|Swords at Sunset
A Highlander Romance Novella
by Ashlyn Donnchaid and Maygra deRhema
Yes, my love, I'll be with you always.
Duncan MacLeod let the book in his hand fall against his chest. It was always so easy for characters in books to declare such things. He wondered if the authors had any idea about real life. They certainly had only a spotty grasp of life in 16th century Scotland. He smiled warmly as he gently put his hand on the head pillowed in his lap. Methos was asleep, his angular features soft and relaxed. He stirred, but didn't wake when MacLeod touched him, nestling closer to his lover. What had possessed him to bring home this drivel? MacLeod wondered. It certainly wasn't what he'd expected as a choice of reading material. Swords At Sunset, indeed. Lifting the book once more, he continued to read until the pages became blurred before him and he slid into sleep.
"My lord!" A rough hand was shaking him. "My lord, you must wake up! They have returned!" He threw the blanket off the bed and stood, glaring at the manservant.
"How many this time?" Impatiently, Duncan snatched the plaid from the man in front of him, dressing himself. He pulled on the shirt, covering his broad shoulders and well defined chest. The cloth was wrapped quickly around narrow hips and strong thighs. To finish, he pulled back his thick dark hair and bound it with a short leather thong.
"Nigh on a hundred, my lord. They're like men possessed, striking down all they see."
Duncan doubted there were really that many. Murdoch didn't have that many in his keep who could ride and fight and Duncan's servant was known to exaggerate.
"Are the men ready, Fescue?"
"Yes, m'lord. They wait for you outside the gate." The manservant was clearly agitated.
"What is it, Fescue?" He had no time for the man's nervousness.
"M'lord," Fescue began. "There are tales that those who fall to the Murdoch's men have their hearts cut out and their heads put on pikes."
Immediately, Duncan calmed himself, wanting to reassure this man. He placed a hand on the trembling shoulder. "No. Nothing like that will happen to anyone who serves in this keep." The little smile of confidence that Fescue gave his master reminded him even more why he had to defeat Murdoch. This was more than a battle for a piece of land or the use of some water. There were people who trusted in him to protect them. Good people who had no stake in the feud, but had been drawn into the fight by the ruthless Murdoch.
"Quickly now. Go and be sure that my horse is ready." As his man ran ahead, he picked up his claymore and dagger, following close behind.
He entered the courtyard of the keep, looked upward and noted the gray sky that boded rain. That could be both a curse and a blessing. Footing for the horses would be treacherous, but it would slow his enemy as well. His horse was ready, a strong bold bay. This was his favorite to ride to battle. Nothing stopped this animal who had galloped willingly into campaigns for him for almost ten years. It was good to have this one with him today. He swung into the saddle and kicked the horse into a full gallop as he went through the gate. His men had their mounts at speed as he passed them, following close on his heels.
He pulled to a halt at the top of a small rise, his men lined along the ridge with him. Liam, his most able lieutenant, rode up next to him. "My lord, this is slaughter."
MacLeod looked at the tableau before him. Simple field workers running and screaming before the onslaught of Murdoch's men, cut down by sword and ax and mace as they ran for their lives. One figure caught his eye, tall and pale, standing and trying to avoid the mounted raiders, but not running.
Even as he watched, another of Murdoch's men charged forward, swinging a heavy sword. Duncan felt his blood burn, armed men against unarmed peasants. It was a slaughter. He gave the cry, his voice rising above the screams and his men echoed it.
He kept his eye on the man riding against the peasant. The serf had ducked, avoiding the mace and, with a quickness that dragged a short burst of laughter from Duncan, had whapped the horse across the rump with his hoe, causing it to rear and dump the rider into the muddy field. Clever as it was, however, the rider was furious and the man was forced to retreat. Duncan had never seen such courage in the face of such odds. He urged his horse forward, but his mount was not quick enough to stop what he knew would happen.
Murdoch's man was on the servant in a trice, sword freed from his saddle sheath, mace still in hand. The hoe proved an inadequate shield against mace, splintering as the servant tried to block the blow. A second swing caught the slender pale man along the left arm, the bone shattering under the blow and driving the man to his knees. A second blow left the servant's face bloody, rocking him backward. Even as Duncan cried out for the man to stop, Murdoch's man had thrust the wounded man through with his sword, kicking the body back to free his blade.
Before he was able to assault the man any further, Duncan pushed his horse in between them, his own sword blocking the blow. He dismounted with smooth grace to face the man and, with only two exchanges, had gutted the enemy on the end of his blade.
Then he felt the peculiar sense of both sound and movement, a hum of sensation from close by, signifying another Immortal. The fight had moved into the field and he looked down at the man he had just killed.
His horse shifted and he saw the slender servant struggling to his knees. He should be dead! Duncan thought in the same moment he realized the origin of the strange sensation. A new Immortal! his mind cried as he shoved at his horse trying to clear a path between himself and the injured man.
He was not fast enough. Another of the enemy spotted the stunned serf, and seeing Duncan's interest, caught the dark hair in his fist, preparatory to slitting the man's throat. A cry and Duncan's dagger buried itself in the soldier's chest. His opponent's blade dropped, raking the injured serf's shoulder, tearing through the poor cloth of his tunic to expose pale and bloodied skin before the knife found lodging in his breast. For the second time the man died and Duncan found himself fully engaged by the rest of the battle, awkwardly trying to protect the still figure at his feet.
It took longer than Duncan had thought to rout the invaders but eventually they fell back and the field was left to the victors and the fallen. The wounded were gathered and carts summoned for the dead, the terrified field hands returning to help and lay thanks on the son of the Laird.
He pulled away as quickly as he could, kneeling beside the object of his concern. The man had not stirred nor would he until the evil blade was removed from his breast.
"Leave him, m'lord," Liam said. "They will gather the dead."
"He's not dead," Duncan said, pulling the blade free and casting it aside as he gathered the slim body up in his arms. As if to support his claim in Liam's disbelieving eyes, the still body dragged in a sharp painful breath. He did not wake, lying limply within the secure strong cradle of Duncan's muscular arms. "I need to get him to a healer," Duncan said handing his burden briefly to Liam as he re-mounted his horse. His lieutenant passed the unconscious man up at his lord's command. "See to this for me, Liam. I needs must hurry," Duncan said and wheeled his mount, heading back toward the castle.
"Bring hot water and bandages!" Duncan shouted at his servants, then ignoring them as they scurried to obey. The man in his arms had still not regained his senses, the slender frame barely a strain to Duncan's brawny arms. Carefully he eased the limp body onto his bed.
"My lord, the sheets!" Fescue protested.
"Damn the sheets! The man's hurt!" Duncan snapped. "Do something useful, Fescue...build up the fire, and bring me that basin."
Startled by his master's harsh tone, Fescue did so, catching only a glimpse of the pale bloodied face. Already crimson had stained the pillows. Duncan ignored that as he began pulling off the man's torn tunic, using the poor cloth to start cleaning the wounds only to realize Fescue was still close by.
The young Immortal would heal quickly and Duncan needed his manservant away. "Go see what is taking so long for the water and bandages," he ordered
Fescue scurried away, his lord's urgency adding speed to his steps.
Duncan dared not wait. Taking the broken arm he straightened the limb, resetting the bone before his patient could awaken. The man's skin was cool and smooth, as pale as moonlight and equally unflawed. With more gentleness, Duncan began cleaning the still face, his breath catching as the blood was wiped away. God in heaven, the youth was exquisite. The face was finely boned, cheeks sculpted like the finest marble, lips a fair rose and still faintly swollen from where the man had bitten them upon receiving his wounding. Already the ugly gash along his temple was fading and Duncan wiped at the blood in his hair, fingers tracing over the silken strands...fine as down, and sweet to touch.
Remembering his task he finished stripping the tunic off the man and it was all he could do not to run his hands over the smooth muscled flesh of the man's chest and abdomen. His fingertips grazed the closing wound in his abdomen, feeling the flesh twitch under his touch. Quickly he pulled the sheet back and tore it, lifting the body to wrap the wound. Blood soaked the cloth, enough to fool the servants for now. He pulled the man against himself to knot the hasty bandage at his back and could not help but breathe in the sweet masculine scent of sweat and alabaster skin. Cradling the head he eased the man down then checked him for any other injuries, seeing blood along the rough trousers. It was probably from the stomach wound but so much blood would arouse suspicions. Fearing discovery at any time, he reached for the crude drawstring and untied it, slipping the cloth from the slim hips and closing his eyes as more intimate parts of the creamy skin were revealed. He managed to wipe the blood clean from the muscled thighs, fingers hesitating briefly over the nest of dark thatch of hair at his patient's groin and the tantalizing length of flesh laying against the curls.
"I'll not take advantage," he swore fiercely and pulled the blankets up, guilt and shame flooding into him. What gentleman would dare so? Not the son of MacLeod! This man had come under his protection, no matter his status, and to one who was newly Immortal...a second strip of cloth went around the dark head, that wound having already been seen.
He finished not a moment too soon as Fescue returned with another servant bearing clean cloths and hot water.
"He was not injured as badly as I feared," Duncan said with certainty. "A glance along his head...a shallow thrust to the stomach. Here," he said and had Fescue set the water down. Bandaged, his guest could be bathed more carefully. Duncan undertook the tasks himself, sending Fescue for food and drink.
He was bathing the man's hands, admiring the long slender fingers when his guest stirred, a soft moan escaping him. Duncan secured the blankets more carefully around his patient's torso, not wishing to trespass against the man's modesty but he did not withdraw, waiting until the eyelashes that curled so delicately against the pale cheeks fluttered and lifted.
Duncan felt as if he were drowning. The eyes that peered up at him in confusion and pain were green and gold, the green of the deepest forest and the gold of a sunrise, the colors flecked and shifting with every breath.
"You are safe," Duncan said to calm the panic in the face beneath his own. "The battle is over. You are in the Castle MacLeod. What is your name?"
The man remained silent, eyes narrowing in uncertainty. "I thought I was dead for certain," he said and Duncan smiled in appreciation. Even soft as it was, the voice was richly-timbered and cultured.
"No. You are very much alive and I need to tell you why before my servants return. You must listen to me. You are Immortal. You cannot die unless someone takes your head."
The man's eyes narrowed further.
"Do you recall being run through with a sword?" Duncan asked and at his visitor's tense nod pulled the blankets back to expose the bloodied bandage around his ribs and waist. A hand and a further paling of the fine boned face stopped Duncan from moving the blanket any further down and he nodded, securing the blankets in place around the lean hips before moving his broad hands under the bandage. "You see? The wound is gone. You have died and come back to life and the wound is healed. You are Immortal -- as I am. Did you not feel a strange mix of sound and feeling in your head as you woke?" Another terse nod and Duncan smiled. "That is how you will know another Immortal is close. A warning." Seeing the tension still in the other man, Duncan pulled the blankets up further, thinking the hint of vulnerable and intimate exposure to be at least part of the cause.
"I will teach you what you need to know," Duncan said calmly, reassuringly. He used his voice alone when his urge was to catch the obviously shaken and frightened man up in his arms and soothe him as one would a child. He seemed that afraid.
"But first, you must tell me your name." The man's agitation only increased at this repeated request for his name. Duncan could not understand his reticence and sought to reassure him. "It will be difficult to teach you if I don't know what to call you."
His words eased the man's fear a little, and the eyes closed briefly. When they opened again, the gaze met Duncan's. "I am called Matthew."
"Matthew." He rolled the name across his tongue. A strong name, suitable for this new Immortal. Unable to resist any longer, he reached out and placed his hand on the man's head, gently caressing his forehead with his thumb. "Well, Matthew, you are safe here." With great reluctance he took his hand off the silky hair and smooth skin. "I must go now. I need to see to the other wounded. Stay here and give no indication to anyone that you have healed. I will return with food later." Duncan stood and turned to leave the chamber. He was stopped at the door by the soft voice of the peasant.
"My lord?" He turned to look back at Matthew. "Thank you."
"No thanks are needed," Duncan answered gruffly. "I cannot afford to lose good workers." The crestfallen look on the sweet face tore into his gut and he practically ran out the door, stopping and leaning against the stone wall once he was outside the chamber and away from the beseeching look of those soft eyes. Clenching his fists to stop his hands from shaking, he took a deep breath. He did not understand the effect this peasant was having on him. He had certainly felt lust in his life, but this was something new, something more. Perhaps he should send him away, let him find another teacher. No! his mind screamed at him. He drew another ragged breath. Very well, he would keep Matthew here, he would teach him. Maybe in the doing, he would unravel the spell that seemed to be weaving about him.
With an effort, Duncan brought himself back to the tasks yet to be completed. He needed to see to his men and assess the day's casualties, then plan for the retaliation against Murdoch that today's bloodthirsty attack deserved. He pushed himself off the wall and made his way to the main hall, where he knew the wounded were being tended. He shuddered at the number that were lying on the floor, soldier and peasant alike, wounds being bandaged, some only being made comfortable until they would die. As his eyes swept the room, he saw Liam kneeling beside one of his men. He crossed the room to stand next to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.
Liam stood, exhaustion showing in the stoop of his normally strong shoulders. His thick red hair had escaped its binding and was tangled and matted with mud. Pain etched deep lines into his face and was reflected in his blue eyes.
"Are you hurt, Liam?"
"No, my lord. My pain is for the men." He swept a hand, indicating the injured and those tending them. "I know the land is important, but I find myself asking if it is worth this many lives."
Duncan gripped Liam's shoulder. "Murdoch will pay for this slaughter," he said quietly. "Have no fear." The two walked through the hall, stopping to give words of comfort where they could, ending up standing by the fireplace. "Do we have enough beds for the wounded?"
"Yes, m'lord." Liam turned and added more wood to the fire. "Where would you have us move the one in your chambers?"
"There is no need to move him."
"But, m'lord..." Liam turned and looked up at Duncan.
"I said, there is no need." The expression on Duncan's face made it clear that no further discussion of the subject would be permitted.
"Yes, m'lord." Liam turned his eyes back to the fire, but continued speaking softly. "But my lord is aware that there will be talk, is he not?"
"Why," Duncan asked, also speaking softly, "should there be talk? Many who live in the castle are taking in wounded. Why should I ask them to do what I would not do myself?"
"As you say, m'lord." Liam straightened up, not hiding the tiny curve that pulled at his lips, and looked over the hall once again. "I must get back to my duties. With your permission?"
"Of course, Liam." Duncan watched the man cross the hall, stopping to speak to one of the maids. He hadn't missed Liam's little smile at his own insistence at keeping young Matthew in his chambers. Liam knew him as well as any man, and if not for the fact that Liam had been the son of one of his father's servants, they might have ended up strong friends. As it was, there was the gulf of birth that could not be crossed. The irony of that was not lost on Duncan, who knew himself to be a foundling, but a fortunate one, taken in by Ian and Mary MacLeod and declared to be their son and heir. As children, he and Liam had been allowed to roughhouse together, but as they grew up, each had responsibilities dictated by lineage. Still, he counted Liam a friend and permitted him many liberties.
The young maid that Liam had spoken to approached him tentatively. "My lord? Master Liam says you have not eaten."
Duncan pulled himself out of his thoughts and brought his attention to the girl in front of him. "That's true." He thought for a moment. "Bring enough food for two to my chambers." He had promised young Matthew he would bring food back with him. Waving the maid on her way, he crossed the hall and went back to his rooms.
He opened the door to his chamber quietly and went inside, finding Matthew asleep. His movements must have disturbed the young man. His eyes flew open and a momentary look of terror crossed his face. The fear gave way to wariness, but Duncan had not missed the first reaction. He was sure it meant that Matthew had been ill used at some point in his life, and he hated the unknown person who had done such a thing.
Sitting on the bed next to Matthew, he reached for the arm he'd set, only to have the youth shy away from his touch. "Be still," he told him. "I only want to see how the break has healed." He ran his fingers over the arm, satisfied that he had set it properly, but letting his touch linger over the smooth skin. To assure himself that the other wounds had healed as well, he pulled back the blankets and moved his hand to where the chest and abdomen had been torn. The feel of Matthew's almost hairless skin was intoxicating, and he let his palm slide slowly across the flesh.
"My lord?" The soft voice brought him back to awareness of what he was doing. "Is there something else you need?" There was a slight trembling in the body under his touch and fear in the green-gold eyes, and the true nature of the abuse Matthew must have suffered became clear to him.
"No." Duncan took his hand off the young man and tucked the blankets around him again. "The wounds are well healed. You rest. The maid will be bringing food shortly." He got up and busied himself in another part of the room until the maid arrived. She brought a thick stew and bread and a pitcher of ale which Duncan took from her and then dismissed her. He watched as Matthew ate eagerly and considered how thin the youth was. Had he been denied food as well as suffered physical abuse? His anger at persons unknown rose again.
"How came you to my lands, Matthew?"
The young man looked up with a start, as if he'd forgotten that Duncan was in the room. He seemed to think over his answer for a time before speaking. "I was traveling north and my horse became lame. I stopped at the smithy here and have stayed, thanks to his generosity, while the animal healed."
"And why were you working in the fields?"
Matthew gave a little smile, which lit his face in a way that delighted Duncan. "I felt it was unseemly to take their hospitality and give nothing in return. Field work is not unknown to me."
Duncan smiled back at him. "You are welcome to stay as long as you need. In fact, it would be best for you to stay until I can teach you what you will need to know about your immortality." He thought for a moment. "Perhaps we can find you a position within the household." He nodded to himself, thinking that would be the best way to keep Matthew close and not raise questions about the attention he would be getting from the Laird's son. "Rest now. We'll worry about that later." Duncan was tired himself, from both the battle and the added anguish of watching his people killed. Pulling blankets from a chest, he settled in the large chair in the corner of the room, closing his eyes to rest. Soon he dozed off.
He thought he was dreaming, waking to softly persuasive lips on his, the feel of a hand that had found its way under his plaid. He returned the kiss, teeth and tongue almost desperate with need. He urged the hand that touched him to stroke harder. As he moved toward full awareness, Duncan moaned. God this youth was talented! He wanted to let this continue and knew he could not. Bringing his hands to the slender shoulders, he pushed Matthew away, drawing a ragged breath to try and reassert control over himself.
When he felt he had some control over his body, Duncan spoke. "Why are you doing this?"
There was confusion on Matthew's face, the chiseled features drawn into a frown. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No," Duncan sighed. "But why did you do this?"
"I..." Matthew stopped, his cheeks red from embarrassment and dropped his gaze to the floor. "I wanted to repay your kindness." His hands were twisting in his lap. "Was I wrong to think you might desire me?"
"No," Duncan repeated, his voice soft and gentle. "You were not wrong. But I will not take from you what is not freely given. You owe me no debt that this would be payment for." He reached out and raised Matthew's chin so the youth would look at him. "Do you understand?"
"No, my lord. I do not."
"You will." Duncan slid his hand to cup Matthew's cheek. "Go back to bed. We'll talk more of this later." He watched as Matthew rose and went back to bed. It would have been so easy to let him continue, to take the pleasuring that was offered. He almost had, his desire had been so strong. But in a split second, he had realized he wanted more than simple pleasure from this man. This new feeling ran deep through him, and he wanted Matthew to be able to return it in kind.
Within a week the keep had settled somewhat. Those injured who could not escape death had died and were set to rest in the keep's large cemetery and the rest were healing. Within a few days there was no reason for Duncan to keep Matthew housed in his own chambers any longer without talk beginning and his father was due back within a day or so. Duncan had no fear that Ian MacLeod would question his decision, or even ask, but he had no more real reason to keep Matthew so close. At least none that he could or was willing to explain to his father. He could claim the youth as the latest of bed partners but it wouldn't be true and Duncan didn't want the youth branded a whore for no other reason than the whim of the Laird's son.
So he found quarters for Matthew below stairs, near the kitchens where it was warmest, and had him assigned duties under the keep's steward. It turned out to be a good decision, even if Duncan had not known why to begin with.
Matthew, he soon discovered, could read. In retrospect he should have guessed the youth was more than he appeared. He had told Duncan he had been riding when his horse went lame. No mere peasant would own a horse and when Matthew's things, including his horse, were brought from the smithy to the keep, amongst his belongings were books, and the horse, which Duncan had assumed to be an old nag, turned out to be a lovely, if slightly aged, sorrel gelding. Coin was passed to the smith for his care of the beast and the keep's own horsemaster set to bringing the animal back to health.
The steward was overjoyed. He could read just barely enough to watch the keep's accounts, but his knowledge was limited. During his first week, Matthew managed to save the keep from being shorted by poor accounting when the supplies and goods were brought in from beyond the walls.
"You never said you could read," Duncan managed to whisper to his protégé one evening when Matthew was aiding in the serving of the evening meal.
The hazel eyes dance in mischief. "Your lordship never asked," he said and turned away only to find Duncan's hand on his wrist and the brown eyes intent on his.
"Will you read to me...while we are practicing?"
The mischief faded and something softened in Matthew's face. "I would be honored, my lord," he said and bowed slightly as Duncan released his wrist. The gesture of respect made Duncan vaguely uncomfortable. He did not want Matthew bowing to him, or any other man, came the irrational thought. The man could read. Such a pursuit was not looked upon as necessarily a good thing among his father's contemporaries. Reading and writing were for priests and clerks and the lower class merchants that had nothing better to do with their time. Duncan kept his own opinions to himself in the face of his father's obvious displeasure -- but to be able to read, to pursue places he had never seen and learn about them from the accounts of travelers...it was a dream he dared not voice. He had stolen a book once as a child, fascinated by the marks that translated into marvelous tales, he was sure, but it had been like magic to him. Catching him at it, Ian MacLeod had thrashed him until he cried like a baby.
His immortality might have provided him with the option of traveling but it seemed so distant and unlikely. MacLeods had held these lands for centuries and Duncan was expected, had been trained, to hold them long after Ian MacLeod's inevitable death. "This land was given to my ancestors by God, my son," his father had told him when Duncan reached his majority at fourteen. "And then God gave me a son who could hold these lands forever. We belong to it and we will guard and keep it and the people who toil upon it until God himself comes to demand it back."
It was the first time Ian had ever spoken to his son like a man instead of a child and Duncan had been trying to live up to his father's expectations ever since. But he had never forgotten his own dreams.
Nor would he, he thought as he watched Matthew make his graceful way back to the sideboard. Their lessons were to start tomorrow, the idea that Matthew could read, tell stories, made what was already a much anticipated meeting all the more pleasurable in contemplation.
There was no way to avoid having the men at arms accompany them as Duncan and Matthew rode out in the morning to the fields beyond the keep. Nothing would please Murdoch better than to lay claim to Ian MacLeod's bastard son for hostage or worse. Not that Ian would surrender his claim or his honor for his son's sake. Duncan did not expect it, but it would be a blow and a demoralizing one at that.
But Duncan had no desire to begin Matthew's lesson in full view of the keep where a hundred people might legitimately lay claim to his attention. There was a glade not far away that would offer space and some privacy. The men at arms could loll by the shore of the loch within shouting distance while Duncan taught his reluctant student.
Matthew had seemed reluctant, although he had shown up in the courtyard at the appointed time shortly after dawn. He was dressed in loose clothing as Duncan had instructed, the single slim scrip secured around his waist accenting his slender build without meaning to. Duncan felt a veritable ox beside him.
He felt more so when they rode out. Duncan was an excellent horseman whereas Matthew showed none of the discipline of an experienced rider, yet he seemed to be more an extension of the beast he rode than its master. Curious, Duncan urged his own mount on to a faster pace and Matthew kept up with him effortlessly yet barely seemed to lay hand to rein, body shifting to indicate where he wanted the animal to go and so it went.
"You had a fine riding teacher, it seems," Duncan said when they had slowed somewhat, the men at arms lagging behind both by intent and because the two men rode far better mounts than they. Scotland boasted good riders and good fighters but not necessarily always both in the body of a single man.
"At one time," Matthew acknowledged. "There was need for it once...I rode with my brothers," he said softly and Duncan hesitated in pressing the conversation. How could a man look so beautiful and proud and devastatingly sorrowed in a single expression? Questions about Matthew's past sprang to mind but given his own assumptions about the abuse the youth might have suffered, Duncan was unwilling to bring anything but laughter and light to the marvelous gold-green eyes.
He could speculate, though, nudging his horse closer to his companion. Some lordling's younger or bastard son, captured and rendered from his home as hostage, only not treated with the honor due such a hostage? It was against all the rights of honor Duncan knew and lived by, but such things happened and who could resist such a temptation? He was having a hard enough time on his own account, but he preferred wooing to conquest. "Our lands extend beyond the loch to the cliffs," he pointed out, changing the subject and glad to do so as Matthew lost the sad gaze, face alighting with interest.
"It is beautiful country...if a bit cold and damp," Matthew said with the return of his smile.
Fool! MacLeod thought. Here he was in his heavy plaid and cloak while Matthew wore the thin, loose clothing as requested with not a cloak to his name and so thin a breeze could pass through him. Without a word he unfastened the heavy fur-line wool and swept it off his shoulders and onto Matthew's before the youth could protest. "Don't," Duncan said with mock severity as he leaned across his mount to fasten the cloak. "You'll warm up soon enough when we begin your lessons, but even Immortals can catch a chill. I've me plaid and more meat on me. There, it's just ahead." Duncan directed and they rode a bit further then stopped. His men built a fire for them then found a place not far away to build their own and settled down more or less alertly to play at dice and keep warm.
Matthew removed the cloak, folding it neatly across his saddle. Duncan pulled two swords from his roll, lightweight weapons rather than the heavier claymore he often carried. Matthew being so slight, the heavier swords made no sense, not until he could gain both skill and muscle, although a surreptitious glance at his companion revealed that despite his slender build, there was muscle on the lean frame -- from field work no doubt. The muscles of his arms and shoulders stood out as a light breeze wrapped the thin cloth tightly around his limbs. Duncan turned and held out one of the blades, hilt first, to the youth.
Matthew eyed it nervously, reluctantly wrapping his fingers around the rounded hilt. He held it like a hoe or a shovel. "No. Like this," Duncan said and showed him the grip, moving to the side of him to close the slender fingers correctly around the leather. Keeping his hand firmly around the other man's, Duncan guided his arm through several testing swings before stepping away to then show Matthew the counters to the swings he had just taught.
They sparred lightly, Duncan encouraged by the natural grace of his student. As he promised, Matthew was warmed, a thin sheen of sweat glinting off the pale skin. They paused to rest and drink. Duncan once more wrapped the cloak around Matthew, not wanting him to get too cold as they shared a skein of wine.
"You have a natural talent," he commented, watching the fire. "I saw it in the field."
"Not a talent I would be glad to have, though, as you say, if I am to survive I needs must learn to wield a blade well," Matthew said quietly. "Do you not tire of this death?"
"More than you can know," Duncan admitted. "This feuding with Murdoch is a waste of time and lives, yet he loves his land and his people as fiercely as the MacLeods love theirs, for all that he acquired them through tragedy."
"What tragedy is that, m'lord?" Matthew asked quietly.
"The family died, suddenly. MacAian, his wife and four sons, the smallest a wee babe. The water sickness took them within a week. Murdoch inherited the lands through his marriage to MacAian's only daughter and she died as well. There was another, a cousin who should have inherited but he was set on by brigands and killed as he returned when the tragedy was announced. I never knew the cousin, but heard his name, a strange one for a Scot. He was called Methos." Duncan missed Matthew's startled look at the saying of the name. "And to add to it all, this feud; for none will drink the waters that poisoned MacAian and his family. Murdoch thought to divert our streams but that would leave our lands dry. My father had offered them use of the waters for drinking but Murdoch wants the water for the fields that now lay fallow on his lands."
"It seems odd," Matthew observed softly, "that all would perish from the disease save Murdoch himself."
Duncan looked at him quickly, but there was nothing out of the ordinary to be read in the man's eyes. Still, Duncan wondered. Matthew's comment had closely reflected thoughts that had run through his own head on more than one occasion. But the sad truth of the situation was, it didn't matter what suspicions one harbored, the MacAian family was dead and Murdoch controlled the lands.
"Come, enough dark thoughts. I think you've learned enough for today." Duncan looked at Matthew hopefully. "Did you bring a book with you?"
Matthew was crestfallen. "No, m'lord, I did not. In my haste to be ready it slipped my mind. Can you forgive me? I know I promised to read to you."
Looking in those soft eyes, Duncan was sure he could forgive Matthew anything. "Perhaps you could tell me a story from one of the books, then?"
The smile that lightened Matthew's face created a warmth in Duncan's breast. He knew he would do anything to keep that look where he could see it again and again. Leaning back against a tree, he closed his eyes as Matthew spun a tale of a knight, a fair maiden and a dragon. As the story ended with the dragon slain and the knight and the lady living happily ever after, Duncan opened his eyes and smiled.
"I suspect, Matthew, that there is some fantasy in that tale."
"I suspect you are right, m'lord. It is one of the joys of books, to know what is in a man's imagination." As Matthew spoke, Duncan knew he would have to find a way to circumvent his father's distaste for books and those who could read. His desire for knowledge had been rekindled, and this time he would find a way to have it satisfied.
His thoughts were interrupted by the approach of one of the men at arms. "Forgive the intrusion, m'lord, a messenger has brought word of the Lord and Lady's return."
Duncan nodded curtly. "Have the messenger relay that I am on my way." He rose swiftly and looked at Matthew. "I regret that duty calls. We must go back, but we will meet again tomorrow for another lesson." They mounted their horses and rode back to the castle only to find Ian MacLeod waiting impatiently in the courtyard.
"Liam has told me of the battle," Ian began without waiting for any greeting from his son. "Come, we must talk. It is time for this feud to end."
Duncan dismounted, letting his horse be taken by a waiting groom, and took his cloak as Matthew handed it to him, sharing a last smile with the young man before Matthew dropped his eyes and turned away. As Duncan turned back, he met the steely gaze of his father.
"He's a comely one, I'll grant you that." Ian took Duncan's arm as he led the way to his private study. "Is he the latest to warm your bed?"
A flush of anger and embarrassment colored Duncan's cheeks. "No, Father. He was wounded in the battle. When he recovered, we learned he had skills that best served us inside the walls. He can read and write and do accounts. I have given him a place with the keep's steward."
"Which explains perfectly why you were out riding with him," Ian answered gruffly. "No matter. We have more important things to discuss. Sit." He directed Duncan to a chair opposite his own. "I have started negotiations with Murdoch for a way to end the feud. There is only one solution he finds acceptable, and that is an alliance by marriage between our families." He was quiet as the full import of this sunk in for Duncan.
"Father, no! I cannot!" Duncan looked into the hard gray of his father's eyes. "Not Cassandra. You cannot mean it. Tell me there's another way." His voice had dropped to a whisper as he beseeched his father.
"I have not yet agreed, Duncan. Your mother and I find the thought as distasteful as you do, however, I am unable to find an alternative. This killing must stop. Find me some other way and I will refuse the marriage. Otherwise, resign yourself to sharing a household, if not a bed, with the Lady Cassandra." A little smile warmed Ian's face. "Remember also, these are modern times. You can have the wife that will settle the feud and match your station, and you can have your young man to warm your bed."
Duncan made no answer to his father, but rose abruptly to leave. He was stopped by his father's voice calling to him softly. "Duncan, I do not do this to cause you pain. But I need you to consider your responsibility to the lands and to the people who dwell upon it." Duncan nodded without turning to face Ian. "Go now, son. Think on what I have said."
Leaving the study, Duncan slowly made his way to his own chambers, confusion battling through his mind. Even without the feelings young Matthew had awakened in him, he would not have desired a match with Murdoch's daughter. She was a scheming wench whose motivations he did not trust. Now, with this new desire he felt for Matthew, he could not commit to any arrangement that would not leave him free to discover if Matthew could in any way return what he felt for him.
The evening meal was a quiet affair, Duncan sitting sullenly through most of it, refusing to participate in any conversation. Even the presence of Matthew helping to serve did not pull him out of his dark mood. He excused himself at the earliest moment he could without appearing rude, only to find he didn't know where he wanted to go. He wandered through the castle and out to the grounds, only to find himself in the stable, standing in the stall with his old friend, the bay.
Leaning against the solid, warm body, he ran his fingers through its mane, separating the coarse dark hairs. "You remember when the only problems I had to bring to you were the simple ones?" The only answer he received was nuzzling of the soft muzzle as the horse searched for the treats he often carried. "This one isn't so simple. I cannot marry that bitch. It would be the death of me. I don't know what I want from Matthew, but I know I want him near me always. Is that love, old friend? Have I been struck by Cupid?" This time he was answered by a soft whicker and more impatient pushing of the velvety nose. He chuckled at the horse's single-mindedness. "I wish all the answers were as easy as yours. Good grain and a nice gallop and your life is complete." He reached inside his cloak and pulled out the carrot he'd liberated from the kitchen. "Here you go. Your usual payment for being such a good listener."
He patted the horse's neck, then closed the stall and turned to leave the stable, only to see Liam standing just inside the door. "You heard?"
Liam nodded. "I did not intend to eavesdrop, m'lord. You seemed distracted tonight, and I thought to offer any help I could."
"Then you know there is nothing anyone can do." Duncan started to walk past Liam, only to be stopped by a hand on his arm.
"Forgive me the liberty, m'lord, but perhaps there is one small piece of advice I can give." Duncan turned to face Liam, waiting for the man to finish. "Your father might think differently were he to get to know young Matthew."
"I'm not sure anything can change his mind, but it is worth considering. Come, walk with me." The walk back to the castle was much less lonely than the walk to the stables had been. While he wasn't sure there was any way to change what seemed to be his fate, Duncan appreciated the friendship that had brought Liam to find him and offer his help. And perhaps there was something in what he had said. Perhaps if he arranged for his father to see how special Matthew was, some other solution to all their problems could be found.
By the next morning when the time came for them to ride out for Matthew's lesson, Duncan was much more optimistic that an answer to his problem might be had. He found the youth waiting for him in the courtyard, this time wearing a cloak over his loose clothing and carrying a small satchel. As they rode, again followed by the men at arms, an inescapable need while they were still at odds with Murdoch, Duncan saw how thin Matthew's cloak was. The fabric had been a fine one in its day, but now was more suitable for the rag bin. He decided he would speak to the seamstresses at the castle when they returned.
Matthew was a quick study with the blade, his natural grace making the moves seem as if he was born to them. After reviewing what they had done the day before, Duncan added some more complex and difficult combinations, and was pleased with how well Matthew learned them. Again they worked until both were covered in a fine film of sweat and Duncan could see that Matthew's sword arm was becoming fatigued. When they put the swords away and Duncan took out the wine and the bread he'd brought for their refreshment, he watched eagerly as Matthew opened the satchel he'd carried with him, pulling out a book.
They sat by the small fire as Matthew read from the book, his rich baritone bringing life to the words, but it wasn't enough for Duncan. He wanted to see the markings on the page, to understand how Matthew could decipher their meaning. He moved close to Matthew, pulling the edge of his heavier cloak around the young man to warm them both as he looked at the pages and listened to that hypnotic voice. He wasn't sure what was more exciting, sitting so close to Matthew, close enough to feel the heat of his body, or to watch as the slim fingers underlined the words as they were read. Both were intoxicating to him, but on this day, the magic of the marks on the paper won out.
He put his hand over Matthew's, stopping the story as it was read. "Can you teach me how to do that? To read as you do?"
Matthew looked at him with a little smile. "I would be honored to, m'lord."
A slight frown crossed Duncan's face. He didn't like having Matthew address him in such a servile manner. Nothing in the man's bearing or attitude indicated that he had spent a life in service, and Duncan surely had no intention of keeping him on only as a servant in the household. Not if he could find that Matthew returned his feelings to any degree at all.
"When we are alone, you must call me Duncan."
"As you wish, Duncan," Matthew answered him. The sound of his name from those lips was a gift to Duncan's ears. He would have to find ways to hear it again and again.
His hand still covered Matthew's, the long fingers and milky pale color such a contrast to his own broad hand and sun darkened skin. He held the hand in both of his own, caressing the silken skin, admiring what could at one moment be wielding a sword and the next minute be making the graceful marks on paper that told great tales. Duncan wondered what other talents might be hidden in the delicate form.
Reluctantly, he let go of Matthew's hand. "Can you show me words today?"
Matthew closed the book. "Let me show you your name." Marking in the dirt in front of them, he spelled out D-U-N-C-A-N. "That says Duncan." Duncan stared intently at the scratches in the dirt, unsure how it became his name. "Do you know any of the letters?"
He frowned and turned away, not wanting to admit his ignorance. "No," he said quietly. "I've never learned any of them."
Matthew's fingers touched his face, turning him back to look in the green-gold eyes. "It is no failing not to know them." His touch was like fire on Duncan's skin, the concern reflected in those eyes telling him that Matthew did feel something for him.
Before he could stop himself, he'd turned his head and kissed Matthew's palm. "And you will teach them to me. Starting tomorrow." Duncan took a breath and went on, deciding there was no time like now to start the other part of his plan. "But tonight, I want you to come to the main hall after the evening meal. My father likes stories and I think would like to hear the ones you know."
"I would be honored," Matthew answered. "Will you be there as well? I...sometimes I get nervous in front of an audience."
This was better than Duncan could have hoped. Matthew needed him there for support. He thought he'd felt it, the start of a bond growing between them, and this was evidence that Matthew felt it too. "Of course I'll be there. I would not let you face my father without me, but you should not fear him. He may appear gruff, but he is a good man and a kind Laird."
The restless movement of the men at arms caught Duncan's attention, and he sighed. "I think we must go back. If I do not keep to my duties, the kindly Laird will have my hide." He stood and reached a hand to draw Matthew to his feet. His breath caught as Matthew stood, his face mere inches from Duncan's. With an effort, Duncan turned away, moving to the tethered horses. He wanted to be able to touch Matthew, to kiss him, but not in full view of the guards. He would have to find them another place for their lessons, one where the men could be near, but not watching.
Duncan spent the rest of his day attending to his duties, a corner of his mind occupied with wondering which tale Matthew would tell for Ian and Mary that evening and with deciding on the new place for their lessons. The time seemed to drag on, the evening meal taking forever before they retired to the main hall for conversation and entertainment. Matthew was waiting for them, sitting on the hearth, but stood quickly when they entered.
"Relax, Matthew. You may sit if you like." Duncan turned to Ian. "Father, Matthew is a story teller in addition to his other skills. I have asked him to entertain us with a tale or two."
Ian took his place in a large chair near the fireplace, his wife at his right hand, then looked from Matthew to Duncan. "It seems you have quite a find here. So many talents in one young man." He turned his attention back to Matthew. "What will you regale us with tonight?"
Matthew glanced quickly at Duncan, who smiled reassuringly. It was true that Ian was showing his gruff side tonight. "M'lord, I thought to tell a simple tale of adventure and heroism." At Ian's curt nod, Matthew told the tale that had enthralled Duncan after their first lesson, but this telling was more detailed, and to Duncan it almost sounded like an entirely new story.
Watching his father and mother as Matthew spoke, Duncan was pleased to see the smile on Mary's face. Clearly his mother was enjoying the story. His father was more reserved, but finally his features relaxed and a little smile warmed his face. Perhaps this would work. If his parents came to like Matthew, perhaps all thoughts of an alliance with Murdoch and Cassandra could be banished.
When the story was over, Ian dismissed the young man, then looked Duncan in the eyes. "You say he does accounts as well?"
"Yes, Father. On his first day with the steward he saved us from being cheated by one of the merchants." Duncan shifted uncomfortably under his father's scrutiny.
Ian nodded. "Then it was a wise decision to give him a place in our service. Not only is he easy to look upon, he has talents that will serve the keep well." Ian smiled at Duncan. "You are becoming a proper Laird for this manor."
Duncan returned his smile, but inside his heart sank. He had not intended to present Matthew as a prize servant, rather as a possible choice to stand by his side. But all his father seemed to see was another useful body and mind that could do his bidding. He would have to find a way to show his father how much more Matthew was.
That night, just as he was to retire, Duncan heard a soft knock at his door which opened to reveal Mary MacLeod. "Son, I would speak to you."
"Of course, Mother." He followed Mary to the chair near the fire, where she sat, motioning him to join her. Duncan knelt beside his mother, leaning his head against her lap as they had done many times while he grew up in this castle.
"Duncan, do not think too harshly of your father. He is greatly concerned that he must find a way to end the feud before more die. It clouds his thoughts and he does not see how you feel about young Matthew."
"Hush. Just listen." Mary's hand on Duncan's head comforted him as she spoke. "While I have only been home a day, I have heard the gossip and seen how you look at the young man. I understand how you feel, and that you think no other course would suit you. But you must understand one thing. Not everyone can be as fortunate as your father and I have been. Many loveless matches are made to keep peace or advance wealth. It is the way of our times. I would not wish it for you, but you must know that it could be the only way to end the years of bloodshed."
Duncan sat quietly for some moments before answering. "I do understand, Mother. But that only makes it so much more complicated. I do not want to abdicate my duty, but neither do I want to betray the dictates of my heart."
"It is never easy. As the son of the Laird, your life is not truly your own." Duncan got to his feet as Mary rose from the chair. "I'll take my leave of you now, you have much to consider."
"Aye, Mother, that I have." Duncan closed the door behind her, then threw himself onto his bed. He could not sleep, his mind so disturbed by the many thoughts racing through it. One thing seemed clear to him, that he had to find an answer that did not include the loss of Matthew.
The next morning as they rode out for their lesson, Duncan turned to go a different direction, leading the way to a small stream which he followed a short distance until it took a turn. At the bend in the stream was a clearing, hidden from view by some large rocks. Duncan directed the men at arms to take position a short distance away where they could be roused by a shout, but not observe what went on in the clearing.
Their horses tethered, Duncan set to Matthew's lesson with the sword, today wanting to teach him some complex combinations. Matthew did not take to them as quickly as he had the earlier lessons, so to demonstrate Duncan stood close behind him, guiding Matthew's hand with his own.
The closeness of Matthew to him, the heat of his body as he guided hand and sword was almost his undoing. He stopped and stood, breathing in deeply, taking the scent of Matthew into his nostrils, wanting to memorize it all. He bent his head, moving his face close to Matthew's neck, needing to touch the warm ivory of the young man's skin. Duncan nuzzled him softly, lipping gently against Matthew's silken flesh.
"Duncan?" Matthew's voice was a soft whisper. "Is this a form of defense we have not yet discussed?" The lilt of humor in his tone drew a soft laugh from Duncan.
"No, Matthew. Not a defense. I fear there is no defense to the spell I find myself under." He turned Matthew toward him, holding Matthew's face in his hands. "Not that I wish to be free of it." He kissed Matthew softly on the lips, then released him. "But if we don't return to our lessons now, I doubt we would get back to them for a very long time."
"Then perhaps it is wise that we return to them." There was regret in Matthew's voice, but Duncan thought he also heard a small portion of relief at not being pressured to show an affection he might not yet feel. This confused him, as he was sure there was something growing between them. Love was such a puzzle! Lust was simple, just take the object of your desire to a romantic spot and they were yours. Let a little coin change hands and all were happy. But love...how would he ever find if Matthew could give back to him what he was feeling for the beautiful youth?
Duncan went to his horse to retrieve his cloak and reached into the bag that hung from his saddle, pulling out a quill and ink and paper. "Put aside the sword, now it's your turn to be the teacher." He handed the supplies to Matthew. "I got these from the steward. I hope they're what you need to show me the letters."
"These will be fine. Shall we sit by the fire while I show you?" They sat in the shelter of the rocks, near the small fire they had built earlier. Matthew took the first sheet of paper and wrote on it. "This is what I showed you yesterday. This says Duncan MacLeod." He took another sheet of paper and wrote many separate symbols on it. "And these are the alphabet. They are the building blocks that make words." Duncan frowned. There were so many. How would he ever learn them all? "Here. Let's start with the first few." He wrote a few letters on another page, then handed Duncan the quill. "See if you can copy those."
Duncan stared at the quill, turning it in his hand. The only time he'd ever held one were the few rare occasions when the master of the keep had to make his mark as witness to a business contract. He was relieved when Matthew's fingers folded around his, moving the instrument into the correct position.
"Like this." Slowly, Matthew guided Duncan's hand in the shape of the first letter. Then he took his hand off Duncan's. "Try it yourself." A grin split Duncan's face as he managed a reasonable copy of the first letter on the page. His second attempt was better than the first, and by the time he got across the page, the quill felt comfortable in his hand and the letters were taking the shape he wanted to see. He felt like the door had opened to a whole new world for him. Soon he would know all the letters and understand how they became words.
A week of lessons later and Matthew's sword skill was to a point where he and Duncan were sparring regularly. His natural grace had let him develop a style of his own that Duncan was sure would stand him in good stead were he to face any challenges. At the same time, Duncan's skill with the quill and paper had progressed to include his own name and some short words, and his ability to sound out words in books was improving every day.
The time they spent together only deepened the bond that Duncan felt building between them. There would be moments during their lessons when a look or a touch would translate itself into a kiss or embrace. The first time that Matthew initiated such a thing, Duncan thought he would explode. It had happened! He was in love and the one he loved could return the feeling. Sometimes, after finishing their lessons, they would walk along the stream together. They would stop and look at the minnows or the water worn pebbles along the bank. Matthew seemed especially taken with the colored pebbles, and Duncan had surreptitiously pocketed the stones that Matthew had liked the best.
The answer to what to do with the pebbles came on the day that the horsemaster told him that Matthew's horse was now sound and needed exercise. Duncan had the sorrel gelding and his own favorite bay saddled for them to ride out on that day. They had taken a different route to the stream, stopping for a while to let the horses graze in the meadow. Duncan and Matthew sat side by side as they watched the horses enjoy the tall grass.
Duncan wondered at the soft look on Matthew's face as he watched the horses. "You are very fond of that horse."
Matthew looked at him with a little smile. "There have been times when the only friend I had was the horse I rode. I haven't had that one very long, but he is like those others. Brave and loyal and a good listener."
Duncan nodded, thinking of the number of times he'd shared his most difficult problems with his friend, the bay. As he looked at Matthew, he realized that if they were fortunate, neither one of them would be lacking in someone to share confidences with for a very long time. He also knew there were things to be settled with his father before he could say what he wanted to Matthew, but perhaps he could make a symbol of what they shared.
As they sat, Duncan had been picking long blades of grass, now he reached for Matthew's hand, wrapping a few of them around his wrist and tying a small knot in them. One of the strands broke free, and Duncan pocketed it carefully. He still had the small stones in his pocket along with some fine strands of leather.
"Perhaps we should catch them and go on with today's lessons," Duncan said, standing and moving toward the horses. Matthew joined him, and before long, they were hidden again in their clearing. Duncan had begun to think of it as their private place, somewhere they could go and shed all the problems of station and duty, simply to be who they were and share the knowledge they had.
After their usual practice at sword work and letters, Duncan asked Matthew to read to him. "Since we've started lessons, I haven't had the pleasure of hearing you tell a story. I miss it."
"I have one here you should enjoy," Matthew answered with a smile. He began a tale of ocean voyages and the challenges faced by intrepid sailors. As he read, Duncan went to where the horses were tethered and took some long strands from each animal's tail, then returned to sit and listen. While the story unfolded, Duncan worked quietly with the materials he had, the hair, leather and small stones, and he was finished by the time Matthew had completed the story.
"I fear this story wasn't as interesting to you as I would have hoped." Matthew spoke softly as he closed the book and set it aside. "You seem distracted by what you're working on."
"Not at all." Duncan moved closer and took Matthew's left hand. "The story was wonderful. But what I was doing was this." He tied a braid around Matthew's wrist that was the perfect length to fit him. "A sign of our friendship, made with the stones you liked from the stream and hair from our favorite horse's tails, joined together in a knot. I made one for each of us." He held the second one out to Matthew almost shyly. "Will you tie this on for me?"
Matthew took the braid, wrapping it carefully around Duncan's wrist and tying it securely. "No one has ever shared a gift like this with me. I don't know what to say."
"Then say nothing. Come here." Duncan pulled him close and kissed him, then just held him in a gentle embrace for a long time. He felt sure that Matthew understood the true meaning of the bands for Duncan, and hoped the gesture was a welcome one. As Matthew lay in his arms, holding himself close to Duncan, he was more and more sure that Matthew returned his love.