Imagine the usual disclaimers. Because there's nothing like a disclaimer. Nothing in this world.
Imagine the usual warnings, too. Science fiction, apocalyptic horsemen, and riddling in many tongues.
The character of Kellistra was originally created by Nicolas; it is only due to him that I can use her here.
Yaksha: What soul has a man which is his, yet another's? What friend do the gods grant, the best of all others? What joy in existence is greatest? And how May poor men be richer than princes? Say thou. King: Sons are the second souls of man, And wives the heaven-sent friends; nor can Among all joys health be surpassed; Contentment answers for thy last. (From the Mahabharata>
Kellistra, who was Duncan MacLeod's woman, lived in a long low log house on an island that had been Indian holy ground. Here she tended her kitchen garden, with horses and goats and donkeys and sheep, cats and dogs, and six children. The children were Duncan MacLeod's. They ranged in age from the three-year-old twins, Ian and Mary, to tall rawboned Khan who (at twenty-three) fancied himself very much an adult--certainly old enough to be made immortal! Kellistra held her mirth inside whenever he aired this opinion. To her, all her children seemed of one age: mere infants about to plummet headfirst into the whirlwind of history. Mayflies in a passing sunbeam. Blink once, and they grew up and were gone. She was over four thousand years old.
In the two centuries she had lived with MacLeod, she had raised more than fifty children and sent them out into the world.
Now she stood on the doorstep of her cosy house, holding onto little Mary's hand, and watched two of her children race up the path from the bridge. It was Myrddin, and Elektra. Kellistra waited. Sure enough, she didn't need to ask a question; all of them began shouting the instant they were near enough. "Mother--mother--come quickly! Khan's broken the ox again!"
"Has he, now," Kellistra drawled. She glanced down at Mary. "Well, petal," she said, hefting the child onto her hip, "let's see what kind of disaster Big Brother has achieved today."
She strolled over the bridge, taking her time. On the further side were fields thick with ripening crops: barley, corn, rape, quadrotriticale. There were orchards, and fenced pastures. Over some areas, the air shimmered with heat waves; this was a localized greenhouse effect, like that which sheltered Kellistra's house and her kitchen garden. She had olives growing on one hillside, which required a carefully supervised climate. And she liked to grow pomegranates and oranges too.
The ox was in the far wheat-field, with Khan and Vidar hovering over it, and young Ian trying his clumsy best to help them. It was an AI-driven mechanism, and could do everything a farmer needed, from ploughing the ground to processing the harvest; it could even can and pickle (if you wanted it to) but still, it was known by the humble name of 'ox'. Even though, as Kellistra sometimes remarked, no matter how often Khan drove it into the river, the damn thing still couldn't swim. It had crashed ignominiously to earth now, and lay inert. The boys had opened up its skull, and twelve-year-old Vidar, lying full-length along the thing's back and shoulders, had both arms inside its brain-pan to the armpits. He was so busy that he never noticed his mother approaching; it was left for Khan to glance up, see her, and blurt out immediately, "It's Vi's fault! He was wrestling with it!"
Kellistra reached up and ran a caressing hand over Vidar's shock of brown curls. "I should never have nicknamed you Mickle," she remarked, "it only made you think you're Milo, and then you try to weight-lift the livestock." She glanced at his arms. "Next thing I know, you'll trap both hands in the c-drive, and perish miserably, devoured by passing wolves."
Always, when she spoke, there was a mocking drawl in her voice, a curl to her lip. No matter what she said or to whom, it came out with an edge of scorn. When they were small, her children found this reassuring. When they became older, it drove them wild.
Now, responding to her speech, Vidar merely grinned, but Khan bristled. He said stiffly, "I could have had it fixed half an hour ago, but I thought the kid needed to learn a lesson."
"I'm all over grease," said Vidar, sounding pleased.
"Come out of there," Kellistra ordered. The other children were swarming over the ox, pulling on its horns and pushing buttons. Vidar slithered nimbly to the ground, and Kellistra turned Khan bodily around and gave him a push in the machine's direction. "Do your worst," she directed, "da Vinci, my hero."
He growled at his younger brothers and sisters, and they kept on happily getting into his way. Kellistra collected them all and made them sit on the ground in a circle. "Now stop squirming," she said, tickling little Mary's upturned nose, "and I shall entertain you with a thousand-and-one tales. There once was an adventurer who fell in love with a unknown beauty, glimpsed through veils in a jewel-market in the land of Kalamazoo . . ."
All her long life, no matter what she turned her hand to, she had always been better than anyone else. Among her many talents was the gift of story-telling. Before she was finished five sentences, the children were frozen, spell-bound--except when she made a joke, at which they all wiggled in delight. Only Khan was too old to profess interest. ". . . for her father was no less than the Cham of Korea, Lord High Grand Pooh-bah of the Land of Nod, the lost dauphin of France and the emir of Ophir! And he decreed, 'You shall not marry my daughter!' for he was an unjust and cruel parent, O my beloveds--"
Little Mary's eyes were as big as saucers.
"A most wicked cruel and unjust parent. For look what the Grand Cham did next--"
Khan broke in abruptly. "Mary!" he said. "What's the rule about sitting in people's laps?"
Mary leaped up guiltily; this was a lesson her elder brother had impressed on her again and again. "Not to impede Mother's sword-draw," she gabbled, scarlet-faced with shame. "I'm getting up, I did get up, I didn't mean--"
Kellistra drew her gently back down, and folded both arms around her. "Mother isn't wearing her sword today, as Khannie dearest may or may not have noticed," she said, and it was now Khan's turn to go scarlet.
"You always tell us--" he began.
"To wear your sword everywhere. Yes, Mother does," said Kellistra lazily. "Mother, however, knows she can take any three armed immortals on, bare-handed, and win--which is more than she can say for anyone else here."
She looked Khan in the eye. If she had bothered to stand, she would still have been looking far up: Duncan MacLeod bred tall sons. As it was, she gazed at him from the level of his knee-caps. Nevertheless, it was Khan who flinched. "The evil monarch, Caesar of all the Russias and pre-eminent among Yahoos," Kellistra went on, unruffled, "had the poor boy dragged in chains to the arena, and showed him to his daughter there. 'Chose!' he ordered the princess. 'His fate is in your hands. There are two doors; you may say which one my guards will open. Behind one waits his doom, the loveliest maid-in-waiting in your court--chose that door, and see him married to her on the spot. Behind the other door is a starving tiger . . . Choose well, by the love you say you bear him!'" She hugged Mary. "So," she teased, "which door did the princess chose?"
"Mother," said Khan suddenly and sharply, pointing.
Kellistra stiffened. All at once, the younger children scrambled around and got behind her, like pheasant chicks ready to run; she rose to her feet. Khan, beside her, had drawn his sword. He was dead pale. But Kellistra put out a hand and restrained him. "It's your father," she said. "And shu-shu, too."
"Mother," Mary piped up in stark fear, "shu-shu Methos has somebody with him!"
"I know," said Kellistra.
She had known for days now that they were coming. Standing protectively in front of her children, she watched the three riders--Duncan MacLeod, and Methos, and an interloper named Amanda--canter toward them across the sunlit fields.
The homestead was large, for a place farmed by a single family. Amanda remembered it when it had been a wilderness attainable only by canoe. It had boasted a rude cabin then, put up by MacLeod from native logs, with an antique iron stove and a rough plank floor. She and Mac had slept on the planks, wrapped in Hudson Bay blankets and each other. Now their cabin was gone, and in its place was a house, a barn, outbuildings and corrals--not to mention the gardens. It seemed that MacLeod's new woman had a yen for rose-bushes. And then there were the children.
Six children. Amanda's eye was constantly drawn to them, the pre-immortal children, every one of them with big brown eyes and cascades of curly dark hair. That was Mac's stamp upon them, as was their beauty; they were all beautiful, boys and girls alike. That little girl Mary would be a heartbreaker someday. They would . . . they would . . .
They were the first real children she had seen in two hundred years. They broke her heart.
They were a miracle. She couldn't stop staring at them, the offspring of two immortals; they were clearly pre-immortal, just like so many she had run across before the Rapture. But MacLeod's children weren't orphans. They didn't have to grow up feeling the sting of loneliness. Nor were they ignorant of what lay ahead for them; Amanda had already heard the oldest boy, Khan, boasting about what he would do after he met his first death and became immortal. They knew where they came from, and what they would become, and they also knew that in their time--if they survived--they too would have children to pass their immortality along.
Immortal children. A miracle.
It was Mac's dream come true.
She kept by Mac's side as he showed her proudly around his homestead, and every smile of his was a knife in Amanda's heart. When they first rode up, he had dismounted and the children had run to him; he stooped and swept the smallest boy high in the air, while the little girl hugged his leg in rapture. When they walked up the road to the house, he had one child on his shoulders and two more holding his hand. And the woman--
Kellistra, that was her name. The mother of his children.
She hadn't kissed him. They hadn't touched. In fact they had barely seemed to look at one another. But Amanda hadn't missed the layout of their house: two bunk-rooms clearly designed for the offspring, and for Mother and Father, a room solely occupied by an enormous bed.
From there, it was natural to evaluate Kellistra herself. Mac's woman had clearly met her first death at a very young age, maybe even in her mid-teens. The giveaways were her ripe body and pouting underlip, not to mention the sultry dark eyes on her. Instinctively, Amanda resented all this. Worse, in this yummy nubile wrapping lived a very, very, very old immortal, something that packed the whammy of a whole thunderstorm within a single lightning-bolt. This too was in Kellistra's eyes. A flash that came and went. It was also in her presence: when Mac and Methos had begun to give an account of themselves, almost immediately upon their arrival, Kellistra had simply snapped her fingers and ordered, "All that later, this isn't the time," and both men had shut up. This was Kellistra's household; they were Kellistra's men, and she was the boss of them . . . that much was clear to Amanda. Abundantly clear.
The conversation was kept to light topics throughout Amanda's tour of the house and vicinity, and through the dinner and evening afterward. Mac wanted to show off his children to her. He kept glancing at them, reaching out without warning and touching them--patting their heads, leaning down and kissing little Mary--and then he would look involuntarily in Amanda's direction, catch himself at it, and turn away. It was her admiration he wanted. And why not? His dreams had all come true. Amanda gathered from the conversation that there were more children, grown-up children. Dozens of young immortals, the new Clan MacLeod.
When darkness fell, Kellistra clapped her hands and sent the children scurrying away to bed. "Methos sleeps out here, in the main room," she remarked to Amanda.
"When I'm around," said Methos in an undertone.
"During the remarkably infrequent occasions that he graces us with his presence, yes," said Kellistra. "I'm afraid we never thought of building a guest-room."
"Wonder why," Amanda commented.
"Yes, that's the way of it: never any good company, oh well." Kellistra stood up. "And when we do get it, Methos beheads it. We've got extra blankets, of course," she added. "Feel free to tuck yourself away where you want."
She held out her hand to MacLeod. Mac (with a guilty look at Amanda) took it. Amanda watched the two of them walk out of the room. Toward their bedroom, and that enormous bed.
She let them go. Then: "Geez, can she be more obvious?" she wondered aloud.
Methos was sitting on a windowsill, a cup in his hand. Laugh-lines showed round his eyes: "And here I thought your feelings would be hurt."
"I . . . oh, why the hell should they be? I've obviously horned in on something long-standing--?"
"Only a couple of hundred years," Methos confirmed.
"Geez," said Amanda again. "Since before the--? Practically since the last time I saw you two, that's what you're saying."
"Well, since Mac became old enough and I introduced the two of them, yeah," Methos said. "And . . . yes, that's the way of it. The way--well, the way Kellistra knows, the way I know, the way of things. Hide away on holy ground, where the children can be born safely. One man, one woman. In secret. Guarding the children. It's . . . the way we lived when I was young."
"And the children." She shook her head. "All these centuries, I never knew. Never guessed." She couldn't get over it. "Methos, it's a miracle. I don't have words."
He only showed her that laughing face again. He was in moonlight, washed by it: the long curve of his face, soft-mouthed and amused, showed gold in the night. When she had first known him, he had been ivory-white all over. Nowadays he was tanned by living in the outdoors, his hair paled by sun and wind. Still, she had seen statuary excavated from beneath Athens that looked like him--cool marble creatures, physically perfect, with the same patina to their skins. He looked like an archaic godling. "I wanted to give Mac that gift."
"Methos, that's . . . good of you."
"I'm a saint, yeah," he agreed.
Amanda smacked him absent-mindedly. "And that's why you both vanished. But--" Something perplexed her. She went back to it, the jarring detail in what he had just said. "One man, one woman. Where do you come into this, Methos?"
The soft laughter switched off. His expression went bland. "Well, that's why I'm not around here much," he said. "And when I am, I actually bed down outside most nights. Out of earshot. And I'd advise you to do the same."
Her lips twisted. "Gets a little noisy when he's home, huh?"
"No," said Methos, "actually I was talking about the children."
She couldn't sleep. Having made her bed out in the garden, she couldn't manage to sleep in it; after an hour of tossing and turning, Amanda crawled out of her blankets and went for a walk. It was a lovely autumn night. September on the Pacific coast, with the air as soft as silk and a fragrance of late roses, a tender attar. She wandered through Kellistra's garden for a while, just breathing. Night-scented stocks, like furry cinnamon. And those roses. She made a light and hung it just behind her left ear, and looked at the roses: they were Peace roses. They gave her memories. They made her shiver. Her eyes pricked with tears, she turned away.
She heard voices. Amanda froze; one of them was unmistakably MacLeod's. The other was a woman's. She hesitated, then cat-footed it toward them.
The sense of their presence was a buzz in her skin. But of course she had been feeling that all evening. She could feel Methos somewhere too, not close but definite. In their turn, Mac and Kellistra would know she was about, but not exactly where. Amanda kept a little distance behind them, only actually seeing them once. They were walking up the path beneath tall trees, side by side, and she thought their arms were around each other's waists.
"What are you doing?"
She jumped a foot, and came down all flushed. Then she blessed the darkness. "God, you startled me . . . oh. Khan, isn't it?"
"Well well well," Amanda snapped, recapturing her self-command. "And what are you doing out here, pray tell? All alone, so late."
"I, uh, we have a broken ox and I thought I'd have a go at fixing its fuzzy-logic circuits . . ."
"At one a.m., in the dark?"
She had turned off her light. She turned it on again, made it a little brighter, and examined him curiously by it. He was as flustered as she had been. His nostrils flared as she drew nearer, his chest rose and fell rapidly. Of course--she would be the first living woman except his mother that he would have ever seen, wouldn't she? He was handsome, too, like his father. Methos had reminded her, earlier, of a Greek statue--cold, distant, unyielding to the touch--but when she considered this boy, she thought of a young stallion winding mares in the field; she thought of MacLeod as he had been when she first knew him. "You're going to be a stud, aren't you," she said, under her breath.
He had understood. His pupils dilated.
"You came here with shu-shu," he said, in the tone of an accusation. "Didn't you?"
"With who? Oh--"
"With Methos. You're with him--Methos."
"Uncle Methos. Huh," said Amanda, breaking into a smile. "Never thought of Methos in quite that way before. But look, what's-your-name--I mean, Khan. If Methos is your shu-shu, then I guess I'm your ai-yi. Auntie Amanda, that's me."
"You're not my aunt."
His tone was a slap in the face. "I'm sorry," said Amanda, chastened.
He was physically older than she had been when she had first died. Taller than her, too--big and strapping and broad-shouldered. She thought of the touchy pride of young mortals, and was ashamed of treating him like a child. "I'm not Methos' woman," she said quietly. "But, Khan--"
"Then don't you get between my father and mother!" he cried. "I saw you looking at him tonight!"
A whirl of motion in the dark air, and he was gone.
She was alone. "Light, out!" said Amanda with brittle sharpness, and stood shivering for a few moments, head down. At last she shrugged at herself. Better go back to bed, try to get some sleep, she thought. It was going to be a long day tomorrow.
It was then that she felt the quickening begin.
It came from the crown of the hill, high above Amanda, through the towering trees. And in the sky. Amanda, grabbing for her sword, saw all this and was awed. Aghast. Alarmed. Amazed. What . . . ? Pearly lights washed through the night sky, mist seeped and curled ghost-white through the forest, a rainbow halo appeared around the moon. The aurora, she thought. The northern lights--? Then she started to run up the hill.
But this was holy ground; it was all holy ground, the whole island, as far as the encircling river.
She understood. She came to a complete halt. She didn't dare take another step.
At the height of it, white light blazed from the hilltop, and lightning stabbed upward, into a clear sky. When she heard a man and a woman cry out together, Amanda turned around soundlessly and went back down the path.
It was high noon. Kellistra had assembled them on the hilltop again, at the very crown of the hill. There was a grove of cottonwoods there, surrounded by the tall evergreens, almost lost in the forest but with sweet-grass growing beneath the old trees, where Indians had once left their dead. Ghost dances had been held here too, and a low mound shaped like a snake wound in and out of the cottonwoods. It was a very holy place. As holy as any circle of standing stones back in England or Brittany.
Amanda sat on a stone, uncomfortable in this place since last night. The stranger, Kellistra, stood opposite her. Mac and Methos had drifted to one side, flanking the two of them and leaving them in an unfortunate position of confrontation: as if they were about to give challenge. The two men, in contrast, stood shoulder to shoulder and sometimes Methos leaned sideways and whispered into Mac's ear. The children had been left behind at the house. This was not for them to hear.
The katana that had been MacLeod's lay across Amanda's knees.
". . . so when Mac and me met in Seacouver," Amanda was saying, "there were these two jokers in armor. Funny-papers knights. They were just laying waste to the landscape, slaughtering a child-pack. We fought them and we won."
Mac stirred, held out a hand. They were meeting Greek-style, using the katana for a speaker's gavel. She passed him up the sword, and he said, "Child-pack activity is way up in Seacouver, they seem to be gathering from down the coast. I don't know why. Go on, Amanda." He handed back the sword to her.
Amanda said, "Well--we--split up, after. Went our merry ways. And I ended up at this town where Methos was. Graveyard? And there were more knights there. Four knights, this time. So that makes six, total. Looking for Mac."
Methos started to speak. "Sword," Kellistra reminded him, her voice sharp. He cut off, made a face, and MacLeod grinned from ear to ear and went tsk-tsk audibly. Amanda handed Methos the katana, hilt-first, and he said, "The second lot were looking for MacLeod, specifically. They asked for him by name, said he killed some of them once. Their master's favored children, I believe was the phrase they used."
Kellistra raised an eyebrow.
"And they were bound on paying back the favor with interest, they made that much plain. They were nasty customers."
"They're dead," Amanda said, getting the sword back. "So, no more threat to Mac from that quarter." She pondered. "Huh. The first knights we saw were Europeans. The seconds were two Japanese, two Brazilian. Itobo tribe, I think. No common thread there."
Mac leaned down and touched a fingertip to the sword. "I haven't got any enemies that answer to that description. Was there anything else about them?"
Now they both had their hands on the blade: Mac and Amanda. She said, looking up at him, "Four of the six had all this fancy armor . . . Wait. This is just something that struck me--they rode in pairs. Not 'six knights', I mean. They were two and two and two. And I got the impression that they were, well, couples."
He said, "You mean--?"
"Quit making that face, Duncan MacLeod! You prude."
"The love that dare not say its name," MacLeod muttered, a little red about the ears.
"You find that in the oddest places nowadays."
He went redder. Then he yelped.
He had said something, a name like a curse. Kellistra raised one eyebrow again. Amanda made haste to shove the katana at MacLeod. "I killed two like that once," he said. "A long long time ago--centuries--before the Rapture, even. Two immortals always together, knight and squire. They'd killed a teacher of mine, and then Richie--he was my student, Kells--got tangled up with them. It was a mess, they both ended up dead. Carter Wellan and Haresh Clay."
Kellistra came to life, made a languid pace forward and held out her hand for the katana. They relinquished it. When she had it, she said, "May I eat cheese and garlic in a windmill! You're talking about the Knights Templar."
They all looked a question at her.
"They come out of Japan originally, and they're not really Templars," she said, "they call themselves Yamahoshi. Monks of the mountain. A religious sect composed entirely of immortals. Their master is an immortal named En, and he's a magician. About eleven hundred years old, and born with a talent for things psychic--as some of us are, the ones descended in line from a certain woman named Zarina . . . who died long before the time of Christ." Methos stirred at that, and Kellistra nodded to him. "We both knew her. She was a witch, and taught her students and children magic. Talents like those some mortals have, but if you practice for a few hundred years, then . . . As you know, Mac." She trailed off, and Amanda looked at MacLeod in surprise. Kellistra went on, "En's followers call it magic, anyway. They believe they're destined to rule the world. They don't care about the rules, either. Everything they do, they do in pairs--fighting together, guarding each others' backs--that's the edge they think will win the Game for them in the end--that's why they're called Templars. The real Templars? The order was modeled after the Yamahoshi immortals. And there are lots of them. Several hundred, I think."
Kellistra stopped again. She added, "They're real bastards, and En is the worst of them."
Amanda thought of hundreds of immortals working together. Vendetta-bound, and aimed at Mac. She swallowed.
"Kells," Methos started, "I know that look--"
"Sword," said Kellistra mildly.
"Screw the sword. What aren't you telling us?"
Slowly, she inclined her head to him. "The reason I know about them? En is my son."
It was evening, and Kellistra's family was engaged in what seemed a favorite game: they were playing Riddles. It was something they could all join in on, and even the three-year-old twins were bouncing up and down, shouting guesses, while (theoretically) setting the supper table. Luckily, the plates were unbreakable. Whenever Ian guessed a riddle right, he threw whatever he was carrying straight up in the air.
"A certain thing lives near to hand. Its nature is strange, if it be well scanned. It sees without eyes, it flies without wings, it runs without feet, it works wondrous things. To lands far distant it can roam, yet never departs, locked in its home. What is it?"
"The mind, the mind, the mind, the mind!" crowed Ian, and another plate hit the ceiling.
"Scarcely was the father in this world when the son could be found sitting on the roof," said MacLeod, "what is it?"
One of the middle boys, Vidar, guessed fastest: "Fire, smoke!"
"There's a little house I live in," said Kellistra, stroking her daughter Mary's hair, "no doors, no windows, no floor, no roof. If I want to get out, I'll break a white wall--what am I?"
"An egg, mother?" said Mary hopefully, and Kellistra kissed her and gave her a cookie for a prize.
"What goes up white and comes down yellow?" asked Methos.
"Have another cookie?"
"Brothers and sisters have I none," said MacLeod, laying cutlery on the log table, "but that man's father is my father's son," and his oldest son, Khan, blinked and answered, "Me--I mean, your son?"
Methos said, "He who made it didn't use it, he who bought it didn't want it, he who used it didn't know it. What is it?"
"A coffin," said Kellistra.
Amanda surprised herself, dredging up something from her own memory: "Hey, listen: he who has it doesn't tell it, he who takes it doesn't know it, he who knows it doesn't want it--"
"Counterfeit coin," said Methos instantly, and Mac chimed in simultaneously, "Phoney money? Oh, Amanda--"
Even after the meal was served, the game went on. The riddles became harder, the younger children dropped out (they were more interested in shoveling their mouths full anyway) and then the older kids dropped out too, Khan and Vidar. Amanda and MacLeod kept up for a while longer, but it was Methos and Kellistra--the two with the longest memories--who were still at it, trying to stymie each other, long after the meal ended. Never letting up the pace, posing each other riddles. In several languages. With great persistence.
This was obviously an longstanding competition. MacLeod rolled his eyes at them, and at last Amanda propped an elbow on the table and listened in open fascination.
"I had no soul till I first died--I was ripped, stitched, plucked to make me whole--I've been dedicated to the soil, but never the grave--"
"A boot," said Methos. "There are two sisters, each gives birth to the other."
"Night and day," said Kellistra. "I do not die when my breath leaves me--it comes back as often as it goes away--one moment I'm dead, the next I sigh--"
"A bellows. I'm called home by a corpse from the sea. It has no lips, but sings very loud."
"A conch horn. That's too simple. Give me another."
"Mm," said Methos, "what I wanted I did not get, what I brought home I did not want--" and Kellistra let out a groan and clouted him over the ear.
"Don't you start in on Homer now," she ordered, and then to MacLeod, who was just opening his mouth, "Don't encourage him, he'll give us the whole Iliad again."
"Ore gero gladium," said Methos provocatively, "matrisque in pectore condo ut mox, qua nunc mortua, viva colas." I carry a sword in my mouth, and I bury it in my mother's breast so you can cultivate, alive, what is now dead.
"A plough," Kellistra said. "Littera me pavit, nec quid sit littera novi." A letter is my food, but I know not what a letter is.
"A bookworm. Is that a slur?"
"Take a guess. Ngurur-in a-ma-am-in?" What can look down on you, but never eats you?
"A nose--now, that's a slur. A maid there was married a man, by whom was many children gotten. But they all died and went away, before the mother was begotten--"
"Oh, that's a low blow," Kellistra said. "Eve, damn your eyes. Du repos des humains implacable ennemie, j'ay rendu mille amans envieux de mon sort; je me repais de sang, et je trouve ma vie dans les bras de celui qui recherche ma mort." An enemy of human sleep, I've made a thousand lovers jealous of my lot; I feast on blood, and find my life in the arms of those who seek my death.
"A flea," said Methos lazily. "Eve versus the flea. We're back at Homer again. Let's call the whole thing off."
They grinned at each other.
Kellistra was in the barn, doing the milking. She wasn't milking a cow, or a goat; no, she was milking one of MacLeod's white mares, with two more waiting their turn nearby. Methos sat astride a three-legged stool in the barn doorway, a grass stem stuck in the corner of his mouth. He was looking out of the door, down the hill.
At the foot of the hill, MacLeod and Amanda could be seen, deep in talk. Neither one looked happy. Amanda's body language was especially eloquent. First she threw up her hands at Mac, then she planted both fists on her hips, and then she began scolding, shaking a finger under MacLeod's nose.
Kellistra paused in her work to follow Methos' gaze. She groaned theatrically.
"Youth," she said. "It's so damn wasted on the young, n'est pas?"
"Since when were you ever young?"
"I believe I was. There was a time once-- No, wait. You're right. I never was." The mare kept swinging its head around and trying to butt her over the ear. Kellistra swore under her breath. "Bljád'! How about you?"
"Wasn't ever young either."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah yeah yeah. Didn't you spring full-grown from somebody's brow, darling?"
"That was Athena. I think Marcus Constantine beheaded her in Naples in 1471."
"Oh yes. I forgot."
Kellistra swore again-- "Sráka!" --tugging at the mare's teats.
"Give her foal to her," said Methos, "that'll get her milk down."
"Listen, I've been milking horses for four thousand years now, don't tell me how to do it."
He let a moment pass.
"So you're not feeling threatened by Amanda, then?"
"Threatened? Oh, my friend," said Kellistra, "the jenny may have a pretty spangled mane and a fine pair of . . . heels on her, but she can't give him what I can give. And when push comes to shove, a mule by any other name is still a mule."
"Now there's a mixed metaphor--"
"Go to hell, darling. A mule is a mule is a mule. Whether in the breeding padlock, or the bedroom. And anyway, if dear Duncan decides to kick up his heels and bolt for greener pastures . . . well, I've always got you to fall back on, don't I?"
"Not bloody likely, you wouldn't touch me with a ten-foot pole. Or did you change your tune again after a mere--" He broke off, thought, went on. "--seventeen hundred years, Kells?"
"No, after reflection, I'm still sure I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole. But I'm sentimental," Kellistra said. She untied the mare, led it to a loose stall where its foal was waiting. "A circle of standing stones, a holy spring, a grove of oak," she said, "and me waiting, while two good men fight to the death for my favors--should I expect any less?"
He snorted. "I am not going to fight Mac to the death for your favors, K."
"It was never the real death and you know it. And where is your sense of tradition?"
As she was taking the next mare over to be tied up and milked, a high-pitched noise filled the air. Without changing her expression Kellistra said, "MacLeod. Will you . . . ?" His voice replied from nowhere, "Yes. I'm closest. You and Methos see to the kids." At the foot of the hill, MacLeod and Amanda took off over the bridge at a dead run. Kellistra said to Methos, "You go left, I go right." As she loped toward the rose garden, he took the white mare's headstall and mounted bareback, riding out of the barn an instant later, guiding the mare by the halter-rope and knee-pressure.
He took the mare around the back of the house at a trot, and found the second-youngest boy Vidar pelting in from the north woods, alerted by the alarm. Methos leaned down and held out an arm, and Vidar whooped and swung up like a monkey. "What is it, what is it--can I watch Dad fight this time?" Methos laughed and whapped him one, and dropped him off at the door.
"Get in, stay put, keep out of trouble--you hear?"
"Aw I never get to have any fun--" Methos threatened him with an upraised hand, and Vidar grinned all over his face and ducked inside. His last words were, "Ellie's playing by the river!"
Methos rounded up the girl Elektra, who was running toward the house with her arms full of dolls. He carried her the rest of the way, cantering round to the front of the house. From listening to Kellistra through his remote receiver, he knew she had just gone in with young Myrddin, and that Ian and Mary were in their playroom where she had left them before coming out to milk the horses. She had left Khan watching them.
He didn't bother to dismount. Kellistra came out, putting Elektra through the door as she passed her. "He put the twins down in their play-cradles and set the house on kiddie-safe protocol, then went out--here, let me up." She mounted behind Methos, patted his coat pockets, and came up with a gun in either hand. "Glad to see you're packing, podner," she added in a mock-Western drawl three centuries out of date. "The automatic surveillance system can't spot him. So he's off holy ground. Once we find him, I'm going to tan his hide so hard, his butt will glow from a thousand paces."
The mare's hooves thudded over the boards of the bridge. Kellistra stuck a gun barrel-first down her cleavage, and began to roll up her sleeve. Methos checked the draw of the katana sheathed in his long coat which he wore day and night. He said, "Mac. Where are you now? Khan's astray."
Mac's voice spoke: "We're in the east pasture. But whoever the alarm bees spotted burned them all out and then ran for it. Where would Khan go?"
Methos glanced over his shoulder. "Kells? Where would he--?"
Her left forearm was covered with a fine sheet of flexible computer keyboard--like transparent plastic, printed with icons. She was reading a display. She swore suddenly. "We've got a broken ox down near where I planted those grape-vines--you know the spot--"
"Not offhand," said Mac's voice.
"Ah, where you beheaded that Irish redhead last year? The one with the bearskin and the helmet with horns? And the Glock hand-flamethrower?"
Pause. "Would that be the tall redhead, or the short--?"
"The tall one who mangled his Gaelic and his bearskin was faux-plastic!" she snapped. "By the lightning-struck tree! Get down there!"
Khan had spent a good hour delving around in the broken ox's motherboard, trying to reboot it. With no luck, and no hope; his mother sometimes remarked that his mechanical talents must have been inherited from Methos instead of MacLeod, a shocking infraction of all the laws of genetics. He wasn't very good with computers. He fumed as he worked, and repeated certain words he had heard Kellistra using when she was mad. Because of this, he was oblivious of the immortal approaching.
Then she touched him on the shoulder.
A long slow melting touch, an unknown woman's hand laid on his shoulder from behind and then running like a red-hot iron down to the small of his back. Khan let out a sound as if stabbed in the gut, straightened and froze, wide-eyed. Wild-eyed. With every nerve a-tingle, and the woman behind him let out a laugh, a low amused chuckle that reeked nameless invitation--at least to Khan's innocent ears it did. And all he could do was gawk.
For a split second he thought he was looking at a wolf, a grey timber-wolf grinning and lolling out its tongue. Then he knew she was a woman.
Oddly, she wore leather and lace, shiny tight leather pants and a crochet-lace blouse in dull cherry, which fell to mid-thigh in long tassels, and stretched distractingly across her full breasts. She was tall, taller than his mother, with a great mane of cloudy dark hair and the strangest eyes: eyes as round and brilliant as a predatory bird's, a hawk's eyes staring at Khan. He thought he had never seen anything so mesmerizing in his life.
Bold as a lover, she reached out and took his chin in her hand, tilting his face to the light. It was only then that he remembered the sword he always wore, the warnings his parents had drilled into his head. Khan jerked away from her, fumbled his normally smooth sword-draw--and all she did was laugh again. He felt his face go hot and red.
"You're a pre-immortal. I know your father." Her voice was throaty, playful. It was as mesmerizing as her laughter, as her eyes. "Maybe I even know your name. What is it--Connor, Ian? Or maybe Darius, or Ramirez?"
"I--I--it's Connor, but Mother always calls me Khan, so everyone else does too--" Khan trailed off. Then he gathered his wits. "I guess you do know my father."
"You're his mirror image," she said.
She was so beautiful! His gaze became riveted to the rise and fall of her breasts, till he caught himself and went scarlet again.
"Uh, you must really know him--m-my youngest brother is named Ian, and my other brother is Myrddin, after Juan Sanchos Ramirez--"
"I've known your father since he was a very small boy. My name is Cassandra." She looked down, slowly, knowingly, her gaze drifting over his body. Khan began to breath very hard. "I've always thought him very beautiful." Pause. "As you are."
"I--I--I--I'm not supposed to talk to strange immortals--"
"If they saw you, they'd know what you were, and guess at things they shouldn't learn. Of course you've been taught to hide yourself away. You precious thing." She was playing with the buttons on his shirt, undoing them idly; then she slipped one hand inside and pressed her palm to the thick crisp springy hair of Khan's chest. "When the mortal world died," she said very softly, making him lean close to hear, "something wonderful died with them. Innocence. Youth. There's none of that left out there any more, we're all of us so old. I used to love the innocence of young men more than anything else in the world. Teaching them. So seductive. Initiating them."
Her fingers walked up his chest, up his throat and across his chin. Khan gulped. She pressed her forefinger against his parted lips, silencing him, and his knees went weak. Then she stood on tiptoe and caught his lower lip between her small pearly teeth, worrying at it, tugging teasingly.
His head swam. Their eyes met: she looked straight at him, smiling all matter-of-fact into his round shocked eyes, while her wet tongue slid slickly along his trapped lower lip. Licking. Tasting. Tormenting. Her arm round his neck held him in place. Cassandra tilted her hips firmly against him, stabbed her tongue deep into his gasping mouth. And sank the knife she held into his back.
His knees folded and he dragged her down, and Cassandra released him. She bent over him, hands on her knees. Her voice came to Khan, receding: "It's been so long since I initiated a shy young immortal . . ."
In the last eyeblink of his mortal life, he thought he saw the grey she-wolf again in her place, its wise yellow eyes watching him. It turned and trotted away with a whisk of its tail, and Khan's world went dark.
Eventually he gasped, coughed, choked; his body convulsed. Someone was holding his head on their knees; tears fell on his face. He couldn't see yet. All he could hear were voices.
"Khan! Connor--little one, lambkin, my sweet--" And small hard fists clenched in his shirt-front. Why did Mother sound like that? This was his real mother, the fiercely loving guardian hidden behind the facade of irony and world-weariness. She bent and rested her forehead against his, cradling him in her arms. "Oh my darling, whoever did this will pay for it."
"Kells, this was magic, I can smell it--"
The world faded to grey. But not so much as before; Khan could still feel his mother's hand frantically brushing his hair away from his face, her kisses rained down on him. He groped and managed to brush her arm.
"Lie still," she ordered. "By God's own lightning! When I have the ladron who did this, I'll cut off his head all right. Starting with the small joints of his toes, and moving upward. And it will take three days to reach the neck."
"Kellistra, Methos! Look who Amanda and I found sneaking off through the woods-- Oh, god. Connor? Khan!? Is he--?"
Methos shouted something. Then:
"Get back, Methos! This isn't--"
"Get out of my way, Mac!"
"No! Methos, no, that's against the rules--!"
Thunder boomed. The smell of ozone filled the air.
Khan heard the newcomer Amanda, her words very small and subdued: "Mac? How do you do these things?"
"Never mind," said MacLeod. "He'll be fine once he wakes up. Kellistra?"
Khan's mother shifted him to lie on the grassy ground, made him comfortable with a final pat, and stood--towering over Khan, filling his blurry view. "Cassandra," she said, and she sounded utterly weary. "What a pity. Someone I can't dismember after all. Duncan, let's move this party onto holy ground. Take her up to the house, don't let her wriggle loose." Kellistra looked down, and said tenderly, "Khan. My heart. Can you stand?"
"M-mother . . . ?"
"Darling, you're now an immortal."
Sons are men's second souls
Khan sat up in bed, propped on a pillow.
He had a tray (prepared by his anxious brothers and sisters) with burned bannocks on it, and fresh grapes from Kellistra's grapevines, and shu-shu Methos' home-brewed beer. Also a cluster of mangled marigolds in a drinking-glass, courtesy of little Mary. Khan picked at his food. He was being treated like an invalid, but then again he wasn't. Ordinarily, when one of Kellistra's children got hurt, the household AI was evoked like a genie and there was much ceremony with medical apparatus and diagnostic scans. All the other children went around hushed and awestruck--they had the idea that anyone who didn't heal instantly was in deep, deep trouble--and Father and Mother would put their heads together about the best treatment. There would be arguments: Mother had strong old-fashioned views about herbs and leeches, and Father always objected. Father liked things modern. Mother would be acid and Father would scowl blackly. Eventually Methos' hologram would appear--Methos was almost never there, but his hologram was never absent for long--and say what had to be done, and Mother and Father would do it. Methos was the one with the actual medical degrees. He always knew what to do.
There was no medical apparatus or diagnostic machinery for Khan this time. No treatment at all. He wasn't sick--in fact, he felt as strong as a horse--but the shock still persisted, from remembering the sudden burn as Cassandra's knife had slid hilt-deep into him. He had died. He had died! And now he was a new man, with not a mark left from the wound.
He had wanted to be immortal right now for as long as he could remember, and now that he actually was immortal, all he could feel was a sort of blank incomprehension.
There was a knock at the door, and his father looked in. "Khan? You decent? Good, because you're getting a visitor."
"Who--" Khan started. Then he just stared, as shu-shu Methos brought in the woman Cassandra, with Father striding grimly in their wake.
They flanked Cassandra--Methos and MacLeod--and both of them were actually carrying their swords, drawn, ready for action. Methos gripped Cassandra by the arm. As for Cassandra, she had been cling-wrapped. Thin (but unbreakable) plastic foil sealed her arms together from the elbows down, and her legs together from thighs to ankles. She had to shuffle like a clown. Her chin was lifted and there was a defiant look in her eye; strands of disheveled hair clung to her forehead. But she was still the most beautiful thing that Khan had ever seen.
MacLeod took her by the scruff of the neck, and lifted her bodily off the floor. She hung in his grasp like a cat: her back arched and her knees bent, and her hair tumbled in waves over her lithe shoulders. But she never looked away from Khan. Her eyes locked on his, huge and predatory and glistening, and she sank her teeth into her lower lip and twisted it, smiling slightly . . . and if Khan had been standing, his knees would have buckled.
At this point, Methos took a step forward and smacked her sharply, knocking her head aside. "None of your tricks, Cassandra," he said, and Khan felt himself go red.
MacLeod gave her a little shake. "Look at me."
She scowled. She looked.
"Cassandra," he said explosively. And set her down, with a thump. "Talk! Why did you do it?"
Cassandra stuck out her chin. "Do what?"
"You saw him--Connor--an innocent, pre-immortal, and you, you decided on the spot to kill him? To make him immortal. What was it, Cassandra? Precognition? A whim?"
"I thought he was Methos' getting," she spat out.
The two men both paused to look at Khan: broad-shouldered, big-boned, Celtic Khan with his brown curls and brown eyes and his dark good looks. He could not have looked more like his father if he had been cast from a mold of the MacLeods.
"Tell the truth, Cassandra. Why?"
"Why does Kellistra call him Khan?"
"What?" said MacLeod.
"I knew whose son he was," Cassandra said, "the instant I heard those names. So colorful. Khan, Vidar, Myrddin . . . they're exactly the sort of names she'd choose. How long have I known her? Millennia. I knew it was her."
"You know Mother?" said Khan.
"Of course I do, child. But," she added, when Khan bristled, "you're not a child any longer. You're a man." The flick of her gaze along the length of his body reminded him of exactly that. She smiled: "And you have questions. Don't be afraid--"
"Cassandra," MacLeod interrupted, harshly, "stop--"
"--don't be afraid to come to me."
"Why did you do it?" Khan blurted.
"To give you a choice. Your mother and father--I know what they've probably told you. They believe in 'letting things happen naturally'. In letting you become immortal in your own time. Whatever that is! When an accident does it for them--that's what they mean. You're already older than you need to be--"
"I knew it!" Rage flooded through him. "I told Father--"
She seemed to sway closer. "I'll bet they've had children who've lived out their entire lives, lived and died--died of old age--and your mother and father stood by and let it happen. And told themselves they were doing the right thing. Waiting for destiny."
"That's enough," Methos said.
"I'm your manifest destiny, Khan. You've got choices now." Another smile, slow and delicious. "Seize them."
"You are not," MacLeod said firmly, "going to teach anything to my son." He looked at Methos. "You're . . . well, I'm not sure what we're going to do with you, Cassandra."
"Kill her," said Methos.
Everyone stared at him.
"Methos, I don't think . . ."
"Kill her," Methos repeated. Cassandra had gone dead white. Methos and MacLeod exchanged a long glance; Mac had interposed himself between Methos and Cassandra. It came to Khan that his father was not about to leave shu-shu Methos and the stranger alone.
Methos turned and walked out of the room.
Methos and MacLeod put Cassandra in jail. They did this, after a little debate, in the simplest way available. They took her into the master bedroom, picked her up (one on either side, holding her elbows) and swung her onto the bed, then called up the house AI and put her under sedation. With an intravenous drip in her arm, and a continuous drug feed to keep her there.
Then they locked the bedroom door on her, to keep the children away. "You realize, of course," said Methos, "Vidar will be in there looking at her as quick as he can pick the lock."
"Damn him, of course he will. Maybe I'd better tell him he's to stand guard over her--would that make him less likely to pull out the drip?" MacLeod reflected. "Yes, it should. Especially if I give him a weapon. I'll do it. Should I be worrying about Myrddin and Elektra too?"
"I don't think so. Neither of them is as headstrong as Vidar. Khan, though--yes."
"Of course Khan. Didn't you see the way he was looking--?"
"May God help us," said MacLeod.
"You got that right," Methos agreed.
"Damn her. I'll make sure they stay apart."
The two of them walked through into the kitchen and began to put together a snack. "So where are you and Kells going to sleep, do you think?" Methos inquired. "Seeing as your bedroom's taken."
"We'll put a couple of quilts down on the living room floor, probably."
"Good thought! That way, Connor won't be able to sneak in to her tonight."
Mac flicked finger and thumb, popping Methos lightly on the tip of his nose. Methos merely grinned.
They made two heaping Dagwoods, working side by side without trouble in the restricted space. Once young Elektra came running in, swinging a doll by the neck and pretending to behead it with a table-knife. Methos poured her a glass of milk, and Mac relieved her of the knife, then patted her on the head and shooed her outside to rejoin her siblings. After--each with a plate and a mug of beer--the two men moseyed back through the house, settling down on the front porch.
Mac had always liked a house with a porch. He leaned on the rail, munching his sandwich: lettuce and piping-hot radish slices and fresh-ground mustard, with smoked salmon and ham, on sourdough bread. Methos hopped up and perched beside him, chewing. They had a magnificent view: the hillside and river and bridge, and beyond that, the soft-colored patchwork of field and pasture, orchard and vineyard and garden under cultivation, and Kellistra's olive grove. With cattle lowing somewhere in the distance, and the sky above was an idyllic mirror, a patchwork itself of blue and fleecy white and wool-grey. Hearth and home.
"What are we going to do, Methos?"
"About what--Cassandra? She's my problem. It's me she hates. Nothing to do with you. If I were you, I'd keep out of it."
Mac leaned sideways, putting Methos into a headlock, and shook him roughly; when he let go, Methos grabbed at his sandwich and pretended to throw it into Kellistra's rosebushes. They grappled for a moment, pushing each other and laughing. Finally MacLeod tipped Methos off the railing and dumped him into the bushes, saying, "Go get it back, then!" Then he gave Methos a hand up to vault back onto the porch, and helped him pull rose-twigs out of his hair.
"Tell me something," said Mac. "About Cassandra. She can't have children--"
"No. She can't," Methos said. "Still untouchable, but she can't. But could you feel the difference, then? Between her, between Amanda, and Kellistra, who can."
"Yes. I think so."
"Good. You're learning. At last."
Mac gave him the finger, amiably.
"But Cassandra knows about the whole business, she knows the rules. So she's also obliged to follow the rules? Everyone who knows the secret, ought to do that."
"Well, yeah. But not everyone does, of course."
"We're not all nature's rebels like you. For instance, if an immortal's about to come of age and I know it, I've got an obligation to see them through it. Explain things to them, the new rules and so on." He looked sharply at Methos. "Teach them. The way you taught me."
"Facts of life, yeah. So?"
"So when we met her before, I was about to come of age and she came to me. And we--" MacLeod broke off expressively. "I shouldn't have," he said, looking down at his sandwich. "Amanda . . ."
Methos studied him. Then he drew the katana from his coat, bringing it up and around in a great flashing arc--smooth as light and air--and down, to cleave Mac's sandwich just a whisker from his fingers. Through sandwich and plate alike it went, and Methos said sweetly, "You should have kept your hands off her."
". . . We fought the Horsemen," Mac continued. "Then, as far as Cassandra knows, I went off with you and disappeared. Left her, for you. Correct?"
"You sound like K," said Mac. He picked up the two halves of the broken plate and looked ruefully at them, then shook them sharply. All their houseware was self-cleaning, of course, and even auto-sterilizing. The stains shook off in a film like ash, leaving a bright surface behind; it was impressed with a moving picture, a sunrise in translucent blues and orange and pink. Lovely as a real sunrise, translucent as semi-precious stone; the image had real depth. Birds flew in it. Only near the break in the halves did the picture blur into illegibility. Mac fitted the pieces together, waited a moment, and put the plate down, whole again.
Another shake saw his beer-mug as clean as if new. Rubbing mustard and crumbs off his own hands (human skin not being a modern appliance) took longer than everything else combined. "Technology," he remarked. "I never know whether to love it or hate it."
"Yeah, but I still think life would have been fuller if they had perfected the edible-dish thing and got it on the market. Trenchers. I haven't eaten off a proper trencher since I was a spy at the court of Charlemange--"
"Don't get started on Charlemange unless you have a new story." Mac suddenly made a disgruntled noise and gestured toward the house: the boy's bunkroom where Khan now rested in splendid isolation, the master bedroom where Cassandra lay unconscious. "We're in a mess, Methos. She's a threat to us, and then there's this thing with the knights, another threat. And if that's not enough, there's Amanda--I mean, us--I mean, Amanda and I. After all these years. Does Kellistra see Amanda as a threat?" Methos just shrugged. "It's all my fault," said MacLeod grimly. "It's all about me. My family. My . . ." After a long pause, with evident difficulty, he swallowed and said, "My wife."
"And Amanda, who is your . . . ?" Methos prompted.
But MacLeod didn't reply at all.
"And who am I?" Methos said.
"My friend," said Mac. "You're right. It's not about me. It's about us."
Methos blew him a kiss. MacLeod took the katana away from Methos and aimed a broadside swipe at his kneecaps, fanning the edge past as Methos kicked his feet up out of danger.
"Don't do that," said Methos, "you could lop my leg right off." Brightly: "Then you'd have to fight my challenges and do all my work for me for the rest of my natural life."
"In your dreams," said MacLeod.
This was the way they had lived, through those two centuries. Side by side, shepherding the new Clan MacLeod, together all the time. Even when they were apart, the holographic link kept them constantly with each other. After all that time, it was no surprise that they could work and think and play together in perfect harmony.
"We've had this for two hundred years now," said Methos. "Two hundred years of peace. Shouldn't complain, when the Game catches us up again."
Alone in his room, Khan brooded. He sat on the edge of the bed, then was up and pacing, pacing through the quiet bunkroom. His brothers were being kept away from him, no doubt by his ever-vigilant parents. Khan paced. The house was silent around him, as if empty. He couldn't hear anyone moving about out there. Finally he smacked a fist into the palm of his hand, opened the door a fraction, and peered out.
His eye appeared in the crack of the door, looking left and right. Khan opened the door all the way and tiptoed through. Again, he looked for witnesses. Aha! No one stood between him and his goal. With guilt written all over his face, but determination in his stride--for he was an adult now--he headed for the master bedroom.
As he jiggled the doorknob, a voice said behind him, "No, no, my dear--Sleeping Beauty's not waking up tonight."
Khan leaped a yard and came down like a startled cat. There was his mother, leaning against the log wall, arms crossed and her expression ironic. She had either stolen up on him like a ninja, or been there all along. "I have to see Cassandra," Khan blurted out. Kellistra only shook her head at him, lips quirking. He felt like a little boy again, reduced to wheedling for a treat: "I just want to look at her! That's all."
"No, Khan," said Kellistra, unmoved. "Now run along and play."
"I'm not a mortal anymore! Quit that."
"Well." Kellistra studied him, then drawled with some amusement, "A new-made immortal is never so green as when he stands tall and says, 'I can fight for myself, Mommy!'"
A low rumbling growl began deep in Khan's throat. For the first time he thought about how little his mother was, how tall and strong he was in contrast. He demanded, "Mother. Why wouldn't you give me this choice?" He touched his chest over the heart. "Immortality. Why?"
"Khan! It's not a choice! Or if it is, it's a choice between bad and worse. And I . . . For thousands of years I have seen my children become immortal, and die," said Kellistra. "Trying to stop them was like wishing back the tide. You should have treasured your mortal years, Khan. Because now they're over, and what lies ahead . . . is not what you imagine."
"Because I have to go away now? Well, I've wanted to do that for years! And you can't order me around anymore."
"No," said Kellistra.
"You see? Even you admit--"
"No." She was unarmed. She was half his size, less than half his weight. She shifted her stance, tilted her head so her long dark hair was tossed back from her pale face . . . and suddenly Khan was frightened. Kellistra said, "You aren't listening, my sweet. No: you are not going to do what you want to."
Khan went bright red and said, "But I think I'm in love with her, Mother!"
She only laughed in his face. Then, implacably, she turned him around, marched him to the front door, and put him outside like a misbehaving puppy. "And don't come back," she said, shutting the door in his face, "till you're ready to apologize."
Exiled, Khan gave the porch-posts a few good kicks and then went storming down the path. In his heart he cursed his mother and all her sarcasm to perdition. In twenty languages, in rude phrases memorized from listening to Kellistra herself, he swore a blue streak.
He ended out just outside of the barn. There, an inert heap on the ground, was the broken ox from yesterday. Earlier, Khan's father and brothers had jacked it onto a sleigh and towed it (with anti-gravity to help them) home to be repaired. Khan stared at it, his mouth working.
He kicked it, right in the head, and its skull split along the access seam, exposing the plastic clockwork of its brain.
Another kick, harder. An explosive sound came from Khan, half wail, half roar. He drew back his fist and drove it into the ox's innocuous hide, several times, hard and fast. Then he grabbed his father's axe, swung it high, hacked with all his might at the machine's neck.
By the time Khan was finished, the ox lay in ruins, and nobody would be able to make its splintered motherboard work ever again.
Kellistra came down the path from the house, walking quietly, her face concerned--no humor in her expression, for once. She had donned her sword too, something she rarely did. It was a facsimile of a Roman shortsword, but made from modern steel . . . well, not really steel, and the term Kellistra used when she thought of it was "postmodern". She had designed it and manufactured the metal alloy, and MacLeod and Methos had cast and finished the blade. It was severely plain, but the scabbard and baldric were tooled leather, dyed and inlaid with elaborate Celtic designs. When she came to the ox in all its splintered glory, she halted and looked around, then followed her nose.
Her son was in the barn, up in the loft, where the hay had drifted deep and mice (real mice, not biomachines) rustled like whispering voices in their nests. Khan had made himself a nest too. He sat curled in his burrow in the sweet-smelling hay, his knees drawn up and his arms wrapped round them; but his eyes were open, he had felt her coming and the surprise of the sensation still lingered. Kellistra climbed up the ladder and looked with undemanding inquiry at him, and he showed her a mask of misery.
"What's happening, Mother?" he whispered. "Why do you treat me like this?"
She sat down just far enough away to be unthreatening. "Well, it's a long story, you know. Shall I tell you? I've had more sons than even I can remember, and they tend to take after me . . . but that's not a good thing. Not at all. And I could recite you the names of the ones who went wrong, but it wouldn't mean a lick to you, sweetheart. Someone named the Kurgan. Another, Hasan il-Sabah. A very bad man called the Ripper, who had to be tracked down and dealt with in the end . . ." Kellistra bowed her head.
Khan just looked blank. Eventually she went on. "And also a son I had from a Japanese husband. Named En-no-Gyoja. A magician--like your father. You've seen some of the things your father can do. Well, out of all my children, a number of my sons have gone bad, and En was one. And an immortal who can do magic, and goes bad . . . that's a very nasty combination, sweet. En has survived the Rapture. And he has founded a secret sect of immortals who call themselves Yamahoshi knights, and they have a grudge against your father. They've already sent assassins to kill him, and now we're all in danger. More could strike from any quarter, at any time."
Khan didn't understand any of this, and barely cared. "But what about me?" he demanded.
"Well," said Kellistra. "To answer, I believe I have to go on with the story. But Cassandra and I have known each other for, well, millennia--"
"Is she my sister? Are you keeping us apart because she's my sister?"
"But then why . . . ?"
"Just listen. I want to tell you about the Rapture, Khan. When it happened, it was just a few decades after I had met your father, and we weren't living here in Seacouver then. Seacouver was too big a city, we wanted someplace isolated. Sacred ground, safe from the children. And where other immortals weren't likely to come around and see us--Seacouver has always been a hotbed of immortal activity. So I had taken your father and Methos away, over the mountains, to a holy place I knew from long ago."
She roused herself, and twisted around, to point over her shoulder--indicating the northeastern quarter of the compass. "A Cree holy place. I owned the site, and about five hundred hectares of land around it. We were living there, and had children, five of them. Four sons at that time, and a daughter. All very young. Gilchrist, Grayson, another Ian, Astrophiela, and Haio-hwa'tha."
"Haio-hwa'tha, yes. He was, oh, just nine years old, and the youngest one, your sister Astrophiela, had only just been born."
Kellistra rocked herself, hands clasped on her knee, gazing into the past.
"Not that the isolation helped us," she said. "The first reports came from Asia, from somewhere in the Ring of Fire. Within twenty-four hours the death count mounted into the millions, and all travel from the afflicted regions had been shut down almost instantly. Just not fast enough. The plague traveled like wildfire. It might as well have been racing along our communication lines. It was everywhere almost before we knew what it was. And the mortality rate? One hundred percent."
"All the mortals died," Khan confirmed. He had heard this story before, many times.
"Everyone died, darling."
"Well, yes. But the immortals came back to life, right? So they didn't really die."
"Yes. They did. Ask me about the symptoms, though," said Kellistra. "Like catching a fungus, something you breathed in and it grew in your throat and lungs. Sanguine heat and ill humors in the entire chest cavity, massive sporulation and reinfection on a cycle barely four hours long, and a pneumonic spread like nothing I've seen since the Black Death, only worse. It grew up your windpipe, till it sprouted like fur on your tongue and everywhere inside your mouth. You drowned in it--drowned in fuzz, and dried up from the inside at the same time, and you could spit till your stomach bled and it would come up like wads of grey fluff with every cough. And it felt like . . . oh, like the tarantella, and the Yellow Sickness, and smallpox and bubonic plague, all rolled up into one. I've had all those things at one time or another, so I can speak with authority. We all caught it, Khan. Myself, Methos, Duncan, the children. Caught it and suffered and slowly died of it, one after another."
"Why did you call it the Rapture?" Khan whispered, sincerely glad that his parents and Methos had survived.
"Because when it was over, we stood up and found all the mortals--the living--had gone on ahead of us, and only we hosts of the dead still remained. The legions of the damned, who were never mortal and when we die, we go nowhere--we only remain." Kellistra looked deep into her son's eyes, saw he did not comprehend, and added, "Ever since, there's been a rumor that some homicidal immortal started the Rapture. I believe that rumor. Cassandra probably does, too. Where should she look for the culprit, save for among the oldest, deadliest immortals?"
His mouth opened and closed several times. "She can't believe that you did it. Or, or, or shu-shu Methos. And even if she did, she doesn't have any reason to punish me. I wasn't even born then."
She only sighed. "Stay away from her, boy. Promise me."
"I will . . . if you promise to treat me like an adult. I'm immortal now, Mother." Clumsily, he shifted closer, took her hand and patted it. She seemed very remote from him, lost in thoughts he couldn't guess at. "Trust me."
"Yes," she said, and kissed his cheek.
She drew off the baldric that held her scabbard and sword, and ceremoniously draped it over his head. Khan stiffened with incredulous pride as it settled across his chest; the weight of her sword was like a knighthood. "You're an immortal now," Kellistra confirmed very seriously. "See that you act like one."
His throat swelled, tears swarmed in his eyes. To hide them, Khan stared manfully toward the open loft door; he bit his lower lip hard. Kellistra shifted around to sit within touching distance, patted him on the arm. Through the big square of the door, he had a wonderful view across the breadth of his parents' farm, across patchwork fields and rolling hills and woodland. The horizon had rolled back and there they were, misty pale blue outlines on the most distant sky--a mountain wall on the edge of his world. The superskyscrapers of Seacouver, towering so high they were visible more than a hundred miles away.
"Mother? Tell me about how you lived in cities, when you were my age."
"I'm the wrong immortal to ask," said Kellistra. "The ways we lived when I was small . . . oh, they're ancient, lost history now. But how our kind lived in mortal cities, before the end of the world? Is that what you'd rather hear today?"
"Tell me," said Khan. Mother and son leaned together, gazing toward those far tall towers. And Kellistra, in her ironic slow drawl, told him the story he had heard from her countless times before: of the world before the Rapture, and its wonders, and its downfall. Khan relaxed bit by bit, lulled by her storyteller's voice. Till eventually her words trailed off into a companionable silence, and the two of them were at peace, contemplating the Seacouver that was.
Ten minutes later, the proximity alarms went off.
But long before the alarms sounded, Kellistra stiffened. She shot to her feet, all a-bristle--like a wild cat that sees the wind. Khan, who had been half asleep, almost fell onto his face. His mother uttered a blistering curse-- "My sleetje! Schit!" --yanking her sleeve up from her keyboard. "It's coming from the east!" said Kellistra, and he yelped and dragged at his new sword and almost tripped over his own feet, heart pounding.
"Mother what is it, what, who's coming now!"
She didn't bother to answer. While Khan still waffled, she snapped out orders to no one, to midair: "Methos! Mac! Did you feel that? Gather the children. Yes, still far away--from the east, more than one--lots of them, from the feel of it." With a glance at Khan, "Yes, he's with me--"
She broke off, shut her eyes and seemed to be concentrating with all her will, till she went completely pale and suddenly began to sway. Khan held her up. "Mother!" he demanded. "What is it? Don't send me into the house. Let me protect you." Kellistra's eyes snapped open and she pushed him away. She took a few steps, staring out through the barn entrance. Her mouth was set in a hard thin line.
"Immortals of age," she said between her teeth. "Vatua nada l'ou xarbot! Think I know them, too. And they're coming fast." It was a mutter. "No time to head them off, Duncan. What should I do with Khan?"
As she spoke, she was slithering down the barn ladder, neat as an acrobat. Khan scooted after her.
It was only then that the proximity alarms went off, like shrilling needles on every side.
"You can feel them?" Khan said. "I can't. I thought I was supposed to be able to feel other immortals?"
"Not at any distance," she snapped, "you're not of age. Khan, you know all this, I've explained it to you before." She said to no one, "And your little friend Amanda then, so where is she? Oh. Well, keep her with you."
She went out of the barn, Khan rushing in her wake. At last he roared, "Mother!"
His father and Amanda were coming out of the house. Ahead, down at the bridge, Methos already stood waiting; the katana was drawn and in his hands, he was leaning on it and staring out over the fields. There was not a single interloper to be seen. As far as the furthest pastures, all was grazing cattle, and a few sheep dotting the grass like fleecy white clouds.
"Khan," said Kellistra. "Look, sweet. These aren't ordinary immortals. They're of age and I can feel it, so can Methos, so can Mac--I can feel a man of age a hundred miles away. There are rules. Immortals of age don't behead one another. There are rituals. Anyone else, you for instance--you're fair game. I want you not to go off half-cocked here. Think."
"I'm not afraid of them," said Khan, sticking his chin out.
They were at the bridge by now. MacLeod touched Methos' arm, and Methos smiled at him. Kellistra said, "Methos, you're the general--I'm just our weapons-maker, and Duncan's the muscle. Which of us goes to parley?"
"I've got an idea," said Amanda. "Let me go, I'm expendable, not of age yet here. Can't have baby immortals, right?" She made a vague gesture. "Shouldn't we be worried about any of you getting killed, or--"
They listen to her, but not to me, thought Khan in frustration. However, Methos said, "No, Amanda. You're in more danger, not less." He thought, then said, "Okay. Kellistra? You go. Unarmed."
"Mother! No!" yelped Khan, and MacLeod said in the same breath, "No!"
"This is a new game you're playing, Duncan," said Methos; his face was cold, hard. "We've told you the rules. Now be quiet, and learn."
"Khan, darling," Kellistra said, "time for you to go to the house." Khan yelped, started to protest, and cut off abruptly; his mother was no longer humoring him, he saw it in her eyes. She said, "You will go into the house, and stay there, Connor. Because one of these immortals may challenge your father, and if they win, they get this holy ground. And me. They get me, and there's a good chance that the next thing they'll do, is kill all my children by Duncan. Before they do, you're going to take your brothers and sisters, and run like hell. Got it?"
Khan about-faced and headed for the house.
With him gone, the four older immortals stood in a knot and stared. Eastwards, edgily. MacLeod, who had been taught what to expect but had never faced this kind of challenge before, stole a surreptitious glance at his old katana, then lifted his chin and looked noble; Methos noticed and grinned at him, shifted slightly till their shoulders touched. Amanda was listening to some inward ear, a pretty frown upon her forehead. Kellistra crossed her arms. Wearily, she remembered many such times before: when some immortal of age came to challenge her current man, and when the interloper had won and taken possession of the holy ground, there would always be that moment of chilling anticipation . . . When a new lion claimed a pride, all the old patriarch's cubs usually died; immortal men sometime dealt with a defeated rival's offspring just as ruthlessly. Was it instinct? The world was hard. She had learned to be ready to defend her children. If things went wrong, better to trust Khan to take the other kids and run for it--while she stood her ground, protecting their line of retreat.
To the east, all seemed peaceful. Not a cloud in the sky. The shrill alarm was annoying: Kellistra tapped her keyboard, and it ceased.
"Still can't see them?" said Amanda tentatively.
"They're coming very fast."
"In white surcoats and red crosses, I bet," said Methos. "Sure they'll challenge, K?"
"Darling, men always challenge. It's just the way they are."
"Let them come," said MacLeod. Sticking his chin out, exactly like his son. And Methos shook his head at him.
"Um," said Amanda. "Listen. Kellistra." She patted her coat-pocket. "I've got a set of Armor Cusinart here if you want . . . ?"
And Kellistra took note of this. She said, "No, dear child. They're lovely little toys, those--but this is neither the time nor the place. Thanks, though."
To the east, still not a sign.
Kellistra smoothed her rumpled sleeve down over her keyboard. "The rest of you, stay back," she ordered. She walked out onto the bridge, empty-handed, just as she was. A slight breeze blew her hair off her shoulders. Looking back, she noticed that Mac and Methos and Amanda had closed ranks, standing together, a trio. "Get back toward the house!" she called to them. Here was the perimeter of the holy ground under her boot-toe; she could feel it. Older immortals often could.
Standing there on the brink, she suddenly looked very small, very thin, vulnerable. Her black faux-cotton shirt and buckskin pants were too flimsy to conceal any weapons. Kellistra flipped her hair out of her face with both hands, pursed her lips, and stepped whistling off holy ground.
A fine tremor thrummed through the ground under her feet. She stiffened. A high wind whipped up out of nowhere, blasting a whirl of leaves into her face. There was a rumble rolling out of the east, beyond the placid borders of her pastures and fields.
The ground began to shake. She now saw a black cloud racing toward her; it looked like a squad of horses, but moved like a shadow flying before the sun. Too fast to be natural. The shaking in the earth was a long deep drumbeat of menacing noise. It came on like a nightmare: no sooner seen, than upon her.
Their mounts thundered to a halt at the river's edge, towering over little Kellistra, a great throng of horses too huge to be true, surmounted by riders in blowing surcoats. Those horses loomed twenty hands tall or more, and they were not horses but horses, biomechanical monsters pawing vast shovels of hooves restlessly as they stood. They came in all the colors of metal. Gunmetal and glossy dark enamel red, forest green and gleaming blue-black, with eyes that shone like fiery headlights. Their legs were made from piston and cylinder, their jaws champed with a grinding crash and squeal; their joints slid smoothly upon hydraulics, and their long necks moved unnaturally, telescoping and stretching as they raised their dark muzzles, opened nostrils like unfolding steel fans, and breathed blue fire.
Their riders were knights in armor, with red crosses on their white surcoats; long ago, this had signified a willingness for martyrdom. They rode in pairs. And their numbers . . . ! MacLeod and Amanda had fought two of their kind in ruined Seacouver, not long ago. Methos and Amanda had faced four at the town of Graveyard. Here, today, was a wall of armor: fourteen pairs, riding chargers like juggernauts.
Twenty-eight hostile immortals.
It was an army.
Kellistra stood small against the wall of horses. They lined the river's edge, spreading into a disciplined line that flanked her, far to her left, far to her right. Five--six--no, eight were men of an age to breed; she could sense it, and her gaze flicked from one to another, gauging them. She knew some, others were strangers. One of them snapped an order in antique French. Horses and knights alike froze into immobility, till the living were as still as their machines. And all their swords were pointed at her, aiming at her throat.
She began to snicker.
Grinning, unimpressed, she took a step backwards, onto the bridge. There she sat down cross-legged, steepling her fingers, and rested her elbows on her knees. They all had to crane their necks, looking down at her. It put them at a disadvantage. She spared one glance backwards, toward the trio of Mac and Methos and Amanda waiting halfway to the house, and at the house itself. Through its front windows she could make out faces, pressed to the glass. Her children were watching, gathered round Khan with his sword.
As for MacLeod and Methos, they were listening through her ears. They heard every word, they might as well have been standing next to her.
"Hugh of Payns," she said, shaking her head. "And is that Odo of Saint-Armand I see? Armand of Perigord, Godfrey of Saint-Omer, Hugh of Tiberias, Walter of Mesil . . . All the surviving Templars, huh? What, does my son think I'll fall down fainting at the sight of a few boys on toy horses? You've got to do better than that, sonny." She pointed a finger. "Want to talk? Get down off that silly thing, then, and be polite."
The leading knight leaned far out over his mount's landslide of a shoulder, put back his hood, and addressed her. "Woman, I see you're still profaning the name of our master."
"A mother may call her son any bloody damn name she pleases," answered Kellistra. "Hugh de Payns, keep a civil tongue in your head. Or have you forgotten how I whipped you once, ground your face in the mud and made you wash your mouth with the dust of the Holy Land?"
"That's as may be," said Hugh de Payns. "Kellistra, how lovely to see you. We've come for Duncan MacLeod. I presume he's your man now. Say goodbye to him."
Halfway to the house: "Are women who can have children immune to challenge?" Amanda asked.
"Yes. They're not allowed to touch her."
At the bridge, the knight Odo had dismounted and, though he still towered over Kellistra, was attending to her with his head inclined. He had even put away his sword. Amanda said, "So her person is sacred?"
"Yes," said Mac. "Invaluable, in fact. Women of age . . . they're rare."
"Maybe it's just my nasty suspicious mind," said Amanda, "but what's gonna stop them from bundling her under that Odo's arm and riding home with her?"
"Well, you don't know our Kellistra, do you?"
And at the bridge, Kellistra said, "So the question is, what are you going to do?" She sounded merry. "And you can skip the vague threats, Hugh," she added. "I don't have time to sit here all afternoon, waiting to be impressed. Talk's cheap. Why do you want Duncan?"
Hugh de Payns said, "Don't take us lightly. You may be our master's mother, but your man killed Haresh Clay and Carter Wellan. They were the master's favored children. Clay was first in line to succeed him." A scarlet spark gleamed in the knight's eyes. "Other men can father your sons, Kellistra. Forget MacLeod. He's dead."
At this, Kellistra stood. She was still more than a head shorter than de Payns. "Are you threatening us?"
"Give him up, and I'll stop." Hugh squinted past her, at Mac and Methos, and Kellistra filed away the thought that he knew neither of them. "Which one is he? And who is the other?"
"I'm sorry," said Kellistra, "I can't tell you who he is, he's living under a facetious name."
"I remember your ill-placed humors. You would do better to bend with the wind, woman. Look at you, living in your pretty Cockaigne of a world! It's a dream of fossil glories. Not life, but archeology. Whereas we are the future."
"Oh, the new world order?"
"If you like. Licit appellare mundus novus! We no longer accept anything that has to do with old tradition, and we will change the world. Build a new one. A better world. Where--"
"Where, who wants to travel there," Kellistra cut him off, "can embark at the port of simpletons and navigate the sea of stories, and when my son's ship comes home to Lotusland, with all your shields lining the rails--well, he'll become king over every dolt, no? Is that his plan?" She moved forward, jostling Hugh bodily--hitting him with the palm of one hand, stiff-arming him in the chest, shoving him. "You know, half the lies they tell about me aren't true, but the other half haven't been exaggerated in the least. You bore me, boy. Go away and take your cutesy playmates and tell my son En not to bug us any more."
He took hold of her with mailed gloves and she was fixed in place, glaring. She was barely half his size, a child in his grasp. Hugh lifted her right off the ground and held her there, at last eye to eye. "Or?" said the knight. "Too late, Kellistra."
There was a flurry of motion. Still laughing, she twisted in his hold, her whole body folding into a ball--and then she unfolded like an explosion. She used jujitsu techniques, turning the leverage of his weight and armor against him. She broke both his wrists, dislocated his right shoulder, and shattered his right leg in three places.
He toppled, and as he dropped, she leaped at him. Onto him. Swift as thought. Bare-handed. Her forearm--protected by the indestructible keyboard wrapped around it--smashed into his face. Kellistra rose from his body, drawing his sword as she did, and used it on him. She stabbed through the head, into his brain, disregarding his armor. It killed him.
Just like that. It all happened in the space of a breath, and then she was stepping away, dropping the sword contemptuously, dusting off her hands. "I'm sorry," she said, "but I find poor Hugh here very dull--please take him away and next time, tell him to put a little more life into his dying. Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, we did things better. As for MacLeod? I like him, and I'll keep him. Got that?"
The other knights were like statues, unimpressed, unmoved. Only, the one closest to Hugh de Pays was glaring, his lips drawn back from grinding teeth. "Huh. You're of age," said Kellistra. "Are you his special little friend? Speak up, princess. Cough up your name."
"D'Andrieux," said the mounted knight. To the others, he said, "Pick him up, put him on his horse." To Kellistra: "Yes, I'm his special little friend. And it will give me great pleasure to make your man bleed and writhe." He bellowed across the river, "MacLeod! As it was in the oldest times, as it is today--I call challenge! Meet me on your holy ground, at dawn, tomorrow, unarmed! If he doesn't come," he added to Kellistra, "if you and your family try to run, I'll make him eat his own privates. And if he does, well--I'll hand them to you, woman. A marriage gift. Considerate, no? And may the Gathering be forever delayed."
"Delay the Gathering," she said, her voice like steel.
She waited till they had collected Hugh and left; then she began to curse. "It's like being between the devil and the deep blue sea!"
The instant Khan stepped into the house, all the other children had come running to him. "Khan!" Vidar cried, "what's happening, we've all got our stuff ready to do the emergency plan, and I got some of shu-shu's guns out of the lockbox--"
"Christ, give me those. You could blow Elektra's face off." Khan relieved him of the brace of guns, which could have blown up not only their little sister but the entire end wall of the house. "Yes, we're going to do the plan." Everyone instantly plastered themselves to the front window, on tenterhooks. They had rehearsed this, but it had never been for real before. "Power up the magic carpet and if things go bad, we're out of here. Wait for Mother at Father's salmon-fishing camp on the coast--"
"Look so many of them," whispered Mary at the window, her eyes as big as saucers.
"Where's Father's optics?" Vidar ran to get them.
Khan turned away from the AI's wall keyboard, and grabbed the optics. He put them on, and said, "Distance vision: enable. Vidar, the carpet's ready to go. You remember how to co-pilot?"
"I want to be the one who flies it!"
"No. Well . . . maybe." Khan studied the scene at the bridge. With the optics, he could see every bone-chilling detail, the knights and their horrific horses, as clearly as if he was there. "Mother doesn't seem worried," he reported. "Elektra, put down those dolls. We don't have room for them all on the carpet. Pick just one, okay?"
When Elektra made her choice and held up the doll to him, he took it and stuffed it down the front of his shirt for safe-keeping.
"Khan!" said Vidar suddenly, "what about the lady?"
The lady. Khan jerked involuntarily. The door to the master bedroom drew his gaze like a lodestone, and dimly behind it, he could sense Cassandra's immortal presence, the sun veiled in heavy cloud. They couldn't leave her behind. It would be wrong.
A voice in his mind whispered: she could help defend the other children . . .
He made his choice. "Vidar, Myrddin. Go pull out her IV. Leave the shrink-wrap on her, though, okay? No matter what she says. The two of you get her on her feet, and take her to the carpet." Vidar and Myrddin raced off, galvanized. Khan checked the draw of his new sword, for the third time. He checked the safeties on the guns. He patted the front of his shirt, where Elektra's doll was. He smiled at Mary and Ian and Elektra.
Through the bedroom doorway, Cassandra stepped.
She was unbound. The short-sword which MacLeod had given Vidar earlier--it was really just a long knife, but still dangerous--was in her hand. At the window, Khan spun and grabbed simultaneously for three different weapons. Too late. As his siblings scattered, Cassandra made a gesture, and he was rooted to the spot, doomed. Vidar and Myrddin came out of the bedroom in Cassandra's wake, and they were expressionless puppets, drifting along behind her in a trance. Cassandra shook out her long hair, stretched, and smiled.
She came to Khan and caressed his cheek. The terrified younger children all began to cry.
"Shhh, shhh," Cassandra soothed them. "I won't eat you. What's happening out there, then?" For an instant she was silent, staring through the window. "Yamahoshi knights," she said. "They're everywhere. Tell me what Mother instructed you to do."
"We're supposed to go away on the magic carpet," said Myrddin mechanically, "and hide."
Elektra and Mary and Ian wavered, halfway between standing their ground and abject flight. Small Mary abruptly sat down plump on the floor, and started to wail in earnest.
"Look in my eyes," Cassandra ordered Khan, and when he did, she went into his mind and rifled through all the playing cards of his qualities, the Tarot deck that (to a seer) foretold his fate.
It took almost five long minutes. Before she had finished, her face had become sorrowful, resigned. "Come along with me," she ordered, "and you too, young Vidar. The rest of you can stay."
The magic carpet was in one of the kitchen cupboards. Cassandra instructed Khan and Vidar, her obedient robots, to take it out and begin the unfolding process, which happened in several stages and would result in something much too large to fit into Kellistra's kitchen. The whole side of the wall telescoped open, windows and all folding away. They towed the carpet outside and opened it further. "Get on," she said.
The other children were all in the kitchen doorway, helplessly gaping. Cassandra took the guns from Khan, stepped onto the waiting carpet, and said, "Command: rise."
It went up with a whoosh. The house fell away, and there was the hillside beyond, the river and the bridge, and the adult immortals suddenly alerted to the danger. But it was already too late; the instant they passed beyond holy ground, Cassandra sighed and said to Khan, "I'm so sorry. But you would have turned out like her other sons: Jack the Ripper, the Kurgan, En. Should I have suffered Hitler to grow up, if I had the chance to stop him early either?"
She beheaded him, and with a thrust of her foot, rolled his body off the carpet and let the head and body fall.
As it plummeted, the doll tucked into Khan's shirt came free, tumbling down in a spin of skirts and floppy limbs. Later, Kellistra would find it and weep. But the magic carpet was so well-designed, that not even a quickening could slow its flight.
When Kellistra came back into the house, it was late afternoon, and she carried the doll with her.
Other than that, she was empty-handed. Her eyes were dry. She went straight to little Elektra, who was in the master bedroom, with her remaining brothers and sister, all together in a huddle on the big bed. MacLeod was with them on the bed, children curled around him. Mary, on her father's lap, was sucking her thumb. Their old catwork quilt was snuggled up over them, purring and furry and warm.
Kellistra had a smear of earth across her forehead, dirt ingrained under her fingernails. She sat down on the corner of the bed. "Here," she said, and laid the doll in Elektra's arms.
Elektra let it drop. "I don't want it."
"Then I want to keep it," Kellistra said. "Mignon, it's what we have to remember your brother with now. Not a toy anymore, but something about Connor. May I keep it to remember him by?"
"Did you kill the evil lady?"
"She was a wicked witch," said Kellistra, "like the ones in the stories I've told you, and she can turn herself into a she-wolf and do other magic things. When we find her, Father and shu-shu and I will deal with her. But she flew away too fast for me to hunt down in one afternoon." Her gaze met MacLeod's. "I know Cassandra better than you do," she said, "and this is the truth: Vidar's probably okay. She wouldn't touch him. It's her style to entice young boys away--to test them--but at his age, he's still safe from her."
"And later?" asked MacLeod. He looked down at Mary, slowly drew a caressing hand over her hair.
"If we don't get him back? She'll raise him as her own. Poor Cassandra!" Kellistra said deliberately, making a dramatic wry face at the children. "Saddled with Vidar? Your brother is going to drive her right out of her mind!"
"And now?" MacLeod said.
Methos and Amanda had appeared in the bedroom doorway. Methos held the katana, drawn. There was a moment's quiet. Then all the adults spoke up at once:
"We have to catch that zingona and wring her head off--"
"Find Vidar, get him back--"
"Guys! What about those knights, remember them?"
"Mac. You can't go after her. Remember the challenge."
Finally Methos said, "Okay. This is how it's going to be. Mac has to stay here and fight d'Andrieux at tomorrow dawn. Mac, you can't turn back from a challenge. Kells has to stay too. For the children, in case you lose. I'll hunt Cassandra."
"I'll go with you," said Amanda instantly.
"No." That was Kellistra. She went on, "You stay here on holy ground, sweet," and Amanda blinked in surprise. "The knights, the knights, Amanda--remember them?"
"Mac?" Methos said.
"I don't--" said MacLeod, and stopped. After several moments, with some difficulty, he finished, "I don't want to meet the challenge if it means I can't go after Vidar. Vidar is more important. Methos--think up a way around this. I am not going to fight."
They argued for quite a while, before they settled on a plan.
When everything had been thrashed out and Kellistra was alone in her bedroom, she locked the door. Then she walked up and down for a long time--time she could ill-spare--talking to herself, saying, "That bitch is so dumb she couldn't add up to two without taking off her shirt!" and "When we find her, I'll--" and "Vade retro Satanas!"
Finally she ended up bent over in one corner, frozen, both arms wrapped around her midsection. Holding Elektra's doll, and with the dirt from digging Khan's grave still marking her face. For she had lost more children than she cared to remember.
At about that time, Cassandra landed the magic carpet, overrode its failsafes, and watched it go up in flames.
Now they'll be able to hunt me, she thought grimly.
With the carpet under her, no one could catch her, true. It was as fast a mode of transportation as anything in the modern world. Riding on it, she felt invincible. But that was only a feeling, and she knew it. But she was no longer a Neolithic tribeswoman, stinking of camel-cud and goats . . . and she also knew, very well, there would be a tracer in the carpet. Anywhere she rode it, eventually, they'd find her.
Better to destroy the thing, and go on in the old way. Though she didn't know it, she and Methos used the same methods. Get rid of all modern electronics, and a human being became invisible to surveillance instruments. Cassandra trusted only her sword and her own two hands. She'd wreck the carpet, fade away amidst the wildlife, and no one would ever catch her.
The boy, all starry-eyed and dazed, hugged her side as if they were tethered. Cassandra's hand stole out without her notice, and ruffled his hair. Unruly dark curls, melting brown eyes, a stubborn chin, and the promise of broad shoulders . . . Such a boy, so much like MacLeod at the same age! She drew him closer, kissed his soft mouth. "What was your name again?" she asked. "Vidar, was that it? Little one, that's a name out of legend. Vidar, son of the god of lightning. You will outlive Armageddon, and inherit a brave new world."
"Are you . . . my mother?"
"I am. And are you my good boy, Vidar? Will you come with me, and not give me any trouble?" It was tiring, keeping him always on the leash.
"I want to go back to Father--"
Her blow against his mind stunned him, and he dropped in a huddle to the ground. "Damn!" said Cassandra. "Barely into his teens, and his will's already this strong?" She didn't have time to deal with this! She crouched over him, and cupped his face in both hands. "Listen now. I'm your mother, yes, yes, and Duncan is your father, but he, ah, is a danger to you. Yes. He became dangerously unbalanced, I had to steal you from him and run away. He says that other woman is your real mother? That wicked woman Kellistra. But Kellistra is a very frightening killer and has Duncan under her spell. We have to hide from them. Say it with me, Vidar: we have to hide from Duncan and Kellistra."
Still he wavered, though his lower lip quivered and tears swam in his eyes. "W-what about shu-shu Methos then?" Out went his chin, obstinate. "I--I want to go home! I want to go home!"
"Sleep," said Cassandra, and he slumped over, his head falling onto her shoulder.
She pursed her lips, and whistled low and loud. There was magic in it, a spell in the note. Enough wild horses roamed the Pacific coast that there were always some within reach. Charm a couple, tie the damned boy over one of them, and off she'd go. Cradling Vidar in her arms, she looked down at him in regret.
Still, her conscience was clear.
Methos meditated all night. When dawn approached, he and Kellistra walked up together to the holy ground. Kellistra had armed herself with a sword and several other little toys (some of them analogous to nuclear warheads) which was not her usual style; she was used to claiming that at her size, if things came to weaponry then all her mistakes had already been made. Methos, however, was unarmed except for the katana. He too was not going in quite his usual style.
When they got to the heart of the sacred cottonwood grove, Kellistra sat down on a stone. This was where they had met in parliament to talk about En; this was where she went, to conceive her children with MacLeod. In this very place. Methos paced over the ground, stopping every now and then to dig out and flick away small rocks.
"It's the wolf-hour," she said at last. "Dawn, soon."
"The footing's gone soft. I should have stamped it down better last spring. Heavy dewfall, too."
A few moments passed. In the east, the sky brightened. It was almost time.
"You're worried about MacLeod," she said.
"He'll be okay."
"Well, he worries about you too, you know."
"Quite the mother hen," said Methos. But he smiled.
"Xúem grúi okoláivaju!" she said suddenly and venomously. "Ah, God's own double-bad lightning, how I hate having nothing to do! Why didn't you kill Cassandra when you had the chance, back in the twentieth century?"
"Because she's a woman," said Methos in his mildest voice, "and . . . wasn't it against all the rules? And God forbid I should break those."
"Darling, your bitterness is showing. Let this be a lesson, then." With a hard look at him: "Cassandra always rebelled, flouted the rules, yes. She said our 'laws' were just superstitions. Why should those of breeding age be exempt from justice? Why not fight on holy ground? Why should holy flesh fight holy flesh only on holy ground? Break the laws and nothing happens, she said--I heard her say it, more than once--no catastrophes follow. No earthquakes or erupting volcanos. No punishment. No penalty. Higher laws take precedent. She said."
"Well, she'll die for it now," said Methos, cold-eyed. "Won't she?"
"When we catch her," said Kellistra, "then--yes, Death. She will."
"The huntress becomes the hunted," Methos nodded.
"Duncan won't like it," Kellistra went on. "God, he's more stubborn than the Almighty and the devil. Oh, I know his song very well, don't you? Something to the tune of 'killing doesn't solve anything'. Except it does. It always does. It solves the problem by removing it."
Methos glanced up; he was still pacing over the fighting-ground. He said, "Semel minusne an bis minus sit nescio, an utrumque eorum, ut quondam audivi dicier, Iovi ipsi regi noluit concedere." I know not if he's minus once or twice, or both of these, who would not give his place, as I once heard it said, to Jove himself. It was an old riddle. He added, "Who am I?"
"Terminus," said Kellistra.
This was the way of it: the rules were there for a reason. It was perfectly possible for an immortal to do violence on holy ground, for instance . . . there were no police or law-courts among their kind. No one could have stopped Methos from laying waste to the town of Graveyard. He had stalked its streets and hunted his prey down in the houses; not for nothing had they called him the Lonely One. Death. He had broken the rules as he pleased.
But there was still punishment.
Cassandra had never believed this. No matter how often she had been warned, she had seen no evidence of it. Suffer for your crimes? she had said, and curled her lip. Kellistra had seen her do it, many and many the time. Till it was too late, and the damage was done.
And this was how it had been for Methos: Kellistra had known him at the height of his strength. Then, he could have won and held any holy ground on the face of the earth, fought off all other men of breeding age without effort. She shut her eyes, thinking of it. He had been magnificent, magnificent. Serene Death, with his gentle face and lurking smile; women had fought for his favors. But he had broken the rules, and lost his fire, and here he was now, a mere shadow of his former self . . . a little shabby, a little faded, more likely to run than to stand his ground. So unwilling to fight, that other immortals--MacLeod, for instance--would take one look at him, shrug, turn away.
But he had been so much more, once.
Now, a clear sharp silver edge of light showed on the horizon. Dawn had come. Methos responded instantly, hefting the katana and facing east. The first light, for an instant, shone on his head, caught the swing of his long coat and drew his figure in bright clean lines; framed in it, he looked like the Methos she had known when she was young. When immortals had called themselves heroä, athanatizontos, daemons, angels--more divine than their mortal reflections. When their kind had carried themselves like gods.
For just an instant. Then the image was lost, and Methos was again himself, blurred by time and self-doubt, dust in his hair--nothing much to look at, easy to discount. He said, "Get back, Kellistra," and Kellistra obeyed.
The knights, arms crossed upon their chests, walked in a long double line out of the shadow of the cottonwoods. Each one carried his sword before him, reversed, upright. The cross-shapes of their swords--two-handed broadswords, sharp-pointed estocs, Italian rapiers and bastard swords and colichemardes--were framed by the red crosses upon their white surcoats. As they entered the clearing circled by the ring of its serpent mound, their line divided and they filed left and right, till they too encircled the holy ground. Hugh de Payns and the challenger d'Andreiux were the last to appear.
Hugh halted. D'Andrieux strode on. The instant d'Andrieux reached the centrepoint of the holy circle, all the other knights swung around and faced inward. They froze. D'Andrieux's weapon was a seventeenth-century flamberge. He slammed it into the earth, burying six inches of its point, so that it quivered and stood upright; Methos, opposite him, laid the katana gently down. D'Andrieux, his nostrils dilated, stared him in the eye.
"I'm Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod," said Methos. "Begin."
At that moment, MacLeod himself stepped off the family's emergency backup flying carpet. It settled to earth with a gentle ripple, and the pair of snow-white saddle-horses who had also been riding it came prancing off. One mare's lead-rein was tethered to the other's saddle; they moved with heads high, eyes rolling, skittish. Horses didn't take well to flying-carpet travel. MacLeod clucked to steady the mares, glanced around him.
A scar of burning on the dead grass told where the other flying carpet had self-destructed. Vidar and Cassandra had been here.
He said aloud: "Command: fold," and his own carpet obediently folded itself up. When it was wallet-size, MacLeod took it and stowed it away in a pocket. Then he checked the draw of his sword.
From here, he had to go slowly, at ground level.
He mounted the lead mare, leaned low over her shoulder and scanned the surroundings. Almost at once he nodded.
Six hundred years of experience had taught him how to track. MacLeod clucked again to the mares, and started south.
Methos and d'Andrieux had stripped, with the knights and Kellistra looking on. How often have I done this? Kellistra wondered. But she could name every man who had ever won her holy ground. Some, she had welcomed. Some had come to her as if they were conquerors and she the spoil, even dared to raise their hands against her children . . . and she had taught them the error of their ways. She had brought a flask of oil; she brought it out, uncapped it and offered it to Methos now. He nodded at her, poured out a palm-full of oil and began to smooth it over his bare chest and shoulder. He oiled himself everywhere that an opponent's fingers might catch; he even sleeked his hair down.
As he worked, Kellistra brooded. She didn't do this by striking a pose and looking magnificent, the way MacLeod might; she crossed her arms, cupping her elbows, seeming to diminish; she was seldom still this way. Finally she said, "We've fought one another for a long time."
"Not without cause," said Methos.
"Let that time be over between us." She came to him, laying her hand over his on the flask. Methos let go and his eyes became wide. Then he looked down, turned away, stood still; Kellistra poured oil into the cup of her palm, and took over the task of readying him for the challenge.
On the far side of the clearing, Hugh de Payns was doing the same office for d'Andrieux.
There was no haste to the ceremony. When they were both ready, d'Andrieux embraced de Payns, stepped away from him and came to Methos. Their swords were where they had abandoned them. "Before I ever became immortal," said d'Andrieux, "I had myself a name for the duel. Many, many times I met my man, and killed him. I even had a little joke: when I had my victim--ah, my honorable opponent--down and could shave his throat with the edge of my rapier, I would offer him his life back . . . if he blasphemed his Maker for me. If they did, alas, what honor had they left? I invariably cut their throats before the words were out. In that way I corrupted their souls as well as their flesh." His voice fell to a chilling whisper: "Seventy-two times I did this, MacLeod. Before I reached the age of thirty."
"Two go in," said Methos. "One comes out." The words were an age-old ritual, from the time when places like this had been common: the grove of Nemet in Italy, the labyrinth at Knossos, the garden of paradise at Lake Helmond in the Persian province of Seistan. At Stonehenge and Mount Kailas, at Lake Chad and Baikal and Vesuvius, and at the foot of Ararat, immortal men had met to fight for the right to breed. Methos' deep calm voice made d'Andrieux's sneers sound flimsy. A shaft of morning light shone on his head, glossed his oiled shoulders and the long muscular line of his back. "Delay the Gathering."
"Say goodbye to your woman's bed," said d'Andrieux. He moved in, circling sideways and falling into a wrestler's easy crouch--and cracked his knuckles menacingly. Methos tossed his head, and kept turning to face him. Otherwise, he did not even lift a hand. When D'Andrieux made a sudden grab for him, Methos sidestepped the lunge, evading it, untouched.
"Frightened, are you?" d'Andrieux remarked.
"You haven't done this often," Methos said, "have you?"
Three times more, d'Andrieux tried to close with him. Each time, Methos slid aside like a fish. After the third try, d'Andrieux swore in a bark of guttural German profanity. Methos turned and stood facing him, his arms at his sides, dropping his defenses.
D'Andrieux hit him, a hard driving blow to the stomach. Both men staggered back.
All the knights and Kellistra were watching like hawks. D'Andrieux said something, the words half-choked. Methos was beckoning, an odd smile on his face. D'Andrieux came on at the charge, head down. He snapped off two fast punches in classic boxing style, putting science and weight behind his fists. There on holy ground.
They staggered apart again. Methos, unsteady on his feet as a drunkard, was laughing. He said, "You haven't done this at all before. This is your first time?"
They closed, fell to the earth, rolled over and over in a tangle of limbs, grappling.
D'Andrieux was all over Methos. He was white where Methos was brown, his skin pale where Methos was sunburned; they made a fine picture, the two of them. Both knew how to wrestle. D'Andrieux also knew a vast range of illegal moves, which he was busy using; Methos knew the counter to every move, and was using those in his turn. Methos fought on the defensive, d'Andrieux on the attack. Blood smeared the ground under them, from grazes and cuts--mostly, it was Methos' blood--and d'Andrieux was the one who was laughing, now.
There was a crazy ring to it, a note of incredulous pain. But he kept on the attack.
On holy ground.
Something changed. D'Andrieux's harsh laughter rose to a crescendo, cut off. There was a brief blur of movement. Then both men were on their feet again, separating. D'Andrieux was backing away from Methos, and he was a sorry sight: head down, limbs twitching, mouth ajar and hanging. He breathed in hacking gasps. His eyes were wild.
He reeled with every step. Methos shook himself, and smiled. All his wounds healed as the witnesses watched; the blood burned off his flesh, leaving him clean and whole. Unhurriedly, he walked across to d'Andrieux, put a hand on his shoulder, and smashed a fist into his face.
Both of them almost fell down.
"Yes," said Methos. "You thought our kind couldn't suffer lasting wounds? Well, think again."
D'Andrieux said something thickly, through bloody lips.
Methos lifted a shaking hand, touched d'Andrieux's forehead. "In here," he said. "These are the wounds that can hurt us. We inflict them on ourselves. When we fight on holy ground." He was propping d'Andrieux up, or perhaps it was the other way around. "This is the way it's done. You hit me till you fall down, or I hit you till I fall. One of us outlasts the other, the stronger man wins." He made a small come-hither gesture. "Now hit me again," he invited, "or are you calling craven?" and before the words were well out of his mouth, d'Andrieux's eye had kindled and his fist was swinging.
As they fought, a light dawned around them. Mist seeped out of the ground and rose, wreathing the legs of the combatants. The light grew. It blinded. It dazzled the witnesses till they were forced to shade their eyes . . . and in it, Methos and d'Andrieux leaned together, forehead to forehead, trading blows. They held each other up. If either one had stepped back, both would have fallen.
When it ended, it was just like that: sudden as a snap of fingers. D'Andrieux crumpled. His eyes rolled up till the whites showed, he collapsed in a heap and was still. Methos remained upright. He braced his feet, stood shuddering: shoulders bowed, head hanging, fists swaying. With lightning sheeting all over his body, in fits and flares. Kellistra held her breath.
When he lifted his face at last, his eyes were full of flame. His mouth opened in a silent cry. His eyes and mouth were blazing rings; his skin glowed from within, golden lamp-light through living flesh.
Then he became a pillar of fire.
The afterlight was a blindness of its own, making morning seem dark as night. D'Andrieux lay at Methos' feet, vanquished. Methos swung a glance round the clearing, raised one fist--and all the other knights took an involuntary step backwards.
"Anybody else want a taste of me?" He showed his teeth. "Speak up or hold your peace. Well?"
The knights were looking elsewhere, shifting their feet, restive. De Payns shook his head slightly; Methos was staring straight at him. "Good," said Methos, flinging his hair out of his face. "Take your boy away. Don't let him take any heads for a while, or he'll be liable to dark quickening. He'll be a long time healing of this." De Payns made a hand-signal, and several of the junior knights hurried across--scuttled, really--and dragged d'Andrieux away from Methos. Methos stood and watched them do it. Then he began to pace forward, following them.
They flinched. One even cringed. De Payns moved between them and Methos, lifting his hands, palms outward. "This place is yours. Let us leave. In peace?"
"Truce?" Methos halted.
"Truce," said the knight.
"Good," said Methos. "Truce for three days, you get the bloody hell off our territory, and when the kid comes back to life, tell him he fought well. But he needs to work on his manners. Oh, and by the way? I'm taking his horse. I need fast transportation."
De Payns inclined his head. "Whatever you say." He touched his forehead. "Delay the Gathering."
"Delay it," said Methos.
"By the way? Yesterday night I called up photos of Duncan MacLeod." De Payns stared hard at Methos. "Who are you?" he asked pointblank.
Methos turned his back and walked away.
MacLeod was tracking, using tricks as old as time. He had learned how to trail quarry from Paiute tribesmen, and refined his skills during the Civil War, as an army scout. It was easy to fall back into the Zen state where his mind was empty, open, and his senses were tuned to every clue around him.
During the morning hours when the sun slanted and shadows were long, he made good time. Later in the day, his pace slowed. Toward noon, he dismounted and led both mares, moving stooped over and scanning the ground constantly. He knew he was falling behind. Cassandra knew the game they were playing; she too knew every trick in the book, and she was using them to evade him.
He had just lost her trail over hard-packed ground, had cast around in a circle and refound the spoor, when he heard birds flying up in fright. A blast of wind whirled leaves and twigs over MacLeod; he straightened, his mares spooked, he calmed them. And a steel juggernaut in the shape of a horse pulled up, with Methos on its back.
Methos leaned over and said, "Not even a look of surprise?"
"Kells told me you were coming." Mac looked the horse up and down. "Flashy," he said, and Methos grinned.
"What are we hunting?"
"Two horses. Both four-year-old studs, one roan, one grey. The grey has a sand-crack in his off fore hoof, and the roan has a tail that sweeps the ground and straddles his hind legs unusually wide. Vidar's on the grey. She's keeping them going at the gallop, they must be close to dropping dead under her, poor creatures," said MacLeod, "she's working them that hard. Can she control them with her mind?"
"Yeah," said Methos.
"Never mind. Look--the shadows are getting long. Leave the mares to find their own way home, we can go faster without them." He extended his forearm. "Up you come." And as MacLeod gripped his arm and swung up onto the biomachine's long back, Methos made a surprised face and remarked, "Two men on one horse. The emblem of the Templars."
They rode. MacLeod stopped talking, concentrated on tracking. He alternated between scanning everything around him, eyes slightly unfocused, and focusing sharply on any flickers of motion: birds flying, deer bounding away over hills. The biohorse's strides were immensely long, eating up the ground. Methos guided it, keeping it well aside from the trail. Several times, Mac stopped him, dismounted, and bent over to push his thumb into a patch of earth--gauging the freshness of a hoof-print by how dry and crumbly the ground was. Twice, when they lost the track, they backtracked to the last clear marks, and then both dismounted and cast around in widening circles till they found it again.
The third time, they failed to find it again.
"Damn it," said MacLeod, wiping sweat off his forehead. "Look at this terrain." At first glance, the conditions seemed perfect for the hunt; the first snow of the waning year had fallen brief hours earlier, and lay pale over grass hummock and twig and brush. But smooth flat shelves of stone studded the ground in long stretches. The snow had melted off them, the meltwater had evaporated, and they were as hard and dry as tarmac . . . and showed as little mark from Cassandra's horses.
She could have gone in any direction. Any direction at all.
"She's good," Mac acknowledged. "Very good."
"She's had long enough to get good at everything. Duncan?"
"When we find her . . ."
"If we find her. If we find her," MacLeod repeated, raising his head and looking directly at Methos for the first time in a while, "Methos, we've had this argument before. You've always said that a good beheading is the only real way to finish things--this kind of thing--and I always-- Well, never mind. You were right."
"And I was wrong. How many times have I done it myself? When my loved ones are threatened--"
"It's not the same!"
"It's always the same! I strike to kill. When you're in danger? I defend you. When I'm in danger, you . . . Well, we've been arguing about that for a good hundred years." Now Mac looked away. There was shame in his face--a kind of apology. "You've been killing to protect my family, and I damned you for it. I should never have. I've done the same as you--beheaded my enemies and felt no guilt afterward--because it was the right thing to do." He sighed. "I wish it wasn't so, but we have to live in the real world. We can only end this by killing Cassandra. This time she dies."
Methos was silent.
MacLeod touched his arm, again in apology. Then he said, changing the subject, "Look at this ground. Goes on for miles, and we're losing the light, too. The sun will be down soon. We'll never find her this way."
"No, wait," said Methos suddenly. "Duncan? We won't find Cassandra's tracks, okay. She's outwitted us. But take another look around. Tracks everywhere. Look at them instead."
"Hm?" Mac glanced around. Everywhere, the thin cover of snow showed the passage of small animals. Chickadees. Magpies. The marks of ground squirrels not yet hibernating, and the minute trails of field-mice, like tiny perfect sets of train tracks in the snow. Mac even spotted the tracks of a hunting fox, crossing their path at a brisk trot--the snow made that much utterly plain, textbook tracking conditions--then, off far to the right, stopping short and then taking off in a gallop, an explosion of ice-crystals flung up and not yet melted--
"Hey," he said.
He looked at Methos, Methos looked at him, and they both broke into grins.
"I wonder what scared it?" Methos said.
Cassandra had made her horses walk where no trace of their passing would show. But the little birds would have flown up at her approach, the ground squirrels would have taken fright and run for their holes, and the fox--the fox whose tracks showed so plainly--had been alerted by something, and had dashed away over the snowfield.
Once Mac and Methos rode to where the fox's tracks showed a disturbance, they were able to see other small disturbances in the snow. "That way," said Mac, pointing. "We've got her. See it? That way!"
They followed the marks of disturbed birds and small animals for almost three miles . . . and then, crossing a final stretch of stony ground, picked up the track of horses again. Plain, clear tracks. Cassandra had decided she was safe, and had stopped taking precautions.
MacLeod looked at the direction she had taken, and said, "Due west. Methos, she's heading for old Seacouver."
Half an hour later, he had accessed the city mainframe, pinpointed her location. It was then that they let the biohorse stretch out its legs and begin to really run.
They caught up to her on a suburban street. The shells of empty businesses framed the scene; behind their show-windows, lights were turning on as night approached, and holographic shoppers browsed gracefully among the flawless display-cases, ghosts of a vanished world. There was street theater--holograph actors in tights and codpieces and the stiffened ruffs of the Elizabethans, walking through a performance of Hamlet. There was even dramatic background muzak. The biohorse turned a corner, Mac and Methos saw their quarry at last: Cassandra's horses had been abandoned halfway to the next corner. The roan was limping forlornly down the street, dead lame, and the grey stood immobile, head hanging, sides marbled with sweat. Vidar lay on the pavement nearby, unmoving. A holographic actor paused over him, declaiming.
"Give us the foils. Come on--"
"Watch for Cassandra!" said Mac, swung his leg over the biohorse's back, and slid down. He gathered his son into his arms, kissed him, cradled him against his chest. "He's . . . he's sleeping. Seems fine." Methos had dismounted too; he crouched down lightly next to them, the katana drawn and laid across his knees. His head turned, he was watching all the approaches up and down the street.
Mac faltered over words, then whispered, "What soul has a man which is his, yet another's?"
Methos answered instantly: "Sons are the second souls of man."
Mac reached out, groping, and gripped Methos' shoulder hard.
"I know," said Methos. "I know."
A harsh jangle of noise blared out. It was the theft alarm of one of the shops, still operational after all these years. The wild horses squealed and took off, and Cassandra exploded out of the doorway of a shop--going straight for Methos.
Methos sprang upright, took a long step, put himself between her and MacLeod. Crash went their swords together. Something flashed in Cassandra's left hand. It had been a weapons shop she had tripped the alarms of. A ray of red leaped from her hand. It crossed Methos' shoulder and ribs--the cloth of his shirt parting, edges instantly reduced to black char--and glanced across the blade of the katana. The sword went red-hot and the air filled with a reek of burnt meat. Methos crumpled. As he landed, bent over on his knees with his weight braced on one arm and the other arm hanging useless, Cassandra lunged and ran him through.
She ripped the sword free and brought it up, just in time to parry Mac's beheading stroke.
The Shakespearian actors rehearsed their speeches around them, surreal.
"--And let the kettle to the trumpet speak, The trumpet to the cannoneer without, The cannons to the heavens, the heaven to earth--"
"MacLeod!" she cried. "I'm not your enemy!"
"Kill her, dear heart," said a voice from MacLeod's left shoulder, and a holographic shadow waxed there, arms crossed: Kellistra. "Do it slowly. Make her suffer. She didn't give our Khan time to beg--but I want her to beg tonight."
"Duncan," said Methos. Mac spared him a quick glance. He was crouched near Vidar, groping blindly for the fallen katana. He coughed blood, went on painfully, "Drive her backwards--to the building at--the end of the street."
Then he fell forward on his face, one hand still reaching for his weapon.
"Duncan," said Cassandra. "I have no quarrel with you." A power, sweet as honey, was in her voice. "Turn aside. Remember last time we met? You can't stop my magic."
"You think?" said MacLeod.
Her jaw dropped. He made a throwing gesture. A fireball of quickening erupted from his fist. She was flung back by the blast in a blare of electric light--the shortsword she had stolen from Khan almost lost, and her hand-laser gone, smashed. Mac stalked toward her, impassive. "When did you learn to do magic?" she screamed.
"You may have learned some tricks in the last couple of centuries--"
She gathered herself, concentrated. Suddenly she seemed to flicker through a succession of forms: a grey she-wolf, a leaping fish, a swan. "I will become wind, you'll never see me!" she said. But MacLeod just shrugged. He stared at her, and there she was in her own form again, baffled. "You can't," she said in disbelief.
"Back away, Cassandra," said MacLeod, putting power into his own voice.
"Forget Methos," she countered, raising her hand. "Come away with me, Duncan. I can teach you magic, yes? We'll bring up the boy together, you and I--"
He flung another fireball.
She swung her sword like a baseball bat, striking it aside. It hit a nearby shop, and ten square metres of show-window shattered, flashed, fell. "I warned you!" said Cassandra, and hurled a fireball of her own. MacLeod merely sidestepped. He came on, never pausing, raising his claymore--and Kellistra moved like Nemesis at his shoulder.
A huge full moon had risen over Seacouver, red as heart's blood and as brilliant. Advertisements hung in the air, writing themselves across its face like obscenities, and its bloody light streamed through them; the effect was diabolical, insane. In this eerie light, Cassandra retreated from MacLeod. She hurled balls of fire, and he caught them and cast them back. Windows shattered. Buildings burned. The weapon-shop went up in flames, its alarm silenced forever. Automatic sprinklers went off too, spraying fire-retardant foam. Great pieces of pavement were flung straight up hundreds of feet, through advertisements in explosions of static. The holographic street actors had winked out.
"When you knew me before I was weak!" she shouted. "I'm strong now, more than strong enough to handle you! Do you know why I was weak? I killed an evil immortal--it was justice and I don't regret it--but he took refuge on holy ground--"
"Darling, you broke the rules," said the shadow of Kellistra, "and now, today, you pay."
"It was the right thing to do! But I--" Here she broke off. She was almost at the corner. "Duncan, you can't imagine," she said through her teeth, "how bitter the injuries we can suffer when we do that. I couldn't have children anymore afterward. And my magic? I was seven hundred years healing! Duncan? Are you listening?"
"Cassandra," said MacLeod, "I don't care."
A shape of flame like a climbing dragon swarmed up from his figure, spread wings and roared. Out of it, Mac leaped, sword forward, lunging. It blew forward in his wake--
A wall of fire rose to rooftop-height. Every remaining window on both sides of the street blew outwards.
Burned, bruised, Cassandra stumbled back--obeying Mac's commands, even while not thinking she did. Her voice was like a wail in the dark: "I exist to punish the wicked of the world! I'd do everything over again if I had to! Without a moment's hesitation--"
"You talk too much," said Methos.
She spun about. "How did you get behind--? Never mind!"
MacLeod halted and lowered his claymore. Cassandra ran straight at Methos, sword out, throwing fire, and they both went through the door of the building behind him.
Silence fell. The guitar-and-drum of the street's background muzak was suddenly loud in it. Out of a blur of visual snow, Kellistra's image recreated itself, shook away the last traces of static, hovered over Vidar. Her hands went straight through him, and she cursed. "Duncan, come back here, help Vidar--is he sleeping?--ah, xio cane!--yes, listen, man, there's a good darling--" She stopped, and stood there useless, merely a holographic shadow, as he limped back toward Vidar. Around them, dancing in the burning wreckage of the street, the holographic theater winked back into existence. Advertisements shone down, endlessly rewriting themselves; models pirouetted in the charred frames of burning storefronts; and the actors in their period costumes, now just a little blurred, launched into the final lines of Hamlet.
"--Take up the bodies: such a sight as this Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss--"
And they were there--father, mother, son, with Vidar just stirring from sleep in MacLeod's arms, and Kellistra's fingers fluttering as she tried, despite herself, to touch her son's warm cheek--when Methos reappeared.
For some reason the sight hit him like a blow to the heart. He hurt all over, but knew there was not a mark left on him . . . nothing but his shirt hanging in tatters, ripped too many times to count by Cassandra's sword going through. But he was so tired, and he felt-- Alone. Ancient. Excluded. And as if it would always be so. Then MacLeod looked up.
He settled Vidar carefully back on the pavement, said to Kellistra, "Stay with him." And there. He was coming over. Methos sighed, and sent the katana ringing home into its sheath. There was not a speck of blood on the blade from tip to guard. Mac put an arm around his shoulder, and Methos reached up and gripped his wrist.
Why such a question on Mac's face? Oh, yes.
"Her magic is gone," he said. "Forever this time, I think. She did it to herself." There was a gentle irony in it. "She's as powerless as a new student. She'll be too busy running for her life to ever bother us again." And I didn't kill her, Methos told himself; what did that mean? That Kells is going to kick me from now till Novruz. I must have gone insane.
Mac peered at him, eyebrows drawn together. He seemed to be struggling for the proper words. Finally he said, "Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing three to thy rest."
"Oh, shut up," said Methos.
The building he had come out of had been a church.
After the challenge, the reward.
But Methos didn't let himself think about that. Things blurred; he had taken a couple of good blows to the head, and fighting on holy ground had its own aftereffect. He was aware of getting back on the biohorse, of riding behind MacLeod. Vidar lay across Mac's lap, and Mac kept a steadying hand on him. Lucky thing that the damned horse was near big enough to seat a regiment. The miles passed in a vague dream. When things cleared again for Methos, he was home.
The rules, the old rules, were there for a reason. When an immortal raised his hand on holy ground, he injured himself. Oh, not in any physical way; immortals couldn't be hurt in that manner. One had to go to drastic lengths to wound them badly enough to leave lasting marks. But inside, in the quickening, the wellspring of their power--they were fragile there.
It was the opposite face of the coin from taking a quickening. When an immortal took another's head, the quickening strengthened him. When an immortal broke the rules, the backlash struck his mind and heart. Those inner wounds could leave scars for centuries.
It was ironic that mortal flesh had injured so easily--almost at a touch--but that which lay inside? The citadel of the soul? Unassailable. Whereas for immortals, the flesh was an invulnerable castle, but the soul an open door.
And the older you got, Methos thought wryly, the wider the door swung open.
He sat up, put a hand to his head.
Mac sat across the room, in the window, framed in light; he was sideways in a window seat, one knee up, head turned, smiling. All his children were gathered around him: Ian and Mary, Elektra, Myrddin and, yes, Vidar, with the old cat-quilt snuggled over them, purring like an engine. They were in the living room of Kellistra's house. Methos said, "God, my head rings," and Mac jumped up, came over and rested the back of one hand against Methos' forehead.
"You'll live," he pronounced, and the children cheered.
Mac bent and draped the quilt solemnly over Methos, tucking the edges in. Elektra added the finishing touch by laying a doll on his lap. Methos leaned back, crossing his arms behind his head, and let himself bask. After a moment he said, "You know, I could use a beer."
The children stampeded to the kitchen to get one.
"Haven't seen her since we got back," Mac admitted. "But she did come and check on you then. She said--och, that the Knights left peacefully, that's all."
A trace of the Highlands had touched his voice, something Methos didn't remember happening for decades now. "Go on."
"It's lucky they are, that she didn't open fire on them with the perimeter defenses. They don't know what they missed." A pause. "Anyway. She left you a riddle."
The kids came trooping back, triumphantly carrying beer on high. "Well?" said Methos.
"What friend do the gods grant, the best of all others?"
Wives are man's heaven-sent friends. "Well," Methos said. "Kellistra can be enigmatic? Wonders never cease."
"But she had a funny look on her face when she said it," Mac said. He reached out with his stein of beer, and clinked it against Methos'. "Go ahead, make a toast."
"Heaven-sent friends," Methos said.
Children are their mothers' second souls too.
The third-last thing Kellistra did that night was to made the rounds of her nursery. In one bunkroom, Elektra slept in a heap of dolls, and small Mary in a heap of teddy-bears and cat-quilt. In the other bunkroom, she paused to tuck Myrddin in more securely, and then she simply stood over Vidar. He slept; he was safe; he would be all right. Kellistra--unable to help herself--spared one glance at Khan's empty bunk across the room, and flinched aside. She would die seven deaths, before she let any more harm come to her young ones.
Her course was clear.
The second-last thing she did was to find Amanda. The young one was in the garden, walking amidst the roses; lights hung in her hair, which was filled with shadows like colored flowers, and holographic butterflies flew like ghosts in and out of it. They talked for a long while, and Kellistra told Amanda many things about immortals of age, about the way they had always lived--hidden away from mortal eyes and even from other immortals--and the new rules that applied. The game within the Game. "You need to know this," she concluded. "Because once you know, you're bound by our rules."
"I thought all that secret society stuff was behind us forever," Amanda complained, pulling a comic face.
"Oh," said Kellistra, "you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave." Then she grinned and clapped Amanda reassuringly on the back.
As she did, her free hand darted into Amanda's pocket. So deftly that even light-fingered Amanda never felt it, she stole the Armor Cusinart.
The last thing she did was to find Methos.
He was with Mac, of course. Kellistra said, "Come with me. Duncan? You stay behind." She took Methos out of the house, steered him toward the holy grove. They walked up the path without touching. When they reached the summit, she turned and faced him. She knew that MacLeod had watched which way they went. "You won this," she said.
He started to say, "Duncan--"
"This has passed out of his hands."
Two went in, and one came out; that was the ritual. Kellistra thought of MacLeod, down below, staring out of the window. When she touched Methos--just with her fingertips, poised against his chest--sparks leaped, quickening began. Draw her hand away now, and little bright arcs of power still connected them. Otherwise, the grove was pitch-black--the sky overcast, heavy with night clouds. She heard his swift indrawn breath, a gasp he couldn't hide. Then she pushed him over, and settled onto him.
Where they touched--everywhere they touched--a ghost-shape of rainbow light emanated, outlining them; arms and legs, joined hands and bodies, the figure it drew was like one body, not two. No need to grope. They were their own lamp. Overspilling with inward fire. She said so, and Methos chuckled suddenly, answered, "How's that for a metaphor?" And how his heart hammered! And his fingers twined themselves through hers. She stretched out, stroking herself against him, pinning him to the ground; Kellistra laughed with him, deeply and abruptly, and let him kiss her throat. She rubbed her cheek against his, over and over. A moment later they were joined like a thunderclap.
At the house below, MacLeod let the curtain drop, turned away from the window.
Kellistra left Methos sleeping in the grove. She stooped to pat his cheek, stood smiling for just a moment, contemplating him. Birds sang in the wood. She dressed herself, checked her pocket for the Armor Cusinart. She went down the path in the dim pre-dawn, and as the first wink of light showed in the east, she stepped out of the sacred place.
Standing at the foot of the path, she tapped her keyboard and said in a conversational tone, "There were giants in the earth those days."
All the perimeter defenses were on vocal controls slaved to her keyboard. Kellistra felt a shiver run through the ground beneath her feet. It was as definite as an earthquake; above and behind her, the boughs of the cottonwoods were shaken into noise, clattering and rattling against each other. Leaves came raining down. Time to say quit to it all, her children, her man, the health and contentment of these years of peace. She had to turn her back on it for now. Atop the holy hill, Methos sat up suddenly, alerted by the earth-tremor; at the house, MacLeod threw the porch door open and came springing out, armed to the teeth. Kellistra said, "Cry havoc. And let slip the dogs of war."
In concentric rings stretching out from the house to as far as the eye could see, the ground erupted. Birds rose from it. They sang as they did, a great whistle of wind and speed; they sailed away on phoenix-tails of fire. Winged serpents climbed after. Smoke-trails of insects rose in their wake, black intelligence bees and thumb-sized grenade-hornets, and what Kellistra had named Midsummer Night wasps, armed with psychotropic-drug stingers. With them, too, went all the ecology of war, the same biotechnology as in the vanished town of Graveyard: metal eagles and air-piranha, glass serpents in whose veins coursed poison, nanofireflies and nanoladybugs and nanodandelion-seeds. Earthworm landmines corkscrewed busily out of the ground, grew hundreds of legs, and swarmed off in battalions. Fairy things followed, flitting on glittery transparencies of wings; they were like radiant balls of colored light. But that was only the beginning.
Once the small wildlife had cleared off, the larger creatures began to emerge.
For over a century, Kellistra had been designing weapons, building them, burying them beneath her fields.
Now, from their subterranean silos, balrogs rose and spread their wings, and dragons of many kinds came writhing after. There were thunderbirds. Gryphons. Hippogryphs. Basilisks, and cyclopi. Ghost-like black dogs with glowing eyes. Boa-snakes, sixty feet long. Winged bulls. Lamassu and pegasi. Centaurs and chimerae and Egyptian Seth-hounds, sphinxes and ant-lions and gorgons and gargoyles. And many more. Kellistra liked to build her weapons in the images of mythology. All clambered into the light of dawn, shook off small floods of soil and clods--hundreds of them. Thousands. Behind them, the picture-perfect pastures and fields of the MacLeod homestead were left churned, as if ploughed by dragon-teeth.
Kellistra put two fingers into her mouth, and whistled once, sharply. Then she rummaged around in a pocket, and withdrew a small flat superdense disc. She slapped it against her breastbone, said, "Open sesame," and the Armor Cusinart unfolded upon her in a panoply of fantastic leaves and vines.
By the time this process was finished, the red biohorse of the Yamahoshi knights had come, obedient to her summons. Twenty hands tall, all crimson enamel and grinding gears, it knelt and she put a silver-gloved hand on its withers, and mounted. A woman in armor of grape-leaf and holly and thistles, astride an apocalyptic steed. She said, "Take me to the place from which you came."
The red horse sprang away on a rolling drumbeat of hooves. Within moments she had overtaken the hosts of her weapons. They parted before her, they closed ranks again after, and then they passed over the world like a vast black wave--her army, following her out of the lands they knew, as she rode south to have words with her son En.
A note on the Knights:
Hugh de Payns and Godfrey of Saint-Omer: circa 1119, they founded the order of the Knights Templar.
Armand of Perigord: vanished in the slaughter at the battle of La Forbie in October 1244; two hundred and sixty-six other Templars died in this battle.
Odo de Saint-Armand: died in captivity around 1180, refusing offers of ransom; at the time of his capture (at a disastrous action at Jacob's Ford, 1179) he was the master of the order, called an evil man, full of pride and arrogance, in whose nostrils dwelt the spirit of fury; the Christian defeat at Jacob's Ford is attributed to his bungling.
Hugh of Tiberias: stepson of the count of Tripoli, a good-natured and popular young man, captured at Jacob's Ford.
Brother Baldwin of Ramla: (Baldwin of Ibelin, lord of Mirabel and Ramla) also captured at Jacob's Ford, described as noble and powerful.
Henry d'Arci: an English Templar knight.
Walter of Mesil: just as furious and arrogant as Odo de Saint-Armand. An evil one-eyed man, he was protected by Odo. In 1173, the Old Man of the Assassins (or Axasessis, because they dwelt sub axe, below the axis) sent an ambassador to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, asking for a copy of the gospels. Also in question was a yearly payment of 2000 gold pieces by the Assassins to the Templars, who had castles on the borders of Assassin land and were in a position to exact tribute in exchange for peace. The Old Man suggested that if the Templars waived the tribute, his people were willing to be baptized and join the Christian faith. Amalric, king of Jerusalem, accepted the offer and sent priests and envoys away with the Assassin ambassador. Their party was ambushed somewhere beyond Tripoli, by Walter of Mesil and other Templars, who killed the ambassador. After, King Amalric was furious and hauled Walter of Mesil off in chains, took him to Tyre and clapped him in prison. However the Templars went unpunished and Amalric died soon afterward.
Brother Godfrey, Brother Roland, Brother Godfrey Bisol, Brother Payen of Montdidier: these all with Hugh de Payns at the founding of the order.
The Chevalier d'Andrieux: during the reign of Charles IX (1559-74) he was notorious for his nasty, touchy temper. He did indeed fight seventy-two duels as a young man ( all before he reached the age of thirty!) - and won them, too. When he won, he invariably put his sword-point to his victim's throat and forced the unlucky loser to deny his Maker (or die). When his opponent caved in and denied God, d'Andrieux would sneer and cut his throat, explaining to spectators, "In this way I corrupt his soul along with his body."
Originally posted elsewhere on November 21th, 2003.