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The Year of our Lord, 1056

The witch-woman Bareshe died today. A Varangian called Vakos, new to the Game, took her head in a vicious battle that left the yard of her hut awash with blood. He stayed two nights, torched her house and returned to the barbaric North.

Bareshe, known in ancient days as Sehket, was one of the old ones, teacher of Aganesthes and his own student Xanthia, now called Rebecca. She was even one of the few Immortals who spoke with Methos instead of hunting him during the brief period when he surfaced in Greece in the second century before our Savior's birth.

She was a vicious player of the Game, driving her opponents to their limits and finishing them when they were brought to bay. Yet she was still caught flat-footed in the end, overpowered by one stronger than she. The Chronicle of Sehket ends in a muddy yard in Anatolia.

Fuad bin Ali, Watcher of Sehket

He was dangerous, she knew, even before seeing him, the knowledge of his proximity seeping into her bones like a tomb's chill. Her first conscious thought on seeing him was how very, painfully young he seemed.

Sekhet straightened from her potter's wheel as the Presence hit her spine and slunk icily down her back. She shivered, and the sweat that had been trickling down her forehead from the afternoon sun turned cold. The wheel slowly spun to a stop, and she wiped her hands, slick and cool from the clay, on her thick apron. Her blades, short curved death that fit so well in her fists, leapt to her hands as soon as her skirts were kirtled up, and she rose to meet the threat that had come to her gate.

The challenger was tall, and blindingly fair, with pale, spun straw hair and eyes the color of the sky at midsummer. His skin was pale, too, the color of clotted milk or corpse-flesh, so unlike her own healthy, honey-brown skin. The Greeks might have found him fair, she supposed, or the Romans, with their love of the exotic, but to her, his paleness was the ugliness of a wraith or cadaver.

He carried a sword of course, a long, straight thing that the barbarians of the north favored, or the odd Christian raider that ventured past their Holy Lands into her territory. The bits of armor and fur that he wore in an unusual patchwork spoke more strongly of a Varangian raider, down from the Black Sea and the trade routes beyond, than one of the Western Christians.

He spoke in some odd language she didn't know, not Latin or Greek or good Persian that had so long been common tongues, or even the new, musical Arabic from the south, but some rough barbarian tongue, all harsh coughed consonants. He didn't try another when it was clear she didn't understand him. The words meant nothing, but the tone was clear. He had come to die.

She would oblige him, of course. She had not lived through three millennia to fall to some young upstart barbarian with more brawn than brains. She had fought the Nubians and the Hyksos in her youth, and desert tribesmen of all sorts. She had also fought with and against the Sumerians, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians and Romans as they each gained ascendancy, and had lived among them all at one time or another. The North had never been anything but a breeding ground for barbarians, and she would do the world a favor by ridding it of one more.

He advanced on her, sword raised, and she crouched, waiting.

The legends had spoke of a witch with great powers and a tame swordsman, not a dark servant covered in clay and trying to threaten him with a pair of knives. Vakos drew himself up with all the authority of his full fifty years and bellowed for the master of the house to come out. He had come to challenge the witch's swordsman and take her for his own, not to kill some vicious wench with a temper.

He told her to fetch her master, and she merely crouched, grinning, blades ready. Warned, he reassessed her. She was tall for a woman of these parts, taller than his shoulder, but not quite to his nose. Her skin was dusky dark, lighter than his favorite chestnut gelding, but not by much, and her eyes were slanted pools of peat. She sneered at him over the muddy ground of her hut's yard, and that decided him. He charged.

Dung. Camel spittle and dung. Sehket retreated quickly, her wrists already aching from parrying the man's swift, jarring blows. Dung beetles and jackal leavings. He was fast, she was faster, but between his arms and his sword, she could not get the reach on him, and all she could do was shuffle backwards. He tripped over a stone, and she darted in to strike, but only scored on his left arm, a deep, crippling stroke, but his return blow almost broke her wrists.

Set's balls, he's strong! He had no strategy, but some skill, and all the power of a bull elephant in musth. She caught his blade, but he used the moment of stillness to push her backwards and down. She kicked out, and rolled from under him as he toppled forward.

Quick as a mongoose, she turned and struck, a crippling blow to his kidney, and he surged forward on his knees, stumbling in the rocks and mud. She followed, only to be blocked by the wild flail of his sword. It took her in shin, snapping the bone, and she went heavily to her knees as the pain flared and thrummed, and her Quickening raced to undo the damage.

"Mother of Lions, protect me!" she croaked out the ancient plea of her youth and blocked another wild swing of his great, heavy blade. He was bleeding like a stuck pig, howling in pain, and every scrap of fighting skill was gone, but it didn't help. Ancient litanies of promises and threats to the gods poured through her head as that damn sword headed her way again.

Pain exploded through him, blossoming and feeding his fury. The Lightning danced across his torso and his eyes, healing him, but sheeting his vision with red and black and the color of rage.

He called on his god, called for the bear-like fury of the berserker to aid him, and it took him again, blazing through him with all the force of a hurricane, and all the sanity, too.

He was wide open, but she couldn't press, could barely dive to one side or another to avoid the blade she could no longer block. Another wild swing took her off-guard, disarming her and cracking her forearm. Jagged shreds of bone poked through the flesh, and she had but a moment to raise her other blade to block the return blow.

The sword sheared through her wrist instead, and continued its deadly path through the flash of her neck. Halfway through, it stuck on bone, and Sekhet could only shriek soundlessly as the barbarian growled and foamed at the mouth and *sawed* through the rest of her neck. Her head fell, and bounced once on blood-slick grass. Her eyes, still open, fastened on the barbarian – life finally faded, her eyes still pinned to the barbarian, teeth bared in a final, rictus snarl.

The barbarian continued to hack at the body, even as a fine mist swirled and rose. It poised, hovering for an instant, as the berserker flung back his head and crowed victory to the sky, then split into a hundred tiny knives, and struck. Lightning crashed a moment behind.

Vakos was not Vakos at that moment, he was mere battle-rage, and Sehket invaded him with all the fury of a desert storm, howling into his core being, raging and tearing strips of selfhood from him as flesh from bone. His score and five of years in the Game were tossed as chaff, and blown away. Three thousand sun-turnings beat him into a sandy grit and trod him under the sandal of a million miles journeyed.

He called his woman to mind, his fair Likei, and the memory of her soft flesh was obscured by a hundred men in the celebration of the service of the Goddesses, the smiles and laughter of a hundred women, the press of bodies and the slick sweat of orgies and sweet, tender lovings untold.

He tried to call his comrades to his mind, sturdy Minak, now slowly turning gray, Tobin, with his ready smile, and readier blade. And then names, faces, a hundred friends, half a hundred loves, tumbled through his head instead, children raised and grown and aged, cattle and kittens, sheep and camels, a parade of people and animals that left his paltry understanding a wisp, a thread.

The memory of his cold, bare homeland was stripped from him, replaced by older, greener, dryer, higher, and even colder places. A thousand huts, hovels, houses and palaces marched over his homeland, burying even his childhood fantasies. His last scrap of consciousness clung to the chicken legs of Baba Yaga's hut - legs snapped under the weight of years of the witch whose head he'd taken.

Sehket woke prepared to meet her goddess, and instead met the staring eyes of her own head. Hate poured out of dull, dead eyes, cursing the farmyard and its contents impartially. She pushed herself out of the mud and stumbled up and back and landed on her ass in the squelching mire. Her balance was off, her hands splayed out too far to do any good... and she looked down at her hands, huge paws used to the fit of a longsword, looked down at her pale skin, her long legs like logs in stiff wool in front of her, looked at the sprawl of the barbarian inside/outside/containing her, and screamed.

Bellowed. Cried out in a voice that cracked and strained against the range she reached for and failed. Sobbed with the force of a man's muscles, gathered a headless body to her breast, and wept.