, you understand?" The man nodded that he did.

Letting the heavy flap fall once more, Methos turned to find the dark eyes watching him, wide with the Highlander's struggle against mingled apprehension and desire. The man stood stoically at rest, as if his carefully folded hands could conceal the way his body yearned for this joining. There was something both arousing and oddly charming about that persistent dignity -- something that perversely made him want to tear away the layers of propriety and shyness and reduce the man to utter carnal abandon. A delicate shudder ran through Methos at the impulse.

He moved toward the partition without a word, beckoning the Highlander to follow, not daring to get too close just then. He could not remember the last time had he felt himself so close to the edge of control. Fine tremors of need ran through him, and he was aware of the other man behind him, obeying his signal, wanting him.

On the other side of the curtain, the vessels of water awaited, steaming. Duncan looked to Methos for direction. "Shall I...?" he asked.

So eager, Methos thought, the realization fanning his body's heat. He wants this as badly as I. He nodded, not trusting his voice.

Duncan set about preparing the bath as he had seen the women do two nights before. Methos watched him through hooded eyes, for the first time fully appreciating the man's natural grace. The Highlander was tall, dexterous, his hands sure and strong, his thighs and calves and feet perfectly sculpted muscle and sinew. In time, with practice and proper teachers, the man would be a formidable warrior indeed. He was a natural with the sword, and his strength was already impressive. Whoever had taught him thus far had known what he was doing.

Methos found himself remembering, inexplicably, the ring of the man's declaration, I am Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. One of the best he'd seen, really. Perhaps, if the man lived long enough to gain some experience and lose his suicidal notions of honor and chivalry and pride, he might even turn out to be important to the Game. It was a thought Methos found both pleasing and oddly disturbing. He didn't want to think of the future, and he didn't want to think of the Game at all. He didn't want to think of anything but right here and now.

The Highlander finished with the bath, replacing the stopper in the vial of amber oil. Fragrant steam had filled the small chamber, and candlelight danced on the surface of the water. On one knee beside the bath, Duncan looked up and found Methos watching him; Methos could only guess what expression was on his face. But something made the Highlander pause there, still kneeling, an intensity touching his gaze that made Methos hold his breath.

Duncan's hands went slowly to the front of his robe, to the silk tie that held it closed. And his eyes looked a question, with a hint of a dare the younger man could not conceal.

Breathless, Methos nodded.

He saw the muscular throat move, as the Highlander swallowed against his nervousness, but he lifted his chin, and rose. His fingers loosened the fastening, then moved to slowly part the front of the garment, letting the fabric slide smoothly over his broad shoulders, down his arms, to pool at his feet.

Naked and glorious in the candlelight -- all bronze skin and glistening, rock-hard arousal, adorned with silver and lapis and soft dark hair -- he was a vision. He was as beautiful as the desert at night and clearly had no idea of his own splendor; his face held only raw courage and self-conscious, blushing heat. Methos drank him in and felt the thrumming of his own heartbeat like a rushing river, an uncontrollable flood of aching response.

"Come here," he said huskily, and again the other man obeyed with a visible effort, his face a study in determination, as if having chosen to agree to this contract, he was resolved to give himself fully to the experience. That courage touched Methos profoundly, in places he hadn't expected. Duncan drew near, and Methos sought his eyes, surprising himself with his desire to reassure. "Undress me, Highlander. As you remove my garments, fold them and set them aside neatly." Instructing him like that was calming, a ritual that stirred memory and gave focus to the need Methos felt.

Callused hands brushed his collarbone as his tunic was removed; Methos shivered involuntarily at the contact. Next came the sash at his waist, folded and placed on top of the linen tunic. Methos sat on the edge of a wooden chest and Duncan, understanding his silent gesture, moved to kneel before him. Boots and lacings were removed while Methos stroked the waves of his own hair idly, fascinated by the brooding, focused intensity in the Highlander's face. He seemed to be in an almost meditative state. Methos suddenly felt the need to draw his attention outward, anchor him in the reality of the situation. "Am I pleasing to you?" Methos murmured, despising the trace of uncertainty he could hear in his own voice. He traced his fingertips along the line of Duncan's jaw, lifting his chin. He searched the other's hot gaze. "Be truthful."

"Aye," the kneeling man whispered, not hesitating. "I find ye fair to look at, Rashanal." The boldness in his eyes was equal parts enflaming and unsettling, reminding Methos that despite the younger man's inexperience in some areas, this was not a man normally given to uncertainty.

Methos voice was rough. "Continue, then."

Reaching for the waist of Methos' trousers, Duncan hesitated. Methos rose to make the task easier. His hands tightened in the dark hair, a surprised breath hissing out of him as Duncan carefully eased the loose fabric over his prominent erection and down his thighs. God, he was close. He fought the temptation to push the other's head down between his thighs, to fuck that sweet, incomparable mouth again. He wanted to. Oh, he wanted to. But even more, he wanted this to be more than what they had had so far, sweet as those encounters had been.

Again he found strength somewhere to step back, urging the Highlander to his feet once more. The other's face was hot, dark eyes not quite able to meet his. Duncan turned to set aside the last garment, and Methos moved to the bath.

* * *

Duncan turned back in time to see Rashanal lowering himself gracefully into the hot water with a sigh of pure bliss. He had not known a man's body could contain such beauty, nor excite him so. Saying that he found him fair had been an understatement, but saying more would have betrayed a vulnerability with which he felt ill-equipped to cope, given his already shaky state. He knelt beside the bath, hungrily tracing the long, elegant lines of muscle and bone with his eyes. For the first time he was able to feast on the sight and have his fill. Strong thighs, narrow hips, broad shoulders -- and the most beautifully graceful hands he had ever seen on a man or woman. They floated to the surface as Rashanal leaned back, eyes closed, against the edge of the tub. Duncan longed to feel those hands on him again, perhaps more than he wanted anything else.

At last, he could not help himself. His eyes slid down the perfect curves of abdomen and leanly-muscled hips to the demanding, formidable column of the man's hardened sex. Looking at it made heat course thickly through his thighs and belly. He wanted to take the shaft in his mouth and put his hand between his own thighs at the same time. He remembered suddenly what it had felt like, feeling Rashanal's finger enter him that first night. Intense, forbidden ecstasy. He wanted it again. Wanted more.

He realized he was almost panting from the chaotic tumble of images and remembered sensations and looked up to find the other man watching him hotly. Rashanal had spread his own hands against his thighs, fingertips gripping lightly as if he were struggling to keep them there.

"Tell me what you were thinking just now," he said, a little breathlessly.

Duncan colored even more, feeling painfully exposed. He shook his head wordlessly, unable to speak his carnal thoughts aloud.

Rashanal leaned forward, eyes glinting dangerously. "I will not be denied, Highlander."

Duncan felt again the flush of mingled fear, anger, and humiliation, the dangerous, seductive vulnerability. He looked down, unable to hold the other man's eyes. He began haltingly to find words. "I was remembering."

"My cock in your sweet mouth, perhaps?" Rashanal asked, in that low, sensual voice that somehow crept inside Duncan and curled warmly around his belly. "My hands on you?" He reached a hand up to stroke lightly along the skin where the collar lay.

"Yes," Duncan admitted hoarsely, the fingers burning on his skin.

"I want yours on me, Highlander." The voice made him want nothing else but Rashanal's pleasure, nothing more than to surrender and to go where Rashanal led. "Come, wash me."

In an almost rapt state of acquiescence, Duncan obeyed.

* * *

The man's fragrant, lathered hands were as sweet as Methos remembered, even clumsy at the unfamiliar task as they were. First his hair was washed thoroughly, then his body, cooled just enough from the relaxing attentions that he could bear the stimulation. At last the Highlander rose to bring the rinse water, and he watched the man move through heavy-lidded eyes.

Methos stretched and rose at last to let Duncan pour the fresh water over him, using his own fingers to comb through his long hair until the water ran clean of soap. The water had cooled while he bathed, and it was a welcome damper on his ardor.

Duncan brought a bath sheet and wrapped him in it, then used another to dry his hair and shoulders. The Highlander had not spoken, nor raised his eyes since the bath had begun, but his level of excitement had not waned in the slightest. His cock glistened with the evidence of his arousal, and his lips were flushed. Methos could sense his struggle, his inner battle with the pleasure he was taking from these simple acts of service. Easier by far to accept the simple physicality of their encounter earlier that afternoon; the man was plainly a sensualist. But this... this was something different, much more at odds with the man's image of himself. Methos continued to give him time to come to terms with it, instructing him in gentle, neutral tones to bring the vial of oil, to rub a little on his palms and comb it through Methos' hair.

He closed his eyes at the feeling of fingertips massaging lightly against his scalp, tilting his head back a little. "Yes, very nice. Your touch pleases me, Duncan."

The Highlander started slightly, his hands going still for a moment at the use of his given name. Methos turned to look at him solemnly, feeling the gathering anticipation anew, starting in belly and nipples and between his thighs. Duncan withdrew his hands and Methos met them with his own, entwining their fingers, startling him yet again.

Perhaps it was the unfamiliar gentleness, or the intimacy of their fingers laced like that, that snapped some thread. Duncan's nostrils flared, and the fear spiked in his eyes. "What are you waiting for?" His words were harsh, but underneath them, the tone was strained and hungry, pleading.

Heart and senses full of this rare creature, Methos let go of their fierce grip and traced his palms up the bare arms, caressing the strong line of his jaw. His gaze fell then to the other man's mouth, and his fingers sank into the dark hair. "No more waiting," Methos assured him roughly and sought those flushed, parted lips with his own.

He felt Duncan's arms slide around him and pull him in close as that lush mouth opened and welcomed him in, and the sensation was like coming home. The clean taste of him filled Methos' mouth, the warm, sensuous tongue finding his and caressing him deeply, eagerly. The arms around him tightened, slipping up his back, and the bath sheet fell away. He was momentarily stunned by the aggression of Duncan's response, feeling himself again off-balance, no longer the one directing. Hunger mounting in breathless leaps, Methos found himself tilting the other's head back, holding him still so that he could taste more of him, the tender tissues of his cheeks, his lips, and that sweet tongue again--

A shudder ran powerfully through Duncan's body then. He shifted, finding one of Methos' hands with his own. Grasping it strongly, he drew it down between them and cupped Methos' palm over his naked sex, pressing it there. He made a muffled sound like something had hurt him, and rubbed against the grip, as if helpless to prevent the motion.

The sound, and the feel of throbbing warmth against his hand, was Methos' undoing. In one breath he went from banked flame to a raging blaze, a brush fire sweeping him with need he had held at bay too long. The small surge of fluid against his wrist made him moan his own pleasure, nearly coming then and there. He fought for control -- but couldn't stop himself from pressing harder against the rigid heat, couldn't stop himself invading and devouring the softer heat of his mouth.

It was Duncan who managed to break away, pulling back slightly and breathing in ragged gasps. Violent with the denial, Methos would have sunk to brute force had he been able. But before he could gather himself to try, he saw that the other's eyes were dilated and feverish with desire -- and that the Highlander had moved two steps toward the bed.

It was the only thing that saved him. Somehow, seeing the intensity of the other man's answering desire, his willing surrender, Methos found it was possible to be gentle with him; it was not mindless hunger he felt but something even deeper, something that centered him sharply in his need.

With an effort of pure will, Methos forced himself under marginal control. He spared the few seconds it took to find the small vial of oil, following.

Dark eyes met his. Not fearlessly. But met.

In wonder, Methos leaned in to brush that lush mouth with his own. Duncan's eyes closed at his touch. Methos gently stroked his thumb over the fluid-slicked tip of Duncan's cock, feeling the tremor that followed as if it were his own, the surge of Duncan's hips as he tried for more. Dark eyes opened again and held his own as he drew his hand up to lap delicately at the fluid that glazed his fingertips. Duncan made a sound, a soft, almost inaudible keen of wanting. Methos offered his slick fingers for the other man to taste, seeing the way his hand trembled, not caring. As if in a trance, the other slowly touched his tongue to the pads of Methos' fingertips, one by one.

"I'm going to take you, Highlander," Methos said fiercely, almost shaking with it. "Are you ready?"

"Yes, ra-jamihn," Duncan whispered. His gaze never faltered.

Not taken. Given, into his hands.

"Lie down," Methos urged, turning him with a touch. Yielding instinctively now, the Highlander let himself be stretched out face down, one knee bent up against the cool linen. Fists clenched loosely beside the pillow, he turned his head to one side and Methos saw his eyes close, dark lashes curved against his cheek. There was no more fear in him. Only acceptance -- and desire.

Methos knelt over him, his gentleness coming at great cost now and very near its limit. He wanted to make this good, for them both, but had no will left for soothing touches and tender, exploratory preliminaries. He unstopped the vial and drizzled amber-scented oil in the shadowed cleft between round, firm cheeks. Duncan's breath had started to come unevenly, lashes fluttering at the sensation of the warm oil. Then Methos began to slick the tender place with his fingers, and Duncan moaned softly, incoherently. He brought one fist to his mouth, as if to instinctively silence his involuntary sounds, his legs shifting wider, his hips raising to the touch.

Covering the fist with his hand, Methos drew it away and leaned forward, nuzzling the curve of his neck. "Let me hear you," he whispered. "I want to hear you." And with his other hand he stroked the soft opening to the man's body more firmly, aching at the heat of him.

Duncan writhed, moaning that same incoherent plea; the friction of the linen on his cock made him pant harshly and then go still, trembling.

Methos was too rough working the oil in. He couldn't help it; Duncan's responsiveness was driving him too far, too fast, eroding any restraint he might have had. Almost mad now with needing to be inside him, he realized belatedly he was licking the sweat droplets from Duncan's neck, his tongue stroking the same place over and over as his fingers thrust inside the annihilating softness and heat of the other man's body. Duncan was moaning softly, rhythmically, clenching onto his fingers so hard they hurt, thrusting gently against the bed while Methos rocked helplessly against one muscled thigh. He couldn't stop. He couldn't stop. He was going to--

Pinning one grasping hand to the bed, Methos pulled his fingers out of that hot place and seized the other wrist, holding it down beside the writhing form beneath him, all thought gone, possession his only goal. Eyes clenched shut, mouth open, the Highlander bucked against him as Methos frantically sought purchase against sweat-slicked skin. He flowed over that hot flesh like wax, pressing himself into curves and hollows instinctively, feeling Duncan's body open to him until he was there, oh God he was there, pressing against the yielding place, feeling the hot slickness give, feeling it sheathe him, so tight, oh God so tight he was dying he was going to die from it he was going to--

As if from a great distance, Methos felt the body under him rear up as a deep voice cried out in pain and protest, and Methos knew it was because he himself was lost, he was out of control, beyond restraint. The heat was too much, the sweetness of having him too much. The other sobbed in fury and pain and still Methos held him down, still pinned his wrists, still invaded him, but he was still now, still, not moving - waiting, held still by some deep-seated instinct. Oh please...Oh please...

Beneath him, squeezing him, so still, so tight, hard as steel against him, trembling...

The pain of muscles clenched on his cock was enough to bring him back part of the way; the harsh, shallow panting of the man beneath him brought him still further. Pain, he realized, and fear now, too. He could smell it on the other man's skin. He knew that smell. It excited him.

But this time, it was also wrong, also painful to him, and that was enough to bring him the rest of the way. Enough to make it possible to stop, to go on waiting, to lean forward and press soothing kisses on one bunched, tense shoulder, to stroke his lips against the soft, fragrant hair.

"Breathe, Duncan," he gasped, finding the words even in the haze of his own ecstasy. "Breathe for me."

The ragged panting hesitated then shuddered into a long, indrawn breath.

"That's it. That's it. It's all right. Again."

The pressure relaxed slightly, and then a little more. And then he moved, very gently, pressing against the resistant place that felt like such unbearable heaven.

Duncan's breath caught again. But this time, not in pain.

Methos rocked again, very gently, against the place. "Yes," he breathed. "Don't fight me, Duncan; feel it." He was shuddering now with his own need to come; it throbbed through him with every thready beat of the other man's pulse. "Breathe with me."

And this time, when Duncan did as he said, the pressure eased, and Methos felt himself slide slickly, unbearably, all the way inside him.

"Allah be merciful." He clenched his eyes shut, wanting it never to end, wanting to make it last forever. Wishing it could. Then Duncan moved, rocking back against him, thrusting gently with those powerful thighs. And the sound he made...

Methos thrust deep inside him, as deep as he could go, sobbing at the intolerable, devastating pleasure. It flayed him. It would kill him. He did it again. His arm had gone around Duncan's chest, holding them tightly together so he could thrust all along the beautiful back, so he could bend his own knees up between Duncan's for leverage. He thrust again and felt Duncan push back, and heard himself make a broken, pleading cry for mercy.

Methos reared up, lost now, his great strength magnified by the overwhelming need to have more of him. Rocking back, he pulled Duncan with him, still thrusting powerfully as he pulled Duncan into his lap, feeling the heaviness of the other man's head drop back against his shoulder, hearing Duncan's answering cries for help against the same terrifying pleasure rising brutally inside him. They moved together in rough, powerful rhythm, muscles slick with sweat and oil and thrusting harder, harder, until every breath was a desperate effort, every exhalation a panting sob, the driving urgency as merciless and cruel and ecstatic as a Quickening. When Methos found Duncan's cock with his hand, groping blindly in his own rapture and desperation, Duncan convulsed against him, without and within, and climaxed in deep, powerful shudders with a cry like a dying man.

But Methos barely heard it for the blood rushing in his ears, the slamming of his own heart, and when his own orgasm struck, his over-stimulated nerves overloaded, burned to ash, it was only the release he knew, the blessed, uncontrolled, shattering waves of release.

* * *

Duncan cried out as he felt Rashanal's cock harden and fill him with warmth. He could not think, his mind hidden by his senses, every bit of skin sensitized to Rashanal's touch, his mouth and nose filled with the taste and scent of the man, his own body still shuddering with pleasure. For endless moments he continued to thrust helplessly into the hand enfolding him, against the flesh impaling him, each caress becoming increasingly, exquisitely sensitive on his over-stimulated flesh. When he was finally spent, if not for the arms wrapped around him, he would have collapsed.

He made a soft, involuntary sigh of regret as he felt their flesh part, then one of pleasure as Rashanal moved back in tightly behind him, pressing his lips to Duncan's temple before moving to nuzzle softly at his throat. He felt boneless and drifting, but secure, as Rashanal's arms folded around him and laid him down on the bed. Even the silk of the cushions felt like fine sand against his skin. All memories of pain were drowned in the total bliss that still made its way through his trembling frame.

Kisses rained down on him, brief caresses that made Duncan gasp and sigh without conscious thought, each touch of Rashanal's mouth making him quiver. A low chuckle of pleasure greeted the sounds, a noise that illuminated the feeling of connection that being penetrated had created. Duncan wasn't sure quite where he stopped and Rashanal began, but it didn't really seem to matter. He nestled his head into the arm that curled around him, slipping his hand into the palm that rested near his face.

Duncan closed his eyes with a sigh, enjoying the way he ached inside. He tried to sort out the experience, but it all blurred together in a sensual, blissful warmth. It was so much more than he could have imagined. There had been fear, and pain, he recalled muzzily, but in retrospect they merely added a sharper edge to the pleasure.

He stretched his legs, arching slightly into the hand that was caressing over his abdomen and thighs, stroking taut muscles, and soothing aching flesh, twitching slightly at the more intimate caresses. He turned his head into the sleepy touches of Rashanal's mouth and felt entirely at peace, all the disturbance and uncertainty leading into the encounter washed away, at least temporarily, in the fulfillment of desire. He felt pleasantly light, momentarily purged of the aching hunger that had been haunting him.

He turned his head further and opened his eyes, glancing up into the eyes of the man curled over him, his breath catching at the unguarded tenderness he saw. Neither man spoke. Seeing those eyes without the haze of passion, Duncan watched in fascination as unnameable emotions chased through them and over the mobile face. Before he could get to regret, become once more guarded, Duncan curved one hand up over Rashanal's head and pulled him down for a slow, deep kiss, trying to convey his own contentment and pleasure. He nibbled softly at those fine, shapely lips, sliding his tongue in to taste without hunger and need. At the base of his spine he felt the flickering of the embers and knew that the hunger was not yet sated, but he set it aside easily, wanting only to retain the connection he had sensed.

He pulled back to trace a fingertip over the mouth, watching it in dazed fascination as it opened and sharp teeth caught to nibble lightly. He knew he should get up, find a cloth to clean them both, but his body refused to move, his eyes threatened to close. He must have twitched, because he felt Rashanal move against him, holding him on the bed.

"Later. Rest first." At the moment, it seemed like excellent advice.

Chapter Text

Methos' stomach woke him, reminding him that he had foregone his supper to satisfy a deeper hunger. He found himself pressed against Duncan's back, his skin damp and warm wherever they touched. He savored the feeling for a moment before he gently pulled himself away and sat up, watching as Duncan stirred and then resettled against the bed.

The Highlander rested easily, his breathing deep and solid, his face relaxed. All the tension from the last few days was gone, painting the slave's features with a softer look, a youthful one. Methos leaned over and brushed Duncan's hair away from his face, then leaned over and lightly kissed the full, sweet mouth, drinking in the wisp of air that escaped the Highlander's lips. Sitting back again, he watched the man sleep, thinking over the most astonishing evening. He lightly ran his fingertips over Duncan's shoulder, considering what he wanted to do next with the man. So many possibilities. He felt himself stir at the thought and bent to wake the Highlander.

Before his mouth reached the warm shoulder, his stomach rumbled again, and Methos grimaced ruefully. He would have to eat before anything else. Sliding carefully from the bed, he left his slave sleeping; he grinned slightly at the thought that the man would need his strength. Moving to the basin, he took up a cloth and cleaned himself, the chill water shocking on his heated flesh. When he finished, he turned and watched the man in his bed, noticing a fretful look on Duncan's face. He thought of the unexpectedly sweet kiss he had been given before the Highlander drifted into sleep, given as if to soothe the uncertainty that had gripped Methos in the wake of their intense joining. As turbulent as his feelings had been before, he had never expected the experience to be so...shattering. He had known that he was close to the edge, but remembering his brief desire to take the man in spite of his obvious fear, to override any reluctance, disturbed him greatly. Something about this man rocked him on so many levels, brought up desires to control and dominate that he'd thought behind him.

The further complaints of his stomach interrupted his musings, and he left the sleeping man to get the tray he'd seen waiting in the outer room. He dowsed the braziers before returning to the inner chamber, setting both the silver tray and a pitcher of water on the low table near his bed. Nibbling on a sweet cake, he settled cross-legged behind it, his eyes once more on his companion. He remembered the unguarded look on Duncan's face as he talked of his homeland; he wanted to see more of that man. Perhaps with the bargain in place, they could relax and learn more of each other. He smiled to himself as his mind wandered on all the things he wanted to learn - and teach.

Reaching for another cake, he realized that his companion no longer slept but was watching him with drowsy eyes. He brought the cake to his mouth, his eyes still watching Duncan, and ate it, licking his fingers clean, slowly sucking each one, removing every trace of honey. Duncan watched as if mesmerized. Finishing, Methos picked up a cloth and wiped his hands.

"Come. Eat something with me." He beckoned Duncan to the table.

The Highlander started then sat up and slid to the edge of the bed, his semi-aroused state apparent. He looked around, as if seeking something to cover his nakedness, but abruptly stilled the motion. Instead, with a shake of his head, Duncan rose and walked around the table, sinking gracefully to his knees next to Methos, clothed in nothing but his collar and his cascading hair.

When he was seated, Methos slowly leaned over, alert for any signs of reluctance, but though the slave sat very still, there were none. When he pressed his mouth to the slave's, Duncan's lips parted easily to welcome him in. Methos tasted him briefly, but pulled back before the fire could quite catch, knowing that once started, it would be quite some time until he let either of them rest or eat.

Sitting back, he resumed his supper, running his eyes over the slave's body, feeling the tightness in his own building once more. He held out a small piece of cheese. "Here, eat something. You'll need the energy." He chuckled when the wicked tone in his voice caused a faint blush to darken the slave's cheeks. Duncan took the morsel from him and ate. Methos reached his hand out and brushed the hair back from his face. "You are so beautiful. The way you move, the way you respond..." Duncan looked at him almost shyly and reached for a sweetened cake.

"How do you feel?" Methos' mouth quirked when the Highlander's response was a deeper blush. He saw Duncan's mouth firm slightly, as if he had made some decision, and caught his breath when the slave raised his eyes to lock with Methos' own. Duncan leaned in to take a bit of cheese in his mouth that Methos held, forgotten, his lips and teeth lightly catching Methos' fingertips. Chewing slowly, Duncan's gaze remained intimate, and he gained a small smile of his own as Methos' breathing roughened slightly. Methos felt both relief and disappointment when Duncan finally looked away, then a surge of heat as Duncan bent his head to lick the crumbs off Methos' fingers, his tongue tracing patterns on the tips.

Duncan laid back and looked up at Methos again. "I feel...hungry." The gaze and the tone were very suggestive, although there was a hint that the man was surprised at his own boldness.

Methos could hardly believe that he felt a slight heat rising in his own cheeks and covered his confusion by reaching for another cake. "I believe we can do something about that." He held out the cake and sighed when Duncan's hand came out to guide it to that luscious mouth. Keeping his palm cupped around Methos' hand, Duncan nibbled at the cake, his lips brushing against Methos' skin, his teeth grazing lightly. When he finished, he again licked the hand clean, sucking the fingers into his mouth. Methos could not prevent the small sound of need that escaped his lips.

"If you keep that up, supper is going to be cut short."

In response, Duncan held out the untouched cake that he had taken, smiling when it crumbled, trailing crumbs down Methos' body and honey over Duncan's hand. Returning the favor, Methos curled his tongue around the sticky fingers, consuming the cake, sweetened further by the taste of the man's skin. Slowly and sensuously they fed each other, honey covered-cakes turning to honey and crumb-covered mouths and chests and thighs. As one hunger was satisfied, another grew, but this time it was gentler, not as frantic as that which had driven them earlier. There was time to enjoy the gentle touches and kisses that had been lacking before, the intimate contact of hazel and sable eyes.

Entranced by a drop of honey caught in the corner of Duncan's mouth, Methos leaned in and captured it with his own, his hands coming up to stroke the strong throat and shoulders, his mouth catching and sucking on the full lips and tongue. His need for food satisfied, and made restless by the rising of other hungers, he continued his assault, cleaning the crumbs and honey from Duncan's face, pushing him back onto the scattered cushions and holding him there with his hands on Duncan's shoulders. Pulling back, he could see the sticky traces of their meal, as well as the evidence of their earlier pleasure. Bending down, he began trailing his tongue over the warm skin, gathering up crumbs of cheese and cake as he went.

* * *

"You should let me wash--" Duncan stopped, unsure what to say. He heard the breathlessness in his voice and admitted to himself that he was trying to put some space between himself and this devil that was seducing him yet again with lips and tongue. The meal had been sweet and playful, but he could see from the look in Rashanal's eyes that he was contemplating more serious games.

Rashanal's laughter was deep and lascivious, sending shivers throughout Duncan's body. "I'll clean you, Highlander. Just lie back and relax." Duncan felt caught between the need to move and the desire to obey, though relaxation soon became impossible. He couldn't decide whether to close his eyes or watch as Rashanal moved over his body, his tongue delicately trailing over Duncan's skin, cleaning traces of their repast and their earlier pleasure from his body.

The light touches intensified as Rashanal continued, flicks of his darting tongue alternating with languid, gentle sucking along Duncan's belly and flanks, his hair brushing softly and tantalizingly over Duncan's body. Then the warm caresses moved upward, circling his nipples without touching, until Duncan arched up into the vexing mouth. Evading the motion, Rashanal's tongue dipped instead into the hollow of Duncan's throat and then traced his collarbone, sliding under the collar that lay heavily on Duncan's neck. Slowly, Rashanal raised Duncan's arm above his head, biting down and licking the sensitive place beneath. Duncan could think of nothing but the motion of Rashanal's lips on his body, reduced to pure sensation. So hot, his mouth was, so tender his tongue. Every nerve seemed to leap in response, Duncan's skin awash with flutters of answering heat. At some point he gave up trying to watch and simply lay back, eyes half-closed, moaning and sighing softly in helpless response.

Then it was his throat again, a long, teasing stroke of heat from his collarbone to a place behind his ear, with a deliberate stroking along and under the collar, making him aware of its weight. Again. A wave of shivers broke out all along Duncan's left side, making him gasp and writhe. And this time, the tongue stroked over his ear, caressing the inner curves and hollows with wet warmth. Duncan shuddered, almost crying out, anticipating the touch of teeth. His nipples, his cock, were hard, aching. Maddeningly, Rashanal lay across his belly and chest but left the pressure between his thighs untouched.

"You taste... wonderful," Rashanal murmured, licking the hollow behind his ear. "Delicious, in fact." He brought Duncan's hand to his mouth and licked between the fingers, then drew his index finger into a hot, sucking caress, hot eyes watching Duncan's every response. Duncan felt his cock throb in sympathetic pleasure, longing for such kind succor.

Rashanal released his hand and shifted down between his thighs, making him catch his breath in anticipation. Duncan slid his fingers into the lush, dark hair, careful not to demand but trembling with the effort. His blood sang with the craving for that hot mouth on his sex.

Instead, his legs were spread wide, and the warm tongue laved him slowly at the inner join of thigh and hip, drawing a gasp from him at the unexpected caress in such a sensitive place. At the end of the stroke Rashanal bit softly at Duncan's hipbone, making him shudder, then nibbled along the line his tongue had traced. Coils of arousal tightened in Duncan's belly. Astonished at the growing insistence of his own lust from such delicate touches, he opened his eyes to find Rashanal watching him, cat's eyes shining with a not-quite smile. Duncan began to realize, with a kind of helpless heat, that he was out of his depth.

"Y'are a devil," he said huskily, tracing the undercurve of those glistening, flushed lips with his thumb. In answer Rashanal bit the pad of his thumb lightly, still holding his gaze. The tiny gleam of white teeth, the prick of sensation, sent a delicate jolt straight through him. With a soft growl, Duncan found himself suddenly daring, and he tightened his grip on the other man's jaw, shifting down and drawing Rashanal upward in one smooth motion. Far from fighting him, Rashanal moved with him, mouth meeting his willingly, eagerly, accepting Duncan's hungry kiss and improving upon it. The wicked tongue worked magic again, tasting Duncan with insistent intimacy, setting him alight with unexpected response. With a soft moan he was suddenly holding his tormentor close, on top of him, one hand laced in soft hair and the other splayed open against the cushions, desperately reaching for anchor. Rashanal's thigh pressed between his, hot and hard and still denying him what he needed, still not pressing there, where he needed it.

With a groan, Duncan pulled Rashanal more firmly to him, his hand sliding down to grip the other man's haunches, settling him between his thighs. "Please--"

The memory of what had happened the night before interrupted his plea, stilling his demand. Then, Duncan had lost his temper, felt himself pushed beyond endurance by the other man's amusement. He couldn't bear the thought of Rashanal leaving again, but God, he ached. He rubbed himself against Rashanal more forcefully, hoping his eagerness would be forgiven as long as he did not demand.

He felt a surge of anticipation as Rashanal's eyes lit up, filled with amusement and passion rather than anger. He seemed to take no offense at Duncan's wordless plea or at the hands that caressed him, rubbing him, the body grinding into his. Instead, he leaned over, his lips brushing Duncan's own as he whispered, "Yes?"

Duncan could not stop the words. "Please, your mouth...I want you to taste me...there. I need--" He arched his hips into Rashanal's groin, wondering if he were going too far, asking for too much. His heart sank as Rashanal froze then pulled back to sit beside him, his master's arousal apparent but ignored. Duncan felt the loss of warmth and closeness as if it were a blow.

"I think not." Rashanal's voice was cool, distant, and Duncan cursed himself for pushing too far. "You must learn to wait on my pleasure, Highlander. My needs." His hand ghosted over the Highlander's hard flesh, close enough that Duncan could almost imagine the warmth of his touch. "Do not presume. If you please me, I may grant you all manner of freedoms in return, but you must remember that it is my pleasure you seek, always. You seek nothing for yourself without my permission, do you understand?"

With a weak groan, Duncan dropped his head back, his hands falling to clutch at the pillows, fighting to hold himself still and not reach for the man leaning over him. He was not going to end up alone again; he would wait and hope that eventually he would be given release. Rashanal seemed to take pleasure in Duncan's response; he would have to trust that he would not be forgotten. "I am sorry, ra-jamihn." His voice was hoarse and strained.

His reply seemed to placate Rashanal, but the other man still regarded him fiercely. "It is not apology I seek, but obedience. Do not force me to remind you again, Highlander. " He began to move again, his hands roaming over Duncan's body, his fingers swirling over Duncan's chest, brushing lightly over his nipples. A small frown of concentration wrote itself between Rashanal's brows, his light touch turning to harder massage.

Duncan trembled as the firmer touches only made him want more, his flesh throbbing everywhere Rashanal was not touching him, burning where he did. He watched helplessly as Rashanal straddled his thighs, their rigid flesh tantalizingly close. As Rashanal bent over him again, Duncan felt the heat of the other man's cock against his own, and he bit his lip until he tasted blood to keep himself from moving. His mind filled with the memory of Rashanal's flesh sliding over his own, the exquisite pressure of the other man's body against his.

He groaned as he felt Rashanal slide down, fingers stroking firmly over Duncan's abdomen, down to his thighs, to catch and press his legs apart. His hips were lifted with easy strength, a pillow placed under them before Rashanal slid down further to continue his torment. Again Duncan felt the flick of that masterful tongue, along his thighs, his buttocks...moments later Duncan's breath caught in shock as he felt Rashanal's mouth and tongue probing him gently, continuing the task of cleaning all physical traces of their pleasure from Duncan's body. He spread his legs wider, close to whimpering with need at the touch of Rashanal's nose against his sac, the brush of his beard against tender flesh. Duncan knew that he was soon going to go quite mad. Never in all his life had anyone touched him thus, tasted him so intimately.

He was completely undone by the hot tongue, the feel of those sharp teeth along his buttocks, incapable of anything but a broken, inarticulate sound of need. Then, just when he was sure that he could take no more, it ceased. He dazedly raised his head to meet Rashanal's eyes, and the hunger he saw stopped his breath. Looking down he saw Rashanal was holding his own rigid flesh in his hand, not moving, just watching Duncan in his pleasure. As if the meeting of their eyes had released Rashanal, he moved, and Duncan found himself being pulled and turned to lie face down across the low table, the remains of their supper pushed out of the way onto the floor. What was Rashanal going to do to him? Some voice warned him to resist, but it was drowned out by the clamor of his need. He felt Rashanal's hand against his lower back, holding him down, and he could hear the other man rummaging, reaching for something.

Then he was pulled firmly back against Rashanal's aroused body. He could feel the heat of Rashanal's erection against the small of his back, and he pressed backward, wanting to feel the other man against him, inside him, suddenly aching to feel again that mysterious, frightening ecstasy Rashanal had coaxed from deep within his body. Rashanal's arm slid around him, and he felt that hard flesh sliding exquisitely against him once, twice...and then the arm was removed, and he was pushed down once more, his own erection aching and hot as it brushed against the pillows.

"Your wrists." The words were hissed in his ear. The command did something to Duncan he couldn't control, or comprehend, touching something within him that cried out in helpless assent, urging him to yield. With a soft sound, like a sob, Duncan blindly obeyed, bringing his wrists behind him where they were quickly and securely bound.

When he was done, Rashanal grabbed Duncan's hips. Feeling himself held, Duncan tested the strength of the bonds and found them tight, Rashanal's grip sure. A throb of pure, fearful longing shot through Duncan from belly to thighs. He shifted forward, spreading his knees and bracing them as best he could, lifting his hips into Rashanal's hold, desperately seeking whatever his master would give.

The man only held him there, running his hands languorously over Duncan's hair, stroking the cascade of it down his back, his erection brushing against Duncan's hips. Duncan's skin, hypersensitive, shivered at the caresses. He felt that something was giving way inside him. It scared him and excited him both, unbearably. What was happening to him?

They stayed like that for measureless moments; Rashanal seemed to be waiting for something, but Duncan's mind was in turmoil, unable to form a coherent thought, and he was afraid to speak for fear of saying the wrong thing. Then, at last, a question came to him, and he knew instinctively what it was Rashanal had been waiting for.

"May I speak, ra-jamihn?" he asked hoarsely.

"Yes, Duncan," his master purred, obviously pleased with him. "You may."

Duncan closed his eyes, trying to repress the tremor from his voice. "Why are you doing this to me?" Duncan wasn't sure if he was referring simply to his bonds or something much more.

"Because," Rashanal murmured close to his ear, "I like feeling you like this, Highlander." He stroked his hand over the curves of Duncan's ass. "I like how you tremble like this under my touch. I can see how you fear being tied, and yet, your body responds to it, your cock gets so hard when I do tie you." Rashanal slid one hand under Duncan's body to grasp his aching sex, squeezing it before letting it go again, leaving Duncan almost mindless in his distress.

"And I do it for you, Duncan. Because you are proud, and your pride will kill you one day if you do not learn to let it go. Because I knew the first time I saw you that you needed this, needed to learn how to let go of your fear." His voice deepened, making Duncan shiver slightly. "And because you are so beautiful like this, I cannot resist you." He paused before whispering, "Because you are mine."

Each murmured phrase added to the exaltation and fear coiled in Duncan's belly. He felt both powerful and helpless, on the verge of comprehending something important, but held back by some invisible barrier. "I don't understand."

"I know you don't," the deep voice said kindly. "But you will, Duncan. You will. You are doing so well."

The Highlander tried to still his own trembling and found he could not. The degree of his own arousal frightened him. He knew himself close, very close to begging abjectly for Rashanal to touch him, with his mouth, his cock, anything. Even the thought of that tender, knowing tongue on his rigid flesh made him moan softly, his spread thighs shuddering with longing. But Rashanal was kneeling between his legs, holding them apart so he couldn't even move to ease the throbbing heat.

"You need me," Rashanal said softly, almost lovingly, as if Duncan were a creation of his own mind, incapable of existing outside this place where all thought became feeling, all resistance became yielding--all fear became unspeakable need.

"Yes," Duncan whispered, eyes closed, lost in his own dark heat.

"Do you wish to please me?"

"Yes," he gasped. "Yes, anything." He knew he should be ashamed of his eager capitulation, but what he felt was nothing like shame. It felt right, to let go this way. Perversely, Rashanal's few words of praise made him feel strong, alight with energy, invincible.

Gently, strong hands urged him forward until he was lying once more face down across the table, the textured surface rough against his nipples, his belly.

"Don't move."

For a moment Rashanal let him go, and Duncan held himself absolutely still, barely even breathing, fighting a sudden battle in his body and mind. Without the security of the other man's controlling grip, he felt again the urge to struggle, to flee this dangerous captivity; but his body cried out for relief, any way he could find it, and deep inside, he was loathe to disappoint his master. He held himself still and waited with a pure effort of will.

In another moment Rashanal was back, stroking his hair soothingly. "That was well done," he murmured, and again Duncan was jolted by the realization that even his thoughts were not his own, that he was as transparent as glass to this man. "You are so beautiful. I want you so much."

Before Duncan knew what was happening, something cool touched his eyelids, then tightened around his head. Rashanal was tying something over his eyes, securing it tightly so that even the low light of the lamps was banished.

Panicking, feeling set adrift in a dark and hungry place, the Highlander started to rise up from the table. Before he could do so there was a weight between his shoulder blades, pinning him down, one strong thigh pressing between his. Rashanal locked an ankle around his and held him still, not hurting him, merely making it impossible for him to move. Blind and immobilized, Duncan instinctively tried to throw the weight off his back.

"It's all right, Duncan. Don't fight me. It will be harder for you if you fight me." Rashanal's tones were soft but merciless.

Again, Duncan surged up involuntarily; again, he was held in place. "What are you--?"

"Just a little something to help you let go, that's all. You don't need to be afraid." Then Rashanal was between his legs again, forcing them apart, forcing him open; Duncan felt horribly exposed and gulped in air, struggling to calm himself. He wasn't ready. Please wait...not yet, he wanted to beg, but somehow he bit the words back, holding to the murmured reassurance. You don't need to be afraid. Desire warred with fear.

"Open for me," the deep voice urged implacably, rough now with barely controlled passion. Duncan heard a wet sound, very faint: Rashanal slicking himself with something. It made Duncan shudder in need and apprehension, his mind flashing to the initial agony of his first experience. He arched his back, aching for the waiting to be over, for the pain to come so that he could sink past it, into that deep, thick pleasure he knew Rashanal could give him.

And then he felt intense warmth and the satin-soft press of belly and chest and thighs all along his back, and Rashanal was pulling his hair back, nuzzling and biting at his ear. The first moist touch of silken steel against his opening sent a throb of pure, animal heat coiling through him, and he moaned aloud.

"Oh, yes," came the whisper against his ear, "You need this." And then there was heat and hard flesh pressing into him, too gently, far too slowly. Unable to prevent himself, Duncan bucked and growled, thrusting back, trying to take him as deeply as possible, his hesitation and fear lost in a surge of lust.

But each time he moved, Rashanal pulled back, tormenting him with the barest taste of his cock, teasing the ring of muscle until Duncan wanted to weep from the frustration. He had been wrong, so wrong--there was no pain, no pain at all, only the aching need to be filled with heat and pressure and blessed, hard friction. His thighs were trembling uncontrollably; he was intensely aware of the heat of Rashanal's face against his neck, the hand spread against his waist, another at his wrists, holding him. Again he tried to struggle, and again he was denied.

And it was then that he understood what Rashanal sought.

Shuddering with the effort it cost him, Duncan at last stopped fighting, stopped trying to impale himself on that rigid flesh. Breathing hard, almost panting, he made himself go still, surrendered to the implacable, insistent grip that pressed him down, ground him into the table. The pressure on his wrists eased minutely, and he heard his captor make a faint sound of triumph.

"Do you yield?" the voice came, a hoarse, rough-soft demand.

"Yes," Duncan gasped, struggling to make it true. To his astonishment, he felt tears start, his throat burning unbearably. Again he was aware he was lost in a dark, hot place, a place where all that mattered was the answer to that one question. "Yes," he said again, brokenly, and he felt something give inside him, that invisible barrier was breached. He didn't understand what was happening to him. There was fear, but it didn't matter. He was flying, suddenly; all strength had gone out of him, his body a molten, yielding thing that ached intolerably for what only Rashanal could give.

"Yes..." Rashanal breathed, a whisper against Duncan's cheek that sounded like a prayer.

"Yes, I yield, yes, please," Duncan begged, turning his face against Rashanal's, grateful for the cloth against his eyes that hid his desperate tears. "Please, no more. No more. I can't--"

"Duncan," the voice said reverently, and he felt lips nuzzle his cheek, his temple.

Then hard, slick heat pressed into him, entering in one long, devastating glide that made him cry out his relief, his gratitude, his utter surrender to that hot, intimate possession. Waves of bliss spread outward from the deep penetration, and he rocked uncontrollably against the other man's body, clasping him close with inner muscles that rippled deliciously against invading heat. Rashanal pulled back, then slid deep again, hitting that magic place inside him that made him groan with ecstasy. It was like an orgasm that lasted only a moment, a throb of feeling he could have again and again, as long as he could keep from coming, as long as Rashanal chose to give that perfect rapture. He was lost now, moaning incoherently with each thrust.

This feeling... this feeling was unlike anything he had ever known, and he thought wildly that this must be why they taught that it was wrong, to know another man this way. The pleasure was too much, too deep. It would probably kill him, for he would give anything to have this feeling again, as often as Rashanal could wish it, for the rest of his life if he could...

* * *

"Duncan," Methos breathed, feeling the slave involuntarily move against him, hips lifting in entreaty even as Duncan fought to stay still, and abruptly his hunger welled over him, and he was incapable of more than a breathless cry. He tried to press in gently, unwilling to cause pain again, but he had done his work well, honing Duncan's need to a lethal edge. He felt himself enveloped in tight, velvet heat, watching as his flesh sank in full-length, feeling the desperate tremors of the body pushing back against him to take him in, his ears burned by the broken, hungry sounds coming from the writhing man beneath him. He tightened his fingers on Duncan's hips and began thrusting slowly, controlling the pace when Duncan tried to force it harder and faster. He found himself mesmerized by the sight of himself sliding in and out of Duncan's ass, watching as his slave's body tightened with each withdrawal as if to keep him enveloped, making each movement away an exquisite torture, each movement in a blissful release.

He wanted to close his eyes and revel in the sensation, free himself to feel every twist and turn of movement, but his eyes -- his soul -- cried out for connection. He wanted to contain his lust for fear of leaving nothing of himself unseared, but he knew himself just as ensnared, just as hungry and needful as the man beneath him. He thrust harder, his rhythm lost to his own awareness, letting sensation override all else. He threw his head back and pressed down onto Duncan's back, nipping and sucking carelessly, his control lost in the perfection of the moment, his thrusts not enough, not nearly enough, not nearly close enough.

He froze momentarily, feeling the ripples starting in his balls, and a long, low groan escaped his mouth. He felt like he was on fire, waves of molten heat surging through him, muscles tightening as he buried himself in the other man, his nails gripping Duncan's skin tight enough to draw blood. He jerked and gasped, as his climax overtook him, the moment of fire and heat giving way to a raging thunderstorm, and then to a blissful release. His arms gave way beneath him, and he collapsed onto Duncan's back, luxuriating in the strength and play of the muscles under his hands and the feel of their skins sliding against one another.

His mouth tasted the salty skin as his hands instinctively found their way around the Highlander, ghosting their way down the firm abdomen to feather through the hair at Duncan's groin. The hardness he encountered made him his mouth water, and he smiled against the broad back. He had taken his pleasure; he would enjoy taking his slave this way, as well. And Duncan had done so well, overcome so much; he deserved a reward.

With his hands bound, Duncan could not turn himself, so Methos gently rolled him over, his eyes raking over the tightly held form. He was vaguely aware of the sobbing breaths, the heaving chest as Duncan tried to control himself, but his eyes were inevitably drawn to the red, throbbing erection jutting stiffly into the air. Moisture glistened on its tip; Methos licked his lips. Yes, he wanted this as well.

He swooped down and engulfed the Highlander's sex, slicking his tongue over the moistness, savoring the flavor. The choked sounds of pleasure that seemed forced from the man's mouth were music to his ears, the velvet hardness sliding past his lips an addiction. The incoherent murmurs resolved themselves into a repetitive refrain as the slave begged: "Please, yes, please, please... " Methos couldn't tell whether he pled in ecstasy or in pain as the man's hips rocked, desperately seeking release.

Methos consumed him, no longer teasing, thinking of nothing but the sounds and tastes and smells of this man who had so quickly become an obsession. He cupped the tightening sac in his hand, stroking a finger lightly, teasingly, over the slick opening he had so recently possessed. With a last, inarticulate cry, the Highlander came; Methos was so caught up in the sensations that the fluid spilling over his tongue was a sudden, but welcome, surprise.

He continued sucking as the man under his soothing, stroking hands relaxed. Rising up, Methos licked and tasted his way up the man's shaking body before taking his mouth in a consuming kiss, hands catching in the long hair to angle the head. He settled backwards, still tasting, pulling Duncan up and off the low table, resting them again on the cushions before sitting up to remove the bonds from Duncan's wrists. Pulling Duncan's hands around, he rubbed the creases that the fabric had left in the skin, stroking up to massage the tight muscles of the arms and shoulders.

"You did well, Duncan." He watched the lower half of the man's face, revealed under the blindfold that he'd left in place, finally seeing the tear tracks.

"Thank you, ra-jamihn." The voice trembled hoarsely, the body held still as another tear slipped under the edge of the cloth, down Duncan's cheek.

Methos felt a twisting within as the tear evoked mingled pleasure and pain. He slid his hands up to untie the blindfold. With one hand he stroked the wetness from Duncan's cheeks and the hair from his face as Duncan's eyes adjusted to the light, then rested his hand lightly against the strong throat, stroking along the silver collar. As he watched, Methos realized the man was still holding himself stiffly, that he kept his eyes lowered. He reached out his other hand and caught the man's chin, raising it until Duncan looked up, their eyes meeting. He saw mingled confusion and wariness in their depths, but as he watched the chin firmed, the tears ceased. He stroked his hand from where it lay against Duncan's throat, down his arm to catch his hand and bring it to his own mouth, kissing the palm and fingertips before twining fingers and pulling it against his chest. He lay back down, pulling the Highlander close, tangling one leg over the other mans' limbs, continuing to watch the expressions chase across his slave's face.

* * *

Released from the blindfold, Duncan realized that the sun was rising, the day already hinting at its growing warmth. He lay there under Rashanal's watchful gaze, his body slowly calming, though the aftershocks of their joining continued to move through him, leaving him both emotionally bruised and exultant. As he relaxed, he could hear the sounds of the winding down of camp activity, as the tribe prepared to sleep away the heat of the day, returning to its more normal pattern now that...now that what? He realized that he didn't know the outcome of Rashanal's expedition the night before. He had been too involved in his own preparations to think of asking when Rashanal returned, but he assumed since he had returned, things must have worked in his favor. He swallowed at the thought of the alternative, and his mouth was dry and sour.

"Shall I get us some water, ra-jamihn?" His voice sounded thick and raspy to his own ears.

Rashanal nodded his head, releasing his hold to let Duncan rise. Duncan picked up the pitcher from where it had rolled, flushing at the memory of it, and moved to fill it from the lidded jar. Returning, he set it on the low table and bent to retrieve a glass. He gasped as he felt a wet cloth stroked against his exposed thighs and buttocks, hearing a low laugh behind him. He held still until Rashanal finished, then rose and turned to him. Rashanal's hand stroked up his back as Duncan turned, then caught the back of his neck to pull him into a deep kiss. Duncan closed his eyes, savoring the intimacy. When Rashanal pulled back, Duncan opened his eyes to see that glittering gaze watching him again.

Rashanal stepped back and allowed Duncan to pour the water, accepting the glass and drinking deeply. Duncan watched the man swallow, his mind spinning at the feelings and sensations evoked by that mouth, those hands. When he received the glass back, he hesitated, until Rashanal smiled and told him to drink.

"Come. We should sleep. For some reason, I am quite tired." The grin that accompanied these words made Rashanal look young, and he seemed more relaxed than Duncan could recall seeing him. This pleased him, and he realized that he, too, felt more at ease than he could remember feeling since before he had been captured by slavers. The breaching of that invisible barrier inside him left him feeling open and vulnerable, but strangely elated. Putting down the glass, he followed Rashanal to the bed. Rashanal lay back against the cushions and opened his arms, drawing Duncan down and cradling him against his side, so that Duncan's head rested against the smooth chest, and he could hear the beating of the strong heart. Soothed by the sound, Duncan closed his eyes.

* * *

A ululating cry rent the air, shocking Duncan out of his partial doze, the hairs on the back of his neck stiffening like those of a dog's at the approach of a stranger. The strange noise echoed around him, and Duncan unthinkingly curled up onto his knees, intent on finding the source, when a voice behind him spoke.

"Don't."

A single word accompanied by a hand on his thigh, and Duncan found himself laying back down on the bed, Rashanal's arms again coming around him, his hands stroking along Duncan's tense body. "What is that?"

"A cry of mourning." Rashanal pulled Duncan up to his chest. "The women are preparing the bodies for burial. That is their ritual lament. We shall entomb the bodies tonight."

Duncan lay back and listened for as long as the noise continued, soothed by Rashanal's continued caresses. Eventually, the camp fell quiet, and Duncan slept.

Chapter Text

The Highlander slept with the single-minded concentration of the innocent, his breathing deep and even, his face serene and untouched by dreams. Methos, however, remained awake for some time, listening to the haunting sound of his people's grieving. Pale light crept in around the edges of the doorway, and by it he could watch the man soundly sleeping in his arms.

The slave, he corrected himself, turning the word over in his mind, reminding himself forcefully. Why was it even harder to remember that now, now that he had what he wanted of the young Highlander? Now that he had successfully claimed the proud creature as his own and possessed his body utterly? Methos traced the extraordinary face with his eyes, memorizing the soft curve of the jaw, the unexpectedly upturned nose. Salt tracks stained the dark skin, paradoxically arousing an oddly vulnerable feeling in his own chest. He had not expected to feel like this. He had not expected the Highlander to give so much, to come so far in only a few days. He had demanded surrender; he had been given something far greater, something he hadn't asked for and didn't even begin to comprehend.

Faced with the profound courage of the man he had claimed as property, Methos found himself shaken, uncertain of his footing at a point when he had thought to reclaim his certainty. For a moment, gazing at that peaceful profile, some part of him questioned whether he even had the right to do what he had done, to take what he had taken. He dismissed the doubt swiftly, before it could even fully register. He could not afford doubt, not now. It was too late, in any case. Duncan was his. The musky smell of the slave on his skin proved it. The tear tracks proved it. Most of all, the silver collar worn willingly proved it. The damage, if damage it was, had been done.

The softness of the slave's hair was cool against his chest and shoulder, a swath of silk against sensitized skin. Methos found himself turning his face into the dark waves, closing his eyes at the scent and feel of the man, the sweet heaviness of the burden in his arms. Involuntarily, his arms tightened. He felt an aching hunger, an indefinable longing that hurt like an old, forgotten sadness. It didn't ease, as he lay there feeling it, but sank deep into his bones, becoming part of him. Strangely, the sadness stirred him, filling him with the urge to cover the lush body with his own, to press himself full length against the other man and just stay like that, touching every part of them together. It was a disturbing desire, for he felt beneath it the illogical, deeper wish that he could just close his eyes and sink into the Highlander, let their bodies melt into each other until this empty feeling eased. A chill touched him, the image almost irresistibly compelling. Why was it that every taste of the man's essence left him unsatisfied, craving more?

The faint, distant wailing raised the fine hairs on his arms, and Methos made himself close his eyes, made the steady rhythm of Duncan's breathing become his own. He needed to stay alert; he could not afford to lose another night's sleep to troubling thoughts of the young Immortal he had taken to his bed. He sighed with frustration when the very suggestion awakened the vivid sense-memory of his slave's body hard under him, the slick ecstasy of thrusting into that hot place that had welcomed him so ardently. Shivers brushed lightly over his skin, and he damped them down with effort. For now it would have to be enough.

Methos buried his face in thick curls, letting his weariness overtake him. At least he had taken the edge off, though he knew it would be many nights before he truly satisfied his bone-deep craving for the tight embrace of the Highlander's flesh.

* * *

He was buried deep, his sex sheathed in heat that made sweat spring from his pores and run down his face, copious quantities of salt moisture that did not evaporate but sheened his body, bathing him in his own effort and sweet striving. They had been at it a long time; sweat gleamed on the Highlander's broad chest, running down his beautiful body in rivulets. The slave's hair spread out beneath them like a cloak of silk; Rashanal's own hair was soaked, plastered to his chest and back, a heavy stickiness, the moisture and heat and friction pure ecstasy between them as he thrust, and thrust, and thrust against the straining body beneath him.

Duncan's cries began softly, the long, steady climb up to a pinnacle of pleasure higher than any they had yet touched. Rashanal felt the ascent begin, the approaching storm building deep within the Highlander's body, not hurrying, promising a shattering release when it came, if it came. He had been buried in Duncan's body so long, so deep, there wasn't room for any release, just more heat. It was crossing over into discomfort now, friction and need burning higher until the sweat burned off of them as fast as it sprang to the skin, crackling between them as Rashanal gripped the other man fiercely and rode him with increasing urgency, increasing helplessness. The burn of muscles nearing exhaustion throbbed with each striving thrust. His own pleasure was fierce, almost painful, but still there was no release in sight.

The very air was hot now, painful to breathe. Beneath him, Duncan's cries of pleasure were becoming cries of torment. His grip on Rashanal's flanks was bruising, desperate. His eyes were squeezed tightly shut, his mouth open as he fought for air. The coil of silver around the slave's neck burned so brightly Rashanal couldn't look at it; it was white hot, almost incandescent.

With horrified fascination, Rashanal realized that the other man's hair and skin were sizzling faintly, radiating pure heat in waves the human body couldn't possibly endure for long. The heat surrounding his sex had grown intense, agonizing, but he couldn't stop, he was panting with his desperation, he had to find release or die. Had to. Or. Die.

Sobbing now with the need for relief, Rashanal seized the broad shoulders and hauled the other man to him, rocking back on his knees. The Highlander's tears burned like cinders as they touched Rashanal's skin and burst into steam, and he felt their skin fuse together every place they touched, an agony of joining that wrenched a wailing plea from Duncan. At last, shoving himself down on the impaling organ, the slave threw his head back and, shuddering, came violently with a despairing cry of anguish, as if his climax were only a new torment, his fluids spurting liquid fire between them.

And for his tormentor still there was no release, no relief, only the insatiable, devouring hunger for more, more of him, more -- then the dark eyes opening, staring unseeing, one word splintering in the slave's tortured throat, breathless, and there was something Rashanal needed to know, something he needed to remember, but he couldn't feel anything but his body's driving, overwhelming need, couldn't stop, couldn't think --

Duncan's voice tore into him, a wailing cry mixing pain and desire, sculpted into a single word. "Methos!"

The word came like a benediction, granting Methos his own release as the flesh beneath him melted and the bones crumbled to dust. He sobbed his passion, his deliverance in a name, but it echoed emptily around him. A handful of ashes and a gleaming silver collar remained, but the man was gone.

* * *

Methos jerked awaked, his body tense, searching for something gone awry. Duncan was gone, and Methos felt a flaring of anger at the unsanctioned absence. His heart pounded like a hammer in his chest, the dream giving rise to too many uncomfortable thoughts. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, calming himself, letting the tension drain away. The Highlander had probably gone to tend to the horses and fetch the latest meal.

When he opened them again, it was with a renewed determination not to let the Highlander come to mean too much to him. A slave, nothing more, he told himself again. Why this dangerous compulsion to reveal things kept secret for so long? The idea that he wanted the slave to call him by his true name was astonishing, unsettling, and dangerous. Methos had been dead and gone for a thousand years now, well out of the Game should anyone try to find him. He had been careful to leave no traces; to let the Highlander know who he was would be the greatest of follies and not something he wanted to risk.

And yet...

The memory of his name on Duncan's lips was powerful, annihilating, seductive as the grapes of Tantalus. He wanted to hear his name for real, hear Duncan cry it out in passion, rather than the name Rashanal.

He clenched his fist against the pillow at the very thought. No. He would not allow a slave to have such power over him. This was a business arrangement, the Highlander's body for his freedom: a bargain, simple and straightforward. Never mind that having him had done nothing to blunt his hunger for the man. Never mind that he had sought obedience and had found instead something infinitely finer, infinitely sweeter in the yielding trust of a man who, in another place and time, Methos might have sworn fealty to gladly.

Viciously shoving such thoughts away, Methos rose abruptly to his feet and quickly washed. The bath water had been removed, but fragmentary remains of their meal lay scattered on the rug. It provided welcome fodder for his brooding black temper; he would take great pleasure in reminding the slave that he went nowhere without Methos' knowledge and permission, and that the responsibility for the cleanliness and order of Rashanal's tent belonged to the Highlander now.

Involuntarily, his gaze came to rest on the cushions where he had pressed that lush body down and taken the man in his mouth, and the memory of that sweetness, of the utter abandon of the man's surrender, washed through him in a languorous wave, making his breath catch. But in its wake, he felt a cold, vaguely sick apprehension, remembering warm salt tears -- and for the first time, a chill of resentment against a foolish courage he did not understand.

Turning away, Methos' eyes fell upon a beaten silver bowl that had rolled under the edge of the table. He had better make certain the slave understood without question that nothing had changed, that no quarter would be won with tears or words or any other display of weakness. When he stepped into the outer room, he left the bowl on the table, a single gold coin glittering within.

* * *

Duncan felt himself out of sorts, uncomfortable in his skin as he tried to keep his mind blank, tried not to settle on any one thought too long. The wind had picked up ominously, and the late afternoon sun stabbed its pale rays mercilessly down upon the camp, the harsh, slightly overcast glare setting everyone's nerves on edge. He kept his face covered and his head down, trying to ignore the persistent, low-grade headache.

He had left the tent with the ostensible excuse of a meal in mind, but once outdoors he found his feet reluctant, his path leading him a circuitous route that took him nowhere near the food tent. Part of him wanted to be alone, to pull the memories of the previous night out for private examination. The intensity lingered, crying out to be savored, held close; there would never again be a first night, and he felt the strong need for solitude, to let the feelings and impressions move through him, settle in him. Something had changed, but he could not name what, or how. But something was different in him. Maybe... everything was different.

Part of him only wanted space not to think, a little time to recover from the purely physical aftershocks of what Rashanal -- of what he had allowed Rashanal to do to him. He had woken to find Rashanal curled around him, the man's sex rigid against his thigh, and had fled -- there was no other word for it -- when his own body's flooding heat had taken his first waking breath. It had taken some patience and concentration to extricate himself without waking the other man, and the effort had left him unsettled and ill at ease.

Probably a mistake, Duncan thought grimly, and not something he would be able to get away with on a regular basis. But something, some instinct, had urged him to leave the rumpled bed that smelled of honey and sex, and it was too late to go back and choose another response now. He'd needed to escape of the presence of the man who had made him feel so replete, and yet so empty, and he knew that if he'd waited for Rashanal to wake, he likely would not have been allowed to leave. He could only hope Rashanal remained asleep until he returned.

Stubbornly, his feet still refused to turn back. Glancing up, he saw that he had reached the circle of tethered mounts, and the guards were watching him with wary, hooded looks. A little distance away, Duncan stopped to study the impressive herd. They were restless, made so by the rising wind, the young stallions nipping irritatedly at one another. These desert steeds were truly magnificent. Fleet of foot, with their intelligent, wide-set eyes and graceful conformation, just watching them made him feel better. Even in captivity, they retained their wildness, their proud gait and posture.

Duncan smiled grimly at his fanciful notions, for Rashanal's voice echoed suddenly in memory. Have you never owned a horse, Highlander? And his own, in answer. There can be no true living for a man until he is free.

However proud, the steeds bore their riders uncomplaining and curbed readily to the reins. As he had. As he did. A few days, a few nights of the man's hands and mouth on his skin, and he was Rashanal's as surely as any one of these dumb beasts, as glad for the guiding hand, the press of thighs, and the control of that knowing voice.

A wave of shivers skated lightly over thighs and belly as he thought of how readily, how eagerly he had succumbed, as if where Rashanal was concerned, he lost all power to control his heart or his body, as if the man had owned him long ago, in some other lifetime, and had only to renew his claim to have Duncan ready and willing at his feet. Even the thought roused him, stirring his blood and his sex. He had hoped that satisfying the physical craving and curiosity would clear his desires, but the opposite was proving true. Now his shame was worse, his body's longings more focused and specific, and he could not have named the tender ache in his chest that came every time he remembered the way Rashanal had spoken his name at the last.

Duncan went about the tasks of bringing water and feed for the animals, only peripherally aware of his surroundings. Thoughts of the man, sleepy and warm, pressed against him and holding him as if to keep him near, flowed through him; memories of his own surrender -- of what it had felt like to give control of his body and mind over to another -- aroused his flesh and made him ache. He hadn't known it could feel like that. Hadn't known it was even possible to want such things. What else could Rashanal teach him -- and what would be the cost? He was only now beginning to understand how unprepared he was for the bargain he had made.

The guards watched him as he worked, not interfering or changing their stance, granting him no more of their attention than any of the other animals that roamed nearby. Duncan could feel the collar around his neck grow heavy; he suddenly felt a fool for having put it on. Perhaps he was a fool to have taken the bargain in the first place, to have talked himself into it with high-sounding ideas of courage. Perhaps his loneliness and his body's needs had betrayed him.

Pragmatism asserted itself. Even if true, all he could do now was live with the consequences of his choices. Perhaps Rashanal was right, and there were lessons to be learned that could help him survive. After all, he thought grimly, if he could survive this, he could survive almost anything.

At last, the horses groomed, fed, and watered, Duncan could not put off returning any longer. He headed to the food tent and gathered the figs, flat bread, and goat's milk that was being served for the current meal, then set his feet on the path to Rashanal's tent, where he was sure there would be some sort of reckoning.

* * *

"Lord?"

Methos turned at the inquiry and saw one of his guards in the doorway. "Yes?"

The man bowed slightly. "Lord, Namal asked to be informed when you were awake."

"Then inform him. Are the preparations for the funeral completed?" The words were clipped, betraying some of Methos' unease. He cursed himself and tried to calm his mind. The Highlander had been gone too long.

"Yes, ra-jamihn," the guard answered. "The bodies are prepared, the stones gathered, the people waiting on your command."

Methos nodded. "Good. Spread the word that we shall go just before sundown. Now, fetch Namal."

When the guard returned he brought not only Namal, but Jaffir and Nadima, the healer -- also Hadiya's mother, Methos recalled. Hadiya was her only son, his father having died soon after his birth. Methos felt a pang of compassion, but he knew that he could not afford to go lightly on the rebels, lest he split the tribe with a display of weakness. He was not surprised when she fell at his feet. He looked to Namal, standing by the door flap, and opened his mouth to speak. When Namal shook his head briefly, he stopped, but raised an eyebrow in inquiry.

"Ra-jamihn! I beg you, mercy!" Nadima's voice was hoarse.

"Nadima, rise. There is no point to this." He gestured to Namal to help her up.

Climbing to her feet, the woman twisted her hands in her robes. "Hadiya is young and head-strong, Lord. And--"

"And?"

"Your opinion matters to him a great deal." She hesitated.

"If my opinion matters to him, healer, why did he go against my wishes?" His temper was already strained, and the tension in his voice caused Namal to shoot him a worried glance.

Nadima raised her tear-stained face, her fear for her son's life clearly written there. Desperation raised her voice to a shrill pitch as she forced the words from her throat. "He did not know, Lord. Rajid lied."

Methos looked at her questioningly, trying to rein in his temper. "He did not know what? That men would die? That it was the act of fools to ride as they did?"

"Rajid told him that it was your will that they ride against Emad, Sayid!" Her eyes met his steadily, lending force to her words. "That you could not say so openly, but that you had secretly charged Rajid with the mission. Hadiya would never have gone, otherwise." Her voice dropped, gaining strength, persuading him. "You know him! You know that he is an obedient son and tribesman. But Rajid was sly, he spoke to him of honor and glory, of acts of courage and greatness --"

Her voice cut off sharply and Methos caught her as she swayed; the woman was exhausted. Small wonder, with the bodies to prepare, the injured to care for. He wondered if she had anyone to help her. "Here, sit down and tell me what you know." He led her to a seat and gestured for Namal to get her some water, his attention finally caught by her story. "Tell me everything."

"Rajid lied, Lord," she repeated. "Some of the men knew, but Hadiya and Liron and Murad -- Hadiya says they did not know, that they never would have gone against your wishes." She looked at him pleadingly. "I had no idea, Hadiya kept it secret from me, or I would have stopped it!"

Methos reflected on the men she named: all young, looking to prove themselves full members of the tribe, easy to sway with visions of glory -- and now Murad was dead. They would not have been difficult to convince, if what Nadima said was true. He looked to Namal and Jaffir for confirmation. "You believe this?"

Namal and his son exchanged looks, then Jaffir nodded and spoke. "Yes, Sayid, it seems likely. You know that Rajid was angry with your decision. And the men she names are still young, easily swayed." Jaffir voiced Methos' own thoughts.

Methos breathed deeply to calm himself and then turned to Nadima. "If this is true Hadiya and Liron will receive a mild punishment for what they have done. They are foolish, but they will learn from what happened. I will not have them killed." He saw her relax slightly, her skin taking on a normal hue. "Now, how are you? Are you being worked too hard? How are the men who were injured?"

Nadima shook her head, but it was not convincing. "I am fine, Sayid. And they are doing well, for the most part. Hadjii I told to rest for a day or so; the head injury was not deep. The worst is Ridha; I do not know if he will survive, and he needs a great deal of care." She paused. "Isan helped me with the dead."

Methos sighed. Isan was Qamar's widow, the other casualty of Rajid's ill-fated rebellion. She was young herself, the mother of three small children who would now become the responsibility of the tribe.

"Would it help you to have another pair of hands?" The tribe itself was small enough that normally Nadima alone was sufficient to their needs, but it would not go amiss to have someone trained to help her. Nadima was not getting any younger; Hadiya had been a late gift.

Nadima hesitated and nodded. "Thank you, Lord."

Methos looked at Namal and Jaffir. "Any suggestions?"

Namal stepped forward. "Tahirih, perhaps. It would do her good to be occupied, and she had some slight training when she was younger, I believe."

Methos was surprised by the suggestion and not particularly pleased, but Tahirih was Namal's concern now; he noted that Nadima herself did not look too happy at the thought either. "Do you think such responsibility would suit her, Namal? She cares little for anyone but herself."

Namal nodded in agreement. "I believe that it would do her well to be reminded of her good fortune, Rashanal. And it would be good for her to learn some skills."

Methos smiled a little, wondering to himself what Tahirih had been up to, to occasion what was, for the kind-hearted and besotted Namal, a strong, though implied, condemnation. "Very well, I accede to your judgment in this."

"She will, of course, be entirely in your control while she works with you, Nadima." Namal's tones were easy and reassuring. "However, you will tell me about anything amiss in her behavior."

Nadima nodded, though she was obviously puzzled. Apparently she had been too busy to hear about the change in Tahirih's status.

"Indeed, father," said Jaffir, "and to you the joy of telling Tahirih of her new duties." His voice was affectionate, but unsympathetic, and it brought a sly smile to Methos' face. There was no love lost between Jaffir and Methos' former favorite.

At Methos' dismissal, Nadima bowed deeply, praising his generosity and kindness as she left. Turning back to Jaffir, Methos added, "Tell the guard that we will ride for the burial site just before sunset, then come back in. I wish to tell you a brief version of my encounter with Emad, as there is much to think upon. But the rest will wait until after the funeral."

He turned at a sound at the doorway and paused as the Highlander's form filled the opening. Methos controlled his expression and respiration, careful of revealing the involuntary reactions the man evoked with his mere presence. The slave entered, carrying food on a tray, and Methos motioned for him to put it down on the table next to his seat. He fought the urge to swallow as the man bent down next to him to place the tray on the table. His first instinct was to send the man away, where he would not be a constant distraction; feeling a flare of disgust at his own weakness, Methos instead pressed his hand against Duncan's shoulder, forcing him to kneel. The dark eyes rose to his, slightly startled.

"You shall sit here beside me and serve us." To his slight surprise, the Highlander nodded and obeyed with no sign of resistance or reluctance. That ready submission did odd things to Methos' equilibrium, which he'd thought regained. He felt equal parts approval, pride, and inexplicable anger at seeing that proud head bow. A grim laughter tried to rise to his lips -- amusement at his own inability to be content no matter what the man did.

He briefly recounted his clash with Emad, keeping one eye on the Highlander to discern how much he could understand.

* * *

Much of what was said escaped Duncan's comprehension, but he understood enough to know that Rashanal and his advisors were discussing the confrontation of the previous evening. He was momentarily frustrated by this but suppressed his curiosity, willing himself to be patient. Instead he concentrated on serving the simple repast, pouring milk from the beaten vessel into cups for the men at Rashanal's table. Rashanal had said nothing about Duncan eating with them, so he guessed and did not pour a fourth; an approving flick of Namal's black eyes told him he had guessed right.

Jaffir helped himself to a fig from the bowl, and uncertain what to do next, Duncan grew still and waited for a signal. Watching out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Namal glanced from the food to Rashanal, as if trying to communicate something. Understanding, Duncan waited until Rashanal paused in his account before breaking off a bite sized piece of bread and offering it hesitantly to the man beside him. To his discomfiture, Rashanal bent his head slightly and took the morsel delicately with his lips, directly from Duncan's hand. Flustered, the Highlander nearly jerked away from the feather-light brush of lips and tongue. He darted a glance at the tribesmen, but Namal and Jaffir's eyes were elsewhere, as if such intimacy was of no concern, and therefore invisible.

A glance at Rashanal caught the expressive mouth quirking upward ever-so-slightly. Face hot, but determined not to betray his embarrassment, Duncan willed himself not to react.

When Rashanal finished his tale, Namal and Jaffir began to ask questions and discuss the incident; in between answers Duncan fed his master one neat bite at a time, his body remembering every crumb and drop of honey that darting tongue had cleaned from his skin the previous night. He felt flushed and naked and ashamed all at the same time, and the act of demonstrating such intimacy and subsurvience in front of the other men aroused him unexpectedly, made it hard to concentrate on trying to follow the conversation. Mortified at the thought that the men would see, would know how far he had fallen, he was grateful when Rashanal offered him a sip of the cool, pungent milk from his own cup, the other man's fingers not releasing the vessel but holding it as Duncan drank, gilt eyes watching him from beneath lowered lids.

Feeling the hot burn of that gaze, it suddenly occurred to Duncan that perhaps this was the punishment for his flight this morning, the reckoning he had feared. Furtively he searched the other man's face, but Rashanal was turning away, attention returning to the conversation, the expression cool and closed and betraying nothing. Thoughts turning in tighter and tighter circles, almost sick with the combination of shame and arousal he felt, Duncan had to force himself to resume the leisurely progression of tidbits from bowl to fingertips to warm lips.

Just as he was certain the other man had forgotten him utterly, Rashanal reached to rest one hand on his shoulder, the supple fingers playing gently along the edge of the silver torque as if he needed reminding, as if it was not even now hot and heavy against his skin. It was then that Rashanal shifted slightly beside him, and Duncan's eyes went instinctively, unerringly to the man's lap before he could stop himself.

Seeing the unmistakable arousal there, heat curled low in his belly, and he quickly averted his eyes -- but not quickly enough to deny to himself the jolt of satisfaction and longing that made his pulse beat hard at his throat.

Sweet mother of mercy, what am I becoming?

* * *

As Namal speculated on Emad's ready capitulation, Methos rested one hand on the slave's shoulder without thought, a finger idly stroking along the curve of the strong throat. Each morsel was provided to him from the slave's hands, reminding him of the meal they had fed each other. He shifted in his seat, the swelling of his body distracting him. He saw the slave's eyes shift to his lap briefly, then away, and he was pleased to see faint color rise to the handsome face and a fine tremor in the hand that had reached to refill his cup. As he took the vessel, he stroked his fingers along the other man's, smiling slightly when the tremor became more noticeable.

"Rashanal."

He realized from Namal's tone that the man had been trying to get his attention, and he cursed himself for a fool. His appetite for food sated, he tossed down his napkin and held a hand up to interrupt his advisor, turning to address the Highlander. He obviously could not think clearly with the man this close.

"Clear this away, then go and straighten the inner room. We will be riding out to bury our dead shortly; I will fetch you then." The slave's eyes met his briefly, their depths troubled and stormy, and Methos saw that the other man was as stirred as he himself. His eyes dropped to the visible evidence, and he found his body reacting even more strongly, his mouth watering. "Go." His voice was harsh. When the slave didn't move, Methos realized that his fingers were still curved around the Highlander's shoulder, and he had to consciously relax them before the other man could leave.

He watched the man duck under the separating panel before turning back to Namal and Jaffir. He kept his gaze cool and remote, daring either of them to remark on his distraction. "You were saying?"

Jaffir looked uncomfortable, but Namal's expression was unreadable, beyond a certain compassion that made Methos' temper rise. He could not afford for the Highlander to become a weakness, to prove him weak, especially not with men under his command already rebelling. "What have you done with Rajid? I trust he is isolated from the others?"

Namal nodded. "Yes, they are all under separate guard. Although, with Nadima's information, we might release Hadiya and Liron, after they are spoken to." He paused. "Perhaps a duty you would do best to perform yourself."

Methos shook his head grimly. "I fear something stronger is called for. We can't afford a repetition of any such foolishness. Something lenient, but memorable... perhaps five lashes at the post for each." He glanced to Jaffir and saw agreement there. "I'll leave that to your judgment, Jaffir. But it had best be soon, as we are stretched thin enough without having to maintain separate guards on them all." As he spoke, he heard the Highlander moving in the other room, and he breathed in deeply, remembering the scent of the man's skin. He scowled fiercely as he tried to focus. "Namal? You object to the whip?"

"No, my lord. As you see fit. But I believe that Hadiya and Liron should be permitted to attend the burial with their guards. I think it would have a salutary effect on them."

Methos nodded shortly. "Agreed. As for Rajid, we shall have to discuss that at greater length. Is Soroush likely to be trouble on his own?"

Jaffir looked troubled. "I do not know, Sayid. I would not have thought so before, but I would not have thought that he would go along with Rajid's plans." He and Soroush were of an age and had grown up together, both of them several years older than Rajid. "If it is to your liking, I will speak with him, try to discern his intent."

"Do so," Methos agreed, attention already waning from the conversation, focused on the inner chamber, now oddly silent and still. The rustle of the slave's movements had stopped. With a sudden chill, Methos remembered the coin and knew the young Highlander must have seen it there, must even now be learning the lesson it had been left there to teach. As it should be.

Why then did he feel as if there were something tight and cold in his belly? Why then this sudden heaviness in his heart?

Distracted, he dismissed his old friends with none of his usual courtesy, his thoughts bleak, ensnared within the web of his own conflicted anger and a deeply buried, inarticulate longing.

* * *

The coin gleamed coldly in Duncan's palm.

A lump formed in his throat as he stared at it, then curled his fist around it, taking solace from the way the metal cut into his flesh. He tasted anger, hurt, and the bitterness of shame, the same instinctive reactions he would have felt had he been slapped coldly across the face. This cruelty, more than any other, proved just what a fool he had been to fantasize about having some sort of connection with Rashanal, to name himself anything but a prostitute in his own thoughts. He put the coin back in the bowl and turned away, hot feeling giving way to chill emptiness, until he felt as cold as stone inside.

He could hear the others in the next room, Namal and Jaffir taking their leave of Rashanal as Duncan slipped the coin back into the bowl. He shivered once, the milk he'd drunk curdling in his stomach. His gaze fell upon the bed, his insides throbbing with the memory of the pain of Rashanal's invasion, forgetting the pleasure and remembering only the fear. The world tilted at all angles and the room felt as if all the air had vanished. For a moment the thought of escape flashed through him, urgent and compelling. Better to die in the desert or at the enemy tribe's hands than to endure this shame.
But he thought of Namal, of Jaffir, who had done their best to show him kindness and respect; of the healer, face lined with grief and weariness. They would likely soon be fighting for their lives, and did honor not demand he stay and fight beside them to repay their courtesy if he could? All the reasons he had stayed thus far rose up, and none of them had changed. Running would win him nothing.

His head pounded, but Duncan ignored it, setting the room to rights despite the lethargy of his limbs, methodically destroying every reminder of what had happened the night before. He vowed to himself to never again let Rashanal catch him being so open; he would learn to close off part of himself. Rashanal would enjoy the favors he paid for, but that would be the end of it. One hundred days and Duncan would walk away a free man; perhaps not the warrior he had always believed himself to be, but at least no man's whore.

Until then, though...

Duncan settled himself on his knees, easing back onto his heels, and finally let the knowledge of what he was settle on his shoulders like the collar he wore. He was Rashanal's slave, as owned as the horses he'd admired, and they were more valued.

It was time he began to learn how to live with being only that.

Chapter Text

Methos sat silent for several minutes after Jaffir and Namal had gone, aware of the quiet resumption of activity in the inner chamber. A tangle of anxiety, anger, and desire knotted his insides, and the longer he waited for a reaction of protest, pride, something, the angrier he became, the Highlander bearing the brunt of his rage and discontent. The slave should have been stronger. Methos had sensed the man's deep, inner reserves of stubbornness and courage and strength; given that, the Highlander should have rebelled, fought him, instead of giving in so easily...so temptingly. His wholehearted surrender had been Methos' own undoing; he'd had no defense against the man's willingness, his trust. Worse, the more his slave surrendered to him, the more of him Methos craved, an addiction that threatened reason. Even now his anger urged him to violence; memories of sinking into that welcoming body, taking him again in a rush of rough passion, flashed fever hot through his mind.

I never asked for this! he raged, pushing himself up, knowing the denial for a lie even as he thought it. It is not my fault!

His anger propelled him into the inner room; he came to an abrupt halt at the sight of the man kneeling in wait for him, and he felt an odd sense of dislocation. The slave's position echoed the manner in which he'd greeted Methos the night before, and for a moment, the entire, passionate night seemed a dream. But this time, his collar was around the Highlander's throat, marking him as Methos' own. Again Methos felt the surge of lust that seemed to haunt his every reaction to this man, felt it twining and binding itself to the anger that filled him. The Highlander had tensed at Methos' entrance, but as the moments passed, the slave's stony face remained lowered, becoming a clear challenge that Methos refused to accept. He stared without speaking until Duncan at last looked up, giving Methos at least the illusion of victory. He gritted his teeth under Duncan's steady, accusing gaze, seeing the injury he'd done in the taut lines of the man's face and body, the icy heat of his eyes. He found himself envying the obvious calm and acceptance, apparent even beneath the bitterness, another measured challenge thrown between them. Astonished at how he continually underestimated this singular creature, Methos felt his initial anger tempered by a strange pleasure at the renewed resistance, a confirmation of his initial impressions of the man as someone who would not bend easily.

But in spite of the Highlander's control, he couldn't keep his mahogany eyes from betraying how deeply he'd been hurt. The emotional pain reflected there, coupled with the heavy shadow of beard, made him look tired and worn; Methos hated the sight. He knew he had caused this, knew it had to be done. Better now before more damage was inflicted, before the man could delude himself further with the belief that his master might care. Methos would not repeat the mistakes he had made with Tahirih: a slave needed to know his place. For a start, Duncan would have to be reminded that he was not to conceal himself when they were alone.

Before he could act, Duncan's voice, cool and respectful, broke across him like the crack of a whip on a grazing horse. "Your pleasure, Lord?"

Something about that guarded tone -- the layers of censure and hurt, shame and uncertainty, blended like colors on a canvas -- pierced Methos to the core. Regret replaced pleasure, followed by a resurgence of resentment that hollowed out his chest, leaching away his blood and heat and replacing it with a bitter, searing cold. The empty feeling transmuted his raw hunger into something sharper, more dangerous, and pushed him into motion. The Highlander dared to judge him? Perhaps he needed a reminder of just what he courted with his passionate, reproachful looks. Driven by the irresistible force of his rage, Methos moved into the room, beckoning the slave to his feet and brusquely stripping off Duncan's robe, leaving him in his undergarments.

"I've told you not to cover yourself in my chambers. I won't be disobeyed." He paused briefly while Duncan obeyed. "There is a small mirror and a blade in the chest. I prefer you clean-shaven; see to it now."

While Duncan made preparations -- pouring water in a basin to heat on the brazier, pulling out clean towels, and sharpening the blade -- Methos watched. Seeing the hidden glances and faint trembling of the pitcher, Methos noted that his attentions clearly still disturbed the slave, whatever internal resolve he had reached. The thought was a pleasing one, given how much the Highlander's attention disturbed him as well. While the water heated, Duncan stropped the blade with his back to his master, his weight shifting nervously. When the water steamed, Duncan transferred some to a shallow bowl and pulled out the mirror, looking for a place to set it.

"Give it here." Facing him, Methos held up the polished metal, smiling tightly when Duncan's eyes met his, the man clearly disconcerted by being so closely observed. Methos' icy state served him well, keeping his hands steady where the slave's trembled slightly.

* * *

Duncan fought his body's emotional and physical betrayals with a kind of resigned futility. Despite his recognition of the terms under which he served, he found himself no less responsive to Rashanal's presence. Only his sheer determination kept his hands steady as he scraped his own skin smooth, ignoring the hot gaze of the man in front of him. The familiar activity soothed him somewhat, although the awareness of the other man's eyes, so intent on the sharp blade, undermined his calm. He could feel Rashanal's own anger, though he did not understand what he had done to earn it. He focused on the mirror, searching as he shaved for any outward signs of the changes that had him reeling. He saw only a weariness that went beyond the physical.

When he finished, he moved to put the blade away, but Rashanal shook his head, eyes dark with intent.

"My turn, now," he said, handing Duncan the whetting strip.

Realizing what Rashanal meant for him to do, Duncan swallowed and began to sharpen the blade again, breathing deeply to still the returning tremors. He wondered how the man could treat him as he had and yet let him so close with a sharp edge, albeit a small one. Was this a sign of trust, or simply an indication that the man no longer considered him a threat? Remembering their short fight at the oasis, he withheld a bitter laugh, recognizing that the man had never considered him a threat. He had never considered him at all. No, he realized, it was neither trust nor lack of concern. Duncan was a slave, doing a slave's job; it was best he read nothing into it.

When he turned back, Rashanal had seated himself on a low stool, legs spread to give Duncan room to work. Duncan took a small towel and wetted it in the heated water, testing it to make sure it was not too warm. Then he knelt between the other man's legs, holding the towel against Rashanal's face to make his task easier. During the wait, he found his eyes caught and held by that quicksilver gaze. The man's eyes revealed an inner turmoil that Duncan found impossible to decipher beyond an unsatisfied need, an arousal that was confirmed by his scent. Duncan tore his own gaze away as he removed the towel and picked up the blade, only to meet those eyes again as he felt his hand caught and guided until the sharp edge rested against his master's throat. Something about that gesture made his breath catch, his heart beat harder. The hazel eyes now held a certain dark mischief.

"Take care, Highlander. I will heal, but I prefer not to bleed."

The tone was soft, the deep voice sending a chill down Duncan's spine. He felt ensnared and breathless again, dizzied by the heat he could feel coming off the other man's body, the way his captor's moods seemingly changed as quickly as springtime weather. Duncan took a deep breath, unable to conceal his apprehension. As he let it out, Rashanal released his hands to do their work. Duncan began, trying to stroke smoothly and steadily, unaware that he had caught his tongue between his teeth so that it protruded slightly as he concentrated, his brow furrowed. He looked up, startled, when Rashanal's mouth quirked, changing the lines of his face.

Rashanal reached out lightly and stroked his fingers down Duncan's own newly-shaven cheek, ending with his hand resting yet again along the curve of Duncan's throat, fingers idly caressing. "I won't punish you if the blade slips, as long as it doesn't cut too deep. You have my promise." His voice was as caressing as his fingers, both sensations shooting straight to Duncan's groin and causing his anxiety to increase, rather than lessen. To his dismay, Rashanal did not remove his hand, but kept it resting on Duncan's shoulder, his fingers slowly petting along the edge and under the collar. Duncan thought about asking him to stop, then thought better of it -- though he wasn't sure if it was his reason or his libido that made him refrain. Each caress fueled his desire, already reawakened by the heat and scent that seemed to surround him.

Forcing down his body's reaction, he turned again to his task, taking care to trim the beard closely without marring it, unconsciously admiring the way it framed the elegant lips, fighting back the images of what he knew that mouth could do to him, with little success. Would he ever be able to exist in this man's presence without reacting like a bitch in heat?

It didn't matter; he wouldn't let it matter. Even if he couldn't control his desire, at least that was all Rashanal would have of him. His body, his instinctive response, but that was all. He reminded himself again that he couldn't afford to give any more of himself into this man's keeping, a man he couldn't trust.

Somehow he managed to finish without either injuring Rashanal or embarrassing himself too badly. Moving to rise, he was stilled by a tightening grip on his shoulder.

"We're not finished." This time the voice was rough and hot, like uncut velvet. "Put down the blade." As he spoke, Rashanal was opening his robe with that thoughtless expediency that turned Duncan's belly to flame. He didn't realize he had wetted his mouth until he heard a harsh groan. "You have a mouth that could seduce a monk, Highlander."

Rising to his feet, Rashanal bared himself to Duncan's hungry gaze, his cock thick and hard with need. He slid his hands into Duncan's hair, winding it until his grip was secure and tight against Duncan's head. "Open your mouth. Take it."

Duncan looked up, realizing that he was not the only one reacting to the changes wrought by the night before. Rashanal's eyes were hot and greedy, his tone tight and rough, but the gaze was strangely impersonal. Duncan felt another pang of grief for what might have been. He resisted a moment longer, and the fingers clenched tighter, pulling him closer. Duncan relented, his mouth watering, hungry for the taste of Rashanal's cock. He hated himself for what he wanted, hated that he was willing to let himself be used this way, yet he could not deny the eager throb of his own groin as he gazed at Rashanal's shaft. He lowered his head and closed his eyes, not wanting to see anything of his 'master' while he did this, knowing that it would make it all too real.

* * *

Methos gazed down at the man before him, feeling as if his hunger had taken on a life of its own as it moved him to a heedless roughness that pained him even as it drove his excitement yet higher. He saw the Highlander's eyes close and ruthlessly suppressed any regret, focusing on his own raw need and the necessity to make sure that the Highlander knew his place. That they both did. He didn't name the churning emotions that pushed him to dominate and subdue even as he gloried in the rebellion.

His defenses faltered against the gentle, hungry touch of the slave's mouth, as Duncan lipped at the tip of his cock, merely tasting the soft skin and the fluid gathered at its tip, tongue slipping out to savor the flavor. It was too close, awakened too much desperation, too much need, and Methos pulled Duncan's head back sharply, then forced him tighter against the hard length. "I said 'take it.' Open your mouth for me."

As soon as those lips opened slightly, more in protest than in obedience, Methos pressed in roughly, giving the slave no time to adjust, ignoring the scrape of teeth. "You are slow to obey my commands, Highlander. That is no way to earn your price. You should be eager for the privilege."

Moaning slightly, Duncan opened his mouth wider, and suddenly Methos was inside, the wet velvet heat of it taking his breath away. He would never get used to this, never have enough of it. He pressed in deeper, pulled in by the slippery heat. Some remote part of him knew that the thick cock was choking the slave, making it difficult for him to breathe, but he was too far gone to care, wanting only to sheathe himself completely. When the slave gagged, he relented briefly, shuddering as he pulled out a bit and let him breathe, the motion requiring an alarming effort of will.

Adjusting his hands on the other man's head, he held him in place as Duncan tried to work his mouth around the hard length. "Just relax your throat, Highlander, you do it so naturally. And I don't want you to move, I just want to fuck your sweet mouth." Unable to wait, Methos thrust into him and jerked back out, enthralled by the slick motion, the contrast of heated warmth and the damp cool of his wetted skin. The slave gagged again briefly, then Methos felt the tightness relax, and he sheathed himself deeply, unable to suppress his groan of pleasure. "Yesssss, that's it. Just like that...so good...." Taking a deep breath, Methos began to thrust his hips, using his hands to guide the slave's head, savoring the silken glide of his cock against tongue and cheeks and throat.

Closing his eyes, he focused on the deep pleasure of it, nothing but warmth and wetness, the movement and tightening of his body, his teeth clenched against the betrayal of his own need. His world narrowed to the feel of that perfect mouth, the satisfaction that was just out of reach. God, he needed this. A place where there was no tribe, no responsibility, no conflict, nothing but a surrounding heat that poured pleasure through him like floodwaters spilling over a dam. A place where he could lose himself for endless moments. So tightly focused, he failed to recognize his own loss of control.

When he felt the hands gripping his hips, the movement of tongue and lips, pulling him out of that nameless, timeless space, he could have cried for the bitterness of it. He felt as if he had thrust himself into open flame, and he was unable to prevent his sudden convulsive motion backwards as his hands tore Duncan away from his body, unable to bear his touch, equally unable to prevent the harsh cry of passion that escaped him.

* * *

Over and over, Rashanal thrust into him, not giving Duncan time to respond or protest or do anything but fight to keep from choking. It took all his concentration to keep his teeth covered and his throat relaxed so as not to injure the man or interrupt his pleasure. The violence in the wordless assault, in the fierce grip of hands that could snap his neck, warned him that a mistake now would invite infinitely worse punishment.

In spite of the utterly impersonal handling, Rashanal's fierce need communicated itself viscerally through the hot, rigid shaft choking him, thrusting into him, the fragrant sweat that sprang up along his master's loins, the scent filling Duncan's nostrils. Unbelievably, Duncan felt himself growing impossibly hard, his balls tight with need, and he could barely hold back his own moan when Rashanal shuddered and hissed air in through his teeth. Melting heat spread through him in surges of response at the way those hands gripped him, forced his head forward -- he could feel his own cock throbbing as Rashanal used him, intent only on his own pleasure. Duncan despised himself for his own weakness, that could find such dark, unclean pleasure in being treated so.

He wanted to fight the relentless invasion, wanted to shake Rashanal and demand to know why, what he had done to deserve this -- but that was a futile desire, like asking for blood from a stone. There was no why. This was all there was. And he wanted it -- God help him, he wanted it, wanted him. But he wanted more than this blind, driven hunger. In spite of the coins, in spite of this heedless abuse, something in Rashanal still called to Duncan powerfully, heart, body, and mind. Lungs aching, he was suddenly trembling on the brink of a powerful climax, needing only the hot eruption of the man's bittersweet seed in his mouth to send him over. Hot, angry tears of humiliation stung at his eyes.

Reaching for air now through nostrils flared wide, eyes clenched tightly shut and sweat sheening his own skin, Duncan felt something snap in him. The ugliness of it was too much; he couldn't take any more. Couldn't bear it, the wretched contrast to the shared passion of the night before, this cold-blooded act, the shattering of his impossible hopes. Desperate to forge a connection, to make Rashanal come, to at least end it, he seized the other man's hips in his hands and pressed his tongue along the length of Rashanal's cock, not letting him withdraw this time but pulling him deeper, sucking hard. Rashanal's whole body went rigid; he gave one short, jerky thrust that almost made Duncan black out from lack of air.

The sound Rashanal made then, a deep-throated cry of pure carnal need, was almost enough to finish him. Would have been, if not for the sudden fierce pain as Rashanal jerked Duncan's head back with enough force to make white agony shoot up his neck. Stunned for a moment by the pain, he sank back on his heels. The other man jerked free of his mouth, a surge of hot, sticky fluid pulsing against Duncan's lips as Rashanal climaxed, spilling burning fluid over Duncan's chest and thighs. Without volition, Duncan's tongue slipped out to taste, and only the pain of his still tightly-held head prevented him from coming himself. Reaction shuddered through his belly and limbs.

Gasping for air, Rashanal swore in a language Duncan didn't know, his hazel eyes wild with uncontrolled fury. Shaking, the strength of his orgasm visibly costing him, he snarled into Duncan's face. "Why did you do that?"

Duncan fought his reactions, struggling to pull himself together. Unable to admit to his own need, he blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "I thought it what was what you wanted!"

He regretted the lie the instant it was out of his mouth. Regretted it more when he saw the way Rashanal's eyes narrowed, the way his face went still, freezing to a profound chill in spite of the hectic flush of his cheeks and lips. He had forgotten how easily this man could read him.

Duncan's sex throbbed dully, aching intolerably as he gazed up at the other man with his jaw set, stubbornly trying to win a contest of wills he felt he had lost long ago -- maybe before they'd ever met. Rashanal's fury was cold, an icy pressure resting on his jugular vein, measuring him. The desert chieftain straightened to his full height, eyes never leaving Duncan's. But as he held his gaze, Duncan realized that there was more than anger in it. There was also pain, need -- and fear. Duncan's mind spun at the very thought. What was there for Rashanal to fear? Wasn't he the one in control?

"Lie down," Rashanal said softly, the tone raising the short hairs on Duncan's neck. "On your belly."

For a moment, Duncan almost obeyed. Then he realized how close to the edge Rashanal was, how close they both were, and he recalled thinking how easy it would be for them to come to killing blows. Was it merely his resistance that had pushed them to this point? Rashanal had come to him angry, when he'd had nothing but Duncan's obedience.

And it reached him, quietly, how short a time it had taken him to go from obedience for survival's sake to obedience for practicality's sake. He had even submitted to this man for pride's sake and for his own curiosity. But nothing he did seemed to please the man, and it finally occurred to him to wonder why. What did Rashanal fear? Was Rashanal more afraid of his rebellion, or his surrender? What did he want? And what was Duncan willing to give?

It was too much to deal with. He had no answers, only question, but whatever the situation, he would not submit out of habit, and this was no part of any bargain he had made. Nor did he think it was what Rashanal himself truly wanted. He recalled Namal's words: Keep him safe, from himself and others. Whatever it was Rashanal was fighting, weakness now would not help either of them. Whatever it was between them, he did not believe that Rashanal desired his death. There was much unspoken between them, and that needed to change.

"No," he said and started to rise.

* * *

"I said, lie down," Methos hissed, hand snaking out to close around the handle of the straight razor, bringing it up under Duncan's chin faster than thought. His body ached, battered by interrupted pleasure, a hard anger, and an alarming sense that things were slipping further out of his control the more he tried to hang onto them -- that he was slipping out of control.

He felt mingled resentment and satisfaction as Duncan froze. And then he felt only a breath-stealing apprehension as, very slowly, the Highlander straightened up the rest of the way, meeting his own fierce gaze without flinching, hand rising to cover Methos', though he made no motion to push the blade away. The Highlander's face was strong and proud, and reminded Methos unbearably of his first, fateful sight of the man.

When Duncan spoke, his voice was equally proud and strong. "No, Rashanal. I will not. I did not agree to this. You have paid for my body, and I will honor that, but there are some things I will not sell for coins. I will serve your household, your table, your pleasure, but not your anger, and not your fear."

Methos snarled at that last, ignoring the gleeful, knowing cackle in the back of his head. He tried to press the blade in closer, as if to literally cut off any further revelations, but Duncan's hand held firm, and their opposing strengths held the razor motionless. And still their eyes held, locked together as if the fate of the world rested on which of them gave ground first. At last, mildly, Duncan said, "Put down the blade, and we can talk about this -- or if you won't, you will just have to kill me." He smiled slightly, with a gentleness that took Methos' breath. "And I think we both know neither of us wants that."

Once more Methos felt the world shifting under his feet. He had been glad at the Highlander's renewed resistance, even as he knew he had to subdue it. But this calm, steady resolve went deeper, and it sank into him like a precisely aimed spear, transfixing him with a heady sense of mingled fear and joy, anger bleeding out of him. Whatever he decided, things were changed yet again. And he couldn't bring himself to be sorry.

"It doesn't have to be like this. You have nothing to fear from me." Duncan's voice was sincere and passionate.

Methos let go with a strangled laugh. "Oh, Highlander, you have no idea." But something in him seemed to give, and the last of his white-hot fury melted away. He relaxed slightly, and after a long moment, he pulled his hand from under Duncan's, casually tossing the blade aside. He advanced on Duncan until the edges of his robe brushed Duncan's naked skin, and he could feel the heat of Duncan's still-aroused body.

The lines of his face altered into something less deadly but no less dangerous as he stroked a finger along the silver torque encircling Duncan's throat, brushing his throat. He smiled at the catch in Duncan's breath. "You are playing a risky game with me, Highlander. I don't recall offering any conditions to our little bargain."

"No," Duncan agreed huskily. "I'm...renegotiating. You shall have to decide if you're still interested." He shifted ever so slightly nearer, and Methos felt his own breath catch, saw the answering quirk of the Highlander's beautiful lips. He looked up into amused, aroused, yet serious brown eyes and fell headlong into their depths. He felt a feral grin come to his lips, the tension that had stood between them all morning easing inexplicably to another kind of tension altogether.

"You're just full of surprises, aren't you?" Rashanal said huskily, eyes glittering with the promise that there would be payment for this rebellion, one way or another.

But not now.

Now there were other matters between them.

* * *

Duncan stared into those mercurial eyes, blood flowing to his heart and his sex, his breathing unsteady as he fought without success to control the sudden flush of relief that spread through him in response to that look, that tone. Now, more than ever, he needed to guard himself -- now, when he most wanted to believe in his own choices. At the center of the flood of responsive heat, a chill touched him, the realization of the real power this man had over him, having nothing to do with power or skill or any other contest of strength. This man would hurt him again, badly -- he knew it as deep in his bones as he had ever known anything. He'd won a small victory, but more than ever he needed to hold something in reserve. There was no doubt that Rashanal would do the same, and he probably had much more practice at protecting himself. And yet, Duncan realized that Rashanal no longer had all the power in their private game -- if he ever had.

It wasn't easy, when Rashanal looked at him like that, like he was the first course of a sumptuous banquet. When all he wanted was to lay himself out and beg the feast to begin. With effort, Duncan sank to his knees before Rashanal and looked up, schooling his expression to readiness, waiting to serve his master's pleasure. "Shall I please you, Ra-jamihn?"

When Rashanal spoke, his voice was serious, though his face was still relaxed and amused. "You do please me, Highlander." He pulled the other man to his feet and leaned forward the few inches necessary to press his mouth to Duncan's. His lips were warm and soft, and Duncan found himself holding his breath until Rashanal's tongue slid into his mouth, stealing his relieved exhalation. Duncan closed his eyes as he felt his head framed in those strong hands yet again, in a grip that was no less firm, but much less harsh. The deep caress of his mouth was sweet, and Duncan pressed forward, trying to bring their skin into contact. Rashanal pulled back, smiling, but holding Duncan's still-aroused body back with his forearms.

"And tonight, I'm sure you will please me again."

Duncan bit back a groan of frustration at Rashanal's wicked smile. He had not escaped punishment entirely.

Chapter Text

Having taken too much time, they had to dress quickly, Rashanal tending to his own preparations in the need for haste. From a trunk he produced a tunic and robe of fine, cream-colored linen; Duncan donned the garments as the desert chieftain briefly outlined the burial ceremony and the Highlander's duties. Overheated, over-stimulated, Duncan was too aware of the cool fabric against his skin, the nearness of Rashanal as the other man ran a cloth over the stickiness on his own stomach and thighs and robed himself in clean garments. He was finely made, but Duncan knew it was not merely the man's body that moved him so, that made his belly warm and ache with unsatisfied hunger, his thoughts turning in on themselves as he tried not to let them settle on any specific craving too long.

Rashanal caught him shifting slightly, and the gilt eyes glinted understanding, but no mercy. The man's mysterious rage had faded as quickly as it had come, but something dangerous still simmered below the surface of his outwardly calm expression -- something that said they weren't finished with this, not by any reckoning. Perversely, something in Duncan reveled in the vague, unsafe promise of that look, and he couldn't quite prevent the hint of a challenge he knew his own eyes threw down in answer.

He longed for even the momentary comfort of his own hand, to adjust the pressure against his clothing, but he refused to concede the point to Rashanal's watchful eye.

Evening was drawing close as they left the tent, not yet as near as twilight, but well past the heat of the day. Duncan could see the tribe assembling near the horses, waiting for Rashanal so that the procession might begin. The bodies of the dead had been washed and cared for and were laid out on the ground, ready to be lifted onto the backs of the horses that would carry them to their final rest. The chieftain went now to talk with his men, going over the last of the arrangements.

Rashanal had told Duncan that a few of the tribe would stay behind: sentries and female slaves for the most part, since the male slaves would be needed to complete the cairn for the dead. Rashanal, Jaffir, and Namal would ride in front, followed by the rest of the tribe's fighters on horseback. The boys and male slaves would walk behind them, leading the horses that carried the dead; however, at the burial site, Duncan would be expected to attend Rashanal personally. The women would be last in the procession, black figures wailing and trilling, displaying their grief for the fallen warriors.

Spotting Rashanal's stallion, tethered to his stake, Duncan gave the black a few gentling strokes and chuffed softly at him, glad of the distraction of saddling the mount, too aware of the eyes that followed him, the way others looked at him. He could feel how swollen his lips were from the assault of Rashanal's cock, and he ran his tongue over them, hoping that some moisture would lessen the swelling more quickly.

He could still taste Rashanal's seed on his lips. He faltered a moment, swallowing, then finished adjusting the saddle's decorative straps. Could the others see? Did they know just from looking at him?

He reminded himself that he had told Rashanal 'no.'

The tickling on the back of his neck got worse, and Duncan realized he was tired of hiding from all the stares. Deliberately, unashamedly, he raised his head to meet the gaze of whoever was looking at him, to make sure that they understood that he would not deny the choices he had made.

He found himself staring at Tahirih a few yards away; she, in turn, was staring at the collar around his neck, her face stricken. A hard smile curved her lips as she raised her eyes to his. She spoke slowly and carefully, wanting to be sure he heard every hate-filled word. "I see you are earning your keep, Highlander," she said in clear, accented English. "Just take care not to ignite his temper when you bed him; Rashanal has a quick hand." Her smile widened as she tilted her head prettily to look at him. "Or perhaps you like that. You may be proud to wear his mark." She came close and laid a hand on his arm, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. "Remember, though, as much as he likes spirit, you are still only a slave."

Her knowing tone made Duncan's stomach turn and started a low burn of heat that spread up the back of his neck, across his cheeks. But before her barbs could strike home, the realization came: it was not scorn or cruelty that fueled her words, but pain, real and deep, written in the lines around her mouth, the shadows below her lovely dark eyes. He felt a surge of sympathy for her, replacing the heat of shame, and a flare of anger towards Rashanal. He of all people knew how fascinating the desert chieftain was, how hard it must be for the woman to see herself so easily and thoughtlessly replaced. He remembered the way she had sobbed at Rashanal's feet and felt suddenly ashamed that he had witnessed it. She is good for exactly nothing to me -- less than nothing! Rashanal had cried. She's lucky I didn't kill her!

And she had genuinely loved him, Duncan now knew without doubt. Still did, to judge by the ravages her weeping had wrought on her face. Selfish and mean she might be, but why shouldn't she be selfish, if all life had seen fit to grant her was the pale, undependable regard of her mercurial and charismatic master? How must she feel, to see him, a barbarian stranger, wearing the circlet that had graced her own throat for years?

He saw the moment she realized his empathy, her eyes growing hot with anger, and he opened his mouth to speak, searching for words that would sympathize without insulting, trying to forestall more angry utterances. "Aye," he said huskily, aware of others close by, watching their exchange. "I am a slave and not by choice. There's no shame in that. Nor in making the best of a bad situation." He held Tahirih's eyes, trying to make her understand. "D'you hear what I'm saying?"

Tahirih blinked, her mouth making an "o" of surprise for just an instant. Her eyes flicked to either side, taking in their small audience, and two spots of color appeared high on her cheekbones. Even if they didn't understand the language, she plainly didn't care to be made an object of pity before those who had scorned her. Her eyes flared with affront, turning back to Duncan's. "What would you know of it?" she hissed furiously.

"I know enough to see that you have reason to hate me," he said very softly, too softly for the onlookers to hear. "But no cause, Tahirih. I would not have chosen this."

Her eyes narrowed, her lip curling as she looked him up and down. "Would you not? Do you really believe so?" But the fire went out of her, chilling to something like pity of her own. "You forget, I know what it's like to belong to him, Highlander. I know what you are only beginning to understand. And fear not, he will tire of you soon enough -- if he hasn't already." She gave him one last scornful look, but it lacked the venom of her earlier jibes, as if she understood now that he wasn't worth the energy. "If I were you, I'd stop lying to myself," she said patronizingly. "It will only make things worse in the end." In a swirl of cloth, she stalked off.

Nadima, having witnessed the exchange if not understood it, intercepted her, speaking too quickly for Duncan to catch all the words. Tahirih's face went from angry to embarrassed to chastened to aloof within the span of an instant, and then she was headed back for the other tents. The healer turned to him. She shook her head and spoke kindly, something that Duncan took to mean, "Pay her no mind." Duncan nodded numbly, trying to dismiss the young woman's words as easily as Tahirih had dismissed his. Nadima inclined her head in a polite 'good-bye' before rejoining the other women.

As he turned back to the horse, Duncan saw two of the other men watching him and talking. They had obviously observed the encounter, and though he could understand little, he heard his own name and Tahirih's, and a few other words he recognized -- enough to understand that a comparison was being made regarding relative skills. Cinching the horse's girth a final notch tighter, Duncan ignored the low, ribald chortling that accompanied the exchange; head held high, he led Rashanal's mount toward the head of the procession.

He started when he felt the hand on his shoulder, so focused was he on his own inner turmoil. The heat from the fingers sliding in to touch his skin warmed him as if he were a cat who had found a puddle of sunlight, and he cursed himself again for a fool. No wonder he had so much sympathy to spare for Tahirih.

* * *

Methos moved to where Duncan waited with his horse, seeing the looks cast at the slave by the men awaiting their leader's approach. He couldn't hear their murmurs, but he could guess at the content by the tightness of Duncan's shoulders, the set of his mouth as Methos drew closer. He felt a swell of protectiveness that left a bitter taste in his mouth. He knew that it was neither desired, nor desirable, for either of them.

The men straightened and turned to their steeds as he came close. The Highlander seemed lost in thought, and Methos saw him jump slightly at Methos' touch on his shoulder. Almost unwilled, Methos' hand slid inside the edge of Duncan's robe to caress his skin. He could feel the man shiver, and he wondered if it was with desire or repulsion.

"Are you finished?"

Duncan turned to face him, meeting his eyes with that steady gaze. Methos saw the flushed cheeks, the proud look, and realized again that this man did not need his protection.

"Yes, ra-jamihn."

"Good." He hesitated, for an almost imperceptible moment. "I have decided that you will walk at my side."

A flicker of surprise touched the other man's gaze, but Methos didn't acknowledge it, having surprised himself. He simply squeezed Duncan's shoulder and mounted his horse.

Methos looked over to see Jaffir helping his father and felt a pang of sorrow. He was very fond of Namal, and though the elderly man was still hale and strong, Methos knew that he was not long for the world. But then, by Immortal standards, none of them were. Again he thought that it was past time for him to move on, to let the tribesmen rule themselves. It wasn't for Immortals to busy themselves in mortal affairs.

He turned back to see that all was in readiness before starting out and saw that Hadiya and Liron were part of the procession. The reluctant rebels looked remorseful, avoiding the gazes of others. Methos sighed, reminded of the unpleasantness that awaited him after the burial.

As soon as all was in readiness, he urged his mount forward at a steady pace that would take them to the burial site in good time without taxing those on foot. As he rode he contrasted this trip with that of two nights before. Then, he had gotten to the outcropping only after having ridden out some of his unrest, making the trip much longer than this slower, more direct ride. His inner struggle now was no less, despite the resolutions he had made, and seemed to only grow again as he rode. Something about the Highlander tore his resolutions to shreds, made him forget the lessons of his past, and had him thinking and feeling things he'd believed he'd schooled out of himself long ago. By the time they reached the top of the rock formation his mood was suitably dark and gloomy for the task at hand.

The Highlander held the stallion as Methos swung to the ground. A few slaves remained to mind the horses as the rest of the tribe moved to the burial site itself, where piles of stones waited in readiness. Jaffir supervised the moving of the bodies, a task carried out by full members of the tribe to show respect to the dead. Next came the offering of dates and figs that would be buried with the warriors. Wind gusted over the rocky outcropping. Methos glanced briefly out over the landscape, seeking signs of a coming storm, something to reflect the storm within. He knew it would be coming all too soon. Emad would not hold off forever.

His gaze moved to the man standing beside him, waiting patiently, and he felt that insidious warmth that just looking at the man gave him. The Highlander was obviously moved by the ritual, the eerily keening women, the widows at the forefront, the children behind, watched by some of the older women.

Mine, the thought jolted him quietly, and some irresistible impulse compelled him to reach out, to brush back a long strand of hair that had escaped from the other man's linen burnoose.

"What will happen to them?" Duncan's voice was rough and sorrowful.

"The tribe will care for them, Highlander. They take care of their own." Methos caught the curious glance the man gave him and realized that he was speaking like an outsider. And it was true, wasn't it? In his heart, he was already beginning to feel the separation.

His troubling thoughts and the low ache of his response to the Highlander's nearness combined to distract him; he did not notice the woman that watched them, the beautiful, dark, venomous eyes that did not miss his proprietary caresses.

* * *

Duncan watched as the bodies were laid to rest, then moved to help assemble the cairn with the other slaves.

"Stay." Rashanal's tones were quiet and firm, as was his grip on Duncan's shoulder.

Duncan looked at him questioningly. "I would like to help." He saw a softening in the other man's eyes as Rashanal nodded his assent.

As he worked, Duncan's attention was caught by two of the women at the edge of the group; it took him only a moment to recognize Nadima and Jaffir's very pregnant wife, Souraya. A few minutes later, he glanced back at them, worried as more of the woman gathered around the other two. There was no time to rest as the rocks were gathered and placed over the bodies, but even with only the occasional glance, Duncan could see that Souraya was not doing well. The long trek out to the rocks had been hard on her, it seemed; Nadima was holding her hand and giving her water, while the other women swirled around them, an endless sea of black.

A hand on his shoulder brought Duncan's attention back to the cairn and the rocks he held; Namal nodded confirmation. "It will soon be her time. The sooner we finish this, the sooner she can be attended to back at camp."

"Should she not be taken back now?"

"She needs to attend the burial, Highlander. It is her place in the order of things. Her own comfort is of little concern." He gazed at the group of women again, a slight smile on his lips. "Her acceptance and strength are a lesson to all."

He dropped his hand and took the rock from Duncan, carefully adding it to the growing pile. "Do not dishonor her by drawing everyone's attention to what is going on. The women will care for her, as it has always been."

Rashanal's words came back to him as Duncan returned to work. They take care of their own.

And who will take care of you, ra-jamihn? Duncan thought. Who will help you fight your demons?

As the last stones were placed on the cairn, the eerie, ululating sound of the women's grieving raised the hairs on Duncan's arms. It was so different from the quiet, stoic grief of his own people. The sun rested on the horizon like a great eye of flame, wind steady now as the desert began to cool. His eyes burned from dryness and grit, but he felt his skin break out in goose flesh as the warriors of the tribe moved in silent accord toward their mounts, swinging into their saddles in a choreography of grace and billowing robes. Watching Rashanal hoist himself effortlessly to his stallion's back, Duncan felt his breath catch, an involuntary ache squeezing his insides. Demon, indeed. The chill spread over his whole body and heated his insides with the echo of what it was like to surrender to that grace and power.

Three times the tribesmen rode in a circle around the freshly built cairn, crying the names of the fallen warriors aloud -- and then the funeral ceremony was over. As Rashanal had explained, the desert allowed little time for ceremonies for the dead when all the tribe's energy was required to stay alive.

When Rashanal rode back over to where Duncan stood, there was a fierce sorrow in his eyes that showed Duncan exactly how much these people meant to the man, whatever his attempts to keep himself apart. Again he wondered exactly how old this man was, how long he had been on his own. Duncan himself still felt very close to the land of his mortality, to his clan, in spite of their rejection. Would he also, in time, hold himself so apart, among but not of the mortal lives around him? It was an alien, lonely thought.

Night descended as they began the procession homeward; Duncan kept his hand upon the stallion and let Rashanal guide them both through the darkness.

* * *

With a long, parting look he couldn't resist, Methos left the Highlander to care for his stallion and made his way to the healer's tent to check on Ridha, almost hoping to find his condition worsened. It would be simpler if he were to die as a result of the wounds incurred in his following after Rajid. The man lay still, more unconscious than asleep, and after checking his wound and feeling his fevered skin, Methos knew that this night would be the turning point, one way or the other. However, if he still lived in the morning, chances were good that he would heal. Which would make killing the fool that much more satisfying.

Methos sighed and rose from the injured man's pallet. Uncounted centuries had come and gone since killing had been his preferred manner of dealing with his problems, but that didn't mean he couldn't be sorely tempted now and then.

In truth, the thought of the punishment he would have to mete out to his errant warriors made him feel faintly ill. He was concerned, too, about Jaffir. The young man had never been asked to do anything like what he now must do: distribute punishment to his peers, to men he considered his friends, in front of the whole tribe. Life in the desert was harsh, but even so, Methos knew Namal's son had no idea what it would feel like to strike a man who was tied, a man who did not fight back. Well, it was time Jaffir learned what it meant to take responsibility for his tribe's fate.

He left the healer's tent just as Hadiya was coming in, accompanied by his guard. The boy hesitated on the threshold, plainly the worse for wear for having had a day to consider the error of his ways. "Namal said you wished to see me, Sayid?" he said deferentially, unable to meet Methos' gaze for long.

"Outside," Methos said brusquely and swept past him, out into the torch-lit dark. "Where is Liron?"

"Here, Sayid," said a timorous voice. Liron stepped forward into the circle of firelight.

"You may go," Methos said to the guards. Alone with the young men, he looked from Liron to Hadiya, focusing his regard to a fierce, penetrating probe. He saw the effect at once, a visible wave of fear that swept the boys' weary faces, mounting as the silent seconds passed.

At last, he smiled, a feral expression he did not intend should reassure them. "All right, which of you wants to tell me why I shouldn't flay you both and leave you to the jackals?"

* * *

Duncan gave the black one last pat on the rump, pleased by how easy the excitable steed was with him after only a short acquaintance. The stallion nickered softly as he turned and made his way back toward the flickering torches.

At the top of a small rise just above the camp, he paused, closing his eyes. The cool air felt wonderful, in spite of the salt and dust dried on his skin, and the wind that had sprung up at nightfall seemed to be quieting now. Savoring the solitude, he unwrapped his cowl and shook out his hair, letting the wind lift it from his neck. How long had been since he had seen green hills or a rushing waterfall? How long since he had tasted snow...or even a cold rain? And yet, under different circumstances, he thought he might have learned to love the desert, with its stark, inhospitable beauty and its hidden secrets, its fiery, finely bred horses and its mysterious, beautiful peoples.

He opened his eyes and gazed out across the rocky plateau that lay to the north. He'd lost count of the days, but he knew that more than a month had passed since his ship had been taken, somewhere off the coast of North Africa. Barbary Coast pirates had claimed many a commercial vessel in recent years; he and his surviving shipmates were far from the first travelers to be sold inland as slaves. He'd been warned. He'd known the risk.

But never in his most fantastical dreams could he have envisioned the events of the past fortnight. First the pirates, then the further attack on the caravan that had taken him inland. It almost seemed as if circumstances had conspired to bring him to this place.

For a moment, standing there at the edge of camp, Duncan thought once more of escape. He felt the chances were good that if he could only avoid the sentry patrols, he would make it to a city, eventually. That was a big if, of course. But Rashanal could scarcely spare men to go after a slave -- certainly he couldn't spare himself, not now. Here, breathing the sweet taste of freedom on the night air, it was a little more difficult for Duncan to make himself remember why he owed any debt of honor to the man who had paid for him like so much livestock.

As if summoned by his thought, a brush of Presence teased at the edge of his awareness. A flush of tingling response spread through his belly and raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Holding his hair back out of his face, he turned and caught sight of Rashanal himself in a circle of torch light, speaking with two of the tribe's young warriors.

You do please me, Highlander, the husky voice teased in memory.

Aye, and you me, he thought with a wry grin, a lightness spreading through him like starlight on a cool, clear stream. Even if y'are the devil incarnate.

In some curious way, knowing that escape was possible made captivity easier to bear.

Duncan knew he had changed the name of the game this afternoon, and the thought made him hungry to know what that would mean, how it would change things between them. He was not completely without fear. But he knew, now, that the fear was shared -- and he had sensed, in too many moments to count, that the reward would be well worth the price paid on both sides.

He drew a deep breath, realizing what that feeling of lightness was: the absence of a weight that had been pressing on him since he had first admitted his own desire for the other Immortal.

There is freedom to be found in giving over your will to me, as well as your body, Rashanal had said. Now, watching the man's fiercely beautiful profile reflect the play of firelight, Duncan began to understand what that meant...what victory he had won in the moment when he had said 'no.' He had freed himself from the great, crushing weight of his own shame.

* * *

Satisfied that the two youngsters had been duped by the troublemaker Rajid and were genuinely repentant, Methos let them go on their own recognizance. They would be disciplined, forced to perform the least desirable tasks in the camp for some time to come, and he would let Jaffir decide if the whip was necessary. Methos smiled grimly to himself, reflecting that the tongue-lashing he'd given them had been rather inspired and had probably been worse for the two proud boys than any physical punishment.

Methos circled the perimeter of the camp, verifying the alertness and efficiency of his men...and he admitted, denying his overwhelming craving for the Highlander's sweet form and face. Less than an hour the man had been out of his sight. He really had to get himself under control.

Just then, a welcome distraction, Jaffir appeared out of the dark and fell into step with Methos, his expression troubled.

"Souraya?" Methos asked at once, remembering the young woman's difficulty at the burial site.

"Resting, Sayid. Nadima says it will not be long now, a matter of days. Did you speak to Hadiya and Liron?"

"I did, and I believe they were led astray with lies, as Nadima said. Still, they must be punished. I will leave it to you to consider whether hard labor and public disgrace is sufficient."

"Very well, I will think on it tonight."

"What of Soroush?" Jaffir's wince told Methos the outcome of his talk with his friend turned rebel, even before he spoke.

The young man sighed. "I have just come from speaking with him."

"And?"

"I fear my confidence in his motives was not well-placed. Like Rajid, he has let pride blind him to wisdom." Jaffir looked up, grimacing. "He believes you have lost your nerve, Sayid."

Methos' eyes narrowed. "What else, Jaffir? There's something more. Spit it out."

Jaffir looked away. After a long moment, he said reluctantly, "The barbarian slave."

"What of him?"

"Soroush says that... that he has unmanned you, ra-jamihn."

Methos digested that, feeling a chill touch him. "I see. And, tell me...are there others who say this?" When Jaffir was too slow to answer, heat flushed Methos' face. He seized the young man's shoulder and spun Jaffir to face him. "Do you share his opinion, Jaffir El Namal?"

"Lord! No -- !" Jaffir's eyes had gone wide, but he didn't cringe from Methos' fury. "No. I am loyal, my lord. I know you are strong. What you do in your bedchamber is no concern of mine, or any man's."

Appeased slightly, Methos let him go. "But?"

Jaffir drew a deep breath. "But... you have scarcely been seen since you bought him, Lord. Your people see the way you keep him close... the way you hide yourself away with him for hours. And they are afraid of Emad. Some will talk, you must face that."

Methos felt a nameless pressure closing on him. Must he send the Highlander away? The very thought made something inside him rebel, fiercely. He had given years of his life to these people. He would not let them take the one thing --

He cut off that thought brutally, denying it. But he could not deny the way he instinctively reached out, senses searching for the pure, reassuring buzz of the Highlander's Presence. There, on the edge of perception, he felt it -- a low, melodic thrum, a whisper of certainty in his sudden panic.

Calm spread over him. No, he would not let them take what was his -- and he would punish anyone who presumed to tell him what he could and could not choose.

"Thank you, Jaffir, for your candor," Methos said mildly. "You are as valuable an asset as your father before you. Now, you will have Soroush and Rajid lashed to the posts, tonight. Keep them under guard. At sunrise, they will pay for what their 'pride' has bought them."

"Yes, Sayid." Jaffir's tone was subdued, and he wisely said nothing more, but moved to obey at once.

"Jaffir."

"Yes, Lord?" Jaffir turned back.

"Call the elders to my tent, in say, a half hour's time? We will have coffee, confer. It would be good to make sure they are well-informed."

Jaffir smiled, showing a trace of relief. "Yes, ra-jamihn. I think that a very good idea."

Methos watched him leave, wondering what choice he would make if the tribe pushed him, confronted him about his behavior. It almost alarmed him how much pleasure he got from the possibility that they might -- as if all he needed were the excuse.

Turning towards his own tent, he hastened his pace, as if the man awaiting him was exerting some magnetic pull. In spite of the concerns raised by Jaffir's implicit warnings, Methos found his steps light and quick as he moved.

* * *

Duncan reached the tent only shortly before Rashanal himself, having delayed his return, watching the movement in the encampment, the men gathered around the central firepit to mourn their dead in their own way. He was both anticipating and dreading being alone with Rashanal again. Having set new boundaries that morning, he was sure that they would be tested.

He had time only to clear away the shaving things that had been left out in their haste before he heard movement in the other room.

"Highlander."

The tone of voice made Duncan glad he'd not arrived any later. He moved to the outer room and made a brief obeisance. "Yes, Lord?"

"We are having company this evening. The elders of the tribe must be told of my plans. You should fetch some dates and cheese, and you will prepare the coffee."

Duncan bowed his head again and moved to begin preparations, heading for the chest that contained the coffee service, trying to recall all the steps that Namal had so painstakingly led him through. He knew that the ceremony was an expression of the host's hospitality, and he wondered if he would be able to do it to Rashanal's satisfaction.

"Highlander."

Duncan looked up again, seeing that Rashanal had not moved.

"Come here." Rashanal's voice was subtly altered, a slight weight added that sent a shiver of hunger through Duncan as he obeyed. As he moved closer, he saw the heat that warmed Rashanal's eyes, felt the pull of his undeniable attraction. Standing within easy reach, Duncan kept his eyes raised, nervous yet unfearing. Things had changed between them; how much, he had yet to find out, but he knew that Rashanal seemed to feel he himself had as much to lose as Duncan, which was oddly reassuring.

He stood steady under the warm regard as it traveled over his features, the gaze almost palpable. Then he held his breath as it touched his mouth and held, exhaling only as Rashanal bent forward to press his own lips against Duncan's.

It was a caress so light that Duncan wasn't sure that their skin actually touched, as their exhalations ghosted lightly between them. Although it could only have been a few seconds, it seemed an interminable time until Duncan moved himself, unable to stand the teasing. Opening his mouth, he caressed the tip of his tongue along Rashanal's lips, taking the initiative. He groaned as he felt hands sliding into his hair, expecting to be controlled, to be bruised -- and wanting it. But instead the hands were gentle, caressing rather than manipulating, and while the mouth against his firmed, it too remained soothing. The delicacy of the movements were his undoing, and he opened his mouth, sliding his arms around Rashanal's waist, pulling them closer together.

In response, Rashanal angled Duncan's head, still gently, moving his mouth to cross Duncan's, opening to Duncan's exploration. Duncan felt as if there were things being said that he could not quite grasp. Whatever he might have expected, this was not part of it. In some strange fashion, this soft caress seemed more intimate than any of the deeper pleasures they had shared.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the kiss heated. Duncan slid his hands more tightly along Rashanal's hips, pressing the heat of his erection firmly against an answering arousal.

With a choked groan, Rashanal pushed him away. Duncan moved back reluctantly, dazed and breathless. "Rashanal--"

"Hold that thought, Highlander." Rashanal seemed equally breathless. "Soon."

With a nod, Duncan turned back to the chest, struggling to set aside his arousal and focus on his memories of the complex, precise instructions, his mind whirling, trying to sort Namal's words from his own reeling thoughts. They had practiced the ceremony, but he was aware that his skill in this area was lacking. He was very aware of the man behind him and equally aware of a desire to do well by him in front of his people. Opening the lid, he carefully removed the elements of the gahwa ritual: the della, the set of four silver coffee urns used to brew the coffee; the mahmasa, a shallow, long-handled iron pan which would be used to roast the raw beans over the fire; the mahbash, a mortar and pestle used to grind the beans and cardamom for spicing; and finally, a set of nine small cups and a woven platter to set them on for serving.

Duncan had only seen the full ritual once, as Namal talked him through it, but he understood its significance, and he knew as well that the preparations were normally done by the host himself. By having Duncan prepare the coffee, Rashanal was showing the other leaders of the tribe that Duncan was favored above all others, that Duncan was the center of his hospitality and home.

It was a heady thought.

He looked up and caught Rashanal looking at him, and his head inclined in a slight, graceful arc of acknowledgement -- the symbol was both subtle and intentional. With a bow, Duncan left Rashanal to gather the food and the raw coffee beans from the women, his heart lighter than it had been that morning.

Chapter Text

When Duncan arrived back at the tent, the conference was already in progress. The men were seated in a loose circle, all their attention on Rashanal. Duncan recognized Jaffir and Namal, but the other two were unknown to him. Rashanal alone glanced up at his entrance, catching his eye and glancing over him briefly, but continuing his narrative without pause.

Duncan took his cue from the lack of acknowledgment, assuming a slave's invisibility. He slipped past them as unobtrusively as possible and busied himself preparing the coffee beans for roasting, holding them over the flames, stirring them from time to time with the implement connected by its chain to the long-handled iron pan. His attention was split, catching what he could of the conversation while trying to pay heed to his task, not wanting to embarrass Rashanal as host. He strained to discern the direction of the discussion, through tone of voice, if not words. He was so caught up in concentration that he nearly let the beans roast too long. Catching them in time, he set them aside to cool for grinding, then moved on to his other tasks.

He filled one of the largest pots with water and set it in front of the fire to warm. He then arranged the food on a tray and knelt to place it on the low table in front of the men. As he started to rise, Duncan felt a light touch skim the back of his neck. He stilled, hardly daring to acknowledge the absent caress, but Rashanal was deep in conversation, the agitated talk too quick for Duncan to follow. The few words he caught conveyed little to him, though he heard the name Emad several times.

But the words were like music, and Rashanal's fingers under his hair a welcome, gentle contact, so Duncan stayed as he was, momentarily giving himself over to the sensation and the way his body responded to Rashanal's touch. The curve of his neck seemed to be growing more and more sensitive to that touch; even this brief stroking splintered through his body in little shards of heat. He could not help but press back into the caress a little, but that seemed to draw Rashanal's attention to what he was doing, and the hand quietly fell away.

Duncan became aware of two sets of eyes watching him--the two men he had yet to meet. The lean, clean-shaven man stared at him coldly down his hawk-like nose, his features stiff. The other, shorter and somewhat stout, seemed more curious than anything, his brief regard noncommittal. Duncan lowered his eyes, filing away his impression that they appeared to be more interested in what Rashanal did than what he said. As unobtrusively as possible, he rose and went to finish preparing the coffee.

It seemed to him that this small incident changed the tenor of the discussion. The hawk-nosed man now interrupted Rashanal, and though Namal seemed to make a move to suppress him, Duncan glanced up in time to see Rashanal raise his hand slightly, as if to motion his advisor back into his seat. Rashanal's expression hardened almost imperceptibly, and Duncan realized how quickly he had learned to read that expressive, mobile face. Rashanal's antagonist had plainly failed to cultivate this skill. His tone became harsher and uglier, and Duncan watched Rashanal grow colder and more still.

Namal caught his eye with a meaningful frown, and Duncan flushed slightly. The last thing he wished was to feel that coldness directed at him for neglecting his duties. Returning to his task, he found the beans sufficiently cool and poured them into the mahbash with a measure of cardamom, grinding into the mortar with the pestle, tapping the side of the dish periodically to keep the grounds and spices from sticking. Namal had said something about this part of the process being particularly integral to the ritual, but then, he had also said that it was customary for the host to prepare the coffee personally.

Duncan frowned and turned a troubled gaze toward the circle of men, absorbed in their heated discussion, as it occurred to him that Rashanal's assignment of this task to an uncouth, barbarian slave might not be the simple acknowledgment of value for which he had taken it. Exactly what message was Rashanal sending to his advisors? Was he simply using Duncan in some subtle struggle with his own people?

* * *

Methos reminded himself to remain calm, but he could already see that Sulayman was determined to push him into a confrontation. The herdmaster's contempt permeated the discussion of resources, and he seemed to have a negative opinion about everything Methos said. Worse, as the discussion dragged on, Methos was too aware of Duncan's presence, too distracted by the curious, dark-eyed glances, the way the Highlander's careful concentration found expression in his graceful movements -- and Sulayman seemed all too aware of his distraction.

When at last Duncan brought the coffee, his self-consciousness plain in the painstaking care he took with the tray, Sulayman's mouth drew into a hard line. The Highlander lowered himself smoothly to sit on his haunches, offering the tray with the pot of steaming gahwa and the small cups to Methos. A small flicker of pride touched Methos. Namal could not have had time to do more than give the slave the barest necessary instruction, but Duncan had not disappointed him. Composed, the Highlander waited now for Methos to serve, as a host always did.

Methos measured the herdmaster with his gaze. The censure from this quarter was somewhat unexpected -- Sulayman had always been one of his most reliable men -- but the man had plainly made his choice. Perhaps he was friendly with the traitor, Rajid? Frankly, Methos didn't care. Again, the dangerous, reckless urges flickered, and if he hadn't been certain before, he was now: one way or another, his time in this place was coming to an end. If this prideful fool wanted to force Methos into a confrontation, so be it.

"You may serve," he murmured, to the man he claimed before all of them, the man who awaited his command.

Duncan started almost imperceptibly, surprise and uncertainty touching his face. But to his credit, his hesitation lasted less than a second; he turned, set the tray on the low table, and began to pour the fragrant brew. He served Methos first, his eyes questioning wordlessly as the small cup passed between them. Methos gave him no sign save the slightest encouraging nod.

Namal said nothing as the Highlander served him next, but his eyes spoke his opinion eloquently. Methos knew that it exasperated the man that his ra-jamihn had never been overly concerned with the strict observance of tradition, but a slave serving gahwa...it simply wasn't done. It was clearly a message, aimed directly at Sulayman -- or any man who challenged the chieftain's right to do as he pleased; everyone in the room knew it. Jaffir and the other man, Selim, accepted their cups and sipped from them in silence. Methos could barely keep his amusement in check.

It occurred to him, watching the Highlander carefully pour and serve the spiced coffee to each man in turn, that Duncan could not have understood most of what had been said. And yet he played his part in this entertaining little drama so flawlessly, so intuitively, that he might have been reading Methos' thoughts. This both pleased and irritated him; he knew he would have it no other way, but the man seemed to know him too well in too short a time. It made him feel naked, vulnerable in some dangerous way.

Duncan came last to Sulayman. Face full of dark thunder, the herdmaster did not even acknowledge the offered cup, turning instead to Methos, his outrage barely contained. Rashly, he spoke out, his words falling like salt on Methos' already tender psyche.

"Lord, I fear you do not recognize the seriousness of our situation."

Slowly sipping on the spiced brew, Methos regarded him calmly, saying nothing.

Impatience colored the other man's tone. "Saying we have resources to match Emad's does not make it so!"

"What are you getting at?" Methos' tone was mild.

Sulayman looked around the circle at the other men, seeking support. His eyes rested a moment too long on the slave, his lip curling. "You waste time with these...games, lord, while Emad bides his time and watches us turn on one another." He leaned forward. "Two of your best warriors are caged, ridiculed throughout the camp, Rashanal. Two more are dead -- warriors we cannot spare."

"Traitors, you mean."

"Some might say they were loyal to the tribe." Even in his anger, the man did not quite meet his chief's eyes as he said this.

Methos set his cup down slowly. "Speak plainly, Sulayman. Who says?"

Sulayman said nothing, but his tense, angry posture said it for him.

"I see," Methos said thoughtfully, eyes narrowing. "You question my loyalty."

The other man raised his chin. "No, my lord. Not your loyalty." Again he looked at the Highlander, and the unspoken was crystal clear.

"Enough!" Namal broke in angrily. "You forget your place, herdmaster. You speak of turning on one another, and even as you speak the words, you nip at your master's heel like a wild dog. You should know better!"

"I only say what you are all afraid to say," Sulayman retorted.

At that, Methos raised an eyebrow. "Really."

Sulayman made a visible effort to control his temper, as if realizing he'd gone too far. "I am only counseling prudence, my lord. The tribe needs a strong leader now."

Methos' answer was soft, cold as steel. "It has one, Sulayman. One who does not show clemency to traitors. Do I make myself clear?"

Stiffly, the herdmaster inclined his head. "As you say, my lord." His jaw tightened. "What is to become of Rajid, then?"

"Jaffir," Methos said, still holding the herdmaster's gaze, "tomorrow you will see to it that the entire tribe is gathered in the hour before dawn. With the sunrise, you will see to Soroush...thirty lashes, I think. As for Rajid, he will take his fifty from my hand, and when I have finished, he is to hang there for the rest of the day, with no food or water until nightfall. If he lives, he may rejoin the tribe as your slave."

Sulayman shot to his feet. "My lord!" He pulled his robes in close to him, plainly shocked; even Selim and Jaffir seemed a bit stunned by the pronouncement. Sulayman's eyes showed his disbelief. "Are we all to become barbarians now, like your new pet? Fifty will kill him! And to make him a slave on top of that--"

Methos rose to his full height, towering over the other man by a good half foot. "He is a traitor! By rights, his life is mine. By law, he should be dead." He looked to Namal, who nodded.

"As it is written. We live by Rashanal's hand."

Methos saw Jaffir and Selim nod slightly, acknowledging the truth they all lived by. He turned back to Sulayman, daring the man to push him just one...more...inch. "Now, unless you have something else to say about matters that do not concern you,I suggest you sit down and rethink your own loyalties, herdmaster. And forget about that slow-witted, arrogant fool, Rajid. He has made himself a liability, and we have matters of much greater importance to discuss."

For a long moment, Sulayman held his stance, and Methos almost wished he would refuse. But at last, slowly, the man nodded and stiffly resumed his seat.

* * *

Duncan had held himself quiet and restrained during the confrontation; whatever was said, he felt himself well out of it. The tone of Rashanal's voice was cold and deadly in his anger, and having been on the receiving end of that lash of a tongue, he felt a certain pity for the other man. At the same time, he felt a surge of pleasure when the man backed down and resumed his place. When they resettled, Duncan refilled their cups a second time, and this time he was ignored by all.

The discussion continued, apparently on less dangerous ground, and Duncan watched as Rashanal managed to weave the men into general accord; even the sharp-featured man, whose coffee sat cold in front of him, eventually nodded reluctantly in agreement. The satisfaction in Rashanal's tone was clear, but not gloating, simply that of a leader who had achieved his goal. Duncan watched him closely, realizing that whatever his experience of the man, Namal spoke only truth when he said that he had the loyalty of his people.

It was a disturbing thought that Duncan himself had become a source of conflict between the man and his tribe, through no fault of his own. He chewed on that thought, waiting for cups to be empty again. After a third refilling, at Namal's nod, he glanced briefly at Rashanal and found those quixotic eyes on him. Rashanal nodded his dismissal, and Duncan retreated to clean up and leave the council in peace.

He removed the grounds to the largest pot, wiping down the unneeded dishes and storing them away again. When he finished, not knowing what else to do, he slipped into the inner chamber. From Rashanal's reaction that morning, he thought it best to stay close. Moving in the darkness, he located lamps by touch and lit them, staring into the kindled light for long moments, resting in this place where, for a time, he was truly alone and not merely unseen. Looking around in the soft light, he saw the mild disarray of the morning still in evidence -- the water basin, the towels, the razor...the bowl with its shining coin. Had it really been such a short time since he'd found that waiting for him, a clear reminder of their bargain? He smiled grimly as he remembered the confrontation that had followed, remembered that whatever happened now, things had changed. As harsh as the reminder of the coin had seemed, now it served to reassure him that no matter how bad it got -- no matter how good it got -- there was an end to it. At some point, whatever he took away from here would be a lesson to carry with him, to help him survive.

He tidied up the shaving items, flickers of memories from that morning stirring in his eyes, his hands -- his mouth. It had not taken him long as an Immortal to learn that he remembered things differently than most, that where most mortals caught a scent and tied it vaguely to something they almost remembered, he was both blessed and cursed with a memory that captured scents, tastes, textures precisely and replayed them even years later. The room was filled with the scent of his captor; he couldn't move without breathing him in. Without consciously deciding to, he picked up a towel that lay where Rashanal had thrown it. He held it to his face and inhaled that so familiar scent, let it flood his body with sense-memories that had him aching and tender in seconds. Closing his eyes, he let the feel of long fingers run over his body, warm lips, rough-haired limbs. His senses stirred and throbbing, he waited.

That was perhaps the worst of it: the waiting, reminding him that he lived only to serve Rashanal, that beyond his Master's needs, he had none of his own. He was not a man used to waiting solely on the needs of another. Yes, he had served as a soldier, obeying the commands of his superiors; he had been a servant of sorts, serving the specialized needs of those who hired him as a bodyguard, a protector. But always he had had some freedom, some time of his own. This was different. And even though he kept telling himself that his thoughts and feelings were his own, he wondered if he were merely deceiving himself in this, as well as in so many other counts.

Each time those glittering eyes looked at him, he felt spread open, laid bare before the persistent gaze. It was the first thing he had seen of the man, and Duncan was quite sure that those sea-gilt eyes, so alien to this desert clime, would haunt him long after he was gone from this place. And just thinking of those eyes on him now brought heat to his blood, reminding him of his unsated desire of the morning, his flesh still sore with unspent need.

Turning his attention outward, he could hear the liquid murmurs of Rashanal's voice, the deep tones insinuating themselves into his need, stimulating his desire to hear that voice in tones of passion. Moving to the bed, he discarded his garments, noting almost absently that nudity had begun to feel almost more natural than being clothed.

Laying back, his head and shoulders propped against the pillows, he felt the rough weave of the fabric as it caught at the hairs of his arms and legs, sensitizing him further. Still with the memory of those eyes on him, he rested one arm over his own eyes, focusing on the murmurs from the other room and the feel of his other hand sliding over his heated skin. He stroked his palm along his chest, feeling the roughness of hair against his palm, the contrast with the soft skin of his sides, the raised, soft nubs of his nipples. With his fingertips he teased them into peaks, scraping lightly with his nails, each touch shivering through him, ghost-eyes watching him in his mind.

Spreading his legs, he felt the heavy weight between them, his sex arching against his belly. Stroking along his abdomen, he felt the wet brush of the tip against the backs of his fingers and resisted the urge to wrap his hand around his length, preferring to tease himself, to keep himself aroused and waiting, remembering. In a strange way, imagining Rashanal's eyes on him, it became something more than simply touching himself. Even without the presence of the man himself, Duncan knew that he was doing this for Rashanal, preparing himself, holding himself back in preparation for Rashanal's pleasure.

* * *

Methos rose as the other men left the tent, and he closed the tent openings after them, watching the fabric fall into place. Torn, he glanced back toward the inner space, where his slave would be waiting for him. His blood surged into his cock, reminding him that the Highlander would be naked and waiting -- and Methos tried to push the thought away. He should focus now on what was happening within the tribe, figure out some new plan...but his body demanded he return to the Highlander's side.

He found himself of two minds, caught between the needs of two separate masters. He smiled to himself. At least the desire he felt was his own, as opposed to the demands placed on him by the tribe. He felt beset on every side; he itched to break his traces for awhile, to have some time to think.

But he would take the Highlander with him this time. A reward for having performed his duties so well. His cock reminded him of the other tasks at which the Highlander excelled, and inwardly he laughed at his justifications. In truth, he hungered to get the Highlander alone simply to have him all to himself, to not have to think about all the people around them listening, watching, knowing. To possess him, utterly, and not share even the smallest part of him -- not one groan, or sigh, or low-throated cry of passion.

Methos opened the flap to the inner chamber, telling himself that the ride would be good for them both, yet knowing it was a fragile half-truth.

The sight that greeted him stole his breath.

As Methos' eyes fell on the shameless, gloriously aroused form displayed before him, his thoughts evaporated like water under the desert sun, and he stared at the feast before him. He didn't even notice the tent flap closing behind him, his entire being centered on the reclined, naked figure waiting impatiently on his bed.

Focused so completely on thoughts of Rashanal's pleasure, Duncan failed to realize that the voices from the other room had ceased until he heard the curtain between the rooms drawn back. A shudder of pleasure prickled through him, knowing that the gaze he had so vividly imagined was now real, that he was seen with his legs spread, waiting and open, pleasuring himself. He ruthlessly suppressed the accompanying flare of shyness. He knew how Rashanal reacted to his body, how his eyes watched him. Things had changed between them, and part of that change was the realization that he had power of his own.

He left his eyes closed, still covered by his arm, not quite ready to admit that what he was doing, he did deliberately under Rashanal's intense gaze. He slid his free hand down to cup his cock and balls, pulling them up and squeezing them roughly, his attention split between the stimulation of his flesh and such reaction of his audience as he could hear. Pulling harder, groaning at a sharp inhalation, Duncan cupped and lifted his sac, pressing it up against his sex, rolling it in one hand before holding it pressed out of the way with his wrist, legs spreading wider to give his fingertips access. He could hear the harshness of his own breath as his fingers skimmed lightly up and down, stroking the sensitive skin bared to Rashanal's gaze, pressing lightly against the puckered opening, and he heard the other man's breathing quicken in response.

"Look at me."

With no thought of resistance, Duncan moved his arm away and looked at the other man, standing just inside the doorway, his eyes hot and bright. Still teasing his opening, Duncan moved his other hand down to resume stroking his cock, eyes locked on Rashanal's intense features. As Rashanal watched, his hands began to flex, as if in rhythm with Duncan's stroking, and he groaned harshly and took a few steps forward, as if ineluctably drawn. Feeling his power, Duncan penetrated himself, spread himself open, as excited by the eyes moving over his body as the feel of his fingers working inside him. They stood there silently, and Duncan curled up slightly, probing himself deeper, stilling the hand stroking his cock as his orgasm threatened to overwhelm him.

"Don't stop. I want to see you come."

Rashanal's voice was thick and hot, acting on Duncan's senses like potent wine, and as before, there was no thought of stopping, no ability to stop, even if the will had been there. Watching Rashanal watching him, reacting to every glance, every breath, watching his fingers flex, watching him draw near until he stood at the foot of the bed, and Duncan would have sworn that he could feel the heat radiating off the man's body in waves. His own building orgasm shivered through him, leaving him feeling alternately hot and chilled. Rashanal's locked with his, piercing him, penetrating him, then dropping to where Duncan was fucking himself, watching his fingers slide in and out.

Then he spoke again, a single word, his voice harsh and guttural:

"Come."

And again, Duncan had no will, nor desire, to resist.

* * *

Watching him come, watching the delicious clench and quiver of muscle, the sudden stillness and the unguarded, transcendent vulnerability of the Highlander's climax as it washed over the man's taut belly, his flushed, expressive face as he found release in a low, keening sigh of ecstasy...Methos could not remember when he had seen anything so beautiful, or so gut-wrenchingly erotic. For a moment, he couldn't breathe. His body ached, throbbed in sympathy with the strong, fast pulses of the other man's orgasm; even his skin felt hot, imagining the silken fluid spattering his own belly, imagining the sounds the other man was making captured in his own mouth, the feel of the soft, hot tongue.

He hadn't really meant to speak, hadn't meant to say the word that would grant release. But he had been so riveted, so focused in the other man's unselfconscious eroticism, that his hunger for the gift offered had won out over his own body's pleas.

Sudden, fierce joy sparked in him, a small and unexpected ember near the center of his chest. He was extraordinary, this one -- everything Methos had sensed that day in the market and more. Methos pushed him, hard, but instead of breaking, instead of fighting it, he learned. And he was so maddeningly brave. How long had it been since Methos had seen such beautiful, foolish courage? Naive and inexperienced as he seemed at times, the Highlander was no innocent. But even now -- especially now, lost as he was in his own earthy sensuality -- there was something so pure about him, so addicting.

Methos broke the momentary thrall that had held him and moved, his aroused body flowing sensuously over the dazed, trembling man on the bed. A soft moan followed his movements, the dark lashes fluttering as the slave shivered under him, over-stimulated nerves jumping at the friction of Methos' robes. Hands came up to grip Methos' arms in strong, unmistakable welcome.

"Oh, Highlander," Methos murmured, momentarily arrested by the artlessness, the manifest absence of fear in that gesture. "You are a prize, aren't you." He brushed his lips along the curve of one dark brow, then drew back and devoured the slave's face with his gaze, consuming every eloquent contour of vivid surrender written there. The slave's flushed lips sought Methos' cheek, the line of his jaw; Duncan shifted against him, turning his face into Methos' throat, and Methos had to close his eyes. His body cried for contact, begged for the other man's heat. He longed to press himself into the sweet juncture between the slave's thighs. With effort, he resisted the urge. He wanted more. Wanted so much it had him shaking with the wanting, with the certainty that every step he took with this man was a step down some path to destruction.

Oh, sweet and bitter Providence that had brought him such a one as this, when he had been alone too long, captive to his responsibility too long. Or had he been content and only felt the restlessness since he'd taken the slave? He couldn't seem to remember, now, couldn't seem to feel anything but the conflicting, ever-deepening desires that ate at him night and day, body and mind.

Swept by a swift current of dangerous hunger, Methos wrapped the long, dark skeins of the Highlander's hair around his fists, pulling the man's head back until his throat arched invitingly. Duncan made a soft sound of discomfort -- but yielded easily, without resistance, as Methos bent his head for a rash of fierce, sucking bites along the sweetly pulsing, muscular throat.

The slave gasped, shuddering hard beneath him, and breathed a question. "Ra-jamihn?"

"Just making certain you were paying attention," Methos said huskily. "Answer me now. What did you think you were doing, pleasuring yourself so?"

Duncan stilled. The dark eyes opened, searching his face, as if testing how his response might be received.

"The truth," Methos urged.

"I...thought to please you," Duncan said hoarsely.

Methos held his gaze mercilessly, finding only honesty there. "You have seen me look at you. You know I find pleasure in your face, your form?"

The Highlander's breathing had steadied somewhat. Now he answered with more surety and an edge of desire. "Yes, ra-jamihn."

"And you had no thought of exerting your own power over me?" Methos smiled as Duncan's face flushed.
He brushed his fingertips across the dark brow he had kissed, smoothing forehead and cheek almost fondly. "You must be wary of pride, Highlander. It is your Achilles heel. You understand?"

Taken slightly aback by the warning, or the caress, the slave nodded hesitantly.

"What else?" Methos prompted.

Duncan swallowed slightly, but his gaze didn't falter. "Your voice, ra-jamihn."

Methos waited expectantly.

"I was listening to you. In the next room."

"And?"

"It...aroused me."

A slow smile reached Methos' lips. "Very good, Duncan. You have pleased me. And you have most definitely--" he bent to taste the salt hollow of the other man's throat, closing his eyes at the warm musk scent "--aroused me." Duncan's face turned to his, the slave's mouth openly seeking his with sweet, unvarnished willingness. Methos allowed it, and they kissed deeply for long moments, not hurrying. The flames in Methos' body burned high and strong--but the longing for privacy, for open space, was stronger.

At last he broke the kiss and moved, pulling the other man up with him. "Get dressed. I have something I want to show you." The dark eyes rose to his, asking a question, the faint shadow of disappointment clear.

Full of sudden lightness, Methos couldn't help smiling. "Don't worry, Highlander. The night is young."

* * *

Beneath the swath of fabric that protected his face, Duncan grinned fiercely, tasting victory in the surging rhythm under the grip of his straining thigh muscles, the vast dome of glittering stars overhead, the thunder of his own heartbeat. Whatever he had expected, it had not been this wild, exhilarating taste of freedom -- and he hadn't known how badly he needed it until Rashanal gave it to him. Now he seized the gift with both hands and all the skill he could muster, eager to meet the desert chieftain's challenge.

Christ, but these beasts were fast, he thought, bending low over his mount's neck and urging her on with his voice and his hands. They looked as slender as deer to him, accustomed as he was to the sturdier beasts of the north, but he'd never seen a steed as fast. The grey's hooves flew over the packed earth at a breathtaking pace, barely seeming to touch the ground as they raced across the valley floor, less than two lengths off the tail of Rashanal's magnificent black. No wonder the Bedouin said that God had fashioned them out of the wind. They didn't seem to run so much as fly.

Rashanal, riding with the ease of a man who'd been born to it, looked back over his shoulder as they began the long run up a steep rise. Duncan couldn't see anything but his eyes, but he knew the man was laughing, as caught up as he in the thrill of the race.

"It will never happen, Highlander!" Rashanal cried, exuberant, the laughter in his voice.

"Come on girl," Duncan urged the mare, sensing her willingness. She didn't like running in the other mount's dust any more than he did. He squeezed harder with his legs, and she answered with a surge of speed.

Pulling alongside Rashanal's stallion, for a moment they were in synch, his horse and Rashanal's surging up the hill shoulder to shoulder. Perhaps a quarter of a mile ahead, Duncan could see the top of the rise; without any spoken agreement, he knew the plateau was the finish line. Beside him, he could feel the power of the stallion, the fierce determination of its rider as Rashanal mirrored his own posture, flattening himself to his mount's neck. A flash of black robe, of pale hands, and Rashanal cried something in Arabic that the wind whipped away.

It was a game, but it was also more than that, and Duncan felt a surge of adrenaline as he caught the other man's intensity. Like everything between them, this race was a contest of wills. But now, for the first time, they met on truly equal ground -- and suddenly Duncan wanted to win with a potent, overwhelming desire. With a fierce battle cry, he lowered his hands and dug his heels into the mare's sides, willing her to give him one last burst of strength and speed.

And she gave it to him, stretching her lovely long neck out, eating up the earth with her stride.

Impossibly, the grey began to gain on Rashanal's black. Even racing uphill, even with a good fifteen pounds handicap, still she gained. The ground began to level out; neck and neck, the two horses reached the last stretch before the ridge and lengthened their strides into a flat gallop. Grinning with terror and exhilaration at the incredible speed, Duncan found there was no need to urge his mount forward. It was all he could do to hold on as with a tremendous surge the grey leapt up the last little incline to reach the top of the ridge, half a length in front.

He gave an exultant shout of victory, straightening in the saddle, but letting the horse run herself out. Elation pulsed heavily through his body, and he found himself full of a free, singing joy, a sense of rightness with the night, the desert, the game little grey mare, and all the world. Hearing the slackening cadence of the stallion's hooves just behind him, he slowed his mount and turned to meet the other man's laughing eyes. The strange feeling persisted, that this was an hour out of time, that here, tonight, they could be equals of a sort, with no one to see, or to know.

"What took you so long?" Duncan grinned breathlessly, pulling the cloth away from his mouth and gentling the mare to a trot as Rashanal came alongside.

"Insolent barbarian," answered Rashanal, but his tone was indulgent as he bared his own face. He was breathing hard, too, but rather than being vexed at his defeat, he seemed oddly pleased. "I can see you're going to be insufferable. Now I'll have to teach you the consequences of a lack of proper humility." He pulled his horse up and let the stallion settle into a walk.

Following suit, Duncan guided the lathered mare in a circle, then urged her into step with the black. He rubbed her withers, crooning softly at her. "That's my girl. What a beauty you are." He looked at Rashanal. "She's extraordinary. I've never seen her like."

"Nor will you," Rashanal murmured, gentling his own mount. "Her sire was unmatched in his day."

"What is her name?"

"Mujannah Faniyya," Rashanal said, the fluid syllables rolling on his tongue.

Duncan grinned. "If you say so."

Rashanal's eyes crinkled in a smile. "Bright boy."

In comfortable silence, they walked the horses out. Overhead, the sky was clear and full of brilliant stars, seeming close enough to touch. Duncan stole glances at the other man from time to time, unable to keep his eyes from that severe profile, so strikingly beautiful in the moonlight now that he was relaxed, at ease. Duncan hadn't realized how much humor there was in the man when you took away the weight of responsibility.

They had nearly reached the sharp drop-off at the far edge of the mesa, and the horses slowed to a halt. "Look," said Rashanal, and Duncan did.

The sight that greeted him stole his breath for a moment. He had known they were on a plateau, but until now he had not really sensed their true altitude. Before them, the mesa dropped away sharply in two-thousand-foot cliffs; below them, the true heart of the desert stretched away in a stark, beautiful landscape of sand and more sand. On the plateau, there was life: vegetation and small creatures that lived under rocks and under the ground. Water was rare, but there was enough moisture to sustain those who made their home here. Below were only curving, unmarred dunes.

In the silence and solitude, it suddenly struck Duncan what Rashanal had done in giving him a horse, in taking him away from the camp, the guards. Out here, all bets were off. Duncan might easily make a run for it, with no guarantee that Rashanal could stop him, alone. A chill gripped Duncan's insides as other possibilities arose. Could Rashanal mean to kill him? Out here, the Quickening would be just another distant desert storm. But that made no sense; Rashanal had given him a young mare without equal for speed -- he'd admitted as much. And he had acted as though it meant nothing, as if the thought of Duncan escaping had never occurred to him.

Duncan realized that the thought of Rashanal taking his head had never occurred to him -- no more than the thought of escape had.

Shaken, he turned to find Rashanal watching him, his expression amused, as if he'd followed each of Duncan's thoughts.

"I suppose that answers that question, doesn't it?" Rashanal murmured, one eyebrow rising.

Duncan knew his face was betraying his confusion. "Was it a test?" he asked, when he could find his voice.

But Rashanal shook his head, his face less guarded than it had ever been. "No," he said, with the ring of truth. "A reward, of sorts. You did so well tonight, I thought you deserved one."

Somehow, it rocked Duncan even more profoundly to think that Rashanal, too, had been caught off guard by the undeniable truth of their trust in one another. The other man's face was ephemeral in the moonlight, the eyes shadowed amber; his pale skin looked as cool and smooth as stone. They were sitting very close, their horses quiet beneath them, and Duncan felt the sudden, almost irresistible urge to reach out and reassure himself of something he couldn't name.

But Rashanal turned away, gazing out across the dunes, his hands resting easily on the saddle. "Al Khamsa," he murmured bemusedly, as if to himself.

Duncan waited, but no elaboration was forthcoming.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand."

Rashanal stroked his stallion's neck, and the beast whickered softly in answer. At last he began, "The Bedouin say that all great horses come from the Al Khamsa...the five favorite mares of Muhammad. There is a legend that tells of a tribe of Bedouin who, after a long journey in the desert, released their horses to run to a watering hole to quench their thirst." He glanced at Duncan. "As a test of their loyalty, the mares were called back to their masters before reaching the water, and of the many mares, only five returned faithfully without drinking. These became the five original favorite mares of the Bedouin, and each was given a name which would be carried on by its descendants."

Mujannah Faniyya, who had breathed a great deal of dust during the headlong gallop across the plain, chose just that moment to startle herself with a great sneeze that almost unseated the Highlander. Abashed, she shook herself and ducked her head as if embarrassed to have interrupted.

A moment later, both men started to laugh. They looked at each other, and it occurred to Duncan that he had never seen this man laugh before, not like this. It was a sight he wanted to see again, many times.

"I don't think she believes the legend," he said at last, still chuckling.

"Well, she would know," said Rashanal, which only started them off again.

And just as it came to Duncan how very good it felt to laugh like this with him, he found that they weren't laughing any more. In fact, Rashanal was watching him, an intent, unreadable look on his face...and before Duncan thought about what he was doing, he had leaned over, closed his eyes, and pressed his parted lips to that soft, warm mouth.

Chapter Text

Methos held his breath as Duncan leaned toward him, closing his eyes at the touch of those sensuous lips. His acquiescence made the Highlander bold, and Methos found his mouth opened to a hungry exploration. He leaned into the kiss, nudging his stallion closer so that he could slip one hand into Duncan's cowl, curling his palm around the other man's neck. He shivered as Duncan's hands slid into his hair, feeling the scarcely restrained power of the man's desire. He felt a brief longing to give in to that power, to let the slave take control for once, to surrender to his own needs. This yearning arose in him as a betraying, broken murmur, lost in the angry nicker of the stallion as he danced away from the mare, breaking the embrace.

Taking a deep breath, Methos laughed again, relieving some of the tension as he saw the grey tossing her head impertinently.

"She seems to have taken a liking to you, Highlander." He grinned. "She is jealous."

Smiling, Duncan bent to stroke her neck and whisper soothing words in her ear. "I could grow fond of her, as well. Any beast that cares not to be bested by even her master..." He looked up wickedly.

Methos threw his head back and laughed long and hard. Catching his breath, he looked over at the grinning, bemused Highlander. "I see I shall have to keep my eye on you, to see you do not best me, as well."

The other man ducked his head, still stroking the grey's neck nervously, his smile in place, but his tone more serious. "Ye need not fear, ra-jamihn. If naught else, you have my word."

"Indeed I do, Highlander." Methos reined his horse closer, not certain what possessed him to add in a low, intimate tone, "Is that all I have?"

In the sharp moonlight, Duncan's brow furrowed, and the smile faded. His voice was rough when he spoke. "You know that it is not."

Methos felt the words piercing him, sewing his throat closed against intemperate speech, sliding in to stir the ember that had banked its heat during the exhilarating race, and he feared the renewed joy that flared up. "Oh, Highlander," he breathed. "You will be my destruction."

They stared at each other for long moments until the animals beneath them grew restless. Methos smiled, relieved at the distraction. "Shall we give them a rest?" He patted his stallion's neck. "I'm sure they would enjoy the moment as much as we would." He glanced back at his slave and let his eyes slide over the man's body, remembering the feel of it beneath him. "Or perhaps not quite as much..." He grinned at the answering heat in Duncan's eyes. "Come, let us take care of the horses, so we can enjoy the night in peace."

* * *

Duncan felt clumsy and awkward as they dismounted and settled the animals, rubbing them down and tethering them near a patch of brush. For the duration of the race, he had forgotten everything else. These emotional upheavals were dizzying, repeatedly carrying him to unexpected heights and pushing him over some treacherous, unseen ledge, jarring him with the fall.

The night was cold, and Duncan wrapped himself more tightly in his cloak, staring out over the desert, seeing its stark beauty, the moonlight turning it into a mosaic of dark and light. He pondered his own words that had revealed so much. He suspected that it was the willing admission Rashanal had sought, rather than the simple confirmation of what he surely already knew. Duncan had been unable to lie to him, seeing in Rashanal's shadowed eyes, and hearing in his voice, that the answer Duncan made was important.

More and more, he felt his lack of control, but he sensed that Rashanal felt a similar lack; whether he had given it up, or had it wrest from him, Duncan could not begin to tell.

Rashanal's voice came from behind him. Low, intimate, it stirred his blood. "It is beautiful, is it not? So different from your homeland."

Duncan smiled at the echo of his own thoughts. "Aye, it is. You have been there?"

"Once upon a time. I have been many places."

Storing this tidbit of information, Duncan pursued the hint, eager to learn more of this cryptic man. "And your own homeland?"

There was silence for a moment. "I couldn't tell you."

Duncan turned in surprise, speaking without thought, seduced by the ease between them. "Cannot? Or will not?"

Rashanal's tone was harsh. "Have a care, Highlander. Do not take the freedoms I allow you as license."

Duncan's face grew warm, and he turned back to the desert. "I did not--"

Fingertips over his lips cut him off, brushing his cheek before pulling away. "I know. You are a naturally curious creature, and your own openness does not consider that another might be less so."

"I intended no disrespect, ra-jamihn." He heard movement behind him and closed his eyes as the hood of his cloak was pulled aside to allow Rashanal to press his mouth against Duncan's throat. The murmur in his ear was apologetic.

"Nor did I, Duncan. I am old and set in my ways, too used to keeping my own counsel."

The word escaped too quickly to bite it back. "How--?"

Duncan felt Rashanal's lips curve into a smile, and the amusement was plain in his voice. "Older than I look. Did no one ever teach you that it is impolite to press another Immortal for such details?" Duncan shivered as sharp teeth closed over his earlobe, tugging lightly before pulling back. "Survival can depend on seeming less than you are. Consider that a free lesson."

Duncan felt hot chills as that insidious mouth began nibbling along the curve of his throat. Rashanal slid his arm around Duncan's waist, pulling him back until their bodies were pressed tight. Duncan leaned into the caress, closing his eyes, his mind slipping back to the oasis, when they had been pressed like this in such opposite circumstances. He shuddered as Rashanal nipped at his throat, echoing the bite of his sword. Somewhere, somehow, Duncan had given himself over to this man, as surely as if he had offered him his head. He had no reason to trust him, to believe that he would stand by his word -- but Duncan knew he would. He had not felt such implicit trust in another since he had achieved his Immortality -- and that both delighted and terrified him.

Duncan turned in the other man's embrace, pushing such thoughts away, striving to put them back on equal footing, but aware of his own desire not to have conflict between them, at least for the night. He leaned forward and brushed his lips along Rashanal's. "I do not always need a teacher."

"No," Rashanal spoke slowly, softly, their mouths less than an inch apart. "You do not."

"But there are some things I would like to be taught." Duncan slid his hands up Rashanal's arms, cupping his face in his hands. Breathless, he dared, "I would like to know what pleases you. I would like to know how you want to be touched."

"Would you, indeed," Rashanal murmured, eyes lifting to Duncan's with an unmistakable gleam.

Meeting that enigmatic gaze, the sudden memory of Rashanal's possession hit Duncan low in the belly, spreading slow heat through him. Did Rashanal know that feeling? That forbidden, all-consuming pleasure such possession could awaken inside a man? Of course he must, the devastating answer came, for how else could he have known? How else could he have wrenched such complete surrender from Duncan's body?

Jolted by the realization, Duncan nearly spoke the question aloud; he bit the words back just in time. But he couldn't hold back the swift wave of desire that swept through him at the thought. He closed the distance to Rashanal's mouth with eager, seeking hunger.

* * *

This time the kiss was no tender caress, but a demanding assault. Methos closed his eyes, yielding in spite of himself to the Highlander's urgency. His mouth sought the pleasure of that onslaught of wet heat with equal fervor, and he tried dizzily to remember to breathe, steadying himself against the other man's body as he opened to that seeking, stroking tongue. The scent of cardamom wafted to him on the night air -- cardamom and coffee, blended on the slave's skin from the man's earlier labors.

The scent stirred him, and it was too tempting, out here where there were no witnesses, no reminders of responsibility to break the spell of mutual desire. Too easy to let this moment outside of time become more than it was -- to give in, just for one night, to the deeply buried longings he would not acknowledge.

He lifted his hands to cradle the Highlander's head, concentrating the force of his own passion on turning demand into acquiescence. Duncan's hands threaded through his hair, holding with a fierceness that Methos could feel with each breath. The other man's unconcealed desire aroused him, no question about that, but it would not do to give him too much rein. He pressed one thigh between Duncan's legs, feeling the hardness there, the soft shudder that turned the tide as the slave molded himself tightly to Methos, letting Methos guide the ravenous kiss into something deeper, slower, a voluptuous exploration of tongues.

Feeling the man yielding in palpable increments, Methos couldn't resist wrapping an arm around his muscular waist. He cupped a hand against the curve of the slave's haunch, feeling the delicious firmness, gently probing tender flesh through warm cloth. At last Duncan made a sound, a soft moan that sounded like a plea for mercy, and Methos tasted him deeply one last time, then drew back and let him breathe. The dark eyes opened, glazed with arousal.

But mercy was not what he sought.

"I want more," the Highlander breathed, his tone earthy and provocative. "Teach me, Rashanal."

"You risk much," Methos answered, both irked and excited by the other man's refusal to be subdued. So long since he had been challenged the way this man challenged him. So long since he had enjoyed a battle of wills half so much. Forcing casualness, he stroked his fingers lightly along the curve of the other man's throat, more deeply affected by Duncan's eagerness than he dared reveal. "Have you forgotten your other lessons so quickly?"

But Duncan shook his head earnestly, his body still pressed deliciously close. "I mean no insolence. I want to please you, if you will let me." His face was softened by passion, his eyes not faltering.

"If I will let you." Methos had to smile. "You have pleased me, Duncan. Do not fear on that count."

"And do you want me now, ra-jamihn?" the Highlander asked quietly, pressing his own thigh gently against Methos' rigid heat.

Methos groaned at the urgent, hot coil of desire that curled in his belly. His hand closed on Duncan's hip, pressing their bodies close; with his other hand he drew the man's head down, growling softly into his ear. "Yes, Duncan, I want you. And I mean to have you, right here." He bit the soft earlobe, feeling the slave gasp and shudder against him.

"Then take me," Duncan answered roughly, baring his vulnerable throat to Methos' mouth.

There was no hesitation as Methos took what was his, would always be his in a way that took no account of legal possession. Duncan stirred him in manners and ways that continued to delight and frighten him, but here, in the moonlight, just the two of them, there was no fear, only a mutual hunger to appease.

The salty-sweetness of Duncan's skin flooded his mouth, and he knew only that he had to have more. There was no calculation in his movements, no careful judging of the effect of his caresses, just the desire of a lover for the object of his desire. He could not get enough of the taste, of the feel of Duncan's body in his arms. He felt a surge of frustration at the barriers of cloth between them, keeping him from the heated silk of skin.

* * *

Oh, what had he gotten himself into? The vague thought came as that agile mouth awakened nerves Duncan hadn't known he possessed. Rashanal tasted and teased and bit him voraciously, as if his ear and neck and the soft skin under his jaw were infinitely delicious, and the other man hadn't eaten in weeks. Uncontrollable tremors ran through him, every hungry caress lacing white-hot flame straight down through his belly. At first he tried to reciprocate, but Rashanal knew no mercy, and before long, Duncan found it was all he could to keep his knees from giving out as tongue and lips and teeth moved over his skin. Rashanal pulled Duncan's cloak off and began to devour the join of his neck and shoulder. That tender place was so sensitized, so attuned to Rashanal's attentions, that Duncan could not help moaning softly at the contact, then more deeply as Rashanal began sucking fiercely at his pulse point, the tip of that wicked tongue teasing the mark. Duncan didn't know how much longer he could stand up under the waves of shuddery heat.

Then his robe was pushed aside, and Rashanal nipped a path downward, teeth sharp even through the cloth, mouth surrounding his nipple in damp warmth. Rashanal's hand moved from Duncan's hip to slide over his hardness, pressing it tight to his belly, outlining and sliding along the engorged length while Rashanal's knee slid between his legs.

"Please," Duncan gasped at last, clinging to the other man's shoulders, "I can't--" He was lost in a dark haze of pleasure and barely knew that Rashanal took his own cloak and spread it on the ground, then spread Duncan's on top of it. The Highlander's knees gave with relief as the other man eased him down, eased him back upon the ground. He made room between his thighs, and unable to wait, pulled Rashanal down against him.

Rashanal, equally needy, did not resist, nor did he stop to chastise Duncan for his presumption. He didn't need to; it was all too plain which of them was master here. Even the light brush of Rashanal's fingertips as he skimmed Duncan's skin under his tunic, even the firm, rocking pressure of his hips brought small, wordless pleas to Duncan's lips. At some point he had surrendered control of his body's responses without even realizing it. There was a terrible ache deep within him, an emptiness that cried out to be filled.

"Look at me, Highlander."

Duncan looked up into the shadowed face above him, his hands skimming down to pull the other man's hips more tightly against him, his own legs spreading wider.

Rashanal smiled. "So eager, so impatient." He pressed a swift kiss against Duncan's mouth. "You want to know what pleases me?"

Duncan nodded once, sharply.

"Then pay attention." With that, Rashanal bent and pressed his mouth to Duncan's once more.

This kiss was deep and intimate, hungry, but soft, and it gave as much as it took. Rashanal's tongue sought his, teasing it into play, leading it back into his own mouth, a slow, intimate dance rather than a game of domination and submission. He could taste the spiced coffee, the sweetness of dates, accenting the sweeter taste of the man himself. He stroked his hands over and through Rashanal's hair, loving the feel of it, of the strong back beneath it.

Then he was gasping for breath as Rashanal again moved downwards, tongue stroking and soothing Duncan's tender throat while his hands opened and spread Duncan's robe. Rashanal pulled back far enough to let his avid gaze slide over Duncan's aroused body, fingertips tracing along the curve of rib, stroking around the hollow of his belly, sending a tight pulse of need throbbing though Duncan's groin. He moaned softly as Rashanal pushed the robe down Duncan's shoulders, easing him out of it entirely before stripping off his own.

Duncan felt like he could devour Rashanal's strong body merely through sight alone, but a deeper craving cried out for touch. He curved his palm against the other man's side, his thumb stroking over a soft nipple that quickly hardened; he smiled at the catch in Rashanal's breath. The other man's long fingers threaded through his hair, pulling him closer, and soft lips grazed his own; the tenderness of the kiss, and of Rashanal's hands against him, reached deep into his soul, twisting and wrenching it into a new form, while at the same time soothing and healing an ache he hadn't known he'd felt.

Rashanal's hot mouth skimmed quickly along his throat to lavish attention on his chest and shoulders, nipping and tasting; warm hands stroked down his arms and up his legs, coming to rest against the sensitive tops of his thighs. Duncan stroked his hands firmly along the smooth skin of Rashanal's shoulders and back, loving the feel of Rashanal pressing into his touch, loving that this time Rashanal showed no signs of wanting Duncan to restrain his caresses. He sank his hands into Rashanal's hair as the man moved lower, stroking his tongue hotly along Duncan's belly, his chin nudging Duncan's erection out of the way so that he could follow the soft curve of abdomen.

He shuddered as Rashanal pressed his thighs wider, giving him better access. Duncan groaned and arched his hips upwards as he felt a hand wrap around his heated length, squeezing and caressing as that soft, hot tongue stroked lower, curling around his balls, pulling them into the hotness of Rashanal's mouth where they were sucked and wetted. He groaned as Rashanal hummed softly, the vibrations shivering through him.

He pulled his hands away and clenched them to keep from grabbing Rashanal's head tightly as that hot mouth closed over him, and Rashanal's hand began stroking him more rhythmically. Breathing deeply, he brought his hands down, brushing them along Rashanal's face, reaching one down to move with Rashanal's on his cock, guiding the rhythm.

His focus spiraled into that one point, the point of pleasure and connection, and his climax was drawn from him by the sure grip and hungry mouth. He cried out brokenly, fingers tightening in Rashanal's hair as he spilled. Before he was done, he arched his back and gasped as Rashanal's fingers probed him, using Duncan's seed to ease the way. He shuddered convulsively as Rashanal sucked again, hard, once, twice, each time sending streaks of pleasurepain through Duncan's over-stimulated system. He loosed his hold of Rashanal's hair as the man pulled back, the loss of that tight heat on his cock eclipsed by the intensity of those exploring fingers.

He slid his arms around the other man as Rashanal surged upward, pressing Duncan's legs up, catching them over his shoulders. Duncan felt the loss of his hand, and without thinking, he reached to guide Rashanal's cock inside him, circling it with his fingers, his moans at the feel of flesh sinking into him lost in the mouth that once more claimed his. His senses were deluged as he tasted his own seed, felt himself impaled and filled by Rashanal's hardness, heard Rashanal's groans and felt them in his mouth. He responded hungrily, sucking on Rashanal's tongue and urging him inward with eager hands.

When Rashanal was seated firmly, Duncan curled one arm up over his neck and another over his back, rocking his hips upward, urging him to motion. The other man pulled back, then pressed hard inwards, looking down at him with a sensual and passionate gaze. For a moment Rashanal looked as if he might speak, until Duncan tightened around him. Gasping once, Rashanal closed his eyes briefly, holding still. He murmured something liquid and broken and began to move, eyes opening, gaze locking on Duncan's. Each thrust was accompanied by rough-voiced words, none of which were intelligible to Duncan except the sound of his own name -- and now it was Duncan who closed his eyes and began to lose himself, savoring the way his nerves sang with each increment of movement, loving the rough slide of tongue and cock, his body welcoming every intimate stroke.

* * *

Later, Methos would be unable to recall what he had said in those incandescent moments. He felt so much, and it spilled out of him in broken endearments, passionate oaths; later, he would know only that he was glad that the Highlander had understood none of it.

He let himself go, no thought for teaching or training or status, simply giving in to his hunger, his desire to pleasure Duncan as much as he was pleasured in turn. There was something so intimate in this, in being able to see each other, to taste each other, to recognize the hunger and need in each other's eyes. Everything else faded, the cooling desert night banished in a heat of their own making, and time seemed to stand still as Methos felt himself held and surrounded. He moved, and moved, and moved, each thrust welcomed by the rocking arch of Duncan's hips, and when he could hold back his climax no longer, he groaned and bent to take Duncan's mouth once again, shuddering and holding him tightly as he came.

They stayed that way for long moments, the kisses gradually becoming less heated, more leisurely. At last Methos made to pull back, smiling when Duncan caught him, making a small sound of protest. "You may be comfortable now, but it will be less pleasant soon if I don't move."

He closed his eyes as he slipped out of the heat of Duncan's body, looking back down to see Duncan watching him. He held that gaze briefly, breath catching at the beautiful ease of it, then looked down as he lowered Duncan's legs, massaging his thighs to relax the tension. Neither man spoke, as if unwilling to break the spell of the desert night.

Methos finished and laid back down on his side, tangling one leg between Duncan's and resting his hand on the broad chest. Though not yet cold, the night was cooling fast. He knew that they should leave, but he chose not to think of it, pulling the spread cloaks around them instead. It seemed a long time since they had awoken, but he felt little need for sleep, unlike the man next to him, who seemed to be having trouble keeping his eyes open.

"Sleep, Highlander, I will keep watch for you." As if his words were the awaited release, Duncan's eyes drifted shut. Methos watched, loving the relaxed lines of his face. He knew that he should take the time to consider tribal matters, plan for the dawn, but he could not bring himself to care. This place, with just the two of them, seemed a place out of time, and all such serious considerations could wait. Instead he cleared his mind and watched the man beside him sleep.

After a time, he turned to look up at the sky, seeing the stars in their thousands, their dance of change the slowest in his world, a constant reminder now of the impermanence of life...and the beauty of it. He became lost in a reverie and was startled at the touch of a warm hand along his hip, warm lips along his shoulder. He turned to see that dark, guileless gaze on him, and all his contemplations slipped away unheeded as Duncan pulled him in close, his mouth seeking Methos' own. They moved simply as two lovers might, woken in the night with a mutual need. Hot, deep kisses, seeking, encircling hands, no one leading, both intent on the other's pleasure. Bodies pressed as tightly as stroking hands would allow, they rocked together, each seeking the other's rhythm.

In the aftermath, Methos' reverie returned, that treacherous and tempting vision of the two of them, riding across the desert, free of anything but their own needs, tied to no one but each other. It was a sweet thought, and in this timeless space, seemed not beyond the bounds of fancy. He smiled and stroked one long finger along Duncan's cheek, seeing the seriousness of his expression, and put aside the fantasy, as he had so often before. "Ask your question."

Duncan spoke softly. "What happened with your men tonight? I know there was discord."

He paused, and Methos could see that this was difficult for him. "Yes, Highlander, you are right. There is some dissent within the tribe, and some question my right," Methos gave the word a wry twist, "to lead them."

Duncan's silence lasted far too long. "Am I causing you trouble?"

"None that I cannot handle." Methos kissed him lightly, considering his response. He was reluctant to add to whatever burdens Duncan carried, but neither did he want to lie to him. "You are simply something for those who are afraid to latch onto, someone whom they can blame who is not of their tribe." He smiled softly. "They fear me, Highlander. As much as they respect me, they fear me more. They see themselves aging, see their lives changing, and I go on, like the stars. You are an easier target for their fear."

Duncan raised a hand to stroke along Methos' cheek; Methos turned and pressed a kiss into the palm. "One day, you, too, will go on."

"Will you tell me what happened when you rode last night? Did you confront Emad?"

Methos was both troubled and elated by the tone of voice, revealing as it did that Duncan had been concerned. "In a fashion. Certain... malcontents persuaded some of our more eager youth that I wanted them to raid Emad's lands. Unfortunately, one of those young fools was killed." Again he felt the frustration and sorrow of not having prevented the tragedy.

"You care about them a great deal, don't you?"

He smiled. "More than I should, Highlander. I know that their battles are not my own...but sometimes I forget."

"And what good would you be to anyone if you never allowed yourself to care, Rashanal?"

The words stole his breath, and he simply stared at Duncan for long moments. "Take care, Highlander. You are too young to know how the continual loss of those you care for can take its toll."

Duncan smiled, but it was a troubled smile. "Is it better to hold yourself back, to close yourself off so that you won't be hurt?"

"It is best to survive, and to do that, sometimes we have to keep ourselves apart." Methos' tone was harsh.

Duncan's smile faded. "Then what is the point in surviving?"

Methos laughed. "What is the point in growing careless and dying?"

"Are those my only choices?"

"Your choices are your own, Highlander. But sometimes you should listen to your elders." Methos was uncomfortable with the turn in conversation; it struck too close to him, prodding at tender places inside. He was thankful when Duncan fell silent, though his close scrutiny was almost as unnerving. He let the silence endure as long as he could. "It is amazing how you can still ask questions without speaking. Despite what you may have been told, I cannot read your mind, Duncan. Either speak, or don't think so loud."

Duncan hesitated. "I was wondering what would have happened if you had given me my freedom."

The question was too close to Methos' own fantasies, and he felt a crushing tightness in his chest. He stared at Duncan, silent, and the other man let the words stand, saying nothing more. To have set him free, to have sought his company as an equal...Methos felt a surge of anger, but this time he recognized it as a defense against his own pain. And what good would you be to anyone if you never allowed yourself to care?

In that instant he knew he could never let Duncan go, that all his cautions and fears were both accurate and for naught. A few short days and this man had become more important to him than his tribe, his caution. His directness, his easy caring and concern, his strong sense of self and honor, all were as refreshing as rare desert rain on Methos' dry and wasted soul.

If Duncan had been other than he was, if he had been less, Methos might have given in to the overwhelming desire to ask him to leave with him, to simply ride away and start fresh, together. But he knew that he could not leave, not without risking Duncan's contempt. Duncan would never leave the tribe at risk, leave them without guidance.

And now, Methos realized bitterly, neither could he. It seemed the Highland child had become conscience for him as well.

The dark eyes were too close, merciless in their honesty, their bright hunger; Methos let the other man go, putting a little distance between them. He wished for a moment that he knew the Highlander's secret, the deep, inner well from which the man drew this breathtaking courage. Not fearlessness, but something stronger, that refused to give in to fear. That trusted and demanded trust in return. He turned away, an unwelcome tightness closing his throat.

"We have to return."

"What is it?" Duncan murmured, too still beside him. "Have I done something wrong?"

"It is nothing."

"Nay," the Highlander said softly, insistently. "It is something."

Methos glanced at him sharply. "You do like living dangerously, don't you?" He examined the open, concerned expression on the other man's face and thawed a little. "You surprise me," he allowed, not knowing why he felt compelled to reveal so much to this man, when everything in his experience cried out against it. "I do not understand you, Highlander." And I don't trust things I don't understand.

"Nor I you, Rashanal. Some might say that makes us even."

It was said with such unassuming matter-of-factness that Methos couldn't help smiling a little. "I suppose some might," he said archly.

Duncan shrugged. His eyes gleamed in the starlight. And there was that smile again, that surprisingly addictive glint of provocative humor. "Perhaps we can settle for just tonight, then?" he dared huskily.

Methos sighed. "It will be morning soon enough." Already, he could feel the shackles binding him to his post, hear the door being locked, his freedom ripped from him. Until the business with Emad was settled, he could not leave the tribe, though he now admitted to himself how little he wanted to stay.

Everything fades in time, he thought. He'd taken charge of the tribe as a way to create stability in his life, a mutual agreement based on needs that no longer existed. And now he fretted and tore at the bonds he created, wanting once again to move on. Perhaps the day would come when he would feel that way about the Highlander; perhaps he, too, would become a weight, dragging Methos down.

Or perhaps, the seductive thought whispered, Duncan would be strong enough to change with him, like the stars changed in their path...

Methos picked up his clothes and dressed, only peripherally aware as Duncan did the same. The night sky enveloped them, and for now, Methos decided to let such troubling thoughts lie.

In silence, they rode back to camp.

Chapter Text

In the quiet hour before dawn, Duncan bathed and dressed his master. Rashanal was preoccupied, his gaze and thoughts clearly elsewhere, his words to Duncan few. Even naked under Duncan's hands he barely registered his slave's presence, and after the seeming intimacy they had shared the night before, Duncan was a little taken aback to find that Rashanal could still be so closed and perfunctory with him. When he was finished, the other man withdrew wordlessly to the outer chamber, and Duncan was left to tend to himself.

The night had started with so much promise, but by daybreak he had felt the wordless frustration and resentment rolling off Rashanal in waves. They had ended the night in the same bed, but their closeness was that of proximity only. Duncan had fallen asleep feeling more alone than he had since his capture, a feeling heightened by its contrast with the contentment of the previous hours. When he awoke, Rashanal had already left the warmth of the bed, leaving Duncan only the fleeting impression of arms pulled from around him.

By the time Duncan had prepared himself, there was no sound nor Presence from the outer chamber. As many times as he was given evidence of the gulf that existed between them, it continued to surprise him -- perhaps more so as time passed. He found it difficult to reconcile the other man's passion with his ability to distance himself so completely.

As Duncan had been given no further instruction, he set the room to rights, folding away the clothes left from the night before, smoothing the bed. He found himself reluctant to leave the inner chamber, feeling that when he had, the last remnants of the night before would drift away. But given Rashanal's uncertain mood, he didn't want to risk the man's temper, and when he was done, he left to see to the care and feeding of the stock.

On his way out, his gaze strayed to the little silver bowl; he didn't realize he'd been avoiding it until he saw the single coin there and felt a weight lift somewhere. It didn't really change anything, of course, but something in him took satisfaction from the fact that Rashanal had forgotten. Whatever came, he would know that it had meant something, their night on the plain. He had made an impression, however small, on that cool, intricate mind.

The tribe was stirring as he stepped out into the faint, pre-dawn grey of morning. A subtle but palpable tension lay over the camp, a kind of expectant hush, and Duncan wondered if it had anything to do with their late night foray, or if it stemmed solely from the grim tableau in the middle of camp, where the two rebellious tribesmen had spent the night lashed to a post under guard. He knew their fate must have been decided at the meeting last evening. Would Rashanal have them killed, to make an example? Duncan somehow doubted it. Rashanal seemed to value life -- even another Immortal's. But an example must be made, and Duncan did not envy Rashanal's position, even as he thought he understood it.

Mujannah Faniyya gave him a soft whuff of greeting and let him rub her ears before he went on with feeding and watering her and her compatriots. "Hey, Fanny. Hello, sweetheart," he approved her with a smile, patting her neck. It entertained him to think of what the dour herdmaster would say to hear his prize mare given such a nickname. It entertained him more to think what Fanny Beaufort, with her cherished blonde hair and her long, patrician nose, would have thought if she'd known he'd named a horse after her. He gave attention to the stallion, as well, but like his master this morning, the black was rather aloof.

Heading back towards the circle of tents, Duncan became immediately aware that something was happening at the center of camp. Most of the tribe members had already gathered there, and the rest were moving quickly to finish their tasks. As he drew nearer, Rashanal's buzz sang up his spine; his gaze found the other Immortal, standing near the two stone pillars where Rajid and the other man were tied. Namal and Jaffir stood on either side of their chief, an eloquent picture of silent support. Even at this slight distance, Duncan could see that Rashanal was all outward calm, talking quietly with father and son.

As Duncan watched, Namal stepped forward, and an eerie silence settled over the camp as all eyes turned to the old man.

* * *

Methos wished that the morning were over. He felt restless, itchy with conflicting feelings of soaring exhilaration and skittering fear, neither of which had anything to do with the drama playing out before him. He saw the Highlander hovering at the edge of the crowd and wished nothing more than to lose himself in the vivid memories of shared pleasures, shutting out the rest of the world as he had so briefly the night before. Instead, he turned his mind to the task at hand. He had little fear that the people would balk; Rajid had a reputation as a rabble-rouser, although up till now most of his attempts to stir things up had been put down to youth and high spirits. Methos himself had made this mistake, misjudging how deep the young man's discontent ran. He wished it had not come to this, but regret didn't make him any less resolved. This was not the time to indulge rebellion, and the people would respect a firm hand more than a forgiving nature.

He listened as Namal spoke of the tribe's covenant with their chief, with Allah. He found much good in their beliefs, though he did not share them, beyond a certain respect -- a respect that often did not go deep enough for Namal's comfort, he knew. The man overlooked his lord's small indulgences, his occasional wine and minor blasphemies, knowing that they remained minor and private. He perhaps didn't realize how much they pleasured Methos, keeping that small bit of his soul for himself, when so much of it seemed to be given over to the care of a people that would be long dead and gone while Methos himself endured. Turning from the slightly bitter thought, he attended to Namal's speech. Lord, but the man did occasionally love the sound of his own voice.

"Allah, our sole Source and Sustainer, himself creates in us the mind to comprehend, the soul to be good and righteous, the desire to be kind and humane to one another. And he reserves for himself the Day of Judgment. But when one of our own forsakes us, neglects the will of Allah, as shown through our ra-jamihn, it is necessary that we protect ourselves. When one our own moves to endanger us all, we must make this right."

As he listened, Methos kept an eye on the tribe, studying their reactions, wondering which of them, if any, would resent the punishment. There had been very little dissent during his time as chieftain; he had always kept himself open to approach, believing that it was best to do so. It had worked well, for the most part, and the tribe had thrived under his hand. But times change, and he wondered if the tribe had changed, as well, if they wanted a fiercer, more aggressive guidance.

"These men have betrayed us, and in their betrayal, they would seek their own prideful ends before the good of their people, before the safety of the tribe. Whoever does not safeguard his neighbor from harm, by Allah! He does not believe! The Lord requires of us obedience, humility, respect; these have been trampled in the dirt. It is the duty of us all to restore order, that all may be made right and just. The good of the tribe must be placed above the pride and willfulness of the individual.

"And to compound Rajid's treachery, others were led astray. Some were young and foolish, believing the cozening words of the scorpion in our midst, forgetting that it is the nature of the scorpion to sting. These children have learned their lessons and been forgiven. Others, however, worked with full knowledge of their wrongdoing. Some earned their reward immediately; another's life hangs in the balance. But Allah has left the punishment of the scorpion to his own people, and our ra-jamihn has declared the punishment. For Soroush, a lashing of thirty stripes; for Rajid, a lashing of fifty, after which he is to be left to Allah's judgment until the sun sets, without food and drink. If it be Allah's will that he live, so be it.

"May Allah be our guide. Allah's mercy is what keeps us all."

During this speech, Rajid had remained silent, apparently knowing that any interruption would serve him ill. As Namal's voice died away amidst the noddings and acceptance of the tribe, however, he kept silent no longer.

"We are not required to follow those who rule against Allah!" This caused a stir among the people and not to Rajid's benefit, if Methos was any judge.

Namal turned to Rajid. "And in what way has Rashanal disobeyed?"

Rajid turned to address the crowd as best he could from his bound position. "I am accused of putting my own pride before the safety of the tribe, but what has he done to protect us from Emad? Whose pride is at stake here, when the one charged with our safety shuts himself away with a barbarian, whoring himself while our enemy prepares to attack?!"

The restless response of the people to this accusation showed Methos exactly how careless he had been in his self-indulgence. Only a very few days and the tribe was confused and ill at ease. He did not think that they were against him, but it was dangerous, given the circumstances. He stepped forward to address the charges.

"If any have cause to speak against me, in full knowledge, let them step forth! How have I neglected you? By not rushing forth, spending our limited energy on a fool's task? By not authorizing a raid that was doomed to failure? If I have cautioned patience, it is because our losses, now compounded by foolhardiness, do not lend themselves to open attack."

Rajid pulled at his bonds, his anger evident. "You dally with a slave while we are all threatened! When your enemy confronts you, you turn your belly up like the veriest coward!"

Methos walked close to him, regarding him calmly, speaking quietly, forcing the tribe to greater stillness so they could hear. "My own personal pride is nothing compared to the safety of my people. I would gladly sacrifice it to prevent the loss of one child, one of my own. Your willingness to shed blood is not a matter of loyalty and thought for your tribesmen, but an indulgence of your own heedlessness and false virility. You seek to prove yourself a man, but men do not leave women and children defenseless while they provoke greater strength into retaliation!

"Your actions would have left us at Emad's mercy, letting him choose the time and place of our defeat! Fortunately for us all, Emad himself is your equal in pride and vanity. A few well-chosen but meaningless words and the slaughter is forestalled, but you have given him evidence that our camp is riddled by dissent and hot-headed impulsiveness -- that our warriors are without sound leadership, disorganized and vulnerable. Because of you, we are in much greater danger than we were before. Allah grant that my amusement value is greater than Emad's desire for our blood!" With that, Methos spat on the ground in front of Rajid, the wasting of precious fluid a sign of his revulsion.

He was pleased to hear the echo of his actions rippling through the tribe. He moved back to Namal's side, nodding at Jaffir to continue. Sulayman, the herder, handed Jaffir one of the whips they used to drive the animals, a thickly braided rope about as long as a man was tall, with a frayed silken tip at the end, like a cow's tail.

Jaffir shook out the coil and let the full length of the braided brown leather fall behind him as the tribe, who had been gathered close to hear Namal's lecture, faded back so that there would be room for Jaffir to use it. He brought it up quickly and back down again, the multi-threaded tip just brushing Souroush's skin while Namal counted off the stroke.

Jaffir stepped in closer, getting the range just right. Methos nodded encouragingly. Not so far that the stroke would be without control, nor so close that there would be no impact.

The next blow landed with more force, the tip striking solidly and making Soroush gasp. It is begun, thought Methos as he watched the sentence he'd handed down be carried out. Soon it would be his turn.

* * *

Duncan could not take his eyes off the scene. The man cried out each time the whip struck, while the tribe looked on in grim fascination. Jaffir's own face was set in a mask of stark determination, skin drawn and white around the eyes and mouth -- but when Duncan glanced at Rashanal, all he saw was distant coldness. It was as if all the man's humanity had been taken away, replaced with detached precision.

Even that disturbingly cold visage could not keep Duncan's gaze from the man lashed to the post. Fifteen. The count seemed to stretch on endlessly, each lick of the whip burning Duncan with sympathetic pain. If time seemed to slow for him, watching, what must it be like to bear those steady, punishing blows on one's own flesh? Nineteen. Twenty...

And it only grew worse. The man was left hanging to the post, his back bloody and marked with welts on his neck, ribs, and arms where the tail of the whip had skittered out of Jaffir's control. A few of the strokes had wrapped so far around his body that he bled from a lash to his cheek and chest; his lips were bitten and bleeding, and he panted as he hung there, his voice now a constant keening cry.

No one in the tribe seemed to notice, watching instead as Namal continued the count. With each blow, Duncan flinched inside; he had never felt the lash himself, and even if it were to happen, it would be with the knowledge that it would quickly heal. Each crack of the whip had him hoping it would be the last, wondering how the man would survive. Then Duncan counted thirty, and with a bow, Jaffir turned the whip over to Rashanal.

Duncan watched, riveted despite himself as Rashanal stripped off his tunic and stepped back, coiling the whip beside him with a casual motion of his wrist. Sickened, Duncan understood that Rashanal meant to deal with Rajid himself -- and if the lesser miscreant had been dealt thirty blows, what would the sentence be for the chief malefactor? He doubted a mortal could survive much more than the punishment Jaffir had dealt.

Duncan wanted to step in, cry out to keep this from happening, to spare Rashanal the necessity and himself the memory of watching it -- but he held his tongue, knowing that any interference would be pointless and unwelcome, that ultimately the responsibility for discipline resided with the tribe's chieftain. But the thought of what this would cost Rashanal stabbed at him. Was this why the desert chieftain had been so distant this morning? And what would Rashanal be like after it was all over?

* * *

Methos stepped back, lifting his face to the sun for a moment before turning to face Rajid. He dared not look at the members of his tribe for fear that he might see eager faces wanting him to punish Rajid. Emotion should never enter into something like this; it brought him too close to the edge of memory, brought back desires he'd wished conquered long past, before he admitted how much a part of him they were. Already he could feel it, the want, the hunger, the need for pain, the lust for control; he ruthlessly put the cravings down, just as he had so long ago. He was no child, giving in to petty indulgences simply because he could. He was older, wiser; he had learned control -- and the power that came from the control of self.

Lessons that the Highlander had yet to learn. He could feel the slave at the fringes of his perception. He knew, without knowing how, that the man was watching him now, that Duncan's eyes were filled with compassion for him and not the desire for retribution that bespelled the rest of the tribe. Do not remember me like this, he wanted to cry, but instead he kept silent and kept to the task at hand. This, too, was a part of their lives in the desert. The Highlander must come to accept that.

He brought down the first stroke cleanly, precisely, placing it right along the shoulder blades as he had wanted. Methos smiled a little at that, taking pride in doing the job as neatly as it could be done. The next stroke was just as accurately placed, and the third. He fell into a rhythm with the leather, almost a form of meditation, letting it rise with a breath in and fall with a breath out.

It did not register when he first broke the skin and the trickle of blood started, nor did he hear Rajid cry out...until the moment that Namal completed the count, and he crashed back to awareness with a dull, sickening heaviness in his gut, his arms and back aching, long-conditioned reactions hardening his sex.

From somewhere far away, he heard the crowd murmuring, heard Rajid still screaming at the post. He calmly turned from all of it and picked up his robe, pulling it on and turning for his tent. A hand lifted as if by instinct -- Methos didn't really know whose -- but he brushed it aside and kept moving.

In his head were the sounds of horses, the stench of blood, the cries of a thousand other casualties, his heavy arms remembering the weight of each of them as they had died in his embrace. He could feel how hard he was, and he hated himself for it; he just wanted to be left alone.

He sensed Duncan close by and changed his path, unwilling to face the Highlander too soon, unable to deal with the possibility of his scorn, or worse, his concern and compassion. And more than that, he was unwilling to inflict himself on the man, to make him the receptacle of such an unclean lust. He would need time to calm himself.

* * *

Duncan watched as Rashanal moved away at a steady, measured pace, still outwardly calm, though Duncan thought he could read a carefully controlled trip-wire tension in the other man's body. He watched as Rashanal brushed by Jaffir's outstretched hand without notice, watched the compassion on Namal's face as he, too, watched his chief go. Duncan knew that those wise eyes saw much more than Namal let on, that he cared for Rashanal as he must have cared for his own son.

The Highlander moved through the crowd as it dispersed, aware of the glances, some sliding, some more overt, that touched him, not heeding them in the face of his own concern for the man who was both a torment and a growing enticement. He glanced back and saw that Soroush had been removed from his bonds and was being taken to the healer's tent, while Rajid was left to his agony, his battered body sagging against the pillar.

Duncan's eyes lit on Jaffir, noting the tightness of his features, the pale cast to his brown skin as he stood looking after Rashanal. Abandoning his intended pursuit briefly, Duncan approached the young man. He knew how heavily authority could weigh on a man when it demanded such harshness.

At his approach, Jaffir straightened his shoulders, controlling his expression. His dark eyes met Duncan's, a faintly challenging look.

"It isn't meant to be easy," Duncan offered quietly.

Possibly dismayed at being so easily read, Jaffir looked away, his jaw tightening. "What would you know of such things?"

"I have not always been a slave," Duncan said mildly, knowing the young man had meant no insult. "Do not be ashamed of your compassion, Jaffir. It does you credit."

"It is a weakness. Even my father knows it." But the stiffness went out of him, and he sighed a little. "Sometimes I wonder if I will ever be half the man my brother was. Hassad would not have shown such weakness."

"Then I think you already more of a man than your brother, no insult to him intended. It is no weakness to regret the harsher tasks of command, as long as one accepts the necessity and the responsibility, as you have done. I saw no cowardice, simply a leader who was doing what he had to do. It takes greater strength to do as one must when compassion might speak otherwise. The punishment was deserved, and necessary, was it not?"

"Perhaps, but if Soroush lives he will not thank me for my poor skill."

"I think he will be glad to have his life at such small cost." Duncan reached out and squeezed the other man's shoulder. "I, too, was raised to lead my people. There are hard lessons to be learned about what a leader must do."

The lines of Jaffir's face eased, and he looked up. "You are a perceptive man, Duncan." His tone was one of confession. "If one were to speak of regrets, one might lament that circumstances have forced you to exist here with us as less than what you are."

Duncan was touched by the young man's kindness. "That is not your doing, Jaffir, nor your responsibility." He smiled a little. "And circumstances change."

At that, Jaffir glanced after his chieftain, but Rashanal had already disappeared from view. A troubled look settled once more on Jaffir's face. "He is not himself, lately, Highlander." It was not quite a warning. "I think the burdens of command weigh heavy on him, as well, though he does not show it."

Following the young man's gaze, Duncan couldn't help his fierce curiosity. "What makes you say that?" Jaffir's sharp eyes turned back to him, regarding him for a long moment, reading him too easily. Flushing a little under that knowing regard, Duncan forced himself not to look away. "Your father thinks him a good man, a good leader. I can see this, but he is also a hard man. Difficult to understand."

"You have been here mere days, Duncan. I have known him for years, and I do not pretend to understand him. But I follow him, and I will until he is no longer here."

Duncan frowned sharply. "What do you mean?"

"You have seen it yourself. He has made no secret of the fact that he is grooming me for command. I am of age now and have been for several years; although he has said nothing, I do not expect him to stay with us much longer, nor do I think he will wait until my father's death." He looked at Duncan closely. "I think his time with us is shorter than it was. There is...a restlessness in him that has grown since your arrival." He looked off in the distance. "I will miss him."

"You and your father have much in common, Jaffir."

The man's teeth flashed whitely. "I will take that as a compliment. My father is much admired."

"I believe you will be, as well."

"And will you take a word of advice in return, Duncan?" The Highlander gave him an expectant look. "Stay clear of him for a little while. Just now, I do not think he will appreciate your insight as I have."

"Perhaps you're right," Duncan admitted ruefully. And with a final clap on the young man's shoulder, he bid Jaffir goodbye and moved off to find some breakfast for himself and his wandering, temporary master.

* * *

Methos did not return to the tent until late morning, at the time the tribe was moving into its rest period for the heat of the day. He'd considered riding out his tension, but wisdom cautioned him against it, pointing out the possibility that once out of sight of the camp, he might just continue riding, unprepared and empty-handed. Anything to get away from the responsibilities he was coming to loathe and the man whose reaction to the morning's violence he dreaded. He briefly contemplated it anyway before reminding himself how he hated the slow death of sunstroke and dehydration.

Besides, it would be very hard on the horse. And...the Highlander still called to him.

So instead he walked, inspecting the stock, the date palms, the water source, the measures taken in defense, talking to no one, keeping himself aloof and unapproachable until he reached a state at least superficially resembling his normal peace. Then he returned, passing through the center clearing. He did not look at Rajid, nor at the other members of the tribe, barely satisfied with the calm he'd managed to give himself.

He headed towards his own tent, his stomach reminding him of his unbroken fast. As he neared the tent, the Highlander's signature slid over him, into him, pulling him along, but he refused to speed his pace.

He found Duncan bending over a chess board that he must have dug out of one of the boxes. For a moment he considered being angered at what might be considered an invasion of privacy, but he had no energy for anger, and as his slave, Duncan might conceivably be expected to know the whereabouts of anything Methos might want. It also occurred to him that it was a bit churlish to leave such an intelligent and active man alone and expect him to amuse himself with no tasks and no instructions.

Duncan looked up and began to rise to his feet, but Methos waved him back down.

"I brought fruit and cheese back earlier. I can go and get something else, if you like."

Methos saw the covered tray on the table and was reminded of his hunger. "No, that will do, after I change." Again he waved to Duncan to stay, reluctant to test his own resistance to that exquisitely tempting, gratifyingly bared physique. It had been difficult enough that morning, while he prepared himself for the punishments. At the moment he felt unequal to the task.

Moving into the inner chamber, he pulled out a fresh robe and stripped off the ones he wore. As he dressed, the silver bowl caught his attention, and he realized that he had forgotten to add to it that morning. The omission was disquieting; the last thing he needed was to forget the nature of their arrangement. Pulling out his pouch, he held a coin over the bowl, but felt a reluctance to add it. The night before had been...it had not been part of the bargain.

Contemplating the single coin, seeing how short the time had truly been, Methos decided not to stay one day past the Highlander's deadline. Let the coins that piled up for the man's purchase also mark Methos' own days as the tribe's chieftain. He would not surrender to the morass of destructive desire and obsession that had circled around him since the slave's purchase. Already, the thought of a life without that vivid presence in it seemed bleak. Better he leave, too, start fresh someplace else. It was time. He dropped the second coin, the soft clink sounding loud in the quiet room.

When he stepped back into the outer room, he saw that Duncan had the food and water waiting, the man himself ready to serve. "Have you eaten?"

Duncan hesitated before responding. "Yes. I didn't know when you'd return."

"Good. You shouldn't starve because of my restlessness." He sat and started to eat, motioning to Duncan to join him. "You play chess?"

"Yes, I enjoy it. I found the board--"

Methos waved his hand. "No matter. We should play. I'm not tired enough to sleep. Fetch the board over here."

Duncan rose and did as he was bid. As he knelt to sweep the pieces into their box, Methos saw that he had been pondering what looked like a complex endgame, and he stopped Duncan from destroying the setup. "Wait. I'm curious. Which player moves next?"

Duncan looked up. "White's move."

Methos got up and drew near, studying the board and chewing thoughtfully. "Black wins in...six?"

Dark brows arching, Duncan contemplated the setup. "Ten," he corrected, then glanced back at Methos with a faint hint of a challenge. "If white makes no mistakes, that is."

Intrigued, Methos studied the board more closely. "Show me."

They played while Methos ate, Duncan taking white and showing Methos that his estimation of Duncan's intelligence and acuity was quite accurate, perhaps even a little low. No mistakes, indeed. The man had a grasp of the game that was rare and a quickness of mind that sparked Methos' own in a way that was invigorating. Methos would have laid money against any player he knew, save Darius perhaps, that he could have taken the game in six.

When his queen and rook had the Highlander's king pinned in a corner, Methos sat back, licking his fingertips clean of the sugar from the dates he'd eaten, studying the other man's pleased expression.

"What?" Duncan said, self-conscious under the intense scrutiny.

"I wouldn't have taken you for a defensive player," Methos said mildly.

He was rewarded with an upward curve of the expressive lips, brown eyes smiling as if with a shared joke. "I might have said the same about you, before yesterday."

Methos nodded wryly. "Yes, well. Hopefully we'll end up in a better position than your king there."

"Sometimes it does come down to numbers. But not always."

Methos leaned back against a cushion, eyes roaming over the lovely form displayed for his pleasure, still not at all tired. But there was something to be said for anticipation. "Care to try a real game, then?" he challenged lazily.

The light of challenge caught in the other man's eyes, sparking an unselfconscious grin that made Methos' belly heat deliciously. Duncan began to set up the board, and the thought came to Methos that he really ought to insist the Highlander put a robe on, or he was going to be at a severe disadvantage; on the other hand, the handicap seemed well worth it.

As they played, they talked of strategy, both on the chessboard and on the battlefield, and Methos found himself listening to the other man as an equal, a warrior trained to protect and defend, an ally he hadn't expected. And as the half-playful contest of minds wore on, he found himself telling Duncan more and more about his tribe's strategic position, and that of his enemies, surprised by the relief of unburdening he felt as he realized how long it had been since there had been anyone he could talk to like this, anyone who could listen with anything close to true understanding. It was a pleasure to explain to him the subtleties of desert warfare and see the light of comprehension, to hear the perspectives the young warrior could offer.

When he looked down and saw that the game was at an end, he felt a sudden pang, embarrassing and not a little ridiculous. "Checkmate," he said reluctantly, his voice betraying him fractionally. He didn't want it to be over. Trying to cover his disappointment, he looked up to find Duncan watching him, an odd and yearning expression on his face.

They looked at each other for a span of seconds, and for that one fleeting moment forgot, utterly, that there was a world outside the charged space between them.

Chapter Text

In that moment of silent communication, Methos felt a release, an untangling of that small, tight knot of apprehension he'd been reluctant to name, or even admit existed. Only as it eased did he realize how much he had come to value the Highlander's respect, how heavily it had weighed on him to think he might have lost irrevocable ground on that count. For all his pretenses of disregard for the other man's feelings and opinions, it seemed that somehow they had become very important indeed.

And impossibly, the morning's events did not seem to have broken the fragile but undeniable trust that gazed back at him from the other side of the chessboard.

A kind of lightness rose in him, a calmly terrifying absence of solidity, and for a long, dizzying moment, Methos felt as if he looked down from some great height into a deep, cool, slick-sided well. There was ease of thirst promised in its depth, but he didn't know if he had the courage and strength to seek it -- or the necessary madness. What good could come of this, for either of them? What dangerous, destructive wheel had he set in motion when he had taken this lion to his bed? He had spoken words full of scorn and ownership, yes, but he saw it, now: again and again, his touch had betrayed all the needy hunger in his lonely soul. It was that the Highlander responded to, that unbearable weakness that had won the young warrior's trust. Should Methos be surprised that a creature of such honest, instinctive responsiveness should trust the language of touch above all others?

Oh, but in the same instant, he knew it for a lie, the hunger sweeping him without warning as the slave leaned unconsciously closer, wary concern touching the eloquent lines of his face, the scent of his body teasing Methos' senses. The dark and brutal arousal Methos had felt earlier surged back with a vengeance, filling him with blunt, savage desire. A lie, because under the bitter ache of loneliness there were other forces at work, older cravings the Highlander roused in him. That provocative combination of sweetness and fire, tenderness and steely resilience, and that deep, untempered passion that underlined the man's every look and word inevitably set flame to a destructive, consuming possessiveness Methos had long forgotten.

"What is it?" Duncan asked hoarsely. He searched Methos' eyes, uneasiness surfacing in his own. "Ra-jamihn?"

With a soft curse, Methos shoved the low table aside, scattering board and pieces and seizing hold of Duncan's hair, mouth seeking the Highlander's with blind, unthinking savagery.

* * *

The assault took Duncan's breath, and he found himself clutching at Rashanal's hair with his hands, instincts warring as his body tried to respond on too many levels, with too many conflicting impulses. Quietness and discussion had melted so quickly into passion and hunger that his mind could not keep up; his senses fought to keep their ground in a battle for which they were ill-equipped. Rashanal's tongue licked his mouth open hotly, seeming to take possession of his soul in a searing riot of stabbing heat and stroking demands, and with a shudder he found himself utterly unconflicted, his whole body becoming pliant, molten assent as his pulse thundered in his ears. Warm, pressing weight against him, on top of him, pain where his head was being hauled back, neck arched, dizziness for lack of air, unbearable friction between his thighs -- and blotting out everything, that tongue in him, tasting him hotly, owning him utterly, brooking no resistance.

He was so hard the crushing weight against his sex was almost agony.

He thought he made a sound, pleading, and there was an answer somewhere, a low groan of anguish or denial. The hot mouth left him alone in the spinning dark; dizzily, he opened his eyes as a steel grip grabbed his wrists, forcing him to let go of Rashanal's hair, dragging his hands away. Hazel eyes burned into his with a wild intensity that sent a flash of anticipatory fear straight into his heart -- and then Rashanal closed himself off with an effort that looked like it cost him a small measure of sanity. Duncan's heart ached as he saw that tight control resumed, wanting only to give what ease he could, his heightened senses giving way to an empathy and compassion that he could not hide from the other man.

Rashanal dropped Duncan's hands and pulled back as if in pain. Operating on pure instinct, Duncan reached out; Rashanal stilled at Duncan's touch on his shoulder. The Highlander struggled for sufficient composure to manage even a few words. "It's all right." He had the inexplicable, almost overwhelming urge to add, You're safe with me.

"You would let me do anything to you, wouldn't you?" Beneath the scornful accusation, there was an aching, half-mad sound to Rashanal's voice, a sound that pierced Duncan to the core, a raw sound like a harsh desert wind, scouring to the bone.

Oh, yes. "Is that not what you've asked of me?" His throat was still tight, but the words themselves seemed to ease it. As if the words were a blow, Rashanal rocked back on his heels and started to rise, face pale and set hard against some inner strain, but Duncan sat up, not letting him go, catching him by the shoulder. "I'm no' afraid."

The other man paled further. "So you've said."

An image surfaced in Duncan's mind: that wary, guarded look Rashanal had worn in the first moment when Duncan had looked up and seen him standing in the doorway. And now, the same wariness. He was not afraid, but could Rashanal say the same? He had recognized this fear in the man before, and he'd not understood it. Now he recalled Rashanal's own words, his intimation that somehow, Duncan would be his destruction. Duncan had no desire to destroy him, but he doubted whether Rashanal would allow him anything else. He wants my trust, but fears it, Duncan thought. And then: he doesn't trust himself. Still guided by instinct, he let his hand slip up the other man's shoulder to cup Rashanal at the neck, the spot where he so often found Rashanal's touch lingering on his own.

And this time he felt the bone-deep tremor, the muscles as taut under his touch as the rope holding an untamed horse, but Rashanal held still, making no further move to pull away. Duncan was unsure what to do, and he remembered the whipcord tension, the controlled, measured movements of the man as he'd moved from the site of punishment, recognizing now that they had been the movements of a man close to bolting.

An ache of sudden empathy knotted his stomach, knowing how much it must have cost Rashanal to do his unpleasant duty. More words came to his lips, and he spoke them with only a brief hesitation. "I know it wasn't easy for you," he dared.

Rashanal went utterly still, then turned a baleful look on him. "What?"

"This morning. What you had to do. I know it wasn't easy--"

"Do not make the mistake of thinking you know too much," Rashanal hissed, jerking back out of his grasp and rising abruptly.

"I know enough." Duncan rose, too, refusing to let himself think too much about what he was doing. Instincts had gotten him this far; he knew no better plan than to just keep trusting them. "I know that right now you are so tied up in knots you cannot think." He held the other man's gaze, his voice roughening despite himself at the hot longing his words sparked in Rashanal's eyes, which set off warm shocks in his own belly. "I know that I want to please you."

A fever of hunger seemed to rise in the other man's face, and Duncan's own body hummed like struck steel, perfect harmony to the way Rashanal devoured him with his eyes, the way the graceful throat betrayed the other man's swallow. Sweet Christ, but it set his blood singing to feel the way Rashanal wanted him. He flushed at his own wantonness, wondering exactly when he had ceased to feel shy under that hot gaze and instead begun to crave it. "Let me give you this."

Finally, as if to move would shatter some precarious control, Rashanal wet his lips and said hoarsely, "Come here."

His own mouth dry with arousal, tempered by a faint frisson of anticipatory fear, Duncan moved slowly into the circle of heat radiated by Rashanal's body, wary of any further signs of rejection. Needing support against the slow waves of desire washing over him like sunlight, he reached out and braced one hand at the other man's waist.

And with a groan of defeat, Rashanal let himself lean forward, bowed his head against Duncan's shoulder and buried his face in Duncan's neck.

Methos heard the compassion in Duncan's voice, the same concern that he had known would be there, and he nearly laughed at how the man mistook him. He wondered if it would affect the Highlander's view of him to know how difficult it had been to put down the whip, to not simply continue until life was extinguished. His scent...his scent was pure animal lust, part of the wildness and no help at all, and Methos found he was almost shaking in his hunger, inexplicably more aroused than he had been in his memory. So close, bare skin hot against his face, his closed eyes, the smell of salt and the Highlander's own sweet musk, and Methos knew he was perilously close to forgetting himself once more, so close to the creature he had been, who could take without remorse, without concern for another. And he didn't care. That in itself was more frightening than anything.

But before he could draw breath to move, to do something he would regret, Duncan was stroking the back of his neck, soothing him in wordless murmurs, the touch of his fingers cool as the brush of his lips against Methos' ear. "Will you let me serve you as I want to, ra-jamihn? Will you let me show you what I've learned?"

Methos found himself arching into his touch, urgency transforming under that continued caress to something deep and strong as a sea current, inexorable, the gentleness of Duncan's hand and voice soothing the painful ache of his need, sapping his violent strength with the sweetness of the offer. "Yes," he whispered, lost in the ebb and flow of that rhythmic stroking. As I want to. As I want to. The words echoed through him, resonating like a benediction. The fingertips stilled at the curve of his neck, and every part of Methos ached for some other touch, some relief for the desperate stillness that seemed to hold him fast, waiting for the other man to release him. Soon. Oh, soon, Highlander..

Relief came, a callused palm against his jaw and a deep and gentle kiss that pressed his mouth open and tasted him with wet, warm kindness, releasing him with a grateful, deep groan to the passionate, penetrating caress of that merciful mouth, slaking his thirst.

The kiss was finished too soon, but another followed, painful in its intensity. It was both request and demand, no less insistent for its gentleness. Even as it seized hold of breath and thought, Methos felt a bold caress part his robe, undressing him with eager sureness. With a sigh, he leaned into the touch of warm hands, giving himself over to the care of another.

The warm embrace released him, and he opened his eyes to see Duncan folding and laying aside his robe, watching him with unmistakable desire. The dark eyes skimmed his body boldly, making Methos' breath catch and his sex throb gently with longing, a reaction that brought a visible flush of color to the dusky skin. The light gauze trousers, Duncan's only garment, left no doubt as to the state of the Highlander's own arousal. Without seeming pride or hesitation, he took half a step back and lowered himself smoothly, gracefully to one knee.

Did he know what a picture he presented kneeling like that, all unabashed masculinity, taut muscles and deliciously outlined sex? Desire made flesh. Methos fought back the resurgent desire to plunder, tired of the battle of will within himself, wanting more of the sweetness that the night had given him. He watched as the dark head bent, long hair veiling a provocative, not-quite-submissive expression, and warm hands came to rest against Methos' waist. His face maddeningly close to Methos' eager cock, the Highlander looked up.

"May I undress you, ra-jamihn?"

Breathless now with anticipation for what the man had planned, Methos somehow managed to keep his voice even. "I'm not going to stop you." I couldn't, even if I wanted. He felt oddly rewarded by the devilishly sweet smile that he received. He lost another small bit of his sanity as the Highlander leaned forward the scant space necessary to press his open mouth against Methos' hard sex, lips shaping the cloth around the firm outline, damp exhalations almost bringing Methos to his knees. Strong hands slid and cupped his buttocks, and he arched into that wet heat, locking his knees to stay upright.

He might have been embarrassed by the broken, inarticulate groan that escaped his lips if he'd had thought enough to spare for it. Instead he was lost between the palms squeezing and shaping his flesh and the lips doing the same. His own hands flexed open and closed, longing to clasp the head pressed to his groin, shivers of heat traveling up and down his body. He barely had time to register the loss of warmth as Duncan pulled back long enough to bare his flesh, and then he was lost again as heat re-enveloped him.

"Duncan," he groaned, bringing his hands in to stroke lightly over the soft hair, relaxing into the strength of those hands and the pleasure of his mouth. Where before the tight clasp of his hips had panicked him, pushing him to take and dominate, now it made him feel oddly secure, and he couldn't bring himself to wonder at this drastic change. There would be time enough later for reflection. For now there was heat, desire, passion -- Duncan.

There was little more teasing as Duncan sucked and stroked Methos' cock with his hand and lips, one finger straying to press and rub gently against the sensitive flesh behind his sac. That sweet warmth opened to Methos' movements, swallowing against him as he thrust, as if drawing the tightness and tension out of his body. He shuddered as Duncan's finger slid lightly over his opening, back and forth, the stroking gathering speed and pressure as his own thrusting increased, but never penetrating. He was so focused on that almost-sensation that his climax nearly caught him by surprise; then he was framing that head in his hands as his hips surged in short, sharp thrusts. He arched back, his vision dimming with the intensity of his orgasm.

He was dimly aware of Duncan nuzzling his thighs and belly, licking his navel, sliding up to hold him, warm hands stroking him and keeping him from collapsing. He leaned into that strength, arching his neck as Duncan caressed the hair from his shoulder to press warm kisses along and up his throat. Dropping his head forward, he darted his tongue out to taste the acrid-sweet, musky taste of Duncan's skin, gratified when the hands holding him tightened, bereft when Duncan stepped back a pace.

"Come." As if in a dream he let himself be led into the inner room and pressed down on his stomach to the softness of the bed. His tension momentarily eased, he nestled into the pillows, listening as Duncan moved about the room, willing to wait and see what else this amazing creature had planned for him, the pushing aside of other cares coming more easily each time. But that was another dangerous thought he side-stepped. He smiled as he felt the bed dip under Duncan's weight, sighing softly as his hair was brushed aside, baring his back, gentle, warm strokes of flesh on flesh as Duncan arranged Methos' obedient limbs as he wished. Then Duncan was straddling his legs, those touches become firmer, more directed, as Duncan's oiled hands began squeezing and stroking, moving from the center of Methos' body outward. Tightness Methos had not realized remained was found, muscles sore from being held so tightly were forced to release their tension, which was driven along his flesh to be released at the ends of his fingers and toes.

When he was rolled over and the process recommenced on his chest and belly, he kept his eyes closed, focused only on the deliberate stroking of his flesh, the soft breathing of the man above him, feeling as if his heart was slowly regulating to that sound. He could feel his growing arousal, but distantly, without the earlier sense of urgency. The touches themselves, while sensuous, were not erotic, meant to comfort and ease, not to stir desire.

He finally opened his eyes as Duncan was massaging his left foot, broad thumbs stroking firmly along the instep, fingers cradling the narrow arch. Those dark eyes were on him, waiting, wanting, and suddenly the touches changed. Languid heat moved through Methos' body, and he groaned. Closing his eyes again, he felt that hot mouth move along his foot, warm kisses pressed to the sole and over the arch, traveling slowly up the inside of his leg. His other leg felt cold in comparison. He opened his eyes again to watch as Duncan moved further, spread his legs as Duncan moved between them, moaning as Duncan pressed his leg up to suck on the tender skin behind his knee, teeth nibbling gently.

He made only a small protest when Duncan moved back, and he was turned easily. His half-aroused cock slid pleasurably along the fabric of the coverlet, and he pressed into its softness. He stilled as Duncan resumed his exploration, kisses and bites alternating from one leg to the other, up the backs of his thighs, warm, soft tongue stroking broad swathes of heat along the curve of his buttocks. His knees were pressed out and up, a position that should have felt awkward, but only felt deliciously exposed. He dug his hands into the bedding as that hot tongue dipped along the crevice of his ass, no hesitation apparent as it moved to stroke the same teasing line that Duncan's finger had traced earlier. The unexpected pleasure froze him between equally necessary movements: to press back against that warmth and thrust forward against the friction of the bedding. Cock surging to full arousal, he moved, sliding against that heat, the teasing touches of cloth against his cock more maddening then satisfying. Those hands were there again, holding his thighs tightly, stopping his movement, and that tongue was probing deeper, demonstrating quite ably what Duncan had learned.

Methos arched up, surprised by the taste of blood in his mouth, barely registering that he had pierced his own lip without realizing it. He buried his head in the pillows, writhing as the pleasure became too intense too keep still. He growled, a guttural sound that was rewarded by a sharp bite to his buttock. Squirming, trying to increase the pressure against his cock, he snarled at the soft laughter that drifted up from below. Then that tongue was there again, and the pleasure of it made him whimper.

He whimpered again as he lost the touch of the bed against his cock as Duncan turned him. He looked up wildly, meeting a gaze that was equally hungry and passionate. He arched up, thrusting, as Duncan took his cock in a firm grasp, stroking it once, twice, coating it thickly with oil. He was panting now, so close, but not wanting this to end. He forced deep breaths through his nose, nearly losing it as he realized what Duncan intended. He petted and stroked the expanse of chest and hardness of thighs as Duncan moved up and pressed back, his hand between them guiding as Duncan slowly sank onto the length of Methos' cock.

Yes. He gripped Duncan's thighs and thrust up with his hips, seeking to bury himself even deeper inside. Duncan's head was thrown back, his hair spilling around him, his mouth open, lips moist, rumbling panting groans like the chanting of a priest seeking deliverance. Methos pulled him down, sinking into Duncan so deep he was buried to the root.

It wasn't enough. He wanted more power, more control, and lying back like this, letting Duncan take his pleasure, proved too harsh a chore. When Duncan next lifted himself up, Methos moved with him, rolling and twisting them so that Duncan lay on his back, his legs splayed out for Methos to take him, his enveloping body briefly sacrificed. Methos poured more of the oil into his palm, admiring the lust-shuttered eyes and the way Duncan's lips begged to be kissed. He settled between Duncan's legs, drawing them over his shoulders, resheathing himself deep within.

The groan he elicited inflamed him, and he rocked forward, pulling Duncan up so that he lay partially on Methos' thighs, their eyes locking. He wrapped his hand around Duncan's shaft, taking it, possessing it the way Duncan possessed him.

Words became unnecessary.

Hot, hard, and rough, Methos took what Duncan had freely offered, using him ruthlessly, feeling Duncan's body clench tight around him, his hands digging into Methos where they touched. Duncan groaned and twisted, begging to be taken, and higher, hotter, sweeter, Methos pushed everything he had into the other man, their bodies twisting around each other like wind to rock.

Methos froze, his body bucking and jerking against itself as his passion spilled out of him into Duncan. A noise -- part snarl, part pleading question -- commanded more, and Methos turned his attention to Duncan, squeezing and pressing him, his own cock slowly softening as he watched Duncan pull back into himself, felt the pulse of Duncan's heart in his hands as the man's seed spilled over his stomach.

Soft, now, both of them, and Methos pulled back, separating them, curling up next to Duncan, his brow furrowing in thought.

Yes, Duncan would let him do just about anything...and Methos wondered if even that would be enough.

* * *

"Something cool, ra-jamihn?"

The low, husky voice brought him back from a faraway place, a sleepy, overheated state of enervated half-dreams and memories. The heat of midday had settled over the camp, weighty and exhausting even in the shade of the tent, and Methos took the offered cup gratefully, closing his eyes as the cool liquid soothed his parched lips and throat. When he'd drunk his fill he offered the vessel to the Highlander, lying back and watching him through heavy-lidded eyes as he drank.

Even now, sated as he was, Methos found he couldn't get enough of just watching the man, the possessive satisfaction of knowing this wild creature was his and his alone. Something was changing between them with each degree of the Highlander's willing surrender, and he wondered if the other man understood what he bought with his body's innocent, generous sensuality. Methos had thought of it as a game, at first. Had bought him on a whim, telling himself it would be no better nor worse a fate than any other the Highlander might have found in that marketplace. But there had always been something deadly earnest behind his actions, the demands he had made of the proud, untutored young Immortal -- and it sang in him now, awakened to dangerously addictive levels.

"What troubles you?" Duncan asked softly, coming to sit beside him on the pallet. "Have I displeased in some way?" The words were properly deferential, but somehow Duncan's manner implied an independence, a flexible strength that belied their intent. Perhaps that was part of it, Methos thought, reaching to stroke the warm, muscular thigh that flexed beside him. That combination of strength and submission was unlike anything he had known. Even as the man surrendered, he remained whole, unownable. It was both maddening and tantalizingly attractive.

"On the contrary," Methos said, studying those bright, straightforward brown eyes, their serious intensity and underlying mischief. "I am well pleased. Indeed, I find myself thinking that I may have priced your service too cheaply."

The other man stiffened under his touch, then after a moment, made himself relax again. "Nevertheless," he said carefully, "a bargain is a bargain, is it not?"

Methos cursed inwardly at his own thoughtlessness at reminding them both of what was between them. "No fear, Highlander," he said harshly. "I shan't try and hold you past your term of service. No matter how much you may wish differently," he said slyly.

The look Duncan gave him was fierce and troubled, overlying a certain pain that couldn't quite be hidden. "I, my lord? And if I were to admit to some pleasure in our current arrangement, I hardly think I'd be alone." His brow arched questioningly.

Wanting to do something to ease the pain he had caused, Methos shook his head. "No, Highlander. You would not be alone." He brushed his hand over Duncan's cheek and grinned. "But then, I never expected anything less." The slight smile this elicited was troubled.

Neither of them spoke of what might happen after the bargain was fulfilled. Methos suspected that they both knew better than to spend too much time contemplating impossibilities. He rested his hand on Duncan's throat, idly stroking, noting that the man's breathing deepened.

* * *

Duncan sat and watched the other man who seemed lost in his own introspection. He had not been surprised when Rashanal had retaken control of their pleasure, surprised that the man had left himself as open to Duncan's whims as he had. The brief certainty he had felt in taking the lead in pleasuring Rashanal had receded, leaving him again ill at ease, though he no longer felt shy of the hungry way Rashanal watched him.

"What kind of a sorcerer are you, Rashanal?" Duncan brushed his cheek along the back of Rashanal's hand, but his eyes were serious. "What kind of spell have you cast on me? Less than a fortnight since you bought me, a handful of days in your bed, and yet it seems weeks, months even."

"Don't you remember being a child, Highlander? Days lasted forever."

"I am not a child," Duncan said dryly, knowing he was probably repeating himself, wondering if this would be his new refrain: I am not a child, I am not afraid. Was he asserting truth, or denying it with such statements? The Lord himself knew that Rashanal made him feel the child all too often.

"Yes, well, be that as it may, or not, childhood always ends. Enjoy it while you can...and be glad you can remember it. Besides, your innocence suits you."

Duncan felt a contradictory urge to deny his own innocence, realizing that coming from Rashanal, this might not be complimentary. "I'm hardly the innocent."

This time it was Rashanal's brow which raised in question. "Indeed? Trust me, Highlander. To someone such as myself, you are as innocent as the day is long. Immortal youth carries its own blush of innocence, and the bloom has yet to leave your rose. You still cling to notions that served you well as a mortal, but do you no favors if you wish to survive."

"Such as?"

"Honor. Chivalry. These are things that you will learn to sacrifice."

"You would ask me to sacrifice who I am in order to survive? You do not make the prospect of Immortality appealing sometimes, Rashanal. And though you say this, you yourself are not without honor." Duncan was once again struck by the paradoxical nature of the man beside him.

Rashanal laughed bitterly. "Me? A man of honor? You see, you demonstrate your innocence even so. Tell me, your compassion and understanding of the unpleasantness of my duty; do you see me as a man who does such things regretfully, who finds the infliction of pain, however well deserved, distasteful?" He nodded to himself, as if seeing confirmation in Duncan's face, and as he continued to speak, his tone grew more savage, the words spilling out. "Trust me, Highlander, what you saw today was nothing. I have inflicted such pain and suffering in my lifetime as would make a man such as you weep and retch. I have done things a man such as you would never countenance, never even think of."

Duncan could taste the poison and bile in the man's voice, but he kept silent, trying to reconcile what he heard with what he had seen of this man. He had seen his power, his savagery, but they were tightly leashed; what would he be capable of if he chose to discard that restraint? Rashanal's words were vague, but Duncan had the sense that whatever he imagined, the reality would be beyond it.

"Do you want to know what I felt when I left the whipping post this morning? I wasn't agonizing over the burden of my duties, trust me. I was so hard that I could barely think! Each lash of the whip stirred me, brought me to life in a way that nothing else does!" His hand was digging cruelly into Duncan's flesh. "Tell me, what kind of honor is that?!"

"And what did you do with that lust?" Duncan wondered at the mingled emotions he saw in those impassioned eyes. Rashanal was as a man transformed, but behind the anger and desire to spark Duncan's own fury, he saw something very much like pain. He let the question lie between them, and he saw Rashanal forcibly bring himself under control, his harsh breathing and tight mouth evidence of what it cost him. They sat in silence several moments, and then Duncan asked, "What is it you want of me, Rashanal?"

"I want nothing, Highlander. Nothing you can give me."

Duncan wondered if they both heard it for the lie it was. But before anything more could be said, they were interrupted by voices outside.

* * *

Namal and Jaffir grinned at them as they stepped outside, shading their eyes against the fierce glare of midday.

"My son is born," Jaffir said, pride shining in his eyes and voice. "A good sign, I thought, that it went so well."

"How is Souraya?" Duncan asked, concerned for the child's mother.

"Happy it is over. " Namal threw his arm across his son's shoulders. "Soon, we will celebrate. It is a good omen, Rashanal. A good day for the tribe."

"A good day indeed."

Duncan looked at Rashanal, startled at his tone of voice. The man's eyes seemed hunted and wary, and the cheer that the two tribesmen had brought with them vanished as they left. Rashanal said nothing else, just turned and re-entered the tent, leaving Duncan looking after him.

Chapter Text

Much to Duncan's amazement, Rajid lived. He was cut down at moonrise and taken to the healer's tent, where Nadima found her skills sorely taxed, but her determination and Rajid's will to live proved equal to the challenge. When Rajid emerged days later, still bruised and scarred, he seemed a changed man, much subdued from the hothead who had challenged Rashanal in front of the whole tribe. Still, he lived and was given to Jaffir as a slave, a state he accepted with uncharacteristic acquiescence.

While Rajid healed, life in the tribe moved on, and the people that gathered to view Jaffir's son on the evening of the third day after his birth were transformed from the solemn, watchful ones that had witnessed Rajid's punishment. Worn by conflict and death, they seized the event as an opportunity to celebrate, and Duncan was deeply moved by their ability to express their joy. He laughed at the look of baffled delight on the young father's face when Nadima handed him his newborn son to be presented to the people. Tradition decreed that the child would be named in one month's time, Duncan learned, but as the boy's lungs attested, he was a healthy child, and Duncan was sure that he'd survive.

As he hoped these people would. He had grown fond of them, he realized, as he watched them go about their celebrating. Namal relaxed from his normal formality and solemnity to laugh and joke with the other men, and Jaffir carried the child from group to group, gathering blessings on his son, both men obviously drunk on joy. Souraya, looking tired, but well, was the center of a group of women who laughed and gossiped. Only Rashanal's bleak mood was a stark contrast to that of the rest of the tribe. He attended the celebration, but held himself apart, always at the edge of it, rather than at its center.

Duncan felt Rashanal's isolation, his loneliness, and wondered if it had been this bad before his own arrival, or if his presence had somehow broken through Rashanal's carefully constructed barriers. It is best to survive, and to do that, sometimes we have to keep ourselves apart. Rashanal's words came back to him as he watched the man across the campfire, wishing that things were such that they could find ease in each other, rather than only confusion and a battle of wills.

* * *

Methos watched the tribe's revels, evading their attempts to pull him into their feasting and celebrating, moving around the edges, watchful and withdrawn. He was pleased for Jaffir, and glad that the birth had been successful, but there was a tightness, a hardness in his chest that would not ease, that had settled in him the day of Rajid's whipping. He gave his blessing when Jaffir brought the child to him, holding the infant briefly, not thinking about how long it had been since he'd done such a thing.

He smiled wolfishly as he saw Namal watching Tahirih, who seemed enchanted with the boy, a genuine smile lighting up her lovely face as she cooed at him. There might soon be a cousin to bless the tribe, as well, Allah being willing, for it was clear that Namal was. No fool like an old one, but such foolery had its moments of pleasure. Too seldom, though, were they worth the periods of loss.

He stayed away from the Highlander, but was close enough to hear him murmur some Gaelic blessing over the infant, watched him move as a part of the tribe in a way Methos never truly had. Always some part of him held back, protected him from getting too close. Too close to forgetting, to letting go and pretending he was anything but what he was. The Immortal who forgot that lost everything. Methos was far too old to let himself be lost now, though he had come so close. The Highlander was beautiful, honor and life and passion all woven together into a seductive whole, but he was a weakness Methos could not afford if he wanted to survive. It would be too easy to give in, to see himself as Duncan saw him, and that way lay destruction.

Destruction and madness. He'd been down that road before, hadn't he? Let himself be lured by another's passion, Kronos' passion for death in all its forms, destruction as a religion. For two men with such different outlooks, such different paths, they were alarmingly similar, like images in a mirror.

And Duncan was much more dangerous to him than Kronos had ever been.

Kronos had never tempted Methos to vulnerability, to risk. Kronos' very nature had been protection against that; any sign of weakness or vulnerability was turned into a weapon. But Duncan...Duncan would view Methos' weakness as a strength and try to convince Methos of that, as well. He would remake Methos in his own image, because he would see things as he believed them to be, not as they were, and it would be too tempting to believe with him, to try and live up to that passionate honesty and courage. And Methos was too old, and too cynical, to be that naive.

Looking up, he was caught by those eyes, eyes that seemed to see directly into him. The tightness in his chest grew stronger, and he resisted the pull, the desire to wrap himself in the other man's warmth. He damned himself for a fool for thinking he could control such a man. How did one control a madness in the blood?

He was a fool, but he would be one no longer.

* * *

Rashanal's mood did not let up. His anger no longer in evidence, he moved calmly through the days, his humor sharp and pointed, but without the seductive teasing that had been evidenced from the first. He did not avoid Duncan's gaze, but when Duncan looked into his eyes, he saw none of the depths that had called to him across the fire on the night of the child's birth. Their tempest had cooled, but the nights betrayed him, and that gave Duncan hope that he might yet resolve the puzzle the man set him.

In the days that followed, Duncan had a great deal of time to ponder what it was that Rashanal might want from him, what it was he had seen in those tormented eyes -- and to wonder if Rashanal had been telling a truth when he said he wanted nothing Duncan could give. The nights Duncan spent wrapped in Rashanal's erotic embrace, but each morning he woke, and it was as if they had never been. Each dawn presented him with a man that was a little more withdrawn, a little bit colder than he had been the day before. It was as if none of the closeness, none of the intimacy, had ever happened. No more stolen moments apart, no more intimate conversation. Whatever demons Rashanal lived with, it seemed he had decided he preferred their company to Duncan's. Despite the heat and the silent passion of Rashanal's body covering his in the dark, Duncan wasn't sure he would ever be warm.

Each day that passed seemed interminable in length, but together they raced like a barefoot child over the hot desert sand. At Rashanal's command, Duncan spent the days in Namal's company and under his tutelage, assisting in a variety of tasks and learning more of the tribe's dialect. He knew that Namal worried over his chieftain, as well, but he seemed reluctant to discuss it.

And still Rashanal's passion for Duncan's flesh seemed limitless, each taking of his body leaving Duncan hard-pressed to retain the shreds of his soul that allowed him to withstand the growing ache in his heart, each coupling seeming more frenzied and less satisfying. Nothing he did seemed to please Rashanal, who grew increasingly silent and ill-tempered. Sometimes he seemed determined to drive Duncan mad with pleasure; at others, he merely used him as a vehicle for his own bodily indulgences. Each day saw the pile of coins grow, their presence both a torment and a reassurance. Each coin brought Duncan closer to his promised freedom, a state he grew to both long for and dread.

As Duncan observed Rashanal's life with the tribe, his respect for him, both as a leader and a man, increased steadily, which only made the lack of personal connection between them that much harder to bear. Frustrated and increasingly isolated, Duncan counted the days by his growing wealth and his aching heart, until the unexpected arrival of emissaries from neighboring tribes who came seeking Rashanal's counsel.

* * *

Every day, the task Methos had set himself was both more difficult and easier than the day before. Leaving the warmth of his bed, of the man in it, was a small torture; staying away until night was a task that grew easier as the day progressed, though as he left him each morning, it was hard to believe. It would have been so easy to let go, to sink into what Duncan offered and pay no heed to the consequences, but it was something he knew he dare not do, if he was to preserve his own sanity. Their time together had begun to seem like a prolonged death, each step forward in intimacy tearing another small bit of his soul away. Each bit of warmth was rewarded with the icy reality that this was just a dream, an oasis that would fade all too quickly. Better not to risk his soul.

It had been so long since he'd been so warm, since he'd allowed himself to even think of feeling so intensely, wanting so much, and he'd let himself forget the hard lessons he'd learned. No, that wasn't true -- he'd deliberately ignored them. He had remembered, but the temptation had been too strong.

But then, no one in his life had been quite like Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. So young, so beautiful, so dangerous -- and so honest, so sincere. A bad combination for an Immortal, at least where Methos was concerned. A combination that had lured him in, daring him to taste, speaking to the Beast in him at least as strongly as it did the Lover. He'd bought him without thought, ignoring the voice of sanity that told him it would simply add to his regrets. He'd cozened himself into believing that he could handle this lion, tame him and use him before moving on. In his grandiose plans, he'd forgotten what he was -- just a man, one who had grown so cold, who'd chosen to forget how the fire burned, even as it restored feeling to frostbitten limbs.

It wasn't a fire he could survive intact if he let it burn free, so he'd moved to rebuild the pit, to cage the lion once again, letting it near only when he felt sure he could withstand the claws. No more intimate talks, no more midnight rides where he could forget himself and indulge in the childish fantasies of companionship and freedom.

Too dangerous by far. An impossible child, with his notions of honor and his foolhardy convictions.

He ignored Duncan's bewilderment, his anger, his attempts to make their liaison something more than hunger and flesh. He did not deny himself his pleasure, taking full advantage of the bargain; the bargain was simply all he allowed. Duncan cared for his belongings, his animals, his body, and that was all. Anything more he evaded, forbade, ignored.

Especially the eyes. He could feel those warm, compassionate eyes on him anytime they were together, and they fed the turmoil he fought to subdue within him, allies to the treacherous weakness within himself. When the opportunity came to escape those eyes for a time, he took it gladly, ignoring Namal's disapproval, as usual.

* * *

"Rashanal! Lord! Riders out of the east."

Dark had fallen, and the moon had not yet risen. Methos rose quickly from the floor of the tent, leaving Duncan to deal with the food he'd scattered in his haste. He threw open the curtain to the tent and found one of his sentries standing outside the door, panting his exhaustion.

"How far?" Methos asked, already turning for the horses, the man close behind. "How many?"

"Less than an hour's ride, I think; there are four of them."

"Not an invasion, then." He paused mid-stride. "Tariq is to the south and east. The riders may be his men. We should not attack until we know." He waved at the sentry. "Assemble the men. We will welcome these riders, discover whether they are on a mission of peace, or of war." He turned back to the tent and caught Duncan looking at him. "Make sure they show no fear."

It was an interesting and peaceful group that met Methos' sortie. Two of the men were indeed from Tariq's tribe: Thaqib, Tariq's own son, and Ghiyath, one of Tariq's advisors. The other two, Altair and Nasir, were from a tribe whose lands did not directly touch Methos', but did border on Emad's, as did Tariq's. Methos and his men escorted the guests back to the village, talking of inconsequentials and exchanging news of mutual acquaintances.

In Methos' tent, the four men were seated across from Methos, Namal, and Jaffir. The Highlander prepared coffee for the group, a skill he had become more comfortable with in the passing days, as no longer did Methos eat alone. The men ignored him as he set the cups out, and Methos had schooled himself to do so, as well. When it came time to serve the drink, instead of having Duncan serve, as had become usual, Methos decided to serve himself, as was traditional. Duncan's service was something his own tribesmen no longer questioned, but it would be something his company would both question and see as an intentional insult -- and this time, Methos had no point to prove.

Duncan seemed to anticipate his desire, which was both gratifying and maddening. It was the anticipation of a well-trained slave, but Methos doubted that it stemmed from Duncan's all too brief training, but rather from the disturbing perceptions the Highlander seemed to have developed where his master was concerned. He waved the slave away, back to the recesses of the tent, putting him from his mind as best he could as he learned of their visitors' quest.

It seemed Methos' tribe now shared a common enemy with them: Emad had stolen one of their shared wells, as well. Having a common enemy, the men had come to see if they could bargain for assistance. Tariq's son told the basics, how Emad's men had attacked the neighboring tribe -- their allies -- two nights before, killing four sentries and seizing the well that lay between their peoples. With the attack, both tribes would suffer. The tribes to the east were not quite so rich in resources as Methos' own. What they wanted of Methos remained to be seen, but he could easily guess. Emad's greed might have at last outreached his strength.

"On my father's behalf, we thank you for the audience, Rashanal. He wishes to express his respect and hopes that you will accept the tokens we have brought as a sign of friendship and continued peace between our peoples," Thaqib said. The emissaries' horses had borne several wrapped bundles of spices and rare indigo dye.

"You may take Tariq my thanks and respect in return. But I do not think that is all you came for?" Methos sipped his coffee, maintaining an interested, but cautious face.

"No," Thaqib admitted. "Our situation is...somewhat precarious, my lord. Last summer, our primary well ran dry. In the months since, as we have searched for a new source, we have relied upon our allies to share the burden of our people's needs. Now, that source is also gone, and we are under threat of another attack at any time. Our one remaining well cannot support our number for long. We would prevail upon your reputation for fairness and generosity, and ask that we be allowed to negotiate temporary rights to share your water source to the south." Clearly aware of the gravity of the request, Thaqib added, "Tariq is prepared to offer considerable compensation."

Methos exchanged a glance with Namal. The situation must be dire, indeed, or Tariq would not have revealed such a weakness. Without a reliable source of water, Tariq's tribe would have no choice but to move on; if he was asking to trade, the need must be immediate.

"You know that Emad also stole one of our wells and killed nine of my men," Methos said to Thaqib. "We have little enough water to spare."

"My father is aware of the situation, my lord. It is his hope that some arrangement can be made, for the short term only. Your remaining source is a good one, reliable and plentiful. Your wisdom in such matters, of course, the same."

Methos was amused, but not convinced. "Flattery will not help your case, Thaqib. Even the best well may turn to silt if overtaxed." He considered, weighing his tribe's needs against the risks. But a glance at Namal and Jaffir showed that they were in agreement. "I can't risk my people's lives, and yours, as well, for any amount of goods."

"But you must," insisted Altair, a short, round man with a wisp of a beard. "Just until we can find a source of our own. Emad's raiders took half our horses, as well. Without them, we don't stand a chance against him."

"Horses," Methos murmured, looking at him thoughtfully.

"What are you thinking, ra-jamihn?" asked Jaffir.

"That horses are one resource we have in abundance. And that perhaps the time has come to stop thinking in terms of peace and make the most of the resources we do have." He looked at Thaqib. "In attacking one of us, Emad has won a valuable asset. In attacking all of us, he may have made a tactical error."

Thaqib looked troubled. "You are speaking of war."

"My boy, I am speaking of an alliance, which if made now may prevent war and return to us what Emad has taken. And threats may serve our purpose as well as force, if we are willing to use force to back them up."

"Even if we combine forces," Namal said quietly, "Emad's men may still outnumber us, my lord."

Feeling the lifting of the black mood that had weighed so heavily on him for days, Methos smiled. "That is what he is thinking, Namal. But superior numbers do not a winning strategy make. Not when weighed against superior intellect."

"Ah," Namal said dryly. "Indeed, ra-jamihn, forgive me. I had not taken that factor into consideration."

Methos rose. "Thaqib, you will rest here tonight and join us for supper. In the morning I will ride with you to see Tariq. Jaffir, see to it that they are comfortable, will you?" Still troubled, but with the look of men who know half a loaf is better than none, Tariq and his companions followed Jaffir out of the tent.

When they were gone, Namal turned to Methos with an apprehensive expression of his own. "Who will ride with you?"

"Thaqib and his companions will be sufficient company."

Namal's frown deepened. "I don't like the idea of you going alone."

Methos suppressed a flare of annoyance, all too aware of the Highlander's observant presence. "What a surprise. I was sure you'd be all for it."

"Will you at least consider taking a guard?"

"The men are needed here," Methos said shortly, turning away. "Thank you for your concern, Namal, but as I've told you many times before, I can take care of myself."

"That superior intellect, I presume," Namal murmured, barely audible.

"What did you say?" Methos turned in disbelief.

"I said you are a stubborn fool, my lord," Namal said calmly, rising and turning to go. "And a brave one. And I hope you are right." He paused.

"Yes, Namal? Was there something else?" Methos saw the man's eyes dart towards Duncan before they returned.

"You might consider taking the Highlander with you, at least. As a guard."

Methos' amusement was quelched. "That is out of the question. And you were the one who was appalled when I fought him at the oasis; now you want me to arm him?"

Namal moved closer, speaking quietly. "I have spent much time with him lately, Rashanal. I find him to be a man of honor. I cannot believe he would take advantage, and you should not go alone!"

"There is no discussion, Namal. Leave me, before you push me too far!" He could see that Namal was startled at the depth of his anger, which only grew as Namal glanced back and forth between his lord and the slave. "Now!"

Namal bowed and retreated, and Methos watched him go. The man was getting positively ill-mannered in his old age.

Ill-tempered, he turned and found the Highlander watching him with that silent, wary expression he'd come to know too well of late. Their eyes met and held, the communication between them unguarded for the first time in days; Methos knew it was a weakness, knew he shouldn't have permitted it -- but just for a moment, he couldn't help himself. Beautiful, he thought irrelevantly, taking in the contrast of the deep indigo robe against the tawny skin, the way the rich brown of his eyes caught and reflected lamplight in a most pleasing fashion. For the first time that night, he noticed how the dark hair gleamed in soft waves, cascading over his shoulders and back. Duncan had obviously taken great care to wash and brush the heavy mane until it shone -- perhaps to please him.

As if encouraged by Methos' expression, Duncan moved a step nearer."Rashanal?" he murmured, a wealth of questions in the one word.

Methos took a deep breath, his will suddenly weakened by the warmth and concern in those eyes. The last time he had left this man alone, he had returned to a surrender that had left him shaken and vulnerable. He wondered how much of his enthusiasm for this mission was fueled by the chance to leave Duncan behind, to find space to shore up his defenses against the man without his constant presence. To take him with him was out of the question.

But looking into those dark eyes, he knew he was lying to himself if he thought he wouldn't take the man with him, in spirit, if not in flesh. For a moment he was tempted to accede to Namal's plea, to actually take him along, and he smiled grimly at his own weakness.

"Yes, Highlander? You have something to say?" he said harshly.

* * *

Rashanal's eyes held cold fire, and Duncan knew it was hopeless. Yet he had to try. Rashanal should not be allowed to go alone to Tariq's camp; too many things could go wrong. "I want to go with you."

"Either your understanding increases, or you and Namal have been spending too much time together. In either case, I think not." Rashanal's smile had a cruel twist to it, and Duncan's stomach tightened. "Tariq would probably want you added to the list of available resources, along with the well and the horses -- and I hate to share my slaves. In any case, I'm sure my hosts will be willing to provide for my pleasure, so your company won't be necessary. Stay with Jaffir and learn something." He turned to leave. "You can start packing for me, however. Enough for a week or two, that should suffice. Oh, and Tariq and the men with him will be joining us here for dinner. Be sure to make appropriate preparations. Perhaps Namal will loan us Tahirih for the evening to help."

The comments cut just as deeply as Duncan believed Rashanal had intended, the deliberate misunderstanding of Duncan's intention hurting the most. He watched Rashanal leave before he headed back into the inner room of their tent. No, not their tent, he thought, as he caught sight of the bowl full of coins, Rashanal's tent. Hard and cold as the man had been lately, he'd at least remained civil in Duncan's presence. But now it looked like that, too, was a thing of the past.

Duncan started assembling a pack for Rashanal to take. As he laid out spare clothing and began looking for a blanket to make into a bedroll, his mind churned. Rashanal would be back tonight, once the emissaries were settled, and he would take him to bed, as he did each night. That seemed to be all the man wanted of him any more -- to feel himself enveloped in Duncan's body. He no longer seemed to want to know anything about Duncan, alternately ignoring him and devouring him at all hours of the day, each time a little colder than the one before.

Opening trunks, looking for a blanket, he found one that contained a number of books of all shapes and sizes, some nothing more than what seemed to be loose sheets wrapped in a larger piece of skin, some bound in embellished leatherwork. He pulled up a stool and carefully looked through them, wondering what was caught on these pages that Rashanal valued enough to cart them around. There were several languages, some pristine, done in a careful hand, others worn and faded, and the styles of illustration in some of the texts were incredibly beautiful. The trunk itself would be unwieldy to move, but then he had no reason to think that Rashanal had not collected the texts since joining the tribe, buying them at various times during forays into the city. He stroked the smooth cover of an illustrated text, wondering what these different books said about the man himself.

He shook his head and stood, both intrigued and saddened by this small look into the man who shared his bed each night. Rashanal shared so little of himself, and as time passed, Duncan found himself wanting to know more and more about him, a very foolish desire, indeed. Pushing aside such pointless thoughts, he found the blanket in another trunk. He took the clothing and other items he considered Rashanal might need and prepared them for easy carrying.

The pile of cloth reduced to a smallish bedroll, Duncan sat back on his heels and thought. He'd been a fool. He'd had no reason to think Rashanal would take him along, and as a slave, he could not go just because he willed it. Rashanal could take care of himself. He knew it, and still Duncan fretted about what would happen to him. If Tariq crossed him and these 'allies' turned out to be enemies instead -- then what? Tariq didn't know enough to take Rashanal's head -- at least, Duncan hoped not. But if he were publicly killed--

Rashanal would not be coming back.

A feeling of dread snaked through him. Maybe that was part of Rashanal's plan? He shook his head to clear his mind. No, not Rashanal, not like that. He cared too much for the people here and would not leave them unprotected. He was not the type to slip out in the middle of the night, or he would have done so long since. He was taking no one because whatever his plan was, he didn't trust anyone else to carry it out.

Least of all a Highland slave.

Duncan straightened the tent and set the bedroll near the door, then found himself at loose ends. He didn't need a bath; he'd just had one this morning. He'd been glad of it, too, when he'd held himself still under Rashanal's appraising, appreciative gaze, feeling the hunger that the man felt for him, even now. His mouth twisted in bitter self-mocking. At least he still had something Rashanal wanted.

Tahirih had probably thought the same thing.

He mocked himself for his earlier feelings of having some power over the man. The last days had proven him wrong on that, Rashanal having made it clear he was interested only in Duncan's body. Duncan had best rid himself of any notion that anything more was possible -- and yet he could not. Rashanal's very resistance was a sign of his temptation, in Duncan's eyes. He worked very hard to keep Duncan at arm's reach. If he were truly disinterested, would he put so much effort into seeming so?

Feeling oddly pleased, Duncan wandered back out into the outer room, picking up the coffee dishes, scraping the grounds into the appropriate pot, straightening things out. Then he went to find Namal to see about Tahirih, who would no doubt be less than overjoyed at the task, and to begin preparations for a meal that would not disgrace Rashanal. There was little enough Duncan could do, and nothing that seemed to truly please the man, but what he could do, he would.

* * *

Dinner was a jovial affair, the visiting tribesmen still obviously trying to make favorable impressions, but unbending enough to enjoy themselves. Jaffir and Thaqib were of an age and had a long-standing friendship based on competition and rivalry at some of the intra-tribal celebrations and gatherings that happened periodically, as well as on shared knowledge that they would one day be leaders of their mutual tribes. They spent much of the evening conversing together. Methos himself spent the evening discussing horse breeding with Sulayman and Nasir, who worked with his own tribe's horses. It was an old debate, regarding the advantages and disadvantages of breeding their own mares with the huskier European stock.

Tahirih did indeed help with the feast, and Methos noted that her time with Namal had been good for her. Perhaps having her help the healer had assisted in the change, as well, but whatever the cause, while she was a bit flirtatious, her manner overall was more subdued and modestly inclined, as befitted her sex and her station. He caught her watching him once or twice, a look of puzzlement on her features, and once, when she did not notice herself observed in turn, she turned her gaze thoughtfully on the Highlander, who was busy going about his duties, seemingly focused only on them.

Methos knew this to be a false impression, as he was sure he felt it each time those dark eyes turned his way, mingled apprehension and resignation in their depths. After the first time, he refused to acknowledge them, keeping his own eyes on his guests or his plate. And yet each time he felt Duncan's gaze, his mind turned to the night ahead and the realization that it would be the last time for him to savor the Highlander's body until his return. It made him impatient, which made him annoyed, both of which he carefully concealed from his guests -- and hopefully from Duncan. The man needed no encouragement.

When the meal was finished, Duncan set the tray of coffee on the table in front of Methos, obviously expecting him to serve again. He glanced up, and Methos saw warm amusement in those dark eyes. He didn't know whether it stemmed from the man's own inner thoughts, or if it was a comment on Methos' avoidance of the man's gaze, but he felt a moment's claustrophobia and responded to the unnerving feeling by speaking harshly. "Tahirih will clear; go and make yourself ready for me." He kept his voice pitched low, but he caught Namal's narrow-eyed glance out of the corner of his eye. His own gaze he kept on the flushed face of his slave, turning back to the conversation only when Duncan pulled back from the table with a soft-spoken "Yes, ra-jamihn."

Chapter Text

Methos kept his company late, and he didn't know which of them, Duncan, or himself, he was punishing. His body made its opinion known early and vociferously, humming with desire and anticipation, but intermingled was a simple need to be with the man. His mind was equally distracted, flashing enticing images of the man waiting for him -- but they always ended with dark eyes and smiling lips, reminding him how seldom he had seen the man truly smile.

He'd thought he had gained some mastery over himself where the Highlander was concerned, but this night put that idea to naught. Fortunately, Sulayman and Nasir were quite able to keep the conversation going with minimal input from him, and he ignored the questioning looks that were cast his way.

When he finally rose to indicate that the evening was at a close, he was annoyed to see that Namal was obviously planning on having words with him. They had an early departure planned, and if he was to get any sleep at all, he had no time to waste listening to Namal chide him for carelessness. But since the man looked determined, he beckoned Jaffir to remain, as well. He might as well instruct them both now, instead of in the morning.

His own deliberate delays were another matter, one that bore no close inspection.

"What is it, old man? You won't change my mind, so don't waste your breath. I'm going, and I'm going alone."

"I would not dream of trying to change your mind, ra-jamihn." Acerbity dripped off Namal's every word. "Far be it from me to concern myself with the unimportant matter of your safety."

Methos could see that Jaffir was struggling to keep a straight face, even though he obviously had concerns of his own.

"You worry too much," Methos said pointedly. "I owe you no explanations, but you know that we have to be prepared for Emad, if he should decide to move. And I'll be less of a target on my own than if I carried an entourage." He went over and dug out one of the maps, then sat back down and motioned them to join him. "While I'm gone, make certain you don't relax your guard. I don't anticipate any more trouble from Emad this soon, but it wouldn't do to become complacent. If he gains more power, he'll upset the whole balance of the tribes, which won't work to anyone's favor but his own. We'll just have to hope that our visitors have gone unremarked, and that Emad doesn't learn of our mission before we choose to inform him."

He unrolled the map for them all to see, pinning it down with empty cups. "I should be at Tariq's camp for a day or two, then on to Jakir's. Then...." He paused, studying the map as he gathered his thoughts, wondering if those few days would be enough time away. "Then I will regroup and decide on our best course of action." He drew his forefinger along the map, indicating his anticipated route. "I should be at each stop one day, no more than two, with travel in between. If there is trouble, I expect to be notified as soon as possible, but I trust you to see to the immediate need."

He hesitated, looking up at them. "It...might not hurt to keep the Highlander informed, as well. He has a keen grasp of strategy, I find." He ignored the satisfied look on Namal's face. "Have you anything to say?"

"No, ra-jamihn," Namal said. "Jaffir?"

Jaffir hesitated. "My lord... what if something does go wrong?"

Methos looked at the young man, seeing in him both the boy he had been and the man he had become. As a youth, Jaffir had idolized his older brother, and he had transferred that hero-worship to the man who had, to all intents and purposes, taken his brother's place. Now he was a man himself, newly a father, and beginning to realize the full responsibility he would one day bear -- quite probably sooner than he realized. "I have faith in you, Jaffir. You are ready for whatever will come."

Jaffir smiled, flushing with pleasure. Methos smiled in return, ignoring the sharp look that Namal cast his way.

* * *

Pools of lamplight illuminated the inner tent, a gentle, warm glow that did little to ease the tight ache in Duncan's gut. Naked, he brushed his hair, the long fall and his collar his only covering. As the days had passed, he had come to accept his nudity, even grown accustomed to it -- but tonight would be Rashanal's last night in the camp for an unknown period. When he was gone, Duncan could dress in the inner room if he so wished, but the thought felt almost unnatural. He flushed at that, wondering how much longer he could pretend to himself that he was still any kind of warrior. Before long, his hand would forget the weight of his sword; already, muscles used to hard training were reacting to its lack, the type of training he'd been getting no replacement.

He studiously avoided looking at the bowl and its coins, a constant reminder of how quickly time was passing. Even if he didn't look at it, he still knew it was there. He had never counted how many coins there were, as he wasn't sure he truly wanted to know. It would either be far too few, or far too many.

At least the pile won't grow while Rashanal is away. The thought appeared out of nowhere, and it let him know exactly how far he had fallen. It was madness.

He told himself that there was still enough time for Rashanal to accept the unresolved tensions that lay between them, tensions that were driving the other man to treat him with such deliberate coolness. Still enough time to regain some of their earlier warmth. He called himself a fool for such thoughts. By the time he was set free, perhaps Rashanal would be glad to see him go. Perhaps nothing was driving Rashanal now but his own waning desires, a hunger he was burning out in Duncan's flesh. But even as the thought occurred, he dismissed it. As much as he tried to hide it, Rashanal was a man being torn apart by his own conflicting impulses. The very harshness of his response whenever Duncan tried to ease that conflict seemed to prove it.

Sounds from the other room indicated that the visitors were leaving at last. Setting aside the brush, Duncan leaned back against the pillows, clasping his hands around one raised knee as he waited. Even if Rashanal merely used him tonight to slake his own desires, Duncan wanted to give him a reminder of what it could be like between them, if only Rashanal would accept it. Something to take with him, a night that would give him something to think on while he was gone.

While he sated himself with others provided for his pleasure.

Duncan couldn't say that what he felt at the thought was exactly jealousy. He didn't like the idea, but it didn't seem real. Given the passion they had, perhaps he just couldn't imagine Rashanal turning to someone anonymous. The thought that he might be able to do so easily caused a sharper pang than anything.

He stirred restlessly, putting the thought out of his mind. Their coming together was still new, and he had no true hold on Rashanal -- a thought that left a hollowness behind it. Indeed, he fiercely envied the other man's freedom, to travel, to choose.... He reminded himself that it would be a short time until he had his own freedom again. And when he did...when he did, what would he choose? Could he just walk away and forget this all had ever happened? He was already dreading Rashanal's parting, unable to escape the feeling that something would go wrong and they would not see one another again.

He looked around the room, examining the items there. Only the chest of books seemed to speak of the man himself. Too bad Immortals healed so quickly. He flushed just thinking about it, wishing that he could keep something of Rashanal with him, but knowing that there was nothing that would capture the memory of that lithe body mastering his, those enigmatic and fascinating eyes watching him hotly. His hand crept up to his neck, to the place where Rashanal had bitten him before, encountering the warm metal as he did so.

Nothing save this....

Disturbed by his turn of thoughts, Duncan rose and moved to the tub, making sure that everything was ready. Water, oils, soft cloth, brushes -- he would not allow Rashanal to start his travels unwashed and unkempt. He smiled at the thought, surely that of an obedient slave, but he knew that his motivation was in large part selfish. Already he could feel that strong body under his hands, hands that ached to thread their way through Rashanal's hair, to card it and wash it, feeling the wet, silken strands flow through his fingers.

He could sense Rashanal's presence as a low pulse at the back of awareness; closing his eyes and letting himself feel it, his tension twisted into a new form. Part of him, he realized, had feared that Rashanal wouldn't stay with him tonight, that Duncan would not have the chance to say good-bye.

Instead of that fear, another one sat upon his heart, one that claimed it did not matter whether Rashanal came, or not. Rashanal had already made his choice, and Duncan had no way to change that; it was best to just accept it and survive.

His mouth twitched at the thought. It seemed Rashanal's lessons were being impressed upon him whether he meant to learn them or not.

* * *

Much to Methos' annoyance, Namal lingered after Jaffir had left. "What is it?" he bit out.

"Lord--" Namal began, then moved to sit. "Come, sit with me a moment."

Methos sighed in exasperation. "More attempts to talk sense into me?" He threw himself down.

"I fear my life will not have enough days for such a tremendous task."

Methos laughed in surprise at the wry tone, looking at the other man more closely. "Something is bothering you. Spit it out."

"I...worry. For you."

"I tell you, I will be fine. I'll be back in no time."

"I know you will be back."

Methos leaned back, something in Namal's voice tugging at him. "But?"

"I wonder how long you will stay." Namal continued to look at him calmly, something suspiciously like compassion in his dark eyes. "I do not think it will be long."

Methos did not dissemble. "I meant what I said to Jaffir. He will do well."

Namal nodded in agreement. "Yes, I believe he will. He has had a strong example. We all have."

Methos flushed, feeling the warmth stain his cheeks. "I-- Thank you."

"It is we who are grateful, Lord."

Taken aback by the honest gratitude in the dark eyes when he had expected more scolding, it took Methos a moment to find his voice. "Please -- Rashanal. We have no need to stand on ceremony, old friend."

Namal acquiesced. "Rashanal." He reached out to pat Methos' knee. "I forget...how young you are. You have done so much, taken on a burden I was too--"

Methos held back the bubble of hysterical laughter that had welled up at Namal's first words, focusing instead on the self-deprecation of the last. "Namal, you nearly died."

Namal waved his hand as if this were a trifle. "I will never forget that you were here when we needed you. You know that I have come to view you as one of my own. Jaffir has, as well. But I think...you have never fully become one of us, have you?" His voice held a faint sorrow.

Acutely aware of Duncan nearby, just on the other side of the curtain, Methos tried to find some neutral answer before the mortal could say anything else he didn't want to chance the Highlander overhearing. "I--"

Leaning forward, Namal persisted. "I have watched you with your Highlander, my son. Even as you hold him away, keep yourself apart, he brings you something you will never find with us. And when he is gone...I think that you will go, as well."

The man's gaze was direct, painfully honest and forgiving. Methos looked down at his clasped hands, his throat tight. He had to swallow before he could answer. "You knew I would not stay forever."

Namal nodded. "Indeed, I seem to remember a strong resistance to staying in the first place."

"There are...reasons."

"Talk to him, Rashanal."

Methos' nostrils flared, his old friend's empathy burning his exposed nerves like stinging sand in the wind. "What is there to talk about?"

"Many things, all those things you hold to yourself like the most precious water. All those things that have gone unsaid while you dwelt among us." Namal eyed him narrowly. "He is a strong one, this Duncan MacLeod. He is perhaps even more stubborn than you. And he is not afraid of you."

"More fool he."

"I am not sure that he is the fool here."

Methos shot to his feet. "Enough! That will be enough." He took two steps away and stood there, trying to calm the agitation Namal's words had ignited.

Namal rose slowly, moving to drop one hand onto Methos' shoulder, squeezing gently. "I am not afraid of you, either, Rashanal. But I am afraid for you. It is not good for a man to set himself so apart. Talk to him. He can bear it, if you can." Another squeeze, and he was making his way out of the tent. At the door, he turned and spoke, keeping his voice low. "Go with him, when he leaves."

Methos laughed harshly, clasping his arms around himself. "I don't believe I'd be welcome." He despised the slight yearning in his own tone, his sudden, desperate need for a reassurance Namal couldn't give him.

Namal raised an eyebrow. "He might well surprise you." And he was gone.

Methos watched him leave, seeing the age settled on his bent frame in a way that the Immortal had schooled himself to ignore in the normal course of things, and it pained him. Even as Namal's words had flayed his already frayed nerves, he had been touched by his friend's genuine concern. They lived so briefly, so passionately. He sometimes envied them. Things were so simple in his mortal friend's eyes. What did he know of what the Highlander could bear? Of what Methos could bear?

He took a deep, shuddering breath. He wasn't sure he could survive many more surprises where Duncan was concerned. Namal's words had left him unsettled, uneasy. He felt the anger that never quite left him anymore simmering -- anger at Namal, for speaking things better left unsaid, at Emad for making it impossible for him to just leave, at Duncan for...for being. And mostly at himself, at the false hope that would not die, destroyed by his own lustful whims.

And still he resisted the pull of his hunger, thinking of Duncan rather than going to him and once more stilling his mind with passion. His desire was unabated, but he no longer knew how much was lust, and how much was something much more dangerous and difficult to sate.

Traveling with Thaqib had not been his only option, of course. He could have sent record of his plans and terms, called a central parley, even sent Jaffir as his representative -- but the opportunity seemed too timely to ignore. He was on that thin edge, and he hoped that time away would make things clearer, both for his body and his mind. It was insanity that he could want someone so, have them when and where he pleased, and yet feel that he was still denied. He pinched the bridge of his nose. He was so tired, and his head had begun to ache.

"Rashanal?"

He started at the sound of Duncan's voice, glancing up to see the man holding aside the curtain, looking at him in concern. "What?" His voice sounded raspy, as if his thoughts had choked him.

"I have a bath ready."

Methos' first impulse was toward anger, to speak a harsh reminder of who was master. At the thought, he felt a strong desire to laugh; he wasn't sure he knew the answer any longer. He knew his anger was best directed at himself, for Duncan had done nothing but fulfill the only role he'd been given. And suddenly he realized that he had no desire to spar with the man this night, short as it was.

"Yes, I'll be there." He turned and rolled the map left out on the table before moving to the doorway, meeting Duncan's eyes and seeing in them once more his genuine concern. From what secret reserve did he draw his strength? In similar circumstances, Methos did not know that he would have fared so well.

Moving into the room, he stood and let Duncan remove his garments, watching the bowed head, brushing his hand through the soft curls. He felt the soft brush of fingertips over his body, Duncan's touches soothing, not overtly sexual, though his desire was clear. Then he watched as Duncan poured hot water into the waiting bath, taking off the chill. He let his eyes drift over the strong body, his mind supplying the texture to his fingertips, making him ache with the need to touch. But while his need was strong, stronger still was the urge to gentleness, the wistful, painful longing to just be with him. If that were weakness, or a failure of some sort, so be it. He was so tired of fighting himself, fighting the mute expectation and hope in the other man's gaze.

The name came to his lips without thought. "Duncan--"

Duncan turned from where he had set down the pitcher, and Methos fell into his eyes, an impression of flickering of arms that held him and water that soothed, and he clasped one hand around the opposite wrist, struggling for the wisp of memory.

"Yes, ra-jamihn?"

Methos returned to worried eyes, and he blinked, the brief image gone. Whatever it was, it had perhaps saved him from himself, as he wasn't quite sure exactly what he'd been going to ask. Even so, the memory left him disconcerted and tense. "Nothing. It-- nothing."

He eased himself into the water and let the tepid warmth seep into his muscles, relaxing them. It felt good not to struggle, to just take the moment as it came, to let himself enjoy the Highlander's presence.

He closed his eyes and heard Duncan moving around the tent, heard the soft clink of glass. Oil, he guessed, and he heard Duncan kneel next to the bath, felt a hand dip into the water and the brush of cloth against his own thigh, a questioning touch.

"Yes," was all he said, giving in to the self-indulgence of not having to watch and pay attention to Duncan's movements, just letting himself be cared for. Such relief to let go, to stop fighting it. And Duncan was making it so easy for him -- not pushing, asking nothing of him save that he accept Duncan's touch. Did he know? Could Duncan know what he was doing to him? Even the certainty that he had already lost tonight's skirmish was not enough to prevent him from sinking deeper into the drugging pleasure of that touch. He was leaving tomorrow, and the night was already half gone. He had no energy to fight and struggle at this, no strength to reassert his control. Instead, he turned as the other man's hands pressed at him and let his body be washed.

Fingers combed through his hair, and impulsively Methos reached up and held Duncan's wrists, looking up into his eyes. "I want to sleep with you," he said softly, suddenly wanting to forget the battleground between them, just for one night. Just for tonight, a cease-fire -- was it too much to hope for? "Just sleep." He held the other man's gaze, searching for the understanding he had come to expect.

* * *

Duncan held himself still, his arms pressed close against Rashanal's head, his stomach twisting. This was what he had wanted from Rashanal all along -- this simple acceptance, the openness in that vulnerable gaze making his breath catch. He'd planned more, wanted more, but maybe now wasn't the time. He swallowed and nodded, and Rashanal released his wrists, freeing him.

If only he were truly free...and as he continued to stare into Rashanal's eyes, he realized that whether Rashanal was aware of it, or not, he had offered Duncan a choice. Rather than imposing his will, he had asked Duncan to agree. Such a small thing to cause such a flowering of pleasure. Perhaps he would have to ponder the nature of freedom -- and of slavery. He would have much time in the coming days to do so.

He swallowed and returned to his task, bathing Rashanal and washing his hair. He let himself linger as he did so, trying to memorize the feel of water-slickened skin, hoping that Rashanal would remember his touch. He knew it was pointless, beyond vanity, but he found himself listening for the soft sighs Rashanal made as he relaxed.

He urged Rashanal to stand at last and sluiced water over him to rinse off the last of the foaming oil. Rashanal stood quiet under his hands, eyes closed, his body more eased than it had been, but still with its areas of tension. Steadying him as he stepped out of the tub, Duncan was surprised to see Rashanal sway on his feet. He was tired, Duncan realized, even more tired than he'd admitted to with his question.

Part of Duncan curled up with the idea that Rashanal didn't want to leave.

He guided Rashanal to the bed and urged him onto his stomach, wanting to massage the lingering tightness out of the strong back. Rashanal pulled a pillow to him, closing his eyes with a sigh, seeming content to let Duncan place him as he would.

Moving onto the bed, Duncan straddled Rashanal's thighs, feeling the muscles there slowly accustom themselves to his weight while he took in the naked form spread out beneath him. He carefully leaned over to brush the long hair away from Rashanal's face, moving it off his shoulder, leaving the full expanse of his back clear. Then he let his fingers trace down Rashanal's spine, smiling slightly as the man shivered. Under his fingertips, he could feel the tension, the stress that Rashanal kept contained.

He picked up the oil he'd set out and poured it into his hands, warming it with his own body heat, lifting his cupped hands up so he could inhale the pungent scent, the same one that had been used on him that first night, a memory that sent a streak of passion through him. This was one of the things he would take away from here, the scent of this oil, thick and rich, yet not cloying. He knew that he would always associate the odor with the desert, with passion -- with this man.

He leaned forward, spreading the oil on his hands before fanning them across Rashanal's shoulders and upper back, leaving slick traces, working out some of the tension. He heard a few murmurs at first, and the sharp hiss as one of the knots gave way, but for the most part, the room seemed eerily silent. Just the soft exhalation of breath, the sound of skin sliding on skin, the faint rustle of the bedding as their weight shifted.

Eerie? Or focused? Intense. Sensuous. Almost incendiary. The heat that always existed between them built slowly, warming slightly, never igniting into an actual blaze. His mind drifted as he worked, his thoughts centering on the feel of Rashanal under his hands.

A low sound finally broke his concentration. Duncan looked down to see that Rashanal had opened his eyes and was watching him with a sleepy, intimate expression. The single word he had spoken carried a weight that paradoxically made Duncan's heart soar, and it blended into the sensuality of their connection as naturally as any caress.

"Duncan."

Wordlessly, he lay down beside Rashanal, his hand gliding along warm, oiled skin as the other man turned, as if he feared to break the physical connection. Duncan. Tonight, Rashanal's use of his name hinted at so much more than Duncan had believed possible, so much warmth after so much coolness and distance. He couldn't help the hope that rose within him.

Their lips met in soft, gentle kisses, so different from the demanding ones of the last few nights. Eyes closed, concentrating fiercely on the light touches, Duncan could feel the short hairs that surrounded Rashanal's lips as they kissed, framing their softness with rough, coarse hair. His tongue dipped between them, and they parted to welcome him. Feeling the warm caress of the tip of the other man's tongue, his heart started that low, irresistible pounding. He grew bolder, his hands stroking Rashanal's back, his touch more aggressive.

"Shh." Eyes opening, Rashanal pulled back and replaced his mouth with a finger gently resting against Duncan's lips, sealing them. He shook his head minutely. Enflamed, abashed by his own responsiveness to a few tentative caresses, Duncan drew a deep breath and nodded, trying to conceal his disappointment. Rashanal's touch fell away from his mouth, and Duncan's stomach turned over. Had Rashanal lost all desire for him already?

Smiling slightly, Rashanal shifted onto his back, catching Duncan's hand in his and laying the palm flat against his belly. Duncan flexed his fingers, caressing the smooth skin, breathing deep, even breaths as he tried to will his flesh into obedience. After another long moment, head bowed, he pushed himself up and turned back to his task -- to see that Rashanal was no less affected than he himself. His body responded predictably, but he stoically straddled Rashanal's hips so he could work his hands over his master's chest -- and shuddered, heat prickling at his pulse points as he was prodded by a semi-hard length that matched his own.

His mind twisted around that fact as he worked, spinning itself a web, at the center of which was a firm, intimate heat nestled close between his thighs. He searched the other man's face, but his eyes had drifted closed again, and Duncan could read nothing in those smooth features. What was going on in Rashanal's mind right now? Why deny him, when they so clearly wanted each other? Tonight of all nights, when Rashanal had at last eased his resistance to the connection between them, Duncan wanted to burn through their imposed roles and get to the pure flame that he knew lay at the center of all their circling and posturing and games of power and surrender.

Frustrated, confused, he felt uncertain what it was he was supposed to learn from the rebuff. Perhaps that even when they were together, they would still be alone?

But Rashanal had said nothing of lessons, tonight. Indeed, he had let Duncan do what he would, giving in to every coaxing touch, until now. And the genuine longing, the question in his bright eyes as he'd asked for this, for Duncan just to sleep with him, no more than that -- Duncan hadn't mistaken that look. Not a lesson, then. For whatever reason, Rashanal needed this tonight -- only this, and no more.

As he kneaded the other man's shoulders, stroking tension down his arms and fingers, and massaging circles into the palms and wrists of those beautifully-made hands, Duncan found himself watching the angular face intently, captivated by the tiny shifts in expression, the vulnerable and obvious pleasure the man was taking in his touch. The ache between his legs did not lessen, but it became somehow a pleasure in itself, a welcome weight and heat. Somehow, denying himself and giving pleasure to Rashanal was carrying him to a plateau of intensity, of shared pleasure, that could easily be as addictive as any more fleshly pleasures. And the thought that Rashanal wanted something of him beyond the physical...that was a very intoxicating thought. Wasn't that what he himself had been wanting? He smiled as he realized that his own sensuality was warring against his deeper desires. At the thought, some of his own tension eased, and he relaxed into the moment.

Letting the rhythm of his working fingers turn meditative, Duncan feasted on the sparks and flutters of response in those lashes, that mobile mouth, the soft sounds the man made every so often, deep in his throat. So expressive. So uncharacteristically vulnerable. Perhaps that was it, Duncan thought. Perhaps Rashanal had needed to let his guard down, just for tonight, before he went out to fight for his tribe's survival in the morning. Perhaps he couldn't afford both -- the vulnerability and the passion. And what did it say about his vulnerability to Duncan, if he would deny himself what his body so obviously wanted in order to avoid the possibility of losing himself in the moment, of going too deep?

Perhaps he did know of the flame, much as he seemed to deny it. Heady hope bloomed in Duncan's heart. His hands stilled on Rashanal's chest, fingers spread against the lattice of muscles at his ribs. The rhythm of his master's breathing, deep and even, rose and fell beneath Duncan's palms, and he realized the exhausted man was asleep, in spite of the nascent hardness that still pressed against his own. Duncan felt the heavy beating of his own heart, felt the rush of his newfound insight in the echo of the other man's heartbeat under his palms. A sense of peace, of balance restored, flowed through him, and he carefully withdrew, moving slowly so as not to wake Rashanal. His body immediately missed the contact, but he retained a heavy, intimate warmth within that more than overmatched it.

He settled himself alongside the other man's body, studying the sharp profile, soothing the elegant line of his brow with a touch. It no longer mattered that Rashanal had denied them both the hunger they felt for one another's bodies. Rather, he was glad of it, for the enigmatic man had bared a much more telling vulnerability tonight -- and hunger denied might well bring Rashanal back to him all the sooner.

As he drifted off to sleep, Duncan's last thought was a quiet realization that in all the time since he'd learned of Rashanal's departure, not once had his mind turned to the possibility of escape.

Chapter Text

Methos woke suddenly and in great stillness, listening for the fading echoes of pounding hooves and cries of terror. Instead he heard only the relative quiet of the camp stirring to life and the soft, steady breathing of the man in his bed. That, as much as anything, persuaded him that his dreams had chased him awake. Relaxing, he became aware of the arms holding him and the warm body pressed up against his back.

Duncan stirred restlessly, perhaps reacting to Methos' own wakening. The thought that the other man was so attuned to Methos that even that slight tensing had disturbed him was both gratifying and discomfiting. Methos held still, and after a soft brushing of his lips against Methos' shoulder, Duncan soon settled. The unconscious caress sped Methos' heartbeat briefly, and he found himself loathe to leave the insidious comfort of his bed. He closed his eyes, memories of the night before coming clearly to mind, gentle touches, warm eyes, an easing of his heart that only made the thought of leaving more difficult. Had he really thought that it was physical pleasure alone he craved? That resisting it would make things simpler?

Knowing he would spend his day in the saddle did not make the idea of rising any more palatable. Briefly, he considered whether he might still change his mind, send someone else, Jaffir, perhaps, or even change the whole plan -- but he knew he was fooling himself and not doing a very good job of it. Jaffir would be pleased by the responsibility, but to change plans this late, without a crisis or other strong reason, would show him to be erratic, mercurial, even; not a good choice in uncertain times, no matter the truth of it lately. Especially if the decision were based on something so foolish as the realization that leaving Duncan felt like the stupidest choice he had made since...since he had first seen the slave on the auction block.

That thought was enough to propel him from the bed, which woke Duncan quite thoroughly.

"Rashanal?"

Duncan's voice was rough from sleep and feathered over Methos' nerves like sand, wearing him down. "Go back to sleep," he said huskily, his own voice coming out more gently than he'd intended.

Duncan sat up, shaking his head. "I would rather see you off."

"Get dressed, then." Methos rose and pulled on a robe. The weight of the other man's gaze demanded more, and though he knew it would be better if the separation were as swift and neat as possible, something made him relent. He glanced at Duncan. "You may walk with me and saddle my horse. After that, you will go to Namal. You are to follow his orders while I am gone."

"Am I--?"

Methos caught Duncan's troubled glance at the bowl of coins. "No," he said, before he could stop himself. He hadn't meant to reassure, but he found he couldn't stand that look this morning. Though he knew it to be foolishness of the worst kind, he couldn't help wanting to prolong the fragile mood of peace between them, the illusion of trust. Just for a little while, a small thing to take with him, to remind him of the fleeting moments of freedom this man had given him.

He sat down on the bed next to Duncan and drew his hands through the other man's hair and down his cheeks, feeling the slight growth of beard. "You are mine alone," he said roughly.

An answering flicker of heat sparked in the dark eyes. The warmth of skin and the tempting softness of that sinful mouth drew him as powerfully as they had from the beginning, and he found himself leaning down, closing his eyes to press his own mouth to Duncan's, needing to make that connection one last time, as if he could somehow mark the man he claimed as his, imprint some part of himself like a brand.

There was no resistance. Soft lips parted, the warm mouth welcoming him as if acknowledging all that Methos tried to tell him with the kiss. How different this was from those first few kisses. How eagerly Duncan had learned to accept his lot. The yielding acceptance made something dark and yearning flame in Methos, some dangerous hunger that caught him by surprise and that he only barely managed to quell by fierce control. He caught himself, permitting himself only a second more of that heated caress of lips before pulling away, breaking the kiss before his control could falter.

He found himself gazing into wide, dark eyes, a look of faint surprise in the Highlander's gaze. Suspecting it was a match for his own, Methos laughed at himself bitterly, wondering who had accepted what. Had he thought they had reached a place of peace between them? If so, it was only a veneer, thin as paper, concealing the wicked edge of danger that lay beneath.

Abruptly, he rose and turned away, shuddering and fighting down a rising nausea. Once again he heard the echo of thundering hooves, felt the surge of a lust uncomfortably close to one he had fought back so often in the past, one less about the flesh and more about power. If he let himself, he could easily succumb once more to the savage, uncontrolled desires this man awoke in him by his very presence. Even now, just from the briefest of caresses, he wanted to assert his power by force of strength, of will, by any means he could think of.

He finished dressing in quick, barely controlled motions, his back to Duncan, not daring to look at him. He'd been more right than he knew. The only answer was separation, distance, the harsh reality of the desert as an antidote to this old, old need within him, this hunger that could lead only to destruction, for himself and others.

By the time he was done, he was able to turn, to face the man who waited for him. Duncan's eyes looked bruised, his face haunted, but the defenses he'd had to learn in weeks past were serving him well; already Methos could see him pulling away, becoming more reserved.

And though he fought the response, seeing that calm inner strength sparked an irrational anger in Methos, a burning need to break through that reserve, to make sure that Duncan knew to whom he belonged. The slave's self-control mocked his own lack of it, and before he could stop himself, Methos had taken a step towards him, unthinking, only feeling a terrible, ugly possessiveness, a desire to keep Duncan in his sight, to mark him, take him, do something to reassert his authority. He saw the knowledge of his anger flash in Duncan's eyes, in the firming of his mouth, and that resistance, that infernal strength, beat at him, leaving him reeling. Once Methos was gone, anything might happen. If he wasn't here to watch Duncan, to keep him under control....

The silver torque gleamed as Duncan shifted his weight instinctively, bracing himself as if for a blow, and it was only then that Methos realized he had raised his hand, that he was on the edge of pushing both of them to a place from which there might be no return. Feeling the chill of realization like the cold edge of a blade against his neck, Methos wrenched himself back from the precipice.

For long moments, neither of them moved. Methos forced his body to calm, breathing hard in spite of his efforts to control it. Duncan had gone very still, watching him like a herd beast watches a predator, waiting to see what he would do. Unable to bear that look, Methos broke free of it, gathering his pack and cloak and using the necessary motions as a shield against both the threat of his own panic and the other man's gaze.

Damn him to hell, and the whole unbearable situation with him. Methos should have no qualms about leaving him here; it should be no more difficult than leaving any other household good -- and yet it was. He was so lost he couldn't even begin to see a way out of the morass of hunger and pain and need in which he'd become entangled.

Holding tight to his hard-won calm, Methos promised himself that this trip would help separate those tangles. The distance and time apart would be good for them both. Necessary for them both. He strode toward the door, unable to offer the Highlander more than a cursory nod. He knew he should say something, do something, to relieve the unbearable tension that had risen between them, but all he wanted was to get away, to escape and spare them both the need to endure a single moment more of his disastrous, incremental self-destruction.

He exited the tent, stepping out into the blessed stillness of night; it was several moments before he sensed Duncan following silently.

* * *

It was cool and clear, several hours till dawn, the promise of heat still hidden by the blanket of stars. The camp had yet to wake save for those few who were involved in the preparations for Rashanal's journey. Rashanal strode quickly through the camp, not waiting as Duncan followed behind, sorting through the consequences of what was to come -- and what had happened. For a moment he'd thought that Rashanal was going to do something -- hit him, kiss him...take him. He'd felt a sharp response to the intensity in those eyes, and when Rashanal had turned away, the mingled relief and disappointment had made him feel momentarily weak.

He ran his tongue over his lips as he walked, but the taste of Rashanal's kiss was gone. Would his body also forget Rashanal's lessons while he was gone, the way Duncan's hands had begun to forget the sword? He almost wished he would forget, that the separation might re-establish his balance, his sense of where he stood in the world. Yet he knew it was far more likely that he would retain the memories of their passion well beyond their time together, and he also knew that his stance in the world had already shifted irretrievably. He would need to find new footing when he was truly on his own again, and this parting would be the first step. It was quite likely that this short separation would only give him a taste of what that final break would be like.

Ahead, Duncan saw the visiting tribesmen readying their own mounts and saw as well that the men bore hooded hunting birds. On the sea voyage that had brought him to the desert he had heard tales of tribes who viewed the capture and training of the wild falcons as a rite of passage for their young men. It had fascinated him at the time, and he had made a note to ask someone more about the practice. Quiescent on their owners' arms, the hooded creatures projected a leashed but deadly threat, and Duncan wished he might have seen them hunt just once.

Rashanal moved ahead to talk with his traveling companions as Duncan set about saddling the stallion. Fanny ambled over while he worked, whuffing eagerly for the treats he occasionally gave her. "Not today, Fanny," he said softly, strapping on the pads, saddle, and pack. "Maybe tomorrow."

She turned and looked at him sidelong, blinking as if she sensed something was up, then turned her back regally and walked away. Her manners made Duncan smile for what seemed the first time since Rashanal had announced his leaving, and it felt good.

He sobered quickly, though, as he led the stallion to where Rashanal and the other men were assembled. The small group was quiet, the five men pensive, focused on the task ahead of them. Jaffir had risen to see them off, and he spoke now with Rashanal in hushed tones, out of earshot of the others. The conversation was brief, and then Rashanal turned and strode toward Duncan, his movements impatient, his expression distracted, his eyes not registering Duncan's presence as he took the reins and swung easily into the saddle, the other men following suit. Duncan reluctantly released his hold on the stallion's pommel and looked up, eyes tracing the other man's angular features as if to memorize him. This was it; this was good-bye.

But good-bye, it seemed, was more than he was to hope for; he might have been a ghost for all that Rashanal acknowledged him. Those mercurial eyes never met his, even for a moment, the desert chieftain's gaze on the horizon as he guided his mount's head around and urged him forward.

In all the time Duncan watched them, Rashanal never looked back.

* * *

Methos felt dark eyes following him until well after they'd ridden out of sight of the camp, and even then he felt no relief, as he'd hoped, beyond a certain easing of tension that he was no longer under direct observation. It was a mixed blessing, relief mingled with pain, and his thoughts still tended towards Duncan, tinged with the earlier darkness that had nearly overwhelmed him. It was only with deliberate focus that he cleared his mind, letting it empty, letting the quiet talk of the others wash over him.

Dawn came swiftly, tinting the sky with bright orange hues that vanished as soon as the heat began to rise. Methos and the rest of the group ignored it, riding steadily through the morning and breaking only when the heat of the day was at its peak. There was no oasis for them, no trees, and only a few rocks for shade; the animals rested there. Close by, each of the men dug a half-shell out of the sand to where the ground was cooler and lay down in it, using sticks to make personal tents out of cloth. In their makeshift shelters they ate a light meal and dozed away the heat, talking lazily amongst themselves, tending their birds, boasting laughingly of the hunt they would have, of the prowess of their falcons.

Methos ignored them. He turned his mind steadfastly to the task at hand, going over the arguments he would use to persuade the others that an alliance to force Emad back into his own territory was their best option; he didn't think there would be much opposition. Before they'd departed, Jaffir had informed Thaqib that for the meantime, Tariq's tribe would be permitted the use of their remaining well. It would mean shorter rations for Methos' own tribe, but not so severe that it should be a problem in the short term. If the well did start to fail, Jaffir knew that he could take to the tunnels; he was more than capable of handling the task. Methos should have turned more duties over to him long ago.

He frowned as he lay in the shade of his cloth lean-to, the air laden with heat. He kept his eyes shut as he thought, enjoying the stillness around him. He'd needed this, to get away. Away from the tribe, away from a life he'd never chosen. He ignored the emptiness in the air around him, the lack of another Immortal presence.

* * *

By the time the rising sun had cleared the ridge, morning routine had settled on the camp, and it was as if nothing vital had changed. Duncan had taken care of his few chores, hurrying through the straightening of the tent, moving on to feeding and watering his charges. It was unsettling to know that Rashanal was gone, that he would be on his own, and the feeling of mild disorientation continued through the morning.

As the morning wore on, Duncan saw Jaffir moving through the camp, trying out his fledgling authority, trying to reassure the tribe with his own presence that Rashanal's unexpected departure was nothing to be concerned about. For the most part, there seemed to be little for Jaffir to do as people went about the daily tasks of a lifetime.

For weeks the tribe had been prepared to move on an hour's notice, if necessary. But though Rashanal's people were nomadic by tradition, in his time with them Duncan had come to understand that their wanderings followed a distinct seasonal pattern, and they would not retreat from their preferred grazing lands unless forced to it. While they had no formalized sense of property ownership, in this stark land, tribes and family groups would be fiercely defensive of territory and resources -- much like Duncan's own clan had always been.

Soon, he thought critically, it would be high summer, and these plateaus would be the only good grazing land for hundreds of miles around. For a people who relied on their livestock for food, for transport, and as their primary resource for trade, such grasslands were essential, and a reliable water source would be a priceless commodity. The forfeiture of their secondary well had to weigh on them heavily. As Duncan watched more closely, he realized that in spite of the appearance of business as usual, there was an added edge of tension in the camp today, an awareness of the importance of their sheik's departure.

The fact that they were all waiting to see what Rashanal's journey would bring was only evidenced in small ways, nervous glances as Jaffir approached, tight looks on the faces of some of the men. Things were not as usual, but these were men and women used to the vagaries of the desert. Whatever awaited them, life for the tribe would go on in their leader's absence, the preparations for possible conflict already made, their daily state of readiness continuing in a quiet, orderly manner.

Soon after the heat of the day had started to break, Namal sent for him, and Duncan looked forward to another opportunity to sit with him, to practice his language skills, to learn more about the tribe -- and Rasahanal. Instead of Namal's tent, however, Duncan was directed to a central area and told to wait, time he spent going over his growing vocabulary in his mind, naming the objects in view. Rajid caught his eye, up and about, moving about the camp with only a little residual stiffness. Jaffir had apparently granted him a degree of freedom from house arrest and some limited tasks to perform.

Namal appeared then and beckoned to him. "Come, I have a chore for you."

Duncan followed him over to what looked like a pile of leather splits but turned out to be several of the camel-hide tents. They were joined by a youth who stood quietly as Namal spoke, showing them places where the tents had developed tears or gaps in the seams.

Seemingly distracted, Namal was uncharacteristically short, though not unkind. "This is Heyad," Namal said with a curt nod at the boy. "Your tools are there. Help him with the repairs -- he will show you how to do the mending, if you don't know."

"I've worked on canvas and leather before," Duncan said.

"Good. I'd like to see these done as soon as possible." With those few words, he left.

Setting to work, Duncan soon found a certain pleasure in the task, in the company of the wiry, timid, close-mouthed youth who stared at Duncan periodically with a mixture of open curiosity and wary mistrust as they worked.

Heyad was rather small and unremarkable, and Duncan hadn't really noticed him among the tribe except once or twice, carrying heavy loads of wool or water to the women's tents. Curious himself, he tried to engage the youth in conversation several times, but at last gave up when his attempts met with only reproving looks and muttered, likely unflattering commentary in a tone too low for him to make out. Unpersonable as he was, the boy's hands were callused heavily from hard labor and deft at their task.

It occurred to Duncan, watching out of the corner of his eye, that this boy was very likely a slave, as well. He hadn't, now that he thought about it, seen any of the other men of the tribe engaging in such menial labor. They seemed to believe it beneath them, relying on the women to do nearly all the work required by their daily life. Well, that, too, was not so different from the way things were among his own people. But in the Highlands, the men of the clan would have been relied upon for heavier labor. This sort of work, he guessed, was probably much closer to the usual sort of duty required of male slaves than the kind of service he'd been providing thus far.

The thought reminded him again that he was on his own, free of Rashanal's heady and distracting presence. He had spent little time with others out of the man's company since his purchase, and so far this first taste of independence had been more unsettling than he'd expected. As they worked, the boy's darted looks, his closed-mouth behavior, preyed on Duncan's imagination, making him wonder if the boy's refusal to talk was from a fear of punishment, or a personal disgust that he was forced to work so closely with a man who was obviously no man at all. Duncan knew that his own "personal duties" for Rashanal were no secret, but to be confronted with the reality of that was another thing altogether.

The awareness made his stomach sink, his gut clenching with an ugly feeling of shame, something he'd thought behind him. It was as if a madness had come over him, allowing him to rationalize his behavior and put pretty names and sentiments to the sordid things he had been doing in the name of honor. So what if the man fascinated him, if that powerful charisma and sensuality made him feel things he'd never felt before? That was no excuse. Even if such things were acceptable to these people, he knew better. Should know better. And yet....

You are Immortal, a part of him argued. The rules were different. Weren't they? Shouldn't he learn to adapt, to accept ideas and values that might be different from those of his own upbringing? Rashanal believed that, anyway -- or said he did. Bitterly, Duncan acknowledged that there was really no telling what Rashanal truly believed and what he said merely to get his way. The man was a chameleon, as changeable as the dunes on the plain below.

Aye, he thought, an ache that was not shame squeezing his chest. As changeable and as hard to hold in your fist. What a fool y'are, Duncan MacLeod, selling yourself body and soul to such a one. It cannot come to anything good, for either of you, you know that.

He did know, and still he found himself thinking of the man, wishing him safe. Wishing that he might find peace in his journeys -- for his tribe, and for himself.

A chill touched him then, and he couldn't escape the feeling that he had seen his enigmatic captor for the last time.

* * *

As the heat of the day passed, the men roused themselves, taking time to hunt and feed before continuing their journey in the evening's cool. They set their falcons free, chasing after them for several miles while they ran down the bustards that vainly attempted to escape. It was a wild ride, with much encouraging of the individual birds. Thaqib's was the first to bring down its prey, and his cry of exultation made Methos smile.

Their owners rewarded them with choice pieces of meat while the rest roasted over a bit of wood they'd brought with them, then they were on their way again. Methos watched as the fierce predators allowed themselves to be hooded and leashed, wondering if they ever felt their captivity as a burden, or if they were truly content as long as they were allowed to fly free upon occasion. They remained wild, only gentled by the hands of those who had caught them and trained them. And as was to be expected, Methos' mind turned to the man he'd left behind, a man who seemed gentled, but also retained his fierce independence, much to the detriment of Methos' peace of mind. His stomach roiled again as threads of ugly tension wove through him. He forced himself to relax his hands where they'd tightened on the reins, pulling harshly at the stallion's tender mouth.

He continued to turn these thoughts over as they rode, sighting on the stars to find their way, camping at last for a short rest before the morning would see them off again. Looking up at the stars, confronted again with that open immensity, he remembered the night he and Duncan had made love under the sky, and his breathing grew difficult as he felt a wisp of that sense of illusionary peace that had come. His body ached in remembrance, and he scowled at the sign of his own weakness. How could such peace be anything but an illusion, for two such as they? One might think that the Highlander stayed with him for some reason other than their Allah-bedamned bargain, for some reason other than having given his word. And what would he say if Methos refused to free him at the end of the bargain? It wouldn't be the first time Methos had gone back on his word, and in situations much less rewarding than this. He felt an ugly glee at the thought, at the idea of conquering Duncan for real, for all time, not just as a series of lessons to occupy them until the agreement was fulfilled, as more than just a whim to show the child how dangerous the world really was.

The craving shuddered through him, a cold, sharp need, a calculating hunger that called to deeply buried parts of him, woke voices in his head that murmured insidiously, temptingly. And even as things best buried began to crawl to the surface, he remembered the compassion on Duncan's face, the naivete and innocence of someone who perhaps believed him to be better than he was. Could he bear to see that look destroyed, that man broken? Better for him, for them both, if he just kept going, removing himself from the temptations Duncan provided.

And did he really have a reason to go back? Once the alliance was in place, he wouldn't really need to stay. Jaffir was competent, and with Namal's shrewd advice he should be able to maintain the alliance Methos went now to forge. Methos could simply ride away and never return.

There was the only one thing holding him beyond assuring his tribe's safety: the fate of the Highlander himself. He'd wager that after these last weeks, the man would be only too happy to be free of their bargain. Methos shifted a little, trying to get comfortable. He could send a letter to Jaffir when the alliance was made and tell him the Highlander was free. Tell him that Duncan was to take all the gold in the silver bowl -- and perhaps that grey mare he was so fond of -- and be sent back to town at the first opportunity.

It could be that easy -- simply walk away and never look back. The promise of that freedom tasted real and close at hand for the first time, and he ignored the underlying pain. Whether he left or stayed, the pain would ultimately be the same, but leaving might save him from other, darker things. With that promise in his mind he managed once again to put aside thoughts of what he'd left behind and close his eyes, sinking swiftly into sleep.

* * *

When the sun went down at last, and the light grew too poor to work by, Namal returned and released Duncan and Heyad from their task. Save for a short break, they had worked unceasingly, the pile of mending nearly vanquished. The boy melted away into the twilight like a shadow as Duncan got to his feet and tried to stretch the kinks out of his back and neck. He'd been hunched over the tedious work for hours, but the ache in his muscles felt good as the result of honest labor.

Namal, too, looked tired, his years showing more than usual in his lined face. He gave Duncan a weighing look, sidelong, as they headed back towards the central grouping of tents.

"Supper is nearly ready. Jaffir and I will take our meal in his tent, and you will serve. Do your chores, and find yourself a drink and something to eat, but do not tarry."

"Aye, Namal," Duncan acknowledged, surprised and a bit curious. He hadn't really given much thought to what he would do with himself in the evenings, with Rashanal gone, and he was glad at the prospect of something to keep him occupied, keep his mind off of bleak and purposeless thoughts. He didn't even know whether he would be permitted to sleep in Rashanal's tent, now that he thought about it. Rashanal had not chained or leashed him in many weeks, but just how far was he trusted? The image of the equipment tent, the locked chest full of weapons, played idly through his thoughts.

It was the first real thought of escape he'd had in too many days to count, and it evoked mixed feelings. The depression he'd been fighting all day settled like a stone within him, as if the thought of freedom had become irrevocably tied to the hopelessness of his reasons for staying. He'd clung stubbornly to the idea that he had only to try hard enough, will it strongly enough, and Rashanal would recognize the true affinity between them and stop fighting it. Yet he had tried as hard as any man could, and still Rashanal had turned away from him without a look, without a flicker of regret. Surely it was time he came to terms with the fact that he was only debasing himself here, dishonoring his name and all that he was, for no purpose beyond the satiation of his body's illicit desires. If he were going to free himself of this place and the web of his own self-deceit, the time was now, while Rashanal was away.

The same old arguments churned inside him, intensified now by the hurt of Rashanal's cold, wordless parting. He needed time to think, to clear his head of these feelings of hurt and shame and longing, to decide what to do. Until he could be alone, he would put all such questions out of his mind and do as Namal had instructed.

The chores were quickly done, and not feeling much hunger, he only grabbed a handful of figs and a few strips of dried meat before making his way to Jaffir's tent.

Duncan saw the questioning look Jaffir gave his father at Duncan's appearance in the doorway, a tray of covered dishes balanced in his hands.

"I thought Souraya could use the rest," Namal said with a shrug, and Jaffir nodded in agreement. He waved the Highlander forward, and Duncan began serving the meal as father and son settled down at the low table.

Jaffir poured his father a small measure of water from a decanter, then served himself. He seemed captivated by the way the clear liquid clung to the inside of his cup, the droplets beginning to disappear almost immediately in the dry air.

"How do you think they will take the news of tighter rationing?" he asked, his voice sounding weary.

"Temperance is nothing new to us, my son. As with all unpleasant duties, some will complain, most will simply do what is necessary. It is for a short time only."

"I hope you are right, father."

The two men reached for the dishes Duncan had laid out and began to eat, talking of the day's happenings. Finished with his duties for the present, Duncan knelt a few paces away, focusing his concentration on understanding as much of the language as he could. While his comprehension was far from perfect, he found that he was able to follow most of the conversation. Talk of a future journey to town for trading purposes caught his attention, the sights, sounds, smells of the marketplace coming vividly to mind as he remembered what it had been like to be sold as so much livestock, his discomfort and apprehension at what awaited him. If he had only known, he thought with a wry grimace. Perhaps this time Rashanal's eye would be caught by some poor woman, alone and afraid, and Duncan would be forgotten, cast aside.

If, that was, Rashanal even returned.

As if reading his thoughts, Jaffir and Namal's conversation turned to speculation about their sheik's journey into the desert, talking of distances to travel and the likelihood of success.

"I have never seen him fail to win a battle once his mind was set to it," Namal said, with a glance in Duncan's direction that might have meant many things.

"I only hope that my leadership shall suffice in his absence," Jaffir said with a sigh.

"Don't fear on that account." Namal laid a hand on his son's shoulder, a show of support that gave Duncan a small pang, thinking of his own father, long dead now. "You have grown into a fine warrior, an honor to me and to the memory of your brother." He considered Jaffir for a moment. "Would you like my advice?"

"Always."

Namal released him and slowly sipped from his cup, as if weighing his words. "Watch Sulayman," he said at last. "If there is to be trouble, he will be at the center of it. He is as sour as old milk, but he is shrewd and resourceful, as well as pious -- at least in deed, if not in thought. There are those who would follow him, should he choose to lead, and he knows it."

Jaffir nodded, frowning in thought, and Namal signaled to Duncan to clear the table. Duncan did so, removing the tray of empty dishes, feeling the old man's eyes on him. Trained now so that the gesture was second nature, he set the tray aside, sank easily to one knee and bowed his head slightly. "Is there some other service I may offer?" he asked.

"Not tonight, Duncan," Namal said. "You have earned your rest."

Duncan looked up, trying to find a way to phrase his question. "Should I...where am I to sleep?" he asked at last.

Namal and Jaffir exchanged a look, and Jaffir shrugged lightly. "I will not question Rashanal's judgment. You will sleep where he wished you to sleep, until he orders otherwise."

Cheeks warm, Duncan nodded and rose, retrieving the tray and ducking backwards beneath the tent flap. Namal was still watching him as he left, that same thoughtful, opaque look on his wizened features.

As he stepped out into the cooling night, it occurred to Duncan that Namal had wanted him to be party to his conversation with his son -- had known full well that Duncan's Arabic was good enough now to understand most of what was said. He considered that as he made his way slowly back to the cooking tent, the coolness and the stars a welcome balm after a day spent in stuffy confinement. The permission to remain in Rashanal's tent, alone, was a gesture of trust, of confidence in his honor -- a gesture of not inconsiderable risk for Namal and Jaffir. For whatever reason, the two men wished him to stay informed about developments in the camp, and perhaps to know that in their minds, at least, he was considered as something more than a slave. It was a gratifying thought, and one that lifted his spirits considerably. If he were to find a real place here...well. Who knew what might happen, in time?

He resolved to keep an eye on the herdmaster and to do everything he could to let Jaffir and Namal know that they had not misplaced their trust.

Worn out and more than ready for sleep, Duncan reached Rashanal's tent at last. He went inside, taking up the single low-burning lamp by the door and finding a wick to spread its flame to two others, filling the empty room with a little more light. He looked around the comfortable chamber for a moment, thinking of the harshness of the barren sands to the south, wondering where Rashanal was now. Riding under the stars, he imagined, knowing the men would be traveling by night as much as possible. A little frisson of remembered sensation raised gooseflesh on his nape and down his arms, settling in his belly with a pleasant warmth as the image sparked the memory of their night ride together, of Rashanal's strong, elegant hands on the reins of his mount, his fierce grin as they'd raced over the sand.

You're in a bad way, MacLeod, he told himself disgustedly. It wasn't news, but the self-derision helped banish the first, insidious curl of hunger before it could take hold. He reminded himself that he was tired and morning would come early, and went about getting ready for bed.

It seemed strange to have space and time to himself, after the weeks of living at another's whim and command, and when at last he slid between the linen covers, it felt like trespassing. Nevertheless, sleep came mercifully, taking with it the unresolved questions, the confusion of conflicted needs and the longing of his heart, releasing him for a little while into the welcome respite of oblivion.

Chapter Text

The insistent hammer of the summer sun began to make itself known in earnest, and the days that followed reminded Methos and his companions that the desert was not an adversary to be taken lightly. They had arrived at Tariq's camp on the morning of the second day, the sky but two hours light, the arid heat already rising out of the hot earth like a wall. In such conditions, instinct took over; everything in the desert slowed its pace, and old Tariq, fat and deliberate, was no exception. What could have been a brief summit between two leaders with a common goal dragged into two days of endless talks involving Altair, Nasir, Methos, and every elder and warrior of Tariq's tribe who had an opinion. They performed a complicated dance of tribal tradition and ceremony, interspersed with feasting and celebration to honor their guests. It was not entirely unexpected, but Methos had to remind himself of the many lessons in patience he had learned in his long lifetime.

At last, when all concerned had agreed to an alliance that was, in Methos' eyes, the only reasonable choice open to them, and after yet more feasting to celebrate the pact, the party of riders once more made ready to travel.

Now it remained only to gain Jakir's cooperation. Methos expected this to be the easier of the two tasks, since Jakir's tribe had nothing to lose by agreeing to any coalition Methos suggested and everything to lose by denying him. It was not enough, however, to win lip service and promises of support. Jakir had to be convinced that a watertight union of their three territories would benefit his tribe in the long run, that nothing less than wholehearted commitment would do. To this end, Methos asked Thaqib and Ghiyath to continue on with him, trusting that their added presence would help cement the relationship between all three tribes. When the conflict with Emad came, as it inevitably would, he needed to know that Jaffir could depend upon his allies completely.

Riding under a night sky rippling with heat that had barely eased with the sun's descent, Methos let his thoughts wander to the world beyond this familiar, stark landscape that had been home for so long. Each day that passed brought him closer to freedom, and he'd begun to daydream of green fields and deep waters. If at times the lands of his imagination also contained the stony hills and crofts that were part and parcel of the Highlander's homeland, he quickly brought himself back to the searing reality around him. There was a shadow of such freedom even in this simple journey beyond his own lands, and it was difficult to remember why he had embroiled himself so thoroughly in the life rhythms of these nomadic peoples.

The secret to Immortality, he had long known, lay in the mortal world. An Immortal who wanted to keep his head needed to maintain connections to the world around him, to the brief lives that flickered in and out of existence with such passion. This he knew well, and he had learned it again and again over the millennia, always forcing himself back into the thick of life.

Still, there was the opposite danger, that of losing perspective, of being drawn too deeply into the passions and hungers of the flesh and heart. That was what had happened to him these last years, culminating in the passionate, destructive clash between himself and the young Highlander. After so long living apart from his kind, it had been a powerful and heady combination, the temptation of a beautiful body, a strong spirit, and a quick mind, intertwined with the almost-forgotten, seductive pleasure of being known by another Immortal, being understood in a way that no mortal really could. Yet what did Duncan truly know of him? Very little about Rashanal -- and nothing about Methos.

A feeling he only now recognized as resentment crystallized in him, giving shape and weight to the unfocused anger that had welled with each demonstration of Duncan's inner resilience, each attempted offer of solace. Over the last weeks, each time Duncan had tried to break past Methos' walls, Methos had been both tempted and wary. He'd sensed the danger in allowing the man such intimacy, but he hadn't truly understood it intellectually; he'd sensed the power Duncan held to change him in ways that could prove painful at best, disastrous at worst, but he hadn't been able to reconcile his equally strong instincts to give in and to resist.

He felt on steadier ground after five days' separation from the object of his fascination, able to consider the situation with some measure of calm and reason. How narrowly they had both escaped the potentially deadly downward spiral of Methos' obsession -- for that was what it was, plain and undeniable. Still, he did not entirely trust himself to remain clear-headed and in control when he found himself once more within arm's reach of temptation. Even now, he regretted the pain he had inflicted on Duncan with his reserve -- and that only increased his resentment.

Even now, in the dangerous forest of his own night thoughts, he wondered if the damage was irreparable, or if there might not be a chance, in some future beyond this territorial power play, to get past the conflicted tangle of his own dark urges and the Highlander's blossoming understanding of his own wilder nature. Oh, he was a dangerous man, indeed, making Methos want such impossible things.

But that way led to distraction, and possibly destruction, neither of which would help the people who counted on him to win another season of peace and stability. Tucking the speculation away into a deep corner of his mind, Methos forced himself to consider what persuasive tactics he might employ with Jakir.

* * *

In the days that followed Rashanal's departure, Duncan's existence took on a new pattern, the fabric of his days woven of a series of tasks and duties that he mastered easily. Rising well before dawn, and with no possessive hands to gentle him back to sleep or urge him into lazy, early morning sensuality, he practiced a series of strength-building exercises, working muscles that had begun to grow lax from disuse. If this pursuit was fueled as much by a need to turn his mind from the man whose absence shadowed his every thought as it was by any physical goal, so be it.

At least two of the chests in Rashanal's tent were kept locked, he knew, and it had occurred to him that a man like Rashanal would likely keep more than one blade close to hand. He'd wondered idly whether Rashanal assumed he couldn't manage to pick a lock, or, more likely, it had simply amused him to think of Duncan so bound by his honor, but a part of him wanted to believe that perhaps Rashanal had had another motive -- that perhaps he had been unwilling to leave Duncan alone without a way to defend himself.

It scarcely mattered, as he was forbidden by his station to touch a bladed weapon; more than that, something prevented him from committing such deliberate trespass against Rashanal without cause.

And so, lacking a sword and an opponent to spar with, he nevertheless made the most of this time, pushing himself in the pre-dawn quiet until sweat sheened his skin faster than it could evaporate, until his muscles ached and his blood flowed with renewed vigor.

Mind and body grew more focused, his emotions less chaotic. Connor had taught him these Eastern exercises for times when he was aboard ship, and Duncan was grateful now. One wouldn't have thought that such small, controlled movements and sustained positions could strain the heart and the muscles so, but Connor had been right, as usual. Between the regular routine of exercise and the physical nature of the tasks he performed for Namal and Jaffir, he began to feel stronger in a handful of days; his hand itched for his sword, and his legs to ride Fanny again, but in the meantime he rested a little easier, knowing that if it came to fighting, he would be in better condition to hold his own.

His mornings were given to lessons with Namal, usually after performing some of his more menial tasks about the camp. He had rapidly come to dislike the ornery, aggressive camels, but he'd grown better at handling them and learned to avoid their teeth. He wished he could say the same of the horse master, whose sullen orders and quick hand with the infernal leather strap he wielded were difficult to bear stoically. He avoided Sulayman whenever possible, uncertain of his own temper were that strap ever really to connect, aware of Jaffir's ongoing efforts to maintain good spirits and order in the camp. He did not want to force Jaffir into an untenable position by his own rash actions, nor bring punishment upon himself, but Sulayman tested his restraint more than once; it was safer just to avoid him.

After the midday rest period, Namal generally sent him to Jaffir's tent, where he would most frequently act as a runner and servant as the young leader carried out his own responsibilities, addressing the tribe's concerns, making preparations for an upcoming trading expedition, planning for the possibility of forced evacuation. In this, as in so many things, Duncan was reminded of his own people. He watched the bond between Jaffir and Namal with an envious eye, remembering his own father guiding him, teaching him in the ways of their people. Namal's hand was light, but canny, giving support as Jaffir needed while yet allowing the son to stand in sole authority.

Over the course of these long afternoons, Jaffir often had occasion to talk casually with him, and the young man seemed to welcome Duncan for his conversation and opinions as much as for his usefulness. Not surprisingly, they found that they shared a love of horses -- there were not many men among these tribes who did not -- but Duncan was pleased to learn that Jaffir also possessed a fascination for the sword that included knowledge of several European styles of fighting, and the two of them found much fodder for friendly debate and discussion when time allowed.

In the evenings, Duncan would remain and serve the evening meal as Jaffir continued to work, often conferring with his father over dinner. His Arabic growing better by the day, Duncan was surprised to realize that he felt at home here; Namal's family had become important to him, and he felt protective of them all. Even quiet Souraya, terribly proper and shy, smiled to see him and allowed him to hold the baby one night, with much murmuring that he was so big, surely he would drop the child. It had taken him a moment to realize she was teasing him, and the realization had warmed him with acceptance.

In this environment, and without the confusing, overwhelming distraction of Rashanal's mercurial presence, his natural optimism asserted itself. He found himself anticipating Rashanal's return, looking forward to proving himself to the chieftain as he had proved himself to the tribespeople with whom he interacted, hoping to find an understanding with Rashanal such as that he had found with Jaffir and Namal. More and more, he was convinced that Rashanal had not been himself -- perhaps not since the first day in the slave market. Something was not right with the desert chieftain; somehow, Duncan's appearance in his life had upset a precarious balance. Perhaps this time apart would give him space in which to reestablish that balance, as it seemed to be doing for Duncan.

These were the thoughts that played through his mind on the fifth day following Rashanal's departure, cheering him as he watered Rashanal's horses in the pale light of early dawn, sparing each of the fine beasts a murmured word and a scratch behind the ears and along the withers. And that was how it happened that he was standing on Mujannah Faniyya's near side, hidden by the mare's flank and curving haunch, when the unpleasant grate of Sulayman's voice, hushed in the grey dawn, reached his ears as the man approached the paddocks.

"...but why does Rashanal refuse to fight for what is ours? Are we women, to go begging protection from others rather than standing our own ground?" There was bitterness in the horse master's tone, underscored by a disturbing note of recklessness, and Duncan instinctively drew further back into the shadow of the grey mare.

A second voice answered, one Duncan didn't recognize. "He says we will fight, when the time comes."

"And when will that be?" Sulayman countered. "After he is finished spilling his seed with that barbarian catamite of his? Or perhaps when Emad has taken our horses and our manhood, and there is nothing left to fight for?"

Duncan felt his cheeks grow hot, his fists clenching in Fanny's long mane, the disgust in Sulayman's voice speaking to his own uncertainties. He didn't know whether to be grateful that his language lessons had born fruit, or not. His instinct was to step out from behind the horse, to make his presence known and give the poisonous bastard a piece of his mind. But something kept him from revealing himself, some inner sense that warned that this was not idle talk, but something more, that there was real danger here. That he would best serve Rashanal -- the tribe -- by listening and learning as much as he could.

A third voice, then, one he recognized, but couldn't quite place. "What do you suggest? Jaffir and Namal will never turn against him."

"I say we do not need them," Sulayman answered. "Jaffir is too young to lead, and Namal too old. Rashanal has plainly lost his manhood -- if he ever had any." The murmurs that followed this had Duncan clenching his jaw in humiliation, knowing that much of this stemmed from his own presence in Rashanal's bed. Despite Namal's own acceptance, and Jaffir's, perhaps the tribe at large saw things differently.

"I say," the herd master was going on, "why shouldn't we take our wives, and our beasts and belongings, and strike out on our own? Find something better. Erase the stain of this shame from our names and spare our descendants the same. I've spoken to others, and there are many who would follow."

The third voice spoke again, and in it Duncan heard both interest and hesitation. "Rashanal has done well by us, Sulayman. Many of us would have no tribe were it not for him."

When Sulayman replied, Duncan recognized the smooth tones of persuasion, ill-fitted to the horsemaster's usual brusque nature, the conciliatory note well calculated to soothe and encourage. "Indeed, I will grant him that. He took over at a time when the tribe was in chaos -- much to his own gain! And what do we know of him, really? Of his father, or his father's father? He is no one." Duncan's initial flush of anger was simmering now, with an added dose of genuine worry. There was purpose behind the herd master's griping -- and as Namal had warned, the others were listening to him. Duncan very much wanted to see Sulayman's companions. He shifted carefully, trying to get a view without being seen, but Fanny thought he wanted to play, and tossed her head coquettishly.

He stilled, holding his breath and hoping that the other horses between himself and the other men would conceal him. If he knew himself caught, the horse master would perhaps act sooner rather than later. Duncan must get to Jaffir and alert him of the situation before that happened.

There was a brief pause, no longer than the time it would take a man to draw a breath, before Sulayman spoke again. "We owe it to our people to prove that there are still men in this tribe who know what honor means."

Aye, and you are not one of them, Duncan thought angrily. That the man could see the destruction of the tribe as an honorable choice -- it was beyond Duncan's comprehension. He waited until the men passed on, not risking another glance, but committing the voices to memory so that he would recognize them later. As soon as he judged it safe, he backed away and made himself scarce, forgoing further chores for the time being and heading across the encampment towards Jaffir's distant tent.

* * *

Dogs barked a warning as Methos and his companions rode into Jakir's camp, the sun's light barely reaching the cliff walls that surrounded the settlement. The group passed quietly below the guards that dotted the hills around the camp's entrance, and Methos catalogued their placement, part of his mind relentlessly evaluating the strategic value of each one.

The end result was something less than he would have preferred. Defensible, yes, but susceptible to siege. At least the water they had left was within the main encampment, Methos thought as he passed the main well. That would give them an advantage should Emad attack.

And Emad would attack. One of them, all of them, it didn't matter. In the end, Emad would want all the tribes to bend to him. The quest for power was nothing new.

Methos finally turned his attention to the rest of the camp, watching as the other men, led by Jakir, came forward to greet Altair, Nasir, and the rest. Methos watched them from his horse, withdrawn and silent, oddly reluctant to close the distance. The trip from Tariq's camp had left him feeling more isolated than ever, as if the progression of his plans, bringing the tribes into closer communion, left him further outside the whole.

Jakir was a well-respected leader; that much was quickly evident. His people seemed to hold him in high esteem, which manifested itself in the small gestures of deference and pride that only another chieftain might notice. Hale and somewhat younger than Tariq, Altair's liege lord welcomed them all with an open smile, white teeth flashing in his dark face; he embraced Altair and Nasir as they dismounted, then Altair turned to Methos, presenting him to Jakir. "And this is Sayid Rashanal, who has come to help us retrieve our well!" At this, the noise from the crowd crested in ululation.

Jakir stepped forward and greeted him formally, bowing slightly with an easy grace. "Welcome, my most honored guest. My people extend to you their hospitality and their thanks." He indicated the stallion with a gracious nod. "May I ask permission to have the honor of feeding this fine prince of the desert?"

It was a formal courtesy, and one Methos had not encountered in years. The man had style, he had to grant him that. "His name is Fadjur," he said lightly, dismounting, "and as he condescends to let me ride him, I'm certain he would be honored to receive hospitality from one such as yourself."

A ripple of laughter spread through the nearby people. The tight knot that had formed around Jakir fell back, giving the chieftain more room to complete the formal gesture, offering the black a piece of sugared date that the stallion took from his hand with delicate solemnity. A murmur of appreciation for Fadjur's beauty and for the gesture of ceremony rose among the onlookers, but the bright chatter remained muted as they then looked to Methos, their eyes dark with curiosity. Methos could feel the weight of their hope and underlying anxiety settle about him. In the face of that added responsibility, it was difficult to keep the smile on his face. He had been down this road more times than he could count, and he knew he could not save them. They would have to save themselves.

He suppressed the fleeting urge to jump back on his horse and ride as long and as fast as he possibly could, and kept the smile on his face as Jakir's arm fell across his shoulders, pulling him out of his dark thoughts. "A feast!" Jakir declared. "When you have rested and the day has cooled, we will eat and be entertained, in celebration of friendship between our peoples." The arm fell away, and Methos looked down at Jakir, who smiled back at him. "For now, we shall retire from the heat, and provide man and beast with something more substantial after your long journey. What say you, my friend?"

"I would be most grateful," Methos said, and followed his host into camp.

* * *

Few of the people Duncan met on his way back to Jaffir's tent paid him any mind, and for once, Duncan was grateful for his low status; he was beneath notice. At this hour Jaffir might still be abed, but Duncan's sense of urgency propelled him forward. He needed to tell Jaffir what he had heard.

If Jaffir believed him, of course. That was not a given. Jaffir had grown to like him, to appreciate what little of his skills Duncan could bring to bear on a daily basis, but to accuse a man Jaffir had known his whole life of near-treason.... Duncan wasn't sure that the trust that had developed between them would extend that far. Would he listen to the word of a slave, or would Duncan's warning be ignored? Namal himself had warned of the danger Sulayman posed. Perhaps Jaffir would therefore be quicker to believe.

At least if Rashanal were here, Duncan would have had some idea of how to approach the man. He wasn't sure that Jaffir would even receive him if he were still in bed.

Fortunately, Jaffir was awake, but only just, sitting down to his morning meal. He looked up in surprise at Duncan's abrupt entrance, a frown crossing his face that brought Duncan up short.

"I apologize for the intrusion, lord, but what I have to tell you wouldn't wait." He forced himself to relax and bowed. It wouldn't do any good to soften the news; best to get it out first and deal with the consequences after. He moved to crouch down next to Jaffir, keeping his voice fairly low. "I overheard Sulayman at the paddock, talking with at least two others. He's trying to talk folk into leaving, into taking their belongings and forming their own tribe."

He practically held his breath after he finished speaking, tension knotting the back of his neck and shoulders. He clasped his hands together in front of him, hoping that Jaffir would accept what he said.

Jaffir looked at him briefly, then put down his bread and rubbed his forehead wearily. "Rest easy, Duncan. This does not entirely surprise me. My father warned me that Sulayman was restless." He lowered his hand, staring blankly out across the tent. "This is most poor timing -- though no time would be good for such news." He looked at Duncan. "Were you seen?"

"I don't believe so. I've had some...practice in staying out of sight." Jaffir looked pale, and Duncan felt a pang of sympathy for the young man, thrown into such a difficult position so soon. "Perhaps that will prove useful to you. Sulayman sees me as.... I do not think he would consider me a threat." Duncan colored under Jaffir's compassionate gaze.

"Did you recognize any of his companions? It would be well for us to be forewarned about who might be swayed."

"I tried, but I was fearful of discovery. I didn't want to force his hand if I could help it."

Jaffir nodded. "You were probably right in that." He sighed. "It won't help that I will have to begin rationing water more closely. That will cause even greater upset; the people are generous, but having to share after our losses has strained the well to its limits, and that will only add weight to Sulayman's arguments." He stood and called towards the back of the tent. "Rajid! I have an errand for you."

Stepping out from behind the curtain, Rajid's eyes darted to Duncan, still crouched on the floor. Rajid's face hardened, showing his disdain, and Duncan's mouth tightened in irritation. They had not often crossed paths since Rajid's recovery, but Rajid lost no occasion to make his contempt for Duncan, for his position in Rashanal's household, clear. Duncan was uncomfortably aware that his low tones might have carried through the cloth wall, and the idea that Rajid might know of Sulayman's treacherous behavior unsettled him further. Still, Rajid had given no-one reason to doubt his sincere recanting of his earlier recklessness, and Duncan did not in all honesty know if his dislike for the man stemmed from justified suspicion, or merely the knowledge that this young troublemaker considered him less than a man.

"Yes, Sayid?"

"Go and fetch Selim and my father, tell them I wish to talk to them. Try not to attract any attention."

Rajid looked questioning at the command, but bowed and left when Jaffir motioned to dismiss him. Jaffir turned back to Duncan, and something in Duncan's face must have alerted him. "You do not trust him?"

"His judgment, perhaps. I...have no particular reason not to trust his loyalty." Duncan rose from the floor and linked his hands behind his back.

Jaffir looked thoughtful, gazing out the doorway after Rajid. "Still, he has no great love for Rashanal, and even if he has repented his foolhardiness, that is no guarantee that his judgment has improved."

Some of Duncan's tension eased. "You don't trust him either."

"Let us rather say that I do not wish to be caught off-guard again. Numbers will tell in this matter with Sulayman, and Rajid still has many friends. I would take it as a particular favor if you would, as you keep an eye on Sulayman, watch to see where Rajid's interest is drawn."

Duncan bowed slightly from the waist. "I will do whatever you wish of me, Sayid. I am yours to command."

"Somehow I think that such obedience does not come easily to you, Duncan."

Duncan flushed, the words bringing to mind some of Rashanal's lessons. "This is something I would do for the tribe, regardless of my position, Jaffir. These are good people. I would not see them harmed."

Jaffir did not seem to mind Duncan's familiarity, nor the edge to his voice. "It is a hard thing Rashanal asks of you. And yet, I wonder who will pay the higher cost, in the end." Not waiting for a reply, he turned back to his meal. "Come, have you eaten? We should do so now, before the others arrive."

* * *

To Duncan's surprise, Jaffir permitted him to remain present when Selim and Namal arrived, motioning for Duncan to attend them as if it were nothing unusual to allow a slave to be present for such a highly sensitive discussion. The young chief outlined the report Duncan had given him for the two older men, then asked for their thoughts.

Namal, for his part, was unsurprised; it was as he had predicted. Selim at first questioned the reliability of such a source -- his gaze flicking towards Duncan with some doubt -- but Jaffir put paid to those doubts with gratifying certainty. "The Highlander has proven himself a loyal and honest servant," he said matter-of-factly, "and I do not doubt the accuracy of his observations. In any case," he added, "we cannot afford to consider these developments lightly. Time is of the essence if we wish to control this situation."

Namal nodded approvingly. "We must know wherein Sulayman's support lies, and on whom we can depend if this sedition should come to a crisis before Rashanal's return."

Jaffir looked from one man to another, including Duncan in his look. "We must also attempt to determine these things without allowing Sulayman to know we are aware of his plans. Discretion is our greatest ally now, but we must also act with swiftness to solidify the loyalties of those we trust, those we can be reasonably certain Sulayman would not approach."

Selim considered that. "Sulayman would go first to those he knows best. The older generation, in particular -- those warriors who traveled with him before he came to us, and those who are old enough to have been raised in the ways of our father's traditions. Such men as himself, who have always mistrusted Rashanal as an outsider even as they have bowed to his superior leadership and wisdom."

Jaffir nodded thoughtfully. "Seasoned fighters, as well," he added, troubled.

Selim looked at him in surprise. "Do you think it will come to arms?"

"If he is determined to leave the tribe, it is likely he will attempt to make away with as much livestock, weapons, and supplies as he and his followers can carry. That I cannot allow -- not with the threat of Emad still overshadowing us. I will do everything in my power to prevent the situation from coming to such a crisis, but yes...it is possible that our people will take up arms against one another before this is over."

Selim's lined and weathered face reflected his dismay. "We must not allow that to happen."

Namal spoke, his tone resigned. "We may have no choice."

"For now," Jaffir added, "we have not yet reached that point. Let us do what we can to shift the balance, to solidify the loyalties of those who may be uncertain, and to ferret out where the horse master's alliances may lie. If nothing else, we may delay him from acting until Emad brings a more immediate threat to bear upon us." His expression was wry, appreciating the irony that it might be invasion that would save tribesmen from raising weapons against tribesmen. Duncan was heartened by Jaffir's ability to see the bleak humor in the situation and saw that his attitude had the same effect on Selim.

"Shall we talk again this evening?" Namal asked, as the three men rose and the two older ones made ready to leave.

"For supper," Jaffir agreed. "Learn what you can, offer what argument or reassurance you can to those who seem uncertain, and we shall meet here at dusk to discuss things further." He looked to Duncan, his gaze serious, though encouraging. "As for you, my resourceful friend -- you must be my eyes and ears. Practice that talent you spoke of, and watch Sulayman as closely as you can without being noticed. I shall depend upon your subtlety."

"Aye, my lord," Duncan agreed, determination raising his chin. "I will."

The two older men departed the tent. Watching them go, Jaffir caught sight of Rajid, standing outside with an expectant air. He was some distance away, but Duncan had the inexplicable feeling that the young man had been listening at the tent flap. Jaffir frowned slightly and called to him.

"Do you not have duties awaiting you, Rajid?"

Rajid tried on a look of deferential apology, but it did not sit well on his sharp features. "Yes, my lord. I beg forgiveness, but I would speak with you privately." He did not, quite, glance at Duncan, still standing near the door, but drew nearer to the tent's opening.

"I am not without responsibilities of my own," Jaffir said reprovingly. "I do not have the luxury of entertaining the whims of a man who would do well to remember what arrogant presumption has already cost him."

Though his tone was mild, his words were cutting, and Duncan saw them hit home, a faint flush staining Rajid's cheeks. But instead of bridling, Rajid spoke earnestly, his manner straightforward and respectful. "Your wisdom is well taken, my lord. However, I think you would do well to listen to what I have to say."

After a moment's consideration, Jaffir stepped back, inclining his head in invitation. "Very well, then. A few minutes." Smoothly, he added, "Duncan, clear the table and straighten the room, if you please."

Immediately, Duncan understood that Jaffir wished him to observe this exchange and perhaps later offer his opinion. Whatever Rajid was up to, Jaffir wisely considered that, chastised or not, the young upstart bore watching. Again surprised at the level of trust Jaffir had come to place in him, Duncan murmured assent. As he turned to obey, he saw Rajid glance his way in irritation, plainly annoyed that Jaffir did not plan to dismiss Duncan before hearing Rajid out; he checked himself, allowing the irritation to subside and entering the tent.

"You have gathered something of the situation we now find ourselves in," Jaffir said without preamble, not looking at Rajid, moving to don a last layer of gauzy clothing as protection against the sun. Duncan glanced at Rajid, observing him out of the corner of his eye while Jaffir's back was turned. The young man was plainly discomfited by Jaffir's directness. Score the first touché to Jaffir.

"I'm afraid I could not help but overhear the barbarian's warning this morning," Rajid said smoothly, scoring a point of his own against Duncan. "A most difficult situation indeed, my lord." His concern sounded genuine, and a glance at his face showed only the same. "Now, more than ever, we must stand strong and unified as a tribe."

Jaffir looked at him sharply. "That is a surprising view, coming from you, Rajid."

Rajid nodded grimly. "I was foolish to think that Emad could be so easily turned from hungering after what is ours. We must stand together if we hope to resist him -- I understand that now."

Jaffir considered him for long moments, as did Duncan more surreptitiously, but there was an air of true repentance and sincerity about him that was either genuine or an extremely well-crafted forgery. "I must admit I find it difficult to credit your loyalty to Rashanal, after the punishment you forced from his hand," Jaffir said, his gaze keen, looking at Rajid with new interest. "Some would expect you to welcome Sulayman's leadership."

"And that is your advantage, my lord." Rajid's tone was intent, certain.

Jaffir's interest sharpened. "Explain."

Now Rajid was more reserved, choosing his words with care. "Slave though I may be, I still have friends, ra-jamihn. Especially among the younger warriors of the tribe. There are those who would listen to me, should I choose to speak." He paused. "Certainly, I would not be feared by Sulayman. He would not guard his counsel with me as he would with another. These are both factors that you might turn to your advantage, if you choose."

Jaffir drew closer, considering Rajid's words. "Why should I trust you, Rajid? After you have made it plain that you do not respect the wisdom of your betters and cannot be depended on to remember your oaths to your liege, nor keep your temper in check?"

Rajid bowed his head under that deserved accusation, his face dark with what might be the stain of shame and apparent remorse. "All that you say is true, my lord. And it is also true that I hold no great love for Rashanal. He is and has always been an outsider, and of late I have doubted his wisdom and his ability to protect us from the jackal at our door. But my family has always been loyal to your father and to you, and even I can see that Sulayman would lead us to our destruction if he is allowed to split the tribe. I may not love Rashanal, but by Allah, I am loyal to my tribe. I acted only to protect honor and our future. I see now that I was wrong to act so rashly." He lifted his gaze to Jaffir's. "Please let me make amends. Allow me to talk to those who would listen, to spread the word among my friends that they must not listen to the horse master's foolish talk."

Obviously surprised at the earnestness of this entreaty, Jaffir raised his eyebrows. "You would do this? Even though you have lost your freedom and your household?"

"All things may change, in time," Rajid said reasonably. Apparently, the whipping and a sudden attack of remorse had not done away with his arrogance completely, Duncan thought.

In spite of the seriousness of the situation, Jaffir's mouth quirked at his continued presumption. "True enough. And I cannot deny that such assistance would be welcome." He thought for a moment. "Very well. I shall not require you to continue to offer service to my household. Instead, you shall report to Selim, and aid him in preparations for our upcoming trade expedition. That should give you enough freedom to be able to move about the camp with ease."

"Yes, ra-jamihn." Rajid's eyes had lit up with the promise of limited freedom, and possibly more, if he proved his loyalty. "You will not regret it."

"That remains to be seen," Jaffir murmured, but he nodded dismissal, and Rajid departed, head held high and shoulders straighter than they had been when he'd come in.

"Well," Jaffir said to Duncan when Rajid had gone, "what do you make of that?"

"I think he still bears watching, my lord," Duncan said carefully, troubled.

Jaffir smiled, his teeth flashing white. "That goes without saying," he agreed. "And that task, my friend, I shall leave to you." With that he wrapped a long swath of cloth around his throat and face, and departed, leaving Duncan looking after him, his thoughts a tangle of apprehension, the intricate coils of tribal intrigue and a warm, heady pleasure at the young chieftain's choice of the word 'friend.'

Chapter Text

Jakir led Methos through the tangle of tents, his smile broad, his pride evident. "My people live well, do they not, my lord Rashanal?"

"Indeed they do." Methos glanced around, noting again how well-fed everyone looked, how well-cared for their garments and tents. Few showed the signs of long use and harsh weather. The tribe had certainly not starved under Jakir's guidance, nor had the animals. He was a little surprised by the wealth of fine craftsmanship and luxury goods he saw. His own tribe was rich in horseflesh and weapons, but perhaps he had been somewhat remiss in encouraging the development of the finer sensibilities. "You trade, you said?"

Jakir nodded, watching a few of the children laugh and chase each other through the tents, a couple of the dogs barking as they passed. "Yes. In the beginning, we traded with passing caravans, mainly food and water for basic goods. But in recent years, our craftswomen have become somewhat well-known for their finely woven rugs." He shrugged. "It seems they have become something of a commodity. We now trade quite extensively, and our work is highly sought after."

Methos surveyed the encampment more closely and realized that Jakir was downplaying the significance of the prosperity his people had enjoyed. There were fabrics and metalwork in evidence here that had to have come from as far away as the Orient and the European continent. He knew that skilled weaving could bring in great profits-just ask Marco Polo-but Jakir's women must be producing fine work indeed for merchants to take the trouble to transport them so widely. The old marauder in him stirred distantly like an ancient beast disturbed in its long hibernation. Jakir and his people were ripe for the taking. If Emad had known what a prize awaited him here, he would have struck long ago.

He glanced at Jakir with new eyes, wondering if the chieftain understood his vulnerability. "Your people have obviously prospered under your guidance," he said. "One might envy your success and resourcefulness."

Jakir's smile turned ironic. "I am no fool, Rashanal," he said, not looking at Methos. "If Emad attacks...."

One of the children fell, and the dogs swarmed over her, licking at her face, neck, and arms; her giggles turned to cries, and Jakir immediately started for the child. A woman hurried out of the closest tent, shoved the dogs out of the way, and picked up the child, setting her on her hip as she made sure the girl was unharmed.

Methos watched, holding back from the scene as Jakir talked to them both. The top of the woman's head came barely to Jakir's chin, forcing her to look up as she shaded her eyes with one hand. She remained quiet as Jakir sweet-talked the girl back into good humor. There was nothing obviously unusual in her stance or attitude, but something in the strength of her face drew Methos' attention. It was an exotic face, showing African heritage, dark-skinned and strong-featured. She was not young, fine lines tracing the corners of her eyes and mouth. She had none of the smooth beauty of a young woman like Tahirih, but her smile was warm and generous, and her black dress hinted at lush hidden curves. What struck Methos most was her thick long hair, startlingly uncovered, black and glossy, though shot with grey.

She looked like a thousand other women he'd known, maybe more. And yet...so accustomed was he now to seeing women veiled, their womanhood hidden from view, the sight of such obvious femininity was curiously stimulating.

She looked away from Jakir and back to Methos, and smiled. Her whole face lit up when she did, her eyes dark and flashing. She quickly turned back to Jakir and whispered something; the chieftain roared with laughter. He touched the child's cheek in farewell, then headed back to Methos.

"What was so funny?" Methos asked.

Jakir grinned. "Bahira."

"I don't understand."

"Her name," Jakir nodded at where the woman had been, "is Bahira. She will be dancing tonight and wondered if you would attend." He flashed a grin at Methos, watching him speculatively. "She has been widowed a long time."

"You approve of..." Methos searched for words to describe the unusual, somewhat shocking, lack of convention the woman had displayed. Namal would have been horrified. "...such forwardness?" he finished at last.

Jakir shrugged, though his face betrayed a slight flush. "Bahira is our most gifted weaver, and we have her to thank for what prosperity we enjoy. Perhaps our women have become a bit headstrong, having been exposed to foreign ideas more than most, but we are devout." He glanced at Methos a little belligerently, as if daring him to disapprove. "I had not heard you were a man enslaved to convention," he challenged.

Determination stripped the humor from Jakir's face, and Methos could see the strength and passion with which the man ruled. His jovial nature made him easy to underestimate, but when challenged.... He would be a good ally. Methos tilted his head somberly, acknowledging what Jakir said. "I would not endanger our alliance over such a small matter. The way you govern your tribe is no affair of mine." He lifted his chin and met Jakir's eyes. "And Bahira is a beautiful woman."

Jakir's visibly relaxed, and he rolled his shoulders slightly as if they had been knotted. "Wait until you see her dance. Come." He laid a hand on Methos' back. "Your tent is this way. I will show you the armory and the herds along the way."

Methos had watched Bahira walk back to the tent after sending the once again cheerful child on her way, her body graceful in its movements. "I would be interested in seeing some of your rugs, as well, if you would allow."

Jakir laughed, slapping him on the back. "Of course! I'm sure Bahira would be happy to show you some of her designs." He seemed pleased by Methos' interest.

Methos ignored the small, treacherous thought of Duncan that arose. Having brought no companionship of his own, it would be appropriate, even welcome, for him to choose someone from the guesting tribe. It was a time-honored custom; he'd done so more than once while Tahirih was his companion. Why now did the thought make him uneasy?

* * *

In the midst of preparations for the upcoming trade expedition, Duncan found it a relatively simple matter to keep an eye on Sulayman. The horsemaster had little time to stir up trouble, for his tasks kept him busy; each of the colts for auction had to be checked for soundness and readied for the journey east. Duncan made himself useful and kept his head down, hoping to keep beneath notice, fade into the background. It was not something at which he had a lot of experience, but he was learning.

It was at the midday break that he noticed Sulayman at the center of another small group of tribesmen. Scanning faces surreptitiously, Duncan noted that Selim had been mostly right in his guess that Sulayman would approach those of his own generation. Only one face among those who listened was unlined. Duncan frowned. What was his name? Ferran, he thought -- one of those who had ridden with Rashanal to bring Rajid to heel. He thought that perhaps Ferran's was also one of the voices he had heard that morning. Taking careful note of the other faces in the small group, he tried to determine their attitude towards Sulayman, but it was difficult to tell where they stood.

A tribesman approached and said something to Sulayman then, and the group dispersed; a few moments later, Jaffir appeared from the direction of the well, and Duncan read the inevitable in the young man's grim expression. By the time he reached the open-sided tent, though, he was smiling, giving the appearance of confidence and easy authority. In just a few days, Duncan thought, he had already taken on the look of a true chieftain. It was a look that suited him.

You'd think he was your own son, he chided himself with a faint smile, but he couldn't help feeling a little proud of the young man's competence. He shook his head and finished the rest of his ration of water, and was just rising when Jaffir himself came over.

"Come to my tent when you're finished, will you, Duncan?" he said. The tribe would spend the worst heat of the day indoors, and Duncan knew it would be difficult to watch Sulayman then without letting him know they were wise to his scheming. If there were going to be trouble today, it would likely come to a head as the sun went down; the next few hours would be ripe opportunity for those who might plan sedition to organize. If Jaffir did not wish to force Sulayman's hand, he had little choice but to pretend ignorance and let the horsemaster's ploy develop as it would. Plainly, though, Jaffir did not mean to miss making use of the same opportunity.

"Yes, sayid," Duncan acquiesced, and Jaffir gave him a short nod before moving on.

Duncan caught sight of Rajid some distance away, watching him with that sneer of contempt, barely suppressed; he turned away, refusing to let that obvious disdain affect him.

Still, he found himself wondering where the suddenly repentant young hothead would spend his afternoon.

* * *

The weavers' area boasted many short, squat tents, each one open to provide shade while the weaver worked. There seemed to be some significance of rank reflected in the seating arrangement, as well as in the division of labor. It was obvious that some of the youngest were apprentices, learning the trade. Their job seemed to be to sort through the dyed wool and match colors for later weaving.

But some probably weren't merely apprentices, Methos thought with amusement. A few of the sorters were boys around the age of three or four, matching colors along with their sisters. These were probably the children of the weavers, and no hands were idle.

The boys disappeared quickly, though. Older girls -- the apprentices -- were spinning, the wool wrapped around long wooden spindles that they let fall, the weight of it pulling at the wool while the apprentice twisted the fiber, producing thread. An older woman kept a watch over the process, making sure the thread was an even thickness.

The weaving itself was magnificent. Bahira shuttled herself back and forth amidst the group while two other women worked on the rugs. The background of one was a deep red with a rich blue octagon pattern in it; the other was of a lighter blue, the pattern barely started. Bahira talked frequently to the woman working on the newest rug, but her voice was too soft to carry.

Methos walked over and caught the tail end of the discussion.

"The hue should be deeper, here, the color of the sky once the sun has set." Bahira's hand flicked over the fabric. "You will need to slowly darken the colors as you go along."

The woman nodded and turned back to the rug, her quick hands deftly knotting the new thread on the form.

"It's lovely," Methos said, startling the women.

Bahira patted the weaver on the shoulder and stepped away, joining Methos and Jakir. "Thank you. My people work hard."

"They have learned their craft well." Methos searched for something more insightful to say, feeling oddly self-conscious in a way he hadn't in some time. It had been so long since he'd needed to make polite conversation of this sort. He was forcibly reminded again of Duncan, with whom such niceties were unneeded. Unexpectedly, he felt a brief twinge of regret at the thought; it wasn't as if he'd spent a lot of time talking with Duncan.

Annoyed, he realized he'd once again let himself be distracted by a man that was leagues away, and focused his attention on the beautiful workmanship before him with effort. "The patterns are unusual. Where did you learn them? Have you traveled so far?"

Bahira's face showed her amusement at his obvious unease, but it was a gentle thing, not malicious. She smiled, and again Methos was struck by how it transformed her from a rather ordinary woman to something more. "I traveled some with my father, before his death, but mostly I learned from him. His people lived far to the south; it is their patterns and techniques you see reflected here, together with those you may find more familiar."

"It is...unusual to see such a mingling of cultures," Methos said.

Her mouth firmed almost imperceptibly. "My father was originally brought here as a slave. Fortunately, Jakir's grandfather recognized his intelligence, as well as his strength. When he and my mother fell in love, he was freed and allowed to marry her."

Methos lifted an eyebrow, inclining his head towards Jakir. "A wise and progressive man, your grandfather."

Jakir smiled and bade them continue while he left to see to business of his own. In spite of his awkwardness, Methos was not displeased to have Bahira to himself for a few minutes. They settled into the shade of one of the open tents while Bahira kept an eye on the weaving.

She proved to be even more engaging upon longer acquaintance, reminding Methos less of a traditional tribeswoman and more of the strong-willed, independent European women he had known. There was nothing harsh or grating about her manner, but she knew her mind and her ability, and would not let herself be treated as anything less than she was. Her rugs reflected her personality, vibrant colors showing the African influence that she herself embodied.

Intrigued, Methos encouraged her to talk more of her father's people; even his self-consciousness seemed to flatter her, and she acted as though she were pleased that such a strong and powerful man was so unsettled in her company, particularly one seemingly younger than herself. She was respectful, but not deferential, her accord that of someone who respected the person, not the position. Her obvious admiration and gentle manner were a balm to his sorely chafed soul, and it eased the way between them. He was surprised to find that he liked the attention.

At last Jakir returned, and Methos rose somewhat reluctantly, with a nod of appreciation towards the chieftain. "I see that your grandfather was not the last wise man of his line. I am quite impressed with what I have seen and heard."

Jakir's bow was amused, but the warmth of his smile betrayed his pleasure. "Come," he said. "If you have seen enough, we still have a few things I wish to show you before you take your rest."

Methos turned and took Bahira's hand, bowing over it and pressing it to his forehead. "I am most honored to have made your acquaintance, and I look forward to seeing you again this evening." He looked into her eyes, and where a younger, less-experienced woman might have dissembled and seemed embarrassed, she merely deepened her smile, her eyes touched with more than a hint of her own interest as she squeezed his hand.

"I, too, look forward to that, Rashanal."

* * *

The heat weighed heavily on Jaffir's encampment that afternoon, a hot wind that brought no relief stirring the rolled back edges of tent flaps, carrying a fine layer of sand that got into everything. Souraya tried to comfort her fussing baby, but the child seemed to sense the same oppressive tension that Duncan did, and cried intermittently throughout the afternoon.

He listened to Namal, Jaffir, and Selim as they conferred, offering what information he could about what he'd seen, trying not to think about cool waterfalls, about the icy loch where he'd swum as a boy, or the green hills and sweet breezes of his homeland. He felt parched, overheated and in need of a bath, a persistent headache making it hard to concentrate on the conversation. At last he gave up trying to translate everything that was said and just tried to follow the general meaning.

Rajid came in at some point, offering confirmation of the Duncan's observations and reporting that he had spoken to several men he thought could be trusted. Jaffir nodded inscrutably, thanked him, and dismissed him, then went back to discussing contingent plans for later that evening. The afternoon wore on interminably.

Duncan's mind began to wander from the conversation as it turned to grazing grounds and logistics of moving the tribe, if it should come to that. He caught himself wondering what Rashanal was doing. Did the heat weigh as heavily on him as it did on Duncan, who had been raised in cooler climes? He'd tried many times to place Rashanal's accent, but it was indefinable, a blend of too many languages and forgotten dialects to count. Was he from an arid land such as this one, or did he come from some distant country, as his pale skin and eyes would seem to indicate? He certainly seemed at home in the desert, pared down to essentials much like these people, his body smooth, spare, and sharp-edged as the terrain.

Duncan flushed at the heat these thoughts stirred and glanced up surreptitiously, feeling as though they must be written all over him. The others seemed to have forgotten he was there, though, and were reclining on cushions, talking idly now of which mares had yet to foal, conserving their strength for the evening's possible conflict. He'd be wise to follow their example, he thought, and settled down to wait out the afternoon, trying to ignore his discomfort -- to no avail. No sooner did he close his eyes than his mind wandered once more to the object of his fascination, turning the enigma that was his captor over and over in his thoughts, looking for the fault line that would let him into the mysterious hidden core of the man.

It had been five days since Rashanal had gone, and Duncan's body had not forgotten the unfinished tryst they had shared before his departure. Sleeping in the sheik's bed had not made it any easier to forget the way that lithe body had responded to his touch, the warmth of arousal pressing against his own as his hands brought pleasure and relief to Rashanal's knotted muscles. Nor had he forgotten that last, searing kiss, before Rashanal had torn himself away from Duncan and left him there, confused and troubled, wanting him anyway.

Perhaps that was why he felt so restless. After weeks of becoming conditioned to frequent, passionate coupling, his body was unused to being denied. It was becoming ever more difficult to remember the anger and frustration Rashanal's mercurial mood swings awoke in him, his traitorous body insisting stubbornly on remembering instead the way it felt to let go of his resistance, the sweet, shuddering pleasure Rashanal could coax from his body when he did.

Duncan stirred restlessly, cursing himself for giving in to those memories now. He was erect and ready just thinking about it, his body warming with heat that had nothing to do with the relentless sun.

Knowing that sleep would continue to elude him, and that he would only make himself crazy if he stayed here and let his thoughts wander, he got up, grateful for the folds of his many layers of clothing. He glanced toward Jaffir, but he and Namal were deep in conversation and barely glanced in his direction. He slipped out of the tent quietly.

* * *

Their tour of the armory and the herds was quickly taken, Jakir obviously wanting to make it clear that he could be a valuable ally. He left Methos in a comfortably appointed tent, promising to send someone for him at dusk, when they would feast.

Methos suspected that his talks with Jakir would be nothing like those with Tariq. Where Tariq and his men wanted to quibble over every detail, dissect every possibility and chance, Jakir, though still waiting to hear Methos' proposal, appeared to have made up his mind already, and merely awaited the formalities. Seeing what he had to protect, Methos couldn't blame him for his seeming rush to ally himself with others able to bolster his protection. His camp was a ripe plum, ready for the taking.

Methos picked up his bedroll, brought to the tent for him while he walked with Jakir. Unrolling it, he felt the same odd flutter in his stomach that he had the first time he'd opened the pack and seen that without direction, Duncan had apparently anticipated his lord's every need, and had included nothing extraneous. He assured himself it was nothing unusual, merely the ordinary choices of a man who had probably been on numerous campaigns, traveled extensively, knew how to pack lightly and well. It showed no great insight into Methos' character, and yet.... Disgusted with himself, he spread the outer blanket out, then stripped off his outer garments and dropped them before throwing himself down on the bedding.

It was nowhere near as thick as his own, and no matter how he shifted, he couldn't seem to get comfortable. Bedding down alone in the desert was one thing, but he'd learned at Tariq's camp that sound sleep was going to elude him in more civilized conditions. He'd become too used to the comfort of another warm body. If she were willing, he decided, tonight that body would be Bahira's.

He closed his eyes, envisioning Bahira's warm smile, her strong hands, imagining that rounded body in his bed. But curves kept turning into hard planes, and black eyes into brown, and he cursed himself for every kind of fool. A bare handful of days, and his body ached for the touch of a callused palm, the taste of a lush mouth.... He suddenly regretted having left without a word, without a look. The sweetness of their last night had seemed what he wanted at the time, but after the fact, his body craved the memories of lust and passion, wondered whether they would have kept each other awake until daybreak with their hungers, as they had many times before. Lying there, echoes of sense-memories sliding through his body, he wondered once again who was the slave, who the master.

* * *

The sun was indeed relentless. The wind felt good for just a moment when Duncan stepped out from under the canopy, but then the heat of the sun bore down on him, its white glare throbbing behind his eyes as though he'd been struck a fierce blow from some blunt weapon. He stood there for a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

"And where are you going?" a derisive voice said, drifting over from a nearby tent. The sides of the low enclosure were rolled back; sun-blind, Duncan could only make out a man's outline, reclining in the shade. "Back to your master's tent, I suppose. Perhaps to practice some of those whore's tricks of yours, for when he returns." The voice carried just far enough to reach Duncan, and now he recognized its insulting sneer.

Rajid. Plainly not overly concerned about whatever trouble might be brewing elsewhere in the camp, he was enjoying his newfound freedom, and obviously had found no better sport than taunting Duncan. The Highlander sighed inwardly; he'd known this was coming. Rajid had done a poor job of concealing his contempt, and he certainly hadn't thus far demonstrated much of a capacity for self-control. Accepting the inevitable, Duncan kept his back straight and his head up and started to walk past the tent, ignoring Rajid.

"Not that I blame him," Rajid said as he passed, voice rich with innuendo. "That's a fine haunch he's bought for himself. If your tastes run to such disgusting perversions."

Fury and hot embarrassment rose in Duncan, Rajid's words coming too close on his own vulnerable reveries, and he couldn't stop himself from responding. He turned, taking a step toward the offensive whelp, fists curling at his sides. "I'll not--"

Unconcerned, Rajid barely stirred. "You'll not what? What are you going to do, slave? Strike me? Better not, little whore. Jaffir needs me a lot more than he needs you right now."

Duncan stopped. The threat was clear. He'd been right not to trust Rajid as far as he could throw him, but that didn't change the fact that the cur was right. Damn him. Jaffir and Namal did need Rajid and his friends; they needed every man they could get. Though it grated on his pride to do it, he bit off whatever he might have said and made himself turn and start walking again.

"What's the matter, pretty slave? Nothing to say after all? Or are you worried Rashanal won't come back for you? Poor little slave. Who will you spread your legs for then?"

Duncan muttered a suggestion, in Gaelic, of what Rajid might do with himself, and kept walking. He tried not to let the insults get to him, but the sound of mocking laughter followed him mercilessly, the sound like stinging bees jabbing at the exposed places in his psyche.

The oppressive heat only intensified as the afternoon wore on.

* * *

Sleep continued to elude him, and Methos was ready and waiting when evening came at last and his escort came to take him to his host. They walked through the camp, and Methos felt his spirits rise a bit with the barely suppressed excitement he felt around him.

The walls of the common tent had been rolled up, leaving only the back and the roof on the low canopy. What was left was filled with light, and torches had been set to illuminate a flat ring extending from the opened wings and out into the ground around the sheik's area. The smell of roasted goat scented the night, spiced with the scent of herbs, fruit, and oil. Jakir's tribe was eager to entertain their guests and had spared no effort.

Already, the drummers were finding a place to sit, while the other musicians tuned their instruments. A few trial notes rang out from the Bedouin fiddle, and the drums quickly folded themselves in. The noise quickly became music, and on every face was a smile, while the area rang with laughter.

Lambs to the slaughter, Methos couldn't help thinking as he was escorted to the position of honor. The tour had only emphasized how ripe a target these people presented, in spite of their wealth in possessions. There was a time he would have marked them as victims himself. Still, he had to admit, such an embarrassment of material resources did afford them pleasant diversions, such as this one.

Jakir sat down next to him and nodded at the musicians. "Tell me, Rashanal. Do you have feasts like this in your own camp?"

"Like this? No, my people are not so wealthy, Jakir. Our celebrations are much smaller."

"You should take your horses to another market, perhaps. A new market might give you a better price." He looked speculatively at Methos. "If we make an alliance, perhaps we might make a joint trade expedition to the coast. We have not journeyed that way in several years, for fear of crossing paths with Emad's men, but a larger party, well guarded, would give him pause."

Methos straightened up and glanced at Jakir. "It would be less than the truth to say I'm not intrigued."

"It is something to think on." Jakir glanced away, letting the subject lie for the time being. "Look, Bahira arrives."

Her clothing was brightly colored, a chemise of bright red that was covered with embroidery, fastened at the neck with a silver and turquoise clasp. On top of this she wore a striped, fitted coat, which buttoned up the front and stopped mid-thigh. The sleeves of the coat, unusually wide and fastened at the wrists, were slit to show off the rich embroidery and beading of the chemise. Pants, narrow and cuffed at the ankle, were worn under the chemise, leaving her ankles and wrists shockingly bare, although ropes of thick silver bells graced each limb. Her black hair fell in beaded plaits, with a small decorated skull cap worn over it, coins hanging from the back of the cap. More silver sparkled at her waist, holding a long dark blue sash belt closed.

Kohl rimmed her eyes, accenting them. She was dressed unlike any other woman in the tribe, and she was beautiful.

Jakir motioned her over to him. "Sit with Lord Rashanal," he said. "Our guest enjoys your company."

She smiled and bowed, then settled herself on Rashanal's other side.

"But do you enjoy mine?" he asked quietly, when Jakir was attending to other guests.

"I do," she replied just as softly, her brow furrowed.

"Then why does your face look so clouded?" He put his hand up to trace the furrows, but didn't touch her. "I assumed you found my company not to your liking." He let his hand drop again.

"Pfah." She waived her hand dismissively, the silver bells at her wrist jingling. "It is Jakir. He wishes me to marry again, that is all. He likes the money my weaving brings, but my ways unsettle him. He thinks it would be good if I were married again."

"And do you want that as well?" Food had been given to him, and Methos popped a piece of roast lamb in his mouth. The meat was rich; the juice dripped down his fingers, and he quickly licked them. The flavor was excellent.

"What? A new husband?" she laughed, a light yet resonant sound that made Methos smile. "I am happy with what I have, and if I married, my things would become his. And I have no desire to lose what status I have won, my lord Rashanal. I will not marry again."

"What of other offers, not involving marriage?" He grinned wickedly at her.

She arched her bows delicately. "I am very circumspect."

Methos laughed in answer, and returned his attention to the celebration. A whisper at the back of his mind said he was being foolish, but he refused to pay attention to it. Bahira was beautiful, and she was willing. There was no reason not to enjoy the night. An image of Duncan flashed through his mind, but he ignored it. The Highlander was his slave, nothing more. There was nothing to feel uneasy about. He would spend the night with Bahira, and that was the end of it.

He took a deep drink of water from his cup and picked up a fig. But instead of eating it himself, he offered it to Bahira. "These are quite good," he said. "Would you like one?"

"After I dance," she said as she gently pushed his hand away with a touch like a caress. "I don't like to eat before then, my stomach gets upset." The drummers picked up a beat and Bahira stood. "Fortunately, I like to dance at the beginning." She bowed to him, stepped into the center of the group, and then Bahira began to dance.

It was like watching the wind blow across the desert, sometimes a gentle breeze, sometimes a deeper storm, but always that feeling of tension and something more to come. Her eyes seemed to be everywhere, and as the drumming continued, Methos fell into a rhythm with it, the drumming seeping into his blood. After a time, he became unable to focus on anything but the way Bahira moved. She wanted him, she excited him, and that came through in her dance.

"I think we are agreed?" Jakir said to him, Methos barely hearing him. "An alliance is in both our interests."

"Agreed, agreed," Methos muttered, watching Bahira. The sooner the dance ended, the sooner they could leave together. Methos was looking forward to a much more personal dance.

* * *

As it happened, Jaffir and those loyal to him won a bit of luck that evening in the form of a mare who chose that night to foal at last. Such an ordinary thing to forestall more dangerous events.

It was the poor mare's distressed cries that brought the tribe from their tents as the sun sank at last below the horizon. The mother was slightly built even for one of the desert line, and her foal had been slow in coming; the worst had happened, Duncan learned, as he and several others came running to the pen where the young mare had been separated from the rest of the herd. The foal was turned.

What followed was a difficult and painful ordeal for both men and beast, tribal tensions forgotten in the long, grueling fight for life that ensued. Duncan found himself carrying cloths for Sulayman himself, even wiping the man's brow for a time as he fought grimly to turn the foal before it suffocated. Duncan barely spared thought for the irony, caught up with the other tribesmen in the desperate struggle.

All of them were streaked with blood and dust, both they and the little mare sweating faster than the hot night could wick it away, by the time Sulayman at last pulled the forelegs and head free of the mother's womb. Just in time, for the little colt was nearly lifeless, and the mare trembling with exhaustion, close to the end of her strength. As soon as the colt slid free, Duncan and Namal hurried to clear its nostrils, then began to rub it gently but briskly with a cloth, encouraging the little fellow to breathe. At last the bedraggled creature stirred, and with encouragement, sought his mother's teat.

Duncan found himself grinning from ear to ear, his own worries forgotten in the face of the miracle before him. He and the others who had helped bring the colt into the world stood together and watched as the mare rallied enough to nuzzle her offspring. The little one didn't manage to nurse very long, but Sulayman made a gruff sound of approval, and allowed that mother and son would probably survive the night. Namal clapped him on the shoulder, thanking him for his efforts, and for a moment it seemed both men had forgotten their disagreements.

The moon was already starting to set when the men left the pen and made their way wearily towards their own tents. Though the horsemaster didn't acknowledge Duncan's presence, or the part he had played in helping to bring the foal into the world, Duncan took comfort in the fact that Sulayman, like all of them, was plainly too tired to make any further trouble tonight.

Chapter Text

The moon was high overhead when the dancing gave way to storytelling, and the feasting began in earnest as the older women of Jakir's tribe brought out still more platters of roast meats and cheeses, sugary fruits and flavorful cooked grains. The tribe's storyteller was plainly a favorite, and he was met by enthusiastic approval as he began to weave a familiar tale, one that Methos knew had been told and retold among desert peoples for over a thousand years. The Bedouin had told it one way, the Persians another; each storyteller added his own embellishments, each tribe had its own favorite variations, but the essential story of poor Madjnun and his ill-fated sweetheart Layla was the same. Not for the first time, Methos wondered if Shakespeare had heard some version of this tale before he'd penned his own tale of star-crossed lovers.

Bahira had disappeared from the circle of torchlight, but as the tale of doomed love and tragedy took shape, Methos saw her at the fringes of the gathering. Still in her dancing garb, save for the silver bells, she made her way towards him, two platters and a cup balanced in her hands. Smiling in welcome, he made a place for her and took one of the curved platters with a nod of thanks. She sat down, flushed from the dancing, her eyes bright and her body warm beside him, stimulating him with the clean musk of patchouli, amber oil, and her own pleasant scent. Meeting her warm, knowing gaze briefly, he felt the charge of that most basic of human connections, the welcome, uncomplicated certainty of simple female companionship and pleasures to come.

A glance at Jakir told him that the other man was finished with statesmanship for the evening and more than willing to let Methos and Bahira make their own alliance in the interim. Surrendering himself to the temptation of the moment, he turned his full attention to Bahira and put all other concerns out of his mind.

Courtesy to the storyteller and his audience kept their conversation minimal, but they sat close together, feeding one another bits of cheese, flatbread, and dates, touching only occasionally, letting the anticipation between them build slowly. Methos let his gaze roam unhurriedly over his companion, finding the line of her cheek and throat particularly pleasing, the curves of her full breasts stirring him with thoughts of pressing his lips there, tasting the sweat of her exertions on her skin. She caught him looking and scolded him wordlessly, but there was an answering heat in her gaze that pleased him even more than the amused quirk of her mouth. It was refreshing to be with someone who expected nothing more of him than this, whose eyes asked only for mutual enjoyment and temporary companionship. She made no demands that could not be answered with a smile, a teasing murmur of promised pleasure, the sharing of his body's warmth against the cooling night. Her softness beside him was no challenge, the brush of her fingertips rousing in him only a pleasant warmth, not the dangerous, consuming hunger that had possessed him so often lately at another's hands.

When they had eaten their fill, she leaned into him companionably and turned her attention to the ongoing tale, seemingly content to let desire simmer quietly. He followed her example, closing his eyes and letting go of everything save the appreciation of a full belly, the warmth of her company, and the skilled weaving of the storyteller's voice.

The tale had taken its inevitable turn for the worse; Madjnun, poor fool, had just wandered out into the desert, following news of Layla's marriage to his rival and the unfortunate death of his father, and was communing with nature in true tragic-hero style.

"Gripped by the most violent anguish," the wizened storyteller said to his riveted audience, "Madjnun wandered half-naked, refusing nourishment and living among the wild animals. In his rare moments of lucidity, he would compose beautiful verses about his ladylove, but when he sent these to Layla, her father said that Madjnun had shamed his daughter and destroyed her reputation. 'Not a breeze passes without uttering my daughter's name,' he said, and swore that he would sooner kill her than give her to the man who had so shamed them. The weeks passed, and Madjnun's madness only intensified..."

Methos smiled faintly then, unable to escape the sudden clarity with which the story's bitter irony sank home. It was only an old folk tale, and one he had heard in infinite variations, but this time the melodramatic tragedy and its unmistakable lessons regarding the dangers of obsession and the hubris of placing romantic love above the practical realities of duty and familial responsibility were undeniably germane. How apt, that this of all tales should have been the one told tonight, as if somewhere, someone were having a terrific joke at his expense. Madness, indeed. And the one thing that every variation of this tale held in common was that both Madjnun and Layla died in the end, alone and in despair.

He felt a light touch against the back of his hand and opened his eyes to find Bahira watching him curiously, her expression gently questioning. He shook his head slightly and turned his hand under her touch, squeezing her fingers in reassurance. As if it were all the explanation she needed, she nodded, returning the gentle pressure with a calm look that felt oddly like a caress. She turned back to the storyteller, but left her hand in his, and he found himself almost absurdly grateful to her for the respite she offered from the tangle of his conflicting desires, the temporary freedom from the gnawing restlessness that had possessed him in recent months, most particularly since he had first set eyes on a troublesome, hotheaded Immortal on the auction block.

Why it should be so easy to give to this mortal woman what was so impossible with the Highlander, he didn't know--and for the duration of this night, he refused to care. That unhealthy addiction had come dangerously close to distracting him when his tribe most needed him to stay focused, and right now, the thought of one night's freedom from both responsibility and obsession was a temptation he lacked the will to resist.

Weary now of anticipation, hungry to submerge himself wholly in that beckoning haven, and with no desire to stay and hear firsthand the disastrous fate awaiting those fictional, foolish lovers, Methos leaned forward until his lips brushed the wiry softness of Bahira's hair. He murmured a better suggestion in her ear; with a glance that held no artifice, only willing acquiescence, she rose with him, and they slipped out of the circle of tribesmen, into the darkness beyond the firelight.

* * *

Exhausted, wishing he'd made better use of the afternoon's opportunity for rest, Duncan said goodnight to Namal and made his way to Rashanal's tent. Just inside the tent flap, out of the night wind, he caught a whiff of himself and grimaced. He stripped his outer garments off, quickly following with the rest of his clothing. Naked, he lit one of the oil lamps and found the small vial and curved scraper he had used more than once to clean his master's smooth, flawless skin. He uncapped the vial, and at once the heady, sensual fragrance enveloped him, surprisingly stimulating in spite of his tiredness.

It had seemed an odd practice to him at first, but Rashanal seemed to luxuriate in the smooth, rhythmic motion as Duncan became more practiced at scraping the scented oil from his body. He hadn't offered any explanation for the oddly exotic custom, but the curved blade felt very old, its handle worn smooth from years of use, and Duncan had wondered more than once what time and place had shaped its purpose. Once, when he'd been in a particularly generous mood, Rashanal had returned the favor--and aroused Duncan to aching readiness with the sure, even deftness of his strokes.

Duncan's motions now were as efficient as he could make them and driven by necessity, though the sensual associations were impossible to escape. The oil and the blade removed most of the dust and dried salt from his skin, thus conserving the amount of water he would need to get clean; he concentrated on that and tried not to think about how arousing it had been to entrust himself to Rashanal's practiced hands. Still, the blade left his skin gleaming and pleasingly stimulated, the night breeze welcome and cooling where it found its way through the loosely-woven seams of the tent.

Stoppering the vial once more and putting it aside, Duncan uncovered the basin of water he'd filled that morning and began to wipe the last traces of oil away, the cool, welcome moisture making him shiver pleasurably. Though water was in short supply, he had been surprised at the fastidiousness of Rashanal's tribesmen; they seemed to regard frequent bathing as a necessity, even in times of drought. He had asked Namal about this and learned that such frequent purification was an important part of their ideology, regarded as a spiritual necessity. It still seemed rather wasteful to him, but he respected their beliefs.

Tonight, he was grateful for the excuse, and though his body craved sleep, he didn't hurry in rinsing the water through his hair, but savored the experience, feeling cool for the first time all day. He felt good, he realized, as he wound the thick mass in a cloth to dry it. In body and in spirit, he felt good. He had made himself useful today, both to Jaffir and in helping to bring a miracle into the world on four spindly legs. He was tired, and hungry for the touch of knowing hands and that hot, mischievous tongue, but he felt...centered. At peace, with himself and the world.

He considered a clean robe, but then remembered that Rashanal had made it clear he preferred Duncan naked when in his tent. In the days since Rashanal had been gone, Duncan had grown lax in adhering to that edict, had even luxuriated in the rebellious freedom to clothe himself as he wished. But soon Rashanal would return, and he would expect his wishes to be respected; curiously, the thought awakened no resentment in Duncan, only a kind of quiet, warm acceptance.

So it was that Duncan MacLeod went naked to Rashanal's bed, clad in nothing but the heavy weight of silver around his neck. There, he lay down and stretched out at full length, luxuriating in the pleasure of being clean and tired, and unfettered for the time being by the self-doubt that had plagued him so mercilessly.

Sleep claimed him swiftly, and he went to her embrace thinking of the amber-eyed desert chieftain, breathing his scent.

* * *

Bahira threaded her way slowly but surely through the celebration, Methos' hand in hers, and he watched the swaying glide of her hips, movement he knew to be both intentional and enticing. He grinned and tossed back bawdy quips to the voices that called out to them. Bahira demurely said nothing, but he caught more than one quick motion of her hand, followed by laughter.

When they reached the edge of the crowd, she turned to look at him, and her half-opened mouth and flared nostrils showed him that she was as aroused as he was. They continued on in silence, hand in hand, making their way in silence to the tent that had been provided him. Methos looked up at the stars, so bright in the heavens, and for a moment another starry night crossed his mind, a night filled with heat and-- He stopped and pulled Bahira close, seeking her mouth with his own, wanting to anchor himself in the here and now. She came willingly, warm curves pressed to his own hard length, her kiss that of a sure and experienced woman. There was no coyness in her, nor any reluctance, and he had no sense that she was there on any agenda but her own simple need and desire. Her eagerness pleased him, a willingness to take anything he had to offer and return pleasure in kind. Pure, simple hunger and satisfaction.

She broke away with a rich, knowing laugh and pulled him the short distance remaining to the tent. He laughed with her, and surprised himself with the sound, with the feeling of lightness that accompanied it. She turned and captured both of his hands in her own, pulling him over to the sleeping cushions. There he stood as she moved around him, slowly removing his clothes, softly brushing her fingertips against his skin, her dark eyes flashing at him, her smile calling to his own. Their silence was comfortable, filled with nothing more incendiary than their mutual anticipation of pleasure, and he felt relaxed and at ease.

When he was clad only in his leggings, she pushed him down and stood back to resume her earlier dance, but this time there was no doubt that she danced solely for him, a private expression of a woman's desire and need. There were no ringing bells to echo her movement, no fiddle or drums to guide her body, but she needed none of these to heat his blood, her body following a rhythm and a pulse as old as the life itself.

When he could stand it no more, he rose on one elbow and held out a hand to her, speaking in a voice grown harsh with need. "Come to me." She laughed again, stripping off her coat until she was clad only in the red chemise that clung to her full curves. Then she stalked to him, crawling up his body, the smooth beading and stiff embroidery tantalizing his skin, her eyes locked onto his, until she arched over him, her warm, damp thighs pressed over his own, her lush breasts straining against her gown. The heat of her body was enflaming, and the open, uncomplicated desire in her eyes fed his own hunger.

Wrapping his arms around her waist, he pulled her hips tightly against him and raised his head to reach her breasts, wetting the fabric with his tongue, tasting the saltiness of her sweat through the finely-woven cloth. She moaned and slid her hands through his hair, combing it with her fingers, her hips moving rhythmically in her pleasure. She was naked under her gown, and he could feel the slickness of her as she rubbed along the length of him, pleasuring herself against him. He closed his mouth over one nipple and sucked, hands sliding down to cup her buttocks and squeeze, encouraging her. He fell back onto the bed, pulling her with him, moving to capture her mouth with his own, one hand moving to cup and squeeze one breast, rolling his thumb against the engorged tip.

For long, languorous moments they kissed, then he felt her hands at his hips, trying to push his leggings down. He broke the kiss and pushed her up, his own hands moving to strip off her gown. Her body was mature, thickened with both age and childbearing, but she knew her own beauty and was not ashamed of it, cupping her own breasts, full and heavy, holding them up, pinching her nipples and laughing as he groaned. Then she was backing away from him, moving down slowly, pulling his leggings with her. He grinned at her teasing murmur of appreciation as his cock was freed, then groaned again as she slid her body along his own, her pendulous breasts brushing along his thighs and his engorged flesh, while her tongue traced exotic patterns over his belly and sides. He reached down to capture her breasts and squeeze them gently, enjoying their weight and heat, and let one foot trail up and down her leg.

When her soft licking turned to sharp nips of teeth, he pulled up her head, and she grinned at him wickedly, sliding up until her slick folds moved against him, teasing him almost beyond endurance. She held his arms down as she raised her body up, hips still against his, coming only so close, but not close enough, taunting him with the heated depths of her body. They both knew that his was the superior strength, that he could change the game at any time, but he was delighted and greatly aroused by her own strength, her playfulness, her trust of him. He stroked along her shoulders, back, and hips as she ground against him, shaking her hair back until it teased his thighs behind her, then he slid one hand between them to rub and stroke, watching her closely, waiting for tell-tale signs of her pleasure's peak. Her hand guided his, and her beauty and passion were breathtaking. His own flesh ached, and it was all he could do not to roll her and take her, but he waited, her small, aching cries guiding his movements, his own pleasure intensified by hers.

She shuddered against him and moved further, impaling herself on him as he continued to rub and stroke, riding him hard. Then she was pulling at his shoulder, falling to the bed, and he followed, slipping her embrace briefly before settling more firmly between her legs, letting his own need surface, his own demand seek a driving rhythm. He faintly felt her legs come round him, her fingers dig into his back as she moved with him, sharp cries providing harmony for his own gasps. Then there was nothing but heat and friction and pleasure, so much pleasure, and as he came he felt her tightening around him rhythmically, pulling his climax from him in a flush of heat and sparks, leaving him shuddering and gasping in her arms.

After long moments, Bahira moved, stroking his damp back, brushing his hair back from their faces. He brushed his hand along her side as he moved to lie beside her, watching her face as he slid his hand down to tangle his fingers in the hair at the apex of her thighs, seeing her body come alive again under his searching touch. He wrapped his other arm around her shoulders, holding her still as he sought her further pleasure, learning what stimulated her, her feet planted as she arched into his touch, her own hands digging into the bedding. He bent to kiss her as his palm moved against her, and her response was fierce and hungry.

Only when her hand closed over his to tug his away did he stop, and he pulled back, grinning into her sweat-sheened, satiated face. "Enough?" he murmured.

"For now," she said wryly, leaving his hand resting on the upper curve of her breast. He inhaled deeply, the smell of her surrounding him, the musky female scent of desire. He bent to press kisses along her throat and upper chest, no longer seeking to incite, merely wanting the connection, the taste of her in his mouth, her scent in his nostrils.

Then he lay back, watching her again, neither of them seeming to feel the need to fill the silence with useless chatter, for which he was grateful. His body was sated, but now that he was no longer buried in Bahira's pleasures, he felt oddly dissatisfied. He must have frowned, for she raised a hand to smooth it along his brow.

"I would think that I did not please you, did I not know better, my lord."

He shook his head and smiled, pushing all other inconvenient thoughts from his mind. "Words fail me to describe how you've pleased me, Bahira. It was nothing to do with you, just passing thoughts of my mission."

"So soon you are distracted by unpleasant thoughts?" She mock-frowned at him. "Time enough and more to take up your burden again tomorrow. Here, let me sing to you, give you something to distract your mind so you can sleep." Pulling his head to her breast, she began to sing softly, a traditional air, in a voice pleasant, if untrained. It reminded him that she was a mother, used to soothing others to sleep, and he smiled as he closed his eyes, focusing on her voice, pushing thoughts of dark eyes and a passionate mouth far from his mind as he sank into sleep.

* * *

The dream came softly, rousing Duncan by gentle degrees from the deep, still darkness of exhausted sleep into a warm and drifting place just beneath the level of waking. There, it embraced him with stealthy intimacy, the first wet, teasing caress imagined against his breast, the nipple peaking at that sweet, branding sensation, the flush of erotic heat drawing him the rest of the way into vivid, tactile fantasy.

Blind, reduced to naked sensation, and restless under the sweet, rising hunger, Duncan stirred against the bindings of sleep, limbs pulling gently against its heavy coils. A cool whisper of fear spiraled through him, and on its heels came a hot jab of excitement; he was bound, arms above his head, secured to something he couldn't see. Heat shivered through him, his sex aching with the sudden rush of arousal, licked by an added edge of apprehension. Incubus hands parted his thighs, and that wicked, hot tongue laved the sensitive flesh at the inner crease, touched the tender knot of nerves just below the head of his cock, then shifted lower and pressed at the entrance to his body, sinking deep inside before he could even finish drawing breath. The sensation was intimate, shameful -- exquisite. Pleasure flushed his body, and he groaned softly, pressing into that forbidden assault, the soft, incinerating penetration. Shivery waves of illicit response spilled over him as he writhed against it, feeling the bite of the ropes that bound him and the sweet ache of muscles pulled taut. If this were a dream, he didn't want to wake, every inch of him aching for more of the imagined tongue's caress; if this were real, he was afraid to wake, to meet the knowing gaze of his captor and see his own aberrant desires reflected there.

Mercy came, callused palms rubbing his nipples to hardness, wet heat closing briefly around his sex, sucking him just long enough to draw a pleading sound from deep within him, his breath coming harsh now at his fierce arousal. Had it been hours, or only moments that wicked mouth had been tormenting him? He wished for the sound of a voice, anything to anchor him; a deep hunger sung in him, shocking in its power, its focus shifting with the rapid pulse of blood in his veins. He needed that heat again, needed to thrust into that sweet haven, but the ache of wanting ran deeper than that, filling him with desires that should have shamed him. Even the thought made his face flame, his mind struggling to shut away the remembered sensations, the plea that would have escaped his throat if he hadn't choked it back so fiercely.

But in this dark place between dreaming and waking, he could no more deny those desires than he could free himself from the heavy ropes that bound him. Shame had no place here, nor did pride, only the insistent demand of hands that shaped his pliant flesh. Something slick and warm entered him without warning, not the deep possession he needed but a slow, intimate caress that made his breath catch, dragged a broken moan from his throat with the almost-perfection of that gentle invasion. A moment later he shivered with the wave of wanting that broke over him. It wasn't enough, not nearly enough. The slick pressure only teased at places in him that longed to be possessed, made him writhe against the longing, shamelessly now. "More," he said hoarsely, spreading his legs, hearing the pleading in his own voice and not caring. With the sound, something broke open in him, a terrible, soaring sense of freedom, and the feeling was so profound, so unexpected that it brought him the rest of the way into waking.

For a moment he was disoriented, knowing neither place nor time, the darkness so total that he thought he had been blindfolded as well as bound. His heart was pounding fiercely in his chest; he felt breathless, hot, the silken folds of bedding cool against his over-stimulated flesh. Breathing deeply, trying to calm his racing pulse, he drew in the scent of camel's wool and frankincense, touched by the fainter, burnt odors of cardamom and coffee. In almost the same moment, he became aware that he was not bound after all, nor blindfolded, and that he was painfully erect, the cool slickness of his arousal streaking his belly.

Memory returned in a rush, and with it the return of that guilty flush of heat -- but he was quite alone, his body's sins hidden by the moonless darkness inside the tent. In the erotic aftermath of his dream, the emptiness of the bed was painfully apparent, and he yearned, in body and spirit, for the reality.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a dream like that, if he ever had. It had felt so real. His body was still tingling, little aftershocks shivering through him wherever his imagined lover had caressed him, even deep inside of him, a soft pulse of heat as though he really had been...touched, like that. Dear Jesus, thinking about it made him close his eyes, made his breath catch, a gentle throb of hunger aching there and in his sex. Perhaps Rashanal was a sorceror in truth, sending demon lovers to torment him in his sleep, Duncan thought, more than half believing it. And that line of thinking was no help, rousing memory behind his closed eyelids, making him remember too well the way Rashanal had played his body like a harp, making him feel such pleasure as he hadn't even known existed.

He groaned softly, wishing fervently that Rashanal were here now, unable to stop himself from imagining the way those hands would spread his thighs, that first devastating, endless thrust that would feel like it was going to split him asunder, the burn of stretching muscle and shame and undeniable pleasure all mixed together as he fought the possession each time, unable to help himself. Now he wanted it -- God help him, he was aching for it, remembering only the indescribable pleasure that would follow.

Not caring any more about his pride, too far gone to think about stopping, Duncan had already reached for himself, one hand between his thighs, and oh, Christ, he was hard, the roughness of his palm almost too much to bear. The memory of touching himself for his master's pleasure, obeying his commands -- don't stop -- rose up in a wave, taking him up a swift crest of desperation; his other hand went instinctively to his mouth, fist clenching there, stifling the sounds that tried to escape. Sound carried in the desert, especially in the still, cool hour before dawn. But in another moment he found he couldn't care, his cock gone slick in his grip, the rough rhythm taking over, making him -- I want to see you come -- shudder hard in the mingled grip of memory and need, making him -- oh, God -- cry out against his fist as the ecstatic spasm of release gripped him at last, flooding every nerve and pore with excruciating pleasure.

It stole his breath and left him gasping, riding out the aftermath, endless, shuddering swells coursing through his body, then finally faded away to a dazed, euphoric lassitude. In that warm place of mindless bliss, he drifted for a while, not thinking, not wanting to. The night breezes had stilled, and the camp was quiet. Somewhere, perhaps their chieftain slept also, weary from a long day of negotiations. Or perhaps he rode now under the slowly lightening sky, he and his men making their steady progress homeward. Behind Duncan's closed eyes, the image rose vivid and welcome, a curious warmth sparking in him in response. That was one more thing he didn't want to think about too closely, and so he let himself drift into a sinfully replete doze, knowing he should rise soon, but unwilling to fight the seductive haze of languor and contentment.

Still, that image of Rashanal's hands on the reins was the last thing his mind saw as he gave in to the temporary siren call of sleep.

* * *

Alone, so alone, and the sun beat down mercilessly, his skin burning to the splitting point, healing only to sear and split again, and there was no mercy, there was nothing but boundless desert and endless thirst. His wrists were torn and bloody, bound with silver and gold, forcing him to crawl on his forearms, and though there was no place to go, no destination, he could not seem to stop moving. There had been nowhere since he had left his brothers, no belonging, no rest, no shelter. The wind blew relentlessly, sand stinging his skin, drying his eyes and carrying with it the sound of a thousand screams.

And then there was stillness, the eye of the storm, strong hands lifting and cradling him, water for his sere throat, softness under him and shade over him. The agonizing screams faded in the presence of a warm, lilting voice, and a strong body held back the wind. He could have no care for the inevitable return of the storm, for here he was safe.

He woke slowly, reaching out for the comfort of warm skin, only to find himself alone. The bedding bore the scents of patchouli and sex, and it smelled pleasant, but disorienting. Methos sat up, shaking his head, scattered remnants of the dream drifting through his mind. Though he hadn't seen his unknown savior, he knew the strength of those arms, knew that it had not been Bahira's voice that whispered words of comfort and understanding. The stolen night had been sweet, but his own mind would not let him lie to himself that it had been more than that.

The pale dawn light laid bare the extent of his attempted self-deceit, and he knew that he could no more leave without seeing Duncan again than he could alter his own nature. He had never been able to save himself from any of those few beings who had brought passion back into a life gone dry, even as they made him bleed. He could perhaps have left the tribes to fend for themselves, as they had done before he came, but he was not yet ready to face the reality of never seeing the Highlander again.

Even as he saw the extent of his damnation, a certain peace settled over him. He knew that he could never have the ease and simple pleasures with Duncan that he had found with Bahira. Even without the thrice-cursed bargain, the very fact of their shared Immortality made any relationship between them volatile, dangerous. Duncan was too young to have felt the endlessness of their lives; given his brashness, he might be lucky to survive long enough to ever feel it, a thought that Methos shied away from. But Methos had felt it, the creeping endlessness, the simple fact of existence that made him feel like one of the sole constants in a world that was spinning past, faster and faster, ages slipping by unnoticed.

He had long ago resolved himself to survive, to endure; he'd thought himself long past the hope that anything else might endure with him, past the desire for anything more than his own bleak company. Talk to him, Rashanal. He laughed, a bitter sound, at the remembered echo of Namal's naive words. Talk to him, after you've enslaved him; talk to him, after you've shamed him in his own eyes, treated him nothing like the proud warrior he is, but as merely the self-indulgent pet of a jaded, cynical old man. And what possible reason would he have to listen? What could Methos possibly say to make him understand how much he would change between them, if he could? Stay with me, Highlander. Get to know me. I have so much of which I could tell you, so many things I--

Methos rose, savagely cutting off his train of thought. He could not afford this. Nothing was so dangerously tempting as imagining that impossible future, but it could never be what he envisioned. He couldn't bear the idea of never seeing Duncan again, but neither did he think he could long bear the anger and scorn that flashed from those beautiful eyes whenever they weren't subsumed by unthinking lust and passion.

There was only one answer: it was time to be free of a bargain ill-struck. As soon as he reached his own camp, he would set the Highlander free and give him safe passage. The sooner he was gone, the sooner Methos could find peace. Decision made, and freed for the time being from the troubling snarl of his own conflicting desires, Methos dressed hurriedly and stepped out into the grey dawn, a steady wind from the west lifting the heavy weight of his hair from the back of his neck. He felt lighter, the decision easing his mind even as it weighed on his heart. That weight, he suspected, would be with him a long time.

But for now, he reminded himself, he had an alliance to seal and people depending on him. Turning his complete focus to thoughts of strategy and logistics for the first time in days, he surveyed the camp in the light of rising dawn. Many of Jakir's people were already up and busy at their daily tasks, as he assumed Bahira was, as well; he spotted Jakir himself emerging from his tent a short distance away and strode to meet him.

Chapter Text

In the dusky, pre-dawn hours, Duncan climbed out of bed and dressed. His dream of the night before lingered, and he wondered if this day might bring about Rashanal's return. He looked at the bowl of coins, something he had avoided during Rashanal's absence, and felt again the mingled anticipation, confusion, and loss that always seemed to accompany thoughts of the other Immortal. The bowl seemed both far too full and not nearly full enough, and he laughed at his own contradictory nature. Shaking his head, he dismissed his thoughts as pointless confusion, and contemplated his day. His first chore was to bring Jaffir food and drink, so that Souraya might rest a while longer. That had become the pattern of his days, even while Rashanal was in camp; picking up the morning's food from the women of the camp had become a pleasant chore. He found their company soothing.

The sand shifted under his feet, but Duncan took little notice, just as he ignored the dogs that paced him on his journey. The air was cooler at this time of day, and he enjoyed the quiet moments alone. He had woken to a strange sense of peace; perhaps it was only temporary, but for now, his inner demons seemed quiet.

As he circled around Selim's tent, his mind wandered back to yesterday's events. Rajid's taunts stayed with him, but they had already lost some of their sting. Maybe it was due to Namal and Jaffir, maybe to his own growing acceptance that whatever desires Rashanal evoked in him, they did not change his core. He was still Duncan MacLeod, even if he was a slave, and even though he had made that thrice-damned bargain. He was not the same man Rashanal had purchased so many weeks before, but nothing intrinsic to him had been lost -- and perhaps something had been gained.

In the morning's light, he could admit that he enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh Rashanal had taught him, and that he was eager for his return. Perhaps this was part of what it meant to be an Immortal, this acceptance of the inevitable, this knowledge that one could learn from any situation, and not simply endure, but sometimes enjoy life's lessons.

At peace with that feeling, his thoughts turned to the days ahead, wondering when Sulayman would make his move, and what would result from Rashanal's talks with the other tribes. With all this talk of war, he itched to hold a sword again -- not because it made him feel more a man, but because it was something he knew he could do and do well. He felt settled in a way he hadn't since leaving Italy and Connor, more than ten years before, but the long days of waiting left him full of energy, craving the release of a good fight.

"Isan!" Duncan heard Huriye call as he neared the tent. "It will burn if you're not careful."

"It will not burn." There was the clatter of something being moved. "We have had enough misfortune, I think. Our luck is turning, just as the men turned the colt."

"It is a good sign," another woman agreed.

"Hya, it was luck," said Isan. "Ridha says that if not for the Highlander's help, Sulayman's skill would not have been enough."

A note of pride showed in Huriye's voice when she said, "Rashanal will be surprised to hear what his Highlander has done when he returns."

Duncan hesitated at the threshold, momentarily uncertain whether he should enter or not. He was pleased by what he'd heard, but he felt a pang of guilt. In his eagerness for battle, he hadn't considered how it would endanger and disrupt these gentle lives. While they were aware of the tensions running through the camp, they dealt with them as women always had, keeping their own sphere running smoothly, seeing that people were fed, that a thousand tasks were completed and therefore went unnoticed. War, won or lost, would change their lives, although they would cope, again as women always had.

Steeling himself, he entered the tent, and the women greeted him with calls for news. Duncan shook his head; no, they'd not yet heard anything from Rashanal. He picked up the basket, fending off more questions. No, he had not checked on the mare and her colt, but he was sure that they were fine.

Huriye clucked at him as she filled his plate, then the basket he would carry to Jaffir. "Perhaps Sulayman will treat you with a lighter hand, after last night," she said quietly.

Duncan looked up sharply. He hadn't realized that anyone had noticed the horsemaster's casual cruelty; he'd done his best to ignore it, and as time had worn on, he'd mostly succeeded. Seeing the kind way Huriye looked at him, he managed a faint smile. "Well, I would not wager too many camels on that. He does not strike me as a man who changes his mind."

She sighed in agreement. "You are right about that, though my brother's family will be grateful for that foal come market-time." She shrugged. "The horsemaster has been putting on airs since Rashanal left, anyway. I think he wishes to be chieftain himself some day."

Isan agreed, handing Duncan a vessel of water. "He is impatient, and he believes we would all do better with a firmer hand on the rein. He-ya, he thinks you weaken our Lord Rashanal."

Huriye brushed the air with her hand as if wiping the words away. "That is the way men think, that a woman will weaken a man. But we know different, eh?" She smiled at Duncan and motioned him away. "Just stay away from Sulayman. Jaffir and Namal do not hold such thoughts."

It was only as he left that Duncan realized that Huriye had grouped him in with the women of the tribe in her comments, just as Rajid had the day before. But unlike Rajid, Huriye had spoken without malice, and her words had no sting to them; she simply considered him one of her own kind.

The dogs sniffed around him again, and Duncan pushed through them carefully with his basket of food, ignoring their pleading looks. In a way, he felt soothed by the idea that the women accepted him, accepted his place in the tribe, and looked on him as an equal. But it was disconcerting, as well, even though it was close enough to the truth. He toiled as the women did, carrying food and water, assisting in the day's chores, repairing and mending and making sure that the day passed easily for the men around him.

For Jaffir and Namal. For Rashanal. The same tasks he'd seen his mother perform, the same types of chores, without any acknowledgment or thanks. He felt uneasy, moving his baskets to a new position as he walked. He might have accepted the consequences of his bargain, but this was not something he'd considered. Curious perceptions shifted within him, unfamiliar, yet intriguing, making him question things he had known all his life.

He had met a few Immortal women, had sensed their mysterious, resilient inner strength, but until now he had not perceived what a narrow divide separated them from the mortal women he had known, what a subtle and yet profound freedom their Immortality gave them. He had believed that women like Rebecca and Amanda, like Kyra -- bold and brazen and fiercely independent as they were -- bore little in common with the women he had known in his childhood, women he had encountered in taverns and villages and fine houses. He had responded to them as women, but also as warriors -- and still had not really considered them as equals, not in the ways that counted. Now he found his ways of thinking challenged yet again, his sense of the world and his place in it once more subtly altered. He could ignore Rajid's taunts, as they were meant to injure, but the acceptance of the women...wounded him in a different way.

"I think the desert agrees with you after all, Highlander."

Duncan turned quickly, to see who called to him. A figure emerged from Namal's tent, carrying a basket. As she approached, he realized that it was Tahirih, clearly on her own way to collect breakfast. He stiffened, waiting for the taunts, but none were forthcoming. He blinked twice, but she was still gazing steadily at him, no hatred in her voice or eyes.

"Tahirih," he said with guarded courtesy, watching as she drew near and wondering what thoughts dwelt behind her fathomless black eyes. She was undeniably beautiful, and even knowing her vicious streak, he could not help noticing the exotic, dark flash of her eyes, or the unbidden memory of her small, deft hands oiling his body for Rashanal's pleasure.

"I would have thought you would have left by now, with the lord Rashanal away," she said with only a hint of that familiar, imperious air. "You do not seem to be one who would let the sands stop you."

They had served at the same table the night before Rashanal's departure, and Duncan had noted then that her time in Namal's tent had changed her. Her eyes had settled on him more than once, but there had been no heat in them, just a brooding thoughtfulness. He had not directly spoken with her, beyond the minimal communication needed to perform their tasks, since that last bitter exchange, when his attempts to pacify her had only worsened her anger. This was a different woman, softer-edged, less driven. Perhaps, as the weeks passed, she had discovered that her feelings for Rashanal did not run so deep as she'd believed -- or perhaps she only accepted what must be, as the other women accepted the possibility of war.

He considered her observation, and the unspoken question it contained. "I did not choose this," he said at last, "but I have given my word. I'll not break it."

"And is that the only thing that keeps you here?" Where once her words would have been harsh, mocking, now they were genuinely curious, her eyes regarding him with the hint of a mocking, gentle humor that he had not seen in her before.

Duncan felt his cheeks flush, and he delayed answering with a glance towards the sun's position, noting that he had little time before Jaffir would be looking for him. But he did not want to rebuff Tahirih's overtures. He thought of his own sense of acceptance about his situation, acknowledged only a short time before, then smiled slightly and looked back at her. "Perhaps not."

She laughed. "I warned you, did I not?"

He inclined his head. "You did. Of many things." He heard the harsher edge in his own voice, something sharper than simple acceptance. She had not so subtly warned him that Rashanal was bewitching -- and fickle. Perhaps the peace that he'd achieved did not include a total resignation concerning his captor's mercurial nature. Tahirih's appearance evoked disturbing thoughts.

She smiled faintly. "I was wrong, Highlander. About many things, concerning both you, and myself." She tilted her chin up, showing a bit of the old defiance. "I no longer envy you, of that I am certain."

He had no answer to that, and simply bowed slightly as she passed him. "You are looking well." It was true. She had put on a bit of weight, but it suited her.

"I have been most fortunate." She paused and looked at him sidelong. "My lord Namal thinks highly of you -- and my lord Namal is a very wise man indeed. Have faith, Highlander."

Abashed at this sudden kinship from an unexpected quarter, Duncan watched her go. He was at once warmed by her surprising change of heart, and aware that it showed how much responsibility Rashanal bore in making her the bitter, jealous woman Duncan had first encountered. It also showed him how quixotic life could be. Had Rashanal returned Tahirih's feelings, instead of abusing them, Duncan might never have been brought into his sphere -- or his life here might have been very different. That felt like a lifetime ago, now, and he could scarcely remember how naive he had been, how little he had understood what would be demanded of him. Tahirih, too, had been transformed in the weeks since, and he wondered if he would have recognized then what either of them had since become. He surprised himself with how little he regretted the path his life had taken.

This moment, however, what was demanded of him was breakfast for Jaffir and his family, then for Rashanal's horses and camels, and he spared no more thought for such things, turning to hurry towards the young chieftain's tent.

* * *

Even in the early light of dawn, the promise of midday's heat licked the air as Methos strode through the camp, catching his genial host's notice as he emerged from his tent.

"Rashanal! I trust you slept well." Jakir greeted him with the hint of a knowing grin, but took his cue from Methos and sobered quickly. "You have the look of a man who knows his mind."

"And one who knows the value of striking while the iron is hot, my friend. Summer is upon us, and I, for one, should like to have things resolved with Emad before the days grow any longer."

Jakir nodded, understanding. "I, too, would rest easier knowing we need not fear attack in the night. Come, break your fast with me and tell me of your plans." He gestured for Methos to accompany him, and they walked together, Methos outlining his intent to call a summit between representatives of all four tribes.

"Tariq has already put his seal on an alliance agreement, and with your seal as well, we have a great advantage in dealing with Emad. However, he need not know that we bargain from such a position of strength. He is a man of suspicious nature and will not expect us to combine forces so quickly and effectively. He believes that all those who lead must be as motivated by greed as he is, and it would be beyond his comprehension that others should sacrifice their own advantage for the good of the whole."

Jakir looked at him in surprise. "You are suggesting we allow him to believe that we have made no prior agreement?"

"Exactly. He has preyed on us as a solitary lion preys on the weakest beasts in a herd, worrying at our flanks and weakening us further by degrees. I suggest that we lure him into a blind ravine, then show him our teeth." He couldn't help the gratification that image gave him, and he knew it showed on his face by the gleam of shared satisfaction that lit Jakir's eyes. They had reached the cook tent, the tempting odors of breakfast reaching them as his host stopped and considered that equally tempting scenario.

"Your camp is barely more than a day's ride from Emad's," Jakir said carefully, gauging Methos' reaction. "Are you certain there are no spies in your camp who might have relayed news of your departure to him?"

"I am not so foolish as to assume I know the heart of every man in my camp, but I am certain of Jaffir, and of those loyal to him. If there is a spy, he would find it exceedingly difficult to escape notice."

"Still, it is a risk," Jakir concluded.

Methos shrugged. "No plan is without risk. Either way, Emad has little choice but to come. If he suspects nothing, he will come because he believes that he bargains from a place of power; if he guesses our plans, he must still parley, for he has no choice. Either way, our strength is in solidarity. We must place our trust in this alliance, or Emad will never stop harrying us until he has dragged us down, one by one."

Jakir regarded him with wry admiration. "I cannot argue with such faultless reasoning."

"I was hoping you'd say that," Methos said, grinning.

They ducked into the open tent and gathered dates, milk, and bread drizzled with honey, a rare treat. Breakfast in hand, they ate as they walked, tracing more or less the same path that Jakir had when showing Methos the camp the day before. "When do you suggest we send word of the summit?" Jakir asked, when Methos had finished and was licking honey from his fingers.

"Immediately," Methos answered. "As soon as riders can be made ready. I do not care to give Emad more time to contemplate his next acquisition."

"As for that, riders can be ready within the hour, if necessary. We need only prepare the messages they are to dispatch, and it is done. All of my men are rested and ready."

"Then they can make a good start before the day grows too hot, and reach Jaffir by dawn tomorrow, perhaps Emad and Tariq a few hours after that. Excellent. We will plan the summit for the following day, and I will act as host. That should give us enough time to prepare for guests."

Jakir's eyebrows rose at that. "Are you certain? Why such haste?"

Methos reined in his impatience, moderating his response for this easygoing, affable chieftain who knew not how fortunate he was that Emad had not yet struck at his tribe's vulnerable belly with naked teeth. "As I said, I do not intend to give Emad time to consider his options. As long as he believes he can take what he wants without risking the casualties of a direct assault, we have a chance. But if he strikes now, in force, before we are able to gather resources to fight him, he will swallow us up one by one. Seizing the initiative is the only way we will keep him off-guard."

Deep down, Methos knew that he was pushing the issue because he wanted nothing more than to be free of all such bonds of responsibility. Now that he'd made up his mind to cut the Highlander free and go, it was nearly impossible to contain his eagerness, and he could practically taste the sweet air of freedom himself. What he'd said was true, though, and reason enough. Jakir need not know his personal reasons for wishing a swift resolution to the threat Emad posed.

Jakir was nodding agreement, apparently heeding the logic of Methos' words. "Then I will go see that the men and mounts are made ready. Join me in my tent, and we will set our seals to the alliance agreement and write the necessary letters."

"You honor me with your trust," Methos said, and they parted, Jakir to ready his men, Methos to retrieve his personal seal and writing materials.

* * *

Less than an hour later, they watched the three pairs of riders disappear one by one over the line of hills encircling Jakir's camp, still ahead of the sun, which had not yet crested the low cliffs to the east. One pair of riders rode with the sun in their eyes, north and east, towards Tariq's camp, while the other two headed westward, towards Emad and Methos' own tribes. They each carried a petition to parley two days hence; in addition, Methos had sent a letter to Jaffir, outlining what he planned, and what Jaffir needed to do to be ready for the arrival of allies and foe alike.

Methos had intended to ride with them, but Jakir had asked him to stay the day to discuss the joint trade expedition that so interested him -- and he had asked in such a manner that to refuse him would have been a gross insult to his hospitality. Gratitude was not a sufficient exchange for the welcome Methos had been given. By the economy of guest tradition, he was obliged to respond with an offer of equal kinship. As his host had pointed out, they had time to spare, given that Methos' camp was the closest of the three and that the summit would be held on his lands. They would ride out with a small party that evening, Jakir had insisted, and spend the day relaxing and discussing the ways their tribes might benefit one another in the future. Methos had found himself without an acceptable reason to decline.

He suspected Jakir had another reason for wishing him to stay; Bahira had caught Methos' glance as they'd left Jakir's tent, and he had seen her exchange a look with Jakir, as well. Reading the gleam in Jakir's eye all too easily, Methos only hoped that Bahira had spoken truly when she said she did not intend to marry again, and that she would not, in the light of day, decide to make an exception. He'd enjoyed her company and didn't want to hurt her. More than that, it had been such a relief to give pleasure to someone who wanted nothing more than that, to be with someone who wanted nothing from him that he couldn't give. He was loath to spoil the sweetness of that respite.

He was getting soft, he decided, allowing these things to matter far more than they should, and a part of him was glad to postpone his return to camp, glad to spare himself a few hours of temptation he didn't trust himself to resist. It was probably better that he keep as much distance between himself and MacLeod as possible, until he could free them both from the hopeless entanglement in which he'd enmeshed them.

"Come," Jakir said, beckoning. "Let's talk about our caravan, shall we? You are not so young as you think, Rashanal. You'll be wanting to marry soon. You need sons!" He grinned broadly, teeth flashing. "A good wife can be very expensive, take it from me."

Resigning himself to the inevitable, Methos acquiesced.

* * *

The morning passed swiftly for Duncan, Jaffir and Namal keeping him busy with a list of tasks aimed at preparing the tribe for a possible move. His assignments served another purpose, as well; they allowed him to move throughout the encampment and interact with many of the tribespeople under the guise of carrying instructions from Jaffir, which provided him opportunity to freely observe the currents of shifting tension within the camp. He caught glimpses of Rajid several times, carrying out similar tasks, likely with the same secondary purpose; of Sulayman and his cronies, he saw little -- which in itself was ominous.

The tension was thick indeed, easily read in the unusual quiet of the camp, the way men and women alike met one another's glances warily, or kept their eyes and their counsel to themselves, in contrast to the normal, easy chatter that typically accompanied the morning's activity. Duncan, sensitive to the unspoken cues of body language and behavior, knew that it would not be long now before things came to a head. He glanced eastward more than once as the morning wore on, half hoping that Rashanal might return today, and half fearing that he would, uncertain whether the chieftain's return now would postpone trouble, or provoke it.

By the time the sun was directly overhead, there were no more preparations to be made, and Jaffir's people were as prepared as possible for whatever might come: trade expedition, battle, or flight. More than ready for a rest and a little time out of the sun, Duncan returned to the cook tent, then to Jaffir's tent with the midday meal. He found Jaffir and Namal waiting for him.

He entered the tent through the one open side. It might have been a compromise between privacy and ventilation, though that concession to the heat served little purpose. The shade from the tent's roof provided respite from the glare, but no breeze stirred to give even the illusion of true relief. The still, oppressive air seemed to absorb the very moisture from his lungs with each breath, and sweat dried immediately, as though the desert sought jealously to steal all moisture from a man's body. He set the food on the table and knelt before them at the shade's edge, bowing his head.

"Sit here," Namal said, patting the cushion next to him as Duncan looked up. "It is too hot to be that close to the sun."

Jaffir nodded in agreement. "Pour yourself some water. We've much to discuss."

Duncan did as he was told, hearing the ring of command in the young man's voice. Jaffir looked tense, and he spoke with a sharp edge of authority; he looked ready for a fight.

Sinking onto the cushions between Namal and Jaffir, he gratefully drank the water; Namal leaned in close to him, his voice no louder than the whisper of the sands. "What are the people speaking of today?"

"Of luck," Duncan responded promptly. "And of war." He glanced at Jaffir. "And of Rashanal's return."

"As are we all," Jaffir replied calmly. "And what of the whispers?"

Before he could speak, there was a noise outside the tent. Duncan quickly knelt again, aware of how much liberty he had been given, and how unseemly it would be for a slave to be found talking to the acting chieftain and his advisor in such a familiar way.

Rajid entered, short of breath, as though he had made haste to reach them. He bowed slightly before sinking to the ground as far away from Duncan as he could get while remaining in the shade. He spoke quickly and kept his voice low, pointedly ignoring Duncan. "My lords, I fear trouble."

Jaffir leaned forward. "Sulayman?" He was already gathering his robes about him, ready to confront the trouble at its source.

Rajid nodded. "And the boy, Hadiya. They argued before half the camp." He cast a baleful glance at Duncan. "Several of the young women were talking about the new foal, and the boy thought to impress them, speaking with more hot air than sense. He only repeated what others were saying, that it was not Sulayman's skill that saved the colt, but the Highlander's. Sulayman heard."

Namal shook his head with a hiss of disapproval. "After such an insult, his honor will scarcely allow him to stay."

"Nevertheless, he will, or he will leave alone," Jaffir said grimly. "What happened?" he asked Rajid.

"The horsemaster challenged the boy, and Hadiya said that he had meant nothing by his words, but he refused to recant them. Sulayman made as if to draw his knife, but then he spat, and said that Hadiya was a fool, that Rashanal had poisoned his mind and would lead him to his own death soon enough. He said--" Rajid's mouth twisted in disgust, and his eyes flickered towards Duncan again. "My lord, he said that we were all shamed by Rashanal's pride and his filthy barbarian catamite, and that he would no longer risk the wrath of Allah for fools who did not value the skills of honorable men, nor taint his father's blade with the blood of a boy who valued his people's honor so lightly."

Jaffir rose. "Where is Sulayman now?"

"He went to his own tent, but first I saw him speak to Soroush and Qasim. I thought it best to come here at once."

"You thought rightly," Jaffir assured him. "Now you must watch, and listen -- and be ready."

"I will, my lord."

Jaffir regarded Rajid with a piercing gaze. "You have won the opportunity you sought, Rajid. When this is over, I will remember it." Rajid bowed his thanks; when he straightened, Jaffir flashed him a brief, wry grin that pained Duncan far more than Rajid's open contempt. He quelled the sting with effort, knowing that Jaffir needed allies now and could not afford to waste time on the feelings of a slave. "Allah willing, I'll still be in a position to make good on that promise."

"As Allah wills," Rajid agreed, and rose, offering a last salaam on his way out.

Namal, too, had risen, as if to follow his son, but Jaffir turned to him now. "Find Selim, and send Bayyan and Ferran to stand guard over the camels and horses. If I am to lead our people, it must be on my own, without my father beside me."

Namal nodded, his mouth in a grim line. "As you wish, my son. But what will you do?"

Jaffir met Duncan's eyes briefly, and they shared a moment of understanding. "Rajid's account is plausible enough, but I must be certain that he has spoken the truth, and does not merely seek to manipulate the situation for his own gain. I will speak briefly with Hadiya before I go to confront Sulayman. Duncan, find Soroush and Qasim. Determine what mischief they have set in motion, then come and find me. We must act quickly now."

"Yes, sayid," Duncan said, his fatigue forgotten. He and Namal waited but a moment after Jaffir swept out of the tent; then they, too, stepped out into the fierce glare, hurrying to obey Jaffir's commands.

The stillness in the camp was ominous now, and the hair prickled at Duncan's neck under his burnoose, adrenaline making him feel chilled in spite of the heat. He was acutely aware that he carried no blade, and felt very big and conspicuous as he moved swiftly through the widespread cluster of tents. Motion on the ridge drew his gaze, but even when he shaded his eyes, it was impossible to determine whether he'd seen something moving, or only the hazy shimmer where the earth met the sky.

At first glance, the camp seemed unchanged from that morning. He half-expected to see deserters packing up tents and belongings, but the only person he saw was the boy-slave Heyad, hurrying towards the north end of the encampment, bent under the weight of the woven sacks he carried on his back. Duncan felt empathy for the boy's struggle with such a heavy burden in the brutal sun, and wondered who had set him such a hard task at such a time. Without thinking, Duncan altered his course slightly towards him; it was only as he drew near that he looked more closely at the sacks and felt a qualm. Heyad saw him at the same moment, a flicker of alarm registering on his narrow face, confirming Duncan's intuition.

"Heyad! Let me help you," Duncan offered, but the boy only put his head down and trudged onward with renewed effort. Duncan made as if to lift one of the bulging sacks from his back, but Heyad mutely struggled out of his grasp, flashing Duncan a look of mingled fear, reproach, and fury. His own suspicion stronger now, Duncan gripped the boy firmly by the upper arm and stopped. "Heyad, whose bidding do you serve?" Furious, the boy cursed him and struggled to once more escape his hold, but Duncan held fast. He yanked open one of the sacks. Inside, sacks of grain and bundles of foodstuffs confirmed his suspicions. He took Heyad by the shoulders and looked hard into his face, trying to make the boy meet his eyes. "What have you done, Heyad?"

Desperation showing in his face, the boy burst forth with a flood of words in a language Duncan didn't know. Then, in arabic, "Let me go! I obey my masters."

"Who?" Duncan demanded. Heyad didn't answer, just stared at him with mute defiance, and Duncan's temper frayed. "Dammit, boy, who? Don't you know you can be killed for theft like this?"

"We are iklan," the boy said with a self-possession that defied his age and the situation he found himself in. "Slaves. We obey."

Duncan looked around quickly, but they hadn't yet been seen, the nearby supply tent shielding them from most of the camp. Again, furiously, Heyad fought him, landing a hard kick to Duncan's shin before he managed to subdue the boy and hold him at a safer range. "Heyad, whoever ordered you to do this -- they'll not protect you. You know that."

"They go south," Heyad insisted. "I will go with them." Then he shut his mouth, as if he had said too much.

With sudden insight, Duncan searched his face. "South. Is that where you come from?" Heyad said nothing, but his expression was answer enough. Understanding, Duncan debated hurriedly. His eyes fell on the supply tent, and a more dire sense of foreboding gripped him; Jaffir had prepared for a direct confrontation, but it looked like Sulayman had other plans. "I cannot let you take these," he said, gripping the strap of one of the heavy sacks. "Leave them with me, and no harm done -- you can make yourself scarce until this is all over." Still the boy resisted, but Duncan sought his gaze and held it. "Heyad, Jaffir will not let Sulayman tear his tribe apart. You are young. What you seek -- Sulayman is not the answer. Don't risk your life for him."

A little of the fierce light went out of Heyad's eyes. At last he yielded, letting Duncan take the heavy sacks from his back. "Go now," Duncan said shortly, hoping he wasn't making a mistake by feeling compassion for the boy. "And take no more part in such shameful thievery and deceit. Honor is the one thing they can never take from us, unless we let them." With a last wary look, the young slave boy disappeared between the black tents.

Knowing time was short, Duncan hefted the sacks over one shoulder and ducked into the supply tent. At first glance, it seemed as usual, but even the most cursory inventory showed him what he had feared: the weapons chests had been raided, and nearly all of the woven panniers were emptied. He heaved the weight he carried to the earthen floor, feeling the heat of his fury rising. Even if Sulayman and his accursed schemers numbered half the tribe, they had taken far more than they could use. Did they intend to leave the camp defenseless? For defenseless was exactly what they would be if Jaffir could not stop the horsemaster.

He had to believe they still had time. Heyad could not have done this alone, and unless they had already raided the livestock, they could not have gone far with the stolen goods. There was no time to track Sulayman's accomplices; if Jaffir had not yet made it to the corral, Duncan would have to do what he could.

The wall of heat struck him as he rushed out of the tent, but Duncan ignored it. The time for stealth was long past, and he broke into a run, making for the shallow canyon where the horses and camels were tethered.

Chapter Text

Duncan saw no sign of Sulayman and his followers as he went, no sign of open disturbance in the camp. Two women glanced up at him as he ran past, but they paid him no more attention than they had the slave-boy Heyad, laden with his stolen bounty. No one paid attention to the slaves, assuming they were merely doing as ordered. Perhaps Sulayman had cunningly used the boy for days now, or perhaps his men had smuggled the weapons and supplies out a little at a time, caching them nearby, hoping to steal away while the camp dozed off the heat of the day. It was not the best time for travel, but it would allow them to slip away unnoticed, particularly if Sulayman's own men were on guard at that time.

Wondering who else in the camp had been swayed by Sulayman's anger and impatience, Duncan knew he dared not raise a general alarm without some idea of how many would rally to Sulayman's side and how many to Jaffir's. He needed to warn Jaffir as soon as possible, but the young chieftain had gone to Sulayman's tent, to confront him directly. Either he was still there, which would buy a little time, or Sulayman was already carrying out his defection. In either case, Duncan's first priority was to warn Jaffir's men at the corral, and fight beside them if necessary. If Sulayman and his men had not yet moved on the livestock, he could then find Jaffir and as many loyal warriors as they could bestir. Time was an adversary now, but it could also be an ally, if he could spread the word to Jaffir and his men swiftly and quietly.

The last hundred yards to the mouth of the canyon were a steep incline on rocky footing, but Duncan pushed himself up the slope, knowing better than to put his bare hands on the rocks for purchase. This time of day they would blister the skin. He could hear Connor taunting him for his slow-footedness, but he'd covered a lot of ground in a very short time. He felt gooseflesh rising on his skin as he neared the grazing grounds, the first waves of dizziness washing over him, warning him that he was still not accustomed to such exertion on short water rations and in extreme heat. Connor would have had something to say about that, too, he was sure -- something about the foolish pride that had kept him from asking for increased rations, though he was accustomed to wet climes and outweighed most of the tribesmen by three stone or more. Still, he would gladly have suffered those well-aimed barbs now to have his kinsman's sword at his back.

The sight of Bayyan and Ferran, already at the canyon's entrance and standing guard, calmly alert, reassured him. He knew Rashanal did not question their loyalty or competence, and they did indeed look formidable, with their wickedly curving scimitars and daggers in plain sight. More importantly, they looked surprised to see him; Heyad must have taken his warning to heart and not yet alerted Sulayman that his perfidy had been discovered.

The horses were nervous, pawing the ground and tossing their heads, as if they sensed his urgency. Duncan slowed, his breath coming in gasps, as Bayyan stepped forward to meet him.

"We haven't much time," Duncan said without preamble. His head was throbbing, and he hoped his Arabic was understandable. "Sulayman has stolen from the supply tents and hidden the goods somewhere. I don't know where, but he'll be coming here, soon; they'll not get far without camels."

Alarmed, Bayyan exchanged looks with Ferran. "Does Jaffir know?"

"Not yet. I came here first, fearing the worst."

Bayyan shook his head grimly. "We must have reinforcements. You must go at once and find Jaffir, and as many of his men as you can."

Struggling to catch his breath, Duncan nodded. "Yes, my lord, but who? It is a race, now, and everything depends on numbers. Which men can you trust?"

"Selim, of course. Hadjii and Kateb. Fadil. Hadiya and Amon?" He glanced again at Ferran, who nodded agreement. "They will help you find others."

"Good luck," Duncan said, and wasted no more time. Pushing his body's discomfort aside, he started back down towards the camp, on the lookout for trouble below.

Within moments, he was back among the tents, watching for any sign of Jaffir or Sulayman. He took it as a good sign that neither of them were in evidence and hoped it meant that Jaffir's visit had interrupted the horsemaster's machinations. The merciless sun stabbed pain through his skull, and he knew that he would soon have to manage some water and a few moments out of the glare, for he would be no good to Jaffir if he let the heat overcome him. Rashanal had warned him that Immortal healing or no, his own body could betray him if he weren't careful. A wry grin quirked his mouth in spite of everything. As if he didn't know more now than he'd ever wanted to know about his own body betraying him, he thought with dark amusement. It was a joke Rashanal would have appreciated.

A sense of loss briefly consumed him, and he realized that Rashanal's acerbic sense of humor was not all he missed. Jaffir was strong, competent, but untried. Rashanal's quick mind for strategy would have stood them in good stead today. More than that, Connor's wasn't the only sword he would have welcomed at his back just then, and the realization surprised him.

He had no time to question it, for Namal and Selim saw him as he neared Selim's tent and met him outside. Namal looked at him shrewdly. "Selim, water."

Selim fetched a skin from its hook, and Duncan took it gladly, but left it capped. "Sulayman has been taking supplies, probably for some time -- weapons and food. He's been using Heyad, and I believe he is ready to move." Duncan wished that he could keep the slave boy out of it entirely, but he could only hope that Heyad would heed his warning to lie low until the crisis was over. "I've warned Bayyan and Ferran that they will probably be going for the livestock, and they suggested Hadjii, Hadiya, Kateb, Fadil, and Amon as trustworthy reinforcements."

Namal and Selim both nodded along with the names, then hurriedly conferred about which others they felt could be trusted to defend the best interests of the tribe. Though both men were past their prime, they, too, wore the blades that marked them as warriors and were plainly prepared to fight.

"I will take the north end of camp," Namal said to Selim, "and you will take the south. Tell the men to think of Hassad. Tell them to remember what he built here, he and Rashanal, and to stand with us now for the good of the tribe."

Selim clasped Namal's arm. "Go with Allah, my old friend," he said, and hurried away to spread the alarm.

For a moment, Namal laid his hand on Duncan's shoulder. "You have been a gift to all of us, Highlander. I know you would fight beside us, if you could."

It was an apology of sorts, and Duncan acknowledged it with a brief nod, moved that Namal would think of him now, when his tribe's future, his family's future, was at risk. "I would, but I understand why I cannot." None of them had voiced it, but he understood too well the position Jaffir would be in if Duncan harmed a blood warrior of the tribe, how people who feared the displeasure of their God might easily decide they'd been too tolerant. He was grateful for the acceptance he had gained, but did not fool himself that Sulayman could not successfully use his very existence as a lever to shift the tribe's sympathies.

Namal squeezed his shoulder. "Go to Jaffir now. He has gone to confront Sulayman thinking he may yet make the old fool see reason, but I predict that will be a short conversation. Things will move very quickly once it is over. He will need someone to tell him what transpires in his camp."

"And someone to watch his back?"

Namal's black eyes twinkled. "Even so." He jerked his chin at the water skin Duncan held. "And drink that. I don't relish the thought of having to carry you back to Rashanal's tent."

"I will," Duncan promised, and they parted, Namal moving off with surprising speed.

Duncan drank some before moving on again. His legs felt leaden from his earlier exertions, but again he pushed the discomfort away. His aches would ease as soon as he had a chance to rest, but now he needed to make certain Jaffir was aware of the afternoon's developments. He ran as fast as he could through the camp, threading his way between the tents where people dozed in their snips of shade. A couple of the dogs started barking as they saw his haste, but none seemed willing to brave the harsh afternoon sun to follow.

Hadiya was sitting at the open edge of his tent and caught sight of him as he passed, rising and calling out in alarm. "Is Emad attacking?"

"No," Duncan replied curtly, "but I seek Jaffir." When he slowed near Sulayman's tent, his chest tight and knotted, his breath coming in gasps, he could hear angry voices from inside. Briefly Duncan wondered if the confrontation would forestall the horsemaster's plan, but he knew it unlikely. They would have waited to take the bulk of the supplies until right before they planned to leave, to minimize the chance of discovery. A personal confrontation with Jaffir would only seal Sulayman's commitment to action.

Duncan hesitated, not wanting Sulayman to see his urgency and distress. He was saved as Jaffir exited the tent, his face dark and stormy. He did not see Duncan at first, stalking off toward his own tent. Duncan fell in step with him, and Jaffir glanced at him, but said nothing. Duncan waited until they had moved some distance from Sulayman's tent. "My lord, there is trouble."

Jaffir cut him off. "I must find my father. Sulayman is indeed threatening to divide the camp, and we must determine who is with him, what level of threat they pose."

"You must listen! He has gone beyond threats; he and his men have pilfered the weapons and supplies, and I fear they are going to make a move on the livestock."

Jaffir stopped and looked at him. "He wouldn't dare."

"I wish that were true, but I think he plans to make his move soon, very likely today, and definitely before Rashanal's return." Duncan looked around uneasily, wondering who saw them and whose side they were on. Briefly, he spoke of his encounter with Heyad.

Jaffir smiled, and it was a wolfish smile, unlike any Duncan had seen on him. "He thinks that I am weaker than lord Rashanal, that he can ride over me easily. He will regret this, I think." He shook his head. "Who have you alerted?"

"Bayyan and Ferran, at the pasture, and Namal and Selim are rousing those loyal to you." As Duncan spoke, Selim approached with several men.

Jaffir waited for Selim to reach them before he spoke. "Duncan has told me of Sulayman's folly. I have tried to be patient with the old fool, but the time for talking has passed. We must confront him and make it clear to those who might follow him that we will not allow ourselves to be fatally weakened by theft and treachery. If he leaves, he leaves empty-handed. How many are we?"

Selim clucked his tongue thoughtfully. "I would say that nearly half the men are ours and can be counted on to support you. Some number more are uncertain; I do not know how many of those who listened to Rajid's nonsense were disaffected enough to risk desertion. Namal and I have sent others to rouse those we trust. They should be alerted by now."

"Good. Then it is time. Selim, call everyone to the feasting grounds. Amon, Fadil, join Bayyan and Ferran. Stand guard over the horses and camels, and let no one pass that you do not trust implicitly. The rest of you with me." Jaffir turned without waiting for acknowledgment and stalked back towards Sulayman's tent. Duncan followed, but stayed some distance behind, not wanting his presence to stir the horsemaster's volatile temper. Duncan knew he was not the primary source of Sulayman's discontent, but his presence seemed to evoke it. Behind him he could hear Selim calling out the summons, and people began appearing from their tents.

With Kateb and several other men flanking him, Jaffir stopped fifteen or so feet from Sulayman's tent. "Horsemaster! I declare you to be a thief and a traitor, and I command you to give me reason why you should not be condemned. I await you at the feasting grounds." He motioned to his men, then turned and stalked off, not even looking as Sulayman charged out of his tent. Jaffir's men had their swords drawn, and they stepped to each side of the enraged Sulayman, clearly indicating that he had no choice but to obey.

Sulayman looked around, as if seeking support, but Jaffir's bold move seemed to have caught him, and presumably his men, off-guard. He followed, but there was nothing of docility in his manner.

Duncan followed at a distance. Reaching the feasting ground, he saw that Jaffir's men had moved swiftly, and already the greater portion of the tribe was gathered. The women's veils did not conceal their collective apprehension and uncertainty, though Duncan thought he could also see an edge of resentment or resignation in the eyes of a few. Among the men were those whose faces wore open defiance. Duncan scanned the crowd carefully, hoping that Jaffir's men saw these, as well. Their number was significant, but not so many, he thought, as could pull off a successful direct confrontation. Their success had depended on surprise, which was now lost. However, any conflict would be bloody, weakening the tribe to an outside attack, and he hoped Jaffir knew what he was doing.

Jaffir was waiting in the center of the open area, several of his men ranged behind him, but others spread out around the crowd, watching for trouble. Sulayman was shivvied into place, apart from the crowd, so that he had no support at his back. Kateb and Hadjii stayed in position to either side of him. Before Sulayman could voice his fury, Jaffir addressed the crowd. "It has been discovered that our stores have been raided, and a considerable portion of both weaponry and food reserves have been taken. The slave Heyad was caught in the very act of carrying out this theft, and this coward," he gestured to Sulayman, "is the one who engineered it, who steals food from the mouths of your children to feed his own ambition."

Stirrings in the crowd followed this accusation, mutters of both displeasure and surprise. The tension rose markedly.

"How dare you!" Sulayman raged. "You have no right to defame me so. Are you such a poor excuse for a leader that you must stage this melodrama, when your people are in fear of their lives?"

"Do you deny it?" Jaffir said. "How like you, Sulayman. As always, you talk bravely and yet run from the consequences. We can play that game if you wish, but I assure you it will prove fruitless."

Duncan saw Sulayman's eyes narrow, as he rapidly calculated whether denial would benefit him or not. "It is no secret that I have spoken out against decisions that I feel endanger all of us," he said, cagily avoiding the question. "Is it a crime now for advisors to disagree with their leader? You greatly overstep your authority, Jaffir, and your reason."

"Stop trying to obscure your treachery behind words, Sulayman. You are a thief, who would leave us vulnerable to attack and hardship and steal away in the night. Heyad, come here." The slave boy, looking afraid yet determined, stepped forward, but Sulayman forestalled him.

"I have taken nothing that should not have been rightfully mine! I have served this tribe well for many years and asked very little for myself, save the right to provide for my family and the tribe. If others have seen the obvious and choose to follow me instead of staying here and courting their own death and dishonor, then so be it."

Selim, at Jaffir's side, spoke out. "Then why conceal your actions? If you acted with honor, why use a slave boy to do your bidding, in secret?"

"To prevent this very situation!" Sulayman countered. "Rashanal's folly has placed us in danger enough." He looked derisively at Jaffir when he said it, implying that leaving Jaffir in command was yet another in a string of bad decisions. "We only wished to be allowed to leave in peace. I saw no need for bloodshed between tribesmen and did not trust you to accept the inevitable."

As a diversionary tactic, it was skillfully managed, Duncan thought. Sulayman was dangerously close to turning a matter of theft into a difference of opinion between himself and Jaffir, and judging by the mood of the crowd, he was not without support. Duncan desperately wanted to speak out, to protest that the measure of weaponry, supplies, and food stores that Sulayman had taken could very well be a fatal blow to the tribe, and surely must be counted as far more than his due, but he dared not draw attention to himself. He knew that not everyone felt as Namal and Jaffir did; his very presence might be enough to sway many against Rashanal, and by extension, Jaffir. In truth, they had little proof beyond the word of a slave boy.

"No, Sulayman," Jaffir said sharply, as if hearing Duncan's silent protest. "You cannot cover your thieving with clever lies. How would you have us defend ourselves, when you would leave us without arrows or lances to fight with and without grain to sustain us through the summer?"

"What?" Sulayman started to step forward, but Kateb had a firm grip on his arm. "You can't prove that. We would have taken only what should have been ours." His eyes narrowed shrewdly. "If you say otherwise, then I say you are lying. Perhaps you have even set things up to make it look that way, to discredit me." He looked around at the crowd. "Have you known me to be anything but a man of honor? I have served this tribe well as horsemaster for almost a decade. I speak the truth."

Duncan could see that the man's lies were infuriating Jaffir, but the young man kept his temper, his expression cold and commanding as he faced down the much more experienced Sulayman. "The truth is that you thought to buy your way into some other tribe, or trade your stolen bounty for wealth enough to sustain you for years. I want nothing more than to keep my people together, my tribe whole and strong against those who would threaten it. What would I have to gain by lying, when it would only cause the very conflict I seek to avoid? Your greed is obvious, and it will be your downfall." Jaffir's eyes flashed his anger. "What would have happened if we had not caught you in the act? Would you have taken all of the camels, as well, and condemned us to certain death?"

The man Duncan recognized as Qasim stepped forward then, outraged. "It is Rashanal who would sell us out to another tribe, for his own profit."

Jaffir scoffed. "You cannot be serious. Rashanal has undertaken a difficult journey, to win allies against Emad. There is no profit in it except, with luck, peace for all of us."

"Then why did he go alone?" Qasim shot back. As if he had broken some pact of silence by breaking in on the two-man confrontation, murmurs and angry words rose among the other tribesmen and women. Duncan saw people he knew to be friends looking at each other with mistrust and hostility, and he knew that quiet disagreement could quickly turn to physical confrontation if it continued.

Jaffir quickly raised his hands and stepped forward to get their attention again. "Qasim," he said, plainly dismayed. "You were friend to my brother and served him with great loyalty. Rashanal himself has saved your life, twice. Why do you mistrust us now?"

"He is not one of us, and he never has been. He has never taken a wife, or fathered children of our bloodlines. Why should he not take what he wishes and abandon us to Emad's mercy?"

The man's words had the tone of an echo, and Duncan flashed on the conversation he had overheard at the pasture. He felt sure Qasim was parroting something Sulayman had told him, something the horsemaster had probably told all those who would listen, to play upon their fears and mistrust of Rashanal's erratic behavior.

Jaffir's face showed disbelief. He, too, must have recognized the source of such nonsense, for he looked at Sulayman with contempt. "Is that what he told you?"

For the first time, Sulayman showed signs of losing his composure. "It is only the truth," he snapped.

"Your idea of the truth continues to amaze me," countered Jaffir. "But I can see now what methods you used to gain support among honorable men." Duncan saw several among the crowd exchange uneasy glances and felt a surge of hope that there might yet be a way out of this short of a fight.

But Sulayman sensed it, too. "Even you cannot deny that Rashanal has been distant and distracted lately, Jaffir. Surely you must see the writing on the wall. I for one will not stand around waiting for protection from others as long as I am able to lift a sword. I have worked too hard for the good of my family and this tribe." He turned and spoke to the crowd, his reasonable words and conviction undeniably compelling. "Why shouldn't we take our wives, and our beasts and belongings, and strike out on our own? Fight for what is ours, not watch it be sold off for the price of our honor by an infidel who spills his seed and cares for nothing but his own gain!"

"You are a fool," Jaffir said in disgust. "Are you forgetting that Rashanal has given ten years of his life to this tribe, and that we have all prospered under his leadership? That he has fought beside us and provided for us when otherwise we would have been leaderless and soon scattered to the winds?"

"I do not forget," Sulayman said evenly, "but I see what he has become. I see that he has profited greatly from his time with us, and that now his eye has wandered to other horizons. I see that we must now look to our own families, our own futures, if we want to survive. If we want to remain true to Allah, to what we are."

Duncan's heart sank again as he heard the grain of truth in what Sulayman said. Perhaps Rashanal's restlessness and distraction had been great enough lately to give Sulayman the wedge he needed to achieve his ambitions. Again, he wished that Rashanal himself were here to answer these charges. If nothing else, Sulayman was a coward for taking advantage of his chieftain's absence.

There was a stirring in the crowd, but no one voiced any argument. For a long moment, there was silence, nothing but the wind stirring the tents and the cries of a baby. Jaffir broke it. "Enough!" He advanced on Sulayman, eyes flashing dangerously. "You are desperately trying to change the subject, Sulayman, but it is you who have stolen from us and deceived us -- you who must answer now for what you have done." He motioned to Kateb and Hadjii to bring Sulayman forward. "Selim, Namal, you will stand with me as judges in this matter."

Sulayman turned to the crowd, outraged. "Would you take the word of a slave over mine? I have served this tribe well and long, taking very little for myself. Where are those who will support me? Who else feels that it is time for change?"

Jaffir swept his robes back and stood directly before him, fist casually resting near the hilt of his sword, obviously unimpressed with the man's theatrics. "Do you truly believe your treason and selfish greed are not plain for all to see, horsemaster? Or that these people are not wise enough to recognize where their faith is best placed?" He glanced back over his shoulder. "Rajid."

As if he had been waiting for this signal, Rajid materialized at the front edge of the encircling crowd. Duncan tensed, his distrust leaving him less certain than Jaffir appeared to be concerning Rajid's loyalties. If the hotheaded fool still held his grudge, he could tip the balance and leave tribesmen raising swords against one another.

But Rajid merely bowed to Jaffir. "Yes, my lord?"

"Tell everyone what transpired in Emad's camp. What you witnessed of Rashanal's skill as a leader and love for his people." Jaffir's eyes remained locked on Sulayman.

Rajid did not hesitate, but turned to address the tribe. "It is no secret that I have questioned our lord Rashanal's leadership in recent weeks, and that I have suffered punishment for my presumption. But after what I witnessed in Emad's camp, I am forced to concede that Rashanal surely places the welfare and safety of his people above all things, even his own status. I saw him stand before Emad unarmed and divert Emad's rage towards himself, then defuse it with the masterful skill of a true leader, setting aside his own pride and reputation to do so. Whatever else you may say of Rashanal, I must, in all fairness, tell you that never have I seen such a courageous act of genuine leadership." He paused, letting that sink in. "Soroush can tell you that what I have described is the truth of what happened. He, too, suffered punishment at Rashanal's command, and he, too, understands that we acted rashly, while Rashanal acted for the good of the tribe."

Soroush stepped forward. "It is true," he agreed grudgingly. "Many more would have died that night, and after, if Rashanal had not intervened."

A wave of murmuring swept through the assembly, sounding to Duncan like approval. Sulayman's face showed his dismay and shock at the unexpected show of solidarity from such an unlikely quarter, and he hurried to cover. "You," he snarled to Soroush, "I will settle with later." He gestured at Rajid, still seeking support in the crowd. "This one has proven his own foolishness. Will you listen to his opinion now?" He kept his voice level, no trace of doubt, but the tide had turned, and Duncan could see that Sulayman knew it as well as he did.

Rajid turned on the horsemaster. "I have learned my lesson, you sorry cur! I was guilty of pride and impatience, but I would not betray and steal from my own! I would not follow such a lying coward, nor will any who have eyes to see the truth." He spit at Sulayman's feet. Soroush and several of Rajid's young friends, Liron and Ridha among them, moved to stand with him next to Jaffir, plainly having made their choice.

"Enough, Rajid," Jaffir said. "Soroush, will you also stand witness against Sulayman?"

"Yes, ra-jamihn." Duncan saw him shoot a somewhat vindictive look at Sulayman. "What the slave Heyad said is true. I can show you where the weapons and stores are hidden."

"Judges, do you concur that Sulayman is guilty of theft, and the much greater crime of violating the solidarity and safety of the tribe?"

Both Selim and Namal agreed that they did, and at last, Sulayman's urbane control fractured. He snarled at Jaffir. "You have not the strength to lead, boy. You will know that soon enough." He looked out over the assembled tribe. "When it comes to war with Emad, you will all wish that you had recognized the voice of reason when you heard it and not listened to this weak youngling whose only claim to leadership is his brother's name."

Jaffir merely smiled, but his eyes were cold. "My only weakness was in trusting too long to the commitment you made to my brother, Sulayman. Clearly it has not endured, and now you would endanger the whole tribe for your own petty pride and greed. You pretend to act honorably and imagine yourself a leader of men, but in truth you are nothing more than a coward who works by theft and stealth and who uses lies to sway good men to the path of destruction. I will not let you destroy the tribe my family built."

Namal spoke for the first time, approaching to stand at his son's side as Duncan knew he must have been wanting to from the start of the confrontation. "Ah, but it has always been thus with you, hey, Sulayman? You have been sour since you came to us, bearing your wealth of horseflesh and coin -- gifts we knew to be stolen, but we needed you, needed your talents. We forgot that those who are weak remain so."

"Soroush, Heyad," Jaffir called. "Come forward." Both man and slave obeyed, and Jaffir addressed the tribe. "It is evident that Sulayman deceived us all, in words as well as deeds. If those of you who listened to the horsemaster's lies step forward now and swear fealty to lord Rashanal and to myself, there will be no further repercussions. If necessary, I will ask these two to identify you, but first I will call upon your honor and your love of your people to come forward. Our strength is in unity and our trust of one another. More than ever before, we must stand as one people."

A small cheer of support followed this statement, and Duncan felt a surge of pride, seeing the way Jaffir moved swiftly to solidify his victory and unify the tribe. He would, indeed, make a fine leader. This afternoon had been an extraordinary test of his abilities, and he had more than proven himself.

In ones and twos, men came forward and swore loyalty to Jaffir, to Rashanal. Duncan counted nearly twenty men in all -- a number that would have proven seriously damaging to the tribe's survival. Soroush and a much subdued Qasim gave Jaffir the location of the pilfered weapons and stores, and Jaffir sent several of his men to retrieve them.

Surreptitiously, Duncan watched Rajid, the familiar, smug look on that dark face as irritating as ever. It had occurred to him, as he hoped it had to Jaffir, that Rajid had been very confident of the support of his friends. If Soroush had been feigning his allegiance to Sulayman, always sharing his information with Rajid, then Rajid must have known of Sulayman's plan for some time. Perhaps second thoughts had led both men to choose Jaffir's side in the end, but Duncan couldn't help but reflect on how well the timing benefited Rajid, if that were the case. Rajid would not soon let any of them forget who had shifted the balance in Jaffir's favor.

Duncan wasn't sanguine about what that would mean for him, either, but Rajid's taunts were a small price to pay for narrowly averted bloodshed, and one he was more than willing to forfeit.

When the last man had sworn loyalty on his knife to Jaffir and gripped his arm in a warrior's grasp, Jaffir once more addressed his people. "You are to be commended, all of you, for the wisdom and faith you have shown today in God, in Rashanal, and in me. I would ask you all to remember your duty to your families and your tribe, and to trust in one another as well in the weeks to come. We have proven today that even lies and treachery cannot divide us if we refuse to allow it." He turned to Sulayman once more, but the horsemaster remained silent, obviously shaken in his defeat. "No more brave words?" Jaffir made a sound of disgust. "I would kill you now, but I would not deny my lord the pleasure of dealing with you himself." He looked to Namal. "Take him and chain him in his tent, and set guards. We will wait for Rashanal's return to decide his fate."

He turned then to Rajid, smiling, though not without irony. "It seems that Allah has been merciful to both of us today, Rajid."

"Yes, my lord," Rajid agreed, grinning wolfishly.

"That was well played, my canny young friend. As you well know." He considered. "Rashanal must decide whether to restore your camels and livestock to you, but I believe he would agree that you have proven yourself today, and that I would do well to release you from your service to me. Consider yourself a free man, and a wiser one, I hope."

"Without doubt, my lord."

Jaffir signaled to Namal, who handed him a curved knife and sword in their sheaths. These Jaffir handed to Rajid, who took them and strapped them on with great enthusiasm, then swore fealty to Jaffir as the other men had before him. Watching this exchange, Duncan could not help the surge of envy he felt, and the fervent wish that it could be so simple for him.

When Rajid was done, the gathered crowd drifted away, looking to get out of the hot afternoon sun. Duncan watched them go, small groups gathering to talk amongst themselves, but the sense he'd had of imminent disaster was gone. These were people discussing what they had just seen, not dissenters looking to hatch new plots. If only it were as easy for him to accept Rajid's change of heart. There was nothing he could put his finger to that said that Rajid was not yet finished causing trouble for the tribe, but something in his manner told Duncan that he had not yet learned his lesson. He was entirely too pleased with his own cleverness to paint a convincing picture of a repentant man.

Between his shoulders, something itched. He could feel the prickle of tension and knew he was being watched. He heard the soft pad of footsteps and felt the weight of someone's presence behind him. He didn't need to look to know who it was.

"I am not so foolish as to trust in words alone, Highlander," Jaffir said softly, "no matter how sweet they sound."

Duncan turned to face him. "You said nothing in front of the others."

"I judged it better for the tribe to believe that I accepted his word." Jaffir lifted his chin, his gaze unyielding. "They are all hurting and afraid. We have not faced a challenge like this since my brother was chieftain here, and to hear that either Sulayman or Rashanal would betray them -- ai." He shook his head. "They must have something to believe in until Rashanal gets back, and they can see for themselves how he has negotiated this alliance for their good. So, let them believe that a foolish young man has seen the error of his ways and won back his home. Let them believe that I am a wise and merciful man."

"Are you not afraid that they will see your mercy as a weakness?"

"Not when I have just challenged Sulayman and won." He nodded toward the tents and started walking, Duncan following after him. "Nevertheless, we will keep a close eye on our young troublemaker."

"Aye, I'll do that," Duncan agreed at once, and Jaffir chuckled at his resolve.

"I knew I could depend on you, my friend." Duncan looked at him sharply, his eyes widening a little, a warm feeling sparking at the sound of the word. Jaffir glanced at him, grin fading. "Does it offend you, that I should call you friend? I mean no insult."

It took Duncan a moment to understand what he meant. "No, Jaffir. I am honored. I believe slavery is wrong, but I do not hold you responsible for the actions of another man. You have shown me fairness, and friendship, and I thank you for that." Walking more slowly, he sought an answer that would express his gratitude for the young man's trust without giving insult in return. "Your trust has been a blessing to me and a kindness, and were I not a slave, I would call you friend as well."

But Jaffir shook his head, clasping Duncan's shoulder briefly as they walked. "My trust was earned. And do not think that we will soon forget what you have done this day."

Duncan frowned in puzzlement. "But I did little, save be at the right place at the right time."

Jaffir's expression was fond, his smile enigmatic; he considered Duncan sidelong until Duncan felt his face warm. At last Jaffir said simply, "You are a remarkable man, Duncan MacLeod. Allah may have chosen a difficult path for you, but you walk it with honor."

This time, the flush of pride ran through him from head to toes, undeniable. Words deserted him. Jaffir couldn't know what it meant to him to hear that, and he had no words to tell him, but he felt lighter than he had in months, and for the first time all day, the heat did not weigh on him quite so heavily. "You honor me, Jaffir," he managed at last. The young chieftain seemed to understand his embarrassment, for he turned his attention to the path before them, and they walked in silence for several minutes, the tension and unspent adrenaline of the afternoon demanding motion.

The merciless sun had at last begun to descend towards the horizon behind them, lessening its brutal assault on the landscape. Duncan realized that Jaffir was no longer leading, but had fallen into step beside him, letting him choose their direction; they passed the last row of tents and went up a short rise, stopping only when they had reached the edge of the plateau, and the dunes to the east spread out before them like a sea. Heat still shimmered above the sand, the distortion thwarting his gaze.

"He returns soon, if all goes according to his plans," Jaffir said beside him.

Duncan smiled mirthlessly. "I suspect it usually does."

"So he would like us to think," Jaffir countered, grinning.

It was contagious, and Duncan felt the tension of his own anticipation ease. He grinned back. "As you say."

Jaffir sighed, his eyes still on the horizon. "Sulayman was right about one thing, though. Rashanal's time with us is coming to an end."

"Your people do not need him any longer," Duncan said, not denying it. Nor could he deny the regret he felt, the fleeting wish that things might have been different.

"I am ready to lead," Jaffir agreed. "But I shall miss him."

Unwilling to put his own conflicted feelings into words, Duncan said nothing. A moment later, like a breath of kindness, a gentle wind whispered up the rise behind them, ruffling his robes and slipping beneath the fabric of his burnoose like a cool benediction. Skin prickling with the pleasure of that cool breeze, he turned back towards camp and lifted his face to it, drawing a deep breath; as if in answer, the breeze came again, stronger this time, promising a cooler evening. "That's more like it," he said, tempted to remove his burnoose and let the wind lift his hair from his neck. "I was beginning to feel like a hind on a spit."

But beside him, Jaffir was troubled, gazing toward the west. Duncan followed the line of his gaze, but could see nothing except the same clear, flat sky. "What is it?"

"A cool front means trouble this time of year," Jaffir said, breathing deeply as if scenting the air. He turned and nodded toward the rolling waves of sand that extended as far as the eye could see. "When the colder air from the east touches the hot dunes, it sucks the sand up into the sky. Have you ever seen a sandstorm, Highlander?"

Apprehensive now, Duncan nodded. "In the caravan, when they were taking us to Algiers. I do not care to repeat the experience."

"May your words serve as a shield," Jaffir said with a tight smile. "Come, I think we had better see to the security of the camp."

With a last glance towards the east and a silent prayer that Rashanal's negotiations would keep him safely in the mountains for a few days more, Duncan turned and followed Jaffir down the hill.

* * *

Methos checked his packs, impatient to be on his way. He had not been able to relax all day. Jakir had continued to be an excellent host, while Bahira had returned to her regular duties, something for which Methos was sadly grateful. He did not regret the liaison, but he doubted his own motives. He carefully didn't consider how much of his urgency was due to what awaited him in his own tent.

The noon meal had been a pleasant affair, given to much conversation and gentle amusement in the cooler shade of the chieftain's tent. Still, Methos had felt uneasy and feared he played his own role with a sullen edge. Even now something pricked at the back of his neck, and his skin seemed oversensitive to the slightest touch.

Jakir and his men readied their own mounts as Methos adjusted his steed's girth. Fadjur stamped impatiently, picking up on his tension, and he made an effort to suppress his own irritation, soothing the beast with his hands. The stallion settled, and Methos swung into the saddle, willing Jakir and his men to move with more alacrity.

At last Jakir led his horse, amusement at Methos' impatience plain in his face. "Another man might find insult in your haste to leave, Rashanal."

Methos forced himself to control his irritation, knowing that he needed Jakir's continued good will. Luck had been with him thus far, and he must not do anything to jeopardize his plans now. "Forgive my eagerness, my friend, but I grow anxious to return home. The messengers may reach Emad by daybreak, and he's likely to set out for my camp immediately. I need time to prepare my men for the summit, and I do not wish to risk leaving them to deal with him alone."

Jakir nodded and swung himself onto his horse. "I understand. They are like our children, and we do not like to leave them too long to their own devices." He gestured to his men. "Let us go. We have an alliance to forge, and I, too, am eager to see Emad forced to eat sand."

"Well said," grinned Methos, and wheeled Fadjur towards the narrow pass that led west, and home.

Chapter Text

The riders drew up, arrayed along a sweeping crest of sand, the top of a massive dune that dominated the immediate landscape. Behind them the great orb of the sun sank towards the horizon, setting the sea of dunes aflame, the riders' silhouettes black and forbidding against it. Purely an illusion, Methos knew, for before the power of the desert they were as vulnerable as the smallest beast.

The wind gusted again, stronger this time, setting his robes billowing. Beside him Jakir soothed his uneasy mount, his gaze, like Methos' own, turned eastward, back the way they had come. Even as they watched, the sun touched the edge of the world. The sky was clear, deepening towards indigo ¬ if one ignored the muddy haze marring the far horizon.

There was little to be said. The unseasonably cool wind was an ill one, and every man among them knew what it could mean, especially coming so late in the year. Sharqi, in Arabic, but sirocco was the name in Methos' thoughts ¬ an eastern wind that often brought storms during the cool part of the year, but could mean disaster coming as it did now, when summer's intense heat still rose from the sands. Fadjur didn't care for it any more than the other beasts and tossed his head, but Methos smiled a bitter smile. Chieftain or no, Immortal or no, the forces of nature were infinitely greater than any living creature, and a part of him could still find amusement in the whims of fate.

"My camp might still be within reach," Jakir said beside him.

"We'd be riding straight into it, and it could last for days. I have no desire to stay safe in your camp while Emad moves on mine. We may as well throw down our swords and take up weaving with your women for all the chance we'll have then."

"He may be delayed just as we are," Jakir countered, but his tone was resigned, as though he knew what Methos would say.

"The lay of the land is against us. This storm is his ally, not ours. He may escape it entirely and come upon Jaffir without warning. If the winds are truly against us, he might make it halfway to Tariq's camp before we could move. We must go on."

Jakir only nodded, plainly not pleased at the prospect of continuing, but unable to deny the truth of Methos' words. He suppressed a cough; they were all coated by a faint layer of orange dust. Jakir's gaze shifted toward the distant range of mountains, now a hazy shadow to the north. "We cannot continue across this wasteland ¬ it would be suicide. Let us turn northward. We can follow the canyons, and they will give us some shelter, at least."

The thought of turning aside from the direct route home, delaying their arrival by many hours, made Methos' stomach knot with frustration, but Jakir was right. Reluctantly he nodded, and Jakir called out to his men, gesturing toward the craggy silhouettes in the distance. They urged their animals forward, and one by one the silent men slipped over the crest of the dune.

* * *

If the moon rose that night, its pale light never reached the party of riders, obscured behind the monstrous wall of sand that bore down upon them from the east. Perhaps two hours had passed since they turned northward, and already the air was thick and heavy. It feathered over Methos' face, pushing at the edges of dark cloth that lay across his nose and mouth, seeking entrance. He could feel the sand it carried layering itself on top of his robes and around his face. His eyes stung, and he knew they were watering, but the wind eagerly drank his tears before they could flow down his cheeks. They needed to reach shelter soon, before the wind picked upgained strength, while it was still possible to see at all.

A few feet ahead, Jakir called to him above the rising wind, and Methos urged his horse to follow the sound. They had food and water, and they could survive a sandstorm once they had shelter. He pushed on, knowing that this was their best course of action, but still hating the delay. His thoughts were a circling tangle of grim possibilities, dwelling on Emad, his tribe, and the Highlander by turns, apprehension about their immediate fate underscoring it all. He, like all of them, had seen the awesome and terrifying power of a storm like this, had heard tales of experienced men wandering lost for days in the madness of wind and sand, finally dying of exhaustion and dehydration, or simply disappearing, swallowed up by the desert, never to be heard from again. He had few real fears that didn't involve his head being separated from his shoulders, but being buried alive could be counted among them. He wondered if he would be missed, were he to be so lost.

They rode on, and after an unmeasured time, a groan arose out of the night, a wail that made the hair on his neck and arms stand up. The sound was eerily human, and yet far too immense to be made by any living thing, the ominous cry of a titanic beast they couldn't fight or outrun. How far now to the sheltering canyons and gullies they hoped to reach? Perhaps minutes ¬ perhaps hours; there was no way to tell, the way before them as murky as the way they had come. They rode nearly blind in darkness unbroken by moon or starlight, the wind on their right side their only guide as the night erased any landmark or path.

Fadjur was laboring heavily now, fighting for every step, though the war-trained stallion struggled on as though the wind itself were his adversary. Methos shouted once before the roar of the wind made even that impossible and saw the rider in front of him pause and turn back. Methos halted his mount and swung to the ground, clinging to the saddle and Fadjur's mane to keep himself upright as a gust tried to knock him down. Unwrapping a length of cloth from his own garments, Methos gentled the horse with a touch to his brow, laid the cloth over the stallion's eyes, then tied it firmly under the horse's jaw. Fadjur tossed his head as if testing this undignified new impediment, but settled at another touch from Methos. Neither man nor beast would be able to see anything in another few moments, Methos knew; this would be less painful for the horse and might prevent him from panicking. Camels would have been far better suited for travel on the treacherous sands, and he cursed himself for his haste that had led him to choose the swifter mount. In truth, it would make little difference if they could not find shelter, but he hated to waste such a fine animal.

He struggled back into the saddle, forced to lie close to the stallion's back and clamber up ungracefully, eyes clenched shut against the brutal sting of wind and sand. Once he had gained his seat again, he unwound another length of cloth to add to the thin veil already covering his own face. Before he secured it, he opened his eyes a crack and glanced one last time toward the other rider, but saw only darkness, and the thick, hot wall of moving sand. The storm was upon them.

Time quickly lost all meaning, the struggle against wind and sand all he knew, all it seemed he had ever known. Occasionally he caught sight of one of the other riders, indistinct shapes, and one man could easily be another, all identifying color leached out by the sand. At some point one of the shapes stopped, and Methos could tell the man was having trouble keeping his horse pointed toward shelter. The horse tossed its head and stamped its front feet, dancing sideways against the wind screaming at them.

Methos saw a second man -- Jakir, he thought -- move toward the struggling rider, and he urged his own mount forward as well. The wind pulled at them like a lion, scratching and tearing with claws of dust. Methos grimaced as something small and sharp struck above his eyebrow. The pain and the realization that he was bleeding were instantly followed by the sensation of Immortal healing. If they lived, the others would count him uncannily lucky to have escaped the wind unharmed.

The troubled rider was not so lucky. Methos was close enough now to see that the animal was beyond control. Jakir was shouting, but the wind ripped the words from his mouth before a sentence could be formed. Was he telling the man to get off the horse? Or urging him to prod his mount forward?

Jakir was almost in arm's reach when the animal backed away, tossing its head and blowing. White-eyed, it reared and shook, hind legs sinking in the treacherous sand; stumbling, the beast tried to free itself, squealing in panic as the ground gave way and horse and rider began to slip sideways and backwards down a disintegrating slope. It floundered, and for a moment Methos thought it might regain its footing, but terror overcame its instinct for self-preservation. It reared again, twisting violently, and staggered sideways.

The man fell. At last Methos heard something over the wind, the sound of bones cracking as the horse came down solidly on top of his rider, the dull thud of hooves striking flesh. Twice it reared and struck before Jakir was able to grab its dangling reins, but the animal jerked hard enough to pull away, then plunged headlong down the slope, disappearing into the storm.

Jakir dismounted to see to his man, but by the time Methos arrived, it was too late. The horse must have landed on his chest, cracking the ribs hard enough to puncture something. Frothy, bubbly-red foam leaked from his mouth, dusted immediately into a gritty orange while his eyes were open and staring. Methos crouched down beside them. Jakir cradled the body briefly in his arms, then laid it back on the ground and shut the eyes.

"The sand will bury him," Jakir cried, looking up at Methos. "We must move on before it buries us all."

Methos nodded and waited while Jakir gathered up the man's water skin and pouch. The other riders were already out of sight. To press on now was to risk almost certain separation among the party, but they dared not stop, for the sheer volume of sand in motion might easily suffocate and bury a man. Their only choice lay in pushing on, hoping they were close to shelter and would find one another once there.

Regaining his saddle, he urged Fadjur forward again. The horse protested, stamping and nearly losing his balance as another gust battered them both, but he regained his footing and started to move. Methos bent as low to the beast's neck as he could, mane and tassels whipping with stinging ferocity. He fought for every breath, even through the folds of cloth, keeping one wrapped hand on Fadjur's neck, coaxing him on, fearing that the stallion would fail before any shelter was reached. He could only hope that he had managed to keep their direction true, that they weren't in fact turned about and heading out into the full strength of the storm. Even the wind was no longer a true guide as it swirled around them.

Beneath the stallion's feet, the sand churned like a white-capped sea, the constant motion all Methos could make out clearly in the chaotic, nearly deafening hell of the sandstorm's full fury.

* * *

It was well past midnight when Duncan returned to the tent, exhausted from the tensions of the day and the sheer physical labor of securing the camp against a storm he could not deny was approaching. His thoughts were constantly with Rashanal, trying not to think of an Immortal buried under the weight of a sandstorm, reviving, if at all, only to smother and die, waiting for the capricious winds to free him. Even when he still believed that he hated Rashanal, Duncan would never have wished him such a fate.

He moved through the tent restlessly, feeling trapped, an unaccustomed feeling since Rashanal's departure -- and perhaps since before that, if he were honest. Stepping into the inner room, Rashanal's chest of books caught his eye, and he went to open it, wanting to distract himself, regretting as usual that none of the texts were in Italian, or even Latin. The curious Arabic script was lovely, but incomprehensible, and any whim Rashanal might have had of teaching the slave he thought completely illiterate had been fleeting. He had read from them occasionally, though, translating literature and philosophy glibly, and Duncan had seen an elusive, previously unseen side of him as he argued with the authors or expounded upon their points, the dedicated scholar coming out, a creature of fierce intelligence and dry wit. Such rare occasions ended one of two ways, with Rashanal either working himself into a temper, practically slamming the lid down on the chest, or with him going still and quiet, wrapping the texts so carefully, and replacing them with equal concern. Duncan almost preferred the former occasions, because seeing Rashanal so quiet and withdrawn hurt him, somehow, and put the other man at a distance he didn't feel he could cross.

He had never told Rashanal that he could, in fact, read both Latin and Italian. The pity in Rashanal's eyes as he assumed Duncan's illiteracy had both angered and injured Duncan, even then. In Rashanal's eyes, Duncan had been nothing more than an untutored slave, and Duncan had held his knowledge to himself, something that Rashanal did not, could not, have, a sign to himself of how much Rashanal underestimated him.

Now, such a thing no longer seemed as important, but still he would keep his secret. Some day he would be free, and he would reclaim the man he had been. Changed, yes, very much changed, but not entirely. Whatever his feelings for this complex, changeable, baffling man, Duncan would retain some small part of himself for the time when he was alone again.

Digging deeper in the chest than he had before, he found a smaller parcel and pulled it out. Unwrapping it he found a stack of vellum pages, loosely tied together. He couldn't read the text, but as he paged through them, he saw small drawings scattered here and there, faces, scenes, symbols. The style was far from masterful, but it had a certain charm, and as he reached the last pages and saw a face that was unmistakeably Namal, he realized that Rashanal himself must be the artist.

He spent a long time studying the pages, wishing he could read the text, glad at the same time that he couldn't. It was better for him that Rashanal remain a mystery. And yet the knowledge that he kept such a thing seemed deeply intimate, making Duncan wonder more strongly than ever before what kind of man this was, making him wish he could talk to him, brother to brother, learn from him what he surely had to teach.

He finally slept, pages scattered around him, listening to the wind as it rose.

* * *

The storm continued unabated, man and horse moving slower and slower. Methos was sure he'd been blown off-course, and when Fadjur stumbled into a short spur of rock, then another, he decided he could go no further. Wind-spun sand battered him from all directions, and the rocks would at least serve as a windbreak.

Fadjur stood trembling, his great strength sapped by the struggle, sides heaving and head hanging low as he sucked gritty air through the hastily-rigged hood of cloth. Methos huddled against him, rearranging his own garments to give him a bit of space in which to breathe. The dust was thick, and he sipped a bit of water to clear his throat, sparing a few drops to clear his dusty eyes.

For a time he could not think, could hear nothing but the fierce, brutal wind. No longer focused on guiding his horse one foot in front of the other, straining to stay on course, his thoughts seemed to be as caught in the storm as the whirling sand, spinning and dancing so that he thought he might go mad. This brought a harsh, rasping laugh to his lips, resulting in a series of hacking coughs. Recovered, he breathed shallowly, eyes closed, and gradually the noise of the storm became almost like silence.

The first thought that sifted out of the madness was amusement that his first chance to be truly alone in an uncounted time required a desert storm. Hard on that was an intimation of freedom: here was the perfect means of escape. No one would question that he could have been lost in the storm.

No one but the slave.

No one but Duncan.

"Duncan." He said it out loud, repeating it once. "Duncan." He couldn't hear himself over the roar of the storm, but it resonated in his head, and he knew any possibility of leaving was truly unthinkable, having very little to do with any chosen responsibilities or obligations. With disgust, he realized he could not bear the thought of the disappointment in those dark eyes; even if he should never see them again, they would haunt him, shame him with his own cowardice.

That thought alone was enough to send his mind skittering, and he half-seriously considered burrowing into the heart of the storm, in hopes of being buried for a few months, years, long enough to drive this cloddish, untutored Scotsman from his head. It shouldn't take long. He just needed to see this out, get away from him, bury himself not in sand, but in willing flesh and taxing work, find something to study, somewhere he was unknown and unremarked to build a new life, far from the burning sands and unending skies, far from dark eyes-- If only he could breathe!

He caught himself before he ripped the cloth away from his face. He was gasping, and he forced his breathing to slow. For the first time he truly feared he had let things go too far, that it was beyond his means to carve the slave from his soul.

He leaned back against Fadjur's still trembling side, concentrating on the animal's great, shuddering breaths to still his mind before letting it turn on thoughts of Duncan.

Duncan as he'd first seen him, furious and proud on the auction block; Duncan, shocked, frightened, and yet aroused at the oasis; Duncan trembling and resistant beneath him; Duncan, willing and greedy. He knew how badly he had lost when the image that stayed with him most strongly was Duncan at the chessboard, in one of their rare moments of accord, telling him an outrageous story of a little banty rooster of an Englishman. It was a moment unlike any other they'd shared, lacking the hostility or the sparking heat that marked most of their time together.

Of course, just moments after that, their eyes had caught, and their laughter died, and Methos recalled stalking Duncan down into the pillows, meeting only token resistance before Duncan was as eager and intent as Methos himself. Methos wondered if he could ever get enough of him, and knew it was unlikely. It was an addiction, driven by the knowledge that he could never truly possess him -- that what he wanted was unattainable. He wondered if he could hold himself to the bargain he'd made with himself in Jakir's camp, to free Duncan as soon as he reached camp. He wasn't sure he could let him go without having him at least one last time -- but if he allowed himself that grace, could he let him go at all?

Talk to him. Open himself to Duncan's amusement and scorn. And if he did, what would he lose? He'd lived through much worse in his long life. If he were honest, he'd seen signs that Duncan might feel more for him than a slave towards his master, but it could so easily be the attachment a prisoner came to feel for those he depended on. The mind could go through stunning contortions to make life liveable. And yet...

For the first time in centuries he let himself consider trying again, even as a mocking laugh in the back of his mind spiraled into the howl of the wind. He considered the possibility that this time, things might be different.

He knew better than any the difficulty of trying to stay with another Immortal, in any kind of arrangement. The dangers. Both timeless, it was too easy to lose touch with the rest of the world, to lose yourself in each other's needs and drives, to lose that edge that was so necessary to the survival of their kind.

And he wanted to survive. He just wasn't sure he wanted to survive alone anymore. Even as he thought it, he recognized it as a fatal weakness, one that failed utterly to consider the practicalities of trying to forge anything lasting out of the fires he and the Highlander built in each other. As he had many times before, he picked at the raw wounds of regret for how things might have been. It was becoming a familiar path, but this time the anger didn't come to push away the pain. Instead, there was only sorrow.

He leaned heavily against Fadjur's warmth as the storm raged, thoughts finally played out, exhaustion in every limb. He had no way of knowing what time it was, how close to dawn, the storm as fierce as ever. Impossible as it seemed in that inferno of sound and stinging sand, he felt himself began to drift. He didn't want to die here, not like this. The fear was cold and real in his limbs and in his heart, some superstitious, ancient part of him sure that being buried alive would have been a fitting end for him, no more than he deserved. Kronos certainly would have thought so.

Something in him rebelled against that even as he acknowledged it. To hell with Kronos. And to hell with letting it end like this. A fierce ember of denial sparked in his breast, and he fanned it to life against the fear, holding fast to that inner core of stubborn tenacity that had kept him alive for so long. He had lied to himself if he'd ever believed he would let the Highlander go willingly, that giving up was an answer. To hell with giving up. He'd get out of this alive whatever it cost, and to hell with regret while he was at it. He would give Duncan his freedom, yes, but not before he faced up to the truth of what he wanted and asked him to stay. Half-mad from the ceaseless howling of the wind, reckless in his sudden determination, Methos swore it to whatever gods or furies might be listening and weighing his fate.

As he slipped at last into a restless, exhausted sleep, his final thought was that with nothing to lose, all things became possible.

* * *

Duncan was on the ridge again well before dawn, eyes straining against the weak light that barely touched the sky. He had slept poorly, listening to the uneven gusts that stirred the folds of the tent while the small hours of the morning crept onward, hoping against hope that Rashanal was safe on the other side of the storm. Finally giving up on sleep altogether, he had risen in darkness to tend the animals before coming to watch the desert. Watching the strangely tinted sky, he hoped once more that Rashanal was safe. Immortal he might be, but if he were to become trapped under the desert sand... Better he should decide not to return at all, something that Duncan half-expected. The thought did nothing to lessen his anxiety, for if Rashanal did not return, Duncan might never know what had become of him.

He had dreamed again, strange, broken dreams that left him weary and uneasy, haunted by flashes of lightning and Rashanal's face as he had last seen it, distant and unseeing, already gone from him. He closed his eyes and tried to tell himself that if anything were to happen to Rashanal, he would be free. He knew it to be true. Neither Jaffir nor Namal would hold him enslaved should Rashanal fail to return. The thought pained him, and he knew how lost he truly was. With Rashanal gone, Duncan might be free in body, but he would have lost something of himself, as well, something he could not yet even name. He didn't know yet whether it was something he needed, or something he was better off without. Maddening as Rashanal was, he awoke something in Duncan, provoked it by his very being, something primal and burning that only passingly had anything to do with the touch of skin and heat of breath.

He missed that heat now. Duncan feared that if this passion, these feelings, were left unresolved he would be left broken inside, no longer the man he had been, but uncertain what kind of man was left for him to become. He needed more time. They needed more time. He remained there, staring out across the desert.

In the distance the storm built, winds made visible by the sands they carried, and Duncan's robe whipped around his legs as the gusts changed from playful to piercing. He paced, knowing he should return to camp to see if anything else was needed of him as the storm came closer, but something held him. He knew Rashanal to be as conflicted as Duncan himself about what had grown between them, knew it drove Rashanal equally to passion and rage, and in those rare moments, a tenderness and sweetness that showed Duncan a side of the man he would like to know better. He distracted himself with these thoughts, piecing together what he knew of the desert chieftain, wondering at the life that could produce such a man. Rashanal had never spoken much of his past beyond hints and occasional stories, had never given more than hints of his true age, but at times Duncan had seen a weariness in his eyes, a knowledge that--

Movement on the edge of the storm caught his attention, dragging him from his reverie.

They rode out of the heart of the desert, from the direction he knew Rashanal would come, and his heart leapt, only to fall as they drew closer. He could distinguish two mounted forms, but knew neither was Rashanal, even if for some reason he had had to abandon Fadjur. Just as he was certain of it, he heard the cry of the lookout from the edge of camp, warning of the approach of the riders; with them came the strength of the storm, and Duncan was forced back from the ridge by the stinging sand.

He did not head back for Rashanal's tent, but turned instead for the riders. The entire camp seemed to be flowing in that direction despite the winds racing between the tents. Wind caught and snapped at clothing, etching itself deep into any exposed skin. The men pooled at the edges of camp, watching, waiting, weapons held at ready. The women remained in their tents, but every warrior now stood ready, in case the travelers brought news.

The rising howl of the wind was the only sound as the riders passed the outermost circle of tents.

Their horses were lathered, their breathing labored. They had obviously been driven hard during the crossing. The two riders slid from their mounts, their burnooses billowing about them. Duncan stepped forward to grab the reins of the mounts; one of the men turned his black eyes on him, and Duncan felt himself weighed, measured, and dismissed.

The other simply ignored him. "We seek Jaffir," he called, his voice pitched to carry over the wind. "We come from Jakir's camp. Our lord and yours have sent us with urgent news."

"What news?" Jaffir called out, striding forward through the crowd. The tribesmen parted before him, and he reached the two messengers. The one who had spoken produced a bundle of cloth, which Jaffir swiftly unwrapped to reveal a scroll. Duncan was close enough to see a seal he recognized; Jaffir showed it to Namal, who had appeared beside him. "Come," he said to the newcomers, "we must seek shelter -- the storm is upon us. That is my tent. Go swiftly now and tether your horses in the canyon, then come to me there and my women will see you are made comfortable while we talk." The two riders hurried to do as he bade, and Jaffir addressed the rest of the men. "Return to your own tents. I will share Rashanal's news as soon as the storm is past. Father, you will join me?" Namal nodded, and Jaffir included Duncan with a glance and a quick motion of his head.

Grateful that Jaffir had included him, his heart beating too fast, Duncan followed the two as they made their way to Jaffir's tent. A gust drove them forward, sand beating against their backs and legs; he followed Namal's example, wrapping layers of his burnoose over his face.

Souraya looked up as they came into the tent, shushing and rocking the baby, who fussed at the ominous sound of the rising wind. Duncan fastened the tent flaps tight behind them. "Messengers have come with word from Rashanal," Jaffir said to his wife, unwinding layers of gauze. "They return here shortly." Nodding, she took the baby into the other part of the tent, then returned and began preparing for the guests as Jaffir drew the scroll out of a fold in his robes. Namal and Duncan drew near as he broke the seal.

Jaffir read the parchment swiftly. "He has sent word to Emad, and to Tariq, calling for a summit to meet on our lands. If the messengers rode before the storm, they must have left yesterday. We should expect Emad tomorrow." He read further, and his expression turned grim. "I was afraid of this."

"What is it?" Duncan asked, apprehension rising.

Jaffir glanced up. "Rashanal and Jakir were to have left yesterday evening."

Namal frowned his concern. "Surely they would wait out the storm."

"If they knew it was upon them, yes," said Jaffir. "I do not relish the thought of meeting with Emad myself, but I can only hope you are right, and that they were not caught unawares. The alternative is one I do not like to contemplate." He finished reading, then read it a second time before handing the parchment to his father. He started to pace a little, hands on his hips. "It is difficult to know what this storm will do -- it may be that Emad will pass to the north of it, unscathed. If so, he may reach our borders as early as tonight."

What of Rashanal? Duncan wanted to ask, his stomach knotted with emotion he dared not name. He had pushed away his fears for many hours, but they were manifest now, the possibility that their chieftain might indeed be lost somewhere in the desert chillingly real. The urge to go out into the rising storm was strong, though he knew it a foolhardy one, and worse than useless. If Rashanal's party had been swallowed up by the sands, there was no hope for them but blind luck.

Jaffir looked at him as if reading his thoughts. "He is experienced in the ways of the desert, Highlander. Jakir, too. If there is shelter to be had, they will find it."

It was not much of a reassurance. Duncan had gazed out on that vast wasteland many times, and was only too aware of how quickly and brutally a storm like this one could strike. In camp, they were protected by the ridge to the east, and the rocky canyons to the north, but even that protection was little shield against the sand and wind.

As if echoing his thoughts, the tent flap was pulled back and a gust whipped in, lifting the edges of the rugs and setting the lamps to swinging. Souraya protected the fire with her body, then turned and rose as the newcomers entered. Jaffir welcomed them, learning their names and urging them to come in and rest, and share food and drink. Uncertain whether he should stay, Duncan withdrew slightly, but the howl of the wind convinced him that he wasn't going anywhere.

He knelt on a rug at the edge of the gathering, hoping fervently that luck would indeed be with Rashanal today; outside, the sand began to beat against the tent in torrents, much like the sea beating against a ship besieged.

Chapter Text

Covering himself against the stinging sand, Duncan headed out into the seemingly deserted camp. The late afternoon sun was nearly obscured by the still-raging storm. Everyone else stayed safe in their tents, out of the lashing wind and scouring grit.

The day had dragged with little to relieve it, and still no sign of Rashanal. Duncan knew it was probably too early to expect him, even had the weather been fine, but he could not help but hope.

He had stayed close to Jaffir all day, fetching food and serving the council, keeping inconspicuously to the back of the tent when not needed, in hopes that his presence would be forgotten. He listened as Jaffir talked to the messengers and learned that Rashanal had apparently been in fine form when they left. One of Jakir's men made sly reference to one of the sheik's clanswomen, a mention immediately and angrily condemned by his fellow as disrespectful of Jakir himself. Duncan held himself impassive, ignoring the glance Namal shot his way.

After all, he was but a slave, with no hold on Rashanal, and Rashanal himself had made it clear he planned to avail himself of the comforts provided by his hosts. And in truth, there was no jealousy in him, merely a longing that had not eased during Rashanal's absence.

Soon enough they sent the messengers to their rest, and the day passed in discussion and planning for the parley, though they avoided talking of what must be done if Rashanal did not appear. Duncan was not reassured by the strained looks and unspoken fears. No one said that they were lost if Rashanal and Jakir failed to return, but Duncan felt the despair in the room grow, in spite of Jaffir's struggle to appear confident.

Fetching the evening meal was a needed relief.

Head down against the wind, Duncan moved through the subdued camp, thinking on what he had heard during the day. The summit was to take place tomorrow, although none of the other leaders could be expected much before morning, judging by when their own message had reached them. Almost certainly delayed by the storm, Tariq would likely set out tonight, which would bring him to their camp sometime early tomorrow. If luck was entirely against them, Emad might reach their borders before dawn, and the camp at mid-morning, which was cutting it a bit too close for comfort's sake. If Rashanal and Jakir failed to return in time, Jaffir would have to equivocate and play host to the others, hoping that Emad would not act in haste as long as his advantage was uncertain.

A gust of wind blew back the cloth covering Duncan's face, and he felt the sharp sting of sand on his cheek. He still had no real knowledge of what could happen to a man lost in such a storm, and his mind spun with possibilities, fueled by lurid stories told by those with whom he'd sailed before his capture. Bodies whirled through the air, never to be seen again, dessicated by the wind and sand -- flesh scoured from the very bones. Could even an Immortal survive such a fate?

Futile as it was, Duncan made for higher ground before heading for the cooking tent. The winds fair blew him off his feet, but he thought the sky towards open desert was less impenetrable than earlier in the day. The storm seemed to be easing, which gladdened his heart.

He stared out at the sands until his eyes watered, but he could not stay long and soon stumbled back down into the slight shelter of the rocks. As he turned, he caught sight of a horsed figure making its way rapidly towards the camp from the north, the rider flat over the horse's neck, clearly urging it to move faster. North was the direction of Emad's territory. As Duncan watched, the rider neared the outlying edge of the camp, and his horse stumbled and fell, throwing the rider clear. Duncan made his way rapidly down the slope -- half-running, half-sliding -- to help the fallen man.

He heard no alarm being raised, and he reached the rider well before anyone else had noticed. The man's horse lay where it had collapsed a few yards away. As he passed, Duncan touched the beast's neck to be sure, but it only confirmed what he'd suspected: the unfortunate animal was dead.

The man was in slightly better shape, his breathing ragged, but regular. He moaned and clutched at his arm; Duncan could see it was bleeding, and might be broken. Ignoring the man's attempts to push him away, Duncan shouldered him as he would a slain deer -- the man went limp almost at once, as if he had fainted -- and carried him back to camp.

Ferran, on sentry duty, must have seen him coming, and met him as he neared camp. "Who is it?" At the shake of Duncan's head, he drew near, pulling the cloth away from the unconscious figure's face. "His name is Abir. He was one of ours, but left us to marry a kinswoman of Jakir's."

The news brought a new chill of apprehension, but Duncan controlled it. The first concern was to make certain the man lived. "His horse died under him."

Ferran's brows drew together, and he covered Abir's face once more against the blowing sand. "The news he carries must be urgent."

"I'll take him to the healer's tent. If you can, send someone to tell Jaffir, and say that I'll come to him as soon as I know anything." Ferran nodded, and Duncan went on, moving as swiftly as he could with the burden he carried.

"Nadima!" he called when he drew near to her tent. "This man needs your help." The healer appeared after only a moment, her swift glance taking in everything. She immediately lifted the tent flap and stood aside, gesturing him in. One of Nadima's daughters was there, as well, and helped him lower the unconscious man to a pallet. "Abir! I haven't seen him since Hadiya was a boy," Nadima said as she started looking him over. "What happened to him?"

"He fainted before he could tell us," he told her. "But he may have news of Rashanal. Jaffir will want to speak with him as soon as possible."

Nadima brushed him aside with the business-like manner of doctors everywhere. Duncan stepped back and let her work, his eyes going to Abir's face as the women unwrapped the layers of cloth, recognizing the gray look of exhaustion and pain. This man almost certainly had news of Rashanal. Had he been with them in the desert and become separated from them in the storm? Should his presence be a sign of hope that the others, too, might soon reach safety, or did he come to tell them that he was the only survivor? What news could he bear that would drive him to kill a valuable animal with exhaustion?

"The arm and two fingers are broken," Nadima said. She continued her examination while the younger woman went to retrieve a basket and several small jars, plainly knowing what was needed. They had evidently been cooking a pungent-smelling, medicinal mixture over the fire; the smell was thick and bitter, making Duncan think of other sick rooms, and he tried to breathe through his mouth to lessen its reek. He saw that Tahirih was also there, bent over Ridha, who had still not entirely recovered from the injuries suffered in Rajid's ill-conceived raid.

Jaffir would want to know Abir's condition, but Duncan was reluctant to leave when he might wake at any moment. His need to know what news the man bore pressed at him, immediate and all-consuming. If Rashanal and the others were trapped, in trouble, every moment that passed reduced their chances of being able to find them. He hesitated, torn. "Will he wake?" he asked Nadima at last, unable to keep still.

She drew back Abir's eyelid with a gentle, impersonal touch. "Not soon," she said shortly, never looking up from her work. "But perhaps not at all, if you had not brought him to me so quickly. I can help him."

"I'll tell Jaffir," he said, reassured a little by her certainty. She barely acknowledged him with a nod, all her attention on her patient; he left the tent, heedless now of the waning storm as he headed between the tents.

* * *

By the time he returned with Jaffir, the women had bound Abir's arm and hand, immobilizing them, and they were in the process of stripping away his garments to apply a pungent paste to a mottled, bruised area along his ribs. It looked as though he had taken at least one bad fall from his horse in his haste. Duncan couldn't forget the stark, hollow look he'd seen in the man's eyes, and he was grateful for the doubled sentry guard around the camp's perimeter. Whatever peril Abir had been fleeing, he had plainly been desperate to reach their camp, and Jaffir was taking no chances.

"Has he spoken?" Jaffir asked the healer as soon as they entered the tent.

"Not yet," Nadima told them, wiping her hands on a cloth. "I want to give him a draught for the pain, but I waited, knowing you would want to speak to him. We can try to wake him now, but just for a few moments."

Jaffir nodded, and with her daughter's help, Nadima shifted to lift Abir's head with one hand, pressing a cup to his lips and wetting them with a few drops of water. When he did not choke, she let a few drops pour over his parched lips and into his mouth; a few more spilled down his chin, and they left wet tracks in the dust there. At last, Abir stirred, his throat moving as his thirst roused him.

The man's eyelids fluttered. Nadima helped him drink several swallows of water while her daughter wiped away some of the dust on his face, and after a few more moments, he woke, his hand reaching clumsily for the cup.

"Relax," Nadima told him, a soothing tone in her voice entirely unlike her earlier brusqueness. "I will help you; do not try to do more than swallow." The man obeyed, and she let him finish the rest of the water before lowering him back to the pallet. "Rest a moment, and then you can have some more water if you are able. Rest now."

"Abir," Jaffir said, crouching beside his pallet. "Do you know me? Do you know where you are?"

Though he was plainly still in a great deal of pain, Abir's eyes fluttered open again, and they were lucid; he nodded, his mouth tight. "Jaffir," he said after a moment. His eyes traveled around the inside of the tent for a moment, resting longest on Duncan before they closed again. "I reached you."

"Yes, and you are lucky to be alive."

"Alive." He swallowed. His voice was rough, abraded by the wind. "Yes, I--" A line appeared between his brows, as if a memory returned. His eyes opened suddenly and he tried to sit up before pain flashed across his face. "Husani. I left him--"

What little color had been in Abir's face was gone now. He panted a little, struggling against the pain he'd caused himself by trying to move too soon. Nadima would have intervened, but Jaffir signaled her away sharply. "Abir, what about Husani? What did you come to tell us?"

Duncan didn't understand what Abir said then, but he thought it might have been a curse. Then, "Emad," he said, with perfect clarity. "It was Emad. We were riding-- We saw him. At the pass. Husani rode ahead-- Husani--" Abir's eyes were closed now, his skin ashen beneath the streaky remnants of the dust storm. His words slurred, and Duncan was afraid he would lose consciousness again. Nadima once more pressed the cup to his lips, and this time Jaffir let her tend to the injured man until at last he rallied and seemed to focus on Jaffir's gaze.

"Emad," Jaffir prompted, his tone kind, though Duncan could see the tension in his body. "Where was he? At the pass, Abir?"

"Yes," Abir nodded, rasping. "We were to bring him word of the parley, but before we made it to his camp, we saw him on the trail, with many men--"

"How many?" Jaffir cut in.

"Perhaps fifty, maybe more. Husani was with me -- riding with me. We saw them. We were supposed to bring him word -- but we knew one of us had to warn you. Husani rode ahead with the message from Rashanal, and I turned back. I rode as fast as I could. I do not know if they saw me."

Jaffir squeezed his arm, then looked up, meeting Duncan's eyes. "He must mean the eastern pass, the Akhti. If they were riding from Jakir's camp, that's the pass they would take. With fifty men, Emad might be two, three hours behind Abir. Perhaps a little more."

This was worse luck than they had imagined. "Do you think he means to attack?" Duncan asked. Night was all but upon them, and that would but serve Emad all the better if he meant to take them unawares.

Jaffir considered. "If Abir was seen, Emad knows we have been warned and that he no longer has the element of surprise -- and even if he was not seen, I would hope that Husani would make it clear, if threatened, that he was not riding alone. In any case, the message may send him one of two ways: either he will move forward, hoping to still catch us unready, if his plan was to attack; or he will wait to see what Rashanal has in store for him, thinking he still has the advantage of numbers if he does not like what Rashanal has to say."

He thought a moment before he spoke again. "Me, I think he will come to the parley, bide his time. Wait to see what develops. In spite of his recent aggressiveness, he is generally a cautious man." He grinned fiercely. "And if he still thinks to catch us off guard by arriving early, I will change his mind." He turned back to the injured man. "Abir, do not fear for your brother's sake. I do not think Emad would be so foolish as to harm an emissary when he is not certain of his advantage. You did well to reach us so quickly."

Exhausted by his effort, Abir just nodded, closing his eyes. Leaving him to Nadima's care, Jaffir and Duncan left the tent, stepping outside to find the wind had stilled at last to a faint, cool stirring that lifted the edges of their robes, but no longer assaulted them with the sting of sand. Evening was gathering in the east, and to the west, the sun was visible for the first time all day, a distant, muted glow. To the south, the edge of the sandstorm darkened the sky like thunderclouds rolling into the distance, still mysterious and awesome, but no longer a threat.

"Will you send a party to search for Rashanal and Jakir?" Duncan asked, voicing the hope that rose in him, seeing the sky clearing at last.

But Jaffir shook his head, regret in his eyes. "With nightfall coming on, and Emad drawing near, I cannot spare the men. I must take a party to greet Emad. I want to make certain that he does not think he can take us by surprise -- and I must lead him to believe that Rashanal is with us already, to carry out Rashanal's plan as long as I am able. Those I do not take with me, I will leave here to guard the camp in case I have guessed wrong about what Emad will do. Rashanal must find his own way home, I'm afraid."

Duncan felt the words that wanted to be said and struggled against them, pride and his better judgment serving as counterweights to his concern. Jaffir was right. His place should be here, with the men, ready to defend the camp if need be.

But Jaffir didn't need him, another part of him argued. What difference could one man make, really? Particularly one forbidden to carry a sword?

"I could go," he said, knowing even as he said it that he invited Jaffir's irritation, or worse, his pity. His chin lifted, and he met Jaffir's gaze without shame, his fear overcoming his pride now that the storm was lifting, now that they were no longer trapped here, helpless. "I would give you my word to return, to do nothing that would make you regret--"

The look Jaffir gave him was not one of anger, or pity, but compassion, tempered by the inner steel of a leader, a man who was rapidly becoming familiar with the difficult decisions that leadership demanded. "Duncan, I do regret that I cannot let you go, but I need you to watch over Souraya and the baby for me. My father will be responsible for all our people while I am gone; I need someone who will keep my family safe. But also, I do not like to think about what Rashanal would say if I sent you out into the desert alone, at night." He smiled faintly, his wry understanding softening the blow. "Despite the last few days, I'm fond of living, my friend."

Duncan could only nod, his slight smile forced, frustration knotting his stomach. He glanced eastward again, toward the deepening purple of the sky, and the horizon, once more visible against it. Jaffir could not know that the desert was no threat to him now that the storm had passed. And even if he had known, a small voice inside told Duncan that immortality or no, Jaffir was right, and Rashanal would not take kindly to the news that his slave had gone alone into the desert looking for him.

Assuming any of them ever saw Rashanal again.

Jaffir left him, going to assemble his men for the ride out. They parted in understanding, and though Duncan toyed with the idea of escaping, going to search on his own, he rejected the idea. Jaffir's trust was not something he could easily put aside, not even for Rashanal's safety. And deep inside, he knew it was a fool's errand, with his ignorance of the desert. It was the warrior in him that called him to be doing something, anything; it was the man in him that counseled patience.

He went at last to the cooking tent and collected dinner for Souraya, Namal, and their guests; he wasn't hungry any more, and he felt the need to breathe the open air now that one could breathe it without choking. Letting Namal know that he would be standing guard outside, he took a position on a small rise above Jaffir's tent and, with effort, turned his thoughts to readying himself for whatever might come.

* * *

The coughing woke him, though whether from death or mere unconsciousness, Methos couldn't be sure. He coughed violently for what felt like an eternity, until he saw stars flashing before his eyes, and his chest and throat felt like they'd been savaged from the inside out. He thought he could taste blood.

With that realization, the thirst seized him, a powerful need for water that made him open his eyes, made him draw a shuddering breath. He fumbled at his side for his water skin, but his hand found only the gritty folds of his robes. Sharp stones scraped his knuckles; the pain helped bring him a little closer to full awareness. There really were stars, he realized as he blinked against the darkness and disorientation. It was night, and he could see the stars overhead.

Something wet touched his face, then. Something wet, and warm... Hot air whuffed over the cloth that kept him from being able to breathe, touched his skin. It felt familiar, smelled familiar, like...

...horse.

"Connard! Fadjur--" Methos made an incoherent noise of protest and pushed the wet gauze off his face. The horse whuffed up his nose, nickering softly, and Methos barely got a hand up in time to keep himself from getting slobbered on again. "You really know how to say good morning, don't you?" Trying to speak made him cough again. He tried to clear the dust out of his throat, but he lacked saliva to spit; he had to find the water skin and pray that all the water hadn't leached out of it into the dry ground.

When at last the coughing fit eased, he brushed a hand over his face, and a layer of grit came away on his fingertips. The same grit made his eyes burn, made his mouth taste like he'd been licking a sand dune. He'd spoken in French to the horse, he realized, and wondered what he'd been dreaming of before his companion had decided to kiss him awake. Whatever it was, it left him with a sense of urgency and near panic. A memory of the sun's heat, of bound, bloody wrists flickered through his mind, but he thrust it away. Such images had been recurring in his dreams for days now, regardless of what else he dreamed, but he resisted their importunity. Other things were more important now. How long had he been out? It had been almost nightfall when the storm had come up, but it might have been hours, a day, a week.

He looked at Fadjur, who was nosing among the rocks in hopes of finding a thatch of grass to eat, the long skein of fabric Methos had wrapped around his face now trailing rakishly behind him. The horse looked a bit worse for wear, a few cuts along his chest and flanks, more on his legs, but none of them were bleeding now, and he seemed to be walking all right. Maybe a day or two, then, at most. He didn't think the horse would survive out here for more than that, not without water, and with the scent of blood on the wind.

Water. His thirst made itself known again, and he suppressed the urge to cough that came with it. Probably the storm had protected them from predators thus far, but now it had cleared, and they were in danger. The rest of the party would be, too, if they lived; they had reached the rocky foothills, as they'd hoped, but this was leopard territory. Lynxes, too. Fadjur could probably fight off a lynx if he had to, but the cats would attack an unconscious man or injured animal without much hesitation.

Methos checked the sky and the position of the stars. The moon was just rising, so it was early yet, well before midnight. If it was an hour or two after nightfall, it was probably either a day or, less likely, two days after the storm had hit them. If he'd gone more or less due north, he might be anywhere from eight to fourteen hours from home -- assuming Fadjur was fit to ride.

No way to know, exactly, without a familiar landmark, and he saw none by the light of the stars. And what of Jakir, and the others? Could he hope that any of them had survived, and that he would find them in the tangle of canyons, ravines, and spurs they'd sought as refuge?

First things first. He began a methodical search of the ground around him, his joints protesting after too many hours of lying unconscious -- or dead -- on the cold, rocky ground. His own footprints and Fadjur's had long since been obliterated, so he had no way of knowing how they'd come into this ravine, but going by the dim memory of those last few minutes, he did his best to trace his route backwards.

His thoughts turned to Jaffir and the tribe as he searched. Had the storm hit them, too? And what of Emad, and the messengers they had sent ahead? Foolishly, now, it seemed -- all his plotting might end up crashing down on Jaffir's head thanks to the whims of the desert, and he'd be stuck out here unable to do anything about it.

It was deliciously perverse that now that he was alone and lost in the middle of nowhere, he wanted nothing more than to know that his people were safe, that those who had welcomed him so many years ago, a stranger, and made him their chieftain, would live to bear many more generations of children in this starkly beautiful, harsh, dangerous world they'd made their home. He knew Emad's kind, knew his pettiness, his greed. This was a hard land, and it bred such jealousy in some. Oh, yes, he was very familiar with it.

Methos stumbled over a patch of dry thicket in the darkness, and his weakness and thirst betrayed him; he fell, barely catching himself with his hands on the rocky ground. Sharp edges cut into his palms, and he swore halfheartedly, then knelt there for a moment, eyes closed, letting the scrapes heal themselves. His mouth was too dry to swallow, but the urge was still there. What he wouldn't give for a cup of water. No -- a stream, a cool, clear stream, burbling over the rocks in front of him, spilling into a pool. A brook, clear and dark in the starlight, running fast between green banks, the scent of new grass...

For some reason, the image of the brook and the grass and starlight made him think of the Highlander. He smiled, irony, sweet and cutting, twisting in his chest. The cool green hills of the Isles, and Duncan laughing, thanking him for coming with him, their legs bare, their stride long and free as they walked side by side. Yes, that sounded good. That sounded like Heaven, in fact. If only he believed in Heaven. His chest tightened with despair, and the dreams came back to him, images taken from his life, times of darkness and yes, despair, each one, in his dreams, turning to cool water and strong arms. It took no great intelligence to discern the patterns, the feeling of his own growing entrapment in dark eyes, the ridiculous obsession that he knew would be his undoing, even as in his dreams it tasted of freedom -- and love. He shook his head, sharply, driving all such maunderings away. Now there was time only to focus on the immediate future.

He moved, then, getting his feet under him, and his hand came to rest on something that wasn't dry and sharp -- something that was familiar, that gave way when he put his hand on it.

The water skin.

He fumbled with it, struggling to remove the stopper. The slight gurgle of water brought his thirst to the fore, and he forced himself to take only small sips, not knowing how far he had yet to go. Then he eyed Fadjur, and the bag, and pondered how to share his wealth. In the end he used one carefully-cupped hand, and refilled it twice, knowing it was little enough for the horse, but perhaps better than nothing. Fadjur took it greedily and looked in vain for more.

Having no more to offer him, Methos pulled himself up onto Fadjur's back and headed west along the foothills, keeping an eye out for any suspicious, sand-covered lumps that might be one of his companions, or one of their horses. They'd already lost one of each before the worst of the storm hit. If anything had happened to Jakir and his men, not only would it severely damage their chance to counter Emad's predations, but it would leave Jakir's people particularly vulnerable to attack.

He had traveled less than an hour when he heard the soft whuffling of a horse and the murmur of voices, coming from the shelter of some piled rocks. He approached cautiously. It was unlikely that it was anyone but his companions, but he hadn't lived as long as he had by taking foolish risks.

Closer to, he recognized one of the voices as Jakir's and felt a flood of relief, both for his plans, and personally. He realized that he quite liked the man, presumptuous as he was. Moving forward, no longer trying to move silently, he could just make out Jakir bending to talk to another man who was seated on the ground, his shoulders slumped. One of the others stepped forward as Methos approached, and Jakir looked up, a sharp cry of relief escaping him. "So you found us! Da'ud and Habib are out looking for you, although I have not let them range far. Altair is also missing, and I fear the worst. We lost contact with him not long after you seemed to disappear."

From his reaction, Methos confirmed his estimate of how long he'd been unconscious; it could be no more than a day. All was not yet lost, though Emad might be arriving at the rendezvous point by tomorrow afternoon. He could see now that it was Nasir seated at Jakir's feet, and he looked far gone in shock. Jakir's eyes followed his, and he shook his head sadly, then drew Methos aside. "Nasir is suffering, I fear. First the loss of Mazin and his steed in the storm, and now Altair, and Nasir's own favorite mount has died, as well." Jakir shook his head. "He has always been better with horses than people, and this death has hit him hard."

Methos was more concerned with the men themselves, and getting back to his own people. "How are we for water? How soon do you think we can proceed?"

Jakir clapped him on the shoulder. "Again, with your impatience! You would think that you had just come to the desert, my friend! Perhaps when you are older you will learn to slow down and let things pass as they will."

Methos swallowed his first, impulsive reply. "There are times for letting things happen as they will, and times when we must cause things to happen, friend. I believe that this is one of the latter." He looked over at Nasir, who had not moved. "If you do not think that your men can leave so soon, I will go forward on my own." He looked up at the stars, calculating. "I think that I still have the greatest portion of the night left. I can get quite a distance before the sun forces me to stop."

"You are exhausted, Rashanal! And your horse, as well. But we were fortunate; there is a small spring nearby, and my men found it without difficulty."

"If you would tell me where it is, I would be grateful." He knew his tone was harsh, but the sense of urgency that he had woken with was beating at him still, driving him on. He could see the doubt in Jakir's and fought back the urge to just take what he wanted. "I just-- I have to get back. I know I seem overly impatient to you, but I fear Emad's actions in my absence. Jaffir is a good man, and a strong and capable one, but he has not dealt with men like Emad."

Jakir's face eased. "You are right to be concerned," he said. "But all the more reason you should not rush into an unknown situation, alone." He looked thoughtfully back at Nasir, then out at the desert. "I do not think we strayed too far from our path. Even if we rest an hour or so, we could reach your camp before the sun is too high."

Just like that, Methos was close to blind rage, and it was all he could do to hold himself back. The feeling itself gave him pause, and he took a step back, and a deep breath.

"You know I am right, my friend." Jakir looked at him piercingly, as if familiar with the war Methos fought. He stepped forward and clasped Methos's shoulder. "We wait for Da'ud and Habib, and rest one hour, and then we ride. Together."

It did make sense. What good did he think he could do, alone, without Jakir and his men to fulfill his plans? Methos gave in, maddened by the wait, but the sudden influx and departure of strong emotion left him drained, feeling his exhaustion as he had not before. "Together, then. Let's hope that neither of us has reason to regret it."

Jakir's man led the way to the muddy water hole, its shallow pool protected by the rocky hollow in which it lay. Fadjur, not deterred by the mud, drank gratefully, then nudged him hard, as if to say that he, too, was ready to move on again -- but Jakir was right this time, and Methos knew it. The short climb had nearly done him in. Returning to the makeshift camp, he sank down to rest with his back against a boulder and looked over at Jakir, who crouched again by Nasir. "You are a good man, Jakir."

Jakir grinned, teeth flashing. "I am a great man." He looked directly at Methos, who could see that despite his strong tone, Jakir himself was tired and grief-stricken by his losses. "Among great men." He looked back out over the desert. "I hope Altair fares well."

"He is experienced in the ways of the desert," Methos said awkwardly. He knew that his words were small comfort, but he was glad to see some easing in the lines on Jakir's forehead before he turned back to comfort his tribesman and friend.

* * *

Jaffir's camp responded quickly to Abir's warning. Hadjii and Amon were to watch the trail from the Akhti pass, while a score of warriors would ride with Jaffir to await Emad. This advance party would present a ready, calm face to the rival chieftain, one of strength, rather than fear, and bring back word if Emad accepted the offer of truce and the invitation to discuss a peaceable agreement. In camp, the men who remained would rest and ready themselves to defend the tribe if necessary, while the women accelerated their preparations for the next day, readying for the feasting and expressions of hospitality that would accompany the summit, if Jaffir were successful.

Duncan found himself working with Isan, who insisted on searching through all of the stores and dishes they had to find the best of everything. She would not be shamed by what they would set before the other tribes to eat, nor acknowledge any hint of fear by presenting less than a picture of comfortable hospitality. If they were to maintain the image of strength, she knew the details of hospitality and formality would be crucial.

"Bah," Isan snarled, tossing aside a basket of dates. "Too dry." She picked up yet another basket, and Duncan sighed heavily. She glanced sharply at him, and Duncan composed himself once more. They had assembled cheese, bread, olives, and oil; there weren't that many baskets of dates left. Others were at work slaughtering animals to roast.

Other than that one outburst, Isan worked in silence, and she required his silence, as well. It gave Duncan too much time to think. Each time he had to stand and wait for Isan to make one of a hundred small decisions, his mind drifted back to Rashanal. He needed to move, to do something, to--

"Here." Isan thrust a small sack at him. "Take this to Jaffir, and have them find other work for you." She flicked her hand at the tent's door. "I cannot stand the way you sigh." She glared at him, a slight twist to her lips making her expression kind. Duncan bowed and quickly headed back to the disordered assembly outside. Anything would be better than waiting.

Jaffir and his men were almost ready to go, the horses stamping and shifting restlessly in reaction to the mood of the men. As he approached, Duncan saw Jaffir himself appear from the other direction, seeking out Namal and clasping his hands. "Father, one of us must keep the camp safe until Rashanal arrives."

"As it should be," Namal answered, smiling easily. "I have no doubt that you are ready to deal with Emad, and at my age, pride is less important than the comforts of my own tent. Fear not, my son. All will be well when you and Rashanal return." The two embraced, and Namal kissed his son warmly in an open display of affection that touched Duncan with its heartfelt simplicity, making him think of his own father's gruff pride in him, and the bitter pain of his condemnation.

He found Jaffir's mount and busied himself with securing the bundle Isan had given him, pushing the old grief away and telling himself that Namal was right. They were all trying to keep faith that peace would prevail, but the tribe had been shaken by recent events, and he could see the strain in the now-familiar faces. They were sending twenty of the tribe's valued warriors to bluff Emad and his fifty, and no hopeful words could erase the knowledge of those armed men somewhere out in the desert, growing nearer all the time. The storm had only served to emphasize the desperate balance of their existence here, and their dependence on the oasis Emad sought to claim. It seemed more likely than ever that they would have to fight after all, or leave behind the lands they'd called home.

Goodbyes were said, the men embracing while the women watched from a distance with brave faces. Their goodbyes to their husbands had been said in private, as was seemly, and they did not fuss now, their hopes and fears unspoken. Jaffir caught Duncan's eye as he and the other men sat astride their steeds in the flickering torchlight, and Duncan nodded to him, acknowledging the charge Jaffir had given him to look after his family. It was a subdued group who saw the riders off.

The moon had at last begun to show itself as the remnants of the obscuring storm moved off to the west. Its silver light spilled over the camp and drew a wide path across the sands beyond, creating the illusion of a ghostly road. Hopefully, Duncan thought, it would light Rashanal home.

"We must make sure everyone is ready," Namal said beside him, watching the men ride away into the night. "To fight, or to leave this place, if need be."

"Aye," Duncan said, honored that Namal would speak of this, but of course Namal would need his help, if it came to it. They both knew how quickly things might come to a head once Jaffir's men encountered Emad. Tariq and Jakir would be here soon, with men of their own, but when depended on the storm, and timing might mean the difference between peace and war now. Much rested on their ability to react quickly. "What remains to be done?"

"We have been fortunate, but the wind and sand have done their share of damage. There may be livestock missing, and we must assign a few men to examine and distribute the supplies that Sulayman was hoarding. Find Heyad and send him to me. Find Hadiya and Liron, and tell them that I wish them to circle the camp and make certain that everyone is ready, and to find out if assistance is needed elsewhere. Then go to Bayyan at the canyon and help him if he needs it. When you have finished, come back, and I will tell you what else needs doing."

Duncan nodded, grateful for the chance to help. Still, he hesitated, seeing his own ambivalence reflected in Namal's eyes. "Where will we go, if we are forced to run?"

"If Emad agrees to treat with us, Jaffir will ask him to make camp on the plateau. Our scouts can watch his men more easily there, and our way to the tunnels will be clear." Namal sighed. "If we have time, we will send the women and children there with those men we can spare, and hope that the others will be able to rejoin us. If not..." he trailed off.

Duncan nodded, honored at this further evidence of Namal's trust. "And then what, grandfather? Will Emad simply let us remain there indefinitely, a threat at his back?" He didn't like the idea of running. It would take the heart out of the men, he knew, and Emad seemed unlikely to stop at half measures.

"Once we are safely inside, we should be able to hold them off for some time. Then, we will just have to pray."

There was nothing more to be said. Accepting it, Duncan went.

He'd gone only a hundred yards or so when Ferran's voice raised a cry from the eastern edge of camp. He stopped and turned back, wondering what had alerted the sentry, the possibilities flashing through his thoughts in a tangled rush of apprehension and barely acknowledged hope.

He ran to the top of the same rise where he'd stood guard earlier, straining to see riders in the moonlight. But it was not a raiding party he saw, nor Rashanal and his companions returning. A lone rider approached, his dun horse laboring, and for a moment Duncan had the feeling of deja vu.

Then he recognized the distinctively short, round silhouette, the deep blue burnoose and white robes he'd seen before. He could just make out the wisp of beard. This man, he knew; Altair, he remembered, one of Jakir's companions -- almost certainly, one of the men who had ridden with Rashanal from Jakir's camp. As he watched, the small figure slowly fell forward, his mount's head lowering as its rider's grip on the reins faltered.

Men were hurrying toward horse and rider. Duncan started to follow, then remembered that Namal had charged him with duties of his own. With effort, he turned away, but he was barely aware of where his feet carried him, his thoughts full of the single question that would soon be racing through the camp with news of Altair's arrival: what had become of Rashanal?

* * *

Moonlight drew the jagged landscape in sharp lines and deep shadows as the party of men and horses wound its way through the rocks and crags, sticking close, but saying little. The hour's rest had done them good, and even Nasir seemed stronger for it; his face was drawn, but his hands were steady on the reins. Jakir had estimated they might reach Methos' camp by first light or a little after. As for Methos, he couldn't help a reluctance to hope for the best, when so far fate had been so clearly against them.

Of Altair, there was no sign. And what of Tariq and his men? Methos wondered, able to spare thought for their allies now that more immediate concerns no longer demanded his full attention. Tariq's camp was many hours' ride to the south and west, so it was possible that the storm had missed them entirely, but the way his luck had been running, the worst was equally possible. If that were the case, then Jaffir and Namal would be hard-pressed to salvage anything from this ill-fated meeting, and Hassad's little tribe might end up scattered to the four winds. He tried to be philosophical about it, knowing this had always been a high-risk plan, but he couldn't help the feeling of bitter helplessness and self-mocking. When had he lost his touch, exactly? Had he been fooling himself all along, or had he only started to lose his hold on reality when he'd first seen the Highlander on that auction block?

He hadn't forgotten the oath he'd sworn in the worst moments of the sandstorm, when his fear had been greatest and his stubborn will to live greater still. He who didn't swear oaths, didn't make promises -- it was only the latest bit of madness in the long downward spiral he'd been following since that day in the slave market. In the cool, moonlit stillness of the desert night, it should have seemed ridiculous, laughable.

He didn't feel much like laughing, though, or if he did, it was a kind of breathless, disbelieving laughter that made his chest feel tight, and his stomach feel like he was falling from a great height. It was ridiculous, all right, but that didn't stop him from feeling it. And what was he to name the eagerness that fluttered just under the surface of his self-control -- Emad and sandstorms and the disastrous failure of all his plans notwithstanding -- if not madness?

Knowing he could do nothing about any of it for the time being, he turned his attention to the rocky terrain with an effort of will, giving Fadjur his head and trying not to think any more about what might await them. And if his thoughts turned, occasionally, to dark eyes and strong arms, if wisps of hopes and dreams tried to distract him, was that his fault?

* * *

It seemed to Duncan that he had been living this day forever, and that he had spent most of it standing on one piece of high ground or another, watching the horizon until his eyes ached from the strain. A dull headache pressed against his skull. The waxing moon, so bright to his eyes now that it seemed almost like daylight, was his only companion; the sentries were patrolling another part of the camp's perimeter for the moment, and most of the camp had fallen into exhausted sleep, worn out from the stresses of the day.

His thoughts trod paths as familiar as the twenty feet of earth and scrub beneath his feet. They touched on Jaffir and his companions, who had almost certainly met Emad and his men by now, and would be greatly outnumbered, protected only by Jaffir's skill at bluffing. Thinking of Jaffir brought Souraya's face to mind, and Namal's, their calm example providing needed reassurance to the tribe, but not hiding their worry. More frequently, his thoughts rested on the possibility of battle, and where their best chances lay if it came to fighting. But none of these were what kept him awake, pacing the ridge and watching the desert. It was the battle between his conscience and his heart that kept him here, and he couldn't say at the moment which was winning.

His debt of gratitude to Jaffir was great, and he was loath to break a promise under any circumstances. But the camp was full of able warriors who would look after Souraya and her baby -- Rashanal was alone. Altair's return had erased any question of whether he might have turned back from the storm, and Duncan was all too aware that if the worst had happened, he might be Rashanal's only hope for escaping years of being buried alive, reviving only to die again over and over for God knew how long. How many times could an Immortal suffer that before he went mad? The idea of Rashanal's agile mind lost to madness was more than he could bear. Only Duncan would know to look for him; only Duncan, able to sense his presence, might have even the slightest hope of finding him in that vast sea of scorched sand.

And if he did, a small voice said, if he did save his life, might not Rashanal see him differently? Perhaps treat him as an equal -- as a friend, and more, instead of a slave?

It was that voice, and his doubt of his own motives, that had stopped him thus far. But each slow increment of the moon's passage across the sky brought him closer to betraying Jaffir's trust in him. He had not actually given his word, he reminded himself, eyes straying to the horizon once more.

But the thought shamed him, and made his headache worse. Whatever else he might have become, he--

Duncan froze. The hairs on his arms lifted, and the headache that wasn't a headache throbbed in his temples. A buzzing sensation like a thousand wasps swelled along his nerves, and he tensed, nostrils flaring. Immortal. Close. Where--?

Hearing a soft footfall, he turned. A lean figure stepped out into the moonlight from where it had been concealed by an outcropping behind him. He drew a breath, relief spilling over. He started to say, "Rashanal--"

--and then stopped as instinct warned him, a second too late, that the man he faced must have circled around him, and was now between him and the camp. Tall, with an easy grace like the tribal chieftain's, dressed in black robes like those Rashanal favored, but his skin was darker, his features something Asian, something African, something neither of those. A Moor, Duncan thought, hand instinctively reaching for a sword he didn't carry.

The other Immortal's laugh reached him, soft and scornful, rousing in Duncan an instant dislike. "Going to take my head with good intentions?" the other man purred, amusement coloring his soft, cultured voice. He moved closer and his robes shifted, revealing the curved blade of his own sword held lazily at his side.

The sound of that voice set Duncan's teeth on edge. Falling back on stubborn nerve, he shoved down the ripple of fear and faced the stranger, unflinching. "I am Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod."

The other man laughed again, almost delighted, as if Duncan were the most amusing thing he'd ever encountered. "My dear young pup. Has no one told you it's the height of foolishness to challenge a man with a sword, when you have none?" He drew to within a haycart's length, and now Duncan could see his eyes. They were utterly cold, like a reptile's.

"I'll no' need one," Duncan said baldly, having seen eyes like that more than once. There would be no reasoning with his like. "Yours should suit me, once I take it away from you."

Blandly, as if Duncan were beginning to bore him, the other man drawled, "Look how I shake. My breath comes in labored gasps. What courage! What bravado!" The curved sword made a small, lazy arc at his side. His negligent hold on it was a little too deft, its balance too perfect, to sustain the pretense that he was anything but a gifted swordsman. Duncan's stomach sank. He'd seen that kind of skill and experience before, in Connor's hands, and knew enough to recognize it.

"What do you want?" he demanded, wondering if he could cry an alarm and wake the camp before the stranger took his head. Well, it would hardly matter, he thought grimly -- the Quickening would be warning enough. "If it's a challenge you seek, let me fetch my sword, and I'll--"

But the other man laughed again, his expression twisted into a deliberate parody of benevolence, as if Duncan weren't even worth insulting. "Don't worry, little wolf cub. I don't sleep with virgins, and I don't kill children. I come seeking the man who calls himself Rashanal El-Amin, not an infant without the sense to carry a sword. Do me a favor and tell me which tent is his, and I'll let you live."

For the first time that day, Duncan was glad that Rashanal had not returned. "I'll do you no favors," he snapped, "and the day I betray him to the likes of you is the day I stop calling myself a Scot."

Something in those cold eyes glittered at that. "I do believe I'm enchanted. I'd heard he'd bought himself a barbarian catamite, but I had no idea such a delicious bit of gossip could get better. One of us, no less! And you seem to have taken the bit willingly, indeed. Tell me, what's his secret? Or were you already broken to the reins when he bought you?" Duncan surged forward, but the wicked blade came up faster than thought, hovering neatly above his heart. The Moor grinned, a shark's grin. "Ah, ah, careful. Let's not forget which of us has the advantage here."

Feeling the sharp prick of that finely-honed point through his robe, palm itching for the hilt of his sword, Duncan struggled to keep his outraged pride in check. His face flamed. "Keep a civil tongue in your head, if you want to keep it," he managed. It was an empty threat, and they both knew it, but if desire to kill were enough to behead a man, he'd have this arrogant bastard's Quickening already.

"Oh, you are a delight," the other man chuckled, shaking his head. "I must say, it's tempting to relieve him of his prize possession just to see what he's made of you. A proper bath and a de-lousing, and I might even enjoy it. Too bad I've a prior engagement with your dear master." At Duncan's expression, his keen interest sharpened even more. "You really do care for him, don't you? It upsets you, to know that I'm going to kill him. How remarkable. And do you imagine that he returns the sentiment, you poor, deluded child?"

"He cares nothing for me," Duncan said-- and then knew he'd spoken too quickly when the dark eyes gleamed.

"No," the Moor said, "I'm sure that's true. Still." The point of his sword circled thoughtfully above Duncan's heart. "Perhaps he does value you, in his manner. Perhaps I'll take you with me, to encourage him to play."

The thought of being used against Rashanal was bad enough, but the thought of this monster loose in the camp was worse. On the other hand, if he let himself be led back to Rashanal's tent, perhaps he could get his hands on a sword. He didn't fool himself that it would be an even fight, but a chance was better than nothing, which was what he had now. "You're a fool if you think he cares whether I live or die, and you're a coward if you try to use me against him. But it doesn't matter -- he'll take your head, fool or coward, and I for one can't wait to see him do it. Give me your word that you'll harm no one else, and I give you my word that I'll take you to his tent."

For a moment, he thought the man would fall for it, but he'd underestimated the sharp perceptiveness in the mercurial stranger's eyes. The man stepped back a fraction, and that velvet-soft laugh came again, oddly musical. "He's not here, is he?" He shook his head, something that was almost respect flickering in his expression for the first time. The sword flickered upward, nudging the fold of Duncan's burnoose aside so that the Moor could better appraise his face in the moonlight. "So carefully worded. So careful of your honor, you won't even break your word to a man who holds you at sword point. I begin to understand what he sees in you, little wolf cub." Casually, as if brushing away a fly, he drew a sharp, stinging line down the curve of Duncan's neck. Blood welled up in its path, and Duncan held himself still with effort. All the humor went out of his tormentor, as abruptly as a candle being snuffed out. "Tell me where he is."

"Go to the devil."

"I don't believe in your devil. Where is he?" The sword flickered, and a matching line of fire slid along the other side of Duncan's neck, deeper this time. He inhaled sharply. The man was standing too close to him, and every instinct urged him to fight.

"I don't know."

"Tell me, my pale friend, or I will find someone in your camp who will." The sword's fine edge pressed against his artery, and Duncan fought to keep still. His breath came short. Would the bastard kill him after all, and start on the tribe next? He should have cried out when he had the chance, he thought, should have at least tried to raise the alarm. Pride had lost him whatever chance he might have had.

"I don't know," he said at last. If the man were after Rashanal, perhaps the truth would divert him from harming anyone else. "Nobody in the camp knows. He was lost in the storm -- we don't know when he'll return."

The other man stilled, and something in his face changed. "Do tell. Now that, my dear Duncan MacLeod, of the Clan MacLeod, is a fascinating development indeed." The bland smile returned then as if it had never been gone, and the Moor took something from his robe, just out of Duncan's field of vision. Amusement flickered around the other man's sensuous mouth. Had he reminded Duncan of a snake? More a cat, now, he thought, toying with its prey.

"Who are you?" he demanded, struggling not to betray the helplessness he felt. And the moment he said the words, it came to him -- as it should have from the beginning -- what a coincidence it was that the man had appeared out of the desert on this night of all nights. "You're with Emad," he said, understanding dawning. "You're the one behind all this."

The Moor laughed softly, delight in his expression. "You do continue to surprise me, little wolf cub. Wars can be so troublesome, can't they? On the other hand, they can be quite convenient."

"Aye, for those that want to make a profit by them. Is that why you're here?"

"So many questions! But I'm afraid I must leave you soon. Your master is on his way even now, I'm sure, and I have to prepare a proper welcome." The other man's eyes almost sparkled at the thought of it. "It's amazing how tenuous life is in the desert, isn't it? A whole tribe's survival depending on one well, for example. Hard to imagine how fragile their lives are." It might have been a non sequitur, but in the periphery of his vision, Duncan saw something gleam. He flinched slightly as he felt the sting of a knife point trace the corner of his mouth. Instinctively, he touched the place where it bled with his tongue; there was a faint, bitter aftertaste, and the place where it had cut him grew numb. "Do you feel that? I brought it for your chieftain, but as he's unavailable, I'm afraid I'll have to give it to you instead."

Duncan's tongue suddenly didn't want to cooperate. "What--?"

"They make it in Amazonia. They call it curari, and they use it to hunt. A wonderful invention -- and wonderfully useful. A little on the tip of a dart, and it can bring down an animal in seconds. It paralyzes, you see. First the limbs, and then, very quickly, the lungs. Of course, the animal is fully aware of what's happening. At least until it suffocates to death, or the hunter clubs it over the head, whichever comes first."

Duncan's heart accelerated. Surely such a small amount couldn't be a lethal dose? The numbness was spreading, and with it came an icy needle of fear, but it wasn't his death the Moor was talking about. He was talking about mortal lives. He was talking about poison. "Why?" he asked, trying to buy time, though he could feel the poison working on him even now, his breath coming short. "Why kill the women and the children?"

"Why not? They all die anyway. Funny enough, so can we."

Before Duncan knew the other man had moved, he felt the delicate pressure of unforgiving steel sliding hot between his ribs, slicing effortlessly through skin and muscle to sink deep, so deep, into his heart. He staggered, and tried to grasp for the handle of the knife, but his knees gave out, and he went down hard. A curtain shimmered over his vision as he fought for breath against a cold wave of paralysis.

The last thing he saw was the Moor, watching him as if delighted, leaning down to cup a hand under his chin; to Duncan's helpless revulsion, he felt the bastard claim a kiss from him, his mouth exploring Duncan's with voluptuous intimacy.

"Sleep well, little wolf cub," the silky voice said, and everything went black.

Chapter Text

Duncan's heart stuttered with sluggish reluctance; it was the sharp spasm of clenching agony that brought him awake with a jolt. He sat up with the panicked sense of suffocating, the pain pressing the air from his lungs. His desperate gasp for breath became a dry, raspy cough, and he clapped a hand to his chest in blind instinct, fingers closing on the bone handle of the still-protruding knife and pulling it free. The cloth of his robes had been drenched in blood, now dry, and the slender blade was rough and black with it.

Duncan stared at the weapon for a moment, feeling more than a little sickened at the too-vivid picture his mind painted. The poisoned blade had ensured that he would stay dead for some time. The muscle must have healed and re-healed a dozen times, forcing the blade slowly from the wound by increments. Had he revived before, only to die again immediately? It seemed likely, but if so, he couldn't remember it.

He drew an unsteady breath, rubbing at his chest. It was tender and bruised, but mostly healed, the blood-soaked cloth stiff to his touch. How long, then, had he been dead?

He staggered to his feet, gazing skyward, attempting to guess from the position of the moon and stars. The Moor hadn't bothered to take his head, perhaps because he couldn't be sure whether Rashanal might be close enough to see the Quickening, or perhaps because Duncan simply wasn't worth his time, save as a pawn for his own amusement. He rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth, wishing he could wipe away the memory of that mocking assault.

Duncan would do his best to make the insolent wretch regret his choice.

His mind clearing, he thought that he couldn't have lain there more than a handful of hours. He was fortunate that none of the tribesmen had found him, as nervous and alert as they were.

Looking around, he realized why: the Moor had dragged his body a short distance and shoved it into a small hollow under the ridge, not easily visible from above. Since he had already finished his chores for the night, he would not have been missed -- would not be missed until daybreak, in fact. He didn't like the thought of those missing hours, though, nor what his assailant might have used them to accomplish.

Why had Duncan told him that Rashanal was lost in the storm? He should have thought of a plausible lie. By now, Emad would know he had been deceived, and it was almost certainly Jaffir and his people who would pay for that deception. Duncan flushed as he remembered the crude taunts, true though they were, and how easily they had provoked him. He had been as transparent to the Moor as he had always seemed to Rashanal. Would he always be such a readable fool, or would time grant him, too, the ability to conceal his own thoughts as he read those of others? Remembering the look of calculation in the other man's eyes, he shook his head to rid it of self-pity. His mind spun furiously on what he knew, and on what the other Immortal planned.

The jagged landscape was full of hollows and shadows, and it was all too easy to imagine the black-clad figure concealed, lying in wait in some rocky niche with a good vantage point, waiting to surprise an exhausted Rashanal as he returned home. Even being able to sense him would not give Rashanal enough time to prepare. The Moor plainly harbored no intent to challenge Rashanal fairly; his poison could be delivered with an arrow as easily as a blade, winning him Rashanal's head and leaving Emad free to lay waste to the rest of the tribe. Worse still, Duncan realized, a chill touching him, the bastard might bide his time, wait for a chance to bring Rashanal down in front of witnesses. Occupied as Duncan was sure to be with his own duties, he couldn't count on being able to warn Rashanal in time -- all it would take would be a silent dart, or a vessel of bad water, and the Moor could bring about disaster for the tribes. If Rashanal revived too soon, the tribesmen might even behead him or burn the body to cast out the unnatural demons.

Duncan wished he could believe that Namal and Jaffir would prevent such a thing, but he remembered too well what it was like to be called demon by those who had once trusted you, to be driven before stones hurled by men you had called friend. If that happened, Emad might even sway the other tribal leaders against Rashanal's people.

He forced himself to bring a halt to reckless speculation, wrenching his thoughts back to the present. It would do him no good to let his imagination run away with him. He'd lost too much time already, and the only thing of which he could be certain was that both Rashanal and his people were in danger as long as that camel dung lived.

Shaking off the last of his unsteadiness, he climbed back up the ridge to look down on the camp, silent and almost entirely dark. It seemed almost certain that Rashanal hadn't yet returned, if things were so quiet, but did that mean he was still all right, or had the Moor already been lucky enough to intercept him? Or -- he shuddered -- had the bastard made good on his threat against Jaffir's people, somehow poisoning them as they slept? No, surely that must have been for Duncan's benefit, a warning to keep their encounter to himself. He didn't fool himself that the threat was less than real, but he had to believe that not even a man with so little regard for life would kill for no reason.

A bitter taste coated Duncan's mouth as he stood on the ridge, trying to see what he could do, with hours lost to him, to stop those fears from becoming reality. His earlier thoughts of Rashanal lying buried seemed foolish now; if Altair had escaped the storm unscathed, chances were even better that Rashanal survived, and he would surely not be too far behind. Duncan cursed his own slowness, berating himself again for betraying Rashanal to that silky-tongued snake. He had done it to protect the tribe, seeing no other choice, but could he forgive himself if it cost Rashanal his head?

With that thought, his path came clear. It tore at something in Duncan to betray the trust Jaffir and Namal had placed in him, but he could not let the Moor go unchallenged, could not risk Rashanal dying that way, if he had the power to stop it. He had to believe there was still time, that he wasn't too late. Perhaps there was even a slim chance that if he moved quickly, he could find the Moor and deal with him before anyone noticed his absence. Perhaps, he thought with a grim smile, he would start by giving him back his knife.

Hurrying now towards camp, he made swift plans. He couldn't afford to wait for Rashanal to return -- under the threat of that lethal poison, the opportunities for his enemy to strike were too many. He did have an advantage, though: the one thing the Moor would not anticipate was Duncan's ability to swiftly lay his hands on a weapon and escape. A man of no honor himself, the interloper could not know that it was only a promise that bound Duncan to Rashanal, and he would not expect a captive slave to pose any immediate threat. Duncan's only hope was to take advantage of that mistaken assumption and find the Moor himself before he could cause irreparable harm.

He would need a horse, and a sword. Thinking of the unopened chests in Rashanal's tent, he spared a thought of profound gratitude for a certain dark-haired minx and the highly educational weeks he'd spent in her company. Thanks to Amanda's tutelage, he should be able to manage the locks without too much trouble.

Getting close to the horses would be trickier. He had seen from the ridge that many of them were tethered outside the tents, the men ready to mount at a moment's notice. It would be an easy matter to take one of these, but the animal might startle and raise the alarm before he could escape the close quarters of the tents. The horses corralled at the canyon were a safer gamble. It wouldn't be the first time he had sought refuge with the beasts in his care, and after the previous day's events, he would be even less likely to invite suspicion. Better still, once he was on Fanny's back, no one would be able to stop him. Not even Fadjur had been able to match her, and he could hear Rashanal's voice in his memory, telling him that never again would he see her like. It had felt like a privilege, and a gift, being allowed to ride her under the stars, but he hadn't quite understood all the levels of trust it implied until this moment.

It gave him momentary pause as he thought about what he risked, particularly where Rashanal was concerned -- that he should betray the memory of that night with theft, and the breaking of his word. That he should use the trust the tribe and its chieftain had placed in him as an aid to that deception. Surely Namal and Jaffir would know that if he meant to escape, he would pick a better time to do so than when the camp was on high alert? And yet it would be hard for them to see it as anything other, he knew, than a desperate bid to escape in the last moments before his captor's return. Still, at least Rashanal, with his knowledge of Immortals, would understand once Duncan explained...if he gave Duncan the chance.

With effort, Duncan put such worries aside; they were a concern for the future, and worth the price.

He met no one as he moved back through the camp, but the undisturbed tents and the normal night sounds of people stirring, their faint snores, reassured him. Jaffir's gambit must have worked, and Emad must have accepted the offer of guest-friendship, at least for now. Those who had stayed behind, exhausted from the day's labors, had probably been abed for hours. In the excitement, one missing barbarian slave had gone unnoticed. He could only hope that luck held.

Reaching Rashanal's tent, he quickly stripped off his bloodstained robe, stuffing it in a trunk. Fighting down the need for haste, he took time to find a clean one. An illicit thrill of anticipation made his stomach flutter as he set to work on one of the locked chests, something in him that had been lulled to sleep coming alive as he bent to action.

The lock gave way under his concentrated efforts. He opened the chest, pulling vials and vessels and other belongings out of it, sparing them barely a glance. In the bottom compartment, beneath a fabric-lined divider, his hands closed on a heavy wrapped bundle. Two more lay beside it; the tell-tale scent of mineral oil told him he had guessed right.

He opened the longest one, folding back the layers of cloth to bare the weapon it protected. The light, curved blade was nothing like the heavier sword he was used to. It had a thin blade with some heft to it, and a smooth wooden handle that fit his hands well. He picked it up, weighing it in his grip, making a few smooth passes. It would do.

It felt good, having a sword in his hand again. Having to do without it so long had felt unnatural, as if some part of himself had been taken from him, a loss to which he had never become accustomed. He held the sword out again and stared down at it, remembering idle thoughts he'd had of asking Rashanal to let him train again, to maybe even spar with him. He remembered their one, terribly-uneven fight and knew that there were so many things Rashanal could teach him, if he were willing, moves Duncan had never seen. Little chance of that now, if Duncan were caught.

For one wild moment, Duncan considered actually escaping if he managed to deal with the Moor. He had a rough idea of the path they'd traveled to the camp, perhaps he could... But even as he thought it, he shook his head in denial. Even if it were practical, he could not do it. He would not leave these people thinking that he'd fled, and he couldn't let Rashanal think that he'd broken his word. His own sense of honor would not let him run from the consequences of his choices. He ignored any other reason he might have to stay.

His mouth set, he tied the sword in close to his body and threw the dark-colored burnoose over it, the folds of cloth disguising its presence. Then he set out for the canyon.

The camp remained quiet and still, but as he passed close by Jaffir's tent, he saw a light struck, and heard voices raised. He paused reluctantly, but he needed to know what had happened to occasion the waking of the acting chief. Moving closer to the tent, he stopped as voices became clear; he recognized Jaffir's, sounding tired. The second voice was familiar, too, and it took him only a moment to recognize it as Ferran's.

"Tariq sends his greetings and good wishes for your health, sayid. He said to tell you he is looking forward to seeing you again, and that he is relieved to know your father is still too stubborn to let a sharqi swallow us up."

"How many men does he bring with him?"

"More than a dozen strong warriors, Thaqib and Ghiyath among them. They have made camp to the south, as you asked, and he said to tell you that they await your counsel."

"I would give five good camels to see Emad's expression in the morning, when he sees Tariq's round face."

"You must have woven a colorful carpet to entice him to sit at our fire, sayid. I must admit, I thought we would be fighting before the moon was high last night."

"I, too, if you must know. But he must be wiser than we gave him credit for -- or else he knows Rashanal well enough to suspect a more intricate weaving. In any case, he accepted the offer of guest-friendship with all the proper tradition, and all is ready for tomorrow. Husani rode with them, and he said that though there was some cursing among his men at his message, Emad himself said nothing, and was the measure of graciousness to him. Now, if Allah smiles upon us soon and brings Rashanal and Jakir safely home, we may yet have hope."

"May Allah grant it. It will soon be first light."

"Go and wake my father, and ask him to meet me here. We will confer with old Tariq while we may, and be back before the sun is over the ridge."

Duncan drew back swiftly, concealing himself in the shadows; Ferran left the tent and passed within two yards of him, but never looked in his direction. He could hear Jaffir inside the tent, readying to ride out. He glanced at Jaffir's steed, tethered close by as he had seen from the ridge, but rejected the idea; better to go with his first plan, and take Fanny from the canyon. In a moment Jaffir would be outside, and Duncan would too easily be seen. And it was possible that the very fact so many had their own animals in readiness might make Duncan's task easier. In any case, he couldn't afford to risk raising an alarm until he was safely away; if he were stopped, he could not explain, and the Moor and his scheming would go undetected and unchallenged. And he had to move fast, or risk being seen on his way by Jaffir and Namal, as they went to talk with Tariq.

Slipping away, Duncan wove a swift, silent path between the tents, putting several between himself and Jaffir's. He circled out a bit to avoid crossing paths with Namal and Ferran, waiting until he was well north of the camp to leave the concealing shadows of the tents and strike out toward the canyon.

His feet knew the path well, and he made little noise as he went. As he reached the slope and the ground began to rise under his feet, he realized he could just make out the outlines of the rock-lined trail; the sky was getting almost imperceptibly lighter. He quickened his pace, holding the sword close at his side to keep it from impeding his steps. The weight of it was familiar and reassuring, and made him feel more like his old self, ready to fight. To win, he told himself. To prove himself.

As he neared the horses, he could hear their soft whuffles and murmurs. He debated the merits of heading straight through the mouth of the canyon and climbing the slope to approach the enclosure from the side, but decided that his original plan was best, if he encountered a guard -- as he surely would. And if he could convince the guard that he was just taking Fanny out to let her stretch her legs, so much the better. His inability to sleep shouldn't occasion any surprise.

Still, his nervousness grew as he drew closer, and he thwarted the urge to start whistling, as if that would make him seem more natural and casual. He saw no one as he rounded the corner to the enclosure and thought for a moment that his luck was true, and the guard was doing a walk around the horses, or something. Then a voice came from the shadows.

"Halt!" It was Bayyan, and Duncan's heart sank. Bayyan seemed to have no issue with Duncan, but neither had he shown any particular signs of friendliness. Beyond that, Bayyan was strong and stout, more formidable than some of the other warriors, if it came to force.

Duncan forced himself to remain calm, and to not reach to steady the sword under his robes. Even if the shape of it were visible, the shadows would hide it, as long as he drew no attention to it.

"Greetings, Bayyan, it's Duncan," he said, then felt foolish as Bayyan stepped out close enough to touch him, clearly close enough to have seen who it was. "With all the excitement, I was unable to sleep. I thought I'd come and see Fanny, maybe walk her. She's been restless these last few days, and impatient with her confinement." Even to his own ears, his voice sounded rushed and nervous, the foreign words a little too practiced.

Bayyan's face was in shadow, but his hand rested on his sword, and once again Duncan had to keep from reaching for his own, so quickly did ingrained instincts return.

"I do not think I can allow that, Highlander. With enemies so close, it would be dangerous." He made no further movements, but Duncan did not think his concern was for Duncan's own welfare.

He made himself smile, hoping it didn't look too forced. "Then I'll just see how she's doing, brush her for a while." He made to step past Bayyan, and was stopped by a hand tight on his arm.

"I think perhaps you should not," Bayyan said quietly. "I do not mean to insult you--" and Duncan felt a momentary warmth that Bayyan would say such a thing to a slave "--but things have been so strange and restless lately that I am uneasy with any change in routine. And there is no telling if Emad has men ranging around us; it could be quite dangerous."

Duncan sighed inwardly, any hopes that this would be simple fading. "Very well," he said calmly, hoping he showed no signs of his turmoil. "I'll just head back to camp, then."

Bayyan relaxed and bowed his head slightly, releasing Duncan's arm to stand back. Duncan turned, away from Bayyan, then swung around rapidly, using the spin to add power to his blow, which knocked the unsuspecting Bayyan off his feet. He lay there, shaking his head slightly, and Duncan dropped on him, his elbow coming down sharply on Bayyan's temple, leaving him unconscious. Duncan winced, hoping he had not hurt him too badly. "I'm sorry, my friend, you left me no choice."

He pulled Bayyan back into the shadows, quickly tying him with his own sash, and muffling his mouth. He hoped that he would be found soon, but not too soon.

Moving with now greater urgency, he let himself into the enclosure and found Fanny, her pale coat easy to spot in the rising dawn. She nickered softly and came to him, putting her nose into his hand for the sweet he usually brought her, blowing softly and nudging his palm as she found it empty.

"I'm afraid I've nothing for you today," he told her, rubbing her poll by way of apology. He drew her head down, tightening the rope halter that was the only harness she wore. "Nothing save an adventure, my lady, if you'll consent to carry me." She nudged him hard, rubbing her face against his chest. Glancing back toward the camp, he drew the sword from beneath his robes, tying it hastily at his waist, then wrapped the end of her rope around his arm and wound his hand in a firm grip upon her mane. As if she understood, her head came up, and he felt her readiness; when he slapped her lightly on the rump, she sprang forward eagerly, and he nearly lost his hold. Taking a few running steps, he flung himself upward. In a moment her fluid gait was under him, cantering easily for the gap in the rocks.

At the mouth of the canyon, she answered to his pull on the rope and let him shut the gate. She danced a little with impatience as he took her cautiously down the trail, watching for any sign that he'd been spotted; when they were out of sight of the camp, he let her have her head, and she answered with a surge of speed that nearly unseated him. Legs squeezed tight against her sides, he rode for Emad's as fast as Fanny could carry him.

It was only as he was finally on his way that Duncan took the time to wonder how he would entice the Moor out without revealing himself to the camp at large. He finally decided to play the Moor's own game and let his Immortal signature offer the lure that drew his enemy from hiding. This time, the Moor's overconfidence would work in Duncan's favor. He seemed to think he held all the cards when it came to Rashanal, and obviously considered Duncan no threat at all.

Still, a last shadow of doubt tempered Duncan's eagerness for battle, and he hoped his own wounded pride was not causing him to act foolishly. He might not be as old as Rashanal, but he was no child, either, no matter how the Moor taunted him. The trouble was, it was the Moor who held all the key positions on the chessboard, and as things stood he could engineer almost any outcome that suited him; Duncan's only hope was to upset the status quo and surprise him before he could strike. Whatever risks he took now, it had to be better to act than to wait, helpless, while the other Immortal played out his game, whatever it was.

Pushing doubt aside, Duncan bent low over Fanny's neck and urged her on, his fists itching to knock that smirk off the smug bastard's face. He'd show the Moor that Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod was not to be treated like an infant, too young to come out to play.

Too soon, and yet not soon enough, Duncan saw tents ahead and slowed to a stop. He had to find somewhere to hide Fanny while he proceeded on foot, so as to avoid the guards he knew Emad would have watching.

Emad had set up camp north of Rashanal's camp, between that and the pass through the mountains into his own lands. It was out of the desert proper, amidst the rocky foothills, and Duncan had little trouble finding a place to conceal Fanny. He left her within reach of a patch of grass and moved carefully onward, hearing her quiet reassuring whuffles fade into the background.

He had not gone far before he saw the expected sentries, and he quickly drew back before they could see him. Duncan clung to the shadows near a rocky outcropping and tried to find himself a path. He decided that if he circled the edge to the left, where the shadows were thicker, either he'd find a way into the camp, or he'd feel the Moor's Immortal signature. And if he could feel the Moor, the Moor would be certain to feel Duncan in return; as there was no telling one Immortal from another by mere presence alone, perhaps the arrogant bastard would believe that Rashanal had arrived and come out to greet him.

It was a plan, anyway.

He moved as swiftly and as quietly as he could, circling around the encampment. It was clear that Emad had not come on a peaceful mission -- too many men, too many fighters for anything other than invasion. At each outcropping, there was a small group of men with bedrolls, most sleeping, but always with one man awake, weapons within easy distance of all. He passed by his third set and saw his chance. He was now northwest of where he had first entered, on the side furthest from Rashanal's camp. No sentries were visible here, and Duncan could easily slip into the shadows of the nearest tent, maybe fifty paces away.

He made thirty before he felt it, the prickling of hair at the base of his neck and the uncomfortable feeling like bees feasting on his sweat rolling over his skin. He turned and looked; there in the shadows in which he had hoped to hide stood the Moor.

"I have been waiting patiently for our host to arrive," the Moor drawled, stepping forward, "but once again I find you in his place. Did you miss me, pup, and decide to run away to me? One kiss that exciting for you? Your master Rashanal must not take care of your needs that you so eagerly seek another."

"I am no pup," Duncan said, freeing his sword. "And this time I am ready for you."

"I think not," the Moor said, flashing a grin. "But that is a fine-looking weapon. Where did you get it? Stolen from your master, I'll wager." He clucked his tongue. "How shameful."

"Walk with me back to the rocks, and I'll show you how shameful it is."

"I think not. This game is done, pup, and it is time to play another. Guards!" he shouted without warning. "A spy from Jaffir's camp!"

Duncan's heart sank as the shout was taken up, and he heard the sound of several men running towards them. It had not occurred to him that the Moor would risk exposing them both in this way -- or perhaps he knew that Duncan would not risk it. He bowed and drew further back, well out of Duncan's reach. "I suggest you start running."

Duncan ignored him. He braced himself, trying to calculate the odds and whether he had a means of escape. It would do no good to be killed here, though in a way, that would solve some of his problems. He had sprung a trap meant for Rashanal, and his foe didn't look pleased about it.

Seeing that he was hemmed in, he fought back, but he was quickly overpowered and borne to the ground, Rashanal's sword ripped from his grasp. He'd acquitted himself well, managing to wound several before their numbers overwhelmed him.

His head throbbed as he was forced to kneel on the sand, his hands tied behind his back, while a hawkish-featured man who could only be Emad took a good look at him. Duncan's jaw felt like it was broken, and he could feel a trickle of blood where his eye was swollen, but he knew the worst of the wounds were already healing. He tried to shift slightly, to ease his broken ribs, but he couldn't move enough to gain real relief.

"What is this, Xavier?" Emad said, staring down at him."You promised me Rashanal. This is some northern rat by the look of him, not the chieftain."

"He is Rashanal's body slave." The Moor -- Xavier -- threw the sword that Duncan had stolen onto the ground. "He came to assassinate you."

Duncan's eyes widened in shock at the lie, and he opened his mouth to deny it, only to have one of the guards move at a signal from Xavier and cuff him back to the ground. He was hauled back to his knees, and Emad's sharp gaze swept over Duncan, his expression darkening with a mixture of disgust and sudden interest. "So." Duncan dared meet his eyes for an instant, and saw the flicker of revulsion there, overmatched by a keen, voracious appraisal. Emad signaled to one of Duncan's captors, and the man kicked Duncan hard where his ribs had broken. He couldn't help his gasp of pain. "Is this true, slave?"

"Why else would he be skulking around camp with a weapon?" Xavier asked smoothly. "One against fifty. What else could he hope to achieve?"

"Be still, Xavier. I wish to hear it from the catamite's own tongue."

Duncan fought to think clearly, pain slowing his responses. No hope now of facing this Xavier on his own, Immortal to Immortal, but perhaps he could still upset the balance enough that it would gain Rashanal and the others some advantage. You promised me Rashanal, Emad had said. Did he know of the poison, then? How far did these two trust each other?

"I beg your pardon for my trespass, sayid. I meant no harm to you, nor to any of your men." Technically true, at least. Think. Buy time. A familiar whicker caught his notice, and he saw with a heavy heart that they had found Fanny. The mare, he remembered belatedly, that Rashanal had stolen from Emad five years before. Insult to injury.

Emad saw the direction of his glance, and the curl of his lip said that this transgression did not go unnoticed. "The blood on your sword makes you a liar, in addition to a bardaj. And now we see that you are a thief, as well. Do you know that your life is forfeit for what you have done?"

Forgive me, Rashanal, Duncan thought, and drew a breath. "Aye, my lord, and if there is any mercy in you, I beg you to take it from me. At least I will die having fought one last time as a man." He kept his head bowed, not daring to look toward the Moor, nor to meet his captor's eyes.

"You wish to die, then?" Emad asked, surprise coloring his voice.

Duncan nodded, hoping the blood on his face would conceal the fact that his cuts had closed. "Death is better than the shame of what he has made of me. I was a warrior once, with honor among my people. I knew I could not survive the desert alone, but at least I have honor enough left to choose death, rather than wait for my captor to return."

The Moor laughed, and Duncan looked up at last. On his face was a look halfway between disbelief and admiration. "He's a better liar than I thought." His eyes narrowed faintly, piercing Duncan. "Smarter, too. But it won't work, little wolf cub. There will be no escape in death for you."

"Enough," Emad cut in, quelling him with a cold look before turning back to Duncan, speculation in his sharp gaze. "At the very least, you impress me with your audacity. But I think you suppose me a fool, which I am not, whatever your master may have led you to believe."

Desperation spurring him, Duncan met his eyes directly. "I do not think you a fool, sayid. I was telling the truth when I said I meant no harm to you. I came for the Moor -- the man you call Xavier. My sword was meant for him."

"A distinction that scarcely lessens your transgression, for he is sworn to me."

"And is that why you let him kill for you? With poison in the night, like a snake hidden under a rock? Are you so afraid to face Rashanal yourself?"

He saw that strike home, a dark rage flaring in Emad's expression. But he didn't let it get the better of him, and Duncan revised his estimate of the man. Dangerous, no question. Deliberate, Emad nudged a toe under the sword Xavier had flung down and flipped it easily into his hand. The tip of the blade hovered a foot or so in front of Duncan's face as Emad considered him. "Xavier," he said after a moment, "you and I plainly need to discuss certain matters of discretion and, perhaps, priorities."

Xavier stepped forward, a bit hastily, Duncan thought. "My friend, I--"

"--will be silent, if you have any sense at all." Emad never looked at him, but examined Duncan for a long, excruciating moment, the way a hawk might consider a field mouse, judging the best angle from which to skewer it. At last he nodded to Duncan's captors and lifted the tip of the sword. They hauled him roughly to his feet as Emad turned away. "Bring him. And bring Mujannah Faniyya. Put my bridle on her, and find a longer piece of rope -- we will bring Rashanal's pet back to Jaffir, and demand restitution for the obscene insults and lies his tribe offers in the name of guest-friendship."

"We, sayid?" one of Emad's men asked, hand resting on the knife at his belt. "How many men do you wish to ride with you?"

"We all ride, Sharif. Whatever tricks Rashanal has planned, we will sit and wait for him no longer. This charade has gone on long enough."

As if Duncan had ceased to interest him and were no more than a dog caught stealing meat from the spit, Emad strode away. The men holding his arms yanked him back toward the camp, wrenching his bound hands to get his attention. He went with them, ignoring the momentary pain and trying to think.

He had the sinking feeling that he had been played, expertly, and that the man called Xavier had foreseen this very situation, all too clearly -- that perhaps he had even engineered it, taunting Duncan deliberately, giving him just enough information to be certain Duncan would follow him. At least Duncan had driven a small wedge of doubt between Xavier and Emad, but it seemed a paltry victory in the face of his current situation.

At the grim thought of just how big an error in judgment he might have made, he felt sick all over again.

Emad's men found a length of rope, cutting his hands free only to tie them again in front. He thought about struggling, about trying to simply run for it, but he was unarmed in the middle of an enemy camp, and the hope that they would kill him seemed a faint one. The chance was slim and short-lived, in any case; they soon had his rope lashed to the saddle of one of the horses.

It took very little time for Emad's men to be horsed and ready to ride, and Emad rode at their head, Duncan stumbling behind him, for it was to Emad's own horse that he had been tied. Although they did not ride at speed, Emad rode without concern for the slave following behind, and more than once Duncan was dragged for short distances until he could get his feet back under him. At one point he came dangerously close to being trampled by the following horse, but his rider steered him aside. He might be a slave, but until his crimes were exposed, he still belonged to someone else.

The closer they drew to Rashanal's camp, the greater grew Duncan's despair as he realized what he had done. Whatever his intentions, he had given Emad the pretext he needed to restore some of the advantage he'd lost when his force had been intercepted by Rashanal's messengers. He could present himself as a victim, perhaps even accusing Jaffir of having attempted his assassination. As a slave, Duncan's denials were worthless, and while to impugn Jaffir's word would be more dangerous, Emad could still claim that as a slave in his care, Duncan was Jaffir's ultimate responsibility.

The accusation of horse thief also caught him off-guard. It was, of course, true, but he had not thought of it that way, in his haste to confront Xavier. Fanny had been a means to an end, and he had not thought too much of the value the tribes placed on their horses, and on such a one, in particular -- not to mention his particular stupidity in not remembering that Fanny had once belonged to Emad. That must have seemed a calculated insult to a man as proud as Emad, particularly coming from a slave of Rashanal's, who had himself gone out of his way to bruise that pride. Duncan had been so focused on his goal, one that seemed almost laughable now, that he had not fully considered what might result if he were discovered. If it had crossed his mind, he had dismissed the risk as well worth the potential gain, and in hindsight this seemed nothing but the fruits of his own pride, his own eagerness to be doing something.

And yet, in a way, he had succeeded in his goal; it was unlikely that Rashanal would be taken by surprise now. Duncan only hoped that the unintended results of his brash move would not outweigh that desired end.

By the time they reached Rashanal's camp, Duncan was filthy, bruised, and miserable. Their approach had not gone unnoticed, of course, and they were met by what seemed to Duncan's weary eyes to be every man in camp, plus a few that must belong to Tariq, who stood at the front of the crowd, along with Jaffir and Namal. Duncan hung back behind Emad's horse, trying to catch his breath, putting off the moment when they saw him in his disgrace -- when they realized how he had disgraced them. It was poor repayment of their treatment of him, their trust.

Emad gestured to one of the warriors behind him, who slid off his horse and drew his sword. Duncan drew himself up, thinking for a moment that Emad meant some grand gesture, to throw Duncan's dead body down in front of Jaffir, and he thought with a tinge of lightheadedness that this might be the best possible thing -- as long as he did not revive at an inopportune moment. But instead of the sword dispatching him, it sliced through the rope tying him to Emad's saddle, and he found himself hauled forward and flung at Jaffir's feet.

He hear