I hope you're all all right, and that this story helps divert you while we're probably all stuck in our homes. :-)
Life's been crazy recently, and not just for the reasons almost everyone is sharing these days – although at least those reasons mean I'm now far from alone in parts of my predilection, and they actually led to my having time to write more of this thing and bring the individual parts of this chapter into some sort of coherent whole. It feels good to have finished something, even if it's just a chapter. Especially because this chapter is quite crucial for everything that follows.
The common predilection certainly means some things written long before have gained far more poignancy (although aside from what's in the chapter summary on AO3, I'm not sure it will become clear which things they were until later). Funny how that happens.
Also, that comment of mine at the previous chapter about more detailed reader reviews being like my personal Inklings? This time the Inkling prize goes to muscatlove on AO3. Have more of the unexpected issues that might spring up after the Winter, and more of Methos reconsidering. The story does run in its predefined tracks, though, so there are other things, too...
In which our hero faces the facts
The next day dawned dry and warmer, and Methos could almost hear a collective sigh of relief go through the camp.
He could not shake a feeling of apprehension himself. Despite his own itching to do something, he could not help thinking the plans hashed out last night, based on his ideas, were still hasty, implemented too quickly. He did not like hasty plans. Too many variables. Too many elements that were not quite up to scratch. Too much – too much like Mac, with none of the established understanding he had with Mac that made reacting to the unexpected easy.
He sighed. Maybe, he concluded, it just boiled down to missing Duncan. Regardless of how much he tended to criticise him, MacLeod was the one person, and possibly the only person, he trusted with a sword at his side. That was certainly not the case with Tol. He had been paired up with Tol for the day, raised to a tentative status of something like Tol's sergeant. He did not like it. They were too unlike in areas where it would help for them to think similarly, and maybe also too much alike in areas where it would help for them to differ. Regardless of how much fuss he made of Duncan's chivalry and Boy Scout tendencies, he knew most of the time he could trust him to act without dithering when necessary; he did not feel the same assurance that Tol was capable of that. Ever since Bordeaux, or at least definitely since the tentative re-establishment of their friendship after it, he knew he could rely on the strange bond created between him and Duncan by that awful episode for the two of them to act in sync, if not always – rarely, really – of one mind. They could trust each other to balance out each other's faults: he could pull Duncan out of his self-righteous and self-recriminating ass, and Duncan was guaranteed to find Methos' conscience whenever he managed to misplace it (again). At least here Edmund was beginning to seem perfectly capable of the latter. Methos had no such knowledge and trust regarding Tol. And Tol appeared to be one of the two people in the Narnian army (beside Tazzik) who really did not trust him, which certainly did nothing to help dispel Methos' anxiety – even while he knew, intellectually, that Tol's and Tazzik's objections to him were, in fact, hitting close to the mark. Close, but not quite; it was far better to deal with someone like Duncan who truly knew his worst but also held hopes for his best than someone like those two who knew little but expected the worst...
But wishing for Duncan's katana at his side was not going to help with anything, was it?
"You're uncommonly gloomy today," Thornbut observed as they were preparing their mounts for the day, shaking Methos out of his reverie. "What's eating at you, aside from the obvious?
Methos managed a half-smile in his direction.
"Missing an old friend," he said.
"And thinking what would happen if you ran into him?" Thornbut asked, with so much sympathy it hurt.
Methos shook his head. That, at least, was never going to be a problem in Narnia, he reflected. Small mercies.
"I won't," he said. "He's not Telmarine."
"Ah. That's a relief."
Thornbut looked at him shrewdly and added:
"You're a conundrum still, Peridan, but I'm beginning to see why you are the way you are."
Methos barked out a short burst of laughter.
"That's more than I can say for myself."
"Oh, I mean simply that it is no wonder you ended up here if you had old friends who were not Telmarine. And that it is smaller wonder that you are one of the few Sons of Adam I know who never even stopped to think about becoming friends with a disgraced dwarf. Queen Lucy aside, I suppose."
"Disgraced? Don't sell yourself so short," Methos shook his head.
Especially not in comparison with me, he thought.
"Surely you are not so blind as not to see that I am not exactly the person to be friendly with if you want to make a name for yourself in this world?"
"Then it's a good thing that that could not be further from my mind," Methos snorted.
"What do you want, then?" Thornbut shook his head, laughing. "A young knight like yourself? Offering advice to the Kings?"
Methos stopped in his tracks.
Was that what it looked like?
And what did he want?
To go back to his own world? Not anymore, really; he'd become too invested in Narnia.
But to make his name in this world? No, that really would not do – or if so, only insofar as it would allow him to do something about all the things he had become invested in.
To see his friends again, that would do, even though he had no idea how that might work in combination with doing things for Narnia...
"To have a home at last," he blurted out. "To – to have something solid to rely on. To have a safe haven I could always return to."
And yes, that probably was the crux of the matter. He'd been a stranger in all lands for far, far too long. He'd thought he did not mind, had thought that was just what his life was – but having gotten tastes of something else in the past decades, with Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod stubbornly still being Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod, and with Joe's friendship and the knowledge that at least for a while he could always drop by the bar when he found himself in the vicinity, and with Narnia – he was realising that had been just one of the lies he had been telling himself to make life bearable. And missing Duncan boiled down simply to missing one of the few people who knew his darkest secrets and still forgave him, and still did not mind if he dropped by when in the vicinity...
"And I'm not a knight," he added.
"Me neither," he said.
"Even so, I do wish we worked together today," Methos said.
"Me too, but as they say, if wishes were winged horses..." Thornbut shrugged.
"Ah. I suppose they say it differently where you come from," Thornbut grinned.
"How do you say it in Narnia, then?" Methos asked, his linguistic curiosity taking over.
"If wishes were winged horses, they'd never have disappeared."
If wishes were winged horses, Methos thought later that day, we could get out of this scrape and find the rest of the Narnian army easily.
It was just a fleeting thought. In stark contrast to the morning, he had not had much time and space for idle pondering for quite some time.
He had, at least, still found the mental space to ponder what had happened. Whether that was a good thing was anyone's guess.
It happened too fast, too soon, and yet late enough in their game that it hit hard.
They had been riding through the forest for maybe an hour and half. They were well away from the rest of the army, though they had a Hawk keeping watch and standing in wait as a courier.
And then, with a crash of twigs giving way under its fall and a small thud and sprinkle of mud, a collapse of mottled brown feathers landed some five meters ahead from them.
There was a black-feathered arrow embedded in the Hawk scout's chest, half broken and sticking out sorely.
They never got the time to dwell on it, though.
The last coherent thing Methos heard as the Telmarines fell on them was Tol's angry "This was bound to fail."
It was a good plan, he convinced himself as he whacked his way through the barrage of six Telmarine riders towards the lonely figure of Lord Tol fighting with two more. The traitorous thorough and truthful part of his being helpfully supplied, it would have been a good plan if we had counted on the fact that the Birds either had to fly too high in order not to be spotted, or risk being spotted – they really needed smaller Birds in the army, someone like Twinkletop!
Those were the things he'd gone over in the tense gaps between fighting. It would have been a good plan if they had counted on the fact that the larger Talking Squirrels made a bit more noise travelling through the branches than their smaller mute counterparts. Or if they had taken into account the fact that, blast it, the Beasts relied on their noses much more than probably any of them could wrap their minds around, as much as he had tried to take into account the Telmarines' apparent ability to fool them. They sorely needed a Beast tactician, too.
It would have been a good plan had they had much better maps, for outsiders like him and Tol and, well, let's face it, the Kings and Garvan, too. None of the top tacticians and group leaders actually knew the lay of the land by heart – Thunderbolt's old stomping grounds were in the south and centre of Narnia, not this far out northwest – and the maps they had had at their disposal back in the camp were largely based on the situation as it had been over a hundred years ago, only quickly and imprecisely brought up to date. That was a dire, dire oversight.
It would have been a good plan if they had truly listened to Tol and thought further about the possibility that the Telmarines would choose just this day to attack in large numbers. Now the tables were turned, and once again, it seemed, in the Telmarines' favour. The Narnians were now truly split and separated – although at least, hopefully, mostly alive, and now the large groups of Telmarines were probably facing the same problem in locating them the Narnians had been facing before. The trouble was that the problem was not just on the Telmarine side. Methos had no idea where King Edmund's group was, or where King Peter, Queen Lucy and Lord Garvan and Thunderbolt were. He and Tol had been driven out northward, into the open terrain of the heathlands, while most of the Narnian army – including, hopefully, most of their own group's survivors – had apparently stayed behind in the Lantern Woods.
The two of them were an easy target out here. They had, quite miraculously, still escaped unharmed so far, and still had their horses, but they could not fight their way back and were actually being driven further away. They had ridden through the country for most of the day, avoiding Telmarines and then inevitably fighting them, because in this open country they were too easy to spot. The Telmarines still seemed to move in small groups out here; thank goodness for small mercies. This was the third group the two of them had met and by this time, neither of them knew where exactly they were, except that they were undoubtedly much further than before. Neither of them really knew this part of the country – Methos for obvious reasons, Tol probably because his own lands lay to the south at the border with Archenland.
Once again, Methos made full use of Tira's easy manoeuvrability and sure step, and thankfully, the Telmarines had still not really caught onto his game. He let her do half the deciding – which did involve trying to get away, of course. It meant she was more drawn to the open plains and the wide slope of the hill they were currently facing. But at the moment, that was just what he wanted: he had to reunite with Tol. For some reason, this last batch of Telmarines would not be satisfied with driving them away from the main army. They seemed intent on killing each and every Narnian out here – even if it meant that this particular Narnian, who was even better versed in horse warfare than they were, cut his way through their ranks mercilessly in retaliation.
He had received a few shallow cuts and bruises himself, but what really mattered at this moment was not to lose his head, his horse and his companion. The rest could be sorted out later.
Lord Tol barely dodged the two swords rushing at him from two sides, and did not escape completely unharmed, a fact the slow trickle of blood over his knuckles soon alerted him to. He was struggling to keep his horse in check. The stallion was not cut out for this – he had served him well in many a tourney, but he was a tad too heavy for this constant dodging on slippery ground that they were now reduced to.
Still, turning towards a frontal attack on one of Tol's opponents, the horse once again proved his worth: his fast and heavy gallop provided Tol with just the right amount of force to make it difficult for the other man to dodge in his turn, and even with the wound on the back of his hand immediately pulsing with pain at the strain of muscles, Tol managed to knock the sword out of the Telmarine's hand and then send him, with a swift back strike, down from the saddle and towards the embrace of death under the hooves.
But as Peridan rushed to his side from behind and made quick work of his remaining opponent, Tol had to admit one more thing to himself: Whatever he thought of Peridan, his tactical ideas and his unseemly influence on King Edmund and Queen Lucy, the young man had definitely, in his own way, proven his loyalty to Narnia this day. And he had proven that he was indeed a far better horseback fighter than any other man Tol had ever met. Telmar had lost in him a force to reckon with, as they were finding out to their own misfortune right now. They were far too good themselves, but none of them were that good.
"Let me take a look at that!" Peridan said, breathlessly, indicating Tol's hand. Tol looked away, and rode instead towards the Telmarine horses, moving away now that they were free of their riders.
It rather rankled to think he owed his life to a scribe and healer's sword. That he owed his life this day to a man who had not even been knighted yet and who rarely trained with the other seasoned warriors present at Cair Paravel, choosing instead for his sparring companion an untrained faun child. It also said something about the state of Narnian military training, especially compared to Telmar. Tol had certainly done his part himself this day; but even the Telmarines were recognising Peridan's skill, and concentrating their forces on him.
Only to be cut down, one and all.
The Telmarine horses ran away among the sparse bushes that had sprung up in the relative shelter of the valley. The saddle bag of one of them momentarily caught onto a brush, but was torn free very quickly, proving no hindrance to the horse.
"Catch that bag!" Peridan shouted, but Tol could not understand why, and before he decided to follow the man's direction anyway, the horse was too far gone.
Maybe he should let Peridan look at his hand after all. Loss of blood was not to be trifled with, and clearly it really was affecting him already.
Peridan cursed, they way he tended to. Peridan's choice of words in such situations tended to be positively peasantly. And Tol still could not understand why that particular saddle bag would matter so much to him.
"There was windthyme in the saddlebag," Peridan said in response to his unasked question, clearly reading his confusion in his face. "That one had to be a healer. Blast it! I don't even have a clean handkerchief on me right now."
Tol slightly corrected his opinion of Peridan to include "has really good eyes." He had been much closer to the horse, and he could not even tell what it was that they had been provided a glimpse of, let alone identify the plant.
"I have a kerchief," he said. "I can bandage myself."
Peridan would not allow it. Tol let him do the work, because it was more convenient, after all. Giving the man a subtle once over in the meanwhile, he once again wondered at Peridan's incredible prowess in arms: there was not so much as a scratch on the man or his horse that Tol could see, although his clothes were indeed somewhat worse for wear. The blood was clearly not his, though.
"I'm stupid," Peridan said as he tied the knot on the makeshift bandage. "I still have one clean shirt."
"Perhaps you should save it for its designated purpose," Tol retorted. Peridan ignored his advice without a comment. Tol was quite certain that the moment more grievous wounds would come up, he would indeed tear into the shirt.
"What is that noise?" Peridan said instead.
Tol realised that there, indeed, was a noise in the background, coming from further up the heath, and that it had to have been present all along, just temporarily drowned out by the sounds of their battle and dismissed in their focus on other things.
"It sounds like a waterfall," Peridan added. "Wasn't there one on the maps?"
"It must be!" Tol realised. "I have heard of this place. The Giant Caldron."
They turned their eyes in the direction from which the sound was coming. And there it really was: behind the hill above them Methos could see the top of a tall cliff face and the top of a white foamy strip of falling water. Closer to them, hidden from sight behind the slope of the hill, there had to be a river, too.
"We should go there," Tol said.
"River. Fresh water," Methos agreed.
"We should climb up and take a measure of the land," Tol said. "I fear we have lost our way. And if we had gone as far as to be near the Caldron, we must have gone very far indeed."
That, Methos realised as he recalled the maps, was definitely true.
"We could just turn back if that were our only object," he said. "But we do need water. Our horses need water."
Tol nodded, and rode on.
They climbed the slope, and below them, under a far steeper drop, the river flowed, over a stony bed. Ahead of them, the heaths were rolling wide and bare, except for the taller cliff to their left, the first outpost of the western border mountains. Despite his weariness, Methos felt his breath catch at the beauty of the waterfall, finding his eyes inexorably drawn towards it. The sun was going down to the horizon towards that direction and, shining through the waters, cast rainbows and sparkles of golden light around the cliff from which the river was rushing down into the foamy caldron of water underneath.
It was certainly not the largest waterfall he had ever seen in his life, nor perhaps the most picturesque or sublime, but he would still be hard pressed to think of one more striking.
They dismounted and carefully led their horses down the other side of the slope, to a flatter, quieter spot further down the river. Once more, Tira proved to be a good horse who could be relied on to take just the right steps, in sharp contrast to Tol's rather panicked bay stallion. Methos wondered where his mare had come from and where she had acquired her climbing skills. By the looks of her, he certainly would not have slated her as a highlands pony; she seemed rather a desert horse. A desert horse for a nomadic rider; maybe that was why they worked so well together.
The horses drank thirstily, their riders no less so. They also washed themselves quickly and filled their drinking canteens, some large flat stones in the river serving them in good stead for that purpose.
"We should go up there," Methos said, looking at the waterfall, not entirely sure why he now felt so when he had previously thought it unnecessary. Perhaps, he reflected, in light of recent developments a degree of humility in regards to Tol's ideas really was in order, and perhaps the awe that the natural world inspired in him somehow drove the point home.
Tol nodded shortly and mounted his horse again.
There was a narrow path to the side of the waterfall, still steep but not impossible to climb on horses, a fact attested to by the imprints of hooves in the soil, vaguely visible going in both directions.
"Look at that," Methos said. "This must be one of the paths the Telmarines are taking."
"Not the whole army, though," Tol said. "They could never have all come this way. Let us hope, however, that we do not find any on the top."
They did not.
By the time they reached the top, the sun was setting directly in front of them. Suffused in golden light, a field of sweet-smelling purple windthyme stretched in front of them.
And in the middle of it, as bright as the sun, even brighter still, stood a golden Lion.
They were struck dumbfounded.
Methos was not sure how long they were staring at the Lion. He was looking back at them – back at him.
Something in that gaze told him that whatever he would do right here, right now, would matter more than anything else he had ever done before.
He wanted to say something. He had no idea what. He was with sudden unflinching clarity aware of the fact that whatever he might say, the Lion already knew.
A part of him wanted to look away. He was also aware that that would not stop the Lion from looking at him, and so he gave way to the part that wanted to keep looking.
He had no idea how long they had been staring. It felt like an eternity; it felt like far too short a time.
The sun sank beyond the mountains, and as dusk settled on the land, the Lion started vanishing.
Just like that.
Methos stared after the disappearing vision of light, unknown tears streaming down his face. He desperately wished for something and did not know what. It was a desire more exhilarating than any Quickening, and despair greater than having killed a friend; and yet, somehow, there was a seed of calm reassurance hiding in the centre, in the memory of the Lion's gaze holding him in place.
He should have done something. He still did not know what.
"Oh, Lord," he said.
"Quite," Tol quipped. "Let's go back. Pull yourself together! Aren't you a man?"
Methos felt a surge of hatred for the lord. He felt both ashamed by it and justified in it. How could Tol be so unfeeling, so unconcerned by what had just happened?
"Aren't you human?" Methos snapped.
"Sure I am, and there are quite possibly others being slaughtered while we talk," Tol said, turning around already, to look back towards Narnia.
"I'm sorry," Methos murmured. "I'll just..." He squatted down to cut at least a couple of handfuls of the precious healing herb, to stuff in his own saddlebag; then he followed the lord back into the valley, trying in vain to focus on what lay ahead instead of what he was leaving behind.