by Sylvia Volk
In the spring, around May-day, they sacrificed the city's god, and celebrated when he clawed his way out of the grave.
He was Methos: he had been the god of the city of Serinda for longer than he remembered. He was the god of life, who died in the spring and brought summer's rebirth. He was the god of war, never defeated in battle. He was the young king who never aged as mortal men did. And every spring, he was drugged and given over to the unmarried girls, who killed him and buried him and then decked him with flowers for the wedding feast, giving him a bride chosen from their number by lot; this was the only thing about May-day that Methos really enjoyed.
This year, he was married to a lovely child with plaits like heavy gold, swinging waist-long, glossier than the golden necklace hung around her pink throat. The girls of the city were famed for their pink and gold beauty; the young men were burnt red by the sun, their hair bleached like old linen. Methos had a mirror of black Egyptian glass, and sometimes he tilted it to the light, looking at himself, and wondered where he had come from. He no longer remembered.
Her name was Marena. It meant Winter. When she married him she was renamed Dziewanna the bride, the goddess of springtime.
The young women, waving green boughs, escorted them both to Methos' house in the citadel. This had two rooms and was guarded by young men chosen for their valor in battle. The outer room housed an altar and several priests; the inner room was stuffy, being without windows. Methos and his bride were pushed across the threshold by giggling girls, who withdrew singing a ribald song. Methos raked the limp flowers out of his hair. Then his new wife hit him over the head with her necklace.
Methos hit the floor. Blinking, he gazed up at the golden girl. She stood over him, swinging the heavy chain like a weapon; her brow was painted with a blood-red sun, and her smile showed teeth.
She purred at him. "I see that gods can bleed."
"You didn't want to marry me," Methos guessed. He got to his feet, and she made a small rush across the floor. He backed away hastily, and she halted and stuck out her chin.
"I won't be your wife!" she said. "I won't, I won't!"
"Too late," Methos remarked.
"I'll kill you!"
He said, "How?"
That stopped her. She bit her lip, flushing. "I won't be your wife. No matter what the women say you can do in the bed - no matter if you're god - you can't curse me for not being your wife!"
He had known her all her life. She had always been in the background - a screaming infant, a pouting child, a giggling girl always lost in a crowd of other giggling girls. Methos sidled over to the bed and sat down, eyeing her. "I never knew you," he said.
Finally, she lowered her necklace. "A year," she said. "I'll be your wife for a year. Then, my fine husband, they'll marry you off again, and you'll have a pretty new wife. She'll wear this necklace and this dress, and lie down in that bed for you. Then you'll forget me."
He thought of saying that he remembered all his women - a polite lie - but decided it would be pouring oil on fire.
She walked across the tiny chamber, swinging the chain; all along its length were apples, cast out of gold. Standing before him, she let the heavy chain run chiming through her fingertips; it poured like a serpent between her hands and down her skirts, puddling between her feet. Methos gazed down upon it, while she crossed her hands at her girdle, smiling. She said, "But you are no god. How could you be? I see it now. For why would a god bleed?"
Then she drew a knife from her girdle, and stabbed him.
Some little time passed.
Returning to life was easy; it was the dying that hurt. Methos returned with a great surge of vigor, as if coming out of deep water. His bride stood staring down at him. Her cheeks were whiter than ivory, and stark shadows stood under her eyes; stark shadows outlined the nipples of her round breasts, straining under her bodice; stark shadows beat in the pulse high upon her lovely throat. She clutched the bloody knife still.
As he watched, her twisting hands lost their grip; the blade fell forgotten. Marena colored, rosy red. Her fingers flew, untying her girdle. When her skirts and shift lay on the stones of the floor, she dropped down upon her knees and bowed her head against his lap.
She whispered, "You are a god."
That was the springtime, the season of weddings. Every spring, Methos got a new woman; every spring, they sacrificed his year-wife with him, and buried them both in one grave. Thus the old year gave way to the new.
In the summer, there was war.
Methos' new wife painted his face for battle, half-blue, half-white. Raiders on horseback had come down from the north, armed with strange foreign weapons: iron swords. Every year such bandits came to Serinda, hunting the caravans which crawled, dromedary after dromedary, east from the mysterious
lands where originated saffron, sapphires, salt and natron, alum and citronwood. Red and black pottery came from those kingdoms, and poetry painted on leather rolls for Methos to read. This year, there were more bandits than before, and they were more organized. They wore armor of boiled leather tabbed with bronze, and carried straight bows, their arrowpoints also being bronze. Methos had to laugh.
He drilled the young men of Serinda with the superior recurved bows of their country, and shushed them when they complained of their stone arrowheads. Stone arrowheads had served men well since before time began; when it was arrows against against armor, stone was superior. The city possessed few horses (and those that they had, were poor) but pikemen, properly trained, could unhorse mounted attackers.
One of Methos' young men brought him an iron sword, a trophy of battle. The blade was blue-grey, and copper wires were inlaid along the hilts. Methos had a low opinion of iron also - a poor metal, which the smiths rightly called adamas: untameable, too difficult to work. In his estimation, it would never catch on. Stone and bronze had served men well, time out of mind. What was wrong with tradition?
He had a good bronze sword, which he had carried for many years. Iron was fit only for jewellery. He had some very fine iron earrings, and Marena had a necklace with three iron bells on it. And of course, there was her chain of golden apples. She wore it almost every day.
There was no more wild talk from her. Nowadays, Methos found her singing while she worked: kneeling at the saddle-quern to grind the flour, brewing the beer, setting out pans of brine to clarify into good salt for cooking. A happy woman was sweet - like the first pressings of the honeycomb. A woman well-bedded made for contentment in the home, for the woman's life was lived in the heart. The life of the mind was for men alone.
Almost every day, there were skirmishes with the strangers. A few young men got themselves killed in stupid ways, and a few raiders too. Theirs was a mountainous rocky country, good for setting traps; Methos devised ingenious ambushes, most of which worked. He spent all his days outside the city walls, and came home every night sunburnt and exhausted. To find Marena wearing her golden apples.
After a month of this, the raiders sent emissaries.
They were given wine at the gates, and admitted into the city. Three of them. They had a guard of about thirty bristling men (with recurved bows, with stone-tipped arrows) who eyed their newfangled swords with jealousy. In this company, they climbed the hill to the citadel, and spoke with the city's elders. Methos saw none of this. It was not permitted for strangers to lay eyes on the god of the city . . . save in the moment before death.
But Marena spied on the meeting, and told him all about it.
He sat on the straw pallet of their bed, fletching arrows. She sat on the other side of the bed, the spindle propped against her hip, smiling as she spun the thread. "They want the silk we make."
Methos grunted. Everyone wanted the silk of the region. Serinda was famous for its silk, from which the women of the city wove a cloth as diaphanous as shadows over nakedness. It was exported everywhere.
"They wore white leather. As white as snow! No, whiter than that."
"Tawed with alum." Methos tilted the glue-pot over the brazier. "That's what makes the leather white."
"And the leader wore red laces, and his wrist-braces were red."
"Dyed with kermes."
"And their faces were painted with soot, in lines and dots. The leader had a great scar, just so." She leant across the bed and drew her finger along his face, straight through one eye.
"Tell me how their faces were painted."
She demonstrated upon his face, line by line, curve by curling curve and dot by dot, until both of them fell down laughing across the bed. His glue-pot was overturned and her thread became snarled, tangling across Marena's back.
"They are northerners, from beyond Tanais," Methos remarked, somewhat later. "Beyond our mountains lie steppes and deserts, and beyond these are more mountains named for the stormy north wind, men say." He lay dreaming, dredging out ancient images: what were those mountains called?
Yes. Greek geographers called them the Rhipeans, and beyond them was Hyperborea - the edge of the world! But still he dimly remembered searching for those mountains, discovering only strange lonely islands where ivory lay tangled like logs on the beaches; beyond these, the northern oceans, colder than cold. Once those lands had been forested, green and inviting. But out of the northern steppes, time out of mind, swept waves of invaders. Methos clutched at a fragment of memory. Yes! The dreadful Kurgan people had ridden down from the uttermost north, with their monstrous god at their head--
How long ago had it been?
"They challenged you," she said. "They said, bring out the god of the city and let him face us. They said they would wait at the sacred grove, and you must go forth and face them with your sword."
"Their leader did?"
"Any or all of them, I think."
"One at a time is the rule," said Methos.
She hooked a finger into his lower lip, and he bit down gently.
"The women at the well say the strangers boast of having many gods. No man and no city can stand against them, they say - for they have three gods, and we have only one." She sat bolt upright. "Were those men gods?"
"Will they kill you?"
He was silenced. She had flung herself bodily upon him, bearing him backward across the bed. Her arms round his neck strangled him. "Don't die! I don't want you to die!"
"Such things happen," said Methos into her cheek, "but we awake, as if from a deep sleep. You have seen it happen, Marena - there is nothing to fear, I promise you. We are harder to kill than mortal men."
"But they can kill you?"
"Not upon holy ground."
"So there's a way," she said, and she began to weep. "I don't want you to die!"
"No, you won't!" Marena cried. "You cannot die. You are our god."
"Am I indeed?" Methos shut his eyes.
"I've seen your wounds heal without a mark."
"If I'm a god, why can't I sire children?" He reached over to touch her stomach. "I've had more women than I remember, and never has one found her belly. Even the bull in the field can sire a fine crop of calves. Where's the divinity in that?"
"You are no mortal man," said Marena primly. "Never doubt it.
"If the foreign gods come onto holy ground, if they break a bough from the tree in the sacred grove, then I must answer the challenge. This is how it has always been done. When did they say they would come?"
"Tomorrow morning, at dawn."
The sacred grove lay atop treacherous cliffs, halfway up the mountainside. There was a rill of water falling from on high; there was a pool, a cave, a cloven mulberry. Petroglyphs decorated the secret heart of the cave, for time out of mind, it had been a holy place.
The whole world had changed. Now the time before men first made swords had become a misty memory - strange as a dream - and for centuries, Methos had met no other immortal old enough to remember. He thought he must be one of the old ones now. Since swords were invented, his kind perished young too often.
He waited in the grove at dawn.
The strange immortals came up the mountainside. Methos felt them approach, and withdrew through the trees to a vantage point. There were indeed three of them. They made a cursory search of the grove, and then one strode to the mulberry tree and hacked off a branch with his sword.
That was the challenge. Methos straightened, leaning out from the rock high above the sacred tree. He said, "I am Methos."
The stranger gazed up. He said, "I am Kolschoi. I will kill you and take your city for my own. Come down!"
"In a moment." Methos raised his bow. He shot two arrows, smiling. Then he went skidding down the slope, his sword in his hand.
They circled one another, while the other two lay dead with arrows in their hearts.
The stranger fought well.
Nevertheless, when Methos had taken away his sword and he lay defeated in last summer's dead leaves, he disgraced himself by sneering, "Take my head, and my brothers will have yours!"
"Tsk," said Methos. "Have you forgotten why we fight on holy ground?" He examined the iron blade. It was over-ornate, but had dealt his own bronze blade a healthy notch or two. "Fancy modern metals are no substitute for skill, boy. And since when did our kind call each other brother?"
"Since we remembered that we are."
It was the one with the scar who had spoken. He and his friend, now healed, came stalking nearer. Methos reversed the iron sword and flung it. One stranger leaned right, the other shied left. The sword split the bark of a tree between them.
"I am Kronos," said the scarred immortal. "This is Caspian."
"You are all children," said Methos. "Three on one is against the rules."
The leader raised a hand. Disdainfully, Methos opened his own hand, letting his sword drop. Next moment he was on his back where Kolschoi had laid, pinned by Kolschoi on one shoulder and Caspian on the other. The scarred one, Kronos, stood over him gazing down. Then he dropped, with one knee upon
Methos' chest, and laid the edge of his sword across Methos' throat.
He said, "I have heard immortals everywhere speak of Methos the ancient one, never defeated in a thousand fights. They say no man and no immortal can stand against you. How long have you ruled here, turning back all challengers? How old are you? Tell me - do you remember the time before the swords?"
"That was another era."
He shifted the blade, grinning. Then he lifted his sword, and wrapped one hand around Methos' throat. His fingers dug in. "I had a teacher who told us we ruled the world then."
"It was a lie."
"Why? It was the mortals who first smelted metals, who made the first blades. Who gave us the means, brother, to slay one another."
Methos said, choking, "No. Mortals are not our enemies. Never - never think they are."
"And how often do they sacrifice you each year?"
"They know no better. We are their gods."
The other two had stepped back. Kronos slid his hand down, fisting it in the laces of Methos' leather corselet. He leant far back on his heels, dragging Methos up until they stood chest to chest; though half a head the shorter, he weighed the heavier. "I used to believe that lie--"
"That I was a god. Until I realized something better: that I was a man."
Smiling, he leant in and took Methos' throat in his mouth.
He bit along the top of the throat, into the soft fine place under the jaw. Chewing without hurry, working his jaws wider, he drew in as much as his teeth could grasp. It was painful, intimidating. Methos, gasping, found himself stretched on his toes, his spine arched and the whole length of his neck exposed, while Kronos nuzzled under his chin.
He let go only after Methos' vision had darkened and roaring filled his ears. Released, Methos slumped and would have fallen, save that Kronos held him up. "You make me hungry," said Kronos into his ear. "Why shouldn't we drag you off holy ground now and have your head?"
"Because I have ten archers hidden above?" said Methos breathlessly.
Kronos dropped him. Methos stepped a half-step back, clapping his hands as he did. The ten mortal archers looked out from the rocks, well within bowshot, and Methos called up, "Six of you, come down! The rest, wait. As for you," he added to his guests, "the game is over."
Caspian was cursing. "Those who cheat," said Methos cheerfully, "deserve to be cheated. Disarm them and throw them down the cliff."
But before they threw him off, Kronos stepped close to Methos and said, softly, "Talk with me. I'll wait here, when the moon is full."
Midsummer came, while the war dragged on. It was tedious, in that the othe immortals didn't seem to know how to cut a bad business short. Though they laid siege to Serinda all year, it would do them no good. The advantage of ground was to the defenders, and the city possessed a good source of water.
The invaders settled into an entrenched camp some half a day's march away. They too had a good source of water, and ample grazing for their horses. The camp's site was well-chosen, being exactly placed to menace the caravan route.
Methos went searching in the cellars of some of Serinda's merchants, and confiscated several jars of sulphur and quicklime. He collected a few other items, and raided a warehouse full of bronze vessels meant to be shipped south. Marena came into the courtyard while he was playing with his new toys; she stood watching him, pinching her nose shut.
"You're making fire arrows?" she guessed.
"With naphtha and quicklime," said Methos, pleased with himself. "No, don't come close. These burn the skin away at a touch."
"Is that my good salt?"
He was pouring ingredients into the bronze vessels: sulphur, resin, naphtha and salt, with quicklime carefully added last to the mix. Each vessel was then sealed with wax, and set aside. Already Methos had a goodly store.
Marena sat nearby with her sieve, pressing the water out of a mash of malted barley. While she worked, she spat carefully into the paste. Finished, she divided the result and turned half out onto a platter, to dry in the sun: from this, she would brew beer. The remainder she kneaded with emmer flour and pounded dates. Her saliva would work as a leaven, to make the dough rise.
"The smell of my cooking will flavor yours," she remarked. "What do you do with that mess?"
"It is a secret. The salt is most important: it makes the remainder burn the hotter."
"So it burns!"
"It will, when the time is right. Did we drink all the beer?"
"You did, yes. I put skirrit in the last batch, for flavor - did you like it?"
Methos finished sealing the last vessel, scrubbed off his hands, and
came to kneel behind her. He lifted her hair and kissed the nape of her neck. "Not even Egyptian beer is as sweet."
She set the dough aside, covering it with a cloth, and let him take her hands and lick the fingers off. "I have the old apples soaking, to put in the bread. And there is a jar of wine."
"The good kind?"
"I know what you like," said Marena, and as was her habit, nipped his lower lip between her teeth.
"You are the perfect wife."
"I am in love."
"What, with this nose?"
She pushed him onto his back, and pinched off a bit of sweet dough to feed him. "Your nose is beautiful."
"My nose resembles that of a goat, Marena. I have a face like a horse's."
"Your face is as shapely as a white tulip. Your lip was made for a woman to bite. The young women fall in love with you; the young men fall in love with you. You are more beautiful than I."
But when she stroked his neck, he found himself turning his face aside.
"What makes you afraid?" she whispered. "You always liked this before."
Kronos' sword at his throat; Kronos' hand at his throat; Kronos' teeth at his throat.
"Those other gods frighten you! The scarred one had a gloating smile - he frightened me too. What is his name?"
"Kronos. He wants me to meet him when the moon is full. But it's a trap."
"He wants to kill you."
"Not on holy ground."
"The other women say you keep your heart locked in a chest, and because of it, no weapon can hurt you. They asked me if I had looked into the chest yet. Is it true?"
He rolled over and began to laugh.
"I was right," said Marena, satisfied. "It was a lie. You can't be killed."
She rose, taking his hand.
"When is the time right for your magic fire to burn?"
"When next there is a mist on the mountainside."
The first dawn of the full moon after midsummer, there was a mist with dew. Methos had arranged for a caravan to set out as if by stealth. He knew the bandits would lay an ambush.
Lest his presence alert the other immortals, he stayed behind. His young men were carefully rehearsed, not to mention armed with Greek fire which burned, by some alchemy unknown to philosophers, upon contact with water: even so little as a heavy dew was enough. Sure enough, they came back laughing with triumph.
They had killed (they boasted) bandits by the dozen. Methos questioned them carefully, and smiled to himself. The immortal named Caspian had been set afire from head to foot, and his horse to boot; more, the horse in its maddened plunging had trampled him underfoot.
Methos did not go to the grove to meet Kronos.
But after the last night of the full moon, the horsemen torched the mulberry groves on the shirts of the mountainside. The silk harvest for the year was ruined, and the priests of Serinda sacrificed a white ram, examined the entrails, and declared that the omens were evil. A scapegoat was needed. They gave Methos poppy milk, and then the people of the city dragged him to the marketplace wall and stoned him to death.
Afterward, feeling the memory of the stones still in every limb, he walked back up to his house. Marena met him, weeping, in the courtyard. "Woman. Fetch my armor. My weapons, too."
"What will you do!" She flung her arms around him. Methos kissed her forehead, and put her aside; the stain of his mouth was left, red, upon her pink skin.
"The armor, Marena. And the paint for my face."
"Let me wash you clean first," she whispered.
"No. I'll go like this."
"You need no paint, then. Your face is the face of death," said Marena, and ran for his armor.
He marched his young men cross-country to Kronos' camp. They arrived in the dark of night, and Methos rested them for several hours, making sure they were well-fed and watered. Then, at dawn, they showed themselves in a throng before the camp gates. They rattled their shields and shouted insults; Methos let himself be seen in the forefront. He knew that the other immortals would be unable to resist a chance at his head outside holy ground.
Sure enough, they came: perhaps a hundred and fifty horsemen, charging full-tilt through the gates. It was too easy. Methos' men broke and ran headlong for the cover of the forest, with the horsemen overriding them at the end. Then the archers he had hidden in the treetops opened fire. At the same time, the foremost horses ran into the lines strung between the trees. And the remainder of Methos' men, who had been waiting in a flanking position, closed in and cut off the retreat.
In the ensuing melee, Methos met one of the unhorsed immortals - the one named Caspian. A big frightening man, all tattooed. He laughed and showed his teeth as he closed with Methos, licking his lips. "Ho, boy! Ready to die?"
They circled one another.
"After I take your head," said Caspian, "know what I'll do, boy? I think I'll stew it. I like to eat the heads of cunning opponents. If you fight well, perhaps I will also eat your heart--"
Their swords met, tapping: once, twice.
As was his habit, Methos clamped his free hand to his upper arm to brace against the first serious blows. He was not as strong as many he faced; it was the immortals who had met first death in the prime of life who had the advantage, always. He gave up ground, parrying, through the exchange of a dozen strokes. His opponent wielded his blade like a hammer.
Still, he had promise. For one so young. He was as heavy-muscled as a bull and as aggressive, and obviously without scruples (or much of a mind): just the sort of immortal who would last centuries in the Game. Methos did what he usually did, which was to retreat until he decided whether he was going to win, or run for it.
Accordingly, he ended the third pass of the fight by reversing direction, bringing himself in body against body. Their blades engaged, binding with a screech of metal. It distracted Caspian. Methos then snaked his heel in behind the other man's, threw his weight forward, and knocked Caspian flat on his rump. While his opponent was falling over, Methos twisted his wrist. Caspian's sword went flying. In the continuance of the same motion, Methos brought his blade down in a short arc, ending at Caspian's throat.
Methos dropped to one knee, slitting the side of the other man's neck in a shallow cut. "Surprise! You lost. You know, you have a good strategy here - if I take your head, your friends will be on me before I finish with the quickening. But how can you trust them not to turn on you while you're down?"
There were mortals approaching, shouting in triumph. From their accents, they were Methos' men. Caspian had relaxed somewhat. "Fight's over," said Methos. He lifted his sword, resting the tip of the blade over the other immortal's heart. "You show promise. Come back in a few hundred years and you might have a chance."
Caspian shook his head. "Kronos wants you. You'll be dead meat by winter."
"I doubt it. Oh, he has a good sword-arm, I'm sure of it. But he can't plan past tomorrow and he doesn't know how to order a battle, does he? In short," said Methos, "a fool, like a thousand other fools. Why do you follow him?"
He made his voice low and compelling. Caspian said, almost in surprise: "We were trapped together - I wanted his head - would have starved afterward. Over and over. Gone mad. Kronos hid our swords. Then he fed me with his own flesh and blood."
Methos drove his sword home.
His plan had worked perfectly. The northern horsemen were scattered after the battle, most of them dead and their camp overrun. Methos' young men captured a number of valuable horses, as well a great deal of loot. There were also about twenty women, camp followers. They divided the loot and the women, got drunk on the wine, and torched the camp. The bodies of the enemy were left to rot.
Methos himself searched the battlefield, turning over each corpse. He found a few stray heads, but none belonging to an immortal.
Nevertheless, life was simpler with the horsemen gone. The mulberry groves would take several years to recover, but enough was left to nurse a breeding stock of silkworms. The merchants of Serinda dedicated a new statue to the temple; Methos' warriors gave him one of the captured women, and a string of amber beads. Methos hung the amber around Marena's neck, and though he walked on the city walls through the three nights of the next full moon, he stayed away from the sacred grove.
Marena, her spinning done, wove him a black cloak with a design of red horses on the border. Methos sold the slave woman and bought Marena a silk gown; he gave her his imported mirror; he gave her his gold earrings set with magical lapis aetites. When they lay together, the priests in the outer room of the house chanted hymns and the crops were blessed thereby. Sometimes she shed tears in her sleep, but she never spoke of the spring.
"Where do you come from?" she asked.
It was evening. Methos had been out on the walls, with the guards who always followed him; now Marena knelt before him, washing away the dust of the streets. "I've always been here."
"The oldest stories says we won you from another city, a city we defeated in battle. They say we went to war to capture you, because we had no god and they had one. That when we won the victory, we carried you to Serinda in a golden cage . . . and the other city is dust now, and vultures and broken stones."
"That was long ago."
"Maybe it's only a myth. Is that why the priests never let you go out without guards - lest you be stolen away from us? Or are they afraid you'll slip the leash, and escape?"
"If I wanted to leave, I'd go. They couldn't stop me."
"You are the water," she said in an undertone, "this water." She held a bowl of water which she had warmed over the brazier; now she dipped a rag in, and raising it dripping wet, ran it slowly across his body. "Every day, a different man; every time I look at you, a different face . . . you are as changeable as water, husband."
Methos was looking at the litter of leather rolls in one corner of the little room. "You've been meddling with my writing again, woman."
"I took them to the priests to read," said Marena, slyly.
"No one else in this city can read the language I used." He shrugged. "I composed poetry flattering you, Marena. I'll recite it later."
"Liar." She sopped the rag, and squeezed it out against his belly, smiling and looking as the water ran down. "You wrote about those strangers, didn't you? That Kronos. What does he want from you?"
"He wants my head. Maybe."
"And you want his friendship." She let the rag fall into the bowl, and slid her wet hands up his thighs.
"I do?" Methos crouched, covering her hands with his. Their fingers interlaced, pressing home. They both began to laugh at the same time. "Why would I want that?"
"Because you're bored," she said, her voice sing-song. She leaned forward, resting her head against him. "Because I don't please you."
"Well, that's not it."
"Perhaps because like calls to like." Marena lifted her glowing face to his. "Or because you are the water."
"What? Do I pour downhill?"
"No. The water requires the shore: who is your shore? I mean . . ." She was still, thinking. Then she said, "No, this is what I meant. Poured into the amphora, the water assumes the shape of the amphora. Poured into this bowl, the water shapes itself to the bowl. With me, you are gentle; with the warriors, merciless. If you ran away with those wild horsemen, what would you become?"
"A fool, I fear. You weren't here when I came home last night - where did you go? To meet another man?"
"Only to the holy grove, to pray to your shrine."
"You shouldn't have done that! It isn't safe - you could have been killed--" It had been the full moon, after all. She could have been found by the others.
"I saw no one. Where would I find the strength to satisfy another man? We barely sleep nights as it is!" She took his face between her hands. They kissed, and she stroked one palm possessively across his throat. When he pushed her hand away, she said, "Is that how your kind can be killed?" Methos drew back, startled, and she explained, "Your throat. Your skin crawls when I touch you there."
Methos said nothing.
"Your face is ancient now. All bones and nose. What are you thinking of?"
"Kronos." So he hadn't come to the grove after all. But why feel cheated?
"Forget Kronos." She began to run her hands up and down the length of his naked back. "Forget them all. Become the water."
"I am the water." They came together, swaying. Methos let his head fall back, shutting his eyes; she buried her face against his shoulder. "You are the shore."
"Tell me about your kind, who we call gods."
Trusting her, he told her everything.
Autumn came, and the orange harvest moon, round as a woman's belly full with child. Apples came ripe, and figs and apricots. Methos was worshiped in his attributes of the old year, god of the harvest and the wine and the abattoir whence the year's excess herds were driven to the slaughter. Marena was praised for the golden wheat gathered into the storehouses. Offerings made to both of them filled the temple. All the priests waxed happy and sleek. It was upon the first night of the full moon of autumn that those same priests came to Methos. There was a challenger in the grove.
He took his time donning his armor and painting his face. Twenty of his young men walked down to the grove with him, to stand witness. Twenty priests, chanting hymns and bearing torches, came behind.
The other immortal stood under the mulberry tree, a freshly-broken branch in his hand.
They drew their swords. The priests held their torches high, though the moon was so bright it threw shadows on the leaf-mold. The mortal warriors watched, holding strung bows.
Methos and Kronos circled one another.
"You must want very badly to talk to me."
"Perhaps I'm very young, desperately in need of a teacher--"
"Not you. You're older and stronger than the other two combined- why don't you take their heads? Why keep them around?"
"When I was an infant, my tribe found me abandoned in the forest and knew me for a changeling. The holy man took me in, his wife suckled me next to her own brat. Do you know how that goes in the north? Once I was old enough, they built me a withy cage. They hauled it after them on a travois, whenever the tribe went. Every midsummer, every midwinter, they sacrificed me and watched me return to life. I spent seven generations of man in their cage. Until I broke the bars one night, and killed them all."
Methos murmured, "They knew no better."
The priests, not being within earshot, were growing restless. Methos reached out and touched Kronos' sword with his own, to quiet them.
"What did you do, afterward?"
"I wandered. I learned what we are, what the Game is. Teach me more."
"I'm not your teacher!"
Methos found himself examining his opponent with quick sidelong glances, looking aside whenever Kronos met his gaze. He felt skittish, overwhelmed. What did the other immortal want? What had caused the scar across his eye? The tale of being kept in a cage was certainly a falsehood. At first death, Kronos had been in his mid-thirties, certainly experienced in battle.
Why lie about it?
Without warning, he sprang forward - sweeping his sword in an overhand cut, a thrust from waist height, a second cut proceeding directly from Kronos' parry. Kronos seemed to be smiling. Through the exchange of a dozen more strokes, Methos kept the pace fast, faster than most other immortals could match. Then they had disengaged and both of them retreated a few steps, breathless. Both held their swords overhand, canted to guard against a beheading cut.
"Well done," Methos granted.
"We aren't enemies. Meet me and we'll talk. Or can't you go anywhere without your keepers?"
"Ha!" Methos attacked again, this time using tricks learned over hundreds of years - the fruit of experience no young immortal could equal. Each time, he pulled his concluding stroke; each time, Kronos came back at him with the mirror of his attack, the move instantly learned. Each time, Methos demonstrated the correct parry to evade a disarmament or a killing blow.
They disengaged after perhaps five such exchanges. Both of them were now laughing, exhilarated.
"Draw?" said Kronos, slyly.
"Show me what you know."
"I wouldn't dare! . . . I like you. Come ride with me."
"I am not," said Methos, "a fool. There can be only one. Fight!"
Kronos lunged like a tiger.
They fought in earnest now, swords clanging like hammers on anvils - up and down the grove, gasping out insults and oaths while the priests scattered squawking and the mortal warriors gaped. The two immortals breathed in shuddering heaves, eyes blazing with excitement. And as his arm tired and his lungs began to ache, Methos found himself filled with shock, and then fear, and then interest. How long had it been since he had felt so evenly matched? And yet Kronos was fighting only to prolong the battle - not to win.
It ended when Methos used a feint he had meant to keep back. He had to defeat Kronos. Or was Kronos allowing himself to be defeated? All Methos saw was the flash when his sword drove home through Kronos' ribs . . . and the gloating smile on the scarred face, as Kronos toppled.
He lay bleeding. Methos braced one foot against the fallen man's chest and yanked the sword free. Was he still smiling? Yes.
Such a silence. Methos took two steps back, staggered, and sank to one knee. His ears rang. His head drooped. He said without looking at his opponent, "He fought well. Leave him his sword."
He walked home, lost in thought.
The northern barbarians worshiped bears, raising bear-cubs as tenderly as if they were human children, caging them and lovingly feeding them for the inevitable sacrifice and feast. As far as Methos knew, they kept no immortals this way. Kronos had been talking in parables.
Kronos had been talking about him, Methos.
When he realized it, anger shuddered through his chest. He walked blindly into his house, and a mortal woman ran to throw her arms around him. And for an instant he failed to remember who she was.
It was Marena. She drew back, frightened. She said, "Your face terrifies me."
The wine harvest came in. The women of Serinda went out and picked the grape crop clean; their men strained the grapes, folding them in the pressing cloths and then torquing them till the juice ran bloody: the oblong cloths were sewn at both end around stout wooden staves, and four men twisted each cloth to wring the wine out. Just so did the girls at the fountain wring their washing.
The best of the grapes found their way to the temple. Methos stole his share, and coaxing Marena to lie with her head pillowed in his lap, peeled the grapes one by one and fed them into her mouth.
One of the laughing, chattering gangs of young wives went out to gather the grapes, their wicker baskets carried astride their hips, and some with babes slung at the breast. The next day searchers found them, all dead.
Methos went himself, and walked through the vineyard where the bodies lay. All the grass was black with blood. And every mortal, woman and child, had been beheaded after death.
Over a score of them, raped and mutilated. Still, they were only women and children (though three of the babes had been boys) and mortals died constantly anyway, fragile as silkmoths and as fleeting in their span. A mortal child could die from an hour's fever. A vigorous immortal without scruples could half-cripple a mortal girl in a night. Three immortals, rioting together . . . Methos himself had done worse during the sack of cities - joining in gang-rape with mortal brothers-in-arms. It was what happened to the defenceless.
And yet, he found himself imagining Marena killed in this manner, and his heart sickened within him. Why would that be? When spring came, she would be gone - like numberless women before her. The husbands of these dead girls would mourn them tonight, but soon enough they would find other women, and sire other sons, and forget. Why should he do any differently?
But he did. He wanted her to live.
He said to his warriors, "Fold them in the pressing cloths and bear them back to the city."
At home, he found Marena puzzling through his scrolls, tracing a fingertip over writing she couldn't decipher. He had written: Old immortals fall in love with young ones, with a yearning that has nothing to do with the flesh. Thus, we are driven to take students. And the killing of a student is the crime none of us can face.
When she saw him, she flung herself into his arms.
"Last night the first frost came on the mountaintop," she said into his chest. "Winter is upon us."
"Hush. Hush." He rocked her. "There are months of good weather yet."
"Not for me." She was weeping, weeping, like the storms of midsummer. "My year is almost up - I never want the spring to come - another woman in my place--" She ceased, drew herself back dry-eyed, gazing into his face. "Do you love me?"
"I can't stay and wait to die. Help me get away."
He hesitated, and she gasped and huddled herself against him. "Help me, husband! Or do you want me to die?"
He wanted her to live.
"I'll help you," Methos said.
"I have it all planned," Marena whispered against his mouth. "We'll go away together. We'll both be free, you'll be no god anymore. Only a man, and my husband."
They did as she planned, creeping down to the water adit in the dawn. Marena had a bundle on her back, with food and jewellery wrapped up in two good woolen cloaks. Methos had his armor and his sword.
The adit was a tunnel delved in the mountain, shored with good brick pillars, and floored with a conduit which led to Serinda's major source of water: a well which never failed, located perhaps a dozen bowshots beyond the walls. Methos remembered the building of it, for the protection of the city in times of war. Water during a siege was a city's best defense. At Marena's heel, splashing, he waded up the conduit.
The wellspring was walled and roofed, made into a cave with earth heaped over and trees planted atop. A little sally gate had been left, hidden from without. There was no guards, for the city was not presently at threat of war. There was only the bar on the gate, which Methos lifted. Marena with shining eyes came to embrace him. "We're free!" she said. She caught him by the hand, and dragged him through the gate.
Out into whirling snow, wind and autumn leaves - leaves like wet black moths, flying into their faces. The first snowstorm of winter was whistling over the mountainside.
Then he felt the other immortals come.
Methos flung the mortal woman aside. She had clutched at his arm, almost knocking the sword from his grip; now as she fell to her knees he sprang forward, drawing a dagger with his left hand. He had to take Kronos first, then the other two. Kronos was the dangerous one. Would they come at him one at a time, or all three together?
The heavy snow blinded him. He lunged for the first figure he saw, vague through the white storm. Sword clashed on sword, and Methos dropped to one knee, drove forward with his shoulder and knocked the other immortal reeling, going past him and away; as he did, he slashed the edge of his knife sideways along his opponent's thigh, cutting the long muscles across. That was Caspian. Methos swung around and found a second immortal before him. Kronos. He took the cut of Kronos'sword on his left arm. Pain blazed through his shoulder. His hand lost all strength, the knife dropped and was lost. The next swing would have taken his head, save that he blocked it; the shock of the impact traveled through his whole body, like a hot iron against the wounded arm. Methos screamed with the lust of battle, and went for Kronos' throat.
The world narrowed down. Nothing existed but Kronos. Nothing mattered save the sword-strokes jarring through Methos's blade, the other body that he dodged round, struck and was struck by. Snow like a wall around them. The glance of Kronos' sword-edge, the heat and heave of his breath, the strong smell of him - skin and masculinity, leather and metal. Iron and bronze. Kronos' spittle flecked Methos's face, like the steam of a bull. The hunger for his quickening was stronger than the ache for a woman. Taking a head was better than taking a girl.
Something fell over Methos: a net, flung by the other men. Kronos drove his blade through the mesh; blood splattered, red against white snow. Methos swung, but the net dragged at his sword. He felt the strength leave his arm as he doubled over, tasting his own death in his mouth; he had taken Kronos' blade through the body. His grip loosened and the sword slipped through his fingers, falling. The sudden shock of foreknowledge gripped him: a scream in his muscles, in the bones of his wrist, in his throat and heart. He came up and lunged for his sword, and felt the net tangle tight around him, snaring him. He couldn't move. He had lost.
Now he would die.
Methos threshed and kicked, his whole body convulsing. Then someone dropped upon him, one knee landing across his ribs. The breath went out of his lungs; he went limp, stunned. It was only then that the edge of a sword came to rest upon his exposed throat.
Kronos knelt over him, a hand tangled in his hair. The scarred immortal turned his head, spoke lazily. "Finish the woman quickly, Caspian. We ride far and fast tonight." He leaned his weight upon Methos, smiling down into his face. "Even the wisest immortal can be fooled by a girl, it seems."
"Was she your woman? She gave you to me so easily, I barely had to persuade her. All I had to do was promise to take her away . . . Oh, wait. I think I also said she could become one of us. If she bathed in immortal blood, when we took your head."
The blade moved, in a thin line of fire along Methos' throat.
Methos shrieked. He bucked out with his entire body, like a fish leaping upstream: dislodging the sword, snapping his chin down to protect his throat. The blade bit his face and he snapped at it with his teeth, wild as an animal, butting out with his head, trying to knock the other immortal off. Kronos swore and struck him with the pommel of the hilt. Lights burst behind his eyelids. Methos went limp. When his mind cleared, he was on his face in the snow, with Kronos on his back.
Kronos was tying his hands.
"You want to live." That was Kronos' voice, murmuring in his ear. Kronos didn't mean to kill him. Why bother tying him up, to take his head? Stunned with relief, his mind blank, Methos lay with half-shut eyes and listened to the other immortal's voice. Kronos spoke on without pausing, over the sounds which came through the snowfall - the sounds of Marena dying. "Never, never trust mortals. Wanting to live like that, wanting to live so much . . . is that why you old ones survive?" He finished with Methos' hands, and set about tying his feet. "You and I are alike."
Such screams. What were they doing to her?
"Forget her," said Kronos. With a jerk of his knife, he sliced the net away. "She betrayed you, she deserves what she's getting. Or did you want to deal with her yourself ? I'll tell them to stop if you like, and you can finish her. It could be my gift."
"What do you want?" Methos whispered.
The sounds ended. The other immortals came, grinning and jostling one another, crowding close to peer at Methos and lick their lips, eying his throat; in a moment they were quarreling over him. "He's an old one, let me have the head--"
"It's my turn!"
"No! It's mine!"
"It's nobody's turn." This was Kronos. "He comes with us."
"I haven't had a quickening for months," Caspian argued. "You said I could have the next one we caught!"
"No," Kolschoi shouted, "it's my turn, I say!"
"I'm the one who defeated him," said Kronos softly. "Are you challenging me?"
Caspian looked down and backed a step away, shaking his head; Kolschoi kept on, eagerly. "I can feel how powerful he is. Give him to me, and you can have my next two turns. I want him, Kronos--"
"No. Stop drooling. I say: he lives."
Kolschoi leered. He squatted and ran a hand over Methos, fondling his throat. He stank of lust and blood and Marena. "Maybe until I get him alone later, mm? What a quickening he must have!"
Kronos had been sitting back on his heels, looking up at Kolschoi. Now he nodded, as if he had come to a decision. He drew his knife and, rocking forward, slashed the edge of the blade swiftly across Kolschoi's neck - cutting his throat so deeply as to expose the spinal cord, in a flash of white before the shower of red jetted out. The blood drenched Methos, spraying across the entire right side of his face. Caspian yelped with startled excitement and Kolschoi fell over backward, bleeding, and Kronos rose to his feet and jerked Methos up with him, holding him. He drew Methos against him, slitting the leather cord that bound Methos' arms. Then he wrapped one big hand around Methos' hand.
He had put his sword into Methos' hand. They held it together.
"What are you doing? What are you doing?" That was Caspian.
"Don't interfere." Kronos murmured against the side of Methos' face, "Blood sweet as your blue paint. It's all over you. It's in your hair." He ran his thumb through the blood, in a downwards line across Methos' eye. "Kolschoi disobeyed me. Will you obey?"
Methos heard a rushing in his ears. His eyes fell shut as his will surrendered. And yet speech seemed impossible and useless; instead, he felt his body go limp and lean back, his chin tilting up to yield the line of his throat. He did not wish it to happen, and yet it was happening . . . and he was safe now. Kronos wouldn't hurt him. He would live.
"This is our new brother now," Kronos was saying to Caspian. It all seemed very far away.
"What about Kolschoi?"
"Forget Kolschoi." Kronos wound his fingers through Methos'; the sword lifted in their joined hands. He whispered, "Methos. You're what I've been looking for. Like a sword blade, like steel - adamas, impossible to forge unless you know the secret of it. You will be a sword blade for me . . . You'll see, Methos. We'll do this together now."
They swung the sword, and took Kolschoi's head. The quickening hit them together.
By midwinter, Methos was one of the horsemen.
Note: Iron is one of the most readily obtainable ores on Earth. Steel was actually known throughout the Bronze Age; the Greeks called it adamas, "untameable", and it was considered useful to make jewellery, but not large tools or weapons. Primitive smiths did not understand the processes needed to make it, nor had they the tools necessary - except more or less by accident, and in small quantities, too small to forge entire blades. Smiths could forge iron swords and case-harden them, but any honing destroyed the edge of the blade; the only practical method of making steel blades was by forge-welding steel wires together, or by marrying two steel wires onto an iron blank to create a blade with an iron core and steel edges. To produce steel in large quantities, they needed high-temperature forges plus a mastery of the arts of hardening, carburization, quenching, annealing, and tempering.
Bronze, steel's rival, could be smelted and worked so much more readily that there was really no contest between the two; nor is soft iron superior to bronze for use in tools and weapons. As for meteoric iron (nickel-iron), this mimicked the qualities of steel and could be made into blades, but was not readily available - one of the few large deposits of meteoric iron is in Greenland, where the Inuit of the district treated it as they would flint: by chipping pieces free and grinding or hammering them into knives and points. Forbes dates the actual beginning of the Iron Age to the 14th century AD (!), when the advent of the blast-furnace and waterdriven bellows made the mass-production of iron and steel objects possible. Incidentally, he also considers flint points for arrows superior to bronze, a detail I just couldn't resist including.
All details of Bronze Age life are taken from R. J. Forbes' excellent series of reference texts Studies in Ancient Technology. The city of Serinda was known to the Greeks and was a center for silk production, though its location is now lost. The Tanais is the River Don; the Rhipean mountains and Hyperborea were mythical places denoting the edges of the earth. The Kurgan people, according to one authority on early languages, were Indo-European speakers - mounted raiders who swept out of Russia, terrorizing all their neighbors, at about circa 3000 BC; this would make the Kurgan himself very old indeed, perhaps the second oldest immortal at the time Connor took his head - a happy thought for Connor fans! And I like to think of Kronos as a descendent of the Kurgan people . . . and Methos as the last of the proto-Indo-Europeans.