by Lillian Wolfe
Even the direct route to Brittany had given MacLeod several hours to think and he found he was grateful Methos had declined the trip with him. It might have been a little too long with him. He was torn between wanting to talk and wanting to shut the older man out.
In spite of his first inclination to be done with Methos and just get on with his life, Mac found it wasn't so easy. He missed him-- missed his sarcastic remarks, his dry sense of humor, and his company. When he wasn't around, he felt almost as if part of himself was missing. Yet, he was still struggling with the reconciliation of what his friend had done. To find out someone you loved and trusted had a past you hadn't even had a hint of was a shock. He'd felt-- still felt-- betrayed.
He'd thought they could talk about it and maybe he could come to some understanding, but Methos seemed as reluctant to talk as he did. He didn't know how much longer he could go on pretending everything was okay between them when it wasn't.
He followed the line of standing stones into Brest. //Ancient stones leading the way to the sea,// he mused. //Stones with an unknown purpose. Just like The Game. For what purpose?//
Once he was into Brest, it was easy enough to find the morgue. He stayed north of the Port du Commerce and quickly located the building. MacLeod stood in the morgue and waited for the drawer to roll open. They all looked the same, dreary places where once human flesh was kept until claimed or sent to be disposed of in some fashion. Thanks goodness, they didn't rush to dispose of the bodies. It could make an Immortal's life miserable to have to recover from embalming.
"Voila, monsieur. No head. Just as I said." The medical examiner flipped the sheet back to expose the torso of a tall, broad-shouldered man. Mac looked at the cleanly cut neck and felt it was done with a smooth sword stroke. Few things cut as cleanly as a well-sharpened blade. But whoever did it was sloppy to let the body be found.
Mac's eyes were drawn to a mark on the man's shoulder, a small birthmark probably, that was a purplish spot that looked like a star. He made a mental note of it. He'd never noticed that mark on Etienne's shoulder, but the build definitely fit his friend.
"He doesn't look like he put up a struggle," Mac commented.
"No. I think he was drugged, perhaps. Not your usual drugs, mind you, but traces of arsenic, digitalis and other potentially lethal chemicals were in his system. Do you recognize him, monsieur?"
MacLeod shrugged, "Maybe. Can't tell for sure without a head. Any sign of it?"
The man shook his head. "No. What would anyone want with a head?"
Niam peered closely at the oval-shaped object sitting on a wooden block on the basement table. She ran a finger over the smooth surface of what was once a fleshy face and now was stretched tautly against the bones of the head.
The basement resembled a museum display with old daggers, blades, chains, and other implements set on shelves about the dimly lighted room. A musty smell permeated the air from the old objects as well as the tanning solution she was using on the head.
Her eyes moved up to a shelf along the back wall that displayed another thirteen preserved heads, all with eyes open and gazing into oblivion. Only one seemed to display any alarm in the staring eyes and that was the one just before her.
"We'd better mix the next batch of the sedative stronger, Lyse. That last one almost came out of it. Double the vervain and add another pinch of foxglove. I definitely don't want our next *offering* to be able to react."
Lysette looked up from the tallboy she'd been sorting through, a copper mixing bowl in her hand. "Have you found an appropriate subject then?"
Niam's eyes narrowed in pleasure. "Oh, yes. This one is ideal. The gods lead us to the nemeton, inspired us to buy it and now they have provided the perfect offering to reawaken the woods... one of the chosen ones. One they should have had a long time ago... We must have as many followers in attendance as possible at Beltaine, Lyse. You'll see to it."
She turned to look at her apprentice. "This one will be very special. I've never taken an Immortal as old as this one. He may be difficult for me to take, but it will be spectacular. He's older than me, Lyse, and probably very resistent to drugs. Maybe you should triple the vervain"
"I see. " The blonde girl nodded her understanding, yet there was just a twinge of regret in her voice.
Joe Dawson frowned as MacLeod reported his findings to him. He was unsure about the identity of the Immortal who was lying headless in the Brest morgue, not seeing anything that would conclusively narrow it down . There were so many new ones, it seemed. How could the game ever end when new ones kept coming along?
"I don't have any references to that birthmark in the files, Mac. Do you have any ideas?"
"One. The build fits Duval. I'm just not sure about the birthmark. I'll check it out when I get back to Paris." MacLeod changed lanes to get around a beat up truck loaded with hay and sacks of grain. "The ME mentioned that the body appeared to be drugged with some odd concoction of herbs and poisons. Has to be someone who knows how to create a drug to affect an Immortal."
"Like another Immortal. Who else would go to this much work?"
"Yeah. Hunters would just shoot, then take the heads. I'll check with Methos. He seems to know a lot about drugs and potions-- has some first hand knowledge."
Joe chuckled, then grew serious. "How is it with you two?"
"Uneasy, Joe. He's never been too talkative about his past and now is no exception."
//And you never really asked either,// Joe thought, but only said, "Maybe he'd be more talkative over a six pack."
MacLeod snorted. "It'd take a couple of six packs, at least." But he filed it away as an option. //Could I get Methos drunk enough to really open up?//
"This rash of dead Immortals is bugging me, Mac. I'm gonna fly over and check the files personally. I'll catch the noon flight over tomorrow."
Duncan could scarcely believe it when Methos told him he'd meet him at a clothing shop in the garment district. Somehow, he never thought of the elder Immortal as being particularly interested in fashion, yet here he was going into a designer men's shop. Methos was studying a rack of silk shirts when he spotted MacLeod. He held up a dark blue one against his shoulders.
"Whadaya think, MacLeod? Is this a good color for me?"
"Looks good. Since when did you concern yourself about clothes?"
"Since I decided I didn't have to look like a poor university student." He put the shirt back on the rack and pulled out a light mauve one. "Or a conservative one," he added. "How was Brittany?"
"Interesting. I think it's safe to say the victim definitely lost his head by a sword."
"And the body was left lying around for anyone to find? Sloppy."
"But the interesting part is that the victim had traces of digitalis, opium, and something called nepeta cateria in his system."
Before MacLeod had completed the statement, Methos made the mental translation to foxglove, poppy and catnip. "With honey and mint to make it palatable," he murmured.
"Let's go someplace more private, MacLeod." He urged him out of the shop.
A few blocks away was a small green park, mostly deserted at this time of day. An small, unremarkable fountain bubbled water providing a soft backdrop as the two Immortals stood by it.
"What you're describing, MacLeod, is a sedative of sorts. It numbs the mind and the senses so the person feels indifferent to anything. Druids used to give it to their sacrifices to make the *transition* to the other side easier. Did it occur to you that the dates these Immortals disappeared happen to coincide with Samhain and Imbolc?"
"Celtic seasons," Duncan connected immediately. "The first day of the season. You think it could be someone with a strong Celtic heritage?"
Methos shrugged, "Or someone who happened to like the concept. There are enough tree huggers running around these days that it could be any one of a dozen religions."
What he didn't say was his own fear of who it could be. Just because Niam sold herbs and had the knowledge to mix up a potion of this nature didn't mean she was involved. But a butterfly bounced around his stomach all the same and he added, innocently enough, "My newly re-discovered friend owns an herb shop. I'll make some inquiries with her. She might know something about it."
Duncan nodded, giving Methos a curious glance.
A jingle of the bell brought Lysette's head up from the herbs she was weighing and bagging. Her lips pulled in amusement as she saw the tall, slender man. She stepped out to greet him.
"I'm looking for Niam," Adam Pierson said. "Is she around?"
"She'll be back in a few minutes. Wait, if you'd like." As he nodded, she went back to her work, but kept a cautious eye on him.
Casually, Methos browsed through the shop, pausing to read labels on the jars and bags. Lots of cooking herbs, including a few rare and pricey ones as well as saffron, western sage, Mexican cilantro-- items that import raised the price of more than availability. Then there was a fair collection of healing herbs and powders. Most were pre-packaged items from industry companies. A few bore a label for the shop's name. Custom dried, ground and mixed-- very expensive. And, he frowned, very uncommon. His head came up as he detected the arrival of another Immortal.
"Hello, Adam," Niam said pleasantly, setting a bag on the counter. He looked up, smiled at her. She slipped off her coat and kissed him, her fingers rolling gently against his cheek. "What brings you by?"
"I thought maybe you'd like a cup of coffee?" he asked, sounding hopeful-- all the boyish charm he could muster put into it.
"Always thoughtful, aren't you?" A touch of sarcasm. "But as you see, I just got in and I have work to do."
He nodded. "Yes. I was just looking at some of your work--" He paused as Niam turned toward him. He held up a bag of snakeroot and vervain labeled as a sleeping aid, wiggled it at her, before dropping it back on the shelf.
"What are you doing here, Niam? These drugs are archaic. You-- you can't use them on people. Some of them are illegal." Methos picked up a jar of dried Aminita muscaria mushrooms, a serious hallucinogenic. "Not to mention deadly."
"I'm not selling to the general public, Adam," Niam replied with an amused chuckle. "They're private stock."
Eyes widening in amazement, he stared at her. "Private stock?! This isn't brandy we're talking about." He set the jar down, turned another to look at it. "You've got ground mushrooms, digitalis, witches brew... Do you have eye of newt somewhere too? What are you-- a practicing witch?"
A few paces behind Adam, Lysette hefted a mace in both hands, swinging it loosely. Almost imperceptibly, Niam nodded her head as she smiled sweetly at Methos. She stepped closer, her eyes locking with his. "It's Wicca now days, cariad. And I'm still following the path."
He gaped at her. "You can't be serious?!" A prickling at the back of his neck gave a milli-second's warning. Just as he started to turn, the heavy force of the mace connected with his skull. The crack of the blow echoed painfully in his head before the full impact hit him and he blacked out. Crashing to the floor, his arm flew out, catching the shelf full on. Shelf, jars and herbs came dropping down along with Methos.
"Damn. That made a mess," Niam muttered. "It looks like we have a guest for a couple of days, Lyse. I want a large group for the ceremony-- as many of our followers as can make it. His death will make a very impressive display."
Lysette nodded. "I'll get on it tomorrow." She stepped over Methos, grabbed a broom and started sweeping up herbs.
Rummaging in a drawer behind the counter, Niam found a hypodermic, then pulled a medicine bottle out of the small refrigerator. "I'd better sedate him before he wakes up."
Through the intense pain in his head, Methos forced his eyes open to face the stiff bristles of the broom brushing roughly against his cheek. Niam's words flitted into his consciousness and almost made sense-- at least enough to know he was in big trouble.
Groggily, he slipped a hand in his coat pocket, hoping to find something there that could be a clue. His fingers found a flat edge, closed around it, exploring it-- a book of matches. With great care, he eased it out. Keeping the movement small, he slid the matchbook out and tried to work it to the edge of one of the shelves. He had trouble feeling it, keeping focused on the task. His head was pounding with the effort. His fingers scraped along the edge of the shelf, lost contact with the matchbook and had to backtrack until he was able to slide the matchbook over and wedge it slightly under it. It was a long shot, but MacLeod-- if he should come-- had caught on to poorer clues.
Then Niam knelt above him, jabbed the hypodermic into his shoulder none too gently. "Ow! You have a-- a lousy bedside manner," he spat at her through the fog that was clogging his brain. "I thought I taught you better!"
Her response was to push harder. Muttering a curse under his breath, Methos tried to summon enough strength to flip her, but the drug worked fast. He collapsed face first back on the floor.
Niam stood, nodded to Lysette. The younger woman grabbed his legs and started pulling him to the basement doors as Niam causally tossed the needle into the trash can. "You don't need to be gentle."
With a wicked grin, Lysette pushed open the basement door and shoved Methos head first down the stairs.
As Joe Dawson went through the records of Immortals who just disappeared, a pattern was beginning to form. It wasn't one anyone would notice if he wasn't looking for it.
The first disappearance was six years ago, around Halloween. No one thought much of it. Like MacLeod said, Immortals changed identities and his Watcher just lost him. The next two occurred the following years, around the same date. But then two disappeared the next year and two more the year after that, including Paolo Debrezi. MacLeod had specifically asked about him. Then this year, two more so far. The dates were about six months apart until this year.
Signing off the computer, he sighed and dialed MacLeod's number. He needed to get this information to him. As he waited, he stared at the database screen and was amused at the thought that Methos had been responsible for so much of it.
Joe sat on a bench outside the Louvre. Behind him, the modernistic entrance to the old museum beckoned tourists, artists, and school children to come discover the beauty. A mass of school children were doing just that as Duncan MacLeod made his way to the bench.
"Okay, here's what I have, Mac. These disappearances started in 1981. The first one was a Michael Raines on October 29th. His watcher followed him to a blues club on the Left Bank. He met a pretty redhead that the Watcher thought he knew and they disappeared together. He never saw him again.
"The next disappearance was about the same time the next year. Almost the same situation. A year after that, deja vu. Then the pattern changed a bit. The next disappearance was on April 29th, followed by October 31st, then January 28th and October 30th and this past year, April 29th, July 30th and October 30th. Your friend Etienne disappeared on January 29th."
MacLeod had already connected the dates. Methos was right. "Celtic seasons, " he muttered.
"They're all on the beginning of Celtic seasons," Duncan explained. "October is Samhain, a fire holiday. May 1st is Beltaine, another fire holiday. The beginning of August is Lugnasadh-- the feast of Lugh and Imbolc is the beginning of February. Someone is offering ritual sacrifices to the ancient gods of the Celts."
"Then tomorrow--" Joe started.
"--is Beltaine. And another sacrifice."
"Most of them have disappeared from one of three clubs here in Paris, Mac. And they've all met a young woman, although the descriptions of the women varies. No way they could be the same one."
"They've disappeared in Paris, but they weren't necessarily killed here. Etienne washed up in Brittany. Which may be why they were taken a couple of days before the actual holiday-- they needed to be transported."
"One more thing, Mac. They were all young, with at least three-fourths of them being less than one hundred years old. Most probably didn't have many kills under the belt."
"So our killer doesn't want to take on any one with any real strength. It fits. Drug him, then take his head. Easy target." Mac was disgusted.
The sound pounded in his head like a ritual drum, each beat of his heart repeating the rhythm. Methos forced his eyes open, blinked into the dimly lit room. His vision focused on wrinkled objects that looked like dried fruit carved into faces. His stomach churned as he realized what he was looking at -- heads, dried human heads. Empty eyes gazed back at him from across the room. As he jerked involuntarily, he felt the sharp edge of metal cuffs cut into his wrists and realized his arms were chained to the wall behind him.
Between the gruesome sight and the splitting headache from the cranial concussion that was trying to heal, he felt nauseous, but the thick band of duct tape across his mouth discouraged that feeling from progressing. He closed his eyes again and tried to take a few deep breaths. The air was stale, an enclosed room with little ventilation, and the odors of herbs and decaying filled his nostrils. Not exactly helping, he decided.
Eventually, the pounding ceased and he took time to examine the room. No windows, one door, a single low watt light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Basement workshop, he concluded, annoyed at his own stupidity in ending up in this situation. And he was the one who warned MacLeod about Kristin? He'd walked just as blindly into this... Well, maybe this was a little different-- he didn't know Niam had a habit of taking heads.
With only a limited view, he studied the head collection on the table in front of him. At least a dozen dried heads, one or two that looked familiar from the database Adam Pierson and Don Salzer had put together, but none that he personally knew. He wondered if Niam had made love to all of them or if that was reserved for him? //Now you are being an idiot,// he told himself sharply.
Shifting his position a little, Methos tested the chains holding his arms. Metal sliced into his wrists as he tried to pull. He had maybe three inches of slack, not enough to do anything. He leaned back, seeing no reason to continue subjecting himself to pain. All he could do now was wait.
He dozed, woke, dozed off again. His body ached, his arms felt numb, and he was thirsty, but none of that matched the mental stress of waiting. He had no doubt in his mind that Niam wanted to add his head to her collection. A scuff on the stairs brought his head up and eyes alert. No sensation of *presence*, so he knew it wasn't Niam. Lysette, then.
Moments later, a key turned in the lock and Lysette came into the room. She carried a small tray with a couple of slices of bread, cheese, fruit and a glass of water balanced on it. As she stepped to face Methos, she smiled sweetly. "Unfortunately, you will be our guest for another day. So, I brought a little meal for you. You're probably quite hungry by now." She set the tray on the table where unseeing eyes gazed across it.
Her smile remained charming as her fingers caught an edge of the tape across his mouth and she pulled it steadily, but not quickly, off. It hurt. He glared at her, tried to make his mouth work. His lips were dry; even his tongue felt dry.
"You're thirsty, aren't you? Sedatives tend to make you that way," she taunted. She picked up the glass, held it to his lips and poured a little of the water in.
It was sweet, unusually so, but wet and cold and he was so grateful that it could have been poisoned and he wouldn't care.
Lysette set it down, broke off a piece of bread and pushed it into his mouth. He ate reluctantly as she continued to feed him bits of bread and slices of apple and cheese. Turning his head away from her, he muttered, "You know, I always fancied it would be good to be fed by a beautiful girl, but this isn't exactly what I had in mind."
"I'll bet it isn't. "
"Do you have any grapes? I once had a splendid woman feed me grapes." He almost smiled at the memory of Cleopatra dropping grapes into his mouth as he reclined with his head in her lap. That was before Anthony and Caesar.
"Sorry, cherie. No grapes." She stuffed in a cube of cheese instead, then pushed the glass against his lips again. "Now, drink the rest of this."
As he swallowed more of the water, he realized why the sweetness. "It's drugged. What is it? Valerian, passionflower and honey?" He pulled his head away from the glass.
"Close. It's just a sedative. Drink it. Or-- I can give you another shot. Your choice, Adam."
Reluctantly, he drank. Lysette smiled smugly, picked up the tray and started out the door. She paused, "Sleep well, Adam. Your roommates are quiet." Laughing, she shut the door and hurried up the stairs.
Numbly, he let his eyes drift back to the heads staring at him from the table. As he fought to stay conscious, his head dropped and his vision shifted unexpectedly to an ancient dagger with a twisted blade-- a blade very much like one he'd seen before.
Wales 60 A.D.
Methos stood alone at the edge of the grove of trees. It was nearly moonrise. Almost time. He leaned back against a tree and prepared himself for what was to come. It wasn't the first time he'd been a sacrifice, but it was never easy. More than anything he regretted leaving Niam. There was no time to tell her, no way to tell her either.
Silently, Alwynna appeared beside him, laying a hand on his arm. "It's almost time, Dylan. Are you frightened?"
He shook his head. "No. More worried about what will happen here. Niam... you... the others."
She almost smiled. "Ah, that will be your job, young man. You will need to plead our case with the gods. You must speak eloquently and true-- and I think there is none who can do a better job than that."
"I will do the best I can, Alwynna." He sounded sincere, but Methos didn't know any way to tell her that the messenger they'd selected would never make it to the gods. In some ways he was glad he was chosen because it meant none of the others would be, yet he was a fraud-- a druid in many ways, but not able to do this duty.
She walked with him to the appointed site, arriving just as the others gathered. Only a few druids were present for this ceremony, not the whole order. Methos was grateful for that, grateful that Niam would not be witness to this.
As Alwynna let go his arm, she whispered, "I will miss you, Dylan."
With a nod at her, he took a deep breath and stepped forward to meet Guerin. The elder of the order bowed his head a moment in respect to him, then offered him a goblet of mead. As he sipped it slowly, Methos tasted the drugs in the honey wine, could identify the herbs. They would numb some of the pain, would leave him almost indifferent to his fate. He barely heard the words that were being said as the rest of the order formed a row on each side of him and led him to the circle of trees near the edge of the bog.
Guerin stood in front of him, spoke not to him but to the gods. "Rhiannon, Lleu-- our lady and our lord-- we send this man, our brother, to you. Hear his words--"
Methos heard no more. Behind him, Maelwyn swung an ax into the back of his head. The sharp crack of his skull breaking resonated through him, then he felt the pain even through the drug. He thought he cried out but all anyone heard was a groan as Methos dropped to his knees, struggling to stay upright. Guerin moved quickly. Kneeling beside the nearly unconscious young man he supported him partially and, drawing a sharp dagger, he stabbed into the victim's jugular vein. Blood poured out as a ceremonial bowl was held under it to catch the flow. Methos choked, fought to stay alive as long as possible, but Guerin stabbed the long-bladed dagger into his side, through his lung but missing his heart. He collapsed to the ground, a final gurgle escaping along with the blood in his throat.
He was dimly aware as Guerin signaled to the others, thinking their sacrifice had died. Reverent hands lifted him from the ground, swung his body and heaved him into the bog. His body hit the water and sank into the muddy ground as he finally lost consciousness.
A couple of hours passed in the silent, now deserted wood. Under the silt and mud that composed the bog, the still form that was Methos shuddered awake. The first gasp brought water and mud into his mouth and he thrashed in a desperate attempt to find air. The memory of the final moments flashed back in his mind and he instantly knew where he was, but couldn't get to the surface fast enough. He died again, lungs choking on the bog water.
He revived again an hour or so later, still under the water, but closer to the edge than before. Once again, he gasped for air and once again, his lungs filled with water and silt. As he started to pass toward the darkness once more, Methos kicked hard toward the thick reeds that edged the bog.
Sounding almost as loud as a shout in the stillness, a choking gasp cut through the silence as a muck covered head bobbed out of the bog. Methos made a desperate grab to find something on the edge of the water to clutch. His fingers closed around a thick patch of rushes and he pulled himself part way up, exhausted with the effort of getting out of the bog and trying to heal. He coughed to expel water and mud from his damaged lungs. Pain still wracked his body and his head felt like it was splitting open. //An apt description,// he thought wryly. //That was a really unpleasant experience, not one I'd ever want to repeat.//
As his strength returned, he pulled himself the rest of the way out of the bog, stumbling wearily to his feet. He had to gather up his things from the cave he'd hidden them in and get out of the area before dawn. As he started to move, he was surprised by a startled scream. Turning toward the sound, he saw the pale face of Niam at the edge of the wood, staring in horror at the mud-covered man. Without thinking, he took a step toward her.
"Puca," she screamed, eyes wide in terror. "Stay away, evil spirit." She threw up her hands in a warding sign, then turned and fled.
Methos started after her, but he stopped, sorrow and regret touching his eyes. Shoulders slumping, he turned away and staggered toward the river.
Duncan knocked insistently on the door and waited impatiently for a response. It was the third time in the past two days he'd been by Methos' flat looking for him. And once again there was no answer. He'd left six voice mail messages over the same time frame, also with no response. Even though it was early morning, he glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then deftly picked the lock on the door and let himself in.
Everything looked normal, nothing standing out to indicate anything was wrong. Duncan prowled around, looking for any clue as to where the elder Immortal was. He brushed a hand over the answering machine and was informed there were nine new messages. He played them, skipping over the six he'd left. One was the landlord saying the power would be off for several hours on Thursday, one was a hang-up and the last was from Amanda. Duncan arched an eyebrow at that, surprised that she would be calling Methos.
So where was the "old" man? With the old girlfriend? Maybe, but he hadn't been home in the past two days. MacLeod definitely didn't like it.
Uneasy, he left the flat and headed for the hall of records. Within a surprisingly short time, old volumes of books were piled high around MacLeod as he waded his way through the old land records looking for any information about the woods. Most of the transactions were simply sales or transfer of deeds from one hand to another with no other notations. It didn't look too promising.
With a sigh of frustration, Mac picked up yet another old volume from the stack and began the search for references. This book was much older than the ones he'd been looking through, hand bound and very delicate old pages. He turned them carefully until his eyes caught on a notation from 1183. The old French was difficult to read and the spidery handwriting didn't help any. But there was a line referring to the woods to the northeast of the city as being considered holy at one time by the Druids of the local tribe who claimed the land before the Romans. A nemet wood, Mac thought, used for worship, rites and sacrifice.
Lysette Moraine's words echoed in his mind. "We do not plan to build anything in the wood. We just want the land."
The land was precisely what she wanted and now he knew why. Closing the book, Mac reached for his coat. He had to find Methos... Now!
MacLeod pulled the car to the curb and stared at the small shop which was the fifth herbal shop on his list. This one wasn't listed but was recommended by the owner of the last one he'd stopped to check out. When Methos said his friend had an herbal shop, did he mean exclusively or was it a health food store? This could be a long, fruitless search at this rate.
The middle-aged matronly woman at the counter looked up from her magazine as the Highlander entered the shop. She put on a smile and greeted him warmly. "Bonjour, monsieur. How may I help you?"
Duncan glanced around the small shop. "Actually, I'm looking for the owner. Is that you?"
The woman shook her head. "No. I am only occasional help when Madame has to go away on business."
"Ah, I see. Maybe you could tell me if a man has been here to see her, a little shorter than me, slender build, short dark brown hair."
The woman shook her head. "I have not seen anyone like that. You will have to ask Madame. She will be back tomorrow."
Thanking her, Duncan turned to go when he spotted the corner of a matchbook under one of the racks. The color was a distinctive blue and it looked like a flash of pink writing on it that he recognized. If it was what he thought it was, it was definitely out of place here.
Closing time wasn't far away and this bore a little more investigation, Duncan decided. He took the car around the block, parked it and waited for the shop to close. After he watched the woman lock up and leave the shop, he made his way around to the back and picked the lock.
Once inside, he made his way to the main shop and followed the thin trail of light from his torch to the shiny matchbook cover. He pulled it out and gave it little more than a glance. He'd been right. What was a matchbook from Joe's doing here unless Methos dropped it? And where was Methos?
He looked around the shop a little more and spotted the cellar door on the way to the back. Cautiously, he pushed it open and made his way down the stairs.
The small basement at the bottom appeared ordinary. MacLeod didn't sense another Immortal nor did he expect to find anyone downstairs. In fact, he wasn't sure what he was looking for-- a hint of where Methos' friend may be and if he was with her, if they knew who might be wanting to use the woods for a ritual, or even if he was in the right place. He shook his head as he looked around. What was he expecting? A note? An address? All he had was this small nagging feeling, and a matchbook, that told him Methos was somehow involved.
Then he noticed the door off the basement and tried it. Locked. //Could be an office,// he mused. //Could yield a home address.// He set about breaking into it. It took a little longer than the back door, but he was soon in.
The mustiness and strong smell of herbs hit him as soon as he went in. Probably a drying room, he chuckled to himself and flipped on the light. His mouth dropped open as he was startled by the sight of a two dozen eyes staring at him. Almost choking he made his way toward the disembodied heads looking for any he recognized. He had no doubt Joe would be able to identify them.
MacLeod froze as he glimpsed a familiar object out of the corner of his eye. Gruesome heads forgotten, he took three long strides to the coat he recognized as belonging to Methos. Picking it up, he checked to find the sword still in its hidden scabbard. Not a good sign. His eyes darted around the room, taking in the torture implements, the wall chains and the drying heads and he understood the horror of the room. With a certainty, he knew where Methos was and he knew that his life was in grave danger.
He dashed up the stairs for his car.
Anxiously, Duncan pushed the gas pedal as hard as he could, hoping somehow to make the car move faster. The road out of Paris to the north was reasonably straight with few curves to slow him down and he tried to take advantage of it. It was nearly eleven and he still had at least forty kilometers to go. If the ritual started promptly at midnight, as he suspected it would, then he didn't have much time.
For a brief moment, the dark side of MacLeod considered that if he did nothing, he might not have to deal with Methos anymore. No more of his games, his contradictions, his barbed remarks. But if Methos were to lose his head, he would also miss him terribly-- for all the same reasons, ironically enough. No-- if he couldn't let Cassandra take his head, he sure as hell would stop this bitch from doing it if he could. He valued Methos too much to do otherwise. And didn't Methos do at least that much for him?
But it was going to be very close and he didn't have a clue what he was going to do.
A bonfire gained life in the center of the clearing where MacLeod and Methos had been a couple of days earlier. It was completely clear of the extra ferns and other foliage that had covered it earlier and a circle of stones surrounded the fire pit. At the south end, a large slab of rock made a natural stage and faced a monolith that was still partially covered with vines, an indication that it had been in the wood a very long time as well. A few robed figures milled about, as one or two others added logs to the fire.
Most of the people who gravitated toward the glowing center were ordinary people looking for something spiritual in their lives; people whom the modern religions had failed. They wanted some sense and order that was lacking. A few, the inner circle, sought power and held a strong belief in the tenets of worshipping the Earth. These were the true believers of Niam's cult, those who would follow an ancient religion that was resurrected incomplete by one whose training never took her to the real rituals of the Druids. These followers had witnessed her power before, seen the proof of her right to lead in the blue fire that embraced her after a ritual sacrifice-- the proof that the god had accepted their offering.
Nestled to the south side, between the braces of two ancient trees, a canvas tent was erected, the front facing the stage and the clearing. Niam gazed out at the young flames that began to cast a light into the dark surrounding it. Her dream was almost reality now and after tonight, her cult would surely grow by leaps and bounds as word spread of her divinity. Those who looked to believe in something would find it in her. Even those who had witnessed the ritual before would be awed by this night.
She turned to look at Methos, who sat on a rug at the back of the tent. He was still bound, hands behind his back, although he was now draped in a long red robe over his jeans.
His eyes met hers calmly, saying nothing. He wouldn't give her the satisfaction of begging, not that she would listen anyway. Another strip of duct tape covered his mouth. //Like he was going to shout for help in the middle of her followers,// he thought in annoyance.
"You will be the sacrifice this time," she said softly, "with no coming back. Most of the time my *offerings* have been young Immortals, but you're at least two thousand years old, aren't you? Your quickening will be spectacular. Then I'll stab myself and resurrect before their very eyes. My followers will be awed. They'll know I am a god."
Methos lowered his eyes, shaking his head. Amused, Niam crouched before him. "You don't approve?" She ripped the tape from his mouth as he stifled a yelp.
"Being a god has its drawbacks," he said dryly, his face still smarting from the tape.
"Oh, I think the positive outweighs the negative considerably on this one." Impulsively, she covered his mouth with hers, her hand going behind his neck to pull him into the hard kiss. Slowly, she released him and pulled back a little.
"Do you hate me so much?" Methos' voice rasped a little.
"In some ways, I still love you." Her hand brushed against his cheek, then her finger lead the way across to his nose, down it to his mouth. "You should never have left me, Dylan." She stood, took a couple of steps away and stared down at him. "You should have made me Immortal, not left it to chance.
"I was taken by the Romans, used in the filthiest ways possible and I did what I had to do to survive. But after years of abuse, I was handed over to a new master and he killed me. Imagine the shock when I revived and discovered I was still alive. After I got my revenge, I escaped. I must've died twenty times before I began to understand that I was truly Immortal and I finally found another like me. I nearly lost my head five times before I found a sword and learned to use it. You should have been the one guiding me, protecting me."
"I wanted to be," he whispered. "But I couldn't control what was happening..."
"You could have told me, Dylan!" she hissed. "You could have taken me with you when you left. When I realized what you were and that you could have saved me all that misery, I loathed you. At first, all I wanted was revenge-- to find you, torture you and take your head."
Methos squirmed under her accusing gaze. She was right to a point. He could tell her that he couldn't choose the time she became Immortal and there wasn't a way for him to take her with him then. But there was nothing he could say to change her mind.
"After a few centuries, the hatred abated. I learned how to use my sword and my brains. All that you had taught me came into play. I didn't need to be stronger than my opponent, only more clever. Then I began to put together my druid order, the first to really worship in the old way." She paused, met his eyes directly. "The goddess approves. She sent you back to me to be used to solidify my followers. Your death will be glorious, Dylan. Maybe you'll finally accomplish what you were sent to the gods all those long years ago to do."
At that moment, the tent flap flipped aside and Lysette poked her head in. "It's almost time, Niam. We must have at least two hundred followers gathering."
"Not a bad audience, cariad. And when we're done I can read the future in your entrails-- Or maybe I should do it first, then take your head?" Niam said to Methos, then turned to her acolyte. "Prepare him. And be cautious, Lyse." The girl nodded as Niam left.
"Do you know what exactly you're serving? What she really is?" Methos asked as the girl poured an herbal mixture into a large goblet.
"She's the embodiment of the goddess... an immortal. Red wine or white, Adam?" She turned a pleasant smile to him.
"An Immortal-- like me," he persisted. "Like the others she's killed. And she can die like me. What you're following isn't the Druidic path. It's an abomination of what was once a natural way of life. I was there. I was part of it. She's left what was good behind her, altered it to suit her needs."
Lysette stared at him for a few moments, as if considering his words. She looked away, reached for a bottle. "Red wine, then."
Methos bit his lip as she poured the wine into the goblet. He tried to calculate how strong the mixture was and how much he could swallow without leaving him senseless. The girl circled around and stood behind him. She slid her left hand under his chin, tilting his head back.
"Now, be a good boy and don't cause me to spill." The sweetness in her voice was a contradiction to her actions as she pressed the rim of the goblet against his lips and carefully poured some of the drugged wine into his mouth. Reluctantly, he swallowed. She had to believe he was going to drink it all without resisting or she'd force it.
He drank more than half of the liquid before she poured the remainder in his mouth. He tilted his head back a little further letting the wine run down his throat, but not swallowing. He fought against the automatic response and held it. Unexpectedly, Lysette kissed his forehead. "You're really very nice, Adam. I'm sorry it has to end like this." She stepped away and, thankfully, left the tent.
Half-choking, Methos spit out as much of the wine as he could and hoped neither Niam or Lysette was standing anywhere near the tent where they could hear him. He tried to cough up more of what he'd swallowed, but didn't have a lot of success. "Think", he murmured to himself. "You've got to keep thinking. Don't let the mind go numb... Now all I need is a sword." His gaze drifted down to his leg where most of the ejected liquid had soaked the robe. It wasn't too noticeable and in the dark, Niam would never see it. He fought off the dizziness for a bit, but eventually closed his eyes against it.
The wood seemed to be teaming with robed figures, easily two hundred or more of them forming a horseshoe around the fire pit and facing the open slab at the end. The fire was huge, a blazing beacon in the clearing that could be seen from any point in the gathering. A man of medium height with scholarly glasses perched on his nose lead the rest in a chant that sounded other-worldly.
Through the fog in his mind, Methos heard the ancient Welsh words, translated them easily. He remembered a similar chant, but this was not quite right. Like everything else about Niam's new religion, she'd perverted the words to her own use and there was a real darkness in it. Briefly Methos wondered if MacLeod had even found the clue he'd left. Help from that quarter was a real long shot and he'd better not count on it. All he needed were his hands free and a sword. Both seemed like an unlikely possibility at the moment.
"It's time," Niam said with decision. The moon was easily visible in the sky-- not quite an unclouded view but good enough. She nodded at Lysette, turned and lead the way into the tent. Pulling her sword, she held it at Methos.
He focused his vision on the sword tip that wavered just in front of him. He'd had enough of the drug that he could barely focus. In the dullness of his mind, he reasoned that the drug was extremely potent that an Immortal couldn't recover quickly from it. But then, an Immortal had mixed it and he suspected she'd had a lot of practice.
Lysette knelt behind him, began undoing the manacles that held his wrists. The sudden release caused pain after being held in one position so long, but the freedom was short-lived. Lysette pulled first one arm, then the other in front of him, brought his wrists together and rebound them with a nylon cord. Niam watched intently as his disinterested eyes followed the process. For a moment, her sword dropped to rest in the hollow of his throat. He was oblivious to the movement, unaware of the danger as the razor sharp tip drew thin beads of blood. A satisfied smile touched her lips. "I've waited for this a long time. It won't be quick."
Methos fought to keep the neutral look, to remain non-reactive to what was happening. Niam lowered the sword, grabbed his arm and yanked him to his feet. His body tilted, unsteady at suddenly being upright. Lysette caught his other arm to help, then he was fine. As the blonde girl straightened his robes, Niam turned away. "Bring him at the signal," she ordered. "And don't turn your back on him."
Lysette shrugged, but followed instructions. As she moved to stand behind him, she pulled a gun from her robe. //So much for breaking away,// Methos thought and considered his options at that point. Carefully he tested the cord at his wrists. Tight, no slippage. If he tried to wrestle the gun from the girl, he might be successful, but chances are she would fire first. If he waited until he was facing Niam, he might be able to get her sword. Lysette would not risk firing the gun at both of them, and there was a chance he could manage an escape into the woods without being caught or mauled by the crowd. So he stood still and waited.
From his vantage point in the woods, MacLeod watched the chanters. It would seem ludicrous if it weren't so deadly, he thought. He'd been cautiously building a low wall of dead branches, twigs and grass from the winter's destruction. The barrier stretched around the opening toward the tent for about thirty feet. He poured the last of the gasoline from a two gallon container he'd had in the back of his car for emergencies onto the end of the barrier. If he was lucky it would be enough. The dry grass would catch fire and blaze quickly, but not too quickly that it didn't catch the twigs and small branches, which in turn would set the trees blazing.
The chanting stopped and he turned his attention to the flat rock that seemed to be the focal point. A tall woman, clad in a white robe, stepped up onto the rock. As she raised her arms, the crowd cheered, then fell silent. MacLeod felt a shiver up his spine as the zoomorphic symbols on Niam's robe seemed to crawl toward the sky. As she began speaking, he strained to see any sign of Methos. He focused on the tent in the background, but didn't notice any movement yet. He needed to get closer.
He began backtracking his way silently along the edge of the trees toward the tent. At his side, the barrier of leaves and twigs waited for him to give them life. Just ahead, one of the robed followers hung back near the trees. MacLeod took him in one quick move, knocking him unconscious and dragging him deeper into the forest. Quickly, he removed the man's robe and slipped it over his own head, putting the hood up.
He stepped into the crowd, working his way toward the stone altar. The woman's voice was compelling, promising success and tranquillity for those who would follow the gods. She would show them the way, would guide their lives. Like Cassandra, she had a magic about her voice that encouraged people to listen and believe. And she played on human desire, the needs of humanity for love, fortune and tranquillity.
Out of the corner of his eye, MacLeod glimpsed a movement, shifted his vision that direction. He saw Methos moving toward the stone, hands held calmly in front of him. He walked automatically, indifferent to the surroundings. MacLeod was not surprised to see the petite figure of Lysette behind him, guiding him. He'd expected that she would be there. They paused at the side of the woods, waiting.
Niam's voice rose. "I am the servant of the gods. Through me, they offer salvation and fulfillment. Those who accept me will know the joys of life in their divine light. The gods have given me the power and I can share it with you. I will show you proof of my words. One who once betrayed the gods will give his life to them now. He is Chosen. They will accept him, forgive him and return his strength to me so I that I can help all of you."
Lysette shoved Methos forward. He stumbled a bit, slowing them down, and in that moment, he detected another Immortal. In just a slight movement of his head, his eyes darted toward where he felt the source was, saw only a sea of robed figures, But there was one, taller than the others, squared shoulders. Methos dipped his head a little to let MacLeod know he was aware.
Using that as a signal, MacLeod grabbed a burning log from the fire and hurled it into the barrier he'd built. At once, the flames ignited the gas fumes and the real fire burst to life, leaping and jumping all along the woods. The line of fire spread quickly and found even more dried brush to ignite. A few of the crowd noticed the flames and began shouting, pointing toward it. Taking advantage of the moment, Methos swung around and low, knocking Lysette backwards and causing the gun to go flying from her hand. He ducked and ran toward the burning woods.
A shrill scream cut through the confused voices as Niam watched the fire start to spread. Horror of the destruction to the nemeton spread a grim look across her face as she yelled, "Put it out! Put it out!" Then she saw Methos running toward the fire. She leaped down from the stone, sword drawn and raced toward him. Even as a few of the people rushed for water or blankets to fight the fire, the rest gave way to let her though. She cut in front of Methos before he reached the edge. He halted, backed up.
The crowd formed a circle around them, giving them room to fight it out. Methos straightened, faced her. His voice was a little slurred, but he spoke loudly enough that those nearest to them could hear. "Is this do you call this a fair fight, Niam? Give me a sword and I'll give you a fight. I'm half-drugged-- my hands are tied-- But I'll still take you on."
"You should have gone to the gods a long time ago, Dylan. I'm giving you the chance to purify your soul." She dove in, took a swing at him. He danced back, just out of reach. She reset herself, made another move, feinted to the left, then shifted in and caught a slice across that laid his left side open to his ribs. Ignoring the burning pain, Methos dropped to a slide and knocked her off her feet with a scissors chop, then rolled out of the way and struggled to his feet.
MacLeod fought his way through the shoving crowd to get close enough. Breaking through the front line of people, he pulled his sword and shouted. "Adam! Catch!" He tossed the katana into the air toward Methos. It spun into a double spiral arc and Methos made a dive to grab it, his still-bound hands catching the hilt just before it touched the ground. He rolled off one shoulder and came to his feet to face Niam.
"It's better this way, Dylan," she spat through a grim grin. She attacked, her voice howling like a banshee.
He brought the sword up, parried and went on the offensive. He was half-drugged, hands tied and using another man's sword, so he figured she had a fair chance. She didn't have much technique, he noted as he drove her back, but she was enthusiastic.
Around them, the fire continued to spread. Many of the observers were growing fearful of the flames and began running away from the ever-growing fire. As Methos backed Niam toward the fire line, Lysette's face reflected her horror. She looked around for the gun she'd had, spotted it several feet away and started for it. As she almost reached it, a boot came down on top of it and she looked up to see Duncan MacLeod standing on it. With a satisfied grin, he said, "I don't think so." She gasped, backed away and slipped back into the small band of devotees who watched the battle.
Niam moved in tightly, trying to force a false move from Methos. She thrust the sword in, he parried easily and slipped in under her sword. For a moment, he hesitated, the face in front of him, wide gray eyes and full mouth open in a gasp, reminding him vividly of the young girl he once knew, and Niam's left hand went inside her robe. Just as he sliced up, her left hand shoved a dagger deep into his abdomen. The thrust of his sword carried through, the katana taking her head in a smooth, quick slice even as Methos cried out against the pain. As her headless body rocked to the ground, he dropped the katana and fell to his knees, doubled in pain. A fire burned within him, hurting far more than a knife wound should. She'd promised him it would be painful and she'd made sure of it. He guessed the dagger was coated with a poison or an acid as he groped to withdraw the twisted-edged dagger from his gut, tore it partially out before the Quickening started.
A blue force dropped over Methos like a mantle, wrapping itself around him in an embrace, then the lightening started. It blazed like a thunderstorm, wind whipping through the clearing as trees caught alight like roman candles. Methos jerked and cried out as the waves of electricity poured through him, the exquisite torture that tormented and pleased. It was a powerful Quickening. Whether taken fairly or by deceit, Niam had taken many Immortal heads in her nearly two thousand years.
Lysette screamed and began running across the clearing to where the woods weren't burning. Only a handful of people remained in the clearing and they, too, were backing away, ready to make an exit. MacLeod caught a glimpse of Lysette and started to cut her off. Sparing a glance back at Methos, he saw him slumped on the ground, not moving to get up. Without hesitation, Mac turned and ran toward him instead.
Methos could barely move, the Quickening and the nearly fatal stab wound draining what strength he'd had left. He tried to catch his breath, the painful gasps wracking his body as he struggled for air. In his mind he kept seeing Niam's head flying off her neck and feeling the searing pain in his gut simultaneously. It would be etched there to invade his dreams like a thousand other nightmares... love and betrayal. His hand still rested on the knife hilt, but he didn't have the strength to pull.
MacLeod paused briefly to scoop up his katana, then swung an arm around Methos and yanked him to his feet. With one quick movement, MacLeod jerked the knife the rest of the way out, looked at the weapon in distaste and tossed it to the ground. Gasping sharply, Methos staggered against him, the pain nearly causing him to pass out. Holding him tightly, Mac forced him to run toward the fire line with him. They barely paused at the fire, merely caught a deep breath and plunged through the flames. On the other side, MacLeod shed the burning robe he wore and beat out the fledgling fires on Methos' robe. His friend slumped against a tree, trying to breathe. Their faces stung from burns and they were covered with ash. "You okay?" MacLeod asked and Methos managed a weak smile and a nod in response. Still holding Methos with a firm arm around his shoulder, MacLeod guided them back to his car.
Methos groaned as he leaned against the Citroen. His hand still clutched at his gut where the long-bladed knife had done significant damage to his insides. He was healing painfully, but at least he was still alive. In a bit of a daze, he gaped at the fire that blazed its way through the nemeton, jumping from tree to tree like elementals on a picnic, and a poignant sadness filled him. He'd known ancestors of these trees centuries ago, worshipped beneath them with the Pariisi tribe. Tears came unbidden to his eyes at the sudden sense of loss.
Beside him, Duncan stared at the disaster he'd started. In the distance, the wail of an approaching fire engine began to pierce through the night, a signal to any of the cult members left in the area that it was time to depart. He glimpsed a couple of silent, dark figures slipping away from the woods. Dryly Duncan drawled, "I think this is lowering the property value quite a bit."
When Methos said nothing, MacLeod tilted his head toward his friend, noting the sorrow and the moisture in his eyes and on his cheeks. He misinterpreted. "I'm sorry, Methos."
Methos stirred, pulled the grimy, torn, and blood-stained robe over his head then dropped it on the ground. In his mind's eye, he saw the young girl's smoky eyes smiling up at him, the shift sliding off her shoulder. He looked directly at MacLeod. "No, I'm sorry. I didn't see her as anyone but the girl I once knew. *That* Niam died nearly two thousand years ago."
Wearily, he opened the car door, leaned heavily against it. "It is true, you know."
"What?" MacLeod asked.
"There's no fool like an old fool." In spite of the levity of the words, there was no mistaking the sorrow, pain and fatigue in his voice.
Impulsively, MacLeod put an arm around his friend's shoulder. He felt Methos tense for a moment, then the older Immortal spoke softly, his voice breaking slightly. "Thanks... Mac."
A Few Notes About This Story:
This was the Celtic story I wanted to write for several years and found a way to adapt it to the Immortals. From the time I first read "The Life and Death of a Druid Prince," I was captivated with the possible history of the body found in the bog in Northern England. The anthropologists who wrote the book came to some fascinating conclusions and also offered some amazing details about the death of the man. They believed him to be a Druid who was offered to the gods to plead their case at a time when the Romans were invading all of Britain. Queen Bodicia had raised in revolt against the Romans after her husband died and the agreements between her tribe and the Romans was no longer valid. The authors suggested that Bodicia had more than the mistreatment of her daughters and herself at stake, that the Celts had a gold route that went from Ireland, through Wales to France and she was trying to protect the gold route. The destruction of London led the Romans further north toward the Holy Isle of Mona (Anglesey).
Desperate measures were called for to stop the army and the authors believed the druids chose one of their own to plead the case to their gods. The young man who was sacrificed might have been Irish. Forensic evidence showed that his body bore no scars or calluses indicating he was not a warrior or a worker. Even a bard would have had calluses on his fingers. Therefore, he had to be of the druid class. Whether the body in the bog was an emissary to the gods or not, the Romans never completed their destruction of the Druids and were recalled to Rome. Ireland was never invaded.
But I could see the man who gave his life willingly to the triple sacrifice of having his skull smashed, his throat garroted and then being drowned in the bog as being one who had loved, had cherished life and lost it all to save his people. Somehow, it was easy to transfer this to Methos.