Swords at Sunset
A Highlander Romance Novella
by Ashlyn Donnchaid and Maygra deRhema

continued from part three...

As he entered the main hall, Matthew saw Mary sitting by the fire, several of the younger servant girls at her feet. All of them had needles and cloth and Mary was giving them a lesson. He stood and watched for some time, noting the patience she used in making corrections and the smiles of encouragement for each of them when they succeeded. When she looked up and smiled when she saw him standing there, Matthew felt a warmth of relief, not having been sure how she would accept his presence.

Mary bent to say something to the girls, who gathered their things and left the hall. Matthew walked toward her slowly, stopping as Mary stood and looked him over critically. He was still as she moved close enough to touch him, her fingers first touching his face, then pulling at the tunic he wore. When her touch became more probing, feeling at his ribs and hips, he thought he should be embarrassed at the intimacy, but he wasn't. There was a sense of caring about her that put him at ease.

Finally she stood back from him. "Those are Duncan's clothes, aren't they?" He nodded assent. "Of course they are. Your things would have been taken from you by that Murdoch devil. I'll speak to the tailors about getting something made for you. Come, sit with me." She gestured to the chairs near the fire. Matthew sat facing the hearth, still craving the extra warmth. He was staring into the flames as he realized Mary was still talking to him. "My son thinks you need taking care of, and from the look of you, I'm inclined to agree. Yet you seem stronger than you look. What do you think?"

Now he did flush a little under her scrutiny, and felt the heat in his cheeks. "In truth, m'lady, if need be, I could manage on my own, but today, at least, I would rather not." He pulled the wrap closer around his shoulders and as he did, noted a little smile on Mary's face.

She stood and held out a hand to him. "Come with me." He obeyed her without question, standing and giving her his hand. She slipped her grip to his elbow and took him to a secluded spot in the gardens, protected from the winds, but in full view of the sun. There was a wooden bench placed to take full advantage of the location and Mary guided him there and sat next to him. "Let the sun bake that chill from your bones. Relax and close your eyes. I'll be right here."

Matthew leaned back and closed his eyes, his face turned up toward the sun and let the warmth embrace him. He had not realized how much he had missed this feel against his skin during his weeks of imprisonment. It was as if the light and heat of the rays melted away the worst of the memories, and he felt his mouth curve in a small smile.

"That's better," Mary said softly.

He opened his eyes to look at her and saw the gentle smile on her face. "It is better. I had no idea how much I'd missed the simple feeling of being outside."

Her smile didn't waver, but a shadow of concern crossed her eyes. "Do you want to talk about what happened there?"

Matthew closed his eyes for a moment as he considered that. "No." He opened his eyes to meet Mary's. "At least, not yet."

She nodded, then pointed out across the hills in the distance. "You see that rise? From here we can see them as they cross that hill on their way back from Murdoch's."

He stared out to the place she pointed to. "How long do you think they'll be gone?"

"If things go well, they should be back before dark." A comfortable silence stretched between them as they sat in the sunshine. Matthew felt himself relax more and more, comforted by the warmth of the sun and the gentle support of Mary's presence.

It was a long time before either of them spoke, and then it was Mary who broke the quiet with her soft voice. "You love him very much, don't you?"

He was startled by the bluntness of her question, but found he wanted to answer it, to talk with Mary about her son. "More than my life."

"Love is not always enough," Mary continued. "What do you expect from him?"

He sat for long moments as he considered how to answer that. "I don't know. I'm not sure there can be a future for us."

"What do you mean?"

Matthew drew the wrap around himself again. "As long as he is who he is and I am who I am, there is little chance of a match between us."

When he didn't go on, she questioned him softly. "Who are you really, Matthew?"

He looked at Mary through narrowed eyes. Could she know? He didn't see how that could be possible. No one knew, save Cassandra and her father, who he really was. And now it seemed likely they would go to their graves with the knowledge. Unsure exactly what she was asking, he hesitated in answering.

Mary put a gentle hand on his arm. "You came here as a mystery, a man traveling alone, but with skills and knowledge not possessed by most of the social class you claim. You have done nothing to make me suspect your motivations, but as a mother, it is my duty to know what sort of person my son has given his heart to."

"What I am, m'lady, is a fool. One who may well see to the breaking of two hearts before he is done." He pulled away from Mary's touch. "As long as things stand as they are, I expect I will have to leave to allow Duncan to seek one who is his match in station."

"That would, of course, be the noble thing to do." Matthew thought he heard a chiding tone in Mary's voice. "But what are these things that stand in your way?"

"Who I am, m'lady. It is what has always stood between us."

"I see." Mary sat back, nodding. "So we are back to the beginning. Who are you really, Matthew?"

Matthew looked into Mary's implacable eyes. Her insistent questioning and calm assurance started him wondering if she could suspect something. Surely he had dropped no untoward hints of his origins, for from the beginning, even before the complication of Duncan had arisen, his plan had been to leave quietly if no proof could be found. But so much hinged on the one small fact of his identity that he had found himself wishing he could confide his secret, that perhaps there would be someone who could understand yet keep his confidence.

The kindness and caring showed him by Mary MacLeod made him believe she could be the one. She could keep his secret, yet in the telling would relieve him of a burden that had become almost unbearable. He took a deep breath before starting to speak.

"M'lady, what I am about to say must be in the strictest confidence. No one, especially Duncan, must ever know. Can I count on your discretion?"

"Of course. You may always speak freely with me, Matthew." He truly believed her when she said that. It was uncanny the ease he felt as he sat with her, ready to bare a secret he had kept hidden for years.

"The truth of the matter is this. I was not traveling aimlessly when I came to these lands. After a delay of some years, I had hoped to return to prove that the MacAians had not fallen to disease, but rather to treachery, and at the same time prove the illegitimacy of Murdoch's claim to those lands. I have been able to prove neither." He searched Mary's face for some response, wondering at the little smile that pulled at her lips.

"So it is as I suspected. You are the lost cousin." She said it with a certainty as if she was merely confirming what she had believed all along.

"How could you know?"

Her smile broadened a bit. "There is no gossip on the manor that I do not hear. You were careful who you talked to and the questions you asked, but along with your unusual curiosity about the MacAians, there were the little things you seemed to know that a stranger would not have known. I had begun to wonder before you were taken by Murdoch. Their special interest in you as a pawn seemed to confirm some of my thoughts."

Matthew let out a long breath. "You amaze me, m'lady. I had no intention of making any claim if it could not be proved. Sad truth is, it still cannot be proved, and I will not ask you or your family to believe my word as the only substantiation of my identity."

"Murdoch and his daughter know," Mary said thoughtfully.

"Knowledge they will happily take to their graves. There is little that would convince them to support my claim." Matthew shook his head. "No, better I remain Matthew, a simple man of low station. I would sooner Duncan believe that is who I am than to ask him to accept a story that I would always wonder if he doubted."


Something in her tone unsettled him. "M'lady, you agreed this would be in confidence."

Once again, she turned a reassuring smile on Matthew. "As it shall. Have no fear of that." Reaching out, Mary felt Matthew's forehead with the back of her hand. "Are you warm enough? The clouds seem to have stolen our sunshine from us."

"Warm enough, but starting to feel hungry again."

Anger flashed in her eyes. "Yes. They barely fed you, didn't they?"

The harsh memory sent a tremor through his body. "If not for one man who took pity on me, I don't believe they'd have bothered at all."

Mary stood immediately. "Let's find you something hot to eat right now. I know just the thing." Matthew got up and went with Mary to the kitchens where she had the cooks put together a pot of thick soup, well laden with meat and grains and vegetables. Ladling out a small bowl, she sat with him at the cook's table in the corner of the kitchen. "I know you won't be able to eat much at a time. That pot will be kept warm for you all day and I want you to come in and take some any time you want."

"Thank you, m'lady, I will."

"Good. Once you're eating regularly and have a little meat on your bones you should be feeling much better."

Matthew stopped with the spoon halfway to his mouth. "I already feel like a new man. To be here, warm and safe, knowing someone cares if I live or die has been the best medicine."

The compassion in Mary's eyes touched a spot deep inside him. "No one should have to suffer what they did to you." She covered his hand on the table with her own. "You know, I liked you that first night when Duncan made you tell stories for us. He was so excited about you and couldn't wait to see that we liked you, too."

He sat the spoon back in the dish. "I don't think his father likes me at all."

Mary gave his hand a little squeeze. "That's not it. Ian has to consider many things, and happiness is only one of them."

Matthew nodded. "I know. He loves his son and he loves his land and will do what he must to keep them both whole and happy."

"As the Laird of the manor he must sometimes make decisions that hurt a little in order to do the most good for the most people." Mary picked up his bowl. "Are you done for now?" At his nod she stood up. "Why don't we wait for our returning warriors in the main hall?" As they walked, Mary continued talking. "I have watched Ian make decisions that wouldn't let him sleep for days. You should know that the decision about you and Duncan and the contract with Murdoch was one of them." A quick glance at Mary showed her smiling at him. "Don't give up hope yet."

That small bit of news renewed his belief that there could yet be a chance for them. But nothing could happen until Duncan and Ian returned victorious, with Murdoch and Cassandra ready to pay for their treachery. The longer they were away, the more his worry increased. He knew they had the best men with them and Liam at their side, but Murdoch could be counted on to be prepared with traps and trickery. Matthew was thankful for the presence of Mary to keep him from dwelling on the more unpleasant thoughts he would have been having while he waited.

In the main hall they again took chairs near the fire, Matthew nestling deep into the cushion. His body was tired, but his mind was racing and would not let him nap. Glancing at Mary, he saw that she had again picked up her sewing.

"How do you do it? Remain so calm with all this waiting?"

She finished the stitch she was making, then held her work in her lap. "It is the patience learned through years of practice. In the early years I would pace the halls and devil the servants, but I found it did not make the waiting any easier or the result any different." The steady stitching was started again. "I would hazard a guess that you would have ridden with them had you been well."

Matthew sighed deeply. "Yes, I would have. But even I am not so vain to know I would only have hindered them today."

"And having made the right decision about that, you are here with me, and we wait." Mary stitched quietly for several minutes. "You do not have to remain with me. Go to the kitchens, rest in chambers if you wish. We will find you when they come back."

He shot to his feet. That was what he needed, some activity to release the tension in his muscles. "Thank you, m'lady. I will not go far." He wandered the corridors for a time, finally ending up in Duncan's chambers. Throwing himself on the bed, he breathed in the scent of him from the pillows, but he couldn't stay still. He explored the room, touching Duncan's things, finding his presence where he could. A small chest intrigued Matthew and he lifted the lid carefully. Inside were many keepsakes, items so personal that Matthew knew his looking was an invasion. He started to close the lid, then caught a glimpse of something he knew. Buried under the other things were two small braids of leather and horsehair, decorated with common stones. Closing the lid, he held the braids in his hand. Finding these symbols among such precious mementos meant a lot to him, it was yet one more indication that Duncan had also retained his hope for them. Now he sat on the bed, holding the braids, touching the stones, remembering the moment they were exchanged, part of their happier time. Maybe they would have a chance for more happy times.

The sound of shouting and running feet in the corridor disturbed his reverie and he opened the door. "What is it?" he asked a passing servant.

The man stopped long enough to answer. "The Master is back."

They were back! Duncan was back! He almost ran to the main hall to find Mary, but she was nowhere to be found. He was told she had gone to the courtyard to greet her husband. He couldn't get there fast enough, running out with no cloak for warmth, pushing past the servants until he saw them. A little disheveled, but none the worse for wear, Ian and Duncan were still on their horses, Murdoch and Cassandra kneeling in the mud in front of them. Matthew started to go to Duncan, but was stopped by Mary.

"Not now, Matthew. Stay here with me." She held onto his arm, giving the appearance that she was clinging to him for support. Once more, Matthew had reason to appreciate the strength of Mary MacLeod as she held him in place, giving her support as the last of this drama was played out.

Slowly, Ian dismounted, moving to stand in front of his captives. "Never have I seen such a lack of honor as we have been showed by you, Murdoch. This is made worse only by the fact that your daughter has been raised and encouraged to the same lack of moral standards. That you could be so desperate to increase your holdings that you would kill innocents and force my son into an alliance by the kidnap and torture of one of my household is incomprehensible." He walked away from them, his back stiff with anger, his fists balled at his sides. Turning to face them, he went on. "I should kill you both. It would be justice for the MacAians and the uncounted numbers who have died defending these lands, but there has been enough death. I will not kill you. But you are to be banished from these hills forever, the slightest hint of your return will be your death knell. Do you have anything to say to this?"

Before Murdoch or Cassandra could speak, Mary's voice rang out. "Husband, I believe that with some coaxing Murdoch may have some information to share about the rightful Laird of that manor."

"M'lady," Matthew hissed at her, "you promised." He fell silent at her upraised hand, watching Ian's reaction to her words.

Duncan had dismounted and pulled Cassandra to her feet, holding his dagger firmly to her throat. "Would this be the sort of persuasion that could bring the truth from you, Murdoch?"

Ian moved once again in front of Murdoch. "Were I you, I would say what there is to be known. After what has happened, I would not count on Duncan's sense of honor to stop him from injuring your daughter." His words were punctuated by a cry from Cassandra as the blade bit into her flesh.

"Stop. Don't harm her," Murdoch rasped. "If we are to be removed from the land, you may as well know."

"Father, no! I would sooner die than tell them." Desperation sounded in Cassandra's voice.

"Do not give me more temptation, witch," Duncan whispered in her ear as his grip on her tightened.

"It matters not to us now, daughter. I will tell them." Murdoch glared at Ian then straight at Matthew. "That one. Your son's whore, MacLeod. The MacAian cousin did not die, and there he stands, ready to attempt his claim."

The startling revelation brought silence to all in the courtyard, Ian finally taking action. "Very well. Your admission of this truth will further ensure that you are not executed for your crimes. You may take your horses and go, but do not stop for any reason until you are so far away that the MacLeod name is not known." He watched as they were mounted on two aged horses and the gate opened for them. "You will have an escort to assure that you know which way to ride. Now leave. I never want to see you or hear your name spoken again."

Murdoch and Cassandra started out the gate, but Cassandra stopped briefly, turning in her saddle to look at Duncan. "Be sure to ask your little catamite about his time in Liverpool. I'm sure he has some very amusing stories he could tell you." At the mention of that town, Matthew fell back as if struck, all color drained from his face. Cassandra's demonic laughter rang out. "You see, Duncan, calling him a whore was not simply an endearment." She kicked the horse into a trot and caught up with Murdoch as they rode away from the castle.

Duncan crossed the courtyard quickly, only to find Matthew with his back to him, his arms hugging himself tightly.

"Matthew?" His only answer was a harsh sob. "Tell me," Duncan said softly, gripping the slender shoulders and pulling Matthew against him.

Matthew swallowed and nodded, leaning into his lover's strength. "They set on me on the road but did not know of my immortality. They thought they had left me for dead. They had not, of course, but I was hurt and badly. Weak from blood loss. A wagon came along, peddlers I thought at first, but the man who found me was a whoremaster out of Liverpool. He had use for me it seemed. So I am neither as young nor as innocent as you assumed. And your father and Cassandra were more right than they knew," Matthew said, waiting for the hands to release him in disgust. His breath caught when Duncan held him tighter, one arm slipping around his waist and his lips brushing softly along Matthew's neck.

"How did you get free of him? The whoremaster," Duncan asked, his voice raw with grief.

"By irony," Matthew said, and chuckled mirthlessly. "A water sickness -- a real one -- swept through the town. Beatle, that was his name, died in the first wave. There was none to hold us there and no business while the town recovered. I might have been forgotten save one of the other whores remembered me and let me out of my cell. It took time for me to earn enough money to buy a horse and start north again to find out what had happened. To prove that Murdoch murdered Hugh MacAian and his family."

Duncan gently turned Matthew to face him. "Cassandra and Murdoch are gone and you have helped bring peace to a ravaged land. Yet there is no joy in you. Why is that?"

"Because, no matter what I have done or not done, I will still lose you," Matthew said, fingers rising to touch Duncan's lips. "Your father will be glad to have joined the lands again and you and he may have them. I was never trained to run such an estate...but whatever we might have had...Duncan, I was a whore. Even if your father accepts this, we cannot think Cassandra will not spread the tale. Rumors started by Kilbourne's men are already rife."

"Do you think I care one whit what they think?" Duncan said, gripping his arms fiercely. "You were forced to it!"

"And could you have been forced to it?" Matthew asked, meeting the near-angry gaze and saw the truth there when Duncan looked away. "You see? No man of honor would let himself be used so. You would not."

"Perhaps not. Perhaps so. Did he know how to kill you? Did he try?" Duncan asked and saw from the haunted expression that it had been so. Gently he cupped the pale face in his hands. "I care nothing for what may be said, either by the people or by my father. I love you, Matthew. Does it count for nothing?"

"It counts for everything," Matthew said shakily. "But it still may not be enough. Is it worth being cast off for me, Duncan? You have been raised your whole life to lead and care for these people and this land. Could you bear to lose it all?"

"If I lose you, none of it will have any meaning," Duncan whispered softly and before Matthew could protest again claimed the open mouth to silence him. There was no resistance, nor had Duncan expected any as he tried to pour all his most heartfelt feelings into the kiss. His hands moved, enfolding the familiar, slender body, drawing Matthew close. "Prince or pauper, Laird or layman, where you are, I will be. Where you go I will follow. But I would ask you to stay, to try. Ride out this storm with me. I think my father not so rigid as you might think and if he is, then we will leave, together. Stay with me and be my love forever."

Matthew could not speak, and Duncan waited, heart in his throat, then close to breaking as the smile crept in to Matthew's face, almost shy, wholly wondering as he reached up to clasp Duncan's hand in his.

"If that is a proposal then, yes, my love, I'll be with you always."

This time as Duncan met Matthew's lips it was with a soft hesitancy, as if he couldn't believe he had gotten the answer he had so long hoped for. The words were confirmed as Matthew's arms slid around his body, holding him close, seeking a joining of bodies as they had found a joining of souls. Duncan had one hand on the back of Matthew's head and one on the small of his back, pressing himself against his love as his tongue and lips sought to say what he had not words to express.

"Duncan." Ian MacLeod's voice broke into their private moment. "We have much to discuss. Would you and Matthew join me in the hall?"

Duncan separated his mouth from Matthew's, leaning his forehead against the other man's. "It seems my father has need of us. Perhaps he can be convinced to be brief."

"Brevity would be most welcome," Matthew answered softly.

Duncan chuckled quietly. "It most certainly would." Keeping his arm around Matthew's waist, they followed Ian to the hall, taking seats near the fireplace.

Ian looked at first one, then the other, finally settling his gaze on Matthew. "So, the MacAian cousin has been hiding in my household. Why is it you did not feel you could bring your story to us?"

Matthew shifted uneasily in his seat. "M'lord, I did not intend to deceive you. It had been so many years between hearing of the tragedy and finding myself able to return that I feared that I would not be able to prove my claim, and I needed to try to find the truth of the events without exposing my motivations."

Ian nodded. "And what truth were you looking for?"

"To know if there was anyone left to recognize who I was. I could not press my belief that there had been treachery in the deaths of my adopted family if I could not prove who I was." Matthew spoke with a quiet intensity that betrayed his deep emotion, his hands gripping the arms of the chair until his knuckles whitened. Duncan covered the hand nearest him with his own, lending what support he could. "I did not want the land, although I knew if I was proved the last living relative it should come to me. What I did want was justice for the lives I was sure were taken not by sickness, but by murder." He turned his hand over, holding on to Duncan's tightly. "But I could prove nothing. No one, save Murdoch and Cassandra, remembered the lost cousin and I never expected them to admit that fact."

"And murder is difficult to prove so many years after the fact," Ian said thoughtfully. His eyes narrowed as he again focused on Matthew. "Did you believe us so petty as to doubt who you were?"

"No, m'lord," Matthew said hastily. "It had been my decision before coming home that I would travel as Matthew. I had no desire to arrive and announce who I was, only to be held in contempt as one of many pretenders to Lairdship, or worse, to become another victim of Murdoch or his men." Now he looked straight at Duncan. "And I would not have asked that anyone take such a story on my simple word. It were better that I remain Matthew, an honorable serving man, than try to be Methos and always fear that there was doubt of the truth of it."

"But now we have the truth from Murdoch's own mouth. You are Methos." Ian stroked his beard as he sat. "If it was indeed murder, that means the waters are safe. But how to test that and not risk lives..."

"If m'lord please, I believe that can be done safely, with Duncan's assistance."

Glancing at his son, Ian smiled gently. "I believe he would find that agreeable."

"That I would," Duncan said. "Now that it is known that Matthew is a man of some station, will you reconsider your thoughts of a match?"

"There is more involved here than Matthew's station. You are not a free man, Duncan." Duncan felt his heart sink at those words. No matter how coerced the contract was, it was a contract and it kept him bound to Cassandra, whether she was present or not. "I will petition to the priest to have the contract annulled. The foul means used to obtain your agreement should be enough consideration to allow for the dissolution. If we can achieve that, I will give the matter some thought."

Duncan knew he could ask for no more than that, but also knowing his father as he did, if his union with Cassandra could be declared void, he was sure Ian would agree to him taking Matthew as consort. His fate would rest on the whims of the priest.

One thing seemed to be nagging at Ian, and he turned his attention again to Matthew. "You truly believe you can prove the waters safe? How soon can this be done?"

"We could begin tomorrow, if you can spare Duncan."

"I would command him to assist you if I thought that would aid in the endeavor. But I see there is no commanding needed," Ian said, smiling. "Duncan, do I need to remind you against unseemly behavior with one you think to take as consort?"

"No, father." Duncan felt the heat in his cheeks as he let go of Matthew's hand.

"Good." The elder MacLeod stood. "I believe they are holding dinner for us. Shall we join your mother?" He turned toward the dining hall, Duncan and Matthew close behind.

For Duncan, dinner seemed to stretch on forever. All he wanted to do was eat in haste and find a way to be alone with Matthew. He wasn't sure whether he wanted to spend more time asking about who he really was or holding and touching him. His opportunity to take his leave of his parents came when he noticed that Matthew was having trouble staying awake, and they accepted his excuse that he wanted to see that Matthew got to his quarters. Once they were away from the hall, Duncan turned them toward his own chambers.

"Would this be what your father meant by unseemly?"

Duncan stopped, taken aback by the question. Could it be that Matthew would prefer they were separate until such time as they could make an alliance? "It could be. Would you rather sleep in your own room?"

Matthew's sly grin told Duncan he had been the object of a little joke. "No, Duncan, I do not want to sleep alone. I'll take my chances with the gossips."

Taking Matthew's face in his hands, Duncan kissed him softly. "Good. You go on ahead. I want to get something special." He watched until Matthew had rounded the turn of the corridor, then went back to the kitchen and got a jug of wine and two goblets. Moving quietly enough to avoid rousing the household, Duncan went to his chambers, smiling in sweet anticipation of the evening. He opened the door and his smile broadened as he saw Matthew already in bed. The closer he got, the more his excitement grew, until he stood next to the bed, his smile fading to a soft, gentle look. Matthew was sound asleep, curled up in the blankets, holding on to Duncan's pillow.

The wine jug and goblets were put aside and Duncan stripped off his clothing before climbing into bed. He eased his pillow out of Matthew's grasp, then put his arms loosely around his sleeping lover. The only response he got was a happy sigh and the small movements as Matthew nestled closer to his chest.

"Sleep well, my love. We will have plenty of time for celebration." Duncan brushed his lips against Matthew's brow, then arranged himself protectively around him, closing his eyes and resting his head against Matthew's. He was comfortable and happy, but did not sleep right away. Too many questions were dancing in his head, but none that would not keep till morning. He took the time to think through some of his concerns and knew most were curiosity. None would effect his bond with Matthew, and that was all that mattered. That realization relaxed him enough for slumber to take him, deep and pleasant, filled with dreams of smiles and kisses.

It wasn't a kiss, but a soft nuzzling that woke Duncan in the morning. Warm breath and lips brushing over his neck and jaw followed by the touch of a tongue sent erotic reinforcements to his morning's hardness. Purring deep in his chest, Duncan slid his hand to the back of Matthew's head, letting his fingers make lazy encouraging patterns on Matthew's skull. He felt Matthew's smile against his skin, then saw its image as Matthew leaned over him and looked in his eyes.

"Good morning, Duncan." The smile filled Matthew's whole face, lighting up the gold in his eyes.

"Good morning, Matthew. Or should I call you Methos?" He traced the lines of Matthew's lips and jaw with his fingers.

"It matters not what you call me, only that you call me at all." Matthew touched his lips to Duncan's. "But if you want to know which I prefer, I think I like the way you say Methos. And it is my first name."

"First name?" Duncan asked in a little confusion.

"The first name I used, the one I was given as a babe. But I have used Matthew when I lived in places where Methos would have sounded too strange." A touch of sadness crossed his face. "I told you I wasn't as young as you imagined. Please tell me it makes no difference."

"No," Duncan smiled. "It makes no difference." He slipped his hand to Methos' neck, pulling down gently, asking, not demanding. He was answered by a slow attack on his mouth, lips meeting then opening to allow exploring tongues to find each other.

Duncan caressed Methos' body, fingertips following the long lines of chest and back, finding the sharp ridges as silken flesh molded to the thin body, the severe dip at Methos' waist, hard point of hip bone, and corded muscle of thigh. As Duncan touched him, Methos' mouth became more demanding, and when Duncan's hand came to rest on Methos' groin, he tasted the sigh of pleasure. Duncan kept his hand still, cupping Methos' balls and half-hard cock, waiting for him to set the pace. A shift of hips pressing against his hand urged him to move, massaging the warm flesh as Methos' cock filled and lengthened.

Rolling to his back, Duncan pulled Methos over him, holding the lithe body to him, one arm around Methos' shoulders, the other across his buttocks. Their hard cocks were trapped between their bellies, rubbing together as Duncan thrust upward, creating a sensuous friction. Methos' mouth was again buried in Duncan's neck as he pushed his hips against the motion, moaning softly with each stroke. Duncan stilled, letting Methos' urgent thrusting drive them, both hands now holding Methos' buttocks as he felt Methos' hands twine in his hair. Moans became a steady keening as Methos' pushed harder, faster, Duncan's voice joining his with wordless whispers as he felt the need burning in his body, seeking release, but he wanted to wait for Methos, to share the explosion he knew was coming. Urging him onward, Duncan's hands grasped and released Methos' buttocks with every thrust, pulling him hard against his belly.

Hard bodies, driving together, filmed with sweat, Methos' mouth suddenly over Duncan's, greedy and desperate as tongue and teeth dove into him, Methos' hips grinding steadily, then a moment, a pause and a strangled cry as Methos' entire body spasmed over and over, his hot essence filling the space between them. As if that cry was his cue, Duncan felt his fluids boil over, shooting out to join Methos' until both were spent, empty.

He embraced Methos tightly, holding on as the slim trembling body collapsed against him, then eased Methos to the mattress as he got up to find a cloth to wipe away the stickiness. Back in bed, Duncan cradled his exhausted lover in his arms and pulled the blanket over them. His fingers smoothed back sweat-slick hair and he kissed Methos' forehead, pleased with the contented smile he elicited.

"I think you don't yet have the strength for much of this," he whispered in Methos' ear.

"Perhaps not, but I can think of no way I'd rather use what strength I have." His fingertips brushed Duncan's cheek. "And with your mother's good care, I'll be myself in no time."

"That you will. She'll fatten you like the Christmas goose if you're not careful." He pulled the blanket closely around Methos. "Now rest. Before long the household will be up and Father will come looking for us."

"And chastise us for unseemly behavior?"

Duncan smiled. "In all likelihood, yes, should he find us like this. But he will not. We will be up and planning our trip to the tainted streams. Am I correct in assuming that your plan is that we should try the waters ourselves before risking either animals or other people?"

Methos nodded against his shoulder. "It would seem the simplest proof. If we feel no effect from the waters, we can let the animals drink, then people as well. I am convinced the waters are clean and never held any sickness."

"And that the MacAians were murdered. The sad truth is that we will never be able to prove it. We will have to settle for showing the waters clean and restoring the lands to the proper family."

"I didn't want the land, I only wanted justice for the people who had been so kind to me." He hugged Duncan tightly. "Family is a precious gift, and the MacAians welcomed me as if I had been born among them."

"And now the MacLeods will welcome you the same way." He tilted Methos' head up for a gentle kiss. He didn't add that it all hinged on the priest granting his annulment, dwelling on that brought neither of them any peace of mind. They lay quietly, Duncan idly caressing Methos' back and shoulder, until sounds of activity could be heard.

"Methos, my love, I fear it is time for us to rise, before we are discovered in such a compromising position." He slid out of bed, leaving his companion nestled in the blankets. "I'll see what I can find for you to wear. My choices yesterday left a little to be desired."

Methos sat up in bed, holding the blankets close. "Were any of my things recovered from Murdoch?"

"No." Duncan shook his head. "Liam will be back this morning with what could be found, but there was precious little they did not destroy." At Methos' crestfallen look, Duncan crossed to the bed and took his hand. "The few things that were found included your books. It is those you cared most for, is it not?"

"It is. They were my most valued possessions." He squeezed Duncan's hand. "Thank you for looking for them."

"You hadn't finished reading them to me," Duncan said with a little smile. "I couldn't let them be lost, if only for that reason." He turned back to the trunk, pulling out a few pieces of clothing. "I think these will do better for you. Come here and let's get them fitted." Methos got up and took the breeches Duncan was holding, slipping them on. "See, the length is fine, we only need to belt them in. Good. Now try this." Methos put on shirt and tunic, then heavy stockings and boots. Duncan belted and pulled and tucked until he was satisfied. "Better. Now I have one other thing for you to wear." He went to the small chest and took out the leather and horsehair braids. "I think it is right that we wear these again." He tied one braid on Methos' wrist, then held his own arm out for Methos to tie the other one. A lingering kiss sealed the promise the braids represented, and Duncan returned to the large chest to find his own clothes. Dressing himself took little time and soon both were ready to face the household. He pulled Methos into one last kiss before leaving their bit of privacy.

Ian and Mary were already at breakfast, Ian greeting Duncan and Methos impatiently. "Where have you slug-a-beds been? The morning is half gone and you have a long chore ahead of you."

Duncan answered for both of them. "We have not been wasting the morning, Father. The plan to prove the waters pure is made and we will start as soon as we've eaten and gathered the supplies we need. I expect we will be gone for several days." He looked to Methos for confirmation, and was answered by a nod. "Will you make petition to the priest while we are gone?"

Ian nodded. "I have summoned him here today. When Liam returns, I wish the good father to hear the whole sordid tale from him."

A voice from the corridor boomed out. "And Liam has returned." The large red-headed man came into the hall, smiling. "Matthew, this is yours." He handed Methos a satchel. "And your horse is in the stable." Looking from Duncan to Ian, he asked, "And how went the confrontation with Murdoch and his daughter?"

Duncan motioned him to a chair before telling the whole tale, including the revelation of Methos' identity. Liam sat back with a grin. "It could not have gone much worse for them. I admit, I will not be unhappy to see that household taken over by a new Laird. By your leave, m'lords, I would offer my services to the young Master in any capacity he might need them."

"Your offer is most gracious, Liam, and I will not forget it." Methos turned to Duncan. "Perhaps in a few days..."

A quick nod as Duncan assented. "That would be perfect." He addressed Liam. "We will be camped by the tainted stream for the next few days, proving it clean and safe. Will you join us three days hence and assist in the proof?"

"I will." Liam stood. "But now I must see to the men. It was a bit of work to clean out the riffraff from the estate, and the men are tired. But, Matthew...Methos...you will be pleased to know that all who are left are loyal to you and the MacAian name."

"It seems I am already in your debt. As soon as we have proved the waters safe, I shall have to take up my responsibilities there." Duncan looked at Methos, seeing a difference in him, the mantle of leadership making a change that added a seriousness to his face and bearing. He was struck by the depths in his lover that he had yet to learn, and excited by the anticipation of great times spent learning them. Duncan felt the smile on his lips and recognized the warmth he felt as pride. This was his chosen one stepping up easily to take on his duties, the man who would be his partner in all things.

Pulling himself from his reverie, Duncan stood. "We should pack what we need so we can get to the stream and make camp before dark." Methos stood to go with him, but both were stopped by Mary MacLeod.

"Methos, tell the cook to give you the makings for that stew. You are still thin and pale." Her smiling face belied her stern instructions. "And you, Duncan, see to it he rests and eats. I will not be pleased if he comes back looking worse than when you leave."

"Yes, Mother." Duncan kissed her on the cheek. His pride swelled again, knowing that his mother did not share this sort of concern and affection lightly. Better he should get them started packing what they needed, else he would find himself pulling Methos into an embrace in front of Ian and Mary.

They went first to the kitchen, gathering food and utensils they'd need, then to the stable to check on the horses. Methos' sorrel gelding was in the stall next to Duncan's bay stallion, both horses greeting their masters eagerly. Soft noses were patted, then the men went to put together bedrolls and extra clothing. When they were ready, the horses were saddled and packs tied on securely and they rode out toward the suspect streams.

That afternoon and the next two days were spent exploring the stream and its branches, watching the animals drink, noting the number of fish, using the water for their own drinking and cooking, all to no ill effect. On the third day, Liam joined them as he had promised, showing up with a huge grin on his face.

"M'lord, I was not to tell you this news, but it is too good to withhold." Liam smiled at Duncan, then Methos. "The priest came today with the declaration of your annulment. Your father would skin me alive for telling you, but I could not keep it secret."

Duncan stood and took Liam in a bear hug. "This is the best news I've had!" He released Liam and took Methos in his arms. "Every day brings us closer to a future together. Now all we need is Father's blessing."

"Which will come sooner than you think." Liam placed one hand on each man's shoulder. "His Lordship as much as said there was nothing to stop the match." He turned toward the creek. "And how flow the evil waters today? You two seem hale and hearty."

Reluctantly, Duncan let go of Methos, walking to the edge of the stream. "The fish who inhabit it seem fine as well. We have used the water since we arrived three days past, and have observed many deer drinking from its banks. Methos is right, there is nothing amiss with the waters."

Liam nodded. "And what do you wish of me?"

Now Methos spoke up. "Only that you observe that we drink the water and be willing to swear to it. It has been believed tainted for so many years that the people will not accept otherwise easily."

Stepping to the edge of the stream, Liam cupped his hands, filling them with water and drinking deeply. "Swearing that I also drank it will bring greater effect to the telling. What next?"

"We break camp tomorrow morning and go back with our own news of safe waters." Duncan clasped a hand on Liam's shoulder. "Thank you for your trust and bravery."

"You can repay me by appearing suitably surprised when your Father tells you of the priest's decision."

The rest of the day was spent in simple enjoyment of good friends, catching up on news, talking of plans for the MacAian estate, fishing for the trout that became dinner. They were up at first light, packing their things for the return to the MacLeod castle. As they neared, Liam rode ahead to announce their return and they were greeted in the courtyard by a large crowd, headed by Ian and Mary.

"So, son," Ian began gruffly, "I hear the waters are indeed pure."

"Yes, Father," Duncan answered.

"Good," Ian continued. "I have a little news of my own. I have no doubt you already know of the priest's declaration." He shot a stern look at Liam. "But what you may not know is that I have taken the liberty of telling him to start declaring the banns for you and Methos. The first will be published Sunday next. I hope this meets with your approval." Finally, Ian let a smile break across his face.

"Father...I..." For the first time since he was a small child, Duncan was at a loss for words with his father.

"Don't tell me you've changed your mind."

"No," Duncan said softly, "I don't think I truly believed this would ever happen." He took Methos' hand and drew him close. "Is this still what you want? Will you stay with me forever?"

"I can think of no other place I want to be than at your side." Duncan thought he would drown as he looked in Methos' eyes, watching the gold and green dance and shine. He leaned forward to capture Methos' mouth with his own.

"We'll have none of that, Duncan MacLeod. Not out here in front of everyone." Mary's voice caught him before the kiss was met. "And you, Methos, we have much to do. Scant weeks before the ceremony and you with an estate to run. Both of you, come with me."

Duncan looked beseechingly at Ian who merely shook his head and shrugged. The truth was that his mother was right, they did have much to do, making two households ready for the hand-fasting, but it reminded Duncan of his childhood to have his mother speak to him so. It was Methos who got him moving, a hand on the small of his back pushing him imperceptibly, and they followed Mary to the hall.

Decisions were made about the ceremony, tasks divided and assigned and with great reluctance, it was decided that Methos had to take up residence at his estate, if only to acquaint the servants with their new Laird and his wishes. The weeks fairly flew by as the banns were declared, the flurry of activity to prepare for the day almost, but not quite keeping the mind of each man off his absent lover.

The festivities began a week before the actual hand-fasting ceremony, every house and hovel flying banners not only to celebrate the coming union between the Laird's son and his consort but the union of the split houses, rejoined after centuries. Three days before the ceremony, sheep were driven down from the high meadows and the once banned streamed laden with flowers as the sparkling waters were indeed drunk and caused no harm to sheep or man. A blessing that seemed a most auspicious beginning for the two young men who had triumphed over so much.

Poets and bards were already composing songs and lays for the tale, what they knew of it. The rumors of Methos' past had spread and were squashed, sometimes violently, when any man or maid dared cast aspersions upon the young man's worthiness to be consort to the heir of the MacLeod lands. And in and among the celebrations, Duncan and Methos were hard pressed to find much time at all to spend alone as the two houses were brought into accord. Custom dictated the couple keep their nights apart although they spent as much of their waking hours together as they could.

Liam became their chief ally in trying to arrange some time for privacy but it was difficult with Methos keeping his chamber in the MacAian estate and Duncan at the MacLeod stronghold. Only one night, some four days before the ceremony, was Duncan able to slip his keepers and while fervent kisses were exchanged, both men were too weary by their labors to do more than hold one another throughout the too-short night. Liam arrived before dawn to chase the MacLeod heir back to his own chambers before anyone could know.

The closer they got to the hand-fasting day, the more demands upon their time. There were fittings for clothing and details of the banquet, cleaning and all manner of small details to be attended to. Methos was chased into smaller chambers while the master's chamber was prepared for their union night. The couple had decided to retire to the MacAian keep to live while Ian MacLeod held firm rein to the rejoined estates. Methos had no desire to lord over the lands and was willing enough to watch over the fortunes of the twin estates while allowing his mate to see to the day to day running of such a large holding as the son of Laird MacLeod should do.

All such obstacles overcome, on the day of the ceremony, Duncan thought he should not be so nervous. They held the ceremony outside, in the glade by the loch, and for once the sun cooperated. Priest of the Church and Priest of the old religions stood side by side in the center of the glade, Duncan and his entourage to the west and Methos and his to the east. Blindfolded, he could see nothing of his love nor could Methos see him but he could feel his lover, soon to be consort and mate, that comforting presence singing high above all else.

Then it was time and Duncan began the walk, guided by his father's hand. Mary MacLeod would guide Methos, with no other living relative to so lead him. And love should be blind, Duncan thought as he finally stopped and his father lifted his hands. Tentatively, then with more surety, slender fingers closed over his and tightened. His father's hands untied the blindfold as Mary brought sight back to his lover's eyes.

His breath stopped as Methos lifted his head, the gold-green eyes blinking in the sudden return of bright light. His dark hair was mussed from the blindfold even as Mary tried to smooth it, soft strands caressing his cheek and neck.

He did not wear the plaid of the MacAian clan, adopted but not named heir and henceforth, as needed, he would wear the MacLeod plaid. So, for now, they had dressed him in a shirt of pure white with an overtunic of brilliant blues and greens that made his eyes shine brightly and his skin seem like the most flawless of creams. His throat was bared as was Duncan's, a custom in unions between Immortals. Where his hands caught Duncan's stood the rough, and now worn, leather bracelet with its polished stones.

Methos was likewise swept up in his lover's appearance. Polished and groomed, his shirt pulled tightly across the muscled chest, the plaid folded precisely, this was no highland son but a prince he faced. The brown eyes had softened, full lips parted as if Duncan would at any moment speak or, Methos preferred, lean in to be kissed. He had to still his own urge to lean in and capture that mouth or to run his fingers along the strong column of his mate's throat. Instead he lifted his arm and twined forearms and hands together as they turned to kneel before the priests.

The words were ancient, as much a contract as the coerced document Duncan had signed, but they ran deeper and not a sound was heard save their soft answers to the priests as their vows were spoken and answered and sealed.

Sealed with more than words as Duncan turned to his lover, now consort, and almost laughed as their lips met and a cheer went up from the onlookers. The kiss was dismally brief, parted too soon as they were raised up and turned to face guests and family alike.

Duncan's stallion was led up for the pair to mount and to the surprise of all watching it was not the Laird's son who mounted and pulled his consort up behind him as was custom, but with a brief kiss and a murmur, Methos mounted then extended his arm to assist Duncan in mounting behind him. The symbolism was lost on no one. They were pelted with flowers and seed, grain and herbs as they led the procession back to the keep.

It was nigh on midnight before they were allowed to retire, goodnights and ribald jokes tolerated impatiently before they made their way upstairs only to find Liam and three of Duncan's men at arms guarding the staircase. "No tricks and no interruptions this night, m'lords," Liam said with a grin, Methos smiling gratefully at the respect given both of them.

They ran the last of the way to their chamber, slamming the door behind them, then falling together on the cushions strewn on the rug before the hearth.

"It you are too weary, we need only hold one another," Duncan murmured as Methos leaned back against him in front of the fire.

Methos twisted in his arms, capturing the soft mouth with passion and force enough to prove to Duncan he was not in the least bit weary. His fingers skated beneath the loose cloth of his love's shirt, exploring the bronzed skin as thoroughly as his lips and tongue explored the willing mouth. Encouraged, Duncan did the same, pulling the cream and jewel tone blouse from his lover's breeches to skim his hands along the long sleek lines of his back then daring to dip lower, to feel the muscled flesh below as Methos' mouth descended upon his breast. They rose together, shedding clothing and exchanging breathy renewals of their public vows in the warmth and quiet of their privacy.

By the time his back hit the soft eiderdown of the bed, Duncan was aflame, body throbbing in time with his lover's heartbeat as the clever and talented mouth roused senses and emotions and feelings. Nor could he get enough of the taste and the feel of this man he had risked so much for and been willing to risk everything to keep safe. When Methos' lips closed over his pulsing and swollen manhood he thought death could be worth this.

Methos' skin was like silk beneath his hands, the deceptively powerful muscles flexing and fluttering under each caress. Just as he thought he would explode, Methos drew away, silencing Duncan's groan of near agony with his lips and reaching beyond him to the table, fingers returning to cover his cock with a slick warm liquid. The touch alone was too exquisite for Duncan to bear for long nor did Methos make him wait as he straddled the spasming hips and guided Duncan within him with a sigh that quickly changed timbre to a moan of pleasure. Duncan's body sheathed within his, Methos dropped forward on his hands, this movement causing Duncan to groan again as his lover's body contracted around him.

Duncan reached one hand behind Methos' neck to pull his head down for a searing kiss as his other sought between them and closed over his mate's firm shaft. They found a rhythm so natural it seemed they had been making love together for years rather than their one too-swift union. Then the intensity was too much and Methos lifted upward, head flung back as Duncan felt his lover's cock pulse and swell, the hot spill of seed across his hand and belly prompting his own release and he gripped at Methos' thighs and hips, thrusting hard once into the tight channel and then in short fast strokes with his rush of release until he was spent. Methos came down again to be cradled against the brawny chest, breathing rapidly.

After a few moments Methos moved to shift his weight and Duncan held him in place with his hands. "No, I'm not ready to lose you yet," he said with a grin and moved carefully to roll his mate onto his back, their bodies never parting. Methos was laughing breathlessly as he cradled his mate between his legs, enjoying the warm, full feeling of his magnificent lover still buried deep within him.

Laughter soon turned to breathless pants as Duncan's mouth moved over his skin, their fingers twined together as the larger man kissed and nipped and suckled the pale skin, coaxing the small nipples to tight hard peaks, smiling as Methos arched into his moist kisses then relaxing again as Duncan nuzzled his throat. Every touch on Methos' body was echoed where he still filled his lover until Methos was aroused again and clutching at Duncan to caress and coax, meeting the seeking mouth with force and need.

The bright flame of passion that burned in Methos made him the most beautiful thing Duncan had ever seen. Their eyes met and Duncan almost lost himself in the black pools that looked at him. The normally pale skin was flushed with desire, lips dark and swollen, mouth slightly open as pants and small moans alternated. But the hands! Methos' hands were everywhere, on his chest touching his nipples, drawing urgent tattoos on his back, pulling hard on his buttocks, demanding everything Duncan wanted to give him. He caught one of the hands in his own, linking their fingers as he began a slow steady rocking into his partner. Each thrust drew a wordless affirmation from Methos that Duncan could not resist, and he dove down to capture those sounds with his own mouth, letting his lips and tongue be the answer to the siren call. Their linked hands found and encircled Methos' hard cock, completing their joining as much they could without melting into one being.

Each shift of Duncan's body was answered with joyous acceptance by his lover, pulling him to greater and greater need. He moved faster as he felt the hardness in his hand swell more in preparation for release, his own juices already churning in his body, eager to explode. Methos' body spasmed hard as hot fluid covered Duncan's hand, each wave clenching the muscle around his own cock, driving him to pump his boiling essence into his lover until there was no more, and still he thrust, not wanting the moment to end.

Trembling from the strain, his body insisted that it was over for now, and Duncan eased himself down next to Methos, still not separating from him, trying to keep that connection as long as he could. Sweat and semen stuck their bodies together, racing hearts and hard drawn breaths testament to their passion. Slowly, their bodies settled toward normal and Duncan felt himself soften and fall from Methos' body, leaving him with a small feeling of loss, but knowing this was not an end, but a beginning. He looked at Methos, seeing closed eyes, bright skin and sweat slick hair, and a beatific smile on his lips. Duncan kissed him softly, then eased from the bed to find basin and cloth, cleaning them both, then settling again next to his lover. "I feel as though I have loved you forever," he whispered, nuzzling the soft, fine hairs that curled around Methos' ears.

Methos' eyes opened briefly, their glow echoing the smile on his lips. "So it can be true, my love. We can love each other forever."

Duncan kissed his forehead and cheeks. "It is indeed true, Methos, my darling. Forever." Cushioning Methos' head on his chest, he pulled the blankets close about them, his arms loosely around his partner as they fell asleep.

A hard poke in the ribs roused MacLeod from his sleep. "Methos? What...what was that for?" It took him a moment to focus and reorient himself. No castles, he was in his loft. It had been a dream, but such a vivid and lovely dream.

"You were talking in your sleep. I want to know who you were calling 'darling,'" Methos said indignantly.

With a small chuckle, MacLeod answered him. "You, you idiot." He grabbed Methos and pulled him down next to him. "I was calling you 'darling.'"

Methos looked skeptical. "I don't know. I don't recall you ever calling me that before, and I'm not sure I'd allow it."

"Maybe you should consider it." Duncan sat up and found his book. "I fell asleep reading this...thing...you brought home. And had the most fantastic dream. Let me tell you about it." It took him a few minutes to tell the whole tale, but when he finished, Methos was sitting with an odd look on his face. "What is it? You look like, I don't know, you've heard a ghost story or something."

"Something like that." Methos reached for the book, taking it from MacLeod's hand. "I bought this because the author had found some old legends. You know the story of the MacAians and Murdoch is mostly true?"

Duncan nodded. "I remember there was a MacAian clan some distance from ours. We never had much to do with them."

"No, that part of the story is fabrication. But the cousin existed." He waited while MacLeod thought about that, then smiled at the look of surprise. "That's right. I was in Scotland around 1600. I guess we missed each other by mere miles."

"Hard to believe. I wonder what would have happened if we'd met back then." MacLeod laughed softly and reached for Methos. "But no use dwelling on that, we've met now."

Methos came willingly into his embrace, a faint smile on his lips. "Don't tell me you believe in happily ever after?"

"Well," MacLeod said, a little mischief dancing in his eyes. "I believe in you," he said and kissed him swiftly. "And I believe in being happy." Another kiss, a little longer and Methos responded willingly. "Being Immortal, the 'ever' part is a definite possibility." The third kiss was lingering and thorough, MacLeod's hands stoking the fires his mouth was kindling.

"And the 'after' part?" Methos asked a little breathlessly, eyes darkening in answer to the desire MacLeod was summoning.

A broad hand slid between his thighs. "The 'after' part would never make it into print," MacLeod said huskily, thumb slipping against the denim to pop the snap on Methos' jeans. "You want the Cliff Notes?" he asked, slipping his hand under the fabric and grinning as his lover shuddered under his touch.

Methos caught his breath and smiled, reaching up to pull MacLeod's mouth down to his. "You know me, Mac. I am definitely into the unabridged, uncensored versions."

"Good," MacLeod said, still smiling but with a flush of passion in his cheeks and love in his dark eyes. "'Cause it could take a long time to tell, my love."

"Then I guess forever should be just about enough time," Methos murmured and sealed the pledge with a kiss.

The End
February, 1998