DISCLAIMER: Highlander and its familiar characters are the property of Davis/Panzer Productions. No copyright infringement is intended, no profit being made.

Note: This story begins a few minutes after the end of the episode "Indiscretions." It was first posted online in 1999; I consider it the core of my Highlander universe.

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I

"Joe? Who filed the close-out report?"

Joe Dawson blinked. "What?" With a pang of guilt, he realized he'd been so lost in thoughts of his newly acknowledged daughter, Amy, that he hadn't heard a word Methos was saying. Probably for the last five minutes.

"The close-out on Morgan Walker," Methos repeated patiently. "Who filed it, you or Amy?"

"Oh, that." Joe flashed what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "Amy. She's still a Watcher. It's only me she's walking away from.

"But you don't have to worry. To her you're just Dr. Benjamin Adams, an Immortal previously unknown to the Watchers. There's no link to your real name or your current alias. And her description of you would fit half the men in the club most nights."

"That's a relief." Methos took a long swig of Scotch, a change from his usual beer. He'd brought the bottle to their table, apparently feeling Joe needed strong liquor after his talk with Amy. "How did you explain our knowing each other?"

Joe grimaced. "Said you were a new acquaintance, a bar patron who digs the blues. I told her I had no idea you were an Immortal till you got shot and came back to life. And I'll pretend I never see you again. Amy will avoid this place now, so you can come by with no risk of running into her."

If you want to, he added mentally. Of course, I hadn't seen or heard from you for a year and a half, till you needed info on Walker. That still bothered him.

"Thanks, Joe." Methos swished the drink in his glass, gazing moodily into its depths. "I'm sure it was hard to lie to your own child."

"Yes."

The silence lengthened, threatening to become awkward. Joe covertly studied the man sitting across from him, at the small table in the otherwise deserted bar.

Until a year and a half ago, he had thought he knew this ancient Immortal, considered him a close friend.

A year and a half ago.

That hellish night, forever etched in memory, when he and Methos had arrived on the scene minutes after Duncan MacLeod killed Richie Ryan. The tortured MacLeod had thought he was battling a demon. Joe and Methos believed he was having a breakdown; a year would pass before Joe learned the demon Ahriman was hideously, monstrously real.

Details of that night flooded into his mind, as they often did, unbidden. The first frightening glimpses of a distant Quickening in the abandoned building. Then, as he and Methos approached, the stench of blood. Blood everywhere, rivers of it, soaking into their shoes. While overhead, garlands hung for some long-past festive occasion fluttered in mute mockery of their grief.

The ghastly sight of a familiar body, headless, limbs twisted in agony. Half under it, the legendary sword of Graham Ashe. How Mac must have loved Richie, to give him that sword... And nearby, the severed head, young features frozen in an expression of disbelief.

Finally, the ravaged Duncan MacLeod, jolted back to his senses by the reality of the Quickening. Shattered, devastated. As if it were yesterday, Joe saw MacLeod, kneeling, bow his head and hold out his sword to Methos. His intent was chillingly clear. Methos hung back, and Mac choked out the words, "Take it!" But Methos turned away, saying in a strangled voice, "Absolutely not."

Joe heard again the clatter of the sword as Mac dropped it. Heard the inarticulate sounds that issued from his friend's throat as he took one of Richie's gloves as a memento, got shakily to his feet, spurned Joe's attempt at comfort, and strode off into the night. Leaving behind the cherished katana that had been an extension of his arm for over two hundred years.

He knew now that MacLeod had fled - mindlessly, and mostly on foot - until he wound up in Malaysia, at the end of the continental land mass. There he took refuge in a Buddhist monastery, where he gradually found himself and regained his focus.

That was understandable.

What Joe found harder to comprehend was Methos's behavior. He had disappeared before Richie was buried, leaving Joe to handle everything. Joe had tried to tell himself Methos was searching for Mac. But if that were the case, why didn't he keep in touch with Mac's Watcher?

Mac had returned to Paris six months ago, defeated Ahriman, and saved the world from a fate beyond imagining. He would probably never be his old self, but he was functioning. Visiting London now, for a concert by Claudia Jardine - a good sign. The bond between him and Joe was stronger than ever.

But Methos? Joe hadn't had a clue to his whereabouts until the other night, when he found The Elusive One in his office, hacking into his computer. Joe had demanded, "Where the hell have you been?" And received the breezy reply, "Here and there. There, mostly."

The last Joe knew, Methos had believed Duncan MacLeod was missing. Deranged, and probably dangerous. The only alternative was even more alarming: Ahriman was real.

But in Joe's office that night, Methos had said casually, "I stopped by the barge. Where's MacLeod?"

Don't be an idiot, Joe told himself. The explanation was simple. After the crisis was over, he'd taken a trip to the States to check on his and Mac's businesses. He'd had to hire new people to run both his original bar and the dojo; then he'd become embroiled in tax problems. Weeks had stretched into months before he got back to Paris. Obviously, while he was away, Mac and Methos had been in touch, at least by phone or e-mail.

But it seemed odd that Mac hadn't thought to mention it. And that Methos, whatever he might have discussed with Mac, had said nothing to him about Richie's death or Mac's battle with Ahriman.

He was about to broach the subject when Methos tensed, suddenly wary. A casual observer would have seen nothing, but Joe knew that look. Methos sensed the approach of another Immortal.

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Then the door opened, and Duncan MacLeod - in the too-cheery tone he'd been using of late, to keep his friends from worrying - called out, "Joe, I'm back!"

He had, of course, recognized Methos's car outside, so he'd known the Immortal in the bar posed no threat. Still, he seemed slightly uneasy as he added, "Hello, Methos."

"Good to see you, MacLeod," Methos said heartily. "Come in, have a drink. We're celebrating. I just rid the world of a particularly nasty white slaver."

"Whom you could have dispatched almost two hundred years ago," Joe grumbled.

"Joe, I was a doctor at the time. It's hard to reconcile the Hippocratic Oath with killing people. That's why, now, I limit my practice to extracting bullets from careless Watchers.

"MacLeod, what's keeping you? Good Scotch whiskey!" He waved the bottle in invitation.

MacLeod still looked uncomfortable. But he went behind the bar to get himself a glass, then let Methos fill it to the brim.

He stood near them, leaning against the bar. A smile spread slowly across his face as Methos first made clear no harm had come to Amy, then proceeded with an exuberant account of her kidnapping and the demise of Morgan Walker. Joe noted with amusement that Methos was being careful not to mention the young Watcher's relationship to him, while Mac, who already knew that secret, was keeping mum in case Methos didn't know.

Before he could mention it himself, Methos changed the subject. "Joe told me you were over in London for a Claudia Jardine concert. Wish I'd known about it. How's Claudia doing - and how's she playing?"

Now completely at ease, Mac launched into a description of Claudia's reckless but rewarding life. Rummaged in his pockets, and pulled out several rave reviews of her concert tour.

With the conversational ball rolling merrily along, Joe brought them another bottle. They all drank toasts to Claudia Jardine. Several toasts to Claudia Jardine.

Then Methos said, "Thinking of young Immortals, where's Richie? What's he up to these days?"

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A battering ram in the chest couldn't have packed more of a wallop. Joe found himself unable to move or breathe, let alone speak. But it hardly mattered, because time had come to a stop...

Get a grip. He sucked in a breath and forced himself to think.

Was this some Immortal equivalent of Alzheimer's? Methos was very old, and he admittedly remembered nothing of his youth. Was that an early symptom of a condition that was now worsening?

Ridiculous. It would be one hell of a coincidence if the very next symptom involved something as traumatic as Richie Ryan's death.

No, this was a highly selective form of hysterical amnesia. It had to be. Hard to believe it could strike an Immortal who'd coped successfully for five thousand years - especially one who'd spent a thousand of those years as a ruthless killer. But no other explanation made sense.

Joe's main concern at the moment was for Mac. He swore under his breath. Why hadn't he questioned Methos's behavior, detected the problem before he could blurt something out and tear Mac's wounds open again?

He looked at the Highlander. MacLeod had gone deathly pale, and was clutching the bar for support. Joe didn't know if Immortals could faint, but he had a hunch he'd find out any minute.

And Methos was opening his mouth to say something else. Joe barked at him, "Shut up!"

Methos lapsed into stunned, uncomprehending silence.

Joe went to Mac and put a steadying hand on his shoulder. "It's going to be all right," he murmured.

The eyes that met his were those of a hurt, frightened child. "There's something wrong with Methos. Or with me. Or -"

"My memories are the same as yours," Joe told him gently. "The problem is with Methos. Go, get out of here. I'll take care of it."

"No." Mac's knees still threatened to buckle, but his iron will was beginning to reassert itself. "This...whole mess...is my responsibility."

"What the devil is going on?" Methos asked testily. "Are you guys nuts?"

Joe decided he'd have to deal with them one at a time. He gave his attention briefly to Methos. "I need to talk to you in private. Hold your horses for a few minutes, okay?"

He expected an angry outburst, but Methos surprised him with a suddenly docile "Sure." Joe heard the first hint of self-doubt in his voice.

He turned back to MacLeod. Belatedly, he realized Mac had somehow managed to set his glass down on the bar rather than drop it. Four hundred years' experience covering in hairy situations, Joe thought wryly. Now he'd reclaimed it, and some color had returned to his cheeks.

"Don't worry about me, Joe. He just took me by surprise. I can handle it."

Joe followed his friend's lead. "Yes, I'm sure you can." He lowered his voice. "But I should be the one to talk to him about this. When he remembers, he's bound to be upset over the pain he caused you. If you're still here, it will hit him that much harder."

For a moment, MacLeod's features hardened into the mask of stubborn determination Joe knew all too well.

Then they relaxed, and he let himself sag against the bar. "I hate to admit it, but you're right. I want to stay to prove I can cope. But it really will be better for Methos if I leave."

Joe knew only an instant of relief. He didn't think he needed to worry about the amount of alcohol Mac had consumed; they'd been shocked back to sobriety. But the shock itself... "Sit in your car for a while, unwind and get your bearings before you drive. Promise?" He gripped MacLeod's hand, suddenly reluctant to let him go.

"I promise, Joe." After a brief squeeze, the hand slipped away. "Thanks for your concern. For all of us."

All, not both. That "all" included Richie.

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When they were alone, Methos met Joe's gaze squarely. "Open mouth, insert foot. Is that what I did?"

"Yeah, that about covers it."

Methos nodded. "Only problem is, I have no idea what I said that was out of line." His voice and expression were tightly controlled.

Dropping into his chair again, Joe poured himself another drink. But when he tried to give Methos a refill, the Immortal's hand shot out to cover the glass. "No."

"Okay." Guess the direct approach is best. "Methos...Richie Ryan is dead."

For what seemed an eternity, Methos merely stared at him.

Then he growled. His hands spasmed violently on the table, knocking over his empty glass.

Joe reached out to comfort him. "Take it easy."

"Take it easy?" Methos half-rose, and Joe was stunned to recognize his emotion as fury. "How could you forget to tell me a thing like that? Let me make such a colossal blunder?" In an eyeblink he had Joe by the throat.

"No, Methos!"

"Oh, hell. " The angry Immortal loosened his grip, and Joe had the impression he was counting to ten. Then he took a deep breath. And drew his hands back to right the glass, with finicky precision, empty or not. He settled in his chair and resumed the conversation, firmly in control again.

"You damned Watchers are always losing track of Immortals and writing them off as dead. Amanda told me how quick you were to give up on MacLeod, when Simon Killian had him locked in a cell somewhere."

"Methos, this isn't like that -"

"But you had a hell of a nerve telling MacLeod Richie was dead. It makes no sense! Richie's too good - had the best possible teacher. There's no one out there who could take him.

"Who reported it? What part of the world? Probably some wet-behind-the-ears Watcher like Amy, who lost him in a bazaar in Morocco. Tell me where he was last seen, and I'll find him for you."

"Methos!" Joe couldn't take any more. "Richie has been dead for a year and a half. You and I saw the body. We saw his severed head!"

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The moment the words were out of his mouth, he wanted to call them back.

Methos sat motionless as a statue. But Joe sensed he was seeing a shell, and the man inside was crumbling to dust.

He captured the ice-cold hands and massaged them gently.

Methos moaned.

Joe interpreted even that response as a hopeful sign.

When at last he made eye contact, he asked, "Do you remember it now?"

Methos's voice came out as a squawk. He gulped and tried again. "There's...there's something. It's as if...there's something so horrible I can't make myself look directly at it.

"Joe, who...who killed him?"

"Mac killed him."

Methos gave a long, convulsive shudder.

But he didn't dispute it.

Instead, he began rocking in his chair, keening softly.

Finally, he looked at Joe. "He...he was insane. I don't know why, but he'd just snapped. Had some delusion about saving the world from a demon.

"And then, he...he realized he had killed Richie. He wanted me - me! - to take his head. And I couldn't do it. Maybe I should have. The merciful thing. But I couldn't.

"The agony I saw in his eyes...couldn't bear to see him suffer like that, couldn't end his life, either. Me, of all people... And I knew you wouldn't do it, because you'd be forcing an unwanted Quickening on me. Still my fault, leaving him to be eaten alive by the demons in his own mind.

"So I blocked the memory. Damn coward, worst thing I could have done."

He struggled to his feet. "No. Worst thing...what I did just now! Oh, by all the gods -" He lurched toward the door.

Somehow, Joe caught up with him. "Where are you going?"

"I have to go to MacLeod. What have I done, Joe? What have I done?"

"He'll be all right, Methos. I'm more worried about you."

"How can you say that?" Methos was on the verge of hysteria. "He was mentally unstable to begin with. I may have pushed him over the edge!"

"Calm down. Think. Did he seem mentally unstable today?"

"N-no."

"Come back to the table. I have a long story to tell you. But the bottom line is, Ahriman was real."

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A half hour later, scowling into the dregs of a cup of black coffee, Methos said bitterly, "It's not fair. I can believe MacLeod saved the world...that makes sense of certain things. But some merciful god should have restored Richie. Or at the very least, erased MacLeod's memory of Richie's having died by his hand."

"I agree with you a hundred percent. But it seems the universe doesn't work that way."

Joe studied Methos's face, still pinched and pasty white. "What I can't understand is why you took it so hard, blocked the memory. Hell, in five thousand years, you must have seen just about everything! And you couldn't have been expected to kill Mac. To open yourself to the Quickening of someone who'd apparently gone mad -"

"It wasn't that!" The words erupted with a vehemence that made Joe flinch.

"Uh, sorry." Watcher to the core, he was overcome by curiosity. "So what was it?"

Slowly, slowly, Methos looked up. Into Joe's eyes.

Joe found himself mesmerized by the clear hazel orbs that met his, for once, without evasion. Lustrous, bottomless pools that held the memories of millennia.

Or perhaps, at the moment, only four hundred years.

"Funny," Methos murmured, as if to himself. "There have been times when I thought you knew..."

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II

Scottish Highlands

July 1592

As the sun crept higher in the sky, gilding the mist that shrouded the distant peaks, the man who called himself the physician Angus - but who was in truth Methos the Immortal - reluctantly brought his morning workout to a close.

He wrapped his sword in a bolt of cloth, lest its blade pick up and reflect the sunlight. Then he looked down at the Nawken camp, saw no one stirring, and decided to allow himself a few more minutes on his lofty perch. To relax, naked, before donning the bulky clothing that helped him appear to be in his mid-forties.

He settled himself on the edge of the bluff, unconsciously counting the tents below as he chewed pensively on a weed.

For long years now, Methos had loved his chosen life - even if he had chosen it to atone for his abandonment of another Gypsy people, the Romanichal. He loved the Nawkens, knew he was loved and honored among them.

But suddenly, for no reason he could fathom, the fabric of his life was unraveling. His future was once again a question mark.

He closed his eyes, remembering other summers, other stolen predawn hours when he had escaped to the hills to work out with sword and staff.

Margaret had come with him then, her lilting laugh brightening his world as the sun never could. She too had stripped off her clothes. They had made a game of lying on the greensward with his sword between them, like Diarmuid and Grainne in Irish legend. But always, always, they had flung the sword aside and made mad, passionate love.

And on crags like this, Margaret had proudly called him by the two names she dared not speak before the tribe.

One of those names was "Methos."

The other was "husband."

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He spat out the weed. Margaret. My...woman. As true Nawken, I can call her naught else, despite the ceremony Father Jamie performed a decade ago.

She knew. She understood. Did her need to be "wife" drive her to the impasse we've reached now?

Twenty years with one tribe, forty in the Highlands. Dangerously long. Is the trouble with Margaret an omen, a sign it's time to move on?

He knew he was procrastinating, knew also that he had to get back to their tent without being seen. So he dressed quickly, gathered up his belongings, and scampered down the hillside with the ease and grace of a mountain goat.

Or the perpetual thirty-year-old he really was.

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As he neared the camp, he frowned, as always, at the tents. Remembering England. Wagons were infinitely preferable if a tribe had to move quickly. Here, the rugged terrain made their use impractical.

But Scotland, after all, was not England. These Gypsies had never been threatened with any fate worse than deportation.

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With the wariness typical of Immortals, Methos always pitched his tent on the perimeter of the camp. Even now, when he hadn't encountered one of his own kind in forty years. He did have need for caution: if he were to play mid-forties convincingly, both hair and face needed touching up this morning.

On the alert for early risers, he hurried to the tent and paused to listen at the flap. No voices...he was safe. Asleep or awake, Margaret was alone.

He half hoped to find her asleep, so he could stand over her, unobserved, and marvel at the dark beauty that had won his heart those many years ago. She still looked younger than he, before he added gray coloring to his hair and lines to his face. But even at seventy, she would be beautiful in his eyes.

Still, maybe it wasn't her need to be "wife." Maybe the real problem was anxiety about aging, when I won't.

He lifted the flap and went in. Margaret was making up their beds. They exchanged nods, and greetings that were little more than grunts. While he washed up, she finished with the beds and began preparing their breakfast porridge.

After breakfast Methos sat before his poor scrap of mirror, where he expertly retouched hair and face. This was a routine he'd perfected over millennia. If there seemed any chance he'd settle in a new place or join a new tribe, he took care to arrive clean-shaven, looking as young as he could. As the years passed, he first grew a beard, then gradually feigned graying, an aging face, and added girth. The only people who knew the truth were the women who shared his bed, and the Watcher he always succeeded in identifying. At the slightest hint that any of them might pose a threat to his personal safety, he moved on - sometimes leaving a dead body or two in his wake. In the best of circumstances, he rarely tempted fate by staying longer than twenty years.

Now he positioned the mirror to capture Margaret's reflection. She sat demurely at a little distance from him, absorbed in her needlework.

A few months ago she would have been hanging over his shoulder, teasing him. "It shouldna take so long, my good Angus. Methinks ye be a vain man, loath to hide those bonny good looks!" She might even have goaded him by jostling his elbow as he worked. When she did that, they always ended in a giggling heap, their roughhousing leading inexorably to lovemaking.

I'm glad Romany custom demands we have little to do with each other at this time. No one - no one I know of - suspects there's a real estrangement. We may be able to pass as a normal couple for months.

But sooner or later, he'd have to make a decision.

How would he cope with the birth of Margaret's baby?

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Later that day, by prearrangement, he rode out to treat ailing Highlanders at several nearby crofts.

His first stop was the home of Allan MacFirbis, a red-haired, red-faced bull of a man. The Scotsman had previously spoken only with a member of the tribe's governing council. So he addressed Methos, slowly and loudly, in Gaelic. "Speak ye Shelta, Tinker? Be it near enough t' Gaelic that ye ken what I say?"

Not likely, Methos thought. The Shelta dialect has been diverging from Gaelic - Irish Gaelic - for a thousand years. And by the way, a physician educated at the University of Heidelberg is not a "tinker."

Aloud, he said meekly, "I speak your language, sir, as well as Shelta and Romany." Best not to mention English, let alone the hundred other tongues in which he was fluent.

MacFirbis said, "Ach, that be good." And led him to the stable, to have a look at a pregnant mare.

Just what I needed.

He solemnly examined the mare and pronounced her fit, though overdue for a vacation from field work. Then MacFirbis took him into the house - to attend his injured wife. Shuddering, Methos insisted he first be given an opportunity to wash his hands.

MacFirbis showed the Nawken physician less respect than he would have accorded the lowliest gadjo Scot. His wife's ankle was broken, and she would have been left permanently lame if it had not been set properly. Yet the pay he doled out was shameful.

But Methos knew that with his skill - and his experience in the ways of the world - he could, if he chose, have made himself personal physician to the King. He had held positions more exalted than that. So he could afford to smile at these oafish farmers' contempt.

As long as it went no further.

As long as Scotland did not become another England.

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Continuing his rounds, he reveled in the cover provided by his Nawken identity. In England, his height and fair complexion had clearly identified him as Romanichal by adoption. Though it had made no real difference: the Immortal he'd been fleeing had never thought to look for him in a humble Gypsy caravan.

And the persecution had made no distinction between Gypsy-by-birth and Gypsy-by-choice.

Here, however, he could truly blend in. Nawkens were of two very different ethnic backgrounds, or a mixture of both. More than half were Travellers - also called by their less preferred name, Tinkers. Travellers were of Irish stock, but their nomad ancestors had reached Scotland long ago. Within the last century, their ranks had been swelled and their customs altered by an influx of short, swarthy Gypsies from the Continent. Methos's tribe was more hybrid than most; even its Shelta tongue was liberally peppered with Romany words.

As a result, neither he nor Margaret stood out. Gadjos and Gypsies alike took him for a Traveller, seldom bothering to puzzle over his medical education. The Nawkens knew Margaret was a gadji, but outsiders never guessed. She had the dark coloring of the European Gypsies, and intermarriage between them and Travellers could account for her height.

Not that anyone seems to be looking for either of us.

It still amazed him that Margaret's father, a clan chieftain, had believed Jamie's lie. Such blind faith in priests is unhealthy, even if it did work to our advantage. Margaret at eighteen had been a fiery rebel; she had already rejected three suitors because they wooed her too tamely. Yet her father, without batting an eye, had accepted that she'd gone off to become a cloistered nun.

Margaret MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, a nun? Never!

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They dined that night on mutton, cooked over an open fire outside their tent. The sheep had been bought and paid for from Methos's earnings. Gypsies were often accused of stealing livestock. But he'd never known them to resort to theft unless their families were starving, and the gadjos had denied them aid or employment.

Unfortunately, the tension between him and Margaret was so palpable that he could barely swallow his food, let alone savor it.

It wasn't the pregnancy that disturbed him. Methos had lost count, millennia ago, of the wives and lovers who'd tried to convince him they were carrying his child.

No, the problem was Margaret's refusal to name the real father, or even admit her infidelity. Always before, when he had looked a woman straight in the eye and asked pointed questions, she'd confessed. Even if she knew nothing of his Immortality, and had no reason to think him infertile. He prided himself on the fact that he'd never had to beat a confession out of an errant lover. The force of his personality had been enough.

More often than not, he had forgiven the woman and agreed to raise the child as his own. And kept his word, for as long as he could safely remain a part of that child's life.

He had thought he and Margaret were so close that she could tell him anything, acknowledge any lapse. So it pained him deeply that she persisted in claiming he was the only man with whom she had ever - ever - had intercourse.

He'd promised to be understanding, to accept the child. Or if she so chose, to let her go to the other man, be he Nawken or gadjo. There would be no rancor, no revenge.

Still she insisted, "There be no other man. Only ye."

And he saw no deception in her eyes, heard none in her voice. Had he let himself become so besotted with her that he'd lost his skill at reading people?

He'd thought of the possibility of rape. Even of a rape so traumatic that she'd blocked the memory. He'd encountered that phenomenon in his medical practice.

He'd also encountered it, hundreds of mortal lifetimes ago, when he had been the rapist.

But Margaret would never have submitted to rape without a fight. And until they'd realized she was pregnant, not a night or day had passed without his seeing and fondling her nude body. He would have noticed any bruise, any blemish.

So it must have been betrayal, he thought miserably, as he washed his dinner down with strong Highland ale. Does she love him so much, then? Trust me so little?

To his own surprise, he felt not a whit of anger. Only grief, for the loss of the purest and truest love he had ever known.

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His brooding came to an abrupt halt. Suddenly, all his senses were jolted by urgent, bristling awareness of another Immortal.

Despite a forty-year respite from the Game, he was on his feet, sword in hand, even before the word "Immortal" had formed in his mind.

Margaret gasped and scrambled away from him, instinctively shielding her belly.

Can she possibly think I mean to skewer her?

"It's all right," he told her tersely. "Another Immortal is coming. If there's danger, it's to me, not you. Go to one of the other tents. Now."

She needed a few moments to absorb that. Then she got up and came to stand beside him. "No. I willna leave."

About to argue the point, he heard hoofbeats approaching. Sounds like two horses, not galloping... As their dark forms came into view, stopping well outside the circle lit by his fire, he stepped in front of Margaret.

"Friends, Angus!" The riders were dismounting, and he realized with a start that both wore the voluminous robes of priests. The short, plump one continued unnecessarily, " 'Tis me, Jamie."

One word would have been enough. Methos would know that voice anywhere.

He felt a rush of affection. Father James MacAlpin, proud bearer of the surname of Scotland's first kings, was his friend of forty years' standing...and his Watcher.

But even as he heard Margaret's sigh of relief, he refused to let down his guard. Is Jamie under duress? Does he realize the other man is Immortal? Is the Immortal really a priest? He lowered his sword not an inch.

Jamie gave a nervous laugh. "In truth, Angus, we be friends. Me brother priest wants but t' speak with ye."

Since Methos made no move to do it, Jamie tethered their horses to a tree. Then they advanced into the light, the roly-poly Jamie waddling more noticeably than usual after hours in the saddle. The Immortal kept his hands in view.

The stranger paused directly in front of Methos. Between his hood, and shadows cast by the dancing firelight, his face was still obscured.

Methos felt his stomach churn. I fear no swordsman, mortal or Immortal. But...does this man possess powers beyond my ken? Is he the foe who followed me to England?

Then the Immortal let his hood fall back. Revealing a pale, ascetic, clean-shaven face and kindly blue eyes.

Methos gaped in disbelief. "Darius!"

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Soon they were settled around the fire, the visitors politely trying to eke out a meal from their hosts' leftovers. The men were drinking mead Darius had brought with him. They'd quickly agreed to speak English, since Darius did not understand Gaelic, or Margaret French.

Methos had introduced the Immortal priest to Margaret, telling her Darius knew his real name. "We've never quite been friends, but certainly not enemies. Darius carries no sword, and bears no ill will toward anyone."

With his mind at ease regarding the Immortal's identity, he focused on concealing the strain between him and Margaret. Obviously, neither priest realized she was pregnant; they merely thought her slightly overweight. Jamie, who knew the weight gain was recent, was too innocent to suspect pregnancy - under the circumstances.

Poor Jamie. So proud of being, as far as he knows, the first Watcher ever to perform a marriage ceremony for "his" Immortal. Let alone introduce the couple! He'll be heartbroken when he has to learn she's been unfaithful.

Of course, he was not "Jamie's" Immortal in the classic sense.

Jamie was a Watcher assigned to cover not an individual, but a broad geographic area. His duties were threefold. He was to be on the alert for reports of strange occurrences that might indicate a new Immortal. To watch out for older ones using their real names or familiar aliases. And finally, to make use of a portfolio he'd been given: a collection of sketches of known Immortals. One of those sketches, a surprisingly good likeness, had enabled him to recognize Methos.

Methos had cut a deal with him, the one he'd been making for centuries. A Watcher could chronicle his life, with his active cooperation, on condition that his presence in the area be kept secret - even from the Watcher's superiors - until after he had left.

The Society of Watchers had long since endorsed this arrangement. They knew some of their number shared information with "their" Immortals. Always had, always would. And their worst nightmare was that they'd be responsible for someone's murdering the forty-five-hundred-year-old Methos.

Methos had told the young Jamie,"If they knew the whole truth about my sordid past, they'd order me killed. And wipe my name from the Chronicles, as if I'd never lived."

Jamie, like countless Watchers before him, had interpreted that as a joke.

A mere slip of a lad, Jamie had been in those days, with the golden curls of an angel. Methos had teased him, "Surely, ye canna be a mortal man, old enough to be a priest! Methinks ye be some new kind of Immortal, that I canna sense. Sixteen years old, for centuries."

But Jamie had in fact been twenty-six. Now he was sixty-six, and looked it. Corpulent and silver-haired. Why must they age so quickly? For me, those forty years have passed in the blink of an eye.

Does it seem that way to them, too? Does the Jamie of 1552 still exist, think his life has whizzed by in a moment, and rage at finding himself trapped in his grandfather's body?

Jamie did not appear to be raging at anything. But he was visibly uneasy.

Darius, too, seemed uncomfortable. His eyes repeatedly drifted to Margaret, then darted away again.

He won't speak freely in front of her, Methos realized. He winced at the knowledge that he himself was no longer sure she could be trusted.

As he considered asking her to leave, she anticipated him. She rose gracefully, saying, "I'll be making a place for our guests to stay the night." Then she vanished into the tent. Not even a rustle of skirts marked her passing.

x

x

x

Methos sensed a slight easing of tension. He decided to put an end to the small talk, and learn why his fellow Immortal had come.

"Darius. I didn't think you ever journeyed to Britain. In fact, I was under the impression you'd never seen the Atlantic." As he recalled the story, Darius had once vowed to reach the sea as a conqueror. When he experienced a conversion, he'd resolved to do penance by denying himself the sight of it.

Darius shivered. Though he should have been roasting, sitting as he was near the embers of a cooking fire, in his priestly robes, in July.

When he spoke, it was in French. "I never had seen it, Methos, until now. I've been searching for you for months, to warn you. You're in terrible danger."

"Dreams again?" Methos tried to keep his voice light, but couldn't. The priest's visions too often came true.

"Yes." Darius swallowed hard. "It's not clear, it never is. But since March, I haven't been able to sleep without waking in a cold sweat, haunted by some half-remembered horror.

"I know it involves you. And...him. Roland Kantos. And everything coming to a head. He's hoping to destroy you and all you love, lay waste to Scotland, plunge the world into a new Dark Age."

Methos tried to tell himself Darius was over-dramatizing. Still, he felt his flesh crawl. "I'm sick of hearing about this Kantos. Maybe I should fight him and get it over with. What sort of powers does he have, anyway?"

"No one knows fer sure," said Jamie. "But they be supernatural. The Watchers have heard o' him fer centuries, rumors o' what he's done. Nae two stories agree. Except that he be a poor swordsman, yet he's killed many o' the best. An' he can make other people do whatever he wills."

"And for the last half-century, he's been obsessed with you," Darius added. "I think he knows you're in Scotland. You should leave."

"No!" Methos was surprised at his own vehemence.

But only for a moment.

"Jamie understands," he said softly. "I can't abandon the Nawkens. Not after the way I fled England, failed the Romanichal."

His chest tightened at the memory. He knew his nails were digging into his palms, drawing blood.

"Ye be too hard on yerself," Jamie chided. "There was naught else ye could have done."

"At my age, with my experience? I should have been able to fake it."

"The wonder is that ye even tried! Nae other Immortal would have thought o' stayin'."

"Fake what?" Darius was lost. "I'm sorry. I try to keep up with what's happening on the Continent, but England is pretty much a closed book.

"I assume the Romanichal are English Gypsies. But why did you leave them? What do you think you should have faked?"

Methos made himself unclench his fists. Watched bitterly as the small cuts on his palms healed, the blood shimmered and disappeared.

"Yes, the Romanichal are Gypsies. Are or were - I'm not sure how many are left.

"They're good people, mostly artisans and horse traders. They took me in the last time you persuaded me to hide from Kantos. And of course, as a physician, I was of real value to the tribe.

"You're not aware of the laws England enacted against Gypsies in the Forties?" He rushed on, not waiting for an answer. "You don't know what they did to us? I'll tell you. They captured us, and...and...they branded us! Like cattle!"

He was furious at his inability to keep the tremor out of his voice. His hands shook; tears welled in his eyes. "They...they branded everyone. On the breast. With a letter 'V,' for Vagabond. And then they enslaved us, for a period of two years.

"The law provided that anyone who escaped and was recaptured would be branded a second time, with an 'S' for Slave, and would then be a slave for life."

He could smell the burning flesh, see the angry wounds he'd treated. How was I able to enjoy the "aroma" of roasting sheep an hour ago? I think I'm going to be sick.

To distract himself from the queasiness, he kept talking. "I'd been a slave before, of course. More than once. But never in a situation like this, where there was a noticeable ethnic difference between the masters and most of the slaves. One people was trying to crush another, and it was...appalling."

Darius spoke very quietly, his face even paler than usual. "And you wanted to stay and help. But you had to run away, because your brand healed without leaving a scar."

Methos bowed his head. "I tried every kind of body makeup I could think of. The ones that looked believable washed off too easily, sometimes even wiped off."

"If it had been discovered, you would have been charged as a warlock or demon. Made the Gypsies' situation ten times worse."

"Yes." He looked up, moved by the compassion in the priest's voice. "But knowing that doesn't help. Men and women who were my friends believed I deserted them. I won't let it happen again.

"If you're wondering" - he knew his attempt at a sardonic smile was ghastly - "the law was changed a few years later. Now people are killed for being Gypsies. Unless they can prove they were born in England, and agree to leave their tribe and change their whole way of life."

Jamie made the Sign of the Cross.

But Darius put a hand on Methos's shoulder and said earnestly, "I think you should consider the possibility Kantos was behind all that. Trying to flush you out."

The horror of that suggestion shook Methos to the depths of his soul.

Before he could recover, he was hit by a second shock.

Suddenly, incredibly, he sensed the presence of yet another Immortal. A presence that assaulted him with the force of a physical blow, snatching his breath away.

But affected Darius not at all.

x

x

x

Methos leapt to his feet again, brandishing his sword.

Darius moved almost as quickly, preparing to shield Jamie. But he was responding to Methos's alarm; his eyes searched the shadows for a mortal enemy.

Then, as suddenly as it had come, the sensation was gone. Methos stayed on his feet, on the alert, assuming the mysterious Immortal had stepped out of range.

When it came again, it sent him staggering.

Darius grabbed his arm to steady him. "What's wrong with you?"

Methos peered anxiously at the priest. "Is something wrong with you, with your sensing ability? Did you sense me in the normal way when you rode up?"

"No, and yes. Of course I sensed you. And then I...did whatever it is we do, to make the sensation fade into the background. You act as if you're being hit by a blast of it every time I move!"

"I'm sure it has nothing to do with you." It's gone again. Why can't this person make up his mind, approach us or not?

I'm the only one with a sword. Maybe he wants to lure me away from Darius, so he can kill him.

Then another thought struck him, and the words came tumbling out. "Wait. It's Kantos. It has to be Kantos! Only he would have the power to make one of us sense him and the other not. He wants me to imagine I'm losing my mind!"

The priest appeared dubious. "Methos, are you sure you aren't just sensing a pre-Immortal? As I recall, you can sense them at a greater distance than most of us. I came here to warn you - but even I don't know what Kantos looks like, and the last thing I want is for you to behead some innocent pre-Immortal in the belief he's Kantos."

A pre-Immortal? But the sensation is so strong...and even I couldn't sense one at the distance he'd have to be. Unless he were inside my own tent, and that's impossible.

At that moment, Margaret emerged from the tent. He wasn't surprised. Even though they'd been speaking French, anyone nearby would have been frightened by the raised voices. Eyes wide as saucers, she asked in her native Gaelic, "Be there danger, Methos?"

He replied in English. "I'm...honestly not sure."

Then he saw both priests staring at Margaret.

And realized she was hugging her belly again.

x

x

x

Oh, damn. She's not due for five months. I'd hoped Darius, at least, wouldn't have to know.

Oddly, his embarrassment was only for her, not himself.

Jamie turned away, blushing.

But Darius took a step toward her and said in a tone of wonderment, "You are with child."

On a sudden impulse, Methos strode to Margaret and put a protective arm around her. He ignored her involuntary cringe. "I'm sure you weren't expecting this, Darius. But why are you looking at her as if you've never seen a pregnant woman before?"

He should have stopped there, but didn't. "Hell, before you became a priest, you were probably cuckolded on an average of once a month."

He meant to insult Darius, not Margaret.

But it was Margaret who burst into tears.

She pushed him away, and threw herself on her knees at the priest's feet. "Father...Fathers." She raised her voice to include Jamie, now an even deeper scarlet. "I swear by Our Lord Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and all the saints, Methos be the father of this wee bairn!"

Just as Methos was wondering what Kantos was making of all this, the strange Immortal's presence slammed into him again.

This time he wound up on all fours.

But Darius's gasp told him he had also felt a jolt, albeit a lesser one.

Then, unbelievably, Margaret seemed to be sobbing and laughing at once.

Laughing?

Her back was to Methos, and she hadn't seen his tumble, so that couldn't be it.

"All right," she said between giggles. "Not so wee, then." She looked up at Darius. "Methinks the bairn dislikes being called 'wee.' He just gave me a sound kick!"

Methos too looked at Darius. But only for confirmation of what he already knew.

"Methos," Darius said in a choked voice. "We've located our pre-Immortal. He's in your wife's womb!"

x

x

x

An hour later they were relaxing under the stars, still awed by their momentous discovery. Methos held Margaret snug in his arms. The unborn child was making his - or her - presence known to both parents at frequent intervals. But Methos was gradually adjusting, learning to cope with the sensation. He'd also found that the tiny Immortal-to-be settled down whenever he lovingly stroked Margaret's abdomen.

Guess the Immortal-sensation works both ways at this stage. Or maybe he can only sense me because I'm his father? I'm sorry if I scared you at first, little one.

He no longer doubted he was the father.

As far as he knew, no one had ever before learned the origin of any Immortal. But they had navels, like everyone else. And female Immortals didn't menstruate; that seemed to rule them out as candidates for motherhood. Besides, some as old as three thousand years had assured him they'd never had children.

Men, on the other hand, could procreate without knowing it. Perhaps all male Immortals were fertile, but very infrequently...so infrequently that it was understandable most of them never realized it. Methos knew many Immortals' sex lives were a succession of one-night encounters. Or worse, rapes.

It made sense that most of the women they impregnated would have abandoned the babies.

He had no proof of that theory. But one thing he knew. A pre-Immortal fetus turning up in the womb of a male Immortal's mate - who swore she hadn't betrayed him - was no coincidence.

This child was his, would be his, for all the centuries and millennia to come.

Words flashed into his mind, a phrase he'd heard uttered by some grieving Immortal. "Who dares to love forever?"

And now the answer, an answer he alone could give. "I do, because the one I love, my child, will live as long as I. Or longer. And Margaret will live on for me, too, in this our child."

Margaret had made clear she felt no animosity toward him for his months of disbelief. What Immortal, after millennia of thinking himself sterile, could have greeted the news any differently?

He shuddered at what that thought revealed of her true innocence. He'd treated a score of women whose Immortal husbands or lovers had beaten them until they miscarried.

He clasped his arms more tightly around his...family.

x

x

x

But as he was picturing the toys he'd fashion for the child, Margaret nudged him. "Methos...Darius be speaking to ye."

"Sorry." He smiled over at the two priests, who'd been sitting at a little distance, allowing them some privacy.

Then he saw the men's expressions, and his smile faded. "What is it?"

Darius got up and came to sit beside them, with Jamie panting at his heels like a faithful puppy.

"Methos. Have you forgotten Kantos?"

He had forgotten. But he stiffened and said belligerently, "I'm not leaving Scotland! I want this child raised as a Nawken - and told he has the blood of the MacLeods, too.

"It's time I fight Kantos. He's probably gotten by for centuries on reputation alone. An inflated reputation. But if he does take my head" - he felt Margaret go rigid in his arms - "Margaret can raise our child. And I'll die content, knowing I've left something of myself behind me, like other men."

Too late, he realized that was a tactless remark to make to priests, mortal or Immortal.

He'd hurt Margaret, too. She whimpered and nestled closer to him.

Darius sat in silence, head down, for perhaps a minute. Then he looked up, grim resolve written on his face.

"Methos, when you accepted the baby as yours, I hoped I wouldn't need to tell you this. I regret having to upset your wife. But I think it's important you know, both of you...how cruel our kind can be."

He avoided their eyes, gazing off into space. Spoke with no hint of emotion. "You aren't the first Immortal to have a child. I know of another case, many years ago. There was no doubt...the Immortal was the father, and he was ecstatic. The child was a pre-Immortal, like yours. A little boy.

"The mother had died, so the Immortal decided to raise his son himself. He adored him.

"But...he had enemies. Don't we all? One of those enemies raided his villa one night, while he was away. Killed the nursemaid. Then beat, sexually abused, and finally strangled the toddler."

"No!" Methos didn't want to hear any more. He clung to the weeping Margaret, trying to cover her ears.

Jamie was muttering a string of...prayers. Yes, even now, prayers.

Darius droned on. "So the child became Immortal, in a two-year-old body. It would never mature - and in a body that small, neither would his mind.

"But that wasn't the worst of it. For a year after that, he suffered the torments of the damned. He'd become afraid of everyone and everything. Cried constantly, refused to eat. And whenever he drifted off to sleep, he woke shrieking in terror. Apparently reliving, in nightmares, all the things that had been done to him.

"Marcel - the child was in agony. And the father - who couldn't bring himself to behead him - came close to losing his mind.

"Fortunately, in time, the child forgot his ordeal. He was just a baby, after all. He became a happy, healthy baby again, with a smile that would warm all but the coldest heart.

"Then it was only the father who suffered. Loving and tending his baby for centuries. Trying not to question God's plan, not to mourn the man who might have been...

"I don't know the end of that particular story."

No. But you know the beginning very well, don't you? Methos caught Jamie's eye, and knew they were thinking the same thing.

Darius came back to the present with an effort. "Methos. You can't be sure your child will be safe here if you die - or even while you're alive, if he's with you. You can't raise him yourself."

"I don't want to hear any more!" Methos buried his face in Margaret's hair, trying to still the pounding of his heart. Margaret was moaning.

"You may not want to, but you must." Darius leaned closer. "I think other Immortals have gone through this, Methos. Fathered children, and realized they couldn't keep them. An Immortal in the house is like a magnet to attract trouble."

Methos looked up, fighting back tears. "Are you saying I should send Margaret home to her family with the baby?"

"N-no." Suddenly, Darius once again seemed unwilling to meet his eyes. "She's...too well-known as your wife. Neither of you can safely rear this child."

"You're telling me we should simply give him away?"

"Why do you think all Immortals are foundlings?"

The air between them crackled with electricity.

You bloodless, prune-faced priest, ever prating of dreams and omens. Your penis probably withered and fell off a thousand years ago. How can you understand what a real man feels?

Then Methos remembered the other child.

Marcellus.

"I'll...think about it," he said bleakly. "We...still have time. Our little one is due at the winter solstice."

He failed to note the look of apprehension that passed between the priests when they heard those words.

x

x

x

III

December 21, 1592

The tribe had moved twice since July, and for the first time in their long acquaintance, Methos had hoped Jamie wouldn't be able to find him.

But as he dragged himself out of the birthing tent for a breath of icy morning air, he saw the priest riding up.

He sighed, went to meet him, and tethered his horse. After helplessly watching Margaret endure six hours of still-ongoing labor, he needed to stretch his limbs - and be of some use.

As they walked back toward the tent, through snow that already covered his earlier footprints, Jamie said without preamble, "Kantos be in Scotland."

"I know. At least, I've heard rumors of a black magician. I figured it was Kantos. Did Darius get back to France safely?"

"Aye." The priest's red-rimmed eyes burned into him. " 'Tis not Darius I be worried about."

Once again, Methos could only say miserably, "I know."

x

x

x

Jamie prayed over Margaret, then sat for some time holding her hand. Her fear was all too apparent.

Fear that had nothing to do with the birthing process.

Methos kissed her, and said softly, "Will you be all right with your women friends for a few minutes, if Jamie and I go somewhere to talk?"

For a moment, she clung to him fiercely. But then she released him, and whispered, "Aye. And...whatever ye decide, for the bairn's safety, I'll accept. If we must give him up to save his life, so be it."

He murmured into her ear, "I wish I had your strength."

x

x

x

Back in Methos's tent, when he'd poured mugs of ale for Jamie and himself, the world almost seemed normal again.

Almost.

I swear, Jamie looks ten years older than when I saw him in July.

The troubled priest came straight to the point. "Methos, have ye accepted what ye must do? What Darius told ye last summer?"

No. I keep hoping the problem will go away.

He fortified himself with a long draught of ale. Noticed his fingers were shaking, and willed them to stop.

"I...all right, I know I have to do something to protect my family. And the tribe.

"Suppose, after Margaret's had a little time to recover from the birth, we leave the Nawkens. Leave Scotland.

"I'll take Margaret and the baby to a safe place. Then I'll go somewhere else, and surface in a very public way, using my real name.

"If I'm still alive a year or so later - and I firmly believe I will be - I'll drop out of sight and rejoin my family.

"And...and I promise I'll never again live among a people as vulnerable as the Gypsies. Never let Kantos, or anyone like him, use prejudice against a group as a way of getting at me." He made a feeble attempt at a smile. "Satisfied?"

"No."

Methos cursed. In several languages, some of which he knew Jamie wouldn't understand.

That was probably a good thing.

When he had wound down, Jamie said implacably, "Methos, ye must give up the child. Think on what Darius told ye. An Immortal in the house be like a magnet -"

"To attract trouble. Damn it, I know."

"A pre-Immortal, now, most Immortals canna sense unless they be close enough t' touch him. Right?"

"Right," Methos admitted. "Sensing ability varies, but on the whole, that's true. A good many would actually have to touch him."

"There be another problem," Jamie said reluctantly. He obviously hated being the bearer of bad news. "We didna tell ye last summer because there was naught ye could have done. It was already too late t' leave Scotland, with yer wife well along in pregnancy."

"What is it?" Methos was about to prepare himself by downing another drink, but remembered in time that he'd soon be called upon to deliver the baby.

"Darius didna see this connection till he found out Margaret was pregnant. He told me when he got me alone."

"What?"

Jamie looked almost ill. "Methos, there be prophecies about a special child, a male Immortal, t' be born in the Highlands o' Scotland at the winter solstice. He be important t' the future o' the world!

"Darius came t' think Kantos was concerned with the child all along. He knew ye be destined t' be his father. If he could have killed ye years ago, he would have won, then an' there. But once born, the child may be in the greater danger. Nae from your enemies, but fer his own sake."

After a long pause, Methos said, "Our child may not be a boy."

But he said it without conviction.

And Jamie didn't deign to answer.

Methos closed his eyes wearily. I've never been one of those Immortals who imagine they'd rather be mortal. But why can't I be a normal Immortal? With normal enemies, seeking normal ends?

He opened his eyes. Faced the inevitable. "All right. As Margaret has said, the child's safety has to come first."

x

x

x

His surrender failed to brighten Jamie's mood. The priest was fingering the cross he wore suspended around his neck. At last he said, very quietly, "I be after breakin' all me vows fer ye, Methos."

"What?" Caught by surprise, Methos found himself stammering. "I...I don't understand. I, uh...I told you the Watchers wouldn't disapprove when they found out you'd been keeping my presence here secret. That was the truth."

He saw hurt and reproach in Jamie's tired eyes. "Methos, I be only a poor Highlander, a country priest - but nae stupid!

"Keepin' yer presence secret didna break me Watcher oath. Meddlin' in yer life did. I helped ye court Margaret, steal her away from her parents. I married ye. An' last summer, I brought Darius t' warn ye o' danger."

Methos felt the color rising in his cheeks. He had, of course, known those were violations of the oath...and assumed Jamie didn't realize it. Not because he thought Jamie was stupid, but because he knew how easy it was to blind yourself to facts you didn't want to acknowledge.

Crestfallen, he could say only, "I'm sorry."

"There be worse." Jamie was still twisting the cross on its chain. "I broke me vows as a priest, too, when I married Margaret, with nae dispensation, to a man who isna Catholic. Or even Christian."

"I could easily have lied about that," Methos reminded him. "Let you off the hook, even if you knew, deep down, I was lying. But I sensed you didn't want me to. And at the time, you said you respected me for being honest."

"Aye, 'tis true," Jamie conceded. "But I seem t' be slippin' ever deeper into a quagmire.

"Now I be about t' commit the gravest of all sins. An' there be nae turnin' back."

Methos sat frozen, uncomprehending. The gravest of all sins?

Jamie answered his unspoken question. "The Seal o' Confession."

"Jamie! No, I don't want you to -"

"There be nae other way." Jamie resolutely let go of the cross. "Darius would do the same, were he here.

"An' it wasna a sin, in me own opinion. But I did hear it in Confession. She thought there be a sin in her bein' bitter, questionin' God's will."

Methos was shaken by the magnitude of what Jamie apparently meant to do. He professed no formal religion; yet he understood that for a priest, revealing something heard in Confession was unthinkable. He would have expected even the worst of priests to choose death rather than break that particular vow.

He knew he should say, "Don't tell me."

But at this point, he couldn't contain his curiosity. "You're talking about a woman's Confession? Margaret's? No, you haven't heard it recently. But what other woman's Confession could possibly -"

"All ears, be ye now?" Jamie actually managed a wry smile. "Listen, then. The woman be Mary MacLeod o' Glenfinnan, wife t' Margaret's brother Ian. Ye met him once or twice, years ago.

"They're expectin' a bairn - most likely comin' into the world today, like yer own. But Mary told me in Confession that her child has fallen still in her womb. Dead. She be afear'd t' tell Ian."

Methos let out the breath he'd been holding, and for some reason, didn't seem able to take another. Perhaps the life had gone out of him with that exhalation.

He pulled himself together. As always. "You're suggesting our baby be substituted for theirs."

"Aye." Jamie's eyes revealed inner torment, but his jaw was set. "I've been droppin' hints already that God may have some special plan..."

"He might be safer from Kantos on the Continent."

"True, but who could take him there? He'd be in danger with you or Margaret. That leaves me - but a priest travelin' with a bairn might arouse suspicion. An' what would I do with him, once there? Me only friend in Europe be Darius.

"Say we do what I be thinkin'. Mary, Ian an' the midwife will ken the truth, o' course. But if a foundlin' appears at their door within a few hours o' their child's stillbirth, I'll see t' it they decide t' keep the 'gift' God has sent.

"An' their son could well become clan chieftain, like Ian be now. I'll point that out. Suggest they buy the midwife's silence, bury their child in secret, an' pass the new one off as their flesh an' blood, so none will question his right."

Methos wouldn't have believed Jamie capable of such plotting.

But the MacLeods would indeed be receiving a gift, wouldn't be injured in any way. The baby would be Ian's own nephew, though they'd never know it. And even if Kantos suspected the child mentioned in the prophecies was still in Scotland, he could hardly be safer than with this very ordinary mortal couple. All Glenfinnan would know Mary had truly been pregnant.

"What if the children aren't the same sex?"

Jamie shrugged off that concern. "Nae matter, if theirs be dead at birth. Ye'll be havin' a boy, if the prophecies be true - so we'll claim Mary had a boy.

"I can even tell ye what his name will be. 'Tis well known Ian an' Mary have planned the name Fiona fer a girl...an' Duncan fer a boy."

"Duncan. Duncan MacLeod..." Methos's voice broke. Knowing the name made the child more real than ever. But it made the coming separation more real, too.

It's not fair. I've waited thousands of years for what should be the happiest day of my life. And I can't name my own son! Have to yield even that right to an illiterate peasant.

But it's worth it. Margaret will see it as the best possible solution. Our child will be safe, and loved, and become a strong man before he becomes an Immortal.

He didn't realize he was weeping until Jamie began awkwardly patting him on the shoulder, trying to comfort him.

x

x

x

Two hours after making the fateful decision, Methos watched in awe as the top of his child's head came into view. "Thick black hair, just like yours!" he told the panting Margaret.

"Be ye sure he's alive?" she gasped out. "The long labor -"

"Trust me, he's fine." If Methos hadn't had months to get used to it, the sense of this infant's pre-Immortality would have knocked him over.

But he had to speak carefully, give nothing away. Several Gypsy women were hovering nearby. Even after twenty years, some of them were uncomfortable with the idea of a man delivering babies.

If they only knew how long I've been at it. He smiled to himself. He'd been a male midwife long before his formal study of medicine in the fifteenth century. As he recalled, he'd first been pressed into service in that capacity during the siege of Troy. And a thousand years later, the painfully similar siege of Carthage.

So little do we change... Which city had the near-hairless women? Carthage, that was it. They'd sacrificed their hair to make bowstrings.

What fate awaited those babies?

What fate awaits ours?

By now the shoulders had appeared. Such a sturdy pair of shoulders that Methos fancied he could have guessed the child's sex, with no need of a prophecy.

"Keep pushing!" he urged Margaret.

She'd agreed to Jamie's plan for the baby. But she probably couldn't conceive of the anguish the next few hours - and years - would hold. Methos was trying not to think about it, but he wasn't succeeding.

They'd have to accept the tribe's congratulations, act the part of blissful new parents while their hearts were breaking. Then, even worse, they'd be obliged to pretend their newborn had died. He, at least, would have to look on as Jamie buried a tiny, empty coffin. And under cover of night - the longest night of the year - Jamie would take the baby away with him. Somehow, in this bitter weather, the elderly priest would carry an hours-old infant to faraway Glenfinnan.

As soon as Margaret was able to travel, she and Methos would depart for the Continent. Grief over their child's death would be a good excuse for leaving.

That would be difficult enough for him. He knew Europe well. And he could hope, someday, to be reunited with his son. A century hence, he'd infiltrate the Watchers, learn where he was, and never lose track of him again.

But Margaret? Methos couldn't imagine her away from the Highlands. She probably would be able to adjust; but she'd also have to live with the cruel truth that her only child was lost to her forever. She couldn't risk visiting Ian, for fear spies might have given Kantos a sketch of the chosen child's mother.

I'll try to make it up to you, my love. If you think I've been attentive and adoring these last ten years, we've barely scratched the surface of this relationship.

I'll take you to Italy, Greece, Africa - show you the ruins of ancient civilizations I knew firsthand, and scenic wonders no eyes but mine have beheld. As I taught you to read and write, I'll introduce you to the great literature of the ages. And we'll scale heights of lovemaking beyond your wildest dreams.

Anything, everything, my darling, to keep us from mourning the loss of Duncan MacLeod.

But they hadn't lost Duncan MacLeod yet. Margaret gave a last push, an ear-piercing shriek - and the baby popped out into his father's hands.

And promptly began squalling at the top of his very strong lungs. No need for a whack on the fanny to rouse this one!

The women in the tent, and what sounded like a surprisingly large gathering outside, burst into spontaneous applause. Despite his worries, Methos found himself grinning from ear to ear.

After quickly reassuring Margaret, he cut the umbilical cord and washed the infant, while the women tended to the new mother's needs. By the time those necessary chores had been completed, men were crowding into the birthing tent, slapping Methos on the back and delightedly admiring the newborn.

Gypsies treasured children. Methos knew the tribe had pitied him and Margaret during the years of barrenness, and there wasn't a soul in the camp who hadn't been rooting for this pregnancy to turn out well.

Beaming, speaking loudly enough for Margaret to hear, he told them, "My wife and I are proud to announce the birth of a son."

At last, that all-important milestone I thought we'd never achieve. Parenthood. This baby-loving tribe will finally accept us as "husband" and "wife."

A cheer went up from the crowd. Methos felt tears streaming down his cheeks. He had plenty of company: there wasn't a dry eye in the place.

As for the baby, he failed to drown out the cheer, but not for lack of trying.

Yet amid the rejoicing, Methos realized Jamie was not in the tent. Staying away, lest the sight of him be a constant reminder to the happy parents of what was to come.

x

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x

Pushing that thought out of his mind, Methos laid the infant in Margaret's arms.

He was puzzled by her response.

She held the baby close...and whispered something into his ear. Then she looked up at her husband and friends, smiling, her eyes shining.

For perhaps a minute, they all stared blankly.

Then a roar went up from the Nawkens, a roar of approval. Methos was still in the dark...until, suddenly, it hit him.

A Romany custom, seldom observed even by Gypsy women here, and totally unexpected from a gadji. To protect the child from evil influences, his mother had given him a secret name. His true name. Since he obviously wouldn't remember it, it would never be known by anyone but his mother, and she would take it to her grave.

Yes, yes! Feeling as though his heart would burst from pride, Methos joined in the applause.

Duncan MacLeod though he may be to the world, this child will have a name given by one of his real parents. And Kantos will never learn it, never have the magical power that knowing it might impart.

Then Margaret shocked him.

She resolutely pushed the infant away from her, setting him down on the hard dirt floor. Looked up at Methos expectantly.

Oh, gods. Even now, Margaret, you're not sure of me?

An even more obscure Romany custom, one he'd never seen practiced. He was perfectly willing to do it, but he didn't have what was required, had no idea where to find such a thing on short notice...

A smiling elder tapped him on the shoulder, then dangled it in his face.

A length of bright red string.

After mumbling a thank-you to his friend, Methos picked up the wriggling infant, wrapped the red string loosely around his neck, and held him aloft. "Blood of my blood!"

This time the cheers were all but deafening. The baby was startled into wide-eyed silence.

But Methos could still hear Margaret's sobs.

He hoped that at this moment, however briefly, she was shedding tears of joy.

x

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x

An hour later, for no discernible reason, Margaret began hemorrhaging.

In another hour she was dead, the first new mother Methos had lost in twenty years with the tribe.

Over the course of his long life, he had stoically endured the deaths of hundreds of loved ones. But this time he exploded in fury. Raged, howled, went berserk and tore half the tents to shreds. Smashed all his breakable belongings, and hurled the rest out into the snow. Only Jamie's quick thinking saved his millennia-old journal.

At last he huddled in a corner of the still-intact birthing tent, clutching his baby. Refusing to surrender the crying infant to anyone, even to let the women feed him.

After the intimidated Gypsies had left him alone for an hour, the tent flap was lifted, and a shadow fell across his field of vision.

He looked up into a face as ravaged by grief as his own.

Jamie.

Methos tightened his grip on the baby. "I won't let you take him! He's all I have left. No one's taking him away from me."

Jamie sank down, clumsily, on the cold earthen floor beside him. "I canna force ye, Methos. But...do ye want it all t' be fer naught? Her pain, her death?

"Kantos will find ye. Kill ye, and the bairn. An' at some time in the future, centuries from now, this child's nae bein' alive may doom mankind."

After a long silence, Methos said quietly, "I don't know how I can stand it, Jamie. Losing her, and the child..."

"We all do hard things, because we must." Tears glistened in the old priest's eyes. "Think on the winter solstice, Methos. The night be as long and dark and cold as it ever will be...but if we endure, things will get better, light will triumph over darkness. We know it will, because it always has. That's why, fer all its bleakness, this be the season o' faith an' hope.

"Give up the child. Save his life. An' then live fer the future, when his light will brighten the world. Even your little part of it."

Methos knew it was time to yield.

x

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x

He kissed his son, then held him out to Jamie.

But the priest gave an embarrassed grunt. "Uh...ye better stand up first, then pull me up, then hand me the bairn!"

Methos hadn't thought either of them would ever laugh again. But suddenly, they were doing it.

The baby's cheerful gurgles told them he found the situation amusing, too.

"I've ruined the plan," Methos said contritely. "If we fake his death now, after the way I've been raving and ranting, the tribe may suspect I accidentally killed him."

"We needna fake his death," Jamie assured him. "We'll say that with the mother gone, ye be too grief-stricken t' care fer him, an' I be takin' him to her gadjo family. None will ken what family."

Methos nodded. "Makes sense. And I can still leave for Europe."

He got up, and hoisted Jamie to his feet. But Jamie still wasn't ready to take the baby.

"Wait. I'll be fetchin' somethin' from me saddlebag."

He returned a few minutes later, looking like a snowman, and presented Methos with a carefully wrapped package.

"What -?"

"Why leave one vow unbroken?" Jamie's forced good cheer was at odds with the pain in his eyes, the new lines that had only recently creased his face. "This be the Chronicle of yer stay in Scotland. Take it, Methos. Keep it with yer own journal, or destroy it, as ye will. Let it never be read by the Watchers...or leaked t' Kantos.

"I've also enclosed the sketch of ye that was in me portfolio. There be others, but at least we can keep this one from fallin' into the wrong hands."

Methos could only murmur, "Thank you, Jamie." He knew his friend's sense of honor, his loyalty to the Watchers. The decisions made this day had probably taken years off Jamie's life.

Now that the Watchers have lost me, I'll stay lost. I get too attached to them. Can't go through this again.

x

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x

The Nawkens breathed a collective sigh of relief when Methos emerged from the tent with Jamie, his rational self again. While one of the tribe's nursing mothers fed the baby, Jamie said a Funeral Mass for Margaret, and a dozen men helped bury her.

No one blamed their beloved "Angus" for wrecking the camp. They were pooling their resources, sharing what little they had. And stumbling over each other in their eagerness to aid him.

The women, already mourning Margaret, began a fresh round of wailing and lamentation when they learned her widower was allowing Jamie to take the baby away. But none disputed that it was his decision to make.

x

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x

The long winter night was already closing in when Methos heaved Jamie onto his horse, the priest's not inconsiderable weight augmented by the precious burden strapped to his back. It had stopped snowing, and they tried to interpret that as a good omen.

Jamie looked down at his friend. "Goodbye, Methos."

"Goodbye, Jamie."

Words were inadequate. Bound together by forty years of shared secrets, shared joys and sorrows, both men knew they would never see one another again.

The horse plodded off into the night.

But Methos followed on foot, for miles, before he summoned the strength to tear himself away from the pulsing bit of pre-Immortality that was his son.

x

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IV

Somehow, Joe found his voice. "Looks like I'll have to unlearn everything I ever knew."

"I had to. And I was a teensy bit older than you at the time. Getting back to your original question, about that night at the old racetrack -"

"You've already answered it," Joe said softly. "Of course you couldn't take Mac's head. You could no more injure him than I could Amy. And now I understand why it affected you so deeply."

His mind was racing. "You, Mac's father...it explains so much. I've always wondered about your attachment to him.

"When you first met, you wanted him to take your head, so he'd have your combined strength and stand a better chance against Kalas. That never made sense to me.

"You claimed you couldn't defeat Kalas, and if Mac didn't take your head, he would. But you could have eluded him if you'd simply left Paris, without stopping off at home. You would have had to abandon your journal. But when I got to know you better, I was sure you would have sacrificed the journal rather than your life. And also, if you couldn't kill Kalas in a fair fight, you would eventually have done it in an unfair one.

"What it boiled down to was, you knew you couldn't keep Mac from tangling with him, and you wanted to sacrifice your life to strengthen Mac. A man you'd just met."

Methos managed a faint smile. "Fortunately, he never figured that out."

"And then, Kristin. Why did you fly halfway round the world to warn him she was in town seducing Richie, when you could have just picked up the phone? Seemed like you knew you'd have to kill her. And you were willing to do it, even though you hadn't taken a head in two hundred years. And risked being recognized by Kristin's Watcher.

"Why did you even know about Mac's history with her? I don't mean how - you could easily look it up in the Chronicles. But why had you cared enough to check out a new friend's past? The seventeenth century, for God's sake...

"By the time of the Dark Quickening, I took for granted you'd put your life on the line for him. But that didn't mean I understood it."

Another thought struck him. "Most people just call him Mac, but you almost always say 'MacLeod.' That's because of his mother, isn't it? The family name reminds you of her."

"Yes." This time the smile came easily. "He's so like her, Joe. Did I tell you she was tall for a woman? With dark hair and eyes, olive skin. Looked more Mediterranean than Scottish."

"He'd love to know that. To hear all about her - know he really is a MacLeod, and was loved and wanted by both parents. Methos, why haven't you told him?"

"Told him?" Methos's eyebrows shot up. "For starters, would you want to know your father was one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?"

"Can it. You can't use that cop-out. Mac has changed, isn't as judgmental as he used to be. Thanks largely to you."

"Okay. Of course there's more to it. Since I became a father - or, at least, learned for the first time I was one - I've run into others.

"It's always the same, Joe. Only male Immortals are fertile, very infrequently, with mortal women. The children are always Immortal.

"And the mothers always die, possibly because carrying an Immortal fetus is somehow toxic. I think Darius knew that. It's a big reason for secrecy. Why have every male Immortal worrying about pregnancy in each new relationship, when the odds against it seem to be astronomical? Wondering if we all started out that way, if his birth killed his mother?

"And I've told you about the danger to the children from their fathers' enemies. The more Immortals who know children are a possibility, the greater the risk for all of them, everywhere."

Joe dismissed those concerns with a wave of his hand. "Good reasons for not spreading the word through the Immortal community, if there was one. But telling your own son is different. You know that as well as I do.

"Especially now, Methos. Sometimes I still think he's hanging on by a thread. It would do him a world of good to be secure in his identity. To know he has a father - living, after all these years - who loves him as much as you do."

"Especially not now!" The force of his emotion carried Methos to his feet. He seemed about to start pacing, but thought better of it and flopped back in the chair. "I've been on the verge of telling him once or twice, but thankfully, I didn't. Now I never can. And I want you to swear you won't."

"Of course I won't, not without your permission. But why?"

Methos leaned forward, ready to share a confidence.

And the door opened.

x

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x

"Damn," Joe muttered as a half-dozen musicians trooped in, lugging their instruments. "They're going to start rehearsing. And the staff will be arriving soon, too."

Methos was on his feet again. "I have to go."

"We can still talk without being overheard -"

"Can't risk it, Joe. I'm sorry." Joe had never seen the ancient Immortal so jittery. "But...tell me this. Does the name Clare Josephson mean anything to you?"

"Clare Josephson? Sounds familiar..." Joe tried to dredge up the memory, then said with a shrug, "Guess not."

"Clare Josephson." Methos headed for the door. When he reached it, he looked back and mouthed the name again. "Clare Josephson."

x

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x

Joe rarely tried to shut out good blues music. But now, closeted in his office, he found it an unwelcome distraction.

Zooming the image on his computer screen, he focused on the scrolling list of names... Of course, an earlier Watcher's report. A click of the mouse took him into it.

Clare Josephson. A mortal lover of Mac's in the early 1970s. They'd quarreled for some reason, and Mac had gone off for a stint as an ambulance driver in war-torn Cambodia. End of story.

There had to be more. He abandoned the Chronicles, and spent the next hour perusing public and not-so-public records. He wondered whether formal training at the Academy these days included the hacker's skills he'd developed on his own. Should have asked Amy about that.

When all the pieces of the puzzle were in front of him, he stared for a long moment.

Then switched off the computer.

Then closed his eyes.

But the images were still there, always would be.

Six months after her breakup with Mac - on September 20th, 1974 - Clare Josephson had given birth to a child.

Inexplicably, Clare had died.

And her baby had gone into foster care.

Where Duncan Josephson became Richie Ryan.

x

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The End

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Author's Afterword:

I found information on Gypsies at a fascinating Website, the Patrin Web Journal. But since this is a work of fiction, I used my imagination to fill in the blanks, made reasonable and not-so-reasonable guesses, and generally strove for about the degree of historical accuracy found in most films. To the best of my knowledge, the facts are as follows:

1. There were Gypsies in Scotland in 1592, and the two ethnic groups I describe can be inferred from my sources. I don't know whether they would actually have mingled and intermarried.

2. At least in our own day, Scottish Gypsies are called Nawkens, English Gypsies Romanichal. (Wales has the Kale, Ireland the Muincir.)

3. All the customs I mention were real Gypsy customs at some time, in some part of the world - probably Eastern Europe. It's unlikely, but not impossible, that the mix of customs I wanted for my story could have spread to Scotland.

4. Those barbaric English laws were very real, but I don't know how vigorously they were enforced. (And I guessed at the meanings of "V" and "S"!)