The wind ripped and tore at the long grass. An unforgiving gale ceaselessly blowing the blades, eroding rock and hardening spirits. The people born of this barren land knew little else from the time they drew their first biting breath. It moulded them like mountains, immovable and unyielding as they lived and died at the edge of the world.
Donald tightened his shawl as he rooted the weeds from the potato plot. His small fingers stung as he picked at the hardened dirt. This was boy’s work his father would say, not yet strong enough to dig the peat, let alone tend the livestock. Pulling the weeds, he imagined them trying to hide from him, burrowing away in the dark before he would omnipotently find them and draw them into the light.
There came a lull in the gusts, during which he was disturbed from his childish fantasy by the approaching sound of hooves. Alert, he raised his short frame above the growth. The sound was masked by another howl, but cresting the hill came a man in a tall, wide brimmed hat and thick, deep blue greatcoat. Donald did not recognise him. He left the potatoes to meet this visitor on the path, leading only to his house.
The stranger pulled his horse to a halt. His face was olive but his features unmistakably local. With cold, grey eyes he examined Donald with an unflinching gaze.
“A bheil d ‘athair do dhachaigh?”
The boy nodded, hesitantly. Beside the man’s leg hung a rapier. The stranger spurred his horse, slowly encroaching on the blackhouse at the road’s end. Donald ran after the horse and walked alongside. It was not like the horses here, bred for working the crofts. Its muscles were more defined, its coat glossier, a warhorse. As they reached the door Donald’s father pushed it open with broad, hunched shoulder.
“Cò th ‘annad? Dè an gnìomhachas a tha agad an seo?” he shouted above the wind.
The stranger paused, observing the stumbling, drink aged crofter before him.
The stranger nodded his head, and dismounted. “Is it possible that we speak in English? My Gaelic is not what it once was.”
“If it please you,” Donald’s father said, confusion scarring his brow.
Without seeking permission, he hitched his mighty horse beside Donald’s favourite pony, making him appear punier still. He proceeded to stand before Ruaraidh, outstretching an arm to usher him into his own home.
Perplexed, Ruaraidh returned indoors regardless, followed by the stranger and Donald. The stranger looked for a surface for his hat, but there was none. A step to his left was Donald’s bedding and two to his right was the hearth, spitting smoke into the single room house. A large iron pot with that night’s stew bubbled on the fire, as a lamb too fragile to join the flock bleated quietly in the corner. Ruaraidh returned to his seat by the fire, the largest furnishing in the house, offering the other to his guest.
“Can I offer you a whisky? You must be weary from the road.”
“No,” the stranger said, flattening his coat before sitting in the creaking chair.
“A Dòmhnaill, faigh uisge-beatha dhomh,” Ruaraidh said to the boy, presenting his empty glass. Donald scurried to take the glass and find the nearest bottle, which this time lay on his father’s bedding.
“You strike me as familiar,” Ruaraidh said.
“So I should, we were acquainted many years ago,” the stranger replied, removing his leather riding gloves.
“Were you one of the hands MacIntosh hired to help with the slaughter?”
“No. Though we did last encounter each other at the site of a slaughter.”
Donald returned with the whisky and with the flickering flames across his father’s face, saw his expression graven.
“You’re the Chisholm boy.”
The stranger nodded. Ruaraidh swallowed the whisky in one, and returned the glass to Donald.
“Why are you here?”
“I should imagine that’s apparent. But first I wish to speak with you.”
Ruaraidh sighed heavily, clenching the arms of his chair.
“What good would come of that?” he stuttered. “Go on, be done with it.”
“Don’t be so rash. Unfortunately for us both, you have information I require, and by the time I leave I shall have it. However know that if you test my patience, I will kill you before your son.”
Donald could not understand their words, but he could see his father’s dread, hanging heavier than the smoke. He could not see the stranger, the brim of his hat concealing his face. His father turned to him, though his eyes were trained on the stranger.
“Dòmhnaill, dol a-mach agus crìoch air do chuid obair. Gu sgiobalta.”
The boy edged his way to resume his work in the fields. He wondered why his father was shaking as the stranger stayed eerily still, the point of his rapier glinting in the firelight.
“We thought you to be dead. Where have you been all these years?”
“I’ve been away. It took time to find my place, but I found it. And I thrived. It readied me for my return, for while there is a lot of world out there, you never escape the siren song of home.
“People here believe their lives to be hard, but you have never known war. I saw a mother in Basque Country, her home a mound of cinders, offering herself to the soldiers in exchange for bread for her children. Some would say the things I’ve seen are worse than what was inflicted on me. But they weren’t inflicted on me.”
Tears started rolling down Ruaraidh’s cheeks. “I had a job to do. Who was I to disobey the command?”
“And was it worth it?” Chisholm asked. “After all that you did, I find you in the same blackhouse as when I left. Is it any wonder you were the easiest to find?”
“It may have been if I stayed that course,” Ruaraidh flared, his composure abandoning him. “But I could not. What happened with you, it was the last. I couldn’t defend those actions to myself, let alone God. You can’t place a price on a clear conscience, and I squandered mine for a few months’ keep.”
“That as may be. But the deed was done and the debt to me accrued nonetheless.”
“Go, ask your question,” the crofter said, wiping his nose on his sleeve.
“Where is Mitchell?”
Ruaraidh pursed his lips, fearing his answer would bring no satisfaction. “I don’t know.”
He looked at Chisholm, his eyes glinting from the shadow on his face. “I don’t know,” he impressed. “He left shortly after you disappeared, I have no inclination to where.”
“You have no inclination,” Chisholm repeated.
“I swear if I knew I would tell you. Please, don’t hurt my boy.”
Chisholm leaned back in his chair, scratching his chin. “Then what of the others? Where are they?”
Ruaraidh lent forward, eager to help, for with this he could assist. “Gunn’s still here, still in the employ of the duke. He should have more of an idea.”
The lamb bleated and the fire cracked. Wind whistled through the gaps in the stoney walls. Chisholm thought quietly, muttering “Gunn” beneath his breath. Finally he rose to his feet, slipping his hands back in his gloves.
“I thank you for your aid Cameron, what there was of it.” Ruaraidh bowed his head.
“Know I have regretted my actions every day since. Some things are too unforgivable to excuse.” A metallic ring pierced the room as Chisholm drew his rapier.
“I hope I remember this day. The fear in your eye, the tremor in your speech. I shall savour it. As I shall Gunn’s, and Morisson’s. And Mitchell’s.”
Donald had scarce removed his attention from the blackhouse door as he continued weeding the crops. After some time the stranger appeared in the doorway again. He unhitched his horse and climbed into the saddle, setting off at a trot. This time he remained in the grass as he rode up the path and vanished over the hill from which he arrived. The boy started back to the house to find his father.