By Leslie Fish
Scotland, on the winter solstice. The weather, Methos reflected, should have been colder, the sky overcast. The sun had no business shining so cheerfully on such a grim day, on such a grim errand.
The land-rover jolted over a particularly nasty patch of turf, bouncing everyone in the vehicle. Joe swore, the driver only shook his head, Methos growled to himself. Duncan MacLeod, beside him in the back seat, didn't respond at all; he remained as before, wooden-faced, staring straight ahead, clutching the ends of the MacLeod-tartan scarf around his neck. Methos gave him a covert glance, worried, then looked up at the rearview mirror.
No, the land-rover following theirs didn't seem to have hit the same rough patch. The coffin inside it hadn't fallen out or broken. The little priest beside the driver didn't seem too badly shaken up.
Ahead, at last, their goal came into view. The four workman leaned on their picks and shovels beside the freshly-dug grave, and waved at the oncoming vehicles.
Beyond them, at the head of the grave, stood the sword.
*As a blacksmith, Connor did amazing work* Methos considered, noting that even at this distance the antique sword gleamed in the sun. It hadn't rusted noticeably in 400 years. The workmen gave it a wide berth.
The land-rovers pulled up at the graveside and stopped. The passengers got out slowly, nursing sore joints and stiff muscles from the rough ride up here. Joe went to talk to the workmen while Duncan paced silently to the grave and glanced down. Methos followed him at a discreet distance, saying nothing. The wind picked up, riffling the ends of the scarf. Duncan idly clutched at them, then turned his eyes to the sword.
This close, it was even more impressive: hardly any pitting or rust stains, the word "MacLeod" still visibly engraved on the guard. Duncan shuddered as he looked, but couldn't seem to pull his eyes away from it. Methos wondered whether to rest a comforting hand on his shoulder or not. *No, best not. He's holding himself together by sheer force of will. Don't distract him.*
A noise from behind made him look around. The workmen had unloaded the coffin and were carrying it to the graveside. The little priest followed, wearing his regalia and swinging a small censer. Duncan waited until the last moment to step aside, then watched as the workmen lowered the coffin onto the waiting ropes. His hands unconsciously tightened on the scarf. Methos suddenly remembered that the winter solstice was also Duncan MacLeod's birthday.
*Happy birthday, Duncan,* he thought bitterly. *You get to bury your best friend, teacher, and only kinsman.* He could almost feel the pain radiating off Duncan, and didn't dare say a word. Not here, not now. *Gods, let this end quickly!*
The priest murmured the old words, barely heard against the rising wind, and the workmen dutifully lowered the casket into the hole. If they had any questions about this odd burial, they'd been too well paid to ask. Joe had a handkerchief to his face, but made no sound. Duncan knelt stiffly, took a clod of earth in his hand, held it for a moment, then dropped it into the grave. Taking that for a signal, the workmen pulled out the ropes, took up their shovels and began heaving the raw dirt back into the waiting hole. This would end soon, and they could go back to the inn, and Methos could try to find some way to comfort Duncan. *Maybe get him drunk...*
"'Ere, sir. What sha' we do wi' this?" the driver's voice came from behind him. The others turned to see the two drivers awkwardly holding the gravestone. It was rough-hewn, unpolished, mossy, carved simply with words that Methos knew all too well. *No, not another damned delay!* was all he could think.
"Put it here," said Duncan, his voice rough. He walked to the head of the grave, pulled off his scarf and wrapped it around the handle of the sword. With a single fierce heave, he pulled the sword out of the ground. "Right here," he insisted, stepping back.
The drivers looked at each other, then duly carried the stone to the indicated spot. One of the workmen hastily grabbed a pick and shovel and began digging a hole to fit the stone. Another workmen left off shoveling and came to help.
*More time, more damned time, to watch and suffer...* Methos gritted his teeth as Joe came up beside him.
"It won't take long," Joe answered his unspoken thought. "Half an hour, at most, and we'll be out of here."
"Still too long," Methos whispered back, watching Duncan carefully wrap the sword in his scarf. Only the point of the sword, where it had stood in the ground for four centuries, showed clear signs of corrosion. *No doubt he'll want to repair it...*
The workmen were experts at their trade, and in a small eternity of slow-turning seconds they had the hole deep enough to root the stone. The drivers carefully tilted the stone into its resting place, letting the words face the grave, as was proper. Duncan watched, his lips barely moving, reciting the words to himself.
"Heather MacLeod. Beloved Wife of Connor." Then a simple bar. Then, below it: "Connor MacLeod. Beloved Husband of Heather."
"Misse est," said the little priest, unnecessarily. Duncan shivered.
*That's enough.* Methos stepped forward and took Duncan's arm. "It's over," he said quietly. "Let's go."
Duncan flinched, as if coming out of a hard dream. "Yes," he murmured, clutching the sword. Then he turned toward the nearest land-rover. The priest hastened to follow him. Joe stayed only long enough to give some last instructions, then came limping after them. One of the drivers came with them; the other, staying to take the workmen home, sat down and pulled out his pipe.
Joe and Methos flanked Duncan in the back seat, letting the little priest sit beside the driver. He'd be first out, anyway. The jolting return ride began, rougher and faster than the first trip, now that there was no need to worry about the coffin following. Joe swore and braced himself as best he could against the constant jolting. Duncan, his head bowed over the wrapped sword, seemed not to notice. Methos, necessarily pressed close to him, could feel that he was cold and shivering. *How long to the inn?* he wondered. *Ten minutes? Twenty?*
And the sun still shone with maddening cheerfulness.
Twenty minutes it was before they got out at the inn. Joe paid off the driver while Methos followed Duncan back to their room. The man seemed not to notice him, or much of anything -- except the sword, which he held as if it were his own child.
The curtains in their room were drawn, producing a welcome twilight. Methos flung off his coat and headed straight for the dresser where he'd left the quart of Glenfiddich, trying to remember where he'd left the glasses. *No ice, no water, no soda -- just straight Scotch. I could use one myself.*
Duncan laid the sword on the bed, then sat down beside it. After a moment he pulled off his jacket and kicked off his shoes. "Methos," he said wearily, "Leave me alone for a bit, will you?"
Methos winced, but put on a convincing smile. "All right," he said lightly. "I could do with a long hot bath after standing out in that wind." *And so could you. Anything to warm you now. Ah, Duncan...* But he dutifully went into the bathroom, closed the door behind him and turned on the water in the tub. The noise was satisfactorily loud.
*Damn you, Duncan MacLeod,* Methos thought as he pulled off his clothing. *Make me care about you, worry about you, risk my neck...* But that lead to the old problem; what good was a life without feeling? The old answer was still the same. No, to keep living he had to feel, to care, to risk. Life's irony. *...And damn you, Connor MacLeod, for dying and putting us both through this.* As he stepped into the tub Methos ransacked his memory of a dozen languages for words to use on Joseph Kell, who'd brought them all to this particular hell. He scrubbed furiously, as if trying to scour off the past.
Eventually the water cooled, and Methos couldn't use it for an excuse anymore. He got out, opened the drain -- likewise thankfully noisy -- and plied the towels. Ten minutes of brisk rubbing left him thoroughly dry, and with no more reason to stay there. Brushing his teeth took another ten minutes. *Now what?* Ah, there were the drinking-glasses. He took them both, remembering the Scotch. That would be reason enough. He wrapped himself in the towels, picked up his clothes and the glasses, and cautiously ventured out of the bathroom. Was Duncan asleep?
No. He was lying on the bed, curled around the sword, weeping quietly. A soft, weary, hopeless sound that wrung the heart.
*Oh hell.* Methos padded silently to the nearest chair and dropped his clothes in it. The glasses went on top of the dresser. He pulled the folded duvet off the foot of the bed and threw it over Duncan, who didn't seem to notice. Finally, he climbed into the bed, under the duvet, pressed himself to Duncan's back and wrapped an arm around him. *Get him warm, warm... Ah, Duncan, take whatever comfort I can give you. Please...*
Duncan clutched briefly at his arm, but the hopeless weeping didn't stop. Methos could feel the sorrow pouring out of him, like blood from a deep wound. No immortal healing power would close that invisible gash, the raw hollow where Connor's living presence had once been, and there was nothing Methos could do for it either. *Nothing but be here, and share the pain...* And he knew that wasn't enough.
His knuckles brushed the woven wool of the scarf. MacLeod tartan. MacLeod sword. The sword Connor made, and left to mark the one true love of his life. Duncan had that memory, now. What others did he have? Did he clutch at them, as he did the sword, trying to hold on to all he had left of Connor?
*Ashes, ashes...* Methos thought bitterly. *He can't do as I've always done: put it behind me and walk away. Run away. Never look back unless I have to...* And now he had to wonder if that really was the better strategy. There were large pieces of his past that he'd forgotten, or never looked at. He couldn't -- or didn't -- remember before his first Quickening. *Why? Was there so much pain in that?* Millennia of habit made him turn away, not go there. That kind of pain had killed Connor.
Or was that really true? Could it truly have been love and desperation? No other way to save Duncan from Kell? Methos suddenly remembered the time he'd offered Duncan his own head, in the attempt to stop Kalas. Was this so different?
Reluctantly, Methos let go of his private fury at Connor. No, the man had no other choice: either cause Duncan this savage grief or see him die. Methos couldn't fault him for taking this road. But where in hell was the end of it? When would the pain stop?
He noticed that the heart-wrenching sound had stopped. Duncan's breathing was slow, quiet. He'd cried himself to sleep. *Thank whatever gods there be. Some peace, some relief...*
But Duncan would wake eventually, wake to the same misery. What then?
And Christmas was only four days off. What then?
One thing Methos knew for certain; he must not let Duncan endure a Christmas as wretched as this birthday was. There had to be something he could do to change this, some deed he could do, some gift he could bring, that would somehow ease this pain. But what? *What do you give to the man who's lost everything? Teacher, friend, the only family he had...* The only thing Duncan wanted was the one thing he could never have in this life: Connor's presence, back again. See how he clutched at these ashes: the sword, the tartan, the Quickening-granted memories...which he would eventually lose...
A sudden idea blossomed. Methos carefully pulled away, out from under the duvet, went to the chair and hurried back into his clothes. He hated to leave Duncan alone for even a moment, but this was vitally needed. He slipped out the door, down the corridor to Joe's room.
Joe was typing notes into his laptop when Methos came in. "How's he doing?" were the first words out of his mouth.
"Asleep," said Methos, feeling another pang as he looked at Joe, remembering that the man was mortal, and no longer young. Another handful of years and this good, solid friend would be gone too. *Gods, don't think of that now!* "Can you go and stay with him? Make sure he's not alone when he wakes up, or if he dreams... Ah, the whiskey's in the top drawer of the cupboard."
Joe snapped the computer shut. "On my way," he said, maneuvering to his feet.
Methos hurried out of the inn and looked up and down the street. Where could he find everything he needed in this quaint wee town? Best take the car, the little light machine that couldn't have made it up those hills this morning. He might have to search several towns, or the whole bloody county...
And if Duncan awoke in the meantime, at least he wouldn't be alone.
Duncan drifted close to waking several times, and turned back toward sleep, until finally he couldn't sleep any longer. He stretched, feeling that he was alone in the bed.
Except for the sword.
The sorrow clawed at him again, and he waited, waited until the wave passed and the pain sank down to a dull ache in the background. *Shadow,* he thought, and wondered briefly how long grief would shadow him. *A year, after Richie died...* But at least this time he wasn't alone.
Now that he thought of it, he could feel the presence of another immortal. Methos, of course. And there was the sound of weight shifting in a chair, the tap of a cane on the floor: Joe, thank God. *Not alone. Friends...* That was his one comfort in this pain-grayed world.
Now that he thought of it, he could hear music: some instrumental medley of carols, played with bells, probably from the radio. Right: Christmas was coming. He might find some scraps of happiness in that. There were also faint smells of pine, candle wax, food... *What the hell?*
Duncan opened his eyes and sat up, looked, blinked, and tried to bring the scene into focus.
There was the little table at the far end of the room, with a red tablecloth thrown over it. On it sat two candlesticks holding red candles, with Methos just lighting the second one. Between the candles sat a small centerpiece of evergreen branches shaped like a miniature tree, complete with a small glass star on top. Behind it lay what looked like a wrapped present. To one side stood a pitcher of what had to be eggnog, and near that a plate holding a genuine plum pudding with an equally genuine sprig of holly on top. Beside that sat a platter holding what looked like a classic smoked turkey breast, and piles of stuffing and candied yams and an unmistakable fruitcake. There were three places set before the three chairs. Joe sat at one of them, smiling hopefully. Methos sank into another chair, leaving the closest waiting.
"Awake at last," Methos grinned at him. "I expect you're hungry by now, so I brought supper."
Even as he thought about it, Duncan felt his stomach rumble. "Isn't it a little early for Christmas dinner?" he said, sliding out of bed. The sheer beauty and kindness of the scene touched him, made the pain retreat out of awareness.
"Christmas originally was on the winter solstice, before Pope Gregory changed the calendar," said Methos, pouring eggnog into their cups. "And people generally celebrate the season from solstice to Twelfth Night. One day isn't enough, really. Come, sit."
"What's in that eggnog?" Duncan asked settling into the chair.
"A little nutmeg, and a lot of Scotch," Joe smiled. "It wouldn't be right not to include the national drink."
"Diluting good Scotch? That's a sacrilege." Duncan took a sip, and his eyebrows went up. "All right, not a sacrilege."
"According to the ancient Gauls, this whole season is holy," said Methos, carving the turkey-breast. "Old grievances forgiven, peace made between warring tribes, gifts exchanged, prayers and songs and dances and feasts offered up to the gods, all that sort of thing."
"The more things change, eh?" said Joe, doling out the sweet potatoes, stuffing, pudding and fruitcake. "Ah, too bad you couldn't find any cranberry sauce. I'm a nut for cranberry sauce."
*So this was your idea?* Duncan looked at Methos.
"No, we'll have to go to America for that," said Methos, serving the slices of turkey. "It was hard enough finding yams, and brown sugar. Turkey was easier. It might even replace the traditional British roast goose, more's the pity."
"Hey, I know a great recipe for roast goose," Joe volunteered, enthusiastically cutting into a slice of turkey. "It takes a lot of limes, and lime-juice, and a good sweet white wine..."
Duncan looked around the table, listened to his friends talking against the background of bells and carols, and felt his heart ease. It was good to be reminded that life had its joys. He took a bite of the stuffing, found that it was made of roasted chestnuts, and let the simple pleasure own him.
Dinner passed in an exchange of recipes, commentaries about modern -- which included the past two centuries -- Christmas carols, the origins of the Santa Claus myth and ancient solstice customs. By the time the plates were clean, Duncan was thoroughly stuffed and the carols had shifted to a fully orchestrated rendition of "O Holy Night". Duncan hadn't added much to the conversation, but it was good to listen, just immerse himself in the happiness of the moment.
Methos glanced at him and smiled. "Speaking of presents," he said, though nobody had been, "I have one for you." He reached behind the centerpiece and pulled out the wrapped oblong gift. “Merry Christmas, Jolly Solstice, and Happy Birthday, Duncan."
"Covering all the bases, eh?" Joe grinned. "Well, I'll give him one on Christmas proper -- and not just Scotch, either."
Duncan unwrapped the present carefully, unwilling to damage the lovely flocked-gold paper. Inside lay an untitled leather-bound book and a gold-finished fountain pen. He set the pen down and opened the book. The creamy pages were blank. He turned a puzzled look to Methos.
Methos solemnly returned his stare. "It's an unwritten history, Duncan. Of Connor."
Duncan flinched, wondering why Methos had reminded him, reviving the pain. "...What?"
"You have his memories, remember? All of them. Nobody knows his life the way you do right now. Nobody could write his history as you can. Write down those memories before they fade, Duncan. Make a lasting record of who and what he was, all that he did, and said, and thought, and felt. All that he was. You can do it, with this."
Duncan drew a deep breath, then glanced back to the bed -- where the sword lay like a wrapped corpse. The grief flared again, but now he knew he could bear it. There was a point to the suffering now. He could immerse himself in those memories, keep that much of Connor alive... He looked back at the waiting book, noticing but not caring how his friends watched him intently. "Yes," he said quietly. "I'll do it. Yes..." He picked up the pen.
"Better embers than ashes," Methos murmured to himself, drawing a curious look from Joe. A little louder, he asked: "So, where shall we spend Christmas?"
"Here," said Duncan, quietly writing the words 'Connor MacLeod' on the book's first page. "We can try out Joe's recipe for roast goose. And there are some places I'll want to see..." *Where Connor spent his first half century. Glenfinnan. How to sort the memories out? It will take time... Nearly five hundred years of memories! I'll be at it for a year, at least...* "After that, after the holidays, maybe I should go to the island, holy ground, where I won't be distracted with worries about challenges..."
The other two traded looks of infinite relief. Duncan was planning ahead once more, thinking of the future, not just an eternal and heart-tearing present.
In the moment's silence, they could hear the holiday music on the radio shift to the opening bars of Handel's 'Messiah'.
It was all Joe and Methos could do to keep from singing along with it.