Without love and laughter there is no joy.
Live amid love and laughter.
FROM: Charlotte Cannon
RE: Medieval Reproductions - Portland, Oregon
I hope all is well with you, Tess, because itís sure not well with me. Youíre a wonderful friend, have I told you that? Just wonderful. And you know everyone.
So, my dear and wonderful and generous friend, I have a great favor to ask you. Do you happen to know anyone who willing to play a knight? A real knight, not a Monty Python knight?
For a solid month, Iíve been looking for two men who can ride heavy horses, fight on horseback with lances and on the ground with swords, and who know Renaissance lingo well enough to entertain the goers at King Richardís Faire outside Portland on next month.
The local Society for Creative Anachronism can only help so far, and Iíve exhausted all of the realistic possibilities in the area. All I can find are stand-up comedians in armor that donít even know which side of the horse to climb up on.
Help! Please Tessa, recommend someone? Two someones? Let them know that, in exchange for helping me out, Iím willing to pay $50 a day and free room and board. (Warn them that theyíll be sleeping in a tent or on the second floor of one of the booths at the faire. Okay, so itís not great. So sue me. At least itís free).
Iíll also arrange a free booth for you. Iím quite certain that your art will sell fabulously here. Oh, can you try to keep your artistic wares kind of medievalish, though? Gotta be authentic.
Let me know, okay? If I donít hear from you inside a week, Iíll assume that you canít help. (Please call. I really do need you and yours!)
CHAPTER ONE"Come on." Tessa smiled coaxingly at both men. "Itíll be fun."
"This is important to you, isnít it?" Duncan commented, looking not the least convinced.
"Charlotte is an old friend. Iíd like to help her. Iíd like to see her again. Iíd like to get out of this city for awhile. And Iíd like to have some fun with you."
Richie looked dubious, while Duncan offered a grin.
"Far be it from me to ever do anything thatís not fun." Bending down, he braced his chin against Tessaís shoulder, wrapping his arms around her and nuzzled her ear. "I like to have fun."
"Yes, you do." She shivered. "But I have to get this done." She gestured at the placard she was painting. "Itís the last one. And I have to call Charlotte with your answer tonight. Richieís already agreed to do his part. What about you?"
Releasing Tessa, Duncan nabbed a raw carrot from Tessaís stash on the table. "Why not."
"Does that mean yes?"
"Fantastic." Grabbing the remote phone where it perched haphazardly atop a stack of boards, Tessa punched a series of numbers.
"Hello, Charlotte, itís Tessa. I have some good news for you. I have the men you need," she spoke to the womanís answering machine. "As for costumes..."
She cast a nervous glance over her shoulder, then wandered away from the work area and into the shop proper, where the remote phoneís reception was better.
"...I donít think weíll need any. I have one from a costuming class I took years ago in Paris. Duncan will be able to locate a kilt. I think I can find some tights and a tunic for Richie."
Richieís frightened eyes met Duncanís.
"Say what?" He spun about as Tessa completed the call and came back into the room. "Iím not wearing tights."
"Who said you were wearing tights?"
Richie glowered at her. "You did. On the phone. Just now."
"You were eavesdropping!" Tessa pointed an accusing finger at him, affronted by his rudeness.
"No I wasnít. I just have good hearing. And itís a good thing, too. You call her back and tell her that Richie Ryan doesnít do tights."
Arms folded in finality, Richie leaned back against the wall and waited for Tessa to dial the phone.
She didnít dial anything, but returned his angry stare neutrally. "Yes, you are wearing the tights. Iíve already told Charlotte that you agreed. And you did."
"You didnít warn me that Iíd be wearing tights." He was practically spitting the words in panic. "I wonít wear tights. Tights arenít for guys. Tell her, Duncan."
"Tights arenít for guys," he mumbled obediently, trying hard not to laugh. "At least, not in the last few hundred years. Why does he have to wear tights?"
"I asked him to play Julian."
Duncanís eyes widened into Tessaís. A moment later, he was grinning. "And does Richie know what Romeo and Julian do?"
"He knows enough. He agreed to do it," she repeated, casting another sour look in Richieís direction.
Richie looked from an obstinate-looking Tessa to a delighted Duncan. "She said they were a comedic troupe of players doing Shakespeare. Iíve always thought I had some talent for acting, so what they hey, right? Now I can learn lines as well as the next guy can, but nobody said anything about tights."
Coming around the table, Duncan slid his arm across the young manís shoulders. "Itís all right, Richie. You wonít have to wear the tights for long."
"Because Romeo and Julian do ĎRomeo and Juliet.í Do I really have to tell you who dons the dress to play Juliet?"
"Oh holy hell!" Wrenching away from Mac, Richie backed up. Holding his hands before him, he spluttered, "Oh, no-no-no-no-no. Iím not playing a girl, not for a million bucks, and your friend isnít offering anywhere near that amount."
"Itís Julian or the mud beggar," said Tessa sullenly.
"Whatís a mud beggar?"
"Head to toe, heís covered in mud. Dry mud. All day long, he goes from person to person and picks on them. He solicits money for charity, has his picture taken with endless teenagers and little kids--"
"He makes faces and scares little babies in strollers." Duncan nabbed another carrot. "Kisses toes and the like. Itís fun. Youíd like it. I did."
"You were a mud beggar?"
"In another life." Duncan looked so innocent, Richie couldnít tell if he was serious.
"Okay, Iíll do it," Richie said abruptly.
"You have to ad-lib all day," warned Tessa, "and roll in wet mud a lot, to keep your costume intact."
"Do I have to wear tights?"
She shook her head. "Draw-string knickers, probably. But no shirt. No shoes, either. Just mud from head to foot. Between your toes, too. Is mud safe enough for your masculinity?"
"Fine. I can handle mud. Tell your friend that Iíll do that."
"Fine," she echoed.
Sounding annoyed, she turned her attention back to painting the cracked-pine sign with Tessaís Treasures sketched on it. Many fine pieces of art and ceramics would be displayed for sale under that sign.
Richie growled at Duncan on the way out the door. "She was going to make me be a girl. What if some of my old friends showed up? No way would I ever make it back in the old neighborhood. Itís impossible."
"Itís in Oregon, Richie. I donít think there will be that many tourists from your old neighborhood."
"It could happen. It would, just because itís me."
"If youíre covered in mud, I doubt theyíll recognize you." Tessa commented in peeved tones.
"Exactly." He cast a dark look Tessaís way, but she didnít even look up. "See you two tomorrow."
"Yes." Duncan looked at Tessa expectantly after Richie had gone. "All right, Tess. ĎFess."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Confess. You never intended for Richie to wear those tights. Or to play Juliet. You made the whole thing up."
"It worked, didnít it? Heís playing the beggar, which is exactly what I wanted him to do." Smiling angelically, she picked up the sign to hang it where it would safe drying.
Duncan shivered, wondering what psychology sheíd used on him lately. And what she hadnít told him about this faire. He made a mental note--and not for the first time--not to underestimate this woman.
* * *
Pausing in the middle of the storage room, with wooden crates and boxes surrounding her, Tessa sighed. "Weíre never going to find it. Could Connor have it in storage for you back in New York?"
Duncan shook his head. "Iíve never left it behind when Iíve moved. Itís here somewhere."
Applying his crowbar, he opened the next crate.
"How old is it?"
"Not that old. Not even a hundred years yet. It was made for me by a tailor in Edinburgh, in honor of Queen Victoriaís Diamond Jubilee in 1897." He looked up with a smile. "I liked the old girl."
"A hundred years? Duncan, weíre hunting for scraps that the moths left!" Tessa wailed. "Weíre wasting our time. And what are we going to do for a costume? I said that you could bring your own, and it takes weeks to make a proper kilt--"
He interrupted her with a kiss on the nose. "You fret over the strangest things. Donít worry. Properly kept, wool lasts forever. And if thereís one thing I know itís wool. Kilts age well."
She smiled. "Like you?"
"Like me." He leaned away from the box to kiss her. "Beware of dirty old men."
"Very old, dirty old men?" she teased.
"What about antiques?"
"Oh, theyíre the most dangerous of all. Had more time to practice."
Removing the top of the crate, he revealed a leatherbound box nestled inside. Unlatching it, Duncan peeled back the tissue paper to reveal a beautiful blue tartan kilt of the Clan MacLeod. Tessa peered in to see silver buckles gleaming at her; they looked only slightly tarnished with age. The box must be air-tight, she thought.
"Itís beautiful," she said aloud, stretching her fingers toward it, only to stop. "Is it all right to touch?"
"It had better be all right. Iím planning to wear this, and I donít want it crumbling away as I walk. Could be very embarrassing."
"Do you know what a Scot wears under his kilt?"
"As of now, bicycle shorts," Tessa announced emphatically. "Some shows need to stay private."
Duncan grinned, then lifted the kilt and held it out toward her. "Go on. The leather of the buckles is a bit stuff, but it shouldnít dissolve under your fingers."
She smoothed her hand over the rich tartan. Rough and heavy, it was nothing like the kilts sheíd seen for sale in a few Scottish tourist shops scattered among the States.
"It feels like you," she announced, wondering if Duncan would understand what she meant by that remark.
Gently, he draped the kilt across Tessaís outstretched arms, then turned his attention to the endless yards of material making up the sash. The tartan pin nestled at the bottom of the box was tarnished black, residing beside a pair of cracked leather boots that would never be worn again.
"The pin and boots are much older than the tartan," he explained.
Tessa retrieved the boots once Duncan had set them aside, turning first one then the other in her hands, marveling at the footwear from another century. "These have outlived their usefulness."
"I have others."
She peered into the depths of the box as Duncan brought out a broadsword and swung it experimentally, away from her. "Do you happen to have some bagpipes in there?"
"Nae," he said, pouring on the accent. "Never could stand learniní típlay them that sounds fír all thí world like youíre molestiní a goose. But when twenty men played tígether in thí fog...Well, the English seemed williní títake notice oí that. Made the horses dance and brave men pee their drawers."
She laughed at his gleeful, bloodthirsty grin. Draping the kilt over the crate, she stroked Duncanís cheek, reached up on tiptoe to kiss him.
"Will you use your accent at the faire?"
"All day?" He raised an eyebrow. "Youíd get awfully tired of listening to that. Not to mention that Iím not certain anyone could understand me if I did use the accent."
"I can understand you."
"Iíve tormented you with it for years." He touched the tip of her nose. "Youíre used to it."
Repacking the sash and the other items, he set aside the sword and left the kilt to Tessa.
"Do you want anything else out of here?"
"Not right now." Fingering the warm wool beneath her fingers, Tessa carried the kilt from the storage chamber.
I canít wait to see Duncan in this, she thought. Nor Richie in his mud.
* * *
Entering through the back door of the antique shop, Tessa paraded Duncanís kilt past an older man standing at one of the locked jewelry cabinets, and draped the tartan over a suit of armor. The man turned, his eye drawn by the bright colors. Jaw sagging, he headed toward the kilt with speed unbecoming a skilled negotiator of antiques.
"Did that just come in?" he demanded, "May I touch it?"
"Yes," said Duncan, "but itís not for sale."
"Itís Scottish. Old Scottish."
"It is." Duncan nodded, once again the professional antique dealer.
"From the Highlands," the man added, rubbing the tartan between his fingers and looking as though he were likely to start drooling at any moment.
Duncan carefully pulled the material from the covetous grasp, off of the armor. Rolling up the kilt, he tucked it beneath his arm protectively.
"Iíll give you ten thousand dollars for it."
"Sorry." Collecting the sash, Duncan draped it carelessly over the kilt.
The soft moan behind him told that his guest disapproved of Duncanís cavalier handling of the treasure.
"Iíll make it fifteen," the man offered. "In cash. Iíll have a cashierís check issued to you this afternoon."
"Eighteen. No higher."
"Itís not for sale," Duncan repeated, slowly this time so that each word might be understood.
"Do you have another buyer? Is that whatís wrong?"
"No. Itís mine, and Iím planning to wear it next month. If I sell it, Iíll have nothing else to wear."
"W-wear?" the man stammered, shocked to his very wingtips. "Wear? That bit of antiquity? Are you mad?"
"No, but I do like to look míbest." Whistling, Duncan turned and walked away, taking with him the abused Highland finery.
Come by the hills to the land where fancy is free... The lyrics to Duncanís song wafted through Tessaís mind. Stand where the peaks meet the sky and the rocks reach the sea, Where the rivers run clear and the bracken is gold in the sun, And cares of tomorrow must wait Ďtil this day is done.Tessa listened until it occurred to her that her customer was hovering at her elbow and staring at her most peculiarly.
"Iím sorry," she stammered, knowing how she must look, looking longingly after a long-legged, long-haired man carrying a kilt and a set of cracked leather boots. "May I help you?"
The man stared at her, his expression shocked. "I donít need help. He needs the help. Heís going to wear that lovely old kilt like it was a pair of jeans. That man should be-- should be committed!"
Apparently unable to bear to be in the presence of such sacrilege any longer, the collector huffed out the door.
Stifling a giggle, Tessa turned and headed for the back of the store. Duncan had tossed the kilt on the table, and was rummaging about in a closet. Tessa bent to study Duncanís kilt a bit more closely. The tarnished silver buckles on hung drunkenly from their tattered leather tabs, winking at her as though to say, Havenít you a mannequin somewhere? One more suitable to house these colors than an English suit of armor?
As a matter of fact, I do, she decided, and went in search of it.
* * *
Sliding across the bare cement floor, Richie sank down to sit beside Tessa at her potterís wheel, seemingly oblivious to the tiny drops of clay being slung all over his t-shirt.
"Duncanís being Scottish again," he announced in a low voice filled with doom and gloom. "Heís remembering the good old days. Border wars with Bonnie Prince Charlie. Bashing and slashing. Highland cattle. Border collies. Lots of gorse and heather. You know the song."
Tessa nodded, but didnít take her attention from the honey jar she was crafting. "A few old girlfriends were in there too, you know? If you ask, maybe heíll tell you about them, man-to-man talk.
"Sure. PG-13 treatment of an X-rated subject. No fun, Tessa. But you still expect me to come and tell you what he says, right?"
"Right." She threw him a dazzling smile.
"Hah. No way."
"I like it when he talks about his past," Tessa defended.
"Thatís because you havenít had to listen to him recite ĎScots, What Hae Ye Wallace Bled?í fifty times in the past forty-eight hours. Iím telling you, Tessa, if he doesnít knock it off soon, Iím going to insist that my ancestry is Irish and start fighting back. With a name like Ryan and my looks, you never know: I might have been born knowing the lyrics to ĎWhen Irish Eyes Are Smiling.í And thereís always ĎWhen You and I Were Young, Maggie.í"
"Donít forget ĎDanny Boy," Tessa urged. "Even if it isnít Irish."
"I wonít. And then thereís that other one--the one they did on the old Star Trek. With Kirk and Spock."
"ĎIíll Take You Home Again, Kathleen?í"
"Thatís the one." Richie nodded. "Yep, quite a repertoire. You think that Duncaníll get the message and shut up if I hum some opening bars over and over?"
"Just get him talking instead of humming," she insisted. "Heís really excited about going to that faire because heíll get to be himself for three days."
"The lord and master is always himself." Drawing up his legs, Richie rested his chin on his knees. "Oh, you mean he gets to be his barbarian self? Run around in a skirt. Carry his katana. Let his hair hang down." He nodded understanding. "Far out. But Iíll still be glad when itís over."
Reaching a bare foot, Tessa poked him hard with her toes. "You sound like youíre about fifty years old and complaining about having to listen to Madonna. Lighten up, Richie. Duncanís happy. Heís not worried about anything. He hasnít killed any Immortals lately, and heís not being stalked. Lifeís good at the moment. Donít ruin it."
Richie sighed. "Okay. But if he sings ĎKerrighfergusí to himself once more out in the shop while business is slow, Iím going to insist on getting equal time to play my new Queen tape."
CHAPTER TWOEarly Sunday morning, Tessa opened the kiln and peered inside, where shiny ceramic honey pots and mugs, goblets and soap dishes were lined up in neat little rows. Removing them carefully, she packed them in separate little boxes, which were then installed inside a heavy cardboard box. Installing another batch of naked pottery, she closed and latched the kiln door. After checking the temperature and setting the timer, she confronted a table full of ceramic pieces she needed to begin glossing.
Only twelve more hours work, Tessa estimated. I think Iím on schedule, with three days to finish these and complete the goblets. I can do it, if Richie and Duncan keep handling the store by themselves.
Duncan wandered out of the bedroom and into the work area just as Tessa was selecting colors for the medieval-styled goblets.
"Are you planning on stopping for breakfast anytime soon?" he asked.
"When Iím finished with these," she replied.
"Do you want to go find a croissant with me when youíre done?"
He watched her for a moment more, then began circling the work area. Locating a stack of boards in the back corner, Duncan began sorting through them.
"Do you have any sitka spruce or cherry left over from those chess tables you made?"
"I think so," said Tessa. "Youíre in the right place to find it."
A moment later, Duncan found a sizeable piece of spruce. Laying it atop the worktable, he paced to the roll of brown wrapping paper used to package fragile purchases. Tearing off a hugh piece of paper, he nabbed a pencil and ruler from Tessaís drafting table.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Youíll see." He shrugged and gave her a rueful grin. "Thatís if it works."
Duncan spent the next fifteen minutes sketching patterns of something Tessa couldnít identify. Transferring the patterns to the wood carefully, he seemed to forget all about breakfast. Finishing her ceramic painting, Tessa noted the intensity with which her immortal lover was working and decided not to disturb him.
Slipping out the side entrance, she went after the croissants herself, visiting a small French bakery nearby and bringing home a generous selection of plain and stuffed ones, as well as some cappacino. Duncan didnít even look up as the tantalizing scent wafted past. Tessa noted that heíd borrowed her lathe and power tools to begin construction of whatever heíd taken a fit to construct. Determined that Duncan wouldnít go hungry, she brought him a blueberry-filled croissant.
"Open up," she ordered, as his arms were covered with wood dust.
He opened obediently, took two sips of his favorite cappacino, and went right back to work. An hour later, when Tessa checked the kiln, she saw what appeared to be a long, slender box of some sort was taking shape beneath Duncanís capable hands. She still hadnít a clue what it was supposed to be. Neatly glued together, the box rested a set of carpenterís vises and had been left to dry.
Consumed with curiosity, Tessa went to look at the semi-completed object again the next evening, after Duncan had spent the entire afternoon fussing and carving and gluing.
"Oh, itís a harp!" Tessa exclaimed, seeing it set on its side and still confined. Spinning about, she confronted Duncan, who was sweeping the work area. "Where in the world did you learn to make a harp?"
He shrugged. "Here and there."
"Oh, come on. Tell me."
"Oh, all right." He winked at her. "But not just yet. Wait until you see the finished product. I might have forgotten everything I learned. And I did do things a bit differently. Never done it with power tools before. "
Sighing, Tessa stroked the graceful cherry neck. "I donít know if I can wait that long. But if I must, I must."
The thought occurred while he was carving the front pillar. Where am I going to get the hardware and strings?
Going to the computer, he logged onto the Internet. Two hours later, he was blessing Connor MacLeodís name for the suggestion that Duncan get onto the Net, and had found several harp stores that might help. Reassured that what he was attempting wouldnít be stymied by a lack of levers or strings, Duncan returned to his work.
Over the next few days, Tessa watched as her lover constructed the rest of his harp, then proceeded to carve it. Wood chips flew, with Duncan plying wood carving tools with intense concentration. The nicks on his fingers when the blade slipped were ignored completely, and healed quickly, even before he could bleed on his project. Still, it was quite an undertaking.
When he was finished, delicate ivy wound its way up the pillar, tiny fairy faces peeked out from between the leaves. The strings came the day he finished the instrument, sanding it to perfection and coating it lightly with oil.
"Youíre not going to stain it?"
He shook his head and unpacked the strings. Within two hours, Duncan placed the finished harp before Tessa. The soundboard was spruce, the rest was cherry. Tall and graceful, it glowed in all its new promise before her.
"Itís too green to hold a tuning," he announced, "but itís ready for its new home."
Tentatively, she plucked a few strings and winced at the fractured scale. Heís right about the tuning. But, oh, itís a beautiful work of art.
"Iíve never seen anything like this, except in museums," Tessa ran her fingers over the wood, enjoying the sensuous feel of it. "You know they donít make harps like this now, donít you?"
"I know." He massaged her shoulders.
"They donít carve them like this," she continued, "and they donít sound like this...like something magical. Like Druids or minstrels." She arched an eyebrow at him. "Do you have enough time left to make another?"
He looked startled. "I thought youíd want to sell this one."
"I want to keep this one. Can you make another?"
He smiled. "Certainly. But I probably donít have time to carve it." He ran a hand down the ivy. "How much do you think youíll get for it?"
"Two thousand, easy. Maybe three."
"Two thousand dollars?" He laughed outright at her prediction. "Weíre in the wrong business. We should be making harps, not selling antiques."
"Maybe we should do both. Now tell me: where did you learn to make harps?"
His eyes went distant. "I spent part of 1645 in Ireland with a girl half-gypsy, half-Irish and perhaps all fairy. Her name was Muirne, and she was...."
Beautiful, Duncan thought, watching Muirneís braided hair sway in time with her horseís walk. Eighteen or a hundred and eighteen...just how old is she? he wondered after the immortal heíd come across in a forest meadow many long weeks before.
"Iím Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod," heíd said, coming up on the edge of her clearing and eyeing the single ring rapier held ready in her hands. "Are you wantiní tí fight me then?"
Lowering the rapier slowly, she had considered him, his sword, his musculature and his horse.
"Iím Muirne OíConnor of nowhere in particular. And no, I donít want to fight you." Iíd lose, said her eyes.
He studied her face, her streaming auburn hair, her figure, and her harp. "Are you a minstrel, then?"
"A lady such as yourself shouldnít be alone in these wilds. Any amount of harm could come to you."
"Mmm," she agreed. "Do you happen to know of anyone willing to protect someone like me?"
Sheíd laughed at his boldness. "Then come down off of your horse, Duncan MacLeod. Share the fire and some bread with me."
That day, they had begun sharing the road, the misty summer rains, the ever-changing moon, and their beds on peat moss and fern.
Bringing his gelding up beside her, Duncan patted the neck of his pony and found himself wishing it was her thigh beneath his hands, rather than horsehair and mane.
"Weíll reach Farnaght before dark," he observed. "Will you want to be singiní then?"
"If itís food we want, itís music we have to give."
She began singing the moment they reached the outskirts of town, with Duncan flanking her like a bodyguard. He did not sing with her. He never sang with her. Long days before, he had grown drunk on the mead her singing had bought, had favored her and the howling wolves of the forest with beloved clansong.
"Donít!" Sheíd giggled at him, scarcely able to gasp out the words. "Sweet Duncan, youíre a man of many talents and many uses. But singing--"
"Isnít one of them?" He took another swig of mead and staggered toward her. "Aye, so Iíve been told, and I believe. But you like my other talents, donít you?"
Falling beside her--and very nearly on her--he let his fingers sing over her breast. "Donít you, my bonny lady?"
Moaning, she arched beneath his fingers. "Iím no lady, Duncan."
"No? Then youíre a fairy, bewitchiní to me. Now hold still, and let me get your bodice undone...."
"Other uses," he mumbled to himself as Muirne sang on. Half amused, half irritated, Duncan reflected that, more than anything, those uses seemed to involve tending the horses and making love.
He didnít mind. Listening to her, how could he mind? Her crystal voice and story-songs could charm angels from the clouds, as they now charmed villagers from their tasks. The blacksmithís anvil stopped its ringing: smithy and client looked around to see whose voice was floating on the sweet air of a warm summerís afternoon.
"Come all ye lads and lassies, and listen to my tale
Of fairies, rogues and princes, their secrets will I tell,
Of dragonflies and eagles--the messages they bring.
Tales told before the moon flies--of this and more Iíll sing."
"They followed Muirne like rats followed the Pied Piper," Duncan told Tessa. "Fortunately for both of us, the villagers usually had more money than the rats. She made a good living for both of us."
"What happened to her?"
"As far as I know, nothing. Sheís gone professional. Lives in Stratford, Ontario. Sings for the Shakespearean Festival and teaches music at some university."
"Why did you leave her?"
He ran a finger down one of the bass, steel strings, which squeaked a protest. "Eventually, we drifted apart. Muirne was so ethereal, so totally obsessed by her music. We didnít talk much, didnít really see much beyond the passing countryside. She ate and slept, made love and sang. Music was her life, not me. I could have been anyone, traveling with her.
"When my horse pulled up lame one summerís afternoon, she rode ahead to the next town while I walked. I was delayed three days." He shrugged, his dark eyes haunted by the memories. "I never saw her again."
"She just disappeared on you?"
Duncan shook his head. "In every village, Iíd hear about her. ĎYou should have been here last night...Muirne was here last night....í She was always just ahead of me, I was always a day behind. After a few weeks of chasing her, I got fed up and took a different direction. If sheíd been interested in my company, she could have looked back over her shoulder for me."
"So how did you learn to make harps?" Tessa pursued.
"Her father had made hers, and sheíd assisted him. When hers warped and split up the soundboard during the fall rains--it could have survived, had it but split horizontally--we spent a few weeks in the wet woods making a new harp. She told me what to do, and thatís how I learned." Reaching out, he gathered Tessa into a hug. "Iíll make another harp, Tessa. But go ahead and sell this one. The one I make for you will be different. Very different. Another musical fairy tale, with secret carvings just for you, whispering of our love. Would you like that?"
"Very much." Resting her cheek against his chest, Tessa closed her eyes and breathed in the essence of this man.
I love him so much, she thought. I need him so much. Immortal, warrior, friend and lover...now, harpmaker. The things I keep discovering about him never cease to amaze me.
"Okay, so what do we do once we get there?" asked Richie, who was crammed in the back of the van along with Tessaís crafts, booth supplies, and a harp whose protective wrappings had expanded its size one-half again as much as it had been originally.
"We look for Charlotte, we find our booth, and we set up," said Tessa.
"Oh. So, after working our asses off loading this van and driving for hours without air conditioning, we get to work our butts off unloading the van and entertain some friend of yours? What about food?"
"What about food?" said Duncan, who was driving.
"Iíd like some. Iím feeling faint back here."
"I have a Snickers bar in my purse."
"Not exactly what I had in mind." Richie wrinkled his nose at Duncan, who was peering at him through the rear view mirror. Richie knew he was being peered at, because there was no way Duncan could see anything else in that mirror. The view behind them was definitely blocked by piles of artistic stuff. "Come on, guys. Iíve been patient. Real patient. Especially for me,
real patient. Canít we get something to eat before going out in the medieval wilderness?"
"He may have a point, Tess," Duncan murmured. "The fairgrounds are outside Portland. There might not be much to eat beyond pine needles and wild hickory nuts until the concession stands get up and rolling."
"I thought you knew how to live off the land?" Tessa gibed. "I thought you wanted this to be a genuine medieval experience?"
"Yeah, but along with starvation came the plague back then, and--"
"Count me out, guys," Richie broke in. "This is a twentieth century stomach on a three-meal-a-day clock. My stomachís in rebellion and my muscles will be, too, if you drag me off to the Oregon wilderness without some sustenance in my bones. What do you say, Tess? Even a mud-beggar deserves some sustenance."
Crumpling the map in her lap, Tessa twisted around in the seat and smiled at Richie. "Oh, all right. Youíve been so good today, I suppose we can feed you. Duncan?"
"Iíve been good, too."
She stroked his arm. "Yes, you have. Okay, your choice. Just donít take me to McDonaldís."
Capturing her hand, Duncan kissed her fingers. "Never."
"Whatís wrong with McDonaldís?" Richie demanded. "I like McDonaldís. Donít tell me youíre going to take me to some been sprout place that has hummas and...and...what was that stuff? It stank, and it was green, and--"
Duncan hid a smile as Tessa began glowering at his insulting her beloved vegetarian fare. The start of yet another wonderful argumentative weekend with Richie Ryan. "Hey, Richie?"
"If you want to eat, shut up."
"No problem. Shutting up right now. I can take a hint, and you wonít hear another word outta me. Just gotta--"
"Shut up!" the yelled in unison.
He shut up.
"Why donít you head for the nearest health food store, Duncan?" purred Tessa.
She wasnít disappointed by the moan from the back seat. Only Duncan could tell that she wasnít serious. As it was, Richie sweated bullets for ten minutes while Duncan searched utopian Portland for a suitable restaurant--Italian, as it turned out. Not even Richie could complain about a menu that offered spaghetti.
* * *
Pulling into the fairgrounds, Duncan parked the van close to the entrance and shut off the engine. "Do you know where to find your friend?"
"Sheís somewhere close. Her bike is here."
Sliding on his bum out of the van, Richie stretched the kinks out of his back.
"Bike? What bike?" he asked, seeing a big, black Harley Davidson that was to die for, but no bicycle. Wandering over to the machine, Richie let his mouth drop open. "Would you look at this? Death on wheels, but ainít she grand?"
"Grand," echoed Tessa. "She also belongs to Charlotte, so be careful about the fingerprints. Sheís rather protective of that thing."
Richie blinked at her a moment, not quite certain he understood. Glancing from Tessa to the bike and back again, he leaned across the shiny black leather seat.
"This is no Ďthing,í Tessa. This is a classic. A work of art." He looked up from the mass of chrome and steel to meet Tessaís eyes. "Your friend rides this bike?"
"Oh, boy." The weekend just got better, his grin said. Running his fingers through his hair, Richie turned in place. "Look, um...When we meet your friend, could you kind of...Well, could you mention that I like bikes? Could you please tell her that Iíve always dreamed of riding a hog like this? I mean, I know that I could never afford one, but, like...Do you think sheíd let me drive it? Just around the lot here?"
"I donít know--"
"Sit on it, then. Just sit. I promise, I wonít even fiddle with the gears. Please ask her, Tessa. Pleeeeeeze?"
"I donít know." Tessa smiled. "But you can ask her. Sheís standing right behind you."
Whirling, Richie stared at Tessaís friend. And stared.
He wasnít the only one. Duncan and Charlotte Marlowe seemed locked in time. He stared at her, she stared back, and Tessa stood grinning at both of them. As for Richie, realizing that he was in danger of drooling on the bike to the point of rusting it, he stepped back and joined Tessa. Looking from Charlotte to Duncan, he almost moaned aloud.
Aw...geez, not another one."You are gorgeous," the woman breathed at Duncan, leaning so far forward on her toes, Richie was afraid sheíd pitch onto her nose. "Tessa, you said he was cute, but I never imagined...I mean, I would never call this...cute...."
Slinking forward with what could only be called predatory grace, Charlotte slipped her hand into Duncanís. At 5í1", the woman was small, brunette, and lethal in black leather. The jumpsuit she wore was so tight, Richie was certain she had to have been poured into it that evening, and would have to be peeled out of it that night.
Or maybe she just sleeps in it...like Catwoman. Come to think of it, she could give Michelle Pfeiffer a run for her money.
"Iím really happy to meet you, Mr. MacLeod," she purred. "And I canít wait to see you in your kilt. Is it a short kilt?"
Duncan captured her fingers and held on before they crawled their way any further up his arm. "Call me Duncan."
Why doesnít his voice ever crack? Richie wondered.
Tessa stepped forward. "Charlotte, this is Duncan. Duncan, this is Charlotte. My stockbroker, financial advisor, and friend." At least, for now, her eyes twinkled.
"Tessa tells me that you make harps," Charlotte breathed up at Duncan. "I play the flute. But that could change."
The fingers of one hand walked up Duncanís wrist. The fingers of her other hand closed over his deltoid muscle. "Youíre so strong," she cooed. "And...big." Her eyes dropped lower. "Arenít you?"
For the first time since heíd met Mac, Richie saw the immortal blush. Extricating his hand, Duncan stepped closer to Tessa and wrapped an arm around her waist.
"He works out a lot," Tessa rescued him, sliding her own, proprietary arm around her man. "And Iím going to need those muscles to help me set up, Charlotte."
"All of them?"
"Every one," Tessa replied firmly. "Can you show us where the booth is?"
"How remiss of me." Holding Duncanís gaze, she widened her eyes. "You can drive the van right in. But be out by two, because thatís when theyíre spreading the hay throughout the byways of our little village."
"Have you met Richie Ryan?" Duncan nearly yanked the young man up beside him as Charlotteís eyes began undressing him. Beside him, Tessa tried to stifle a giggle.
Charlotteís dark eyes grew sultry. She undulated her way toward the younger man. "Richard...."
Oh, no, Richie moaned to himself as certain things in his anatomy responded. Not now. Not here. "Uh, hi. Duncan, you want to drive in now?"
Harley Davidson forgotten, Richie practically bolted into the van heíd been so eager to vacate only minutes earlier. Striding easily around to the driverís side, Duncan watched through the open door as Charlotte insinuated herself in beside Richie.
"Oh, itís a tight fit in here, isnít it? If you canít move over a little more, Iím going to have to sit in your lap, Richard."
Climbing into the van, Duncan exchanged a look with Tessa.
"Do you think heíll survive the contact?" she murmured, for Duncanís ears only.
"Go around the back of all the little buildings, darling Duncan," Charlotteís voice purred in his ear. Her fingers played with his hair. "How long did it take for your hair to grow so long?"
"Four hundred years," came the innocent reply, "give or take a decade."
Tessa was proud of him: his fingers didnít shake on the steering wheel, not even when those exploring fingers grazed his sensitive ears. As they rolled through the service entrance to the fair, Duncan captured Tessaís fingers and didnít let go.
"Turn right," Charlotte breathed into his ear.
"First booth on your right. Best seat in the house."
Duncan had the feeling she wasnít referring to the booth, but to his own rear end.
When did she see that? he wondered.
"Tessaís told me so much about you," Charlotte continued. "Iím sorry, Richard, am I crowding you?"
"Uh, no," came the strangled answer. "Not at all. Youíre just fine. Iím okay."
A quick glance in the rear-view mirror told him that Charlotteís own rear end was snuggled up against Richieís thigh. The view in tight leather had to be a torment to the nineteen year old. A quick glance at Tessa told Duncan that not only had she been confiding things in Charlotte during their long-distance conversations, but she knew exactly what the woman was attempting to do to both of the men in Tessaís life.
"So, how long have you and Tessa known each other?" Duncan asked.
"We met when I was an exchange student in France," said Charlotte. "Tessa told me all of the good places to go and meet rich men."
That earned Tessa a raised eyebrow. "Did she find you some likely possibilities?"
"Yes, but all I got was bad lines and...offers. Good food, though. They did buy dinner." She grinned. "So Tessa owes me one rich, gorgeous guy."
Duncan leaned forward, away from the hand caressing the nap of his neck, beneath his hair. "Well, I donít qualify, then. Iím neither rich or French."
"Close enough," Charlotte murmured, watching appreciatively as Duncan slid out of the van.
Tessa followed quickly, using her front-seat placement to full advantage as Charlotte had to unfold herself from the back seat.
"This is wonderful!" Tessa surveyed the small space that would be home for the next few days. "The booth is marvelous. Oh, I already know exactly how I want to set up. Richie, would you bring the box from the van?"
"Which box?" he said testily, half in and half out of the torture chamber. "Thereís at least twenty thousand boxes back here."
"The one marked Ďdrapesí of course. Itís in there somewhere. Bring that one and the tools. Duncan, would you sweep the cobwebs out of the corners for me?"
Duncan and Richie exchanged glances and knew all too well that the day had just deteriorated even further as Tessa slipped into what Duncan affectionately called "Artist Mode". Boxes were hauled forth, booth backing and appropriately medieval-looking buntings were hung. The booth was decorated to Tessaís liking, and next came the unpacking and placing of the art.
"This goes there, that over there. No, not like that, turn it so the light catches on that side of it...."
The two men endured it with good grace, and slowly waning patience. By the time the last box was unpacked, both Duncan and Richie had had enough of Faire Retail.
"Tessa?" Duncan asked softly.
"Hmmm?" came the absent-minded reply. "Should the goblets go on the tapestry drape, or over here against the rabbit fur?"
"You know best. Can you handle the finishing touches by yourself? Richie and I need to get into costume. Weíre supposed to be ready by three."
"Of course I can handle it. Go and get dressed," she ordered with a quick kiss to his cheek. "Or, as the case may be for you, undressed," she added, grinning at Richie.
Richie heaved a sigh of relief and began backing away from the booth. "Right. No problem. Coming, Mac?"
Mac paused to collect his carryall from the van, then strode after Richie toward what was known as the "green area."
No green rooms here, he noted. Back to living with nature and no walls.
The semi-privacy of hanging curtains was pointed out by a peasant-costumed helper, and Duncan began sorting out his old Highland outfit that was as familiar to him as his own skin. Kilt and accessories slipped into place easily, with a familiarity both comforting and uneasy. Memories were attached to this particular costume--secure memories of childhood, a less secure young adulthood with good and bad, skirmishes and deaths....
Shoving such thoughts firmly away before they could fill his mind, his heart, and take over his mood, Duncan gave his boots a final tug. Squaring his shoulders, he shoved aside the curtain and strode forth, comfortable in the dress of the day--his day--and into the wooded village that made it all seem so right again.
"HEY!" came a shout from behind him. A fellow in his mid-twenties and dressed in very non-period jeans trotted up to Duncan. "You canít go out there yet."
"I havenít checked you over yet, thatís why. We do things right at this faire and nobody goes out there until their costume is approved. No wristwatches, no sneakers, and no chewing gum." The young man glowered as though he might ask Duncan to reveal his tonsils, if so inclined. "Now turn around and let me look at you."
Duncan stared at him, hackles and temper rising. Meeting his glower, the mini-god tapped his clipboard and decided to circle Duncan instead of requesting the pirouette again.
"What are you?"
"Are you? Your character. I donít see anything like this on my list. Oh well, Iím only the director. Nobody tells me anything. I suppose itís all right. Boots okay, skirt and cloak okay. On second thought, I think that whole outfit is probably a little too modern, really. I donít know who approved it, but I donít think itíll work. Go by costuming and see if theyíve something English for you to wear."
"I donít think so," Duncan told him softly.
"Oh, my God," the kid groaned, pointing at the scabbard at Duncanís side. "Thatís all wrong! You canít carry that sword. Itís Japanese. I mean, I could put up with the mock kilt and all, but that sword has got to go. Here, give me that--itís just all wrong."
Fingers reached out to try to pluck the katana from Duncanís side. The Highlander moved it just out of reach.
"I am Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, and Iíll be keepiní ma sword and ma kilt."
"You just donít get it, do you?" Mr. Director sighed in frustration before looking up to meet Duncanís eyes. The director froze, fingers still stretched for the katana, mouth open in mid-order.
Those eyes were not those of an actor. They were the eyes of something old and very, very dangerous. Backing away two paces, the director consulting his clipboard.
"Sc-Scottish noble. Right here. No problem. G-go on out, okay, and try to be nice to the people. And donít cut anybody with that. Edged weapons arenít allowed."
Duncan nodded to the younger man, still holding his gaze, and then stepped forward. Falling back, the director hastily made way for the warrior.
"What the hell was that?" Duncan heard another man mutter as soon as heíd passed from the staging area.
"I dunno, but I wasnít gonna argue with him. Let somebody else take that sword away from him. Iím not. And if they want to press the issue, Iíll quit and let somebody else try it. That guyís in character, for crying out loud...."
Duncan smiled and stepped past the stockade fencing marking the perimeter of the faire proper, then headed for the booth where heíd left Tessa.
A crowd was beginning to mill about the village, both performers and guests. Velvet gowns with laced bodices, and men in tights and tunics mingled with tourists dressed in shorts and running shoes. Neon colors and sports logos shouted over the muted earth tones of the peasantry. Nobles swaggered about in knickers and ruffles, escorting ladies with flowered garlands in their hair.
All in all, it was a total hodgepodge of historical times and fashions, with a good bit of fantasy thrown in. A young maiden picking her way through the mud held her flowing skirts high, only to reveal rolled blue jeans beneath. The lady-in-waiting to the queen fluttered her fan in coquettish fashion, entirely unaware of the Timex adorning her wrist. And the would-be accents made Duncan want to clap his hands over his ears. They were horrible. Inaccurate. Painful. And just plain dumb.
Only in America. Ah, well, let these people have their fun and their fantasies. Thereís no plague, no starvation, no violent deaths...Only humor, and a pleasant afternoon. And porta-potties. Let the past stay in the past.
Tessa was still fussing over her wares, trying to get each one positioned just so before the first guests of the day flooded in--too late. A young man with a video camera was cheerfully taping her as she flew back and forth across the tiny booth, muttering in French and English as she poked and turned and waved away the dust now floating in the sunlight.
"Excuse me," Duncan asked of the cameraman in his best accent. "Does she know youíre doiní that?"
"Itís a faire. Does it matter?"
"Doing what?" Tessaís voice demanded. "Oh, youíre Scottish," she commented, standing at his back and seeing only the cloak, hearing the accent. "Have you seen another...." Tessaís voice trailed away as Duncan turned toward her.
Standing in a pool of sunlight where the sunshine managed to filter through the trees, Duncan stood framed in gold. His flowing brown hair framed stern, piercing eyes. The brilliant blue of the MacLeod tartan fell in worn folds across his broad shoulder. His narrow waist was wrapped in a broad, heavy leather belt studded with old, heavy bronzework studs and shields, while the Victorian kilt reached his knees, displaying calves that were strongly muscled and disappearing into perfectly fitting boots. Strong hands held the hilt of a familiar dragonís head katana with familiar ease.
He seems bigger, somehow, than he was a moment ago, in jeans and a t-shirt....Tessaís gaze drifted down, recording details her stunned brain tried to assimilate into a whole. The eye-tour was repeated once sheíd met his boots and the ground, this time traveling upward until her gaze came to rest on his face.
Duncan. It was Duncan. Correction: this is Duncan.He turned toward her with a fluid grace that spoke of power, a bearing that was confident and just a little dangerous.
He is a chieftainís son, she remembered. And his eyes....
Those eyes were old and just a little scary, for their gaze was no longer that of the man who sold antiques with Tessa and shared her bed at night. Standing before her was someone who had just stepped from the pages of history, from brutal, barbaric, mist-laden lands and mysterious, forgotten times.
Sheíd heard it a thousand times at least: "Iím Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod." She had accepted it as one would accept an introduction from Society: "Iím Maria Devereux of the Atlanta Devereuxí." And she had been wrong.
How often has he made that pronouncement over the past 400 years? she wondered. This is who he is...and what he was. And all of it was standing before her now.
"...Duncan?" she asked in a small and unsure voice.
"Tessa?" He bent down slightly, touched her hand. "Whatís wrong?"
"Nothingís wrong," she assured him hastily. "Iíve just-- Iíve never seen you like this."
"Do I look that bad?" he asked in surprise.
"Not at all. You look fantastic. I just...wasnít prepared for the full effect."
Their discussion was interrupted by a wail from behind them.
"Eeeeew! Get away from me! Oh, youíre gross. No, no--here. Take this, just donít touch me!"
The young woman in question flung some change at something moving through the rapidly parting crowd. Giggles and squeals announced the arrival of some horrid little beggar who was coated dirt brown from crown of its head to the tops of its bare feet. Mud was smeared across its face, caked in its hair and encrusted whatever rags it was wearing around its bottom half.
"ĎAve yígot a penny for a poor starving beggar? Just a penny mílaydee," it whined. "Jusí a penny for a weary, hungry young Ďun like mísel?"
Drawing his sword, Duncan placed himself between Tessa and the unwholesome creature. "You there, stop harassiní the ladies. Be off with you."
The small crowd gathered laughed and began backing away--drifting toward more interesting--and cleaner--merchandise.
"Oh, geez, Mac," the beggar hissed. "Not again. Hey, itís me. Richie, remember? Put that thing away!"
Tessa stared from around Duncanís shoulder, and then began to laugh as Duncan slid the katana back into its sheath. "Is that really you under there?"
"In the flesh, or should that be earth?." He grinned back at her, his teeth shining white against the new earth-tones of his face.
"You look horrible!"
"Great," he replied with enthusiasm. "This is terrific, Tessa. All I have to do is reach for somebody and they give me money. Iíve made $3.57 already--and all I did was walk to your booth."
"Well, now that youíre here, would you mind staying a bit?" Duncan asked, looking not the least repentant for threatening the hired help. "Iíd like to take Tessa out for a walk around the faire. We wonít be too long."
"Sure. No problem."
Duncan took Tessaís hand and led her away from the booth. Over her shoulder, she called, "Richie? Donít touch anything!"
Duncan led her over the grass and hay. She looked beautiful to him, dressed in a simple flowing gown of cotton gauze with a rope belt. It was cornflower blue, and brought out the blue of her eyes. It was as it should have been so many decades ago, walking across the heather with the woman he loved.
"Oh, listen." Tessa stopped dead and tugged back against his hand. "Do you hear that? Theyíre playing bagpipes."
Duncan cocked his head. "Aye. Well enough."
"Oh, letís go see. They must be at the commons. Over this way."
Pulling on his fingers, Tessa urged him into a trot. Laughing, Duncan loped along beside his lady, who dashed through the woods with her skirts clutched high in one hand, well free of her legs. Long legs, lovely tan legs, Duncan couldnít help but noticing.
The pipers were standing in formation, kilts shining red and white in the sun, pipes bloated and whining away. Tessa dropped to sit in the grass, enjoying the unusual concert.
"I wouldnít sit there," Duncan remarked, looking down at her and refusing to join her.
"Why, have there been horses here or something?" Frowning, she visually searched the surrounding grass.
"Itís not good to sit in front of the pipers," he advised solemnly.
"Is that some bit of folklore I donít know about?" She frowned up at him. "And what tartan is that? Itís so...red."
"Some English creation, I suppose. Itís not any clan that I know...and I knew them all. And no, my advice isnít folklore. Itís just not wise to sit in front of pipers."
The pipers, Duncan noted, were no longer playing in a stationary formation, but were now marching in a pattern, back and forth across the green.
"Stop being cryptic!" Tessa snapped, exasperated. "Either tell me why, or sit down here with meeEEEE!"
The pipers were no longer marching back and forth, but were stomping with serious intent, straight forward--straight to where Tessa was now sitting. They showed no intent of breaking their formation for a mere maid aísitting in the grass.
Duncan grabbed her hand as Tessa scrambled madly to organize skirt and legs enough to get herself up off the ground with all possible speed. As it was, they only just vacated the ground a mere second before the first piperís foot struck where Tessa had been seated so comfortably.
Panting and trembling, Tessa stared at them from the safety of the sidelines, slapping irritably at the grass on her skirt. A moment later, her irritation was turned on Duncan.
"Why didnít you tell me they were going to do that?"
"No you didnít. You said it wasnít wise to sit in front of pipers. You didnít tell me they were going to try to trample me!"
Duncan shrugged. "Theyíre not a friendly lot. They were sent out with us when we went to fight. You shouldnít be surprised if they try to step on a few people. Besides, theyíre British pipers. The U.K. dissolved the original Scots Dragoon Guards years ago. Even the French--especially the French--know that you canít trust the British. So what expect?"
She stared at him as though he were daft, and Duncan stared calmly back. "Youíre serious, arenít you?"
He bowed slightly. "You wanted Duncan MacLeod, Highlander today, milady. Iím only tryiní tí please you."
Her temper faded. She laid a hand against his cheek. "You do please me, Duncan. Whatever and whomever you are, today and everyday."
"Iím pleased to know that, Tessa." His brown eyes were sincere. "I love you."
"And I love you."
They strolled along the paths and among the booths, simply enjoying the opportunity to walk together and share the time. Strange sights abounded, followed by the absurd. Street jugglers, musicians and beggars hailed them frequently. Tourists insisted on snapping photographs. There was a scramble behind them, accompanied by squeals of dismay. They turned to find an irritated animal trainer tugging uselessly on the collar of a cougar where it stood perched on the booth counter of "Ms. Desserts," happily munching muffins, much to the consternation of the two young girls supposedly selling the wares.
"I see that thereís an animal trainer here today," he murmured. "Though whoís the animal and whoís the trainer?"
"My vote is for the cat," said Tessa. "Itís getting what it wants."
"Mmm. Blueberry muffins, I think. Want to go see the show?"
"Donít you have your own show to do soon?"
He shrugged. "I donít know. They wonít let me wear my watch."
"It was scheduled for four oíclock. Itís nearly that now, isnít it?"
"I suppose." Duncan turned to squint toward the sun.
"Trust me, itís soon." Tessa yanked on his arm, turning him toward the field where the tournaments were to be held. "In fact, itís now. Look, theyíre lining up over there, see?"
Tessa pointed to the arena, where eager young knightlings were donning armor and swinging swords.
Duncan shook his head and sighed. It wasnít going to be easy, getting through all these matches without hurting or embarrassing someone. "How do I let you talk me into these things?"
"Because you love me. And because, secretly, you want to. Otherwise nothing would budge you. Now go prove your honor, Sir Scot."
"...and our knight from the North, the Highlands of Scotland, Duncan MacLean of the Clean clan." The announcement floated over the grass while the crowd moved steadily toward the arena.
"MacLean? Iím no a MacLean! Iíd rather be dead than a MacLean. Iím a MacLeod!" Duncan bellowed toward the field.
Tessa giggled. "Best go defend your honor, Duncan MacLean."
Duncan gave her an evil glare, then bent to kiss her hand. "Only for you, fair lady."
Duncan took his place in the arena, warming up with a few practice swings of the katana, and ran a quick kata to ground himself and focus. Heíd need all his skill not to wound one of these idiots.
The first battle was long and ridiculous, with two armored ninnies bashing at each otherís shields with great clumsy blades. One eventually staggered and fell, ceremoniously collapsing under his "mortal" wound. The victim was dragged away by the heels, and the combat director beckoned to Duncan.
"You, in the kilt. You fight next."
"Me?" Duncan raised his eyebrows. "I get to fight the victor?"
"Yeah, you. Whereís your armor?"
"Donít use any."
"Your shield? Nothing but a skirt?"
"Iím a Scot. A Highlander. Itís how we fight. We donít use armor. We donít need it." The smile that followed that declaration had very little of mirth in it, and the ring director decided maybe he ought to back up a step.
"What about that thing? Thatís no decent blade."
"Oh, I think itíll do," Duncan replied mildly.
"Well, I donít have time to argue with you. Get in there, die gracefully, and get out fast."
"Die?" Duncan grinned at him unexpectedly. "I canít die. Iím immortal," he called over his shoulder as he strode into the ring.
The first opponent took his place before him, lunging with wild, uncontrolled swings of a mock broadsword. It was so heavy, so poorly balanced, that it kept tugging him off stride and into Duncanís path.
Duncan manoeuvered carefully to avoid being gouged by the uncontrollable sword and swordsman, and neatly disarmed him with all haste; the fellow simply wasnít safe to be near.
The crowd roared its approval. Duncan glanced toward the ringmaster with an almost apologetic shrug.
"No! Stay there! Youíre the victor, you have to keep fighting Ďtil you lose! Donít you understand? Oh, where do they get these amateurs!" he wailed. "Just fight, okay?"
Another victim was herded in, displaying a fighting style that seemed to be made up of the worst moves from old Errol Flynn movies. Duncan had a difficult time with him--trying not to laugh, and not to hurt him in his clumsy, flourish-filled capering. Duncanís elbow got inside the manís sword-reach, to tip him easily onto his butt.
New opponent, same problems. Duncan wasnít the least weary, and the crowd--and the crown, seated at the end of the arena--approved more with each victory. Each of the "dead" or "wounded" knights was hauled away, with a living body replacing it. Nothing was really unique about them, other than the shouting and the quality of their blades. It was rapidly getting boring, Duncan decided as the sun sank lower.
Yet another opponent appeared, faster and more agile than the first, though hampered with twentieth-century chain mail. Duncan grinned at the armor and moved lightly, inviting this young man to display whatever skills he had.
Heís not too bad, Duncan conceded, giving the young man several openings that were promptly accepted in lunges and swings. They put on a fairly decent exhibition before Duncan decided to retire him. The poor kid was beginning to pant inside his protective gear.
And thatís why we didnaí wear such things, Duncan reminded himself. Best to give the kid a break before he collapses from very real exhaustion.
A quick move entrapped the longsword and sent it spinning through the air. The crowd cheered, and Duncan heard the name MacLean being repeated.
Thatís enough of that. Turning toward his audience, he strode the length of the battlefield, sword held at ready.
"I am Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, Chieftainís son and defender of clan honor. I will battle any challenger among you, but at least get my name right!"
The crowd roared its approval of his bellowing, with mass enthusiasm abruptly rising to feverpitched surprise and anticipation. Glancing behind him to see what was happening, Duncan froze as he felt the buzz.
Another Immortal is here. Duncanís heart sped up. He tightened his grip on his katana. Thank God they hadnít gotten it away from him--facing another Immortal with a poorly-made, mock claymore would have been nearly suicide.
But weíre in public. With quite an audience. What can he do here? He--or she--canít be that stupid. Can they? Beyond that, another question screamed in his mind: Who is it?
A black horse picked its way into the arena, bearing toward him a knight in full armor, helm and all. Even the horse wore barding. And this knight--hidden beneath the metal, superior in height, reach and speed--was an Immortal.
Booting the horse into a canter, the new knight circled the arena before pulling his mount to a halt by the Kingís box.
Duncan narrowed his eyes. What does he want? Is he hunting? Playing? He must know Iím here, if I know who he is. What is he doing?
"Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod--foul barbarian of the Firth of Forth--stand and meet they doom!" The voice was muffled behind the helm, but the brandished sword left little doubt as to the wielderís intent.
"Iíve no horse!" he shouted back. "Come down and fight."
The knight did not dismount, but instead signaled his horse, who crouched momentarily before launching itself into a gallop and heading straight toward Duncan.
Duncan stood watching the horse thunder toward him and stepped aside only at the last possible moment, letting the horse pound past him, and neatly evading the swing of the sword. Once horse and rider reached the far end of the arena, the rider pulled the gelding around and sent it back toward him.
This time, Duncan was prepared to take action. Stepping aside as he did before, the Highlander reached up under the arc of the blade to catch the riderís ankle and heave upward. The momentum of the horse finished the job.
The rider dismounted summarily from the off side of the horse, landing on his back with a crashing of armor, only to thrash momentarily in a struggle for leverage, like a turtle on its back. It managed to turn over and heave itself up onto its feet, as the horse continued on to watch the rest of the confrontation from the Kingís vantage point.
Duncan moved in cautiously, his katana held at a most unmedieval ready position. The stranger knight did likewise, edging crab-like around Duncan. At an unseen signal, they closed for the first pass, blades ringing against each other. Drawing back, they paused for a moment before Duncan launched this attack, driving the stranger back several steps.
The dark knight moved sideways and launched a different assault, one that had Duncan struggling to cover himself against its unexpected speed.
The knight laughed and tried a different move--one that Duncan knew well, and could deflect easily.
"Wait a minute!" Duncan bellowed. "Just hold it."
"No," replied the not-so-strange knight, managing to draw blood on Duncanís sword arm.
"Hey!" he protested, startled by the very real wound. "This isnít supposed to be real."
"Defend or die. Or both, if you wish."
Duncan could almost see the grin inside that helm. Launching himself at the armored opponent in earnest, he treated the crowd to a full-speed, intense display of swordsmanship that only seasoned Immortals could manage.
The fight waged back and forth, across the rough grass, hoof-torn from the earlier jousting demonstration. The two Immortals slipped and struggled, swung and parried, their blades ringing and flashing at speeds almost too fast for the eye as they fought in what looked like a duel to the death. Blood was drawn, and the wounds certainly looked very real. And still it didnít end. Pass after pass was completed, only to begin again. The audience was cheering at a wild pitch of enthusiasm, growing louder with each wound and blow.
The fight finally slowed as the two combatants panted and bled, driven to the end of their endurance.
"Iíve had enough," panted Duncan.
"So Ďve I."
"Iím goinít die now."
Both knights staggered about, let their legs fold beneath them, and collapsed--bleeding and apparently dying--to the tattered grass and mud beneath them.
The crowd roared and then stilled as neither knight rose to claim victory. The director stared in stunned horror, and the Queen herself rose in her box.
"A stunning display. We are most impressed," she announced in regal tones, waving a hand at the field. "Will someone kindly remove those brave knights? Their presence is disturbing."
"Yeah. Sure...Uh, as Your Majesty wishes," stammered the director, waving several of the previously vanquished and dead into the ring to survey, firsthand, just how real the carnage was.
"Hey, this guyís really bleeding!"
"Mine, too! We better call the paramedics."
"Nay, have yí some ale? Ale will fix almost anything." The men surrounding the fallen knight leaped back. "Iím not dead, not even dying. Just get us off the grass and get us out of here."
"S-sure, dude. No sweat."
Duncan and his opponent were hauled gracelessly from Her Majestyís presence, bumping across the grass without the least bit of dignity and honor.
"What do we do with Ďem?" gasped the one dragging Duncan.
"Ready tent," panted the director. "Over there."
The two brave combatants were deposited within the canvas walls and abandoned with a thump on a new patch of dirt.
"Ow," moaned the armored knight, sitting up to pull off the annoying helmet. "That wasnít very gentle."
Duncan sat up and slapped at his much-abused, grass-laden katana. "Now see what youíve done--gotten my one good set of clothes dirty. What the hell are you doing here, Connor?"
"That kiltís seen dirt before. And will again. And I was invited."
"Invited?" Duncanís voice carried tones of great suspicion. "Invited by who? Just whoís idea was this?"
"Mine, of course. I thought of it right after I got Tessaís fax." Connor grinned, wiping sweat from his chin. "It was a good one, wasnít it? When was the last time you worked out with a partner, Duncan? Youíre getting soft to the left."
"Three minutes ago." Duncan heaved himself up off the ground, and picked up his sword. "With you." He grinned, then reached down to offer his clansman an arm up off the ground. "Where did you get that lot of tin?"
"Front gate." Connor grimaced. "They think itís authentic."
"They think all of this is authentic. Except me."
"Help get me out of this. It pinches in every tender place a man can have."
Duncan stood back and studied his friend as he struggled to reach buckles awkwardly placed on the breastplate. "You look bloody awful in that."
"Yeah? Well, itís good to see you, too."
A quick hug managed to baffle the young SCA knight-wanna-be in the tent doorway. "You guys know each other?"
They exchanged glances and grinned.
"Oh, for about three hundred years." Connor shrugged. "Give or take fifty."
"Yeah, right. I was supposed to win, yíknow?" the wanna-be challenged. "You guys really screwed it up for me."
Duncan shrugged, while Connor glanced down at his feet.
"Sorry. Nobody told me. Besides, it was his fault," Connor added, pointing at Duncan.
"My fault? Why it is my fault?"
"Because you beat him."
"Oh. Right." Duncan met the aggrieved stare and offered an apologetic grin. "Sorry."
"Sure. But you gotta see the pageant Ďn stuff through, now, Ďcause Iím not the stinkiní Queenís favorite anymore. You are. One of you guys."
"Hey, youíre still the favorite. Weíre dead, remember? Youíre not. And weíre about to go find some ale."
"Dressed like an Englishman," Duncan observed drily as Connor retrieved a carryall containing clean clothes.
"And carrying that sword?" the former favorite put in. "Thatís Japanese. Why would an English noble be carrying a Japanese sword?"
"Itís called a katana." Connor shrugged, then thrust the sword into a scabbard hanging from his belt. "I get around."
The tent flap was peeled back, and the sunlight flooded the small canvas chamber as Tessa stepped inside.
"That was wonderful. Simply wonderful. And you--" she added, moving to hug Connor fiercely. "Iíve never seen you with long hair before, Old Thing. You look terrific. Of course youíd look good even if you were bald," she added playfully.
"Heh. You have such a way with a compliment." Returning Tessaís hug, he bent to kiss her on the cheek. "Itís good to see you, Tessa. Thanks for inviting me."
"Thanks for coming."
CHAPTER FIVELifting the flap of the ready tent, Duncan exited into the sunlight and squinted as his eyes adjusted to the glare. Two warm bodies suddenly touched him, then pressed firmly against him--one on the left, one on the right. They were soft bodies, with curves that fitted themselves against him. Fingers wove their way into his hair. Others delved beneath his shirt, to scratch his still-damp chest hair.
Female! Duncan shouted at his startled reflexes, who wanted to defend and push and fight free. Female. Not Immortal. Harmless.
His eyes widened into Charlotteís, who was accompanied by a young woman laced into a gown with a bodice so low, she should have been arrested for indecent exposure. While Charlotteís eyes twinkled and her fingers danced, the other girl didnít look so certain of herself as she slipped a slender arm around Duncanís waist, entwined herself closer and blushed slightly.
"All knights are rewarded by the wenches of the realm," Charlotte purred. "Are you ready for your reward?"
Not giving him the chance to reply, she wove her fingers through his hair, yanked down his head, and glued her lips to his.
Wrapping his fingers around her wrist, Duncan tugged, and then yanked when Charlotteís stranglehold didnít lessen.
"Mmmf!" was all he could manage beneath her ministrations. Anything more, and he sensed that her tongue would have ventured where her lips could not.
Huh. Make that mostly harmless. Thatís why God gave me teeth, he reflected. Sheís not the first to offer such rewards, but Iím not interested anymore.
A moment later, Duncan smelled Tessaís familiar rose perfume as she leaned against his back. Reaching around Duncan, she gouged Charlotte in the ribs.
Yelping, the woman leaped back. "That hurt!"
"Good," purred Tessa, resting her chin on Duncanís shoulder. "Why donít you be a good little wench now, and go reward someone else?"
"I was just--"
"I know what you were doing." Tessa didnít smile. "I suggest you do it elsewhere."
"The kitten has claws," murmured Connor. Stepping around Tessa, he lifted the younger wench out of harmís reach. Grey eyes raked her briefly, and he grinned. "Arenít you a little young for a seductress?"
Without a word, the woman backed away shyly and melted into the crowd. Staring after her, Connor sighed.
"They donít make wenches like they used to. I remember a time when the women didnít run," he remarked conversationally to Charlotte, who was still exchanging glowers with Tessa. "I miss the Middle Ages." Grinning, he ran a suggestive finger over her breast. "When do I get my reward?"
Before Charlotte could reply, Connor pulled her against him, thigh to thigh, and kissed her long and hard. The woman struggled briefly, only to surrender when strong arms did not release her but began gently stroking the small of her back. The Immortal knight ventured beyond Charlotteís lips to brush her ears, her throat, and lower.
"Wha...What are you doing?" she whispered.
"Claiming my reward," Connor murmured, nibbling down her bare shoulder. "Do you want me to stop?"
"Uh...Yes. Er, no. That is...Hell, I donít know!"
"When you make up your mind, you will let me know?" Kissing the tips of her fingers, Connor dropped her hand. The next moment, he was tucking a twenty-dollar bill down her cleavage.
Slinging an arm around Duncanís shoulders, he summoned Tessa with a grin. "Anybody but me hungry? What do you say, we find some good ale and something to eat?"
"What an excellent idea." Tessa wrenched her eyes away from a wide-eyed Charlotte and marched off with Duncan and Connor on either side. "Iíve smelled that the turkey drumsticks are marvelous."
"Then marvelous turkey, it shall be. Duncanís paying, right?"
"You lost the fight, Connor. You pay."
"I did not lose the fight. You died first."
"I unseated you. That means that you fell first."
"Iíll pay!" yelled Tessa, wanting to shut them up.
"Such a gracious lady," said Connor. "Are you buying for her, too?" He cocked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the lost waif trailing after them.
Tessa spared a look over her shoulder. Charlotte waggled her fingers at her friend, offered a--for her--shy smile.
"Iím not buying anything for her," proclaimed Tessa. "Sheís in the dog house. Of course, considering her trespassing on my property, perhaps she should be in the cat house."
"Iím sorry, Tessa," Charlotte called on the breeze. "I was only playing. Itís a part, remember? Iím acting. Hell, Iím your accountant. How dangerous could I be?"
Tessa rolled an eye in her direction, but declined to answer. They walked on several paces as Charlotte considered her options.
"Are you really very angry with me, Tessa?" she called meekly.
"Maybe," Tessa called over her shoulder, but didnít stop walking. "Are you going to do it again?"
"Of course sheís not," said Connor. "Sheís found someone much better. Havenít you?" Pausing, he offered his hand. "Youíre welcome to join us, if you like. Iíll pay for your supper, sweet wench."
All smiles, Charlotte tucked her hand into his and went gently with the immortal.
"See? Itís not always all the good women," Connor remarked with cryptic cheer.
"I wonít argue," replied Duncan, leaving his audience to decide whether it was Connorís declaration or his date that he was referring to.
"Heís never seen her in her leathers," Tessa muttered darkly, for Duncanís ears only. "Connor hasnít a clue what heís getting into."
Duncan threw her a sideways glance. "Are you going to warn him?"
"No. Are you?"
Duncan shook his head. "He can figure things out for himself. Heís a big boy; after four hundred years, he should know how to handle himself. Now, where are they hiding those turkey sticks?"
* * *
"Itís about time you got back here!" Richie called, when they were still some distance away from the booth. "Iíve got peasants to pick on, and instead Iím selling pottery."
"Sounds like a childís nursery rhyme," remarked Connor, picking up a honey jar and peering closely at the cracks in the lid. "Peasants to pick on, pottery to sell...Peasants to pick on...."
"Witches to kill!" Charlotte completed the doggerel and ran a finger up the back of Connorís neck.
He shivered. Whether from her touch, or her words that surely brought back bad memories of Connorís first death, Duncan wasnít certain. Connor found the pottery to be quite absorbing for a few moments.
"Weíre back now," Duncan said to Richie. "Have you sold much?"
"The odd ceramic. Some very odd ceramics, in fact," he added, wrinkling his nose at the creator of said pots. A bit of dried mud flaked off, drifting down onto the wares. "And I sold lots of raffle tickets. Want one?" He riffled the tickets at Connor.
"Tessaís raffling off the harp." Richie nodded at the graceful thing standing atop the table, which made people slow down and stare as they passed. "Twenty dollars a shot."
Reaching up, Charlotte ran her fingers over the strings. "Oh wow, this is gorgeous. Tessa, did you make this? Iím deeply impressed."
"Iíll take one," a girl behind her said.
"No, Duncan made it," she replied proudly. "Heís a man of many talents."
"I want a ticket, too," said Charlotte. "Give me a good ticket, Richie." Drawing out the twenty dollar bill Connor had given her, she handed it over to Richie, who had her scribble her name on one side of the ticket and keep the other.
"Itís all in a good cause," Richie continued his patter on Connor. "For charity."
Behind him Tessa stiffened, and whirled to face him. "What charity?" she demanded.
"A really good cause, milady. Itís The Richie Ryan College Fund." Grinning, the muddy beggar threw down the raffle tickets and held out his very dirty hat to Connor. "Buy a ticket, Govínor?" came the very bad Cockney.
Connor shuddered. "Where did you learn to talk like that?""
"Duncan taught me."
"I did not," Duncan protested instantly.
Connor sighed. "I never would have guessed. Donít teach him anything else. Please."
"Oh come on," Richie protested. "Itís not that bad."
"If I buy a ticket, will you stop that?"
"For you, guv, anything."
"Deal." Ignoring Richieís hat, Connor handed twenty dollars to Tessa. "Good deal. Heís cheap."
"Thatís what you think," Richie grinned. "You just paid me twenty to do nothing. Good deal."
"You donít want the harp, Connor?" asked Tessa.
"Heh. What will I do with a harp if I win it?"
"Harp on, milord." Doffing his empty hat, Richie skidded off into the crowd before the immortal could retaliate.
"Russell Nash could give it to Rachel," said Duncan.
Connor considered that for a moment. "Rachel would love it. Never learn to play it, but sheíd love to have it around. But how would I get it onto the plane?"
"We could ship it to you," Tessa pointed out. "UPS trucks leave every day. Some even go to New York. Or so Iíve heard. Could just be a myth, though."
"Really?" Connor was all wide-eyed innocence.
The crowd gathered for the raffle drawing two days later was hot and tired and impatient. Bringing out the fishbowl full of tickets, Tessa lost no time in introducing Duncan as the craftsman who had made the harp, and then announced that he would be the one to draw the winning ticket.
"Well, damn," said Connor under his breath when his kinsman called out a number that wasnít anything close to the one held by the Highlander.
"Iíve got it! Iíve got it!" squeaked Charlotte, waving the ticket in the air and bouncing so hard that Connor was certain, before she was done, the fragile material covering her bosom was going to split and spill forth two of her talents.
Squeezing past Connor, she possessively hauled the four-foot harp off of the counter, only to nearly let it drop in the dust before Duncan caught and carefully lowered it to the ground.
"Iíve never won anything before and Iíve wanted one of these for ever so long. Thank you!" Tears filled her eyes as she pumped Duncanís hand. "The fact that you made it makes it doubly special."
Thereís really a nice person in there, reflected Duncan, once she drops the femme fatale act. On impulse, he stroked her cheek. "I know itís found a good home with you."
Slipping through the crowd, Connor laid a hand on Charlotteís shoulder. "Would you like some help getting the harp to your car?"
"That would be wonderful...Oh, no. I donít have a car. I have a motorcycle." With that, she let out a wail. "How am I going to get it home?"
"Itís all right," Connor soothed. "I have a car. I can follow you home with the harp."
She eyed the fragile instrument as would have eyed a new bridegroom who had just suggested that he and the bride take separate honeymoons.
Sheís not letting it out of her sight, predicted Duncan. Not if she has to strap the Harley Davidson to the roof.Charlotte pivoted on her heel, seeking the resident beggarís earnest grey eyes, peering out of their mud face. "Richie. My sweet Richie?"
"Huh?" He stood a little straighter, surprised at having been so suddenly singled out. His blue eyes were wide beneath his dirt-filled hair.
"Do you want to ride my motorcycle?"
The eyes widened. The mouth dropped.
He looks for all the world as though she just asked if he wanted to sleep with her, thought Duncan.
"Oh, yeah," he breathed. "Oh, yes. Youíre serious, right? This isnít a joke? Youíll let me..." Off of her nod, he all but danced in place. "Oh, yes! Yes! Hallelujah, there is a God, Iím here to tell you so. And heís smiling on me right now. You arenít gonna change your mind, are you?"
Charlotte shook her head. "Just donít scratch it."
"No way. Nope. Iíll drive smoother than a newborn babyís bottom, promise. Take all the turns at 35 or less, slow as I can without falling over. I promise you, lady...."
"And wash first. I donít want you crumbling on it."
"Wash. Sure, I can wash. Planned on doing it right about now, anyway."
Richie continued, but Charlotte wasnít listening to the litany of promises. Her eyes were too busy watching Connor help Duncan wrap the harp in its special heavy flannel and burlap shroud, too busy taking in the small kit with tuning wrench and beginning music books Tessa brought out. Hugging the materials to her, she left the real world and entered one where everyone and everything--except the harp--ceased to exist.
"Thank you," she said once more to Tessa and Duncan, before wandering off down the nearly deserted street.
"Hey!" called Connor. "Do you want Richie to ride your motorcycle the way he is?"
Whirling, Charlotte surveyed Richie with startled eyes. "Oh, I forgot. I have to change clothes, too...These arenít mine, they belong to the SCA. Iíll tell you what...You change clothes and Iíll change clothes and Iíll meet you back here."
Walking back to her harp, she stroked a hand over the wrapping. Her eyes sought Connorís.
"Iíll keep her safe for you," he promised. "Donít worry. I promise not to run away with it."
Nodding, Charlotte backed away from the Immortal and her beloved harp. After bumping into a pedestrian, she decided that sheíd better walk the same way everyone else did. The last Connor saw of her, she was practically running down the street, on her way to whatever dressing rooms there were for employees of the faire.
"How much for you to make me a harp?" Connor asked Duncan as soon as Charlotte was gone. "For Rachelís Christmas."
Duncan shrugged, and looked at Tessa. "I donít know. Itís been years since I tried to sell one. For you--"
"Three thousand American dollars, plus shipping," Tessa interrupted smoothly.
Connor nodded, thought for a moment. "Okay. But it had better be good."
Duncan made a choking sound, and Tessa gigged him in the ribs. Told you! said her grin.
"Uh, guys...Where do I go to wash off this stuff?" asked Richie, looking forlorn as the sun sank higher on the horizon, temperatures cooled, and so did his mud. "Iíve lived in this for three days. I think itís time to come clean."
"Maybe we should have asked Charlotte?" said Duncan. "Letís go look."
Much to Richieís chagrin, there wasnít anyplace to go. The faire was breaking down quickly, and as the fights had finished earlier that afternoon (with Duncan and Connor repeating their performance), the portable showers in the ready tent had been loaded and carted away. In the end, the best Richie could do was to find a hose used for filling buckets for the horses.
Standing in the grass-turned-to-muck and mire of the make-ready stables, Duncan strung up a plastic shower curtain left behind by a vendor. Seconds later, he played the hose over Richie, who stood in the mud and howled as the first spray swept across bare skin.
"Oh, gawd, itís cold!"
"Not so cold as the Highlands in mid-winter."
"Yeah, well, Iím a city kid, and Iíve never b-been to the highlands. D-donít wan-na go, either. And I b-b-bet you didnít stand in some icy waterfall somewhere and do this. Quick dip in the l-l-loch, right?"
"As a matter of fact, I didnít. Nobody did. Bathing in cold water kills people. Take off your jeans."
Richie stared at him, blinking as water poured into his eyes. "No way! Get naked? Here? Youíre nuts. Iím not taking off anything. Itís too cold. The mud was all on the outside, anyway."
"I donít think so. If you donít take off those jeans, youíll wish you had in a couple of hours."
Richie scowled. "Iíll suffer, thanks."
"No, youíll itch. You wonít be able to sit still. And then youíll start squirming. And if youíre with Connor, heíll want to know why. Heíll keep at you until you tell him. And then heíll laugh. Youíll be with Charlotte. too, maybe, and sheíll laugh too. And youíll still itch. You wonít be able to stop, because there are some places mud shouldnít go, and between your legs is one of them. Trust me, Richie. For once, trust me, do as I say, and donít argue. Youíll thank me for it."
Richie laughed. "Itís not that bad."
"No, itís worse."
"How do you know?"
Duncan gave him a look--one the young man was familiar with--the one that said, Iím not telling. Just do what I tell you and donít ask."You donít tell, I donít strip."
Duncan shrugged. "Have it your way." Tossing the hose on the ground, he went to turn it off.
"Thatís it?" protested Richie. "Youíre not going to argue about it?"
"Why should I? Itís your crotch, your problem. Your body will teach you soon enough."
Richie thought about that a moment. Picking up the hose, he stared at it a moment. "Really uncomfortable, huh?"
Richie sighed. "Okay. Turn on the water."
Duncan did. Richie applied the hose where hoses should never be applied. A couple of soprano yelps quickly soared above the sound range audible to human ears as Richie hosed himself in abject misery. By the time he was finished, he was gritting his teeth so tightly, Duncan feared that heíd crack a molar.
"Feel better?" Duncan asked after heíd turned off the hose a second time.
"N-n-no!" said Richie, through chattering teeth. "Are you certain you didnít make me do that just to pay me back for that broken window I stuck you with all those months ago?"
"You think I might be sadistic?" Duncan laughed. "First you doubt me, and now you insult me. Thatís the thanks I get for helping you."
"Yeah, help me a little more, okay?" Standing naked in the muck, Richie held up his dripping wet jeans. "What do I do now? I canít get back into these to drive Charlotteís hog."
"Youíve got other clothes, donít you?"
He shook his head. "Not with me. Not right here."
Two strides, and Duncan ripped down the shower curtain, thrust it at a startled Richie. "Take this."
Duncan stalked away. Having no choice, Richie wrapped up in the plastic, wincing as it scraped against his cold tender bits.
Fairgoers on their way home straggled by. One woman carried a ferret. The woman with her stopped and stared at Richie as he dipped his toes in a nearby bucket, trying to rinse off mud and other suspicious substances found near the stable, then sought the grass to wipe off his toes.
"Marina, what are you doing?" demanded her companion, who just kept walking. The ferret climbed up to her shoulder, stared back at Marina with little red eyes.
Youíre cute, said Marinaís eyes, meeting Richieís after theyíd taken in his bare chest and well-formed shoulders. But why are you wearing that?He offered an embarrassed smile. "Itís a...um...a new medieval fashion. They had plastics, but itís an archeological secret. Waterproof togas. From Rome. Itís nice to see you, but Iíve gotta go. Sícuze me?"
He and his shower curtain fled in the opposite direction.
* * *
"We wonít be seeing them again tonight," predicted Duncan after Connor and Richie had left with Charlotte and her harp. "Connor will take Charlotte to dinner, and by the end of the evening heíll end up staying the night at her house, giving her music lessons."
"Does he know how to play?" asked Tessa.
"Well enough." Duncanís smirk said that the harp wouldnít be all that Connor played.
"And what of Richie?"
Duncan finished wrapping the few wares Tessa hadnít sold. "Richie will be having a loving one-night-stand with Charlotteís bike. Heíll probably sleep with it, in the garage. They should all have a very good time. Eventually, Connor will return Richie to Seacouver. Once Charlotte can pry his fingers off the handlebars."
"So we get to go home alone?"
"It looks that way." Duncan heaved a box into the van and turned for another.
"We get to be alone?"
Duncan paused to consider this thought. "Seems likely."
"Itíll be just the two of us? For the first time in six months?"
"It would seem so." Duncan actually smiled as he shoved that box into the van.
Tessa liked the sound of that.
"You know," she commented as she folded a dusty tapestry, "Iím really glad that we did this. Iíve enjoyed learning new things about you."
He laughed. "After twelve years, you didnít know everything about me already?"
She shook her head. "I donít think I could ever know everything about you. But Iíve learned a few more things."
"Iíve never seen you and Connor play swords before, or seen you enjoying yourself so completely and having such a good time being...Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod." She imitated his baritone and watched him grin. "Something happens to you when you become...him. Itís neat to watch. Really neat."
"Could you be more specific?"
"Itís neat enough to make my toes curl," she explained. "Powerful. Strong. Male."
"Yeah? You liked that?" His expression changed in the late sunlight, and she danced out of the way when he would have made her toes curl in other ways.
"Duncan, we have to load the van."
"Yes, we do," he agreed solemnly. But his hands said that he didnít always have things in his hands...And sometimes he could have her in his hands. Her buns beneath his hands. His lips on her neck. His fingers in her hair. His thigh molded against hers. And his lips....
Tessa had to concentrate very hard to ignore the fact that Duncan wanted her now as much as she wanted him and they would probably have to wait until they had returned home to do something about that.
How long will we have alone? her heart was singing. How often can the two of us make love in the next few days? Duncan is an Immortal, and he recovers fast. But Iím a puny little mortal, and I need my sleep...Oh, the hell with sleep. Duncan is more important than sleep. And so is the fun I have with him when heís not asleep. When heís awake. Very awake."Do you know that Richie has the same barbaric manners as you and Connor?" she said conversationally, hoping to distract him from the small noises of desire he was making--which were driving her mad--as was his exploration of the nape of her neck. "Iíve never seen three grown men make such a mess of turkey drumsticks as did the three of you. It just goes to show how little humanity progresses."
Duncan sighed and turned to pick up the last box and shove it roughly into the van. "You should be glad that we put the bones into the trashcan. If weíd all been in 16th-Century character, weíd have thrown them in the dirt for the dogs to chew on."
Tessa grabbed his arm as he straightened from the van. "Stand still a moment."
He obeyed, while she ran her fingers through his hair, sorting. Scant seconds later, and she came up with two love braids that sheíd done, which heíd left in his hair.
"Did you mean for these to stay?"
Smoothing out the braids, she stroked his cheek--which needed a shave, again--and kissed him. "I love you, Duncan MacLeod."
"And I love you, my Tessa."
"Do you want to drive?" she coaxed.
Following Duncan to the van, Tessa remarked, "It will be good to get home."
"Are you so eager to get back to your art?"
"I wasnít thinking about art. Not the working kind, anyway," she smiled. "I was thinking about having a fire in the fireplace, a bottle of good wine, a mushroom pizza, the man I love keeping me company, and sleeping in bed. A real bed. With blankets and a mattress and no wildlife--except for you."
"Mattresses are preferable to straw at Renaissance faires?"
"Mmm. And no skunks prowling at night. I like the twentieth century. As for the artwork...." She pondered a moment. "Iíd like to do some sketches, preparatory to an oil. How would you and Connor feel about posing in your kilts?"
"Iíve no objection, but youíll have to talk to Connor yourself."
"I will. Once he resurfaces. I hope itís before tax time--I need Charlotte. Anyway, I have this wonderful painting already planned in my mind. I want to call it, ĎImmortals With Swords,í" she announced as he started the van and pulled away from the booth they had called home for the past fifty-two hours.
Immortals With Swords, Duncan reflected, not quite certain if she was serious or not. Will she do matching pieces featuring headless immortals--Immortals Without Swords? He wondered, but didnít dare ask. Tessa never did a painting that hung alone.
"I want to do a companion piece as well," she announced.
Duncan nodded at the predictable remark. "And what might it be named?" He dreaded the answer.
"I want to name it after Richie. Weíll call it ĎMortal with Mud.í"
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OBIGATORY DISCLAIMER: The Highlander stories here are entertainment only, and no money is earned from them. They are not intended to infringe upon the rights held by Davis/Panzer Productions Inc., Peter Davis and/or William Panzer, Christian Charret and/or Marla Ginsburg, Gregory Widen, Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment, Hemdale Home Video, Lamb Bear Entertainment, Transfilm-Lumiere-Fallingcloud Productions, Dimension Films, Miramax, Republic Pictures, Lumiere Pictures, Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment or any of their affiliates, associates, distributors, or subsidiaries. The stories are Copyright © 1995, 1997, 2008 for the authors. All Rights Reserved.