City of the Parisii, 410 C.E.:The winter sun shone weakly through a break in the storm clouds. Frost lingered even in mid-morning on the grass and small icicles could be seen hanging from the bare branches of nearby trees. Snow was coming… a big one. Darius leaned forward on his gray horse and peered at the landscape ahead of him as he patted the gelding's neck. His breath and that of the horse condensed as small white clouds that lingered about their faces in the cold air.
"Easy there big fella," he said as he patted. The gelding felt it too… he pranced about on the frosted grass, eager to be off. Ahead of them was the city. Gray smoke rose from the chimneys and layered over this bastion of civilization. His army would winter well here. There would be shelter, food, water and women enough to satiate them all.
His scout came running back over the fields. He pounded his chest and saluted as he came to a stop beside Darius. "My general!"
"Report," Darius said in his clipped manner.
"I saw no signs of their army. I saw no one hiding in the stand of trees beyond. Only one lone man stands at the one bridge that crosses the river to the city."
"One man," Darius replied thoughtfully. He could feel the immortal even at this distance. His spies had told him truly… a holy man lived there… a man of magic and long life.
"My general," Grayson said from Darius' right side. "Let me deal with this man."
Darius gestured to his scout. "Return to your unit. Await my orders." The man saluted and raced off. Darius turned to Grayson and said coldly. "I can feel him from here. How far are we from the city."
Grayson paled. "A half mile at least, Darius… maybe more."
"Have you ever felt an immortal from so far?"
Grayson shook his head. "You know I have not."
"Then the legends are true. He may well be the oldest and most powerful of all of us. Do you really think you could defeat such a man?"
"I only meant… allow me to strike the first blows. While he is weakened… you can take his head. The army needs shelter in the face of this storm. We cannot turn aside on the road and go further."
"No," Darius said with a sigh. "We can't. But you'd die to let me kill him while we was weakened? Is that what you meant?"
"No… I would distract him and then…"
"I would cheat?" Darius chuckled. "I fight my battles straight on Grayson… you and the others know that. I have little patience for subterfuge."
Grayson's horse pawed at the ground, as he looked down, chastened by his mentor. "I have had dreams about this place. It is important I am to meet this immortal."
"So you've said," Darius sighed. "Had the weather held… we might have reached the ocean and camped there. Instead, we turn aside to attack and plunder another city. Do you ever tire of it?"
"I live to fight, my general. I live to serve."
"Aye… you say that. But if you were to take the head of this immortal… how long before you would challenge me? Come for my head?"
Grayson sputtered. "Darius… I would never kill you."
"But if… as they say… there can be only one?"
"I swear to you by all the gods, Darius. I will never challenge you until only the two of us remain!"
Darius glanced behind him at the other two mounted immortals located at the forefront of his army. "You would challenge the others?"
"Not unless you gave me leave," Grayson back-pedaled from his earlier pronouncement. "We have a bond… we live to serve you. I live at your command."
Darius nodded. "Remember that. I could easily have taken your head the day you died under the hooves of my cavalry. I gave you back your chance at life."
"Yes my general. I remember."
Darius stared ahead at the city. "I think I will face him alone. Our battles are not for the eyes of others. Remain with the army until I return."
"It is not wise to go alone Darius."
"Either I will win or he will. If I win… the city is ours. If he wins… you can attack if that is your pleasure."
"Our bowmen could kill him. Then we could attack," Grayson suggested, hoping to prevent Darius from this confrontation. His dreams had always shown it was his destiny to kill this immortal… to use whatever means necessary to kill the old one and then take command of the army. Grayson closed his mouth. Darius would die at the immortal's hands and Grayson would command. If his general were insistent upon meeting the immortal… then Grayson would protest no longer. He hid his knowing smile and thought of the shadowy figure in his dreams that had made him insist they come here.
"Bowmen… again… cheating," Darius laughed. "The others might not care for that."
Grayson said nothing. He would be in command. The army would follow him. The other two immortals would follow his lead or they would die. Already he could visualize taking their heads.
"Hopefully I will be back before evening," Darius said. He lifted his horse's reins and lucked to urge him forward. "Stay with the army!" He rode forward, passing outlying buildings whose doors and windows were barred and shut. He heard dogs barking as he rode easily along the frozen dirt road. Once, he thought he saw people running for shelter. But other than that… the ride was uneventful.
By the time he approached the wooden bridge that crossed the river, his head pounded with the over-strong presence of the man standing there. He had dark, gray-streaked hair, worn long and a beard of some length. He wore a simple shapeless, gray garment of some rough weave and girded with rope. On his feet were sandals. He leaned on a long staff.
Darius reined to a stop before him. Then more loudly than he planned, perhaps because the thrumming in his head was so loud, he ordered, "Stand aside."
The immortal chuckled. "You cannot pass. This way is closed to you. The city is not for you or for your army. Go around. There is nothing here for you."
"My men suggest I have my bowmen shoot you and then the city is ours."
"You don't think an arrow would give me more than a moment's pause do you? I say again… the way is closed."
"And if I meet you in combat? If I challenge you for the city?"
"Then you'd lose," the other said. He shifted his staff.
"You don't even have a sword," Darius snorted as he swung his right leg over his horse's back and slid to the earth. He reached to pull the long sword he always carried free from its scabbard. He'd had that sword since he was a boy. He turned to face the old man, noticing that just as he'd noticed before with other immortals when they first saw this sword, the man's eyes widened and his gaze fixated on the sword. His mouth rounded in an "O". Darius swung the sword a few times to warm up and then unclasped his heavy cloak and tossed it onto the gray's back.
"You like my little blade. It's seen a lot of action in the four hundred years I've used it."
The old man looked at him strangely. "You think I want that blade? I didn't fear it when it took my father's head. I didn't fear it when it took my daughter's. I didn't long for it when it stole from me wife, brother, family, people and life. I do not fear or long to wield it now." He spit derisively on the ground. "Your traps didn't catch me then demon… they won't now."
Darius stared at him puzzled. "Father? Daughter? I don't understand."
The old man gazed at him quizzically. "I'm told that thing speaks to those who wield it."
Darius threw back his head and laughed. "I've heard that too. Even the old woman who gave it to me when I was a boy said that." He sobered. "But swords don't talk. I think it is only the fevered desires of your own mind. A sword is just a sword." He held it horizontally out before him with both hands. "Now fight me or the city is mine."
"An old woman gave you that sword?"
Darius nodded and began to move slowly to his left… carefully noting the nature of the ground and getting a feel for it. He would have to be careful here. The frozen earth was slippery.
"Tell me how it came to you," the old man said. He moved to his right… lifting the staff before him.
Darius shrugged. "She paid me to retrieve it. It was her father's sword. I dove into a hole to get it." He shrugged. "We boys of my village often climbed into the holes and gullies of the mountain to find treasure. I found it and took it from the hand of a dead man." He smiled grimly. "The man of course wasn't truly dead… just trapped."
The old man nodded. "But you escaped."
"The mountain fell in an explosion the same year I was born. I thought for years that I'd dreamed that man broke free and grabbed at me when I plucked the sword from his hand. After I died… I understood. He was an immortal… still trapped under the mountain."
"Likely his just reward," chuckled the old man. "And in all the years you've carried that sword… it has never spoken to you."
Darius laughed again and lunged forward. The old man shifted the staff so suddenly that his blade bounced off of it. Darius pulled back. He was still getting the feel of this man's style… but already something seemed familiar. "You move like Anya," he said, finally making the connection.
"Is that the name she used," the old man said. He twirled his staff before him as he moved forward a bit and then replanted it on the earth with a thud.
"She fought off bandits one day while we searched the rubble of the mountain. Never had I ever seen a staff so used… and successfully against iron."
"You were born after the mountain fell?" the immortal asked.
"Let me guess… you like to build things. You like to create."
Darius laughed. "My father was an iron-worker. I learned at his knee."
"And so you keep that sword in perfect shape."
"Truthfully… it seldom needs work."
The old man sighed and nodded. "No… it wouldn't."
"So do we fight?"
The old man leaned on the staff and seemed to ponder the idea. He glanced around at the silent houses. "Our game is not for the curious."
"That grove perhaps?" Darius suggested. He suddenly feinted right and sliced to the left. The old man spun, twirled the staff by one end and slammed it against Darius' back. He oofed as he fell… his sword dropped from his hands and landed a few feet away. Darius rolled toward it and grabbed it up once more. He turned to face the old man.
"The grove is holy ground," the old man explained. "I, at least will not fight there. I would not defile the earth. But there is a place not far from here. Swear to me that your men will not attack while we are engaged in combat."
Darius rubbed his back and stretched to work out the already fading pain of the blow. "I swear it. My army will hold their position until I return… or until dawn tomorrow."
"Very well then," the immortal said and gestured for Darius to follow him. He led the way into a small clearing in a wooded area. Pine needles carpeted the ground beneath the tall trees whose tops were lost in the low, snow-laden clouds. Even now… flakes began to fall and were sticking to the branches. Darius blew on his hands and rubbed them. They were cold even within his leather gloves. He stomped around the clearing… again feeling for firm ground. The needles were slippery. He'd have to allow for that. He kicked some of them away and planted his feet as he faced the old man. Darius bent slightly and rocked on the balls of his feet… anxious for this battle to be over with… one way or the other.
This barbarian general was not what Havron had expected. He was polite and Aja had clearly touched him as a child in much the way she'd touched the boy Methos. Was he the one the demon had sent? He bore the demon's weapon, but used it as if it were not a weapon of evil bout simply a tool.
Havron easily avoided the next lunge and leaped into the air, twirling as he did so. He altered the position of his staff and jabbed it into the barbarian's face. The man stumbled back… blinking his eyes and appearing stunned, even as a great bruise spread across his right cheek and then slowly faded. He leaned over and spit blood.
"That hurt," he said as he rubbed his jaw.
"One doesn't need a blade to inflict damage."
"But one needs a blade to take a head," the barbarian retorted.
"Oh… I could have brought one… but declined," Havron chuckled. "My student thought I was being unnecessarily foolhardy though."
The barbarian nodded. "Mine wanted to fight you first and then have me attack while you were otherwise engaged."
"The young seldom understand," Havron sighed as he neatly avoided another lunge and slammed the staff down on the blade. Had it been any other sword… it might have broken in the impact. He pulled the staff back and paced to his left before setting himself once more… holding the staff horizontally before him. "But then you are younger than my student so I don't expect you to understand."
"You spoke of father… daughter earlier?"
"And you also spoke of a father," Havron replied. "We have bonds to those who raise us and those we raise. It is our love for them that keeps us strong." Havron thought momentarily of Aja but once more closed his heart and mind to prevent the vision of her with Leila's severed head in one hand and that sword in the other. He would not let the demon distract him. He was determined to meet this challenge as he'd met the other tests of the demon… with no emotion… and a minimum of force.
He tripped the barbarian general and grinned when he went sliding over the pine needles on the ground. Havron twirled and thudded the staff into his opponent's back, hearing the snap of his ribs from the force of the blow. Again he pulled back. "Had enough?"
The barbarian rose on his knees and rubbed his side as he spit blood and glared at Havron. "You seem to be enjoying yourself."
"I have learned over the millennia to pace myself. Some of challengers want everything over with in the blink of an eye."
"How many have you defeated?"
"I don't keep count. A few become my students later… or they move on and leave me in peace."
The barbarian was on his feet. "I am Darius. I will be no man's student… and my army will raze the city to the ground."
"That's a Persian name. Funny… you don't look Persian."
"I'm a Goth. My first mentor was Persian."
"Was that Ahaseurus? He was a student of mine once."
Darius paused; the sneer on his face began to fade. "Ahaseurus was one of the eldest of us all."
"Was he? My… my… and to think he sat at my feet five thousand years ago or so and begged for enlightenment."
"How old are you?"
Havron sighed and shook his head. "In truth… I don't know. I was here long ago… when men used stone as weapons… and wore animal skins." He shuddered slightly at the thought of that. "Did you kill him?"
"Ahaseurus? No. I left him long ago to forge my army. Sitting and reading philosophy never interested me."
"A warrior born and bred no doubt. And yet you are a learned man. We have spoken at least four languages in the course of this battle and you've moved between them with me without hesitation."
The barbarian stood thoughtfully. Then he shook his head as if to clear it. "Enough talk. Our fight is to the death!"
Havron sighed. This one would not be turned aside. It would take beating him again and again all day and likely all night. Much later and the man's army would attack while they were still fighting. Was this the challenge of the demon? Then why did this man seem untouched by evil? Barbaric… yes. Ruthless… definitely. But not evil… not in the same manner that the demon was evil with its fair face and foul deeds.
Havron had to find a way to defeat this man and change his mind. But what? He was one of Aja's children… even as Methos was… his eyes were like Kritis' and he had the gift of creation. He carried the sword that had destroyed Havron's world at the dawn of time… and yet was not touched by it. Havron avoided another clumsy swing… his opponent was tiring but determined to continue the fight. Havron elbowed him as he turned and slammed the staff against the other's neck. He fell like a stone and was still for a moment on the ground before he slowly began to rise again.
"Do you yield?" Havron asked. For some reason he felt concerned about this man… and reluctant to hurt him further.
"I cannot," Darius croaked out and slowly regained his feet. He wavered on them and then leaned down to pick up the sword and it dragged in the earth as he lifted it. Darius wiped the blood from his mouth and wearily shook his head.
Havron paused. Some chance thought was rattling around in his mind… the final answer perhaps to dealing with the demon. Clearly this man wasn't the demon's pawn… perhaps it was his student instead… and perhaps therein lay the answer. To face the student down… Havron would have to kill this man… and he had no interest in that.
Darius lifted his sword. "Again?"
Havron nodded, a small smile played at the corner of his mouth. He would miss the winter solstice this year and for all the years to come. He would miss the return of spring and the cries of the newborn animals and babes. He would miss teasing Methos with riddles. But to defeat the demon and to weaken his hold on the earth… Havron understood what was needed. His own death. Sacrifice was necessary. He'd always known it was… but sacrifice with purpose and a chance to still make a difference in future events had never truly occurred to him. It would just take concentration to make it happen.
Darius lunged… a clumsy and weary attack that had no chance. Havron avoided it, turned and left himself open. Darius sliced furiously… evidently expecting another block. Instead… his blade kissed Havron's neck even as the ancient immortal opened his heart, soul and mind to all life.
Darius stumbled back at the killing blow… so surprised was he that the ancient had not thrown him off once more. Even as the head slowly tilted to one side… a light so gloriously blinding emitted from his neck and Darius covered his ears as the sound of a great rushing wind seemed to accompany it. He fell to his knees as the light… erupted all around him. But unlike Quickenings, which jabbed and stabbed at him or assaulted him on some level… this one hovered white and golden all about him and the wind softened to the sound of voices singing. The quickening coalesced around him like a warm blanket against the winter chill. The ice and snow of the glade melted; the grass greened up and flowers and leaves bloomed. The air felt warm and smelled sweet. Creation was a wonder to behold.
I am love, the voice chuckled. Know me better.
Darius gasped as it entered him and ran along his sinews dancing and singing. His body wanted to sing as well and every fiber of his being replied in syncopation to the melody of love.
Love changes all things. Love is the power of creation. Love is the gift that makes life possible.
Images flickered in Darius' mind. Anya… her hair streaked with gray… her eyes green as the ocean… laughing as she ate a strange hard, red-skinned fruit and buried its seeds in the earth. Anya… young and vibrant, wearing only a necklace of shells leaning forward to kiss him. Anya… wrapped in linen and holding a small boy eating dates. She looked up as if she saw Darius and smiled. Everything but her eyes faded. He was in the place… years from now… he saw the buildings go up around him and the people move. Before him a young woman danced to the beat of music as yet unwritten and as old as the stars. Her eyes were green like Anya's. He'd seen her once before in a vision… and on the edge of dreams. She laughed and reached for him. Then she youthened into a child who wove a daisy chain that she offered to the boy eating dates. The boy grew and matured to become his friend Antoninus, the Roman physician. Methos, the music whispered with laughter. Methos took the hand of the green-eyed girl, now a young woman once again. Together they danced… in step to the music Darius felt it in his soul. Love is the answer! he wanted to shout. They paused and reached out to him.
The visions ended even as the Quickening comfortably settled within him… more massive and complete than any he had ever taken. The momentary false spring about the clearing was ending and the snow fell once more. But even the winter's snow was worthy of love. Darius gasped and sighed in the warm cocoon of love… and the music he heard whispering in his mind would guide his steps for the remainder of his life.
Love is the answer, Havron whispered. We have work to do. Darius' journey through the world was over… his real journey was about to begin.
When I was child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: Chapter 13; verse 11
The outline of this story was complete long before I began it. But as always, some characters had other ideas about some of the events as I wrote, and I struggled to end it as I had initially planned… and with the Epilogue that bookended with the Prologue.
There were months when nothing would move on in this story. I'd be at loggerheads with where it was going and with the insistence of the characters that these changes were necessary. As with The Shattered Soul, characters died who should have lived and a certain immortal could not be saved no matter how much I pleaded with the characters. The truth is… saving her didn't make sense. While there is a strong amount of fantasy and magic in this series, I always strived to keep most of the action as real as possible and to keep events from being too convenient. If there were a problem to be overcome… I had to discover a logical way for the characters to overcome it.
Further, as it became clear that a new installment in the franchise, The Source was a definite go and as information about the plot began to leak out, I had to make certain I did not use or refer to any of that… despite the fact that some of what I was doing independently reflected some of the same themes.
I'd wanted a confrontation with Eleanor and Sarah… an event that in the end couldn't happen without serious repercussions. Sarah's eventual fate was far more dramatic than my original plan and actually hearkened back to Aja's death in Darius' arms. I went with it… sad to lose that confrontation, but loving the plot twist that was born of it.
So where to now? Nestor is loose and they have to find him and stop him. All of the principles are in the same place so the final unraveling of the mystery of the artifacts can happen. And that unraveling will send them on a quest to find the answer; an answer which might also hold the solution of dealing with Nestor.
I've made a list of dropped plot elements. All will finally be addressed in the final installment of this series: To Seize the Present.
Preview from To Seize the Present
Tuning out the voices of the others still arguing over the computer display, Eleanor settled back on the sofa, her legs curled beneath her as she flipped through Les Miserables. She could still recall clearly the day she'd bought the book, asked Victor Hugo to sign it… and then had wrapped it to give to Darius. In the intervening years, the priest had marked passages throughout the book… certain sentences that hearkened back to their own escapades at the time of the 1830 revolution and the barricades.
"I knew you talked to him… told him your stories," Eleanor whispered as she grinned. "You two did far more than just play chess." She went to close the book and noticed the two symbols she'd written on the inside front cover. Gently she rubbed a finger over them. Other than Havron's cave, this was likely the only example of the symbols that still remained in writing. She had always taken great care to erase them when she wrote them. "At the end of all things… all shall become one," she whispered with a sigh. She hadn't known what they meant when she'd written them. Darius hadn't seemed to know either.
Eleanor went to close the book. The paper lining of the cover rippled and puckered slightly. She rubbed her hand over it to smooth it. Then she rubbed it again.
Suddenly she raised her hand and snapped her fingers insistently. "Someone get me a letter opener… now!"