Disclaimers: Darius, Grayson, Ramirez, Methos, or any other characters who look familiar from Highlander: the Series are the intellectual property of Rysher: Panzer/Davis.  I'm just playing in their sandbox, and I promise to remove my bucket and trowel when I leave, honest.  Lucius Divius, a.k.a. Lucien LaCroix, is the intellectual property of Tri-Star and Paramount, much to his shock and rage.  Again, I'll put him back, and no, I'm not making money on this.  Solana/Kalare/Phaedra/Aidan is all my fault, and I refuse to comment on grounds that it may incriminate the guilty.
Rated: R for violent situations and behaviors.  Darius is not always his lighter self in this one; don't say you weren't warned.



For Torin, who made it two-thirds of the way through Quarrels of All Kinds before asking, 'Where are the flashbacks?'



Force of Habit
 

Gallia, 637 AD

Rhythmic immortal presence rippled across his skin and Darius turned, worried.  This was a bad time for another immortal to attempt to challenge him!  The harvest still had to come in and the village needed all the help it could get.  He could not in good conscience sit and wait on Holy Ground, but neither could he allow an unscrupulous person to take a quickening as strong as his was.  That opinion wasn't hubris, he knew; his quickening could unbalance the Game if it went to the wrong person.

Life was simpler when I didn't worry about others, he thought, amused despite the seriousness of the threat.  Of course, I was younger then, too.

The weight of the shortsword under the brown habit he had kilted up to his waist was not reassuring.  For more than a century now, the former general had managed not to kill anyone, but all the training and instincts were still there.  If it came down to a fight, would he be able to disarm only, to kill if necessary but not take the head?  The sight of small children working behind their parents, binding the grain into standing cones to dry, firmed his resolve.  Nothing he did was going to endanger them.

And if it is one of the vicious ones of my kind, then I will find a way to neutralize their threat.  It's a different campaign than I waged with Alaric and the Visigoths, but still something I know how to do.  An unpleasant thought made the monk cross himself immediately.  God forbid that it's Grayson.

Reaching the end of the wheat field, Darius leaned his scythe against a nearby oak and headed to the well to dip up some water, glancing around as he went.  He spotted the figure silhouetted against the forest quickly, glanced away, and then looked back again in surprise.  The new immortal was no man, but a woman.

She walked toward him with a long stride, the easy movement of someone used to traveling great distances, and the horse she led seemed equally accustomed to travel.  It was late afternoon, and hot in the mid-September sun, but both walker and steed had an elasticity to their step that silently asserted they could go the rest of the day and half of the night yet.

The one-time general quickly assessed her and frowned thoughtfully.  Tall for a woman, no more than a hand shorter than he was.  The straw hat shielding her from the sun hid her face in its shadow, but the hand wrapped around the walking stick was tanned.  She wore a heavy pack on her back and boots laced over her calves.  A longsword belted at her waist was longer than the thigh-length tunic which revealed strong, tanned legs.

A bay horse followed her, led by the reins in her right hand, and the pack bags on its back bulged.  She stopped while still in the shade of the trees and studied him as carefully as he did her, hand tightening on the staff.  When she spoke, though, her voice was level and composed.  She tried pure Latin first, rather than the local argot of Gaulic Frank and soldiers' Latin.

"They told me in the last village that there was sickness here.  I've brought herbs if there are any who still need help."

Darius said quietly, "Your kindness does you credit, but those who are going to recover already have.  I don't suppose you can harvest grain, though?"

That brought a chuckle from the shadowed figure.  "I've done it once or twice in my life."  She turned, looking over the fields which still held too much grain for so late in the year and the people who had stopped to stare at her.  "How many...."

"Twelve dead," Darius said sadly.  "Mostly children, but three of the younger adults as well, and one of the elders as well.  The survivors aren't truly strong enough yet to work all day in the fields, but the grain has to come in before the birds get it."

"Or other predators," she said, and there was an answering grimness that made the monk think she knew exactly what kinds of things he feared as well.  "Is there another scythe, then?"  Quick hands propped her staff against a tree well away from the well and she tied her horse loosely enough to let him graze, stripping its burden away and piling saddle and pouches on the ground by the tree. The horse drew a deep breath, rib cage and stomach expanding as the weight fell away.  Flicking its ears a few times in approval of the new circumstances, the bay bent to eat.

"I'm sure Michaela would let you use hers," Darius said, indicating one of the adults who looked done in.  "I'm Darius."

She nodded once, the straw hat bobbing, and said quietly, "Yes, I know."  She dropped her own pack beside the other bags, then sighed and removed her hat.

Darius stared, appalled, at a face he had never thought to see again, and remembered....

~*~*~*~*~*~

Sicily, near Palermo, 165 AD

Grey eyes huge and dilated from the pain of the wounds in her side and down her sword arm, she still managed to raise her head for what should have been the final stroke.  Darius stared contemptuously at the young-looking Celt.  She had a surprising amount of courage but he would not allow it to move him to pity.

"Do you think to look death in the eye, then?"

"Hate to... disappoint my teachers... by cowering... at the end," she managed to gasp out, broken arm cradled against broken ribs as the young Celt tried to catch her breath from the fight.

In that moment his plans changed.  Killing her, taking her head, wasn't enough to break the pride of this woman.  She had challenged him over the deaths of three old women she said had been priestesses.  They had come between his band and water, claiming that the spring was sacred.  They had valued the privilege of their supposed deity over the needs of his men and were dead now for their insolence, but he could see that final fate held no terror for this immortal, not even battered as she was.  Time to find something that did frighten her, then.  She might yet be useful to him as a lesson for others.  Death was quick, and final.  Other punishments, however, dragged on.

Her wounds were healing as he watched, flesh drawing together, bruises fading.  Jade-green eyes narrowed in calculation, growing cold with anger; she was older than he had thought if she was recovering so quickly.  But her Celtic shortsword lay under his foot, gouged and broken off near the crosspiece and her dagger had already been thrown away after Darius had pulled it out of his leg.

"No," he said thoughtfully.  "I don't think so."  The only rights are those enforced and held by your own strength; find that out now and I won't have to teach it to someone else later.  "You should learn to cower.  A woman's place is on her back, not in the Game."  Even as rage flared in her eyes, his sword stroke ended her life.  He watched her choke on her own blood, heart trying desperately to pump around the blade which had impaled it, and stood impassive as she finally fell into death.  Withdrawing the sword, he cleaned it on her tunic, then threw that ruined piece of cloth away.  She was surprisingly pale under it, even for one dead.  Where she wasn't tanned brown by the sea and sun, her skin was a creamy white showing faint traceries of blue veins.

Darius buried his dagger to the hilt in the chest wound.  That would keep her dead until he got closer to the port.  Once there, he could bind her arms with her own long braids, and let her recover a bit before he sold her to the slavers.  Pale skin, slender body, thick, dark hair -- she had given the name of Solana, and Darius smiled at the thought of the price this 'sun' would bring him.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Gallia, 637 AD

"I didn't know if you had survived or not," Darius said softly.  "Are you well?"

Grey eyes blinked under dark brown eyebrows sunbleached almost red at the ends.  The monk had the strong impression she was searching for words to answer, but at last she responded levelly, "Well enough.  Better than these people will be if the harvest lies rotting in the fields in next month's storms.  But I think it would be best if I worked on the far side of the field from you."

"As you will," he answered.  "I can't blame you, Solana."

"I haven't used that name in years," she said in bemusement.  "These days it's Kalare."

"As you will."  Darius left it at that, not wanting to provoke her into leaving when they needed aid so much.  But he resolved to try and apologize, somehow, before Kalare left.  No words could be sufficient, but he had to at least make the attempt.

By the time the last of day's sunlight he was grateful she'd shown up.  The woman used a scythe like one long used to its reach and had cleared a good swath of the field.  When the villagers went back to eat their dinner, though, she walked to her horse instead, pulling bread and dried meat from a bag.

"Will you not eat with us?"

Cold grey eyes met his, but she spoke mildly enough.  "I like it just fine right here in the open.  I doubt they've food to spare, anyway, or ambition to cook for one more."

"Like most villages, they would gladly trade food for news from outside, or stories if you know new ones.  But I will tell them you're tired, if you like."  The monk carefully did not press her on that, and saw the curious look she gave him.  The expression changed swiftly to a mocking half-smile when Kalare noticed his scrutiny, a smile which did not rise to her eyes.

"I imagine they would.  Tomorrow, maybe.  When I've done enough work to have earned the food."  She turned her attention to the bread, pointedly dismissing him.

"Later, would you like to talk?"

Her head came up, swift and startled and wary as a deer in the forest, but no deer had ever snarled with predator's teeth as she did.  "Talk?  About what, Darius?  What you did to me?  What happened after you pocketed your money and left me with no sword and no freedom?  Go eat your meal, priest, and let me enjoy mine in peace.  Tomorrow will be hot, and the storms are coming."

The tall man turned to study the sky, worried by the certainty in her voice.  "What do you see that I don't?"

"Nothing yet," she said, startled by her own fury, and disturbed; uncontrolled rage would get her killed in the Game.  "I've been in this area more than once, though, and the storms are late coming.  They'll be the worse for that."

Darius nodded, uncertain how to express his remorse and ease her sudden fury.  She had been brave when they'd met before, valiant and swift-moving, but this quick rage seemed unlike her usual behavior.  Of course, a single swordfight and one afternoon's work in the same field with her is no true gauge of a person.

Over hot vegetable stew and cold bread and cheese, the monk continued to tear at the puzzle of Kalare's actions.  No, I've always judged people quickly -- and been correct.  This temper is not like her.  From the way her mouth tightened, her eyes flashed, she isn't used to it either.  So, she has begun doing this recently, or she only does it around me.  More likely, he mused sadly, that it's me.

I sold her into slavery once before.  I cannot leave her in chains again, not even those of her own making.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Palermo, Sicily 165 AD

The burly man needed a bath, desperately, and bits of his mid-day meal still dotted a curling black beard.  Darius drank off half the ale in the skin, then passed it back and exhaled slowly.  "Ah, that's a man's drink.  I'll not take less than the two daggers and a string of coppers for her."

"Nah, she's not worth so much as that.  I'll give you two strings of silvers and one of the daggers."  The ship's captain prodded Solana with one foot, watching her narrowed eyes and waiting to see if she would try to bite him or not.  To his interest, she didn't, but she made no sound even when he caught her squarely under one rib.

Darius watched him test the woman, amused.  The fool would convince himself to pay top price at this rate.  The idea of an entire afternoon in the company of this smelly buffoon, however, made the immortal decide to speed things up.  "She's quiet, strong, resistant to disease, and skilled.  Look at those legs.  Are you telling me you don't want to bury yourself there?"

"If she's perfect, why are you selling her?"

"Because she's strong and jealous.  I don't want her near my other women," the immortal man said casually, aware that Solana couldn't dispute his story while she was gagged with one of her own braids.  The ropes around her ankles and wrists pulled her nicely into a bow on the ground next to him; he wasn't about to let an immortal that quick get her feet under her.  The threat of looping the end of the rope around her neck had convinced her to quit squirming, although Darius would have sworn it wasn't death she was afraid of.

"Then you have a problem, friend.  Why don't you just beat her?"

Darius shrugged.  "She isn't worth the trouble to me.  I'd rather have the daggers."

"All right, damn your green eyes!  One of the daggers, three strings of coppers, and two of silvers, but that's my last offer.  I have to make the tide."

After a show of reluctance, Darius nodded once; it was one string better than he'd thought to get.  "Done."  Both men spat in their hands and shook on it, then Darius pocketed the cash and sheathed the dagger casually in his belt.  "Where are you going from here, then?"

"Messina, Napoli, and Roma," the trader sighed, ale-tainted breath gusting out of the barrel chest as he sighed.  "It'll be good to be home, again."

"A piece of advice?" the immortal said casually as he stood to leave.

"Why not?  I'll not pay you for it."

"Don't leave her unchained -- and don't let her near a weapon."  Darius smiled coldly at her, pleased to see the rage in her eyes.  This should break her nicely.  Why not?  Let the little bitch know I'm not ignorant.   She can worry that one day she'll see me in Rome.  If she lives long enough, she will, he gloated, certain that he would take the city eventually.   Magna Roma, Roma Dea, mother of the Mediterranean, seat of power for the Roman empire -- one day the immortal would walk her streets as a conqueror.

Solana is the Latin for sun; so I'll rename her in Greek and let her wonder if I know what I've done, if I know those languages and those peoples.  "Behave yourself, Phaedra.  I doubt he'll be as kind to you as I have been."

Walking away, Darius wondered if he should have taken her head after all.  Her eyes had raged, yes -- but coldly.  Behind those grey walls she was calculating, planning.  Maybe he'd better watch his back in a few years.  Surely it wouldn't take her long to 'die' publicly, and somehow get free.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Gallia, 637 AD

She had a small fire going in a pit well cleaned of anything except intentional fuel.  Darius felt her presence along his skin, 'heard' emotions along it for a single swift moment:  confusion, primarily, and repressed anger, and grief.  Then the emotions were gone, and only her presence hummed through the air.

"Are you coming into the light, or shall I draw my sword?"  Her caustic voice came not from the fire, but from farther into the scant forest.  It was too much effort to clear trees entirely from around a village; simpler to clear enough for fields and dig the stumps out years later when they were well and truly dead.  The main problem with that, as Darius had mentioned once or twice to the elders, was that those trees gave enemies places to hide.

The tall priest stepped into the firelight and placed his napkin-load of offerings on the nearby stump:  a quarter wheel of cheese, a double handful of walnuts, and three pears from the cellar, wrinkled and a bit shrunken, but unbruised and sweet to the taste.  "Michaela insisted I bring you these.  Her cheese is quite good."  Slinging a wineskin to the grass, Darius added, "And my monastery makes the wine."

Kalare slipped out of the trees and onto the cloak spread on the far side of the fire from Darius; her hair clung damply to her back, and she'd apparently cleaned up and changed to a fresh tunic.  "I'll take her food and gladly.  I haven't had cheese in a moon or more."

"But not the wine," he observed.  Her other shirt hung from a nearby tree, drying.

"I'll not share food or drink with you, Darius."  Inflexible steel lay sheathed in her voice.  She cut a small piece off the cheese and held it over the fire on a stick to warm.

"Why not?" he asked peaceably.  "There's no obligation to it."

"Maybe to you," she said coldly.  "There would be to me.  No."

The monk drank a mouthful of the wine, then leaned back onto his elbows, watching the fire dance.  Silence settled over them, broken only by the hooting of owls hunting dinner and the crackle of wood in the fire.  His voice slid into the silence gently, almost a part of the night.

"Were you a slave long then?"

Silence answered that, then a sharp laugh.  "Long enough to suit you, I'd suspect."

"No," Darius answered regretfully.  "Even a day is longer than I would wish on you or anyone, Kalare."  The monk was beginning to learn the textures of her silences, or maybe he was catching her emotions on the breeze as he had earlier with her quickening.  This hush felt startled, then considering.

"They'll be wondering what you're doing out here for so long with a woman," Kalare said at last, voice neutral as she carefully combed out her hair in the firelight, coaxing wet strands to lie straight and smooth.

"I'll not ask you to forgive me," he said gently.  "You've a right to be angry, a right to hate me for what I did."

"I've a right to your head if I can take it," she said sharply.  "Why the act, Darius?  What is one of the best war leaders in the world doing in an insignificant farm village in Gaul?"  Before he could answer, she snapped, "And don't tell me you're getting in the harvest!"

"But I am getting in the harvest," he pointed out ruefully, laughter tugging at the corner of his mouth and lighting up green eyes.  "Didn't you see the chaff in my hair this afternoon?"

"I saw.  I also saw the shortsword against the fabric of your robe.  Don't play games with me, Darius.  What do you want here?  They have nothing."  Of a sudden her voice was tired.  "Don't torment them.  Bad enough that the strongest of them might attain two score and ten, not the threescore and ten their Book promises.  Death will come soon enough, you don't have to carve and serve at the feast."

"I carry the blade only for defense; I haven't taken a head in over a hundred years, Kalare.  I merely came to help with the sickness and stayed to bring in the crops."  Darius considered his words carefully, then continued gently, "Your concern does you credit."

No words broke the dark quiet for perhaps half a candlemark.  When she spoke, Kalare had leached all emotions out of her voice -- for her own safety, Darius suspected.  "I don't know what to think of you, you know.  It's a very thorough act if you are acting, better than any put on in Athens in its glory.  But if this is real, what am I to think of your first few centuries as a war leader?  Of the immortal barely past his first century who defeated me more soundly, more quickly, than anyone else has ever managed since my teachers declared me trained?"

He let the question lie there for a moment, then said gently, "You're tired, Kalare."

"Looking for time to come up with your story?" she asked dispassionately.

"Would you believe me if I said I had a revelation?"

"A sign from the Gods?" she asked, interested despite herself.  "I'd be suspicious, Darius.  Those are often... convenient.  I trust the oracle at Delphi -- some days."

"No, no sign from any God.  I took the head of an immortal outside of Paris."

She raised an eyebrow at that and put the comb down.  "And?"

Now it was the monk's turn to be silent as he struggled to find words to describe that quickening.  "It was... overwhelming.  Emrys was so old, Kalare, older than any immortal I've ever heard of, and tied so closely to everything around.  Every animal, every plant, every person was important to him, and when he crashed through me in that quickening, he made me see them as he did.  It destroyed the war-leader I had been, leaving me... as you see me.  Whatever that may be."

Later, Kalare knew that it was his voice that convinced her.  Darius was still confounded by the change in himself, but the reverent love for what the other immortal had shown him suffused his tone.  Even more, though, she heard a complete lack of regret for the death of the warrior.

Quietly she found herself telling him what she had not told even her teacher and brothers who had rescued her from slavery in Rome.  "You almost destroyed me."

Darius turned to look at her across the fire.  "I am so sorry for that."

"Now," she said wryly.

"Now," he agreed.  "Then I was just angry.  You tried to help people who had interfered in my plans, and I couldn't allow that.  And you came closer to beating me than I think you ever realized."

"I did?  Gods, man, I'd never run into anyone with your strength who was still as fast as I am.  Not even Ramesen," she said tiredly.

"The Egyptian?  You know him?"

"Oh," and now she did smile, a sweet gladness not meant for Darius which warmed him nonetheless, "I know him.  I met him when I was much younger."

~*~*~*~*~*~

Memphis, Egypt, 581 BC

"Did you argue this much with the Draiochtais?" Methos asked in exasperation.  He slung his pack over his shoulder, glared two men out of the way on the quay, and snapped over his shoulder, "Are you coming?"

"I'll remember boats make you irritable," Edana replied, holding her own temper on a leash.  Methos could be the Gods' own torment when he didn't feel well and sea travel did not agree with him.  She had managed to get some herbal infusions down him, but the last two days had been too rough for braziers to be safe on the ship, too cloudy for a dark mug to steep the herbs well enough.

A familiar scent caught her attention and the young Celt told her teacher, "Stay here.  I'll be right back."

"Edana!"  Methos spun only to see her dark braid already vanishing into the crowd.  Fortunately, the red-orange tunic she wore stood out nicely among the tan and black robes on the wharf.  By the time he caught up to his student, she had just handed over a small piece of copper and was turning back to him with a pitcher of beer.

"How did I know you'd follow me?" she sighed.  "Drink this, would you?"

"Why did I ever train you?"  But he took a sip of the beer anyway.  A deep sigh gusted out of him when he realized she'd actually found some stuff that wasn't completely watered down.  The rest of pitcher followed in swift order and his good mood resurfaced for the first time in days.

She shook her head and smiled in relief, familiar with his body language after twenty years as his student and friend.  "Do you want another?"

"I can wait," he answered.  "Did you want some?"

"I'm fine.  Let's go find this student of yours, shall we?"

"If he doesn't find us first," Methos agreed.  Both of them were speaking in Gaelic, not because they didn't speak the local dialect but because Methos preferred that others not know what they were saying.

Edana stared unabashedly at all the strange people and wares as they moved through the market.  There were herbs she'd never smelled before, a thin, light fabric equally unfamiliar to her, and a range of colors of people such as the young Druid had never dreamed existed.  On one side of the street stood a slave girl with the copper hair of a Celt but an olive-toned skin.  On a corner sat an old man, skin the dark brown of mahogany, wrinkled and creased, his hair shortcut and the color and curl of a sheep's hide.  Bald heads, flowing manes, every style of braid, including several people with scores of thin braids pouring down to their shoulders were scattered through the crowd.  She could see gold skin, brown, black, pale as her own; people in long, loose robes, slaves in jewelry and protective amulets, children in loin cloths, adults wearing a short skirt and overwrap so thin the light shone through.  And the art they made of themselves... lines drawn under eyes with a black substance, lips painted red as berries, cheeks and palms and nipples somehow dusted pink, intricate designs on some of the people -- drawn in white on the darker folk, in blacks and deep blues and a red-brown color on the lighter skins.

And not just sights, either.  Edana heard easily two dozen different languages as they worked their way through the crowded market.  Methos had taught her some of them:  Sumerian and  Assyrian, Egyptian and Greek.  But the rest were unfamiliar and the varieties of pitches and calls for attention quickly wore at her nerves as people cried their wares of fish, beer, bread, spices, papyrus, cloth, slaves, animals, passage on ships, services as barbers, favors of the body....  The variety of scents began to overwhelm her, too:  cooking fires, bread baking, tapped beer, the rotted fish odor of a wharf, the reek of stale sweat and musk, fear-stink off a slave moving hastily past, odd spices tickling her nose, animal pens that needed cleaning, blood and shit where animals were slaughtered.

Methos felt more than heard her steps falter and he slowed to match her.  "Edana?"

"I didn't know there were so many...."

For once, his quick-witted student was at a loss for words and Methos reminded himself that she was still young.  In more than two thousand years, he'd been all over the world.  Comparing the market to the area of Eire she'd lived in, he smiled at her.  "People?  Things?  Places?  Give it a while, Edana.  Just keep one hand on your sword and the other on your pouch and follow me."

She did just that, if reluctantly, grey eyes flickering from side to side as she tried to track everything at once.  But Edana stayed a step behind and to the left of Methos as they went, alert for just about anything.  All too soon she felt a rumbling presence, ringing in her ears like deep-toned bells or thunder.  "Do you--"

"I feel them," Methos said calmly.  "It may even be Ramesen.  One or two?"

"One," she said certainly.  "It feels like a man."

"I would love to know how you do that," her teacher muttered.  Granted, she'd only met six other immortals since entering the Game, but she had come up with the correct gender every time.  That struck Methos as being more than sheer luck.

Beside him, Edana said softly, "Because I'm used to listening to the wind, maybe.  Is it him?"

A tan, cheerful man who looked to be in his late forties stood partially in the shade of an awning, greying black stubble showing across his skull where he obviously hadn't shaved lately.  A single thin loop of copper or gold flashed sunlight back from his ear, and he waved at Methos.  "Semnut!  You're late!"

"I am not late," came the grumbled reply.  "The ship was late, I am on time."

A multitude of amulets on leather thongs sparked light as the other immortal came to meet them:  a carved alligator, a jackal, a vulture, a triangle-shaped eye.  "Ah, of course, that would explain it," came the amused rumbling answer.  "You always did have an answer for everything.  Are you going to introduce me or not, then?"

"Edana, this over-decorated jacknapes with the fondness for his own voice is Ramesen.  Ramesen, this is Edana, my most recent student."

Up close, the Celt could see a multitude of tiny beads strung along the leather, and the fine, even quality of the fabric in Ramesen's short skirt.  His dagger and shortsword were superbly made, but he hadn't bothered with any face-paint, unlike many of the other men in the market.  "I think I'm pleased to meet you," she answered, a smile spreading across her face as she met his humorous brown gaze.  "But I'll be happier when I'm out of this sun.  Is it always so hot here?"

One eyebrow raised and Ramesen turned to Methos.  "Where did you find her?  And who tells her the bad news?"

"Up on one of the northern islands, a few months' travel along the Phoenician trade routes," came the calm reply.  "Misty and cool, Ramesen, especially compared to here.  You tell her."

"Would you quit mentioning their trade routes?  One of these days you're going to get killed for knowing Punic secrets."

"They'd have to know what I said, wouldn't they?" Methos answered coolly.  "Why do you think I try never to speak local languages during the important discussions?  And when are you going to tell her?"

"Me?  Isn't this your job, Semnut?  Oh, all right.  Sister, this is the cool period here.  In the summer it gets worse."

"Sister?" she asked curiously.  "And how can it get worse?  This feels like an oven, Ramesen."

"Oh, it gets worse all right, and then we all do everything in the early morning and the late afternoon and spend the hottest part of the day inside waving fans slowly to cool down."

"Ah," Edana finally said.  "Well, that's simple enough, then.  Move north.  I'll help you pack."

Ramesen stared at her until he saw the mischief that almost made her smile and did sparkle in her eyes.  One arm thrown around her shoulders, he roared with laughter.  "Ah, it's good to meet you.  Did you give him a merry time training you, then?"

"She was rotten," Methos said dryly.  "And still is.  Stubborn, opinionated, foolish, and still far too slow."

"I've gotten faster," came the indignant reply.  "You only call me stubborn because I don't always think you're right."

"Was he wrong, then?" Ramesen asked, steering them both through a multitude of alleys, ignoring the beggars and calling hello's to several young women who displayed their very obvious charms and knew him by name.

"Yes."

"No, I wasn't," Methos said calmly.  "She guessed."

"He says I'm stubborn.  He's blind," Edana muttered.  "Sister?"

"Who do we have besides each other?"  Thinking about that held the young woman quiet for the rest of the walk, although she looked at everything around them as they went.  The two male immortals had neatly flanked her, more to keep her out of trouble than for protection.  The two men argued heatedly over the amount of tin which should be worked into copper for weapons, and whether or not lead really belonged in the mix.

When they reached the small house, Methos raised an eyebrow in interest but didn't comment immediately.  Only after the inside of the house contained an entry room, two small rooms for sleeping in addition to a room with a pool for bathing, a kitchen, and a tiny garden and fountain in the central atrium, did he ask, "What Hellene did you steal this from?  And is he after your hide?"

"The one who couldn't throw bones to save his life," came the cheerful reply.  "Is it my fault he bet the house?  And the servant?  Of course he's not after my hide, I only game with honorable opponents.  They're less likely to want to slit my throat later."

"That was sensible of you.  What happened, did you get old?  And where do you want us?"

Ramesen helped Edana out of her pack and watched in amusement as she promptly stretched up and back like any street dancer.  His eyes widened in surprise when she pulled her tunic off and sprawled out on the cool stone floor.  Her sigh of contentment broke his trance, and Methos chuckled.

"They don't worry much about clothes up there; half their men fight naked.  I was thinking that some of the linen wraps might suit her better than chiton or palla... and we might actually convince Edana to wear them," he added pointedly.

"It's hot," she pointed out without moving.  "I haven't been this comfortable since I dove off the boat when we were anchored outside Tyre."

"Yes, and you were covered with salt when you dried off, too.  Why don't you pull on a dry tunic and come sit by the fountain?  It's cooler there."

Ramesen chuckled and said, "Obviously the first thing we'll have to do, sister, is get you used to the weather.  And then we work on your speed...."

~*~*~*~*~*~

Gallia, 637 AD

The grain was in, and the gourds, and the children had started on the orchards that afternoon.  The tinker woman who apparently knew Brother Darius worked longer and harder than any of the men, with no protests and few extra words.  On the night when the most essential grains and straw and vegetables were all in, Kalare had accepted the invitation to eat dinner with Michaela and her family.  She brought a small leather satchel in with her and played on a wooden flute after dinner, cheerful, ringing music which made everyone smile.

After several songs, Kalare shook her head and said she had to get some sleep.  Michaela tried to get her to sleep by the fire, as usual.  Kalare refused with the same answer as each night before, "I prefer to sleep under the stars, but I thank you for the kindness."

Darius waited until she'd had time to start her fire, then went out to talk.  After five nights, he wasn't surprised to find the fire going with no one nearby.  Only after he sat down on the side across from her blanket did Kalare reappear and settle on her cloak opposite him.

"Will you be staying much longer?"

"No," she answered quietly.  "After the apples are in, I'll be on my way.  They're almost recovered."

"Are you?" he asked bluntly.

"I suppose I could pretend to misunderstand you."

"I'd only be stubborn."

"Some things don't change, then," Kalare answered tiredly.  Those sharp grey eyes closed, but Darius wasn't fool enough to think she wasn't listening for any movement of his.  "Why are you pressing this?  Isn't it enough that you sent me there?"

"It is more than bad enough that I sold you into slavery, knowing just how long that might be for one of us," the monk answered grimly.  "I won't excuse myself for it, Kalare, although even at the time I truly thought you would simply die and get away.  But you are not recovered, and that is also my fault.  Do you lose your temper with everyone or simply with me?  It is a bad habit either way, and not like you."

"How would you know what is or isn't like me?" she snapped.

"Because you aren't like this with the villagers," came his calm reply.  "Not with Michaela, or her stubborn son, Guiterre.  Even the cobbler, Antoine, who tests my patience sorely, doesn't bother you.  You keep your humor with everyone except me.  What worries me is whether it's because of me, or because I am also immortal and in the Game.  Talk to me.  Tell me what happened, so that someone will take some of the load from your shoulders."

"Why would you do that?" Kalare asked in the same tired voice.  She had turned sideways where she sat across from him, crossed legs pulled up and her arms wrapped around them, her cheek on one knee.

"Because," Darius answered, "I should never have put it there to begin with.  You've been a warrior for centuries now, Kalare.  You can't clean and bandage a wound you won't admit is there."  When those words sank into her like a well-placed sword thrust, the monk waited a moment and then coaxed, "What happened?"

~*~*~*~*~*~

Rome, 168 AD

Phaedra sat motionless on the backless stool as the slave-child finished doing the last intricate curl for her hair.  Grey eyes studied her reflection in the mirror the girl held up and saw a familiar face made strange:  ornate coils of hair arranged in careful cascades that fell around her shoulders and down onto her chest and back; grey eyes drawn dark in kohl and painted with powdered malachite; unsmiling lips painted red with berry juice.  None of it made her look like a Roman.  Her nose was too slender, too straight, and her face too triangular; despite careful plucking, even the curve of her eyebrows was not that of a Roman.  No, she looked like precisely what she was, a foreign slave redesigned to entice good Romans to part with their money in exchange for a taste of the exotic.

Still, there was no point in taking out her fears and furies on the poor little girl in front of her.  So Phaedra smiled, although it didn't light her eyes as much as she would have hoped, and told her, "Well done, Gemma.  Thank you, little swift hands."

The small girl smiled back in return, blue-green eyes lighting up.  "You're always easy, Phaedra.  I never mess up your hair."  Her smile faded slightly and she said, "You've a new customer tonight."

The Celt paused in mid-motion, then her hand continued on to pick up the thin silk tunic that she would wear this evening.  "So bad as that, then?"

Gemma jumped onto the stool to help drape the fabric and place the brooches to hold the palla in place on Phaedra's shoulders.  More slowly she said, "He made the cat spit when he came in.  And the doorman made the sign against the evil eye."

The hetaera raised one dark eyebrow and smiled despite herself.  "Apollonius still does that when I walk by," she pointed out wryly.  "What else?"

"He's pale, lady.  He looks like a centurion or an imperator, and wears a sword like one, but there's no sun on his skin from the campaigns and his eyes....  He scared me."

That drew a slow nod and Phaedra's full attention.  Gemma watched in awe, knowing that the lady was the one who always listened to the forum gossip and then knew what customers they might have, knew when the worst storms were coming and when to buy extra supplies because trouble was brewing.  Gracchus, who owned the Golden Lamp, didn't know where his steward got his information.  The houseslaves did, however, and gave Phaedra the respect and awe she was entitled to.

All the lady said, though, was "Ah.  I see.  Get that last brooch, little cat, little bright eyes, and pass me the blue stola with the silver trim."  Wrapped in leaf green and sea blue, Phaedra settled the last copper brooch carefully and then said quietly, "Best you go on, then.  This has the feel of trouble."

"Phaedra...."  The little girl paused fearfully, then hugged her friend around the waist.  "What do you want me to do?"

"We're slaves, little cat.  We survive.  You go to the far end of the house tonight, hmm?  I'm sure Cook can use help with the delicacies or refilling the pitchers.  Send one of the men with water for the basin when you go."  The slender Celt looked around the room, gauging what needed doing and shook her head.  "An imperator, then?  He'll want civilized discussion before the couch, most like."

She knelt next to Gemma, hands cupping the small cheeks, and kissed her gently on the forehead.  "Dana bless you and keep you safe this night, and return you to me in the morning."  The child smiled at the warmth that came off her friend's hands and lips, then scampered off to do as she'd been told.  Behind her the slender, dark-haired woman readied the room and her will to endure another night.

~ ~ ~

Phaedra came alive, breath surging in as her lungs gasped for air, eyes opening to meet shocked grey eyes staring down at her.  There was nothing under her back but two strong arms and air, no feel of anything except a warm body and cool air.  Lucius stared at her and stopped in surprise.

The slave glanced wildly around, unsure for a moment how she had died but knowing she had, all too aware of where and when she was.  Lucius Marcellus Divius was too formidable to forget.  She was still in Rome, still a slave.  Oh, Goddess, what happened to me?  He kissed me, and bit down on my throat....

The Roman studied her now, cool and composed again already despite the surprise of a dead woman reviving in his arms.  "I had thought to take your body someplace safe for its final rest and now I find it unnecessary.  How very interesting.  You are used to this."

Even as she started to shake her head in denial, an automatic impulse, he set her back on the couch and twined one unnaturally strong hand through her hair, forcing her eyes up to meet his own.  He had the face of a Roman commander: hook nose, close-clipped grey hair, cold grey eyes under white-grey eyebrows.  At perhaps two fingers taller than her own five feet eight, Lucius also had the broad shoulders and strong chest of a man used to wearing breast plate and carapace.  His hands were callused from hasta and gladius, the short throwing spear and thrusting sword of a Roman fighter.

"Lie to me again, Phaedra, and we will see precisely how much punishment your lovely body can take before you die again."  Those cold words from that authoritative voice froze her in place although her face barely changed.  Shock gave way to defiant rage and the Roman nodded slowly.  "Now then, my dear.  What are you?"

Phaedra drew a slow, deep breath and called on the lessons that Methos had drilled into her centuries before.  Stall.  Delay.  Plan.  Lie with the truth.

"For the moment, thirsty and cold.  You took a great deal of my blood and I'll be a while getting it back.  Might I have water and my tunic?"

One eyebrow came up, but the steady beat of her heart was unchanged from the pattern it had settled into after that first wild drumming.  "Very well.  I am much faster than you.  You do not wish to make me prove it."  He released the wild tangle of braids and coils that had held her captive and watched with interest as she dressed herself with none of the practiced seduction she had shown during the earlier disrobing.

She drank down a goblet of much-watered wine, then a second and third almost without pausing.  Sated at last, Phaedra turned and asked steadily, "A glass of the wine, then?"

"I've had my drink this evening," came the cool reply and the Roman frowned when she nodded once but showed no fear.

"So you have.  I grow forgetful."

"You forget your place, slave.  Answer my question.  What are you?"

"As immortal as you, imperator.  You are one of the blood-drinkers, aren't you?  The night-runners."  Lucius moved so swiftly she never saw it.  One moment he'd been reclining on the couch, the next she lay on the floor, blood running down her face where he had struck her.  With one hand she wiped away the crimson flow before it could stain her best palla and looked up at him where he stood over her prone body.

"Manners, girl."

"Girl?"  Phaedra chuckled at that.  "I thought that you came to me because you desired an unconventional woman, my lord.  Can it be that you don't know what you want?"

One hand reached down for her and she clasped it, accepting the aid.  Lucius lifted her hand to his mouth and cleaned the blood off while he watched her for revulsion.  To his continued surprise, she betrayed no emotion at all.  When he let her go the Roman said thoughtfully, "A pity you're a barbarian.  Were you a Roman we'd make a pair to bring the empire to its knees."

"I'll not be here that long," Phaedra said seriously.  "My teacher is looking for me by now, and my brothers as well.  All I have to do is last until they find me and then I will be free again."  More fiercely she added, "And I will endure."

"Will you?  Do you know what a prize you'd be if others of knew of your... recuperative abilities?"  Even as Lucius watched, the split in her lip closed and healed, the bruise along her jaw flowered and faded back to the perfect cream pallor which had so fascinated him when he'd first entered her rooms.  For the first time now he tasted her fear in the air, heard her pulse stutter and speed up.  "Ah, I see you do."

"I know what the temples would pay for me, yes," she said steadily.  Her chin came up in unconscious bravado.  "Do you plan to expose me, then?"

"And have you condemn me as a blood-drinker?" was his steady reply, amused and cruel as any cat playing with a bird.  "No, I think not.  It would be such a waste to see you gutted for the temple auguries.  But I believe I will enjoy your company for a while.  Perhaps Gracchus will sell you to me."

"I doubt it," Phaedra said quietly.  "I bring him too much money."

"He said you were the most obedient of his slaves, the one who never needed a touch of the lash.  Sensible of you.  If he knew how you healed...."

"Yes."  She glanced at him inquiringly for permission, then sat and began to remove the pins from her ruined coiffure.  "That would make things difficult indeed.  So what do you want?"

"Want?"  He took the boar-bristle brush from her hand and turned her away from him, smoothing it through her hair.  The slight jump of her skin each time he touched it with the bristles brought a smile to his face, although he could feel the effort she was exerting to stay calm.

Phaedra took a deep breath then continued to speak in the same controlled, quiet voice.  "Want.  I've yet to meet a Roman who didn't treat quid pro quo as a religion.  What will you demand to keep my secret?"

"I think, my dear, that I will do you a favor."  Lucius fell silent as he brushed, waiting to see if she would ask, then smiled after a few minutes.  "Good, you do have potential.  I believe I will teach you the endurance and acceptance of pain."

One hand clenched into a fist where he could not see it, a motion slight enough that only a vampire might have noticed her movement.  Out loud she said only, "Why?"

"If you're injured and cry out, my dear, someone will want to know why.  What will you say when they ask the reason for your distress?"  He smoothed the long tresses down her back, feeling the tension in all her muscles and she had a great deal more muscle than he had expected.  For a pleasure slave, she was as fit as any of the field women at his villa in Herculaneum.

"Why, what I always do," Phaedra replied.  "Tell them it was nerves, or a mouse."

Lucius wound a hand through her hair, coiling it around his fist and then pulling her head back.  "Lying, Phaedra?  Not wise for a slave."

She closed her eyes, breath easing out of her slowly as she adapted to the discomfort of the position.  "I could wish you were consistent.  You would punish for truth or lie, it seems.  I did not lie to you."

"Nor have you yet lain with me," he said softly.  "And your services were not cheap."  The pressure on her hair pulled her back on the couch.  Lucius continued to tighten his grip on her hair, arching her head up and back on the couch to expose that pale throat.  The steady beat of the pulse in her large vein enthralled him and he licked there once, his lips cool against her skin.  "So, we begin," he whispered in her ear.  The Roman leaned over the slender form stretched beneath him, holding her in place with his presence but not yet with his weight or strength.  "Be silent, or risk my continued displeasure."

When Phaedra finally passed out, she was grateful for the mercy.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Gallia, 637 AD

Grief clouded Darius' sight, and guilt as well.  He handed Kalare the wineskin and spoke before she could argue.  "It's yours, given freely.  Take it, please."

She upended it and drank, a long swig of the sharp wine that seared down her throat and eased her breathing.  It was an almost-audible wrench to focus back on the present but the burning liquid helped.  Her hand was steady as she passed the drink back.  "Here, have some."

The monk took it, but he waited until she looked at him before asking quietly, "What does it mean to you to share this with me?"

In answer the Celt pulled bread out of a pack and pulled off a small piece, then tore it in half and held out one part to Darius.  "That we won't fight, among other things.  To me, it means we're friends," she answered quietly.  "Are we?"

One large hand reached out and accepted his  share of the bread.  "Yes, we are.  I'm sorry, Kalare."

"We all do things we never intended," came the soft reply.  "Me as much as anyone else, Darius.  I never thought to end up... I don't know, I suppose Lucius and I were friends by the end.  Almost equals, anyway, despite my being a slave and a whore.  It helped a great deal that I was older."  She fell silent as they shared the wine back and forth, watching the stars above the field.

"You weren't the one soliciting the customers, Kalare.  Whore is not truly accurate."

"Close enough.  I let them have my body."

"But not your mind, I don't think."  He changed the topic, knowing that only time would let her finish easing that pain.  "Vampires are real, though?  Truly?"

Kalare smiled despite herself.  "Oh, as real as you or I.  They don't like crosses or holy symbols of any kind, that part of the stories seems to be true.  Lucius was incredibly fast, incredibly strong.  I never saw him in daylight, so I think the stories that they can't endure the sun may well be true as well.  But oh, it was wonderful, Darius.  He could fly!  That was one of the few things I enjoyed about knowing him.  A very few times, when he was especially pleased with me, he carried me high above the city.  It was cold and windy and I could see... everything.  I loved it."

"Then there are miracles," Darius said quietly.  "Were you a slave long?"

"Too long to suit me; not long enough to break me.  It's all right now."  Kalare glanced at him thoughtfully over the flames.  "Thank you.  You were right, you know.  I did need to tell someone.  Never would I have expected it to be you, though.  You have changed a great deal in that last few hundred years.  I... had not anticipated that."

"Your teacher -- would that be this Semnut you mentioned?"

A soft laugh answered that.  "That's one of his name, just as Kalare is one of mine.  But yes, he taught me and Ramesen.  Why?"

"Just wondering if he will be coming for my head."  Darius kept his tone light, but this could impact his plans for the next few years.  Semnut was not a name he knew, but Ramesen was quick and dangerous.

"No, neither of them is looking for you."  A moment's hesitation then she said, "I never told anyone how I ended up a slave.  They didn't ask."

"Why not?"  Darius asked the question before he thought, then quickly clarified, "I couldn't blame you if you had told them and asked them to hunt my head."

"I was too ashamed.  I was raised to be a Druid, a priestess.  Then, when Semnut told me I was going to be in the Game, I decided to be the best warrior I could.  I thought the Gods had put me in the Game for some reason.  Being a slave... felt like a failure.  I thought I had failed them all:  Ramesen, Semnut, the other Druids who raised me, trained me....  Everyone."  Her soft voice lay over the fire like a shadow.

"No, you lost a single fight," Darius said firmly.  "I'm the one who's ashamed.  I should have given you a clean death.  You fought well and fairly.  You simply lost."

"Why didn't you kill me?  I truly thought you were going to take my head.  I was resigned to it."

He drew a deep breath, then answered honestly.  "I was angry.  You were too proud even in defeat.  I wanted to see you humbled for opposing me.  Just taking your head didn't seem enough."

"You thought I'd escape slavery eventually and come looking for you?"

"Yes.  Or if you didn't escape, if you stayed a slave, I could take your head when I saw you again, when you'd learned your place.  Even then I knew I was planning to capture Rome.  And I did eventually, but you were long since fled, and by then Rome was no longer the height of my ambitions."  He sighed.  "For a crafty war leader and master strategist, I was a fool."

That drew a soft chuckle across the fire, but no comment.  Darius had nearly fallen asleep watching the stars when she spoke again.  "And you, Darius?  After you took Rome, when you went on to further conquests with your chosen band....  What did Grayson do when you refused to attack Paris?"

"You knew about that?"

He could almost feel her shrug as the clear voice carried over the soft hiss and pop of the fire.  "I met Grayson almost a century ago.  He was still bitter over the lost opportunity.  He hates you, Darius.  Be careful."

That comment drew a soft chuckle.  "You do realize," the monk pointed out, "that a few days ago you would have agreed with him?  Perhaps I have done something right after all."

"What happened, Darius?"

~*~*~*~*~*~

Outside Paris, 514 AD

"Peace?  You want us to live in peace with these... rabble?  They're weak, Darius.  None of them could ride with us, fight with us."  Grayson snarled as he paced, red hair darkened by the shadows to dark brown.

The other man's quick, long stride and natural grace reminded Darius of a wolf, and before the comparison had pleased him.  Now, though, with Emrys' quickening woven firmly through his own, all the older immortal could do was pity the younger man for still being as blind as he had been.  Part of his mind also accepted that Grayson was, in large part, his fault.  He had spent long years shaping the bright, quick young immortal to be his right arm in war.  Unfortunately, Darius knew he had done a very good job.

Only Holy Ground has protected me this long, he thought tiredly.  Oh, Grayson, what did I do to you?

His one-time protégé moved as if he could batter down the confining stone walls of the garden with the sheer repetition of his paths.  Verbally, the younger immortal was still trying to convince the priest to recant his faith, the new but strong beliefs that given time, love could win.  Peace could win.  Darius listened, interjected a word here and there in a vain attempt to divert the flow of Grayson's feelings and start the subtle shift towards peace, but in his heart he feared it was far too late.

Too, when he leaves here, Callestina will be there to reinforce him.  I should never have taken her to my bed and I certainly never should have rejected her so coldly.  Now she wants what Grayson wants, to have back the war leader I was -- or to see me dead, and my quickening gone to one of them.  She was so affectionate, devoted to her brother, devoted to me; now she's as cold, as focused, as Grayson.  What have I done?

"I'm not so easily manipulated as that, Darius," Grayson snapped.  The younger man adjusted his wolf-fur cloak around his shoulders, settled his sword more comfortably against his side.  "Stay on Holy Ground, then, traitor.  Follow this weak God who let himself be executed like a common criminal.  The other sacrifices at least came back to be consorts to one of the Goddesses.  Your Christos came back to his mother, a mortal who renounced the Sacred Marriage.  And then he ascended to the sky?  Stay on Holy Ground, then, as untouchable and untouched as your God, but I'll find your new students, your new disciples, Darius.  You promised me that we'd rule the world.  I'll still do it without you!"

Long after he felt his unruly student's presence fade, the monk continued to study the rosemary bush.  Rosemary for remembrance.  "But I do remember what I was," Darius told the uncaring sky, concern drawing faint lines around jade green eyes.  "That is the entire problem.  How do I redeem what I was, reconcile with what I have become?"

~*~*~*~*~*~

Gallia, 637 AD

The embers of the fire glowed faintly, reduced down to the last few bright-glowing coals.  Darius dropped a few twigs on it, then fed larger and larger branches in to fan the blaze back up.  Kalare stretched and sighed in contentment as muscles loosened and eased.  The popping sound of vertebrae settling back into place made Darius shake his head, a smile creasing his face.

"Your neck?"

"And my back," she groaned in relief.  "Gods, I can't believe we picked that many hazelnuts off the ground this afternoon."

"They'll eat well this winter, thanks to you.  You should take more of the supplies they're offering, Kalare.  You've earned them."

The dark-haired immortal chuckled at that.  "Why?  I can bring down a rabbit at forty paces, and I know which herbs and mushrooms are safe, Darius.  I can find food much more easily than they.  And my one weakness, cheese, will go bad too soon for me to take it."

The monk stretched back against his usual tree stump, enjoying the rare leisure to sit and talk to someone without a task to hand or the need to offer counsel and support.  Both of them had worked themselves into the ground trying to get as much food in for the village as possible, but it had been worth it both for the villagers and for the shared accomplishment.  The common task gave him some small connection to her now and they were using it as a cautious bridge to start exploring friendship.

"Gods?  Which ones, Kalare?  Are you not a Christian?"

The startled laughter from across the fire drew his gaze to her, green eyes brimming with amusement as he watched her try to get herself under control.  But the harder she tried, the more she chuckled until she was laughing so hard tears ran from her eyes.  The wine he handed over was gratefully acknowledged with a wave of her hand and she took a healthy gulp of it.

"Oh, sweet Mother forbid, Darius!  I'm older than that youngster.  Myself, I think he may have been one of the Mother's reborn consorts, but worship him alone, as his priests and followers demand?  Renounce my Lady for a God who doesn't believe She exists, when I was a priestess of the Mother before Rome was founded?"  Kalare giggled again, helplessly, then took another swig of wine and passed the skin to him.  "I think not!"

"Then you did become a priestess?" he asked, extremely interested now.  "I didn't know that.  From what you said, I thought you abandoned that when Semnut trained you."

"I was a priestess before I died the first time," she chuckled.  "I gave my innocence to the God in the Sacred Marriage at fifteen.  I was one of the Draoichtais on Eire, Darius."

"A druid?"  He shook his head, smiling.  "No wonder you know the herbs and the harvest.  So what herbs around here are safe?  I know some of the ones for eating, but what else?"

"Now you ask me?  Better if I show them to you in the daylight.  But, hmm, let's see.  I know the Roman names for some of them that I've seen around."

They spent a pleasant hour discussing names and uses of some of the local herbs, including several that Darius would have thought were simply pretty weeds.  Kalare insisted on telling him which would kill or banish an unwanted child as well as those which would ease an aching tooth or sore head.

"Why do you know the poisons as well, Kalare?  You don't strike me as the kind to kill the innocent."

Grey eyes studied him across the fire, darkened by the shadows almost to black.  "For more reasons than one, Darius.  That I not give them by accident, for one.  That the old be eased out of this life peaceably should they so wish, for another.  In defense of the innocent, for a third.  Armies can be disabled by someone who accesses their cook fires, as you know full well.  Did you truly need to be told these things?"

"I wondered which explanation you would give," he answered honestly.  "Kalare....  I know something of the Celts. You all have a reputation for taking love where you will and as you will.  Why did the time in Rome hurt you so badly?"

Shadows enfolded her face as Kalare leaned back against the tree, but her hands tightened on her knees.  "Do you ever ask the easy ones, Darius?"

"If it were easy, you'd not need me to ask, would you?  And if you hate it this much, I doubt you've answered it for yourself yet.  If you tell me the wound is healed, I'll leave this alone."

"Have you healed yet from your change?" she parried halfheartedly.

"I'll be years doing that yet, but I've begun.  I pull my crimes out and look them over, turn them up to face the light, and hopefully the fears will fade much the way clothes dry in the sun," he answered gravely.  "It does help, you know.  This Christian notion of confession is helpful, so long as the confessors take care of each other as well as the congregation."

An exasperated noise on the other side of the fire told him capitulation was coming.  "Lugh's silver arm, man, do you ever let go of a question?"

"I don't leave open wounds if I can help it," he said amicably.  "Did you want some more wine first?  Numbs the pain and makes it easier to set the bone."

A soft chuckle answered that shot.  "Oh, all right, you stubborn priest.  You remind me of one of the clan elders who despaired of me for years.  Pass me the wineskin."

They drank in comfortable silence for a while, then Darius murmured, "I'm not letting you drop this."

"The villagers are going to think I'm trying to seduce you, as much time as you spend out here.  Shouldn't you be heading in?"

The lazy retort was not worth countering, Darius decided.  If I do, Kalare will just evade the question again.  "No.  Were you starved as a slave?"

"Starved, no, although no slave is ever fed enough," came the resigned reply.  "Well, except for the young boys being groomed to sleekness for the pleasure houses and Gracchus didn't deal in those."

"Beaten?"  He pushed cautiously around the edges, looking for sore spots to identify the worst of the damage.  A pity there's no way to see wounds to the mind as easily as you can see damage to the body.

"Almost never.  I was... very obedient, Darius.  I didn't want them figuring out that I healed that swiftly."

"Nor would I," the monk answered honestly.  "Was your owner cruel?"

Silence wrapped stifling folds around the fire before Darius lifted it.  "Kalare, do you not remember?  Or do you remember too well?"

"Oghma bind your tongue," she muttered in Gaelic.  Divine intervention was not, however, forthcoming.

"Here," the priest said dryly, "have some more wound-tonic."

She upended the wineskin, draining it down in one long gulp.  "Brigit scorch you, priest.  Are you always so stubborn?"

"Are you?  About your owner, Kalare."

"Gracchus was oily, and his mouth stank, and he was heavy, and he hurt...."  The words exploded from her in a torrent, the scalding precursor of tears as her will broke first and then her voice.  Kalare curled in on herself in the shadows, the firelight barely limning shaking shoulders.  No sound escaped her as she sobbed, although leaves rustled and broke under Darius' feet as he moved around the fire to hold her.

The former general pulled her head against his shoulder and rocked her as he'd learned to do with newborns.  Both of them were silent as her tears and sobs went on and on, soaking the fabric over his chest which promptly began to itch as wet wool will.  When Kalare fell still, Darius said quietly, "Was he the worst of it?"

"No.  No, he wasn't.  It was... having no choice in the matter.  Some of them I'd have taken as bed-partners of my own will, but so many of them just wanted an available hole to fill and be done.  I made the Great Marriage, Darius!  Letting them take me like that, as some anonymous tool to vent their own lust, was like watching someone piss in the sacred fires.  But I was such a coward, so afraid of being killed again and again, that I let them defile me instead.  I betrayed my Gods."

"Even the Gods are sometimes raped, Kalare," he answered quietly.  "And sometimes we don't know why things are allowed.  But you haven't betrayed your Gods.  Are you angry at yourself -- or at your Gods because They turned Their backs on you?  Because They let you be raped again and again, with no mercy and no rescue?"

"I was rescued," she answered tiredly.  "Semnut came with two of my brothers and stole me out of the place."

Darius let her change the subject, all too aware that this one he would have to wear away at gradually.  Instead of forcing the discussion, he asked gently, "After how long?"

"Thirteen years."

~*~*~*~*~*~

Rome, 178 AD

Immortal, male, young....  Oh, Gods, and I've no weapon!  Air caught sharply in Phaedra's lungs as the presence rippled over her, then she forced herself to breathe again.  She ran the sea sponge over her skin, cleaning herself for the night's work, mind running desperately over available weapons in the room.  The bench, I suppose, or maybe the hand mirror?  Oh, Mother, you've held the Game off this long...!

The other slaves were giggling and talking as they scrubbed themselves and each other, and Gemma cheerfully offered, "Phaedra?  Shall I get your back?"  Seeing the distracted, upset look on her friend's face, the young woman spoke more softly, saying, "What's wrong?"

A shudder ran through her friend's body, then Phaedra relaxed, color rising back into her face.  "Nothing's wrong, Gemma.  An unpleasant thought, that's all."

The presence faded quickly, the man moving away at a rapid pace, and relief surged across Phaedra.  Hot water caressed her skin as she poured to rinse away the soap.  The scent of the lily petals in the water lingered even she dried off, but the immortal woman appraised her room more closely after she had painted her face and perfumed her skin for the night's customers.

The brooches for the palla have potential, I suppose, but my best hope is to outfight him long enough to run.  I'll be beaten or killed as a runaway slave, but the crowd won't take my head at least.  I'll just have to hope I stay dead long enough to be thrown on the common heap.

Phaedra controlled a sigh of resignation as she examined herself reflexively in the mirror.  Nearly time for the afternoon's first customer--  Oh, Mother.

This time it wasn't one man, but several.  And one of them was strong, stronger than most of the immortals she'd met in her eight hundred years.  Her eyes went cold and calculating as Phaedra studied the room for any available weapon.  She stripped the palla off much more quickly than she'd put it on, preferring bare skin to the entangling linen.  Lacking anything else, she dumped the water from the pitcher and broke it; that left her sharp-edged clay with a handle, better than nothing at all.  Oh, Mother, I know You test us, but so hard as this?

With one hand the Immortal slave tugged at her neck chain, laughing softly and viciously as she abandoned herself to Her Lady's will.  At least the metal might deflect an opponent's sword a little.  Not at all why Gracchus fastened it there, but he has no imagination anyway.  Why aren't they coming closer?  Phaedra scooped up the backless stool she sat on to apply make-up.  It would block one or two blows if she were lucky, maybe tangle a sword for a moment.

When the door opened, she was crouched defensively in the middle of the room, her make-shift weapon concealed behind a bent leg.  The remains of the pitcher fell and shattered before she consciously recognized the tall, slim-muscled figure who stood in the doorway.  Without a word, Phaedra leapt at him.

Methos caught her out of the air, trying to keep the shock and rage off his face.  Her hair had been darkened to black with some substance, coiled and curled and pinned; she was painted like the whore they'd made of her and thin almost to breaking, pared down to muscle over bone.  He turned and set her down between Xenokrates and Alexandrias.  Alex stared at her, black eyes huge and color coming up in that dark olive skin as fury boiled closer to the surface.

Xenokrates snapped, "Later, Alexias.  Get her something to wear from that... room."  From the distaste in his voice, the place might as well have been one of the cloacae.

Methos reached for the chain around her neck and unlocked it with the simple key, careful not to catch her hair in the chain.  She snatched the metal before he could throw it away, winding the links around her hand and wrist.  "Mine."

Alex handed his line-sister the fine linen tunic she'd discarded on the couch, his own black hair blending with the shadows of the dimly-lit hallway; Phaedra slid it over her head carelessly.  Methos shook his head at the thin fabric and the cut of the cloth.  Handing her his mantle, he said grimly, "Here.  Put this on and let's go.  The oily piece of camel-dung downstairs understands that you aren't a slave."

When she only nodded and wrapped the heavy cloth around herself, the men glanced back and forth in concern.  Silence had never been one of Solana's traits.

A burly house-slave tried to stop them on the way out the door, but one look at the impassive expression on her face stopped his hand in mid-air.  Solana stared at him, the unwavering, unsettling regard of a cat waiting to pounce, and he backed away one step, then a second, then a third until his shoulders struck the wall.  The guard shivered as he watched her and made a warding sign against the evil eye.

Methos considered his one-time student and decided regretfully that she needed him there more than he needed to go finish strangling Gracchus.  The fat offspring of proscribed perversions could wait a while yet for his death.  It would arrive eventually.

Solana raised one hand to show the guard the unfastened slave chain and growled at him, upper lip curling back from her teeth.  The slave made the sign against the evil eye and she laughed, soft and cold, then turned her back on him.  Without looking behind, she asked in a quiet voice, "Do you have money?"

Xan lifted one hand to clasp her shoulder in comfort, as he would have with any of the men who'd ridden to war with him, but she flinched away reflexively.  He pulled his fingers back as if they'd been singed.  Methos watched, eyes flickering across her body to gauge her reactions to the different stimuli around her: her two line-brothers, the people in the streets, the rapidly increasing distance between herself and the Golden Cup.

"Yes.  I do."

Solana held out one thin hand, palm cupped upwards.  Looking at her, Methos thought she could wait all day for his answer, although he wouldn't take nearly so long.  He pulled coins out of a pouch and dropped them into her hand, his gaze never leaving her until she ducked into a nearby bathhouse.  Without looking over, he said quietly, "Alexandrias.  Go to the travel shelter, retrieve our gear, and come back.  Make sure you don't forget the extra sword we brought."

"Matthias--"

"Go."

The soft tone left no room for debate, and Xenokrates caught Alex by the arm.  "Come on, Alex.  Matthias, give me some coins, I'll see if I can find a decent tunic for her in the market."

"Look for sandals and belt, too," Methos agreed, handing them some coins. "I'll wait for her here."

Solana emerged just after they returned, which made Methos wonder if she had timed that deliberately.  Studying her changed appearance, he nodded once in approval, although inwardly he grew more concerned.  Her hair had paled a shade or two and now showed the occasional trace of brown in the sunlight.  Better still, the kohl and henna and malachite had come off her face, and she looked more like the young woman he had trained in Eire.  One thing bothered Methos as he looked more closely.  Edana wore only the mantle he'd given her: no linen tunic, no jewelry, not even the hair pins.

"Ready?"

She nodded quietly, and he could see the chain still wrapped around one wrist, the end caught in her grip.

Later will do to worry about this.  Soon, but later.  For now, all four of us need to get out of Rome before Gracchus sends centurions for his 'property.'  Once the blood and piss on his tunic dry, he may forget his fear and come after us.  Alexandrias met Methos' eyes and nodded once, dropping back to flank his sister on the left.  All four of them moved through the market, heading for safety and, hopefully, freedom.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Gallia, 637 AD

The bay switched her tail in irritation as the last pack was lashed on.  Kalare murmured soothingly and checked to be sure nothing would chafe.  From behind her, Darius asked, "Do you have everything?"

She chuckled.  "More than Lente likes."

"You named your horse 'Slowly?' " Darius asked with a wide, crooked smile.

"I've traveled with her," Kalare pointed out with a grin of her own.  "Ready?"

The priest picked up his own sack of herbal remedies and settled it across his shoulders.  "Some of us travel light.  I could have left an hour ago."

"You could have told me so."

"And interrupt your haggling with Antoine?" he asked.

"I wasn't desperate to sell that leather punch, you just didn't want to listen while he bargained.  Does his voice irritate you that much?"

"I will admit to uncharitable thoughts," Darius said ruefully as they set off, waving to the villagers gleaning the last of the apples and nuts.  Neither of them spoke for the first mile or so; they were entirely too busy enjoying the fall morning.

Darius glanced up at the sky revealed above the path, studying the gusting clouds and rising winds.  "I think the storms have arrived."

"I think we're going to be wet by the time we reach your monastery," Kalare sighed.  "Oh, well, we won't die of it, will we?"

"Where will you go after that?"

"I had thought to work my way back to Eire," she answered at last.  "It's been a long time since I've seen the rivers and bays of home and I miss the sound of a familiar language in my ears."  She glanced at him from under the brim of her hat.  "And you, Darius?  How long can you confine yourself to Holy Ground?"

"For as long as I can work effectively from there.  I do come out occasionally," he pointed out, waving a hand at the forest around them.  "It's not a prison, Kalare."

"Don't let it be.  And don't start believing that the walls are the entire world, either, Darius.  Others can find you, too, you know."

"I know.  And I'll be ready for them, but you're more likely to be challenged than I am.  You'll visit when you cross through, peregrinator?" he asked.

"Of course I will.  It's free food and a bed under a roof," she chuckled as they ducked farther into the woods, trading speed for shelter from the coming downpour.  "Wanderer, hmm?  Where'd you get that idea?"

"I can't imagine," Darius replied dryly.  "So were you saying that hops was good for headaches?"

"Mmm-hmm.  Or so I'm told," she chuckled.  "You have a genius for asking questions when answers are least available, don't you?  So, then, you see this moss?"  One hand brushed the first drops off a tree trunk.  "These are the uses I know for it...."

~*~*~*~*~*~

Paris, 1997

"Hyacinth for grief, old friend," Aidan sighed as she placed the flowers in front of the grave marker.  "Pine for compassion, backed with oak leaves for courage, and olive branches for the peace you worked so hard for.  Tiger lilies because I like them.  And rosemary for remembrance."

"He's not buried there, you know."

She never turned from arranging the flowers and greenery in the urn.  "No, he isn't.  But will you tell me that no one comes here for comfort?"

The monk shook his head.  A comfortable solidity clung to him, a mortality and love of humanity which seemed as visible as the brown habit over a slight paunch or the short-cut grey hair which had receded into its own tonsure.  "Many of us do, including me.  There always seems to be enough to go around.  He's sorely missed."

"Yes."  Her one word answer slid into the companionable silence between them.

One sturdy hand reached out and the monk broke a section off the rosemary sprig, rolling it between his fingers and crushing it, then lifting his hand to his nose.  "Ah.  He loved that smell."

A soft chuckle answered him as the young woman settled onto the earth, arms braced behind her and face tilted up to catch what sunlight the end of fall would offer.  "He did.  And the sound of water dripping off trees and the light in a student's eyes when the answer finally, suddenly made sense."

"Yes, he did," came the smiling reply.  "Although he could lose his temper with the best.  Willful stupidity infuriated him.  Would you rather I left you alone?"

Aidan handed over another sprig of the rosemary.  "No.  Stay and remember him with me, if you will.  Did he ever try to tell you about that thrice-blessed moss tea he was always tinkering with...?"
 

~ ~ ~ finis 10/98 ~ ~ ~



Comments, Commentary & Miscellania:

1 - Most of my information about Darius' days with the Visigoths and his leaving them, including the name of the immortal he killed outside of Paris and the young female immortal he bedded and pushed away in the Visigoth camp, comes from the Highlander novel, Shadow of Obsession.

2 - The Romance languages (which include French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian) are the bastardized mix of Latin and the local tongue before the Romans settled the area.  A great deal of Russian vocabulary traces indirectly to Latin, in the same way and for the same reason that a great deal of English does:  for several centuries French, a Romance language, was the language of the ruling class and of diplomacy.  But neither of those languages is descended directly from Latin.

3 - Solana means sun, taken from the Latin; Phaedra also means sun, but it derives from the Greek.  And for the curious?  Kalare is a Basque name meaning bright or clear.

4 - Draiochtais means 'the wise', and it's a plural.  I don't know of a name for the Druids as a group, so I use this one, which I read in Patricia Kenneally's Keltiad books.

5 - Ramesen?  Well, Ramirez is Spanish, not Egyptian.  But Ramesen could have been his name.  As for Semnut?  It's an Egyptian name from the period, so Methos borrowed it.  What can I say, if Duncan can't keep the Old Man in line, you know I can't!

6 - Yes, Egypt had that thriving a sea trade and that many races and peoples and products grown/produced within her borders or moving through her ports.  Rome never wasted time on worthless real estate.

7 - The Phoenicians were extremely secretive about their trade routes in an effort to preserve their monopolies.  However, the currently scholarly suspicion is that the Phoenician trade routes did in fact go to England and possibly Ireland.  Research in the last few decades indicates that the tin deposits in southern Great Britain were mined out and traded off-island during the period that the Phoenicians had a stranglehold on that particular commodity, and they were known to travel out past the Strait of Gibraltar and north.

8 - Hellene = Greek.  The area we call Greece was known as Hellas; the Graekoi were the Hellenic tribe the Romans met first and they applied the name to everyone else who spoke that language.  (A packrat's mind for trivia?  Me?  How can you say such a thing?)

9 -   To the best of my knowledge, yes, they had silk in Rome by the second century AD.  Expensive, I have no doubt, but they had it.  (Unless I've confused my sumptuary laws again....)

10 - A centurion was in charge of a century of men (100); think of him as a senior sergeant.  An imperator was a commander of some kind, an officer.

11 - Lucius the Roman was of the gens Divius; I know that much from his daughter's name, Divia.  I will plead guilty to giving him the name Marcellus.

12 - Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase which made it's way into English.  Literally, it means 'what in exchange for what'?  The Romans lived and died by their bargains, making them with their gods, even.  Of course, the Romans also invented the phrase caveat emptor -- 'let the buyer beware'.

13 - No offense is intended with the religious beliefs expressed in this story, at least the writer doesn't intend them.  Grayson certainly meant to insult Darius into leaving Holy Ground.  For those who are unfamiliar with some of the non-Christian myths, one of the divine archetypes is that of the Slain God, the Lady's Consort who dies for her and is reborn in some form.  Osiris of the Egyptians is one of the classic examples, although there are many others.  In many ways, Christ fits the archetype perfectly.  A Sacred Marriage is a ritual in which the woman channels the Goddess and the man the God, allowing the Duality to meet and express their love, shedding their passion and fertility out to the countryside.  It's considered a holy act, a sacrament, and can be one of the steps within initiation into a pagan religion.

14 - Yes, the Celts had a reputation for being sensualists, loving and fighting where they would, the women no less than the men.  Maeve of Connaught makes for interesting reading.

15 - Lugh Silver Arm was the Celtic deity who had mastered all skills; Oghma was the patron of bards and eloquence; and Brigit was the goddess of fires and magic.

16 - Cloaca is Latin for sewer; cloacae is the plural.

17 - Yes, hops is good for a headache, especially in combination with valerian and feverfew.  Mind you, valerian smells awful and tastes worse; I recommend capsule form.  I also suggest you talk with an herbalist before using them and let her/him know about any allergies or conditions you have.  However, yes, this does mean that beer contains 'hair of the dog'; it's brewed with barley, water, yeast, and hops.






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