Imagine the usual disclaimers. It would be unusual not to include them. I'm using 'em and
abusing 'em, misusing my mind and ill-using your patience. And it would be useless to deny
Warning: Angst. Smarm. Glomming. And the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.
Caucasus Mountains, somewhere northwest of the Baku oil refinery:
"Gently, young Yuri," the big man rumbled. "Caress the surface with your brush. I tell you, there's an art to unearthing these antique mud-brick walls . . . you have to feather your brush, boy, don't whack at it like that! You're a scientist, not a hockey player. Pretend she is a woman you love." He laughed deep in his throat, reached out to adjust his assistant's grip. "That's better, now. Ah, yes, yes - the smile on your face tells me you're living the fantasy. Now, kiss the brick face with just the tips of the sables. And tell me what is her name."
"Her name is Kalinka." Yuri feathered the brush, up and down, with infinite delicacy. Dust fell in glittering motes, dancing in the powerful beam of the battery lamps; the light gleamed off the shaven heads of the two archeologists. "I was nineteen, working on a cargo boat that plied between Stalingrad and Moscow. We tied up on the meadow-side bank at Nijni-Novgorod, on a beaming spring afternoon. Life was good. Yellow islands of chicken-blind flowers floated on the green grass at the stoops of the deserted factories, and it seemed as if the madness of the Five-Year Plans was no more than an idle dream . . ."
Andrei clucked under his breath. "We should all be so lucky." His huge fingertips stroked dried mud off the wall, the touch lighter than the kiss of Yuri's brush. Before their eyes, the dim indented lines which were courses of bricks were beginning to emerge--like dream images.
"She walked up the gangplank. Her dress was the latest in Moscow chic, she had rouged her cheeks and drawn the hammer and sickle on them."
"Get in the corner there, boy!"
"I swear that when she smiled, the sunshine of it painted my shadow black on the deck-boards behind me."
"Good work, there . . . don't stop talking."
"She said, smiling that smile, 'I am Kalinka and I am lonely.'"
He stopped working, because Andrei had held up a hand. Andrei pursed his red lips, bent close in contemplation of the emerging wall.
"Finish the story," he said, after a moment.
"The captain took her into his cabin and in two hours she was off the boat, clutching a vodka bottle in one hand and a wad of rubles in the other. I never saw her again . . . I'll never forget that smile."
They both sighed.
"Women." Andrei fished a canteen out of his jacket, screwed off the cap and poured into this a generous dollop of clear liquid. He handed the cap to Yuri, and saluted with a flourish of the canteen. Yuri clinked the cap against the canteen. "Women and archeology!"
"Archeology and women!"
Then, with the air of a conjuror, Andrei turned to the wall. The pattern of the mud bricks showed everywhere now, in faint and slightly irregular lines which could be seen best from the corner of the eye. There were fragments of color visible: bits of line which could have been letters, scraps of shadowy pigment. But the surface itself was still obscured by an irregular layer of ancient rubble, of clinging earth too stubborn for the brush. A shell of mud. Andrei rolled back his sleeves, flexed his fingers. Silently, Yuri handed him a hammer.
With a stubby thumb, Andrei found a particular spot near the top of the wall. He poised himself. The hammer struck with a firm sharp rap! and--instantly, perfectly, like a magic trick--
The shell of dried dirt sprang loose, dissolved and fell.
What remained, painted upon unfired bricks of mud and freed from the mud which had buried it, was the brilliant beauty of a fresco painting.
In the harsh artificial light, it sprang to life--as flawless as if executed yesterday. Its colors were bold with yellow and white, red and black and vivid viridian green. But the style was Byzantine. A large-eyed, long-nosed lady dominated the composition, flanked by a brace of large-eyed, long-nosed men--one a knight, one a cleric or merchant. The lady wore a crown upon her headdress, the fish-mail armor of the knight was eastern and antique. Script patterned the edges of the painting. Andrei traced the letters. "Yes," he murmured, "this is it. The Hebrew alphabet, but the words . . . the words are a dialect of Turkish." Suddenly his laughter boomed out. "All my life, I've waited to see this. Yuri, this is an inscription in Khazarian!"
Swiftly, they adjusted the lighting, set up the old camera which was all they had been able to afford. They photographed the painting from every conceivable angle. When this was done, the two men stood looking at one another for a long moment.
"A shame," said Yuri finally, "that all the writing has not survived."
Andrei's fingertips made love to the fresco. "So old," he said. "See these numbers, here . . . this is a date, in the Jewish calendar. The year four thousand seven hundred twenty-five: nine hundred and sixty five Anno Domini. So this was painted just over a thousand years ago."
"Here's more Turkish, but with Latin all mixed with it." Yuri pointed. "Hm. CHICHAK HIC IACIT IN HAC CONGERIE LAPIDVM . . . Presumably, that would be written by a Byzantine?"
"'Here lies Chichak, in this heap of stones.' Yes, by a Jewish refugee from Byzantium--we knew that during the pogroms, many Jews fled to Khazar and settled there. So many, that by the year seven hundred and forty, the entire kingdom had converted to Judaism."
"So it's true," Andrei murmured, "the old tale, just as related in the Expositio in Evangelium Mattei: 'There exist people under the sky in regions where no Christians can be found, whose name is Gog and Magog, and who are Huns; among them is one, called the Gazari, who are circumcised and observe Judaism in its entirety.'"
"The Jewish Khazars." Yuri's teeth gleamed in an ironic grin. "Claiming descent not from Semites, but from Noah's third son Japeth. Whose armies fought off the Arabs and Byzantines alike for seven hundred years, until we Slavs decimated them and sent small colonies fleeing to settle all across the Crimea, Germany and Poland--from which, sprang all Eastern Jewry. Who, after persecution by the Germans--"
Andrei spat on the floor.
"Yes, by the Germans--became the nation of Israel. A cosmic jest, Andrei! Because if Jewish Khazar indeed existed, then the people the Nazis tried to destroy are Aryans. Not Semites at all. Sprung from a blond ruddy-faced race, who can in turn be traced back to Attila and the Huns."
"What does this say here?"
"The Turkish inscription? Much the same as the Latin, I suppose. Let's see. 'Here lies Chichak beloved daughter of Isaac Kagan of all Khazar . . .'" Haltingly, Andrei translated the inscription. "Yes, 'Isaac Kagan of all Khazar, son of Beniamin, son of Joseph whose father was Aaron the Blessed.' Yuri, presumably this would be the same Joseph son of Aaron the Blessed who features in the disputed Hasdai Letters. "'Chichak'--that is, Flower--'born in the city of Itil, beautiful among maidens. Given by Isaac Kagan of all Khazar to--to Malik Bek of all Khazar--'"
"Malik the Bek?"
"The Great Prince. We know that the Khazars had both a king or Kagan, whose office was largely ceremonial, and a great prince who had command over the army and state. The Bek."
"'--warrior among warriors, undefeated in the world, who made fearful the hearts of all Edom, the Rhos and the Ishmaelim--'"
"Byzantium, Slavic Russia and the Muslims."
". . . 'to be his beloved bride.' Chichak means 'flower' in Turkish. Princess Flower, daughter of King Isaac." Andrei sighed. His pale eyes were watery with sentiment. "Ah, it's like an old romance of chivalry. Here she lies, Princess Flower. And if we're very ve-ry lucky, she'll be lying here undisturbed, surrounded by all her treasures--and you and I, Yuri, will become famous." He stroked the fresco. "Mm. What's written down here?"
"No, no, not the painter's signature. Here, where the lettering blurs. EXILARCH? What does that mean, I wonder?"
"Let me think now. Wait, I know--it's a title, Andrei. An orthodox Jewish rank. At least at the talmudic Academy in Baghdad in the Middle Ages, the Gaon or Excellency was the spiritual leader of all Jewish settlements in the Middle East, but the Exilarch, Prince of Captivity, held secular power over the same congregation."
"Two rulers again, one spiritual and one practical."
"The Prince of Captivity."
Their conversation trailed off. They looked at one another.
"Let me," said Yuri.
"No. I'll do it--"
"Let me do it! It will break your heart, Andrei."
But Andrei shook his head. "A man must be strong. Besides, it's thoroughly documented in our photographs. Stand back. Here we go."
He picked up another hammer. A sledgehammer. And swung it, with all his might.
The hammerhead smashed through the face of the Byzantine knight. Fresco and brick exploded--for there was only one way to go further, and that was through the painted wall. Yuri uttered a woeful cry as the fresco was shattered; then both men staggered back, covering their mouths with their sleeves, as a blast of foetid air burst forth. "King Tut's curse!" said Andrei. They waited for the evil-smelling gust to dissipate and the dust to settle.
What was left behind was another wall, built from mortared stone. The mortar had cracked, and from these cracks had come the poisonous air of the tomb.
This wall was too solid to break through without tools. Luckily, the archeologists had come equipped with crowbars, industrial gloves, and even a jackhammer. They set to, working swiftly and expertly. Neither man spoke much . . . but scholarly articles to be danced through their heads. Along with visions of interviews, documentary dramas, and wilder things. Perhaps a National Geographic special: "The Grave of Princess Flower" would be a suitable title. Speaking tours, maybe. International recognition. And--even more enticing--offers of tenure at American universities! In no time, the wall was demolished and a gaping black hole invited exploration.
Yuri shone a flashlight through.
There was a stair built from slabs of stone, leading downward.
There was the body of a young man, slumped against the wall at the top of the stair.
"Poor devil." The archeologists stooped over the dusty corpse. It had been preserved by the bone-dry air of the sealed tomb: the remains of a youth, perfect right down to his heavy jacket which had been sewn from a sheepskin, fleece side in and the hide turned outward. Under the heavy layer of grey dust, his hair even retained a gleam of red. He lay with his hands sprawled, palms upturned, head to one side--like Pinocchio, just before the Blue Fairy struck.
"See," said Yuri, "red hair and a fair complexion."
"He looks like a farmboy from Georgia."
"Poor boy. Was he trapped inside, when the tomb was sealed?"
"Let him sleep a little longer. Soon enough, his dreams will be interrupted."
Three deep steps downward. It was a compound grave, rather like the Greek graves of Cherson with which both men were intimately familiar. At the foot of the short flight of stairs was a square landing paved with tiles, and to the right and the left were niches, each containing a body. But the dust had settled over it all, heavy as seven veils. In the niche on the right-hand side lay a mummified corpse in scale armor. In the niche on the left-hand side lay a hideous thing swathed in gorgeous embroidered robes. And there was a faint glitter of gold and precious gems.
"Oh, we are celebrities now," said Yuri, with reverence.
Andrei crossed himself. "Bless her, Princess Flower and her unknown companions. For she has made our fortune."
"Look here, at the knight. Full armor, but no sword?" Yuri looked up. "When a Mongol warrior died, his brothers used to pass his sword through a forge-fire before burying it--destroying the temper of the steel, ritually killing the weapon. Andrei, maybe this is something of that sort. Maybe the sword received a separate burial?"
"Maybe. I don't see any kind of weapon. I wonder if the writing will tell us anything?" He leaned forward and began to breath away dust from the walls, which were covered with writing in Hebrew and Latin and Greek--a medley of languages. "Look at it all!"
"This looks like graffiti. What happened here?"
The words were everywhere. Here was CHICHAK, scrawled sideways up the wall. "MALIK," Andrei read, brushing off dust. "EXILARCH. CAVEAT. What's this? IN SINDONE MUTI MALIK IACOB SEPULCRIS IUDICII ADUENTUM SPECTANT IN PACE TREMENDUM--"
"'Mute in the shroud, Malik and Jacob in sepulchres, look in peace for the awesome advent of the judgement'?"
"Gibberish. And here's CAVEAT again. 'Beware'?"
"Obviously a warning to grave robbers."
"Why didn't they write it on the outside?"
"How would I know?"
Yuri, making a face to himself, turned around trying to take in all the contents of the tomb at once. This was the pinnacle of any archeologist's ambition, and he intended to enjoy the moment. Meanwhile Andrei, eyes crossed, was still nosing along the wall ferreting out CAVEATs and CHICHAKs. Yuri thought of Princess Flower, buried alongside what was (presumably) Malik her husband, still clad in his armor. And the boy at the door, inexplicably trapped inside their sepulcher. It made Yuri's skin crawl. What had happened here?
He turned toward the boy at the door, and the boy at the door opened his eyes.
Blue-grey eyes, like the shell of a robin's egg. Brilliant, sparkling eyes. Yuri gaped. He gasped breathlessly, stretched out one hand toward Andrei who was still--perfectly oblivious--busy deciphering the wall. While the youth yawned and blinked, screwed up his nose and then, without warning, whacked himself hard on the side of the head--and dust rose as if from a beaten doormat. The youth stretched. His skin was ruddy, glowing with life; the red that painted his cheeks was like a stain off the sides of an apple. His hair was strawberry blond. He was obviously, bountifully, excessively alive.
He grinned, revealing a gap between his front teeth. He appeared all of fifteen years old. Then he looked straight at Yuri, and burst out in a fusillade of sneezes.
"Don't inhale, Yuri," said Andrei, without looking.
Yuri thought he must be going mad. The youth was now knuckling his eyes. When he was finished, he ran both hands up into and through his hair. He shook his head hard, as if trying to remember something.
Slowly, he went dead-white. His mouth shaped soundless words. He shrank back against the doorway.
"What's this, what's this?" Andrei crawled along the wall, scrubbing it with his sleeve. "Warnings in Turkish . . . just more of the same . . . and here . . . what's this, I can't see just what--"
The boy gulped, clearly too terrified to call words to mind. He jabbed a thumb past Yuri, toward the interior of the tomb.
"Andrei, I think we ought to--" Yuri began.
And Andrei froze, gaping back over his shoulder. He had just caught sight of the boy. His finger rested upon yet another message, apparently written in blood.
GOGMAGOG was all it said.
The boy leaped to his feet as if shot from a cannon. Words exploded out of him. "Rake out, man!" he shouted, "out and alas! eke such peril and trouble, shall meet you this eve with sword y-bared and bloody murder i-heart--rake out, rake out, I say!" Yuri gazed at him, open-mouthed with confusion. The boy gasped, stammered. Something like despair crossed his face. Then he yelled, "Sparple!" and ran for his life.
Yuri and Andrei, united at last, stood drop-jawed and flabbergasted. "Was that English?" said Yuri.
Behind them, there sounded a gentle ringing chime.
Chinglingaling. They turned as one. Ching ching! The woman's corpse on their left hand remained decently dead; the man's corpse on their right hand was stirring. The metal diamonds of its mail-coat, sewn on in layers like a fish's scales, made that soft musical noise. Ching. The corpse sat bolt upright--grey with dust from head to foot. It raised one hand, shuddering. The air became filled with a thick choking haze.
Nothing could be seen through the clouded air.
Ching ching ching!
"Andrei, do you think that we . . ."
Chingaling: the man in armor stepped out of the pall of dust.
They stood there, too astonished to run: two academics who would never now achieve
Muto: no-sword technique
After the funeral service had ended and the guests had dispersed, the three immortals and the Watcher remained at the grave-side. MacLeod, Methos, Amanda and Joe Dawson: they stood in a knot, contemplating the simple double plot with its matching headstones. JOHN HORNE, REBECCA HORNE. Side by side, for all eternity.
"Four years. That's all he outlived her by."
Amanda wore black. A smart pillbox hat decorated with a scrap of black veil decorated her salt-white hair; she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. MacLeod put his arm around her. He said, "He must have loved her very much."
"I still can't believe she's gone. She left him everything, did you know that? And now he's willed it all to me." Amanda drooped. "The castle, the estate--everything. It seems so unreal to me. I still expect to visit and find her waiting . . . She used to make me feel so young. As if she was older than history."
"Yeah." Methos cleared his throat. "She went back a long way, Rebecca did. Longer than you'd think."
"She never talked much about her younger days. You knew her, Methos?"
"When you get to our age, everybody knows everybody."
"She was married more than twenty-five times. She told me that every time she lost a mortal husband, something died inside her. But she always went on." Overcome, Amanda resorted to her handkerchief. "She really loved John."
"She was an extraordinary woman," said MacLeod.
"There's nobody alive fit to wear her shoes," Amanda agreed, fiercely. "God, I miss her, the way she used to make me feel safe, the things she used to say, even her stinky alchemical experiments--"
Mac asked, "She studied alchemy?"
Joe was nodding. "For as long as we Watchers knew about her."
"--I mean, think of the crystal." Heedless, Amanda tugged on the cord around her slender neck. "The magic. Invulnerability. What other immortal would have something like that in their hands, and just give it away?"
Rain spat in the earth of the freshly-dug grave, falling out of an iron-grey sky. Amanda stood with the fingers of both hands crooked round the cord, her head bent.
She said, "She taught me everything. I miss her. I wish she wasn't dead!"
"She died here."
It was evening now. Rebecca's castle, centuries old, loomed behind them with battlements, spires, peaks and flagpoles; there were no gargoyles, but there was everything else. The lawn was overgrown, and the fences could stand repair. But in the mellow light, the stones of the castle glowed with color and life. The sky was all rosy orange cloud, with rifts of intense blue. A knight in armor would not have been amiss.
"John told me all about it. She could have taken Luthor in a fair fight anytime, you know. But when Luthor threatened John, Rebecca just tossed down her sword and let him take her head. How could she do that? I can't imagine it . . ."
"You couldn't have saved her. There was nothing you could do."
"I should have been the one to avenge her."
While Amanda pondered her teacher's demise (and patted away a tear or two) MacLeod and Methos walked onward across the long stretches of lawn. Dandelions glowed like small suns in the tufted grass, and there were blue and white asters folding their daisy-faces up. Side by side, some distance from Joe and Amanda, the two men halted. Macleod thrust his hands into the pockets of his long pearl-grey overcoat; he looked broad-shouldered, heroically powerful--as stalwart as Atlas. Methos, beside him, was in the same threadbare duster Mac had seen him wear four years running; he looked lanky, unremarkable--dressed to vanish into the nearest crowd. "Luthor died just over there," Mac remarked. "Barely a stone's throw from where his crime was committed. Poetic justice. The quickening burned down a hayrick, nearly set the whole place on fire." He shrugged his shoulders. "He had Amanda down. I forced him to face me. He wasn't good enough."
After a moment, Methos spoke. "Why didn't you let Amanda avenge her teacher?"
"She was off-balance--too involved, too emotional . . . too hot-headed. She couldn't have taken him, Methos."
What was Methos thinking?
"Are you saying," Mac added, "I should have stayed out of it? That it was her fight?" But Methos seemed to be admiring the sunset, and didn't answer. "I suppose that's what you would have done, in the same circumstances." MacLeod heard a defensive edge creep into his voice, and bristled. He scowled. He listened to his own words, rerunning them in his mind. What was wrong with them? He said at last, "Methos, she's a friend. I couldn't have turned my back on her!"
Methos grinned sideways at him. "Neither could I. But I made you think, didn't I?"
"Damn you," said MacLeod. "Socrates would have loved you, you know."
"Socrates did. Well, forget ethics, Duncan, and tell me about this fight. Amanda told me you cut Luthor to pieces. How good was he?"
Mac found himself grinning. "Let's see . . . You know, the bastard stood just where you're standing now. Amanda was over there. And I--" He turned, and suddenly the modern immortal was gone and a Scottish barbarian, four hundred years out of date, came lunging toward Methos. Fierce-faced, coat flying. Swinging a sword made of air. And yelling. "Have at you!"
Methos shouted. He swerved, his own coat all awhirl, and stepped out of the line of the imaginary sword-stroke. MacLeod swung gracefully after him. "No! Like this. Guardia prima. Cut reversa. Thrust to right guard, cut arrebatar--" And from a high guard position, with cut left to right, a thrust to Mac's right guard and a wild sword-swing from the shoulder, Methos came at MacLeod. When their nonexistent blades clashed in a parry, both men cried out and pretended to stagger. When they came together, corps a corps, Methos slammed the heel up his hand up under Mac's chin, pulling the blow at the last second; MacLeod spun and mimed a Thai boxing kick; they laughed together. "This is where my stiletto comes in handy--"
"Hah! I've seen that one before."
They danced away down the lawn. Far behind them, Amanda and Joe were watching--with dropped jaws at first, and then in open enjoyment. "Is this safe?" Amanda asked suddenly. "I mean, for Methos."
"Well, I doubt that playing air-sword will kill him. Or is that what you mean?"
"I mean, is this safe for him to do? In public. Like this. Are there . . . your people watching, Joe?"
Joe looked around. "Well. Your regular four-to-eight Watcher is Etienne Pelletier. He's a cagey sort, very experienced at surveillance, so I imagine he's somewhere out there with binoculars. Up a tree, maybe. Like one of those over there." He squinted. "Yep." He pointed. "Do you see him? Third oak on the left, and straight on until morning."
Amanda stared. "Oh yes. He's not bad. If I wasn't looking for him--"
"--you would never have spotted him. I know, Amanda. We're very good at what we do."
"But what about Methos?"
"Oh, he's all right. Pelletier's a wizard at surveillance, but Watchers who are good at assessing sword-fights are never assigned to you, so--probably--to him, this looks like nothing much. As long as Methos doesn't actually show his sword. Hey! Watch out for that rake there, guy--"
"Go, Mac, go!" Amanda clapped her hands, uttering a little shriek of delight at some finesse of MacLeod's. Then she said suspiciously, "Wait a minute. Why are Watchers who are good at assessing sword-fights never assigned to me?"
Off down the lawn, Methos had fallen backwards over the rake. He planted one heel smack on the tines as he tumbled lengthwise; up rose the pole, flying straight at Mac's face. Aimed at his nose. Mac yelled. There was a flurry of movement. As the air cleared, Mac was seen poised with the rake grasped in both hands, gripping it like a lance. Methos, convulsed with laughter, was flat on his back with the butt-end of the pole pinning him to the ground.
He had just pulled his hand out of his pocket. He cocked his thumb and said, "Bang bang."
Smiling, Mac let go of the rake. He took a long stride backwards, and bowed.
"Best two out of three?"
"After the will is probated," Joe said, to Amanda, "do you think you'll keep the estate? I can't imagine what a place like this costs in taxes, let alone upkeep."
"Well, it's pretty run-down. John spent the last two years living with his niece in Lyon. He hired a manager for the farms, but the castle's been trashed by vandals. I think there were gypsies camping in it, too."
"And here we are. Four more gypsies. You know there's a nice country inn just a few miles down the road?"
"Joe! Don't be such a grouch. Look on it as an adventure."
"Yeah, yeah. Let me tell you, I'm years past being thrilled by the prospect of campfires and weenie roasts." But Joe crooked his elbow, and offered Amanda both his arm and a winning smile. "Know what would make me happy? A pretty woman on my arm, so that I can pretend all the other guys are watching and hating my guts."
"Why, you flirt, you!" She tucked her hand over his, and affected a southern drawl. "We-ell, I've ahlways depended on the kindness of strangers . . ."
And meanwhile MacLeod was enjoying a moment of pure pleasure. How long was it, since he had fenced for fun, against an equal, without putting his life on the line? Not since the last time he had visited Connor, surely. Fencing with a student was three parts frustration to one part art; meeting a challenge was grim death from beginning to end; one never took up the sword in the vicinity of a fellow immortal without knowing that heads might roll . . . But it was sheer joy to be here, today. Never caring what sort of fool he might look. Brandishing an imaginary sword. Fighting someone he could trust.
They surged from end to end of the long lawn, leaping over obstacles and calling out moves as they made them. Mac watched Methos' hands, taking his cue from his opponent's fingering. Methos seemed to change weapons every time he was parried. And he was chanting as he did: "Feint high, strike low, fake left, cut right--watch out, I've got a three-pronged sword breaker--ah! excellent sliding cut, Mac. Too bad I saw it coming." Then as Mac stabbed out with his free hand, in perfect mimicry of the fingering for an attacking short-sword, Methos fell into the stance for sword-and-buckler work. He said blithely, "That turned your thrust," and MacLeod adapted his own techniques and crowded him, coming in close; for an instant they grappled, elbow to elbow, swaying. Imaginary daisho blades, long and short, matched against imaginary shield-and-sword.
Mac growled, "I've fought against a shield before."
"I see that. Feint in quinte, lunge in the low lines."
"Parry. Disengagement. Cut to the hands with daito sword. Cut to the head with shoto."
"Against Japanese steel?"
"I'm wearing chain-mail greaves. Ever fought a polearm expert?"
"Spear, quarterstaff, halberd or naginata?"
"Even a rake can be deadly in the right hands--!"
"Have at you!" Methos was coming swiftly forward, using a classic polearm attack: a rush with the pole wheeling in fast figure-eights. Mac fell back (it was the best thing to do) giving ground rapidly until he saw an opening; then he sliced. They froze. "Whatever it was, it's in two pieces now," said Mac breathlessly: his imaginary daito had sliced Methos' imaginary rake in half. And the hand that held his imaginary shoto was frozen in a completed thrust, two inches from Methos' belly.
They relaxed simultaneously, fell back, and began to circle.
"I've known you," Mac said, continuing their earlier conversation, "to try to step in and save my skin, a time or two. When you thought I was reluctant to fight."
"And when I did so, I remember you were distinctly surly about saying thanks. So is it okay for you to help others, but not for them to help you? A trifle of hypocrisy, Mac?"
"I didn't need your help, Methos."
"And delusions of grandeur, too."
"I knew what I was doing!"
"Ah, intellectual arrogance!" said Methos, and skipped backward, grinning, as Mac lunged. "What are you holding now?"
"You seem to be the one with all the points." Mac stopped and lifted his hands, showing their emptiness. "Are you familiar with muto: no-sword technique?"
Methos halted. He spread his own hands. The two men stood measuring each other; across the length of the lawn, Amanda suddenly stiffened and dug Joe in the ribs. "Watch this!" she hissed.
The first to attack, now, was the likeliest to lose. It was the classic trap of high-level martial arts . . . that the aggressor was always defeated. Whichever weapon they chose to imagine in their hands. MacLeod narrowed his eyes, watching Methos--his eyes, his hands, his stance, everything about him--and Methos in apparent utter relaxation stood empty-handed, gazing back. Those eyes could have been mirrors. What was the heart of his opponent's shinmyoken: the crucial point at which he was vulnerable--not to be seen with the ken of the eyes, only known with the kan of the mind? Methos possessed great myo . . . beauty of skill, the grace which in battle unfolded as naturally as a blossoming flower. Such myo could not exist without an equal shin, the inner core which the Japanese called divinity; great myo reflected great shin, as flowers and leaves bespoke the inner life of a tree. Though you cut the tree open, you would not discover its shin, and yet without shin, neither flowers nor greenery would be seen.
Where shin and myo met, there was shinmyoken. Only there, at the seat of his shinmyoken, could Methos be defeated.
Methos did not move. Mac did not move. Moments passed. Presently Mac said unhurriedly, "Muneyoshi wrote, 'If your mind reaches the ultimate of swordsmanship, the sword and other weapons will have no place.'"
"Yes," Methos answered. "'This swordsmanship we learn directly with our bodies, is different from the matches with real blades.'"
"Yes. 'If you become a teacher of swordsmanship, first teach your student the laws and look into his mind.'"
"Yes. I have been. 'Fudo, immobility, does not mean the immobility of a stone or a tree. The mind which moves over there, to the left, to the right, in the ten directions and the eight directions, but does not tarry anywhere for a second, has fudochi.'"
"Yes. I've studied Takuan's writings. 'Exhaust all knowledge, and master everything.'"
Mac did not move. Methos did not move.
"It's a worthy goal," Methos remarked. "The blade that'll kill you is always waiting, you can't afford to be less than your best. Especially if you insist on being such a target, Mac."
"I try," said Mac lightly. "But once you've bested your demons, are there any challenges left?"
"Who knows? It never hurts to be prepared. 'With two thousand years of examples behind us, we have no excuses when fighting for not fighting well--'"
"That's Lawrence of Arabia, and I've met him," Mac began. And Methos attacked.
His backfist strike met MacLeod's elbow block. Mac's hooking palm strike, delivered across his body, met Methos' open-handed block. Methos' stamping kick and Mac's crescent kick arrived simultaneously. Both missed the target. Both men sprang backward, both crouched, both froze. And then they said, in chorus, "It's a draw," and began to laugh.
"But back to Luthor," Methos added. "He was good, they say. How exactly did you take him?"
"With a few modern tricks. You know--the sort every modern immortal should know?"
"Show me," Methos said.
"Look at the two of them." Away by the castle entrance, Joe shook his head. "Amanda, what's got into them? They're like a pair of colts in the springtime."
"Oh, I think it's cute."
"I dunno. Mac's been funny ever since he met Methos. I mean funny with-a-bee-in-his-bonnet, not funny comical. I mean, sometimes I don't understand him at all--"
Amanda's eyes widened. Suddenly she was hiding a smile behind her hand. "Well, well," she said. "I think it's sweet, when a promising student and a good teacher find one another."
"Who is the best immortal you've ever known?"
It was long past midnight now. They had walked through the castle, and after a look at what remained of the bedrooms, all four of them had elected to sleep in the old chapel . . . which was the only room left with sound doors, all windows intact and no drafts evident. And which, as Methos pointed out to Joe, was holy ground and also had a good escape route out the back.
"Did you invent paranoia," Joe had asked, "or were you just one of its earliest converts?"
"Look on the bright side, Joe. There's nothing wrong with the chapel that a little huddling together for warmth won't cure. And hey, I'm willing to huddle with Amanda anytime."
But now, mellowed by steak and roast marshmallows and an excellent bottle of red wine, Joe sat with the rest of them--telling tales by lamp-light, with the shadows flickering and flaring. They passed the bottle from hand to hand. Amanda, pleasantly tipsy, leaned into the curve of MacLeod's arm. "The best immortal I've ever met? That's got to be our boy scout here."
"No, it was Darius," said MacLeod softly, and kissed her on the top of her head.
"There was this one guy in Albania, I hear," drawled Joe, "a two-bit bandit and drug runner, bad as they come. He got gunned down by business rivals, woke up, and decided it had to be a miracle--so he got religion big-time. Feeding the poor, saving widows and orphans, you name it. Maybe a year later, he met up with another immortal for the first time. Some punk kid who barely knew the right end of a sword. Our hero bared his throat, said, 'I trust you to do the right thing,' and you know what? He died. Caput. Whacked without a whimper, and now only the Watchers remember him."
"What about you, Methos? Your turn. Who was the best immortal you've ever met?"
"Well, I met this guy once who claimed to be over nine thousand. I doubt they come much better than that--"
"No, no. Not the longest-lived. The best."
"Hey," said Joe, "don't stop him, I want to hear about the nine-thousand-year-old." He fumbled in a pocket. "Where's my notepad? Names, friend--give me a name."
"Shut up, Joe," said Mac. "Go on, Methos. Let's rephrase it a little, though. Of all the immortals you've ever met, which is the one you'd have bet on to win the Prize?"
"To win the Game? Mm. I'd have to say it was Gilgamesh."
"Gilgamesh was an immortal?"
"Of course he was!" said Joe.
"And damn good at it, too," Methos said. He saluted with the bottle, and drank deep. "Too bad about him meeting the Kurgan. Your turn, Mac."
"I never make bets."
Amanda laughed and pointed. "Methos, you have the best track record. I'll bet on you."
"A good Watcher always bets on his own immortal," said Joe. "Mac."
"Thanks, Joe," said Mac, pointedly ignoring Amanda; Amanda giggled and poked him in the ribs. They were all fairly drunk by now. "All right. Of all immortals, who was the best fighter? The strongest, the toughest. The best with a sword in his hand."
". . . his hand?" remarked Amanda.
Joe said, "According to Watcher records, the greatest duelist ever known among immortals--the guy with the most heads to his credit--was a Babylonian named Gimillu. Born about four hundred BC and an absolute madman. Racked up over eleven hundred kills, before he had an off day and lost his head."
"What happened to the immortal who defeated him?"
"I lived happily ever after," said Methos. "The toughest immortal I ever met? Mac, it's a bogus question. The toughest immortals I've ever met are all dead now. Amanda?"
"The toughest fighter I ever met was an Armenian I knew at Constantinople," said Amanda. "Um . . . But he's dead."
Methos grinned. "Mac. Your turn."
"I get the point, thanks. How about this one, then? Of all immortals, who would you have wanted to win the Prize?"
"Me!" said Amanda, frivolously.
"Myself," said Methos seriously.
"And I," said Mac, somberly.
And they sat gazing at one another, until something uncomfortable about the moment struck Joe through the bleariness of too much wine. Then he said loudly, "What about me? You left me out."
"Sorry, Joe. What about you, then--who would you pick?"
Joe lifted the bottle, emptying out the dregs. "Guess it'll have to be the three good friends present tonight," he said in the tone of a toast. "No one more than the others."
"Oh, Joe, you are so full of it--"
But Amanda broke off in mid-word.
All three immortals pricked up their ears.
"Joe, someone's out there. Stay where you are." MacLeod was on his feet, reaching into his coat; there was a rustle, a sweep of movement, and up came his katana gleaming in its wooden sheath. He held the blade by its hilt and the sheath near the point, and he moved like a stalking lion. "I'll see who it is."
Mist was swirling through the broken windows of Rebecca's castle as he prowled along the hallways. The vague warning of a stranger's presence sang in his inner ear. MacLeod cocked his head, shrugging off his mild tipsiness as he gauged the strength of the other immortal . . . oddly enough, it felt young and ancient together, centuries old yet not a threat. Who was it? He couldn't tell. At the first opportunity, he went out of a window and around the back, reentering through a doorway.
Now he was behind the intruder. He loped down the halls, and the moonlight flashed over his dark head and silvery coat as he passed beneath a long line of broken windows. His coat shone like scale-mail, the mist coiled and eddied around his feet. He ran lightly, easily, fearlessly.
He halted at a corner, raised his sword, and sprang out. There was his quarry! Halfway down the corridor, walking slowly away from him--walking toward the chapel door. In the uncertain light, MacLeod gained an impression of an absurd coat, long gawky legs, and unkempt hair. Of youth, and strangeness. And a hand grasping a naked sword.
Mac stepped into the center of the corridor. "I'm Duncan MacLeod," he said. Loudly.
"Ha." Around came the sword, glinting; around came the boy, saying, "Do y'take me for an eanling, ye Dutch-gleeked loon? I heard your dust from meadow to earsh."
MacLeod blinked. "Come here, then," he said. "Let's see whose jacket gets dusted."
"Fellow, death on me," said the boy, to Mac's further confusion, "hath set his mark, anon and eft, as grass in lawn y dwyne yet spring anew. I seek Mistress Rebecca. Where heyles she herself?"
"Lad, put up your sword," said Mac, blankly. "Death is Rebecca's dole, and has been these past four years. Where ha' you been?"
Behind him, the door swung violently open, smacking against the stone wall. Methos stood framed in the doorway, backlit, sword in hand. He took a step forward, and the boy started and set his back against the wall, uttering a cry. "Nay, shut up that lie! Mistress Rebecca, is that you?" Then he whispered, "Magister?"
". . . Jacob?" said Methos. His voice was faint with astonishment.
"Master Methos, Master Methos!" The lad's blade clattered upon the flagstones as he flung himself forward.
"Jacob, I thought I'd never see you again!"
MacLeod spun his weapon around and made it vanish. He watched, a frown upon his
face, as Methos folded an arm around the boy Jacob; and the boy leaned into his embrace and
"Buried for a thousand years? Sounds pretty Biblical to me."
The boy sat on MacLeod's sleeping-bag, huddled over a mug of cocoa. Every few moments, his head would nod drowsily forward; then he would start up with a jerk, and dart a look toward Methos--as if afraid Methos had vanished. He was a rare sight. His eyes were overbright, and the tip of his nose was shiny and pink, and he was prone to shivering all over. But the amazement with which he greeted hot cocoa and marshmallows did much to convince Joe of his sincerity.
When Methos patted his shoulder, he caught Methos by the wrist and pressed a kiss on the heel of his hand, without any sign of self-consciousness. MacLeod stood near the open doors of the chapel, gazing out through them into the night . . . gripping his sheathed sword hard. There was no apparent threat. What was this sense of foreboding, that stood his small hair on end and prickled along every nerve? The boy was no danger.
What was coming on the boy's heels?
"Rebecca never mentioned a Jacob or Malik," Amanda was saying, suspiciously.
Jacob looked up. "Nay, that she would not. Mistress Rebecca was very close-mouthed about Master Methos and his friends. Called him C. R. C. and Zalmoxis and many another fancy name, but never his own--indeed my own teacher Malik, that knew all about it, kept mum with me till I worried out his secret myself. Wasn't I the cross-eyed one then! 'Liar liar lick dish' was all my song. But Master Methos has never been anything but good to me."
As if by instinct, his gaze went to Methos. Methos ruffled his hair, asking, "Do you know what happened to the archeologists, then?"
"Aye well--the wall was shindered down and there was a rare hubble-te-shrive, so I shirked it out of there. And as for them? They shricked long, they shright loud, he shrode 'em to shred-pies no doubt--poor souls. But hucker-mucker have I come, all the way here, pausing only to work for a penny or two. Oh, and to take this trophy off a rare shot-clog who challenged me in Hamburg." He touched his sword. "A was show-hackled, but fought more like a morris-dancer than an immortal. Where else to turn, but to good Rebecca? Master Methos is too footloose to find, I thought. But she is dead, and here you be!"
Joe stood across from him, staring in open fascination. "I'd love to have seen you trying to get past custom agents with that accent!"
"Why, I speak the King's English well." Jacob was offended. "With Master Methos I dwelt in London town for donkey's years. I know my Latin and Greek, and Ladino that is the language of Spanish Jewry. And my milk-tongue, Khazarian." He drooped. "But no one knows Latin nowadays, worse cess. The world's shoes are gone awry, it's all a shore of sewage. And e'en Jewry is a-huckle-muckle. Look! a Jew sold me a watch on the street in Allemaigne." He held up his fist, exhibiting his empty wrist and saying in outrage, "I had to throw it away. It worked on the Sabbath."
"The world's changed, Jacob," said Methos. "That's all."
"But where's the decency in't? When I was a boy, we knew how to hold Sabbath: went quietly to-home and sat daylong in a darkened room. We did not so much as feed the sheep, we knew what was right and wrong. What has become of Jewry--I ask you!"
Amanda in passing laid a finger upon his lips, much as a mother might shush a child. "Be of good cheer, Jacob. All is not lost."
"I know not head from heels! Well, well," Jacob muttered, "the world's turned up-so-down."
"Tell us how it was," Amanda said.
And leaning forward, Jacob began eagerly to speak, while MacLeod and Methos and
Amanda, who knew old English well, drank in his words and even Joe was drawn into the story
. . .
. . . The women of the tribe, all dressed in the thick sheepskin coats indigenous to their country, climbed nimbly up the narrow mountain trail. They were loaded down with baggage, and the young mothers bore their infants on their backs; others hustled the children along. Washed, they would have been fair-skinned--some blond, and some redheaded--but washing was not their custom. Their skin was hard and seamed, dark with the grime of country living, and their long hair bristled out stiff as dreadlocks beneath their tall astrakhan hats. They were mountain folk of the Caucasus, and it was the year four thousand six hundred and sixteen: 856 AD.
Several hundred yards down the mountain lay the lush alpine valley, fed by glacial streamlets, that had been theirs since time out of mind. Their livestock had been scattered and driven into the forest; the round log-houses of their village had been abandoned. The enemy was coming. They were all good orthodox Jews, believers in the one true God: not descended from Shem, to be sure, and far from the sages of Zion . . . but true followers of the Mishna and the Talmud. A traveling rabbi had taught them their lineage. For Noah had begotten both Shem and Japeth: from Shem had sprung the Semites, and from Japeth had sprung Togarma. And Togarma's ten sons had founded ten tribes--the ten tribes of the Turks. The Uigur, the Dursu, the Avars, the Huns, the Basilii, the Tarniakh, the Khazars, the Zagora, the Bulgars, and the Sabir!
They were the children of the seventh tribe. They were the Jews of Khazaria.
The last few feet of the path were vertical. The women sprang along like goats, lifting their children from foothold to foothold. At the top, there was a ledge higher than an eagle's aerie. Here they would wait out the battle, praying for God's deliverance. From here, they would bear witness to it all.
Last in the file came a boy so laden with bags and bundles that he resembled nothing so much as a gigantic parcel with feet. After gaining the ledge, he took three steps and fell flat, groaning. The women flew to unload him, and his foster-mother clouted him about the ears. Then she grabbed his chin and kissed him with a noisy smack, and the boy stumbled backward and grinned sheepishly. His aunt Hagar kissed him, his aunt Elizabeth kissed him, his aunt Ruth kissed him and straightened his sword-belt. And Leah nicknamed Little Pheasant, who was the prettiest unmarried girl in the tribe, rushed forward and embraced him--in front of everybody! She blessed him in archaic Turki, and Jacob blushed from ear to ear, shuffled his feet and squirmed. He could not court her yet, not until he was blooded in battle; when he dared to kiss her back, she slapped him until his head rang. Then she looked at him with shining eyes. Such were the ways of love.
While he scrambled down the mountain, he heard them chanting psalms above him. And Leah's was the loudest voice of all.
At the foot of the path, in the shadow of the forest, the men of the tribe waited. Their eyes gleamed in the half-light, blue and grey and hazel. Their skins were ruddy, their hair fair beneath the grease and grime. They were already mounted, upon the fleet Turkish tipchaks which would carry them into battle: leggy sorrel geldings, with the narrow chests and large, well-shaped heads of their breed, with the thin upraised necks which lent them an air of permanent startlement. The manes of these horses were clipped for war, and their long tails were knotted halfway-down. Every man wore armor of boiled cowhide, and carried a saber and buckler. Each man also wore, at the front of his belt, a handjar--a broad-bladed, leaf-shaped shortsword, used for throwing.
No words were exchanged. Jacob mounted and fell in behind his foster-father and his foster-brothers. The riders moved out, and the clip-clop of the horses' hooves, the jingle of their bridles and the soft swishing of their tails were the only sound. Even the woodland birds had hushed their song.
Today they must turn back the invaders, or die trying.
Jacob rode with his head down and his heart hammering with fear. Each step the horses took wound him a little tighter, until he was jittering at every sound and his eyes showed white-rimmed and wary. The shame of it made his skin crawl. Everyone else had killed his man and lifted a cow or two, everyone else could hold his head high; Jacob was the only one who had never been blooded. Once one of his cousins grinned at him and gave him a friendly clout on the shoulder, but he looked away, shame-faced.
But presently the other men began to chant.
The soft lilt of their voices rose and fell. They sang of their ferocity, for they were the Khazars--the fiercest warriors ever born--and since history began, they had held Khazaria as theirs, fighting off the Muslims and the accursed Rus and Christians. Never had they known defeat! For they were the Jewish kingdom foretold by Daniel, that went before the Messiah. Across Europe and Asia, the Chosen People had heard of them and rejoiced, for in Khazaria all could see the fulfillment of the Almighty's promise. For throughout the world, all men mocked them--saying that every nation had its own land but the Jews alone possessed not even the shadow of a country upon earth.
Jacob sat a little straighter, beginning to feel a trace of pride, and sang a few words along with his kinsmen.
Khazaria was the promised land! Jacob's tribesmen jabbed their fists jubilantly toward Heaven. They were God's warriors! While they endured, all Jewry looked to them in hope. Jehovah was with them, making them invincible. So long as they knew that, they would fight with the strength of ten.
And Jacob, believing with all his heart, sang along and was filled with martial zeal.
They met the enemy at the edge of the forest. The Ishmailites were lying in wait, and Jacob's eyes widened at the sight of them, so foreign were they. They wore long robes of dirty white, with turbans swathed round their heads. They rode small, prancing mares with high-held tails that flirted with the air, with deep chests and proud, arched necks. Those mares were decorated all over with bright woolen tassels, with gay colors and festive bells and braid. Still, though the foe carried swords and long lances, Jacob dismissed his dread--for his were the Chosen People--and though the foe greatly outnumbered his tribesmen, Jacob set aside his misgivings. For were not the Khazarians the warriors of the Lord?
So he fought like nine tigers, until a Muslim warrior thrust a lance through his chest--and then Jacob was flung from his horse, and lay coughing his life-blood out, while his tribesmen died around him. They were brave, those Khazarians. They fought to the last man, and went down without asking mercy. And when the Muslims came climbing up to where Jacob's kinswomen huddled in their mountain aerie, the Khazarian women flung their babies over the cliff and then leaped, one after another, to their deaths--preferring this fate to slavery among unbelievers.
Hours later, other Khazars rode over the battlefield. They were the Khagan's soldiers, and they had just met the same Muslims who had slaughtered Jacob's tribe, and sent them fleeing south in disorder . . . but too late to save Jacob's kin, of course. Too late. One of them halted, as if he heard something no one else could, and he rode unerringly to where Jacob's corpse lay cold.
His manner and his visage were like those of a martial archangel, and he was beautiful among men, like David, like Absalom--like a hero out of Biblical times. Gold was his hair, blowing in the wind, and his features were cleanly cut, strongly made, and mild; with large and slanting eyes, with eyebrows that rose like wings, with cheekbones that were broad and high. An angel, in shining mail. He was there, gazing down, when Jacob came back to life.
"Come, child," was all he said. "I am Malik Bek. And you have just joined the
athanatizontos: the company of immortals."
". . . thus my rebirth," Jacob finished, eleven hundred years later, "and apprenticeship to the Great Prince, a very king among immortals. My own dear teacher Malik called Gogmagog, that I loved more than hope of heaven. And now? A thousand years i'the ground, y-dreaming and y-sleeping, arising to find Khazaria swept away and forgot, Islam and the Rus trampling o'er Khazarian demesnes, Sephardim possessed of Jerusalem . . . a miracle, that--and still--still! the Messiah has not come."
He sat there doleful, shaking his head in woe.
"I remember a legend," Amanda said quietly. "About the warriors of the Caucasus, the fiercest fighters on earth. How Alexander the Great built an iron gate across the mountains, to pen the hordes of Gog and Magog safely away; but come the end of the world, the gate will be shattered. If you travel south of the Caucasus, you can still see the old fortifications they call Alexander's Wall."
"Gog and Magog," Mac agreed. "The forces of hell incarnate. When the Mongols invaded, Europeans called them the armies of Gog and Magog, come to destroy Christendom."
He stepped out of the chapel door, drawing Methos with him.
"So Jacob says this Malik had awakened, and is hunting him?"
"Mac, I knew Malik. He was a formidable fighter even before he went . . . wrong. He's utterly dangerous."
"He's a man like other men, isn't he?"
"You don't know the whole story yet," Methos began. "Mac, you can't take his head--"
But Mac silenced him, holding up a hand. "I'm not treating this lightly, Methos. We'll stay here, on holy ground, where it's safe. No matter if your Malik's been driven insane by entombment, we'll be ready for him."
"Duncan, he was my student!" Methos said.
The midnight air was cool and still. The mist lay across the lawn, in heaps and eddies; it drifted between the immense trees of the drive, where once Mac and Amanda had strolled, playing with Rebecca's crystal. It rose and fell like fog.
There was a man standing on the far side of the lawn, watching them.
A man in rags, all-colored like motley. A fair-haired man, not particularly tall, not in the least terrifying . . . just a man, nothing more. MacLeod blinked. An immortal, certainly--Mac could feel that all the way across the lawn--but nothing unusual, nothing strange. And he wasn't even armed. Only, he tilted his head and seemed to search out Mac with his eyes, and surely his lips were moving--but whatever he was saying, it wasn't to Mac.
He took a step forward. The mist blew across his shadowy image, and for an instant he seemed to disappear. No! There he was--several steps nearer, off to one side. MacLeod spun his sword down and took a firm hold on the wooden sheath, preparing to slide the blade out. He called across the length of the lawn, "I'm Duncan MacLeod," and then, on impulse, "Quo vadis?"
The intruder seemed as insubstantial as a ghost. He was wandering closer, kicking at stray leaves in the grass, pale in the moonlight. As if the breeze blew right through him. And he was talking to himself. He was talking in a low wavering voice, though Mac couldn't make out any words--Mac couldn't even decide what language he was speaking. It was eerie, unnerving. MacLeod backed through the chapel doorway, saying with sudden decision, "Methos! Get the others and take them to the car. I'll hold him here, on holy ground."
But when he glanced over his shoulder, neither Methos or the others was there.
He hadn't heard them leave. The chapel was empty. There were tattered clouds blowing over the sky, wind hissing in the leaves, a chill draft whistling through the door. The man was a bare dozen feet from the doorway.
How had he gotten so close, so fast?
But he wasn't looking at Mac, he had his head tilted far back and he seemed to be studying the moon.
What was wrong with him?
And Mac, in the chapel, drew his sword with a long slithering ring, and tossed the sheath aside.
The man stepped across the threshold, and smiled at him.
"Who are you?" Mac demanded in Turkish. His eyes were wide, his nostrils dilated, his lips pressed hard together in suspicion and nervousness. And yet the man was certainly unarmed. And they were on holy ground. And nothing could happen. The stranger stood framed in the doorway, backlit against the luminous night sky--head down and hands hanging empty at his sides. His face was as blank as a dead man's. His gaze held MacLeod's.
Mac warned, "This is holy ground."
"Aputel," whispered the man, thickly. He lifted his empty face into the light.
"What did you say?"
"J'h h'v h'v. Lalun llun."
It was no language that Mac knew. And something was happening to the stranger's face. It was darkening, swelling, distorting; the veins were raised, writhing, across the thin skin of the man's temples; his eyes seemed to dilate and bulge. His lips drew back over long clenched teeth, the skin and muscles purpled, distorting like a hanging victim's. Throbbing blood vessels now twisted across the skin, thick as tree-roots. Unnatural.
"Who are you?" Mac whispered, for the third time.
The man's mouth opened, working unpleasantly. His shoulders hung slack and his fingers twitched and danced. Too late, MacLeod realized that he was now barely four feet away.
"'Their number is like the sand of the sea,'" said the stranger. He tilted his head far back and roared like a beast. Then he lunged.
MacLeod moved instinctively, swinging his katana in self-defense--turning the flat of the blade forward, that he might not do violence on holy ground. There was an explosion of pain in his wrist. There was a ripping wrench as the joint of his elbow dislocated, as the tendons were torn away from the bone. There was a crunch of agony as the edge of the stranger's hand shattered his collarbone. And there was the distant, vague sensation of his fingers opening, of his sword tumbling out of his grip.
He found himself crumpling forward, falling. The other immortal had taken his katana, and now he reversed it, casually, and drove the butt of the hilt into MacLeod's face. MacLeod spat out teeth. He staggered sideways--reeling like a drunkard, dazed with pain, going into shock. His skin was growing cold and spots danced before his eyes. He had to retreat. But like a whirlwind, the man was at him again--and he was flung back.
He hit the stone wall of the chapel with such force that both his arms were broken.
Now he was sliding downward, gently, slowly, drowsily. The pain was becoming distant. MacLeod drew upon the experience of a thousand battles, and found a last reserve of strength. He got his feet under him, and moved.
Images flashed before his eyes. The flagstones of the floor. The carved stone blocks that framed the doorway. Moonlight like a sword upon his head. The pale lawn, the storm in the trees. He was outside now--fleeing like a coward--
Images. A car careening toward him.
The other immortal, stepping out of the chapel.
The glint of light as the stolen katana swung up, poised for the beheading stroke.
As the sword fell, Mac dived forward, rolling under the blade. His mind blanked out in agony as he did so. The car screamed around in a curve, rising briefly onto two wheels as it spun, braking, a door flying open. Hands reached through the doorway. Mac fell half into the car, and was pulled the rest of the way.
The door slammed, Amanda embraced him, the car's wheels squealed and dug into the soft ground. "He's coming! Dammit, Methos, go! Go go go!"
Mac tried to raise himself, bit back a scream, and fell across Amanda's lap. Through the rear window, he could see the figure of the other immortal racing toward them. The car whined as its wheels spun. It caught traction, it surged forward.
The katana bit deep into a bumper. Steel screamed as the blade pulled free. Then they were rushing away, gathering speed--leaving the attacker behind.
"That--that--that was Malik?" Mac said, through the bitter taste of his own blood.
"His name is Legion," Jacob agreed. He was on the other side of Amanda, and Joe was in the front seat.
Methos was driving.
He glanced around quickly--as pale as death.
"That was the dark quickening, wasn't it?"
"Yep," said Methos. "Sure was."
TO BE CONTINUED . . .