The Scot’s Oath – Heather Grothaus

The island looked like the loneliest place Thomas had ever seen—perhaps it was even the end of the earth. The ever-present shrieks of the seabirds that had followed the supply boat from Thurso swelled as the living banner of white darts swooped beyond the bow to dive through the sea spray and fog surrounding the rolling green land mass. Caedmaray was small—like a crumpled hat floating upon the water—and seemed to grow no larger as they drew near. No structures penetrated the ceiling of mist, and, indeed, even the rounded crest of the isle’s pinnacle seemed too meek or tired to attempt challenging the dense cloud surrounding it like a cloche. The burly captain appeared at Thomas’s side then, seizing the rail near the bow as the supply boat bucked and leaped over angry swells. “Caedmaray,” he confirmed in a shout over the roar of the waves and wind. The stocky cog ship that bore them had departed from Thurso just that morning on indigo water sheeted with white-gray waves. And even though the wind was at their back, hurtling them over the rutted and bucking sea, the journey had taken hours. “Nae beach to land upon,” the captain continued. “We’ll move the cargo ashore, gain our trade, and be gone. Storm rolling in, English. If we arenae gone within the hour, ’tis dead we’ll all be, to a man. So move yer arse, ken?” Thomas nodded. “Aye, Captain.” Apparently satisfied with Thomas’s curt answer, the captain turned and stomped away as easily as if he were traversing the stone floor of a chapel while only comfortably drunk, but the wild dip of the clouds beyond the rail caused Thomas’s stomach to spasm, even after these many months.

Eight months since he’d fled the woods beyond Loch Acras. The same length of time as would pass before the supplies ship made the dangerous and lengthy journey to Caedmaray once more. Eight months since he’d bashed in the skull of the dead Carson on the hillside, hoping against hope that Vaughn Hargrave would think it was Thomas Annesley lying dead and would cease his scourging of the Highlands for him. Cease his determination to see destroyed anyone connected with Thomas. Seven months since he’d crept into Thurso and gained the basest work as an anonymous ship hand on a trading vessel, earning just enough through the balmy summer to buy food to eat in a darkened doorway or filthy alley after the town had gone to sleep. His hands had bled for weeks at first, the sea water and rough work sucking the moisture from his skin and ripping thin, deep wounds into the folds of his fingers more deftly than any blade. Thomas’s hands no longer bled, the skin now tough and stiff and slicked like matted wool. Never of ample flesh to begin with, he was whip-thin now, his muscles like cording beneath his tanned skin, his hair long and curling and caught up with a leather strap most days. He looked like any of the other unfortunate young men hired on the trading ships now, and save for his crisp English accent, no one would ever guess that this young, starving worker—little more than a slave—was at one time Baron Annesley, Lord of Darlyrede. It was only when he spoke that the trouble was likely to ensue, and Thomas had spent many days recovering behind an inn from beatings doled out by drunken Scots.

Thomas watched Caedmaray slowly approach over the rutted, striped waves. The seas were rougher here than Thomas had ever known any sea could be, and it was nearly another hour before the ship dropped anchor some distance from the rocky shore. Then the ship hands slipped out like a strand of pearls, connected to one another by a rope lashed to a boulder on the island, chest deep in the icy, shoving water, passing heavy barrel and bundle and crate over head in vain attempts to keep the cargo dry as it was ferried ashore. The sea burned in Thomas’s eyes and nose, in his lungs and stomach, as he gasped to stay upright on the slick, submerged crags beneath his boots—any cargo lost would come out of his meager pay, and Thomas suspected that he already made half that of the other hands, thanks to his blasted English accent. The final heavy bundle was passed overhead, and then his mates began slogging past him, pulling themselves hand over hand along the rope toward the ship. “Low man untethers,” one sailor growled at him as he passed, as if Thomas had somehow forgotten his lowly station. “That be you, English. Mind the slack.” Thomas turned his head to cast a grim look toward the termination of the rope on the rocky shore, which seemed leagues away as the waves buffeted him. The sky was growing darker, as if it was made of slate, and the angry waves reached up to wet it black.

He struggled out of the loop but kept both hands firmly on the rough woven line as he labored up onto the sliding shore to where the rope was tethered. It grew taut, then limp, with no discernable pattern, sending dull twangs into Thomas’s ears. On the next instance of slack, he tossed the loop from the gray stone and followed it back down into the waves as it jerked in his hand, wrenching his shoulder. Slack. Jerk. Slack. A wave hit him full force in the face, filling his head with seawater. He choked and sputtered, pulling himself onward, his boots leaving the rocky shelf beneath the waves with each swell. And then the rope was suddenly gone from his hands with a zing of heat. Thomas thrashed out into the water as the prow of the ship, still too far away, rose sharply into the air and he was thrown back toward the shore.

Thomas saw the line of men on board frantically pulling and gathering the tether rope. They hurled it over the side once more in Thomas’s direction as he bobbed wildly in the undulating wilderness, but it landed out of his reach and vanished beneath the murk. And the ship was turning now. Turning to portside, wallowing a breathless moment. Thomas saw the burly captain clinging to the rail, peering through the spray as if searching for him. His mouth moved soundlessly, the roar of the wind stealing his words. The captain raised an arm. “No!” Thomas shouted. He sputtered as water filled his mouth again, treading furiously to stay afloat. “No! Come back!” Another wave crashed over him, plunging him down onto a rock shelf.

Thomas kicked up toward the surface again with every bit of strength remaining in his weakened legs, and when he at last gasped the misty air, the stern of the cargo ship was only just visible in the foggy gloom. He turned and lashed out for the steep, rocky shore, his feet spinning madly at the firmness beneath them, scrambling up the treacherous surface before the next breaker could rush ashore and claim him. He crawled the last bit, dragging himself above the tidemark, falling onto his hip and then turning to his back on his elbows, his gaze searching the now-empty waves while the seabirds circled and screamed above his head. The icy wind cut his sodden clothes and exposed skin like a thousand knives. They had left him. Left him on godforsaken Caedmaray. The end of the earth. He began to shake; from the cold, the wet, the shock—he didn’t know. His limbs felt as if they were made from stone as he struggled to his feet. He turned and saw nothing beyond the beach but painful green—no trees, no brambles.

Only long grass, cleaved by a narrow, wet path to the foggy crest of the hill where it met the thick, darkening sky. He started up. He was afraid, in a nonsensical way, that he would gain the top of the rise only to discover naught but more green on the other side. A lonely island of empty nothing. He knew that was impossible—he’d seen the line of villagers carrying the cargo over the hill himself while he’d been tethered in the violent bay. And yet the loud silence of the wind and sea, the triune landscape of grass and water and sky, gave the impression that he was the only man left alive here at the edge of the world. But no, just down the hill, there it was—the little cluster of village, figures transporting the cargo along its narrow alleys. Small stone houses sunken into the earth more than halfway up their walls, all parallel with the length of the island. Raised hillocks in the lee of the land—crop beds, perhaps? The little piles of white, striking against the green: sheep. Short, cylindrical stone towers, whose purpose Thomas didn’t recognize, dotted the undulating green beyond the settlement.

The wind gusted, buffeting him on the hilltop path, turning his sodden clothes to ice. One of the villagers raised his head toward the hill, and then his arm to point at Thomas. The others paused in their work, turned, and stood, staring. Thomas couldn’t see their faces from so far away, but he was well familiar with their postures. Foreigner. Intruder. English. His only choices were to return to the sea and throw himself in or venture into what was perhaps a hostile settlement. The sky grew thicker, then; lower, like layers of icy batting being rolled out and pushed down over Thomas’s head—so low that he fancied he could feel them brushing the top, aching and wet from the cold. He shivered his way down the steep, narrow path toward the figures who stared openly at him.

The first few stinging drops of rain cut through his slicked-back hair to his scalp, stung his face. The wind burned his sea-seared lungs; his empty stomach squirmed against his backbone. Each jarring footstep brought him closer and closer to the people who watched him, slack-faced, as if they’d never seen another man before, and Thomas grew even more uneasy. Would the people of Caedmaray give him shelter and sustenance through the long winter to come, until the supply boat returned from Thurso? Would he be safe on Caedmaray? Was he safe anywhere? He came to a halt at the corner of the nearest buried house, and still the villagers stared at him as if he were a strange, dangerous creature. Thomas thought of all the times he had been initially welcomed at a table or hearth only to have the kindling kindness dashed by the accent that rolled from his tongue, and he hesitated to speak. But no one hailed him, no one questioned him. They only stared. “I’m from the ship,” he muttered quickly, his teeth clacking together. No one blinked, and so he gestured with an arm back the way he had come, flicked his head inanely, as if the people of the island had so soon forgotten the vessel that had brought the cargo some still held in their arms; as if they didn’t know the way to their own rocky bay. “I lost the tether line.

” “Dè a tha thu ag iarraidh bhuainn?” an old, bonneted man barked. Thomas blinked at the foreign words, swallowed down the razors in his throat. “I’m from the ship—” “He heard ye,” a woman’s voice called out, and then a figure emerged from a hidden doorway behind the man. Her skirts were long and gray, almost identical in shade to the leaden clouds above the island. The long rope of hair that emerged over her shoulder from the faded kerchief wrapped across her forehead was the color of dark honey. She was young, but she did not smile at him. “My father has only the old tongue.” She touched the man’s shoulder. “Chaill e am bàta, athair.” What she said Thomas could only guess, for the man’s stern countenance didn’t change.

Then she looked to Thomas. “Have they left ye?” “Aye.” She looked him up and down. “Yer English.” Thomas nodded curtly. “Aye.” “He canna stay here,” a sneering voice cut through the tense silence, the drizzle around them suddenly sounding like the crackle of flames. A boulder of a man rolled through the villagers to stand next to the young woman. “He’s an outsider.” “Where else is he to go, Dragan?” “They likely left him a-purpose.

Likely for a thief,” Dragan argued, staring with unabashed hatred at Thomas. They looked at one another uneasily; obviously there were others in the village who spoke English. “I’m no thief,” Thomas spoke up. His shivering had increased, although now his skin felt fevered, as if he had been standing near a roaring fire. “I only lost the tether line.” “They didnae think ye worth turnin’ back for, now did they?” Dragan jeered and took a step forward. “Likely happy to be rid of ye. Thief, I say.” He had a hungry look in his eyes then, like a starved wolf who can’t believe his luck at a lamb wandering into his territory. The woman stepped in front of Dragan.

“Ye know the ship would have been dashed to pieces in the swell had it turned back. I saw him workin’ the line, just the same as ye.” The old man suddenly barked another stream of unintelligible words, causing Dragan’s scowl to deepen. She looked to Thomas once more and gestured toward the doorway from which she’d emerged. “My father bids ye welcome. Ye will stay with us, in his house.” Thomas could barely force his throat to swallow as he at once reached down to the pouch that was still tied tightly around his middle, beneath his soaked vest. In it was all the coin he had managed to save from his meager earnings working the ship. He had hoped to use it one day to make his way back south and, somehow, some way, redeem himself. But if he was to survive the long winter on this remote island with already one enemy made, perhaps it would be better used to repay the old man’s generosity.

He undid the ties carefully, feeling the eyes of all those strangers gathered on the path on him, watching his every movement. The leather pouch felt heavier in his shaking hands then, heavy with seawater and wet coin and fear. “I know my presence will be an added burden to your village,” he said quietly and paused, glancing up at the woman, and then looking to her father pointedly. She translated his words into the guttural Gaelic. He withdrew a handful of the coins, looked at them in his palm, and then looked at the woman’s father, presumably the patriarch of the tiny community. “Perhaps this will help offset the cost of my lodgings.” Thomas held out the silver to the old man. “I will, of course, share in the work.” The woman’s quiet translation was snatched away by the wind as the old man took the coins with an expression of grim confusion. Whispers broke out between the villagers.

Suddenly, Dragan roared and stepped forward, slapping the coins from the old man’s hand and ranting in Gaelic. The villagers turned horrified faces to Thomas. “Chan eil! Chan eil!” the woman protested, and looked around them frantically. Her unintelligible words continued, and then she looked at Thomas. “He said you want to buy me from my father. To take me as your wife.” The old man looked suspiciously at Thomas. “No.” Thomas held out his hand to the old man. “I didn’t—” He looked to Dragan.

“That’s not what I said. You understand English—you know.” “I heard what ye said, but I see more clearly what ye mean,” Dragan growled. “I’m nae stupid Englishman can be lied to, and I’ll nae have ye lyin’ to the folk.” “Yer the one what’s lyin’,” the woman shouted. She broke out in another stream of Gaelic, ending with a pleading look to her father. The old man turned to Dragan with a low query. Dragan’s expression darkened further, and his fists clenched. “Christian or nae, I’ll nae have it,” he growled. And then he spun on Thomas.

“I’ll nae have it, I say.” He lunged for Thomas and seized him by his wet hair. Thomas ducked, but it was of no use—the man’s reach and hands were mythological in proportion and there was no escape. Thomas struggled, but the cold and the wet, the shock of being abandoned on the tiny Scots isle had sapped his strength, and each blow he landed on the gargantuan man seemed to have as much effect as a child’s as Dragan dragged him further into the village. A sharp blow to the side of Thomas’s head caused colors to explode behind his eyes and his right ear to ring like the giant bells of a cathedral. He went momentarily limp as they passed the last of the houses on the opposite end of the settlement, headed toward a long point of land strewn with boulders that appeared to have been tossed about like toys. The sea crashed onto the shore with ferocious intensity, as if the water had declared war on Caedmaray, and the beach was the point of engagement. “I’ll send ye back meself,” Dragan said, shaking Thomas by his head, stomping through the muck so that great showers of mud splashed from his boots. “The devil take ye!” He plunged into the surf, dragging Thomas with him into a wall of water, and Thomas was thrust beneath a wave, the hand on the back of his neck holding him down as surely as any broken-off granite from a cliff slide. He struggled against Dragan’s grip, squirmed and writhed and managed to get his face above water between waves to gasp a breath.

“She’s mine!” the Scot screamed into his face before he again plunged Thomas beneath the salty, icy water. She’s dead. As the water pushed inside his skull, Thomas saw Vaughn Hargrave’s face on that dreadful night. The night Cordelia lay in the dungeon, her perfect, white skin slashed open. The night before they would have wed. The night all the secrets—all the shocking confidences of everyone at Darlyrede House—had been discovered. He had not been strong enough to save Cordelia. He had possessed neither the courage nor the physical prowess to overpower such evil—evil he hadn’t known until that night could even exist. He had run away and left her at Darlyrede. He had run away and left Harriet behind.

He had run from his mother’s clan. And now he would meet his end on Caedmaray, at the hands of yet another evil man. Dragan wanted the honey-haired woman, and perhaps one day this would be her same fate—Thomas could foresee it now, as the cold waves stole the present from him, showing him with startling clarity the future and the past at once. There would be no retribution. There would be no truth. Not for Thomas. Not for the woman or the villagers of Caedmaray. He had failed everyone who had ever dared be kind to him, and now there was no one and nothing left. He grew limp. Hargrave would win, and not ever know his accomplice.

Fight, you coward, a quiet, fierce voice whispered inside his frozen brain. For once in your life, fight. Thomas fought the powerful surge of water and the lack of air to raise his right hand and clutch a handful of Dragan’s inner thigh through the man’s thick woolen trews—the hand that had pulled miles and miles of wet, heavy rope over the summer. He curled his fingertips into a claw and squeezed with all the strength left in his body, imagining that he gripped Vaughn Hargrave’s throat, and he felt the ends of his fingers plunging into warmth. And then he was free. Miraculously free, there at the end of the earth, and full of a deafening, red rage the likes of which young Thomas Annesley had never before felt. He erupted from the crashing surf with a gasp, and then a great scream of fury, as he lunged at the goliath Dragan in the same moment the surprised and furious Scot came at him again. But this time Thomas did not try to duck and evade. He met the man’s blows to his head as if he had lost the capacity for feeling, and perhaps he had. For his blows gave no heed to the ones that landed on his own body.

Thomas’s inexperienced fists flew faster and faster, striking Dragan’s face, his throat, the tender place behind the man’s ear. He climbed the dangerous weapon that was the islander, every protuberance on his body acting like a lance as he channeled his fury. Dragan’s blows began to slow. And then a massive wave overcame them both and twirled them together in the storm surge, whipping the heavier man to the rocky bottom, shoving the entwined pair higher up on the shore.

.

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