by Beck McLaughlin
The afternoon was well advanced when Amanda and Methos reached the end
of the valley. They'd not seen any sign of Nergal. Amanda couldn't
figure out why not. Not that she expected their luck to last, however.
Her companion had become steadily moodier as the hours passed.
Sometimes, she would glance over to see murderous rage in those gaunt
features. More often, however, his face was white and very still. Then
she could call his name repeatedly and he would not answer. It wasn't
very encouraging when one anticipated the need for sharp wits.
"There it is." He'd been silent so long, his sudden words made Amanda
jump, soft as they were.
The forest thinned as the ground began to climb. Cedar gave way to
grass and low shrubs. Here and there, great knuckles of stone broke
through the hillside. Steep, wooded slopes provided a dramatic backdrop
to the sprawling structure on the hilltop. Methos stared at it, jaw
"Doesn't look like anyone is at home," Amanda said finally.
"We can only hope," he muttered. Hefting the sword, he looked down its
long, blue blade. "You don't have to come with me."
His smile was strained, but it was a smile, damn it. Encouraged, Amanda
gave him one of her own and together, they started up the hill.
Duncan felt the enemy somewhere ahead of them. He laid a hand on
"You can *feel* us?" she whispered when he told her why.
Duncan nodded. "You can hear them now."
The rustling grew more pronounced. Someone exclaimed in annoyance,
pin-pointing a location.
Once again, the goddess of war wasted no time on reflection. Inanna
stepped around the bushes and fired calmly into the group. Two mortals
fell, as did one of the Eternals standing beside Ereshkigal. The other
bolted like a hare.
Nergal's wife screamed at her remaining guard, who stepped in front of
her and fired back. Duncan cursed and shot him. Ereshkigal turned and
fled after the other Eternal into the trees.
Inanna was hit, pressing a hand to her bleeding shoulder. "I'll get
her!" she cried, seeming not even to feel the pain. "Get Utu's meh or
he'll be back to annoy us!"
Duncan bent and found the crystal -- this one was part of a brooch
pinned inside the Eternal's jacket. He pulled it away and, as he had
come to expect, watched the body go to dust, The death wind raced
through the wood, shaking the branches. Stuffing the crystal into his
pocket, the Highlander took off after Inanna.
Kae'n lifted the sword and regarded the shaking man dubiously. The poor
fool held his weapon clumsily, stance painfully awkward. When Kae'n
took a step in his direction, he dropped it and began backing away.
Sighing, the youth turned to his master.
Seated in the cool shade of the awning, An shook his head and lifted a
hand. The guards lounging about the courtyard came forward. One seized
the man, the other pushed the sword back into his reluctant hands.
Kae'n took another step and again, the man threw down the sword. This
time, the wretch began weeping.
"My lord!" Kae'n shrugged helplessly. Maybe An would allow him to
postpone today's training and return to the library. He enjoyed
fighting, but the stacks of clay tablets with the symbols marked upon
them were far more interesting. "This is useless, sir!"
An, however, had other ideas.
"I agree." The lord rose, crossing the hot courtyard tiles. He smiled
on the young man who stood sweating in the mid-afternoon sun and drew
his own sword. "Shall we?"
Kae'n's heart leapt. In all of Dilmun he would find no better opponent,
but parring between them was all too rare. An was invulnerable; Kae'n
was not. Excitement made his hand tremble as he saluted his master.
From the corner of his eye, Kae'n saw the blubbering slave hauled away,
but moments later, when the man's dying scream broke the afternoon
quiet, he never heard it. An had begun his attack.
It was an exhilarating fight. An was good, but Kae'n had been an
attentive student. He always lost, of course, but lately he'd drawn
blood more than once. The days of An emerging from such contests
unscathed were over.
The courtyard rang with metal upon metal. After a while, An called a
pause and stripped off his armor, facing his opponent with a grin and a
wink. Back and forth they went until, suddenly, Kae'n feinted to the
right. An followed him and was unprepared for the speed with which
Kae'n spun to bring his blade up and around and straight through the
An shouted in pain, reeling back, blood pouring from the wound. His
guards raced into the courtyard, weapons drawn, but Kae'n had already
thrown down his blade and stood, shaking with fatigue, covered with
sweat, a feral smile brightening his lean face. He lifted his head
slightly as one guard placed the tip of his weapon against his throat.
An's wound was healing before Kae'n's eyes, a miracle he'd seen many
times. The lord of Dilmun shook his head ruefully, stripping off his
blood-soaked tunic. He waved his men away.
"Damn good move, boy."
"I have an excellent teacher, my lord."
The edges of the gash knitted. An moved his shoulder and winced
slightly. "Come. Let's clean up and you can show me that poem."
In companionable silence, the two men entered the villa, crossing the
long hall. Slaves bowed their heads and faded back into the shadows as
they passed. There were none of the Folk among them. These were all
strangers, men and women brought from Outside, who spoke strange
languages that An insisted that he learn.
Three years past, hunters -- some from his own village -- had banded
together, attacking the villa in the dead of night. That act of
rebellion ended in the complete annihilation of his people. Now there
was only himself left -- and Kisa, married to her soldier and the mother
of two sunny children. It would seem only the whores survived.
The slaves attended their lord and his protegee in the bath, massaged
and oiled their bodies. Relaxed, enjoying the breeze that came in from
the terrace, he and An discussed their fight. They critiqued Kae'n's
latest poem -- a paean to some mythical, absurdly virtuous maid. They
argued about honor and the role of mercy. Kae'n loved times like these,
liking especially the tales An would tell of great deeds, of monsters
and battles in lands he of which he'd never heard before his lord came
to the valley.
Sometimes, he even forgot that his people were dead at the hands of this
elegant, scholarly warrior -- and that he had killed his own brother for
After their bath, the two moved into the garden. The musician was
summoned and sat nearby, playing softly on his flute. More slaves
"Do you remember when you asked me if you could leave Dilmun and travel
to the far lands?" An asked finally. Shadows lengthened across the
garden. A slave boy lit the torches.
"Yes, my lord. You told me I wasn't ready."
"I did." An's face grew pensive. "I think now you are."
Kae'n heard him with sudden excitement. "Do you mean it, my lord?"
An smiled, but his eyes were sober. "Yes."
Wide-eyed, the young man jumped up. An's smile widened at this
An's gaze rested thoughtfully on him. "Very soon. Come here."
The youth dropped to his knees beside An's chair. Pensively, the older
man reached over and brushed back his thick, dark hair. "Who are you,
"I had grown used to thinking I was alone, and there you were." One
large, callused finger traced the contours of his face. "Do you know
how often I looked down on you while you slept and wondered whether I
should kill you or embrace you again?"
The young man said nothing, staying very still, prey before a predator.
When An kissed him, he felt something new in the caress.
His lord drew away. Lifting his hands, he clapped sharply. At once, a
slave appeared, carrying a leather case. Kneeling, the man offered it
to An. Dismissing him, the older man laid it across his knees. Opening
it, he watched as Kae'n's eyes widened.
The sword was magnificent. Automatically the young man reached for
it, but An shook his head and gently moved aside his hand.
"Yes, someday this will be yours," said An. "It is a magical thing. No
doubt the others will think me a fool for creating this, but I have seen
the future, and will do what I must."
None of this made a bit of sense to Kae'n, but that didn't unduly upset
him. Much about An was impossible for mere mortals to understand.
"You have served me well, young one, but I have seen your pain. You
don't hide your emotions very well. You humor an old man with your
smiles and your sharp wits, but I am a very old man, indeed, and harder
to deceive than you might think. To give you this now would be to do a
grave disservice to the world."
Kae'n's unease deepened. When An said softly: "Close your eyes," he
almost disobeyed. He began to tremble, but he did as he was ordered.
"Good-bye, Kae'n," he heard. "We *will* meet again."
There was a sudden, tearing pain in his gut and his eyes flew open in
shock and disbelief. He stared down at the sword protruding from his
belly, then up at his master. An's eyes were sad and distant. His
master's faint smile was the last thing Kae'n saw before the darkness
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