|Swords at Sunset
A Highlander Romance Novella
by Ashlyn Donnchaid and Maygra deRhema
Time no longer had meaning for Matthew. He lay curled on his side, the only position his chains would allow. Night and day all were the same in this dungeon, no light from outside made its way in, save that from the one torch in the corridor outside his cell. The cold of the stones pervaded his being, his body long having given up any effort at shivering to generate heat. The rats who were his only companions picked at the sores on his body that lying on stone never quite allowed to heal.
He no longer paid attention to the shuffling of feet in the corridor, barely made notice when his cell door was opened. It was a face he'd seen before, an elderly servant who had taken some pity on him.
"Wake quickly, young one. I cannot stay long this time, but I have brought you a small bit of bread." Matthew felt hands shift him slightly to raise his head to eat the meager offering. At first, he hadn't been sure if the bits of food were a blessing or a curse, while his hunger was temporarily assuaged, it was always worse when it returned. The best thing was the cool fresh water the man always brought. He drank eagerly, then doubled over as his stomach cramped from being filled too quickly. He managed to keep it down, then ate the bread more slowly. More water followed, then Matthew was eased back onto the stones.
"Thank you." His voice was more like a croak.
"Do not thank me. What I do I would do for any prisoner here. They may kill you eventually, but I would not watch any man starve to death." The gray headed man stood slowly and left, locking the door securely behind him. When these visits had started, Matthew had tried to make the man understand that there would be people who could rescue him, tried to tell him to seek out Duncan or Liam, but he hadn't been able to make himself understood. He had given up the attempts, satisfied to accept what small solace the man could bring him.
The day Duncan had dreaded over all others had finally come. The weeks had passed, the banns declared as required, and nothing of Matthew had been found. So with no chance of reprieve, the plans had been finalized. Today he was to marry Cassandra. The only thing that would make the day almost bearable was that Murdoch had agreed to his insistence on a small private ceremony. He didn't want any more people than necessary to view what would be his ultimate humiliation.
"M'lord?" He opened his eyes to see Fescue standing next to the bed, a steaming mug in his hand. "Your tea, m'lord. And your clothes are laid out for you. Do you wish me to assist you?"
"No, Fescue. I will manage. You may go." Duncan sat up and took the mug from his man. Looking around, he realized this might be the last time he woke in these chambers. He had agreed to Cassandra's demand that their household be set in the Murdoch keep, if only not to have her defile this bed that he had hoped to share with Matthew. Matthew. The mere thought of him brought a lump to his throat. Liam had been hunting for him for weeks with no success. The only thing he'd learned was that Matthew was most likely still held somewhere on Murdoch land.
Shaking his head to banish those thoughts, he finished his tea and got out of bed. Fescue had left him a basin of water, and he washed himself, then brushed out his thick dark hair. Moving slowly, deliberately, he dressed, pulling on the white linen shirt, wrapping his dress plaid around him, pinning it in place with the crest of his clan. Long socks and boots finished the ensemble. The one thing he would not wear to the ceremony was the braid on his wrist. Despite all his feelings of betrayal, he had not been able to take off that one symbol of his love, but today he would. Untying it carefully, he placed it in a small chest, closing and locking it, hoping that some day he might be able to take it out again and have it mean what it had meant when he had fastened the mate to it on Matthew's wrist.
Straightening his plaid one last time, he brushed his hair back on his shoulders. On any other day he would have stood proudly, well aware of the fine picture of a man he presented. But today he was no more than a well dressed whore, going to a marriage that held no love, holding the vain hope that by doing so, Matthew's freedom might still be obtained. Was this really honor and duty? The feud would end, but at what price to himself and young Matthew? It mattered not. He had given his word, and he would do this thing he hated so. Carrying his belt and dress sword, Duncan made his way to the main hall to greet his father.
Ian MacLeod was similarly attired, and nodded as Duncan approached him. "We leave soon." He clasped Duncan's shoulders warmly. "You do understand this is the right thing to do?"
"No, Father, I do not. But I have given my word to you that I would marry her, if only to stop the fighting between our peoples. I do not go back on my word."
Ian nodded and let his hands drop. "It is duty and honor that you are keeping. Perhaps a time will come when you can enjoy the marriage."
Duncan shook his head. "Never. Not with Cassandra." He turned and walked away. "I'll be waiting in the stables." Long strides took him quickly to the last place he had seen Matthew. Today it happens, Matthew. Today I go through this farce of a ceremony in hopes that you still live. I do not know if you truly were deceiving me, I only pray she has enough honor to release you as she has promised. Mayhap then we can meet again and I can know the truth.
With heavy heart and unwilling hands he saddled his own horse, the activity keeping him from dwelling on what was to come. As on all critical days, he would ride his favorite bay. Voices outside the stable announced the arrival of the rest of the MacLeod wedding party. Horses were made ready and led outside, riders mounted and the entourage started toward the Murdoch manor. Ian rode at the fore, Mary beside him. Duncan followed, flanked by Liam. Behind rode several men at arms as a simple precaution against bandits.
Duncan slowed a bit to fall behind enough not to be overheard as he talked to Liam. "Any word at all about Matthew?"
"No, m'lord." Liam pitched his voice low, so as not to carry to the others in the caravan. "The only place I have not been able to send spies or gain entry is the dungeon proper. But I think if he were being held there, I could have found out. Gossip of prisoners usually travels fast. I have not given up. I know how much you need him free, if only to know if what he wrote is true."
"My heart keeps telling me that it was all lies. That what I felt from him was the truth. But if he is not found, I will never know. And I must know!" The last was spoken with such vehemence that Liam started.
"M'lord, if it is the last thing I do, I will find him. You will have your answers," Liam vowed.
The MacLeod party was greeted by soldiers from the Murdoch manor as soon as they crossed onto those lands. They followed the men to the castle, letting their horses be taken by servants to be fed and watered. Murdoch met them in the courtyard, servants at his side to guide them to chambers where they could freshen up before the festivities began. The wedding ceremony was to be held in the main hall, followed by a banquet of celebration. The only guests were the immediate family of the betrothed couple, as Duncan had insisted. Still, with the entourage each family had, there would be more observers than Duncan felt was necessary.
A discreet knock on the door of the chambers they were resting in, and they knew it was time. The servant led them to the main hall, and even Duncan had to remark on the beauty of the decorations. Huge candelabra had been brought in to light the space, flower petals were strewn over the floors, fresh smelling pine boughs graced each table and the mantel over the fireplace. He had to admit that even Cassandra looked lovely in her white linen gown, hair plaited with flowers. But nothing could bring beauty to the hard look of triumph in her eyes as she watched Duncan approach.
He had chosen to have his mother walk with him, and as he hesitated at approaching Cassandra, Mary's strong grip on his arm steadied him. Murdoch was standing with Cassandra, ready to walk with her as the couple approached the priest. Gritting his teeth, Duncan held out a hand to Cassandra, and felt her fingers lightly touch his palm. Hands barely joined, they walked toward the priest, kneeling together in front of him. The prayers were read, the vows made and repeated and all too soon Duncan heard the priest declare them to be man and wife. His stomach churned at that pronouncement, unwilling to accept it in his mind. He would act the part he had agreed to play, but he could not think of himself as husband to Cassandra.
Hardened to his duty, he stood and faced Cassandra, kissing her quickly, then turning to face the assembled families. A soft murmur of approval was heard, and he held her hand as they walked to the head table for the banquet. Duncan sat in the middle of the table, Cassandra at his left hand, Mary MacLeod to his right and Ian next to her. To Cassandra's left was Murdoch and, to Duncan's disgust, Kilbourne.
Servants began bringing huge chargers brimming with food -- roast lamb, venison, fresh breads and more than a few jugs of wine. Plates were filled, toasts made, all the appearances of a proper wedding celebration were kept, save that Duncan could not find it in him to celebrate in any way. The feud and the killing would end, Matthew's freedom might be secured, but with the sealing of his vows to Cassandra, any spark of feeling inside Duncan died, leaving in its stead a cold emptiness.
Unable to look into the face of his bride, Duncan instead watched the guests at the celebration, the few lesser Lairds each family claimed as their own. Trusted servants and long time retainers passed easily among the nobles, serving and clearing, sometimes stopping to enjoy a toast or a small bit of gossip. Among those he watched was Liam, his man stopping and talking with many of the servants of the Murdoch household. Duncan knew he was still seeking after information of Matthew, but as he left each person, Liam seemed more and more dejected. The last person he saw Liam speaking with was an older servant, hair grayed and body stooped with years. When next he looked for Liam, the man was nowhere to be found, and Duncan assumed he had gone to his chambers to retire for the night.
The celebration over, Duncan knew he had to face the inevitable. It was, after all, his wedding night. The fact that he despised the woman who was his bride, and the thought of touching her made him physically ill did not matter. He would be expected to retire to chambers with her.
The time came too soon for him as he felt Cassandra's hand on his arm. "Husband..." her emphasis on the word was especially cruel "...it is time for us to retire."
He turned his cold gaze on her. "As you wish."
They rose, amid a few last toasts and raucous catcalls, smiling as they left the hall. As they mounted the stairs toward Cassandra's chambers, Duncan noted Kilbourne following them.
Anticipating his question, Cassandra spoke. "He will watch the door, to be sure no tricks or games are played at our expense tonight."
Duncan nodded, not voicing his disbelief. There would be no need for a guard on their door, since he had no intention of remaining in the same room with Cassandra that night or any night. He hesitated briefly at the door to her room, almost afraid to walk inside, as if it would spring shut like a trap, keeping him inside, forcing him to do what he knew he could not. But he did step in, seeing the large bed hung with white linens, the fresh flowers in bowls around the room, and her maid waiting to help her undress. That last was his undoing. He could not consider looking at Cassandra unclothed. He would not.
He stopped in his tracks, slowly backing out of the room. "I will not do this." He passed Kilbourne who now stood at the doorway. "I will not spend this night or any night with you." Kilbourne's lewd chuckle confirmed what he had suspected. "Take this one to your bed, I would rather sleep with the pigs." With that, Duncan turned and almost ran from them, finding a back stair, making his way to the deserted stables to sit on the straw in the corner of his bay friend's stall, face buried in his hands.
Cold. Hunger. Thirst. These were the total of Matthew's perceptions. His body trembled uncontrollably, he didn't have the strength to try and still the tortured muscles. It had been days since any person had been near him, even his one benefactor seemed to have deserted him. Footsteps outside his cell barely registered on his consciousness, the scrape of key and lock almost unnoticed, but the boot toe that connected with his head forced his attention to his visitor.
"You, wake up. I want to be sure you know what I'm telling you."
Matthew forced his eyes open, looking up to see one of Kilbourne's more vicious men. "I'm listening," he managed to whisper.
"That's good." The boot struck hard against his ribs. "Be sure that you listen well. You know what today is?" When Matthew said nothing, the man laughed and answered his own question. "No, I suppose you don't. They were married today. Your Duncan and Cassandra. I watched them as they went to her chambers for their wedding night. They could hardly keep their hands off one another. Do you understand? He has taken a wife, and you mean nothing. I doubt he cares if you live or die." One more kick brought a stab of pain to his back. "Consider that as you await your fate." Then the man left, locking the cell securely behind him.
No, it cannot be. Not that, Duncan. I know you felt you had to marry her, but I cannot believe she has bewitched you into her bed. If Matthew's body had enough moisture, he would have cried. As it was, his body was wracked with dry sobs, believing he had little left to live for. If he was fortunate, someone would come soon and take his head, relieving him of the pain of his own continued existence.
His horse shuffled uneasily in the stall, unused to his master's stillness, occasionally reaching its soft nose to snuffle at Duncan, who finally reached up one hand to pat it reassuringly.
"Calm, my friend. I merely need to share this place with you tonight." Duncan leaned his head against the hard boards of the wall, unable to sleep, not wanting to think. His soul ached, but the emptiness wouldn't even let him cry. Tonight his new wife would be making sport of him as she took his enemy to her bed. Bad enough that they should have to share households, but to have her plan such an insult for the wedding night only showed her contempt for him. Duncan shared her contempt. He felt he had failed himself and Matthew, and the small solace of knowing duty had been served warmed no part of him. Word would get out soon, the gossips embellishing as they spread it, that the son of MacLeod could not even keep a wife on their wedding night. The shame would reflect on his family and his father...he could not think how disappointed Ian would be.
He heard the stables open, keeping quiet to not betray his presence, listening to the soft footfalls as they moved closer to where he was.
"M'lord? Duncan? Are you here?" It was Liam. The only person he could face at this horrible time.
"Here, Liam," he answered. The stall door opened and Liam stepped inside, rubbing the curious dark face that greeted him, then kneeling next to Duncan.
"I had hoped I would find you. I knew you would not be in the witch's chambers." Liam's blue eyes expressed deep concern.
"Sit, join me. My friend..." he gestured at his horse "...does not seem to mind the company." Duncan rubbed his face, then looked at Liam. "She has taken Kilbourne to her bed, did you know that? An extra insult on the wedding night, not that I care who she beds, but when the talk starts it will devastate my mother."
"I had suspected there was more to that relationship than met the eye," Liam answered softly. "And you know your mother will not fault you for Cassandra's treachery."
"No, but the wags will not tell the whole truth. The result will be that the MacLeod name will be tainted by my failing to keep the chamber to myself even on the first night." Duncan shook his head slowly. "But how could I? Touching that woman, knowing what she has done to achieve her goals, would truly be a fate worse than death."
Liam reached a strong hand to Duncan's shoulder. "I may have some good news. I have not been able to verify it yet, but I obtained some information that may lead me to Matthew."
"What?" Duncan felt a small part of him come back to life. "You have found him? Tell me!"
"It is not definite, m'lord. I was unable tonight to access the part of the keep I have learned about, but I have hopes of making my way there tomorrow when the castle is less populated." Liam's hand tightened on Duncan's shoulder, the touch of this friend very welcome at this moment. "I spoke with a servant who claims to have seen a prisoner that could be Matthew."
"If God has any mercy it will be so," Duncan whispered.
"I will find my way there as soon as it is safe to do so. It would do neither of us any good were I to be caught by Murdoch's men." Liam had settled cross-legged on the straw next to Duncan.
"I know. And I would not trade your life for his. Do what you can, but do it carefully." Duncan was starting to feel renewed hope. If Matthew could truly be found and set free, it would make all that he had to suffer worthwhile.
"M'lord, come back to the castle," Liam urged. "If you wish, you can take my bed and I'll sleep with the other men."
"No. I would not put you out. But I will walk back with you." Duncan stood and brushed the straw off his plaid. Liam was on his feet quickly and they left the stall and the nickering bay. "Sorry, friend. I'll see about extra grain for you tomorrow for your kindness." One last pat on the soft muzzle, and the door was closed.
It was late enough that they entered the castle unnoticed, which suited Duncan superbly. When Liam had told him that Matthew was close to being found, something had changed for Duncan. He might be in a loveless match, but that did not mean he was to be cuckolded, and certainly not on his wedding night. Swift strides brought him to Cassandra's chambers where he threw the door open so hard it banged into the stone wall.
"You!" he almost shouted, pointing at Kilbourne. "Get out!" Duncan stood with his fists on his hips as the startled man scrambled for his clothing. The look on Kilbourne's face told Duncan that he had not seen the last of him, but at this moment that didn't matter.
"And you, wife, will learn to keep yourself faithful to your husband." He strode to the bed, glaring as she shrunk back against the pillows. "You need not fear that I will touch you, I would not stoop so low. But you are the one who demanded this match and I will not have the MacLeod honor besmirched." He tore a blanket off the bed and took it to the chaise lounge near the fire. "I will sleep here. You may have the bed. If the arrangements do not suit you, I would not object if you petitioned for an annulment. But if we stay together, know that you will not feel the touch of any man's hand for a very long time."
Cassandra had regained some of her composure and came at Duncan, fists flailing. "Who do you think you are? Telling me who I can take to my bed!" Duncan grabbed her by the wrists and threw her on the bed, holding her firmly against the mattress.
"I think I am your husband." He moved his face inches from hers. "Do you understand me?" He could smell her fear, and it brought an animal grin to his face. "I see you do. Heed this -- if I ever find you with another man, I will kill you right after I kill him." He shoved her harder into the bed, then just as suddenly released her and went back to the chaise, gathering the blanket about him as he sat down. Looking at her one last time, he smiled. "Good night, wife." Leaning back, he closed his eyes, listening for a while as she fumed quietly, then dozed off, dreaming of a wedding, but this time the part of the bride was taken by Matthew.
Morning found him a little stiff, but that soon eased as he stood and stretched. Duncan left the chambers without a glance at Cassandra, going to the great hall to find his parents already at breakfast. He greeted them, but did not stay, rather taking a mug of tea and going out to walk the grounds. It took all his resolve not to run to find Liam and insist on hunting for Matthew immediately. He knew Liam would do what was best and safest for all of them.
The morning was brisk and the sky was scattered with billowy clouds, but the blue that shone through was clear and strong and somehow gave Duncan the sense that the day would bring good news. He sat on a bench in the gardens and sipped his tea as he considered how he should organize his new household. He might not like the arrangements, but he wasn't going to stand by as Cassandra attempted to emasculate him. He was, after all, a MacLeod.
His thoughts were interrupted at the sensing of an Immortal Presence. Looking around, he saw Kilbourne, his stride long and rage clear on his face.
"You! MacLeod! I would have words with you." Duncan stood to face the approaching Kilbourne.
"What words would those be?" Duncan asked coldly.
"Never have I been so humiliated in my life as by you last night. I demand satisfaction!" Kilbourne's face was red and the veins stood out on his forehead as he shouted.
Duncan answered him evenly. "If I recall, it was my honor that was at stake last night, as you lay with my wife. I have chosen to let you live. This time."
Kilbourne's anger seethed. "I do not accept that. I issue the challenge, if not man to man, then Immortal to Immortal. Meet me at sunset in the clearing by the rocks."
"Kilbourne..." Duncan now let some of his own anger show. "I have no desire to fight you. All I demand is that you stay away from my wife."
"It is too late. The challenge has been given." Kilbourne turned to stalk away, then turned back to Duncan. "If you need an incentive to be there, think of what could happen to your catamite if you were not." He turned and walked away, leaving Duncan standing staring at his back.
It always came back to that. The leverage they held over him. Matthew's life. He sat heavily on the bench, knowing his options had been taken from him the day Cassandra had given him Matthew's bracelet. Duncan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He needed to find Liam. Finding Matthew, one way or another, was the only thing that would put an end to their manipulations.
He stood and walked purposefully back to the castle, searching through the servant's quarters until he found Liam.
"Walk with me." Duncan started toward the courtyard. Once outside, he spoke softly to Liam. "Kilbourne has challenged me. If I do not accept, they will kill Matthew. I am sure if I win, he will suffer the same fate. You must find him."
Liam stood still, his only motion the angry clenching and unclenching of his fists. "How much time?"
"We are to meet at sunset."
"That doesn't leave much time." Liam grasped Duncan's arm, determination showing in his blue eyes. "I will do the best I can. If he is to be found, I will have him."
Duncan nodded. "I knew I could count on you."
Liam turned and walked quickly back into the castle. He cursed quietly to himself and a little bit at the man who seemed to have bewitched his master. Matthew had hurt Duncan deeply, yet Duncan would not let go of the possibility that the hateful words had been lies. Liam doubted he would ever understand love. What he did know was friendship and loyalty, and he had promised Duncan he would find the young man and free him, and he would do everything he could to make it so.
He had learned of a single old passageway leading to unused cells deep in the bowels beneath the castle. It took him some time to locate the passageway, then even more time before the corridor leading to it was not populated with either guards or servants. Finally his way was clear, and not a minute too soon. It was late afternoon, and the sun was dropping toward the hills. The passageway was short, leading to narrow steps that led downward, twisting around in a difficult spiral before ending in a cold, poorly lit corridor.
Liam slipped soundlessly along the damp corridor, keeping to the shadows though he could hear no one or nothing save a distant and muffled sound of metal against stone. Kilbourne had meant for no one to ever find their prisoner.
There was only one torch lit at the end of the silent corridor and that guttered and hissed, the pitch near spent and the light likely to go out at anytime. He held sword and dirk ready, nervous as a cat and wary for any sound.
The spitting torch was all the light there was as he plucked it from its sconce and thrust it into the small dark opening in the heavy door. A nude figure, pale skin marked by dirt and blood lay on the floor of the tiny cell -- as well as he could, for the tiny room was not large enough for a man to stretch out in. The muted sound of metal came again and Liam was startled to see it was from chains that hampered the figure's ankle and wrists. The noise came from the man's shaking. He was shivering uncontrollably even in his restless sleep. He moved and Liam swore, recognizing the angular features.
For half a moment Liam thought the youth had gotten his justice. He had heard the letter Matthew had left for Duncan, his master reading it in the halting and broken tones of a man whose world had been shattered. Whatever else Liam might have thought of Matthew, he had been shocked by the callousness of the youth's words. His initial feeling faded quickly. Whatever Matthew had done he did not deserve this -- no man did. Kinder if the two demons had killed him outright. Cassandra had produced the letter and Matthew had no doubt written it, but either he had been forced to it or he had written it to make the break clean between he and Duncan and then never found the heartlessness to deliver the missive.
With little thought to discovery, he used his sword hilt to hammer off the rough lock. The noise woke Matthew, or started to, but he seemed to have no strength left in him as the dulled eyes opened to stare stupidly at his rescuer.
The once rosy lips were blue tinted from cold and cracked from lack of water. There was a bucket in the corner and with horrified realization Liam saw that the water was just out of reach of the chained man. Another oath and he dragged the bucket closer then supported the thin figure, cupping his hand in the water so he might drink. It took a dozen handfuls before Matthew could speak and then he seemed ready to be ill for having drunk the water so quickly. He stilled the reaction while Liam took stock of his condition. The manacles could be broken as the lock had been and the bloody and raw wrists and ankles attested to Matthew's attempts to free himself. There was blood elsewhere on his body but the wounds and bruises had healed.
"How long?" Matthew asked.
"A day since the wedding," Liam whispered. "Be still and I will free you," he said and Matthew was still, barely even flinching when Liam missed the metal once and added a new bruise to the pale skin. "Can you walk?"
"If you will help," Matthew said, the water having done wonders for his recovery. He drank again, more deeply, then nodded to signify he was ready and Liam pulled him to his feet, appalled at the feel of ribs beneath his arm. Pulling off his cloak, Liam wrapped it around the naked man. Matthew got his arm around Liam's shoulder, leaning heavily on the man for support.
Liam cursed vehemently. "I cannot believe they would do this to you simply to use you against Duncan. What could they truly have hoped to gain by this?"
"I don't know," Matthew murmured, voice and stride more stable. "I suggest we ask her Ladyship," he said in a chilled tone.
"That is a wise choice. Be quiet now, mayhap we can be out of this place without being discovered." Liam took most of Matthew's weight on his shoulder as he retraced his steps to the winding stairway, negotiating that with some difficulty as Matthew's weakness became more evident. At the top of the stairs he paused a moment, catching his breath.
"Liam, there is a little known way to her Ladyship's chambers, back that way." Matthew pointed down a corridor that Liam was unfamiliar with.
Liam nodded and started that way, Matthew still leaning heavily on him. A sudden thought stopped Liam and he looked at Matthew. "How do you know of this passage?"
"I...visited here as a boy." Matthew sighed at Liam's unbelieving look. "If you must know, I lived here for a time. It was a long time ago. But the passageway is where I said."
"Very well, I will not question it now. But rest assured, the Master will want to know of this." Liam started again down the corridor, supporting Matthew when his legs failed him.
Two more joined hallways and they were at the door to Cassandra's chambers. Liam did not knock, but opened the door to find her standing with a sword in her hand. Shoving Matthew behind him, Liam drew his sword and disarmed Cassandra.
"An interesting greeting, your ladyship," Liam said conversationally. "As you see, I have removed your leverage against Master Duncan."
"So you believe," she spat at him. "You are too late. They have gone to fight the challenge. He will not fight to win, believing that I still hold his whore." She laughed coldly as she sat.
"Liam." He had barely heard Matthew's whisper. Keeping one eye on Cassandra, he moved closer to listen. "I expect she would be more cooperative if she felt a blade at her throat."
"I see. I expect she might." Liam crossed quickly to Cassandra, catching her by surprise and placing his blade against the column of her neck. "Why don't you tell me where they have gone."
"Why don't you go to Hades."
"M'lady, I have little time and less patience. I would know where they are." The blade pressed closer. "And I would know it now."
"I would rather die than tell you."
"Foolish words, m'lady." Liam's voice had risen as he lost control over his anger. "At this moment, death is not far away from you."
"You wouldn't dare." That simple defiance snapped the last of Liam's control.
"Where are they?" he roared at Cassandra. One hand gripped her by the hair and the other held his sword to her throat. He hoped she could see the end of her life in his eyes if she didn't answer the question. He pressed the blade ever closer, drawing a line of blood as the edge bit her flesh. She shivered, and he could see she was close to breaking.
"In the clearing by the big rocks at the edge of the wood," she finally whispered.
Liam threw her to the floor. "If you are not here when we return, you will be dead by the hand of the first man who finds you." He turned to Matthew. "Come. We must hurry." He helped Matthew stand and half carried him to the courtyard and his horse. "Can you ride? No. I think not," Liam answered his own question. "Here, get on my horse. We'll ride together." He helped Matthew onto the withers of the horse, then climbed into the saddle behind him, urging the horse forward as he held the near frozen man in front of him.
Liam took chances, balancing Matthew in his arms as he pushed the horse faster and harder toward the wood. When the first of the trees came in sight, he started bellowing at the top of his lungs. "My Lord! Duncan! I have him! Fight to win!"
Matthew's hands gripped his arm, and Liam looked into the pained eyes as the man spoke. "He knows. I can feel him. He knows we're here."
Liam was sure Matthew was speaking from some sort of delirium and continued his shouting as they entered the wood, then stopped when he heard the sharp clang of blade on blade. Dismounting quickly, he helped Matthew down and both men made their way quickly toward the source of the sound, entering the clearing to a horrific tableau. Duncan was on his knees, blood soaked tunic cut apart in a dozen places. Kilbourne stood over him with his blade high, poised for the final blow.
"No!" Matthew sobbed the single word as he dropped to his knees and started crawling toward Duncan. The sound startled Kilbourne into looking away from his intended victim, giving Duncan time to draw his dagger. A quick upward thrust had Kilbourne beside him on his knees, and a strong stroke of his claymore separated Kilbourne from his head. A look of intense love met Matthew's eyes as the Quickening started to swirl through the trees, then turned to pain as the lightning struck and traveled, grounding itself through Duncan's body. Liam pulled the protesting Matthew behind the rocks until the storm subsided, then couldn't stop him as he stumbled toward Duncan.
Duncan was on his knees, sword still in his hand and in shock from by the Quickening he had taken. Half in weakness and half in fear, Matthew went to his knees behind him, thin arms creeping around Duncan's waist to touch and hold him and to support his own weakness. He pressed his lips against the taut throat. "It's over, Duncan," he whispered against the dark skin, his voice and the press of his body bringing the dazed man back to himself. Tentatively, Duncan leaned back, reaching behind him to touch the cool skin of Matthew's face, not entirely sure if this were real or some madness left over from Kilbourne's death. Matthew turned his head into his hand and the kiss he lay on the broad palm finished grounding Duncan in the here and now, rather than lost to the nightmare of the last few weeks. He turned, and on seeing the familiar face, obscured as it was by filth and exhaustion, moaned out a soft prayer and pulled Matthew against him.
Duncan looked at the filthy, blue, shivering figure that fell into his arms. Barely clad in the borrowed cloak, he was sure he'd never seen anything more beautiful in his entire life. Tears fell alongside kisses as neither one could bring words to how they felt. When the tears had run out, they sat holding each other, rocking in each other's arms until Liam's touch on Duncan's shoulder reminded him where they were.
"My lord," Liam spoke softly. "We need to get both of you into the warmth of the castle. You are hurt and Matthew is barely alive himself." He held out his hand. "Let me help you."
Duncan reached to take Liam's hand, pulling himself to his feet, then gently lifting Matthew into his arms. "I'm not as injured as I appear, but you are right about Matthew. I tied my horse...is he still there?" The beast had broken free in its fright during the Quickening, but Liam was able to find it in only a few minutes.
With Liam's help, they got Matthew on the front of Duncan's horse, folded into Duncan's strong protective arms. "It is the longer route, but I will not take him anywhere near Murdoch or his daughter. We must make haste to get him to the MacLeod keep." The intense chill of the slight body could be felt through all the layers of clothing, and Matthew seemed to have fainted or fallen into an exhausted half-sleep now that he was safe and Duncan as well. Duncan wanted nothing more than to gallop back to the castle to care for his love, but knew the recklessness of such an act. He restrained his panic and rode at a more sedate pace next to Liam.
"Tell me where you found him."
There was a long silence before Liam spoke. "They had him in the old dungeons, m'lord."
"And what else?" Liam's hesitant answer told him there was more than what had been said.
Liam reached out a hand and barely touched Matthew's shoulder. "He was chained hand and foot, naked on the stone, without food or water." He let his hand drop and would not meet Duncan's gaze. "I am sure he was beaten. Can you forgive me for not finding him sooner?"
Duncan's strong hand gripped Liam's shoulder. "You found him alive and brought him to me. Without you he would be dead, and for this I will always be in your debt." A tremor shook the body in his arms and a small moan escaped from Matthew's lips. "Go, Liam. Ride ahead and have Fescue start to heat water for the baths." He could see a moment's indecision on Liam's face. "Go," he repeated. "I'll be fine alone, but we must get Matthew warmed as soon as we can." He watched as his friend galloped off toward the MacLeod keep, pushing down the urge to follow at the same pace. Instead, he gripped Matthew more firmly, trying to share what heat he could.
Liam was waiting for him as he entered the courtyard, men at his side to take the horse and a thick blanket in his arms. They roused Matthew and got him off the horse and into the castle, stopping in a shadowed alcove to exchange the cloak for the dry blanket. When the naked body was exposed, Duncan gasped at what he saw. The damage had healed, but blood and filth marked the places where Matthew had been beaten more than once by his captors. Rage seethed through Duncan, barely controlled as he wrapped the blanket around Matthew, unsure if the shaking he felt was his own anger or the chill of the man in his arms.
"Come." Liam led the way toward the great hall. "The water is heating, and in the meantime I stoked the fire in the hall." Duncan followed with Matthew, seeing the hall deserted except for Fescue and Ian MacLeod. A large chair was pulled close to the fireplace, and he sat in it, holding Matthew in his arms as one would a small child.
"M'lord?" Fescue had come forward, holding a large steaming mug in his hands. Duncan took a sip and smiled and nodded at the man. This was precisely what they needed. The tea was liberally dosed with honey and brandy. He held the mug to Matthew's lips, letting him have small sips, then drinking from it himself, hoping it would help calm his nerves.
He saw that Fescue was still standing in front of him shifting nervously from one foot to the other. "What is it, man? Out with it."
"I...m'lord, I asked the cooks to take some of the stew and thin it with broth to make a soup. I thought you might need..." His voice trailed off, and he stared at the floor in front of him, obviously unsure if he had done the right thing.
Duncan had enough awareness left to know he needed to reassure his man. "You have done well, Fescue. Go check on the bath and bring a large bowl of the soup and some bread." His gaze followed the man out of the hall, and in the process, lit on the angry countenance of Ian MacLeod.
"Is there an explanation for all this?" The elder MacLeod spoke through gritted teeth.
"Yes, Father, there is." Duncan stopped to soothe Matthew, who had become restive at the sound of Ian's voice. "Liam knows the whole of it. If I could leave it to him to tell it to you?" Ian nodded curtly, and moved with Liam to the other side of the hall, where Duncan could hear nothing but whispers between them.
Now that they were left alone for the first time, Matthew finally spoke. "I knew it would be all right the moment I saw Liam outside my cell. I never lost faith that you would somehow find me."
Duncan smiled at him. "And what of all your talk of leaving me?" He hesitated, not wanting to press Matthew too hard when he was so weak, but he needed to know. "What of the note I received, written in your hand?" he asked quietly.
"I...they...there was no other option. I didn't want to hurt you." A thin, cold hand reached to touch Duncan's face. "I wrote the note before I left your father's house. I hoped if I made you angry, made you hate me, your heart would heal and you would...love another. Cassandra took it from my things. When the time came, I could not give it to you, nor leave it for you to find and so I took it with me. I loved you too much to cause you such pain. It was selfish but I found...I never wanted...I could never hurt you."
The last shattered fragments of the cold shell surrounding Duncan's heart melted as snow in sunshine. That shell had cracked irreparably on feeling Matthew's presence during his fight with Kilbourne and now it was as if it had never been. Duncan took the hand in his own. "I know. I knew it then, I just didn't know why you had to tell those lies. But it doesn't matter. You're here now and safe."
He heard Fescue's uneven gait as the man approached. "M'lord, the bath will be ready soon, and here is the soup and bread." A small table was pulled near the chair where Duncan could reach it.
"Thank you, Fescue. Go supervise the bath and come back when it's ready." The man nodded and backed away. Duncan turned his attention back to the man in his arms. "Were you fed at all while you were captured? I can feel every rib."
"I...I don't think so. Some of it is a blur still."
Duncan's anger surged again, still barely contained, and he realized part of it was the tension from the recent Quickening. With an effort, he pushed it all away, then stroked Matthew's hair soothingly. "Don't worry about it. It should all come back when you're stronger." He broke off a small piece of bread, dipped it in the soup and offered it to Matthew who took it eagerly. Duncan continued feeding Matthew, occasionally taking a bite for himself, until Fescue returned to announce that the bath was ready.
Easing Matthew to his feet, he found Liam immediately at his side to help Duncan guide him to the room just off the kitchen where the large tub was. Liam helped Matthew into the tub, settling him into the warm water, then moved to Duncan. "M'lord, your father has heard the whole sordid tale and is furious with Murdoch and his daughter. I think you need no longer fear for your choice of partner."
Duncan grasped Liam's arm warmly. "Thank you, my friend. Again I find myself in your debt. Will you do one more thing for me? Will you see that we are not disturbed here?"
"Of course, m'lord." Liam closed the door behind him as he left.
Turning back to the tub, Duncan stripped off his own clothing and lowered himself into the warm water next to Matthew. Taking up a cloth and soap, he started washing the lean body, first the face, and was saddened at the dark marks of fatigue around the eyes that would not yield to soap. Matthew's hair was washed next, the matted strands carefully separated and smoothed. Then the cloth glided across the thin chest, but the filth and grime would not yield easily.
"I'm going to have to scrub harder," Duncan apologized. "Lean on me." He put one arm around Matthew and with the other, rubbed away the outward evidence of his captivity. Pulling the slim body against his chest, Duncan repeated his scrubbing on Matthew's back, lingering in the embrace even after the cleaning was done. With a deep sigh, Duncan let go of Matthew to continue bathing him. Each leg was carefully scrubbed, and Duncan was gratified to feel the twitches of ticklish response when he cleaned Matthew's feet and toes.
The chilled skin was starting to take on a healthier color, but Duncan wasn't ready to leave the tub yet. He called out for Fescue and more hot water, and after the tub was refreshed, he pulled Matthew into a gentle embrace, kissing his eyes and cheeks before moving on to his lips. He'd thought that all he wanted to do was feel the soft touch of that flesh against his own. He knew that Matthew was too weak and exhausted for much else, but when he felt the touch he lost himself, deepening the kiss, his lips and tongue seeking a bond with his lover that would not be denied.
Even as his hands moved over Matthew's back, reacquainting themselves with the lines and cords of muscle and sinew, he felt Matthew's mouth and hands respond, his tongue darting, answering Duncan's, making their mouths seem as one. One of Matthew's hands played across Duncan's back, the other pressed against the more primal need displayed at Duncan's groin.
Duncan broke the kiss, but didn't move away from Matthew's face, leaning his forehead against that of his lover. "I am not asking to love you tonight. Not after all you've been through. You need to rest."
"I know." Matthew kissed Duncan softly as his hand began squeezing the hard flesh, smiling at Duncan's small moan. "But you have a need. As you have helped me so much today, let me help you with this." He rejoined the kiss as his hand moved to stroke firmly, finding a rhythm that drew steady breathless moans from Duncan. Matthew spoke softly, urging him onward. "Let it go. Let the tension explode. Let his essence settle. It's safe here. I'll help you." He repeated the litany over and over until Duncan believed it and was moving in his hands. It was more than Matthew's hand on Duncan's manhood, it was his love surrounding him, their love combining to make a safe place for both of them. Duncan gave himself to the feeling, pressing into Matthew's touch until he felt the vortex pulling at him as he exploded in Matthew's hand, his spasms creating waves in the tub as his body jerked with each pulse of his release.
Matthew's soft kisses brought Duncan back to the room and the tub and he realized it was starting to cool. "Come, we should dry and let you rest." He stood and got out of the tub, then helped Matthew out, taking a good look at him as he stood, dripping. There was too little flesh on the bones and the shadows of exhaustion colored his face, but his skin had lost much of the bluish tinge of cold. "You look better. Are you warm enough yet?"
A hint of smile pulled at Matthew's lips. "There was little doubt I'd get better."
"Immortality doesn't mean indestructible," Duncan answered him. "And you still look chilled to me." He picked up a rough towel to dry his love, then handed him a clean tunic to wear. He watched as Matthew dressed, then dried himself and dressed as well. Pulling him close, Duncan wrapped an arm around Matthew as they made their way to Duncan's chambers.
Matthew was settled into the large bed, extra blankets piled on to keep him warm. As his eyes closed, Duncan rose to leave, only to feel a grip on his arm. "Stay. Please."
"I must talk to my father." The pleading look on Matthew's face cut to the center of him. "But Father can wait till morning." Duncan stripped off his clothes and climbed under the blankets, taking Matthew in his arms and pillowing the precious head on his shoulder. Within moments Matthew was asleep and Duncan joined him soon after in deep, dreamless sleep.
Duncan woke to find Matthew clinging to him as closely as any of the vines that climbed the castle walls. He was still sound asleep, so Duncan moved nothing but his hands, softly exploring the thin body in his arms. Fingertips followed Matthew's too hollow cheek, touched the shoulders where every bone seemed to protrude. The edges of his shoulder blades raised sharp edges under his skin, and each ridge of his spine could be felt. His ribs were separated by deep furrows. As Duncan's hands reaffirmed how emaciated Matthew was, the young man stirred, tightening his hold. Duncan stroked Matthew's head, whispering softly to him, soothing wordless sounds and Matthew relaxed back into a deeper sleep.
Keeping his hands still, Duncan held Matthew gently, wanting him to be able to sleep as much as he needed. Soon enough they would have to rise and face the day and the questions from his father. Duncan did not share Liam's confidence that Ian MacLeod would be so accepting of Matthew. He did not doubt that Murdoch and Cassandra would pay for their treachery, and with luck, his own contract with the scheming wench would be dissolved. But it was a far cry from dealing with another Laird's duplicity to accepting a serf as a match for his son.
Duncan didn't dwell on that, rather considered the events of the last few days. There were many unanswered questions about Matthew. Liam had told him how the young man seemed to know his way about the Murdoch castle and claimed to have lived there in the past. But Matthew was young enough that he would have had to be a child for the story to fit. Duncan thought he'd known most of the MacAian children, for it would have been they who were living there at the time. The only member of that ill-fated family that he had never known was the cousin. Perhaps Matthew had served in that household at some time. There were many reasons he could be familiar with the manor and its secrets.
A soft knock interrupted Duncan's thoughts. "Who's there?" he called out softly.
"It is I, m'lord," Liam answered him, just as softly as Duncan had spoken.
"Enter, my friend." Liam opened the door, then hesitated as he saw them still abed. "He still sleeps. I couldn't bring myself to disturb him. Come in."
Liam entered the chamber, bringing a chair close to the bed. He sat and spoke quietly. "Your father is intent on riding on the Murdoch castle today. He would avenge their treatment of Matthew and the use of him to coerce you into the marriage."
"There are many questions Murdoch and his daughter will be called to answer," Duncan said thoughtfully.
Their talk had finally roused Matthew, and he stretched up to kiss Duncan. A small chuckle escaped Duncan as Matthew opened his eyes to see Liam sitting nearby, the red flush on Matthew's cheeks showing his embarrassment.
Liam smiled as he stood. "I will take my leave. Have you any message for your father?"
"Yes. Tell him I will join him soon. And have Fescue bring tea and porridge, if you would." Duncan watched until Liam had left and closed the door behind him, then turned his attention to Matthew. "You seem to be in better spirits today."
"How could I not be? Waking here with you, warm and safe for the first day since..." Matthew broke off and Duncan knew he was remembering the harsh words spoken at their parting.
"...since you left me, saying that you did not love me," Duncan finished for him. When Matthew remained silent, Duncan continued. "But that wasn't true, was it?"
The uneasy silence stretched between them. "No," Matthew said finally, "it wasn't true." More silence. "But it isn't enough, is it?"
Duncan considered pretending that he didn't understand, but he did. Matthew was as aware as he was that the difference in their stations could not be overcome simply by love. Even were his alliance with Cassandra annulled, Duncan knew it would take a fair amount of convincing for his father to accept Matthew as his choice of consort. But he didn't say these things to Matthew, he merely stroked his fingers through Matthew's hair and kissed his forehead.
"Right now it is enough. Here, at this moment, it is all we need." He tilted Matthew's head up and softly kissed his lips. "Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today, let me take care of you." Pulling Matthew to lie on top of him, Duncan ran his hands lightly along the length of his body, letting his fingers follow the hollows and ridges of the too-lean form. "I think I should start by turning you over to my mother. She'll soon see to getting more meat on your bones."
Looking up into the smiling face, Duncan was struck by how much he'd missed Matthew over the last weeks, and especially missed that gentle smile that lit his face and caused the green and gold in his eyes to sparkle so. This reminder made it all the more important for him to find a way out of their current maze of deceit and treachery. Murdoch and his plotting had to be dealt with, and Duncan would be at his father's side when it was done.
"I could happily be here all day, touching you, reassuring myself that you are here and real. But I cannot let my father ride on the Murdoch keep and not be at his side. The honor of the MacLeods is at stake, and there will be payment for their ill use of you."
Matthew's smile faded a bit, replaced by fear. "You will be careful, will you not? Trust nothing they say, for they will kill you if they can."
"I know." Duncan's fingertips stroked Matthew's cheek and lips. "Their game is over and they will be brought to justice."
Soft lips touched his fingers, then moved to Duncan's lips. "I have no doubt they will." A look of puzzlement crossed Matthew's face. "If Murdoch and Cassandra do not retain control of the lands, what of the estate? They have no rightful heirs."
"If we could find a MacAian, that would solve the dilemma." Matthew's thoughtful look prompted Duncan to pry. "What are you thinking?"
"That all the problems would be solved if the MacAian cousin were to be found alive."
Duncan smiled and shook his head. "I fear that is not to be. All the tales have him killed by highwaymen some years ago. If he were alive, he would have made himself known before now."
"And if he had been kept away and now had no way to prove his claim?"
"If that were so, I would hope he would attempt to make himself known. If he were truly alive, a way could be found to verify his story. But that is only a dream." He slipped his arms around Matthew and hugged him tightly. "And now I must go with my father. Will you stay here in the castle until I return? I will feel more secure knowing you are safe from harm."
"Only if you promise me to return whole and victorious." Matthew leaned down for a long soft kiss, lips meeting first, then a gentle exploration of tongues. "And I will spend the day planning a suitable celebration."
Duncan grinned at Matthew's mischievous look. "And I will anticipate that celebration. However, if I do not go now, I doubt I'll be able to leave any time soon. You have a way of distracting me that I find most disturbing." He rolled them both so that Matthew was on his back, kissed him soundly once again, then moved out from under the blankets. The obvious disturbance at his groin confirmed Duncan's words. He dressed quickly, taking out an extra tunic and trousers which he lay on the bed. "Use these until we have new things made for you. And I meant what I said. I will ask my mother to look after you today." Picking up his sword, he started to the door as Fescue entered with the food. "Eat that, then go find her. Will you do that for me?"
Matthew sat up in bed to take the tray from Fescue. "I will, Duncan. Go, fight well, and do not worry about me. But come back soon so that my worry for you can be curtailed."
"With Murdoch and Cassandra walking before us," Duncan vowed as he left the bedchamber. He went quickly to the main hall where he joined Ian and Liam as they made the final plans.
Taking a moment from the planning, Duncan greeted Mary with a kiss on the cheek. "Mother, I have a great favor to ask of you. Would you watch over Matthew for me today? He is still so weak that I do not feel comfortable leaving him alone."
Mary took Duncan's hand. "I will, son. Where is he now?"
"He is in my chambers. Fescue brought him porridge, and I asked Matthew if he would stay with you today. He assures me he will come to find you, but I will feel better knowing you're watching out for him." Duncan relaxed at the reassuring smile on his mother's face.
"He'll be well cared for. He's a charming boy, Duncan, and I would not wish harm to come to him." She squeezed his hand. "Go with no concern for him. I will see to him until you return."
"Thank you, Mother." Duncan took his leave of her and rejoined his father and Liam to complete the plans. After breakfasting and gathering their most trusted men, they mounted and rode toward the Murdoch manor, the anger of righteousness riding with them.
Matthew sat in bed, eating slowly. They were definitely trying to fatten him up, the porridge being covered liberally with cream and honey.
As he had many times since he came to the MacLeod household, Matthew wished he had something, anything that could prove who he really was. But in all his weeks there, no one had been found who could support his claim. He had decided that without the proof he would say nothing, not make a claim that Duncan would want to believe, but would always question. He would let the tale of the death of the cousin stand as it had been told -- Methos would be dead at the side of the road, and Matthew, who had no family to speak of, would live on.
Knowing there was no future in those thoughts, he turned his attention back to his bowl, realizing there was much more food than his stomach could hold at one sitting. He set the tray aside and got out of bed, pulling on first the tunic that Duncan had left for him. It hung loosely on him, but that wasn't the worst of it. He was so thin that the drawstring at the waist of the trousers had to be pulled tight and the fabric bunched in order for them to stay on at all. Matthew was sure he looked like a waif in hand-me-down clothing, and the small hand mirror he found confirmed that. He could see dark smudges on his face from exhaustion and he was a little shocked at the hollows beneath his cheekbones. No wonder Duncan was so worried about him.
Rummaging in a trunk, Matthew found some thick stockings and soft boots to keep his feet warm. Still feeling chilly now that he was out of the cocoon of the bed, he wrapped a lap throw around his shoulders as he set out to find Mary MacLeod. He had promised Duncan he would stay with her today, and as he'd thought about it, knew it was best. They could keep each other from dwelling on the warriors they were both waiting for, and for himself, he knew he didn't want to be alone.