A/N: Thanks to my beta reader, Kazera:)
The shrine was small, but tidy. The Camenae were gentle goddesses, and were rarely worshipped by anyone other than the local farmers. Darius was able to live off of the priest's share of the offerings, and his only distasteful duty was the sacrifice of the occasional sow.
It was the height of summer now. His time was occupied with tending his small garden at the back of the shrine. When he had first arrived and expressed his interest in gardening, many of the locals had given him cuttings of their best crops. He had spent many years of trial and error, and received a lot of practical advice from his neighbours to create the tidy, and frankly, unimpressive plot he now cultivated. Darius instinctively knew he would never be good at it, but the actions of caring for others, even plants, were soothing, and he was content.
He was tying back his long-suffering grape vines in the hopes that they might creep along the frame he had built, and not the ground as they seemed determined to do, when the small chime he had placed at the front of the shrine rang. It was a calm afternoon, so he assumed there was a visitor, and one who wanted the presence of a priest.
The man he found at the front of the shrine was young, and were it not for the rush of immortal energy, he might have assumed his age was not more than twenty. Certainly, he was looking with a childish delight at the chime made of seashells and polished strips of scrap metal.
"Do you like it?" Darius asked. The man looked at him, and Darius noticed that despite his engrossed look, his hand was on his sword. "You don't need that here." The man looked down at his hand as if he hadn't noticed, and let go.
"I would hope so since this is holy ground." The man was thin, with short, dark hair cut in the Roman style. He had the Roman nose, but there was something in the man's eyes that made Darius suspect he was older than the Latins.
Darius nodded. "Holy ground," he confirmed.
"I'm heading north, and I was told your shrine was the last place I might find shelter, unless I fancy walking through the night."
"You're welcome, though surely you don't mind sleeping outside?" Even as a warlord, Darius had been forced to sleep on the ground. It was the traveller's way of life.
"I do mind actually. What's the point of sleeping on the hard ground when I can have a soft bed? I like my modern comforts," the man declared as he brushed past Darius and into the shrine.
"I'm Darius." He spread his hands to show he was unarmed.
"Marcus," the other man responded, and tossed off an irreverent salute. He had been in the legions recently, Darius would bet on it. Marcus quickly took in the outer part of the shrine. Darius cleaned it every morning, and removed any of the less fresh offerings. It was easy since the majority of the offerings went into the sacred springs in the caves near the shrine.
"You enjoy your work," Marcus noted with approval and a touch of surprise. "Where will I sleep?"
Darius led him towards the back of the shrine. He had one large room as quarters, but it could be divided by a curtain. The extra palette was always kept ready for guests, and when there was more than one traveller, he offered them his own bed as well.
Marcus threw his pack onto the palette when Darius indicated it, then collapsed bonelessly on top of it, one arm thrown over his eyes. "I think every stone on the road today had a personal vendetta against me," he complained. "It certainly felt like I found half the empire in my boots."
Darius chuckled. "I'm afraid I can only offer you barley and vegetable soup for dinner, though I've just been given a particularly fine wine that I'd be happy to share."
"That's fine," Marcus said, waving a hand vaguely in his direction. It was customary for travellers who stayed to make a donation to the shrine in some form or another, but Darius suspected his current visitor had no intention of following custom. At one time such a thing might have annoyed him, but not today.
"I shall leave you to your nap. Check in the garden or ring the chime if you need me."
The other man lifted his arm from his eyes to look at Darius. "Thank you."
Marcus was writing feverishly on a scroll when Darius returned. He was holding it up to the window to catch the last of the light. "I'll light a fire," Darius offered. The other man nodded. There was an old fire pit in the centre of the room that he rarely lit in summer, but it was easy enough to start using the tinder and charcoal from his small, clay oven. Darius set about preparing their meal, while Marcus sprawled on the floor close to the fire to continue his writing.
"You're a travel writer?" asked Darius once the stew had started cooking.
"Something like that."
Marcus finished his writing just as the stew finished, and they both enjoyed the meal in silence. Afterwards, Darius poured them both an extra cup of wine.
"This is nice," said Marcus, "though it doesn't beat a good beer."
"Are you a beer-swilling barbarian, then?" Darius could well remember being called that in the old days.
"Of course. Aren't you?" asked Marcus, grinning into his cup. Darius shook his head in mock exasperation. He suspected his guest was as old as he was, if not older, but he certainly didn't act it.
"I have no idea why the locals here took such a liking to wine when they had perfectly good ale and mead," mused Marcus, almost to himself. "Fashion is a strange beast."
"Were you around when they did adopt wine?" asked Darius, unable to restrain his curiosity any longer. He knew from his histories that wine came to the rest of the world from the Etruscans and Greeks.
"Here?" said Marcus, startled. "No." There was a finality to it that said Darius shouldn't point out that the other man had avoided answering the question.
Before he knew it, they were through the jar of wine, and Marcus had convinced him to open another one. Marcus chattered convincingly of recent news. The latest foibles of the rich, and the stupid. There was no mention of anything more than a century before, and Darius decided a tactical thrust at the heart of the matter was required, or perhaps that was the wine talking?
"You are older than you look," he said, and gave Marcus a pointed look that was ruined slightly by Darius' inability to fully focus his eyes.
Marcus looked amused. "That's true of any immortal over thirty."
"You know what I mean."
"What of it?"
Darius stared at him, feeling the alcohol leave his bloodstream. "I have something you should see. Come on." He led the way out to the back, and up the well-worn path leading into the woods. He knew it well from his duties, and every step made him more sober. Marcus had followed him so far, but when they reached the end of the forest, he stopped. It took Darius a moment to notice. He turned to look at the other man. "Do not worry, Marcus. We are still on holy ground."
Marcus caught up with him. "I was more worried about you getting us lost," he joked, still nervous. While he had seemed drunk before, there was no sign of its presence now.
The opening would have been hard to spot in the dark if not for the path leading right up to it. Climbing the rope ladder down into the cave was harder. It was dark in the cave, but the torches were in their box, and it only took a few tries to get one lit. He handed it to Marcus and led him deeper. The torch did little to illuminate the natural arches of the cavern, or the strange symbols painted along the walls long before Darius had arrived.
"These are the holy springs?" asked Marcus. Darius didn't bother responding. The drip of water should be answer enough. He led him to the side of the main pool, and trailed his hand reverently through the water. A faint light seemed to shine in answer from the depths of the spring. Darius gestured for Marcus to sit next to him, and took the torch from him to place in the slot he had hollowed out for it.
"I don't know if you've heard of me. How I was a general and a barbarian."
"Rumours," said Marcus. "Nothing more." His eyes glinted in the light, as he dipped a casual hand into the water, only to withdraw it after a moment, startled.
"You felt it?" asked Darius. Not everyone did. Marcus nodded, wiping his hand on his trousers. Darius decided to continue. "I led my army to the gates of Paris. We could have had the continent at our feet and Paris was only another city, but we were faced with the strangest defence I have ever seen. A single man, dressed in holy robes. An immortal. I thought I would take him easily, and he did everything but kneel before me, but afterwards I wasn't the same. There were voices, and strange thoughts and feelings. I found myself weeping uncontrollably one moment, then laughing hysterically the next. Even worse, I couldn't harm a single living thing. Not just people, but animals and plants. Walking across a field reduced me to a quivering mess at the thought of the deaths of the plants and insects that crossed my path. I was not right in the head."
"I abandoned my army, or they abandoned me. It's hard to remember. I was dying over and over, unable to harm anything for food. I would have welcomed the next immortal who found me, but none did. I think the priestess who tended this place found me near death on the road. She knew, somehow, what was wrong, and had others bring me here. They lowered me into the water, and… well, you felt it." He gazed out over the pool, the light catching the glitter of metal offerings at the bottom and causing little points of light to dance beneath the surface. "This spring restored my balance."
"Why are you showing me this?" whispered Marcus. He sounded angry and a little frightened.
Why had he? Darius didn't know. "I thought you should know."
The anger drained out of the other man. "I have never heard of a quickening such as you describe," he said.
"I never suggested you had," said Darius dryly. Marcus gave him a sharp look, and it took all of Darius' self-control not to laugh.
"I'm that transparent?" asked Marcus ruefully.
Darius shook his head. "I merely followed my instincts."
"You were a dangerous man once," said Marcus, standing up. "And you still are." He turned from the pool and didn't look back, leaving Darius to grab the torch and follow.
Once back, they settled by the hearth, though neither touched the wine.
"Do you ever miss it?" asked Marcus after a long moment. He was staring into the fire. "The power you held. The knowledge that those around you either fear or love you, but either way their lives are yours to command? Do you miss the rush of battle? The fight?"
"Why should I?"
Marcus gave a bitter chuckle. "That quickening must have taken you over completely. You never forget that rush."
"I like to think I'm closer to myself now than I ever was before," said Darius, a bit hurt by the man's words. "When I came back to myself, I realized that I had the opportunity to be something I had always wanted, but never realized I could be – a man of peace. I am myself, not a quickening," he said firmly, "and I am a better person for it."
There was a long silence. "You miss it?" Darius ventured.
"Oh, yes." There was a hungry look in Marcus' eyes.
"Are not for me," said Marcus. "There was no great quickening for me, Darius. Light or dark. I'm exactly who I always was. It is only the world that has changed."
"Maybe. But enough of this talk."
He got up and walked over to his pallet. Reaching into his pack, he searched around until he found a small leather pouch that clinked in his hand as whatever was inside shifted noisily. He poured out a small stream of red and green polished stones into his palm. "Shall we have a game?" Marcus asked.
"I'm afraid this game is unfamiliar to me."
Marcus began to sketch an enclosed grid in the dirt floor with his knife. "It's called Stones, and I carry it with me because the board," he finished the grid with a flourish, "is extremely portable." They both laughed. Marcus began to lay the stones out by colour, giving Darius the green, and himself, the red. "The objective is simple. The winner is the person to first surround their opponent's king."
"And which is the king? All the stones look the same."
"That's the fun of it. You chose the king, and my goal is to discover who it is by how he moves. Kings are always limited in their choices." It was deceptively simple, yet complex – as most war games were. Marcus was an expert, and no matter what tactics Darius tried, he could never seem to find the man's king. They played several games, talking of nothing of consequence, until the dirt board was smudged and ruined. Darius said goodnight, and decided to let the fire die on its own. Marcus collapsed onto his bed, but not before placing his sword carefully within reach, despite the holy ground.
Morning came soon after, but they both slept late. Darius quietly made porridge when he awoke, letting the smell wake the other man up. The food disappeared quickly, and Marcus was quick to pack up. Darius watched him hesitate at the end, then pull out the bag of stones from the night before and place them on the pallet.
He turned to face Darius. "No general should be without an army," he joked.
Darius disagreed, but couldn't refuse the gift. Nor could he deny the joy the game had given him.
"It will be difficult to find an opponent of your calibre."
"I'm sure you can find a crow to play you," Marcus teased.
Darius pretended to take him seriously. "Or a boar. I hear they are great thinkers."
"If your conversation consists of where the best roots are and how to find a handsome sow." Marcus shouldered the pack, and headed towards the front of the shrine. Darius followed him, shaking his head in mock exasperation when Marcus deliberately set the chime ringing raucously. The other man turned to face him outside, his eyes dark and deep.
"May we meet again, Marcus," said Darius soberly. The soft chimes were still ringing in the background.
"What was his name?"
It took Darius a moment to realize who "he" was. He dug deep back in his memory. "Methuselah."
Marcus nodded, and looked thoughtful.
"What are you thinking?" asked Darius. He didn't know the man well enough to ask such a question, but he wanted to know, and Marcus could always refuse.
Marcus looked him straight in the eyes, and gave him an impish grin. "Just thinking of changing my name to Adam." The name meant nothing to Darius, and Marcus' grin widened at the lack of comprehension in Darius' eyes. Darius was pulled into an embrace, like the ones he remembered from warriors of old. Marcus adjusted his pack and started down the path to the main road. "Be seeing you, Darius," he called over his shoulder, giving a casual wave goodbye.