Ian MacLeod grinned broadly as he strode out into the courtyard to meet his old friend MacAllen. "Daniel!" He gripped the other man's arm tightly in greeting. "It's been too long, man. Where have you been?"
MacAllen hesitated, then gripped Ian's arm in return. "London," he answered shortly, allowing the other man to lead him into the house. "Ian," he said in a quieter voice as they moved out of earshot of the men handling his horse, "We must speak. I've a message for you from the Queen, and it's sorry I am to be saying as much, but I fear you'll not care for the tidings."
The MacLeod of MacLeod frowned darkly at the words. "You'll take a cup of ale with me first, my friend. Mary will bring us the jug, then you'll tell us both of the Sassenach queen's message."
Shortly thereafter, ensconced in a comfortable room, MacAllen leaned forward with a sigh and set his cup down. Mary MacLeod, her face still beautiful despite the touch of age, offered to refill the goblet, but he refused with a shake of his hand. "I'll not be easy until I've laid this before you both. The letter," he tossed a silk-wrapped packet to Ian, "you have there. The meat of it is this: the queen's decreed a marriage for Duncan."
"What!?" Ian MacLeod's eyes snapped with anger as he tore open the missive.
Mary gripped the arm of her husband's chair in fear. "To whom, Daniel?" she asked quietly. "Not... not..."
Seeing her fear, MacAllen hastened to reassure. "No--do not fear. Not to Kalas. Though that thrice-bedamned whoreson--ah, saving your pardon, Mary," he cut off the flow of profanity, "Though it is by his doing that this is come about."
"Adam Pierson, Duke of Montmorency?" Ian read from the letter. "Who the devil is the man? I don't recall such an estate."
"He's new to his title," Daniel said quietly. "They say he's a favorite of the queen's."
Mary took the letter from her husband and read it over. "Daniel, how did Kalas bring this about, and why? He's made no secret that he wanted Duncan for himself."
MacAllen snorted. "Aye, well, he'll get no satisfaction from the results of his blackhearted acts. He sent messengers to the queen with rich gifts, asking her to give Duncan to him, never mentioning you'd already rejected his suit," he explained. "Aye but the queen's a canny one. She called me to her and asked me of the lad, knowing that our lands march together." He nodded righteously, "You can be sure I did not wait to let her know you'd no desire for the match."
Ian clenched a fist. "If she cared for our wishes, why give Duncan to a bloody Sassenach?"
Daniel sighed. "I fear myself that the fault is at my door, Ian. I spoke too freely in turning her from Kalas's suit. When she heard of the other offers you'd had, and that you were refusing them to give the lad a chance to earn an estate so he could marry Tessa... well, I cannot say if it was to avoid offense among the lairds who've made you offers or to reward her man, but nothing would do but that she'd have the lad married off."
Mary laid a hand on Daniel's arm. "Don't blame yourself," she reassured. "Better anything than Kalas. A man who can win a dukedom by his own merit may not be so bad, Sassenach or no."
"Have you seen the man?" Ian asked.
"Aye. He's no warrior, though, I'll warn you. I don't know what service he did to get his estates, but I'll lay wagers that it was not on the field of battle," Daniel said. "He's a fancy courtier from what I saw of him." He shrugged. "May not be a bad thing for the lad at that. He'll be the man in the house, I don't doubt."
Mary had returned her attention to the letter. "Daniel, what's this about lands?" she asked. "Surely she knows we have no dower for the lad?"
"I almost forgot. She's dowering him herself. The MacDonaugh estates have been in dispute for years now, and I ken she's grown tired of the drunken sots that call themselves clansmen wrangling over the lands at her court. She's giving them to this duke."
Ian looked surprised. "Well, I'll not try to look at the horse's teeth," he finally sighed. "Those lands are rich ones, and the lad will do well enough, I warrant. Though it sticks in my craw to see him tied to a frippery Sassenach." He shook his head.
Folding up the letter, Mary handed it back to her husband and walked forward to kiss MacAllen on the cheek. "I thank you, Daniel. I know well that you did your best by us and our lad. You'll forgive me, but I want to find Duncan and let him know of this." She paused and sighed. "I'm afraid that he'll find it harder than we to accept this."
Duncan MacLeod, third son of the MacLeod of MacLeod, whistled cheerfully as he ran down the stairs, taking them two and three at a time. One of the maids gave him a mock scowl as he breezed past her, "You'll be breaking your neck on those stairs one of these days, Duncan!" she called out.
He threw her a grin over his shoulder, but didn't stop to flirt. He was too eager to find Tessa and tell her the good news from his session in mathematics with Brother Cullen. Another year or maybe even less of judicious raiding, and his little store of hoarded gold would be enough to buy a small estate. Then, finally, he could formally ask her father for her hand and... the wicked grin that was the despair of every red-blooded lass and lad on the MacLeod estates spread over his features. He indulged in a gleeful little jig on the landing before heading down to the ground floor.
As he headed towards the door, his mother's voice called him back. He turned to see her beckoning to him from the hallway and strode over to her side, picking her up and whirling her around in his arms. "Mother!" he said joyfully. "I've wonderful news!"
"Duncan! Put me down!" she admonished, although her smile and warm tone belied the words as her tall son set her down on the ground. She laid a gentle hand on his arm and quietly said, "I've news for you as well, love."
Duncan frowned. His mother would normally have been laughing and eager to hear his news. "Is something wrong?"
She hesitated and nodded a little. "Aye, I'm afraid so. Come with me, lad."
Anxiously, he followed her to a small room off the main hall, where she pushed him into a chair. "Duncan, you know that your father and I love Tessa dearly..."
"Tessa! Is something the matter with her!? Where--"
"Duncan!" Mary restrained him when he would have jumped out of his chair. "There's nothing wrong with the lass, though I have no doubt she'll be sore upset by this news."
Swallowing hard, Duncan gripped the arms of his chair. "Tell me," he demanded.
Her eyes sad, Mary stroked her youngest son's hair. "The queen's arranged a marriage for you with a Sassenach lord," she said quietly. "I'm sorry for it, lad, but it's royal command."
Duncan stared at her blankly for several minutes, the shock of the words driving him into silence. "But," he finally managed, voice shaking, "Tessa--I--I just needed another year..." He looked up at Mary in desperation.
Mary nodded, her face bleak. "I'm grieved for it. I know you've had your heart set on the match with her, Duncan. But we cannot refuse the queen's command." She hesitated and added, "The queen's dowering you with the old MacDonaugh estates."
He sprang up and paced the room frantically, trying to find some way out of this tangle. "I don't care if she's throwing a dozen estates at me," he flared in rage. "I won't marry her lapdog! I'll ask Tessa to run away with me--"
"You will do no such thing!" snapped Mary harshly. As he turned to look at her with an expression of betrayal, she softened her voice. "Duncan, if you defy the queen's order in such a way, you'd dishonor both us and Tessa. You'd be outcast as well--and what kind of life could you offer her then?" Mary shook her head. "No, lad. I know you love her, and your father and I have refused many offers for you on account of it, though many of those matches would have been better for you and the family. But we cannot refuse this one. You're a headstrong lad, but I trust you'd not dishonor the clan because you can't have your way."
His face pale, Duncan slumped back into the chair, his head falling forward as he considered the ruin of his hopes.
Ian MacLeod stared as the young dark-haired man stepped out of the carriage. The man's beard was neatly trimmed, and his face was handsome enough, but his neck was encased in a ridiculous white ruff three inches high, and his doublet was of glowing red brocade, embroidered with gold. Instead of boots, he wore fine shoes that looked as though they'd never seen worse footing than a dance floor. "Your Grace," Ian said, voice stiff with disapproval. Beside him, he felt Duncan shift from foot to foot, and didn't look over for fear of seeing the boy's face. And I have to hand him over to this--this fop, he thought with disgust.
The Duke hadn't descended the steps yet, his eyes fixed on Duncan with an odd expression, but at Ian's words he seemed to recollect himself and came down from the carriage door. Ian blinked in mild surprise to find him a tall man--taller even than Duncan. Nor quite as young as he'd seemed at first glance, he realized--the murky green eyes that met his own were too clever for a man of less than thirty, even though there were few lines marking the fair skin.
"MacLeod," the Duke said, inclining his head. "My thanks for your hospitality."
Ian introduced Mary, and the Duke bowed over her hand gracefully, lifting it to his lips while he murmured a greeting, and then the moment had to come. Taking a deep breath, Ian reached up to grip Duncan's shoulder. "My son, Duncan MacLeod," he introduced.
Duncan went rigid, and for a moment Ian feared he might bolt. But he swallowed and said, "Your Grace," roughly, bowing a little.
"Mm," Montmorency said. "Pleasure's all mine, I'm sure." His voice sounded just a bit dry, and Ian wondered if the man had guessed how little they desired this marriage.
"Will you come in, Your Grace?" Mary asked. "Your trip must have been a long one--we have your chamber ready, if you would care to rest before dinner."
The Duke bowed and allowed her to lead him into the hall. Left outside, Ian finally looked at his son. Duncan met his eyes and asked quietly, "Must I?" Wincing, Ian only nodded, and felt mingled pride and distress as Duncan drew himself up, his face settling into firm lines. "Then there's nothing more for it," he said. "I'll do my duty, Father, never fear."
"I know, Duncan," Ian said. "It's sorry I am there's no other way--your mother and I are made no happier than you by this marriage. But at least you'll not be far from home."
"I think I'd rather be at the ends of the earth," Duncan said bitterly, and followed his husband-to-be into the house.
Methos, currently known as the Duke of Montmorency, dropped his aching body onto the bed and heeled off his shoes, cursing badly-sprung carriages. The servants started bringing in the bath he'd asked for, and he watched them carry the buckets back and forth with a sour expression. This situation gave every indication of becoming an even bigger mess than he'd first thought it might be. How the hell had Ian and Mary MacLeod wound up secretly adopting a pre-Immortal child? And how was he going to get out of marrying the man?
Not for the first time, he considered fleeing the unwanted title and lands that Elizabeth had pressed on him. If he'd known the queen were going to turn out to be so determinedly grateful, he'd have let the damn assassins kill her. But his well-honed sense of self-preservation wouldn't permit it. Running away from a dukedom, rich lands, and an extremely beautiful young husband would cause a very odd scandal. People would talk of it and of him, and what people talked of, Immortals might learn about.
Well, at least Kalas' peculiar interest in the third son of an obscure Scottish laird now became comprehensible. Rumor had it that Kalas was a cold fish--even his friends at court seemed perplexed by his pursuit of a man who had nothing but beauty for dower. Methos wondered with some disgust whether the man had planned to even bed Duncan before killing him and taking his Quickening. Or perhaps Kalas had thought to gain himself a student?
That was unlikely, Methos decided. The other Immortal had a reputation as a loner. Which only added to his problems. He didn't want the young man's Quickening, and he didn't want a student, and he certainly didn't want Kalas coming after young Duncan's head and finding Methos along the way. But that looked like exactly what was going to happen.
"M'Lord, your bath's ready," one of the young maids told him. Not bothering to correct her address, Methos dragged himself off the bed and let the servants help him out of the heavy doublet and hose before stepping into the wide copper tub. The hot bath did feel wonderful, and he stretched out his limbs, reminded of another good reason to stay in his current position. Wealth and status did have their advantages, even if these people had nothing on the glory that was Rome as far as comfort went.
He let the young women wash him with little attention. Having been used in better times to being bathed by slaves in much the same way, he'd learned not to let the intimate contact have an arousing effect. Sex, at least, was unlikely to be an unfulfilled hunger for much longer. Duncan MacLeod had that stormy, passionate look. Methos idly wondered whether the reluctance in the young man's voice was due to a local sweetheart or just the idiotic doublet and ruff that the Duke of Montmorency, a well-known dandy, had seen fit to wear. In either case, he'd bet himself a cask of good ale that he could have the young man wild for him after ten minutes in bed.
He frowned at his own thoughts. He ought to be thinking of how to avoid the marriage, not the pleasures to follow on it. On the other hand, he thought, marrying the man would give him an excuse to take him off on a wedding trip, which would at least get the two of them away from Kalas. And it would be a good deal easier to arrange for the Duke of Montmorency to die conveniently on such a trip.
A good enough plan to go on, he decided. Besides, his mouth quirked, it did offer some very attractive benefits. He rose from the bath and allowed the servants to dry him off, then shooed them off. It was a bit odd for a man of his station to dress himself, but still odder for one to wear half a dozen blades hidden on various parts of his person, and Methos preferred to be thought eccentric for the first than the second.
Thinking of Kalas, he added a couple of extra blades and checked his favorite broadsword. Unfortunate that the fashions of the day didn't allow him to carry it with him, but it would be easy enough to reach in his room. He grimaced. He'd have to start practicing more intensively tomorrow. Kalas might be a cold fish, but he had a reputation as a good, vicious fighter.
Methos smiled. Of course, so did he.
Duncan picked at his food silently, occasionally glancing up to observe the man on his father's right. Predictably, the Duke had impeccable manners that somehow managed to make those of everyone around him look inadequate. The rich lace cuffs on his sleeves magically managed to avoid every dish, staying pristine and white throughout the entire meal. Duncan shuddered at the thought that the man might expect him to dress the same way. Or drag him off to Court. His gaze involuntarily went down the tables to Tessa's empty place--she'd been sent away to her mother's clan as soon as the news had become known. She ought to be sitting here beside him, he thought resentfully, not this perfumed lily who had to take a bath before eating.
A poke in his side from his mother brought his attention back to the conversation at his table. "Yes?" he said, not sure what he'd missed.
The Duke nodded as if Duncan had just agreed to something. "Very good. Will eight o'clock suit?"
Duncan shot his mother a glance, hoping for some signal, then nodded uncertainly, hoping he wasn't agreeing to something unpleasant.
The company broke up shortly afterwards, and Duncan managed to pull his mother aside. "What was he talking about?"
She smiled. "Nothing so terrible," she said. "You just agreed to ride over to the dower lands with him tomorrow morning."
"He can ride?" Duncan muttered. "Ow!" He looked at his mother in surprise at the firm pinch she'd just given him.
"You're to marry the man. 'Tis not his fault Elizabeth chose to make a match that by all rights should have pleased you and your family. Keep a civil tongue about him--you'll do yourself no good by acting like a dog in the manger."
Duncan ducked his head and sighed. "Aye, but it sticks in my craw. Just look at him!" He waved at the Duke. "He looks like a woman, with all those silks and fancy wear. And I've already heard that he didn't so much as twitch when the lasses gave him a bath. He's no man."
Mary's lips tightened. "I hadn't planned on telling you of this, but perhaps you need a lesson in counting your blessings, Duncan MacLeod," she said. "But for that man, the queen might have given you to another--Baron Kalas." Duncan's head jerked around, and she nodded. "Aye. He sought to bribe the queen into giving you to him. If it weren't for our good friend the MacAllen and the queen's wanting to reward her favorite, perhaps he might have succeeded. So before you curse the good Lord for the cross he's given you, thank him for sparing you a heavier."
Duncan shuddered. He still remembered his first meeting with Kalas, at a neighbor's wedding feast, and the way the man's eyes had traveled over him. It had been decidedly unpleasant. He'd never been more grateful to have a proposal rejected by his father than when the man's offer had come shortly afterwards. As an alternative to Kalas, Montmorency was indeed more palatable. Trying to resign himself, Duncan bent and kissed his mother on the cheek. "Forgive me," he said apologetically. "I'll try and bear it better."
She softened and patted his arm. "There's a good lad. Now, go and talk to him. His manners aren't what you're used to, but there's nothing evil in them. See if you can't look past the clothing."
Duncan took a deep breath and crossed the room towards Montmorency.
Duncan stirred the next morning and glanced outside. The sky was grey, a thin drizzle turning the green hills indistinct, and he supposed the Duke would postpone the ride. Montmorency's clothes didn't look as though they could stand up to rain. He rolled over onto his back and yawned, stretching. He wouldn't mind a lazy morning himself today--he wasn't used to staying up so late as he had the night before, but Montmorency had shown no signs of tiring, and Mary and Ian had held back from suggesting they retire out of courtesy.
At least the man wasn't unpleasant to speak with. Montmorency seemed to have traveled an inordinate amount for a man of his age--he spoke of Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, and a dozen other foreign cities as if he'd lived in all of them, and he had a ready supply of stories from each. And he wasn't unpleasant to look at, either, especially his odd eyes--they seemed to change color every time Duncan looked at them.
Still, he was nothing like Tessa--beautiful, golden-haired Tessa, with her laughing blue eyes and sweet, curving bosom... Duncan groaned, thinking of the delicious feeling of her breasts pressed against his chest for those few times she'd let him steal a kiss. And now he'd be tied down to another man instead. He'd never particularly found other men attractive, though he knew many looked at him with desire. How was he going to stand it?
A knock at his door broke into his thoughts. "Aye, come in," he called, sitting up in the bed.
Standing in the doorway, Methos surveyed Duncan with a combination of appreciation and anxiety. MacLeod's chest was beautifully defined, his dusky skin a lovely contrast against the pale linens swathed around him. Broad shoulders, curving muscles in his arms--delicious. And dangerous. He shook his head. "Aren't we going riding?" he asked.
Duncan blinked at him in surprise. "It's raining!"
Methos lifted an eyebrow. "Are you prone to dissolving in water?"
Duncan opened his mouth, then looked Methos up and down, taking in the simple, well-worn riding clothes, and evidently thought better of whatever he'd planned to say. Methos controlled a grin, guessing what the young man had thought. "I'll be dressed in a minute," Duncan said instead.
Methos casually strolled into the room, letting the door swing closed behind him, and draped himself over the one chair. "I'll wait."
Duncan actually blushed. "You--I--"
"Just to remind you, we're going to be married in three weeks," Methos said, enjoying his confusion.
"We're not married yet," Duncan said pointedly.
"No, but I'd rather you didn't blush quite so much on our wedding night," Methos said. "Just view this as a," he smirked, "dry run. I promise, you haven't got anything I haven't seen hundreds of before." He waited until Duncan had started moving to get out of the bed, then added, "In fact, I saw a man with two cocks once, actually."
Duncan nearly fell the rest of the way out of the bed. "You're joking," he said uncertainly, losing his embarrassment in curiosity.
"No, it's quite true." Talking to keep Duncan at ease, Methos watched him pull on his clothes, admiring the view of smooth muscles and golden skin. "He was the property of a brothel in Morocco, and highly prized. Some sort of freak of nature. I suppose his parents had an eye to the main chance when they saw his particular deformity and sold him rather than kill him."
"Poor devil," Duncan said, settling his tartan.
Methos laughed. "Hardly. He was treated like a king. People came from cities around just for his services."
Duncan glanced at him sideways. "Did..." He stopped.
"Did I try him out? No, I had better things to do with a hundredweight of gold at the time," Methos said, enjoying the look of shock on MacLeod's face at the price. "Besides, it didn't seem to me that he could do anything more interesting with two than with one."
Duncan blushed again. "Shall we go?"
Methos unwound himself from the chair. "Do you have a sword?"
"Aye, my claymore," Duncan said, obviously puzzled.
"Bring it along. I like a good spar after a ride." Which was a lie, but he needed the practice, and to see how good the young man was. Methos ruefully admitted to himself that he was probably going to wind up saddled with a student after all. He doubted his self-control was up to the task of leaving this work of art behind without an extended period of ownership. He sighed a little and preceded Duncan out of the room.
Duncan led the way down to the stables, stopping by the kitchen so they could steal a couple of hot pasties from the cook at Montmorency's request. The Duke munched on the simple fare with as much apparent satisfaction as he'd eaten the elaborate dinner of the night before, puzzling Duncan even further. That was nothing, however, to the shock he received at the stables. The remaining pasty stuck in his mouth, Montmorency saddled and bridled his own horse so quickly that Duncan hadn't finished with his own mount, then vaulted into the saddle without using the stirrups and continued to eat his breakfast as if he hadn't moved.
Trying not to stare, Duncan swung into the saddle. He almost tried to duplicate Montmorency's jump, but he'd never tried anything of the sort before, and he suspected he'd end up dumped on his ass if he did it, which would have been intolerable beneath those cool, amused eyes.
Montmorency's riding matched his mounting skills. Duncan felt a grudging admiration build as he watched the other man control his mount. A few furlongs out from the hall, Montmorency glanced over at him, his mouth twitching into a small smile. "So I'm not completely useless?" he said.
Duncan stared. "What?"
The smile grew. "You'd be an awful diplomat, MacLeod. I think I saw you mutter 'lace' to yourself at least a dozen times during dinner last night."
"I--I--" he stammered.
The Duke threw back his head and laughed out loud, then gave Duncan a suddenly wicked grin. "How long a ride is it to the estates from here?"
Glad for the change of topic, Duncan said, "Not far, only half an hour or so."
"Let's see if we can do it in less." He didn't seem to move, but his horse sprang forward as if it had been stung, and Duncan quickly spurred the mare on after him. They flew over the ground, the horses racing, and Duncan gave a yell of delight at the wild, free sensation, his hair flying behind him. His father would have had his head for racing like this for no good reason, but with Montmorency leading the way, he could hardly get into trouble.
Then, just as suddenly as he'd begun the race, Montmorency stopped his horse, reaching out to halt Duncan's mare as well. Duncan nearly fell off as the mare stopped short, and glared at the Duke, ready to remonstrate with him, only to meet an upraised palm motioning him to be quiet. "What is it?" he asked softly, looking around. He saw nothing.
"Trouble," Montmorency said, and his voice was utterly different. Flat and hard, it matched the sudden slate-grey of his eyes. "Dammit, why did I ask you to go riding in the main hall? Get your sword out and be ready to move when I tell you."
Thrown off by the assured command in the other man's voice, Duncan didn't even stop to think before obeying. But as they sat their horses for five minutes and nothing happened, he began to fidget in his saddle. A stinging slap to his cheek caught him by surprise. "Ow! What the bloody hell was that for?"
Montmorency didn't even glance at him, his eyes still scanning the trees and shrubs. "More lives have been lost that way than any other."
"Letting your guard down before the danger's gone."
Duncan privately thought that there was no danger, but somehow Montmorency's intensity infected him, and he found himself sitting up, tense and still. Just when he was on the edge of speaking again, the bushes not far ahead of them rustled, and six men with swords came out--followed by another man on horseback. Recognizing him, Duncan inhaled sharply.
Montmorency's eyes flickered to him, then over to the tall, blond-headed man on the horse. "Baron Kalas, I presume."
The other man stared back across the clearing at him, his mouth set in a hard line. "You're Montmorency?" The man's beautiful voice only seemed to make him more unpleasant by contrast.
"At the moment," the Duke replied incomprehensibly. "Are you looking for a challenge, or just an easy head?" He pulled out a long sword from his saddle blankets, laying it across his lap in mute threat. "You won't find the second."
"I found him first," Kalas snarled.
Montmorency raised one of those devastating eyebrows. "I don't seem to remember that being one of the rules. But," and he put on a look of innocent curiosity, "I do recall one about--teaching." His face went hard again. "Somehow I don't think that's what you had in mind."
Teeth bared, Kalas stared hate across the clearing. "Ride away and leave him, and I have no quarrel with you."
Montmorency smiled and held up a hand. As if by magic, a knife suddenly appeared in it. "I could kill you right now," he said pleasantly.
Kalas laughed. "With that toy?" He'd barely finished speaking with the knife-hilt was quivering from the bole of the tree just to his side. A second one was already in Montmorency's hand.
"I don't have any more, so if I use this one, I really will have to kill you with it," Montmorency said, sounding actually apologetic. "And dying can be very inconvenient, especially with so many witnesses."
His face twisting, Kalas wheeled his horse around and spat commands at his men before turning back. "You'll regret this."
Montmorency shrugged. "What's another regret?" He sat, motioning to Duncan to stay as well, while Kalas led his men away. Long minutes passed before he finally moved. "Back to the hall, quickly," he said.
This time, when they rode, Duncan found Montmorency's stallion always a few paces behind his mare, even when they were riding full-out. The shock of the encounter was fading, and Duncan was starting to realize that the Duke was apparently--protecting him? From Kalas? He looked around, ready to say something, but the other man shook his head.
"Wait until we're closer to the hall," he called.
Duncan managed to restrain himself, but the moment that they were in sight of the hall, he pulled up his horse. Montmorency came up beside him, and the horses walked slowly onward. "What was he thinking?" Duncan demanded. "If he killed us, he'd have my father and the queen on him both."
Montmorency was silent in thought, then asked, "How long has he been Baron?"
Duncan tried to think back. "Since before I was born, I think," he said slowly.
"At least twenty years, then. He's probably got to move on shortly in any case, so he hasn't got much to lose." After this bizarre comment, the Duke looked at Duncan. "He was planning to kill me and take you, I imagine."
"Then why didn't he try? He had six men, even if we were on horses."
"More likely twelve. There were some behind us as well." Montmorency shook his head. "Careless of me. I must be going soft with all this civilization. I haven't been caught like that since...well, for a long time."
"So why didn't he do anything?"
Montmorency smiled. "He wasn't expecting me."
"But you just said--"
"I mean he wasn't expecting me to be what I am."
Duncan looked at him. "A duke?" he said tentatively, somehow sure that wasn't what the man meant.
"Oh no. That's what he was expecting me to be. Don't worry about it for now, MacLeod." When Duncan would have spoken, he reached out and put a finger over Duncan's lips to silence him. "We've got more important things to deal with at the moment--namely, keeping that very attractive head of yours on your shoulders."
His forthcoming marriage somehow became real to him in that instant, with the compliment on Montmorency's lips and the warm finger on his own, and Duncan was suddenly, startlingly aware of the other man. The Duke's eyes changed color again, sparkles of amber-gold seeming to almost swim up out of the green, and he leaned in close. Duncan found himself breathing harder. Was the man going to kiss him?
"Duncan," Montmorency said softly, his face bare inches away, "no one expects us back for several hours. So if you don't stop looking at me that way, we're going to find someplace private and get much better acquainted."
Heat raced up Duncan's neck and into his cheeks. "Looking at you what way?" he said defensively.
"Like you're expecting me to kiss you."
I am, he almost said. Instead, he dragged his eyes away from Montmorency's face.
"Oh well," the other man said, a suppressed laugh in his voice, "it's only a few weeks, after all. I suppose I can wait." He sighed theatrically.
"Shouldn't we be getting back?" Duncan said, blushing harder and hating it. How was the man getting under his skin this way?
"Mm, yes. I'll need to have a talk with your father about the guest list."
"And tell him about Kalas," Duncan added as their horses picked up the pace.
"No, I think we'd better keep that to ourselves for the moment," Montmorency said.
"What? But he rode onto our lands with armed men and threatened us," Duncan said. "My father will--"
"Exactly," Montmorency interrupted. "Your father will tell the other lairds and Kalas will be forced to abandon his position."
"So? Why would you want to protect him?"
"Oh, it's not to protect him--it's to protect us. As long as he's still trying to be Baron Kalas, that tells us something about what he will and won't do. If we drive him out of that, all bets are off, and that's a much more dangerous situation. Better the devil you know."
Duncan stared at him. "That doesn't make any sense," he said, although it came out as more of a question.
"Think about it, Duncan. If you were a thief, for instance, who was pretending to be a lord in order to be invited to a house where you could steal something valuable, you would do your best to act like a lord. You wouldn't go up to your host and punch him in the nose, for instance. On the other hand, if you were discovered to be a thief, you might very well just make a grab for whatever you wanted to steal and try to fight your way out without caring who was in the way. I'd rather Kalas kept trying to act like a lord rather than a thief."
"All right," Duncan said, privately deciding that Montmorency had the most tortured way of thinking he'd ever seen.
"Good," the Duke said, pulling his horse to a stop. "Here, hold him a minute, would you?"
Duncan caught the reins and watched him dismount. Montmorency picked up the stallion's back hoof and pried off the horseshoe carefully. He tossed the shoe back onto the trail. "There. Now we have an excuse both for coming back and taking a carriage over there instead," Montmorency said, coming around front and taking the reins back, preparing to walk the horse the rest of the way back.
"You're the strangest man I've ever met," Duncan said frankly, dismounting himself to keep Montmorency company.
The Duke laughed. "Others have said the same."
Montmorency reverted into a foppish lord the moment they returned to the hall, and he kept the pose so well over the next week that Duncan began to wonder if he had imagined the whole encounter with Kalas. Then he went to the stables after dinner one night and discovered the Duke's stallion gone. A stableboy told him the direction to go, and a few minutes ride brought him to a moonlit clearing. Dismounting and leaving his horse beside the tethered stallion, Duncan approached the edge and stared.
Montmorency was in the center of the clearing, shirtless and barefoot, holding two swords, and he was moving as if to music. Muscles rippled and the swords danced, flashing with reflected light. It was clearly a pattern, though not simple enough to predict where the swords would go next. Duncan was enough of a swordsman to know that he'd never seen a man fight this well before.
He found that he was a little frightened, suddenly, of this man who could go from being one person to another with such ease. How could he reconcile the swordsman with the simpering courtier? Riding, he could have explained away--all noblemen had to ride, often, and a natural talent and wide travel could easily make even a dandy into an excellent rider. But swordplay--no man became as good as this by accident or casual work.
The pattern suddenly wound to a close, and Montmorency ended it looking straight at him, breathing hard. "What did you do for the queen?" Duncan found himself asking.
Montmorency blinked, and moonlight fractured in his eyes. "I killed five men sent from Rome to assassinate her."
"Five men? All in one fight?"
"What are you?" Duncan asked in shock.
"A man." The smile might have been sad. "Just a man." And then Montmorency held one of the swords out to him, hilt-first. "Here. Let me see what you can do with it."
"I'm not as good as you--"
"Don't worry about that."
Duncan hesitated, then stripped off his own shirt and boots and took the sword. They circled around each other. The blades clashed with a sound like cymbals as they traded first blows, then Duncan was fighting as if his life depended on it, knowing that if it had, he'd have been dead almost instantly. Montmorency didn't seem to be trying to beat him but to test him, drawing him into difficult positions and letting him work his way out of them. A quiet word occasionally reminded him to keep his blade up, or to adjust his grip, or change his footing. It was like a lesson and a spar in one, the exhilaration of fighting and learning bound up together.
The Duke stopped it just when Duncan's arms began to tire, slipping inside his guard and catching his wrist. "Enough for tonight, I think," he said, smiling. "You're better than I would have expected."
Duncan nearly glowed with the praise. "How did you get so good?" he asked eagerly. "Do you have a good sword master?"
Montmorency laughed, and again it was oddly sad. "If I ever had a teacher, I don't remember him," he said. "I've simply been practicing for a very long time."
"Since you were in the cradle, I'd think," Duncan said, sighing with a bit of envy.
"You'll be as good someday."
"Do you think so?"
"Oh yes." Montmorency tilted his head and studied Duncan. "I'd planned to wait until after the wedding, but there's no reason we can't start your training now."
"My training? You'll teach me?"
"I don't see anyone else around to do it," Montmorency said, smiling. He stepped close and rubbed away a smudge on Duncan's face.
Sensuality woke in Duncan again--he inhaled and could almost taste the salt-sweet of the bare skin so close to his, ivory shining beneath a coat of sweat. He turned his face into Montmorency's hand, let his lips brush against the palm. The quick breath the other man took pierced him like an arrow. Closing his eyes, he let his tongue slip out into the crease between the thumb and fingers and shuddered when the Duke's other hand settled on his chest.
His eyes flew open as the hands suddenly left his body. Making a small noise of protest, he stepped towards Montmorency, and only then heard the hoofbeats approaching.
Scarlet color washed into his face as his father rode up, looked from one of them to the other, then stared at him hard. Duncan didn't look at Montmorency, but he could have sworn that he felt amusement radiating from the other man.
"Duncan was kind enough to oblige me with a spar," the Duke said blandly.
"So I see," Ian MacLeod said heavily. "Perhaps you'd better wait to spar any more until after the priest gives his blessing."
"But Da--" Duncan started, not wanting to lose his lessons.
"Back on to the house with you," Ian said.
Duncan glanced at Montmorency and saw laughter lurking in the other man's eyes. "Perhaps we'd better spar in the courtyard in any case, Duncan. It's easy to catch cold with bare feet on wet grass." The Duke looked up at Ian, an eyebrow raised inquiringly.
"That'll do," Ian allowed.
Duncan sighed with relief.
Relief didn't last long as his foremost emotion. Somehow the exhilaration of their spars wouldn't stay innocent. Duncan was certain they'd have tumbled a dozen times over--if it hadn't been for the interested audience of guardsmen who ringed the courtyard, undoubtedly by his father's orders. By the end of the week, he'd almost have been willing to ignore their presence. The worst part was that Montmorency seemed to find the whole thing entertaining--he even aggravated things, taking every opportunity to bring their bodies together.
"If you don't stop it, I'm going to climb into your room tonight," Duncan hissed when Montmorency next took the chance to slip a hand beneath his kilt and stroke his thigh.
Montmorency laughed. "Your room's being guarded at night," he whispered. "Or I'd have climbed in two days ago."
Indignant, Duncan stopped short. "What?!" He turned, determined to find his father.
Montmorency held him back. "What are you going to do?"
"Get him to take the guards off my room!"
"And what are you planning to tell him when he asks you why?"
Duncan opened his mouth and closed it, then glared at Montmorency. "You're enjoying this," he accused.
"At my age, you start appreciating the joys of anticipation." Montmorency eyed Duncan up and down with a deliberate leer. "Another week should be just about right."
"I think I'll be dead by then," Duncan said, eyeing Montmorency right back.
"I'll make it up to you afterwards." The tone, rough and low, promised more than the words.
Duncan almost groaned aloud, wondering how he'd gone from hating the idea of the upcoming marriage to being nearly desperate for it to happen. But guilt came hard on the heels of that thought. What about Tessa? He'd loved her for years, and now in a fortnight he'd all but forgotten her? Duncan stared down at his hands unhappily. The strip of pale skin where he'd worn the promise ring was quickly getting tan. Soon there would be no trace of it.
"What's her name?"
"Tessa," he said unthinkingly, then jerked his head up. "How did you--"
Montmorency took his hand and rubbed his thumb over the pale band of skin. "You glance down at it and sigh, oh, three or four times a day or so."
"We'd been pledged for three years," Duncan said, a little defiantly. "Our parents wouldn't let us marry until I'd enough to get a small holding of my own."
"Mm. And then the big, bad Queen decided to meddle, I take it. Quite the makings of a tragedy there."
"You needn't fear I'll do anything dishonorable," Duncan said stiffly.
Montmorency laughed. "That's the last thing I'd fear where you're concerned," he said.
Duncan blinked, not sure whether to be pleased with the compliment or not. The Duke's tone almost implied it wasn't intended as one. "You'd rather I ran away with her?"
"No, I can't say that my greatest desire at this point would be to have you run away," Montmorency said dryly. He turned away, sliding his blade back into the sheath, and his voice coming over his shoulder was oddly muffled. "Absurdly enough, though, I find that I'd rather you stayed around for something more than duty."
Something leapt urgently in Duncan's breast at the quiet words. They demanded equal honesty from him. "It's not--it's not just for duty," he blurted, trying to smother his guilt over Tessa.
Montmorency went very still, all the muscles of his shoulders and arms visibly tightening. He turned abruptly and caught Duncan's jaw with one hand as he stepped in close.
Eyes widening, Duncan couldn't move, even though his skin burned with the shocked looks from the guardsmen when they realized almost as soon as he did that the Duke was about to kiss him here, openly, in full view of everyone. He trembled in mingled desire and panic, his lips parting eagerly, and he groaned out loud when he saw control reemerge in the blazing hazel eyes. "Damn you, do it!" he hissed.
The wicked grin surfaced, and Duncan had an instant to be wary before his legs went out from under him and he landed on his ass in the soft dirt. He swore and glared up at Montmorency.
"I think that's enough for today. You need to practice your wrestling," the Duke said, loudly enough for the guards to hear. Lowering his voice, he added, "I don't perform to an audience, MacLeod."
"Could've fooled me," Duncan snarled under his breath, getting up and dusting himself off. A slender, callused hand gripped his bare arm, pulling him around. Duncan stared at him uncertainly. Montmorency's gaze was suddenly gentle and unsettling all at once, too knowing, too old for his face.
"There's enough misery in the world without deliberately seeking out more, Duncan," he said. "Don't poison what happiness you can find with guilt." And with that, he was gone, walking out of the courtyard with hurried, long strides, leaving Duncan alone in a confused whirl of emotions.
Methos stalked into his room and threw his sword into a corner almost violently. "I'm going insane," he said out loud. "That's the only bloody excuse." He flung himself into a chair by the fire and sprawled deep into it, brooding with his hand over his mouth. How the hell had things gotten this far out of control?
It's not just for duty. The words lingered in his memory, sweet as ripe fruit, sweet as Duncan's ripe mouth, and he couldn't help rolling their taste over his tongue again. He took a deep breath and pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes. What had made him invite that confession? It certainly hadn't been rational thought. Jealousy? Of a girl who'd be dust in less than a century, while he and Duncan--
He stopped, alarmed by his own train of thought. He'd planned for Duncan to be a pleasant diversion, a student to teach the rudiments of swordplay and Immortality to, a lover to warm his bed for a few months or a few years, then to be sent along. And now he was thinking in terms of centuries? He knew better, dammit! Most Immortals didn't make it to their first century mark. Falling in love with a new one was an invitation to heartache and disaster.
So, of course, that's exactly what I've done. Methos dropped his head back against the chair and stared at the ceiling. If he had half an ounce of sense left, he'd pack up his sword and run like a rabbit. Unfortunately, he ruefully admitted to himself, he didn't seem to have any sense available at the moment.
Innocent, young, passionate, devoted--Duncan was everything Methos could least afford, all wrapped up in one neat package and handed to him on a silver platter. Completely irresistible. Not that I've been trying very hard to resist, Methos chided himself. No, instead he'd come up with every possible excuse to spend time with Duncan, telling himself it was nothing more than a flirtatious game to pass the time.
I'm an idiot, he decided, and sighed. That much was evident. Now what the hell was he going to do?
He considered the options. There weren't many. It was the height of folly to try and shield another Immortal from the Game. He'd learned that long ago, and he suspected he was about to learn it again. But if he didn't create a space of safety for Duncan to learn in, the chances were the young man would be dead as quickly as if he'd been mortal, and that was no longer acceptable for Methos. At least Duncan was already a decent swordsman--a few decades of constant training under a good teacher, and he'd be a master. His body was perfect for it, tall and well-muscled without being heavy. He was at the peak of his physical development.
Methos pulled out a thin stiletto and polished it on his sleeve, studying his reflection in the steel. Yes, physically, Duncan was ready. As for the rest? He shrugged philosophically. Survival first. The rest could come later.
Duncan found that the day of the wedding went by with astonishing speed, considering how long the last week had felt. He was whisked from bedroom to chapel and back to the hall in a daze, and only Montmorency's whispered promptings saved him from making a fool of himself in the ceremony. But time seemed to resume its snail's pace once they'd returned to the wedding feast. Toast after toast dragged on, while Duncan sat and picked at the rich dishes, his stomach turning over nervously.
He glanced over at Montmorency--my husband, he silently reminded himself, fighting against the strangeness of the idea--but the Duke seemed to be enjoying himself, eating well and carrying on a lively conversation with his mother. Duncan sighed and wondered when the banquet would end.
As the next course was being brought in, Montmorency leaned over and whispered, "Are you still hungry?"
"No," Duncan said softly, excitement leaping.
"Then pretend you're going to the privy and go up to the west tower room."
"Because we're going to be noisy." Montmorency's smile flashed as he turned back to his conversation, and Duncan's stomach flipped over in a very pleasant way. He waited a few minutes, then muttered a hasty excuse to his father and slipped from the table.
The plain bed in the room had been made up, and a fire laid. Duncan stared at the bed and swallowed, then shucked off his clothes quickly and slipped between the fire-warmed sheets. They were of some odd, slippery material that seemed to caress him deliberately. In moments, he was almost unbearably excited, shuddering deliciously against the sheets.
When Montmorency finally opened the door, he was already hard and leaking, his hands clenched on the headboard to keep from reaching down to stroke himself. Duncan's cock jumped at the Duke's sharply inhaled breath.
"Christ, you're beautiful," Montmorency said roughly, closing the door behind him. He stripped quickly, letting the rich garments drop to the floor with a complete lack of concern, except to take a small pouch off his belt.
Duncan licked his lips hungrily as all of the ivory skin was revealed and Montmorency came around to the side of the bed. He lifted the covers, and Montmorency slid in beside him. Just the heat of his skin was enough to bring Duncan panting to the edge of climax, trying to rub up against Montmorency's thigh.
"Shh," Montmorency said, pressing Duncan back on the sheets. "Your first time with me isn't going to be over that quickly."
"Adam," Duncan groaned, using the Duke's given name for the first time. "Adam, please--I can't bear much more."
Montmorency halted, his hands clenching in Duncan's hair. "God, I must be losing my mind," he said. "Duncan--" He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, then bent down to Duncan's ear and whispered, "In our bed, and only in our bed--my name is Methos."
"Methos," Duncan said, tasting the odd soft sound of it and the thrill of knowing that Methos had just given him something, a secret that he knew without being told was beyond ordinary importance.
"Yes," Methos sighed, leaning down to kiss him. Their mouths met, wet and sucking, and Duncan arched upwards, trying to invite Methos down onto him. Methos' hand stroked down his body, fingers skimming lightly, and slid between his thighs. Duncan moaned into Methos' mouth as his balls were cupped in the long fingers, tugged down slightly. Then a soft strip of something, maybe leather, was wrapped snugly around the top of his sac, then wound around the base of his cock as well. Duncan broke the kiss, trying to see what Methos had put on him.
"It will keep things going a bit longer," Methos told him, eyes gleaming. "So I can do more than just kiss you before you come."
"God, yes," Duncan said, reaching up for him. "Please, more."
Methos kissed him again, stroking the creases of Duncan's thighs lightly as he did. "More? What would you like more of?" he asked, soft and wicked. "My mouth?" He licked Duncan's lips, nibbled gently on the full flesh of the lower, then brushing kisses along Duncan's neck. "My hands?" His hand closed on the rigid column of Duncan's cock, stroking firmly up and down, squeezing the head rhythmically. Duncan drew a sobbing breath, arching up into the grip. "My cock?" Methos took his hand away, bringing it to his mouth to lick the fingertips, then he reached down further between Duncan's legs. Wet fingers trailed over tender skin until they reached Duncan's opening, rubbing firm circles around the hole. Duncan caught Methos' shoulders and shuddered frantically as Methos slid one finger inside him.
"Anything," he gasped. "Anything, just do it now."
Methos pressed his finger deeper, then withdrew a little and thrust. Duncan cried out, flinging his head back. He'd never imagined this much pleasure from being entered. The pungent smell of aromatic oil filled the air, and he looked up to see Methos slicking himself. His cock was long and well-formed, not too thick, and Duncan trembled with excitement as he lay back against the pillows and waited.
Methos spread Duncan's legs apart and settled between them, hooking Duncan's knees over his shoulders. His cock bumped against Duncan's balls, nudging against the tender opening. "Ready?" he asked.
Duncan squeezed his eyes shut. "Yes," he said, trying to spread his legs further apart.
Methos began to press into him slowly, the head of his cock stretching Duncan's opening little by little. It burned a little, but excitement turned even the faint pain into stimulation. "Breathe, Duncan," Methos said, his voice frayed with passion. "Let me in."
Consciously trying to soften his body, Duncan took a deep breath, and as he exhaled, Methos pushed forward, seating himself almost wholly in Duncan's body. Tears sprang to Duncan's eyes at the sensation of fullness. He panted in quick, panicky breaths, squirming involuntarily, every motion making him even more aware of the hard cock inside him.
"Duncan! Oh God," Methos squeezed his eyes shut, his face crinkling with tension. "Again," he said, his tone making the words a plea. "Breathe deep again."
Tears leaking down his face, Duncan clenched his hands in the sheets and forced another deep breath, forced his body to yield again, and Methos slid the last few inches into him, and a sudden shock of pleasure exploded deep inside him. It was unbearable. It was glorious. He heard his own voice crying out, begging incoherently, and he lost all control, his body twisting as he tried to waken that pleasure again.
Methos pressed his shoulders down, trying to hold him still, but Duncan was stronger, even in his awkward position. With a desperate heave, he threw them both over, pinning Methos flat beneath him, and drove himself down on Methos' cock. It struck the same perfect place inside him, and Duncan moaned hungrily. Instinct led him into a rhythm, his hips rising and falling, impaling him afresh every time. His ass throbbed fiercely from the rough strokes, his thighs ached where Methos' fingers were clenched almost bone-deep into his flesh, but it was nothing compared to the burning, exquisite sensations glowing inside him.
He didn't think it was possible to feel more pleasure, but then Methos wrapped slick fingers around his shaft and pulled steadily on him, and Duncan discovered there were heights he hadn't yet reached. Caught between two equal pinnacles, he rocked back and forth, thrusting through the warm embrace of Methos' hand and taking Methos into himself in turn until his rhythm broke, his thighs too weak to keep going. In that instant, Methos loosed the leather restraint, and Duncan threw back his head and cried out as his cock pulsed thick cream over the slender fingers around him. He could feel Methos coming as well, his stretched-wide opening tingling with every throb that passed through the hard cock inside him.
Ecstatic and overwhelmed, Duncan fell shaking onto Methos, crying unashamedly with soft, gulping sobs. Strong arms wrapped around him, and he dimly realized that Methos was trembling as well, his breathing harsh and loud. Duncan managed to turn his head just a little to press a kiss against the corner of Methos' mouth, and he fell into unconsciousness with the taste of salt and blood on his lips.
Methos huddled in front of the fire, trying to stop shaking. His lip had healed where he'd bitten it through, but dried blood was still crusted around the edges of his mouth, and tear tracks itched on his cheeks. Duncan lay still as the dead in the bed behind him, drugged into sleep by his orgasm. It would be easiest to do it now--a quick painless stroke, and Duncan would wake to Immortality without even knowing he'd been dead.
That had been the plan, after all. A very clever one, too. He started laughing and covered his mouth to keep the hysterical sound from waking Duncan. Yes, a very clever plan, until it had fallen down around his ears.
The word 'never' had all but ceased to be a meaningful part of his vocabulary. An hour before, he couldn't have named a single thing he'd never done, never seen. But in all of his very long life, there had never been anything like the ecstasy of his joining with Duncan. He felt shattered, terrified. How could he even contemplate spending centuries with this man who could break him open so easily, who could wreck his control so completely, who could draw his secrets out of him without even trying?
The walls of the room seemed to close in on him suddenly. He couldn't breathe. Scrabbling for his clothes, he dragged them on and fled the room, fled the tower, running down the stairs two at a time until he burst out of the hall, climbed the back wall with practiced skill, and lost himself in the dark woods beyond.
And in his panic, he never noticed the shifty-eyed man who watched him leave the tower.
Someone was knocking at the door, loudly. It took some time for this to penetrate, but Duncan finally raised his head and groaned out, "Come in." He didn't recognize the short, brown-haired man who stepped into the room, but that didn't surprise him--several strangers had been hired for the wedding celebration. "Yes?" he asked sleepily, rubbing his eyes and wondering where Methos had gone.
"Begging your pardon, sir, but a young lady outside the hall asked me to give this to you," the man said, holding out a folded piece of paper. Duncan took it and automatically looked around for something to give the man, but he hadn't been wearing his belt pouch to the celebration. "No need, sir," the man said, seeing Duncan's confusion. "I've been well-paid for the night's work."
"Thank you, then," Duncan said, and the man bowed out of the room, closing the door behind him. Once he'd left, Duncan slowly sat up and looked down at himself. He was sticky, his chest hair matted down with an unpleasantly pungent mixture of sweat and semen, his thighs were mottled with bruises, and his ass hurt like the devil. He groaned and hoped Methos was out getting a bath drawn. The idea sparked his imagination, and he licked his lips at the thought of bathing with Methos, rubbing soap into a lather over his chest, around his cock. Despite his discomfort, he found himself getting aroused again, and he was grinning as he opened up the note.
The smile fell away from his face instantly.
Duncan, my dearest--
I've tried to bear losing you, but I cannot, not even for the sake of my family and yours. I've run away from my uncle's house and come to fly with you. I'm waiting for you in the clearing with the waterfall, down by the sheep meadow. Even if all the world casts us out, I know we will be happy so long as we are together.
Come to me, my love,
He stared at the note in horror, then threw back the covers and scrambled out of the bed, forgetting his aches as he pulled on his rumpled clothing. Panic closed around his throat. Tessa was ruined. Her clan would disown her, and she would have to beg for her bread or worse--there were few choices for a woman alone and unprotected. What could he do? He couldn't abandon her, not when she'd thrown her reputation away for love of him.
But he was already married! If he fled now, what would Methos think of him? What would his family think? A sick nausea gripped him, made him stagger against the wall. His mind told him he couldn't weigh a love many years strong against one of less than three weeks, but his heart argued differently. Methos might be little more than a stranger, but already Duncan couldn't imagine a day without his dry, cynical wit, without those clever eyes smiling at him. He'd loved Tessa--but not this way. Not with this confusing, tumultuous passion that left him shaken and uplifted all at once. Having tasted it, how could he give it up?
He pressed his forehead against the wall and drew a deep, shuddering breath. There was no help for it. Methos would be fine without him. He would still have the dower lands and the Queen's favor. She would certainly grant him an annulment, and Methos could marry again, a man or woman of his own choosing this time.
But Tessa--Tessa was in his hands. She had come out to him of faith in their love, a love that he had already betrayed. If he betrayed her again now, she would be destroyed utterly. Honor, real honor, demanded that he run away with her. She had every right to expect him to do it--he'd given her that right with all of his vows of eternal love, vows he'd broken almost in the moment Methos had sauntered into his life.
He crept down the hallways to his room like a thief. Once there, he splashed himself clean with a little water from his bedside ewer and pulled on traveling clothes. Throwing a cloak over his shoulders and belting on his sword, he avoided looking at his reflection--he hadn't recognized the one glimpse he'd caught of his pale, set face.
He thought of leaving a note, trying to explain--then realized that, too, was impossible. If Methos came after them, he would be within his legal rights to take Duncan back and have Tessa arrested as an adultress. Duncan's heart leapt treacherously at the thought, and he hated himself for a moment. "Methos..." he whispered once, helplessly, and squeezed his eyes shut on tears. Somehow he knew that Methos wouldn't follow if he believed Duncan had gone to Tessa out of love for her. But if he left a note explaining otherwise, he thought--he hoped--that Methos would come for him. So even that comfort had to be denied him.
Unable to bring himself to write a false note, he left Tessa's instead, trusting that his parents would find it and break the news to Methos. And then he pulled the hood up over his face and stumbled out of his room, regret and misery like ashes in his mouth.
Methos came back in by the front door, too tired to bother sneaking over the wall again. His panic had waned as he'd worn himself out in flight, and he'd felt more than a little ridiculous when his good sense had reasserted itself halfway to nowhere in a dark, cold forest. Running away without a thought in his head or a coin in his pocket was an even quicker and more unpleasant way to get himself killed than falling in love unwisely.
He had to get away--that much was certain. What he felt for Duncan was too dangerous for both of them. But there was no need to do it stupidly, or to be unnecessarily cruel to Duncan by abandoning him on their wedding night without a word of explanation. Much better to go back and continue with his quiet arrangements. The Duke of Montmorency would drown on his wedding trip as planned, but alone rather than with his young husband. Then Duncan would inherit the title and the lands. He could even marry his childhood sweetheart. And when Immortality found him, someone else would be his teacher.
It was the best possible resolution for all concerned, and Methos knew it. Now he just had to convince his very reluctant heart to go through with it.
He skirted the main hall, not wanting to be drawn back into the celebration, and headed through the corridors towards the kitchen, thinking of picking up a bottle of wine and something to nibble on. So long as he was still around, he told himself defensively, there was no reason not to make the experience pleasant for both Duncan and himself.
Oddly enough, the door to MacLeod's study was open. He glanced at it inquisitively as he passed by, then paused, caught by the sound of a woman sobbing. Drifting closer, he recognized Ian MacLeod's voice, although it was hoarse with emotion.
"I can't believe the lad's done this. How the devil are we to tell Montmorency?"
A prescient tremor crawled up Methos' spine, and he pushed the door open to find MacLeod and his wife sitting with two strangers. "How the devil are you to tell me what?" he asked pleasantly, with a smile that didn't reach his eyes.
They stared at him in shock. Mary was the first to speak, lifting her face from her hands. "There's no help for it. Tell him, Ian."
MacLeod looked at her, then turned back to Methos. "Duncan--" he stopped, cleared his throat. "Duncan's gone," he said.
"Gone where?" Methos asked, still deadly calm.
"Before the Queen arranged your marriage, he'd been betrothed these three years to Jacob's daughter," MacLeod said, gesturing to one of the strangers. "They've run off together." He held out a small piece of paper.
Methos took it and read the note, then crumpled it in his hands, his chest squeezing tight with a blind, desperate terror. "When did Kalas leave?" he demanded flatly.
The four blinked at him dumbly. "Do you mean--Baron Kalas?" Mary asked tentatively. "He left just lately. Most of the guests--"
But Methos was already turning, running towards his room, his heart pounding.
Duncan saw firelight through the trees just as the splashing sound of the waterfall reached his ears. It was a struggle to force his feet to carry him forward into the clearing. Tessa lay curled on her side by the fire, her golden hair catching the light, her eyes closed in sleep. He cleared his throat, but she didn't stir. "Tessa," he said finally, crossing the clearing to her side. "Tessa, I'm here." He knelt down and touched her shoulder to wake her. When he did, she rolled limply onto her back, her cloak falling open, and he saw the dagger buried in her chest.
He stared in blank, bewildered shock, reaching out to touch the dagger hilt.
"What, no tears?"
Duncan tore his horrified eyes away from Tessa's body. Kalas stood on the other side of the fire, leaning on a drawn sword, his thin, ascetic lips curved unpleasantly. "You--you did this," Duncan said. Kalas nodded. "Why? What had she done to you?" Duncan cried.
Kalas actually chuckled. "Nothing at all," he said. "But I prefer to exit my current life in my own good time, and so I require an explanation of your disappearance. No one will suspect what has truly happened when both of you go missing, not with such a romantic explanation as an elopement. I suppose you were obliging enough to leave a note behind?"
He'd been tricked, Duncan realized numbly. In hindsight, he could see his own idiocy. Tessa would never have thrown away her reputation and honor so carelessly, and she would never have asked him to do the same. With the realization came a rush of hot fury. "You bastard," he said, drawing his sword. "I'll see you burn in hell for this."
Kalas came around the fire towards him, still smiling, his sword easily swinging up in his big hands. "You're welcome to try."
Duncan lunged at him, using all of his weight behind the blade. But Kalas was stronger than he looked, meeting the heavy blow and turning it aside. Taking advantage of the gap, his sword came forward lightning-quick and slashed into Duncan's left shoulder. Pain flared, and Duncan backed away, biting his lip. More cautious now, he gave ground as their swords clashed again, and his heart sank before they'd traded more than half a dozen blows. He was going to lose. Kalas was good--maybe even as good as Methos. He was only toying with Duncan now.
There was no escape. He'd come on foot, and he was already tired--if he tried to run, Kalas would be on him in a moment. And no one would come to his rescue. Kalas could disarm him anytime he liked, and then--Duncan felt sick. He couldn't imagine why Kalas wanted him badly enough to come after him like this, but he could easily imagine the horror of being forced to submit to the other man.
His heart pounding with terror, he scrambled a dozen steps away. Kalas came after him with an unhurried stride, and Duncan reversed his blade while the other man was still out of reach. "Better to be dead than your whore," Duncan said defiantly. "May God curse you and all your kin forever." Closing his eyes, he threw himself forward, pain exploding in his chest as the sword hilt struck the ground and drove the blade through his body.
Blood bubbled up his throat as a foot rolled him onto his back, and the last thing Duncan heard before the world faded was Kalas' voice, saying, "How convenient. Don't keep me waiting long, Duncan."
The tingling came first. Then a sudden, convulsive need to breathe. His eyes flew open, and Duncan jerked abruptly into a sitting position, coughing helplessly. He was dizzy, sick, his head ringing with a strange buzzing noise, and he rolled over and crawled a few paces before his mind registered the fact that he was alive.
He halted and fell back on his heels, pressing a hand to his chest. His shirt was torn and bloody, but there was no sign of the wound--of any wound. His shoulder was healed, and even the lingering aches from his earlier lovemaking with Methos were gone. He looked up, shaking with terror, and found Kalas standing there, apparently undisturbed by Duncan's miraculous recovery. "Welcome back," the baron said, smirking. He tossed Duncan's sword over to him. "Don't concern yourself too much with how--it won't be for long."
Duncan picked up the blade automatically, the hilt in his hand giving him some small comfort. "What have you done to me?" he demanded unsteadily.
"Nothing, yet," Kalas said, advancing on him. "Now, however, I'm going to take your head."
Duncan stumbled back, his mind still reeling, and barely lifted his sword in time to block Kalas' swing. The impact rang through his arm, and he knew that Kalas was through playing now. Even though he'd just killed himself a moment before, survival instincts surged up, and he met Kalas with desperate strength, struggling to defend himself.
But it was still an unequal battle. With a quick jerk, Kalas took his blade and sent it flying. Raising his head proudly, Duncan steeled himself to meet the end with honor. The worst was knowing that those who loved him would never know the truth. They'd think he'd disgraced them out of selfishness, and they would never know to avenge his death. Bitter hatred filled his mind, until his ears were ringing with it--and then he realized that Kalas was holding back his swing, and the thundering sound of hoofbeats was approaching.
Crashing out of the undergrowth, the bay stallion skidded into the clearing, and Methos jumped off its back with his sword held low and ready, his chest bare beneath a wool cloak.
Kalas' sword came down and pressed against Duncan's throat. "You can't interfere," the baron snarled. "It was a fair fight."
"You seem to have mistaken me for someone who plays by the rules," Methos said, advancing with small steps, shrugging the cloak off onto the ground. "But by all means, finish taking his head. I'll be happy to relieve you of yours while the Quickening has you down."
Duncan swallowed a gasp as the sword bit painfully into his skin. "Any closer and he's dead," Kalas said.
Stopping, Methos held out his arms. "We seem to be at an impasse," he said, his eyes glittering with firelight. "We could settle this in the usual way, assuming that you don't restrict yourself to children fresh from their first death."
"And after I take you, he takes me?" Kalas sneered. "I don't think so."
"Neither do I." Methos smiled thinly, then looked at Duncan. "Duncan, give me your word--if Kalas defeats me, you'll ride straight home."
"What?" Duncan nearly cut himself, jerking in surprise. "I won't--"
"You can't beat him fairly yet," Methos said. "And I know you're too honorable to kill him while he's down. Promise me."
His voice demanded obedience, and Duncan unwillingly said, "I promise."
"Satisfied?" Methos said, turning to Kalas.
Kalas didn't move at first, then finally he shoved Duncan roughly back, sending him sprawling at the clearing's edge, and dropped into a fighter's crouch. "I'll have him in the end, after I've taken you," he hissed.
Methos crept around the fire towards him. "Ah, an optimist," he said. "That's all right, I don't mind disappointing people." He closed the remaining space between them with two quick strides and swung straight over his head. Kalas easily caught the blow crosswise, but Methos pivoted on one foot and drove the point of his blade towards Kalas' gut, and the baron had to scramble back awkwardly, slashing wildly to keep Methos back.
While they exchanged blows, Duncan got to his feet and circled around the clearing to the stallion, taking hold of its reins to keep it from spooking and interfering in the fight.
"I've never heard of you," Kalas said, breathing hard.
"That's right, you haven't," Methos agreed, smiling. He lunged forward, thrusting for the chest. Kalas knocked aside the blade and slashed high on the backswing, scoring a line of blood across Methos' cheek. Only a quick twist saved his eye, and Duncan's hands clenched on the leather reins as Methos almost stumbled. But he recovered with unbelievable speed, his sword slicing into Kalas' thigh even as he brought it up to block an overhead swing.
Cursing under his breath, Kalas backed away, limping slightly and pressing one hand over the bloody gash. Methos didn't grant him the breathing space, raining down a half-dozen quick blows that left Kalas' blade wobbling in the air. Taking a two-handed grip, Methos swept around and beneath the other man's sword, and Kalas threw himself to the side to escape, rolling in the dirt. He came up onto one knee, holding a dagger by the blade, and his wrist snapped. Methos jerked, but the blade sank deep into his right shoulder.
Duncan swallowed a cry, not wanting to distract him. Methos was the one retreating now, Kalas back on his feet and stalking him as he worked the small blade out of his shoulder and tossed it to the ground. Blood ran in red streams down his side, but blue crackles of lightning spidered over the open wound, and it began to close before Duncan's eyes.
Kalas' eyes narrowed. "You heal quickly," he said, a smile of vicious satisfaction curling his thin lips. "I think I've found a prize. How old are you, anyway?"
"Old enough to know better than to count my victories before they're won," Methos said, transferring his blade to his left hand just in time to meet Kalas' rush. The baron was using both hands on the hilt now, trying to pound the blade out of Methos' hand by main strength. But Methos didn't meet him straight on, his arm angling away with the blade tilted downward to deflect the blows off the flat. Trapping their hilts together, he spun around, freeing his blade with the turn, and came back at Kalas with a waist-high slash that almost took the other man's sword-arm off at the elbow. Kalas blocked, and Methos brought his arm down, slamming the pommel of his sword onto the half-healed wound in the baron's thigh.
Kalas howled and staggered, and this time Methos let him open up some space between them. They circled, heads low and shoulders tense like angry bulls, the swords flashing with reflected firelight. Methos still held his sword in his left hand, holding his right arm pressed tight against his body as if it pained him. Kalas limped, but only for a few steps, then he was advancing again, Methos skittering back from every lunge, deflecting and avoiding now, not fighting. Duncan felt his heart rise choking into his throat, knowing with sick certainty that Methos had lost the fight.
Methos stumbled over something on the ground, his sword going wide as he put his right hand down to catch himself. He reared back on his heels almost immediately, bringing the sword back in, but Kalas closed the distance between them with a jump, his blade swinging down, implacable. And then Kalas' hands spasmed open, his face contorting with surprise. The blade toppled loose into the dirt, and Methos, rising, shoved Kalas away with his right hand, the baron's chest impaled by the dagger Methos had pulled from his shoulder earlier.
The light was dimming in Kalas' pale blue eyes, but they looked up at Methos with pure hate. "Finish it," he hissed.
Methos nodded calmly, swung, and Kalas' head rolled away. He looked up and met Duncan's eyes across the fire, a warrior out of legend with his chest bare and streaked with blood, the sword a lash of fire in his hands. "Stay back," he said.
And the world went mad. Duncan spent a moment trying to calm the frantic horse, not much less frantic himself, while a haze of illuminated mist rose from the dead body and wrapped itself around Methos' tall body like a spirit lover and a strange, ringing pressure built up in his skull. The pressure broke into a storm--lightning struck out of nowhere, shattering a tree not three paces away from him. The stallion screamed in fear, rearing high, and an iron-shod hoof caught Duncan on the temple. His last sensation one of relief, he crumpled to the ground and knew no more.
Shivering and damp, Methos sat by the fire and watched the bruise on Duncan's temple fade. Even though he knew that Duncan couldn't feel the cold at the moment, he'd used his cloak to cover Duncan instead of himself. Just another sample of the idiocy he could expect from himself in the future, he supposed with resignation. Such as racing out to face a dangerous Immortal half-naked with nothing but a single sword.
Yet if he hadn't, Duncan would now be lying across the clearing with Kalas and Tessa, never to rise again. And preventing that was worth--almost anything.
He sighed. No need to borrow trouble before it came. He would live, and Duncan would learn, and who knew? Maybe they'd get tired of each other before they got themselves killed.
"Methos?" Duncan propped himself up, blinking muzzily at him, and the sound of his name on Duncan's lips made Methos shiver. No, he decided ruefully. They'd almost certainly get themselves killed first. And despite that, his mouth curved in a smile.
He reached out and stroked Duncan's cheek with the back of his knuckles. "Lie back down and let me tell you a story," he said.
Methos silenced him with two fingers on his lips. "A story about Immortals."
Duncan watched the servants pack the last box onto the carriage. A broadsword, smaller than his claymore, rested in a sheath on his hip, a shortsword on his other hip, and a dagger hung concealed around his neck. After three weeks of wearing them every waking hour--and some of the sleeping--he was beginning to get used to their constant weight, but his legs still felt odd in the woolen hose.
He heard his mother's voice behind him and turned to see her coming out of the hall. So strange, to know that she wasn't his real mother after all. He hadn't said anything to her or to his father, though he burned with curiosity, for how could he explain his sudden knowledge? But even without knowing how he'd come to be the son of Ian and Mary MacLeod, he knew that the love in their eyes was unfeigned.
And so he'd refused to let Methos arrange a faked death. He wasn't going to leave his parents with the grief of believing him dead in foreign lands while he rode blithely off on adventures. It had caused their first quarrel. Remembering, Duncan grinned to himself. Quarreling wasn't all that bad when you had such a nice way to make peace. It had been very rewarding to discover that even in the most heated argument, Methos turned incredibly pliant when his cock was being swallowed. Duncan's own cock twitched at the thought, and he wondered if there would be enough room in the carriage to kneel on the floor.
"I see you won't be missing us overmuch."
Duncan jerked back to attention as his mother's voice broke into his reverie, blushing at what his thoughts had been. "I--"
She laughed at him and patted his cheek. "It does my heart good to see you so happy," she said softly. "Even if I can't quite forgive him for taking you so far from us. Italy!" She sighed.
Part of him longed to tell her that Italy was only the first stop--Methos had promised to show him all the wonders that remained of the ancient world, from the ruins of Rome to the legendary pyramids he could hardly believe really existed. But as a compromise with Methos' sense of caution, he'd agreed to keeping their travels a secret, so as far as his family knew, he and Methos would be living quietly in a villa outside Florence.
"I'll send word as often as I may," he promised.
"Aye, I know how to trust a young man for that," Mary said, a touch of fond exasperation in her tone. "You've scarcely remembered to eat these three weeks, and I'm supposed to believe you'll remember to write to your mother? If you even set foot outside your bedchamber when no one comes to roust you out it'll be a very miracle."
"Mary, what are you saying to make Duncan blush so?" Methos came up, placing his broad warm hand over the small of Duncan's back. The heat of it spread instantly through him, and Duncan was grateful he'd already been flushed and needed no excuse for the color in his cheeks. It would be a miracle if they left their bed often, even with the lure of exotic sights before him. Few could compare to the lure of Methos' skills.
Mary's eyes sparkled with amusement as she turned to Methos. "As if you couldn't guess," she said. Turning more serious, she lay a hand on his arm. "Now, give me your word you'll take care of him."
"I'll guard him with my life," Methos promised, and though his tone was light, something in it made Duncan turn and meet his eyes.
"And I will guard you with mine," he said softly, holding the quicksilver gaze. Hazel darkened almost to black, and Duncan reached out to entwine his fingers with the slender ones of Methos' hand. "Forever," he added.
And Methos flung his head back and laughed, mocking and joyous all at once. "Why not? Forever."