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Sworn on the Odin Stone
by W. Towrie Cutt

It was the last day of October.

Ragged wisps of cloud drove across the darkening sky, and the woman in the cottage doorway shivered in the chill gusts.

Her companion broke off to say impatiently, "Get thee within, Mary! I’ll come tomorrow for an answer. And think well, lass. A heathen oath on the Stone of Odin should not bind a Christian soul."

He turned away, a bearded man of about forty, roughly but warmly dressed.

Glancing down the road leading to the Bridge of Brodgar, he shook his head. There below, well apart from the ring of standing stones, the great holed Stone of Odin stood by itself near the bridge.

Behind him, the woman at the door was looking apprehensively in the same direction. The moon was rising, veiled by scurrying clouds; the roar of the sea came faintly on the gusts.

Then she went in as bidden, barring the cottage door against the wild night, but unable to shut out the chill that came over her when she remembered the Odin Stone oath. The hand that had clasped hers through the hole in the stone was long cold in death: there could be no retraction now...

The dim light of the crusie lamp showed her to be about twenty-five or six, thin and poorly-dressed. Her fair, anxious face softened momentarily into its earlier prettiness as she looked at the box-bed where her children lay. She drew the blanket up over them, and sat down in a straw-backed chair by the hearth to knit. But her troubled glance turned often to the bed, and several times she rose to comfort and soothe the child who coughed and moaned in his sleep. The fire burned low after a couple of hours, but she dared not replenish it from her scanty store of peat.

Drawing the shawl closer around her, she took down a thick old-fashioned Bible from the shelf and opened it on the table beside her. Between the pages lay a folded letter. She spread it out, smoothing the stained, ragged page, and read again, by the dim yellow light, words that she knew by heart. Hastily and crookedly written, they were crowded into the last two inches of the sheet below the careful cramped signature.

"Mary, remember our oath on the Odin Stone to marry none other. I would come back from the dead for my bairns if you wed a man like him my mother wed. I am going up the country next week..."

But he had never returned from that journey. Five years ago the swift cold waters of a northern river had claimed him. And because he had been but a short time in the service of the Hudson Bay Company, very little money had come to his widow, Mary Tait of Treb near the Bridge of Brodgar.

Tonight, utterly weary, listening for the sick child, and watching the warm glow of the peat fall into grey ash, Mary Tait spoke aloud. "Aye, Andrew, my lad, I’ve missed you sore as you missed me. And I remember our oath on the Stone never to wed another. Oh, I remember, Andrew, and it has cost us dear...!" She laid down the letter and gave the sick child a drink. "And now that oath stands between your bairns and the good food and the warm house that Walter Clouston offers us. Walter that was ever your friend. Would ye hold me to it now, Andrew Tait? I would ye saw us three this night!"

With a heavy sigh she sat down again, folded the letter and shut it back in the Bible. Then she picked up the coarse knitting. But her hands dropped, and she nodded and dozed to the sound of rising wind. Unheeded, the crusie flickered out. The peat ash was long cold.

Some time later she awoke with a start. The gasp died in her throat. Inside and out all was silent, but the door was wide open. Black against the moonlight stood a figure that she knew, even in its unfamiliar garb of capote and moccasins. Struggling to rise, she was powerless; no sound came when she tried to speak.

Silently the dark form advanced to the table, silently opened the Bible and took out the stained letter. He spread it without a rustle, and, dark as it was in the room, seemed to scan the page by the faint, eerie light that emanated from him, yet left his features in darkness. Then he laid it down, open, on the Bible, smoothed it gently as she had done, and turned away. As he passed the box-bed, the sick child tossed and murmured. Without a sign he passed out into the night and behind him, untouched, the cottage door closed silently.

Only then did Mary Tait hear again the sound of the wind.

Recovering the use of her chilled limbs, she crossed the room to try the door. It was barred as she had left it. Drawing the blanket up over the children, she lay down by them, and was instantly asleep.

She was awakened early in the morning by a heavy knocking. Pale and heavy-eyed, she admitted Walter Clouston. "What do you say, Mary? My door is open to you and the bairns if you will but say the word." He paused. "I - I dreamed of Andrew last night... I cannot think he would mind, Mary.."

"I saw him," whispered the woman. "He came - he stood there by the table - he looked at his letter..."

She realised that the paper still lay open on the Bible. But when she picked it up, the letter ended with Andrew Tait’s signature two inches from the bottom. All reference to the promise made on the Stone of Odin had vanished.

"I will speak to the minister this morning" said Walter Clouston.

Section Contents

See Also
Customs of Death

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