by Ashlyn Donnchaid
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story takes place after Duende. It is also somewhat related to the Variations series.
"Go, Mac!" Richie shouted his encouragement as MacLeod came roaring down the quay on the motorcycle. He was bent low over the handlebars and grinned as he gunned the engine. This wasn't so bad. It had been years since he'd ridden a bike, and it hadn't taken much for Richie to talk him into it. Too late, he saw the board on the pavement. He tried to swerve to avoid it, but only managed to hit it squarely. He let go of the bike as it fell, trying to get away from the heavy machine. He rolled several times, and the last he remembered was the agony in his head as the darkness came over him.
He moaned as he turned over, putting one hand to his forehead where the pain was the most pronounced. He felt the sticky mass in his hair and hoped he hadn't died to an audience.
"Richie?" He tried to sit up, but a sudden attack of vertigo stopped him. "Richie!" Where was he? He should be here. It was his motorcycle and he'd been there before the accident. Silently, he berated himself for getting talked into such a stupid stunt. Still not getting any response from Richie, he opened his eyes carefully. Midsummer sun beat down on him, nearly blinding him. Wait a minute, how could that be? It was winter in France. Shading his eyes with one hand, he looked around. Sand and scrub trees were all he could see. That and the rock he'd probably landed on. A horse stood a few yards away, looking back nervously at the wriggling bundle that was tied to its saddle.
This wasn't right. He had been on the quay by the barge. Acting like an idiot riding a motorcycle, to be sure, but in Paris. Not in some desert with no one around but a horse and someone rolled up in a rug. He rubbed his eyes and looked around again, but the scene didn't change. He must have hurt his head pretty badly. He didn't remember having hallucinations after a death before.
He rolled carefully into a sitting position, the pain in his head and body receding. Slowly, he stood and approached the horse, talking to it quietly. It seemed very real for a dream horse. He patted the horse on the neck and could smell the sweat on its body. This dream was entirely too realistic. He sensed that whoever was in the bundle was an immortal. He really wanted to know where he was and how he'd gotten there before dealing with the captive, but he couldn't leave them wrapped up in a rug and slung over the horse, either. After a moment's thought, he took the rug off the horse. Untying the ropes, he got his first look at what was bundled within. The back of the man's tunic was torn and bloody from battle. The dark hair was long and tangled. When the man turned to face him, there was a familiarity to the features that took him a moment to register.
"Methos?" He looked at the man with a mixture of shock and joy. At least this was something he knew. "Where are we? How did we get here?" The combination of hate and fear on the other man's face unsettled him. Methos darted glances around him, then scrambled to his feet and ran. "No! Wait!" MacLeod chased him down and tackled him, holding the struggling figure firmly. "Why'd you run? It's me. MacLeod. Don't you know me?" The bewildered look that answered him confused him even more. "Where are we?" he repeated. A sullen silence was his only answer. "What's wrong? Why won't you talk to me?" He began to understand the situation. It may be Methos, but this dream Methos didn't know him and wasn't going to cooperate with him. "Doesn't matter. Come with me. It'll be safer than being on your own out here." He swung up on the horse and was surprised to find that the saddle felt as if it was made for him. He reached a hand to Methos to help him up onto the animal. "Sit still. You're spooking the horse. If you don't, I'll have to tie you to the saddle again," he told Methos. The other man sat as quietly as he could behind MacLeod.
The view from the back of the horse was as bleak as it had been from the ground. There were hoof prints in the sand, but it was impossible to accurately judge their direction. He decided to let the horse find its way back to wherever it had come from. Maybe he'd find some answers there about this hallucination he was having. He dropped the rein on the animal's neck and urged it forward. Left to its own volition, the horse set off at a purposeful walk, and he was confident that the animal did know its way home. As they rode on, he tried to figure out the pieces of the puzzle. The clothing he and Methos were wearing and the trappings on the horse spoke of an era thousands of years ago. He was sure the other man was Methos, but the man didn't seem to know him, and certainly seemed to fear him. He hadn't wanted to threaten Methos, but for the moment, knew no other way to deal with the situation quickly.
As they rode to the top of a dune, he saw a camp spread in a small valley below. He pulled the horse to a stop while he surveyed the layout. A small stream meandered through the valley, and the camp tents were all set up on the bank closest to the dune he was on. There were four tents set apart from the others as if for the masters of the encampment, then a couple of larger tents near the makeshift corral and the cook fires. Everything he could see fit in with the altered reality of his dream. None of the people working around the animals or the fires seemed to take any notice of him on the dune. One figure rose from in front of his tent and walked forward as if to greet the returning rider. MacLeod shrugged mentally and urged the horse forward again. When he was close enough to make out the features of the standing figure, he halted the horse. Tall, strong, with a pronounced scar bisecting the right side of his face. Kronos.
"Well, brother Duncan, I didn't think you'd let that one live after he caused you such an undignified fall from your horse." Kronos stepped to his side and clapped him on the thigh. "Or do you have more severe punishment in mind for him?" MacLeod sat for a moment trying to assimilate this new turn. Kronos greeting him as a brother. Methos definitely a captive, and not an important one. Until he got more information, he had no choice but to play along with the situation. This dream wasn't going to be ending any time soon as far as he could tell.
He shrugged at Kronos. "Killing him seemed too easy." He nodded at the man sitting behind him. "You can see how quickly he learned to obey and sit quietly. Perhaps there is hope that he can be of use to me. To us." As he swung his leg over the horse's withers and slid off, one of the servants came up to take the reins. MacLeod reached for Methos' arm and pulled him off the horse, then nodded to the man to take the horse away. "Wait, you. Take this one also." He pushed Methos toward the man. "Have him cleaned up and given a clean tunic, then leave him in my tent." He'd figured that he would have to stay and talk to Kronos, but if he watched where they finally took Methos, he would know which tent was his. He turned to the other man. "So, brother, is there any food or drink left for me, or did you finish it all while I recovered from my indignity?"
They walked together toward the cook fires and MacLeod began to realize that this was the time of the Four Horsemen, and somehow he had become one of them. He was sure that it must be a dream or nightmare and hoped he would soon wake up. It couldn't be real. He didn't believe in aliens or time travel. The only trouble was, this was without a doubt the most real seeming dream he'd ever had. When they got to the fire, a woman came forward and handed MacLeod a dish of a greasy meat stew and a cup of sweet wine. He thanked her and followed Kronos to a spot a little ways away and they sat on the sand while he ate.
When he was almost finished, Kronos resumed their earlier conversation. "Why did you keep that one alive? Granted he's new, but after the trouble he's already been with your horse, I would think it would be simpler to kill him than tame him."
MacLeod took another mouthful of the stew to give himself time to think. "He's young and strong. He could be very useful if he can be trained." He looked at Kronos. "If he can't be trained, well, I'll deal with that then." He looked at the dish of food again. "It really makes no difference, but there was something in his eye that challenged me to try him."
Kronos laughed and put a hand on his shoulder. "One way or the other you will have your revenge for what he did. I like that." He stood to take his leave of MacLeod. "Just don't take too long. We don't need any unreliable servants if we have to break camp quickly." He walked slowly back to his tent and went inside. The message was clear. Either Methos would be convinced to be obedient quickly or he would die. If this was a dream, it was getting a little too complicated. He finished eating the stew and looked for some water to mix with the wine. While he was wandering around the cooking area, he watched for the servant who had taken Methos from him. He finally saw the man leading Methos away from the stream, hands bound behind him, but cleaner than when he'd brought him in. He watched carefully as Methos was pushed inside a tent. A few moments later the servant came out.
After what he considered an appropriate delay, he walked slowly to the tent that he had to assume was his. As he pushed aside the skin that covered the opening he saw Methos, now bound hand and foot and lying on a rug in one corner. He looked around the rest of the tent, seeing the pile of skins and furs that must serve as a bed, a dish of fruit, and a few cups and earthenware vessels for holding either wine or water. He didn't seem to have many personal belongings, but there were a few clothes on a mat and sandals to make a change from the boots he was wearing. He crossed to the pile of furs and sat down, elbows on his knees, head in his hands, trying to think.
He felt the matted blood in his hair and realized that he was filthy and uncomfortable. He got up and looked among his belongings for something resembling soap, then remembered that this was probably before soap making was widely known. He picked up the cleanest of the tunics on the mat and took off most of the outer clothing and leather armor that he was wearing. He spared an apologetic glance at Methos as he left the tent and headed toward the stream. The water was bracing but not cold, and he did his best to clean the sweat, dirt and blood of the day's adventure off his skin. As he got out of the stream he pulled on the cleaner tunic he had brought with him. Walking barefoot back to his tent, he noticed that none of the servants seemed to watch anything he did. He was sure they were paying attention in case they were called for any reason, but they were schooled not to see what they didn't need to know.
As he reentered the tent, he threw the dirty tunic on the heap of outer clothing he'd removed before. Methos had not moved while he was gone. The man had watched him enter the tent, and continued to watch him as he moved around the tent, examining what little there was inside it. MacLeod finished his inspection of the tent and stood in front of Methos.
"If I untie you, will you give me your word you won't try to escape?" Methos stared at him, then nodded slowly. "Good." MacLeod bent down and undid the leather thongs on the man's wrists, then reached for the ankles. When the bonds were removed, Methos sat up on the rug and hugged his knees, but made no other move. MacLeod sat down on the furs and looked at the other man. "You really don't know who I am, do you?" His question was answered with silence. "Talk to me. You won't be punished for answering a question." He marveled at how easily he let himself take on the role of master. He turned his attention back to Methos as the man shifted a little on the rug.
"You are Death." The man spoke quietly. "You killed my people. You killed me." He lapsed into an uneasy silence. "But you brought me back to life. You have the power." MacLeod absorbed this latest bit of information. It sounded as if this had been the first death for Methos. He didn't know what he was. And he believed that he only lived because of MacLeod's whim. He knew nothing of their friendship or their life together. He would have to find a way to keep Methos safe from the other Horsemen. It hadn't seemed that any of the others had personal servants, but he hadn't been there long enough to be sure. At the least, he could keep him separate while he taught him what he needed to know to survive in the camp.
He lay back on the furs and closed his eyes. As he rested, he wished that the nightmare would just end and let him go back to his real life. A sudden rustle of clothing and the band of light as the door skin was pushed aside jerked him alert. Methos was trying to escape. He jumped to his feet and ran out of the tent, looking for the fleeing man. He was running toward the stream, and MacLeod gave chase, catching up to him at the water's edge. During the struggle, Methos produced a dagger he must have picked up in the tent. MacLeod twisted away from the blade and tried to pry it from the other man's hands. They fought silently until Methos lost his footing and went down, the knife buried in his chest. This was not what he had meant to have happen. MacLeod pulled the knife from the healing flesh and slung the body over his shoulder.
As he walked to his tent, he was greeted by a snide glance from Kronos. MacLeod grinned at him with forced humor. "This one does seem to have spirit," he said, indicating the body on his shoulder. "He'll soon learn there is no escape." Kronos nodded and went back to his tent, watching MacLeod through slightly narrowed eyes. As he entered his own tent, MacLeod put Methos on the rug in the corner again and waited for him to revive. He watched the sharp intake of breath, the realization that he still lived and the moments of pain as the other man returned to life. The fear that filled the eyes as they looked at MacLeod caused a twinge in his gut. This was not how he wanted to be treating his friend, even if the friend didn't know he was one.
"You gave me your word you wouldn't try to escape." Silence. "Talk to me, damn it. You won't be punished for what you say or think."
After several moments, Methos answered him. "You speak of honor. Yet you have none. You and your brothers" he made the word sound like a curse "kill and rape and steal with no honor." He stopped, realizing what he was saying, and waited for the punishment he thought was inevitable.
"You don't have to fear me. I told you I won't punish you for words or thoughts. I don't want to punish you at all." MacLeod thought about how to word what he needed Methos to understand. "I can protect you, but you must become my servant. I won't harm you if you can do that. You won't survive if you try to escape. If one of my brothers catches you, they will kill you and you will stay dead. Do you understand?" Methos nodded. "I give you my word on this. The word of Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod." He had no idea if this Methos understood the solemn vow that giving his word included. He'd have to wait and see.
The next several days were uneventful, spent repairing tack and armor, sharpening blades, dividing up the booty from the last raids. Methos made one more attempt to escape, and was brought back by MacLeod without having to harm him. After that, he seemed willing enough to perform the duties given him, and clothing was washed and mended, boots were repaired and the horses were groomed and cared for. Evenings had to be spent drinking with the Horsemen and acting the part that he had found himself in, though there was little enjoyment of it. He had stopped wishing for the dream to end and simply concentrated on fitting in.
On this particular evening, Kronos had guided MacLeod to a place at a small distance from the rest of the camp inhabitants. They sat on the side of the dune and watched the activity around the fires. Kronos pointed to the argument that could be heard even where they were. "Duncan, our brothers are growing restless. I think it's time for more adventure." It was true that Caspian and Silas had been more quarrelsome than usual. "You remember that village we rode through a while back? The one where they said we were demons? Maybe it's time for them to know the truth of their words." Kronos turned to MacLeod with a grin. "What do you think?"
This was the conversation he had been dreading ever since he had figured out that in this nightmare reality he was a Horseman. That he was the right hand to Kronos. "We still have plenty of food and women. The villagers only used words as weapons. Do they need to die for that?"
"Duncan, my brother, you are going soft. The village will be another example of the superiority of the Horsemen. We need no other reason." He looked at MacLeod intently. "We ride at dawn. Make sure you're ready." Kronos rose and started down the dune toward the cook fires. He turned to face MacLeod once more. "You have not been yourself since you fell off your horse. Maybe you need the adventure, too." He grinned again at MacLeod, then turned back to continue down the dune.
MacLeod stared at Kronos' retreating back. He had no idea what village the man was referring to, but he had attempted to defend them out of principle. He wanted no part of killing for the sport of it, but it could be even more dangerous for him if he didn't at least go with them. Maybe he could find a way to spare some of the villagers. He found he had no appetite left, so he got up and took his dish back to the women at the fires, then took his leave of the other Horsemen for the evening. As he approached his tent, he saw that Methos had lighted the lamp. Right now he wished that this man was the Methos of his real life. He needed someone to talk to. He pushed aside the skin and entered the tent. Methos was lying on his rug with a blanket pulled over him. He looked up as MacLeod stepped inside.
"Stay where you are. I don't need anything." He crossed to his fur bed and sat down heavily. He looked at Methos, who was sitting up with his blanket wrapped around him, watching MacLeod. "We're riding at dawn tomorrow. I'll need the horse ready. Will you be here when I get back?" This would be the first time he'd be away from the camp since he'd brought Methos in. Methos would be left alone while they were gone, with plenty of opportunity to run away.
Methos nodded. "I'll be here. You've kept your word to me and treated me well. And where else would I go? The desert isn't very inviting." There were times when this man sounded so much like his real life Methos. Pragmatic and cynical. He wondered if he could possibly understand what he needed to talk about. Probably not. The idea that one of the Horsemen wanted to find a way to stop the killing would sound crazy. MacLeod took off his boots and lay down on the furs, pulling his blanket over him. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. Some time later he heard Methos get up and extinguish the lamp then go back to bed. He fell into a fitful sleep, waking when he heard Methos get up.
The sky was just starting to lighten. Morning. The day he dreaded. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, again wondering why this nightmare never seemed to end. Sometimes he almost wondered if what he thought of as his real life was the dream, but the memories were too vivid and complex for him to believe that. He was looking over the leather armor and cape he knew he had to wear when Methos returned and handed him a cup of the herbal tea that was all they had for a hot beverage. What he wouldn't give for a good cup of coffee! He chuckled at the incongruity of that thought and sipped the bitter tea.
"Your horse is ready," Methos told him. "The others are starting to gather at the fire. Do you want me to help you with these?" He reached for the leather jerkin and cape. MacLeod stood and selected a clean tunic and leggings. With Methos' help, he strapped on the leather armor and fitted the cape to his shoulders. Methos reached for one more thing. "Don't forget this," he said as he handed MacLeod the death mask. With that, his costume was complete. He was a Horseman. He picked up his sword and dagger and left the tent without a word. What could he say to the man anyway? I'll be back later after I help destroy a village, why don't you have dinner ready? Better not to say anything.
As he walked toward the fires he saw the other three. Their costumes were as fearsome as his own. Kronos looked impatient. "Did you forget, brother Duncan? We've been waiting for you. Come here and let me finish your face." He had a small stick and a cup of ash mixed with water. He drew a series of designs on MacLeod's face. When he was done, he clapped MacLeod on the shoulder with a grin. "Magnificent as always, brother. Get your horse. We should be on our way." As MacLeod went for his horse, the others mounted and waited for him. When he rode up to them, they turned and started out at a trot, then eased into a ground covering canter as they headed across the desert toward their target.
After an hour or so of riding, Kronos signaled a halt at the top of a small rise. Spread out in the lee of the hill below them was a small village. Huts gathered around the central cook fire, pens of animals were at one end of the village, and some small gardens were at the other end. The villagers were going about the business of caring for the animals and plants. The whole scene was very peaceful. For the moment, MacLeod thought to himself. Only for the moment. On Kronos' signal, the other three set off down the hill at a gallop, taking an approach that would bring them into the village across the gardens. Silas and Caspian led the charge, ax and sword raised. Kronos followed closely and MacLeod trailed behind him.
When the villagers saw the riders approach, they started to run, yelling at the others to find cover, but they couldn't outrun the horses. MacLeod watched as the first of them fell to Silas' ax. Others were victims of Caspian's sword. Kronos detoured to the center of the village, looking for the leaders. Always cut off the head of the enemy, either literally or figuratively. Killing the village chieftains would do that. MacLeod followed him into the village, sickened by the needless slaughter. As he rode through, one of the villagers attacked him with a spear, running it through his leg. Out of instinct, he struck with his sword, killing the man. He pulled the weapon from his leg, ignoring the pain.
Seeing him alone, more villagers attacked. He found himself forced to fight them off just to stay alive. He worked his way closer to Kronos, swinging his blade and listening to the battle cries of the other Horsemen. His own pain, the sense of brotherhood with the others and an ancient bloodlust combined in him as he joined the fray, swinging his blade at anyone who came near. When most of the villagers had been killed or run off, the Horsemen dismounted, looking through the carnage for anything of value to take away with them. The few baubles were gathered into a sack, and the women were herded together to be taken back to camp.
The ride back to their own camp was slower than the ride out, since they had newly acquired slaves on foot in front of them. The slow pace gave MacLeod too much time to think about what had just happened and what he personally had done in that village. He didn't understand how he had managed to let himself get pulled into the killing. It had been like so many battles he had fought in his other life, the enemy overwhelmed by superior forces, the heat of the fight singing through his body, but at the same time, he had no quarrel with those people. They only fought to protect what was rightly theirs. And he had helped slaughter them. Dream or not, he had helped to kill them all. He rode silently, following a short distance behind Kronos.
Absorbed in his own thoughts, he didn't notice Kronos slowing to meet him until the other Horseman was riding next to him, close enough for their knees to touch. "You fought well today, brother Duncan. I think you got your fire back." MacLeod didn't answer. "We shall have plenty to celebrate tonight. Did you get a look at some of the new ones?" He gestured at the women walking in front of them. "And the few we left alive back there will spread the word that the Horsemen will not tolerate insults. A most successful day." He grinned at MacLeod, then spurred his horse forward to join the others.
When they got back to camp, they divided up what little they'd found to steal from the village. The new slaves were sent to be cleaned up and the Horsemen sat together celebrating their great victory. MacLeod sat quietly drinking the wine that had been poured, listening to the tales of the day's killing, already embellished in the telling. He wanted nothing more than to get away from these men, but couldn't see any way to manage that, at least not while the celebration was going on. He watched them choosing women for the night, wishing this nightmare would just stop. He'd had enough when, during a particularly grisly tale, Caspian produced the heads he'd brought back as souvenirs of the day. As he watched Caspian hang them with his previous trophies, MacLeod got up and walked quickly away. He managed to get out of sight of the others before falling to his knees, violently ill. He retched until all he had left were dry heaves.
He got to his feet and stumbled to his tent, dropping on his bed once he got inside. He didn't know why this particular incident had caused him to react so badly. He'd seen dead bodies before. He'd killed before. He thought it was that the killing was so senseless, and that in spite of himself, he'd been drawn into it. Caspian's trophies had brought back the faces of all those he'd killed today and the memories had cut into him like a dagger. He wasn't sure if he wanted to scream in anger or cry with the anguish he felt, and settled on neither. He simply lay there with his eyes closed and his hands balled into fists, trying to put the visions out of his mind.
He'd heard Methos moving around the tent and had ignored him until he felt the damp cloth on his face. He opened his eyes and saw the man sitting next to him with a bowl of water and the cloth in his hand. As Methos reached for his face again, he took hold of the hand. "What are you doing?"
"Cleaning your face." Methos pulled his hand free and continued wiping off the markings that Kronos had applied that morning.
"No, I mean why?" He again held Methos' hand.
This time Methos didn't pull away. He narrowed his eyes a bit as he considered how to answer the Horseman. "You're tired. As your servant it's my duty to see to your needs. Isn't that reason enough?"
"I suppose it is." It was true. He was exhausted, physically and emotionally. He relaxed his grip on the hand and Methos went back to his work. He closed his eyes as deft hands finished cleaning his face, then began removing his leather jerkin and boots. His filthy tunic followed, and again he felt the damp cloth on his skin. MacLeod felt the tension leaving as he let himself be cared for by this man who was and wasn't Methos. He concentrated on the feel of the cloth on his chest, pushing the visions of the day's events out of his mind. It felt good to have the sweat and grime cleaned off and he smiled slightly as Methos worked.
His enjoyment was interrupted by a motion at the entrance of the tent, and he opened his eyes to see that Kronos had come in. "I was worried about you when you left us so suddenly, brother, but I see now I shouldn't have been." He gestured at Methos, who had been staring intently at the cloth in his hands since Kronos had entered. "You've taught this one more than I expected." He turned a leering gaze at MacLeod. "When did you plan to share your pet?" He laughed at the dark glare on MacLeod's face. "Not tonight. Tonight he's all yours. But soon, Duncan, soon." He grinned at the two of them a moment longer, then turned and left. When he was gone, Methos went back to his work, but was stopped by MacLeod's hand.
"I didn't think about that." MacLeod sat up cross legged next to Methos. He looked at the man with a wry smile. "Why didn't you say something?"
Methos shifted uncomfortably. "It wasn't my place."
"I thought we'd decided that you could say anything."
"We had." He looked at MacLeod with a little smile. "It's not for me to question your pleasures. You brought no women to your tent and you kept me here with you. I waited for you to take what I thought you wanted, but you never did. So I thought maybe it was something you just didn't do." He looked at his hands again. "But your brother thinks you keep me for your pleasure." He looked MacLeod in the eyes. "And now he wants his turn."
Something about that look brought out the fierce protector in MacLeod. "No," he said firmly. "I don't know how, but I won't allow that to happen." He wondered if the Methos he knew in his other life had ever been as innocent and vulnerable as this man, and if he had, what had turned him into one of the Horsemen. More importantly, he wondered what had changed him into the man who had become his friend. He didn't know if he'd ever have the answers to those questions.
"Come on." MacLeod stood up. "I want to clean up properly." He led the way to the stream where he let the cool water wash away all the sweat and blood of the day along with some of the memories. When he stepped to the bank, Methos handed him a clean tunic which he slipped over his head. They walked side by side back to the tent. Once inside, MacLeod poured a cup of wine for each of them. Methos was reluctant to take it, but he insisted. "If I can't choose who I drink with, there's no point in being a Horseman, is there?" When they finished the wine, MacLeod settled onto his furs and watched as Methos put away boots and weapons and the other things used that day and then lie on his own rug. MacLeod thought idly that he needed to find a few furs to make a softer bed for him. As he drifted toward sleep, thoughts of the Methos he knew in his other reality came to him. The Methos he knew before. Before he'd learned about the past. A gentle man. A friend. And more.
He felt the warmth of the body that had moved next to his, the long fingers that touched his cheek. He shifted to put his arm around his lover and pull him in for a kiss. He smiled as the caressing hand moved down his chest and along his waist and hip, then down the outside of his thigh. He pulled his lover to him in a powerful embrace. It had been so long. So very long. He wanted to feel flesh against flesh. He pulled off the tunic he was wearing and looked into the face of his lover. The angular cheekbones, the hazel eyes, the long dark hair. Slowly he became aware that he had been dreaming. But such a nice dream. He sighed and pulled the blanket higher over himself. It was then that he realized that there really was someone in his bed.
The hand was still caressing him. He took hold of the hand and faced Methos. "Why?"
"I thought you would like it. That it would give you pleasure." He dropped his gaze from MacLeod's. "You've been good to me. I wanted to give something back."
MacLeod let go of the hand and ran his fingertips along Methos' jaw line. "You don't owe me a thing. If anything, I owe you. I brought you here and made a servant out of you. That can't have been easy." He combed his fingers into the mass of dark hair. "I won't ask you to do this. It's not right for you."
"What if I want to?" He took MacLeod's hand and kissed the palm. "Would it be right then?" MacLeod knew this would only complicate things, but he wanted it. He couldn't deny that. And this whole situation was a nightmare, wasn't it? Why shouldn't the dream have some pleasant parts, too? He pulled Methos to him for a deep kiss, running his hands over the smooth skin of the man's back. He let himself be enveloped by the familiar feelings as they made love slowly and gently, savoring every moment as if it could be the only chance they had, eventually falling asleep wrapped in each other's arms.
A shaft of morning sun on his face woke MacLeod. He didn't open his eyes. He didn't have to. Methos' head was on his shoulder, one arm across his chest and one leg tangled with his own. By the steadiness of the breathing, he could tell the man was still asleep. MacLeod wondered if he kept his eyes closed and wished hard enough that all his nightmares would end. He wanted desperately to be away from these ancient Horsemen, and just as desperately to return to a present day reality that didn't include their reappearance. Sadly, he knew it wasn't to be. He could still feel the furs of the bed underneath him and smell the skins of the tent around him. Another day to spend pretending to be a Horseman and to deal with the complications he'd added for himself. But not this minute. For a little while longer he could stay where he was. He hugged Methos to him and kissed the top of his head. The other man stirred a little and sighed contentedly. Yes, they could stay here a bit longer. Before long, sounds of activity in the camp convinced him it was time to get up. Reluctantly, he roused Methos from his sleep. He chuckled a little at the fact that in either reality, Methos didn't seem to be a morning person.
There was much to be done the day after a raid, and they worked together to get it all done quickly. There were always repairs to the leather armor and the clothing worn. While Methos worked on those, MacLeod took the horse for a long walk to ease the muscles that would be sore after the previous day's ride. As he rode across the sand, he thought about the new problems he'd created for himself. He had no doubt that Kronos would come to 'share' Methos before long. He also had no doubt that he would not allow it. What he didn't know was what other problems that refusal would cause. He had to be prepared for anything. Kronos' reaction could be everything from acceptance, which he doubted, to a personal challenge, which seemed more likely. He also knew that both Caspian and Silas would back whatever Kronos did. He'd have to keep an eye on Methos and watch his own back at the same time.
He walked the horse back to camp and unsaddled it, then led it into the stream to bathe its legs in the cool water. Methos was already at the stream working on washing clothing on the rocks. MacLeod took the horse downstream of where he was working and watched as the cloth was pounded on the rocks, then rinsed in the water, and the process repeated until each piece was clean. Methos knew he was being watched and looked up and smiled. MacLeod thought that was the first real smile he'd seen on that face since he'd been brought to the Horsemen's camp. He didn't need the complications of being attached to a servant in this reality, but to have Methos, any Methos, in his life again seemed worth the risk. He shook his head. This line of thinking only got him to the what ifs of what he considered his real life. What if he'd never gotten involved with Methos? What if he'd listened to Joe and tried to understand the past? What if Kronos hadn't found Methos at all? And the biggest what if of all. What if this damn nightmare finally ended? What would he do about Methos then?
He took the horse back to the corral and turned it loose. Kronos, Caspian and Silas were already drinking as they sat near one of the cook fires. He decided that it would be wiser for his image as a Horseman if he joined them. He knew Kronos was watching him, and didn't need to have the others realize that he might not be the man they thought he was. He sat with them, drinking and telling tales until past dark. At what seemed like a reasonable time, he left the others and went to his tent. It didn't get any easier to listen to their stories of killing and raping and the abuse of the new slaves brought into camp, but he couldn't see that sacrificing his own life by challenging one of them would stop anything. He was sure it would be a sacrifice, for even if he beat the one he challenged, the others would be there to take him when it was over. Was this the decision Methos had made millennia ago? To survive in hopes of some day being able to do something about the situation? He didn't know. He might never know.
He entered his tent and looked around. All the disorder from the previous day was packed away neatly, the clothes stacked on a mat, fresh fruit in the bowl, his bed smoothed and spread out for him, and the wine and water containers filled. Methos was lying on his rug and appeared to be asleep. MacLeod sat on the furs and took off his boots and tunic. He thought about waking Methos to talk to him, then changed his mind. There was always tomorrow. He lay down on the furs and pulled his blanket up and tried to sleep. He finally fell into a fitful sleep, filled with images of the dead and of a leering Kronos demanding to take Methos from him. A sound in the tent brought him instantly awake, listening for its source. He relaxed when he realized it was Methos getting up to extinguish the lamp. He stopped Methos before he got back to his bed and pulled him down next to him. Tonight he needed to hold him and know he was there. He arranged himself against Methos' back and nuzzled his face into the man's hair, then pulled the blanket over both of them and closed his eyes. This time he slept peacefully.
The next day was like any other, taking care of the ordinary work, exercising the horses, making sure everything would be ready for their next raid. In the afternoon, as MacLeod sat near the cook fires, Kronos approached and sat next to him. The other man leaned in close, and MacLeod didn't like the look in his eyes.
"Tonight, brother Duncan. Send your pet to me tonight. I want to know if you've taught him as well as I taught you." He reached a hand to MacLeod's crotch and squeezed hard. "Surely you haven't forgotten your lessons." MacLeod kept his gaze impassive and Kronos laughed softly at him. "You always did try to deny that you liked it, but I knew better." He took his hand off MacLeod and stood up. "Tonight," he repeated. "I'll be waiting." He turned and walked away. Tension gripped MacLeod's gut as he considered what he was going to do. He wasn't going to send Methos to that man, he knew that. What he didn't know was what alternatives there were. Or did he? The implications of what Kronos had said about lessons were clear. But could he offer himself to Kronos in place of Methos? And would Kronos accept the substitution or was he set on trying his hand with Methos? He rubbed a hand across his face as he considered how complicated things had become. He had a few hours to think about it, but he'd better have some sort of plan by evening.
By nightfall he'd made his decision. He'd sat with the Horsemen through the evening meal, then got up to go back to his tent. As he left them, Kronos caught his eye with a meaningful look. MacLeod simply nodded at him. He walked slowly to his own tent, replaying the situation in his mind as he went. He was sure. It was the only real option he had. He entered the tent to find Methos stretched out on his fur bed. MacLeod smiled at the guilty look on his face as he sat up. He moved to the bed and sat next to Methos. He needed to say something to him, but wasn't sure how to start. Methos looked at him and smiled, and MacLeod saw the trust that was building between them. That made his decision even more certain.
"Methos, I need you to do something for me. And don't ask why." He looked into the face of the man next to him. "Stay here. Whatever happens, stay here tonight. I'll be back, but probably not till morning. Will you do that?" He was answered with a solemn nod. "Good. Now I've got to go." He stood up and looked around, wondering if he should change what he was wearing. What did you wear for something like this? He decided it didn't matter. With one glance back at Methos, he left the tent and went to find Kronos.
A quick survey of the camp showed that he was no longer sitting around the fires, so MacLeod headed for Kronos' tent. He stood outside for a moment, then took a deep breath and walked in. He didn't see Kronos as he entered the tent, and he wondered where the man was. His question was answered quickly when he felt a hand grab his hair and a knife at his throat.
"I knew this would be your choice, brother." Kronos held MacLeod close, whispering in his ear. "I'm glad you didn't disappoint me." He pushed MacLeod away from him. "But you tell me why. Does the slave mean that much to you?"
MacLeod turned to face him. "No," he lied. "He's not ready. That's all. He doesn't know enough yet."
"But you know enough." Kronos leered at MacLeod in anticipation. He toyed with the knife that was still in his hand. "When you first joined us you were good at killing and planning, but you needed to learn obedience. In time, you were good at that, too." He stepped forward and ran the point of the knife along MacLeod's neck. "Why don't you remind me how obedient you can be." He pushed MacLeod to his knees in front of him. "You do remember what I like, don't you?"
He'd thought he had some idea what Kronos would want from him, but as the night went on, he realized he knew nothing of what was expected. Hours of pain and humiliation went by as Kronos took greater and greater pleasure with each perverse activity. Morning found MacLeod naked, hands bound behind him, lying on his face on the dirt floor of the tent. As Kronos reached for him once more, he flinched, his mind screaming for it all to end. Instead, the knife flashed in Kronos' hand and the leather at his wrists was cut.
"You can go now, Duncan." Kronos spoke to him almost sensuously. "It was a lovely evening. We should do it again." MacLeod stood up slowly, looking for his clothes. He found enough that hadn't been torn from him to cover himself as he started to leave the tent. "One more thing." The voice stopped him in his tracks, but he couldn't look at the other man. "This doesn't change anything. Send me your pet tonight." MacLeod closed his eyes tightly and dropped his chin to his chest with a feeling of defeat. After a moment, he opened his eyes and left the tent, walking slowly back to his own.
As he pushed aside the door flap and entered his tent, he saw Methos was awake but still lying on the furs. He sat up as MacLeod came in and his eyes widened at MacLeod's condition. He said nothing, just got up and picked up a bowl and left the tent quickly. When he came back he had the bowl filled with warm water and a cup of the herb tea. He gave the cup to MacLeod, who held it with both hands as he sipped it. He took the torn and soiled clothes from MacLeod and put them aside, then made him take off the last of what he was wearing, and put that with the other pieces. That done, he took a clean cloth and the bowl of warm water and started to clean off the blood, filth and body fluids that were the evidence of the night's activities. When the outward signs of the evening were removed, MacLeod lay down and tried to sleep. He heard Methos moving around the tent, then take the dirty clothes and leave. After a while, he fell into a dreamless sleep. When he woke it was mid afternoon, judging by the angle of the sun. Methos was working on mending the torn, but now clean clothing.
He sat up and looked at Methos. "Thank you," he said simply.
Methos looked up from his work. "Are you hungry? I could bring you something."
"No." MacLeod reached for a clean tunic. "I'll go join them at the fires." He knew he couldn't give Kronos the satisfaction of thinking that he was cowed by what had happened. His body had healed and he would push the rest out of his mind. He would go and face Kronos and the others like any other afternoon. MacLeod stood up and pulled on the tunic and leggings, ran his hands through his hair, then squared his shoulders and took a deep breath before he stepped out of the tent.
He pushed the skin aside and walked out into the sun. Looking around, he found the Horsemen where he had expected, sitting at the fires and reliving the last raids. He walked up to them and took the bowl of food that was offered by the cook, moving to sit at what he thought was a reasonable distance. As he ate, he considered what to do about the last thing Kronos had said to him. That he still had to send Methos to him tonight. He'd tried what he thought was his only alternative and the problem remained. His reverie was interrupted by the sight of Kronos standing up and walking toward him.
"Did you sleep well, Duncan?" Kronos sat down beside him. "I did." MacLeod tried to ignore the twisting in his gut that was caused by having the man so close to him. He almost cringed as Kronos draped an arm across his shoulders. "It's good to have you really back. You haven't seemed yourself lately." He laughed softly. "Until last night, at least. I'm glad you remember who we are." He took his arm off MacLeod and stood up. "And you do remember that we share everything, don't you?" He started to move away, then stopped and looked back. "Send him tonight. If I have to take him from you..." He didn't finish the thought, but his meaning was clear.
MacLeod stared at Kronos' back as he walked away. He knew what this was about. It was about power. And control. Kronos was making sure that MacLeod understood who was the master of the Horsemen, and Methos was merely a pawn in his game. Not letting Kronos win this could mean death for one of them. But how could he send Methos to that man? He'd given his word that he wouldn't allow it to happen. He needed more time.
He spent the rest of the afternoon walking and thinking. He'd followed the stream for a couple of miles until he came to a bend where there was a spot protected from wind and sun. He sat there for a long time as he considered what possible options he had. It didn't seem to matter how he approached the problem, there was no way he could win. Everything he thought of ended up with either Methos or himself dead. Some options ended up with both of them dead. The only choice that left them both alive meant he had to break his word to Methos. Which also meant for him that he had no good choices. He saw that the sun was dropping lower in the sky and knew that if he wanted to get back before dark he'd better get started. He stood up wearily, not having come to any conclusions about what he was going to do, and started back to the camp.
As MacLeod walked into camp the sun was setting and the evening meal was being prepared. He joined the Horsemen to eat and shared a few cups of wine with them before making his excuses and going to his tent. He found Methos working on plaiting some leather pieces to decorate the saddle. He stopped his work and looked up as MacLeod entered, then went back to the braid as MacLeod sat on his bed and pulled his boots off. He watched the long fingers working the strands of leather, fascinated with how easily they worked the pattern. When the piece was done, Methos attached a small bell to the end of it, then held it up with a little smile. MacLeod held out his hand for the braid, and when Methos reached to hand it to him, MacLeod reached a little further and grasped his hand, pulling him over to join him on the bed. He looked at the intricate work in the leather and shook it a little to hear the bell ring. There was something in the simple gesture of Methos making the braid for him that touched him deeply. He pulled Methos to him and kissed him, then just sat and held him. He knew he didn't dare try and say anything, especially knowing what in all likelihood was going to happen later that evening.
All too soon, that which he had dreaded did happen. The door skin of the tent was pushed back and Kronos stepped in. The Horseman took in the scene in front of him and grinned. "This is a lovely picture, Duncan. Have you been giving him last minute instructions?" Methos stiffened in his arms as he heard Kronos' words. MacLeod held him tighter.
"No, Kronos. I told you. He's not ready." He met Kronos' steady gaze and hoped in vain that the Horseman would give up on his need to use Methos against him. It was not to be.
"I told you, brother, we share. Everything. And tonight I want to share him." He pointed at Methos. When MacLeod made no move to release him, Kronos stepped forward and grasped Methos' arm roughly and pulled him out of his embrace. MacLeod shot to his feet and reached for Methos, but even more quickly, Kronos had produced a knife which he held at Methos' throat. "What we don't share, none of us can have. Isn't that what we've always done?" He stood helplessly as Kronos dragged Methos out of the tent and across the camp to his own. He watched until the two were inside the tent, then turned and went back into his own. He saw the braid that had dropped to the ground and picked it up. He sat heavily on his bed, holding the braid in both hands, listening to the soft sound of the bell, wondering what he had done in his life that the gods felt they had to punish him this way, and why his punishment had to be at the expense of his friend.
He sat motionless through the night, waiting and listening. The only part of him that moved at all were his hands, fingering and twisting the braided leather, holding it as if it were a lifeline to Methos. Morning found him in the same position, still holding the braid, staring at it unseeing. A sound outside his tent caught his attention and he looked up to see Kronos entering with Methos slung over his shoulder. He dumped the naked body in front of MacLeod and stepped back.
"You were right, brother. He wasn't ready." Kronos turned and left.
MacLeod moved to the body, turning him onto his back. He grimaced at the jagged wound in the chest that was just starting to heal. It would be a while before Methos revived. He arranged the man so he was laying flat on his back, then picked up the bowl and went for some warm water. The least he could do was what Methos had done for him. When he came back to his tent, he could see that the wound was slowly knitting, but life had not yet returned to the body. He started to clean the blood and filth off Methos, hoping that removing the outward signs of the night with Kronos would help how he felt when he did revive. After finishing that task, he pulled a blanket over Methos and sat with him and waited. Finally, he heard the sharp gasp and saw the eyes that flew open as life returned. He reached a hand to the man's shoulder, flinching at the momentary panic he saw in his face.
"Easy. You're safe now. It's me, MacLeod." The eyes that met his own held only the pain of healing. He'd expected hate, maybe accusation, but not the simple acceptance that seemed to be there. He saw that Methos was trembling and understood the chill that often accompanied a death. He pulled him onto the bed, then stripped off his own tunic to better share his body warmth. He nestled himself against Methos' back, his arm across the man's chest holding him close. He covered them both with the blanket. Methos placed his own hand over MacLeod's, lacing their fingers together. They lay quietly like this as the healing process finished and Methos' body temperature returned to normal.
When the shivering stopped, MacLeod moved slightly to place a kiss at Methos' neck, then spoke softly into his ear. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"For what?" Methos asked him gently. "For expecting him to live by your code? He only did what he said he would." He squeezed MacLeod's hand. "I knew what you were doing when you left me here that night. And I loved you for it. But I also knew it wouldn't change anything." He turned his head enough to see MacLeod's face. "Didn't you know that?"
MacLeod hesitated before answering. "I guess I didn't want to know. I hoped that if I made an honorable offer he would accept it. All I got was humiliation for both of us."
Methos shook his head. "Don't think that way. He only wins if you let yourself believe you've lost. You've done the most important thing you could."
"What would that be?"
"You made the choice to live. As long as you're alive there can be a way to change things, and a chance for redemption. Maybe not today. Maybe not even soon. But someday." Words spoken by another Methos resonated in MacLeod's head. Live. Grow stronger. Fight another day. He was starting to really understand what that meant. That there would be times when the choices he would have to make would not have a right answer, but that he should find the answer that meant survival. He still couldn't justify that with his own code of honor, but he knew he had to consider how to blend the two concepts and find something that would work for him. He was also starting to understand some of the choices that his real life Methos must have had to make through the millennia.
He realized that Methos had fallen asleep in his arms, and he smiled. He settled his face contentedly against the man's neck and closed his eyes. He'd find a way to make things right. Someday. He fell asleep with that thought in his mind. He slept soundly, and when he finally woke up, he panicked briefly when Methos wasn't next to him, but he heard him moving around. He opened his eyes and called for him.
"Methos? Come here." Even as he spoke, he saw that he wasn't in his tent anymore. He was home on the barge in his own bed. Then who was moving around?
"Mac? Thank God! You're OK." A very worried Richie Ryan was at the side of the bed. MacLeod pushed himself into a sitting position in the bed and smiled as Richie reached to arrange the pillows behind him.
"How long have you been out? Over a day." Richie was fussing with the blankets. "I was getting really worried. I didn't know what to do."
MacLeod grabbed Richie's hands. "Stop fidgeting. I'm OK. But I'd love a cup of coffee."
Richie grinned at him. "Sure. I'll start some." The young man moved quickly to the kitchen and took out the supplies. MacLeod watched him work for a few moments, then looked around the barge. Nothing seemed to have changed. It was still winter in Paris. What had seemed like weeks of time must have been an intense nightmare. As he continued looking around he saw a small item on his bed side table.
He reached over and picked up the braided leather and fingered the bronze bell attached to it. Maybe it hadn't been a nightmare after all. He was still holding the braid when Richie walked up and handed him a steaming mug of coffee.
He pointed at the leather. "What's that?"
"A gift." MacLeod smiled to himself, then looked up at Richie. "A gift from a friend."