This story is by Brittany Shockey and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Sunrise on the third day.”
The warning was delivered to his door on the point of an arrow, burrowing into the wood with a resounding thud that had filled his heart with dread. Since the night he fled he knew this moment would come; he braced himself for it, but still he was not prepared.
The first two days had gone too quickly as often happens when time is not on your side. As the final day turned into night, however, it seemed to rethink its position and began to pity him. The hours ticked by with a creeping sedateness that filled him with restlessness. He longed for action but lacked resolution.
He laid the curling piece of parchment covered in the bold strokes of his cousin Dougal’s pen on the table, smoothing the edges and patching the jagged tear from the arrowhead. He read over the words again, despite knowing them verbatim. If he did not return they would come for him and make him act as they wished.
He pictured the whole of Clan McClelland bearing down on him. It wasn’t a pretty thought. He shuddered.
Two days of constant thought and still he was no closer to making a choice. Oh, how it weighed on him, stooping his shoulders, and furrowing deep lines of worry into his brow.
He looked anxiously toward the eastern window and searched the horizon.
Pulling up a chair he sat under the window and stared into the dying embers of the fire. He supposed that his options were simple: sign and live, or run and die.
He thought back to the last night he had stood in the hall of Castle Daingnich before his clansmen. The accusations of aiding the enemy that had been spat at him by his own brother. The rumors had been spreading for months, fueled by jealousy until they found their way to the ear of his cousin, Laird Malcolm. And they had hit their mark.
Allegations of aiding the British could not be taken lightly with the whole of the Highlands bracing for war with the red coats. So he had been presented with a letter of assent containing a detailed summary of the charges leveled against him; charges that amounted to nothing less than treason. They demanded that he sign it.
It was a small act of mercy, he knew. Malcolm simply could have had him hanged.
He did not sign. He ran instead.
Live, Duncan. Live.
He heard the desperate plea of his mother ringing in his ears, the echo of her begging him to stay as he threw his cloak about his shoulders and fled into the night. He returned to the place of his childhood, his father’s hunting lodge, and waited for the daylight to come.
When the sun rose the next morning, he found himself crippled by warring sensations of fear and insolence. How dare they accuse him, the Laird’s right hand, of treachery and faithlessness. How dare they rob his free will of all choice but life and death.
He considered now how it might feel to sign the paper and give himself over to them, publicly denounced as a friend of the enemy. They would let him live this way, and to live seemed to be the simplest choice.
At what cost?
To surrender would be to live with his life taken away. To sign their confession for it could be called nothing else was to assist them in stealing all that was his.
The would brand him and cast him out. He would be a broken man. The name given to him by his father would become worthless. Honorless.
He stood up and skimmed the clammy palms of his hands against the plaid folds of his kilt. He wondered if his mother had stopped to consider the consequences that would arise if he submitted to the charges that had been cast at his feet. The backbiting and whispering that would begin to circulate the castle once more, until the Laird had been poisoned against her, just as had been done to him.
He knew what they would say. They would whisper that he was a coward for surrendering. They would decry the confession that they demanded he sign. It would not be enough.
No. The enjoyment of seeing him brought low would soon abate and their bloodlust would once again require sating. Only they would not come for him. They would come for those that he loved and laugh in his face as they did, knowing that he longer had the means to stop them.
Anger rippled through him. If he was guilty of anything, it was only the crime of looking after his own interests. He was not a traitor.
But if he lived he could find a way to protect his mother and deflect the shame that would be aimed at her. Spare her the grief of seeing him condemned to live on the fringes. He could bear it all if he knew that she was at peace, that the madness would come to an end.
“Thoir dhomh neart.” He ran his hands through his hair. Give me strength.
Fate was a wicked master, even when the power of choice lay in your own hands.
He looked toward the window. On the other side of the glass, he heard the faint titter of a bird. Dawn drew nearer.
If he lacked the strength to endure the humiliation, he could simply run and leave it all behind him. He could ignore their confession, harden himself to the consequences that would befall those who had cared for him, and try to get far enough fast enough that they would not find him. It would be tantamount to laughing in the face of Laird Malcolm who had stayed the executioner’s hand as a sign of good will that he would act as they wished.
The idea grew stronger within him, and he began to plot the course that would take him into the lowlands. He would have only the clothes upon his back, the few bits of cheese and bread that remained from the castle’s stores, and he would have no horse to carry him. The first snows would soon be falling. He would have to move quickly, not only to outrun those that would pursue him but the throes of deep winter that would make it impossible to escape the highlands.
They would chase him, and they would hunt him like a dog.
He began to pile his meager supplies on the table. A few loaves of bread that were already turning hard, a block of cheese that was near to molding, a skin for water, and the dirk given to him by his father.
He stopped short, looking at the weapon in his hand.
Only a guilty man would run.
His father could have been standing in the room with him, so clear was his voice.
He began to reconsider. It was one thing, perhaps, to have guilt foisted upon him if he could endure it with honor. It was another to run from the accusations and refuse to speak for himself.
With sudden clarity, he knew.
He would not comply with their schemes. He would not go quietly. He would not sacrifice his honor. He would make his own way.
He would die an innocent man.
Reaching into his satchel, he retrieved the confession that had been written to ensnare him. He rolled it tightly and dipped it into the fire, watching as it began to curl and writhe in the flame.
The first pale lines of dawn began to streak the horizon.
The paper was now burning merrily in his hand and he tossed it into the corner where it began to catch the straw that was scattered across the floor.
He could hear the drum of hoofbeats. They were coming for him.
He opened the door of the lodge, and the cold mountain air rushed in to feed the flames. He breathed it in deeply, feeling the heat of the fire at his back. Let them come.
He stepped out, dirk raised above his head, chanting. “Tha mi deiseil.”
I am ready.
“Tha mi neo chiontach.”
I am innocent.
“Bidh mi a ‘sabaid.”
I will fight.
“Chan eil eagal orm mu dheidhinn an latha.”
I am not afraid of the dawn.