A Present With A Past
Kay Kelly aka Wilusa
Kay Kelly aka Wilusa
This is a Christmas story, my humble response to the challenge issued by Alice in Stonyland. Mac and Liam, alas, don't belong to me. They belong to Davis/Panzer Productions, and I hope D/P will keep them both very busy in the years ahead.
(This story is set in the same reality as my Raven 'fic "Lone Wolfe." But it should make sense without a prior reading of that.)
I don't even particularly LIKE Duncan MacLeod!
A grumpy Father Liam Riley sat in his parked car, staring at the barge and trying to recapture the Christmas spirit he'd felt an hour ago.
Maybe he won't be home...
That was an unworthy thought.
But the two men had never been friends. For two hundred years, Liam had always felt the Highlander was comparing him with the sainted Darius, and finding him lacking.
Recently, when new Immortal Nick Wolfe had embarked on what Liam thought was a foolhardy course--refusing to have a teacher, and vowing never to take another head--Liam had hoped MacLeod could dissuade him. He'd blown his stack when he learned the Scot had been so impressed by Nick's maturity and determination that he hadn't even tried to change his mind.
To make matters worse, the incident had placed Liam, priest and pacifist, in the embarrassing position of seeming to favor beheading. MacLeod had politely refrained from pointing that out, but Liam had seen the amused glint in his eye.
Today, though, Liam had received anxious phone calls from Nick and Amanda, both saying much the same thing. "I'm worried about Mac. Please look in on him! I would have gotten back to Paris if I'd known he'd be alone for Christmas, I just thought Joe Dawson would be there..."
But Nick, who'd been studying law in the States for months now, was spending the holiday in London with new girlfriend Janet Ross. Amanda--still carrying a torch for Nick--was consoling herself with a warm-weather fling in Jamaica, in the company of Lucy Becker. And the Society of Watchers had pulled its all-too-frequent stunt of sending Dawson off to evaluate the performance of new field operatives, trusting MacLeod to Watch himself.
Even the Highlander's friend Methos had deserted him, after sharing his birthday with him earlier in the week. He too had phoned Liam, from somewhere in the States. "Check on MacLeod Christmas Day, will you? He isn't used to being alone. But, hell, I was three thousand years old when Jesus of Nazareth was born! I'm not a Christian, and I can't work up Ye Olde Holiday Spirit.
"Besides, I have to be somewhere else."
Liam sighed, glumly acknowledging that his calling as a priest sometimes demanded he go the extra mile. Under normal circumstances, MacLeod would fare perfectly well on his own. But this year, his friends were sure he was still depressed over Richie Ryan's death.
Ryan's death... He had questioned that. And committed to memory every word of Amanda's cryptic, tantalizing response.
"You're right, Liam, it wasn't a nervous breakdown. It wasn't murder, either.
"I can't tell you the whole story, because I was told in confidence. But Mac killed Richie accidentally. A case of mistaken identity. The light wasn't good, he thought he was striking out at someone else... and he was shattered when he realized what he'd done.
"One more point. Richie's death wasn't meaningless, as some people have said. He died a hero! I can't explain. But under the circumstances, Richie's BEING THERE was an act of heroism. He had chosen to risk his life, in a cause well worth dying for."
Liam gave a faint shudder. He wouldn't be satisfied till he knew the truth. But he put that mystery out of his mind--for now--and forced himself to focus on the mission at hand.
All right. MacLeod is basically a decent guy. He's in a funk, with good reason, and he's deserving of sympathy.
But...do I really have to give him a Christmas present? He won't have one for me.
Do I have to give him...THIS?
He looked bleakly at the parcel on the seat beside him. Bulky, awkwardly shaped. But wrapped--loosely--in brilliant red foil. Adorned with gold and silver ribbons, and a card inscribed "Merry Christmas, MacLeod!"
He'd made the decision on impulse. Short of boorishly passing on something he'd received, he had nothing else to give. But he longed to keep this prize possession for himself.
I can still change my mind, leave it in the car. There's no need to give him a gift.
But...how can I be selfish, on this of all days? When I've received so much? Not just the presents Nick and Amanda sent, but more important, calls from both of them. Assurance that as of now, Nick is all right.
I'm sure MacLeod received gifts and calls from them, too. Probably from Dawson as well.
But he wasn't besieged by dozens of parishioners, falling over one another to give him everything from freshly baked pies to hand-knit mufflers.
And he didn't experience the thrill of saying Mass this morning, knowing God had welcomed him back after a year in which he'd almost lost his faith.
If God didn't intend me to make the sacrifice of giving this little treasure to MacLeod, I wouldn't have thought of it.
Without more ado, he stepped on the gas and drove nearer the barge. Then he parked again, got out, and removed his parcel.
As he was locking the car, he sensed the presence of another Immortal.
He turned to see MacLeod emerging onto the deck of the barge--bundled up, as he was, in a heavy winter jacket. The Highlander was carrying a small package.
"Father Riley?" To the priest's surprise, MacLeod broke into a run. Racing down the gangplank, he stopped just short of crashing into his visitor. "What's wrong? Has something happened to Nick?"
"Nick? No, he's fine." Liam belatedly realized he'd never paid a social call before. MacLeod had been so alarmed at seeing him that he hadn't even noticed the wrapped Christmas gift in his hands. "I'm sorry I scared you. Nick called me three hours ago, and he said he was going to call you too."
"Oh." MacLeod relaxed, with a slightly embarrassed smile. "He probably did try to call. I haven't been home long. Went out to Mass--Father Beaufort's Mass at St. Joseph's. And, uh, stopped off somewhere else."
"Anyway, Nick's fine," Liam said quickly. "I just came by to wish you a merry Christmas. Have a little present for you, as a matter of fact."
"You do?" MacLeod finally took note of the parcel and stared at it, looking befuddled. "That's...quite a coincidence. I was just coming over to Ste. Marie's with a present for you."
For a moment, Liam thought he'd invented that story on the spot.
But then he looked at the package MacLeod held up for display. A small, unimpressive box, wrapped in plain brown paper that looked like the remains of a grocery bag, with no ribbons. But the hand-lettered tag undeniably read "Father Liam Riley."
"Sorry about the paper," MacLeod said a trifle defensively. "All the other gifts this year were being mailed."
"Look, you wouldn't have needed to wrap it at all. It's the thought that counts."
They stood, foolishly grinning at each other. Then MacLeod remembered his manners and said, "No need to freeze our butts off. Come on in!"
The cheerless interior of the barge came as a shock, even after the descriptions Liam had heard. I'm glad I brought him the present I did. Assuming he likes it, he'll at least have a conversation piece.
Depressed or not, MacLeod was quick to offer refreshments. His guest soon found himself enjoying non-alcoholic eggnog and a surprisingly good fruitcake, both made from the Highlander's own recipes.
"Thinking of food..." Liam decided he'd better not try to talk with his mouth full, and stopped to chew and swallow. "Do you have plans for later? One reason I came was to invite you to the Christmas Feast we have at Ste. Marie's every year.
"It began, really, for the benefit of University students who couldn't get home for the holidays. But now we serve the poor, the homeless, and anyone who's going to be"--he stopped himself from saying lonely--"alone for Christmas dinner, and would prefer to make new friends.
"All the food has been donated by now. But if you'd like, you could help with the cooking or cleanup. Or if you've had a busy week and just want to flop, you're welcome to simply enjoy a goose or turkey dinner, without having to cook it yourself."
MacLeod looked wistful. "Sounds great," he said, with obvious sincerity. "But I'm sorry, I can't make it. I do have plans.
"I've promised to do something I've done for a few years now. Well, not the last two. I was...away. But most years, I've been volunteering as an ambulance driver and paramedic. It lets someone with a family stay home."
Liam winced, murmuring an "Oooh" that fell halfway between an expression of sympathy and an admission of oversight on his part. "That's really worthwhile," he acknowledged. "And a hard thing to do. Whatever pain and suffering there is tonight, that's what you'll be seeing, while I'm surrounded by Christmas cheer."
"What you're doing is every bit as important." MacLeod cast a speculative look at his gaudily wrapped Christmas present. "But I have a hunch there's something in that parcel that will brighten my day...
"It's a plant, isn't it?" He sounded boyishly excited. "I've heard you're a genius with them."
Liam felt himself blush. "I wouldn't go that far...but yes, gardening does seem to be my one talent. And it is a plant, a very special one. Take a look."
As MacLeod stripped off the foil wrap, Liam felt compelled to offer more explanation. "It's a bonsai. Should eventually reach a height of three feet, but I've gotten it well started for you. It's not one of the Japanese or Chinese varieties we see most often--"
"My God," MacLeod said softly. Discarding the last of the foil, he stared at the white-flowered tree. "It's a flowering thorn. But not just that. It... looks just like..." His voice trailed off, and he gazed at Liam in disbelief.
"You do recognize it! I was afraid you wouldn't, even though Amanda once told me you'd seen the original."
"The Glastonbury Thorn." MacLeod's voice had dropped to an awed whisper. "The tree they said was sacred, that bloomed on Christmas Day...
"But there was more to the legend. It's claimed Joseph of Arimathea was the first to bring Christianity to England...may even have been an uncle of Jesus, and brought Jesus to the Glastonbury area as a child.
"According to legend, when Joseph returned with a group of disciples after Jesus' death, they reached the crest of a hill. Joseph said, 'We are weary all,' and thrust his staff into the ground while they stopped to rest. But the staff took root, and miraculously became a tree...the Glastonbury Thorn.
"And the hill is called, to this day, Wearyall Hill."
"Right, that's the legend," Liam agreed. "The original tree was all but destroyed in the seventeenth century, a few years after you were there. Only a slip of it remains. There was an impressive tree grown from a cutting...stood in a village churchyard. But even that died a few years ago.
"The cutting I used here came from what's left of the original. A hoodlum snapped it off, but an enraged local caught him in the act and took it away from him. Gave it to a Glastonbury priest."
"And that priest knew of me...not as an Immortal, just a priest with a green thumb. So he sent it to me."
MacLeod looked stunned. "You should keep it for yourself..."
"No. It means more to you, because you actually saw the original. But I copied drawings, tried to duplicate the shape. Even the double trunk."
Liam leaned forward intently. "But I want to make sure you don't think this is anything more than it is. The 'staff' legend is just a pretty story. And the original name of Wearyall Hill was 'Wirrall.'"
"Right, I understand that." MacLeod sounded relieved. "So I assume you also don't believe literally that Joseph brought the Cup of the Last Supper--the Holy Grail--to Glastonbury? Legend claims the Grail is concealed in Chalice Well, and that's why the water has a reddish tinge. But really, the name comes from the word--"
"Chalk," Liam interjected with a smile. "And the water has that tint because of its mineral content.
"But there's an element of truth in most legends. The truth here is that Glastonbury was a sacred site long before Christianity. Because the place itself was considered so holy, it's very possible Joseph of Arimathea traveled there--even possible he or someone else brought the child Jesus. And the Thorn is native to the Middle East, so it's possible Joseph or some other early Christian missionary brought seeds.
"As for the bloom coinciding with Christmas or the winter solstice, some long-ago husbandman may have devoted a lifetime to producing that variety. That doesn't make it any less a symbol of the glory of God."
"I agree." There were tears in MacLeod's eyes. "And it's because the holiness of the site is so ancient that it doesn't seem exclusively English. We can both appreciate it, even though you're Irish and I'm a Scot.
"I'm truly honored that you want me to have this, Father."
"You're very welcome." Liam offered a silent prayer of thanks that he hadn't rejected that inspiration. "But cut out the 'Father' business! Call me Liam."
"All right...Liam." MacLeod's smile was more beautiful than any flower. "But it's the 'Father' part of you I hope will be pleased with my little gift..."
Liam carefully removed the brown paper. Opened the makeshift box, for which MacLeod muttered another apology.
And slowly withdrew...a cup. A chalice, perhaps, but a very plain and battered one, of base metal...
Perplexed, he examined it closely.
"MacLeod, this is ancient! Any museum curator would let you name your price!"
"It's very special," the Highlander said quietly. "You know Father Robert Beaufort, who's been in charge of St. Joseph's Chapel since Darius was killed? He gave me this. Said it had belonged to Darius."
"Darius's chalice? You want me to have Darius's own chalice?" Liam set it down abruptly, feeling he wasn't worthy to touch it.
But he couldn't take his eyes off it. "The age--it's incredible. If Darius did use this as a chalice, he may have owned it before he became a priest. Even before he became Immortal! I'd guess it dates from the time of the Roman Empire."
"You misunderstood me." A faint smile was playing over MacLeod's face. "Darius never owned it."
"B-but you said--"
"I said Father Beaufort told me it had belonged to Darius. But Darius had told me about this cup long ago...I was so upset over his death that it went completely out of my mind, or I would have asked Robert about it. Darius did use it as a chalice on special occasions, but he never considered it his personal property."
MacLeod surprised him by changing the subject. "Have you ever wondered why Darius's church bears the name it does?"
Liam frowned. "Well, I know he named his order the Ludovician Friars, in honor of the Immortal holy man he slew before the gates of Paris--the one whose Quickening converted him. But he couldn't name the Paris church for this Ludovic, because he wasn't formally recognized as a saint."
"But why St. Joseph?"
Liam said, "The foster father of Jesus..." But even as he spoke, another stunning possibility began to take form in his mind.
"No," MacLeod said quietly. "Another Joseph, a very well-traveled Joseph.
"Darius had access to all Ludovic's memories. He knew, for a fact, that this cup had been given to Ludovic for safekeeping...by Joseph of Arimathea.
"Joseph believed it could best be protected, always, by an Immortal priest. He told Ludovic--and through him, Darius--exactly what it was."
His eyes met the priest's and held them. "Yes, Liam. I'm giving you the actual Cup of the Last Supper. The Holy Grail."
Author's Note: After checking the new Encyclopedia Britannica Website, I think the original Glastonbury Thorn may have been badly damaged at too early a date for MacLeod to have seen it intact. Also, while a slip of it was still standing when I hiked up Wearyall Hill in 1976, it may well be gone now. On both counts,
I'll plead dramatic license!