Sins of Omission, Part 9
The Blacksmith’s Daughter

By Leslie Fish

Duncan and Methos returned to Glencoe on Christmas morning, to find Joe waiting in their hotel room with eggnog ready, carols playing on the radio, and a pile of presents on the table topped by the ornamental mini-tree.

“Merry Christmas,” he grinned as they walked in. “Don’t tell me you forgot what day this is.”

“Oh hell, I did!” Duncan smacked his forehead. “I’m sorry, Joe. I…lost track of time.”

“I didn’t,” Methos smirked, reaching into a coat-pocket. “Don’t pout, Duncan; you can make it up to him on Boxing Day, or Hogmanay. Meanwhile—” He pulled a small box out of his pocket. “For you, Joe. I picked it up at the gift-shop in Glenfinnan.”

“Pity they don’t know that their town’s a historic site,” said Joe, opening the box. “Uhh… Wow. …Thanks, Methos.” It was a measure of how deeply he was touched that he used that name.

He held the box open where they could all see the contents: a little silver Celtic cross, covered in fine knotwork, pierced at the top with a tiny ring.

“You can use it as a pendant, a watch-fob or an earring,” Methos smiled. “Up to you.”

“Aww, damn.” Joe briefly rubbed his eyes. “Pendant, I think; I’m too young for watch-fobs and too old for earrings. Anyway, Merry Christmas to you, too.”

He reached to the table behind him and extracted two wrapped presents from the pile. The oblong one in green paper with a red ribbon he handed to Duncan, and the cubical one in red paper with green ribbon went to Methos. The two of them made appreciative noises and began peeling off the wrappings. Duncan cleared his first, opened the box and stared at the contents.

“Yep, the complete ‘Popular Ballads of England and Scotland’, by Sir James Francis Childe,” Joe purred. “Sorry it’s only the trade-paperback version, but there wasn’t time to find the cloth-bound printing. Anyway, it’s all there: all four volumes.”

“Damn…” Duncan whispered, awed. “I’ve never seen the whole thing!”

“Yep. Let me know if you find any songs you recognize.”

“Aye,” Duncan murmured, pulling the first book out of the box. He went to the hotel room’s desk and sat down at it, thumbing eagerly through the first book.

Methos gave Joe an appreciative smile. It was good to see Duncan interested in something besides those damnable memories, for a change. He opened his own box, stared for a moment at the contents, then gave Joe a questioning look.

“For posterity,” Joe grinned knowingly.

Methos only nodded, counting the blank Compact Disks in the package. There were enough of them to record Duncan’s entire book when he finished it, with plenty of room left over. He wondered if Joe had guessed that he’d been copying the book every chance he got, and decided that it was all too likely. Good thing Duncan wasn’t watching.

Methos closed the box carefully, set it beside his luggage and reached for a cup of the eggnog. “So,” he asked casually, “What’s been happening while we were away?”

Joe flicked a significant glance toward Duncan, then back. “I’ve mostly been sitting here coordinating files,” he said, much too casually. “I’ll be going out later today, probably won’t be back until tomorrow, so you’ll have both rooms to yourselves. Try not to break any furniture while I’m gone.” He quietly handed Methos the key to the other hotel room.

“Oh, not on Christmas day,” Methos replied lightly, pocketing the key. “I think we’ll just relax and enjoy our presents.”

“Damn!” they heard Duncan comment from the desk. “I remember my mother singing that. ‘Why should I sit and sigh, Pulling bracken, pulling bracken’…”

Joe smiled, with noticeable relief, got up and shuffled out.

Methos watched him go, and took care to lock the door behind him.

“Connor knew that one too,” Duncan murmured, raising his head – with that abstracted look that Methos had come to know too well – and gazing distantly out the window to the streets of Glencoe beyond.

Glencoe was a large and bustling town; to judge by the market-day crowd, nearly a thousand people must live here. It was also a peaceable place; Connor noticed men and women wearing tartans of perhaps half a dozen different setts, and nowhere did they fight or even shout insults at each other’s kin. Amazing.

Still, Connor strolled up to the nearest shop – a soap-maker’s and chandler’s – with elaborate caution before casually asking the way to the blacksmith’s. The shopkeeper rattled off the directions cheerfully, without reserve or any questions of his own. Truly amazing.

Connor thanked the man and padded off down the street, scrupulously avoiding an oncoming herd of sheep, and marveled to himself at how quickly his fortunes had changed: clansman to outcast to apprentice in three short days.

Well, not apprentice yet, but a good chance for it.

There might be hope for him here. He might find his fortune, and found his own clan. At the very least, he could be accepted again.

With a high heart Connor followed the narrowing road, and finally turned in at the gate of the blacksmith’s yard.

And surely that was the blacksmith himself: a dark-haired man wearing a brief MacDonald kilt and a long leather apron, coated in soot and sweat, muscles standing up like hills on his arms as he pounded a glowing strip of metal. Aye, and he was working alone. He’d be wanting an apprentice, surely.

Connor stepped forward slowly, positioning himself in plain view, hands visibly empty, and waited politely until the man set down his pliers and hammer. The smith said no more than a mannerly: “Who might ye be?”

Did he dare use his right name? Oh, aye: Mam had said he was cleared of blame – outside Glenfinnan, anyway – by word of the Laird MacLeod himself. His new tartan, with its additional thread to the pattern, was woven by the Laird’s own household, just yesterday.

“I’m Connor MacLeod, of—“ No, best be cautious there. “—Rory MacLeod’s household.” Well, that was true enough, for the past two days, anyway. “I heard ye were seeking an apprentice, and I’ve come for the work.”

The blacksmith didn’t respond to the name, but looked him up and down with a critical eye. “And I’m Angus MacDonald,” he said. “So, ye’d rather be a smith than a poor shepherd, eh?” he ventured.

Connor smiled, and shrugged. “’Tis better for keeping warm in the winter.”

MacDonald laughed. “Well, ye’re tall enough…but a little small in the thews.”

“I’ll work them thick,” Connor promised. “I’m willing enough. Set me a task, and see how I’ll do.”

“Easily done.” The smith pointed to a large wooden bucket at one side of the forge. “Fill that and fetch it here.”

Wondering why the man would try him with something so simple, Connor dutifully hefted the bucket and turned away toward the well some twenty yards distant. The bucket was large and clumsy, but nothing he couldn’t manage.

Only after he’d dipped the bucket, hauled it up and taken it off the well-rope did Connor realize what the test was. Filled, the damned thing weighed 30 pounds at least, and was even more clumsy to wield. Cursing the devilish thing, but careful not to spill a drop, Connor hauled it back across the yard.

He was halfway to the forge when a movement in the half-ruined old stone house to his left caught his eye. He turned to look – and froze.

A woman was coming out of the doorway. She was young, not above twenty, and the sun struck her hair like a magical spell that turned it to glowing gold. Her face was as perfect and sweet as an opened hedge-rose, and the tight bodice of her dress revealed a form as lovely as his best dreams. She moved as smoothly as running water.

She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life, and the sight of her struck him like a thunderbolt. He couldn’t have moved just then to save his soul.

She looked at him – looked! At him! – and a slight puzzled frown knotted her lovely brows. “Who are ye?” she asked – oh, her voice was like bells! “And what are ye doing here?”

Words, language, speech-- Connor opened and shut his mouth twice before managing to dredge up coherent and fitting words. “Connor. Water.”

Her frown deepened, and he knew she must think he was an idiot.

“For the smith,” he put together.

“Oh. Aye.” Her frown lightened into a cautious look. “He’s over there,” she said, pointing to the forge.

“Aye.” A sly itch between his thighs warned Connor that he simply must get away from her before he did something truly stupid. He hefted the bucket a little higher – sloshing some water on his kilt – and hurried back to across the yard.

The blacksmith saw him coming, and pointed to a barrel near the forge. “Pour it in there,” was all he said.

Connor lifted the bucket with infinite care, and concentrated on the pouring as if it were the most fascinating sight in the world. He knew that he absolutely must not look back, for the maid might still be there – and if he saw her, he’d be able to look at nothing else, and he’d end by pouring the water all over his feet.

The smith peered at him, puzzled. “Eh, lad,” he asked, “Did ye fall and hit tha head on the well-curb?”

“Uh?” was the best Connor could manage.

“Look at ye, lad. Ye’re slow and stumbling, and tha mouth’s hanging open, and tha eyes are crossed.”

“Oh. Uh, no.” Connor could feel his cheeks flushing red as a beet-root.

And to make his embarrassment perfect, the maid came into the forge after him. “Da,” she asked, “Do ye know this fellow?”

‘Da’, she’d said. She was the blacksmith’s daughter. Oh, God!

MacDonald peered at her, then glanced back to Connor, eyes narrowing in calculation. “Aye,” he said. “’Tis my new apprentice.”

Connor thought he might faint with relief, and barely caught himself from swaying on his feet. He’d been accepted. He had a place now. And he could see the girl every day! …Oh Lord, he’d have to see her every day!

“And is all the housework done,” MacDonald went on, “Or else have ye nothing better to do than gad about the forge, getting in the way o’ the help?”

“No, I’ve still the sweeping to do,” the girl admitted. “I just wondered who this stranger was.” With that, she turned and flounced back toward the house. A gust of wind pressed her skirt tight against the swell of her buttocks, just a brief glimpse before she shut the door behind her.

Connor didn’t know whether to feel loss or relief. He caught the smith glowering at him.

“Yon’s Heather, my daughter,” he said. “Dinna touch her.”

“I won’t— I didna—“ Connor felt himself blushing again. He realized he was still holding the empty bucket, and quickly set it down.

“Aye,” the smith grinned knowingly. “She does have that effect on men. Just remember my word, Connor, and work hard and wisely, and ye’ll do well enough.”

Connor ducked his head in acquiescence, and scrambled for a safe topic. “What’s my next task?” he managed to say without stuttering.

Duncan laughed aloud and leaned back in his chair. The view from the hotel window was wrenchingly different from the Glencoe of Connor’s memories – the town had changed beyond recognition – but he could still see it clearly as it had been. Connor had, after all, spent more than half a century here…

“A good memory, then?” Methos’ voice broke in on his thoughts.

“Oh, yes!” Duncan rubbed briefly at his eyes, and reached for the notebook and pen. “His first day in Glencoe, when he went to apprentice himself to the blacksmith. The first time he ever laid eyes on Heather…” The thought sent him off into another gale of laughter. “Love at first sight,” he giggled, “And struck stupid with it! Ah, God, was I ever that callow? …Hmmm, well, there was Debra Campbell. I was so busy staring at her that I walked into a fence. It must run in the family.”

Methos smiled, looking oddly relieved. “Well, since you’ve come to a stopping place, I’ve got something to ask you.” His smile faltered.

“Anything important?” said Duncan, picking up the book. He wanted to write down that memory while it was still fresh.

“I honestly don’t know.” Methos took a deep breath, as if bracing himself for some onslaught. “Cassandra came by, the other morning, while you were asleep.”

“Cassandra?!” Duncan froze with the book halfway open. “Did she— You—“

“Oh, nothing drastic. We’d swapped less than half a dozen insults when Joe showed up and insisted on refereeing. After that, we had a fairly civilized conversation over coffee.”

“Er, about what?” Duncan prodded, wondering what he’d missed. “This was…two days ago?”

Methos briefly chewed his lip. “She said that…Connor had some psychic gifts, and she wanted to know if you’d acquired them. Have you noticed anything like that?” His expression was carefully neutral.

“Psychic gifts?” Duncan went blank for a moment, then remembered: the ghost at the funeral feast, the sense of presence, the image of Connor at the old house in Glenfinnan. Ah, but those had such easy explanations. “No,” he admitted slowly. “Nothing that can’t be explained by…his Quickening. I’ve felt him, a couple times…”

Methos sighed – in relief? “Well, if you do notice anything, get word to her. She said that if you’d received his gifts, you’d need training in how to use them.”

Duncan shook his head. “I’ll call her if I do, but I’ve seen nothing.” He really didn’t want to ponder that question now; he wanted to write down that last memory while it was still fresh. He spread the book open on the hotel-room desk and began writing.

Behind him, Methos quietly moved away.

“Hello?” Her voice sounded wary, but polite.

Joe gripped his cell-phone a little tighter, thinking of exactly how to phrase this. “Cassandra, it’s Joe. We need to meet.”

“Is it about Duncan?”

“Indirectly. It’s a threat to him, but he doesn’t know about it yet. I’d like to keep it that way. The man’s been through enough, these past couple weeks.”

“What sort of threat?” she asked. The word ‘Methos?’ hung unspoken in the background.

“From mortals,” Joe said hastily.

Cassandra drew an audible breath. “Are you in the same place?” she asked.

“In the restaurant, actually. If you’d like lunch, I’ll buy.”

“It’s Christmas day…”

“That means smaller crowds. Plenty of privacy.”

“All right. Half an hour.” With no further word, she hung up.

Joe closed the phone and tucked it in his pocket, and leaned a little out of his booth to look around the hotel restaurant and make certain, again, that nobody was within hearing. Half an hour… So, she hadn’t gone far. He could make some good guesses as to why… Well, that was still plenty of time to prepare.

He set his laptop on the table, opened it, pulled some discs out of his pocket and set them carefully beside the computer.

When Cassandra came in, wearing a commonplace coat and hat and boots that let her blend into the holiday scenery, he was apparently busy at the computer and sipping absently from one of two large mugs of eggnog. She too glanced around the restaurant and approved of the lack of witnesses before coming over to his booth and sitting down opposite him.

“Merry Christmas,” Joe said, smiling. “Have an eggnog. In honor of the season, they’ve actually got roast goose on the menu today.”

“I’m not hungry.” Nonetheless, she took up the drink and sipped.

“Neither am I, actually.” And for good reason; he’d eaten before even making that phonecall. “This business is playing hell with my appetite.”

Cassandra took another mouthful of the eggnog before setting it down. “Just what ‘business’, Joe? And how does it relate to Duncan?”

Joe turned the laptop to face her. “We found a second Sanctuary, with motives a little less pure than the first one. They tried to snatch Duncan two nights ago, which is how we found out about them.”

There: the basic story in a nutshell. Now let her ask for the details.

“Tried?” she asked, not yet looking at the screen. “Who stopped them?”

“Methos.” Ah, see her twitch at that: knee-jerk reaction. “Duncan couldn’t ask for a better bodyguard.” Now hurry ahead. “I sent them both out of town, and had one of our teams pick up the would-be kidnappers and question them.” That wasn’t exactly how it had happened, but close enough. “That’s how we learned about the second Sanctuary. Our people raided it the same day, and what we found… Well, it’s mostly all there.” Joe tapped the computer-screen, drawing her attention to it.

Cassandra looked, almost grudgingly. Joe could tell the instant when she found that damning fourth paragraph by the way her eyes widened.

“Experiments?” she hissed. “What kind of experiments?”

“First, studying Immortal DNA and comparing it with mortals’. That’s a bit problematical, since the Human Genome Project is a long way from finished.” Joe watched her face carefully as he dropped the news. “They seemed to think they’d found something, despite having a very small sample of Immortals to play with – just four, to be precise.”

That made Cassandra peer at the screen, scroll it down and study the names. “Felicia Martins?!” she burst out. “That vicious sow— I could almost say she’d deserve whatever they did… But Father Tomas? They snatched him off holy ground?!”

“These are not nice people,” Joe agreed. “Fanatics, as bad as Horton in their way. But the DNA study is only part of it.”

“There’s worse?”

Drop the bomb. “They also tried to analyze the particular energy of Quickenings, and seem to think they succeeded.”

Cassandra stared at him. “And…what use…?”

“Can’t you guess? They were trying to transfer immortality to themselves.”

If Cassandra had jumped up right then and raved at him to kill them all, Joe wouldn’t have been surprised. Instead, she snapped her eyes back to the screen and scrolled down further, peering closely.

“Tapped…drew off…” she muttered to herself. “They used a machine?”

“The problem is…” Carefully now. “We don’t know if they succeeded in this, either. They kept their own internal secrecy so tight, only two people in the complex know how that machine works; they’re trying to use their knowledge to bargain their way out of this.”

Cassandra raised her eyes to meet his. “It must be quite a temptation,” she said quietly. “I imagine a lot of your people might be willing to bargain for a chance at immortality.”

“Nothing’s been decided yet,” Joe reassured her, “If only because we can’t tell if it’s true or not. We know they haven’t yet made a successful transfer – none of them show the rapid healing, for example – but we can’t tell if they really did…draw the Quickenings out of their captives and store them in the damned machine.”

“So…” Cassandra guessed the next step. “You need another Immortal to tell if the Quickenings are really there.”

“And if the experimental subjects have been made mortal by losing their Quickenings,” Joe finished. Let her think that over.

He waited for the emotional explosion, but it didn’t come. Cassandra only shuddered, showing admirable restraint. Perhaps she was irrational only on the subject of Methos and his former ‘brothers’.

“Why me, in particular?” she asked, meeting his eyes. “Is there some reason you couldn’t have used…Methos?” She managed to say the name without snarling.

Joe’s respect for her rose another notch. “Besides the fact that Duncan needs him right now? Yes.” Next step. “He doesn’t have your psychic abilities, and he certainly doesn’t have the Voice.”

He could see the instant she understood. “You want me to…interrogate them?”

“And the captive Immortals, and see what you can sense off that…machine.” Joe paused for a heartbeat, then cut to the chase. “Cassandra, if they’ve succeeded it would be a disaster. We’d have secret gangs of renegades hunting down Immortals to— to milk them dry, and worse. We can’t just execute everybody there without knowing what they know – and, to be blunt, torture and pentathol are unreliable. Now do you see why we need your help?”

Cassandra thought it over for no more than five seconds. “Just where is this place?” she asked, tense but controlled. “How quickly can we get there?”

Joe managed to keep his reaction off his face. “Right outside Paris. We can be there in four hours. Do you need to pack?”

“No,” she said, rising smoothly to her feet. “I think I can accomplish this quickly, and we can be back here tonight.”

Hallelujah! Joe sang to himself as he closed the laptop. “Let’s go, then.” He struggled to get out of the booth, his clumsiness not entirely feigned. “Ah, can you carry that stuff for me?” he asked, nodding briefly toward the computer and disks.

Cassandra swept up the laptop without a word, and impatiently shoved the disks into her coat pocket.

Yes! Joe kept his face turned away as he pulled himself to his feet, afraid his expression would betray him.

MacDonald made him sleep in the barn, for which Connor was unspeakably grateful, despite the chill. He could do quite well in the hayloft, alone at last, thank God, with none but the mice to witness his embarrassment. He scrambled quickly up the ladder, piled up the soft straw, pulled off everything but his breechclout, wrapped himself from chin to feet in his great-kilt and lay down in the silence with a vast sigh of relief.

All afternoon he’d managed to keep busy and distracted, concentrating on the work, intently absorbing everything MacDonald could teach him, but dinner had been absolute hell. He’d never imagined such exquisite torture: trying to eat and answer sensibly any questions put to him, trying desperately not to look at Heather when she sat right across the table from him, trying to pretend nothing was out of the ordinary – while a raging erection threatened to burst his willy like a boiled sausage and tie his bollocks in knots. An hour of that! Dear God… And had MacDonald guessed? He’d cast some thoughtful looks Connor’s way…

Enough of that. Scratch the bloody itch and be done with it. Connor groaned softly as he slid his hands down to his groin, loosened his breechclout and reached under it. Lord, hot and hard as a log in the fire, and so tender he could barely touch it. Ah, grasp carefully at the root, there, now slide the skin gently…

The image of Heather bending over the table, her round breasts bulging over the top of her bodice, bloomed in front of his closed eyes.

His willy blazed and itched frantically in his hand.

No, no, don’t think of her! Think of anyone else… No, not Katie MacWarren, thank you! …Think of sporting Molly Stewart, who cocked a snook at her honorable family name by taking the virginities of all the boys in town…aye, for a sheepskin she’d do it…merry brown eyes and stringy breasts and good herb-knowledge to keep herself clean…

—slide, slide—

Sudden vision of Heather with that bodice gone, her freed breasts glowing like snowy hills under sunlight.

No, damn it! Don’t think of women, then, but of anything else…running streams, starry skies, cheery fires…

—squeeze and slide—

Heather with her dress gone, back turned, those splendid buttocks bared to his sight…and his hands…

 God, no, don’t think at all! Just rub…

Not a vision now, but a vivid feeling: those smooth buttocks under his hands, those glorious breasts pressing close to his heart, that sweet mouth sealed against his.

Oh Jesus, there was no stopping this!

—squeeze, slide—

Her belly sliding smooth and hot against his belly, silken thighs wrapped around his thighs, her fuzzy quim grinding him spreading wide and slick and hot and pulling him in and squeezing, squeezing…

Connor wailed in abandon as he felt himself erupt, body arching up like a bow, liquid fire running through him in a raging flood that swept him helplessly away forever and ever…

At length he sank back into the straw, limp and panting, feeling tears spill out of his eyes, ready to sob in despair.

Oh, she’d caught him – ensnared, ensorcelled – and not even known she’d done it. With innocent glances and brief words, with just the glimpse of her lovely flesh, she’d enslaved his body and much of his soul. He could think of nothing but her now, and on the morrow all that remained of his will might not keep him from thinking of her for long. He might be of Faery blood, but ‘twas she who’d enchanted him. He knew he was lost, and could barely summon grief for his captivity.

Somehow, he must keep her from knowing. And keep her father from knowing. Tomorrow he must fix his mind, with all his will, to concentrating on the work, nothing but the work.

And he’d have to find a way to wash out his breechclout in secret.

Duncan groaned and doubled over, and Methos was beside him in an instant, hands clamping on his shoulders. “Bad one?” he asked, not even trying to sound unconcerned.

“Oh no,” Duncan panted, “Just…enlightening. Lord, was I ever swept away like that? …Ah, yes, just a little older. Even a good bit older… Jesus, can I even write this?”

“Everything,” Methos said firmly, massaging his shoulders. “Leave nothing out. You promised.”

“Yes, everything.” Duncan leaned back into those comforting hands. “No matter how…revealing it gets. Even this. …Lord, he was just eighteen! True love, true passion – it bowled him over. He thought he was bewitched.”

“Understandable,” Methos smiled tightly. “’Enthralled’ can mean so many things.”

Slowly, Duncan turned to look at him, saying nothing.

Methos flinched, reading that look perfectly, but made himself stand and meet it. “Yes,” he whispered. “Like that.”

Duncan reached up and grasped Methos’ wrists, and held them for a long moment. No words passed between them, or needed to.

A different Christmas carol was playing on the radio when he finally let go. He patted Methos’ hands briefly, then withdrew. “I have to write it down while the memory’s fresh,” he said, almost apologetically.

“Go ahead,” Methos smiled, gently pulling away. “We have plenty of time.”

“So we do,” Duncan marveled, as if realizing it for the first time. “So we do.”

Then he shook himself back into working-mode, picked up the pen and began to write.

The car took them from Orly port to the hospital in less than an hour, which was as much a tribute to the sparse Christmas Day traffic as to the driver’s skill. A guard in plainclothes was waiting for them by the stairs as they got out, and he ushered them quickly through the doors and down the corridor. He recognized Cassandra and raised a questioning eyebrow, but said nothing.

The director’s office looked as if a small tornado had hit it, rearranging everything, but most of the papers were gone. The middle-aged woman behind the desk gave Joe a hard look and Cassandra a worried one. Neither she nor Joe bothered to make introductions.

“Can you settle this quickly?” she asked. “Those damned technicians are already suborning my people.”

“We can,” Joe replied, just as abrupt. “Just tell us where everything is, and stand back.”

The woman only handed Joe a keyring – with certain keys marked – and a hand-drawn map and list. Joe took them, leaving Cassandra with the laptop, and turned to the door.

“She may look calm,” Cassandra said quietly as they paced down the corridor, “But she’s desperate. I think we’d best see those technicians first.”

“They’re isolated in separate rooms.” Joe paused to consult the map and list. “The first one’s right down here, a Lucina Fraser.”

“’Fraser’. How fitting,” Cassandra smiled coldly. “Did you know that the Frasers were enemies of the MacLeods, back in Connor’s time?”

“I doubt if she knows, or cares,” said Joe, leading them toward a particular door. “Which damned key..? Ah, there we go.”

The room was, ironically, a padded cell. The woman sitting on the floor wore a rumpled technician’s lab-coat, a bleached-blonde hairdo falling out of its setting, and a pinched expression that turned into a practiced leer as she saw them come in. It changed to a look of horrified recognition as she saw Cassandra, and she promptly pressed her hands to her ears.

Joe and Cassandra looked at each other. “It seems my reputation has proceeded me,” Cassandra smiled. “What do we do now?”

“Brute force,” Joe answered, frowning tightly.

He strode forward and whacked the woman across both thighs with his cane. She screeched and clutched at the points of impact.

“*Be still!*” snapped Cassandra, something in her voice echoing.

The woman froze.

The Voice hadn’t been aimed at him, but Joe found it hard to move. Pulling away from Lucina Fraser was like walking through thick oil. He managed, and stepped back until he was behind Cassandra. He remembered to pull out and click on his pocket tape-recorder, and turned the volume up high.

“*Explain how the machine draws off Quickenings,*” said Cassandra.

Joe felt his jaws twitching, even though he had nothing to say, and concentrated on clamping his mouth shut.

“The frequency—“ Lucina began, then switched to a mouthful of technical jargon, which Joe understood no more than Swahili. Cassandra watched and listened impassively until the woman ran out of words.

“*Explain how the containment vessel stores them,*” was her next command.

Again Lucina replied with a flood of technical terms. The only sense Joe could make of it was that the container had to keep running to maintain the ‘containment field’. Again, Cassandra let the woman run down of her own accord.

“*How did you plan to transfer the Quickenings to mortals?*” Cassandra tried next.

“Reverse the polarity—“ More technical terms.

“*Why haven’t you done it already?*”

“Dr. Morani hadn’t determined how to transfer the gene.” Lucina looked miserable and frustrated. “Two years he’s been trying, and nothing works yet.”

Cassandra nodded, satisfied. “*Sit down, close your eyes, and remain silent until I return for you,*” she said, then turned away, not waiting to see the woman obey. “I think we’d best go visit Dr. Morani next.”

Joe switched off the tape-recorder and consulted his papers. “Five doors down on the right,” he replied, searching through the key-ring.

Once they were out in the corridor, and he’d locked the door behind him, he asked: “Were you able to make any sense out of that?”

“Only a little,” Cassandra admitted, “But your other people should be able to translate it.” She frowned thoughtfully. “They’re assuming that Quickenings are somewhere on the electromagnetic spectrum, another sort of radio-wave. If they’re right, then the damned machine should work. But if they’re not…”

“What else could it be?” Joe pondered, pulling out the next key.

“That’s almost a religious question,” Cassandra smiled. “Einstein first came up with the Unified Field Theory not for logical reasons, but for religious ones. He was distressed that modern science seemed to be displacing traditional religion, so he sought to create a new religion of science in its place. He’d been raised Jewish – monotheistic – so he wanted to believe that all energy, and by extension all matter, were ultimately one: just one form of energy, and one great pattern-maker behind it. The Unified Field Theory.”

“As I recall,” said Joe, pausing by the numbered door on the right, “They never did manage to prove it.”

“No,” Cassandra agreed. “Theoretical physicists went through all sorts of backbends trying to prove it, postulated some really bizarre explanations with no evidence but mathematics, and finally admitted defeat. At present, they’re stuck with four different and distinct forms of energy: electromagnetism, gravity, strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force.”

“Like the four ‘elements’,” Joe chuckled. For a witch, you’ve kept up well with modern science.

“Actually, the ‘four elements’ make a sort of sense – matter, energy, space and time, symbolized by earth, fire, air and water. But the point is, those four forms of energy might not be the only ones.”

“What else could there be?” Joe shoved the key into the lock, but didn’t turn it.

“Call it ‘psy’,” Cassandra smiled coldly. “Psychic energy. It would explain a lot of the otherwise inexplicable behavior of sub-atomic particles: how they seem to be in communication, for example. It would also explain how psychic messages can pass unimpeded through a Faraday Cage, something that nothing else but matter, light and gravity seem to manage. I suspect that light gets through because photons are in a state of slush between matter and energy: solid enough to penetrate the cage.”

Joe raised an eyebrow. “You seem to be well informed,” he hinted.

“I’ve kept up my subscription to the ‘Scientific American’,” she smiled archly, “And a few other interesting journals.”

“Okay.” Joe couldn’t resist. “Suppose this ‘psy’ is a different form of energy. Why haven’t the physicists noticed it yet?”

“Because they have no way to detect it,” Cassandra laughed. “They don’t admit – or don’t want to admit – it exists, and therefore never thought of how to go about detecting it with instruments. So, to date, the only way to detect psychic transmissions is through a living psychic. And of course, the proper official scientists wouldn’t be caught dead taking the evidence of a psychic seriously. So, shall we go in?”

Joe had no answer for that, except to turn the key and open the door.

Cassandra strode in quickly, and promptly said: “*Be still.*”

Whether or not Dr. Morani would have recognized her, and clapped his hands over his ears in time, was now beside the point. He sat frozen on the floor, in another padded cell, looking slightly stunned. Joe turned on the tape-recorder again, and kept well behind Cassandra. She strolled to the middle of the room, looked the doctor up and down, and sneered at what she saw.

Dr. Morani was fat and balding, though he seemed to have plentiful hair everywhere but his head, and had a very unprepossessing face. No looks, no fame, no visible wealth, Joe guessed. Nothing that would make women flock after him. I’ll bet that’s why he did it.

“*Tell me how Immortal genetics differ from mortals,*” Cassandra ordered.

The man opened and shut his mouth twice, sweat beading up on his forehead, as if trying to fight off the compulsion of the Voice – but in a few seconds he yielded. “We found a gene among the mitochondria of the test-subjects…” he began, and soon rambled off into more technical jargon. Joe duly recorded, and watched Cassandra.

“*How many subjects did you test?*” Cassandra asked next.

“Four: Felicia Martins, Father Tomas, Jerzy Kostanza and Marlena D’Arbanville,” he panted. “We needed more. We didn’t get them.”

“*How were you planning to transfer the gene to mortals?*”

“We needed a carrier!” Dr. Morani was sweating in earnest now. “We tested several, and none of them worked. They took my notes… I had some more promising leads, even heard from a lab at Princeton doing work on nanotechnology, but we didn’t have it yet. Not yet, dammit!”

“*How could you be certain the gene you found would confer immortality?*”

“It’s the only constant, the only difference we’ve found so far – and it’s in the mitochondria: energy-processing…” He began to run down, a dismayed look slipping over his face.

“*But you couldn’t be sure, could you?*” Cassandra’s smile resembled a shark’s. “*Did you find any way to reproduce it?*”

“No…” Morani admitted.

“*And no way to transfer it to another host, to see what it did?*”

“No.” The man seemed to shrivel inside his coat.

Cassandra laughed cruelly. “*You will remain here, and be silent, until I return for you,*” she said, then turned to Joe and gestured toward the door.

By the time they were out in the corridor again, Cassandra was giggling like a schoolgirl. Joe re-locked the door and turned to her with a questioning look.

“He’s guessing!” she finally managed to say. “Only four subjects, and all of them from northern-European stock. I bet if he’d tested an African, or an Oriental, he would have found something different. That gene might do no more than effect digestion of wheat-protein, for all he knows.”

“Then you don’t think it means…?”

“That man is a pathetic monument to wishful thinking!” she whooped. “You can tell the Watchers to stop worrying – and hoping. He can’t make good on his promise.”

“All right!” Joe fingered the tape-recorder, and finally turned it off. “But that still leaves the question of stealing the Quickenings.”

Deepening winter brought no end to Connor’s torment, for now Heather was importuning MacDonald to let him sleep in the house, near the fire. Connor hastily made a counter-offer to sleep by the forge instead, but MacDonald had only given him an odd look and said he’d think on it. Connor had taken to pumping his willy twice a day – at night before he slept and in the morning before he rose – and still the bare sight of Heather would have him stiffening again before noon. He’d learned to cope with supper by keeping his eyes firmly downcast, but her voice alone would start him itching. At work he concentrated furiously on his tasks and his lessons, and MacDonald admitted to being impressed.

Visiting customers brought no relief either, for he still cringed at the thought that someone would come from Glenfinnan bearing tales of Connor the Demon. Worse, Heather would often come out of the house to see the visitors, and chat with them, and even to flirt outrageously with them – which was enough to drive Connor to near-frenzy.

Worst, he was certain that MacDonald had guessed his trouble, but said nothing. Why would the man not speak, at least order him again not to touch the lass? Why did he wait so? The uncertainty made Connor cringe when he thought of it.

Finally the long-awaited nightmare happened. Connor was carefully pounding a hot weld into the curve of a fire-iron when a horse came clopping up outside, and an all too familiar voice called out: “Blacksmith, here’s custom for ye.”

Father Alastair!

Connor retained enough presence of mind to set the iron and tools down before he bolted out the back of the forge, and enough beyond that to hide behind the barn, where he could watch for anyone coming after him. Lord, Lord, what would he do now? Where could he run next? The thought of never seeing Heather again stabbed him like a knife in the belly.

Aye, there was the fat priest, tying his nag’s reins and waddling into the forge’s shed, and there was MacDonald talking with him. How long, how long before the man started ranting about devils and demons, and warning about one in particular named Connor MacLeod?

Ah, but MacDonald only came out and lifted one of the horse’s feet, and then led the animal in closer to the forge. So it was a shoeing, only. Oh, pray he would be quick at it, not let the Father sit down and start talking!

Connor dared not creep closer and listen, for fear he might be seen. The minutes dragged intolerably.

Dear God, there was Heather coming out of the house – and heading for the forge! Connor wanted to scream at her to get back, run away, hurry into the house and lock the door – oh, but then she’d come and ask him why, and what on Earth would he answer? He bit his lip until he was sure he could taste blood, watching her stroll into the shed. He could only stare, waiting, watching to see who would come out first – and if they’d be carrying axes and torches, looking for him.

But it was Heather who came out, alone, looking distinctly peevish. She flounced back to the house and slammed the door hard enough to shake dust off the wall.

What on Earth was that about? What could her father, or Father Alastair, have said to make her behave so? Connor sweated in the cold, watching.

The sound of rhythmic blows came from the shed, then silenced. After long moments came another hammering, softer. Connor judged that MacDonald was setting the shoe. Thank God, the priest would leave soon. Watch and wait…

It seemed hours before the Father Alastair finally led the horse out to the mounting-block, heaved his bulk into the saddle, and rode away. It took him forever to ride down the road out of sight. MacDonald stood and watched until the priest was gone, then called out – no louder than necessary – “Ye can come out now, Connor. He’s well away.”

Shaking, Connor pulled himself to his feet and trudged back to the shed. MacDonald waited, brawny arms crossed, watching him thoughtfully. “Why did ye run?” was all he said.

“That man tried to kill me,” Connor managed, shivering.

MacDonald arched an eyebrow. “A priest? Kill ye?”

“He called me a demon, because…” There was no need to tell all of it. “Because I have the Faery blood.”

“Do ye indeed?” MacDonald raised his other eyebrow. “Yet I’ve seen ye touch cold iron – and hot – all these months.”

Connor trembled again, this time with relief. “Well, that part o’ the tale is false.”

MacDonald frowned a trifle. “I’ve also see ye heal from burns without a scar.”

Connor ground his teeth, belatedly recalling that he had indeed taken burns in the course of his work. Now that he looked, MacDonald’s arms bore burn-scars by the score. He should have noticed before. “That part o’ the tale is true,” he admitted. “I heal fast, with no marks.” He had to ask. “Did the Father say aught of me?”

“Not a word.” MacDonald shrugged. “He but boasted of his student, that but lately returned from seminary school.”

Connor remembered Jacob. “Aye, I stood up for him at his ordination.” That, he remembered, had been shortly before the battle with the Frasers, when everything changed.

“Yet the man tried to kill ye, do ye say?”

“Aye, soon after. When my…gift was revealed.”

“Ingrate.” MacDonald spat into the snow. “And neither do I care for any man who calls my daughter a whore for the cut of her bodice.”

“He said that?!” Connor snapped, furious. “God, I should have pitched him head-first into the forge!”

“I confess I was tempted.” MacDonald laughed, and clapped Connor on the shoulder. “Let it pass; he’s gone, and greatly I doubt he’ll return. Let’s see to those fire-irons. Tha weld was quite good, truth be told.”

“Thank ye,” said Connor, turning back to the forge. Another thought pricked him. “Master, have ye ever made swords?”

“I have.” MacDonald gave him a wry look. “There’s always call for tools of war, and I know the secret of making good ones. Would ye learn that next?”

“I would,” Connor said firmly. Great-Uncle Rory’s sword was a fine old bit of iron-mongery, but it dented and rusted easily. He knew such things could be better made.

And besides, someday someone else might come from Glenfinnan.

     “Indeed, I would.”

Duncan rubbed his eyes and reached for the pen. “Sanctimonious old bastard,” he muttered. “Poor Connor!”

“Ah, some run-in with the local church?” Methos guessed, shoving the refilled mug of eggnog at him.

“His old village priest showed up; didn’t see him, but scared him out of a year’s growth.” Duncan jotted in the first words. “Interesting… What changed his fright and shame to instant fury was hearing that the man insulted Heather.”

“Proof of love,” Methos smiled. “It’s close to dinnertime. Since it’s Christmas day, what do you say we order something a little more festive than fish and chips?”

“Aye, whatever.” Duncan paused to take a sip of the eggnog, then resumed his writing.

 Father Tomas’ first words, when Cassandra entered the door were: “Child, I have heard that this is holy ground.” He had a faint, unplaceable accent.

“It is,” she answered. “And don’t you recognize me, Father?”

Joe peered past her, and saw that this room at least was furnished with a bed, table and chair and attached bathroom. The priest had also managed to scratch a simple cross on the wall above the bed.

At the moment he was fumbling to put on his glasses, which had notably thick lenses. Father Tomas was a wizened old man who had come to immortality late in life, far too late to take up swordplay. Fortunately, he’d also been a priest all his life, so staying on holy ground was an easy option for him. He shoved the spectacles onto his nose, blinked as his eyes focused, then smiled widely.

“Cassandra, my child!” he beamed. “It’s been ever so long. …Oh, don’t tell me these wretches have taken you prisoner too!”

“On the contrary, Father,” she said, sitting down beside him, “I’ve come to set you free. We’ve…raided the joint, so to speak.”

“Excellent!” the old man clapped his hands. “How soon can I return to my church?”

Cassandra looked expectantly at Joe.

“As soon as we can get a car to take you out of here safely,” Joe promised. “Our troops are still doing a mop-up operation, but I’ll see what I can do to speed things up.”

“Father…” Cassandra gently took one of the priest’s hands in hers. “I felt your Quickening before I came through the door. They didn’t rob you of your immortality.”

Joe checked to make certain his tape-recorder was getting all this.

“I know,” Father Tomas chuckled. “After they took me out from under that machine and brought me back to my cell, I made a little test of my own.” He pulled a rosary out of his cassock, took up the crucifix at the end, and pointed to one corner at its foot. “Do you see that edge there, that’s worn sharp through the years? Well, God forgive the sacrilege, I used it to cut my arm – only a little scratch, just here. The healing came in less than a minute. That’s when I knew they’d failed.”

“Ah. Did you tell them that?” Cassandra asked.

“Oh no, dear child.” The old man grinned like a monkey. “I guessed that if they thought they’d succeeded, they might let me go in time – or at least, simply shoot me and dump my body somewhere, and be gone when I revived.”

“How long ago was that?” Joe asked.

“Over a year, I’m certain.” Father Tomas heaved a sigh. “They still wanted to take blood samples, for what purpose I can’t guess.”

“Hoping to clone something out of your mitochondrial DNA, I expect.” Cassandra smiled sourly. “The next step might have been total blood-transfusions. Joe, we’re all very lucky you learned about this place in time.”

“Very!” Joe shook himself. “If they hadn’t gotten greedy and tried for Mac…if, ah, Adam hadn’t been there to catch them…”

“Never mind. Father, did your captors tell you what they were trying to do?”

“Oh yes!” the old man grimaced. “They boasted, gloated about it, in fact. Oh, the sins of envy and pride! I spent much time praying for them.”

Cassandra patted the priest’s hand again, released it and stood. “I really think we’d best free the other captives as soon as possible. Now, let’s go see about that machine.”

Out in the corridor, Cassandra waited until Joe had turned off the tape-recorder before she added: “Just do me one favor, would you? Don’t tell Felicia Martins, if she doesn’t know, that the experiment failed.” She grinned bewitchingly. “That sow needs her arrogance taken down a few pegs.”

Joe laughed uproariously as they paced toward the last door. Yes, he couldn’t deny that the Martins woman deserved a good scare, at the very least. “Hell, yes,” he chuckled. “In fact, I’ll see if I can’t have her released last. Let her stew a bit.”

Around two corners, at the end of a hallway, behind a door simply marked ‘Lab’ sat the equipment. The two plainclothes guards at the doorway let them through – grudgingly – when Joe showed them the keys. One of them flipped open a cell-phone and muttered into it as they passed.

“Double-checking,” Joe guessed, letting the door swing shut. “Not that I blame them. Well, there’s the infernal machine.”

It consisted of an elaborately wired headset, hanging over a table – with built-in restraints, Joe noted with distaste – attached to a metal box faced with dials that was in turn connected to another big box that hummed softly. Both were plugged to the wall with industrial-thickness cables.

Cassandra went to the second box and set her hands on it. Her eyes closed, and she frowned in concentration. Joe quietly turned the tape-recorder back on.

“Nothing,” she murmured, taking a step back. “I’m feeling nothing from it. Whatever those fools thought they were doing, they didn’t get any Quickenings in here.”

“You’re certain?” Joe asked. “We need to be sure.”

“There’s one way to prove it.” Cassandra pointed to a switch clearly labeled ‘Power’. “Turn it off.”

“Are you sure? If there’s anything—“

“If there’s anything in there, it will flow to me. You’ll see it. Throw the switch.”

Joe moved carefully toward the humming machine, unwilling to touch it. Finally he poked the button with the tip of his cane, and pushed until it clicked.

The humming died. The lights on the console went dead.

Nothing else happened.

Cassandra laughed like jingling sleigh-bells. “You need further proof? Rip it open! Tear out the wires, smash everything you find, see if any sparks jump out of it. At most, you’ll get something of a static charge, and no more.”

“We’ll do that.” Joe gleefully smashed some dials with his cane, then trotted to the back of the machine and yanked wires at random. Nothing happened. “It’s dead,” he reported. “There’s nothing there.”

“Tell everyone that.” Cassandra pulled down the headset and angrily ripped a few wires out of it. “I think I know what they truly got. Frequencies, indeed!”

“What was it, then?”

“Everything on Earth – including living bodies – has an electromagnetic field. It’s usually very weak, but it can be detected with sensitive instruments.” Cassandra strolled toward the door, and Joe trailed quickly after her. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that Immortals have a slightly different frequency to their fields than mortals do. After all, our cells have to be somewhat different to produce the rapid healing.”

The guards hastily stepped aside as they came out, and one of them peered back through the door before it could swing closed.

“That simple difference would be enough to make that greedy fool think it was the Quickening-energy. The machine drained off energy of that frequency, true enough, but it would return in a few heartbeats, I imagine. Hmmm, I’ve got to ask Father Tomas if he felt at all weak or drained after they pulled him off the table…” Cassandra hastened her steps toward the corridor with the captives’ cells.

“Slow down,” Joe panted, “I’m not too quick with these plastic pins.”   

“Oh, I’m sorry!” Cassandra stopped and waited for him to catch up, then started again at a much more sedate pace.

“So it didn’t touch the Quickening-power because…” he nudged.

“It’s a different form of energy.” Cassandra sighed. “The fifth form: ‘psy’. I’ve suspected it for a long time. How else do we feel each other at a distance? Why else is the communication enhanced by strong emotions? Why else do so many of us have great psychic powers? It’s the only answer that makes sense. And that by itself guarantees that no reputable scientist will study the phenomenon seriously, not for another century at least.”

“What about the energy-discharges of a Quickening? The visible lightning, the messing up of electronic equipment – that’s pretty obviously electromagnetism.”

“One form of energy can change into another easily enough, especially as it dissipates. Electromagnetism deteriorates into heat; who’s to say that psy doesn’t deteriorate into electrical static? That would make psy the, ah, ‘higher’ form, of course.”

“I take it you’ve made a study of this, yourself,” said Joe. All that reading in scientific journals…

“I’m a witch.” Cassandra smiled. “I take my job seriously.”

“That you do,” Joe chuckled. “Why don’t you talk further with Father Tomas while I go give our people the good news?”

“Yon’s as fine an axe-head as ever I’ve seen,” MacDonald said fondly. “Aye, ye’ve got the sense of it right: the ore, the color, the bending and pounding. Ye’ve a gift for this, Connor.”

“I’m none so good with sword-blades yet,” Connor grumbled, impatient with himself.

“Aye, that takes very different skill at the pounding,” the smith agreed, “But ye’ll learn. Ye learn right quick, lad. I’ll show ye more tomorrow. For now, I’ll fit a handle to this, then go out and try her on the firewood. For tha’self, finish yon chain for MacLaren.” He was off before Connor could grumble about being set so simple a task.

Well, at least this work was easy. Connor took the length of rounded bar and thrust it into the coals of the forge. A few pumps of the bellows should have it hot and soft enough…

“Eh, Connor,” crooned a well-known voice behind him. “Know ye what day it is?”

Oh God, she’d come strolling right into the shed, and MacDonald wasn’t here! Connor kept his back turned to her as he pumped the bellows frantically. “Aye,” he gulped. “’Tis…Saturday.”

“Oh, not that!” Heather stamped her wee foot. “I mean, ‘tis two days to Christmas, and after that comes Boxing Day, and Hogmanay after.”

“Aye,” Connor panted. “Less work, then.”

“And more play.”

She stepped closer, to where he couldn’t help but see her. Even above the smoke of the forge, he could smell her hair. Lord, Lord, the itch was starting again!

“There’s to be a dance on Boxing Day,” she said, “At Chieftain William’s house, and I’ve no partner yet.”

Oh God, he didn’t dare touch the iron now, his hands were shaking so badly. Keep pumping the bellows! “Aye. Well, ah… Surely half the lads in town would gladly partner thee. Take tha pick o’ them.”

“I’ve no use for the local louts,” Heather pouted prettily. “They’re all forever trying to get their hands under my skirt.”

Connor felt his desperation change instantly to a seething anger at those unknown locals who’d dare to put a rude hand on her.

“Far rather,” she breathed, stepping closer, “Would I go with a fine-mannered lad – like thee.”

Connor clutched at the bellows handle, appalled. “I- I canna… I…” He couldn’t think of another word.

“What, can ye not dance at all? I’ll gladly teach thee.” She reached out and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.

Connor felt the touch go through him like a jolt of lightning, weakening his knees and playing havoc in his groin. He sagged against the edge of the forge, scarcely noticing the heat. “D-d-don’t—“ he managed to squeeze out of his constricted throat.

“Ah, Connor ye’re much too shy,” she smiled fetchingly – and grasped his other shoulder.

Dear Lord, he’d explode in another minute! His erection was hoisting his kilt, all four layers of it – she’d see it in another second – “Woman, dinna tease me so!” he burst out. “Ye know I dare not touch thee!” Oh God, that was the wrong thing to say—

“…Touch?” she puzzled – and then looked down.

Connor bit his lip, knowing what she must be seeing. All the blood in his body seemed to be pounding there, right there…

Heather gave a shocked giggle, then pulled her hands away and stepped back. Connor groaned, wishing he could sink into the ground. She pressed her hands to her mouth, turned and ran out of the shed. He could hear her laughter fading as she ran.

Connor dropped to his knees, feeling his bollocks tie themselves in aching knots. All he could do was clutch himself and moan.

He was still crouched like that when MacDonald came in, pushing a wheelbarrow.

The smith gave him a pointed look, then glanced back out the door, then drew his own conclusions. “What,” he growled, “Did she kick ye there?”

Connor summoned enough strength to shake his head. “She only touched me,” he whispered. “Jesus, I canna bear this!”

MacDonald rolled his eyes, heaved a vast sigh, set down the wheelbarrow and picked up the bucket. He took it to the barrel and ladled water into it, then pulled the heated rod out of the forge and quenched it in the water. He tested the water with a finger, nodded to himself, then shoved the bucket between Connor’s knees.

“Soak tha privities in that, lad, ‘til they ease. Meanwhiles, I’ll go have a talk with Heather.”

He turned and marched out, leaving Connor alone with the bucket and his misery. In desperation, Connor pulled the bucket under him, unfastened his breechclout and did as MacDonald had said. Ah, the water was soothingly warm, and did help. In a few minutes the cramping relaxed enough to let him think again.

Lord, Lord, now they both knew his secret! Heather had laughed. At least MacDonald had taken some pity on him. What would happen next, he couldn’t imagine. All he could do was stay crouched over the bucket, rubbing out the last of the cramp.

In time the smith returned, gave Connor a long look, and shook his head. “Are ye well enough to stand up and work?” was all he said.

“I…I think so.” Connor pulled himself to his feet, picked up the bucket and dumped its contents out into the snow. An image of tempering iron by quenching it flashed across his eyes, and he turned back to the forge blushing furiously.

“Let’s finish this chain, shall we?” said MacDonald, taking up the rod in the tongs. “Do ye but hold, and I’ll hammer.”

Connor nodded quickly, achingly grateful that the man said nothing further, determined to drown his sorrows in labor.

They finished the chain just as the sun was setting, covered the forge, racked the tools and went back to the house for supper. Connor winced at the very sight of the door, wondering how badly he’d disgrace himself this time. He could hear Heather inside, setting out the plates and cups…

But his first sight of her showed a change. She’d wrapped a shawl around her, tied it clean up to her chin, and nothing showed but her hands and face. She gave him an apologetic look, blushed visibly, and turned away to the cook-pot.

Connor averted his eyes and sat down at his usual place, wondering what MacDonald had said to her. The man was still over by the door, fussing with the latch and swearing he’d repair it soon, leaving the two of them within speaking distance.

And here she came, carrying the usual jug of ale. Oh, she was going to pass close by! Did she mean to laugh or torment him again?

“Connor,” she whispered, pausing by his elbow. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t mean to hurt thee.”

“’Tis all well,” he whispered back, not daring to look at her. “I’m recovered.”

Oh, but was that true? The very nearness of her had started that treacherous itch between his thighs again…

Heather set the jug on the table and retreated to the fire with a serving-bowl. MacDonald finished muttering over the latch, came to the table and sat down. Heather brought the food, they sat, MacDonald intoned the usual brief prayer, and they fell to eating as if nothing untoward had happened.

Soon, though, Connor noticed that neither of them were talking – not so much as a word, and he shivered to think of what that might mean. He dared to risk a quick glance at Heather, and saw that she too was keeping her eyes downcast. Lord, what had her father said to her?

Finally MacDonald finished his bread, took a leisurely mouthful of ale and sat back on his bench. “Enough o’ this,” he said, loud in the silence. “You two have been mooning about like calves this past season, and I see no sense in letting this silliness stretch on.”

Connor looked up at him, terrified that this meant the smith would send him away. What would he do then? Where could he go? And not to see Heather—

“So, daughter,” MacDonald turned to her, “Do ye find any fault in this man?”

Heather blushed again, and shook her head quickly.

“And Connor, no need to ask where tha desires lie.” The man grinned knowingly.

Connor felt his own cheeks burn. He grabbed his cup and took a quick gulp.

“No point then, to put it off,” MacDonald went on. “When we go to church for Christmas, I’ll tell the good Father to post the banns.”

Connor nearly choked on his ale, hearing a squeak from Heather at the same moment.

“Now for all of me, ye might marry the next day,” MacDonald went on imperturbably, “But ye being new here, lad, there might be some talk unless we give a decent length of time. What say, in spring? New moon of March. Can you both restrain yourselves that long?”

Connor felt his head whirling. He looked helplessly at Heather, and saw that her mouth was hanging open.

MacDonald glanced from one to the other of them, and chuckled.

The sound broke the spell enough for Heather to speak. “Father!” she yelped, “Ye might at least have asked me!”

She hadn’t said no. Connor stared at her, letting the incredible thought trickle through his stunned brain. She hadn’t said no!

“Ask?” The smith gave her an owlish look. “When ye’ve broken four plates in pure distraction? When ye’ve tripped over tha own feet, and nearly fallen out of windows, trying to get looks at him? When ye hover about him at supper like an eagle seeking to stoop? Why ask, when tha every move tells me what the answer would be?”

She’d been mooning over him?! Connor felt his jaw drop. She’d broken plates and fallen out of windows?

Heather said nothing, but looked down and blushed harder.

“Well, then…” MacDonald stopped for another long drink. “I’ve seen for myself that Connor’s a fine, clever and honorable young fellow – quite fit to take on the forge when I’m too old to work – “

Connor felt shivers run in waves over his entire body.

“—and far better than the lubbery lads hereabouts that ye’ve complained on so long. I don’t see that ye’ll find a better match in another ten years or more. So there’s but one impediment remaining.” MacDonald paused for another mouthful of ale. “Now daughter, tell the truth. Do ye love him?”

Connor couldn’t have moved just then if he’d been stabbed with a red-hot poker.

Heather stared at her plate, cheeks flaming, and nodded her head quickly.

Connor stopped breathing.

She looked up then, and met his eyes. Whatever she saw in his face, it made her smile and nod again, slower, deliberately.

Connor remembered to breathe again – let out his air in a rush – and sagged on his elbows. His body was acting for him; he was too stunned to think.

“Then March it is,” MacDonald went on, “And ye’ll be pledged at Christmas. After that… Well, ‘twill take me ‘til March to gain enough silver to buy the gold for your rings – and, Connor, dinna say a word about buying it tha’self; I know how little I’ve paid ye.”

“Uh,” was all Connor could say. Heather loved him: the thought worked its way through him. She loved him?!

“So I’ll make you a pair of iron rings to last until March. Tomorrow I’ll have to take measure of your fingers…”

Connor realized that she was still looking at him, still smiling. She loved him!

MacDonald halted, looked from one to the other, and understood that they didn’t hear him. He sighed, rolled his eyes heavenward, finished the last of his ale and stood up from the table.

“That said, I’ll be off to bed myself,” he announced. “I daresay you’ve much to speak about. Only don’t be so loud as to waken me.”

Connor tried to come up with a coherent word, and couldn’t think of a thing.

MacDonald headed for the inner room, but paused in the doorway to glance back once. “Heather,” he said, frowning, “Take care not to tear tha dress.”

“I won’t,” Heather said quickly, glancing at him as if she read a second meaning in his admittedly-odd words.

“Uh…” Connor said again. He had to do something, move, or he’d collapse in a boneless heap right here at the table. He reached blindly for his cup, and knocked it over. Fortunately it was empty.

Heather picked up the jug, rose, came around to Connor’s side of the table, caught his cup and set it upright, then poured it full.

“Why did ye not tell me?” she said, very quietly.

“I—I…” Connor floundered, waving his hands helplessly. Suddenly there were too many words, falling over each other. “Tha father— my master— took me in, taught me, gave me a place—“ How could she understand how important that was? “All he asked was that I work well and not touch thee! How could I betray him? His own daughter— By my honor, I struggled to not even look at thee!”

“Honor!” Heather stamped her foot in exasperation. “For my father’s honor, I didna dare let anyone know I was making such a fool of myself – I, that have refused every lad in town! Lord, how would it look? If any knew, the whole town would know – and they’d all laugh at my father. Oh, I was so careful!”

“So we…” Connor couldn’t take the words any further than that.

“…wasted so much time,” Heather finished for him. She smiled wider and held out her arms. “Well, I believe ye may kiss me now,” she said.

Connor felt as if he were floating. He drifted like thistledown, up from the table and into her waiting arms. Ah, her body matched his so exactly: sweet face turned up to kiss him, and he need only bend his head for their lips to meet…

Then her arms clamped around him and her mouth met his, and the feel of her – God, all the length of her pressed against him! – went through him like a roaring river in flood, washing away all before it. His willy transformed instantly to a glowing-hot iron bar.

—image of red-hot iron thrusting into blazing coals—

His knees gave way, and he slid down the length of her until his grip caught at the flare of her hips, leaving him kneeling, leaning on her, his face pressed to her belly. He struggled to breathe…

—and realized too late that only a few thin layers of wool and linen separated his face from her fuzzy quim, for its scent was burrowing into his skull, all sea-wind and spring forest and something beyond naming that made him so dizzy he thought he’d swoon away right there. He squeezed his arms tighter to hold himself up, and realized he was clutching her smooth hips and glorious buttocks—

Connor groaned and exploded in his breechclout. His whole body trembled wildly, then went limp.

Perplexed, Heather pulled a step away from him.

He fell down flat on the floor, his willy still spurting, his mind going blank.

There was a measureless pleat in time, and then awareness returned. Now he was lying on his back, with his head on Heather’s lap, and she was crooning to him and stroking his face. He wanted to think of a prayer of thanksgiving, but couldn’t remember any words. Her scent, her touch surrounded him, and he floated in a soft haze of directionless joy, utterly content to lie still and look up into Heather’s sweet face.

Heaven: he was surely in heaven right now.

Duncan pulled in a ragged breath, slammed the book closed and lunged up from his chair. He took two steps, wobbled, and fell against the end of the near bed.

“Duncan?!” Methos hurried over to help him up. “What happened?”

“No, no,” Duncan muttered, dragging himself onto the bed. “I can’t write that!”

He pulled up his knees and pressed his hands over his groin, then realized that Methos was watching and hadn’t missed a thing. He blushed furiously.

“Everything. You promised.” Methos sat down beside him, smiling knowingly. “And where’s the shame, pray tell, in saying that Connor was a healthy young lad who was madly in love with the blacksmith’s daughter?”

Duncan laughed and relaxed a little, but left his hands where they were. He didn’t need to look to see how far the front of his pants was bulging. “So horny that their first kiss made him come in his breeches and faint dead away,” he admitted. “Good God, did I ever… uhm, yes, I did.”

“So it’s not just his memories that you’re raking up?” Methos ran a hand through Duncan’s hair, and noted the reaction.

“No.” Duncan took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and deliberately stretched out on the bed. He pulled his hands away, revealing the persistent erection. “He’s reminding me of…my own life, my own youth, good times as well as bad. I’d…almost forgotten that.”

“A voyage down memory lane can be good for your perspective.” Methos stretched out beside him and draped a companionable arm across his chest. “Do you need to be reminded of the joys of love?”

“No,” Duncan whispered, seeing/feeling his cock twitch through the layers of imprisoning cloth. He knew that Methos wouldn’t resent it if he politely refused the offer, but did he truly want to? “I…should write down the memory while it’s fresh…” But was that really necessary?

“Are you likely to forget any details if you wait?” Methos asked, carefully not moving.

“No,” Duncan decided, and began unbuttoning his shirt.

Methos smiled and helped.

When the last shred of cloth was gone from both of them, Duncan said nothing but turned and clasped Methos close. Their stiffened shafts pressed together, hungry and waiting. More: they could feel each other’s need, clear and likewise hungry.

“It’s a miracle,” Duncan whispered, awed. “I can feel you, so much…”

Methos heaved a long sigh. “There have been times,” he said quietly, “When I thought I felt something like this, with people I loved. It’s strange, being so sure.”

“Are you afraid?” Duncan dared to ask.

“A little.” Methos shivered slightly. “I’m so tied to you… Can you see any of my memories?”

“Not yet, not that I’ve noticed.” Duncan ran one hand up Methos’ back. “Think of one, think hard.”

Methos duly closed his eyes and went still.

There was only awareness of feeling for a long moment, then an image: Methos and Joe, sitting in a car arguing, some mortal thugs somewhere behind them, and the car sputtering to a stop. “We’re out of gas.”

“Who was after you?” Duncan asked, gripping his shoulder. “What happened?”

“They were working for a nasty Immortal named Morgan Walker.” Methos rubbed one foot against Duncan’s. “I dispatched him, and them. Hmm, no: Joe got one of them. They’re no longer a problem. …But now we know. Duncan, I think you probably will have to go see Cassandra sometime, if only to deal with this.”

“Not now,” Duncan whispered, stretching his whole length against Methos. His cock pulsed insistently. “Am I being a pig? For days I wasn’t interested, and now…”

“Shhh.” Methos kissed him between the eyes, and slid a knowing hand down his body.

Duncan gasped and arched upwards as he felt that hand close slyly around both their shafts, slide and squeeze. Yes, that way! He remembered the image of clashing swords. “God, you’re good,” he panted. “God…damn, I love this! I love you…”

“Yes, yes…” Methos whispered, sliding on top of him, matching him inch for inch and pinning their tight-wrapped shafts between them. “Lie still and let me pleasure you. Let me make up for those days without. Let me…sweep you away.”

Duncan couldn’t answer, except to groan again and wrap his arms around the lean body above him. He was lost to everything except the blazing feel of this, lost further as soft lips pressed his and then a hot-rough tongue darted boldly into his mouth and filled it and muffled the incoherent cries that slipped from his throat as the bright delirium of touch swamped him. Yes, yes, he surrendered willingly, eagerly, to being swept away.

When the eruption came he surrendered utterly to that, too, letting his awareness blaze to extinction, knowing without thought that he would come back from the darkness. Methos would guard him in his helplessness, and bring him back again.

In this bed, in these arms, he had nothing to fear.

Once on the plane, when they were settled in their seats, Cassandra tried to hand Joe the laptop.

“Hold onto if for me, will you?” Joe politely refused. “I’ve been up for a long time, and now that the crisis is over, I really need to get some sleep.”

She hesitated, holding the laptop as if it might bite her. “Are you sure you don’t want to write your report, now while the memory’s fresh?”

“Nah.” Joe flagged down a passing stewardess and asked for a pillow and blanket. When she’d gone, he added: “I tend to remember better when I’ve had a little time to let it all jell. You can read it, if you get bored; there’s nothing on the hard-drive that you haven’t seen before.”

Cassandra settled the computer gingerly on her lap, then paused for a moment and felt at her coat-pocket.

Yes, Joe grinned to himself, almost seeing her mind working. I didn’t tell you not to read the disks.

The stewardess returned with the pillow and blanket, and Joe arranged them as comfortably as he could. He actually found it hard to sleep on airplanes – the seats didn’t recline far enough, and he couldn’t take off his legs – but a little rest wouldn’t hurt. Just to complete the picture, he put on dark sunglasses, set the earphones on his head and turned the armrest-dial to the classical station. As comfortable as he could get, Joe relaxed and feigned sleep. He raised one eyelid just enough to let him peep through the lashes, and waited.

The station had finished Bach’s “Air for the G-String” and switched to something that sounded like Mahler when Cassandra finally let curiosity overcome her. She glanced once at Joe, then flipped open the laptop and fiddled with the tracking-ball. The standard images flickered across the screen, finally settling on the Watcher warning-page. Cassandra didn’t pause for an instant before typing in the password; yes, she’d caught a good look at it back when they were hunting for the Horsemen, and of course she remembered.

Ah, there: she’d called up the chapter on Duncan MacLeod. Understandable. She’d be awhile at that, and then probably with her own file. He could afford to doze a bit, if he wanted. Joe let his eyelid close.

A gasp roused him. Joe forced himself not to move, guessing that she’d come upon her own section – and had just learned that her herbalism student was also one of her Watchers. The conversation where Cassie had revealed her immortality to Maddie Green was faithfully recorded, along with Maddie’s statement that she wasn’t jealous of the Immortals but preferred reincarnation, hoping to get a better body next time around – not at all surprising, seeing that the woman was born sadly deformed. He wondered how Cassandra would react to Maddie’s jokes about being her ‘priestess’, or her affectionate references to ‘my little goddess’. Joe opened his eye a fraction, and noted that Cassie began to smile as she read further. Ah, no problems there.

How long before her curiosity bit deeper?

He closed his eye and concentrated on the music – Beethoven by now – while he waited.

It was nearly an hour before he heard the soft click of a disk being inserted in the laptop.

Joe didn’t have to look to know which disk it was. No, it shouldn’t take her long to guess the simple password. He lifted his eyelid scarcely a millimeter, and saw that Cassie was bent close over the screen, engrossed in Joe’s ‘private account’ of the whole Horsemen incident. He could tell from her slight grin that she was reading his introductory statement: his admission that he’d kept facts from the Watchers, had befriended more than one Immortal, and his claim that by doing so he’d won their trust and learned things nobody would have known otherwise.

Aha, and her lips parted in a gasp as she learned that the Watcher for ‘Melvin Koren’ had tracked Kronos to the submarine base and witnessed everything. That meant she’d soon read the part where Joe groused about the verbal fancy-dancing he’d done to alert the Watchers about Koren’s real name and location.

At least they’d assigned Dave Rosetti to watch Kronos after that, and nobody was better at tracking than that wiry ex-Green Beret. Unfortunately, Rosetti still thought like a warrior, and didn’t have anything flattering to say about what he’d seen of Cassandra. Oh, well: that simply added to the realism. So did Rosetti’s spare uncompromising writing-style. There was plenty in those reports that Cassandra hadn’t seen, or known before – such as Methos trying to take on Kronos, failing, and talking his way out of it. Or Methos’ near-simultaneous rescue of both Cassandra and Duncan, and how he’d offered Caspian and Silas to appease Kronos afterward.

Read on, Cassie. Read on.

Oh, her expression changed again; she must have reached his “epilog and questions” section. He could quote that bit by heart.

“1. Why did Cassandra start hunting Kronos now, after 3000 years? Didn’t she know any of the Horsemen were still alive? If so, why did she wait this long? If not, how did she stumble on Kronos? If she brushed into his Q-field, wouldn’t he have been aware of her, too? If she was close enough to recognize him, did he also recognize her? Just what happened in that encounter?

“2. Why did C. come running to DM? Did she think a 400-year-old was a match for an Immie ten times his age? It turns out he was, but how did she know in advance? Or was it simply a panic reaction, running to her closest Immie friend for help/protection? Then why did she leave that protection to go hunting for Kronos alone?

“3. How did Methos know about K being in town before he even met C? He ran around warning all his Immie friends to get out of the city, as no doubt he was planning to do himself, which is what he was doing in D’s dojo when C walked in. Had he likewise brushed fields with K?

“4. What brought K to Seacouver, anyway? Was he hunting for M? Had he heard about that pacifist Immie (damn, we never did learn his real name) who went around openly claiming to be Methos to better push his pacifist message?

“5. How did K finally catch up to M, who’s usually very good at covering his tracks? Did C stalk M to his apartment, and K follow her? Did K use C as a stalking-horse from the moment he recognized her? She used mortal private detectives to track him; he could easily have done the same to her. If so, just how long had K known about C? How long was he using her?”

Oho, Cassandra flinched visibly and pressed a hand to her eyes. He’d bet she’d just come across that part. Well, there was more; let her think about it.

“6. Why couldn’t C use The Voice on K? Or any of the other Horsemen, for that matter? (Come to think of it, why didn’t she use it on Kantos, or those two mortal cops he got to nab Duncan for him?) Does she have to be in some particular state of mind, which she can’t reach if she’s at all emotionally upset?

“7. Rosetti notes that when K told M that he’d sent both Caspian and Silas after DM, and M assumed DM was dead, he did his grieving in secret and then switched to a contingency plan. He tried to warn C to go along with it, but she “only threw tantrums”, R says. Why? She had plenty of time to think, in captivity; why didn’t she come up with a better tactic? Didn’t she remember that M had saved her from K during the earlier battle? Didn’t she hear about M foiling K’s plan to poison the fountain? She must have known M wanted to escape as badly as she did; why didn’t she play on that, or play off one against the other?

“8. When K & Co. showed up at C’s hotel room, why did she just throw open the door and let them in? Why did she think it was DM? Why didn’t she at least use the peephole in the door to make certain? Despite knowing that all Four Horsemen were loose in the city, she showed amazingly little caution. Did K have some psychic ability of his own that counteracted hers?  

“9. When DM showed up alive and challenged K, and M knew he was alive, he switched plans again. He got Silas to open C’s cage, then fought with him. At what point did C think to get out of the cage and run? She saw the fight between M and S; why didn’t she realize by then which side M was on? Why did she still try to kill him? Why didn’t she think?

“Why didn’t she think, indeed? All through this sorry business, C seems to have acted purely on emotion: rage, fear, hatred, or downright hysteria. It’s understandable that she’d be upset at finding her ancient tormentors still alive, but why couldn’t she calm down and think logically? This sort of prolonged panic-reaction isn’t at all like the level-headed Cassie we know. What on Earth got into the girl? Maybe Duncan can eventually get the whole story from her, but I expect I’ll be long dead by then. I only hope she’ll get over the fit, now that her ancient enemies are dead.

“Well, all but one, anyway. And he’s certainly not coming after her. Maybe in a century or so they’ll be able to speak civilly to each other, and come to some sort of terms. I don’t want to see either of them die. There are too few good Immies as it is.

“Hell, I hope the Gathering never comes.”

Joe could tell the moment when she reached the end of his ‘private notes’ by the way she stared off into space with her jaw slack and her eyebrows knitting. He wished to high heaven that he were a psychic himself, just for that moment, and could tell what conclusions she came to…

Right then, the speakers announced – loudly – the approach to Inverness, and ordered everyone to fasten their seatbelts. Joe snapped his eyes open with a blistering oath that had nothing to do with being yanked out of sleep.

Quick as a cat, Cassandra pulled the disk out of the laptop, stuck it in its case and shoved it back into her pocket. She closed the laptop as calmly and leisurely as if she’d been doing nothing but re-reading the notes on Sanctuary Two.

“I don’t think we’ll have any further problem with them,” she said coolly.

“Huh?” For one mad instant Joe thought she meant the Horsemen.

“Those Sanctuary fools,” Cassandra explained. “Just rub their noses in how dead wrong they were, what idiots they made of themselves, and how they misled themselves for…wishful thinking. There’s nothing a self-styled intellectual hates worse than being shown up as a superstitious fool among his peers. You can literally shame them to death.”

Is it only them that you mean? Joe wondered. “I hope nobody will die of this, Cassie,” was all he could think to say.

“How long do you think you’ll be staying in Glencoe?” she asked, sounding her usual calm self.

“I don’t know.” Joe shrugged. “Duncan’s just reached the point where Connor got there, and he spent half a century in that town. I doubt if we’ll move out much before New Year’s.” After a moment’s thought, he pulled out a card and handed it to her. “That’s my cell-phone, good anywhere in the world. How long will that number of yours last?”

She took the card and gave him a genuine smile. “It’s a cell-phone too, good for a few years, at least – unless some other disaster comes up. I really do want to keep in touch.”

“All right.” Joe briefly considered calling her regularly to report on Duncan’s progress – and probe for information about hers – but decided not to push it. “If I see any sign of Duncan showing unusual psychic abilities, I’ll call you myself.”

“Please do,” she murmured, turning her gaze toward the window and the approaching city lights.

Progress, Joe considered, as he strapped on his seatbelt. Food for hope.

Room Service delivered a classic roast goose with all the trimmings for Christmas dinner, complete with a sprig of genuine holly. Methos shamelessly spiked the eggnog and turned the radio to a fine collection of old Scottish carols. Duncan didn’t need to be coaxed to eat; the delicious smells reminded him that he was ravenous, and he fell to with a will. Methos grinned like a Cheshire cat and matched him forkful for forkful.

Finally, their last plates scraped bare, they leaned back over coffee to enjoy a really lovely chorale in Gaelic. Duncan looked thoroughly relaxed and contented, and Methos smiled at his own relief.

“Too bad Joe isn’t here,” Duncan commented as the song ended. “And we didn’t think to save him any dinner.”

“I doubt he’s starving,” Methos grinned. “Meanwhile, there’s still Boxing Day, and Hogmanay, and New Year’s, and Twelfth Night.”

Duncan frowned. “I just realized, I didn’t get you anything for Christmas.”

Methos rolled his eyes. “Duncan,” he said quietly, “Don’t you realize that you’re the best present I could ask for?”

Duncan gave him a long look, started to speak, then stopped and thought a moment longer. Finally he said, simply: “What are we going to do?”

Methos understood perfectly the world of meaning behind the words. “Keep on as we have been,” he answered. “For the moment, we’re traveling companions. When we get home…” He shrugged. “Well, we’re friends. What else does anyone have to know? What do we need to change, really?”

“…Living arrangements?” Duncan almost whispered. “I…don’t want you away from me.”

“I have a string of residences – and other bolt-holes – that I rarely visit, and I expect you have the same.” Methos smiled. “Who’s to know, or care, if I spend a prolonged ‘visit’ with you, or you with me, at any one of them?”

“Aye…” Duncan thought that over, visibly relaxing another notch.

At that moment the phone rang.

“I’ll get it.” Methos reached lazily for the house-phone and picked it up on the second ring.

Since Duncan happened to be looking at him, he saw the look of shock that swept over Methos’ face. He automatically reached for his sword before remembering that it was leaning beside the bed.

“Who— What is it?” he asked, watching Methos – still wearing a poleaxed look – slowly set the phone back in its cradle.

After a couple of false starts, Methos got his mouth working again. “That…was Cassandra,” he said, sounding as stunned as he looked. “She just said: ‘I won’t hunt you. Merry Christmas’, and hung up.”

Duncan felt his own jaw dropping, and pulled it up quickly. “Thank God!” he almost shouted. “’Merry Christmas’?! Dear Lord, was that a Christmas present to you?” Or to me?

Methos could only shake his head, struck wordless for once.

“Merry Christmas,” Duncan murmured again, sinking back in his chair. His head was spinning, and he didn’t know what to think.

From the radio came the single voice of a perfect soprano, singing an old, old carol in equally old English. Duncan recognized it.

“The Carnal and the Crane”…

Another of Connor’s memories swept up on him.

The choir of the church of Glencoe was small but very good, and the lead soprano – a boy of no more than eleven years – sang “The Carnal and the Crane” as sweetly as an angel. Buoyed up on that wonderfully pure sound, Connor gazed on the cross above the altar and thought his heart would burst with joy. Heather sat beside him, so close he could feel the warmth of her skin even in the drafty church and smell the scent of her freshly-washed golden hair, and he knew she loved him. On first new moon of March, she’d be his. If ever he had cause to thank all heaven for his blessings, this was surely the day for it. What matter the stares and sour looks of the village lads seeing him beside Heather? He’d never been happier in his life.

He must contrive to get word to Mam, telling her and Da of his good fortune, inviting them to his wedding.

Oh, but it must be done in perfect secrecy, lest nasty Father Alastair learn of it. How might that be done? Should he steal back to the house himself, at dark of the moon, and whisper at the window? Or should he contrive to catch Angus alone on the road?

The boy-singer reached a particularly long and piercing note, and Heather quietly slipped her hand into Connor’s, and he forgot all else but to praise God for his wondrous good fortune.

It was nearly three in the morning when Joe came plodding back to his room at the Queen’s Arms in Glencoe. He looked automatically at the door next to his, and noticed dim light shining under the door. Was Duncan, or Methos, still awake at this hour? He paused for a long moment, balanced on indecision; he badly wanted to talk to Methos, but didn’t want to risk waking Duncan by knocking.

At length he pulled the other key out of his pocket – he’d gotten it when he’d booked the rooms here – and stealthily set it into the lock. If Duncan was awake, he’d just whisper quick greetings and retreat to his own room. If Methos was, he’d wave a quick signal, and likewise go away. If both were, he’d stroll in and give them a quiet but hearty hello. If neither were… Well, he’d just shut the door and softly shuffle off.

The door opened with barely a sound, and Joe peered inside.

The light, he saw, came from the small single lamp by the desk. It illuminated the open book, the closed pen marking the stopping-place, Duncan’s clothes dropped carelessly on the chair, and the beds.

Two swords stood against the wall at the far side of the nearer bed: Connor’s aged claymore and Duncan’s katana. The third sword – the sleek Ivanhoe – was on the near side, and Methos’ hand was gripping it. He half-lay, propped up on the pillows, naked under the thick covers, eyes open and turned toward the door. His expression was unreadable except for intense hawk-like alertness – which eased only a fraction as he saw who the intruder was.

Duncan, equally naked but thoroughly asleep, lay curled against Methos like a sleeping puppy, one arm wrapped around Methos’ ribs, looking utterly peaceful. His face was somehow younger than it had been when Joe saw it last.

Joe paused for a moment, imprinting that sight onto his memory, then smiled and pressed a finger to his lips. No, he didn’t want Duncan wakened either.

“All’s well,” he whispered. “Merry Christmas.”

Methos, for some reason, twitched at the words and gave him a puzzled frown.

Let him come ask me in the morning, Joe smiled again. He waved a brief salute at Methos, then backed out the door and pulled it shut behind him, re-locked it, and shuffled off to his own door and well-earned rest.

“Merry Christmas,” he repeated softly, as he set his key to the lock. “And tidings of comfort and joy.”

Back to Holiday Archive