As Murdo Lochlan well knew, the key to murdering Saint Nicholas was in the cookies. The poor, jolly old fellow would wolf them down so quick, he'd never notice a touch of arsenic. You could probably even use cyanide -- Saint Nick wouldn't stand a chance.
And it was for this reason that Murdo had already removed the plate of cookies from the area near the hearth. No matter how many wicked people were conspiring to aid in the right jolly old elf's demise, Saint Nicholas was going to survive this Yuletide season.
Pacing about in front of the fireplace, Murdo considered the other options of attack: there was the roof, for one. A convenient hole was all that was needed, and down went Saint Nick to break his neck. Or, with the help of a patch of grease, the whole sleigh could slide right off. Luckily, Murdo had already checked the roof spaces five times, and there were absolutely no holes, and not a speck of grease, or any other slippery substance. There was, then, the fireplace, but Murdo was guarding that continuously, it being a thoroughly dangerous area. The stockings were also prime spots for foul play, but Murdo had taken no chances with that; he had personally replaced each stocking with one of his own, after his parents and sisters had gone to bed.
And yet, for all his meticulous planning, this still left the chimney. It wasn't that Murdo couldn't climb the chimney -- he was sure that, given the chance, he could. No, the problem was the noise. He could switch stockings, guard the hearth, and even skulk about on the roof unheard, but to climb the chimney would entail making a certain amount of noise. And, being that the flue ran right by Mr. and Mrs. Lochlan's room, they would be awakened, one or both parents would come downstairs, find Murdo, and make him come down. Then there would be questions ("Whit, young man, were ye doing up there?"), a lecture, a trip to the woodshed, and off to bed. All of which would leave Saint Nicholas without any guard at all, alone to blithely stumble into who knew what vile plots.
So, despite Murdo's anxiety at not having checked the chimney for safety, there was nothing to be done but wait.
And, when Saint Nicholas finally made his appearance, Murdo knew exactly what he would say: he would explain about what he had overheard his cousins saying, about the plot to get rid of the only saint in existence who had a nose like a cherry and wasn't afraid to admit it. He would confide in Saint Nick what the other Lochlan children had said, that they didn't need the threat of coal for Christmas constantly hanging over them, and that they didn't care if they never got stockings full of presents again. Murdo would explain that, while normally he was all for anything that involved bucking the status quo, this was just going too far. A Christmas without Saint Nicholas was unthinkable.
Squeak! Murdo whirled about to see who had entered (Saint Nick wasn't using the front door nowadays, was he?), but saw only shadows. Squinting, the young Highlander tried to see into the darkness. "Who's there?"
"Murdo?" Cousin Hamish poked his head around the door. "You're here already? I didnae ken ye were in on the plan."
"Plan?" Murdo repeated. "D'ye mean -- d'ye mean the plan to get rid of Saint Nicholas?"
Hamish nodded, and stepped into the room. "Aye. That old cuif is out o' date, and we dinnae need him anymore. Rabbie and the others will be along in nae time, but they wanted me to go ahead and wait here. We figure Saint Nick will come here first, since yer father is the eldest o' the chieftain's sons, and awfully important. Thinknae ye?"
In fact, this had been Murdo's exact line of reasoning, so he nodded. "Aye, that makes sense. Hamish? Whose idea was this in the first place?"
"Rabbie. He has braw ideas, thinknae ye? I wouldnae have thought o' ditching Saint Nick, but it seems so obvious now. I bet all the paunchy lard ball does anyway is waddle about and drink ale. Who needs a fat old saint?"
Murdo turned and peeked up the chimney, trying to discern what exactly was up there. "Hamish? Whit are ye going to do with Saint Nicholas when he comes?"
"Well -- that's Rabbie's area o' expertise, really. But, far as I ken, we'll shove him out the window or some such thing. It shouldnae be too hard."
"So, there's naething up the chimney? Naething dangerous, I mean?"
"If there is, I havenae heard about it. D'ye think we ought to have put something up there?"
Murdo shook his head. "Och, nae, I'm sure that's nae necessary. I just -- I just wondered. That's all."
Hamish looked as though he was about to reply, but a sound at the door made them both turn. Rabbie, Sheyna, Mailie, and Riley entered, Rabbie holding a finger up to his lips to indicate quiet. When they were all gathered, and Sheyna had taken a cursory glance up the chimney (just in case), Rabbie spoke. "All right, everyone. We all ken why we're here, now we have to discuss our complete plan of action. Mailie?"
Mailie stepped forward, taking a short scroll from her sporran, which she held out to Rabbie.
Rabbie took it, and unrolled the parchment. "We have here all our possible offensive actions. Item one: We could throw Saint Nick out the window. This plan has the disadvantage o' the old duffer's weight, but we might still be able to accomplish it. Item two: we could lay a trap, such as a art -- artif -- Mailie, whit's that word?"
Mailie looked over his shoulder. "Artificial."
"Such as a artificial snow bank. Mailie, whit sort o' plan is that? Whit would we do with a fake snow bank?"
Mailie lifted her chin, staring him down. "We'd have to hollow out a pile of snow, and then when Saint Nick stepped on it, he'd fall through and break his neck. It's very clever, but I dinnae think we have the time for that."
"Aye, me either. Anyway -- item three: we could trick Saint Nick into running his sleigh off a cliff. Does anyone ken how we'd do that?"
They all shrugged.
"All right, we'd best scratch that one then. Item four: we could all tackle Saint Nick, gag him, and decide whit to do afterwards. That'd give us time to think of a really good plan, and it'd make it easier to chuck him out the window if we settled on that. Whit d'ye lot think?"
Sheyna began nodding, and in a moment they all were.
Rabbie nodded too, just once, to complete their solidarity, and put the scroll in his sporran. " 'Tis decided, then. When the old cuif comes down the chimney, we'll pile on him and tie him up."
Riley raised his hand. "Whit will we tie him up with?"
Rabbie was quiet for a moment. "We'll -- we'll tie him up with our tartan plaidies."
Sheyna wrinkled her nose. "Will our parents nae ask whit we did with our plaidies, when we dinnae have them tomorrow?"
"Nae," Rabbie said, with an airy wave of his hand. "We'll be finished by dawn, and our parents will never ken the difference."
Murdo coughed lightly. "Rabbie? Will it nae make lots o' noise if ye all jump on Saint Nick? Thinknae ye he'll shout and holler like to wake the dead?"
Rabbie frowned. "Hm. I suppose that's possible. Well, we'll just gag him really quick, aye?"
The other children nodded feverishly.
Murdo scraped the toe of his brogue along the floor, thinking of how to phrase his next sentence. "Rabbie? Whit made ye think o' this anyway? Did Saint Nick forget yer stocking last year, or whit?"
"Nae. But think on it, cousin -- we're always worrying and fretting, wondering if he will forget us this year, or worse, fill our stockings with coal. So, I thought, 'Why do we even need the old fossil, anyway?' "
Murdo nodded slowly. "I suppose that's a point. But -- will ye nae miss getting presents? And Saint Nick is so happy. . . "
Rabbie crossed his arms, and looked down his nose at Murdo (as much as possible -- they were the same height). "Either ye're with us or ye're against us. So, cousin, whose side are ye on, ours or Saint Nick's?"
Murdo looked down at the floor. "Uh -- well, yours, o' course."
Rabbie looked narrowly at his cousin for a moment, then sniffed. "Well, all right. Just so as we can count on ye. Now, Sheyna, ye keep watch out the window, and tell us if ye see him coming. The rest of us will stand by the fireplace."
As Sheyna went to her post, Murdo glanced out the window as expectantly as the rest -- though for a different reason. How could he save Saint Nicholas now? There were too many of them to stop, unless . . . "Rabbie?"
"Thinknae ye it would be better if we had a scout on the roof? So we could see Saint Nicholas coming from a long way off?"
Rabbie crinkled his brow, and stared up at the ceiling. "Well -- that'd be braw, but how do we get someone up on the roof without getting caught?"
"I could do it. I climb up there all the time, and no one ever catches me."
"Hmm. . . " Rabbie was quiet for a moment. "I guess -- I guess that'd work. But mind and be absolutely silent, until Saint Nick comes. Then ye can run down and tell us he's here."
Murdo nodded, and crept into the hallway. From there, he went up three flights of stairs, and climbed the ladder leading up to the roof spaces. This particular roof space was mostly used to store grain, so it was a pile of oat sacks that Murdo stood on to reach the trapdoor that opened onto the roof. Once outside, Murdo carefully made his way around the peaked roof, pointed and forbidding as a bishop's hat, until he was next to the chimney. There he rested, looking out over the majestic spires and buttresses of Castle Lochlan.
The uppermost regions of the castle, marvellous as they were, were strictly out of bounds for Lochlan children. The elders insisted that they were too dangerous, and that children, if allowed up on the roofs, would be falling off left and right -- to Murdo, however, this argument was perfectly senseless. Most Lochlan children were nimble and athletic, and each of the roofs was lined with a walkway at least two feet wide. Some even had a railing. And so Murdo, along with quite a number of the youngest generation of Lochlans, paid no heed to the stern warnings and happily made the roofs into a playground.
Wrapping his tartan plaidie about himself for warmth, Murdo settled back against the chimney and scanned the starry heavens for any sign of a sleigh. Or a reindeer. He strained his ears to hear the tiniest 'ho, ho, ho!', or the jangle of sleigh bells. He even sniffed the wind for the scent of smoke from Saint Nicholas's pipe. Nothing. Seconds ticked by with no sign of the right jolly old elf.
The seconds gradually faded into minutes, and the minutes stretched into an hour . . . two hours . . . And, hard as he tried to stay alert, Murdo felt his eyelids growing heavy. The young Highlander opened his eyes extra wide, just to make sure he was still awake, and looked out over Castle Lochlan once more. The snow lay all around, bright white beneath the dark sky, and the frozen pond, just visible around the North Tower, reflected the starlight like a faerie mirror. Wind murmured through the hemlock trees and stirred the heather, half buried under the snowdrifts. And all around, moon and star gave the whole world a soft, solemn glow, like Murdo imagined they must have done on the First Christmas. It was so beautiful . . . pretty as a picture . . . pretty as a dream . . . Murdo's eyes fell slowly closed, and he slept.
# # #
Murdo woke to the sound of whistling. Not a loud whistle, like one might use to call a dog, but a soft, melodious tune. It sounded like a Christmas carol. After a moment of struggling against sleep, Murdo managed to open his eyes. "Saint Nick?" he whispered, in disbelief. Sure enough, a short, rotund figure clad in thick furs was standing not a yard away, whistling as he prepared to descend the chimney.
"Saint Nick!" Murdo rose to his feet so quickly that he had to pause in order to regain his balance, before running over to the jolly saint. "Saint Nick, dinnae go down there! There's a whole band o' Lochlan children ready to chuck ye out the window!"
Saint Nicholas stopped whistling long enough to smile at Murdo, pat him gently on the head, and hand him a peppermint stick. Then he shouldered his sack and made for the chimney once more.
Murdo stood, watching, as the beloved saint unknowingly came closer and closer to his rendezvous with fate. Saint Nick stepped over to the chimney -- he hefted his sack onto his shoulder -- he raised a foot to begin the descent --
For a few seconds Murdo stood, frozen in place, unsure of what to do. How could he stop Saint Nicholas from going down that chimney? Especially as the saint had already placed one foot on the chimney edge, and was about to lift the other . . .
With a strength born of panic, Murdo took hold of Saint Nicholas's sleeve and tugged . . . just a bit too hard. The jolly old saint swayed backward and dropped the sack, his arms pinwheeling unsteadily as he tilted more and more off balance. For a moment he seemed to hang suspended over midair.
Then the moment ended, and Saint Nick fell over the edge of the roof -- taking Murdo with him.
# # #
"Whit was that?"
Rabbie, getting no answer from his companions, turned away from the fireplace and joined Sheyna at the window. "Whit was that?" he repeated.
Sheyna shrugged. "I dinnae ken. It sounded like sort of a . . . sort of a crash."
"A big crash," Riley added, not especially helpfully.
"Like a ginormous bear falling through twenty panes o' glass," Mailie put in, not a great deal more helpfully, but rather more imaginatively.
"But whit was it?" Rabbie asked again.
None of the young Highlanders had an answer to that.
# # #
Magical as Saint Nick was, a fall from the top of a castle would probably have produced some broken bones, had it not been for the fact that his (and Murdo's) descent was cut short.
They fell at just such an angle, that they narrowly missed the roof of the chieftain's bedchamber -- and went instead through his stained-glass skylight.
# # #
Ardan, Venerable Chieftain of All Clan Lochlan, had been in the midst of a dream involving cheese, when he was awakened by something bouncing off the bed a hand's-breadth away from his nose.
"What the. . . ?"
All Ardan saw of the retreating figure was something big . . . with a sack.
"A Thief! Jeanie, wake up! Thieves!"
Not waiting for his wife to rise, Ardan leapt out of bed in his nightclothes, and set off in pursuit of the burglar.
# # #
"Saint Nick, I'm sorry, I didnae mean to do that -- ye'll nae be angry with me?" Murdo was hurrying along by the jolly old saint's side, as they hastened down the corridor, away from the chieftain's bedroom.
Saint Nicholas looked down at Murdo and winked cheerfully. He still didn't say anything, but he looked as though he understood.
"But it's still true, Saint Nick, whit I said about the other bairns wanting to throw ye out the window. They're still there. Maybe ye should just skip Castle Lochlan this year? Only, that might make everyone else decide they dinnae like ye, and then next year it'd be even worse -- "
Saint Nick chuckled merrily, and put a finger to Murdo's lips. Then he ducked down a side passage, taking the young Highlander with him. In a moment it became apparent why.
"Thieves! Thieves! Wake up, Lochlans, there's a thief afoot!"
The Chieftain of All Clan Lochlan dashed by in his night shirt, bellowing to the entire castle.
Murdo looked up at Saint Nicholas. "Did we wake him up when we fell through the skylight?"
Saint Nick nodded, smiling, and lit his pipe.
# # #
"Now, Father, just where would a thief have come from?"
Ardan walked beside his youngest son, Cohnal, as they made their way down the corridor.
"They were right here. I saw them, I tell ye -- two thieves, one big, one little, the big one holding a sack. They were in my own room."
"Uh-huh. And ye're absolutely certain it wasn't a dream ye woke me up for?"
"Aye, I'm bloody certain, ye insolent bairn. Ask yer mother, she saw it all."
"Right . . ."
At that moment, they had just rounded a curve in the passageway, and before them was a long, straight hall, at the end of which another hall ran perpendicular. And at the end of that long corridor, only for a second, two figures were visible -- one big, one little, the big one holding a sack. They were running down the other hall, laughing.
"There they are! Catch them! Thieves!"
Ardan took off running again, with Cohnal following in disbelief.
# # #
Murdo had never known a better Christmas Eve. Not only had he met Saint Nicholas and saved him from certain catastrophe, now he was getting to help the right jolly old elf deliver presents. Up and down corridors they ran, stopping occasionally to duck into a room and fill another batch of stockings; and all the while Saint Nick was so cheerful and full of chuckles, Murdo couldn't help laughing along with him, as though this night was a wonderful joke between the two of them.
In fact, Murdo was having so much fun, he almost didn't notice the sound of running footsteps, and two voices shouting, "Thieves! Thieves!"
"Saint Nick?" Murdo tugged on the jolly saint's sleeve as they continued hurrying along the passageway. " Saint Nick, I think the chieftain is following us."
Perhaps Saint Nicholas would have replied. Or perhaps he would have just chuckled and kept on running. But he never got the chance to do either, because it was just then that Father Donald, Bishop of Clan Lochlan, stepped out of a connecting hallway and accidentally tripped him.
# # #
Father Donald had been out for a midnight snack. Not really proper for a dignified priest, and certainly not on Christmas Eve, but, well . . . he was only human.
So, after tip-toeing into the kitchens and filling his pockets with nuts, sweetmeats, and chocolate, he retraced his steps down a side hall to make his escape back to bed. But just as Father Donald stepped out into the main corridor, he was knocked over by a fat man in red, who fell on top of him and dropped a large sack at his side. To cap off the entire undignified situation, a young boy (that wasn't his grand-nephew Murdo, was it?) tripped over them both and landed sprawling across Father Donald's own ample stomach.
For the first few seconds, the priest panicked a bit as he tried to breathe through the thick fur coat covering his face. Then, both the coat and the man wearing it rose, the man helped the boy up, lifted the sack, and they both took off in the direction of the kitchens.
Father Donald lay there for a moment, then started to get to his feet.
Before he could, though, Ardan and Cohnal ran up, slipped on the nuts which had flown every which way, and fell on top of him.
# # #
"Shouldn't Saint Nick be getting here pretty soon?"
Rabbie shrugged, and looked out the window. Then he turned back to Sheyna, who had spoken. "Maybe his sleigh broke down."
"Or maybe," said Riley, scratching at the side of his nose where dirt tended to collect, "maybe his reindeer all got the yellow-spotted-dandelion-plague, and Saint Nick had to go on a dangerous expectition to the jungles of southern jungle-land, and find a rare cure that doesn't even exist."
The Lochlan children spent a few minutes debating if southern jungle-land was a real place (it wasn't), whether yellow-spotted-dandelion-fever was real (it also wasn't), and whether Riley ever had any idea what he was talking about (he usually didn't).
Sheyna, however, wasn't to be distracted from the matter at hand. "Saint Nick should have been here by now. It's past midnight."
"Maybe we should go to the north pole and see if he's left yet." Even if no one really paid attention to him, Riley still felt compelled to offer his suggestions.
"Or maybe," Rabbie whispered, thinking he might be on to something, "Saint Nick heard about our plan. Maybe someone ratted us out and he's nae coming."
Mailie frowned. "But we've nae told anyone except us here in the room."
They were all quiet for a minute.
Suddenly Hamish jumped to his feet. "Murdo! He must have told!"
"Ye think so?"
"Because he wasnae really on our side!" Hamish gestured to the door that Murdo had left by several hours ago. "Did ye nae notice how half-hearted he seemed? He must have found Saint Nick before us and told him to stay away!"
"But -- " Rabbie's brow crinkled in thought. "But, Saint Nick couldnae skip the whole castle just because of us. He'd still have to go through all the other rooms."
The young Highlanders exchanged glances.
"Maybe," Sheyna murmured, voicing all of their thoughts, "he's somewhere else in Castle Lochlan."
"And maybe," Rabbie added, "we could catch him if we're quick."
Without another word, they all stood and slipped out the door.
# # #
Murdo and Saint Nick had taken a short-cut through the kitchens, around the stables, and back into the castle by the side door. After all, there were still presents to deliver. They ran along the hallways at the back of Castle Lochlan, filled a few more stockings, then began making their way upwards, to the rooms housing the chieftain's close family.
# # #
Ardan, Cohnal, and Father Donald wasted only a minute in shouting at each other and complaining that other people should watch where they were going. Then Ardan explained once more that thieves were afoot, and it was absolutely vital that they not be allowed to escape.
"Thieves?" Father Donald repeated. "How did thieves get into the castle?"
"How do I ken that?" Ardan scoffed. "All I ken is that they're here. Now, hurry along, and let's follow them."
"But, Father -- "
"Ye be quiet, Cohnal." The chieftain reached up to tap a finger on his son's shoulder. "Ye just hold your tongue and respect your elders, my lad."
"Father -- "
"Which way did the thieves go?" asked Father Donald. As far as he was concerned, they could either chase the thieves, or he wanted to be back to bed with his remaining nuts. He would not stand around in a cold hallway and talk.
Ardan started to point to the kitchens, but was interrupted by Cohnal. "They went that way, but Father said they started out in his bedroom, so they're probably going to work their way back to the top of the castle -- where the real valuables are."
Ardan was quiet for a moment. "Well, Donald, I was thinking about that, and it just occurred to me that they're probably going to try breaking back into my room. It stands to reason."
Father Donald nodded. "Aye, it does. Let's be off."
# # #
Jeanie Lochlan, wife of the chieftain, was deep in her slumber, when the door flew open and three men charged in. This might not have been so alarming, except that it was the middle of the night and in the darkness, she couldn't tell who they were.
"Ardan!" she whispered urgently, reaching over to shake her husband -- but he wasn't there. It was a large bedroom, so the men were still about twenty paces away, but what were they doing here? Where was Ardan? Why were two of the intruders shouting "Come out, thieves!" and kicking over furniture, while the other stood by shaking his head? Maybe they were fey folk . . .
And then the door opened again and a group of children (or smaller fey?) ran inside yelling, "There he is! It's Saint Nick!" They all piled onto the fattest of the three men (who, on second thought, looked sort of like Father Donald) and knocked him to the ground.
They seemed to be attempting to tie him up with their tartans, when the door opened yet again, and another big, fat man and a child entered. They looked like they were trying to be quiet, and the big man had a sack. They crept over to the fireplace, where Ardan and Jeanie had hung their stockings, and started taking things out of the sack, unnoticed by everyone else . . .
Jeanie reached over to her nightstand and picked up her dirk. Holding it at the ready, she called, "Halt, intruders! Halt just where ye are, and don't move! You're in the bedchamber of the chieftain of Clan Lochlan, and the first one that moves gets a dirk 'twixt his ribs!"
After a moment, a slightly confused but familiar voice said, "Jeanie? Dinnae worry, I've got it under control. We're just looking for the thieves that -- there they are!"
Everyone looked where Ardan was pointing; and chaos returned.
# # #
Murdo, who had been hurriedly filling stockings alongside Saint Nick, suddenly found himself in the midst of a war zone. Lochlan children jumped about the jolly old saint, doing their best to knock him to the ground, although they had left their tartan plaidies over with Father Donald (who wasn't really tied up, but just had tartans knotted all over him).
The chieftain was trying to convince his wife that everything was being taken care of, just leave it to him, and Cohnal was standing about and wondering what was happening.
Murdo didn't need anyone to explain what was going on, because he already knew -- Saint Nick was about to be seen, fully and completely, by a bunch of adults. And, like every eight-year-old, Murdo just knew, somewhere deep in his heart, that this was wrong.
And, worse, the jolly old saint's life may be in danger, from the rampaging Lochlan children.
But, Murdo also knew, Saint Nicholas couldn't leave until every last stocking had been filled. They had just finished with the chieftain and his wife, now there was only one more room . . . that of Murdo's parents, sisters, and himself.
But Saint Nick was busy being attacked, Murdo was trying to defend him, Father Donald was rolling about on the floor in a tangle of tartan, the chieftain and his wife were both fairly useless right now . . . which left only one person.
Cohnal looked over. "Murdo? Is that you, laddie? Just what is going on right -- "
"Just listen, Uncle Cohnal, I -- " Murdo paused to kick Rabbie aside. "Just look in that sack!"
"Sack? This one?"
"Aye! Open it!" Sheyna looked as though she was trying to bite Saint Nick's ankles, so Murdo stepped on her.
"Murdo, what are ye doing to your cousins over there? Who is that?"
"Just open the bloody sack, Uncle Cohnal!"
"Oh, all right . . . what is all this? Wrapped packages?"
"Dinnae open them, just take all of it to my parent's chambers and put the packages in all the stockings." Riley tried to weasel his way around the side to jump onto Saint Nick's back, but Murdo caught him halfway and gave him a good cuff.
"The stockings? Why?"
"I'll tell ye later. Hurry!"
Cohnal, with a resigned sigh, gathered up the presents and left, muttering about how no one ever told him anything.
# # #
By this point, Father Donald had gotten up. "Ardan, get over here; the thieves are standing right there, and -- and where did all these bairns come from?"
"I dinnae ken, maybe they're in league with the thieves. Jeanie -- "
Father Donald, seeing that he was getting no help from Ardan, went to apprehend the thieves himself. "Now, stop right there, everyone, bairns included, I -- "
He was interrupted by Rabbie getting shoved into his ample stomach, closely followed by Mailie.
And one of the thieves, he now saw, was indeed his grand-nephew Murdo. Who seemed to be fighting with five of his cousins at once. And defending a large, fat man, who couldn't be seen clearly in the darkness.
"Murdo!" Father Donald growled. He had had just about enough of getting knocked about, and having people fall on him, for one night. "Murdo, ye stop that this instant, laddie. Who's that back there? Have ye been consorting with thieves?"
"No, but step back, Father, don't look over here . . ."
Hamish went flying, just as Rabbie, Mailie, and Sheyna all charged forward as one. Murdo and his accomplice seemed to be slowly being driven back into the corner.
# # #
Cohnal wasn't at all sure what he was doing. All he knew was that he had been told to put the packages into the stockings -- and so what if it was his eight-year-old nephew that told him? That fell perfectly in line with the rest of his night. Roused from bed for no apparent reason by his father, hustled all over the castle on a wild-goose chase, then just when it seemed there might actually be thieves, one of them turned out to be Murdo. And now he was delivering presents. Normalcy was obviously no longer a concern in Clan Lochlan. . .
# # #
Rabbie, Sheyna, Mailie, Riley, and Hamish all stood about five paces from Murdo and Saint Nick. Circling like sharks. They looked at one another, and charged. Shouting outraged war-crys, they piled onto Murdo and were within inches of Saint Nicholas, when suddenly . . .
The jolly saint took a step towards the fireplace, and picked up his sack. With a chuckle and wink, he stepped into the chimney, laid his finger aside of his nose, and was gone.
Cohnal walked back into the room. "All right, nephew, the packages have been delivered. Now, what just happened? And where's the other thief?"
No one answered. The Lochlan children seemed frozen in place, midway through a fight, Jeanie and Ardan were still arguing, and Father Donald was staring over at the chimney.
After a moment, Murdo disentangled himself from his cousins, who were still just standing there, and made for the door. "Thanks, Uncle Cohnal. Ye just saved Saint Nick's life."
And with those mysterious words, Murdo trotted down the hall and back to bed.