bloodrose

rockw

 

Chapter One

"Will you be sending the sword to me, then?" On the phone, Rachelís voice sounded as though she was across Paris, not hundreds of miles away in Glenfinnan. "You donít know what itís like, Duncan, having to stand with pub full of drunken MacLeods who want tíknow when itís coming home."

Duncan chuckled, remembering all too well what a group of drunken MacLeods could be like. "Donít worry, Iíll send it safely back to you."

"Aye, but when? Federal Express deliveries arenít exactly a daily occurrence at Loch Shiel."

"Perhaps not, but Iíve yet to find a place in the world where they wonít deliver. Give me a few days, Rachel. The Clan MacLeod will have their sword back, and the empty spot on your wall will be filled."

"Youíre an angel, Duncan MacLeod."

His smile was grim, regardless she couldnít see it. "Whatever else I may be, Rachel MacLeod, an angel isnít one of them."

"Yíar to me."

She fell silent. Sensing there was more to come, Duncan didnít seek to fill that silence with polite, empty platitudes.

"I miss you."

"Then why didnít you stay in Paris?"

"I told you why. I spoke the truth. Díyou think I didnít?"

He chose his words carefully. "I believe you spoke your truth, as you saw it that moment. And I think you had second thoughts the moment the taxi door closed."

"No, youíre wrong in that."

"Am I?" he asked, and noted with displeasure the trace of disappointment in his voice.

"Aye, yíar. I didnít regret it at all in that taxi ride. Perhaps thí regret took as long as gettiní to thí airport."

"Perhaps," he acquiesced, "and perhaps not. Shouldnít there be honesty between us?"

She laughed low. "If itís honesty you want, then should I tell you that Iíve dreamed about you every night since getting home? Should I ask if you can explain the almost mystical compulsion I have to think about you, be with you? Mind you, Duncan MacLeod, Iíve no doubt that youíd be a fantastic lover in any womanís bed, but Iím not the kind to go daft for any man."

"So itís not my body youíre wanting?" Why is it, whenever I talk to her, the old accent, the old syntax, comes creeping back?

"Aye, I may be stubborn and cautious, but Iím not blind and Iíll not lie to you. Youíd be beauty itself to touch." There was a breath of a laugh carried to him by the receiver, only slightly louder than the transatlantic static. "And why am I confessiní all this to you?" she said, with a bit more of the old Rachelís bite. "You must think me a proper fool."

"Never that."

"Well, you should. And I am. But as Iíve told you this much, I might as well tell it all. And no, thatís not what comes to mímind. When I think of you, I think first of what you might tell me. About who you might be. Yídrag me back to the stories my grandmother told. Díyou know that she toasted you at Christmas?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Another Duncan, then. MacLeodís son who could not or would not die. The magical man driven out of Glenfinnan and cursed by his father to walk the centuries alone. Never of the Clan, always a MacLeod. Every Christmas Eve, my grandmother poured herself a glass of port, remembered Duncan and blessed him as she blessed her own son. When I was small, it made me wonder what it was that she knew that made her love him so. Then I grew older and realized she was praising a legend that sheíd never met. Yídidnít know her, did you?" she interrupted sudden suspicion.

"I donít think so."

"Well, she knew you, and when I think of you, I remember that. And I think of the stories you could tell me."

He chuckled, but his heart wasnít in it. "Hearing the stories are one thing, Rachel. Living them is quite another. Iíve got to run now. The foreman in charge of repairs on the barge doesnít want stories from me, just constant guidance. He gets anxious if Iím away too long."

"And stops working for a wee dram?"

"Or two, or three," Duncan acknowledged. "Iím starting to believe his entire crew comes to work armed with bottles of wine stuffed in all of their pockets. Something about the French working code...Iíll see your sword safely returned to you."

"Iíll be appreciating it. Good-bye, Duncan."

"Good-bye, Rachel."

With reluctance, relief and in loneliness, he hung up the phone.

* * *

Giving the oak bar a final flick of her dust cloth, Rachel stepped back and considered. Not a speck of dust was in sight. Thanks to thoughts of Duncan MacLeod and the restless energy provided along with them, the wood gleamed, as did the rest of the pub room. Sheíd cleaned the fireplace first, since she hated that task above all others. After dumping the ashes, she moved to easier tasks: mopping the floor and polishing all of the table tops. Sheíd even polished the chairs and scraped off the wayward wad of gum left on the underneaths by inconsiderate tourists. Straightening the dart board, sheíd tossed the old darts with their worn feathers and had replaced them with new, shiny green ones. She grinned to herself to think of the protests that would come that night, from those who had developed an intimate relationship with those bald darts, those who would find no friendship or decent scores from these new-fletched strangers. Sheíd even considered washing the walls and the stairs leading up to the bedrooms, but thought perhaps sheíd find some lunch before starting that project.

A flash of light beyond the pub window caught Rachelís eye before she pushed through the swinging wooden door leading into the kitchen. Going to the thick glass, she stood on tiptoe and peered over the curtains.

Some tourist or other was wandering down by the loch. Wrapped in a heavy down coat, gloves and a muffler, the man carried a duffle-bag and what looked like an instrument case slung across his shoulders. The winter sun glinted off of the caseís hinges, winking at Rachel and offering a thin hint of warmth in the cold world beyond the pubís doors.

Enjoy the sunshine while you can, she cast the thought at the tourist. Sunset comes at two oíclock this March afternoon. You picked a poor time to tour the Highlands, my friend: spring is a continent away from this kingdom. And if youíve no more sense than that, I hope youíve at least brought many pounds to spend on the ale. Iíll be glad to let you warm yourself by the fire while you soak up the ĎHighland atmosphere,í and Iíll lighten those pockets of yours while you do it.

The man wandered past the small clutch of boats entrapped by the ice at the edge of the loch and walked toward Prince Charlieís monument. Rachelís heart caught in her throat when the stranger turned and gazed at the low setting sun.

She hissed, recognizing his upturned nose. "Itís himself!"

Whirling, she slammed out of the pub door without a momentís thought or hesitation. Heedless of the cold, of her down jacket waiting on a hook on the wall beside the door and the icy road beneath her feet, Rachel half-ran, half-skied and slipped down the sloping hill.

"Duncan!"

He turned at her cry. Dropping duffle bag and case to the cold ground, he slid forward in time to catch her as she fell at his feet.

"You came!"

He gave a broad grin. "I promised delivery of the sword, didnít I? Nobody would touch it for less than a fortune. Besides, I could be sure itíd be safe this way." Disentwining her fingers, he shrugged from his coat and had it around Rachelís shoulders before she could protest.

Her teeth still chattered. "But you brought it home, you didnít send it. And you brought yourself home." Small fingers clutched at his sweater, determined not to let him go, to drag him up the hillside and into the pub.

"Come sit by the fire and warm yourself. If youíre hungry, Iíll warm a shepherdís pie for you."

"Mutton and mutton. Donít you ever serve anything else?"

She scowled up at him. "Youíve been a Scotsman long enough to know we eat more than old sheep. Iíve a bit of lamb in the fridge."

Duncan shook his head, not budging an inch from his chosen block of icy snow. "Ah, the wee woman waiting at the hearth. I must say, youíre a bit warmer to me this homecoming than you were at the last."

She narrowed her eyes, but didnít release him. "Youíd rather have haggis?"

Duncan laughed and shook his head. "Nay, Iíve been spoiled by McDonalds. There are better parts of an animal available now."

"And where are you staying, oh, returning vagabond? Heatherlea House has rooms, but mine are cheaper. And youíll find the help friendlier." She added a bold, suggestive edge to her words.

"Your rooms will do nicely."

"Then come on. Iíll put you out back, in my cottage. Not upstairs in the pub, where the heaters barely work." She tugged on him again. "Iím glad to see you, Duncan, but Iím freeziní in the wind."

"Donít you want me to bring the sword?" He gestured at the case residing next to his bag.

"Oh. Right. The sword." Blushing, she released him to stalk over to the case. Knowing the weight of the weapon within, she lifted it with both hands and left the bag for him to manage.

"Why donít you let me carry that for you?" Duncan shifted the bag on his shoulder and held out his hand.

"I can manage it. Iíve been caring for it these last years, havenít I? I can take it up a hill."

"Mmm. I daresay you can. But tell me. Did you carry it to Paris, or did Adam Pierson?"

She shot him a sideways glance, she began struggling up the hill. "Does it matter?"

"Only to your wee arms." He said no more, but plodded faithfully along beside her as she tried tackling snow and ice with nothing but loafers on her feet, and a 400-year-old sword in her arms that weighed a good 45 pounds.

"Oh, all right!" she huffed at him, shoving the thing at him in less than two slick feet. "Be gallant, then. Iíll let ye, if it means so much to you."

"Itís not my fault you left your hobnailed boots behind this fine afternoon." Or that you came out here in nothing but shirtsleeves, his eyes finished for him. In a hurry to greet me, were you?

"If youíd have told me you were coming, Ďstead of skulking up here on your own...Still, itís in keeping with this entire strange thing." She struggled alongside of him. "A wild-eyed man named Pierson bursts in my door, saying that his friend Duncan MacLeod has urgent need of the sword of the MacLeods. That one could charm the hawks from their cliffs, he could. And I think Adamíd walk the world over if it meant keeping you safe." She shrugged. "I didnít know him and thought him more than a wee bit daft--you have very strange friends, Duncan MacLeod--but he seemed so sincere, and what he said frightened me so--to think that you might be in such trouble--that I followed my instincts and let him have the sword. Now youíve brought it back, at the end of a journey I scarcely understand."

"You were with me," he protested. "You were part of it."

"Oh, I may have been allowed to take part in some small bit of it, but as for understandiní the whole of it..." She shook her head. "Itís secrets you have, Duncan MacLeod. But Iím not minding that. Youíre not the first nor the last to tell less than the whole truth when the situation warrants it. No, not in there," she protested, catching his sleeve as he headed for the doorway to the pub. "Here now, follow me. Weíre not going in there, but back to my place."

She was out of breath and rosy-cheeked by the time they reached the top of the hill. Duncan listened patiently to her chatter--as though knowing she was nervous and half-afraid that he was a wraith in the sunset. One that would dissolve in smoke curling over the loch before heíd follow her into her cottage set behind the pub. But he was no such thing. Wraiths didnít get this cold, and his breath froze in the air as obviously as did hers. His boots tramped solidly on the wooden floor when he crossed her threshold, and he waited patiently with his luggage while she closed the door against the cold and found the lightswitch.

"You donít mind that Iím putting you in here, where I can keep an eye on you? Truly, ítis warmer."

Compared to the biting winds off the loch, it was blissfully warm inside, though he knew the heater hadnít been working since before dawn. Setting down the swordcase, he rubbed cold fingers as he looked around the cottage, which smelled of apples and cinnamon. Warmer, it was, and more comfortable than any pub bedroom. Old, plain Scottish furniture surrounded him, with well-stuffed chairs and a couch covered with a patchwork quilt. Home, his yearning heart said, remembering other Scottish homes, far more primitive but just as welcoming.

"There are three bedrooms, so Iíll not be crowding you." Rachel opened the door on the one she had assigned him, revealing an ancient fourposter that had seen better days. Duncan knew it would creak whenever he rolled over.

"Thereís only one bath," Rachel announced, "and no lock, but Iíll mind not to walk in on you while youíre showeriní."

"Thatís kind of you." He was grinning ear to ear to see her nervousness, her excitement at having him there. Itís amusing, even if I donít understand it. Whatís so phenomenal about having me here? And just what are her neighbors going to say? I know theyíll have something to add to the local commentary. Probably hissing about it even now

"If you want to stay warm, youíll have to keep the fire going in the living room," she warned. "The only heaterís in the hall, and itís temperamental. Needs replacing."

He paused, watching her dart nervously about the cottage, and finally caught her arm on one frantic pass by him. "Rachel, relax. Iíd not have come if Iíd know it would upset you so."

She paused long enough to look up into his eyes. "Iím not upset," she protested, though the flush on her cheeks was not from the cold.

"Then stop flitting about like a frightened wren, sit down and talk to me. Better yet," he added with a smile, "Feed me. The flight was long and the food was terrible and Iím perishiní for a decent ale."

She laughed, and dared a quick pat on the restraining hand. "That, I can give you easily enough. Drop your things there by the bed, and letís go back down to the inn. Just give me a moment to grab a sweater."

Within seconds, Rachel was marginally wrapped against the wind, and they slipped out into the waiting cold.

"Oh, I donít think spring is ever going to come. I think itís delivered to every other place on earth before they remember to send it to us. Even damp, cold London was balmy last month, compared to this."

"There are other places you could live. Even down in the lowlands would be easier. I know you were educated for more than drawing ale and fleecing annoying American tourists."

Rachel stopped dead in the middle of the street and glared at him as though heíd suddenly voiced support for King James.

"Itís my home! Sure, itís a cold land and an unforgiving land, but itís a land Iíve never been able to stop loving or missing when Iím gone. I went to school in the States and lived in London, but Scotland is my home. Here I was born and here Iíll die and Iím not sad of it. And why did you come back? It wasnít for the company, first time I saw you. I think youíve got your own ties, just like mine."

Duncan watched her as she berated him, noting that this hissing-fit was only about half as dangerous as the others heíd see of her. Sheís not truly serious, then. Only mildly offended.

"Itís my home as well, Rachel," he said softly. "I was only asking a question, not testing your loyalty."

"Oh." She ducked her head and hid her embarrassment behind her hair. "Well, there you are. Are you staying long?"

"Long enough to return the sword. Maybe a few days beyond. I donít know, exactly."

"Then, you will be staying with me? Itís a good house, and I promise youíll be comfortable." She ducked easily under Duncanís arm as he held open the back door into the pubís kitchen. The warmth of the fire touched their cheeks as they stepped inside, blissfully comforting after the bite of the wind.

"Iíll be staying with you." Iíd not dare refuse.

"Good." She crossed to the refrigerator, raised an eyebrow in inquiry as she drew forth a piece of shepherdís pie. Duncan nodded, so she plopped it into a bowl, shoved it into the microwave.

"The cottage was my parentsí home and I inherited it from them, just like the pub. My great-grandfather began the tavern in the 19th century. It wasnít what he planned to do, either. He was educated at Cambridge to become a solicitor, and his family planned a wondrous career for him. But he grew bored after passing the bar. Canít say as I blame him--most solicitorsí work is dreadfully boring. And he had to practice in a city a bit bigger than this one."

She gestured widely at the narrow, deserted streets of the small town. "Glenfinnan and his roots were calling, I suppose. As the story goes, his English wife thought he was daft, but she followed him here. To a barren land at the end of a loch that sends the icy breath of the devil himself to chill a man and drive him inside to ale and drink. Thatís a quote, by the way. Grand-Da still had the words of the solicitor, even if he didnít do any of the work."

She grinned as the microwave signaled it had finished its job. Retrieving the bowl, Rachel shoved it into Duncanís hands, searched out a fork.

"Now, my very-British grandmother must have loved Grand-da dearly, for she left her parents and their fine, warm house in Mayfair to begin a life as little more than a Victorian serving wench with the man she loved. He built the cottage house for her, and a rose garden behind--though you wouldnít know it now, for all that itís winter. But my father was born here, and so was my brother and me. Malcolm was a musician--traditional Celtic. He could play anything, could my brother. Harp and pennywhistle and bagpipes. He died in an IRA bombing one weekend in Belfast, where Clan na Shiel had entered a competition. They all went drinking afterward, and Malcolm chose the wrong pub on the wrong street." The relaying of his death was accompanied by a defeated shrug. "I was in school in Virginia then--our mother was an American."

"Getís cold there, too," commented Duncan. "In Virginia."

"Oh aye," replied Rachel, eyes widening at the memory. "That it does, and the dorms were as stingy of heat as any highland innkeeper. But I was there when Malcolm died. I was just a little girl then, and I didnít know him well, him being a teenager and so much older than me, having little use for a little sister. But there was a hole in my fatherís heart where before there had been pride. And my mother...her heart just gave out one morning in May when she was sitting down by the loch. My Dad went on, but he got more stooped and acerbic as the years passed, until not even the locals could stand him. He died in í90, and Iíve been here ever since."

"Carrying on the family tradition," he smiled, reaching to open the swinging door leading from the kitchen into the pubís combination bar/dining room.

"Aye, thatís the lot of my family history," she acknowledged,

"Oh, I daresay thereís a bit more clan history behind that."

"Then thatís the history of the pub, then, and mine with it." Stepping behind the bar, Rachel reached for a glass. "Ale was it, oh, travelling stranger?"


 

Chapter Two

It was a quiet afternoon at the pub, with Rachel tending bar--though in somewhat less that her usual efficient manner, as she insisted on watching Duncan out of the corner of her eye, which proved a fair distraction--and Duncan passing the time sitting quietly before the fire. His presence netted some curious questioning from the locals, but his taciturn Gaelic manner soon made them lose interest, and the group amused themselves instead by teasing tourists before taking up the darts. The bitter complaints Rachel had anticipated were aired in full measure, though it gave the players a ready excuse for turns badly thrown--a luxury for the lesser players, who usually had no recourse for their lack of skill.

Throughout it all, Duncan did little but stare into the fire. Rachel noted the ruddy cast of the flames highlighting his profile and, with some sadness, his distant and weary expression. Whatever had brought him here, he had not come without pain. Duncan MacLeod was hurting, and that provided the impetus for an unheard of decision.

"Time, gentlemen."

"Time?" protested Seamus MacInnis. "But itís no nine oíclock! Are ye daft, woman, that thí canno tell the time, tonight?"

"Aye, I can tell the time well enough, Seamus, and Iím telliní ye that Iím closing early tonight."

"Early? And with me having only a pint or two inside me and the darts yet in me hands?"

Rachel continued with her wiping up, and moved to pull the darts from the long, clutching fingers. "There. Now the darts arenít in your hands, and yeíll be free to leave. Theyíll be waitiní for you tomorrow night, same as always."

"But Iíve had only one game! And Iím in the top of míform tonight. Yícanna close when Iím winning, lass."

"And werenít you telling me only five minutes ago that these darts werenít worth the throwing with the new fletching?"

"Aye. Aní how are they going to get broke in proper ifín they donít get tossed by a knowing hand, Iíll ask ye?"

"You can take up the lessons tomorrow," she repeated firmly. "For tonight, theyíll rest--just as I will and you will. Good-night, Seamus MacInnis."

"Aye, good-night she says," he grumbled. "And how will it be a good night with the pub closed, I ask ye?" With that, the old man pulled his cap tight down over his forehead, and stepped out into the cold and darkness, taking care to bang the door hard behind him, lest his displeasure go unnoticed.

"There. I thought the old goat would never leave," Rachel grumbled, straightening chairs as she moved to lock the door. "Seamus has been here since my grandfather opened this place, I swear it." Pulling the curtains and turning out the light over the pub sign, she crossed to the fire and stood behind Duncan to rest her hands on his shoulders.

"That would make him around one hundred years old, wouldnít it?"

Duncan turned his head to look up at her.

"It seems like a hundred years, Iíve been listening to him complain. About the ale. About the meals. About the darts. About the fire. About the tourists. And the lack of tourists. About a wee lass running a manís place. Seamus is an old grouch who isnít happy unless heís unhappy."

Smiling, Rachel squeezed Duncanís shoulders and started massaging, but he reached up to take hold of one hand and draw her around beside him.

"Did you do this for me?" He gestured toward the fireplace.

"What, that bit of kindling? No, thereís a fire every evening, else the ale and the custom would freeze where they sat."

"Closing early. Did you do that for me?"

She nodded. "And for me. Iíd much rather spend what remains of the evening with you, than with the old faces I see every day of mílife. And you looked like you could use the quiet."

Duncan nodded slowly. "Itís peaceful sitting here, watching the fire and listening to the voices that sound like home. I...I need the quiet, just now."

Almost, Rachel dared to lean forward, stroke back his hair and kiss his forehead. "Shall I leave you to your thoughts, then?"

"No. Please." The Highlander looked up at her, met her gaze with tired eyes.

"It was hard, then, whatever Adam wouldnít tell me about?" Her manner was gentle, her questions less probing than opening doors to speech.

"Aye. It was hard. Iíd thought that maybe a change of scenery, getting away from...all of it...might help."

"And you havenít had a quiet moment since. For all that I donít know what everything was about in Paris."

Duncan didnít answer, but returned his attention to the diminishing fire on the hearth.

"What are you planning to do while youíre here? Can I help?"

He shook his head, didnít lift his eyes from the hearth. "I just need some silence. To listen to the trees. To just be here awhile, I suppose."

She nodded, understanding that, at least. "Then help me wipe down the tables, and then weíll go home."

* * *

Rachel awoke early next morning, with a feeling of anticipation in her stomach that had no memory to go with it. It took a moment of groping through sleep-foggy memories to find the facts that matched the feeling. Suddenly she sat straight up in bed: Duncanís here!

Duncan was tired. Duncan had just survived...something, and Duncan needed peace and rest. Best to let him sleep, Rachel decided before creeping from her creaky, ancient bed to grope quietly for clothing in the darkness. If she could, sheíd dress and then sneak down to the pub for the breakfast custom and let her guest lie in as long as he liked.

A sweater was quickly pulled on, along with slacks and warm socks. With a bit of fumbling under the bed, she located her boots to add them to the socks. Hair and teeth could wait until she reached the pub, since the plumbing provided its own clanky, metallic chorus to the morning wake-up. Can I at least stoke the fire without too much noise, so that heíll wake warm?

It was already warm. Too warm for a fire that had been set early the night before. Rachel eased her bedroom door open, only to find her houseguest fully dressed and seated before a friendly, warming fire. Duncan turned at her arrival, offering her a friendly smile with only a few of the shadows of last night left in it.

"Good morning. Youíre up early."

"As are you." She nodded. "I thought youíd sleep Ďtil noon, at least."

"Canít."

"And why not? Do yínot trust me with your luggage or something?"

That rated a bigger smile, and this time the amusement actually touched his eyes. "With my luggage, no. With my life, yes."

"And Iím supposed to be flattered by that?" she protested, though secretly she was delighted.

"Youíre dressed for the day. Where are yígoiní?"

"To work, ye daft man. Iíve a pub to run, and folk to feed. Including you," she added, poking a finger into what she discovered was a very firm midsection.

"Shall I come along with you?"

"Youíre welcome to stay here if you like, though youíll have to shift for yourself for meals. I only cook at one place at a time, and Iím late for the setting up now. Yícan feed yourself, canít you? Thereís food in the larder."

"But can I come with you?" Duncan repeated.

"Oh, aye. Sure yícan," she replied, not daring to trust his delightful request as serious. "But Iíll warn you, Iíll put you to work."

"Only fair," he replied, and held forth a gallant arm. "Shall we?"

"Shall we what--Set the town gossips on their ears?"

"We didnít last night? Closing the pub early and taking a strange man to your home to spend the night wonít set the gossips to squawking?" Duncanís eyebrows raised at the scandalous image, and he smiled mischievously. "This morning will only give more fuel to the fire."

Duncanís smile was all the encouragement she needed. "Oh, letís."

"Then wait a moment, and Iíll retrieve what I came for."

Padding down the hall, Duncan returned momentarily with the sword of the MacLeods in hand. Rachel nodded approval as Duncan re-offered his arm.

"That sword looks good in your hand. As though it was made for it."

"It wasnít," he contradicted, raising the weapon effortlessly and turning it in the pale light of the coming dawn. "It was made for my father. Angus MacLeod."

Heís a chieftainís son. THE chieftainís son. Rachelís eyes widened at the to-the-point, abrupt confirmation that this Duncan MacLeod was, indeed, the Duncan MacLeod of legend. And why should I be surprised? she wondered. He said heíd trust me with his life. I suppose, then, that he meant it? With a sigh of contentment that heíd confided so much in her, Rachel slipped her fingers over his well-muscled arm, accepted his escort out of the cottage.

They fairly ran down the hill, with the wind from the loch providing all the incentive they needed to hurry. Moments later, they burst into the pub, laughing, with cheeks red from the cold.

"What first?" Duncan asked, after resetting the claymore in its place by the door.

"See to the fire, and Iíll go set up the kitchen."

Rachel bustled through the doorway and began the porridge, to the accompaniment of clanking and shovelling noises from the front. By the time she returned, the fire was offering a small but hopeful blaze, and the regular customers were peering in the windows.

"Aye, yíravenous hordes. Iím cominí," Rachel muttered as she moved to turn the latch on the door. "Come on in, folks. Sit yídown."

She was greeted with smiles, and Duncan with suspicious looks. He nodded neutrally before turning to his boss for the day.

"Find out what they want, and bring it back to me?" she requested.

"Oh, aye, I kin do that right enough."

His accent was broad Scots--like and yet unlike her own. For some reason, it struck her as funny.

"What is that?" she had to ask.

"What is what?"

"That accent?"

"Me own from when I was a wee toddler." He drew himself up straighter, to glower down his nose at her. "And what of it?"

"Nothing," she replied, nearly succeeding in suppressing a smile. "Just get the orders right, will you?"

The rest of the morning was spent in serving, clearing and chatting up customers. The tourists wanted to know about local sights--about which Duncan was easily able to inform them, while the locals studied him with cool disdain mixed with curiosity.

By mid-day, all that was left were the few residents who seemed determined to spend their entire day in the pubís welcoming interior. Baby-sitting Rachel to see that I donít ravish her, Iíd imagine, thought Duncan, collecting yet another tray of mugs and glasses for the kitchen.

One of the locals turned from the fire and pointed to the claymore. "Got the sword back, did ye, Rachel?"

"Aye, itís back. Told you it would be."

"Hmph. Well ye did, lassie. Just isnít right, not having the sword of the MacLeods where it ought be. Just isna right wiíout it hanging there where it ought. Not a sword for strangersí hands, aye?"

Duncan noted the exchange and his eyes lost their light, darkening to the melancholy of last night. Seeing it, Rachel wanted to slam into the fireplace the shot glass she was polishing.

Damn you, Seamus--and your great blathering mouth, too, she hissed inwardly. Heíd only just begun to smile again.

"Duncan?" Rachel called as he shoved the kitchen door aside with his broad shoulders, and disappeared within. "The dayíll be slow Ďtil evening. Would ye like to go out on the countryside? Iíll lend you my horse if yíwant."

Stepping back through the door, the Highlander considered the idea for a moment, then nodded gladly. "Aye, Iíd like that."

"Nay, ye willna like that beastie, laddie," Seamus intruded into the conversation. "I warned Rachel not to buy that beast. But no, thereís a lass that has to do her own way, right or no, no matter what her elders say."

Rachel rounded on him. "Youíre not my elder, yíauld fool. Itís my money and my horse, and do I want to buy it, itís none of your affair!"

"Oh itís not? And whoís to open the pub and serve the ale while youíre in hospital from that wee demon, Iíll ask ye?"

Rolling her eyes, Rachel turned back to Duncan. Pushing against his shoulder, she directed him into the relative privacy--and silence--of the small kitchen behind the bar. Stilling the swinging door with one hand, she gave a crooked smile.

"Seamus is a proper pain, Iíll tell you, but heís right. I had to retire my old mare, and Iím afraid her replacementís not quite the same sort of horse."

Duncanís eyebrows climbed to see the hesitation in Rachelís eyes. "What sort of horse is he?"

"Big. Very big. And strong, and...rather hot, Iím afraid. He can be a bit of a rough ride."

"Youíre afraid of him."

"Iím not afraid! Iím just...very careful with him, thatís all."

Duncan grinned suddenly and patted her shoulder. "Itís always good to be careful with a horse, especially big strong ones. But dinna fret about me. I can handle a horse."

"One like the Demon? Heís more than a hack."

"Iíve ridden a rank horse or two in my day. Donít worry about it. Now, unless youíve changed your mind, tell me where the horse is, and where I can find some tack for him."

Rachel sighed, already regretting her offer, but there was no way out of it now. "Heís in the stable at the bottom of the hill. Ask James for him and heíll tack him up for you."

"Whatís the horseís name?"

"I told you. The Demon."

"The Demon, aye?" Duncan repeated in growing anticipation. "I think weíll get on just fine." With that, he caught up coat and muffler, and headed out the door.

* * *

It turned out to be a fine day, with the thin winter sun shining down on Lock Shiel. Duncan reached the stable within minutes, and peered inside the building. Familiar smells greeted him--smells heíd known and that didnít change, could never change, for hundreds of years: hay and horse sweat, leather and oats. He inhaled eagerly, closing his eyes and coming home in another way. Iíve missed this.

Stepping inside the stable, Duncan smiled at the mare peering curiously at him over her stall door. A gentle-eyed creature, her chin quivered as she stretched forth her neck, hoping for some tidbit from this stranger. Letting her sniff his fingers, Duncan was gratified when the mare licked to get the taste of him.

Welcome home, that soft, wet tongue seemed to say. Youíve been missed.

Blinking back tears, he lifted his other hand to scratch beneath her chin. "Thanks, sweet lady."

Other horses stood in their stalls--sturdy little cobs and ponies Duncan remembered from his last trip to Glenfinnan. Patiently chewing hay and staring at him impassively, they awaited some touristís demand for their services--which probably wouldnít come until end-of-May, if Duncan knew the Highlands.

"James?" he called into the gloom.

"Here," a voice answered instantly, and a friendly-looking young man stepped from one of the stalls.

"Gímorning," said Duncan. "Iíve come for Rachelís horse. She said I could borrow him for a morning ride."

Narrowing his eyes, James studied Duncan intently. "And ye can ride, aye? Ride well?"

"Well enough."

"Well enough will no do for this beast. Ye must be able to ride."

Duncan smiled slightly and nodded. "I can ride. Just show me where this horse might be, and point out his tack."

Before turning to head for the stall, James gave Duncan a look that said he feared the rider to be more than a little mad. "This one. Iíll bring the saddle."

The Highlander moved forward to peer into the stall. The large dark eye that returned his gaze was less than friendly. A snorting and a crash told him of a kick to the stall wall.

"Oh, itís like that, is it, laddie?" Duncan murmured. "Weíll see about that. But wouldnít you rather spend the day outside with me, than in this stall? Iím no so bad for a rider. Yícould do worse." And probably have.

James reappeared, to slap a saddle across the stall door and disappear inside with the bridle. Sounds of a scuffle reached Duncan, as did a few muttered curses. A few moments later, and the groom pushed open the stall door, only to be towed out promptly by a large black horse. Chin bowed to his chest, mouth agape against the bit, the Irish Thoroughbred rushed toward the door and dragged James with him.

"Whoa there, yídaft beast! Wait for the saddle, aye?" Turning, he shot a quick look at Duncan. "Wantiní a bit of exercise, he is. Youíll have a ride today. Bring the saddle?"

Between the two of them, they got the saddle in place and the girth snugged up, with James slowing the Demon to a fast circle, and Duncan dodging the near hind hoof that slapped at him for the indignity being done the gelding.

James slapped the reins into Duncanís hands and stepped back. "There yíare. Good luck to ye."

The horse promptly bolted for the stable door. Setting himself, Duncan yanked hard on the inside rein, sending the horse spinning around him. James beat a hasty retreat into the nearest empty stall.

"Wait for me, beautiful thing," he whispered at the snorting beast. "Just a moment, then weíll be free."

Guiding the dancing Demon out into the stable yard, Duncan wasted no time in swinging into the saddle and dealing with the fractious horse from a better vantage point. Demon promptly reared, and Duncan dropped his weight onto his hands, braced on the horseís neck.

"None of that, mílad. Letís go forward, not up. Off with you, now." With that, Duncan and Demon headed down the road at a moderately controlled trot that would have rivalled a racing harness horse. James yelled something from behind them, which Duncan interpreted as something along the lines of, "Where are your next of kin?" or "Weíll send out a search party for you!" Duncan merely laughed in delight--feeling as strong and arrogant as the animal beneath him.

"Theyíve fed you high, locked you away, and made you crazy with idleness, havenít they?" he commiserated, stroking a hand down the neck that was bowed under his restraint. "Youíre not so wicked, only frustrated. You need to run, donít you? Well, wait a bit, Ďtil we get to a safe spot, and then weíll let you fly, míboy. Then weíll fly."

Two miles at a high trot had at least gotten Demon to see reason, and he was marginally more biddable, though not really any slower. But his ears were forward now, rather than pinned to his neck, and the threat of bucking was less. Duncan pulled the gelding toward a path through a field, one leading up to one of the better, less dangerous areas he remembered from his previous horseback tour of gravesites. This field was mostly flat, with gorse bushes and gullies and heather--rocky, but with no really trappy footings.

The field was reached, and Demon was pulled to a halt. Still blowing through his nostrils with anticipation, the horse didnít appreciate his outing coming to such a rapid stop and said so, yanking at the reins and sidling in circles.

"You want to run?" Duncan asked the horse. "Then run!"

Clapping both heels against the horseís ribs, Duncan urged the thoroughbred on with a fiendish clan war-cry that the Highlander hadnít used in centuries. The horse gave a startled bounce, then lit off like a Formula 500 race car.

The trees sped by, the horses mane streamed back to join with Duncanís dark, flying hair as he poised in perfect balance above Demonís neck. Immortal and equine tore across the grass as a single unit--muscle and bone, sinew and heart. Demon reveled in his freedom, and so did Duncan, free at last of all the bonds of this century, pelting across the harsh, familiar landscape on the finest war-horse the Clan MacLeod had ever seen.

How long they galloped, Duncan didnít know, but when--by common consent--they did pull up, both were breathing hard, and were completely happy.

"Aye, thatís the way it should be, isnít it?" he told the horse, clapping the sweating neck in enthusiastic congratulations. "Letís walk a bit, and then weíll see just what you know."

They circled the field on a long rein, walking and contented just to be together. When finally Demonís breathing slowed and his ears began to swivel to catch new sounds to spook at, Duncan gathered the reins.

"All right, yígreat beast. Letís try something a bit more complicated that a flat run."

The horse mouthed the bit, but yielded to the guiding hand as Duncan collected him, moving him into a slow, controlled trot. Demon was well trained, he admitted after a few minutes. Very well trained, Duncan thought as the horse offered a series of dressage moves with only a token grinding of teeth and wringing of tail. Collected trot to extended trot to halt--all were completed smoothly and in perfect balance. With equal precision, they moved from collected canter to gallop to halt.

Half pass, Duncan asked, and Demon smoothly cantered sideways at the barest touch of the Immortalís heel, until Duncan straightened him and spun him neatly on his haunches--still at the canter--until Demon was doing a beautiful pirouette.

Grinning, the Highlander moved to the edge of the trees, dismounting to scour the ground for just the right stick. Just so long, just so heavy, straight and smooth....

Finding what he sought, Duncan remounted with stick in hand--much to the sidling dismay of the horse.

"Itís not for you," he murmured.

Demon rolled a dubious eye back at him.

"So, someoneís beaten you for your hard-headed ways?" Duncan ran a soothing hand down his mane and smiled in commiseration. "Aye. Me, too, over the centuries. Is no an easy thing to be so stubborn, is it? But now weíre going to put all those fancy ways they taught you to work. Hah!"

With that he urged Demon into a gallop, swinging his mock sword by the horseís side. They leaped and galloped to stop and spin, attacking imaginary enemies, only to lunge forward, turn and gallop back again. By the end of the "battle," three hours later, both Duncan and Demon were panting and glowing with excitement.

"Would that I had such a horse as you four hundred years ago. Or three hundred," the Highlander mused. "Or even two hundred-odd, at Culloden. After that, they gave up on horses. Damn shame it is, too."

Still, no matter how much the world had changed, a Highlander on horseback hadnít. For that matter, neither had the horses, or the Highlands themselves. Looking around, Duncan realized the land he rode was the same as it had been hundreds of years ago. No highrises stabbed from atop the stones, no sooty air pollution obscured the crags. At the top of the hill was a view to catch the heart--misty cold and harsh, but still as God had made it. The developers hadnít come here. Would never come here. The Clearances had done their job too well after Drummossie; these rocks, these Highlands, thought Duncan, would always remain. And they would always be barren--at least to those who didnít or couldnít understand their wild freedom. And that is as it should be.

Let the years roll on, the Highlands he loved would still be there. No matter how lost Duncan MacLeod felt inside, he could always come home, to the craigs and the heather and the cold. Home, where he had been born and where he had died, again and again and again. And when I die for the last time, please, let it be here. And let me lie between or beneath these rocks--ítis all the same tíme.

He tossed aside his Ďswordí and, with a final pat, swung the sweating, contented horse toward town. "Tíwas a good day, laddie. A damn fine day. Iíll do my best to see you get more of them. Shame to let such a one as you stand idle."

They traveled in companionable silence after that, reaching the town with a twinge of reluctance. They were heading toward the stable, with Duncan relaxed and enjoying the musical patter of Demonís hooves on the tarmac, when a child leaped from behind a car and directly into their path.

Demon, predictably, went straight up and came down with a lunge that took them forty feet further down the road. Where the child ended up, Duncan had no idea as he struggled to reassure and contain the powerful horse.

The gelding came to a halt within yards, but ready to fight, knowing that a beating was the likely consequence of his actions.

"So they beat you for shying, too? Damn fools," Duncan muttered angrily. "I know you were scared, and itís not your fault. I promise you, itís all right. Youíll not be beaten again. Shhh, laddie...itís all right."

The horse rolled a disbelieving eye back at Duncan, still waiting for the blow he knew had to be coming. But when nothing fiercer than a pat to the neck occurred, Demon sighed, and then headed for the stable of his own accord.

The Highlander took his time drying off the sweating horse and bedding him down. He even cleaned the stall himself, for the sheer joy of working with such an animal after being so long apart from them. He left Demon reluctantly--with a handful of grain as a parting thanks--and then headed for the pub. Chapter Three

"Look, itís that guy you nearly killed," came a high, American-accented voice.

"I did not," replied a sullen male voice, equally young.

"Yes, you did. You scared his horse, stupid, and if heíd fallen in the road and cracked his head and his brains fell out and he bled all over, heíd have died!"

"Aww, gee. Then Mom coulda seen a real Scottish funeral, too. Something else to drag us to."

The voices belonged to three adolescent tourists, standing frozen and shivering, like little American popsicles, in the wind. One of the boys looked up at Duncan.

"Youíre Scottish, arenít you?"

"Aye," he replied. "And youíre American. Probably from the mid-west. California, maybe?"

"Yeah!" The boy was startled, then narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "Howíd you know that?"

Duncan grinned. "Howíd you know I was Scottish?"

"By your accent--Oh! I get it. But if youíre Scottish, how come you donít wear a kilt?"

"We donít wear them every day anymore. Just for special occasions."

"ĎCause theyíd freeze their balls off if they wore a skirt out here, stupid," came the bored answer from his brother.

"Mom says you shouldnít talk about your balls in public," said the lone girl. "Itís rude."

"Well, itís true," glowered her brother. "Theyíre cold cause itís cold. And Iíve got pants on!"

"Why donít you go inside, if youíre so cold?"

"ĎCause Mom wants me to try on one of those skirt-things, and Iím not gonna do it. Iíd rather freeze than watch her paw through that stuff again. Iím tired of watching her shop, but itís better than her dragging us around to look at stupid tarters again--"

"Tartans," his sister corrected.

The boy shrugged. "Whatever. Tatters, tarters, whatís the diff? Itís all stupid stuff. We had to come when it was so cold Ďcause it was cheaper, so whyís she spending all that money on dumb tourist stuff?"

"You wouldnít have liked summer any better," said Duncan. "The flies are bad." He glanced around, then sat down on the bench theyíd been using. "What stupid stuff have you seen?"

"This morning we went to Glass Cow. Before that it was Collie Den."

"Collie Den?" the Highlander repeated, unable to control the grin that was trying to escape.

"No, itís called Call-a-den," his sister corrected with some asperity. She was a pretty little thing, with dark hair and bright blue eyes, perhaps all of eleven years old. Her thirteen-year-old brother sneered at her.

"Who cares what it was called? Itís a dumb field with some dumb boulders on it. Boooring. Totally bogus."

"Culloden," Duncan corrected gently. "Itís pronounced cull-oh-den. And itís not a dumb field. Itís likely where your ancestors died, and why youíre not living here in the Highlands, today."

"Live here?" gagged the boy. "No way, man. Like, not in any lifetime! Thereís nothing here! No MTV, no music that doesnít sound like somebodyís squeezing a goose, no movies, no malls, not even anything to eat! Iím gonna starve to death before I get home to a real hamburger. With fries!"

"Oh. And whatís that they serve in the pub I saw you in this morning?" snided his sister.

"Guts. They feed you guts. Kidney pie. Liver stuff. Even something in a sheepís stomach! I mean, that is like gag-a-maggot time. That is too gross, even for these weirdos. If Mom makes me eat that, Iím gonna puke in my plate." The boy folded his arms in sullen preparation for battle and glared at Duncan."With all these Mac this and Mac thatís, how come they donít got a McDonaldís somewhere around here?"

"Oh, not here," Duncan advised with a smile. "In London or on Skye, sure. But not here. The Clan MacDonald wasna real popular with Clan MacLeod. Whatís your name?"

"Bryan. Bryan Campbell. Thatís Jason," he added, pointing at the quiet ten-year-old who had first hailed Duncan. "And thatís Jennifer."

"Iím Duncan. Duncan MacLeod--"

"See, I toldja." Bryan gigged his sister in the ribs. "I toldja he was one of these guys."

"So are you," Duncan interrupted. "The Clan Campbell lived just over there a ways. In fact, we married into each otherís clans, to strengthen ties. So yímight be part MacLeod."

"Naw, Iím from San Rafael."

"Yes, but your grandparents werenít. Nor your great-grandparents, or their parents. You see, more of your family is from here, more than from there. And donít worry about the sheepís stomach. Itís called haggis, and itís only served in the fall. Youíre too late."

Bryan snorted. "Good thing."

Jason edged closer to Duncanís knee. "Why would we be from here?"

A quick glance told Duncan that the boy was sincere in his question.

"Culloden, on Drummossie Moor, was the battle with the English that destroyed the clans. Díye ken who King James was?"

Blank expressions told him that the history lesson would have to back up a bit.

"All right. Let me see. James was the king on the throne of England in 1742. He had rights to the throne, was on the throne and that was that. But there was another guy who had equal claim to the throne. His name was Charlach, and he was the son of Mary, who was Queen of Scotland and Jamesís Mom. Well, Charlie--Jamesís grandson or cousin or such--should have had the throne, and the Scots wanted him on the throne so that England would leave them alone. So all of the great Scottish warriors lined up behind him to march for the throne."

"You mean our guys went to war against England?"

"That, they did. Not that they really cared that much about it, but their prince came to them, and said ĎWeíre going to take the throne.í And the chieftain of the MacLeods said to Charlie, ĎGo home. You were raised in exile, you donít speak Gaelic, and we donít know you. So get lost.í But Bonnie Prince Charlie said, ĎI am home, and you promised my Daddy youíd fight--í so he went off raising troups and getting everyone all wired about defending his father and their homeland. Now Iím sure you know that Scots are verra loyal. Theyíll do stupid things to prove theyíre honorable, and theyíll never, never break their word. So, when the prince said fight, they went. Even the MacLeods and the Campbells."

"That was dumb," commented Bryan. "If they didnít want to go, whyíd they go?"

"Because their honor made them. They promised to defend their king, and their prince after him. So, even if the promise was old, it was still a promise, and off they went. Now a Scot is the finest fighter youíll ever see. They can run all day, keep up with a horse trotting through the woods, and out-fight anything out there with only a sword and shield. In fact, the sword of the MacLeods is in that pub, right over there. It was the chieftainís sword for six hundred years, and it went to Culloden. That was probably the last, true battle it saw."

"Can we see it?"

"Iíll show it to you when we go in. Now these Scots were out-numbered at every turn, but they fought so well that they won. They marched through the British defenses until they were only about a hundred miles outside of London. Poor King was so scared he was packing his bags, ready to run. But Charlie was told that charging into London was not such a great idea without more fighters, so the fool turned around and marched four hundred miles back here! Through the ice and snow, through the glens, with the poor soldiers starving and freezing. But they went. And even when the British came after them, they still won. But Charlie took everyone to Inverness, and sat down in the winter weather to wait for the British. And he waited, with exhausted troops, while the British gathered a huge army and came after them."

"That was stupid."

"Tell me about it." Duncan grimaced. "On a cold winterís morning, with the sleet coming down, the British attacked our thousand men with five thousand of their own. We had a lot of swords and twelve cannons, and about a hundred horses. They had a lot of muskets, forty cannons, about five hundred horses, and fresh, strong, well-fed men. We died. Even then, the clans fought like madmen and could have won, but Prince Charlie directed everything the wrong way. And so, everyone died. Within two hours, most of the clansmen were dead. And thatís when the real problems started. The English killed everyone that wasnít already dead. They killed the wounded, they killed those who escaped. They killed men in houses who hadnít anything to do with the battle. And it went on and on, until almost every clansmen was dead. Those that werenít dead were imprisoned and starved--along with their entire family, left behind on the burned-out, barren Highlands. Many of the surviving men were sold as slaves to the Colonies, or deported to Australia."

"And thatís how we got to California?"

"Perhaps. But along with the deportations came the clearances. The English took the widows and the children, told them they had two days or maybe two hours to get out. Then theyíd burn the house and turn the land to sheep grazing. The Highlands were emptied of people. Thatís why itís so empty today. All thatís left of the clans are buried under those boulders you saw at Culloden."

"Why were the English so mean?" asked Jennifer.

"Because we scared them. We could outfight them, could live in places no on else could, could travel quick and quiet and werenít afraid to fight. Díye know that Scots sleep in snow when theyíre on the move?"

"Sleep IN the snow? No tents or anything? Thatís awful!"

Duncan shook his head. "No tent, no blankets even. Just the plaid. Do you know how to tell a wimpy Scot?"

"How?" the three chorused.

"He makes a pillow out of the snow before he goes to sleep."

"Like, for real?"

"For real. Your ancestors were brave. They were strong. They fought for the right causes, and they never broke a promise. They were honorable--"

"And brave and true and helped old ladies cross streets. Yeah, right." Bryan rolled his eyes.

"They fought like demons, howling and swinging a sword. They never forgot anything, and never forgave a grudge or a wrong. They would rather have died than to have lost their honor. They could bear cold and pain and keep right on going. Like the Piper of Duntroon."

"Piper? Like, in bagpipes?"

"Exactly. The Campbells--your family--made a raid on the MacDonald castle on the Isle of Skye. They killed nearly everyone, and left only a few men and their piper to hold the castle until they came back."

"Whereíd they go?"

"Off to chase the MacDonald, probably. So they kept the castle nice and safe, until the MacDonald came back. They were rather pissed off that somebody took their castle and killed their mates, so they snuck in and recaptured the castle and killed all the Campbells. Except for the piper. Pipers were exempt from violence under the clan law, because they were very well-educated and brave, and good pipers were hard to come by. Bad ones-- aye, theyíre everywhere."

Duncan grimaced and put his fingers in his ears, and the children giggled, the cold forgotten in the presence of this teller of fairy tales.

"Now the Piper of Duntroon was a good one, and he was loyal to his clan. He knew theyíd be coming back, and when they did, those MacDonalds would kill everyone, including his clan chief. So every day the piper would climb up to the wall and scan the horizon for a ship. And every day, thereíd be no ship, so the piper would sigh in relief, practice his pipes, and then go back inside. But finally came the day that he sighted a sail on the horizon. His clansmen were coming back, and they were sailing into an ambush. So the piper tuned up his pipes, and began to play. The MacDonalds didnít think much about it. Pipers play pipes and, besides, the MacDonalds of that day were just a wee bit stupid." Duncan smiled at their giggles, and went on.

"But this piper was no so stupid, aye? He played and he played, and at first the chief thought it was really nice of his piper to welcome them to their new home. But as they got closer, he recognized the music the piper was playing."

"What was it?" begged Jennifer.

Duncan paused for the right effect. "It was an dirge. A funeral song. Not the sort of tune to welcome home victorious warriors. So the chief knew they were in danger and likely to die if they went on to the castle. So he turned the ship right around and sailed away, safe and sound."

"And he just left that poor piper?" Jennifer sounded horrified. A quick glance revealed shock on the faces of the boys, as well.

"Aye. The MacDonaldís realized what the piper had done when they saw the ship theyíd been waiting for, sailing fast away from them. They were so angry, they took it out on the one Campbell they could reach."

"They killed the piper?"

"They thought the punishment should fit the crime. So they cut off his hands with an axe."

"Eeeeewww! Thatís gross. That is so absolutely horrible! So he couldnít play ever again? Thatís just so sad!" exclaimed Jennifer.

"Play?" scoffed her brother. "He couldnít even pee!"

"Aye. Youíre right. But they let him bleed to death, and that only took a few minutes, so he didnít miss the playing or the peeing much. They buried him under the flagstones in the courtyard. But right away, the piper took up playing his pipes again."

"But he was dead!"

Duncan watched with satisfaction as the realization as to the pipers health hit home. "Aye." Duncan nodded soberly. "He was dead. In fact, heís still dead. And to this day, he still pipes from the castle walls. Heís heard near every night."

"Wow."

"And thatís the kind of family you come from. Theyíre big, just like youíll be. Theyíre brave. Theyíre strong. And they hold honor dearest above all, just like that piper. And they never, ever whine," he added, poking Bryan in the belly with a forefinger. "Youíre part of Clan Campbell--whatís left of it--scattered around the way it is. But though you were born in America, youíre Scots. Never forget that. Listen and learn what your mother is trying to show you. Itís a fine heritage. Be proud youíre Scottish. And donít eat the haggis."

The three kids exchanged silence, wide-eyed glances.

"Think Mom is still in the kilt shop?" asked Bryan.

"Yeah. I can see her through the window," answered Jason, standing on his toes to peer up the hill.

Duncan gigged Bryan. "Go see what your clan tartan looks like. Only the Highland men of Clan Campbell were allowed to wear it. Why donít you try it on. Theyíre verra comfy."

"Yeah!" exclaimed Bryan, genuinely interested, now. "Címon, guys. Letís go."

"Will we see you again?" asked Jason quietly. "Iíd like to talk to you some more, if you donít mind."

Earnest blue eyes regarded him, and Duncan smiled, feeling a stirring of happiness inside that had been dormant for some time.

"Iíd like that, too, Jason. And Iíll show you that sword if you still want to see it."

"Itís really six hundred years old?"

"Maybe older. Iím staying in the pub, right there. Ask for Duncan MacLeod."

Jason gave him a smile that settled instantly into his heart. "Cool. Thanks a lot. See ya," he added with a wave before pelting off after his brother and sister.

* * *

Smelling of Highland mist and horse sweat, Duncan blew into the pub with the wind and the dark. Rachel grinned to see that his hair had fought free of its constraints and was full of windmats. He combed out Demonís tail, Iíll bet, she thought, but is contented to ignore his own thick mop. Well, Iíd soon set that to rights. If heíd let me. If I dared.

Duncanís face was red with the cold as he shrugged out of his coat, but his dark eyes were alight and his smile was warm.

"Whiskey," he gravel-whispered at her, hunching on an uncomfortable bar stool and rubbing his hands together briskly even as he glanced, with longing, toward the fire. There wasnít a wraithís chance of the Highlanderís getting closer to the warmth: Seamus and his cronies were camped out less than a foot from the hearth, leaving scant room for a collie to fit between them and the embers, much less a man of Duncanís breadth.

Rachel poured the Glenmorangie and noted that Duncanís sheer presence was enough to not only fill the pub, but to make a few patrons ignore their weekly installment of Spitting Image on the telly. Bringing Duncan his drink, Rachel touched his fisted fingers and wasnít surprised to find them freezing cold.

"The drink should warm your cockles."

He cocked an eyebrow at her. "Díyou think they need warming? íTis not but an early spring evening."

"Mmphmm. And did you come back on foot, alone, or with the Demon híself?"

"Dinna fash." Duncan winked at her. "Your black beautyís tucked away safe and warm in the stable." Tipping back his head, Duncan drained the contents of the glass. "More."

The bottle was thunked on the bar before him. He raised an eyebrow as though to say, I didna order it. Perhaps yílike me so much that itís on the house?

"Most certainly not," Rachel muttered, her grin belying her grouchy tones. Ach, heíll know me for a paper tiger for sure, now. Moving away as she felt herself blush, she went to tend safer, less demanding patrons. Her circuit around the room brought her right back to Himself, though, in what seemed to be far too few steps.

She returned the smile he gave her. "You look like a Scottish warrior, blown in from Killicrankie."

"Didna we win that one?" He saluted her with his whiskey. "Hereís to McIlroy and MacIntyre, who knew what tído against the bloody English." Refilling his glass, Duncan observed conversationally, "My cockles are thawing."

"Iím so glad."

"Have you had your dinner, lass?"

Emptying her tray of dirty glasses, stray napkins and snack crumbles leftover from the Glenfinnan equivalent of happy hour, she shook her head. "Havenít gotten round to it. Everybodyís makiní up for the time I cheated them out of last night." She tilted her head toward the regular patrons, who showed no inclination to depart tonight.

Slipping off the bar stool, Duncan relieved Rachel of the tray, caught her fingers to lead her toward the kitchen. "Then let me cook you an omelette, the likes of which youíve never seen."

"Oh-ho, so the Scottish warrior cooks?"

"How else do you think we fed ourselves?"

Sheíd never seen him playful, never imagined he could be this playful. And is it him, or the Glenmorangie?

If was her he was playing with, it could easily be her emotions and her heart that he was playing with, and not just her sense of humor. Aye, but itís a wise lass who never takes a MacLeod too seriously. Go with him, Rachel. Saint Bridget herself knows when youíll ever get the chance to play with this Legend again.

Her heart twisted with pain at the reminder that he wouldnít be with her forever on the shores of Loch Shiel. Heís a man who lives forever, and Iíve less time with him than anyone else Iíve known. Another of lifeís cruel little ironies, she acknowledged, bitter. That, more than anything, made her take the hand he offered, summon a huge grin, and ignore the stares at her back from the always-gossipy pubgoers.

"Watch the place for me, Seamus?"

The old man nodded without looking up from his chess game beside the fire.

Satisfied that everyone would know who to bother for their next drink, Rachel ordered, "Lay on, MacDuff."

Duncan stopped so abruptly that she almost blundered into his broad chest. Frowning down at her, he proclaimed, in the broadest Scottish accent sheíd ever heard--and in strange-accented Gaelic, too, "Iím noí a MacDuff. Iím a MacLeod. Iíd rather die than be a MacDuff."

"Dinner," she said crossly and shoved against his chest, regardless he moved him not a muscle. "Itís too cold to be discussing clan affiliations, and you promised dinner. Iím hungry, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. Dinna tell me you lured me in here under false pretenses."

His brown eyes danced. "At least yígot míname right. Now, Iíll not be tempted to poison you."

*

Duncan was right: he made a mean omelette and the best pot of tea sheíd ever drank, regardless his hair was still in mats and he smelled like a horse. Mushrooms, cheese, onions, tomatoes, peppers--the vegetables were precious and expensive, but she didnít care. Let him use them all, if they taste this good when heís done. Wonder what he could do with a couple of potatoes and a cabbage?

Her dinner tasted more like a good old American pizza omelette than anything--with more vegetables and seasoning in it than egg--but it was delicious. And it reminds me of the States, of school, of the junk food that Iíve never realized I miss so much. Mmmm...Thank you, Duncan.

"You have a fine, beautiful animal out there." The Highlander nodded in the direction of the stable. "Any warrior would have been happy on Demon; heís strong and smart and fast, brave and brilliant. Knows his job better than many horses Iíve been forced to fight with. We hadnít a momentís trouble together."

Rachel stared at him incredulously.

"No trouble..." she repeated in disbelief.

Duncan glanced up, then returned his attention to his plate. "No. No trouble."

"He didnít throw you?"

"Well, aye, of course he tried. But that means nothing. He was just testing. If you want a warhorse, Rachel, you need to be prepared for a few wars."

He was finished eating, yet it seemed she had barely begun.

She spared him an evil glance. "I bought a hunter, not a warhorse. Iím afraid I had slightly different objectives in mind for that fellow."

"Sorry," Duncan answered, with a raised eyebrow that said sorry he definitely was not. "But yígot the better of the deal, whether you believe me or no."

"Demonís that good?"

"Aye, heís more than good."

"Everyoneís been telling me that heís a hot idiot--and me, as well, for takiní the beast."

Duncan swung his attention back to her, the smile now gone. "If thereís an idiot in this, itís not you. Nor the horse. Now, Seamus might fit the description."

"Iíve thought so míself a time or two." Rachel laughed. "But Demonís not much of a joy if I canna stay on top of him. Will you help me with him while youíre here?" she asked shyly, as Duncan delivered his plate to the sink and began loading mugs and shot glasses into the dishwasher. "Show me how you handled him?"

The Highlander grinned over his shoulder. "Dumped you off, has he?"

She sighed in exasperation. ""More than once. Look, Iím not inexperienced--I can ride to hounds with the best of them--but not with him. I thought I knew how to manage a horse, but Demonís something else entirely." She picked at the omelette that had seemed so satisfying before. "I think Iím overmounted. No, I know that I am."

She sighed in exasperation, then rose from the table. "Iíll tell you true, Duncan. Iím getting fair tired of hunting with my backside in the dirt, watchiní the field goiní away and my horse with it."

Duncan considered for a moment. "Let me see what Demon does with you, then Iíll tell you if I can help. Right now, though, I think I need a shower."

Closing the dishwasher and turning it on, Duncan turned and gathered Rachel in a hug. Leaning down, he pressed his lips to her cheek in a gesture entirely unexpected and very welcome.

"Will I see you later?" he asked.

She was pinned where she stood, as he had one hand braced on the counter and the other around the back of her neck. His face was so close that she could see the eyelashes dusting beneath his eye.

"Ummm--sure. Of course. Iíll ask Seamus to lock up for me, and be right up the hill. After I hide the expensive stuff, so they donít drink it all."

Kissing her again--this time on the forehead, Duncan left. For a moment, Rachel sat stunned at the small table.

"Wow," she whispered to herself, noticing for the first time that her hands were shaking. "Let a Scottish warrior borrow your horse, and he warms right up."

Chapter Four

Entering the cottage, she found it in darkness except for the soft light of a candle lit in Duncanís room.

"Whatís this?" she asked the long-legged man perched on the side of the bed, trying to rip through the tangles in his fresh-washed hair.

He glanced at the flame. "Candlelight seemed kinder, tonight. Gentler."

And you donít yet feel ready to face the modern world again, she discerned.

"Here, now. Stop that." Crossing the floor, Rachel took the wide-toothed comb from him. Peering at the instrument of torture, she removed a handful of hair from its teeth. "Youíll hurt yourself with this."

"My hairís too long," he proclaimed, pouting and looking as though he were ten years old. "I should cut it."

"Keep up with this comb and you wonít have to. Youíll have snatched yourself bald. You didnít use conditioner, did you?"

He shook his head. "Didna think tíbring any."

"You could have used mine."

"Seemed an awful liberty to take at the time."

She sighed. "Turn about, and let me have at it."

Obedient--at least in this moment--Duncan sat cross-legged on the comforter, propped his elbows on his knees and his chin on his fists as Rachel clambered up behind him. Gently, she applied the comb.

Heís letting me touch him, she thought, protecting the tender skin at the base of his skull even as she tugged at a particularly recalcitrant tangle. Donít let me hurt him. I donít ever want to hurt him. A feeling fiercely protective washed over her, making her eyes fill with tears and her heart wonder if what she was feeling was romantic or maternal.

Romantic, she decided. Heís certainly far too old to be my son.

It took far too long--and far too little--for her to finish the job. Kicking off her shoes, she sank back on the bed as he shifted around and smiled his thanks.

"If I ask you a question, will you answer me straight up?" she asked.

"If the answerís mine to give."

I think it is. Swallowing hard, she took the plunge. "Will you tell me if youíre him? The Duncan MacLeod of the legends, the one my grandmother toasted at Christmas every year until she died?"

"Do you think I am?" His eyes were too dark for her to read their expression.

Unable to speak even as she was unable to breathe, Rachel only nodded.

"I am." Two words, delivered in mostly darkness. And he waited for her reaction.

She didnít need to bring the candle closer to know that his eyes had gone wary, like a wolf at the edge of a fire that could warm or burn him without warning.

"Dhonnchaidh...." His name whispered in the ancient Gaelic was her acceptance, her evocation, and her invitation. Laying her hand against the side of his face, Rachel stroked his cheek and found it rough with the dayís growth of beard stubble. Her thumb paused on his lips, discovered them warm and dry. Her fingertips traveled on to his nose--so strong and aristocratic when she saw him straight on, so vulnerable and almost adorable when she glimpsed him in profile.

Leaning forward, she kissed him tentatively. Will you accept it? Will you accept me?

Stiffening beneath her touch, Duncan let a sigh escape and sat very still.

He has to know how devastating an effect he has on women, Rachel thought. He canít have lived for so long and not know. As for me... Iím not bothering to hide my wantiní, now am I?

Still, did she want the legend or the man? For a moment, Rachel feared that Duncan would decide she wanted only the legend, and not the vulnerable soul whoíd come to the Highlands in search of healing. She feared that he would pull back into himself, where the hurts and the shadows lived and grew stronger.

Drawing back slightly, he watched her. She knew her face to be exposed by the candlelight, while his was almost completely shrouded. Only his eyes glittered at her.

She dared to cover his hand with her own, let her fingers entwine, seek him out as her heart longed to do. Youíre not entirely whole yet, are you? I can help. Please let me help. She stroked the softer flesh inside his wrist, begging and beckoning.

He leaned forward the least little bit, and tugged. The motion was so slight, Rachel might have missed it, if not for her equine training.

Halt, that gentle squeeze meant to soft, sensitive mouths. Come here, was what he told her, now, in direct contradiction to every dressage command she knew. She met him more than halfway, still holding his fingers, still giving him room to refuse and retreat.

Youíve been through hell, she remembered, and you wonít even tell me what the hell was. But with the telling would come remembering and more pain. Why, then, should he tell what he was trying most to forget?

She could almost hear his voice in her head: Accept me as I am this moment, this night--not as I was a hundred years ago, nor even as I was in Paris. That time is gone, that man is gone.

She had initiated the intimacy between them, but it wasnít very long before Duncan took the lead. Removing his bathrobe, he threw it over the foot of the bed and reached for her sweatshirt. His hands were warm on her flesh, her own sought his broad shoulders, the firm muscling of his arms and chest.

Sheíd never known anyone as beautiful as Duncan. The candle burned low, the light in the room was almost non-existent, but it didnít matter. Her hands traced the tale--Duncan was a man who could wield a broadsword in battle, and think nothing of its weight.

He feels so different, Rachel pondered, taking the time to savor the feel of his mouth on hers, his roughened hands roaming her soft flesh, seeking to part cloth from skin. Grounded and old, rich of soul and wise. Like the land and the loch. He belongs to it, and I belong to it. As, tonight, Iíll belong to him.

Gently, Duncan drew her down onto the bed. More than willing, Rachel went with him.

*

Hours later, she lay in his arms in the darkness, enjoying his closeness, savoring what had just happened between them.

"I began by mistrusting you," she murmured, embarrassment weighting her words. "I suppose itís not a bad thing to end by loving you."

He chuckled softly. "I think youíve already done that, my sweet." He stroked back her hair.

"And by apologizing. For mistrusting you."

"You trusted me enough to let me take the sword," he reminded her. "And you trusted me enough to let Adam Pierson lead you, and the sword, wherever he needed it to go."

"Aye. And I followed you that night, when first you took my sword. Followed you and saw the lightning. And the ravens. And...It wasnít a pleasant fight to see, Duncan."

She felt him grimace in the dark. "They seldom are."

Her fingers tightened on his shoulder. "I donít care what Seamus and the others say. That sword should go with you when you go."

"No, Rachel. It should stay here. It was hell itself, getting it through Customs. And weíve had this discussion before."

"Before, I wasnít certain. Now, I am."

"My father disowned me," he informed her. "When I died the first time and came back, Angus said that I was not his son."

Rachel listened hard for the pain that had to live behind those words, but could hear none. Has he healed, then? Just a little, with our touching? Thatís all I would ask--just a little healing. Not everything--that would be too much to ask. Only that I might help him.

"Your mother loved you, didnít she?" Rachel challenged. "Claimed you as her own. Thatís what the legend says, anyway."

"My widowed mother was not chieftain of the Clan MacLeod, the sword was not hers to give. To use against an enemy such as Kanwulf, to avenge my fatherís death, yes. But it wasnít right of me to take it from the MacLeods. I had no right to wield it--save that I knew it better than any in the clan, and I needed its strength that night. I returned the sword to my mother after that fight, for the new, rightful chieftain to claim. It belonged with him, with the MacLeods. It still does."

"There is no chieftain now," she pointed out softly.

"No," he acknowledged. "There is not."

"The English saw to that at Culloden." She allowed some of the old bitterness to ring in her voice. "Were you there?"

Stiffening, he nodded against her head. His arms tightened around her.

He doesnít want to talk about it. But I need to know. "Was the sword of the MacLeods there?"

"Yes."

"How did it come home? Did you bring it?"

"No." Connor had that honor, after watching the blood-bath from afar, after sneaking onto the battlefield in a cloak of mist and night. "A kinsman carried it home to Glenfinnan, and laid it at the foot of the cradle holding Fergus MacLeodís infant son. If I remember correctly, that son grew up to become a crofter, not a chieftain." Connor raised him well, after his father died. "His family fought hard during the Clearances to hide and keep that sword, even when they were starving in the famine."

"That crofter was my ancestor."

"I know." And Connor was your step-great-grandfather. And a distant cousin, as well. There were too many generations to count; it boggled the mind. I wonder...did your grandmother tell tales about me, or about him? And do you know there were two of us of the Clan MacLeod, who cannot die? "Fergus MacLeod was lucky to survive Drummossie. Youíre lucky to be here, and so is that sword. It will stay where it is."

"But--"

Bracing himself on his elbow, Duncan laid a finger across her lips. "I have my own sword, Rachel. What need have I for two?"

She closed her mouth, and kept it closed. It was obvious that Duncan wasnít going to budge, no matter how many times Rachel insisted that he take the broadsword. A few minutes later, he fell asleep, but she stayed awake, remembering the stories, and their telling by the firelight of her childhood. Sneaking out of the bed, she lit another candle, then climbed back in beside the Highlander to lay on her side and study his face.

He canít die, she reminded herself, and heís seen so much. Things I can only read about in books, or hear foreign tour-guides recite like obedient little history-rats.

What is the truth beyond the books, Duncan? What was yesterday like, and what do you think of tomorrow? I canít even ask you, aye, for all that youíre immortal. I can only hope that you take a part of me with you when you go, so maybe Iíll live forever, too.

Tracing his face gently with a finger, she memorized every shadow, curve and line. The better fír me to draw them when youíre gone. Ach, bonnie Dhonnchaidh, I know you wonít be staying. But Iíve had my time with you, and Iíve done my part to help you heal from whatever sadness or madness Adam Pierson and my sword helped see you through.

* * *

Rachel slept late Sunday morning, for the pub was closed. Rising as the winter sun snuck through the guest room curtains, and she heard sounds of scuffling on the ice in the yard, Rachel shoved aside the cloth and squinted out on a world gone white.

The sole spot of color in her yard was black-jacketed Duncan, performing some sort of intricate dance with his katana--Something Japanese, I suppose, since heís using that katana of his. She blinked and yawned, rubbing her eyes in an effort to get them to open a little more, so that she could watch his strange, elegant crane-dance.

Not so strange. Meditative, deadly and ancient, maybe. But not that strange. The neo-druids we get in here, those going to visit the standing stones, theyíre strange. Really strange. But Duncan, heís not strange. Just...old. Like an antique that grows more valuable every year.

She watched the intricate martial ballet and wondered what it felt like to have that kind of balance, that kind of concentration and dedication. No doubt itís kept him alive these many centuries. Would he stop, if he knew I was watching? She doubted it. Duncan didnít seem the sort to object to an audience--nor to feel self-conscious around one. Not that he was vain; it was only that he appeared very certain of himself, and what his body could do.

His technique with the katana was very different from the hacking and slashing motions necessary with a broadsword. Lighter and faster, his sword was also deadlier. And so was he.

Iím beginning to understand why he doesnít want that great hulking thing on the wall with him. And where would he conceal it? Ach, then, heís being more than polite to leave it here. He really doesna want it. Heís mastered that bit of Asian metal, he has. Has left medievalism far behind.

Iíve made a bit of an error, she realized. For certain heís Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod--and right proper proud he is of his heritage. But heís not just a Scottish warrior whoís lived a verra long time: heís probably a lot more than that. And Iíve missed that.

The legends she knew where at least five hundred years old. They had evolved and survived, as had Duncan. So he is a MacLeod, and what else?

Rachel would never know; Duncan would carry that knowledge away from Glenfinnan before sheíd had a chance to get learn.

But then, I knew what the night and tomorrow would bring before I started with him last night, hey? I knew that he wouldnít stay, that I should reach for him now, and touch him now, as Iíd never again have the chance. Itís enough to see this--tí see him danciní in the sunlight. Tí catch a glimpse of the manís many layers and centuries. I donít pretend to understand what he is or half of what he knows, but Iím well-contented to have him in the world.

"Just knowing youíre in this world makes it all right," she said to him, through the glass, knowing he couldnít hear her and thus couldnít make her explain something that made her feel very warm and safe inside. With a smile and a silent prayer that the Lord should keep him safe, Rachel let the curtain fall.

* * *

"So itís come to this?" Rachel asked for at least the thirtieth time, and frowning so hard her eyes went all dark and her brow puckered up most unbecomingly. "Youíre goiní on today?"

"Aye." Duncan grinned. "As Iíve told you sixteen times since morning. And the day before that, and the day before that one."

She squirmed slightly, but smiled crookedly, in spite of herself. "Well...Yímight not mean it for today exactly. Maybe tomorrow morning?"

"Rachel, Iím going to Glasgow. To the airport. Today."

"Why must it be so soon?" she whispered, clenching her hands. She knew this was coming, had promised herself that she wouldnít be a nuisance by crying or begging him to stay.

"How can I come back if I donít go?"

"Back?"

He turned her to face him, hands clasping her shoulders firmly as he smiled down at her. "Yes. Back. Come back. Here."

"Youíd come back here?"

"Planes fly every day, Rachel. I can come back. Iím not outlawed by the clan any longer, and Scotlandís my home. Besides, Iíve family here, yíknow." He grinned, hugging her tightly. "Everyone has to return to their roots now and then. Recharges the ancestral genes or something. So, when Iím in need of a recharge...."

"You know the place tícome?"

"Thatís right."

They walked along Loch Shiel in silence for another moment or two, before Rachel plucked at his sleeve. "Duncan, you cannaí go yet."

He pulled back, stopping dead while the water lapped at his shoes. "And why not this time?"

"You havína shown me how to handle Demon, and yípromised tí tell me your secret for gettiní along with the heathen beastie. So you canna go today."

Duncan laughed and pulled her hard against him in a hug that was nearly suffocating. She could feel his chest move as he laughed, felt it vibrate under her ear as he spoke.

"Thereís no secret," he breathed into her hair. "Demonís a stallion, for all that someoneís told him differently. In his heart, heís strong and fierce and wild."

"I know all that," she said, in a tone that also said she took no joy of the knowledge.

"Then trust him. Thatís the secret that youíve been longing to know, Rachel. Just trust him. Let him carry you, fight for you and dance for you, as a warhorse should. Donít be pulling on the reins, or fussing over every step, or force him to listen to you for striding at jumps. Thatís insulting to him. Heís a bold, grand, smart fellow, he is--not much for dressage for-bye, but a better mount youíll never find."

"And if I trust him, wonít I end up in the next township? Or flat on my bum in a pile of gorse?"

"Oh, maybe once or twice, while you work things out." Duncan grinned, looking as though he would relish the adventures she would have. "And youíll tell me all about it, hey, when you call?"

"When...I...call?"

He pulled a strand of her hair. "Phones ring, between here and Paris. Youíll call and talk to me, Iíll call and talk to you. But back to Demon. You must trust him, make him your partner. Heís like me, and all Scotsmen, a prideful beast. Have faith in him, and let him make decisions for you now and again. Trust him to take care of you, and to always carry you home. Heíll no fail you."

"Like...you?" she murmured, with fifty questions, at least, in the breathless query.

"Trust me, too," he whispered softly. "Iíll always carry you home, Rachel. I know weel where my home is, now."

"And itís?..."

"Here. Among these rocks. With someone beautiful as you, waitiní up the hill. These things will always bring me home." Duncanís dark eyes found hers, and he bent to meet her gaze, slight laughter in his eyes. "Iíve found what Iíve been missing for so long. Iíll not lose it again."

"Promise?" she whispered, her eyes filling with tears just before he kissed her.

"Forever."

 

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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.