The Undertaking
By Wain

There were far better times to travel in the Highlands than December, and both men knew it well. They stood face to face, cold wind whipping their clothes and hair, and said what had the sound of an often-repeated argument.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Connor MacLeod asked.

Duncan MacLeodís fists clenched and unclenched as he answered. "Aye, I am."

Arms folded across his chest, Connor waited.

"Look, Connor, if you say that we must travel, maybe even leave Scotland, Iíll go with you," Duncan said. "But Iím damned if I understand why."

"You have much to learn if youíre to keep that stubborn head attached to your shoulders. Some of what you need to learn is in other places."

Duncanís jaw tightened briefly. "Fine. But I will not go until I see her safe."

He turned, and Connor took a long stride to catch up to him.

"If you insist on going back to Glenfinnan, you should have someone sensible to look after you," Connor said, smiling. "Iíll get my things."

Duncanís enthusiasm seemed boundless the day they set off, and he told Connor every story he could remember and warbled off-key versions of every song he knew. Connor nodded, a patronizing and indulgent smile on his lips, until Duncan stopped mid-ballad sometime after lunch.

"You know this one, do you not?" he asked.

By the second day, Duncanís songs and stories always began, "you probably know this one, too," but he sang and told stories all through the brief hours of daylight, over supper at an inn, and into the night.

He and Connor made their way across the Highlands by river and loch whenever they could, choosing frozen mountain and moor only by necessity. They made an odd pair for the few they came across on their travels, for the man who appeared older deferred time and time again to the one who appeared younger.

The third and fourth days, Duncan launched into long and detailed explanations of Glenfinnanís customs for the solstice, then Christmas and Kingsí Day. By the time he had finished reminiscingóin loving and careful detail--about every food his mother made, Connorís stomach was rumbling. On the fourth night, they were fortunate enough to find welcome in an isolated house, and until the wee hours of the morning, Duncan treated his hosts to high-spirited tales about a white wolf who changed herself into a beautiful woman and then vanished.

The next day, dawn came quietly and late under leaden skies. Four inches of snow blanketed the ground, and fat flakes fell from the sky. There was nothing for it; they would have to wait there a day before setting off for Glenfinnan. By nightfall, the snow had stopped and so had something elseóDuncanís stories. He seemed, finally, to have reached the end of his repertoire.

On their way down Loch Shiel the seventh day of their journey, Duncan began to talk again, tales of his family and friends instead of clan legends and history, but story after story came to an abrupt halt. The painful words died on Duncanís lips--Father, Debra, Robert.

Part of the way across the loch, Connor pointed out a snow-covered trail that led up into the mountains.

"Why are we going that way?" Duncan asked.

Connorís eyes twinkled. "Were you planning on sailing down Loch Shiel and striding into the middle of Glenfinnan? We take the hard road now, so they donít see us."

They slipped and struggled uphill, their feet soaked and chilled, the wind stealing their breath. Duncan coughed; his lip split and bled, and he licked the blood away. The split had knit itself back together again before his lips were dry.

"What if itís not there anymore?" Duncan said.

"The shepherdís hut?" Connor asked.

Duncan nodded.

"It was there when I was a boy," said Connor. "It was there when you were a boy. It will be there, and it will give us a fine view of the village below."

"Connor?" Duncan asked. "Did you ever go back?"

"To Glenfinnan?"

"Aye," Duncan said.

"Once."

Duncan asked, "What happened?"

Connor stopped walking and turned to Duncan.

"What happened was that I didnít go back anymore." Connorís tone of voice forbade further questions.

Connor had been right; the hut was where it had always been. If there were better times than December to travel in the Highlands, then there were better places to stay than a rough stone hut used by shepherds in the summer. But it kept Duncan and Connor from being whipped by the frigid winds, and if they made a small fire and tended it carefully, it would warm them without divulging their position. Near the hut, they found a spot behind a flat rock that hid them from the village below. They got on their bellies and observed the valley, drawing invisible spots on the rock to indicate buildings and landmarks, tracing the way that Duncan would go.

"You should leave at dusk," Connor said. "And Duncan, you do this as we agreed. Stay out of the village and out of sight. You see your mother to be sure sheís well, but she doesnít see you."

"Why not?" Duncan swaggered back to the shepherdís hut, pacing and gesturing broadly as Connor started a small fire. "They do not know enough to cut off my head, do they? They cannot cause me lasting harm."

Connorís voice was low and edged in steel. His eyes were more dangerous still. "They cannot hurt you, but they can hurt her. You will do this as we agreed."

Silent, Duncan nodded agreement.

The short day was gone, and Connor sent Duncan on his way. Connor watched him go, sitting on a rock and picking up pebbles, waving at Duncan once before putting them into his pocket. When Duncan walked across the sloping arm of the mountain and disappeared from sight, Connor began his own descent toward Glenfinnan.

Mary MacLeod and her niece Rose waved farewell, wished everyone a merry Christmas, and hurried across the village. The sounds of singing and good-natured shouting followed them all of the way home. Once there, Rose mended the fire and helped Mary into bed. Then she got into bed herself, the two women huddled together to stay warm, talking happily about the eveningís activities.

Rose fell asleep, but Mary found that a small noise was nagging her and keeping her from her prayers. She listened hard. At her door was a soft banging sound too constant and repetitive to be caused by the wind. She slipped from under the covers and pressed her ear to the door, then wrapped a blanket around herself and opened the door.

The many gray strands in her red hair glimmered in the light of the quarter moon. She took a tentative step outside and trod on a pebble. She looked down and saw dozens of sharp-edged pebbles and small stones scattered around her doorstep. She would have to sweep them up the next day.

The wind had died down, and Mary stayed in the doorway to finish her prayers in the light of the moon, her voice the merest whisper. She crossed herself, paused, and turned her hand outward, then made a cross in the air to whatever had brought her outside.

She went back into her home, closed the door, and slept peacefully.

Connor barely beat Duncan back to the stone hut. He rolled himself in his plaid and his fur cloak and feigned sleep. Duncanís ragged breathing covered up Connorís.

"Did you see her?" Connor asked, opening one eye.

"Aye, I did," Duncan said.

There was a long silence.

"Do you believe in miracles, Connor?"

Connor snorted. "I used to. Why?"

"The clouds blew away just as I reached the outskirts of the village. She walked across the village with my cousin Rose. I saw them plain as day in the moonlight. They went inside our house. I wanted so much to see her a little bit more."

"You didnít go into the village, did you?" Connorís voice held a warning.

"I didnít have to," Duncan said, his voice filled with wonder. "She came outside and stood there for a while. I whispered Ďgoodbyeí to her, but she didnít hear me."

"Then we can leave tomorrow?" Connor asked.

"Aye," Duncan replied. "Connor, did you know? Itís Christmas Day."

Connor freed one hand and counted on his fingers. He said with surprise, "Youíre right; it is."

Duncan wrapped himself in his fur cloak and wedged himself next to Connor.

"Move over, man," Duncan said. "Thereís a draft where I am. Oh, and Merry Christmas."

Connor rolled over and grunted as the few sharp-edged pebbles that remained in his pocket dug into his hip. Silently, he fished them out of his pocket and placed them along the stone wall.

"Merry Christmas to you, too, Duncan."

I have done one braver thing
Than all the Worthies did.
And yet a braver thence doth spring,
Which is, to keep that hid.

--John Donne

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