|Swords at Sunset
A Highlander Romance Novella
by Ashlyn Donnchaid and Maygra deRhema
That day, when they returned to the castle, Liam was waiting for Duncan in the courtyard. "M'lord, your father wishes to speak with you. He is in his study."
"Thank you, Liam." As he parted from Matthew, he couldn't answer the young man's questioning look with anything other than a shrug.
He went quickly to Ian's study and knocked before entering. "You wished to see me, Father?"
"That I did." Ian was standing, staring out over the manor farmlands. "Have you given any thought to what we talked about?"
Duncan took a deep breath before answering his father. "I cannot consider what we discussed. I have something more important that has happened to me. I have fallen in love." There, he'd said it. Now his father couldn't force him into a loveless match, not knowing his heart was taken by another.
"And who is it who has managed to steal your heart? Some lovely of the proper station, I hope." Ian's reply caused Duncan some small trepidation. He was not sure how his father would accept his chosen one.
"To me, Father, he is the most worthy man I have known. It is Matthew."
Ian was silent for some moments before he spoke again. "Tell me I have misheard you, Duncan. Tell me you did not say it was Matthew."
Duncan moved to face his father and look straight into the gray eyes. "I cannot say that you misheard, for it would be a lie. I did not plan it to happen, but it is Matthew I have lost my heart and soul to."
A longer silence passed, and when Ian spoke again, it was as the Laird and master of the lands, working to make his heir understand his place in the world.
"He is a...I will cast no aspersions upon young Matthew's name or reputation, my son. He is gentle and well spoken but he is still a servant. A serf. Bed him if you must and we will make reparation for his honor but he is not...suitable to hold these lands as your consort. You must know this," Ian said as gently as he could, watching his son's face.
"I do not know it, Father!" Duncan said. "There is no need to find a consort for heirs, nor could I! I am your last heir unless I adopt a son of my own. But if I am to rule these lands when you are gone, should not a consort whose company pleasures me be more important than his station?"
"Not if you are to rule these lands with any hope of respect!" Ian shot back. "To raise a commoner above his station is to incite others to aspirations they cannot achieve! You are the MacLeod heir, Duncan! Even more than your own...pleasure...you have been brought up to know what that means! Other Lairds will not deal decently or even civilly with a lord who has taken a commoner to consort...they would not tolerate such a thing even were you to take a wife! An alliance with the son of another lord might be accepted were he to take a surrogate to mother heirs but you cannot offer even that. Duncan," he lowered his voice at the stony set to his son's face. "It is nothing against Matthew but I cannot countenance this match. Nor will it be ratified without my approval. If you must, take a tolerant wife and keep Matthew..." Ian MacLeod blushed to the roots of his graying hair. "A place can be made for him here, if needs be and he is willing."
"And have him laughed at and scorned for being catamite to the Laird? You cannot believe I would do such a thing!" Duncan said, shocked.
"No, no," Ian said more gently, sitting down wearily. "Not if you love him as you say you do. If you do this thing...pursue it...even after I am dead, if this is truly more than the passion of youth, you will be challenged by every yearning lordling in the highlands. Tell me you think your peers will be tolerant of such a match?"
Duncan could not for he knew his father's words to be true no matter how ugly they sounded, but with his father's support, he might yet be able to face down the nay-sayers until Matthew was accepted as his legitimate partner. Without Ian's support it would be nearly impossible. He would be taken for a callow, impetuous youth who cared not at all for his duty and only for himself. The very thought of letting Matthew slip away from him was almost too horrible to contemplate, though. Already his mind was slipping to who would stand heir in his stead should he abdicate his inheritance. Two young cousins, both boys, and an Uncle who was older than Ian already. There might be others but they were distant and had not been raised to oversee such a trust as the MacLeod clan and lands.
"And have you talked to Matthew about this?" Ian pressed. "Tell me you have not made promises to him in the heat of passion that would raise his hopes."
"No..." Duncan said, flinging himself into a chair by the fire, face growing ruddy as he blushed as well. "I've not bedded him," he admitted somewhat sullenly.
"What?" Ian MacLeod demanded, almost laughing except he saw there was far more to his son's feelings for this youth than he had surmised. No fleeting passion then, but it changed nothing.
"He offered..." Duncan said softly, staring moodily into the flames. "A debt to pay for my saving his life. Which I didn't. He has been...life has not been kind to him, Father. I will not take what little honor and self-respect he has without returning to him something of equal worth. And it is more than the mere pleasure and comfort of his body I want, Father."
Ian remained silent, heart aching for his son. Smitten or in love, it mattered not. His son's affections were deeply tangled in this soft spoken youth with the remarkable eyes. Better for Duncan if the youth were gone, his honor intact and something in his pocket to make his life easier. That much Ian could arrange but he said nothing of his thoughts to his son.
"Go to bed, Duncan. I will think on what you have said but I stand by my words. Your intentions do both you and me honor. I am proud of you, my son, for not being selfish or greedy as some in your station would be," Ian said fondly and got a faint smile from his son as he rose.
"As you wish, Father, but we will speak of this again," Duncan said earnestly but accepted the hug his father offered.
"Good night. If you see Liam, send him to me please," Ian said almost as an afterthought as Duncan opened the door. His heir nodded and left him.
Hot tears burned his eyes as he made his way blindly through the corridors. He knew there were responsibilities with his position as heir, but for his father to care more for the land than his son's feelings was tantamount to driving a stake through his breast. In his mind he understood, but it was not his mind that was in love. Finally a hand on his arm stopped him and the voice that spoke was familiar.
"Are you ill, m'lord?" Liam's gentle voice asked.
"No." Duncan could barely whisper. "My father wishes to see you. Go to him now." Duncan broke away from Liam's concerned grip and found his way to his chambers without meeting anyone else on his way. Once there, he threw himself in his chair, unable to think or face what his father had said. The one thing he knew was that he would not give up Matthew. Whatever it took, he would find a way to have that man in his life. He ran his fingers over and over the braid on his wrist as if it were his only lifeline to his beloved.
Liam went quickly to Ian's study. It would not do well to keep the master waiting. He rapped on the door, then entered to find Ian facing the small window looking over his lands. He turned as Liam came in.
"My son tells me he is in love with a servant," Ian began without preamble. "Why did you not keep me informed of what was transpiring between the two?"
"M'lord, I knew he had not bedded Matthew. I felt it was an infatuation as he taught the young man sword work and listened to him read stories." Liam deliberately withheld his suspicion that Matthew was Immortal, feeling it would only heighten Ian's concern.
"And do you now think this is something that will pass?"
Liam hated lying to the Laird, but his friendship for Duncan was strong and his loyalties lay there. "Perhaps it may, given some time. Matthew is new and different, and Duncan may be intrigued by that. Until he makes to take him as consort, is there any real harm in letting nature take its course?"
At that, Ian looked thoughtful. "If this will end on its own, there is no harm. However, if it does not, steps may have to be taken. Do you think Matthew could be persuaded by sufficient coin in his pocket that what he does is not in Duncan's best interest?"
"M'lord, most men can be persuaded of many things, should sufficient coin change hands."
Ian nodded. "Should this become necessary, I will count on your assistance."
"As you wish, m'lord." Liam made a small bow, then left the study, wondering as he went if it would be possible to convince Matthew that it was not in Duncan's best interest to make a match with someone of lesser station. He doubted that money alone would be enough to convince the young man. He had seen the looks shared by Duncan and Matthew on many occasions, and it did not look like a passing fancy to him.
Late that night, after most of the household had gone to bed, Duncan followed the corridors to the below stairs area where Matthew's quarters were. This was the first time he had visited him in these rooms, but felt the need to speak to him sufficient to warrant such an intrusion. His quiet knock on the door was answered quickly, and Matthew swung the door wide when he saw who his visitor was.
"Forgive my intrusion at this late hour, but I felt this could not wait until tomorrow." Duncan was sure he had roused Matthew from sleep. He was dressed only in a long shirt and his feet and legs were bare, but Duncan noted with pleasure that the braid was still on his wrist.
"It is no intrusion. Come in." Matthew closed the door behind him and gestured Duncan into the small room. Servant's chambers had only enough room for a bed and small chest for their few belongings. There was no chair, nor did Duncan feel like sitting, so he paced in what small area there was.
"I spoke with my father," he began. "He is unsure about our friendship. I fear that to ease his mind, we must curtail our morning rides."
Nodding, Matthew sat on the end of his bed. "I will be disappointed to end our lessons."
"It will not be an end to our time together." Duncan moved to take the liberty of sitting next to Matthew on the bed, waiting a moment for any objection and getting none, took Matthew's hand. "I do not like the idea of having to hide from my father, but until he understands, I know no other options." He turned to look into the deep pools of Matthew's eyes. "But neither will I make you feel as a common whore, sneaking about to meet with the Laird's son."
"Nothing you could do would make me feel common," Matthew told him softly. A long fingered hand slid along the side of Duncan's face, turning his lips to meet Matthew's in a gentle kiss. "I do not like deceit any more than you do, but if it is needed for a time to ease your father's mind, I will manage."
"I had hoped that would be your answer."
"What..." Matthew began, then hesitated, "...what else did your father say?"
Duncan shifted uneasily. "What do you mean?"
"Only this. We both know that the laird of the manor can take any servant to his bed and the only result will be a small bit of gossip. Your father must have some other concerns that brought you here tonight."
"It is true," Duncan sighed. "He has been talking to Murdoch about an alliance to end the feud. An alliance by marriage."
"Cassandra." Matthew said the name as if it were a curse.
"Yes, but what do you know of her?" Duncan looked into Matthew's eyes, but saw nothing. Matthew's face was likewise kept impassive.
"Only what I have heard in the castle." Matthew sat thoughtfully for a moment. "Tell me more of the history of the MacLeods and the MacAians and Murdoch."
"There isn't much to tell. Many years ago, the MacLeods and the MacAians were part of the same clan. These lands were kept jointly until, as the story goes, a MacLeod married a MacAian and bore twin boys. Each son was given a share of the lands to oversee, although the people were still treated as if it were a single manor. Then Murdoch came along, married the MacAian daughter and took control when the family died."
Matthew nodded. "And if it could be shown that there was foul play in the death of the MacAian family?"
"How could that be done? All the family is dead."
"Did you not mention a cousin? One who was away at the time?"
"There was, but he was killed, so the story goes, by highwaymen." Now Duncan turned to look directly at Matthew. "But why are you asking these things?"
"The story intrigued me when you first told it." Matthew stared at his hands for a moment. "If it should be found that the cousin is not dead, would there be anyone who could recognize him?"
Duncan frowned. "I don't see how. It was several years past that it happened, and the cousin was away for many years before that. I doubt there would be servants left who would have known him. But you should not let this concern you. This is up to me to find a solution."
He slipped his arm around Matthew's waist, turning again to meet those sweet lips. Duncan deepened the kiss, exploring gently with his tongue, touching teeth and lips and finally meeting Matthew's own tongue. With their mouths joined, Duncan wanted to feel more of Matthew's body against his own, and slowly started to draw Matthew down on the bed with him.
As the lean body in his arms stiffened, Duncan stopped. "Have no fear of me, Matthew. I will not ask anything of you that you are not fully prepared to give." He stroked the side of Matthew's face, combing his fingers into his silky soft hair. "Tonight I only wish to taste you and hold you against me." Matthew relaxed and Duncan lowered them both to the bed, stretching out in order to let his whole body feel the length of Matthew's close to him. Touching that lithe form worked to drive the demons of his father's doubt out of Duncan's mind, letting him fold his arms around Matthew, raining soft kisses on his face and lips.
Nestled in the warmth and comfort of Matthew's arms, Duncan let his fears of losing his love evaporate as he nuzzled deeply into Matthew's neck, breathing in the strong masculine scent. He closed his eyes and held on to Matthew, clearing his mind of everything but how right it felt to be lying there with him. Matthew's hands drew soothing patterns on his back and shoulders, easing more of the tension from Duncan's body.
It was in this position that Duncan found himself when he woke in the pre-dawn hours. Matthew's hands were still moving slowly over his back, but stopped when he stretched up and kissed him softly. "Why did you not wake me? I should not have stayed here all night."
"You seemed so comfortable I didn't want to disturb you." Matthew's fingers slipped into Duncan's thick dark hair. "And I would not be honest if I said I did not like having you here. But should it be known that you spent the night in a servant's quarters, it would not do either of us any benefit."
"It is true that we must be more careful until my father comes to understand." Duncan kissed Matthew again, then sat up on the bed. "Meet me in the stables for our sword work. There is an open area behind where we should not be disturbed." He stood, then turned and brushed his lips against Matthew's one last time. "Until then."
Their lessons went on as before, but each day Duncan would search out more hidden spots for them to meet, hoping to keep at least some of the meetings from his father's knowledge. He also directed more of his energy to finding a solution to the feud over the water and land, for as long as that was going on, the dreadful possibility of a forced match with Murdoch's daughter loomed before him.
News of the latest of Murdoch's escalation of the feud came riding in one morning with Liam. Hurrying to find Ian, Liam knew this information would likely cause him to become involved in convincing Matthew to leave.
He found the Laird in his chambers. "My lord, forgive this early hour, but word has come that Murdoch had diverted one of the streams to flood his fields. The men have dismantled the dam, but Murdoch's intentions are clear."
Ian cursed softly. "They are indeed." He rubbed his face with the palms of his hands. "Is my son still seeing the servant?"
Liam could see no way to avoid the direct question. "He is, m'lord. Their meetings are more circumspect, but have not ceased."
"Then the time has come to persuade him to leave." Ian reached into a chest, pulling out a pouch heavy with coin. "Take this and go talk to Matthew. I need Duncan's mind free of encumbrances while we negotiate with Murdoch. He needs to remember his responsibilities to this keep."
Liam took the pouch, weighing it in his hand. "I will do what I can, m'lord." He turned and left, making his way to the servant's quarters, sure he would still find Matthew there.
The door opened to his knock. "A moment of your time, Matthew." Liam stepped inside and closed the door behind him. "First, you must know that I am as loyal to Duncan as any man. But I am here at Master Ian's behest." He paused a moment, searching for the best way to say this. "You are aware of the feud with Murdoch." Matthew nodded. "Duncan is aware that the only end to it can be had in an alliance by marriage with Murdoch's daughter. Because of his feelings for you, he has refused to consider it. His father is further concerned because of the difference in your stations. Even were Duncan truly free to consider his own choices, to take a consort of a lesser station would diminish him in the eyes of his peers. He would not be able to rule these lands with the respect he needs and deserves."
Matthew had dropped his eyes and was fingering the braid on his wrist. Liam reached out and touched the braid. "Duncan made this, did he not?" Matthew nodded, and Liam went on softly. "And he wears one on his own wrist." Liam raised a hand to Matthew's shoulder. "I was sent here to try to persuade you to leave by giving you this." He handed Matthew the pouch. "I know that coins will not change your mind. Can you find it in yourself to do what is best for Duncan?"
"I think I knew this day would come. I will free Duncan to his responsibilities. I will leave today." Matthew handed the pouch back to Liam. "I do not need this to be convinced."
Liam refused to take the pouch. "You may need this for yourself. Take it and find a place you can live happily."
"Without Duncan, I fear there is no such place, but I will try."
"Matthew, I truly wish this were another time and place, for you are a good man and deserve better than this. God speed and keep you safe." Liam left as Matthew started packing his meager belongings.
Matthew worked quickly, hoping to get to the stable and saddle his horse and be gone before Duncan arrived there for their morning lesson. He had his horse bridled when he heard the door open and knew it was Duncan. He dropped his head against the horse's neck, having hoped to avoid this meeting.
Duncan walked into the barn, a smile on his lips as it always was when he went to meet Matthew. When he found the young man in the stall with his horse, a satchel at his feet, cold fear gripped him.
"Matthew," Duncan said and the man stopped, hesitating for a moment, looking as if he might flee, but he turned slowly.
"My Lord," he said softly, his face still but Duncan could not tear his gaze away from Matthew's eyes, the gold-green coloring was intense, bright, fear and regret blending with passion. That he was planning to leave, Duncan had no doubt. But why? Had he misread the signs? Was he so wrong in his belief that Matthew loved him? That could not be. The words that had been said and the times they spent together were filled with love. But if that were true, why would Matthew leave? Was it that Duncan had not fully showed him the depth of his feelings? If that were the case, Duncan would hold back no longer. He gripped Matthew's arms and pulled the man forward. Matthew turned his head and Duncan found his lips brushing along the smooth flesh of the other man's jaw but he would not be deterred.
Matthew did not demur nor try to pull away, but his body was taut and tense, a tremor racing through the slender frame as Duncan continued to assault his flesh. Duncan let his hands slide upward, gently caressing Matthew's arms and coming to frame his throat, turning his head.
"Please, my lord, don't," Matthew whispered, the beautiful eyes closing as Duncan's lips brushed across his.
"You cannot deny you feel the same as I do," Duncan said. "That you want me as much as I want you."
"This cannot work, my lord, please..."
"Say my name," Duncan said against his mouth. "Use my name and tell me you don't want me. That you don't love me," his breath fanned warmly and sweetly across Matthew's face. "Say that with your eyes open and using my name and I will leave."
He waited, his breath stifled in his lungs, his heart like to burst in his chest if he were wrong. Finally the eyes opened, the morning light making the large eyes shine more gold than green. God in heaven, he was so beautiful! Matthew's tongue came out to moisten his lips and it was all Duncan could do not to capture that small pink escapee to kiss Matthew until they were both senseless.
"Say it," Duncan murmured, sliding his hand down Matthew's chest, feeling the muscles beneath his hands quiver.
"Duncan," his name fell from Matthew's lips in a whisper. "I...I cannot love you. You are the son of Lord MacLeod. I am no more than a servant."
"Say it," Duncan murmured again. "Say, 'I don't love you, Duncan. I do not want you.' Look at me and say it if that is what you feel."
"I...I do not...." Matthew began, his eyes fixed on Duncan's, his chest heaving as he sought for air. He could lie, he knew. He could tell one lie, but not both. Which to surrender to? He wanted Duncan and he loved him as desperately, as completely as he had ever loved or wanted anything in his life. But loving Duncan could only destroy them both.
To have this beautiful passionate man cast out from his clan, from his home, from the position he deserved...it was too much. For Duncan was offering to shed it all, to walk away from all of it for three little words.
Matthew took a deep breath, steadying his resolve. This would hurt Duncan but not destroy him... "I want you, Duncan MacLeod, but I do not love you," he said it and saw the shock in Duncan's eyes, saw some of the fire there dim, but it did not go out.
"You don't..." Duncan struggled with the words. How could he have misread Matthew's feelings so thoroughly? The looks, the shy fleeting touches, the laughter that came so easily between them. Want, not love. To Duncan they were inseparable, hand in hand this desire and passion.
Not so for the object of his affections, obviously.
But Matthew did want him. There was no denying that in the press of the slim body against his own. Duncan wanted more...he wanted Matthew to love him, to promise to remain by his side, to be there as they ruled over his father's lands for the decades to come. It was his dream, his hopes to have this beautiful, intelligent, witty man beside him forever.
His grief washed over him like the tide as he met those eyes, his fingers brushing lightly over the moist and trembling lips. "Then if you want me, you shall have me and I, you," Duncan said finally, let his grief give way to something more bearable, to anger and disappointment. He allowed Matthew no further words, no protests, his kiss coming with the swiftness of a winter storm upon the vulnerable mouth. He pressed Matthew back against the wall of the stable, refusing to hear the small sounds of protest, of denial.
His tongue gained entry into the sweet mouth and heat raced through him at the daring hunt and capture of tongues, of lips and taste. Finally the mouth yielded with a moan and he felt Matthew tremble violently at Duncan's invasion, the capture no less sweet for its unwilling start. Matthew's hands came up, those graceful, long fingered hands fluttered over his face, across his cheeks and down his neck. They probed the tanned flesh then slipped into the darker hair seeking and finding the clasp that held those locks prisoner.
Duncan caught his hands and drew him deeper into the stable, into a near dim stall where fresh hay waited to be distributed, his cloak spread to provide protection from the rough texture of the straw.
Pale skin yielded under the rough pressure of Duncan's hands as he pulled the tunic back, exposing the smooth, rounded shoulders. He laid kisses along the pale skin, tracing the path his fingers had taken, then his lips pressed to the slender throat. Matthew tilted his head back, his hands skimming along Duncan's back in a soothing massage that both calmed him and begged for more.
Matthew closed his eyes as Duncan pressed close but the Scot caught his chin tenderly, "Open your eyes, my love. I want to see your eyes."
Slowly the thick lashes lifted and Duncan was lost. He pressed deeper, his manhood firm but trembling, its weeping easing the way as he sought entry into the tight hot passage. Flesh yielded to flesh, Matthew's breath catching in his throat as Duncan moved within him. The gold-green eyes grew brighter, the lips parting with a soft moan of pleasure and Duncan could stand no more. He covered the open mouth, pressing his entry there as Matthew's body finally yielded and allowed entry, the slender form arching against the press of Duncan's body, increasing the heat between them. Matthew's hand cupped his buttocks, pulling, his thighs parting as he sought to invite his lover closer, to complete the joining of their bodies. He gasped against Duncan's mouth in pleasure as the Scot's hand closed gently around the hardening rise of his sex, pulling Duncan closer still to bury his cry against the brawny shoulder.
The heat between them increased, Matthew's moans becoming an almost constant music in Duncan's ears as his body slid faster and more easily into his lover's. Pressure around his cock, the thrum and pound of their bodies meeting with each sure thrust gave him such a feeling of possession as Matthew held onto him. The spell was all Matthew's, Duncan feeling as though his own body were built and formed to be joined with the strong, slender form beneath him. His grip tightened and released around Matthew's erection as Matthew's body tightened around Duncan's in the blinding involuntary rush toward release. It came almost too soon for both of them as Duncan felt Matthew clench around him, gripping him tightly enough to bruise, then the heavy fall of his lover's seed covered his hand, the scent of it and slick warmth urging him to his own release as Matthew spasmed in the throes of their passion.
Duncan's body sang with the joy of their union, his every move answered perfectly by the man in his arms. This couldn't be the end of what they had, feelings like this could only be a beginning. Desperate to make Matthew share what he was feeling, needing him to find a reason to stay, Duncan held him close as he pressed himself deeply into Matthew's heat. His arm around Matthew's body, Duncan plunged his yearning flesh into Matthew's welcoming center, carrying them both on to dizzying heights of passion.
Matthew arched away from him, impaling himself harshly on Duncan's cock as the Laird's son surrendered his essence into the body that possessed him. Anxious whinnies filled the stable as the horses reacted to the cries of their completion, calming as their shouts quieted to become harsh breathing. Duncan couldn't speak. In all his fantasies he hadn't imagined anything as wonderful as what they had just experienced. He touched his fingertips to Matthew's lips, then slowly caressed his cheek and forehead, watching the play of gold and green in the depths of his love's eyes. He was exhausted and replete, dropping heavily onto Matthew's chest, aware his weight might crush his lover but unable to halt his fall and blissfully surprised when Matthew's arms caught him and held him, their bodies still joined.
Matthew's heart was pounding beneath his ear, his seed warming the skin between them. His fingers, those beautiful, graceful fingers threaded through Duncan's hair soothing and caressing, until Duncan shifted, lifting some of his weight and parting them, hearing Matthew hiss.
"I'm sorry," Duncan whispered, stricken. "I didn't...I never meant to hurt you..."
"I'm not that fragile, Duncan...it is the loss of you that..." Matthew fell silent, suddenly releasing Duncan and rolling away, gathering his tunic to wipe at his skin, his back to Duncan, strong and straight. Duncan reached out to touch a pale shoulder and felt Matthew stiffen beneath his touch. He tried to rub the shoulder and Matthew pulled away, staring at the tunic in his hands for a moment before straightening it and slipping it over his head.
It was the only one he had, Duncan realized, ashamed and knowing he might have shattered something precious between them. Had he not promised he would not demand more of Matthew than he had to give? Yet he had, for all that Matthew had responded to his touches. He had left him with nothing save a tunic clearly showing the stains of his shame and a worthless bracelet of leather and riverstones. Matthew rose to his feet, never turning. "If my lord requires nothing else of me?" Matthew whispered.
"Where will you go? Do you have money--" Duncan could have bitten his tongue off as the body seemed to curl in on itself.
"I have sufficient for my needs," Matthew said and waited.
"I...I don't want you to leave," Duncan said.
Methos dared not turn around. One look into those dark eyes and he would be forever lost. He would drag Duncan down to his own reduced level rather than let him go. How to tell this man, that except for the last few minutes between them, nearly everything else had been a lie? He had no proof, no way to prove his claim. His weeks at the castle and on the lands had uncovered no one who recognized him nor had ever seen MacAian's "cousin." There was no one to back up his claim and no way to prove foul murder.
Even if he did claim it, what would he gain? He had never meant to fall in love. It had been madness, yet had come so easily to his heart, an organ he thought forever hardened during the past four years of misery and shame.
Something else he could not bring to Duncan's life. Bad enough for the Laird's son to have fallen in love with a commoner -- for without proof of his claim to the MacAian lands, Matthew was no more than that -- but to bring to Duncan the shame of having bedded a common whore... He could not do it. Yet, he could not leave with out knowing...without some small spark of hope.
"M'lord need only command..." he said, prayers clashing against one another as he waited. Duncan was silent and Matthew closed his eyes briefly, imprinting the feel and scent and sight of Duncan MacLeod on his mind forever before moving away.
Duncan could command Matthew to stay, but for what purpose? His father would not agree and if he forced Matthew to stay, he would become all the things, bear all the shame Duncan had tried to avoid.
Duncan sat dumbly as he watched blankets and saddle put on the horse's back, skillful hands quickly fastening and adjusting girth and breastplate. This couldn't be happening. Not after everything they'd done, everything they'd said to each other. Matthew didn't look back as he mounted his horse and rode out of the stable. Duncan heard the horse break into a ground covering canter as soon as it was outside the stable doors. Still he sat, the emptiness in his soul turning into a cold lump inside him.
Matthew knew he had no choice. What Liam had said to him was true. For Duncan's sake he must leave. He had almost refused the offering of money, but practicality won and he had stowed the coins in the bottom of his pack. He hadn't even counted it for fear of opening the pouch and finding what he was sure had to be thirty pieces of silver. After all, that was the proper rate for betrayal of one who loved you.
He rode unseeing, letting the horse follow the road, finally pulling the animal down to a walk when he was sure he was out of sight of the MacLeod castle. He had no idea where he would go, but north seemed as good a direction as any. The road wound in and out of the edge of the forest, sometimes obscured by the trees, sometimes in the open meadow. None of it mattered to him. He would ride where it took him and let the fates dictate his future. Had he been thinking clearly, he would have remembered the dangers that could lurk in the dense growth and been more alert.
Coming upon a tree fallen across the road, he pulled to a stop, looking for the best way around it. All too late he heard a small rustling in the brush nearby.
A sudden blow across his back sent Matthew tumbling from his horse. He had sensed nothing, but now, mind and body reeling under the assault, rough hands grabbing at him to hold him, he could feel the nearing presence of another Immortal...no...two. He was shoved onto his stomach, arms roughly bound behind him before he was hauled to his knees.
He heard lowered voices as they approached, a man and a woman. The woman brought her horse directly in front of him. "Well, well. What have we here?"
"Cassandra," he murmured and was cuffed harshly by one of his captors.
"You'll call her My Lady or Lady Cassandra," he was instructed.
"How thoroughly appropriate," Cassandra said. "I had no idea Duncan's catamite was of noble birth. Does he know? Of course not. You've no way of proving your claim. Or have you?"
"Who is he?" Kilbourne demanded, dismounting and raising a lantern to better see their captive's face.
"MacAian's cousin. Adopted. But his legitimate heir should his identity be known. He could displace my father." She looked pointedly at Matthew. "You are supposed to be dead."
"We can rectify that right now," Kilbourne said, drawing his sword.
"No! Wait. Let me think," Cassandra hissed sharply. "He has no way of proving his claim or he would have by now. But, if it is true that Duncan cares for him at all, we might be able to leverage the MacLeods into this marriage," she said with a cold, satisfied smile. "His freedom in exchange for Duncan's promise to marry me."
"He cares nothing for me else I would be with him," Methos said and was cuffed again.
"Perhaps. But you had best hope he does, little cousin. Or your life has no value to us at all."
"You would marry MacLeod?" Kilbourne said. "And what of us?"
Cassandra nudged her mount forward and laid one white hand along Kilbourne's cheek. "Ah, James, my love. Without the lands, what I hold is nothing. This is no different. It will be a marriage in name only. My favor has not changed."
Kilbourne caught her hand and kissed it fervently. "As you will, m'lady. Take him away and lock him up -- deep in the cellars."
"Wait! Duncan will need proof that we have him," Cassandra said. "Look for something in his bags that we can use."
"M'lady?" One of the men spoke up. "He wears a lover's knot on his wrist. Would that do?"
An almost feral grin lit Cassandra's face. "Perfectly. Give it to me." She waited while the braid was pulled off Matthew's wrist and handed to her. "So you say he cares not for you? Then who made you this?" She gestured to her men. "Take him now."
Watching as Matthew was taken away, she turned again to Kilbourne. "Our spies have delivered better than even they can know. This will be what we need to force the joining of the lands. After a time, we can arrange for an...accident...to befall Duncan." She turned her horse. "Hurry, James. We must tell Father it's time to arrange a meeting."
Within two days the meeting was arranged, to be held just outside the castle MacLeod. A table had been laid with food and wine, all the trappings of a civilized afternoon. Murdoch and Ian MacLeod had done most of the talking.
"You must understand, MacLeod," Murdoch was saying, "without water, none of the land is worth a thing."
"But diverting the water will only lay waste to other parts. Surely the water on your land can no longer be tainted." Ian stood and started pacing. "There is no point to joining the estates if the resources are not used wisely."
Murdoch tilted his head and smiled, but there was no humor in his eyes. "The most important thing would be the mutual security we would enjoy."
Ian understood the implied threat. Without the joining of the lands, the fighting and dying would continue. It had gone on too long. His heart went out to his son, knowing what he was asking of him, but none had found any other solution to the problem. "It is as you say. It would be to both our benefits if this alliance were to go forward. But I cannot decide this alone." He turned to his son. "Duncan, what say you to this?"
The eyes that looked at Ian were empty. "Father, I...I need to consider this. With your permission." He stood to leave, but found his way blocked by Cassandra.
"Walk with me a ways," Cassandra said sweetly and under the steady gaze of Murdoch and his father, Duncan offered Cassandra his arm and she led him to the garden. "You must know this alliance will bring peace," she purred.
"Will it? Cassandra, if your father dams the stream half the MacLeod lands will suffer the same fate as your own."
"Surely we can find a way to allow sufficient water to both estates, but I know the real reason you will not put your name to the marriage contract," she said more softly and tightened her grip on his arm, drawing him into an arbor where none could see. Without a word she reached into her scrip and withdrew a thin strap of braided leather and horsehair, bright stones cleverly woven into the leather. Duncan reached out to take it, almost dropping it when Cassandra released it to his grip. She took a step away from him, dark eyes meeting Duncan's stunned ones coldly.
"Yes, I have him. Safe, unharmed, but a prisoner. We thought him a serf trying to slip his servitude when we found him and a thief as well for he had more coin than we expected. Imagine our surprise to discover he is the self-same youth that had won the heart of the MacLeod's son, the one the gossips have still not tired of talking about."
"Let him go, Cassandra," Duncan said tightly, fingering the bracelet. "Let him go or I will muster all my father's forces against you."
"Do so and he will not live out the hour. Tell your father and he will not survive to see the sunrise," she said harshly. "The money in his scrip was, no doubt, from your own father -- to keep you from making a fool of yourself over this common slut," she said and then squeaked as Duncan grabbed her arms and shook her.
"He has done nothing to you! Let him go. He has no part in this!" Duncan said fiercely.
"Let him go? I think not. Rumor says he can read and write, quite the clerk, and my father has need of such to manage our stores and estates in their accounting. He has no paper declaring him a freed serf and your clan apparently has no more need of him," she said silkily. "I think we shall keep him. Besides, one of my guards tells me he knows the youth -- from a brothel in Liverpool. A worthy whore, by all reports. The winter is coming and my men will need to be diverted lest they chase off every serving wench and young manservant in the keep."
She smiled viciously as Duncan paled and released her. "You didn't know? How terribly shocking for you...well, then. All the more reason for you not to care for his fate," she said, watching him. The look on his face was priceless, almost full payment for every humiliation and rejection and slight he had handed her when the negotiations for their marriage first commenced. She needed his regard and sponsorship were she ever to take her destined place among the nobility of Scotland instead of being forever the bastard daughter of a spineless upstart who had come to his lands by default. Had her father turned the lands to her management earlier she would have beaten the lazy peasants into more effort and they would be a profitable house and one to be reckoned with. That this hopeless fool was accorded more respect and regard than herself was not to be borne.
"Let him go, Cassandra, please," Duncan begged softly, fist closing over the bracelet to obscure it.
"So I shall, my dear Duncan, for if you are my husband then I will, of course, acquiesce to you in all things. Even to the release of a tainted and sullied slip of a servant," she said coolly and could have laughed at the despair in his face. "But if you are not my husband then he is mine to do with as I wish."
He advanced on her and for a moment Cassandra thought she might have pressed too far. "I want to see him."
No," she hissed, backing into the corner of the arbor. "I think not. Sign the marriage contract and I will allow communication between the two of you but I will not risk losing my bargaining tool to you. He is alive and well kept and...untouched," she added almost as an afterthought, alert that she had chosen the enticement well. "Duncan," she said more gently, altering her tone. "I know that this match is not to your liking, but can you not see what it will bring to our peoples peace and prosperity? I have no care if you have lovers as long as you are discreet, even unto this youth you are so fond of, but you are the son of the MacLeod, his heir. You must think of your people first, as I must."
"And you will go to any lengths to ensure their safety," he spat at her. "Tell me another one. If I do this, I want proof that he is alive and unharmed or by all that's holy our wedding night will be the last night of your life," he said quietly, trapping her between his arms. "Believe me, Cassandra. Your life is not worth as much to me as his."
He moved away then, never glancing back and Cassandra took a moment to recover from her own shaking. She had thought this thing between Duncan and Matthew a mild infatuation, passion with little substance save as leverage, but it went far deeper than she had supposed. She would have her marriage contract but the idea of being lady to Duncan's lord was no longer a long term solution. She could not keep Matthew indefinitely as a weapon to keep Duncan under control. Duncan would not be controlled as she had hoped. No, after the marriage, once her position as the lawful wife and rightful heir to both estates was established, Duncan MacLeod would have to die. Shaking off the last of her fear she smiled. If she was in a kindly mood, perhaps she might even let them die together.
It was the hardest thing Duncan had ever done and made even more painful when he signed his name instead of just making his mark. Matthew had taught him to form the letters that put out his name for all to read. That his love's fate was in the hands of a madwoman made Duncan's insides turn to jelly, for he had no doubt that Cassandra was insane. Shock upon shock for he did not doubt her other pronouncements. She had laid truth with lies and back again but Duncan was in no doubt he now knew what abuses haunted the gold-green eyes. And Matthew thought himself unworthy of either Duncan's love or his respect for what he had been. No callow youth had responded to his touches and caresses and lovemaking in the barn not so many days ago. Shame flushed Duncan's cheeks as he realized what he had done when he had altered his pronouncements of love to those of desire. No wonder then, Matthew had been so willing to leave when the man who had proclaimed his undying love had taken the youth with no more regard to his wants than those who had once paid coin for his favors.
And to be under the threat of being cast back into that kind of life when Matthew had obviously worked long and hard to abandon it and leave it behind him. The mere thought of Matthew being in one of the poor houses that soldiers often frequented on campaigns made Duncan's stomach turn, and a favorite he would be with his soft voice and gentle ways, with the bright eyes and moon-kissed skin. Such establishments had long been outlawed in the MacLeod demesne and his mother had been quick to find places and work for the men and women who had escaped such a fate and stumbled into the MacLeod lands. His own nurse had been one such and she had told tales of such horror that Duncan had never once evinced a desire to visit such a place.
He had no words for his father and when Cassandra appeared he had dutifully kissed her hand and her cold lips then left them to plan the nuptials, claiming errands and appointments he could not deny. He made it as far as the stable before he was overcome by a swell of emotion that threatened to unman him.
So Liam found him, leaning against his horse and trembling as he fought to get control of himself.
"My lord, are you ill?" Liam inquired, moving close. He had never seen his lordship so distressed.
"To my very soul," Duncan said in a whisper. "You will hear it soon enough for the banns will be cried for the first time this Sunday. I have contracted to wed Cassandra."
"You cannot be serious!" Liam said shocked, more aware than most how his master felt about Murdoch's doe-eyed ice princess of a daughter. "What demon has possessed you?" Liam asked, gripping the man's shoulder.
Duncan stared at his friend, seeing the confusion in the familiar and wholly trustworthy face. The plan blossomed full blown in his mind. The contract was signed, he could not take it back and it would be a measure of peace to his people and Murdochs' but he could not trust Cassandra to keep her word. He turned and gripped Liam's shoulders fiercely, the whole sordid tale spilling out. Liam was as shocked as he was outraged.
"Our presence will be constant here until the wedding," Duncan said. "I need you to find Matthew and free him."
"I will do you as you ask m'lord but if I must search alone, it could take more time than we have! The lands Murdoch holds are as large as your own. Matthew could be anywhere!"
"She will not have him so far away as to be unable to get to him quickly nor so close as he might be discovered easily. Please, Liam, try. His life means nothing to her. Someone besides Cassandra must know where he is being held."
"Kilbourne," Liam said, pronouncing the name as if it were a noxious taste in his mouth. "Or his mercenaries."
Duncan rocked back on his heels and paled. "I pray not, for they will have even less regard for his value. To think of him in their care..." For a moment Liam though Duncan might faint, so pale and distressed did he look.
"No, m'lord. She would not," he hastened to reassure Duncan. "For she knows she must provide proof of his release that you will believe. I will find him if it is humanly possible and with God's grace."
"I know you will do your best, Liam," Duncan said sincerely, a faint smile easing the strain in his face. "Find him. Make sure he is gotten to safety."
Matthew had lost count of how many days he had been kept in the dungeons. The first day had been the worst, brought in from his capture on the road, stripped of his meager clothing and chained at wrist and ankle before being thrown onto the cold, wet stones of the small cell. The chain binding him to the wall kept him from reaching the bucket of water they had left him. After the first day, he decided it was part of the torture, to place him in sight of refreshment which he could not reach. That was only slightly worse than the hunger that gnawed at him, for they had not fed him either.
In the first days, he had tried to move around a little, to keep his body from stiffening, but he soon gave that up. It tended to disturb the rats he shared the small space with, and while he could not die from it, he preferred not to be bitten. It was enough that they would walk over him, scratching him, pushing close to him to find warmth. He was sure the cell was more dank and cold every day, and he could almost sympathize with their need for comfort.
Sure that he had been left to die of hunger and thirst, Matthew tried to cling to the hope that somehow Duncan would learn of his capture and find a way to come for him. Part of him knew it to be a vain hope, their parting having hurt Duncan deeply, but the part of him that loved wanted to believe that Duncan had known he had spoken lies and would search for him.
He had tried to stop thinking, to turn off his mind to his plight, and had succeeded well enough that he didn't hear the sounds of men until they were outside his cell. The grate of the key in the lock drew his attention, and he turned his head to see who it was. The voices had been strange ones. He was sure it wasn't rescue for him, and as the man bearing the torch held it high above them, he saw that they were Cassandra's men. He let his head fall back to the stone and made no more attempts to move.
"Up!" A booted foot struck him in the ribs. "The Master has need for you." He struggled to rise, but was prevented by his chains. Rough hands grabbed him, loosing the chain from the wall, using it to jerk him to his feet and lead him from the cell.
The man with the torch brought it closer. "Perhaps we should clean him a little." A dark chuckle from the second man was his only warning before the icy water was poured over him. The shock to his system cleared his head, but started him trembling violently with the cold.
"Much better. Get along now." A shove in his back almost sent him to his knees as he stumbled forward.
Managing to shuffle along in his chains, Matthew followed the man into a larger chamber in the cellars. The torch was placed in a sconce on the wall, shedding an eerie light, creating strange shadows around the equipment in the room. His trembling increased as fear joined with the cold. Everything he saw was some sort of implement of torture. The man behind him shoved Matthew toward a large wooden frame in the center of the room. His feet were fastened to a ring set in the floor, his hands were unchained so his arms could be extended from his shoulders and tied to the frame. The construction was such that now every inch of his body was exposed to the touch or scrutiny of anyone in the chamber.
"See that the knots are secure. The Master would not be forgiving if this one got loose." His bonds were inspected, and when the men were satisfied, the one who seemed to be in charge stood in front of him, grabbing Matthew's chin and jerking his head upward. "Behave for the Master. If you do, he might let you live." With that one admonition, the men turned and left him alone.
He didn't know how long he waited, his arms and shoulders aching from the unaccustomed position. Mercifully, he had dried and was no longer quite as cold and the trembling had ceased. A sense of Presence announced his next visitor before he heard the sharp sound of boots on stone. As the door to the chamber opened, he looked up to see the grinning face of Kilbourne. An involuntary shudder ran through Matthew at the sight of this man. He knew that few cared less for his continued survival than this one did.
"So you are Duncan's catamite...and more," Kilbourne said to the bound man. "One of my men recognized you from a trip to some sea port...Liverpool was it? Recognized you by your eyes and your body...most especially your body. Quite the popular attraction in the brothel he said. Worth the coin." Kilbourne neared, checking the ropes and finding them secure, allowed his hand to trail along the straight arm to the bared shoulder.
"What will Cassandra think?" Matthew muttered. The hand slapped him hard across the face.
"You will speak her name with respect, whore!" Kilbourne said, dark eyes narrowing. "What pleasures a man may take are of no concern to his lady as long as he fulfills his duty to her and honors her. Surely you are aware of the urges a man may have that women do not share? Or are you more like the common whore, ready to spread your legs for any coin or favor? What did Duncan think? Rumor has it that you have been as chaste as a monk with the Laird's son. To hide your shame or to hide your...experience?" Kilbourne taunted, fingers stroking across Matthew's left breast to pinch the nipple there. Then again, harder, and got no more response than he had the first time save a tightening of his prisoner's lips.
"Popular were you?" Kilbourne asked conversationally, circling behind him. Matthew closed his eyes, hearing the rasp of cloth against cloth and the unlacing of leather. He did jerk when the cold hands pressed against his lower back, tracing his spine to the marked cleft between his buttocks. "So shall I take you as you are or would you prefer to be on your knees? Or perhaps on your back?" Kilbourne said with a throaty chuckle, fingers probing the dry entrance until he succeed in penetrating the tight flesh. Matthew could not stop the hiss that escaped him as his ass was probed roughly. "Did I hurt you?" Kilbourne asked, all solicitation and concern. "You should be honored. I am considered quite the lover."
"Not yet, but I am sure you will get around to it," Matthew said through clenched teeth and then bit his lip as the probe became vicious. If he could but anger Kilbourne enough to make him lose control he might well beat Matthew to unconsciousness. He had little fear the man would take his head yet -- Cassandra had him thoroughly tangled in her spells and desire. But being beaten would be preferable to having this man violate his body. At any other time Matthew might have used wiles and seduction to ease what was to happen but something had altered his priorities. He did not have to reach far into his thoughts to find the cause. Duncan. Duncan with his dark eyes and warm smile, gentle touch and reverence, his honor and yes, his love, however fully Matthew's words might have made that offering invalid. Duncan would not so readily give in to an enemy and certainly not this enemy.
Another slap brought him back to himself and to the pain and the humiliation of having Kilbourne's hands on that which he had so long denied his love. It was a worthwhile reminder somehow, Matthew thought, that the very reason he could not remain with the noble son of the MacLeod should be so cruelly presented. He tightened his mouth again as Kilbourne clasped his chin.
"You cannot mean to kiss me when there is no part of this you think will be my pleasure," Matthew said and Kilbourne stopped, his mouth an inch away from his victim's.
"What do you mean?"
"You have said you were a proficient lover. Is this how you got your reputation? Is this how you learned your skills, with your partners bound and helpless before you?" Matthew asked, eyes narrowing. "Do you treat her Ladyship thus? Perhaps she enjoys it." This time is was a fist that silenced him, nearly robbing him of consciousness.
"You will not speak of her again!" Kilbourne snapped, catching Matthew's head and shaking it, not strongly enough to break his neck but it was close, and Matthew knew he was close to breaking Kilbourne's temper.
"Or what? You will violate me? You plan that anyway. Beat me? That too, has already begun," Matthew said and licked delicately at the blood on his lip. "Kill me? So you could and then do both if you like that sort of thing. Take my head? Ah, now there is where you must halt for Cassandra would be most displeased if you instead of she were the one to take my head. Because then you would have to explain what you were doing here and why..." Matthew said and watched the anger sweep over the other man, saw the violence come again. Enough, he prayed and then a second as Kilbourne reached for his riding crop. There, my love, I will try to be brave for you, Matthew sent silently to his absent lover, but his bravery only lasted until his first scream and then he could not remember what he had been trying to be brave for.
Kilbourne struck blow after blow as Matthew screamed and sobbed with each stroke of the whip on his flesh. Burning agony lanced through him until he could take no more, giving in to blessed unconsciousness.
Unknown hours later he awoke, again chained and on the cold stone floor of his dank cell. His body had healed, but he could still feel each fall of Kilbourne's whip in his mind. One thought sustained him. He had taken the brave path. For Duncan, and what they could not have, he had not let his body be violated. For you, Duncan. For us. I found my strength in you. Would that some day I could tell you what you have meant to me.
Matthew, I had not known I could miss you so much. Each day Liam has no news of you is sheer agony. And the time I fear most draws ever closer. They declared the first banns yesterday. Cassandra wanted to hurry them through, but I refused. It will all happen too soon as it is. A soft sound of voices interrupted his reverie. It had become his habit to come to the main hall and sit by the fire every afternoon as he practiced his reading, loathe to give up what Matthew had helped him start. In a strange way it made him feel as if Matthew were not lost to him, and on many days he would think to his absent love what he would have preferred to say in person.
As the voices drew nearer, he recognized Liam's and at the same time felt the Presence that told him the second voice could be no other than Cassandra. He closed his book and hid it deeply in the cushions of his chair.
"Forgive my intrusion, m'lord." Liam did not look happy to have Cassandra trailing behind him. "The Lady Cassandra wished to see you and said it was urgent."
"Thank you, Liam, it is no intrusion. Please stay, and when her Ladyship and I have finished, you may guide her back to her keep." Duncan looked sharply at Cassandra. "After all, there is nothing to be said that you should not hear."
"As you wish, m'lord." Liam moved to stand near the fire.
"Are you sure you want him here, Duncan?" Cassandra purred. "Should all the words that pass between those promised to one another be overheard by a servant?"
"We are weeks from the ceremony. What could be said that would be inappropriate for outside ears?" Duncan did not rise to greet Cassandra, and smiled to himself at her obvious annoyance.
"Only this." Cassandra reached into her scrip, pulling out a fold of paper, handing it to Duncan. "I understand you know how to read now." She stepped back as Duncan unfolded the page, staring at the graceful writing. It was in Matthew's hand.
"How came you by this?" Duncan demanded.
"I was asked to deliver it. By a mutual friend."
"He is no friend of yours," Duncan spat. He stared intently at the paper, each letter carefully written so that he would be able to read it. Following the words with his finger, he made out each one, whispering them as he discovered their meaning.
"No," Duncan whispered. "This cannot be true." He dropped the paper to the floor, letting it fall unnoticed. "You. Get out." The look he gave Cassandra was pure venom. "I will see you on the wedding day, not before." He glared into her face, wanting to rip the self-satisfied expression off with his bare hands. He could barely contain himself as he watched her leave with Liam. When he was alone, he picked up the paper again, reading each word carefully, hoping he had made a mistake. But he had not. Each letter stayed where it was, each word cut him as deeply as it had the first time.
He looked up as Liam returned to the hall. Tears threatened to fall, and he trembled as he held them back. "You heard as I read?" Liam nodded. "How can this be true? Surely this is a deception."
"I don't know. You have seen his writing more than I. Does it appear to be in his hand?"
Duncan closed his eyes and drew a ragged breath. "It does. I would know it as I know my own. So I have been fooled, and badly."
"Perhaps," Liam said softly. "It is also possible that someone in the Murdoch household forced him to write this."
Duncan nodded. "Perhaps. But it is written carefully, using words that I would know. If it were forced, would he not have written in such a way that we would know that?"
Liam shifted uneasily from foot to foot. "Shall I continue my search for him?"
Looking up at Liam, Duncan knew that one answer clearly. "Yes. No matter what deception he has done here, he does not deserve to remain a captive in that household. And when you find him, I'll have the truth out of him, you can be sure of that."
Liam nodded and left, leaving Duncan alone with his thoughts. Pulling his feet into the chair, Duncan hugged his knees, staring at the fire, wondering how long the ache of his broken heart would take to ease so that he could go on with his life.