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Mistress of Turquoise

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This (the world's slowest story) is for Nancy who, when I whined about not being able to find Dorothy Dunnett's book Gemini, not only didn't laugh, but actually got a copy and mailed it to Canada. The theme is hers. Any credit for betawork belongs to her. And she was kind enough to supply me with a time, a place, images and even whole scenes, and then let me pick them up and run with them.

Disclaimer from the pyramids: Oh you who live and exist, who love life and hate death / who shall pass by this page; as you love life and hate death / so shall you offer me that which is in your hands. Not!








Egypt, rich in years and gold, her granaries bursting with the Nile's gifts and her treasuries bursting with tribute to Pharaoh . . . grew weak after the 12th Dynasty's glories waned. The 13th Dynasty saw thirteen kings in sixty years, and Egypt could no longer keep the foreigner out. Do not fear the evil Cusite, the holy texts taught; but that was before the shepherd kings of the Hyksos came. Then, that most ancient land was sullied. Not since Narmer first donned the double crown had such an outrage been seen--invaders treading the mud of the Nile, polluting it with their sandaled feet! Shame came to Egypt; Egypt's gods turned their faces away, as the Hyksos conquerors forged their own kingdom in the Delta. With them, the newcomers brought instruments of war beyond compare: the chariot, a stronger bow, scimitar-shaped swords and . . . other strangers to Egypt. One such was the man whose northern name Kronos became Khronos in the mouths of the Egyptians. Like the chariots, the recurved bows, the scimitars of the conquerors, he was an irresistible weapon. The Hyksos king made Avaris his capital, but gave Khronos a rich reward. To him went the city of Tanis on the eastern edge of the Delta, to garrison and guard--and plunder as he wished; was that not the age-old way of things? But though the new Pharaoh gave his general this gift beyond compare, he was too canny to give his trust along with it. And he was right not to do so--for the ways of immortals are not the ways of mortal men.

#

Mud.

Night.

Water.

The Nile.

The inundation.

There was a pleasure-craft with painted sails, that came gliding sleekly down the Nile in the season of the floods. Its woodwork was rich with gilding and azure, and the cartouche of the goddess Hathor was drawn along its prow; lamps shone in firefly lines along its spars, and its many ropes all gleamed like golden chains. Even the oars gently dipping in and out of the Nile were beautiful, painted with flying fish that seemed to leap upward with every stroke. It was long past midnight, but the Nile was a silvery mirror reflecting the sky. The river shone. Only days ago the portents of summer had appeared, bringing rejoicing in every heart: a heavy dew had sweated over Egypt, the river-water had changed color--and then the river had begun to rise. Now the whole Delta was one vast lake. Only what stood on high ground remained above the water . . . but these were villages and cities, each a limb of Osiris. Come the end of the inundation, the god's severed parts would reunite and Egypt would rise from the river, reborn. Ahead lay a city, surrounded by the Nile. At its harbor, the high-water of the inundation lapped wooden docks which were made to float, to rise and bob no matter the level of the Nile. There were cats singing in the night, surely prowling the docks for prey. As the pleasure-craft sailed toward the sleeping city, its oarsmen heard the cries of those cats. Such was the music of every Egyptian city's nights; there was no city on the Delta which was not teeming with cats. Cats were sacred to Bast, and drove the mice from the granaries, the rats from the houses of mankind. Cats were the friends of man. Their warbling yowls echoed across the water, and the oarsmen--glad to be near the end of their labors--began one by one to sing in reply. Above the fishing-boats rocking sedately at the docks, above the jagged black outlines of warehouses and granaries, shone Nut's starry sky: arched milk-white with a myriad jewels, and not a single light below to dim the goddess' lovely body. The narrow alleys of the dockyards were dark, and empty, and dangerous. Who ventured out after nightfall, took guards and torch-bearers--or else took his life in his hands. Only that solitary ship, still sailing long after midnight, was lit.

But the lamps flickering on the ship's rails were cheerful, and the song of the oarsmen was festive.

The ship altered course. It steered toward the docks. Its pilot paced the deck, pointing with one arm, and giving orders to the sailors. More lamps flared, torches were kindled. They lit the deck, as bright as day--like a painted scene, executed with strong bold colors upon a palace wall.

Soldiers who had been sleeping beneath an awning rose, found their weapons and formed into ranks. The sailors leaped to do the pilot's bidding; they were naked, but the soldiers wore linen kilts and quilted armor. All of them, sailors and soldiers alike, were burned deep bronze by the rays of the sun--almost as dark as Kushites.

Amidships, beneath a second awning, reclined a woman whose skin was far lighter than that of the men. She was the color of ripe grain, as were all Egyptian women; they did not go out in the sun as their men did. Her hair was a flood, black as the bottom of the Nile, and her lovely face was vivid with boredom and restlessness. Cushions stitched with precious silver were heaped up around her, the fringe of the canopy over her was thick with swags of turquoises, many turquoises. Twin Nubian slave-girls fanned her with ostrich-feather fans, and a blind harpist played to while her time away. They wore gold chains strung with turquoises, all of them. As for her, she was clad in the simplest of white linen sheaths. Her beauty needed no other adornment.

Opposite her stood a cage, such as live lions were carried in. There was a man in the cage, a turquoise collar round his throat; otherwise he wore as little as the sailors. He was lighter-skinned than any Egyptian man, and he was playing senet with the jeweled woman. In a lull of the singing, the click as he moved a playing-piece carried clearly across the water.

The oarsmen ceased their work. Their voices fell silent, the pleasure-craft glided to a stop. It bobbed on the swells of the Nile; its reflection danced sedately with it, all outlined with little yellow points of fire, and the image of the caged man and the golden woman made a phantasmagorical picture. The pilot gave an order. One of the naked sailors leaped off the side of the ship, swam across to the floating docks. The other sailors threw him a line, with a rope tied to it; he drew the rope across and lashed it to a pier, and the others pulled the ship in, bit by bit. No one challenged them.

. . . All this was witnessed by the man who stood in the mouth of a pitch-black alley. He was unarmed. He was an immortal. He was Khronos, and he had just been hunting--hunting like the cats of his city, in the darkness where no sane man ventured. He smiled as he watched the pleasure-craft docking, he smiled as he studied the scene on its deck, he smiled as he backed silently into his alley and vanished . . . for he knew that fresh prey had come to his little city.

#

". . . the craft that docked at the harbor after dark? Look, I know it well. The princess Khnumet's pleasure-bark, that is. No, the harbor patrol would never dare stop her, that wicked woman does whatever she wants--if any of them had dared to step into her path, she would tread him down like a reed beneath her feet. She would pluck his neck like a lotus stem . . . Look, I hear she was born in the gutter of Mendes, the lowest of the low, but she is known as perhaps the most beautiful woman in all of the Two Lands. Men are clay in her hands. She persuaded the Vizier Ka-Rhames to marry her when she was barely twelve years old, and wore him to death in just three years . . . now he lies in his sarcophagus in holy Saqqara, and her face stares down from the walls of his tomb . . ."

This was a tavern far from the waterfront. It was crowded, even long after midnight, and the walls sweated with heat; those walls were painted with reeds and strutting ducks, and droll blue hippos with rolling bellies, for the tavern's name was the Happy Hippo. Hippopotami still haunted the Delta in those days; they were sacred to the gods of fertility and the gods of death alike, for they were great killers of men. No fishing-skiff took off from the city docks without a lookout standing in the bows, whose sole task was to keep watch for hippos.

Like the beast it was named for, the Happy Hippo was both jolly and dangerous. Egyptian peasants with thick shocks of black hair (the mark of the lowly, for their betters all shaved their heads) drank sour beer and uush-liquor here, became exceedingly drunk, and later the tavern women relieved them of all their money and rolled them out to lie in the street. The tavern women, now, were bustling about with their beer-jars, smiling. They were much-perfumed and available for a price, but their bodies were swollen and their noses red-veined from overmuch indulgence in their own cheap beer. A few were young and slender, lovely yet burned-black from the sun: farm girls come to the city to make their fortunes. Perhaps they had been escaping from marriages they disliked, or from fathers and mothers who worked them too hard. Who could tell? They wore cascades of henna flowers in the cleavage of their gaudy linen sheathes; henna flowers, which smelt like perfume and men's seed mingled, were the emblem of love all through Egypt.

They all knew Khronos. To them, he was rich beyond their wildest dreams; they thought a single night in his arms would make them rich too. They wound their arms round his neck, pressed their raddled cheeks to his. "Come lie on my bed," they invited him, one after another, whispering it in his ear. "For you, great Lord, no charge. Come lie on my bed and enjoy me till the whole room smells of crushed henna."

But in the governor's palace, Khronos had women who made these work-worn harlots look like the dregs they were. Thus he smiled to himself, fingering the Bes amulet he wore; his favorite concubine had hung it around his neck, wishing to get herself a son. She had taken clippings of his hair to a sorceress too, and paid gold for medicine guaranteed to make her fertile. She boasted of it to all the other concubines, as the chief eunuch (a mountain of fat and malice) had reported personally to Khronos. Khronos had only laughed at her wiles. How could she know that her magic would never work?

"So this woman is notorious," he murmured.

The nervous little man sitting opposite him was a paid informer. He was an expert plasterer and painter of frescos, as comfortable drawing bawdy pictures on a brothel wall as decorating the receiving rooms of a nobleman's palace; his work took him into every house of the upper city. He was also a confirmed gossip, able to winkle out scandal when lesser men came away empty-handed. Thus he made the perfect spy.

Just now, he was very drunk. Khronos knew him for a confirmed sot. But that was no matter: when in his cups, he only talked the more.

"Utterly notorious, great One. After she killed her first husband, she set her eye upon the Prince of Per-medjeh. A man of the royal linage, of a bloodline so old that Pharaohs and high priests have sprung from it--and her, a sandal-weaver's daughter! Look, the Prince offered honorable concubinage, but she's a woman who wants her pot right down to the bottom: nothing would content her but marriage. So he made her his chief wife, dismissed all the others . . . he built her a palace, lavishing a fortune upon it. The bricks for every room were kneaded from clay mixed with a different perfume, they say, so that one room was scented with roses and another with jasmine, and yet another with hyacinth and lilies. What a marvel! The tale of it was told all up and down the Nile--and what good did it do him? None. No, little by little he spent all his fortune to please her, and when he was a ruined man she spurned him, left his palace and laughed at his entreaties . . . The story goes, he used to follow her in the street, weeping for her to come back. This wicked woman would strike him in the face and order him out of her sight. But she knows every way of lovemaking so well, it seems that no man who has tasted her skills can ever be content with a lesser artist."

"The land spins around like a potter's wheel," Khronos murmured. "Noblewomen are gleaners and nobles starve on the streets, but she who never slept on a plank is now the owner of a palace- -she who never wove for herself, is now the owner of fine linen."

The spy shrugged. "But that's the way of it with life," he said bitterly. "Women and women and women and women--what else is there, in the end?"

Khronos sat idly drawing with one fingertip in spilt beer. War and death, he thought to himself, plague and famine . . . there were these things too. In the end. But he seldom spoke his thoughts to mortals, for he had found that as he grew older, the things he thought disturbed them.

Aloud, he said, "And what did this foolish prince do?"

"Him? Died in the war. Flung himself upon the spears of the Kushites. All out of grief over this terrible woman, and--will you believe such evil?--all she did when she heard of it, was smile and say she had already had the best of him . . . Then the war ended." The spy leaned nearer, fidgeting and looking around. "This, I heard from the mouth of Lady Khnumet's own maidservant. A fine sweet girl from my home town near Memphis, you understand--many is the time she has carried me gifts of figs and sesame-oil . . ."

"Go on," said Khronos, also leaning forward.

"This evil woman went to the city of King Salitis." The spy touched his forehead. "To our Pharaoh, son of Re, may he live for all time and eternity. Bearing gifts, she threw herself at Pharaoh's feet, kissed his sandal and swore she was a holy priestess--of Hathor, no less--come to pay homage to the one true king. Singing hymns to him, she was. No doubt, flaunting her charms before him. This very year, she entered into Pharaoh's harem, became one of the son of Re's eight hundred concubines . . . And she has plied her trade in his bed so well, he has signed over half the farm-estates around Tanis to her."

"And various properties within the city walls also, doubtless?"

"Doubtless. Since the end of the war, a quarter of the villas adjoining the Horus Canal stand empty . . . their owners are dead or fled south, their gift is in Salitis' hand. Well, he has opened his hand lavishly, and now the new owner has come to count her fruit trees. Adding them to what her first husband already bequeathed her, many other estates in this very city--indeed, one might say the whole city is now her toy. Even a Pharaoh may become besotted. But what else is there in this life, against the wiles of a beautiful woman?"

Khronos shrugged. "Perhaps there will be more someday. Time passes, kingdoms rise and fall, the languages we speak change with the years, and not even Egypt is eternal. Maybe one could live long enough, he would find that ways of men and women also changed?"

But the little spy only stared blankly. "What? The Black Land is eternal."

"It was nothing," said Khronos. "Nothing."

The heat and stench of the crowded tavern washed over him. Flies crawled on the table under his hand, flies crawled on the painted walls. The walls were spotted all over with their fly-specks. The mortal women came with their beer-jars, leering, the instant he glanced in their direction. The mortal men at the tables around him talked and shouted and jostled for more beer. Their faces were wizened from the African sun and their cheeks gleamed with oil and sweat. They lived barely longer than the flies, he thought; how could you talk with them?

Finally he said, "And this Khnumet, have you seen her? Is she so beautiful, then?"

"Beautiful?" said the spy. "Yes . . . no . . . yes . . . well, it's true, I suppose: eyes are in festival, when she goes past. But Egypt is full of girls as lovely as young goddesses. It's not beauty alone that drives men mad." He stared into his pot of beer, suddenly squeezed his eyes shut and blurted, "What would you die for, suffer for, throw everything away for? Every man has one thing they'd wreck their life over. And I don't mean what lies between a woman's thighs . . . I heard her ordering her litter-bearers about once. Yes, her voice is haunting, but--it's what she says that I remember--yes, her face is perfect, but it's the look in her eyes--and yes, her body is a man's dream, but it's the way she moves--" His face twisted. For an instant he looked what he was: a little artist in a little city, drowning his talents in a cheap poor-quarter tavern. Then he picked up the beer and drank it all in one endless longing swallow. "All I know is . . . if these hands of mine could paint women half as fascinating as her . . . why, then I would never need to hold a beer-jar again."

#

Dawn.

The sky bloomed with light, cinnamon and saffron and orpiment, and the delicate yellow of the henna blossoms that tavern women wore between their breasts.

Sunlight blazed up the narrow streets, upon mud houses like clusters of swallow-nests on a cliff.

Papyrus-cutters set sail into the Nile, upon fragile reed barks.

A priestess stood on the highest rooftop of the city and cried the words of an ancient hymn:

"Pharaoh, praise Re the Sun at dawn,

At his coming forth, as he opens up his egg

And climbs to heaven as a scarab, reborn . . .

He enters Nut at the mouth

He comes forth from the thighs.

Pharaoh knows

This secret speech which the eastern Souls say at dawn,

As they sing praise of Re

As Re rises and appears in the horizon;

The bolts open for him in the portals of the east

So that he shall set sail on the ways of the sky . . ."

In the countryside, the poor folk looked out from their door-stoops and found their farms vanished beneath the floods. Every field was a sheet of water now, and their houses of mud-brick and reeds stood out like little islands, isolated--for it was summer, the season of the inundation. No ploughing or sowing could go forward till winter came. Then, the Nile would recede; grain would spring up as if kissed by the gods, beans would race to grow and melons swell to ripeness overnight. But now, the country folk slept on their rooftops, for even the floors of their houses were under water; they netted fish from their doorways, and those who set foot out of doors sometimes sank waist-deep in mud in their own front yards. Sometimes their houses crumbled to mud too, and the hungry Nile washed them away. But the worse they suffered now, the more they counted themselves lucky . . . for it only meant that the inundation was good. In other years, when the inundation was lacking, they starved.

In the slums surrounding Khronos' city, the peasants saw their streets become awash with the rising Nile. Only the rich could afford to live in the old city, which had been founded on high ground and bedrock; the poor folk built houses perched on sticks and pilings, and every summer whole sections of their quarter were washed away by the floods. Their gods were all around them: the sacred ibis of Thoth hunted the sacred eels of Phagroriopolis beneath their house-foundations, and the jackals sacred to Seth were their neighbors. The scorpion, beloved of the goddess Selk, bred in their ceilings and stung their heels. Even the vultures nesting on their rooftops were holy. And they lost their children to the sacred crocodiles, which swam right into the city and hunted boldly even in the alleyways.

Still, they sang hymns to the holy inundation. Their wine was the river-water, full of mud; those who drank, the peasants said, became addicted to the rich flavor which was better for a man's health than even the strongest beer . . . the Nile water could cure even leprosy! No ill could come to the man who drank enough good Nile water. And they celebrated the festivals of summer, where some god or other was feasted almost every day.

In the rich quarter of the city, the Lady Khnumet's villa stood surrounded by high walls, within which were vine-arbors, gardens and orchards; her pool was filled with blue and white lotuses, surrounded by lavish beds of flowers. Her villa itself had red walls, a blue roof burning against the pale African sky, and many doors framed by pillars like papyrus-stalks. Upon her garden wall were painted friezes of flowers, beneath which paraded all the creatures of the northern Sahara: the cows and hippos of fertility were prominent among them, and there were camelopards and cynocephali also, such as graced the courts of kings. Beyond and above, at the summit of upper Tanis, tall palms and white fortress towers married the blazing sky.

Khronos took a squad of fifty Hyksos soldiers, and marched them to the Lady's gate.

The Hyksos warriors were battle-scarred veterans with notched swords, with oxhide shields covered with bronze bosses--a far cry from the quilted linen armor and wooden clubs of the unwarlike Egyptians. Lady Khnumet's gatekeepers, on the other hand, were twin Kushite slaves: perfectly matched, stylishly clad, armed only with the scepters of their calling. They looked upon Khronos and his soldiers with white-rimmed rolling eyes. "The governor," said Khronos lazily. "Come to pay his respects to the Lady." The gatekeepers' gilded clubs wavered in their hands, and Khronos smiled upon them. "Let us by," he suggested. "Now."

They let him by.

Within, terrified slave-girls scurried forward. They wore nothing but aprons and flying beads. Khronos' soldiers eyed them lustfully, and the slave-girls flung themselves full-length on the floor of Lady Khnumet's reception hall. Every girl was a Kushite, blue-black. It seemed that the Lady preferred such servants. "Lord Governor! Our mistress is--is--is--"

"Is absent?" Khronos inquired. He stood admiring the reflection of his own sandals. The floor was green marble, painted with frogs dozing upon lily-pads, swimming ducks and drakes followed by their ducklings, and papyrus reeds and lotuses in a frieze around the bases of the walls . . . and black slave-girls, now, prostrated amidst the ducklings. "Why, does she usually sleep elsewhere?"

"Our Lady Khnumet--"

"May Hathor preserve her!"

"--she rises before dawn, every day--"

"--goes swimming in the Nile--"

"--soon she'll be back, lord Governor!"

The instant he stepped between the pillars of Lady Khnumet's colonnade, Khronos had felt the presence of the other immortal. It was a clamor in his mind--like rushing wings, like wind in the desert. Like the drumming rain, which fell in Upper Egypt only once every fifteen years. This one was very old, he thought. At the far end of the long hall was a shape draped in linen cloths and rush matting; he strolled toward it as the slaves stammered out their tale. Now, reaching out one hand to the cloths which draped the lion-cage, he glanced back over his shoulder. "No one swims in the Nile," he observed. "It's too dangerous."

"Yes, very dangerous," said a musical voice. "Archers sail behind me, guarding me from crocodiles."

Four brawny porters had just appeared between the pillars of the colonnade. They stooped to their knees, setting down the litter they carried; and the woman in the litter drew up her knees and rose, her white hand bright on the dark arm of the nearest porter. She was very fair, except where her sheath clung, soaked dark, across the curves of her body--and where her feet, which were black clots of Nile mud, struck the immaculate floor of her hall, and where her hair, knotted in long tails of sable mud, laid tiger-streaks over her white shoulders. By lantern-light, she would shine grain-gold.

As she stepped away from the litter, she left pitch-black footprints behind her. Her toes were long and thin, daubed with wet mud. She said, "Lord Khronos, I gather? Come away from there--or shall I call my archers back? That man is more dangerous than any number of crocodiles."

"Man?" Khronos drawled. He knotted his fist in the draperies, and turned--jerking as he did. The linen slid slithering off, piling itself on the floor. "I thought you had a lion in here?"

The other immortal stood behind bronze bars, immobile. He might have been a statue, except that his eyes blinked and his chest rose and fell; also, a little breeze through the colonnade's pillars stirred his long unkempt hair. There was a threadbare blanket thrown down in one corner of the cage, on which he apparently slept. His face was calm and without challenge as he gazed at Khronos, even though he must now be in fear for his life . . . there, helpless, penned like a beast for the slaughter. Besides being caged, he had been restrained with a fork, like those worn by the African slaves brought north across the Great Desert. This 'fork' was a tree-limb, forked indeed at one end and bound around his neck. The whole contrivance was about as long as a man's arm, and the other immortal's wrists had been chained to the far end. It was very heavy; to keep from being strangled by it, he had to continually hold the whole weight at the full extension of his arms--a crippling punishment.

Khronos had seen rebellious slaves who had been marched, bound by forks, all the way from distant Kush. Even the strongest bull of a man would be a broken wreck by the end of the journey. But this man (and he wasn't even very big, Khronos thought) stood as if he barely felt the weight.

". . . more dangerous than lions or leopards," said a voice at Khronos' elbow; and the Lady Khnumet, trailing mud in black clots across her palace floor, stood beside him. Her servants came running, with jars of clear water to sluice her filthy feet and bowls of natron to scrub her clean, and bright woolen drying-clothes and a fresh sheath so white it was all but blinding. She smiled up at Khronos as they surrounded her. "But lord Governor, I am ashamed. I must give you a better welcome than this. Wait: you and all your brave Hyksos soldiers will enjoy cool wine and melon juice while my harpist plays to lull you--and then I will set out such a feast before you as would satisfy even a Pharaoh."

#

". . . you are curious about my slave," she said, sometime later. "Aren't you, lord Governor?"

Kronos had been seated at Khnumet's own table, in the place of honor. Slaves had poured water over his hands and handed him a lotus flower, adjusted his collar and patted his hair, and then, laughing, they had set a cone of scented wax right on the crown of his head. Every man of his escort had been served in the same way. Now they all sat in the banquet hall, which was high and bright, with one end opening off onto the garden. The hawks of Horus hovered upon its ceiling, painted small and dark upon bright sky blue, and slave girls in beaded aprons paraded along the walls; they led tame geese on strings, tame gazelles, tame water-hens. The dining chairs were ebony and ivory, adorned with lions' heads, and on each seat was an embroidered cushion filled with down. The little tables dotted between the pillars were also ebony and ivory, each table just big enough for two diners; they were piled high with food. There was roast goose and duck, fried fishes each cooked with a different herb, loaves of bread and the oil of Crete to dip them in, a dozen different kinds of cake, salads of lettuce and onions, fruits imported from Syria . . . all the pleasures that wealth and prestige could provide. Lady Khnumet had set a festival-night feast before her guests, far too grand for the morning hour. It was a mocking show, a slap in the face of the world: see how high I have risen, it proclaimed--I can afford all this!

The immortal had been brought out of his cage, and sat on a cushion at Khnumet's feet. Bowmen stood against the wall behind him, arrows at the ready; they watched him every minute. He had been weighted down with chains too, so heavily that one would think him a whole squad of dangerous criminals . . . but then, Khronos thought, he was an immortal after all. Besides, Khnumet wore chains too.

Hers were the chains of royal favor--far more seductive, but just as heavy. Around her throat, they were ropes of turquoise scarabs, set in gold; around her narrow waist, cords strung with lapis-lazuli set in silver; around her forehead, a garland of white and blue faience lotus flowers. Chains of silver and gold chimed beneath the pleats of her linen sheath, which was so sheer that every link could be counted through its fabric. The effect was more erotic than nudity. She was clad from throat to knees--but there was no part of her body that was not on display. Her lips were warm and inviting but her long Egyptian eyes were very cool. She emanated a promise of delight, as a flower gives of scent or the Nile invites on a hot day--but underneath her smile lay unknown dangers.

She had sprung, Khronos thought, from the same Nile clay as the pleasure-women of the Happy Hippo. But in her, the clay had been shaped and painted, glazed and fired, till what emerged was as perfect as the offering-bearer statue destined for a pharaoh's tomb.

"I captured him in the desert," she purred, reaching out a hand to touch her prisoner's disorderly hair. "I was traveling with my soldiers to the marble quarries at Aten's Rock, to inspect the blocks which will be cut for my tomb. This pet of mine--oh, I wish you could have seen him then. A Sand Dweller, one of 'Those-who-eat-rats', wearing nothing but a rag dyed with indigo--and the color had run in blue streaks all down his chest and arms! Methos was all the name he had. And who knows where he came from?"

Khronos sat watching. "He is not an Egyptian or an Arab," he said finally.

"No . . . does it matter? His tribe attacked my party--so we slaughtered them, naturally. Such savages! He was their leader, something I noticed at once, and after he had fallen they lost heart and we spilt their blood across the sands. I, myself, threw the stick which downed him." She widened her eyes: "Oh yes, Lord Khronos, I can fight like a man. I was born among the lowest of the low and grew up with cutthroats and thieves--why deny it? All Egypt knows. I am proud of it!"

"You have scaled the pyramid of wealth and fame to its summit?" said Khronos ironically.

"I have. I defeated my past, as I defeated this slave here. I saw him fall, wound my hand in his hair, jerked his head back so my guards could cut his throat. And then--"

"Then . . . ?"

". . . then . . ."

"You looked into his face and fell in love?" suggested Khronos. He grinned into his wine-cup.

Khnumet sat straight up. For an instant he thought she would hiss and spit like a cat. The exotic paint on her lovely features seemed no more convincing than lines inked on glass; green galena stood out stark round her huge eyes, the blue and gold design of her scarab-necklace seemed to blaze against alabaster. "Love?" she said. "No. Love is nothing! We witnessed a miracle." Then her fingers curved tight round the knife she had been eating with. She turned, and plunged the knife into her captive's chest.

Around Khronos and Khnumet, the Hyksos soldiers shouted with shock.

The lady withdrew her knife. She held it up, making the blood on it plain for everyone to see . . . as the chained man toppled backward. His chains, clattering against the floor, made a sudden dreadful noise--like mangled music. "Watch carefully," said Khnumet, turning to stare with a strange intensity at the wound she had made. "You will see something that astonishes you, Lord Khronos."

Khronos had risen and now he bent over the chained immortal, the man Methos. He turned, so that his gaping soldiers would not be able to see what was about to happen; without thinking, he slid one hand under Methos' shoulder and the other under his waist, lifting him slightly and shifting him into a less twisted position. The shudder that passed through the other immortal's body was sudden and helpless; then there came a gasp of pain, a violent shivering and finally a series of choking coughs.

The man's eyes sprang open. Nothing showed on his face. The soldiers and servants had all run up and were crowding around, crying out with amazement; they were prostrating themselves before Khnumet, stricken with fear by her magic. Khronos realized this distantly. He bent so close that no outsider could possibly have heard his whisper: "What are you doing here, letting her torture you? What hold on you does she have?"

He felt a shock of curiosity and interest, something he had almost forgotten; why had he thought nothing would ever surprise him again? And horror, warring with hunger for this man's quickening. Intrigue. Vivid astonishment. As if the emotions of his mortal days--the passions of youth--had sprung unbidden to life.

Methos sat up and groaned, shrugging off Khronos' touch. He looked away from Khronos as if Khronos was not even real to him . . . and his gaze, sliding sideways, searched for and found the Lady Khnumet sitting at the banquet table.

She was as still as a gilded idol: one hand still loosely curled around the bloody knife, the other hand toying with her faience dish of honey. Her servants kissed her feet with superstitious awe. For some reason, the henna-red tips of her fingers caught Khronos' eye; there was honey dripping from her fingers and the corner of her mouth. Perhaps in greed, she had been dipping her whole hand into the dish. Then she laughed--a little rippling laugh like a cry of glee and triumph. "Praise my lady Hathor," she said. "The mistress of turquoise, who rules over life and love and rebirth! I, Khnumet, am the instrument she has chosen to demonstrate her power to Pharaoh."

#

Night along the Horus Canal was not like night at the docks. Here, the houses of the rich faced onto the canal, which had overflowed its dykes and spread in many shallow lakes spanning the heart of Tanis. The Nile flowed over squares paved with polished marble, green and white and blue; every night, the water blazed with fire from a thousand torches, and the wavering reflections of obelisks and date palms painted the surface, like a mirage glimpsed in some distant lonely desert. Boats filled with singing girls floated between the obelisks. The houses which stood empty only served to frame their neighbors, from whose doors issued music all night long--from whose gardens overspilled laughter, perfume, the fragrance of flowers.

The Hyksos fortress stood on the highest ground of Tanis. Five hundred men were quartered there. They had their wives (both Egyptian and Hyksos) and drilled daily--though only a madman would fear attack during the flood season. Still, King Salitis had left orders for them to stand in readiness. And they had grown up fighting, fighting, fighting . . . lived their whole lives at war, and conquered the whole Delta by force of arms. They had lived for battle. Come winter, they were sure, Salitis would take them south into Upper Egypt where a native Pharaoh still held half the Two Lands. The war would not be over till all Egypt was theirs. And so they drilled and dreamed, foreseeing the chance for further glory.

In Khronos' house near the garrison, was treasure looted from all over the Delta--such wealth as his soldiers only dreamed of. In his harem were women from halfway across the world, women whom kings would be proud to own. There were twins from Persia--ivory beauties with talented hands--and a pair of red-headed girls from beyond the Pillars of Hercules; there was a docile and clinging concubine from Thebes, and a statuesque Kushite. This last had been Pharaoh's gift, one of the women given as part of the treaty between the Hyksos and southern Kush. That ebony-skinned woman had the heat and the spice of the jungle in her kisses. But his current favorite was a haughty Berber, with an olive skin and a hooked nose and teeth that flashed white when she was enraged . . . which was often. Every day or so, she stormed into Khronos' bedchamber, kicked the expensive Egyptian furniture and hurled the breakables about, and ended by pouncing on him and wrestling: three falls, or till he gave in and promised her a present. Khronos liked her. At least, she had never bored him.

But tonight he sat alone in his lavish room. All his women had been sent packing to their harem, no doubt to prowl restlessly and spit insults till morning. Like cats deprived of their prey, Khronos thought. He didn't care. They were only women, all old news, and tonight he had a better game to play.

He had sent his scribe away too, and ignored the business of his garrison. Instead he had eaten sparingly, and slept through the afternoon. Then he had called for his massage-slave, and laid flat on his bed, saying nothing, while he was kneaded and oiled and scraped and kneaded again, till every muscle tingled with life. All the while, the slave chattered away like a monkey. Khronos lay lost in thought, not hearing one word. His head was pillowed on his crossed arms, and only the fingers of his sword-hand moved--but they drummed, they flexed, they curled and uncurled endlessly.

Finally he raised his head, running his thumb along the terrible scar that disfigured his face. It ran right across one eye, a seam with puckered edges. Usually it was white, but now he dug his thumbnail in and the scar throbbed, becoming a scarlet welt. A jab of pain shot through it. Khronos' heart hammered with excitement and anticipation. He turned his head, grinning, and the massage-slave backed away from him, stark-white and wide-eyed. The slave cowered in the corner beside the door, while Khronos strode across to his work-table and picked up his sword.

It was not like the swords his soldiers carried, which were short and broad-bladed, and bore the file-marks of frequent repairs along their cutting edges. This sword was over twice the length of those. No mortal blood had ever dishonored it. No mortal had even so much as touched it with a finger, nor had Khronos worn it since the last time an unfortunate immortal had ventured into his city. It was the sword he took into battle against his fellow immortals.

He raised it to his face, ran his fingers caressingly along the edge. He breathed on it, just where the lines of the blade flowed into those of the guard, and saw a shadowy haze form on the polished metal. Like most bronze swords, the hilt and blade had been cast as a single piece; there was no weak joint where the tang would slot into the handle. Khronos kissed the sword.

What had he said--the immortal who had initiated him into the Game? Long, long ago. He shut his eyes and was instantly lost in a memory.

. . . Sweat stinging his eyes, his own blood in his mouth, the weak-kneed dizziness of exhaustion--staggering, reeling, bewildered beyond the instinct to anger--and the other immortal beckoning him, taking a mocking step away and snapping a glib insult. "I'm pulling every stroke, boy! Do you even know what to do, have you ever fought another of your own kind before--where's the fire in your belly--don't you want to live? All you have to do, is cut off my head--but you're not good enough, are you?" And with every word had come a fresh blow, from a direction Khronos did not see. "Come, you can do better--are you tiring now?--does it hurt?--want to give up, maybe?--why not throw down your sword, and maybe I'll give you a merciful death--" Then the sound as Khronos' sword clove through flesh and bone--and the quickening, the divine shock of the quickening--

His hand clenched.

Blood welled up along the razor-honed edges of the blade; drops of blood dripped steadily upon the table, which was gilded citrus-wood with lotus-blossom legs, the most delicate and expensive of Egyptian workmanship. Khronos watched expressionlessly as the red blood ran across the papyrus rolls of garrison orders and reports. He had cut his fingers to the bone. When he slid his palm along the blade and down to the hilt, the motion left a long streaked smear on the bright bronze. When he glanced over his shoulder to where the massage-slave had huddled terror-stricken against the doorjamb, he realized that the mortal had fled.

He was dressed as an Egyptian tonight, in the bronze-bead necklace and loincloth of a commoner, and he growled deep in his throat as he swung a long cloak over one shoulder. The sword vanished beneath the cloak like magic. Khronos swept his hand across the work-table and all the blood-splattered papyri slid to the floor. They made a noise like the fluttering of a fan. He stepped over the scattered sheets as he walked to the door.

. . . in distant In-di, land of jewels and spices, he had fought his second immortal. Here, the people were sloe-eyed and saffron-skinned, and worshiped a thousand strange gods. Melkart was the name he had then. There were tigers lurking in every reed marsh, two-headed snakes in the jungles, and the king he had served kept unicorns in his garden. These were tame rhinoceros. Their bodies were painted, their eyes ringed with dark blue; the bases of their horns were pure white, the middle portions pure black, the points pure red; and their ground-up horns were considered sovereign against poison. The immortal Khronos fought had carried a sword painted like a unicorn's horn. "Indra puramdara will defend me!" he had cried as he attacked. "Who are we?" Khronos had shouted, defending himself, "where do we come from, what does it mean?" but the stranger had not answered. Only a sparkle in his dark eyes seemed to taunt Khronos with unknown answers. Backed to the wall, Khronos had taken his head . . . but when the quickening was over, Khronos had been no wiser.

The streets near the garrison, patrolled by Hyksos soldiers, were empty. Khronos had gone this way often, slipping past his own men like a thief in the night. He had wandered through Tanis' darkened alleys--places where the other Hyksos dared not venture for fear of their lives--unafraid and unarmed, looking for a challenge. Bandits had come at him with clubs, five or six of them at a time. Egyptians peasants, knowing him for a foreigner, had tried to lynch him. Once he had surprised a murderer in the act, and had to fight him off, his knife against Khronos' bare hands. It was all just practice for the Game to him.

He never bothered to wear weapons anymore, except when another immortal was in the offing. He had not lost a fight with a mortal for more than two hundred years; he feared them no more than he feared stinging gnats.

. . . in Melukkha-land, whose twin cities would one day be known as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, he had questioned a merchant with birds for sale. "Look, look," the mortal had insisted, brandishing a bedraggled red hen, "see this new thing, sent to us by the crocodile-headed gods. Soon the whole world will want them, my friend--these miracle birds, which give birth every day." He had shaken the hen, which squawked and flapped; soon enough, it was true, its kind would be known throughout Persia as the Melukkhan bird, a great marvel. It was a chicken. "Yes," the mortal had answered Khronos, "the dragon-lake lies north of here. What is it? A great dragon lives in the water, and it comes out once every eight years and covers our mares--that is why our horses are sought after as far away as Cilicia. It lies with our women too, and begets sons of more than mortal stature. They are powerful and courageous, as swift of foot as horses themselves. The proof of it? Why, one of them lives in a cave up the mountain there. He has lived there since my grandfather's youth--and behold, he does not die!"

The immortal up the mountain had attacked Khronos on sight. They had grappled for a long time, till Khronos surprised him with an Egyptian wrestling-throw; then he had put his sword to the man's throat. "What are we?" Khronos had demanded, "where do we come from, why do we fight each other?" But the man had merely flinched: "I heard one of us say once, only the very old ones know these things . . ." And right up till Khronos took his head, he had insisted he knew nothing.

His sandals slapped the wet ground as he walked, and the Nile water flowed over his toes. At this season of the year, that water was thick, reddish, and slimy. Those who were squeamish preferred to beat it with bruised almonds and let it settle in a clay jar for a day and a night, before condescending to drink. Nile mud squelched under his heels. The walls of the buildings on either side of the street were dull grey, plastered with Nile mud. Truly, it could be said that the Nile was the mother of Egypt.

Khronos moved like a shadow, avoiding notice. No mortal saw him as he crossed the city.

. . . Once, he had taken ship with merchants from Carthage and sailed past the Pillars of Hercules. They were searching for a route to Cattigara, land of pearls; as for Khronos, he was searching for his fellow immortals. They sailed three years along the African coast, landing every so often to sow grain, watch it grow and reap the harvest--replenishing their stores before they continued their voyage. In a land where hairy men and women knuckle-walked through the jungle, peering out of tangles of grass with ancient wise eyes, Khronos had felt another immortal's presence.

This time his foe had lived as a king, ruling a nation of black men crowned with ostrich-plumes. He wore a lion's skin as a headdress, a leopard's pelt round his waist. "Who are we?" Khronos had demanded after defeating him. "What are we meant for? Answer or die!" The man had shrugged, saying in mangled Akkadian, "It is the Game. Give me a clean death, young one!" and Khronos had spat in his face and taken the head . . .

The revelers near the Horus Canal made enough noise for ten times their number. Khronos skirted the torch-light. No mortal mattered, it scarcely mattered if they saw him; but tonight, he was in no mood for interruptions. All day long he had lived in anticipation of the challenge: his concentration must not be shaken now. A single mistake might cost him his life.

. . . Once, his adversary had been a woman. Khronos had found her in the Imaos mountains, beyond the Stone Tower which marked the caravan route to Thinae. She rode a tiny pony and dressed in yak-fur, she was a hunter of wild yaks--enormous beasts, more dangerous than tigers. She had no tribe. She spoke no language Khronos could understand. But in her fathomless eyes, he had seen the mystery of centuries beyond comprehension.

For an instant, he had imagined that he might learn from her--that they might not be enemies. But she had gone straight for him, as if he was a yak for the hunting. Armed only with a bow and lasso, she had evaded his swiftest sword-strokes with frightening ease; she seemed to eddy around him like wind and water--next to her, he felt as clumsy as a mortal. Then when his arm grew heavy, she had laughed and flung her rope around his ankle, jerked and toppled him like a fractious horse; she had dropped onto his back, hooked her bowstring round his throat and began to saw his head off. Only fury had kept him conscious long enough to reach her with his sword before she throttled him. Her quickening had gone on and on, shattering the ground underfoot and shaking down half a mountain . . . and when Khronos recovered, he knew he had to study fighting in earnest now, lest he meet another like her again.

For generations, he had sought out every sort of battle. He had fought in armies beyond counting, studied mortal conquerors, tested his swordsmanship against pirates and war-heroes; it was not enough. Then, Khronos had deliberately laid aside his sword. He had fought unarmed against mortals in back-streets and outside taverns, taking on any odds, testing himself against diverse weapons, to gain experience. And he had died, and died, and died . . . till he learned to shrug off death as just another sort of wound. Then he learned to keep on fighting despite any pain short of death. Then he found that the mortals he fought were no a match for him anymore.

He had little in common with any mortal anymore, actually. What they thought important, no longer interested him. The mortals themselves seemed simple, slow, dull. They knew so little! As for the immortals he fought from time to time--he no longer imagined that conversation with them was possible.

Here was Lady Khnumet's back-wall. It was three cubits high, but overhung by palm trees on either side; Khronos skirted the house, came around via the neighboring garden. He stood listening for a while, there in the dark beneath the trees. His hand returned often to his sword-hilt. Then he untied the rope looped round his waist, used it as a brace to shimmy up the nearest palm, and dropped over the wall into Khnumet's garden.

Stealthy as a tomb robber, he stalked toward the house.

. . .Once, he had found a family. He had been living in rich Marrakanda, on the Zarafshan, the river of gold; her husband had been a rebel against the local king. Khronos had fought on the king's side. Afterwards, his reward had been the dead rebel's estate, all his wealth . . . and his pregnant wife. Khronos grew fond of this mortal; she was sweet, she was docile, she calmed him; when her daughter was born, it seemed as if the child was his. He lifted the tiny red scrap of flesh, the baby's hand closed over his callused finger and her unfocused eyes looked up at him with trust. Her eyelashes were like butterfly-wings. So he called her Ala, his "Wing", his own . . . and loved her. Loved her well.

But a summer fever struck both child and mother; within two sunrises they died. Khronos had entombed them in bedrock, as if they were royal. Into the tomb went wealth for their afterlife: gold and jewels for the mother, dates and apricots for the daughter. In went the little girl's toy chariot, her wooden ship and collection of duck-feathers, and her soft wool doll with its painted face. The priests sealed the door of their tomb and Kronos sealed his heart against love. The pain was too great, more painful than a sword thrust, blacker than a night without stars, deeper and without end--even for an immortal.

Barely a day after he buried them, he had felt another immortal's presence. He had taken up his sword, hunted out the interloper, challenged and engaged him the moment they set eyes on one another. Khronos won with ease. He did not bother to question the man. But as he raised his sword for the killing stroke, his victim had looked up at him with eyes that seemed heart-breakingly young. "Wait, wait," the man had stammered, "please--before I die--tell me--what are we? Where do we come from? Who are our makers? Surely you know, you have to know--what is the meaning of it all?"

Khronos had stared at him in shock. Then he had taken the head, knowing he had come full circle and become one of the old ones. And he knew that he would never ask his questions again--because the answers he sought did not exist.

Now, drawing his sword, he stepped between the red-painted pillars and entered Khnumet's house.

The house was dark, empty. Only lights flickering over the garden wall, the drifting sound of music, told him that late-night festival was still being held on the canal. But he could feel the other immortal now: the sensation was like a drum-song, another heartbeat. His own heartbeat sped up in response. He turned sideways, raising the sword, and stepped behind a pillar. It was very hot and swarms of gnats swirled around his face; sweat sprang out on his brow, half from the heat and half from anticipation. In the long room where the cage stood, a glimmer of torchlight showed him an illusion of water underfoot. The cool green marble seemed to ripple like the Nile itself, and the swimming ducks and drakes almost appeared alive. And what was that? A voice.

". . . the ostriches are the ones who chase thunder: we call them the lightning-birds. Wherever they are, as soon as they see the signs of a storm, they leap up and run headlong toward it. It's the rain that they seek. They come from all quarters to find the grass that springs up after the rain falls."

This was a voice Khronos had never heard before. It was the other immortal speaking, he realized--and the young voice that answered, as timid as pattering rain . . . that was the voice of Khnumet herself.

"What do you do about the ostriches, then?"

"Why, we hunt them on our camels. But they are fleet and the camels are slow, and it takes a whole day to tire them out. We course them in relays, and when we have them cornered at last, we take home their plumage and give the finest tail-feathers to be worn by the women we love."

". . . oh, the women you love, is that it? Your wives, clapped up in tents in the wasteland, sitting all day churning buttermilk for your supper?"

"Buttermilk is enough, when your beloved shares it," said the voice of the immortal. "What more do you need, if you have enough?"

"You have nothing out there. You are beggars."

"Nonsense. Camels and sheep, the wells in the desert, the open road--we have all that. And the gods look down upon us."

"They are not Egypt's gods."

"So what? They are closer to us than the gods here. And you have it all wrong. What does it matter what you have here, Khnumet . . . so long as you don't have love?"

"I have Pharaoh! Salitis adores me."

"Oh, child. Maybe he does. But you don't love him, do you?"

Silence.

"Does it matter, Methos?"

"Khnumet, of course it matters. Love is all that matters. Without love, Pharaoh's palace is only a tomb, stuffed full of burial goods and gilded women."

Khronos raised an eyebrow, grinned to himself. Then he remembered that if he could feel the other immortal's presence, then the other immortal could sense his. However calm his voice sounded, he must now be preparing for a fight.

He stole a glance round the pillar. There they were, a small bright picture: the bronze cage at the far end of the long chamber, the immortal in the turquoise collar kneeling very close to the bars. Khnumet was curled up on the floor just outside the cage. There were no guards, they were alone. It was Khnumet herself who held the torch, a stick wrapped with a pitch-soaked rag. Her free hand reached through the bars, and her fingers were entwined with Methos'.

Khronos was about to step forward and make his challenge, witness or no witness, when Khnumet asked, "But . . . what are you, then? What is your magic? What does it all mean, Methos?"

Khronos froze.

"I know you've lived many lifetimes, I know you know great secrets," her timid voice went on. It struck Khronos that her voice had altered, becoming tentative--like a little girl's, in fact--and when he stole another look, he saw that her face was wide-eyed, her lips sweetly parted, her expression shy and curious at once. Pharaoh's seductress had become childlike in her puzzlement. "The secret of immortality! And you've hinted at such things to me. Tell me, tell me now, and I can give you everything--lapis and silver, Methos, whatever you desire--only tell me your secrets!" Methos said something that Khronos didn't catch. But Khnumet lifted her chin proudly and answered: "Yes! I will give you myself, even. Only, tell me first."

Methos burst out laughing.

Scarlet, she snatched her fingers back and leaped to her feet; the torch thudded to the floor, flaring up and then dimming, as it began to gutter. Khnumet paid no attention. "You're just trying to trick your way out!" she shouted. "You know I can have you tortured till you tell everything!"

"You can."

"And with this key--" she held it up, twirling it just out of reach, "--I can set you free. But you'll never get out unless you behave yourself."

"Oh, you little daughter of Hathor." Slowly, Methos stood up; he pressed himself against the bars, smiling, stretching out his hands to her. The turquoises studding his collar, the glint of amusement in his eyes, the gleam of sweat running down his body in the heat--all these things shone like treasure. "Mistress of turquoise. Just dare, Khnumet. Open the cage, step in--and I will show you everything."

She froze--like a bird, poised just beyond the net. Then she flung the key to the floor and fled, dashing headlong out of the house.

As she did, Khronos stepped out of hiding.

His mouth watered. How dark it was becoming, he thought, with the torch almost out; he would have to seek his foe by starlight--till he made the night kindle with lightning. His heart thudded, thrills ran over his skin; this was lust. It was the sheer hunger for his enemy's quickening that drew him onward. Such cravings, that a man could risk death to satisfy them . . . and all for something no mortal would ever experience. No woman born could ever give him this.

One last fragment of light showed him the discarded key, and the other immortal, slumped to the floor of his cage. Unarmed, helpless, uncaring. Forget what he said, Khronos told himself; he's meat for the slaughter, a fatted calf. He remembered the vivid interest he had felt that morning, looking into Methos' face . . . but there had been no answering spark in his eyes, had there? No. It was all imagination, wishfulness. There was nothing for Khronos here.

He picked up the key. The man in the cage never stirred. Had he abandoned himself to despair? "Look up," said Khronos very softly, knowing that there was a purr in his words; he fitted the key in the lock, and the door swung open. He stepped inside, raising his sword. "Why are you letting her do this to you?" he demanded. "Don't you care about living anymore?"

Then Methos looked up.

Khronos felt as if he had been stabbed in the heart. For the first time, he saw life in Methos' eyes: it was wild indignation. Fury. Fire. Astonished, he blinked as if blinded, taken off-balance for the first time in centuries--and then Methos was on his feet, a violent blow knocked Khronos' sword aside, and then a shove sent him reeling. "Do you think that silly lock ever held me in," said a low burning voice in his ear, "do you think you're a match for me?" Another shove. Khronos staggered backward, stepping right out of the cage, and he growled as the door clanged shut in his face. "Get out, get out," Methos cried, and then he shouted, "Go away, do you want to ruin everything!!"

They had been heard; how could that raw shout go unnoticed? Answering shouts came from Lady Khnumet's garden, and Khronos heard running feet. Another moment and the room would be full of guards. He snarled in frustration, started back toward the cage--there was enough time to finish it--what did it matter if mortals saw him?--only the Game was important--and after all, his foe was helpless--

Wasn't he?

A sudden doubt made him pause. What hidden defenses did the other immortal have--that he could be so fearless in the face of death? Again, Khronos jerked a step toward the cage. And halted, again. Certainly, Methos was unarmed, but-- But. But.

Open the cage, step in. And I will show you everything.

It was a trick. Wasn't it?

Open the cage, step in. And--

Khronos turned, pulling his cloak around him, and took two running steps into the garden. The night swallowed him. His heart was full of rage, his blood ran cold; his sword-hand shook. It had to be a trick. But if it wasn't-- But, he told himself, the other man is still in his cage. A wise hunter knew when to be wary, when suspect an ambush, when to retreat.

Open the cage, step in.

A wise immortal knew when to wait.











Part Two





Dawn came to the Delta; another day had begun.

". . . without your love, my heart would beat no more. Without your love, cake seems salt; without your love, wine turns to bile. O listen darling, my heart's life needs your love. For when you breath, mine is the heart that beats . . ."

Khnumet had slept late, tossing and turning; her ivory head-rest had seemed hot to her, and the cobweb-soft sheet had been too heavy for comfort, too flimsy to keep the gnats of summer away. Finally she had flung back the sheet and clapped her hands for her maidservants. Soon enough she was perched on a stool, a dozen women buzzing around her with scent-pots and fine ointments, gossiping and giggling, plying palm-leaf fans. They were rather noisier than the gnats, but at least she could admire herself in a mirror and nibble on her breakfast while they worked. Beer and hot bread, pressed dates and morsels of duck . . . luxury, to a girl from the slums of Mendes. She ignored the women and their idle chatter. Better to savor her beer, while keeping one ear open for the words drifting toward her from the far end of the long hall.

"I love you through the day, in the dark, through all the long divisions of the night--those hours I, spendthrift, waste away, lying alone, awake till dawn . . ."

Her prisoner's cage stood there, shrouded by its linen cover. Methos had heard her voice, and was reciting love-poetry to entertain her.

". . . and I? Who am I? I am a goose in a snare; it is my love that lures me. Tricked by her tasty bait, into this trap of my own imagining . . ."

"Enough," said Khnumet at last, amused; all her women were listening, lulled into daydreams by the cadence of Methos' voice. "Such a sweet singing-bird deserves its reward." She took up her dish and cup, and carried them over to the cage. The women hurried to fling back the cover, and Khnumet herself put the food into Methos' hands. At a gesture, someone brought a cushion for her to sit on, in her accustomed place by the door of the cage. At another gesture they withdrew respectfully, loitering at the other end of the hall. Out of earshot, but still watching vigilantly; she was one of Pharaoh's women, after all.

"More poetry," she commanded, taking a morsel of duck and popping it into his mouth. Then she held up the beer and made him drink.

Obedient, he recited, "Oh flowers of Mekhmekh, give us peace! . . . Tranquil our paths when your hand rests on mine in joy. Your voice gives life, like nectar. To see you, is more than food or drink. Nor time eternal take back what you have brought to me . . . Khnumet, you are a water-hen hiding in the rushes. All color, a precious jewel. But when I stretch out my hand, you scamper out of reach."

"I wanted a pet water-hen once," said Khnumet moodily. She stole her cup of beer back and swigged it down to the dregs, savoring it. "When I was a little girl in Mendes." Her eyes darkened; then she smiled as she glanced around at the painted marble tiles, the gold leaf on the walls. She savored these things too, as if they were fine beer. "But my father was so poor, he could not give me even a comb and girdle. Six greedy older brothers, eight greedy older sisters pushing me aside . . . what other small girl ever had so little? Our house was in the courtyard of Hathor's temple, where the public paupers built their shacks. But I wanted a pet water-hen."

"What happened?" asked Methos.

". . . I stole a net and ran away to the Nile, I snared myself a duck at the edge of the water." She laughed at the memory, fondly. "Such a little fool! Lucky not to fall in, and drown myself. That duck kicked so wildly, it scratched me from knees to belly, and pecked my face bloody before I got it home. And then--"

"Then?"

"My mother wrung its neck and put it in a pot!" said Khnumet. A world of indignation was in her voice. "And I did not get even one bite of it!"

She saw Methos smiling behind his hand, and was affronted. "You don't understand," she accused, "how could you? You didn't live through it."

"I have lived through it. I've been poor, I've starved. I've lived in lands where men ground fir-bark for flour and fed their children grass, because there was nothing else. I've done everything," said Methos simply, "everything, and more."

"You don't understand," Khnumet insisted, very much on her dignity.

"I do understand. I understand everything." He leaned his head against the bars, and spoke in a soft, soft voice. "Khnumet. Forget Pharaoh. Let your wild dreams scatter, like faded flowers--let them fall from your grasp, beloved. Come love me instead."

"I will be Great Royal Wife!"

"No," said Methos, still in that hushed seductive voice. "And . . . if you are--what would it be worth, child? You don't love him, his harem will be no more than a prison to you. Run away with me instead, and be free."

Khnumet leaped to her feet. "Oh, those are just words." She walked away from him, smoothing her sheath. At the doorway she glanced back, flinging the words at him: "Fine words, for a man in a cage and collar!"

"Your cage and your collar," said Methos sadly. "They're yours, not mine."

#

There was that other immortal again. The young one--what was his name? Methos had forgotten.

It was the second hour of the morning, the beneficent hour, and Khnumet had taken a fancy to walk along the Horus Canal. Nothing would do, but that Methos would come along too . . . fettered and collared, for safety's sake, and burdened with the cruel slave's fork that immobilized his hands. A squad of archers and bodyguards surrounded him. However, Khnumet strolled by his side; a slave-girl trotted ahead, proudly bearing Khnumet's sandals. There was not a noblewoman in Egypt who would be seen in public without a sandal-bearer.

It was a fine morning, a perfect morning. Re the sun had risen smiling from the Land of Grass; from between twin cedars of turquoise he had come. Cool breezes and sweet air were Re's morning sandal-bearers. By noon, though, the god would wear his most blinding aspect. The summer heat would scorch the earth, and all men would hide their faces. It was best to enjoy the cool while you could.

There! The faint tickle of his enemy's presence had gone.

Three times, the other immortal had come close; he was definitely stalking Methos, but there was no danger yet. Not here, with dozens of mortals as witnesses. Methos had the trick of living entirely in the present; he was content to enjoy the sunlight sparkling on the canal-water, the cool air on his face and Khnumet beside him. He knew that she, too, was basking; her joy lay in wealth and luxury, things she craved like the sweetest wine. When men bowed to her, she became very happy. When they prostrated themselves before her, she glowed. She had been among the lowest of the low, and set her sights on the highest throne in Egypt; these innocent little flaws only made her more precious in Methos' eyes, for she amused him as well as enthralling him.

She was eyeing him now, and her expression was speculative. Suddenly she launched into speech. "Methos, do you love me?"

"Yes, Khnumet."

"Would you die for me?"

Her soldiers were listening to every word, her sandal-girl as well; but Khnumet had never cared about such things. It was enough, she boasted (as Methos had heard with his own ears) that all men adored her; so long as she stayed faithful to Pharaoh, why should Pharaoh feel jealousy? He owned a woman who drove men mad. He ought to take pride in her. "I already have," Methos pointed out. "Several times."

"Would you do anything for me?"

"Yes, Khnumet."

"Then why don't you trust me?" she whispered hotly. Yes, she never cared whether she was caught talking of love to him--but now, now she did not want to be overheard. She wanted everyone to think her a miracle-worker. "Again and again, I've asked you how you made your magic. If you really loved me, you would share your spells with me . . . and then I, too, would be powerful." Her voice was plaintive. "If you really loved me."

"I've told you everything--"

"No, look, you keep something back--I can see it in your face, I can hear it in your voice. The secret you keep must be a mighty one. Tell me," she wheedled, "tell me, and I will reward you, Methos." Methos barely listened, for he felt the brush of immortal presence again. His steps slowed, he tilted his head; his eyes went vague. The presence was becoming stronger. Meanwhile Khnumet went on and on. ". . . perhaps I will go away with you as you ask." All this came with a teasing smile. But her voice was serious. "I swear it!"

But now her soldiers were drawing themselves up importantly, and her slave-girl with the sandals was all but leaping up and down with excitement. "Lady Khnumet," said a purring voice, and a Hyksos war-chariot in full panoply drew up beside Khnumet's entourage. Fretting horses were harnessed in its traces, their powerful haunches marbled with sweat and their manes tied in bunches like the crenelations of a fortress wall. Ostrich-plumes nodded in their headstalls. There were scythes fixed to the war-chariot's wheels, and its frame was painted with the thunderbolts of an eastern battle-god. As for the man riding within, he wore quilted armor, covered with bronze plates from breast to knees. He was smiling straight at Khnumet. He was (of course) the other immortal.

He leaned down, holding the reins negligently in one gloved hand, and extended a bouquet of golden daisies to Khnumet. "Beauty of beauties, how your light blinds me . . . Indeed," he quoted, "whether astray or captured, all bear witness to the consummate skill of this lady, shrewd at her craft and perfected by heaven. All men are your slaves. You are a true daughter of Hathor!"

She held the flowers to her dainty nose, flirted over them with her eyes. "My lord General is too kind, he will turn my head. Beware! I belong to Pharaoh."

"I would never raise my eyes to you," said the Hyksos, and for an instant he stared directly, boldly at Methos. "It might be courting too dangerous a rival . . . No, Lady Khnumet. I have come to bring you a gift."

"And such pretty flowers, too," she murmured, sniffing them.

"Not those," he said. "They are unsuited to your mettle. This!" And he stepped down from his chariot, bowing her toward it.

Khnumet's eyes got wide. She clapped her hands, let her flowers fall, and sprang light as a gazelle into the chariot. Inside it, she was dwarfed; she braced herself with her hands gripping the gilded framework, leaned forward as if into the wind. "What a wonder!" she exclaimed. "Why, no one has offered me one of these before!" The Hyksos snapped his fingers and two of her soldiers leaped forward to lead the horses. Khnumet, delighted, took up the reins. "Away!" she commanded, and the soldiers ran forward; the horses set up a curvetting trot, and off they went--away down the avenue, with Khnumet playing at driving breakneck into battle, and the horses neighing with every plunging step.

Methos was left behind with the other immortal.

This was not the time or place for an attack, Methos knew he was safe; still, he felt himself stiffening. He was the only one present who knew the other immortal for what he truly was. Now he watched his adversary; he assessed him in a thousand ways. Soon enough they might meet in combat. It paid to know one's opponent.

This one was formidable. Swift-moving, graceful, strong; it was in his stance and his step. And passions glowed from him, scorching-hot: impatience, aggression, curiosity, courage. And something more. It showed in the clench of his fist, the frown on his forehead. Something angry, something baffled. Hungry. Full of confusion and desire. Something which had troubled him for a long, long time. Yes . . . this one was dangerous.

But there were ways to get the upper hand over young immortals, other ways to put older immortals off-balance and off-stride. If one knew how, one's battles could be won without a sword ever being drawn.

The man had odd eyes, too light for his face. The scar across the right eye caught Methos' attention, and then the expression in the eyes themselves. He was staring at Methos, openly, devouringly, so much so that the soldiers around them nudged one another and leered. From the collar round his neck to the fetters round his ankles, Methos was bare to the other man's gaze. And the log of the fork kept his arms extended, made him utterly helpless. It meant nothing. Undisturbed, Methos raised an eyebrow and stared back.

"How old are you?" the Hyksos demanded.

Methos replied quietly. "Does it matter?"

"I've met other old ones before. Tried to question them--" He stopped, started again. "There's a difference about them. You look the way they looked--"

"--before you took their heads? Didn't your teacher tell you anything?"

"My--teacher?" The man raised one eyebrow.

At the far end of the avenue, Khnumet had turned the chariot, and was galloping swiftly back.

"So you had no teacher. It shows."

The Hyksos growled slightly. Then he took a long stride forward, caught the end of Methos' fork and yanked him close; his odd pale eyes stared into Methos', his free hand gripped his sword. "No more games. Do you want to do it here and now--"

"--in front of these mortals--?"

"Yes! Why not, are you afraid of a few insignificant witnesses?" The man shrugged.

He meant it. Methos hissed, "Just like last night. You know nothing of the Game." Methos let himself nod, as if unsurprised; then with a twist of his arms, he broke the Hyksos' hold and was out of reach. In a voice that dripped contempt, he added, "I don't kill the ignorant. Go away, general."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Hyksos bite his lip, jolt forward as if to stop him. But it was too late; the chariot had drawn up beside them, the horses fretting to a standstill. "Lord Khronos, my pet interests you?" said Khnumet. "Forget him, he is nothing. Thank you for my gift!" She leaned forward over the chariot-rim, still flushed from her wild ride, and caught hold of Methos' chain with a possessive hand. "No one in Tanis owns such a thing. Why, everyone will envy me, and scheme to get chariots of their own . . . You were saying something?"

"Nothing," said Khronos. "It was nothing."

Methos stepped closer to Khnumet, making his face enigmatic. He rested his extended hands on the chariot's side, and walked off, surrounded by his mistress' retinue. All the way back to Khnumet's gate, he felt Khronos' stare following him.

. . . That was his name. Khronos. Methos shrugged to himself, and forgot it. Yesterday, the other immortal had come straight at him, no subterfuge or hesitation; today he had been ready to draw and challenge on sight. He was overconfident. It paid in these cases to delay and delay. To say whatever might bewilder. The more unexpected, the better! The more confident the challenger was, the better it was to jar him with confusions and worries. Back away. Make him think. If he was straightforward, speak in mysteries. Watch for a sign of weakness. Above all, do everything to fill him with doubt.

There were a thousand ways to fight. Only the simplest involved swords.

#

Lady Khnumet's chief archer possessed a pure-white cat. It was the apple of his eye, the queen of his heart, and it went with him wherever he traveled; on the voyage up the Nile, it had prowled the boat and hunted mice in the bilges, and slept pillowed on its master's chest every night. Like Khnumet's own pet Methos, it was graced with a turquoise-studded collar. Here in Tanis, it had conquered the cat population of Khnumet's villa, and reigned without rivals. Not a rat scuttled in the garden, not a mouse scurried in the house, but that the white cat was there first, pouncing.

It was fascinated with Methos, and could often be found crouched in front of his cage, gazing in with vast yellow-moon eyes. Sometimes it fetched him a fresh-killed bird for a prize. Khnumet would play with it, pull its tail and tickle its nose, and it would lay its ears flat and spit disdainfully; then it would permit her to stroke it, pick it up and fondle it. But even as it lay purring in her arms, its tail would lash back and forth.

Thus they were now: the woman with the cat sprawling in her grasp, kneading her sheath with powerful wicked claws. Sometimes its claws pricked, but cats were sacred; for the sake of the gods, they had to be indulged. It was said there were more cats than men in Egypt; it was said that there were more mice in Egypt than cats and men combined, and that was the reason that cats were sacred. So Khnumet made no protest, even when the white cat drooled on her arm.

She wandered through the silent villa. Her slaves all slept, her guards too. Two other cats twined round her ankles, leading her onward; they belonged to the kitchen-slaves. One was brown with stripes, and the other was grey with stripes. They attended the white queen like princes in Pharaoh's court. She was glad of their company, for she felt lonely.

So she was there when the white cat ceased its purring and turned its head, staring out through the colonnade.

The other two cats froze in their tracks. They, too, were staring toward the garden. The shadows of the night lay out there, but the cats gazed with unblinking eyes as if they saw more than Khnumet ever would. The great white queen in Khnumet's arms had stiffened, and its ears were flattened. A low chittering sound escaped it. The other cats were bristling. Then one of them darted forward, running low to the floor like a serpent, and vanished without a sound through the pillars.

A tremor of superstitious fear ran through Khnumet. What was out there? The grand hall was quiet and peaceful, yet she felt as if spiders were creeping over her skin. The cats were growling, low in their throats, and then she heard a small noise and her head jerked sideways.

The small noise had been a whisper of linen, as the shroud fell from the bronze lion-cage. There, Methos had risen, and was standing near the bars, a tail-end of the linen still gripped in one hand. He was staring in the same direction as the cats. Perhaps the shadows between the pillars had darkened. Perhaps the figure of a motionless man could be made out among them. Khnumet could not tell. A few rays of moonlight fell across the painted marble floor, to light a spark of blue in Methos' collar. He moved slightly, glancing in her direction. There was no expression on his face. No sound came from between the pillars. Methos began to dance.

That was the only word she could find for it: dancing. It was not the right word but it was the only one she had. He turned, shrugging one shoulder, and lifted the opposite arm. His hand shot out, fingers stiffened. Once and twice and three times and five times, over and over, with the same motion each time. He repeated the gesture twenty times, then did the same with the other arm. Twenty times. Each motion was delivered with force, but so gracefully that Khnumet could not look away. He pulled his knee violently up toward his chest, pivoted and kicked. Again. Again. Again. So many times, that she was mesmerized. Her breathing came fast, her heart sped, she felt herself smiling with pure happiness at the sight of him . . . for he was beautiful in her eyes. That was the only word she could find for it: beautiful.

Long moments went by while he rehearsed motion after motion, driving himself till sweat gleamed on his chest and all his limbs shone in the moonlight. Slowly, she realized that these were the motions of fighting. They were like and unlike the wrestling she was familiar with. She was fascinated, and found a smile creeping across her face again; the white cat had relaxed in her arms, and was purring contentedly. That was how she felt, contented and at peace. There was nothing in the world she would rather do than stand watching Methos, knowing she would never understand him, but joyous in his presence.

What was this feeling in her heart? The sorrow that had kept her awake was gone. At last her eyelids began to droop, and she turned, setting the white cat down, and padded off to her bed. She was like a sleepwalker then, seeing nothing around her; she was warm and sleepy and full to the brim with thoughts of him. She laid her head on her ivory pillow, drew the thin sheet over herself to keep the summer flies away. She dreamed, and woke knowing she had dreamed of love; that was the only word she could find for it. Love.

After she had gone, the white cat went to the cage and sniffed through the bars. Methos ceased his movements. He knelt down on his ragged blanket and clucked his tongue; the cat slid through the bars like a ray of moonlight, butted affectionately against his thigh and at last leaped up onto his lap. He stroked the cat, gazing toward the colonnade. There was no fear in his face.

Out there, Khronos stood like a statue between the pillars. Once or twice his hand had moved toward his sword. Each time, he had caught Methos staring fearlessly at him; qualms struck him, doubts made his hand falter; this was not like any encounter with other immortals he had ever had. Each time, he had drawn back.

Finally he, too, turned and vanished into the night.

Ah, Methos thought. Again, we fought. And I won.

#

In the Nile, fleets of ducks bobbed, and the deadly crocodiles lay lurking, like dead logs with teeth. Fragile skiffs darted across the marshes, rowed by fishermen and bird-catchers. Others went to cut the papyrus, whose blessing was that every part of it had value: flowers to cheer the heart, stems from which came paper and cord and woven mats, and the fresh shoots and roots which fed the poor folk and their children. The Delta's marshes were the bread-baskets of Lower Egypt; the Delta peasants, who lived with the river year in and year out, had separate words for the papyrus-marshes and the reed-marshes, the marshes full of lotuses and those haunted by birds, and the deep-bottomed pools left behind when the inundation ended.

In a lotus-marsh full of tall flower-stalks, the lady Khnumet was taking her morning swim.

She swam among the water-lily pads, her smiling face turned up and her hands parting the lotus-stalks; the buds, two cubits above the Nile's surface, swayed stiffly and rustled together. Her hair floated on the water. Her boat followed her, full of guards and servants hand-picked by Pharaoh: "Never let her come to harm," Pharaoh had ordered them, "hold her hand lest she fall, watch her lest a stone bruise her foot." Such frightened old men and wet-nurses he had set to watch her! If a bird flew up among the reeds, all her servant-women screamed for her to come back; if she dived under the water, her zealous soldiers leaped in after her. Sometimes they hovered so close that she had to turn, hammer on the prow and order them to give her room.

"Lady! Lady, come in, we've seen a crocodile!"

"A enormous crocodile!"

At once, Khnumet caught a lotus-stalk, scrambled a little, and then her feet gained purchase in the mud; the bottom was breast-high on her when she stood. "Where? I want to see it, point it out!"

Her archers too had come to their feet, balanced lithely in the rocking boat, with grim faces and drawn bows. Her maid-servants stretched out their arms to her, uttering little frightened squeals. Even the rowers held their oars like clubs. Khnumet had to laugh: why, those women were almost in tears. She made a rebellious face and pretended to turn away, and then relented at the outcry they made. "Wait, wait, I'm coming." She waded back to them, still smiling. She held out her arms, and two soldiers caught hold of her elbows, lifted her; water streamed from her hair, as they drew her into the boat. "No I do not want to be washed, you know that. You can worry about mud when we're home. Until then, stop fussing!"

They thrust a wine-cup into her hands, bowed down before her as if she was already a queen. These signs of homage were sweeter than honey in Khnumet's heart. She savored them. Inwardly, she exulted. She sat upright in state on a chair like a throne, eyes vague with greed, and dreamed of gold and power.

Around her, all was color. The world resembled a wonderful painting, a painting come to life--full of archaic lotuses and papyrus-stalks. Wild dragonflies hovered over the reeds, brilliant purple with brilliant orange wings; locusts crouched chewing, their apple-green wingcases folded and their legs striped many colors; and pure-white egrets stalked through the shallows, stabbing with their beaks. Khnumet's servant-girls, wearing short dresses of faience beads, leaned against the sides of the boat and trailed their hands in the water; their eyes flashed, painted malachite-green, and their fingers flashed, painted henna-orange. One held a bunch of lotus-buds, blue and white. Another, zealously, carried Khnumet's turquoise-encrusted sandals in her lap. The sky above was as turquoise as Khnumet's sandals, the Nile below was red.

Khnumet saw nothing of this. Where clumps of grass stood above the river, water-hens scurried and pecked; their feathers were glossy blue, their feet and beaks were purple, they looked like living toys. The servant-girls pointed them out to one another, clapping their hands with delight. But Khnumet glanced at them without interest; already, she had snared a dozen water-hens today. They were in a basket on the boat, destined to be feathered ornaments in her garden. Thus, she would laugh at her childhood and its wretched poverty.

She shrugged off her past, gloated over the present. She imagined the future. In her mind's eye, she saw a palace all her own, and she was standing by its door, welcoming many guests. Foreign princes and lords of the Hyksos, nobles and noblewomen of Egypt--the great among mankind, who would once have spurned Khnumet for the gutter-brat she was--all bowing at her feet, uttering compliments. Endless compliments. Khnumet's mouth curved. She imagined herself replying with the traditional words: "Bread and beer for all!" she would say.

Then, in her palace, she would sit surrounded by guests. Slave-girls would run back and forth, clad only in necklaces and girdles, thus rejoicing the eyes of Khnumet's male guests. There would be food, more than anyone could hope to eat. Musicians would play. Singing-girls would croon a hymn to love. Perhaps there would be an acrobat or two?

Yes, she decided, there would be acrobats.

She would not be satisfied till every guest had been sick from overeating--it was the ultimate accolade for a hostess--and then, they would begin all over again. All night long, every night, they would feast! Then all Egypt would sing the praises of Khnumet.

All this would come when she was Great Royal Wife. Soon, soon it would come, for she had been working on Methos, and was sure she had him wound round her little finger. Why, just today she had sent her women out of earshot and leaned up against the bars of his cage, talking love-talk to him, till his cheeks flushed with pain and passion. Then she had made him describe exactly how he would make love to her.

Remembering his words, now, she felt her body grow hot. The things he had said! How he would move his hands over her, how he would quiet her with his hands; his words had quieted her then, as if he touched her with his voice alone. "Don't be afraid. Your beauty is written in my eyes, your image is stamped on my heart." Listening, her mind had slowed, stopping its endless scheming. He had whispered sweet nothings--of her fingertips on his lips, his hands on her body, her mouth on his.

She had thought of Salitis. Pharaoh had been a man of the eastern deserts, before he rose to rule the Hyksos horde; he was short and stunted, his teeth rotten from a diet of dates and camel-milk, and his skin was like leather wrinkled with a myriad of deeply lined creases. Pharaoh's hands were leathery-skinned too, and he smelt like an old man . . . But Methos had smiled at her with young, young eyes; he had told her of delicate touches, his fingertips against her lips. His words had been kisses. He had spoken of her teeth nipping his fingertips, his laughter against her cheek, so that she felt, rather than heard, his mirth. He had spoken of surrender. Of his mouth gently biting her lips. Of his mouth gently biting her breast.

As he spoke, he had stretched his arm out, and before she could step back, he had brushed the back of his knuckles against her mouth and her throat and the soft fabric of her sheath, which rustled at his touch. She had almost been frightened by the suddenness of his movement. But he had told her that he would never hurt her--even as she had felt his hand shaking with the force of his desire. "Shh, shush," Methos had soothed her then. "Your body is all grace, your eyes honey, the love flows into your longed-for face."

"Go on," she had whispered. And he had spoken of everything, till she had fluttered back into his reach, and he had cupped her face with his big warm hands and made her imagine him inside her and the real world had disappeared.

But the best part had come afterward, when he had admitted something. The secret he had kept from her, was the way he could be killed.

He could be killed? Now, remembering, she felt a chill. She had been convinced that nothing could kill him; indeed, she had staked her plans on it. She meant to get a son from this man, this magician, so much stronger than Salitis. So long as Pharaoh did not suspect! A strong son, a worthy heir, was the gift every king craved. Indeed, a son born with Methos' magic powers would surely become the next Pharaoh of Egypt. She would be Queen Mother someday.

All this, she had planned.

No. Whatever it was that could kill him--a magic spell, a poisoned blade--she would find out and make her plans accordingly. Soon, soon he would yield to her, and give up all his secrets. Meanwhile she remembered his love-talk, and felt her own cheeks flush. She imagined her triumph upon bringing Methos to Pharaoh, lingering over every sweet detail, till her face became utterly blissful and the soldiers eyed her with helpless lust.

What was that?

There was the city, Tanis: a huddle of houses all mud-brick and reed, like swallows' nests daubed on a cliff. Above, the citadel shone white. Its northern edge, in the lee of the Nile, held the harbor. Fishing-birds of every shape and kind thronged in flocks on the water, and there were so many reed-skiffs coming and going that one could scarcely see the shore . . . but Khnumet rose onto her toes and peered, shading her eyes with one hand. Was that one of her slaves, her chief doorkeeper in fact? It was. He was standing in a skiff, which he had clearly commandeered; he was waving a arm, while a bemused peasant paddled him across the harbor. The peasant's wife, also wielding an oar, labored in the bow, and there--standing next to Khnumet's doorkeeper, jumping excitedly up and down--were the peasant's small sons and even smaller daughter. They had obviously been about to embark on an expedition, the whole family: out for a day, to return with fish and flowers. The doorkeeper must have leaped into their boat even as they were setting forth.

"Do you see that?" Khnumet asked her sailors. "Look, row that way, do it quickly. He must have some news." She eyed the skiff in question; many other skiffs were between it and where they were. "Important news." Then--just like the little girl in the distant skiff--she began to make small jumps, hopping with impatience. Her maidservants wrapped a linen cloth around her, held a palm-leaf shade over her head--but she shrugged them away, preoccupied. "Row faster, may Set take you!"

The chief of her archers, seeing something in her expression (for he knew her well) snatched hold of her wrist in alarm. "Great lady, don't think of--"

Khnumet uttered an oath and rounded on him, crying, "Let go, you jackal's son!" He let go, shocked--and had one glimpse of her laughing face, as she threw aside the length of linen drapery, and dove off the prow of the boat. For an instant, her white body was an arc through the air; it cut the water with scarcely a splash, and then like a true daughter of the Nile, she was swimming swiftly across the current. Stark naked. With flocks of ducks, green and white and brown, taking flight from her path in an uproar of clapping wings.

More than two dozen skiffs lay between her and her goal. They were nothing but huge bundles of reeds lashed together with hemp rope, and maneuvered very awkwardly--but she meant to go right over them. She made straight for the first, and the fishermen aboard it reached out eagerly; Khnumet slithered aboard, fended off their groping hands, and ran lightly along the vessel's length, dodging. The skiff bobbed wildly from her antics. As she sprang onto the next boat, the fishermen burst out cheering, striking their fists to their shoulders in appreciation of her boldness. From skiff to skiff she sprang. At last she made the last leap, tumbling into the same skiff as her doorkeeper, while he caught her shoulders and kept her for falling headlong.

He stammered into her ear. "Lady Khnumet, word from Pharaoh--many gifts, gold and treasure--a letter--"

"A letter? From my Salitis?" She seized hold of him. "Oh, I love you for this news! You--" to the peasant and his wife and their oars, "--take us back to the city this instant!" And the peasant hastened to obey, his eyes gleaming with cupidity.

But his dreams of avarice were thwarted. There, waiting for her, were Khnumet's litter and litter-bearers, her slave-girls, her spare guards; the instant his skiff touched home, she had leaped landward and went skimming along the docks like a kingfisher, away to her entourage. She never even noticed the peasant, who stood there with his hand stretched out, a plea for payment dying on his lips. Cheated, the peasant turned to Khnumet's doorkeeper, thrusting out his hand again; but that haughty personage merely shouldered past him, ignoring his indignant cries.

The fisherman was undeterred. Not far away, Khnumet's own ship was coming swiftly in to shore; he measured the distance with an expert glance, caught up his small daughter and dropped her onto land. She squealed with surprise--she was not even waist-high, but her limbs were sturdy and shone with oil, and her round dimpled face was all mouth and eyes--and the peasant pointed, saying, "There, sweet. Run to those soldiers, tug on their kilts and say, My father is a poor man, without even a deben to his name. Have mercy, and pay for the hire of his boat!"

Khnumet's litter and retainers were fast vanishing into the labyrinth of city streets. The little girl giggled. With the confidence of one who has been loved since birth, she set out along the dock. She was still so young that she reeled as she walked, and her cheeks were smeared with spit. She reached the ship as its sailors were just tying its mooring-line to a post, and made a beeline for the biggest of Khnumet's archers.

She arrived at his knee, held her arms up imperiously, and shrilled out her message. And because he was an Egyptian and all Egyptians loved children, he burst out in a roar of mirth, swept her into his arms and hugged her mightily, and then whirled her in a circle till she screamed out: "Turn-around-four-times!" for that was the name of a game she played every day.

All the archers were laughing. Khnumet's maidservants descended on the little girl, and kissed her and gave her coins--worth more than the whole skiff and all its contents--furthermore, they brought out the basket of water-hens and pushed it into her arms. Clutching the basket, with her fat fists full of money, she ran triumphantly back to her father. Her father embraced her. Her mother embraced her. They chanted a paean of praise for her cleverness, and the little girl, overwhelmed, screamed at the top of her lungs and ran wild among the fishermen and papyrus-cutters on the shore--repeating her message to anyone who would listen.

Because they were Egyptians, the crowd of busy peasants on the shore only patted her head indulgently. Some gave her flowers, and others pushed food into her mouth. (Back at their skiff, her parents were examining their windfall avidly; they paid no attention.) At last the little girl--her hands now filled with dates and figs and bits of bread--found herself in the dim-lit mouth of an alley. The warehouses above leaned together, almost meeting; against the brilliant sunlit shore, the shadows were deep and stark and menacing. There was a man standing in the shadows.

Confidently, she launched into her plea for payment. Halfway through, her voice faltered; she stood gasping, gazing upward, mesmerized by something she saw in the stranger's face. And Khronos leaned down toward her and said without smiling, "Off, child. Get to safety."

She ran all the way back to her mother.

#

In her house, Khnumet's slave-girls spun in dizzy circles. The floor of her reception hall was littered with palm-fronds, which had wrapped the treasure-caskets containing Pharaoh's gifts. There were over twenty caskets, along with woven reed hampers beyond number; the porters had been a long time carrying them all in. Some were very large. Some were entrancingly small, but heavy. All held treasure.

Her slave-girls ran from one wonder to the next. They uttered cries of delight, delved in the hampers and found marvels. There were lapis bracelets, scarabs of turquoise and carnelian and agate; there was a diadem of hyacinth-stones graved with adamas, and another of faience pomegranate-flowers like roses with fat orange calyxes. There were lengths of cloth so sheer, each one had taken a year to weave. More precious than any of these, there was a phoenix-skin, tanned with infinite patient skill, still keeping its feathers of glorious dawn-pink fire; it came from a flamingo, snared at the natron lakes of the eastern desert, but no one there knew that. The slave-girls gasped at the sight of it, stroked the mist-fine linen with awestruck tenderness--it was so fine, they were afraid their touch would leave marks. But when they found the jewelry, they became less shy; they pretended to set the diadems on their heads, slid their fingers into rings and held massive gold chains up against their simple bead dresses. Every one of them, in her heart, imagined herself Pharaoh's favorite.

It was happy chaos. Khnumet's soldiers and gardeners and all the men of her household looked on, and even strangers off the street had come to throng the colonnade and gawk. The slave-girls, emboldened, ran riot. They overturned an entire hamper and sent bolts of cloth striped with scarlet and gold unrolling headlong across the marble tiles. They held up cosmetic-bottles and alabaster-backed brushes, marveled over vials of perfume more precious than frankincense. When they found the casket of solid-gold sandals with thongs shaped like leaping gazelles, their joy was beyond bounds. Their screams of delight became louder at every discovery, and finally one of them had hysterics and had to be half-carried away, limp with vicarious excitement.

"We must have a feast!" the others cried. "Tomorrow at the latest! So that all the noblemen in Tanis can see Pharaoh's gifts to our lady."

The cage which held Methos, still covered by its linen shroud, sat forgotten in the corner.

Khnumet stood in the very middle of this happy scene. She was the only one who was not rejoicing. Clutched in her hands, stained with Nile mud from the grip of her fingers, was a papyrus scroll. Hapi her scribe had already read it to her, in a secluded corner. No one had been allowed to overhear. Her women darted nervous glances at her, but no one dared ask anything; her expression was too grim.

Whatever it was, it had not been a love-letter.

#

Night fell.

Sleeping Tanis lay pitch-black upon the Nile. Here and there in the city, a light glimmered--the smoky sputter from cheap oil-lamps, spilling out of a tavern doorway; the clearer blue-green of more expensive olive oil, burning in some upper chamber. On the wide avenue running through the noble quarter, a late-night procession staggered drunkenly along, torches wavering. Elsewhere, a great lady's litter proceeded homeward from an assignation; the lady hung retching over the side of her conveyance (for she had drunk seventeen jars of beer that night) and the litter itself pitched like a ship on the sea, for her bearers had been celebrating too. In the temple of Re, priests chanted. In their rooftop nests, hoopoe-birds stirred and uttered their sleepy poom-poom-poom calls; somewhere beyond the edges of the city, jackals gave cry like discontented children.

Tonight, the scribe Hapi was drinking in the lower town.

He sat lolling on a tavern bench, surrounded by a riotous circle of newfound friends. They were guzzling barley beer--beer as thick and red and strong as the Nile mud, full of bits of fermented bread. It was the most formidable of beers, for it was hek beer, spiced with mandrake. Hapi and his hek-besotted cronies raised a cup to Pharaoh--may he live forever!--and toasted every god known in the Black Land: the Hermopolitan ogdoad, the Helipolitan ennead, several borrowed Kushite deities and (for safety's sake) the unknown gods of the Hyksos. The beer-jug passed freely among them. They discussed the latest political news, and made drunken wagers on the possibilities of a spring campaign into Upper Egypt. In lowered tones, they spread a few spicy stories about the military governor Khronos--a man so uncanny, he was certainly supernatural.

"He's a spirit. Did you know, even his own men call him 'the Seth-one'? They say he transforms himself into a jackal every night, runs grinning through the alleys of Tanis--"

"He's a demon! Straight from the underworld. Perhaps the Devourer of Souls, or Turn-face the ferryman himself. Invulnerable, proof against weapons--no ten men can best him--"

"No, he's an ushabti. One of the servants of the dead, walking in the world of the living--"

"As I love life and hate death! He's none of these things. I know what he is. He is one of the akhu."

"A dead soul?"

"Yes, I tell you, he is an akh! Look, I've been talking to the Hyksos soldiers. They tell a tale of Salitis--"

Everyone leaned closer, intrigued. All except one man, heavily cloaked, who sat alone in the darkest corner of the tavern; he only smiled into his beer, for (naturally) he was Khronos.

The man who thought Khronos was an akh spat on the tavern floor. "--Salitis our new Pharaoh, blessed be his name. Seems he was a donkey-tender once, in the employ of the Hatti. It was Salitis who cut fodder for the cattle who drew the provision-carts, who led the chariot-horses to water. Then while he was out pasturing the army's asses, he found a cave--a tomb--and in this hidden tomb, a man sitting upright, with a sword in his fist!" The audience gasped superstitiously. "It was a dead man, bloodless as beeswax," the storyteller went on, enjoying the sensation he had caused. "Across his face--a hideous gash!" With a quick gesture, he drew a finger straight across one eye. "Just like Lord Khronos. Salitis--may he live forever--knew just what to do. He put his hand over the corpse's fist. The corpse roused to life! And with its help, he has conquered all Egypt. Its name? It is Khronos."

"Hah!" said Hapi loudly, slapping his hand on the table. "Forget these second-hand tales of akhu and demons. I've seen Khronos, he is no more than any other man. He is nothing beside my mistress. What do you make of her, then--the female magician, worker of marvels!"

A babble rose. "So it's true?--you've been there when she works her magic?--you've seen it yourself?"

"Look, I have certainly seen it, and so has everyone in her house. She has some poor wretch imprisoned in a cage, a Sand Dweller from the eastern desert. Just today, a letter from Pharaoh's own vizier came, ordering her to bring this man to Avaris and demonstrate her arts upon him. Such power she has! She can cut him with a knife and he is not hurt, she can stab him with a needle and no mark remains. It's a miracle!"

An ironic voice spoke from the furthest corner, a voice which struck Hapi as strange--because it was not blurred with drunkenness, and because it was familiar. Indeed, he sat up straighter, almost recognizing it . . . but he was too sodden with beer to pay attention. "Perhaps the magic is in the Sand Dweller, not your mistress."

Hapi wheezed with indignation. "What nonsense! I tell you, she's a magician, with powers that come straight from Hathor!"

Soon afterward, he paid off the tavern-wife and staggered out of doors. Egypt seemed to revolve around him, in dizzy circles of river and sand: the Red Land and the Black Land and for all he knew, the Great Green in which floated Crete and all the islands of the sea. Hapi doubled over and was sick in the street, with mud squelching juicily between his toes. He crouched there till his head stopped ringing, and then--with a grin and a groan--lurched to his feet and reeled away, steering a foggy course toward his mistress' town-house.

When another man stepped through the tavern doors, glanced around, and began to walk steadily after him, Hapi did not notice.

When he took a wrong turn and wove his way hazily into a back-alley, Hapi was too light-headed to see the error.

When a pack of his fellow Egyptians materialized out of the darkness and leaped upon him like starving jackals, Hapi went down as if a thunderbolt had hit him.

He retched again, with sour beer-dregs running out of his mouth; one of the footpads had hit him hard in the belly. Hapi grunted deep and low when another one dropped with both knees on his ribs, bearing down with all the force of the impact. A third loomed over him, grinning widely, and sank a fist into Hapi's side--just over the kidneys. Hapi choked on a scream and rolled helplessly in the mud.

Long ago, as a foolish scribe-student, he had broken a rib during a wrestling match; he felt the same tearing agony now. Dimly, he was aware of the thieves closing in. Their hands pawed at him, groping for concealed coins. Hapi flung out a arm, flailing at random, and managed to shout for help. They scattered back--startled vultures, frightened by their prey's death-throes--then laughed and came right back.

No one answered Hapi's weak cry.

In the midnight alley, he lay sprawled and let them take everything he had. They were brazen enough to light a torch, so as not to miss anything. Nor did they: even the copper ring on his finger, with its cheap turquoise scarab, was pried off. Even his striped linen kilt was taken! He had to suffer it all. And when they were done, disappointed at their spoils, the thieves turned on him in a rage and began to kick in his ribs and skull.

Then he heard the note of their voices change.

Hapi managed to turn his head slightly, and beheld an astonishing thing. The thieves who had been growling over him were now moving in on new prey, a fresh arrival, a lone man. An unarmed man. Evidently, a madman--for he was not running away. All he did was toss his heavy cloak aside; he took two steps, set his back against a wall, and beckoned slightly. He was inviting them to attack.

Hapi's sight seemed to haze, images looming starkly and then blurring into nonsense. The thieves had surrounded the man standing against the wall. One of them was still holding the torch, swinging it like a club; shadows fled across the surrounding hovels, highlights glimmered brightly on little rivulets of water running along the ground. Where the pools of mud lay undisturbed, the firelight was a wash of ochre red. Like liquid paint. Light gleamed on the shaven pates and brawny, oiled limbs of the footpads. Light glowed on their clenched fists: gnarled fists, thick-jointed, with scarred, stained knuckles.

Hapi groaned weakly, felt a tear roll down his muddy cheek. The thieves had knives; he could see the torchlight glinting on the bronze blades. They had merely disdained to use them on Hapi. He was about to witness a murder. Then, when they finished with their new plaything, his turn would come again.

Then Hapi blinked. The newcomer ought to be dead already, but he wasn't. The thieves were scrambling, their fists jabbing, their knives swinging. They yelled. They shouted abuse. They skidded, they shoved. They darted here and there like the buzzing fly, the epitome of a soldier's skill. Why weren't they swarming over their prey, busy as flies?

Their opponent swerved among them with long smooth strides, and he wheeled and he spun and he halted, stepped sideways, leaned aside miraculously from their blows. As he did, he lashed out casually with his elbows, his feet, his fists. Every time he did, one of the thieves went down. He seemed to move without haste, slow compared to the frantic men around him--except that they could not touch him, while he struck them down at will.

His skin was glossy with sweat, rippling with muscle--fluid as the pelt of a great cat. His face was calm, lost in a private reverie. Barely deigning to take notice of his attackers. Smiling slightly, as if at a joke no one else would ever share. Across one eye, a black stripe ran. He turned without haste, taking two attackers by the napes of their necks and slamming their heads together; and the light ran up his body as if it loved him.

When the thieves rushed at him, he swerved out of their way, and they would collide and fall cursing to the ground. They sliced out with their knives, but he was never there to be cut. One of them leaped at him from behind; he stopped dead in his tracks, glanced back and brought up one fist, and the thief ran face-first into his fist and dropped like a stone. They charged into walls, and fell. They tried to come at him from all sides, but somehow he was always out of reach. You could almost believe that he was alone--pitting himself against a foe no more dangerous than a swarm of flies.

When the last thief dropped and the man leaned forward gracefully, one hand lifted, and caught his victim's falling torch in midair--then, the illusion was complete. His face did not change at all. He turned and came to Hapi with long unhurried strides, breathing deeply but otherwise unruffled; and Hapi blurted out without thinking, "You were alone there--"

"I always have been," said the stranger; and the light from the torch fell clearly on his face.

"The Hyksos!" Hapi blurted out. "You're that man--Khronos--"

"Yes," said Khronos. He added, "And you're dying." His voice was matter-of-fact; he touched a spot below Hapi's ribs, and a blaze of pain struck Hapi like summer lightning. Hapi doubled up and began to wheeze in shock. "You're dying," the man Khronos repeated calmly. "Someone stabbed you. You won't last long, my friend."

"May my ka and ba and akh endure," Hapi managed to say. "If you feel pity--take my corpse to my mistress--to Lady Khnumet's house--" He broke off, wheezing again. "She'll--see that I receive--decent burial--"

"I will," said Khronos. "But first you must do something for me." He leaned very close, his hand closing over Hapi's limp hand. "Or else you will rot here in this alley, and your souls will not survive." There was a spell in his voice, a mysterious commanding tone. His eyes narrowed, seemed to shine, became devouring; Hapi stared into them in a daze. "Tell me what message Pharaoh sent to Khnumet."

What else could Hapi do? With his hand clasped in Khronos', he told Khronos everything he knew.

When he was finished, he felt his fingers loosen and slip out of the other man's hold; he lay back, resigned, and began to whisper the words of a prayer. Surely death was very close to him by now. Above him, Khronos murmured, "Strange, how they fear death more than any other fate. Well, now." Hapi's savior stood up, shrugging indifferently. "If ever I want to reign by terror, I shall come as the face of death and war," he added. "And I hear the city watch coming . . . By the way, I lied: no one stabbed you. Lie abed a day or two, and you'll feel much better. But I advise you not to tell your mistress that you betrayed her."

He walked away. Hapi stared blankly after him. Then he sat up, felt under his ribs for knife-wounds, and found nothing--and he was still cursing when the watchmen found him.

#

Khronos strolled home. There, he found his garrison of soldiers peacefully sleeping, and his harem of women too. All except his Berber favorite, who waited seething in his bed. She smouldered at him, when he lit the lamp, and when he came to bed, she tried to stab him with a purloined knife. "No man is unfaithful to me!" she screamed, "who were you with tonight?" and he took the knife away, pinned her to the bed, and proved her wrong till she lay limp and purring in his arms. "I see I was mistaken," she mumbled into his ear, "my man, my man, my good strong man--for not even a god could do all that twice in one night--"

Khronos propped himself up on one elbow and regarded her. "You think?" he said.

She cried out happily as he fell upon her.

Much later, contented with his night's work, he went to sleep. The Berber slept, smiling; Hapi slept too, far away, having dragged his aching bones home and crawled into a corner like a whipped cur; all Tanis slept. Only Methos and Khnumet were awake.

Methos lay on his back in the cage, still as death, open-eyed. He felt as if he had been drinking a wine too strong, he felt as if he had inhaled poppy-fumes; Khnumet had just been with him. Now he was unable to sleep. Khnumet had a letter from Pharaoh, that much he knew. After the scribe had read it to her, she had been distraught. What had the letter said?

Khnumet was walking up and down in the garden, with her chief archer's white cat in her arms. Doubts preyed upon her, and though she knew that her face was haggard with weariness and there were blue eggshell-stains under her eyes, still she could find no rest. Her servants would cluck over her in the morning. Still, she walked through her silent house, rocking the white cat. Fear fluttered in her heart. Doubt lay upon her, a heavy shadow. Why did she feel these things?

She had been with Methos: flushed and glowing, her hair disheveled, clutching the bars of his cage, while she whispered hot words of seduction. Irresistible as Hathor herself. "Don't be afraid," she had assured him. "Your image is stamped on my heart, your love is engraved on my soul . . ." Then she had turned the tables on him and described exactly how she would make love to him. Oh, she had spoken of tickling caresses, of her hair falling on his shoulders as they kissed--of touching him all over, delicate touches which skimmed the skin, till he had groaned to hear it. Then she had described how his hands would caress her breasts, smooth every curve of her hips and belly, and squeeze and pinch and explore. Till she would cry out with surrender, and even as she cried out, he would pierce her to the core. "And your member will be all fire, my body like melting honey. Love will flow into my heart for you." She had spoken huskily, low into his ear. "Then . . . then . . . then . . . oh, sweet Methos, cover my face with your big warm hands, make me go where you are inside me. Until I disappear."

And then--then--then, he had given in to her wiles. He had told her his secret: the way he could be killed.

Why did she feel sick now? Why did she feel cold and small and ashamed?

She cuddled the cat, and the cat purred. She muttered to the cat, toying with its turquoise-studded collar; the stones were cheap and the brass beads strung from them were discolored, but this collar was an exact match for the collar round Methos' neck. (Why did she think of that now?)

Clutched in one hand, she held the papyrus scroll of her letter from Pharaoh. Though she could not read it herself, every word in it was branded on her memory. Her eyes were tight-shut; tears of humiliated pride leaked through. All her ambitions, all her wild dreams of conquering Salitis . . . but it had not been a love-letter. Khnumet moaned softly, throttling the white cat. Then she cried out and opened her arms, and the cat (it had lost its patience) leaped away snarling, raking her with its claws as it did. She cursed, with bleeding scratches on her shoulder and breast; but she was too distracted to see the omen.

The letter had read:

The fanbearer on the right hand of the king, the royal scribe, the city governor of Avaris, the vizier It-nefer speaks to the woman Khnumet to the following effect: This letter has been brought to you to say, Please may you be extremely diligent in executing the commission dictated by Pharaoh, may he live forever.

Furthermore: I have spoken to One at length, discussing the situation with him. Another communication on this matter, to the effect that you are instructed to guard the prisoner without fail. Now, I myself have told all listeners about your claims and my word has been heard in connection with this discovery: when the man is presented before Pharaoh, there must be no disgrace to me. Do not allow yourself to be reproached! Another communication on this matter, to the effect that One is anxious to see the miracle you describe. We have told him the story of Cheops and the magicians, of the magician Dede who killed first a goose, next a duck and finally an ox, cutting off their heads and reattaching them afterward. All three animals returned to life, that much is known: the goose honked, the duck quacked and the ox lowed. It is proof that your claims might be true.

One says: I do not believe it, let me see this wonder. Cut off his head, reattach it and show me how he lives, and then I will believe. So when you arrive in Avaris, bring the prisoner directly to me, It-nefer, and I will take him at once to Pharaoh. May he live forever!

Why did she feel as if Methos was free, but she was inside the cage looking out?











Part Three





Safe behind cage bars, Methos dreamed of his youth.

The longer an immortal lived, the more memories he gleaned--like pebbles that fell into the hand, but more precious than turquoises. Images of men and women beloved, and children long since in the grave. Lost homes, ruined cities, vanished glories. Walls of memory, labyrinths of the mind. Treasures of bejeweled thought. The gathered recollections of a single mortal lifetime could leave a mortal completely enthralled by the past; after five or six such lifetimes, what then? And the memories of immortals were powerful--much more vivid than those of mortal men.

Five or six mortal lifetimes was a good age for an immortal, in those days. Even for them, life was nasty, brutal and short. (Though he did not know it, Khronos was already among the oldest of his kind.) As for Methos, he had lived longer than any other immortal he had ever met. Sometimes he thought of his years as a pyramid, beneath which his soul lay buried. Crushed beneath the sheer weight of time. How could he live wholly in the present, when the past weighed so heavily? How would things be for him, if he survived as long again? If he lived long enough, would he eventually forget--till his most distant memories were entirely gone?

There were compensations. The world barely changed, though the centuries mounted. The trades remained the same--soldier or sailor, farmer or merchant, smith or scribe, Methos had been them all--and the way things were done was almost the same as it had been when Methos was young. He had done it all, so many times that he could step into any role without blinking. He could earn his way at any trade. He had fought with every kind of weapon, against every conceivable adversary, so many times that he could almost do it with his eyes closed. Nothing could surprise him anymore.

There were drawbacks, too.

Boredom was the enemy he faced most often, now. When he talked with mortals, their conversation blurred into endless repetition; too often, he found himself walking through his days half in a dream, unable to blink himself awake. Why did he bother, anyway? The world was dull, dull. There was nothing new under the sun. The fire in his heart had banked to cold ashes long ago. Only when he found someone to challenge him, to rouse him, to surprise him and make him care--only then, did Methos come fully to life.

Such a one was Khnumet; such had been his wives, his lovers and friends. Sometimes it was a mortal, sometimes an immortal. Usually a mortal; immortals were simply too dangerous to love. Usually, it was a beautiful mortal woman. Then Methos would rouse from his long boredom, find himself caring vividly for another--passionately seizing the day, his fire rekindled. Till whoever-it-was died--for they always, always died--and he was alone again.

Staying alive was like endlessly falling in love.

But still, there were small pleasures in life. Fine days were among them--like this very day, when Khnumet's bearers had carried his cage outside and set it down in the shade of a persea tree. Now he lay sprawled on his blanket, breathing in the scent of flowers, of wind and water. From the villa behind him came the clamor of the kitchen--the cooks butchering a cow, servants singing as they kneaded the dough for bread and beer, and other servants making the mortars ring as they pounded salt and pepper--for there would be a feast tonight. Khnumet's gardener was busy by the pool, dipping up water for the flowers, while his tame monkey chattered on his shoulder. Khnumet's archers leaned against the garden wall, yawning behind their hands. A long line of male servants came and went, toting great armfuls of fresh-cut flowers, baskets of henna-boughs and even small trees in pots--filling the villa with blossom, after the Egyptian custom. A pair of Khnumet's Kushite slave-girls joked cheekily as they bustled around their mistress . . . but Methos barely saw any of this, for there was Khnumet herself, perched on a folding stool, letting herself be made-up for that evening's dinner-party.

He watched her idly, listening to the slave-girls babble. "My lady, don't pull your hand away--don't twitch, don't fidget--you have to sit still, or how can I put the henna-paste on?"

"Shhh! Lady Khnumet is thinking of Pharaoh."

"Oh, she doesn't even hear me, do you, my lady? There--all done. Naunakht, where did the linen go? Just let me wind it round her fingers till the henna sets--" While they fussed, Khnumet sat leaning forward; she was gazing at her own reflection in the limpid surface of the pool, her mouth drooping dolefully.

"She looks particularly fine today."

"She's lovely! And we will make her even better. I can hardly wait for tonight's dinner party, they won't be able to take their eyes off her . . . why, she does us such credit, Meri! I'm so proud."

"Everyone will say, Lady Khnumet has such clever maids." And both of the slave-girls dissolved into giggles; neither one was more than fourteen years old.

"Turn your head, my lady. Let me paint your eyes."

"My turn to do her mouth."

"I'll mix some more lamp-soot and rose-oil."

"Let's put gold paint on her eyelids again."

"Oh! How beautiful!"

The soft curve of her cheek could bring a man to tears. While Meri cooed over her face-paint, Naunakht deftly separated her hair and wound it in curls, binding them with fine wires of pure gold; the sight ravished Methos completely. Against the snaky black ringlets, the curves of Khnumet's throat and shoulders left him breathless. And he had never seen such long eyelashes on any woman. She squirmed like a little girl under the loving ministrations of her slaves, and tugged on the linen napkin that protected her garment. "What good does beauty do me?" she suddenly cried. "I wish I was as ugly as a hippopotamus!" And Methos had to close his eyes or burst out laughing: he thought her utterly perfect.

The slave-girls, all soft reproof, stroked Khnumet's hands and unwound the linen bandages. There were spirals of red-orange henna round her fingers, and each nail was henna-dyed too. "See how rosy your fingernails are," they crooned, "see how lovely you look--oh, if only Pharaoh could see you now--may he live forever! he'd think himself already among the gods!"

But she sat with her eyes brimming with crystal tears, lost in some momentous private tragedy, while they tried every way they could to cheer her gloom. Meri flung herself down at Khnumet's feet, kissed the palms of her hands and began to chant the names of all the men who adored her: the list went on and on. Meanwhile, Naunakht ran to fetch her little harp. Arranging herself charmingly, framed by flowers, she strummed the harp and sang a diverting song. ". . . love is as sweet and dear as honey, love is as fragile as the honeybee. Sister of my heart, be kind to love! When the bee comes to you when winter is cold, treat it kindly! Fondle it in your hand, breath on it to make it warm; do not close your fingers tight. Let it fly away free. When Hathor made the bee, she made it with a sting in the tail--this was for a good reason. So never kill it, even if it stings you. For love will sting you if you try to close your hand on it . . . but if it does sting, you are only a little hurt; it is only love that dies."

Meri smiled in agreement: "Listen to Naunakht, my lady. In the mountains beyond the Second Cataract, where I was raised, we tell a legend of the honeybee. Nothing in the world is sweeter-natured, that is how they can make honey." She began to parade up and down, waggling her elbows to mimic wings; in her yellow-and-brown-striped sheath, she made a charming bee. The gardener leered, forgetting his work; the archers grinned and nudged one another. The male servants paused, baskets of flowers balanced on their shoulders. They all shouted applause when she stuck her stiffened fingers straight out behind her, in the shape of a bee's stinger. "That's why bees belong to the goddess of love. Every bee is the soul of a man in love, my grandmother used to tell me. Why," Meri crooned, jabbing with her fingers, "they are so sweet-natured that once, the king of the bees made petition to Hathor: 'The people eat the food of my sons: Mistress of Turquoise, I fear for them. Just grant it that if we sting anyone, let us die.'" Then she whispered loudly behind her hand: "Because the bee is a little bit stupid--just like a man in love!"

But Khnumet rose, clapping her hands angrily. "That's enough! You two aren't amusing anymore, if you ever were--out of here, all of you! Leave me alone. I want to talk with Methos for a while."

The slave-girls pouted. But they ran inside, throwing kisses to the gardener's monkey. The male servants hustled after them, and the gardener abased himself in Khnumet's direction and vanished behind the grape-trellises in the furthermost corner of the garden. Khnumet waved her guards furiously off, too: "I said, all of you. Go watch from without the walls, do you think he can leap through the bars?" She pointed at Methos, safely penned up in his cage. "Away! I order it." Then she stood with her arms crossed, tapping one foot, till they filed reluctantly out of sight.

When they were all gone, she fell to pacing. She prowled up and down by the pool, scowling sometimes at the gardener's monkey, which hung upside-down in a sycamore fig and made sympathetic faces. Methos yawned and rolled over, totally relaxed in the warmth of the sun. Khnumet watched him like a hawk.

How beautiful she was! Methos gazed at her with admiration. She wore the simplest of white linen sheaths; close-fitting, it covered her from her ankles to just below her breasts, and was held up with a pair of plain straps. Later, she would be gowned as befitted a royal concubine--with shimmering colors, silver and gold set with faience, and a garland and crown of flowers--but even now, she was the image of a great lady of Egypt. She had picked a long-stemmed lotus, and cradled it in her hands; behind her were the red-painted walls of her villa, with papyrus-shaped columns, with the vivid blue slash of the roof. Her slaves had extended her eyes with long enigmatic lines, they had given her a mouth like a scarlet flower. Her hair hung in a hundred ringlets bound with gold. In the turn of her face, in the graceful curve of the lotus-stem, were all of the Black Land, personified.

"That slave-girl," she said. "You were smiling at her. Weren't you?"

"Who?" asked Methos, bemused.

"I'll send her away," Khnumet threatened. "Sell her to a fisherman." Her hennaed fingers fretted on the stem of the lotus--patting and plucking at it, punishing it.

"Khnumet, what's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong! How could it be--when Pharaoh has sent me such wonderful gifts? Such honor he's shown me! No other man--" Suddenly she caught hold of one of the bronze bars of his cage, gripped it till her knuckles showed white. She spoke rapidly, reproachfully: "All I do, is to help you. But you've never trusted me. You say this thing and that, and perhaps it is all just lies-- I don't see how you can say you'll do anything for me and then tell me lies."

She stood against the bars of the cage. Methos lay sprawled at her feet, lazily, one arm outflung; his head was turned, his cheek was pillowed on his long unbrushed hair. The turquoise-inlaid collar of his bondage glittered in a stray shaft of sunlight, glittered like butterfly-wings.

"What I told you was the truth," he said slowly.

"Was it?"

"Yes, it was. You know, now, how I can be killed--but I trust you, Khnumet." He sat up and looked thoughtfully at her. "Why these wild fears? Ah. Pharaoh sent you a letter with his gifts. What was in it?"

"Oh, that doesn't matter! You don't understand! I don't know why I waste my time on you. You're only a barbarian, and matters of policy are strange to you. Just remember--you're in a cage, and I'm free." The lotus-stem hung mangled in her grasp; she was now pulling at the petals of the flower. "Things are done differently at court. I have many rivals. The vizier especially is no friend of mine. That's because he's an eunuch, so he doesn't understand what love is. He doesn't sympathize with a man's need to love a woman." Petals fluttered, falling from her shredding fingers. "Ever since I lost my dear first husband, I've felt so alone." Then she brightened. "I know. I'll write him a letter."

Methos blinked. "I thought you told me your first husband was dead?"

But she tossed her lotus aside, ran to fetch writing-materials--Hapi had left his brushes and ink by the coping of the pool--and carried them to Methos. There was a glazed-clay bowl which had held sweetmeats, abandoned empty near her stool; she snatched that up too, thrust it through the bars of the cage. When the letter was painted on this bowl, it would do very well to offer funerary foods in, at her dead husband's tomb. Then the shade of her first husband, Ka-Rhames the vizier, would read her message and help her.

Methos arranged himself cross-legged on his simple blanket. He ground ink and mixed it with water, and dipped a brush in. And he smiled crookedly down at the offering-bowl--thinking how he loved Khumet; how boredom was banished, when she was there.

The monkey pointed a long simian finger at him, and chattered with mirth. Clucking disgustedly, Khnumet shooed it away; she scarcely noticed Methos' expression. She began to dictate. "A greeting to Ka-Rhames in the West, from the sister of his heart. To the effect that: I tell all the gods of heaven and earth to give you joy in the Land of Grass. My husband, live forever. Look, I am writing to you now in great distress, for I am surrounded by enemies, I need your help. Every step I take is upon snares and traps. Even my servants betray me, thinking only of their own sensual pleasures. I am like a prisoner. You must help me."

Methos' brush hurried over the surface of the offering bowl, drawing hieroglyph after hieroglyph. As he worked, he studied her, frowning slightly. There was something feverish about her words; it seemed as if she was trying to convince herself of something, but he could not decide quite what.

"Furthermore: remember how you always loved me, and said many times I was your sweetheart, your little basket of figs. I was always faithful, I laid down with you in delight. Many times, I made you laugh. You were old, but I gave you renewal of virility when no other could rouse you; look now, you said yourself, that you thought you were past the age for enjoyment of women. All this, I did. Not a single day passed that I did not make you happy. Now look, look--I am only a simple woman of low birth, but I have a great gift--indeed, it is the greatest of gifts--and that is to bring happiness to the man I love."

She paused, drew in a deep, aching breath.

"There is a man who says he loves me," she said, "but look, I think he keeps things from me. Nothing comes to me but lies and arguments." With a sharp glance at Methos: "Ka-Rhames, speak in his ear: I cannot make him hear me. Describe the many pleasures I can give him. Make him trust me. Furthermore: carry my complaints about him even to the Lords of Eternity. Perhaps he will listen to them, though he does not hear me. Furthermore: make him dream that his bed is burning, then he will see the error of his ways. Do it immediately! It is the right thing! Then I can make him happy, and he will thank all the gods and think himself blessed--"

Methos stopped writing. Deliberately, he set the brush and ink-bowl aside. He held the offering-bowl out to her: its surface was covered with hieroglyphs, inside and out. "You're free," he murmured, "I'm caged. And you own a dozen soldiers, who could cut off my head for you. Then, Khnumet, I would die forever. Why would I tell you that, if not to prove my trust in you?"

Their hands met on the rim of the bowl.

"It was Pharaoh I first wanted to sway," she whispered, "to keep you near me. And this is my repayment!" Her hand opened, the bowl fell. It struck the ground and shattered. Khnumet cast him an anguished glance, and turned and walked away toward her house.

He was left behind, with one hand still reaching through the bars. There on the ground lay the throttled lotus; there lay the fragments of the bowl, spurned by her heel. Up from the scattered pieces looked the pretty pictures he had painted, which were words: basket of figs, the sign for 'wife', and many pleasures; and live forever and Lords of Eternity and finally, bitterly: help me.

Suddenly he felt ice-cold. He knew what had struck him as odd: it was as if she wanted to believe he had lied.

#

By early evening, the monkey belonging to Khnumet's gardener had been washed and brushed, and sat in a row with several other monkeys, all of them exceedingly fluffy. They had been trained to perform simple tasks, and in harvest season would climb trees and pick figs for their master--not without filling their own mouths as they did, though! Now they held torches, to light Khnumet's guests to her door. Never mind that it was long before nightfall; this was a matter of fashion, and trained monkeys were fashionable. Above them wavered a line of flames: some high, some low, and some which dipped dangerously forward and menaced the sheer linen gowns of the ladies.

All the noblemen and noblewomen of Tanis had come. They had come very early, because tonight was an inauspicious night and the feast would end before darkness fell; but they had come, every one. Their litters thronged the street outside Khnumet's gate, and the very wealthy had arrived in that newfangled novelty, the chariot of their conquerors. These chariots, though, would never have been mistaken for war-vessels; these chariots were utterly unlike the one Khronos had given Khnumet. They were gaudy with gilt, lotus-blossoms entwined through their light wicker frameworks, and the names of many gods were painted upon their fashionably large wheels. The chariot-horses wore lion-skins on their withers, and ostrich-plumes on their headstalls. As for the riders, they carried pet cats and ichneumons and even tame geese in their arms. Slender-waisted hounds ran behind them, wagging their tails. The Egyptians loved animals of every kind.

Guests passed in a rustling, scented crowd through Khnumet's garden, into her house. Hundreds of them, there were. Everyone who entered was given a garland, a lotus-blossom to hold and sniff in a refined fashion, and another lotus to wear like a hat if they wanted. And a cone of scented wax, to crown the tops of their bewigged heads. Within, the male servants staggered back and forth, carrying entire tables groaning with food. As soon as a table neared emptiness, it was whisked away and another brought to replace it.

There were loaves of bread beyond counting: every shape and color and kind of loaf. There were joints of meat, baskets of figs, platters heaped with pyramids of grapes and ornamental jars nodding with golden plumes of grain. The wine-jars and beer-jugs, ranged under every table, were more in number than the soldiers of an army.

The guests fell upon these offerings like a plague of locusts. Eating, drinking, they circulated through the villa and admired everything they saw. They were agog with curiosity, overwhelmingly eager to see Pharaoh's bounty. There it was! The slaves had spread it out in all its glory: the hampers overturned and used to display their contents, all a-drip with gold and silver; the lengths of precious fabric draped carelessly, more vivid than the most colorful flowers; the cosmetic-boxes, the perfume-vials, the diadems, the jewels. Khnumet's archers, their bows drawn, stood flanking all this glory. Her Kushite gatekeepers were there too, hefting formidable clubs.

In the midst of it all, framed by the blaze of gold--as if this, too, was part of the treasure--was the cage which held Methos.

Like every other furnishing of the house, he had been decorated for this night. Khnumet's servants had ventured into the cage (while the guards watched unblinkingly) and strewed rose-petals thickly across the floor beneath his feet. They had flung bolts of bright fabric over the edges of the cage, and let the colored cloth cascade down like flooding rainbows. As for Methos, they had washed him, perfumed him, oiled his limbs till his flesh shone like polished ivory, and they had wound ropes of ivy through his long hair. Then they had taken away his old fetters, and brought new ones of gold-washed bronze.

There were manacles for his wrists, and a chain to go round his throat. The chain was thick, heavy-linked, trailing several cubits across the ground; it gleamed like a serpent, falling in smooth coils. It was meant to paralyze by sheer force of weight. Methos wore it as if it was less than shadows and air. The green leaves of the ivy echoed the green shade of his eyes, the glint of the chains was like the glint of the lamp-flame beneath his eyelids. Arms crossed, he leaned against the far wall of the cage and looked out.

The beautiful people of Tanis were there for his entertainment. He watched them the way that they gazed at Pharaoh's gifts, with the same pleasure; he had always liked the happy people of Egypt. Egyptians were carefree--they always had been--innocently proud of their divine Pharaohs and the wealth of their land, delighted with strong beer and good food, and always ready with a quip or a practical joke. Fond of babies, of games and animals. They loved life, did the Egyptians. These lords and ladies had smiles on their lips, sparkles in their eyes, as they savored their feast. They would drink themselves blind today, eat themselves sick, and regret nothing; they enjoyed life with gusto, grabbed at it like greedy children. As did the slave-girls rushing back and forth with garlands, and the servants stealing wine-jugs from under the tables, and the pet cats underfoot, wrestling with the pet geese. Methos' glance wandered over them, over the trio of hired singers seated against the wall, over lords and ladies and wealthy merchants and exotic foreigners, and lovely women who were nothing beside his Khnumet, and the guards standing vigilant watch over the treasure . . . and the other immortal, who had just appeared.

The other immortal. The one who stalked. He was in full array of armor, a chain of golden flies round his neck; this last was the highest of military honors. The happy Egyptians with their fluting voices fell silent, a ripple of unease passing over them, as they saw one of their conquerors among them. Then they all began to talk again, more loudly, hurriedly. They were frightened, every one. It was as if they knew Khronos, without knowing how they knew, for something foreign to their kind.

Hapi, in the alley at midnight, had looked at Khronos and thought of a great hunting cat. Methos, now, looked upon him and thought of a tiger, prowling out of the green reeds, with eyes as hot and hungry as the sun. Such a creature could smash a wild bull's back with one blow of its paw, tear out its throat with a bite, drag it away like a rag doll to devour without malice; when it roared out its challenge, all who heard were seized with fear. Such a creature knew no enemy save others like itself.

But there were no tigers left in the Delta, Egypt had been civilized too long. No native Egyptian knew how to recognize one. The Egyptians at Khnumet's feast were frightened like children playing in a garden, who are reminded suddenly of the jungle.

Methos, however, was unafraid. This Hyksos was no more to him than a hundred other immortals; many of them had been better fighters than Methos. They had all been very confident. They were all dead.

Finally the other man turned. His gaze met Methos'. Khronos smiled, baring his teeth; he stepped forward and the nervous Egyptians flocked aside like skittish gazelles. The other immortal advanced like the conqueror he was. At the last moment he halted and made a pretense of admiring Pharaoh's gifts--as if his whole attention was not fixed on Methos, displayed in the midst of glittering treasure. He seemed amused as he stroked his finger along the curve of a diadem's rim, fondled a length of cobweb-soft linen. No one spoke to him. No one dared. Softly, almost to himself, he said, "Why are you still hiding in that cage? Bars and guards won't keep me out."

Methos replied just as quietly, "What, will you come through them to get me?"

"Here and now?" Again, the man bared his teeth. "You're backed into a corner. Unarmed, too--aren't you? Perhaps you thought yourself safe, surrounded by mortals." His hand closed on the bars, rattling them contemptuously. "How did you allow yourself to be shut in this?"

"What makes you think I had a choice?"

"There's always a choice, for our kind."

"No," said Methos. He shook his head. "No. Hear me out--I speak with the wisdom of my years here . . . And I think I am many centuries older than you."

The Hyksos seemed to hesitate. He moved slightly away, twisting the gold scarab ring on his finger. The two men watched each other. Unspoken questions were in their eyes--hazel eyes flecked with green, meeting green eyes flecked with hazel.

"You thought," Methos said, "when you were young, that our kind could do anything. We all think that. But the truth is like swordplay. When we're young and full of ourselves, we all think we can do everything with our swords . . . But as our skills increase, as we master our weapons, the way we can fight grows narrower. Till in the end, the only choices we can make are those which ensure our survival."

Khronos started. His expression was a strange one, almost of recognition and yearning. Slowly, as if completing a thought, he said, "Yes--we think we're sailing against the tide--but the tide is time itself, and no matter how we strive, in the end the tide washes us back to our beginnings--" Then he blinked, and his face hardened. "And what are your choices, then, old one? What's your secret?"

What Methos felt was equally strange: an answering recognition, a shock of regret. This one can think. A shame we must be enemies. Why do all the promising ones have to die? He found himself speaking truthfully. "Love. What else matters, if a man will survive?"

"Love?" Khronos stared. Then he threw back his head and let out a roar of laughter. "You must be joking. There is no love for us. There is only the sword."

"And what gives us the fire to keep fighting," asked Methos, "except love?"

"What?"

"Lord Khronos!" It was Khnumet's voice, jarringly loud; she had been watching from across the room, and now she thrust herself between the two immortals, extending a blue faience cup. In the cup was date wine, thick and sweet and heady. "Drink, Lord Khronos!" she commanded, very much the queenly hostess. "I see you talking to my slave--such solemness is a crime, at times like this. Soon you'll see me in royal Avaris, next to Salitis on a throne--may Pharaoh live forever. Drink to me, and the goddess I serve! Hathor is the mistress of drunkenness also."

Neither of them paid her any attention.

"You think love's important?" Kronos demanded. "When the time comes for your head to roll, love won't protect you."

"Won't it?"

"What is this?" Khnumet asked. "Lord Khronos, you speak in riddles. You talk as if you knew my slave here-- What is this wild talk about heads?"

"Shut your mouth, woman. This doesn't concern you." Again, Khronos laughed, and there was a terrible bitterness in the sound. "Love? As in, between yourself and Lady Khnumet?" He shook his head. "Did she tell you her plan? The instant she gets you to Avaris, she'll sell you to Pharaoh's vizier--"

"How do you know these things!" cried Khnumet. She caught at Khronos' arm.

But Methos spoke gently to Khronos, almost in rebuke. "We must love always, century after century, life after life. Perhaps unwisely, perhaps in error, with joy or greed or guilt, but always passionately. You and I survive by grace of love alone, our swords are illusions. There is only one fuel for us, and that is love. Only one strength, love. Only one goddess, and that is the Mistress of Turquoise, and she is Love."

"You're mad," said Khronos, flatly. "If I thought what you said was true--"

"Yes?"

He turned with a swirl of his cloak, began to stride away. Khnumet stood mystified behind him, the spurned goblet in her hand. Over his shoulder, he threw his parting words: "You're not describing the game, old one. You describe the Prize!"

Unsmiling, Methos watched him leave.

This one is formidable, he thought. He's untaught, knows nothing of his own kind. And he's full of loneliness. Desperate, aching, endless loneliness.

That only makes him more dangerous.

#



"Lord Khronos? A word in your ear."

Khronos' second-in-command stood nervously twisting a pair of gloves between his hands. He had just received word of the general's return, and had come at once. But Lord Khronos made him afraid. "Lord Khronos, the men are talking."

"The men?" said Khronos. They were in his quarters. Khronos strode here and there, shedding pieces of armor; his sword-belt rattled as he flung it down. "The men are vermin. Let them talk."

"But, Lord Khronos! It's not the usual talk. We don't have problems with disloyalty here, the men will follow you into any kind of battle--they've seen you fighting, they know--" Khronos' second-in-command broke off. His fingers stammered and fidgeted. He sweated. "They say other things."

Khronos picked up his sword-belt again. He drew his bronze sword partway from the sheath, regarded it enigmatically. Then he glanced up. "Yes?"

"Th-they say you go out alone. Unarmed. That you prowl the night. That--that you've been acting strangely these last few days--" Then, in a rush: "They s-say you're not a natural man--"

The sword rang like a bell; Khronos had hurled it across the room. Words exploded out of him: "What do I care about what the men say!" He strode to a chest by the door, flung the lid back. Under his breath he growled, "Time for me to leave this place."

Khronos' subordinate started. "What, Lord Khronos? D-did you say--"

"I said nothing. Know that." It was another sword that Khronos lifted out of the chest, a foreign sword. Hefting it, he ordered, "Shut the men up or let them talk, I don't care. Do whatever you want." He picked up his cloak, slung it over one shoulder. "Just don't bother me with this trash."

"Lord Khronos! Where are you going?"

"Out to prowl the night," said Khronos, striding toward the door.

#

"Khnumet, what's this about Salitis' vizier?"

The night was old now, the lamps had guttered. Khnumet's luxurious villa was strewn with the wreckage of her feast, with broken loaves and bones scattered underfoot, and smashed wine-jars lying in pieces. Pools of spilt wine glowed black, like blood. Khnumet herself had drunk deep, as had all her guests. Her gaze had a fixed muzzy vagueness, locks of her hair stuck to her cheeks, and her once-pristine sheath had become sweat-stained and rumpled. The paint beneath her eyes stood out in black smears. She stood before Methos' cage, swaying.

Her guards slept, drunk.

Her servants slept, drunk.

Her slave-girls slept, slumped in the corners, dead-drunk.

Only Methos was sober.

It was very hot. There was a little breeze blowing through the colonnade, out of the garden; Methos felt it as a caress across his flesh, felt the coolness of the bars as he leaned against them. He felt the weight of his chains--less than nothing, always, always; no chains could hold him--and more binding than any bars or fetters, the force of his yearning for the woman.

She stood before him, just out of reach. They had never laid together, barely even touched; she believed she belonged to Salitis. That belief constrained her like prison bars. And there were always guards and servants and slaves around them, chaperones one and all. Methos felt like a spirit of the haunted dark, an akh or ba or ka given shape, drawn into the servitude of a man's flesh by frustrated longing.

She was so beautiful! And the spirit in her--perhaps wilful, perhaps wild, but never boring--was more enticing than any amount of beauty.

He reached through the bars. At the fullest stretch of his arm, he could just brush the backs of his fingers against her cheek. And she shivered all over, sighed in pleasure, lifted her drowsy face and just kissed the tip of his finger--leaning forward shut-eyed, as if his touch was the delicate balance that kept her from falling.

"Khnumet, speak. Were you going to sell me to the vizier? Is that what your letter was about?"

"He's an evil man," she said vaguely. "But the shade of my dear Ka-Rhames will keep us safe, beloved."

"No, listen, Khnumet. Tell me what you plan."

He cupped her chin in his hand, and she swayed forward as if drugged; he slid his wet palm along the warmth of her throat, drew a flower by the stem from her garland. Other flowers slipped out and fell, in dream-like silence, as the garland unwound itself; and the lotus laid flat upon the crown of her head, dissolved in a shower of pale petals. Khnumet clapped her hands to her breast with a little startled gasp. But now she was close enough for him to grasp at her garment.

They stood like that for long moments: the woman murmuring like a dove, her eyes vast and dark, and Methos holding her in place--holding a crumpled handful of linen, gathered into his fist at her hip. The bars were smooth and cold against his skin, as he turned restlessly, twisting closer, pressing himself against them. He felt sweat trickling down his body--the slide of the chain along his shoulder and thighs--the imprint of the bars, a brand marking his skin. And rose-petals sticking to the soles of his naked feet.

She twisted pettishly, trying to push his hand away with both of hers. But he was strong, and she was weak. "You're my prisoner," she stammered, "but you don't obey me, you never do what I want. Tell me your secret, your true secret--"

"Or you'd have me tortured? You can't hurt me, Khnumet. I'm here of my own free will."

"But you let me put you in chains--you let me hold you prisoner--"

"Because it pleases you. And I love you." Methos smiled, leaning against the bars. Little by little, he was gathering more of her dress into his grip. Pulling her closer yet. And now he had hold of her with both hands.

Khnumet pouted like a child. "But if I order my guards to beat you, you'll still feel pain. No matter if you submit because of love--it'll still hurt."

"Yes. It hurts. But it doesn't matter that it hurts."

She was at the bars now, grappling with his hands in a ferocious mock-play, trying to twist his wrists. All the while, her flushed face was lifted to his. Methos kissed her cheek. Khnumet slapped tipsily at him, missing; and he caught at a curl of her hair, held her in place by her hair and her dress. He bent his head and kissed the lock of hair, lifted one of her hands and kissed that too. The palm of her hand tasted of spilt wine and breadcrumbs and sticky date-paste cakes. Then he took hold of her chin and kissed her mouth--joyously, sweetly, slowly, with all the love in his heart.

"Then why won't you tell me your true secret?" she cried, when she could speak.

"How can you make me do that," he asked, "though you keep me chained for a thousand years?"

She let out another dramatic sigh, sagged against the bars, and held on to them lest she slide to the floor. "Methos, everything I do is for us. But I need you to tell me--I need you to tell me-- To keep you safe." She whispered, very low, so that no one could possibly hear, "I've even dreamed of giving you a son, beloved. Salitis would never know the child was not his." The smile left by his kiss melted from her mouth, like tallow flowing when the candle burns low. A look of unutterable child-like grief and woe pinched her face. Her eyes became tragic. Even so, she was breathtaking. "But it's true, about the vizier. Never fear, I have a plan . . ."

"What, Khnumet?"

"Wait!"

He snatched at her. But she was already out of his reach, stumbling drunkenly but lifting her voice clear and loud; she was shouting the guards awake. They started upright, owl-eyed. They reeled a little as they came to Khnumet, but their grip on their weapons was forceful and sure. "Here's the key, unlock the door. Bring him out. Careful now! He's dangerous." Her guards hauled him forward, her servants rekindled the lamps at her command. To Methos, she said eagerly, "We have to do something amazing, something that will convince them of our magic powers. You see, don't you?"

"Khnumet?" he cried; he knew by her manner that whatever she planned, she expected him not to like it. "Khnumet!"

"Make him kneel. Hold onto his chain, you! And you . . . draw your sword."

Methos froze, twisting his head sideways to peer into Khnumet's flushed face. Many pairs of hands held him. He snarled, trying to pull free; across his own face, strands of brown hair had fallen, and the grip of her guards slipped and skidded on his wet skin. "Khnumet, don't," he whispered.

"I have to know," she said with the logic of the wine-cup, "if you were lying or not. Everything hinges on it." To the guards: "Cut off his head."

What happened next, was faster than anything the guards had ever seen. Their prisoner did not try to rise; instead he went limp--utterly boneless--and fell through their hands to the floor. One of them sat down with an indignant cry, two more knocked their heads together and went reeling back. The rest all dived on Methos. They shouted and grappled, but came up empty-handed: he was as slippery as an eel, as agile as a fish in the Nile. Somehow, he was out of their reach. He was rising, turning, and the heavy chain that should have paralyzed him was gathered between his hands like a weapon. A low sound like a growl came from his throat, filling them with superstitious dread. They had never heard Methos laugh before, either.

It would be hundreds of years before Methos began to regret killing mortals; theirs was a brutal era. He lashed out with his chain, and the nearest guard screamed and dropped to his knees, clapping his hands over the red ruin of his face. Methos spun on one heel, and the chain spun from his fist. He leaped straight into the knot of guards.

It was all over in instants.

Khnumet took a step back. Methos was poised by the colonnade, the chain tossed casually over his shoulder; blood ran from its links, over his ivory skin in streaks of brilliant, dripping, terrible red. He held the sword which was to have beheaded him. He was not even breathing quickly. Between the two of them, the length of the floor was strewn with her guards. Some crouched, making the hideous noises of human suffering, and some sprawled, feebly moving. But almost half lay in crumpled heaps that no longer looked like men. They were in the Land of Grass now. They would never rise again.

She shook from head to toe, like a flower tossed by the sandstorm; this was something outside her experience. Her slaves had not yet come. Everything had happened too quickly--with the speed of the storm that falls upon the fragile dwellings of mankind. Her lips trembled, her eyes brimmed over with tears. Still, she stretched out one hand toward Methos, whispering, "No! I never meant--"

Only then, when she saw him turn and flee from her, did she begin to scream.

#

Moments later, a shadow climbed over her garden wall; a shadowy figure passed through the garden itself; a shadow with a sword stepped into Khnumet's reception hall.

It was Khronos. He took the scene in--the blood-stained floor, the empty cage--without expression. It was not till he had counted the slain and the wounded that he smiled. He was thinking of Methos' manacles and chains. So many dead! The hall was thronged with weeping servants, and there was Lady Khnumet standing very upright beside the cage. Well, she had dared to saddle the dragon; if disaster followed, why was she surprised? She had asked for everything she got.

She was the only one who saw him enter. Her eyes widened, some question dawning in them. But before she could speak or point him out to her servants, Khronos had turned on his heel and glided away.

#

Night lay over the Black Land.

Methos padded barefoot through the streets of Tanis, and only a few dropped rose-petals remained to mark his trail. He moved with the stealth of a cat, lost in the dark--remarkable, for a man burdened with almost twenty deben of gilded chain. But he carried the weight as if it was nothing. He had coiled the chain--it was over three cubits long--around one shoulder and across his chest. It made very little noise. If need be, he knew very well how to use it like a whip.

He had stolen a sword from one of Khnumet's archers. He had taken a cloak, too, to hide his white skin. Among the men of Tanis, only scribes and nobles had fair complexions; all others were burned brick-red by the heat of the sun. Wrapped in the cloak, with the chain and sword for his burdens, he trotted on into the night.

The way was narrow and twisty. On either side rose mud-brick walls, high and windowless and pitch-black; all light was cut off, the streets were abysses, but above shone the starry gulfs of the sky. A man had to tread carefully, or plunge into a hole. The wealthy quarter of Tanis was far behind Methos, and the footing was a muddy mire, full of loose stones and ordure. Once or twice (for the inundation was high) he splashed through rivulets of ankle-deep water. It was the eleventh hour of the night, darkest of all hours; a long time would pass before the hour 'Witness of the beauty of Re' that heralded the newborn dawn. But Methos walked swiftly on, unmindful of his surroundings.

All he had to do was close his eyes, and he saw Khnumet again.

. . . Khnumet in the desert, when he had first set eyes on her. She had been striding among the men, clad in the white kilt and wrist-braces of an archer, but set apart from them by the flood of her Nile-black hair, by the wealth of gold jewelry she sported. There had been serpents of gold curling up her arms, gold pendants swinging from her ears; while as for the collar of gold she wore, it was so wide that it covered her almost to her waist, and the faience inlay on it had shone scarlet and lapis. When her soldiers lost heart and turned to flee, she had rallied them with shrill war-cries. Methos, catching sight of her, had felt the earth quake under his feet. Love had struck him, sharper than an arrow; love could wound an immortal unto death, and the wounds lasted forever. He had fallen in love with her in that moment.

The streets were utterly deserted, not a single mortal to be seen. It surprised him, until he remembered the date. Yes, this was the sixteenth day of the first month of the season of akhit, inundation. An inauspicious day, an evil day, the anniversary of the great battle between Seth and Horus. That was why Khnumet's feast had ended before nightfall. Tonight, monsters and demons would walk aboard, hoping to snatch a bite before dawn banished them back to the Land of Grass; they ate souls, they ate hearts, they ate brains. No sane Egyptian would step out-of-doors tonight.

. . . Khnumet on her pleasure barque, sailing down the Nile. Immense cliffs had towered above the river on either side; each day had dawned flaming orange, and each noon had glared burning white, and the sun had been the Eye of Re, too terrible even to glance at. That sun had scorched all color out of the world. It burned men's eyes blind, made them weep with inflamed eyelids, made their skin break out in blisters. Her archers had cowered under her cabin-awning and even her sailors had cried for their plight. But Khnumet had anointed herself with oil, and she had laughed--laughed scorn at their weakness, flaunting herself in the fire of the sun.

Not that the night was quiet. The dry clattering of rooftop storks drifted down; it was the sound of cities all round the Great Green, the crotonasia of nesting storks. Sometimes they would clatter all night long, their long beaks clacking like wood on wood, like unquiet carpenters. Methos heard cats wailing all around him, closer than the storks. So too was the rustling of mice and rats; some years the vermin were so merciless that they could drive families out of their homes, devouring even the linen from their clothes-chests. Were it not for the cats of Egypt, the whole country would be uninhabitable. Every year, the inundation drowned a thousand thousand mice, and every year, the end of the floods saw a thousand thousand more emerge in the fields, as if born of the very mud. The city teemed with them.

. . . Khnumet standing at the prow of her barque, as they sailed into the Delta. When the Nile in the season of inundation lay spread before them, a world of shining water; with a hundred villages standing forth like arks above the flood, and ten hundred fields of lotuses in full bloom, and ten thousand water-birds. The reed-thickets of summer had been green as young straw, fans of straw-gold tossing in every ripple of the wind. She had spread out her arms and cried out for joy. Watching her, he had shared her happiness; for her, the whole world was new.

He waded through another rivulet of water, cool yet evil-smelling; this time it came halfway to his knees. Rushing water, the holy Nile. Half the city now separated him from Khnumet's house. Certainly she would raise a hue and cry, hunt after him in every quarter of Tanis. Never mind that, he would lie low till she regained her wits. At the harbor, there would be boats. Just let him get to one, and he could vanish into the papyrus thickets, and neither mortal nor immortal would find him after that.

. . . Khnumet gloating over her jewelry, counting Pharaoh's gifts. She always asked for her jewel-basket when she was bored, and then she would lie stomach-down on a pillow, purring, while she fondled her necklaces and toted up their value. Talking to the gem-stones, sometimes. Like a child with a cluster of ripe grapes. She put the jewels to her lips sometimes, would eat them if she could . . . She loved living so much! It was her greed for life that had enchanted him.

Of all the immortals Methos had ever known, he alone had discovered this secret. After those of his kind had lived long enough--after attaining a certain experience with the sword--the outcome of a challenge became more than a matter of skill. At this level, fights were decided by other factors. Luck was one. Strategy was another. But the will to survive was more important than skill or strategy or luck. If you had enough fire inside you, you could win over anyone--anyone--anyone at all.

Khnumet pinned against the bars, trembling as he twisted the thin fabric of her dress between his hands.

The surest way to fuel the fire, was to fuel it with love.

He had always fallen in love suddenly, passionately, completely. Each time he did, he changed himself to please his lover, submerging himself in another, as a chameleon's colors change to suit new surroundings. No other immortal he knew was like that. The world changed and changed, and they became lost and bewildered, drowning in history as the centuries passed. He did too, but when he fell in love, that passed. They fell victim to boredom, the hidden downfall of their kind. He did not; when he fell in love, he renewed himself by looking through a lover's eyes. They grew old in heart, time's curse spat dust in their eyes; time crippled the hand on the sword-hilt, dulled the will to survive. But when Methos fell in love, he was reborn; his past lives were shed like the chameleon's colors, he rose again from the tomb.

Khnumet's kisses, her smiles, her touch.

All other immortals were fools. Time, not the Game, was the danger they faced. Time was their great foe. No sword could do battle with it. The only weapon to fight time with, was love. And Khnumet was love: her breasts were the subtle scent of ripe fruit, her arms twined like vine-stems, her face was a snare. It was longing that lured him to her, tricked into a trap baited by his imagination. He was like the hunter in the old song: in a tangle of his own making, unable to break free, he must watch the wild birds carry away his nets. Methos might have been married more often than any other immortal he knew . . . but he would bite and struggle and claw to survive, when he had Khnumet to live for.

Khnumet begging to share his magic power, avid for every scrap he could toss her.

Khnumet the seductress, asking how he could die.

Khnumet wheedling every last secret out of him.

Come daylight, he told himself, the wine fumes would clear from her head. Then, she would remember his words; she would reflect. Methos was sure of it. Once she had sobered enough to reconsider her silly plan, he would go back to her. He told himself all this.

Khnumet ordering her men to behead him.

Then he found himself shuddering, stricken with chills, doubting everything he had been sure of. His steps slowed to a stop. His thoughts snarled into knots, his skin crawled. It was then that he knew that whatever he told himself, he was already saying goodbye to Khnumet in his heart.

It was then that he felt another immortal's presence . . . and it was between him and the harbor.

Instantly, he began to run.

The Hyksos general was out there. Hunting. He must have circled around, got in front of Methos-- What was his name again? Methos forgot. The brush of his presence had been as light as a feather-touch against Methos' lips, a tickle within the mind. So light, that it vanished the moment that Methos moved. That made no difference; Methos ran away from the harbor, away from the presence. Back into the city. Water splashed under his feet, the road swerved and climbed. Up rude stairs he dashed, the darkness barely slowing him. His heart was sick within him.

Khnumet. Khnumet. His breath came short, his mind raced. He knew that now was the wrong time to fight, that his arm would be weak and his concentration faulty; he would make mistakes. He wasn't thinking clearly-- Better to run. Better to run far and fast.

There came the brush of presence again, softly whispering out of the night. Methos caught the direction, swerved and set off at a tangent. He ran like a flying bird. A wall loomed in his path; he took a firm hold on his sword, gathered himself, and leaped. His free hand caught the top, bricks crumbled under his fingers as he vaulted up and over. He skidded down a slope--it was a pile of moldering mud-bricks, unfired and half-fallen to dust--and fell to one knee at the bottom, and suddenly the presence was back. This time it was a hollow roar all around him, almost on top of him.

He was up and running again at once. The roar faded from his ears. But he knew the enemy was closer.

Now his chain was a burden indeed. It was beginning to tell on him, slowing him, making him stumble; the length of links had unwound, dragged behind him and made such a noise that he was sure it would give him away. The full weight hung from the collar round his throat, now. It cut off his wind, threatened to choke him. He halted for a moment, standing half bent-over with his breath coming in gasps, while he rewound the thing.

The presence roared over him, surrounding him. It resounded in Methos' bones, like the beating of many great drums. As irresistible as the flood-waters of the Nile. He swerved around corners, dodged through empty alleys and pelted headlong down streets. Over walls and the roofs of ramshackle houses, leaping down from heights. Without thinking, he was heading back to Khnumet's villa.

The echo of the other's quickening deafened him, as he raced down yet another muddy street. The streets were barely wider than foot-paths, as full of turns as mouse-holes. He was lost in the maze of them, no longer sure where in Tanis he was. There! Up onto a high wall he went, and for ten steps he was racing along the broad top of the wall; then down, into someone's garden. Under sycamore figs, headlong through henna-bushes that drenched him in a pungent fragrance. Under a vine-arbor. A dog leaped at his heels, yammering. A running jump at another wall. Through a back courtyard all full of great jars of oil, bales of reeds for roof-mending and stacks of broken crockery. Through a door, into a kitchen full of slaves sleeping, rolled in sheets, on the floor; men started up in fright, crying out spells against demons and intruders. Dodging through them, out into open air again. Fearful Egyptians were shouting, dogs were barking all around him in the night. Methos raced away from them, put them behind him; he burst through a gate, and found himself in yet another serene garden.

The moon had risen. He could see. This must be some rich man's garden in the Horus Canal district, for the walls around him were in perfect repair, and he saw the sheen of marble gate-pillars. To the left, a noble villa. Paint glimmered on the garden-walls; lovely Egyptian figures, taller than Methos, gazed down at him. Their white faces shone, their eyes were drawn bold and black and mysterious. He moved like a shadow between gracious trees, skirted a pool full of lotus and lilies. Whose house was this, so beautiful? Methos turned, and saw someone come up onto the top of the wall, silhouetted against the moon.

It was a man with a sword in his hand.

Methos sprang into the darkest shadow, put his back against a wall. A trickle of sweat rolled down his heaving chest; droplets slid along his throat, gathering in the hollow of his collarbone, stinging where the turquoise-inlaid fetter had rubbed him raw. A hot flush burned in his cheeks, as he tried not to gasp too loudly and give his position away. With one hand, he fumbled at his chain. And he was sick--sick to the bone with sorrow and dread.

He was in the shadow of a stable gateway, through which drifted the smells of mules and their bedding, the warm bread-fragrance of a nearby bake-house. Bales of straw and mule-fodder were stacked up beside him, head-high. There was a rustle of mice in the straw. There was the soft brush of fur, as a hunting cat leaped down from somewhere and paused, unafraid, to investigate him. The cat's bristling whiskers tickled Methos' leg, and then he heard a hoarse purr and felt the animal rub its whole flank and side against him as it flowed past.

Khronos had not spotted him. But even as Methos moved, he had looked over his shoulder and seen the swift glitter of moonlight in his foe's eyes, on his foe's blade; and the man had wheeled toward him, raising his sword. He knew that Methos was close . . . Methos knew he knew. It had been a mistake, to run back toward Khnumet.

So. Methos straightened, no longer bothering to hurry, and began to move through the shadows. The cat padded at his heel. It was one of the lean Egyptian cats, which were accounted divine and which, in consequence, feared no man living, for no Egyptian would ever harm a cat. Perhaps it was curious. Or perhaps it was attracted to the quickening in him; he had often thought that cats, which could see the wind itself, were able to tell mortal and immortal apart. Methos swung his cloak off, wrapped it round one arm. Now the bronze chain crisscrossed his left forearm, wound snug from elbow to wrist, and the cloak was tied over it to keep it in place.

The moon went into a cloud. His opponent was moving nearer, soundlessly, invisible in the night; Methos could feel it. They were so close that when the other man spoke, his voice carried clearly. "Don't try to hide. I know you're there." And the sense of Khronos' soul was now like an embrace.

In the quiet, the sound of the canal lapping carried clearly; the barking guard-dogs, the yowling cats seemed to have hushed themselves. The cat with Methos reared up against his leg, curious, and stretched a wet nose to touch his thigh. He put his free hand down to stroke it, but it evaded his caress.

How near was Khronos now? Was he within arm's-length? Just how silent was his step?

The night breathed with presence. The shadows were rife with it. His skin was warm with it, close as the brush of the Egyptian cat's sleek pelt against his flesh. Methos sank into a waking trance, ready for the battle to come. As if in a dream, with eyes wide-open, he bent and reached out again to stroke the purring cat.

His hand touched Khronos' hand in the dark.

He froze, hearing his enemy chuckle softly, softly beneath his breath. "Come." Khronos' hand closed on his, lifted him; for an instant they stood close. "Come out," said Khronos, his words echoing Khnumet's, earlier that night. "Let's go out by the canal, where the light is better."

They walked out of the shadows together, neither man speaking.

All the wise Egyptian cats came forth from their hiding-places, running up stairs and slinking under gates, and lined up atop the garden-walls to watch the two immortals fight. Rats appeared from cracks, long whiskered noses sniffing, twitching their hairless tails. They sat upright on their hind-quarters; they stared through beady black eyes. Even garden-mice came to look, running along the walls. No one else came. Throughout Tanis, the Egyptians cowered indoors, stopped up their children's ears and prayed to their gods. Dimly, they understood what dangers lay without their walls. They knew that demons prowled their streets tonight.

Khronos and Methos chose their ground where a long stretch of clean paving-stones promised them good footing. They moved apart, turned to face one another, lifted their blades. Khronos glanced speculatively at Methos' left arm, now wrapped in the bulky cloak. Then he unclipped his own cloak and threw it aside; underneath he wore only a white kilt. The world narrowed down to the immediate moment, to the soft tap-tap of the other man's sword lightly touching Methos'. Nothing mattered now but the challenge ahead.

Fight. Live. Grow stronger. Forget Khnumet; love will come again.

He was strong, Methos had to admit it. The first blow jarred Methos' arm all the way to the shoulder. And fast. The second almost cut his feet out from under him. Methos stumbled, felt his ankle turning--he was off-balance, his left side weighed down with the heavy chain--and recovered, struck Khronos' blade up and away. Did his ankle bear his weight? It did. A stroke overhand, a twist of the body, a deft low swing of the blade--and Khronos leaped back, evading the cut. Yes, strong and fast. They circled. They circled. They circled. But first blood had been drawn: from a long slanting cut across Methos' forehead, blood ran.

Methos lunged, swinging high--low--low--low--and around in a great sweep, a complete circle. Blood whipped from his skin as he did. Blood splattered, where his sword's edge sliced halfway through Khronos' left arm; and Khronos made a deep throttled sound, half-gasp and half-cry. Blood sprayed Methos' face. He wheeled right, Khronos wheeled left; for an instant they slid past each other, shoulder to shoulder, and Methos felt the other man's skin wet and hot.

They disengaged, stepped back, measuring each other.

Methos said, "I hoped it would not come to swords between us."

"Why not? I'd swear you're not afraid to fight."

"The wise immortal," Methos said, "knows no matter how good he is, someone out there is bound to be better . . . And avoids challenges if he can. We two have been fighting since the moment we set eyes on each other. Each time we met, we struggled against each other. And I won. I won before you ever reached for your blade. Each time. I hoped this challenge would not come to swords."

"There ought to be more than this," Khronos said. "There ought to be--"

Methos shrugged. "What more?"

"--there ought to be more! We live so long, we learn so much--" He made a strange gesture, impatient and baffled. "Master every mortal art. Learn everything in time. Shouldn't there be more than that? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What are we here for, who knows it, why?"

The slice across Khronos' arm was already healing; the cut on Methos' forehead was only a memory. Methos glanced around quickly, eyeing the surroundings; was there a chance to escape? No. This had to be finished tonight.

But it would be better to run, and hope to fight another day.

No! He could do this. He had to concentrate.

"You're different," Khronos said suddenly. "Different from before. What's changed?"

Methos felt his lips tightening. "You know what's changed," he snapped.

"The woman? But--" Khronos seemed to study him. "I had a woman I loved once," he said at last. "A wife, a daughter. When they died, I felt dead too."

A slash from the left. Methos twisted away, raised his left arm as if the cloak wrapped around it was a shield. Khronos declined to respond to the odd move; instead he swung right, came in fast. Their blades bound together. Khronos forced his arm down; then they were grappling like wrestlers, chest against chest, straining. Skin slippery with sweat. Blood hot as it ran down Methos' face. He blinked it out of one eye, felt his hair sticking to his cheeks.

Like young stags, they pushed against each other; Khronos was laughing again, growling a hoarse oath, and suddenly he leaned forward and spoke right into Methos' ear, saying again, "There ought to be more than this," and Methos to his shock, found himself saying, "Yes--but--what?"

Love. That was all there was, ever. Love and death.

They whirled around each other, leaves driven on the wind; their swords beat a rhythm to the dance. Where the swords stroked, blood flowed. Every touch brought a bruise. After other challenges, Methos often found his sword-arm black and blue to the shoulder. When they closed together, he could feel Khronos' breath kiss his cheek. Khronos' skin slid over his as they turned, together, together, always together.

Like a lover's caress, the stroking motion of Khronos' sword opened the flesh over Methos' heart. The cut healed. Methos let the blow turn him, hammered the heel of his left hand into Khronos' collar-bone, his ribs over the heart, his sternum. He heard Khronos' ribs breaking. They healed. Khronos drove his sword forward, slicing deep across Methos' thigh, and Methos staggered. But he knew he would heal.

They fell back, circling, circling: two near-naked men, slicked with sweat and blood, and there was no move they made that was not graceful. Every wound on their bodies healed with supernatural speed. One was laughing. One was not. Egyptians thronged the gates along the Horus Canal now, drawn despite their fear by the sound of battle; they gasped with awe at the sight. They thought they were watching Seth and Horus battling again.

Methos never noticed them. Khronos was all he knew.

There: strike strike feint and strike, fall back a step, pretend to falter. A hard blow, beating Khronos' blade sideways. Turn slightly, present the left arm again. As if by habit. As if relying on a shield that was not there. And there! Khronos took the bait, saying savagely, "It doesn't matter anyway." And he struck hard at the wrapped cloak.

His sword cut through the woolen cloth like butter. And turned on the bronze chain, jarring hard, catching and shearing the links. As the sword bound, Methos turned with the movement, and there the flat of the blade was trapped under his arm, and there he twisted, bringing his whole weight to bear. He heard Khronos shout as the sword was wrenched from his hand. And there his own sword swept around--

There ought to be more, Khronos had said.

He pulled the killing stroke. Pain blazed in his knee, from a kick that shattered the bone. Pain burst along his arm as Khronos slammed into him. His own sword was lost. They rolled on the ground together, wrestling. Odd details struck Methos: Khronos' eyes glittering into his, the heat of his breath. The grip of his hands, the swift dart of his tongue as he licked his lips. Khronos' thigh sliding alongside his. The weight of his body.

The cool touch of a sword upon his throat. The fight was over.

Methos turned his face aside. His voice came choked: "Do it quickly."

Khronos whispered, "Why did you pull back?"

Everything was becoming faraway, unreal, unconvincing. It was the dizziness that sometimes came after battle or disaster. Still, his own voice spoke on, irresistibly. "You are . . . too promising to lose. But--what if there is nothing more than this? What will you do?"

Something flashed in Khronos' eyes, something implacable and volcanic. This was a man who would never give up, never forget, never admit defeat. There was such fire in him! And if he was disappointed--

But it all seemed very distant. As if in a dream, Methos heard a soft step, and then a clatter as someone picked up his lost sword; Khronos glanced up, and Methos followed his gaze. It was a woman who stood there, the sword slanting down from her hand, and her face was a stranger's face; yet she was Khnumet. Of course. Khnumet had always been more courageous than other women. For an instant, a glimmer of old love stirred in Methos, and then he looked into Khnumet's eyes and felt hope die . . . for she was not looking at him.

She was looking at Khronos, and in that look was naked calculation.

She alone of all the Egyptians had been brave enough to approach. She had chosen her time carefully, and stepped forward swiftly, evading her women; she cared nothing for their horror as they saw her go. She did not even glance back when one of them fainted away. Khnumet walked with a measured tread. She picked up the sword, gripping it hard, and stood gazing down at the two men, thinking furiously: Methos was already her slave and more, Methos could be dismissed, but as for the great and famous General Khronos . . . "You're like him," she breathed, and she looked Khronos up and down; she liked what she saw.

Khronos came to his feet. His own sword still touched Methos' throat lightly, like a reminder; and Methos turned over and scrambled up, unarmed. Khronos' free hand flashed out and caught hold of Methos' arm. "Come to Avaris with me," Khnumet offered, "and I will make you Pharaoh."

There! She had him. She would have them both.

But her world rocked on its foundations when the Hyksos general turned away from her; it was as if she no longer existed, something so foreign to her experience that she actually stood there dumbfounded, and meanwhile Lord Khronos was addressing her former slave. His words came quickly, impulsively: "I-- Come with me. Come find out what more there is."

That was enough. "Methos!" said Khnumet imperiously. "Don't listen to this man--if he is a man. I think he must be a demon out of the dark." She made herself smile, spoke in a coaxing tone; she put everything she felt into her voice. "Look, I have repented of my plans, they were rash and ill-founded. Indeed, I would never see you hurt. Come." Forget Lord Khronos, if he was fool enough to resist her; she knew when to cut her losses, and with Methos beside her, she would still win a throne. He was one duck who would be hers in the end, and no one else would get a bite of him. She turned without looking back, and began to walk toward her gate.

Only there, did she bother to glance behind her.

"Methos!" It was a scream of disbelief. The street was empty. "Methos! Methos?" She ran back, the sword falling from her numb hand, through splashes of blood--nothing more remained--and moonlight on the paving-stones--nothing else was there--and she fell to her knees, still crying his name. Her plans were crashing in ruins, her future was wrecked, her hopes were gone, and all she could do was weep his name, like a woman who has lost her one true love: "Methos, Methos, Methos, Methos . . ."

#

She never saw him again.

She never saw either of them, no Egyptian then alive ever did. She was to go through her days gathering power and wealth, yet knowing herself cursed: she had had love once, and let it slip through her fingers. When she reached the throne of Egypt, her victory was hollow. She lived out her brief mortal span in bitterness, and died hungry, though a queen; and her story was forgotten by the world.

But this is the tale of what happened when Khronos, who did not believe in love, looked into the eyes of Methos--for whom, love was everything.

This was what he had to teach Khronos: love. If he succeeded, Khronos would never forget the lesson, not even though thousands of years parted them. And if it was a lesson taught to the wrong pupil, there was no knowing that, not then; not until millennia had passed, and both found themselves doomed to defeat in their quests. Methos' quest was for love, Khronos' quest was for answers; when these goals eluded them, each one acted accordingly. But all that was far in the future.

It looked as if the Game brought them together. It looked as if it was hate and greed that bound them. It looked as if they parted, sought one another, found and pursued and fled and escaped . . . as if they were no more than hunter and prey.

But that was wrong. Hathor was the only goddess. It was love, it was love, it was love.













Note about unicorns: Ctesias of Cnidos wrote in 398 BC, "There are, in India, certain asses, which are as large as horses, or larger. Their bodies are white . . . and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead, which is about a foot and a half in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as protection against deadly drugs. The base of the horn is pure white, the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black." Books on unicorn lore say he was describing the rhinoceros . . . but a rhino that was red and white and black all over is hard to imagine. But Tavernier (Tavernier's Travels in India, vol I p 94, originally published in 1676) saw a tame rhinoceros being led about by a small boy, and other sources agree that the Rajas often kept rhinoceroses as pets. Those destined for the arena were painted with bold colors, as Indian elephants are to this day; it would have been a painted rhinoceros that Ctesias saw.



Originally posted elsewhere February 11, 2001