Degrees of Separation

by kai

August 2001


"...I have seen that in any great undertaking
it is not enough for a man to depend simply upon himself."

--Isna Ia-wica (Lone Man), circa 1800


I.

The early spring sky, as seen through the mostly bare branches overhead, is pale. The color of his eyes, he has been told. He stares for a long time at the cross-hatched pattern above, dazed with hunger and thirst, detached from his fear by drugs and exhaustion for now. His mind is curiously split.

One dry mind seeks the advantage: calculates distances, degrees of force and leverage, awaits the opening that he knows must come. Another, both darker and more savage, devises curses in his birth-tongue and feasts on bloody images of the slaughter that he will wreak upon his captors when he is freed. These minds have served him in the past and so he listens carefully. Other minds gibber, loosen his bowels and bladder leaving him shaking, inclined to beg, and rank with the sweat of fear. These he can still ignore, despite their growing strength.

So many months have passed and there are so many minds now -- splinters of a polished bronze shield strewn across the battlefield -- that he wonders if he will ever find them all again. And if he does, what fractured image will they reflect?

If he could raise his head -- were there enough flex in the rawhide bonds that force open his jaws, press against his throat, and chafe his bare ankles and wrists -- he could see the three elders who stand at his feet awaiting enlightenment born of his blood and pain.

But there is no need.

From the changed cadence of their chants and the acrid swirls of incense that tickle his nose he knows what will come next and soon. Burning embers touch his skin and he flinches.

When the chanting ends, the fourth man, a grizzled, long-haired shaman wearing a cluster of tiny skulls crouches at his head, paints his face with warm, sweet oil, then covers his eyes with a strip of leather. Rage surges, then panic, and he struggles blindly against his bonds, more out of habit than any expectation that they will yield; the ground is still hard, nearly frozen.

The old man presses hard on his belly. "Be still."

But he can not: every muscle twitches, fighting weakness and the potion they forced down his throat. Were this torture, he could hold fast against their knives, for a time at least. He could muddy the truth so thoroughly, cast doubt on the known so well, that they would profit less than nothing from his pain.

But this is not torture and they do not want what he knows.

There is a sharp prick and a sting, then a sudden warmth that spreads over his chilled skin, blood hot. The first cut never hurts: shock tricks the senses, dims the pain. But the second, oh it is a bright agony, and the stretching of his guts up and out. Behind his eyes he can see them, looped and glistening in the dappled light. He feels their weight, hears the splat and slither as the shaman drops their mass then pokes at and whispers over their steaming coils. The words are unfamiliar, but he learned the technique long ago. Do human guts yield more insight than those of goats or cows?

His face has grown cold, his fingers are numb and cramped, and he can no longer feel his convulsing limbs.

Death approaches.

The only sensation is that of the white-hot spike that pierces his belly with every strike of his faltering heart.

But then, there is something else. A familiar tingle in his sinuses and a barely felt -- perhaps imagined? -- vibration through the ground beneath his cooling body.

Hoof beats?

He is sightless, his nose is fouled by the reek of piss and open bowel, and his skin-sense is unreliable. But above the roaring in his ears, he thinks he hears six sharp whistles. Arrows? Then there are dull thumps and something heavy falls across his spread thighs jarring him. The pain is sickening.

'Now!' The dry mind shouts, but he is empty and there is nothing left, all strength fled and hope dissolved, drained away back into the earth.

"No. Take that one alive," he thinks he hears, followed by: "Cut him loose now. And put his guts back in, damn your eyes!" But his senses are failing and he can not be certain.

Some unknown time later, his jaw is eased shut and the strip removed from his eyes. He blinks once in the dim gray light and is still.

'Methos,' he would have said, but then he is dead.

II.

Pain is what he knows next, followed swiftly by panic and then resolve. He immediately strikes out with his hands but is still far too weak.

"Be still," he is told.

But this time, he recognizes the hum of Presence that caresses his spine, the long-dead tongue in which the command was spoken, and finally the lean, sun-browned hands on the reins. He finds that he can be still while the lightnings roil in his gut and flicker across his torn skin.

They are astride Methos' horse riding hard, east and south, out of the forest and into the grasslands beyond. It is a different beast -- mud brown, strong, with a silky gait -- but then of course, it has been centuries. The borrowed tunic he wears is coarse, scratchy against skin that has been kept naked for too many months.

"Where--?" he tries to ask, but is told, "Hush. Save your strength. You will need it later."

Ambush then?

He struggles through the pain to keep his eyes open, to scan the rocky trail and thinning trees. There are three other riders: two men and a woman, all well-armed and armored, riding tireless desert horses like Methos'. They are a motley mix of races, from the yellow-haired ax wielder and the slant-eyed assassin to the lanky black-skinned archer with the man-shaped bundle tied across her saddle bow. She grins at him fiercely when he recognizes the long gray hair with its clatter of tiny skulls.

"Brother. Give me a knife."

"Soon," Methos says into his ear. "When we reach the outer marker."

Content for the moment, he fists his hands in the horse's mane and settles back against Methos, and they ride.

The horses are lathered but not winded by the time that the trees have become scrub. There has been no pursuit yet, nor the expected ambush, though Methos' riders clearly expect it. They ride with hands on weapons, scabbards loosened, well-trained and alert. Hand signs are exchanged and followed instantly; it seems they have been a unit for some time.

Weaponless and still weak, he moves with the sway of their mount, drinking down the clean scents of freedom: horse sweat, tack, and Methos' familiar hot musk.

'He came,' exults one mind. 'He came for me!'

The dry mind counsels caution. They are few and the tribesmen are many; ambush is still possible. Also, centuries have passed since he and Methos parted, and not on the best of terms.

Another blind, useless mind relives the second cut, the heft and stretch of intestine, the burn of blood on his chilled face, again and again.

He thrusts aside all three in favor of the night-dark, fluid slicked mind that contemplates where and how to best place the knife; it has been a long while since he took a trophy. He licks his dry lips and is silent, resting and gathering his strength.

III.

A short while later, Methos calls a halt. They dismount at the edge of the grasslands near a stone cairn festooned with bone, dried blood, vaguely familiar strips of cloth and hair, and feathers.

Many of his minds remember this place.

...Shrieks and curses. Men and horses dying. The tear of muscle and ligament, the sharp crack of bone as it yields beneath his fists, his sword. There are too many men for his small party and he is swept from his horse. He tucks his head, lands on crossed-forearms, rolling over one shoulder.

Then he is climbing to his feet, snatching an abandoned sword from the tall grass and sending three men to their graves. He is watching his proud black haired-wife take down two horsemen with her axe, moments before she takes an arrow through the eye. He is seeing the bristle of arrows in his son's chest, catching a glimpse of bright arterial blood and eyes rolled back in death, gleaming white.

His vision wavers, grays at the edges but he fights until he is struck twice from behind and takes a lance through the belly. Failure tastes of grit and blood. Then he is gasping awake to the surprise of a bloodied warrior, who meets his eyes with a speculative smile...

His legs are unsteady. He closes his eyes and clings to the saddle of Methos' horse for a moment. But then Methos is there, one arm around his shoulders, turning him to face the cairn and pressing a knife into his hand.

"Dispose of this offal as you see fit," Methos says.

When he turns, the defiant shaman is kneeling before him, clothing torn, hair disheveled, face bloodied and begrimed, ringed by Methos' riders who watch with interest. Fatigue evaporates and he cocks his head, listening to the dark mind of chaos.

"Oh yes," he says, testing his thumb on the blade, feeling the blood drip down and the lightnings' caress. He smiles and stalks forward to the kill. "I shall."

IV.

His mouth is wet and sticky and both arms are red to the shoulder when Methos' urgent words finally penetrate: "Brother. Time to leave."

He snarls but upon the advice of the dry mind, steps away from the carrion, dragging the ragged scalp with him. His fingers are still knotted in its long gray hair and the tiny skulls clack against one another. His thirst is so deep that he can't even piss on the old man's shredded corpse. Methos steps near and does it for him then removes the bloody knife from his fist.

He does not resist although he wants to.

"Get dressed," Methos says. "Mount up."

And somehow, there is now a fourth man near the cairn, sitting astride a red horse with a yellow gelding beside him. The dry mind is outraged that he has ignored this new rider to indulge in gratuitous revenge. He mentally shrugs, then strips off the filthy stained tunic and dons the clothing this new man hands down to him. Quickly, so as to hide the shaking of his hands.

When he is dressed and mounted, Methos gives the order: "We ride," and they depart into the sunset, the tall prairie grass bending before them.

Were he to turn in the saddle, he might see black vultures circling down to feast, but he chooses not to look back.

V.

For six days they ride the swift desert-bred horses south with no sign of pursuit; his brother's riders are skilled and Methos' magic is powerful. Though at times he almost wishes for it, if only to soothe the ravenous mind of chaos that paints his vision red and howls for blood in the deepest hours of night.

Each night, Methos' riders rotate the watch and run scout patterns while he sleeps fitfully, rolled up in his brother's spare blanket against the chill. He is neither assigned a watch nor given a weapon, and Methos never leaves his side.

There is no opportunity to regain lost muscle and skills, their pace is too forced. It is enough -- more than enough -- to ride free under the bowl of the sky, to slake his thirst and hunger at will, and to be spoken to with respect. The simple pleasures of freedom.

As the days pass, he learns their names and skills -- Hafgrimr, ax wielder; Qwara, archer; Zheng, assassin; Simeon, lancer -- but little else. They freely offer him their trail rations but rarely speak. The silence is easy and companionable. Methos does not share their destination.

They light no evening fire. The first four nights, he is too exhausted to care, sleeping hard and deep until Methos brings him awake in the mornings with a touch. In the nights that follow, he spends his sleepless hours renaming the constellations, tracing his brother's profile with an imagined touch, or struggling to quiet the cacophony of minds in his head.

Thirteen days out, they turn south-west towards the craggy purple mountains and Methos calls another halt. The likelihood of pursuit now is limited.

His brother looks at him consideringly and he feels suddenly cold, sick, and furious. No doubt this is where they part ways.

Again.

The dry mind speaks to the advantage of having a horse, clothing and food, of being free despite also being weaponless. But chaos rouses him to emotions so potent that his quickening crackles and his horse shifts restlessly beneath him.

But Methos surprises him. "We will reach camp tomorrow night," he says, and rides on, descending into the Tabol River valley within sight of the distant gates to the Dying Sea.

He follows silently, knuckles white from his grip on the reins. His hands are cramped by sunset.

VI.

They arrive in camp at dusk and are greeted by two more of Methos' company -- another woman and a man -- who'd been left behind to guard. There is time before the evening meal, so he bathes in the nearby stream and exchanges his travel-stained clothing for fresh garments that Methos provides.

His brother's tent is small and spare but comfortable. Soft carpeting covers the ground inside and all gear is neatly stored in two battered wooden chests. The camp itself is well-located and defensible, nearly hidden in the trees and tall grasses along the water's edge. Knowing his brother, the company has more luxurious winter quarters within a few weeks ride.

He dresses then sits cross-legged on one of the two sleeping pallets, pulling a comb through the tangled length of his hair. It should bother him more that he is unarmed, that he doesn't know Methos' intentions, that he awaits his fate so passively. But he is very tired and his head is filled with such confusing voices and images that it is all he can do to sit upright.

His face itches but he has found no razor or knife in the tent; it would be a grave discourtesy to pick the locked chests. In any event, he can't still his shaking hands and he doesn't want to lose an eye or an ear or a lip.

He startles awake -- he has fallen asleep against one of the tent poles, hands in his lap -- when Methos enters.

His brother is barefoot, bare-chested, and damp, clearly having just returned from the stream himself. Methos approaches slowly carrying a bowl and a towel then kneels beside him and takes the comb.

"Allow me."

He closes his eyes and lets Methos have his way, and tries not to recall other times that his brother has performed this intimacy. When Methos wets his face and runs a sharp blade over his cheeks and throat he fights the contradictory urges to twitch away or to relax into trust.

"Easy," Methos says, holding him steady.

He compromises by shivering silently until his brother has removed the beard and trimmed and tied back his ragged hair.

Spring has already arrived here in the lowlands and so they eat outside with the others in the cool night air. Their quiet talk and laughter winds around him, welcoming him into the outer boundaries of their circle, easing his self-loathing and desolation.

Later, he slides into his bed roll and listens to night sounds: flowing water, wind in the trees, animals in the undergrowth, and Methos' riders on patrol. He knows himself to be as free as his brother's skills can ensure. Nonetheless, it is a long time before he can sleep.

VII.

For four nights running, Methos awakens him from his night terrors then returns to his own pallet. On the fifth, he awakens from a vision of having his guts picked by a raven wearing his wife's mutilated face. This time, there is a warm body pressed against his in the darkness.

"Kronos," Methos says softly. "Brother, you are free."

With the sound of his oldest shared name, a wordless, nameless something settles inside him. He breathes more deeply and easily, while Methos strokes his hair and brushes the tears from his face.

"You are free."

Kronos relaxes as his brother continues to touch and whisper. Methos' lips brush the back of his neck. Eventually, he closes his eyes and for the first time, sleeps through until dawn.

VIII.

Two weeks pass before he is allowed outside the camp, and even then, he must have an escort.

The dark, savage mind is resentful and chafes. But the dry mind is pragmatic: he is prone to sudden storms of recollection.

Kronos knows moments that seem like hours, when phantom pain twists his limbs, the voices of dead kin and companions flay him with accusations and scorn, and thwarted bloodlust rages through his body leaving him weak and shivering. While in these fugues, he will lash out with any weapon -- fists, feet -- anything he can bring to bear. Sometimes, he will even strike himself.

Afterwards, he is sometimes confused about where and who he is, about what has happened and what he has imagined, and he often loses knowledge of their shared tongues for a time. A dangerous state for an immortal.

So yes, the dry mind is wise, though other minds don't much like it.

Each day, he and Methos flow through the many unarmed forms they've learned over the years. Sometimes, he and a companion -- either Methos, or Zheng -- will hike through the woods or fish in the nearby streams, as he learns the swell and softness of this green land. Often he will care for the horses -- he was a farrier and a smith once -- repair tack, mend clothing, or help prepare the meals.

Each moment between dawn and dusk is filled with simple work, exercise, or meditation. He is allowed no empty hours.

At night, he and Methos share a bed, lying side by side in the darkness, their fingers entwined. They rarely speak aloud and he is content for the moment with touch alone.

The night terrors recede, but nevertheless he is reminded of everything, and everyone, he has lost and will lose again.

IX.

In four more weeks, spring has fully arrived. The trees have bloomed and the meadows are filled with birdsong, bees, and wild flowers.

Letycja loved flowers, especially the lavender ones of her family crest. In the evening, she would gather blossoms from her mother's garden in her large, strong hands then sprinkle them over their bed linens. The memory evokes his first near-smile in -- decades?

Regular sleep, exercise, and fresh food and water have made him stronger. Now, on alternate mornings, he and Methos, and sometimes Qwara, run along the river bank at dawn, and out into the lush, green fields until the second hour of morning is well along. Qwara is swift and they often flow in her wake tracking her progress only by the whisper of grasses bent by her passing.

Afterwards, and each morning after breakfast, he and Methos retreat to a small clearing in the woods. There, they move through the ancient open-handed katas they learned together in the East so long ago. His body sings in the aftermath.

Kronos wears his skin more easily these days. He is less prone to mind storms and nightmares. There are fewer distinct and competing minds. Some have faded into obscurity, others seem less compelling or urgent. Those that remain still tumble and roil over one another when he is sleepless, tired, or upset, but at least it is easier to find the still places between them.

It must be enough: one morning, when he returns from his bath in the stream, he discovers an ivory handled knife and its sheath on his pillow.

Kronos tilts the blade in his hands and it catches the light, reflecting his scarred image. His face is sharp and his eyes are haunted, unfamiliar. Perhaps even mad. A red mist stalks the edges of his vision and he flicks his finger against the blade abruptly, drawing blood. The small pain centers him, stills the tremor of his hands.

When his vision is clear, he sheathes the knife and goes to tend the horses.

X.

Shortly before the summer solstice, Methos moves the camp several days further south and deeper into the trees.

"I've heard rumors," Methos said one evening. The next morning, they packed and broke camp.

Two days after the move, Qwara, Hafgrimr, and Mehmet the swordsman, gear up before dawn. The men each clasp his arm in turn, but Qwara rests her hands on his shoulders then leans forward and kisses him. They mount their horses and ride west. He stands for a long time watching their departure. His lips tingle, reminding him of...something.

Later that morning, Kronos surprises himself with a question. "Where did you send them?" he asks his brother.

Methos regards him silently, eyes nearly gold in the sunlight. He is silent for so long that Kronos thinks he will choose not to answer.

"Summer contract," he says finally.

The dry mind considers: small party, horses built for speed and endurance, light armor and high-quality weapons, no pack animals.

Assassins? Kronos discards the thought. The riders are too distinctive in this part of the world and their comings and goings in camp are too frequent. Caravan guards? Too few, too skilled, and knowing Methos, far too expensive. He flickers though half-recalled memories searching for a common uniqueness amid the riders' diversity. His mind snags on the odd scraps he's seen around the camp, parchment adorned with glyphs both familiar and unknown.

"Couriers," he says suddenly.

His brother looks pleased. "Indeed."

XI.

On the eve of the summer solstice, he, Zheng, and Ashni, Zheng's wife, check the small game snares they've set in the woods.

In one trap, he finds a fat brown rabbit, its foot bloody where it has gnawed in its attempt to escape. He kneels beside the animal and its eyes roll and gleam whitely. For a moment he is dizzy, his wrists and ankles feel raw and there is an odd pain in his throat. But then the rabbit's heart flutters, trapped beneath his palm and he feels set above, elated. He wants to christen his knife, slit its throat just to see the blood well up and drip. Instead, he snaps its neck in a single motion, to save the pelt. Across the small clearing, Zheng and Ashni watch, their dark eyes are approving.

He resets the trap and carries the rabbit towards them then freezes. Shapes shift in the trees behind them. Two men, leather clad, dark-haired with bone and feather jewelry. Familiar shapes.

Methos' rumors made real.

Zheng turns to look but does not draw a weapon. Ashni's bow is held loosely in her hand.

How can they not see them? Hear them approaching?

His heart pounds and his mouth is dry. He has only a knife, there are two of them, and he is too far away and too out of condition to make a certain throw. Zheng will be killed first, as the most obvious threat, then Ashni. He will be last and he will revive under their hands and be splayed and sacrificed again and again.

Something touches his arm and he struggles to draw his knife, to take at least one down before he is food for the gods again. But then his opponent presses a nerve cluster. His forearm burns, his hand goes numb, and the knife drops from his fingers. A swift kick behind his knee and he is falling, then held down, and fighting against the darkness.

The craven minds want to howl and he can't hear the dry mind's counsel above the din. But he won't cry out, he won't give them the pleasure, he won't.

"Get Matthias," he thinks he hears, but the words make no sense. These men don't know Methos. Unless -- no, he can't believe, he won't, Methos wouldn't -- and then something squeezes his heart, steals his breath, and sucks him down into blackness.

Kronos gasps.

He is alive -- free! -- and he leaps to his feet, drawing his knife. Seven paces away, Methos sits on one of the wooden chests in their tent, his sword lying across his knees.

"Brother." Methos' voice is soft. He doesn't rise but his hand tightens on the hilt of his sword.

"Methos?" His voice shatters on the word and for a long moment, the minds fight amongst themselves, each competing to define what is real and what is the hopeless wish of an endless living sacrifice.

He turns the knife and in one swift motion, opens a gash across his palm. Despite the pain, his brother's apparition remains present. Somehow, it has moved closer now. He can smell its familiar sweat, feel its heat, its touch.

A wish wouldn't feel so solid, would it? An illusion wouldn't take his throbbing hand and kiss each finger in turn, nor kiss away the blood on his palm. Its immortality wouldn't whisper along his bones so seductively. And he wouldn't allow a mere wish to gently take his knife and set the weapon aside. Would he?

"Kronos," Methos says, his eyes dark with concern. "I am here."

The fingers that clasp his sore hand are strong from wielding a sword for thousands of years, they are real. Those that ghost across his cheek bone, trace his scar, his lips, are rough and very warm.

"They haven't found us?" Kronos is ashamed that his voice is not steady.

"No." Methos draws him closer and a hand touches his hair.

"Zheng and Ashni." It is difficult to shape the words, but the weaker mind has gained control and will not be denied. "They are--?"

"Outside. Fine."

"And I am--?"

"Free, brother," Methos says, and draws him into a careful embrace. "You are free."

Methos holds him for a long time, until his heart slows and the clamor in his head recedes.

"In the meadow today," he says quietly, his chin on Methos' shoulder. "There was no one. Was there?"

He feels Methos shake his head. "Zheng and Ashni searched, but found no tracks."

Kronos nods slowly to himself then steps away and sinks down heavily on their pallet. He wraps his arms around his knees.

"I am not well, Methos," he admits finally. The words are painful to speak.

"No." When Methos sits beside him, he places his hand over Kronos' and squeezes gently. "Not yet," he says, and the blood on his lips cracks and flakes away. "But you will be."

XII.

It is difficult to meet Zheng and Ashni's eyes that evening, but he does. In other times, when he was other men, some powerful and cruel, he might not have bothered. He might have had them killed for witnessing his weakness. But these are his brother's people, their loyalty is to Methos. The dry mind insists that he have allies in a neutral or hostile camp.

At least he is among warriors, though they are mortal. They wear no pity on their faces, only understanding; they too must have their own demons. He turns his attention to the fire, finding that the ache in his chest has eased.

Much later, he lies on his back blinking up at the stray moonlight that filters through the tent chimney above. Sleep is elusive.

He and Methos have shared beds, blood, their bodies, and their lives for centuries but none of those experiences suggest a pattern to follow now.

How long ago did they part? He can still feel his cheekbone splinter under the force of Methos' backhand blow, but his brother's venomous words were far more shattering. How many decades, centuries? And does it matter to men such as themselves whose lives span incomprehensible distances in time?

When he turns his head on the pillow, he sees the glitter of Methos' eyes in the darkness. Were he to reach out, their fingers might brush and tangle on the sheets. Methos might shift nearer and Kronos might roll to his side and their lips might meet, part, their tongues might slide along one another, leaving them both breathless.

But he remains still. Indecision is a foreign territory, but tonight, he can't locate the still place between the conflicting minds, the certainty to act. Once, he and Methos were the earth and the sky, fire and water -- different in nature yet inseparable, essential, each unthinkable without the other. What are they to one another now?

He might have lay there, trapped until dawn, except that Methos finally speaks.

"Can't sleep?"

Kronos rolls to his side and faces his brother across the small distance between them. "No."

Methos reaches towards him. His fingers trace a path from Kronos temple, across the cheek bone he shattered so long again, and rests briefly on his lips.

"I know something that will help," Methos says, then draws his hand away. The corners of his eyes crinkle as he smiles.

"Do you," Kronos replies, feeling suddenly warm with anticipation. His lips are tingling and his body is painfully aware after long months of numbness. Where have these sensations been? he wonders.

"Oh yes. I do." Methos' eyes are emerald green in the moonlight and his smile promises delicious mayhem. Kronos has greatly missed that expression over the decades.

"Shall I show you?" Methos asks, shifting so their bodies press against one another.

"If you must." Kronos strives for indifference but fails. Methos is quietly amused.

And then their lips are touching, Methos' tongue is sliding over his, their hands are relearning ancient patterns of touch, their quickenings crackle as they blend and merge, and he is indeed breathless.

Deeper questions and concerns are set aside for a later time.

The next morning, he expects Methos to demand the return of his knife. The dry mind insists that he not offer it and so he does not. But Methos never asks.

Instead, they dress and go for their run as usual, this time accompanied by Simeon. When they return to camp, Methos tosses him a polished wooden stave.

"You've carried a sword for so long, brother," he says. "Let's see if you remember the basics."

Oh, he has missed that familiar bland tone and the challenge in Methos' eyes.

Kronos grins. "Some things you never forget," he says, then spins the staff in his hands and settles into position.

XIII.

Rain sheets down from the lightning shattered sky as Kronos slips, slides, and struggles to keep his footing in the thick mud and to prevent the horses from bolting.

A week earlier, after the solstice, heavy rains had flooded their camp and they were forced to move to higher ground. The others had gone ahead to establish the new camp. But he and Methos had stayed behind to await the return of Qwara, Hafgrimr, and Mehmet, who were unfamiliar with the new location.

While Kronos didn't mind the short time alone with his brother, he did mind sleeping, eating, and fucking in the mud. His only consolation is that their original camp is likely now underwater, lessening the chance of pursuit even further.

Up ahead, he senses Methos' Presence in the near darkness and he opens his inner senses to better track the flickers and surges of his brother's quickening as Methos follows the trail. How he can find his way in this maelstrom is a mystery, but then his brother's magic has always been strong.

Some time later, a shout goes up and he can see faint light through the trees. He passes the call down the line to Hafgrimr. Camp at last.

Predictably, after they've slogged through miles of mud, been hammered by wind and hail for hours, after they've watered, fed, and have been bitten and stepped upon by the restless horses, the main fury of the storm passes.

The gentle rain and sullen growl of thunder reminds him of his distant youth. Summer days spent on the broad steppes to the northeast. A time when his life seemed simpler. When he knew what it meant to be a man and knew what his people required of him. When he was held tightly in the world by ties of birth and blood, and he knew with certainty the path his life would follow until death. In the days before the lightnings severed him from all he was or had hoped to be.

Kronos stands for a moment, face upturned and eyes closed, as the cool water streams down his face, through his hair, and down under his collar. He is not thinking, neither remembering nor grieving nor battling the contradictory minds that have remained. He is simply being free, alive and aware in his body. Enjoying the burn of exhausted muscle, the tickle of sweet rain water on his skin, and the sensual caress of Methos' quickening as his brother steps near.

"Zheng saved supper for us. Are you hungry?" Methos' voice is low, vibrating just beneath the murmur of the thunder. His brother's hand rests on his shoulder and his breath is warm against the back of Kronos' neck.

He turns and runs his fingers along the smooth ivory of Methos' throat. In the uncertain, flickering light, the lines on his brother's face are blurred and he looks deceptively young.

There are days when he knows that immortality is a curse. When he is rootless, with no land, no people, with no one and no thing that endures: days when he wishes that he knew how to die.

But then there are other moments, like this. When he stands beside this man, this improbable survivor, an everlasting anchor in the chaos, and knows that he wouldn't wish any of it undone.

"Yes," he says, his lips bare inches from Methos'. "Very."

Shoulder-to-shoulder, they make their way to the stand of trees where Simeon and Ashni have erected Methos' tent. On the threshold they set aside their weapons, strip out of their muddy clothing, run towels over their damp skin, and step inside.

"Join me," Methos says, inviting Kronos to sit beside him on the rugs where Zheng has laid out the meal.

Kronos finds that his fatigue has fled. He is utterly awake in every organ and limb, and in each of his senses, inside and out. He inhales deeply, savoring the mingled scents of spiced meat and herbs and the crushed needles of pine and spruce that cushion the ground beneath the carpets. Light from the single oil lamp bathes his brother's sleek, naked body in amber and ancient gold.

Where have I been? he wonders, feeling the steady thrum of blood beneath his tingling skin. How long have I been asleep? For how long?

He joins Methos on the carpets, sitting much closer than necessary.

They eat in near silence in the fashion of the far east, using slim sticks of polished ash to share the meat and vegetables from the bowls. Although they do not converse, they do laugh frequently. Sometimes they fumble for the same cube of meat and wind up with tangled sticks. Other times, they attempt to feed one another, with mixed results, and are forced to lick the spilled juices from one another's lips, chins, or fingers.

As the evening wears on and the meal is consumed, the laughter becomes less frequent, the looks they exchange are more heated, and the flicks of their tongues increase, lingering over skin grown sensitive and trembling.

Finally, Kronos has had enough, or perhaps not quite enough. He pushes aside the dishes, leans forward, and takes his brother's mouth in long, deep kiss.

Methos offers no resistance, opening to the languid sweep of his tongue. He tangles his own fingers in Kronos' damp hair and pulls him down onto the pillows scattered across their bedding.

Methos' grip tightens and one hand slowly trails up and down Kronos' spine, drawing his quickening to the surface with the touch. He closes his eyes to better enjoy the sensation and to savor the heat and softness of his brother's mouth: bruised wet lips, a weapon more cruel and deadly than Methos' sword.

"Still hungry, I see," Methos says when they finally part. His eyes gleam with lust in the lamplight and his cheeks are flushed.

In reply, Kronos feasts on the amber painted arch of Methos' throat, filling his brother's wicked mouth with moans rather than sarcasm. When his fingers reach between Methos' thighs, his brother cries out sharply and their centuries apart are as nothing.

It is as if there has been no distance, no separation.

His lover's clever hands unerringly find his old and odd, secret places -- the nape of his neck, the hollows of knee, hip and ankle -- that make him shudder and moan. In turn, he presses Methos into the cool sheets, nips a taut nipple and slides his tightly closed hand down the length of his lover's hot, thick cock, and flicks the sensitive tip until Methos writhes beneath him.

Has there ever been a time when they were apart? If so, his body doesn't remember. Every mind is quiescent and only enflamed skin, blood, and bone remains.

He draws back slightly from another long wet kiss, breathless and hard, straddling his lover's hips. Methos' leans on one elbow, eyes slitted nearly shut. His fingers graze the planes of Kronos' belly, dance up the ladder of his ribs, then gently trace knobs of his spine down, downward and between until Kronos gasps: "Methos!"

His lover laughs then pulls him down and rolls him to his back.

Methos rises above him dark and beautiful in the half-light. His long hair has slipped its leash and tangles around his neck and shoulders in a wild black snarl, softening the angles of his face.

He kneels between Kronos' thighs and runs one finger down the underside of his cock and beyond. "Yes?" He asks respectfully, although his lazy, avaricious expression is anything but polite.

Were they present or awake, one or more minds might have objected, but his body knows what it wants. "Yes," he agrees and closes his eyes, giving himself into his brother's hands.

He feels the brush of Methos' lips against his own first. A slow and thorough exploration, a careful penetration of tongue that echoes the other decadent pleasures that await. Then there is a hand on his jaw, turning his head to better sample the tenderness beneath one ear and the shivering length of skin down along his throat to his shoulder.

Methos' heat and lean, muscular weight surrounds him, grounds him, holds him down, reminding him that strength and touch need not always lead to captivity or pain. The practiced, deliberate caresses remind him of other strong hands -- bearing axe rather than sword calluses -- that last touched him so intimately.

"Stay with me, brother," Methos murmurs, and gnaws a stinging, open-mouthed path down his rib cage to the hollow of his hip.

"Methos!" he yelps, too firmly pinned by his lover's weight to twitch away. "I am not food. You are as bad as Caspian."

"Ah. But I know for a fact that our brother never did this," Methos says, then takes Kronos' cock deep.

He would concede the point except that he has lost the ability to speak, and finds that he can only sigh and moan as Methos works incendiary sexual magic with mouth, tongue, and hands. His lover's hair whispers against his inner thighs and he feels himself wantonly and willingly spread, open to the long fingers that gently cup his sac, tease his entrance with their tips, then slide without resistance into his body. Methos crooks his fingers twice as he reaches the peak of his pleasure and then Kronos is falling, crying out loudly enough to rival the renewed storm beyond their tent.

When the world has settled and he has reopened his eyes, Methos is kneeling between Kronos' thighs and anointing his own cock with sweet, aromatic oil. Methos reaches out, their hands meet and Kronos is pulled slowly into his brother's lap.

There are few males to whom he would offer this intimacy, despite the pleasure he takes in it.

His brother knows this and so begins carefully. Methos teases his lips with kisses, gently clasping the back of his neck and stroking his throat with one thumb, until Kronos rises of his own accord and sinks down upon his lover's cock. There is an initial sting and stretch and then Methos is deep. Kronos can feel his lover's pulse in his lower belly and against his chest. The heat of him rises along Kronos' spine and he arches helplessly as both their quickenings tangle, flare, and race beneath the surface of his skin.

"I've missed you," Methos says softly, fingertips brushing Kronos' scarred cheek.

And then there are no more words, only the sounds of their pleasure and the unvoiced knowledge of the trust and passion that has always lay between them, despite their often violent differences. A vast underground well that he believes will never run dry as long as they both live.

Long after they have sated their lust and the lamp has been extinguished, he lies in Methos' embrace listening to the rain and thunder, remembering.

It isn't quite so painful now to bring to mind each of their faces, to recall their eight brief years together. But nonetheless, the empty spaces they have left behind ache like a barely healed wound. They remind him uncomfortably of other, more ancient parts of himself he has lost and of all the losses yet to come.

Will there come a time when his heart is whittled away to nothing?

"Tell me about them," Methos says into the darkness.

Not for the first time, Kronos wonders if his brother can read minds. In the past months, he has only twice mentioned his dead wife and son and neither time could he find the breath to share their names.

Though he still feels their absence, like the flex and strain of torn muscle, Kronos forces himself to answer. He tells first of the tall, broad shouldered ex-mercenary's daughter he met on a journey through the northern farm lands.

Her father, retired and a particularly mediocre farmer, had been impressed with Kronos' skills as a swordsmith, his talent with a blade, and colorful tales of his past campaigns. Her mother had been far more of a tough sell. The bride price had cost him dear: nine pieces of silver and a single ruby. By all rights, he'd vastly over paid, but for eight years, he'd known that he'd gotten the better end of the bargain by far.

Methos' laugh rumbles beneath his ear. "You always pick the amazons, don't you."

He just smiles, remembering the glint of her axe while she honed its blade, the flash of her lusty smile through the dark hair that she would never cut. Oh, and the breadth of her hands, their strength against his skin, the way she always seemed to touch him bone-deep.

Before his voice can betray him with its weakness, he speaks of Arslanjin whose village he and his company destroyed during a spring campaign.

"He wouldn't die, Methos. He wouldn't quit," he says. "He followed us for ten days, on foot. Across the mountains. Nearly without food or water. To demand justice. Of me! Such fire he had."

He can see it as it happened. The exchange of much-needed coin that doomed one village and ensured another's prosperity. The fire and blood and screams that satisfied something deep that coin could never buy.

And then in the aftermath, leaving the burned wreckage behind: Arslanjin's ragged, barefoot figure, not more than twelve or thirteen but already with the full courage of a man. Dogging their steps each day. Lurking outside the range of their fire in the night, shivering in the thin mountain air, eating the scraps they left behind in the morning. Surviving. Following their tracks, no matter how tangled, day after day into the next dawn.

"You killed them. My family," Arslanjin had said, swaying on his feet, barely standing upright, but courageous, like the lion for which he was named. "And now you owe me."

Impressed, one of his men had thrown the boy a dagger and he'd fought Kronos awkwardly, hand to hand, nearly drawing blood. So fierce and determined, with no kin behind him, with no one left for him in the entire world, what else could Kronos do but name him son?

"You would have liked him, Methos." Kronos thinks of the man Arslanjin became, so like Zheng in appearance that his breath catches occasionally. "He was my son," he says, but in truth, Arslanjin was their son. A joy to his fearless Letycja, who would never have one of her own. "I would have died for him."

'I would have died for them', he doesn't say. His brother would no doubt laugh aloud at him for admitting that he would die for a woman -- even his sisters in war -- although they both know it for truth. Methos can openly admit such things. He is older and sees the world only through the veil of his heart. Man or woman or child, those he claims for himself are his and he will do anything, face down Death himself, to keep them safe.

Methos doesn't restate the obvious: that Kronos did die for them. Instead, he says, "But you think he died for you."

"Didn't he?" Didn't they?

He doesn't tell Methos how they died, it is unnecessary. His brother has seen and dealt death in all its forms. There is no need to explain his wife's wish to visit her family again; to describe how she and Arslanjin convinced him, against his better judgement, to attempt the journey so late in the year, despite rumored unrest; to admit that no degree of skill, no number of years spent waging war can overcome odds of eight-to-one.

Love-blind, believing himself -- and by extension, his family -- to be invulnerable, he had failed them both in the most fundamental of ways.

"Each man makes his own choice, Kronos."

Each man: himself and every other. He knows this, he always knows this, and yet is it never a comfort. It changes nothing, makes no single thing better.

He abruptly pushes the sheets aside and sits up to stare into the darkness. "I chose for him. When I destroyed his village," he says, and can sense Methos' surprise.

When the blood-lust is upon him, when the world is dark and empty and he exults in his appointed role as Agent of Chaos, those whom he destroys are as nothing: his is the power and they serve or die. But there are times when even he cannot be blind to the outcome of his choices.

"Creatures such as we must choose our own kin. However it happens." His brother's voice is very soft, and the light touch on his arm is uncertain.

"Yes," he snaps, pulling away. "We choose and they always die, Methos. Always."

And those that don't, that can't, they are swallowed up by this absurd, deadly Game, when they should unite instead, brothers and sisters of the same raging prairie storm. Or they leave him -- like Methos, Caspian, Silas -- dissolving into the fantastical tales told in taverns and around evening fires the world over.

He clenches his jaw, feeling the ancient, ever-smoldering rage ignite and sweep through him with the ferocity of a summer wild fire. His quickening rises, lashing his hair away from his face and limning his skin in its phosphorescence.

Why? he wants to scream at the uncaring and nonexistent gods, as he had upon awakening from his first death. Why me?

"Brother." Methos ignores the shower of sparks and tightens his hand on Kronos' arm.

Kronos quickly turns to face him before his courage fails. "Methos," he says urgently, clasping his brother's bare shoulders. "Get your sword. Take my head."

Methos is still for a long moment then he raises one hand and traces an imaginary fatal stroke along Kronos' throat. "No, Kronos," he says, his voice is shaking. "No. I can not."

Kronos is sickened by the contradictory passions that are aroused by his brother's words. "I want--" he says, nearly choking on the words.

"I know, brother. I know."

And Methos does know. He's lived this life longer, more than one hundred bleak, twisted decades beyond Kronos' own years. And yet he remains present somehow, he endures, through the inevitable maelstrom of blood and loss.

But how has he survived? In all their years together, Kronos has watched carefully but never learned the trick of it.

Regardless, with his brother's words, Kronos fury and courage drains away and his quickening settles slowly. He feels shaky, empty and light. Neither he nor Methos believe tears to be a weakness; a strong man can weep for his losses without shame. Even so, his eyes burn with unshed tears.

"I know," his brother repeats softly.

Methos reaches for him and then he is held tightly in his brother's arms. After a long moment, something eases in his chest and he can allow his tears to fall.

XIV.

Mid-summer rains have given way to late summer heat.

Kronos has been up and working since sunrise. First, a lengthy run with Qwara, followed by open-hand combat with Zheng, a true master of the art. Then finally, staves against Simeon and Ashni, two deceptively vicious opponents for all their slight stature.

Afterwards, there are snares to check, game to clean and skin. Then there are equipment repairs, weapons to clean or polish, and the horses and pack beasts to tend.

The late afternoon sun is blistering and he pauses for a moment to wipe his face and drink warm, stale water from his bota. Despite the heat and the work, he is twitchy, restless.

Methos and his company live like ascetics. They are clearly wealthy. He has seen some of the ledgers that Methos keeps. Their skills are highly prized: discreet, deadly, and literate couriers are rare, and they quite obviously have as much work as they desire. And yet, they live so damned simply, with few luxuries beyond exotic spices and finely crafted weapons.

Zheng and Ashni he can understand. Their daughter lives with her grandparents in their winter quarters. In a few months, they will return home with their earnings and spend the off-season with their family. It is wise of them to live quietly. Hafgrimr and Qwara each owe Methos a life debt: he bought them both out of slavery. Their honor requires that they live with Methos' choice, no matter how peculiar. With Mehmet and Simeon, he is unsure. Each man avoids him unless his brother is near.

As for Methos, who can say? Whatever the case, it is like living amongst monks!

Is this silence and false austerity, this obscurity, the fate of all immortals who wish to survive the coming ages, as Methos has insisted? The time of undying god kings may well be past, but is this what awaits them all?

Kronos spits out the water in disgust, wishing for a chilled goblet of wine, preferably served by a naked concubine. He is tired of living like a hermit, seeing no one, isolated from the world outside, tired of being put to work and husbanded like some domesticated beast.

The cacophony of minds has nearly stilled and he is most often alone in his head again. What he wants is to ride again, to fight, and if he is honest with himself, to kill.

He has almost decided to find Methos, demand a sword and take horse towards the horizon, when his brother finds him instead.

"Qwara has seen a large flock of geese down in the marshes. You interested?"

Kronos turns sharply but bites back a rude response when he realizes what Methos has in his outstreched hands. It is a beautifully crafted long bow, buffed to a soft sheen in the sun. In the quiver are arrows fletched in the red and black pattern that he used before his first death.

Methos has always had a way with gifts.

"Yes," he says softly and hefts the sleek, balanced weapon. He sights along his outstretched arm and imagines nocking an arrow, feeling the comfortable strain in his shoulder as he draws, and then the hum and thwack of the arrow into a fat, lazy goose. "I am very interested."

He can already taste the blood.

XV.

One morning, Kronos awakens with the awareness that the season has turned.

Perhaps it is a subtle change in the color of the light, a shift in the angle of the sun. Or maybe it is the faint scent of decay, ripeness a moment past its prime. Whatever the case, it is as if the world has paused in its respiration for a single attenuated heart beat before exhaling into winter. His skin tightens with the knowledge.

He turns to see Methos watching him. His brother's hair is tangled and his face is flushed with sleep, but he is clearly awake and alert. Kronos sits silently as Methos' eyes flicker over his face, trace the breadth of his shoulders, then consider the shape of his hands where they lay on the blanket.

Methos nods once, as if something has been decided, and his eyes return to Kronos' face.

"Time to get up," he says. "Lots to do today." In another moment, his brother has risen and is out of the tent.

Kronos watches him depart.

In the months that have passed, despite the intimacy of their bodies and despite Methos' concern and the tenderness of his care, they remain held apart from one another in some fundamental, yet undefinable way.

What are they to one another now?

Kronos has come to believe that the question will remain unanswered.

XVI.

Two mornings later, neither Qwara, Simeon, nor Methos are in the camp, so Kronos takes his run alone. When he returns from the stream, Methos and Hafgrimr are saddling their horses.

"We must journey into town," Methos says. "Care to join us?"

Kronos can't collect his gear and saddle his horse fast enough.

The nearest town is a two day ride and his anticipation makes the trip a pleasant torture. The gold and red leaves seem brighter and the air is somehow more crisp and clear.

At night, he takes his turn at watch, prowling around the camp in the darkness. He feels naked without a sword but revels nonetheless in the snap of the air against his skin and the sensation of being fit and strong and free.

Mid-morning of the second day, they reach a dusty road that winds past farms and small settlements. Men and women work the golden fields, tending the autumn harvest. The air is filled with chaff and the fresh scent of hay and manure.

While they pause for the noon meal, Methos and Hafgrimr tell him about the town, recounting amusing stories about the three daughters who took far too much of a liking to Simeon for Mehmet's taste, and about the innkeeper who was convinced that Ashni was a man because of her sword and armor, despite her obvious womanly curves.

When they are ready to ride on, Kronos mounts his horse and discovers a full coin pouch tied to his saddle. He tries, but fails to catch his brother's eye.

Once in town, he drinks down the crowds, the dust, and the noise as if after a long thirst. While Methos meets with potential clients, Kronos and Hafgrimr wander the markets, admiring the pretty girls, and haggling with the merchants for supplies, clothing, and weapons. He is pleased to see that he has retained his skills in full measure.

When they meet later for supper in a tavern, Methos is laden with bundles and smiling broadly

"Successful meeting, Matthias?" Hafgrimr asks.

"Most definitely, yes," Methos says, and glances at Kronos.

Kronos' stomach clenches painfully around the beef and ale he's just eaten as he tries to interpret Methos' look.

XVII.

The morning after they return to camp, there is frost on the ground and a skim of ice on the stream. After breakfast, he follows Methos into the woods to the clearing where they practice their katas. However rather than begin the first forms, Methos draws two wooden practice blades from his pack and offers one to Kronos.

When he clasps the worn hilt, a chill prickles over his skin and Kronos feels as if the world has shifted.

Their blades clash loudly, sweat drips into their eyes, and livid bruises rise over ribs and shoulders as they engage again and again, but the joy of combat and competition is muted. Despite Methos' open smile, his brother's eyes are flat and unreadable.

XVIII.

On the evening of the equinox, they prepare a feast complete with roast goose, wild boar, and delicacies like the yellow summer wine brought back from the village. The entire company relaxes around the fire enjoying the meal and the fellowship.

Kronos leans against a fallen log and listens while Simeon recounts an amusing tale that features a horny soldier, a homely whore, a donkey, and a pitcher of ale. Afterwards, Mehmet and Qwara begin to sing. Their low, silky voices, lamenting love lost, found, and lost again, wind through the trees and drape him in melancholy.

How many similar gatherings has he known? How many similar jokes, songs, and tales voiced in languages long dead?

The men and women of the company, they are his own companions now as well, include him in their laughter and tales, welcoming him into their circle. The gesture warms him. But how can he truly share when in a flash of time, they will all be gone to dust and only he and Methos will remain to remember this night?

The moon is high when Methos clasps his shoulder and leads him to their tent. Bright silver light lies in patches on their bed but Methos lights the oil lamp anyway.

"Come here, brother," Methos says softly, unlocking one of the wooden chests. "I have something for you."

Kronos kneels on the pallet beside him and waits while Methos removes a long wrapped bundle and then places it in his hands.

He closes his eyes and his muscles tighten against a sudden pain. His body already knows this weight and his hands know the deadly shape, but if he refuses to look perhaps it will be as if he imagined it. Perhaps Methos will return it to its box and lock it away again.

"Kronos," Methos says. And Kronos wonders: can a single word be spoken so gently and yet cut so deep? "Open your eyes, brother. Claim your gift."

The sword is beautiful, as he knew it would be.

When Kronos draws the blade free of its scabbard, he catches a glimpse of his face on the polished surface. His reflection is whole, but his eyes are shadowed with grief.

XIX.

They break camp at dawn.

The tents are dismantled, their belongings stored, and the pack animals have been loaded. Methos gives the order and the company rides southeast, slowly leaving the shelter of the trees for the more open spaces in the river valley below.

At noon, Methos calls a halt. The rest of the company pauses to rest and water their horses, but his brother gestures him on. They ride in silence for a short while, then mount a slight rise. At the top, they dismount and allow their horses to graze.

Methos stands at his shoulder, smelling of clean sweat and leather. The strong summer sun has tanned his brother's face and streaked his hair with copper.

Have I changed enough for you? Kronos wonders. But knows with certainty that he has not. That knowledge, and the need to contain his anger, is far more difficult than he had imagined.

When Methos turns to him, his eyes are the gold of ripe wheat. "How is your Latin?" he asks.

Kronos shrugs. "Good enough. Why?" he asks, pleased that his voice remains casual.

In response, Methos hands him a square of parchment.

He unfolds the document and scans it slowly, first with surprise and then despite himself, with rising excitement. "Methos. What is this?"

"A letter of introduction." His brother is smiling. "To a friend."

One name stands out in the text. "Darius? The Lion?"

His brother nods. "The Empire is crumbling. I hear that he has a campaign planned to the west."

Kronos closes his eyes for a moment and swallows hard. Methos does indeed have a way with gifts.

"His army is camped on the steppes near the Black Sea," Methos continues. "You are restless, brother. No doubt he can find something interesting for you to do."

Methos does not say what they both know: that is where their ways part.

Kronos looks out over the hillside towards the bowl of the Dying Sea and memorizes the strum of Methos' quickening, the smell of his sweat, the barely felt warmth of his brother's body beside his.

Suddenly, he must know, there may never be another time. He turns and grabs Methos' hand hard.

"You never told me--" he begins, but Methos interrupts him: "I heard word of a living sacrifice, a pale man with a scar. And I came."

"No," he shakes his head. "Not how, Methos. You never told me why. Why did you come?"

Methos looks down at their clasped hands for a moment. "No, I did not," he says. Kronos counts fifty-two slow heart beats until his brother answers.

"I came," Methos says finally, "because I can not imagine a sky without you beneath it, brother. As much as I might sometimes wish otherwise."

They stand together for a long time then Methos pulls away to mount his horse.

"Watch your head," Methos says and then he rides.

XX.

He has two horses, a fine sword, three knives, and a well-made long bow. He has food and water for a week, ample coin, a destination that promises unfettered conquest, and clear weather ahead.

He has almost everything he needs.

After a moment, he mounts his horse and rides west. Methos' Presence grows more and more faint until it disappears entirely, as if it had never been.

Were he to turn in the saddle, he might catch a glimpse of his brother's departure. But when he does, the moment has long since passed.

The backtrail is empty of all except waving yellowed grasses and sky.

Finis.


Story Notes

Inspired by Sleeps-With-Coyotes' Acherusia

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