Chapter 16

Methos wriggled himself into a reclining position on the less than comfortable hotel couch. Feet on the coffee table and slumped didnt work so he rotated pulling his long legs up and resting them on the armrest at the other end of the couch, the near on being used to lean his head on.

“Hey now – no shoes on the funiture!” Joe reminded him

“Oh, alright.” He complained, kicking them off. He wriggled his toes, the left big toe slipping out through a hole in the sock.

“So you were saying something about getting the wind knocked out of you, and iron collars?”

Methos nodded, “And something about Vindaloo. Oh, hello…” he let rip again, long as loud.

“Did you have to do that on the couch? I have to sit there later!” Joe complained.

“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do” Methos said in the tone of a philosopher. Joe merely pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket and covered his mouth and nose.

“Did I mention that we were wearing iron collars? Iron was precious back then – the world ran on bronze – iron fell occasionally as meteorites and was treated as a gift from the gods. It was no surprise that the collars were enchanted.”

“I was sleeping when the presence of another immortal woke me. He strode into the cave ordering us to stand. Two guards had died but only one of our number. He was there to even things out. It felt arbitrary. He walked along line of us, looking at each of our faces. He looked too old for the soldiering life – a retired general who had been pulled back into service – but his real age was unknown. I know one thing: he didnt look local – lightly coffee coloured skin and long grey hair tied back in a pony tail. He stopped by me and my heart almost stopped in my chest. Was I next?”

“He pulled me out of line to stand on my own at the edge of the water that flowed through the cave. He had some sort of, I dont know, magic wand. Short and squat, a rod about a span in length, about as round as my big toe down there.” he wriggled the toe out of his sock again for emphasis.

“He pointed the thing at me – ‘someone has to die’ he declared, then he spun stabbing both men in a fluid graceful movement with the knife he had in the other hand.”

“They stayed down, but the clock was ticking. He turned to me and let me in on a few facts.” Methos yawned.

“You cant stop there.” Joe said, “what happened? What did he say?”

Methos answered with a quiet snore.

—-

The cave was quiet save for the nervous breathing of Methos. His pounding heart and agitated breathing seemed to deafen him. He thought he could hear the sound of innocent blood dripping from the Assyrian soldier’s knife. Why had he just killed his cave-mates?

“Good, we have a few moments before they arise. I am Aleric and if you want to live you need to listen to what I say. I chose you and my men brought you here. You among all immortals. You have the sword that I sent you, now do you have the will to use it?”

“What sword?” Methos asked, acting coy.

“You think that a sorceror would brave the heart of Yahweh’s domain, where he could be put to death for what he practices, to search you out with no reason? Was it coincidence that your servant was met on the road? No. I needed an immortal that would draw the king out personally. I am banking that the prospect of Methos himself will be too much for him to resist.”

Methos shook his head, “No. No. And let me say again, no. You have to be joking. This was all setup?”

“Yes. Four hundred years ago he butchered my family; I took a widow and her three daughters as my own. Her husband had resisted soldiers who were demanding tribute, demaning their only ram. I tended their sheep and supported the family. I came to love them as dearly as if they were my own. Some years later the king – calling himself Tiglath-Pileser I at that point – was marching on someone or other, I dont remember the war all I remember is his demand. He wanted food for the troops and would take by force what he needed iof I didnt comply. I didnt know anything about immortals. I didnt know that I couldnt kill him, but I tried my best to defend what had come to be mine. Useless! Foolhardy! He killed me then let me rise. I was forced to watch the soldiers burn my house, take my flock then rape and kill all four of them. They left me naked with all four limbs broken beside the bodies of my family.”

“So you want revenge? Sounds reasonable to me. Here’s the sword, off you go.” Methos said, drawing his sword.

“No. I cannot get close enough. He has surrounded himself with guards. It will be a stretch for the two of us to reach him. He must come to us. Even then I fear his second in command will remain – Tabal the Hittite – the architect taking the king’s mad dreams making them a reality.”

On the ground the first of the two pre-immortals were drawing a shuddering breath. Aleric leveled the collar’s control rod at Methos.

“I must have have your answer, now.”

“If it will get the collar off my neck and put a sword in my hand, the answer is yes.”

Aleric nodded turning back to the pre-immortals. Their collars flashed a second time. Bodies turned to ash.

“What are these things, these collars?” Methos demanded.

“A gift of the gods. The king claims that an avatar of the gods appeared to him in the temple: stepped out of a solid pillar and handed him them as a gift. She instructed him in their use and demanded his loyalty to the gods in return. Only those about to die by the sword or his most trusted commanders are free of them. All others are fodder for his appetites, pre-immortal and immortal alike. Make yourself ready. You will be taken without warning to an arena. If you are lucky the guards will only give you a light beating first. Once there he will release you from the collar and meet you in single combat.”

Aleric turned, picked up the ash covered collars and left Methos to his troubled thoughts.

—-

Duncan groaned and spat dirt out of his mouth. He felt like, well, like some idiot had sliced his chest open. The image of the sword tip moving across his shirt still hung in his mind. It bugged him, they had him and could have beheaded him yet relented. He rolled onto his back expecting to see stars but was met with early morning rainclouds. There were voices in the woods. A dog was barking.

“Over here. Yes – we’ve found him.”

Heavy paws thundered past Duncan to the edge of the cliff and stopped there. Someone helped him to his sit up, then to his feet. A scientist – Forbes – with an accompanying UN soldier.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

Duncan nodded slowly pulling himself together. The timing had been perfect: a few seconds earlier and they would have seen him revive. Had the dog guided them, had it known? The scientist was talking and Duncan had missed what he said, too wrapped up in thoughts of the dog.

“Hmm, what?” he asked

“I said, have you seen the UN guys – Conwel and Lancaster?” Forbes repeated.

Duncan turned slowly, of the fight there was no sign. No corpse. No sword. Someone had been efficient. He’d been left laying face down in the dirt as though he’d merely fallen.

Back at the camp, with a steaming hot mug of coffee in his hands, he picked up the full picture. Someone had seen the lightning in the night and attributed it to the wind movements of the haunted wadi. Teams had been dispatched to search for him and the missing UN guys and they’d assumed him to have been struck my lightning from the localised storm. After checking further, at Duncan’s suggestion, they found the UN barracks tents to be devoid of all Conwel and Lancaster’s kit. They’d cleared out, deserted. No-one seemed worried about Mary Culver’s absence but Bill, the young private, was causing concern. His stuff was present but he was nowhere to be seen.

When he felt better Duncan toured the camp. There was a morbid atmosphere hanging over the whole place; it felt like an open-air morgue, and people spoke in hushed tones. The sonar survey team were discussing results and an anomoly they’d spotted in one tunnel – a rock formation that seemed too regular and angular to be natural. It was dense, almost blocking the passage but beyond it there was another chamber. The angular formation was estimated to be around 7 feet tall and roughly square. A request was lodged with Zechariah Judd to investigate it further.

Duncan stepped out of the meeting feeling restless. Lancaster had disappeared? He started looking for the Scottish Doctor – Smith – to demand some answers. One of the two men had taken Conwel’s sword and Duncan was determined to get to the bottom of it. Duncan headed for the tent belonging to Forbes and his team stopping only to use the latrine. The place was a mess when he got there. Someone had turned it over looking for something and with a jolt Duncan realized that he no longer felt the presence of the sword. He scanned the room. Gone, along with the sealed clay jar they had found. He thought he’d seen Smith hurrying away. Duncan cursed his luck, and his bladder, if he’d been there a few moments before he would have caught the little man red-handed.

While still lost in thought there was a cry from the tent doorway. A strangled moan of dispair. Forbes stood with Gabe at his side. From the look of horror on the man’s face Duncan assumed that he’d not seen the devastation in his tent.

“Wha…” he began

“Someone came looking for something and left in a hurry while you were out looking for me. Sorry.” Duncan explained, “We’ll need to know what, precisely, is missing. Can you and your team do that?”

The old scientist closed his mouth and turned from the mess to wave collegues over. It took them a couple of hours to catalogue the missing artefacts: the jar and the sword plus some other sundry small items.

“Looks to me like the thief was after something specific, the jar and sword, and took the rest as cover.” There was a consesus around the room at Duncan’s suggestion, “If you have no use of me here I will begin talking to suspects.”

He slipped out between the members of Forbes’ team and paced the camp angrily looking for Smith muttering under his breath about the penalty for “theives” and “murderers”.

—-

Aleric looked in on Methos over the next couple of days, tossing him scraps of food whenever he was able. It wasnt much but it enough to keep him from death’s door when combined with the flowing fresh water. Soon after eating a foul tasting piece of flatbread Methos went to drink some water to alieviate the burning sensation in his stomach. He found his face suddenly pressed below the surface by rough hands. He allowed himself to go limp and was pulled clear. He was dragged out into the afternoon air and thrown against a nearby tree. His arms were stretched above his head and tied to a large branch. He could barely support himself by standing on the balls of his feet. His back exploded in pain as the first stroke fell. The another. Two soldiers set up a rhythm of punishing blows to his arms, back and legs.

His stomach chose that moment to expel its contents all down the tree he was hanging against. He heard the soldiers congratulating one another at the spectacle. The burning in his stomach became a greater focus for Methos: it surpassed the pain in his back as it spread through the rest of his body. Poison? Before the beating could claim his life the poison reached his heart causing the muscle to go into arrest. The darkness of premature death claimed Methos.

—-

Methos drew a shuddering breath as a whip stroke fell. His tormentors hadnt noticed the death and revival. He endured a few more lashes befere they finally gave up and went for some wine feeling that their job was well done. Why had Aleric poisoned his bread? He let himself hang limply. The release of energy to rise again left him feeling weak. He didnt feel in any shape to face his foe. It downed on him: where had the energy gone? In rising again his wounds from the greater part of the beating were now healed. What he’d been left with was a minor beating indeed. So, Aleric was a wiley character and well aquainted with the immortal constitution! Methos couldnt help but smile.

Footsteps approached. A knife cut the bonds and he crumped to the ground. His arms and hands were burning as blood flowed back through them. He found himself at Aleric’s feet. He was handed a wineskin.

“On your feet, you have an appointment to keep. Make this look good.”

A sword, the sword was pressed into his hands, and he was lead away toward a rocky, quarry-like section of the hillside. They picked their way through boulders to the centre of the bowl shaped depression. Methos thought he could see glints of armour and weapons around the rim. Aleric retired to the shade of a large overhang and sat down with his wine to watch and wait.

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