Swords At Sunset, Part 3
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"In the clearing by the big rocks at the edge of the wood," she finally
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,
"And what else?" Liam's hesitant answer told him there was more than what had
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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.
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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.
End Part 3
On to part 4
Back to Highlander Fiction